I was reading a secondhand library-sale copy of Elizabeth Jolley’s 1997 novel Lovesong when it came to me, somewhere around page 90, that this book was reminding me of a movie, something oblique, something impressionistic, a film that didn’t reveal itself but was somehow, underneath it all, full of buried … David Lynch, yes, that was it, David Lynch. Which Lynch? Inland Empire, I thought, and then: no: Blue Velvet.
Lovesong was Jolley’s third-last novel before her death in 2007. “Although she did not publish a novel until she was 57, Elizabeth Jolley, who has died aged 83, quickly established herself as a laureate of the dotty,” reported the Guardian. So she must have been 73 around the publication of Lovesong. The atmosphere of the story is a haze, its gaze is a glance; we see most of it through the brain of Dalton Foster, a man who has recently been released from prison after committing a paedophilic crime. Exactly what he did we do not know, because, as said, we are seeing this through him, and so his paedophilia is presented in the form of oblique romantic scenes: here is a beautiful soprano boy in a beam of light, here is a ragged girl who strangely compels him to follow her. He wants to give her apples. The apples are symbolic, but symbolic of what is a question without easy answers, although the key seems to be Yeats and his “Song of the Wandering Aengus”, which ends with “The silver apples of the moon, / The golden apples of the sun.”
Prison rehabilitation hasn’t reformed him.
During the years of the journey through conflict and repetitions of treatment, he came to the conclusion that the child had observed and sensed the magic and the beauty of desire and attraction, and already understood that there was a special perception of this, which he possessed …
A love of European high culture, used by thinkers like Montaigne to elevate their minds, only fuels his avoidance. Meeting a probation officer he likened him, in silence, to the old poet, Horace, whose shape had, at one time, been compared, by a friend, to that of a thick little book.
Foster swerves away from sex and around it, not in written arabesques like those of Humbert Humbert, but into memories that persist like questions: a live rabbit on a dining table, or his aunt dripping melted chocolate onto croissants and crying, “Voila!” (The rabbit is Lynchean—something oddly ordinary yet oddly not.) Jolley’s details are sensuous and many of them have to do with comfort, taste, touch, smell: mother’s perfume, “a fresh bowl of hot water”, “little round cushions of soft material covered with snowdrops”, cloth, the “engorged dark colour” of a dead rooster’s comb in a butcher’s shop. Objects are often moist or soft, swollen and yielding, as if Foster’s thoughts are pressing into the world through ooze. Jolley likes to use ‘little’ and ‘small’, a habit that lends sadism to her prose. Sensuousness is being contained, restricted, the aunt, dripping chocolate, uses “a small spoon.” Foster, thinking of children, wears “a small tender smile”. The author blurs the outlines of her characters with accents and nicknames, she withholds words as if protecting them:
“That’s Mr Porter’s hair ball,” Mrs Porter, noticing Dalton Foster’s quick sideways glance, said. “I keep it under the bell glass on the mantel.”
We know the “said” is coming but she keeps it back until the end of the sentence, there is precision in her teasing. And she doesn’t let us know the colour of the dead fowl’s comb, only that it is dark.
So here is the connection (said my brain to me) between this and Blue Velvet, this idea of sexual humanity, “desire and attraction”, that can’t be summed up, gripped or refined, and the more directly you try to approach it—the more Frank screams, “Fuck!”—the more aware you are that it is dodging you. Like Lynch, Jolley, presents us with scenes, cocoons them in hints, and when we approach her looking for an answer she has nothing obvious to tell us. Things are weirdly vivid, hallucinatory, and sometimes she will pick up on an idea and repeat it, as the filmmaker does, letting us know that this is significant, but significant how? Ideas about one characters are mirrored through others. Are we supposed to sympathise with Dalton Foster, this hopeful child molester? And if we did, what would we be sympathising with? Sex is a strange thing, neatness can’t contain it—Jolley sets her story in a boarding house where people are feeling desperate behind closed doors and if these people had lawns then ants would be ripping into one another underneath the grass-blades. Or am I wrong, I wonder now? It’s been years since I saw Blue Velvet and it was only an edited TV version. I remember the movie about as well as Foster remembers the past, it’s all ignorance, and assumptions clumped around a few scattered scenes that seem to have been picked out of the air, suggesting something, something, but what, exactly, what?