#2: Feathered Glory, by James Lasdun

“Feathered Glory” is a seventy-page novella by James Lasdun, published in the latest issue of The Paris Review (Issue 212, Spring 2015). I’d never heard of James Lasdun before, and I didn’t have this novella in my planned list of conquests, but I do read The Paris Review, so I came across it by accident, as a pleasant surprise.

Following the serial publication of Rachel Cusk’s novella Outline last year over four issues (to be covered in a future post), I didn’t expect to find a complete novella inside this issue of the magazine. At this length though, which I estimate at around 25,000 words, it’s very manageable and doesn’t dominate this issue, which also includes many other stories plus poetry and interviews with both Hilary Mantel, Lydia Davis and Elena Ferrante.

“Feathered Glory” follows the marriage of Richard, a school principal in a small town 100 miles north of New York, and Sara, his wife who dabbles in weaving and animal welfare. Their quotidian existence is contrasted from the first page with that of Richard’s friend Victor, a music journalist “leading the disorderly and, in Richard’s private opinion, increasingly depressing life of an ageing bohemian.”

At nearly 50, Victor is recently married to a younger woman named Audrey; they are raising a young daughter. We learn about Audrey from Richard’s perspective, defined in relation to Victor rather than in her own right. Lasdun’s narration privileges the men in most parts, and I was ready to fault him for this: the women are talked about in the opening pages, but the men decide to go out for dinner alone—”Sara won’t mind”—and it’s through their conversation that their stories are presented. However the perspective does shift to Sara in the middle of each of the novella’s three chapters, and it’s in these sections that the prose shines most brightly (while also providing the opportunity for some enjoyable moments of dramatic irony).

In terms of the characters and sub-plots, this doesn’t seem to be written with the same single-character focus that I would usually expect from a novella. Both Richard and Victor are given the most plot. And yet… I feel ultimately that this is Sara’s story.

We soon learn that Victor has left Audrey for another woman who then rejected him. Richard reciprocates by telling a story of his own, an indiscretion from the past, shortly before he married Sara. Lasdun takes time settling into the narrative, but as the first chapter unfolds it becomes clear that this is not just a story of male infidelity, but a reflection on the trials of ageing and life partnership.

Despite delaying the introduction of Sara’s perspective and spending more time in Richard’s head, this novella becomes the story of Sara’s transformation from having “an idea of herself as the concern of others […] being cherished and being handed on” to something more independent; from a woman who married Richard merely as deference to his passion—”her own feelings had never seemed of great importance to her”—to… well, to what?

Observing a cage of opossums, Sara ponders a “strange, desolate reality” that perhaps serves to highlight her own:

Sara thought of an image in the book Richard had given her to read, an update on Darwinian theory in the light of modern discoveries about genes. In it the author invited the reader to regard all living creatures as occupants of a vast mathematical grid in which every combination of the sixty-four “words” in the universal genetic dictionary had its own niche. Empty niches represented combinations that had failed to create viable organisms. Inhabited ones were those that had succeeded.

Carla, who is divorced, tells Sara that “I experienced my husband as a greyness towards the end.” She continues: “In a context […] where one no longer has a function decreed by nature, one is faced with a choice between a futile struggle against obsolescence, or changing the context. I changed the context.”

The story continues, driven largely by Richard’s chance of rekindling a relationship with Francesca after so many years, and the plots twists are largely predictable. Yet Sara and the swan develop their own connection:

Occasionally, with the smaller birds, she’d felt glimmerings of a consciousness capable of responding, in more than purely reflex ways, to her own. But this seemed a different order of reciprocal awareness: charged and volatile, as if the creature might be forming as richly strange an impression of her as she was of it.

Carla shares her belief that “past a certain age the sexes among higher mammals become not merely indifferent toward each other but in fact functionally opposed” and the words “begin to insinuate themselves into her mind”. Rich, dream-like prose describes their first attempt at acclimating the swan to a local pond; it occurs to Sara that “she was undergoing some transition” and yet her passivity grates: “she had no idea where it might be leading, and wasn’t even especially interested.”

Lasdun references a Kierkegaard fable as a parallel to Sara’s situation (or the unlikeliness of her awakening): “A wild goose could become a tame goose, the fable ended, but a tame goose could never become wild.” The second chapter ends with Richard and the sobering thought (for this thirty-five-year-old writer) that “the human body evolved for a lifespan of thirty-five years […] after that it stopped regenerating itself efficiently […] nature had no further use for you.”

In the third and final chapter, the side-story of Victor comes to a close and it seems like Richard has achieved a happy adoration towards Sara, having avoided the temptation of infidelity (although not without lying or arousing suspicion). He reflects that “thirty-five might be the age of obsolescence as far as evolution was concerned […] and it was undeniable that a certain air of futility hung over the activities of men and women as they grew older, but one persisted nonetheless, and one could hardly be blamed for wanting to pass the time in a state of comfort and companionship […] better anything, really, than the feral squalor of a man growing old on his own.” There is a sense of foreboding in this self-satisfied bliss, and so it’s the final shift to Sara’s perspective that delivers the novella’s climax.

The final scenes thread time between a car trip with Richard and the moment when Carla and Sara finally release the swan into its natural habitat. And that’s where I’ll leave it, for you to seek out and enjoy.

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