Friday, April 13, 2012

And the winner is...The Yacoubian Building!

The votes are in, and the only novel with a plurality of votes is The Yacoubian Building, so that will be our next book. We will reconvene to discuss it at the end of May. I'm looking forward to reading it, and to hearing everyone's thoughts about it. Happy reading!

Thursday, April 05, 2012

A New List!

My Mortal Enemy seems to have been a really good choice for us! I really enjoyed reading all the posts and also the comments on the discussion forum. I'm happy to have been tagged to put up our next short list of selections: I hope there's something here that works as well for as many people. It's a pretty random assortment - except that I realized as I was setting up the links that three of them are NYRB Classics titles! They all just look interesting to me.

Alaa Al Aswany, The Yacoubian Building: "Some live in squalor on its rooftop, others inhabit the faded glory of its apartments and offices - here a womanizing aristocrat, there the secretly gay editor of Le Caire newspaper. Religious fervour jostles with promiscuity; bribery and exploitation with joy and elation; modern life with ancient culture."

Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and Its Head: A House and Its Head is Ivy Compton-Burnett's subversive look at the politics of family life, and perhaps the most unsparing of her novels. No sooner has Duncan Edgeworth's wife died than he takes a new, much younger bride whose willful ways provoke a series of transgressions that begins with adultery and ends, much to everyone's relief, in murder."

J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur: "Farrell's story is set in an isolated Victorian outpost on the subcontinent. Rumors of strife filter in from afar, and yet the members of the colonial community remain confident of their military and, above all, moral superiority. But when they find themselves under actual siege, the true character of their dominion—at once brutal, blundering, and wistful—is soon revealed."

Penelope Lively, City of the Mind: "Wherever architect Matthew Halland looks in London, the city offers him its history - and his own. Here lie memories of his boyhood, his daughter Jane's early years and his failed marriage. Here too is the London of prehistory, of grander times and of the Blitz. But Matthew is occupied with constructing a new future for London in Docklands, and as he strives to look ahead for the city he begins tentatively to forge new beginnings of his own."

David Mitchell, Black Swan Green: "a single year in what is, for thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor, the sleepiest village in muddiest Worcestershire in a dying Cold War England, 1982. But the thirteen chapters, each a short story in its own right, create an exquisitely observed world that is anything but sleepy."

Elizabeth Taylor, Angel: "Angelica Deverell lives above her diligent, drab mother’s grocery shop in a dreary turn-of-the-century English neighborhood, but spends her days dreaming of handsome Paradise House, where her aunt is enthroned as a maid. But in Angel’s imagination, she is the mistress of the house, a realm of lavish opulence, of evening gowns and peacocks. Then she begins to write popular novels, and this fantasy becomes her life. And now that she has tasted success, Angel has no intention of letting anyone stand in her way—except, perhaps, herself."

Let the voting begin! I'll tally the results by next Friday (April 13).



Sunday, April 01, 2012

My Mortal Enemy

My Mortal Enemy is a brief little novella, a mere 122 pages of wide-spaced type in which Willa Cather manages to convey the salient moments of a whole life. Inside the frame of this narrative is a portrait of Myra Henshawe, the sort of fascinating woman that Cather seemed to be drawn to, a woman who through beauty and talent should have the world at her feet, but who makes a disastrous choice for love and is forced to regret it bitterly. And like other Cather novels, this portrait is delivered to us from the perspective of a young innocent, the joyfully named Nellie Birdseye, who is our (Birds)eye witness, flying high above the mess that Myra’s life and marriage eventually becomes, and who grows wiser and less idealistic as the narrative unfolds.

Nellie is fifteen the first time she meets Myra Henshawe, but she has already been primed for this encounter by family stories of the old days, in which Myra’s narrative takes special precedence. Nellie’s Aunt Lydia has long remained one of Myra’s close friends and will tell her ‘about that thrilling night (probably the most exciting in her life), when Myra Driscoll came down that path from the house and out of those big iron gates, for the last time.’ What Myra is leaving behind is a comfortable fortune, and she has exchanged it for a passionate love affair with Oswald Henshawe. The fascination, then, of Myra’s character is that she acts. She does things that other people wouldn’t do, particularly women at a time when passivity and compliance were still feminine ideals. Instead Myra gambles her all on love, taking the only truly rocky adventure open to her kind. So her fate becomes paradigmatic, a glorious triumph or a cautionary tale – at this point the jury’s out. But the idealising and story-hungry eyes of Nellie long for romance to win.

