It’s pure happenstance that I started reading Carol Shields’s work in 2006.
2005: When I first returned to England for my MA program at Leeds, I met a PhD student who was writing a dissertation on contemporary Canadian women writers. At that point I could literally name only one – Margaret Atwood – and I hadn’t even read anything by her yet.
2006: Back in the States after that second year abroad, living with my parents and killing time until my wedding, I got an evening job behind the circulation desk of the local community college library. A colleague passed on four books to me one day. By tying them up in a ribbon, she made a gift out of hand-me-downs: The Giant’s House, The Secret History, and two by Shields: Happenstance and The Stone Diaries. I’ve gone on to read most or all of the books by these authors, so I’m grateful to this acquaintance I’ve since lost touch with.
Starting in June this year, I joined Marcie of Buried in Print in reading or rereading six Shields novels. She’s been rereading Shields for many years, and I benefited from her insight and careful attention to connections between the works’ characters and themes during our buddy reads. I’d treated myself to a secondhand book binge in the first lockdown, including copies of three Shields novels I’d not read before. We started with these.
Small Ceremonies (1976)
Shields’s debut ended up being my surprise favorite. A flawless novella, it brings its many elements to a satisfying conclusion and previews the author’s enduring themes in 180 pages. Judith is working on a third biography, of Susanna Moodie, and remembering the recent sabbatical year that she and her husband, a Milton scholar, spent with their two children in Birmingham. High tea is a compensating ritual she imported from a dismal England. She also brought back an idea for a novel. Meanwhile family friend Furlong Eberhardt, author of a string of twee, triumphantly Canadian novels, is casting around for plots.
What ensues is something of a sly academic comedy à la David Lodge, laced with Shields’s quiet wisdom on marriage, parenting, the writer’s vocation, and the difficulty of ever fully understanding another life. Specific links to her later work include a wonderful dinner party scene with people talking over each other and a craft project.
The Box Garden (1977)
The companion novel to Small Ceremonies is narrated by Judith’s sister Charleen, a poet and single mother who lives in Vancouver and produces the National Botanical Journal. I imagined the sisters representing two facets of Shields, who had previously published poetry and a Moodie biography. Charleen is preparing to travel to Toronto for their 70-year-old mother’s wedding to Louis, an ex-priest. Via flashbacks and excruciating scenes at the family home, we learn how literally and emotionally stingy their mother has always been. If Charleen’s boyfriend Eugene’s motto is to always assume the best of people, her mother’s modus operandi is to assume she’s been hard done by.
The title comes from the time when a faithful Journal correspondent, the mysterious Brother Adam, sent Charleen some grass seed to grow in a window box – a symbol of thriving in spite of restrictive circumstances. I thought the plot went off in a silly direction, but loved the wedding reception. Specific links to Shields’s later work include a botanical hobby, a long train journey, and a final scene delivered entirely in dialogue.
A Celibate Season (1991)
“We’re suffering a communication gap, that’s obvious.”
This epistolary novel was a collaboration: Blanche Howard wrote the letters by Jocelyn (“Jock”), who’s gone to Ottawa to be the legal counsel for a commission looking into women’s poverty, while Shields wrote the replies from her husband Charles (“Chas”), an underemployed architect who’s keeping the home fire burning back in Vancouver. He faces challenges large and small: their daughter’s first period versus meal planning (“Found the lentils. Now what?”). The household starts comically expanding to include a housekeeper, Chas’s mother-in-law, a troubled neighbor, and so on.
Both partners see how the other half lives. The misunderstandings between them become worse during their separation. Howard and Shields started writing in 1983, and the book does feel dated; they later threw in a jokey reference to the unreliability of e-mail to explain why the couple are sending letters and faxes. Two unsent letters reveal secrets Jock and Chas are keeping from each other, which felt like cheating. I remained unconvinced that so much could change in 10 months, and the weird nicknames were an issue for me. Plus, arguing about a solarium building project? Talk about First World problems! All the same, the letters are amusing.
This was the first novel I read by Shields. My Penguin paperback gives the wife’s story first and then you flip it over to read the husband’s story. But the opposite reflects the actual publishing order: Happenstance is Jack’s story; two years later came Brenda’s story in A Fairly Conventional Woman. The obvious inheritor of the pair is A Celibate Season with the dual male/female narratives, and the setups are indeed similar: a man is left at home alone with his teenage kids, having to cope with chores and an unexpected houseguest.
What I remembered beforehand: The wife goes to a quilting conference; an image of a hotel corridor and elevator.
Jack, a museum curator in Chicago, is writing a book about “Indian” trading practices (this isn’t the word we’d use nowadays, but the terminology ends up being important to the plot). He and his best friend Bernie, who’s going through a separation, are obsessed with questions of history: what gets written down, and what it means to have a sense of the past (or not). I loved all the little threads, like Jack’s father’s obsession with self-help books, memories of Brenda’s vivacious single mother, and their neighbor’s failure as Hamlet in a local production. I also enjoyed an epic trek in the snow in a final section potentially modeled on Ulysses.
A Fairly Conventional Woman
“Aside from quiltmaking, pleasantness was her one talent. … She had come to this awkward age, forty, at an awkward time in history – too soon to be one of the new women, whatever that meant, and too late to be an old-style woman.”
