Saturday, April 30, 2022

A Row to Oneself and Perfect Plane Reading


First, the fun part.

On a recent flight,  I had a whole row to myself. It was luxurious. I was not squashed against anyone, I didn't have to scooch past seatmates to go to the restroom, nobody spilled a drink on me, and I did not have to squeeze into pilates shapes so as not to overflow into the neighbor's seat.  You know the scene:  when you're napping and half leaning into the aisle, and possibly snoring, the flight attendant has to wake you so she can get by with the drinks cart - that's embarrassing.  But this time I was snugly spread out across a row.  And  I had three blankets - I'm always cold on the plane - and three pillows, which I attempted to place strategically under the back and shoulder, though the pillows were too firm to help much.


When you have an entire row, you can get some reading done.  I read the very funny The Trials of Rumpole, one of John Mortimer's many collections of stories about the eccentric barrister's defenses of his lower-class clients, as well as a few glimpses of his domestic life with his wife, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed (named after H. Ryder Haggard's sorceress in She).  The Rumpole books are light, witty, perfect plane reading. 

And then I turned to Charlotte Mendelson's riveting novel, The Exhibitionist, which is longlisted for this year's Women's Prize. Don't worry that it didn't make the shortlist:  the great thing about these prize lists is the longlist, which often introduces me to great  books. 

The Exhibitionist is a dark comic novel about an unbalanced artistic family, dominated by the flamboyant Ray Hanrahan, a once famous artist.  Don't think this family is lovable:  their household is hell. It isn't immediately apparent to outsiders, but we see it from inside out. 

The focal point is Ray's first art exhibition in decades.  It is all very hush-hush: no one has seen his work, except his acolyte, his beautiful daughter, Leah, who has sacrificed her youth to support him - even to the point of visiting a drug dealer late at night to score the Oxycodone Ray cannot live without.   The drugs enhance Ray's personal chaos:  he is charming and funny, mad and cruel.  And Leah is the only one who can cope with his moods.

The Hanrahans live in an enormous crumbling house in London: the youngest daughter, Jess, the only one who has gotten away, thinks the whole thing should be knocked down.  Ray is a hoarder, and no one is allowed to disturb his stacks of magazines and various other collections: he is even proud of the mossy organic growth in the basement. 

 And Ray's nervous wife, Lucia, who is more or less the protagonist- God knows she doesn't want that role - tries to stay in the background and underplay the fact that she is the famous artist in the family, because it drives Ray to mad accusations.  At her studio Lucia avoids answering the phone (Ray likes to check up on her), and she even ignores calls from  her supportive agent, who phones on the eve of Ray's exhibition to break the news that Lucia has won a major art prize in Vienna.   Lucia murmurs that she can't accept - of course because of Ray - but the agent is made of sterner stuff.

 Lucia is so jittery it is almost unbearable to the reader:  Lucia expects every minute to be punished by Ray for her success.  She also has suffered extreme physical and psychological pain from breast cancer and a poorly-constructed breast shape made from her body tissue.  I felt so sympathetic to Lucia that I had to put the book aside at times. 

Lucia reproaches herself for weakness. She  knows the three adult children are damaged because because she never stood up to Ray.  Self-conscious Jess, their youngest daughter, is a teacher in Edinburgh, stuck in a relationship with a closeted gay man (she doesn't know he is gay, but can't bear to hurt him, and he refuses to break up).  She returns home for Ray's exhibition at Leah's insistence:  Leah says Jess has already let Ray down by leaving home and she must be here now to support Ray.  But Jess doesn't take this seriously:  she knows Ray's egotism, and this is just a gesture.  Ray has never paid attention to her.

And there is another sad character, Patrick, Lucia's son and Ray's stepson.  Remember Hareton in Wuthering Heights?  The boy who was so denigrated by Heathcliff he did not even learn  to read, because Heathcliff wanted to get even with Hareton's (now dead) father, Hindley?  Well, that's Patrick, a nervous, sweet, possibly autistic young man who gave up his dream of being a chef because Ray disapproved vociferously and abusively.  Patrick is a sweet nervous wreck who lives in a caravan in the yard and makes a living as a handyman.  Ray is brutal when Patrick tells him before the exhibition that he has been offered a good job as a cook.

