Zurich, Salzburg and Vienna; Hustvedt, Cather, Bulgakov

This month’s reading has again been reduced by pressures of work, but also by travel. With Mrs TD I went to Vienna for a few days, stopping off en route (all by train – a great way to travel and see the snow-covered mountains close up) at Zurich and Salzburg for a few days each. Good to see memorials in these places to the artists who’d lived there: James Joyce in Zurich; in the same city The Cabaret Voltaire, where the founders of Dadaism used to meet, was empty and boarded up, unfortunately.

Salzburg was also where Stefan Zweig lived for some years; his villa sits high on a hill overlooking the city, and there’s a bronze bust of him nearby. I’ve posted here on two of his novels, both of which I enjoyed: The Post Office Girl and Beware of Pity. Mozart is of course associated with Salzburg, his birthplace, and Vienna, where he lived and worked.

There we managed only a few of the many museums and galleries – Klimt and the other artists of the early 20C were our prime targets, but we also made a point of going to the Sigmund Freud museum. This is where he and his family lived, and where he developed his theories of psychoanalysis on the basis of the clients he saw and treated (is that the right word?) there.

Now for the month’s reading:

Siri Hustvedt, What I Loved Sceptre, 2016; 20031

I nearly abandoned this during the first third, but then it picked up and I finished it. I can’t say I really liked it, though. A New York art critic (whose wife is a literary critic) and an avant garde artist (whose wife is a poet – you see the basis of my resistance to this novel) become friends. There are too many high-octane discussions involving art theory, literary theory, philosophy, and long descriptions of the artist’s work, and these tend to clog the narrative. Even when the plot picks up as their respective sons grow up and problems arise, I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm for the proceedings.

Willa Cather, My Ántonia VMC no.22, 1990; 19181

I got on with this one far better – at least, for its first third. Here we get the fascinating story of a young man’s journey west from Virginia to the vast empty plains of Nebraska, to live with his paternal grandparents after the death of his parents. On the journey he meets the Shimerda family, which includes Ántonia (the stress is on the first syllable). They’re from what Cather calls Bohemia, and only Ántonia speaks much English.

She and her family become the narrator Jim’s pioneer farming neighbours, and a firm friendship grows up between them. There are some great anecdotes along the way: Jim kills a huge snake, two Russian neighbours are said to have been involved in a gruesome sleigh journey beset by wolves…

The final two thirds dragged more. The central characters become adults and go their different ways. The lure of the town introduces tensions in the friendships of the various young women and men, and some of them struggle to maintain equilibrium. You’d expect the plot to involve a romance between the two central characters, but Cather avoids doing this. I’m not sure she pulls off what she does try to do with them. It’s a good read, though.

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Fatal Eggs Alma Classics, 2020; 19251. Translated by Roger Cockrell.

A satire on early Soviet Russian ineptitude and bureaucracy that taps into the sort of dystopian sci-fi of an author Bulgakov admired: HG Wells. The plot bears some resemblance to The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) and The Food of the Gods (1904). As in these two novels, the plot involves demonstrating the disasters that can ensue when scientists play god and dabble with the ways of nature. In that respect it also owes a debt to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. For my various posts on this seminal gothic novel there’s a link HERE.

Professor Persikov is an eminent zoologist who accidentally discovers a light ray that stimulates and accelerates fertility in the creatures on which he’s experimenting. When agents of the state hear about the remarkable results, they want to exploit the possibilities of his discovery by using his techniques to increase productivity of animals bred for food. Being inept and bureaucratic, they make blunders, and all sorts of mayhem follows.

The satire is fairly heavy-handed, but the narrative rattles along at a pleasing pace, and there’s some wry dark humour (and some gruesome retribution from the animal world – as in Frankenstein).  The novella is just over a hundred pages long, so can be enjoyed easily in a couple of sittings.

I’ve posted on several of the titles in this Alma Classics set of Bulgakov’s fiction:

The Master and Margarita

 The White Guard

 A Young Doctor’s Notebook

Another satire on unethical scientists, A Dog’s Heart

 

 

Three novels by women

Here’s my latest round-up of recent reading.

Winifred Watson, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day Persephone Books, 2008; 19381

 I’d read some glowing reports of this novel, and admire Persephone’s initiative in publishing works by women that have often been neglected. Unfortunately, I didn’t get on with this confection at all. I gave up halfway through. Its tone and content were similar to those frothy romantic comedy films of the 30s starring people like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn – but lacking, I thought, their charm and wit. I didn’t warm to dowdy Miss P, whose transformation from impoverished and timid duckling (she’s an unsuccessful children’s governess) to confident swan (I presume that’s where it was going; she was just beginning to develop as I gave up) just didn’t ring true.

I know it’s not intended to be taken too seriously, but I also struggled to raise interest in Miss P’s unlikely new friend and employer, the supposedly glamorous nightclub singer and socialite Delysia La Fosse, whose name is as implausible as her characterisation. I found her susceptibility to caddish men irritating – and in fact, even allowing for changing social attitudes, the portrayal of sexual relations at the time was strangely disturbing, and not as funny as I think it was meant to be. But I know that most other readers had a much more positive response.

Rosamond Lehmann, The Ballad and the Source VMC, 1982; 19441

This was more to my taste. Sibyl Jardine, one of the central characters, is an elderly woman when the novel opens, but she has had an eventful past. She’s described by Janet Watts in the introduction to this edition as ‘one of the strangest and strongest heroines in English fiction, and her story is not for the squeamish’. It tells of ‘love corrupted into viperous hatred; of friendship betrayed; of treachery begetting treacheries’. What’s not to like? Puts mousy Miss Pettigrew into perspective…

The structure is unusual. Much of the novel is narrated from the viewpoint of precocious 10-year-old Rebecca, who quizzes this enigmatic, imposing Mrs Jardine (a neighbour whom her mother knows about and clearly mistrusts), whom she adores for her flamboyance, erudition and mystique, to find out that back story. (These long sequences were also a feature of her earlier novels.) It involves two generations of spirited women leaving failing marriages for more attractive prospects, then finding that leaving children behind as well as unwanted husbands brought unbearable consequences.

As the years pass and WWI breaks out, the web of relationships around the three generations of linked families becomes ever more tangled. Revelations cause Rebecca to reconsider her initial worshipping attitude to the formidable Mrs Jardine. The author’s handling of this complex plot, and of the differing accounts of the past (told by not entirely impartial or reliable adults to fascinated youngsters eager for intrigue and romance) is admirable. The young women’s eyes are gradually opened to the not-so-glamorous reality of the tainted loves they witness and are told about, and the poisonous fallout of failed relationships that damages the children as much as their parents. This causes the young women to confront and question their own burgeoning sexuality.

It’s a slow-burning novel, but fiercely intense. Mrs Jardine is an enchantress: alluring and deadly, vengeful and heartbroken. She’s an amazing creation.

There’s a link HERE to my posts on other RL novels, all of which deal in some way with sexual relations and the inevitable pain that goes with the bliss (usually more for the women than the feckless men): Invitation to the Waltz; The Weather in the Streets; The Echoing Grove.

Sarah Moss, The Fell Picador, 2022; 20211

 This novella is the first Covid lockdown fiction I’ve read. That soul-numbing solitude and sense of foreboding we all endured as a consequence – when we were told not to leave our houses and forbidden from mixing with anyone outside of them – is a key feature in The Fell.

It’s difficult to summarise the plot without spoilers. Let’s just say that when free-spirited, rather hippy-ish single mother Kate decides she’s had enough of going stir crazy in domestic confinement with her teenage son, and impulsively goes out for an early evening hike on the hills referred to in the title, all does not go well.

I enjoyed it, but not the structure and style. It consists of interlocking internal monologues from the points of view of several characters involved in Kate’s life. Through these various perspectives we slowly build up a composite picture of Kate’s character, and those of the individuals whose lives overlap with hers. But I found the colloquial, demotic prose failed to bring them entirely to life (except the wilful Kate). I’m not quite sure why she had the foresight to pack a rucksack with basic provisions when she set out for the fell on a whim, but didn’t take her phone. The hallucinatory sequences with a talkative corvid were pretty weird, too.

Sarah Moss’s novel Bodies of Light is stronger, I felt; my post about it is HERE.

 

Edith Wharton, Madame de Treymes

Edith Wharton, Madame de Treymes. VMC 1984

 Madame de Treymes is in fact the third of three novellas or long short stories in this handsome VMC edition that I found in a second-hand bookshop recently. There’s a strong theme connecting all four stories: a difficult moral choice that a character makes that can – and does – change not only their own life, but those of others they’re connected with.

Wharton Mme de Treymes cover

The cover shows a detail of a typically lovely ‘Portrait’ by James Tissot

In The Touchstone (1900) a hard-up, not very bright young man needs to find cash quickly if he’s to be able to marry the woman he loves. The only asset he has will require him to sully the reputation of a famous woman novelist who once loved him. Can he sell his soul, by publishing this famous woman’s most intimate letters to him, in order to achieve his romantic dream? And if he does, how does he salve his conscience and explain his guilty caddishness to his new, now enriched, wife?

A similar dilemma faces the young woman protagonist of Sanctuary (1903). She’s unthinkingly content with the prospect of marriage to her wealthy fiancé – a man who’s inherited his family wealth after the untimely death of his profligate elder brother. She’s forced to start taking life seriously and to snap out of her trance of unreflecting complacency when he tells her how his brother besmirched the family honour and they covered it (and hushed it) up. Should she break off the engagement – her first instinct – or take on this morally compromised man and ensure that any child of theirs has her more ethically sound guidance? And if that child grows up in the morally flawed image of his father, how should she deal with him?

The title story, Madame de Treymes (1907) has a very Henry James ambience. A wealthy, somewhat innocent American, John Durham, is in Paris and wants to marry the woman he’s long been in love with since they were friends years ago back home, but he’d lost her when she married a (stereotypically decadent) French aristocrat. She’s now almost free again: her errant husband’s affairs became too obvious and she’s obtained a legal separation. It’s apparent that she regrets this degrading episode in her life, and reciprocates her former friend’s feelings.

But there’s a problem: her aristocratic in-laws are dead against divorce; it’s against their religion (they’re Catholic) and, more importantly, their centuries-old class traditions. If she wants to marry her American she’ll have to give up her eight-year-old son to his corrupt father. Their only hope is for Durham to solicit the aid of the only one of her husband’s relatives who’s ever shown sympathy and affection for her: the Mme de Treymes of the story’s title.

She’s very much in the mould of some of HJ’s more nefariously complicated, morally compromised European women aristocrats in abrasive contact with ingenuous Americans. She seems to offer friendship and a way out of the dilemma, but then changes tack and manipulatively poses an even more horrible dilemma for Durham.

Bunner Sisters (published 1916, written 1896) is different from the other three stories in that it deals with the straitened lives of two women who barely scratch out a living in a shabby part of New York, running a tiny shop that sells tawdry items they’ve made themselves. They live in a tiny room behind the shop. Life is passing them by.

Then a chance encounter brings a man into their lives. Ann Eliza, the older, more staid sister, bought a clock from him as a gift for her sister, and he seems as lonely as the two sisters. They establish a kind of friendship. Self-centred Evelina, the younger, more superficially attractive sister, seems to be the object of his growing affection. Things don’t turn out so neatly, though. This man isn’t all that he seems. Self-sacrifice doesn’t necessarily bring the rewards expected.

As in the other stories, heart-breaking moral dilemmas beset these two helpless, inexperienced women, clinging on to their meagre livelihood by their fingernails, desperate for love and hopelessly vulnerable.

There’s a certain formulaic structure to the stories, and some stock situations and characters (self-sacrifice; moral dilemmas), which perhaps my brief outlines above have indicated. Edith Wharton is always a deeply satisfying author, however, and even with less exalted fiction like this there are rich rewards for the reader.

Here’s an example, chosen at random, of the archly satirical narrative voice that’s so adept at skewering hypocrisy and pomposity. In The Touchstone we’re told about the woman novelist who’d loved the protagonist (Glennard), who went on to betray her by publishing her letters to him.

When they met she had just published her first novel, and Glennard, who afterward had an ambitious man’s impatience of distinguished women, was young enough to be dazzled by the semi-publicity it gave her. It was the kind of book that makes elderly ladies lower their voices and call each other “my dear” when they furtively discuss it…

I found the final story, about the two sisters, the most affecting and original, the most deeply felt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Constant Nymph

I’ve been busy with work again lately, so the next few posts, if I get time to post what I plan to, will be quick recaps of some recent reading.

Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph, VMC 2000; first published 1924

This is another of those novels that most reviewers have raved about; I struggled with it, and nearly gave up after thirty or so pages. I simply didn’t relish reading about ‘Sanger’s circus’, the chaotic-bohemian ménage in the Austrian Tyrol of English avant-garde composer Albert Sanger. This neglected, wayward genius and his tribe of shabby, barefooted feral children (by three different mothers; certain British prime ministers come to mind) are supposed I think to be charmingly alternative, spontaneous and precocious – a sort of antidote to the saccharine von Trapps. Instead I thought their spiteful anti-Semitism and careless selfishness repellent.

One of the male characters, a Jewish suitor of the oldest Sanger girl, is portrayed in unpleasantly negative stereotypical ways, and is treated by many of the others, including his lover, with undisguised contempt.

Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph cover

It wasn’t me who made the image blurred: it’s that way on the cover. It’s by the Swedish photographer Irmelie Krekin.

A budding composer called Lewis, one of the central characters, is a friend and disciple of Sanger, and another less than charming figure. He’s anti-social to the point of misanthropy, another supposedly eccentric genius – in fact he’s just another selfish boor.

When his new wife tries to tame him, make him presentable in chic London society as a means of promoting his stalled career, he rewards her by becoming romantically attached to one of the younger Sanger girls, Tessa (the nymph of the title) – just 14 when the novel opens. She’s been hopelessly in love with him since she was a little girl. She’s an unlikely mixture of shrewd precocity and naiveté, and Kennedy just about succeeds in making her an attractive, increasingly confident and rounded character.

Tessa’s is easily the most successfully drawn character in the novel. She’s described as plain and skinny, but also vivacious, witty and charmingly ingenuous, the only one who can handle the irritable, moody Lewis. But this Lolita-like relationship is worryingly one-sided: she’s far too young for such a committed affair with an older man whose interest in her isn’t surely as pure or innocent as hers in him. Kennedy doesn’t shy away from the sexual element, either, and this too is troubling. All the older Sanger children show unabashed awareness of their sexuality. It’s probably this frankness that contributed to the novel’s being a huge best-seller in its day.

I enjoyed the scenes by the Thames at Chiswick; I’d been walking there with friends the week before reading them. It’s a lovely part of outer London.

The ending is predictable and disappointing, and shows perhaps a loss of nerve by the author in her daring plot and unconventional protagonists.

No, I’m afraid this novel left me feeling rather irritated with most of the characters, particularly the odious Lewis.

 

 

Antonia White, The Lost Traveller

Antonia White, The Lost Traveller. VMC paperback, 1993 (first edition 1979). First published by Eyre & Spottiswode, 1950

Antonia White The Lost Traveller coverThe cover image is a detail from ‘Elinor’ by Dod Procter (who was associated with the Newlyn school of artists in Cornwall. She and others in the Lamorna sub-group, including her husband Ernest, did some of the decorative paintings in St Hilary Church near Penzance, where Bernard Walke had been parish priest: see my post on his memoir HERE).

There was very little plot in Antonia White’s account of Nanda Grey’s four years in a catholic convent school (from the ages of nine to thirteen/fourteen) in Frost in May, about which I posted last time. This sequel is very different. There’s plenty of incident, and the narrative adopts a more traditional, adult omniscient voice, rather than focalising on the young protagonist. The style is more sophisticated, too, in keeping with the more mature Nanda: in The Lost Traveller her story continues from her leaving the convent to the age of seventeen.

This first of three sequels to FiM took seventeen years to appear. Antonia White apparently had a tough time during them: she had writer’s block, mental health problems, and was busy with work as a journalist, among other things during the war.

Although there’s much more incident in this sequel, I found it less engaging. Nanda has had a name change: she is now Clara Batchelor, and the names of the schools have also changed. Maybe this was to indicate that the novel is less autobiographical than FiM. This also might account for its less satisfactory impact.

Part of the problem is the depiction of Clara’s parents, which dominates much of the novel. Her father is decidedly unpleasant: a doctrinaire pedagogue with some unsavoury sexual inclinations. He teaches classics at the school to which Clara, very much a ‘daddy’s girl’, is moved after the convent school became too expensive.

Isabel, the languid mother, is a drama queen, always expressing how ‘sensitive’, romantic and artistic she is. This manifests itself in particular with serial flirting – an indulgence that leads her into dangerous territory.

Clara’s friendships made up the basis of FiM, and the same is the case in this novel. Here too they represent the most interesting and original aspect of the narrative. WWI takes its toll on the young and their families, and there are hints of the terrible fate of European Jewish people a few years in the future.

It’s inevitable as Clara grows up that she’ll become more engaged with the world, become interested in developing adult interests and relationships, including romantic or sexual ones, and this means the narrative takes on a rather more conventional bildungsroman quality.

There are some delightful portraits of her family in rural Sussex, where she and her parents spend their summer holidays. Her eccentric, warm-hearted maiden aunts love having the visitors, and Clara enjoys their affectionate hospitality, and walking in the picturesque downs.

Why this title? Well, Clara/Nanda is still a bit lost, desperate to find where she belongs. Her catholic faith is the foundation on which she believes she can build her life, but it’s a conviction that wavers under the stress of circumstances.

This sequel benefits from having less discussion of dogma and description of ritual, and the dilemma Clara experiences in the final section of the novel is well handled, and includes a truly shocking event that I hadn’t seen coming.

It might sound like I’m lukewarm about this novel, but I’m not. Maybe it’s just that it’s so different from FiM. It lacks some of the charm and innocence of that novel, but still satisfies as a portrait of a young woman’s painful growth out of her ‘awkward age’ into adulthood.

But those parents…It’s amazing Clara survived more or less intact.

 

 

 

 

Broken in by nuns: Antonia White, Frost in May

Antonia White, Frost In May. Virago Modern Classics no. 1, 1978 (my edition was from 1993). First published 1933.

Antonia White (1899-1980) began writing this autobiographical novel when she was just sixteen, but it wasn’t finished or published until almost two decades later. Frost In May famously kicked off the groundbreaking Virago imprint of modern classics, bringing back into the mainstream literature by women that had largely become neglected or overlooked.

Antonia White Frost In May cover The protagonist of Frost in May is Nanda (Fernanda) Grey, nine years old when she’s sent to the ‘rare, intense element’ of the convent school of the Five Wounds, at Lippington, near London. There she spends four of the most formative years of her life. Her experience is bitter-sweet.

She doesn’t entirely fit in – as is often the case with school novels. For a start, she wasn’t born a Catholic; she was only admitted a year earlier, when her father converted from being an agnostic/Protestant. He’s a teacher, so she’s one of the few middle-class girls at the school – most come from ancient, prestigious Catholic European families, and the friends she becomes closest to are a few years older than her.

There’s raffish Léonie, of French-German lineage, beautiful Rosario from Spain. Their relatives are found ‘in every embassy in Europe’, and during school holidays the girls attend ‘diplomatic dinners in Vienna and St Petersburg’.

Once or twice a term, they would go out together to a well-chaperoned tea at the Ritz, or a polo match at Ranelagh.

Clare is English, and also of Protestant stock, but she is less of an outsider than Nanda, because like most of the other pupils she comes from an upper-class family. These girls holiday in Paris, Biarritz and other swanky European locations, have governesses and dance with royalty. They and their older sisters are expected to make dazzling, dynastic marriage matches.

There’s a disturbing hint of the carnage of war to come – but this would have been WWI; in 1933 when the novel was published the same could have been said for what was building in Nazi Germany: the origins of WWII. Léonie points out that when she was in Berlin and Vienna during the school holidays (this would have been probably around 1911-12) there’d been ‘a lot of talk about [war]’. With her usual sharpness of tongue she suggests that the Prussian young man with whom Clare had said she’d had a flirtation that summer in a Leipzig art school ‘will get conscripted and one of your hearty brothers will probably put a bullet through his cropped head.’

It’s partly this dark humour and strange, intoxicating mix of intense, erotic attraction and fierce rivalries and jealousies between these lively, spirited, emotionally vulnerable schoolgirls that makes Frost In May such an engaging novel. It’s also the weirdly contradictory attitudes of these older girls to Catholic doctrine and the rigid discipline the nuns instil in them; while they all rail against both from time to time, they ultimately  accept placidly that they will become good, conformist Catholic mothers and homemakers.

The nuns are aware of these (as they see them) dangerous, intimate liaisons. When Nanda writes a letter home, gushing about the beauty and glamour of these older girls, it is as usual intercepted for censorship by the ever-watchful nuns. Mother Radcliffe, the scarily severe Mother of Discipline, upbraids the culprit:

The school rule does not approve of particular friendships. They are against charity, to begin with, and they lead moreover to dangerous and unhealthy indulgence of feeling. I do not think your father and mother will share your rather morbid interest in Clare Rockingham’s appearance.

She goes on to accuse Nanda of being wilful. When Nanda agrees, the nun lays out the school’s purpose uncompromisingly –

…no character is any good in this world unless that will has been broken completely. Broken and re-set in God’s own way. I don’t think your will has been quite broken, my dear child, do you?

Elsewhere Radcliffe tells the whole school that the school’s severity ‘which to the world seems harshness is bound up in the school rule…We work today to turn out, not accomplished young women, nor agreeable wives, but soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude.’

Near the end, when Nanda’s career at the school is threatened because her unfinished, derivative bodice-ripper novel MS has been found during one of the nun’s usual searches of the girls’ desks, Radcliffe is merciless as she orders its destruction:

“God asks very hard things from us,” she said, “the sacrifice of what we love best and the sacrifice of our own wills. That is what it means to be a Christian…I had to break your will before your whole nature was deformed.”

It’s a ruthless system, designed to instil total obedience and submission, that reminds me of the depiction of the despotic drill sergeant’s breaking in of the young male marine recruits in the first half of Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket.

But this is more than just a story of a girl’s faltering attraction to and acceptance of this stern, austere Catholic dogma of self-denial, humility and self-mortification; it’s also a kunstlerroman: Nanda spends much of her time drafting that doomed novel and honing her writing and other aesthetic sensibilities – despite the school’s vigilant, often cruel efforts to crush them.

It’s not an entirely anti-school or -Catholic portrayal; when, at thirteen, Nanda’s father suggests taking her out of Lippington, she feels ‘overwhelmed’ by the revelation of her ‘dependance’ on the school and its ethos, and horrified at the prospect of moving to a more educationally sound, non-Catholic high school to prepare her for life at a Cambridge college and a career (for she will have to make a living when she grows up). She prefers the ‘cold, clear atmosphere’ and ‘sharper outline’ of things at Lippington to the ‘comfortable, shapeless, scrambling life outside’.

She rebels intermittently against the frigid, anti-romantic, authoritarian regime of the school, especially when her artistic impulses are crushed, but she always retains a romantic desire to belong in this harsh but alluring world. The discipline of Lippington does at times show a fanatical opposition to what its doctrine proscribes.

The bad news for Nanda is that this includes the spark of spirit with which she was born, an acute sense of individualism and aesthetic sensitivity. These are seen as incipient sins of pride by the nuns.

White’s prose has the lucidity and unadorned directness of her heroine’s character.

I’ve started reading the sequel.

 

 

 

Highsmith and lambs

Patricia Highsmith, The Glass Cell. Virago Modern Classics, 2014. First published in the USA, 1963

Patricia Highsmith Glass Cell coverThis wasn’t the most soothing choice of reading during Britain’s third lockdown, when Covid cases are soaring, hospitals are full and their staff almost overwhelmed, and the days are short and mostly wet and grey. So I shall give just a few thoughts about this typically disturbing novel by Patricia Highsmith, and append some more uplifting stuff from recent walks.

The first third of the novel tells of the brutal treatment in a grim prison in the south of the USA of a man singularly ill-equipped to deal with its regime. Phil Carter is an educated, affluent engineer/designer who’s been convicted of commercial fraud. He failed to read certain documents his crooked bosses gave him to sign, and these provided incriminating evidence at his trial.

As usual with Highsmith, the reader is never on firm ground. The story is told largely from Carter’s point of view. Was he really so carefree in business matters, naïve or gullible, too trusting? Were these bosses, who continue to converge on his life after his six-year sentence has been completed, as dodgy as we’re led to believe? Given how Carter develops (or unravels) in the second part of the novel, it’s difficult to believe he’s entirely innocent – about anything.

It’s a novel about the toxic nature of jealousy. Like Othello, Carter is worked on by one of these ex-bosses, keen to give him the ‘ocular proof’ that his beautiful wife Hazel, who has visited him regularly in jail, has been having an affair the whole time – and that it’s still going on when he’s released and they start a new life in New York. The consequences are explosive, and left me when I’d finished the novel with something resembling an acrid taste.

The world that Highsmith conjures up in those novels of hers that I’ve read (link HERE to previous posts about them) is twisted, and the characters who inhabit it are damaged by its tortuousness. Often they inflict some more on others. I find this is not the best of times to be reading her.

Hibernating snailsHere then are some reflections and images from recent rural walks.

First, a cluster of what I presume are hibernating snails. They were tightly packed inside a drainpipe embedded in a garden wall – it must have been blocked, otherwise they’d surely have been washed away after all the rain we’ve had here in Cornwall in recent weeks. (None of the snow, so far, that’s swept across the north and south-east of Britain over the weekend.)

The steps are outside a house near Kenwyn Church. As they don’t lead anywhere, I assume Stone stepsthey once functioned as a means of stowing things more easily into a cart or truck, or to make mounting a horse less arduous. I like the patterns made by lichens and mosses (not sure what the difference is).

 

 

We have had a few rare days of sunshine. At this time of year, clear skies mean very cold air. This fine butterfly –  a red admiral, I think – took advantage of the warming rays on an olive tree that sits in a pot in the sheltered south-facing front of our house.

Butterfly

Most days have been grey and damp. Mrs TD and I had our spirits lifted on a walk last week at the sight of a field of ewes with their skipping, frisking lambs . The farmer was just leaving through the gate, so we were able to ask her about them. She said the lambs were just three days old. When we passed that way again a few days later I was able to snap this delightful scene: the lamb enthusiastically feeding from its placid mother, its tail wagging like a spaniel’s.

 

Ewe and lambThe sky was grey, but this sight brightened our day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patricia Highsmith and death in Venice

Patricia Highsmith, Those Who Walk Away (Virago Modern Classics, 2014; first published 1967)

Texas-born Patricia Highsmith (1921-95) moved to a country cottage in Suffolk in England in 1964, apparently to be nearer the Englishwoman she’d fallen in love with. She wrote three novels there, including A Suspension of Mercy (1965), the only one of the three to be set in East Anglia, about which I posted HERE, and Those Who Walk Away, which is set mostly in Venice.

Patricia Highsmith Those who walk away coverAs Joan Schenkar says in the introduction to this VMC paperback edition, it’s a classic Highsmith exploration of her favourite fictional territory, the ‘infinite progression of the trapped and the hunted.’ Ray’s wife Peggy had recently committed suicide, and her father Ed’s grief twists him into a murderously vengeful monomaniac. Ray becomes ‘fair game’ to him. Ed blames Ray for his daughter’s death, and spends much of the novel trying to kill him. After all, he tells himself laconically, with unintentional irony, ‘he’s asking for it.’

After Ed’s first botched attempt to shoot him dead, Ray follows him to Venice, where a sinister game of competitive mutual stalking ensues. Lines blur between hunter and hunted. Ray seems to be set on a quest for his own oblivion, a liberation from his own identity. ‘Obsessions are the only things that matter. Perversion interests me most and is my guiding darkness.’ This Highsmith quotation in the introduction (no provenance is given) sums up perfectly the cheerfully dark, disturbing tone and plot of Those Who Walk Away.

Venice canal

A typical canal scene in Venice taken by me last March

I wish I’d taken this with me to read on holiday in Venice last spring. Highsmith evokes the beauty and history of the lagoon island with great aplomb. But she also shows the seedier side of the city, the menacing alleys and murky apartments where the poorer folk live. It’s there that Ray finds sanctuary, and the famous tourist honey-pot sites are where he’s most in danger.

The famous Gritti Palace hotel features, for example, a key location in another Venice novel  with an American protagonist that I’ve posted about here, Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees (1950). Thomas Mann’s novella seems to have cast a shadow over novelists who set their stories there, for Hemingway’s slightly sleazy account of an older military man’s love affair with a much younger Venetian woman is also haunted by the imminence of death. Hemingway’s American officer is also a keen hunter – of ducks, not hapless sons-in-law.

I’ve not read Highsmith’s famous debut novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), but have seen the 1951 Hitchcock film version, so can recognise the common device: two men with unstable identities, locked in a mutually destructive dance-macabre embrace.

5 books and a pencil

Castle hotel train cakeOur oldest grandson’s birthday falls just before Christmas, so Mrs TD and I travelled to Somerset to celebrate with his family. We broke our journey in Taunton and stayed overnight in the atmospheric Castle Hotel, with its cobbled forecourt, crenellations and Norman garden.

The lobby looked very festive, with the centrepiece of this huge gingerbread cake, with a miniature electric train chugging around its circular track. How our grandson would have loved it when he was little, and train mad.

Before sharing a delicious seafood meal with our old friend the regulator, who lives nearby, we trawled the shops (in my case, charity bookshops). I came up with this haul of five titles.

Taunton book haul

Taunton book haul

Antonia White’s The Lost Traveller is the first volume in the trilogy sequel to Virago’s first-ever title in its iconic Modern Classics green-spined series: Frost in May. I have yet to read it, but it’s good to have both volumes to anticipate.

I posted on Stefan Zweig’s poignant novel Beware of Pity last year, and The Post Office Girl was recommended by a Zweig aficionado soon afterwards.

I have a couple of other William Gass titles waiting to be read, and liked the look of this American paperback edition of Cartesian Sonata and other novellas – his fifth work of fiction.

I saw the Werner Herzog film ‘The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’ a few years after it came out in 1974, so it was good to get hold of the 1908 novel by Jakob Wassermann based on the same strange story, in a handsome PMC edition.

Italo Svevo, the pen name of Aron Ettore Schmitz, was a friend of James Joyce during his Trieste years. I read The Confessions of Zeno pre-blog, so I was pleased to find another of his novels in the older PMC format.

Kaweco brass pencilBack home in Cornwall for Christmas, and a pleasant family time with the other grandchildren and their parents, over from Catalonia. Among my presents was this handsome brass clutch pencil: SketchUp 5.6. It’s made by the German company Kaweco. It was a thoughtful gift from Mrs TD’s sister and brother-in-law.

Kaweco pencil and tinIts design I think goes back to the 1930s. It looks very art deco and Weimar. It came in an equally retro tin box. I’ll enjoy using it. Problem is, I now want its companion fountain pen.

I hope you enjoyed your Christmas, if you celebrated it, and that 2020 is full of good times. I can’t say I look forward with much relish to living in Britain once we’ve left the EU. Let’s hope we can somehow maintain good relations with our friends and neighbours across the Channel – despite turning our backs on them in a fit of ill-tempered petulance.

 

Edith Wharton: New Year’s Day

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Old New York. Virago Modern Classics, 2006. First published 1924.

  1. New Year’s Day (pp. 227-306). The 1870s

Before I discuss this last of the four novellas in Old New York, here are some thoughts about the collection as a whole. Although each story stands alone, there are links and connections that cohere across the volume.

All of them deal with an infraction against the social laws/code/traditions of upper-class New York society, which is exposed as deeply hypocritical and cruelly rigid and judgemental in its reaction to it; even some of the participants in the infraction share some of these views.

In False Dawn it’s young Lewis’s presumption in buying artworks in Europe that don’t conform to his philistine father’s idea of heirlooms for his gallery that other wealthy, aesthetically challenged socialites will recognise as works by the Old Masters.

In The Old Maid it’s the giving birth to an illegitimate child, and then pretending it’s a foundling so that the mother can help raise it incognito. In The Spark it’s the deceived husband’s thrashing his wife’s lover in public; society accepts concealed adultery that obeys the rules of appearances, but not openly exposing them to cause a scandal it can’t ignore.

Edith Wharton, Old New York cover

The cover shows a detail from ‘The Reception’ by James Tissot (also known as ‘L’Ambitieuse’ or ‘Political Woman’, from a series done 1883-85, ‘La Femme à Paris’

New Year’s Day is a little different; more about that in a moment.

All four have a complicated, syncopated time-frame. Each story has a dramatic set-up at the start, then in the second part, usually some time later, a revelation is made about the secret or issue that was the topic of the first part; this serves as ironic commentary on that topic that causes it to be seen in a new light.

There’s a common narrator in three of the stories: the young Harvard graduate also features in New Year’s Day. Only The Old Maid is narrated by a woman.

The attitude to art and literature, noted above in connection with False Dawn, serves as another index of society’s snobbery, philistinism, moral atrophy and obsession with going along with received opinions. Again, the participants in the action are often guilty of such narrow-mindedness and insensitivity to the arts.

Now for New Year’s Day. It’s difficult to say much about this novella without spoilers. I’ll focus on its slippery narrative structure and themes. As it’s focalised on the young man mentioned above, we are given only his partial account. It has the usual dramatic opening, in which his mother is remembered condemning Mrs Charles Hazeldean (Lizzie) as ‘bad’, an adulteress who used to meet her lover in The Fifth Avenue Hotel. Lizzie is seen, when the narrator is a child of twelve, leaving the hotel, which is across the street from the house he’s visiting for the titular family gathering, with her lover. They were fleeing a fire in the hotel.

Later, as a callow graduate of twenty-one, he becomes infatuated with the disgraced Lizzie, now a widow. She’s been ostracised by society, which was as usual outraged that she’d had the bad taste to let her affair become public knowledge – not for having the affair. That would have been fine if she’d played by the hypocritical rules of marital infidelity.

What follows is the young man’s breathless recounting of the story Lizzie tells him about that affair. Her version, which he swallows unquestioningly, is that she was using her lover to bankroll the medication, care and travel to warmer climates her sick husband needed. Although he suffers from a heart condition, his symptoms also resemble TB, the symbolic significance of which I discussed in The Old Maid post. (There’s another of those references seen in the earlier novellas to people being ‘shipped off to die in Italy’.)

She portrays herself as a saintly, loving wife who sacrifices her virtue and reputation in the eyes of the venomous, narrow-minded hypocrites of society to save her dying husband, like a New York Nora Helmer. She’s heroically prepared to pay the price for this sacrifice, and spends her later years, during which the narrator becomes a doting confidant, isolated as a social pariah, a tainted woman whom no other woman will call on; what’s venomously known as ‘a professional’ (ie a courtesan). This version is revealed through a complicated sequence of flashbacks over a period of time, as in the other three novellas.

The narrator repeatedly stresses how naïve and innocent he was, ‘an overgrown boy’, and how desperate to believe this glamorous, faded beauty’s melodramatic “confession”. He’s also at pains to tell us how skilful she’d always been at winding men round her little finger, using her beauty and charm as a weapon in the gender and social war; her husband Charles was her first major conquest.

Again we see how unequal the struggle is in this society for a woman born without fortune or vocation, only ‘put in the world to please’ (men); her only asset is her ability to look pretty and prosperous, provided she can find a husband to fund the look. It’s a struggle that’s been a central theme not just in much of Wharton’s writings, but in Victorian and later fiction (George Gissing’s The Odd Women, for example).

Like Delane in The Spark, she’s depicted as animated, independent and uncaring about what society thinks of her, with her own egregious moral code. Also like him she’s incapable of loving books as her husband had. This literary blind spot is perhaps another indication of her disingenuous story about her fall from social grace. She may not read fiction, but she can certainly ‘read hearts’, and this enables her to manipulate the gullible, sexually predatory men around her. The price she pays, the ‘cold celibacy’ of her widowhood, is probably genuine.

The final message is one seen throughout this collection: New York society affects not to find wealth important, ‘but regarded poverty as so distasteful that it simply took no account of it.’