Conversations with Mr. Prain.
Melville House Press. 2006.
It is not fashionable to feel too much. This is not a romantic age.
In this pair of simple yet infinitely complex sentences, Stella, the narrator of Joan Taylor's smart and sensual novel, sums up her dilemma. She also offers us a glimpse into her world, a place where imagination, which has always played a fundamental role in her life, is about to be stretched to the breaking point.
Taylor has written a novel of manners and of intellect, of passion and calculation, of negotiation and compromise, of winning and losing, of love and sex. Conversations with Mr. Prain is at once old fashioned and absolutely contemporary, as if Jane Austen, who is invoked here literally as well as figuratively, had been reading over Taylor's shoulder as she wrote.
At first glance, Stella's life seems as prim, tidy, and safe as a modern Austen character's might be. A New Zealand native living in London, she owns a second-hand bookstall at Camden Lock Market, which, she confesses, "is far more upmarket now than it used to be, with stalls displaying elegant craftwork and imports, but it still sits like a treasure chest in a junkyard, surrounded by Goth shops, tattoo and piercing centres, garish painted buildings, magic mushroom sellers and the greatest range of seedy tat in England."
One Saturday afternoon, a well-dressed man wanders into her bookshop. While leafing through a volume on Cezanne's early work, he stares at her, and she understandably finds the attention unsettling. She breaks the tension by telling him the asking price for the book in his hands, thirty pounds, which leads to a brief conversation. Then he leaves, only to return every couple of weeks thereafter. They discuss books and art. She tells him she is a "culture vulture," devouring all that London has to offer her in terms of art, theater, music, film, and literary events.
He praises her "Antipodean" candor. Stella is attracted to him, though she recognizes there are certain age and class differences at play in their exchanges. She finds herself still calling him "Mr." long after their conversation has become a routine because he seems formal "in a way that English men can be, and Austrolasian or North American men generally cannot. It was to do with an innate reserve, confidence and bearing."
She is intrigued, but there remains one essential component in each of their lives that they do not share initially. When they do, it drastically complicates their nascent relationship. Stella is a writer and the mysterious gentleman is Edward Prain, chairman and managing director of one of the most prestigious publishing houses in England. When these facts are revealed—accidentally, as it happens — everything changes. After reading the draft of a poem Stella has been working on at her counter, Prain does (for motives ulterior and otherwise) what writers often fantasize about. He asks her to let him read some of her work, including the novel she's been writing, and says he will return in a couple of weeks to pick up the manuscript.
What seemed to be a fledgling connection, even an innocent flirtation, is soon replaced by a new monster in the room: ambition.
Or so it would seem.
When he returns to pick up the pages, he invites her to come to his country house for tea the following month. And, for a "talk." She accepts the invitation, rationalizing that "tea" is safer and more respectable than a dinner invitation, which might have caused her to "become suspicious that he was out to wine and dine me for other purposes."
All of this happens quickly, in the prologue, and the reader might be forgiven for being cynical about both Stella's naiveté and Mr. Prain's intentions. As it happens, he does indeed have "other purposes," not necessarily clandestine but not precisely innocent either. Such cynicism is misplaced, however, because nothing that happens at the country house can be fully anticipated by either character.
The remainder of Conversations with Mr. Prain takes place over a weekend, as Stella arrives at Mr. Prain's estate and their eponymous conversations begin. In fact, the art of conversation lives in this novel; people take the time to talk here. Despite the fact that they work for a living, the summer weekend time frame allows for a thoroughly unmodern illusion of boundless leisure, in which two people can test and probe, parry and thrust, challenge and seduce, without distractions.
That Stella is or is not a talented writer is almost beside the point for the longest time in this novel. That she has a vivid imagination is very much the point. Stella often tries to anticipate and interpret Mr. Prain's actions and intentions in advance by imagining what will happen before it does. She's seldom right, but that's also beside the point, since she's using her mind as a safety valve ("It is too easy for a writer to be kidnapped by imagination at times of stress.")
Several things happen in these pages that ring true to me, but don't necessarily make me comfortable. And that is a good thing. The Stella we meet in the prologue is cocooned in her bookstall, any ambitions she might harbor as an author well concealed. Once she has opened the Pandora's Box delivered to her in the form of Mr. Prain, we see a slightly altered, and perhaps more genuine, Stella emerge. She is so much herself and yet so much like any author would be with the publication carrot dangling before her.
Stella is ambitious. She is at once believably confident and insecure about her talent (which could be part of the job description for any author). She asks for a critical read, but hopes desperately for a complimentary one. In their first conversations, she hangs on every word Mr. Prain speaks, looking for hints of his opinion of her work (and, of course, of herself, since the two are intertwined).
As the day goes on, the answers she came for are not immediately forthcoming. Mr. Prain's natural reserve masks an even deeper talent for gamesmanship. Stella must formulate new questions to address the mysteries in the developing relationship between herself and her suitor (a word that is complex here). And then there is Monique, an attractive French sculptor who lives and works on the estate; whose role seems to morph between housekeeper and house artist; who murmurs in French to Mr. Prain about…Stella isn't sure. Household matters? Post-modernism? Stella's presence as an intruder or rival?
"I should not let my imagination intrude," Stella scolds herself, and yet imagination will have its way with her. This is counterbalanced by a character trait she shares with many Austen women: Stella is clever. You might say she has her wits about her, even when she briefly loses control of the situation.
And a situation is precisely what this weekend becomes. Mr. Prain has a number of motives for inviting Stella to his estate, and the game he's playing is anything but clear at first. As she gradually begins to understand that the game exists, what her role is in it, and how to play, she becomes a clever player herself.
When Mr. Prain tells her what he thinks of her novel, she is shocked. When he makes her an "offer," it is not one she expects. Nor is it one she can easily accept or refuse. It is, in effect, another clue in the game. The multileveled tension between them—professional, intellectual, erotic—escalates quickly as the contest takes shape. If, as Stella concedes at one point, Mr. Prain "really knew how to win a game," she is a quick study herself. The game they play moves from study to bedroom (innocently) to gallery to garden to studio to drawing room to bathroom to bedroom again (not innocently) to kitchen. The movement is a clue in itself.
And then there is that other game: We are in the hands of a writer writing about a writer, that curious gaze into a mirror to see who, if anyone at all, is staring back. What makes this work here is that you can never be quite certain about Stella's motives as author or woman.
We may not like her quite as much as a naive but ambitious author because she seems all too familiar to us, but we ultimately do not lose patience with her because, like so many of Austen's best creations, she exhibits the quality that separates the ordinary person from the extraordinary one, and the ordinary fictional character from the extraordinary one. That quality, for lack of a better word or any word, is "spirit."
Stella's imagination shows her spirit, as do her independence, her forthrightness, and ultimately her drive to win the "game" that Mr. Prain devises. And yet her imagination, fevered as well as tempered, and ever-ready to be brandished at the slightest provocation, can't help but make us stop to consider everything we have read once again. Conversations with Mr. Prain, as a novel about the genesis of a novel; is the sworn testimony of a narrator with an admittedly unbridled fantasy life. And there is a game in that as well.
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