Archive for September, 2011

Colette in a 1907 pantomime, Rêve d'Égypte.

Colette’s The Vagabond  is a lyrical autobiographical novel based on Colette’s experiences as a pantomime artist after her divorce in the early twentieth century.  The narrator of this stunning novel, Renee, muses on solitude, divorce, the personality of her bulldog, Fossette, her friends in the music halls, and a man she refers to as the “Big Ninny.”  I love this novel, both in the new Stanley Applebaum translation and the Enid McLeod translation, and, indeed, when I first read it in my 20s, I found it so vivid I felt as though I were Renee/Colette–as if a college girl could have anything in common with this talented writer-dancer-mime! A biography of Colette enhanced the pleasure, because I understood the autobiographical elements in her novels.

Colette, raised in Northern Burgundy, is known for her loving descriptions of nature, particularly in her famous memoir-cum-novels, My Mother’s House and Sido.  Even in The Vagabond, set in Paris, on trains, and in theaters on a 40-day tour, her passion for flowers, trees, and animals is apparent. Although the narrator, Renee, is an exile from the country, she is ecstatic when she walks her dog in the park and when she sees the spring from the windows of trains.

Recently divorced from a flagrantly unfaithful painter, the heroine Renee is lonely, stunned and shocked by the cruelty of her ex-husband, who sometimes kicked her out of the apartment so he could have a liaison with another woman.  Her new career as a pantomime artist has given her hope and confidence.  She works hard and respects her colleagues.  An eccentric  friend, Margot, one of the few who has hung on from Renee’s society days, gives her money so she can make ends meet.

Colette, whose life followed a similar trajectory, was married for 13 years to Henri Gauthier-Willars, known as Willy, a writer of novels penned by ghostwriters. Colette was one of the ghostwriters, and her  Claudine novels appeared under his name (some say she was locked up and forced to write).  He was promiscuous, made her very unhappy, and she left him in 1906 and was divorced in 1910.

The plot of The Vagabond loosely revolves around Renee’s reactions to a gentleman fan’s pursuit of her.  Max, or the Big Ninny, sends her flowers daily and more-or-less “stalks” her in a friendly way (it wouldn’t have been called stalking back then).  He finally breaks down her resistance through a friend’s intercession.  But Renee has many, many doubts, and so do we.

Of course I’m all for romance, or was when I was very young. But Renee is 33, and I understand her doubts now that I am long beyond 33.

Some of the most charming scenes are of Renee’s walks with Fossette, her bulldog.  Here is a quote from Stanley Applebaum’s 2010 translation (Dover):

“Sunday again!… And since the dark chill has given way to a bright chill, my dog and I took our exercise in the Bois du Bologne between eleven and noon–I have a matinée after lunch.  This animal is ruining me financially.  Without her I could get to the Bois on the Metro, but she gives me enough pleasure to compensate for the three-franc cab fare.  Black as a truffle, she gleams in the sunshine, groomed with a brush and a flannel rag, and the whole Boris belongs to her:  she takes possession of it with a loud snorting noise like a pig’s, and barks amid the dry leaves she scatters…”


THE CHARITY BOOK SALE.  Of course I came away with finds from The Charity Book Sale, though I got there AFTER the book scouts.  I found:

Colette’s Creatures Great and Small. According to the New York Times in 1957: “In “Creatures Great and Small” the reader will find some of Colette’s liveliest and most beautiful pages finely translated by Enid McLeod. Presumably the Fleuron edition, put in shape under the capable hand of Maurice Goudeket, Colette’s husband, contains only the best of four books on animals which date, respectively, from 1904, 1905, 1916 and 1930 — Colette’s absorption in the ways of animals, reptiles and birds knew no time or season — and certainly there is not a repetitious page or even phrase in this further culling of the rich, amusing, tender collection.”

Eleanor Farjeon’s Humming-Bird.  A 1936 adult novel by the famous children’s writer.

Georgette Heyer’s They Found Him Dead (one of her mysteries)

The Diary of Anais Nin (two volumes).  Diaries of the famous novelist and diarist, who was the lover of Henry Miller.

Colleen MucCullough’s Caesar.  I’ve never read McCullough’s historical novels, but if I like these they’ll keep me going for awhile.  There are so many…

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I first read War and Peace when I quit school.  I got a janitor job, and read constantly.  It took only a week to read War and Peace:  I  carried it in a clean garbage bag on my cart and locked myself into an office so I could read.  (It took only two hours to clean my two floors of an old brick university building.)

A sympathetic professor encouraged me to read.  “And when you’re done with that, read Pushkin and Turgenev.  And then PLEASE quit your job and come back to school, because THIS IS RIDICULOUS.”

“We’ll see.”  Most of my friends were taking a year or two off from school during this rebellious, contemplative decade.

He was so sweet.

(Yes, I went back to school in classics.  The Greek and Latin kind.)

This summer I got the urge to reread War and Peace.

There are many, many good translations of War and Peace.  I’ve read the Maude translation several times (approved by Tolstoy, recommended by the professor), the Constance Garnett translation (very lively, one of the earliest English translations, and criticized because apparently Constance skipped ahead when she didn’t understand a phrase), and the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation (a very readable 2007 translation by award-winning translators).

Right now I’m on p. 427 of the Maude translation, and am surprised by the effectiveness of the descriptions of the sometimes comic heroism of the character Denisov, the lisping hussar officer who is a friend of Nicholas Rostov, one of the main characters.  At first Denisov seems just a dandy.  He is charming, devil-may-care, comical, and very popular with his men.   I hadn’t reflected on his heroism before, but every reading of W&P is a different experience.    I am astonished by Denisov’s intrepidity.  When his men are starving and have lived on rotten potatoes for two weeks, he hijacks wagons of food from an infantry regiment.

“The wagons that had reached the hussars had been consigned for an infantry regiment, but learning from Lavrushka that the transport was unescorted, Denisov with his hussars had seized it by force.  The soldiers had biscuits dealt out to him freely, and they even shared them with the other squadrons.”

Well, Denisov gets into trouble.  Yes, it’s impetuous, but it is also a heroic action. His cavalry regiment had been ignored.

Tolstoy makes us live the novel.

Anna Jean Mayhew’s The Dry Grass of August.  I found this by chance at Amazon.  I clicked on something; then this was recommended.  And I am enjoying it very much.

Set in 1954, it is narrated by Jubie Watts, a 13-year-old  Southern girl who reminds me slightly of Frankie in Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding.  During the pre-Civil Rights ’50s, we get to know the Watts family partly through their attitudes to the black maid, Mary.

Mama is shallow and two-faced, the older sister, Stell, is a vain Young Christian (saved by Billy Graham’s brother) with a handsome boy-next-door boyfriend, the younger sister Puddin hides a lot and hates social life, and Davey is still a toddler.

The maid, Mary Luther, models dignity and courage to Jubie.  She stands up to Jubie’s mother when Mama “talks trash” with a friend about “niggers.” During a family vacation in Florida, segregation is a fact of life.  Mary shows Jubie her dignity by putting on a hat, lipstick, and heels when she has to eat at a separate restaurant, and by making jokes about a cabin without plumbing where she must sleep while Jubie’s family stays in a motel.  Given a room without air conditioning at Uncle Taylor’s house in Florida, Mary doesn’t complain.  She just says she won’t spend much time in it.

At the same time Mary stands up for what is right.  When at a carnival in Florida she finds a runaway teenage boy whose mother she knows, she insists on taking him back to Uncle Taylor’s and arranges by phone for the pastor of the church to take him in.

Now I’m only a third through–but Jubie’s lively observations are funny, charming, and honest, Mary’s story is affecting, and the details about segregation are horrendous.

Mayhew, 71, says she worked on this novel for 18 years.  It is her first novel.

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Don’t get me wrong:  I love Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries.

Ngaio Marsh

But having finished Gaudy Night (too much Harriet Vane and too little Peter Wimsey for my taste), I am turning to Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982), another Golden Age Detective novelist. Born in New Zealand, she wrote 32 novels about her series hero, Scotland Yard detective chief-inspector Roderick Alleyn.  Like Sayers’s Peter Wimsey, Alleyn is a gentleman and Oxford graduate. Like Wimsey,  Alleyn also falls in love with a woman suspected of murder.  And both Harriet Vane in Sayers’s Strong Poison (1930) and Gaudy Night (1936) and Agatha Troy in Marsh’s Artists in Crime (1938) (and subsequent novels) are originally uninterested in detective boyfriends.

The romance between Sayers’s  brooding Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey is fey and unsexy, though.  Harriet seems slightly lesbianish in the presence of Peter,  though she does come to the life in the presence of younger men at Oxford.

Marsh’s Alleyn and Agatha are definitely heterosexual, and sometimes a girl just wants to put her feet up and fall in love with a passionate detective hero.  OK, it’s not quite a romance, but I do like Alleyn.

Book Scouts.  Are book scouts with scanners ruining public library book sales?  People are rushing around sales, checking the value of books on their scanners, and buying books cheaply so they can resell them on the internet.  This can be a problem for readers who want to buy and read books.

Some public libraries are banning scanners from sales.

Booker Prize Shortlist Bestsellers.  The BBC says 37,500 copies of the books on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist have sold since September 6, more than double the previous record set in 2009.

Sales and literature don’t always go together, though.

The Voices of Bloggers.  We all have our favorite bloggers, and I would like to call your attention to the intelligent, reflective voice of Ellen Moody at Under the Sign of Sylvia.

Ellen, a well-known English professor, writer, blogger, and leader of various Yahoo groups, has recently written about changing names.

“FWIW, when I divorced my first husband, my lawyer told me that in reality you can call yourself whatever name you want. For some purposes you need to notify authorities: where, for example, cash payments (social security), or some benefit or attachment to an institution is in question.  Since we were talking about divorce, my question was, Did I have to go back to my birth name or could I keep my first husband’s name? He said it was my choice. I decided to stay with my first husband’s name because my original name yes had very bad vibes for me. I didn’t want to be the person that I had been under my first name and birth name.”

I find this subject fascinating, because it is a sensitive issue for women.  I kept my own name, because I had always had it, though I preferred my husband’s name.

By the way, Anna Kavan, one of my favorite writers, who originally wrote under her married name, Helen Ferguson, renamed herself Anna Kavan after a character in one of her books.

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It is often easier to peruse a contemporary novel than to read a classic.  In books with contemporary settings, the language and landscape are familiar, and the characters may remind you of yourself, your friends, or your enemies.  A classic, on the other hand, must be complex enough to survive for several generations, often with allusions to ancient literature, historical events, and political movements no longer prevalent in the culture. Although good books are often overlooked, few of us argue that a classic is a classic.  A classic bowls us over.

Except, perhaps, in the case of mysteries.

Dorothy L. Sayers

Many mystery lovers I know read only new books and assure me that P. D. James, Lee Childs, and James Lee Burke are classics.  (And they may well be right, for all I know of contemporary mysteries.)  But for the last decade, I have been steeped in Golden Age Detective Classics of the 1920s & ’30s, due to the recommendations of a friend, an organic-gardening meditating Luddite who has perfect taste in books and is certainly not afraid to rank mysteries as classics.   I have especially enjoyed the Four Original Queens of Crime, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh.  Of these four, only Sayers was familiar to me 10 years ago.

Once you’ve discovered Golden Age Detective Stories, you are likely to spend a year reading little else, at least at bedtime.  I especially find Dorothy Sayers’s Peter Wimsey series satisfying, and read these over and over, as does the Dorothy Sayers group at Yahoo.  Sayers (1893 -1957), an intellectual and one of the first female graduates of Somerville College at Oxford, was a friend of C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams.  She wrote 11 Peter Wimsey books and translated Dante.

My favorite Sayers book is The Nine Tailors, a mystery about bell-ringing,a valuable necklace, and murder.  But I have most recently reread Gaudy Night, a novel set at Oxford. Harriet Vane, a mystery writer beloved of Peter Wimsey, returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, to help solve a poison pen letter case that is destroying trust at the college and may endanger its reputation.  (N.B. Some in 1936 when the book was published still believed women didn’t belong at Oxford.)

This is rather a long book, and you have to like to read about college life to enjoy it, because there are many details about academic women, research, losing gowns, getting Firsts, and punting on the river.  Throughout it, Harriet Vane agonizingly considers whether or not to marry Peter Wimsey, and honestly I don’t think she loves him, but that is my opinion.  Peter Wimsey himself doesn’t come into the novel until late, and that is disappointing because he is funny, smart, and livens things up.   The women at the college know they are often considered “unbalanced” because of their spinster status, and are very worried that something may turn up in this case to confirm this prejudice.

I very much enjoyed it, but prefer the Peter Wimsey books.  Harriet is an interesting character, but Peter is more complex, in a dapper, monocled, clever way.  He joyfully manages to make people underestimate him so he can solve crime.

A fabulous series–I can’t recommend it enough.

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R.E.M. Breaks Up

Although I never write about rock music, I love R.E.M., listen to their music constantly, and have joked with my husband, who is the true rock fan in the family, about campaigning to bring them to our exciting-as-a-glass-of-milk city.

“They could REST here.  NOTHING happens here.  They could bicycle on the Trestle Bridge Trail.  They could attend a reading at the Writers’ Workshop or go to the State Fair.”

Who could resist?

R.E.M. announced its breakup Wednesday, before I had a chance to write them a letter inviting them here, telling them why they would enjoy it, and offering to put them up at a beautiful stone house three blocks away that’s for sale–and, mind you, I’m sure the realtor would allow them to STAY there for a few days.

I thought they’d be together forever. Not realistic.  They’re 50ish now, and may well be bored with doing the same things.  God only knows, if someone had made me be a journalist forever, I’d be hollow and tired.

“To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening.” R.E.M.

They are releasing a new Greatest Hits album in November, so we have something to look forward to.

Below is a video of R.E.M. singing one of my favorite songs, “New Test Leper,” According to an article on Wikipedia, it was written  from the perspective of a talk show guest being ignored by the host.  The lyrics are printed underneath the video.

Lyrics for “New Test Leper”

I can’t say that I love Jesus
that would be a hollow claim.
He did make some observations
and I’m quoting them today.
“Judge not lest ye be judged.”
what a beautiful refrain.
The studio audience disagrees.
Have his lambs all gone astray?

Call me a leper
Call me a leper
Call me a leper

“You are lost and disillusioned!”
what an awful thing to say.
I know this show doesn’t flatter.
It means nothing to me.
I thought I might help them understand
but what an ugly thing to see.

“I am not an animal”
subtitled under the screen.

Call me a leper
Call me a leper
Call me a leper

When I tried to tell my story
They cut me off to take a break.
I sat silent 5 commercials
I had nothing left to say
The talk show host was index-carded
All organized and blank
The other guests were scared and hardened
What a sad parade.

What a sad parade

Call me a leper
Call me a leper
Call me a leper

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A polluted lake.

In big cities one is aware of living contiguously with people of different religions, races, and ethnicities.  One knows the Feast of the Assumption and Rosh Hashana, whether one is welcome in the neighborhood where the derelict once-gorgeous mansions still stand, if the mayor owns a painting by Ernie Barnes, and whether it is safe to swim in the lake where the run-off is.

In smaller whiter cities, it’s easy to forget all that.  The first thing I noticed when we moved here long ago was the absence of black skin. The tiny population of black people here are more likely to be Sudanese than African-American.

And so, not reminded by diversity, I haven’t done my duty in keeping up with African-American literature.

Martha Southgate’s essay in The Millions, “Older and Wiser,” reminded me that  few African-American writers or women over 40 get attention.  Martha Southgate is an African-American woman.

Her new novel, The Taste of Salt, published as an original paperback, is a complex story of an African-American family struggling with addiction and alcoholism. Parts are stunning:  Southgate’s intense, fervent, and somehow joyous voice assures you that each moment is closely-observed and beautifully sketched.  Some of it is as well-written as any book I’ve read this year.

Southgate has taken chances by having her narrator, Josie, an African-American marine biologist, imagine parts of the story from the points of view of her family who remain in her hated hometown, Cleveland.  Josie tells us about her struggles as a the only African-American marine biologist in Wood Hole, Mass, but also ventures, with apologies for not always getting it right, to describe from the perspectives of her father and younger brother, Tick, their horrifying battles with alcohol.

Education is originally more important than alcohol in their family. Ray, a factory worker at GM with a deadening job, and their mother, a nurse-turned-housewife, love to read and desperately want their two children to escape the working class through education.  Ray’s favorite book is The Invisible Man, but he slowly sinks into a very visible alcoholism after the children are born, partly because of the strain of family life, partly because of the wiring of his brain.  The children win scholarships to a private school, where Josie especially is happy.  Josie wants to get as far away as possible from Cleveland, to study marine biology and live near the sea, far from Lake Erie, once a dead lake.  She attends Stanford.  She meets her husband, Daniel, a white icthyologist, at a conference.  The two get jobs at a prestigious facility in white Wood Hole, Massachusetts.

At the beginning of the novel, Josie is recovering from a traumatic visit home to pick up Tick from rehab. Her mother, who has done this before, can almost not bear to have him living in the basement, knowing he will go down again.  Tick, a physical therapist and trainer for the Cavs, fed his habit by partying with the basketball players.

Josie, who tries to hide all her problems, explains to us:

“I hadn’t said anything specific to anyone at work about why I’d gone home.  Truth be told, I’d barely talked about it with Daniel.  It made me too uncomfortable–and of course there was that little nibble of shame.  I’d made good–why couldn’t my brother get it together?  And a fearful step further.  My foothold in this world is tenuous enough–I don’t need them to think I fit the stereotype of black girl with no ‘count brother.”

Most of the time I’m carried away by Josie’s voice and the perspicacious descriptions of alcoholism, but the brevity of this book makes the flaws more noticeable.

After awhile Josie doesn’t interest me as much as her family, sad to say.  She is too cold, too numb.  Believe it or not, her descriptions of her work in Wood Hole, an idyllic but boring place, become a little wooden.  And Josie, who is not that involved with her husband–before her marriage she preferred brief affairs–tries to make herself feel again by falling for an African-American man who has been recently hired at her facility.  And I, who observed much changing of partners in my thirties (either the man or the woman goes through it),  wonder, Isn’t there more to life for women than having an affair?

But at least it’s not drinking.

One can feel Tick and Ray’s yearning for alcohol.    The 12-step programs don’t replace it for everyone.  I don’t think I’ve ever understood this need of the alcoholic for drink before.

Near the end, some of the scenes are too brief, and it becomes a bit like a Y.A. book.  And I don’t say this because Southgate has written a Y.A. book.  l I notice a lot of this in adult books these days, e.g., in Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English which has made the Booker Prize shortlist.

But fortunately most of Southgate’s book is adult in tone.  I enjoyed this novel very much.  And I learned from it, though that’s not the point.

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Edith Wharton, Great But Dead

Who are the greatest living American women writers?  I must admit, this is a question that hadn’t occurred to me in years.

Recently I read two essays that challenge the greatness of a very few highly publicized writers.  In Martha Southgate’s essay, “Older and Wiser,”  in The Millions (Aug. 4, 2011), she says she believes writers improve with age and questions the emphasis on a few hot young writers (The New Yorker’s 20 under 40, etc.) and a few 50ish white men, among them Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Michael Chabon.  She points out few older women or African-Americans over 40 receive the publicity and awards lavished on the young or these few elect male writers.

“Yes, sometimes a Jaimy Gordon or Julia Glass will squeak through to the big time with an unexpected major prize (the National Book Award in both their cases). But once you pass 40, if you’re not part of a small, largely white, male, extremely-talented-but-still coterie (you know who you are, Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon), that’s rare.”

On September 18, in The New York Times, Dwight Garner criticized the same few male writers in his essay, “Dear Important Novelists:  Be Less like Moses and More Like Howard Cosell.”  He questions whether taking 10 years to write a book is the sign of greatness, though that is characteristic of some of our celebrity writers.

This long gestation period, he says,

“is pretty typical for America’s corps of young, elite celebrity novelists. Jonathan Franzen took nine years to follow “The Corrections” (2001) with his next novel, “Freedom” (2010), and “The Corrections” itself was nine years in the making. Donna Tartt vanished for a decade between “The Secret History” (1992) and “The Little Friend” (2002); at this pace we’re due for a fat new Tarttlet next fall. Michael Chabon has gone seven years between major novels. David Foster Wallace was still working on his follow-up to “Infinite Jest” (1995) when he died in 2008, though in between he published excellent books of nonfiction and stories.”

Donna Tartt is the only woman mentioned in this group.  I love Tartt’s work, but I was stumped to think of any other American women writers who have been similarly promoted.

My own reaction to the Great American Novel is resistant.  If every person  tells me for months that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is a masterpiece, I wait for the paperback. (We all liked The Corrections, though).  Jeffrey Eugenides’s new book (published next month, as reviewers and booksellers keeps joyfully telling me) is also much-touted, though honestly I think he’s less conventional than Franzen and can’t imagine this will do as well.  (I do like Eugenides, and will read this.)

And who can say anything bad about Michael Chabon?  He’s very good indeed.

And who the hell are the famous American women writers?  I’m just not sure.

I thought of Ann Beattie.  She made the New York Times Book Review Top 10 list last year with The New Yorker Stories, a collection of the stories she published in The New Yorker from 1974-2006, though she was cut by the New Yorker editors for 10 years in the 90s.

I received this book for my birthday and have been trying to read it.  I loved these stories when I first read them, but I have to admit I don’t think they’ve all held up.  She captured a time in the ’70s and ’80s when young people were depressed because they had low or no expectations of good jobs (sound familiar?).  The characters are funny, engaging, depressed, underemployed, and have complicated relationships with husbands, exes, boyfriends, and children. Later,  she writes about successful people who are discontented or empty in different ways.

But the problem is that sometimes the early stories ramble.  Although the images are beautiful,  the narrative doesn’t always hang together.  And somehow that makes them seem dated.

It’s the difference between John Updike and John O’Hara.  Updike lives on.

On the other hand, some of Beattie’s stories are gorgeous.  In “Distant Music,” Sharon and Jack adopt a dog which they shuttle from apartment to apartment like a child of divorce.  When Jack moves to L.A. and becomes a famous songwriter, Sharon begins to have trouble with Sam.  And the lyrics in his song about a dog named Sam can only make us all sad.

In “Tuesday Night,” the narrator decides to spend Tuesday night by herself while her ex-, Henry, takes care of their daughter, Joanna.  She encounters different degrees of resistance, especially from the men in her life.

“The men I know are very friendly together.  When Henry was at the house last week, he helped Dan, who lives with me, carry a bookcase up the steep, narrow steps to the second floor.  My brother Bobby, the only person I know who is seriously interested in hallucinogens at the age of twenty-six, gladly makes a fool of himself in front of Henry by bringing out his green yo-yo, which glows by the miracle of two internal batteries.”

I admire this story, but feel at the same time there are too many names and not enough details about the characters.

Perhaps she should publish another book called The Non-New Yorker Stories, because I’m honestly thinking that those are better.  But without that association with The New Yorker, who can live?  Not the great American writers.

Nevertheless, Beattie isn’t my choice for best American woman writer.  How about Mary Gordon, Meg Wolitzer, and Jane Smiley?

I’m not an expert on women writers, though. I start a lot of contemporary books and don’t finish them, because they don’t seem quite good enough.  Who wants to spend 300 or more pages in the world of poorly written or just plain boring fiction?  I’m an anglophile and spend a lot of time reading Dead English Women, like George Eliot and Elizabeth Bowen, not by design, but because I happen to like their work.

So if you can think of Great Living American Women Writers, let me know.

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