The Ballad of Peckham Rye: My First Experience with Muriel Spark

This is my first Muriel Spark book (thanks to Grant at 1st Reading for giving me the nudge to try her) and I knew from these opening sentences that I would enjoy her writing very much:

‘Get away from here, you dirty swine,’ she said.

‘There’s a dirty swine in every man,’ he said.

‘Showing your face round here again,’ she said.

The “he” is Humphrey, who has recently jilted his bride-to-be, Dixie, at the altar and the “she” is Dixie’s mother.  Spark’s narrative is full of surprises, the first, and most obvious of which, is that the author begins her story at the end.  My impression after reading the first page was poor Dixie, what an awful thing to happen to her.  But over the course of the next 140 pages Spark convinces me that Humphrey probably made the right decision.  Men might have something of the dirty swine in them, but the ladies don’t fair much better in this humorous and strange book.

Dougal Douglas, the new guy in town, is blamed not only for the failed wedding, but also for the other mayhem that has recently broken out in town—fighting, absenteeism at the local textile factory, and even murder.  He keeps showing everyone that he used to have two horns on his head that were surgically removed and so many people believe that he is, physically and mentally, a devil.  Although Dougal is shrewd and quirky, his intentions are not really evil.  And, unlike everyone else in Peckham, he is rather forthcoming about his greatest weakness—he can’t stand any type of sickness.  At the first sign of a disease he will flee as fast as he possibly can.

The two subplots in the text that entertained and intrigued me the most were those that involved Mr. Druce, a manager at the local factory and Dixie’s thirteen year-old brother, Leslie.  Mr. Druce is in a rather unhappy marriage of twenty years and is having a an affair with the head of the typing pool.  When Dougal questions Druce about his reasons for staying in the marriage, it seems that the wife has some sort of secret that she is holding over her husband.  And what is even more interesting is that the pair having spoken in a few years, only communicating through notes.  Mr. Druce and his odd behavior keep the tension building in this bizarre narrative right up to the final page.

Leslie, at first, seems like a typical, sulky teenager who is withdrawn from his family.  But as the story goes on we learn that this boy has a much more sinister side and is involved with gangs, blackmail and roughing up old ladies.  His parents argue over his upbringing, or lack thereof; his father thinks that since he works all day that the responsibility of childrearing falls on the maternal parent and his mother thinks that his father ought to take more of an interest in his son’s life.  So the result of this parental stalemate is a wild boy who tortures his sister and his neighbors and never suffers any consequences for his bad behavior.

This was just the perfect book to enjoy poolside on a hot Sunday afternoon.  I look forward to reading more of Spark over my summer holidays.  I have Open to the Public, The Mandelbaum Gate and Memento Mori sitting on my TBR piles.  Please let me know what other books of hers you would also recommend.

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Doing Well What Men Do: Artemisia by Anna Banti

Judith Slaying Holofernes. Artemisia Gentileschi. 1620.

Susan Sontag, in her introduction to Banti’s Artemisia which is translated by Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo, writes:

Aptly enough, the name Artemisia is associated with female assertiveness, with women doing well what men do.  In Greek mythology, Artemis—Artemisia means follower of Artemis—is the goddess of the hunt.  In history—Herodotus’s great History, which recounts the attempt of the Persian empire to conquer the tiny, independent Greek city-states on the northwest edge of Xerxes’s vast domains—it is the name of a queen and military leader: Artemisia, Queen of Halicarnassus, a Greek city in Ionia, who joined the Persians and was put in command by Xerxes of five of his ships.

As vocations go, a Greek queen commanding a Persian naval squadron is only slightly more improbable than a seventeenth-century Italian woman becoming a much sought after professional painter of large narrative compositions with Biblical or classical subjects—many of which depict women’s rage and women’s victimization.

