“When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” (Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus)

I don’t normally do book haul posts but I thought I would just this once, to celebrate the end of my 2018 book-buying ban, which much to my amazement I stuck to for the entire year – not one book did I buy. (Actually, that’s not strictly true, I bought 6 books during the year, but all for other people, and not in a cheating I’ll-read-this-first-then-give-it-away-and-claim-it-was-a-present-all-along way, honest!)

But before I sound too smug (and I do feel pretty smug tbh, I have terrible willpower and never manage to stick to any resolution), it wasn’t a total success. The aim of the ban was for me to read the unread books I own, as my flat was starting to look like this:

There’s definitely a vast improvement, but the discovery of the library fiction section and a terrible reading slump in the latter part of the year meant I didn’t get through as many books as I hoped. So while the ban is over I’m planning to still try and exercise some restraint and get that TBR pile down further.

Anyhoo, on 1 January I ordered some books online which are winging their way to me, and then yesterday, for the first time in over a year, I set foot in the lovely bibliophile’s crack den charity book shop which is almost directly opposite my flat. This is what I came away with:

Yes, 10 books is me exercising restraint. You can see where the need for the ban came from, can’t you? And to be honest, I’m slightly regretting not buying the five or so (OK, it was more like 15) books I additionally considered but returned to the shelves because I am a whole new woman.

The first thing that caught my eye was this little collection of mini-plays by Michael Frayn, out on display because it was in a gimmicky sleeve and who’s going to fall for that and decide they immediately need this book? *cough*

I enjoy reading plays and Michael Frayn is a safe pair of hands, so I think this will be fun.

One of the many joys of charity bookshops is hunting down those green Viragos, and I found a lovely pair of GB Sterns in great condition. I’ve never read any GB Stern but I remembered her name from Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. Part of my new-found restraint would generally include not buying more than one book by an author I’ve not read, but that lasted all of 5 minutes. They were green Viragos! In lovely condition! My willpower can only take so much…

These are the first two in the Rakonitz chronicles and the blurb on the back is really tempting, so I’m looking forward to these.

I bought one more green Virago:

I’m not a massive fan of Shaw but the blurb on the back says ‘Shaw’s view was that the false idealisation of women by men enslaved both sexes’ and he’s dismantling this in a comic way, so maybe this will be where I learn to like him.

Sticking with the theme of buying books because I trust the publishers, I picked up these by NYRB and Peirene:

The Delius is apparently a single 117-page long sentence, which frankly sounds horrific, but I trust Peirene and the translator is Jamie Bulloch who does great work so I’m still hopeful. And I do love a novella, which leads me to these:

The Auschwitz Violin, to my cynical mind, looked like an awful lot of other books with similar titles/themes which publishers love, but its novella length means I’ll give it a go, and it does look promising. The Vesaas I’ve never heard of but the reviews quoted on the back cover are rapturous and I enjoy Scandinavian literature so I’m looking forward to this.

Finally, I was pleased to come across Jill by Philip Larkin because Ali’s review last month reminded me that I wanted to read some of Larkin’s prose. Infuriatingly, that mark on the cover was caused by me trying to peel a label off, which I did carefully but it still damaged the cover:

When I’m in charge of the world, stickers will be banned from book covers, that’s a promise. Then I’ll try and sort out world peace and stuff, it’s all about priorities 😀

And there was no way I was going to let Black Narcissus pass me by, having enjoyed two Rumer Godden novels so much last month, and being a big fan of the film.

So, that’s my first book haul of the year! Looking back on the 2018 ban I would say I’ve learnt these things:

  • At the ripe old age of 41 I can still surprise myself
  • I might actually have some willpower after all
  • Its satisfying to see the TBR diminishing
  • I’m never going to not have piles of books
  • Which means I need to move somewhere with really cheap property prices to house them all
  • I still can’t be trusted in a charity bookshop

How about you, dear reader? Any bookish resolutions for 2019? Have you read any of my haul? Where would recommend I start?

Here’s to a wonderful year ahead with many great reads for all of us 😊 Apropos of absolutely nothing, but just because I’ve been listening to her a lot since 2019 started, here is Kate Bush doing a reggae cover of an Elton John song whilst playing a ukulele*. Because she can, because she’s awesome:

*Thank you Fiction Fan (see comments below)

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“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here.’ Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.” (Margaret Atwood)

This is my contribution to Margaret Atwood Reading Month, hosted by Naomi at Consumed by Ink and Marcie at Buried in Print. Do join in with #MARM!

