Monday, November 15, 2010

The Summer Book it is!

Tove Jansson's The Summer Book received the most votes, so it will be the next Slaves of Golconda read. Discussion will begin on January 31st. I like the idea of reading The Summer Book in the middle of winter. I hope it will help warm me up a bit! Enjoy your reading, and see you in January.

Monday, November 08, 2010

It's time to choose a new book!

It's time once again to choose a new book. I'd love to say that the choices below fit some theme, but, alas, the only theme they fit is "books I want to read and hope you will want to read too." So, vote for the book you like best in the comments, and we will have the discussion starting on January 31st. I'll count up the votes this Sunday and post the winner on Monday. Anyone is welcome to participate, so please join in!

  1. Somerset Maugham's Cakes and Ale. "Cakes and Ale is a delicious satire of London literary society between the Wars. Social climber Alroy Kear is flattered when he is selected by Edward Driffield's wife to pen the official biography of her lionized novelist husband, and determined to write a bestseller. But then Kear discovers the great novelist's voluptuous muse (and unlikely first wife), Rosie. The lively, loving heroine once gave Driffield enough material to last a lifetime, but now her memory casts an embarrassing shadow over his career and respectable image. Wise, witty, deeply satisfying, Cakes and Ale is Maugham at his best." (Descriptions from Amazon)
  2. Tove Jansson's The Summer Book. "In The Summer Book Tove Jansson distills the essence of the summer—its sunlight and storms—into twenty-two crystalline vignettes. This brief novel tells the story of Sophia, a six-year-old girl awakening to existence, and Sophia’s grandmother, nearing the end of hers, as they spend the summer on a tiny unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. The grandmother is unsentimental and wise, if a little cranky; Sophia is impetuous and volatile, but she tends to her grandmother with the care of a new parent. Together they amble over coastline and forest in easy companionship, build boats from bark, create a miniature Venice, write a fanciful study of local bugs. They discuss things that matter to young and old alike: life, death, the nature of God and of love. “On an island,” thinks the grandmother, “everything is complete.” In The Summer Book, Jansson creates her own complete world, full of the varied joys and sorrows of life."
  3. Knut Hamsun's Victoria. "When it first appeared in 1898, this fourth novel by celebrated Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun captured instant acclaim for its poetic, psychologically intense portrayal of love’s predicament in a class-bound society. Set in a coastal village of late nineteenth- century Norway, Victoria follows two doomed lovers through their thwarted lifelong romance. Johannes, the son of a miller, finds inspiration for his writing in his passionate devotion to Victoria, an impoverished aristocrat constrained by family loyalty. Separated by class barriers and social pressure, the fated pair parts ways, only to realize—too late—the grave misfortune of their lost opportunity. Elegantly rendered in this brand-new translation by Sverre Lyngstad, Victoria’s haunting lyricism and emotional depth remain as timeless as ever."
  4. Elizabeth Bowen's The Last September. "The Last September is Elizabeth Bowen's portrait of a young woman's coming of age in a brutalized time and place, where the ordinariness of life floats like music over the impending doom of history. In 1920, at their country home in County Cork, Sir Richard Naylor and his wife, Lady Myra, and their friends maintain a skeptical attitude toward the events going on around them, but behind the facade of tennis parties and army camp dances, all know that the end is approaching—the end of British rule in the south of Ireland and the demise of a way of life that had survived for centuries. Their niece, Lois Farquar, attempts to live her own life and gain her own freedoms from the very class that her elders are vainly defending. The Last September depicts the tensions between love and the longing for freedom, between tradition and the terrifying prospect of independence, both political and spiritual."
  5. Nella Larson's Passing. "The tale is simple on the surface--a few adventures in Chicago and New York's high life, with lots of real people and race-mixing events described ... But underneath, it seethes with rage, guilt, sex, and complex deceptions. Irene fears losing her black husband to Clare, who seems increasingly predatory. Or is this all in Irene's mind? And is everyone wearing a mask? Larsen's book is a scary hall of mirrors, a murder mystery that can't resolve itself. It sticks with you."

Monday, November 01, 2010

The Small Room - More Links

I just thought I'd collect the other posts on May Sarton's The Small Room here. I know I have problems cutting and pasting my posts into Blogger, so I tend to skip it, but as there are several others who have written about the book, I thought it might be nice to have them in one handy place.

Jodie at Book Gazing

Lisa at Bibliophiliac

Litlove at Tales from the Reading Room

Pining for the West

Rohan at Novel Readings

Danielle at A Work in Progress

Have I missed anyone? Please scroll down to see more posts or click on through the links. Thanks!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Small Room

Cross-posted here.

May Sarton's The Small Room was a satisfying, thought-provoking read. I'm a sucker for academic novels, so I was delighted to find out that this book is about a young woman who travels to small-town New England to begin her first college teaching job. Lucy Winter is fresh out of grad school, although she wasn't your typical grad student: she went through her Ph.D. program merely because she wanted a reason to stay near her fiance who was in medical school. But now the engagement is over and she unexpectedly finds herself with a job. As the novel opens, she is on the train heading north to Appleton, a women's college.

What she finds is a small, close-knit community that appears to be sleepy and peaceful. She goes to a beginning of semester cocktail party to meet fellow faculty and teaches her classes for the first time, all the while trying to figure out her role in this new place. She opens her first class with a long account of her educational life, hoping to make an impression on the students, but she immediately doubts herself afterward. She wants to do a good job and is willing to take risks in the classroom, but she knows she is not entirely sure what she is doing.

Of course, she can't stay on the outside of this community for long, and, of course, it's not nearly as sleepy and peaceful as it seems. She gets pulled into its dramas and intrigues through one of her students, a star pupil of the campus star professor. When she discovers this student has plagiarized, she immediately reveals it to a colleague, an act that sets a whole train of events in motion, events that not only cause controversy, but that make the college think hard about what it is and what it stands for.

The novel is fundamentally about teaching -- what it means to be a teacher and a student and the ways the two can interact. Lucy struggles with the question of how much of herself she should share with her students. Her opening speech about her education starts things off on a personal note, but she is reluctant to respond warmly when a student shares her private troubles. She feels there should be boundaries between teachers and students, and she also knows that allowing those boundaries to drop away can be exhausting. Teaching demands a great deal of energy, and teachers need to protect themselves from giving up too much of themselves to others.

And yet strict boundaries are impossible to maintain: students are persistent in their efforts to get a personal response from Lucy, and once she stumbles into the plagiarism scandal, she is drawn even further into their lives.

The novel is also about what it means to be a woman who teaches. Early on one of the characters says, "Is there a life more riddled with self-doubt than that of a woman professor, I wonder?" The novel was published in 1961, and the question of whether it's worth while to educate women who will just get married and raise children lingers in the air. The faculty at Appleton take a strong stand on this: as one character claims, "We don't teach domestic science; we are not interested especially in producing marriageable young ladies." Lucy wonders, though, what her own commitment to the intellectual life is, and what it would mean for her to stay on at Appleton. She wants a family, but with her engagement over and her life established in a quiet town full of married couples, she is not sure that will be possible. She considered her Ph.D. program as a joke, after all; does she really want to devote her life to scholarship and teaching, at the possible expense of other relationships? As I read this, I kept thinking about Dorothy Sayers's novel Gaudy Night, which is also about women intellectuals struggling with the sacrifices the intellectual life can demand. In a culture that expects women to be wives and mothers or, if they want to take work seriously, to give up those roles, what is a smart woman supposed to do?

The novel is short and is a quick read, but it takes up a lot of great questions and offers some interesting answers. It's satisfying to watch Lucy figure out who she is as a teacher and what she wants her place in the Appleton community to be. It's also interesting to think about teaching generally -- what really helps students learn and what roles a teacher can and can't play. The novel shows well what a complicated job it is to try to inspire other people with the love of learning and at the same time to remain a satisfied, whole person oneself.

The Small Room

When I first moved to Minnesota back in 1994 there was a bit of a May Sarton revival going on here. The Minnesota Women's Press put out a free newspaper every two weeks that had a book section and blurbs about what their various book groups were reading. One of the groups was a May Sarton group reading everything she had ever written. I never joined any of the Women's Press book groups because they weren't free. Held in a big room of the Press offices in St. Paul and facilitated by a "professional" the price tag was heftier than I was willing to fork over. That didn't keep me from reading any of the books though. And I did. I read about three or four of Sarton's journals, her poetry, a biography, and a couple of novels. Then I noticed everything started feeling and sounding the same and I lost interest and haven't read anything else by her until now.

The last bit, how Sarton started having a sameness about her is probably why, as I read The Small Room I kept having this feeling that I had read this book before. It seemed like I even remembered scenes from it. But combing back through my booklists I can't find this book listed as one I had read. It is possible I read it and forgot to record but I will never know for sure. The feeling that I had read the book before didn't stop me from enjoying, however.

The story takes place in the early 1960s. Lucy Winter arrives at a small New England all-girls college called Appleton to take up her first teaching position as a new professor of English literature. Lucy got her doctorate from Harvard because she needed something to do while her boyfriend went to med school. Lucy planned on marrying said boyfriend. But they break up and now she needs to work instead of be a wife.

Appleton is not a first-tier sort of college with the implication that it is partly because of the all-girls status. The atmosphere of the school is one of scholarship, however, and the professors strive to wake the girls up from their daydreams to try and take their studies seriously. When one of the girls turns out to have great potential she has the admiration and resources of the entire school behind her. One such student, Jane Seaman, is the particular protege of Carryl Cope, professor of Medieval Studies and a big fish in a small pond. Carryl is the university superstar and she invests everything in Jane's success. Poor Jane cracks under pressure and is caught by Lucy plagiarizing an essay on The Iliad written by Simone Weil. The consequences of how the incident is handled creates a perfect storm in a teacup.

The plot provides many opportunities for ruminations by Lucy, by Carryl, and others on what it means to be a good teacher. There is also a weird and disturbing subset of the good teacher question that asks whether a woman scholar can have a well-rounded life or does she have to sacrifice everything in order to have a life of the mind. There is, of course, no doubt that men can be married with children and still be good teachers. There is a married male professor with children in the book. I don't seem to recall that any of the women professors are married though Carryl enjoys a subtle lesbian relationship with the formidable Olive Hunt, an older, wealthy woman who is planning on leaving her estate to the college.

In the melee of university politics, the book also proposes a generation gap as part of the conflict. The university wants to hire a psychiatrist to provide therapy services for students in trouble. The younger generation of teachers is all for it, the older generation thinks it is ridiculous, and the middle generation is torn between the two. The psychiatrist issue is another means of examining what it means to be a good teacher.

The Small Room is an engaging, fast read. The tone is light which keeps it from being gloomy and preachy. And of course the question of what it means to be a good teacher is one that continues today; one that every new and experienced teacher no doubt wrestles with on a frequent basis.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Winner Is . . .

May Sarton's The Small Room just squeaked by. Our next discussion will begin Sunday October 31st. Hope to see you all then!

Monday, August 09, 2010

Time to Vote: Back to the Classics

Once again it is time to choose a new book to read. With summer winding down and thoughts of returning to school not far off, I thought a good, solid classic might be the perfect reading choice for cooler weather. Please cast your vote, and the winner will be announced Sunday July 15. We'll reconvene here and at the forum on October 31 for discussion.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
"Winesburg, Ohio is Sherwood Anderson's masterpiece, a cycle of short stories concerning life in a small town at the end of the nineteenth century. At the center is George Willard, a young reporter who becomes the confidant of the town's solitary figures. Anderson's stories influenced countless American writers including Hemingway, Faulkner, Updike, Oates and Carver. "

The Small Room by May Sarton
"Anxiously embarking on her first teaching job, Lucy Winter arrives at a New England women's college and shortly finds herself in the thick of a crisis: she had discovered a dishonest act committed by a brilliant student who is a protégée of a powerful faculty member. How the central characters—students and teachers—react to the crisis and what effect the scandal has on their personal and professional lives are the central motifs of May Sarton's sensitive, probing novel."

The Awkward Age by Henry James
"The Awkward Age, written at a time when female emancipation and the double standard were subjects of fierce debate, is the most remarkable example of James's dramatic method. The novel traces the experiences of 18-year-old Nanda Brookenham, exposed to corruption in the salon of her youthful, 'modern' mother, who, in maintaining a circle where talk is shockingly sophisticated, 'must sacrifice either her daughter or...her intellectual habits'. Does Nanda reach maturity and self-knowledge in the lively company of handsome, genial Vanderbank, whom she loves, and of ugly, intelligent, parvenu Mitchy, who loves her? Or is she a symbol of sterile idealism, as she clings to old Mr Longdon, with his memories of Nanda's grandmother, and of an aristocracy once untouched by money-troubles and dubious French novels?"

The Vagabond by Colette
"Thirty-three years-old and recently divorced, Renée Néré has begun a new life on her own, supporting herself as a music-hall artist. Maxime, a rich and idle bachelor, intrudes on her independent existence and offers his love and the comforts of marriage. A provincial tour puts distance between them and enables Renée, in a moving series of leters and meditations, to resolve alone the struggle between her need to be loved and her need to have a life and work of her own."

Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos
"Considered by many to be John Dos Passos's greatest work, Manhattan Transfer is an 'expressionistic picture of New York' (New York Times) in the 1920s that reveals the lives of wealthy power brokers and struggling immigrants alike. From Fourteenth Street to the Bowery, Delmonico's to the underbelly of the city waterfront, Dos Passos chronicles the lives of characters struggling to become a part of modernity before they are destroyed by it. More than seventy-five years after its first publication, Manhattan Transfer still stands as "a novel of the very first importance" (Sinclair Lewis). It is a masterpeice of modern fiction and a lasting tribute to the dual-edged nature of the American dream."

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
"Sasha Jensen has returned to Paris, the city of both her happiest moments and her most desperate. Her past lies in wait for her in cafes, bars, and dress shops, blurring all distinctions between nightmare and reality. When she is picked up by a young man, she begins to feel that she is still capable of desires and emotions. Few encounters in fiction have been so brilliantly conceived, and few have come to a more unforgettable end."

Sunday, August 01, 2010

All Talk, Mostly

I'm a little late on posting about Ivy Compton-Burnett's Manservant and Maidservant for the Slaves of Golconda discussion. Friday was Bookman's birthday and Saturday I usually don't blog and there was school and more celebrating with Bookman. So you see, I have a good excuse. Now to the book.

The reader is suddenly dropped in on the Lamb family arguing over a smoking fire. Very quickly we learn that Horace, the head of the family is a tightwad who allows only the smallest of fires, the cheapest of food, and keeps his five children in rags. The house belongs to the Lamb family but they have no money, the money belongs to Charlotte, Horace's wife. Also living in the house is Mortimer, a penniless cousin of Horace's who grew up in the house, and Emilia, Horace's aunt, also without income. Charlotte gave control of her money to Horace when they married and Horace rather prides himself on not touching the principal and managing to live frugally off the interest as well as having some to reinvest. Everyone, however, is miserable and Charlotte has had enough. She and Mortimer are planning to run away together.

Also in the house are the servants. Bullivant is the head house servant and Mrs. Seldon is the head cook. Each has an assistant George and Miriam respectively. George was born in the workhouse and Bullivant is trying mightily in a domineering sort of way to shape the boy up and turn him into a younger version of himself. However, George will have none of it. Miriam came from the orphanage and Mrs. Seldon is trying to shape her up into a younger version of herself as well. Mrs. Seldon uses a sharp tongue and the fear of God and has somewhat better success than Bullivant but only because Miriam is generally more compliant and without ambition. And of course, as is the usual in houses with servants, the servants know everything that is going on in the family even when all the family members don't know.

The book feels at once old and modern. Published in 1947, the story has an end of the Victorian era sensibility to it. It is clear from the gulf between Bullivant and George that times are changing. George has ambitions to get ahead. He frustrates Bullivant endlessly for refusing to accept his place in the servant class. Unfortunately for George, his ambition doesn't quite match his intelligence. Or perhaps it is a lack of skill and resources that hold him back and direct his energies into troublesome paths.

At the same time that it feels old fashioned, it feels modern. Not the story itself but the way that it is written. The book is almost entirely dialog. There is hardly anything in the way of expository narrative except the barest of directions to indicate who is speaking and where the speaker is located. There are no transitions between scenes; at one moment we are in the drawing room at the Lamb's and the next we are in the kitchen or at the grocery store of Mrs. Buchanan. It is sometimes rather disorienting. However, in a way, it puts the reader in the story, as if we are a silent servant overhearing all the various conversations. As a character in the story we do not have benefit of a narrative except the one we create for ourselves, just like in life. Life is all dialog and we create the narrative for ourselves, the stories to make sense of it all.

This style makes for difficult reading, not only is it hard to follow as I mentioned, but the reader remains on the outside, we are not able to get inside any of the character's heads. Compton-Burnett makes up a bit for this by having the characters say things and have conversations that bothered me at first. No one talks like that! Unfortunately I can't seem to find a passage to illustrate what I mean without making it long and providing quite a lot of explanation.

I suppose Manservant and Maidservant can be called a drawing room drama as well as a comedy of manners. There is no real plot, yet quite a lot happens. One of the characters sums it up nicely:
I suppose a good deal happens in daily life," said Charlotte. "We only have to look at what is near to us, to find the drama of existence. It seems such a pity that that is so."

And just as we began the book in the midst of a conversation about a smoking fire, we end the book in the midst of a conversation of a smoking fire. As far as everything in between, some things get resolved and some things do not. Just as there are no neat and tidy beginnings in life there are no neat and tidy endings either. The past is always with us and continually cycles around and intrudes upon the present and the future.

Cross posted at So Many Books

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Winner Is...

I think it's safe to announce the winner a day ahead given that most votes have gone to Manservant and Maidservant by Ivy Compton-Burnet.

So, our next discussion will start on July 31. Looking forward to it!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Let's Vote - Classics for Pleasure

I haven’t read many classics this year so I hope you’ll indulge me as all selections come from Michael Dirda’s book, Classics for Pleasure. I was able to come up with some books that may not be the first choices when you think of Classics but they sound quite good. Here they are:

Manservant and Maidservant by Ivy Compton-Burnett. At once the strangest and most marvelous of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s fictions, Manservant and Maidservant has for its subject the domestic life of Horace Lamb, sadist, skinflint, and tyrant. But it is when Horace undergoes an altogether unforeseeable change of heart that the real difficulties begin. Is the repentant master a victim along with the former slave? And how can anyone endure the memory of the wrongs that have been done?

The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer. Sophy sets everything right for her desperate family in one of Georgette Heyer's most popular Regency romances. When Lady Ombersley agrees to take in her young niece, no one expects Sophy, who sweeps in and immediately takes the ton by storm.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. "Cranford" depicts the lives and preoccupations of the inhabitants of a small village - their petty snobberies and appetite for gossip, and their loyal support for each other in times of need.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. In 1851 Bishop Latour and his friend Father Valliant are dispatched to New Mexico to reawaken its slumbering Catholicism. Moving along the endless prairies, Latour spreads his faith the only way he knows—gently, although he must contend with the unforgiving landscape, derelict and sometimes openly rebellious priests, and his own loneliness.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – When the intrepid Time Traveller finds himself in the year 802,701, he encounters a seemingly utopian society of evolved human beings but then unearths the dark secret that sets mankind on course toward its inevitable destruction.

I’ll tally up the votes and announce the winner on Monday, June 14.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Lorna Sage's Bad Blood

A friend called me a few weeks back to talk about a memoir that she was reading. She liked it, but was having some issues with it at the same time. No one could recall memories from when they were five years old in such detail, she complained. And all that direct dialogue! Surely no one could remember the exact words spoken from that stage of their life. Had I believed all this when I read it?

And all I could muster was an Eh, it's all just a marketing decision now, whether a book is classified as fiction or a memoir. You just have to accept it as a story, appreciate the writing if you can, rather than getting yourself worked up over whether everything in the book actually happened. There's a lot of seepage these days.

Well, now that I've read Lorna Sage's Bad Blood, the 2001 Whitbread Prize-winning memoir, I get to eat my words. This is a clear-cut memoir, free of the fictiony trappings I've grown so accustomed to in the genre over the years.

Literary critic, author, and professor Lorna Sage, who did not allow a teenage pregnancy and early marriage to keep her from obtaining an education and embarking on a career as the norms of the times would have had it, traces her own "bad blood" to that of her maternal grandfather. A Welsh vicar with well-documented vices (he kept a diary of his affairs with which his wife periodically blackmailed him), he taught Lorna to read at the age of four and took her on his round of bars: "I was the perfect alibi, since neither my mother nor my grandmother had any idea that there were pubs so low and lawless that they would turn a blind eye to children." She saw herself as being on her grandfather's side so she never told on him.

Because the grandmother! Many women of her generation found themselves married to philandering men taken to drink. "What made their marriage more than a run-of-the-mill case of domestic estrangement was her refusal to accept her lot," Sage writes. "She stayed furious all the days of her life -- so sure of her ground, so successfully spoiled, that she was impervious to the social pressures and propaganda that made most women settle down to play the part of wife. Sex, genteel poverty, the responsibilities of motherhood, let alone the duties of the vicar's helpmeet, she refused any part of. They were in her view stinking offences, devilish male plots to degrade her. When he took to booze and other women (which he might well have done anyway, although she provided him with a kind of excuse by making the vicarage hearth so hostile) her loathing for him was perfected. He was the one who had conned her into leaving her real home, her girlhood, the shop where you never had to pay for anything, the endless tea party. It was as though he'd invented sex and pain and want and exposure. She turned patriarchal attitudes inside out: he was God to her. That is, he was making it up as he went along, to spite her and with no higher Authority to back him up."

Needless to say, being raised by such a brawling pair worked a number on Sage's mother. Used as a household drudge during the War years when she and the young Lorna lived with them in the filthy vicarage, she never managed to throw off her early influences: she couldn't cook, keep her modern council-house clean, "she had a kind of genius for travesty when it came to domestic science." Her husband willingly takes on the role of realist protector to her inept dreamer when he returns at the war's end and Sage observes: "in truth they were more than one flesh, they had formed and sustained each other, they had one story between them and it wasn't at all easy for me or my brother to inhabit it. I regularly cast myself in the part of the clever, unwanted child who's sent out to lose herself in the forest, but manages nonetheless to find her own way, being secretive, untruthful, disobedient, and so on and on, as they never ceased to complain. The children of violently unhappy marriages, like my mother, are often hamstrung for life, but the children of happier marriages have problems too -- all the worse, perhaps, because they don't have virtue on their side."

But the memoirs of those raised in happier marriages are often hamstrung as well. The most interesting characters in Bad Blood are certainly the grandparents, whose stories are told at the beginning. As the dysfunction dissipates in Sage's family, despite Sage's claims of virtuelessness, the lives of the characters become less compelling to read about. The story becomes more one of growing up at that particular time, in that particular environment. Sage and her husband may have broken the rules and gotten away with it, and their daughter may well have been the future, but the bad blood they're predisposed to seems to have been less influential than that of the changing environment. That's a loss for non-fictionalized memoir writing, but heartening news for reality.

Bad Blood

Most stories do something satisfying with the mess of tedium and violence that is living; they give it focus and form, tone it up, calm it down, shape it tidily, fluff it or primp it or tame its wilder edges, until you have something sleek and purring in your hands, rather than the slightly unkempt beast that life usually resembles, with a tendency to charge at you out of dark places. So what is at stake, then, in the case of a memoir? A story about life itself, as it has been lived, for one individual? When a memoir writer sets out to transform life into a story, what is the guiding principle or higher intention? What kind of order is being carved out of the chaos?

In Lorna Sage’s exemplary memoir, Bad Blood, the main thrust of the narrative seems to be to show how we are composite characters, made up of pieces of the people who raise us. But the memoir also suggests that what we do with those pieces may well be quirky or downright subversive. For half of the narrative, Sage herself stands aside, in literature as in her life, to let center stage be dominated by her colorful cast of family members. It’s only towards the latter stages of the book that she makes the reader gasp herself, by nearly succumbing to her family’s demons and then magically rising above them.

What I loved most about this book were the character portraits, as Sage has a genius for taking ostensibly repulsive people and making them human in a blackly amusing way. Her grandfather offers the first, prime example in the book. A womanizer, a drinker and a dreamer, not to mention the vicar of the middle-of-nowhere parish of Hanmer, a small town lost between England and Wales, and more importantly lost still in the 19th century, he manages to behave like a criminal while feeling like a victim. He was a showman in the pulpit and a libidinous cad with other women, but at home he was ostracized with a mixture of fear and contempt. He had a ‘violently unhappy’ marriage to Sage’s grandmother, a woman who had grown up living above a grocer’s store and could never get used to the fact that she no longer had access to unearned plenty. She was a rabid man-hater, a principle she had derived from her particular experience of marriage. Much as her husband’s adulterous pursuits gave her good reason for injury, she was far from blameless, having loathed him and shown it since their earliest days together. She gave as good as she got; having found his private diaries in which he documented his extramarital relationships, she blackmailed him for a chunk of his salary to keep her in sponge cake and trips to the cinema. Sage’s mother grew up sidelined and overlooked by the violence of emotions in the household. Worse still, one of her school friends became the mistress who would cause the greatest domestic disharmony. When Lorna was a small child, her family lived at the vicarage while her father was away at war. When he returned, so imprinted by his experiences of battle that he continued to be a martinet and a belligerent disciplinarian despite the peace, her mother was finally obliged to run a household of her own, and the madness of vicarage life rushed to the surface in a series of phobias. Food, in particular, was a nightmare, as she had a terror of anything natural: joints incinerated in the oven, vegetables were set on the stove first thing in the morning and cooked to a paste. She longed to be able to feed her family with pills. But the 1950s were in some respects a perfect age for her. Processed food was starting to make its way onto the average dining table, and fish fingers represented her ideal triumph over bones, scales, and other distasteful relics of real life.

I think it was Tolstoy who said that happy families all resemble one another. But it struck me, reading Bad Blood, that unhappy families are not so very dissimilar. There are, after all, only a few elements of ordinary disorder that find themselves arranged in different permutations. There are families in which bad emotions and bad actions rule, dominating daily life; there are families in which the older generation refuse to take responsibility for themselves; and there are families who resist change, who insist to their children that nothing can improve or fade away with the mere passage of time. It was just Sage’s bad luck to be in a family that demonstrated all of these characteristics. But what Sage makes of it is never mournful or depressing. Her voice is firm, concise, appraising, elegant but down to earth. She may have lived her childhood forced to put up with other people’s madness, but her own way of keeping even is to have seen her family members without illusion, to hold herself apart in order to get some honest perspective. The lifeline that allowed her to do this was provided by books. A voracious reader and an insomniac, Sage was given license to indulge both by the local doctor, thwarting her family who felt vicarious pride in her intelligence, but also feared it as bad blood in a new incarnation. In fact, it would be her ticket out of small town hopelessness as she was to become a distinguished professor of English literature, but not before nearly ruining it all for herself in a moment of careless ignorance.

I loved this book purely for the strength of the writing, which is vivid and fierce. It is also a beautiful study in the power of repetitions and obstacles in family life. And it is a hymn to books and their ability to provide mental and emotional space in situations that are dominated by claustrophobia. Warmly recommended for anyone who enjoys memoir.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Lorna Sage's Bad Blood

1933 was the year the grandparents arrived in Hanmer from South Wales. This was how the Hanmer I grew up in had been created - how life in the vicarage got its Gothic savour, how we became so isolated from respectability, how the money started to not make sense and (above all) how my grandfather took on the character of theatrical martyrdom that set him apart. 1933, he did not fail to note, was the nineteenth-hundredth anniversary of Christ's Passion: 'This is the Crucifixion Year AD 0-33. A Holy Year.'

Lorna Sage (1943-2001) was a Welsh-born British author, scholar, and literary critic best known for her advocacy for the study of women's writing. Her 2000 autobiography Bad Blood won the 2001 Whitbread Book Biography of the Year seven days before Sage died of emphysema.

I didn't finish it.

Always a tough admission for a bibliophile to make - that you failed to complete a well-regarded work of literature. Especially when you can nevertheless understand why it's had such recognition. Lorna Sage's insight is piercing and merciless. She digs deeply through layers of dysfunction with an analytical studiousness usually reserved for the anthropologist or historian. Her grandfather's diary, the story of his rise and fall as vicar and various adulteries, is thrown open to the world, his behavior and its ramifications carefully dissected by granddaughter's pen. She's so brutally honest you can't help but wonder how her family reacted to the very public revelations of Bad Blood.

I actually enjoyed Part 1, which covers Sage's early childhood in Hanmer when she and her mother lived with her maternal grandparents. (Quite frankly, I had no idea there were rednecks in Wales.) As Sage herself recalls, her time in Hanmer had a distinctly Gothic feel. The genteel poverty of the ancient vicarage, set amid the dirt paths and tumble-down farms of an isolated village, is somehow timeless. "Perhaps I really did grow up, as I sometimes suspect, in a time warp, an enclave of the nineteenth century?" Sage muses. "Because here are the memories jostling their way in, scenes from an overpopulated rural slum." Roughly half the section is taken up by the aforementioned diary, which Sage presents as the chronicle of the "original sin" that helped destroy her grandparents' marriage and forever clouded her mother's relationship to her father. <melodrama> Under the roof of the decaying vicarage, skeletons lurked in the dark recesses of the musty closets and worked their dire influence on several generations of impoverished aristocrats. </melodrama>

I love Gothic literature.

Following both her grandfather's death, Lorna, her parents, little brother, and grandmother left the vicarage for a brand-new "council house." It was then that the story lost what had made it so interesting (for me, anyway). We have departed the quaint Welsh village and landed in Levittown. "My parents, though, were moving into a new council house up the lane from Hanmer, a house designed for the model family of the 1950s ads: man at work, wife home-making, children (two, one of each) sporty and clean and extrovert." It was certainly inevitable: the Sages have progressed from the enduring folkways of Hanmer to the American-style twentieth century. And certainly, many readers Lorna's age have identified strongly with this aspect of her memoir. Says one Amazon UK reviewer:

Wickedly funny in parts, this book also speaks for a generation of women born in the Forties, who unknowingly were part of a huge social experiment. Unlike many of our mothers who left school at 14, or were educated at home by private tutors, we all went on to university, armed with our S-level distinctions and County Major scholarships, under the aegis of a visionary Labour Government. Many of us took the academic route (like Sage): Firsts, PHds, university lectureships. Others had equally creative lives. My friend, Gail Bracken, and I were the only pupils in our village school to pass the 11+ and go on to the A-stream of the local grammar school. Like Sage, we studied Latin, played hockey and read voraciously. The opportunities ahead of us seemed limitless. Sage's intelligence, resilience, beauty and courage shine out from every page of this haunting, atmospheric, almost hallucinatory piece of writing. Brilliant and brave.
The impression I get reading reviews online is that many people saw their own childhoods reflected in Lorna Sage's. For me, however, it just got boring. These are ordinary people living in an ordinary suburb. I couldn't bring myself to care all that much.

And so I abandoned Bad Blood on page 128, at the opening of the chapter entitled "Sticks." Again, I do feel guilty about it but I had other reading commitments and decided to cut my losses. Oh well. Better luck next time.

This Book and I Could Be Friends

Previous Reviews:

October 2009: Woman in Black

Bad Blood

For our discussion this time around the Slaves took a step away from the usual selection of a novel and chose to read a memoir, Bad Blood by Lorna Sage. While I enjoy reading a well written memoir, and this one definitely is that, I never quite know what to say about them. A person's personal story is not quite the same as a novel so I fall into thinking things like, "wow, what a weird family guess mine isn't as weird as I thought."

I could recount for you Sage's life - growing up in a small Welsh border town in a vicarage run by her philandering grandfather during WWII, a grandmother who lived in a fantasy world where she believed she was of a higher class and deserved to be catered to so never lifted a finger to clean a thing leaving all that to her daughter whose husband was away at the war. Other than being attached to her grandfather and getting some education and a love of books from him, Sage was pretty much left to run wild. The educational system was set up to train girls who were going to get married and have children and boys who were going to be manual laborers. But Sage persevered even after she became a teenage mother. She married the child's father and together they went off to college and were saved by education. After recounting her life, what do I say about it?

I can note that Sage's family life while growing up was all about keeping up appearances. Her grandmother was always concerned about what kids she played with even though Sage was as poor and dirty as the lower class poor and dirty kids she was warned away from. Grandfather, at first excited about his living at the vicarage soon became disillusioned by the small town especially after his affair with the nurse was discovered and Grandmother, his wife, made his life a living hell. But the two remained married and he performed his duties as vicar until he died.

Once the was is over and Sage's father returned, they moved into a tiny council flat and gave the appearance of being a traditional family especially with the addition of a brother for Sage. Sage's mother would buy smart suits on layaway from the consignment shop to wear for a life she didn't have and make family dinners of pre-packaged processed meals. Sage's father worked all the time running his own business and never really seemed part of her life even though they would make public appearances as a family. Her younger brother is not mentioned much at all.

At the conclusion of Sage's memoir are we supposed to take away some lesson? Maybe how education is redemptive? Or a general feeling for the times? Perhaps there is no lesson to be learned at all. Perhaps it is only about understanding someone else's truth in order to better see our own?

If you would like to see what the other Slaves thought of the book, visit the blog. And, if you want to follow along and even contribute to additional discussion, join us in the forum.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Winner Is....

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage - by a whisker from the Edith Wharton.

I'm thinking we will reconvene here on the 31st May for posting and discussion, yes? Let me know if I've miscalculated, and happy reading in the meantime!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Time To Choose Again!

Family Life (Difficult Children)

I adore putting book lists together, and it’s always a treat to pick for the Slaves. I thought we might go for a theme this time, so here are some difficult relationships between children and their carers (synopses from the back covers):

A High Wind in Jamaica – Richard Hughes

Published to great acclaim in 1929, this classic and bestselling tale did away with sentimental Victorian visions of childhood and paved the way for later works such as Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Set against a tropical landscape and the ever-present sea, A High Wind in Jamaica tells the story of a family of English children who, on being sent back to England from Jamaica by their parents, fall into the hands of pirates. As this voyage of innocence continues, the events which unfold begin to take on a savagely detached and almost haunting quality.

Bad Blood – Lorna Sage

Winner of Whitbread Prize for biography. ‘In one of the most extraordinary memoirs of recent years, Lorna Sage brings alive her girlhood in post-war provincial Britain. From memories of her family and the wounds they inflict upon one another, she tells a tale of thwarted love, failed religion and the salvation she found in books.’ ‘Lorna Sage may be the proof we need that literature really can make something happen…Bad Blood tells a story about books as passports out of a childhood hell.’ Marina Warner, Independent.

The Children – Edith Wharton

On a cruise ship between Algiers and Venice, Martin Boyne, a bachelor in his forties, befriends a band of unruly, precocious children, kept together as a ‘family’ by the efforts of the eldest, Judith. The seven Wheater siblings, grown weary of being shuttled between mother and father, are eager for their parents’ latest reconciliation to last. Outraged at the plight of the ‘homeless’ and fought-over children, Boyne finds himself increasingly drawn to their enchanting, improper and liberating ways. Among the colourful cast of characters are the Wheater adults, who play out their own comedy of marital errors; the flamboyant Marchioness of Wrench; and the vivacious fifteen-year-old Judith Wheater who captures Martin’s heart. With deft humour, Wharton portrays a world of intrigues and infidelities, skewering the manners and mores of Americans abroad.

Fierce Attachments – Vivien Gornick

In this gripping memoir, Vivan Gornick tells the story of her lifelong battle with her mother for independence. Born and raised in the Bronx, the daughter of Jewish immigrants, she grows up in a household dominated by her mercurial mother. Next door lives Nellie, a beautiful red-haired Gentile, whose disturbing, sensual presence provides a powerful antidote to the sexual repression which underpins her mother’s romantic myth-making. These women with their opposing models of ‘femininity’ continue, well into adulthood, to shape Vivian Gornick’s struggle to define herself fin love and in work. Now in her middle years, she walks with her aged mother through the streets of New York, talking, arguing and remembering the past. Each is a wonderful raconteur, and as they tell and retell stories, they bring to life the dramas, characters and atmosphere of the tenement block. But what emerges from these evocations is yet another story – Vivian Gornick’s unflinchingly honest account of an attachment that remains as fiercely loving and difficult today as it has been throughout her life.

The Ten-Year Nap – Meg Wolitzer

For a group of four New York friends, the past ten years have been defined by marriage and motherhood. Educated to believe that they and their generation would conquer the world, they nonetheless left high-powered jobs to stay at home with their babies. What was intended as a temporary time-out has turned into a decade. Now at forty, with their kids growing up, Amy, Jill, Roberta and Karen wake up to a future that is not what they intended. Illicit affairs, money problems, issues with children and husbands all rear their heads, as the friends wonder if it’s time for a change. ‘Very entertaining. The tartly funny Wolitzer is a miniaturist who can nail a contemporary type, scene or artefact with deadeye accuracy.’ Scotland on Sunday.

I’ll call in the votes on Saturday 10th April!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

W.G. Sebald's Vertigo

Crossposted at Of Books and Bicycles

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this book. Vertigo is my second book by W.G. Sebald; I wrote about The Rings of Saturn here, and I liked that book quite a lot, even though it left me feeling a little bewildered. Now that I have read Vertigo, which is written in a style similar to The Rings of Saturn, I'm less sure what I think of Sebald. Both books are very smart and very thought-provoking, but in both books there's an emotional distance that leaves me a little cold. This seems less true in The Rings of Saturn, but in Vertigo I found it hard to remember what was going on and to keep track of my place in the various stories; this has a lot to do with the fact that Sebald moves quickly and seamlessly from narrative to narrative in a way that is disorienting at times, but I think it also has to do with the emotional distance of the narrator(s). There wasn't enough drawing me into the stories and making me care about what was going on.

Now, I love idea-driven books, whether fiction or nonfiction, so I feel like Sebald should be a favorite writer of mine. But Vertigo makes me realize that an idea-driven book needs to be emotionally compelling as well, because it's when my emotions are involved that I'm most inspired to take time to consider the ideas the writer is working with.

But to back up a bit, Vertigo has four sections, each one telling a different story, or, more accurately, a different series of interconnected stories. Each section is different, but they all deal with memory, sadness, and feelings of disorientation and uncertainty -- the kind of vertigo created by feeling all the sudden alienated from oneself and the surrounding world. The first section describes Stendhal's life, touching on his experiences in war and in love (Sebald never uses the name "Stendhal," though, calling him by his real name, Marie Henri Beyle, and it wasn't until I had finished the section and finally got around to reading the book's back cover that I realized who I had just read about). As a young boy, Beyle marched with Napolean and his army, and as an older man, he tried to remember details of that march. Sebald describes the difficulties Beyle encountered reconciling his memory with the landscape he sees as an older man, thus setting up his theme of the unreliability of memory.

From there the book moves to the story of an unnamed narrator (most likely Sebald himself) who travels around Italy, exploring history (we learn about Casanova, among others) and trying to manage his feelings of uneasiness and uncertainty. Then in the third section we follow Franz Kafka for a while (also suffering emotionally), and finally we return to Sebald as narrator as he describes a journey back to his hometown in Germany. Again, as in the Stendhal section, the narrator describes what it's like to return to formative places as an older person and to confront the difference between reality and memory.

Many of these sections describe powerful emotional experiences -- panic, disorientation, sadness, despair -- and yet it is all described in a flat, emotionless tone. Perhaps what this does is call upon the reader to do more imaginative work to fill in the blanks and to realize for him or herself just what it is the narrator is going through. Certainly the book asks for the reader's participation in figuring out how the four sections connect and what the various vignettes within each section contribute to the overall meaning. And yet I didn't feel inspired to do the work the book seemed to be asking me to do. Perhaps this is my fault, perhaps not, I'm not sure.

At any rate, Sebald is certainly doing interesting things in his writing. I haven't yet touched on the pictures that he includes -- black and white photos that relate to the surrounding text but are without captions, so the reader gets to think about the relationship of narrative and picture. Again, Sebald gives us material and then asks us to do the work of fitting it all together. The project is an interesting and admirable one, and I only wish I had fallen in love with the results.


Vertigo by W.G. Sebald is a curious book made up of four parts that fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces. The book is filled with literary, musical, and art references, so many in fact that I didn't have time to look them all up.

Part one on Vertigo sets up everything else for the rest of the book. It is a biography of sorts of Marie Henri Beyle, also known as Stendhal. But I did have time to look up Stendhal's biography and Sebald takes some liberties with it but in the scheme of things it doesn't matter. What does matter is that from the start of the Beyle section we are plunged into thinking about the vagaries of memory, how they cannot be trusted, how "in reality, as we know, everything is always quite different," how memories can be displaced by things like photographs.

Memory is dodgy throughout as when the narrator that is Sebald but not Sebald eventually returns to the town in which he grew up only to find what he thought he remembered and knew about it and the people is not necessarily true. He also sees people who aren't really there during the course of his travels like Dante and King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

We also have, beginning in the Beyle section, the introduction of Stendhal's theory that love is a "protracted crystallization process." Sebald carries the argument about love throughout the book as we get the story of Cassanova's incarceration and escape from prison and later Kafka's idea of love which is almost counter to Stendhal's:

Dr. K evolves a fragmentary theory of disembodied love, in which there is no difference between intimacy and disengagement. If only we were to open our eyes, he says, we would see that our happiness lies in our natural surroundings and not in our poor bodies which have long since become separated from the natural order of things.

But these ideas about love, far from pertaining only to love, are expanded by Sebald to encompass meditations on memory and identity. Our wandering Sebald narrator who is trying to get over an unexplained difficult period in his life, seems to be trying to crystalize his memories. With crystalized memories things can become fixed including himself and the people he knows or knew, the past and the present as well become stable. But crystallization is impossible when it comes to memory because of memory's instability. Our narrator, and by extension the reader, is in a constant state of vertigo.

Kafka's exhortation to open our eyes also means eyes are everywhere in the book. There are several pictures of people but only of their eyes. The narrator visits an optometrist. He is also an art aficionado who, when studying Pisanello, the paintings "instilled in me the desire to forfeit everything except my sense of vision." But our narrator's eyes looking out a train window see only a gray landscape where there is disengagement but no intimacy and the natural surroundings certainly don't make him happy.

Vertigo is a heady book and even though it is written in very simple and unadorned language, it must be read slowly and carefully. So many pieces are interconnected and recur in unexpected places I am sure I missed quite a lot of them. The whole book is like a giant jigsaw puzzle for which you don't have a picture of what it looks like when it is done. The reader is left to sort through the pieces looking for patterns to ultimately find there is no way to fit all the pieces together, no way to come to any conclusion and bring an end to the vertigo. In spite of this I found the book satisfying. I read a library copy but I think I'd like my own copy someday so I can reread it and mark it up making annotations and cross references and taking my time to look up everything. It won't stop the vertigo, but it might produce an even more lovely whirling kaleidoscope.

This book was a Slaves of Golconda group read. I know quite a few Slaves couldn't make it through for various reasons. If you have read the book or just want to see what we're saying about the book, visit the Slaves blog and our discussion forum.

Oh, and I found a couple of good reviews of the book. One from Salon and one from The New York Times (requires free registration to view).

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Friday, February 12, 2010

The "Winner"

Geez, you all didn’t make this easy! There is a three-way tie with three votes each for Naipaul, Sebald and Calvino. I thought about doing a random pick from the three but since Jodie, even though she voted for A Bend in the River, mentioned that she was also really tempted by the Sebald, I went with that as the tie-breaker, sort of like instant run-off voting.

So it’s Sebald’s Vertigo for Wednesday, March 31st.

Happy reading!

Friday, February 05, 2010

Let's Get Outta Town!

I have the pleasure of offering up choices for the next Slaves of Golconda discussion. Maybe it is a symptom of cabin fever due to the winter doldrums that have descended, but all the books up for vote have some sort of journey at their center. It was hard to come up with a list of books that probably most haven’t read yet. One thing I can say though, there is a good diversity of style to choose from. I gleaned these titles from searching The Globe Corner Bookstore website a fantastic site if there ever was one and a bookstore I would love to visit should I ever find myself wandering around Harvard Square. Unfortunately their book descriptions aren’t always the best, so those I got from Amazon (click the title links for more complete book descriptions). Here’s the list:

  • Vertigo by W.G. Sebald. “This exquisitely composed work also undertakes a disorienting, if less somber, journey through historical and personal memory. The first-person narrator travels through Europe during the 1980s, spurred on by history's ghosts and his own melancholic yearning for adventure. Having left his base in England to explore Vienna, Venice and Verona, he concludes with a bittersweet pilgrimage to his hometown in southwestern Germany”

  • The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner. “Joe Allston is a retired literary agent whose parents and only son are dead, and who feels that he has been a mere spectator through life. Then a postcard from a friend causes him to return to the journals of a trip he took to his mother's birthplace to search for his roots; memories of that journey reveal that he is not quite spectator enough.”

  • The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic. “This novel poses some interesting philosophical questions--who are you, what are you, and what are your memories when your country has disintegrated and even your language has been politicized out of existence? That's what has happened to the narrator and protagonist, Tanja Lucic, ethnically a Croatian, formerly a Yugoslav. Exiled by the Yugoslav ethnic wars of the 1990s and then abandoned by her husband in Berlin, Tanja lands a one-year post at the University of Amsterdam. Her students, with one exception, are fellow exiles enrolled to maintain their refugee status.”

  • A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul. “Reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, A Bend in the River chronicles both an internal journey and a physical trek into the heart of Africa as it explores the themes of personal exile and political and individual corruption.”

  • Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. " ‘Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.’ So begins Italo Calvino's compilation of fragmentary urban images.”

Cast your votes. I’ll count them up on Friday the 12th. Discussion will start March 31st.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Stevie Smith's Novel on Yellow Paper

Cross-posted at Of Books and Bicycles.

Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper was an enjoyable book in moments and a puzzling book in others; it’s one of those books I can’t quite figure out how to respond to, and I’m not sure another reading would help. There’s a lot I liked in the book, but what puzzles me about it is that given the books that appeal to me most, I should love this one, and it turns out I don’t, quite.

I admire its form and structure most; it’s the kind of novel where not much happens and instead we have someone sharing her thoughts with us the entire way through. The main character is called Pompey, and she writes in a way that seems spontaneous, telling us whatever is on her mind at the moment. We hear about her job — she works as a secretary for a certain Sir Phoebus – her love affairs, her friends, her family — especially her aunt, the “Lion of Hull” — and her thoughts about society, literature, and politics.

Basically, there is no form or structure (as far as I can tell), and instead it’s a loose-flowing stream-of-consciousness monologue. Novel on Yellow Paper reminds me most of Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist, where there is a structure and plot, but these are so basic they hardly count and the real point of the book is the voice. The pleasure of the book comes from listening to the main character share his thoughts. That’s what we’re offered in Smith’s book — a chance to get inside the main character’s head a little bit.

However, now that I think about it a little more, I’m not sure how much we do get inside Pompey’s head. It’s feels a little more like she uses words to charm and entertain us and to tell us about herself, but in such a way that she hides as much as she reveals. Words are as much a shield for her true self, or a cloud in which to hide, as a way to reveal herself.

She certainly is amusing and charming, and she has funny quirks that make her voice very distinctive. This passage illustrates her use of repetition and rhythm and also shows how frank and open she can be (or appear to be):

Oh how I enjoy sex and oh how I enjoy it. There have been many funny things about sex in my life that have made me laugh and so now I will tell you.

There was once a woman called Miss Hogmanimy. That was certainly a queer name. That was a name you would certainly want to get married out of. But this woman was very queer and wrought up over babies and the way babies are born, and she gave up her whole life going round giving free lectures on how babies are born. And it certainly was queer how ecstatic she got about this way how babies are born, and always she was giving lectures to young girls of school or school-leaving age. And all the time it was mixed up in a way I don’t just remember with not drinking, not drinking alcohol, but just carrying on ginger beer, kola and popgass. And so well this Miss Hogmanimy she got up in our school, now I think it was our school, chapel and so there she was in this school chapel, giving a lecture with illustrating slides to young girls on how babies are born …

…to listen to Miss Hogmanimy you’d think just knowing straight out how babies was born was to solve all the problems of adolescence right off. You’d come out straight and simple and full of hearty fellowship and right thinking if you just got it clear once and for all how babies are born. There’d be no more coming out in spots and getting self-conscious about the senior prefect, nor getting a crush on the English mistress, nor feeling proud and miserable like you do at that time, before you get grown up. There’d be none of this at all if you just knew how babies are born. So there she was.

Pompey is great at this kind of amusing light satire. There is a wonderful section on women’s fiction where she describes the typical “Fiction for the Married Woman,” which is all about learning to be happy with housewifely duties. The section is funny, but there is anger underneath the light surface. She decides that describing fiction for the unmarried woman is just too painful:

I cannot tell you about the stories for unmarried girls, the ones that are so cleverly and coyly oh. And they are so bright and smiling and full of pretty ideas that are all the time leading up to washing-up. You will know how they go but I cannot tell you. I am already feeling: No, I should not have said all this. It is the ugliest thing that could ever have been conceived, because it is also so trivial, so full of the negation of human intelligence, that should be so quick and so swift and so glancing, and so proud. And you Reader, whom I have held by the wrist and forced to listen, I am full of regret for you, because I have forced you to listen to this.

As I type out these passages, I’m thinking about how much I like them and how much I liked quite a few sections of the book. The phrase “so full of the negation of human intelligence” is just great, as is the apology to the reader (I wrote about another great section here).

The problem is that in between these sections I felt impatient and occasionally irritated. I couldn’t follow the way her mind worked very well, and the picture of who Pompey is and what her life is like remained hazy. I wanted a more coherent picture to come together, even if that took a while. I love voice-driven novels where plot is not the focus, but I think I need just a bit more coherence, direction, and forward-movement than I got here.

I also just don’t know anybody who talks like Pompey does or who thinks like she does, and I found her a little hard to believe. I suspect, to be really simple and non-literary-critical about things, that Pompey and I probably wouldn’t be friends. With this kind of novel, I want to be able to imagine having a conversation with the main character, and I’m having trouble imagining it here.

So, to sum up, it’s an original, puzzling, strange, frustratingly quirky book I would have loved to love.

You can read other posts on the novel here and join in the discussion at the forums here.

Smug-pug, c'est moi

Have you ever encountered a voice in fiction that's so like that of someone you know in real life that you're totally freaked out? To the point that you can't stop supplying a projected subtext to the work at hand that you know isn't warranted or at all fair? To the point that the entire novel is tainted by an unwavering sense of foreknowledge as to what you'll have confirmed about the author once you seek out the biographical material, no matter how often you tell yourself not to confuse the writer with her creation?

Such was my experience with Novel on Yellow Paper.

I'd gone into it expecting much enjoyment--I've had a fondness since high school for "Not Waving But Drowning," the one Stevie Smith poem I'd read but had never forgotten. But Pompey Casmilus is such an aural doppelganger to this, ah, real-life counterpart of mine, who continually puts me in the smug-pug foot-on-the-ground role as I'm called upon to save her yet again from drowning, that I found no charm in Pompey's voice--I've become immune over the years to such techniques and no longer appreciate freewheeling tangents meant to detract and delay us both from dealing with the problem at hand. (And that's a pity: I'm Southern and ordinarily love a good tangent.)

My apologies to my fellow Slaves. Maybe I can read this one again some day with a more disinterested ear.

Charming and Frustrating

Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith was first published in 1936. Supposedly the novel was written as a result of Smith being told by a publisher when she submitted a book of poetry that she should go and write a novel instead.

Pompey Casmilus works as the secretary of Sir Phoebus at a magazine publishing company. She is frequently bored and so decides to write a novel. She writes it on yellow paper so as not to get it confused with the correspondence she types up and sends out for Sir Phoebus. We are warned by Pompey from the get go that this is not going to be regular novel for she is a "foot-off-the-ground" person and her novel will follow suit. So we can't say she didn't warn us.

The novel has no true plot. Things happen to be sure. Pompey visits a boy she likes, Karl, in Germany and is appalled by what she sees there. She decides later that she can't marry her boyfriend Freddy only to agree to marry him when he proposes and then ends up depressed when Freddy decides he can't marry her and breaks off the engagement. There are stories about girlfriends and a horse named Kismet that she rode once. There are loads and loads of literary references and Pompey has a particular passion for Racine's play Phedre. I thought at first there might be some connection between the novel and Phedre but as far as I can tell there isn't.

The novel is also liberally sprinkled with untranslated French and German and I kept thinking I should look up at least some of it but never did. I'm not sure in the end that it would really have made that much of a difference.

Pompey is both a charming and frustrating character. Sometimes she makes me laugh, like when she is telling about her friend, Harriet, and Harriet's boyfriend:
And Harriet is a darling and listens to him and comforts him for the sins of the whole world, which he must have upon his shoulders. But which were never meant for his shoulders at all. And he is suffering from this development-arrested-at-the-university. But Harriet is very adult, and is suffering from no arrestment in development.
And other times she just goes on and on and I got tired of her incessant voice however charming it is.

The book is very much like a conversation but it is a one-sided conversation where the reader, even though often addressed, is not allowed to get a word in edgewise. We are meant to sit and listen and keep our mouths shut as Pompey rattles on about whatever seems to come to her mind. She is one of those people who always has something to say about everything and keeps going on no matter what because silence would be unbearable.

I wonder if keeping the silence at bay might be the point? In spite of the incessant cheerfulness of Pompey's voice she speaks of being sad, of tragic occurrences, and very often of death. Maybe for Pompey silence equals death so she talks and talks and talks to fill the void because she is terrified of the void. I'm not sure, just a thought.

Novel on Yellow Paper is definitely a book like no other I have ever read. I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. Even an old New York Times book review didn't help. The book is not exactly a comfortable experience so I can't say I liked it. But I did like it in many respects and those outweigh the overall frustration and confusion.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Literary Tourette's

‘For this book is the talking voice that runs on, and the thoughts come, the way I said, and the people come too, and come and go, to illustrate the thoughts, to point the moral, to adorn the tale.
Oh talking voice, that is so sweet, how hold you alive in captivity, how point you with commas, semi-colons, dashes, pauses and paragraphs?’

Some books are all about the voice, and never more so than Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper. In it, Pompey Casmilus, a cumbersome name hard to reconcile with its sly, mercurial, skipping persona, recounts her life as it occurs to her – we hear about her work as a private secretary, about her days lived tranquilly with her aunt, the noble Lion, her failed love affair with Freddy, who wants the kind of marriage and orthodox existence that fleet-footed, butterfly minded Pompey cannot countenance, and about a moving constellation of friends and acquaintances, even odd German strangers who try to pick her up on trains (‘So then he leant across, very magnetic in the eyes and said: I know everything you are thinking. Phew-oops dearie, this was a facer, and a grand new opening gambit I’d never heard before. I could only think to say: Well, well, well.’) And no matter what the subject, whether death, religion, Nazi Germany, lost love or Russian drama, Pompey’s voice plays and toys with it, casting it around in her curious combination of slang and quotation and foreign idioms, all thrown in for light-hearted if serious-minded fun. If you like the voice, this is a book you’ll love, but if you don’t like it, then as Pompey herself predicts ‘Foot-on-the-ground person will have his grave grave doubts, and if he is also a smug-pug he will not keep his doubts to himself, he will say: It is not, and it cannot come to good.’

Stevie Smith is best known for her poetry, and perhaps best of all for the poem that begins:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

I must say that whole tracts of my life would have to pass by unarticulated if I hadn’t had the phrase ‘not waving but drowning’ to hand. This is Stevie Smith’s particular talent, the throwaway remark that lands a hefty punch, a casual joke that reveals something peculiarly profound. Her poems, like her prose, are often superficially artless, catchy as a music hall lyric, bound up with a strange chameleon grace that bends them in and out of different speaking voices. Her life was notably identical to Pompey Casmilus’s – she lived a maiden’s existence with her aunt, having lost her parents early, she was private secretary to two magazine publishers for twenty years, and she had many friends whom she loved dearly and satirized shamelessly. Late on in life she discovered a talent for live poetry reading, where her girlish, charming and expert performances always won over her audience. According to critic Ian Hamilton ‘To hear them chuckling over her cute spiritual despairs was a fine bonus for her old age, and she took particular pleasure in upstaging the beatniks at the avant-garde poetry rallies she for some reason kept getting invited to throughout the 1960s.’ There was enough that was genuine and startling about Smith’s work to hook her reader, but there was a fine, laughing, ludic quality to her writing too, that faced up to hardship and sorrow but never quite took them seriously.

I really loved this book, although I didn’t always understand it, or follow Pompey’s rollercoaster of thought with sympathy. But she sounded so like my students when they are off on a riff, naïve and knowing, erudite and yet childish. I couldn’t help but laugh at her silly slang and her razor sharp perceptions. I’ll tell you who else she reminded me of, and that’s Gertrude Stein. The singing phrases and contorted yet rhythmic repetitions were so like Stein’s translations of the spoken voice into prose. But Stevie Smith’s preoccupations are far more metaphysical than Stein’s, her voice more lyric and whimsical. By the end of the novel, I felt the key to it was the ‘rhythm of visiting’ that is so precious to Pompey that it prevents her from marrying.

‘I have traveled and come and gone a great deal. I am toute entière visitor. That is what I am being all the time. […] That is the very highest pleasure to me, that it is a visit that comes to an end, that may recur, that may again come to an end and be renewed. The rhythm of visiting is in my blood.’

Inside Pompey’s mind and, therefore, on the yellow pages of her novel, there is nothing but endless visiting, as thoughts and memories arise and go away, some abandoned the moment they get too boring for Pompey to care, some cherished and waved off with regret. No topic may dominate, no emotion or mood may reign supreme. Instead, all is transience and charm and serious distraction. Just like the moment when Pompey’s grief about Nazi Germany is immediately and wholly replaced with book lust when she spots her sleepy train companion abandoning his copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. We are all waving and drowning, waving and drowning, on an endless loop, Stevie Smith suggests, and if we can permit ourselves to grow accustomed to it, that very ambivalence may be our saving grace.