Saturday, November 24, 2012

Choose a Book for January

Time to vote for the next book. There is no rhyme nor reason to the selections other than they are shortish and seem interesting. If there is a theme, it is something like "modern classics with an international flair" or something like that. Cast your vote. I'll count them up in a week (December 1). And if it works for everyone, discussion will start January 30, 2013.

  • Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Soderberg Stark, brooding, and enormously controversial when first published in 1905, this astonishing novel juxtaposes impressions of fin-de-siècle Stockholm against the psychological landscape of a man besieged by obsession. Lonely and introspective, Doctor Glas has long felt an instinctive hostility toward the odious local minister. So when the minister’s beautiful wife complains of her husband’s oppressive sexual attentions, Doctor Glas finds himself contemplating murder. A masterpiece of enduring power, Doctor Glas confronts a chilling moral quandary with gripping intensity.

  • All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani Wildly funny and wonderfully bizarre, All About H. Hatterr is one of the most perfectly eccentric and strangely absorbing works modern English has produced. H. Hatterr is the son of a European merchant officer and a lady from Penang who has been raised and educated in missionary schools in Calcutta. His story is of his search for enlightenment as, in the course of visiting seven Oriental cities, he consults with seven sages, each of whom specializes in a different aspect of “Living.” Each teacher delivers himself of a great “Generality,” each great Generality launches a new great “Adventure,” from each of which Hatter escapes not so much greatly edified as by the skin of his teeth.

  • The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout The Ten Thousand Things is a novel of shimmering strangeness—the story of Felicia, who returns with her baby son from Holland to the Spice Islands of Indonesia, to the house and garden that were her birthplace, over which her powerful grandmother still presides. There Felicia finds herself wedded to an uncanny and dangerous world, full of mystery and violence, where objects tell tales, the dead come and go, and the past is as potent as the present. First published in Holland in 1955, Maria Dermoût's novel was immediately recognized as a magical work, like nothing else Dutch—or European—literature had seen before. The Ten Thousand Things is an entranced vision of a far-off place that is as convincingly real and intimate as it is exotic, a book that is at once a lament and an ecstatic ode to nature and life.

  • Tun-huang by Yasushi Inoue More than a thousand years ago, an extraordinary trove of early Buddhist sutras and other scriptures was secreted away in caves near the Silk Road city of Tun-huang. But who hid this magnificent treasure and why? In Tun-huang, the great modern Japanese novelist Yasushi Inoue tells the story of Chao Hsing-te, a young Chinese man whose accidental failure to take the all-important exam that will qualify him as a high government official leads to a chance encounter that draws him farther and farther into the wild and contested lands west of the Chinese Empire. Here he finds love, distinguishes himself in battle, and ultimately devotes himself to the strange task of depositing the scrolls in the caves where, many centuries later, they will be rediscovered. A book of magically vivid scenes, fierce passions, and astonishing adventures, Tun-huang is also a profound and stirring meditation on the mystery of history and the hidden presence of the past.

  • The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay Hailed as “an utter delight, the most brilliant witty and charming book I have read since I can’t remember when” by The New York Times when it was originally published in 1956, Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond tells the gleefully absurd story of Aunt Dot, Father Chantry-Pigg, Aunt Dot’s deranged camel, and our narrator, Laurie, who are traveling from Istanbul to legendary Trebizond on a convoluted mission. Along the way they will encounter spies, a Greek sorcerer, a precocious ape, and Billy Graham with a busload of evangelists. Part travelogue, part comedy, it is also a meditation on love, faith, doubt, and the difficulties, moral and intellectual, of being a Christian in the modern world.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Talk is Cheap

I've been wanting to read Rose Macaulay ever since she appeared in Nancy Pearl's Booklust. Pearl recommends The Towers of Trebizond for the notable opening line, " 'Take my camel, dear,' said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass." That was back in 2003 and here we are nearly at the end of 2012 and I have just finished reading my first Rose Macaulay. It did not turn out to be Towers of Trebizond but Crewe Train. My copy of the book came from the Minneapolis Public Library and was a gift to the library in July 1942 from one Rufus Rand, a most delightful name don't you think?

The book is the story of Denham who, at the age of seven, was dragged abroad by her recently widowed father who had thrown up his hands at being a clergymen and was looking to live cheaply and as far away from the English as possible. We zip through Denham's unconventional childhood to begin the story when Denham is a young woman living in Andorra. Her mother's sister, Evelyn Gresham, and her adult children are visiting and it is at this point Denham's father dies. Her Aunt Evelyn decides to take Denham under her wing, bring her back to England, and civilize her into a proper English girl. Denham goes along because she has nowhere else to go, but she firmly resists being turned into a proper lady.

All these do's and don't and should's and so many forks and different kinds of plates and why can't she use one fork and eat her entire dinner at once on one plate? But worst of all, in Denham's opinion, everyone talks too much and they talk about things that don't matter. Denham unexpectedly falls in love with Arnold Chapel, a young man who works in Mr. Gresham's publishing office. They get engaged and are soon married and for Arnold, Denham makes an effort to live up to the "high life" as she calls it. Talking for the sake of talking, talking in order to entertain one another, is an art beyond Denham. She tries though, and fails spectacularly. Talking, she determines, is a creative art

for by it you build up things that have, until talked about, no existence, such as scandals, secrets, quarrels, literary and artistic standards, all kinds of points of view about persons and things. Let us talk, we say, meaning, let us see what we can create, or in what way we can transmute the facts that are into facts that are not yet. It is one of the magic arts.

Denham is much too practical and literal-minded to be able to carry on much conversation at all. She is unable and unwilling to leap from "facts as they are" to "facts that are not yet." She ends up asking questions that make people uncomfortable and, not being interested in gossip or politics or art or most any topic, she sits dumb and bored as people babble on around her.

Of course Arnold falls in love with Denham because she is so very different but it also becomes the source of their disagreements. Why can't Denham be like everyone else? But Denham doesn't care what other people do and think, everyone should be allowed to carry on as he or she likes:

'It's such rot,' Denham protested, 'doing things we don't like doing because someone else does them.'

And Denham protests and does her own thing right up to almost the end when she and Arnold compromise and find a house in the far suburbs of London and Denham becomes pregnant. The book leaves the end up in the air. Does Denham give in and become like everyone else or does she continue on in her silent and resisting ways? I like to think she does not give in, that she remains true to herself in spite of the overwhelming pressure to conform.

A good part of the delight of this book comes from Denham's outsider viewpoint. She inadvertently points out to Arnold and the Greshams and everyone else, the absurdities of middle class and upper-middle class life as it is lived. The other thing that makes Crewe Train so much fun is the writing itself. It sparkles and trips along. Macaulay has a wonderful comedic eye and like any good comedy, serious truths are uncovered but we are whisked away from being able to think about them too much or grow too serious over them. Only when we stop reading and close the book are we allowed to pause and think.

I am so happy to have finally gotten around to reading Macaulay. She has quite an oeuvre that includes novels, biography and travel writing. The Towers of Trebizond is considered her fiction masterpiece and since I enjoyed Crewe Train so much I know I will be in for quite the treat when I get to Trebizond, and I will get there most definitely.

Cross posted at So Many Books

Crewe Train - Oh, Mr Porter, Whatever Shall I Do?

Oh, Mr. Porter, whatever shall I do?
I want to go to Birmingham, but they've sent me on to Crewe!

Taking its name from an absurd little 1920s ditty, this book was one of the small pile I read during the October readathon. It's stayed with me since as the protagonist's plight is a peculiar kind of nightmare and there is just as much humour in it as there is horror.

When her father dies, Denham Dobie, a rather selfish, very uneducated teenager who has been raised in the hills of Andalucia, is hauled back to London by relatives she's never met before. Aunt Evelyn and her three grown up children take her silent lack of interest in other people or the world around her as something that can be shocked out of her extended exposure to 'society' and set about trying to make her one of them. Soon she is trapped in the hectic whirl of their society life and longing to escape.

The Greshams do everything they can to get this wayward relative to 'buck up' but she thinks books are silly and boring, hates dinner parties and just won't make the effort to fit in. Time and again she talks about barometers instead of baronets and baffles those around her. There's an element of relief when Arnold becomes interested in Denham and seems intrigued by the prospect of a wife more interested in sailing paper boats than clothes shopping. The problem is that Denham isn't really cut out to be a wife to anyone, Arnold is a writer who needs support in his attempts to get his debut novel published and of course, now she's married a man who's friends with the Greshams she'll never escape them...

"This bright, finished, gay, polite family, so merry, so chattering, so friendly, so kind, so expensively neat - what was she among them? A cold kind of wary doubt, like an animal's, fought in her with adventurous doubt. One was trapped by such desires into intimacies closer than one's sober self approved."
(page 35)

Oh, poor Denham. She is ignorant, willfully ignorant and horribly lazy and selfish... but she really does just want to be left alone. Her ideal life would be like something in an Enid Blyton children's book - full of boating on the sea and picnics and running away from adults. Crewe Train, a rather odd title for this book at first glance, is actually rather accurate when you understand the rhyme and watch the Greshams from her perspective.

I do wonder about the strength of the story though, it felt like Macaulay had pulled her punches too often. Narrating it as Denham allowed her to mock the Greshams and all they represent but, since Macaulay is definitely not one of the Denhams of the world, she can't help making Denham an unbelievably exaggerated caricature. In amongst all the witty barbs about social rules and pretended amazement about why anyone would write another book when there's already so many unread ones in the world there's an equal amount of laughing at Denham's desire for a husband who doesn't want to talk about love or enjoying the childish pleasures of secret tunnels in the cliffs.

This switching of perspective and punchlines does keep the reader entertained but it also limits the impact of the book significantly. It keeps Denham firmly in the reader's mind as a difficult, childish character and the Greshams as just misguided but ultimately lovely which blunts a lot of the barbs. It keeps the story in the camp of 'nice' and 'gentle' rather than 'biting' and 'satire'.

There is fine writing here and I can't wait to read more of Macaulay to get a better understanding of her work, but for me this particular book is let down by too many polite retractions and a weak ending.

(Cross-posted to Alex in Leeds)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Crewe Train: Society - can't live with it, can't live without it!

Crewe Train is the first novel by Rose Macaulay I've read. I can't decide if it makes me want to read another! It was easy to read: the prose is brisk, the tone is lightly satirical, the characters and incidents are quirky but mostly engaging. It has something of the flat quality I've noticed in other non-modernist novels I've read from the twenties and thirties: everything's just narrated in order, one thing after another, artlessly. Yet of course there is an art to this too: it's just not an art that makes itself felt.

Crewe Train tells the story of Denham Dobie, the daughter of a widowed English clergyman who can't stand chatter and sociability and so tries to find a place to live where he can avoid people who "insist on conversing with you." Unfortunately for him, the English "cannot stay at home" and his quest for perfect peace is ruined by cheerful, well-meaning, annoying people who "insisted on making friends with him and his grave, square-faced, brown-legged girl." They end up in Andorra: "enquiring about it, he ascertained that it was very difficult of access, being snowbound from November to May, and mountainous all the year round, and that the approach to it was by mule." Promising as that sounds, Mr. Dobie nonetheless is still unable to cut himself off from life, and ends up remarried and drawn back into society in spite of himself. The irresistible pull of relationships with other people turns out to be a central idea of the novel.

Denham takes after her father in her dislike of "that strange love of human intercourse, of making talk." She finds other people mostly just puzzling and troublesome in their demands and expectations: "when she saw anyone whom she knew approaching, she plunged aside off the path and lurked hidden until they were passed by."

