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brianmartin

Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber

Conjure Wife - Fritz Leiber

This book, Leiber's first, struggles mightily to be modern, but thankfully doesn't entirely succeed. One of the pleasures of reading old books (which includes, I think, any book written before you were born) is visiting other places in other times, and discovering, often, how little things have really changed.

This is the third time I've read this book, and I keep coming back to it, appropriately enough, because of the first scene. It's a bright, balmy Spring day and ethnologist Norman Saylor is alone in the house he shares with his wife, Tansy. (And isn't that a wonderful name.) A comfortable breeze blows through the windows, on which wafts the sounds of everyday life: a boy rolling newspapers in a wagon, a neighbor doing the gardening, a truck rumbling past on the street. It's one of those life-is-good moments, and Norman wants to enjoy it, experience it, maybe even indulge himself a little and do something he wouldn't ordinarily do. And then his eyes touch on his wife's dressing room. What if he were to take a look? What could such a small transgression matter? (Ask Pandora.) What Norman discovers is the mystery of women, all neatly laid out in drawers and stoppered vials, in bits of iron and snippets of hair, in dirt collected from graveyards. He doesn't know it yet, but Tansy isn't unusual in the least. All women are witches.

This book is not of one time but two, and it can be a little disconcerting. It's odd, for instance, to look at the copyright page and see, "Originally published in 1943," and then to have Norman refer to the atomic bomb. Whether or not all the references to sex are similarly misplaced is an open question. And then there's the matter of Norman and Tansy's ages. They're meant to be in their thirties, but dated references to their past suggest an additional decade. The explanation lies in the fact that the story was first published in the magazine Unknown Worlds and later expanded into a novel in 1953. It's tempting to say that Leiber did a poor job with his revision, but somehow the weird time-displacement just adds to the charm.

Norman, of course, being a man -- and a scientist to boot -- doesn't believe in witchcraft. He does, however, believe in neurosis. He makes Tansy dispose of all her magical items -- and that's when the trouble starts. He's a professor at a small college, you see, and without his wife's protection, he's naked before the political machinations and maneuvering of the other faculty wives.

It's a terrific yarn -- the plot takes some unexpected turns along the way -- but it's the division between men and women that gives it its power. "Men are so clever in some ways, don't you think?" one woman says, and there's no reason by then for her to add the corollary, that in other ways, they're hopelessly daft. Yet they (men and women) complement each other perfectly, each providing what the other lacks. They are at their strongest and most powerful when they work together.

It's an idea that is just as true now as it ever was. And it's why this book tugs at me so.