Sunday, September 13

The Girl in a Swing - Richard Adams

Alan Desland, a dealer and lover of porcelain figurines, is middle aged and resigned to bachelorhood. Somewhat reclusive, his self-image is highly coloured by having overheard at a young age that he was unattractive. On a routine trip to Copenhagen Alan meets Karin, a beautiful young secretary/clerical worker and is instantly smitten by every aspect of her. Filled with trepidation and precipitated by fear of not seeing her again, Alan delays his return to England and asks Karin out.
He is delighted to find her receptive and after a whirlwind romance proposes. Karin accepts, on the proviso that they marry in England, and agrees to move there with him. After a discussion with his minister, however, Alan thinks the three week wait will be too long and thanks to one of Alan's American clients the loving couple fly to Florida to wed instead. they have a joyous honeymoon in Gainesville, initially marred by Alan's inability to perform but finally consummated.

Though the wedding occurred before anyone had met Karin, she soon charms his friends and family. She is, however, reticent to discuss her own history and makes no effort to contact her own friends or family.
Though he relates Karin's intermittent crying and nervousness, Alan does not seem to see the import of these and other behaviours. He has some hinted at psychic abilities as a child, and though he manages to ignore the many signs Karin displays, Alan acknowledges, or at least senses, a spectre of darkness hanging over them, though. His concerns tragically come to fruition- an event unsurprising to the reader, for we know from the outset of Alan's narration that Karin dies. Throughout the novel we see Alan's idealisation of Karin, a vision he grimly clings to despite mounting conflicting evidence that Karin is not the alabaster figure he envisions.
A marked change from Adams's earlier, and more well known work (Watership Down and the more adult, darker themed The Plague Dogs), The Girl in a Swing is unquestionably a literary novel, with Gothic overtones. Alan is trilingual and possessed of a classical education - he and Karin quote philosophers, poets and writers in a variety of languages, which tended to break my connection with the narrative, being monolingual and clearly not the productive of an English prep school education.
The Girl in the Swing is in many ways a product of its time - the terrible price Karin paid for their love would almost certainly not be necessary now. On a related but less controversial note, I've often thought, though I think not written here, about the move from to-day/to-morrow to the conjoined form we use, and if there was debate about the transition the way there is about linguistic shifts. Anyway, Adams is of the first camp, at least in the edition I had, which was given to me when I was ten or eleven. I can only imagine that the parent of the child who gave it to me was going on the reputation from Watership because it's very much not a children's book. The darker themes, the impotent angst and the sex scenes (which are far more literary than erotic) aside, the writing is aimed at an adult, literary audience.
There's an interesting insight into impotence from a male perspective, wherein Alan compares "that great field of life dominated by Aphrodite - the area of sexual passion
to those of a miner descending the shaft or a soldier approaching the front: "the frightening realisation that here all life-long assumptions - the safety and predictability one had always taken for granted and come to rely upon - did not apply. Continuous danger and uncertainty affect the very eyes through which one saw the world and affected everything I thought and did."
It was Karin's great beauty that so affected him, combined with a sense of disentitlement, that this vision of loveliness could indeed be for him. But her tactful, gentle handling of the situation reassures him. However, the rapid, inexplicable romance and the fact that he knows virtually nothing about Karin causes Alan no alarm, and throughout the novel his beloved remains a cipher.
The title of the novel comes from a porcelain figure of intriguing provenance, which is discussed in the novel and a variation of which can be seen here.
I love the line, as Alan arrives back in London, that could have "gone chasing the hares on the grass between the runways" - it's not only indicative of his buoyant mood but also a far more bucolic image than arrivees to London see now!
Vogue is blurbed on the cover as saying of this little known work that it is "a novel of beauty, calm, sensuality, anticipation, horror and nightmare" - with all of which I concur, but I also found it overly literary, unsatisfying and anticlimactic. - Alex

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