Molly Keane Margot Jefferson - Essay

Margot Jefferson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Good Behaviour is a tale of appetites, pursued and thwarted, written in a style that lusts after the lethal aims tucked into civilized exchange, yokes mournful, sensuous description with analytic dismemberment, and sifts a high-handed 18th century rhythm through 1920s speediness. Time After Time gives us the same world, moved from the '20s to the present—aged, sour, full of cracks and grudges. Keane's writing seems tainted by the woes of her world: there's too much expositional clutter and fuss; stage directions dwarf the moments they're supposed to set up. It's a domestic drama of manners (Keane is scathingly funny, but rarely comic) into which a World War II thriller intrudes, unsettling the writer's balance 'nearly as much as it unsettles her characters' lives….

It's Leda who tears wounds open and sets moral consequence whirling in a house where dust is "heavy as fur" and each worn chair cover glistens "like an unhealthy skin." There's something irritating about this—too many British writers have depended on Jewish ancestry plus temperamental ruthlessness to rattle the family skeletons. Keane tries to do more than that: she wants to trace the shapes that wrongs, public and private, take in people's lives, changing meaning, changing proportion, changing everything but emotional needs and limits. But she manages to do this only intermittently. Leda's private cruelties to the Swifts are as real as spit in the eye, but the public, political ones, when revealed, seem strained and not quite believable, like a creaky deus ex machina. Keane captures the Swifts' embarrassed, inadequate discomfort, but seems somewhat helpless before it, relieved as they settle back into a routine where "in the present, as in the past, each morning advanced briskly toward its difficulties," and each difficulty knows its place.

Now in her second writing life, Molly Keane has produced a perfect first novel and an uneven second one that's well worth reading. I hope she's at work on her third, in full command once more of a writing self that's part elegist, part gravedigger, and part changeling. Her world is like those zoos in which animals roam through fascimile natural habitats; Keane lets us watch, from a safe distance, creatures who are subtle and also primitive, who possess all the reflexes and few of the realities of power.

Margot Jefferson, "Every Other Inch a Lady," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIX, No. 16, April 17, 1984, p. 42.