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.