Thursday, November 14, 2013

Our Next Book: Jamaica Inn

What a close vote! It was nearly a three-way tie between Jamaica Inn, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and The Murderess, but Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier just edged out the others with one more vote.

Discussion will commence around January 15.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Voting Time!

It's been a while since our last discussion, so what shall we read next? I've been invited to offer up some choices. The weather's getting colder here in the DC area, and cold weather always puts me in the mood for a good crime or suspense story. So I've put together a selection of different types of novels that involve some sort of mystery or crime. I hope something here appeals to you all!

Let's vote by November 11, and have our discussion after the holidays, around January 15.

Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco
It begins with a body. On a clear day in winter, the battered corpse of Crispin Salvador is pulled from the Hudson River—taken from the world is the controversial lion of Philippine literature. Gone, too, is the only manuscript of his final book, a work meant to rescue him from obscurity by exposing the crimes of the Filipino ruling families. Miguel, his student and only remaining friend, sets out for Manila to investigate. Winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize. 

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
After the death of her mother, Mary Yellan travels to Jamaica Inn on the wild British moors to live with her Aunt Patience. The coachman warns her of the strange happenings there, but Mary is committed to remain at Jamaica Inn. Suddenly, her life is in the hands of strangers: her uncle, Joss Merlyn, whose crude ways repel her; Aunt Patience, who seems mentally unstable and perpetually frightened; and the enigmatic Francis Davey. But most importantly, Mary meets Jem Merlyn, Joss's younger brother, whose kisses make her heart race. Caught up in the danger at this inn of evil repute, Mary must survive murder, mystery, storms, and smugglers before she can build a life with Jem.

The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamantis
The Murderess is a bone-chilling tale of crime and punishment with the dark beauty of a backwoods ballad. Set on the dirt-poor Aegean island of Skiathos, it is the story of Hadoula, an old woman living on the margins of society and at the outer limits of respectability. She knows women's secrets and she knows the misery of their lives, and as the book begins, she is trying to stop her new-born granddaughter from crying so that her daughter can at last get a little sleep. She rocks the baby and rocks her and then the terrible truth hits her: there's nothing worse than being born a woman, and there's something that she, Hadoula, can do about that.

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
‘Everyone agreed that the day was just right for the picnic to Hanging Rock - a shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling...’ St Valentine’s Day, in the midst of the hot summer of 1900, a party of schoolgirls went on a picnic to Hanging Rock. Some were never to return... An Australian classic, the disappearance of three girls and a schoolteacher at Hanging Rock has captivated and intrigued audiences for generations.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and forever, and they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Excellent Women (reposted from 2007)

I would have loved to reread Excellent Women with the rest of the group, but I wasn't able to in time. I did, however, read the novel back in 2007, and I posted on it then. So I thought I'd repost my thoughts here. Here's what I wrote back then:

I thoroughly enjoyed Barbara Pym’s 1952 novel Excellent Women. It tells the story of Mildred Lathbury, a woman in her 30s whose life is taken up with part-time work helping “impoverished gentlewomen,” attending services and volunteering at the church, and maintaining friendships with the vicar and his sister. She also finds herself endlessly caught up in other people’s business:
I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.
She is one of the “excellent women” of the novel’s title, women who aren’t wrapped up in families of their own and so have time to — and are expected to — devote themselves to taking care of others.
As the novel opens, a new couple is moving into the flat above Mildred’s; they are Helena and Rocky, and Mildred does not know what to make of them. Helena is an anthropologist and not terribly interested in her marriage; she spends her time with fellow-anthropologist Everard, working on writing up their field notes. She is a terrible housekeeper, a fact that disturbs and intrigues Mildred. Rocky is utterly charming and perhaps a trifle fake; Mildred quickly falls for him, but also wonders, as she does, whether Rocky really means to charm her, or whether he simply can’t help but make women fall in love with him.

Helena and Rocky disrupt Mildred’s quiet life. She is quickly doing things she has never done before, such as attending lectures in anthropology and mediating marital squabbles. Her life is further disrupted when the vicar — her close friend and up to now a confirmed bachelor — begins a flirtation and gets engaged.
The novel is told in the first person, which Pym uses very cleverly to capture Mildred’s thoughtful, intelligent voice, but also to make clear to the reader her naivete and lack of experience; Helena, for example, hints that the vicar might be gay, but this passes right over Mildred’s head. And yet Mildred knows she hasn’t experienced much — she’s very aware of her limitations, painfully aware at times. She does her best, wading into the deeper waters recent experience has led her to, but she also longs for things to be the way they once were, quiet and comfortable.

As much as she is aware of her lack of experience, however, Mildred has a strong sense of identity; she knows who she is, what her social role is, and how she wants to live. As an “excellent woman,” she accepts that many people expect her to help them out — why shouldn’t she, after all? What else does she have to do? She tries to be useful, but also to keep from being used — and here she fails now and then, as each of the main characters takes advantage of her at one point or another. It’s frustrating at times to watch Mildred trying and frequently failing to maintain the balance between taking care of others and taking care of herself.

For me, the pleasure of reading this novel lies in Mildred’s astute understanding of her small world; she knows it’s a small world, but what’s important is that it’s hers and she wants to enjoy it. She’s capable of viewing it with a critical, satirical eye, but also of loving it. She strikes me as courageous — both in accepting her life as it is and in remaining open to the ways it can possibly change.

Excellent Women

Mildred Lathbury fills her days working at a part-time job at an agency that assists older unmarried women, helping out at the church, and, almost despite herself, getting wrapped up in other people’s personal crises. She is both connected and disconnected to her neighbors in 1950s London. She knows all about their lives, but what do they know of hers? Mildred tells her own story in Barbara Pym’s lively and intelligent novel Excellent Women. 
Early in the novel, Mildred says that “an unmarried woman over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business.” Lacking troubles of her own to attend to, Mildred becomes a sounding board for everyone else. Her new neighbors, the Napiers, take advantage of Mildred’s sympathetic demeanor, coming to her at every step of the way as they deal with their own discontentments and worries about their marriage. Mildred, being an “excellent woman,” is willing to help, but her presence in the relationship is merely that, a presence—someone to transmit messages or to keep an eye on things when the movers come. Her own feelings about it aren’t part of the conversation, and although she is wise enough to know that her feelings might be unwise, she does have feelings.

