Tag Archives: British Literature

They Spill from your Shelves, They Sprawl by your Bed: Worlds from the Word’s End by Joanna Walsh

I’ve been feeling so restless and scattered lately with my reading (and maybe my life?)  Nothing seems to hold my attention for very long.   After I finished Effi Briest, which book I loved, I ordered more Fontane and while I was waiting for those books to arrive in the mail, I started a few others (well, more than a few).  Since it is the centenary of the Russian Revolution in October, I pulled off of my shelves several books of Russian history and literature that I had every intention of reading this month.  I managed to get about 60 pages into Gulag Letters by Arsenii Formakov and 20 pages into China Mievelle’s book October.  I also set aside 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution and Russian Émigré Short Stories, which have yet to make it off of my coffee table.

But I was craving more fiction so I read two short books, The Year of the Drought by Roland Buti which I enjoyed, but didn’t take much time to read, and Annie Ernaux’s A Man’s Place which I thought was interesting but not fantastic.  (I’ve ordered a few more of her books to see if any other of her titles resonate more with me than this first one I read.)  After staring at the three stacks of books sitting on my coffee table, wandering into the book room and staring at my shelves, flipping through the books on my bedside table, and consulting literary Twitter, I thought Joanna Walsh’s new collection of short fiction might be just the thing for me.  And I was right, sort of…

Walsh’s second story in Worlds from the Word’s End entitled “Bookshelves” begins by describing a bibliophile’s collection of books.  I felt right at home in her story, among her books:

They spill from your shelves.  They sprawl by your bed, luxurious, splayed sometimes and discarded at an early page,  broken by your attentions.  On your shelf more books you would like to read are waiting, books you have ordered, their white bodies fat with potential.

But the author acknowledges that sometimes being surrounded by this number of books is overwhelming, one can’t possibly read all of them because “there are just so many to conquer.”  Walsh then asks us to open our minds and imagine, “Something you never thought might happen”:   A being who crawls out of your bookshelf who has read all of your neglected books!  Imagine stumbling upon this being sitting at your table, smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee.  This being has actually read all of your discarded, half-read books, anything that was sitting in a bag for the charity shop, including “ill-judged gifts from well-meaning relatives” and “gardening manuals” and even the  “memoirs of politicians.”  I began to feel better about the stacks of books sitting neglected on my own shelves and a little less guilty about the dozens of books I’ve sent to the charity shop.  I especially like the ending when the narrator realizes that this poor being has read some really lousy books and she feels grateful and even superior for her own literary discretion.

It is fitting that I didn’t actually finish all of the stories in Walsh’s collection, abandoning the book just before I made it through the last few stories.  My attention was diverted by the arrival of Thomas Bernhard’s Collected Poems and Music & Literature No. 8.   So I was hoping that one night, very late, when I can’t sleep that I will stumble into my kitchen and encounter one of my cats, sitting at the table, with a cigarette in one paw, a book in the other, and a glass of wine/whiskey in front of him, who will describe to me the rest of Walsh’s book.

Meanwhile, my other Fontane books arrived in the post and I’ve started Irretrievable.  So I guess I will stick with German Lit. for a while, but then again…

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How Do You Write About Mediocre Books?

There are three books I read over the summer that didn’t inspire me to write complete reviews or posts.  If a book is really not resonating with me then I will abandon it, and I really don’t have the time or energy to waste on negative reviews.  These three titles kept my attention until the end but I would call them mediocre and could not muster enough enthusiasm or words for a full post.  I am very curious to see how other bloggers handle such middle-of-the-road books.

Adua, written by the Somali, Italian author Igiaba Scego and translated by Jamie Richards, moves among three different time periods and two different settings.  The main character, Adua, emigrates from Somalia to Italy and her own story is a mix of her current, unhappy life and flashbacks to her childhood in Somalia.  The third thread in the book deals with the protagonist’s father and his time spent as a servant for a rich Italian who is part of the Italian attempt at colonialism in East Africa just before World War II.  My issue with the book is that I wanted more details about Adua and her father but the plot was too brief to provide the depth of plot and characterization that I craved.  The author could have easily turned this story into three large volumes about Adua’s childhood, her father, and her adult life as an immigrant in Italy.  Adua did prompt me to research and learn more about Italian colonialism in the 20th century but other than that I didn’t have strong feelings about the title after I finished it.