Instead of choosing to focus on Artemisia’s assault and embarrassing public trial and torture,  Banti chooses other episodes in the painter’s life that display her assertiveness and her “doing well what men do.”  This is not a traditional, linear narrative with a clean plot; Banti is having a conversation with her protagonist and chooses to recreate scenes in her life that show her independence and resilience.  For example, there is a long description of Artemisia’s time in Florence where she works on her Judith Slaying Holofernes masterpiece.  As she is painting, five Florentine society women watch her and gossip; the contrast between these silly onlookers and the artist is highlighted in Banti’s text:

She who used to be so shy if her brother even looked at a drawing of hers, had grown accustomed to the remarks these women made and to their lack of discretion with an indifference that did not even surprise her.  And sometimes, getting hurriedly to her feel and going resolutely over to the model to arrange him in a position more in keeping with her purpose, it would happen that she might trample the hem of a dress, or bump into a curved shoulder without apologizing, so little did their presence count for her.

Her painting is triumphantly presented to the Grand Duke, but, despite her growing fame, she travels back to Rome where her husband is living.  For a very brief time she is content living with Antonio, a humble, hardworking man who is kind, gentle, and loving to her.  But when she is given an apartment and is commissioned for a series of paintings for the upper classes of Rome, she rebukes him for not fitting into her new society.  This is one of the saddest parts of the story because Artemisia chooses her work over her husband who feels that he has no choice but to leave her.  For the rest of her life she is haunted by the happiness she once felt for him and wonders if she made the correct decision.

A large part of the narrative at the end of the book is taken up with her voyage by ship to London where she will live with her father at the court of the Queen.  She is scared to travel so far all alone, but once again asserts her independence and her assertiveness. The journey is a fitting scene that reflects the entirety of her itinerant life and her struggle to be accepted by her friends, family and her husband.  As the ship sways and rocks her into a state of solitary reflection she thinks to herself:

She contrived then to call to mind all her own faults: how she used to remain stubbornly silent at her husband’s attentions; how, confident of his devotion, she would bask in it without care, almost without really enjoying it, believing herself to be free, owing him nothing in return.  And how she used to reproach him for his lowly station, his wretched job, his moodiness.  And how that last time, when she had been angry, she should have realized how afraid he was of her.  He had left: but she had been sure of his love….The untouchable, external object blocks her investigation at this point, taking over as though alive.  The tears gushed forth once more, dried by the salty wind.

It is so sad and tragic that Artemisia had to choose between her art and her love.  I feel like I could read this book many times over and find different scenes in it to grab my attention. It is a difficult book to write about but would make for a very interesting discussion.  I would love to hear other opinions of the book.  What scenes stood out to you?  What themes/motifs do you remember from Banti’s narrative?

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Her Soul Receded into the Winds: Dido’s Suicide in Aeneid Book 4

Henry Fusel. Dido. 1781. Oil on Canvas.

If you haven’t read  The Aeneid then I implore you to do yourself a favor and at least read Book 4.  It is one of my favorite pieces of literature to read in Latin and in English. (I recommend the Fagles translation or the new Ferry translation.)  I won’t go through all of the specific reasons for Dido’s suicide in this book because you really need to read it for yourself to understand the complexity of her situation.  But she does feel hopeless, abandoned, deceived, angry. In the culmination of this heart wrenching scene, Dido climbs on to the top of the funeral pyre on which she has placed all her gifts from Aeneas, the Trojan hero who, at this very same moment, is sailing away from Carthage and from her (these translations are my own):

After she looked down at the Trojan’s robes and the all-too-familiar couch, and with her mind hesitating in tearful recollection, she laid down on that same couch and spoke her final words: “Oh gifts that were dear to me as long as the fates and the gods were allowing, accept my spirt and release me from my sorrows.  I have lived and I have finished the course which Fortune had set out for me, but now my famous soul will go to the underworld.  I have established a famous city, I have looked upon my city’s walls, and having avenged my husband, I exacted punishment from my hateful brother.  Unlucky, oh I am too unlucky—if only those Trojans ships had never reached our shores.” When she finished her speech she pressed a kiss into the couch and said, “I will die unavenged, but let me die anyway. In this way, yes, in this way it eases my pain to approach my death.  I hope that cruel Trojan drinks in this fire with his eyes as he sails away, and I hope he carries with him the omen of my death.” As she had said these things, Dido’s loved ones saw her fall onto Aeneas’s sword while standing in the midst of all his other gifts.  Both the sword and her hands were sprayed with blood.  A shouting reaches all the parts of the palace; the report of her death quickly spreads throughout the shattered city.

Since Dido kills herself, her soul is not allowed to be accompanied to the underworld by Mercury.  Instead the goddess Juno sends Iris to release Dido’s spirit:

Therefore, dewy Iris, dragging thousands of colors against the sun and through the sky with her yellow wings, descends and stands by Dido’s head: “I, having been ordered by Juno to carry out the rituals of the dead, release you from this sword and from your body.”  After Iris said this she cut a lock of Dido’s hair: at the same time all the warmth slipped from her body and her soul receded into the winds.

That last sentence is just beautiful, it gets me every time I translate it.  Please do read it and let me know what you think about Dido’s story.

 

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For awhile you were my Aeneas: Poetry by Anna Akhmatova

Dmitry Bushen, 1914. Charcoal on paper.

I’ve been reading and so much enjoying the poetry of Anna Akhmatova all weekend and thought I would share a few of my favorites.  The edition I have is The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova from Zephyr Press and translated by Judith Hemschemeyer.  I highly recommend this edition because of the wonderful photographs and the introduction by Roberta Reeder.

The first I will share is one of many poems in which she uses classical themes.  From “Sweetbrier in Blossom” poem 11:

I abandoned your shores, Empress,
against my will.
—Aeneid Book 6

Don’t be afraid—I can still portray
What we resemble now.
You are a ghost—or a man passing through,
And for some reason I cherish your shade.

For awhile you were my Aeneas—
It was then I escaped by fire.
We know how to keep quiet about one another.
And you forgot my cursed house.

You forgot those hands stretched out to you
In horror and torment, through flame,
And the report of blasted dreams.

You don’t know for what you were forgiven…
Rome was created, flocks of flotillas sail on the sea,
And adulation sings the praises of victory.

1962 Komarovo

Her poems about Russia are full of disappointment and sadness as she witnesses the terror of Stalin and the siege of Leningrad.  She was tempted, like other artists and writers to flee her motherland, but was proud of the fact that she chose to stay.  From “The Wind of War” poem 4:

The birds of death are at the zenith,
Who will rescue Leningrad?

Be quiet—it is breathing,
It’s still living, it hears everything:

How at the bottom of the Baltic Sea
Its sons groan in their sleep,

How from its depths come cries: “Bread!”
That reach to the firmament…

But this solid earth is pitiless.
And staring from all the windows—death.

September 28, 1941
(On the airplane)

I have especially enjoyed Akhmatova’s poems about love.  It is no surprise that there are many on this theme;  she was married a few times and had many love affairs—the poet Osip Mandelstom was one of her lovers.  From her collection “Evening” the first poem is simply entitled “Love”:

Now, like a little snake, it curls into a ball,
Bewitching your heart,
Then for days it will coo like a dove
On the little white windowsill.

Or it will flash as bright frost,
Drowse like a gillyflower…
But surely and stealthily it will lead you away
From joy and from tranquility.

It knows how to sob so sweetly
In the prayer of a yearning violin,
And how fearful to divine it
In a still unfamiliar smile.

November 24, 1911
Tsarskoye Selo

Also from her collection “Evening” an untitled poem:

And when we had cursed each other,
Passionate, white hot,
We still didn’t understand
How small the earth can be for two people,
And that memory can torment savagely.
The anguish of the strong—a wasting disease!
And in the endless night the heart learns
To ask: Oh where is my departed lover?
And when, through waves of incense,
The choir thunders, exulting and threatening,
Those same eyes, inescapable,
Stare sternly and stubbornly into the soul.

1909

Have you read any Akhmatova?  What are your favorite poems of hers?

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How Always Alone: Nothing but the Night by John Williams

Published in 1948, Nothing but the Night is John Williams’s, little known about, first novel.  It takes place over the course of a single day in the life of twenty-three year old Arthur Maxley who has suffered a very traumatic experience in his childhood.  When we first meet Arthur, he is alone in his apartment—he is most often alone—and after a night of solitary drinking and reading is just waking up from a dream.  The story is intense and suspenseful from the very beginning as Williams slowly reveals the tragedy Arthur has suffered in his early life.  By slowing down time in his narrative, we are given a realistic glimpse into Arthur’s fractured and damaged mind.  For instance, Arthur forces himself to get out of bed and take a walk in the park, but never actually makes it to the park because he goes into at a seedy diner.  The vivid and startling description of his breakfast is a clue that Arthur is truly suffering:

From the chipped blue plate, the egg stared up at him like a knowing, evil eye.  At first, he was amused by the fancy; but as he stared longer and as the yellow eye glared back at him, he became acutely uncomfortable.  He blinked rapidly.

And still the yellow pupil stared senselessly at him from its greasy white orb.  He reached for the bottle of Tabasco sauce and poured a bit of the fiery red liquid on the eye.  As if it were suddenly irritated beyond all endurance, the white surrounding matter became alarmingly bloodshot and developed a network of liquidly shifting veins, changing the vacant expression into something almost frightening.  It looked up at him reproachfully, as if in great agony.

With an effort, he tore his gaze away and forced his lids down to cover his own eyes and he shook his head vigorously from side to side.  He tried to laugh at himself.  These fancies…Why did he allow them to take hold of him?  It was only and egg, a simple thing, and for a moment his imagination (it was only his imagination) had made him think that…

Throughout the course of his ordinary day, Arthur is on edge and easily startled by what appear to be the simplest things.  Two events in particular, though, trigger flashbacks to that fateful day in Arthur’s childhood—a letter and a visit from his father.  Williams slowly builds up to revealing Arthur’s tragic memory at the very end of the book which, I thought, was rather unexpected.  The dramatic suspense and Williams’s depiction of the loneliness of mental illness are the strengths of this book.  No one can truly understand Arthur’s suffering, even if he were able to put it into words.  A brief distraction with a lovely woman at a nightclub only highlights Arthur’s abiding sense of being alone.  He thinks he is happy for a fleeting moment, but then his intrusive thoughts come flooding back to him:

And again the desire to convey to her his utter contentment overwhelmed him.  But there was the barrier, always the barrier of words; and that which he now felt was beyond words, deeper and more meaningful.  He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again, and said nothing.

For at the moment he realized that this understanding which he so desired was a thing that must come from between them, inviolate and alone, unasked and unacknowledged.  And he thought for a moment that he had discovered the secret.

This was the thing that drew men and women together: not the meeting of minds nor of spirits, not the conjunction of bodies in the dark insanity of copulation—none of these.  It was the tenuous need to create a bond, a tie more fragile than the laciest ribbon.  It was for this that they strived together, ceaselessly and always really alone; it was for this that they loved and hated, gathered and threw away. For only the little thread which they could never test for the fear of its destruction, for only the delicate thread which they could never secure for fear of breaking it in two.

How alone we are, he thought. How always alone.

The three books of Williams’s that I have read—Stoner, Augustus, and Nothing but the Night—are all very different stories.  I would advise not to go into this short novel expecting any of the narrative elements that are in his other two books.  What is similar, however, in all three novels is the author’s brilliant and mesmerizing way he uses language; there is something about Williams’s style of writing that completely absorbs me and draws me into these different worlds he creates.

(I read the Vintage edition published in the U.K., but NYRB Classics is also reissuing this book later this year.)

 

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