Pleasures of a Tangled Life is a book about pleasure in various forms. I’m not drawn. Jan Morris’ voice isn’t all that unique, maybe, outside the genre where I encountered her first. It would be unfair to link her to Stephen Fry or Bill Bryson, but it is that garrulous heavy lightness of tone: the unremitting jocularity that can grate like sugar on the back teeth. And when she writes, for example, about incest:
I am also unreliable about incest. In this of course I am not alone….I am simply struck by the ideal nature of the practice. Blood love is the purest of loves, the love one is born to, so in principle what could be more beautiful than to seal it with the God-given gesture of physical union? If we are to believe Giraldus Cambrensis, the twelfth-century chronicler of Wales, we in Wales have always taken a relaxed view of incest. Only a year ago an elderly and widowed near-neighbor of mine, found guilty of sexual relations with his unmarried daughter, was sent to prison for it; but I was not alone in thinking it a mean-spirited response to a primitive expression of affection that was certainly genetically misguided, but which, far from being the cruel abuse of one by the other, undoubtedly brought comfort to them both.
I don’t find that passage intriguing. And I react badly to its tone, the generosity that pleased me so much in another context. It’s strange: in both cases, hers is an unfamiliar level of gentility, of acceptance, one which could seem equally flip in either place. But here it seems repellent and there it seems like an act of kindness.
And then the breadth of her tolerance comes to seem damning:
That corpulent couple in the dining room, so protuberant that one would think it difficult for them to kiss, let alone to copulate–he in his thick serge waistcoated suit, smoking a cigar, she so primped of hair, so loudly bangled, to layered with makeup, the two of them steadily working, scarcely exchanging a word, through the heavy courses of their dinner–is it conceivable that, when they go upstairs to their room, they are this very evening to be afforded the momentary vision of the unimaginable that is sex’s truest meaning? Certainly it is.
It makes perfect sense to her that a daughter might fall in love with her father, but she can also understand why two fat people would appear anti-sexual at first glance. Is it just because it’s my ox being twitted? Or is her tone somehow harming her writing? Both of these passages are evocative, but they seem misplaced. And it is that dimension in her writing that makes me so happy in Conundrum: this is not how it’s supposed to go.