Memorial Day Weekend: Two Balzacs and a Mystery

Mary Cassatt’s “Woman Reading”

It’s Memorial Day Weekend!  And lest I forget, let me remind you that Memorial Day used to honor all the dead, not just the military.  Doctors, nurses, housewives, factory workers, construction workers, teachers, professors, writers, administrative assistants, bookstore clerks – any person once alive, of any or no profession.  My husband and I grew up in different parts of the country and heard nary a peep about the military on Memorial Day.  We accompanied our parents to visit the graves of their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends. 

Memorial Day is also the unofficial beginning of summer. 

And here are three books I recommend –  great, but very different, reads.

Balzac’s Grand Illusions.  This magnificent novel, which centers on Lucien Chardon, a gorgeous young man and a talented poet,  traces his fall from grace – which involves bankrupting his family so he can live the high life in Paris. Balzac’s vivid portraits of dozens of characters, and the detailed description of the history of printing and the corrupt power of journalism, make this an incredibly fast, absorbing read.

Balzac’s A Woman of Thirty.  Romantic love ruins Julie d’Aiglemont, a beautiful young woman who, despite her father’s warnings, marries the first man with whom she falls in love, Colonel Victor d’Aiglemont. Julie and Victor prove to be sexually incompatible – though Victor doesn’t have a clue – and she becomes a semi-invalid, while Victor takes a mistress. Determined to retain her status as his wife, Julie attends salons and parties, dresses exquisitely, sings enchantingly, and exchanges witty repartee with the most brilliant men.

 But then, miraculously, she falls in love with an Englishman,  Lord Grenville, who is her match in every way.  But, as in so many 19th-century novels, adulterous women do not thrive, and Lord Grenville dies a peculiarly ridiculous death, leaving her grieving and guilty.  At thirty, a more sophisticated Julie falls in love again – but this more sophisticated love also ends in tragedy, from which her daughter, Helene, never recovers. Balzac wanders here and there and scrambles a bit in the second half of the book,  but continues to debunk romantic love, as he portrays its stages in flux. Unlike Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Julie survives:  Balzac does not employ the 19th-century formula, “the-sexually-active-woman must die. No, but Julie is devastated by her cruel losses of lovers and family.

 Who Is Simon Warwick? is one of Patricia Moyes’s best mysteries.  Published in 1978, it has a modern twist that may surprise you (as well as your Congressmen, Senators, state politicians, governors, and the Supreme Court, to whom you may not send the pertinent underlined pages). Inspector Henry  Tibbits of Scotland Yard must investigate the murder of Simon Warwick – one of two Simon Warwick wannabes who have answered an ad claiming to be the heir of a millionaire uncle. But which is the read Simon? And why did one of the Simons die?  This is a breathtaking whodunit, and, naturally, Henry’s wife Emmy, who knows quite a lot about detecting,  gets into the act.  A brilliant, absorbing crime classic, surely one of the best cozies of the 1970s.

By the way, is Patricia Moyes a neglected writer these days? I love her work!

The Depilation Dilemma

I intend to post both at Thornfield Hall and Thornfield Hall Redux , but today’s post would have to be reformatted for TH, so I’m referring you to Thornfield Hall Redux.

I read a review in the TLS of a book called Hairless:  Breaking the vicious circle of hair removal, submission and self-hatred, by Bel Olid, translated by Laura McGloughlin.

Do we need a book in translation from the Catalan on the sexism of depilation?  It’s not as though American and British women have not already read and written countless treatises on this subject in Ms., The Guardian, The New York Times, sociology books, and feminist anthologies. 

I also write about the presentation of depilation in sitcoms, humor pieces, and serious essays.

You can read the post at Thornfield Hall Redux

The Poetry Section: In Swinburne’s Corner

Joanna Hiffernan in Whistler’s “Symphony in White, no. 2”

I recently went to the art exhibition, Whistler’s Woman in White:  Joanna Hiffernan, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.  Joanna Hiffernan, nicknamed Joe, was Whistler’s lover and the model for several of his famous paintings, including the three “Symphonies in White.” Gustave Courbet also painted her portrait.  These paintings are spellbinding.

But I was also thrilled to see the manuscript of a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne, who was a close friend of Whistler and Hiffernan, and had been inspired by Whistler’s painting, “Symphony in White, no. 2.”  I squinted at the manuscript in a glass case but could not make it out in the dimly-lit gallery. Perhaps with opera glasses…  I bumped my head against the glass trying to get closer to the poem. 

Why was I so distracted by Swinburne at a Whistler exhibition?  Well, I am besotted with Victorian poetry.  The rhymes and meter!  The mythological subjects! The gloom and the melancholy!  

