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