“Genius and virtue are to be more often found clothed in gray than in peacock bright.” (Van Wyck Brooks)

This is my contribution to the third Persephone Readathon, hosted by Jessie at Dwell in Possibility.

It became apparent very quickly this year that my 2018 book buying ban would have no discernible impact at all if I didn’t rein it in again. So although not officially on a ban, I hadn’t bought any books since March and I’m trying to get that TBR stack down a bit further. This post covers the last two Persephones I had left in the pile… please note the use of past tense there. Those of you who follow me on twitter will know this happened a few hours ago:

I live opposite the greatest charity bookshop ever – what am I supposed to do? Two still had the bookmarks! I left 3 more Persephones behind in there (OK, so I already had those, but still…  😉 )

Firstly, Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson (1934), which is Persephone No.81. This simple story was an absolute joy. Unassuming spinster Barbara Buncle is desperate for money after her dividends stop paying out due to the financial crash. She decides to write a novel, and as she frequently asserts she has no imagination, she bases it on her village and the people she knows.

The novel is a smash hit, and the villagers are furious, apart from the doctor and his wife:

“I confess it amused me, Ellen – I know this is heresy in Silverstream, but it amused me immensely. It didn’t strike me as satire, nor could I find anything nasty in it. You can read it both ways… I’m pretty certain that its just a simple story, written by a very innocent person – a person totally ignorant of the world and worldly matters – perhaps even rather a stupid person.”

He’s only part right. Barbara Buncle has no side to her, so those who read the novel, Disturber of the Peace, as a satire are wrong. But she is not stupid. She is clear-sighted and that is what has enabled her to make such piercing portraits of her neighbours. The socially pretentious local bully Mrs Featherstone Hogg is determined to root out whoever has written about her in such unflattering (honest) terms:

“Once they knew who it was they could decide what was to be done, everything depended on who the man was. Whether it was the sort of man who could be terrorised, ostracised, or horse-whipped. At the very least he could be made to apologise and hounded out of Silverstream.”

Yet for all their objections, the villagers start to blur the lines between fact and fiction even further. A romance invented by Barbara develops in real life, and a deception she thought she invented turns out to be right on the money.

Barbara remains humble and somewhat bemused by it all. She is a sweet, endearing heroine but not overly saccharine. She has a strong practical streak and this is what led her to write in the first place and write so honestly.

 “It represented food and drink to Barbara Buncle, and, perhaps, a new winter coat and hat; but above all, freedom from that awful nightmare of worry, and sleep, and a quiet mind.”

Miss Buncle’s Book is charming. The portraits of the villagers are colourful but not silly, the plot is escapist but not ridiculous. A perfect antidote to our troubled times.

Secondly, Saplings by Noel Streatfeild (1945), which is Persephone No.16 and wasn’t remotely escapist. It charts the disintegration of a family during the Second World War. A clever stroke by Streatfeild is that the Wiltshire family has every privilege: they are well off, able to send their children to family members rather than generally evacuate, they can buy houses away from the city and the father isn’t called up to military service. Yet still the conflict wreaks havoc on both the adults and their four children.

I don’t know if it was because I read all of Streatfeild’s children’s books when I was young and her voice somehow set off a distant echo with me, but I loved this from the start. The opening scene sees parents Alex and Lena with their four young children, Tony, Laurel, Kim and Tuesday, at the beach. This being an interwar middle-class family, they also have a nanny and governess with them. Just as well, because Lena is not remotely maternal. She believes a mother’s role is to look lovely and be charming, and her children will never be her priority.

“He wanted to be a family man, bless him. The children were darlings, but she was not a family woman, she was utterly wife, and if it came to that, mistress too, and she meant to go on being just those things. It didn’t matter giving into him occasionally, letting him be all father. When they were alone she would brush all that away and have him where she wanted him.”

I found the frank discussion of Lena’s sexuality surprising for a novel of the period, and Streatfeild doesn’t judge her harshly because of it, but shows rather how this private need of Lena’s unfortunately has far-reaching consequences. The pressures of war will drive everyone close to breaking, and Lena’s focus on her own needs is disastrous for her children. However, I don’t want to say too much about plot because it’s very easy to give spoilers, and the joy of Saplings is seeing the subtle portraits of the four children emerge.

 “Laurel had been crying. Her cheeks had a stiff shiny look. Alex’s heart was wrung. He wanted to sit down by her and tell her how gloomy the house would be without her. That of all his children she had more tentacles round his heart. That he detested packing her off to a boarding school. That every night he would look for her funny plain little face and brisk plaits and would mind afresh because they were not there. But he had never spoken to her like that and tonight, poor scrap, was not the night to start. One word might start her crying again.”

Laurel and Tony probably suffer most. They are the eldest two and in very different ways the things left unsaid by adults effects them both profoundly. Streatfeild is expert in portraying children’s points of view without ever being patronising or sentimental and we see how the unthinking actions of adults are taken as grave injustices by the children. This could have so easily gone wrong: Saplings portrayal of the impact of war on children could have been mawkish and sickly-sweet. But actually it is even funny at times: Kim is a self-dramatising and demanding presence, and Streatfeild shows how he is charming but also, like his mother, entirely self-focussed and constantly playing to audiences.

 “Kim thought of chalk blue butterflies. He raised his eyes to the ceiling. He looked like a Hollywood choirboy rounding off a film in which the her or heroine’s soul in the in the last reel flies heavenwards.”

Saplings is expertly written and I really felt I was alongside the four children, immersed in their world. It shows the waste of war for everyone, adults and children alike. What is particularly devastating though, is the suggestion that the adults are in a better position to recover than the children. The war will end, but you only have one childhood, and for Tony, Laurel, Kim and Tuesday theirs has been torn to shreds by warfare, and by adults who systematically fail to recognise what the children need and offer them sanctuary.

“To keep homes safe was basically what most men were fighting for. Lena and Alex’s home was just the sort of set-up he himself was fighting to keep. Beautiful, orderly, full of children.”

Last year when I took part in the Persephone readathon I ended on Visage’s Fade to Grey in honour of those covers. Frankly, I think I outdid myself. This time, try as I might. I couldn’t think of an 80s classic to shoehorn in, so instead here’s a mention of Noel Streatfeild in a Hollywood blockbuster. You’ve Got Mail has always baffled me: why would you get together with the corporate capitalist pig who destroyed your family business and has lied to you almost constantly? Anyway, this is a nice mention of Streatfeild’s children’s books (2.18-3.10) and then I recommend watching The Shop Around the Corner which You’ve Got Mail is based on, but unlike the remake, is utterly charming.

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Novella a Day in May 2019 #31

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison (1970) 164 pages

Trigger warning: this post mentions rape and child abuse

The final post of NADIM 2019! It been a close call at times as to whether I’d manage it but here’s the last novella I’m looking at: The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s first novel.

This incredibly powerful novella has been banned in several states schools and the opening sentence tells you why:

“Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Percola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.”

Through the character of the abused child Percola Breedlove, Morrison interrogates the pervasive, destructive force of racism; what it does to individuals and what it does to communities. It is insidious, yet also visible and commonplace.

“Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs – all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink skinned doll was what every girl child treasured. ‘Here,’ they said, ‘this is beautiful, and if you are on this day ‘worthy’ you may have it.’”

Percola’s parents abuse one another physically, her mother is distant and her father an alcoholic. Yet Morrison at no point demonises them, even when Cholly Breedlove rapes his daughter. There are flashbacks to show how the adults arrived at the terrible place they are now in. Morrison demonstrates how, if a society tells you that you are worthless, a lesser human and without any value, it is extremely difficult not to internalise that judgement on yourself.

“The Breedloves did not live in a storefront because they were having temporary difficulty adjusting to cutbacks at the plant. They lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly.”

Told mainly from the point of view of Claudia, a friend of Percola’s, the child’s view stops the violence and degradation being too relentless, but also shows how the youngest and most vulnerable members of society take in what they witness with devastating effect.

Even when not being directly abused, Percola experiences the daily wounds of racism, chipping away at her self-worth, such as the reaction from the shop owner when she goes to buy sweets:

“She looks up at him and sees the vacuum where curiosity ought to lodge. And something more. A total absence of human recognition – the glazed separateness.”

This means Percola passionately believes that if she could possess an outward marker of white ‘beauty’, things would improve for her.

“Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes. Fervently, for a year she prayed. Although somewhat discouraged, she was not without hope. To have something as wonderful as that happen would take a long, long time.”

The Bluest Eye is brilliantly written and highly readable; Morrison never loses sight of the story or the characters under the weight of the immense, important themes she is exploring. It is an incredibly tough read that does not pull its punches, but neither is it voyeuristic or melodramatic. It shows how racism degrades us all and the vital need to strive for something better.

 “Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another – physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion.”

Here’s Toni Morrison talking about The Bluest Eye and what led her to write it:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #30

Sleepless Nights – Elizabeth Hardwick (1979) 151 pages

Sleepless Nights is a fictional autobiography, told by a woman with the same name as the author. It begins:

“It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today. Every morning the blue clock and the crocheted bedspread with its pink and blue and grey squares and diamonds. How nice it is – this production of a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home.”

The distorted memory means the reminiscences, memories and life story are like the crochet blanket: a series of separate pieces that come together to form a whole. So what we have are memories that dart back and forth across the woman’s life, a memory from marriage prompting a memory from childhood, prompting a memory of a neighbour, interspersed with a letter to a friend, prompting a memory of a bohemian young lifestyle in New York…

It is very cleverly written. It feels more coherent than I expected when I began the novella, and it effectively conveys the way memory works: we don’t sit and remember the beginning of our lives, working through sequentially to the current day.

“I like to remember the patience of old spinsters, some that looked like sea captains with their clear blue eyes, hair of soft, snowy whiteness, dazzling cheerfulness. Solitary music teachers, themselves bred on toil, leading the young by way of pain and discipline to their own honourable impasse, teaching in that way the scales of disappointment.”

I sat and read this straight through, but you could also just dip in for a paragraph and out again. Hardwick is master of the astonishing image:

“It has happened that someone I do not know is staying in the apartment with me. One of those charitable actions insisted upon by a friend. The stranger, thin as the elegant crane outside the window, casts a shadow because she has arrived when I was thinking about the transformations of memory. She fills the space with both the old and the new twilight, the space reserved for thoughts of my mother.”

Sleepless Nights has been published by NYRB Classics, always a reliable choice. I read it in an old VMC edition, which told me it was hailed as a literary masterpiece. I think if I was being super-picky, this might be my slight reservation. Its hugely impressive as a piece of writing but it didn’t fully move me. This is obviously a very personal thing, but for me to love a book I need strong characterisation. The narrator remained slightly enigmatic: she emerged to a degree from her memories but often she was in the shadows of them, the light cast on other people.

While enjoying a somewhat grim, dingy time as a young woman in New York, there are memories of seeing Billie Holliday live. Hardwick captures her talent, the tragedy, glamour and grit of her life very effectively. While she doesn’t shy away from what addiction did to the singer, she allows her some beautiful images too.

“Her whole life had taken place in the dark. The spotlight shone down on the black, hushed circle in a café, the moon slowly slid through the clouds. Night – working, smiling, in make up, in long silky dresses, singing over and over, again and again. The aim of it all is just to be drifting off to sleep when the first rays of the sun’s brightness begin to threaten the theatrical eyelids.”

And so to end, here is Lady Day herself:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #29

Pinocchio – Carlo Collodi (1883, trans. Geoffrey Beck 2009) 160 pages

Pinocchio, like a lot of classic children’s literature, is deeply weird and dark. I didn’t read it at all as a child, despite seeing the Disney cartoon which is very different. I picked it up as an adult because its published by the ever reliable NYRB Classics, and it turned out to be an intriguing read.

The basic premise I think everyone knows: a wooden puppet comes to life, wants to be a real boy, misbehaves and every lie he tells has a very obvious effect on his physiognomy.

“ ‘Lies, my boy, are immediately recognizable, for there are two kinds: lies that have short legs and lies that have long noses. Yours happen to be the long-nosed variety.’

Pinocchio, wanting to hide his face in shame, tried to run from the room – but he couldn’t. His nose was so long that it wouldn’t fit through the doorway.”

Pinocchio isn’t very likeable. He’s totally idle and only interested in himself.

“ ‘Of all the trades in the world, there’s only one that really suits me.’

‘And what trade would that be?’

‘That of eating, drinking, sleeping, playing, and wandering wherever I like from sunup to sundown.’

‘For your information,’ said the Talking Cricket, with his usual calm, ‘everyone who plies that trade ends up either in a poorhouse or a prison.’

‘Watch out, you doom-and-gloom Cricket! If I snap, you’ll be sorry!’”

Pinocchio does snap, and kills the Cricket stone dead. A short-lived relationship with an insect, who is nothing like the top hat and frock coat wearing, enduring friend of the cartoon.

The story is episodic, with Pinocchio going on several adventures, invariably taking the wrong decision, and failing to learn from his mistakes. It has the feel of folk tales rather than fairy tales, being grounded in an earthy reality of poverty and banditry, even when the bandits are a fox and cat double act. Pinocchio is always appealing even though he is selfish and unheeding, but there is never any sentimentality in the tale.

However, there is the strong didactic element associated with fairy tales, and Pinocchio is constantly lectured, by the cricket, by adults, and by the fairy with sky blue hair who crops up in various guises.

“ ‘Dear boy,’ said the Fairy, ‘people who talk that way almost always end up either in a prison or a poorhouse. For your information, everyone, whether they’re born rich or poor, is obliged to do something – to keep busy, to work. Woe to anyone who yields to idleness! Idleness is a dreadful disease and must be treated at once, starting in childhood. If not, it will be too late by the time we grow up.’”

Pinocchio does eventually learn and does become a real boy, but there’s something irrepressible about him. The feeling at the end is not of conservative integration where all is right with the world, but rather that the subversive elements that have been present all along are still there, waiting to spill out at any minute.

It’s a tale that can be enjoyed by children and adults. My edition included contributions from intellectual heavyweights to say the least: an Introduction by Umberto Eco, an Afterword by Rebecca West and a quote on the back by Italo Calvino. This shows how Pinocchio has been so widely recognised and why it endures; deceptively simple, hiding its complexities in an engaging children’s tale, it can be read differently each time.

I really didn’t like the cover of the NYRB Classics edition, finding it creepy, but it captures the unsettling quality of the tale of an animated puppet perfectly:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #28

Familiar Passions – Nina Bawden (1979) 160 pages

Trigger warning: this post mentions rape and sexual assault

Like Eudora Welty who I wrote about yesterday, it was last year’s NADIM that saw me finally pick up one of Nina Bawden’s novels (for adults, despite the fact I’d loved her as a child). Devil by the Sea was truly unsettling and I was keen to read more. The lovely Ali over at heavenali had sent me this novella with another which I won in her giveaway, and its confirmed my childhood view that Bawden is a brilliant writer 😊

Familiar Passions begins with James telling Bridie, his much younger wife of 13 years, that he wants to leave her.

“After a brief interval he went on speaking flatly, in a measured voice, like a chairman reading a company report. ‘There are a couple of things I feel I ought to say. To sum things up. One is, that considered as a parental team, we haven’t done too badly. Adrian’s defection from the middle class norm, though disappointing, is not unusual for the times we live in.”

James is repugnant. At first he seems cold and self-serving, but its worse than that. The night they split up, Bridie wakes to find James raping her.

“She did not know she was afraid of James. If she had been told she would have laughed.”

Although James has suggested she stay on as a housekeeper so he has a nice home to return to in the UK while he works abroad (!) Bridie decides she is getting out.

“ ‘You don’t have to stay, you know,’ as if consoling a scared child.

The words came unbidden, without conscious thought, but as soon as she had spoken them she understood why she had addressed herself like this, as if she were someone younger and weaker than she was. It was the only way she could force herself to act.”

Bridie never seems a victim in this. She is still young – only 32 – having married James at 19, when he was a widower and raised his two children, as well as having a daughter together. She has no work experience and worries how she will get on in the world, but she is a good mother and her step-children both like her, probably more than they like their horrible father.

“The children’s faces sustained and calmed her. It came to her with the force of something she had always known but only now acknowledged, that they were the only reason she had stayed so long; their pictures, the only thing she would take with her.”

Bridie goes home to her parents. They adopted her as a baby and she has no idea about her biological parents. Her father Martin is a psychologist, her mother Muff was a nurse.

“She had always orchestrated her emotions in this way to get and keep her mother’s sympathy; softening down the discord of her coarser feelings and playing up the tender sounds that pleased her mother’s ear. Perhaps Muff’s liking for a sweet, clear tune was what was called bringing out the best in people. But it wasn’t bringing out the best in her, Bridie began to feel. Only something that, although not altogether false, was never quite the truth.”

Bridie housesits for a patient of her father’s, in Islington which is portrayed as rather rough and down at heel – how times have changed! She gradually adapts to and starts to enjoy her new life, but the ending of her marriage prompts her to find out about her birth and origins. In doing so, she uncovers way more than she ever bargained for…

Familiar Passions is a pacey novella but it never feels overplotted. The betrayals and revelations that emerge are the type that can exist in any family. It’s very much of its time – particularly in Bridie’s attitude to being raped (and later sexually assaulted) and her awareness of how few options she has.There is anger here for sure, about the limited roles and choices for women, but it never overwhelms the narrative or characterisation.

Familiar Passions is resolutely unsentimental about families but also shows how valuable they can be: how destructive but also how nurturing, in their own unique and deeply flawed ways. Ultimately it’s a hopeful novel, about realising who you are and finding your own way; bound up as both those things will be in who you have been in the past and where you have come from.