Mr. Dobie dies and Denham is taken back to London by her mother's family, the Greshams. And so the stage is set for the fish-out-of-water comedy that makes up the bulk of the novel. Denham is a perfect device for Macaulay to poke fun at the conventions and morés of high society. She can't see the point of all the rules--what to wear, what to say, where to sit, when to stand, how to pass one's time. Since, of course, most of these really are perfectly arbitrary rules, it's not that hard to satirize the mindless compliance of the Greshams and their friends--but once you get the idea, it's also not really that interesting or sophisticated a critique. Here's Denham newly arrived in London, for instance:
London. The problem was, why did so many people live in it? Millions and millions of people, swarming all over the streets, as thick as flies over a dead goat, as buzzing and as busy. Why? Did they all agree with Uncle Peter that nothing was like London and that they must, therefore, be in London, this unique spot? Did they all have to be here? Had they been adopted by relations and brought here, or did they do something here which they couldn't do elsewhere? . . . 
And then the streets. Thousands and thousands of omnibuses, taxis, vans and cars, all roaring down the streets together, like an army going into battle, mowing down with angry trumpetings all human life that crossed their path. Were they all necessary? Was human life in London so cheap? Denham, after the first, had no personal anxieties on this head, for she felt competent to evade the assaults of these monsters; neither had she much pity for the victims, for they could probably well be spared, and certainly the population needed thinning; but it seemed a curious way of doing it.
Funny, right, especially that deft little jab at the end? And the theme is funny in all of its variations, even as its underlying point is serious and well-taken:
With these Greshams life was like walking on a tight-rope. The things you mustn't do, mustn't wear. You must, for instance, spend a great deal of money on silk stockings, when, for much less, you could have got artificial silk or Lisle thread. Why?  Did not these meaner fabrics equally clothe the leg? Why had people agreed that one material was the right wear and that others did not do? Why did not anything do?
The same with gloves, with shoes, with frocks, with garments underneath frocks. In all these things people had set up a standard, and if you did not conform to it you were not right, you were left. . . You had, somehow or other, to conform to a ritual, to be like the people you knew. 
It's not only expensive living up to these standards, but it is also a lot of trouble, and if there's one thing Denham hates, it's going to any trouble. She dreams "of a life in which one took practically no trouble at all. One would be alone; one would have no standards; there would be a warm climate and few clothes, and all food off the same plate, if a plate at all. And no conversation." Awash  in the trivial chatter and clutter of London society, Denham goes along to get along, but it's all folly, as far as she's concerned.

The novel follows Denham to marriage (to Arnold Chapel, a writer) and then a pregnancy that (happily, from her perspective) ends in a miscarriage -- imagine how much trouble motherhood would be! Despite these gestures towards normalcy, she still craves escape, and she finds what she thinks is the perfect alternative to the Greshams' lifestyle in an ill-kept Cornish cottage complete with a smuggler's passage to the sea and a cave she sets up as her parlor. Then, when her privacy in this not-so-bucolic retreat is destroyed by a news story about her eccentric choices, she heads off on a bicycle tour, believing that in constant motion she can free herself from the constraints of society.

No such luck, however. Just as her father was drawn into a second marriage by "madness of the blood" and Denham herself also into marriage by her own passionate response to Arnold's kisses, so once again it's passion that thwarts Denham's plans as she has an affair with a fisherman and becomes pregnant again. Her return home feels something like a failure, as she's clearly capitulating, of necessity, to the trivialities and domesticities she has always hated. For all that human relationships are troublesome and social conventions pointless, life outside them is an impossibility, a fantasy. "Love," reflects Denham, "was the great taming emotion":
Oh, life itself was the trap, and love the piece of toasted cheese that baited it, and, the bait once taken, there was no escape.
It's a potentially poignant moment, but I felt disoriented at the end of the novel about how Macaulay really meant to steer us. So society is silly and superficial--but Denham's life and thoughts hardly offer us an exhilarating alternative. She's no untamed genius, no blooming wildflower ruined by her new unnatural environment, no free spirit caught and tragically tamed. She's dull, sluggish, literal, unimaginative, anti-intellectual, and, in her own dogged way, entirely selfish. She can't see any motive for doing anything other than for personal pleasure or satisfaction. She holds up no positive value except individual freedom--and not freedom of a high order (political freedom, freedom of the mind, freedom from oppression, freedom to create or worship or love) but just freedom to do what you feel like doing and nothing else. She thinks books are pointless, plays are "tedious stuff," children are a nuisance. At times I thought perhaps it was Denham who was being satirized ("What a trade it was, increasing the number of books in a world already stocked with them! As bad as parents, who increased the number of people"). I suppose there's no reason why the scoffing couldn't go in both directions. Society: can't live with it, can't live without it! But the novel would have been more compelling to me--it would have seemed like more than an eccentrically amusing story--if there had been a clearer sense of what the costs are of the two options. I guess I like my social comedy to have a stronger undercurrent of moral seriousness. Vanity Fair, this isn't.

I'm looking forward to hearing from everyone else about the novel!