“Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.” (Mark Twain)

Hey freshers! If you’re reading this, it means only one thing: you survived Fresher’s Week! Congratulations! Now get yourself dosed up on alka seltzer and down to the GUM clinic, pronto.

If there’s one thing I’m expert on, other than TV detectives and cheese, its being a student. I’m ridiculously overqualified and not studying anything for the past 2 years is the longest I’ve ever gone without sitting a course of some kind, probably ever. I’m feeling decidedly twitchy and trying to decide what I want to educate myself in next (current contenders: whisky tasting/dry stone walling (not a huge demand in London, admittedly)/ French language) but until that time I’ve gone back to college via 2 wonderful novels. And for all those students out there, pay attention to your older, wiser Madame B, and remember:

Firstly, Stoner by John Williams (1963), which is something of a rediscovered classic in recent years, with effusive praise heaped on it from all quarters. In this instance I thought the hype was absolutely deserved. Stoner is a beautifully written, acutely observed portrait of an ordinary life which is deeply moving.

William Stoner grows up on a farm without books, until his father takes the remarkable decision that Stoner should study agriculture at the University of Missouri, which he joins in 1910. What no-one foresees, least of all Stoner himself, is that he will fall in love, with literature:

“As his mind engaged itself with its subject, as it grappled with the power of the literature he studied and tried to understand its nature, he was aware of a constant change within himself”

And so we follow Stoner as he becomes a student of literature, then a teacher, and never leaves the university.

“Sometimes he stood in the centre of the quad, looking at the five huge columns in front of Jesse Hall that thrust upward into the night out of the cool grass… Grayish in the moonlight, bare and pure, they seemed to him to represent the way of life he had embraced, as a temple represents a god.”

The life Stoner leads is very ordinary: he makes a disastrous marriage but they stick it out, he becomes an OK teacher, he makes friends and enemies, he has a loving but complex relationship with his daughter… nothing happens and everything happens. The writing is so good that you are pulled along through this everyday story just as much as you would be through a heavily plot-driven thriller.

Stoner is undeniably a sad novel. Stoner has a lot of loneliness in his life and he is victim to circumstances which he cannot control and which are grossly unfair, engineered by people who vent their pain on him. Yet it is not depressing, because he endures and he finds joy. For the bibliophile, there are some beautifully realised passages describing why we love literature:

“the epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put into words”

More generally, there is peace to be found in accepting the things we cannot change, and there is plenty Stoner cannot change:

“As he walked slowly through the evening, breathing the fragrance and tasting upon his tongue the sharp night-time air, it seemed to him that the moment he walked in was enough and he might not need a great deal more.”

I highly recommend this quietly heart-breaking novel.

Secondly, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (2012), which I never would have picked up, thinking it was a sports novel, if it wasn’t for Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best reassuring me that it definitely was about more than baseball (she’s right); you can read her review here.

The Art of Fielding follows Henry Skrimshader’s career at Westish College, where he is accepted due to his prowess on the baseball field. He is recruited there by Mike Schwartz, an ambitious jock whose knees are giving out; he rooms with Owen Dunne, a beautiful clean-freak who is also a highly talented player and who begins a problematic affair; and President Affenlight discovers a new love of baseball alongside other more surprising things, just as his troubled daughter Pella returns home.

“If Affenlight were to list the things he loved, he wouldn’t include Westish – that would seem silly, like saying you loved yourself. He spent half his time frustrated with, ambivalent about, annoyed at the place. But anything that happened to alter the fortunes of Westish College, Affenlight took more seriously than if it were happening to himself.”

Henry’s career at Westish does not go smoothly and his crisis affects all those around him. There is quite a lot about baseball in the novel and it all went over my head seeing as how I’ve never watched a game in my life and don’t really plan to change this, but it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the novel in the slightest. Harbach’s writing reminded me a bit of Richard Russo, in that it captures a slightly old-fashioned, all-American life, but is involving and affecting because of this, rather than nostalgic and distancing. The focus is very much on well-drawn, idiosyncratic characters and their relationships, so that you feel absolutely drawn into their lives.