Novella a Day in May 2019 #27

The Optimist’s Daughter – Eudora Welty (1972) 180 pages

Last year’s Novella a Day in May introduced me to Eudora Welty, when I read and loved The Ponder Heart. I was very happy to revisit her again this year, with her Pulitzer Prize winning novella, The Optimist’s Daughter.

This isn’t as comic as The Ponder Heart. Instead it’s a quiet study of people experiencing the immediate aftermath of grief. Laurel lives in Chicago, but travels back to New Orleans at the time of Mardi Gras, to be with her father who is having eye surgery.

“At the sting in her eyes, she remembered for him there must be no tears in his, and she reached to put her hand into his open hand and press it gently.”

She is an only child and her mother died several years ago. Her father, Judge McKelva, remarried after 10 years, a much younger woman named Fay. Fay is completely self-centred and unable to see beyond her own needs. She can’t believe that the older man she married has the audacity to be ill and frail.

“ ‘All on my birthday. Nobody told me this was going to happen to me!’ Fay cried, before she slammed her door.”

Spoiler: the Judge dies, and Laurel and Fay return to Mississippi to see him buried. Here, Laurel rediscovers the compassion and care of a community who have known her for her entire life. (This being Welty the cast of characters includes someone named Miss Tennyson Bullock). She moves around the home she once knew and remembers her mother and father.

“In her need tonight Laurel would have been willing to wish her mother and father dragged back to any torment of living because that torment was something they had known together, through each other. She wanted them with her to share her grief as she had been the sharer of theirs. She sat and thought of only one thing, of her mother holding and holding onto their hands, her own and her father’s holding onto her mother’s, long after there was nothing more to be said.”

The Optimist’s Daughter is a gentle tale, about memory, loss, love, community and pain. It’s about how our experience of these is unique to us. It’s a novella full of images around sight, and it shows how seeing clearly demonstrates the need to be kind to ourselves and others.

I’m fast becoming a huge Welty fan.

Novella a Day in May 2019 #26

Buried for Pleasure – Edmund Crispin (1948) 176 pages

Although I’m not a big reader of contemporary crime, I do like a golden age mystery and I enjoy Crispin’s tales of amateur detective/Oxford professor Gervase Fen’s adventures. In Buried for Pleasure, Fen has left Oxford to travel to the delightfully named Sandford Angelorum, where he is standing for Parliament as an Independent.

“This panorama displeased Fen, he thought it blank and unenlivening. There was, however, nothing to be done about it except repine. He repined briefly and extracted himself and his luggage from the compartment.”

Fen stays at The Fish Inn where loud renovations undertaken by the owner blast him out of bed every morning. He seems surrounded by comely women – the bar manager, the bar maid, the local taxi driver.  Thankfully once their attractiveness is established it isn’t dwelt on and there’s some good characterisation of women in this, which is not always present in GA novels. In fact, the resident detective novelist, Mr Judd, is quite scathing about the whole thing:

“Characterisation seems to me a very overrated element in fiction. I can never see why one should be obliged to have any of it at all, if one doesn’t want to. It limits the form so.”

Crispin pokes fun at everyone in this novel. Novelists, academics, and of course politicians all come in for a gentle ribbing. There is the response to Fen’s first loquacious, entirely meaningless political speech:

“ ‘You’re a natural, old boy … can you keep that sort of thing up?’

‘Indefinitely,’ Fen assured him. ‘The command of cliché comes of having had a literary training.’”

And the political system as a whole:

“ ‘Now, these Sandford people don’t know you as well as I do,’ Captain Watkyn pursued, with a confidence which their quarter-hour acquaintance did not seem to Fen entirely to justify, ‘and … they’re quite likely to elect some scoundrelly nitwit who’ll help send the country to the dogs. Therefore, they’ve got to be jollied along a bit – for their own good, d’you see?’

‘As Plato remarked.’

‘As whatsit remarked, yes.’”

This is not the GA novel to read if you’re in the mood for a good murder with plenty of suspects and clues to work out. This side of the novel – a poisoning before Fen arrives, a stabbing after he becomes resident in the village – is pretty negligible.

However, it’s funny, light, endearing, and doesn’t fall into many of the prejudices which can mar this genre, although the villagers are portrayed as a bit yokely.

Buried for Pleasure was just what I needed after the gothic tribulations of O Caledonia yesterday: complete and utter nonsense and none the worse for it 😀