“Pardon me while I have a strange interlude.” (Capt. Spaulding, Animal Crackers (1930))

This is my (incredibly long – apologies!) contribution to the 1930 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. It’s running all week so do join in if you have a chance!

The two novels I’ve chosen are lovely Virago Modern Classics both concerned with the role of women in society, specifically the work that they do, but beyond that they could not be more different. I’ll begin with a scathing indictment of war, before moving on to some light relief via a comic presentation of upper middle-class privilege…

Helen Zenna Smith’s Not So Quiet was written as a response to Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, from a female perspective. It is a work of fiction but Smith aims to narrow the gap between fiction and reality by calling the narrator Helen Smith and writing from a first person perspective.

Helen has gone to France to volunteer as an ambulance driver, leaving behind her comfortable middle-class existence, much to the delight of her jingoistic mother. Helen and the other young women she works with share no such illusions, as her friend Tosh points out:

“No Smithy, you’re one of England’s Splendid Daughters, proud to do their bit for the dear old flag, and one of England’s Splendid Daughters you’ll stay, until you crock up or find some other decent excuse to go home covered in glory. It takes nerve to carry on here, but it takes twice as much to go home to flag-crazy mothers and fathers…”

In this short novel Smith documents the experience of war for those not engaged in trench warfare but shockingly, dangerously close to it. Her gaze is unflinching:

“We hate and dread the days following on the guns when they boom without interval. Trainloads of broken human beings: half-mad men pleading to be put out of their misery; torn and bleeding and crazed men pitifully obeying orders like a herd of senseless cattle, dumbly, pitifully straggling in the wrong direction, as senseless as a flock of senseless sheep obeying a senseless leader, herded back into line by the orderly, the kind sheep-dog with a ‘Now then, boys, this way. That’s the ticket, boys’,  instead of a bark; men with faces bleeding through their hasty bandages; men with vacant eyes and mouths hanging foolishly apart dropping saliva and slime; men with minds mercifully gone; men only too sane, eyes horror-filled with blood and pain…”

Not So Quiet is not a plot driven novel as such.  Instead it documents one woman’s experience, and how she is utterly destroyed by it. In addition to the horror of the men used as machine gun fodder, she sees England’s Splendid Daughters live infested with fleas, eating slop, needing illegal abortions and desperately trying to find some reprieve. For a whole generation the war wreaked absolute devastation of land, industry, mind, body and soul.

“We young ones doomed to live on without belief in anything human or divine again are the ones to be pitied.”

Not So Quiet is not a subtle novel. By that, I don’t mean it is badly written, its extremely well written. Smith is furious, and not interested in presenting a considered, moderate view. Some things do not warrant a moderate response, and the horrors of war are one of those. The world she depicts is unrelenting and nightmarish.

“I become savage at the futility.  A war to end war, my mother writes.  Never.  In twenty years it will repeat itself.  And twenty years after that.  Again and again, as long as we breed women like my mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington.  […]

Oh, come with me, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington.  Let me show you the exhibits straight from the battlefield.  This will be something original to tell in your committees, while they knit their endless miles of khaki scarves,…. something to spout from the platform at your recruiting meetings.  Come with me.  Stand just there.”

Reading Not So Quiet recently meant I was reading within a context of our Prime Minister pandering to the fascist fringe using inflammatory language around Brexit. This offensive rhetoric encourages people to forget that the EU was set up to promote peace and co-operation in Europe, after two twentieth century wars tore it apart. I wish more people would read things like Not So Quiet to remind themselves of experiences they’ve been lucky enough not to have to live through.

”What is to happen to women like me when this war ends … if it ever ends. I am twenty-one years of age and I know nothing of life but death, fear, blood, and the sentimentality that glorifies these things in the name of patriotism”

Deep breath… enough politics from me. But I hope I’ve shown how No So Quiet is still a relevant novel and an urgent one.