Brenda is in Philadelphia for a quilting conference. Quilting, once just a hobby, is now part of a modern art movement and she earns prizes and hundreds of dollars for her pieces. The hotel is overbooked, overlapping with an International Society of Metallurgists gathering, and both she and Barry from Vancouver, an attractive metallurgist in a pinstriped suit whom she meets in the elevator, are driven from their shared rooms by roommates bringing back one-night stands. This doesn’t add anything to the picture of a marriage in Jack’s story and I only skimmed it this time. It’s a wonder I kept reading Shields after this, but I’m so glad I did!
I reviewed these last two earlier this year. They were previously my joint favorites of Shields’s work, linked by a gardening hobby, the role of chance, and the unreliability of history and (auto)biography. They remain in my top three.
The Stone Diaries (1995)
What I remembered beforehand: a long train ride, a friend who by the feeling ‘down there’ thought that someone had had sex with her the night before, and something about the Orkney Islands.
Larry’s Party (1997)
What I remembered beforehand: a food poisoning incident (though I’d thought it was in one of Shields’s short stories), a climactic event involving a garden maze, a chapter entitled “Larry’s Penis,” and the closing dinner party scene.
Looking back: Fortunately, in the last 15 years I’ve done something to redress my ignorance, discovering Canadian women writers whom I admire greatly: Elizabeth Hay, Margaret Laurence, Mary Lawson and especially Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields.
Looking out: “I am watching. My own life will never be enough for me. It is a congenital condition, my only, only disease in an otherwise lucky life. I am a watcher, an outsider whether I like it or not, and I’m stuck with the dangers that go along with it. And the rewards.”
- That’s Judith on the last page of Small Ceremonies. It’s also probably Shields. And, to an extent, it seems like me. A writer, but mostly a reader, absorbing other lives.
Looking forward: I’m interested in rereading Shields’s short stories and Mary Swann (to be reissued by World Editions in 2021). And, though I’ve read 13 of her books now, there are still plenty of unread, lesser-known ones I’ll have to try to find secondhand one day. Her close attention to ordinary lives and relationships and the way we connect to the past makes her work essential.
Last year I reviewed Tenth of December by George Saunders on its title date; this year I couldn’t resist rereading one of my favorites from 2014 for today’s date (which just so happens to be Bloomsday, made famous by James Joyce’s Ulysses), The Sixteenth of June.
I responded to the novel at length when it first came out. No point in reinventing the wheel, so here are mildly edited paragraphs of synopsis from my review for The Bookbag:
Maya Lang’s playful and exquisitely accomplished debut novel, set on the centenary of the original Bloomsday, transplants many characters and set pieces from Ulysses to near-contemporary Philadelphia. Don’t fret, though – even if, like me, you haven’t read Ulysses, you’ll have no trouble following the thread. In fact, Lang dedicates her book to “all the readers who never made it through Ulysses (or haven’t wanted to try).” (Though if you wish to spot parallels, pull up any online summary of Ulysses; there is also a page on Lang’s website listing her direct quotations from Joyce.)
On June 16, 2004, brothers Leopold and Stephen Portman have two major commitments: their grandmother Hannah’s funeral is happening at the local synagogue in the morning; and their parents’ annual Bloomsday party will take place at their opulent Delancey Street home in the evening. Around those two thematic poles – the genuine emotions of grief and regret on the one hand, and the realm of superficial entertainment on the other – the novel expands outward to provide a nuanced picture of three ambivalent twenty-something lives.
The third side of this atypical love triangle is Nora, Stephen’s best friend from Yale – and Leo’s fiancée. Nora, a trained opera singer, is still reeling from her mother’s death from cancer one year ago. She’s been engaging in self-harming behavior, and Leo – a macho, literal-minded IT consultant – just wants to fix her. Nora and Stephen, by contrast, are sensitive, artistic souls who seem better suited to each other. Stephen, too, is struggling to find a meaning in death, but also to finish his languishing dissertation on Virginia Woolf.
Literature is almost as potent a marker of upper-class status as money here: some of the Portmans might not have even read Joyce’s masterpiece, but that doesn’t stop them name-dropping and maintaining the pretense of being well-read. While Lang might not mimic the extremes of Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness style, she prioritizes interiority over external action by using a close third-person voice that shifts between her main characters’ points of view. Their histories and thoughts are revealed mostly through interior monologues and conversations. Lang’s writing is full of mordant shards of humor; one of my favorite lines was “No one in a eulogy ever said, She watched TV with the volume on too loud.”
During my rereading, I was captivated more by the portraits of grief than by the subtle intellectual and class differences. I appreciated the characterization and the Joycean peekaboo, and the dialogue and shifts between perspectives still felt fresh and effortless. I could relate to Stephen and Nora’s feelings of being stuck and unsure how to move on in life. And the ending, which I’d completely forgotten, was perfect. I didn’t enjoy this quite as much the second time around, but it’s still a treasured signed copy on my shelf.
My original rating (June 2014):
My rating now:
Readalikes: Writers & Lovers by Lily King and The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud (my upcoming Doorstopper of the Month).
(See also my review of Lang’s recent memoir, What We Carry.)
Alas, I’ve also had a couple of failed rereading attempts recently…
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002)
I remembered this as a zany family history quest turned into fiction. A Jewish-American character named Jonathan Safran Foer travels to (fictional) Trachimbrod, Ukraine to find the traces of his ancestors and, specifically, the woman who hid his grandfather from the Nazis. I had totally forgotten about the comic narration via letters from Jonathan’s translator/tour guide, Alexander, who fancies himself a ladies’ man and whose English is full of comic thesaurus use (e.g. “Do not dub me that,” “Guilelessly yours”). This was amusing, but got to be a bit much. I’d also forgotten about the dense magic realism of the historical sections. As with A Visit from the Goon Squad, what felt dazzlingly clever on a first read (in January 2011) failed to capture me a second time. [35 pages]
Interestingly, Foer’s mother, Esther, released a memoir earlier this year, I Want You to Know We’re Still Here. It’s about the family history her son turned into quirky autofiction: a largely fruitless trip he took to Ukraine to research his maternal grandfather’s life for his Princeton thesis, and a more productive follow-up trip she took with her older son in 2009. Esther Safran Foer was born in Poland and lived in a German displaced persons camp until she and her parents emigrated to Washington, D.C. in 1949. Her father committed suicide in 1954, making him almost a belated victim of the Holocaust. The stories she hears in Ukraine – of the slaughter of entire communities; of moments of good luck that allowed her parents to, separately, survive and find each other – are remarkable, but the book’s prose, while capable, never sings. Plus, she references her son’s novel so often that I wondered why someone would read her book when they could read his instead.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005)
This was an all-time favorite when it first came out. I remembered a sophisticated homage to E.M. Forster’s Howards End, featuring a biracial family in Cambridge, Mass. I remembered no specifics beyond a giant music store and (embarrassingly) an awkward sex scene. Howard Belsey’s long-distance rivalry with a fellow Rembrandt scholar gets personal when the Kipps family relocates from London to the Boston suburbs for Monty to be the new celebrity lecturer at the same college. Howard is in the doghouse with his African-American wife, Kiki, after having an affair. The Belsey boy and Kipps girl have an awkward romantic history. Zora Belsey is smitten with a lower-class spoken word poet she meets after a classical concert in the park when they pick up each other’s Discmans by accident (so dated!). All of the portraits felt like stereotypes to me, and there was so much telling, so much backstory, so many unnecessary secondary characters. Before I would have said this was my obvious Women’s Prize winner of winners, but now I have no idea what I’ll vote for. [107 pages]
Currently rereading: Watership Down by Richard Adams, Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
To reread soon: Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty & Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Done any rereading lately?
These three books – two novels and a memoir – pay loving tribute to a particular nineteenth- or twentieth-century writer. In each case, the author incorporates passages of pastiche, moving beyond thematic similarity to make their language an additional homage.
Although I enjoyed the three books very much, they differ in terms of how familiar you should be with the source material before embarkation. So while they were all reads for me, I have added a note below each review to indicate the level of prior knowledge needed.
The River Capture by Mary Costello
Luke O’Brien has taken a long sabbatical from his teaching job in Dublin and is back living at the family farm beside the river in Waterford. Though only in his mid-thirties, he seems like a man of sorrows, often dwelling on the loss of parents, aunts and romantic relationships with both men and women. He takes quiet pleasure in food, the company of pets, and books, including his extensive collection on James Joyce, about whom he’d like to write a tome of his own. The novel’s very gentle crisis comes when Luke falls for Ruth and it emerges that her late father ruined his beloved Aunt Ellen’s reputation.
At this point a troubled Luke is driven into 100+ pages of sinuous contemplation, a bravura section of short fragments headed by questions. Rather like a catechism, it’s a playful way of organizing his thoughts and likely more than a little Joycean in approach – I’ve read Portrait of the Artist and Dubliners but not Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, so I feel less than able to comment on the literary ventriloquism, but I found this a pleasingly over-the-top stream-of-consciousness that ranges from the profound (“What fear suddenly assails him? The arrival of the noonday demon”) to the scatological (“At what point does he urinate? At approximately three-quarters of the way up the avenue”).
While this doesn’t quite match Costello’s near-perfect novella, Academy Street, it’s an impressive experiment in voice and style, and the treatment of Luke’s bisexuality struck me as sensitive – an apt metaphorical manifestation of the novel’s focus on fluidity. (See also Susan’s excellent review.)
Why Joyce? “integrity … commitment to the quotidian … refusal to take conventions for granted”
Familiarity required: Moderate
Also recommended: The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang
With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.
In Love with George Eliot by Kathy O’Shaughnessy
Many characters, fictional and historical, are in love with George Eliot over the course of this debut novel by a literary editor. The whole thing is a book within a book – fiction being written by Kate, an academic at London’s Queen Elizabeth College who’s preparing for two conferences on Eliot and a new co-taught course on life writing at the same time as she completes her novel, which blends biographical information and imagined scenes.
1857: Eliot is living with George Henry Lewes, her common-law husband, and working on Adam Bede, which becomes a runaway success, not least because of speculation about its anonymous author. 1880: The great author’s death leaves behind a mentally unstable widower 20 years her junior, John Walter Cross, once such a close family friend that she and Lewes called him “Nephew.”
Between these points are intriguing vignettes from Eliot’s life with her two great loves, and insight into her scandalous position in Victorian society. Her estrangement from her dear brother (the model for Tom in The Mill on the Floss) is a plangent refrain, while interactions with female friends who have accepted the norms of marriage and motherhood reveal just how transgressive her life is perceived to be.
In the historical sections O’Shaughnessy mimics Victorian prose ably, yet avoids the convoluted syntax that can make Eliot challenging. I might have liked a bit more of the contemporary story line, in which Kate and an alluring colleague make their way to Venice (the site of Eliot’s legendarily disastrous honeymoon trip with Cross), but by making this a minor thread O’Shaughnessy ensures that the spotlight remains on Eliot throughout.
Highlights: A cameo appearance by Henry James; a surprisingly sexy passage in which Cross and Eliot read Dante aloud to each other and share their first kiss.
Why Eliot? “As an artist, this was her task, to move the reader to see people in the round.”
Familiarity required: Low
Also recommended: 142 Strand by Rosemary Ashton, Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker, and My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
With thanks to Scribe UK for the free copy for review.
All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf by Katharine Smyth
Smyth first read To the Lighthouse in Christmas 2001, during her junior year abroad at Oxford. Shortly thereafter her father had surgery in Boston to remove his bladder, one of many operations he’d had during a decade battling cancer. But even this new health scare wasn’t enough to keep him from returning to his habitual three bottles of wine a day. Woolf was there for Smyth during this crisis and all the time leading up to her father’s death, with Lighthouse and Woolf’s own life reflecting Smyth’s experience in unanticipated ways. The Smyths’ Rhode Island beach house, for instance, was reminiscent of the Stephens’ home in Cornwall. Woolf’s mother’s death was an end to the summer visits, and to her childhood; Lighthouse would become her elegy to those bygone days.
Often a short passage by or about Woolf is enough to launch Smyth back into her memories. As an only child, she envied the busy family life of the Ramsays in Lighthouse. She delves into the mystery of her parents’ marriage and her father’s faltering architecture career. She also undertakes Woolf tourism, including the Cornwall cottage, Knole, Charleston and Monk’s House (where Woolf wrote most of Lighthouse). Her writing is dreamy, mingling past and present as she muses on time and grief. The passages of Woolf pastiche are obvious but short enough not to overstay their welcome; as in the Costello, they tend to feature water imagery. It’s a most unusual book in the conception, but for Woolf fans especially, it works. However, I wished I had read Lighthouse more recently than 16.5 years ago – it’s one to reread.
Why Woolf? “I think it’s Woolf’s mastery of moments like these—moments that hold up a mirror to our private tumult while also revealing how much we as humans share—that most draws me to her.”
Undergraduate wisdom: “Woolf’s technique: taking a very complex (usually female) character and using her mind as an emblem of all minds” [copied from notes I took during a lecture on To the Lighthouse in a “Modern Wasteland” course during my sophomore year of college]
Familiarity required: High
Also recommended: Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee, Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar, and Adeline by Norah Vincent
With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.
“all these ideas are swirling around inside your head at once, hurling through your mind, it is on fire, so when you speak it all comes out muddled and confused and no one can understand you.”
Like the other Wellcome-longlisted title I’ve highlighted so far, Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, Mind on Fire explores mental health. Its subtitle is “A Memoir of Madness and Recovery,” and Irish playwright Fanning focuses on the ten years or so in his twenties and thirties when he struggled to get on top of his bipolar disorder and was in and out of mental hospitals – and even homeless on the streets of London for a short time.
Fanning had suffered from periods of depression ever since his mother’s death from cancer when he was 20, but things got much worse when he was 28 and living in Dublin. It was the summer of 1997 and he’d quit a full-time job to write stories and film scripts. What with the wild swings in his moods and energy levels, though, he found it increasingly difficult to get along with his father, with whom he was living. He also got kicked out of an artists’ residency, and on the way home his car ran out of petrol – such that when he called the police for help, it was for a breakdown in more than one sense. This was the first time he was taken to a psychiatric unit, at the Tyrone and Fermanagh Hospital, where he stayed for 10 days.
In the years to come there would be many more hospital stays, delusions, medication regimes and odd behavior. There would also be time spent in America – an artists’ residency in Virginia, where he met Jennifer, and a fairly long-term relationship with her in New York City – and ups and downs in his writing career. For instance, he remembers that after reading Ulysses he was so despairingly convinced that he would never be a “real writer” like James Joyce that he burned hundreds of pages of work-in-progress.
This was a very hard book for me to rate. The prologue is a brilliant 6.5-page run-on sentence in the second person and present tense (I’ve quoted a fragment above) that puts you right into the author’s experience. It is a superb piece of writing. But nothing that comes after (a more standard first-person narrative, though still in the present tense for most of it) is nearly as good. As I’ve found in some other mental health memoirs, the cycle of hospitalizations and medications gets repetitive. It’s a whole lot of telling: this happened, then that happened. That’s also true of the flashbacks to his childhood and university years.
Due to his unreliable memory of his years lost to bipolar, Fanning has had to recreate his experiences from medical records, interviews with people who knew him, and so on. This insistence on documentary realism distances the reader from what should be intimate, terrifying events. I almost wondered if this would have worked better as a novel, allowing the author to invent more and thus better capture what it actually felt like to flirt with madness. There’s no denying the extremity of this period of his life, but I found myself unable to fully engage with the retelling. (Also, this is doomed to be mistaken for the superior Brain on Fire.)
A favorite passage:
St John of God’s carries associations for me. I attended primary school not far from here, and used to see denizens of the hospital on their day outings, conspicuous in the way they walked: hunched over, balled up, constricted, eyes down to the ground, visibly disturbed. We cruelly referred to these people as ‘mentallers’, though never to their faces or within earshot, as we were frightened of them.
Now I, too, am a mentaller.
My gut feeling: There are several stronger memoirs on the longlist, so I don’t see this one making it through.
- I’m about halfway through both The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.
- I finally got hold of a library copy of Murmur by Will Eaves.
- The only two books I haven’t read and don’t have access to are Astroturf and Polio. I’ll only read these if they are on the shortlist. (Fingers crossed Astroturf doesn’t make it: it sounds awful!)
The Wellcome Book Prize shortlist will be announced on Tuesday, March 19th, and the winner will be revealed on Wednesday, May 1st.
We plan to choose our own shortlist to announce on Friday, March 15th. Follow along here and on Halfman, Halfbook, Annabookbel, A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall for reviews and predictions.
I love book lists: ticking off what I’ve read from newspaper and website selections, comparing my “best-of” choices and prize predictions with other people’s, and making up my own thematic inventories. Earlier in the year I spotted Desert Island-style 100-book lists on Annabookbel and A life in books, as well as Lonesome Reader’s reconsideration of the 100 favorite books he’d chosen half a lifetime ago. For my 35th birthday today, I’ve looked back at my “Absolute Favorites” shelf on Goodreads and picked the 35 titles that stand out the most for me: some are childhood favorites, some are books that changed my thinking, some I have read two or three times (an extreme rarity for me), and some are recent discoveries that have quickly become personal classics. I’ve listed these in rough chronological order of when I first read them, rather than ranking them, which would be nigh on impossible! Perhaps I’ll revisit the list on future significant birthdays and see how things change. Interesting to note that this works out as about two-thirds fiction and one-third nonfiction.
- Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
- The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
- Watership Down by Richard Adams
- Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
- David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
- Possession by A.S. Byatt
- Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
- Sixpence House by Paul Collins
- A History of God by Karen Armstrong
- Conundrum by Jan Morris
- The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg
- The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
- My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
- On Beauty by Zadie Smith
- Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty
- Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner
- A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
- American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
- Caribou Island by David Vann
- To Travel Hopefully by Christopher Rush
- We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
- The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
- Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway
- An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
- A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
- Want Not by Jonathan Miles
- Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton
- F by Daniel Kehlmann
- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
- March by Geraldine Brooks
Are any of these among your favorites, too?
It’s my first time participating in Reading Ireland Month, run each March by Cathy of 746 Books and Niall of The Fluff is Raging. I enjoyed scouring my shelves for Irish reads – though in the end I only had time for two.
Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane (1996)
I don’t recall how I first heard about this book, but its title was familiar to me when I picked it up for a matter of pence at a charity shop last year. When I saw it on Cathy’s recent list of her top five Irish books of all time, I knew I was in for something special. These vivid vignettes of childhood and young adulthood are so convincing that I could have been fooled into believing I was reading a memoir. Indeed, this debut novel has generally been interpreted as heavily autobiographical, with the anonymous narrator, the third of seven children born to Catholic parents in Derry, Northern Ireland, taken to be a stand-in for Deane.
Ireland’s internecine violence is the sinister backdrop to this family’s everyday sorrows, including the death of a child and the mother’s shaky mental health. The narrator also learns a family secret from his dying maternal grandfather that at first thrills him – he knows something his father doesn’t! – but later serves to drive him away from his parents. The short chapters take place between 1945 and 1971: starting when the boy is five years old and encountering a household ghost on the stairs and ending as, in his early thirties, he lays his father to rest in the midst of the Troubles.
The Irish have such a knack for holding humor and tragedy up side by side – think John Boyne, James Joyce and Frank McCourt. The one force doesn’t negate the other, but the juxtaposition reminds you that life isn’t all gloom or laughs. There are some terrifically funny incidents in Reading in the Dark, like the individual sex ed. chat with Father Nugent (“And semen is the Latin for seed. Do you have to know Latin to do this?”) and going to investigate the rumor of a brothel by the football ground. But there is also perhaps the best ghost story I’ve ever read, an eerie tale of shape-shifting children he hears from his aunt.
This book captures all the magic, uncertainty and heartache of being a child, in crisp scenes I saw playing out in my mind. If I have one small, strange complaint, it’s that there’s too much plot – most of the chapters function perfectly well as stand-alone short stories, so, particularly in the last third, the growing obsession with the family secret feels like an unnecessary attempt to tie everything together. That plus the slight irrelevance of the title are the only reasons this misses out on 5 stars from me.
Still, I’d agree with Cathy: this is probably one of my favorite Irish reads, along with Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Mary Costello’s Academy Street, Anne Enright’s The Green Road, and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It’s no wonder Deane won so many prizes for this: the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, and the Irish Literature Prize; he was also shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize.
“Child, she’d tell me, I think sometimes you’re possessed. Can’t you just let the past be the past?”
“He looked up at me, smiling, to say: ah well, it was all blood under the bridge now”
“Politics destroyed people’s lives in this place, he said. People were better not knowing some things”
Mother Ireland by Edna O’Brien (1976)
This slim volume combines travel writing, history and memoir, with plentiful black and white photographs (by Fergus Bourke) along the way. Often, even where O’Brien is clearly drawing on autobiographical material, she resists saying “I”, instead opting for “one,” “you,” or “we.” I think she was aiming at the universalities of the Irish experience, but instead it ends up coming off as generic. That and a long opening chapter on Ireland’s history set me to skimming. (Also, the book is maddeningly underpunctuated, and the photos in particular seem very dated.) By far my favorite of the seven essays was the last, “Escape to England.” In just three pages, she explains what it’s like to start a new life in another country and how the experience allowed her to appreciate home all the more. Should I try O’Brien’s fiction?
“Irish people do not like to be contradicted. Foiled again and again[,] they have in them a rage that comes at you unawares like a briar jutting out of a hedge.”
“You are Irish[,] you say lightly, and allocated to you are the tendencies to be wild, wanton, drunk, superstitious, unreliable, backward, toadying and prone to fits, whereas you know that in fact a whole entourage of ghosts resides in you, ghosts with whom the inner rapport is as frequent, as perplexing, as defiant as with any of the living.”
No time for these this year – maybe next year, if not sooner?
This was my first experience with Arnold Bennett’s fiction; I’d previously read his Literary Taste. (He is not to be confused, as I’ve done in the past, with novelist and playwright Alan Bennett (An Uncommon Reader, etc.)!) Bennett (1867–1931) was from the Potteries region of Staffordshire and moved to London in his early twenties to work in a law office. Anna of the Five Towns (1902) was his second novel and first moderate success, but it was The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) and the Clayhanger trilogy (1910–16) that truly made his name.
Bennett was a contemporary of D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Thomas Hardy (though Hardy had given up on novels by that point), and Anna reminds me of each of these authors to an extent – but particularly of Lawrence, what with his working-class Midlands roots. I also frequently thought of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (religious angst) and Far from the Madding Crowd (a heroine who faces romantic entanglements and financial responsibility for the first time).
Twenty-year-old Anna Tellwright is a Methodist Sunday school teacher and lives with her twelve-year-old sister, Agnes, and their ill-tempered father, Ephraim, in “Bursley” (Bennett’s name for Burslem, now part of Stoke-on-Trent). The family is well off thanks to Ephraim’s canny property investments and inheritances he and his late wife received. Yet Anna is still dumbfounded to learn, on her twenty-first birthday, that she’s worth £50,000. Ephraim, generally referred to as “the miser” – there’s no nuance here; he’s typecast and never rises above the label – is happy to turn over certain aspects of the business to Anna, like hounding their tenants the Prices for late rent, but doesn’t give her autonomy over her daily spending. She must meekly approach her father each time she wants to purchase something for herself.
Anna has a suitor, Henry Mynors, whose business Ephraim supports as a sleeping partner. She loves the idea of being loved – and the suspicion that she has unwittingly wrenched a desirable prospect away from pretty Beatrice Sutton. But she doesn’t seem to be truly in love with Henry, just like her heart isn’t fully committed to the local revival put on by the Methodists. After all, she hasn’t had the emotional conversion experience that would prove irrefutably that she is saved. Much as she beats herself up over her so-called sins, the desired transformation never arrives. Instead, the closest thing she has to an epiphany comes when she’s standing atop a hill on the Isle of Man on her first-ever holiday:
She perceived that the monotony, the austerity, the melancholy of her existence had been sweet and beautiful of its kind, and she recalled, with a sort of rapture, hours of companionship with the beloved Agnes, when her father was equable and pacific. Nothing was ugly nor mean. Beauty was everywhere, in everything.
The Prices take on unforeseen significance in the novel, and in her dealings with them Anna is caught between a wish to be Christlike in her compassion and the drive to act as the shrewd businesswoman her father expects. Though she is eventually able to wrest back something like financial independence, she remains bound by the social convention of marrying well.
Anna is more timid and introspective than your average heroine; I felt great sympathy for her not in spite of but because of those character traits. I recently took the Myers-Briggs test for the first time, and wondered if Anna could be an ISTJ like me – she dreads having to visit her pupils’ homes and make small talk with the parents, comes across as curt when nervous, and can’t seem to turn her brain off and just feel instead. (Kate Scott of Parchment Girl runs a blog series about characters who exemplify the different Myers-Briggs personality types.)
There’s a lack of subtlety to Bennett’s writing, something I particularly noted in the physical descriptions (“She was tall, but not unusually so, and sturdily built up. Her figure, though the bust was a little flat, had the lenient curves of absolute maturity”) and some heavy-handed foreshadowing (“It was on the very night after this eager announcement that the approaching tragedy came one step nearer”). But I can let him off considering that this was published 115 years ago. It’s an excellent example of regional literature (can you think of another book set in Staffordshire?), with Anna’s visit to Henry’s pottery works a particular highlight. Bennett takes an unpromising setting and rather humble people and becomes their bard:
Nothing could be more prosaic than the huddled, red-brown streets; nothing more seemingly remote from romance. Yet be it said that romance is even here—
Several miles away, the blast-furnaces of Cauldron Bar Ironworks shot up vast wreaths of yellow flame with canopies of tinted smoke. Still more distant were a thousand other lights crowning chimney and kiln, and nearer, on the waste lands west of Bleakridge, long fields of burning ironstone glowed with all the strange colours of decadence. The entire landscape was illuminated and transformed by these unique pyrotechnics of labour atoning for its grime, and dull, weird sounds, as of the breathings and sighings of gigantic nocturnal creatures, filled the enchanted air.
The tea, made specially magnificent in honour of the betrothal, was such a meal as could only have been compassed in Staffordshire or Yorkshire—a high tea of the last richness and excellence, exquisitely gracious to the palate, but ruthless in its demands on the stomach. At one end of the table … was a fowl which had been boiled for four hours; at the other, a hot pork-pie, islanded in liquor, which might have satisfied a regiment. Between these two dishes were … hot pikelets, hot crumpets, hot toast, sardines with tomatoes, raisin-bread, currant-bread, seed-cake, lettuce, home-made marmalade and home-made jams. The repast occupied over an hour, and even then not a quarter of the food was consumed.
I enjoyed this for the pacey plot, the religious theme, the sympathetic protagonist, and the loving look at an industrial area. I’ll certainly be looking out for copies of Bennett’s other novels in secondhand bookshops; meanwhile, Project Gutenberg also has a good selection of his writings. (My copy was withdrawn from Lambeth Libraries stock and sold for 10 pence.)
When it came to it, it isn’t me
was all he seemed to learn
from all his diligent forays outward.
(from “It Isn’t Me” by James Lasdun)
I chose to read this doorstopper from 1915 because it appeared in The Novel Cure on a list entitled “The Ten Best Novels for Thirty-Somethings.” By happy accident, I was also reading it throughout its centenary year. My knowledge of W. Somerset Maugham’s work was limited – I had seen the 2006 film version of The Painted Veil but never read anything by him – so I had no clear idea of what to expect. I was pleased to encounter a narrative rich with psychological insight and traces of the Victorian novel.
Philip Carey is not unlike a Dickensian hero: born with a club foot and orphaned as a child, he’s raised by his stern vicar uncle in Kent and reluctantly attends boarding school. Much of the book is filled with his post-schooling wanderings and professional shilly-shallying, along with multiple romantic missteps. He studies in Germany, tries to make it as a painter in Paris, and returns to London to train as an accountant and then as a doctor. Each attempted career seems to fail, as does every relationship. Philip reminded me most of David Copperfield, especially after he meets the jolly, Micawber-esque Thorpe Athelny during his hospital internship and becomes friendly with his wife and children.
As is common in Victorian novels, Philip is troubled by his conflicting desires. When it comes to women, he cannot get love to match up with lust. As a youth he loses his virginity to Emily Wilkinson, a woman in her mid-30s, then wants nothing to do with her. A few other dalliances have mixed success, but the novel focuses on Philip’s connection to Mildred Rogers. A café waitress, she’s vain and ill-tempered and acts indifferent to Philip – but is happy for him to spend money on her. He’s disgusted and infatuated all at once: “He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her. He would rather have misery with [her] than happiness with [another].” Though Mildred tries to eschew the traditional roles of wife and mother, the Victorian notion of the fallen woman haunts her.
This on-again, off-again romance forms the heart of the book. Both Philip and Mildred are maddening in their own way. Not since Pip (another Philip, interestingly) in Great Expectations have I been so furious at a main character for consistently making the wrong choices, being dazzled by beauty and status and ignoring the more important things in life. Yet the close third-person narration sees so deeply into Philip’s psyche that I could not help but feel sympathy for him, too, cringing over his every failure – especially when stock market losses leave him destitute and he undertakes humiliating (to him) work at a department store. The novel is liberally studded with intimate paragraphs conveying Philip’s thoughts:
He painted with the brain, and he could not help knowing that the only painting worth anything was done with the heart. … [H]e had a terrible fear that he would never be more than second-rate. Was it worth while for that to give up one’s youth, and the gaiety of life, and the manifold chances of being?
Pain and disease and unhappiness weighed down the scale so heavily. What did it all mean? He thought of his own life, the high hopes with which he had entered upon it, the limitations which his body forced upon him, his friendlessness, and the lack of affection which had surrounded his youth. He did not know that he had ever done anything but what seemed best to do, and what a cropper he had come! Other men, with no more advantages than he, succeeded, and others again, with many more, failed. It seemed pure chance. The rain fell alike upon the just and upon the unjust, and for nothing was there a why and a wherefore.
Another humanizing element that especially appealed to me was Philip’s loss of Christian faith. During my study abroad year and especially my master’s year at Leeds, when I wrote a dissertation on women’s loss-of-faith narratives in Victorian fiction, I read a lot of novels about belief and doubt. In Philip’s case, I was interested to see how Maugham portrays what is usually seen as a loss as more of a liberation:
Suddenly he realised that he had lost also that burden of responsibility which made every action of his life a matter of urgent consequence. He could breathe more freely in a lighter air. He was responsible only to himself for the things he did. Freedom! He was his own master at last. From old habit, unconsciously he thanked God that he no longer believed in Him.
Although Philip frequently indulges in self-pity, he also has moments where he wakes up to the wonder of life. These epiphanies of the beauty of London, of the whole world, were among my favorite scenes.
Unusually in a long book, I thought the last 150 pages were the strongest. I struggled to pay attention throughout Philip’s schooling and wearied of the endless negotiations with Mildred, but when Philip is at his lowest point – like the protagonist of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, not even sure if he’ll find enough to eat – there’s a real intensity to the plot that made this last chunk fly by.
I read a 1930s Modern Library copy from the University of Reading, but consulted Robert Calder’s introduction to the 1992 Penguin Classics edition for background information. It seems the novel was recognizably autobiographical for Maugham, though where a club foot was Philip’s source of shame, for the author it was his stammer (and his sexuality – he married but is known to have been a homosexual).
Like Joyce’s roughly contemporary A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Calder notes, Of Human Bondage fits into the “apprentice novel” genre. Despite being published in 1915, it is set in a recent past so makes no reference to the First World War, though the Boer War plays a background role. I didn’t find the book to be particularly dated; I even discovered that a couple of sayings I might have pegged as later inventions were around in the 1910s: “like it or lump it” and “put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
Of Human Bondage met with a lukewarm critical response in its own time but does seem to be among the more beloved – if obscure – classics nowadays. Calder insists that it “remains Maugham’s most complete statement of the importance of physical and spiritual liberty.”
