Thursday, 25 January 2018

Apropos of Dolores (1938)

Unusually for Wells, the first first edition of his 1938 novel Apropos of Dolores is the American one, published by Charles Scribner's Sons in New York. There's its rather over-orange cover art.

The titular Dolores is an extremely unflattering pen-portrait of Odette Keun, whose nine-year relationship with Wells had ended acrimoniously in 1932-33. Keun, aggrieved at her treatment, had certainly not spared Wells in her post-break-up 1930s journalism; and Wells here, entertainingly if rather caddishly, hits back by portraying her as dangerously unhinged.

There's a reason the US edition came out first. Methuen initially agreed to publish the novel in England, but they had second thoughts when their editorial director, E V Lucas, who knew Keun personally, apprised the board she was exactly the sort of person likely to sue. Methuen solicited from Wells (or else Wells sent them, unsolicited) a letter declaring that Dolores had nothing to do with Keun, and he added a preface denying any resemblance to any person living or dead. But they still hesitated; and eventually Wells withdrew the novel from them. At this point, with the positive reactions to the American edition and the general buzz of publicity, Methuen decided they were ready to publish it after all. But it was too late. Wells had agreed terms with Jonathan Cape, whose British edition emerged at the end of the year. Here's the UK cover:


It is a good novel. Or at least, it is a good read: vivid and droll and, in its central pen-portrait, the compellingly ghastly-charismatic Dolores herself, very memorable indeed. The pages fly by, there's an intriguing central mystery, or ambiguity, and the final sections resist any too easy tying-up of loose ends. A thoroughly accomplished piece of writing.

The narrator-protagonist is Stephen Wilbeck, a English publisher with distinguished war-service and one failed marriage (to Alice, who bore him a daughter and then fell in love with ‘the brooding presence of a tall stooping spectacled figure, George Hoopler’ [72]) under his belt. Wilbeck has inherited his publishing house of Bradfield, Clews and Wilbeck from his father, and has made an international success of it by running a series of educational titles under the collective moniker ‘The Way of the World’.

The novel is constituted from his journal entries, dated to 1934, during which time he has been married to Dolores for thirteen years. It starts with Wilbeck driving from Paris to Normandy, looking for a house he can rent for Dolores and himself. In these opening chapters there's a quantity of charming and vivid descriptive writing of the contryside and its people. Wilbeck ends up in a small town called Torquèstol where, after some false starts, he rents the sort of house Dolores would be prepared to occupy.

He also takes the opportunity to call on his friend Foxfield, who lives nearby and who ‘is writing a book for my firm upon the biology of insects’ [25]. The two men have a chat about happiness: whether insects and animals are capable of it, or its obverse, or whether true happiness requires an ability to live in time, with a remembered past and projected possible futures, that only human beings possess.

Then the story flashes back to Wilbeck's first meeting with the beautiful, half-Armenian, half-Scottish Dolores. On the rebound from his divorce, soon after the war, Wilbeck has an affair with her. She then hooks him into marriage by telling him she is pregnant. After he has done the decent thing, this pregnancy morphs into a cancer, and a great deal more melodramatic posturing, before devolving into non-specific pains that come-on when convenient for Dolores (the doctor he consults tells Wilbeck: ‘“Madame is of a highly nervous type.” He half closed his eyes and shook his head slowly from side to side’ [105]). They are, however, married now. Wilbeck has made his bed, and must lie in it.

We're about a third of the way through the novel at this point. The next third provides a series of vignettes of Dolores' often hilariously awful behaviour. Wilbeck has gotten into the habit of, if not taking the coward's way out, then at least tiptoing down the coward's side-staircase:
It must have been after four or five years of this sort of life that my disposition to get away from Dolores began to dominate my resolve to establish some sort of modus vivendi with her. It must have been round about nineteen twenty-six or twenty-seven that I began to scheme temporary escapes from her of a more elaborate sort than my little business trips of a fortnight or three weeks to London and Durthing. It was impossible for me to see people in Paris without her, but gradually I developed a private life of my own in London into which she did not enter.. [Apropos of Dolores, 120-21]
This doesn't help the relationship prosper: ‘the more I was away from her and rested from her, the more alien and uninteresting and uncongenial I found her on my return,’ Wilbeck. ‘Whatever else she did when I was away she certainly acquired no new ideas and no new tricks. She seemed to be becoming less lively and more implacably quarrelsome.’ [124]

