Americans Will Need a Glossary: Alan Garner’s “Treacle Walker”

Even before I finished Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker, which is longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, I predicted that the critics would have called it a fable.  Any short experimental novel, and in this case fantastical as well, is referred to as a fable.  

Garner’s use of language in this odd little fable is sometimes perplexing.  Since I had no context for the oft-repeated words  “ragbone” and “donkey stone,” I thought Alan Garner, the brilliant children’s writer, was writing a post-apocalyptic fable.  “Is he thinking of Ridley Walker?”  I asked myself, because  Treacle Walker is the name of one of the main characters.

“Ragbone!  Ragbone!  Any rags!  Pots for rags!  Donkey stone!” This is the recurring cry of Treacle Walker as he drives his pony cart from place to place. I was repulsed by the idea of “ragbone,” until I looked it up online and learned that it refers to the British rag-and-bone man who travels in a cart and buys rags (discarded clothes) and bones (from which glue is made).  And a donkey stone – another word which flummoxed me – turns out to be a scouring stone.

This rather static book has a dream-like atmosphere.  The main character, Joe, a sickly boy with eye problems, lives alone in the chimney of his house.  Why alone and in the chimney I do not know.  (Maybe it is a post-apocalyptic novella after all, though it’s more likely some English fairy tale reference.)  Thrilled by the appearance of the rag-and-bone man, Joe trades an old pair of pajamas and “a lamb’s shoulder blade he had picked from a mole hill by the railway embankment”  for a pretty, almost empty jar the size of his hand, labelled “Poor Man’s Cream,” and a donkey stone.

Both items are magical:  the donkey stone rubbed on the steps keeps intruders out of the house, and the Poor Man’s Cream makes one of Joe’s eyes see what no one else can see:  it confers “glamourie” (the faery glamour).  Strange things happen.  Joe sees a bog man no one else can see.  And the characters in his comic books literally leap off the page and give chase through the mirror.  (I was afraid Joe would get stuck in the mirror.)

Garner’s prose is polished and spare, but let’s hope Treacle Walker comes with a glossary when it is published in the U.S.  As a lifetime Anglophile, I have finally been stumped by British English. The “craven nidget” turns out to be a “craven idiot.”  But what was I to make of the following?  “It was a hurlothrumbo of winter.  A lomperhomock of a night.  Nothing more.” Wikipedia says that Hurlothrumbo; or, The super-natural is an 18th-century English nonsense play by the dancing-master Samuel Johnson of Cheshire, published in 1729. . And I was unable to find “lomperhomock.”  

I would not be surprised if Treacle Walker won the Booker Prize, nor would I object, because I loved Garner’s children’s books.  But this novella seems a bit precious to me. 

Reading in a Heat Wave: Edith Wharton’s “The Mother’s Recompense” & Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”

Edith Wharton

Saturday was the last  hot day.  That’s what  the Weather Channel said.  You’d think we’d accomplish a lot indoors when it’s 100 degrees outdoors – finish writing that novel, learn to play the guitar – but in fact there is a lot of lolling around.

I did, however,  reread two short novels, Edith Wharton’s The Mother’s Recompense and Jane Austen’s  Persuasion.

I wonder if Edith Wharton is still in fashion.  I don’t see her mentioned much online. The last time I saw an essay on Wharton was in The New Yorker in 2012, by Jonathan Franzen, who is never adverse to being obnoxious.  He said that Edith Wharton wasn’t pretty.  He adds, “Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now if, alongside her other advantages, she looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy.”


I was exasperated by this non sequitur.  Actually, I think Wharton  is pretty enough, but what does it matter?  What do Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Kennedy have to do with it?  Would anyone have said of Henry James or James Joyce, “He isn’t pretty”? 


Before I go on to The Mother’s Recompense, let me say that my favorite Wharton heroine is Lily Bart in The House of Mirth.  Every time I reread it, I am indignant and distressed over her tragedy, as well as in awe of every elegant word Wharton wrote.  How can charming, intelligent Lily fall not just a few rungs, but right off the social ladder?  Lily is desperate: she believes she should marry a rich man to support her life-style, but bungles her chances because she doesn’t like the available bachelors.  The spell of drugs (laudanum) is her only relief as she falls into debt and deeper unhappiness.  Here’s what we learn from Edith Wharton:  No Prince Charming will save Lily Bart.  People like Lily – but not enough. The mystery of fiction is our identification with characters like Lily from Old New York.
                      

I’ve made my way through most of Wharton’s work, and last week I took The Mothers Recompense (1925) off the shelf, because a writer in one of those short interviews at The Guardian or The New York Times called it an underrated classic.

The fact that I had read The Mother’s Recompense, and didn’t remember it, might have been a portent that I would not rate it highly.  If I were a Roman augur, I would have watched some chickens or examined an animal’s entrails and then announced:  “This is not a good day to read The Mother’s Recompense.”

But even though it is far from Wharton’s best, I was riveted by this slight, tragic novel. Plot-wise, it is a page-turner. The 45-year-old American heroine, Kate Clephane, has lived on the Riviera for years, ever since she ran away from her rich husband in New York with another man from whom she soon parted.  Kate has survived in comfort, living in slightly shabby hotels, and dividing her days into periods of aimless social life, taking long drives with the elderly Mrs. Minty, dining with friends at the casino, attending a Ladies’ Guild meeting at the American church, and buying new hats.  And she often muses about her second lover, Chris, a much younger man who eventually left her, but who was the love of her life.

Kate considers herself permanently severed from her family.  And then her daughter, Anne, sends her a telegram, inviting Kate  to return to New York and live with her.  Kate’s mother-in law, the dragon lady who had forbidden Kate to visit Anne for the last 18 years, has died. 

Kate’s reunion with Anne is touching, and their relationship almost perfect, until Anne announces she is engaged to Chris.  This is a tragedy for Kate, who doesn’t know what  a mother should do in this situation. Should she tell Anne about her own relationship with Chris? Can she scare Chris away from Anne?  Either Kate or Anne will break. 

Wharton is usually a great stylist, but here we simply race through the book, not noticing that it’s less elegant than some of her best work.

A good read, not a great book.

As for Jane Austen’s Persuasion, is it not her best novel?  It is less complex than Emma and Mansfield Park, but it is stunning.

These days I read this as a sublime comedy about loneliness and the reinvention of self.  Anne Elliott has lost her bloom:  she is a lonely woman in her late twenties, who some years ago refused  Frederick Wentworth’s proposal of marriage, because her mentor, Lady Russell, said it would be unwise to marry a navy officer with uncertain prospects. Anne has never gotten over the disappointment; she still loves Frederick.  When chance brings Captain Wentworth and Anne together during her visit to her very funny, hypochondriac younger sister, Mary, the two try to avoid each other. But Anne blooms in the admiration of others, and reinvents herself, and there is, of course, romance.

What Next? The Closing of Small-Town Libraries

 One thing the U.S. did right:  in the 1990s and early 2000s, the government funded the renovation of many public libraries. In some cases, they even built new ones.  Drive through any small midwestern town and you’re likely to find a new library or a renovated Carnegie public library.   Take Hawarden, Iowa (population:  2,700), the birthplace of the forgotten writer, Ruth Suckow.  Upon our arrival, we could  not locate Suckow’s house/museum, so we consulted a reference librarian at the strikingly modern public library. The librarian knew whom to call, and our charming guide, a member of the Ruth Suckow Memorial Association, knew all about the family history and Suckow’s books.  And I thought:  Hm, I could live here, because it has a good library and refined people!
                                       

Blue Earth County Library, Mankato, MN: one of our favorites.

 
 We have many favorite libraries:  we love Blue Earth County Library in Mankato, MN (population: 44,488), because of its well-stocked bookstore and fantastic summer book sale.  My husband also recommends the public library in Central City, Nebraska (population: 2,934), where he once cooled off during an epic bike ride on a 94-degree day.  (N.B. Central City is  the birthplace of Wright Morris, who won the National Book award for two of his novels.)

But now we find ourselves in the 21st century, facing library censorship issues we never saw coming.  Two small-town public libraries in the midwest have closed this summer (at least temporarily) due to censorship issues, one in Vinton, Iowa (population:  4,938); the other in James Township, Michigan (population: 8,618) was defunded.

The censorship issues focus on LGBTQ+ books, particularly on the subset of  Y.A. LGBTQ books.  I was not aware that this was a special genre, though of course I have read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories – but I simply call those classics. I am presently reading Our Wives under the Sea, a novel about a lesbian couple, one of whom is traumatized  after a dangerous submarine trip becomes a six-month nightmare.  But does that count as an LGBTQ+ book? I wouldn’t call it that.

As for Y.A. books, I have a contentious, snobbish idea:  stop buying poorly-written crap aimed at teens.  I don’t care if they’re Y.A. autobiographies,  Y.A. feminist fiction, Y.A. science fiction, Y.A. queer books, Y.A. people-of-color books, Y.A. mysteries, Y.A. adventure books, Y.A. romances:  don’t buy them unless you’ve read them and can vouch that they’re well-written!                                 
Some of you may understand my contentiousness.  In the cities, we can fight these censorship battles more efficiently, so long as the education system and public libraries survive (and that is in question these days), because there is greater diversity and a greater number of college-educated people.  But small towns and rural areas seem especially susceptible to Far Right hysteria these days.

Sometimes the lines between literary standards and censorship are blurred. During my childhood, the children’s librarian refused to stock Nancy Drew books.  My mother talked to her about it:  she thought Miss M. might crack if she knew how expensive they were, and how many parents bought them for their daughters.  But Nancy Drew was beneath Miss M.’s standards. And, I admit, it was an excellent library, though I think she was wrong about Nancy Drew.

Nowadays, the Christian far right has a penchant for censorship, and, as with issues like abortion, LGBTQ+  is an easy target.  Let’s hope shutting down the libraries isn’t the censors’ goal, because see how easy it was for them?  I don’t think it’s necessary to close the public library on behalf of a collection of crappy Y.A. books.  If you want to go down fighting, do it for Mark Twain, Harper Lee, and J. D. Salinger.  

Living in Tennies: An End of Summer Reverie

  I live in tennies, as we used to call canvas shoes. I own two pairs:  one is a classic mid-20th-century women’s model, the other a unisex style – a twist on a basketball shoe. The classic model is prettier, but the other is roomier.

Why are they tennies?  Perhaps people did play tennis in canvas shoes at one time.  Nowadays, my beloved tennies are usually referred to as sneakers, and indeed, when I lived on on the east coast, I yielded to common usage (“sneakers”) rather than try to communicate with midwestern “dialect” (“tennies”).

Does the name matter?  My mother loved Keds, the most popular brand, because they were inexpensive and could be washed in the washing machine. At the end of summer she threw ours out, but got several years of use out of hers.

And then there were the fall tennies.  We were required to wear white canvas shoes in gym class.  Mom fumed:  “Why white? They’re hard to clean.”  Yes, why make extra work for Mom? Typical of everything about gym class:  make everyone hate it!

My return to tennies this August has been the hallmark of recovery from My Semi-Invalid Summer, as I refer to it dramatically.  I have already mentioned my so-called sports injury in mid-June.  The cause, ironically, was not a sport, but an intensive yoga class meant to keep one ultra-fit. Unfortunately, it did not work for me:  by the end of the first session, I could barely bend my suddenly-swollen ankles, puffy knees, or weakened wrists.  In order to sit on the floor to do gentle stretching exercises, I have had to kneel on two pillows, then lean on my forearms, then roll onto my back, and pull up my aching legs with my hands. 

“This is how it feels to grow old,” I thought as I struggled to bend my knees enough to sit in the bathtub. 

This yoga class with horrible consequences reminded me of gym classes of yore, when a baleful gym teacher with a whistle round her neck and wincing-white tennis shoes bellowed at us to run faster, to  climb a rope, which I rebelliously declined to try, or to criticize my jumping jacks, which were “all wrong.  You’re jumping too high.”

In general, yoga is a gentler sport. But in this fast-moving yoga class, everything is much accelerated.  You rapidly shift your body from a sphinx pose, or perhaps a cobra, up to a plank, which is a stationary high push-up, and then up to a downward dog, and then again… and again… and again, faster and faster. 

And so, after a month and a half of alternating rest with gentle exercise (my own personally-designed regimen), and constant popping of Advil (you don’t want to go the pain pill route – stick with Advil or Tylenol!),  I am almost back to normal.  That is, if I never miss a gentle exercise session again.

And now I can wear my tennies when I feel like it. I don’t have to wear super-sensible oversized super-supportive walking shoes every time I go out. The tennies are a symbol of youth.  Who knew?  You don’t wear them for long walks, but for joyous short rambles,bike rides, or when you’re out in the garden.

Keep on truckin’, but avoid excessively vigorous exercise.


Reading through Pain: Crime Fiction, a Booker-Longlisted Novel, & Humor

                  

The planet is so hot, it’s hard to imagine its getting hotter.   It was 100 degrees today, and it feels blazing, impossible.  
 
But in addition to suffering the heat, I’ve  been in a lot of pain this summer.  I  injured myself during a power yoga session.  Remember aerobic dance classes?  This was similar, only with yoga moves. I felt my ribcage rattling at one point.  For over a month, my ankles were swollen, and I could hardly bend my knees or  wrists.
 
I am now the queen of modified calisthenics:  leg stretches and gentle weight-lifting. Some days I managed to walk a mile (in pain), other days I could barely make it around the block.  One day I considered crawling home, but my knees weren’t bending properly.
 
I am almost 100 percent, but I couldn’t have gotten through it without Advil, calcium pills, gentle workouts, and some great books.
 
HERE ARE THREE BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS.

CRIME FICTION:  The greatest American fiction being written today is crime fiction. (I’m not the first to say this.)  And Sara Paretsky, author of the V.I. Warshawki series,  is the best American writer working today, says I.  
 
Her savvy, tough P.I. is V.I. Warshawski, a native Chicagoan and a cop’s daughter who became a lawyer and then opened her own P.I. office.  In Paretsky’s latest novel,  Overboard, V.I.’s  dogs run away from her on a walk along Lake Michigan and find an injured girl in a cave. The girl is taken to a hospital, and the case is turned over to the police, but it keeps coming back to haunt V.I.  The police thinks she’s holding out on them.  Really great writing, and if you know Chicago, or even if you don’t, her precise, deft prose will vividly recreate it.                       

BOOKER PRIZE NOMINEE:  I reread Elizabeth Strout’s stunning novel, Oh William!, longlisted for the Booker.  Her sentences are so graceful that they give a new meaning to the word “grace.”  Yet her characters have lived through a  lot of pain, and her lyrical sentences balance that in a way, not to make it palatable, but so that we can see their complexity more clearly.

Oh William! is a sequel to My Name Is Lucy Barton.  Lucy’s ex-husband William’s second wife and their daughter have left him, and he  invites Lucy to accompany him on a road trip to investigate his mother’s past.  He has just learned that before his mother left her first husband, a farmer, to marry William’s father, a German P.O.W., she had had a baby daughter. He never knew he had a sister. Can anything good come out of such a trip?  It’s not a Hallmark movie.   
Do read this because Lucy is good company.
             

 HUMOR WRITING:  I had read very few of P.G. Wodehouse‘s standalone novels, until I found a “Best of” list by Robert McCrum, one of Wodehouse’s biographers.  Piccadilly Jim is hilarious.   There are the usual imposters –  Jim, a practical joker  always in the society columns, changes his name so he can have a chance with a beautiful, bright American girl who scorns the antics of Piccadilly Jim. Imagine his surprise when he meets her family’s new butler – and it is his father, who has fled his wife in England because he couldn’t  bear to miss another baseball season.  I kept tipping back my head and laughing.  I don’t remember ever tipping my head before – that shows how funny Wodehouse is, I guess!

What to Read This Weekend: Joan Didion’s “A Book of Common Prayer”

When we talk about Joan Didion’s novels, we inevitably talk about Play It As It Lays. It seems that Play It As It Lays, published in 1970,  is the only one of her novels anyone has read.  Didion is primarily an essayist, so I understand the vagueness about her fiction. All I can say is, that if I have to spend another minute with the wispy, passive character Maria, I will scream – and I have spent hours with Maria, because people keep telling me Play It As It Lays is a masterpiece. Didion’s style is elegant and spare –  each word is resonant  of secrets in plain sight –  but  Play It As It Lays seems empty. 

Maria, the heroine, is one of those rich, purposeless, vapid women who never have to work and never make a decision without dithering.  The thing Maria likes best is driving very rapidly on the freeway, directionless and barefoot, so she doesn’t have to make a decision.  Couldn’t she become a chauffeur?  I mean, I would have liked to be an aimless, beautiful woman of whom nothing is expected, – but most of us have to work. 

I once attended a reading by Joan Didion, and was simply awed by meeting one of the best writers of the 20th century.  But I did notice, that in spite of her achievements, she seemed wispy and uncertain, a bit like  Maria. If I recall correctly, her husband, John Gregory Dunne, a novelist and screenwriter, sat protectively with her on the stage – or perhaps he simply stood very close and reassured her afterwards.   Didion’s career would suggest that she was strong and capable, able to talk to as well as observe her subjects. But then people are not what you think they are – are they?  It is easy to misinterpret.

I do love  her  third, more complex novel, A Book of Common Prayer (1977).  The principal character, Charlotte Douglas, is a flighty Maria-type, but I like Charlotte.  She is obscenely rich, but in a small Central American country she administers cholera inoculations, kills a chicken with her bare hands, bizarrely identifies different  types of assault weapons, and volunteers at a birth control clinic where she encourages the women to get diaphragms instead of IUDs (pointless, though, because there are no diaphragms).  

Charlotte is misunderstood,  so scattered, and yet so  competent.  One day she had impulsively flown to Boca Grande, a country in Central America on the brink of a coup. Charlotte knew nothing of the politics, but believes that she is only a tourist and thus will never be in any danger.  But then she doesn’t know that she on a “Persons of Interest” list, provided by the U.S. government.    Later, we find out why, though she never suspects.

The narrator,  Grace Strasser-Mendana, a retired anthropologist, an amateur student of biochemistry, is studying Charlotte.  “I will be her witness,” she says.  

Grace says of Charlotte:


She talked constantly.  She talked feverishly.  She talked as if Victor had released her from vows of silence by walking up to where she stood with Ardis Bradly and offering her a crab puff.   Every memory was “lyrical,” every denouement “hilarious,” and sometimes “ironic” as well. … She seemed to be receiving these pointless but bizarrely arresting stories out of some deep vacuum of nervous exhaustion, transmitting them dutifully in a voice soft and clear and oddly confidential. She used words as a seven-year-old would, as if she had heard them and liked their adult sound but had only the haziest idea of their meaning…


 

The men refer to Charlotte as  norteamericana, or norteamericana cunt. She talks to them so intimately,  jumping from one subject to the next, mentioning her family as though everyone knows them:  Warren (her first husband, a mean-spirited professor who wears out his welcome wherever they go),  her second husband, Leonard, a famous radical lawyer (“He runs guns,” she says shockingly at one point), and her daughter Marin, who they assume from her conversation is a child. But Marin is actually a member of a terrorist group, responsible for a bombing.

Charlotte has a tragic life.  In general, she doesn’t pay much attention to what others say:  she is focused on her own past.  It would seem she remembers only in flashes and small, soon-forgotten revelations.  Grace learns her history by a series of conversations with  Charlotte and Charlotte’s family:  eventually she even visits Marin, whom she recognizes from the stupid revolutionaries in her country.


I loved Charlotte. She is a tragicomic character – more tragic than comic, but no one really knows that about herself.  She has courage.  And we can’t really see quite what she knows, because occasionally she says something that implies real discernment.


And, of course, Joan Didion’s writing is superb.

Kurt Vonnegut on Loneliness, Old Age, and the Extended Family

 

I have always admired  Kurt Vonnegut’s unique, ineffably sane take on the destructive history of the 20th century.


In the remarkable documentary, Kurt Vonnegut:  Unstuck in Time, filmmaker Robert B. Weide interviews Kurt Vonnegut and intersperses their witty chats with old home movies provided by Kurt’s older brother, Bernard Vonnegut, photos of family and friends, his children’s reminiscences, Kurt at his high school reunion, love letters, accounts of his two marriages, high school plaques with names of men he knew who died in World War II, and historic footage of wars and other events. 


 Vonnegut grew up in a huge extended family in Indianapolis, Indiana: there were at least 30 Vonneguts in the Indianapolis phone book.  He underwent his share of trauma later:  he was a Prisoner of War during World War II, who survived the fire-bombing of Dresden because he was imprisoned at night in a slaughterhouse.  Later, while working in the PR department of GE,  he discovered that  GE was creating machines that would do men’s jobs and replace them in the workplace.  He quit to become a short story writer and novelist.

Vonnegut’s jokes are so outrageous that I fear he would offend today’s milquetoast audiences.  College students were once his biggest supporters, but I’m not sure they “get” satire anymore.

Here’s a witty, heartbreaking Vonnegut quote from the documentary.

My books are about loneliness and people being driven out of the Garden of Eden.  The world’s full of lonesome old people.  And when trouble comes they call either the police or the fire department.  Lonesome?  Dial 911.  And I say, Get an extended family.


In Slapstick, he makes similar observations. The hero, Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, runs for President of the United States on the radical platform of “Lonesome No More!”  He promises to provide every American with a huge, supportive extended family.  But first, because there is a fuel shortage, he has to burn Nixon’s papers from the National Archives to generate electricity so the computers can assign new middle names to the citizens.   (The middle name will identify your new family of tens of thousands of people.) 


I guess the critics didn’t like his attack on the loneliness of the nuclear family:  Vonnegut himself says he never got nastier reviews.   But in this darkly comic post-apocalyptic novel, Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain is working for the good of the crumbling American society.


. What I love about Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, or do I mean Vonnegut?, is that he laughs in the darkness.

And so we will vote for Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain in the next election.  We love his ideas!

Rereading Jane Austen: Is “Sense and Sensibility” Sultry?

          
      


This summer I have read mainly books by men – which is an unusual choice for me.  But I did reread Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.


 And I’m so glad I reread it.  It has always seemed to me the weakest of her books, but on a third reading I appreciated it. The characters are livelier than I remembered, and this time I loved Elinor Dashwood. (In the past I’ve been a Marianne person.) Elinor is a bit of a martinet, with her perfect manners and conventional mores, but she is intelligent and kind.  She holds the impoverished Dashwood household together after her father’s death.  


Elinor doesn’t get much help:  her younger sister, 17-year-old Marianne, is Elinor’s opposite.  Marianne is fantastically romantic, despising anyone who doesn’t have strong emotions, and is passionate about music and art. Elinor is repressed and dutiful and isnow, more or less, the man od the family.
 


How, you may wonder, could Sense and Sensibility be sultry with this cast?  There is one sultry scene – sultry by Austen’s standards.  After Marianne falls on a hill and sprains her ankle, a handsome stranger comes to the rescue. 
 

Austen writes,

A gentleman carrying a gun, with two pointers playing  round him, was passing up the hill and within a few yards of Marianne, when her accident happened.  He put down his gun and ran to her assistance.  She had raised herself from the ground, but her foot had been twisted in the fall, and she was scarcely able to stand. The gentleman offered his services, and perceiving that her modesty declined what her situation rendered necessary, took her up in his arms without further delay, and carried her down the hill.
 

It is the classic man-saves-the-injured-woman trope.  (Another incident occurs  in Persuasion.) I am amused when the gentleman scoops up Marianne: this was never my fantasy.  But this memorable gentleman is Willoughby, the most charming man in the novel.  (The only charming man in the novel!)  Marianne and Willoughby spend every day together after this meeting, discover they share the same interests,  and fall in love.  But then he leaves without proposing.  


 Elinor’s suitor, Edward Ferrars – who, like Willoughby, does not propose – is a moping, listless, charmless man who seems anemic compared to the other chracters.  But Elinor does love him. And yet… why do the Dashwoods have parallel love problems.  Why aren’t the men proposing?
 
Jane Austen has strict ideas about love.  She values friendship more than love, which is unfortunate for Marianne.  You can almost hear the maxims:   Handsome is as handsome does. The worthiest men are not always the wittiest. 

In one of Margaret Drabble’s novels, the heroine shudders at Knightley in Emma – far better to be with Frank Churchill, or the libertine Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, she thinks.   


I seldom like Austen’s heroes, but I love her writing.  Sense and Sensibility, her first published novel, is rather awkward, but it has its moments.

A Neglected Novel & a Melodramatic Bildungsroman: Jean Stafford’s “The Catherine Wheel” and “Boston Adventure”

                     

Jean Stafford is my favorite American writer, or, rather, she has written two of my favorite books.  She won the Pulitzer in 1970 for her stunning Collected Stories. I also return again and again to The Catherine Wheel, her restrained, elegant, little-known Jamesian novel, set during a summer in Maine. 
 

The Catherine Wheel is a sophisticated, if chilly little book, told from the perspectives of two troubled characters.  

The seemingly tranquil  Katharine Congreve, a middle-aged spinster who believes in “the pleasure principle” but also dislikes change of any kind,  now faces a sexual crisis.  As a young woman, she was in love with John Shipley, an architect who inexplicably fell for her blander cousin,  Maeve.  Weirdly, John and Maeve invited Katharine to accompany them on their honeymoon, claiming that she had made the match.  And now she is having an affair with John, who wants to divorce Maeve, and insists Katharine must marry him to “save him.”  This salvation is not what Katharine had meant by the affair.
         

The Shipley children spend summers with Katharine in Maine while Maeve and John go to Europe, and this summer is no different.  The teenage twins, Honor and Harriet, are excited about having new dresses made and meeting new boys at tea; but 12-year-od Andrew, bullied at prep school and friendless in the city, is crestfallen because his local friend, Victor, has dropped him.  

Victor’s neglect of Andrew seems pathological. Victor is nursing his older brother, Charles, a sailor, who has come home with malaria.  Victor does not even speak to Andrew when he passes the house.  He refuses to allow Andrew into the house to visit him and Charles.


And so  Andrew lies in a hammock all day, violently fantasizing about killing Charles. 


In this small town in Maine, everyone meddles in everyone’s business.  People  gossip when Katharine’s lights are on all night, and speculate that she is ill, or that she was up reading Gone with the Wind.  Katharine feigns calm and pretends she has been making a list for a grand outdoor party, which will end with her favorite firework, the Catherine Wheel,  named after the martyr St. Catherine of Alexandria.

Needless to say, Katharine is no saint, and it is a difficult summer, despite her aristocratic manners and dependence on tradition.  Stafford, who was raised in Colorado and graduated from the University of Colorado, learned the manners not from childhood from her husband, Robert Lowell, who grew up in a wealthy Boston family. 


Ready for melodrama?   Finally I am reading Stafford’s debut novel, Boston Adventure (1946).  It is a little dated, and though it is well-written (okay, anyway), I find it heavy-going.   

Stafford’s debut dud

This 500-page bildungsroman is a dud. There!  I’ve said it! I had my doubts from the beginning, with the narrator Sonia’s simple statement that she “used to sleep on a pallet of old coats and comforters in the same room with my mother and father.”  


Sonia’s family life is violent and poverty-stricken.  Her father, Hermann, a German immigrant shoemaker, has physical fights with his wife, a Russian immigrant, and both of them drink too much.  He deserts them after reading too many Westerns translated into German – to the West, they presume. Sonia’s mother, who possibly killed Sonia’s epileptic younger brother,  is too lazy to work, and depends on Sonia’s after-school earnings as a maid.  Finally Sonia’s mother  is committed to a lunatic asylum.  Sonia is both relieved and guilty.

In the second part of the book, Sonia fulfills her dream of moving to Boston, where she is taken in by Miss Pride, a Boston spinster who spent her summers at the hotel in Sonia’s hometown, Chichester. Now Miss Pride is writing her memoirs, and sends Sonia to secretarial school.  Oh, and there is a Proustian tea party…

I have not finished this yet, but  I am not overly pleased.  It is now my midnight-falling-asleep reading. It reminds me of nothing so much as Nancy Hale’s best-selling blockbuster, The Prodigal Women, the sob story of three women who were friends as girls, and grow apart dramatically as adults.  (Both Stafford’s work and Nancy Hale’s short stories have been published by Library of America). 


Other best-sellers of the time included books I prefer to Boston Adventure: Vera Caspary’s Laura, Olive Higgins Prouty’s Now Voyager, and Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd books.


Stafford is a great American writer, but do start with her later books.

Weekend Reading: Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slapstick”

                    



Kurt Vonnegut is our weirdest great American comic writer, and if you’re looking for a laugh, you will marvel at his wit and acumen even as he chronicles the most horrific events of the twentieth century.  His most famous novel is Slaughterhouse-Five, which describes Billy Pilgrim’s survival of the fire-bombing of Dresden (based on Vonnegut’s own experience) and Billy’s subsequently coming unstuck in time. But Cat’s Cradle and Timequake are funnier and lighter, and I much prefer them.

I recently read and enjoyed  Kurt Vonnegut’s best-selling post-apocalyptic comedy, Slapstick (1976), which received the worst reviews of any of Vonnegut’s novels.  Vonnegut wrote, “The reviewers…actually asked critics who had praised me in the past to now admit in public how wrong they’d been.  I felt as though I were sleeping upright in a German box car again.”  
 
In Slapstick, Vonnegut apparently went too far for the critics, though not too far for me: I do appreciate satire.  Vonnegut’s description of American society in the post-apocalyptic future – which occurs a bit later, but not much later, than now, or perhaps in a parallel time – satirizes American politics, the National Archives, American loneliness, the nuclear family, the fossil fuel shortage, and The Green Death, a pandemic. 
 
The energy crisis is acute when the narrator, Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, is elected President of the United States.  He has run on the platform of the eradication of American loneliness. His political slogan was,  LONESOME NO MORE!  Everybody could relate to that.

But how do you obliterate loneliness?  Swain plans to assign new middle names to each citizen.  These computer-generated middle names will automatically align them with a new extended family – tens of thousands of people who will be committed to caring for its members – as opposed to the too-often neglectful nuclear family.

But when Swain is elected, he has to figure out first how to generate electricity.


The fuel shortage was so severe when I was elected, that the first stiff problem I faced after my inauguration was where to get enough electricity to power the computers which would issue the new middle names.

I ordered horses and soldiers and wagons of the ramshackle army I had inherited from my predecessor to haul tons of papers from the National Archives to the powerhouse.  These documents were all from the administration of Richard M. Nixon, the only President who was ever forced to resign.


 Vonnegut is very funny about Nixon:  he says that Nixon and his cronies weren’t really criminals, they were just lonely.  And so they wanted to commit crimes so they could belong to a crime family.  Vonnegut adds, The National Archives are full of papers about political crimes committed by lonely politicians.

 The structure of Slapstick is odd, as so much of Vonnegut’s work is. Vonnegut says this novel is as close as he’s ever come to writing an autobiography.  It’s what life feels like to him. In his autobiographical prologue, he says he prefers “common decency” to love, and examines the importance of the extended family in his own life and that of his brother.

Chapter 1 begins not in medias res (in the middle of things), but in ultimas res (the end of things).  Swain, now very old and long retired from office, is living on the first floor of the Empire State building with his teenage granddaughter and her lover.  The Green Death has wiped out much of the populsyion. Sickness and disasters are widespread and living conditions are primitive.  The King of Michigan is at war.  Swain’s  granddaughter was lucky that people helped her reach New York safely.


Swain is writing his memoirs, though he doesn’t know for whom:  the young can no longer read or write.    Born in New York City, Swain and his twin sister, Eliza Mellon Swain, were “monsters” from birth, black-haired giants with the features of adults, not Mongoloids, but born with out-of-the-ball-park high intelligence.  He explains, “We were something new.  We were Neanderthaloids.”


 Their beautiful, rich parents were repulsed by their children, and for years hid them away in an isolated house.  The twins could literally put their heads together and solve any problem:  math, science, linguistic, psychological, creative, you name it.  And so a cruel psychologist evaluated the twins and decided to separate them:  their IQs dropped  considerably when they were apart, and thus the psychologist felt secure and brilliant again.

Meanwhile, the Chinese had learned to miniaturize themselves  to solve the food shortage. Part of the formula came from a paper written by the twins when they were children. 


Swain  has the humor and intelligence to know he cannot control the future.  That is for his granddaughter, Melody, and her generation to figure out.

Genius has had its day.


Perhaps my favorite part of the book is the prologue.  Here is an excerpt.

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