Secondly, a chance to recover with a light, fun novel about no greater tribulation than how to plant indoor bulbs. The Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield is not fluffy though – it is witty and incisive about social mores and the knots people, especially genteel British people, tie themselves in to avoid appearing rude. Again, it’s not a hugely plot driven novel, having been written as a weekly serial for Time and Tide magazine. It documents the titular lady’s experience of genteel middle-class life, with her disinterested husband Robert falling asleep behind The Times, son Robin away at boarding school, and daughter Vicky in the charge of Mademoiselle, the French governess.

“Robert takes the boys back after dinner, and I sit in hotel lounge with several other mothers and we all talk about our boys in tones of disparagement, and about one another’s boys with great enthusiasm.

Am asked what I think of Harriet Hume but am unable to say, as I have not read it. Have a depressed feeling that this is going to be another case of Orlando about which was perfectly able to talk most intelligently until I read it, and found myself unfortunately unable to understand any of it.”

One ongoing source of tension in the Provincial Lady’s life is her aristocratic neighbour, Lady Boxe, who is self-dramatizing and unable to conceive of any situation other than her own:

“Why not just pop into the train, enquires Lady B., pop across France, and pop out into Blue Sky, Blue Sea, and Summer Sun? Could make perfectly comprehensive reply to this, but do not do so, question of expense having evidently not crossed Lady B.’s horizon. (Mem.: Interesting subject for debate at Women’s Institute, perhaps: That Imagination is incompatible with Inherited Wealth. On second thoughts, though, fear this has a socialistic trend.)

The Lady’s days seemed to be filled with social events she finds tedious, writing innumerable letters, negotiating with servants and managing debt in a most peculiar way:

“Robert startles me at breakfast by asking if my cold—which he has hitherto ignored—is better. I reply that it has gone. Then why, he asks, do I look like that? Refrain from asking like what, as I know only too well. Feel that life is wholly unendurable, and decide madly to get a new hat.

Customary painful situation between Bank and myself necessitates expedient, also customary, of pawning great-aunt’s diamond ring, which I do, under usual conditions, and am greeted as old friend by Plymouth pawnbroker, who says facetiously, And what name will it be this time?

Visit four linen-drapers and try on several dozen hats. Look worse and worse in each one, as hair gets wilder and wilder, and expression paler and more harassed. Decide to get myself shampooed and waved before doing any more, in hopes of improving the position.”

The Diary of a Provincial Lady could so easily be tedious but its so well written that instead it is an utter delight. I would generally have very short patience with well-to-do ladies with very little to fill their days, but the Provincial Lady knows that a lot of what she expected to concern herself with is completely frivolous, and she’s taking an askance view of it all, while not really putting anyone down (not even Lady B).

“Lady B. amiably observes that I, at least, have nothing to complain of, as she always thinks Robert such a safe, respectable husband for any woman. Give her briefly to understand that Robert is in reality a compound of Don Juan, the Marquis de Sade, and Dr. Crippen, but that we do not care to let it be known locally.”

The Diary of a Provincial Lady is a quick read, and one that can be dipped into, given its episodic, diary structure. It’s a welcome bit of escapism in these troubled times!

“Lady Frobisher, who would be so delighted if Robert and I would come over for tea whilst there is still something to be seen in the garden. (Do not like to write back and say that I would far rather come when there is nothing to be seen in the garden, and we might enjoy excellent tea in peace—so, as usual, sacrifice truth to demands of civilisation.)”

Jacqui has also reviewed The Diary of a Provincial Lady for the 1930 Club and you can read her excellent post here.

To end, I was tempted to choose a clip from Anna Christie as it was released in 1930 and I love Greta Garbo. But instead I’ve gone for this anthem about female working life from the only person who can convincingly rhyme ‘kitchen’ with ‘ambition’:

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“I advise nobody to drown sorrow in cocoa.” (Winifred Holtby)

Unusually, just one book from me this week, because it’s a looooooong post, about a reading choice inspired by this post from Ali.