Late Fame, written by Arthur Schnitzler and translated by Alexander Starritt, involves an episode in the life of an older man named Eduard Saxberger who is suddenly reminded of a collection of poetry entitled Wanderings that he had written thirty years earlier and has long forgotten.  A group of Viennese aspiring writers stumble upon Saxberger’s volume in a second hand bookshop and invite him to join their literary discussions at a local café.  Saxberger, although he never married or had a family,  considers his life as a civil servant very successful.  The young poets, whom Schnitzler satirizes as bombastic and overly self-important, stage an evening of poetry readings and drama at which event Saxberger is invited to participate. Saxberger learns that although it is nice to get a little bit of late fame and recognition from this ridiculous group of writers, he made the correct decision in pursuring a different career.  Trevor at Mookse and The Gripes has written a much better review of this book than I could have done and I highly encourage everyone to read his thoughts: http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/08/arthur-schnitzler-late-fame/

Party Going by Henry Green describes exactly what the title suggests: a group of British upper class men and women are attempting to get to a house party in France but are stuck at the train station in London because of thick fog.  Green’s narrative starts out on a rather humorous note as he describes these ridiculously fussy, British youth.  They panic with what Green calls “train fever” every time they think they are in danger of missing their train.  They fret over their clothes, their accessories, their luggage, their tea and their baths.  As the story progresses they become increasingly mean and petty towards one another which made me especially uncomfortable.  The men are portrayed as idiots and dolts who are easily manipulated by the vain and churlish women.  In the end I found Green’s characters so unpleasant that I couldn’t write an entire post about them.  I’ve read and written some words about his novels Back and Blindness both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I still intend to read all of the reissues of his books from the NYRB Classics selections even though I wasn’t thrilled with Party Going.

So which titles have my fellow readers found mediocre?  Do you bother to write anything about the ones that are just okay?

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, German Literature, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Novella

Joy and Freedom: More Thoughts on Pilgrimage

It’s intimidating to try to write anything coherent or thoughtful about a book like Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. The magnitude and depth of the narrative and language is impossible to capture in any sort of post, no matter the length. But one thought that keeps coming to my mind as I read about Miriam’s journey is how greatly I admire her because as a woman living in the early twentieth century, she defies many of the expectations placed upon her because of gender. She isn’t looking for a husband, she doesn’t necessarily want children, she supports herself financially and she lives on her own. I’ve always been fiscally independent and haven’t relied on a spouse for monetary stability;  from a very young age I assumed that I would have my own career and I also think it’s an important example to set for my daughter whom I am raising with the same outlook. But I can’t imagine striving for what Miriam calls this kind of “freedom” in the early 20th century when all of the females around her, including her sisters, depend on marriage for personal, economic support.

Richardson’s protagonist does make several attempts to be successful at one of the few professions open to women in 1915, that of teaching.  After the German finishing school which is described in “Pointed Roofs”, Miriam also takes a position as an instructor in a small boarding school in North London, which she finds exhausting and depressing.  When Miriam resides in the country home of the Currie’s as their governess, her surroundings are more peaceful and her job is easier, but she still doesn’t feel that she is truly free.

It’s not until the fourth chapter in Miriam’s story, “The Tunnel”, that she feels true joy and happiness because of her free life in London.  She has a demanding job as a secretary in the office of a busy dentist, for which position she earns one pound a week.  This allows her to rent a room which, although is small and shabby, is entirely her own space; for the first time in her life she experiences bliss in the deliberate choice of living in solitude.  I find myself cheering for Miriam and eagerly reading each and every page of her story to see what decisions, as an independent woman, she will make next.

What makes Richardson’s text so brilliant is the layers of imagery that she builds in order to demonstrate Miriam’s challenge of traditional, gender roles.  For instance, Miriam decides to take up smoking cigarettes, which at the time is considered a distinctly masculine habit.  While rolling her father’s cigarettes she surreptitiously smokes one and thoroughly enjoys the little buzz that she feels.  When she is a governess at the Currie’s she boldly plays billiards and smokes with the men while the other ladies who are guests at the house sit quietly nearby and gossip.  And into the narrative of “The Tunnel” Richardson carries the image of Miriam as smoker to extend the idea that she is challenging traditional gender roles.  When she is trying on knickers and a new hat she is admiring her different look while she is smoking.  A line from Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva kept coming to mind in these various scenes with Miriam smoking as she takes new, additional steps in her life toward independence: “I want the vibration of happiness.  I want the impartiality of Mozart.  But I also want inconsistency.  Freedom? it’s my final refuge.  I forced myself to freedom and I bear it not like a talent but with heroism: I’m heroically free.  And I want the flow.”  The subtleties of language, nuances of words and flickering of images in the writing compels me to read Pilgrimage with a slowness and deliberation that few other books have warranted.

