An Environmental Novel: Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Ministry for the Future”

Where are we to find sanity in the 21st century? Last week right-wing fanatics attacked the Capitol and traumatized the country; this week Congress wasted their time by impeaching Trump–again.

And so I escaped the madness by reading a behemoth of an environmental novel, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future. This much-praised novel made Obama’s Favorite Books of 2020 list. It is the most optimistic environmental novel I have read, despite the detailed descriptions of the horrors of climate change. It is also one of those well-written hard science fiction books that appeal to a general audience, not just SF fans.

Robinson, an award-winning science fiction writer, is unphazed by taking on the big issues of our day. He asks the question: can we save our planet from Climate Change? He begins in the 2020s and takes us 30 years into the future.

An expert storyteller, he intersperses the narrative with short treatises on the science and technology that might slow and reverse climate change. Whether you’re concerned about hurricanes, heat waves, pandemics, water, or the ubiquity of burning of fossil fuels, Robinson has a potential fix.

The events of the novel center on the Ministry for the Future, which is established by the U.N. in 2025. The agency is appointed to speculate about the future and calculate how to keep the planet safe for the next generations. The problem facing likable, stable, middle-aged Mary Murphy, who is the head of the Ministry, is that no one will give them money to carry out their ideas.

And so they are mainly Talking Heads who present ideas at conferences. They don’t worry much about not being able to do anything. In fact, Mary does not begin to understand the system and where to apply pressure until a young American eco-terrorist, Frank May, kidnaps her (just for a few hours) and lectures her on economics and the environment.

Frank is the true hero, though he is a tormented, sad character, mentally ill as a direct result of climate change. He is the sole survivor of a terrifying wet-bulb temperature heat wave in a city in India that kills 20 million altogether. He was volunteering at a clinic and took charge of a crowd of Indians who needed relief from the heat after a power outage. He hooked up a window air conditioner to a generator, but thugs broke in and stole the generator. His only option was to lead them to a lake where the water was already much too hot to cool them. He rages over the fact that he survived. The rescuers were not sure he was human when they first saw him with his parboiled skin. And he does not feel human.

As you can imagine, he is haunted by the deaths he witnessed. He returns to Glasgow, where he had gone to school, and tries to find a reason to live. His therapist tells him he can always wait and kill himself tomorrow. On a walk through the city, he constantly panics because of post-traumatic stress disorder. He thinks of Saint Francis of Assisi:

Give yourself away, give up on yourself and all you thought you had. Feed the birds, help people. The positive of that was so obvious. Do like Saint Francis. Help people.

But he wanted more. He could feel it burning him up: he wanted to kill. Well, he wanted to punish. People had caused the heat wave, and not all people—the prosperous nations, sure, the old empires, sure; they all deserved to be punished. But then also there were particular people, many still alive, who had worked all their lives to deny climate change, to keep burning carbon, to keep wrecking biomes, to keep driving other species extinct. That evil work had been their lives’ project, and while pursuing that project they had prospered and lived in luxury. They wrecked the world happily, thinking they were supermen, laughing at the weak, crushing them underfoot.

Despite Frank’s crimes, which we know little about, and perhaps there are only two, because he is basically a good person, he loves his volunteer work in refugee camps in Zurich, which is his real work, a kind of social work. He is briefly married to a widow, and acts as a father to her two daughters , but there is no chance of happiness; he is too unstable. And things go downhill for him, while Mary continues to work the system, and sometimes meets with him to discuss things.

So does Frank save the world?

This is an intense, fast-paced didactic novel. You might want to know: is Robinson a scientist?

In a Rolling Stone interview, he explains that the story always comes first but he tries to be as accurate as possible.

” So I try to stick to the sciences as closely as I can, even in my Mars novels. I don’t break the laws of physics. I don’t like fantasy. And I do live with a scientist. My wife [Lisa Nowell, a chemist with the U.S. Geological Survey] is really quite tough on my manuscripts in terms of accuracy and tone”.

An excellent read, and a very informative one, which I would call “important” if I were blurbing it. That might sound corny, though. My criticism? It is at least 50 pages too long. Why do editors feel that they must publish such big books?

But I will never forget Frank May. One of the saddest but most memorable characters in American literature!

A Marvelous Middlebrow Novel: Rumer Godden’s “The Greengage Summer”

There comes a time when we realize we are unlikely to visit Washington, D.C., again. Not that we were particularly drawn to the nation’s capital, but right now we are sickened by the invasion of the U.S. Capitol by violent white men in ball caps. Terrifying and crazy.

Once inside, they became distracted by taking selfies. Fortunately, this helped police track some of them on social media.

A very, very, very sad day for our country.

LIFE GOES ON.

I repaired my rumpled human spirit by curling with The Greengage Summer.

Rumer Godden is an underrated, once very popular novelist, and her 1958 novel, The Greengage Summer, was adapted as a film in 1961, starring Samantha York and Kenneth More. (I haven’t seen the film, but it is on Youtube.) Godden brilliantly portrays the culture of outsiders, and in this book the outsiders are English children on vacation in France. Though this is classified as an adult book, perhaps it could double as a children’s book.

The narrator, 13-year-old Cecil Grey, is in a unique position to observe adult behavior, though she does not always interpret its meaning correctly. On a family vacation in France, her mother is hospitalized with a blood infection, leaving Cecil in charge of her three younger siblings in the hotel while her older sister Joss, age 16, stays in bed with an unnamed adolescent malady. Cecil is the most level-headed, and even understands French, though she doesn’t speak it well. She is frustrated, however, by the powerless condition of being betwixt-and-between: “…now I was relegated to a no-man’s-land myself. I could see it was inevitable–thirteen is not child, not woman, not…declared…”

Godden has a lyrical, whimsical style. Her narratives zigzag from present to future to past, as she inserts dialogue from a different times to highlight an event in the vivid present. (Less of that here than in some of her books, though.)

And she clearly plans the structure from the first sentence to the last. The Greengage Summer begins literally and figuratively in a Paradisal garden, which is eventually invaded by sin. (Joss has a dress she refers to as “sin.”)

Here is the first paragraph:

On and off, all that hot French August, we made ourselves ill from eating the greengages. Joss and I felt guilty; we were still at the age when we thought being greedy was a childish fault and this gave our guilt a tinge of hopelessness, because, up to then, we had believed that as we grew older our faults would disappear, and none of them did. Hester of course was quite unabashed; Will–though he was called Willmouse then–Willmouse and Vicki were too small to reach any but the lowest branches, but they found fruit fallen in the grass; we were all strictly forbidden to climb the trees.

To keep them from underfoot, the manager banishes the children into the garden by day. Sometimes they go to the river, but mostly they lounge in the grass and watch the adult goings-on from afar. Madame Zizi, the owner, is obsessed with her handsome, well-dressed English lover, Eliot, who, when he is the mood, takes the Grey children under his wing. After 16-year-old Joss recovers from her illness, Eliot, wants to be with them all the time, because she is beautiful. Joss knows that he is flirting, but remains innocent of the implications until Madame Zizi makes a unforgivable scene. Then Joss plays the person she is not–with calamitous results.

I esteem Godden for her knowledge of psychology as well as her expertly-woven plots. For instance, the emotional situation here is clear to the children–they recognize the love triangles within triangles, though the underlying personal histories of the lovers are not always clear. Okay, perhaps the end is a bit like a children’s book, with the plot rushing off in an almost ridiculous direction. But do you know what? I believed it.

The Good People of 2021: Recommending Good Books & Other Challenges

Darn, they would never leave the bar and join a book club!

Shortly after my first marriage, I got stuck at a party in the country. It was not the least bit Chekhovian, and I wished I’d stayed home. I was very bored, as the only sober person, and I couldn’t leave, as the only non-driver. I perched in the kitchen and read The Whole Earth Catalogue cover-to-cover while the other guests wandered around the edge of a corn field boisterous and drunk. Afterwards, I told my alcoholic first husband how boring I found his friends.

“They’re good people,” he told me.

That depends on your point-of-view. They drank every night at the same bar, so in a sense he knew them better than anyone. His people were his people… and by my standards, they were not particularly wonderful.

But seriously, what is good? Is it good to host a party where everyone gets wasted? I am not saying it is bad, but is it good? There is drinking in the Symposium, but did the guests pass out from too much wine? I don’t remember that part…

What I learned from the non-Chekhovian party: never go to a party in the country and bring your own book.

AND NOW LET ME DISCUSS SOME READING CHALLENGES OF 2021

Any person who can recommend a good book is a good person in my book. But sometimes there is too much goodness, if you know what i mean. I can get my head around the concept of Women in Translation in August or German literature in November, but Book Riot’s “Read Harder” challenges are so issue-oriented they seem satiric.

