“This is not the Roaring Twenties—that world is gone and may never be back again.” – “The Trackers,” by Charles Frazier
Set during the Depression of the 1930s, the narrative of Charles Frazier’s new novel, The Trackers, is embedded in a New Deal mural. The narrator, Val, a young out-of-work artist, procures an assignment to paint a mural at the post office in Dawes, Wyoming. Although he is warned not to express radical ideas in his art, or in any way imitate the political murals of his hero, the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, Val enjoys the opportunity to incorporate local history and the natural world. And he proves to be a first-class art teacher: he chats with P.O. customers about the WPA, explains ancient techniques of mural-painting, and invites children to help him paint.
I would have been happy to spent the entire novel in the world of public art: as a fan of the murals of the regionalist painters Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, I have enjoyed road trips to admire the public art of the ’30s. In Frazier’s novel, the mural is both the still center and a vehicle for action. Much of the action takes place on road trips.
Politics gets in the way of art, even though Val has been warned against politics. Val lives in a cabin on the ranch of his rich patron, John Long, an aspiring politician who proposed the mural to the government. But after John alienates his wife, Eve, a former singer, by his relentless political networking, she drives away one morning and disappears. John hires Val to take time off from the mural and track her down – and also to make sure that Eve’s first husband is dead and that her past won’t embarrass him politically.
Finding Eve is problematic. Before meeting John, Eve was dirt-poor and bummed around: she rode the rails, lived in hobo camps, and traveled as a singer for a band. Val tracks her to Seattle through conversations with people on the road and in hobo camps. Parts of this read like an informative oral history, fascinating though not always subtle. Alas, Eve is always several steps ahead of Val. Along the way, he encounters violent criminals and barely escapes with his life.
What I especially admired in this book were Val’s observations of the Great Depression using Covid metaphors. (The Influenza pandemic preceded the Depression.) Sometimes Val thinks life is getting back to normal, but then there is “the dreadful backsliding of the economy toward hopelessness, like waves of a medieval plague breaking over you again and again…. Soon we’d be seeing front-page apocalyptic photographs again, biblical dust storms, black blizzards, towering into the sky and scouring the landscape. Heat waves threatening to burn out the center of the country. Seventy-five percent of the nation in drought.”
This is a splendid book – very smart, enjoyable, and fast-paced – the first I’ve read by Frazier. The writing is lyrical and passionate.
Why, one wonders, are college students shy of studying the liberal arts? According to an article by Peter Heller in The New Yorker, enrollment in the humanities is suffering. The latest generation of college students, even at Harvard, is intent on “practical,” i.e., potentially lucrative studies, hoping to get rich fast and retire early.
All I can say is, it must be a nightmare to be young today. And how naive to think that anyone gets rich fast in the post-Covid economy! Perhaps they should read Maynard Keynes or Henry David Thoreau.
Not that it was so different in my day. Tsk, tsk, so impractical, people exclaimed if I mentioned classics – so I did not.
I do not regret studying the humanities. I never deceived myself as to the financial potential of classics.
But even though I have no regrets, it does not mean that the experience was perfect. Many lovers of classics dropped out along the way – and perhaps this sketch/memoir will explain why.
THE FAUX-CLASSICS CAREER PATH
On my first night in X-town, where I’d moved to attend graduate school, I was invited to a classics cocktail party. “Party” is not an accurate description of this gathering, but I do not know what else to call it. We milled and thronged, chatted and sipped cheap wine, or, in the case of the sole teetotaler, 7-Up.
I switched from bad wine to 7-Up. “I do wish they had ginger ale.”
The teetotaler agreed. “Or Sprite.”
“Anything without numbers.”
“Seven against Thebes?”
We could not name them.
But soon the joking was over. The director of graduate studies tapped his glass with a fork.
“I’m going to be honest with you. There are few jobs in classics,” he said, “and it is a competitive field. It is essential to start publishing right away if you want to get a job.”
A few of the students nodded feverishly, some took notes, and the rest of us looked stricken. I had been in town 10 hours and already was bored by academic bullshit. There were no classics jobs. There are no classics jobs. Nobody goes into classics expecting to get a job. Well, a few go for it – and good luck to them. Most of us just want to read classics.
And this was a party!
Some professors at the university were brilliant, others too eccentric to communicate – par for the course. But the second year, we all suffered because the department admitted students who were not prepared: they had previously taken only a couple of classics classes.
The faculty came up with the Survey Solution. Here we were, six or seven or ten or twelve years into our studies, and suddenly everyone – even those working on their doctorates – had to take Survey of Latin Literature and Survey of Greek Literature.
Here’s what this meant: we had to reread several works we had studied as undergraduates. This was exasperating because we were denied the chance to take seminars in other literature. Hello, Pro Caelio and Pro Archia again and yet again. Ave atque Vale, Catullus! And the Greek Survey class was even more frustrating: we did not read enough philosophy to get a grip on the pre-Socratics let alone the tangled prose of Aristotle. No, since it was a survey class, we had to move on.
A lot of us were pissed off. “I already have a master’s,” said Mary, one of the new students in the Ph.D. program. “And they’re treating me like an undergraduate.”
“Yeah, I have a master’s too.” I was exasperated. The only thing that kept me going was being a T.A. I loved teaching.
The Survey classes were the thin edge of the wedge. My friend, Mary, who had earned her master’s elsewhere and felt ill-treated in the doctoral program, dropped out to be a waitress and then found a job teaching at boarding school. “I regret going into classics,” she said years later. Being a Latin teacher had sent her to teach at many different schools in different cities, as one by one their Latin departments folded.
The classics department at X University lost several students at the end of that year. They were shocked when brilliant, amiable Jack dropped out to go to law school. But perhaps he wasn’t keen on spending a career as an adjunct or Visiting Professor.
Then there was Larry, a bright but very nervous man who failed his exams and decided to go to journalism school.
Graham did stints as a Visiting Lecturre and then went to library school.
Charming, pretty Liza, the most stable and kind of the grad students, dropped out to get married and went back to school to get a teaching degree. She taught English at a public school.
Cody, who had a B.A. from a posh English university, breezed through his classes at X University because he had already read everything as an undergraduate. He switched to computer science.
Susan spent a year as a Visiting Lecturer and was dismayed by the low quality of her students. She went into business.
To my knowledge, only three of my fellow students became classics professors.
Each of us has a different path – my guess is everyone still loves the classics.
It was never about money – but I do pity those who tried to make a career and did not get tenure.
Literary prizes are always exciting. In the early 2000s, we set out to read the entire Booker Prize longlist. It was the kind of thing one undertook in the early, earnest days of the longform blog. But conversations about the longlist became so contentious at the Booker Prize website that everybody was banished and the comments deleted.
It was 2009, the year that the satiric memoir, Me, Cheetah: My Life in Hollywood, made the Booker longlist. Some irreverent judge had done some fast, possibly drunken talking about the silly faux memoir of Cheetah, the chimp who starred with Johnny Weismuller in the Tarzan movies. The other judges must have been convulsed with laughter.
“Do you have Me, Cheetah?” I asked a librarian.
Poker-faced, she said it was in the biography section.
“In the biography section?” Perhaps I had misheard.
No, it was in the biography section!
The author of Me, Cheetah, James Lever, must have been chuffed to make the Booker longlist. One can only imagine the mirth it caused. And here in the U.S. I wondered if librarians had lost their minds when they catalogued it as biography. But if I remember correctly, it was an error of the Library of Congress, not the local library.
Well, Me, Cheetah gave me a few laughs, though I was relieved it didn’t make the Booker shortlist or win a biography prize. I adore satire, but one doesn’t want to go too far. Curiously, my favorite literary prize is not the famous Booker but the Women’s Prize (formerly known as the Orange Prize). Every year I am excited about the longlist, because it has introduced me to such great writers as Helen Dunmore, Clare Fuller, and Amanda Craig.
This year I will not attempt to read the whole longlist, but I have finished Natalie Haynes’s Stone Blind, an edgy retelling of the Medusa myth. Haynes’s deconstruction of the tangled relationships among the violent, impulsive gods, the intelligent, nurturing gorgons, and the whiny teenage demigod, Perseus, is entertaining and exquisitely written. And yet I would call it a long shot for the shortlist, because retold myths do not tend to win awards.
Mind you, I do not pretend to have the power to predict the shortlist. I’m not doing the numbers, and I don’t read much new fiction anyway. No, I prefer the classics, moldering out-of-print books, and twee twentieth-century comedies.
Still, one loves to make wild guesses. No less than three of the longlisted titles have been choices of celebrity book clubs in the U.S. And so I’m suggesting that serious consideration should be given to Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperfield (the Oprah Book Club), Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait (Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club), and Tara M. Stringfellow’s Memphis (Read with Jenna Book Club).
That said, I am not a big Kingsolver fan. My husband is the Kingsolver fan in the family, and I’m waiting for his report on Demon. I can tell you that Eric Anderson at Lonesome Reader, the vlogger extraordinaire on new fiction, predicts that Kingsolver will win.
I shall now say a few cautious words. I have begun reading O’Farrell’s clever, lyrical, addictively readable historical novel, The Marriage Portrait, which untangles the web of the life of Lucrezia Medici. From what I’ve read so far, I would be thrilled if this lively book made the shortlist.
I have not read Tara Stringfellow’s debut novel, Memphis, but I’m going to be consistent here: it has a shot, because it was a celeb book club pick.
Glory, by NoViolet Bulawalyo, which I gather is a modern take on Animal Farm, made the Booker shortlist last year. I predict it will find a place on the Women’s Prize shortlist. Why? Because I love talking animals and want an excuse to read it.
I also hear that small presses play a role on longlists these days. Perhaps that will boost Jennifer Croft’s Homesick (Charco Press) or Parini Shroff’s The Bandit Queens (Allen I& Unwin) into a strategic position.
Meanwhile, I will try to read a book or two on the longlist .
Long ago, in a faraway universe – not so long ago or far away, in the brief context of academic women’s history – a campus policeman drove to an urban neighborhood, parked his cop car, and rapped on the door of the house of my friend’s mother, an Assistant Professor.
Needless to say, she was startled to see the police. She peered at him through her thick glasses, absent-mindedly holding one of Marge Piercy’s books, which she was rereading for the women’s lit class she was planning. She probably wore jeans and an untucked Oxford shirt. Or perhaps I’m mixing her up with her daughter, my friend, who wore her father’s oversized Oxford shirts untucked.
Though unhappy to see the police, my friend’s mother would have pulled herself together.
“I have a letter for you, Mrs. X.”
Now here’s the horrendous part. He had been sent to deliver a letter from the Acting Dean of Faculty. She learned from the letter that she had been denied promotion and tenure, in spite of stellar reviews from her department chair, her students, and the recommendation of the Promotion and Tenure Committee. The Dean disapproved of her feminist scholarship.
The newspaper ran an article about it. She told the reporter that the Dean’s sending the policeman with the letter was “insensitive.”
Humiliating and terrifying, I would think. A type of harassment, too. The subtext of the message: Don’t mess with us; you’re already gone. There would have been shock, disbelief, anger, tears …
Naturally, it didn’t end there. She filed a sex discrimination complaint, and letters were written on her behalf by her department chair and members of the the Committee for Promotion and Tenure. Her students circulated petitions and held a potluck in her honor.
And then what happened? The trail goes cold. Newspapers are not terribly interested in the fate of women professors who are denied tenure.
Does this denial of tenure – and degree of insensitivity- still happen to women academics? The stats themselves tell a story. According to a study by the American Association of University Professors, women make up 43 percent of full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty members and 54 percent of full-time, non-tenure-track professors. Another study says that about 51% of non-tenure adjunct jobs are held by women.
There is, however, no study of how women are notified about denial of tenure. Let us hope no one else was visited by the campus police.
Five Novels about Women in Academia
As a fiction reader, I am a fan of academic novels. Here are five that treat some of the issues facing women in academia.
In Adjunct, a self-published novel by Geoff Cebula, the heroine, Elena Malatesta, knows that her adjunct position is at risk: the university has cut the budget. Her colleagues, too, are worried. An expert in Italian horror films, Elena begins to wonder what is going on when fellow adjuncts start disappearing. This odd little book was reviewed in The New York Review of Books.
In Lynn Steger Strong’s stunning, realistic novel, Want, the narrator has an usatisifying full-time job teaching high school. She has a Ph.D., but there are no full-time academic jobs.
She still teaches as an adjunct, though. “I keep the night class even though I mostly know by now I’ll never get a real job from the institution where I teach this night class; I mostly know that real jobs at institutions like this don’t exist anymore. I keep the job because I spent all those years in school and mostly I’ve forgotten what I thought they might be worth.”
Marge Piercy’s Small Changes is not an academic novel, yet one of the characters, Miriam, deals with discrimination and harassment in an academic setting.
I wrote the following in 2016: Small Changes is a brilliant study of the women of the counterculture of the 1960s. Piercy interweaves the stories of two radical women, Miriam, a flamboyant, sexy mathematician-turned-computer-scientist-genius who is in love with and has sex with two egotistical men; and Beth, a working-class woman who runs away from a controlling husband, works for low wages as a typist, and eventually forms a women’s commune. Few novelists successfully managed to capture the earnest feminist politics and experimental living arrangements of the ’60s and ’79s. Piercy is savvy not only about feminism but about communes and the other politically-motivated structures.
Death in a Tenured Position by Amanda Cross (the pseudonym of Carolyn Heilbrun, the first woman to receive tenure at Columbia University) is an entertaining and savvy look at university life for women. In her critically-acclaimed mystery series, the heroine, Kate Fansler, an English professor and amateur sleuth, investigates many academic crimes.
Here is the book description for Death in a Tenured Position. “When Janet Mandelbaum is made the first woman professor at Harvard’s English Department, the men are not happy. They are unhappier still when her tea is spiked and she is found drunk on the floor of the women’s room. With a little time, Janet’s dear friend and colleague Kate Fansler could track down the culprit, but time is running out….”
Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe, a satire of an experimental college during the (Joseph) McCarthy era, is clever, polished, and surprisingly twisted. I wrote in 2015:
If you expect Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim or David Lodge’s Changing Places, brace yourself: the intellectual Mary McCarthy generates a harrowing hilarity born of liberalism and her rejection of Catholicism. McCarthy, who was a member of the Partisan Review group in the 1930s and taught at Bard College and Sarah Lawrence College in the 1940s, takes no prisoners in her bitter skewering of academia. Every brilliant, sinuous sentence glitters with the mix of venom, idealism, maneuvering, lying, camaraderie, hostility, and cliquishness that characterizes academic politics.
The unlikable hero, Henry Mulcahy, a Joyce scholar and instructor at a small “progressive” college in Pennsylvania, learns that his contract will not be renewed. It is not a good time to be a leftist: he was fired from a university in California because of his radical writings in The Nation. He was hired as an instructor at the experimental college solely because friends called in favors to Maynard Hoar, the liberal president of the college. Now the budget has been cut and Hen Mulcany is fired.
And so he manipulates his friends into pleading his case, saying it is because he was a communist and that his wife Cathy is dying. But when they learn that Hen has lied (Cathy was ill after her last pregnancy, but isn’t now, and Hen was never a member of the Communist party), the group is furious. Although Hen is brilliant and popular, he is a lazy teacher, he doesn’t take the tutorials seriously, and turns in his paper work late. How far must they go to protect him?
Most of the academic novels I’ve read happen to be by men and to center on men: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, David Lodge’s Small World, and Richard Russo’s Straight Man. I love these books, but do let recommend any women’s novels about academia. I do enjoy them!
The work of the English writer C. H. B. Kitchin (1895-1967) has faded into oblivion. You will see blank faces if you mention his books. Best known for his 1929 mystery, The Death of My Aunt, he never won the acclaim he craved for his literary fiction. Although the critics and his friend L. P. Hartley praised his novels, the books simply did not sell. Fortunately, several of them have been reissued as e-books.
Kitchin deserves a revival: his style is graceful and he is also very witty. I especially recommend Ten Pollitt Place, a neglected comic masterpiece. This wickedly funny novel follows the lives of the inhabitants of Ten Pollitt Street, a three-story house divided into flats in a charming cul-de-sac in London.
The owner, Miss Tredennick, is an ancient spinster who lives on the top floor and spends much of her time peeping out the window and spying on the comings-and-goings of an attractive neighbor, Miss Varioli. One night this sexy young woman arrives home at midnight in her boyfriend’s car, with the radio blaring. The noise annoys Miss Tredennick, as does the fact that Miss Varioli dances in the street with her boyfriend. And the latter, rather to the bewilderment of the reader, convinces Miss Tredennick that Miss Varioli is a prostitute.
Needless to say, Miss Tredennick has no knowledge of modern mores. But she is so obsessed with Miss Varioli that she keeps a detailed, very funny journal which would have no significance to anyone but her.
Wednesday, 12th October, 9.30 a.m. Y.V. left the house wearing . . . (Full details followed.) Carried a small grey plastic bag. Turned to the left when she came to the Crescent. 5.35 p.m. Turned in from the Crescent, carrying a large parcel done up in mauve paper. 6.47 p.m. A small green Morris car parked outside Number 11,—no room opposite Number 7—and a youngish-man not the man—got out and went to No. 7. Admitted by Mrs O’Blahoney.
Ten Pollitt Place is a dark, comic version of Upstairs, Downstairs. Miss Tredennick’s much younger counterpart lives in the basement flat. Hugo, the housekeeper’s gay son, is a prim, meddlesome 15-year-old crippled boy who shares Miss Tredenick’s low opinion of Miss Varioli and paints vicious graffiti on her front door. Hugo is also light-fingered and a bit of a spy: he flits in and out of the neighbors’ apartments and helps himself to whatever he wants: Hugo steals cigarettes from Mr. Bray because he is in love with a garbage man who smokes.
My favorite character is Justin Bray, a once popular novelist who may well be based on Kitchin himself. Mr. Bray has written 24 books, but his latest, Seven Silent Sinners, is a flop. His titled women friends are not entirely sympathetic. One of them says blithely, “Oh, but you should have a silver jubilee. You must write one more, to make up the twenty-five.”
This kind of barb will not surprise any writer, but you can imagine how it affects the already deeply depressed Mr. Bray. And a male friend of his is much more brutal. He says Mr. Bray is finished because he is too old.
“Your trouble—our trouble—is that we’re hopelessly out of touch with the present age. However painstakingly we try to adapt ourselves to it—however carefully we vulgarise our style and purge it. of its youthful classicism,—doing our best to forget we’ve ever read Caesar, Cicero, Dr Johnson or. Gibbon—whatever slick phrases we borrow from the other side of the Atlantic, we can’t really keep up.”
These multi-character novels are always intriguing. There is one married couple, the seemingly normal Fawleys, who are, alas, miserable and ill-matched. Dorothy Fawley likes to read and is annoyed that her husband Robert devotes his leisure to tinkering with machines in his workshop. Unbeknownst to Dorothy, Robert is having an affair with Magda, the housekeeper’s daughter, who, like her brother Hugo, enjoys spying and tattling. And annoying as the Fawleys are, we empathize with Dorothy, who still loves Robert – a surprise to both of them.
If you like this kind of novel, I also recommend Norman Collins’s London Belongs to Me and Monica Dickens’s The Heart of London. There is something so satisfying about the story of a house or a neighborhood. I loved Kitchin’s book!
Women’s best-sellers were wildly uneven in the 20th century. There was Looking for Mr. Goodbar, a novel about a one-night stand that ends brutally; Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, the famous novel that spawned the phrase “the zipless fuck”; and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, which explores the effect of the Women’s Movement on an older married woman who returns to college and her fellow students.
But as far as I was concerned, only a bubblehead would want to be a prom queen, so why would anyone want to read Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen?
Then years later, I learned that two of my friends had been prom queens. They were smart, wonderful people… I suppose whatever they did was all right … but why would they participate in such sexist rites?
Everything was chaotic and characterized by rapid change in the late 20th century. Your friend could be a prom queen one decade, the editor of a scholarly journal the next, and then a radical who organized a women’s health clinic.
Women were hardly a silent majority – they were vocal – but women’s literature was not read seriously at American universities until the 1960s and ’70s, when the spread of Second Wave feminism led to the grudging hiring of women professors in male-dominated humanities departments. The canon expanded to include women, among them Virginia Woolf, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jean Rhys, Nora Zeale Hurston, and Toni Morrison. Quite seriously, there were no women writers taught in the 20th-century literature classes when I first began at the university.
What did it mean to be a feminist at that time? Well, we didn’t have many role models. One of the most influential women in my life was Carol, a friend’s mother who was a graduate student and T.A. in American Studies, and then became a professor. Occasionally my friend passed on advice from Carol, especially when I was in a dicey living situation with my mostly absent dad. Carol urged me to move with her family to the city where she had been offered a teaching job. I did not go, but I probably should have! Anyway, I am grateful for Carol’s kindness, for being invited to gourmet dinners, and for her husband’s gentle humor.
And then there were the radical politics: when she and her husband hosted NUC meetings in their living room, my friend and I couldn’t help but overhear juicy tidbits on anarchy, collective living, nonmonagamy, and university politics.
And I must add that Carol’s bookshelves were equally important to me: I borrowed The Golden Notebook, The Feminine Mystique, a historical novel about Disraeli, and many, many others.
One wonders: with all my feminism and consciousness of women writers, why did I go into classics? It’s because I’m a language nerd, of course. But in my classical studies, there were no women writers except Sappho and Sulpicia, and only two women professors per department (at the universities where I studied anyway).
Afterwards, during my years as a cranky private school teacher, I rejuvenated myself on weekends by devouring women’s literature. I read my way through Colette, Elizabeth Bowen, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Laurence, Bobbie Ann Mason, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Tallent, and Elizabeth Taylor. Were they in the canon? Well, I was on my own, and they were in my canon.
What do bookish spinsters do with their free time? Well, before I got married, I volunteered at a women’s bookstore. I had always wanted to be a bookseller, but I must admit it was dull. Scarcely anyone came in, and hardly anyone bought anything. In fact, I was reminded of Linda Radlett’s stint at the communist bookstore in Nancy Mitford’s comic novel, The Pursuit of Love: no one bought anything until Linda substituted best-sellers for the communist pamphlets. And then her friends came and chatted. Finally the store made money!
Well, like Linda, I did have a male friend who came in to chat: he recommended several women science fiction writers, among them C.L. Moore and Joanna Russ. The store didn’t stock them, but he was ahead of his time. Joanna Russ’s books are considered classics now, and C. L. Moore was one of the first women who wrote SF.
It was also at the boring women’s bookstore that I became familiar with small presses. We stocked several titles by the Feminist Press, which was founded in 1973, including Zora Hurston Neale’s I Love Myself When I Am Laughing… , Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland.
And then there were Viragos, a press founded in 1970, which popped up in the U.S. in the ’80s .The American editions, published by Dial Press, had black covers instead of green, but were equally attractive.
And the green British Viragos began to crop up at used bookstores: I probably own fifty Viragos, but there are hundreds!
I must admit, Virago is my favorite small press, but I am also a fan of Persephone, founded by Nicola Beauman in 1999. Persephone specializes in middlebrow interwar fiction, and I love Rachel Ferguson, Dorothy Whipple, and Monica Dickens.
There may have been rivalry between Virago and Persephone: years ago in The Guardian, some Virago associate said sneeringly that Viragos never went below “the Whipple line.” We all love Dorothy Whipple, and we’re grateful to Beauman for crossing the line.
And now I must mention a phenomenon unique to our century: two men have become publishers and/or editors of middlebrow women’s fiction presses. These well-known bloggers, Furrowed Middlebrow and Stuck in a Book, are both experts in middlebrow women’s fiction, and have found a niche in publishing. The Furrowed Middlebrow imprint publishes light novels by D. E. Stevenson and Stella Gibbons but also neglected classics by Doris Langley Moore and Rachel Ferguson. Simon at Stuck in a Book is editor of the British Library Women Writers Series. He has published my favorite novel by Rose Macaulay, Dangerous Ages, Penelope Mortimer’s Home (a brilliant novel!), and has reissued one of my favorite Viragos, E. H. Young’s Chatterton Square.
Both the Furrowed Middlebrow and the British Library Women Writers series are excellent, and I don’t want you to think I am in any way critical. But I have an awkward question to ask. Where are all the women? Why don’t they have the spunk to start their own imprints or publishing companies?
Really, ladies, put your backs into it! I’m saying this for your own good. You’ll regret it if you don’t take a chance.
In the meantime, kudos to Furrowed Middlebrow and Stuck in a Book!
Spring marks the opening of Book Awards season. The literati’s glam melees began this week with the announcement of the Women’s Prize longlist.
I have long been a fan of the Women’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize). In 1996 I read the first Orange Prize winner, Helen Dunmore’s haunting novel, A Spell of Winter. She became one of my favorite writers, and I followed her eclectic career till her death in 2017. My favorite of Dunmore’s books is Counting the Stars, a novel about the relationship between the Roman poet Catullus and his lover, Clodia – based on his poems.
Many literary prize fans read only the prize winners, but I generally prefer the less-celebrated books on the the longlist. And this year I am excited by what seems to be an encouraging inclusion and a new trend: Natalie Haynes’s Stone Blind, a retelling of the Medusa myth, has made the longlist.
Aside from Haynes’s background in classics and all-round intelligence, why is Stone Blind significant? Well, the retold myth has become an increasingly important women’s fiction genre. Walk into a bookstore and you are likely to find a table devoted to retold myths with titles like Clytemnestra, Cassandra, and Circe. These feminist reinterpretations mine the lives of goddesses and heroines of Greek myths – and myths from other countries – and spin ancient culture from a woman’s point-of-view.
I am reading and enjoying Stone Blind.
And you will find the Women’s Prize longlist at the end of this post.
HAVE YOU READ C. H.B. KITCHIN? For years I had tattered paperback copies of The Death of My Aunt and The Death of an Uncle on my bedside table. And then I discovered that Kitchin, a neglected novelist who is remembered mainly for his mysteries, also wrote literary fiction.
I was lucky to find a copy of his beautifully-written novel, A Short Walk in Williams Park. Kitchin is not much read anymore; he was not very popular in the 20th century, either. In the preface to this slight, graceful novel, L. P. Hartley writes, “Fiction writing was his great love and his disappointment. Somehow he lacked ‘the common touch,’ and the reviewers’ constant encomiums did not console him for it.”
A Short Walk in Williams Park is a decidedly odd little book: think Barbara Pym, diabolically mingled with Henry Green and Anita Brookner. The protagonist, Francis Norton, an elderly bachelor who has retired from business, enjoys long walks in London parks. He is a keen observer of people, but one day, without meaning to eavesdrop, he overhears a desperate conversation between two lovers, Mirrie and Edward. Edward is married and cheating on his wife; he and Mirrie have little time together, but often meet in Williams Park. Through an odd series of circumstances, including finding three pages of Mirrie’s diary in the park, Francis becomes an advisor to the two lovers.
Much of this novel is cleverly narrated in letters and other documents. There is also a mystery. Edward’s wife has a rich cousin who dies of an overdose of “Traversinal, a dangerous drug of the barbiturate family.” Where did she get it? Was she murdered, or was it an accidental overdose?
Fascinating and a bit weird: I am now a Kitchin fan.
A NEW EDITION OF NANCY HALE’S THE PRODIGAL WOMEN. Did I inspire the revival of Nancy Hale? It is just possible. In 2010, I wrote at a defunct blog: “The book I am really keen on at the moment is Nancy Hale’s The Prodigal Women, and you’ll be hearing much more about it. Think of the first time you read The Group, Valley of the Dolls, Daughters of the New World, or The Women’s Room, only 10 times better. This is a perfect Spring Break book.”
The Library of America is publishing a new edition of The Prodigal Women in May. My 1980s Plume paperback version is tattered and held together with scotch-tape, so I do deserve a new copy. Thank you, Library of America, for reviving Nancy Hale! LOA has also published a selection of Hale’s short stories.
“Pack up your thoughts and be ready at a moment’s notice to move into a new worldview.” –Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
My observations bordered on the fantastic.
It seemed absurd yet logical when I began to note similarities between Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, a Soviet writer of fantastic short stories, and Kelly Barnhill, an American writer of adult fantasy, science fiction, and children’s books.
These two disparate writers, the former a Russian author whose work was not published in his lifetime, the latter a popular, prize-winning Minnesotan author, have more in common than you’d think: both are are obsessed with metamorphosis.
Krzhizhanovsky (1887–1950) is a new writer to me. I used to dislike Soviet fiction, but having exhausted the 19th-century Russian classics I have reluctantly moved forward into Stalinist times. Fortunately, I am fascinated by the title novella of Stravaging “Strange,” a new collection of Krzhizhanovsky’s novellas, stories, and notebooks, translated by Joanne Turnbull and published by Columbia University Press.
Inspired by Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Krzhizhanovsky entrances us with Stravaging “Strange,” a tale of a magus apprentice’s laborious seventy-foot journey – the longest trip he ever took – after he drinks a potion that shrinks him to the size of a speck.
The micro-man spends days crossing the floor of an apartment and climbing the wall to the window ledge. In order to reach the apartment upstairs where the professor keeps the phial with the antidote, he must wait days for the ivy to grow up to the window above. But it’s not just the phial he wants: he hopes to seduce the professor’s young wife.
Once upstairs, he takes refuge at one point in the young wife’s watch. Alas, the watch does not prove to be a sanctuary.
A close study of the dial’s fauna led me to conclude that the creatures flustering under the locket glass were time bacilli. Time bacilli, as I soon became convinced, multiplied with every jolt of the hour, minute, and even second hand. The tiny nimble Seconds jostled on the second hand like sparrows on the branch of a hazelnut tree. On the minute hand’s long black perch, their stingers tucked under them, sat the Minutes; while on the sluggish hour hand, their jointed, tapeworm-like bodies wrapped round its black steel arabesques, the Hours swayed sleepily.
The magus apprentice’s adventures are both comic and disturbing, as are the decidedly odd events in the other two stories in the collection.
Kelly Barnhill, a lighter, more straightforward writer, says that she was inspired by Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh to write her first adult novel, When Women Were Dragons. Barnhill creates an alternate reality where raging, underemployed, unappreciated women leave their homes and metamorphose into dragons in order to be free. The largest such “dragoning” happens in 1955, at the time of the McCarthy hearings. Naturally, the government hushes up the incidents and redacts all records of dragons from the newspapers and scientific journals.
The narrator, Alex Green, is the daughter of a brilliant mathematician, now a housewife. The Greens’ family is hastily rearranged after Aunt Marla, a mechanic and a former pilot, metamorphoses into a dragon and flies away, leaving Alex’s mother to raise her daughter, Beatrice. But after her mother’s death from cancer, Alex ‘s father deserts her to raise Beatrice while continuing her schooling. Without the help of a magically shrewd, brilliant, influential librarian, who provides shelter and assistance to a scholar on dragons, she would not have been able to cope.
There is some preaching about tolerating “dragons” – who seem to be mostly LBGTQ+ – but not all women choose to become dragons. Alex does not.
I am not quite up-to-date on my dragon lore, but Barnhill has written a robust feminist fantasy novel.
“Don’t disturb me, darling: I’m reading Evelyn Waugh.” Ensconced in a comfy Barcalounger chair, I was madly trying to lose myself in short satires.
It was bitterer course of reading than I’d expected. From time to time, I looked up from my novels to beg my husband for a cup of tea. He also found two delicious asymmetrical homebaked cookies for a snack.
Although I am a great fan of Waugh, I prefer his serious, longer novels, Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy. The appeal of the satires has somehow eluded me.
Bravely I began. My advice: don’t start with A Handful of Dust. It is too dark and too long for the fllibbertigibbit’s weekend reading. The gist: an English gentleman tries to distract himself from grief by joining an expedition to the Amazon. After falling ill and delirious in the jungle, he recovers in a primitive village where his nightmarish fate is to read Dickens over and over to an illiterate chieftain.
Far better to start with Vile Bodies, a novel about the Bright Young Things who party rather too ardently in the 1920s – with dramatic consequences. I was struck this reading by a gossip writer who comes to a bad end. Gossip doesn’t pay – very well!
One wonders what why I chose The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfield. It turned out not to be a comedy at all, but a bleak autobiographical novel describing the details of Waugh’s bout of hallucinatory psychosis when he was on a cruise to Ceylon at the age of 50.
The hero, Gilbert Pinfold, is a middle-aged novelist who suffers from insomnia, gout, and other maladies. He forms the habit of boozing and mixing two strong sleeping draughts at night to render himself unconscious and numb himself to the nightmare of a family Christmas. Later, on a cruise to India, which he takes because his wife is concerned about his health and “doping,” he hears nonstop abusive voices that are the product of mixing phenobarbitone and alcohol.
This elegant narrative is painful and disturbing – a masterly account of madness – but not funny. Ann Slater Pasternak writes in the introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition, Four Novels, that this account closely mirrors Waugh’s experience. A sympathetic passenger on the cruise recalled Waugh’s odd behavior in a letter. “People were saying there’s something funny about that man, he’s talking to the toast-rack. There were little lamps on the table with pink shades and he’d have a long conversation with those…”
I ended with The Loved One, a witty satire of Hollywood and cemeteries. Everything is glitter and gilt- nothing is real – and there is a morbid fascination with death. The culture of garish Hollywood cemeteries for pets and humans is the logical terminus of the fickle movie studio culture – which kills one of the characters.
Dennis Barlow, a British poet, has let down his coterie of British compatriots by working as as an embalmer at Happier Hunting Grounds, a pet cemetery. They wonder why he can’t do something serious, like writing screenplays or working in a studio’s publicity department. But Dennis doesn’t mind selling fancy coffins, urns and religious rites to grieving owners of dead pets, who deserve solace as much as mourners of the human dead. The outlandish, pricey options please the vulgar rich. One “Grade A service” option: “A white dove, symbolizing the deceased’s soul, is liberated over the crematorium.”
Dennis is even more fascinated by the gaudy human cemetery down the road, Whispering Glades, which vaunts 300 acres of park land, a Tudor-style Administration building, replicas of English manors, and countless radios “which ceaselessly discourse the ‘Hindu Love-Song.'” He has an opportunity to explore Whispering Glades after his friend, Sir Francis, commits suicide after being fired from his 20-year job as a studio publicist.
Decadent and ridiculous, Whispering Glades employs a beautiful, soulful young woman, Aimee Thanatogenos, a cosmetician who works on the corpses’ make-up and hair. She worships Joyboy, an artistic embalmer, but Dennis is her own age – and she gets engaged to him, though Joyboy is also interested – and she also gets engaged to him. Aimee is the only character who is really soulful – who even has a soul – but, as you can imagine, the embalmers don’t see her for who she is. A cold comedy and satire – yet humorous.
These satires are funny but also exhausting. Things don’t turn out well in Waugh’s world, whether we’re Bright Young Things, explorers of the Amazon, passengers on a cruise ship, or Hollywood writer/embalmers.
On a dreary winter night, I went to the bookstore to escape from the Three Sisters. (I do not mean Chekhov, I mean the Brontës.) I had Gothic burn-out from rereading six of the Brontës masterpieces and loitering too long at Wuthering Heights, Grassdale Manor, and Thornfield Hall.
Feeling out of sorts, I browsed in the new books section but found nothing of interest, probably because I was coming down with a nasty respiratory virus.
As always when I’m ill, I lowered my expectations. It was time to consult the display tables that tell us what the publishers want us to read. My eye was caught by a Retold Myths table, featuring a dozen or more attractive, brightly-colored books with feminine titles like Phaedra, Ariadne, Clytemnestra, and Daughters of Sparta.
When a genre gets its own table, you know it is in demand. For centuries, the poets, playwrights, and novelists have tinkered with Greek myths and recreated them for new audiences. These latest novelistic transformations are marketed as women’s fiction, a cross between romance and historical fiction. They tend to be feminist reinterpretations of the lives of unlikable, underestimated, or misunderstood goddesses, demi-goddesses, mythic queens, and princesses.
By chance I picked up Claire North’s smart, entertaining new novel, Ithaca – one of the best I’ve read in this genre – a take on Homer’s Odysssey. Her reimagining of Penelope’s story focuses on Penelope the politician, left behind in Ithaca while Odysseus fought in the Trojan War.
As in the Odyssey, Penelope, queen of Ithaca, is a female trickster. Suitors have occupied the palace during her husband Odysseus’s long absence and she fends them off by refusing to choose a husband until she has finished weaving her father-in-law Laertes’s shroud. She weaves the shroud by day and unravels it in her room at night.
In North’s version, Penelope also has a Machiavellian intelligence, hidden behind layers of politeness. Behind the scenes with the women, she is an able politician and formidable queen. She has many trusted councillors, most of them women, a few of them old men, and a secret army of women is training to defend their shores from raiders. Women have dominated the economy since the men left to fight in the Trojan War. They are farmers, carpenters, soldiers, and mothers.
I raced through this novel. It’s not just the plot, it’s the structure. North smoothly changes perspectives: the gods weigh in, as well as the humans. Juno is in the shadows, watching over Penelope and making ironic observations about her husband Zeus’s dalliances. Athena is also present, keeping an eye on Telemachus, the sulky teenage son of Penelope and Odysseus.
And Greek tragedy fans will marvel over the strange, unexpected appearance of Orestes and Elektra, who come to Ithaca searching for their mother, Clytemnestra, who killed their father, Agamemnon. Clytemnestra is Penelope’s cousin, and they think she may be hiding out on the island. It’s not the way Aeschylus wrote it, but this is one more headache for Penelope. The revenge is political.
Claire North isn’t flashy but she’s smart, and I prefer her approach to some of the more literary ventures into mythic retellings. I can’t wait to read her sequel, House of Odysseus, which will be published in August.