As a teenager I fell in love with Atwood and read all her novels and short stories, most of her poetry and a collection of interviews. Then I’m not sure what happened, the MaddAddam trilogy didn’t appeal to me as much and I probably hadn’t read any Atwood since The Blind Assassin in 2000. In this year of my book-buying ban, I found I had two Atwoods in the TBR, so here they are.

(image from Wikimedia Commons)

Firstly, The Heart Goes Last (2015), my first Atwood in about 18 years, and from the first page I realised I needed her back in my life. She is such an accomplished writer that you know you’re in safe hands. She knows what she’s doing: the characters will be believable, the plot will carry you through, she has something important to say. What more could you want? This being Atwood, the story is terrifying, funny, and horribly believable.

Charmaine and Stan are living in their car. Time and place are unspecified, but there’s every reason to assume it’s now, in the United States. The recession has bitten and they have lost their jobs and their homes, along with many others. Poverty and deprivation have led to rising crime and they are at risk of violent attack. Unsurprisingly, their marriage is under strain:

“Charmaine says why don’t they go jogging? They used to do that when they had their house: get up early, jog before breakfast, then a shower. It made you feel so full of energy, so clean. But Stan looks at her like she’s out of her mind, and she sees that yes, it would be silly, leaving the car unattended with everything in it…and putting themselves at risk because who knows what might be hiding in the bushes? Anyway where would they jog? Along the streets with the boarded-up houses?”

Then one day, when Charmaine is working in a bar, she sees aa television advert for Positron. Positron offers a place to live and full employment.

“She can feel the griminess of her body, she can smell the stale odour coming from her clothes, from her hair, from the rancid fat smell of the chicken-wings place next door. All of that can be shed, it can peel off her like an onion skin, and she can step out of that skin and be a different person.”

Living in Positron means alternating one month in the town, one month in the prison called Consilience. Stan is from a tough background and his brother Con is a criminal. This means Stan is far from naïve, but he is also desperate:

“They’re like the early pioneers, blazing a trail, clearing a way to the future: a future that will be more secure, more prosperous, and just all-round better because of them! Posterity will revere them. That’s the spiel. Stan has never heard so much bullshit in his life. On the other hand, he sort of wants to believe it.”

Charmaine and Stan sign away their lives to the project – there’s no leaving once you’re in – and settle into their new lives. The aesthetic is an idealised 1950s Doris Day film, with surveillance. Gradually they both, in very different ways, begin to understand the dark side of the Positron project, and of each other.

“He hadn’t recognised it when they’d been living together – he’d underestimated her shadow side, which was mistake number one, because everyone has a shadow side, even fluffpots like her.”

The plot that develops is darkly comic, and deeply sinister. Needless to say, the uses of technology in Positron are not ethical, and the question is, where do you draw the line? The answers to this question become more and more murky as the novel progresses.

Charmaine and Stan are not always sympathetic but they are believable, including why they would sign their lives away. The rise of the far right in today’s politics can seem bewildering at best and terrifying most of time, but Atwood has Stan address the reason people support their freewill being circumscribed, in no uncertain terms:

“Not that he gives much of a flying fuck about freedom and democracy, since they haven’t performed that well for him personally.”

There’s also a great deal about gender politics in The Heart Goes Last. I can’t say too much about it for fear of plot spoilers, but I greatly enjoyed this pithy observation by Charmaine when she’s taken out for dinner by a powerful man who wants to seduce her:

“She blots the corner of her eye, folding the trace of black mascara up in the serviette. Men don’t like to think about makeup, they like to think everything about you is genuine. Unless of course they want to think you’re a slut and everything about you is fake.”

The ending is perfect: a twist that shows in miniature the broader themes of the novel, ending with an unresolved question for a character and the reader. It doesn’t allow a comfortable feeling of being in a better, wiser position than the characters but instead asks: when faced with a moral dilemma, do you really know what you would do?

