In case it has not come to your notice, last year I discovered the Mapp and Lucia books by EF Benson and fell for them hook line and sinker. I read them all in a couple of months as is my wont, and then fell prey to despair at the fact there were no more. I checked out this author and found he was incredibly prolific and many of his output were still in print. I have posted about Paying Guests and Mrs Ames on Random and said how much I enjoyed them. With Mrs Ames I began to see that there was more subtlety and weight to his books than perhaps had been my initial impression and this has now been confirmed as I have just finished Michael. The copy I obtained was the US edition though I ordered a completely different one from Amazon, but when it turned up I was very pleased as, with all US paperbacks, it is beautifully produced.
I closed it up ten minutes ago and wish to write about it while I am still in a state of feeling that I have been knocked sideways. Gosh, this is a simply WONDERFUL book. I am quite overwhelmed by it, spent the last two hours not moving from the sofa so engrossed and gripped had I become.
It starts relatively peacefully. Michael, son of Lord Comber, is a misfit and feels his ugliness deeply The description of his appearance put me in mind of a book I read years ago by one Pierre la Mure, Moulin Rouge, a fictionalised life of Toulouse Lautrec and the misery his ungainly appearance brought him. Michael is aware that he is a disappointment to his father who would much prefer that his gracious, elegant and charming cousin Francis, was his son instead of him. Michael loves music and wishes to study it but instead is in the guards which he hates. He comes to a decision that he has to do something with his life, resigns his commission and sets off to Bayreuth to hear Parsifal. On the way he meets Hermann Farbe, a brilliant young musician who he had seen at a concert prior to his trip, where he accompanied his sister, a gloriously talented singer, Sylvia. They become friends, they return back to England, he meets Sylvia and a whole new life opens up for him. He ceases to worry about his appearance, what people think of him, he is happy and open and free and starts composing music. He falls in love with Sylvia and though she turns downs his initial proposal of marriage, he does not lose hope.
The background and scene is now set for what is for me, the heart of the book. Michael is visiting his parents, though he and his father are now estranged over his choice of lifestyle, when he realises his mother is ill. It is obvious to a modern reader that she is in the first stages of dementia. At that moment his distant, vague relationship with his mother changes. Almost as if she knows that there is not much time left, she comes to him:
"I hope you are happy Michael. I want you to be happy. You used not to be happy when you were small, you were always sensitive and odd. But you do seem happier now and that is a good thing....but it wasn't I who made you happier. I never made anyone happy, but now that you are living the life you choose, is it better with you?......I have begun to feel lonely, nobody wants me.......there is nobody and it began to strike me that you perhaps might want me. There was nobody else and who should want me if my son did not? I never gave you the chance before, God forgive me, and perhaps it is now too late. You have learned to do without me"
I found this part of the book when his mother gradually deteriorates and he takes care of her as his upright, hidebound, inarticulate father cannot, very moving. Michael gives up his newly acquired freedom to care for his mother and his genuine love and kindness are evident in the tender care he takes of her, and it is seeing this real unconscious love and understanding that makes Sylvia realise that she truly loves the real Michael, the one she had doubted.
If the story had finished here, it would have been viewed as a slight romance, charming and delightful. But it does not. Sylvia and her brother are half-German and we are on the eve of the first World War, that long last hot summer before the cataclysm engulfed Europe and life was never the same again. Hermann has a deep profound love for Germany and leaves to fight for his country and Michael knows that he has to rejoin his regiment that he left so easily a year earlier. He can do no less.
Before he leaves, he is struck by two blows. Francis, the light hearted, young cousin who he loved so dearly is killed at the start of the war and he is overcome by hatred at the events that have brought this about and this feeling is extended towards the German race, of whom his fiance and Hermann, who he loves like a brother, are part.
Then, hIs mother, who had to be placed in a home and had turned against him in her distress and confusion is dying. He goes to see her and prays that out of the darkness that has overtaken her, he will be able to see his real mother one last time. His wish is granted:
"Turning her head slightly, she saw him and there was no longer any question as to whether her mouth smiled for all her face was flooded with deep, serene joy.
He bent towards her. "Michael my dear" she said gently......she looked at him and all the mother love which before had been veiled and clouded, came out with all the tender radiance of evening sea, with the clear shining after rain.
"I knew you wouldn't fail me my darling....you were so patient with me in the trouble I have been through. It was a nightmare but it has gone..."
I am not ashamed to say that by the time I arrived at these pages I was so totally at one with Michael that my eyes filled with tears and I had trouble seeing the page. Later, at the funeral he is walking next to his father, the estranged parent who had despised him so long and who he thought he hated.
"One moment stood out for Michael above all the others, when as he entered the graveyard, somebody who he could not see said 'I am the resurrection and the life' and he heard his father, by whom he walked, suddenly catch his breath in a sob"
I found Michael to be a fine man and a fine character. I think that word is the right one. He has courage and a huge capacity for love and understanding and at this stage of the story, he has to go to fight, knowing that his fiance's brother is fighting on the other side.
The ending, which is more or less inevitable, but none the less moving for that, could have been mawkish and hackneyed, but instead there is a gleam of humour, great warmth and love and it is not until the last line, in the last paragraph on the last page of this simply marvellous book, that we know if Michael is to be happy, or not.
To say I was bowled over by this E F Benson story is putting it mildly. I closed it up with that horrid feeling that I have read it, and even though I may re-read it, I will never capture again that feeling when you open a book and realise you are in the middle of something special.
I am going to have to sit down for a bit and have a think about this book - it has really affected me deeply and I am not sure on reading this post if I have managed to communicate to you the essence of Michael's character and to tell you how enormously I came to love and admire him by the end. I hope so but if not do get a copy. It is in print and available. You won't be disappointed.
I am now a Woman on a Mission and my tracking down of all of E F Benson's books, starts now...