Saturday, November 07, 2020

George du Maurier, Peter Ibbetson


Opening Passage:

The writer of this singular autobiography was my cousin, who died at the ——- Criminal Lunatic Asylum, of which he had been an inmate three years.

He had been removed thither after a sudden and violent attack of homicidal mania (which fortunately led to no serious consequences), from ——- Jail, where he had spent twenty-five years, having been condemned to penal servitude for life, for the murder of —— ——, his relative.

Summary: Pierre Pasquier de la Marière, known to everyone as Gogo, spends his early, happy childhood in Paris playing with a little girl, Mimsey Sesarkier, imagining that they are looked after by the Fairy Tarapatapoum and the Charming Prince. But little Gogo's mother dies, and he is taken away to England by his uncle, Colonel Ibbetson, who insists that he be renamed Peter Ibbetson and become a proper English gentleman. Uncle Ibbetson himself, however, is a crude and crass womanizer. Peter will grow up tall and handsome, and his life will change when one day he meets in passing at a party the beautiful Duchess of Towers, who, he will discover, is Mary Sesarkier, who had known in her childhood in Paris a little boy named Gogo.

Peter Ibbetson lives a life that is turned inward. He is quiet, generally gentle, and good-natured. And he is telling us the story of his life in a lunatic asylum for the criminally insane, having savagely beaten Uncle Ibbetson to death. We see warning signs that there is something dangerous about Peter's inwardness, here and there before the terrible event, a sort of ungrounded snobbishness that looks down on the sociability of others, an occasional flight into rage over someone's cruelty to another, and unhealthy preference for his own mind rather than the world around him. And there is a quality to the book -- I don't know how to describe it except to say that it is a kind of subtle weirdness -- in which, as Peter Ibbetson becomes more and more internally driven, one sometimes wonders how much of what we get in the story is real and how much of it is Peter Ibbetson losing himself in dreams, or else looking back at himself having already lost himself in dreams. But Peter Ibbetson does not wonder; he has no doubts; he knows that he has a special connection, which he finds in dreams, with Mary Seraskier, and that they are both able to 'dream true' and revisit their memories together. And the sheer force of his sincerity in this regard goes a long way toward making the reader suspend disbelief.

And there is another side to it. It is not for nothing that one of the descriptions we give for our closest relationships with other people is 'sharing dreams'; dreams let us step outside our lives and their circumstances; and dreams are what keep Peter Ibbetson alive through his long decades of imprisonment. Our dreams at least remind us that there is more to us than our immediate surroundings.

In some ways, the work reminded me of Le Grand Meaulnes, except that book builds on a pessimistic nostalgia of memory, whereas this one builds on an optimistic nostalgia of dreams.

I also watched the 1935 movie adaptation, starring Gary Cooper and Ann Harding, which I thought very well done, particularly in its use of visual echoes to tie Gogo's childhood interactions with Mimsey to Peter's adult interactions with Mary. They simplify the course of the story, which I think makes the story somewhat blander, and they are mostly interested in the dreaminess of the tale as an opportunity for cinematic effect, but it does capture some of the sense of the story, in which there is a distinction between dream and waking, but none at all between dream and reality, because it is a story in which dreams are, or at least can be, a kind of reality.

Favorite Passage: 

We have even just been able to see, as in a glass darkly, the faint shadows of the Mammoth and the cave bear, and of the man who hunted and killed and ate them, that he might live and prevail.

The Mammoth!

We have walked round him and under him as he browsed, and even through him where he lay and rested, as one walks through the dun mist in a little hollow on a still, damp morning; and turning round to look (at the proper distance) there was the unmistakable shape again, just thick enough to blot out the lines of the dim primeval landscape beyond, and make a hole in the blank sky. A dread silhouette, thrilling our hearts with awe—blurred and indistinct like a composite photograph—merely the type, as it had been seen generally by all who had ever seen it at all, every one of whom (exceptis excipiendis) was necessarily an ancestor of ours, and of every man now living.

There it stood or reclined, the monster, like the phantom of an overgrown hairy elephant; we could almost see, or fancy we saw, the expression of his dull, cold, antediluvian eye—almost perceive a suggestion of russet-brown in his fell.

Recommendation: Recommended, although you have to go in expecting a quiet and leisurely story.