Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Disposal Love Interest in Fiction

Despite his warnings that Philip Kerr's "Bernie Gunther" novels are rather brutal, my husband handed me one that he thought was all right. "All right" in this context means that it doesn't describe rape in violent detail. Although rape is unfortunately a part of this fallen world, I have problems with creative artists making them up as part of someone's entertainment. There was a rape scene in Immortal Beloved that, although short, I very much resented. It was totally gratuitous. It had nothing to do with the plot, which was about Ludwig von Beethoven. There are other ways to make an audience appreciate that wars (including the Napoleonic) aren't nice.

Female characters calculating the possibility of their own--or other women's--rape is something else entirely, especially as it is a mental exercise common to many--if not most--women. Possibly I am over-timorous, but I was a teenager in Toronto when the Scarborough Rapist--later apprehended as Canada's most notorious s*x killer--was active and the phrase "in a wooded area" still fills me with dread. 

Meanwhile I have a problem with reading light fiction when there is a whole world of fine literature to be read. This is not because of  snobbishness but because by twelve I was literally addicted to reading fiction to the exclusion of my homework, chores, etc. It would be all too easy to spend life on a sofa with a thermos of coffee and a pile of novels. 

One of the things about fine literature is that it makes you work. You have to hold different plot threads in your head. You have to read all the minute description (unless you're lazy and skip). You have to enter into real human experience you may know little about, and you have to ponder the author's worldview, which may be one you hate. Benedict Ambrose has read Hilary Mantel's prizewinning novels about Thomas Cromwell, and although he loathes what she has done to Saint Thomas More (Mantel is a fervently anti-Catholic ex-Catholic), B.A. has to admire her writing.  

In case you are wondering, I read the Christies and Heyers to help myself fall asleep. Reading light fiction when I ought to be doing something more important fills me with guilt. Unfortunately, I was born to write light fiction, so this is a problem. Really I should spend my mornings writing and my afternoons reading "Bernie Gunther" and such other novels. And then I could subvert them as I tried to subvert Graham Greene.

What gets my goat about Graham Greene is that he created dumb female characters---almost literally dumb in The Quiet American---when he was otherwise such a good novelist. Shirley Hazzard points this out in Greene in Capri, but she kindly doesn't mention how Greene consumed women the same way you and I consume coffee, or tissue, or other good and useful things. 

I'm not saying Greene was a horrible guy. What is more attractive than a just-opened box of tissue when you have to blow your nose? Aren't you grateful for it? And when the box is empty, and you have a bad cold, aren't you glad when you get a fresh one? Women, like tissue, are comforting to men. Greene liked a lot of comfort from women--physical, emotional, mental. I can't remember an example of Greene being cruel to women. But he used them all the same. 

I bring this up because Greene is a giant in the land of thriller writers, one of the few who has raised the thriller "entertainment" to the status of literature. When I was young, Catholic high schools delighted in The Power & the Glory even though the hero priest is a drinker who impregnated a parishioner, the other priest is a sniveling coward, and two minor characters have sex in public, so that Greene can make the hero priest say it doesn't matter much. 

We Catholics are so delighted that a Major 20th century Novelist was a Catholic, we tend to give Greene a pass on what he actually believed. And one of the thing Greene believed is that women are best when we are simply sources of comfort (physical and/or emotional and/or mental). We are most comfortable when we are young and at least a little dumb. The "priest's woman" in The Power & the Glory is mildly pleased that he picked her, and that's about all we know about her. Well, hell. I have met priests' women, and they are extraordinary complex individuals, let me tell you. Intellectually they are a cut above--which, if I may say so, contributed to their undoing.  

Now, onto Bernie Gunther, literary son of the Great Graham. While reading A Man Without Breath--and by the way, spoiler alert on everything from now on--I waded through pages and pages of a German detective's self-loathing, something probably necessary to make the reader identify with, you know, a guy working for the Nazi regime. 

Self-loathing is also in the tradition of your traditional paperback gumshoe hating himself and everyone else--except innocent children, flowers and blondes who would make a Bischof kick a hole in a stained glass window. 

Self-loathing makes Bernie the lovable tough guy you can forgive for all the bad things he says and does. Incidentally, as a writer I envy Philip Kerr the chance to type out such naughty words as "Fritz", "Ivan" and "Polack" without worrying that hordes of shrieking women are going to come down on him like Dresden in 1945. Kerr has the perfect alibi to play with naughty words since Bernie is, officially if not personally, a Nazi, just like all Germans he works with. Of course Bernie uses words like that.

Actually, Bernie also uses words like that because he's a man of the 1930s and 1940s, and that's how working class men (like cops) used to speak--and possibly still do when women and squealers aren't around. (Now I sound like Bernie, too--light fiction has that effect on me.) I imagine the Allies used just as colourful language. Incidentally I have been called a mangiacake more times that I can count. It's an interesting, vigorous word if rather rich coming from people who ate chocolate spread for breakfast. 

Bernie also has a good dose of class prejudice, as we see when he trashes the German aristocrats who keep risking their lives to kill Hitler but never (plot spoiler) seem to manage it. He also assumes the Polish monsignor who shows up to examine the Katyn site doesn't really believe in God anymore. And although Bernie is willing to murder someone in a good cause, he won't use the enlisted men's brothel because it is a "round-up", i.e. the women in it have been drafted as sex workers. All this will make Bernie more palatable to his English-speaking 21st century readers. In light fiction, it is very important that your audience likes your hero. 

Benedict Ambrose was right: in this novel there are no moment-by-moment depictions of rape, and the worst of the violence is off-stage.  Two violated women are found with their throats cut, and a father and daughter are found horribly mutilated, but Kerr doesn't demand that his readers stand and watch. The stink of corpses is pretty strong, however, because Bernie finds a body in Katyn Wood, which turns out to be only one of four thousand Polish POWs. 

By the way, I am also interested in the moral implications of exploiting historical mass murders for the purposes of fiction. Some Poles were furious about Robert Harris's Enigma, and I can see why although it was a terrific book with a lousy ending, as the Biggest Secret of All is something we already know. It is bizarre when "whodunit" is more of a shock than a heinous war crime. (This is the same problem with the otherwise masterful Fatherland.) 

During my trudge through all the bombings and corpses and new murders and "Ivans" and nasty-smelling brothels, lo and behold a female pathologist comes to Katyn Wood, and I knew that this, at last, was The Disposable Love Interest. 

I knew who she was because Ines is everything that is sexually attractive to men who read thrillers (or Bild): she's a highly educated professional, she's beautiful, she's even an aristo (but despises other aristos, naturally), and the other men fall all over her, which is very, very important. It means that when she publicly picks Bernie as her escort, Bernie gets all the men's respect--even that of other German aristos (save one, presumably, as we will see).

I'm afraid that even in real life a lot of man-woman stuff is not really about man-woman but about men-other men, which is why some men talk trash about the women they sleep with.* "Hey, honey, nothing personal. It's not about us. It's about me and those guys. Wait, how can that be worse? Come back!"   
The stylistic point of Ines is to give the reader a break from the corpses and feel a frisson of sexual anticipation. She even smells nice because she keep dumping perfume on herself, her handkerchief and even Bernie. She is also there to make Bernie look good to the reader and win more sympathy because, of course, he blows it (in a highly unbelievable way) and then is heartbroken. Uh-huh.

I found it very interesting that after Ines puts out, but before the author dumps Ines--or before she dumps Bernie, same thing--she reveals that she was once the lover of her distant cousin, the highly sympathetic anti-Hitler Von Whatsit. This means that, in the mentality of tough guys, Von Whatsit has something over Bernie, and this should rend Ines much less sexually desirable to the male reader. Also, Bernie has been there, done that--and never does it again, actually, as Ines is way too tired from dissecting dead Polish POWs. 

No doubt there will be another Ines in the next Bernie Gunther novel Benedict Ambrose passes me. This one had red hair, so I suppose the next one will be blonde, or have hair the colour of the caramels Bernie used to eat while strolling down Unter Den Linden. 

Why does this matter? It matters because men and women using each other as disposable objects of comfort--be it physical, emotional or mental--does a lot of harm, and I think it needs to be called out as some kind of ideal or something to do with the noble-if-lonely sanctity of the individual. (Bernie is a proud individual in a way a Catholic or any family man cannot be.) 

Okay, I admit that fiction is governed by certain rules. One of the rules of contemporary Noir is that the Virtuous Heroine must be gone by the end of the book, so that (A) the hero be seen to suffer and (B) he can bed a new VH in the next book. And, indeed, part of the fun of writing is turning such rules on their heads--if you can manage it. A lot of it depends on how the reader feels about it. 

In my experience, male readers don't mind a hard-boiled dame as the hero of a thriller (as long as she is easy on the eyes), but they do seem to mind her soft-and-gentle male love interest, if she has one. Of course, part of that may have more to do with envy, as in "How come a wally like that gets such a righteous babe and I don't?" Amusingly, some men have told me they hated Denis in Ceremony of Innocence until he rebelled by knocking Catriona over, throwing her crutches down the stairs and storming off to plot out his little plot. 

I'll say this for Kerr--he does his research all right. He has put in the hard work to write a great period detective novel, so I will read another one and think about it, too. By the way his Big Fat Secret (which always played emotional second-fiddle to whodunit) is also a matter of historical record, but not as widely known as the Katyn Forest Massacre and the Big Fat Secret of Harris's Fatherland. I was actually shocked, and it is hard to shock me about 1930s & 1940s Germany.

*Thus Trump's stupid comments were not about women so much as they were with his relationship with Billy Bush. Why he wanted to impress Billy Bush I neither know nor care. 

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