Monday, December 22, 2008

Slaves Forum

Our solo attempt at a forum is now ready to go. The forum address is To register as a forum member so you can post to the discussions, click "Register" on the tool bar.

Feedback, good or bad, is welcome.



Friday, October 17, 2008

And Next Up Is....

In the end the clear winner is Jeanette Winterson's Sexing The Cherry. We'll be posting on and discussing the book from 31st January 2009 (and where did 2008 go...?).

I found some reading group questions for this novel and thought I'd post them here to give members something to think about while they are reading:

  1. There are multiple narrators in the novel – the Dog Woman, Jordan, the Princesses. How do the narrators compare with each other? Has the author used the multiple narrators to different effect? Which narrator do you like best and why?

  2. Are there any similarities between the seventeenth-century Jordan and the nineteenth-century naval cadet Nicholas Jordan we meet at the end of Sexing the Cherry? How does the author use the different narrators?

  3. Jordan undertakes voyages across foreign lands, discovering pineapples and to fantastical lands to find Fortunata. What does he discover in terms of his own ambitions for the voyage he is on?

  4. The Dog Woman provokes a multitude of reactions from those who lay eyes on her physical being. Is she accepted by society or considered an outcast?

  5. Do you pity her? Does she deserve pity?

  6. The Sunday Times claimed ‘The Dog Woman is one of the most appealing, alarming giants in literature since Gargantua.’ Would you agree?

  7. The Dog Woman has committed many murders including her own father. Is she evil? Can they be forgiven? Are they the only characters in both Where might that evil spring from? Could she be forgiven? Is she the only character in the book that could be considered evil?

  8. Sexing the Cherry is set at the beginning of the English Civil War. What relevance does the setting have to the story? Is it an integral part of the book?

  9. John Tradescant is something of a teacher and mentor for Jordan. What lessons does he teach to his pupil?

I hope these help a bit! Looking forward to the discussion next year....

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Time To Choose Again!

Dorothy kindly asked me to prepare a selection of books for the next Slaves discussion, which will take place on 31st January 2009. I so very nearly went for five comfortable reads in the category of social comedy (and you may well wish I had!) but then I changed my mind and, true to the tradition of the Slaves, I’ve been looking for books that are a bit different, this time in a genre-bending sort of way.

Here’s some suggestions:

Drusilla Modjeska – The Orchard

Balanced on an uncertain boundary between fiction and non-fiction, this book is a series of three interlinked essays on the theme of women, love and creativity that draws its material from the lives of Stella Bowen and Virginia Woolf as well as from myth and legend. From the amazon reviews: ‘three years in a row I have been using this book with my female students. Most of them have asserted that The Orchard changed their lives, as it changed mine when I first read it. The story of the handless maid, which epitomizes the book's message, invites women readers to reflect on issues such as maturity, identity, education, interpersonal relationships, autonomy and self-sufficiency. The magic mixture of essay, narrative, folk tale and biography creates a beautiful and complex tapestry, in which any woman, no matter her age, can recognize herself.’

Marianne Wiggins – The Shadow Catcher

Wiggins’ latest novel mixes autobiography and fiction in an undecidable way, intertwining the story of Edward S. Curtis, a Western photographer, and his muse-wife, Clara, with a tale of a narrator, also named Marianne Wiggins, driving to Vegas to confront a man claiming to be her long-dead father. Both men are subject to wanderlust that will ultimately trouble their relationships and leave a confusing remainder for those who try to understand them. From a Powell’s review: ‘Photographs taken by Curtis and from the Wiggins's family album, which she approaches from multiple angles, give the story several layers of immediacy. Curtis emerges as a fascinating, complex figure, one who inhabited any number of American contradictions. Suffused with Marianne's crackling social commentary and deceptively breezy self-discovery, Wiggins's eighth novel is a heartfelt tour de force.’

Ali Smith – Boy Meets Girl

One of the Canongate myth series, Ali Smith rewrites Ovid’s tale of Iphis from the Metamorphoses, displacing its scenario to a water-bottling factory in Inverness. It’s a love story that involves gender transformations, moral messages and rather more joyfulness, it seems, than the average Greek myth. This from the review in The Guardian: ‘Smith is a gravely moral writer - and that is partly why her contribution to the world of myth is so powerful. There is nothing detached or ironic here. Beneath all her jagged jumps and leaps of verbal facility, her sheer cliffhanging turns of storytelling, her books run deeply with the differences between right and wrong, love versus lies. By the time I finished the book, my heart was beating and tears stood in my eyes, even as I had the biggest smile written all over my face.’

Jeanette Winterson – Sexing the Cherry

I was going to plump for the more recent The Stone Gods, but in the end went for this one because it is such an amazing read. It’s the story of orphan Jordan who is discovered and brought up by the Dog Woman, a magnificent giantess. It’s set in the seventeenth century but its exoticness and charm is such that it could just as well be a fairy tale – and they abound in the narrative in any case. Funny and hugely imaginative, a fusion of history, fable and myth, it’s Winterson at her very best. From an amazon review: ‘Reading her words is a joy in and of itself. Her settings are bold, her characters are compelling, and she does not fill either her pages or her plots with minutia. This work is very much like an opera -- breathtakingly beautiful arias abound, strung together with plot-enhancing threads which glitter and glimmer. Take the journey, and savor it’.

David Markson – Reader’s Block

Apparently Markson heads a list somewhere of the best modern authors that people rarely read. This novel is an experimental mix that blends the story of a reader contemplating the creation of a protagonist who continually interrupts himself with a stream of literary trivia, including the fate of Auden's royalties; the suicide of Adrienne Rich's husband and Conrad's verdict on Moby-Dick (“not a single sincere line”). It sounds unlikely but the reviews seem collectively inclined to find it entertaining. From the amazon reviews: ‘I anticipated a slow and perhaps even difficult read. Instead, I found Reader's Block to be one a the most purely entertaining novels I've read in a long time. So long as you aren't a reader enslaved by narrative expectations (as perhaps Reader, the central "character" of the novel, might be enslaved by narrative expectations?) this book is a literary joyride, a feast of anecdotes, details, ephemera, and hesitation.’

I’ll count up the votes on Friday morning and let you know the outcome!

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Avenging Angel

Back in the middle of the nineteenth century in America, the women were taking the publishing world by storm. Yes, Hermann Melville wrote Moby Dick, and Thoreau wrote the enduring classic Walden, and Nathaniel Hawthorn had himself a modest success with The Scarlet Letter, which sold a little over 10,000 copies. But the women were wiping the floor with them, bestseller-wise. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 10,000 copies in the first two weeks of publication, and by the end of the year it would have sold 310,000. But like so much women’s writing, no place was reserved in the canon for the other great popular books of that period, and writers like Susan Warner and Susanna Cummins have dwindled in obscurity until excavating literary critics have recently dug them back up. Amongst their number was Sara Willis Eldridge Farrington, who managed to achieve the accolade of being one of the highest paid writers of her era under the name of Fanny Fern. She was famous primarily for her journalism, and out of that came her books, most compilations of her articles, but one an autobiographical novel, Ruth Hall. Like all good bestsellers, the novel Ruth Hall came with controversy attached, as publicity around its publication brought forth the revelation of Fanny Fern’s true identity and the fact that the book told the story of her life. And what a life it was – a good rags to riches tale of a young woman, beset by tragedy and cruel relations who managed to turn her life around for the sake of her children by her writing talents.

Nathaniel Hawthorn, who generally didn’t have a good word to say about the women invading the literary scene, made an exception for Ruth Hall: ‘I must say I enjoyed it a good deal. The woman writes as if the devil was in her; and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading.’ I was very struck by this remark when I read it in my trusty introduction, because for all the embroidered-hanky waving weepiness of the novel, I knew just what he meant. Poor Ruth Hall suffers bitterly from unjust fate, marriage bringing her quite the most appalling set of in-laws to add to her own mean and money-grabbing relatives. So when she loses both her baby and her husband to illness, there is no family to cushion the blow with love or with financial aid. Ruth is thrown back on her own resources, which, as any aficionado of the nineteenth century will tell you, were worth pretty much zilch back then. Women had merely ornamental value in this era, or else they tumbled out of their class, into an unreasonable form of social ostracism and poverty. Without a male protector, women didn’t stand a chance, and Ruth Hall’s family (just like Fanny Fern’s) knew this and simply stood back to watch.

Who wouldn’t be hopping mad under those circumstances? Although the novel is a relatively unexpurgated version of Fanny Fern’s life, she did miss out a bit, and that was an ill-advised marriage to a brute of a man named Farrington, a suitor forced upon her by her family when her first husband died. The marriage was a disaster from the start, and after two years, Fanny Fern took the unprecedented step of leaving him. Farrington was so enraged by this that he took some time and trouble slandering her with infidelities she had never committed. It is amazing to think that Fanny Fern managed to fight back in the face of such obstacles, finding an editor who would take her work, slowly building up her reputation and her portfolio and finally becoming one of the most prominent voices in journalism. So if there is a choppiness to the novel Ruth Hall, if it seems a strange mix of comedy and tragedy, of social comment and sentimentalism, of one-dimensional schemers and, in the center of it all, the almost unbearable paragon of virtue and magisterial talent that is our heroine, then it’s because the life it records is one that was wholly out of synch with its time. Fanny Fern was what the social critic Pierre Bourdieu would have called a ‘miraculeuse’, a woman who somehow managed to transcend her social condition in a way that beggared belief. And doesn’t she know it.

If the first half of the novel is a relentless sob of misery, the second half that charts Ruth’s rise to fame is an involuntary retch of sycophancy. Ruth finds herself a patron in the form of honest newspaperman, John Walter. Thanks to his stewardship and mentoring, every person who has thought badly of Ruth is obliged to confront her virtue and her meteoric rise in society. Can you imagine what it must feel like, as an author who has finally made it in the teeth of reputation-destroying slander, to create a character who will say things like: ‘The truth is simply this: “Floy” [Ruth’s nom de plume] is a genius; her writings, wherever published, would have attracted attention, and stamped the writer as a person of extraordinary talent; hence her fame and success’. Or who takes Ruth to a phrenologist (who reads bumps in the skull for character traits, considered quite plausible back then) who pronounces ‘in the general tone of your mind, in elevation of thought, feeling, sympathy, sentiment, and religious devotion, you rank far above most of us, above many who are, perhaps, better ranked to discharge the ordinary duties of life…. we seldom find the faculties so fully developed, or the powers so versatile as in your case.’ Oh my goodness me, such a sweet, sweet taste to revenge, to show up all the family and friends who failed to support you, who looked the other way when you were poor and down on your luck, who listened to cruel gossip and enjoyed it. And to rub their faces in a newly-minted reputation founded on adulation and admiration and great big, fat royalty cheques. What a thrill that must have been.

For this reason, the novel was not a critical success at the time of its publication. A reviewer for the New York Times wrote: ‘If Fanny Fern were a man, - a man who believed that the gratification of revenge were a proper occupation for one who has been abused, and that those who have injured us are fair game, Ruth Hall would be a natural and excusable book. But we confess that we cannot understand how a delicate, suffering woman can hunt down even her persecutors so remorselessly.’ Oh we can’t, can we? Such failures of the imagination have to be put down to the blinkers of gender politics that insisted a woman could only be certain things; the same sort of rules and regulations, in other words, that put Fanny Fern in the gutter in the first place. The novel is riddled with the kind of contradiction that the social constraints fostered – Ruth Hall cannot enjoy writing because no woman could be so manly as to welcome occupation, she cannot enjoy success because she must remain humble and modest at all times, she had to be indifferent to her own comforts and only act for the sake of her children. But Fanny Fern was brave enough to end the book with Ruth still unmarried – something that was in fact unthinkable to the audience of her day. Reading the novel, I see that so much has changed in the way we consider women’s lives – and thank goodness for that. But I also cannot help but think that some things haven’t changed at all. Are we ready yet to accept that women can be angry and vengeful without seeing them as monsters? Is it not still the case that women are quietly coopted into being conciliatory, modest, forgiving, sweet-tempered, and still, oh so very nice, no matter what trials they have had to endure? Well, that was the part of Ruth Hall that made me most uncomfortable, as I pondered the journey the heroine had taken, and the conclusion that left her ready to take off once more for unchartered lands. Would she have ended up in the 21st century in the place that Fanny Fern would have wanted for her?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Ruth Hall, Hero?

Ruth Hall by Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Willis Parton) was originally published in 1855. It is the story of Ruth Ellet, a smart, pretty girl who lives in a stingy family. Ruth marries Harry Hall and the couple couldn't be happier except for the presence of Harry's parents.

Mrs. Hall never has a kind word to say and Dr. Hall, retired, is nothing but a curmudgeonly old man who wouldn't sacrifice a penny if it meant saving a child from starving. How they produced a kind, easy-going son like Harry I can't quite figure it out. When Ruth and Harry marry they live for a time with Mrs and Dr Hall until Harry's business gets off the ground. What a relief when Ruth and Harry finally buy a home of their own in the country!

Ruth and Harry have a child and everything seems so idyllic in spite of Harry's parents moving to a house just over the hill. Then tragedy strikes. Daisy gets what seems to be a cold. Dr. Hall tells Ruth that she worries too much, it is nothing. It turns out to be the croup and even as Daisy is on her deathbed Dr. Hall grumbles about being called out of his house so late at night. And when Daisy dies, of course it is all Ruth's fault.

Ruth and Harry sell their home and move back to town with the in-laws, like a bad penny, following behind. Time goes by and Ruth has two more children, Nettie and Katy. Then Harry dies! Ruth is devastated. Because of some business issues, Ruth is left without any money. None of the family--either the Halls or the Ellets--want to spend a dime helping Ruth and her children. Ruth sinks quickly into poverty and the heartless families blame her for it. Ruth has to allow Katy to be taken away by the Halls who treat the girl very badly. Ruth and Nettie are reduced to a bread and milk diet.

This section of the book went on and on until I thought I couldn't bear it anymore. And then, finally, Ruth decides she is going to earn a living writing. I was not convinced by the sudden change. Ruth, who had been almost constantly weeping and not entirely well, suddenly finds a backbone and the strength and energy not only to write but then to take her work around and suffer rejection after rejection before someone agrees to hire her for a paltry sum. Her articles become a great success. When she asks her employer for a small raise his response is, "just like a woman [...] give them the least foot-hold, and they will want the whole territory." And Ruth doesn't make a fuss.

She is working hard, writing for two newspapers, when in sweeps a knight in shining armor to rescue her. Mr. Walter pays Ruth enough money for her to live on, and becomes friend and financial advisor for the profits Ruth makes from a book of her articles. Their relationship is described as brother/sister, but I found it uncomfortably odd. Mr. Walter is not married and he takes the utmost interest in Ruth and the well being of her children. At times he treats Ruth rather like a child.

Ruth is supposed to be a heroic character. The book is based on Fanny Fern's own life and was rather a sensation when it came out. But I didn't find Ruth convincing. While she did find a way to earn a living she was only assertive when it cam to finding a job in the first place. After that, she pretty much accepted her situation until Mr. Walter came along and helped her out. The introduction to my edition asserts the book a classic but I have to disagree. It certainly has historical interest but beyond that I cannot say it has much to offer. That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the book but I can't say that I loved it either. It falls into the so-so category for me.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Ruth Hall

Fanny Fern's 1855 novel Ruth Hall surprised me a little bit, partly in terms of its plot, but even more so in terms of how it is written. The plot has a fairly traditional structure to it -- a heroine happy but precarious, a heroine in trouble, a heroine in more trouble, a heroine in new kinds of trouble, a heroine saved -- although within the traditional structure are some innovations. The novel begins with a marriage rather than ending with one, which is a twist on the coming-of-age novel so popular at the time. Fanny Fern actively resists ending the novel with a marriage, in fact, as she could easily have had Ruth accept Mr. Walter's hand, but instead Ruth insists on staying single and supporting herself. Also innovative, of course, is the way that Ruth engineers her own salvation, instead of relying on a suitor or a family member to save her. The very point of the novel is her claim of independence and the success she has at insisting on it.

To me, the novel's style is most striking, though, particularly the short chapters and the juxtapositions of varied scenes and character sketches. The style is disjointed, with abrupt transitions from one character to another. Fern's newspaper writing must have influenced the development of this style, as the chapters are similar in length to the essays Fern published (my book has a sampling of these essays, although I haven't yet read them), the type of essay her character Ruth Hall became famous for.

This disjointedness works for me because of the way it offers a kaleidoscope view of the story, all the little pieces fitting together to create a sense of the society Ruth moved in. The style also fits with Fern's relative lack of interest in extensive detail or psychological depths; instead of long sections of text that delve into the details of a scene or the depths of a character's mind, we get a quick sketch of a conversation or a dramatic moment, and then we are on to the next one. Fern is very good with the telling detail and the revealing conversation that informs you of everything you need to know without belaboring the point. This is not to say that the characters have no depth or that the narrative isn't fleshed out, but what depth and complexity there is (and really Ruth is the only character that is coming to mind right now that has some psychological substance to her -- or am I missing something?) is created through quick flashes of insight.

The book has some odd moments. I couldn't quite figure out the point of the phrenology chapter, one of the longest chapters, in fact, except that Fern wanted to make a joke about phrenology, which seems like an odd thing to in the middle of a novel. And I didn't understand the characters' obsession with puns either. The fact that Hall's daughter Nettie likes puns makes sense, since this is possibly a way of indicating that she has inherited her mother's facility with language, but Mrs. Skiddy likes puns as well, and she's not exactly one of the sympathetic characters.

But I like the book's oddness; it seems to fit with its comic tone, and it does have some wonderful comic scenes, especially those describing just how horrid Ruth's family and her in-laws are. You could not possibly have a worse extended family than Ruth has -- they are people you can rely on to behave in as selfish and mercenary a manner possible. Even though these people cause much of Ruth's suffering, their ridiculousness is so unbelievable that they provide a kind of comic relief to all the gloom of Ruth's life.

In a way, Ruth's story is at odds with the rest of the book -- her story is about suffering, hard work, sacrifice, and triumph; it's very serious and sentimental stuff. The rest of the book, though, is about the humor and the folly of humanity, with Hyacinth and his narcissistic preening, Mr. and Mrs. Skiddy and their marital battles, and those letter writers who foolishly hope Ruth will write their school compositions for them. For me, all these disparate parts work together to create a lot of energy; in formal terms, the book is a bit of a mess, I suppose, but it's a fun mess.

If you like, feel free to follow and contribute to the discussion board at Metaxu Cafe.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The next Slaves of Golconda book: Ruth Hall

Well, it was hard to add up the numbers, as people have various ways of voting and it was extremely close, but it seems to me that Ruth Hall wins out, although only sort of. Three of the books got three votes each, which would mean a three-way tie, except that a couple people mentioned that Ruth Hall was a close second, so I'm going to count those and make Ruth Hall the selection. I hope you enjoy it!

As for the reading date, I didn't get a whole lot of feedback on that question, but the feedback I got indicates that a later date will work, so let's make the posts due on September 30th. This will give us 2 1/2 months to do the reading.

Anyone is free to join the discussion, so don't be shy! I'll be back here in September.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Help choose our next book!

Stefanie has asked me to choose the next Slaves of Golconda book, so I'm here with some choices. All of these are by 18C or 19C American writers, a category I don't read in very often but wish that I did, and so am seizing this chance to make up for my lack. I hope there is something here that appeals to you. Everyone is welcome to participate, whether you have a blog or not, so don't be shy!

Vote for your choice in the comments, and I'll add up all the votes on Friday morning. Also let me know if you would rather read the book by August 31st, which would be our usual time, or by September 30th, which would give us an extra month. I ask this because people might prefer to wait until the summer is fully over before our next discussion begins. Either way is fine with me.

So, here they are:

1. Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall. Hobgoblin recently recommended this to me. Here's a description: "The first novel by Fanny Fern, otherwise known as Sarah Payson Willis, is a semi-autobiographical tale of a talented writer who loses her husband and is forced to support herself and two young children in the mid 1800s. Fern writes with biting social commentary on the subject of traditional assumptions of the woman's place in society."

2. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Story of Avis. Litlove mentioned this one recently, and it looks interesting. It's relatively expensive if you buy it new, but there are plenty of cheap used copies available. A description: "Avis is the story of a larger-than-life heroine, a promising artist, who against her better judgment is persuaded by her lover Philip Ostrander -- a "new man" -- to marry ... Phelps depicts the turmoil of her characters inner lives with great sensitivity and a skill that is striking."

3. Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple. (Another one recommended by Hobgoblin.) A description: "A story of seduction, betrayal, and retribution. It is a sentimental, moralistic novel of the eighteenth century that leaves the protagonist, Charlotte, in the midst of a cunning and unforgiving world." It was the biggest bestseller until Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared.

4. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables. This book is on my mind as I saw the house itself just a month or so ago. A description: "Hawthorne's tale about the brooding hold of the past over the present is a complex one, twisting and turning its way back through many generations of a venerable New England family, one of whose members was accused of witchcraft in 17th century Salem."

Let me know what you think!

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Rebecca West review of The Glimpses of the Moon: "As Dust in the Mouth"

I thoroughly enjoyed Edith Wharton's The Glimpses of the Moon but there have been too many real life distractions this week for me to work up a decent post for the discussion. I'm providing instead (in lieu of in addition to) a review Rebecca West wrote about the book back in 1922 in hopes that the rest of you haven't moved on and still feel like discussing it.

The West review is harsh as were most of the reviews at the time of publication. According to James W. Tuttleton in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, "[w]ritten for the Pictorial Review, a slick periodical aimed at American housewives, The Glimpses of the Moon marked a steep decline in Mrs. Wharton's powers. While some reviewers gave the obligatory nod to Wharton's stylistic powers, Ruth Hale memorably defined the critical view that would seal the book's fate: 'Edith Wharton has no business to be writing such trash.' "

The book sold more than one hundred thousand copies in six months.

Notes on Novels: The Glimpses of the Moon

Every now and then some writer--either critic or novelist--announces that the novel is an art-form that is played out. The statement is, of course, not true.... But one can understand the mood of despair that makes people declare that all is up with the novel when one reads Mrs. Wharton's The Glimpses of the Moon.

Nothing more competent than this book could possibly be imagined. Mrs. Wharton has left undone nothing which she ought to have done; and on the other count, of doing nothing that she ought not to have done, her score is even higher. It has flashes of insight, as in that scene at the end of the book where the husband and wife, after a separation that has nearly terminated in their divorce, are sitting quietly together, and the husband's mind ranges back to the partners whom they had tentatively selected for consolation and remarriage. He thinks of the girl who had been willing to marry him, who will be cruelly disappointed by his return to his wife, with compunction and tenderness; and he is shocked by his certainty that his wife has utterly banished from her mind all thoughts of her dismissed suitor, whose goodness and affection deserved respect. But he remembers the next moment that whereas he had treated the girl very nearly like a cad, his wife treated her suitor with sincerity and courage. It is the neatest possible exhibition of the essential differences between Nick and Susy Branch. Yet, for all these occasional reminders that the hand that wrote this wrote Ethan Frome, and for all its perpetual, vigilant competence, the book is a dead thing. It is as well done as it possibly could be; but it is not worth doing. There is a very great temptation to say that since here is a novel which is written with supreme accomplishment and which is as dust in the mouth, there must be something wrong with the novel as an art-form. But if one examines the case more closely the failure of The Glimpses of the Moon may be seen to proceed, not from any inadequacy of the novel, but from two circumstances attending on the development of Mrs. Wharton's talent, which act on it as adversely as if they were innate defects.

The first of these is that Mrs. Wharton was born in America at exactly the wrong time. One does not mean that it was unfortunate that Mrs. Wharton was able to win (as she did with The Age of Innocence) the thousand-dollar Pulitzer prize.... Though indeed this is unfortunate, for that there is something within Mrs. Wharton which responds to this note is demonstrated by her choice of a title, for with a certain lack of sympathy with Dr. Donne she uses the line as a metaphor for the fleeting vision of the moral good which two persons pursue through the obscurities of a murky environment. But the real misfortune of Mrs. Wharton's uprising is that it happened at a time when fastidious spirits of the kind to which she markedly belonged were obsessed by a particular literary method, and in a place where every day revealed situations which were bound to attract an eager intelligence of the kind she undoubtedly possessed but which could not be appropriately treated by that favoured method. The method was that of William Dean Howells and Henry James. The situations were those arising out of the establishment of the American plutocracy; and they were large, bold situations, blatancies in a marble setting, that could not be dealt with by the method that in Mr. Howells' hands was adjusted to the nice balancing of integrities in a little town, and in Mr. James' to the aesthetic consideration of conduct in a society where the gross is simply put out of mind. The moral problem in The Glimpses of the Moon is as coarse as one can imagine anything self-consciously concerned with morality possibly being. Nick and Susy are two penniless persons of charm who find it easy to pick up a good living by sponging on their millionaire friends. They fall in love and marry, and then their way of living suddenly fails them, for it involves them in actions which people in love cannot bear to see each other performing. They sulk over it. They separate. Each meditates divorce and a mercenary marriage. They are drawn together and toward independence by a certain fundamental worthiness in both of them. About this situation of crude primary colours Mrs. Wharton writes with an air of discussing fine shades in neutral tints. It is as disconcerting as if, say, Mrs. Gaskell had written Mary Barton in exactly the same style as Cranford.

The second circumstance of Mrs. Wharton's uprising which has been adverse to her development was the unfashionability at that moment of the truth that novelty is a test of the authenticity of art. Tradition is a necessity to the artist; he must realise that he is only a bud on the tree. The America into which Mrs. Wharton was born was almost extravagantly conscious of that necessity, destitute as it was of traditions, terrified lest ill-advised patriotism should hinder it from affiliation to European tradition. But he must also realise that no bud is exactly like another bud. Imitation has its place in life; it is of considerable service in enabling people who have beautiful things in their minds, but who are not possessed of the necessary initiative to find the shape for them.

Source: Rebecca West, Notes on Novels: 'The Glimpses of the Moon', in New Statesman (© 1922 The Statesman Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. XIX, No. 490, September 2, 1922, p. 588. Reprinted in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 9.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Their Best Selves

I’ve long been a fan of Edith Wharton, a writer whose supremely elegant voice is generally combined with a sharp-edged and cynical view of corrupt, tribal, upper class society in turn of the century America. Wharton’s interest lies in the borderline characters, those who have the capacity to be better than the people who surround them, but who have fatal weaknesses for luxury or admiration. There are rules and regulations governing the possession of both luxury and admiration in Wharton’s world, and far from being ones we might expect concerning hard work or cultivating fine qualities, the winners of her societies tend to be those who know how to fight dirty, to manipulate coldly and to selfishly search out every possible advantage. That’s why the sympathetic characters who take center stage in her novels are so often doomed from the outset; they are just too nice to survive. And Wharton does tragedy very well; the collapse of marriages, business ventures, friendships, fine prospects are portrayed with beautiful, diamond-bright prose while her ruthless secondary characters look on from the shade of the veranda, drinks in hand.

So this Wharton novel we’ve been reading, The Glimpses of the Moon, turned out to be something of a surprise. It started out all too well, with happy couple Suzy and Nick Lansing celebrating their marriage of convenience. Both are attached to high society life without the funds to make it work, but they hit on a plan of living off their friend’s generosity for a year or so, honeymooning in borrowed houses across Europe and America. It’s intended to be a gentleman’s agreement that either of them can back out of when they find a ‘better prospect’, which is to say, a richer spouse. It’s a perfect plan, except for one detail: they turn out to have fallen in love with each other. Naturally this all falls apart within a couple of chapters and misunderstandings lead to a long period of painful separation. But this isn’t the usual kind of Wharton love affair either, where the feeling runs deep but the characters are so bounded by their own rules and conventions that they are entirely unable to help one another. What is most astounding, beyond the happy ending that Wharton guides her couple towards, is the fact that they learn and grow en route. I can’t think of a single character in any of her other books who actually does this, who develops and eventually adheres to, a kind of morality that we might recognize as beneficial and that actually does them good. The glimpses of the moon in the title translate literally into the narrative with Suzy and Nick gazing at the stars from positions of great happiness and great sorrow; it’s something between a symbol and a pathetic fallacy, but by the end I wondered whether we reader’s hadn’t also been given a glimpse of a Whartonian moon, another planet entirely where it was possible for good to prevail.

There’s a distinctly gendered dimension to the issue that separates the couple and the process they must go through before finding a way to reconcile. Suzy’s strategy for survival in the tough material world has involved a lot of compromise with morality; she’s not had the liberty of maintaining any kind of moral code if she is to keep her head above water, and often this has meant undertaking unpleasant chores in return for her friend’s hospitality, like flirting with their husbands to cover up their infidelities. Once Nick discovers her ‘managing’ their joint affairs with similar style, he suffers an attack of supercilious male pride. He’s not the first of Wharton’s men to watch a woman get her hands dirty and to respond with disgust and disdain rather than empathetic understanding. There clearly wasn’t a lot of that particular quality going around in late nineteenth century New York. And so he rushes off with congenial friends on a lengthy cruise, eyeing up the daughter as a potential new marriage partner (as much a need to save face with Suzy as the experience of any real attraction) whilst Suzy is left to battle it out alone with their crowd. It isn’t long at all before one of her close male friends finds himself in a position to offer her the riches and lifestyle she thought she longed for, but Suzy discovers that falling in love has wrought a transformation on more than just her heart. Nick’s dislike of her ‘managing’, his contempt for her infinite flexibility in the face of right and wrong, has turned out to be contagious, and in his company she has experienced a way of living that is itself more rich, more sumptuous, than the jewel-bright society to which she thought she belonged:

‘She felt as though she were on the point of losing some new-found treasure, a treasure precious only to herself, but beside which all he offered her was nothing, the triumph of her wounded pride nothing, the security of her future nothing. […] Nick had not opened her eyes to new truths but had waked in her again something which had lain unconscious under years of accumulated indifference. And that reawakened sense had never left her since, and had somehow kept her from utter loneliness because it was a secret shared with Nick, a gift she owed to Nick, and which, in leaving her, he could not take from her. It was almost, she suddenly felt, as if he had left her with a child.’

What an extraordinary passage to find in a Wharton novel. But there it is; Suzy and Nick find out that true love, real love, is the place where you are your best self, the finest version of the many people you could possibly be. That’s why Suzy still loves Nick and will never falter, despite the fact that he has behaved very badly towards her. He was the trigger for her enlightenment and in his presence she feels the lure towards further self-development. No amount of money can recompense such a loss. As for Nick, well, he has to learn that something as abstract and negligible as love can be stronger than his cold, hard principles. Men always fare better than women in Wharton’s novels, a cold, hard truth of her times and her ideology. But Nick backs down, he acts before it’s too late, he renounces his own puffed-up decisions, and that’s quite something. Lawrence Seldon wasn’t capable of doing it for poor, doomed Lily Bart, and even at the end of their lives, Newland Archer can’t get up those stairs to see the Countess Olenska. Rigidity and lack of moral flexibility dominate the men in Wharton’s world, just as supreme flexibility and endless compromise become the rule for women. Just for once, Wharton herself seems to have softened, and Suzy learns not to be so flexible, whilst Nick swallows his pride. And old romantic that she most unusually is here, Wharton tells us that this is love’s doing, that love can actually take her characters to places nicer than the Italian Riviera. Who ever would have thought it?

Monday, June 30, 2008


My knowledge of Edith Wharton’s work has been, sadly, just limited to movie productions of her novels, but thanks to the Slaves of Golconda I finally read one of her novels. This month we are discussing The Glimpses of the Moon so if you’ve read it or just want to read more about it, please check out the blog posts at the Slaves blog or head over to the MetaxuCafe Forums.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. From what I’ve read online, Edith Wharton was known for combining her insider’s view of America’s privileged classes with a brilliant, natural wit to write humorous and incisive novels and short stories (thanks to Wikipedia). I think that perfectly describes Glimpses of the Moon.

In Glimpses of the Moon Susy Branch and Nick Lansing make a pact to be able to take advantage of their friends’ generosity towards newlyweds. You see, both have friends and connections with the wealthy set but they themselves don’t have the funds to support the lifestyle they enjoy. So, they marry and receive generous wedding gifts in the forms of guest houses, dinners, trips and other privileges. Susy and Nick enjoy each others company and their friends seem so happy to help them out that it seems it is a just exchange.

It seems so good in fact, that Susy thinks they should extend their marriage even longer to keep enjoying the good life.

“But at the present moment her animosity was diminished not only by the softening effect of love but by the fact that she had got out of those very people more–yes, ever so much more–than she and Nick, in their hours of most reckless planning, had ever dared to hope for. “After all, we owe them this!” she mused. Her husband, lost in the drowsy beatitude of the hour, had not repeated his question; but she was still on the trail of the thought he had started. A year–yes, she was sure now that with a little management they could have a whole year of it! “It” was their marriage, their being together, and away from bores and bothers, in a comradeship of which both of them had long ago guessed the immediate pleasure, but she at least had never imagined the deeper harmony.”

Of course, the plan won’t be as easy as that and soon the two will be wondering what just happened to their relationship. Nick and Susy have different perspectives on what is right and wrong but they never seem to talk and so there are just many misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Will the two end up seeking a divorce? Will they resolve their differences or go their separate ways and will they forever be chasing after the good life? Well, you’ll have to read this slim novel to find out.

For me Susy was an especially interesting character. I think she was genuine and did the things she did not out of malice but because it just seemed like that was the way for her to survive. She’ll have learned a lot of lessons the hard way by the end of the novel. Nick, on the other hand, seems to think of himself as the one with a moral compass yet I don’t believe he was any better than Susy. As a matter of fact, I blamed him for a lot of Susy’s heartache.

This novel is a wonderful glimpse of life in a different era. I found it amazing really that Nick and Susy could pull off a year-long honeymoon thanks to their friends. And, overall it made me think of how people can muck up relationships all because there is a lack of communication.

A wonderful read and now I’m very excited because I still have so many Wharton books yet to discover.

Cross-posted at Bookgirl's Nightstand

Money Corrupts, Mostly

Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton is the first book she published after she became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. The book she won the Pulitzer for was Age of Innocence, a tough act to follow. Wharton nonetheless does a good job with Glimpses of the Moon, producing a novel that isn't quite spectacular but is nothing to be embarrassed by either.

The plot is simple. Susy, a girl of the monied class who has been left without family or money and has been living by sponging off her rich friends, proposes to Nick Lansing, archeologist and unsuccessful writer without much money but also with rich friends. Susy's proposition is for the two of them to marry and live for a year in various of their friend's houses with their wedding gift money to be used as pocket money. During this year they will each try to find a better situation for themselves and when they do they will amicably divorce and go their separate ways. Of course it doesn't work. Of course they fall in love. Of course something happens to separate them. Of course we are left wondering until the very end whether they will get back together again. But even with all those of courses the story is pleasantly told, I still found myself involved with the characters, and I was still worried that maybe the book wouldn't have a happy ending.

Wharton is known for her social satire and eye for wealthy society detail. She doesn't disappoint in this book. Though because of the different moral values between now and then, I initially had a little difficulty understanding the moral quandary that caused Nick and Susy to separate.

The biggest question that loomed for me in the book was the corrupting power of money. It is clear that the rich society set that Nick and Susy run with are petty and care only about what money can buy them including the power it gives them over friends with less money. They don't care about the art or the artist they might discover, only the fact that they discovered him and introduced him into society. Susy and Nick are different in that they do care. They want a more meaningful life without artifice but they aren't certain how to go about it.

Susy has spent her life "managing," doing favors for friends in return for being kept in their society. Most of the favors are unsavory--flirting with a husband so he doesn't notice his wife is having an affair with someone else for instance. Susy thinks that if she were rich she would have the luxury of being a moral person. But when she gets her chance, it is clear that things are not as simple as she had hoped they would be.

Contrasted to Susy is Coral Hicks, highly educated daughter of newly wealthy parents. Coral hates the frippery of high society but decides if she marries a prince she will be able to create the kind of society she wants. But even this is questionable as her parents started off the same way and lunged at the chance to move in even higher social circles.

And then there are the Fulmers, two artistic types with five children just making ends meet. They both are "discovered" and suddenly find themselves living in Europe being wined and dined and wooed. They still are not rich but they no longer have to worry so much about money. When Mr. Fulmer's art starts to suffer because of the socializing, Mrs. Fulmer chases off the rich women who want to take him on a tour of Italy and she and her husband go just the two of them on their own terms. The Fulmers prove that money doesn't have to corrupt, but they are an unusual case.

The Fulmers seem to be the couple Wharton holds up for Nick and Susy to aspire to be like. But Nick and Susy only feel pity for their friends for most of the book and want to do everything they can to avoid being like them. They see the Fulmers' lack of money as a hinderance to the finer things in life like staying at exquisite villas, drowning in jewels and buying the season's best chinchilla coat before your friend can. In the end, of course, the Fulmers prove that the finer things in life can't be bought.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

The Glimpses of the Moon

Edith Wharton's novel The Glimpses of the Moon was an immensely satisfying read; it's a good story that moves along at just the right pace, and it offers much to think about: it deals with love and marriage, money and society, ambition, work, children, novel-writing, travel, class, isolation, loneliness, and probably more things that I'm not thinking about now. I don't think the book is quite on par with The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, maybe because it is more narrow in focus than the other two and perhaps because I'm biased towards books with a tragic rather than a comic structure. But still, I felt a depth and heft to this book that I too often feel is missing in more contemporary fiction.

The novel tells the story of Susy Branch and Nick Lansing, both of whom have no money but have found ways of living comfortably in high society -- they have been sponging off of friends in order to support the lifestyles to which they have been accustomed. When they meet and hit it off, they decide to marry and live as long as they can off the wedding presents they receive and the offers of houses to visit that come from their rich friends. The novel opens with the couple beginning their honeymoon at a friend's villa on Lake Como. The catch, though, is that they have agreed to end the marriage if one or the other finds someone rich who will marry them. Their marriage is opportunistic through and through, although they are, without a doubt, quite fond of each other.

With this precarious situation at the novel's opening, things are bound to unravel, and unravel they do. First of all, Nick and Susy discover that their intense focus on money is bound to warp their relationship. It turns out they have different ideas about what manipulation and deception, what "management" -- an important term in the novel -- is acceptable when it comes to securing money or a house to live in. They quarrel about whether Susy should take a box of cigars left by their friend, and this quarrel causes a rift that won't soon heal and that hints at the even greater struggles the two of them will soon face.

This conflict is interesting because of the way it's gendered; as a woman Susy is more vulnerable than Nick is and therefore needs a moral code that is more flexible to maintain her position. Nick has the luxury of being a little more discriminating. Wharton describes this conflict in satisfying detail, especially the way Susy regrets that she has disappointed Nick and longs to attain a higher moral standard, but at the same time fully understands the reasons for her behavior and is able to forgive herself.

From here things fall apart further; friends and their friends' children intrude into their honeymoon bliss, jealousies flare, misunderstandings arise. Nick and Susy have much to learn, both about themselves and about the world they live in. They eventually are faced with the demoralizing realization that the world they worked so hard to maintain their place in is ultimately frivolous and shallow. Their friends lead silly, pointless lives and are intensely selfish. They only care about Nick and Susy to the extent that they have something to gain from them.

In contrast to their wealthy but frivolous friends are the Fulmers, a family of struggling artists and many children who lead honest lives but have no money. Susy and Nick are horrified by these people, by their obliviousness to fashion and their unsophisticated happiness. But they are innocent and relatively unspoiled by the idleness and silliness of the other characters (at least at first). Eventually Susy and Nick will learn something from these people; their changing attitude towards the Fulmers will mark changes within themselves.

The novel's structure is satisfying too (although perhaps a trifle too neat? I enjoy this kind of neatness though). I'm going to be discussing plot events from later in the novel, so take care -- after Nick and Susy split they each find another love interest and another family to take care of them, and each of them have lessons to learn about themselves and about each other. Only after they have learned these lessons apart from one another are they able to find a way to come together again. I found the ending plot twists exciting, although a tad unrealistic, but I was willing to get over this for the sake of the pleasure the ending brought.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Winner Is...

Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton. She barely squeaked by Ursula Le Guin.

The Wharton discussion will commence on June 30th.

Happy Reading Everyone!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Time to Pick a New Book

Iliana has passed the torch to me for coming up with suggestions for the next Slaves book. I tried to find books that weren't too long and were by well-known authors but not necessarily the works we think of first. And some of them are a little...different.

  • The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin. "In a future world racked by violence and environmental catastrophes, George Orr wakes up one day to discover that his dreams have the ability to alter reality. He seeks help from Dr. William Haber, a psychiatrist who immediately grasps the power George wields. Soon George must preserve reality itself as Dr. Haber becomes adept at manipulating George's dreams for his own purposes.

    The Lathe of Heaven is an eerily prescient novel from award-winning author Ursula K. Le Guin that masterfully addresses the dangers of power and humanity's self-destructiveness, questioning the nature of reality itself. It is a classic of the science fiction genre."

  • Martha Quest by Doris Lessing. "Intelligent, sensitive, and fiercely passionate, Martha Quest is a young woman living on a farm in Africa, feeling her way through the torments of adolescence and early womanhood. She is a romantic idealistic in revolt against the puritan snobbery of her parents, trying to live to the full with every nerve, emotion, and instinct laid bare to experience. For her, this is a time of solitary reading daydreams, dancing — and the first disturbing encounters with sex."

  • The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton. "Set in the 1920s, The Glimpses of the Moon details the romantic misadventures of Nick Lansing and Susy Branch, a couple with the right connections but not much in the way of funds. They devise a shrewd bargain: they'll marry and spend a year or so sponging off their wealthy friends, honeymooning in their mansions and villas. As Susy explains, "We should really, in a way, help more than hamper each other. We both know the ropes so well; what one of us didn't see the other might -- in the way of opportunities, I mean." The other part of the plan states that if either one of them meets someone who can advance them socially, they're each free to dissolve the marriage. How their plan unfolds is a comedy of eros that will charm all fans of Wharton's work."

  • Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather. Set in 17th century Canada, it tells the story of Euclide Auclair, an apothecary, and his daughter Cecile, newcomers to Quebec. It features life on the edge of the wilderness and a love story.

  • Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter. A series of three novellas (don't worry, it's only 216 pages) following Porter's semi-autobiographical protagonist Miranda through WWI and the 1918 flu epidemic. The stream of consciousness narration gives us the details of Miranda's Texas childhood, her work as a newspaper critic, her romance with a soldier, and her hallucinatory flu visions.

  • The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter. "This story follows Evelyn, a young Englishman, along a journey through mythology and sexuality. It is a story of how he learns to be a woman, first in the brutal hands of Zero, the ragtime Nietzsche, then through the ancient Tristessa, the beautiful ghost of Hollywood past."

Voting is open until Sunday (18th) and the "winner" will be announced on Monday with the discussion set for June 30th (does that date seem about right?)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Discovering Magical Realism

I love it when a book is not only enjoyable, but brings me to a new understanding about myself, or of something I had not known, or been aware of before.

Dreaming In Cuban by Cristina García introduced me to a genre of which I knew little. The term magical realism would come up repeatedly when I read other reviews of this book. It is a term and concept I had not given much thought to previously, but as I continued reading, I could hardly keep it out of my mind.

According to García, this book began as a poem that quickly grew into a something else:
Dreaming in Cuban actually started out as a poem and slowly grew. After about a hundred pages, I realized that what I was working on was a novel. Nobody was more surprised than I.
Her initial efforts are evident by the beautiful language used when developing her settings and characters:
At the far end of the sky, where daylight begins, a dense radiance like a shooting star breaks forth. It weakens as it advances, as its outline takes shape in the ether. Her husband emerges from the light and comes toward her, taller than the palms, walking on water in this white summer suit and Panama hat.
However, there was much more to what was being said and described by the author. I wanted to understand so I could better appreciate her words and story. Thus I took it upon myself to do some research and find out what this genre was and its impact on literature. It was then that I discovered an essay written by John Christie titled Magical Realism (The Magic in the Real). In it he gave an excellent definition:
…put simply, [it] refers to when an artist blends the fantastic with the real, or mixes the bizarre with the logical and plausible.
I cannot tell you how much this helped when reading García’s novel.

On its surface, Dreaming In Cuban is the story of three generations of women who are dealing with the physical and emotional challenges to their identities as well as their relationships. The story spans eighteen years and takes place in Cuba, New York City, and Florida. Yes the principal characters are Cuban, and this does have a strong influence upon what takes place between them. However, I found the following within the book, and it seemed to me the most accurate way to describe what I was reading:
I’ve been reading the plays of Molière and wondering what separates suffering from imagination. Do you know?
I feel that the author actually succeeds in integrating suffering with imagination. Her beautiful prose shows this in the characterization of Celia del Pino:
Celia cannot decide which is worse, separation or death. Separation is familiar, but Celia is uncertain she can reconcile it with permanence.
Death was alluring, seductive, and Celia longed to die in the thrill of it over and over again.
This book touches a lot upon the suffering of its main characters, but not in a way that makes this a depressing book. Somehow, the struggles of each woman, swirls in and around their imaginations, feelings, and memories in a way that makes this a much more interesting read.

The author said it best when asked about what kind of role memory plays in the novel:
Memory is more a point of departure than a repository of facts. It’s a product of both necessity and imagination, of my characters’ needs to reinvent themselves and invest themselves in narratives of their own devising. Each of them needs to be a heroine, to believe she is doing the right thing, choosing the only path to a kind of personal redemption.
This statement, as much as any, speaks of what I liked about this book. However, it is not for everyone, as some readers may not be comfortable with the surrealistic quality of many of the passages.

I can honestly say that as much as I enjoyed it, it was not one I could, or would read voraciously in one sitting. There is too much about it, and within it, that deserves that its reader spends more time enjoying it.

Cross posted here

Friday, May 02, 2008

Dreaming of Escape

What I really love about blogging is the way it has introduced me to so many books I would never have thought to pick up. Cristina Garcia’s novel, Dreaming in Cuban is the kind of novel I never used to read because its cultural setting would have been too exotic for me, too beyond the frames of my own reference, or so I would have considered. In fact, this turned out to be completely true: the strangeness and the beauty of the narrative both stem from the vividly different cultural imagination that informs them, and I found this to be a source of fascination and interest. The main female protagonists were so alien to me, perceived things so differently, approached relationships so differently, grasped desperately after such different desires, that I found myself pausing midway through the story to try to get my bearings.

This is a matriarchal story, tracing the history of a family and a culture down through it’s female line, from Celia, the grandmother whose passion for the politics of Fidel Castro causes much tension with her daughters, the rageful Lourdes who embraces capitalist America with her bakery in Brooklyn and the deeply disturbed Felicia, whose hallucinatory journey through life in search of love often has murderous consequences for those who offer it to her. Lourdes has a daughter, Pilar, whose subversive spirit seems to carry the burden of the narrative’s optimism. Can Pilar break away from her genetic and her cultural history to make something of her life and find some happiness? For all the faults and flaws that trouble the female lineage here, it seems that the male one is even worse. Men come off very badly in this novel, being deserters, rapists, aggressors, philanderers. Rather than strength they indulge themselves in violence, rather than tenderness they become weak and idle. The imbalance between the sexes and the damage they inflict on each other seemed to me to be in keeping with a cultural situation of poverty, instability and pessimism. It’s a crazy world in Cuba, a society permanently trembling on the brink of violence with a kind of kangaroo court set up to deal with civilian problems of infidelity, petty thievery, counterrevolutionary activities. There’s nowhere to go where the personal isn’t political, where oppression and uncertainty don’t seep into every nook and cranny of private life. The women who have lived in Cuba have all suffered terrible trauma of one kind or another at the hands of men, and so it’s not surprising that they are terrible mothers, too wounded to take care of their children, too angry and confused to guide them, and no surprise either that the supernatural dimension of this story, the appearance of ghosts and the communication by dreams, holds out pockets of hope and optimism for the characters, rather than the fear it generally inspires in European stories. Power, corrupted, tainted and abused, tends to metamorphose in surprising ways.

It’s not enough, however, to prevent the mentality of the characters from veering between hopeless submission to imprisonment, and desperate attempts at escape. Celia has invested deeply in Communism as an answer to her society’s problems and clings to it without being able to see its problems or communicate its advantages to her daughters. Lourdes has run away to America and embraces the market place, but the way she treats others is locked in a pattern of dictatorship. Her intrusions into her daughters life are unforgiveable (although Pilar, unfazed by this behaviour manages to remain ambivalent about her mother, feeling equal amounts of love and hatred). Felicia, meanwhile, is perhaps the most dangerous of all, her fugues into romance and madness and spirituality being almost indistinguishable from one another in terms of their severe consequences. What these women long for is change, proper, manageable, salvationary change, but their souls are too steeped in their country’s political problems to achieve it. What they look for is change from outside, when it’s the quiet change within that could really save them. Recognising their eccentricities, dealing with their anger and healing their wounds are options from another time and another place, and not available to them. Pilar, the granddaughter, remains the most hopeful character because she possesses enough self-awareness and enough revolutionary spirit to make a difference to her life. And she has art on her side, which has ever been the way people have managed to see around the corners of their society and imagine something better.

I found this to be a rich and intriguing book, exotic, vividly described, disturbing in places and frustrating in others but never less than interesting. I really got into it, as you can probably tell! Thanks to the Slaves for another great read.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Dreaming in Cuban

I enjoyed reading this book, and I’m happy that the Slaves of Golconda chose it because otherwise I doubt I would ever have picked it up. It’s a good read — an entertaining and smart novel about the intersection of family, politics, and religion.

I’ll admit that I’m generally not fond of the kind of point of view switching that goes on in the novel — it shifts not only from character to character, which I have no problem with, but between first and third person, which does irritate me a bit — but since having multiple voices speaking throughout the novel is so obviously important to Garcia, I can see why she chose to do it. Part of the point of the book is to get multiple perspectives; not only does the narrative focus shift from character to character, sometimes rapidly, but we see at least some of the characters from the inside, where they sometimes speak for themselves, as well as from the outside. Interspersed throughout the novel are one character’s letters as well, offering another perspective on the story. All this has the effect of capturing a great amount of complexity in relatively few pages (240 or so); the technique mimics the interconnectedness and the web of relationships it seeks to describe.

The story is about a Cuban family as it changes throughout the politically turbulent years of the mid-20C. At its heart is the matriarch Celia, a self-sufficient woman living on the Cuban coast who gets caught up in the furor of the revolution headed by Castro, who is never named but is a powerful presence in the novel. Her two daughters (she has a son as well but we don’t learn much about him) follow very different paths as adults; one of them, Lourdes, emigrates to the U.S. and becomes a proper American capitalist, working hard and eventually owning two successful bakeries. Her daughter, Pilar, isn’t impressed by this success, however, and finds ways to rebel against her mother’s strident pro-Americanism and moral conservatism. She becomes a painter and attends art school; one of the novel’s best scenes tells of a painting she completes for her mother’s new bakery, which is supposed to be patriotic in its message and ends up being something quite else.

The other daughter is Felicia, who remained in Cuba and who struggles throughout her life with mental illness. Her story is a sad one, as she is caught up in a difficult marriage and has trouble raising her three children; one summer, the summer of the coconuts, she and her young son survive on nothing but coconut ice cream. Her children are torn between their need for and love of their mother and their curiosity about their estranged father; they suffer from their mother’s bouts of illness, but she, too, is a victim. Celia does what she can to help her grandchildren, but her interventions can only do so much good.

The novel is ultimately about the ways our families shape who we are — they define us, whether we live in close proximity to them or thousands of miles away. Several of the characters are haunted by the ghosts of dead relatives or are able to communicate telepathically with far-away family members. Others, such as Pilar, are haunted by memories of the lost home in Cuba; while her mother wants only to live securely in America, Pilar wonders what life is like on her lost island and what kind of relationship she could have with her grandmother Celia. No one can escape the influence of family, whether it be the memories they create for us or the standards they set against we can try, often unsuccessfully, to rebel.

No one can escape their political context either; the Cuban revolution divides the family both ideologically and physically, causing a rift that is symbolized by Celia’s picture of Castro which she has placed over a picture of her husband and which Lourdes flings into the sea in a fit of rage. The picture symbolizes how political and familial forces blend in intricate ways to shape each of the novel’s characters. They can’t change the circumstances of their birth; they can only respond to them in the best way they can.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Memory Cannot Be Confined

Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia is a novel about memory--remembering, forgetting, trying to forget and attempting to find peace when forgetting is impossible--and about the past and how it affects the present.

Celia del Pino lives alone in her house on the beach in Cuba. She believes fervently in the good of El Lider and the revolution. She keeps watch at night to guard against another Bay of Pigs invasion. The way she sees it, the revolution has allowed women to do things other than stay at home and have babies. It has also given everyone food to eat and health care. Celia's devotion to Castro (she has a framed photo of him on her nightstand), drives her daughters away. She also spends a good part of her married life writing letters to her first lover, a man from Spain, who left Cuba just before the revolution. The narrative takes us back and forth through time, moving fluidly between past and present, making it evident that, as Celia notes at one point, "memory cannot be confined." She is right. We are our memories and our past, we carry it all with us into the future and pass it along to our children and grandchildren.

Felicia, one of Celia's daughters, still lives in Cuba but suffers from bouts of mental breakdown. She despises the revolution but she is powerless to fight against it. She is a woman filled with pain and anger. She was always second fiddle to her sister who was their father's favorite. To get out of the house and to get back at her father, she marries Hugo Villaverde and is banished. They have three children but their marriage does not go well. He cheats on her and does nothing around the house. He travels the world on business but it never seems like he contributes much to the household. In one of her delusional and anger-filled moments, Felicia sets Hugo's head on fire. Her little way of telling him to get out and never come back. Felicia eventually finds comfort in santeria and is even initiated as a saint. Her mental break downs seem to arise as a sort of coping mechanism for her life. She loses herself in her imagination, but as she tells her son, Ivanito, "Imagination, like memory, can transform lies to truths." However, she fails to see how her own imagination recreates the world.

Lourdes, the eldest of the sisters (there is a brother too, but this is not his story), married into a rich family. When the revolution came she lost everything. Not only was the family's ranch taken from them, but one day when her husband was away Lourdes was brutally raped by three revolutionaries. She tells no one, not even her husband. She carries the secret inside her and even when she has the opportunity to tell her mother many years later, she can't let it go. Lourdes, her husband, and baby daughter, Pilar, escape to New York. Lourdes buys a bakery and stuffs herself with pecan sticky buns. She is a bit of a tyrant and can't understand why her employees always quit and why her daughter constantly fights against her. Her daughter says of her mother, "Maybe in the end the facts are not as important as the underlying truth she wants to convey. Telling her own truth is the truth to her, even if it's at the expense of chipping away our past."

Finally, Pilar, Lourdes' daughter. She is a rebellious punk rocker and a talented artist. She has a connection to her Abuela Celia. When Pilar is still young she and Celia can communicate in dreams and thoughts. The connection gets broken during Pilar's teenage years but is re-established when she is college-aged. It is Pilar that wonders most about the past and about memory. She has to come to terms with her Cuban heritage and what it means to her family. She sees the past as a fluke:
I think about the Granma, the American yacht El Lider took from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 on hi second attempt to topple Batista. some boat owner in Florida misspells "Grandma" and look what happens: a myth is born, a province is renamed, a Communist party newspaper is launched. What if the boat had ben called Barbara Ann or Sweetie Pie or Daisy? Would history be different? We're all tied to the past by flukes. Look at me, I got my name from Hemingway's fishing boat.
While Celia worries that no one has loyalties to their origins any longer, Pilar struggles to understand "who chooses what we should know or what's important?" And finally realizes,"I have to decide these things for myself."

I could go on and on. Dreaming in Cuban is a rich book and a pleasure to read. It contains some lovely gem-like sentences that encapsulate a thought or idea that have kept me, and will continue to keep me, thinking about this book.

Cross-Posted at So Many Books

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dreaming In Cuban

This is a novel about a Cuban family divided by beliefs and geography. The book mainly focuses on the lives of Celia del Pino, her two daughters, Lourdes and Felicia, and her granddaughter, Pilar. There are other important family members but these are the characters that truly made the book for me.

Through letters and flashbacks the reader learns about Celia’s life in Cuba. She was once a young woman madly in love with a Spaniard but had to settle for marriage with Jorge Del Pino.

“For twenty-five years, Celia wrote her Spanish lover a letter on the eleventh day of each month, then stored it in a satin-covered chest beneath her bed. Celia has removed her drop pearl earrings (gifts from him) only nine times, to clean them. No one ever remembers her without them.”

And just like she is committed to her love for the Spaniard, Celia develops a strong belief in Fidel Castro.

“Her daughters cannot understand her commitment to El Lider. Lourdes sends her snapshots of pastries from her bakery in Brooklyn. Each glistening éclair is a grenade aimed at Celia’s political beliefs, each strawberry shortcake proof – in butter, cream, and eggs – of Lourde’s success in America, and a reminder of the ongoing shortages in Cuba.”

Celia’s daughters don’t have an easy life either. Felicia’s life is filled with Santeria and periods of mental instability. It may seem that Lourdes’ life might be the easiest as she has a successful bakery business in the States but she has her challenges too. Her daughter, Pilar, is rebellious and her husband is not as committed to the States or to Lourdes as she would like. Plus, she has a past she is desperate to keep away from just as she’s kept away from Cuba.

My favorite character was Pilar. She is the new generation who doesn’t understand her mother and ultimately is searching for her roots. She needs to see Cuba and know her grandmother to find out what she is about.
At the core of the novel is the theme of family relationships and the impact of exile on those relationships. To leave your country is difficult but if you can never go back then I can’t imagine the feelings of anger, despair and/or sadness that this may bring.

This is a slim novel that manages to juggle a lot of stories and ideas. It’s filled with lush imagery and has a dreamy feel to it. The only thing that didn’t work as well for me were the jumps in timeframe. Maybe because of the different narrators and styles, I found that could be a bit hard to follow. Still this was a good read and I will definitely look for more from Cristina Garcia.

Cross-posted at Bookgirl's Nightstand

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

April Book Selection: Dreaming in Cuban

We'll be reading Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban. Discussion will start April 30th.
"Set in Havana, Brooklyn, and the Cuban seaside in the 1970s, Dreaming in Cuban unravels the lives and fortunes of four women of the colorful Del Pino family. Celia is the aging matriarch faithful to Fidel . . . Felicia is her mad (and possibly murderous) daughter . . . Lourdes, her other child, is a capitalist counterrevolutionary . . . and her daughter, Pilar, is an artistic punk filled with impossible Cuban dreams."
I noticed that there were also several copies of the book on BookMooch so you may want to check that out. Thanks so much everyone for voting (and working with my schedule!). I hope this is a book we'll all enjoy.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Latin America

Hi Everyone – Thank you for letting me offer some selections for our next book discussion. I hope you’ll enjoy taking a trip down to Latin America. I’ve chosen some writers who’ve been on my radar for some time now. I admit I haven’t read anything by these authors but the reviews I read sounded very promising.

Below are the choices which are available on Amazon. I couldn’t find any of these on BookMooch but I did notice that BookCloseOuts has some of these titles at a great price.

Please vote in the comment section. Let’s say everyone vote by Monday, March 10 and I’ll announce the selection then. Discussion will start on Wednesday, April 30.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano (Chile) -- This highly stylized novel is ostensibly about two poets, leaders of the Mexican visceral realist literary movement, and their search for an obscure icon of the movement and its repercussions. The book spans a decade and follows the poets from Mexico City to the Sonoran Desert, Guatemala, Barcelona, Paris, Israel, Congo, Liberia, and the U.S. The narrative becomes secondary to the voices of the people who meet these poets as this long novel told through the personal stories--some humorous, some inscrutable, some tragic--of the eclectic assortment of characters they encounter on the way becomes less about the search and more about literature and language.

Drown by Junot Diaz (Dominican Republic) -- The 10 tales in this intense debut collection plunge us into the emotional lives of people redefining their American identity. Narrated by adolescent Dominican males living in the struggling communities of the Dominican Republic, New York and New Jersey, these stories chronicle their outwardly cool but inwardly anguished attempts to recreate themselves in the midst of eroding family structures and their own burgeoning sexuality. Diaz's restrained prose reveals their hopes only by implication. It's a style suited to these characters, who long for love but display little affection toward each other. Still, the author's compassion glides just below the surface, occasionally emerging in poetic passages of controlled lyricism, lending these stories a lasting resonance.

Women with Big Eyes by Angeles Mastretta (Mexico) -- The women who come to life in Mastretta's engaging bilingual story collection are independent and passionate individuals, and she writes about them with compassion and, above all, humor. Each story portrays a different woman as she enters a crucial point in her life, such as Aunt Daniela, who "fell in love the way intelligent women always fall in love: like an idiot." Or Aunt Amanda, who suddenly marries her deceased mother's ex-lover in order to quiet the townspeople's gossip about her parentage. Part fable, part mysticism, the stories are tied together with details of everyday life in the author's native Puebla, Mexico.

Eccentric Neighborhoods by Rosario Ferre (Puerto Rico) -- Ferre creates a colorful family saga as a way to explore the modern political and social history of her native Puerto Rico. The narrator, Elvira Vernet, claims descent from two prominent families whose divergent natures effectively embody contrary strains in the national character. Elvira's mother, Clarissa Rivas de Santillana, grew up among a privileged family made wealthy by its several sugar plantations. One admires Ferre's ferocious ingenuity and energy as she depicts a society and century in flux. This most demanding of her novels so far is probably also the best.

Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia (Cuba) -- The title is beautifully evocative of a book of dreams, dreams of three generations of a Cuban family living both in Cuba and Brooklyn. These dreamers are Celia, who, loyal to Castro, writes letters addressed to her lover Gustavo, although he has fled to Spain; Celia's troubled daughter Felicia, who also remains in Cuba; Celia's other daughter Lourdes, who opens a bakery in Brooklyn, consuming vast quantities of her own baked goods; and her daughter Pilar, a defiant bohemian painter. Deeply evocative, by turns funny, poignant and grotesque, this ambitious novel weaves together the lives of its characters in a complex, haunting web of vignettes, which convey a strong sense of place and history."

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Stone Angel Then and Now

(Cross-posted at Kate's Book Blog)

I was fifteen when I first read Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel and it made an enormous impression on me. I welcomed the opportunity to reread it when it was voted this month’s selection by the Slaves of Golconda, but I was a bit nervous as well. What if it fell flat for me so many years later? I need not have worried. The novel has retained all of its power for me, and this time around I had the added pleasure of being better equipped to understand the source of that power.

What I recall most vividly about my teenage response to the book was that, after reading it, I never looked at my grandma quite the same way again. My grandma was in her late seventies then and was nothing like Hagar Shipley, the ninetysomething narrator of The Stone Angel. My grandma survived into her nineties as well and must have had a ribbon of steel at the core of her. But she chose the path of least resistance always whereas Hagar runs headlong at every obstacle no matter how fruitless her opposition may seem in any given circumstance. Nevertheless, witnessing Hagar showing the face of a rather meek and sentimental old lady to the world on the bus home from the doctor’s office, yet knowing the passion and anger and regret that roil within her all the while, I couldn’t help but realize that a great deal more than I could know must also be going on beneath my grandma’s cheerful old lady facade and, indeed, in the hearts and minds of random old ladies that I encountered on buses.

I also clearly remember from my teenage reading of The Stone Angel how strongly I identified with Hagar throughout. The conventional wisdom of those who market books to teenagers seems to be that to get kids reading you have to give them characters that they can “relate to” which much of the time translates into giving them characters of roughly their age who are grappling with what are thought to be universal teenage problems. Perhaps then my firm identification with Hagar was surprising. But, then again, perhaps not. After all, that sense of being at the mercy of others, of being perfectly capable of making decisions for yourself but being prevented from doing so, is something shared by the young and the old. Although the primary source of frustration for the young teenager is being thwarted while on the very cusp of independence, whereas for the very elderly it must run much deeper, having once had that independence and now being deprived of it with no prospect of ever regaining it. I think that Laurence plays on this identification directly, albeit briefly and subtly, in the relationship that develops between Hagar and the girl in the next hospital bed near the end of the novel.

That was The Stone Angel then. What about now? What did I see in the book as an adult reader that may have escaped me as a teenager? I think that this time around it was much more apparent to me how skilfully Laurence structured the novel and depicted Hagar’s character such that the reader is drawn fully into her head yet can simultaneously see her from the outside. She’s such a strong character and the reader can’t help but stand with her and rail against the indignities she suffers by virtue of her failing body, and also the wrongs that have been done to her by unsympathetic characters throughout her life. But at the same time, the reader can’t help but recognize how impossible she is, how difficult she must be to care for, and also to recoil at the wrongs that she has perpetrated against others throughout her life. Hagar is a thoroughly unsympathetic character herself who nevertheless generates much sympathy. This double vision is made possible and made incredibly vivid, I think, by virtue of the fact that Hagar shares it. And ultimately that’s the chief tragedy of the book. She has gained enough self-knowledge over the course of her life to be able now, at least periodically, to see herself as others see her, but she can’t go that step further to change how she behaves, even toward those that she loves most deeply.

The other facet of the novel that I was very much struck by this time around was the earthiness of it, both in the depiction of Hagar’s physical decline and in its evocation of sex. Sex and sexual desire are described euphemistically, as one would expect given Hagar’s vintage and character, but never coyly. The enduring sexual desire that she felt for her husband that she was never able to communicate even to him seems to me another of the great tragedies of her life. This aspect of the novel may have been somewhat controversial when it was first published in 1964. I’m not sure about the history of this novel in particular, but I know that several of Laurence’s novels were banned on the basis of sexual content and that this caused her much anger and pain.

This has been a rather rambling post, but rereading The Stone Angel sent my thoughts spinning in a number of directions. I relished the experience and I’m keen now to reread the rest of Laurence’s Manawaka novels. For those of you new to Laurence’s work, she set several novels in and around the fictional town of Manawaka, Manitoba, Hagar’s hometown. But each focuses on different characters from different segments of the town’s population and they range across different time periods, so you may catch glimpses of characters from one novel in another, but only peripherally. For example, the Tonnerre family with whom Hagar’s son John gets up to no good is mentioned only in passing in The Stone Angel but plays a central role in The Diviners. I would recommend any of Laurence’s novels, but the ones that stand out for me particularly are The Diviners, which I consider her masterpiece, and A Bird in the House, which is an early exemplar of the linked short story collection.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Biblio Brat's Review of The Stone Angel

The Stone Angel (1988)
By Margaret Laurence
Fiction, 308 pages

The branches will wither, the roots they will die,
You’ll all be forsaken and you’ll never know why.

Hagar Shipley is ninety years old and is finding herself more and more pulled by the past, forced to reflect upon events which she felt she had no control over; but in truth, did.

Does that make her want to change the way she was, or even change the way she has become? No. She is strong-willed and tenacious; holding onto whatever little life she has left, just as she has all her life. She knows in reality, nothing can be changed – not even her indomitable nature. At times she feels she must make an attempt at tact and civility, but knows all too well the difficulty in trying to be something you are not:

“I will be quiet, I swear, never open my mouth, nod obligingly, keep myself to myself for good and all. And yet, even as I swear it, I know it’s nonsense and impossible for me. I can’t keep my mouth shut. I never could.”
Pride is her protection; her barrier against being perceived as weak. Others would welcome help, accepting it as an act of compassion and mercy. Not Hagar. To her, their ministrations are derived from pity, and she has no use for others feeling sorry for her:

“I’ll drink from this glass, or spill it, just as I choose. I’ll not countenance anyone else’s holding it for me…I wrest from her the glass, full of water to be had for the taking. I hold it in my own hands.”
In The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence skillfully uses flashbacks to reveal to us, and Hagar, how this unflinching personality has affected her life and relationships:

“How is it my mouth speaks by itself, the words flowing from somewhere, some half-hidden hurt?”
This hurt, this pain half-hidden in her mind will not show itself easily. And it is not until the end of her life, and the end of the book, we see why.

“I’ve waited like this, for things to get better or worse, many and many a time. I should be used to it…I don’t even know what I was waiting for except I felt something must happen – this couldn’t be all.”
In this statement we see her true ‘frailty’, her ‘weakness’. Her life was built around expectations that no one, not even she, was able to meet. She has paid a high price for her obstinacy, and it is not until she is facing her own death that she able to consider coming to terms with what she has done, and who she has been.

Time is finite. We all are limited in the life that we are given. As Hagar Shipley faces the end of hers, she sees that her pride was not the best part of her character. But this is who she is, and all she could ever be. She never knew any other way but her own.

“I can’t change what’s happened to me in my life, or make what’s not occurred take place. But I can’t say I like it, or accept it, or believe it’s for the best. I don’t and never shall, not even if I’m damned for it.”
It is not a path many of us would take. And that is why I liked this book. I get to see someone else go down a road I could not, so through her eyes I see what could have been, or, perhaps, what could be.

I really did not care for Hagar Shipley. She is not a very likable person. However Margaret Laurence has done an excellent job in developing the story and her characters. If this story was simply about Hagar in her youth, I doubt that I would have ever come to feel anything but contempt. But as an old woman, facing death and struggling against the frailty she has fought so hard against all her life, I cannot help but feel sympathy and compassion. She is stubborn and prideful, yet she is brave. She faces everything head on and never gives an inch. You have to admire someone who remains true to their character so completely.

I am giving The Stone Angel 3 of 5 Stars as I do like the story and the telling of it, however it was not one that was so compelling that I couldn't wait to finish it or felt bad about letting it sit around for a day or two before picking it up again.

Cross posted here.

Friday, February 29, 2008

A Holy Terror

Rereading The Stone Angel was a repetitive experience. My reactions moved along a similar trajectory to the first time when I knew nothing about the novel. The beginning, I thought, was nice enough but it did not promise much excitement. Doubt lingered as to whether this Canadian classic would prove to be much more than a decent read. Over time I became more aware of how the Hagar Shipley character had completely won me over. As I turned the last page my stomach was tense and filled with awe, anxiety, painful pleasure and the knowledge that I had reached another personal literary touchstone. My last had been William Blake and Ayi Kwei Armah in 6th form.

My other rereading experiences last year, for pleasure, held a wholly different quality, in part because they were 3rd or 4th rereads unlike The Stone Angel, my first. Lines in Jane Eyre and The Lord of the Rings echoed like old friends as I read along; and though my LOTR reread corrected me on or reminded me of several story details obscured by repeated viewings of the extended DVD editions, my sojourn was a comfortable one of familiarity. With the Laurence novel it was as though I had opened a new book.

That impression can also be explained by the fact that I am a different reader now, post-blog, compared to the early ’00s. I was not such an actively critical reader, keenly aware of the possibility of patterns and connections, or noticing prose style.

One response that carried over from the first read was my intense reaction to Hagar’s vulnerability as an elderly person dependent on others. She is 90 years old at the start of the novel. As the first person narrator, we are privy to each painful humiliation when her mind or body fails her — she who is a human realisation of her Scottish ancestor’s family motto “Gainsay who dare” — and she is forced to depend on her daughter-in-law Doris to dress her for bed, to take her to the bathroom, sometimes to remind her of where they are. When she accidentally falls it takes both Doris and Marvin, Hagar’s son, to lift her up, and then they speak in front of her, about her, “as though I weren’t here, as though it were a full gunnysack they dragged from the floor”. I don’t often come across such old protagonists in fiction, especially one whose elderly life the author gives as much attention to as the earlier past.

What struck me as new were the notable moments in the novel when Hagar recalls a hymn. They provoke the reader to consider how she lived her life in strict opposition to the reverent sentiments the hymns conveyed, the novel’s overall tragic irony.

The first came in Hagar’s first long recollection about her childhood. She was 8 and at church with her father who just heard his name called out in a list of major church donors. He remarked to Hagar “with modestly bowed head” that he, Jason Currie, and the lawyer Luck McVitie (called out first) must have given the highest amounts. Then they sang a hymn adapted from Psalm 121:

Unto the hills around do I lift up
My longing eyes.
O when for me shall my salvation come,
From when arise?
From GOD the LORD doth come my certain aid,
From GOD the LORD, who heaven and earth hath made.

Currie was one of the many Scots who travelled to Canada in the 19th century to make a new life for themselves and family in the prairies. He stressed his success in the merchant business as a self-made one to his family both to buttress his ego and to pass on that pioneering spirit to his children. He coached Hagar and her two older brothers, Matt and Dan, in their family history and exhorted them to expect no one but themselves to help achieve their own success. In any case, as one of the prominent town families in Manawaka, Manitoba, there weren’t that many others around who were fit company. Whatever religious ritual he indulged in was for tradition and public appearances. In childish trust Hagar described her father thusly:

Auntie Doll was always telling us that Father was a God-fearing man. I never for a moment believed it, of course. I couldn’t imagine Father fearing anyone, God included, especially when he didn’t even owe his existence to the Almighty. God might have created heaven and earth and the majority of people, but Father was a self-made man, as he himself had told us often enough.

Hagar took to that stubborn, ambitious egotism wholesale and in some moments it is clear that her father regrets that the two older sons were less dynamic and outgoing or that she had the misfortune of being born a girl. Her mother died in childbirth and, curiously, Hagar fixated on her as symbol of everything she did not want to be — passive, meek, weak and amenable — for look how she ended up. Instead, Hagar was haughty, proud, and loathed to humble herself to anyone whether it was to apologize for a mistake, for impulsively inflicted pain, to admit to a fear or to face such a weakness in others. Her constant refrain throughout the novel is “I never could.” She said it as if, for her, it was physically impossible.

Her older brothers, in physique and manner, were more similar to her mother. Dan, especially, was a sickly child but Hagar believed he faked illness more often than not in order to be pampered. It took unfortunately drastic circumstances to convince her otherwise. One day while playing with friends out on the ice Dan falls into an unseen hole and catches pneumonia. Hagar and Matt, conscious of their father’s acute sensitivity to public exposure, never think of taking Dan to the nearest house but bundle him straight home. Their father lectures and Auntie Doll tends to him and all seems well until the next day when his fever gets much worse and he becomes delirious. No adult is there with them so Hagar runs to get the doctor but he is out of town and, due to the weather, won’t be back soon. Their father is working late. Matt, probably recognising how serious things are, does not send for their father, for that isn’t who Dan wants. Apparently Dan had been calling out for his mother, who died when he was four. He still kept one of her old plaid shawls. Matt asks Hagar if she could wear it and pretend for a while that she’s their mother for Dan’s comfort. But she could not bring herself to do it. To even imagine herself as that frail, weak spectre, everything she rejected as wrong, to someone who had “inherited” that frailty “was beyond me”. She cried but she refused.

Matt does it for Dan and holds him as he dies. Through that and other hardships Hagar learned that there was no indomitable God keeping her and her family “preserv[ing] you from all evil”. And even if he was offering a helping hand she would refuse it for that would place her in submission.

In many scenes she rejects God and his expectations in favour of her own will. When, in old age, Doris called over Reverend Troy to talk with Hagar, her thoughts are dismissive and condescending, with the odd moment of pity for the intimidated minister.

“Sometimes, you know, Mrs. Shipley, when we accept the things which we can’t change in this life, we find they’re not half as bad as we thought.”

“It’s easy enough for you to say.”

“Oh yes, indeed.” His smooth face goes pink as a Mother’s Day carnation.


“Have you tried asking God’s help? Prayer can do wonders, sometimes, in easing the mind.”

So wistful is his voice that I’m on the verge of promising I’ll try. Then the lie seems not inexpensive but merely cheap.

“I’ve never had much use for prayer, Mr. Troy. Nothing I prayed for ever came to anything.”

“Perhaps you didn’t pray for the right things.”

“Well who’s to know? If God’s a crossword puzzle, or a secret code, it’s hardly worth the bother, it seems to me.”

“I only meant we should pray for strength,” he says, “not for our own wishes.”

“Oh well, I’ve prayed for that too, in my time, but I never thought it made much difference…I prayed like sixty when trouble came, as every person does…But nothing ever came of it.”

As her name suggested she is not counted among the tribe of Israel, God’s chosen.

The second hymn occurred later in the novel, this time in her old age, and she is the one who sang it. She learned, after noting the meaningful glances Doris and Marvin exchanged, and subtle hints from Doris’ pastor, that she was to be sent to a nursing home. To regain a moment of freedom she plans and successfully executes an escape to a beach where she spends two nights in two different abandoned buildings with only a small bag of provisions and a bucket of rain water. During this time she slips in and out of lucidity, mentally chiding Doris for keeping the heater too low. When she is cognizant she reproves Marvin for his tardiness in locating her. In an awkward, unsure moment at sunset she looks at how the sun’s rays hit the abandoned fishing equipment that surrounds her “filled with shadows” and sings a verse of “Abide with me”. (Full lyrics here.)

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

She gains no comfort from it, in fact, is bit embarrassed that she bothered at all. “I might as well be singing the directions from a knitting book, for all the good it’s doing me.” Hagar is no longer that “czarina” young girl secure in her place in the world and of her future. The hymn moves away from the triumphalism of Psalm 121’s “My help comes from the LORD/Who made heaven and earth” for the anxious plea behind “O Thou who changest not abide with me”. J.R. Watson’s commentary on the hymn that he wrote in The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study highlights almost too perfectly how it related to Hagar’s last days and how she and Henry Francis Lyte, the hymn writer, approached the circumstances in different ways.

Lyte was Scottish too and lived without a mother, in his case because his father separated from her and moved to Ireland with his son. Lyte never saw her again. His father also enacted a sort of separation from his son, only visiting him occasionally, and eventually presenting himself as his uncle and his new wife as Henry’s aunt. Watson asserts that this influenced Lyte’s work, coming through in his sensitive use of parental imagery with tender, protective overtones. “The Spirit of the Psalms” is considered Lyte’s best work, a collection which includes “Abide with me”. On that hymn Watson writes that

¹It is a reminder of the coming of darkness, of human loneliness and helplessness. In this situation, human beings become dependent on God, as a child looks to its mother or father when faced with the coming dark….The first lines signal to the reader that this is more than an evening hymn: it is a meditation on life, on its transience and its anxieties.

The bitter irony is that, even “with the coming dark”, Hagar strove to remain as independent as she could from everyone around her. And during her life she tried to wrangle those in whom she invested her affection into her ideas of them rather than make much effort to see who they truly were and wanted to be. She separated from her husband, Brampton Shirley, after about two decades and whisked her favourite son Johnny away to the coast in pursuit of the better life she thought he deserved, a move she never considered doing for her obedient, manageable Marvin who did all that she asked but was passed over. Johnny grew and went his own path which led him right back home to the old farm, wiped out by drought and depression, and his father. When Bram is near death Johnny tells her and she returns to confront an old, bowed man in whom little of Brampton Shirley remains. In a lucid moment in which he reveals feelings for her, feelings she somehow never discerned in all her years with him, she’s filled with a rage “not at anyone, at God, perhaps, for giving us eyes but almost never sight”.

What she did know and see was the “transience of life” but, although she seems to believe in heaven and hell, she fully expects to be sent to hell and one suspects that if God offered to forgive her she’d spit in his eye and reject his pity. Like Milton’s Lucifer — a comparison Laurence made in the novel -- “To bow and sue for grace/With suppliant knee…/…that were low indeed,/That were an ignominy and shame beneath/This downfall”.

The last hymn occurs near the novel’s and Hagar’s end. Marvin and Doris find her and although she is relieved she cannot admit it and suggests with grim knowledge that no doubt they’re shipping her straight off to the prison of a nursing home. (A whole other essay could be done on the novel’s theme of imprisonment.) Marvin tells her that the doctor advised that it was too late for that she needed to be taken to the hospital. Hagar automatically complains about this prison change so Marvin, to end her complaints, reveals the (apparently dire) test results from the hospital that, from her reaction, are not unlike a death sentence.

In the hospital Reverend Trevor visits her for the last time while she is alive and, under pressure from her request, sings “All people that on earth do dwell”, (one of my favourites) based on Psalm 100. (Full lyrics here.)

All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with joyful voice.
Him serve with mirth, His praise forth tell;
Come ye before Him and rejoice.

At this moment Hagar has a kind of epiphany. She realises that, after everything, this is all that she had truly wanted “–simply to rejoice”. But because of her demonic pride it led her to a “wilderness” from which she never escaped. Her husband and favourite son Johnny had died, both of them not knowing how much she cared for them, how she was sorry, after all this time. And now she is alone.

One result of this is that she lies for the sake of her Marvin, bestowing a favour on him that she does not think, even now, that he deserves — as she likes to say, no one ever changes after any single moment of revelation — but the reader, with a clearer eye, knows is the simple truth. When he leaves the room a nurse says to him

“She’s got an amazing constitution, your mother. One of those hearts that just keeps on working, whatever else is gone.”

A pause, and then Marvin replies.

“She’s a holy terror,” he says.

For Hagar there is no better description. Even in her last moments she struggles to assert her will, her independence, her singularity, never giving, challenging everyone in so many ways to Gainsay who dare! Dylan Thomas’ famous poem that Margaret Laurence quoted at the beginning of the novel, seemed to have been written for Hagar Shipley.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

¹Watson, J.R. The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Crossposted at The Books of My Numberless Dreams.