Reading Short Books: Rachel Hadas, Rumer Godden, & Marjorie Wilenski

After a year of reading 155 books, including 17 nineteenth-century novels, I have given way to the temptation of short books.  I am now the trendy reader who finishes a new book every day before sunset (like a vampire) and walks it down the street to the Little Free Library.  I could, at this point, do a double Goodreads challenge.   

This seasonal break of reading slim volumes has been rewarding.  I particularly admired Rachel Hadas’s Poems for Camilla, a luminous collection of poems inspired by her rereading of Virgil’s Aeneid. Each poem begins with a quotation of Latin lines from the Aeneid, followed by elegant meditations on the lines. “Filing System” refers to the disarrangement of the Sibylline books and the scattering of the pages by the wind of Hadas’s own manuscript.  “The Cause” is a reflection on the princess Lavinia as the reputed cause of war (like Helen of Troy).  My own favorite  is “Stride by Stride,” a poetic commentary on the friendship of Aeneas and Fides Achates (faithful Achates).  Here is an excerpt from this poem. ( Sorry, the blog insists on double-spacing these lines!).

Fidus Achates: my Latin teacher taught us

to snicker at the epithet as too

predictable.  But that’s not how I see it

now. The companion, the fidelity,

the sharing of a burden

too heavy to be carried all alone–

far from predictable. Precious and rare.

Your younger brother is your dear Achates.

Worry matching worry, stride for stride,

you pace and talk together a long time.

I have also enjoyed several short novels.  Here are brief reviews of two.

Rumer Godden’s Breakfast with the Nikolides, set in India during World War II,  is a small masterpiece about a dysfunctional English family. The tragic arc of this  novel fans out from a single event, Louise’s decision to have her daughter’s dog killed when she thinks it has rabies.  Her two daughters, Emily and Binnie, who have been sent to have breakfast with the Nikolides, their neighbors, while the spaniel is put down, are devastated when they hear of his death.   To torment her mother, Emily insists that Don is still alive and half believes it.  And the ramifications  extend to the guilt of Dr. Das, the Indian veterinarian, for killing an innocent creature, and his attempts to share his doubts with his strangely manic, charming student boyfriend, who rebels against the college and writes poetry.  Godden’s style is lyrical, and she has an astonishing gift for structuring a novel like a poem.   The ring composition will make you gasp with admiration.  

I wish that all short books were equally stunning, but I found Marjorie Wilenski’s novel Table Two disappointing.    The book description hooked me, claiming Table Two was “as biting and funny as Barbara Pym at her crankiest, follows an office of women translators at the fictional Ministry of Foreign Intelligence in London [during World War II].”  

I am a fan of office novels, and at first enjoyed getting acquainted with the cast of middle-aged characters.  I thought that the heroine was Elsie Pearne, an intriguing, embittered, extremely smart but paranoid middle-aged woman who could have run the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence single-handed, if it weren’t for her gruff personality. She despises her co-workers and shows it. But then the narrative shifts to a bland, sweet young woman, Anne, a new employee who, because she she is from an aristocratic family, is assumed to be capable of quick promotion.  Elsie and Anne are briefly friends, despite  class differences,  until Elsie starts to resent Anne’s romance with a handsome RAF officer.  And since Anne is less interesting than the others,  I wish we’d stayed in the office.  Don’t expect Pym!  The book description here is better-written than the book.