Grief is the Thing with Feathers

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This is a remarkable book, the first by Max Porter.   It’s bound to appeal to all sorts of readers without being facile or treacly or academic.   The poetic story ranges into all sorts of diction.

A woman has died.  She’s left her two sons, the brothers, and her husband.  The books is divided into short segments in which we hear the voices of the brothers, the husband, and the Crow, who has come over from the book by Ted Hughes to talk this family through—as advisor and savant and a “doctor or a ghost”.   The father/widower is writing a book on Hughes, and the parallel story of Hughes  and his two children losing Sylvia Plath pervades the text as a diatonic underscore that never seizes control of the main dirge.  The book is entitled Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch:  A Wild Analysis.

As the mourners have left, the main speaker, the “Dad” is left alone with his mourning.  But the crow comes to call:  “There was a rich small of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast”.   The Crow tells Dad that “I won’t leave until you don’t need me anymore.”

The brothers try hard to be cleaner and nicer.  But sometimes they are overwhelmed with the impulse towards bad behavior.  “We used to think she would turn up one day and say it had all been a test.”  “We used to think we would both die at the same age she had.”  They fear that their Dad will die.

“The one son went for drawing, furiously concentrating like a little waist-high fresco painter scrabbling hands and knees on the scaffold. Thirty-seven taped-together sheets of A4 paper and the full rainbow of crayons, pencils and pens, his front teeth biting down on his lower lip. Heavy nasal sighing as he adjusted the eyes, scrapped them, started again, working his way down, happy with the hands, happy with the legs.

The second son went for assemblage, a model of the woman made from cutlery, ribbons, stationery, toys, buttons and books, manically adjusting – leaping up, lying down – like a mechanic in the pits. Clicking and tutting as he worked his way around the mosaic mum, happy with the face, happy with the height.”

Crow himself has known grief:  “I lost a wife once, and once is as many timas as a crow can lose a wife….He flew a genuflection Tintagel-Carlyle cross Morecambe-Orford, wonky, trying to poison himself with forbidden berries and pretty churches, but England’s litter saves him.  Ley lines flung him cross-country with no time for grief, power cables catapulted loose bouquets of tar-black gone and feather and other crows rained down from the sky, a dead crow storm, a tor top burnt bird bath…Blackberry, redcurrant, loganberry, sloe.  Damson, plum-pear, crab-apple, bruises.  Clots, phlegm, tumours and quince.”

As a grief counselor, Crow lets Dad know that there is no “moving on.”  “Any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project.”

At a spare 115 pages, this book reads like both a prose poem and a riveting thriller.

I don’t know if the references to Hughes and Plath are essential.  I don’t know Hughes’s crow, nor did I feel I needed to.

Porter has added a fresh, original voice to the literature of death and grief.  The book is generated, in part, by his own experience of losing his father when he was a 6 year old and of his fascination with Hughes and Emily Dickinson.  I recommend it highly and know I will reread it.

Deal Me In: Week 11, Elizabeth Taylor: “Spry Old Character”

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Taylor continues her streak of heart-breaking stories with “Spry Old Character,” about a man, Harry, who has been forced by circumstances (his sister’s death) to live in “The Home For The Blind,” where not a week passes without some “dispiriting jollity being forced upon him.”

Going blind was not easy for him:  “This orderly aspetic world was not only new to him, but beyond him imagining.  Food and talk had lost their richness; central-heating provided no warmth.”

He is juvenilized by the staff; he has been unable to learn Braille; and he decides that the other inmates are quite unfit for him because they are so virtuous, so wholesome, so upright–always turning off the radio when anything “suggestive” is on.  Miss Arbuthnot is a particular nemesis:  “She had been a governess in Russia in the Tsarist days and had taken tea with Rasputin”.   She describes her English Ascot experience as being “The cream of the cream, as one might say, but; dear, dear me…my poor feet. I wore some pale grey buckskin shoes…”

Harry finds a way to escape his insipid companions by learning how to make his way to the bus stop with his white cane.  There, bus drivers take sympathy on him and permit him to ride the bus route for free.   He finds a sense of true fellowship there:  “In their company he opened out, became garrulous, waggish, his old manner returning.”

He loves the bus, but the bus-drivers and the regular riders feel as if they’ve been “saddled” with an “old geezer”.

There are so many ways in which people fail to fit into the respective worlds into which fate has flung them.  Miss Arbuthnot is the “Queen” of the Home for the Blind, but perhaps only in her own head.   Harry feels that he’s in a community with the bus drivers, but they tolerate him and the warm feelings he had with his cockney friends in his youth are not reciprocated here.

Instead of remaining individual people, the elderly and infirm become “characters”.   That Taylor makes his feel fiercely in favour of Harry  as person and not merely “spry old character” speaks to her eloquence and skill as an author.

 

 

 

Deal Me In: Week 10: “A Red Letter Day” by Elizabeth Taylor

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The Jack of Hearts returns me to Elizabeth Taylor and her “A Red Letter Day” is a triumph of astute character revelation.   Tory, the divorced mother of an eleven year old boy, is going alone to a parent’s visiting day at his school.  The atmosphere could not be less propitious:
It’s a “malevolent landscape” with “wastes of rotting cabbages, flint cottages with riakish privies, rubbish heaps, grey napkins drooping on clothes-lines, the soil like plum cake.  Even turning in at the rather superior school-gates, the mossy stone, the smell of fungus” is dismaying.

Tory has caught one of the last cabs because, she thinks she has “no man to exert authority for her.”  At home, she had spent too much time trying to figure out what to wear so that having tried on so many hats and flinging them, rejected, on the bed, “It resembled a new grave with its mound of wreathed flowers.”

Tory has one child and she begins to hate a rather random woman who “looked as if she had what is often called a teeming womb.”   She thinks of her “spitefully” and imagines all the fun her sons must have.  Tory’s own “love for her son was painful, shadowed by guilt.”  She thinks to herself, disparagingly about her son, “Between Edward and me there is no promise of love, none at all, nothing taken for granted, as between most sons and mothers.”  It’s very painful reading:  Tory does love her son, but has no idea how to spend an afternoon with him.

Edward tells her that he is not popular with the other boys–“unbearable news for any mother,” but she is not able to respond.  They go to a museum and are bored together.  For Edward, “sinking down within him are the lees of despair….alone with his mother he felt unsafe, wounded and wounding” and thinks of death.

“So lovely, Darling,” she remarks to him as she drops him back at school.

The story is heart-wrenching because both the mother and the son have been caught in traps of self-loathing, depression, and despair.   Edward seems to think he’s the worst child at school and Tory has an inferiority complex that emerges in spite towards others.

There seems to be no way out.  Tory, as a mother of an eleven-year-old, deserves to be scolded for her lack of empathy for his plight; for her perhaps associating him (by indirect contamination) with his father, who has left her.   She’s stuck to far into her slough-of-despond which has become a quicksandish quagmire.  Both Tory and Edward are thinking of death — prematurely — and seem to have no way to escape the entrapment they feel around each other.

Taylor knows her to dangle her readers between judgment and sympathy in her exquisitely wrought stories about people who are unable to connect.  She has a clear empathy for young people as the story I read last week about the young girl who does not want to drink alcohol despite her parent’s expectations indicates.

 

 

Classics Club “Spin” Number 15 is Coming Soon! And the number is 12

Here’s my list:

  1.  Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann
  2. Kept in the Dark by Anthony Trollope
  3. Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  4. Walden by Thoreau
  5. Esther Waters by George Moore
  6. Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  7.  A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey
  8.  Things Fall Apart by Achebe
  9. Howards End by Forster
  10. The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym
  11. The Man of Property by John Galwworthy
  12. DAISY MILLER by Henry James  to be read
  13. Benito Cereno by Melville
  14. Look at Me by Anita Brookner
  15. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey
  16.  Jazz by Toni Morrison
  17. The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns
  18. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
  19. The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James
  20. March the Ninth by R.C. Hutchinson

 

Recent Book Reviews: Brookner, Waters, Trollope

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Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner is a fine book.  It introduces us to the world of the seemingly repressed but actually seething Edith Hope who writes successful  romance novels under a nom de plume – “a more thrusting name”.  Brookner’s writing is a joy to read for its clean lines and wonderful vocabulary.  Its character descriptions are delightful.   There’s nobody to fall in love with here, although one can sympathize more and more with Edith as the plot progresses.  Edith had elderly female relatives who used to cry out “Schrecklich!  Ach, du Schreck!” (dreadful!) and her life too has become dreadful to her.  She’s in love with a married man who cares little for her.  She is tired of carefully being in the background.  When she attempts to marry somebody else, she realizes that she cannot go through with it and does not arrive at the wedding.  She is self-reliant and independent, but still would love a marriage.

I enjoyed her literary allusions:  as she is being driven  to the airport she writes in a letter “A cold coming I had of it”

Described variously as looking like Virginia Woolf or Princess Anne (now the Princess Royal), Edith is spending some time at the Hotel du Lac, a family hotel in Switzerland that is simply a retreat – it is really a hotel.  But the atmosphere conjured up a sort of Magic Mountain where the disease is narcissism and various degrees of stupidity.  Edith comes to the point of making a demonic pact – but stops short of the Full Faust.

“Fiction, the time-honoured resource of the ill-at-ease, would have to come to her aid,”

I simply do not know anyone who has a lifestyle. What does it mean? It implies that everything you own was bought at exactly the same time, about five years ago, at the most. – Pp. 26-27

― Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac

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Affinity by Sarah Waters

This darkly sinister novel is a repository of information about women’s prisons, the spiritualism that became quite a fad in the mid to late Victorian period (See Robert Browning’s “Mr. Sludge, the Medium”), and the dark confinement of women in general and in particular women in mourning. The Victorians had to a large extent “domesticated” death and post-mortem photographs and mourning rings and mourning clothing were customary.

In this novel we meet an upper-class lady who lives on Cheyne Walk, no less, named Margaret Prior who, after a probable nervous breakdown relating to the death of her father, decided to find some activity. There’s little for an upper-class or upper-middle class unmarried lady to do, so she becomes a “lady visitor” at the Millbank Prison. The prison is as dankly miserable as you might imagine. Although the women are closeted in their cells, affinities are bound to occur.

Selina Dawes, a medium, who has been used by a spirit named Peter Quick (I kept thinking of “The Turn of the Screw” and Peter Quint) is in jail for fraud and being involved in the murder, by Peter Quick, the spirit, of her patroness. We meet also the women jailers such as Mrs. Jelf (I kept thinking Miss Jessel from “Turn of the Screw”) who have a demanding job. They may get to go home after their long day’s work, but do they have any money?

Finally, the novel engages in so many turns of its screw and so many potential “affinities” that it’s difficult to unravel the truth from a strong invitation to suspend our disbelief and know the power of an “affinity”.

It’s difficult to write a review because to go far is to spoil. My only criticism of the book is that it takes a while to gain momentum. Once it does, it’s difficult to put down

 

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_The Claverings_, one of the later works by my besten, Anthony Trollope, is similar to a late Shakespeare play: full of problems that defy categorization. It might be easy for the Trollope reader to overlook this novel because it’s not in either of his superb series, the Pallisers or the Barchester series, nor has there been a mini-series made.

The novel looks closely at civil engineering. Sorry–it really does not, but one character studies that profession. It also looks at about 8 or 9 “love” relationships and tries to answer the question of what might constitute a successful marriage. How best to court a potential partner? What kind of past might ruin a person’s chances? What happens if one is attracted to two people at the same time (not an uncommon quandary). What do you do if you don’t have enough money? Does it take money to achieve happiness?

We see marriages based on money, religious faith, true companionship, titles, and children. Many marriages are unhappy but the mid-Victorian period does not permit divorce. The stakes are high.

And just as in a problem play, one must consider: Are we really happy when the Duke announces his impending marriage to Isabella in “Measure for Measure”? What about the chance of future happiness for Leontes and Hermione in “A Winter’s Tale?” What about Paulina’s life as a widow (her husband was last seen pursued by a bear)? What about Bertram and Helena in “All’s Well That End’s Well?” Do you think that they can be happy?

Finally we are invited to have a mature response to people who vacillate and who make mistakes. They are not condemned out of hand and Trollope, with his usual generosity, seems to understand that characters can be legitimately torn in two directions.

Well-done!

Deal Me In: Week 9: “You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There” by Elizabeth Taylor

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Elizabeth’s Taylor “You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There” is about a young girl, Rachel, –aged 18—who lives with an alcoholic mother who loves to browbeat her daughter and to make fun of her shyness and “modesty”.   Her mother insists that she start drinking but Rachel hates the taste and when she refuses to have a drink her mother responds:

“I, I, I, I hate this; I loathe that.  What do you think would have happened if I had considered what I liked through all these years.  Or the Queen…The poor girl!  The rubbish she’s been forced to ear and drink and foreign countries.”

When Rachel comments that the Queen is a “different kettle of fish” from herself, her mothers response is “I despair.”

Rachel is accompanying her father to a municipal  trade banquet, delegated presumably because her mother does not want to go herself or else perhaps because her father does not want to take his drunken wife–she is said to be “on the waggon”.   Rachel throws out her sherry–she cannot drink.   At the banquet and dance she is shy and mortified.  The only conversation she can make is about her cat.

This is a haunting little story about a girl who lives around people who drink all the time, while she prefers her cat.  Her mother wants her to act like the Queen of England yet Rachel is not only several years younger, she has not been trained to talk to people.  Shy, sensitive Rachel endures a good deal of estrangement in this story.  Her parents don’t value her; she is uncomfortable with a world of the intoxicated bourgeois and her cat is the only thing that makes her life happy.

 

Queen of Spades: “Greenleaf” by Flannery O’Connor

 

It’s week 8 of the “Deal Me In” challenge and I finally selected a spade.  The Queen of Spades is Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Greenleaf.”queenofspades

Mrs. May is one of those quintessential O’Connor women.  She’s similar to the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and Mrs. Hopewell in “Good Country People”.    As the story begins a bull has invaded her space.    Right outside her bedroom window, she sees him “chewing steadily with a hedge-wreath that he had ripped loose for himself caught in the tip of his horns.”  He seems to emanate a “pink glow” and “bars of light” are created on him as Mrs May lifts the Venetian blinds.    This bull is acting like an “uncouth country suitor”, “gaunt and long-legged.”  If you have read much by O’Connor, a Catholic living amidst the Georgia baptists, you might as well be given a big sign that says “Christ Figure” on top of the bull’s wreath.

But that would be an over-simplification of O’Connor’s understanding of faith.

Mrs May has had a worker, Mr. Greenleaf, for some fifteen years.  Much of the story contrasts Mrs. May and her two sons and the Greenleaf family and their sons.  Mrs. May’s sons are surly and named Wesley and Scofield, two Prostestant theologians:  “Scofield was a business type and Wesley was an intellectual.”  The ‘boys’ are in their 30’s and still live at home which would not mean anything today but this story was written in 1956.

Mrs. Greenleaf is her nemesis in large part because she is a faith-healer and calls out to Jesus.  Mrs May comments that “Jesus would be ashamed of you.”   We know that Mrs. May is a “good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

The contrast between the Greenleaf way of belief and the May way of non-belief underscores the narrative.  Mrs. May thinks that the Greenleaf twins, inexplicably named O.T.and E.T. Greenleaf–who are younger than her sons got lucky during the war and became “some kind of sergeants”.   They had both married nice French girls and it rankles Mrs. May that “they had both managed to get wounded and now they both had pensions.”  Her son Wesley got out of serving because of a heart condition and Scofield never made it past private.

Mrs. May bitterly contemplates that fact that the Greenleaf family is likely to climb high in “society.”  They already have their own “milking room” which is a “spotless white concrete room … filled with sunlight.”

Although O.T. and E.T. are the apparent owners of the bull, they don’t seem to be in a hurry to catch him.  Mrs May comments to her sons that “I’m the victim.  I’ve always been the victim.”   While her sons get into a fist-fight and smash the crockery about, Mr. Greenleaf promises that he will get rid of the bull.

But Mrs. May’s animosity intervenes and she has a final date with the bull who becomes like her “wild tormented lover.”  He holds her in “an unbreakable grip”.

Mrs. May has been in the hating business a long time.  Her sons are overaged disgraces.  They taunt her and each other as if they were 10 years old.  Mrs. May looks down on the Greenleafs as “scrub-human” and she tells her sons bitterly that within twenty years the Greenleafs will be a family in “society”.  As Mr. Greenleaf says, “I thank Gawd for every-thang.”

Mrs. May seems to be getting a well-deserved come-uppance in the world as her fortunes fall while the Greenleafs’s fortunes improve.  She strikes me as the quintessential Trump voter–60 years premature.