People count on Mildred, but are they building strong connections to her as a person? When Mildred helps her friend Winifred sort donations for the church jumble sale, the two of them discuss the old framed photos being donated to the sale. Winifred is appalled that anyone would donate of photo of a relation, but Mildred is more matter-of-fact, noting that they had probably been stored away for years and the donors probably didn’t even knew who the people in the photos were. Yet, matter-of-fact as she is about it, she sees her own future in those photographs:
I could see very well what [Winifred] meant, for unmarried women with no ties could very well become unwanted. I should feel it even more than Winifred, for who was there to really grieve for me when I was gone? Dora, the Malorys, one or two people in my old village might be sorry, but I was not really first in anybody’s life. I could so very easily be replaced.
As an unmarried woman of a certain age myself, this sentiment is quite familiar to me, and I appreciated that Pym could have Mildred express this feeling about her state without making her seem self-pitying or hysterical or unbalanced. Mildred is realistic about her position. She’s not unhappy exactly, but she sees and understands the downsides about her life, even as she’s not entirely sure she wants to change it. One of the characters observes that some people have a knack for finding a mate, which means that widows are likely to marry again. The unspoken converse of this is that others, like Mildred, don’t have the knack. Flip the idea around even further, and you can see that the Mildreds of the world have the knack for being alone.

I think Mildred’s knack for singlehood turns up in her friendship with the anthropologist Everard Bone. She meets Everard through her neighbors with the emotional fraught marriage. (As it happens, Mrs Napier’s interest in Everard is one of the reasons for the conflict.) She runs into him at midday Lenten services at church, and he lingers on the street near her office, waiting for an opportunity to ask her to lunch or to have dinner at his house. To many, Everard’s purpose might seem obvious, but Mildred assumes he’s looking for something other than her company. Intervention with Mrs Napier, help cooking a cut of meat, something other than her companionship for itself. Anything else would involve signals she cannot, or will not (which is it?), pick up on. Or perhaps she knows her own experience well enough to know exactly what it is that Everard doesn’t want.

As the book drew to a close, I kept wondering where this ambiguous courtship was leading. And at the risk of spoiling the ending, I’ll say that I was impressed with how well Pym maintained the ambiguous nature of the relationship, right up to the ending and beyond. You can turn that final conversation around and upside down and still not be sure what Everard was after or what Mildred herself wanted.

Representations of single women in media often give me trouble, not because they all get everything wrong or because they’re all mean-spirited but often because they focus on one aspect of the experience: the freedom or the loneliness. Or they dwell on the desire for a mate and make finding one a goal. This book captures so much more. It gets at how singleness (like any life situation) can be happy and miserable. It doesn’t revel in the joy or make simple pleasures bigger than they are, and it doesn’t wallow in the misery or turn sadness into grand tragedy. In some ways, it’s a hard book for me to talk about, because parts of it hit close to the bone. But it’s not a heavy or depressing book at all. It’s wise and funny and real in ways that few books are. It was also my first experience reading Barbara Pym, and I loved it as much as I thought I would. I’m glad the Slaves of Golconda reading group finally pushed me to read it.

Cross-posted at Shelf Love

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Barbara Messud, The Excellent Women Upstairs

She's an ordinary woman leading a quiet life - no thrills, no romance, few expectations, just her work, her friends, and the comforting knowledge that everyone relies on her common sense. In a crisis, she can be counted on to make tea. All this changes when the new couple comes on the scene. The wife is an energetic professional in a whirl of commitments and contacts; the husband is a suave charmer. As she is drawn into their circle, our heroine finds herself both energized and resentful. What, exactly, is her role? What does she mean to these new people? What has happened to her life since they came -- and what will happen when they leave?
messudAs my mash-up title suggests, this is the basic plot outline of two very different novels: Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs and Barbara Pym's Excellent Women (1952). I read The Woman Upstairs a month or so ago and though I found it a page-turner, I ended up not liking it very much. It's not that I minded the "unlikable" narrator: as I said in my piece on Olivia Manning (apparently quite an unlikable woman herself), "the chief obligation of a writer, . . . as of a character, is not that she be nice but that she be interesting." The problem I ultimately had with Messud's Nora was that I did not find her very interesting: she was too much up in my face all the time about how angry she was, and so the novel gave me no sense of discovery about her. The novel was a page-turner because I wondered what would happen and why exactly she was in such a rage. But the answers to both questions were rather disappointing. Nora's anger especially seemed confused -- which is fine for her as a character (she has no obligation to be crystal clear about her own emotional state, and anger does tend to mess things up) but not for the novel, which to me seemed to be trying to make a broader political and feminist case for anger out of one woman's very personal neuroses and bad judgment.

But it was the artlessness of Nora's narration that I found particularly tedious after a while: there's no revelation to it, no subtlety compared to, for instance, Villette, which was the Brontë novel I kept thinking of as I read The Woman Upstairs. The explicit inter-text for Messud's novel is Jane Eyre, which is a pretty angry novel, to be sure. But Jane's retrospective narration adds a controlling layer of meaning, and Jane is more admirably assertive than Nora in pursuit of her own selfulfilment. That's the Victorianist in me coming out, perhaps, but I got quite irritated at Nora's complaining: stop moping (or ranting, which is just a louder version of the same thing) and get on with your life! Villette, in turn, is a much darker, twistier novel about the differences between calm surfaces and tormented desires, about repression and resentment and bitterness. And Lucy Snowe (cold, like her name, and coy, and judgmental, and yes, angry) makes us figure her out -- and she doesn't make it easy! There's a readerly excitement in working out just who Lucy is and what she's feeling that for me has no equivalent in The Woman Upstairs. For all its cleverness (and there are lots of smart things about it), Messud's novel ultimately seemed kind of obvious (the big surprise at the end - who didn't see that coming the minute they knew about Sirena's cameras?).

Excellent WomenI think this is why I liked Excellent Women so much better. It's so understated that a lot of it nearly slips past unnoticed, but as a result, while it lacks the driving forward momentum of The Woman Upstairs, its rewards are both more subtle and more surprising. We almost don't know that Mildred is ever angry at the way those around her treat her as an accessory to their lives or assume they know what she needs or (most annoying of all) whom she loves. "Perhaps," she observes dryly at one point, "I really enjoyed other people's lives more than my own," but over the course of the novel we can't help but realize how tired she is of being one of the "excellent women" -- the women who are always depended on but are somehow never part of the action on their own behalf - "excellent women whom one respects and esteems" but never truly sees. "I always think of you as being so very balanced and sensible," says her friend William, "such an excellent woman." "It was not the excellent women who got married," Mildred reflects a bit later, "but people like Allegra Gray, who was not good at sewing, and Helena Napier, who left all the washing up."

It's Helena and her smoothly flirtatious husband Rocky who play the Shahids' role in Excellent Women. "Things were much simpler before they came," Mildred thinks. They stir things up, but in doing so they bring things to the surface that might have been better off left undisturbed. When they go, she'll still have her old occupations, but the Napiers are more blunt than the Shahids ever are to Nora about how her options look to them:

'What will you do after we've gone?' Helena asked.

'Well, she had a life before we came,' Rocky reminded her. 'Very much so - what is known as a full life, with clergymen and jumble sales and church services and good works.'

'I thought that was the kind of life led by women who didn't have a full life in the accepted sense,' said Helena.