I don’t really watch dating shows, but when I catch a bit of them, I can feel nicely smug listening to people who have tick box criteria for potential mates. It leads me to a tick box list of my own:

  • You’ll never find anyone who ticks all the boxes
  • If you do, I guarantee that for some indefinable reason you’ll feel they’re not the right person for you

So of course, the same applies to the love of my life, books. My tick boxes:

  • Strong female protagonists
  • Ideally older women
  • Left-leaning politics
  • Interwar setting
  • Strong moral centre but not one that is preachy or dominates the narrative
  • Flawed but likable characters who don’t always behave impeccably
  • Unlikely but believable friendships
  • Romantic relationships must be presented non-romantically but without bitterness
  • Evocative sense of place but not overly flowery descriptions
  • Hopeful but realistic ending
  • Novella length or so brilliantly paced and plotted that it feels novella length

I’m never going to find that novel am I? Or if I do, for some indefinable reason it’s not going to work for me…

I loved, loved, loved South Riding by Winifred Holtby (1936). I loved it so much. It was one of those gorgeous bookish situations where you’re racing through it because you can’t bear not to be reading it, but you also don’t want it to end. I’m kind of angry that I’m not reading it at this very moment… 😀

Sarah Burton, worldly and travelled, returns to her home of South Riding in Yorkshire to take up the position of Headmistress in the local girls school:

“This was her battlefield. Like a commander inspecting a territory before planning a campaign, she surveyed the bare level plain of South Riding. Sarah believed in action. She believed in fighting. She had unlimited confidence in the power of human intelligence and will to achieve order, happiness, health and wisdom. It was her business to equip the young women entrusted to her by the still inadequately enlightened State for their part in that achievement. She wished to prepare their minds, to train their bodies, to inoculate their spirits with some of her own courage, optimism and unstaled delight.”

Her position will bring her into contact with the local council as she tries to get the school up to scratch. Alderman Joe Astell, somewhat incapacitated by TB, will become a friend:

“He had become a Socialist through love of his fellow men, not through dislike of them, and now he felt an emotional barrier between himself and his neighbours which no logic could remove. He saw himself, an awkward priggish man, with a harsh voice and tactless manner, tolerated simply because illness had reduced his fighting powers, weakened his quality.”

Both he and Sarah feel an antipathy towards the local landowner, Robert Carne of Maythorpe. Carne is in debt up to his eyes, trying to keep his estate running and finance his wife’s exorbitant private mental health hospital bills. His daughter Midge – who may not be his biologically – seems to have inherited her mother’s vulnerability. Carne has a weak heart and is not sure how long he will live. It says something for the complex characterisation of him that as a reader I still felt for him, despite his admission that he raped his wife – the only time that Midge could have been conceived by him.

“He was Robert, elder son of Thomas Carne, steward for one generation of two thousand acres. He felt humble because he knew himself to be an unworthy steward.

He had endangered the farm for his wife’s sake. The shadow of her thin imperious beauty crossed that hot firelit room where rested the two old men who had served Maythorpe better than its owner.”

When Sarah sees him and thinks this:

“I dislike, I oppose everything he stands for, she told herself – feudalism, patronage, chivalry, exploitation…We are natural and inevitable enemies.”

There are no prizes for guessing what happens…

The plot of the novel is centred around local politics and how the decisions taken have a wide- reaching ripple effect. But although Holtby has plenty to say about the state of society and the responsibilities of those in power, what carries the novel are the people behind the positions, the committees and the decisions. She effortlessly weaves together the lives of this disparate group who happen to all live in the same town in the north of England.

A piece of wonderful characterisation is that of Alderman Snaith. He is not a major character although he has a significant part to play, and in a lesser writer’s hands this borderline-corrupt, self-serving aesthete who despises Spring for its fecundity could be out-and-out repulsive. Yet in a wonderful chapter titled Alderman Snaith is Very Fond of Cats he is shown to be damaged in the most horrific way and subsequently a complex man.

