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Beginner's Greek

by James Collins (Little, Brown, 2008)

The very warm heart of James Collins's Beginner's Greek beats in a pair of chapters at the actual center of the book, and neither of the romantic principals appears in it. This might seem to be a major flaw in a novel, but it is in fact a promise and a warning. It promises that Mr Collins will go very far in fiction if he heeds a warning against falling in love with his lead characters.

The novel takes its title from a poem by James Merrill. The following lines —

                   ...we must not wish to seek

And cry
    'This is what I
        Love, what I cherish!' Instead be wary of such

    That we
         may never be hurt or happy or anything too


— are dangerously apposite. In the final third of the book, as a fearsome undertow of plotting menaces the hero, an amiable ingenu called Peter Russell, not only does the sky quite inharmoniously begin to clear on the horizon but a flotilla of life rafts bobs close to the shore. Peter may imagine that, having already lost the wife he didn't love, he is about to lose the job that he does — as well as all hope of winning Holly Speedwell, the girl of his dreams — but we find it increasingly difficult to fight the nagging sense that he is going to get off easy. As the pages turn with the élan of a sleek sailboat furrowing the waves, and the time for serious trouble runs out, you begin to take a personal dislike to the villain of the piece, a banker-potentate called Arthur Beeche.

This is unpleasant because there is nothing remotely villainous about Arthur Beeche. Why not? you fairly scream. Doesn't he know his part? How can Peter's boss and rival in love fail to press his enormous advantages to Peter's detriment, thereby unleashing our rabid and enormously satisfying indignation? Where does Arthur get the idea that being an all-round nice guy at the climax is attractive? How can we properly rejoice for Peter if he has not been reduced to the sackcloth and ashes for which he is fully prepared? Why, in short, does his creator spare him?

When you get hold of yourself, you ask, "What's wrong with me? Can't I enjoy a sunny book?" The answer  is "No, of course not." Happily, Beginner's Greek is mostly cloudy. Peter Russell, being an investment banker on a plane, takes a while to win our affection, but win it he does, fair and square, by tripping up again and again (although not so clumsily as he thinks) on his inability to act a part. There is nothing indecisive about Peter, but he freezes in social situations that call for display. What's appealing about Peter is the mistaken belief that his awkwardness at such times puts him at a disadvantage. It doesn't; it keeps him safe and fresh. It preserves him from, among other things, the promiscuous sexual conquests that drop like windfall into the lap of his best friend, Jonathan.

The desire to be liked seems to be all that stands between Jonathan and a life of crime, and, of course, the desire to be liked does not rule out all crimes. Jonathan's extraordinary dodginess is what sets the story going, not once but twice. First, there is the heinous dishonesty with which he self-servingly lies to Peter and Holly about what each of them has told him about their first chance meeting. Then there is dissoluteness with which he seduces the stepmother-of-the-bride at Peter's wedding. Mr Collins can't be accused of failing to punish Jonathan, but an aura of sudden apotheosis dampens the young man's wickedness. We can't help regretting that he wasn't given the chance to be so much worse.

As everybody knows by now, Peter and Holly meet on a plane and establish an unusual rapport. Holly writes down her phone number — but not her last name — on a page torn from her copy of The Magic Mountain. Somewhere between LAX and his hotel room, Peter loses the slip of paper. When he next meets her, years later, she "belongs" to his best friend. Peter and Holly re-establish their rapport, only this time more self-consciously as "just friends." If it weren't for Jonathan's dreadful lies, they'd be much more than that, but in that case there would be no novel. This is why villains are so virtuous, if you see what I mean.

It is proof of Mr Collins's powers as a novelist that Peter and Holly are interesting characters whom we worry about even though all the more perilous plot points come equipped with stout railing. Where the urge to protect doesn't interfere with his craft, however, Mr Collins shines as brightly as Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope. Happily, the solicitousness that he feels for the girl whom Peter can't marry does not extend to the family of the girl whom Peter can.

