The lost art of comedy of manners
The opening paragraph of Lorna Mott Comes Home, Diane Johnson’s first novel in over a decade, sets the tone for the rest of the book. The very morning when Lorna Mott Dumas wants to flee her second galloping French husband and return to the United States, heavy rains upset the cemetery in the village of Pont-les-Puits. Johnson writes: “In the darkness during the heavy rains of last night, the cemetery had dislodged and with the stealth of a nocturnal predator slipped five hundred yards downhill, where the astonished citizens had this morning discovered a huge sticky mound of treacherous clay, shattered coffins, broken stones, corpses and bones. Only the oldest graves remain standing “with unseen dignity above sacrilegious chaos”.
This image, dark as it is, provides a tense symbolic center from which the rest of Johnson’s 18th novel unfolds gracefully. The sedentary remnants of Lorna’s life are shattered by her husband’s voracious libido and scattered across two continents. Lorna, an aging art critic heading into the twilight of her career, decides to return home to San Francisco and her three distant and slightly disappointing adult children. Nurturing fantasies of an America full of open and kind faces, enchiladas and heartwarming casualness, Lorna instead finds a country barely recognizable after 20 years in the French countryside. She “remembered America differently,” writes Johnson, “without people lying in the streets, neighbors tied up and robbed, junk food, obesity, cars everywhere.” Oscillating between slight disappointment and abject horror at the state of her homeland, Lorna delves into her family’s minor dramas and contemplates what appears to be the end of her career. Hope is still alive, but the accumulated ruins of its past are as disturbing as the muddy skeletons strewn over the potter’s field at Pont-les-Puits.
Lorna Mott Comes Home: A Novel, by Diane Johnson. Knopf, 336 pages, $ 28.00.
Probably best known for her early 21st century Francophile works such as Le Divorce, Le Mariage, and L’Affaire, Johnson is still underestimated by readers who turn to her expected rom-com beach readings. Of course, The Divorce was made into a somewhat popular film starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts. But don’t be fooled by its popular successes. Johnson is readable and entertaining, but she is also one of America’s foremost practitioners of the now sadly niche art of moral comedy, more Edith Wharton than Helen Fielding. With a dry sensibility and a cold, observant eye, Johnson uses his books to vivisect class and social status at the same time. What remains to us in Lorna Mott Comes Home is a demanding and often hilarious portrayal of cold and white Californian Episcopalians. The characters are so locked in themselves that we remember an old anecdote about the origins of the taciturn Yankee: they began by believing that a person could only be truly intimate with God, then, when they have stopped believing in God, believing that intimacy is impossible with everyone. Take, for example, the exchange between granddaughter Julie and her grandfather, Lorna’s first husband Randall Mott, when they first saw each other in three years:
“I really hope I’m not bothering you, Grandpa Ran.”
“We don’t see you enough Julie, tell me what brings you.”
I have warmer interactions each week with strangers at the grocery store. But don’t assume that coldness and obsession with money – there seems to be a scarcity mentality among the Mott children, with no desire to seek stable work – are all there is in this novel, which is driven throughout by Johnson’s totally underrated sense. of humor. It’s a very, very funny book. One of the best scenes occurs at Lorna’s first American art history conference in years, at a Random Events Center in Bakersfield. The subject is the medieval Tapestry of the Apocalypse of Angers, France. The course is not going well:
“The Bakersfield audience had been polite and responsive, but somehow during Question Period things fell apart. When she referred to a number on one of the tapestries, a man stood up, waited for the microphone to be handed to her, then shouted, “Six-six-six is the mark of the Beast.
“Six-six-six refers to Nero,” Lorna began. She had tried to explain that the people of Saint John’s day, fearing to mention their Roman oppressors by name, had used euphemisms like “Beast.” But, completely ignoring him, someone immediately shouted into the original speaker, saying that the Beast was Satan, as everyone knew, and moreover the Beast was near.
“We are in the last days,” he whispered into the portable microphone.
“We are not,” someone else’s. Bakersfield was likely to be inundated, and soon. No, it wouldn’t. Destroyed by storms. No, the drought. She found herself in the midst of a sectarian feud that engaged more and more spectators, with people throwing esoteric biblical anecdotes instead of, as she had imagined, questions about the practical issues of getting to Angers, in. France, or who were his favorite restaurants in Paris.
The scene continues to evolve, as do Lorna’s expectations of her home country, now grown odd by time and distance. Her agent considers the event a success and promises to try to book it in Fresno.
Through books, art history and family issues, disappointing children and superficial materialism (Will Ran’s wealthy new wife grant her largesse to children from her previous marriage? Ran cares. even if she does?), what ultimately emerges from Lorna Mott Comes Home is a tongue-in-cheek and at times even heartfelt portrayal of an older woman who still holds hope for joy. Maybe we can’t escape the past, and maybe the graveyard has turned unpleasantly into the present, but there is hope nonetheless. Did Lorna make the right choice in returning to America to deal with this fire?
“Of course, she didn’t believe that ‘all of this’ was behind them, didn’t think that life – erotic, artistic, professional – was over for people of all ages.… Here she was thinking of Armand-Loup, yes robustly sensual, so emphatically rooted in the mire of the physical: sex, cassoulet, a good Bordeaux. Not “quagmire”, a wrong word, but pleasure. Pleasure in the physical. Now with a packet of blue pills, but always with a joyful vigor, even joy. Joy seemed to be lacking here. Was there more joy in France than in America?
Johnson seems to think not. And after reading his hilarious and sad comedy of manners, we share his doubt.
Scott Beauchamp is editor-in-chief of Landmarks, the journal of the Simone Weil Center for Political Philosophy. His most recent book is Did You Kill Anybody?
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Keywords: Book reviews, Books, Fiction, novel, France, America, Summer reading
Original author: Scott Beauchamp
Original location: The lost art of comedy of manners