A British news story, this week, reminded me of a novel that at one time was high up on my list of favourites for re-reading. Somehow, over the last few years my copy has moved up my bookshelves and out of my eye-line, but evidently not out of my consciousness.
Headless Angel is a romantic adventure that begins in Weimar and moves to Mexico. It could have been a sentimental mess, like so many of the other cheaply bound novels I borrowed off my grandfather’s shelf as a teenager. Instead it has a feisty heroine whose narration begins:
Now that September is blue and hazy upon the land, I like to walk up to my grave in the early afternoon and remain there until in the slanting sun the shadow of my tombstone grows long and lean and begins licking the hem of my skirt.
I can still remember the fascination of that first line. What was this going to be, this plain boarded novel?
If ever I want to discuss what a narrative hook is, here’s a great example. The pacing of this novel is exemplary. Vicki Baum was a writer who knew how to intersperse action with description with back-story.
The Prologue is an exercise in lures. Here’s the voice of an old woman, ‘in the good company of my memories’ who is supposed dead.
But what a life it must have been. Who is this Albert, who has made a tomb for her and writes songs and poems about her? Does he know who she is? Why and how did she cross the Cordillera and live in ‘the wild mountain fastnesses of New Spain’?
Secrets are implied in the contrast between Albert’s reverence for classical art, and Clarinda’s pleasure in earthly satisfactions of simple food and views. Promises are implied in the juxtapositions of Clarinda’s observations:
In a small way my grave has become one of the sight-seeing places near Weimar, and quite often travelers round out with a visit to Helgenhausen their pilgrimage to the sacred sites where Goethe and Schiller lived.
And how clever is the connection she makes? It tells me that these are not false promises, she has mixed with interesting people. Look how comfortable she is with Goethe, telling us that he slept in one of the bedrooms ‘a few times’, carved his initials on a tree, and drank water from the spring, using a tin cup.
Should we trust the word of a woman who is believed to be dead?
…the tin cup from which Goethe is said to have drunk the spring water…is an open fraud, for Goethe was here for the last time in 1818, much too careful and ailing an old gentleman to drink of the questionable liquid; and no doubt Babette has furtively replaced the old tin cup with a new one at regular intervals in the twenty-two years since.
Ah, so she’s willing to reveal the secrets, the truth behind the illusions. That alone would make for an interesting read. But the icing on the writing for me is summed up in the description she gives of the angel that Albert had carved and placed beside her grave:
It is a rather attractive angel, gracefully lifting a torch skyward in one hand while pouring with the other a flood of stiffly arrested marble tears from a marble urn down upon the little mound; unfortunately, my pretty angel has lost its head. Poor Albert assures me that the resemblance of its face to mine was truly remarkable. However, during the stormy days of 1806, after the Battle of Jena, when Wiemar was ransacked by Napoleon’s soldiers, a platoon of them bivouacked in our yard, used the angel’s face as a target in a friendly contest of marksmanship, and blew it to pieces.
That’s my kind of humour. I’m already thinking up an excuse to cover settling back down with my old friend Clarinda…