Only women grow up: Kay Boyle, My Next Bride

Kay Boyle, My Next Bride. Virago Modern Classics, 1986. First published in America, 1934

If ever I see the faces of Brancusi, or Duchamp, or Gertrude Stein, I shall look the other way because of the history of courage they made for you. “If you can’t live hard, die holy like a piece of cheese, Victoria.”

Kay Boyle My Next Bride cover

The cover of this handsome VMC paperback shows ‘Mrs Douglas Illingworth’ by Meredith Frampton

This cryptic thought and strange aphorism appears in parentheses early in Kay Boyle’s künstlerroman My Next Bride. It thus contrasts bracingly with the Modernist narrative account of the early scene in which nineteen-year-old, virginal Victoria John unpacks her few treasures in a decrepit, crumbling boarding house at which she’s just arrived in Neuilly, Paris.

It’s the early thirties, and Paris is the city of that Lost Generation of American expats like Victoria (and Kay Boyle). She’s an aspiring artist (who favours, significantly, portraits from the lives of the saints) whose much-loved woman friend, an older Australian vaudeville singer called Lacey, with whom she’d hoboed across the States and Canada, had recently committed suicide. Lacey had challenged and inspired her, ‘a stricken thin madonna’ who’d said to the ingénue Victoria, in addition to the startling words quoted above, that ‘life was an obligation in arrogance, talk an experiment in insult.’

What I’ve quoted so far indicates that Boyle’s narrative voice is typical of its period and her coterie: experimental, unconventional, fragmented and poetic. Perspectives shift abruptly, mid-paragraph, even mid-sentence: the Modernist verbal equivalent of the artistic developments favoured by the avant-garde of Montparnasse in which she moved. Dos Passos, Pound and Hemingway had been there – some of the few names Boyle doesn’t let drop. Archibald MacLeish is name-checked, DH Lawrence, Picasso. No wonder Victoria gravitated there to develop as an artist, to find herself as an artist and person.

It’s a thinly veiled autobiographical novel. Victoria, like Boyle, joins a commune run by a shady American proto-hippy named Sorrel. He’s clearly based on Isadora Duncan’s brother Raymond. A charlatan scoundrel, who preys upon lost souls like Victoria and lures them into his squalid community to exploit. She’s put to work as a salesgirl in his shop in fashionable central Paris; the stock is the hand-crafted tat churned out by his doting disciples. He meanwhile swans around in classical Greek robes and sandals, striking poses and extolling the virtues of the simple life, dance, art, vegetarianism, and free love. Entering this group, where washing up is rarely done and the food is vile, is like ‘taking the veil’, another member breathlessly tells Victoria, unaware of the hypocrisy of her despicable phoney guru, who pockets a wealthy American patroness’s cash at the end and takes off for the Riviera with his mistress. “They don’t know what they want,” he confides to wide-eyed Victoria at one point, gleefully.

Victoria is attracted to the charismatic Anthony Lister, who seems to be based on a combination of Harry Crosby, the wealthy, sexually promiscuous playboy who with his wife Caresse was part of the bohemian expat artistic scene in Paris, and Laurence Vail, modernist sculptor and writer who was became Boyle’s second husband in 1932. He’d previously been married to Peggy Guggenheim, the heiress, who appears in the novel as Fontana (also resembling Caresse C.), destined to become Victoria’s most true friend – if not her next bride.

He quickly singles out Victoria as his next bride, chatting her up with the most bizarre line in garbled stream-of-consciousness monologues, that read like an Imagist poet on opium (pretty much like Crosby, then). Here’s a sample from their first meeting:

“It’s the first time I’ve walked up this side of the street. I always take the other. I believe in embassies, and always in the emissary of the soul. The patterns on these walls take the sight right out of the eye like an operation. My name’s Anthony,” he said, his eyes escaping. “I believe in bone.”

Right. Not sure what escaping eyes look like, but this is impressive hokum.

After numerous late-night debauches with him Victoria comes to see his darker, troubled side. When she’d told him of the problematic issue of the poor (herself included), he replied:

Rich or poor, every one was stabbing every one else with hate, stabbing in envy and in terror. “It isn’t a great deal to ask, only that every one put down their weapons…I ask that people give up their brides. The whole universe on a honeymoon of horror, wedded to their daggers, stabbing their way from one betrayal to the next…”

Poor Anthony. He knows there’s more to life than partying, being ‘the eternal bridegroom’, despite his best efforts to prove otherwise.

Some of the best scenes in this uneven novel (brilliant at its best, which is most of the time; dire in places) involve the two starving, genteel Russian sisters living in the grim Neuilly boarding house. Aristocrats from before the Revolution, they’re reduced to applying to an agency for domestic staff where, in a scene of comic genius, they’re mistaken as employers in search of maids, when in fact they’re looking for work themselves, but can’t quite articulate this evidence of how low they’ve sunk.

Fontana’s dog is excellent, too:

The Russian dog came after them into the car and slouched down beside them, incredibly bored, incredibly clean, with his hair curled smooth as a caracal and his loose, tapering limbs bent under his pointed breast.

In later life Boyle became a fervent social activist, fingered by the McCarthyists for her left-wing tendencies. In this novel there are signs of this tendency, as in a stirring speech towards the end from Victoria to privileged but angst-ridden Anthony. She’s begun to grow up, to see through fakes like Sorrel, and to discern the self-indulgence of Anthony’s atrophied poeticisms:

Only women grow up, Victoria was thinking; men go on remembering the time when their families stood on guard about them, or the books on the table, or the silver, and there was no need for explanation. Haven’t you learned that once cut out of the family’s life you are a single thing given to yourself and other people, carved out separate to stand alone or not to stand at all?

Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado is a weaker, more frivolous version of My Next Bride‘s more ambitious, satisfying account of a young American woman’s painful growth into selfhood and discovery of love’s unexpected springs.

 

Angela Thirkell, Wild Strawberries

Angela Thirkell, Wild Strawberries. Virago Modern Classics, 2012. 19341

Europe was at a turning point in 1934, when this light romantic comedy was published. This was the year Hitler became Führer of Germany, having been made Chancellor the previous year. Mussolini had been increasing his grip as Il Duce in Italy from the 1920s. Britain was still bruised from the effects of WWI, and wary of political engagement with the rest of the continent – a condition it has recently found attractive again, when ‘foreigner’ means ‘not one of us’. We don’t seem to learn from the lessons of history.

Thirkell Wild Strawberries coverWild Strawberries is the second of Thirkell’s almost thirty ‘Barsetshire’ novels, set in a fictional province of England that’s loosely based on Trollope’s world. I read and posted about the first, High Rising, last October. She wrote for money, hence her prolific output. As I said about her novelist protagonist Laura in High Rising, she was unabashed in her role as running a production line of middle-brow, undemanding romantic comedies of dubious and, according to some accounts, uneven literary quality; they were very successful.

I read this one because I was due to undergo tests in hospital and anticipated long waits and delays. I needed something light and diverting. Thirkell is perfect for such situations.

I enjoyed the comedy. There are some very funny situations and jokes (the butler’s name is Gudgeon, which I find implausibly funny). Some of these involve charming, feral small children and their excessively doting mother – though her monomania became tiresome after a while.

Some of the characters produce some engaging humour, too. Lady Emily Leslie, daughter of an earl, is the eccentric matriarch of Rushwater House, the large country seat of her family. She is capable of producing chaos in the most orderly of households; her constant mislaying of her spectacles and other personal items resonated with me – I have a pair of reading glasses in every room to overcome this forgetful tendency.

Her husband is more problematic; he reminds me of the boorish xenophobe Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford’s Pursuit of Love and its sequels. We’re supposed, I think, to find his implacable antipathy to foreigners amusing. It isn’t.

Thirkell tends to produce characters with just one defining characteristic, like Lady Leslie’s meddlesome vagueness. This works for Dickens, who also produces more fully rounded characters to offset these caricatures. In Thirkell’s novel of 275 pages the effect is wearing. None of the characters has sufficient gravitas or depth to carry a plot.

And the plot is gossamer light. Will penniless Mary, a cousin by marriage (not a blood relative) of the eligible bachelor Leslies, succumb to the gigolo charms of handsome but feckless, selfish David, or for the more stolid decency of boring widower brother John? I thought it was pretty obvious from the outset what would happen, and didn’t really care either way.

I did find the depiction of ingenuous, inexperienced Mary’s infatuation with debonaire charmer David well done; the narrator makes no bones about his egotism and cruel flirtatiousness. Yet the more caddish and careless his treatment of her, the more she longs for him. Who hasn’t fallen for the wrong person at some point?

The novel works fairly well, as a whole, as an entertaining diversion (but see my conclusions below). I can’t agree with Alexander McCall Smith’s claim in the introduction that this is a different world from Wodehouse’s: these people have jobs, he says, and ‘they do not spend their time in an endless whirl of silliness.’ Really?

Take David, who’s so rich he doesn’t have to work. He goes for an audition with the BBC, and ruins his chances by having an attack of giggles. He doesn’t need the job, and is disdainful of this outcome – instead he launches a campaign in pursuit of the bluestocking young woman who’d have been his boss in that job. One of the high points of the narrative, for me, was when she told him, as his advances became tiresome, to get lost.

There’s a slight element of seriousness that adds a bit of substance to this frothy tale: the death of one of the Leslie sons as an officer in WWI still casts a shadow over the family, and the pain of his loss in the carnage of that war is still with them. ‘The War broke up the happy life of county England,’ the narrator tells us at one point. But this refers to the social whirl, the complacent luxury of the upper classes; Thirkell has no interest in wider issues – unless we count the dabbling among the younger generation of characters with French Royalism. And this could easily tip over into some further politically dodgy attitudes. Fortunately Thirkell loses interest in this plot line – as she does with all the others, and the novel fizzles out into a disappointing, predictable ending.

Ultimately the novel is marred for me, and I find I can’t recommend it, because of the casual xenophobia and racism. Smith, in that introduction, concedes some of the language ‘offends the modern ear’, but it ‘merely reflects the attitudes of the time.’ I see this excuse so often, and I find that I don’t agree that this condones these attitudes.

It did take my mind off the hospital appointments, so it served its purpose.

PS update/afterthought. I meant to mention, in relation to the rise of fascism at the time of this novel’s publication, that Thirkell includes a chilling moment in the narrative. Some of our main characters are at the railway station when a train from the city arrives and disgorges hordes of young people dressed in hiking clothes, out for a ramble in the country. As they pass our young toffs they give a fascist salute. Thirkell simply relates this and passes on, unperturbed – no comment, nothing. I found this very disturbing: the salute, and the lack of authorial comment.

Tears and immolation: Elizabeth Taylor, Blaming

Elizabeth Taylor, Blaming. Virago Modern Classics, 2007. 19761

Middle-aged Englishwoman Amy Henderson meets Martha, an American writer who seems to be about thirty, on a cruise. Disaster strikes when their ship is docked at Istanbul, and this eccentric, impulsive American whom she’d not really liked looks after her and takes her home.

Amy’s lack of affect, her inability to connect with others – instead she shows a catlike indifference, even spitefulness – or to reciprocate the kindness Martha had shown her when she needs it, brings about the situation where Amy’s self-recrimination sets in, too late to stave off further disaster. Hence the blame in the title. With blame come guilt and pain.

Elizabeth Taylor’s final novel, published posthumously, was completed while she knew she was dying of cancer. It’s not surprising that death, mortality and bereavement are central features in the narrative.

Taylor is as usual interested mostly in the behaviour of middle-class women like Amy, refined but emotionally stunted, finding herself in situations where emotional intelligence is required of her, and she is unable to summon it up. Instead she’s judgemental, aloof, indifferent and solitary. She looks up one of Martha’s novels in the library – a rare sign of curiosity in another person. She ‘skipped through it’:

And thought what a stifling little world it was, of a love affair gone wrong, of sleeping pills and contraceptives, tears, immolation.

This tells us a great deal about free-spirited, prodigal Martha, with her rather hippy-ish dress sense, brusque manners and frank American inquisitiveness about other people – qualities the exact opposite of this buttoned-up English ‘Memsahib’, as Martha’s lover Simon, her implausibly ‘quiet American’, sees Amy when he finally meets her.

It’s more revealing about Amy. Her dismissal of Martha’s fictional themes suggests she’s wary and scornful of such messy living, with its exposures, pain and evasions, and of such effusive openness, with which comes a vulnerability she deplores. The narrator’s astuteness consists in her withholding judgement or analysis: we’re simply shown the scene, and trusted to savour the ironies and implications.

Martha’s relationship with the rather bland, needy Simon is interesting, and reveals some of the contradictions in her. She says she’s drawn to quiet men like him, yet has a brash manner herself; she likens him to a cat. She appears to pity him rather than love him – she’s drawn to lonely people like him and Amy. “Like you, he can’t make friends,” she tells Amy. That’s Martha’s mission, it seems: to try to help people connect when they’re struggling to do so. It’s her way of making her own human connections in a world full of misconstrued motives and misinterpretations of the words and actions of others.

Taylor is sharp-eyed about these complexities and contradictions in character, these occlusions in social intercourse. Beneath the unaffected, confident manner, Martha is in her own way troubled and lonely. And that, as I’ve said before about other works of fiction by Elizabeth Taylor (novels and short stories: links at the end of this post), is one of her central themes: the loneliness of the middle-class, middle-aged woman.

In Amy’s case it’s largely self-induced. Martha takes her to task about it: ‘” You’re simply not interested in other people”’. Amy is so typically English, she thinks, when she observes Amy saying things like “Terribly good, don’t you think?”: the manner of talking with ‘all syllables articulate, the disposition quite detached.’ Taylor the observant novelist, observing this observer.

Secondary characters are also well drawn. Ernie, Martha’s camp ‘housekeeper’ (in earlier times he’d have been called a butler, a down-market, hypochondriac Jeeves), obsessed with his new false teeth and women wrestlers, making mysterious visits on his evenings off to a jazz club, of all places. He’s both too servile and too familiar, Simon thinks.

Amy’s son and daughter-in-law, Maggie, are brilliantly done: their selfishness and irritation with Amy are palpable in a scene which Jonathan Keates in his Introduction to this edition compares with a similar one in Sense and Sensibility. Maggie delivers the most devastatingly chilling line in the novel – but I won’t quote it here because it’s a bit of a spoiler. It reveals how Amy doesn’t do intimacy, inspiring little affection in those around her as a consequence. Martha’s attentiveness to Amy in extremity and afterwards is thus rendered more touching (though she too has her own not entirely selfless motives for having ‘intruded’, as Amy sees it, into her life).

Another of Taylor’s areas of genius is her depiction of children; Amy’s two granddaughters are one of the highlights of a novel that at times needed a little more brightness. The four-year-old is a monster, her elder sister, a prissy goody-two-shoes.

As with Jane Austen, much of the reading pleasure in an Elizabeth Taylor novel comes from the dialogue. Amy’s repressed Englishness is shown both in sentences we hear her utter, as Martha notes – but also in the narrative comments. Early on, during the cruise, for example, she has an exchange with Martha that’s represented as almost painfully clipped, evasive and elided. ‘Very taut this conversation’, our narrator deftly summarises at its end.

Given the circumstances in which this novel was written, it’s a remarkable achievement. Not Taylor’s finest, but still superior to much else being done at the time. The novel left me feeling a little bleak and bereft, despite the moments of light humour.

My previous Elizabeth Taylor posts:

The Complete Short Stories

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Angel

The Soul of Kindness

In a Summer Season

 

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

 

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.

 

 

Patricia Highsmith, A Suspension of Mercy

Patricia Highsmith, A Suspension of Mercy. VMC. First published 1965

I’m not usually keen on suspense thrillers, as I find they generally lack suspense and don’t thrill. A Suspension of Mercy did little to change my mind. I found it contrived and far-fetched.

The central character Sydney is an American thriller writer who fantasises about murdering his posh English wife Alicia, and gets a kick out of giving his neighbours and friends the impression that he’s indulged that fantasy, offering an implausible-sounding (but true) explanation that they’re having a trial separation – it’s difficult to see why Alicia put up with his abusive, selfish behaviour for as long as a year.

Highsmith Suspension coverIt’s set in rural Suffolk, and mirrors many key aspects of Highsmith’s own life at the time. But even the post-modern metafictional aspects failed to engage me: they too seemed self-indulgent. It seemed to me that PH was having far more fun writing this novel than I was in reading it. Like she’d set herself a challenge to write a murder mystery without a murder – an exercise in plotting. Her characters as a consequence have all the vitality of chess pieces.

Sydney’s slightly deranged flirting with danger in posing as a wife-killer, even though he was innocent, is portrayed with chilling detachment, and this is perhaps the most skilled part of the plotting and characterisation: the doubling and subversion of reliable narrative voice that are among PH’s trademarks work pretty well here.

What’s less successful is the highly unlikely actions of the married pair as their situation spirals out of control. People do die, one more or less of natural causes, though Sydney is again under suspicion, one who is murdered; but neither of the married pair behaves in a convincing manner. They behave in order to keep the plot ticking over, and cease to convince as well-rounded characters.

The secondary characters are also bloodless and serve to move the plot along or keep it tangled, little else – though I quite liked the treacherous turn Sydney’s writing partner Alex takes. People can be horrible like that.

This novel was disappointing. I thought the two others by PH that I’ve read and posted on – Carol and Edith’s Diary – were well written, tautly plotted and psychologically interesting and highly original. A Suspension of Mercy is inferior to them in every respect.

 

 

 

 

Vita Sackville-West, No Signposts in the Sea

Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), No Signposts in the Sea. VMC 1992; first published 1961

Vita Sackville-West gathered much of the material for this novella on some of the sea-cruises she took annually with her husband Harold Nicholson (they married in 1913) for the last six years of her life. The narrative consists of the journal entries of eminent political journalist Edmund Carr as he embarks on the first ocean cruise – and love – of his life.

He observes and records the foibles and relationships of his fellow travellers, from the bridge parties and factions and friendships that spring up on board, to his ventures onshore when the ship docks at exotic locations. In that sense it can be read partly as a travelogue, with vivid descriptions of the ports and islands they visit and pass by, the migrants, crew and social butterflies on board ship, and the ‘natives’ who are sometimes referred to (as are some other ethnic and social groups) in the offensive terms that were still sadly prevalent in people of the author’s class at the time.

VSW Signposts cover

The painting on the cover of my VMC edition is by my namesake, Sir John Lavery – don’t think we’re related, but both our families come originally from Ireland, so who knows?!

It’s clear from early on that Edmund has a terminal illness, and has left his newspaper to follow Laura, the woman with whom he’s falling deeply in love. The narrative relates the toxic effects of jealousy to which he’s subject, building with increasing tension to a foreseeable but still powerful conclusion. Along the way there are philosophical and poetical reflections on life (and mutability), death and love.

By allowing himself for the first time in his life to go with the flow of existence – he’s all at sea in every sense – because he knows his days are numbered, he discovers in himself depths of romantic sensitivity and an ambivalent attitude towards his often abrasive contacts with the mundane that represent the first stage of self-realisation and fulfilment.

The main cause of his jealousy concerning Laura is the handsome and suave Colonel Dalrymple. As the narrative is conveyed from the partial viewpoint of Edmund himself, we initially see this rival as charming and attractive, but as time goes on the Colonel’s attentiveness to Laura causes him great pain. Considering Edmund is fifty and Laura forty, the novella gives a reassuring indication for those of us who are no longer youthful that passion and the pangs of love and jealousy are not the sole province of the young.

Victoria Glendinning, who wrote the Introduction to this edition, finds Edmund’s working-class origins unconvincingly done. But I found this an important aspect of his self-delusion. He’s painfully aware that he isn’t one of the ‘well-bred’ cruising class like the Colonel, the quintessential English gentleman – or Laura. He can’t help but feel inadequate in their company, and by comparing himself unfavourably with them, heightens his sense of worthlessness. Otherwise his bitter jealousy would seem less plausible.

For example, Edmund records in his journal with a self-directed sneer that he’s ‘a man of the people’, a ‘rough terrier beside a greyhound’. Yet Laura often reveals to us that she admires his poetic nature and enjoys his company far beyond the level of a sympathetic fleeting on-board friendship. It’s the fate of the class-conscious jealous man to misinterpret the very narrative he’s in the process of writing.

Laura expresses some interestingly racy views on relationships and marriage that appear to reflect some of Vita’s and Harold’s complicated arrangements. She insists that in a marriage she would treasure her independence, sleeping in a separate bedroom and living an unsubmissive life.

Because of the fragmentary journal structure the narrative flows rapidly and rarely flags. There are some memorable and luminous scenes, like the electric storm at sea or the green flash that Edmund and Laura look out for most evenings as the sun dips beyond the ocean’s horizon (this feature reminded me of Eric Rohmer’s 1986 film ‘The Green Ray’ – ‘Le Rayon vert’). I found the depiction of the almost adolescent but scorching angst and torment of Edmund compensated for the slightly clunky plotting. At only 156 pages it’s a pleasant and entertaining way to pass a grey day of hail and rain in a Cornish November.

Other Vita Sackville-West novels discussed at Tredynas Days are:

All Passion Spent (1931)

The Edwardians (1930)

There’s a good review of Signposts at HeavenAli’s blog

 

Patricia Highsmith, Edith’s Diary

Patricia Highsmith: Edith’s Diary. VMC 2015. First published 1977

Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thrillers probe the twisted minds and lives of people who adopt an oblique approach to what most would call reality. (Carol, which I posted about last summer, is different.) In Edith’s Diary we are back in the world of disquieting mental states in a deceptively tranquil domestic setting in the nineteen sixties and seventies.

Highsmith Edith's Diary coverBrett and Edith move from the city to a sleepy Pennsylvania suburb to enable their son Cliffie to grow up in a healthier environment. Big mistake. It’s not the city that’s unhealthy. Aged eight he tries to smother the family cat. At ten he jumps off a local bridge into the river below – twice – and is fortunate to be rescued.

Sullen, contemptuous and uncommunicative, he clearly has mental health problems way beyond the usual adolescent truculence. As the novel develops Cliffie emerges as something of a psychopath, cruel and unsympathetic to those around him, and with murderous tendencies. As a boy he watches the collapse of his parents’ marriage with detached curiosity verging on pleasure: if he’s ‘not normal’, what are they?

But it’s Edith who’s at the heart of this novel. When Brett leaves her for a younger model, her own difficulties with reality worsen. The occasional entries in her eponymous diary become increasingly out of touch with the heartbreaking and often dangerous realities of her disintegrating life – and mind. One of her earliest entries sets the tone for the rest:

‘Isn’t it safer, even wiser, to believe that life has no meaning at all?’

She’d felt better after getting that down on paper. Such an attitude wasn’t phony armor, she thought, it was a fact that life had no meaning. One simply went on and on, worked on, and did one’s best.

 

Edith’s existential passivity and nullity is at odds with her apparently committed views on politics and social mores. Contemplating her husband’s unmarried elderly hypochondriac uncle, who she ends up caring for alone when Brett abandons her, she angrily wonders why he’d never married:

Edith couldn’t imagine a man thirty-five or so not getting married, if he could afford to, because it was so convenient to have a wife, he wouldn’t be here now, for instance.

Highsmith astutely handles Edith’s incongruous mixed-up thoughts in order to expose the hypocrisies and inequalities in a complacent patriarchal society which Edith lacks the strength or clarity of mind to confront head-on. It’s apparent that the newspaper she co-edits is received with either indifference or contempt in her community, and it becomes as trivial and banal in its editorials as its target audience.

Edith in her diary fabricates an alternative existence in which Cliffie goes to Princeton (he’d flunked all his exams or cheated and been exposed), and becomes a global executive in an elite engineering firm.

As the indolent young man in the nightmare real world becomes a violent alcoholic parasite, ever more antisocial and unhinged, she cranks up the perfection of this imagined world of her diary: she marries him to a trophy Wasp, gives him two adorable children and they all dote on her.

These fantasies serve to heighten the sense of foreboding and horror of what’s really going on under her roof: ‘it was pleasant and reassuring to imagine’, the narrator confides at one point as Edith invents a happy wedding for misfit loner Cliffie.

As the gap between ugly reality and her own delusions widens, Edith becomes as deranged as her obese, monstrous son. Brett had been a leftist journalist, while Edith produced a local free paper in which she could write fervently liberal anti-Vietnam War polemics – but her mental collapse is accompanied by an alarming swing to authoritarian conservatism which alienates her few friends. She loses her job as a result of her increasingly erratic behaviour.

This is an unsettling, meticulously constructed exposure of a dysfunctional family – all of whom are damaged, deluded and self-deceiving in their various ways. They could be seen as a metaphor for the disintegration of fragile liberal American values at the time. I wonder what Highsmith would have made of the present post-truth world.

It’s not possible to say it’s an enjoyable novel, given its uncomfortably disturbing subject matter, explored with unflinching forensic attention by Highsmith. But it’s gripping in a car-crash sort of way.

 

 

 

Angela Thirkell: High Rising

Angela Thirkell, High Rising. VMC 2013; first published 1933

Thirkell H Rising cover

The VMC cover demonstrates the retro charm of this frothy confection of a novel

Angela Thirkell was quite someone: a granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Burne-Jones and goddaughter of JM Barrie, her father was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and she was related to Kipling and British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Like her enterprising protagonist Laura in her second novel High Rising, she took to writing potboiler-middlebrow ‘rather good bad books’ about which she has ‘no illusions’ as to their literary merit, to make a living when left alone in the world:

She had considered the question carefully, and decided that, next to racing and murder, and sport, the great reading public of England (female section) likes to read about clothes.

There’s a character in this novel who reluctantly shows Laura’s publisher her novel; Laura is relieved to find she’s one of those ‘rotten’ writers who knew they couldn’t write’ – a typically self-deprecating reference that surely applies to Thirkell herself.

So Laura churns out, as often as Thirkell did, frothy romances set in the world of fashion, ‘opium’ as a friend and fan of Laura’s describes the experience of reading them. Laura is slightly embarrassed to add to the pile of what would now be derisively known as chick-lit, but happy to cash the royalties cheques. She’s level-headed, a realist who’s learned to exploit her own limited talent and the even more limited tastes of her target market. (Elizabeth Taylor does a much more witty, interesting and sophisticated job on this in Angel.)

Unlike Laura, whose husband had died (though she says he was an expensive nuisance when alive), Thirkell left her second husband; her first she divorced on the grounds of adultery. Men tend refreshingly to be portrayed as the weaker sex in this novel, and it’s the spirited, sensible women like Laura who win through – ‘excellent’ women, to borrow Barbara Pym’s phrase – a writer to whom Thirkell is often compared, but who is a far sharper, more accomplished artist.

I won’t summarise the rather predictable but amusing plot – links to other bloggers’ posts at the end supply outlines. I’ll just single out the few points that amused me in this undemanding, often saccharine entertainment. It’s ideal for a rainy day or sickbed – a guilty escapist pleasure that was a bit too much for Karen of BookerTalk, who likened it to an indigestible ‘meringue’. She craved something edgier and saltier. I know what she means, but I (mostly) enjoyed this novel. I didn’t care for the casual anti-Semitism; it’s not sufficient to put it down to the opinions of the period. Look what was going on in Germany in 1933.

Thirkell set these comedies in Trollope’s Barsetshire – a feature that appealed to me, as my recent Barsetshire posts indicate. She’s not in his league, of course, but wouldn’t claim to be.

Laura’s young son Tony divides critical opinion: to some he’s a charming, precocious chatterbox; I’m with those who found him irritating, with his obsession with trains and the patrician manners his private school encourages. But he reminded me of my grandson when he was that age. Now he’s scared of trains. Existential pre-teen angst has replaced innocent pleasure. Tony will probably become Transport Minister in a Tory government and close unprofitable country lines like the one passing through High Rising.

I preferred Laura’s cheerful maternal doting on him mixed with prevalent hatred. On several occasions she could happily kill him, our narrator tells us. She contemplates writing a book: ‘Why I Hate My Children’. Reminds me of the recent bestseller ‘Why Mummy Drinks’.

There’s a weird section in Ch. 9 just like passages in Cold Comfort Farm (published the year before, in 1932): Laura sees a handsome, swarthy rider in Hyde Park:

Rather DH Lawrence-ish, thought Laura vaguely. The sort of person who would turn into a half-caste Indian, full of black, primal secret something-or-other, and subjugate his mate.

Her reverie is ended when this hunky vision speaks in an accent so ‘healthily Cockney that the lure of the he-man vanished.’ The pastiche is almost as good as Stella Gibbons’.

There’s a well done car crash (no one is hurt) when Laura’s publisher gets drunk at a New Year party (as publishers do) and drives her home. The aftermath is a good example of Thirkell making an entertaining meal of unlikely material. The car ends on its roof, with Adrian jammed under the steering wheel, and Laura on top of him. She’s livid.

‘[The door]’s stuck, of course,’ she said coldly. ‘Do we spend the night here? It may be respectable, in view of the limited opportunities, but it’s not my idea of comfort.

Adrian manages to get out:

‘Come on, Laura,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you a hand.’

‘How can I get out of a small window above my head, you soft gobbin,’ said Laura angrily. ‘I’ll never take you to a party again.’

The dressing-down she gives him when they get to her house is classic.

Farcical-theatrical set pieces like this just about redeem a lively but uneven, limited comic novel. They could easily feature in those screwball-women films of the period starring actors like Claudette Colbert.

See Jacqui’s post

Ali’s at HeavenAli

Jane’s blogging as FleurInHerWorld (now Beyond Eden Rock)

Karen’s at Booker Talk

Three books

Walking to and from the shop today (to buy soft food for Mrs TD, who has toothache and is feeling wretched; her dentist recommends root canal work – poor thing) I listened on my phone to the BBC Radio 4 podcast of their weekly book programme, ‘A Good Read’. It’s one of several literary podcasts I subscribe to (I did a piece on this and related topics a while back HERE).

This was last week’s show (link HERE). Guests were the journalist Grace Dent and comedy writer Sian Harries. All three books they chose (presenter Harriet Gilbert gets to speak about her choice each week – she has good taste) gave rise to some interesting discussion:

Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart (2015)

Max Porter: Grief is the Thing With Feathers (2015)

Barbara Pym: Excellent Women (1952)

My Virago Modern Classics copy

My Virago Modern Classics copy

I posted on the fabulous Pym’s book a couple of years ago – she’s sharp and funny. In discussing the book Dent, Harries and Harriet Gilbert speculate whether men would like this sort of novel; I can answer that – she’s one of my favourite authors. My posts the seven novels of hers that I’ve read so far can be found HERE.

I hadn’t heard of (or, more accurately, realised I’d heard of) Lissa Evans or Crooked Heart, her fourth novel for adults (she’s also written children’s books). From the account given of it in the podcast it’s definitely going on the To Read list.

According to Wikipedia she qualified as a doctor in 1983, then had a career in stand-up comedy, was a TV and radio producer and director (including the excellent Father Ted). Crooked Heart and Their Finest Hour and a Half (published 2009) were longlisted for literary prizes. The latter was filmed as Their Finest a year or two ago, and I found it ok as entertainment; maybe the novel is more substantial.

Just looked her up on Amazon and see that her novel Old Baggage, that came out in the UK this summer, is one I’ve seen in the bookshops and passed over.

I’d resisted the Max Porter partly because of the hype about it when it was published, and also because of its subject: grief and bereavement. It just didn’t appeal. Now that I’ve listened to this thoughtful trio of readers discussing it, and having read this review by Kirsty Gunn in the Guardian when it was published, I think I’ll add this title to the list, too.

I’d be pleased to hear from anyone who’s read either the Evans or the Porter novels: are they as good as this podcast suggested? As for the Pym: well, I recommend her work wholeheartedly: beneath the slight exterior (timid or anxious spinsters, vicars and jumble sales, caddish chaps, etc.) her novels are pulsing with intelligence and wit.

I’d started working on a post about Angela Thirkell, but that will have to be completed another day.