Friday, September 17, 2021

“The plants were silent”: MONICA STIRLING, The Summer of a Dormouse (1967)

The US cover is bland, but...
The driver got out of the taxi and opened the door for his passengers. There were two of them, an elegant dark woman, apparently in command, and a flaxen-haired girl in white. Her face was almost as pale as her coat and her great dark eyes had a drowned look. A shock went through me. I was sure I had seen that face before, that face and that expression. Inside the house a bell tinkled. I wondered why the girl was crying, since she was in time for tea.

My Monica Stirling odyssey is continuing unabated. Having started with her fourth novel, The Boy in Blue (1955), then stepped back to her second, the very charming grownup school story Dress Rehearsal (1952), I’ve now leapt forward to her eighth and final (and oddest) novel.

The Summer of a Dormouse (1967) is set at the Manor House, a surely rather idealized Swiss psychiatric clinic where the patients seem to live idyllically--properly medicated, free to socialize and to come and go as they please, and without any major restrictions (though some patients have anxiety about being sent to “the Villa,” a more secure and stringent facility across the park, if their conditions worsen).


...I rather think it's better
than the UK cover

The main focus here is on Karen, a young actress who has attempted suicide as a result of the a fraught relationship with Louis, the Svengali-like film director who has molded her screen presence, and his wife Ingrid, who checks Karen into the clinic. But there’s also a compelling array of supporting characters. There’s Carlos, the eccentric narrator of some sections of the novel (including the quote above), and his friend Maria-Pia, a Spanish woman with religious delusions, who has been “rescued from a nauseating asylum in another country in which she had for years existed rather than lived”. There’s the Signora, the oldest patient, believed to have been a famous dancer in her youth, and Sidonie, “being treated for a breakdown caused by having borne five children in seven years and raised them with little domestic help”, who is now understandably terrified of sexuality.

There’s Willi, a brilliant biology student who has had a breakdown, Ross, a surgeon overcome by the stress of his profession, and Herr Pilsner, an impossibly boring man who talks continuously, spouting dubious facts and doubtful ideas. And there’s the staff of the clinic, who are largely ideally brilliant and compassionate, with the exception of Klaus, the predictably sadistic German nurse who decides to supplement his salary by robbing the wealthier patients (but who of course gets his comeuppance in the end--albeit very much at the expense of another character).

is one of those novels that doesn’t have a great deal of plot in the ordinary sense, though it’s no less entertaining for that. We follow this intriguing cast of characters over the course of several months, with a particular focus on Karen and her gradually renewed interest in life via her friendships with the others. Stirling manages to find the humor in their situations, but always with sensitivity and compassion. Herr Pilsner perhaps comes in for a bit of mockery, but then, he really is quite boring… Otherwise, the humor grows naturally from the characters’ interactions, rather than in any way making light of their problems. Not a small accomplishment for the mid-1960s, I think.

One of my favorite bits of humor comes from one of the sections narrated by Carlos:

We were so absorbed by our conversation that we did not realize we were not alone until we heard other voices. At first I was afraid they came from the plants, which had not addressed me since Maria-Pia came. But no, the plants were silent.

The Summer of a Dormouse appeared just two years after Stirling’s acclaimed biography, The Wild Swan: The Life and Times of Hans Christian Andersen, and as critics were quick to point out, it’s more than a bit permeated by Anderson and his tales. It’s an odd sort of fairy tale version of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, but with more glamour and wit. (Just try to picture that!) It’s probably not the best of Stirling’s novels, but it is genuinely intriguing. One feels that she rather let herself go here more than in her other work, following her own fancies regardless of their commercial appeal, and such books are always interesting entries in an author’s oeuvre.

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