But far and away the best characterisation is Mrs Beddows, supposedly based on the author’s mother. She is the first female alderman of the district, in her seventies and age shall not wither her:

“So cheerful, so lively, so frank was the intelligence which beamed benevolently from her bright spaniel-coloured eyes, that sometimes she looked as young as the girl she still, in her secret dreams, felt herself to be. Her clothes were a compromise between her spiritual and chronological ages. She wore today a dignified and beautifully designed black gown of heavy dull material; but she had crowned this by a velvet toque plastered with purple pansies.”

Mrs Beddows adores Carne, is a good friend and advisor to Sarah, and endures her tight-fisted husband as best she can:

“The one commodity with which he was prepared to be completely generous was his unasked opinion.”

There’s plenty here about the position of women too; presented not only through Sarah’s relentless pursuit of opportunities and education for her pupils, but in light-hearted ways such as through the contents of Mrs Beddows gift drawer:

“The indictment of a social system lay in those drawers if they but knew it – a system which overworks eight-tenths of its female population, and gives the remaining two-tenths so little to do that it must clutter the world with useless objects. Mrs Beddows did not see it quite like that; presents were presents; bazaars were bazaars, and Sybil was teaching the Women’s Institute raffia work and glove-making.”

South Riding is a rich, passionate novel, full of ideas and peopled with idiosyncratic, believable characters. It’s immediately become one of my all-time favourite books.

 “I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin.”

The BBC adapted South Riding in 2011. I watched it but I can’t remember much about it, so it obviously didn’t captivate me as much as the book. I’m going to re-watch it and looking at the trailer now I do think Anna Maxwell Martin is excellent casting for Sarah Burton:

“I’ve always stood up for myself.” (Kathy Burke)

I’ve recently been watching Kathy Burke’s All Woman on Channel 4 and absolutely loved it, partly for Kathy’s habit of greeting any nonsense like vaginal steaming/vajazzling etc with an incredulous ‘Faaaaaaack off!’ but mainly because she is so warm, funny and non-judgemental. I highly recommend it, not only for women although she is a brilliant female role model:

“’The thing with me is that I’m quite arrogant. I’ve got faith in my own talent and I always have. And if anyone turned around and said to me, ‘You’re never going to work again’, I used to say, ‘I will’.”

Here’s another quote from Kathy which I enjoyed, included here especially for confirmed Darcy adorer Fiction Fan:

“‘Who wants to get up at five every morning? I did four days on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and by the end of it, I was bored. I thought, ‘I’m over this now. Let’s go home. I’ve met Colin Firth, and he’s lovely. Now, where are the sandwiches?’”

I tried to find a copyright-free picture of Kathy to include but of course there aren’t any, so in honour of her TTSS experience, here are some copyright-free sandwiches instead:

This post is rapidly in danger of becoming Reasons I Love Kathy Burke and thus rivalling War and Peace for brevity. On with books! In honour of the programme I have chosen two novels around the theme of women’s rights and female friendship.

Firstly, a book I probably wouldn’t have picked up if it wasn’t for the recommendations from so many bloggers I trust, Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (2018). Mattie Simpkin was a militant suffragette, but now its 1928 and she’s looking for something to channel all that energy into.

“She couldn’t remember a time when her path hadn’t been lined with startled faces; they were her reassurance that progress was being made.”

So Mattie decides to startle her well-to-do neighbours in Hampstead by setting up a club on the Heath for girls: to learn fitness, politics, history and self-defence, amongst anything else Mattie thinks will be useful for the modern woman.

Mattie is hugely likable but her drive means she can be a bit oblivious to those around her. Her sweet friend Florrie, known as The Flea, lives with her in Mattie’s house in Hampstead, utterly devoted. Mattie relies on her to keep the domestic side of things running smoothly, without realising that The Flea has feelings for her, until a repugnant Mosley-loving acquaintance, Jacqueline Simpkin, points it out to her. It is the fractious relationship with Jacqueline that leads to one of the pivotal moments of the novel, where Mattie’s group is pitted against the Hitler Youth-lite that Jaqueline is involved with.

 “The battle is not yet over; ever day brings fresh skirmishes.”

