I am moving my blog from WordPress to Blogger because of unsolvable technical problems. It is a pity, but I have tried every trick recommended b the techies in vain. iThe new blog is called Thornfield Hall Redux and the new url is:
Why, you may wonder, did I choose The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher for the first of six essays about neglected American women writers? Short stories are not usually my métier. They often seem abrupt and vertiginous: just as I resign myself to fifteen or twenty minutes with characters I won’t have time to love, the story ends and I must get acquainted with new people – unless the author indulges the reader’s affinity for sameness in the form of linked stories.
The Collected Stories of Hortense is perhaps more suited to the needs of a keen novel reader like me than, say, the average story in The New Yorker (if there is such a thing). Calisher’s short stories have a density of detail and the long, convoluted sentences I love. Of course, many of her stories were published in The New Yorker, which seems to cancel my assertion that her stories are somehow other. But her range – from a group of linked autobiographical stories about the Elkins, a wealthy Jewish family in New York, to a delineation of a rebellion organized by “Johnny One” against the patronizing summer people in the inbred village of Hillsborough – is rivaled by very few American writers of short stories. Calisher had a devastating sympathy, curiosity, and understanding of class and psychology in America in the twentieth century. After graduation from Barnard in 1932 and employment as a social worker before her marriage , she became a writer and chronicled the vicissitudes of the twentieth century, unfazed by cultural differences that put off writers nowadays.
And she indulges our curiosity about the quirks of family in linked stories she originally meant to turn into a novel, she writes in the introduction. In “Time, Gentlemen,” which is narrated by Hester Elskin, the daughter of the family, we first encounter the mellowness of Father and the tension and drive of Mother. The irony of the title is that Hester’s father, a Southern gentleman born in the 19th century, has no sense of time – and his wife, who is 22 years younger, thinks of little else. Mother is a fan off 20th century efficiency, while Father believes in leisure.
The following passage, contrasting Hester’s mother’s work ethic with her father’s charm and popularity, is typical of Calisher’s dazzling disclosures about the mores and manners of different times.
My mother, however, although she had never been in the business world, had certain convictions about it which would have done her credit in a later era. She believed that a business run with such unpressurized ease, even enjoyment, must be well on its way to ruin…. She was a woman who would have felt much safer breathing hard and fast in the wake of one of those lunchless men whose race with their calendar ends only with death. And she was never to comprehend the real truth: that people loved to do business with my father because, in an already accelerating age, his dandified air of the coffeehouse, his relaxed and charmingly circuitous tongue – which dwelt much on anecdotes but only lightly on orders or due dates – and above all, his trust in the “plenty” of time, made them feel participants in a commercial romance, gentlemen met by chance on the Rialto, who had decided to nurture a little affair.
What a find! I believe these short stories are her best work, or at least my favorite. It is one of those forgotten books by a neglected American woman writer who was once celebrated and compared to Henry James. Calisher was the president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1987 and elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1997. She died in 2009.
On a 97-degree Wednesday, I am dejected by the consequences of human folly. The snapshot of my bicycle at the top of the sidebar, with the caption “Carbon treadprint,” seems naive now, doesn’t it? All those years of biking instead of driving – and people are usually so irritated by it – seem to have done little if any good. Even some SUV drivers may at this point have acknowledged it is rather hot this summer.
It is so hot that I need complete escape, and I am dallying with mysteries. Oh my God -what a pleasure to sit in the air conditioning and be spellbound by an unlikely crime novel, with lots of witty repartee, complemented by spare, unshowy prose.
I recently rediscovered Catherine Aird, author of the Inspector Sloan series. His Burial Too, published in 1973, shares many characteristics with Golden Age Detective fiction. The crime is committed off-stage, the characters are sufficiently well-sketched to seem real but have no off-putting psychological depth, and the emphasis is on solving the puzzle. This is my idea of perfect entertainment.
Set in an English village in Calleshire, it begins one morning when Fenella Tindall wakes up late and discovers that her father is missing. Since Richard Tindall, the director of a research and development firm, is absolutely reliable, and doesn’t stay out late, she and the housekeeper are convinced something has happened. But his car is in the garage, so the police think he has probably taken the train to London, and have no conviction that there is need to worry -until they find the body crushed under a marble statue in the bell tower of a church.
What makes this mystery so diverting is Aird’s quietly compelling prose, the sharp dialogue, and the ironic observations of Inspector C. D. Sloan. The sardonic Sloan often seems to be the only adult in the room. Only the old crones (I mean that as a compliment) who live near the church seem to have their wits about them – they saw and heard a few things the night of the crime. Certainly Sloan’s assistant, William Crosby, a recklessly fast driver who hasn’t got a clue what is going on, and at one point mentions Batman, is very little help.
This is great fun, and I love all her books!
A Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey Davis. I am a a great fan of Lindsey Davis’s witty Marcus Didius Falco historical mysteries, set in ancient Rome, and characterized by much wise-cracking. A few years ago I discovered her equally witty Flavia Albia series, in which Falco’s adopted daughter takes over the family detective business.
A Comedy of Terrors, set in Rome in 89 A.D., takes place the week before Saturnalia, a rowdy winter holiday which involved heavy drinking, mayhem and rioting, and role-playing among slaves and masters. It gives Flavia Albia a perfect over-the-top opportunity for comic musings. Flavia Albia loathes Saturnalia, and is also irritated by the schadenfreude of friends who think she won’t be able to continue freelance work as an investigator now that she and her husband Tiberius have adopted two orphaned nephews .
Resigned to the horror of the holidays, she escorts the two boys for holiday shopping in an iffy neighborhood said to sell the best sigilla (statues). And what does she find instead? The corpse of the vendor covered with blood . “Oh, pigshit. And you try telling a three-year-old and a five-year-old who have been promised horrible figurines that they can’t have them.”
Well, this turns out to be a Saturnalia prank, not a murder, so one does understand why Flavia Albia hates Saturnalia. But unfortunately her husband is investigating a new gang which is taking over the nut trade – yes, nuts! – and murdering vendors who won’t sell their moldy poisonous product – which has actually killed some of the consumers.
Flavia Albia, always a savvy snoop, surmises there is a connection between the nuts gang and a new client, the battered wife of a dubious loan shark from whom she wants to escape – and this connection puts Flavia Albia and her family in danger. Their sheep, a family pet, is stolen and its head left at the gate. This is the kind of hooligan in the nut trade. There are many twists and turns to the plot, but the main reason to read it is Davis’s humor. Flavia Albia always has something witty to say even while catching criminals.
This weekend, as I searched the house for The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher, I noted with surprise the paucity of books by American women writers on our shelves. Anglophilia dominates the collection: one cannot apparently have too many copies of Middlemarch(my least favorite book by George Eliot); Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (my favorite Bronte Gothic); or Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, the experimental masterpiece of the ’60s. As for American literature, I do know a few titles. I have repeatedly read The House of Mirth (Lily Bart and laudanum!) and Cornelia Otis Skinner’s humor pieces in Soap Behindthe Ears… but, one wonders humbly, is that enough?
Well, I felt a little low, thinking about being an American who doesn’t much care for American literature. It’s a gap, I’ve always said cheerfully, but is it just a gap? No, really, I’ve read the American women’s canon, but what does it say that I’d rather drink cups of tea with Barbara Pym than watch Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier walk into the sea again (though I like Kate Chopin very much!)? Why are we Americans so intense?
Well, at least I have a Hortense Calisher collection, i comforted myself. Calisher (1911-2009) was a brilliant, prolific American writer, with a powerful, eclectic imagination and a wide literary range. In her novel The Bobby-Soxer, the most fascinating character, Aunt Leo, is a hermaphrodite; in Calisher’s slim novel, In the Slammer with Carol Smith, she chronicles the harrowing experiences of a woman who did jail time for peripheral activity with a bombing in the ’70s and now lives on the streets; and Sunday Jews, Calisher’s last novel, is a vast, unputdownable family saga. All three of these books, however, have vanished from my shelves: I practiced read-and-weed skills unwisely here. I did, however, find The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher, published in 1975 – and have discovered she is a master of the short story.
That isn’t really the point of this post, though. (I will write about Calisher’s stories later.) The point is that I wonder how often the fame of even the most lauded of American women writers outlasts their lifetime. Philip Roth’s work (deservedly) will never die, nor will the Rabbit books of John Updike, but no one talks about Calisher any more, and the fate of Elizabeth Spencer (1921-2019) was hanging by a thread until Library of America took her under their wing and revived her work recently. (N.B. I once attended a reading by Spencer at a book festival and got my copy of The Southern Woman autographed. I felt a kinship with her because she had a cat tote bag!)
In the U.S., Library of America and NYRB classics have picked up some of the slack with forgotten women writers: LOA is publishing more women these days, though NYRB Classics seems shaky on the gender question.
Well, we don’t have Virago here. And that’s a shame. We could do with an American women’s press. There is the Feminist Press, but alas! they publish only a limited number of titles. A limited budget, no doubt.
And so I must turn to my shelves for neglected writers. I guarantee, you will be hearing about women writers whom, well, you’ve never heard of.
I am still a confirmed Anglophile… but really, Kat, enough is enough!
Who are your favorite neglected American women writers?
It has been months since I wrote a Literary Links post, and yet I love this kind of post at other blogs: I am always looking for recommendations of internet articles. If you’re at the beach – I’m not – and getting blasted by the sunshine and heat, you might retire to the shade and check out one or more of these articles about books and writers.
1. Those of us who like domestic humor – and who doesn’t? – will relish the following clever article about Jean Kerr, the brilliant essayist and playwright who entertained us with Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and The Snake Has All the Lines. You can read “Days of Wine and Daisies” at The Washington Examiner (April 14, 2003). And you won’t regret it, whether you are male or female, because Kerr is always relevant.
Here is a short excerpt.
“Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” is a collection of witty dispatches from the frontlines of motherhood. She had plenty of material.. Kerr has been compared, inevitably, to that other published suburban housewife, Erma Bombeck, though, in truth, the only book in the genre that can rank with “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” is Shirley Jackson’s “Life Among the Savages,” a surprisingly charming account of motherhood from the author better known for the grim story “The Lottery” and the Jamesian horror novel “The Haunting of Hill House.” While Bombeck did tread some of the same ground, she didn’t write about, say, how she taught her boys not to loathe poetry. Worried that the only Milton their children would know was the chocolate maker, the Kerrs instituted a family “Culture Hour” in which the children would recite poems they’d memorized during the week, followed by some highbrow music on the hi-fi.
2. Thoreau is my favorite Transcendentalist philosopher, and I had no idea Walden was controversial nowadays. Sometime it is good NOT to keep up, especially in 2021. But Caleb Smith investigates all sides of what for me is a non-question in his thoughtful essay, “Thoreau in Good Faith”, at Public Books.
“One of the books that I love is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden,” Alda Balthrop-Lewis writes at the beginning of her new book, Thoreau’s Religion. Before she starts analyzing Walden, she composes a little list of its charms. Some of the features she names are aesthetic: “I like it because it is funny, and beautiful, and weird.” Some of them are ethical: “I like that it doesn’t seem to hide its weird messy bits, its contradictions and vices.” Balthrop-Lewis, a research fellow in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at Australian Catholic University, is letting us know that she will be taking the part of the author she studies, not taking him apart. Rather than seeking out Thoreau’s hypocrisies or flaws, she will treat him with generous affection. In other words, she will read Walden in good faith.
…The Unquiet Englishman, Richard Greene’s sparkling new biography of Graham Greene, would have a lot of interest even if the latter were not an important writer who, twenty years after his death, still has a large audience. Graham Greene traveled widely, through Europe, Mexico, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, and the United States, and he wrote about what he saw in all those places. He worked for the British secret service during World War II, and spent a lot of time with Kim Philby, who would later turn out to be a double agent for the Soviet Union. Greene became a Catholic in 1927 in order to marry Vivien Dayrell-Browning, but almost from the start, he had trouble with the practical demands of Catholicism—and in particular, trouble with marital fidelity. Soon after his marriage, he began a long series of affairs, but Vivien refused to grant him a divorce, and he continued to support her.
What have you been reading on the net? Any good literary links?
When I discovered Nancy Hale about ten years ago, I believed I had found a hidden portal to a Nancy Hale Elysium. Nobody had heard of Hale, none of her books were in print, even the university library had discarded all her books but one (A New England Girlhood). By chance I read one of her stories in a 1930’s anthology of New Yorker Stories, so I ordered a used copy of Hale’s 1942 best-selling novel The Prodigal Women – which was the easiest of her books to find online, and at that time was very cheap.
The Prodigal Women is a ripping good read, a fun “literary pop” novel, saved from melodrama by Hale’s extraordinary plotting and life-like characters. The style is sometimes awkward, as if Hale’s thoughts were rushing ahead of her pen, but the women’s relationships and, most important, their actions, keep this scintillating novel alive. The heroine, Leda March, morphs from sympathetic outsider to a cold horrific bitch. (Don’t be fooled by the allusion to the Marches in Little Women.) As a lonely New England schoolgirl, she meets the Jekylls, an unconventional southern family who moved to Massachusetts so flamboyant Mrs. Jekyll could conquer Boston society (which of course doesn’t happen). Leda and Betsy Jekyll become inseparable, and the two girls worship Maizie, Betsy’s beautiful, popular older sister. But as an adult, Leda ruthlessly falls in love -without conscience! – with Maizie’s husband, Lambert, who is in turn a talented artist and a vicious philanderer, who psychologically tortured Maizie until she submitted to an illegal abortion on their honeymoon in South America, the results of which permanently ruin her health. (Lambert says she is malingering.) Betsy goes to New York and is breezily happy until she falls in love with an abusive writer. Are you saying, WOW!? All this in a single book! Well, it is a very long book, and it influenced Mary McCarthy’s The Group and Jacqueline Susann‘s Valley of the Dolls.
Nancy Hale is a smart, unflinching literary writer, but she doesn’t mind descending into pulp fiction, and that’s one thing I like about her. In recent years literary writers – or rather, the very few that read Hale – seem to prefer her short stories. And perhaps the stories are more consistent, though somehow I do not read her for style. She seems to me to be a talented sidewalk painter of vivid, offbeat portraits of New Englanders and Southerners, with a genius for conveying a sense of place – and at the same time there is an endearing sloppiness. Mind you, I am the only reader who does not entirely admire her style, but that doesn’t mean I love her any less.That said, I am very enthusiastic about Where the Light Falls, Selected Stories of Nancy Hale, edited by Lauren Groff, and published by the Library of America in 2019. Most of these stories are well-crafted, some of them brilliant, and I found myself flying through them. Though some of the stories are slightly dated , we are entranced, because they capture historical events and attitudes in real time. The stories span the years 1934-1966 – and you will always recognize the specificity of the period.
Her 1942 story, “Those Are As Brothers,” is very much a World War II story. It is a Connecticut idyll, but the Nazis and concentrations camps cast long shadows. It begins with a glorious running sentence, which contains a subtle statement about American “freedom” – in Connecticut!
The long, clear American summer passed slowly, dreaming over the Connecticut valley and the sound square houses under the elms and the broad living fields and over the people there that came and went and lay and sat still, with purpose and and without but free, moving in and out of their houses of their own free will, free to perceive the passage of the days through the different summer months and the smells and the sun and the rain and the high days and the brooding days, as was their right to do, without fear and without apprehension.
Wouldn’t we all love summer in Connecticut? But not everyone in Connecticut has this experience of freedom – certainly not the German immigrants and Jewish refugees. Every night the German governess, known as Fräulein, who takes care of Mrs. Mason’s two little boys, chats with Mr. Loeb, the neighbor’s German Jewish gardener. Mrs. Mason, too, befriends the quiet Mr. Loeb, who becomes a member of her extended family of evening visitors. But one day his miserly employer threatens to report Mr. Loeb to the refugee committee because he talked back when she accused him of painting the fence too slowly (painting fences! an American allusion to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). Mr. Loeb is terrified, haunted by the concentration camps, and believes he will never get another job. But Mrs. Mason says she would never let anything happen to him. And will she be able to protect hie, or is it the naivete of Connecticut? I prefer the former.
One of the saddest stories is “Who Lived and Died Believing.” Elizabeth, a compassionate young psychiatric nurse, stops in at Massey’s Drug Store for a soda before work; her boyfriend, Dave, a medical student, works at Massey’s during the summer. Elizabeth tells him that her patient, Mrs. Myles, is scheduled for shock treatment in the morning, which upsets Elizabeth, because it does not seem to benefit the patients. Elizabeth thinks it would calm Mrs. Myles if Dave stopped in after work, so Mrs. Myles could see an ordinary couple in love in ordinary life. And then Hale portrays the garbled thoughts of poor Mrs. Myles, sitting by the window in the “vicious heat.” “And a little part of the rotted grapes that rolled about her brain watched the faces…” But Mrs.Myles is impressed by the love between Elizabeth and Dave, long after they have ceased to be a couple.
My favorite story by far is “How Would You Like to Be Born…” about New England duty. One thinks of Henry James. Miss Florrie Davenant, whose sister Laura has just died, finds herself alone in the family house. At first, as the new Miss Davenant, she imagines breaking all the family customs. Why on earth, when she is poor and can’t pay the bills, should she send money to defend “the Negro adolescents in Georgia who were going to be tried for the murder of a white farmer”? But the impoverished Davenants are descended from abolitionists, and they always give money to such causes. She tries to break other rules – she wants to befriend the common people in her neighborhood – but nobody smiles at her, and people imitate her aristocratic accent. Are the rules there for a reason? Miss Florrie Davenant is frightened, and we are frankly frightened too for this naive woman alone in the world.
Remarkable stories and extremely enjoyable, even if you are not a short story person. I jumped breathlessly from story to story, experiencing each situation as if I were there.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – Anna Karenina
Everyone is enchanted by the opening of Anna Karenina. The sentence is balanced, with the strong, clever juxtaposition of happy and unhappy. It is resonant. We all think: Yes, that’s the way it is. But I wonder in retrospect: how on earth would I know? In my experience, all families are weirdos; normalcy is the goal, happiness a chimera.
I come from a family of weirdos, or so they say. A friend’s mother described me as the normal child in The Addams Family. Well, I adored my mother, but the family unit was odd, I admit. My mother held things together as best she could, but dealing with my impulsive, handsome father was exhausting. The divorce shattered her; she was a devout Catholic and divorce was against the tenets of the church. But I privately think the divorce added years to her life. Life with an unpredictable person is nerve-racking. Perhaps without knowing it, she was lucky to lose him.
On the other hand, my attractive in-laws were glamorous weirdos. They were not the Addams family; they were more like Dickens’ Lady Dedlock and Sir Leicester Dedlock, only with a family! I am sure they were popular and charming people, though I did not see that side of them often. It was the in-law dynamic that made them weird.
On the occasion of my first meeting with the Dedlocks, I was exuberant and expected them to be as charming as their son. Well, no, the atmosphere was chilly. I was about as welcome as Sidney Potier when he is brought home to meet Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner? Yes, I am white – but I was an outsider from the midwest, of all absurd places. Did I like it there? Really? Pa-in-law was cold but polite – okay, I’ll take polite! I was grateful for polite! But Ma-in-law waged a war of snubs. She would make pancakes for Mr. Nemo, while I had to help myself to cereal. I had never (at that point) met anyone with such bad manners. But Mr. Nemo and his brothers figured it out: I was in a three-way tie with their wives for least popular daughter-in-law. Now that was funny!
All families are weird, but I must interject at this point that Mom was CRAZY about my husband. She and my in-laws had very different attitudes toward marriage, manners, and even books. For instance, my TV-watching mother let me stay home from school and finish Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. My in-laws had never HEARD of Lord of the Rings. In that family, there was a lot of judging a book by its cover – and Tolkien would never measure up.
Since I have straddled two worlds- the world of the weird and the world of the elite – I am familiar with the prerequisites for judging books. In the real world today, genre reading is more acceptable than it once was. I am keen on the classics, but I like to mix it up. The Dedlocks never, never would read genre.
HERE ARE THE ESSENTIALS. RULE NO. 1 Is the book in the canon? Is it published as a Penguin Hardcover Classic? There shall be no reading of Lord of the Rings or Ngaio Marsh.. Dorothy Sayers maybe: the BBC has adapted her books nd the films shown on Masterpiece!
RULE NO. 2. Is the book acclaimed in The New York Times or The New Yorker? No? Then why waste your time on it? The gods have spoken. The readers do not need to think.
RULE NO. 3. The BBC is sacred. Anything the BBC commentators say about books or anything is correct. Not only is it correct, it is superior to anything American. I’m an anglophile – but let’s not get carried away.
RULE NO. 4. What you read should be tasteful. So tasteful! Excluded from this category: Norman Mailer, Anais Nin, Will Self, Nicholson Baker, Jenny Diski, Lucy Ellmann, Donald Barthleme, Erica Jong… But James Joyce is okay!
RULE NO. 5. Science fiction is banned. Just look at the covers! Yes, the covers ARE terrible. And that’s why you never judge a book by its cover.
RULE NO. 6. Why don’t we all read nice library books?
By the way, I am reading Gene Wolfe’s critically-acclaimed science fantasy classic, The Book of the New Sun quartet, and poor Mr. Nemo thinks it must be trash. He has never read a science fiction book! So I told him James Wood had written a critical piece about it in The New Yorker. Well, it was someone else – but I knew the name James Wood would impress him.
When in doubt, say James Wood reviewed it.
Yes, these covers are terrible! There’s no denying it.
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, or perhaps in another dimension altogether, sellers of musty secondhand books were important members of the community. In every town you would find at least one used bookstore, whose owners were frankly an eccentric lot. The men wore fresh, tidy bow ties and dashed around the store with feather dusters, or looked like Beatnik refugees from the fifties who had just smoked reefer. The charming women store owners wore black dresses feathered with cat hair and dreamily recited the poems of H.D. I reverently tiptoed , trying to avoid the disapproval of the feather duster men, whose motto clearly was DON’T TOUCH THAT BOOK! and to circumvent six-hour chats with the black-clad chain-smoking women about their favorite author, Simone Weil, whom I had not yet read.
I went through an anti-social phase, when I took to peering at the rare books in glass cases, as if there were some possibility I could buy them. It was like going to the British Library, only there you peer at manuscripts of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or Angela Carter’s Wise Children. The cases in our bookstores were full of old books I could hardly imagine anyone coveting. Does anyone really want a first or second edition of Max Shulman’s The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, though perhaps one does want a first edition of Virginia Woolf’s The Years? Dare I say it? My paperbacks are usually nicer.
And yet I did make friends, or at least acquaintances, with booksellers, because I was a regular, and a buyer of books. One Christmas Eve, I was wandering around a bookstore gloomily, because I had trouble buying gifts for parents and other acquaintances. A shaggy-haired bookseller with rare social charm noticed me admiring a Folio Society edition of The Virgin and the Gipsy. “Take it. Merry Christmas! Nobody wants it. It’s been here for years.” “Oh, no, I couldn’t.” Bring out the midwestern self-depreciating manners! He insisted. It was a dilemma. Would it be wrong to accept the book? But he was not a dirty old man, looking for a snuggle, and I was a longtime customer, so I said Yes. It is far from Lawrence’s best book, but I loved it from this moment.
Now I know you will expect to hear that I became a collector after this. I did not. I prefer reading copies, whether they be old hardcovers or new paperbacks. I have acquired a few collectibles, of the kind that are not of great worth: a lovely 1952 Heritage Book Club edition of Anna Karenina, illustrated with lithographs by Barnett Freedman; a weirdo boxed Folio Society set of the Brontes in silk covers; and a Literary Guild abridged edition of Bleak House illustrated by Edward Gorey. Damn! I bought it for the illustrations, but don’t like abridged editions. Still, the Gorey illustrations are worth it.
The problem with these charming collectibles is that they are not all in great shape. I love the Anna Karenina, but I am almost afraid to read it, because the spine is cracking. Do I simply look at it from time to time, or do I read it? One must read! And the Bronte set, with the silk covers, is not really attractive at all. (I bought it at eBay.) There are illustrations in the silk books, but the new Folio editions of the Brontes are much nicer.
The thing is: used bookstores seem to be in crisis now, because of the pandemic. The prices of used books online are ridiculous, $100 (and even $700) for mass market paperbacks I am sure are not in demand, by forgotten, possibly inferior, authors of the twentieth century. But offline, in their bookstore, the owners face different problems. I know of one used bookstore that is not open to the public, unless you are willing to pay $25 for an appointment. Perhaps the $25 includes the price of $25 worth of books? But I have noticed at the few used bookstores I’ve visit, that prices are way down, not up. Good for me, but probably not for them
Strange to see the high prices online, and to discover that pulp science fiction is now valuable. You buy it in a plastic bag for $10 and just wait what happens to the paper when you open it! In the stores, you can get much cheaper deals on pulp fiction. I say, let’s go back to the physical stores, if the poor owners can afford it.
I am writing early about Hilma Wolitzer’s charming new collection of short stories, Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket, which will be published next month. Why? I am bursting with enthusiasm over “The Great Escape,” the last story in the collection, a poignant, witty masterpiece about Covid-19. The other stories appeared in magazines in the ’60s, ’70’s, and ’80s, and I love the wry voices of the women. In the early days of Second Wave feminism, her characters cope with domestic overload, accidental pregnancies, touring model homes in suburbs (and making fun of them), worrying about a “sex maniac” loose in the apartment complex, and witnessing a woman who has gone mad in the supermarket. The stories are light, simple and graceful, fast reads, and I thoroughly enjoyed them.
But “The Great Escape” is on a higher level, truly a great work of literature. I am sure there are many Covid stories now, but this is the first I’ve read, and it is exquisite and breathtaking. The narrator, Paulie, and her sexy husband Howard, whom we have met in previous stories, have grown old: they are now in their nineties. They pop pills, squabble, and watch the news on TV, but are satisfied with their lives. Paulie, though annoyed by the loss of her curvy figure and grieving the devastation of Howard’s looks, is spirited and funny about old age.
We’d both become relief maps of keratoses, skin tags, and suspicious-looking moles. “What’s this thing on my back, Paulie?” Howard would say, yanking up his shirt while I searched for my reading glasses. “It’s nothing,” I’d tell him. “I have a million of those.” Cheerleader and competitor at once.
And here’s another:
There were running death jokes in our family. My father, driving past a cemetery: “Everybody’s dying to get in.” My mother: “Death must be great—nobody ever comes back.” Howard’s mother: “When one of us dies, I’m going to Florida.” That would have been funny except that she actually meant it. Now, none of them was laughing or ever coming back.
Then one day their anxious daughter calls to warn them about the novel coronavirus, which, as far as Paulie can tell, is only happening in a nursing home in Washington. Eventually, Paulie and Howard are housebound in New York, wearing their “disguises” (surgical masks and vinyl gloves) on the rare exoduses from their apartment. There is a hilarious segment when Paulie’s book club attempts to meet on Zoom. Nobody can find the mute button, or the unmute button, and they are suddenly disconnected – after Paulie has actually raised her hand to talk.
And then someone catches Covid. Everything you have imagined or experienced, including separation from loved ones, is documented in great detail and with an admirable lack of sentimentality. And yet while the plague rages, dysfunctional though they may be, history holds them together.
By the way, Elizabeth Strout wrote the preface to this wonderful collection. Though England entertains us with The Diary of a Provincial Lady, we have the witty Hilma Wolitzer. And you can read the title story at The Saturday Evening Post.
I have been productive lately – and it is exhausting. My usual routine comprises reading English or Latin lit, while drinking coffee and listening to my Album of the Month at low volume (Rubber Soul). But this summer I am also making my way through a long, long list of classics. There ARE “Madeleine moments” of bliss in my reading, but quite often it is sweaty work. I cannot fathom why I thought it necessary to read Thucydides, but now I have checked him off the list.
Naturally, I am also relaxing with some favorite books, like Elizabeth Taylor’s superb novel, The Soul of Kindness. Oddly, Taylor’s occasionally bleak novels transport me to a place of comfort. The characters struggle with money, have complicated love affairs, are gorgeous but shallow busybodies, closeted gays in love with the wrong person, old people terrified of the future, and yet the details about domestic English life somehow fascinate and balance the quiet desperation.
I am always on the lookout for English women’s fiction, and so was absolutely delighted to find an essay by Sarah Lonsdale in the TLS (July 9, 2021) about E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. Sarah Lonsdale reports that, while others read War and Peace during lockdown, she enjoyed the six-volume Provincial Lady series.
tAlthough I do not agree with Lonsdale that the narrator of Diary of a Provincial Lady is a liar (she is diplomatic, but fantasizes in her diary about speaking her mind), I was inspired by Lonsdale’s enthusiasm about Delafield’s genius. “I must reread these!” It took an hour, with queries of husband’s knowledge of bookshelves and the use of a flashlight to find the books at the back of a double-shelved shelf.
In a way, reading the TLS was a case of deja vu. In 2005, Cynthia Zarin wrote a lively essay for The New Yorker about Diary of a Provincial Lady. I adored this uproariously funny six-novel series, written in the form of a diary by a middle-class English woman who finds herself at the beck and call of a taciturn anti-social husband, Robert; two precocious children, Robin and Vicky; Mademoiselle, a sensitive French governess; Lady B, the bossy wife of Robert’s employer; and the grumbling cook who blames lumpy porridge on the stove. Household management is somehow very funny, though there is also despair.
I am sure many of you have read these books, but in case you haven’t, here is the opening passage of Cynthia Zarin’s brilliant 2005 essay.
In September of 1925, the English novelist E. M. Delafield, who in private life was known as Mrs. Elizabeth Dashwood, was interviewed by the Western Morning News, Devon’s leading newspaper. The occasion was her appointment, at the age of thirty-five, as the first woman magistrate on the local Cullompton Bench. When the question turned from jurisprudence (Should women justices be required to attend hangings?) to women and fiction, she remarked, “As regards the difference between the male and female point of view in novel writing, I don’t think nowadays there is a great deal in it.” The only distinction remaining, she added, was that women writers lacked a sense of humor. She did not admit it was a lack she shared. Delafield began her career as one of the generation of primarily female writers who appealed to a primarily female audience – the so-called “middlebrow” novelists…. It wasn’t until four years later that she found her metier, in the diaries of a Provincial Lady – a chronicle of the foibles, domestic and otherwise, of an ostensibly ordinary woman – and became one of the most trenchantly funny writers in England.
Are you a fan? I have never cared for Delafield’s other novels, but adore the Provincial Lady series.