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.