Tag Archives: 20th Century

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Leslie, at first, seems like a typical, sulky teenager who is withdrawn from his family.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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Video Meliora Proboque, Deteriora Sequor: The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf

I have to admit that I was drawn to this book because of its autobiographical aspect.  Having just lately read quite a bit of Virginia Woolf’s extensive and varied forms of writing, I was curious to get a glimpse into her personal life with her husband.  Published in 1914, Woolf began to compose this biting satire of English life in the early 20th century on his honeymoon.  Harry Davis, the male protagonist in the novel who thinks he is very different from the other young people that live in his London suburb, is a harsher and more cantankerous version of Woolf himself. Harry has just  moved outside of London to Richstead with his parents and his younger sister Hetty.  Upon their arrival the Davis family is invited over by their new neighbors, The Garlands—four unmarried, virgin young women and their widowed mother.  Harry hates everything about their ordered and conventional life and these women view Harry as a discontented man whose behavior is strange and sullen.

Harry is restless and the last thing he wants to do is settle down with one of the virgins he meets in the suburbs and live a boring, formulaic life as a husband, father and businessman.  He reads deep, philosophical novels, he paints and he prefers to spend his time with other interesting people.  His painting at a local studio causes him to come in contact with a woman named Camilla Lawrence who is believed to be based on Virginia Woolf.  Camilla, unlike the Garlands, is urbane, sophisticated, educated and aloof.  Harry visits Camilla, her sister Katharine and their father and engages in witty conversation with people whom he feels are his equals.   Harry’s interactions with her make him contemplate the meaning of love and how one falls into it.  Camilla’s lack of  mutual desire or interest in Harry is, at times, a harsh portrayal of Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s own courtship.  Harry’s thoughts about love are depressing and confused:

It seemed ridiculous that one human being could affect another human being like this.  Love? Was it all imagination, a fantastic dream of this absurd little animal, man?  It was impossible at moments to believe that he felt anything for Camilla at all.  After all, what had he asked of her? To say: ‘I love you.’ Would that have thrown him into ecstasies—for twelve hours, or at most, to judge from what seemed best among others, for a few hours spread over twelve months.

Even though he has fallen in love, Harry continues to mock people like the Garlands and when Gwen, the youngest daughter, asks to borrow one of Harry’s books he has some harsh opinions of her and the other virgins in Richstead:

Harry did not forget to send Dostoevsky’s Idiot to Gwen, and he laughed to himself not unkindly as he handed it to the Garlands’ maid.  He was putting strong wine into the mouth of a babe with a vengeance.  He hoped it would not completely upset her digestion, yet he had not much compunction if it should make her feel a little uncomfortable, because, after all, that was what in his opinion these virgins of Richstead really needed—something to show them that life was not all Richstead, virginity and vicars, needlework and teas.  And when he had said ‘For Miss Gwen, please,’ he did not give very much thought to her or The Idiot.

In the end, however, Harry’s arrogance causes him to be hoisted with his own petard.   A comment that Mr. Lawrence makes to Harry is rather fitting for his tragic fate in the novel: Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor (I see better things and approve of them, but I follow worse things–Ovid, Met. 7.20)  The ending was quite a surprise for me and I won’t give it away but I will say that the title of Woolf’s novel is both ironic and sarcastic.  I highly recommend this book to those who are interested in taking a peek at Woolf’s mindset while he was on his honeymoon with Virginia.

 

 

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How we Perished, Each Alone: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I realize that entire academic careers and volumes of dissertations and articles are dedicated to studying the influences of Vergil on Virginia Woolf.  I have not looked at any of the scholarship nor do I wish to.  My writing here, I am sure, will not be new or unusual but it is simply my own interaction with the texts of Vergil and Virginia Woolf.  (Also, a bit of a warning that I do have a spoiler in my writing about the second part of the books.)

As I made my way through the three parts of To the Lighthouse, Vergil’s lines from Georgics 1.199-203 kept coming to mind.  The Roman poet is giving advice about scattering seeds for a successful harvest and concludes with a universal maxim (translation is my own):

sic omnia fatis
in peius ruere ac retro sublapsa referri,
non aliter quam qui aduerso uix flumine lembum
remigiis subigit, si bracchia forte remisit,
atque illum in praeceps prono rapit alveus amni.

Thus all things are fated to quickly hasten towards something
worse and to slide backwards, similar to when a man is hardly
able to steer his boat with his oars against the opposing
stream, and if, by chance, he should remove his arms, then he
and his skiff would be swept away by the swiftly moving river.

Part one of To the Lighthouse, “The Window,” captures a day in the life of the Ramsay family—mother, father, eight children and a few house guests—at their summer rental home in the Hebrides. At the center of the family is Mrs. Ramsay, middle-aged yet still beautiful, whose role as loving mother, wife and hostess is the unifying and joyful force behind their blissful, summer days. It is her care and understanding and warmth that steers her children towards a good and happy life. She reassures her youngest son, James, that he will make his greatly anticipated trip out to the lighthouse on the following day; despite his repeated refusals, she offers their crabby and aloof  houseguest, Mr. Carmichael, comforts like newspapers and tobacco; with a simple look she is able to calm her husband whose irrational anger flares up when a guest is taking too long eating his soup at dinner. Mrs. Ramsay shelters the children from their father’s stern presence which wavers between indifference and irritation. The dinner scene sympathetically describes Mrs. Ramsay at the center of it all:

And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her. Again she felt, as a fact without hostility, the sterility of men, for if she did not do it nobody would do it, and so, giving herself the little shake that one gives a watch that has stopped, the old familiar pulse began beating, as the watch begins ticking—one, two, three, one, two, three. And so on and so on, she repeated, listening to it, sheltering and fostering the still feeble pulse as one might guard a weak flame with a newspaper.

It is Mrs. Ramsay’s arms, her effort, that steer the family ship upstream, against the harsh tides of reality. In chapter two, “Time Passes,” the summer house is described as empty, desolate, lonely because the family has not visited it in the ten years since the untimely death of Mrs. Ramsay. The house in ruins, overtaken by nature, foreshadows the lack of joy and unity in the family without their wife and mother:

Only the lighthouse beam entered the rooms for a moment, sent its sudden stare over bed and wall in the darkness of winter, looked with equanimity at the thistle and the swallow, the rat and the straw. Nothing now withstood them; nothing said no to them. Let the wind blow; let the poppy seed itself and the carnation mate with the cabbage. Let the swallow build in the drawing-room, and the thistle thrust aside the tiles, and the butterfly sun itself on the faded chintz of the arm-chairs. Let the broken glass and china lie out on the lawn and be tangled over with grass and wild berries.

The second chapter is the most poetic—its repetitive lines and sections are akin to songs and melodies—and it includes many Vergilian allusions to the fourth Georgic. The most striking and pathetic of which is the Orpheus and Eurydice image when Mr. Ramsay is “stumbling along a passage one dark morning” and reaches for Mrs. Ramsay but his arms “remained empty” because she died suddenly the night before.

In the final chapter, ten years have passed and the family has decided to visit their summer home but there is a marked change in their mood and interactions with one another. Without Mrs. Ramsay they cannot recapture the joy of the last summer in the house. Mr. Ramsay, whose irritability and tyranny is no longer subdued by his wife, scares his children and makes his guests uncomfortable.  He has, mostly definitely, hastened towards something worse in the absence of his wife.  He decides to take James and Cam, now teenagers, on a boat trip out to the lighthouse to make up, somehow, for the trip that was never taken ten summers prior. Their tense and miserable journey out to the lighthouse is laden with water and sailing imagery that is, for me, especially reminiscent of the Georgics passage which I translated above:

The sea was more important now than the shore. Waves were all round them, tossing and sinking, with a log wallowing down one wave; a gull riding on another. About here, she thought, dabbling her fingers in the water, a ship had sunk, and she murmured dreamily half asleep, how we perished, each alone.

 

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Review: A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves

My Review:
A Lady and her HusbandThis latest release from Persephone Books is a charming and entertaining look into the life of a middle-aged British couple that has been married for twenty-seven years.  When the book begins Mary is being told by her second eldest daughter, Rosemary, that she is engaged to be married.  Mary tries very hard to be stoic about this announcement even though she is upset because another one of her children is flying the coop.  Mary married John at a very young age and she has been a devoted wife and mother for her entire adult life.  The thought that of all three of her children no longer need her makes her sad and she feels lost.

Rosemary feels so guilty that she is going to be leaving her mother that she comes up with an idea of how Mary can now occupy her time.  Mary’s husband, John, owns a successful chain of tea shops and Rosemary thinks it would be a great idea for her mother to take an interest in the shop girls and find ways to improve their working conditions in the shops.  Rosemary is much more liberal and progressive than her mother so she knows that this task is way outside her mother’s comfort zone.  But Rosemary encourages her mother to have a life beyond her home.  Mary has never ventured into the realm of social causes so she is very hesitant to agree to this little project but she does so reluctantly after her husband John talks her into it.

The real conflict in the book begins when Mary starts to form her own ideas about improving the working conditions in the tea shops.  Mary wants the girls to wear more comfortable shoes, to have a proper place to eat their lunch, and she wants to increase their wages.  When Mary timidly approaches John with her suggestions, his temper explodes and he berates her for what he calls her silly little reforms.  Mary’s idea to increase wages for his employees is especially worrisome to John who believes that he pays his workers a fair wage.  John immediately rejects all of Mary’s ideas for changing the tea shops and tells her that she is naïve and that none of her ideas are practical and would work in the real world.

There is an underlying commentary in the book on the differences between men and women and how they must recognize and learn to work around those differences in a marriage.   Mary and John have had a marriage that is free of arguing and misunderstandings because she stays at home and doesn’t have anything to do with John’s business. John often comes across as condescending when he calls Mary “little mother” or “poor old thing.”  He does truly care for her but he draws the line at wanting to please her when she tries to interfere with his business.  Mary, on the other hand, after visiting John’s shops, better understands the plight of the poor and working classes and she approaches these issues from an emotional angle.  At one point in the book she recognizes that she cannot make a rational decision free from emotion with John around so she takes a flat in London to give herself time to think.

This book was written in 1914 so it brings up many political and social issues that were relevant at the turn of the last century and which continue to be discussed into the 21st Century.  Debates that have taken place during the recent elections in the U.S. have reminded us that women are still paid less than their male counterparts, the minimum wage for workers continues to be too low, and millions of Americans still do not have access to proper healthcare.  Reeves has written a charming and humorous book about the differences between men and women and the perils of navigating a successful marriage.  But there is also a serious side to the book that highlights issues that persistently affect the working classes and the poor.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  If you love the titles in the Persephone catalog then you must read this book.

About the Author:
Amber Reeves, the daughter of William and Maud Pember Reeves, was born in 1887 in New Zealand. When her father was appointed Agent-General in 1896 her parents moved to England. Amber went to Kensington High School. Her mother was active in the Fabian Society and in 1912 wrote Round About a Pound a Week (now Persephone Book No. 79). In 1905 Amber, ‘a clear and vigorous thinker’, went up to Newnham College, Cambridge to read philosophy. After her affair with HG Wells led to pregnancy, in 1909 she married a young lawyer, Rivers Blanco White. Two more children were born in 1912 and 1914. She published three novels including A Lady and Her Husband (1914), worked at the Admiralty, and ran the Women’s Wages Department at the Ministry of Munitions; later she was briefly a civil servant, wrote a fourth novel, stood for Parliament, taught at Morley College for 37 years and published books on ethics and economics. She died in 1981.

 

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Review: What We Become by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Atria books via NetGalley.  The book was published in the original Spanish in 2010 and this English version has been translated by Nick Caistor and Lorena Garcia.

My Review:
What We BecomeMax Costa is a scoundrel and a thief but you wouldn’t know it from his refined manner and elegant clothes.  We first meet him in 1928 on board the Cap Polonio, a transatlantic luxury liner bound for Buenos Aires.  Max is a professional ballroom dancer on the ship and he entertains the unaccompanied young women with his tangos and fox trots.  But his work as a ballroom dancer is just a cover for his real profession which his stealing from his rich dance partners.  The narrative takes place between 1928 and 1966 and alternates between three distinct periods of time during which Max meets a woman whom he cannot forget.

On board the ship Max meets an intriguing Spanish couple; the husband is a world-famous composer, Armando de Troeye and his younger, gorgeous, and elegant wife Mecha Inzunza de Troeye.  What draws Max to the couple at first is a very expensive pair of pearls that the wife wears which Max believes he can easily steal and make a large profit for little effort.  Mecha is an excellent dancer and she is particularly skillful at the Tango, for which dance her husband has in mind to compose a new piece.  Armando likes to watch while Mecha dances often with Max and this builds up the sexual tension between the dance partners.

Once they land in Buenos Aires Max, who lived in that city until he was fourteen, serves as their tour guides to all of the local dance pubs.  Armando wants to know the origins of the Tango, which is not the same Tango that is performed among the European gentry.  Their time in Buenos Aires is fraught with danger and tension as they go to some of the seediest places in the city.  Max and Mecha also begin a passionate love affair, but their relationship, if one can call it that, is not at all what I expected.  This is not a clandestine affair that is hidden from Mecha’s husband but, on the contrary, he encourages her to seduce Max and he even watches them while they make love.

Max gets his hands on Mecha’s pearls and disappears.  When he next meets up with Mecha it is almost ten years later in Nice, where he has lived comfortably as a gentleman off of his ill-gotten earnings.  This is one of the most exciting parts of the book because Max is asked by spies for both the Italian and Spanish governments to steal some sensitive documents from the home of a rich, society woman.  Max fits in perfectly with the European gentry so he has the perfect cover to case the house and come up with a plan that involves breaking into a house and safe cracking.

During his stint as a secret agent he, once again, runs into Mecha who is living in Nice alone because her husband has been arrested among the chaos of the Spanish Civil War.  The theft of the pearl necklace is all but forgotten as Mecha and Max rekindle their sexual relationship.  They are drawn to each other and their physical relationship is intense, passionate and sometimes even boarders on the violent.

After Max completes his mission he must flee Nice for fear of being arrested and his farewell to Mecha this time is emotionally difficult for both of them.  It is evident that the have deep feelings for each other and saying goodbye is difficult not something that they want to do.  When Max meets Mecha, almost thirty years later in Sorrento, he can’t stay away from her this time either.  Max is now sixty-four years old and has retired from his dangerous career as a thief.  He lives a quiet life as a chauffeur for a Swiss doctor.  Mecha is in town because her son, Jorge Keller, is competing in a national chess competition and Max decides to check into her hotel so he can reminisce about his younger, more exciting days.

The last part of the book also has a bit of a mystery which involves Jorge’s Russian chess opponent.  There is cheating and spying going on and Mecha asks Max to help her son plot against the Russians.  Max is very reluctant to get involved in international affairs, even if it is just chess, because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his now stable and quiet life.  But Mecha has a secret weapon that convinces Max to come out of retirement and use his thieving skills against the Russians.

This book is full of mystery and suspense with multiple plot lines woven throughout.  My problem with the book is that some scenes were so suspenseful and interesting and then others were boring and superfluous to the plot.  A few scenes could have been edited to make the plot even stronger.  Also, the relationship of Max and Mecha isn’t fully developed until about two-thirds of the way into the story.  At first their relationship is purely physical and I would have been more interested to see the emotional side of these two characters laid out much earlier on in the plot.

Overall this was an interesting read full of mystery, passion, tango and chess.  If you enjoy a good historical fiction set in the 20th century then I recommend giving this book a chance.

About the Author:
A ReverteSpanish novelist and ex-journalist. He worked as a war reporter for twenty-one years (1973 – 1994). He started his journalistic career writing for the now-defunct newspaper Pueblo. Then, he jumped to news reporter for TVE, Spanish national channel. As a war journalist he traveled to several countries, covering many conflicts. He put this experience into his book ‘Territorio Comanche’, focusing on the years of Bosnian massacres. That was in 1994, but his debut as a fiction writer started in 1983, with ‘El húsar’, a historical novella inspired in the Napoleonic era.

Although his debut was not quite successful, in 1988, with ‘The fencer master’, he put his name as a serious writer of historic novels. That was confirmed in 1996, when was published the first book of his Captain Alatriste saga, which has been his trademark. After this book, he could leave definitely journalism for focusing on his career as a fiction writer. This saga, that happens in the years of the Spanish golden age, has seen, for now, seven volumes, where Pérez-Reverte shows, from his particular point of view, historical events from Spanish history in the 16th century.

Apart from these, he also penned another successful works like Dumas Club and Flandes Panel, titles that, among others, made Pérez-Reverte one of the most famous and bestseller authors of Spanish fiction of our era.

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