Friday, June 13, 2008

Flashback Friday! The Girl In A Swing - Richard Adams

I didn't plan it this way, but The Girl In A Swing is a perfect novel to flash back to on a Friday the 13th.

One of the things I like about this novel is that it refuses to be neatly pinned into one certain category. It's a love story. It's a psychological novel. It's got elements of horror and the supernatural. It's jam-packed with enough classical references and snippets of foreign languages to make cultural literacy types like E.D. Hirsch wet themselves. The prose itself is extraordinary -- at one point, Alan says to Kathe, "Your voice is like ferns." -- the writing in this novel has that same beautiful, cool and opulent quality.

The Girl In A Swing begins with Alan Desland wistfully reminiscing about someone named Kathe, then having a disturbing dream of his collection of ceramic figures all disfigured because they've been weeping. The rest of the chapter begins a flashback and the reader is propelled through Alan's early life for the next few chapters. He is rather staid and intellectual, but when he's a teenager, one of his teachers discovers that he's got a gift for extra-sensory perception. This gift seems to crop up when Alan is around a strong female presence.

Years go by. Alan goes to Oxford and majors in foreign languages, then after graduation, he joins his father in the family's ceramic business, and finds himself quite successful at it. During this time, he shows no interest in dating or marriage. When a young woman from his village shows interest in him, he politely rebuffs her. His view is that romance is something that should bowl you over completely, or it's just not worth the trouble.

Alan travels a great deal for the ceramics business, and he's often in Copenhagen. One day, in the early 70s, when he's approximately in his mid-30s, he meets a beautiful young German woman named Kathe Wassermann who works as a secretary and translator for one of his business acquaintances. (Strangely, in almost every edition of this novel, Kathe has a different name. Sometimes she's called Karin. Her surname also varies. I think I read somewhere that Richard Adams kept getting hit with libel suits by women with the same name.)

After Kathe translates some business correspondence for him, Alan asks her to dinner. During the next few days of his visit, Alan and Kathe see each other often, but Alan learns almost nothing about Kathe's past. He is so smitten that he proposes to her. She is equally smitten, and agrees to meet him in England and marry him there, after she settles her affairs in Copenhagen. Almost immediately after Alan returns to England, he gets a collect call. Kathe will arrive at Heathrow in three days. Even Alan finds her sudden arrival strange, but quickly attributes it to her warm, impulsive nature and being so much in love.

When Kathe arrives, the two begin to make plans to get married, and Kathe drops a bombshell: She can't be married in church. This is a jolt to Alan, who is a devout churchgoer -- even his best male friend is a clergyman -- but he doesn't press the matter. Thanks to another business acquaintance, this one American, Kathe and Alan travel to Florida and get married. (Richard Adams describes his many settings perfectly in this novel, but he does an especially great job with central Florida.)

During the honeymoon, Alan has a problem with impotence, but Kathe is both sensual and patient, and all of that gets worked out after a strange scene in which there is some inkling that Kathe might have something troublesome in her past. All along, Alan is wondering what Kathe's life was like before him. When he asks her things, he repeatedly gets cheery non-answers. At one point, she gets serious and offers to tell him "everything". Suddenly, he backs down, seeming to feel that her past life could threaten their happiness. It can't help that Kathe intermittently commands in ringing tones for the past to be destroyed.

Returning to England, Kathe not only quickly learns about the ceramics business, she shows a dazzling talent for spotting rare porcelain. Alan and Kathe settle down into domestic bliss. Now that Alan is past his trouble, they have sex A LOT, although Richard Adams doesn't go into physical detail. Instead, he tastefully conveys their passion using mood and tone. Underneath all of this happiness, there are more and more frequent red flags that something is disturbing Kathe and at times, seems to be a distinct malevolent presence. Alan's excellent classical education and his ESP kick in smartly. It's all too good to be true. The full and horrible realization about his bride whacks him in the face, but he loves her: I cannot understand what happened to her that she did this/but for those who understand it all goes without blame.

I first read this novel in 1981, shortly after it came out. It appealed to me because I liked the pagan approach to love -- that it was something big and bold and those lucky enough to find it would not shrink from any revelation, no matter how horrible, nor any sacrifice, no matter how ruthless. A boyfriend/husband who absolutely and completely worshipped you like a goddess also neatly dovetailed with my way of thinking at the time. Now, although I'm horrified by it in ways that I could not have been back then, I love it for the innumerable classical references that Adams places in the novel, making it like a literary treasure-hunt; the juxtaposition of paganism and Christianity; the erudite conversations; the history of ceramics, so casually dropped in; and language so lush it feels like it's coming through your pores rather than being read in the conventional way.

The Girl In A Swing was made into a movie in the 1980s. It tries-- gotta give it props for atmosphere and mood -- but Meg Tilly as Karin wanders in and out of her German accent, and the guy that plays Alan is good, but he looks so much like Regis Philbin's younger brother that not even Meg Tilly can make him seem hot. Also, where the reader must do most of the heavy lifting with the novel, the film spells it all out a little too baldly and blandly.


Eva said...

I want to go read this one Right Now. But I think I'll save it for the RIP challenge. Maybe. lol

Anonymous said...

Argh. Another book has to be added to the TBR pile. And luckily my library has it.

Jeane said...

Wow. I've love two other of Adams' books, and couldn't get through the third. This one has been continually passed up by me as "looking uninteresting". It sounds like I was wrong in my "cover judgement". I'm going to have to put it on my TBR now! Great review.