I won't pretend this book isn't harrowing.  It is. Some of the reviewers think it is a comedy, but I don't quite see it that way.   There is some hope.  Lucia has an affair with Priya, a charming, fascinating MP, though Priya, too, is married, and has made it clear there is no future for a serious relationship. Yet Lucia now realizes her art has meaning.  And her children, too, are finding second chances.  Life will never be perfect, but there it is. 



Airlines allow you to take only tiny bottles of "liquids" in case someone  uses alchemy to turn them into weapons of mass destruction.  This time I stowed my tubes of prescription skin cream in my bag, because I could not figure out how to squeeze them into the tiny bottles, and honest to God, my hands bleed without this cream. 

Suddenly, I was being PATTED DOWN by a security woman.

"Why am I being frisked?"  I asked repeatedly.  

She did not answer.  

Then a man behind the conveyor belt triumphantly opened a zipper compartment in my rather confusing carry-on bag (bought on sale).  He discovered my tubes of skin cream.

"Liquids!"  he said.

"It's prescription skin cream," I said calmly.

He immediately lost interest.  The woman drifted away.

And so I sat down on a bench, thinking it was early in the morning to be groped by strangers, and tied my shoes and gathered up my things.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

A Glass Staircase to Whistler's Woman in White


A glass staircase at the Royal Academy of Arts

 There is a glass staircase in the Royal Academy of Arts in London.  

"What is this?  An art installation?"

I climbed steadily, if not spryly, up the stairs to the Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy to visit an  exhibition I decided in retrospect I had flown across an ocean to see, "Whistler's Woman in White:  Joanna Hiffernan." 

I've loved James McNeill Whistler since I saw his Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  And I was  fascinated by the "Woman in White" exhibition because of the emphasis on the role of Joanna Hiffernan, Whistler's lover, friend, and favorite model.  She was the model for his three famous Symphony in White paintings, and also posed for other artists, including their friend Gustave Courbet.  


Symphony in White, No. 1:  The White Girl

The White Girl, later known as Symphony in White, No. 1, may have obliquely referred to Wilkie Collins's sensation novel, The Woman in White, though Whistler denied it and claimed he had not read the book.  In the painting, Jo looks gorgeous, mystical, and melancholy in a simple white dress, with her pre-Raphaelite red hair flowing over her shoulders. It is not difficult to imagine a resemblance between the portrait of Joanna Hiffernin and the eternally white-clad Anne Catherick in Collins's novel. Joe was thrilled by the rumors of a connection between the painting and Collins's book. Whistler, despite his denial, capitalized on the publicity.

But this was all to come, because I was, yes, still climbing the stairs.  It was like a never-ending scene in George MacDonald's Phantastes, a hallucinatory Victorian fantastic dream one can't break out of.

And then I emerged from the stairwell and saw what at first seemed an illusion across the room:  it was a glass elevator!  You mean I could have ridden up in another art installation? 

The paintings were breathtaking.  In a way, the paintings and their placards provide an integrated experience of the perspectives of artist and model. 

By the way, I also love the courtyard, where I once saw tree sculptures by Ai Wei Wei.  At the moment, there is a small outdoor cafe there.  And though I complained about climbing the glass staircase, next time I'll prepare by walking hills or the stairmaster.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Is Proust Necessary? Fatigued by "Sodom and Gomorrah," Volume IV


 For some years I have tried to read Proust's In Search of Lost Time, or, as I prefer to call it, Remembrance of Things Past (the original, more elegant translation of the title).  I can attest that Swann's Way is a masterpiece:   I have read it thrice, because thrice I have started and abandoned the project.  Two or three years ago I finished The Guermantes Way, Volume III, and then took a  long break. A very long break. And now I am reading Book IV.   

 Yesterday my deluxe Penguin copy of Volume IV, Sodom and Gomorrah,  dominated the breakfast table.  It was propped against a stack of cookbooks so I could read while I ate.  I told my husband I was "finally" starting Volume IV. 

"So far I hate it."

"It's not one of the best."

 He tells me it is better in French. And, ironically,  I could easily have learned French in the time it has taken me to get to Volume IV.

The English title of Sodom and Gomorrah used to be Cities of the Plain.  What was wrong with that?  I sat down with my modern edition, and found the narrator's musings on "Sodomites" dull.  His speculations about Sodom and Gomorrah are inspired by his observation of a homosexual pick-up: the Baron Charles de Guermentes and Jupien, the family's former tailor, make some obvious flirtatious signals, and  then retire indoors to consummate their flirtation.  Later, the narrator attends the Princesse de Guermantes' party.  That keeps us busy for long time (the baron, M.  Charles, is there, too.)   Finally, the narrator, who is a semi-invalid, goes to Balbec on vacation and again embarks on a relationship with Albertine.

Now that we're at Balbec, it is becoming more interesting, but I disliked the Sturrock translation and switched to an old Modern Library copy.  It actually is better - for me at least.

Here's what you do when you're committed to reading a book but dislike it.

1.  You watch an hour of Slow Horses on Apple TV.  
2.  You decide to ride your bike to a bookstore to buy the book Slow Horses, but unfortunately it is too windy to bike.
4.  Then you loiter over making the perfect cup of coffee.  The first pot is too strong, so you spend 20 minutes cleaning the coffee machine because nobody has used it in a long time. 

It occurs to me that my approach to Proust is "checklist reading." My only reason for continuing Vol. IV is to finish it so I can read Volume V. 

Is Proust necessary?  Perhaps I shall skip to Volume V.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

A Cozy Catastrophe by Daphne du Maurier


Daphne du Maurier's last novel, Rule Britannia, published in 1972 and set in Cornwall, is a dystopian "cozy catastrophe."  This is now my third favorite of her books, after The Parasites and  Rebecca.  

The plot is fascinating, and, alas, plausible. One day in an alternate 1970s, the 20-year-old protagonist, Emma, wakes up to the sound of planes overhead.  The radio doesn't work. There is only a hissing, crackling sound.

"Oh, to hell with it!" She pushed the transistor aside and lay back on her pillow, her hands behind her head, transposing 'To be or not to be' from Hamlet into a critical assessment of her own ambivalent life.

An aspiring actress, Emma has made no headway in the profession and instead lives at home and tries to bring stability to the household dominated by her 80-year-old grandmother, Mad, a retired actress, and the six boys she has adopted, the oldest of whom is 18, the youngest three.  Emma wonders if she should stay with Mad, "or break here and now with all dominion..." 

The planes overhead indicate a different dominion.  The Americans have invaded England, or something very like it.  The UK has withdrawn from the European Common Market and  made a deal with the devil (the U.S.)  to survive financially by merging with the U.S. to become the USUK - only no one told the citizens.  

The appearance of an American warship in the harbor mystifies and upsets the family.  The resistance movement begins when American soldier shoots a farmer's beloved dog, Sprye.  (Mad buries the dog.)  A few days later, one of the boys, Andy, who is practicing archery with lethal arrows (provided by Mad), shoots and kills an American soldier.  And Emma is horrified that Andy does not understand the difference between right and wrong.  In fact, Mad does not think it was wrong.

Mad, Emma, and the neighbors cover up the killing, with the cooperation of Taffy, a radical beachcomber whose background seems to include disposing of bodies.  
Daphne du Maurier intended this to be a light novel, and there is a certain buoyancy because of Mad's wit, Emma's sensibility, and one very funny resistance protest.  But there are references to Americans in the Vietnam War, and there are some violent, appalling scenes as the Americans clamp down on the rebellious community. 

Du Maurier's writing is so fluent, effortless, and her theatrical dialogue so witty (she knew the theater well, as fans of her remarkable novel, The Parasites, know; and her father, Sir Gerald du Maurier was a famous actor-manager) that the  reader knows instinctively that things will turn out all right in the end.

I wonder why I never heard of this dystopian classic.  It is a forgotten gem, at least in the U.S.  I have never seen this on a dystopian novel list!

