I mentioned a few weeks ago that I love to troll the re-introduced classic shelf and read really good books that have been forgotten over time. Part of it is a chance to return to my modernist roots, and part of it is just a love of reading, whether the book is in the public eye or not.
I picked up Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (yes, the OTHER one) at Literati recently after hearing about it on the New York Times Books podcast. Having just finished it, I can report that it is an absolute delight.
I don’t like to do too much in the way of plot summaries, but suffice it to say that this is a book about a woman who is the worst successful writer in the world, but doesn’t know she’s the worst.
The most important thing I would say about this book is that it is funny. It isn’t Catch-22 or Confederacy of Dunces funny, it is more of a very English dry wit, like a London gin, marked by the ability to keep an absolutely straight face when telling the story and assassin-grade command of observation and detail.
Even as dry as it is, though, the entire book is funny. The situation is funny, the people are funny and the events are funny. Even as the story draws out to its conclusion, the book doesn’t lose any of its energy and Taylor doesn’t spare her characters, who remain as obtuse in the end as they were in the beginning.
When you read fiction about writers, you can’t help but try to understand what it is that the meta-writer wants to say about the nature of writing an art. In Angel’s childhood, we see a truly powerful imagination. Her Aunt works in “Paradise House” as a servant, and Angel imagines what Paradise House must be like. From that moment, the mind of a Romance author is born.
Sadly, nothing is done to cultivate those powers of imagination. Angel brags to interviewers that she doesn’t read. What results is pure mawkish romance fodder that finds an audience of people who long to imagine the insides of mansions and the lives of the rich.
Angel considers herself one of the great writers of her generation; critics bang their heads against the wall at the errors and contradictions embedded in a book set in Ancient Greece.
Taylor is a great writer, showing incredible ability and technique in this story. She tells it with a deft touch. If you overwrite this story, you end up with a farce. If you lose that “straight face,” and act as if you know its funny, the joke disappears. Taylor never wavers in her discipline to tell the events factually and let the humor arise organically.
So, this is a very good book, one I think people would enjoy reading and a reminder that we can never know the number of great books and great authors who are lost to obscurity.