The meat of the novel is what happens when Dolores (accompanied by her Pekinese, and Alphonse her blue-liveried and personally-objectionable manservant) joins Wilbeck in Torquèstol. ‘At first things did not go so badly. But after two or three days of amative intensity Dolores passed into her malignant phase’ [130]. There are various misadventures, and Wilbeck's life becomes increasingly unbearable. She treats everyone with contempt. Egged on by its mistress, the Pekinese mounts the well-bred lap-dog of an elderly bourgeois matron in a tea room. Dolores persecutes the servants for no good reason. She decides, on a whim, that a fellow diner in a restaurant is a leper and loudly refuses to share their space. She grows increasingly jealous, in increasingly improbable ways. She believes her husband is having an affair with his typist, then with every woman in London, then that he is ‘indulg[ing] for a change in homo-sexuality’ [158] (Wells's awkward little hyphen, there) and finally that he is having an incestuous affair with his own daughter (who is being raised by Alice, Wilbeck's first wife). She makes scenes. When Wilbeck warns that she ‘might go too far with me’ she retorts that, if he leaves her, ‘I would take such a revenge upon you. You think I am powerless ... No jury would convict me when they heard my story. It would be a tremendous trial.’ [146]

Just as you start to think that Wells's thumb is too obviously in the balance, and his portrait too one-dimensionally Cruella de Vil, he mixes it up. First we're given Dolores' own perspective. ‘I wonder why I love you,’ she tells her husband:
There you sit, solemn, dull, a bourgeois bookseller, English, male—as stupid as a bull. You are like a heavy unteachable boy. Your only merit is a sort of uncritical sense of obligation. Once I was one of the most brilliant women on the Riviera, accustomed to gentlemen—to men of title, to princes, to men of the world, to unquestioning gallantry. What am I now? What have you done to me? Everyone says that since our marriage I have become almost as dull as you are. You have robbed me of animation, of élan. [Apropos of Dolores, 190-91]
You see her point. We discover Dolores' ‘pains’ are no mere figments of her imagination; and indeed are so severe that she is incapable of going to sleep without a powerful analgesic sleeping draft called Semondyle. Wilbeck acknowledges he is as guilty of egoism, in his more repressed and English way, as his egoist wife. In a bravura passage the novel revisits its own opening chapters, and all the gay travelogue is reappraised as the shallow condescension of a fundamentally selfish and disengaged man:
I have been reading over the opening chapters of this manuscript, the part about the high road, the sunshine and Rennes and all that, and I remark how pleasantly he chuckles over and tickles and caresses every human being he meets as though he loved them. He observes their rather petty activities, how lovably petty they are, he weaves quaint belittling fancies round them, notes their human absurdities. He does not obtrude himself at all, but he remains from first to last in his private imagination floating over them like a kindly divinity. The sense of triumphant existence—at least of successful existence—is the end sought in both cases. He gets it more subtly and skilfully and successfully than Dolores, that is all the difference. He does not try to rend it out of these others, he steals away with it. And instead of screams, threats, dismissals and so on towards servants, he gets the upper hand of them by creating a sense of obligation. Is there really a passion for fair play in him? Or does he merely like the people about him to feel that he is fair and trustworthy? Does he care for them as people or minions? [Apropos of Dolores, 199]
‘In the scales of a real divinity sitting among the stars,’ he concludes ‘I doubt whether even on the score of ego-centredness the beam of the moral balance would kick against Dolores.’

The novel works to its climax. One evening Wilbeck discovers that Dolores has torn-up a photograph of Wilbeck's daughter in a jealous rage. He goes up to her room to confront her over this, but instead she rails at him, rebuking him with his many inadequacies as a husband, lover and man, insisting over and over that she hates him, promising to ruin his life, to make public that he is sleeping with his own daughter and otherwise to destroy his reputation. After many pages of this she stops suddenly, disconcerted by Wilbeck's reaction (‘She caught some new quality of menace in my stillness, and suddenly I saw she was afraid’).
She changed her expression to one of acute anguish. She clutched her side. ‘“My pain!” she cried. “My pain! Always you give me pain. I can’t bear it. Oo! Oooh! If only you had it. If only I could give you a taste of it. You give me black blood, you poison my blood. ... Give me some Semondyle, you brute. Don’t stand gloating there! You Sadist!” [Apropos of Dolores, 242]
He holds the cup containing the drug to her mouth and tips it for her to drink. In the morning she is dead. She has overdosed.

