WORD SEARCH with Adair Jones

Infidelity in Literature–Landscapes with Ghosts

Posted in Wanderings by Adair Jones on January 7, 2009

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On the basis of a strong review in The Australian by Marion Halligan, I spent a rainy afternoon tucked under doona reading Landscape with Animals. This is a novel by Sonya Hartnett published under the name of Cameron S. Redfern. Many possibilities have been tossed about as to why a successful author like Hartnett would write under a pseudonym. Since Landscape with Animals is primarily pornography imbued with the simplest, slightest, sheerest of stories, it’s likely she wanted to explore new material while distancing it from her literary reputation. Halligan decries another critic’s dismissal of the novel as an inability to accept the erotica; I suggest, however, that it has more to do with the book’s deep dishonesty. Landscape with Animals is not unlike Nikki Gemmel’s The Bride Stripped Bare and the book touted as the male response to it, Mark D’Arbanville’s The Naked Husband.

These books prevaricate as much as the acts of betrayal they intend to celebrate. Deception and adultery are exalted while the betrayed are ignored. As readers we are meant to succumb as much to the seduction as the characters do.

In Hartnett’s version, a predatory woman sees something she wants and sets about ambushing it, never mind that in this case what she wants is an honourable man who has been loyally married up to this point. None of that matters to a predator like Hartnett’s. Her first blunt, ungraceful offer of no-strings-attached sex is rebuffed. When she writes to him a long story outlining in raunchy detail just what that sex will entail, promising “The story will always be about you”, it is too much for him to resist. This predator’s ‘wildness’ is glorified, her animal nature elevated. We’re human after all and, in Hartnett’s world, to be human is to be an animal. We are called on to sympathise with these characters, and it is a testament to Hartnett’s skill as a writer that Halligan does.

For the record

I have to differ with Halligan on a few points, however. First, she situates Hartnett’s story among the Western world’s most powerful narratives. This made me laugh and laugh. Halligan seems to be reading these texts with contemporary eyes. Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Heloise and Abelard were not adulterers; their stories in different ways actually support fidelity in marriage. The women of these couples were destined for the church or arranged marriages when they fell in love. Tristan remained faithful to Isolde even when he married another; the other two couples actually found ways to marry each other, however short-lived those marriages. Guinevere and Lancelot, the only actual adulterers of Halligan’s examples, loved and revered the man they betrayed. He has a name and a history. When we read their narrative, we already know his. We know his heart, his burden as king, his duty. Because we know all sides, the narrative has power and pathos. It is honest in its telling.

These stories have been remade again and again. The ones that ring true are the ones in which romance is set within a social context and in which the authors provide a wide view that encompasses perspectives other than just those of the ‘lovers’. When Emma compares her marriage with the romance novels she’s read and grows increasingly discontented, Flaubert is criticising his readers for just this lack of perspective. Tolstoy alternates the episodes of Anna Karenina’s doomed affair with scenes of the happy marriage of Kitty and Levin. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is an allegorical condemnation of an over-intellectual, class-bound society. The point here is that other viewpoints are included. These books are even-handed and honest in ways that Gemmel’s, D’Arbanville’s, and Hartnett’s are not.

Like Emma, we have our heads stuffed full of books. We prefer reading about Anna more than Kitty. It’s far more comfortable to look for an exciting story, an ‘easy read’, than to face the demands of a book that places the story within a larger social context and requires our thought and consideration. We’ve grown lazy. We want to read stories that conform to our small view of the world and confirm the worst of our behaviours as being okay.

In a recent essay for The Monthly, Anne Manne writes of the new narcissism—the culture of the self. She argues: “By any historical standards, our society is marked by a radical individualism obsessed with the self…a self on display, measured by externals and appearance, in pursuit of success and material prosperity more than care for others, of popularity and notice more than respect.”

Think about “Big Brother” with all those people competing to be on display 24 hours a day. Not only on display, but on display with nothing worthwhile to do. Reading, writing, drawing, singing are all banned. There is nothing to do but focus on the mentality the show enforces: it’s ‘all about me’, it’s about evicting others, it’s about winning at all costs. If our cultural artefacts reflect what is going on in our society, then TV shows like “Big Brother” and books like Landscape with Animals show a society that is obsessed with putting one’s self above others.

Halligan rhapsodises that Hartnett’s lovers experience something “isolated, pure, precious” and claims that we readers are duly stunned by “the absolute glamour of it”. Here I really beg to differ. Isolated, yes, but I suggest what is pure in this story are this corrupted man’s sleeping children and what is most precious is his wife’s belief in him. Exactly that which is studiously ignored. By Hartnett, her characters, by Halligan, by anyone who is seduced by the lack of fidelity and human care in this text.

Ghosts

Is sex only good, absolutely glamorous, when it’s furtive and corrupt? When the animal side of humans are emphasised at the expense of the spiritual? When there is someone who might be hurt? Let’s look at the victims for a minute: the other people of the story, the innocent ones who hover at the edges, the hurt ones present in the silence and in the secrecy.

These are the ghosts of the landscape. The deceived wife is as present during the couple’s escapades together as if she were sitting at the edge of the bed looking on. She’s in his mind as well as in the mind of the woman he betrays her for. He hears the neighbourhood children and thinks of his own. These are the parallel stories, the ghost stories. As the lovers’ narrative unfolds, these other stories unfold along with them.

Whenever I consider this material, a line from Madame Bovary returns to me: Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage. Like Hartnett’s longwinded descriptions of sexual acts, deception gets old and eventually becomes tedious. The illusion of care must be continually stoked; anger must be kept at bay in case the whole sorry affair bursts into the open. The stakes are high and the relationship is fraught with risk—because, of course, the one true thing that each can be sure of is that the other is capable of betrayal. This is the unacknowledged blackmail built into adulterous affairs. There is also the willingness to mistake superficiality for profundity. To risk everything for something cheap, after all, makes no sense, so each of the lovers invests the situation with a make-believe that doesn’t often withstand the test of time or, for that matter, any test at all. All of this is exhausting.

Nine Parts Fantasy

Here is a ghost story: Hartnett’s nameless couple are outed. His marriage crumbles, his reputation shatters. When he turns to his lover, seeking to remake his life within other walls, she gets what she thinks she wants: the chance to grow old with him. Impossibility is overturned, but with it goes the so-called glamour and ‘the hothouse intensity’ that Halligan refers to.

He now possesses what he once believed was impossible; what he lost is now the new impossibility. His broken life, his destroyed marriage, his ransacked family and marooned children, these are now the things to mourn, to covet, long for, grieve. His old life becomes a lost treasure. There are moments when he looks at the woman who was once his secret lover, adored not for whom she is but for whom he wanted her to be; now his partner, he feels he knows her very little. The drab realities of everyday life press and clutch. It’s not too hard to imagine the eager sex (minutely detailed in the text) becoming something rarer and increasingly mundane between them.

Hartnett is a fine writer and her language can be stunning. Halligan is right in this. But a book like this presents problems. Like an affair, it is nine parts fantasy, one part reality. When the fantasy goes, nothing much is left—a bit of a hangover, a stale taste in the mouth, a headache, disillusion, disappointment—and for what? Similarly, when Hartnett’s erotica grows old, what remains? I trudged through Landscape with Animals interested to know if Hartnett would rise above the material, but I was disappointed. Without the distance of the broader view, writing of this sort is self-indulgent.

Somehow it all must end

Landscape with Animals barely titillates, however skilfully Hartnett writes. I caught myself thumbing through the pages, skipping over the long descriptions of cock and cunt, looking for passages of conversation, where the lovers actually said something to each other, where they gave some clue about themselves and their motivations, the why of their actions; looking too for some sense of guilt and regret, an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, of harming others by their actions. The endings of these stories, like the endings of affairs, are problematic.

A friend and I argue about The Bride Stripped Bare. She thinks the heroine kills herself and her child. I think such an ending for such a book is unbelievable. Part of it is that I just don’t see this character throwing her child off a cliff. She’s shallow and self-involved, but she isn’t deranged. There is no build up for this kind of tragedy. We have no context for it except for the character’s own fantasies about herself. And those fantasies are not really very compelling.

In contrast, Emma Bovary’s social world closes in on her. She is willing to have her life’s narrative include running off romantically with Rodolphe or even Leon; but to be a rejected adulteress and a debtor in the eyes of her neighbours is unthinkable. The death of Tolstoy’s Anna is similarly believable. She has given up everything for Vronsky—her comfortable life, her reputation and social position, her child. When she feels he has fallen out of love with her, the loss is unbearable. Even Connie Chatterley’s pregnancy must be looked at through the eyes of the times. A huge personal and social price goes along with the decision to bear her lover’s child openly. We feel something for these heroines. The endings of their stories ring true.

As with affairs, stories about adulterous liaisons lead inevitably to a choice. Just who will be chosen? Will the married lover end the marriage? Or will the marriage remain intact? From the first pages, Hartnett’s predator knows she is destroying someone honourable and good but does it anyway. This character is wise enough to see where things will eventually end up, but selfish enough not to care. There is an interesting ambiguity in this. Here and there, the fog of illusion clears, and we see a little bit of the real situation. How rarely they are together. How she doesn’t tell him she’s ill because she knows he wouldn’t come to see her then. How the guilt wears. How he won’t say he loves her. How he admits that he hates her.

Of course, marriages are broken, families crumble, divorce happens everyday. These characters are selfish people. If he actually loved her, he would leave his old life behind to be with her. If she truly loved him, she would accept only that. This doesn’t happen with Hartnett’s couple. He betrays her by suggesting (of all things) that she has been unfaithful to him. She betrays him by disappearing. So there, she’s saying, you can’t have sex with two women any longer. And that’s fitting. Because for all the celebrating and glamorising, that’s all it was ever about.

Interestingly, in affairs it is the married character that holds the power of choice. But in these narratives, there is the temptation on the writer’s part to shift the power to the unmarried character, which just so happens to be the one most identified with. The final decision conveniently belongs to the interloper.

Is it just me or does this jangle?

Self-love

A psychiatrist friend of mine says, “Make no mistake. An affair has nothing to do with love and everything to do with self-gratification.” Real love is excluded, because the concern of each is selfish. To have what is wanted no matter who is hurt. Not to get caught. To return again and again in order to satiate one’s desires without real regard, concern, respect. Hartnett’s female character writes to the male as a form of seduction: The story will always be about you. This isn’t selfless concern. These are the words of a narcissistic predator who has calculated the best way to ensnare her prey—by appealing to his selfishness. Later, the man speaks of being made to feel ‘special’, another bell-chime of narcissism.

And what ultimately happens? The betrayers eventually betray each other. This comes as no surprise.

Real love involves stepping out of oneself and away from one’s own desires, placing comfort and self-interest second, maybe third or even fourth. And of course, today, this rankles.

“We lack the tough-minded sobriety that comes with the awareness of our capacity to injure others,” Manne says. “This is the disorder of an age where self-regarding individualism has seen the self triumph as the measure of the good.”

Sadly, Landscape with Animals exemplifies this. From the celebration of deception and betrayal simply because the participants want to indulge themselves, to the one-sidedness of the story, to the ending that manages to punish as much as extend the illusion.

Maybe it’s just me, but I want a wider view, a little more wisdom, the whole story. Or at least the admission by these writers that their story is skewed. That it deceives and excludes. Although it isn’t for all books to instruct rather than merely entertain, Landscape with Animals does neither. It disappoints. Like The Bride Stripped Bare. Like The Naked Husband. These books celebrate the culture of the self and they do so in the most narcissistic ways. The subject and the manner of telling become one, while ghosts look on.  By Adair Jones.

(First published in Arts Hub in 2006.)

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One Response

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  1. Daniel Alley said, on April 9, 2011 at 6:54 am

    What a fantastic essay. Infinitely illuminating. Thank you.


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