Thursday, August 16, 2012

John Lanchester sort of reviews Gaudy Night

The Wall Street Journal: The Five Best by John Lanchester
Mr. Lanchester is the author of 'I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay' and the novels 'Capital' and 'The Debt to Pleasure.'

Lanchester reviews Agatha Christie's Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Gaudy Night in the same condescending way, then goes on to review Roseanna, Polar Star and the Broken Shore. I'm not sure what his title of "The Five Best" refers to. There are 8 comments on the article, each one taking issue with his condescension toward Christie and Sayers.

Why yes, a novel written 80 years ago is going to seem "dated" - but it accurately reproduces the social mores of the time, and is fascinating in that regard. Gaudy Night in particular is fascinating. What was the status of women - in particular women teachers - in 1935? Read this book and find out.

Gaudy Night
By Dorothy Sayers (1935)
This one is a bit of a guilty pleasure. When I say that some of Agatha Christie's more ambitious contemporaries wrote prose that has gone stale, Dorothy Sayers is a prime example. She started her literary career wanting to write sonnets and was hugely proud of her translation of Dante's Divine Comedy—and in her mystery-writing, those inclinations show. "Gaudy Night" is a fascinating and at times fascinatingly bad book, set in a women's college at Oxford, where Harriet Vane, Sayers's thriller-writing alter ego, has returned for a "gaudy" (Oxford-speak for a college reunion). Sinister things start to happen, and the tone grows convincingly dark. Sayers was a Christian and believed in evil—that shows too. The novel features themes of psychological warfare and envy and stalking, as well as an atmosphere of convincing menace. But, interestingly, there is no actual murder. Sayers's energy is what makes her books still readable, as long as you're prepared to be entertained rather than outraged by open snobbery, a climactic marriage proposal made in Latin, and a hero whose shoulders are "tailored to swooning-point."

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