'Oh, she'll marry,' said Rocky confidently. They were talking about me as if I wasn't there.
'Everard might take her to hear a paper at the Learned Society,' suggested Helena. 'That would widen her outlook.'

'Yes, it might,' I said humbly from my narrowness.

Right there we see the genius of Excellent Women in microcosm: if you weren't already enraged on Mildred's behalf at the complacent condescension of her supposed friends, that moment of self-deprecating bitterness ought to do the trick.  She doesn't have to yell at us about how angry she is, but we don't have to be in her company long to understand that there's a lot going on in her head that isn't "excellent" at all.

Unlike Helena, Mildred spends a lot of time washing up - often, Helena's dishes. After one particularly dramatic incident at the Napiers', she finds herself in their flat, "with the idea of making some order out of the confusion there" -- but also, really, to get some time to herself. The scene beautifully literalizes her discomfort and frustration at the life she's living:

 No sink has ever been built high enough for a reasonably tall person and my back was soon aching with the effort of washing up, especially as yesterday's greasy dishes needed a lot of scrubbing to get them clean. My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the 'stream of consciousness' type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.

She feels "resentful and bitter towards Helena and Rocky" but she also admits "nobody had compelled me to wash these dishes or tidy this kitchen. It was the fussy spinster in me." They aren't altogether wrong, that is, in their assumptions about her, and yet (as her struggles through the novel with her hair, make-up, and clothing tell us) there's nothing inevitable about the woman she is or is becoming. At the end of the novel she finds herself trapped once again in a part she doesn't want to play but can't seem to escape.

Messud's novel suggests that anger is a necessary stage on the way to freedom, and in some ways its ending is triumphant: Nora has broken free of the Shahids' spell and perhaps (though her narrative doesn't convince me of this) gained some self-knowledge in the process. She is certainly fired up to do ... something. There's something infinitely sadder (if also, perversely, funnier) about Mildred's conclusion, but I ended up a lot with a lot more invested in her fate, and feeling a lot more admiring of the art with which she was drawn.

Cross-posted to Novel Readings.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Next Book: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

It was a very close race, and if we ever have another 'runners-up' context, looks like Palladian might be a favorite! But this time the majority voted for Barbara Pym's Excellent Women, so that will be our next group read. Let's aim to put up posts and/or join in the discussion around August 30. Happy reading!

Here are some links to places you could buy the book:

Book Depository
Chapters / Indigo
Munro's Books
Abe Books

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

New Options: Books "of a Certain Age"

I'm happy to be putting up our next list of options! I've been feeling annoyed by reading much-hyped new releases that end up disappointing, so these are all books "of a certain age." I hope I'm not the only one who finds them tempting! The last two are also quite "light" reading options, which might suit for the summer.

I've read three other Elizabeth Taylor novels recently and they were all good, especially Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. Doesn't this one sound enticing?

Young Cassandra is alone in the world, her father has just died. When she goes to Cropthorne Manor as a governess, its weary facade and crumbling statues are all that she could hope for. And Marion Vanbrugh is the perfect employer -- a widower, austere and distant, with a penchant for Greek. But this is not a nineteenth-century novel and Cassandra’s Mr Rochester isn’t the only inhabitant of the Manor. There’s Tom, irascible and discontented, Margaret, pregnant and voracious, the ineffectual Tinty and the eccentric domineering Nanny. Just as Jane Austen wittily contrasted real life with a girl’s gothic fantasies in Northanger Abbey, so Elizabeth Taylor subtly examines the realities of life for a latter-day Jane Eyre in this sharply observed work, first published in 1946.

I am a latecomer to Barbara Pym and am learning to really appreciate her low key satire. Excellent Women is supposed to be one of her best.

Mildred was quite capable of dealing with the stock situations of life. In fact her handling of births, marriages, deaths, jumble sales and garden fetes ruined by the weather was masterly. It is the introduction of new and exotic neighbours that pulls her up short.

I read Lehmann's The Weather in the Streets a while ago and was surprised and fascinated by it; I've been curious to read more by her ever since.

Grace Fairfax lives with her dull, conventional husband Tom in a grey manufacturing town in the north of England. At thirty-four she finds that her external life of dreary routine fails to live up to her lush, wistful and dreamy internal life. Norah, her energetic and chaotic friend, is equally settled in her own bland marriage to an irritable university professor. Then Hugh Miller and his sister Claire descend upon the town. On all four, the hypnotic charm of these two visitors exerts an enchanting spell. And after their departure, life -- having been violently disrupted -- will never be quite the same again.

I've read one other Thirkell novel, in this same series of reissues. One warning: it was very poorly copy-edited! But it was, as this effusive blurb suggests, quite delightful and inevitably reminiscent of that other series of Barsetshire novels.

In this first [of her] Barsetshire novels, Angela Thirkell sets the stage replete with infatuations, endearments, and cross purposes. The main character, Laura Morland, is a happily widowed author of very successful “good bad books.” She and these characters live throughout the Barsetshire series. The “plot never thickens” but moves along with swift acerbic sureness. Verbose George Knox, devoted Miss Grey, stalwart housekeeper Stoker, and others mix in this rare English country society. AT becomes addicting. Her simple intrigues and alluring characters draw the reader to want more. As Publishers Weekly wrote, “There’s just no stopping after one novel.” [!!]

I've finally warmed to Heyer's Regency romances, but I have yet to read any of her mysteries.

A houseful of people he loathes is not Sir Arthur's worst problem…

It should have been a lovely English country-house weekend. But the unfortunate guest-list is enough to exasperate a saint, and the host, Sir Arthur Billington-Smith, is an abusive wretch hated by everyone from his disinherited son to his wife's stoic would-be lover. When Sir Arthur is found stabbed to death, no one is particularly grieved—and no one has an alibi. The unhappy guests find themselves under the scrutiny of Scotland Yard's cool-headed Inspector Harding, who has solved tough cases before—but this time, the talented young inspector discovers much more than he's bargained for.

How about we vote by next Tuesday (July 16) and aim to start our discussion August 30?

Saturday, June 08, 2013

How human! Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard

After reading the wonderful posts already here, I find myself wondering what I have to add! You''ve all mentioned aspects of the book that I was also interested in. Alex, for instance, stresses the sensuality of the language: "It is by far the most insistently, sensuously, even seductively, oppressive book I’ve ever read. It made me want to applaud, underline and shudder in equal measure and often with just one very clever, deviously evocative phrase." As both she and litlove point, out, the book's beauties always coexist with horrors, so the garden scene Alex quotes, for instance, brings on gloomy thoughts for the eponymous protagonist, Don Fabrizio, because walking among his flowers he is reminded of the corpse they found among them not long ago:

They had found him lying face downwards in the thick clover, his face covered in blood and vomit, crawling with ants, his nails dug into the soil; a pile of purplish intestines had formed a puddle under his bandoleer.