Monday, April 11, 2022

A Rediscovery: H. E. Bates's "A Month by the Lake & Other Stories"


I used to be a fan of the costume dramas on Masterpiece Theater (now called Masterpiece).  I remember the original host, Alastair Cooke, sitting in a leather chair as he introduced each episode, giving detailed background on the books and authors, sometimes commenting on the episodes or the actors.  I loved a series of film adaptations of the short stories of H. E. Bates and A. E. Coppard.  Their books were hard to find, possibly out-of-print, but I tracked down a couple of collections of stories at a used bookstore. 

We have moved often over the years, and we have  parted with many books, but  I recently came across a New Directions paperback of H. E. Bates's A Month by the Lake and Other Stories (1987), introduced by Anthony Burgess.

Let me start with Burgess's curmudgeonly introduction, which is entertaining, if digressive.  He begins: "The Sixties were not a bad time for the British." Then he complains about literary writers who received government subsidies. Burgess and H. E.  Bates wrote letters to the TLS denouncing the subsidies.  Burgess explains, "Writers who wrote for a living, and, of necessity, wrote much, who  never debased themselves by begging for money from the State and lived on earnings from the open literary market seemed to be looked down upon.  Herbert Ernest Bates was one of these, and I was another."

Many people (presumably writers) denounced Bates after his letter to the TLS.  Bates (1905-1973) admitted to Burgess that he never made much money.  His books sold, but reviewers belittled his popular Darling Buds of May, which did bring in some income.  And Bates identified with Edwardian writers like Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells.  Burgess also compares Bates to Chekhov. 

Bates's stories are smart,  lyrical, entertaining, and show an unusual range.   Even in the shortest stories, the characters are deftly-drawn and the dialogue is pitch-perfect.


My favorite is the novella, "A Month by the Lake."   The insightful heroine, Miss Bentley, a middle-aged woman vacationing alone in Italy, decides to stay on another month, because the autumn is so beautiful.  One by one, the other guests leave, and finally it is time for Major Wilshaw to go.  Miss Bentley regrets his departure: she likes him, and is curiously attracted by his small flat pink ears.  I am amused by her explanation about ears.


All the attraction of mood and response and character and emotion lay, of course, in the eyes:  everyone knew that.  But ears were, Miss Bentley thought, far more wonderful.  Ears were unchanging and undying.  They remained, in some strange way, uncoarsened, undepraved, unwrinkled and unaged by time.

Major Wilshaw is about to climb into a taxi when a jolly family of former guests, the Bompianis from Milan, arrive at the hotel.  They are accompanied  by Miss Beaumont, a new governess for their daughters, who are thrilled to see Major Wilshaw because he performs magic tricks.  Miss Beaumont is so young and pretty that Major Wilshaw decides to stay on for another week.  And Miss Bentley is exasperated by Major Wilshaw's foolish infatuation.

Miss Bentley subtly competes with Miss Beaumont. Miss Bentley has the better figure, is a better swimmer, attracts a young man while she is swimming in the lake, and makes Major Wilshaw jealous.  Miss Beaumont begins to seem superficial to him.  But it is not until the end of the story that Miss Bentley again admires Major Wilshaw's ears. 

"Sergeant Carmichael" may be the best war story I have ever read.  As an English plane flies over France, something goes wrong with the motor.  It crashes in the ocean.  The survivors manage to climb into the dinghy, but Carmichael has broken his arm and has to be helped.  The salt and heat are terrible. Carmichael is ill; his mouth is raw from the sea water. A plane flies over them and doesn't stop.  We feel the horror of the waves crashing over the dinghy, of baling of the water, and of the slow deflation of the dinghy. 

In "Where the Cloud Breaks," Colonel Gracie, an old man, is slightly befuddled, and does not know what day of the week it is.  His neighbor, Miss Wilkinson, has been away visiting her sister, but is back, and the colonel decides to semaphore her with his signaling flags.  She will know the day of the week.

Colonel Gracie is proud of their semaphore communication.

In the army from which he was now long retired, signaling had been the  Colonel's special pigeon.  He had helped to train a considerable number of men with extreme proficiency.  Miss Wilkinson, who was sixty, wasn't of course quite so apt a pupil as a soldier in his prime, but she had nevertheless been overjoyed to learn what was not altogether a difficult art.  It had been the greatest fun for them both; it had whiled away an enormous number of lonely hours.

Miss Wilkinson reminds him via semaphore that he is having tea with her.  He is confused and forgetful - leaves his egg boiling on the stove - but he is eager to spend time with her again.  Unfortunately, they argue about the introduction of technology into her home.  Colonel Gracie risks their friendship.

I enjoyed this collection, though it is missing some of the most famous stories, like "The Watercress Girl." Bates was prolific, like most writers who must make a living, and I must keep an eye out for his other books.

Friday, April 8, 2022

The International Booker Prize, My Favorite Unfinished Novel, & New Books in May


My favorite longlisted book didn't make the shortlist.

Is the International Booker Prize more dramatic and exciting than The Booker Prize?

The Booker Prize is exciting, and has introduced me to the work of brilliant writers, among them Anita Brookner, Stanley Middleton, Barry Unsworth, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.  But perhaps it has lost a tad of glamour since American novels became eligible for the prize.  No one complains, except the English writers who signed a petition against it - and their reasons are different from mine.   But I'm such an anglophile that the yearly Booker longlist is a cherished source of information about British and Commonwealth writers. 

This year I'm also looking at the International Booker Prize, which isn't exactly dramatic or exciting.  But it introduces me to Worthy Books, and some of them are Brilliant as well as Worthy.

This spring  I loved The Book of Mother, by Violaine Huisman, which was longlisted for the International Booker.  It didn't make the shortlist, but my favorites seldom do. (I wrote briefly about The Book of Mother here).  My husband favored David Grossman's More Than I Love My Life, but it didn't make the list, either.  I may read a few more from the list, but it will not be Olga Tokarczuk's medieval blockbuster, The Books of Jacob (1,000 pages). 

And here is The International Booker Prize shortlist:

Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur from Korean (Honford Star)
A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls from Norwegian (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Heaven by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Samuel Bett and David Boyd from Japanese (Picador)
Elena Knows by Claudia PiƱeiro, translated by Frances Riddle from Spanish (Charco Press)
Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell from Hindi (Titled Axis Press)
The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft from Polish (Fitzcarraldo Editions)


I'm not a cheerleader or a "book slut," but I am looking forward to two new books in May:  Elif Batuman's Either/Or, the sequel to her funny, smart novel, The Idiot; and James Campbell's Just Go Down to the Road: A Memoir of Trouble and Travel. (You can read an excerpt from Campbell's memoir at The Hudson Review.
He  used to write the N.B. column for the TLS, signed with his initials J.C.)


My favorite unfinished novel is Gogol's Dead Souls, which I recently reread, chortling over the anti-hero Chichikov's escapades.  Chichikov is traveling through the provinces for a  peculiar business reason:  he wants to buy "dead souls," i.e., dead male serfs, from landowners who will be taxed on the dead souls until the next census counts them as dead.  Chichikov plans to to buy them cheaply and use them as collateral for a mortgage.

This is very, very funny.  But as you can imagine, things don't go as he hoped - someone betrays him - and then he is run out of town.  But he still has hopes.  He never gives up. In the second part - the unfinished, patched-together part - Chichikov is at it again, trying to buy dead souls.  And really I like the ending, even though it is NOT the end.  This novel is so much fun! 

What is your favorite unfinished novel?

Sunday, April 3, 2022

The Neglected Novels of Maureen Howard: Grace Abounding," "Bridgeport Bus," and "The Rags of Time"


Maureen Howard is heartbreakingly pretty in the cover photo of her novel, Grace Abounding (1982).  She's in her late forties or early fifties, with elegant lines etched around her eyes, and that slightly haggard, interesting grace of a middle-aged woman.   When I read her obituary (she died on March 13 at age  91), I mourned the passing of time. She was one of the best American writers of the 20th and early 21st centuries,  though her work has fallen out of the public eye in recent years.  I have always loved her books,  and her last novel, The Rags of Time (2009), the fourth of the Four Seasons quartet, is my favorite: it is also the most challenging.

Howard was a critically acclaimed writer who won the National Critics Circle Award for her memoir, Facts of Life (1978); but her complex later novels apparently precluded popularity.  In some of them, she experiments with post-modern elements.  And her prose is glittering, sinuous, tough, and exacting - never an entirely comfortable read.


Born in 1930 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and a graduate of Smith College, she often wrote about the working-class culture of Bridgeport.  In her second novel, Bridgeport Bus (1965), Mary Agnes Keely is a 35-year-old Catholic virgin who lives with her nagging mother in the house where she grew up.   After a hard day at work, her mother insists that Mary Agnes accompany her to a novena.  

"The novena!" I gasped.  Her backside looked broader than ever as she hustled out to the kitchen. Ever since I was a girl, for over twenty years that would be, I have had to drag my mother to that novena in the winter, tugging her up the church steps like an impossible rolled mattress and stuffing her into a pew.  Then the Rosary, the Aspirations, the Benediction, the Prayer for Peace...  The whole thing started just before the war and was addressed to Our Lady of Fatima, who as I recall appeared to some prepubescent Portuguese and said the world was coming to an end - as if that were news.

Mary Agnes resents her mother, whom she has supported financially since her father's death, while  her brother got to go to college. (Mary Agnes was not the favorite child.)  All these years, she has worked at a dreary job as secretary to the president of Standard Zipper Company.  To get out of the house at night, she takes French seminars at the university. She wants to be a writer, but living with her mother makes it impossible.  And so she takes off for New York - which is  different from Bridgeport, but the experience is a bumpy ride.


Much as I enjoyed Bridgeport Bus,  Howard really caught my attention with her brilliant novel, Grace Abounding (1982).  Her glittering, breathtaking prose is perfection. She tells the story of Maude Dowd and Elizabeth,  a mother and daughter.  Maude, a  daydreaming widow, has little to do in her charming country house, and when she is not fantasizing about sex with strangers, she spies with binoculars on the neighbors, an eccentric pair of sisters, one a poet. Maude's sullen daughter, Elizabeth, resents her fragile mother for sending her to the the public high school with the "dummies" and  scorns her mother's collection of  knickknacks. Elizabeth's lawyer father had intended to send her to boarding school, and she keeps a little shrine to him in her room.  She likes to look at his law books and his personal effects from the hospital, among them a note from a woman with whom he was having an affair.

Two things happen to awaken the mother and daughter from their malaise.  Maude finally gets laid and betrayed by a married man, the owner of a gift shop, and gives up her fantasies. She returns to school and pursues a career as a therapist of  autistic children.  And Elizabeth turns out to have a brilliant musical talent. She is, however, self-destructive, and breaks her contract with an opera company  to become a bored and angry suburban housewife.  She has married a corporate lawyer who is rarely around -  like Daddy - and takes unacceptable risks driving in storms, perhaps because of post-partum depression.  There is much in this book that will shock and challenge.  And love does not conquer all.

Howard is an outspoken, piercingly honest writer, who, rather like Mary McCarthy, speaks truths that usually go unspoken - that some may not want to hear.  In Grace Abounding, I laughed at Maude's sizzling inappropriate sexual fantasies.   (N.B. In their thirties and forties, single women do spend a lot of time fantasizing, and, as I recall, "all the men are married or gay.")  Maude finds a new life for herself through her work, as well finding an appropriate husband.  But her fantasies have to be examined with a cold eye first.

Howard’s masterpiece, The Rags of Time (2009), is an American woman’s Ulysses, and the final novel in her Four Seasons quartet. The main character is Howard's double, Mimi, an 80-year-old writer who reflects on American history, personal history, and  the design of Central Park.  She and her husband muse ironically on the new take on American holidays like Columbus Day.   Some of the chapters retell Columbus’s story: Mimi has done research on Columbus in Italy, and she quotes his journals, furious that he is being written out of American history.  In addition to writing about the lives of historical characters, Howard interweaves stories of her characters from the first three novels in the quartet. 

A remarkable writer, and let's hope there will be a revival of her work.