To Charlotte Montague herself, Mr Collins is very kind, at least once he has gotten some boffo zingers off his chest. Here is Charlotte on her honeymoon* with Peter.

They had gone to Italy for their wedding trip. Peter had enjoyed that. In the evening, they had eaten gelato while walking on streets that looked out on the Mediterranean. The food had been incredible. He liked the way the cypresses, so upright and regular, were the only upright and regular element in the landscape. Charlotte and he had had romantic times showing each other favorite streets in cities that they had visited before they met. Nevertheless almost instantly Charlotte had begun to drive him crazy. It wasn't just that when she used an Italian word or name with him in conversation, she would pronounce it with a full-strength Italian accent (Pi-AZ-za Sahn MARRRRco); that was no surprise and the kind of the thing to which he had already become inured. No, what was driving him crazy was that, like so many women with their new husbands, it seemed she had set herself the task of civilizing him. Thus, whenever Peter wanted to do something any tourist would want to do, see the world-famous view or ruin, she would frown a little, and say, "Oh, you don't really want to do that, do you? Didn't you say you'd done that years ago?" To Peter's mind, if you saw the sun set over the Mediterranean from the ideal corniche or walked through a two-thousand-year-old site once a decade, you would not be overdoing it. But Charlotte preferred to visit the old abattoir district, which, beginning a few years ago when a disused counting house had been renovated by married Dutch architects (identical glasses), was now attracting an interesting mix of people from all over the EU. Of course, Charlotte would never object to anything as being "touristy"; that would have made it too obvious that she was worried about distinguishing herself from the tourists. Rather, she adopted the air of a virtual native, and, as a (virtual) native, of course she never even thought about the main attractions. Peter would not have minded this if it had meant that they stayed in a pleasant residential neighborhood and went to a few museums and churches. But no. She would drag Peter to the old abattoir district or to the "undiscovered" side of the lagoon where, it was true, you didn't see the average tourist, but where you did see tourists a lot like Peter and Charlotte. "You don't want to go there, do you?" "You don't really want to eat that, do you?" "You don't really want to see those paintings, do you? That period here was so vulgar."

Charlotte is not a bad sort; she's just too angularly earnest to be romantically involved with someone as straightforward as Peter. In the absence of chaos, she flounders in her compulsiveness. We worry in vain, however, that Peter, having married her out of good will and without love, will somehow hurt her. But Charlotte is no victim, and Mr Collins is very kind to her. Being nice to Charlotte is, I think, not a mistake, although it is a risky proposition. Knowing that Peter and Holly must somehow wind up together, we know that Charlotte has to be bundled out of the way somehow. In the end, it is good enough that Peter worries a lot about Charlotte, even when she drives him crazy. If Mr Collins is kind to Charlotte, this is part and parcel of his being kind to Peter, for Peter is spared the horrible job (which he would never undertake anyway) of dumping Charlotte.

With Charlotte's father, the flames of social satire rise a bit higher. Dick Montague is a man with a secret, and until that secret is revealed to us we see him in all his self-satisfied glory. He may be the purest egoist in Anglophone fiction since Sir Willoughby Patterne himself. Even Sir Willoughby, however, was preoccupied by his image. Dick Montague has too much contempt for other people to give a damn what they think of him. Here is Dick at Charlotte's wedding, musing on his troubled son, David, and his ex-wife, Janet.

There was the son, David. Drugs. The terror and work associated with this fell almost entirely to Janet. [...] What could she do? How could she stop him? What did they say in those meetings? She couldn't stop him. It was his self-esteem, and the divorce ... But to Dick, in an odd way, David seemed most vital in his pursuit of his drug avocation. He had never been particularly focused or accomplished, had never had very much drive; he was a bookish, indolent, dreamy, nervous boy who drew girls to him but who was unfit and a poor athlete. He certainly had drive now. Still the fact remained that David was a fairly pointless piece of protoplasm. This gave Dick subconscious satisfaction: he had won. It was all very well for men to talk about how eager they were for their sons to make a success of themselves, how much more it meant than their own success, how tickled they were for their sons to make a success of themselves, how much more it meant that their own success, how tickled they were by the idea of a son entering the firm. Bullshit. Wives and sons: they were the ones who would plot against you, either separately or in treacherous alliance, and if they did, they must be put down, ruthlessly if necessary, all the villages burnt.