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Angulus Coeli: The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor

The setting of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s only novel entitled The Violins of Saint-Jacques is a tropical, volcanic island in the Antilles which is dominated by an old, French, aristocratic family that is holding onto their traditional, Jacobean politics.  Not surprisingly, Fermor, most famous for his travel writing, begins his story with a detailed history and geographical description of his fictional island.  He imagines it being occupied by Arawaks and Carib natives and eventually being discovered by Columbus who annexed it for the Spanish crown; he further envisages the island being neglected by Spain and later taken over by the French whose noble families settle on the island and make it as prosperous as Martinique.  Fermor says that his island was little known and that “Cartographer and historian unconsciously conspired to ignore it.”    But he does, however, include an obscure passage, written in Latin, by an Franciscan missionary who is not at all complimentary about this tropical location.  In this addition of the text from NYRB Classics, the Latin is not translated.  I offer my own translation here because it sets up a structure for the important themes and ideas that Fermor explores throughout his narrative:

Insula Sancti Jacobi tantis opibus, tanta copia, tantaque pulcritudine ornata, sicut angulus coeli ipsius videtur, sed, ob mores improbos pravosque incolarum, ob jactanciam, luxuriam et gastrimargiam et Gallorum et nigrorum, insula Sancti Jacobi pessimam insularum aliarum omnium justius, immo, verum angulum Gehennae putanda est.

The island of Saint Jacques, with such wealth and such abundance and adorned with such beauty, seemed as if it were a corner of heaven itself, however, due to the excessive and depraved habits of its populace, due to their boastfulness, the luxury and the gluttony of both the French and the black men, the island of Saint Jacques must be more justly considered, indeed, the worst of all other islands,  a true corner of Hell.

Berthe de Rennes, an elderly woman who now resides on an island in the Aegean, tells the story of Saint-Jacques and the exciting six years she spent there in her youth during the last decade of the nineteenth century.  Her audience is an unnamed Englishman she meets on the beach who visits her over the course of a few weeks while he is vacationing in the Aegean.   Berthe was orphaned, she tells her visitor, and had been taken in by an elderly aunt in France when her cousin, Count Serindan of Saint-Jacques, invited her to come live with his family and serve as the nanny and tutor to his four children.  Fermor beautifully captures the sights, sounds, tastes, textures and smells of this lush, tropical place, and through the descriptions of Berthe’s paintings and drawings of the island we glimpse an angulus coeli (corner of heaven):

The sketch-books covered the entire life of the island.  All of the fine buildings of the capital were there, the statues of Plessis and Rumbold and Scudamore and Braithwaite and Schoelcher; views of savannah and volcanic ravine and stifling forest; punctilious flower-paintings of hibiscus and balisier, of looping lianas, tree-ferns and dark branches where the Night Flowering Cereus grew.  Even the monuments and inscriptions of churches were copied down.  There was an abundance of negroes and negresses in their brilliant village costumes and flamboyantly disguised for carnival.

There is, however, a darker, more sinister side to this island which appears to be a paradise on a merely superficial level.  The Count employs many mulattoes on his estate whose lighter complexions and facial features resemble the Serindans.  Fermor leaves us to imagine for ourselves whether or not the unions between employers and laborers were forced or consensual.  Perhaps the most disturbing instance of debauchery is Fermor’s hint that Gentilien, the Count’s own butler, is the same age as his master and looks enough like the Count to be his brother—a glimpse at the mores improbos (depraved habits) going on for generations on this island.  The Serindan family’s influence over the lives of everyone on the island is eerily described by Fermor as “Olympian” which reference brings to mind the many amorous conquests of the Ancient Greek deity, Zeus.

It is during a ball that the Count throws for carnival that the excess and luxury of the island is fully revealed.  The lavish, overindulgent meal—a reflection of the gastrimargiam (gluttony) noted in the missionary’s Latin passage— that the Count has prepared for his Mardi Gras party brings to mind Trimalchio’s extravagant, Roman cena (dinner) in Petronius’s Satyricon. 

In the kitchen, urchins, sea-eggs and dwarf oysters—the last still clustering in scores on lengths of mangrove-stalk—were heaped in pails.  The snow-white whorls of the conch shells (each of them opening to display a pink internal helix) were arrayed like a tritons’ orchestra announcing, in a silent fanfare, the later delights of Iambi flambe au rhum.  A swarm of little frogs swam agitatedly round their tank; the shell of a turtle had already been evacuated by its lodger.  Horny backed iguanas, trussed like captured dragons, moved restlessly in their baskets.  The Count stopped and gazed at them.

The preparations for this decadent meal are a precursor to the wild and outlandish drama that will occur later on that evening.   Fermor is a master at composing exciting stories and weaves a fist fight ending with a duel challenge, an attempted elopement, a prank involving a deadly, venomous snake, and an appearance by lepers disguised as dominoes into the events that all take place during the Count’s Mardi Gras celebration.  Fermor creates an exciting, intense, romantic plot, the pivotal events of which unfold during the ball and involve Berthe, her favorite cousin, Josephine and the arrogant son of the island’s governor.

