Archive for November, 2011

Kay Boyle

Kay Boyle (1902-1992), a brilliant American modernist, wrote 49 novels, short story collections, collections of poetry, and non-fiction. She was associated with the Lost Generation:  she lived in Paris in the 1920s and knew Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, Ezra Pound, Ernest Walsh, Hemingway, Joyce, and William Carlos Williams.  She wrote a book about this period with Robert McAlmon, Being Geniuses Together, 1920-1930.

But she lived till 1992, and her writing spanned almost a century.  She won two Guggenheims and two O. Henry Awards. She wrote novels and stories about Americans in Europe, love affairs, marriage, art, families, lying governesses, travel, the persecution of Jews,  the Occupation of France, the McCarthy era, and the protests of the ’60s.

Edmund Wilson called her books “feminized Hemingway.”  And I, of course, think this is a good thing.  She is a serious, remarkable literary writer.

I am reading her ’30s novels and short stories.

Her  first novel, Plagued by the Nightingale, is considerably softer than her second, Year Before Last (which I wrote about yesterday.) And there’s a reason for this.  The publisher asked her to rewrite it with a romantic interest for the heroine’s three sisters-in-law.

Boyle writes in the preface to the Virago edition that it is autobiographical, except for the added romantic interest.  She says:

“Did the young author recoil from such a desecration of the novel she had slaved over for years?  Did she proudly disdain this outrageous compromise?  Not for a moment.”

The prose of Year Before Last, a romance on the run, is crystal-cutting-clear, sometimes harsh, and less accessible than that of her absorbing first novel, Plagued by the Nightingale,  but they share a lyricism and are told from the  3rd-person point-of-view of a young woman outsider willing to sacrifice everything for men.   The heroines are sometimes annoyingly passive, but Boyle says in her preface that this passivity is sometimes a way of victimizing others.

Plagued is the story of a good marriage threatened by a neurotic family.   The American heroine, Bridget, and her French husband, Nicolas, return to France to live with his family, because they have no money and no prospects.  Nicolas is ill with a bone ailment and rare type of paralysis that attack only the men in his family.

The family is claustrophobically close.  Maman and Papa live with their three adult daughters, Annick, Marthe, and Julie.  Annick longs to become a nun, but Papa forbids it.  Marthe and Julie are in love with their brother’s doctor colleague, Luc, and they quarrel over who is to marry him.  The daughter who has gotten away,  Charlotte, lives next door with her husband, Jean, a first cousin.

Nicolas hopes to borrow money from his wealthy family so he and Bridget can live in Paris and find work.  But his father holds the purse strings tightly because he wants Nicolas and Bridget to stay.

Bridget is reasonably content with the close family, but Nicolas is angry.  His father says he will give them 50,000 francs only if he and Bridget have a baby.  Nicolas’s crippled uncle will give money to Annick, who wants to be a nun, if she will marry, but no money to Nicolas.  This is the perverse mentality of the family.  Money will be given to the sister who does not want it, while the family members who do are rendered helpless and dependent.

In a particularly horrible scene, Oncle Robert trashes the whole family to Nicolas and Bridget, while at the same time pretending to praise their independence and self-reliance, so he won’t have to give them money.  He jabs at Nicolas by teasing that  Bridget should marry Luc, the doctor, the prospective husband of the three sisters.

“What a husband for any woman!” he exclaimed.  “Too bad you can’t marry him, Bridget,” said Oncle Robert playfully, “for you would really be a charming pair.”  He laughed lightly and with the greatest agility turned the conversation back to Jean.  “But as for Jean,” he said, “of course he should be burned alive for being a dullard, and Charlotte should be put on the rack, if she isn’t already there, poor thing, for having married a nitwit.”

Then he goes on to say how charming and competent Bridget and Nicolas are.

And what the family will go through to keep Charlotte with them is unnerving, shocking.  She wants to be with her family, but needs a hospitalization.

There is also a twist with Luc.

In the end the stasis of the family relationships is such that Bridget has to make a decision.

Boyle unflinchingly relates the crippling choices of a domineering older generation of men, who will sacrifice individuals for the sake of controlling the close family unit.

The nightingales have not come this year, so Bridget buys a caged nightingale for Charlotte.

The  title and epigraph come from Marianne Moore’s poem, “Marriage.”

“Plagued by the nightingale
in the new leaves,
with its silence —
not its silence but its silences”

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Kay Boyle (1902-1992), a brilliant, lyrical, American modernist, was the author of 48 novels, short story collections, collections of poetry, and non-fiction. Many of her books are in print by New Directions, but she is not much read anymore.

This underrated writer contributed a great deal to modern American literature, and I’m appalled that it’s taken me so long to discover her.

Born in Minneapolis, she studied violin at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and architecture at Parson’s School of Fine and Applied Art in New York.  She met her first husband, Richard Braut,  a French engineer, while editing an experimental magazine, Broom, in New York.  They moved to France in 1923, and she lived in Europe for 20 years.   She wrote a book, Being Geniuses Together, 1920-1930, with Robert McAlmon, about their experiences in Paris, where they knew expatriates Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, Ezra Pound, Ernest Walsh, Joyce, and William Carlos Williams.   She was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.  She taught at California State University in San Francisco.  She won two Guggenheims and O. Henry Awards for the Best Short Story.  Many of her novels and short stories are political.

Boyle’s novels are poetic, spare, and deliberately slow-moving.  Think May Sinclair combined with Hemingway, or H.D. with Jean Stafford.  I had tried in vain, repeatedly, to read her novel, Death of a Man, which is in part about the rise of Nazism.  But this week I pulled two Viragos off the shelf, Plagued by the Nightingale and Year Before Last, her first and second novels, and found that I couldn’t stop reading.  After a month of mainly new books–it is so much fun to be up with the latest novels–it is nourishing to read something older.

Year Before Last, published in 1932, is the story of two Americans, Hannah and Martin, who live a peripatetic life together in Europe after meeting in Paris.  Hannah has left her husband to live with Martin, a brilliant, if belligerent, poet and editor of an avant-garde magazine.  The couple reads together, sits in hotels, and takes walks with the dogs.  But underneath the bohemian calm, there are tremors.  Martin has tuberculosis.  His Scotch aunt, Eve, who financed his literary magazine, has furiously withdrawn her money, because she is jealous–her relationship with Martin borders, on her part, on the sexual–and she hates Hannah.  Martin periodically tries to make it up with her, but he has to flirt, and any mention of Hannah maddens Eve.

Martin and Hannah are penniless, borrowing, and plotting to make it seem they have money as they move from hotel to hotel.  Persecuted for Martin’s tuberculosis, they are often kicked out after one night, because of his coughing.  They have few options.  He knows he is dying, but refuses to go to a sanatorium:  he was there once, and realizes he can lie still and drink milk on his own.  He says he already “died” as a pilot in the war.

There is a shocking scene where their friend, Lady Van, discovers Martin has TB and clears out the next day.

Hannah will do anything to keep Martin alive.  She lies, prevents their friends from forcibly sending him away, and gives Martin prescribed injections of opium (the latter makes her sick, and it is a graphic description).

This is tragic, but compelling.

The prose is gorgeous, if bleak.

On fine evenings Martin walked as far as the leaf-trees at the end of the orchard with Hannah, and they looked down on the needle and cone forests that blackened the slopes below.  A burning pungent breath of strength rose thick as smoke from the dark boughs of pine and tar to them, and Martin walked with his arm around Hannah’s waist, like a swain.”

And tomorrow I’ll write about Plagued by the Nightingale.

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Sleep, Cold, & Statius

Biking across the bridge on Thanksgiving.

Biking across the bridge on Thanksgiving.

On Thanksgiving, it was 67 degrees and we took a lovely bike ride.

Three days later, it’s winter and I wake up freezing.

Usually my husband turns the heat down at night, and it kicks on every few hours.  It’s faux New England–you know, the habit of preppy people who supposedly like a cold house at night.  He likes winter camping.  I like it warm.

We’re in favor of conserving energy, but last night he turned off the heat.  It’s very uncomfortable when you wake up early in the morning and can’t find any more blankets.  But if I turn on the heat it will wake him up. He’s an insomniac.   REALLY.  And I don’t want to wake him.

It is so cold that even under flannel sheets, two blankets, and two comforters I wake up shivering.  I get up.  I change from my light flannel pajamas into heavy blue flannel pajamas with repeating polar bears.  These have always been too hot to sleep in.

The polar bear pajamas have a negligible effect.  My shoulders and arms are still cold.  So I get up and throw on a sweatshirt. And then a couple of fleecy things.

I don’t know where the sleeping bags are.

I know I’m not getting back to sleep, so I go to the living room with my copy of Valley of the Dolls, since I might as well enjoy my insomnia, and don my parka.  I love the character Anne Wells, a sweet young woman with good values, educated at Radcliffe, thrilled in 1945 to have escaped from her deadly hometown, Lawrenceville, “about an hour from Boston by train,” to a rooming house in New York City.  The girl at the employment agency tells her to find a husband.  And when Anne says husbands are a dime a dozen, the witty gal says,

“Say, where did you say you’re from?  It is in America, isn’t it?”

“Lawrenceville…And if I had wanted a husband I could have stayed right there.  In Lawrenceville everyone gets married as soon as they get out of school.  I’d like to work for a  while first.”

I’m fascinated by Anne’s friends, Neely, a dancer and chorus girl, and Jennifer, divorced from a prince, an aspiring actresses.

But you know, it’s really cold in this house.  And finally I CAN’T keep reading.


I turn on the heat.

And he wakes up immediately.

So I’m dedicating Statius’s  poem to him.

And I bought a blanket today.

Statius, Silvae 5.4, translated by Kathleen Coleman

What is the charge, young god, what have I done
Alone to be denied, in desperate straits,
Epitome of Calm, your treasure, Sleep?
Hush holds enmeshed each herd, fowl, prowling beast;
The trees, capitulating, nod to aching sleep:
The raging floods relinquish their frim roar;
The heavy sea has ceased and oceans curl
Upon the lap of land to sink in rest.
The moon has now in seven visits seen
My wild eyes staring; seven stars of dawn
And twilight have returned to me
And sunrise, transient witness of distress,
Has in compassion sprayed dew from her whip.
Where is the strength I need? It would defeat
The consecrated Argus, thousand-eyed,
Despite the watch which one part of him keeps,
Nerves taut, on guard relentlessly.
On Sleep, some couple, bodies interlocked,
Must shut you from their night-long ecstasy;
So come to me. I issue no demand
that you enfold my eyes’ gaze with your wings —
Let all the world, more fortunate, beg that.
Your wand-tip’s mere caress, your hovering form
Poised lightly on tiptoe; that is enough.

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YA Novels

I’m not a YA.  I’m a woman.

The last YA book I read (tried to read) was a werewolf novel, Maggie Steifvater’s Shiver.

I loved the cover.   And I knew there was a trilogy, so if I liked one, maybe I’d like them all.

I bought it at K-Mart!

I tried to read it–I wanted to read  it–but the pace was utterly static.   I was, of course, looking for a repetition of the Twilight experience: Bella, a witty 17-year-old, moves to Forks, Washington, to live with her cop dad after her mother remarries, and falls in love with a charming vampire, Edward, who doesn’t drink human blood and distinctly doesn’t want to take advantage of her.

The tone of Steifvater’s novel, like Meyer’s, is wistful, but it lacks humor and wit.  Grace, the heroine, has been obsessed with a wolf for years, photographing him over and over in the woods.  Sam has a thing for her, too.  It turns out Sam is a werewolf,  human during the summer, but soon will revert to being only a wolf.  Grace, who was bitten as a girl but never turned into a wolf, will undoubtedly be able to help.

But Grace was so insipid.  The plot hadn’t taken off by page 100.

Then I looked at Maggie Stiefvater’s website.

“I’m Maggie Stiefvater and I write books about werewolves and kissing.”

Had I know that, I would have skipped it.

YA books, despite the failures, have taken off among adult women because of Twilight.  In an essay in the L.A. Times, “Young Adult Lit Comes of Age,” Susan Carpenter says parents used to read YA books to see what their children were reading.

But increasingly, adults are reading YA books with no ulterior motives. Attracted by well-written, fast-paced and engaging stories that span the gamut of genres and subjects, such readers have mainstreamed a niche long derided as just for kids.”

SF and fantasy are my favorite genres.  SF has always been driven by ideas over style.  Some popular YA novels, such as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy and Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series, are plot-driven,  reasonably well-written, and can compete with good SF.

The Hunger Games, set in a post-apocalyptic U.S. called Panem (a reference to the Roman “bread and circuses”), is the story of Katniss, a 16-year-old girl who must take part, representing her district,  in an annual televised game in which teenagers must survive and kill.  (The second and third book in the trilogy were disappointing, but millions didn’t seem to know that.)

Clare’s The Mortal Instruments is an urban fantasy series.  In City of Bones, 15-year-old Clary Fray, after witnessing a murder in a club, becomes involves with the Shadow Hunters, a group of angel-like warriors who hunt demons. Very well-written, and she even quotes some Latin, which always goes over well with me.

Both the aforementioned have been made, or are being made, into movies.

My favorite YA novels are Holly Black’s three Modern Faery Tales, Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside.  In these gritty urban fantasies, rockers’ daughters, changelings, runaways, and even drug addicts must deal with the trickery of the Faery World as well as the betrayals of our world.

I have also enjoyed Julie Kagawa’s The Iron King, which reminds me of Black’s fantasies.  The first in a series, this is part faery adventure, part didactic environmental tale.  Meghan Chase must go to Faery to hunt for her little brother after he is replaced by a changeling.   Robbie, her friend, who turns out to be Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, accompanies her and introduces her to the Seelie Court.  She becomes romantically involved with an Unseelie Court knight named Ash, who helps her find her brother. They learn that the whole world, including Faerie, is threatened by her brother’s kidnapper, the Iron King.  The Iron Court is controlled by electronic technology that is wiping out imagination and turning the world into a dump.

The twisted landscape went on.  We passed pools of molten lava, bubbling and shimmering with heat.  Smokestacks loomed overhead, belching great spouts of black pollution that writhed into the yellow-gray sky.  Lightning arched and crackled across blinking metal towers, and the air hummed with electricity.  Pipes crisscrossed the ground, leaking steam from joints and valves, and black wires slashed the sky overhead.  The tang of iron, rust, and smog clogged my throat and burned my nose.”

As an environmentalist (my carbon treadprint is probably lower than yours, as I don’t drive), I very much approve of this series.

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I spent Black Friday reading.

Thanksgiving was so exciting–spring-like, sunny, bicycling, reading Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and bits of Lucretius’s On the Nature of the Universe, eating too much, and watching David Letterman–that today I wanted to stay home.

I stayed in bed, drank tea, and caught up on my reading:  Margaret Drabble’s The Needle’s Eye, Galen Beckett’s The House on Durrow Street, and Robert Hughes’s Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History.

Margaret Drabble’s stunning novel,The Needle’s Eye, is, like many of her novels, a miniature historical portrait of inter-class English society, with something almost nineteenth-century about the complexity of her understanding of the late 20th.   (She is more George Eliot than Jane Austen.) There is also an emphasis on politics, economics, and  sociological factors as seen through different characters’ points of view.  Set in London in the late ’60s, The Needle’s Eye  is a novel about doubles.  It centers on two characters who are apparently antithetical and yet mirror each other in their attitudes and relationships.

At a dinner party, Simon Camish, an intelligent, but very stiff, class-conscious trade-union lawyer, meets Rose Vasiliou, an idealistic divorcee who has given most of her inheritance away and who lives in a poor, decidedly un-chic neighborhood with her three children.

The crisis of the novel is Rose’s ex-husband’s threat to make the children wards of court.   Although she manages to be charming at the party, while at the same time distressed by the solicitors’ letter, she breaks down when Simon gives her a ride home.  Simon suspects she may be doing it to obtain free legal advice, but gradually understands that Rose is very direct and trusting, different from anyone he has known.

The tabloids have covered her life since she was 20, when her wealthy father made her a ward of court to prevent her marrying Christopher, a working-class Greek immigrants’ son. At 21 she marries Christopher; then she is in the press again for giving away most of her money to Africa.  Some years later, she endures a traumatic divorce wherein the judge blamed her for being the object of Christopher’s abuse. Drabble understands abusive relationships very well.

And now Christopher is back.

Rose is a colorful character, and I love her reasons for living in a slum.  After growing up rich and unhappy, she wants to be ordinary, to shop for herself and clean house, to make sure her children are unspoiled (she discovers they are getting a perfectly good education at the public school).  She stays in this ugly neighborhood because she and Christopher happened settle there when they first married.

Simon lives in a fashionable neighborhood, raised up from the working class by his working-class mother’s unremitting efforts and his education; he was ashamed of her, but she became a popular writer and radio personality, sentimentalizing her working-class experiences and motherhood.  Simon, like Christopher, married a rich woman, superificially for her money.  Julie, the daughter of a buy-on-time catalogue retailer, is a kind of backwards double of Rose, and he dislikes her for her fascination with fashion and celebrity.

Simon and Christopher even live in the same neighborhood now, Rose tells him:

Actually,” she said, lowering her voice as though she might be overheard, “he lives just down the road from you.  I took the liberty of looking you up in the phone book when I got worried about sending you off with all those documents, and I saw you lived just up the road from him.  Odd, isn’t it?”

It’s beautifully written, intelligent, and compelling.

Robert Hughes’ Rome:  A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History.  This history of 3,000 years of Rome is brilliantly-written, and even if, like me, you know parts of it, it is an excellent read.  Hughes’s elaborate, well-organized recounting of the art, arhchitecture, and history of different eras is entertaining and dramatic.    Hughes is erudite, a good storyteller, and an art critic, and though art is not my forte, I enjoy reading from this point of view and keep looking at the photos in the middle of the book.

More on this anon perhaps.

Galen Beckett’s The House on Durrow Street is a sequel to The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, the second in a trilogy.  It is a riff on Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, mixed up with Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, but set in a half-fantastical, very English island, Altania, where characters go to parties and balls but also squelch risings of the Wyrdwood, a kind of enchanted, terrifying forest which has both good and bad qualities, and good magicians fight evil magicians.  Witty and fun!  The main characters are Ivy Quent, a witch, Mr. Raffedy, a foppish, cynical young man who becomes a magician, and his friend Eldyn, an “illusionist” on the stage who wants to go into the church.

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Thanksgiving in the Light

Biking on Thanksgiving

It’s all about the light for me.  Sun drenching the windows.  People next door frying their turkey outside.  Riding our bikes along a beautiful trail by the river.

I’m grateful for the light.  That’s what I think about every year.  We lived for several years in a dark, flat industrial city.  The sky was gray and dense like the interior of a soup can. Even in the summer, the light was like winter.

You know the rap.   Detroit, Duluth, Cleveland.  Blue-collar cities once famous for steel and manufacturing.  The air and water are toxic in all of these cities.

There have been oil and chemical spills in their rivers.  Perhaps most notorious is the Cuyahoga River’s catching on fire in 1969.

You probably all know R.E.M.’s song, “Cuyahoga.”

“Let’s put our heads together, start a new country up.

Underneath the river, we burned the river down.”

We felt we deserved to live near a clean river.  Don’t you?

Our River, Nov. 24, 2011

There were infernos of factory flares, tangles of smokestacks, and lung-choking dust.  There were ozone action days.

If you grow up in the dark, you don’t mind it.  My friends didn’t mind the clouds.  Many people are born there, grow up, and never leave.  It’s only when they leave that they finally appreciate the sun.  I always felt light-deprived.

But the families were closer than any I’ve ever seen. And they loved their city.  They were distressed because they thought people made jokes about their cities.  But the sad truth is nobody thinks about them anymore.

I won’t pretend I wasn’t happy to leave, but I do feel I understand the dark.  It is a different culture.

It is a relief to live in a city with bright sunlight, beautiful countryside, less pollution, and four seasons instead of two.  When people complain about pollution here, we think, “They don’t know from what.”   It is, of course, polluted, too, and that needs to be taken seriously.  But it’s a richer place in almost all senses of the word.

And, just because I like R.E.M., here is a video of their incredibly moving song, “Cuyahoga.”

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THIS YEAR I’M DOING NOTHING ON THANKSGIVING. I’ll stick a ham in the oven, bake a few potatoes, make a salad, do something with broccoli, stuff the squash, and throw that green bean-onion ring thing into a casserole.

Actually my husband is making the pie.

There will be lots and lots of time to read.

So I’m looking forward to Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, a roman à clef based on the lives of Judy Garland,  Susann herself, and other drug-addicted actresses.  It was published in 1966 and sold 30 million copies.

I like to indulge myself on holidays with retro-books.  On Thanksgiving or Christmas, I enjoy the kind of blockbuster my mother read in the ’60s.  You know:  moms did a lot in the kitchen, but they retired to the bedroom to smoke a cigarette (everybody smoked) and read a few pages before everything got crazy. We’d be downstairs playing a basketball board game where we shot miniature balls into baskets.   She read best-sellers like Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice.  (Last year my blockbuster was Edna Ferber’s Giant, which I blogged about.)

Dolls--the movie

“Dolls” are downers, as I learned from the back cover of the paperback, and the three main characters need pills after they succeed in the entertainment world as  a model, an actress, and a singer.

I’ve never seen the movie, with Patty Duke, Barbara Parkins, and Sharon Tate, but the scenes on YouTube are harrowing.

Here is the blurb from the back of the paperback:

“Dolls:  red or black, capsules or tablets, washed down with vodka or swallowed straight–for Anne, Neely, and Jennifer, it doesn’t matter, as long as the pill bottle is within easy reach.  These three women become best friends when they are young and struggling in New York City and then climb to the top of the entertainment industry–only to find there’s nowhere to go but down–into the Valley of the Dolls.”

Quote blurbs:  Mim Udovitch in the Village Voice Literary Supplement called it “protofeminism.” Nora Ephron says it is a book “most people can’t put down.”  Helen Gurley Brown thought it was “maddeningly sexy.”

My husband calls it trash but he hasn’t read it.

Should I download it on my Nook so he can’t see?

Virago reissued it.  So it has some kitsch historical value, or something beyond that.

Lucretius.  I’m also devoting two hours on Thanksgiving to Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe), his epic poem about epicureanism.   I should raise money or something by reading the Latin (for world peace or the Salvation Army?), but my latest offer of a teaching job does not involve dactylic hexameter. Lucretius is one of the greatest poets of the first century A.D., and I may blog here (not sure) about his version of Iphigenia, Book I, lines 62-101, and some of my other favorite scenes, if I feel inspired.

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