There are novels that in the very first paragraph tell readers what awaits them. The Lights of Earth is one of those books:
That opening promises a book about loss — loss contemplated, loss experienced, loss lived out in the future — and that is exactly what The Lights of Earth is. It is both contemplative and gentle, but from the very first words it is a study in what has been missing, or is being missed, or will be missed in the future.
Years after the night of that strange little party her memory played a trick on her. Her memory set him among the others, the guest of honor who heard every word, who saw every gesture and every expression on every face. But he wasn’t there. He wasn’t even expected that night. He must have been still in Spain or New York or down in Los Angeles or over the continent on his way back to San Francisco. He must have been up in the sky, somewhere over all, as the suddenly famous ones seem to be.
Those thoughts belong to Ilona who is heading off to a dinner party in honor of her lover, Martin. As they indicate, he has just achieved international success as a novelist, is busy on tour and hence unable to be present at the hometown San Francisco occasion that is being given in his honor. As they also indicate, Ilona has a premonition that their affair is about to end.
The premonition gets worse as Ilona contemplates the people at the party, “each striving to be seen and heard”:
Except one, who had no need to strive — the one among the women who was beautiful, and Ilona knew at once that the woman was the wife of the man who was guiding Claud and herself toward the table and knew that she was the eventual one, the one who takes away the lover, the one who is a reward in a time of rewards, and she wished for herself a time when presentiment of loss would never bother her because she would be wise enough to know that loss was as natural as breathing.
Ilona is not a complete innocent in this unfolding drama, since she herself had previously take Martin from his wife. As the novel unfolds, she relives that experience; in many ways it is a dress rehearsal for what is going to happen to her. Like Martin, she too is a writer; unlike him, she is neither published nor successful. Whatever life she has been leading is about to move into another gear and it is one that she cannot engage.
The strength of Berriault’s book is the way that she plays with time when she contemplates these slender aspects of her plot. Even after Martin has left her, Ilona continues to think about when she “stole” him. And she doesn’t just remember the time that they spent together, she searches him out after he has departed and they do have evenings and experiences that take them back into their previous life. Ilona does not just live in the present, but the past and the future as well. In all three time dimensions, she has been merely a passenger in what was happening — she knows that she will also just be a non-controlling passenger in the bleak future that awaits her.
At dawn when the phone rang she was lying against his back, curved to him as she had been curved to him countless times before, and in the first moments of waking the loss of him had not yet come about. Wrapping his shirt around her — it was closest to hand — she ran down the hall, praying that all was well with everyone.
Martin sat on the rim of the tub and bathed away the sheen over her body. He drove her to the airport and, waiting in line to board the plane, she rested her head against his chest and he kissed her on the brow, and to everyone else he must have appeared to be someone who would be waiting for her when she returned.
Gina Berriault (1926-99) was born in California and spent most of her life there. She is probably best known as a short story writer — Their Beds, New and Selected Stories won the 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award — but her oeuvre includes four novels. I will admit that this is the first book of hers that I have read (I do recall a short story or two) and I will keep my eye open for others.
I can’t help but compare The Lights of Earth to Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood in the way that both explore the troubled circumstances of young women who find themselves in circumstances that they cannot influence. And I should also acknowledge that both books came to my attention via the same source — Kerry at Hungry Like The Woolf. It was through his attention to the 2010 Tournament of Books that I was lead to Nightwood — The Lights of Earth was his gift to me when I won the consolation prize in his ToB contest. I would have never discovered either book without the contest; I am glad to have read both.