Vancouver: By the Books!

I’m back from my trip to Vancouver. Including travel days, I was on vacation for 11 days, making this the longest trip I’ve taken in ages. It was wonderful to spend so much time with my family and to meet up with so many of my friends — among them the wonderful Liz of Something More, who is every bit as smart and witty and energetic in person as she is online. A special treat was getting to know my newest nephew, who made it to almost three  before coming face to face with his Aunt Rohan. There was lots of good food and drink and general conviviality; the weather was spectacular, and so, as always, was the scenery. A small sample will make you wonder why anyone bothers vacationing (or, for that matter, living) anywhere else:

Sunset at Kits Beach


Along the Seawall


The Beach at Spanish Banks


Along Kits Point


Plaza at Granville Island
My happy place:
the deck at Granville Island Market


But enough about all that! This is a book blog, so of course what you want to know about is whether I had any bookish adventures along with all that socializing and sightseeing. Well, of course I did. Here’s the stack of books I either read, bought, or borrowed on my trip:

Vancouver Books I

The Woman Upstairs and Jane and Prudence were the books I brought along to read on the plane. Barbara Pym was excellent company from Halifax to Toronto: I appreciated her much more after reading Harrison Solow’s Felicity & Barbara Pym, so I was happy to find when I arrived in Vancouver that my mother had helpfully picked Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings from her collection and put them out for me. As you can see from the picture, I have “borrowed” them to read at my leisure! (I promise, I will give them back to her … next time she visits me here. See how cleverly I’m adding in incentives for her to come all this way?) The Magnificent Spinster is hers as well: one of the fun things about visiting my parents is exploring their incredibly well-stocked and various shelves, from the rows of vintage Penguin Classics in the living room to the mysteries shelved two deep in the study to my mother’s Bloomsbury nook:

Bloomsbury Corner

From Toronto to Vancouver I made good progress on The Woman Upstairs, which I had suggested for my F2F book club for August; I finished it up a day or two after I got there. I was pretty disappointed in it: it seemed heavy-handed and straining towards significance. Nora’s anger was particularly uninteresting to me, largely because it was so insistent. Though the overt allusion is to Jane Eyre, I found myself thinking more about Villette as I read it. Lucy Snowe is a much more layered and complex character — or perhaps I should say characterization: Brontë gives us mysteries, deception, and self-deception where I felt that Messud gives us mostly clichés and plot twists. And speaking of twists, the one at the end is painfully predictable, isn’t it? I ended up feeling that I had once again made the mistake of following the hype. But perhaps as I think it over more, and after we’ve discussed it in our group, I’ll realize how this preliminary reaction is inadequate.

Also in the pile is Arabella, which I bought myself as a treat at the big Chapters downtown. I ended up reading most of it on the flights home: it was sweet and cheerful and not too demanding, which is just about right for a stressful flying day. (Overall I was pleased with how well I handled the flying on this trip — there was a minimum of armrest clutching, for one thing, and my “self-talk” strategies were more effective than usual, even during turbulence. Still, even at its best it’s a crowded, uncomfortable, and disconcerting experience, isn’t it?)

My other purchases were from Hager Books, one of the very few independent stores left in Vancouver. From their carefully curated selection, I chose Gift from the Sea, which I was inspired to buy because of Litlove’s wonderful essay on Anne Morrow Lindbergh in the April issue of Open Letters Monthly. I had planned to read it on the plane home but didn’t feel well enough to concentrate on it, so now I have it to look forward too. And I chose Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures for the contrasting reason that I’d never heard of it (or him) before and was intrigued that Hager had several of his titles in stock, as if he’s a readerly favorite. Besides that, of course, I also thought it looked interesting! Has anyone read any of Hellenga’s novels? If you hated them, probably best not to tell me that I may have wasted my Hager’s opportunity on the wrong thing!

In the Woods is there because I ordered a book for a gift to be sent to Vancouver ahead of my arrival, and I wanted something to add it so I’d get free shipping! I chose it because Tana French is a name that keeps coming up when I ask for mystery recommendations. I’d been avoiding it because it begins with bad things happening to young children, but I need to refresh my mystery reading. (Pretty soon, in fact, I have to order books for another round of the ‘Women & Detective Fiction’ seminar, so you’ll be seeing more questions about that here later.)

palfreyThe book I liked best of the ones I read on my trip is actually not shown here because I finished it and decided I really shouldn’t kidnap yet another of my mother’s books. It was Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, and it is by far my favorite of the novels by Taylor that I’ve read. It’s got the same clear-eyed, almost ruthless perspective on people’s foibles and self-deceptions but is also both funny and poignant. It was on the shelf next to Mollie Panter-Downes’s One Fine Day, which I did make off with. Really, if I lived in Vancouver, I would hardly need bookstores or libraries at all!

And now, back to my regular life. . I’m pleased with how much I got done on different projects before I left, including the Middlemarch for Book Clubs site, the reviews for Open Letters, and the draft of the Dick Francis essay (now in the editor’s hands); it’s time to think about how I want to use the rest of the time I have before teaching once again becomes the #1 priority. First, though, I have to get over my jet lag …


“This blurred world”: Elizabeth Taylor, A Game of Hide and Seek

Elizabeth Taylor is the first repeat author we’ve chosen in my F2F book club: for our last meeting, we read Angel, which was such a surprise hit we agreed we’d like to try more of Taylor’s novels. By “surprise hit” I mean in part that because we had no expectations, we were surprised to find ourselves so engaged with the book (which is not to say everyone loved it, but we all liked discussing it). But I also mean that we were surprised by its particulars: by how many things about it are unlike other books any of us had read. It is strange and dark and sad and comic and grim and satirical, all at once. And talk about an unlikable heroine! And yet we all found her a perversely captivating one.

taylorhideandseekSo we’ve moved on to A Game of Hide and Seek, which is the other of Taylor’s novels recently reissued by New York Review Books. We haven’t met to discuss it yet, and I’m quite curious to find out how the others responded. For me it was surprising all over again, because at first it didn’t seem very much like Angel. And yet the more I think about it, the more I realize that despite the fairly different story and structure, it does resemble Angel, not in its characters or events but in its attitude. Both novels proceed with a relentless lack of sentimentality that is all the more unexpected in A Game of Hide and Seek because it tells what might be called a love story.

A Game of Hide and Seek tracks the awkward, uneven relationship between reticent Harriet and erratic Vesey. Harriet knows she loves Vesey from early on, but for some time she is tormented by uncertainty about how he feels about her — or, indeed, whether he feels anything at all. Believing there is nothing between them, she marries Charles — older, steadier, uneasy because he knows she nurses a secret passion for Vesey, who, after being both emotionally and then physically absent while Harriet yearned for him, turns up again now that Harriet is unavailable. Harriet and Vesey flirt (though that seems too perky a word) first with each other and then with outright adultery.

I found it impossible to root for a consummation of their love: Harriet is a drip, and Vesey is a bit of a jerk. It is love, though, I suppose, that is hiding and being sought, though the novel doesn’t give a very encouraging idea of what, exactly, love is. Harriet’s early infatuation is completely inexplicable: is that perhaps the point, that love is something that trumps or eludes reason? Or perhaps, as Harriet’s friend Kitty cautions her, the problem is loving an idea instead of a person: Harriet longs for love, and she believes Vesey to be her love, while he does just enough — he is just enough — to sustain the fantasy.

It’s the idea of Vesey and Charles’s knowledge of Harriet’s longing for him that undermine Charles and Harriet’s marriage. Taylor is very good at evoking the isolation that comes with unhappy intimacy:

Beyond their familiarity and nakedness, they could now sense their true isolation and were more perfectly strange to one another than people passing in a street.

After Vesey’s re-entrance into Harriet’s life, her daughter Betsy develops her own crush on him. In an odd twist, Betsy comes to believe Vesey is actually her father, which is at once traumatizing and gratifying:

That life was so unlike Greek literature had been the worse for life, to her mind. To-night it came — on the strength of a cryptic note, a faded photograph — magnificently near to it.

Her other crush, her Greek teacher Miss Bell, urges her not to “be such a slave to [her] feelings.” Miss Bell herself eventually has to leave for a new school, and one reason is that she has made too much of a favorite of Betsy: the lesson she carries away is “never [to] grown fond of any of them.”  Is it possibly better that love be neither sought nor found?

A further facet of the novel is its suffragette backstory: Harriet’s mother and Vesey’s aunt are close friends who were once “hustled, gripped above the elbows by policemen, up the steps of a police-station.” Their heroism embarrasses more than it inspires Harriet, who shows no particular interest in the bright future they fought to win for her. Her one independent move is going off to work in a dress shop, but this is a prelude only to her marriage, not to any assertion of herself or pursuit of a more rewarding career. It’s Betsy who finds her grandmother’s adventures exciting.  I don’t know how to put this piece together with Harriet and Vesey’s strange affair. Maybe I’m not supposed to: maybe it’s just there, rather than there as part of an aesthetic or thematic unity. Some people’s mothers really were suffragettes: does it have to mean anything? Why do I always seek unifying ideas?

Yet there are teasing intertextual moments that make me think it’s not wrong to try to solve the novel’s puzzles, as when Charles sits reading Persuasion while entirely conscious that something is afoot with Harriet and Vesey:

‘What a novel to choose!’ Charles thought. ‘Only the happy in love should ever read it. It is unbearable to have expression given to our painful solitariness, to rake up the dead leaves in our hearts, when we have nothing that can follow (no heaven dawning beautifully in Union Street), except in dreams, as perhaps Jane Austen herself never had but on the page she wrote.

Persuasion is another novel of love lost and regained; A Game of Hide and Seek could certainly be read as the anti-Persuasion, in that its lovers have aged but not grown, while their past love does not seem worth either remembering or reviving — even though they both remember and try to resuscitate it. Anne and Wentworth learn to fight for the love that will enable a new, better life; Harriet and Vesey, in contrast, can barely see what would be right, much less fight for it. Not knowing where they are, or where they’re going, is liberating at first, even though at the last minute they realize they have been stumbling towards a big mistake:

He walked beside her with the rose hanging from his hand. The taste of the fog was at the back of their throats. They could see only the shape of one another and, when they spoke, so private, so safe did they feel that they neither paused nor dissembled. In this blurred world, words were more beautiful and they used them more truthfully than at other times.

 Taylor’s writing is a bit like that. Sentences can be meandering and difficult to follow, leaving you disoriented:

This morning, however, she was ruffled herself, felt that a real sequence was so broken that the punctual arrival of the milk-man, the charwoman coming in at the back door at her usual time, were small mockeries, piteous pretences, like the first meal after a beloved one’s death, not even reaffirming that the world goes on as usual, that in the midst of death we are in life.

But then ideas emerge clearly out of the fog, giving you a distinct outline of feeling or intent:

‘Nowadays,’ she thought, ‘perhaps always, happiness has to be isolated. Only when we block out all that surrounds it, can we have it perfect, as we so often have perfect grief.’ She felt that she must not grope backwards over her conscience, or forwards over her desires, but keep her contentment in this different climate while she could.

A lot seems blurry in A Game of Hide and Seek: character, motive, plot, morality, meaning. Taylor creates a climate of yearning and dissatisfaction, though, in which words seem sometimes beautiful and sometimes true.

“Menaced by intimations of the truth”: Elizabeth Taylor, Angel

angelAngelica Deverell, the eponymous protagonist of Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, will not accept the dreary reality she lives with, and so she creates a different world through her fiction, finding in it all the glamour and drama she yearns for and believes she deserves. So far, so good, right? We’ve met imaginative young girls in novels before — Jo March, Anne Shirley — who channel their repressed energy for life into story-telling, and whose hunger to express themselves matches their exuberant desire to live more fully. But Angel, it turns out, is no relation to these lovable sprites, and Elizabeth Taylor’s own novel offers none of the cheerful consolations of Little Woman or Anne of Green Gables: there’s something much darker and sadder in this account of a woman who never ceases in her insistence that her fantasies are reality but whose life never does bring her any real joy — only constant battle against unwelcome truths.

Angel, in other words, is a book that surprised me. I thought I knew the kind of thing I was getting into when I started it, and I was instantly on Angel’s side, too, when on the very first page she confronts her dubious teacher about an essay poor Miss Dawson can not believe Angel has written: “Who does she think wrote it if I didn’t? Who does she think could?” But things went awry for me after that, as Angel turns out to be anything but sympathetic — and yet there’s something compelling and maybe even tragic about the completeness with which she insists on living her own version of her life, never backing down even when faced with the cruelest facts. Refusing reality is hardly the route to moral heroism, and at no point does Angel transcend her own egotism, while at no point does Taylor soften her or elevate her to make our work easier.

Her publisher manages, as we must, to see her straight on: “He realised the hunger she had suffered, the deprivations of her wilful, ranging imagination.” Early in her career she tells him the truth of her early life but concludes, “None of what I told you seems true to me and I know that one day I shall stop believing it.”

Unreality is also the hallmark of her novels, which are critically disdained:

The very passages of which she had been most proud, had been printed as if they were richly humorous; her dialogue, her syntax, her view of life, her descriptions of society were all seen to be part of some new and quite delicious joke. No one had wept, it seemed, when reading the funeral scene–unless it was with laughter.

Yet laughable as the books are, they are (for a time, at least) bestsellers:

The more the critics laughed, the longer were the queues for her novels at the libraries; the power of her romanticism captivated simple people; her preposterous situations delighted the sophisticated; her burning indignation when some passing fury turned her aside from her plot into denunciations and irrelevancies, swayed some readers into solemn agreement and others into paroxysms of laughter.

Taylor is clearly a sophisticated novelist, not one aiming at simple people, so the most surprising aspect of Angel is the total absence of satire at Angel’s expense: she paints her character’s portrait with the same unexpected ruthlessness as Angel’s eventual husband Esmé literally paints it:

 The portrait lacked exuberance and he had painted her in her darkest clothes against a banal background; the empty window behind her, the bare wall, emphasized the suggestion of loneliness. . . . at the time people thought the portrait dreary and tactless and wondered why Esmé had not the wit to modify the arch of her nose, the eccentricity of her clothes and correct her slight astigmatism, and if she would not disguise her own pallor, he, on canvas, might have done so.

His unsentimental realism is the complete opposite of Angel’s denial of reality, which remains perfect even as she becomes increasingly freakish in her aging eccentricity:

To herself, she was still the greatest novelist of her day, and not the first in history to receive less homage than was her due. No one bought her books, and only the middle-aged or elderly had ever read them: she did not know that she was now a legend of which the young had only vaguely heard; risque, their grandparents, in quaint fashion, said her novels were.

Somehow, Taylor manages to bring no judgment down on Angel for refusing to live in the world. It would have been easy to enhance the pathos of Angel’s final moments by granting her an epiphany, a moment of painful self-awareness, but all she feels is fatigue, and relief when she realizes her long struggle is over: “it was not to be gone through again; after all she was at home, in her own bed, with her own life behind her.” In choosing fantasy she has not, after all, taken the easy way.