Sketches from Lady’s Magazine: Mary Russell Mitford’s “Our Village”

I was delighted to find Mary Russell Mitford’s little-known collection of essays, Our Village, at a used bookstore.  Even if I had not heard of it, I might have purchased this cheap Everyman’s Library edition, with its charming pink cover, decorated with an illustration of Mary and her intelligent greyhound, May.  

Mitford’s simple, humorous sketches of  village life originally appeared in Lady’s Magazine in the 19th century.  She describes country walks, the change of seasons, dogs, cricket matches, the first primroses, nutting, and eccentric neighbors.

Mitford (1787-1855), a middlebrow English writer, was the daughter of a dissipated doctor who squandered her fortune and that of her mother.  As a child, Mary won him the lottery by picking a number, but he gambled away that fortune, too.  Finally, they moved to a cottage, living on the reserve of her mother’s dowry and Mary’s scanty earnings. 

Perhaps she became so balanced and tolerant because of her father’s unreliability.  Life in a city might have disturbed her hard-earned tranquility.  In Chapter 1, “Our Village,” Mitford lays out the advantages of village life, saying she prefers Jane Austen’s novels  to hectic travels. She writes,

Nothing is so tiresome as to be whirled half over Europe at the chariot-wheels of a hero, to go to sleep at Vienna and awaken in Madrid; it produces real fatigue, a weariness of spirit.  On the other hand, nothing is so delightful as to sit down in a country village in one of Jan Austen’s delicious novels, quite sure before we leave it to become intimate with every spot and every person it contains…

Mitford is not in the canon:  her writing entertains but is occasionally awkward.  Yet her observations are sharp, perceptive and wise.  Her constant companion, and my favorite character,  is her greyhound, May, who “answers in a pretty voice when spoken to (sad pity that the language should be unknown), and has greatly the advantage of us in conversation, inasmuch as our meaning is certainly clear to her…”

My husband asked if Mary Mitford is an ancestor of Nancy Mitford – not to my knowledge!  But her point-of-view as a spinster-writer makes this an  essential commentary on the lives of women in rural England in the 19th century.

What Did We Do with Our Coats? The Winter of Identical Jackets

One night, when the temperature dropped below zero, and we felt as though we were in  a Laura Ingalls Wilder book, my boyfriend and I walked home from work. We complained all the way, though we were dressed for the cold.  We wore identical Air Force parkas with synthetic fur-trimmed hoods. 

Only were the parkas identical?  His was navy blue.  Was mine sage-green?  I know I once had a sage-green Air Force parka.  It was an Air Force parka knock-off for women, in a prettier color than the navy blue.  Was his a real Air Force parka?  Where would he have bought it?  The Army-Navy store?  But did the Army-Navy store sell Air Force jackets? 

I’m thinking of the parka, because a friend sent me an old picture of this boyfriend in the parka.  He was at a poetry reading at a local bookstore, having a drink and talking to a couple of literary friends. All of them had coats on. The bookstore must have been cold.   I have noticed, however, that men seldom take off their coats at these events, because they want to be ready to take off when they get bored.

I wonder if my husband – my true love, not the boyfriend – remembers my Air Force parka. Was it blue or green?  But, no, I don’t think he would remember.  The winter I met him, he himself was wearing a strange system of layers of coats, which led a friend to think he was poor.  He wasn’t poorer than the rest of us  – it was a neo-poor prairie-macho fashion he thought up himself.

And then he, too, got a parka. 

The Dickens Walk

This time of year, if you take the Charles Dickens walk, you will probably sing Christmas carols. “Joy to the World, the Lord is come”?  “O Little Town of Bethlehem”?   You will remember some of the words but not all. 

The truth is, you never took the Dickens walk.  You were supposed to meet in front of a tube stop. The docent would wear 19th-century clothes, a living Phiz illustration.  But you never got beyond the Dickens Museum, at 48 Doughty Street, which is not far from Lamb’s Conduit, a charming street known for its pubs, restaurants, and shops. 

Still, you would see Dickensian sights if you took the literary walk. Walk in the City, and you would see the Courts of Chancery, the scene of the endlessly-argued lawsuits in Bleak House.  Perhaps you would walk past the prison where Little Dorrit and her family lived. Then on to the Old Curiosity Shop in Holborn, which you dreaded because it would be too touristy. And of course the docent would take you on one of Dickens’ favorite walks, because Dickens walked 10 or 20 miles a day.

What living writer is the the modern Dickens? You can only think of John Irving, whose sprawling, comical novels of the 20th century, The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, and A Widow for One Year, had a similar vitality. In an interview, Irving said Dickens was his favorite writer, and that he had read all of his books but one, which he was saving for old age. On the TV show, Lost, Desmond  had the same philosophy:  in a ziplock bag, he carried the one Dickens book he had not read. So on Lost, a homage to Irving!

You will not take the Dickens walk this December – it might rain or snow.  And even 48 Doughty Street might be a little crazy around Christmas, because of the Christmas books. 

So Happy Christmas in November!  Perhaps you’ll take the walk.

A Neglected Russian Novel: Alexander Herzen’s “Who Is to Blame?”

A few years ago, I discovered Alexander Herzen’s lively memoirs, Childhood, Youth & Exile:  Being Parts I and II of My Past and Thoughts (1854).  Herzen, a 19th-century Russian intellectual and radical writer, delineates Russian politics, society, and culture, as well as the events of his life.  He wrote four volumes of memoirs, continuing to revise them until his death in 1870.  And his work influenced Tolstoy, who based a scene in War and Peace on Herzen’s description of his family’s flight from the fire of Moscow in 1812 after the French occupation. (Herzen’s nurse tells him the story, because he was only a baby then.)

Herzen wrote only one novel, Who Is to Blame?, published in 1845-46 in the journal, Notes of the Fatherland, and as a book in 1847.  I read it over the holiday, and enjoyed it thoroughly.   It’s a shame this short novel is not better-known, because it is great fun, brimming over with allusions to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Lermentov’s A Hero of Our Time

Divided into two parts and rather oddly cobbled together, Who Is to Blame? is part comedy, part romance, part tragedy.  Part I is at times farcical:  Herzen depicts the  routine of a comical provincial family whose lives revolve around food and sleep.  Aleksai Abramovich Negrov, a retired major general, “followed only one rule of hygiene: he never allowed mental exertion to upset his digestion.”  His obese wife, Glafira Lvovna, lives for meals and naps, but as a slim, beautiful, novel-reading bride did one good deed:  she insisted that they raise his illegitimate daughter, Lyubov, as their own. The snarky, skeptical authorial voice of the narrator intrudes to mock her supposed idealism, saying the reason  “is obvious:  romantic ecstasy predisposed her to prefer above all else tragic scenes, self-sacrifice, forced acts of charity.”

 Though their parents are slothful in middle age, the younger generation is unspoiled:  Lyubov, now a serious teenage girl, and Dmitry Yakovlevich, her brother’s tutor, fall in love.  There are elements of farce:  through a mistake, he kisses Glafira Lvovna on the balcony, thinking she is Lyubov.  But what a kiss!  The snarky narrator dwells on that unforgettable kiss. Glafira is furious when she learns he mistook her for her daughter, and he, of course, is horrified. But it all works out: Part I ends with the marriage of the young couple.  

And then, lo!  Where are Dmitry Yakovlevich and Lyubonka?  In Part II,  Herzen embarks on the story of Beltov, a talented, handsome, once idealistic man who did not fulfill his youthful promise.  After wandering the world and finding nothing interesting, Beltov becomes what the Russians call “a superfluous man,” a rich man who does nothing, in the tradition of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Lermontov’s Pechorin.  Finally, the two parts of the novel connect, when the superfluous man meets Lyubov – who is similar to Pushkin’s Tatyana Larina – and the two fall in love.  

Having just read Tolstoy’s novel about marriage and love triangles, Anna Karenina, I found Herzen’s book a bit simplistic.  Yet Herzen portrays a woman who does not act on impulse.   Lyubonka is a  serious moral thinker, and she wonders philosophically if or why it is wrong to love two men.  She writes in her journal, wondering if she can bear to hurt her husband, who she suspects  could not survive without her. They were perfectly happy, until Beltov arrived. And we ask, along with Herzen: Who is to blame?

I missed the comedy of Part I, yet Herzen just manages to pull the narrative together at the end of Part II.  I will reread this novel, though it is uneven, because I am fascinated by the development of 19th-century Russian literature. 

The Fate of a Charming Woman: Love, Sex, and Drugs in “Anna Karenina”

All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – “Anna Kareninaby Leo Tolstoy

Russian novelists of the nineteenth century are obsessed with love affairs and unhappy marriages.  Having just reread Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s masterpiece, I am left, as always, with compassion for Anna.  She is the charming, lovely wife of an important but charmless government official, Karenin, and the mother of a beloved son.  But Anna loses her position in society after she leaves Karenin for her lover, Vronsky. 

When I read AK at 20, I viewed Anna as a romantic figure who was crushed by society for illicit love.  I no longer regard Anna as a romantic figure, but she is indeed crushed by society.  The double standard is brutal:  no one blames Vronsky for a sexual liaison, and he goes about in society as before, but Anna is shunned by friends.  When she goes to the opera, she is harassed – by a woman who makes a scene and leaves because of Anna. By default, love of Vronsky becomes Anna’s sole pursuit. 

Tolstoy did not at first view Anna as a sympathetic character.  He intended to write a novel in which he moralized about her as a fallen woman.  But he began to see Anna differently as he wrote this tragic novel.  

And yet he also shows Anna as a destructive force.  In the beginning of the novel, Anna travels to Moscow to make peace between her brother, Stiva, and his wife, Dolly, who has learned that he is having an affair with their former governess.  Ironically, after she persuades Dolly to stay, Anna cruelly destroys the mental health of Dolly’s younger sister, Kitty, by dancing all night with Kitty’s suitor, the handsome Vronsky.  She is guiltily aware that she ruined the night for Kitty.  Vronsky pursues Anna to Petersburg, without even saying good-bye to Kitty, who is so shattered she has a nervous breakdown.  It’s all for the best – Kitty ends up marrying my favorite character, Levin, a much better man – but we see that Anna, like Stiva, is impulsive, with a strong sex drive.

Perhaps you’re wondering:  where do the drugs come in?  Anna begins to take opium to sleep at night.  And we see, horrified, how the opium skews her judgment.  Vronsky is faithful to her, as he tells her over and over, but she does not believe him.  She is left alone too much at home, and has extreme mood swings.  Finally, her thought processes become so  disorganized that she enters a frenzied,  psychotic state.  And when she throws herself on the railroad tracks in front of a train, she is confused – doesn’t quite know how she got there – and regrets the impulse to commit suicide. Too late. Poor Anna!  What a terrible end to love!

But perhaps Vronsky is the true destructive force.  There is a grim scene where he kills his beautiful mare by incompetent riding in a race.  He is careless – careless of the mare, careless of Kitty’s feelings, careless of Anna’s feelings.  He can be noble at times, but how could he expect Anna to be happy as a pariah?  

Anna is a  central character, but in this magnificent novel Tolstoy also delineates the marriages of Levin and Kitty, Dolly and Stiva, and the sad deterioration of Karenin after Anna leaves him.  A brilliant, entertaining page-turner.  This was, I think, my fifth reading. 

Pliny’s Library: Why We Reread Books

I prefer old Penguins!

Pliny, the  Roman orator, politician, lawyer, and writer (ca. 61 A.D.-113 A.D), wrote in a letter that he kept his books in a cupboard shaped like a public library at his villa.  These books, he explained, were special.  They were “not books for reading but for rereading again and again,” or, in the original Latin, non legendos libros sed lectitandos.

And there we have it:  Pliny is a member of our rereading club.

Yes, I also prefer rereading. We do not, we confess, want to read Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, though  Ron Charles at The Washington Post and other critics hail it.   Though I loved Kingsolver’s earlier novels, especially Prodigal Summer, which reads like a 21st-century novel by Edith Wharton,  I am still recovering from her last novel, Unsheltered, which seems to be a series of political opinions pasted on a visible outline of two linked stories about struggling middle-class families. To be fair, I learned a lot about college debt, Cuba, the fall of the middle class, the resistance to Darwin, the pursuit of tenure, health insurance, and the crumbling American dream.  But it was less subtle than Kingsolver’s usual writing.

Some rereaders are even more comically critical of new books than I am. One cranky gentleman of the press who, along with other writers, was supposed to recommend new books for holiday shoppers, made the following irascible admission.  

Nothing that’s reached me in recent times do I wish to keep on the shelf and reread; nothing of the calibre of Kingsley Amis, Beryl Bainbridge or Muriel Spark exists. I’m sorry she died and everything, but I did think Hilary Mantel frightfully overpraised. Her novels will be placed by history next to Mrs Humphry Ward’s – stock impossible to shift in antiquarian bookshops.

Heavens, I thought.  He is far more severe than I am. Even I have read a few good new books this year, possibly six or seven.  And, I confess, I am fond of Mrs. Humphry Ward.

Yet I do prefer rereading classics and older books to reading new books.  I am happy to curl up with the cranky gentleman’s favorites, Kinglsey Amis and Muriel Spark, or some of my own favorites, which I will recommend at the end.

Standards of writing in every century are low, but they are dropping fast in our miserable times.  Why are books so long now? Are people buying by the pound?

And why does the Acknowledgements page go on for pages and pages?   The writers express gratitude to teams of editors and their many, many friends, whole writing groups, and first readers.  Too many cooks…?  How does this process work?

But I do adore books, and let me recommend a few of my favorite dead 20th-century authors ,  Molly Keane,  Alice Thomas Ellis, and Jean Stafford.  The great novelists have complex ideas, know how to shape dramatic scenes, write convincing dialogue, develop a distinctive voice, and interweave serpentine themes into  their magical narratives.

And now let me return to my very good, very old book:  a rereading, naturally!

The Holiday Emergency: Make a New TBR!

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  It was a calm and gently festive day when we were first married, living far away from home.  We spent the day roasting the turkey and sweet potatoes, steaming green beans (my husband hates green bean casserole), and  baking a pie. Then we went to a movie. 

And that is a perfect holiday.

Family makes things harder – especially dysfunctional families.  One Thanksgiving, after hours of holiday cheer, the men dug in to watch football, and the women did not dig in to watch football.  It was that restless hour when pretense falls off the edge.  Our hostess was in tears because the thoughtless relative who had cooked the meal had meted out leftovers to everyone except her.  And when I tore my husband away from football, insisting that we we had a long drive home, that same thoughtless relative said loudly: “Have you ever seen anyone more awkward?”  So then I was in tears, too.  

It is time to prepare for holiday stress emergencies – with a new TBR book list!

And by “book,” I mean something vaguely trashy, completely riveting, or so brilliant and lyrical that it takes us out of ourselves.

Let the book recommendations begin!  The first two are new, the other two old favorites.

1. Starlight Wood:   Walking Back to the Romantic Countryside, by Fiona Sampson.  In her bracingly intelligent, lyrical new book, Fiona Sampson, a British poet and biographer, discurses on the role of walks in the lives of the Romantic poets, artists, and philosophers.  By retracing their country walks, she connects not only to their radical art but to nature. “Romanticism isn’t a cultural artefact: it’s a way for thought to move,” Sampson writes.  I love her meditative, charmingly digressive essays on Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning,  John Constable, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Sampson herself.  You can read the book straight through, or just the chapters that interest you.  A brilliant, calming book for the holidays!

The Complicities, by Stacey D’Erasmo.  This fast-paced, entertaining middlebrow novel has all the components of good escape reading: financial fraud, a beached whale, and a woman’s reinvention of herself. 

This is a plot-oriented beach book, sans romance. When her husband goes to prison for financial fraud, the narrator, Suzanne,  gets divorced and reinvents herself  in a small beach town in Massachusetts.  To me, this seems a sensible decision! She earns a living doing bodywork, stops dyeing her hair, and lives simply in a leaky house hardly bigger than a shack.  

And we see her change from a thoughtless person who previously spent too much money into a mature woman who appreciates nature and is concerned about the environment.  There is a long, poetic section about her spiritual connection to a beached whale, which she tries to save by helping oceanographers and trained volunteers return it to the water. And when the whale dies, she goes every day to the beach to meditate upon its remains.   

 D’Erasmo has a surprising view of Suzanne:  she turns the book around and tries to convince us that Suzanne is immoral.  I couldn’t get my head around this at all.  Suzanne’s ex, Alan, who becomes a shady developer after prison, her son, Noah, who works with his father, Alan’s former business partner, Alan’s second wife, Lydia, and Alan’s birth mother, who only met him once and never met Suzanne, claim that Suzanne knew what he was doing all along.  They blame her for not returning the money I assumed belonged to both, so he could use it for restitution to his victims, among them his rich friends. She donates all the he money to a kind of Save the Whale organization. D’Erasmo agrees with Alan and his second family, and tries to prove that Suzanne was immoral to give the money to a good cause.   What did that long, poetic section about the whale mean then?  Suzanne is the only sympathetic character in the book, the only one who disapproves of  the Ponzi scheme, and I could not take the ending seriously. But the section about the whale makes this novel worth reading. 

3 The Group, by Mary McCarthy. Set in the 1930s, this page-turner follows a group of  eight friends who graduate from Vassar College in 1933.  (McCarthy also graduated from Vassar in 1933. ) They have absorbed that Seven Sisters College moral resolve to make a difference in the world, or at least to work: they teach nursery school, are freelance manuscript readers for publishing companies, work for the New Deal, the National Recovery Administration, Macy’s, etc. Over the years they grow apart, because of geographic differences, or different philosophies, but there is humor as well as drama.  In my favorite scene, two of the women, Kay and Dottie, wear wedding rings when they go to a doctor to get birth control, and when Dottie practices inserting the diaphragm, it pops out of hands and flies across the room.  Dramatic, often funny, realistic, and a perfect escape read! 

How Green Was My Valley, by Richard Llewellyn. All right, I cried.  So will you!  In this extraordinary, lyrical, sentimental 1939 best-seller,  Llewellyn delineates life in a coal-mining community.  The narrator, Huw Morgan, the youngest son of a Welsh family of coal miners, vividly relates the history of his family in relation to work. As a boy, he witnessed clashes over miners’ rights, unionization, and strikes.  His older brothers were hot-headed radicals, while his father was conservative. With the help of his older sister, Angharad, his strong-minded mother persuades her sons to return home after a devastating quarrel with their father.  The family remains close, bonded by their mother’s mediation and their work in the mines.

There are many tragedies for the miners and their families.  As a child, Huw is crippled after leading  his mother home from a Union meeting on the mountain at night:  some of the radicals had threatened to kill his father, considering him one of the owner’s pets because he gets promoted, and Huw’s mother told them she would kill anyone who hurts her husband.  And then there is Mr. Gryffydd, the radical minister who educates Huw and helps him walk again.  Later in the book, Mr. Gryffydd falls in love with Angharad but devastates her by refusing to marry her because of his poverty – so she makes a marriage in hell with a mine owner.  There is much drama, much melancholy, and moments of poetic happiness. Huw has a hard life, working side-by-side with his brothers, but it is also rewarding.

John Verney’s “February’s Road”: Political Skulduggery & Infelicities of Journalism

Why do classics go out-of-print? Even if you write the title and author in a reading journal – which I sometimes do – with a date beside it, the number of pages, and other arcane data – it does not necessarily recall the actual book. 
Perhaps you never wrote down titles of John Verney’s witty 1960s novels.  I didn’t! But I never forgot them. And I may be an expert on February’s Road (1961), because I own an old copy and have read it multiple times. This gem of a children’s book has been neglected, forgotten, and might even be banned by right-wingers (if they had read it, that is), because it is political novel for adults, disguised as a children’s book.
Narrated by February Callendar, a witty girl who likes ponies, hunting, comics, and pop records by Cliff Richards, this sharp-tongued narrative heads straight for an investigation of political skulduggery. The Ministry of Highways announces its plans to rush a trunk road through Cowdray Park, an unspoiled piece of land near the Callendars’ ramshackle country house.  They cannot fight it, because Feb’s father, Gus Callendar, a writer for The Messenger, has ranted for months about the need for new roads in England.

Illustration by John Verney

The villagers are agog. They do not want the road there. But when someone damages the bulldozers the night before work starts on the road, the police suspect February – unjustly, but her fingerprints are found on a pan.  Shortly thereafter, a flock of reporters descend on them.  When the first reporter knocks on their kitchen door, Mrs. Callendar, though she should know better as a journalist’s wife, invites him in because it is cold.

Here are a few witty excerpts that reveal Verney’s comical impressions of the infelicities of journalism and journalists. 

We asked him in for tea and he told us he was what they called a “stringer” – that is, he had a job on the Querbury Advertiser, but also reported for one of the largest, and nastiest, of the London dailies if anything cropped up locally.  They had phoned him and told him to get a story about – me!

Mrs. Callendar asks if he is ever ashamed of prying into people’s problems – but she puts sugar in his tea at the same time.

“Well, of course, I do often get asked that question, Mr.s. Callendar,” he answered very politely. “I think you should perhaps try and see it from this angle…”  And he told us how he himself deplored unnecessary prying and would certainly put a stop to it when he became editor of The Times, but that meanwhile any self-respecting reporter had a responsibility toward the public at large…

And then other reporters and a photographer show up and are invited in. February goes on:  “He asked if Mummy would like a snap of the family having tea.  Mummy never can resist snaps of us children…”

The Callendars forget the reporters, busy as they are with the chaos of family life, but then Friday (February’s brother) bursts in on Tuesday morning with an armful of papers. 

February observes:

For sheer imaginative fiction, the young men we’d entertained at tea were geniuses, and to read them you’d think I had sworn to take on the Ministry of Highways single-handed, but the headings will give you an idea of the sort of stuff.”YOU’VE GOT TO FIGHT THESE DAYS,” SAYS FEBRUARY.  “GOOD OLD FEB FAIRLY BASHED THOSE BULLDOZERS!” SAYS BROTHER FRIDAY… THE FIGHTING CALLENDARS… . HER FATHER’S DAUGHTER….

Verney also shows the  positive side of journalism:  a smart American columnist at The Messenger understands that February is a red herring, a distraction from  the politics and profit motive of the road. Thrillingly, he recruits February to help him do research. There is a certain amount of espionage.

Oh, and by the way, some papers are classier than others: The Times and The Messenger are the only two that report  the damage to the bulldozers without conjecturing about February.

This book is sheer enjoyment, my favorite of Verney’s four books about the Callendar family. 

By the way,  Paul Dry Books has reissued Friday’s Tunnel (the first book in the series) and February’s Road (the second).  This is good news indeed!

A Reimagined Myth: “The Professor and the Siren,” by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa

As a zealous reader of the classics, I was enchanted to happen upon Lampedusa’s short story, “The Professor and the Siren,”  an evocative retelling of the siren myth, and a weighing of the balance between gods and men.  Lampedusa, best known as the author of The Leopard, a historical novel that won the Strega Prize in 1959, two years after his death, also wrote short stories that were not published in his lifetime.  In his version of the siren myth, she is a sexy mermaid goddess, human above the waist, with a fishtail below, who seduces men, yet is capable of lasting love.

Published in a slim volume of three of Lampedusa’s short stories by NYRB Classics, the title story is a tour de force.  The narrator, a lively young journalist, Paolo Corbero, lives in Turin in 1938, where fascism and censorship are on the rise.  Paolo himself is more concerned with personal problems: he has just been dumped by two women.  Girl 1 found out about Girl 2, and that was the end of his sexual affairs.  Paolo now spends all his free time at a dark cafe that is not the most cheerful of bistros.  Though he has no interest in classics, he humorously observes that the cafe is Hades.

It was a sort of Hades filled with the wan shades of lieutenant  colonels, magistrates, and retired professors. These vain apparitions played checkers or dominoes, submerged in a light that was dimmed during the day by the clouds and the arcade outside, during the evenings by the enormous green shades on the chandeliers.  They never raised their voices, afraid that any immoderate sound might upset the fragile fabric of their presence.  It was, in short, a most satisfactory limbo.

This is not a place where Paolo will meet women.  He is, as Lampedusa says, in limbo.  But he is curious about the old men who frequent the cafe.  One elderly man, Rosario La Ciura, is especially arrogant, so Paolo is intrigued when one day Rosario asks to  borrow a Sicilian newspaper.  Both men are from Sicily, and nationality is their bond.  At the newspaper office, Paolo learns that Rosario is a world-famous, now-retired classics professor and a former senator.   

The two become friends, and meet regularly to dine, walk,  and chat.  Rosario confesses he is relieved that Paolo hasn’t befriended him to discuss his love of the Greek aorist tense.  Paolo laughingly admits he barely passed Greek, and that he studied law at the university.  But Rosario’s apartment is so filled with Greek prints and bits of sculpture that it is like walking into a Greek myth.

While the fascists begin their war, Paolo and Rosario value the power of words, place, history, art, love, and myth.  Paolo has wondered why  Rosario was such a misogynist – was he still a virgin? – but when he sees a photo of Rosario as a god-like young man in his twenties, he realizes that Rosario must have known love.  

And then Lampedusa cleverly begins a story within the story. On the night before Rosario travels to an international classics conference, he confides in Paolo the story of his love affair with a mythic siren. He was in his mid-twenties, and his 20 days with the siren were an idyll.  And this story is also the story of the siren, who throughout history has known many men, and who has told him he can come to her at any time, when he is tired of life.  

“The song of the Sirens, Corbera, does not exist; the music that cannot be escaped is their voice alone,”  Rosario says.

And then he describes her voice.

“It was a bit guttural, husky, resounding with countless harmonics; behind the words could be discerned the sluggish undertow of summer seas, the whisper of receding beach foam, the wind passing over lunar tides.” 

Myth provides the professor with everything modern life cannot.  He despises the Italian fascists and the Germans, and is bitter about the degradation of the classics.  The siren is a goddess, but is not human, and it is her distance from humans, her nearness to animals and gods, that make love possible for Rosario. 

Paolo is the one who will survive the war.  He has managed to save a few things of the professor’s but much has been destroyed, including his house.  What is he left with?  Memory, myth, and life.  Paolo must deal with the present (war, law, journalism, rebuilding) while the late Rosario dealt with the past (classics, ancient myth, history, death). 

Classics That Are Not Quite Classics: “The Bloater,” by Rosemary Tonks

 I  heard that the English poet Rosemary Tonks’s 1968 novel, The Bloater, is a neglected classic. 

I love ’60s novels! And a blurb by Michael Hoffman on the cover of the New Directions edition seduced me:  “Writing like this – a bit of Rhys, a bit of Knut Hamsun, a bit of Wyndham Lewis, a bit of Muriel Spark, overlaying the everlasting Shakespeare/Austen/Bronte/George Eliot marriage drama – is far too beautiful and accomplished to be kept on the shelf.”

Though I get it – the writing is fun and edgy, if a bit haphazard – I was too irritated by the narrator’s voice to enjoy it whole-heartedly.   Min is a narcissistic, mean-spirited sound engineer at the BBC.  She is married, but has suitors, among them an opera singer she nicknames “the Bloater” (a swelled, salted herring – we would visualize this better if we were English). 

Min is married to George, who does something very quiet at the British Museum, but she doesn’t seem to like men much.  She teases her male friends, and is vicious to the Bloater.  The only character she seems to relate to is Jenny, a friend and colleague whom she admires for her mod 1960s mien. 

Here is one of her typical fashion reports about Jenny. 

Today she is very got up; a tight, sexy green jersey, a leather skirt in a very  elegant brown with scruffy patches to prove it’s real, things on her wrists which she shakes about too quickly for me to focus, and black hair combed down to her shoulders and then fixed in position with sparkling glue pressed on.

Min is at her best with Jenny.  They go to sordid pubs and discuss men, and also talk endlessly on the phone about men.  Jenny falls in love with “the Guitar,”  a sexy rock musician, and, needless to say,  Min wishes her opera singer were like him.  Perhaps Min is more rock-and-roll than opera, though she does love opera.

So where is this going?  At the end, she falls in love, quite abruptly, and though we are happy for her, we wished we’d seen more of the charming Min earlier in the book.  I found myself begrudging Tonks her neat turns of phrase because the narrator was so cold.

This may be a classic for some, but not for me.

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