Volcanic explosions and imagery of hell and burning all permeate the last part of Fermor’s vivid narrative.  In a final, catastrophic, natural event the island pays its cosmic debt for such opulence and becomes the verum angulum Gehennae (true corner of hell) of the monk’s earlier description.    Saint-Jacques manifests itself as a Caribbean version of Sodom and Gomorrah which Biblical locations, because of their excess, are plunged into a fiery, violent, hellish end.  Fermor’s insinuation in the text that Berthe—who now ironically lives in Mytilene, the capital of  Lesbos—is much closer to Josephine than any of her other family members, augments the image of Saint-Jacques as a nineteenth century version of these profligate cities.

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Literary Fiction, New York Review of Books

Pointed Roofs: Some initial thoughts on Pilgrimage by Dorothy Richardson

I was immediately drawn into the world that Dorothy Richardson creates for her heroine, Miriam Henderson, in Pilgrimage.  Miriam is the third in line of four girls in a middle class English family who has fallen on hard times.  When Pointed Roofs begins, Miriam is nervous about her impending trip to a German finishing school where she will teach English to wealthy, upper class English and German girls.  She has accepted the position in order to relieve some of her family’s monetary woes, but at seventeen she is frightened to leave her safe environment that includes the constant love, support and guidance of her sisters.

Pointed Roofs is the first of thirteen chapters in Richardson’s semi-autobiographical novel that follows the life of Miriam Henderson.  The thirteen chapters, published between 1915 and 1967, are rather lengthy—Pointed Roofs is 185 pages— and are self-contained volumes or novellas that describe different periods in Miriam’s life.   Even though the book is written in the third person, May Sinclair famously labeled Richardson’s style of prose as “stream-of-consciousness.”  We see the finishing school, her students, her supervisor at the school, and Germany from Miriam’s perspective which always contains a charming innocence.

One of the first things she notices at the German school, which comes as a great surprise to her, is the distinct lack of a daily schedule.  Classes, outings, music performances, and baths are all announced spontaneously at the whim of the headmistress, Fräulein Pfaff.  During her time as the English instructor at the school she only teaches one formal class to her students and after her single performance as an instructor there is an unspoken expectation that Miriam is to teach the girls English whenever they go on walks through town.  Miriam comes to realize that the so-called education that these girls are to receive is rather light since all of them will end up as the wives of wealthy German men and will not have much use for a rigorous, academic curriculum.  It makes her appreciate the education that she received at her English school which she realizes was muchmore serious and valuable.

The strength of Richardson’s narrative lies in her ability to make the most mundane tasks seem interesting and new as they are viewed through the eyes of young and insecure Miriam.  Because she is shy and painfully self-conscious, the simple activities of sitting at meals, making eye contact and polite chit chat with the other girls become ordeals for her.  She immediately notices that her pupils, especially the German girls, play the piano more beautifully than her because of their ability to relax and give themselves over to the enjoyment of music.  One of the funniest scenes, as well as one of the most-telling of Miriam’s timorous character, is when she is summoned to have her hair washed.  Leaning her head over the basin while she has eggs cracked and massaged into her hair is the ultimate indignity for her.  She is trying to establish herself as an authority figure among the girls, some of whom she is only two or three years older; when she is lined up to have herself cleaned like the rest of them she feels she has taken a step back and her humiliation is further increased when she has to show up to tea with a wet, unruly mop of hair.

Richardson, through additional symbols and storylines subtly woven throughout the text, highlights the tension Miriam feels between her formerly, isolated life as a child in England and her new experiences as she attempts to become an adult in Germany.  For example, her parents and sisters send her new, stylish blouses and a skirt which make her terribly uncomfortable because she is so used to the confined feel of a corset.  As she is evolving into a different, more mature young woman, her clothes mimic the loosening of her previously, restrained life which has been given up for this new, freeing adventure.  In addition, she finds herself alone in the saal with Pastor Lahmann who, by asking to see her glasses, makes a pathetic attempt at flirting with her.  Miriam completely misses the reason for the Pastor’s attention and she is further baffled when  Fräulein Pfaff, who comes upon them in the saal, appears angry and irritated with her.  Even though she is an adult, on her own, in a foreign land, earning her own living, her charming innocence still lingers over all of her experiences.

Even though Richardson wrote this first volume more than 100 years ago, I identified with Miriam’s character on multiple levels.  I am excited to see where the rest of Pilgrimage takes her and I look forward to reading the novel (I am actually reading the Virago editions which are divided into four volumes) going into autumn.

Please visit Times Flow Stemmed (special thanks go to Anthony whose enthusiasm for Richardson prompted me to being reading Pilgrimage)  and  Beyond Eden Rock for more detailed insights into and discussions of Dorothy Richardson.

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