Unfortunately Mattie makes a huge mistake in a matter moments, which has significant ramifications. Mattie has to reassess her understanding of some of the people she knows, and herself. This takes place without ever being worthy or moralistic. The situation evolves in such a way that I felt desperately sorry for Mattie, even though she was entirely in the wrong.

The historical detail is beautifully observed and presented almost incidentally. There is no nostalgia here: The Flea has worked as hard as Mattie for women’s suffrage, but doesn’t get the vote until the end of the novel, when women’s voting rights became equal to men’s (all over the age of 21). Until that point, only Mattie voted because she was over 30 and owned property. The victory of the suffragettes was, for 10 years, a middle-class victory.

For all the period detail, the central questions of the book remain relevant: what do you do when the thing that galvanized you no longer exists? How do you decide where meaning lies, and what if lies in difficult to reach places?

“ ‘We were a battering ram,’ Mattie was wont to say. ‘Together we broke down the door.’ But beyond that splintered door had been a dozen more doors and, scattered by their momentum, some women had tried one and some another, and some had given up and turned away, and it seemed to The Flea that all that unity and passion, all that wild energy, had dissipated. And she herself and her ilk, trudging soberly behind, had somehow ended up the vanguard…”

Old Baggage has a wonderful central character in flawed, individualistic Mattie and plenty to say without ever being heavy handed. The plot pulls you along and the ending is really moving without being sentimental. A treat.

Secondly, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988) which is set in Zimbabwe, and so forms another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. I’m embarrassed to say I’d never heard of this, as since reading it I’ve discovered it’s considered a modern classic and was voted into the top 12 for Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century. It’s a powerful tale of postcolonial female experience, written beautifully and certainly deserving of its classic status.

The tale is narrated by Tambudzai, known as Tambu, who is unflinching in what she tells us, opening with “I was not sorry when my brother died.” The reasons for this lack of remorse are personal – her brother was arrogant and unpleasant; and societal – his death opens up opportunities to Tambu that she was denied as long as there was a male child older than her.

“I was quite sure at the time that Nhamo knew as well as I did that the things he had said were not reasonable, but in the years that have passed since then I have met so many men who consider themselves responsible adults and therefore ought to know better, who still subscribe to the fundamental principles of my brother’s budding elitism, that to be fair to him I must concede he was sincere in his bigotry.”

Ouch!

The opportunity Tambu has is to leave her rural home and be educated alongside her cousin Nyasha at the convent school her uncle and aunt run. This side of her family could not be more different to Tambu’s mother and father; they have travelled, are educated and her cousins have forgotten essential parts of their Zimbabwean childhood:

“I had not expected my cousins to have changed, certainly not so radically, simply because they had been away for a while. Besides, Shona was our language. What did people mean when they forgot it?”

Tambu and Nyasha still forge a deep bond despite the differences that have opened up between them, but Tambu sees the price her cousin pays for her international upbringing.

“I missed the bold, ebullient companion who had gone to England but not returned from there. Yet each time she came I could see that she had grown a little duller and dimmer, the expression in her eyes a little more complex, and though she were directing more and more of her energy inwards to commune with herself about the issues she alone had seen.”

As Tambu settles into city life and her schooling she begins to understand more not only about herself but her country, and there are some wonderfully pithy observations about colonialism:

 “They had given up their comforts and security of their own homes to come and lighten our darkness. It was a big sacrifice that the missionaries made. It was a sacrifice that made us grateful to them, a sacrifice that made them superior not only to us but to those other Whites as well who were here for adventure and to help themselves to our emeralds…With the self-satisfied dignity that came naturally to white people in those days, they accepted this improving disguise.”

But really Dangarembga’s focus is human relationships, and how the patriarchy impacts on the most intimate of these. Her uncle, Babamukuru, enjoys enormous status at home and at work. Her aunt, Maiguru, is highly educated and capable, but only ever a second-class citizen. Their daughter Nyasha struggles with these constraints and her behaviour is loud and rebellious, and emphatically punished:

“Babamukuru condemning Nyasha to whoredom, making her a victim of her femaleness, just as I had felt victimised at home in the days when Nhamo went to school and I grew my maize. The victimisation, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I thought it had depended on. Men took it everywhere with them.”

