A Bon-Bon of a Book: Ada Leverson’s “The Twelfth Hour”

The Twelfth Hour (Walmer edition)

Ada Leverson’s delightful, feather-light novels are a blend of Saki-like epigrams with the saucy rebellion of  Elizabeth von Arnim’s heroines.  I read  Leverson, best known for the entertaining trilogy, The Little Ottleys, when I need comfort.

Much to my surprise and pleasure, I recently discovered her first novel, The Twelfth Hour (1907), which is as charming as her later efforts. And the plot is hilarious, centering on the romantic problems of three siblings.

Leverson raises the question, Why is love so difficult? If you’re with the right person, how can you be unhappy? But the Crofton siblings all have romantic troubles. Felicity is married to the ideal man, Lord Chetwode, but he is never home: he is at the races or searching for antiques in distant counties. And people have started to notice his absence. She becomes susceptible to the attentions of Bertie Wilton, who is always there, unlike Chetwode.

Ada Leverson

Felicity’s younger sister Sylvia is engaged to Woodville, her father’s secretary, but she hasn’t told her father, who wants her to marry a middle-aged millionaire. Woodville is miserable, but Sylvia insists they wait till her twenty-first birthday.  And I must admit, Sylvia can be irritating: she is utterly unconscious of Woodville’s feelings.

Thank God for Savile, their younger brother, who is as wise about their loves as he is silly about his own (he is still at school but in love with an opera singer). He manages his sisters’ relationships beautifully, and I’m astonished by his clever negotiations.

Ada Leverson

You have to read Leverson’s dialogue to get to know her. Here is an example of Felicity and Savile.

“Look here, Felicity, I want to speak to you.”
“Yes, darling?”
“Does Chetwode know what’s going to win the Cambridgeshire?”
“How can he know, darling? Would it be fair? Of course he has some vague idea. Candid friend he said was the favorite. He says it’s a certainty. But his certainties!…”

Lovely and fun– a bon-bon of a book!

By the way, this is the Walmer paperback edition.  The publisher Michael Walmer reissues out-of-print books of the kind many of us enjoy (rather like Viragos and Persephones). I bought this online, and I must say, it is a much nicer paperback than the one I found of Bird of Paradise, which I read last winter.  I wrote about Bird here.

Wrapped up in Classics: The Seriousness of Reading Tacitus

You know how it has been this summer. Am I a nervous wreck? Sort of.

And though I have done some “light reading,” i.e., short new books and some slightly longer classics (Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City being the longest, at 672 pages),  the titles have not been as varied as usual.

I finally managed to squeeze in some Roman history, just to feel serious. In June I read Tacitus’s Annals, in Latin, of course. Though I can’t recommend J. C. Yardley’s stilted English translation (Oxford), the Latin prose is elegant, dramatic, and engrossing. (N.B. My sympathies are with Yardley, since reading and understanding Latin is one thing, translating it on paper into a differently-structured language and capturing the stylistic effects is altogether more demanding.)

tacitus annals penguinAs you know, it is Latin poetry rather than history that lured me into classics. Great as Tacitus is, I would far rather reread Ovid or Catullus. But Tacitus is a page-turner among historians, and his fascinating version of the mutiny of Germanicus’s troops after the death of the emperor Augustus, shortly before Tiberius’s official succession, is fast-paced, suspenseful, and entertaining.

Tacitus is also an eloquent composer of well-wrought speeches, allegedly delivered by the historical characters. This is one of the more charming aspects of Greek and Roman histories. Tacitus’s speeches fall somewhere between the delightful effects of Herodotus and the fascinating dialogue of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius. And I was spellbound by the eloquence of the sympathetic character Germanicus, as he tries to get the troops under control.  And I was utterly astonished that one of the main agitators was the former leader of a claque in a theater.

annals tacitus vol. 1Tacitus also provides us with “royal” family history: I have always enjoyed reading about Augustus’s wife Livia, who possibly poisoned some of Augustus’s prospective heirs, or even Augustus himself. And  she was almost certainly responsible for the banishment of Julia, Augustus’s daughter. In Book I of the Annals, Germanicus’s son, “Little Boots” (Caligula), makes an appearance.  Raised in an army camp, he is popular with the troops.  Too bad he grew up to be a mad emperor.

Tacitus and I will meet again–but not yet!

A Trip to the Future: In Search of Lost Time

Dr. Anthony Fauci  announced that a vaccine for Covid-19 may be ready this fall.  And so, after a summer of lighter reading than usual, I’m finally hopeful and able to settle into Proust’s The Guermantes Way, the third novel in Remembrance of Things Past, or In Search of Lost Time, if you prefer the modern translation of the title.

I didn’t have the entire set, but these Vintage paperbacks were the first editions of Proust I read.

Some years back, I declared I intended to read all of Proust. I have a long history of intending to read Proust. As a teenager, I started with the last novel, The Past Captured. Perhaps I liked the cover? Perhaps it was short?  Now my mind needs to read  Proust in sequence, but it didn’t matter to me then and I understood it perfectly at the time.

My set didn’t have book jackets!

In the ’90s, I declared again I intended to read Proust. We bought a set of old Modern Library editions at The Haunted Bookshop, a small bookstore near the Greyhound bus station in my hometown. And so we ended up running for the bus with seven books weighing down our knapsacks.  I made it through four of the books that year.

In 2013, I declared it again. And so I read Lydia Davis’s translation of Swann’s Way (Penguin).  In 2014 I read Within a Budding Grove, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmarten and revised by D. J. Enright (Modern Library paperback edition). Here’s what I wrote in 2014 at my old blog, Mirabile Dictu

I am loving Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, though it’s futile to try to articulate it.  The series is one long novel, no? My husband, who has read the entire series in French, crossly says that Swann’s Way is the only volume worth reading.  Well, I’m simply loving it, but I see the structure is looser in the second volume, Within a Budding Grove. Of course it’s all modernist brilliance. And there are seven fucking volumes so get used to it! One basks in Marcel’s symphonic descriptions of places, walks, meals, dinner conversations, the hotel in Balbec, neurotic worries about girls, friendships with the pretentious Bloch and the generous Robert, and lovesickness for the lively Gilberte Swann,.  The pattern of hopeless, anxious love is set by  his relationship with his mother, but his love for Gilberte is also echoes the pattern of Swann’s courtship of the fickle Odette, who makes him miserable.   In the second volume, we are amazed to find that Swann has become a bourgeois husband bustling to convince government officials to dine with Odette, since his aristocratic connections won’t entertain her.  There are many comic episodes: when Gilberte tells Marcel that Swann and Odette don’t like him, Marcel is indignant and writes him a very long letter about his love and respect for the Swanns. Ah, youth!  So funny!

I will post something about The Guermantes Way –eventually. Meanwhile, let me refer you to a brilliant, fun article at Oprah.com, “How to read In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust,” by Marcelle Clements. The essay begins,

Some readers are lucky; they fall in love with Proust on page one and enter a sort of rapture that transports them through all six volumes of In Search of Lost Time. Others struggle, resist, quit in a huff. My guess is that many readers are alternately smitten and outraged by Proust’s prose style, especially in the opening pages, when we are in the dark—or rather, in a room where the drapes are drawn—and the only thing we can figure out with any certitude is that the narrator is unable to get to sleep and that this reminds him of many other sleepless nights.

I think I’ll follow Marcelle Clements’ advice. But only the future can tell if I’ll read all of them!

The Booker Longlist 2020

On the longlist!

I am excited about the Booker Prize. From the ’80s through the zips, I have read most of the winners.  In 2011 I fell behind, due to a disappointing longlist.  But I usually read one from the longlist or the shortlist, even if I don’t get around to the winner.

Last year I got back on track:  I read one book from the longlist,  Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein, one from the shortlist, Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, and one of the two (tied) winners, Margaret Atwood’s Testaments. And I enjoyed all three.  So it was a good year.  (I still need to read the longlisted Salman Rushdie and John Lanchester.)

Anyway, I am so happy that the Booker Prize 2020 announcement has  not been delayed by the coronavirus. For some reason, other awards seem to be on hold this year.  The Booker International winner has not yet been announced!  Let’s get back to normalcy, even if the ceremony is virtual.

Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road is on the longlist, and I would be happy if she won it.  She has had a stunning career.  There are many, many reviews of Redhead online, and though I didn’t get around to reviewing it, it is one of my favorites.

I don’t consider myself a Booker judge, but here are two novels I think are award-worthy:   Anne Enright’s Actress (which I wrote about here) and Martha McPhee’s An Elegant Woman (which I wrote about here).  Perhaps McPhee’s book would be dismissed as a women’s saga, even though it is so much more than that.  You know how these things work.

Here is the Booker longlist.

Diane Cook – The New Wilderness
Tsitsi Dangarembga – This Mournable Body
Avni Doshi – Burnt Suga
Gabriel Krauze – Who They Was
Hilary Mantel – The Mirror & The Light
Colum McCann – Apeirogon
Maaza Mengiste – The Shadow King
Kiley Reid – Such a Fun Age
Brandon Taylor – Real Life
Anne Tyler – Redhead by The Side of The Road
Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain
Sophie Ward – Love and Other Thought Experiments
C Pam Zhang – How Much of These Hills is Gold

What books would you have added to this list?

The Wittiest Mystery of the Summer: Lindsey Davis’s “The Grove of the Caesars”

Some years ago, we took a short drive to to see an exhibition, Art in Roman Life Villa to Grave, at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. Best known for a superb Grant Wood collection and a collection of prints by Mauricio Lasansky, it was a little skimpy on the Roman side. But what really charmed me was finding Lindsey Davis’s witty Marcus Didius Falco mysteries in the art museum shop.

I am a great fan of Lindsey Davis, who, in my opinion, is the best of several wise-cracking writers who set their mysteries in ancient Rome. (I also recommend Stephen Saylor and David Wishart.) Davis’s writing is charming and witty, the plots seamless, and I love her new Flavia Albia series. Albia is the adoptive daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, an auctioneer and former private investigator (and the star of Davis’s first mystery series), and his equally smart wife, Helena Justina. Now that her parents are older, Albia has taken over the “informer” business.  Times are dangerous:  she is living in the age of Domitian.

Sometimes Albia is in the mood for a case, sometimes not.  Without looking for trouble, she stumbles upon a case in the Grove of the Caesars. While supervising her husband’s employees as they prepare a building site, the workers make an unlooked-for discovery: they dig up some musty, damaged scrolls, written by philosophers she has ever heard of. Albia wonders if they are originals or forgeries, and intends to find out; either way they could be valuable. (Romans  love a good forgery scandal!)  But then a horrendous second crime is unearthed; the body of a woman is found, one of several women murdered in the Grove of the Caesars over a period of years.

Davis manages to keep the dialogue light, even when the most ghastly crimes are committed. And Albia has a good working relationship with this particular branch of the police, who seem to adopt her as a mascot-cum-second-in-command.   In a common mystery trope, Albia’s investigations of the scrolls in bookshops and the murders in the Grove of the Caesars turn out to be related.

But the novel opens with Albia’s witty, exasperated. dissertation on  gardens.

I want to make a complaint. Poets are wrong about gardens. Your average poet, scratching away to impress his peers in the Writers’ Guild at their dusty haunt on the Aventine, the Temple of Minerva, will portray a garden as a metaphor for productive peace and quiet. In such secluded places, poets will say, men who own multiple estates engage in happy contemplation of weighty intellectual matters, while acquiring a glow of health. These landowners, idiot patrons of ridiculous authors, take pleasure from topiary cut in the shape of their own names, yet they avoid the slur of self-indulgence, simply because their box-tree autographs have roots in the earth.

You can’t get much wittier than that.   And the dissertation goes on…

I also like this quote from an auctioneer trying to sell the scrolls.

“Who’s read The Oresteia? Oh, we’ve got some clever ones in! …. Aeschylus, smart fellow, was the first writer to realise that if you write a trilogy, you will sell three times as much.”

I highly recommend this amusing mystery.

The Book Club Goes Multicultural

“Oh, don’t give me that. I’m multicultural as hell,” I said crossly. “Just because I’m white doesn’t mean I have to subject myself to The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.”

Liz, a well-meaning member of our informal book club, felt we should acknowledge Black Lives Matter, i.e, what used to be called Black Power.   The Twelve Tribes of Hattie had been on her shelf for years.  Unfortunately, I assured her, this best-seller is poorly written and devoid of style.  Anything but that!

“You really can skip The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” our friend Janet suggested tactfully. “Perhaps we could read a classic.  Ann Petry or Ralph Ellison?”

We agreed to read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  And then we discussed multiculturalism. Does it mean race and ethnicity? Does it have to be about different cultures in the U.S.? What about the cultures of other nations? Does literature in translation count? French novels in French? African women’s novels?  Greek or Roman poetry in Greek and Latin? The Tale of Genji?

It’s a puzzle.

In my white neighborhood, quite a few white people have Black Lives Matter signs on their lawns. But a sign means nothing if they/we don’t get the vote out in November.  Should we join the Women’s League of Voters?

And let’s hope my book club can meet face-to-face again soon.  Zoom is not like being in the same room.  No wonder people have gone berserk and are racing around to bars and restaurants (hence spreading the virus). Please staay home.  Listen to Dr. Fauci!

By the way, I just read an excellent article at The New Yorker, “Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ as a Parable of Our Time.”

A Friend of the Book: What’s on my Small-Press TBR?

” Woman with Parasol” 1921 Henri Matisse

Middlebrow, highbrow.  Books, books, books.  I can curl up happily with Jane Gaskell’s fantasy cult-classic Atlan series, William Faulkner’s southern classics, Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere, and Rumer Godden’s nun books.

I do have my brooding literary side: I earnestly reviewed small-press books for a now-defunct literary journal. And when I say “small” I mean publishers you’ve never heard of. I hoped to discover literary classics, but I became philosophical.   Some were brilliant, others may have been published because the writer was the editor’s friend. Perhaps that is the case with all publishers.

But there are small presses and small presses. The best still publish the best. Among my favorites are Small Beer Press, established by Kelly Link and her husband; Melville House Books; Tachyon Publishing; Europa Editions; Michael Walmer; and Library of America.

If you’re looking for interesting small-press book, here are four I look forward to.

Sigrid Undset’s Olav Audunssøn: I. Vows, translated by Tina Nunnally (University of Minnesota Press). I am a huge fan of Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset’s Norwegian medieval sagas, which I’ve read over and over. The translator Tina Nunnally won the PEN/Book of the Month Club Award for her translation of The Cross, the third novel in Kristin Lavransdatter. She has recently translated Olav Audunssøn, another medieval saga, best known in English as  The Master of Hestviken.  Nunnally has reverted to the original title, Olav Audunssøn, which consists of the first two books of The Master of Hestviken.  (The publication date is November 10). You can read the Goodreads description here.

The Memory of Babel, The Mirror Visitor, Book 3, by Christelle Dabos (Europa). I am truly loving these novels.  I reviewed the first in the series,  A Winter’s Promise, and said, “This French fantasy novel, just published by Europa Editions, is one of the most absorbing books of the year.  The heroine is a museum curator who reads the history of objects by touching them. She can also travel through mirrors. (You can read the rest of the review here.)  The publication date is Sept. 8.   And here is the Goodreads description.

Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, The Abolition, The Unconquerable World (Library of America). Here is the Library of America description: From the Vietnam era to the war on terror, Jonathan Schell (1943–2014) produced a body of work as brave, humane, and consequential as any in the history of American journalism. His legacy rests especially on three books about the threat of nuclear weapons—“the gravest danger of our age”—and the changing nature of modern warfare. On the 75th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Library of America brings together these essential works in one volume for the first time.  It was published in April.

Woe from Wit, by Alexander Griboedov (Columbia University). Here is the Columbia University description:   Woe from Wit is one of the masterpieces of Russian drama. A verse comedy set in Moscow high society after the Napoleonic wars, it offers sharply drawn characters and clever repartee, mixing meticulously crafted banter and biting social critique. Its protagonist, Alexander Chatsky, is an idealistic ironist, a complex Romantic figure who would be echoed in Russian literature from Pushkin onward. Chatsky returns from three years abroad hoping to rekindle a romance with his childhood sweetheart, Sophie. In the meantime, she has fallen in love with Molchalin, her reactionary father Famusov’s scheming secretary. Chatsky speaks out against the hypocrisy of aristocratic society—and as scandal erupts, he is met with accusations of madness.  It was published in the spring.

Please let me know your favorite small presses.  What’s on your small-press TBR?

A Biography of a Little-Known Victorian: “The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives” by Diane Johnson

In the twentieth century, many of us grew up reading  Diane Johnson, a novelist, a contributor to The New York Review of Books, and the author of the screenplay of The Shining. Nowadays her novel Le Divorce is a frequent portal, because it was adapted as a Merchant-Ivory film, starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts. But in 2003, when the film was released, I had already devoured most of Johnson’s superb novels (my favorite is Persian Nights), and a few years ago discovered her memoir, Flyover Lives, about growing up in Moline, Illinois.

But I did not come across Johnson’s biography, The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives, first published in 1972, until it was reissued this summer. Being a fan of the 19th-century writer George Meredith, best known for his comic novel The Egoist (the only one of his novels in print), I was curious about his wife.

Drawing of Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith, by Henry Wallis

And Johnson’s book is worth reading.  Who was this first wife, you may ask? Mary Ellen Peacock Nicolls Meredith, a strong-minded, self-educated woman, was the daughter of the novelist Thomas Peacock. An avid reader of French and English novels, a gourmet cook (but George Meredith was dyspeptic), a writer of essays and poems, and, briefly, the editor of a magazine, she was seven years older than George, and she eclipsed him socially, though not, of course, in writing.  At the age of  20, he fell in love with attractive Mary Ellen at first sight. And their marriage  was happy for a time. But she became restless in her mid-thirties and left him for the artist Henry Wallis. Biographers seemingly blackballed her with scant mentions.

It was the absence of Mary Ellen that first intrigued Johnson. Who was this forgotten first wife? There was so little about her.

Johnson wrote in the preface,

Since 1968, on brief visits to England, I had been looking for traces of Mary Ellen Peacock Nichols Meredith, resenting on her behalf the way she was always dismissed in biographies of George Meredith: the unhappy wife who left him and, of course, died, as if death were the deserved fate for Victorian wives who broke the rules.

Finally, Johnson was alerted to the discovery of a box of Mary Ellen’s letters, found under the bed in an old house in Surrey in 1970. The letters were written to Mary Ellen’s lover, the artist Henry Wallis, for whom she left George Meredith.

Most of Mary Ellen’s short life was lived without George Meredith. As the daughter of a novelist, she grew up among writers and artists. Mary Shelley was a family friend. Mary Ellen educated herself at home, was let loose in the library, and never asked to conform to the limits of femininity. Her mother, alas, was mad and depressed, and lived apart from the family. But at least on the surface that did not affect Mary Ellen.

Mary Ellen fell desperately in love at age 23  with “Darling Eddy,”Captain Edward Nicolls of the Royal Marines. Their happy marriage in January 1844 lasted only a few months: Eddy died while trying to save a drowning man. The writer Mary Shelley worried about the devastating effect on Mary Ellen, who was pregnant. Shortly thereafter, Mary Ellen gave birth to a daughter Edith. And she did not seek a second husband. One gathers she liked, but was not in love with, George Meredith.

Johnson’s stunning writing makes this book a gem. At times she seems to imitate George Meredith’s witty style, partly as a homage, partly as gentle mockery. She writes impressionistic, novelistically-vivid scenes of literary friendships and squabbles, the Meredith family’s life in poor lodgings, and the popularity of cookbooks written by Mary Ellen’s first daughter, Edith.

A fascinating biography!  First wives are too often neglected.

“The Lives of Edie Pritchard” by Larry Watson

A few years ago, I thoroughly enjoyed Larry Watson’s brilliant novel, As Good As Gone. Set in 1963, it examines the eruption of violence in a small town in Montana and its effect on a middle-class family. (You can read my review at my blog Mirabile Dictu.)

In Watson’s smart new novel, The Lives of Edie Pritchard, the heroine Edie is haunted by the fear of violence. In small-town Montana in 1967, men constantly harass her. Edie is cool, dignified, and smart. She ignores the comments and halts the passes  with the coolness and poker face of a cowgirl. (Actually, she works at a bank.)  She also deals with harassment from her husband Frank’s identical twin brother Roy, who is said to be charming. I don’t see it.

The novel deals with three eras of Edie’s life: 1967-68, when Frank becomes pathologically jealous:   Edie saves Roy’s life after two redneck brothers run Roy off the road because they objected to his buying their grandfather’s truck . In 1987, Edie has left town and is now the wife of Glen, another jealous husband. One day Roy calls her to say Frank is dying of cancer and would like to see her again.

As you can imagine, jealous husbands do not like their wives to visit ex-husbands. Glen grabs her wrist and sprains it, so the next day she  takes off with her teenage daughter Jennifer, meaning to leave Glen forever. In her hometown, she visits her ex-husband, weak with cancer.  Roy has become less obnoxious, now married to Edie’s old friend Carla. (There is no jealousy between women.) Unfortunately, Edie’s husband Glen tracks her down and things turn ugly. But in 2007, at age 60, Edie is single and serene.

Does history repeat itself?   When her granddaughter stops to visit on a road trip from Spokane, Edie recognizes that the two vagabond brothers who accompany her are moody and violent.

The structure of the book is nearly perfect. There are three parts, and Three is the magic number  with brothers: twins Frank and Roy,; the two brothers who ran Roy off the road in ’64; and now the two brothers with her granddaughter in 2007.

I have one criticism: there is too much objectification of women. Edie constantly goes to bed with abusive husbands, and we see, in my opinion, too much of her figure. Like Edie, I object to the word “tits.” And Edie’s granddaughter’s sundress straps fall off her shoulders while she eats pizza. Now how many times have I seen a woman’s sundress straps fall off while she is eating pizza? Zero.

Well, many great male writers, from Philip Roth to Jim Harrison, have had similar obsessions. Still, I liked Edie, who does take care of herself and has more control as the times change.

Overall, it is an absorbing summer read.  Watson is an excellent read, and Edie is a strong woman.

Covid-19 Times: Free Hair in the Formerly Free World

“Hair,” 1967

Do you ever wish you had sung in a local production of Hair? “Hair, hair, long beautiful hair…” Were you so vain that you thought of your hair all the time during lockdown? Did you rush to the salon the minute the  state reopened?  (Not quite the message of Hair.)

How I wish I hadn’t cut my hair!  But the home haircut is necessary if your bangs suddenly stab you in the eye. Honestly, one of my eyes was red for days.  And once you start cutting unmanageable hair, it’s hard to quit. First it sticks out on one side, then on the other, then you cut your bangs, and then you’ve got a Grapes of Wrath haircut. Forget the YouTube videos: your hair is not like that of the fashion models posing with scissors and hair clips.

A hairdresser could fix this in a minute.  Social distancing, however, is impossible in a hair salon.   And  the close interactions between hairdressers and clients are unsafe at the moment:  a record number of Covid-19 cases was reported in our state and in the U.S. today.

To reach this point, American behavior has been monstrously selfish. Instead of staying home and avoiding the crowd, people have been gadding about in crowds, both indoors and outdoors. Finally some states have had to reverse their dimmer decisions, like the reopening of bars.

Let’s face it, a lot of politicians have blood on their hands. Many of them lied to their constituents about the seriousness of the pandemic. (They said it was not serious.)   The U.S. is now wrestling for the No. 1 slot in the spread of Covid-19, along with India, Brazil, and South Africa.

Ah, if only the world would work together for  The Age of Aquarius (another song from Hair).

Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation
Aquarius
Aquarius