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Monday, January 07, 2013

 

First sentences: Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

March 1, 1998
The other night, at dinner, Sheba talked about the first time that she and the Connolly boy kissed.

Notes on a Scandal (or What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal in the US) is a book with a Foreword and a first chapter, but in this instance, I'm going to focus on the Foreword. The narrator, Barbara Covett, is telling us this story with a clear aim in mind: she is in the middle of a national scandal and, without confiding her plans to the woman on whose actions this scandal has turned, plans to publish this account for the public eye later. A history teacher with a tremendous, judgemental preoccupation with education and its power to save you from the 'terrible fate of being "common"', Barbara is clearly an author aware that Forewords are a literary convention. We begin with a Foreword because she knows that books often have them. And it's the act of writing this book itself - or more broadly, the act of inserting herself into Sheba's story - on which the whole disaster rests. Barbara's voice is what we need to understand in order to follow this tale, and Barbara's voice begins in the Foreword.*

For Notes on a Scandal is a classic example of the unreliable narrator. 'I am presumptuous enough to believe that I am the person best qualified to write this small history,' Barbara declares with false humility in the foreword, and so she is - not because she is the most neutral or perceptive observer, but because Sheba Hart's fall has not only been witnessed but precipitated by Barbara's intervention. This, we will not know until later in the story; later still, the narrative itself, Barbara's 'small history' that we are reading, will be found by Sheba and become a plot point in its own right. There are character narratives like The Turn of the Screw where the speaker's unreliability is seen from above as we peer into their psyches, hearing their accounts as if hearing their thoughts, and there are character narratives like Les Liaisons Dangereuses where the unreliable accounts are part of the story, where the act of writing is an event and forms part of the volatile relationships between character and character. Notes on a Scandal is of the latter kind: both Barbara's personality and her decision to write at all are crucial deciding factors in the course of events. Dark echoes of this outcome resound through her opening statements.

The opening of the foreword is both tidy-minded, docketing the dates with neat precision, and intimate: confidences are taking place over dinner, and confidences of a scandalous nature: 'Sheba' is named simply, as an adult, while Connolly is a boy, younger. At once it's clear what scandal Barbara is noting, an age-inappropriate relationship between a woman and a boy. What's just as clear, though, is that this intimate confidence is dangerous one, for whoever this narrator is, she is not as sympathetic as one would need a listener to the private details of such an explosive encounter to be. 'The Connolly boy' is dismissive, contemptuous: Barbara speaks of him generically, not as a personality but as a member of a family and an age range, an example of a type who does not merit the use of his first name. It's the voice of a teacher, which Barbara is, used to seeing an ever-changing room full of adolescent faces, and the fact that he has been kissing her confidante evidently does not change her resolution to keep him in that disposable role.

Barbara's narrative is at once highly emotional - you can hear the bitterness and disgust in every sentence - and superficially calm. Consider the punctuation: 'The other night, at dinner, Sheba talked...' she begins, commas correctly laid out, tenses correctly placed - not 'Sheba was talking', the colloquial tense that would actually be more appropriate considering that in the next sentence Barbara acknowledges that in talking of kissing 'the Connolly boy', Sheba is mostly repeating herself, but the formal 'talked', old-fashioned and purist and studiedly educated, resolutely unstained by the 'proletariat' pupils she teaches. Barbara, class-conscious to the point of paranoia, is not going to be mistaken for an ill-educated person. Though the flow of conversation is continuous, she assumes the storyteller's past perfect 'talked', a grammatical putting down of her foot: an ongoing discourse is clipped into single conversations and pasted down, complete and documented, in this book. Sheba's words are, unbeknownst to her, being collected, and by a woman who is highly aware of the minutest possibilities for self-betrayal that language provides.

Against the contemptuous, defensive precision of Barbara's narrative, Sheba's name stands out. What to make of it? Contrasted with the ordinariness of the surname 'Connolly', it's exotic to the point of pretentiousness. In a North London context, 'Connolly' has a working-class air; it's a common Irish surname, and while there are plenty of middle-class Irish immigrants in England, the Irish diaspora consisted of many poor people seeking work outside their impoverished homeland; placed alongside the generic 'the ... boy', there is a strong hint that 'Steven Connolly' is not a name that would impress a snob. Sheba, though, is full of implications.

The names in this book are symbolic, and 'Sheba' is an important choice. Named Bathsheba, invoking both the Biblical adulteress and the mis-marrying Hardy heroine (and referred to, formally, as 'Bathsheba' early in Barbara's foreword, so we immediately know what we're dealing with, a name of marital disaster), this character actually has a variety of presentations. We first see her as 'Sheba' to her colleagues at school, a name less of adultery and divine displeasure than evoking the Queen of Sheba, a name that sounds luxurious and grand, too warm and colourful for her dingy environment. Later, we learn that her family treats her with no such romanticism, shortening Bathsheba to the Beano-style casualness of 'Bash'. Sheba is who she prefers to be, choosing to risk the knockabout family life for an affair with a younger boy to whom she can be, at least for a while, the glamorous Sheba, and it's Sheba that Barbara sees. Bash, the woman with a family and a real life, is not what Barbara is interested in.

On one level this makes narrative sense: we know people by the names they give us, and if a woman introduces herself to you as one name, you don't start calling her by her family nickname unless she asks you to. On the other hand, the implications of the name are clearly intentional - we are hearing from a woman called Barbara Covett, after all, the sharpness ('barb') and envy of her personality right there on the page - and certainly Barbara is not at all happy to see Sheba in her family setting. Also interesting is that Barbara does not, for several pages, trouble to record Sheba's surname, recording eventually that 'It was at St George's, a little less than eighteen months ago, that I met Bathsheba Hart. Her name will be probably familiar to most of you by now.' 'Hart' is a highly coded choice of name, with its double implication of emotionality, the heart ruling the head, and of potential predation, the hart - that is, the deer - pursued by the hunter who is telling us this story. By leaving this surname out of her first mention of Sheba, Barbara both invokes an assumption of friendship with a woman she is clearly not as sympathetic to as Sheba, sharing scandal, believes her to be, and spreads the symbolic load over a few pages, giving us time to absorb it. 

Sheba, with her not-entirely-likeable name - overblown, too sensuous to fit comfortably with a story of intergenerational sex, and in the England where this story takes place it's also the name of a brand of gourmet cat food besides, an earthy undertone that makes the name wobble on the borderline between romantic and ridiculous - is in trouble. She's confiding not just the facts, but the close details, of a course of action one can most sympathetically consider rash and, if unsympathetic, predatory and corrupt. (And whether or not her affair with Steven Connolly is indeed harmful to him is hard for the reader to judge, dependent as we are on Barbara's perspective, for Barbara has absolutely no interest in his wellbeing and speaks of him only to sneer; to her, he is a rival for Sheba's affection, and she has about as much sympathy for her rivals as Catullus.) Sheba has done something illegal, something undoubtedly harmful to her husband and children, and potentially harmful to her young lover as well, and she's talking all about it to someone who may be eager to refer to her on first-name terms and to listen to her over dinner, but who does not have any patience with the feelings so so intimately discloses. She is far more vulnerable than she realises. 

Do we like Sheba in this book? Not necessarily. It's hard to like anyone in this book, presented as they are through Barbara's acid prose; Sheba's actions are hard to defend, and her justifications, such as we can understand them based on Barbara's account, are not very sympathetic. (Mostly, she tends to veer off into abstractions about the nature of love, attraction or morality as quickly as possible so as to avoid the concrete issue of what she's actually doing.) But we are afraid for her. She is caught in the first sentence like a butterfly in a web, and she will never escape.



*Interesting side-note - I originally looked up the book on Amazon 'read inside' rather than getting it up off the high shelf it occupies in my house. Don't do that: Amazon landed me on the first sentence of the first chapter, not the Foreword, and I wrote several paragraphs on it. Having realised my mistake, I then rewrote ... and having done so, I found that the paragraphs on the first chapter's first sentence had been rendered moot. Evidence, I would suggest, that the 'Foreword' is, functionally speaking, a first chapter rather than an aside.

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