Category Archives: Classic(s) of the Month

The #1954Club: Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell

A quick follow-up to Friday’s post with one more read from 1954, plus a skim. The one is a series of comic portraits set on a women’s college campus, and the other is the story of a preacher’s son in 1930s Harlem. (Both: University library; )

Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell

I have a real soft spot for novels set on college campuses. Any time I’ve looked through lists of options, Jarrell’s has been there. Still, it took the 1954 Club for me to finally pick up a copy. For about the first half, I was fully engaged with this academic comedy even though it doesn’t have a plot as such. The stage is Benton women’s college; the cast includes various eccentric professors and other staff, from President Robbins on down. Gertrude Johnson, a visiting writer, is writing a novel about Benton. The problem for her – and for us as readers – is two-fold: the characters are almost too eccentric to be believed, and nothing happens here.

The narrator, a poetry professor at Benton, knew Gertrude socially back in New York City. His descriptions of his fellow faculty are often hilarious. For instance, here’s his picture of Flo Whittaker:

Mostly she wore, in the daytime in the winter, a tweed skirt, a sweater-set, and a necklace. The skirt looked as if a horse had left her its second-best blanket; the sweaters looked as if an old buffalo, sitting by a fire of peat, had knitted them for her from its coat of the winter before

The Whittakers’ house is so full of kitschy knick-knacks that “Jeremy Bentham’s stuffed body would not have been ill at ease.” And then there’s the Robbinses’ ill-behaved pair of Afghan hounds, and Dr. Rosenbaum the music professor, whose German accent is rendered over-the-top.

Funny as parts of the novel can be, the humour can feel dated and sometimes relies on niche cultural references. The very first line, for example: “Half the campus was designed by Bottom the Weaver, half by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe”. However, elsewhere Jarrell mocks the pretentiousness of modern art and of the Benton set, who also seem woke avant la lettre:

Most of the people of Benton would have swallowed a porcupine, if you had dyed its quills and called it Modern Art; they longed for men to be discovered on the moon, so that they could show that they weren’t prejudiced towards moon men; and they were so liberal and selfless, politically

Amusing pen portraits and witty lines made this pleasant to spend time with, but not a read that will stick with me.


As usual for any reading challenge, I bit off more than I could chew and started a fourth book but couldn’t get through it in time and, in all honesty, wasn’t finding it compelling. I’ll have to give it a better try on another occasion.

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

I’ve enjoyed Baldwin’s work before (The Fire Next Time, Giovanni’s Room), but didn’t make it much past page 30 of this novel about John Grimes, a preacher’s son in Harlem, before starting to skim. The central section contains long flashbacks to the backstory of three secondary characters, whereas I was more interested in John’s story (semi-autobiographical for Baldwin, apparently). Mostly I thought of how the content and narrative style must have influenced the following generations of African American writers, including Toni Morrison and Catherine Adel West – both of whom I was reading at the same time.

The #1954Club: Moominsummer Madness and Under Milk Wood

A year club hosted by Karen and Simon is always a great excuse to read more classics. The play’s the thing for this installment of the 1954 Club: Tove Jansson’s delightfully odd creatures end up in a floating theatre and rise to the occasion, and I’ve finally read Dylan Thomas’s famous play for voices. I’ll try to manage another couple of write-ups this weekend, too. (Both: University library; )

 

Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson

[Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Warburton]

One never knows what magic or mischief will bubble up at Midsummer. For Moomintroll’s family, it all starts with the eruption of a volcano, which leads to a flood. Moominmamma does her best to uphold comforting routines in their inundated home, but eventually they leave it for a better-appointed house that floats by. One with thick velvet curtains, doors to nowhere, and cupboards full of dresses. I wearied ever so slightly of the dramatic irony that this is clearly a theatre but the characters don’t know what one is and have to be enlightened by Emma the stage rat. Meanwhile, Snufkin becomes accidental father to two dozen “woodies” and Moomintroll and the Snork Maiden are arrested for burning officious signs.

The teasing commentary on the pretensions of the theatre is sweet: Moominpappa decides to write a tragic play with a lion in; Emma tells him it simply must be in blank verse, so he obliges, but no one in the audience can understand a word until the actors speak normally. As usual with Jansson, there is separation and longing, disaster mitigated, disorientation navigated with pluck or resignation. While I didn’t enjoy this as much as some of her others, I appreciated the focus this time on bending the rules of how things must be done. My favourite quotes were about the overwhelming nature of choice and the value of a good cry:

(The Snork Maiden on the dresses in the costume closet) “They were far too many, don’t you see. I couldn’t ever have had them all or even choose the prettiest. They nearly made me afraid! If there’d been only two instead!”

(Misabel) “I’m taking the chance to have a cry over a lot of things now when there’s a good reason.”

 

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

I discovered A Child’s Christmas in Wales just last year and delighted in the language and the flights of fancy. Under Milk Wood is a short play completed just a month before Thomas’s death at the age of 39. It features a chorus of voices as the inhabitants of Llaregyb, a made-up coastal Welsh town, journey from one night through to the next. Gossipy neighbours, bickering spouses, flirtatious lovers; a preacher, a retired sea captain, fishermen; and much more. Some of the character names are jokes in and of themselves, like “Nogood Boyo” and “Willy Nilly,” and others sound so silly they might as well be rhyming slang.

The dead feel as vibrant as the living. The musicality of the prose sometimes made me feel I was reading poetry instead (indeed, a number of songs and rhymes are performed), and there is a bawdy charm to the whole thing. What might be stage directions in another play are read aloud here by “First Voice” and “Second Voice,” who trade off narration.

Maybe it was too much to hope that there could have been a plot somewhere in there as well? No matter. I could see how Thomas influenced the likes of Max Porter and George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo, anyway). I’m sorry I missed the chance to see this performed locally last month.

A favourite passage:

“It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.”


(I’ve also participated in the 1920 Club, 1956 Club, 1936 Club, and 1976 Club.)

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (#NovNov Classics Week Buddy Read)

For the short classics week of Novellas in November, our buddy read is Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (1911). You can download the book for free from Project Gutenberg here if you’d still like to join in.

Did you have to read Ethan Frome in school? For American readers, it’s likely that it was an assigned text in high school English. I didn’t happen to read it during my school days, but caught up in 2006 or 2008, I think, and was impressed with this condensed tragedy and the ambiance of a harsh New England winter. It struck me even more on a reread as a flawless parable of a man imprisoned by circumstance and punished for wanting more.

I had forgotten that the novella is presented as a part-imagined reconstruction of the sad events of Ethan Frome’s earlier life. A quarter-century later, the unnamed narrator is in Wharton’s fictional Starkfield, Massachusetts on business, and hears the bare bones of Ethan’s story from various villagers before meeting the man himself. Ethan, who owns a struggling sawmill, picks up extra money from odd jobs. He agrees to chauffeur the narrator to engineering projects in his sleigh, and can’t conceal his jealousy at a technical career full of travel – a reminder of what could have been had he been able to continue his own scientific studies. A blizzard forces the narrator to stay overnight in Ethan’s home, and the step over the threshold sends readers back in time to when Ethan was a young man of 28.

 

*There are SPOILERS in the following.*


Ethan’s household contains two very different women: his invalid wife, Zeena, eight years his elder; and her cousin, Mattie Silver, who serves as her companion and housekeeper. Mattie is dreamy and scatter-brained – not the practical sort you’d want in a carer role, but she had nowhere else to go after her parents’ death. She has become the light of Ethan’s life. By contrast, Zeena is shrewish, selfish, lazy and gluttonous. Wharton portrays her as either pretending or exaggerating about her chronic illness. Zeena has noticed that Ethan has taken extra pains with his appearance in the year since Mattie came to live with them, and conspires to get rid of Mattie by getting a new doctor to ‘prescribe’ her a full-time servant.

The plot turns on an amusing prop, “Aunt Philura Maple’s pickle-dish.” While Zeena is away for her consultation with Dr. Buck, Ethan and Mattie get one evening alone together. Mattie lays the table nicely with Zeena’s best dishes from the china cabinet, but at the end of their meal the naughty cat gets onto the table and knocks the red glass pickle dish to the floor, where it smashes. Before Ethan can obtain glue to repair it in secret, Zeena notices and acts as if this never-used dish was her most prized possession. She and Ethan are both to have what they most love taken away from them – but at least Ethan’s is a human being.

I had remembered that Ethan fell in love with a cousin (though I thought it was his cousin) and that there is a dramatic sledding accident. What I did not remember, however, was that the crash is deliberate: knowing they can never act on their love for each other, Mattie begs Ethan to steer them straight into the elm tree mentioned twice earlier. He dutifully does so. I thought I recalled that Mattie dies, while he has to live out his grief ever more. I was gearing myself up to rail against the lingering Victorian mores of the time that required the would-be sexually transgressing female to face the greatest penalty. Instead, in the last handful of pages, Wharton delivers a surprise. When the narrator enters the Frome household, he meets two women. One is chair-bound and sour; the other, tall and capable, bustles about getting dinner ready. The big reveal, and horrible irony, is that the disabled woman is Mattie, made bitter by suffering, while Zeena rose to the challenges of caregiving.

Ethan is a Job-like figure who lost everything that mattered most to him, including his hopes for the future. Unlike the biblical character, though, he finds no later reward. “Sickness and trouble: that’s what Ethan’s had his plate full up with, ever since the very first helping,” as one of the villagers tells the narrator. “He looks as if he was dead and in hell now!” the narrator observes. This man of sorrow is somehow still admirable: he and Zeena did the right thing in taking Mattie in again, and even when at his most desperate Ethan refused to swindle his customers to fund an escape with Mattie. In the end, Mattie’s situation is almost the hardest to bear: she only ever represented sweetness and love, and has the toughest lot. In some world literature, e.g. the Russian masters, suicide might be rendered noble, but here its attempt warrants punishment.

