A Novel of Ideas

More than one critic has called Frederic Tuten’s The Green Hour a novel of ideas. Yet the reviewers then proceed to describe the story and leave out the ideas. I want to talk about the ideas. Are they to be found in the story itself?

In college Dominique falls in love with the free spirit, political radical Rex. It is a mutual life-time devotion. While Rex wanders the earth, Dominique buckles down and becomes a highly regarded art history professor, spending much of her time in Paris where every once in a while she bumps into Rex and together they resume their romance. Then she meets Eric who courts her with his millions. She is torn between the chaotic, impoverished Rex and the stable, wealthy Eric.

Meanwhile she overcomes a bout of cancer, travels back and forth between Europe and America, and eventually tries to find a life with Eric at the mansion he built for her on Long Island. (“We’ve been fine,” he said, “but I’ve never been in your heart.”) As much as I enjoyed the story, in fact, I enjoyed it immensely as it is a beautifully written romantic fairy tale, it is clear that Dominique’s conflict is without a solution

Are we to understand that this is the central idea Tuten wishes to impart? That maturity requires abandoning idealism and accepting the fact that a life of reflection does not come for free? “Her lofty ideas had taken her where she could live among a painting’s pillars and columns, in a temple where miracles happened, but they could not pay the mortgage on the house or caulk a sinking boat.”

Dominique is writing a book on the French painter Nicolas Poussin that has taken her forever to complete and on more than one occasion has given her an excuse to return to Paris. Throughout the volume Tuten scatters ideas about Goya and Poussin’s paintings (passionate Goya—Rex(?) and calm Poussin—Eric(?).

“…she had moved her area of interest from Spanish painting and Goya in particular to Poussin, for her as an artist of greater formal and intellectual complexity, greater mystery, though lacking in warmth and perhaps wisdom.”

“She was in fact not sure of what Poussin had intended by that light, but in her writing she had matched it to what she considered The Arcadian Shepherds’ theme: the omnipresence of Death in the center of life.”

Most of the ideas I record while reading a book are scattered randomly throughout the text. In the case of The Green Hour, a good many were different than those I recorded when I read it a few years ago. However, the book meant as much to me on second reading as it did the first.

Here are a couple of ideas I made note of the first time around: “The idea was the act. Actions were ideas enacted but, for her, the idea was its fullness and existed sufficiently without need of the act to complete it. As when love, when first born, takes hold and gives body to all activity rushing from it, the conception lasting longer than its temporal manifestations, the conception enduring while the body falls away in repetition, in boredom, in aging, the draining away of everything corporeal.”

“Do you think poetry changes anything, anyone? Auden says no. I know it does. But he’s just protecting the sanctity of his craft, lest he admit that poetry may change us for the worse as well as for the better.”

And at second reading: “How hard, she would say in that future moment of wisdom for the young to understand how time and experience flatten out all pain, how even one’s suffering finds—if not purpose—some balance and redress in experience yet to be had.”

“There was always an imbalance in love—the one who loved and the one who was loved. Most of her life she had denied it, desiring above all a total equality in love. But nothing in her real experience proved her theory—her wish—correct.”

The Green Hour is assuredly a novel of ideas—ideas concerning art, love, and what it takes to live a scholarly life. While I have read other novels far more dense with ideas and wisdom, there is much to admire in this novel and much to recommend to those who have yet to read it.

And for those interested in the tradition and practice of keeping a commonplace book, I pass along once again one more treasure from The Green Hour:

For some time since her operation, and without publication its goal, she had been jotting down without order or pattern, anecdotes gleaned from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, noting down those matters or events which moved her. One day these notes and fragments of thought might form a coherent mosaic and reveal to her her own spiritual autobiography as well as biography of her time.”