Novella a Day in May 2020 #14

No Signposts in the Sea – Vita Sackville West (1961) 156 pages

Continuing with the Virago theme from yesterday, here is another of their delightful offerings. I do enjoy Vita Sackville-West’s writing and I feel like she never gets the recognition she deserves. I suppose when your name is forever linked with the genius of Virginia Woolf, you’ll always suffer by comparison… No Signposts in the Sea is her final novel and it’s a brittle, slightly flawed gem.

Edmund Carr is a successful journalist and self-made man, who knows he doesn’t have long to live. As a result, he has followed the woman he loves from afar, Laura Drysdale, onto a cruise to unnamed places which seem to be southern Pacific islands.

The narrative is entirely from Edmund’s viewpoint, and at first I thought I’d struggle because that viewpoint seemed to be relentlessly bitchy one:

“ ‘it is lucky for some people,’ I say to Laura, ‘that they can live behind their own faces.’”

However, Edmund’s incredibly painful situation – both in terms of his life nearing its end and his unspoken love for Laura (possibly a reference to Petrarch?) means that he is more vulnerable than he has ever been.

“Geographically I do not care and scarcely know where I am. There are no signposts in the sea.”

As he reflects on life and on the nature of romantic love, Edmund does develop as a character and begins to soften his brittle, urbane exterior:

“I realised for the first time how greatly our apprehension of people depends on the variation of conditions under which we see them, and thought it possible that we may never truly perceive them at all.”

Certainly the reader sees more of Laura than he does. In our objectivity something is obvious to us that Edmund remains unaware of, caught as he is in his obsession, his jealousy, and his confusion. Sackville-West shows how much those early romantic feelings can often be a reflection of the lover’s insecurities, fantasies and desires, and very little to do with the loved one.

“I heard her say no, no more coffee thank you, and it was as though she had said Edmund, my darling, I love you.

Love does play queer tricks.”

No Signposts in the Sea is a romantic novel in its way though, because it suggests that by moving beyond these infatuated feelings, a deep love and rewarding companionship – such as Vita enjoyed with Harold Nicholson – is possible.

Less romantic are the racist views in evidence among the white, privileged, cruise passengers, sadly of its time but surely beginning to be outdated in 1961.

I didn’t think No Signposts in the Sea was a strong as some of the other novels I’ve read by Sackville-West. The characterisation is a bit thin, especially regarding Edmund’s love rival, Colonel Dalrymple. Vita Sackville-West was extremely unwell as she wrote this so could not have been at the height of her powers, but there is still much to enjoy.

“Dusk began to fall; I wished never to arrive; I wished to continue forever between land and water in a dream region so wild and beautiful.”

Novella a Day in May 2020 #13

The Aloe – Katherine Mansfield (1916, this edition 1983) 79 pages

The Aloe was Katharine Mansfield’s first punt at writing her short story Prelude, and so while it’s not entirely satisfactory as a fully realised story in its own right, there’s still a lot to enjoy here.

It begins with the Burnell family moving to a new home further out in the New Zealand countryside. The opening is told from the children’s point of view as the three of them are old enough to realise what is happening but too young to take an active part. I thought Mansfield captured the detailed minutiae of children’s lives so well:

“Kezia liked to stand so before the window. She liked the feeling of the cold shining glass against her hot little palms and she liked to watch the funny white tops that came on her fingers when she pressed them hard against the pane”

Once they arrive at the larger, more remote house, the attention shifts to the adults. Mansfield is incredibly subtle in her characterisation, drawing psychologically astute portraits but leaving the reader to work out what it means for this group of people to be living together.

Stanley Burnell is optimistic and eager about the move, little realising the various pressures it places on the women of the household, mainly because he is out in town all day:

“He was enormously pleased – weather like this set a final seal upon his bargain – he felt somehow – that he had bought the sun too and got it chucked in dirt cheap.”

His wife Linda is neither entirely happy nor completely unhappy, but certainly she is part of a generation of women given to mysterious ailments like headaches which enable her to spend a day in a room closed off from the rest of the household. She able to do so because her mother Mrs Fairchild is so capable and domesticated:

“There was a charm and grace in all her movements. It was not that she merely ‘set in order’; there seemed to be an almost positive quality in the obedience of things in her fine old hands.”

One piece of characterisation I really liked was Beryl, Linda’s sister. There is a hint that she may be trying to seduce her brother-in-law, mainly through boredom and a need to feel loved. As she writes a letter to her friend full of news that she knows is insincere, superficial prattle, she has this insight:

“Perhaps it was because she was not leading the life that she wanted to – she had not a chance to really express herself – she was always living below her power – and therefore she had no need of her real self – her real self only made her wretched.”