{END OF SPOILERS.}

 

I can see why some readers, especially if encountering this in a classroom setting, would be turned off by the bleak picture of how the universe works. But I love me a good classical tragedy, and admired this one for its neat construction, its clever use of foreshadowing and dread, its exploration of ironies, and its use of a rustic New England setting – so much more accessible than Wharton’s usual New York City high society. The cozy wintry atmosphere of Little Women cedes to something darker and more oppressive; “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters,” a neighbor observes of Ethan. I could see a straight line from Jude the Obscure through Ethan Frome to The Great Gatsby: three stories of an ordinary, poor man who pays the price for grasping for more. I reread this in two sittings yesterday morning and it felt to me like a perfect example of how literature can encapsulate the human condition.

(Secondhand purchase) [181 pages]

 

My original rating (c. 2008):

My rating now:

 

Keep in touch via Twitter (@bookishbeck / @cathy746books) and Instagram (@bookishbeck / @cathy_746books), using the hashtag #NovNov. We’ll add any of your review links in to our master posts.

Classic of the Month & 20 Books of Summer #5: A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy (1873)

While going through my boxes stored in my sister’s basement, I came across an antiquarian copy of this lesser-known Hardy novel. I used to place a lot more value on books’ age and rarity, whereas now I tend to just acquire readable paperback copies. I also used to get on much better with Victorian novels – I completed an MA in Victorian Literature, after all – but these days I generally find them tedious. Two years ago, I DNFed Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, and I ended up mostly skimming A Pair of Blue Eyes after the first 100 pages. In any case, it fit into my 20 Books of Summer colour theme. It’s sad for me that I’ve lost my love for my academic speciality, but life is long and I may well go back to Victorian literature someday.

I found similarities to Far from the Madding Crowd, my favourite Hardy novel, as well as to Hardy’s own life. As in FFTMC, the focus is on a vain young woman with three suitors. Elfride Swancourt is best known for her eyes, rapturously described as “blue as autumn distance—blue as the blue we see between the retreating mouldings of hills and woody slopes on a sunny September morning. A misty and shady blue, that had no beginning or surface, and was looked into rather than at.” Her vicar father, suffering from gout and sounding much older than his actual age (40 was a different prospect in that time!), warns her that architects will soon be arriving from London to plan restoration work on the church tower.

The young architectural assistant who arrives at the Swancourts’ coastal parish in “Lower Wessex” (North Devon?) is Stephen Smith, a clear Hardy stand-in, desperate to hide his humble background as he seeks to establish himself in his profession. Stephen emulates his friend Henry Knight, a dilettante essayist and book reviewer. Book learning has given Stephen passable knowledge of everything from Latin to chess, but he doesn’t know how to do practical things like ride a horse. Elfride and Stephen, predictably, fall in love, and she is determined to go ahead with an engagement even when she learns that his parents are a mason and a milkmaid, but her father refuses to grant permission. It’s intriguing that this poor clergyman fancies himself of the class of the Luxellians, local nobility, than of the Smiths.

 

{SPOILERS FOLLOW}

Elfride’s previous love died, and his pauper mother, Mrs Jethway, blames her still for toying with her boy’s affections. When Stephen takes a position in India and Mr Swancourt remarries and moves the family to London, Elfride’s eye wanders. Time for love interest #3. The family runs into Knight, who is a distant cousin of Mrs Swancourt. There’s another, juicier, connection: Elfride is a would-be author (she writes her father’s sermons for him, putting passages in brackets with the instruction “Leave this out if the farmers are falling asleep”) and publishes a medieval romance under a male pseudonym. A negative write-up of her book needles her. “What a plague that reviewer is to me!” And who is it but Knight?

They begin a romance despite this inauspicious coincidence and his flirty/haughty refusal to admire her fine eyes – “I prefer hazel,” he says. Some of the novel’s most memorable scenes, famous even beyond its immediate context, come from their courtship. Knight saves her from falling off the church tower, while she tears her dress into linen strips and ties them into a rope to rescue him from a sea cliff (scandalous!). Somewhere I’d read an in-depth account of this scene: as Knight dangles from the rock face, he spots a trilobite, which, in its very ancientness, mocks the precariousness of his brief human life. Lovingly created and personally watched over by a supreme being? Pshaw. Hardy’s was a godless vision, and I’ve always been interested in that Victorian transition from devoutness to atheism.

The novel’s span is too long, requiring a lot of jumps in time. I did appreciate that Mrs Jethway becomes the instrument of downfall, writing a warning letter to Knight about Elfride’s mistreatment of her son and another former fiancé. Knight breaks things off and it’s not until 15 months later, after he and Stephen bump into each other in London and Knight realizes that Stephen was her other suitor, that they travel back to Wessex to duke it out over the girl. When they arrive, though, it’s too late: Elfride had married but then fallen ill and died; her funeral is to take place the very next day. As the book closes at the vault, it’s her widower, Lord Luxellian, who has the right to mourn and not either of her previous loves.