Ultimately though, Nervous Conditions is a hopeful novel. Tambu is resilient and this is her coming of age story: with who she is, fitting in with neither family easily; with her desires for education and independence; and with her country. I started this with the opening lines of the novel, and I’ll end it with the beautifully constrained, considered final words:

“Quietly, unobtrusively and extremely fitfully, something in my mind began to assert itself, to question things and refuse to be brainwashed, bringing me to this time when I can set down this story. It was a long process for me, that process of expansion.” 

To end, Kathy as part of Lananeeneenoonoo with French & Saunders and Bananarama, for Comic Relief in 1989. Beatles fans may want to look away now:

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.” (John Steinbeck)

This is my second post for Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) hosted by Meytal at Biblibio, and I’m hoping its also a sign that my blogging slump is coming to an end – fingers crossed! This week I’ve chosen two books linked by the theme of travel.

Firstly, Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (2007, trans. Jennifer Croft 2017) which won the International Man Booker Prize last year.

Flights is quite a hard book to review, as it’s aptly titled and resists being pinned down in any way. It’s fiction, non-fiction, essay, philosophical musing, travelogue, digression… yet this fragmentary style still holds together and works as a whole. The unity is found through the recurring themes of travel, movement, restless and flight; and also of the human body at its most visceral – the collection of bone, muscle, skin and blood that enables human locomotion.

“A thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity.”

The fiction sections include a man whose wife and son disappear when they are on holiday in Croatia; the wife of an elderly professor who is taken ill on a cruise; a woman who leaves her young family to live on the streets… all in perpetual motion. There are also historical sections looking at the fate of Chopin’s heart; the first naming of the Achilles tendon; cadaver preservation techniques, among other bodily concerns. The focus on the organic reality of living stops Flights from becoming too flighty, grounding all the fragments in a corporeal existence.

The consistent voice also ties these different pieces together, the sense that we are being told these stories, historical fragments and observations by the same narrator, a female traveller. She sets the focus on travel as she describes the airports, planes, buses and terminals she finds herself waiting in, and her conversations with those who cross her path:

“She says that sedentary peoples, farmers, prefer the pleasures of circular time, in which every object and event must return to its own beginning, curl back up into an embryo and repeat the process of maturation and death. But nomads and merchants, as they set off on journeys, had to think up a different time for themselves, that would better respond to the needs of their travels. That time was linear time.”

Flights is a book you can dip into or read in a linear fashion. I did the latter and I’m glad I did as I could pick up the echoes across the different narratives that give a sense of unity to the book and to the world it evokes. However, it could work just as well by reading a section and focussing closely on it, as Tokarczuk’s writing is so rich. She has described her style as one of constellations, and the reason behind this individual approach is noted in Flights:

“Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth.”

Not a book for when you want a good meaty plot, but I still found it a compulsive read as well as a thought-provoking one.

 

Secondly, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenstrom (1981, trans. JM Coetzee 1983) which is set in South Africa and so forms another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

I felt a bit conflicted when I started this: the story of a young slave girl told by a white South African was problematic for me. I looked on Goodreads and no-one else seemed to have this issue. Then I thought that at the time of writing, when black South African voices were so thoroughly suppressed, maybe writing this was a huge political statement.

(I once attended a debate about queer/transgender stories being staged. One side felt only those who identified as queer/trans should tell those stories. The other side felt it was fine for straight/cis artists to tell such stories so long as they did their research and the resulting art was sensitive. The wider issue is something I often come back to and think about, and something I’m still thinking through, as I did with this novella.)

The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is beautifully written and certainly a sensitive portrayal of a woman finding autonomy for the first time as she lives in the hollow of the titular tree on the southern African veld.

“I know the interior of my tree as a blind man knows his home, I know its flat surfaces and grooves and swellings and edges, its smell, its darknesses, its great crack of light […] I can say: this is mine. I can say: this is I. These are my footprints.”

