No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, September 25, 2006

#84: Margery Kempe -- Robert Gluck

Some stories, threaded together in a single narrative, illuminate each other. Some don't. The tales of Margery Kempe and L., 'Bob's' aristocratic young (male) lover, fall into the latter category.

I don't recognise the Margery here, whining rather than roaring, perpetually running after a Jesus who looks and acts, not like the divine ecstasy of her visions, but like a spoiled, modern-day brat. Margery seems defeminised, too: her experience of womanhood feels very much an outsider's view. She, and the other women who feature in the medieval parts of the novel, seem acutely aware of their sexual organs at all times. There's little sense of Margery as wife or mother: come to think of it, there's little sense of Margery as anything other than a woman -- well, a person in a woman's body -- who makes a fool of herself over a young man who eventually abandons her.

I suspect I'd have got more from the novel if I'd been reading Margery's tale as an allegory of the state of affairs between 'Bob' and L: a tale of unrequited love, imbalance, a person who doesn't fit into his lover's life but can't give him up. But I've been fond of, and intrigued by, Margery since I first read her Book at university -- she was something of a local celebrity in Norwich, and some of her possessions are on show in the Castle Museum -- and I couldn't step back far enough to read her as a cipher.

Some of the prose is beautiful, though a few phrases -- "the ostler's in-a-blue-dress daughter" -- jar. And Gluck is not dishonest about what he's writing:
I kept Margery in mind for twenty-five years but couldn't enter her love until I also loved a young man who was above me ...I asked my friends for notes about their bodies to dress these fifteenth-century paper dolls. I clothe the maid, Willyam Wever, the Archbishop of Lincoln in Camille's eruptions of physicality, Ed's weekend of tears, Dodie's tangled nerve endings, Steve's afternoon nap. My story proceeds by interaction. (p.12, p. 90)

It's the story of a failed love affair, but it never engaged me enough to sympathise with any of the characters.

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