And yet for all of its grim accents, The Leopard is also, as Stefanie and litlove observe, very funny -- even, glancingly, in this lush but haunted garden, mostly because of my favorite character, the dog Bendicò:

every now and again the dog would turn innocent eyes towards him as if asking for praise at labour done: fourteen carnations broken off, half a hedge torn apart, an irrigation channel blocked. How human! "Good, Bendicò, come here." And the animal hurried up and put its earthy nostrils into his hand, anxious to show it had forgiven this silly interruption of a fine job of work.

How human, indeed! I think for me that was one of the keynotes of this odd novel, which takes such a sideways approach to history. Don Fabrizio, born and bred to power, is moving sometimes deftly, sometimes awkwardly, but always inevitably through a period of transition to a future he neither understands nor endorses. "I belong to an unlucky generation," he explains in one of the novel's (bizarrely long) monologues, "swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both." The novel is about the human experience of that unease -- the sense of change beyond one's control. The Prince is mostly a man of good faith and good intentions, and so although he does not like the new world order emerging, he does not fight it either. Not only does he not resist Garibaldi's move on Sicily, to incorporate it in the newly unified Italy -- and what, after all, could one man, however formerly powerful, really do to resist this sweeping movement? -- but in his own family he also makes concessions, approving the match between his beloved nephew Tancredi and the daughter of his upstart neighbor. An old name, a lot of new wealth: this is how families adapt and survive.

Earthly things ebb and flow; one of Don Fabrizio's virtues is that he recognizes this and feels melancholic, rather than vengeful, as his own influence wanes. A dedicated amateur astronomer, he takes comfort from the serene continuity of the stars:

At the cross-roads he glimpsed the sky to the west, above the sea. There was Venus, wrapped in her turban of autumn mist. She was always faithful, always waiting for Don Fabrizio on his early morning outings, at Donnafugata before a shoot, now after a ball.

Don Fabrizio sighed. When would she decide to give him an appointment less ephemeral, far from stumps and blood, in her own region of perennial certitude?

When that time does come, he reflects on his heirs and realizes that they will not, cannot, carry on the family in any more but name:

the last of the Salina was really himself, this gaunt giant now dying on a hotel balcony. For the significance of a noble family lies entirely in its traditions, that is in its vital memories; and he was the last to have any unusual memories, anything different from those of other families. . . .

He had thought that perhaps, by changing, he could keep things the same, but of course that hope is as paradoxical as its logic.

Don Fabrizio is not literally the last of his family, and the book carries on after his death with his daughters in their old age. They are at once pathetic and comical in their attempts to maintain their family's dignity. Now the family traditions are reduced to "mummified memories" -- among them, with delightfully morbid literalness, is Bendicò,"dead for forty-five years, embalmed for forty-five years, nest now of spiders' webs and moth, detested by the servants who had been imploring Concetta for dozens of years to have it thrown on the rubbish heap." At the novel's end Concetta has lost altogether her sense of place and certainty in the world: "she seemed to be living in a world known to her yet strange, which had already ceded all the impulses it could give her and now consisted only of pure forms." I wondered at first why the novel hadn't ended with the death of the Prince, but on reflection it seems appropriate to show us the incompleteness of any change, the endless pressure of time's forward movement and the incremental but relentless concessions people have to make to history. Eventually Bendicò, symbol of the eager spirit of the Leopard's vigorous past, makes his own symbolic exit:

As the carcass ws dragged off, the glass eyes stared at her with the humble reproach of things that are thrown away, got rid of. A few minutes later what remained of Bendicò was flung into a corner of the courtyard visited every day by the dustman. During the flight down from the window its form recomposed itself for an instant; in the air there seemed to be dancing a quadruped with long whiskers, its right foreleg raised in imprecation. Then all found peace in a heap of livid dust.

How human!

The Leopard, the End of an Era

I very much enjoyed The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. It is an intimate book written against the large-scale backdrop of a changing Italy. It's about family, tradition, class, power, change, war, politics, love. It is by turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, sad and funny.

Published posthumously in 1958, The Leopard is often considered to be one of the most important novels in Italian literature. Sadly, Lampedusa had tried to get the novel published twice and was rejected both times. Maybe it is just as well he was dead when it was finally published because it seemed to make everybody angry. The conservatives criticized if for portraying the decadence of the aristocracy and clergy; the left didn't like it because the novel criticizes Italian unification; and the Communist Party in Italy didn't like it because of its non-Marxist portrayal of the working class. Nonetheless, the novel received great acclaim with the support of none other than E.M. Forster. And in 1959, the book won the Strega Prize, Italy's highest award for fiction.

The story takes place in Sicily and is told by Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina. It is May, 1860, and the army of Giuseppe Garibaldi has just landed in Sicily, ready to unite it with Italy. Don Fabrizio is a bit miffed because his beloved nephew, Prince Tancredi Falconieri, young, handsome and debonair, has joined up with the unificationists. But as unhappy about it as Don Fabrizio may be, he sees which way the wind is blowing. He doesn't want unification or a republic but he also knows that if he involves himself in the fight against it he will lose even more than his status and by extension so will his family.

In August the family retires to their estate in Donnafugata. The fighting done for now, Tancredi joins them. The arrival of the family sets off a serious of traditional welcome events staged by the town. The citizens and officials greet the family upon arrival, they attend Mass, and then the Princess invites the town officials to the traditional first night dinner. The new mayor, Don Calogero, requests permission to bring his daughter Angelica instead of his wife.

Angelica turns out to be very beautiful and charming. She has been sent away to school to polish the rough edges of the middle class. Her father, Don Fabrizio learns, will very soon become wealthier than he is. And there is more than one instance in the book in which the newly rich Don Calogero reveals his ignorance of upper class conduct and dress, making Don Fabrizio wince as well as a little depressed.

Don Fabrizio's daughter, Concetta, was certain she would marry Tancredi. She loved him and he did show her favor so it was not an unfounded expectation. However, Tancredi had no money of his own and Concetta, who would have a large dowry, didn't have quite enough. Angelica, however, would inherit all her father's wealth. Doesn't take a genius to know where that storyline is going.

But enough plot.

Don Fabrizio is a wonderful character. He values tradition, it orders his world and his life, it keeps things calm and steady and ordered. When change is inevitable he doesn't exactly embrace it but he doesn't fight it either. He just lets it happen. When his priest, Father Pirrone, expresses worry, Don Fabrizio tells him

We're not blind, my dear Father, we're just human. We live in a changing reality to which we try to adapt ourselves like seaweed bending under pressure of water. Holy Church has been granted an explicit promise of immortality; we, as a social class, have not. Any palliative which may give us another hundred years of life is like eternity to us. We may worry about our children and perhaps our grandchildren; but beyond what we can hope to stroke with these hands of ours we have no obligations.
At one point, Don Fabrizio, who is often described as moving like a cat or having paws, foresees that the Leopards and Lions will be giving way to the jackals and hyenas.

