Not Like “People” Magazine:  Anne Enright’s “Actress”

Sometimes I find it difficult to review new novels. I recommend so many that fall by the wayside.  If they are reissued years later, as they sometimes are, I feel vindicated.   But I ask myself two questions before I post a review:  did I really like the book?  And will it hold up for 10 years?  (I never know the answer to the latter.)

I am confident that Anne Enright’s new novel Actress is a winner for our time–to the point that it might win the Booker.  (She won the Booker Prize in 2007 for The Gathering.)   Actress is a dream of a novel, not only lucid and nimbly-written, but a page-turner.  It is that rare thing:  a literary novel that is great weekend reading.

It was an odd book for me to pick up.  I love movies but am uninterested in actors, because the press portrays them as mildly trashy and not very bright. When Huff Post publishes an article announcing that likable Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt smiled at each other at the SAG awards and touched each other’s hands, I was baffled.  I looked at the photos–I suppose that’s the point–but could see nothing but two exes joking with each other.  Is that romance?  Of course not.

There is none of that daffy caricature in Enright’s wonderfully sympathetic book.  Enright’s poetic prose and telling details shape a realistic situation and a likable actress. The narrator, Norah, a writer in her sixties, misses her mother, Katherine O’Dell, a  movie star and stage actress who died in early middle age when Norah was 28.  And their camaraderie was endearing.  In a charming scene, Norah describes the two of them sitting together smoking cigarettes, not saying much, but enjoying themselves, as Norah tries to behave like a grown-up woman, talking about her men.  One feels Katherine’s warmth and  devotion to Norah.   

There is nothing of Mommie Dearest, though occasionally Katherine is overly-dramatic, and in her mid-forties, when she is considered washed-up, she spends more and more time transforming herself with makeup and clothes before she dares to go out. And there is a scandal about Katherine’s death.  All I will say is that it involved madness, or possibly acting mad.  

Norah is a reasonably contented woman to whom little happens.  Her books sell, but she doesn’t think they are very good.  Although she declares that she loves her husband and has an idyllic marriage, she is bored and lonely enough to agree to an interview about Katherine by  a doctoral student writing a thesis.  Naturally, the student is not interested in who Katherine was:  she wants Katherine to be a dramatic feminist symbol.  Norah was expecting something different.

I did not know why I had let this girl into my house, suddenly. Here I was again, stuck in some other person’s curiosity, conned into it by my own loneliness or, in this case, by my mother’s loneliness – that gaping sense you get of the grave. She was so long dead. And I would give anything, even now, to bring her in from the cold.

And so Norah decides to write the story of her mother herself. She does research, travels, interviews old friends, and reads diaries and letters.  Katherine was adamantly Irish and supported the IRA, but never revealed to the press that she was born in England. And she was a child actor on the stage:  her parents were actors in a repertory company that toured Ireland.  Her whole life was about the theater (and, later. films).

Norah’s muted style makes her mother the star, and she stays in the background. Every detail is important, every image vivid. In the first chapter, which describes Norah’s twenty-first birthday party, all the important characters appear.  Norah and her friends stay in the corner, chatting about men, while Katherine plays the charming hostess.  After midnight Katherine’s friends arrive, “a shifting band of big, drinking men, all of them good company, some of them unknown.” 

Norah observes,

My mother’s crowd drifted up to the living room to be ignored by my own friends for being old. Or maybe all men were old in those days, with their baggy sports jackets and packets of fags, there was no difference between twenty-five and forty-five, everyone wore a tie.

(I do remember that old-man look.  And were they smoking pipes?) 

Both women suffer in their relationships with these “old” men, though they try to conceal it.  There is trauma, especially for Katherine.

Enright’s novel is dramatic and nearly perfect, as it reveals the power and tragic sadness of Katherine and Norah. This literary novel is fabulous.

The Ovid-Quoting Contest: Tietjens vs. Miss Wannop in “Parade’s End”

In one of my notebooks, I scribble down references to Ovid I chance to find in novels. There are a surprising number of novels in which characters quote Ovid, or, conversely, in which Ovid himself appears.  Two of the best are about Ovid’s exile, David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life and the Austrian novelist Christoph Ransmayr’s The Last World.  These classics seem entirely forgotten.  But my book club so far has voted me down every time I suggest them.

I have been smitten with Ovid for years. Reading his epic poem Metamorphoses, a collection of myths of transformation, was transformative.  And  Ovid’s Amores (love poems) might well be adapted as a Netflix film about the problems of modern couples. In one of the poems, Ovid mockingly consoles his girlfriend Corinna when her hair falls out after a bad dye job; in a diptych, he fumes and fulminates about Corinna’s abortion, which he learns about only after she almost dies.  

So who is my favorite Ovidian in a novel?  One of my favorite characters is Christopher Tietjens, the statistician-gentleman-soldier-linguist hero of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, a Modernist tetralogy set in England and Europe during World War I.  In the first novel, which has the unpromising title Some Do Not…, he argues with Miss Wannop, a suffragette and classicist, about the wording of some lines from Ovid’s Fasti.  

Tietjens is a true gentleman, of the kind we never meet in real life. Let us say that Ovid would not have believed in him.  When Miss Wannop and a suffragette friend appear on a golf course to shout their slogans and the friend falls down, Tietjens courteously helps them get away.   And he and Miss Wannop (Valentine), a daughter of an old friend, turn out to have much in common.  Both are bookish–well, intellectuals really–and not at all snobbish.  Tietjens, a genius, unfortunately irritates many people with the breadth of his knowledge.

And so he is not at all upset when Miss Wannop turns out to know more Latin than he does.  “Upon my soul!” Tietjens said to himself, “that girl… is the  only intelligent living soul I’ve met for years.”

Even if you don’t know Latin, you’ll feel the sexual tension.

And I admire Miss Wannop’s stubborn bluestocking style:  she does not resort to flirtatious self-denigration, which is still a problem in women’s discourse.  She proves her familiarity with the vocabulary of Ovid, who really does use certain words more than others, and points out alliteration and matters of the ear.  

She says, “The reason why I’m unconcerned about your rudeness about my Latin is that I know I’m a much better Latinist than you.  You can’t quote a few lines of Ovid without sprinkling howlers in….  It’s vastum, not longum….  Terra tribus scopulis vastum procurrit“… It’s alto, not coelo  Uvidus ex alto desilientis…”  How could Ovid have written ex coelo?  The “c” after the “x” sets your teeth on edge.” 

Adelaide Clemens as Miss Wannop and Benedict Cumberbatch as Tietjens in “Parade’s End”

Tietjens’ world is peopled by characters who know poetry.  In the second novel, No More Parades, Tietjens is an officer in the army, but even when he  has just been splattered by the blood of a man blown up by a bomb, he finds an opportunity to write a sonnet.  While scribbling some paper work for men who are about to go to the front, he declares he will write a sonnet in under two and a half minutes if Captain Mackenzie provides him with end rhymes.  Captain Mackenzie agrees to do so, and adds, “If you do I’ll turn it into Latin hexameters in three.  In under three minutes.”

Just so you’ll know Tietjens has real problems, let me tell you that his wife Sylvia, a beautiful adulterous villain, hates him so much that she slanders him and ruins his reputation.  And it seems she won’t stop till she kills him.  You’ll never believe what she tells the colonel.

Parade’s End is one of the best books (well, quartets) I’ve ever read.

Carpe Diem! The Politics of Reading Horace

Horace
Horace and a Latin dictionary held together by duct tape.

“What do you make of it?” a thoughtful but nervous professor asked during a graduate Horace seminar.

This was, in my view, an odd question.  Did he know Horace’s odes?  Or was this a new approach to teaching?  Later, when I read his criticism, I was moved by his elegant prose and the depth of his knowledge of Roman poets. I truly think this kind-hearted professor was trying to create an atmosphere conducive to an experimental age. 

It was a time that had flipped everyone upside down. The anti-war protests were over and buildings were no longer seized by students demanding the cessation of funding from the military-industrial complex, but fulminations against “irrelevance” continued to hit enrollment in the liberal arts.  Students fulfilled their two-year language requirement with Latin, then disappeared.  When I was a T.A., some protested that the Latin sentences in Wheelock (the first-year textbook) were hawkish and sexist.  I countered by bringing in love poems by Catullus and Ovid.  And in my upper-level classes, both at the university and later when I taught high school, I taught poetry instead of prose. But Horace was too complex for all but the best students.

odes horace modern libraryHorace is perhaps the most challenging of Latin poets.  In retrospect, it is easiest to cozy up to Horace for coining phrases like carpe diem (seize the day) and aurea mediocitas (the golden mean). We prefer the love and nature poems to the political odes.  Certainly Horace’s political odes, which often celebrate the achievements of Augustus, are so steeped in history and politics that they may exasperate, even seem alien, on a first reading. After years of reading widely in Latin literature, we understand the trauma of the civil wars that tore Rome apart for most of the first century B.C., until Octavian (later known as Augustus) defeated Antony in the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. and  became Princeps (“Chief Citizen,” though he was actually emperor). Some readers accuse Horace of brown-nosing to Augustus, but I believe he genuinely admired him.   Of course flattery was necessary and writers learned to tread lightly. The poet Ovid was banished to an island for carmen et error (a poem and an error). Horace made no such error.

It was the “personal” poems of Horace that most appealed on a first reading. And we were delighted by Horace’s advice to relax with wine rather than worry about the future.  (We worried about the future all the time.) Alas, the cheap Chablis we bought at the grocery store was barely potable. Still, we understood the symbolism of wine. And here is my translation of two charming stanzas about wine from Horace’s Ode II.X. (You can read the whole translation at my blog Mirabile Dictu.)

Why do we not loll carelessly
and drink under the tall plane or pine tree,
our white hair fragrant with roses,
and anointed with Syrian

balsam oil, while we may? Bacchus
drives away our gnawing cares. What boy will
more quickly quench the cups of burning Falernian
with flowing water?

Horace’s references to wine have fascinated generations of critics.  Harry Eyres, author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet, the son of a wine merchant, ponders these allusions at length.  Though he does not agree with Boris Johnson that Horace was “a wine snob,” he admires Horace’s knowledge of wine.  Eyres writes,

I think Horace was more than a wine snob; he was a true connoisseur, who knew and cared about wine’s intimate secrets, the different crus and vintages, which mattered as much to the Romans as they do to us….  He was a wine lover, who saw beyond wine as a status symbol to the divine power of wine as a consoler and inspirer of humanity.

ship of state horaceHorace was a master of adapting Greek meters to Latin poetry, translations and adaptations of Greek lyric poetry into Latin verse, and creating an elegant web of syntax that must be unraveled with a spider-architect’s care.  Rex Warner, a classicist and translator, wrote that Horace inspired “enduring affection” in readers but he added,  “This is not to say, however, that he is an easy poet for everyone.  I should suggest too that he, or rather his readers, have often suffered from a too ready acceptance of one or more rather prevalent misconceptions of his aims, his character, and his methods.” 

Carpe diem, open a bottle of cheap wine, and enjoy the odes.

Are You a Refugee from February?

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

You see, you don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)
Tom Petty

Are you a refugee from February?

I’ve devised a perfect escape plan.

WHAT TO READ:  It’s cold, so go South. The critics and I esteem the elegant prose of James Wilcox, whose nine quirky novels, set in the mythic town of Tula Springs, Louisiana, never fail to make me laugh.  In Modern Baptists, the first in the series, Mr. Pickens, the middle-aged manager of Sonny Boy Bargain Store, is stoically facing what may seem insolvable personal problems.  His half-brother, F.X., a failed actor and drug dealer, has been discharged from prison and has moved into Mr. Pickens’s den; Mr. Pickens has a crush on his  new employee, Toinette, and steals her watch as a joke, but now she has reported it; he has a mole shaped like the state of New Jersey, which may be cancerous; and his mother, a senile resident of Azalea Manor, mistakes him for a gentleman caller and also asks him to install a Coke machine in her room. Wilcox writes spare, witty, perfectly-shaped sentences, and the humor in Modern Baptists is endearingly cozy, as well as offbeat. 

WHERE TO GO:  I like a good travel magazine this time of year. At Forbes, Katherine Parker-Magyar writes about “The Top Six Travel Destinations To Visit In Winter 2020.”  From Hummingbird Highways in Central America to snowcapped deserts in Central Anatolia, read on for the top six destinations you should visit this upcoming winter.”  The photographs are  heavenly. 

WHAT TO WEAR:  Naturally, it’s best to wear timeless classics:  turtleneck, cozy sweater, corduroy pants, moccasin slippers.  The  look says “Preppy Refugee from the ’80s,” but you’ll stay warm.  And you might try slightly more fashionable outerwear:   swirl out the door in a stylish Shawl Wool Blend Winter Coat (I saw it at People magazine), or that less complicated garment, the Pea Coat. I bought my pea coat at the Army-Navy store, but you can get yours at The Gap or L. L. Bean. (Consult The Preppy Handbook for more fashion advice.)

Biking in the snow.

WHAT TO DO:  So many fun things to do!  Cross-country skiing (fun, I hear, though I can’t keep my balance)! Bicycling in the snow (I did this years ago, but it’s much safer now because you can buy special snow tires)!  Check out Time’s list of “the 11 New Books You Should Read in February” and tread one of them.  Or binge-watch Black Books, my favorite bookish TV series.  Then there’s always Mahjong…

So you can be a refugee from February!

The Real Pliny: Critical Distortion

I love dilettantes.  I am not stuffy.   In theory, I love the idea of gentlemen and gentlewomen picking up their fountain pens to scrawl book reviews.  

And I don’t expect critics to be infallible.

Still, there are limits.  My heart sank while reading two reviews of Daisy Dunn’s literary biography, The Shadow of Vesuvius:  A Life of Pliny, the first by Charles McGrath in The New York Times, the second by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker. 

Mind you, they enjoyed Dunn’s biography, as did I. The Shadow of Vesuvius is a delightful read.  Although it may sound unlikely, this well-researched book is light and charming.  (You can read my review  here.)  I have read Pliny’s letters many times in Latin, and Dunn’s book is charming.  But McGrath and Acocella, who are dilettantes rather than classicists, didn’t quite have the background.

Before I go on, let me tell you there were two Plinys, both influential Romans in the first century A.D.  They were Pliny the Elder, best known for his 37-volume encyclopedia, Historia Naturalis (Natural History); and his nephew Pliny, the author of nine books of elegant literary letters, which are still popular today.  Pliny the Younger–known simply as Pliny–is the subject of the biography. He chronicled historical and political events, ghost stories, court cases, a legend about a dolphin, senatorial scandals, his interest in poetry and Stoic philosophy, and included his correspondence with the emperor Trajan.   

Disconcertingly, the brilliant Joan Acocella and the witty Charles McGrath assert that Pliny the Elder was the more interesting writer of the two .  I realize they read the Plinys in English translation rather than Latin,  but where on earth does this come from?  It has the ring of a footnote by a Victorian classicist.  (Possibly Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch.)

As my husband said,  “Who the hell reads Pliny the Elder?”  (We are both Latinists.)  Pliny the Elder was a crank, a bore, a prig, and a fount of arcane misinformation, much admired by  monks and scholars in the Middle Ages.  A few  scholars  enjoy his quaint encylopedia, but it is not must-reading.    A writer for the Oxford Classical Dictionary gently praises Pliny the Elder and the context of his findings, but he states that the Elder “valued quantity over quality.”

Joan Acocella, the dance critic for The New Yorker, entertains us with a vivid account of her tourism in Italy, and records her impressions of the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, two towns destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.  Pliny wrote two letters to Tacitus about his family’s experience.  His uncle decided to sail from their home in Misenum to investigate the phenomenon of a strange cloud (like an umbrella pine) rising above a mountain. (They did not know it was Vesuvius.)  Pliny the Elder died after going ashore to attempt to rescue terrified friends, while   Pliny and his mother survived after a harrowing flight from their home through a panicky crowd in ashy darkness. When it became light again, the ground was pillowed with ashes.

Acocella writes,

Of the two Plinys, Dunn focusses on the younger. Clearly, she would rather have done otherwise. The Elder was more famous, rightfully so. As his nephew said, the older man did things that deserved to be written about and wrote things that deserved to be read. His “Natural History”—Penguin Classics has a good abridged translation by John F. Healy—is not merely huge but piquant and readable.

.Unfortunately I cannot agree.  Actually, I know nobody who would agree.

Charles McGrath takes a slightly different slant.  He humorously apologizes for ignorance in the first paragraph, while smugly trying to establish his credentials– unsuccessfully.. He  writes,

If only Daisy Dunn’s book had been around back when I was an aspiring classicist. There were actually two Roman writers named Pliny — the Elder and the Younger, as they were known; an uncle and his nephew — and I could never keep them straight, let alone understand why they were worth studying. Dunn makes a persuasive case for both. Her ostensible subject is the Younger, about whom more is known, but she toggles back and forth between the two, and, perhaps without her intending it, the uncle even steals the show for a while. How do you compete with someone so intrepid that he dies while trying to inspect an active volcano?

The focus of Dunn’s book is Pliny (the real Pliny!), but you’d never know it to read these two reviews.  

Fortunately, Steve Donoghue in the Christian Science Monitor “got” it. 

As his delightfully involving letters make clear, the nephew was made of far more mortal stuff, fond of good food and comfortable living, very intelligent but given to obsequiousness. In particular his letters to Trajan show a winningly human combination of fussy officiousness and genuine public service, and Dunn is right to note that although the emperor’s secretaries doubtless wrote many of his responses, some of those responses came from the emperor himself and  “resound with the voice of authority.

Sometimes you have to leave  New York  to find an enlightened review.

A Rerun from the Past: My Grandmother’s Tea Set & “I Capture the Castle”

My grandmother’s tea set and my old copy of “I Capture the Castle.”

This is a rerun of a post from a VERY old blog (now defunct) I wrote in 2012.

September 24, 2012

I am having a very English experience today.

Yes, I am rereading Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and drinking tea out of my grandmother’s tea set.  My idea of England is to drink tea and read mid-twentieth-century English novels.  Apparently my fantasy is not quite accurate.

In case you’re not sure whether tea is ever mentioned in Dodie Smith’s charming, humorous 1947 classic novel, I Capture the Castle, let me tell you it is.  In the first chapter, Cassandra is very excited when Topaz boils some eggs:  she hadn’t known the hens had laid any eggs, and had expected bread and margarine.  Cassandra writes in her diary:  “How odd it is to remember that ‘tea’ once meant afternoon tea to us–little cakes and thin bread-and-butter in the drawing-room.  Now it is as solid a meal as we can scrape together, as it has to last us until breakfast.  We have it after Thomas gets back from school.”

I reread I Capture the Castle every year and never am bored by it.  Usually I read it on Midsummer Night’s Eve, because there is a very funny scene in which Cassandra celebrates with a bonfire and some witchery. But this year I’m reading it two days after the Fall Equinox–do you think that counts?  Should I have a bonfire and witchery?

The narrator, Cassandra Mortmain, a 17-year-old aspiring writer, “captures” her life in a journal:  she and her family live in a mouldering castle, which her father, James, bought with the money from his  Joycean experimental novel.  But he has inexplicably stopped writing, sits in the gatehouse all day reading mysteries, and thus the Mortmains have no income.  In an amusing scene early in the book, the librarian, Miss Marcie, tries to help them figure out their earning power, and they are an unpromising lot:  Cassandra’s stepmother, Topaz, is a former artist’s model who loves to commune with nature in the nude; Cassandra’s beautiful 21-year-old sister, Rose, wants to marry but knows no men; and their younger brother Thomas is normal but still at school.  Only their servant, Stephen, has real earning power:  he can do manual labor.

Fortunately their interactions with  new American neighbors provide both free food and romance.  I am very happy to read Cassandra’s offbeat ruminations on her family, but I knew I needed tea and homemade muffins to make the experience perfect.

So what’s the story on the tea?

The Bavarian tea set in the photo was my grandmother’s.  Pink flower patterns aren’t really to my taste, but it was given to me because I am the only one in the family who drinks tea. I vaguely thought Grandma had bought it at Woolworth’s;  I got the Woolworth’s idea in my head because of all the stories she had told about being a farmer’s wife during the Depression and dressing my aunts in burlap feed bag dresses.

No, no, the tea set wasn’t that old!  It wasn’t a Depression tea set, my aunt said.  My uncle brought it home from Germany after the war.

Hmm, a guy’s taste:  no wonder the pink flowers.  Because we Frisbee women aren’t very flowery.  We’re practical.

Occasionally I it out and look at it, but we have broken a couple of the tea cups, so I usually leave it in the cupboard.   Today I enjoyed drinking lapsang souchang (not chosen to pair with the muffins, but because it is the only tea I had in the house) out of the delicate cup, though  I prefer drinking out of mugs, because they are durable. 

Now what’s with the muffins?  I know that’s what you really want to know.

I made them.  They’re banana muffins.  Does Cassandra eat banana muffins?  No.  I don’t believe bananas were on the menu.

But I bake what I have, and we had bananas.  These are not super coffeehouse muffins, just the kind of stuff your mom used to make.  If you use three bananas, they’re very moist, but I only had two, so, oh well.

They were good, though.

And you can get the recipe here at allrecipes.com

Nancy Hale Redux: Where the Light Falls & The Pattern of Perfection

After reading a short story by Nancy Hale in a 1930s volume of Best Stories from The New Yorker, I went on a Hale bender.  It was 2010, and  her work was out-of-print.  I loved The Prodigal Women, a complex novel about friendships gone awry which I once described as “my favorite pop wallow.”  

Although I prefer Hale’s novels to her short stories, I am thrilled that Library of America recently published Where the Light Falls, a selection of Hale’s short stories edited by Lauren Groff.

And it reminded me that in 2016 I reviewed Hale’s 1960 collection of short stories, The Pattern of Perfection, at Mirabile Dictu.  And so I’m re-posting it here.

Nancy Hale’s work is out-of-print, but she is a great American writer.

Some of her books are masterpieces.   A descendant of Harriet Beecher Stowe, she was a journalist, novelist, and memoirist. Eighty of her stories were published in The New Yorker.  I am a fan of her comical novel, Dear Beast, the story of a Southern woman who writes an anonymous novel about her small town, and her stunning memoirs, A New England Girlhood and A Life in the Studio.  

I recently read The Pattern of Perfection, a collection of 13 stories.  I have 10 sticky notes marking the pages of my copy, not for criticism but because the passages are delightful.

In my favorite story, “The King of Fancy’s Daughter,” the heroine, Isabel Congdon, takes out the trash and catches her husband in the driveway embracing the “bosomy, perfumed Mrs. Clarity, the baby sitter.”  She puts the two children in the car and drives hundreds of miles to her parents’ house.  On the way, she keeps going over and over her conversation with her husband.   When she said, “I suppose you’ve been having affairs with everyone in the neighborhood while I’ve been totally unaware of anything,” he denid it.  But he asks coldly if they always have to talk baby talk.  She is shattered, because she had felt their little family was united against the world.

Her well-bred parents behave as though there’s nothing unusual about Isabel’s visit.  They talk about their collections of antiques and books.  Mr. Hooper has begun collecting science fiction.

“Space travel,” Mr. Hooper repeated, laying down his knife with a gratified air.  “Those chaps are doing extraordinary things.  Bradbury.  Asimov. Leinster.  I’ve made rather a study of science fiction in recent months.  I fancy I own everything in the field worth reading–a very sound investment in firsts,” he added modestly.

Isabel discovers that her parents’ marriage is imperfect, too: they have separate bedrooms.  But she cannot get rid of the image of her husband and Mrs. Clarity.  Nothing is decided.

In the brilliant story, “In a Penthouse,” Bernadine has a vague undiagnosed illness that prevents her leaving their New York penthouse to follow her husband to Michigan.  The dialogue in this story is priceless.  “’Oh, hon,’ she cried.  ‘Don’t I just wish I could?  But I just don’t dare go that far.  Doctor Lewis says I should continue to play it cautious and conservative.’”  Doctor Lewis does not believe her husband loves her, but Bernadine is rightfully secure.  By the time Doctor Lewis asks her out, Bernadine has figured out she wants to fly away.

In “A Summer’s Long Dream,” Penelope and her mother and aunt spend a month in the late Miss Carrie Lennox’s summer cottage, The Ledges.  Penelope spends most of her time cooking and administering medication to the old people. At a garden party, the old people bloom, but poor Penelope becomes involved in an impossibly complicated explanation of how they come to be staying in the house when Miss Carrie Lennox is dead.

These stories are great fun, and the best are great.