{END OF SPOILERS}

 

As always with Hardy, I enjoyed the interplay of coincidence and fate. There were a few elements of this novel that I particularly liked: the coastal setting, the characters’ lines of work (including a potential profession for Elfride, though Knight told her in future she should stick to domestic scenes in her writing!) and the role played by a book review, but overall, this was not a story that is likely to stick with me. I did wonder to what extent it inspired Lars Mytting’s The Bell in the Lake, about a country girl who falls in love with the man who comes to oversee construction at the local church.


Source: Secondhand purchase, most likely from Wonder Book and Video in the early 2000s

My rating:

Daphne du Maurier Reading Week: My Cousin Rachel (1951)

It’s probably a decade or more since I read anything by Daphne du Maurier. The three novels of hers that I know are Rebecca (of course), Jamaica Inn, and The House on the Strand. HeavenAli’s annual reading week was the excuse I needed to pick up the copy of My Cousin Rachel that I grabbed from the closed-down free bookshop in the mall about a year ago as we were clearing it out. I’m glad I finally got to this one: it has a gripping storyline and the title character is a complex woman it’s impossible to make up your mind about.

To start with, we have an opening line that’s sure to make my year-end superlatives post: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” The whole first chapter is heavy with foreboding, most of which I didn’t pick up on. It’s clear at once that the narrator, a young man named Philip Ashley, feels guilty for the situation he finds himself in, but can’t decide whether Rachel shares his culpability. Philip is the ward and heir of his older cousin, Ambrose, who winters in Florence for his health but on his latest trip marries Rachel, a widow and distant half-Italian cousin who also has roots in Cornwall, and stays in Italy.

From what little he learns of her through Ambrose’s increasingly incoherent letters, Philip is predisposed to dislike Rachel. When Ambrose dies of a suspected brain tumour, Philip is alarmed to hear that Rachel has already emptied their Florence villa and is reluctant to meet her when she arrives in Plymouth some weeks later. But she is not what he expected: just 35 and beautiful; with a passion for garden design and herbal medicine; witty and gently flirtatious. Before long Philip is smitten. “Why, in heaven’s name, did she have to be so different and play such havoc with my plans?”

The plot revolves around Ambrose’s unsigned will and what it means for the ownership of the Ashleys’ Cornwall estate. Philip is now 24, but on his 25th birthday, which happens to fall on April Fool’s Day, he will come into his inheritance and can make his own decisions. Will Rachel, notorious for her extravagant spending, bewitch him into altering the will to her advantage? A pearl necklace, hidden letters, a beggar woman, churchyard conversations, tisanes, lavish curtains, and a foppish Italian visitor form the backdrop to this Gothic tale.

I never succeeded in dating the action: the only major clue is that it takes three weeks to travel between southwest England and Florence, which seems to point to the nineteenth century. But a lack of definite markers makes the story feel timeless and almost like a fairy tale. Although she shrewdly looks out for her own interests and can manipulate Philip’s emotions, Rachel is no stereotypical witch. Sally Beauman’s introduction to my Virago paperback usefully points out that we only ever see Rachel through the male gaze (Philip’s perhaps unreliable narration and Ambrose’s letters) and that from the title onward she is defined in relation to men. In making a bid for her own independent life, she is the true heroine of what Beauman calls du Maurier’s “most overtly feminist” novel.

I always love the murky atmosphere of du Maurier’s work, but can find her plots contrived. However, this ended up being my favourite of the four I’ve read so far. Initially, it reminded me of E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, while by the end I was wondering if Janet Fitch took it as inspiration for White Oleander. There’s an unusual pair for you! Make of it what you will…

What else should I read by du Maurier?

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore (1955)

The readalong that Cathy of 746 Books is hosting for Brian Moore’s centenary was just the excuse I needed to try his work for the first time. My library had a copy of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, his most famous work and the first to be published under his own name (after some pseudonymous potboilers), so that’s where I started.

Judith Hearne is a pious, set-in-her-ways spinster in Belfast. As the story opens, the piano teacher is moving into a new boarding house and putting up the two portraits that watch over her: a photo of her late aunt, whom Judith cared for in her sunset years; and the Sacred Heart. This establishment is run by a nosy landlady, Mrs. Henry Rice, and her adult son Bernard, who is writing his poetic magnum opus and carrying on with the maid. Recently joining the household is James Madden, the landlady’s brother, who is back from 30 years in New York City. Disappointed in his career and in his adult daughter, he’s here to start over.

Moore’s third-person narration slips easily between the viewpoints of multiple characters, creating a dramatic irony between their sense of themselves and what others think of them. Initially, we spend the most time in Judith’s head – an uncomfortable place to be because of how simultaneously insecure and hypercritical she is. She’s terrified of rejection, which she has come to expect, but at the same time she has nasty, snobbish thoughts about her fellow lodgers, especially overweight Bernard. The dynamic is reversed on her Sunday afternoons with the O’Neills, who, peering through the curtains as she arrives, groan at their onerous duty of entertaining a dull visitor who always says the same things and gets tipsy on sherry.

An unfortunate misunderstanding soon arises between Judith and James: in no time she’s imagining romantic scenarios, whereas he, wrongly suspecting she has money stashed away, hopes she can be lured into investing in his planned American-style diner in Dublin. “A pity she looks like that,” he thinks. Later we get a more detailed description of Judith from a bank cashier: “On the wrong side of forty with a face as plain as a plank, and all dressed up, if you please, in a red raincoat, a red hat with a couple of terrible-looking old wax flowers in it.”