In lesser hands Beryl would just be a flighty, flirty, dreamer with the potential for real destruction, but Mansfield shows how all the women are forced into certain roles because society doesn’t give them the choices it affords to men. This is never didactic though; the reader is left to draw their own conclusions.

The Aloe only covers two days in this family’s life (though Mansfield ultimately wrote three short stories about the Burnells) but so much is explored, reading it is still a rich experience. My only reservation is that my delicate sensibilities could have done without the duck-killing scene (which I skimmed.) The novella does end rather abruptly but then it was never quite intended to be read as it is now.

Novella a Day in May 2019 #30

Sleepless Nights – Elizabeth Hardwick (1979) 151 pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so to end, here is Lady Day herself:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #24

Family and Friends – Anita Brookner (1985) 187 pages

Many years ago I read Anita Brookner’s Booker-winning Hotel du Lac and although I remember very little about it I remember that I didn’t like it much. Recently I’d begun to think I should give her another try; I suspect my early 20s was a bit too young for Brookner and her incisive consideration of loneliness and disappointment. I was discussing this with a colleague, and so she lent me Family and Friends, Brookner’s follow-up to Hotel du Lac. A novella seemed a perfect way to dip my toe in again, and I’m so glad I did. I loved it.

It is the study of the Dorn family: matriarch Sofka and her children Frederick, Alfred, Betty and Mimi, beginning in the 1920s. The unnamed narrator is gazing at a wedding photograph of them all:

“I find it entirely appropriate that Sofka should have named her sons after kings and emperors and her daughters as if they were characters in a musical comedy. Thus were their roles designated for them. The boys were to conquer, and the girls to flirt. If this implies something unfinished, as if the process were omnivorous but static, that too would be characteristic. Sofka sees her children’s futures as being implicit in their names, and she has given much thought to the matter; indeed, one wonders whether she thinks about anything else.”

Throughout the novel this device is repeated: the photograph with the aging subjects and their relationships unwittingly captured over the years. Brookner’s portraits of her characters are unflinching:

“Betty is one of those women who believe in acting out a passion before they really feel it […] Mimi is not the type of girl who will, or indeed, can, do anything independently. But Betty knows that her mission in life is to be a woman who prevents men from staying with their virgin loves, and she is eager to embark on this career.”

Betty is keen to escape and uses one man to get to Paris – thwarting Mimi’s delicately-held fantasies in the meantime, and being quite aware of doing so – and then another man to get to the States, from where she never returns.

Likewise, Frederick, who is supposed to be running the family empire, flees to the French Riviera with a woman deemed wholly unsuitable by Sofka, but who makes feckless Frederick quite happy and contented. The responsibility of the business therefore falls to Alfred before he is out of his teens:

“He has, above all, obeyed his mother in everything. He does not yet know that men who obey their mothers in everything rarely win the admiration of other women.”

Over the years, perhaps only Frederick is happy. Betty is selfish and untalented, with zero insight and so unable to work out why her life is not evolving as she hoped. Alfred is disappointed in life generally, and delicate, beautiful Mimi is prone to depression.

“She has been questing unconsciously for that man, that alien, that stranger, that appointed one, who will deliver her, the sleepwalker, from her sleep. Thus, in the bosom of her family, Mimi, the good daughter, has been one of the most ready, the most willing, to defect.”

Family and Friends is about precisely what the title says. It is a study of these people over several years, with very little plot other than the typical events of people’s lives, and sparse dialogue. Although Brookner is unflinching, she is not without compassion. She sees plainly, but doesn’t sit in judgement on her characters, despite her clear-sighted discernment of all their weaknesses and the hurt they cause one another and themselves.

Anita Brookner is the ideal writer of novellas. She is so concise, not a word is wasted and every word carries its full weight. Her skill is astounding.

Despite only starting to write novels at the age of 53, Brookner was prolific and produced around a book a year for the rest of her writing life. I’m looking forward to exploring more of these now I know what I’m missing. And first on the list is a re-read of Hotel du Lac 😊

Novella a Day in May 2019 #20

Highland Fling – Nancy Mitford (1931) 199 pages

Highland Fling was Nancy Mitford’s first novel and while not as sparkling as her later works there’s still much to enjoy here. It’s familiar Mitford territory: insane upper classes, Bright Young Things, serious issues treated lightly, light issues treated seriously, and it all works out in the end.

Walter is married to Sally and is entirely useless with money, powering through both their allowances so that he has to ponder “why shouldn’t I do some work? If you come to think of it, lots of people do. I might bring out a book of poems in handwriting with corrections.”

Thankfully for the reading public, they are asked instead to look after Sally’s relative’s enormous country pile in Scotland. They take their friend Albert, who has no idea what to do with himself after Eton and Oxford until “It had come to him during the night that he wished to be a great abstract painter”; and Jane, who “had taste without much intellect, her brain was like a mirror, reflecting the thoughts and ideas of her more intelligent friends and the books she read.”