For example:

A Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: A Romance by a Trans and/or Nonbinary Author.
I wish I were kidding, but I’m not. So…this is actually a genre? I promise you I will never read romances by Trans and Nonbinary Authors. Likewise, I will never read romances by Heterosexual and Homosexual authors. The world ended the day Ron Charles, editor at The Washington Post Book World, wrote an article in which he pretended to like romance novels. Similarly, Michael Dirda occasionally mentions Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy. The women remain silent…


Some Book Riot “Read Harder” challenges are decidedly noble. There is a challenge to read “books about disabled, chronically ill, Deaf, or neurodivergent authors.” (Why is “deaf” capitalized?_ And what kind of circumlocution is “neurodivergent”? Does it refer to Carrie Fisher, William Styron, Emily Dickinson, Hemingway, and Byron? I recommend the following:

I can get my head around the following challenge, but is it preaching to the choir?

THE “READING WOMEN” PODCAST HOSTS “THE READING WOMEN CHALLENGE.” But does anyone who participates in this challenge actually need it? I read mostly women authors, and my guess is other women do, too. But I admit, I have never read and will never read”a Muslim middle grade novel” or”short story collection by a Caribbean writer” (unless I see one at a bookstore).

The next book challenge is for the stodgy and makes sense, sort of, in a goofy way.

THE 52 BOOK CLUB READING CHALLENGE. Fifty-two books in 52 weeks. No problem! The prompts are a little silly, as these things tend to be, but I am quite sure I can handle reading a “book with a deckled edge” or “a book you’d rate 5 stars.”

If all else fails, you can choose the latest books at The Most Anticipated Books of 2021 Goodreads and then participate in the Goodreads Challenge, which involves typing the number of books you hope to read and then trying to meet the challenge.

Happy 2021, and May You Find the Challenge for You!

Out of Time: Rumer Godden’s “The Peacock Spring”

Rumer Godden

Rumer Godden is one of my favorite middlebrow writers, and I’ve been thinking about her because of the lavish TV adaptation of Black Narcissus (the first of her three nun novels, published in 1939). I prefer Godden’s later nun classic, In This House of Brede (1969), but I am fascinated by the disturbing portrayal in Black Narcissus of the dazed nuns distracted by the beautiful Himalayan landscape.

I went through a Godden-mad phase in the zips, when I searched online for her (mostly) out-of-print novels. I was so impressed by these books, and so surprised that so few people read her. Like many women of my generation, I discovered her when I was a child: she wrote several books about dolls, but my favorite was An Episode of Sparrows, about a garden in London. And, as I have indicated above, I was absolutely crazy about In This House of Brede, to the point that I considered becoming a nun–for about an hour.

Now Virago has reissued most of Godden’s books, but I do have several older copies. The other day I was browsing my shelves and found an old book club edition of The Peacock Spring (bought for $1), which I had never read. I am lukewarm about her later books: 1974 is past the date of vintage Godden! This one is not quite as great as some of her others, but Godden’s style is lyrical and witty, and she always has something worth saying.

Born in England and raised in India, Godden manages to be quotidian and unconventional at the same time. Set in India, The Peacock Spring is partly a love story, partly a hate story. Two English half-sisters, fifteen-year-old Una and her frivolous younger sister, Hal, are yanked out of boarding school before the end of term. Their father, Edward, a diplomat in India, wants them to leave school immediately to live with him. The request is very odd, since they have been living with an aunt during vacations.

The situation is especially bad for Una, a math genius who does not want her education derailed. Her sister, Hal, who is completely unacademic, is enthralled by the exoticism of India. But beware fathers seeking their daughters: he has not been straightforward. He has invited them here only so that hisbeautiful Eurasian mistress, Alix, can be their “governess” and have a reason to live with him.

The hatred between Alix and Una grows as Una discovers her hypocrisy and ignorance. Alix simply does not know enough to teach Una. And when, during a battle over calculus, Una declares her enmity by flinging the math book into the garden, she earns the approval of Ravi, a handsome, college-educated gardener who is a poet and who dislikes the haughtiness of Alix. They become close friends, over calculus and poetry.

All of these relationships are muddled and complicated, and can stand in for the political misunderstandings between the English, Indians, and Eurasians. But none of these relationships remain static. Things shift as each discovers his or her strengths and weaknesses–especially weakenesses.

I love the way Godden inserts temporal speculation into the narrative–mostly in the subjunctive mood. This is characteristic even of her early writing.

Edward’s three or four days in Japan had stretched to a fortnight. “Didn’t you miss me?” he was to ask them. “We hadn’t time” would have been the truthful answer or, for Una, rather, “I was out of time.” She felt she might have been in India for an aeon. “Well, the Hindi words for ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ are the same,” Alix had told her, “and the ‘day before yesterday’ and the ‘day after tomorrow.'” Time seemed to have disappeared.

A good, if not great novel!

Feel Good, Feel Bad: Mrs. Gaskell’s “Cranford” & Guido Morselli’s “Dissipatio H.G.”

