Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita. Translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny (Everyman’s Library, 1992)

I thought I’d show some solidarity with besieged, invaded Ukraine by reading this novel by Kiev-born Bulgakov (1891-1940). He began work on it in 1928, and worked on various drafts until just before his death. It was first published in censored form in Russia 1966-67 and in smuggled-out versions in Paris and Frankfurt over the next couple of years. The first complete Russian edition appeared in 1973. It was dangerous and futile to try to publish anything under Stalin’s murderous regime that showed even the slightest hint of anti-Soviet thinking. As a large part of this novel pokes gleeful fun at the corrupt ways of Muscovites in that era, its fate was always going to be troubled.

Bulgakov Master and Margarita cover It’s a coruscating novel teeming with surreal incident and characters in multiple storylines. At its heart is a passionate love story between the two in the title. Margarita, who doesn’t appear in person until Book 2, ch. 19, is unhappily married when she meets and falls in love with the unnamed master. His novel based on the story of Pontius Pilate’s crisis of conscience after sentencing Jesus to death has troubled him so much he burnt the manuscript. This reflexive part of the plot mirrors the struggles Bulgakov had with this novel. ‘Manuscripts don’t burn’, says the devil to the master when his MS miraculously reappears, intact. It could serve as the moral of this novel – censorship can only partially silence truth.

Margarita gets caught up in the small retinue attending on Satan on his visit to Moscow, where he causes mayhem with his trickster’s black magic and mischievous sending up of the venality and greed of its citizens. She acts as sexy hostess to his spring ball, a macabre event attended by the undead. There’s witchcraft and poison, decapitation and shape-shifting.

Interspersed is the story of Pontius Pilate and the crucifixion, then the master’s version. So it’s a novel, among other things, about writing novels: the blurred boundaries between supposed real life and fiction. No matter how fantastic and supernatural the story becomes, the narrative is always conveyed with conviction.

Just what it all means is difficult to pin down. It’s easy to see a satire on Stalin’s soviet regime – but it’s never overt or heavy-handedly done. There’s a lot of fun poked at the literary world in particular: the writers’ club members enjoy a hedonistic life while promoting artistic mediocrity, and critics attack the works of honest writers striving to say something worthwhile and original, like the master.

It seems also to show how a totalitarian regime imposes its own version of ‘truth’ on its people. What we now call fake news. It’s about morality and its opposite, or absence, good v. evil – among other things. If the state decrees you’re all atheists, what do you do when the devil shows up? If there’s no God, then how can you believe in the devil?

There’s a lot of dark humour. Particular satisfying are Satan’s attendants. Foremost among these is Behemoth, the wise-cracking, talking cat who rides the tram (and dutifully pays his fare), shows off his pistol-shooting skills (though these aren’t as good as he boasts), and relishes making fools of the police when they try to arrest him.

The humour and surrealism have a Gogolian/fantastic edge, maybe even a whiff of Lewis Carroll (though I have no idea if Bulgakov knew his work), but this is tempered by the lyrical historical-realist style of the Pilate passages.

This might all sound a bit of a dog’s dinner, but Bulgakov manipulates his material with such panache that it just about works. I did find some of the satanic antics sections went on just a little too long at times, but the overall zest of the narrative kept me turning the pages.

I gave up trying to figure out what the ultimate message might be, and just enjoyed the whole Walpurgis-night broomstick ride.

The bottom bar told me at the end of that last sentence that this post contained 666 words. I couldn’t leave it like that…

St Hilary’s: part 2

Nave view

View of the nave looking east towards the altar; the striking crucifix image is by Ernest Procter

In my previous post I described the church of St Hilary, near Penzance, and some of the artworks by the former priest’s wife Annie Walke and her fellow members of the Newlyn School that decorate the interior.

First a word about the saint to whom the church is dedicated, and the painting depicting the dedication. Hilary was born in Poitiers around 315, and became bishop of that city. He was a vigorous opponent of the Arianism that was prevalent in the west at that time, and many of his writings were complex defences of Christian orthodoxy.

In England he gives his name to the ‘Hilary term’ of some of the more pretentious universities, and the courts of law (it begins on or about his feast day – 13 or 14 January). Hilary has been a name for both men and women since the middle ages. There are two other churches in England dedicated to him.

On the south side is a painting of St Hilary saying goodbye and blessing the people of Poitiers on going into exile.

On with the artworks. Many depict the subjects’ sympathy with animals and the natural world, as we saw last time. Not all are signed. They were painted by Alethea and Norman Garstin, Dod and Ernest Procter, Harold Harvey, Annie Walke, Gladys Hynes (whose brother Dr Hugh Hynes wrote the notes on the paintings in the guide leaflet) and Harold Knight.

Dedication of St Hilary's church

Dedication of St Hilary’s church by the monks of St Michael’s Mount

In the chancel on the north side is a picture of the monks of St Michael’s Mount (a short distance off the shore of Marazion, connected at low tide by a causeway) conducting the dedication ceremony. The monastery on the mount is visible in the top left background. As in the panels by Joan Manning-Saunders that I wrote about last time, the colours here are glowing and fresh. I like the way one of the monks processing towards the church glances out at the painting’s viewer, his expression inscrutable. The one at the rear looks a bit like Nosferatu – though I doubt this was the effect the artist was striving for.

St Morwenna

St Morwenna

Among the paintings of mostly Cornish saints is a dramatic one of St Morwenna, who gives her name to the town of Morwenstow, the northernmost parish in Cornwall, where she established a hermitage on arrival in Cornwall from Ireland, where she was receiving instruction. Its charismatic vicar from 1843 was Robert Hawker (1803-75), author of the ‘Cornish hymn’,Trelwany. He was an eccentric in his dress and behaviour: he built a hut out of driftwood on the clifftop and spent time there writing his poems and other works. Legend has it that he excommunicated his cat for mousing on a Sunday. He’s also known for his kindness, compassion, and devotion to his parish; he would be one of the first to attend the numerous shipwrecks that occurred at that dangerous stretch of coast, and gave drowned sailors a decent burial in his churchyard, rather than allowing the usual practice of burying them in unmarked graves in the sand on the beach where they were washed up.

Morwenna is thought to have been one of the many children of a Welsh king. One of her sisters is said to have been St Edelienta, whose portrait is also found in the choir, but I don’t include it here. Morwenna is depicted joining her nuns to to rescue travellers being robbed by a bandit called Gwenlock. I’ve been unable to trace the source of this explanation, taken from the church guide leaflet.

St Petroc

St Petroc

 St Petroc is reputed to be another son of a Welsh king or chieftain, who also began his training in Ireland. He sailed to Cornwall with other monks, landing in the Camel estuary. Here he established a monastic centre, Petroc-stowe (now Padstow). There are several charming legends concerning his kindness to animals: in this picture he’s shown sheltering a terrified fawn seeking refuge under his cloak from disapproving mounted hunters and their equally disgruntled hounds (there’s a similar legend about St Eustace, among others).

In another legend he removes a splinter from the eye from an unhappy dragon that had sought him out (a variant of the St Jerome legend – possibly calqued on the story of Androcles – in which he removed a thorn from the paw of a fierce lion; in iconography he is often depicted working in his study with the grateful, now domesticated lion snoozing contentedly nearby). His reputation for sympathy with all creatures was obviously well known, even in the draconian community (not the other kind, emulators of harsh Draco, the Athenian lawmaker).

St Piran

St Piran

 St Piran (or Perran), patron and most popular saint of Cornwall, is shown with more animals: his first converts – a badger, a bear and a fox. I’ve posted about him several times – link HERE.

Little is known about the St Senan, for whom Sennen Cove in west Penwith is named. There’s an Irish 6C abbot by that name, but the

St Sennen

St Sennen

Cornish one seems to be an unknown woman saint. The figure in this picture is clearly a venerable white-bearded man, who according to the guide leaflet had asked, after receiving the last sacrament, to be laid to rest under a blossoming May tree.

 

St Fingar (Gwinear, Guigner), is patron of Gwinear (near Hayle) seems to have been a 6C Welsh (or Irish) missionary, companion of Meriasek (Meriadoc), subject of the famous Cornish-language

St Fingar

St Fingar

mystery play. On a visit to a prince in Britanny, killed a stag. While washing the blood from his hands in a pool, he looked down at his reflection (like Narcissus) and concluded he looked too good for this kind of thing, so built a hut in the forest and devoted the rest of his life to prayer. In iconography he’s sometimes shown with a stag with a crucifix between its antlers, apparently conflating the legend of Eustace.

 

 

 

 

 

Blackbird, crows, a ram: St Hilary’s church decorations

St Hilary's churchA couple of years ago I posted about the memoirs of Fr Bernard Walke, the innovative and much-loved (by most; there were some dissenters) Anglo-Catholic priest in charge of St Hilary’s church 1913-36 (link HERE). My friends, the owners of the elegant cats, recommended a visit to the church, especially because of this connection with its warm-hearted, slightly eccentric priest, and the numerous artworks that decorate the interior – donated by friends of Annie Walke, Bernard’s artist wife, and an associate of the nearby Newlyn school of artists. They include pieces by Annie Walke herself (a striking portrait of an armoured Joan of Arc), Roger Fry, Dod and Ernest Procter and Harold Knight.

We went on a blustery day last weekend. The church is tucked away down a lane at the edge of the tiny village of St Hilary, a few miles outside of Penzance. It’s a rural, sparsely populated district, fairly bleak and largely agricultural. The copper and tin mining industry that used to thrive here, and which Fr Walke tried in vain to revive during his time in the parish, has long gone, and much of the working population moved on with it.

A chap we met in the church was visiting from London. He told us that he’d been born and brought up in the village, and although a Catholic he used to attend services in the church sometimes (after Fr Walke’s time). He said the locals were very poor in his day – most didn’t have running water. Now, he added ruefully, the place had become gentrified, and in his view had lost much of its gritty character.

The church is set in the highest point of the swelling land between the Marazion and St Ives, where the peninsula of Cornwall is only a few miles wide. It’s thought that there would have been a Roman fort on the site originally, then various early medieval churches, possibly with other dedications. I’ll comment on the dedication to St Hilary of Poitiers in a later post.

Apparently the 13C spire can be seen from both coasts. It’s rumoured that the port of St Ives is said to have paid to whitewash it, to act as a navigation and orientation point for sailors. The paint is no longer there.

The spire and tower are the only surviving parts of the last of the two or more medieval structures. It burnt down in a disastrous fire in 1853. The rebuilding used much of the original stone material in the two following years.

Joan Manning-Saunders nativity scene

This appears to be a nativity scene, with fairly conventional setting – except for the very Cornish-looking engine house in the distance

There are too many pictures that I took of the paintings that decorate the interior for one post; let’s start with the pictures on the parclose screen in the Lady Chapel, in the NE end beside the altar. These vibrantly coloured panels were painted by the remarkably precocious 12-year-old Joan Manning-Saunders (1913-2002).

She was living at Sennen

Joan Manning-Saunders scene 2

This seems to be the shepherds being told by an angel of the nativity – unperturbed by the frisky sea serpent below.

Cove, a few miles west of St Ives, near Land’s End, when Fr Walke commissioned her to paint this sequence of panels – I think they’re watercolours. They’re scenes from the New Testament, but with her own idiosyncratic interpretations.

A couple of years later, when she was just 14, she became the youngest ever exhibitor at the Royal Academy in London, a feat she repeated the following year. She became famous over the next few years as

Joan Manning-Saunders scene 3

This seems to be a rather hallucinatory annunciation; the young woman (Mary?) seems to be having a picnic with a Cornish pasty and half-finished bottle of red wine. A goat admires the languidly stretching leopard floating over a tree. Lions lie down with lambs.

a youthful prodigy, but her career faded in her later life.

So what’s a ‘parclose screen’? They’re designed to screen a chantry or side chapel from public areas of the church like the nave or chancel (the space around the altar at the east end of the church). Such screens are often richly carved and decorated to allow for light to enter and to enable some sight of the altar during eucharist or mass.

I’ll end this first post with the three painted wooden panels around the pulpit (by Ernest Procter?). There’s St Mawes (Maudez or St Mawes with ramModez in Breton, where he founded houses and was said to be a bishop, and where he’s better known.) Cornish tradition has it that this 5C saint established his hermitage in the small coastal town opposite Falmouth that bears his name. He was possibly a monk and missionary from Wales, founder of monasteries in Cornwall and Britanny. I’ve been unable to find a source for the iconography in this portrait, which depicts the ram that he employed to carry his prayerbook. I suspect this and other unusual iconographical features in other pictures in this church simply reflect the taste and imagination of the artists.

St Kevin with birds' nests

St Kevin seems to have a bird’s nest in each hand here! Inquisitive rabbits look on from their burrows.

St Kevin (Coemgen) was the 6-7C hermit, founder and abbot of the monastery at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow. The most famous and charming of the many legends about him is depicted here: he prayed for such a long time in the ancient orans prayer posture (arms outstretched, palms upwards) seen in the painting that a bird (usually portrayed as a blackbird) built a nest in his hands. When he realised what was happening he chose not to move as this would disturb the bird. After it laid an egg Kevin waited until it hatched, and the baby bird had fledged. In another legend he’s said to have fed the members of his monastic community on the salmon brought to him by an industrious otter. I posted long ago about another helpful otter in Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert (link HERE).

There are many such legends of (especially Irish) saints that serve to show the affinity between saints and the natural world. I recall first reading about this many years ago (before my academic research into medieval hagiography) in a delightful book intended originally for children by the wonderful Helen Waddell: Beasts and Saints, a collection first published in 1934 of her translations from the legends in their original Latin.

St Neot admonishing crowsSt Neot is shown admonishing hungry crows: don’t eat the seedcorn sown on the ground. His dates are unknown but he’s said to have a Glastonbury monk who became a hermit on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, where he founded a small monastery; a village there bears his name. The legend of King Arthur burning the cakes originally appeared in a Latin life of Neot.

Once again I’ve not found the source of this legend of the crows (it might have been borrowed from another saint’s life; it reminds me of the scene early in Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, when young Jude is too soft-hearted to scare off the crows feeding on the seeds of the farmer who employed him to do so – rather the opposite message than the one in this picture). Better known is the legend of the wild stags which came and offered their services to him when his oxen were stolen by thieves (don’t you just hate it when that happens?) The stag often features in the iconography of Neot.

More next time. I’m indebted for some of the detail here to the church guide, which includes notes by Dr Hugh Hynes on the paintings and decorations.

 

John Harvey, The Plate Shop

John Harvey, The Paint Shop. Holland House Books, 2021. First published 1979.

John Harvey The Plate Shop cover Holland House is an independent London publisher founded in 2012. They recently released all five of John Harvey’s novels in a ‘revisited’ set. Here at the Days there are several posts about The Subject of a Portrait, his excellent 2014 novel about the tangled lives of Ruskin, Effie Gray and the artist Millais (links HERE). In one post I introduced him like this:

[JH]) is a distinguished academic: he’s University Reader in Literature and Visual Culture at Cambridge, and a Life Fellow at my old college, Emmanuel. This interest in the ways in which visual art and fiction intertwine is reflected in this novel, and in his two books on the socio-cultural and literary significance of the colour black.  Men In Black (1995) explores the meaning of clothing and colour, and in particular the way that Victorian men’s clothing went dark, reflecting the constraint and self-abnegation of that period. He explores how Dickens and Ruskin (subject of the novel under discussion here) assessed its ‘paradoxical aspects of repression and self-assertion’. The Story of Black (2013) develops this theme in broader symbolic terms, including aesthetically and sexually. (Links to these posts at the end.)

In 2019 wrote about Pax, his most recent novel, which also deals with the worlds of art and eros. It tells of the visit to London in 1629 of Rubens, and of another artist in 2003.

I was delighted to be sent by John and the publishers a set of the reissued novels that I haven’t yet read. The Plate Shop was his first novel, inspired by his experience as a student doing a vacation job. The ‘shop’ is part of a factory making heavy machinery. The novel deals with what the author calls in his introduction to this edition ‘the hard relationship between Money and Work in the world.’

This was a time of economic and technological change, and the plate shop is precariously placed. It represents outmoded methods, old technology, is a relic of the industrial revolution. New ways of manufacturing and marketing commodities and new foreign markets are taking over, and Britain’s traditional economic dominance in this world is precarious. Dinosaurs like this shop needed to modify (evolve?) or die. The catastrophic miners’ strike of 1984-85, just a few years after this novel is set, marked a low point in this corporate decline, and was the beginning of the end of Britain’s manufacturing and industrial status.

There’s a large cast of characters, brutalised and exploited by the work ethic of the time; their response is to behave tribally, to operate in packs. One of the most sympathetic is different, an outsider and foreigner, ‘not one of us’, a Czech plater who’s sacked in a case of racist bigotry only too casually apparent at that time. I recognise these characters and this setting from my own time as a student in the early seventies in a vacation job at a factory outside Bristol that made the British parts of the supersonic aircraft, Concorde. Like John, as an academic I was consigned to the technical drawing office – a smoke-filled den (chain-smokers, all of them) deep inside a huge hangar. Mine was a tedious clerical job: no heavy machines, drilling or plating for me.

Dominating the plate shop is the larger-than-life figure of Clyde, the bullish but fading shop foreman, who symbolises in human form the doomed nature of this field of manufacture. He used to rule the shop, using his mechanical genius to fix problems and impose his will on his awe-struck workforce. But just as the pictures got smaller, so the machines became more complex, and he’s struggling to maintain his dwindling authority. He’s out of key with his time – and so is his shop.

The hated Time Study men now threaten his role, with their stopwatches and timesheets that determine the schedule and control for each worker. Clyde becomes increasingly bemused and frightened as he sees himself becoming redundant, superfluous.

The gripping prose style is Dickensian, synaesthetic: all harsh, clanking, metallic sounds and vivid light and dark in many of the scenes set in and around the workshop (which is most of the novel). These descriptions remind me of Hard Times, which could be seen as a sort of precursor to The Plate Shop. Here’s an example from the very first page, showing the artist-author’s realisation of the concrete in a multi-sensory, poetic style:

From dazzling points in the walls, pencils of light came in. Colours came out in the machines, which stood clear in all their different shapes: an upshooting wiry machine was all run and whip and gleam of tough silver threads; a square red casing stood rigid at attention, severe, burning in upright fire. Beneath a soaring tree of girders sprawled a long low humped and curved machine – deep-green, enormous – like a dangerous armour-plated creature asleep. In the girders above, a fat amber cable curled among the leads like a snake asleep among vines.

See what I mean about the Dickensian tone? Those images, that hint of dark satanic mills.

The Plate Shop also reminded me of those gritty black-and-white films of the sixties and early seventies, often in heavy industry settings, like ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’. These also portrayed that end-of-an-era period of decline and depression, the technological and social revolution that turned the smoky, complacent world of (soon to be) post-colonial Britain into a vacuous, superannuated nation of service industries, manufacturing all gone, and a deep sense of grievance, loss and entropy in its working population.

This novel is a brilliant, deeply felt elegy to that grimy, world of decaying heavy industry and capitalism.

It’s good to see that Holland House have included some of the original illustrations John Harvey produced for the first edition, but which had not previously been published. These reveal the author’s academic and aesthetic speciality: Victorian Novelists and their Illustrators (1970: his first non-fiction book).

My posts on John Harvey’s books about the colour black HERE; on Clothes HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

Guilty pearls. Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat

Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat. Abacus, 2018. First published 2009

 This is a sequel to Jane Gardam’s Old Filth, about which I posted a couple of years ago (link HERE). The Man in the Wooden Hat tells much the same poignant story, but from a different perspective.

OF was largely an account of the life of Sir Edward Feathers, an undistinguished jobbing London lawyer who moved to Hong Kong and revived his career. He went on to become a respected judge back in England. We learnt about his damaged childhood, and the knocks he endured and which shaped him into the fragile, emotionally scarred man he became.

Jane Gardam The Man in the Wooden Hat cover Wooden Hat gives the story from his wife Betty’s point of view. We don’t get so much information about her childhood, but the formative experiences of her life were her exhilarating war work at Bletchley Park during WWII – she was clearly a brilliant mind, contributing to the breaking of enemy codes – and subsequent horrors in a Japanese prison camp. Like Edward, she’d been a ‘Raj child’ – raised in the far east and shipped home for exiled schooling away from her family.

 

Both characters then are emotionally unsuited for the rigours of enduring married intimacy. There are fissures in the relationship from the start: Edward’s proposal, their honeymoon, early years of marriage – all lack the spark of romance. There is love, but it’s of a frail and unfulfilling kind. As they grow old together they become accustomed to life of quiet acceptance, creating a genuine bond, but with something missing at the heart of the relationship. Probably because of their respective damaged emotional states, and the problems that fate provides for them.

The awful cad Veneering reappears, too. He’s Edward’s professional (and romantic) rival. There’s a crucially symbolic gift of ‘guilty pearls’ that functions like Chekhov’s gun, with a heartbreaking twist at the novel’s end.

Edward and Betty’s whole adult life is sketched in with unobtrusive compassion and understanding: their mis-steps, regrets and fleeting moments of insight into what might have been.

As in OF, the narrative is carefully crafted. The emphasis is on character and what makes a person feel and suffer. There’s more on the odious colonialism and casual sexism and racism of the times; Jane Gardam presents this unflinchingly but without tub-thumping.

The narrative voice is again poised and assured. This is a writer with whom you feel in safe, caring hands.

 

 

Philip Hoare, Albert & the Whale

Philip Hoare, Albert & the Whale. Fourth Estate, 2021.

I think I first became interested in whales after reading Moby-Dick as a student. Many years later I read Philip Hoare’s strange book about them: Leviathan, or the Whale. It was first published I think in 2008. A few years before then I’d seen a pod of southern right whales, rolling and blowing in the sea below us off the coast of South Africa. We’d gone there with friends who had an apartment in Cape Town. We saw more whales just off the beach in another bay nearby. These are among the most magical experiences I’ve had.

Philip Hoare Albert & the Whale cover

My library copy has a plastic protective cover, hence the nasty shine in this picture

 Albert & the Whale revisits the world of cetaceans, largely through the quizzical eyes of the German artist-genius, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). As in his earlier whale book, Hoare does this through indirect means: a mix of art history and criticism, memoir, impressionistic detours into the lives and work of the likes of Jung and Freud. Writers are adduced, from Melville himself to Auden and his circle, Thomas Mann and Marianne Moore.

The mix doesn’t always work. At times it’s all just a little too impressionistic and fey. At its best it’s amazing, similar to the more effortless brilliance of Sebald; Hoare is in a lesser league (though he pinches many of Max’s tropes, like the grainy monochrome photos – some of them selfies) – more akin to the less earnest, much funnier Out of Sheer Rage (1998), Geoff Dyer’s eccentric account  of his failure to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence.

On the way there are some hit-and-miss prose poems inspired by the most famous of Dürer’s paintings and woodcuts, including Melancholy, St Jerome (with the weird comet in the background) and St Eustace. The book’s title is a bit misleading, because a whole menagerie of creatures, real and imaginary, feature in the text, such as narwhals and walruses, the armoured rhino with its extra dorsal spike, and octopuses.

Perhaps Dürer’s most famous animal engraving is that of the hare. Hoare’s account of it begins: ‘Like the turf, like her eye, she’s the world’ –

The hare was sacred to the Germans, believed to reproduce parthenogenetically, and so was associated with the Virgin Mary. But the hare quivers as she crouches, un-annunciated. Her ears are smooth and soft-resisting; like her vibrating whiskers, they’re visible sentience, sensing a world beyond our own. She’s wild, ready to be picked up and turned over, to lie entranced in your arms….

This is sensitively done, but it’s a shame that the author prolongs such flights too long (there are five more lines of this: it becomes strained). With just a little pruning this book’s meditation on time, mortality and the relationship between humans and the animal (and wider natural) world could have been even better.

There are seven pages of beautiful colour plates at the end. Together with the many black-and-white images throughout the text, these more than compensate for the purple prose. I learnt a lot, too, about the life and work of Dürer, his influences and those he influenced. I was less interested in the obsessively detailed information about how much Hoare paid for his drinks in cafés, or the price of admission tickets to the many museums he visited.

Flowering currant Spring is beginning to show its colours here in Cornwall. Today’s walk took me past a house at the end of my road where these lovely flowers are blooming; I think they’re flowering currant. Magnolias and daffodils are coming to their peak.

Invisible woman: Elizabeth Strout, Oh William!

Elizabeth Strout, Oh William! (Viking, 2021)

Not the most inspiring of titles. Its novelist narrator, who we met in My Name is Lucy Barton (links below to other posts on ES novels), tells us more about the events in that earlier novel. For example, that her hospital stay in New York was for a real – and serious – condition, and her estranged, damaged mother really did visit her. She might also have loved her equally damaged daughter, Lucy. Just couldn’t say or show it. Or act upon it.

Elizabeth Strout Oh William! cover There’s more of that kind of thing in Oh William! Here the slender plot has to do with Lucy’s ex-husband, the hapless William, who was (still is) a serial adulterer. Most of his actions cause Lucy to utter the exclamation in the (silly) title. Usually out of exasperation, sometimes pity (maybe even love).

She exclaims in similar ways about others, including herself. Life exasperates her. The cruel, deprived upbringing she told about in Lucy Barton is alluded to in order to account for her present diffidence, her sense of not belonging in the world, and lack of self worth – even as she nears William’s age, 70. She says several times she feels ‘invisible’. ‘What a strange thing life is.’

Strout is able to pull off these banal expressions as Lucy’s only available means of articulating her profound, turbulent emotions. The narrative is told from her viewpoint, and it’s colloquial and idiomatic like that all the time (she’s very fond – overfond – of ‘is what I mean’ after an attempt to explain something). But that’s not to say it lacks complexity or depth. She’s more George Herbert (without the spirituality) than John Donne.

After her various scrapes with William as he tries to find out the truth of his own troubled past in rural Maine, she feels close to him, even sad they divorced, but validated that they did. More to the point, she learns a bit more about herself and her dislocated sensibility. On almost the final page she repeats ‘Oh William!’, then goes on:

don’t I mean Oh Lucy! Too? Don’t I mean Oh Everyone, Oh dear Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves!

Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do.

But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.

Other posts here at T Days on ES novels:

My Name is Lucy Barton HERE

 Amy & Isabelle HERE

Olive Kitteridge HERE