Tessa Hadley: “Experience” from The New Yorker, 1/21/13

*jOuey- "attic room"

*jOuey- “attic room”

There were no curtains on the windows of that house, not even in the bedrooms. At first, I found this unbearable. I undressed for bed in the bathroom; I got into bed in the dark. But after a while I began to get used to it. This was how Hana lived her life—flamboyantly on display, careless of who might be watching. I didn’t flatter myself that anyone was watching me.

This is the fifth Hadley story I’ve read in TNY, and by far and away my favorite; in fact, it’s the only one I’ve been enthusiastic about. Either I’m catching on, or she is. It’s available online.

The story on just a plot level is enjoyable and carried me along. Laura’s marriage has just broken up, she’s low on funds, so she finds a house-sitting gig at the London townhouse of friend-of-a-friend Hana who’s going to be travelling to America for a bit. During her stay, she discovers an old-fashioned skeleton key and a locked room in the attic; what could be more enticing? Amongst the odd assortment of items – camping equipment, mattresses still wrapped in plastic, a wetsuit, a chandelier – is Hana’s diary, telling the tale of a tumultuous romance with married man Julian that left her with a broken heart. Laura compares this to the end of her marriage, which is more of an inconvenience:

I’ve never lived, I thought, as I knelt there, reading with my legs cramped underneath me, aware of the rain as if it were drumming on my skin. I’ve never lived: the words ran in my head. Life was garish and ruthless and exaggerated, and I’d never really had it—I was like one of those child brides in history whose marriage was annulled by the Pope because it wasn’t consummated.

He and I had too much irony to take our lives as earnestly as Hana took hers. Viewed coldly from outside, how silly Hana’s affair was and how demeaning, with its hysteria and its banal props. But who wanted to view things coldly, from outside?

Julian, the Julian, calls, looking for Hana. Or, more accurately, looking for the camping equipment he stored in her attic; he wants to take his son camping. The scene that follows isn’t written in a particularly humorous style, but it reminded me of one of those old Alec Guinness comedies from the 50s, as Laura can’t reveal she’s seen the camping equipment or even the key to the locked room but must lead Julian to it nonetheless, with Hana on the phone making helpful suggestions.

Hadley arranges the events very nicely here, to get Julian back in the house again. Here’s where I felt the story rose above the already-good plot. All along, there’s been this tension between Hana’s flamboyance and display, and Laura’s more restrained, private, hidden nature:

The little collection of totems that I took with me everywhere—pebbles from a certain beach, a few framed photographs, my dead mother’s empty perfume bottle—looked like rubbish when I spread them out in Hana’s bedroom, so I hid them away again.

Laura dresses in Hana’s blouse and necklace for Julian’s second visit: “Disguised, I was able to perform a part…” I especially enjoyed a comment Cliff Garstang made about this on his blog Perpetual Folly: “I don’t have nearly as clear a picture of Laura, except when she’s dressed in Hana’s clothes.” This fits with how Laura sees herself – hiding – and now, in essence, she becomes the woman whose flamboyance and “experience” she so admires. It’s as if by living in Hana’s house, she absorbs some of her more demonstrative bearing. But I think her metamorphosis began when she discovering the secrets in the attic. A secret empowers her to gain the grand experience she craves. And of course, for all her flamboyance, it’s Hana who has a locked room and something hidden in her diary.

There’s something about the way these two themes, experience/not and hiddenness/display, work together. Perhaps the more open you are, the greater the chance you have a secret, somewhere, that no one would ever guess, whereas perhaps the more private people are likely to be more what meets the eye. But perhaps that’s only because, the more open you are, the more likely you’ve had an “experience” worth keeping secret. I’m glad Laura has experienced being on display, and that she now has an experience worth keeping to herself. At the same time, I’m a little sad that she had to turn into Hana to have that experience; but maybe now she’s ready to “live” as herself. Any time I get this involved with a character – happy and sorry – it’s a good thing, and I’m glad this finally happened for a character in a Tessa Hadley story.

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