Being a mother: Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isabelle

Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isabelle. Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2016. First published in the USA, 1998

Elizabeth Strout’s first novel, Amy & Isabelle, anticipates relationships and themes she was to revisit in the two later novels of hers that I’ve posted on here (links at the end). She presents parent – child relations in particular as sclerotic.

Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isabelle coverShirley Falls is a dull town, dominated by the mill on the filthy river. Isabelle is PA to one of its office managers – a dull, bald and overweitht married man with whom she’s secretly half in love, and who hardly notices her.

Isabelle is a snob. Although she never graduated from college, she’s created an image of herself as a cultivated, sophisticated woman who’s superior to the other women in the office. She disdains their petty bickering and factions and discourages intimacy. She’s like Strout’s later protagonists, Olive and Lucy: lonely, distressed and unhappy, longing for love and too acerbic and aloof to invite it.

Mother-daughter relationships and their tribulations feature centrally in Strout’s fiction. Part of Isabelle’s false persona results from a deeply shameful secret that she only reveals late in the novel. By then it’s too late to repair the damage she’s caused to her teenage daughter Amy’s view of her.

I’ve known mothers and daughters like this (and fathers and sons). They long for the other to love them, yet behave so hurtfully they become bitter and estranged.

It’s a more sprawling, less tightly structured novel than Olive or Lucy, but it has much of their pungency and raw emotion. Women can be supportive and loving towards each other, but it’s often adversity (usually caused by their menfolks’ unreliability and errancy) that brings out the best in them.

Isabelle had been emotionally scarred by events in her youth, and the ensuing emotional rigidity, shame and guilt led her to recreate herself in a way that prevents others, including Amy, from establishing intimacy and trust with her.

This changes a little towards the end and Isabelle finds that confronting and telling the truth can be therapeutic. But for Amy it’s maybe too late for that.

Strout’s prose shows signs of the precision and incisiveness that developed so well in the later novels. Here’s a random example. The crisis that has damaged Amy’s relationship with her mother has happened, and its fragility has not stood up to the stress:

[Isabelle is watching through her window as Amy approaches the house] The sight of her pained Isabelle. It pained her terribly to see her, but why?

Because she looked unhappy, her shoulders slumped like that, her neck thrust forward, walking slowly, just about dragging her feet. This was Isabelle’s daughter; this was Isabelle’s fault. She hadn’t done it right, being a mother, and this youthful desolation walking up the driveway was exactly proof of that.

The free indirect style gives us insight into the turmoil and guilt in Isabelle’s mind. She has a flash of perception, realising she has turned her daughter into a version of her own unhappy, unfulfilled self. But then the paragraph shifts gear:

But then Amy straightened up, glancing toward the house with a wary squint, and she seemed transformed to Isabelle, suddenly a presence to be reckoned with. Her limbs were long and even, her breasts beneath her T-shirt seemed round and right, neither large or small, only part of some pleasing symmetry; her face looked intelligent and shrewd. Isabelle, sitting motionless in her chair, felt intimidated.

This is so well done. The narrative subtly reveals that Isabelle has misread the signs – Amy’s ‘wary squint’ sets off this new line of thought and tone.

It introduces the duplicity of Isabelle’s sadness and sense of failure; when Amy ‘straightens up’ – the image is also carefully chosen – Isabelle has a painful epiphany. Amy has transcended the neediness her mother has instilled in her. She has the confidence – sexual and personal – that Isabelle had suppressed. And she envies it – envies her daughter’s intelligence and shrewdness, her confident independence. No wonder she feels ‘intimidated’.

Isabelle isn’t a monster. Parents are supposed to want their children to outgrow their need for them – to rejoice when they fledge and leave the nest. But Strout has the honesty to show that they also harbour a selfish desire for their offspring to keep on needing them. Their independence makes the mother redundant, and reinforces her sense of her own shortcomings – her futility. The lessons and painful growth take place on both sides; the difference is that Amy will continue to grow.

This might sound a bit gloomy – Strout is too astute to leave it there. She gives signs that Isabelle is also learning about herself, and is maybe capable of an honesty with herself that she’d hitherto smothered – and it was this dishonesty that had kept her from living fully.

It takes a writer of great maturity and sensitivity to succeed in conveying all this without coming across as preaching or apportioning blame.

My previous Elizabeth Strout posts: Olive Kitteridge HERE

My Name is Lucy Barton HERE

 

More October rambles – and a naval execution

I’ll be posting on Elizabeth Strout soon, but first wanted to share some more sights and thoughts from some October walks with Mrs TD.

Argal reservoir

Argal reservoir seen from the dam walkway

Last week we went to visit her sister and BIL, who’s recovering from a knee replacement operation. He’s unable to join us on our country rambles, so when we left them the two of us did the circuit of Argal reservoir. This is one of several in the mid-Cornwall area, run by SW Water and SW Lakes Trust.

It’s a popular spot for walkers and those who like fishing. A notice board informed us that the fish that live there include ‘carp, pike, bream, roach and rudd’.

Argal dam walkway

Argal dam walkway

What great names: all monosyllables and harsh, guttural vowels and consonants – redolent of the fish themselves, perhaps. I hope they throw the fish back in once they’ve been caught – I don’t think you can even eat pike, can you?

There’s a functional curved dam at one end, with a walkway across the top, from where there are lovely views of the reservoir. Overhead a couple of buzzards wheeled and mewed their curiously effete cries.

Portscatho bay

Portscatho bay

Also last week another walk from Portscatho. This time we went further than usual, using our walks in Cornwall app – always good at sending us down remote paths and into secret places we’d never otherwise have found.

At one point where the coastal path crossed a field there were dozens of huge mushrooms. We weren’t sure if they were edible – but even if they were, it would have been a shame to remove them.

Mushroom

This mushroom must have been nearly a foot high

Yesterday to a creek and riverside walk just a few miles from home. Another remote spot we’d never been to before, so thanks again to the app for suggesting it.

The tide was out, so the creeks were less picturesque than when they’re full of clear water.

Rudely woken swan

Rudely woken swan

Swans dabbled in the mud, including this handsome adult who was snoozing right in our path. When he woke at our approach he looked first disgruntled, then cross. Mrs TD was not impressed.

 

Halfway round is the tiny Victorian church of Old Kea, with its ruined 15C tower standing much taller beside it. This little church was rebuilt when the original (dating back to 13C) fell into ruin (I’m not sure why the tower was left to crumble and become ivy-shrouded). Inside it’s more like a wayside chapel than a church – perhaps because it was originally a poor-house before being rebuilt as a church. There are some handsome modern stained glass windows.

External view of Old Kea church

External view of Old Kea church

Old Kea church tower

Old Kea church tower

 

 

 

 

 

 

Old Kea church interior

Old Kea church interior

The path took us high up over the confluence of the rivers Fal and Truro. Even at low tide these still look gleaming and splendid. Traditional red-sailed boats (formerly crabbers and other types of fishing boat) still glide past among the modern, sleeker but less attractive modern craft. Shellfish are still gathered in these parts, but I doubt if the traditional Falmouth oyster festival will happen this autumn, given the current situation.

The final stretch of our circular walk was mostly along ancient sunken tracks, also known by their medieval name: hollow ways. They’re much lower than the surrounding terrain. Our app explains that this is sometimes because of erosion caused by horses, carts and rainwater over the centuries. Some of these roads were ditches formed between banks as a boundary between estates, and were then adopted as a convenient location for travel or droving animals.

Much of this route falls within the enormous Tregothnan Estate, owned by the Boscawen family, viscounts Falmouth. Their mansion sits on a high spot with sweeping views towards the rivers and Carrick Roads.

 

Old Kea church tower

One of the most famous members of this family was the Admiral who signed the death warrant of the unfortunate Admiral Byng, sentenced to execution by firing squad for allegedly failing to do his utmost to engage or destroy the French enemy fleet during an ill-fated battle off the island of Menorca in 1756.

This infamous act of judicial murder was satirised in Voltaire’s Candide, when his hero witnessed such a firing squad execution, leading to his famous quip that in this country it’s considered good to kill an admiral from time to time ‘pour encourager les autres’.

 

Admiral Boscawen was MP for Truro from 1742 until his death in 1761. He can’t have been a great constituency member (though few were in those days), since he spent most of that time at sea. His estate is enormous – at just under 26,000 acres it’s even bigger than Prince Charles’s Duchy estate.

River viewWhat was so uplifting about this walk was that the only sounds to be heard were the plaintive calls of curlews and other water birds, and the occasional rumbling farm vehicle. It’s a delightfully peaceful area – tidal waters, trees and fields roamed by lugubrious cows – yet just a short hop from the busy city centre.

Nervous romanticism: Robert Musil, Young Törless

Robert Musil, Young Törless. Translated from the German by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, ed. Burton Pike. Part 1 of Selected Writings in the series The German Library, vol. 72 (The Continuum Publishing Co., New York, 1995).

 Robert Musil was born in Austria in 1880 and died in Switzerland in 1942. He’d been living in Germany, but left with his Jewish wife to escape the monstrosities of the Nazis and their dictators. There are ominous foreshadowings of this regime in his novel Young Törless.

Musil began working on it when he was in his early twenties. There is a plot of sorts – an adolescent boy is caught stealing from his fellow pupils at a swanky, stuffy military academy for boys (the setting is evidently based on Musil’s own unhappy education). A small group of them begin a campaign of sadistic, increasingly sexual torment and bullying of their victim, Basini.

Robert Musil, Young Törless coverTörless has become a member of this group, but he’s always something of an outsider. He joins in with some of the homoerotic torture and sexual violence, but finds himself curiously aroused but simultaneously repelled by his reactions – and those of the other boys involved.

This is where the prediction of what arose in post-war Germany emerges. Two of the boys who persecute Basini anticipate the lust for power of the Nazis, and their contempt for those they consider lesser beings. One of them, Beineberg, says to Törless, when he’d shown half-hearted signs of concern about their cruel treatment of Basini:

People like Basini…signify nothing – they are empty, accidental forms. True human beings are only those who can penetrate into themselves.

A page or two later (there are some very long conversations in this narrative) he goes on:

The very fact that I find it hard to torture Basini – I mean to humiliate him, debase him, and cast him away from me – is good. It requires a sacrifice. It will have a purifying effect. I owe it to myself to learn daily, with him as my material, that merely being human means nothing – it’s a mockery, a mere external semblance.

Along with a whiff of Nietzshe’s ubermensch here, there’s also the vaguely oriental Buddhism which Beineberg learned from his father. His pose of strutting, heartless supremacy is validated by his spurious, self-justifying mysticism. So much for the master race.

Törless is sensitive and intelligent enough to see through this egomaniacal tosh. His quest for enlightenment takes him in the direction of metaphysics and science, and, in particular, mathematics (and its sister, philosophy). In a scene of bathetic comic brilliance he’s disillusioned by his lacklustre, intellectually limited maths teacher. Infinity and ‘imaginary numbers’ remain another unsolved mystery.

The novel has been translated in some editions as The Confusions of Young Törless; this sums up quite well its theme. The protagonist is a searcher, looking for some kind of cosmic solution to the problems of the soul and the world.

So far he’s not so different from most precocious, intelligent young men. What’s fascinating about this strange, unsettling novel is that he’s not quite smart or mature enough to recognise his own shortcomings. He tries reading Kant, and gives up. His ‘confusions’ torment him, he feels, more than his friends torment the hapless Basini. But he’s too callow and complacent to make the effort required to transcend them.

There’s something of the aesthete and decadent about him. He tends to wallow in his darkling state. Time and again our narrator, with a touch perhaps of irony, describes the existential void into which Törless gazes, like a post-Romantic poet on opium: he feels ‘the horror of emptiness’ on confronting ‘some insoluble enigma and some inexplicable kinship for which he could never quite produce any evidence.’

His uneasiness resides ultimately in the failure of language: ‘words meant nothing.’ He recalls marvelling as a child at a landscape and exclaiming to his father how beautiful it was, then being overcome with embarrassment at his emotional outburst:

It was the failure of language that caused him anguish, a half-awareness that the words were merely accidental, mere evasions, and never the feeling itself.

‘Anguish’ is a word that is often used of Törless in these musings. His confusions might begin to seem ‘tangibly comprehensible’, but he could never  entirely

resolve them into words and ideas. Between events and himself, indeed between his own feelings and some inmost self that craved understanding of them, there always remained a dividing-line, which receded before his desire, like a horizon, the closer he tried to come to it.

Young Törless is no embryonic TS Eliot. I don’t know if the translators deliberately alluded to ‘The Hollow Men’ in this passage. Whatever, our young decadent is clearly relishing his spiritual dilemma like a connoisseur. He dabbles in morality and ethics, but there’s always something of the dilettante about these dabblings.

I’m not sure how far Musil wanted us to side with his young intellectual aesthete. My own feeling is that he’s intrigued by him, shares much of his philosophical ‘anguish’, but also sees the pretentiousness.

I haven’t yet read what’s said to be Musil’s masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities; a fellow blogger recommended I start with Young Törless. I presume because it contains in embryo what I’ve read about it… whatever it is, that huge, unfinished expressionist-modernist novel. Törless struggles and ultimately fails to connect feelings and actions to his ultra-sharp intellect. The narrator hints that he succeeded later in life, when he’d outgrown these immature indulgences.

Meanwhile he wallows in the pleasure derived from dismissing values, moral and ethical constraints as irrelevant for someone as exquisitely sensitive as him.

Herman Bahr, writing about the literary-artistic scene in Vienna in 1891, declared the ‘bondage’ and ‘pain’ of reality had to be escaped, that ‘the supremacy of naturalism is over…its spell is broken’. He summed up classicism and its view of humanity as ‘reason and feeling’; romanticism was ‘passion and the senses’; out of these emerged modernism, which is nerves. Young Törless is a prototype of what Bahr called ‘nervous romanticism.’ Or is it nervous mysticism? When ‘nervousness’ becomes completely liberated, humans, especially artists, become ‘subordinate to the nerves, without regard for the rational and sensuous’, and then ‘the lost joy will return to art.’ Törless would surely endorse that strange view, which sounds a bit hysterical.

‘Nervioso’ in Spanish doesn’t really mean ‘nervous’ – it’s edgier than that. I presume it’s the same in German. Not so hysterical.

Herman Bahr, ‘The overcoming of naturalism’ HERE

Melissa at Bookbinder’s Daughter blog May 2019 HERE

Volker Schlöndorff directed a film of the novel in 1966.

DH Lawrence in Zennor – again. Guest post by Helen Boyles

Helen recently commented on my posts (from four years ago) about DH Lawrence’s stay in Cornwall during WWI. She gave permission for me to post her poem on the topic. First a short introduction by her about the provenance of the poem:

Introduction

I was inspired to write this poem after a visit to the little ancient Cornish settlement of Zennor which we reached after a long day’s walking along the mist-swathed Cornish Coast path. I had been keen to spend a night here after learning of D.H. Lawrence’s association with the place. I’d studied and long been interested in the writer and his keen emotional response to place in general and this in particular. When in Zennor, we also learnt more about Lawrence from the current publican of the Tinner’s Arms, where Lawrence had stayed for a while when he first came to the place to consider establishing a small writing community of friends there. That it didn’t work out was probably inevitable in a traditional working community during this sensitive period of the first World War with Lawrence’s strong anti-war sentiments and rather flamboyant German wife. I thought it would be fun to try and convey Lawrence’s initial idealism and eventual disappointment in his imagined thoughts and words.

Here’s the poem (WordPress insists on line spaces between lines – hope this doesn’t detract from the effect too much):

Lawrence in Zennor

Yes, this should suit us well, far from the fret and heave of human life,

a space of peace.

Such a fine, wild landscape – the finest I have seen in all my travellings.

A kind of paradise – I could be happy here.

The mind can breathe – we can settle to our work,

with like minds forge a new way.

Six rough stone-walled fields from my window

is the sea, I feel I hear its breathing out there

through the day, its hush and rush. It takes us out, away.

I feel the words and lines come crowding in, worlds

building from the passions of our lives and loves.

 

Yes, so I thought, thought I could escape smallness here

with these grand shapes, the jutting profile

of the Head, the stony tumble of the fields.

And surely there was space

for all of us, Katherine, Murray, Frieda, me,

to be – and grow, but no; the littleness, the fear

came creeping in to shrink and darken us.

Banal complaints: the place too large, too small,

the damp, the inconvenience,

the awkward shape and pace of things,

the surly silence of the working neighbourhood.

How they diminish us, betray our better selves.

 

And what we do to each other – the stupidity of that –

the grief. How we feed the innocent the lies of honour, duty,

serve them the myth of nationhood. What does that mean?

I see the stoic faces quietly accept this myth

of honour, duty, nationhood, turn from the land

to follow that hollow call.

I want to shout at them: Don’t listen to those lies!

But they regard me warily.

Old Celtic stock, the folk are quiet and plain with us,

are rooted in their own truth, in myth memory

that tunnels underneath the bright turf

where they delve within the roar of waves.

Some may be lost in that roar, the blindness it brings.

Well, they may see a light and read it as the enemy

or a signal to such, I’m told.

 

And Frieda moves to the sea’s pulse; sometimes calm and lazy,

sometimes dancing, sometimes turbulent.

We move to each others’ moods, the flux and turn

of moon drawn tides.

I have loved her boldness, reckless energy,

but here it spills to carelessness –Volklieder

in the lanes does not sit well with this community, not now,

she should see that. So now we’re trapped in gossip,

warped in the mirror of suspicious minds.

 

A brave community this could have been,

and this place carved from granite and the light,

it could have been a paradise.

In its sounding of the ancient ways it brought new possibility:

it brought a hope and we have wasted it.

I thank Helen for this fine response to DHL and his experience of West Penwith. There follow some links to my original posts here about his initial euphoria on moving to Zennor, and the ensuing disillusionment and exile. Helen captures very well in her poem this movement in DHL’s spirit from elation and hope to despondency:

  1. The Promised Land
  2. I feel fundamentally happy and free
  3. The magic fades
  4. Now I am glad and free
  5. ‘The sensuous Celtic type: DHL’s short story ‘Samson & Delilah’
  6. (Two years ago I posted THIS PIECE on the sale of the idyllic cottage in which he and Frieda had lived, and where he’d hoped to establish the utopian community ‘Rananim’ with Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry; they disappointed him by moving to Mylor, near Falmouth, in what he called the ‘softer’ part of the county, to escape the cottage they considered too basic and uncomfortable.)

 

Autumn days

The work project started in the late summer has kept me from posting for a while. I intended catching up today with recent reading, but first I wanted to share some autumn thoughts, images and colours. All the pictures were taken on walks over the last couple of days.

Red ivy leaves

I hadn’t realised how lovely ivy leaves can become in the autumn

The word ‘autumn’ is one of those strange spellings, with that silent ‘n’ that either delights or annoys, depending on your view of orthographical vagaries in the English language. Here’s what the OED online has to say about its etymology, which partly explains how it came about:

Etymology: < (i) Anglo-Norman and Middle French autompne, Middle French automne (French automne) season between summer and winter (1231 in Old French), middle age (1405).

Citations begin with:

?c1400  (▸c1380)     G. Chaucer tr. Boethius De Consol. Philos. (BL Add. 10340) (1868) iv. met. vi. l. 4142   Autumpne [L. autumnus] comeþ aȝeyne heuy of apples.

Pink hydrangea

A late-flowering hydrangea

So there also used to be a ‘p’ as well as an ‘n’ in there! Nothing to do with the usual culprits, those 18C “grammarians” who thought it was a good idea to insert a bit of Latin conformity into the totally different structures of English, hence ‘no split infinitives’, a ‘b’ in the middle of ‘debt’ (to align it spuriously with its Latin source, ‘debitum’), and so on.

I suppose the literary text we most associate with this season is the ode by Keats, with its famous image of personified Autumn:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
  Steady thy laden head across a brook…

I remember at an undergraduate lecture hearing Prof. Ricks using this as a marvellous example of using the movement of the reader’s eye and imagination over the line to its break and resumption on the next line as a sort of visual metaphor to enrich the verbal/pictorial image. This personification is one of a list of them in the second stanza: the young woman (= Autumn) steps over the brook (perhaps on stepping-stones?) and balances her burden of fruit on her head as she does so. The lines reenact the ‘steadying’ motion of her stepping over.

When I checked the poem I realised I’d forgotten that the image begins with ‘like a gleaner’. So it’s a simile: the image of an image.

Here’s another hydrangea, bronzed and burnished by the cool air of autumn so that it looks almost metallic:

Purple hydrangea

In some of my lockdown posts about rural ramblings I mentioned the good work done by our city’s ‘countryside ranger’. He’s created some lovely woodland walks locally, and these have become very popular with the community.

Some members of this community have started decorating the walks with artworks and ‘fairy houses’. These charming constructions by a local man called John Rowe can be seen on the Facebook group called ‘Fairy doors of Malabar and Coosebean’ (the names of local areas). They’re a huge hit with local children – and adults. I’ve mentioned them (and posted pictures of other artworks) here before.

Here to finish this post are some images of my walk through one of these woods yesterday, and one of a local artist’s pictures, aptly framed in rustic, salvaged wood. According to one of the ranger’s posts in this group, the print is one taken from a sketchbook by Jean McNaughton:

artwork mushrooms

Bird box

This nesting box high in a tree has an unusually large entrance: maybe for owls? Or very large bats??

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Woodland path

The sun was dappling through the leaves not yet fallen when I took this; half an hour later it poured with rain!

Virginia creeper red

This virginia creeper grows on a garden wall at the end of our road. This was taken this morning.

 

Bernard MacLaverty, Midwinter Break

Bernard MacLavery, Midwinter Break. Jonathan Cape, London, hardback. 2017

Another novel read in a day while I convalesced after recent medical treatment. It takes some getting into, with a rather bleak pair of central characters. The married couple, retired architect Gerald and teacher, Stella, are in the midwinter of their relationship. Will it survive their cathartic post-Christmas short break in Amsterdam, where the cracks in their marriage, and in their individual lives, widen, and the painful secrets in their past threaten to explode their outward calm?

MacLaverty W Break coverGerald is a drinker; Stella is searching for solace after an earlier terrible trauma. He’s either unaware of her pain, or has drunk himself into numbness to avoid confronting and dealing with it – and his own. She sees this in him, and is tired of watching him drink. She wonders if she still loves or needs him.

That’s about it as far as plot goes. It’s a slowly accreting, sympathetically and delicately observed portrait of two people clinging on to the wreckage of their relationship, damaged by the Troubles in N. Ireland from the 70s onward, where their Catholic faith marked them obtrusively in the conflict they deplored. Events in this violent past nearly destroyed them.

In deceptively plain prose, MacLaverty pieces together an impression of a marriage full of unspoken grief and deeply felt, barely suppressed emotion. It’s one of the most haunting accounts I’ve read of the ways people strive to communicate but often fail to connect – even when they’re desperate to do so.

He’s particularly adept at selecting and delineating the minutiae of their daily lives as they age and try to face their new, retired life without the stimuli of work or bringing up family – their only son has grown up and moved abroad with their much missed grandson (it’s fairly clear why).

The way the novel opens is typical of this narrative technique: Stella and Gerald are in their home in Scotland (they’d long since left Ireland), preparing for bed. He’s finished in the bathroom and leaves the shaving mirror at the magnifying face. Why are we given that detail? Was he being considerate, knowing she’d need the magnified side of the mirror to carry out her facial restoration regime? Or was he simply examining his own face, heedless of her own? MacLaverty leaves the options open.

This passage continues:

She licked the tip of her index finger and smoothed both of them [her eyebrows]. Then turned to her eyelids. She was sick of it all – the circles of cotton wool, the boiled and sterilised water in the saucer, the ointments, the waste bin full of cotton buds.

At first sight this is just a list of banal details – but MacLaverty is sharp-eyed enough to notice how Stella feels the need to try to hold back the ageing process, with particular emphasis on the eyes – the windows of the soul. More importantly, that final sentence reveals her simmering impatience. The symbolic waste-bin represents perhaps her life, and her life with Gerald. Yet the point isn’t laboured; on the contrary, it’s unobtrusive – just there, like Stella and her pain. And what exactly is the ‘all’ that she’s sick of: the attempts to hold back the effects on her face of ageing, or Gerald and her life with him – or life in general? MacLaverty delicately refrains from telling us, leaving us to figure out for ourselves what’s wrong here, what’s going on in these troubled lives.

Her bedtime routine is completed when she gets into her pyjamas quickly, because the room is cold: ‘She saw no point in paying good money to heat a room all day for a minute’s comfort last thing at night.’ This penny-pinching at the expense of her own comfort indicates her self-castigating, frugal nature, her inability to expand, indulge. The slow drip of such details through the narrative gradually, like an accumulating stalagmite, shows why she’s like that, so pinched, self-denying.

As she basks in bed, warmed by her only, limited indulgences – hot water bottle and electric blanket — we are privy to her thoughts: she loves this ritual hour of ‘separation at the end of every day’. Gerry (as she would call her husband; these are clearly her thoughts, relayed through free indirect discourse) ‘out of action, in another room…Having a nightcap, no doubt. Or two or three.’

Even in this rare moment of sensual abandonment in her solitary bed, she can’t help this frisson of judgemental scorn and bitterness. What’s so poignant is that the behaviour of each of them precipitates such reactions in the other; the ways they deal with their own personal demons drives the other one away, at the very points when they need each other most, like magnets of the same polarity.

It’s easy to dislike Stella and Gerald, but gradually he’s seen to be guided by his wife’s star; redemption flickers and fades before them. I found myself hoping they’d not let it extinguish.

Trelissick and Carrick Roads

View over Carrick Roads from Trelissick gardens

Mrs TD read this after me, and struggled with the first third or so of the novel, but told me she was glad she persevered to the end – it picked up considerably.

Just to finish, a picture taken yesterday during our first walk at this local National Trust property in six months. One of our favourite views. Had to book a slot and maintain hygiene/social distancing measures, but worth it. And the sun shone.

Barbara Pym’s letters, notebooks and diaries

A Very Private Eye: the diaries, letters and notebooks of Barbara Pym, edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym. Panther paperback, 1985. First published 1984

I posted recently about friends who live nearby and have a lovely secret garden; one lent me some books on my last visit there with Mrs TD. Last month I posted about two of these: the twenty years spent at St Hilary church, Cornwall by the genial and charming Fr Bernard Walke (link HERE), and The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (link HERE).

Barbara Pym A Very Private Eye coverIn the garden, presided over by the sphinx-like cats, we discussed the novels of Barbara Pym. My loan of Some Tame Gazelle (link to my post HERE) wasn’t entirely successful, but we all agreed we enjoyed her fiction. In return I was lent A Very Private Eye: the diaries, letters and notebooks of Barbara Pym, edited by Hazel Holt (a friend and long-time colleague of hers at the International African (anthropological) Institute, and BP’s younger sister, Hilary Pym.

It’s a highly entertaining, often very funny insight into the mind and thoughts of this novelist. It starts with her early life then Oxford, where she began her undergraduate  studies in 1932. She seems to have spent much of this university period in a spin of dizzy romances and social engagements, alternating with assiduous academic work. I admit I skimmed much of this.

Much more interesting are the later sections: her war years (she served as a Wren – the women’s royal naval service – with duties including postal censorship) in London and Naples, then her long career at the International African Institute, where she edited anthropological papers.

I was surprised by the number of times her heart was broken when love affairs ended badly. Less surprising was the originality, passion and grit she showed in her literary work – she began to write at the age of twenty-two.

After six fairly successful novels and minor celebrity as an author, she famously fell out of favour at the start of the swinging sixties. Publishers lost their nerve, and rejected everything she sent them, saying it wouldn’t sell. She was devastated.

A long, increasingly friendly and encouraging correspondence with Philip Larkin, who admired her work, boosted her confidence. Eventually they met in person and enjoyed some very Pym-esque teas together. In January 1977 the TLS published a list, chosen by eminent literary figures, of the most under-rated writers of the century. BP was the only living writer to be chosen by two contributors: Larkin and David Cecil – another long-time admirer of her novels. Because of this publicity, and the changing mood of the times, her fiction came into demand again.

She was rediscovered. She was delighted to find herself more famous and successful than she’d ever been. Especially when she discovered that her fiction was being taught in American universities.

It’s gratifying to see revealed so intimately in her letters, diaries and notebooks, the deep pleasure and spirited pride she felt in her final years when she finally received proper recognition of her literary merit, after those dismal years of disappointment and humiliation.

She lived from 1946 in affectionate harmony with her younger sister, Hilary, and some very dubious cats, at first in London, then in the countryside. They ended up in a village which she described in a letter as straight out of Some Tame Gazelle, published many years earlier. She was thrilled to find that village life hadn’t changed that much, even though London had.

The title of this anthology of her non-fiction reflects what a private person she was. It’s thanks to the judicious editing and selection of the two editors who knew her so well that we can dip into this charming book and enjoy seeing the vivacity, wit and humanity of this excellent woman from a slightly different perspective from the one gained from reading her novels.

Helford river shore

View of the shore from where we swam: those are our bags

I’ll append here some pictures taken on Saturday’s seven-mile walk around parts of Helford River and the fields above it. Our new walk app describes the route and places of note on the way. We stopped for a swim at the bottom of the hill, in the salty tidal river, in the refreshingly cool water. I thought the house martins had all migrated south, but there were still a few about that day.

Helford river from above

The river and open sea from further on in our walk.

Helford River

This is the view from that beach where our bags were, out over the tidal creek

 

 

The restorative powers of the sea

Life in Britain, as in the rest of the world, has been depressing and weird this year. After our first holiday break with family since Christmas – in a rented cottage in Devon in the hottest week of the year to date (I posted about it HERE)  – we returned to Cornwall and grey skies most days, and continued social restrictions to mitigate the worst effects of the virus.

A week or so ago Mrs TD said she was fed up with being cooped up, and said we should go for a swim again. In the ocean. I wasn’t too keen – the week before the sea was very cold – but went along with the scheme.

Portscatho bay looking west

Portscatho bay looking west

She was right, as she usually is. I should know that by now. We had a lovely walk on the coast of the Roseland peninsula, after a coffee at the Hidden Hut café on the clifftop overlooking the bay. The beach was much less busy than it had been during the high season. A couple had a large dog with a disturbingly deep bark – a Spanish mastiff/labrador cross, they told me when I asked. He looked disappointed as we set off to explore the next bay and beach.

Portscatho bay east view

Portscatho bay looking east

What a good decision. The early cloud lifted and was replaced by summery blue sky and bright sunshine. There was a beautiful beach round the next headland. There were too many rocks on the shoreline for comfortable swimming, so we walked on until we found a delightful little pool – a mini-cove – between two rocky outcrops. The water was wonderful: calm as a lake, and beautifully clear and cool – just enough to be bracing and rejuvenating.

Our swimming pool.

That’s our swimming pool, and those are our footsteps

The beach was deserted, apart from a couple who paused in their walk to perch on the rock overlooking our pool (like the reverse of the folk myth: cormorants turned into humans) and watch us with envy.

It’s probably the best swim we’d ever had. One of the best experiences, too. After the dismay and chaos of this distressing year, it reinvigorated us and restored our sense of harmony with nature, of human equilibrium. It was good, for example, to watch the amazing diving skill of those miniature cormorants, shags. Unfortunate name, but excellent fishers.

Crantock beach

Crantock beach, north Cornwall coast

Earlier this week we went to the north coast and one of our default beaches near Newquay. It’s a huge sandy bay with just one coffee truck on the beach during the summer – an old army truck, strangely. None of the frantic seaside kitsch of the more popular spots nearby. Our much-missed dog Bronte loved it there, too, and we scattered her ashes there after she died. We still still her white phantom, racing down the dunes and leaping ecstatically into the waves. She didn’t like swimming, though.

As always on the north coast the surf was pretty fierce – not really good for human or canine swimming. But it was perfect for diving over, into and under the crashing waves – exhilarating. The water was slightly warmer here, too. This day probably topped the previous swimming experience in our private cove.

Back this week to test results from the hospital – pretty good news, considering – and more depressing incompetence and bluster from our out-of-their depth, bragging but useless government.

Log tortoise

This driftwood log on the beach near our swimming cove looked like the head of a tortoise, I thought

I shan’t linger on that. I prefer to think of the clear sea water and the beauties and delights of this part of the southwest of England.

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend. Virago paperback, 2019. First published in the US 2018

This is a lovely novel.

I read it in a single day while recuperating from a medical procedure, so didn’t feel up to a demanding read. This is an easy read, but it’s not facile or trite: in fact it’s very profound, and very moving.

Sigrid Nunez The Friend coverThe unnamed narrator closely resembles the author: she’s a writer, university teacher of English and creative writing, and resident of New York City. When a former lover and lifelong friend unexpectedly commits suicide, she inherits his harlequin great Dane. Reluctantly, for she’s a cat person, and dogs aren’t allowed in her apartment building.

The central thread of the narrative is about the grief she and the gentle giant of a dog share for their lost friend. At first the dog is bereft and distant, barely tolerating her. Gradually they find themselves consoling and supporting each other – she’d say they fall in love.

That might not sound too compelling a summary, but believe me, there’s so much more in this novel. The narrator refracts her thoughts and experience through the lens of literature: Virginia Woolf and many other writers on writing, promiscuity (her late friend was a thrice-married womaniser, but charismatic and brilliant, so gets away with most of his dubious philandering), being a flâneur, and life itself. And all of those simultaneously.

Writing, for example, involves ‘self-doubt, shame, self-loathing’, and leads to embarrassment for the author. An epigraph quotes Natalia Ginzburg: ‘You cannot hope to console yourself for your grief by writing.’ This novel perhaps disproves that notion.

She often reflects on JR Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip (on which I posted HERE). She adopts an intimate, conversational voice with the reader, aware early on that we’ll be worrying that ‘something bad happens to the dog’. Of course it does: Danes don’t live long. But she spares us the worst, and ends on an idyllic note, spending a happy time at a Long Island beach house with the elderly, ailing dog.

It’s an unusual form of autofiction. She often reflects, metafictionally, on the nature of her narrative, and of ‘fiction as autobiography, autobiography as fiction.’ And she’s not averse to poking fun at this kind of solipsism. A late chapter shifts dimensions and posits an alternative narrative, closer perhaps to ‘reality’, and upsets the living character on whom she’s based the dead friend and dog owner. He thinks she’s been presumptuous in purloining his story and disguising it slightly as fiction.

Maybe he had it coming.

‘It is curious,’ she suggests on this topic, ‘how the act of writing  leads to confession. Not that it doesn’t also lead to lying your head off.’

I like that demotic element in her style. She can talk like this while citing authors like Proust, Christa Wolf or Rilke. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace features quite largely. She’s skilful and intelligent enough to make it all cohere and entertain.

This literary allusion never became intrusive or ostentatious. She’s a literature professor, after all. Another American woman writer her fragmentary narrative approach reminds me of is Renata Adler – one of the most interesting I’ve read in recent years (my post on Speedboat is HERE.)

 

Parties and peacocks

Elizabeth Day, The Party. Fourth Estate, London, 2018. First published 2017

Is it possible to enjoy a reasonably well put together novel about a group of singularly unpleasant characters? It should be, but there’s usually some decent soul to strike a balance, provide a moral counterpoint to reduce the nasty taste of the cads and villains.

Elizabeth Day, The Party: front coverElizabeth Day’s The Party has as its focal point a fortieth birthday celebration for one of the most egregiously selfish, cruelly patronising of the upper-class types who populate the narrative. Ben is well connected, handsome, privileged and arrogant, and our protagonist, Martin, from a much lower social class, admires him to the point of adulation. He’s clearly in love with him, and Ben knows and exploits it.

As in Nothing But Blue Sky, which I posted about recently HERE, Martin’s been emotionally distorted by his difficult childhood. As a consequence he’s become even more lacking in affect than MacMahon’s character, David. In fact he’s a borderline psychopath, given to crushing the skulls of small creatures.

If the reader feels inclined to feel some pity for him, this is thwarted by his equally heartless treatment of his doting wife, Lucy. She idolises Martin for all the wrong reasons, mistaking his diffidence for respectful gallantry, having lost her confidence in relationships after a trauma in her earlier life.

The Party also refers to the Conservatives, the political party in which perfidious Ben is destined to play a parliamentary role – he’s a good friend of the unctuous PM, the guest of honour at his birthday bash. The novel has been likened to Highsmith and Donna Tartt, but I find it more like Alan Hollingsworth’s The Line of Beauty – but without its panache and rounded characters.

The prose is functional to the point of blandness. The shifting chronology, with alternating sections narrated by Martin and Lucy, creates a certain amount of tension and suspense, but the big secrets and reveals are set up so obviously that the suspense soon dissipates, and I very nearly gave up halfway through.

PeacockI was much more interested in some recent rural walks. Peacocks have featured in several posts this summer; recently Mrs TD and I were delighted to see this chap grazing right in front of us on the grass verge of the country lane we were walking along. To my surprise he let me get right up to him: he looked at me with a mixture of interest and disdain. Call that plumage? he seemed to be thinking as he surveyed me.

Creek view Yesterday to the creek that has also featured here before. For once the tide was in, covering the mud, and it looked splendid in the sunshine that had finally struggled through the cloud after a week of autumnal squalls.

The martins and swallows have left for warmer climates. Schools and colleges are about to re-open, followed by universities. Let’s hope all goes well.Creek and boat

Potato field and creek