Illustration for “Cranford” by Elizabeth Gaskell

Winter used to be colder and more challenging: blizzards, hills of snow dumped by snowplows on side-streets, fields flooded for ice-skating, hiking in snowy parks, dodging into cafes and diners for coffee or hot chocolate.

Fast forward to 2021: winters are usually mild now, but last week we had a big snowfall and it is just like an old-fashioned winter. Really, it cheers me up. I’m not going out for hot chocolate at the moment, but at least we can appreciate the sparkle of the outdoors.

And because I’m cheered by the wintry weather, I’ve been mixing up my feel-good reads with feel-bad reads, with no fear of being clobbered by depression. Last week I read Elizabeth Gaskell’s almost too cozy novel, Cranford, and then Guido Morselli’s grim dystopian novel, Dissipatio H.G.

First, the feel-good read: Cranford. I have always admired Mrs. Gaskell’s industrial novels, especially North and South, but was never able to bear Cranford. I’d read a chapter and then give up, finding it mildly funny but sentimental. Even knowing that Judi Dench was in the TV series did not persuade me to watch the series or read the book. All those bonnets, all that knitting… Usually for me, but not this time.

But I discovered Cranford is a delight when I broke down and perused it over the holidays. The narrator, Mary Smith, a former resident of Cranford, wittily explains and analyzes the domestic arrangements and social doings of the “Amazons” in Cranford. Yes, the residents are mostly ladies, some of whom live in genteel poverty. And men take a secondary place to them, except for the doctor.

Mary is so precise that she has almost an anthropological turn of mind. (But her descriptions are tongue-in-cheek.) Money is never discussed in Cranford, and it is considered “vulgar” to serve expensive food at the evening entertainments, which end very early because everyone keeps such early hours. On Mary’s visits to her sweet, impoverished friend Miss Matti, they knit in the dark–Matti claims she can knit without seeing– and light only a single candle when Matti admits night has fallen beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Mary observes,

‘Elegant economy’! How naturally one falls back into the phraseology of Cranford! There, economy was always ‘elegant’, and money-spending always ‘vulgar and ostentatious’; a sort of sour-grapeism, which made us very peaceful and satisfied. I shall never forget the dismay felt when a certain Captain Brown came to live at Cranford, and openly spoke about being poor–not in a whisper to an intimate friend, the doors and windows; but, in the public street in a loud military voice! alleging his poverty as a reason for not taking a particular house.

This charming, well-written, sentimental novel will pleasantly while away a winter day.

And now for the feel-bad read, Dissipatio H.G. by Guido Morselli. This elegant, philosophical, psychological post-apocalyptic Italian novel is not a cozy catastrophe. And here’s a tip: Do NOT read the introduction until after you finished the novel. Morselli’s life was so depressing that you will break down in tears and have doubts about the novel. Read the book, which is very sad but also a fascinating political sociological analysis of our society.

The title, Dissipatio H.G., refers to the “vaporization,” or “nebulization” of humani generis (the human race). The narrator is the last man on Earth: he missed the end of the world while he was in a cave, attempting to commit suicide. At the last minute he decided he liked drinking too much to go through with it, and he finds the human race has vanished. There are no bodies in the crashed cars, no traces of humans in the hotel (except indentations on the mattresses and pillows), no suitcases or clothes missing from hotel rooms, nobody in the airport, nobody in the train stations. Eventually he has a breakdown and moves into the hotel.

One of his theories is that the humans have disappeared en masse by some planetary process because they are responsible for the pollution and devastation of the earth. The animals, by the way, thrive now that man is gone. The narrator rages against the consumerism and materialism that was killing the eartly, focusing on the horrendous new city Chrysopolis (Gold City), which has an almost equal number of banks and churches.

He muses,

For me it is the Biblical antitype, the triumphant consummation of everything I scorn, the epitome of all I detest in this world, my negative caput mundi. My fuga saecli, my flight from the world, was even then an escape from this place, the precise material expression of our century. Even the fact that I’m looking at it now feels implausible, dispiriting.

This is intellectual science fiction, part political treatise, part a tirade against our consumerist culture. The emphasis is on ideas, not on survival. And in fact survival does not seem to the narrator like a very good idea.

I do recommend reading Dissipatio H.G. when you are in a sunny mood! Cranford is good for all moods.

More Balzac, Please: “Colonel Chabert,” A Breathtaking Novella

Balzac

If you are are always asking for “more Balzac, please,” you comb every bookstore for his books. Is Honoré de Balzac the best French writer of the 19th century? Some might say Flaubert, and they might be right, but few books are more entertaining than Balzac’s series, La Comedie Humaine.

Some months ago when a used bookstore employee asked if she could help me, I whimsically asked, “Do you have any Balzac?” Most stores have a few of his masterpieces, but I hoped to find something I hadn’t read.

“Balzac?” She led me to the shelves filled with sets. “Well,” she said brightly, “looks like we’ve got a set right from the 19th century.”

I didn’t want to squash her kindness, but I am allergic to old books with uncut pages that flake in my hands. The old paper makes my hands raw. One day I’ll find some old books in mint condition!

Perhaps fifteen or twenty of Balzac’s books are in-print, among them such masterpieces as Cousin Pons and Old Goriot,but a few years ago I did come across a new-to-me novella, Colonel Chabert, published in 1997 by New Directions and translated by Carol Cosman. I read this poignant, compelling novella over the holidays. And I loved it.

The gallant Colonel Chabert, a Napoleonic war veteran, is one of Balzac’s most endearing characters. One morning he shows up in despair at a lawyer’s office. He wears a filthy ragged coat, and the clerks mock him and call him “Old Greatcoat.” One clerk even throws pellets of bread at him. The colonel doesn’t care if they mock him: when they claim the lawyer Derville is only in the office after midnight, Chabert is unfazed. He shows up at midnight, and Derville happens to drop in for a minute in his evening clothes.

Derville, a clever lawyer, is fascinated by the case. Colonel Chabert was declared dead after a battle, and his pension and fortune went to his widow, who has remarried and had two children. She is so greedy that she pretends not to recognize him when he tries to recoup his losses, as well as get her back. And the bureaucratic error that has stolen his identity and fortune cannot be reversed.

Fortunately, Derville thinks he can twist the judicial system and win. The biggest problem: Chabert still loves his wife.

Balzac’s descriptions of characters are always sharply-depicted, and his portrait of Chabert is painterly.

Colonel Chabert sat perfectly still, like one of the wax figures Godeschal had wanted to show his fellow clerks. This stillness would not have been so astonishing had it not completed the
otherworldly impression made by the man’s whole person. The old soldier was dry and lean. His forehead, deliberately hidden under the hat of his smooth wig, gave him a mysterious look. His eyes seemed covered with a transparent film or dirty enamel, whose bluish cast gleamed in the moonlight. The pale face, ghostly and knifelike–if I may use such an odd expression–seemed almost dead. His neck was tightly wound with a shabby black silk cravat. Beneath this rag his body was so well hidden in darkness that a man of imagination would have thought the head itself was just a play of shadows, or maybe an unframed Rembrandt….

Illustration of Colonel Chabert

This gorgeous novella is intriguing, breathtaking, and believable. Darling Colonel Chabert! I will certainly reread this.

Five Favorite Books of 2020 & A Reader’s Year of Isolation

“Antiquarian Cat Reading,” by Edward Gorey

Things WILL be better in 2021.

And so I will end the blogging year with a frivolous list. At this point you don’t need another Best Books of the Year list, but here are FIVE FAVORITES of 2020. (Click on the titles to read my reviews.)

FIVE OF MY FAVORITES OF THE YEAR

The Story of Stanley Brent by Elizabeth Berridge

Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Desire by Una L. Silberrad

A Reader’s Year of Isolation

This has been, in many ways, a terrifying year. Not THE most terrifying year, but a very dangerous one. In March when Covid-19 erupted here, I was terrified, especially for my husband, who thought the coronavirus was just the flu. I yanked him into the street when pedestrians approached us on the sidewalk. And in the first weeks of the brief shutdown (not an official lockdown), people loitered on the lawns and sidewalks, chatting and standing too close together, while I grimly walked in the street to avoid them.

I wanted to say, “The virus is airborne, people. That’s what social distancing is for!”

But they couldn’t get their heads around the airborne virus that also required washing hands. And we didn’t even have masks in those early days.

People asked, What will you do with all the leisure while working at home? Well, it wasn’t a holiday. So hard to explain…

Of course we read a lot in 2020, but no more than usual. Many have written about a lowgrade depression that interfered with reading, and in the beginning I was so distracted that I read only classics. There was much reading of Chekhov, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, James M. Cain, George Eliot, and D. H. Lawrence. Did I have no time to waste? Well, I would not go that far, but I needed well-wrought words to hold my attention. It was an antidote to daily reading about what was happening in China, Italy, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and of course the U.S. I was sick from reading about Covid.

A public library in the 1960s.

And then the public libraries closed.

It did feel in those early days as if the government used Covid to deny books and knowledge to citizens. That conspiracy theory doesn’t work during a pandemic, but I do read a lot of science fiction, so it crossed my mind. The closing of libraries and schools has been an unfortunate consequence of managing the pandemic. Even for a stay-at-home, staying home gets old.

Somehow we thought the public libraries would stay open, because they are community centers these days. The avid readers, the lonely, the elderly, the poor, and the homeless gather to read newspapers, use the computers, photocopy documents, and borrow books. The library book clubs are the refuge of middle-aged women, and the lectures provide mental stimulation for the “seniors” (now that’s a ghastly sobriquet!). It is also where you pick up your special dark glasses for viewing the eclipse.

And so when they slammed the library doors in mid-March we were shocked. Mind you, I don’t consider librarians social workers, but surely with the appropriate plexiglass barriers, limited browsing, and their many, many self-checkout machines, they could stay open a few hours a day. Okay, curbside pickup was better than nothing. And then the libraries opened again briefly in October. Too briefly. The number of Covid cases and deaths dramatically rose, and they slammed the doors again.

Naturally, we are not completely isolated. We have many books. And we have our blogs, our online book clubs, our Novellas in November and our Women in Translation Months, our Zoom (shudder!), and other virtual substitutes.

But if I lived alone I might indeed go bonkers. So would I have ignored the restrictions and go out? Well, not entirely, but I might have gone shopping more often. I haven’t been to a box store in months. I miss them.

I do envy those writers who don’t believe Covid is dangerous. Some of them think the numbers are nothing! I do think the danger is real, and will continue to wear a mask after I get my vaccine, until the infectious disease experts tell us we’re safe. But guess who’s probably having more fun? The non-believers (unless they get sick, and I hope they do not)!

So Happy New Year! Be safe, stay home, drink your chosen drink (I recommend Darjeeling tea), wash your hands, wear a mask, and celebrate virtually!

2021 will be much better!

Two Classics of Different Quality: Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education” and Una L. Silberrad’s “Desire”

I did some serious reading over the holidays to balance my bubbly reading of middlebrow fiction. I sprinted through Una L. Silberrad’s fast-paced novel Desire (1908) and ambled at a sedate pace through Flaubert’s stately Sentimental Education (1869). Since you have doubtless heard of the latter, I will start with Flaubert.

A friend recently assured me that Flaubert’s Sentimental Education was superior to Madame Bovary. I read… I read… I read… and I much preferred Madame Bovary. Nonetheless, Sentimental Education is crisp, witty, and beautifully-written, with a muted style, sharp imagery, and humorous descriptions of a group of flawed young men trying to make it in Paris.

When we meet the hero, Frederic, a well-to-do young man from a country town, he is just out of school. Like his friends, he studies various subjects, but unlike his friends, he never completes anything he starts. He has money and wants to succeed socially; that is enough.

When he arrives in Paris, Frederic has a reverent attitude toward women. He idealizes Mme Arnaux, the beautiful Madonna-like wife of M. Arnaux, who is a printer, publisher, art dealer, and philanderer. So obsessed is Frederic with Mme Arnaux, whom he once talked to briefly on a boat, that he insinuates himself into Arnaux’s circle. He accomplishes this by buying Arnaux dinners and covering for him when he spends an evening with his mistress, Rosanette. Arnaux convinces his wife that Rosanette is Frederic’s mistress, and ironically that comes true. Though Mme Arnaux is at the pinnacle of love in Frederic’s imagination, he also finds time to have an affair with Madame Dambreuse, a financier’s wife. Frederic is so confused he can’t really decide whom he wants. There is much quiet humor in this novel.

There is no doubt it is excellent. The problem is not with the writing. Flaubert can do no wrong! But the hero, Frederic, is a pale imitation of Balzac’s Rastignac, the hero of Pere Goriot and a character in many subsequent novels by Balzac.

In fact, Frederic’s friend Deslauriers directly mentions Rastignac when he urges Frédéric to take of advantage of a letter of introduction to a well-known financier.

“There’s nothing like mingling with the rich. Since you own a tailcoat and a pair of white gloves, make the most of them. You must get into that circle. You can introduce me later on. A millionaire—just think of it. Make sure you get into his good books—and his wife’s! Become her lover!”

Frédéric protested.

“But this is just the way the world goes. Remember Rastignac in the Comédie humaine. You can do it, I’m sure you can!”
 

As a fan of Flaubert and Balzac, I find Rastignan more interesting than Frederic, and felt that Flaubert had Balzac in the corner of his eye as he wrote Sentimental Education. It is as if the two writers were having a conversation, but Flaubert’s style somehow lacks the exuberance of Balzac.

Not that Sentimental Education is not a great book–it is. But Balzac was in my mind the whole time. And that is not a good way to measure a book.

On another note, I discovered Una L. Silberrad’s Desire by browsing at Handheld Press, a small publisher of reprints of excellent little-known books. I had never heard of Silberrad, so it was doubly a pleasure to discover her work. She reminds me a bit of Arnold Bennett, perhaps because much of the novel deals with the pottery business, and partly because she is not proceeding in the direction of modernism.

What is important in life? Business or the arts? That, more or less, is the theme of this intelligent novel. Desire, the heroine, a New Woman, attracts men like flies with her beauty and wide-ranging interests: she is the sparkling, illegitimate daughter of Sir Joseph Quebell, who lives in his house and has been raised as his daughter. In society everyone enjoys her company, but women are jealous. Desire is so witty and well-infomred that she unintentionally makes men fall in love with her.

Then one day a meeting between Desire and a man of a lower class changes both lives. At a soiree, Peter Grimstone is introduced to Desire when he is mistaken for someone else. Their conversation is pleasant, but he is certainly not overwhelmed or intimidated. He does not move in her social circle, nor does he wish to. And so he explains that they were introduced because of a case of mistaken identity.

She teases,

‘Don’t you think you might tell me who you really are, since you are not who he said?—though I have not the least idea who that is.’

‘I am afraid I am nobody,’ Peter confessed; ‘my name is Grimstone, and I am a writer of sorts: I suppose a journalist, after a fashion: that is to say, I do a certain amount of writing for papers and magazines and things.’

‘And don’t like it?’

‘I don’t know; I do in a way. Why do you ask?’

‘Because I’m sure you don’t really. You have not the look or the manner one associates with journalists.’

‘I am not altogether one,’ he explained; ‘there is other work which I like much better, and by and by—Well, I don’t suppose I shall always be a journalist, though I expect I shall always be a writer.’

The identities of Peter and Desire are in flux, though they do not know it at the time. The soiree might have provided their only meeting, except that Desire reads his first novel and loves it. And so they become friends, not as a man and woman, but as two intelligent beings.

And then things begin to go wrong. Peter and Desire are shattered by personal and business matters. Peter must give up writing and return home to help run his father run his pottery business; and Desire is destitute after her father’s death, has to live in a boarding house, and decides to go to typing school.

Silberrad has painted fascinating portraits of the New Woman and what we might perhaps dub the New Man. I am fascinated by the details of business. The energetic writing gallops along–occasionally there is a brief awkwardness of transition–but I can’t wait to read her other books–if I can find them.

A msut-read, though think Arnold Bennett rather than Flaubert!

Literary Trends of 2020: The Year of Quarantining Books

I pride myself on being psychic, but had no clue what 2020 would hold. Who could have predicted that bookstores and libraries would quarantine books, and that we would not laugh? The books did not get sick, but the humans surely did. Perhaps the humans should have quarantined themselves a bit more … and, by the way, the CDC has no data about how long the virus lives on paper.

Accusations of cultural appropriation can morph into bullying, unfortunately. In January, [some] members of the Latinx community protested the publication of American Dirt, a best-selling novel by Jeanine Cummins about a migrant journey. This fast-paced, issue-oriented novel, which was chosen for the Oprah Book Club, chronicles the flight of Lydia, a bookstore owner, and her eight-year-old son to the U.S. border after her journalist husband and fifteen family members are massacred by a cartel in Acapulco. The conditions of the journey are horrifying, with a high probability of injury, capture by Immigration agents, or death along the way.  

Cummins, a white writer, received death threats, there were protests at bookstores, and the book tour was canceled. And yet Cummins was utterly sympathetic to the plight of illegal migrants. Much of the fury revolved around the six- or seven-figure advance she had received. The consensus among the protesters was that a Latinx writer should have gotten the contract instead of Cummins. Well, since she wrote the book…! My advice is to write a best-seller type book and THEN request the seven-figure contract.

Books about books remain popular. This year, we were reminded of our love of books by many new books about books: Vivian Gornick’s Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Rereader, Delpine Minoui’s The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War, Shaun Bythell’s Confessions of a Bookseller, Polly Crosby’s spooky novel, The Book of Hidden Wonders, and Matt Haig’s best-selling fantasy, The Midnight Library.

People are buying more backlist titles, according to Observer. Perhaps it is true: I have read multiple articles about people turning to the classics or at least to books published before this century. While some discussed War and Peace on Twitter, others coped by reading shorter books this year. Chekhov calms one’s nerves, I learned.

The N.B. column at the TLS changed hands. As if the Covid year weren’t bad enough… ! Longtime columnist J.C. (James Campbell), founder and author of the book column N.B., was replaced by M.C. (identity unknown). Naturally, they have different voices, and we can’t expect the same style. Perhaps the title of the column could be changed?

Small reprint publishers like Furrowed Middlebrow and Handheld Press made a strong showing in 2020 (at least with readers like me). I loved Miss Plum and Miss Penny (1958), by Dorothy Evelyn Smith (Furrowed Middlebrow), and Business As Usual (1933) ), by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford (Handheld Press). You can read my posts on these, here and here.

LET’S HOPE 2021 IS A GREAT YEAR FOR LITERATURE!

Charming Middlebrow Lit: “Miss Plum and Miss Penny” by Dorothy Evelyn Smith

Over the holidays, I read a great deal. It was very cold. There I was in the cozy but chilly living room, huddled under a blanket, reading a middlebrow novel and trying to shift The Cat Known As Undercover Cat from her position on top of my foot.

After I nudged her, she moved perhaps an inch. It was somewhat more comfortable. It was as much as I expected. Soon I was absorbed in my reading.

I love middlebrow English novels. Yet some of my friends do not read middlebrow -to the point they claim they do not know what it is.

My husband teased me: “What is middlebrow?”

“You know–highbrow, middlebrow.”

And before he could blink, I gave him a middlebrow book to read, Miss Plum and Miss Penny, by Dorothy Evelyn Smith. It was that, or bring the artificial tree up from the basement.

I checked on him at intervals. “It’s cozy,” he said. “Only the English could do this kind of thing.” Later he admitted, “It’s a good book.” And finally: “She’s much better than Barbara Pym.”

Even I don’t go that far! Barbara Pym’s books are classics, period.

But I loved Miss Plum and Miss Penny, published in 1959, a charming comedy that is slightly reminiscent of Dodie Smith’s books, with a dash of E. F. Benson. Dorothy Evelyn Smith has a gift for noting quaint details about village life and collecting them into quirky paragraphs that will make you howl with laughter. Most of the characters are spinsters and bachelors. Why that is funny I cannot quite say–perhaps because without sex there are fewer complications. And yet many of us women spent our youth doing everything we could NOT to be a spinster, so it is a paradox. Humorous, though.

The heroine, Alison Penny, is a contented woman who has always lived in the same place and followed the same routine. When she wakes up on her 40th birthday, she does not dwell on the number, and she and her servant, Ada, follow their usual birthday routine. Ada brings her breakfast in bed and gives her a knitted bed jacket for a gift. Alison pretends to be grateful, though Ada always knits her a bed jacket, and Alison doesn’t like bed jackets.

When Ada brings up the birthday mail, they are shattered by a lapse in their routine. For the first time in 20 years, Miss Penny’s old flame, George, who went to Canada after her parents persuaded her not to marry him, has not sent her a birthday letter. But, as these things often go, Alison ends up comforting Ada.

“And,” Alison continued, wiping the tears from Ada’s cheeks with her own clean handkerchief, “I have my dear, comfortable home, the Glee Club, the Women’s Institute, my Cubs, and several good friends. That is a great deal to have.”

Ada doesn’t buy it, though. Romance is missing–and Alison’s parents also drove off Ada’s boyfriend.

Is this cover illustration by Edward Ardizzone?

Perhaps the missing letter makes Alison more susceptible to others’ troubles. On her walk, Alison notices a crying woman walking into the duck pond. Alison rescues Miss Victoria Plum from suicide, and and tries in vain to find out where her home is. She learns Miss Plum has had a series of jobs as companions to old ladies, and is currently unemployed. Alison doesn’t particularly want the responsibility, but she brings Miss Plum back to the house for lack of a better solution. The problem: Once the weepy Miss Plum is installed, there is no getting rid of her. And it seems unkind to get rid of her before Christmas.

The situation is comic, and Alison’s friends are also very amusing in their responses to Miss Plum. The only ones immune to Miss Plum’s helpless charm are Alison and Ada. For some reason, even Alison’s confirmed bachelor friends enjoy the company of lachrymose Miss Plum, though they have promised to help evict her from Alison’s home. Hubert, the vicar, a widower with a recalcitrant son, Ronnie, who comes home for the holidays, is pleased when Miss Plum offers to help out with the Cubs meeting, and Stanley, a bachelor banker who wears corsets and insists on making his own sauces, is susceptible to her flattery. Both men are captivated by Miss Plum’s helplessness. You can imagine how this steams Alison and Alison.

You must read this book! And be sure not to miss the Old People’s Treat and the ice-skating scenes.

So much fun, and I look forward to reading more Dorothy Evelyn Smith.