Don Fabrizio is a dying breed and he knows it. When he actually does die we move forward many years to Concetta and her sisters living in one of the family houses in Palermo in faded splendor. After being jilted by Tancredi, Concetta never married but became and old, bitter spinster holding onto the past. As Tancredi and Angelica move into the future and see their star rise, Concetta sinks into obscurity. Though in the end Concetta does realize that a good deal of her unhappiness is her own fault.

I felt sad for Concetta and sorry for the downfall of the Salina family. They were easy to feel sad about though because they were good people. Nonetheless, nobility represent an inherently unfair system and the bad and the good go down together. Is what followed any better? It did open things up a bit, at least for awhile.

The Leopard is a quiet book filled with detail that I could go on and on about. I will get to go on a little bit more as this was a Slaves group read. Check out the blog to see what others thought and feel free to join in or follow additional conversation in our forum discussion.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

The Leopard

The Leopard was Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s only novel and he wrote it late in life.  So late, in fact, that he had no clue it would be published 18 months after his death. Family legend has it that he screwed up the courage to write only after seeing his cousin, Lucio Piccolo, start out late as a poet and win a prize for his work. Lampedusa wrote to a friend, ‘Being mathematically certain that I was no more foolish than Lucio, I sat down at my desk and wrote a novel.’ With typical abject humility he also said: ‘It is, I fear, rubbish.’ Lampedusa was a quiet, inconspicuous sort of person; a nobleman living with vastly reduced status but enough money not to have to work. ‘I am a very solitary person,’ he wrote. ‘Out of the sixteen hours I spend awake each day, at least ten are spent in solitude.’ From this solitude flourished his only true career as a voracious reader. Books were his cherished treasures and his main expense, and he spent his mornings trawling the meagre bookshops of Palermo, visiting his favourite, Flaccovio, every day for ten years. He always carried with him a bag packed full of volumes including one of Shakespeare, so that ‘he could console himself with it if he should see something disagreeable’, according to his wife, Licy. It is extraordinary – but surely also a tribute to the pedagogic power of reading – that he should have sat down and produced something as beautiful and strange as The Leopard on his first (and last) attempt.

The Leopard is the story of the long-drawn out decline of a noble Sicilian family. It opens in 1861 just as Garibaldi is leaping about the country, uniting its various factions through his military campaign. But all this vulgar action is discreetly left to its own devices, beyond the scope of the narrative, just as the Prince and his family withdraw to one of their country estates to avoid any hint of real battle. Their aristocratic stature encases them in security and tedium, almost-but-not-quite protected from the realities of life, like the disembowelled corpse of a soldier that briefly spoils the beauty of their rose garden. The tale is an inward-looking one, of a family at the height of its ripeness, full of flavour and texture, rich and resplendent and on the verge of decay. As it rots away, the story is redolent of nostalgia for what once was, splendid melancholy for its loss, and a hint of repulsion at what it must become.

The narrative occurs in a series of vignettes of family life. The first introduces the reader to the Prince, who is the beating heart of the story. The Prince is a wonderful creation, a man of overarching uselessness who is a petty tyrant with his family and a passionate astronomer on the quiet. Melancholy, proud and a bit petulant, he has no trouble reconciling his conscience with visits to his mistress under cover of giving the priest a lift into town in his carriage. His heart is only moved by his dog and his nephew, Tancredi. The young man has been left penniless by his family but by no means without resources; maverick, mischevious and brave, the Prince loves him for his genuine vitality, even though he is the embodiment of the modern spirit that will hasten the dissolution of old families like the Salina clan.

And as soon as they get to the safety of their country estate, Tancredi falls for the glorious Angelica, daughter of the local mayor who has a Medusa touch. It’s a sensible choice for a man of aristocratic birth who lacks cold, hard cash and the Prince is willing to sanction the union. At first, though, the Prince struggles to come to terms with the sheer difference of Mayor Don Calogero, his lack of delicacy, his upfront pursuit of money, his awful clothes. But negotiating the marriage settlement, he shows himself to be generous and kind and the Prince is moved by exquisite relief:

‘The nobleman rose to his feet, took a step towards the surprised Don Calogero, raised him from his armchair, clasped him to his breast; the Mayor’s short legs were suspended in the air. For a moment, that room in a remote Sicilian province looked like a Japanese print of a huge, violet iris with a hairy fly hanging from a petal.’

Did I mention that the great charm of this novel is that it is so unexpectedly funny? The writing is wonderful; crisp, perceptive, witty, vivid. It’s the sort of novel where characters give long, eloquent speeches about the state of the church in Italy, and the Sicilian national character and although you sigh on the approach into them, you find you are laughing on the way out. There are some delightful passages, like the visit of the political envoy, the extremely anxious Chevalley di Monterzuolo, whose ‘head had been stuffed with the tales of brigands by which Sicilian’s love to test the nervous resistance of new arrivals’ and who fails to make the Prince accept a seat in the new governing council. And one chapter is filled with an evening at a ball, the epitome of the grace, the splendour and the futility of the old regime.

But the underlying force of the sumptuous prose is entropy, nevertheless. The novel captures the spirit and the soul of a generation on the cusp of its dissolution. It’s a book in which not a lot happens – increasingly less happens, in fact, as it moves through its stages – but it still happens with immense grace and clear-sightedness, wry good-humour and ironic self-interest. It is sad and splendid, rather like the man who wrote it.

Malevolent Magnolias Flourish in Lampedusa's The Leopard

I admit it: I was delighted that this Italian classic was picked in our last vote - I'd been curious about it for years!

Set on the island of Sicily, the majority of the action in the novel takes place in 1860 and 1861 during a period of revolution and change in Italian society. The coming of ‘free elections’, battles for political control and changes in the social hierarchy are all being navigated by the leopard of the book’s title – Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina.

The Salina family badge of the leopard is slyly tucked into the novel and all over the island. It’s on the soup tureen and the frescos, the family’s clothes and the house. It’s a symbol Don Fabrizio sees every day, a reminder of his heritage and (more importantly) the strength and cunning that is expected of him as the lord of his estates.

When the book opens, the Prince is delicately picking his way through the political minefield, a situation that he’s never been in before. Though he believes in a monarchy he’s smart enough to see that the monarchy in its current form is doomed; shifting from loyal courtier to survivor of a republican uprising takes some careful manoeuvring. Along the way there will be rebels lighting dramatic bonfires on the neighbouring hilltops and a soldier’s body dumped in their garden.

The Prince is also conducting an affair with a girl in the nearby town and keeping a careful eye on his nephew Tancredi’s love-life too. Tancredi has transferred his attention from the Prince’s daughter to the daughter of a man who in the previous regime would never have amounted to much but now, in the shifting political tide, has picked up land, money and status enough to make him a regrettable but important ally. The Prince doesn’t object to Tancredi losing interest in his daughter but struggles to swallow his pride and accept these unwelcome new relations (it’s vividly likened to crunching down the bones of a toad).