Keeping company with these Bright Young Things are all the ancient types who descend on Dulloch Castle every year for the shooting season.

“Lord Prague, it may be noted, was to all intents and purposes dead, except on shooting days when he would come to life in the most astonishing manner”

There’s also the massively racist General Murgatroyd who is violent to his dog and didn’t get the come-uppance I’d hoped for (his racism is never condoned, although some portraits of Scottish locals leave a lot to be desired), Lady Prague who is astonishingly rude to all, and Lady Brenda who has the appearance of “an overbred horse”, not helped by her habit of blowing smoke through her nostrils.

What follows is this unlikely crowd getting on each other’s nerves, lying about a missing picnic, getting pregnant, getting engaged…

Thankfully the blood sports are not described in great detail, it’s more about the ridiculous antics of people on the shoot. I do wish someone had rescued Murgatroyd’s poor dog though.

Obviously you need a high tolerance for silly toffs to read Mitford. I enjoy her writing and I did think this was fun, but as I said at the start, not quite as incisive or as funny as she would later achieve.

“Nobody dies in childbirth now, my dear. It’s considered quite vieux jeu.”

To end, something that was absolutely nothing to do with the plot, but did make me smile. For those of us irritated by schoolkids playing music out loud on their mobile phones on public transport, Albert has this experience on the train:

“They then began to play vulgar jazz tunes on a portable gramophone, a noise which Albert found more supportable than their chatter.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose 😀

“People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” (Rebecca West)

A definite theme of the blog this year has been me being late for reading events. This will probably be my final post of 2018 so it’s apt to end on yet another belated entry, this time for Rebecca West Day in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, which was 21 December.

I’d hoped to do a post on two books, but the second half of this year has also seen me sluggish in both reading and blogging, so it’s just the one novel, The Fountain Overflows (1956), the first in the trilogy about the Aubrey family.

The story starts in 1900 and is narrated by Rose, one of four children of Piers and Clare. Piers is a gambling addict, and so although he and his wife are from genteel backgrounds, they survive on the brink of absolute destitution. The children grow up moving from place to place.

“We were experts in disillusion, we had learned to be cynical about fresh starts even before we ourselves made our first start”

Despite this, the children are not timid or anxious, but rather self-reliant and independent. Their mother is devoted to their father, as they all are, and the children clear-sightedly see their struggles.

“But I did not trust her. I loved her. Still I could see that she had been tripped by the snare of being grown up, she lay bound and struggling and helpless […] we children could always deceive her. Had it not been so we could not have provided for her happiness half as well as we did.”

West achieves a delicate balance in the portrayal of the Aubrey adults. It would be very easy to create to caricatures of a selfish, wastrel father and downtrodden female victim:

“ ‘Oh I am getting old and ugly, but it is not that. I cannot compete with debt and disgrace, which is what he really loves.’ “

Yet Clare never seemed especially weak to me. Her focus is music, and this takes priority over everything else. Rose and her sister Mary are gifted and practice incessantly, their brother Richard Quin is also talented but more interested in juggling and sports; their poor sister Cordelia has no talent and refuses to acknowledge it, egged on by a music teacher who is in love with her and so blind to her faults.

The Aubrey household is an intellectual one, with priorities very different to those around them in the south London suburb where they live.

“’You are allowed to read the newspapers now. I hope you will not attach too much importance to them. They give you a picture of a common-place world that does not exist. You must always believe that life is as extraordinary as music says it is.’”

West can be a colourful writer and there are elements of that here, with supernatural events and poltergeists related as matter-of-factly as trips to the House of Commons and music concerts. There isn’t a strong over-arching plot but enough to pull the reader along. The story has sadness in it, as any family with an addict in it will know, but it is not depressing because Rose’s voice is strong, unapologetic and funny in it’s unblinking assessment of those who surround her:

 “Her colouring recalled a doll left out in the rain, she had the dislocated profile of a camel”

However, as a reader I found it very hard to indulge Piers as much as his wife and children did. To me he was utterly selfish and self-focussed even without his gambling, without the slightest scruple as to the risk he placed his family in.

“I had a glorious father, I had no father at all.”

The Aubrey’s practical cousin Rosamund and Aunt Constance frequently live them as they are also subject to a husband who refuses to provide, although in a very different way to Piers. There is plenty here about what led to first-wave feminism in the UK without being didactic. The men are fairly appalling but not judged harshly (except by me). Rather, West’s focus is the constraints which prevent women being able to sort things for themselves. There’s also a recurring focus on women’s clothes and how the start of the twentieth century saw female oppression made explicit through the fashions:

 “ ‘Any tragic scene in those days necessarily appeared grotesque, because of the clothes worn by the women […] Today she would have the right to look like that, plain and distraught and like a hen, but she was compelled by the mode of the day to make herself as absurd as a clown by wearing a hat the size of a tea-tray, which dipped and jerked and swayed as often as she did, which was perpetually.”

Hence the Virago cover:

All in all I greatly enjoyed meeting the idiosyncratic, independent-minded Aubrey family. The characters were wholly believable, the evocation of a lost time done without nostalgia, and West had plenty to say about wider Edwardian society. I’ll look forward to spending more time with the Aubreys through the two sequels.

“We had very often been sharply warned against sentimentality, and though we might have been able to define it only vaguely as the way one should not play Bach, we recognised it.”

And so it just remains for me to wish you all the festivities of your choosing and leave you with a non-Christmassy song (because you may well be sick of them by now) from a great Christmas film which I watched yesterday, Scrooged:

“I loved Mr. Darcy far more than any of my own husbands.” (Rumer Godden)

Today is Rumer Godden Day in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. I’m so grateful that this prompted me to read the two by Godden I had in the TBR, as she’s quickly become a new favourite.  Godden is such an accomplished writer; her books are so readable and her use of language is stunning.

Image from here

Firstly, Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953), which I started reading with some trepidation. I expected a novel about a 1950s English woman living in India to be filled with white entitlement and comic/exoticised portraits of the locals. Thankfully, Godden is far too sophisticated an author to do anything so crass, and the comic portrait is resolutely reserved for the clueless but well-meaning white foreigner, Sophie.

“To the Pundit, Sophie was precisely like any other European or American, only more friendly; the friendliness alarmed him. ‘These people are poor and simple…’ he began, but Sophie interrupted him.

‘We shall be poor and simple too,’ she said with shining eyes.

‘But madam, the peasants are rapacious…’

To that Sophie would not listen. Like many people there were some words about which she was sentimental; one of these was ‘peasant’. ‘Peasants are simple and honest and kindly and quiet,’ she said. ‘They don’t want what they don’t possess. They have the wisdom to stay simple. They don’t want to change.’”

This idealistic young woman crashes into Kashmir with her two children, estranged from her husband and determined to establish a life for herself. Yet the portrait of Sophie is a subtle one: she is oblivious to the needs of her children and to the cultural differences between her and her neighbours, but somehow not arrogant, just hopelessly naïve.

“Teresa could not count how many times they had moved, but each time the small ballast of hopes and plans they had collected was thrown overboard and everyone they had known was left behind.

Moo did not care. Like a little seed that is blown and can grow anywhere, on a rocky ledge, in a crack of earth, he lived a contained contented small life of his own no matter where he went. To Moo it did not matter but Teresa had roots, they were tender, soft and trailing…”

Poor Teresa. She is sensible and understands so much more than her adult parent. She also cares for Moo, who is probably on the autistic spectrum and in his own world.

In describing how Sophie and her children live in Kashmir, Godden adopts an interesting approach by having the story interjected with later reflections from Sophie and her family. So the narrative will be interrupted with comments like “‘But you were not qualified to teach Urdu,’ said Toby afterwards.” It’s not a technique I’ve seen before and it doesn’t jar as much as I would expect. The effect is to temper Sophie’s idealism and blind actions. It works to offset what sceptical readers (ie me) might be thinking: ‘but that’s just ridiculous, she’ll never make that work…’ etc. It keeps the story grounded even when the main protagonist ricochets from one ill-conceived action to the next.

Godden wrote Kingfishers Catch Fire based on her own experiences of India and her love of the land is obvious:

“There were no ceilings, only cross beams stuffed with dried furze as in most Kashmiri peasant houses. There was no glass in the windows, only hanging window shutters, no water system of course, no lighting, but it was a rarely beautiful little house. In summer it was hung with vines and honeysuckle and white-scented roses, and all around it were flowering trees….Above it all the mountain reared its head while below, lay the lake and its reflections and, far, the horizon of snow peaks.”

The plot is a deceptive one. I was enjoying what I thought was comic novel about the escapades of a fairly clueless woman; then suddenly things took a very dark turn and I found myself racing towards the end, desperate to know what happened and for things to work out well.

I loved the ending. This pithy comment on stealthy imperialism summed it up for me:

“The missionaries worked for the people but did not respect them. For all their love and zeal the wanted to bend them, bend them out of their own truth”

The message I took from Kingfishers Catch Fire was one of resolutely sticking to your own truth, whilst acknowledging and respecting other people’s. I just loved it.

Behold my slightly battered, kitschy-covered editions:

Secondly, China Court (1961). This is another story of a dilapidated house and the woman who loves it, but otherwise very different to Kingfishers Catch Fire. The titular pile is the Victorian home of five generations of the Quin family set in the Cornish moors and built on the proceeds of china clay works.

“When one of the…rose bowls or vases is rung it gives off a sound, clear, like a chime, the ring of true porcelain, so China Court gives off the ring of a house, a true home.”

The story begins with the death of Mrs Quin, the matriarch who has resolutely stayed in China Court against all her family’s wishes (except her granddaughter) and looks at what happens after her death as her family besiege the house for the reading of the will.

The story moves back and forth across the generations. There is no indication when this will happen; scenes cut between the various family members, all in present tense. Again, this stylistic experiment doesn’t jar nearly as much as I would expect. Instead it captures a sense of the house holding all the members of the family at any one time, the echoes of their steps and their voices all layered upon one another.

“Homes must know a certain loneliness because all humans are lonely, shut away from one another, even in the act of talking, of loving. Adza cannot follow Eustace in his business deals and preoccupations as she cannot follow Mcleod the Second or Anne or Jared – no one can follow Eliza. Mr King Lee, kissing Damaris, has no inkling of the desolation he has brought her, just as Groundsel only half guesses Minna’s; Jared hides himself from Lady Patrick, and John Henry and Ripsie, in their long years together are always separated by Borowis

[…]

Loneliness can be good. Mrs Quin learns that in the long companionship of the years after Tracy goes, when she and Cecily are alone in the house; companionship of rooms and stairs, of windows and colours; in the gentle ticking away of the hours, the swinging pendulum of the grandfather clock. ‘I was happy,’ Mrs Quin could have said. Contented loneliness is rich because it takes the imprint of each thing it sees and hears and tastes”

This for me was the central theme of China Court: the value of everyday domesticity. The characters who recognise it are fulfilled and live rich lives that outwardly appear narrow but in reality connect with something fundamental that enables a wider kinship with others.

The portraits of the individuals run seamlessly and as the novel progresses they weave together for a complex depiction of family, and how histories are cyclical, building on what has gone before.

Mrs Quin is an avid gardener, and as in Kingfishers…there are beautiful descriptions of the natural world, but also of food and the various meals the family have taken together over the years.

“Now Cecily brought in saffron cake, buttered scones hot in a silver dish, brown bread and butter thin as wafers, quince jelly and strawberry jam from China Court quinces and strawberries; she had made shortbread, fruitcake and because Tracy likes them as a child, thin rolled ginger-snaps filled with cream.”

Gradually the family histories build towards a brilliant denouement in the present day of the novel. It’s dramatic but believable and once again I found myself racing towards the end. And the end is where I encountered my first reservation about Godden’s writing. To discuss it I’ll have to include a SPOILER so skip to the end of this paragraph if you don’t want to know. Here it is: an act of domestic violence takes place, an act which is quickly forgiven and leads to sex. I think it’s a dramatic device to shock a couple who aren’t communicating well (a recurring theme in the novel) towards honesty and resolution, but reading this almost 60 years after it was written, times have changed and it was just horrible. I know from films of the time that slaps and spankings were freely given, but I’d be very surprised if this worked for modern readers.

This one incident aside, China Court is a wonderful portrait of a house and a family, beautifully evoked and fully realised with fondness but without sentimentality.

“ ‘We were truly kin,’ says Mrs Quin, and it is true that Tracy is like her grandmother in many ways; for instance, both, from the moment they first see it, are enslaved by China Court.”

To end, regular readers will know there are no depths to which I won’t sink in order to shoehorn in an 80s pop video. So please pardon the pun that has enabled my childhood hair icons to be this week’s choice:

“Don’t let people know the facts about the political and economic situation; divert their attention to giant pandas, channel swimmers, royal weddings and other soothing topics.” (George Orwell, I Have Tried to Tell the Truth: 1943-1944)

How depressing is it that Orwell not only hasn’t aged at all, but seems more pertinent than ever? Let’s distract ourselves from the dystopian nightmare we’re living with a few books… here is my contribution to the 1944 Club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. Do join in!

Firstly, The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann. Told from the point of view of 10-year old Rebecca in the years just before World War I, it is the story of a captivating older woman, Sibyl Jardine and her extraordinary family. Sibyl was friends with Rebecca’s grandmother, and invites Rebecca and her siblings to pick primroses on her property. Rebecca is entranced by the charismatic Mrs Jardine from the start:

“It sounded strange to us that a person should so reveal her feelings: we did not say things like that in our family, though I dreamed of a life where such pregnant statements should lead on to drama and revelation.”

But Mrs Jardine’s magnetic nature comes at a price. People are manipulated by her, dominated by her, and subdued by her:

“Now that Mrs Jardine had gone, the electrifying meaning with which her presence always charged the air began to dissolve. The arrows of her words fell harmlessly out of the copper beech on to the grass around us, and we kicked them aside and drew together, an ordinary group of children going for a picnic.”