Oh how the heart aches for this figure of pathos. James’s situation, what with the ultimate failure of his American dream, echoes hers in several ways. Something happens that lessens our sympathy for James, but Judith remains a symbol of isolation and collapse. The title also reflects the spiritual aspect of this breakdown: Judith feels that she’s walking a lonely road, like Jesus did on the way to the crucifixion, and the Catholic Church to which she’s devoted, far from being a support in time of despair, is only the source of more judgment.

Alcoholism, mental illness, and religious doubt swirl together to make for a truly grim picture of life on the margins. The novel also depicts casual racism and a scene of sexual assault. No bed of roses here. But Moore’s writing, unflinching yet compassionate, renders each voice and perspective distinct in an unforgettable character study full of intense scenes. I especially loved how the final scene returns full circle. I’d particularly recommend this to readers of Tove Ditlevsen, Muriel Spark and Elizabeth Taylor, and fans of Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn. I’ll definitely try more from Moore – I found a copy of The Colour of Blood in a Little Free Library in Somerset, so will add that to my stack for 20 Books of Summer.

My rating:


The “P.S.” section of the Harper Perennial paperback I borrowed from the library contains a lot of interesting information on Moore’s life and the composition of Judith Hearne. After time as a civilian worker in the British army, Moore moved to Canada and became a journalist. Later he would move to Malibu and write the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain.

The protagonist was based on a woman Moore’s parents invited over for Sunday diners in Belfast. Like Judith, she loved wearing red and went on about the aunt who raised her. Moore said, “When I wrote Judith Hearne I was very lonely, writing in a rented caravan, I had almost no friends, I’d given up my beliefs, was earning almost no money as a reporter and I didn’t see much of a future. So I could identify with a dipsomaniac, isolated spinster.” The novel was rejected by 12 publishing houses before the firm André Deutsch, namely reader Laurie Lee and co-director Diana Athill, recognized its genius and accepted it for publication.

The 1936 Club: Murder in the Cathedral and Ballet Shoes

It’s my third time participating in one of Simon and Karen’s reading weeks (after last year’s 1920 Club and 1956 Club). Like last time, I made things easy for myself by choosing two classics of novella length – as opposed to South Riding, another 1936 book on my shelves. They also both happen to be theatrical in nature.

 

Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot

At about the time her memoir came out, I remember Jeanette Winterson describing this as her gateway drug into literature: she went to the library and picked it out for her mother, thinking it was just another murder mystery, and ended up devouring it herself. It is in fact a play about the assassination of Thomas à Becket, a medieval archbishop of Canterbury. The last time I read a play was probably eight years ago, when I was on an Alan Ayckbourn kick; before that, I likely hadn’t read one since my college Shakespeare class. And indeed, this wasn’t dissimilar to Shakespeare’s histories (or tragedies) in content and tone. It is mostly in verse, with some rhyming couplets, offset by a couple of long prose passages.

I struggled mostly because of complete unfamiliarity with the context, though some liberal Googling would probably be enough to set anyone straight. The action takes place in December 1170 and is in two long acts, separated by an interlude in which Thomas gives a Christmas sermon. The main characters besides Thomas are three priests who try to protect him and a chorus of local women who lament his fate. In Part I there are four tempters who, like Satan to Jesus in the desert, come to taunt Thomas with the lure of political power – upon being named archbishop, he resigned his chancellorship. The four knights, who replace the tempters in Part II and ultimately kill Thomas, feel that he betrayed King Henry and the nation by not keeping both roles and thus linking Church and state.

Most extraordinary is the knights’ prose defence late in the second act, in which they claim to have been completely “disinterested” in killing Thomas and that it was his own fault – to the extent that his death might as well be deemed a suicide. I always appreciate a first-person plural chorus, and I love Eliot’s poetry in general: there are some of his lines I keep almost as mantras, and more I read nearly 20 years ago that still resonate. I expected notable quotes here, but there were no familiar lines. As usually is the case with plays, this probably works better on stage. A nice touch was that my 1938 Faber copy, acquired from the free bookshop we used to have in our local mall, was owned by two fellows of St. Chad’s College, Durham, whose names appear one after the other in blue ink on the flyleaf. One of them added in marginal notes relating to how the play was performed by the Pilgrim Players in March 1941.

My rating:

 

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

I was glad to have an excuse to read this beloved children’s classic. Like many older books and films geared towards children, it’s a realistic fantasy about orphans finding affection and success. Great-Uncle Matthew (“Gum”) goes hunting for fossils around the world and has a peculiar habit of finding unwanted babies that are to be raised by his niece, Sylvia (“Garnie”), and a nursemaid, Nana. He names the three girls he has magically acquired Pauline, Petrova, and Posy, and gifts them all the surname Fossil. When Gum goes back out on his travels, the money soon runs out and the girls’ schooling takes a backseat to the need for money. Sylvia takes in lodgers and the girls are accepted to attend a dance and theatre academy for free.

Every year, the sisters vow to do all they can to get the Fossil name in history books – and this on their own merit, not based on anything their (unknown) ancestors have done – and to get as much household money for Garnie as possible. Pauline is a gifted actress and Posy a talented dancer, but Petrova knows the performing world is not for her; she’d rather learn about how machines work, and operate cars and airplanes. While beautiful blonde Pauline plays the lead role in Alice in Wonderland and one of the princes in Richard III, Petrova is happy to stay in the background as a fairy or a page in Shakespeare productions.

I found the social history particularly interesting here. The family seems upper class by nature, yet a lack of money means they find it a challenge to keep the girls in an appropriate wardrobe. There is much counting of guineas and shillings, with Pauline the chief household earner. Acting in plays and films is no mere hobby for her. The same goes for Winifred, who auditions opposite Pauline for Alice but doesn’t get the part – even though she is the better actress and needs the money to care for her ill father and five younger siblings – because she’s not as pretty. Pauline and Petrova also notice that child actors with cockney accents don’t get picked for the best roles. The Fossils sometimes feel compassion for those children worse off than themselves, but at other times let their achievements go to their heads.

At a certain point, I wearied of the recurring money, wardrobe, and audition issues, but I still found this a charming book about how luck and skill combine as girls dream about who they want to be when they grow up. There are also some cosy and witty turns of phrase, like “She was in that state of having a cold when nothing is very nice to do … she felt hot, and not very much like eating toffee, and what is the fun of making toffee unless you want to eat it.” I daresay if I had encountered this at age seven instead of 37, it would have been a favourite.

My rating:

Autumn Reading: The Pumpkin Eater and More

I’ve been gearing up for Novellas in November with a few short autumnal reads, as well as some picture books bedecked with fallen leaves, pumpkins and warm scarves.

An Event in Autumn by Henning Mankell (2004)

[Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson, 2014]

My first and probably only Mankell novel; I have a bad habit of trying mystery series and giving up after one book – or not even making it through a whole one. This was written for a Dutch promotional deal and falls chronologically between The Pyramid and The Troubled Man, making it #9.5 in the Wallander series. It opens in late October 2002. After 30 years as a police officer, Kurt Wallander is interested in living in the countryside instead of the town-center flat he shares with his daughter Linda, also a police officer. A colleague tells him about a house in the country owned by his wife’s cousin and Wallander goes to have a look.

Of course things aren’t going to go smoothly with this venture. You have to suspend disbelief when reading about the adventures of investigators; it’s like they attract corpses. So it’s not much of a surprise that while he’s walking the grounds of this house he finds a human hand poking out of the soil, and eventually the remains of a middle-aged couple are unearthed. The rest of the book is about finding out what happened on the property at the time of the Second World War. Wallander says he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but victims of wrongful death are as persistent as ghosts: they won’t be ignored until answers are found.

This was a quick and easy read, but nothing about it (setting, topics, characterization, prose) made me inclined to read further in the author’s work.

My rating:

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer (1962)

(Classic of the Month, #1)

Like a nursery rhyme gone horribly wrong, this is the story of a woman who can’t keep it together. She’s the woman in the shoe, the wife whose pumpkin-eating husband keeps her safe in a pumpkin shell, the ladybird flying home to find her home and children in danger. Aged 31 and already on her fourth husband, the narrator, known only as Mrs. Armitage, has an indeterminate number of children. Her current husband, Jake, is a busy filmmaker whose philandering soon becomes clear, starting with the nanny. A breakdown at Harrods is the sign that Mrs. A. isn’t coping, and she starts therapy. Meanwhile, they’re building a glass tower as their countryside getaway, allowing her to contemplate an escape from motherhood.

An excellent 2011 introduction by Daphne Merkin reveals how autobiographical this seventh novel was for Mortimer. But her backstory isn’t a necessary prerequisite for appreciating this razor-sharp period piece. You get a sense of a woman overwhelmed by responsibility and chafing at the thought that she’s had no choice in what life has dealt her. Most chapters begin in medias res and are composed largely of dialogue, including with Jake or her therapist. The book has a dark, bitter humor and brilliantly recreates a troubled mind. I was reminded of Janice Galloway’s The Trick Is to Keep Breathing and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. If you’re still looking for ideas for Novellas in November, I recommend it highly.

My rating:

Snow in Autumn by Irène Némirovsky (1931)

[Translated from the French by Sandra Smith, 2007]

(Classic of the Month, #2)

I have a copy of Suite Française, Némirovsky’s renowned posthumous classic, in a box in America, but have never gotten around to reading it. This early tale of the Karine family, forced into exile in Paris after the Russian Revolution, draws on the author’s family history. The perspective is that of the family’s old nanny, Tatiana Ivanovna, who guards the house for five months after the Karines flee and then, joining them in Paris after a shocking loss, longs for the snows of home. “Autumn is very long here … In Karinova, it’s already all white, of course, and the river will be frozen over.” Nostalgia is not as innocuous as it might seem, though. This gloomy short piece brought to mind Gustave Flaubert’s story “A Simple Heart.” I wouldn’t say I’m taken by Némirovsky’s style thus far; in fact, the frequent ellipses drove me mad! The other novella in my paperback is Le Bal, which I’ll read next month.