Secondly, The Penelopiad (2005), a novella (hooray!) in which Atwood retells the story of Penelope, faithful wife of Odysseus (part of Canongate’s Myth Series). Penelope narrates the story from Hades. She was the faithful wife of Homer’s myth, but also had her eyes wide open with regard to her warrior husband:

“Of course I had inklings, about his slipperiness, his wiliness, his foxiness, his – how can I put this? – his unscrupulousness, but I turned a blind eye. I kept my mouth shut; or, if I opened it, I sang his praises. I didn’t contradict, I didn’t ask awkward questions, I didn’t dig deep. I wanted happy endings in those days, and happy endings are best achieved by keeping the right doors locked and going to sleep during the rampages.”

This captures much of the themes of The Penelopiad, that is, that Penelope’s feelings for her warrior husband are not straightforward, and also, that the story of events depends on who is doing the telling, what they leave in and what they miss out. The Odyssey is a cornerstone of Western civilisation, but it is not the only version. Penelope’s Odysseus is a wily cheat, far from heroic. Helen is a vain bitch:

“Of course, she was very beautiful. It was claimed she’d come out of an egg, being the daughter of Zeus who’d raped her mother in the form of a swan. She was quite stuck up about it, was Helen.”

When Odysseus is away fighting the Trojan War, Penelope runs his estates extremely well and keeps her suitors at bay. Her son Telemachus is a brat and Penelope feels more kinship with her 12 maids, many of whom she has known since they were babies. The maids form a Greek chorus throughout the story, speaking in verse between chapters. We know that Telemachus will kill them all on his father’s return, and Atwood is intrigued as to why these powerless (poor, female) people are treated so brutally:

“Let them dangle, let them strangle –

Blame it on the slaves!”

Penelope is shown as having to carefully navigate a position that sees her wealthy but powerless, having to pick her way through a minefield of social constraints that could see her branded a whore in her husband’s absence. Her faithfulness is not out of loyalty to Odysseus but self-preservation in a patriarchal society.

There are massive themes in this novella and they are as relevant as ever when the most powerful man in the world has a constant refrain of ‘fake news!’. By the end of The Penelopiad Penelope is shown to possibly not be a reliable narrator, but then, is anyone? Don’t we all have our own versions? Atwood reminds us that for each story told, it is worth considering what gain is to be made. And she does so with irreverent glee:

“Who is to say that the prayers have any effect? On the other hand, who is to say they don’t? I picture the gods, diddling around on Olympus, wallowing in the nectar and ambrosia and the aroma of burning bones and fat, mischievous as a pack of ten-year-olds with a sick cat to play with and a lot of time on their hands.”

Taking part in #MARM has made me check Atwood’s bibliography to see what I’ve missed: I’ve still got her three most recent short story collections, Hag-Seed and the MaddAddam trilogy to catch up on. I’m really grateful to #MARM for reminding me just how much I love her writing and giving me my Atwood impetus back again!

To end, when Margaret Atwood appeared on Desert Island Discs, she chose this song by a much-missed troubadour:

Novella a Day in May #31

The final post of Novella a Day in May! It’s time for dancing Brad:

No-one is more surprised than me to be here. I never thought I’d manage to post every day for a month. Massive thanks to everyone who has read, liked, commented and shared these posts, you are all fab! I never expected people to read this blog on such a regular basis.

I’ve really enjoyed my month of novellas and I hope I’ve managed to spread some novella love along the way.

I’ve never done a summary post before but then I’ve never posted every day for 31 days before, so here’s an attempt to squeeze all those novellas into a few stats before I go on to my final choice for the month.

The gender split in authors was fairly even: 15 female authors and 16 male. Pointless pie chart time:

The novellas ranged across 3 centuries, from 1860 to 2017.

The shortest novella was Journey into the Past at 84 pages and the longest was After Claude at 206, because I cheated my own criteria by 6 pages. The average number of pages of the novellas was 142. None of them were actually this long, which goes to show there’s no such thing as average 🙂

It was a good opportunity to read some of my favourite publishers: I read 9 by Virago, 5 by Pushkin Press, and 2 by Peirene, as well as novellas published by AndOtherStories, and New York Review of Books.

