And now Theodora began to think that perhaps the man was a little bit mad, but she loved him for his madness even, for it made her warm.
Theodora Goodman has never married, has never quite seemed the point of entering into the great formal propriety that is marriage: "This thing a spinster, she sometimes mused, considering her set mouth; this thing a spinster which, at best, becomes that institution an aunt." The institution is a way of making sense of people who do not quite fit into the ordinary boxes, of labeling the unlabeled. Theodora's mother thinks, "Life would be simpler, neater, more consoling, if we could take the hearts of those who do not quite love us"--like Theodora--"and lock them in a little box, something appropriate in mother-o'-pearl. Then I would say: Theodora, now that you are hollow,my words will beat on your soul for ever so that it answers regularly as an African drum, in words dictated by myself, of duty and affection." But when Theodora's cruel mother finally dies, she is released, free to follow her own predilection for independence, which she indulges by traveling to France where she stays in a hotel populated by a strange cabal of permanent guests who invite her into the complexity of their lives.
The Aunt's Story is split into three parts. The first follows Theodora's childhood at her Australian estate of Meroe. Theodora loves the place and has no desire to ever leave it, but at the same time, she is fascinated by the intermittent intrusions of another, more exotic life: the traveling Syrian who comes peddling wares in a wagon, the lightning that throws her down on her twelfth birthday, the wandering beggar who is given his dinner on the side porch and who becomes, in her mind, and with a lovely artistic touch from White, The Man who was Given his Dinner. Theodora is self-complete, and throughout her life she consistently rejects the entreaties of people who would invite her into her life, like the rich man who proposes marriage. But at the same time she seems attracted by the lives of others, especially when they seem to operate outside the oppressive boundaries of social propriety.
The second part takes place at the Hotel du Midi on the French Riviera, whose cabinet of strange characters include Mrs. Rapallo, an American who has invented a daughter who is a princess to increase her own social standing, and General Sokolnikov, a Russian emigre who seems to think Theodora is his murdered sister. These two have a bitter enmity that comes to a head when Rapallo buys a beautiful chambered nautilus that Sokolnikov has been admiring in a shop window. If that sounds strange, it is perhaps the least strange thing about this middle section, which is as incomprehensible as anything I've ever read. During it, Theodora goes more or less insane. She begins imagining the lives of these people lead when she's not around, but the lines between the real world and the background that she fills in is not always clearly. She imagines, for example, that she really is Ludmilla Sokolnikov, going so far as to experience, by imagining, her own murder. At least, that's what I think she's doing. It's so impossibly confusing and confused that it's not quite possible to really give a faithful summary.
And do you know what? I've decided I don't really care. As a younger reader I might have been frustrated by the opacity of this section, and chalked it up as a flaw in the book. (In doing so, I might have been expressing also a frustration with myself for not measuring up to the complexity of the prose.) But I find these days that there are pleasures that lie beyond the simple comprehension of a plot, especially when the language is so fine, and The Aunt's Story is probably the most poetic of all the books I've read by White, whose language is so close to poetry all of the time. You really have to wander through the book at a slight remove, like Theodora:
She walked through the hotel, choosing to lose herself, or not choosing, in the Hotel du Midi there was no alternative. And especially at night. At night there was the space of darkness, a direction of corridors, stairs which neither raised nor lowered the traveller on to a different plane. In this rather circular state, Theodora walked with her hands outstretched, to ward off flesh or furniture if the occasion should arise.
It probably sounds pretentious to say all of that, and I wouldn't blame you for not buying it. I don't blame the many people on Goodreads who say this book was just too confusing. I think it takes a lot of patience, and a particular frame of mind, to enjoy a book that refuses to be clear, and I'm not trying to be an egotist when I say there are very few people in the world who would like a book like this. I think White's books are brilliant, but I'm not going to go around recommending them for book club.
The third part, so short it might be an epilogue, finds Theodora in America. She's riding a train, which she sneaks off of into the countryside. This was cool to read, because I've never read White's peculiar prose style applied to the U.S., rather than Australia or Europe:
All through the middle of America there was a trumpeting of corn. Its, full, yellow, tremendous notes pressed close to the swelling sky. There were whole acres of time in which the yellow corn blared as if for a judgement. It had taken up and swallowed all other themes, whether belting iron, or subtler, insinuating steel, or the frail human reed. Inside the movement of corn the train complained. The train complained of the frustration of distance, that resists, that resists. Distance trumpeted with corn.
Theodora wanders into a town and out of it, meeting helpful strangers, but not wanting to stay, because each household threatens with the suffocating institutionality of, well, the household. She ends up in an abandoned house, where she's visited by a stranger who calls himself Holstius, and who seems to know her intimately. He explains her current madness, if that's the right word, and tells her that "true permanence is a state of multiplication and division":
In the space that Holstius spread throughout her body and the speckled shade of surrounding trees, there was no end to the lives of Theodora Goodman. These met and parted, met and parted, movingly. They entered into each other, so that the impulse for music into Katina Pavlou's hands, and the steamy exasperation of Sokolnikov, and Mrs Rapallo's baroque and narcotized despair were the same and understandable. And in the same way that the created lives of Theodora Goodman were interchangeable, the lives into which she had entered, making them momently dependent for love or hate, owing her this portion of their fluctuating personalities, whether George of Julia Goodman, only apparently deceased, or Huntly Clarkson, or Moraitis, or Lou, or Zack, these were the lives of Theodora Goodman, these too.
If I could venture a reading of the central theme of the novel, it'd be this: the institutions that seem like they organize human relationships, like marriage, the home, "aunthood," really kill them, by limiting the expansiveness of what it means to be human. In the absence of them people really can enter into each other's lives, each other's beings, through the power of their imagination, but to really do so means the dissolution or fracturing of the self, and something that looks to the world like madness. At the end of the novel, a well-meaning housewife comes up to Theodora's door with a doctor who clearly is going to institutionalize her--with all the secondary meanings of that word in tow. Essentially, White is asking: what would it really mean to know other people, to share our personhood with others? Would it be wonderful, or terrible, or both?
But it's possible I haven't understood anything at all. The mystical opacity of White's prose always seems to suggest that we're never capable of understanding the things we wish to understand, or maybe even to comprehend the very questions we ought to be asking. I found The Aunt's Story very rewarding, but the reward is one that I'm afraid might look to a lot of readers like torture.