There have been three film versions – and another is in production this year, apparently. The best known, from 1934, launched the career of Bette Davis, who gave it her all as Mildred Rogers (she was a write-in favorite for the Oscars that year). Overacting, for sure, but her blonde wave and simpering looks were perfect for the role. By contrast, Leslie Howard’s is a fairly subtle Philip. The movie – condensed, amazingly, to just over an hour and a half – focuses on his club foot and his relationship with Mildred; I was disappointed that no attempt was made to reproduce Philip’s introspective monologues through voiceovers.
To my surprise, Calder asserts that Of Human Bondage “has become one of the most widely read of modern novels, particularly by young people, who still find relevance in Philip’s struggle for a free and meaningful life.” It was good enough for Holden Caulfield, after all. It struck me during my reading that two recent novels may have taken inspiration from Maugham: the main character in Esther Freud’s Mr. Mac and Me, set in 1914, has a club foot; and in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life Jude’s shame over his deteriorating physical condition, especially his legs, is reminiscent of Philip’s.
I’m not sure I’ll try anything else by Maugham – how could I when there’s still so much of Dickens and Hardy left to read? – but I’m certainly glad I read this. It’s clear why Berthoud and Elderkin thought Of Human Bondage would be a perfect read for someone in their 30s: it’s infused with the protagonist’s nostalgia for his youth and regret at opportunities not taken and time lost. The novel imagines a world where, even without a god pulling a string, some misfortune seems to be fated. Even so, free will is there, allowing you to recover from failure and try something new that will be truer to yourself in this one and only life.
Almost immediately after our trip to Manchester (see my write-up of the literary destinations), we left again for Dublin, where my husband was attending a Royal Entomological Society conference. Like we did last year when he presented a poster at a conference in Florence, I went along since we only had to pay for my flight and meals.
We stayed north of the Liffey at one of the branches of Jurys Inn. For some reason they put us in a disabled room, which meant the bathroom was a bit odd, but I can’t complain about the breakfast buffet, which included black pudding, soda bread, fruit scones, and particularly delicious porridge.
Across the street was the terrific Chapters bookstore, with extensive secondhand and new stock. I highly recommend the Lonely Planet guide to Dublin, which provided my maps and many of my ideas for the week; I even managed to do 8 of their 10 recommended activities.
On Wednesday I wandered just a few minutes down the road to the Dublin Writers’ Museum. An audio guide takes you through the chronological displays about minor figures as well as the big names like W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw. One caveat: only dead writers are considered; the museum is definitely missing a trick there – they could easily fill another room with living authors.
On the whole I found the place looking a bit shabby nowadays, but I passed a pleasant hour and a half here before popping a few doors down to the Dublin City Gallery, where they have multiple paintings by Jack B. Yeats (William Butler’s brother) as well as gems like a Monet and a Monet.
On Thursday I used the DK guide for a recommended walk through literary and Georgian Dublin. Along the way I discovered plaques to Yeats, Wilde (his home is now the headquarters of the American College and not open to the public, alas), ghost story writer Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, Bram Stoker, and Elizabeth Bowen, and a statue of poet Patrick Kavanagh by the canal. Fitzwilliam and Merrion Squares reminded me of London’s Bloomsbury Square (the latter houses a deliciously camp statue of Wilde), and St. Stephen’s Green would be a Hyde Park-type lovely spot for a sunny stroll – though it was drizzling and chilly as I walked through.
At the National Museum (Archaeology), I learned about Brian Boru, the national hero who kicked out the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf and united the country.
My husband’s conference was at Trinity College, so he had a special chance to look in at the Old Library and the Book of Kells for a discounted price, but I didn’t end up going. On Thursday night we did something quintessentially Irish: found a pub with live traditional Irish folk music. Although we paid through the teeth for a pint of Guinness and a bottle of cider, it was an experience we wouldn’t have missed.
On Friday, after finishing up some reviewing work in the morning and checking out of the hotel, I returned to the Lonely Planet for a guided walk through Viking and medieval Dublin. The route took in the two cathedrals plus various other churches, ending up at the Castle and the Chester Beatty Library. I skipped the former but enjoyed a brief look at the rare books and manuscripts of the latter (mostly relating to the Far East, with a special focus on Asian religions) before walking back to the National Gallery to see the permanent collection.
That afternoon we moved on to Howth, a Dublin suburb only about 20 minutes away on the DART commuter train, but that somehow feels a world away: it’s a pleasant seaside village with heather- and gorse-covered hills and a lighthouse. It felt good to get out of the city – which was extremely busy and seemed to be mostly full of fellow tourists and the homeless – even if just for a little while.
This was our first AirBnB experience and turned out well after some unfortunate communication difficulties. Before settling in to our B&B we found a cheap and filling meal of fish and chips. The next day we explored the cliffs and met some friendly hooded crows before heading back into Dublin for a look at the wonderfully musty Natural History Museum and an excellent dinner at The Woollen Mills (interesting American fusion food: I had pork belly mac & cheese, and our dessert platter included an Oreo peanut butter tart).
My overall feeling was that Dublin still isn’t making as much of its literary heritage as it might do. I was perhaps not as impressed as I’d hoped to be – it’s a lot like London, and not as quaint as I might have expected. Still, I’m glad I went. Next time, though, I suspect we’ll go to less inhabited and more picturesque areas in the south and west.
I hadn’t the courage to face Joyce’s Ulysses or some other monolith of Irish literature, but I did continue Anne Enright’s The Green Road while in Dublin. I was also working on My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham (my current doorstopper), and The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood.
Any comments about Ireland and its literary sites and/or heroes are most welcome!