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Plus a quartet of children’s picture books from the library:

Pumpkin Soup by Helen Cooper: A cat, a squirrel and a duck live together in a teapot-shaped cabin in the woods. They cook pumpkin soup and make music in perfect harmony, each cheerfully playing their assigned role, until the day Duck decides he wants to be the one to stir the soup. A vicious quarrel ensues, and Duck leaves. Nothing is the same without the whole trio there. After some misadventures, when the gang is finally back together, they’ve learned their lesson about flexibility … or have they? Adorably mischievous.

Moomin and the Golden Leaf by Richard Dungworth: Beware: this is not actually a Tove Jansson plot, although her name is, misleadingly, printed on the cover (under tiny letters “Based on the original stories by…”). Autumn has come to Moominvalley. Moomin and Sniff find a golden leaf while they’re out foraging. He sets out to find the golden tree it must have come from, but the source is not what he expected. Meanwhile, the rest are rehearsing a play to perform at the Autumn Ball before a seasonal feast. This was rather twee and didn’t capture Jansson’s playful, slightly melancholy charm.

Little Owl’s Orange Scarf by Tatyana Feeney: Ungrateful Little Owl thinks the orange scarf his mother knit for him is too scratchy. He tries “very hard to lose his new scarf” and finally manages it on a trip to the zoo. His mother lets him choose his replacement wool, a soft green. I liked the color blocks and the simple design, and the final reveal of what happened to the orange scarf is cute, but I’m not sure the message is one to support (pickiness vs. making do with what you have).

Christopher Pumpkin by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet: The witch of Spooksville needs help preparing for a big party, so brings a set of pumpkins to life. Something goes a bit wrong with the last one, though: instead of all things ghoulish, Christopher Pumpkin loves all things fun. He bakes cupcakes instead of stirring gross potions and strums a blue ukulele instead of inducing screams. The witch threatens to turn Chris into soup if he can’t be scary. The plan he comes up with is the icing on the cake of a sweet, funny book delivered in rhyming couplets. Good for helping kids think about stereotypes and how we treat those who don’t fit in.

Have you read any autumn-appropriate books lately?

Summery Classics by J. L. Carr and L. P. Hartley

“Do you remember what that summer was like? – how much more beautiful than any since?”

These two slightly under-the-radar classics made for perfect heatwave reading over the past couple of weeks: very English and very much of the historical periods that they evoke, they are nostalgic works remembering one summer when everything changed – or could have.

 

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr (1980)

Summer 1920, North Yorkshire. Tom Birkin, a First World War veteran whose wife has left him, arrives in Oxgodby to uncover the local church’s wall painting of the Judgment Day, assumed to be the work of a medieval monk and long since whitewashed over. With nothing waiting for him back in London and no plans beyond this commission, he gives himself over to the daily rhythms of working, eating and sleeping – “There was so much time that marvelous summer.” This simple life is punctuated by occasional incidents like a Sunday school hayride and picnic, and filling in as a lay preacher at a nearby chapel. Also embarked on a quest into the past is Charles Moon, who is searching for the grave of their patroness’ ancestor in the churchyard. Moon, too, has a war history he’d rather forget.

Though it barely exceeds 100 pages, this novella is full of surprises – about Moon, about the presumed identity and fate of the centuries-dead figures he and Birkin come to be obsessed with, and about the emotional connection that builds between Birkin and Reverend Keach’s wife, Alice. “It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies,” Birkin declares, but did he take his own advice? There is something achingly gorgeous about this not-quite-love story, as evanescent as ideal summer days. Carr writes in a foreword that he intended to write “a rural idyll along the lines of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree.” He indeed created something Hardyesque with this tragicomic rustic romance; I was also reminded of another very English classic I reviewed earlier in the year: Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee.

Source: Free bookshop

My rating:

A contemporary readalike: The Offing by Benjamin Myers

 

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley (1953)

Summer 1900, Norfolk. Twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited to spend the several July weeks leading up to his birthday at his school friend Marcus Maudsley’s home, Brandham Hall. Although the fatherless boy is keenly aware of the class difference between their families, in a year of learning to evade bullies he’s developed some confidence in his skills and pluck, fancying himself an amateur magician and gifted singer. Being useful makes him feel less like a charity case, so he eagerly agrees to act as “postman” for Marcus’s older sister, Marian, who exchanges frequent letters with their tenant farmer, Ted Burgess. Marian, engaged to Hugh, a viscount and injured Boer War veteran, insists the correspondence is purely business-related, but Leo suspects he’s abetting trysts the family would disapprove of.