I visited 13 countries including France 3 times (4 times if I count Jean Rhys) and Denmark twice. Two countries were new stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit: Libya and Kyrgystan. Thirteen novellas were in translation and the rest were by English, Irish and American authors. The southern hemisphere was sadly neglected, but this does give me a reason to justify even more novella reading 😉

And now the bit I found hardest: trying to pick out favourites. I planned to try and pick out a top 5 but it’s proved impossible. However, special mention has to go to William Maxwell, who I wrote about yesterday. I thought They Came Like Swallows was a work of restrained beauty. He had a perfect understanding of the novella and used sparse words to convey a story at its absolute essence. Not a word was wasted and no further words were needed. It’s made me keen to hunt down the rest of his work.

And now, onto my final choice! A novella that the blogosphere told me was great last year and then I forgot about until Susan’s post reminded me of the paperback release, so off to the library I went…

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (2016, trans. Misha Hoekstra 2017,188 pages)

Sonja is single, in her 40s, a translator of thrillers she finds gruesome and misogynistic. She is trying to build bridges with her distant sister, manage her massage therapist’s more esoteric suggestions, and learn to drive.

Sonja’s driving instructor Jytte screams instructions at her and won’t let her change gear, so she goes to see Folke, the head of the school,

“Sonja’s on the verge of tears. It happens unexpectedly; the sob sits in her throat and wants to come out. Folke’s hands move efficiently from side to side across the desk, and she longs to grasp one of them. Squeeze it, say ‘Thank you,’ from the heart. It doesn’t escape Sonja’s notice that she gets red in the face, because this sort of thing rarely happens. It almost never happens anymore – that someone wishes Sonja the best. She’s used to dealing with everything herself, and she’s reasonably good at it too.”

This captures much about Mirror, Shoulder, Signal: Sonja is muddling through life and doing it more or less competently, but she feels awkward and displaced. She’s from Jutland (Folke observes “All the Jutlander’s I’ve met are a bit quirky” and a Danish friend tells me this is a common stereotype ) but has lived in Copenhagen for years, long enough to not feel at home in either the countryside or the city. She’s doing OK but she could be doing better, struggling with “the things she cannot find the language to say and the people she most wants to say them to.”

Sonja’s a strong character and immensely likeable with all her idiosyncrasies. She goes her own way and always has, but reflects that this may cause more harm than good:

“Mom did me a disservice believing I could just be myself. If I hadn’t been allowed to, then I’d be sitting right now with the whole package, but that train’s left the station. And if anyone does, Mom should know that you have to adapt if you’re going to entangle yourself in an intimate relationship. Kate knows that too. And Dad.”

There’s plenty of humour in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. Not only at Sonja’s slightly blundering way through life, but also at the madness of Jytte screaming out her driving lessons; the awkwardness between Sonja and Folke; the flaky assertions of Ellen, the masseuse. But it’s not a whimsical novel and much of the humour is pretty sharp:

 “while Sonja does miss her sister, at the same time it ignites in her a yearning for fire”

I really enjoyed the short time I spent with Sonja. Nothing much happens, as in much of life, but there is a believable character arc for Sonja whereby things remain unresolved but improving – a happyish, unsentimental ending which made me smile.

To end, normal service will now be resumed on this blog: intermittent, unnecessarily verbose posts on two books linked by a theme, most likely with a cheesy late 20th century pop song shoehorned in. Here’s one such video to ease us in, chosen in honour of the fact that while Novella a Day in May is now over, I’ve enjoyed it so much I’m wondering if I’ve got it in me to do it again next year… what better way to express this than through song, while dressed in a flared satin and spangles jumpsuit twinset? Take it away, Gloria…

Novella a Day in May #30

Yesterday I wrote about Eudora Welty, today I’m looking at a novella by her editor, William Maxwell. Maxwell was fiction editor at The New Yorker from 1936-1975 and a contributor until his death in 2000. He was editor to extraordinarily successful writers as well as a writer himself.

Image from here

I’ve abandoned the two novella posts I was ending this series with, because I loved this one so much I wanted it to have a post all to itself.

They Came Like Swallows (1937, 140 pages)

The title of this semi-autobiographical novella is taken from WB Yeats’ Coole Park:

They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a Swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air,

A woman’s powerful character is the central compass-point of this story. Elizabeth Morison is mother to Bunny and Robert, wife to James. The 3 parts of this novella are told from the point of view of each of the male members of the Morison family in turn.