What could be a dry state of the nation tale becomes a deeper, more personal tale by subtly focusing on the concessions the Prince must make. Underneath all the shifts in local power and social hierarchy this is the story of a man growing older, being forced to adapt and feeling his importance fade as he becomes part of the previous generation. The powerful tyrant used to inspiring fear must become a wiser diplomat and inspire respect. It’s a coming of old age tale.

What makes The Leopard a classic though is its startling (and gorgeously grim) imagery. It is by far the most insistently, sensuously, even seductively, oppressive book I’ve ever read. It made me want to applaud, underline and shudder in equal measure and often with just one very clever, deviously evocative phrase.

‘But the garden, hemmed in and almost squashed between these barriers, was exhaling scents that were cloying, fleshy and slightly putrid, like to aromatic liquids distilled from the relics of certain saints; the carnations superimposed their pungence on the formal fragrance of rose and the oily emanations of magnolias drooping in corners; and somewhere beneath it all was a faint smell of mint mingling with a nursery whiff of acacia and a jammy one of myrtle; from a grove beyond the wall came an erotic waft early orange-blossom.’
(Page 4)

That’s only on Page 4 and I knew right there with its heady Machiavellian atmosphere and sinister ‘oily emanations of magnolias drooping in corners’ exactly why this 1960 translation by Archibald Colquhoun is so respected and hasn’t been bettered.

Surprisingly the book is full of dry humour too:

‘In reality the Princess too had been subject to Tancredi’s charm, she still loved him; but the pleasures of shouting “It’s your fault” being the strongest any human being can enjoy, all truth and feelings were swept along in its wake.’
(Pages 73/74)

There’s also this description of a very memorable outfit:

‘his rough cloth military jacket under which burst a purple cataract of trousers’
(Page 7)

And for the book lovers amongst us there is the sly observation that the Prince was so offended by some scandalous Balzac novels that he ‘lent them in disgust to a friend he didn’t like’. :)

In fact, The Leopard is a sly book in every sense of the word. It’s cleverer than it first appears, more lively than the subject matter suggests and every page is layered with ideas, imagery and meaning. It’s a book I very much look forward to growing into over the rest of my reading life. A deliciously slippery book that I know will morph slightly with each re-reading…

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Our Next Read Will Be...

With three votes our next read will be:

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa 
 Set in the 1860s on the island of Sicily, this Italian classic re-creates with nostalgia, drama, and opulence, the tumultuous years of Italy's Risorgimento, when the aristocracy lost its grip and the middle classes rose and formed a unified, democratic Italy. The dramatic sweep and richness of observation, the seamless intertwining of public and private worlds, and the grasp of human frailty imbue The Leopard with its particular melancholy beauty and power, and place it among the greatest historical novels of our time. 

To cope with the May bank holidays I'm going to suggest we all post reviews on 8th June
There's plenty of editions of the book available and it's widely available from libraries and secondhand. Happy reading!

Monday, April 08, 2013

Time To Pick The Next Book...

Hi Slaves! I'm delighted to have been asked to offer this month's selection of book titles to pick our next read from. I toyed with a couple of themes - unusual takes on time travel, Russian novels, the 1930s - but eventually decided that I wanted to offer you the chance to escape somewhere a little bit remote, an island or coastline at the edge of the world where magic and drama can seize your attention... 

Here are my five to choose from:

Knowledge of Angels - Jill Paton Walsh
It is, perhaps, the fifteenth century and the ordered tranquility of a Mediterranean island is about to be shattered by the appearance of two outsiders: one, a castaway, plucked from the sea by fishermen, whose beliefs represent a challenge to the established order; the other, a child abandoned by her mother and suckled by wolves, who knows nothing of the precarious relationship between Church and State... A lyrical fable of faith, society and intolerance.


The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
An elderly artist and her six-year-old grand-daughter while a way a summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. Gradually, the two learn to adjust to each other's fears, whims and yearnings for independence, and a fierce yet understated love emerges - one that encompasses not only the summer inhabitants but the island itself, with its mossy rocks, windswept firs and unpredictable seas. Full of brusque humour and wisdom, a profoundly life-affirming story.


Ocean Sea by Alessandro Baricco 
In Alessandro Baricco's celebrated debut, it was silk that exerted a fatal attraction. This time it's the ocean, whose watery charms cause an entire cast of characters to convene at the isolated Almayer Inn. The guests include a seductress, an eccentric professor, and a painter with a pronounced penchant for metaphysics. They're soon joined by the beautiful young daughter of a local aristocrat, who's been stricken with a mysterious illness... 

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa 
 Set in the 1860s on the island of Sicily, this Italian classic re-creates with nostalgia, drama, and opulence, the tumultuous years of Italy's Risorgimento, when the aristocracy lost its grip and the middle classes rose and formed a unified, democratic Italy. The dramatic sweep and richness of observation, the seamless intertwining of public and private worlds, and the grasp of human frailty imbue The Leopard with its particular melancholy beauty and power, and place it among the greatest historical novels of our time. 

Luminous Isle by Eliot Bliss 
The year is 1923 and nineteen-year-old Emmeline Hibbert sails for Jamaica, the luminous isle of her early childhood, with its breathtaking blue mountains, its vivid colours and singing, tropical heat. Reunited with her conventional mother and father she slips into army garrison life - a round of polo matches, dancing, tennis, riding, gossip, and evenings at the Club - but she rebels against the settled prejudices of this closed society and tries to live according to the way she feels. Inevitably she must make a heartbreaking choice if she is to be as she longs to be: "sexless, creedless, classless, free." 

All these books should be available either through libraries or cheap secondhand copies so now you just need to vote. I'll count up the votes on Sunday evening. :)

Monday, April 01, 2013

Stet: An Editor's Life

An editor’s work stays behind the scenes. We see the finished product and laud the author—quite rightfully—for the skill and talent that brought ideas and people to life. But I don’t imagine we think much about the editor who coaxed the author along, pointing out inconsistencies or raising questions and correcting glaring errors. I only hear editors talked about when errors aren’t corrected. We don’t realize what else might have gone wrong had an editor not been there. (As an editor myself, I wince when I see obvious errors in professionally published work, not because I’m horrified at low standards but because I know some editor somewhere is horrified to have let that pass. It’s only massive error pile-ups that agitate me.)

In her memoir, Diana Athill, a former editor at André Deutsch, steps out from behind the scenes and looks back over her long career, which involved editing such luminaries as V.S. Naipaul, Jean Rhys, and Molly Keane. But she also worked on cookbooks, poetry collections, and works of nonfiction on a variety of topics. She was involved in almost every aspect of the process: selecting manuscripts, editing, copyediting and proofing, and even placing ads.

One nonfiction work she remembers particularly fondly is a book about the discovery of Tahiti, which, she says, “taught me once and for all about the true nature of my job.” The author was obsessed with the topic and knew everything there was to know about it, but the manuscript was unreadable. Athill’s firm, Allan Wingate, put the author in touch with an outside editor to help him get it into shape, but “that lazy old Sir Whatsit had become bored after about six pages, and from then on had done almost nothing.” Athill took on the manuscript and whipped it into shape:
I doubt if there was a sentence—certainly there was not a paragraph—that I did not alter and often have to retype, sending it through chapter by chapter to the author for his approval which—although he was naturally grouchy—he always gave. I enjoyed the work. It was like removing layers of crumpled brown paper from an awkwardly shaped parcel, and revealing the attractive present which it contained.
It’s rare for me to have to do such extensive editing in my work, but it has happened, and it is a great pleasure to bring those presents out of an author’s mind and into the light for others to enjoy and learn from. The punchline to this story is that when the book was published to good reviews, the author sent her a note about the commendations of the writing:
‘You will observe the comment about the writing which confirms what I have thought all along, that none of that fuss about it was necessary.’ When I had stopped laughing I accepted the message: an editor must never expect thanks (sometimes they come, but they must always be seen as a bonus). We must always remember that we are only midwives—if we want praise for progeny we must give birth to our own.
I loved this story for what it reveals about the work of an editor and what it reveals about Athill herself. She’s aware of her own talent and wishes to do well, but she recognizes her place in the process, and she has a sense of humor about the sometimes preposterous aspects of the job. I liked her attitude so much, and I think I would have liked to work with her.

Although I hesitate to say it out loud at a time when we women are being told to “lean in” and be more ambitious, her sensible attitude toward the place of work in her life also appealed to me:
And even as an editor, a job which I thoroughly enjoyed, I betrayed my amateurish nature by drawing the line at working outside office hours. The working breakfast, and taking work home at weekends—two activities regarded by many as necessary evidence of commitment, both of them much indulged in by that born publisher, André Deutsch—were to me an abomination. Very rarely someone from my work moved over into my private life, but generally office and home were far apart, and home was much more important than office. I was not ashamed of valuing my private life more highly than my work; that, to my mind, is what everyone ought to do.
Reading this, I had to remind myself that Athill retired in the 1980s, before we were attached to our e-mail and smartphones, and yet she felt the same pressure we feel today to make our work into our lives. I feel—quite strongly—that I’m better at my job for taking time away from it. But such detachment comes at a cost, then and now. Looking back, Athill sees that she could have earned more and gained more authority if she’d pushed a little harder, but she’s honest enough to admit that she was glad not to have the responsibility that would have come with a higher position. She acknowledges the tension between her own complacency and the push for women’s rights, but she feels no guilt about being content where she was. Here, the book’s title Stet—an editor’s term for let it stand—seems especially appropriate.

Being an editor myself, I was drawn most to her depictions of the nuts and bolts of her work; it’s always interesting to see how the job is done elsewhere, and in a different form, since I’m a magazine editor and haven’t worked on books for years. Her years in publishing give her valuable insights into the selection of manuscripts and balancing the desire to publish good books and the need to publish books that sell. And she makes some amusing and interesting points about taste—I laughed at her observation that we sometimes call something good when we don’t understand it, “a betrayal of intelligence that has allowed a good deal of junk to masquerade as art.”

The last half of the book, which focuses on specific authors she worked with, interested me less than the first half. I’ve only read one of the authors she discussed, Jean Rhys, and I didn’t like Wide Sargasso Sea much, so I didn’t care that much about her relationships with these people, except in the way those relationships affected the work. In the chapter on V.S. Naipaul, for example, she reveals how her personal feelings influenced her assessment of a book loosely based a story of on people she knew and how those feelings led her firm to lose Naipaul for a time. Bits like that were what I enjoyed. I was less interested in the authors’ lives and personalities.

Also posted at Shelf Love.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

An Editor's Life

People who buy books, not counting useful how-to-do-it books, are of two kinds. There are those who buy because they love books and what they can get from them, and those to whom books are one form of entertainment among several. The first group, which is by far the smaller, will go on reading, if not for ever, then for as long as one can foresee. The second group has to be courted. It is the second which makes the best-seller, impelled thereto by the buzz that a particular book is really something special; and it also makes publishers’ headaches, because it has become more and more resistant to courting.’

Stet; An Editor's Life, Diana Athill’s memoir of fifty years as an editor of André Deutsch publishing is written in a deceptively simple style, as if the author were chatting to the reader over a cup of tea. Or at least, Athill has the gift of cutting through the complicated tangle to the simple heart of the issues that publishers face. Her insights seem perfectly applicable to the current market as to the heyday of publishing, the sixties to the eighties, when she was in the thick of it all. Athill began working in publishing after the war. She had met André Deutsch and had a brief affair with him that left them as friends and life-long colleagues. She was with him through two firms, the first being, of course, the one that Deutsch made the most naïve mistakes with, as a man whose hunger for publishing good books far outstripped his shrewd intelligence for business. Like most entrepreneurs, Deutsch had terrific energy but erratic aim for it, not to mention an inability to admit it when he was wrong. But the second time round he had more money and more experience; André Deutsch the company was born and became one of the major literary houses, publishing such luminaries as Jean Rhys, V. S. Naipaul, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth, Mavis Gallant, Stevie Smith, Elizabeth Jennings, Laurie Lee, Molly Keane and Gitta Sereny, until old age, battle fatigue and changing times brought about its downfall. As Athill pithily describes it: ‘Although André’s chief instrument for office management was always, from 1946 to 1984, the threatening of Doom, he was slow to recognize its actual coming.’ I have to wonder how many publishers that description applies to in the current climate?

This is a gentle, funny, humane book that draws the reader easily into the centre of the publishing world. But for me, I felt it was mostly a book about friendship, the particular sort of friendship that develops over a long working relationship that has weathered all sorts of ups and downs, and in which Diana Athill seems exceptionally experienced. The first half of the book is an account of the life of an editor from after the war to the moment when publishing became the concern of multimillion dollar corporations, the second half focuses in on her relationships with particular authors. In both sections, the question is what Diana Athill can usefully do for those around her. There are fascinating accounts in the first section of the experiences she has helping Gitta Sereny to put together her landmark account of Franz Stangl, the Commandant of a Nazi extermination camp, and of interviewing the Moors murderer, Myra Hindley in prison and deciding against commissioning her memoirs. In both cases, the issue is writing about evil. The care and support that Athill gives to Sereny – who is in dire need of it – in order to prevent her being swamped by the subject matter is a mirror image of her refusal to take on what must surely have been a highly commercial prospect in Myra Hindley. But she did not think that Hindley’s mental state would survive coming honestly face to face with what she had done. Would an editor today make the same decision? I’d hope so, but I’m not sure.

In the second part the issue of editorial friendship becomes even clearer. It’s a highly particular relationship, we find, between an editor and a writer. As Athill runs around caring for an ill, disturbed and poverty-stricked Jean Rhys (‘No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was.’), or swallows her joy at having the somewhat egotistical V. S. Naipaul off her hands, only to find him desperate to return to André Deutsch, or sitting down to a candlelit dinner in a slummy New York apartment with the clearly bonkers but brilliant Alfred Chester, it seems that being an editor means taking the support, care and loyalty towards a difficult individual beyond the normal bounds. Editors love the part of writers, greater often than the base self, that creates books, and so they find that extra bit of compassion needed to deal with the rest of them. But Athill is no saint – she’s perfectly human and disconcertingly honest. She is upset by Brian Moore’s leaving his first wife, Jackie, whom she likes, and she lacks the courage to deal with Alfred Chester’s slide into what is probably paranoid schizophrenia. But when you read about the things she does do for her writers, I felt, at least, that she deserved to want well shot of them from time to time.

By the end of the book, I had grown immensely fond of Diana Athill’s attitude towards life, her conviction that no matter what happened (and she had had her share of sadness and frustration) it was worth living, her sensible pragmatism, her down-to-earth humility, her clear-sighted sense of humour. I very badly wanted to adopt her as a grandmother. Whilst there may be no scientific evidence that reading a lot of books makes you a better person, Stet; An Editor's Life seems to provide ample anecdotal evidence that it does.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Shrewdly Selfish Spectator In The Publishing World

Stet, sometimes published as Stet:An Editor's Life, is Diana Athill's fourth volume of memoir (she's published six in total) and the one specifically dealing with her career in the London publishing world.

Born in 1917 and sucked into the published trade after a disastorous love affair in the 1940s, Athill quickly found herself in a post-war London that was shaking off paper rationing and the last vestiges of British Empire and reforming itself into a cultural melting pot. She soon after became a founding director of the publishing house André Deutsch and went on to be editor there for over 45 years. In her time she helped edit and publish authors such as V S Naipaul, Philip Roth, Mavis Gallant, Jean Rhys, Laurie Lee, Simone de Beauvoir, Molly Keane, Stevie Smith, Brian Moore, Margaret Atwood, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer and John Updike.

The publication of Stet in 2000 resulted in an unexpected burst of fame, something she appears to have found rather baffling since she was in her eighties at the time and was essentially writing partly for pleasure and partly as a retirement plan (those in her family tend to enjoy long lives).

But her book is nothing like you might expect from that brief summary.

Athill is that very rare thing, a shrewdly selfish spectator. She's quite unlike anyone I've met before, either in person or on the page. Shrewd enough to be astonishingly cool when assessing those she met during her career as an editor. Selfish enough to have no qualms about dallying with married men or reading private diaries when left lying open in her house. An inquisitive spectator with a beady eye for office drama and the specifics of the publishing world rather than a chronicler of the world at large.

This gives the book a very unusual feel. You are getting a very candid, unique perspective on life in the chaotic offices of André Deutsch Limited - but you're only seeing what Athill herself was interested in.

The highlights are very much worth dipping into the book to find. Her account of meeting Myra Hindley and talking with her for an hour about the possible publication of her book is one of almost preternatural insight. Athill, shrewd and observant as she can be when her curiosity is aroused, came to this conclusion after the prison visit:

'By the law of our land Myra Hindley had been condemned to live with what she had done, and she had contrived for herself a probably precarious way of doing so: admitting guilt, but blurring it by exaggerating her youth at the time and keeping the extent to which he had been influenced by, and eventually frightened by, Brady to the fore. What would society gain if she were made to live through those murder again as the sane adult she had in fact been, and ended by saying 'I ought to be dead' or by breaking down completely which seemed to me the likely conclusion? Nothing. So if I enabled her to write the proposed book, and Andre Deutsch Limited published it, we would simply be trading in the pornography of evil, like the gutter press we despised. No, it could not be done.'
(Chapter 10)

Or to put it far more crudely, Athill could spot the flaws in Hindley's narrative but realised just how much psychological damage it might do her to pull on that loose thread.

Another highlight is her wicked assessment of V S Naipaul's rather uppity demeanour and the genuine way in which she recounts feeling sorry for his wife - reminding herself on bad days that it could be worse, she could be married to him...

Athill is famous for saying her books were never structured or planned, she just wrote them as they came to her and Stet feels very much like it came about with a tidal-like rise and fall. So to balance the highs of hearing her talk about 're-discovering' Molly Keane and Jean Rhys, both women late in their life and in great need of the boost given by being re-published, there are lows that come about because her attention was elsewhere or she didn't assert herself.

It makes her testimony about the sale of André Deutsch in the 1980s much less interesting and there is a sense throughout that, when it counted, she just wasn't present in the boardroom and preferred gossiping over lunch to asking difficult questions about the company's direction.

Perhaps some of this feeling comes from the fact that Athill is trying to cram over fifty years of professional experience into a book of just 300 or so pages. But a lot of it is due to Athill's personality:

'I hadn't just loved being an editor, I had also positively liked not being treated as the director I was supposed to be. This was because, as I have explained, I loathed and still loathe responsibility, am intensely reluctant to exert myself in any way I don't enjoy, and am bored by thinking about money (in spite of liking to spend it).'
(Chapter 7)

This attitude appears to have led to Athill being treated by Deutsch (and others in the company) as a secretary with privileges, which she apparently was perfectly happy with. It made for hard reading as an equalitist when she frankly acknowledged that earning just a fraction of the salary paid to her male colleague, Nick, and being pushed into choosing a small office or being forced to share a normal sized one left her feeling 'less resentment than amused resignation'.

The reality is that her youthful conditioning as a genteel-but-impoverished Major's daughter left her with a need to please and pacify the men in her life. Perhaps this too is why she didn't like to think to hard about money and makes her self-deprecate every time she talks about her work as a career. When she says something like:

'I know that I have sometimes been described a 'one of the best editors in London', and I can't deny that it has given me pleasure; but I also know how little I had to do to earn this reputation beyond routine work and being agreeable to interesting people.'
(Chapter on Molly Keane)

I know that part of that is shrewd assessment and part of it must be Little Wife Syndrome kicking in. As I said, it's a peculiar combination.

Overall I can't help but recommend it as a fascinating example of biography with snippets about working with Elizabeth David on the newly launched cookery book line, the story of how they lost Roth as an author and how sad she was to lose Brian Moore as a friend. It would be dishonest though to not acknowledge that it suffers somewhat from the ebbing and flowing and I was left with a nagging suspicion that, though she cared deeply about her authors, it wasn't a love of books that got Athill out of bed in the morning.

(Cross-posted to my book review blog, Alex in Leeds)