I may not know much about baseball, but what Harbach taught me is what I’ve always suspected, that for people who get it, sports and life are one and the same:

“What would he say to her, if he was going to speak truly? He didn’t know. Talking was like throwing a baseball. You couldn’t plan it out beforehand. You just had to let go and see what happened.  You had to throw out words without knowing anyone would catch them – you had to throw out words you knew no one would catch. You had to send your words out where they weren’t yours anymore.”

Really, The Art of Fielding is about love. Love between friends, parents and children, siblings, lovers, team mates, teacher and student, platonic, romantic, familial… in all its guises. And in that it is deeply moving. The ending isn’t sad but it still made me cry on the bus, dammit.

To end, a song I heard last week for the first time in years, and which took me straight back to my first foray into further education:

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“The pollen count, now that’s a difficult job. Especially if you’ve got hay fever.” (Milton Jones)

Normally I celebrate the end of June thusly:

Unfortunately due to the weird summer we’re having (unseasonably hot/unseasonably cold on repeat) the scourge of my life, the devil’s seed, aka grass pollen, is still in abundance and I am refusing to go anywhere that isn’t made of concrete/steel/brick, or some combination thereof.

Well, I’ll tell you, Leo. You live through books of course, same as always. So this week I’m visiting my favourite London park, Regent’s, via two wonderful novels.

Firstly, The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948), where protagonist Stella lives near Regent’s Park and where the opening scene sees counterspy Harrison flirting with Louie, an ordinary young woman who is open to affairs while her husband is away fighting the war.

“The very soil of the city at this time seemed to generate more strength: in parks outsize dahlias, velvet and wine, and the trees on which each vein in each yellow leaf stretched out perfect against the sun blazoned out the idea of the finest hour. Parks suddenly closed because of time-bombs – drifts of leaves in the empty deckchairs, birds afloat on the dazzlingly silent lakes – presented, between the railings which still girt them, mirages of repose.”

This eerie quality pervades the whole novel. While there is a plot – Harrison wants Stella to spy on her lover Robert, who is spying for the Germans – I felt this was not the driving force of what Bowen is writing about. Instead I think what she is considering is a very specific generation of people at an extraordinary moment in time.

 “Younger by a year or two than the century, [Stella] had grown up just after the First World War with the generation which, as a generation, was come to be made to feel it had muffed the catch. The times, she had in her youth been told on all sides, were without precedent – but then so was her own experience: she had not lived before.”

There is a sense throughout the book of things left unsaid, sentences unfinished, and yet a deep understanding that exists between everyone living through the war.

“So among the crowds still eating, drinking, working, travelling, halting, there began to be an instinctive movement to break down indifference while there was still time. The wall between the living and the living became as solid as the wall between the living and the dead thinned. In that September transparency people became transparent, only to be located by the just dark flicker of their hearts.”

People behave in ways that they wouldn’t normally, but they can barely remember what normal is, or why they would behave that way in the first place. Bowen tends to overwrite, but as with the other novels of hers that I’ve read, this quality didn’t bother me as much as it does usually, and I felt it particularly apt here. I just let the writing and the atmosphere wash over me. Thankfully, I’ve not lived through that type of war, but to me Bowen seemed to have done an incredible job at capturing the heightened yet oddly detached experiences that would have occurred:

“But they were not alone, nor had they been from the start, from the start of love. Their time sat in the third place at their table. They were the creatures of history, whose coming together was of a nature possible in no other day”

The Heat of the Day is about the tragedy of war in the widest sense, where no guns go off and people carry on whilst feeling torn apart. Sad, desperate, quiet, and beautifully evoked.

Behind all those daisies the evil seed is just biding it’s time…

Next, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925) and my shortest review ever. Here it is: Virginia Woolf is a genius and Mrs Dalloway is pretty much a perfect novel. That is all.

I really don’t think I can review Mrs Dalloway. I find Woolf’s writing so rich, multi-layered and complex I feel I can’t possibly do it any kind of justice. Woolf’s treatment of a day in the life of society hostess Clarissa Dalloway and shell-shocked Septimus Smith is so sensitive and sophisticated, I feel like a gibbering idiot.  Instead here are some passages:

Clarissa: “She could see what she lacked. It was not beauty; it was not mind. It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together.”

Septimus in the park with his wife: “Happily Rezia put her hand with a tremendous weight on his knee so that he was weighted down, transfixed, or the excitement of the elm trees rising and falling, rising and falling with all their leaves alight and the colour thinning and thickening from blue to the green of a hollow wave, like plumes on horses’ heads, feathers on ladies’, so proudly they rose and fell, so superbly, would have sent him mad. But he would not go mad. He would shut his eyes; he would see no more.”

The recurring motif of the chiming of Big Ben: “The leaden circles dissolved in the air.”

Finally: “It was a splendid morning too. Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.”

*Sigh* Even if you’ve already done so, please read Mrs Dalloway. And then read it again.

To end, the most wonderful cinematic ending: Withnail and I, and the wolves of London Zoo viewed from Regent’s Park.

“It is better to break one’s heart than to do nothing with it.” (Margaret Kennedy)

This is my very, very late contribution to Margaret Kennedy Day, which is hosted by Jane over at Beyond Eden Rock. It took place on 20 June but Jane very kindly said that latecomers were welcome 🙂 Do head over to Jane’s blog to check out the other, more timely, contributions to Margaret Kennedy Day 2017!

Firstly, The Constant Nymph (1924).  This was a bestseller in its day (more than any other novel in the 1920s), adapted for stage and screen but fell into obscurity somewhat until Virago republished it in 1983.  In all honesty, I’m still working out how I feel about it. To me it was an odd novel, well-written and psychologically astute, but a strange, unsettling tale and tonally difficult to place. I do think my struggles with it show its worth though – better to be a challenging novel than one easily dismissed.  (I felt very uncomfortable that a grown man was sexually interested in the fourteen-year old nymph of the title, but Kennedy deals with this carefully so I’ll leave this to one side for the rest of the discussion, along with the anti-Semitic opinions voiced by various characters which were just horrible).

Albert Sanger is an unpleasant, selfish composer living in the Austrian Alps with his “Circus”: his most recent mistress, children by 3 different women, and assorted hangers-on. Amongst the rabble, fourteen-year old Tessa is quiet and steady and knows herself to be different:

“Living in a family of artists she had come to regard this implacable thing which took them as a great misfortune. Oddly enough it had missed her out; alone of the tribe she was safe from it. She did not believe that she would ever be driven to these monstrous creative efforts.”

When Sanger unexpectedly dies, leaving his huge family destitute, the Circus are split up. Tessa’s cousin Florence arrives on a mercy mission to rescue three of her relatives. Unfortunately for Tessa, this brings Florence into the orbit of Lewis, an aforementioned hanger-on, who Kennedy doesn’t even try to make appealing, and with whom Tessa has been in love since she was a child. Florence and Lewis fall in love, although there is a good mix of ambivalence in there too. Having proposed to Florence in a church, Lewis reflects:

“Once outside in the sunlight and traffic he could hardly make out how it had happened. The thing was absurd, unforeseen and unreasonable. But irrevocable now, and, on the whole, very pleasant. He was betrothed. Also he was very thirsty…”

Tessa is inconsolable, and yet the melodrama is tempered with humour and everyday considerations amongst the high-flown feelings:

 “the tears poured down her face…until she conceived the idea of trying to water a primula with them. Immediately the flood was dried, after the manner of tears when a practical use has been found for them.

‘And it would have been interesting,’ said Paulina sorrowfully, ‘to see if it would have made any difference to the primula.’”

The novel follows the love triangle back in England, as Tessa and her siblings try and adjust from their free-living Bohemian lifestyle to the strictures of an English boarding school, and Lewis and Florence’s marriage begins to disintegrate. Even Florence’s father sees how ill-matched they are:

“Lewis was a fool! If he had married little Tessa she would have made a man of him, whereas mated with Florence he was nothing but a calamity.”

The characterisation is excellent: Lewis is a distinctly unheroic, petulant protagonist and completely believable as a musician who struggles against his own shortcomings to realise his talent. Florence is complex; initially sweet-natured and gradually challenging our sympathies as she deals with her jealousy by being vicious to the blameless Tessa. Although Tessa is in many ways an archetypal faithful virgin, Kennedy stops her being emblematic by the gentle humour poked at the earnestness of adolescence.

The novel is also not wholly a romance, but also a consideration of art and how to create it, how to pursue it, the value we attach to it and the various ways in which it is consumed. This is done with a lightness of touch and Kennedy never lets the broader themes get in the way of the plot:

“Music, with all these people, came first; that was why they talked about it as if nobody else had any right to it. Once Florence had liked them all too well; now she understood them better she was frightened of them.”

The Constant Nymph is an intriguing novel, and I suspect one that I won’t entirely work out my feelings for until I re-read it. It’s certainly impressive, and Kennedy’s talent, for me, was never in doubt.

“She tilted her face up and they kissed, a clinging embrace that was more like a farewell than a greeting. To her than instant brought a pang, a dim echo of times past; to him, an apprehension of change, a foreshadowing of loss and grief to come.”

The Constant Nymph was made into a film four times. Here is the trailer for the 1943 version with the lovely Joan Fontaine as Tessa:

Secondly, Together and Apart (1936).

This sat more comfortably with me than The Constant Nymph and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Yet again, Kennedy manages to populate a novel with not very likeable people, but they are so wholly believable that the fascination is in witnessing their interactions and how situations play out.

Betsy has a privileged, comfortable life married to Alec. For reasons which are never entirely clear, she asks him for a divorce. She doesn’t care about his long-running affair, but feels she wants more from life and Alec is in her way:

“Now she was thirty-seven and she had never known real happiness. She had been cheated. Life had left her always hungry, always craving something and unable to put a name to it. She was perpetually craving for something that never happened. She looked forward to events, they happened, they were past and it was if nothing at all had happened.”

From my twenty-first century perspective I would say Betsy needs a job, and something beyond herself to think about…

Alec is, as he admits himself, an incredibly weak person who is steered by others, and so he grants the divorce despite not really wanting it, and promptly begins an affair with the children’s nanny. What follows is a brilliant study of the fallout of this everyday sadness on the couple, their new partners, their children and their friends. It is set in a time when divorce was becoming more common but still unusual, when attitudes were markedly different to today:

“Every petty grievance is raked up, even to little things that must have been forgiven and forgotten years ago. In 1920 he pushed her and she fell downstairs. Good heavens! One push is surely allowed in every marriage. I nearly told her that I once knocked you out with a hot water bottle.”

The children are spoilt, but also suffer, and Kennedy is brilliant at showing how the divorce causes their son Kenneth to unravel:

“He accepted nothing and pitied himself hysterically. He felt a grudge against the world because it had turned out to be a less pleasant place than he supposed.”

While their daughter Eliza grows up too quickly, forced into a domestic role she isn’t quite ready for.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say everything works out in the end. Which is not to say things work out perfectly. Lives are messy and Together and Apart shows how much of that mess is of our own making, but how we are myopic regarding our own situations and so clear-sighted regarding others. Once again, there are piercing, but sympathetic psychological insights:

“His body was always betraying him like this. It would not take fences which his soul so easily could have cleared.”

And some beautifully phrased observations, like young Kenneth and his friend on the beach:

“Even in bathing suits they had certain clerkly traits, a forward hitch of the shoulders as though long scholars gowns should have been streaming behind them in the salt wind.”

Margaret Kennedy is such an astute, funny and profound writer. I’m grateful to Jane for introducing me to her 🙂 And next Margaret Kennedy Day I’ll try and be on time!

To end, continuing the theme from last week of strange 80s spin-off pop groups (The Jam/The Style Council, now The Specials/Fun Boy Three), here is a wonderfully cynical take on marriage set to a tango:

 

“The difficulty of writing a second novel is directly proportional to how successful the first novel was, it seems.” (Khaled Hosseini)

A few weeks ago I went to the Royal Society of Literature’s panel at the British Library as part of their move to find the Nation’s Favourite Second Novel (as they pointed out on the night, this had caused no end of confusion as lots of people thought they were seeking out the Nation’s Second Favourite novel).  You can read all about the unsurprising but deserving winner here.

I’d thought growing up in London, with a mother who instructed me in no uncertain terms when I was about six that I was never to approach famous people even if they were Adam Ant, meant I was celebrity immune. But apparently this is because I’m crossing paths with the wrong type of celebrity. Put me in a room where Evie Wyld is on the panel and Eimear McBride is in the audience and the result is mass evacuation because I have spontaneously combusted with excitement.

Anyhoo….this rambling preamble is to say I’ve chosen second novels as the theme for this post, one from the RSL list and one off-piste.

Firstly, Thirst by Kerry Hudson (2015) which I was looking forward to because I’d really enjoyed Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. It tells the story of Alena and Dave as they fall in love over the course of a hot summer in London.

“he’d forgotten the sickness, right down to the soles of your feet, of wanting. To want and maybe allow yourself to have it and maybe be wanted back. He’d forgotten how terrifying wanting and having could be.”

It’s a sweet story, and about two people who aren’t often represented in literature: someone on low wage living above a kebab shop and an illegal immigrant. It’s a simple tale in many ways, charting the course of a romantic relationship. But there are potential complexities from the past of both Dave and Alena. Neither has behaved particularly well, and their secrets threaten the happiness they find with each other. Alena especially is in genuine danger:

“Dave only ran in the mornings but she was running all the time. She sustained herself on a diet of him, his kisses, his voice, his nearness. She sustained herself on promises, and silent deals and thoughts of three days time.”

Thirst is not as strong as Tony Hogan, which had verve and raw tenderness that this doesn’t quite match.  However, it’s a touching story and Hudson’s talent lifts the story above its rather simple premise. She excels at capturing beauty in places where it’s seldom recognised. She has a compassionate but unsentimental understanding of people and of both the damage and healing that can occur through love.

“As if she knew, lurking in the dark parts that had stayed, unbidden, inside her, that as soon as autumn did come, bringing the reek of dead leaves and fires and a cold that whispered across your skin like a lie, her old bad luck would be back too.”

Secondly, from the RSL second novels list, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926). This thinly-disguised biography describes the lives of American ex-pats living in Paris in the 1920s, who then travel to Pamplona to see the running of the bulls and enjoy the fiesta.

“We ate dinner at Madame Lecomte’s restaurant on the far side of the island. It was crowded with Americans and we had to stand up and wait for a place. Someone had put it in the American Women’s Club list as a quaint restaurant on the Paris quais as yet untouched by Americans so we had to wait forty five minutes for a table.”

It is narrated by Jake, a veteran whose war wound has rendered him impotent. He is in love with aristocratic Brett Ashley who ricochets from man to man.

“The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as if nothing could have any consequences.”

There is also much evidence of Hemingway’s love of bullfighting, which thankfully is not dwelt upon; there was only one passage that this blood-sport adverse reader had to skip.  Jake loves the bullfight so much he is accepted by the aficionados as one of their own:

 “Somehow it was taken for granted that an American could not have aficion. He might simulate it or confuse it with excitement, but he could not really have it. When they saw that I had aficion, and there was no password, no set questions that could bring it out, rather it was a sort of spiritual examination”

At first I thought this might be the end of my love affair with Hemingway. His simple prose style which offers such distilled beauty in his later writing seemed too basic here. But then I realised this was absolutely a stroke of genius. The novel is about the lost generation, the title taken from Ecclesiastes, referring to the insignificance and transience of humans:

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

The simple, almost detached, documentary style of the novel effectively captures the numb rootlessness of a generation who have endured great trauma and are now surviving without knowing exactly what their purpose is. This isn’t depressing – there is humour, such as the wise aphorism I’ll certainly bear in mind: “Road to hell paved with unbought stuffed dogs.” But there is bleakness to it, not least the anti-Semitism voiced by some characters, foreshadowing the devastation of the Holocaust.

Fiesta is a brilliantly observed, deceptively simple portrait of a particular group at a particular time, but with something to say beyond its immediate context, about the struggle of the individual to find meaning in the world.

“There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people.”

To end, totally unrelated to the post: over Easter I was given a delicious haul of cheese and now I’ve eaten so much I’m worried I’ve become half-human, half-dairy product:

 

“An intellectual carrot! The mind boggles.” (The Thing (From Another World), 1951)

This is my contribution to the 1951 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book – do join in!

Firstly, A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor. I loved Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont so once I saw Taylor had a novel published in 1951 this was an easy choice for me. Like Mrs Palfrey, it is a finely observed portrait of a life lived quietly, with its sadness not shied away from but without being depressing.

One summer after World War I, as she is on the brink of adulthood, Harriet falls in love with Vesey. I’ve no idea why as he seems proof that it’s possible for jellyfish to take on human form and he is wholly self-centred, but fall for him she does. It’s testament to Taylor’s writing that the male love-object being determinedly unheroic does not detract from the story at all. People fall for all sorts of unsuitable types and this is one example. Also, Taylor is a nicer person than me and does not judge him as harshly:

“The streak of cruelty which Lilian had perceived in him was real enough, but used defensively. He would not have wished to be cruel to Harriet, who had not threatened him. Indeed it had begun to seem to him that only she was set against the great weight of disapproval he felt upon him. His mother treated him, at best, with an amused kindliness. Among her friends she drew attention to him as if he were a beloved marmoset on a chain, somehow enhancing her own originality, decorating her.”

Their love affair is marked by very little happening. It is a series of minor misunderstandings, things unsaid, feelings unexpressed. This is absolutely Taylor’s strength: she is brilliant at depicting small devastations.

“All through the long winter and the spring, she would not have him near her; yet now, standing so close beside him, the moment which should have been so precious was worse than useless: it shrank, and stopped and curdled. These blue flowers she carried in her hand she would surely hate for the rest of her life.”

The novel then jumps forward fifteen years. Harriet is married to Charles, they have an adolescent daughter who is in love with her teacher, and Harriet has learnt to be a good wife:

“When she married Charles, she had seemed to wed also a social order. A convert to it, and to provincial life, and keeping-house, she had pursued it fanatically and as if she feared censure. No one had entertained more methodically or better bolstered up social interplay. She had been indefatigable in writing letters of condolence, telegrams of congratulation; remembered birthdays and anniversaries; remembered bread-and-butter letters and telephone messages after parties…”

When Vesey reappears, so do Harriet’s long-buried feelings. They embark on an affair, but again, it’s strangely uneventful. Given that Harriet’s mother was a suffragette and is best friends with Vesey’s aunt, the next generation of their families lack volition.

A Game of Hide and Seek is a wonderful novel filled with Taylor’s unblinking observations, humour and compassion. The supporting characters of Harriet’s husband, daughter, work colleagues and dreadful mother-in-law are all brilliantly drawn. There is ambiguity around some fairly major points in the novel, not least the ending. This is not a novel to read if you want answers and ends tied up neatly.  But if you want to have your heart broken just a little bit by a portrait of lives lived in quiet desperation, this is for you.

“Against him, against his calm and decision, she felt confused and incoherent; and, looking back on her married life, it seemed a frayed, tangled thing made by two strangers.”

Secondly, The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers. This is a collection of short stories, of which the titular story makes up half,  which I’ll focus on.  This was my first foray into both McCullers and Southern Gothic and I found it compelling. The Ballad of the Sad Café tells the story of Miss Amelia, a lynchpin in her local community despite being wholly unsympathetic to those around her. She runs the store and brews the alcohol and practices effective folk remedies.

“…when a man has drunk Miss Amelia’s liquor. He may suffer, or he may be spent with joy – but the experience has shown the truth; he has warmed his soul and seen the message hidden there.”

A hunchback arrives in town professing to be a distant relation of Miss Amelia and she adores him.  He is manipulative and untrustworthy, but things tick along.  He persuades her to turn the store into the café and she gives him all he desires, and probably a few things he doesn’t, such as her kidney stones set in a watch chain.

“For the lover is for ever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.”

Things change when Miss Amelia’s estranged husband is released from jail. He adored Miss Amelia and has taken her rejection of him badly. He arrives back in town and tensions begin to build.

“Any number of wicked things could be listed against him, but quite apart from these crimes there was about him a secret meanness that clung to him almost like a smell. Another thing – he never sweated, not even in August, and that surely is a sign worth pondering over.”

McCullers increases the tension throughout this short tale expertly, and her cast of characters are idiosyncratic but never caricatures.  Similarly, the gothic elements are not overwrought and fit well within the heady, tense atmosphere.  A short portrait of a small town tragedy.

The cultural significance of The Ballad of the Sad Café has been recognised through that most prestigious of accolades: a Sesame Street parody. If I was McCullers I’d be overjoyed 😀

“It is the gift of all poets to find the commonplace astonishing, and the astonishing quite natural.” (Margery Sharp)

This is my contribution to today’s celebration of Margery Sharp Day, hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock. Happy Birthday Margery!

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First, Cluny Brown (1944) which portrays one of the most original, idiosyncratic and appealing fictional heroines I’ve encountered:

“She looked like no one on earth but Cluny Brown, and at the same time, stepping in with the milk, she looked as though she belonged intimately to her surroundings.”

Cluny is a young woman, living with her plumber uncle as both her parents have died. She resolutely goes her own way and harms no-one, and can’t understand why people find her habits – such as the decision to stay in bed all day eating oranges – so objectionable.

“She had got to the Ritz. She had got as far as Chelsea – put her nose, so to speak, to a couple of doors – and each time been pulled back by Uncle Arn or Aunt Addie, people who knew what was best for her, only their idea of the best was being shut up in a box – in a series of smaller and smaller boxes until you were safe at last in the smallest box of all, with a nice tombstone on top.”

After a misunderstanding which sees Cluny fix the blocked sink of an amorous older man in Chelsea, Uncle Arn sends her away to service in Devon.

“She wasn’t resigned, for she was never that, but she felt a certain expectancy. At least something was happening to her and all her life that was the one thing Cluny Brown consistently desired.”

At the country house, Cluny encounters certain types: an upright colonel, a horticulturally obsessed matriarch, the feckless heir, a young society lady leaving a trail of broken hearts in her wake… yet in Sharp’s hands these portraits are wholly believable rather than clumsy stereotypes. A tentative love affair begins, and Cluny Brown is nothing if not contrary…

I won’t say any more for fear of spoilers. This novel is an unmitigated joy.  Comic and affectionate, Cluny Brown would be easy to dismiss as lacking depth. But it is so superbly written, with such verve and understanding of human beings, that to do so would be mistake. Invite Cluny into your life, she’ll charm you, I promise…

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Secondly, The Eye of Love (1957), the middle-aged love story of Harry Gibson and Dolores Diver.

“For ten years they’d given each other what each most wanted from life: romance. Now both were middle-aged, and if they looked and sounded ridiculous, it was the fault less of themselves than of time.

To be fair to Time, each had been pretty ridiculous even at the Chelsea Ball.”

To outsiders they appear ordinary, and laughable.  But to one another, viewed through the eye of love, they are brave, noble and glamorous:

“ ‘My Big Harry! My King Hal!’ cried Miss Diver.

‘My Spanish rose!’ cried Mr Gibson.

They clung together in ridiculous grief, collapsed together on the Rexine settee.”

The grief is due to Harry needing to marry the daughter of a business rival, in order to amalgamate the businesses and save his shop.

“He wanted her to want to be married, as he himself wanted not to be made a bankrupt; he had an idea that as between man and woman it came to much the same thing.”

And so it is a novel with lovers parted. We follow Harry’s attempts to integrate into a new family, and Miss Diver’s attempts to earn money without his support by taking in a lodger (Mr Phillips, who finds the house – which he believes his landlady owns – very attractive). Meanwhile, around the edge of all this trauma, is Miss Diver’s niece, Martha. A self-contained child who Sharp frequently describes as “stolid” Martha does as she pleases. She doesn’t attend school – Miss Diver didn’t arrange it and Martha has no inclination to go – and instead walks around town, sees her shopkeeper friends, and soon discovers an all-consuming passion for drawing.

“To say she didn’t like the new lodger would have been an over-simplification: and the true root of her malaise lay so deeply entwined with her innermost feelings, she couldn’t bring it to light. Put briefly, while Martha didn’t mind carrying up Mr Phillips tray, to have to look at him and say Good morning represented an imposition of alien will.”

I adored Martha. Stubborn, self-possessed, strong-willed and lacking any sentimentality, she was just wonderful. Sharp wrote two sequels about this unforthcoming heroine,  Martha in Paris and Martha, Eric and George, which I will hunt down forthwith.

Back to the adults. The Eye of Love is quite a feat, because while Sharp does not expect her readers to view Harry and Miss Diver as they view each other, at the same time she does not present them as harshly as the other characters judge them (particularly Miss Diver’s pretensions of Spanishness (real name Dorothy Hogg)). Her writing is acutely observed, with dry humour, but it is also kind.  The foibles of the characters are funny but oh-so-human.

 “At least once a day he took out Dolores’ comb, and warmed it back to life between his hands. He had to hang on hard to his Britishness, not to press it to his lips. A sad and ridiculous sight was Harry Gibson – large, stout, fifty years old – holding himself back from mumbling a wafer of tortoiseshell, as a child hangs back from sucking a forbidden sweet.”

Poor Harry. Poor Dolores.  Will they find their way back to one another? All I’ll say is, as with Cluny Brown, I thought the ending of The Eye of Love was perfect.

Well, it’s early days in 2017 but already things are looking up. I’ve met a new love in my life and I make no apologies for the gushing superlatives she inspires in me. Margery: where have you been all my life?

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If you’d like to know more about this wonderful author, do check out The Margery Sharp blog as well as all the other posts today 🙂

To end, I was going to go for a song from the period, but ultimately I chose this, as I think Cluny and Martha would approve of the sentiment:

 

“She had books, thank Heaven, quantities of books. All sorts of books.” (Jean Rhys, Quartet)

This is a further (mini) contribution (not my usual two-work blog post) to Jean Rhys Reading Week, hosted by Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal and Eric at Lonesome Reader. Do check out their blogs and join in!

Jean Rhys

This time I’m looking at Sleep It Off Lady (1976) which is Rhys’ final collection of stories, published 3 years before she died. The stories are presented in a chronological order of the age of the protagonist, so it almost feels like a dipping into and out of someone’s life at various points; from the two young sisters living in Dominica in the first story Pioneers, Oh Pioneers to the young woman in Paris in Night Out 1925, to the elderly woman living alone in the titular penultimate story.

This approach is not dissimilar to her longer fiction, such as Good Morning Midnight, which used stream of consciousness to build up a picture of a life from fractured parts. All the things I enjoy in Rhys’ longer fiction are evident in her short stories. For example…

Her humour used to highlight a serious issue – such as mental illness encountered by repressed Edwardian Brits in the colonies:

“‘If,’ said Mr Eliot ‘the man had apologized to my wife, if he’d shown the slightest consciousness of the fact that he was stark naked, I would have overlooked the whole thing. God knows one learns to be tolerant in this wretched place. But not a bit of it. He stared hard at her and came out with: ‘What an uncomfortable dress – and how ugly!’ My wife got very red.  Then she said: ‘Mr Ramage, the kettle is just boiling. Will you have some tea?’” (Pioneers Oh Pioneers)

Her unblinking look at sexual politics which degrade women and empower men. This takes an even darker turn when she documents the sexual assault of a twelve year old (this is written very sensitively and not at all gratuitously, but neither does it let the reader off the hook – we can’t ignore what has happened):

“He talked of usual things in a usual voice and she made up her mind that she would tell nobody of what had happened. Nobody. It was not a thing you could possibly talk about. Also, no one would be believe exactly how it had happened, and whether they believed her or not she would be blamed.” (Good-bye Marcus, Good-bye Rose)

And her startling observations that disconcert yet articulate something fundamental:

“But it was always the most ordinary things that suddenly turned round and showed you another face, a terrifying face. That was the hidden horror, the horror everyone pretended did not exist, the horror that was responsible for all the other horrors.” (The Insect World)

I’m so glad I took part in Jean Rhys Reading week as it encouraged me to explore this writer much sooner than I otherwise might have done.  I’ve no idea why, having rated Wide Sargasso Sea so highly when I first read it in my teens, I allowed Rhys to slip off my radar. Her writing seems drawn directly from her life yet she is able to explore themes that you don’t need to be an ex-colonial, chorus girl, artist’s model, thrice-married Parisian who is friends with Ford Madox Ford to find meaning in (at least I assume so, since that’s basically my life in a nutshell).

“Very widespread now – heart condition.” (Sleep It Off Lady)

I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of her work, I only wish there was more of it.

 Jean Rhys  (1894-1979)