What a guy. Everything about him prepares us to dislike his trophy wife, a woman only a few years older than Charlotte. She is "very clever about — about everything, really, but particularly about furniture and silver and so on." A shallow materialist right out of a Danielle Krantz novel. When we finally meet her, she is naked on a golf course, in the arms of a man not her husband: so, she's a slut as well. When her roll in the fairway takes a turn for the drastic, we're inclined to think that it serves Julia right. And, in a way, that's just what it does: it transforms her life. Just how radically, we learn in the sixth chapter, which, together with a long soul-searching night described in the following chapter, constitutes an artistic whole that could stand alone anywhere. In it, Mr Collins demonstrates his command of the novelist's most important art: the ability to make us care about characters whom we should not like in real life. He takes us from Manhattan to the South of France, where Julia is mulling over her life at the place that she and Dick have. She appreciates her comforts, but she is no sybarite. For one thing, she is too intelligent. For another, she cherishes the craggy if aromatic simplicity of Provençal life.

She loved eating trout and perch and walnuts and plums. [...] She loved the landscape with its outcroppings of limestone and the rows of erect poplars. She loved the nearby castles, villages, churches, ruins, dolmens, and caves. Layers of civilization had been laid down here over tens of thousands of years, so, sitting on her terrace watching the sun go down, Julia felt she was part of something very ancient. It was a moment not only of pleasure but also of awe and exaltation.

The awe and exaltation are good: they're the first unabashed response that a character in this novel has been allowed to have to the wonders of the slower Old World, and we're surprised by the idea that Julia might have a thing or two to teach her over-eager stepdaughter.

By the time we get to the novel's account of Julia's childhood in New York, our sympathies are decidedly with her. The daughter of the feckless scion of an old New York family and a beauty from St Louis (via a "nice" Eastern college), Julia becomes familiar with the material reality of divorce at the age of seven, as she migrates downhill from Park Avenue for a spell.

Eventually, Julia and her mother went to live in an apartment in a much newer building located farther to the east. In some ways, it seemed fancier than their old one. Instead of needing a man to run it, the elevator had buttons. The lobby had lots of mirrors and gold. Their apartment had lots of windows. The faucets in their bathrooms looked as if they were made out of gold! But Julia missed the feel of the thick spokes on the ceramic handles of the old faucets. Even at her age, Julia sensed that somehow this new place they were living in was not as nice as the old one; she would hesitate to ask friends back, and as she grew older this reluctance would become more and more conscious. Julia's mother always seemed preoccupied. She was impatient with Julia and tried to maintain the same kind of distance that had existed before, when they were physically more separate and their was [a nanny] intervening. Julia's mother did not like disciplining Ju7lia, she did not like it when Julia got out of bed at night. A few years later, she married a heart surgeon, a widower, who was quite a bit older than she. He was a stern, powerful, self-assured person who intimidated Julia, but her mother seemed to draw confidence from these traits. Materially, their lives certainly improved. They lived in another apartment on Park Avenue, but this one was bigger that the one in which they started out, and the building was smaller and Julia could tell it was nicer. Once again, a cook lived with them. Julia's mother could now have people for dinner. She went out for lunch and never had to push to the limit the time between her visits to the hairdresser. As she became more secure, more matronly and serene, and so regarded Julia from a more august height, she also became more judgmental. By the time Julia had turned thirteen they were having fights, which her stepfather could not abide. Everyone was happy when she went to boarding school.

This sharp social commentary, which captures different strata of affluent New York life, is interesting as such, but it also reflects Julia's growing reserve, a distrust of engaging with other people that owes more to difficult circumstances than to hardness of character. We can see how she would end up with a Dick, and we feel sorry for her that she did.

What gives these middle chapters their tremendous motive power is Julia's knowledge of Dick's awful secret. As she grapples with what use to make of this dread possession, Mr Collins tips her toward the right decision, which is very good for Julia but problematic for the novel. All of the novels outstanding problems, especially including the hitherto-thwarted romance of Peter and Holly, could be resolved with a couple of telephone calls at the end of the seventh chapter. This leaves the novelist with two, and only two, possibilities. He may tack on a purely decorative last act, in the manner of Le bourgeois gentilhomme and the ballet Sleeping Beauty. Or he may summon up another storm. If Beginner's Greek is not entirely satisfying as a novel, it is because Mr Collins attempts a combination of these alternatives. The result is well-finished and entirely credible. But the very real possibility that Holly will fall in love with Arthur Beeche never quite flashes with likelihood. That would be the storm. The decorative finale is a party at Beeche's block-long mansion that combines fantasy and wish-fulfillment to a degree that leads me to hope that Mr Collins has gotten this particular dream out of his system.**

It is at this party that Peter, as if empowered by a magic wand, spouts, among other wonders, the poem of the title, in response to a casual dinner-table remark. It is possible that Mr Collins took counsel from Merrill's poem, and decided to revel orgiastically in his hero's social success. But the poem cuts both ways: we must be ready to suffer, too, if we want to live. Mr Collins seems determined not to have Peter suffer too much. When our hero leaves the table and its illustrious guests (the chief of the Federal Reserve among them), feeling himself to be like a god, the real gods are asleep, and don't punish his hubris. It is amiable hubris, to be sure, really no more than the pleasure that one takes in being oneself after a good dinner with smiling companions. But when we read the following —

Peter looked at the people in the room: he was with them, but he was not of them; he was observing them as if from afar; they little knew that he, Peter Russell, as he appeared, supped on ambrosia and could, if he wanted, turn any one of them into a tree

— we're uncomfortably reminded that it is one of the duties of serious novelists to turn the Peter Russells of literature into trees, if only to change them back again into male leads. Mr Collins's disinclination to do more than make Peter squirm a bit is all the more disappointing for the trouble that he takes to set up the possibility, on the one occasion when he takes us into Holly's consciousness. Sure, she loves Peter and all, but it really burns her up, still, that he never called way back when. She has never entirely believed the explanations that Jonathan and Peter gave for this lapse, and with good reason, for only one of them was telling the truth, and then only an incomplete truth. Even though we know better, we can share her moment of righteous indignation. Mr Collins puts Holly within an inch of singing that she's gonna wash that Peter right out of her hair. When she doesn't, you want to throttle her for being spineless.

In the interest of selling more books, perhaps, Beginner's Greek is being spoken of as a "light" novel in the "chick-lit" mode. It probably makes sense not to push the resemblances to Austen and Trollope; too many prospective readers might associate them with the schoolroom. More sophisticated readers, moreover, might quite reasonably once again complain that this latest comedy of manners doesn't quite merit the regard that they shower on the authors of Emma and The Way We Live Now. It would be a pity, however, for any reader conversant with the great tradition of fiction in English were to miss this witty, worldly, and very wise novel. As for the novelist, all that stands between James Collins and marble eminence is faith in the fact that readers of novels don't need to be taught the lesson of "Beginner's Greek." (January 2008)

* Note the U-speak.

** The mansion itself strikes a curious and very exceptional false note. Its grandeur and its decoration make it sound like one of New York's fabled clubs, not a private home, and its stretch makes it the improbable rival of the only block-long house uptown — the Frick Collection. Grand as it is, the Frick is considerably less palatial than Arthur Beeche's stadtpalais.

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