Yet because it is told from the point of view of a child, we never quite get to the core of Sibyl Jardine. She remains enigmatic, always slipping out of reach:

“Mrs Jardine, pausing at the end of the herbaceous border, mused. For the first time in her actual presence the sense pierced me directly: that she was wicked. A split second’s surmise. But when next moment I looked up at her, there was her profile lifted beautifully above me, serene and reassuring as a symbol in stone.”

The Ballad and the Source is an odd novel. The child’s point of view is not child-like; the events of Mrs Jardine’s life are melodramatic to say the least (abandoned children, incest, mental illness) and much of the novel is reported speech as Mrs Jardine and her maid Tilly tell Rebecca the life story which is wholly unsuited to a child’s understanding. It has also dated: regional accents sound stereotyped and the portrayal of mental illness is clumsy.

Yet the novel is beautifully written and highly readable. It demonstrates the high price paid by women for emancipation when they have no power. Ultimately what propelled me through the novel was the character of Sibyl Jardine. Like Rebecca, I found her complex and compelling, and I couldn’t wait to see where this intriguing woman took me next.

Secondly, The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault. Set between the wars, it follows seventeen-year-old Elsie Lane as she leaves her Cornwall home to find her older sister Leo. Elsie’s parents are in a deeply toxic marriage and Elsie escapes into fantasy, trying to make herself invisible. As a result she is immature and naïve:

“She was a dim, unobtrusive girl. One might conjecture that she had been afraid to grow up, lest the change should attract attention to her […] The fact that she went nowhere, met nobody but her mother’s friends, and lived in a world of her own imagination had suspended her in the most awkward stage of adolescence for quite three superfluous years.”

It is a visit from locum doctor Peter which spurs her into action. His half-baked ideas about psychology means he seduces timid female patients to cheer them up, not noticing the heartbreak and disappointment he causes when he fails to follow thorough on the fantasies he has encouraged. He is not cruel or vindictive, but he is vain and self-centred:

“His dislike of hurting anyone was entirely genuine, as traits which people use for effect often are; and from this it followed that if anyone insisted on being hurt by him, he found the injury hard to forgive.”

Elsie thinks the drama of running away will bring her and Peter together. When she finds Leo, her sister is living on a houseboat on the Thames outside London, with the lovely Helen. Leo dresses boyishly and writes Westerns for a living; to the reader it is entirely obvious how Leo is living her life but Elsie never realises what her sister’s sexuality is. The Friendly Young Ladies is quite progressive in its portrayal of how sexuality is not fixed, and how being gay is not a source of torture and self-loathing (it was written as an antidote to The Well of Loneliness):

“Her way of life had always seemed to her natural and uncomplex, and obvious one, since there were too many women, for the more fortunate of the surplus to rearrange themselves; to invest it with drama or pathos would have been in her mind a sentimentality and a kind of cowardice.”

(Interestingly, my Virago edition, published in 1984, still referred to Mary Renault as emigrating to South Africa ‘with her close friend Julie Mullard’. I wouldn’t have expected such coy obfuscation from a progressive late-twentieth century publisher.)

Peter ends up visiting the houseboat and trying to seduce both Leo and Helen. He knows they are in a relationship, but his vanity knows no bounds:

“Eccentricity in women always boiled down to the same thing. She wanted a man.”

What ensues is a comedy but one that contains sadness and hurt. The delicate balance of relationships in the houseboat is upset and changed irrevocably by Elsie’s naïve blundering and Peter’s vain manipulations.

I really enjoyed The Friendly Young Ladies. Elsie and Peter are both infuriating, but also funny and fondly drawn. The relationships between the four and the neighbour Joe are shown as complex and subject as much to what is not said as what is voiced. The character studies are carefully drawn and wholly believable.

My edition of this novel included an Afterword by Mary Renault in which she observes:

“on re-reading this forty-year-old novel for the first time in about twenty years, what struck me most was the silliness of the ending.”

So, not a flawless novel, but very much a readable one.

To end, 1944 was the year my mother was born. It was a home birth (no NHS!) and my grandmother heard this song being whistled in the street outside the window. Mum’s a big Johnny Cash fan so this is the version I’ve plumped for:

“Slumps are like a soft bed. They’re easy to get into and hard to get out of.” (Johnny Bench)

Oh dear Reader, its been a long time. Being British, I blame the weather. The hot period we had slowed my reading pace to that of a particularly lethargic snail, putting paid to my plans for the second half of #WITMonth. Then it took me far beyond the hot weather to recover firstly my reading and then my blogging and I posted absolutely nothing in September, despite hoping to participate in the wonderful Persephone Readathon hosted by Jessie at Dwell in Possibility. Thankfully Jessie said I could post ridiculously late, so here is the first of 2 very much belated posts looking at some lovely Persephone reads.