It begins with Bunny, aged 8 and a sensitive child who takes things to heart, would prefer to be indoors than out, and suffers under his older, more rumbustious older brother. He is still of an age where his mother has the power to change everything and make it alright.

“Somewhere in the front part of the house a door opened so that his mother’s voice came up the stairs. A spring inside him, a coiled spring, was set free. He sat up and threw his covers to the foot of the bed. When he was washed and dressed he went downstairs. His mother was sitting at the breakfast table before the fire in the library.”

“While he stood waiting before her and while she considered him with eyes that were perplexed and brown, the weight grew. The weight grew and became like a stone. He had to lift it each time that he took a breath.

‘Whose angel child are you?’

By these words and by the wholly unexpected kiss that accompanied them he was made sound and strong. His eyes met hers safely.”

I thought Maxwell effectively captured a sense of childhood and just how hard it can be day-to-day, without ever lurching into sentimentality. He writes in a constrained way yet captures moments in their entirety; he shows the profound in the everyday.

That’s not to say he can’t be poetic, but it is a restrained poetry. When he chooses an image it is startling and evocative. Every word in this novella works hard, yet overall it flows with deceptive ease. I particularly liked this description of Robert reading:

“It began the way Robert liked books to begin, and by the second page he was submerged. The lamp cord was his only means of contact with the upper air. He clung to that, and shaped his words in silence as he read.”

Robert also adores his mother. Under Bunny’s point of view he seemed somewhat brutal, but in his section we learn how much he also relies on maternal love as he enters adolescence:

“With his mother Robert was almost never constrained or ill at ease. It seemed easy and natural for her to be talking about whatever was on her mind. She didn’t stop what she was doing. Hardly ever. And that way he felt free to tell her all sorts of things. Because he always knew she would go right on sorting the sheets and pillowcases.”

I’m about to go on to a massive SPOILER so skip the remainder if you don’t want to know, although I knew this at the start of They Came Like Swallows and it didn’t affect my enjoyment of it at all: Elizabeth Morison dies. She succumbs to the flu epidemic that swept through after the First World War, and so these 3 people are left reeling without their centre. Maxwell’s restrained style effectively captures the numbness of grief, and how the inexpressible is articulated in a society that does not encourage outbursts of emotion, particularly from men. James blames himself for taking his wife on a crowded train:

“He read the letters while he walked back and forth between the fireplace and the windows – read them over and over without retaining what he read. Then he threw envelopes and letters upon the library table and stood perfectly still, pressing his shoulder against the mantel.

For two days now (ever since they came into his room at daybreak to tell him) he had been getting on that train. And there was no way, apparently, that he could stop.”

I thought They Came Like Swallows was perfectly written. Part of what focussed me on novellas in the first place was exasperation at the baggy, overlong, overly-indulgent novels I kept coming across, that had me muttering to myself how they ‘needed a heavier edit.’ If Maxwell is an example of what happens when editors decide to write, more should do so.

Novella a Day in May #29

It’s thanks to this mini-project that I finally read Eudora Welty, as I had two of her novellas in the TBR. I’m glad I did, as the latter of these two has definitely whetted my appetite for more of her work.

Eudora-Welty-1962

The Robber Bridegroom (1942, 185 pages)

I enjoyed this reworking of The Brothers Grimm tale which Welty sets in eighteenth century Mississippi. Clement Musgrove arrives back home:

“As his foot touched the shore, the sun sank into the river the colour of blood, and at once a wind sprang up and covered the sky with black, yellow, and green clouds the size of whales, which moved across the face of the moon.”

With this foreboding change in the weather, he finds himself sharing a room with real-life keelboater Mike Fink, and Jamie Lockhart, a gentleman robber. Lockhart saves Musgrove’s life, and so is invited back to his home, which he shares with his horrible wife, who predictably is wicked stepmother to the beautiful Rosamond. Rosamond isn’t perfect though:

“As for Rosamond, she did not mean to tell anything but the truth, but when she opened her mouth in answer to a question, the lies would simply fall out like diamonds and pearls.”

The tale unfolds along familiar lines, with theft, mistaken identity, illicit love and people thought to be dead when they’re not, all in the surrounds of a forest. While I thought The Robber Bridegroom was vividly told and entertaining, I wasn’t sure what Welty was really doing with the tale. Rosamond is given sexual agency which would be a departure for many fairytales; and it’s grounded in a historical reality which adds to the mythology around the Southern states pre-Civil War. It’s an interesting tale but I felt Welty could have done more with it, pushed it a bit further into something truly original but still grounded in fable.

“The only thing that could possibly keep her from being totally happy was that she had never seen her lover’s face. But then the heart cannot live without something to sorrow and be curious over.”

The Ponder Heart (1954, 132 pages)

This, however, I adored. It featured a truly idiosyncratic, distinctive narrator and was funny, unsettling and compulsively readable.

Edna Earle Ponder lives in Clay County, Mississippi, and is proud of being a Ponder and running the town hotel. She is telling the tale of her Uncle Daniel to a silent interlocutor.

“I don’t run the Beulah Hotel for nothing: I size people up: I’m sizing you up right now. People come here, pass through this book, in and out, over the years – and in the whole shooting-match, I don’t care from where or how far they’ve come, not one can hold a candle to Uncle Daniel for looks or manners. If he ever did thing to be sorry for, it’s more than he ever intended.”

Her Uncle Daniel dresses all in white and has a tendency to give away money. His father tries to get him committed; Daniel has a lovely time in the institution and his father ends up committed instead. Then there is an ill-fated marriage to the wonderfully monikered Teacake Magee.

“As for Uncle Daniel, he went right ahead, attracting love and friendship with the best will and the lightest heart in the world. He loved being happy! He loved happiness like I love tea.”

Teacake Magee proves impervious to Uncle Daniel’s charms after 2 months and they split up (we’re never quite sure why) and then Daniel marries Bonnie Dee without his family knowing.

“I wish you could have seen Bonnie Dee! I wish you could. I guess I’d known she was living, but I’d never given her a real good look. She was just now getting her breath. Baby yellow hair, downy – like one of those dandelion puffballs you can blow and tell the time by. And not a grain beneath. Now, Uncle Daniel may not have a whole lot of brains, but what’s there is Ponder, and no mistake about it. But poor little Bonnie Dee!”

And from this marriage the trouble starts. Welty builds her story expertly: you know something bad has happened, you don’t quite know what, by whom or to whom. As it is revealed, it is totally believable and an awful comic tragedy, told in the inimitable style of Edna Earle.

“I’m the go-between, that’s what I am, between my family and the world. I hardly ever get a word in for myself.”

She’s vain and arrogant about her position as a Ponder; she looks down on people and is racist; she’s appalling in lots of ways but Edna Earle spins a good yarn.

“What Uncle Daniel did was just bestow his [love] all around quick – men, women and children. Love! There’s always somebody wants it. Uncle Daniel knew that. He’s smart in way you aren’t, child.”

I was truly sorry to leave The Ponder Heart behind.

Novella a Day in May #28

If I was being facetious (which I never am 😉 )I might compile a Jean Rhys checklist:

  • Heroine is displaced, either in France from the Caribbean or in England from Caribbean and/or France
  • She is emaciated and constantly on the brink of starvation
  • For some reason, getting a regularly-paid job never occurs to her
  • And so she has casual employment as a model/actress/any job vaguely associated with prostitution in the early 20th century
  • She uses men for financial gain and is in turn used by them
  • She has a judgemental landlady
  • She owns at least one piece of really expensive clothing left over from a better time
  • She self-medicates with alcohol
  • She is highly sensitive but weirdly passive, so things don’t generally go well

Not including Wide Sargasso Sea, this seems to be the form things generally take in a book by Rhys. Yet I’m happy to keep reading her because she writes with such precision and insight, and at moments is capable of absolute brilliance. Here are two novellas by her.

Images from here and here

Quartet (1928, 144 pages, originally published as Postures) is a fictionalised account of Rhys’ affair with Ford Madox Ford.

“ ‘I bet that man is a bit of a brute sometimes,’ thought Marya. And as she thought it, she felt his hand lying heavily on her knee.”

Marya’s husband Stephan has been put in prison for fraud and she is left alone in Paris. She seems to have been both aware and unaware of the nature of his business.

