Recent Reading: Five Fine Finds!

I can’t seem to muster the mental or physical energy to keep up with regular blogging right now (blame an excess of computer time for other purposes plus a spell of back pain – happily now subsided – making it particularly unappealing to spend yet more time at my desk!). But I also can’t stand to watch the pile of read books growing without saying something about them, and I don’t feel like waiting to do a monthly survey, which seems to be a bit of a trend. So let’s see what I can manage to say about these five rather miscellaneous but all, in their own ways, very good books. They all deserve more than passing attention, but it’s 2020 and that means sometimes less has to be enough!

Steven Price, Lampedusa. This was my local book club’s most recent choice, and it proved an excellent one. Everybody loved it, which is actually pretty rare for us. I think the last book we were all this excited about was Drive Your Plow Over the Remains of the Dead. One thing we wondered about going into this was whether it would be important to have read The Leopard beforehand–some of us had, some of us hadn’t. I read it, but years ago (with the Slaves of Golconda group, which sadly faded away) so my recollection was pretty vague. Some who hadn’t read it before opted to read it in preparation for Lampedusa, and some watched the Visconti adaptation. But some just went ahead with Price’s novel, on the theory that he can’t have expected readers to ‘prep’ for it. And we were all fine! Those who knew The Leopard were able to make or appreciate some connections, but Lampedusa is plenty good enough to stand alone as a beautifully written (it genuinely deserves that over-used word ‘lyrical’), evocative (another over-used but well-earned word) and very moving account of creativity, memory, middle age, loss, and death. Oh, and Sicily too: it is very much about a particular place at a particular time.

Lampedusa joins Colm Toibin’s The Master on my very short list of books about other authors that really succeed in conveying what it might have been like to be that other consciousness, to write that other novel. Here’s a sample:

After that first night, Mirella did not again react to the story. She responded neither with surprise nor disapproval nor delight. Rather she was quiet and precise and wholly present, like a shadow on a wall. He was grateful for this. Some part of him understood that these were the cleanest and purest working hours he would ever know; hearing the language aloud, steady, slow, permitted him to edit as he went; and later, after Mirella had left, he would lift the new typed papers to a random page and begin making alterations almost at once, unable to help himself. There were truths inside the story that surprised him, that he had not intended. It felt at times as if he were overhearing the novel speaking to itself. HIs prince, he saw, whom he had always thought of as hollowed out by an absent faith, in fact was the last of the devout. But his prince’s faith was a faith in tradition, in the fate of a bloodline, and at such moments Giuseppe saw that he had written his way through his own bitterness, towards the man he might have wished to be. His prince stood alone, impassive, needing no one; and because of this, and because there is no true survival in isolation, it would be his prince’s very strength that destroyed him.

There is more to the novel than writing and contemplation–there’s family drama, and war, and myth, and also failure, as he dies before knowing “his prince” and his novel would be published, acclaimed, and lasting, the masterpiece he felt but could not be certain it was.

I loved the idea of Lampedusa when I first heard about it but I admit I was prepared for disappointment. The genre is a risky one (I have yet to read a George Eliot novel that hasn’t bored, annoyed, or outraged me), and the only other novel by Price I’ve read is By Gaslight, which I liked just fine but which is a very different kind of thing altogether. I’m so glad I didn’t let those hesitations deter me: it’s one of the best novels I’ve read all year, and this is a year that included Hamnet and The Mirror and the Light.

Up next for the book club: We usually follow a theme of some kind from one book to the next, so this time we chose Italy and Elsa Morante’s Artur’s Island.

Margaret Drabble, The Pattern in the Carpet. The subtitle of this book is ‘A Personal History with Jigsaws’ and I plucked it off the shelf (where it had malingered for a few years mostly unread) because I have been doing jigsaw puzzles as a form of meditative distraction since early in the lockdown. I thought–rightly–that this might mean Drabble’s book, which hadn’t interested me much when I began it before, might have found its moment, and it had. It is a wonderfully digressive book that manages, by the end, to say some profound things about how we pass our time. It began, she explains, as what she intended as a gift book about jigsaws, the kind of thing you’d buy in a museum gift shop. In the end it is part memoir; part history of a wide range of puzzles and games and arts and crafts; part  reflection on (and this will sound pompous, but in the book it really isn’t) the human condition, including especially aging and death. There are many parts I would love to quote but in the interests of actually finishing a blog post before age too much more, here’s just one:

One of the reasons why the jigsaw appeals to me … is that it is pre-made, its limits finite, its frame fixed. No ordinary degree of manual clumsiness (and mine is advanced, and inevitably advancing) can yet prevent me from finishing a jigsaw. It can’t be done badly. Slowly, but not badly. All one needs is patience … In this aspect, the jigsaw is the very opposite of the novel. The novel is formless and frameless. It has no blueprint, no pattern, no edges. At the end of a day’s work on a novel, you may feel that you have achieved something worse than a lack of progress. You may have ruined what went before. You may have sunk badly into banality or incoherence. You may have betrayed or maligned others. You may have to scrap not only the day’s work, but the work of the preceding week, month, year, lifetime. You may have lost ground, and for ever. You may have lost your nerve, and indicted all that you have achieved. Writing fiction is frightening.

She goes on to note that when she was working on The Oxford Companion to English Literature, it had more of the character of a puzzle: 

The pieces fitted together, they interlocked … Assembling and fitting the pieces together was a form of carpentry.

Writing novels is not like that.

Actually, here’s one more passage. Perhaps because I am currently working on a puzzle that is one of Monet’s paintings of his gardens at Giverny, I appreciated her discussion of the way jigsaw puzzles help us understand and appreciate works of fine art by forcing us to pay meticulously close attention:

From jigsaws, you learn about the brush strokes of Van Gogh, the clouds of Constable, the reflections and shadows of Manet, the stripes of Tissot and Rousseau, the brickwork and tiles of the Dutch masters, the flesh tones of Titian, the undulating fabrics and limbs of Botticelli, the business of Bosch and Brueghel. While struggling to recreate Titian’s Venus of Urbino, you discover that the little dog at her feet is painted in almost exactly the same shades of russet and apricot as the naked Venus herself. According to Julian Mitchell, himself a master puzzle solver, the dog represents her politely concealed public hair …

I learned more about the appreciation of clouds and of Constable from doing jigsaws of The Hay Wain and Salisbury Cathedral than I learned from my first encounters with the original paintings. Now, when I see clouds, I see clouds and Constable, not clouds and the shapes of a jigsaw puzzle, but the puzzle was the medium that introduced me, that fixed my attention, that made me pause. This may sound ridiculous, but it is true. I could have learned about clouds at the Courtauld, but I didn’t have the opportunity. I learned through Clementoni.

One thing the book made me realize is that my local jigsaw options are sadly limited! Her book inspired me to go looking for a Brueghel puzzle and I found this line of what look like beautiful art puzzles—how I would love to work on Landscape with the Fall of Icarus!-but they are not to be had in Canada, as far as I can tell.

OK, just one more bit, to give you a sense of how much more this book is about than idle pastimes–or, more accurately, of how it makes you think differently about your pastimes, which may not be as idle as they seem:

The concept of life as a journey, a pilgrimage, a quest, a ladder, or a spiral track may be attractive to some, but to me the notion of a goal is not. The very word ‘goal’ has unpleasing associations. Board games, unlike jigsaw puzzles, necessarily admit elements of competition and victory … Whereas the Greek telos can mean an end, an aim, an ultimate purpose, a final cause, and need not embrace the concept of competition. In the larger pattern, all the solitary journeys combine, and we arrive together.

The jigsaw, with its frame, is a simulacrum of meaning, order and design … if you try hard enough, you can complete it. That galactic scatter of inert and inept fragments of wood or cardboard will come together and make a picture.

Lennie Goodings, A Bite of the Apple. I enjoyed this thoroughly. It combines a brisk personal history of Goodings’ years with Virago Press with comments on the books and writers the Press published–some of whom I knew of but without having connected them explicitly to Virago, like Sarah Waters or Sarah Dunant. Goodings is clear that in its origins Virago was a product of second-wave feminism and so had some of the shortcomings you’d expect; she’s also explicit and occasionally defensive about Virago’s determination to be a feminist press that reached mainstream audiences. The tension between ideology and marketing was real sometimes but she makes a good case for the value of having a range of approaches to feminist publishing, including theirs. It was slightly disorienting reading enthusiastic sections about Virago’s close relationship with Margaret Atwood, who of course has long been an ‘iconic’ feminist writer but who has become a controversial figure, in her home country anyway, because of her entanglement in the Steven Galloway case. I suppose this particular mess is not really relevant to Goodings’s story, but it’s a long time since I read anything admiring about Atwood that didn’t have at least an implicit asterisk by her name–a sign, as I expect Goodings herself would readily acknowledge, that feminist critique is always evolving.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot. This is another book that has been sitting on my shelves for a while (one thing lockdown has done is encourage me to look more closely at the books I already have, since things like leisurely trips to the library or bookstore are not currently options). I loved Lolly Willowes and liked Summer Will Show, so I’m not sure why I hadn’t read this one yet! Maybe it too was waiting for its moment, and like The Pattern in the Carpet, it found it, since I read it in one delicious sitting and absolutely loved it. It is sad and strange and funny and touching; it is about faith, and the loss of faith, and about love and the loss of love, or sacrifice in the name of love. It is wryly satirical about missionary zeal and imperialism and cultural arrogance; it takes a small man and uses him to tell a much larger story about freeing ourselves from the things we believe in and the harm they can do. Mr. Fortune is kind of a stupid man in many ways, but he finds a lot of wisdom by the end. A snippet:

‘Because I loved him so for what he was I could not spend a day without trying to alter him. How dreadful it is that because of our wills we can never love anything without messing it about! We couldn’t even love a tree, not a stone even; for sooner or later we should be pruning the tree or chipping off a bit of the stone. Yet if it were not for a will I suppose we should cease to exist. Anyhow it is in us, and while we live we cannot escape from it, so however we love and whatever we love, it can only be for a few minutes, and to buy off our will for those few minutes we have to relinquish to it for the rest of our lives whatever it is we love.’

My nice NYRB Classics edition comes packaged with the short sequel Townsend Warner wrote for it, The Salutation. I didn’t read it (yet): I was so satisfied by Mr. Fortune’s Maggot that I didn’t want anything to distract or detract from it! I won’t forget that it’s still there, though, waiting for me. Perhaps it perfectly completes or complements the original: some day I’ll find out.

Kerry Clare, Waiting for a Star to FallI was so looking forward to Kerry’s new novel: I really enjoyed and admired Mitzi Bytes and of course I know Kerry well from her wonderful blog and from Twitter (though sadly for me, she is rarely there now!) and for all her work reading, writing, talking about, and cheering on Canadian literature. Waiting for a Star to Fall did not disappoint, though it is a different kind of novel than Mitzi Bytes–at its heart is a painful personal struggle that is really well summed up in Stacey May Fowles’s review in Quill & Quire:

In sketching the nuance and power imbalances of Brooke and Derek’s romance, Clare has successfully rendered a spectrum of abusive behaviour and articulated a vital cultural tension between two seemingly opposed concepts: being 23 and being taken advantage of, and being 23 and having agency. In doing so, she asserts that both can exist simultaneously and that those who mistreat young women are not relieved of responsibility because their victims “should have known better.” 

Waiting for a Star to Fall is a highly topical novel, what I suppose we will come to call (maybe we already do?) a #MeToo novel. It doesn’t feel forced or formulaic, though, mostly because it walks us through the problem of recognizing the harm, rather than insisting on it or hectoring us about it from the very beginning. Brooke’s struggle to make the right kind of sense of her own experience is hard to watch and harder to participate in vicariously, which the close third-person narration requires of us. I appreciated that while by the end it is clear even to Brooke that she needs to understand the story differently, even it it means letting go of ideas about herself that she wants and needs to hold on to, the pieces do not fall so neatly into place that labels like ‘victim’ really fit. Real life is full of ambiguity, after all, and she did make choices; her relationship with Derek is not something that just happened to her, without her participation. At the same time, there’s some wishful thinking in Brooke’s own insistence that right and wrong are not so easy to determine:

‘But it’s not nothing,’ said Brooke, trying to explain. ‘It can’t just be either/or–there is something in the middle.’

‘There are many degrees, aren’t there,’ Derek’s mother eventually says to Brooke, ‘between perfection and being a sinner And who among us hasn’t sinned? … It’s not all or nothing.’ This is true, but it’s also not really good enough, especially for Derek as Brooke finally comes to see him.

So there we have it: five good books I’ve read recently!

“My Own Way”: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes

“Say you won’t leave us, Lolly.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“But Lolly, what you want is absurd.”

“It’s only my own way, Henry.”

In many ways, Lolly Willowes is a familiar book. Like Villette or The Odd Women or The Crowded Street, it is the story of a woman whose life does not conform to the expected story of love, courtship, and marriage. Single women were both a social and a fictional (and thus a formal) problem from at least the mid-19th century on into the 20th. The statistical overabundance of women in the earlier period led to articles with titles like “Why Women are Redundant” and “What Shall We Do With Our Old Maids”; the terrible losses of World War I created a similar feeling of crisis, at least among those who saw marriage as the only natural and desirable aim for women’s lives. That was never everybody, of course, especially not all women, but it was an assumption that one way or another affected the horizon of expectation for most people.

Stylistically and tonally, Lolly Willowes is most like The Crowded Street, which makes sense, I suppose, as they are close together chronologically: Holtby’s novel was published in 1924, Townsend Warner’s in 1926. The world they depict is quite similar: for their heroines, it is one of stultifying limitations, well-meaning but hampering advice and attention, and near-debilitating mental suffocation. Lolly Willowes is brisker, though, and (for want of a better term) quirkier: Holtby plods along realistically with Muriel until finally she makes a little space for herself in the world — at last, most readers are likely to exclaim! — because the vicarious experience of her life is really very depressing.

Lolly Willowes feints in that realist direction. In fact, for most of the book you wouldn’t necessarily know it’s going to take a turn into the weird and wonderful unless you knew it already and so were watching (as I was) for signs — Lolly’s interest in herbs and potions, for instance, and the faintly uncanny way she has of not being altogether present in her immediate place and time. What’s so important and subversive about her story is that her cry for liberation — her demand to have her own way — arises from the most ordinary circumstances of her life. Nobody is intentionally cruel to her; she’s not abused or harassed or tormented … except by being an unmarried woman expected to find sufficient meaning for her life in being an accessory to other people’s plans and purposes. The complaint, in other words, is explicitly not personal but political, not individual but systemic: it’s an indictment of normalcy.

Once Lolly has removed herself from the benevolent tyranny of her family, establishing herself in the wonderfully-named town of Great Mop, she reflects on their disapproval:

There was no question of forgiving them. She had not, in any case, a forgiving nature; and the injury they had done her was not done by them. If she were to start forgiving she must needs forgive Society, the Law, the Church, the History of Europe, the Old Testament, great-great-aunt Salome and her prayerbook, the Bank of England, Prostitution, the Architect of Apsley Terrace, and half a dozen other useful props of civilization. All she could do was to go on forgetting them.

Lolly does find contentment when she has thrown off and (mostly) forgotten these “props of civilization,” but it turns out to be harder to shake them off than she’d hoped. I loved that it was her nephew Titus who followed her to Great Mop: again, precisely because he’s the one she likes best, the one who seems least threatening, the threat he does represent turns out to be most revealing. “Where are you off to, Aunt Lolly?” he cries cheerfully as she passes him; ” Wait a minute, and I’ll come too.” But Lolly doesn’t want him to come along; she doesn’t want him anywhere near her new life:

She walked up and down in despair and rebellion. She walked slowly, for she felt the weight of her chains. Once more they had been fastened upon her. She had worn them for many years, acquiescently, scarcely feeling their weight. Now she felt it. And, with their weight, she felt all their familiarity, and the familiarity was worst of all.

Happily for her, that familiarity turns eventually into a familiar, and Lolly is able to draw on forces outside “civilization” to break those chains once and for all. The turn is sly and mischievous and almost disturbingly gratifying: things turn against Titus (milk curdles, bees swarm) until he’s driven safely away. Lolly never seems overtly in control of these events: even as she feels a new power, her disperses. She’s certainly not innocent, though, as she openly and unrepentantly allies herself with Satan.

Lolly’s final dialogue with Satan (winningly in the guise of a common gardener) is the pay-off for the somewhat slow burn of the first two thirds or so of the novel. In fact, it’s mostly a monologue, in which Lolly makes a compelling case for Satan’s intervention. “It’s like this,” she explains:

When I think of witches, I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. . . . Well, there they were, there they are, child-rearing, house-keeping, hanging washed dishcloths on currant bushes; and for diversion each other’s silly conversation, and listening to men talking together in the way that men talk and women listen. Quite different to the way women talk, and men listen, if they listen at all. And all the time being thrust further down into dullness when the one thing all women hate is to be thought dull.

“Some may get religion,” she concedes, after more bitter musing about women’s wasted potential, “and then they’re all right, I expect. But for the others, for so many, what can there be but witchcraft?” It’s not about exercising malevolent power, or benevolent either, for that matter:

One doesn’t become a witch to run round being harmful, or to run round being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that–to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others . . .

It’s the mordant genius of Lolly Willowes that this conclusion makes such perfect sense, in context–that Sylvia Townsend Warner has done such a good job bringing out the menace of the everyday that Lolly’s escape from it by such morally equivocal means is itself unequivocally something to celebrate, rather than fear or judge. She’s only trying to go her own way, after all: that should not be too much to ask.

“This extraordinary colloquy”: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Summer Will Show

warnerI picked up Summer Will Show on my trip to Boston a couple of years ago. It caught my eye then because not long before we had run a good essay on Sylvia Townsend Warner in Open Letters. I’ve read most of the books from that trip but until now, not Summer Will Show. I think I put it off because I was expecting (its being historical fiction and all) something both dense and intense, like A Place of Greater Safety, say, or The Children’s Book (though obviously it’s much shorter — which should have been a clue). I was prompted to get to it at long last by notice that Anne Fernald was giving a talk about it at the New York Public Library.

I wanted to attend the talk even before I read Summer Will Show, because I know Anne to be someone well worth listening to (see, for instance, her essays and reviews for Open Letters). Now that I’ve read the novel, I wish even more that I could have been there, because the novel seemed so strange to me that I could tell I needed some tips, some guidance about how it works, how it makes sense on its own terms. I actually enjoy that feeling of interpretive disorientation provided the book causing it feels interestingly confusing, not just blundering or messy. Vera Brittain’s The Dark Tide, for example, or anything I’ve read by Margaret Kennedy, would fall into that first category — and I wonder if it’s not coincidental that Summer Will Show is roughly contemporary with these novels and shares with them the property of being (for want of any other literary-historical label) “not modernist.” Not that I’m any kind of expert on reading modernism, but as far as I know there isn’t a handy set of terms or frameworks for making sense of the more miscellaneous fiction from the early decades of the 20th century. I read a number of very interesting books on topics like The Feminine Middlebrow Novel for the Somerville seminar, but Warner isn’t someone who came up — though her absence from my notes doesn’t mean that she isn’t actually mentioned in those sources, just that I wasn’t interested in her in that context. So even there I got no particular help. It may be best read along with other political fiction from the time (Orwell, maybe?), but I don’t know much about that context. All I can really offer, then, are some provisional first impressions.

My strongest initial impression is that Summer Will Show (again like The Dark Tide) is not an especially good novel, but that it’s bad in interesting ways. Duly acknowledging that “but is it any good?” is a fraught question, I’ll point out as weaknesses that neither of the main characters seemed quite three-dimensional to me: both were the literary equivalents of vivid but jerky puppets going through the motions of a story designed to lead to encounters and crises that, in their turn, were designed to bring about a conclusion more intellectual and ideological than human and dramatic. The story itself is at once simple and unexpected: aristocratic Sophia Willoughby travels to Paris in 1848 after the death of her children determined to find her straying husband and get pregnant again to make up for her loss; she finds him, as she intends, but instead of staking her claim, she falls in love with his theatrical Jewish mistress, Minna Lemuel, and as a result of their relationship is drawn into revolutionary fervor and ends up literally fighting on the barricades.

Sophia is a supremely unappealing character — not just at the start (when her haughty prejudices are at their most dominant and unrepentant) but throughout. What Minna ever sees in her was one of my major stumbling blocks, while what she sees in Minna was another: their relationship comes from nothing and is never explained or described in any way that really motivates it. There’s another of the problems I had with the novel: it is jumpy and episodic, skipping over transitions where exposition would have been welcome and then becoming fulsome in contexts where great detail seemed gratuitous and digressive.

And yet the section of the novel that I found most compelling could be seen as a digression: Minna is a storyteller by profession, and our (and Sophia’s) first introduction to her is her gripping account of surviving a pogrom in her childhood:

I was just coming across the yard from the outhouse, where I had gone to carry our goats their feed, when I heard footsteps, a man running and staggering along the frozen path. The running man was my father. He had torn off his mittens as though their weight would encumber him, I saw his red hands flapping against the dusky white of the snow. His mouth was open, he fetched his breath with groaning. He fell down on the icy track, and was up again, and came running on with his face bloodied. He did not see me where I stood motionless in the dusk of the yard, but ran past me and burst open the house door and staggered in. Before he had spoken I heard my mother cry out, a wild despairing cry that yet seemed to have a note of exultation in it, as though it were recognizing and embracing some terror long foreseen. I went in after him, very slowly and quietly, as though in this sweep of terror I must move as noiselessly as possible. He was leaning over the table, his hands clenching it, and trembling. He trembled, his back heaved up and down with his struggles for breath, with every gasp he groaned with the anguish of breathing. Mixed in with his groans were words. Always the same words. “They’re coming!” he said. “They’re coming!”

The breathless rhythm of the sentences, the vivid tactile details, the repetitions, all add to the combination of urgency and predictability that makes the story so chilling: this is a catastrophe that has been long expected, even as its coming is painfully, hopelessly sudden. “No need, at this last door, to cry that the Christians were coming,” Minna says of her own frantic attempts to notify their neighbors.

Summer Will Show earned my interest precisely because the writing is, generally, that good: I was captivated and impressed by Warner’s style even as the structure of the book frustrated me and the characterization disappointed. A book this well written can’t be simply careless, it isn’t inept: the awkwardness and the didacticism both felt purposeful. But what might that purpose be? According to the publicity notice, Anne’s talk focused on the novel as an exploration of “what might make a middle-aged person change her mind and her life–the very problem at the heart of politics. . . .what it might take to transform an imperious aristocratic wife into a communist.”  In that context, I can see that Minna’s storytelling is important, not just because it sets up her individual identity, but because it draws our attention to the importance of the stories we tell about our experiences and those of others: changing your mind means changing your story, perhaps accepting someone else’s or incorporating it to create a more complex, multi-faceted narrative. I thought Sophia’s conversion from conservative to radical was too abrupt, and too idiosyncratically motivated by her passion for Minna, to be much of a model, but maybe it’s not her initial move into Minna’s life that really counts so much as her transformation at the very end of the novel, when her own experience of violent confrontation and its bloody consequences prompts a much deeper change. Certainly her speech before the firing squad is utterly and convincingly unlike anything the Sophia of the first chapters could ever say — and the Sophia who reflects with such pride on her meeting with the Duke of Wellington as the novel begins hardly seems the same person who concludes the novel reading The Communist Manifesto.

But that’s where my dissatisfaction with the novel as a novel makes trouble for me again: the ending is a bit too pat. It felt as if the elements of the novel had been manipulated to ensure we ended up there, with the specter haunting Europe, rather than discovering the need for Marx as we read. Elizabeth Gaskell is a much more politically conservative thinker than Warner, but Mary Barton explains a lot more about socialism as a response to economic conditions than Summer Will Show — and no wonder, of course, since she was observing Manchester in the 1840s just as Engels was when he wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England.