The question, of course, is whether Wilbeck murdered her. How much Semondyle did he give her? Did she get up on the night and dose herself with more? The novel has almost a hundred pages left at this point, and many of those pages are given over to Wilbeck agonising over the situation. He is both immensely relieved his wife has gone, and simultaneously surprised at how heartbroken he is at her absence. He misses her.

Did he poison her? He claims not to know. The official line is that she took an accidental overdose. Lonely in Torquèstol, Wilbeck invites his daughter Lettice to come and stay with him, but although he has romanticised the possibilities of this father-daughter reunion it is mostly an anticlimax. He tries to make conversation, and gets nowhere. He lectures her about the Normandy world, and she is uninterested. It is striking, in a novel published in 1938, to read so modern-sounding an account of what it is like trying to engage with what would not for a couple of decades yet be officially called a ‘teenager’.
Never in my life have I had to do with such a recessive conversationalist as Lettice. At any time when she is not actually being called upon for response, she seems to lapse into reverie. When she is talked to directly, she has a way of looking thoughtful and uttering a remarkably useful word, quite new to me, ‘Urm’. [Apropos of Dolores, 290]
After much effort he manages to extract from her that she has a boyfriend, that said boyfriend works ‘in a shipping office’, that he ‘adores’ her and that she ‘keeps him in his place’ [295].

Wilbeck develops a crush on a woman he sees at the Brittany seaside, but nothing comes of it—indeed, he never so much as learns her name. The book ends when Lettice goes home and Wilbeck heads off to Paris, a lonely widower. The ambiguity about Dolores' death is never resolved:
I have, I realize, no sorrow and no remorse whatever about the death of Dolores. It has an effect of being not so much a fact as the sudden removal of a fact. Even if my curious suspicion about that Semondyle is justified, still I have neither regret nor remorse. If I were to be put back to the moment ... and went along to the corridor to her, would I do it—if I did do it—again?’

I would.

Yes. Even if I did not do it then; now after reflection I should certainly do it quite deliberately. [Apropos of Dolores, 350]


‘This,’ says Wells in his preface to Apropos of Dolores, ‘is a story about happiness, and about loneliness of spirit, told in good faith.’ The novel's opening sentence is: ‘I find myself happy, and I have an impression I have been quite happy for two days’ [1]. This opening is pitched before Dolores' death, and its English ambiguity (is quite, here, a superlative, or a dialing-down qualifier?) is the whole point of the novel. Of course we're not surprised that a novel about being happy spends so much of its bulk on describing a state of intense, frustrated unhappiness. Only in dark, the light, as somebody once said. Quite apart from anything else, the corollary to that whole all happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way thing is that stories can only be properly told about the latter group. Stories need drama and drama needs conflict and contentment doesn't supply enough of this last quality. Or so we are told.

Nonetheless, it is quite a striking thing just how far Wells goes down this counter-intuitive route of portraying happiness almost wholly in terms of misery. It reminds me, a little, of Fredric Jameson's thesis on the 21st-century vogue for dystopia—all these portraits of societal misery—are our fallen, late capitalist era's version of utopia, sketching the possibility of a perfected society by, like a photographic negative, exaggerating those elements that need to be reformed. As it we might say all happy families are only imaginable in art through the lens of each unhappy family.

And perhaps that's less counter-intuitive than I'm suggesting. After all, one of the things that tends to make us happy are our sex lives, and good sex can be sufficient to keep us in otherwise boring or malignant relations. Wells's novel addresses sex at length and in detail, and it's clear enough that sex was one of the things that tied Wells to Keun, even as she otherwise embarrassed, infuriated and exhausted him. I'd say that Apropos of Dolores handles this topic well, navigating the tricky waters of those restrictive 1930s cultural codes of sexual expression—the Chatterley trial is a quarter of a century in the future, after all—with some aplomb. Indeed, Wells manages to do something Lawrence himself never managed, to express how sexual desire and masculine sexual activity can be both wonderfully sustaining of one's self-esteem at the same time as laying bare one's foolishly preening self-regard.