“Stephan disliked being questioned and, when closely pressed, he lied. He just lied. Not plausibly or craftily, but impatiently and absent-mindedly. So Marya had long ago stopped questioning. For she was reckless, lazy, a vagabond by nature, and for the first time in her life she was very near to being happy.”

She will bring this dissonance into the affair that she has with a man named Heidler. On the one hand she seems to know that she is being manipulated not only by him but by his wife Lois. On the other hand she still seems to plunge into this situation, living with them both and sleeping with Heidler, making  herself both materially and emotionally vulnerable. A lot remains unexplained. We’re not entirely sure why Marya does what she does, although Rhys suggests, as she does in her other writing, that morals are a luxury not everyone can afford.

“Poverty is the cause of many compromises.”

Marya may also have done it just for the sheer hell of it. Heidler and Lois seem to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and so it could be that Marya wanted any experience rather than a mundane existence:

“Her life swayed regularly, even monotonously, between two extremes, avoiding the soul-destroying middle.”

Certainly this may explain why she falls in love with Heidler when he seems so thoroughly horrible.

Quartet is morally ambivalent; Marya seems deeply unhappy for the entire book and she is powerless, so it is hard to judge her even though I felt frustrated at her seeming lack of agency. Rhys simply presents people and situations, and asks the reader to assign their own values.

“The value of an illusion, for instance, and that the shadow can be more important than the substance.”

Quartet was adapted into a film in 1981 by Merchant Ivory. I’ve not seen it but the cast is stellar:

Secondly, Voyage in the Dark (1934, 159 pages). Anna is freezing in England, unable to acclimatise after a life spent in the Caribbean. She is orphaned and earning a living as a chorus girl in a touring theatre company. Life is a procession of dingy B&Bs and while she gets used to England, she misses home:

“the smell of streets and the smells of frangipani and lime juice and cinnamon and cloves, and sweets made of ginger and syrup, and incense after funerals or Corpus Christi processions, and the patients standing outside the surgery next door and the smell of the sea-breeze and the different smell of the land-breeze.”

She meets an older man, Walter, and they begin a relationship. Although she is not being manipulated to the extent of Marya in Quartet, Anna is also powerless in the relationship. She is young, naïve and penniless; Walter is none of these things.

“Perhaps I’m going to be one of the ones with beastly lives. They swarm like woodlice when you push a stick into a woodlice home. And their faces are the colour of woodlice.”

When the relationship breaks down, Anna spirals into despair. She drinks too much, is depressed and has to seek a backstreet abortion.

“I stopped going out; I stopped wanting to go out. That happens very easily. It’s as if you had always done that – lived in a few rooms and gone one to another. The light is a different colour every hour and the shadows fall differently and make different patterns. You feel peaceful, but when you try to think it’s as if you’re face to face with a high, dark wall.”

It’s difficult to say why I don’t find Rhys utterly bleak. Her protagonists are always despairing, but I think for most there is hope. They cling onto something, and while that may be an entirely unsuitable lover or a destructive circumstance, they have a determined streak, even if they allow themselves to be buffeted by forces they could have easily avoided. Rhys is also a writer that constantly brings me up short with startling images, like this one of trying to communicate with a lover who won’t listen:

 “It was like letting go and falling back into water and seeing yourself grinning up through the water, your face like a mask, and seeing bubbles come up as if you were trying to speak from under the water.”

Reading these two novellas means I’ve now read all of Rhys’ novels and short stories and I’m truly sorry to have reached the end. She may only have one main theme, but it is a richly explored one that rewards careful reading.

Novella a Day in May #27

Today I’m looking at two novellas by Willa Cather, which were my first encounters with this legendary author of frontier life.

Willa_Cather_ca._1912_wearing_necklace_from_Sarah_Orne_Jewett

Alexander’s Bridge (1912, 176 pages) was Willa Cather’s first novel, although she was already an established journalist, poet and short story writer.  Apparently she didn’t think much of this first attempt at long-form prose, but I thought it had much to recommend it.

Bartley Alexander is an engineer who, it will surprise you to learn, builds bridges.  He has a huge project happening in Canada, but it is when he is London on business that he runs into an old flame, Hilda. Although he is married, an affair begins. The focus is not the romance or betrayal, but rather Alexander’s futile attempt to recapture his youth that is the focus of Cather’s writing:

“Solitude, but not solitariness; for he walked shoulder to shoulder with a shadowy companion – not little Hilda Burgoyne, by any means, but someone vastly dearer to him than she had ever been – his own young self, the youth who had waited for him upon the steps of the British Museum that night, and who, though he had tried to pass so quietly, had known him and came down and linked an arm in his.

