Becoming insane: Patricia Highsmith, Little Tales of Misogyny

Patricia Highsmith, Little Tales of Misogyny. Virago Modern Classics, 2015.

There are 17 very short stories printed in a large font in this slim volume of just 135 pages, so they’re probably best described as flash fiction.

They were first published in German in Switzerland in 1975 with a title that translates as “Little Tales for Misogynists”, as Nicholas Lezard points out in his Guardian article about them. Rather than serving to teach misogynists a lesson, he suggests, ‘it’s something you might give a misogynist on his birthday’. Yes, “his”.

They do provide venomous but curiously affectless little accounts of some pretty horrible women. Their titles indicate that Highsmith takes mischievous aim at some stereotypical female figures in the patriarchy: The Coquette, The Female Novelist, The Dancer, The Invalid, The Middle-Class Housewife, and so on. Most of them behave despicably, and most come to a seemingly deserved or inevitable sticky end.

Highsmith Misogyny coverThe sheer nastiness of the protagonists and the calmly detached tone of the narrative voice that depicts their atrocities before despatching them make for some uncomfortable reading. What was Highsmith playing at? Ok, she’s famous for the twisted, psychopathic behaviour of some of her best-known characters in her full-length fiction, such as Ripley. Here she seems to be up to something different from those novels that induced Graham Greene to describe her as ‘the poet of apprehension’.

The stories read like fairy-tales or parables, with more in common with Kafka’s than Aesop’s, or Angela Carter’s with the feminism and metaphysics redacted. In the first story, for example, a young man ‘asked a father for his daughter’s hand, and received it in a box – her left hand.’ It’s the insouciant irrelevance of that last phrase that causes such a tingle down the spine.

The young man not surprisingly goes mad, or ‘became insane’ as the narrator blithely puts it. The young woman visits him in the asylum ‘like a dutiful wife’. By now, it’s apparent that every time there’s one of those deceptively anodyne statements in the story, it’s going to be followed by something vicious – and it is here:

And like most wives, she had nothing to say. But she smiled prettily. His job provided a small pension now, which she was getting. Her stump was concealed in a muff.

The women in these stories behave like monstrous caricatures of the casually misogynistic male views and attitudes prevalent in the popular culture of the fifties and sixties – the ultra Don Drapers. Their men drool or despair and often, like the young man with the girl’s hand, ‘become insane’.

One way of reading the stories is to see that the women are in fact simply conforming to that male stereotype that’s been constructed for them. In Oona, the Jolly Cavewoman, for example, she’s described like a Playboy bunny:

She was round, round-bellied, round-shouldered, round-hipped, and always smiling, always jolly. That was why men liked her.

Really? What did men like about her – the curves, or the jolly smiles? Either way they’re shallow and stupid. Oona drives them crazy – literally. So whose fault is that?

Some of the women characters, however, are plain malicious. The Coquette, for example, lost her virginity when she was just ten years old. She ‘told her mother that she was raped.’ She had thus ‘sent a thirty-year-old man to prison.’ Yet she’d effectively seduced him, delighting in presenting herself as sexually provocative and alluring, and she takes pleasure in ruining his life – and his wife and daughter’s. When she pits two suitors who bore her against each other, they collude and kill her ‘with various blows about the head.’ There’s that weird tone again: it’s the detachment of a police report stripped bare of any moral stance.

The world, then, is a mean and nasty place, according to these stories. Men objectify women, who are restricted to roles as submissive, decorative housewives or sex objects. If  women strive for agency or fulfilment, like The Female Novelist, The Artist or The Dancer, they are either deluded or just randomly murdered. Feminists are as morally anaesthetised and unhinged as the Middle-Class Housewife; when they meet, there’s mayhem and death.

Are these just pitch-black comedies? There’s humour there for sure, as I hope the extracts I’ve given indicate – but it’s dark as night. Take the title alone of The Fully-Licensed Whore, or, The Wife. Shades there perhaps of Sue Bridewell’s objection to marriage in Jude the Obscure as being ‘licensed to be loved on the premises.’

Or there’s The Breeder: a woman who gives birth to 17 children in fewer years. Her husband’s friends make the expression ‘she gets pregnant every time he looks at her’ horribly literal. He has little option but to become insane. When the wife visits him in yet another asylum he suggests she stand on her head to reverse the process that seemed to instigate her fecundity. The story ends with another typically barbed banality in response to that:

“He’s mad,” Elaine said hopelessly to the intern, and calmly turned away.

It’s that blandly calm detachment and acceptance of the horrific that’s so chilling, conveyed by those two perfectly selected adverbs. Warped humour that’s not exactly funny, but insidious: it’s assumed that Elaine is quite right to have no hope.

On first reading I felt pleased that I didn’t inhabit this bizarre and unsettling distortion or moral inversion of the real world. Looking again at these narratives I’m inclined to think that maybe it’s not such a distortion. Like parables and some fairy-tales, ‘the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.’ In striving to rid ourselves of our daily cares we simply exacerbate them, just as attempts to interpret these tales become parables themselves.

‘Misogynists’ is probably a misnomer, then. They’re really subversive Little Tales of Misanthropy to cheer us all up.

I’ve posted on these other Highsmith titles:

Carol

Edith’s Diary

A Suspension of Mercy

 

Extracted by torment: Elizabeth von Arnim, Vera

Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941), Vera. Hesperus Press, 2015; first published 1921

John Middleton Murry, husband of Elizabeth von Arnim’s cousin Katherine Mansfield, consoled the author after Vera had attracted some bad reviews, by saying the reviewers had failed to understand a tragi-comedy that read like Wuthering Heights as written by Jane Austen. This dark, disturbing novel also presages a later novel about a woman who’d died in mysterious circumstances before the events in the novel take place: Rebecca.

My Hesperus Press paperback edition of Elizabeth von Arnim, VeraVera is about a naïve young woman who ‘was engulfed’ by the apparent grief-stricken affection of a man named Everard Wemyss. His wife Vera had recently died – in a way that increasingly suggests his pathological egotism and what we now call coercive control had led to her suicide. He comes upon young Lucy, grieving for her father who’d just died at their Cornwall holiday cottage, and she is smitten by what seems his tender empathy and sensitive soul. He takes advantage of her damaged emotional state and vulnerability.

She rapidly discovers that she’s made a terrible mistake. His domineering control of her and his household once they’re married is so obsessive as to become a nightmare for poor Lucy. Despite the best efforts of her caring Aunt Dot, Wemyss is able to dismiss all who try to mitigate his insistence on complete servitude in his young wife.

Like Torvald in A Doll’s House, he’s created a gilded cage for his little bird; like Nora’s patronising husband he repeatedly infantilises Lucy, calling her his ‘little girl’, his ‘baby’, while scolding her and criticising her for showing the least sign of spirit or rebellion. It becomes increasingly difficult to read such stuff – but it holds the attention like a slowly unfolding car-crash.

It’s not just his gaslighting, chauvinistic narcissism and cruel oppression that’s so disturbing. He seems to derive pleasure from her immature appearance and demeanour:

He adored her bobbed hair that gave her the appearance of a child or a very young boy…all he asked in a woman was devotion.

This is the spine-chilling moment, narrated from his sickening point of view, when he looks at Lucy entering the registry office where they are to be married and she is to become his latest trophy:

If only she would take off her hat, thought Wemyss, bursting with pride, so that the registrar could see how young she looked with her short hair – why perhaps the old boy might think she was too young to be married and start asking searching questions! What fun that would be.

There are moments of humour, as when Aunt Dot contemplates Wemyss’s tepid style of courting Lucy at her aunt’s house in London, and the only word she can find to describe his mode of ‘love-making’ (in the old fashioned sense) is ‘vegetarian’. He’s dismissive of Lucy’s family’s bohemian, spontaneous, cultivated and artistic ways: he’s a cold-blooded philistine and a prig. He’s a veritable Casaubon to Lucy’s Dorothea – but far more sinister.

It seems von Arnim wrote Vera in response to her own disastrous second marriage to Frank, second Earl Russell (brother of philosopher Bertrand). Her first husband was a domineering, typically Prussian Junker aristocrat, Graf von Arnim-Schlagentin. Among the tutors they employed for their children were EM Forster and Hugh Walpole: she moved in exalted circles, but showed less discernment in her choice of lovers – including, perhaps, the three years (1910-13) she spent as a mistress of HG Wells.

Rebecca West was understandably impressed by this novel; there’s a deeply felt awkwardness and growing sense of menacing claustrophobia, being stifled and threatened by this monstrous husband that Lucy experiences. Elizabeth von Arnim wrote to her daughter about Vera:

I’ll never write anything so good again. I daresay more popular…but not so really good. It was extracted from me by torment, so that I do not want to write so well again – not at such a price.

 

 

 

Laurence Leduc-Primeau, In the End…

Laurence Leduc-Primeau, In the End They Told Them All to Get Lost, translated by Natalia Hero, is published by QC Fiction of Québec this month – my thanks to them for this ARC.

It’s not their strongest title in what’s been so far an excellent series of prose fiction works translated from the French. Here’s a link to those I’ve posted on here so far.

My favourite to date is Eric Dupont’s Giller Prize shortlisted epic Songs for the Cold of Heart, which does what all fine fiction does: creates its own world and characters out of recognisable features and makes them new. This new title is a typically unconventional choice for the publishers: it’s essentially a long stream of fragments of the thoughts and impressions of the narrator, a young Canadian woman called Chloé who has ended up in a Spanish-speaking South American country, and is trying to make sense of her new, alien surroundings.

Leduc-Primeau, In the End cover‘My God, it’s humid’, she thinks early on. ‘How can you stand it?’ What marks out the narrative from the run of the mill is the originality of the narrative perspective: Chloé is here addressing her only friend – a stain on the wall she’s named Betty.

She complains about the endless noise, the ‘people who use their windows as ashtrays.’ The din gets inside her skull:

No wonder they say this town is the therapy capital of the world.

Everyone’s crazy here. That’s why I came.

Her housemates are a feckless lot. There’s a lot of debauchery and decadence, very little in the way of plot.

What sustains the reader’s interest is that fey, vulnerable voice of the narrator’s. She’s lonely, desperate for human connection, prepared to settle for exploitative sex if necessary. She doesn’t even speak the local language at first, but things improve when she becomes more fluent. She even gets a job as a theatre receptionist.

Still she finds the world around her difficult to interpret. It’s full of significance that almost always eludes her. She struggles to integrate her life and her heart.

As an account of a young woman’s attempt to coalesce with the world she inhabits it’s a daring, raw and engaging narrative. Its fragmentary nature is an apt reflection of her experience and sensibility.

The translator has done a fine job in rendering the rangy, demotic voice of this narrator: the prose never drags its heels. She does well to leave the frequent Spanish expressions in their original: this heightens the sense of Chloé’s exclusion from the language and the lives of others. Her growth is indicated by her starting to meditate on the semantics and structures of that Spanish language.

Thanks again to QC Fiction for making available to the anglophone world these works that deserve wider dissemination – every one in the series that I’ve read so far has been original and fresh.

Available April 15.

 

Venice, Tintoretto, and not a St Mary of Egypt

It’s the feast day (in most western calendars) of St Mary of Egypt, the penitent sinner about whom I’ve written here a few times, since she was the subject of my postgrad thesis.

I returned yesterday from a few days’ break with Mrs TD (it was her birthday) in Venice. I was surprised by how beautiful La Serenissima is. So many films, books and so on had made me feel like I knew what to expect. The reality took my breath away.

More perhaps on that trip next time. For now, a quick reminder that penitent Mary was, according to the original legend, so ashamed of her formally promiscuous life that she entered the Jordan desert and lived there in penitent solitude for 47 years. Her story was disseminated, according to the legend, by the monk Zosimas, who encountered her near the end of her life, and to whom she related the details of her extraordinary ascetic life.

I’d known that one of the relatively few painted representations of her in the early modern era was by the Venetian artist Tintoretto, aka Robusti (1518-94). Born Jacopo Comin, he acquired the first nickname because his father was a dyer (‘tintore’) – i.e. he’s ‘son of a dyer’. He won the commission from 1565 to produce the wall and ceiling paintings of the charitable foundation of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, eventually producing some 60 huge works. The interior of the building is so gloomy he adopted a technique that’s difficult to admire when seen in reproductions, but which enables the images to spring to life when seen in the half-light – the highlights seem to glow from within the artwork itself.

According to Vasari he won the gig in an underhand way. He and four other prominent local artists were invited to submit sketches for their projected designs. Our chap simply jumped the gun and painted the work in situ, gifting it to the foundation’s titular saint (patron of plague victims – a big deal in swampy Venice); their statutes forbade them from declining donations – so he carried on initially unpaid, and then, having started, was paid to finish. His competitors were furious.

Tintoretto's first portrait of a woman saint in the desert, reading and meditating

The man serving in the Scuola shop kindly gave me this postcard of the first portrait discussed here, after we’d discussed the identity of the figures in both pictures

In the Sala Terrena (ground floor hall), two female figures are depicted on facing walls. On the left wall a small female figure is depicted, glowing with that inner light I mentioned, a nimbus or halo around her head partly producing that glow. She leans on her left elbow, propping an open book, which she is reading, on her lap with her right. It’s a forest scene, wild and uninhabited. From medieval times the west considered ‘silva’ or forest the equivalent of eastern ‘desert’: both were devoid of human presence, and therefore intimidating and alien, hostile and fearful.

My photo of the tiny card doesn’t do the original justice: it must be three metres high.

The gnarled, twisted roots of the tree under which she reads and meditates highlight the serenity and concentration of the saintly figure: she’s oblivious of the wildness of her surroundings.

Tintoretto, Virgin or Mary of Egypt meditating

Virgin Mary or Mary of Egypt meditating, by Tintoretto

In the right-hand corner is the partner portrait. Here the seated woman has her back almost turned to the viewer. She too is sitting reading, though her gaze seems to have momentarily lifted from the book she holds in her lap, perhaps to ponder on the words she reads. There’s a stream beside her, and some buildings in the middle and further distance – maybe not quite the desert one might expect, but still a wild, inhospitable landscape.

Here’s the difficulty. According to the sources I consulted many years ago when doing my research, this second image was described as depicting Maria Egiziaca – Mary of Egypt. The Jacopo Tintoretto website today does the same. Even the leaflet the Scuola provided (in English) when I bought my entrance tickets lists these two paintings as of, respectively, Sts Mary Magdalene and Egyptian Mary.

But the same leaflet elsewhere gives a different story: both depict, in this alternative version, the Virgin Mary meditating, or else Mary Magdalene and St Elizabeth. The Scuola’s own website repeats this confusing inconsistency.

When I looked unsuccessfully for a postcard of the painting in the Scuola shop, the charming young man serving was dismissive: of course both pictures represented the Virgin. I pressed my point about the Egiziaca; no, he was adamant – it was proved, he said. The Virgin.

Cowed and crushed, I was about to slink away, when he called me back. He looked in his stock drawers by the counter, and found the postcard of the first image I’ve posted here: the alleged Magdalene. He didn’t have the not-Mary of Egypt. He gave it to me as a gift: must have seen how crushed I was.

Their website’s home page even reproduces the two images, and points out the ones currently on display are reproductions; Sky Arte HD has sponsored the restoration of these pictures: ‘The Reading Virgin’ and ‘The Virgin in Meditation’. After an exhibition in Venice in honour of the fifth centenary of the artist’s birth, the originals will be exhibited in the National Gallery in Washington.

I have to admit, there are none of the usual attributes of Egyptian Mary in this second portrait. She’s usually depicted holding the three round loaves that she bought to take with her into the desert, and with long, flowing hair – hence the similarity to the Magdalene in iconography – as I’ve said in previous posts, the two penitents are often only distinguishable by their distinctive attributes. Here she wears a sort of headscarf, holding a book, not loaves.

I’d like to think my Mary is, nevertheless, smouldering (and meditating) in the Hall of the Scuola Grande of San Rocco in central Venice.

 

Ernest Hemingway, Across the River and into the Trees

Ernest Hemingway, Across the River and into the Trees. Penguin, 1966; first published 1950

Hemingway scholar Mark Cirino published a sporadically helpful ‘Glossary and Commentary’ to this novel (Kent State University, 2016); in his Introduction he provides a useful summary (I edit slightly):

[The novel] is the story of Richard Cantwell, a dying fifty-year-old American colonel stationed in Trieste, who spends his weekend leave in Venice in order to hunt ducks; enjoy the city that he loves; spend time with his war buddies; and wine, dine and romance an eighteen-year-old contessa named Renata, the love of his life. Cantwell is a veteran of the Italian front in World War I, having defended the Veneto in 1918, and also World War II, having fought with the 4th Infantry Division in Normandy, the rat race through France, the Hürtgen Forest, and the Battle of the Bulge. Much to his bitterness, Cantwell has been scapegoated and “stars had been removed”; he was demoted from brigadier general to colonel for following “other people’s orders” and obeying the feckless, unrealistic expectations of the masters of war, the office-bound, ‘no-fight’ generals that killed many good Americans. Cantwell takes enormous pride in his generalship, and despite the four or five years that have passed since his demotion, he is haunted by those mistakes and those events, even though the novel does not explicitly dramatize those past moments.

Hemingway ARIT cover

My battered old paperback is ex-library stock, with badly faded cover. That’s a dead duck on the left.

Instead what we get for a sizeable chunk of the narrative is Cantwell’s meandering wartime reminiscences to his youthful lover as they lie in bed in his opulent hotel, the Gritti Palace – which still exists. The novel is riddled with allusions to and quotations from the Western Canon, from Dante to Eliot. It’s difficult not to find Hemingway’s intertextual tendencies, and the locations in which he places his action, a little like showing off.

The grizzled colonel also happens to be an expert on Renaissance Italian artists and Venetian history and architecture. He notices the palazzo once occupied by Byron (‘well loved in this town’, he muses; ‘You have to be a tough boy in this town to be loved’. He clearly places himself in this category. ‘They never cared anything for Robert Browning, nor Mrs Robert Browning, nor for their dog’. Best joke in the book – though there aren’t many).

The novel is in part an unconvincing reworking of the Purgatorio (and Death in Venice). For Renata (catalyst for his being ‘re-born’?), lying in bed with the cranky colonel, encourages him to ‘purge [his] bitterness’ – those haunting memories, that disabling guilt. She’s his lover and his confessor, ‘not an inquisitor’, his analyst and daughter – there’s a running “joke” (difficult to find amusing) that he’s her father; he’s old enough almost to be her grandfather. His dismissal of Othello as ‘garrulous’ is a bit rich, given his own loquacity. He never stops talking. “Do I bore you?” he repeatedly asks Renata as his war ‘confession’ starts to resemble in its prolixity the battle sections of War and Peace. Except his account is much fuller of self-pity.

When he’s not talking to Renata or his chums in the hotel bar – and being bitchy about a figure resembling Sinclair Lewis, or ex-wives and girlfriends who bear a striking resemblance to Hemingway’s own – Cantwell is boozing with fawning cronies in Harry’s Bar. We seem to be expected to be impressed by his sexual successes, his fluency in most of the major European languages, and the narrative is often bizarre in register to reflect its being a rendition of the Italian idiom he speaks. Our narrator takes for granted that readers will believe that this expat American bar is enviably chic and an indication of Cantwell’s classy assimilation into the Venetian social scene.

There’s a bizarrely bad sex scene in a gondola (and some off-colour male gaze description of Cantwell’s beautiful teenage lover), and more duck-shooting narrative than anyone could desire. Cantwell heroically sees off potential street muggers or assailants – twice. He, like Byron, is such a tough boy. Certainly heterosexual. Despite that odd gondola sex. And the bevy of male admirers he surrounds himself with. I often find with Hemingway – and of course others have, too – that he protests just a little too much how macho he is (for his narrators are usually flimsily disguised avatars of himself).

Apparently this novel was mauled by most of the critics when it came out. It had been much anticipated: ten years since For Whom the Bell Tolls was a success, his previous novel. It was to be his last. Despite Cirino’s spirited defence, it’s a flawed and excessively mannered exercise in egotism. True, there are some of Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’ stylistic successes, but for the most part I found it pretty unpleasant.

The love-talk and sex-talk between Cantwell and Renata reads uncomfortably like the fantasies of an ageing roué – though it seems Hemingway did have an affair of sorts with a young contessa in Venice after the war, so maybe I’m being unfair about his hero’s Casanova complex.

But the character of Cantwell fails to engage as he seems intended to: instead of a broken-hearted, dying romantic hero, he comes across as a swaggering, disgruntled windbag, wallowing in his own sense of superiority in a world that’s too corrupt to value his valiant independence and integrity.

I’ve posted on Hemingway’s story ‘Cat in the Rain’, and some longer works by or featuring him, here

 

 

 

 

 

 

William Trevor, Felicia’s Journey

William Trevor (1928-2016), Felicia’s Journey. Viking, 1964

Last autumn I posted about William Trevor’s 1965 novel The Boarding House. Thirty years later Felicia’s Journey also takes as its central theme the preying upon lonely and desolate souls by sinister, duplicitous monsters with secrets in the murky basements of their souls. In the earlier novel, however, Trevor’s predators are motivated mostly by mediocre, secular avarice and envy; here he ramps up the psychomachy – mortal, not venial sinfulness.

William Trevor, Felicia's Journey: coverFelicia is an innocent (but not entirely naïve) young woman from a sheltered, conservative small town in Ireland, made pregnant by a predatory chancer named Johnny who abandons her with a transparently fictitious account of his leaving for a job in a factory in the industrial English midlands. She sets out on a hapless quest to find her errant lover – who she only half believes is a decent man. Her journey slowly reveals itself, largely without her fully realising it, to be a struggle for her very survival.

She falls into the path of Mr Hilditch, an obese catering manager at another anonymous midland factory. We know from his first offer to help this ingenuous waif, adrift in the heartless wastelands of post-Thatcher England, that he is not motivated by kindness.

The present-tense, third-person narrative draws us inexorably into the fiendishness of Hilditch’s plan: he cunningly restrains himself from showing his hand too soon, knowing when to back off and leave fragile, needy Felicia to flounder in a heedless world, and to turn in her desperation to his apparent beneficence.

What makes the novel almost unbearable to read is the tension and dread that build as Felicia falls more inescapably into his clutches as he circles round her faltering, impaired waif’s downward progress.

Signed title page of Felicia's Journey

I bought my hardback first edition in a craft sale in Penwith, Cornwall. It’s signed by the author – which clinched the sale for me!

Trevor is too subtle a writer and too astute and precise a psychologist to reveal too soon Hilditch’s capacity for duplicity and evil. One desperately wants to cry out a warning to Felicia as she reluctantly enters deeper into his lair and her danger becomes more apparent. The narrator gives us access, dimly but increasingly clearly delineated, to the cruelty that he’s been capable of the past, and is meticulously preparing for again. Felicia, whose name is so ironically inappropriate for her sad, unfortunate life, is suspicious but friendless, and desperately unprotected.

Trevor’s other player in this struggle for a floundering soul is the unlikely figure of Miss Calligary, a member of a bizarre Christian evangelical group who doorstep homeowners to try to ‘gather’ them to the Lord, promising a paradisal new life for ‘one who dies’. Hilditch writes them off as ‘nutters’. It’s a typical Trevor feat, to manage grim, sardonic humour in a plot that begins with such gothic premises. For these evangelists appear to long for death, albeit symbolically, in order to be reborn; Mr Hilditch offers the real thing, with no spiritual intent at all – his menacing mission arises out of his own damaged psychopathy. (The narrative gradually reveals, through flashbacks in his memory, the probable traumatic causes for his affectless depravity – even he has a certain redeeming pain).

With narrative deftness, Trevor causes Miss Calligary’s mission inadvertently to intrude upon Hilditch’s, with devastating consequences.

As in Trevor’s other fiction, his sympathy is with the lost and marginalised, those deemed by society – and maybe themselves – to be superfluous (homeless people feature with increasing significance in this novel), those who render themselves attractive to life’s predators by their human frailty and a profound but unfulfilled need for love that disables their defence mechanisms. Somehow they usually stumble into redemption, or their world reveals itself capable of a grim, oblique kind of grace.

A lesser writer would have failed to create such nuanced characters who could have been portrayed as simply monsters and victims. Trevor imbues them with complexities and unexpected depths of humanity that take this novel into heights (and depths) undreamt of by the anonymous authors of the medieval allegories.

 

 

 

Elaine Dundy, The Old Man and Me

Last summer I posted on Elaine Dundy’s 1958 novelistic debut, The Dud Avocado – I found it frothy but funny, with a silly plot but some great jokes, and an engaging ingénue of a first-person narrator.

Elaine Dundy, The Old Man and Me cover

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics edition, a reissue that first appeared in 2005.

 The Old Man and Me fell flat in comparison. Mostly, for me, because it’s too close in form and content to Avocado: an frivolous, immature and free-spirited young expat woman (London this time, not Paris), not long out of college, crashes through a series of disastrous escapades involving louche, selfish men, catty, bored women, with a fair smattering of marijuana, booze, sex and jazz.

The plot is just as silly and trivial, based on assumed identity, mutual passion weirdly mixed with murderous vengefulness. The narrator-protagonist is implausibly (and, it turns out, falsely) named Honey Flood. Like Sally Jay, Honey’s name suits her gushing, demotic narrative flow.

Elaine Dundy’s introduction, written some forty years after the novel’s first publication, sets out her intentions. She wanted to provide an anti-heroine counterpart to the Angry Young Men so fashionable in late fifties English literature. Their bile was directed at ‘everything phony, pompous, priggish, prudish and pretentious’ (she must have run out of synonyms beginning with P). She wanted her female equivalent to be as exhilaratingly angry – a tricky task at the time when women were ‘depicted as passive and put upon’.

She realised ‘Bad Girls are more interesting’, so she made Honey hate everything about the English: ‘Soho, Mayfair, the West End and country houses.’ She’s opinionated, operates ‘on a short fuse’, and has a dastardly plan – ‘to kill the Englishman [the Old Man of the title is overweight, ugly and in his fifties] because he has the money.’

This is the England of 1962, before the invention of the Beatles and sex, as Larkin famously lamented — pre-Swinging London. The scars of WW2 are still apparent – physically and psychologically. Honey of course has no interest in this.

To her credit, Elaine Dundy has Honey’s English target, the Old Man named C.D. McKee, as vitriolic and intolerant about America as she is about England. But these jokes wear thin after a while.

There are just too many scenes in seedy clubs or jazz dens full of socialites and bores all lined up tamely for our Anglophobic narrator to tear to pieces. Trouble is, she’s no better herself. She somehow lacks the charm of Sally Jay – or maybe I was just immune second time round to this kind of humour.

There are some fine set pieces and sentences, which just about make the book worth persevering with. By Chapter 2 I was seriously considering giving up on it, then was jolted back into life by this lovely dash of nastiness about the pseudo-posh, ultra-pretentious London restaurant, the Truite Bleu.

The chapter opens with Honey’s unimpressed take on the ‘battered neon trout sign’ hanging outside, impressing her only with its sense of ‘frank senility’. Inside all is shabby and squalid. The staff are brilliantly evoked, like rude, elderly trout themselves – ‘you had to admire that kind of professional slackness,’ Honey sourly observes as the coat-check guy drops her coat with disdainful carelessness on the floor.

The description of the interior is priceless: it’s hideous, stuffy and smelly.Then there are the waiters. They

looked as if they’d staggered out of an old dark hole. They creaked and wobbled and limped and trembled under their loads, their turkey-gobbler necks rising pink from their stiff wing collars.

Their rudeness and incompetence goes unnoticed by the English diners, who look (to Honey) unaccountably contented:

Their genuinely old-fashioned bad service that was being meted out impartially was instantly recognizable as the real thing: a subtle sophisticated Old World incompetence we Americans can never hope to emulate, the best our rustic efforts can produce being a superficial smart-alec surliness not to be spoken of in the same breath as this lofty disdain which was both thoughtful and thorough…These waiters were hand-picked for pleurisy, deafness, and a variety of speech defects. They were flushed of skin, gnarled of hand. The dishes that jumped on to the floor from their palsied hands were never referred to again, as it were, but just lay there for the rest of the evening to be ground under foot by passers-by.

There’s a great line at the equally dire country house Honey is invited to with her would-be seducee, the Old Man. He tells her of a woman he needs to avoid there: she’s a notorious gold-digger, who married a wealthy Italian nobleman who ‘treated her vilely’, ran through his money and ‘had the appalling taste to die practically penniless.’ He goes on:

“Anyone can buy nobility”, she said to me soon after, “but who can buy money?”

And that’s about it. The two stand-out funny bits.

There’s a fuller account of plot and a less jaundiced reading of the novel at HeavenAli’s blog from Dec. 2018; she found it ‘wickedly funny’. Like Ali, I found my copy of the VMC paperback in a charity shop. It looked unread.

 

 

Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart

Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart (Black Swan paperback. First published 2014)

After a rather slow start this novel becomes a highly enjoyable, touching comedy-drama. Mrs TD, who normally finds my taste in fiction too depressing, also liked it.

I first heard about it on the Radio 4 book programme, A Good Read – I posted on this with a bit of background on the author here.

What’s so heartwarming about the novel, as the contributors to the programme said, was the developing relationship between the mismatched central characters: scrawny ten-year-old orphan Noel, a vulnerable and lonely evacuee from Blitz-torn London (this is early WWII), and Vera Sedge, 36, who takes him into her scruffy home in St Albans, some twenty miles north of the metropolis, only because of the allowances he’ll generate from the state. At first she has no interest in him as a person, and even less intention of passing on to him the rations she’ll claim on his behalf.

Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart coverInstead she indulges and dotes on her no-good, overweight sponger son, Donald, who has scams of his own going on, while tolerating her dotty, aged mother-in-law – both of these housemates are a burden to her, contributing nothing financially. Much of her time is spent, when not devising hare-brained and illegal schemes to raise funds, evading the rent collector. She’s always broke and in debt – so Noel is for her an economic godsend.

He is a nerdy, reclusive child, made even more introspective by the recent death of his surrogate mother, the ex-suffragette Mattie, an eccentric, educated and seemingly quite wealthy middle-class woman who finally succumbed to the dementia from which she’d been increasingly suffering – a tragic Prologue shows the terrible disintegration of this formidably intelligent, independent woman. She’d raised Noel in her rambling Hampstead home as if he were another adult and radical free-thinker. As a result his naturally precocity has matured him well beyond his years – but it takes Vee a long time to recognise this.

When he first arrives she can’t make him out at all, but slowly starts to perceive his deeper qualities, as here when he’s unexpectedly revealed his extensive vocabulary (including some impressively adult slang) – Mattie used to pay him a penny a synonym for random words she selected from the thesaurus:

Vee shook her head. She was beginning to relish Noel’s oddness; it was like talking to someone who’d been raised on the moon.

Like Donald’s, her own illegal, ill-conceived money-making schemes fail – everyone around her, it seems, is a spiv, gangster or thief. The evocation of this seedy side of wartime Britain is entertainingly and colourfully done. Then Noel teams up with her and this odd couple, from such different worlds, starts to thrive – he tweaks Vee’s scams using his superior insight, intellect and research skills. Vee is shrewd enough to let him.

The plot moves along at a lively pace, with plenty of unexpected twists and developments that arise as much out of the characters and their relationships as from the wartime events and exigencies.

Lissa Evans’ background in TV drama serves her well in this respect: Noel and Vee in particular come across as warm-blooded, three-dimensional human beings, flawed but destined to find a kind of redemption and fulfilment in each other, but there are some vividly drawn secondary characters, too.

Unscrupulous Vee, for all her superficially worldly cunning, comes to realise she has far more to learn about humanity, morality and the social system with all its inequities (there’s some deeply moving and sympathetic stuff about the suffragette struggle) than the gifted, unprepossessing, ill-mannered and damaged little boy she’s ostensibly caring for. Their need for each other, meanwhile, deepens into something closer to love than either of them had known previously, and which neither could have foreseen.

 

 

 

George Gissing, The Odd Women

George Gissing’s novel The Odd Women, published in 1893, evinces an ambivalent and sometimes distinctly odd attitude to the hot topic of the time: the ‘woman question’, and more particularly that of female emancipation from the cloying paternalism of late Victorian society. On the one hand he takes seriously the desperate economic plight of women of the lower classes who, if they don’t inherit enough to live on, are condemned to a life of ‘barrenness and bitterness’. In this novel such women are represented by the three Madden sisters, who almost starve as low-skilled teachers, companions or governesses, or else work in slave-like conditions for little pay in a London shop.

If they fail to make a ‘good marriage’ – that key theme in so much Victorian fiction – there is little prospect of their ever living much above the bread line. The youngest sister, Monica, escapes into a loveless marriage with a much older wealthy man (ominously named Widdowson), who takes the Ruskinian view of women (domesticity, motherhood, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually weak and stunted) and becomes violently jealous of any contact she has with other people.

This plot intertwines with dramatic consequences on the other in the narrative.

My two editions: Oxford World's Classics on the left, and Penguin

My two editions: Oxford World’s Classics on the left, and Penguin

This involves the titular ‘odd’ women – Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn – so called because they are among the half million women who are unmarried – ‘no making a pair with them’, explains Miss Nunn:

“The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I, naturally – being one of them myself – take another view. I look upon them as a great reserve.”

She and Miss Barfoot have set up a kind of training academy for young unmarried women to ‘make [them] hard-hearted’ as Miss Nunn puts it – hence that curious military metaphor. This takes the form of clerical-secretarial work – so still not exactly intellectually or spiritually rewarding, but less stultifying than the kind of low-paid drudgery noted earlier. When young Monica protests at this brutal formula, saying that ‘married women are not idle’, Miss Nunn retorts contemptuously:

“Not all of them. Some cook and rock cradles.”

She has become a radical, militant feminist, fiercely opposed in principle to marriage as a desirable goal for women. Gissing doesn’t portray her in a flattering light – she’s unsympathetic to a young protégée named Bella who leaves the academy to live with a married man; when she repents and asks to come back to them, Rhoda is adamantly opposed: she’ll set a bad example to the others. Once girls like Bella have ‘fallen in love’ – an expression she considers sentimental claptrap – they’re irredeemable. Her hard-heartedness doesn’t waver when the poor girl later kills herself – to the horror of her softer friend, Miss Barfoot.

When Miss Nunn (the names aren’t particularly subtle in this novel) is first introduced aged 15, visiting the Madden sisters in Clevedon, Somerset, she’s described thus:

Tall, thin, eager-looking, but with a promise of bodily vigour…[full of] nervous restlessness, and in her manner of speaking, childish at times in the hustling of inconsequent thoughts, yet striving to imitate the talk of her seniors. She had a good head, in both senses of the phrase; might or might not develop a certain beauty, but would assuredly put forth the fruits of intellect.

A budding bluestocking, then. She’s said to treat the younger girls ‘condescendingly’, favouring ‘intellectual talk’ (how unwomanly!), and speaking of gaining an education in order to earn her own living, speaking with ‘frankness peculiar to her, indicative of pride.’

Gissing’s hostile attitude towards her is clear from the start: she has only a ‘certain beauty’ to look forward to. Career aspirations in a person like her indicate not strength of character but ‘pride’.

This unflattering portrait is vitiated when the narrator goes on to tell us that she’s ‘fallen in love with’ a local widower called Smithson, 35 and with a consumptive daughter. Remember how sardonically (and hypocritically) she later dismissed that sentiment when told of the fate of Bella.

Young Rhoda is impressed by Smithson’s ‘aggressively radical’ views and parrots them proudly, such as the belief that women should be allowed to sit in Parliament. Dr Madden – father of the sisters – dismisses such views as unfortunate signs of the influence of her ‘objectionable friend’.

Rhoda Nunn next appears a few chapters and several years later, in the scene mentioned above, as Monica Madden pays her a call for the first time since that Clevedon scene, and Rhoda quizzes her about the hideous conditions in which she has to work in a London shop. Although she sympathises, she disapproves of her having succumbed to social pressure, rather than making a stand and precipitating reform:

“I wish it were harder [she says, when Monica had said how hard it was for a girl to find work]. I wish girls fell down and died of hunger in the streets, instead of creeping to their garrets and the hospitals. I should like to see their dead bodies collected together in some open place, for the crowd to stare at.”…Tolerance was not one of the virtues expressed in her physiognomy.

Her apparently unrequited love for the radical Smithson when she was younger has hardened her. Gissing is often considered a supporter of women’s rights, and it’s true that he does show sympathy with this cause in this novel. But it’s a highly ambivalent support. Miss Nunn is shown here and in the rest of the narrative as intolerant, little short of a fanatic.

She has little sympathy with the lowest classes (a trait Gissing tended to share). She tells a lady philanthropist that she has no interest in working for the reform of girls from ‘the lower classes’. These ‘uneducated people’ and ‘servant girls’ are beyond redemption in her view – they’re literally incomprehensible.

Where Gissing problematizes his position on feminism is in his portrayal of the potential love interest for Rhoda. Her unflagging commitment to asceticism and celibacy and her scorn for love (“a sickening sameness of vulgarity” she dismisses it as to Mary Barfoot), the ‘sexual instinct’ and marriage are tested by the profligate, idle Edmund Barfoot, Mary’s playboy cousin. Although he admires Rhoda’s strength of character and intellect, he ultimately wants to subjugate her, and is excited by the prospect of ‘taming’ this shrew. His thoughtless rejection of a working-class girl who he’d made pregnant – because in his view she deserved her fate, having thrown herself at him – reveals his amoral selfishness. Generally (like Gissing) he finds women ‘barbarous’. His tepid support for his cousin’s cause is largely because he feels educating women will benefit men.

So where ultimately does Gissing stand in this novel of shifting, oscillating sympathies? He seems to favour a sort of ‘soft’ feminism of the more ‘human’, less ‘fervid’ kind shown by Mary Barfoot – that stops short of fanaticism. “Your zeal is eating you up,” she says accusingly to Rhoda when they fall out over Bella. “Don’t enrage yourself.”

Yet Gissing portrays several kinds of masculine supremacy over women as reprehensible. Meanwhile he deprecates the ‘evils of celibacy’, and describes several marriages as disastrous for the husbands because of the stupidity of the wives. There’s much debate and discussion of what is connoted by the terms ‘womanly’ and ‘manly’, and some tilts in the direction of free love as an alternative to the social trap of conventional marriage.

And a rousing speech to her trainees by Mary Barfoot on the theme of Woman as an Invader (of the male sphere).

It’s not the role of the novelist to answer the difficult questions posed in novels that dramatise these complex issues. That Gissing poses them in such interesting – sometimes infuriating – ways is much to his credit. That Rhoda emerges from her encounters with Edmund a better and wiser woman is perhaps the main message.

Combinational delight: Nabokov, Pale Fire

I’ve tried to write this post several times. How to even begin to discuss a text as dense and as teasing, as multifaceted and astonishing, as Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, first published in the US in 1962.

Scholars have been poring over this chess puzzle of a text since it was published; I’ll put some links at the end for those who’d like a more profound and challenging account. Much of what’s been published, and I’ve just scratched the surface of a daunting amount of scholarly interpretation and comment, involves exactly who on earth is the ‘only begetter’ of this…novel.

I hesitate to use that word because Pale Fire refuses to conform to most definitions of novel, from Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary: ‘A small tale, generally of love’ – when the novel was still closer to what tended to be called later Romance – to the OED online:

..A long fictional prose narrative, usually filling one or more volumes and typically representing character and action with some degree of realism and complexity; a book containing such a narrative….

After a Foreword by an American university scholar called Charles Kinbote, in which he explains that his neighbour and alleged ‘very dear friend’, the poet John Shade, was killed on July 21, 1959, just one line short of completing his magnum opus, a 999-line poem in rhyming couplets (he calls them ‘heroic’, but they are too ‘open’ in structure to fit this term, beloved of the Augustans; and Shade shows a heavy debt to Pope in the poem, as Kinbote does in his commentary). It was completed, Kinbote claims, in the last 20 days of Shade’s life.

Already my problem in trying to give an idea of this Russian doll of a novel appears: how to describe it coherently, when it defies coherence itself.

Nabokov Pale Fire cover

My Penguin paperback edition

The poem itself follows the Foreword. Its four cantos consist mostly of autobiographical details about Shade, his wife Sybil, and their daughter Hazel, who apparently killed herself at a young age, after experiencing ‘psychokinetic manifestations’ and some kind of mental collapse. There follows a long section in which he questions the notions of existence and ‘le grand néant’.

The largest portion of the text consists of Kinbote’s supposed ‘commentary’ on the poem. He’s stolen the MS (record cards, like the ones Nabokov himself composed on) of the poem and hidden himself away in an obscure American hotel to edit it. It rapidly becomes apparent that this is no ordinary scholarly exegesis or approach – despite his disingenuous claim that these notes ‘will certainly satisfy the most voracious reader’.

Kinbote reveals himself to be increasingly deranged and pompous. If there is a narrative, it’s in this slow self-revelation: he deludes himself that Shade had become an intimate friend, and that he, Kinbote, had told him in the months before he died that he was actually the exiled King Charles the Beloved of his native northern country, Zembla – he’d been arrested by the Shadows, who resemble the secret police of the Soviet regime that Zembla closely resembles. Kinbote insists, however, that its resemblance to any such place is illusory; it’s very name, he explains unconvincingly, means ‘semblance’ (his claim that his name is Zemblan for ‘regicide’ is equally duplicitous). He and his country are shape-shifters. He even uses the word ‘versipel’, which can mean ‘werewolf’ – a creature of dual nature. The commentary lingers on such wordplay, puns, and relishes its own obscure vocabulary and elegantly sinuous but ostentatious prose style.

Kinbote boasts that Shade was intrigued by his stories of his royal exploits in Zembla, and isn’t daunted by the complete absence of any reference to Zemblan material in the poem; instead he sets about a ludicrous, often hilariously outlandish hermeneutically distorted set of pseudo-scholarly notes in which he interprets extracts from the poem as a coded version of his own Zemblan story.

Either that or he just digresses into long rambling reminiscences, full of non sequiturs and dead ends, of his own putative life as King, including his bizarre escape from captivity and arrival in the US. Or riffs on waxwings, cicadas and butterflies, in the register of TS Eliot (sometimes echoing Conan Doyle), Pope, Shakespeare (the poem and novel’s title may come from Timon of Athens, but Kinbote dodges accuracy by claiming not to have any books with him to verify his literary claims). He’s almost pathologically hostile to his fellow scholars, who find him ‘disagreeable’ and ‘insane’ (with reason!), and who he denounces as frauds and fools who envy his intimacy with the great poet and his superior intellect; only he perceives the truth.

To try to give any fuller a picture would require a post almost as long as the novel.

The poem famously begins with one of nature’s ‘pranks’:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the window pane…

The bird had died by flying into a reflection of the world in the poet’s window-glass. The text is full of such ludic language (‘shadow’/Shade; ‘pane’/pain; strictly speaking the bird has ‘slain’ itself unwittingly – the suicide theme is established obliquely at the outset), doublings, deceptions, mirrors and false notions – like Kinbote’s deluded gloss on the poem.

Instead of being Boswell to Shade’s Johnson (the Epigraph is taken from Boswell’s Life of the great man; but who is supposed to have inserted the Epigraph?!), Kinbote reveals himself to be a slightly modified, super-vain version of a Shandean (ie interpreter of Sterne’s vast comic shaggy-dog story), calling himself a ‘Shadean’.

All the reader can do is try to make sense of things, knowing that with Kinbote as guide, claiming as he obfuscates that he’s ‘clearing things up’ authoritatively, we’re unlikely to succeed. That’s where I went wrong at first; once I’d relaxed into glorious failure, the novel took off and took me where it liked.

It was exhilarating and not a little scary. It’s about authors’ lack of…authority. A postmodern labyrinth of paratexts or hypertextual cross-references and metafictional asides, word games, parody, and looping paradoxes, offering impossible solutions to imaginary questions, prolix and dazzlingly allusive. Even the foreword advises how to read the text (preferably using two juxtaposed copies) – in a non-linear, reflexive manner similar to the way today we read e-texts full of hyperlinks. As Shade concludes, near the end of the poem, he understands his existence, or part of it,

…through my art,

In terms of combinational delight.

And as Kinbote teasingly boasts at one point in his faux commentary: ‘for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.’

It’s cerebral and very funny.

As I was about to start this post I came across this by Anthony at his brilliant blog, Times Flow Stemmed: thesis 20 (of 33) published today to mark his blog’s tenth anniversary:

20: Difficulty in fiction is normally pleasurable

Very apt for a reader of Pale Fire. See Frank Kermode on St Mark’s gospel in The Genesis of Secrecy, and Jesus’ disturbingly opaque explanation of why he spoke in parables.

Here are those links to some of the academic studies of the novel:

Brian Boyd on his theory that Kinbote is really another scholar named in passing in the novel, Botkin:

Zembla website has many more such links.