Leo is right on the cusp of adolescence, a moment of transition that mirrors the crossing into a new century. As he glories in the summer’s mounting heat, “a liberating power with its own laws,” and mentally goads the weather into hitting ever greater extremes, he pushes against the limits of his innocence, begging Ted to tell him about “spooning” (that is, the facts of life). The heat becomes a character in its own right, gloweringly presiding over the emotional tension caused by secrets, spells and betrayals. And yet this is also a very funny novel: I loved Leo’s Franglais conversations with Marcus, and the confusion over mispronouncing “Hugh” as “you.” In places the tone even reminded me of Cold Comfort Farm.

Like A Month in the Country, this autobiographical story is an old man’s reminiscences, going back half a century in memory – but here Leo gets the chance to go back in person as well, seeing what has become of Brandham Hall and meeting one of the major players from that summer drama that branded him for life. I thought this masterfully done in every way: the class divide, the picture of childhood tipping over into the teenage years, the oppressive atmosphere, the comical touches. You know from the famous first line onwards (“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”) that this will juxtapose past and present – which, of course, has now become past and further past – in a powerful way, similar to Moon Tiger, my favorite fiction read of last year. I’ll be exploring more of Hartley’s work.

(Note: Although I am a firm advocate of DNFing if a book is not working for you, I would also like to put in a good word for trying a book again another time. Ironically, this had been a DNF for me last summer: I found the prologue, with all its talk of the zodiac, utterly dull. I had the same problem with Cold Comfort Farm, literally trying about three times to get through the prologue and failing. So, for both, I eventually let myself skip the prologue, read the whole novel, and then go back to the prologue. Worked a treat.)

Source: Ex-library copy bought from Lambeth Library when I worked in London

My rating:

A contemporary readalike: Atonement by Ian McEwan

Classic of the Month: Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham (1930)

(20 Books of Summer, #12) This is the third Maugham novel I’ve reviewed here (after Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence) and my fourth overall. I’d recommend his work to fans of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, or to anyone looking to expand their knowledge of the classics: his books are short (with the exception of Bondage) and accessible, and the frequent theme of struggling one’s way to love and creative success in defiance of poverty and a cruel fate resonates.

Cakes and Ale is narrated by an older writer named William Ashenden, a Maugham stand-in who previously appeared in the 1928 linked story collection Ashenden, widely recognized as the first English spy narrative. He’s contacted by a popular author of his acquaintance, Alroy Kear (“I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent”) with a request: Roy is writing the authorized biography of the late writer Edward Driffield, at his second wife’s behest. Remembering that Ashenden knew Driffield as a boy, Roy hopes to mine his memory for some good anecdotes. The book contains his resulting recollections – though Ashenden is unlikely to share them all with Roy.

Ashenden shares a background with Philip Carey from Of Human Bondage: both were raised in a vicar uncle’s household in Blackstable, Kent. Young Willie would go for bike rides with friendly neighbors Driffield and his wife Rosie, until his aunt and uncle forbade him.

 

{SPOILERS FOLLOW}


The Driffields, you see, were considered low-class and vulgar, an opinion that was seemingly confirmed first when they ran away from their debts to London, and then when Rosie left Edward for a Kent coal merchant. Rosie comes to represent a familiar type: the whore with the heart of gold. As Ashenden knows from personal experience, she enjoyed sex and slept with men out of kindness or pity. Only decades later did he learn that Edward knew Rosie was stepping out on him, and that the couple had lost a six-year-child to meningitis. This is not, I think, meant to excuse Rosie’s promiscuity, but it does give her an extra dimension, and perhaps explains why Driffield’s first marriage failed. Unfortunately, Rosie’s sexuality is racialized, with Driffield’s second wife saying, “I’ve always thought she looked rather like a white nigger” and an illustration giving her stereotypically wide nostrils and thick lips.)


{END OF SPOILERS}

 

I felt Driffield must be inspired by Thomas Hardy, and I’m not alone: in a preface, Maugham reports that many assumed he had Hardy in mind, but denies basing his portrait on any author in particular. Yet the similarities are undeniable: the flighty first wife; the late remarriage to his secretary; childlessness; humble origins and the fight to be taken seriously in the literary world. Maugham does, however, mention loving Tess of the d’Urbervilles and its milkmaid heroine, so Rosie is his homage (in the preface Maugham explains that, while the book’s plot occurred to him for a short story, he didn’t want to ‘waste’ Rosie on something so brief).

Dickens is an influence, too; I enjoyed references to his work, as well as to (on consecutive pages!) the New Woman and Mrs. Humphry Ward, both of whom were part of my MA thesis. The Victorian shadow is long here. But the focus on Rosie means Driffield himself is never more than a cipher. Ashenden admits this: “I am conscious that in what I have written of him I have not presented a living man, standing on his feet, rounded, with comprehensible motives and logical activities; I have not tried to: I am glad to leave that to the abler pen of Alroy Kear.” But The Moon and Sixpence, which employs the same setup of an author reminiscing about a great man he once knew, makes its subject a three-dimensional character, and is better for it.

Note: Maugham’s titles are often unusual and allusive. “Cakes and ale,” as part of a Twelfth Night quotation, represent the luxurious lifestyle in opposition to the moral one. The book’s subtitle is “or The Skeleton in the Cupboard.”

Source: Free bookshop

My rating: