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 Challenge: Week 7” Katherine Mansfield, “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”

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“The Daughters of the Late Colonel” by Katherine Mansfield was my lucky draw this week.  Mansfield’s daughters, Josephine and Constantia, are very close and very paralyzed because their lives have been dominated by their father.  As the story opens, their father, Colonel Pinner, has died and in 12 brief parts, we see the sisters trying to deal with the reality of his death.  They are caught up in domestic issues;  what should they do with his top-hat?  What about his watch?  What if he’s not really dead?    Because their mother has died, apparently from a snake-bite, a long time ago Josephine and Constantia have allowed themselves to become their father’s care-givers and have not really grown up.

Written in a modernist style with shifting sensibilities and points-of-view we see the sisters vacillate in their preoccupations.  Making decisions is difficult for them.  Constantia thinks that Josephine should make the decisions because she is older.  Josephine, on the other hand, believes that Constantia should make decisions because she is “taller’.

In part one Constantia identifies with mice–“a spasm of pity squeezed her heart.  Poor little thing!  She wished she’d left a tiny piece of biscuit on the dressing table”…..”I can’t think how they manage to live at all,” she laments about the lives of mice.  The food and animal motif continues.  Perhaps sympathy for mice is engendered by their mother’s death from a snake bite?

In Part 2 of the story they decide to keep the nurse around for a week because they don’t quite have the courage to ask her to go.  Keeping their father’s nurse with them is also a small way of denying his death.  One of them thinks:  “Nurse Andrews was simply fearful about butter.  Really they couldn’t help feeling that about butter, at least, she took advantage of their kindness…” Nurse Andrews tells that that “When I was with LAdy Tukes…she had such a dainty little contrayvance for the buttah.  It was a silvah Cupid balanced on the –on the bordah of a glass dish, holding a tayny fork….”

For the pudding they have a “terrified blancmange” which is a lovely description.

They have a maid who thinks of them as “old tabbies”.

The two sisters are a huddled mass, clinging together in fear and incompetence.   They cannot yet know how to grieve their father’s death.  If it is a liberation for them, they are left with few liberties to take—beyond the age of marriage, beyond the age of experience, they rather fear servants and undoubtedly put people off with their juvenile ways.  Their nephew, Cyril, who has visited his grandfather, their grandfather, is impatient because their only topic of discussion is merengue.

The story is like a Chekhovian tragi-comedy.  Are they going to be able to have lives and ideas of their own after they realize that their father is really dead, and not just hiding in a chest of drawers?

 

 

Deal Me In: Week 6, 6 of Clubs: “Requiem” by Anton Chekhov

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It’s the third week in a row that I’ve drawn Chekhov.  “Requiem” tells the story of a man, Andrey Andreyitch, who submits a note to Father Grigory in church.  The Father confronts him:

“Then it was you wrote this? You?” And Father Grigory angrily thrust before his eyes the little note.

And on this little note, handed in by Andrey Andreyitch before mass, was written in big, as it were staggering, letters:

“For the rest of the soul of the servant of God, the harlot Mariya.”

“Yes, certainly I wrote it, . . .” answered the shopkeeper.

“How dared you write it?” whispered the priest, and in his husky whisper there was a note of wrath and alarm.

Who is this “harlot” Mariya?  She was Andrey Andreyitch’s daughter, who had become a well-known actress.  Her death has been reported in leading newspapers.  For some reason her father would prefer to call her “harlot” rather than “actress”.

After being reproached by Father Grigory:   “The shopkeeper’s amazement was so great that his fat face spread in all directions like spilt dough.

“How dared you?” repeated the priest.

“Wha . . . what?” asked Andrey Andreyitch in bewilderment.”

He cannot seem to understand the distinction between “harlot” and “actress” and has judged his own daughter most harshly.  He has been a neglectful father who spent little time with her when she was growing up.  About three years previous to her death she has come to visit him and expressed great pleasure in the beauties of the country town.    She thinks it is a lovely place; her father thinks it is “simply taking up room.”

The story certainly points out the way some people looked down upon actresses and saw their work as no different that prostitution.   Chekhov, married to the actress Olga Knipper, must have picked up on the negativity that some foolish people felt about actresses.   He was able to create complex characters, such as Madame Arkadina in “The Seabull” who were actresses.  In this story, “Requiem,” although the actress is dead, her dignity soars above that of her earth-bound troglodyte of a father.

The Late George Apley: Review

The Late George Apley is a nicely nuanced and sophisticated novel of social criticism which uses a microscope rather than a bludgeon.  Written by John P. Marquand in 1937 and winning the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 1938, I would certainly call it a minor-major American classic.  Or possible a major-minor American classic.

 

lategeorgeapley

In fiction I like well-wrought characterization much more than eventful plot lines.  I like the plot failures to be things like an unsuccessfully brewed cup of tea and the triumphs to be the sighting of an unusual bird.  The Late George Apley is a chronological biography/memoir.  The novel’s subtitle is “A Novel in the Form of a Memoir.”   George Apley is born to an extremely patrician Boston family in 1866 and dies in 1933, having resided in Beacon Hill on Mount Vernon Street.  Isn’t that where Silas Lapham lived?   Certainly the Apley family (who are entirely fictional) would have snubbed the Laphams.

According to an article in The New Yorker called “Martini-Age Victorian,” the great American firebrand, Upton Sinclair wrote of Apley that “I began to catch what I thought was a twinkle in the author’s eye…”  And indeed there is although it might take you some pages to find the twinkle after the dutiful list of the great achievements of the Apley family.  Their manners and money have proceeded in an orderly way for centuries.  They relax by belonging to the correct clubs.  George Apley is a bird-watcher, a collector of bronzes, and a lover of ceremony and charity of the right sorts.  He worries about the squirrels who live in his attic but he does not want to kill them.

Stylistically, Marquand’s style here reminds me of Edith Wharton, who almost always had her tongue firmly in cheek. He is Anthony Trollope’s American cousin.   His humor is subtle, however.  Here is George Apley quoting the lessons from his mother about reading:  “Distrust the book which reads too easily because such writing appeals more to the senses than to the intellect.  Hard reading exercises the mind.”

Apley has two sisters.  One, Jane, is “wrong”—and we don’t know why.  Is she too feisty?  Is she deranged?  Is she a rebel?  She is kept offstage with only rare mentions in the novel—perhaps a “madwoman in the attic”.  Apley marries decorously and has a son and a daughter.  Apley gives fifteen thousand dollars a year to the Waif’s Society and his eleemosynary instincts are broad.  Yet at home, he lives modestly.  He writes to his son:  “It is the small things in life which count the most.   There is nothing which pains me more than your jesting about small sums of money.  I learned their importance very early from your Great-Uncle William.  You must learn that there is a zest and genuine satisfaction in spending money properly as your Uncle William spent his.  There is not much place in this world for personal gratification, nor is this particularly becoming to people of our position.”

On the other hand, his wife “has been collecting butter knives and she now has one of the best collections in the country.”  “Quite remarkable,” Apley adds.

And yet—Apley marries not the young woman he loves, but a young woman from one of the best Back Bay families.  Yet he is not quite as imperious as his own parents and barely protests when his son marries a divorcée and his daughter marries a journalist—from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

When Apley’s son is an infant, his own father writes in praise:  “He has everyone of your grandfather’s features and his manner of holding himself in his bassinet needs no comment from an unprejudiced observer.”

As George Apley makes his decorous progress through middle age, I found I liked him.  He wore his stuffed shirt rumpled a bit and Marquand’s prose rolls about majestically with touches of humor.  Apley, near death, writes to his son:

“Values shift elusively.  When everything is totaled up we have evolved a fine variety of flushing toilets but not a very good world.”

Apley does read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and is impressed with its literary quality, but locks it away in a safe so his daughter will not see it.

I enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to   those who like gentle humor, those who like character studies, those who like a finely nuanced dissection of society, those who like good writing.  If you like Trollope, Edith Wharton, Barbara Pym, John Cheever, or Anne Tyler you might also enjoy this novel.  If you like to read about a way of life that now seems remote or if you like to read about Boston, this will be a fine choice for you.  I read this as part of the Classics Club Spin, but it had been on my list of Pulitzer Winners for some time.lategeorgeapley

Top Ten Tuesday: Places

Top Ten Tuesday

This is my first  Top Tuesday listing and because I want to see if I can pull it off without thinking about it too much, my choice is LONDON!  Nobody who knows me will be surprised.

In the order in which they appear in my muddled brain, with no idea that I am rating them, I submit:

  1.  Dickens:  Bleak House
  2. Barbara Pym:  Excellent Women
  3. Elizabeth Taylor:  Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont
  4. Iris Murdoch:  A Fairly Honourable Defeat
  5. Zadie Smith:  White Teeth
  6. Virginia Woolf:   Mrs. Dalloway
  7. Muriel Spark:  Memento Mori
  8. Wordsworth:  “Composed upon Westminster Bridge”
  9. Percy B. Shelley: “London in 1819”
  10. William Blake:  “London”

runner-ups would have to include Sherlock Holmes stories, George Gissing’s novels, The Waste Land, and how could I have neglected Vanity Fair?

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Mary Jo Salter

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At the end of this blog is a list of poets born during the 1950’s who have made an impression on me so that I try to buy their books and follow their careers.  Not all of them are equal in my esteem but all of them are worthy to be read, to be listened to, to ponder.   The oldest approach 66 or 67 years of age and even the youngest are in late mid-career.  Some have faltered; some have already accomplished an astounding body of work.   It’s time to begin a provisional review of their works and I look forward to a good deal of reading and catching up on some careers.

Today  (August 15) is the birthday of Mary Jo Salter—who has a magnificent body of work.  My love of her poetry began when  I found a memorable poem in The New Yorker, or The Atlantic or Poetry or The Kenyon Review and reread it.  And started looking for her name (before we had search engines).  I found her first book, Henry Purcell in Japan (when a mid-sized city had at least one book-store with an excellent poetry selection) and purchased it.    I have seven of her books now.

Salter is very good at travel verse,  comic verse and domestic verse.  I love her series about being pregnant in Japan (by the way, I have no idea if they are spoken by narrators or reflect her own experience), about visiting Iceland, and about  domestic life  with children.   She writes beautifully about some of the disaster spots of our world—Hiroshima, Chernobyl,  TWA 800 near Long Island,  and shipwrecks and other catastrophes that become tourist destinations.  If there is a flaw to her comic verse, it is the understandable tendency to be a bit arch (perhaps she’s waving to another baby of August 15, Julia Child, a Goddess of Domestic Archery).

I like Salter’s preference for strong form, allusion, and grounding her poems in specific times and places.   Each one is a story—from a minor glance at a spouse’s fondness for Myrna Loy to a ping-pong table: “unsporty, unoutdoorsy / and sseriously unlikely / to reform out habits much”  in a section called “Light-weights”.

Salter’s scope is extensive:  from birth to death, from parenthood to divorce, from brownie troops to tombstones, from Netsuke to breakfast.  Her poetry never disappoints me AND in many cases has given me words to live by.

Let’s get more specific:  “Dead Letters”  refers to somebody who receives letters addressed to her recently deceased mother.  The poem begins with a comic concept:  that of course the dead will continue to receive Junk Mail; that the Publisher’s Clearing House will continue to dangle the promise of millions, that “a host of worthy causes vies for your attention”, the misery of cleaning out the closets of the dead; the ruminations about the process of death, the steady excoriating  march of chemotherapy, memories of splendid times, and then learning to live with the reality of death and knowing that we, too, are next on the list of dead-letter senders.   The end of the poem is, perhaps, the most deeply piercing:  the poet reflects on a philodendron  her mother had given her:

“And yet it intertwines

Forever, I perceive, your life and mine,”

and

“You too were one to note

Life’s artful correspondences:”

“Dead Letters” and “Elegies for Etsuko” have helped to guide me through my own losses and mourning:  Salter has the gift to put into words that we can grab onto and use in the messy business of collecting a warm living person into a series of memories that keep on refining themselves with the years.

“Elegies for Etsuko” is a long poem about the suicide of a young friend at age twenty-eight.  In 9 segments which range from a villanelle to free verse to elegant quatrains, Salter very specifically circles around memories of a good friend and the way memories are transformed by death and even more specifically rarefied by suicide.

In the volume “A Kiss in Space,” the poem “Alternating Currents” alternates between the worlds of Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell, A. Conan Doyle, and Sherlock Holmes and his own Watson.  Every stanza is a tour de force and the words “alternating currents” have many denotations and connotations.   The poem is a tribute to and an expansion on the idea of a “drop of water” which is what Annie Sullivan uses to get the attention of the young  Helen Keller .

Salter writes about the “craft of authorship:”

so let them, on my tangling lines,

call the overloaded switchboard

for souls they’re linked to, all at once:

Keller and Sullivan, Conan Doyle

and Watson, Bell and Watson, the two

two-watt Watsons….

 

“Alternating Currents’ is a magisterial miracle of verse and while it is all Salter, it also partakes of the long  poems of Anthony Hecht, such as “Venetian Vespers” and “See Naples and Die”.  (By the way, I think that Salter  follows the line of Hecht in brilliancy and sheen and the ability to juggle, Hamlet-like, wit and death in the same speech).

 

 

The six poems that make up the “Icelandic Almanac” section of Salter’s volume, Sunday Skaters, are magnificent.  Could they be a tribute to Auden’s and MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland?  Absolutely; Salter mentions them both in other places. And does the Nora here end up being the subject of an elegy in a later book?  Always concerned with the intersections of art, beauty (both natural and hand-created), and memory, Salter asks:

Why has Iceland no Tiepolo?

World’s most ambitious clouds, and no

Portraitist to do them justice;

The answer might be that life gets in the way of art:

A local woman explains that:

“When you have to watch your footing, you don’t look up;

 

when the weather’s treacherous, and life’s a stguffle,

neither the clouds nor the land is beautiful.”

 

 

Part of the pleasure of Salter is her allusiveness and her scope:

“For I will consider my kitten, Herb” and “Brief Candle”.

Does “Madama Butterfly” from “Libretto”  become more poignant from the earlier “Elegies for Etsuko”?  Who doesn’t live with “Persons from Porlock?”   It’s also fun to know that when somebody like Barbara Stanwyck or Renoir or Debussy comes up, we will have a new way of seeing old faces.

I’ve saved a particular group of poems for special consideration:  When Salter writes about figures from the past, as in “Alternating Currents” she transforms them for us—and always for the better.  “Voice of America (Joseph Brodsky) and “Lost Originals” (William Blake) are superb.  “Crusoe’s Footprint” leads us to the footprints of Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, and the Robinson poems by Weldon Kees.  “Two American Lives” looks at “The Hand of Thomas Jefferson” and “Frost at Midnight” (an allusion to Coleridge) about Robert Frost.  Salter writes elegantly about Amy Clampitt in “Unbroken Music”.

Finally Salter has done a magnificent translation of the Old English “The Seafarer”.

I have been stingy with my quotations because I am fearful of violating copyright law.  But I will give you an example of a poem that is already on the Internets:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43421

“Two Pigeons” is a closely observed look at the behavior of a most pedestrian pair of birds.  It’s worth reading because it makes us look at pigeons differently and it asks us to look more closely, to notice more precisely:

“but when they resume

their places, the shift

is one only a painter

 

or a barber (prodding a chin

back into position)

would be likely to notice.”

 

Salter is both witty and wise; she is unpretentiously and deep.  She is a painter and a barber.   She does not expect her readers to have a Ph.D. or an M.F.A. or a master’s in metrical prosody.  She is a poet for our days, for every day.  Welcome her into your life; read a poem or two!   The theme of my own life is that art is my only defense against utter hopelessness.  Salter’s work has been around my house for over 30 years.    She will make your life better, quite simply:  and how many people can offer that?

 

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Rita Dove, Paul Muldoon, Dana Gioia, Linda Gregorson, Annie Finch, Edward Hirsch, Mary Jo Salter, Carol Ann Duffy, Alice Fulton, Harryette Mullen, Jo Shapcott, James Richardson, Helen Dunmore, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Mark Doty, Medbh McGuckian, Rosanna Warren, Bruce Bond, Mary Ruefle, Henri Cole, Dean Young, Amy Gerstler, Robert Wrigley,  Cynthia Zarin, Lucie Brock-Broido, Tony Hoagland, Alan Shapiro, J. Allyn Rosser, Tim Seibles, Leithauser—Hailey and Brad (no relation);  Franz Wright, Ian Duhig, Brenda Hillman, Thylias Moss, James Longenbach, Dorianne Laux, and those I cannot recollect just at this moment.