Monday, December 31, 2007

CHESTERTON | Essay: A Piece of Chalk

In Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, there was a minor character—Fiddler's Green, who was written as a caricature of Chesterton. It was Gaiman's tribute to this man of letters who wrote some of the best detective stories with his Father Brown mysteries—mysteries that went beyond the usual whodunnit into the murky realms of theology, philosophy and psychology. There were also moments of rousing Chestertonian lyricism that are just joy to re-read.

In life, Chesterton really was a jolly, rotund man with a romantic, chivalrous streak—and he really did walk the streets in a cape, with a sword-stick.

Chesterton wrote in a breezy, often whimisical and humorous manner that belies the philosophical thoughtfulness of his writings. He was fond of paradoxes, something personified by his unworldly priest, Father Brown—who reveals that his secrets to solving crimes is that in each case, he committed the crime himself. (Someone may have to help me out here—I'm relying on memory writing this and I can't recall the exact quote) Here, the priest does not literally mean he "did it." Rather, as he explained it, in each and every case, he truly placed himself in the position of the culprit, he thought as a murderer did, understood, and empathised—and that was how he arrived at the solutions to the mysteries—the greatest detective, is in fact, the greatest criminal.

Chesterton wrote poetry (whose I can't really claim to love), religious texts, including a biography of St Francis of Assisi. He also wrote essays—on anything that interested him—which means he wrote a lot of them.

One of my favourite essay is "A Piece of Chalk"—collected in Tremendous Trifles. The essay is thankfully available online —which allows me the pleasure of re-reading it for free, and sharing it with everyone.

What began rather unassumingly—Chesterton looking for some brown paper because he wanted to make his way to the countryside, where he intended to spend an afternoon drawing with brown paper and chalk. A chirpy but discursive narrative on the mundane soon emerged as a rumination on colours, especially white, and its associative symbolism of virtue—of theology and our assumptions of good and evil:

But as I sat scrawling these silly figures on the brown paper, it began to dawn on me, to my great disgust, that I had left one chalk, and that a most exquisite and essential chalk, behind. I searched all my pockets, but I could not find any white chalk. Now, those who are acquainted with all the philosophy (nay, religion) which is typified in the art of drawing on brown paper, know that white is positive and essential. I cannot avoid remarking here upon a moral significance. One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals, is this, that white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel, or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen.

From the simplicity of chalk against brown paper he discerned a fundamental truth: it is not a dry, dull thing to be good and decent. A good man is not simply a man lacking in vices or weaknesses—he stands glorious as a monument, someone to aspire to, as proof of God's work. We just sometimes forget to see that—"In a word, God paints in many colours; but he never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white."

Chesterton is a humanist, yes, and he is Catholic. Some might object to that. But for me at least, his writing upholds simple truths like goodness, beauty—and humour—because Chesterton too believed God created laughter.

Cross-posted at Orpheus Sings the Guitar Electric

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Balkan Trilogy - Olivia Manning

I have finished Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy. Manning writes insightfully about her characters and the story put me convincingly in the experience of an expat in Europe at the start of World War II. The Pringles marry and move to Bulgaria, as Guy Pringle teaches English there for the English Legation -they are forced to leave Bucharest as the Nazis encroach on Eastern Europe. They escape to Athens, where they are only steps ahead of the Germans and by the end of the third volume, they are again fleeing, this time for the Middle East where Manning's next trilogy is set - The Levant Trilogy. The story is held together not only by history and politics, although those are An important part of it, but by the growth of the relationship of the Pringles. Harriet Pringle is very different from Guy, and she thrown into a marriage with a man she has known only a few weeks and immediately moves to a new country where she doesn't speak the language or know anyone besides her new husband. The story is as much one of Harriet's growing insight about herself as it is our experience of the war through naive eyes.

Reading the trilogy has made me interested in getting to know more of Manning's books - she is a descriptive and un-showy writer with human and historical insight and I found the events of these three novels almost mesmerizing. Reading them for two or three hours at a stretch never seemed an effort. If you haven't read anything by her, and I hadn't before these - I recommend her heartily. You can find my other posts about the trilogy here.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Olivia Manning - The Spoilt City

Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy is such a vivid account of what it must have been like, I imagine, to be an ex-pat during the beginning of World War II. Manning is particularly insightful about her characters. I enjoy watching the young couple, the Pringles, getting to know each other better through their travails and the political events are very excitingly drawn. See my full thoughts here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

History Re-Lived (The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning)

What was most impressive in The Great Fortune, the first of the three books in The Balkan Trilogy, is how Olivia Manning creates a story of suspense out of historical events to which we already know the ending. Set at the start of World War II as a newly wed English couple comes to Roumania, the story is -necessarily - the war. What will the Axis do? Will the allegiance with Russia last? Will they be able to return to England? Will the English protect Roumania as they had promised? Will the Nazi's invade France? We actually know the answers to these questions, but I care about the outcome because this story is really about the lives of a broad cast of warmly observed people and how their existence is affected by the world's events. Read my full thoughts here.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Letty Fox: Her Luck by Christina Stead

I chose this book for the challenge because several years ago, I read and enjoyed another novel by Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children.

Letty Fox: Her Luck is the first-person life story of Letty Fox, who is growing up in a "broken home". Her father lives openly with his mistress. The women on her mother's side of the family (except her mother, who is tired and bitter) are mostly scheming to find husbands. Her uncle goes from woman to woman to woman and seems bewildered when they are furious at his playing around.

As Letty emerges into womanhood, she seems determined not to be part of this same cycle, to assert herself as an intellectual, but she gets involved with several worthless cads. Finally tired of the dating game, she reconnects with an old friend, Bill Van Week, who is also weary of all that. Soon married and pregnant shortly after that, Letty vows that she's "made a fresh start in life...and the journey has begun", but it seems like she and Bill Van Week (did you notice that last name?) are merely picking up the clownish chaos of the previous generation. When/If Bill strays, will Letty become like her father or her mother?

I was amused at the combination of Letty's sophistication, intellectualism and naivete. At sixteen or seventeen, she decides she's in love with the first of her wastrel boyfriends. In her fantasy, they'll travel Europe, and somehow, she'll also go to college and have a career and finish having a family, all by the age of 24. "I didn't want to be done out of anything," Letty tells the reader. Also, when it comes to the politics of sex, she's willfully blind and gets everything ass-backwards. For example, she thinks that once she lets someone like Luke or Amos sleep with her, they're in her power and she's conquered them. Repeatedly she's surprised when they don't call or come by for weeks and months after.

Also amusing and somewhat surprising was Stead's/Letty's frank talk about horniness. For some reason, Letty feels the 'fox tearing at her vitals' very strongly after she visits a rich artist, Lucy Headlong, for a long weekend on two separate occasions. Stead doesn't really do anything else with this.

On the negative side, Letty Fox: Her Luck is a book that could have used some extra editing. Letty's paternal grandmother, Jenny Fox, is going senile, and she runs on in a disjointed way for several pages at a time on several different occasions. It's a relief when her character finally dies so that the reader isn't subjected to her dialog any longer.

In addition, Letty has a sister, Jacky. Both are intellectuals in their own ways, and exchange letters often. The letters sound almost identical. Who is writing to whom? The letters go on for pages and pages. Also, Letty seems to talk at, rather than to people, and they to her. Stead is better when she's got Letty inside Letty's own head.

It was difficult to feel attached to any of the other characters in the novel, because they all feel so brittle or clownish. Letty's father's mistress, Persia seems interesting, but she's just barely on the sidelines. Briefly, Letty is roommates with a consummate gold-digger named Amy. Amy not only gold-digs, she helps her friends pursue rich husbands, and she's always ready to go the extra mile. For example, Amy pretends by mail to be another jealous lover until her friend is safely engaged. Letty makes a list of Amy's tricks, rules and aphorisms, which is really quite funny and a breath of fresh air in an often airless novel. Unfortunately, Letty and Amy have a falling-out, and Amy disappears.

Letty is often irritating and sometimes downright unlikable. (No one can do irritating and unlikable like Stead; it is truly her dubious gift as a novelist!) In a strange little episode, Jacky falls in love with a much older professor, as is her inclination throughout the novel. After the two sisters talk about this man, Letty casually seduces and sleeps with him out of curiosity.

I was relieved to be finished with this novel, but found myself for days afterward thinking about Letty and wondering and worrying about her future. In spite of what I perceive as the flaws and ungainliness of this book, it seems as if Stead has succeeded. Her power as a novelist is startling and immense. I'm interested in reading at least one more novel of hers, a later one called I'm Dying Laughing.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

(I guess it's the time of year for reading Chesterton)
The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged
as a cloud of sunset. It was built of a bright brick throughout, its
sky-line was fantastic, and even its ground plan was wild. It had been the
outburst of a builder, faintly tinged with art, who called its architecture
sometimes Elizabethan and sometimes Queen Anne. (Chesteron, G.K., The
Man Who Was Thursday
(1908; repr., New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1935)
How can one not immediately be drawn into a book that begins so deliciously? I’ve rarely encountered an author who can expertly plop me right down in the middle of his setting and make me so want to find out what’s going to happen in this interesting little spot. As a matter of fact, I’m not one who is typically all that conscious of setting, often annoyed if an author goes on and on trying to paint every little line of a place for me. The subtitle of this book is “A Nightmare,” and from the very first, Chesterton’s book enchants and surprises with its dream-like imagery. (I just love that “sunset side of London,” so much more dreamy than “the west side.”)

This is a difficult book to discuss without including any spoilers, but I’m going to attempt to do so. First, I’ll give you a string of adjectives that would have my twelfth-grade creative writing teacher cringing, red pen poised to write “be more specific.” Funny, delightful, nightmarish, philosophical, in other words, “un-put-downable” for someone like me. But, let’s be “more specific.”

I didn’t know what to expect from this book except that I’ve been told for some time by people who know me that I'd like it. It’s funny that it should be the first book for which I chose to do something I’ve never done, both downloading the audio version from and pulling the print version from the shelf. My thought had been to read the book in print form, and when I had other stuff to do (walking, cooking, unpacking, folding laundry…), I’d listen to it. Librivox recordings are especially good for this sort of plan, because they’re downloaded chapter-by-chapter.

Here’s the testament to this book’s “un-put-downable-ness.” I was out walking one evening with my iPod when I finished The Turn of the Screw. The Turn of the Screw is a favorite fall read of mine, and it’s difficult to find something good enough to follow that. However, I still had quite a way to go on my walk, and I wasn’t in the mood to listen to music, so I decided to start listening to this one. For three consecutive days, it became my walking companion. I loved the voice of the guy reading it (he can come over and read to me anytime), loved the walking companion (especially when I started my walk a bit late one evening and had to walk around the cemetery to stay off the roads where it was too dark. It’s a great book for cemetery listening), but ultimately had to pick up the book and finish it after that third evening, because the audiobook was too slow, and I could no longer wait to find out what was going to happen.

By funny, I don’t necessarily mean it’s laugh-out-loud-Nick-Hornby funny (although the scene with the chase and the elephant was). It’s more, “think-about-it-in-retrospect-and-smile-in-amusement-and-admiration funny. It’s funny, because in true parody fashion, the reader just doesn’t know what to expect. As Stefanie noted when she read it, nobody is what he seems to be, and the characters wind up in the oddest of places, doing the oddest of things, like dueling in France to keep someone from catching a train or being an imposter who is voted more realistic than the person he’s pretending to be.

It’s nightmarish and delightful for exactly the same reasons it’s funny and surprising. What’s funny in retrospect is certainly nightmarish for those who are experiencing it. Imagine no one you encounter being whom or what you think he is. Imagine people pretending to be anarchists who aren’t and how dangerous and scary that could be. Imagine pursuing someone and thinking you’ve been led into some wild jungle or something full of roaring, howling, and screeching beasts when you haven’t been.

The book is philosophical from the very beginning when the two “poets” are arguing over who is the real poet. It goes on to present characters who discuss such matters as “truth,” “belief,” “morality,” etc. One of the final chapters is called “The Six Philosophers.” I have to admit I was tempted to do a little research on this book before writing this post, so I could learn more about the philosophy behind the book, as well as Chesterton’s own philosophical leanings, but I didn’t. (It’s obvious by the end of the book that Chesterton was a religious man, something I already knew before I started it.) I was trying to identify each man with his particular philosophy but couldn’t really and came to think that was Chesterton’s whole philosophical point: that reason, ultimately, falls short. If so, it’s a philosophy to which I can very readily relate.

One last thing I will say about this book: it’s probably better in print rather than audiobook form. Some of the writing is so subtle, it really must be read in order to be appreciated. I noticed skimming through the parts I’d listened to that I’d managed to miss quite a lot. (Then again, that may just be due to the fact that I’m more a visual than an auditory learner.) Regardless of format, though, this one definitely gets two very enthusiastic thumbs-up from me. I’m now looking forward to Father Brown.

Cross-posted: Telecommuter Talk

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Man Who was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K.Chesterton

"The work of a philosophical policemen," replied the man in blue, "is at once bolder and more subtle than that of an ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime. We were only just in time to prevent the assassination at Hartlepool, and that was entirely due to the fact that our Mr Wilks (a smart young man) thoroughly understood a triolet."

Thus is Gabriel Syme introduced to the investigations of the Secret Police Service into the Central Council of Anarchists, an organisation he infiltrates to become The Man Who Was Thursday. Led by its vast and terrifying President, Sunday, the Council of Seven Days plans an atrocity, and despatches one of its members to Paris with a bomb. Syme must avoid exposure as a spy while in pursuit. But all is not as it seems and, amid contradiction and confusion Syme must learn to distinguish what is real. Are other members of the Council friend or foe? And, most urgent of all, who and what is Sunday?

Throughout this absorbing fantasy, Chesterton turns expectation on its head. One of the ways in which he achieves this is by a subtle reversal of normality: if I were to ask you what is a hornbill, you would probably answer "a bird with an enormous bill". Thus Chesterton: "he remembered a hornbill, which was simply a huge yellow beak with a small bird tied on behind it." The reader's viewpoint is that of Syme, and such strange reversals confuse and obfuscate so that reality is impossible to pin down and safety looks a forlorn hope.

The book reminds me both of The Magic Flute, with its theme of trial by ordeal, and of the writings some twenty-five years later of Charles Williams, which share similar elements of a peculiarly English kind of mysticism. Yet Chesterton denied the revelatory interpretation, drawing attention to the book's subtitle "A Nightmare". In an article published the day before he died in 1936 he says,

It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was, even when my thoughts were considerably less settled than they are now. It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion.

Reading The Man Who Was Thursday 100 years on, in a world of equally characterised by wild doubt and despair I, for one, find the "gleam of hope" quite comforting and was happy to interpret the ending as revelatory and mystical. The book is also a classic, witty and elegant while remaining a fantastical adventure, and deserves prompt reinstatement as part of the canon.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A God and His Gifts by Ivy Compton-Burnett

Ivy Compton-Burnett was born in 1884 and her novels, even those written as late as A God and His Gifts, which was published in 1963, are Edwardian. She is the master of unconscious self revelation, one critic said, and has no parallel and no equal said another. Her novels are almost entirely in dialogue.

I mean it when I say that. There are not more than half a dozen paragraphs in this book that do not contain dialogue. The narrator says almost nothing except to move people into, out of, and across the drawing rooms in which all the "action" takes place. There is almost no physical action - it is all verbal. Her language is purposely stilted; reading her is like reading Restoration Comedy. Her work is as finely tuned and as scalpel sharp as the best of the 18th century.

The god of this book is Hereward Egerton (make what you will of his name), a man who is what we would now call a sociopath. The world's rules were not made for him. He himself and his work are the only things that matter to him. He is unconstrained by sexual mores, even the most basic - not just those in play during the Edwardian period but even those we respect today, few as they are.

Ivy Compton-Burnett is not outmoded. She is simply out of fashion at the moment. But I predict a Compton-Burnett Renaissance soon. I would rate this book about the cream of disfunctional families six on a scale of one to five. There is almost nothing better. Jane Austen's ascerbic wit is timid in comparison.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Journal of a Solitude - May Sarton

Journal of a Solitude is a deeply personal book. It chronicles a year in the life of the poet at age 58. Her solitary journaling takes place at her family home, Nelson, in New Hampshire. She hopes, with this journal to;
...break through into the rough, rocky depths, to the matrix itself. There is violence there and anger never resolved. My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there.
Sarton writes a level beyond simplistic themes of desire and choice, exploring her internal struggles from a plainly humanistic viewpoint.

I wonder when and why May Sarton was kicked out of the "in crowd"? She's been on my radar since the tender age of eighteen. She's even quoted in my Intermediate Algebra book! Page 1, no less!:

"I see a certain order in the universe[,] and math is one way of making it visible." - May Sarton, As We Are Now, 1973 ; )

In Wikipedia's page on the life and writings of May Sarton, it is stated that "many of her novels and poems are pellucid reflections of the lesbian experience."

1 : admitting maximum passage of light without diffusion or distortion pellucid stream
2 : reflecting light evenly from all surfaces
3 : easy to understand

Sarton strikes me as a lover of many things, flowers, friends, poetry, nature, light. She actively loves the ever changing and the intangible. Her loves truly do seem to diffuse without distortion...there is a purity in her self acceptance that results in stark honesty and a deeply ingrained integrity.

I recall reading, at age eighteen, her images of love; the expectations and concurrent frustrations, and taking them at face value. That hasn't changed, twenty years later. She does not appear to have much of a reservoir of hate. Her problematic anger (Sarton confesses to fits of rage) seems to be based upon her frustrations within the moment. She is forgiving, of others and of herself, with a loving perspective by nature. Sarton is grounded in the moment, completely.

I find myself hesitant to pigeonhole Sarton in any way. I read Journal of a Solitude for the first time at the afore mentioned tender age of eighteen and at that time (I am a little embarrassed to admit) I didn't overtly perceive that Sarton was gay. I realize that sounds strange. As I reread the book now, I see that Sarton addresses the issue quite obviously. I believe the lack of perception on my part came from being young, and being raised in a culture where homosexual rights have always been a hot topic.

She is an activist in the purest sense. In Journal of a Solitude her activism spreads in many directions; she addresses a range of issues from homosexuality to marriage to women's rights to the state of government during that time.

She opines about De Gaulle, upon his death; "Wholeness, so far as statesmen go, may have something to do with speaking in one's own words. De Gaulle did not call in "writers"; the very idea is grotesque. The leader who allows others to speak for him is abdicating. Who is speaking via Nixon? Who wrote this phrase or that? One is never quite sure. He and Agnew became puppets. Who is the ventriloquist who manipulates them?"

Once again; WHY was she kicked out of the in crowd?

Sarton isn't afraid to think or question. Ultimately she isn't afraid to take her thoughts to the highest level she is capable of, regardless of personal discomfort. She isn't afraid to speak her mind. I'm keeping this book next to the bedside for a long while.

Arriving in Bucharest on the Eve of War (The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning)

Oddly enough, I too am reading The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning. Manning's ability to present the sweep of a scene in which many small dramas seem to be happening at once, and to people those dramas with detailed characters, is remarkable. In just twenty-five pages I am already swept up in the hysterical atmosphere of war. My full post is here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning

The Great Fortune is the first in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. It tells the story of Guy and Harriet Pringle’s marriage set against the background of Bucharest during the ‘Phoney War’ period of 1939/40. Guy teaches in the English Department of the University and Harriet has to find her place in Guy’s friends’ and colleagues’ university circles in the multicultural city. England and Germany are already at war and tensions are high, as the Rumanians fear a German invasion.

Throughout the novel there are contrasts between the rich ruling classes and the peasantry; between life as it was pre-war and the uncertainties and fears that the war is bringing; between the British community in Bucharest and the Rumanians; and between Guy and Harriet as they both adjust to married life, with Harriet making most of the adjustments.

It’s a richly descriptive book of both characters and place. Olivia Manning vividly depicts pre-war Bucharest. In the following scene Guy and Harriet hire a coach to take them out one evening :

“When the trasura stopped at Pavel’s, one of the largest of the open-air restaurants, there could be heard above the traffic the shrill squeak of a gypsy violin. Within the shrub hedge of the garden all was uproar.

The place was crowded. The silver-gilt glow from the globes set in the trees lit in detail the wrinkled tree-trunks, the pebbled ground, and blanched the faces of the dinners, that damp with excitement of food, gazed about them with deranged looks, demanding to be served. Some rapped with knives on wine-glasses, some clapped their hands, some made kissing noises at the waiters, whilst others clutched at every passing coat-tail crying: “Domnule, domnule!” for in this country even the meanest was addressed as ‘lord’.”

Of all the characters Harriet and Prince Yakimov, or as he refers to himself ‘poor old Yaki’, a Russian émigré, half Irish and half White Russian, are the most memorable to me. Harriet is finding it difficult living in a foreign country amongst people she doesn’t know, feeling isolated among strangers, both British and Rumanian, jealous of Guy’s friends and his relationship with Sophie (who had hoped he would marry her) and his allegiance to other people seemingly over his marriage.

Harriet eventually realises that Guy is “a comfortable-looking man of an unharming largeness of body and mind. His size gave her an illusion of security – for it was she was coming to believe, no more than an illusion. He was one of those harbours that prove to be shallow: there was no getting into it. For him, personal relationships were incidental. His fulfilment came from the outside world.”

Yaki, a raconteur and joker, who is said to “have a peculiarly English sense of humour” uses every opportunity to sponge off anyone who will ‘lend’ him money, give him a meal or a bed for the night. He is forever “waiting for m’remittance from m’poor old ma”, promising to repay the loan when it arrives, only to spend it as soon as it does without repaying anyone.

Guy decides to put on a play, Troilus and Cressida, using the students, friends and the “chaps at the Legation” to act the 28 speaking parts. Whilst seeming at first to be over-ambitious and divisive the play is the means of consolidating the Pringles’ relationship and it is a success. However this coincides with fall of Paris and the despondency and fear that this brings. The book ends with the realisation that Rumania will also fall and that the Pringles’ survival depends upon their leaving:

"We’ll get away because we must. The great fortune is life. We must preserve it."

I found the book interesting and informative about the start of the Second World War. It is also an entertaining book working on different levels, exploring the nature of marriage, friendship, patriotism and the attitudes and beliefs of the pre-war period. It’s written in a style that is slightly detached yet energetic and sympathetic. I think I’ll re-read it, as I’m sure there is much that I missed at this first reading. The next book in the trilogy is The Spoilt City. I’ve reserved it at the library and hope it won’t be too long before it arrives.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Well of Loneliness - Half way point

I'm currently reading Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. Jaimie posted a great review, so I won't rehash the basic plot. It was published in 1928, and the first half has been Stephen's (yes a female) experience not knowing "what" she is, but sensing that she is something very different from other girls. The scene after her mother discovers what is going on with Stephen and Angela is so very sad, but ultimately a "scene" that continues to play out in the households of many LGBT youth 90 years after the book's publication.

I have also gotten the impression, at least from the beginning of the novel, that Stephen might not just be a lesbian, but perhaps transgendered. It's not that she simply is different, and likes boyish things, but it is mentioned again and again that she wants to be a boy. Is that a common experience among gay youth?

The book is slow going, but I'm enjoying so far, and looking forward to the rest.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Country House by John Galsworthy

I was interested to read something by Galsworthy that wasn’t part of The Forsyte Saga, which I am also reading, so that I had a comparison.

I can’t exactly say that The Country House has been an enjoyable read, because it – intentionally, I hasten to add - made me angry, but it has been interesting. Although not part of The Forsyte Saga, it shares one of the themes of the first book of the saga, Man of Property, in that it is about a divorce. Here, it is the main focus of the book and the legal ramifications of divorce, and its effect upon the three people most closely involved, and their wider family circle, is anatomised.

The country house of the title is inhabited Mr Horace Pendyce, with his wife Margery and their two youngest children. The eldest son, George, lives in London, where he divides his time between his Club and his racehorse; his father considers that he should be a home, learning to manage the estate, but George’s attentions are fixed on Mrs Jasper Bellew, a woman of great beauty with an alcoholic husband. Helen Bellew is a distant cousin of Mrs Pendyce, and is the ward of another cousin, Gregory Vigil.

The book begins with a shooting party given by Mr Pendyce, and the arrival of his guests. Mr Pendyce himself is originally of yeoman stock, his family having married into money and, we are given to understand, his wife is rather better bred than he is. He is an old-fashioned landlord: “It was his individual conviction that individualism had ruined England, and he had set himself deliberately to eradicate this vice from the character of his tenants.” To entertain their guests Mrs Pendyce gives a dance, and it is at this event that the vicar, the Reverend Hussell Barter, sees George kissing Mrs Bellew in the conservatory.

This is 1891, and Mr Barter immediately decides Mrs Bellew is no better than she ought to be, “no more than a common baggage”. So when some time later Vigil suggests that she should divorce her husband, from whom she has been living separately, Mr Barter officiously decides that it is his duty to intervene, on the grounds that Jasper Bellew is one of his parishioners. Helen finds herself being served with divorce papers, with George cited as co-respondent; however, if George will promise never to see Helen again, proceedings will end. George immediately announces that he will deny there has been anything between them, so that the divorce may proceed; the expectation of his family is that, if it does, George and Helen will marry. From this point, the complacent security of the Pendyces is shattered. Horace announces he will have nothing more to do with his son, and cannot bear the though that “that woman” should ever live in his house. Margery, the perfect wife, who has nonetheless never really loved her husband, leaves him to go to London and support her son through the ordeal.

What made me angry while reading this book, perhaps not surprisingly, is the reminder of the injustices perpetrated by our divorce laws until comparatively recently. Helen, who wants a divorce, must dissemble, her lawyer tells Vigil:
“We shall want evidence of certain things. Have you got any evidence?”
Gregory ran his hand through his hair.
“I don’t think there’ll be any difficulty,” he said. “Bellew agrees – they both agree.”[…]
Mr Paramor drew his breath between his teeth.
“Did you ever,” he said drily, “hear of what’s called collusion?” [. . .]
“Two unhappy persons must not seem to agree to be parted,” he said. “One must be believed to desire to keep hold of the other, and must pose as an injured person. There must be evidence of misconduct, and in this case of cruelty or of desertion. The evidence must be impartial. This is the law.”
So Helen, who is desperately unhappy with her husband, cannot seek a divorce unless she is able to demonstrate that she is the injured party (and there is a reason, which reflects well on her, why she cannot), but her husband, citing George, can start proceedings.

I can’t imagine very many people reading The Country House unless they have a particular interest in the period. It is, of course, well written (Galsworthy won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1932), but it lacks some of the beauty of structure evident in the Saga, although it was published a year later than Man of Property. In fact, I find myself wondering if he felt he had glossed over the miseries of divorce in that, and wanted to present a different viewpoint. If so, he succeeds, both in presenting the hypocrisies of the law, while also drawing a picture of three very different marriages. The novel’s characterisation is good, particularly in displaying the pomposity and inflexibility of Horace Pendyce and the loathsomely self-righteous vicar. Even so, while exposing their faults, he allows some humanity and vulnerability to creep in from time to time, as when the vicar’s wife is giving birth to their eleventh child. I have to admit to nearly giving up quite early on when a (condemnatory) comment on hunting made me wince sharply, and wonder if casual brutality towards animals might be a feature of the book. The carelessness of Pendyce’s love for his dog – and his wife – does indeed emerge: he continually trips over or treads on his poor spaniel, who is unswerving in his love for his master. The pace, just a little slow at first with the introduction of the dramatis personae, picks up, and offers a rewarding read.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Two by Sarah Orne Jewett

I read two works by Sarah Orne Jewett (click through for background on her life), Deephaven and A Country Doctor. Deephaven was a lovely and easy read; there's no real plot as it covers two independent young ladies (Kate and Elly) who spend the summer on their own in the coastal town of Deephaven. Once upon a time, Deephaven had been a successful port town,but the embargo of 1807 hampered its industry so when the young women are there, it is a sleepy and culturally alien environment. (Note: I had never heard of the Embargo of 1807 so picking up such a tidbit was one reason why I valued this particular read.) By the time our two young ladies visit during the summer, the town is quite elderly but warm and welcoming to the young ladies. Each somewhat eccentric character is carefully described, adding charm. Because the book consists solely of such sketches, you come to know the town and its endearing inhabitants. Deephaven is Jewett's earliest published work, but not unsatisfying by any means. Read in the midst of a protracted transition between summer and autumn, I could entirely lose myself in the idea of an older New England August holiday.

Thus primed, I looked forward to reading A Country Doctor. It surprised me. was gentle and dreamy, entirely in keeping with the season of summer; DeephavenA Country Doctor opens in late November with an ill and weary mother traveling by foot with her baby to reach shelter with her family. At least initially, it seems that we're reading a melodrama. But we are drawn into the same gentle world in which the heroine, Nan Prince, comes to live -- a safe world with guardian Doctor Leslie and his housekeeper Marilla. Nan grows to understand and accept her own strengths and identity under their care. By the time, Nan has met the well-to-do and proud relatives of her father, she is well prepared to fend off criticism of her choice to follow a medical career and refuse a man she intuitively recognizes as a poor life-partner. The point Jewett makes is that Nan's identity as a person should not be determined by financial circumstances nor by social expectations, but solely on her own ideas, strengths and talents. I cannot now find the reference but I do recall reading somewhere that Sarah Orne Jewett based the coming-of-age story of A Country Doctor on her own upbringing. She was not herself an orphan, but her father was a medical professional who strongly influenced Jewett's preparation for adulthood.

Actually I think there are three thematic elements to the text -- fostering independence and self-awareness in childhood, finding one's vocation in life, and expanding beyond those limits thrust on one by social attitudes. Jewett has a gift for rendering distinctive voices and capturing ordinary conversations between her characters. Even in these two works, one remembers the characterization rather than the plots. For that alone, Jewett deserves recognition in American literature. If she is unpopular today, it is likely due to the remoteness of the type of life that she portrays. There is a plain practicality about 19th century New England that may feel unfamiliar to modern readers. Unlike many nineteenth century writers, Jewett avoids a certain sentimentality that plagues the likes of Louisa May Alcott and similar writers.

My familiarity with Sarah Orne Jewett dates back some 30 years and a survey course in American Literature. I liked her short stories upon initial introduction and it was nice to find that I liked some of her lengthier pieces as well.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Second Book Up!

I read May Sarton's The Small Room a little bit ago, and now I've posted my thoughts up on my blog. Let me just say that I found her a very powerful writer! It's awesome: so far, I've found two incredible women authors through this challenge. I used to always read more men than women; this is helping to balance that out!

I'm not sure what I'll read this month: I still have some Walter Scott, G.K. Chesterton, and Sarah Orne Jewett on my list. I guess it'll depend on what mood I'm in. :)

Cakes and Ale by W Somerset Maugham

This quiet book is a joy to read. In another writer's hands the subject matter could easily have become rather sordid and angst-ridden, but Maugham has a light touch that is so engaging and delightful you are won over by the character of Rosie, even when your intellect tells you that you shouldn't be - which reflects how the characters in the story react to her.

The story begins at the end. Edward Driffield, a famous novelist, has died a little while before the story begins; from humble beginnings, at the end of his life he was considered to be the Grand Old Man of English letters, in large part due to the exertions of his second wife. The narrator, Willie Ashenden, knew him and his first wife when he was younger; he is called upon by Alroy Kear, who is about to write a life of Ted Driffield and wants to know about his experiences of Driffield.

Kear's attitude towards writing Driffield's life is a warning to us all about not implicitly accepting the veracity of biographies - they will always be written to portray the writer's idea of the subject.

'It would be rather amusing to show the man with his passion for beauty and his careless treatment of his obligations, his fine style and his personal hatred of soap and water, his idealism and his tippling in disreputable pubs; but honestly, would it pay? They'd only say I was imitating Lytton Strachey. No, I think I shall do much better to be allusive and charming and rather subtle, you know the sort of thing, and tender.'

Ashenden has no intention of discussing most of his recollections with Kear but begins to privately reminisce about his experiences of Ted Driffield, a quiet man in a loud suit when he first met him, and his wife Rosie who used to be a barmaid. The couple were frowned upon in the small town because of their humble backgrounds and Rosie's less than pure reputation, and Ashenden, as an awkward fifteen year old, is prepared to cut them as his social inferiors.
However, from the moment that Rosie collides with him on her bike she begins to weave a magical spell over him.

'I did not, of course, realise it then but there was a disarming frankness in her manner that put one at one's ease. She talked with a kind of eagerness, like a child bubbling over with the zest of life, and her eyes were lit all the time by her engaging smile. I did not know why I liked it. I should say it was a little sly, if slyness were not a displeasing quality; it was too innocent to be sly. It was mischievous rather, like that of a child who has done something that he thinks funny but is well aware that you will think rather naughty.'

Rosie dominates the book; even when she is not directly in the action it all revolves around her and the feelings she inspires, positive feelings from those who knew her but also negative ones, as Kear attempts to whitewash over her part in Driffield's life and writing.

Rosie should not be appealing; she is promiscuous, giving herself to every man who wants her, cheating on poor Ted virtually in front of him but still she remains a loveable, attractive character. The novel describes Ashenden's development from a boy into a man and the large part that Rosie played in that, as he becomes closer to the Driffields and their circle. He has to deal with becoming aware of her as a woman, and then with the jealousy and other emotions that are an inescapable part of such a relationship. However, as everyone in Rosie's life, he is unable to be bitter about her; she is described by an artist in her circle as 'like the sun shining silver' and, like the sun, while she may shine on someone for a time, she belongs to no one. This is what is so attractive about her, she takes a joy in everything, and moves through life determined to have the best of it.

Although the character of Rosie dominates the novel, the gentle smiling Ted is the one that I felt most attached to. Quietly sitting in the background while everyone discusses his work, not seeming to care about playing the author but taking everything in and knowing a lot more about his wife's actions than anyone, including her, realises, he is a sympathetic character. It is hard to not feel sorry for him when at the end of his life his second wife, who was conscious of his literary reputation, tries to stop him from stealing out to prop up the bar at the local pub despite the fact that it makes him happy.

This book is funny, charming and, at times, incredibly moving but all in such a simple unpretentious way that it was only after I finished it that I realised just how powerful it is and how much the story will stay with me.

Traveller's Prelude by Freya Stark

Traveller’s Prelude is, the author Freya Stark tells us, “a bare jumble written with no arrangement of words or style or matter”, written in haste during a lull between her travels in Cyprus and published in 1950. Although she admitted that she had subsequently tidied it up for publication, much of her beautiful prose must stand as originally put down. She writes candidly and fluently, relating the story of her childhood and young adulthood in Devon and Italy.

Born in 1893, Freya was the elder daughter of cousins Robert and Flora Stark. Robert and Flora were never, by the sound of it, ideally suited; Robert was happiest outdoors, building houses, landscaping gardens, and tramping the moors, while the charming 19-year-old Flora basked in London society, playing the piano for polite charity events and moving with ease amongst the artists of St John’s Wood. Raised in Tuscany, when they moved to a series of houses on Dartmoor she was ill-equipped to cope with cold, and wet, and Victorian attitudes which endlessly constrained the actions of young women. Freya said of her parents’ marriage:

Half the marriages that go wrong are destroyed by too much amiability at the outset; each human being has things that in the long run he cannot assimilate or forgo – and to try to do so only means a slow accumulation of disaster. It is far better to know the limits of one’s resistance at once and put up as it were a little friendly fence around the private ground.

The adult Freya expressed her sadness at remaining unmarried, despite all the efforts of family and friends to find her a suitable man. She said that the men concerned didn’t get round to proposing until she had lost interest in them; the impression, perhaps, is that, having observed the pain and loneliness of her parents’ marriage, her own “little friendly fence” might have been too readily obvious to her suitors. Her beloved sister, Vera, entered somewhat reluctantly into the married state with her mother’s business partner. Although this relatively brief marriage was not entirely happy (Vera died very young), and was marred by Vera’s mother living with the couple, it was nonetheless clear that her husband loved her, and tensions eased when Freya finally managed to persuade her mother to leave.

By the time Freya was eight her parents seem effectively to have drifted apart and, while Robert remained at their home near Chagford (in a house which holds a special place in my own life), Flora took herself and the girls to Asolo in Italy, a place which was to be important to Freya all her life. Here, though fortunately provided with a governess who undertook to deal with the gaps in their education, the girls seem to have lived an idyllic existence, with freedom to wander and explore at will. A serious accident at 13 brought Freya close to her mother, a relationship they managed to maintain despite, at times, severe tensions between them.

When Freya was 21 World War I started, and she trained as a nurse. Working at a field hospital close to the Italian front line, she talks in matter-of-fact tones of the horrific injuries she saw, and of a frantic escape retreating in front of the German artillery. She celebrated the end of the war by indulging her passion for mountaineering with her old family friend, W.P. Ker, but peace left her at a loose end, and without an income. Although money was a constant worry she bought a house on the Italian Riviera, near Menton, and moved there with her mother. She established a small vineyard and gradually began to earn a living, but illness dating back to the war began to tell on her. A serious operation followed and, during the time she had to spend convalescing – a very slow business, and full of setbacks – she started to learn Arabic, with a view to eventual travel. Her love of adventure is evident throughout the book, from childhood escapades which would have been the death of most mothers, to traversing icefields, and to smuggling household goods into Italy from France on her shopping trips. When her bank balance reached £300, she decided, she would leave; and so she did, setting sail for Beirut in November 1927.

This is probably the most neglected of Stark’s books, her later travel writings being better known. Here, Freya’s candour about her family and herself shine out of every page. Letters from family members and friends offer a different viewpoint from time to time, but Freya’s intelligent voice seems to speak directly to the reader throughout, capturing the events of the past with a freshness and clarity which is immediately engaging. I recommend it as a fascinating record of a period more often documented by men, but also as a work of literature, and would like to end with another quote which, I hope, shows the quality of her writing:

At night the fishing boats set out into this quiet sea with strong lanterns at their prow to fish for anchovies and later sardines, which both made an annual progress eastwards from Gibraltar round all the Mediterranean coasts. Word of their coming would go round before them. Each lighted boat had a dark sister ship that laid a net around it, enclosing the crowd of flickering fish that danced in the green water below the lighted prow. Gradually the two ships neared each other, the circular net drew in, and the catch was lifted up between them. I always thought of these two ships, the light and the dark, as life and death, working together.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Forsyte Chronicles #1

John Galsworthy won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932, shortly before his death. The Forsyte Chronicles is a series of nine books, or three trilogies, with additional 'interludes' that round out some part of the story but which were written separately from the full trilogies. So far I've read the first two trilogies, The Forsyte Saga and A Modern Comedy. Since the backdrop of the novels is the changing English society between the late Victorian period and the inter-war years, and there is a generous cast of characters to boot, it's difficult to choose what to focus on. But the main theme of the first trilogy, and one that also has repercussions in the second, is that of property and ownership.

The eponymous Forsytes are a sprawling family who have attained solid upper-middle class status in late-Victorian England. The family fortune was originally founded on building, then trade and now is safely invested. Some of the Forsytes work; some spend their days in their club. So solid, respectable and typical of their ilk are the Forsytes that Galsworthy occasionally extends his use of the word so that it becomes a collective noun:
All Forsytes, as is generally admitted, have shells, like that extremely useful little animal which is made into Turkish Delight; in other words, they are never seen, or if seen would not be recognised, without habitats, composed of circumstances, property, acquaintances, and wives, which seem to move along with them in their passage through a world composed of thousands of other Forsytes with their habitats.
The first trilogy concentrates largely on Soames Forsyte, a lawyer, a man of property (the first volume is titled The Man of Property) and a collector of paintings. He has the misfortune to be in the love to the point of obsession with his beautiful wife, Irene. The souring and disintegration of their relationship is the central theme that runs through the first two books of The Forsyte Saga; but, as he does throughout the Chronicles, Galsworthy uses the particular to explore the general. With reference to Soames and Irene, for example, Galsworthy raises questions about marital roles, women's rights within marriage, the concept of property and ownership, honour and duty, public life versus private life. Since Galsworthy himself was born in 1867 and died in 1933, his writing reflects contemporary issues with which he is likely to have been very familiar.

Soames Forsyte believes in property, and, in common with Victorian law, he believes his wife is his property, just as his paintings are his property. Yet for all that he is married to her, she remains elusive and intangible. As is well known to the family (all family gossip is mediated through Soames' father's house, known as the Family 'Change) Irene is deeply unhappy with Soames. In fact, she married him only on the understanding that if she couldn't love him, he would let her go. This he steadfastly refuses to do. In desperate unhappiness, Irene embarks on an affair with a young architect called Bosinney (who, at the time, is engaged to her niece, June) and Soames is driven to a form of madness. One night, when Irene has unfortunately forgotten to lock her bedroom door, Soames 'asserted his rights and acted like a man'. As a lawyer and a husband he knows that he is quite within his rights to do so. At the same time, as he also knows, such an act is unforgiveable:
Had he been right to yield to his overmastering hunger of the night before,and break down the resistance which he had suffered now too long from this woman who was his lawful and solemnly constituted helpmate?
He was strangely haunted by the recollection of her face, from before which, to soothe her, he had tried to pull her hands -- of her terrible smothered sobbing, the like of which he had never heard, and still seemed to hear; and he was still haunted by the odd, intolerable feeling of remorse and shame he had felt as he stood looking at her by the flame of the single candle, before silently slinking away...

...One thought comforted him. No one would know -- it was not the sort of thing she would speak about.
Beset with doubts over breakfast, by the time he gets to work Soames has reconciled himself to his actions:
The incident was really not of great moment; women made a fuss about it in books; but in the cool judgement of right-thinking men, of men of the world, of such as he recollected often received praise in the Divorce Court, he had but done his best to sustain the sanctity of marriage, to prevent her from abandoning her duty, possibly, if she were still seeing Bosinney, from --. No, he did not regret it.
Now that the first step towards reconciliation had been taken, the rest would be comparatively -- comparatively--.
Even Soames cannot bring himself to think that rape really will reunite him with Irene.

The immediate consequence is that Irene leaves him, although they are not divorced until some 10 years' later when Soames decides to remarry. Irene then marries Jolyon Forsyte, Soames' cousin, a kind, warm-hearted, generous man with whom she lives happily. Yet the ramifications of Soames' treatment of Irene continue to play out in the next generation, affecting Soames too.

Soames' daughter Fleur falls in love with Irene's son, Jon. Neither of the children knows of their parents' history, and neither can understand why their union is so vehemently opposed. In addition, Fleur is a chip off the old bloke. She is utterly beloved by Soames, who has spoiled her: 'Instinctively she conjugated the verb "to have" always with the pronoun "I"'. This characteristic of Fleur's will trip her up time and again as she grasps at what she cannot or should not have. In this case, she cannot have Jon, because Jolyon finally explains to him why the prospective match creates 'feelings of horror and aversion':

Your children, if you married her, would be the grandchildren of Soames, as much as your mother, of a man who once owned your mother as a man might own a slave. Think what that would mean. By such a marriage you enter the camp which held your mother prisoner and wherein she ate her heart out...'
Jon promptly breaks off the relationship, Fleur is heartbroken and Soames must suffer to watch Fleur denied as a direct result of his own actions so many years ago.

The Man Who Died by D H Lawrence

I was surprised by The Man Who Died by D H Lawrence, published in 1929, less than a year before Lawrence’s death and originally called The Escaped Cock. It is the last story in my copy of D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and other novels. Wikipedia recounts that Lawrence himself summarized The Escaped Cock in a letter to Brewster (a friend):

“I wrote a story of the Resurrection, where Jesus gets up and feels very sick bout everything, and can't stand the old crowd any more - so cuts out - and as he heals up, be begins to find what an astonishing place the phenomenal world is, far more marvellous than any salvation or heaven - and thanks his stars he needn't have a mission any more.”

It starts with an account of a cock, held captive by a string tied to its leg, breaking free from the cord with a wild strange squawk. At the same time a man, who is not named, awoke from a long sleep, numb and cold. The cock is a symbolic representation of the man who died. His agonising return to life and his remembrance of what happened to him filled him with nausea and pain. Bandages fell off as he moved and seeing his hurt feet he moved painfully out of the carved hole in the rock in which he was entombed and “filled with the sickness of disillusion” he walked away passing the sleeping soldiers, away from the town. “He was alone; and having died, was even beyond loneliness.”

In the garden where he had been betrayed and buried he met Madeleine and forbidding her to touch him because he was not yet healed and in touch with men he told her not to be afraid because “I am alive. They took me down too soon, so I came back to life”, implying to me that he had not actually died. But, there is ambiguity here as at another time he said: “I have not risen from the dead in order to seek death again.” Whatever the truth is, his mission has changed and he cannot return to his friends, “Now I belong to no one and have no connection, and mission or gospel is gone from me."

He must learn to be alone. The story has clear references to Biblical characters and events but it departs from the Christian version as the man travelled on and found rest in a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess, Isis. There he fell in love with the temple’s priestess, whose mother, a widow, owned the shrine. He showed the priestess, who believes him to be Osiris, the wounds in his hands, feet and side. She anointed them with oil and he felt he was made whole again. They made love and she conceived. He knew then that the time had come for him to leave: “In the name of property, the widow and her slaves would seek to be revenged on him for the bread he had eaten, and the living touch he had established, the woman he had delighted in." He went on, alone with his destiny, and laughed to himself: “I have sowed the seed of my life and my resurrection, and put my touch for ever upon the choice woman of this day … Tomorrow is another day.”

I was surprised because despite its title I didn’t expect it to be about the death and resurrection of Christ. My reaction on realising that it is was mixed and I have wondered whether or not to write about it. I thought it was well written and that the concept was an interesting version of the resurrection. It is just that, a story and it gave me food for thought. There are two more stories in the book - St Mawr, which I have never read before and The Virgin and the Gypsy, which I read a few years ago, but is very vague in my memory. I'm looking forward to reading these and wonder if Lawrence has yet another surprise in store for me.

#3 The Small Room - May Sarton

"It’s just that I feel overwhelmed. I don’t see how anyone can be a good teacher, let alone a great one. You can’t win; either you care too much or too little; you’re too impersonal or too personal; you don’t know enough or you bury the students in minutiae; you try to teach them to write an honest sentence, and then discover that what is involved is breaking a psychological block that can only be broken if you take on the role of psychoanalyst…" –Lucy Winter in The Small Room

The Small Room is a deeply questioning novel about women and the unique relationship between teacher and pupils. Set in a New England college for girls, the book explores how inveterate, established traditions and values of teaching are being challenged as demanded by the ever changing student body over time. Prizing excellence, the college presumes that by setting an uncompromising standard it might develop women who can take the lead, who can become responsible in the deepest sense.

The synonym to academic prestige is the invincible Professor Carryl Cope, a distinguished scholar, inspiring teacher who has been stimulating to her students. Despite her dominating over the faculty, she has adopted her students like orphans, push them, wrangle with them, and force them to grow in academic excellence. Her brilliance, dedication and strengths seem so flawless and formidable until a favorite student of hers, a rising star, fails to cope with the pressure to achieve higher ground, perpetrates an unethical act that threatens to shatter the very tradition of excellence.

Ranged against Carryl Cope is Lucy Winter, a fresh arrival to the school who lives on the heels of a disastrous relationship. Until the outburst of the scandal, Lucy has doubt and feels misgiving about involving with students at a personal level. That she has been haunted by personal affair makes her seek convalescence in this safe world in a college. But this temporary refuge turns out to be one that is reeled with tension, as immense amount of loose hostility and anger unveil and float around against Carryl Cope, who tries to hush up the student’s scandal.

Lucy Winter, who holds the students as individuals, snaps out of her teaching personality in the classroom, is able to answer students’ pleas for personal attention. What she gives to them is exactly the bane to Cope’s fall–for Cope has failed to penetrate to students’ personal lives and problems. In molding and pruning the students, Lucy has taught a most valuable lesson. “It’s not about winning.” Indeed, one can prove to be above the critic but if one doesn’t have self-respect and love, life has no meaning. This is a sentimental education that transcends scholastic merits. It’s about teaching students how to feel, how to live, and how to experience–the means to help ripen in life.

The Small Room is an absorbing work that probes into the most ambivalent and delicate quarters of human heart. It delves into the seemingly calm world of academia in which the faculty, beset by their conscience, are forced to reappraise their profession and motives.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Man Who Was Thursady

As one of the books for the Outmoded Authors Challenge I chose G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. I have never read Chesterton before so I had no idea what to expect. From the back of the book I knew it was a sort of spy novel, but I had no idea how hilariously funny it would be. What makes it even funnier is that all of the characters are completely serious no matter how absurd things get.

The main character is Gabriel Syme. He is an upstanding police officer who goes undercover in order to discover the identity of Sunday, the leader of the Anarchists. Syme gets himself elected to the Anarchist Council when the previous Thursday meets an untimely end. Here is a portion of a eulogy spoken before the Anarchist cell members who are about to elect a new Thursday:
As you know, his services to the cause were considerable. He organised the great dynamite coup of Brighton which, under happier circumstances, ought to have killed everybody on the pier. As you also know, his death was as self-denying as his life, for he died through his faith in a hygienic mixture of chalk and water as a substitute for milk, which beverage he regarded as barbaric, and as involving cruelty to the cow.
So we have an Anarchist who tried to kill everyone on Brighton pier but thought drinking milk was cruel. And so goes the whole book. The Anarchists are sticklers about following rules and get very upset when someone doesn't play fair.

Syme as Thursday runs off to France to try and stop another member of the Council from going through with an assassination. The book is filled with mistaken identities and no one ever seems to be who they say they are. At the end of the book there is a chase scene that involves horses, cars, boats, an elephant and hansom cabs, and a hot air balloon. A scene that would do James Bond proud.

While the book on its surface is a fun romp of a story, there is another deeper level. Regardless of whether the Anarchists are effective, they are viewed as a group that is trying to destroy the world. The suspects are usually rich people because poor people are either too busy just trying to survive to worry about anarchy, or they are viewed as having too much invested in the stability of a government and system that they imagine themselves someday being able to take part in when they make their fortunes.

The driving question underneath The Man Who Was Thursday is will the human race survive? Chesterton published the book in 1908 and was strongly influenced by the Boer War and his deep religious beliefs. The book's epigraph pretty much says it all:
"I see everything," he cried, "everything that there is. Why does each thing on earth war against each other thing? Why does each small thing the world have to fight against the world itself?"
Why indeed. I don't think we are any closer to an answer now than we were then.

I enjoyed The Man Who Was Thursday so much I raced through it in a day and a half. Those kinds of books don't come along very often. Because I read so fast, I'm sure I missed a lot and I would like to re-read it again sometime. I'd also like to read more Chesterton. The Father Brown books are supposed to be quite good.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


So, I finished Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood last week and have decided to go ahead and read it again right away. My response to the first reading was a mixture of awe and bewilderment. The plot is simple to follow, so it was not the plot that bewildered me, but there is not much plot anyway; rather, it’s the things the characters were saying that I sometimes had trouble following. But their speeches were beautiful and in the moments when meaning broke through, I found myself moved.

I learned pretty quickly I couldn’t read and re-read passages until I understood them perfectly, because that moment didn’t always come; instead, I read slowly and figured out what I could, and kept going even if I didn’t get everything. I did this partly because I knew I’d mostly likely be reading the book again, but also because trying to figure everything out would lead to frustration. I think this is the kind of book where you can read for mood and atmosphere and for the beauty of the language as much as you read for logical meaning.

Here’s a typical passage, a speech from one of the most important characters, the doctor:

Suppose your heart were five feet across in any place, would you break it for a heart no bigger than a mouse’s mute? Would you hurl yourself into any body of water, in the size you now are, for any woman that you had to look for with a magnifying glass, or any boy if he was as high as the Eiffel Tower or did droppings like a fly? No, we all love in sizes, yet we all cry out in tiny voices to the great booming God, the older we get. Growing old is just a matter of throwing life away back; so you finally forgive even those that you have not begun to forget.

I’m not entirely sure what this passage means, but I do like it. The book it not entirely made up of passages like this one; it also has plenty of dialogue and narration that’s easier to follow. The novel tells the story of a group of characters, following them through many years as they wander around, fall in love, marry in some cases, break up, despair, talk it over, despair, talk it over, etc. There’s the doctor, who has most of the eloquent, poetic speeches, who doesn’t seem to do much but talk to the other characters. There’s Baron Felix, who marries Norah Flood, who then leaves him to pursue Robin Vote, who leaves Norah to pursue Jenny. The conversations that come out of all this loving and leaving are more important than the actions themselves — the book is really about the sense that the characters make of what happens to them.

I do not at all feel as though I have a handle on this book, but perhaps after a second reading, I’ll get more of it. Perhaps I’ll look up some critical work as well.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

Of Human Bondage recounts the first 30 years in the life of Philip Carey, from the sudden death of his adored and adoring mother, to his decision to marry and to settle on a career as a doctor. This is a quiet book, and Maugham's writing is deceptively spare and plain. His meaning is always clear so the story progresses swiftly, unobstructed by authorial cleverness. I found it absolutely gripping while I was reading it, despite the fact that Philip is not always sympathetic or even likeable.

The story draws heavily on episodes from Maugham's own life: he was an orphan, he hated the boarding school to which he was sent, he attended university in Germany, he studied medicine; all these episodes are reproduced in the book. In addition, Philip Carey suffers from a club-foot, a physical disfigurement that perhaps stands in for the stutter that plagued Maugham throughout his life. And, Philip is a sharp-tongued, angry youth who does not make friends easily, another characteristic that he shares with Maugham. In the Foreword to my edition, Maugham says:
Of Human Bondage is not an autobiography, but an autobiographical novel; fact and fiction are inextricably mingled; the emotions are my own but not all the incidents are related as they happened and some of them are transferred to my hero not from my own life but from that of persons with whom I was intimate. The book did for me what I wanted and when it was issued to the world ... I found myself free forever from the pains and unhappy recollections that had tormented me.
If the emotions are truly his own, then Maugham was capable of turning his penetrating and ruthless gaze inward. He pulls no punches in his telling so that Philip stands revealed in all his weaknesses; only in the latter half of the novel do his strengths begin to display. He would in fact be a deeply unpleasant character but for Maugham's choosing to depict so many instances of petty meanness, jealousy, casual cruelty that Philip becomes only very human. Literary characters are so often better or worse than real people; Philip is not, and although the reader may dislike what they see of him as a child and a young man, by the time the book ends he is beginning to change into an altogether more personable individual.

Philip is nine when his mother dies, and although he does not quite understand, he knows he is a suitable object for sympathy: 'He knew that Mrs Watkin and her sister were talking to friends and it seemed to him - he was nine years old - that if he went in they would be sorry for him...'
After his mother's death, Philip goes to live with his aunt and uncle. Mr William Carey is the vicar at Blackstable and is a selfish, cold man around whom his entire household revolves. He is the sort of man who denies the use of the stove for heat because of the expense of the coal, but has a fire lit in his own study. His wife is a faded, pathetic woman who has longed desperately for a child of her own; she immediately loves Philip unconditionally and longs for him to reciprocate in whatever small measure. Philip does love her back, but rather fitfully, in that the emotion is usually prompted by his own guilt or regret at having, once again, reduced her to tears.

The solitary life with his aunt and uncle turns Philip into a shy, quiet, introverted boy who takes solace in reading and develops a precocious intelligence. His club-foot makes him self-conscious, and at school, he grows a carapace of bitterness and sarcasm to cover his loneliness and insecurity. At first he is destined for the church, but he begins to lose interest and decides against ordination. This is the first of several paths that Philip enthusiastically follows, then determinedly rejects, a pattern that repeats itself until he gets to medical school.

Maugham says of him that 'he had the unfortunate gift of seeing things as they were', and this is true for things but not for people. A passion for reading fills Philip's head with romantic ideals of life at a German university or later, as an artist. Each time, his propensity for seeing things as they are means that he cannot mistake bad art for good, or tawdriness for glamour. But, at Heidelberg he falls in with a fellow-student called Hayward, the outward embodiment of the man steeped in literature, who can turn out an apposite quote for any occasion but has no real learning. Philip is entirely deceived by appearance, ignoring all the proofs that Hayward is a phony.

On his return to Blackstable after his year in Germany, Philip again displays that same lack of judgement and embarks on an ill-advised affair with Miss Wilkinson, who is a guest in the house. She is considerably older than him, and certainly experienced, although she affects the dress and manner of a younger woman. Knowingly, she reels Philip into a physical relationship, and he is too naive and too keen to experience sex, to escape. When he first visits her room and sees her unclothed and without make up, he knows he's making a mistake:
She looked grotesque. Philip's heart sank as he stared at her; she had never seemed so unattractive; but it was too late now. He closed the door behind him and locked it.
Philip's attempts to extricate himself from the web in which he is now caught offer decidedly comic moments, but fortunately Miss Wilkinson lives in Berlin, and she leaves. Philip embarks on a career in accountancy, but after a year he leaves that and goes to art school in Paris. Faced with the knowledge of his own mediocrity he leaves that in its turn, and returns home again. His next career choice is medicine, and again he goes up to London and enrolls.

The third time is the charm, and after a somewhat rocky start, Philip begins to apply himself at medical school and to do quite well. During this portion of his life he also falls in love with and pursues the entirely ghastly Mildred. She is a singularly unpleasant character, with skin so pale that it is 'greenish', 'of a faint green colour', with a 'greenish pallor'. Even when he first loves her, Philip is disgusted by her:
...he hated the thinness of her, only that evening he had noticed how the bones of her chest stood out in evening-dress; he went over her features one by one; he did not like her mouth, and the unhealthiness of her colour vaguely repelled him. She was common. Her phrases, so bold and few, constantly repeated, showed the emptiness of her mind; he recalled her vulgar little laugh at the jokes of the music hall comedy; and he remembered the little finger carefully extended when she held her glass to her mouth; her manners, like her conversation, were odiously genteel...
When Philip meets her she is a waitress in a cafe; by the time of her last appearance in his life, she is a prostitute with an unspecified communicable disease. Fully aware of her illness, she still continues to ply her trade. Throughout their protracted, wretched relationship, Philip is unable to break away from her entirely and indeed, for a while is subjugated to her. It is really difficult to like Philip when he is so smitten with Mildred that, for example, he pays for her and another lover to go away for the weekend. He also pays for her treatment when she is pregnant with yet another man's child. Mildred, for her part, never wants Philip; but she wants him to want her. When he finally does reject her, her resentment explodes into violence.

(Mildred is the most fully described of all the female characters in the book, but all the women are either 'mothers' or 'whores', almost types rather than actual people. I wish Maugham had addressed this point in his Introduction.)

Of Human Bondage works as a protracted coming-of-age story, and Philip's last rite of passage is his temporary poverty and homelessness. This downward mobility takes the edges off Philip's stolid, middle-class snobbery. He is befriended by a mixed class family (father originally upper class, mother working class) and is also forced really to work at something he dislikes, with no luxury of changing employment at a whim.

Of course, he transcends these obstacle and in the end, he does complete his medical studies and is a cooler, wiser and more sympathetic person.
He thought of his desire to make a design, intricate and beautiful, out of the myriad, meaningless facts of life: had he not seen also that the simplest pattern, that in which man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect? It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

Most people will know the story of Pygmalion, from My Fair Lady if nowhere else, where Eliza Doolittle is taught to speak 'like a duchess' by Professor Henry Higgins. Shaw describes this as a didactic play in his preface, revelling in its success when popular opinion says that art should not be didactic. Yet it is also a charming play with likeable characters, which allows you to painlessly engage with the serious message underlying it.
It begins with a scene on a rainy London street. A flower girl begins causing a nuisance of herself, trying to sell her flowers to anyone standing still; gradually the people milling around realise that a man is noting down everything they say. After accusations that he is a copper's nark, the note-taker astounds everyone by being able to pinpoint exactly where they come from by how they speak.

'THE SARCASTIC BYSTANDER: Yes: tell him where he come from if you want to go fortune-telling.
THE NOTE-TAKER: Cheltenham, Harrow, Cambridge, and India.
THE GENTLEMAN: Quite right.
Great laughter. Reaction in the note-taker's favour. Exclamations of He knows all about it. Told him proper. Hear him tell the toff where he come from? etc
THE GENTLEMAN:May I ask, sir, do you do this for your living at a music hall?
THE NOTE-TAKER: I've thought of that. Perhaps I shall some day.'

The note-taker is, as you will have gathered, Professor Higgins. The play concerns his attempt to take this cockney flower girl and teach her to speak properly, and how this affects both their lives.
'You see this creature with her kerb-stone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party.'
Reading this has reminded me that Shaw's plays are both eminently readable and, I've always found, eminently watchable. It is light and engaging, with witty dialogue. The play is dated in the sense that it is firmly set in the Edwardian era and I feel it would be hard to set it in the present without significantly changing the text (for instance, the swear word 'bloody' does not have the same capacity to shock in the twenty-first century), but the dialogue is clear and natural, and you can believe in the characters, no matter how bizarre the situation they are in.
However, there is a social commentary underlying the romantic veneer - Shaw's didacticism; this is a play very firmly about class. As Higgins says:
'This is an age of upstarts. Men begin in Kentish Town with £80 a year, and end up in Park Lane with a hundred thousand. They want to drop Kentish Town; but they give themselves away every time they open their mouths.'
Class is something that still obsesses us in England ninety years later, and for this reason the play stands the test of time. There are constantly new books written, television programmes being made about it; we have just recently had a furore in the press about 'middle-class drinking'. We all define ourselves and others as belonging to one class or another, and the way we use language is a large part of that. This obsession is satirised by Shaw in this play, this need to classify ourselves and others and present ourselves according to the station we believe we belong, or want to belong, to by the way we speak.
As time passes, Eliza comes to realise that there is more to becoming a lady than her accent. Her character develops throughout the play as she becomes a strong, dignified woman who is able at last to stand up to Higgins.
She also finally recognises in Higgins and her father the meaning of true classlessness, in the way that, with no thought for ceremony or situation, both treat everyone the same whether they be a duke or a dustman: Mr Doolittle with easy-going familiarity and Higgins with bored contempt.
Raymond Williams (in Drama from Ibsen to Brecht) describes how Shaw did not consider plays where there was little more than the dialogue to be a true art form, they need the directions of the playwright for the entire vision. For example, Shaw believed that we do not have the full genius of Shakespeare available to us because we lack his character notes and directions. Shaw will not allow this to happen to his plays, and with a preface, an epilogue and detailed directions throughout Pygmalion has more the air of a play-novella hybrid than a piece of drama. For reading purposes this is fine, but I wonder how restricting directors find this interference from Bernard Shaw.
An example of Shaw's control over his vision is the ending of the play, which does not make clear what will happen to Eliza. In case you should be tempted to romantically decide for yourself, however, in the epilogue Shaw provides a realistic and pleasing, if not romantic, future for Eliza, Henry and the other characters.
It is pleasing because I had grown very fond of the defiant yet vulnerable Eliza, and the infuriating but essentially innocent and child-like Higgins, as well as the other characters. So even if there is a slight irritation at Shaw's need to control even after the end of the play, there is also a certain satisfaction in ending with everything sorted, rather than having Eliza and Higgins teetering on the edge of either perfect happiness or abject misery.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

#2 Death of the Heart - Elizabeth Bowen

Outmoded Author Challenge #2

Sixteen years old Portia Quayne has grown up exiled not from her own country but from normal, cheerful family life. She is the product of an ignominious affair between her mother Irene and a married man. However much chagrin the adulterous number has caused Thomas Quayne, Portia’s half-brother, his mother, before she died, had gone out of her way to accommodate the mistress and approved the marriage.

Recently orphaned, Portia moves into Thomas’ house at Windsor Terrace, a luxurious but emotionally sterile London home where each person lives impaled upon a private obsession. Life is so restrained and edited that no feeling can ever thicken intimacy. It is not so much that the Quaynes don’t like the teenage girl as they find her keen eye, observant perception unsettling. Anna, Thomas’ wife, especially finds Portia unnerving because she “doesn’t like to be watched.” Her eyes are so riveting as if the invincible innocence and perspicacity give her power to see through Anna’s secrecy.

But the monotonous life at Windsor Terrace is quickly intruded by Portia’s falling for Eddie, a close friend of Anna with whom she has a liaison. That Eddie has made a villain of Anna, who treats her with a polite hostility, hypnotizes her and binds her close to him like an alliance. Unfortunately Portia cannot (she has no clue) comprehend evil or unkind motives. Though the main plot follows her relationship with Eddie, the novel’s real tension lies between Portia and Anna, as the girl comes to grief against Anna’s cynicism and insidiousness.

Bowen has very keen eye for such shadings of morality that in between the lines of her writing she exposes the ugliest, the most cruel, the most despicable in the genteel society. A sensitive observer of the way we live, she deals in motives and mind games that render the novel very psychological and haunting. The tension between Portia and Anna is not revealed by their interactions, who are meager, but between their ears.

I mentioned a very significant quote on innocence in a previous post. So the theme of innocence being corrupted is inverted in order to fully accentuate the destructive power of innocence. While innocence is a virtue, those who are innocent can be very vulnerable to betrayal, for innocent people, who exact a very brave happiness and sanguine nature, are strangers to the world. Portia’s innocence might poise as a challenge to a society that is completely lacking in compassion. In the end this respectable virtue makes her a victim of the social conventions in which the players tend to be more civil and kind than they really are.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Glassy Sea by Marian Engel

Despite a dreadful cover and excruciating blurb, this short novel is wonderful and I am delighted that this challenge encouraged me to read it. Consisting largely of a letter from a middle-aged woman to her Bishop, it tells the story of Rita from her rural childhood, through her transformation into an Anglican nun, Sister Mary Pelagia, her gentle "eviction" out of the order and into marriage and motherhood, and her eventual breakdown. As she re-reads the letter, written the previous summer, she begins to regain a sense of equilibrium about the past, and to review and reaffirm her decision about the future.

The writing is down-to-earth, almost chatty, even when considering matters of life and death, but there is a seriousness of tone, and earnestness, that tells us that the protagonist, while capable of efficiency and practicality, is in essence a dreamer, a lover of solitude. As a youngest child, we find she learnt her solitude early, along with an introspection her family find hard to deal with:
I liked it in church , too, because . . . I thought I understood Jesus. I didn't understand any of the other people I had read about because they did unheard of things like get caught in lobster pots or vanish down rabbit holes, or were orphans, but there was He, born in a barn, child of a man who worked with his hands (and my father, too, would have walked miles in winter to be honest and pay his taxes) and a woman who obviously worked her fingers to the bone. And, like me, He asked a lot of questions. I was always asking questions.
When Rita is taken ill at university, and sent home to recuperate, she takes lessons from a retired Anglican clergyman, Mr Laidlaw, who introduces her to a community of nuns. Because the Anglican church can find no practical role for them, the Eglantines live a largely contemplative existence and Rita is drawn, despite immense parental opposition, to join them. And for ten years she is happy:
William Morris would indeed have been pleased with the Eglantines and I can't think God himself wasn't, at that time. I have read, since, books and stories by women who have dropped the veils of the Sisters of St Joseph, of the Ursulines - indeed, there must be dozens of them. But none of them seems to have found the earthly paradise I found for a while in Eglantine House, in London, Ont., as we call it, the heart of your diocese.
Unfortunately for Rita, the Eglantines are an ageing community and, although she spends a time as its acting head, her Sister Superior decides that she is young enough to build a new life for herself and ejects her kindly but firmly into the arms of her friend Maggie, to help care for her children. Filled with grief at the loss of the community, she inevitably meets a young lawyer - in fact, they have met before, in high school, where Rita considers Asher Bowen the most beautiful man she has ever seen - and recognises in him some of her seriousness and religious fervour. Continuing the separation of each stage of her life, Ash renames her Peggy, they choose a church to attend together and are quickly married:
I was empty. I handed my void to him. He told me what to wear, what to do; when he knew me better, he told me what I felt. He filled my mind, my thoughts, my body. He sat beside me in church. During sacraments his face gleamed pale and fanatic; he had an intensity I had never seen in any Eglantine but Mary Elzevir. I loved him very much indeed.
When she gives birth to a hydrocephalic child, the young couple are devastated. While Ash gradually withdraws, Rita becomes obsessive, dedicating herself to her child's welfare and survival. A "dreadful thing" occurs when Ash purchases the house of Rita's much hated (and child abusing) Uncle Eddie, as a summer cottage. For Rita, who has learnt detachment painfully during her parents' rejection, the return to her childhood home, the intrusion of the "messiness" of her country family, is too much.

With the death of her child, Rita's disintegration into alcoholism, breakdown and divorce is rapid, but she eventually redeems herself through contemplation. She considers that her life has gone wrong when she is required to be Martha rather then Mary yet, as she finally begins to achieve an inner peace, she allows herself to be persuaded that she will return to Eglantine House to re-establish and lead the order. She has learnt the difference between detachment and hiding, the need for balance between Mary and Martha, even the necessity of uncertainty. At the end, still debating with herself about the rightness of her decision, she says: "Enough. Enough. I've made my choice. I shall learn how to live with it."

Despite its brevity, this is a thoughtful book. It was first published in 1978, a time when there was rather more turmoil about woman's role in society, and this is considered at some length here, but it goes deeper, too, to a consideration what it is required for anyone to play their role. In the course of the book the Eglantines too have developed, and will play a greater role than that which they had formerly been allowed; they will no longer be a contemplative order, yet the need for a spiritual dimension to their work is still recognised and permitted time. To me this book provides a powerful affirmation of the need for spirituality, whatever the creed, and I find it already influencing my response to my next book for the challenge, which considers the role of women at an earlier period.