The woman has ended up stranded in the veld as a doomed commercial expedition by her last owner has failed spectacularly. With no-one making demands on her for the first time, the woman is free to think and reflect:

“If I could write, I would take up a porcupine quill and scratch your enormous belly full from top to bottom. I would clamber up as far as your branches and carve notches in your armpits to make you laugh. Big letters. Small letters. In a script full of lobes and curls, in circumambient lines I write round and round you, for I have so much to tell of a trip to a new horizon that became an expedition to a tree.”

Like Flights, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is not a straight narrative. It moves back and forth in time, with no named places or persons, It has an almost hallucinatory quality – and the narrator may be hallucinating at times, given her exposure and lack of food –  but this never detracts from the horrors she has experienced. There are times she was treated well, but she was also repeatedly assaulted, raped, and had all her children taken as babies. We are the witnesses to her experience, recounted poetically but unflinchingly.

“One time I fled from the tree. I ran aimlessly into the veld, trying to get out of its sight by hiding behind a high round rock, and I opened my mouth and I brought out a sound that must be the sound of a human being because I am a human being and not a wildebeest […] but a human being that talks and I brought out a sound and produced an accusation and hurled it up at the twilight air.”

This is a short, powerful read with a distinctive female narrator who demands to be heard.

To end, a tenuously-linked 80s video as usual 😉 Well, the title offers travel advice! I’ve chosen it especially for Kate as she’s seeing a-ha soon:

“A library is a place where you can lose your innocence without losing your virginity.” (Germaine Greer)

I really feel I’ve lost my blogging mojo over the last year. It started with the 2018 heatwave which killed off my reading for a few weeks; my reading recovered but my blogging never really did. I’m hoping Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) hosted by Meytal at Biblibio will help, but given we’re nearly halfway through, maybe not 😀 If any of you lovely bloggers have any tips on how to recover they would be gratefully received!

Anyway, here is what I hope will be the first of a few posts for WITMonth; starting with two novels loosely linked by themes of virginity, or lack thereof.

Firstly, Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones (2007, trans. Clarissa Botsford 2014) published by the wonderful AndOtherStories. Set in Albania, its also another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit (Dones is Albanian but wrote this originally in Italian).

Sworn Virgin looks at the experience of Hana, who has taken on a mostly extinct northern Albanian Kanun tradition. The tradition is that a family without male heirs can nominate a female to become a sworn virgin; she will live as a man and fulfil male roles. Hana took on the role willingly to avoid a marriage she didn’t want.

“ ‘It’s not that hard to be a man, you know?’ she says. ‘I swore never to get married, it’s a tradition that exists only in the north of the country. Let me explain: when there are no boys in a family, one of the girls swears to behave like a man and to remain a man for the rest of her life. From that moment on, she has to play all the roles and take over the tasks of a man. That’s why I became the son my uncle never had. Uncle Gjergj was my father’s brother; he took me in and brought me up after my parents died.’”

At the start of the novel Hana is travelling to the US to live with her cousin Lila and begin the process of becoming Hana again. Lila is highly feminine and doesn’t quite understand that for Hana, who has been living as Mark for 15 years, the transition back is not straightforward.

“ ‘You need to take off these men’s clothes.’

‘There’s no hurry.’

‘The sooner you get rid of them the better.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘I thought that was the deal. That you were coming here to go back to what you were.’

‘Yes, but there’s no hurry.’”

Hana has to adjust to a new country as well as a new way of presenting herself to the world. Although a story of immigration, Sworn Virgin is also a story of homecoming – to oneself. Hana has to decide how her appearance will express who she is, but also look at her life and think about what she wants. She had loved books and wanted to go to college, but had to return home when her beloved uncle Gjergj was dying. When her studies became impossible and she was facing marriage she didn’t want, she chose to become Mark instead.

“She had men’s clothes and a flask of raki in her pocket, and these had been her mirrors. She had needed nothing else. Up there in the mountains, time and place had been equal partners.”