Firstly, Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple (1953), which is Persephone No.3. I was trepidatious regarding this novel: a weak man cheats on his wife. Boo-hoo. But so many bloggers love this novel and of course they didn’t steer me wrong. It’s completely wonderful. Whipple is so witty, her writing is so perfectly judged, and her psychological insights so clear, that this novel was a brilliant study of human relationships. This is going to be a very quote-heavy review…

The novel begins with a portrait of an elderly matriarch whose son lives close by with his family.

“ ‘Why don’t you come and live with me? This great empty house…!’ said old Mrs North from time to time.

But her invitation was not accepted and she really didn’t want it to be. As it was she was able to nurse a perpetual grievance against her daughter-in-law for not coming to see her more often, and if she had her on the premises, she would have had to let that grievance go.”

Mrs North decides that she would like a companion though, so she advertises and chooses a young French woman, Louise, from the respondents. Louise is icy and brutal:

“The sight of other people’s happiness irritated her. Happy people were so boring. It was unintelligent to be happy, Louise considered. Her face took on an expression of cold reserve.”

She has been hurt in the past, but all the same, it is hard to feel any sympathy for her. She is shallow as a puddle, only interested in material gain. She cares nothing for people because she looks down on them all.

“She hated men, she told herself. But unfortunately it was through them that women had to get what they wanted, at any rate, women like herself. She was no career woman. No slaving in an office or profession for her. For a woman gifted in her own particular way as she was, there would be no need for that, she remarked to herself, as if discussing the situation with a friend such as she had never had.”

Mrs North adores Louise, because she is charmed by her. The rest of the family see her a little more clearly, but she still becomes embroiled in their lives. Avery and Ellen are happily married, their children are well-adjusted. Ellen is a homemaker while Avery works in town as a publisher; their separate spheres suit both as Avery wines and dines clients and Ellen runs the house and enjoys her garden.

“Ellen was what she was because she had never had reason to be otherwise. She had everything: a handsome husband, money, children, a charming house. All the same, Louise quite liked her.”

Louise returns to England a second time and at this point her affair with Avery starts. Whipple doesn’t demonise Louise, brutal and self-obsessed though she is, because she is a fully realised character. She is wholly believable as a damaged woman who wreaks havoc with total disregard for those who stand in her way. She has an affair with Avery because it suits her. She believes she will gain from it and so she makes it happen.

Whipple is brilliant and capturing the tragedy of lives torn apart when there are no huge scenes and you have to carry on to some degree.

“The first silence fell between them. Although, like an early snowflake, it didn’t lie. It melted away in the morning, and everything seemed as before.”

The tragedy of the disintegration of the North’s home is presented clearly and without sentimentality. Their daughter Anne is perhaps the greatest casualty:

 “Until now, Anne had run joyfully forward, but now she was halted. She shrank back. She had learnt suspicion and distrust and most of all the fear of life that sickens the youthful heart and from which it takes so long to recover, if recover it does.”

Yet the adults suffer too. Ellen has had her complacent contentment ripped away from her, leading a life she never imagined.

“She added a boiled egg to the belated tea, to make one meal do for two. She had joined the great army of solitary women who have boiled eggs at night, the women without men.”

Meanwhile Avery, stuck with Louise because his pride won’t let him beg Ellen for forgiveness, soon realises that all he was depended on the bedrock of his home:

“His assets had been self-confidence, ability to get on with people, good looks, good humour, and much charm. Where were they now?”

Someone at a Distance manages to be both simple and hugely complex. The plot is straightforward and the circumstances it portrays are ordinary. Yet the psychology of the characters and the fallout of the betrayal are subtle and multi-layered. There is plenty here about the role of women: Louise feels trapped in bourgeoise circumstance and gets out the best way she knows how; Ellen has to learn to deal with the practicalities of finance while realising all that she did in building a home was so easily overlooked, by both herself and her family:

“She wondered if she would ever be able to take pleasure in things for themselves. For twenty years she had evidently taken pleasure in things so that she could use them for her husband and her children, pass them on to them in the way of beauty or food or comfort.”

This would be a great read for a book group. I can imagine the 3 adult characters would really divide people, with some seeing Louise as an all-out villain, Avery as a spineless creep and Ellen as pathetic. I didn’t feel this way, much as I disliked Louise, thought Avery an arrogant fool, and wanted to subject Ellen to a lecture on female emancipation. I found it very human and very believable, incredibly sad but not without hope.

Secondly, Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski (1949) which is Persephone No.28. This short novel is a heart-breaking portrayal of the impact of war on individuals, and how wounds that are unseen can tear people apart.

