Monthly Archives: June 2018

Corpus Erat: The Metamorphosis of Marcus in Brigid Brophy’s Flesh

This was my first experience with a Brophy text and I was pleasantly surprised by her writing even with a rather short novella. I viewed the book as a metamorphosis, much like those described in Ovid’s epic poem, in both a physical and emotional sense. At the beginning of the story Marcus is a timid, skinny, introvert who lingers at the edge of the parties that he forces himself to attend. He is the only boy of a wealthy Jewish family living in London and, as a result of his upbringing, he leads a rather pampered life. He has his own flat in London, for instance, but most nights he goes home for dinner and sleeps at his parent’s home. Since he has no need of a real occupation or a source of income, he spends his time reading and studying art. Being an introvert myself, Brophy’s description of Marcus’s awkwardness at a party made me cringe:

He had got himself hemmed in by other people’s backs and jammed in a corner between a bookcase and a table of food, on either of which was there room for him to set down his glass, which had been empty for half an hour. He picked out one of the books, opening up a black gap on the shelf, and mimed reading. But this solitary pleasure at a party seemed to him as much a solecism and a confession as if he had stood there wiggling a loose tooth in his mouth; and the feeling of being exposed overwhelmed any pleasure the book might have given him.

Marcus meets his future wife, Nancy, at this same party and this interesting woman is immediately drawn to Marcus because of the potential she sees in him. A potential for what, we have no idea at first. But when a very nervous and virginal Marcus is initiated into the pleasure of the flesh during his honeymoon, we are made to understand that she saw in Marcus a man that she could teach to please her in just the ways she needed: “Nancy did have a talent. It was for sexual intercourse.”

What I found most surprising in this small book is that, although much of the narrative is funny and quirky, Brophy also inserts passages with sublime, poetic descriptions of physical intimacy. After Marcus and Nancy consummate their marriage, she writes:

Where she led him was a strange world that was not new to him, since he had always known it existed, subterraneanly: a grotto, with whose confines and geographical dispositions he at once made himself quite familiar, as with the world of inside his own mouth: but a magic grotto, limitless, infinitely receding and enticing, because every sensation he experience there carried on its back an endless multiplication of overtones, with the result that the sensation, though more than complete, was never finished, and every experience conducted him to the next; a world where he pleasurable lost himself in a confusion of the senses not in the least malapropos but as appropriate and precise as poetry—a world where one really did see sounds and hear scents, where doves might well have roared and given suck, where perfectly defined, delightful local tactile sensations dissolved into apperceptions of light or darkness. of colour, of thickness, of temperature…

This marks the turning point in Marcus’s transformation to a more self-confident man. He finds a job that he is good at and really likes, he starts to gain quite a bit of weight, and he continues to delight in the physical aspect of his marriage to Nancy. As Brophy lingered on Marcus’s physical transformation in the second half of the novella, I kept thinking of a line in Ovid’s Metamorphoses when Pygmalion discovers that he statue has come to life: “Corpus erat! “ (It was a body!), he exclaims.

I have one other Brophy, The King of a Rainy Country, sitting on my bookshelf that I am now eager to read. I am about to visit some amazing bookstores on my summer travels, so please let me know in the comments of other Brophy titles I should be on the lookout for.

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My Search for an Epic Summer Read

Now that the semester is over and I am on summer vacation, my usual feelings of restlessness have set in. Sinking into a novel of epic proportions, like War and Peace which absorbed me for weeks during the winter months, would be just the cure. I took to literary Twitter to ask for suggestions and I was given so many wonderful recommendations I thought I would compile the ones that were the top contenders for me. To see the full thread go to my Twitter feed @magistrabeck.

The following are books that are sitting on my bookshelves that I was already considering:

The Balkan Trilogy, Olivia Manning
Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman
Zibaldone, Giacomo Leopardi
Alberta Trilogy, Cora Sandel
Memoirs, Alexander Herzen
Daniel Deronda, George Eliot
The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann

These are my favorites from the Twitter suggestions:

The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal
Don Quixote, Cervantes
The Idiot, Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky
Parallel Stories, The Book of Memories, Peter Nadas
Three Trapped Tigers, Guillermo Cabrera Infante
The Glastonbury Romance, John Cowper Powys
Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Doblin
In Search of Lost Time, Proust
The Transylvanian Trilogy, Miklos Banffy
The Death of Vergil, Hermann Broch
Parade’s End, Ford Maddox Ford

And Anthony at Times Flow shared a link to his excellent list of “Monsters” he intends to read: https://timesflowstemmed.com/2018/04/14/monsters/

And finally, my husband handed me a copy of The Sot Weed Factor by John Barth. Knowing his very wry sense of humor I assumed it was a joke, but he swears it’s a serious suggestion. Speaking of joke recommendations, Tony Messenger suggested I crack open my copy of Bottom’s Dream. But I am afraid that might be a little too epic for me at this point.

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Kudos by Rachel Cusk

The English word Kudos comes from the ancient Greek noun κῦδος which is actually a singular, nominative, neuter form, and means renown, praise or glory.  In Ancient Greek literature it is oftentimes used in relation to warfare and appears several times in Homer’s Iliad.  For the Homeric hero kudos is triumphant power or success on the battlefield which results in pretige, recognition and high rank.  Like these warriors on the battlefield, the characters in Cusk’s final installment of her trilogy,  are competing with each other for personal recognition.  Set at a literary festival and a literary conference in unnamed countries in Europe, most of the book contains stories from the lives of fellow authors and translators that Faye meets; in Kudos, Faye herself fades even further into the background of the narrative and we get fewer details about her own life than we did in Transit or Outline

When Faye first arrives at the literary festival she meets with her publisher and he gives her a glimpse into what the book industry believes is the best way for authors and everyone involved with them to gain kudos.  The “holy grail” for a publisher, he tells Faye,  “were those writers who performed well in the market while maintaining a connection to the values of literature.”  He goes on to explain his views of modern literature in such a harsh marketing climate:

Sometimes, he said, he amused himself by trawling some of the lower depths of the internet, where readers gave their opinions of their literary purchases, much as they might rate the performance of a detergent.  What he had learned, by studying these opinions, was that respect for literature was very much skin deep, and that people were never far from the capacity to abuse it.  It was entertaining, in a way, to see Dante awarded a single star out of possible five and his Divine Comedy described as ‘complete shit’, but a sensitive person might equally find it distressing, until you remembered that Dante—along with most great writers—carved his vision out of the deepest understanding of human nature and could look after himself. It was a position of weakness, he believed, to see literature as something fragile that needed defending, as so many of his colleagues and contemporaries did.

Several writers that she meets complain of their work not being properly recognized and their vying for attention among readers, reporters and other authors at these festivals gives the book a rather melancholy tone.  Written in the same style as her previous two novels—it’s been described as postmodern, indirect speech, autofiction, oral history—we occupy Faye’s world as a writer by seeing it from the perspective of those around her.  The common thread that runs through many of her colleagues’ stories is that, in this literary atmosphere of consumerism where money is the almighty ruler, there is very little kudos to go around for any of them.  A female translator and author complains that her books are a lot less well-known that those of the male authors’ works she has translated; a male author laments the fact that he is only popular and on the bestseller list now because he is writing with a partner and under a pseudonym; a harsh book critic argues that his volumes of poetry are not as widely recognized for their literary merit as they should be as a sort of pay back for all of the bad reviews he has written.

A teenager whose task it is to get writers from one venue to the next speaks about kudos, thus making it the only book of the trilogy that specifically mentions its title in the text.  Hermann had won this college’s highest award, named “Kudos”, which was given to both the top male and female students.   The boy doesn’t understand why gender needs to be a factor in an award and tells Faye his mother’s opinion about the “Kudos”:

His mother, for instance, believed that male and female were distinct but equal identities, and that having two awards was as far as it was wise to go in honouring human achievement.  But many other people felt that there should be only one award, given to the best student.  The caveat of gender, these people believed, obscured the triumph of excellence.  His mother’s response to that was interesting: if there was no caveat, she had said, then there was no way of ensuring that excellence would remain in a moral framework and not be put in the service of evil.

Just as in her previous two books, Cusk continues to examine gender roles, especially in terms of marriage and family life, throughout Kudos.  No one she meets is in a happy, stable marriage; many, if not most, are divorced and have an inimical relationship with an ex-partner that puts the children in the middle of the animosity.  Towards the end of the book, Faye is having lunch with two women, Felicia and Paola, who are in charge of her during the literary conference and she observes that the three women are sitting at a table in the restaurant under a reproduction of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist.  Felicia tells a heartrending story of how her ex-husband, through his spiteful and cruel behavior, has made her and her young daughter’s life difficult after the divorce.  Her concluding words about his treatment of them I found very chilling: “I had not, moreover, found freedom by leaving him: in fact what I had done was forfeit all my rights, which he had only extended to me in the first place, and made myself his slave.”

Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist. Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on Canvas. с 1610-1615

Paola’s retort about her own ex’s abuse is equally as disturbing and also serves as a bit of a rebuke to Faye who has recently gotten remarried: “‘It used to hurt so much when he pulled my hair,’ she said, ‘so it is good to talk about these things when your head is whirling with wine instead, and with the picture of the man’s severed head on a plate before my eyes.  What I don’t understand,’ she said to me, ‘is why you have married again, when you know what you know. You have put it in writing,’ she said, ‘and that brings with it all the laws.'”

The story that stands out in my mind the most as far as gender roles, family and marriage, the one I have read several times and keep pondering over, is that told by the gentleman whom Faye sits next to on the plane on her way to the literary festival.  It is interesting to get a male perspective of family life and I found his story just as sad as the others.  This well-dressed,  middle-aged man had been the director of a global management company, he tells Faye, and he was constantly traveling and away from his family.  Now at the age of forty-six he was retired but being with his family more often had not brought him the happiness and tranquility he had expected.  His family had gotten used to him being away so much, and his constant presence in their lives now felt intrusive.  He says to Faye, “‘Since I left work I find that I’m constantly getting into arguments with people.  My family complain that now I’m at home all the time, I’m trying to control them.  They haven’t actually said,’ he added, ‘that they wish we could go back to how things were.  But I know they’re thinking it.'”  Both males and females in Cusk’s final book of her trilogy struggle to find their place in a family, in a job, in society.  It is rather fitting that the text ends with a rather gross and sinister action that is also focused on gender.

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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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