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.

 

“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.

Deal Me In Challenge: Week 4: Chekhov, “The Ninny”

This week I drew the King of Clubs, which corresponds to a very short story by Anton Chekhov, “The Ninny”.  It’s a bemusing story.  The scene is almost entirely dialogue between a governness, Yulia Vasilyevna, and her boss, the father of the children she cares for.  He is also the narrator of the story.  He commences:

“Just a few days ago I invited Yulia Vasilyevna, the governness of my children, to come to my study.  I wanted to settle my account with her.”

He then proceeds to underpay her.   It’s being just like Goneril and Regan when they reduce King Lear’s entourage of Knights down from 100 to zero very quickly.

He says she earns 30 rubles a month and when she replies it was 40 a month, he maintains it is 30.  He says she has been working for 2 months; when she says it’s 2 months plus five days, he says that’s nonsense.  He takes off money for the days her charges were ill and for the damage to a child’s trousers when he had climbed a tree.  “Then around New Year’s Day you broke a cup and saucer.  Subtract two rubles”.  At the end, he offers her 11 rubles for what should have been somewhat more than 80 rubles as previously agreed upon.

Finally she accepts the 11 rubles and thanks him.  He then proceeds to shout at her for not standing up for herself and demanding the 80 rubles.  He calls her a nitwit–a ninny–for agreeing to be thus robbed.  After shouting at her about her stupidity, he gives her the 80 rubles she has earned.

I felt some unease reading this story.  I adore Chekhov.  But is he depicting the woman as a nitwit or is he trying to suggest that the “nitwit” is the boss with all his capital and his standing?   He ends the story (remember he is the narrator) thinking “How very easy it is in this world to be strong.”

I hope that Chekhov is spinning the story around so that we think how very easy it is for the powerful and the wealthy to be strong.   They don’t need to fear unemployment; they don’t need to fear recriminations.  There is also the powerful male/less powerful female dynamic here.   He wants her to protest, but perhaps protest is too much of a luxury for her to embark upon.

Is Chekhov condemning the man for playing games with the hapless woman?  I like to think so and that the “ninny” is not the poor woman but the wealthy man who can devise his own Stanley Milgram obedience experiment in his own house.

 Several hours after posting this, I still am fuming. I keep thinking of all the ways the “boss” here is acting like Donald Trump–underpaying an employee, critiquing an employee, putting others into shameful situations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Faithful and Virtuous Night” by Louise by Louise Glück

Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glückfaithfulandvirtuousnight

This book of connected poems is a real tour de force.  The title comes from a book that the speaker’s brother is reading when they are young.  Perhaps the title refers to “knight” but the speaker takes it to be “night” and remembers the title of the book.  It is apt, for indeed the many nights of the speaker’s life turn out to be at least somewhat faithful and somewhat virtuous in that rich dreams populate the night, which faithfully arrives.

The cycle of poems tells a story but it is not always chronological nor is it always evident in which ways each poem might fit into the overarching chronicle—that of a painter (or his he/she a poet?) coming to terms with death—not only one’s own death, but the many deaths that end up strewn across the landscapes of our lives.

The first poem in the collection, “Parable,” begins with the question of purpose:

“First divesting ourselves of worldly good, as St. Francis teaches,

in order that our souls not be distracted

by gain and loss, and in order also

that our bodies be free to move

easily at the mountain passes…..”

 

is a call to travel along with the speaker/poet as

 

“we had changed although

we never moved, and one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling

from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed

in a strange way miraculous.  And those who believed we should have a purpose

believed this was the purpose, and those we felt we must remain free

in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed.”

 

After this opening parable, the language becomes much more specific as we learn in “An Adventure” and in “The Past” that the speaker may be dying but also that the past is vivid with memories of the speaker’s dead mother, whose voice can make no sound as it passes through “nothing”.   As a child, the speaker apparently has lost his parents and his sister in a car accident.   The speaker is evidently a painter as an adult and his consciousness is pervaded with memories of his dead dear ones.
He thinks, as he lies in bed:

 

 

“It had occurred to me that all human beings are divided

into those who wish to move forward

and those who wish to go back.

Or you could say, those who wish to keep moving

and those who want to be stopped in their tracks

as by the blazing sword.”

 

 

And I think it is true that as we grow into mourning and then our own old age we are torn between the past and the future.  At one point the telephone rings in the middle of the night and “I lay in bed, trying to analyze / the ring.  It had / my mother’s persistence and my father’s  /

pained embarrassment.”   The line is dead.  Or, as he asks himself, “was the phone working and the caller dead?”

 

The book continues to reflect upon life, death, where we are and where we are going.

 

“I think here I will leave you. It has come to seem

there is no perfect ending.

Indeed, there are infinite endings.

Or perhaps, once one begins,

there are only endings.”

 

There are many characters who appear—the fortune teller, the old woman in the park, the house in Cornwall,  the analyst, the first flautist, the elderly writer, the “melancholy assistant,” Harry, the gentle boy.

 

Here is one of the several brief prose poems that are a part of the story, scattered through the volume:

“Long, long ago, before I was a tormented artist, afflicted with longing yet incapable of forming durable attachments, long before this, I was a glorious ruler uniting all of a divided country—so I was told by the fortune-teller who examined my palm. Great things, she said, are ahead of you, or perhaps behind you; it is difficult to be sure. And yet, she added, what is the difference? Right now you are a child holding hands with a fortune-teller. All the rest is hypothesis and dream.”

 

These stories within the larger story of the poem provide more parables in which the central themes—love, loss, death, and what happens in between—are examined.

 

“A word drops into the mist

like a child’s ball into high grass

where it remains seductively

flashing and glinting until

the gold bursts are revealed to be

simply field buttercups.

 

Word/mist, word/mist: thus it was with me.”

 

I found the volume fascinating.  I have read it three times already and it will stand much more reading.   Some readers may not like a certain indeterminacy and a certain melancholy.  But this is Glück for us—she is never simple or easy and almost always deep and fascinating.

 

This collection reminds me a little bit of a Proust volume reduced to 60 pages:  memory, thought, desire are mixed and mingled into an at times chillingly vivid meditation on the ordinary losses that we face as we march through life.   People come and go.

 

I recommend this volume especially to older readers and  to readers who resist sentimentality.  If you know that poetry does not come with a specific map and indices and if you can comprehend loss, your reading will be richly rewarded.

 

Typically I love the little horse and pony shows of rhyme, alliteration, and exciting metre, but Glück can get by on simply savvy brilliance and insight.

 

“The Couple in the Park”

A man walks alone in the park and beside him a woman walks, also alone.

How does one know? It is as though a line exists between them, like a line on

a playing field. And yet, in a photograph they might appear a married cou-

ple, weary of each other and of the many winters they have endured togeth-

  1. At another time, they might be strangers about to meet by accident. She

drops her book; stooping to pick it up, she touches, by accident, his hand and

her heart springs open like a child’s music box. And out of the box comes

a little ballerina made of wood. I have created this, the man thinks; though

she can only whirl in place, still she is a dancer of some kind, not simply a

block of wood. This must explain the puzzling music coming from the trees.”

 

This final prose poem hearkens back to the divisions, or lines, between the graves of the speaker’s parents.   I think this is Glück’s offering to us:  a dancer made of wood whirling in place in the puzzling music coming from the trees.

 

 

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Note:  Poetry Reading Challenge, http://savvyverseandwit.com

 

Shareatea Challenge:  I drank a lot of Saint Isaac’s Blend when I read this book and wrote the review.

 

“First Death of Her Life” by Elizabeth Taylor

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In this week’s “Deal Me In” challenge I drew the four of hearts—although the deck was well-shuffled, it happened to be an adjacent card–and story–to the five of hearts I drew last week.  “First Death of her Life” is a brief (three pages) story about a young woman whose mother has just died in hospital and it reflects the rush of ambivalent feelings that engulf her.  In the midst of her tears she pauses to mentally compose a letter—“for her mind was always composing letters”–to her boss telling him that she will be away for four days for her mother’s funeral.  The nurse comes in:

The nurse came in. She took her patient’s wrist for a moment, replaced it, removed a jar of forced lilac from beside the bed as if this were no longer necessary, and went out again.

Lucy, our subject character, resumes her mental letter, starting anew.  She wonders how her father is doing–he is late.  He will have missed his wife’s death.   It is snowing and 4 PM on a winter’s day.  Lucy works hard to push away her negative memories of her mother because it was important that they “be sent away for ever” and “only loving-kindness” to remain.

She takes a tentative sip of the champagne from her mother’s glass by the bedside.  The family is clearly poor, but they have spent money on the champagne, the lilac, the private room.  After a “life of drabness and denial” on the “mean street where they lived” they wish her to have a little piece of luxury.  Lucy gathers up her mother’s handbag, the library book she had chosen, which would go unread, and takes a final sip of the champagne then leaves.

This story, like the previous one I read by Elizabeth Taylor, reminds me very  much of the kind of impressionistic moodiness of a story from Joyce’s “Dubliners”.   The dead mother gets her flowers, champagne, and library book before she is able to appreciate them.  As the story ends, Lucy leaves the hospital as her father arrives:  There is a sense of missed opportunities; of missed messages; of the collision-course between one’s duties to work and earn money and one’s duties to family, especially when they are ill, dying, dead.

“Opening the glass doors onto the snowy gardens, she thought it was like the end of a film. But no music rose up and engulfed her. Instead there was her father’s turning in at the gates. He propped his bicycle against the wall and began to run clumsily across the wet gravel.”

This is the end of life—no grand swelling of music; no majestic pomp.  And I am reminded again of one of my personal moments of bitterness:  having to work at the very moment my mother died because I had taken too much time away when she was ill.  And I remember my husband being fired from a job because he went to my sister’s funeral.  Most American employers don’t deal with death very well.