 Although the sworn virgin tradition may be seem extraordinary to those of us unused to it, Dones has made a documentary about sworn virgins before she wrote this novel and to me it never felt sensationalist or exoticised. There is much in Hana’s story that is relatable. Sworn Virgin is about reconciling yourself to the past, and how it is never too late to make changes when you find you’ve outgrown certain decisions.

“Hana tries to bring her attention back to her body. The man she thought would still be tenaciously inhabiting her is no longer there. That man was only a carapace. Lila was right: Mark Doda’s life had been no more than the sum total of the masculine gestures Hana had forced herself to imitate, in the skin worn leathery by bad food and lack of attention. Mark Doda had been a product of her iron will.”

The focus on virginity is given a wider scope too. Hana’s virginity has become a burden to her, something to discard to help her move forward. Losing it is about Hana acknowledging herself as a sexual being with desires, and prioritising her own needs  – both sexual and non-sexual – in a way she hasn’t been able to before. This is dealt with non-romantically but still sensitively.

Obviously there is a strong theme of gender roles in Sworn Virgin, but for me it was first and foremost a character study of Hana, and the many binaries she has to adjust to: home/new country, rural life/urban life, family/independence.

“She tries to penetrate the unique spirit of the individual, she analyses their face and eyes, she tries to imagine the thoughts hiding behind those eyes, but she tends to avoid thinking about the fact that the thoughts are inextricably linked to male or female ego…She’s only just realizing now that for a long time she has had to consider things from both points of view.”

Secondly, from one extreme to the other. If there’s a character in literature not remotely associated with virginity, its probably Emma Bovary. Although I can’t stand Emma, I still picked up Sophie Divry’s Madame Bovary of the Suburbs (2014, trans. Alison Anderson 2017) with anticipation because I  had really enjoyed The Library of Unrequited Love. This isn’t quite so sparky as her previous novel, but then I don’t think its supposed to be, given as its dealing with a pervasive sense of middle class ennui.

M.A. (geddit?) is born in the 1950s and dies around 2025. In between, she is bored.

“You could not voice your feelings of dissatisfaction, because – and images from all over the world came to remind you – everything had been programmed for you to be happy.”

As the quote above shows, the novel is written in the second person. Normally I would hate this technique, but here I thought it worked quite well. The reader is constantly being told ‘you’ are doing/feeling these things, but we’re not. Essentially we feel the same sense of disconnect as M.A. does to her comfortable middle class life, living in the titular area, in a house she owns with her husband Francois, raising their children.

“In those days it didn’t bother you, or not for very long, that you never had a break. Inventing a marinade, discussing your daughter’s progress, teasing your husband about his incompetence at household chores; you got the impression that at last you were enjoying a certain return on your investment, after so many years of movement, migration, studies, pregnancies.”

Of course, as we know, Madame Bovary found one way to alleviate her boredom, as does M.A. with the vacuous Phillipe. Inevitably the affair is doomed, but unlike Emma, M.A. carries on. In this way I actually found it more depressing than its namesake; Madame Bovary is quite melodramatic, whereas this novel suggests there are plenty of lives of quiet desperation being carried out across the land.

However, I don’t want to suggest this is a bleak read, it’s not. The things I enjoyed about The Library… are evident here: the light touch, the wry humour:

“The eldest among us aware of what awaits the newlyweds once everyone has left, once the tables have been cleared, the last goodbyes are said, and we find ourselves in front of a refrigerator.”

Flaubert famously said ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi.’ Divry suggests ‘Vous êtes Madame Bovary’.

“Deep down no-one knows whether supreme happiness is attainable in one’s lifetime, physical pleasure remains one of its earthly traces, a trace we cling to, as long as we have the strength.”

To end, there’s an obvious 80s pop tune I could include on the theme of virginity, but for once I’m not going the obvious route 😊 I love the Pet Shop Boys and I don’t think I’ve ever managed to shoehorn them in so here they are singing about sinful urges:

“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.

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: