Tag Archives: 20th Century

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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Filed under Historical Fiction, Spanish Literature, Summer Reading

Review: Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey

My Review:
B FarrarThe Ashby family has maintained their estate in the south of England for many generations.  The current family members who inhabit the estate are best known for their stables of beautiful horses.  Aunt Bee, the matriarch of the family, oversees the care of her ten-year-old nieces Jane and Ruth.  Bee supervises and runs the horse estate with the help of her niece Elenor and nephew Simon who are young adults.  Although to visit them for afternoon tea, one would believe that this is a happy and well-adjusted family, the Ashby’s have suffered some terrible tragedies.

The reason Aunt Bee has had to take over as parent for her three nieces and her nephew is that their parents died in a tragic airplane crash when Jane and Ruth were only a few months old.  Soon after the parents’ death, Simon’s twin brother committed suicide by throwing himself off of a cliff.  This second tragedy particularly surprised the family because Patrick was such a sweet and well-adjusted boy whom no one suspected was on the brink of taking his own life.

One day, a man walks into their life claiming that he is Patrick, the long-lost Ashby; he says that he didn’t commit suicide but instead ran away, assumed the name of Brat Farrar and spent the last eight years in America where he worked on horse ranches.  Aunt Bee is especially eager to believe Brat’s story and the fact that he looks like an Ashby helps to convince everyone in their immediate circle that Patrick is the long-lost heir.  The only one who seems skeptical about Brat’s identity is Simon.  It is Simon who has the most to lose from Patrick’s reappearance since Simon will no longer be the Ashby heir; the family fortune will revert back to Patrick who is the eldest son.

What I found most unique about this story is that Brat is supposed to be the bad buy in this story, the imposter, the crook.  But Brat’s story is very compelling and he is really not after the Ashby fortune.  Brat grew up in an orphanage and he has never had a family of his own.  When the opportunity to become part of an middle class English family presents itself, Brat’s desire for a sense of belonging and a place to call home prove to be a stronger temptation then the lure of money.

Brat is welcomed into the Ashby home and becomes a part of their everyday lives.  He is an expert horse trainer and he gets along especially well with Elenor for whom he develops more than sisterly feelings..  As he spends quality time with the family, he discovers through various clues that Simon has a sinister and mean side to him.  Simon’s reasons for being angry go much deeper than his disinheritance from the Ashby fortune.  I don’t want to give away too much, but the mystery surrounding Patrick’s disappearance and Simon’s involvement in it were very compelling plot lines and I finished the book very quickly.  I guess this would quality Tey’s book as a page turner.

Tey’s books are written in a classics and charming British style one would expect from a 20th century author.  Her characters are interesting in the sense that they are likeable but can be morally flexible.  Finally, the plot alone is reason enough to pick up this book.

I’ve also read Tey’s The Franchise Affair and enjoyed that book as well.  Has anyone else read any of Tey’s books?  I would love to hear about them.

About the Author:

iteyjos001p1

Josephine Tey was a pseudonym of Elizabeth Mackintosh. Josephine was her mother’s first name and Tey the surname of an English Grandmother. As Josephine Tey, she wrote six mystery novels including Scotland Yard’s Inspector Alan Grant.

The first of these, ‘The Man in the Queue’ (1929) was published under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot , whose name also appears on the title page of another of her 1929 novels, ‘Kit An Unvarnished History’. She also used the Daviot by-line for a biography of the 17th century cavalry leader John Graham, which was entitled ‘Claverhouse’ (1937).

Mackintosh also wrote plays (both one act and full length), some of which were produced during her lifetime, under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot. The district of Daviot, nea Josephine Tey was a pseudonym of Elizabeth Mackintosh. Josephine was her mother’s first name and Tey the surname of an English Grandmother. As Josephine Tey, she wrote six mystery novels including Scotland Yard’s Inspector Alan Grant.

The first of these, ‘The Man in the Queue’ (1929) was published under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot , whose name also appears on the title page of another of her 1929 novels, ‘Kit An Unvarnished History’. She also used the Daviot by-line for a biography of the 17th century cavalry leader John Graham, which was entitled ‘Claverhouse’ (1937).

Mackintosh also wrote plays (both one act and full length), some of which were produced during her lifetime, under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot. The district of Daviot, near her home of Inverness in Scotland, was a location her family had vacationed. The name Gordon does not appear in either her family or her history.

Elizabeth Mackintosh came of age during World War I, attending Anstey Physical Training College in Birmingham, England during the years 1915-1918. Upon graduation, she became a physical training instructor for eight years. In 1926, her mother died and she returned home to Inverness to care for her invalid father. Busy with household duties, she turned to writing as a diversion, and was successful in creating a second career.

Alfred Hitchcock filmed one of her novels, ‘A Shilling for Candles’ (1936) as ‘Young and Innocent’ in 1937 and two other of her novels have been made into films, ‘The Franchise Affair’ (1948), filmed in 1950, and ‘Brat Farrar’ (1949), filmed as ‘Paranoiac’ in 1963. In addition a number of her works have been dramatised for radio.

Her novel ‘The Daughter of Time’ (1951) was voted the greatest mystery novel of all time by the Crime Writers’ Association in 1990.

Miss Mackintosh never married, and died at the age of 55, in London. A shy woman, she is reported to have been somewhat of a mystery even to her intimate friends. While her death seems to have been a surprise, there is some indication she may have known she was fatally ill for some time prior to her passing.

 

 

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Review: My Marriage by Jakob Wassermann

I received an advanced review copy of this title from The New York Review of Books.  The original novel was published in German in 1934 and this English translation has been done by Michael Hofmann

My Review:
My MarriageWassermann presents us with the story of Alexander Herzog and his disastrous marriage to a woman from a middle-class German family named Ganna.  Alexander begins his tale with a history of Ganna’s childhood which seems to have a profound effect on her mental stability as an adult.  Ganna is one of six daughters, fifth in line, and is described as a duckling among swans.  She is not as pretty, graceful or demure as her sisters.  Her disobedience and lying often result in brutal beatings from her father.  No one ever thinks that Ganna could attract a man to marry; but Alexander, a young and up-and-coming writer, enters the scene and Ganna is smitten with him.

The beginning of the story has a light and funny tone as Alexander tells us about Ganna’s devotion to him and his writing.  She follows him around like a puppy and adores anything and everything he writes.  During this time Alexander is not able to make a successful living from the sales of his books so he is often in debt and wondering where his next meal will come from.  It starts to wound his pride when he is forced to rely heavily on the charity and pity of his friends.  Ganna suggests marriage to him because her rather sizeable dowry would mean the end of his financial woes.  Alexander dismisses Ganna’s suggestion of marriage as ridiculous, first and foremost because is not the one- woman, settling-down type of man.  But Ganna is relentless and finally wears him down, even threating to jump off a balcony if Alexander doesn’t agree to marry her.

Alexander lets Ganna and her world wash over him and he accepts his fate as her husband and a member of her extended family.  But Alexander’s passivity is his greatest flaw and he ignores the many warning signs of his impending misery and doom.  I kept reading the book and cringing because of all the gloomy foreshadowing.  The marriage starts to unravel rather quickly because it is evident that Ganna is mentally unstable, volatile, paranoid, and quite possibly psychotic.  She yells at the servants and then plays the part of the victim; she makes quick and intimate friends with various people in society and just as quickly makes them her mortal enemy.  Ganna and Alexander fight constantly and all the while Alexander keeps believing that he can change Ganna, calm her down, make her see reason.

After about ten years of marriage Alexander has many affairs which Ganna accepts as something that Alexander needs to do;  she is content with the fact that she is the lawful wife and that he will always come home to her.  But when Alexander meets and falls in love with a woman named Bettina, all of this changes.  Bettina is kind and patient and happy and Alexander, possibly for the first time in his life, falls deeply in love with her.  After carrying on their affair for several years, Alexander finally decides that he must ask Ganna for a divorce.  This divorce pushes Ganna over the edge to the point at which she is completely obsessed with making Alexander’s life miserable.  She employs one lawyer after another to ring more  and more money out of him and to drag out the divorce for years.  At one point it is estimated that she has a team of forty lawyers working to make Alexander’s  life miserable.  The last third of the book goes on for pages about the awful mess that Ganna makes out of everyone’s life and the horrible stress she causes to Alexander and Bettina.

I really should not have finished reading this book before bed because I laid awake for quite awhile thinking about it.  The combination of Alexander’s passivity and Ganna’s mental instability causes a perfect storm of misery for both of them.  The book is also an interesting commentary on mental illness and the far-reaching effects it has on a family.  How does one deal with a person who is so completely irrational, paranoid and volatile?  I think if Ganna were written about in the 21st century should would probably be diagnosed with a personality disorder or a psychosis.

The New York Review of Books has reissued another great classic from the German Language which I highly recommend if you enjoy books that explore marriage, psychological issues and unforgetable characters.

 

About the Author:
J WassermannBorn in Fürth, Wassermann was the son of a shopkeeper and lost his mother at an early age. He showed literary interest early and published various pieces in small newspapers. Because his father was reluctant to support his literary ambitions, he began a short-lived apprenticeship with a businessman in Vienna after graduation.

He completed his military service in Nuremberg. Afterward, he stayed in southern Germany and in Switzerland. In 1894 he moved to Munich. Here he worked as a secretary and later as a copy editor at the paper Simplicissimus. Around this time he also became acquainted with other writers Rainer Maria Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Thomas Mann.

In 1896 he released his first novel, Melusine. Interestingly, his last name (Wassermann) means “water-man” in German; a “Melusine” (or “Melusina”) is a figure of European legends and folklore, a feminine spirit of fresh waters in sacred springs and rivers.
From 1898 he was a theater critic in Vienna. In 1901 he married Julie Speyer, whom he divorced in 1915. Three years later he was married again to Marta Karlweis.

After 1906, he lived alternatively in Vienna or at Altaussee in der Steiermark where he died in 1934 after a severe illness.
In 1926, he was elected to the Prussian Academy of Art. He resigned in 1933, narrowly avoiding an expulsion by the Nazis. In the same year, his books were banned in Germany owing to his Jewish ancestry.

Wassermann’s work includes poetry, essays, novels, and short stories. His most important works are considered the novel Der Fall Maurizius (1928) and the autobiography, My Life as German and Jew (Mein Weg als Deutscher und Jude) (1921), in which he discussed the tense relationship between his German and Jewish identities.

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Filed under Classics, German Literature, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books