Hilary Wainwright is a British poet, who lost his wife and child in the Second World War in France. He knows his wife is dead, but there is a glimmer of hope that his son survived. Hilary has been so damaged by the conflict though, that his wish to be reunited with his son is complicated:

 “If only the boy were already found, he thought, if I were married to Joyce, if my life were established, my conscience quieted and the old enchantments finally dead. But to achieve this I must kill the enchantments, myself undergo the agony of their death which will be the final death of the happiness Lisa and I has together. But I have no courage, I recoil from the pains of leaving the past behind.”

On the one hand Hilary makes his son a cipher: a symbol of perfection, of lost innocence, of what can never be regained. He’s not sure he wants him found. On the other hand, he wants his flesh-and-blood son back. The search, propelled by a man, Pierre, who feels he owes a debt to Hilary’s dead wife Lisa, leads to an orphan called Jean. Hilary is never sure the small boy is his, and as they spend time together it is apparent that both are lost:

“ ‘Hardly any boys get presents in wartime, because – because people are busy making guns.’ He meant his voice to sound reassuring but it came out choked with anger. The child looked frightened, but whispered doggedly, ‘The other boys have birthdays, and they get presents.’”

Hilary is far from perfect: he is selfish and not particularly likeable. Yet it is so clear that he is selfish because he cannot get past his own fear that love will open him to hurt again, and any more pain may mean he collapses completely. All the same, I couldn’t really see why, if he liked Jean and felt a connection, he didn’t just adopt him anyway. But then I think genetics are the least of what makes a family. Even without my investment in wanting to know if Jean is Hilary’s son, Little Boy Lost is a compulsive read, precisely written and tightly plotted.

Laski captures the absolute devastation of war: the wreckage of France, the malnourished orphans, the lost souls, without didacticism. She shows the futility of violence, and the struggle for humans to find meaning and integrity in the face of a world that seems intent on blotting these things out:

“The only good thing we can do, the only goodness we can be sure of, is our own goodness as individuals and the good that we can do individually. As groups we often do evil that good may come and very often good does not come and all that is left is the evil we have pointlessly done.”

To end, a tenuous link to say the least. Bing Crosby was in the film adaptation of Little Boy Lost, which by all accounts is pretty dire. So instead of a clip from that, here is Lord High Commander David Bowie singing Heroes on the Bing Crosby Show:

Contempt – Alberto Moravia (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #48)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  The posts have been a bit too occasional, the challenge is taking me forever! I’m hoping this post will see me starting to build momentum again. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books.

Contempt (Il disprezzo) by Alberto Moravia (1954 trans. Angus Davidson 1999) is a novel with a title that instructs the reader regarding the attitude to take to the narrator: Molteni is truly contemptible.

He is married to the gorgeous Emilia and at first they are very happy together, despite their poverty, as Molteni tries to make a living as a writer and earn enough to keep them in their modest home.

“Thus I never had so much to complain of as I did during the time when in truth – as I later came to realise – I was completely and profoundly happy.”

Gradually however, things start to unravel. They meet Battista, a crass, vulgar film producer. A seemingly innocuous event occurs but from this time Emilia starts to treat Molteni coolly. And so over the course of this short novel we see the disintegration of the marriage, the causes of which are entirely apparent to the reader but remain elusive to Molteni as he is so utterly self-absorbed.

He’s a terrible snob: he looks down on his wife for being less educated than him and has dreams of being a great writer. He feels his scriptwriting is beneath him yet he doesn’t really excel at that either, trying to write a film version of The Odyssey for co-producers with very different ideas. He’s so busy being intellectual that life is passing him by and he has no idea how incredibly stupid he is.

He has a degree of insight into abstract concepts, such as his decision to become a Communist, but is unable to translate it into meaningful action:

“Usually, in simpler, less cultivated people, this process occurs without their knowing it, in the dark depths of consciousness where, by a kind of mysterious alchemy, egoism is transmuted into altruism, hatred into love, fear into courage, but to me, accustomed as I was to observing and studying myself, the whole thing was clear and visible…yet I was aware the whole time I was being swayed by material, subjective factors, that I was transforming purely personal motives into universal reasons.”

The irony when he claims “I would never have become a Communist if I had not bought the lease of that over-expensive flat” completely passes him by.

And of course, he is completely blinded to the person he shares his life with. Emilia become progressively unhappier throughout the novel, which Molteni barely acknowledges, being so wrapped up in himself:

“Her beauty had about it a look of subjection, of reluctance, the cause of which I was at a loss to identify.”

It’s a short novel so I can’t say too much about plot, except things come to a head when the couple holiday with Battista in Capri, changing their lives irrevocably. Contempt shows how intellectualism and artistry carry a danger of relentless self-focus; coupled with Molteni’s material concerns, he loses all sight of people and human feelings, only realising where true meaning lies when it is too late.

I couldn’t have spent too much longer with Molteni but as a short, sharp novel, Contempt works well and has plenty of food for thought.

To end, the trailer for Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (1963), which was inspired by Contempt: