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Summer in the Country

Summer in the Country is Edith Templeton's first novel, or at any rate the first novel that she published in English, in 1950. Like her other early novel, The Island of Desire, its action takes place before World War II, but unlike Island, its set quite firmly in one place, at a castle in Bohemia rather like the one in which Ms Templeton herself spent the summers of her childhood. As I read Summer in the Country, I remembered this castle with nostalgic haziness, and wished that I were rereading the New Yorker stories, also set there, that came later, and that I read in my teens. Those crisp, ironic stories were told from a girl's standpoint, as I recall, and they were heavy with the mystery of grownup behavior. Summer in the Country made me long for some of that mystery, and I daresay that Ms Templeton learned from writing the novel that the stark power of her keen observations tended to present characters in a most unflattering light.

Not that there aren't plenty of little mysteries in this novel. Perhaps they are mystifications. Because no attempt is made to clear them up, they come to stand for the impenetrability of individual character. The narrative's loose ends comport very well with the castle's incipient dilapidation, and one never quite knows which ball to keep one's eye on.

Unfortunately, while much of the dialogue is funny in a biting sort of way, the aimlessness of hot summer afternoons simply makes the novel's already dubious characters positively irritating. Midway through, I wanted to be done with them. The jockeyings and pretensions of interwar rentiers did not make for appealing reading, and the faded grandeur threatened to become as suffocating as the August air. But I had to find out what became of the castle.

The castle is, as it is in the later stories, a veritable character itself. Aside from a large, Gothic oriel window built by Tony's and Ida's grandfather, the castle seems last to have been overhauled in the eighteenth-century, and in each one of its lovingly described rooms the rococo tatters and scuffed floors bespeak an ever more shabby gentility. Outdoors, there is an extensive park, but only the roses are properly maintained. While this reflects the depleted state of the family fortune - dissipated by inheritances and replenished only by a surrounding beet plantation - it also mirrors the larger reality of the evanescent imperial past. Notwithstanding the castle's faded grandeur, there are no aristocrats on hand. The inmates are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of wealthy bourgeois who bought the place in the previous century. Ida Birk-Borovec, and her brother, Tony Birk, cannot afford the upkeep. So Ida's widowed daughter, Alice, who together with her younger sister, Bettine, also lives at Kirna Castle, has contrived to marry off her very young daughter, Margot, to Oscar, a wealthy but self-made industrialist. Very gradually - perhaps a little too gradually - we learn two things: that this marriage isn't working, and that Oscar has been pouring money into the Castle accounts. The novel repeatedly invites to ask precisely what it is that Oscar's financial aid is saving. During the Dual Monarchy's twilight, people like Tony were the upstarts who tarnished the empire's rigid but gleaming social standards. Now it is people like Oscar, businessmen with no real respect for the titles that, in any case, mean nothing in the (doomed) Republic. To say that Kirna Castle is a prize for Oscar, that he simply wants to surround himself with the aura of grandeur, is not to say anything new at all, for the Birk ancestors did the same, and long before them, so did the medieval magnates who built the place.

Even though the Birks are not aristocrats, they're regarded as such by the locals, simply because they occupy the castle, and Tony Birk has come to agree with this view. A man whose only real interest is horseflesh, whose long-ago sojourn in England inspired him to imitate a hearty country squire, is fond of saying things that are meant to shock, but when it comes to the Castle, and to his encounters with the late emperors, he is self-importantly serious. His sister, Ida, in contrast, is a majestic grande dame, a perfectly turned woman who keeps her own counsel out and almost always silent. I came to like Ida no more than anyone else in this book, but she is certainly outwardly attractive, and she always speaks with sense, unlike not only her brother but Alice as well. Alice, although also rather pretty, is a terminal bore, endlessly complaining about servants and accounts and the price of salt, and always finishing up her tirades with operatic ejaculations such as this: "I could weep, mama. I really could. I could howl."

Margot is a flighty girl, too young for marriage, and certainly wrong for Oscar, who bristles with preconceived notions about domestic management, a subject that doesn't interest Margot in the least. Oscar prizes Margot, but drives her away by incessantly fretting about her shortcomings. Oscar really is a dreadful pill. He is also inadvertently funny. Here he is on a friend whom he feels has betrayed him.

Even when I think of it now, I turn pale with rage [we're left in no doubt that Oscar would have been happier with Alice]. Robert - after all, what is he? A pettifogging lawyer - and I, one of the richest men in this country. Why should I not say it? And he did me, as though I had been a greenhorn and wet behind my ears. When I think what I did for the man. I will not count up the times I entertained him and wined him and dined him and spent pleasant hours with him; that's enough, of course, but it is not all. But all the business I put in his way, during years and years and years. Not the big stuff, of course - he was not up to it; but little things galore. And I used to say to him: There you are, another law-suit for you; try and conduct it better than last time. If I were not such a good friend to you I'd go to So-and-so and have it done quicker and better, but I stick to you, for old times' sake. I often used to pull his leg about it. He was a very witty raconteur, you know, and quick in repartee, and I used to say: If only you were as good in the Law Court as you are in the drawing-room, I might even give you a plum, juggling on the overseas markets, perhaps. And the trouble I took to point out his mistakes to him. Over and over again. Because I am at home in these things; naturally, I have to be. And then this. The arrant nastiness of it.

People like Oscar are bound to feel betrayed by everyone, and his self-pity flows in torrents. I ought to note here that, while the dialogue often sounds like translation - that is what it is, after all - the narrative never does.

The lawyer whom Oscar complains of has a junior partner, Raoul Marek, and it is Marek's visit to the castle, ostensibly as a prospective suitor for the difficult Bettine, that frames the novel. That's one of the reasons for the lengthy, summer-still exposition. When Margot arrives, about a third of the way in, Marek predictably lights up, but Margot hardly notices him, and, besides, the family has already decided that it doesn't like him, so his defection, altogether unmourned by Bettine, doesn't make matters any worse. Marek is to my mind the book's extra man, a character that the more experienced novelist would know how to excise. His dramatic role is to show how the household tilts toward Oscar; while Marek received rather desultory treatment from the Birks and their staff, Oscar is greeted with a sumptuous repast and a shower of small elegances. Marek also needs to be picked up and dropped off at the railway station, and the latter of these rides proves fateful for the family. But Marek ought to be the character we identify with, the visitor judging everything and passing his judgments on to us. Perhaps Ms Templeton wished to avoid this convention of the country-house novel, but it's because of Marek that Summer in the Country seems to lack a central character, or even a central grouping. His antagonism, dramatically speaking, turns out to be bogus.

But however inexperienced she might have been as a novelist at this point, Ms Templeton sure knew how to pull a fast one, and the climax stunned me almost as much as it did its victim. Hitting with the force of a gulp of strong spirits, it vitiates the inevitable question, which is: was this surprise planned all along, or the resort of a desperate narrator? You can ask the question, but you can't care about the answer, because the whole thing works, and what had been a rather meandering novel takes on the precision of a regiment drilling before the Hofburg. Ms Templeton has claimed that all her fiction is really autobiographical, or, as would have to be the case here, based on true stories. Really?

Although I bought my copy of Summer in the Country - a Hogarth Press reprint from 1985, with the introduction by Anita Brookner that would not have been written a few years later, when relations between the writers soured (I forget why) - from Alibris, I see that there isn't one on offer now. But English Amazon can point you to some first editions at reasonable prices. (August 2004)

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