It was not until long afterwards that Alexander learned that for him this youth was the most dangerous of companions.”

I think had I known what this was about, I would have been put-off reading it. A deceitful man having a mid-life crisis is not a subject matter that I have a great deal of patience with. What engaged me was Cather’s beautiful writing and her psychological insight.  She also managed to bring an impressive depth to the story considering its short length.  Overall I was left with a sense of the sadness of lives wasted in a search for meaning when not knowing where to look.

“Something had broken loose in him of which he knew nothing except that it was sullen and powerful, and that it wrung and tortured him. Sometimes it came upon him softly, in enervating reveries. Sometimes it battered him like the canon rolling in the hold of the vessel. Always, now, it brought with it a sense of quickened life, of stimulating danger.”

I suspect if you’ve read some of Cather’s  classic work such as My Antonia or O, Pioneers! you might find this a disappointment. However, it left me eager to read more of her work to see how she developed into a writer so greatly loved.

 

A Lost Lady (1923, 178 pages) was where I went next. It tells the story of the beautiful Marian Forrester, a rich (at first) young woman married to the older Captain Forrester, living in the West in a town called Sweet Water:

“She never stopped to pin up a lock; she was attractive in dishabille and she knew it. She had been known to rush to the door in her dressing-gown, brush in her hand and her long black hair rippling over her shoulders, to welcome Cyrus Dalzell, president of the Colorado & Utah, and the great man had never felt more flattered. In his eyes, and in the eyes of the admiring middle-aged men who visited there, whatever Mrs Forrester chose to do was lady-like, because she did it.”

However, following crop failures, the town starts to go downhill. It is close to the Transcontinental railroad, but the trains start passing through. Captain Forrester has a lot of money sunk into the railroad and an idealised view of this capitalism:

“All our great West has been developed from such dreams; the homesteaders and the prospectors and the contractors. We dreamed the railroads across the mountains”

Niel Herbert, from whose viewpoint the story is mainly told (although it remains in third person) has a different view of these dreamers:

“The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence, a courteous brotherhood, strong in attack but weak in defence, who could conquer but could not hold. Now all the territory they had won was to be at the mercy of men like Ivy Peters, who had never dared anything, never risked anything… The space, the colour, the princely carelessness of the pioneer they would destroy and cut up into profitable bits, as the match factor splinters the primeval forest.”

Ivy Peters represents the move to a capitalist industrial economy and he is truly despicable. At the start of the story he is a young boy too, slightly older than Niel, and he commits an act of vindictive cruelty on a bird; it truly made me feel sick. As an adult he sexually blackmails Mrs Forrester. Niel witnesses this as he witnessed Marian’s affair with a man named Ellinger. The feeling this raises in Niel are complicated; he does not quite have a crush on the woman, it’s more that he idealises her as a representation of the pioneer spirit, and so when he feels she is debased, he is angry that she has let down this broader ideal.

“It was not a moral scruple she had outraged but an aesthetic ideal”

The presentation of Marian Forrester is intriguing. Her beauty mesmerises people and places her in the more elite society, but Cather shows that she is a woman of flesh and blood, with both sexual desires and a desire to live. She will do what it takes.

This meant that while I could not embrace the romanticised notion of the pioneer (I think we now know enough of what happened to First Nations Peoples during the period for any romanticism to have well and truly died –briefly touched upon in this story) I thought there was a great deal of interest around the role of women. Marian is a lost ‘lady’ but she is a woman who knows herself and knows that as a woman in this period she does not have the freedom or choices of men. They will use her, but she is not a victim, although she self-medicates with alcohol at times. She endures, and so as a representation of the west, and pioneer spirit, I think Cather chooses to personify how times change and are lost forever, but the only choice is to keep on.

 “It was what he most held against Mrs Forrester, that she was not willing to immolate herself, like the widow of all these great men, and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged; that she preferred life on any terms.”

It’s a bittersweet novella, and Cather packs huge themes into a small space. Truly impressive.