The novella lingers on two separate periods of time spent by Nellie in Myra Henshawe’s company. The first is a Christmas visit, a time when Nellie is seduced by Myra’s overpowering brand of charm, a kind of rich luxuriousness of spirit that is reflected and amplified by the material circumstances she exists within. From the Henshawe’s New York apartment, with its gorgeous furnishings: ‘The long, heavy velvet curtains and the velvet chairs were a wonderful plum-colour, like ripe purple fruit. The curtains were lined with that rich cream-colour that lies under the blue skin of ripe figs’ to the fountains of Madison Square Gardens whose ‘rhythmical splash was like the voice of the place. It rose and fell like something taking deep, happy breaths; and the sound was musical, seemed to come from the throat of spring’ Nellie is in a kind of sensuous paradise. Myra is of a piece with these surroundings, like the central jewel in a beautiful necklace: ‘My aunt often said that Myra was incorrigibly extravagant; but I saw that her chief extravagance was in caring for so many people and in caring for them so much.’ But into this American Eden come indications of the serpent, the cuff links that Oswald receives from a female admirer and Myra’s fury when she uncovers the deception.

By the time Nellie comes across the Henshawes again, much has changed. The couple are living in horribly reduced circumstances, Myra is fatally ill, and they are clearly unhappy. Nellie has grown up, too, and has had family troubles of her own. She is making a living as a teacher, and is more than able to brush aside Myra’s attempts to direct her fate. Circumstances again correspond to the emotional climate. Myra has ‘exhausted’ her generosity along with their cash, the neighbours don’t call round to sing hauntingly beautiful songs, but torment her with their heavy footfall, and in what looks to be a judgement on her life choices, she laments being left alone to die with her ‘mortal enemy’.

What this novella makes me realise is how close to the spirit of Modernism Cather was, once she’d worked the prairies out of her blood. This book was written in 1925 and it makes me think of other characters who outlive their settled contentment and become either anachronisms or absurdities. For some reason both Woolf’s Mrs Ramsey in To The Lighthouse (1927) and Gregor Samsa, the unfortunate beetle in Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915) spring to mind. This was the coming of the anti-hero, when the main protagonist in a novel might be defined by their flaws and their errors, or even simply by the extent to which they did not understand themselves or the things that had happened to them. Modernism crops up whenever grand narratives start to crumble – grand narratives being the all-encompassing ideological stories, like religion or science or the teleological march of history that makes sense of the great sweep of the world from the past through to the future. Characters in grand narratives know their places; they may be mere cogs in the machine, but they have a purpose and significance, if you can only get enough distance to view the particular in relation to the general. But when grand narratives crumble, characters start to move out of the roles they have been assigned, out of the places in which they make sense and they can cause havoc within narrative systems. They are no longer good products of the Enlightenment, people who may be enigmatic but can be solved; they are instead creatures of the gap, irreconcilable to their stories, unresolved in their fates. Myra Henshawe with her chequered life and her undecidable good/bad character seems to be one of these.

Cather’s use of the Birdseye viewpoint here is a fascinating strategic device. On the one hand, it shows us how people are always viewed through the shreds and scraps of other perspectives, the fragments of narrative that are sewn together from rumour, gossip, anecdotes, glimpses and sightings. The social character is a patchwork that we try to take as the whole. But Nellie, as astute and observant witness, is forced to acknowledge the incongruence of the stories she has heard about Myra and the reality she experiences. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that she cunningly gives the reader a mixed handful of significant fragments about Myra, without even attempting to stitch them into a coherent whole. Grand narratives rely on the transparency of language to reality, the belief that we can translate what lies ‘out there’ into an accurate representation on the page. Modernism suggests that there are only competing stories, and that reality lies elusively beyond our grasp. In My Mortal Enemy the shortness of the novella is belied by the multiplicity of possible and implied stories it spawns. We can read the Henshawe marriage as a disaster, or as a survival of loyalty in spite of desperate circumstances, we can see Myra as a splendid diva or a horrible harpy, Oswald as a womaniser or a man of saintly tolerance, we can even see Nellie as a dull and insipid hanger-on or a wise and compassionate friend.

I was going to say the same about the ‘mortal enemy’ of the title. How it comes to assume many guises. But for my own reading of this story, I’ve come to understand that enemy as the overpowering passion of Myra, the part of her that hurtles her into reckless and excessive actions, and the negativity that makes her howl with rage and regret. They are the two sides of the one coin that can be termed the ‘demonic’, which the Greeks defined as the vital wellspring of energetic force that could be used for good or for evil. Energy is the quick route to understanding Cather’s characters and here Oswald describes how Myra ‘can’t endure, but she has enough desperate courage for a regiment.’ For me, it’s that desperate courage that Myra never knows whether she’s fighting for or against.