Monday, March 13, 2017

Book Review - To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

"Happy are they that go to bed with grand music, like Pythagoras, or have ways to compose the fantastical spirit, whose unruly wanderings take off inward sleepe".  So writes Sir Thomas Browne in his essay "On Dreams", and whose words accurately describe the main character in Marghanita Laski's wartime novel, To Bed with Grand Music.

Kali will go to bed anywhere, whether there's grand music or not!

When the reader first meets Deborah, she is bidding farewell to her husband Graham, leaving for WW2 military duty in Cairo.  As they are parting, Graham hopes that Deborah will be faithful to him while he is gone, but confesses outright that he will not be.  He rationalizes to her, "God alone knows how long I may be stuck in Mid-East, and it's no good saying I can do with a woman for three or four years, because I can't.  But I promise that I'll never let myself fall in love with anyone else, and I'll never sleep with anyone who could possibly fill your place in any part of my life" (pg 2).

As the first months without her husband drag on, Deborah finds herself bored and restless, so she decides to go to London to find a job, something to do, and have some fun.  As you might suspect, Deborah doesn't have much maternal instinct, and she relies heavily on the housekeeper, Mrs. Chalmers, to raise Timmy.  In fact, when she goes to London, Deborah dumps Timmy on the housekeeper during the week and only comes home on weekends to spend time with him.  Her thoughts turn to him only occasionally, and even that diminishes over time.

She first shares an apartment with a girlhood friend, Madeline, who is living an enviable life in London.  Madeline goes out most every night with different men, eating lavish meals, drinking, dancing, and enjoying the contraband gifts they can give her.  Because this is wartime, things like hosiery, perfume, makeup, alcohol, and fashionable clothing are unavailable or cost a hefty sum.  However, the men seem to be able to produce these goods without too much discernible effort.  The key is in getting the man, according to Madeline.  At first, Deborah plays the part of the dutiful wife, working her London job during the day and staying in the flat at night.  However, she has been in competition with Madeline since they were girls, and she wants to have fun and get the attention Madeline gets, yet knows that she is a wife and mother and should maybe be behaving as such.  This all changes when she meets Peter, a wildly handsome Brit.

Madeline, her beau Robert, Deborah, and Peter double-date at a swanky club.  After awhile, and after many drinks, Deborah ends up back at Peter's apartment where they share a few more drinks and, high on the attention she's getting from this man and the effects of the alcohol, they spend the night together.  She's hungover and horrified at her behavior the next morning, but not enough to make any kind of permanent change.  In fact, this begins a 2-year spree of Deborah sleeping her way around London.

After Peter, she has affairs with a few American servicemen who are temporarily stationed in London.  Joe is shockingly like her husband; his wife is expecting their first child, so he and Deborah talk a great deal about parenthood, and grow closer emotionally and physically.  They keep a pseudo-marriage relationship for month, and it is ended only by Joe's transfer.  The other American is Sheldon, a man quite the opposite of Joe.  He isn't interested in a lasting relationship with Deborah, only a companion for dining, dancing, and his bed.  After that, one of Madeline's previous men, a Frenchman named Pierre, seeks Deborah out.  They begin an affair that marks a turning point in Deborah's life.

Pierre was initially attracted to her because of her naivete and authenticity, which was different from most of his other London experiences.  Deborah, conversely, wanted him to educate her in the art of seduction.  She wanted to lose herself and become a girl who's only purpose is to please men and receive attention and gifts in return.  This demonstrates just how much she has changed since the novel began.  She disliked Graham for declaring outright that he would have affairs when he was away, and now she is being secretly, serially unfaithful to him.

Pierre, although fully disgusted with the woman Deborah has become, is willing to give her a "crash course" in the ways a mistress should dress, what she should eat and drink, and other kinds of style and form to attract a man - the way to behave as a prostitute outside of the bedroom.  He eventually breaks the affair and introduces Deborah to a Brazilian named Luis Vardas, a man who is willing to teach her the kinds of athletics she wants to learn.  Luis finishes what Deborah and Pierre began; her transition to a whore is complete.  She is, fundamentally, no longer the same woman she was.  The novel ends with Deborah meeting a young woman, newly relocated to London in search of work, much like Deborah herself used to be.  The reader is left to assume that she leads the woman down the same path of moral loss, like Madeline did for Deborah.

Throughout the novel, the author makes interesting statements about British life during WW2.  Deborah's home village is always seen as a safe place, somewhere she could escape from the complexities and stresses of life in London.  During The Blitz, many families made the difficult decision to send their children out to the country, often times staying with complete strangers or friends-of-friends-of-the-family in the hope that they wouldn't be bombed by the Axis Powers.  Deborah, instead, leaves this safety and security for what she thinks will be the excitement and adventure of London.  Her concerns are almost entirely for herself, while she leaves her very young son at home with Mrs. Chalmers.  She would rather play at the single life in the big city than accept and embrace her parental duties at home.  It's possible to think that Deborah was just enjoying herself while she was still young...she was married to a man that she didn't wholly know and accepted a life that she didn't entirely want.  But, in truth, she was ignoring her responsibilities - almost pretending they don't exist.  When she does go home to visit Timmy, she focuses on showing him a good time and devoting attention to him, but when she goes back to London, it is up entirely on Mrs. Chalmers to raise, discipline, educate, and fully raise the child.  She is much more of a mother to him than Deborah.

When reading about Deborah's various affairs, it's worth considering why the author chose the specific nationalities for the men as she did.  She and her husband are both British, and the first man she sleeps with is also British - and in many ways similar to her husband.  She is having an affair that allows her to, with some mental and moral gymnastics, to feel as though she isn't cheating at all.  It would be interesting to think if their affair would have continued, and therefore if she would have had any of the other experiences that she ends up having, if Peter hadn't been called away.  The next two men are both Americans but have very different in temperaments.  One is interested in developing a real relationship, with romance and intimacy in addition to the sex.  The other man is purely interested in Deborah in a physical way.  The next man is French, and regarded as an expert in what a mistress should be and do.  The French are stereotypically seen as being hedonistic, interested in worldly pleasures of food, wine, and romance, so it seems like the author is playing into those stereotypes here.  The next man, a Brazilian, is seen as someone with so much sexual prowess that an affair with him would be like earning a university degree in the subject.  The final man who is specifically mentioned in the cavalcade is Ken, who worked with Deborah's husband in Egypt during the war.  He comes bearing a package of trinkets for Deborah and Timmy to enjoy, and wants to get to know her because of how highly her husband had talked about her.  They spend an evening together, and she brings him back to her apartment and seduces him.  In the morning, he feels taken in by her and has a complete revulsion to her.  It seems that Ken functions as a "substitute Graham", because his response to her loose sexual behavior affects her much more deeply than have any of the other men she's slept with.  She doesn't care about their opinions, but Ken's opinion matters a great much so that she takes tremendous action (much of it using behavior she assumedly learned from Pierre) to change Ken's mind about what kind of woman she is.  He doesn't forget what she has done, but is willing to see her in a more favorable light as he departs.

One of the most interesting things that the author does in To Bed with Grand Music is  challenge the dominant and enduring narrative of what people were like during WW2, especially Londoners during The Blitz.  When modern audiences think about life during this time in history, we think of people sacrificing luxuries for The Greater Good, keeping the home fires burning, and being friendly and restrained.  This book shows that, in truth, life couldn't have been like that.  Men and women still crave attention, and some people may be willing to take moral lapses in order to obtain it.  While many things were rationed or banned, if one knew the right person you could get just about anything you wanted.  People who were selfish and self-centered before the war weren't much different during it.  There was some sense of community, but not nearly to the level that history would have us believe.

Overall, To Bed with Grand Music was a surprising and thought-provoking read.  The author tackles a subject, marital fidelity during wartime, and does so in interesting ways.  Through the women and men that Deborah meets, she learns something that contributes to her moral decline and fall.  It gives the reader pause to see if he/she would, if found in similar circumstances and of a similar age, behave in the ways that Deborah does.  She has a fantastical spirit - to almost a childish level - and her life takes many unruly wanderings.  Deborah is entirely happy to go to bed with grand music.

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