For Lawrence male sexual desire is always an ennobling, darkly heroising thing. Wells knows better: a man in the grip of a sexual passion is, fundamentally, a ludicrous figure. ‘I thought at the time that this affair would be just an exotic version of various other kindred interludes in my bachelor life,’ says Wells's Wilbeck, when he first gets together with Dolores. ‘I had still to grasp the fact that Dolores was a remarkable as well as a conspicuous woman and that she had formed a swift but very tenacious resolution to devote her life to me or, to be more precise, to assimilate my life to herself. For me she was an adventure but for her I was an acquisition. It was only gradually I realized how thoroughly I was being embraced when I was being embraced.’ [92-3]
There are times when I find myself as amusing to watch as anybody or anything. I perceive a little chap who is still clinging to the assurance that he was something exceptional as a lover. It is nature’s way with us. Few men, I suspect, can resist that dear delusion that the commonest of God’s gifts is an outstanding distinction. Yet it is lavished upon the ordinary monkey far beyond our human portion. The facts of the case necessarily remain in a decent obscurity, but I think that in that particular respect my head was rather turned by Dolores. I was, I found for the first time in my life, a tremendous dog. I was a great fellow. I was an outstanding specialist. Casanova certainly wasn’t in it with me. ...

These are subtle matters. Even setting them down makes them glare atrociously. But they are a necessary part of the story. Perhaps if one could tint the paper of a book grey, deepening in tone until at last the text quivered on the verge of the absolutely illegible ...

A lot better than a line of stars. [Apropos of Dolores, 94-5]
That deepening grey tone is quite a clever mode of representing sexual congress by refusing the represent it. Better than waves on a beach or, as he says, than a line of asterisks. What it understands is that sexual explicitness is, in the erotic sense, absolutely a contradiction in terms. It can only have meaning in a biological or medical sense. Desire, beyond anything but the most trivial and superficial sense of the word, is always a form of obliquity. Usually, whatever our rationalisations, we don't actually comprehend why we desire so intensely (sometimes we don't even properly grasp what we desire intensely). Desire is not something that can be illuminated by the light of reason; it is, on the contrary, the sweetly monstrous manifestation of reason's sleep.

The point, I think, is not that Wilbeck's miserable life is relieved from time to time with bouts of good sex. It is a more radical, and more unsettling, idea: that genuinely good sex is only really possible with somebody who makes you miserable, or perhaps it would be closer to the point to say: you have the best sex with somebody you hate (even if only temporarily: after all, according to the popular prejudice, isn't it that case that make-up sex after a flaming row has a spice regular couplings lack?)

Wilbeck's abortive first marriage, to the nice English girl Alice, is doomed even before Alice falls for gloomy-faced George Hoopler. Alice's affair is a symptom, not the cause, of the break up. Respectable bourgeois she and her respectable bourgeois husband bore one another. The novel doesn't dilate upon Wilbeck's sex-life with Alice, but it doesn't have to. It produces Lettice, but it is otherwise inert, passionless, unexciting. The later episode with teenage Lettice coming to stay with her father and proving to be just as bland and ‘urm’ as her mother shows, I think, this unsexiness or anti-eroticism passing into the next generation. That's the English for you. And Dolores's unhinged intensity of living is not the price Wilbeck pays for a spiced-up sex-life, it is the very ground of his sexual satisfaction as such.

There's something insightful in this, even, perhaps, something that approaches profundity—not least because Wells is prepared to push this animosity all the way to its extremest iteration, with Wilbeck's did-he-didn't-he ‘murder’ of Dolores. That a sufficiently titanic sexual desire broaches murderousness is neither a rational not a very comfortable consideration, but perhaps that's the novel's point: happiness in the sense of desire is not correlative to rationality or comfort. You might take a work like Elvis Costello's ‘I Want You’ (1986), with its folding together of intense erotic affect and murderous impotence, as a portrait of aberrant desire. Or you might take it as the dark truth of desire as such. Apropos of Dolores, in effect, develops the latter line. We're entitled to disagree, but Wells might say: it's fine to settle for a cosy and combobulating version of sexual pleasure, the sorts of routine and habitual ‘happiness’ enjoyed by animals, of the kind Wilbeck discusses with Foxfield in the early sections of the novel. But, Wells is also saying, to settle for that is to miss a pleasure more intense, if more death-threaded, than is available to the beasts of the field.

Wells draws all this as a kind of moral from his nine-year relationship with Keun. In doing so he invokes a common enough stereotype: Northern European women may be fair, but they are chilly and unerotic; Latin women may be swarthy, but they are passionate, tempestuous and sexy as all get-out. Like all stereotypes it needs to be handled with extreme care and many, many pinches of salt, but it's hard to ignore it altogether, since it is quite widely believed. Keun herself was of mixed Dutch and Italian heritage, and grew up in Constantinople.

Many of the things Dolores does in this novel were lifted directly from life, and like Dolores Keun delighted in outraging and upsetting her lover: she talked loudly and coarsely of sex in front of Wells's most strait-laced and respectable dinner-guests, she threw constant tantrums, she made repeated impossible demands, she bullied the servants, she threatened and shouted and stormed.

Wells had written her into his fiction before, as Clementina in The World of William Clissold (1926), where he suggests that the problem was her particular blend of Northern European and Mediterranean heritages: ‘they make a sort of human Macedonia, a melange of hostile and incompatible districts in the soul. Clementina is in streaks beautifully logical and clear-headed, and in streaks incoherently but all too expressively passionate; she is acutely artistic and rigidly Philistine’ [William Clissold, 4:14]. In his autobiographical supplement, H G Wells in Love (published, according to Wells's instructions only posthumously, in 1984), written in the immediate aftermath of their stormy break-up, he is unforgiving: ‘she was crazy with vanity, with the cruelest vindictiveness if ever her vanity was bruised. Periodically she was mad, I think; certifiably mad. I did my best for her—though it was a clumsy best—as I realized this. I believed that if anyone could save her from ending in entire loneliness it was I. But as the evil in her grew stronger, I could endure her no more’ [H G Wells in Love, 117].

Vain, Mad, Evil: these are strong terms, and one effect of using them is to make the reader wonder: then why were you with her in the first place, mate? But the answer, evidently, is that the sex was amazing. And though the account in H G Wells in Love was written too close to the hurt of break-up to acknowledge this, Apropos of Dolores, written later and, evidently in cooler temper, is honest enough to acknowledge the ingredient X: Dolores is obviously fantastic in bed. Wilbeck's first warning that she is going too far is greeted by her outraged riposte ‘And this is the man I have held in my arms a thousand times!’ (‘Possibly more’, Welbeck concedes. ‘But all the same you may go too far’ [145]).

What's worrying is how racist Wells's conception is. Apropos of Dolores comes at the  mix-of-heredity point in a much more offensively orientalist and (though Dolores is not Jewish) anti-Semitic manner:
Ignoring her Scotch father I find myself inclined to call her ‘Oriental’, insist on the predominance of her Armenian genes and find analogies for her conduct in the known and alleged qualities of these acquisitive marketing people from the Near East. Who remember so precisely and abundantly and think so meanly. I admit—I have no grounds for the hypothesis—a considerable streak of something which I call in a pejorative sense ‘Jewish’ in her make-up. I mean nothing racial in that, I mean something simply and blankly prejudicial. I use these terms as loosely as anyone does, yet under this loose, unjustifiable terminology, I can almost persuade myself that I am groping towards a perceptible reality. [Apropos of Dolores, 212]
I mean nothing racial in that is a staggering sort of self-justification: Jew has become a free-floating signifier of monstrous otherness, a perceptible reality of, well, vanity, madness and evil? Really?

In his, I assume, unthinking way, what Wells is self-declaredly groping towards here is some kind of unpalatable understanding of the deadly interconnectedness of lust and hatred, of the necessity of othering one's sexual obsession. It's one of the themes of Howard Jacobson's oddly unsatisfying (though Booker-prize shortlisted) novel J (2014) that the murderous hatred society nurses for Jews, and which is only ever a few moments away from breaking out as a genocidal orgy of killing, is somehow also a twisted sexual desire for the Jew. When I read Jacobson's novel I found its thesis unconvincing; and in a similar vein I'm not sure I can get all my ducks in a row where Apropos of Dolores is concerned. Isn't this a simply false syllogism? ‘Sexual passion is irrational; murderous hatred is irrational; therefore sexual passion is a kind of murderous hatred’ ...? But perhaps that sells Wells's novel short. Perhaps it is saying something truer, that eros in its strongest manifestation is more darkly joyful, less life-affirming, less in-the-moment and altogether more human than most versions of it concede. Dolor and desire turn out to be versions of one another.

1 comment:

  1. Over on FB Andy Sawyer (rightly, I think) takes issue with my use of "unthinking" in that final paragraph, and suggests a more charitable reading of what Wells is doing, here.