I don’t much like Swinburne’s”Before the Mirror” (which I read after the exhibition), but here are two stanzas from “The Garden of Proserpina,” in which Swinburne displays his hyper-gloom and obsession with death. 

She waits for each and other,
         She waits for all men born;
Forgets the earth her mother,
            The life of fruits and corn;
And spring and seed and swallow
Take wing for her and follow
Where summer song rings hollow
         And flowers are put to scorn.

There go the loves that wither,
         The old loves with wearier wings;
And all dead years draw thither,
         And all disastrous things;
Dead dreams of days forsaken,
Blind buds that snows have shaken,
Wild leaves that winds have taken,
         Red strays of ruined springs.

I love this poem – though pretty much everybody criticizes everything by Swinburne.  According to Kenneth Haynes in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon,  the reception of Swinburne’s poetry was often negative.  Robert Browning objected because the verses “combine the minimum of of thought and idea in the maximum of word and phraseology.”  Swinburne’s mother complained that her son didn’t know when to stop….  and Matthew Arnold was offended by ‘Swinburne’s fatal habit of using one hundred words where one would suffice.”   Some poets, of course, were in Swinburne’s corner: Thomas Hardy, Yeats, A. E. Housman, and Ezra Pound.

Swinburne is enchanting company, if you’re in the right mood. He experiments with meter:  according to the Penguin introduction, he wrote in 420 different verse forms – more than any other Victorian poet. 


After the exhibition, I looked for Swinburne in a London bookstores. My attitude was, Well, you never know.

And there it was – in the first store I entered!

It was the Penguin that I already have, but put this in perspective:  where I live – let us call it the wilds – you do not walk into a bookstore and find Swinburne.  No, you order it from Amazon, Abebooks, eBay, The Book Depository, etc. 

This is the point where I realized I was probably not living the life I was meant to live. My lips may have quavered as I wrote the following humorous entry in my diary, “You mean –  Londoners can walk into a bookstore and find poetry in the poetry section ?”  

Instead of National Poetry Month, we should have a Poetry Shopping Day.  Wouldn’t it be lovely if we all bought a poetry book on the same day and the bookstores had to replenish their poetry section?

The exhibition, Whistler’s Woman in White:  Joanna Hiffernan, will be at The National Gallery in Washington, D.C., July 3-Oct. 10.

Barbara Pym: The Gentle Art of Indexing

In Barbara Pym’s charming novel, No Fond Return of Love (1961), the whimsical heroine, Dulcie Mainwaring, attends an indexing conference. Dumped by her fiancé, she needs to meet new people, though the conference may be prosaic.  And she cannot help but mock the the titles of the papers on the program:  one is simply called,  “Some Problems of an Editor.”

Though many conference-goers share Dulcie’s comical views, the black-clad Viola Dace, her next-door neighbor at the dorm,  haughtily sets herself apart: she is here because she “knows one of the lecturers.”  She does not, however, know him well:  she has  a crush on Dr. Aylwin Forbes, whose wife has recently left him.

That evening, Dulcie joins the ranks of Aylwin Forbes admirers.

“Who is that good-looking man?” Dulcie whispered to Viola, as they stood in the ante-room waiting for the final gong to sound for dinner.

“Good-looking man – where?” Viola had been lost in her contemplation of their fellow conference members,  who were not, on the whole, good-looking.  Indeed, she had been wondering what conference could possibly consist of good-looking people, unless it was one of actors or film stars.  But as soon as Dulcie spoke she knew who it must be, and was annoyed and disappointed that she should not have felt his presence in some mysterious way.

Dulcie and Viola become friends, sort of, mainly because of their Aylwin crushes.  And when Viola’s landlady kicks her out, she asks if she can live with Dulcie in her big house in the suburbs.  Dulcie hesitates, because her niece is staying with her, but she is flattered that Viola likes her. And their Aylwin-mania continues:  Viola lounges in a park near Aylwin’s house, Dulcie walks in his neighborhood and spots him on the Underground (he can’t place her), and one night the two women walk past Aylwin’s house, where, embarrassingly, they are seen and have to make an excuse. 

Even funnier, Dulcie does research on Aylwin’s family:  she learns that Aylwin’s brother is a vicar, and visits the church, where a woman is crying because of her crush on the too good-looking vicar.

I chortled throughout this rereading.  In the realm of love, Dulcie practices the gentle art of indexing.  And all turns out surprisingly well for everybody. Pym is just so funny!

Friendship in Literature: Balzac, Cicero, and Barbara Pym

“You’ve got a friend.” –  Carole King

“You’re lucky if you have one friend.”  – A Relative 

Years ago, when my mother was in the hospital, one of her best friends visited.  Like my mother, she was very old.  Even though it was winter, she wore cropped pants and a short-sleeved shirt.  Both women suffered a certain confusion that may well have been the result of the many, many meds that keep people alive.

It was somebody’s idea before a routine surgery that my mother should have extreme unction.   And so a priest was called in to anoint her with oil, which she fastidiously wiped off with Kleenex as soon as he left the room.  All three of us pretended it had never happened. 

By the end of the visit, her lifetime friend was in tears.  The friend told my mother, “You’re my best friend.”

My mother said nothing.

So the poor friend had to revoke it.  “One of my best friends.”

I wish Mother had at least said, “Thank you,” but later she complained that her friend never came to visit, that nobody ever visited.  I attribute this confusion to the illness, the morphine drip, and the strange surroundings. 

And, like me, she was sometimes too honest. 

Friendship is a complicated contract dependent on a web of love,  fondness, respect, need, and enjoyment.  According to Cicero’s treatise, De Amicitia (On Friendship), you should choose friends who have strong character and are virtuous, not mere networking buddies.  Cicero praises friendship between noble, devoted men who see themselves when they see a real friend. (Not the way I’ve ever seen friends, but…)  He admits it is difficult to form a friendship that lasts till death.  People grow apart; their opinions change; they make other friends.  

Cicero, the great orator, is not a very deep philosopher, but he is occasionally funny and does crack one joke.   A Roman nobleman named Laelius, who is an expert on friendship, makes what passes for a wisecrack as he recalls that his friend Scipio “used to complain that men were more diligent in all other things than in friendship; that they were able to tell the number of goats and sheep  a man had but not how many friends.” 

 Friendship is a complicated business in Balzac’s brilliant novel, Grand Illusions.  When the hero, Lucien Chardon, moves from the provinces to Paris, he gives up poetry for the excitement of bad journalism.  He reviews books he hasn’t read, accepts money for rave reviews of plays, and writes anonymous political articles on demand, adopting different views for different editors. But then he is asked to betray his friend, Daniel d’Arthez, by writing a vicious attack on his great novel.  If he doesn’t, his editor threatens to ruin the career of Lucien’s mistress, an actress. And so Lucien goes to d’Arthez, sobbing, and shows him the article he has written.  The wonderful d’Arthez offers to rewrite the article for him.  

Later, d’Arthez writes a long, kind, but honest letter to Lucien’s sister, who has written a worried letter about gossip she has heard.  Of the vitriolic attack on his book, d’Arthez says, “I made your brother’s crime easier for him by correcting the murderous article myself, and it had my full approval.”

He goes on, 

“You ask me whether Lucien has kept my esteem and friendship.  That question I find it more difficult to answer.  Your brother is well on the way to ruining himself.  At the present moment I am still very sorry, but before long I shall be glad to forget him, not because of what he has done, but what he is bound to do..  Your Lucien is very poetic, but he is not a poet…, Lucien would always sacrifice his best friend for the sake of being witty.”

And now on to something lighter!  The friendships in Barbara Pym’s novel, No Fond Return of Love, are certainly familiar to women and provide light relief.  Two indexers, Dulcie Mainwaring and Viola Dace, meet at an indexers’ conference.  Both have gone to hear Professor Aylwin Forbes, their mutual crush.  (Why else go to an indexers’ conference?)  Though the two women are not exactly friends, Viola ends up moving in with her and they do form a bond.  It is hilarious, one of her best.And, let me add here, we are all grateful for our true friends.

Ovid’s Poem to a Eunuch (Amores, 2.3)

Ovid’s collection of elegies, Amores (The Loves), abounds with double entendres.  Although it is a stitch in Latin, it can seem dry in English even in the hands of an expert translator. On the other hand, Ovid’s masterpiece, Metamorphoses, his epic collection of transformation myths, is a vivacious and bubbly narrative in English. But the elegies portray the pursuit of love in an ancient world that can seem exotic and foreign.

I have been rereading Ovid’s charming Latin elegies, and decided to translate Amores, II.iii, to give you a glimpse of Ovid’s world.   It is the second of two monologues addressed to a eunuch who is his mistress’s chaperone.

The persona of the poem tells the eunuch that, if he had been able to enjoy the “mutual joys of Venus,” he would have sanctioned his mistress’s affair with Ovid.  But Ovid also subtly derides the eunuch’s sexual impotence:  he uses words like mollis (soft)  and facilis (yielding), similar to Catullus’s slangy references to not being durus (hard). Ovid advises the eunuch to implere (fill) the mistress with kindness.  Will the eunuch yield or resist?

Here is my literal translation of the poem – for the sense, not the poetry, alas!

Amores, II.iii

Oh! You are neither male nor female
who guard my mistress, and you cannot
know the mutual joys of Venus (love).
The man who first gelded boys
should suffer the wounds he dealt.
If your love had grown warm
in any woman, you would be soft in compliance,
you would yield to those asking.
You were not born for the horse,
or useful with brave weapons:
A warlike spear did not fit in
your right hand.  Let the masculine men
manage wars.  Put away virile hopes;
you must instead bear
the standards of your mistress.
Fill her with kindness, and her friendship
will profit you.  If you lose your mistress,
what use will you be? Her beauty –
these are years fit for sexual sport – and
figure are unworthy to die in sluggish abstinence.
She could deceive you, though you are troublesome
What two have wished for they will get.
But it is more fitting to have made a request :
we ask you while you still have
an opportunity to place your favors well, with a good return.

Ovid on His Mistress’s Abortion

In view of the Supreme Court’s recent draft of an opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, I have reposted an adapted version of one of my former posts on Ovid’s abortion poems.

Ovid wrote two poems about abortion (Amores 13 & 14).  He was the first Roman poet, to my knowledge,  to write elegies about abortion.  The first poem in Ovid’s diptych is sympathetic to his ailing mistress Corinna, whose abortion has gone drastically wrong.  He begins the first poem (I cannot write poetry;  this is my quick, literal translation):

While she rashly is overthrowing the burden of her pregnant womb,
Weary Corinna lies in danger of her life.
Having attempted so great a danger without telling me
She deserves my anger, but my anger dies with fear.
But indeed she had conceived by me, or  so I believe.
It is often for me a fact because it can be.

In the next lines Ovid writes a formal prayer to Isis, a maternal goddess and healer who had a cult in Rome, and assures her that Corinna honors her and has participated in her rites on the designated days. Then  he prays to Ilithia, the Greek goddess of childbirth. He promises to bring gifts and incense.  “I will add the inscription, “Naso has given this for Corinna’s recovery.”  (Ovid’s full name is Ovidius Publius Naso.)

He is frantic about Corinna’s illness.  He wants above all for her to live.  But he ends the prayer – and poem – with a gentle rebuke to Corinna.

If it is right to have warned in such great fear,
let it be enough for you to have struggled in this combat once.

The second elegy in the diptych is a furious attack on abortion. He begins with a reference to Euripides’s Medea, who said, “I would rather stand in front of the shield three times than give birth once.”  He argues that Medea’s killing her children was comprehensible because she wanted revenge on Jason;  but he says the tearing of an embryo from the womb is wrong, because it must naturally grow first and why deprive it of its life?

He attacks women who have abortions, saying that the first to do so should have died as a punishment. He accuses women who are exempt from military service of taking their own weapons and using them against themselves, rather than taking up those of Mars. And he argues that Corinna, the Roman population, mythological heroes, and he himself  would not have been born if their mothers had had abortions.   (N.B. He does not mention the cruel ancient practice of exposing babies, especially female babies, on a hillside.)

But in the last two lines he relents somewhat, praying for her safety and echoing the last two lines of the first poem.

Gods, concede that safely she has sinned once.
and it is enough: let her bear the punishment a second time

But which poem reflects Ovid’s feelings?  The first is gentler than the second.  The points of view seem different.   The name Corinna is not mentioned in the second poem.  Only the last couplet seems to link it to the first poem.

Fascinating to read two contradictory views.

Autobiography of a Radical: Leslie Brody’s “Red Star Sister”

I thoroughly enjoyed Leslie Brody’s autobiography, Red Star Sister: Between Madness and Utopia, an account of her life as a radical in late 1960s and early ’70s. As I read this witty, candid book, I was impressed by her commitment, energy, and, most of all, her tolerance for communal living.  (The grimy communal houses are one step up from camping.)  While she was still in high school in Massapequa, New York, in the late ’60s, Brody protested against the Vietnam war, which was at the root of her radicalism; founded an underground newspaper; and met with members of SDS.  She also attended Woodstock.

You can read the rest of this post at Thornfield Hall Redux.

The Courtesy of Booksellers, Barnes and Noble Redux, Books about Bookstores, and a Documentary about a Bookstore

Foyles in London

In which I visit Foyles in London and recommend articles about Barnes and Noble, a review of a documentary about a bookshop, and reviews of books about books.

You can read the post here at Thornfield Hall Redux.

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