The Scent of Water
I started reading The Scent of Water, by Elizabeth Goudge, at what I fervently hope was the lowest point of my recuperation from knee surgery, around the two week mark. I’ve had arthroscopic knee surgery three times previously, and before I’ve always been off the crutches at this point. But not this time. I’m heavier, and I’m older, and despite all the exercises and ice, it still hurts.
Like any lifelong yo-yo dieter, having to get around on crutches for a month put the fear into me, and I put myself on a starvation-level diet because that’s the only thing that’s ever worked. So after another week of this, when I was at a very low ebb, my friend Jill came over, bearing flowers, to play some fiddle music with me–we’re both learning to fiddle, and it’s way more fun together than alone. Afterwards, my friend Pamela decided that I was not going to tackle the long, scary path down to the campus theater that I’d wanted but also dreaded to attempt. I was going to stay home, she told me firmly, watch old Supernatural episodes with her, drink margaritas, and eat some of the elaborate spread of food she was bringing over.
As much as her company (Ron had to go to the play; he’s on an awards committee this year), I think the fact that someone thought I deserved to eat something cheered me up. And then the banquet itself—after I’d sampled a fair proportion of everything on the table, I realized that part of my anger and frustration all week was simply being hungry. A person can make herself so miserable that she can’t unravel all the causes, sometimes.
I was feeling quite miserable while reading The Scent of Water, and it made me less able to enjoy the very quiet pleasures of it. I was chafing to be able to go out and do things, and that made the protagonist’s joy in staying home and noticing the little things really irritating.
The protagonist of The Scent of Water is named Mary, the same as an elderly relative’s who has left her a house in the English countryside. Despite a lifetime spent in London, Mary decides to move out to “the deep country, before there’s no deep country left.” There she (of course) meets an eccentric but loveable cast of characters who are eager to clasp her to their bosoms. It’s the same kind of plot as in A Man Called Ove, but with more spiritual overtones, as if to guarantee maximum irritation.
There’s some beautiful description of the kinds of sights and sounds I often enjoy, living in a rural part of the country:
“This morning he had stood at his window at the first light and there had been a lark signing in a sky that still held the shining of the moon, and the owls had been calling as the lark sang. Odd how he’d come to love the country….Through the open window the air blew fresh and cool, like well water. There had been a well behind his grandfather’s cottage…and the water, welling up from a deep spring, had been the purest and coldest he’d ever known. He’d liked to hang over the edge of the well and breathe in the cool scent of the water.”
When multiple characters mention that water has a scent in this part of the country, though, and Mary begins to attribute a spiritual aspect to it, that’s when it all gets so exaggerated as to seem ludicrous:
“The cool breath of the living water, the scent of it, increased the sense of shame that had been with her all the afternoon.” Why? Because she had not told a little girl that’s she’d never been down a certain path before.
Sometimes when Mary is reading a book-within-the-book she stops, making us wait for what comes next in the mystery of the first Mary’s life, because this Mary just wants to sit there. The sitting drove me mad. It seems like she’s always just sitting, waiting for things to happen to her:
“She opened her window in the morning and saw a spider’s web sparkling with light and was aware of miracle. Sitting in the conservatory with her sewing she knew suddenly that the sun was out behind the vine leaves and that she was enclosed within green-gold light as in a seashell. She dropped her sewing in her lap and was motionless for an hour while the light lay on her eyelids and her gratitude knew no bounds.”
Perhaps it’s the sense of gratitude that I’m lacking right now, but the parts of the book where Mary just sits were the parts that drove me around the bend–forced to sit and heal, reading a book in which a character who can move, won’t!
The man that Mary is in love with brings her his writing, because “he had found in her what he had never had, a sympathetic but intelligent critic. She could wield the pruning knife mercilessly yet at the same time she watered the roots.” They carry on a literary friendship, but Mary claims to be content to be left alone while the man’s life improves and he and his wife have a baby.
Even the loveliest passages are spoiled by Mary’s woo-woo spirituality. She ends a conversation with her friend Jean this way:
“’Nothing is ever over,’ said Jean. ‘You thread things on your life and think you’ve finished with them, but you haven’t because it’s like beads on a string and they come around again. And when something bad you’ve done to a person comes around again it’s horrible, for if the person is dead there’s nothing you can do.’
‘I have thought lately that sometimes there is,’ said Mary. ‘When it comes around again, then if it is possible, give what you failed to give before to someone else. You will have made reparation, for we are all one person.’”
Up to the word “reparation,” I thought this was a lovely passage.
So, fine. Mary sits and the people of rural England come to her. I’m sure this is soothing for people in the middle of all their usual activities, but not for me, not this fall.
Finally on Saturday I did get out of the house; we went to Oberlin for parents’ weekend. I had to choose this trip over going to Kenyon to see Hilary Mantel speak, because Saturday evening was the only time Walker had free.
We started out by taking Walker and his girlfriend Zoe out to dinner at an excellent Indian restaurant that has recently opened up in town, and then we went to the opera. It was two short operas, actually, and we didn’t know anything about them. The first one was Donizetti’s Viva La Mamma, and from the first moments on stage, it was delighting our ears while giving us belly laughs at the sight gags on stage (including the excellent baritone in a crinoline who played the Mama). When it was over, during intermission, I said that it was a hard act to follow. Well, it was followed by Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tiresias, and this second one was even funnier—featuring balloons and famous surrealist paintings–and just as delightful with the singing. We all particularly enjoyed the introduction, in which the singer declared that this opera could change your life, and the grand finale, in which everyone was on stage singing that we should all have lots of babies while balloons poured down on us from above.
Zoe and Walker and Ron gave me help getting in and out of the car with the crutches (long legs are not an advantage when you have knees that don’t bend all the way), so with the judicious timing of painkillers, I managed the whole trip (2 hours one way by car, quicker by helicopter, many, many days by boat) without being too distracted by knee pain to enjoy it. What I discovered is that opera is one of the best cures for my kind of frustration—it’s big, it’s loud, and everyone makes grand gestures. And, of course, Oberlin does opera very well.
To put the cap on the weekend, on Sunday we went to the movies to see Doctor Strange, and it was exactly what I was craving–the first part of the plot consists of people telling a broken and angry man “give yourself time to heal” and him saying “no.” Then he reads a lot of books, learns how to draw circles in the air, and gets a sentient cloak. It’s all action with only a few tears, which get wiped off by his cloak.
Maybe y’all have some suggestions for books with lots of action?