Saturday, January 19, 2013

Benjamin Franklin v. Brat Farrar: Why History Beats Mystery

Reflections while reading two books:  novel BRAT FARRAR by Josephine Tey (1950; Scribner Paperback 1997) and biography BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, AN AMERICAN LIFE by Walter Isaacson (2003; Simon and Schuster paperback 2004).

Hey, B. F. is the monogram for main characters in both books that I'm reading now!  Is that proof that truth is stranger than fiction?  Reading both a chapter of Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin and a chapter of Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar in one sitting, I can attest to one thing:  When an author provides a quirky detail so ridiculous, touching, or coincidental that the reader thinks it must be made up, then non-fiction is at its most appealing, and fiction is at its worst. 

I've reached the part in Isaacson's biography where Ben Franklin successfully obtains France's commitment to American independence.  But his every move was reported to England by his secretary Edward Bancroft, a spy.  More surprising, and more fun, is that Bancroft speculated on trade and rushed his insider information to his stock broker before he reported to the King's spymaster Paul Wentworth, who also had a financial interest in the information.   We read reports by Wentworth about agent 72 and 51 (Franklin and Deane) who are hot for 107 (Independence) (Isaacson 345).  He invited American Silas Deane to rendezvous at an exhibition in Luxembourg and a certain public bath on the Seine, though Deane replied simply that the spy could drop by the American's office anytime (344).  Franklin uses British involvement and "secret" counter-offers of peace as leverage to make the French act sooner than later, and he plays up the American victory at Saratoga to get the treaty that made independence possible.  The outline of the story and the basics of the characters are already well-known to me; the details make the history personal, and I now look at a century note with a knowing smile as if that portrait reminds me of an old pal.

Now, friends have lauded Josephine Tey to me for decades, and I find much to admire in her Brat Farrar.  I especially enjoy those elliptical passages where something important happens between two lines in a manner that calls to mind either her contemporary Noel Coward or else Harold Pinter.  Here, we meet the title character and a man named Loding, and we know the basics of their initially adversarial relationship in the first words they speak:
"Well?" said Loding at last.
Loding took a mouthful of coffee.
"I'm not an actor."  (Tey 26)
Other characters converse in the same understated manner:
"What became of Cousin Walter?"
"Oh, he died."
"In an odour of sanctity?"
"No. Carbolic.  A workhouse ward, I think."  (21)
Tey sets up her novel of suspense in a way that appeals to me, alternating chapters between predators and the intended victims.   We quickly get the idea of what's going to happen, and so we wonder how far it will go before the victims realize how they're being duped.

Still, I'm exasperated by all the novel's fictions that are stranger than truth.   The boy's body was never found;  the young man with the striking resemblance to the long-lost boy just happens to be an orphan with a past that's a blank; the unscrupulous actor who knows the family just happens to encounter the false twin just at the time when the family estate is due to go to the surviving brother; and -- wouldn't you know? -- the old dental records perished with the late family dentiist.

While reading the biography feels like a story I already know is opening up for me,  reading the crime novel feels like a series of predictable crises are closing in.  It was a relief to put down Brat Farrar and to open Benjamin Franklin.  

This may be an example of something Stephen Sondheim describes in his second volume of lyrics, Look I Made A Hat, when he and a playwright friend were bored stiff at a play filled with purportedly exciting events and dramatic plot twists.  Incident is no substitute for surprise, the playwright remarked.    Author Frederick Buechner once described (in The Book of Bebb) a high school class's stories filled with the "requisite number" of suicides, terminal illnesses and car crashes because young writers try to use death to make up for the lack in their stories of "anything that resembles real life."

I usually love to read mysteries, so I'll have to think a bit more to figure out what line this one crossed.  

1 comment:

Brian Allain said...

very interesting thoughts. If you would like to learn more about Frederick Buechner's books, he now has a great website: