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.

 

 

 

“Dead Man’s Float” by Jim Harrison

jimharrisonJim Harrison’s final collection of poetry, Dead Man’s Float, seems to have been written in the full knowledge that he did not have much longer to live.   Approaching age 80, the poet sings of death and birds.  The opening poem is our vade mecum:

“Where Is Jim Harrison?”

He fell off the cliff of a seven-inch zafu.

He couldn’t get up because of his surgery.

He believes in the Resurrection mostly

because he was never taught how not to.

 

The poems that follow will deal with these themes—falling, Eastern concepts, surgery, hospitals, the possibility of an afterlife, and what he was and was not taught.  He (or his narrator)  was certainly taught to observe the dead and the earlier poems in the book are filled with images of his own death and dying as he sings a “bedsore cantata” while being “endlessly sacrifices at the medical gizmo altar.”  His “spine aches from top to bottom” and his “shingles burn, a special punishment”.   “The old bugaboo of depression” is there along with the sound of cellos.  “I wanted to be a cello.  I hear cellos when I’m trout fishing.”

 

But in the  midst of death life can come rushing in:

“Time rushes toward me—

it has no brakes.  Still

the radishes are good this year.

run them through butter,

Add a little salt”

 

It is a burden to know that one has no clear expiration date, but that it must be rushing at one.  The poet notices dead bodies of animals and thinks about dead people:  “I pray for Mandelstam hiding / covered with snow in a ditch.”  “Elsa’s head torn off / and her eyes stayed open….She was a find gardener with a sweet,  / warm voice.”  “Molly was the bravest…one day / her body was found down by the weir.”   “A cow is screaming across the arroyo….Next morning she’s dead, / already smelling badly in the heat.” “so many American Indians freeze / walking home from bars on the reservation edge. / A friend died learning and dozing against / his mailbox, so near home.”

The poems are sometimes unpoetical little stories about death, corpses, illness, and old age.   While  I realize that this review is not likely to win Harrison new readers, I think that would be wrong.  Harrison speaks honestly to his life.  He has a great book of essays forthcoming  called A Really Big Lunch:  Meditations on Food and Life from the Roving Gourmand.

This book of poems, however, is a serious guide to the life of the elderly.  The second part of the book triumphantly returns (mostly) to life and especially to birds and flowers.  In “Tiny Bird” Harrison write “Birds are poems I haven’t caught yet”.  He’s a part of the poetic tradition of paying homage to the artistry of birds and bird songs.  He praises the “two gorgeous / yellow warblers nesting in the honeysuckle bush….In a month or so, when the reach the size / of bumblebees they’ll fly to Costa Rica without a map.”

This book is not an easy book to read in many ways but it’s a necessary one for those who are wondering about death:  when and why it comes.  It offers no reassurance of an afterlife but acknowledges the possibility.  If we are lucky, we will become old enough to embrace these poems with their wisdom.  Without ever once becoming didactic, Harrison offers us lessons in what to see and what to watch and what to think about as we age into the sometimes crotchety, sometimes genial, characters we will become as we leave this world.

“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?