Worse in the Future: John Brunner’s “The Sheep Look Up”

The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoin with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spreads.  –Milton, “Lycidas”

 In his brilliant, shocking novel, The Sheep Look Up, published in 1972, John Brunner imagined Earth’s toxic future.  The planet is in bad shape.  Very bad shape. 

Not only are lakes, rivers, and seas contaminated in Brunner’s classic novel, but there are Don’t Drink the Water Days, fines for not washing your hands, and a water shortage in Denver, where the the water level of lakes and rivers has dwindled. (That is happening now in Denver.) In California,where the air is the most toxic (especially in L.A.), people wear oxygen masks to breathe.  

Living conditions are far from satisfactory.  Lice, cockroaches, rats, and vermin have become immune to all pesticides, even to banned poisons like DDT (which, in The Sheep Look Up, is still illicitly manufactured).  And the antibiotics in chicken and other food are making humans immune to antibiotics. (Sound familiar?)

There is yet another twist with the toxic food chain:  Puritan, the costly organic grocery store where people  pay inflated prices out of terror, is selling much of the same food one buys at the traditional supermarket.

At the center of the novel is a radical movement, the Trainites, founded by Austin Train, who got disgusted with the direction of his followers – “I am not a Trainite,” he tells a friend – and disappeared to live under the name Fred Smith and earn a living as a garbage man.

No worries:  there are countless imposters who say they are Austin Train and fuel the Trainites’ voracity for action.  But Train himself is a gentle genius, the author of “The Great Epidemics” (1965), “The Resistance Movement in Nature” (1972), “Preservatives and and Additives in the American Diet” (1971), “You Are What You Have to Eat” (1971), “Guide to the Survival of Mankind” (1973), and “A Handbook for 3000 A.D.” He wanted to spread awareness without pointless riots.  Think of him as the scientific American Gandhi. 

Peg, a radical journalist, sets out to find Austin after their friend, Decimus, another leader in the movement, dies, apparently crazy and on drugs. The media go viral with this story of the fallen hero.  Peg is convinced that Decimus, who was not a drug user, was deliberately given drugs in his food or drink to destroy his reputation.  Her editor doesn’t like her take on the story.

She muses,

It must have been done to discredit Decimus.  Must have.  These stereotyped interchangeable plastic people with dollar signs in their eyes couldn’t bear to share their half-ruined planet with anyone who climbed our of his ordained grooves.  A black JD dropout was meant to die in a street brawl, or better yet in jail partway through a spell of ninety-nine.  For him to be loved and looked up to like a doctor or a priest, by white as well as black – that turned their stomachs!

The Americans in Brunner’s novel are constantly ill.  Endless colds, diarrhea, flu, cholera, rashes, nearly incurable gonorrhea, and violent hallucinations ravage the population.  In small country in Africa and in the Honduras,  a foodstuff manufactured by a rich philanthropist in Colorado is  laced with a hallucinatory drug that makes both countries go crazy and kill one other.  Was it genocide? Was it a plot to keep third-world countries from establishing a stable government?  The philanthropist says no. He says it was not drugged.

And then a huge mob of young people demonstrate in front of the factory to procure batches of the foodstuff. They say they want to be crazy.

An Irish major on a U.N. mission tells them: 

“But you can’t want to go insane!  You can’t want a-a bum trip that goes on for life?”

“Can’t I, baby?  Are you ever wrong!”  Fritz, his voice cold, dead serious, dead.  “Listen, Mike, because you don’t understand and you ought to.  Who’s going to be sane in this country when you know every breath you draw, every glass you fill with water, every swim you take in the river, every meal you eat is killing you? And you know why, and you know who’s doing it, and you can’t get back at the mothers. 

Brunner has sketched a huge cast of vivid characters, and made most of them sympathetic. Bewildered families struggle to get by in Colorado, one man working in life insurance, a company about to go out of business because the death rate is so high, and then working with friends to run an air filter company whose air filters prove to be faulty, easily clogged with bacteria.

Many people become toxically, horrifyingly crazy.

The thing is:  John Brunner was not crazy.  And this novel reminds us of the long-ignored writers and advocates of environmentalism. The Sheep Look Up is a historically important novel. An environmental classic.

Are You Too Famous? The Women’s Prize Shortlist

I sip coffee and look askance at the two most famous books shortlisted for the 2023 Women’s Prize, Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead and Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait, which my friend has brought to the coffeehouse for a book swap. Having  skimmed the first 50 pages of Kingsolver’s and O’Farrell’s best-selling novels,  I honestly believe that Kingsolver’s Appalachian retelling of David Copperfield is an incipient American classic, while O’Farrell’s interpretation of Lucrezia de Medici’s life is sly and seductive.  

“No, I can’t possibly read these.” I shove them across the table.

My friend wailed mockingly, “But you predicted  they would make the shortlist!”

“And didn’t I also say I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore?”

“No, you did not. Honey, are you quoting Network?  The context?”

“None. Only, you know, Kingsolver and O’Farrell have already won the Women’s Prize.”

Is there too much star power on the literary prize lists?  No, really, you can’t have too much. But I am ambivalent.  On the one hand, I love a chance to discover new writers every year – which is the greatest gift of literary awards – and on the other, I appreciate the recognition of well-known writers.  I loved it when Susanna Clarke won the Women’s Prize for the genuinely bizarre, fantastic, allegorical novel, Piranesi, which no one believed would win a “mainstream” literature prize.  And I am just as pleased when my favorite writers make the longlist, as Charlotte Mendelson did last year for her brilliant novel, The Exhibitionist.

The Women’s Prize always seems a bit offbeat.  For  one thing it  keeps losing its funding: the female literati aren’t favored by big sponsors.  The prize began as The Orange Prize, then segued into the Baileys Women’s Prize, and now has the generic name, The Women’s Prize.  Sad, isn’t it, that it’s such a struggle to find funding?  Of course even the Booker Prize was the Man Booker for a few years.

Here are the four other books on the 2023 Women’s Prize shortlist. I shall try to find at least one of them.

 Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris

Pod by Laline Paull

Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy 

Any recommendations?

Is the ‘F’ Word Necessary? A Look at HBO, D. H. Lawrence, Colette, Doris Lessing, and Erica Jong

“Fuck!”  – The Last of Us (HBO)

“I don’t over-eat myself and I don’t over-fuck myself.” – Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence

My husband and I canceled HBO Max, not for the first time. I assure you, we found nothing worth watching this spring, certainly not The Last of Us, a much- lauded rehash of the American obsession with zombie films.  In a post-apocalyptic, post-plague America, human survivors battle zombies, who were infected by a fungi plague and now share a common root system.  But, alas, the humans are less believable than the zombies:  they are so fearfully athletic and skilled with assault weapons that they are a bit zombie-like themselves.

We learned one thing from The Last of Us:  the post-plague human beings say “fuck” constantly.  And we wondered, Do the zombies attack the humans because they hate the f” word?

Mind you, I don’t philosophically object to the word “fuck.”  It seemed to be a radical breakthrough in the late 20th century when radicals and university students began to say “fuck,” “prick,” and “cunt” in an attempt  to defuse and destigmatize the language of sexuality.   But HBO is not about defusion: it is about profanity, shock value, and sales. 

For me, the word “fuck” plays a more vital role in literature than TV.  Naturally, one turns to D. H. Lawrence, whose books were banned for their lyrical descriptions of sex long before his famous novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was banned in 1929.  His two best novels, The Rainbow and Women in Love, were banned in 1915 and 1920 respectively for “obscenity,”  which often took the form of  conversations about sex.

The Rainbow and  Women in Love are a duology.   The former tells the story of three generations of the Brangwen family, spanning sixtysome years from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. In the sequel, Women in Love, two couples battle to find balance in sexuality, Ursula Brangwen and Rupert Birkin, a teacher who philosophizes about what their relationship should be, and artistic Gudrun, Ursula’s younger sister, with the wealthy Gerald Crich, whose father owns the colliery.

Everyone knows Lady Chatterley’s Lover, whether he or she has read it or not.  Though far from his best work, it is crucial to understanding Lawrence’s literary role as a pioneer in changing sexual attitudes. Lady Chatterley was banned in England from 1929 till 1960. 

Lawrence vigorously, perhaps too vigorously, uses the word “fuck” throughout the novel.   At one point, the sexy gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors, says, “I don’t over-eat myself and I don’t over-fuck myself.” Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a brave book about sex, albeit with  unintentionally funny bits that make me giggle and question my sanity.   For instance, Lady Chatterley (Connie) and her lover, Oliver Mellors, refer to their genitals as Lady Jane and John Thomas.  May I just say, What the f?   In one particularly ridiculous, unerotic segment, Oliver decorates their bodies with flowers, and “wound a bit of creeping-jenny round his penis, and stuck a single bell of a hyacinth in his navel.”  He prattles  about “the wedding of John Thomas and Lady Jane.” 

Still, this novel is  powerful in its way, full of anger, sex, and  the breakdown of class. Sex is the framework for the healing of Constance Chatterley and  the  gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. Constance is lonely, because her husband. Clifford, once a fine, strong soldier, was  crippled in World War I and is now a paraplegic. Their sex life is over.
So it is no wonder that this vibrant young woman falls for the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors, a working-class bloke who is virile and independent while the upper class is apparently crumbling. But he is harsh when he speaks of Clifford’s paralysis.  Though Lawrence  used Oliver as a mouthpiece for his own views, and Clifford’s paralysis is, I suppose,  a metaphor for the iniquitous nature and downfall of the upper class,  I find Oliver a completely unsympathetic character – except sexually to Connie. 

In Doris Lessing’s introduction to the Penguin edition of Lady Chatterley, she analyzes Lawrence’s repeated use of “fuck” and “cunt.” She says he “wanted to rescue [them] from the lexicon of ‘dirty words.'”  Lessing writes,

And now, what would poor Lawrence say if he could see us now, where ‘fuck’ can be used casually and unthinkingly, having almost lost its power to shock?  And ‘cunt’ is not much better?  And the sex may be not much more than a glass of white wine?

Oddly, few women writers of the 20th century used the “f” word in their novels.  I think of Colette, whose writing is lush, lyrical, and sensual, who wrote about love affairs but did not feel the need to describe sex explicitly. .Doris Lessing wrote brilliant sex scenes but certainly did  not use the “f” word.  And yet we are thrilled when Martha Quest in Landlocked, the third book in The  Children of Violence series, finally has a skillful lover and leans about good sex when she is nearly 30. In The Four-Gated City, the last book in the series, Martha has more sex, and the sex scenes, good and bad, are more explicit.

(N. B. Doris Lessing did not use the “f” word in her writing, but when she received the Nobel, journalists caught her getting out of a taxi and the first word she said was, “Fuck!”)

The woman writer best known for using the “f” word in the 20th century is undoubtedly Erica Jong, the author of the best-selling novel, Fear of Flying,  and several other books, including volumes of poetry and three sequels to Fear of Flying.

 Influenced by Henry Miller, the American writer whose novel, Tropic of Cancer, was banned in 1938 for sex scenes, Jong writes in great detail about sexual desire and sexual satisfaction. That said, the  narrator, Isadora Wing, is the doppelgänger of Jong, a poet married to a Japanese psychoanalyst. We empathize with Isadora’s fear on the plane as she and her husband fly to Switzerland for a psychoanalysts’ conference:  there are 117 psychoanalysts on the plane, Isadora tells us wryly. 

Being a psychoanalyst’s wife is not enough for Isadora, who is dissatisfied with her marriage and bored with  her husband’s profession.. She fantasizes about finding the “zipless fuck,” as she calls her fantasy of great sex without commitment.  And we read on, wondering, Will she get it?

I was not a great fan of Fear of Flying, her first novel, but some of her later novels are elegant, especially Fear of Dying, in which she explores a woman’s sexuality in old age.  And that, we will agree, is seldom written about in novels, and  is all but banned from human consciousness.  Kudos to Jong, the female Henry Miller, who fortunately was not banned for her work, though there is a lot of that around these days.

And I really must reread Fear of Flying, which I was probably too young for when I first read it!

The Well-Read Bookshelf: Randall Jarrell in a Poetry Anthology

 I was looking for the Modern Poetry anthology because I wanted to reread “Next Day,” my favorite poem by Randall Jarrell. It takes the form of a middle-aged woman’s monologue on her new feeling of invisibility.

Randall Jarrell

“Damn it, I saw the book just the other day,” I said as I shone a flashlight on the back shelf of the double-shelved anthologies

This anthology, whether the Norton, the Oxford, or other, was missing .  We have acquired many anthologies over the years. and all the rest are on this shelf:  two different editions of The Oxford Book of English Verse, The Oxford Book of American Verse, an anthology of poetry edited by Garrison Keillor, an anthology of women’s diary excerpts, an anthology of science fiction, a Penguin anthology of Russian short stories, a Penguin anthology of French poetry, a Library of America anthology of Christmas Stories, The Best American Short Stories of the Twentieth Century, edited by John Updike, an anthology of American essays, edited by Philip Lopate, an anthology of American crime classic short stories, and more.

Why is the book you want the only book you can’t find?

How much easier to find things when we had only one bookcase! I was 19 when I bought my first bookcase:  my boyfriend and I lugged the awkwardly oversized box a mile from downtown to our apartment, sitting down frequently on the sidewalk to rest. Once home we had to assemble it, not without some difficulty and borrowing of tools. The bookcase was large enough to hold my small collection of classics and 19th-century literature until both reading and book-buying expanded to include other centuries and I needed more shelves.

For a couple of decades we had bricks-and-boards shelves, which actually looked nicer than the particle-board bookcases with which we replaced them,  But that first bookcase – now shabby and the worse for wear – has lived in many places and is still useful.

Eureka!  Did you think I forgot about Randall Jarrell? I found the Modern Poetry anthology on the floor of the bedroom, in case I needed poetry at night and happened to be sitting on the floor, I suppose. Never underestimate the power of an anthology. Though in this case, I swear it would be easier to memorize all of Randall Jarrell’s poetry than try to find an anthology on our shelves!  So if you see me muttering to myself as I walk down the street, I’m probably reciting “Next Day.”
“Next Day”

Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All,
I take a box
And add it to my wild rice, my Cornish game hens.
The slacked or shorted, basketed, identical
Food-gathering flocks
Are selves I overlook. Wisdom, said William James,

Is learning what to overlook. And I am wise
If that is wisdom.
Yet somehow, as I buy All from these shelves
And the boy takes it to my station wagon,
What I’ve become
Troubles me even if I shut my eyes.

When I was young and miserable and pretty
And poor, I’d wish
What all girls wish: to have a husband,
A house and children. Now that I’m old, my wish
Is womanish:
That the boy putting groceries in my car

See me. It bewilders me he doesn’t see me.
For so many years
I was good enough to eat: the world looked at me
And its mouth watered. How often they have undressed me,
The eyes of strangers!
And, holding their flesh within my flesh, their vile

Imaginings within my imagining,
I too have taken
The chance of life. Now the boy pats my dog
And we start home. Now I am good.
The last mistaken,
Ecstatic, accidental bliss, the blind

Happiness that, bursting, leaves upon the palm
Some soap and water—
It was so long ago, back in some Gay
Twenties, Nineties, I don’t know . . . Today I miss
My lovely daughter
Away at school, my sons away at school,

My husband away at work—I wish for them.
The dog, the maid,
And I go through the sure unvarying days
At home in them. As I look at my life,
I am afraid
Only that it will change, as I am changing:

I am afraid, this morning, of my face.
It looks at me
From the rear-view mirror, with the eyes I hate,
The smile I hate. Its plain, lined look
Of gray discovery
Repeats to me: “You’re old.” That’s all, I’m old.

And yet I’m afraid, as I was at the funeral
I went to yesterday.
My friend’s cold made-up face, granite among its flowers,
Her undressed, operated-on, dressed body
Were my face and body.
As I think of her and I hear her telling me

How young I seem; I am exceptional;
I think of all I have.
But really no one is exceptional,
No one has anything, I’m anybody,
I stand beside my grave
Confused with my life, that is commonplace and solitary.

Whimsical and Various: Christopher Morley’s “Shandygaff”

Christopher Morley’s Shandygaff is a protean little book, a wide-ranging collection of essays, humor writing, columns, criticism, and short stories that has long been relegated to the lost-and-found of belles-lettres.

Ah, the joy of rediscovering whimsical little books!  We are devoted to the humor of of P. G. Wodehouse, Dorothy Parker, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Phyllis McGinley, E. F. Benson, and Emily Kimbrough. And Morley belongs here, though his books are forgotten, except his charming bookstore novels, Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop.

Shandygaff is surprising and great fun, if uneven. The title may sound like a nonsense word – a bit like pipe tobacco or vintage candy – but it is a “beer diluted with a nonalcoholic drink like ginger beer,” says Merriam-Webster. And that is appropriate to this wildly eclectic book.

Morley opens with a hilarious short story, “A Question of Plumage,” a satire of the life of a book reviewer.  The hero, Mr.  Stockton, the literary editor of a daily newspaper, makes fifty dollars a week, not enough to support his wife and four children in New Utrecht, “a suburb of Brooklyn.”  He does not complain, because his philistine boss would prefer to have the sports editor write  the book reviews. But Mr. Stockton works very hard at the office: “he skimmed faithfully all the books that came in, wrote painstaking reviews, and took care to run cuts on his literary page on Saturdays ‘to give the stuff kick,’ as the proprietor ordered.”   

And he freelances to earn the extra $30 needed to support his  family life.  He writes articles on current poetry for a literary magazine –  and  reads 50 literary journals to prepare for each one – and also a “Letter from New York” for a Chicago newspaper.   He writes just about anything for anybody.

The highlight of his career as a poetry critic is a genial  correspondence with his favorite English poet, Finsbury Vern. One day he receives a telegram saying Vern is arriving on a ship and asking Stockton to meet him at the dock.  The Stocktons panic, because their house is shabby and they are dressed almost in rags. The ending is hilarious and unexpected – and in case you’re wondering, the poet is not a bohemian fashion plate.

I also enjoyed Morley’s profile of Don Marquis, the newspaper columnist who created Archy and Mehitabal. If you are unfamiliar with these memorable characters,  you will adore Archy, the Vers Libre cockroach who taps out poems on a typewriter in a garage at night,and his friend Mehitabel the alley cat.  
As Morley puts it, “Who but a man inured to the squalor of a newspaper office would dream of a cockroach  as a hero?” 

There are also essays on the art of walking,; on his pilgrimage to Edinburgh with a friend to celebrate their love of Robert Louis Stevenson;  a critical essay on Rupert Brooke; and an odd little story about Woodrow Wilson’s making his decision to enter World War I.

I really enjoyed most of these, and look forward to reading more of Morley’s essays if I can find them.

Thomas Hardy’s Most Radical Novel, “Jude the Obscure”

 I have never read a sadder novel than Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy’s radical attack on elitist education and Victorian marriage.  Condemned by critics and readers who considered this 1895 masterpiece sexually scandalous, immoral, and anti-religious,  Hardy gave up writing novels and turned to poetry.  Yet every sentence in Jude the Obscure is so subtle, polished and poetic that the reader is spellbound.

Like his characters Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead, who are driven out of an elite university town because they are unmarried lovers living together, Hardy, a married man who wrote about flouting marital conventions,  had no refuge  – except in poetry. It is no surprise that he influenced  D. H. Lawrence, surely one of the most banned writers of the 20th century, who considered Hardy the greatest – possibly the only great – 19th-century English writer,  and whose cadences echo Hardy’s, especially in Women in Love

And Jude is one of Hardy’s most sympathetic heroes.   From the beginning, the reader empathizes with Jude’s longing for a classical  education.  In the opening sentence, Hardy marks the difficulty of 11-year-old Jude’s task: “The schoolmaster was leaving the village and everybody seemed sorry.”  

The schoolmaster, Mr. Phillotson, will have a pivotal role in Jude’s life:  his decision to leave the village and move to Christminster in the hope of getting a university education inspires Jude with the same hope.  Jude struggles alone over the Greek and Latin grammars and texts, without the teaching that would facilitate the task.  An autodidact, Jude plans carefully:  he becomes a  stonemason’s apprentice to support his future education.  And, as an adult, he is sure that Phillotson has become a famous minister.

And then sex gets in Jude’s way.  He is entrapped  by a farmer’s daughter, the crude, heartless Arabella, who makes dimples in her face by sucking in her cheeks and feigns pregnancy so Jude will marry her. Jude is furious when he learns that he has been tricked, but insensitive Arabella laughs.  Soon she is so bored with him that she immigrates to Australia. The reader is as relieved as Jude.

And so Jude moves to Christminster, where he is dazzled by the architecture,  the proximity of scholars, and his charming cousin,  Sue Bridehead, a brilliant, irreverent woman who drudges as an artist in an ecclesiastical warehouse.  Another autodidact, she is more intellectual than Jude; she lived chastely in London for more than a year with an undergraduate.  After the dons reject Jude as a classics student, he is furious and tells Sue he has decided to study divinity.  

Sue is not religious but she says, “Jude, won’t you let me make you a new New Testament, like the one I made for myself…?”

 She explains, “I altered my old one by cutting up all the Epistles and Gospels into separate brochures, beginning the book with Romans, following on with the early Epistles, and putting the Gospels much further on….. I know that reading it afterwards made it twice as interesting.”

Sue is a misunderstood character:  she loves talking to men, because she is better-educated than the women she knows, but men mistake her animation for flirtation.  Sue regrets her beauty because it attracts unwanted interest.  Only Jude understands her and truly loves their talk:  the two are soulmates, though he, too, wants to have sex with her.
Tragically, Sue gets engaged to Phillotson, who is 20 years older than she and physically unattractive.  She has worked as his assistant teacher and feels obligated to him, since he sent her to a teaching school from which she was expelled.  She marries Phillotson, but finds him physically repulsive, and leaves to live with Jude, whom she loves but also fears sexually.   

And Arabella’s return complicates life.  Arabella divorces  Jude – she has a boyfriend in London she wants to marry – and Phillotson deems it right to divorce Sue so she can marry Jude. But Arabella returns with her son, nicknamed Father Time, whom her parents had been raising in Australia. She says he is Jude’s son, and leaves him with Jude and Sue.

This is the beginning of a tragedy for Sue and Jude, though they do not anticipate the consequences of taking in Father Time. They are doting parents to this sad, depressed boy, and then have children of their own.  Jude and Sue do not recover from the ensuing events, nor can I. 

Even on a fourth reading I wept and grieved.  The episode is shocking and traumatic, even when one knows it is coming.  When I was young  I defended myself from agony by thinking Hardy was over-the-top.  

Now I simply weep.

A Rediscovered Writer: Shirley Hazzard’s “The Transit of Venus” and Brigitta Olubas’s “Shirley Hazzard: A Writer’s Life”

“At first, there is something you expect of life. Later, there is what life expects of you. By the time you realize these are the same, it can be too late for expectations.”
— The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard

 I used to browse at an old-fashioned independent bookstore, which, at that time, was a nearly extinct species, though its business plan was revised to compete with the mega-chains.  It donned the creaky armor of size and an added cafe with espresso machines, biscotti, and scones . We readers loved to browse and linger, reading the first sentence of new unknown novels aloud, and drinking cappuccinos to seal our choices.

And then one afternoon, standing in the aisle, I picked up a reprint of Shirley Hazzard’s 1980 masterpiece, The Transit of Venus, the winner of The National Book Critics Circle Award.  As I began to read her exquisite prose, I felt elation.  Hazzard’s style is rooted in poetry, its prose rhythms accentuated by fragments and flowing participial phrases. Hazzard, one of the great Australian-American writers of the 20th century, is, at her best, one of our most lyrical writers. And, according to Brigitta Olubas’s new biography, Shirley Hazzard: A Writer’s Life, she learned reams of poetry by heart and recited it at cocktail parties in Manhattan.

The Transit of Venus is a traditional novel about an untraditional family, not traditionally told.  It centers on two beautiful Australian sisters, Caro and Grace Bell, who have come to London.  Hazzard is concerned with what befalls them in England, and later, what happens when Caro marries an American and lives in the U.S. But as young women in London, they work in shops, Grace in the complaints department of Harrods and Caro in a bookstore. 
Money does not matter when one is young, though they earn little.  And because they are beautiful, rich men flock around them.  Grace, the sweeter sister of the two, makes a conventional marriage to Christian Thrale, a rich, cautious, unemotional Englishman who does not love her as well as she deserves.  The unconventional, not always likable, Caro has a love affair with a vicious playwright, Paul Ivory. Later, she falls in love with and marries Adam Veil, a rich American who tries in vain to intercede against the CIA puppet revolutions in South America.

Though Caro is glad to have escaped provincial Australia, and enjoys her life with Adam, there is no happy ending in sight for her or Grace. Not everybody wishes them well, and loved ones sometimes die.  Their older sister, Dora, a character based on Shirley Hazzard’s mother,  is cruel, neurotic, and made their lives fearful and hellish after their parents died and she came home to raise them.  In London they learn that Dora is unfit  for the workplace, and Caro and Grace (who is loosely based on Hazzard’s sister Valerie)  make over most of their income to Dora.  Later, their husbands take over Dora’s problems.
As the characters age, they learn more about what was and was not told them in their youth.  Lovers were  deceived, and  admit they have been mistaken in love, while others triumph in duplicity, rejoicing in confessions of how they got away with deception.   Only Ted Tice, a scientist who fell in love with Caro when she arrived in London, though she did not return his love, is entirely faithful.  But in terms of Caro’s world-view, Ted’s near-saintly character will prove to be heartbreaking. 

Hazzard’s books are, to an extent, autobiographical. In her gorgeous new literary biography,  Shirley Hazzard:  A Writing Life, the critic Brigitta Olubas has written a fascinating study of Shirley’s character and work.  She charts the history of Shirley’s reinvention of herself from a bright Australian girl to a sophisticated writer who socializes with the international elite, including Lillian Hellman,  The New Yorker editor and writer, William Maxwell, Graham Greene, about whom Shirley Hazzard wrote a memoir, Muriel Spark, and countless other writers, artists, and benefactors.  Hazzard was happily married to Francis Steegmuller, the scholar and biographer of Flaubert and Stravinsky, and they divided their time between New York, Italy, and Capri.

But Shirley paid a price to thrive in this new world she had created.  She cut off ties with her mother, Kit, whose mental illness made her especially hostile to Shirley.  Fortunately, the Australian writer, Elizabeth Harrower, befriended Kit, who could be charming when she was not ill.  Elizabeth  voluntarily took over her care and escorted her to doctors and oversaw her medication.  But over the years, Harrower lost respect for Shirley, who tried to solve Kit’s problems by paying money to Elizabeth.
Hazzard, who worked for the UN in her twenties, made lifelong enemies by her diatribes against its bureaucracy and hypocrisy.  She wrote controversial nonfiction about the U.N. and a collection of short stories, People in Glass Houses. She also penned letters daily to politicians, condemning Watergate, the Vietnam War and subsequent wars, the Reagan regime, the Bush and Cheney regime.

But what makes this understated biography especially moving are the long quotations of passages from letters and diary entries.   Shirley wrote letters and a diary almost daily.

Olubas’s biography is clear and consistently interesting, and will enhance your appreciation of Shirley Hazzard (1931-2017) as a woman and a writer. 

The Underrated Genius of Trollope: “The Way We Live Now”

Money is at the center of what may be Trollope’s most famous novel, The Way We Live Now.  Although it is long –  nearly 900 pages – this masterpiece is elegantly-written, fast-paced, and a good starting point for those who are leery of his well-known series books. 

Much to my surprise, when I began to read Trollope, his work was not universally respected. One summer I sat in a lawn chair and read his political series, known as the Pallisers books, and recommended them to everyone. But when I mentioned Trollope to a professor, she made a little moue and said, “Yes, yes,” as if I were wasting her time.  

I gather from his popularity at Goodreads, a number of online discussion groups, his bicentennial in 2015, and the thriving Anthony Trollope Society that his reputation is now secure. And certainly his remarkable books are pertinent to our own economically unstable times:  The Way We Live Now reflects how we live, with our endless desire for money, distant suburbs, McMansions, SUVs, three-car-garages,  the latest iPhone, college debt, mortgages, and a deadly appetite for fossil fuels.

The Victorian marriage plot, of course, follows the money, or would if the enervated, broke aristocrats could leave the Beargarden club long enough to chase the women.  Oblivious of morals, they plot to marry nouveau riche heiresses, the despised daughters of “Jewish” bankers, stockbrokers, and merchants. (By the way, Trollope attacks the prejudice against Jews).   

Some aristocrats are kinder than others: the witty, affable Lord Nidderdale develops a real respect and liking for Marie Melmotte, the richest heiress in London.  At one point, Nidderdale, who has been on the marriage market for years and has not yet bagged a rich wife, humorously suggests that a new list of rich heiresses with their requirements for husbands should be published weekly.

But there are also despicable wife-hunters:  Sir Felix Carbury is a truly moronic, cold, vicious baronet who drinks and gambles away his fortune and is so deeply in debt that  his adoring widowed mother, Lady Carbury, despairs.  Lady Carbury, who has just written her first book, Criminal Queens, frenetically networks with newspaper editors in the hope of winning sympathetic reviews and selling books.  (In one case, a reviewer is kind but privately admits he read only a few pages:  most of the pages of the book are uncut.)

In this Victorian society that breaks the rules, the women are often stronger than the men.  Lady Carbury, a middle-aged woman who did not marry for love and was beaten and abused by her much older husband, has no romantic illusions, and so she has turned to work.  She has two hopes of solvency for her family:  Felix must marry Marie Melmotte, who is besotted with his beauty, and Hetta must  marry her rich older cousin Roger, an affectionate man who is in love with  her but whose love she does not return.

Hetta Carbury is a nice, bright, ethical, charming young woman who does everything nicely – as I would and did, too – and refuses to marry a man she doesn’t love – as her mother did.  But some of the women characters are much bolder than she in their open pursuit of the men they want.

I will write only about the most fascinating of them, Hetta’s rival, Mrs. Hurtle, an American widow and divorcee in her mid-thirties, who has a dubious past. Though well-educated, charming, and brilliant, she does not fit into the English class system:  she looks after her own money and has shot and killed at least one man in the West.

 What is the connection between Mrs. Hurtle and Hetta?  Hetta has fallen in love with Mrs. Hurtle’s ex-fiance, Paul Montague, and he reciprocates her love and proposes marriage.  After he writes to Mrs. Hurtle breaking off their engagement and informing her of his engagement to Hetta, she travels from America to London, and uses every ounce of charm to try to win him back.

During my previous reading of this book, I was annoyed by Mrs. Hurtle.  Paul and Hetta are the perfect couple. Trollope satirizes the Western American woman, but reading between the lines this time, I found her delightful. She dresses plainly but beautifully, flirts and entices, and also expresses emotions. But she has her scary side. In an unsent letter, she writes that she would like to horsewhip Felix. And then she reads it aloud to him. Naturally, Felix is not pleased by the prospect of a horsewhipping.

Mrs. Hurtle is kind to other heartbroken women.  She even has a chat with Hetta. And she helps her landlady’s niece, Ruby , who has broken off her engagement and come to London to frolic with unreliable Sir Felix, who she thinks will marry her.   Mrs. Hurtle herself may once have been as wild,  passionate,  and savage, but she makes sure that Ruby doesn’t sacrifice herself to worthless Felix.

The boldest heroines do not always win first prize in Trollope’s marriage game. They don’t fit neatly into English society, so they cannot quite make it to the top.. When Mrs. Hurtle meets Hetta, she regretfully notices that Mr. Montague has a type:  Hetta is a younger version of herself, with the same gorgeous dark hair and coloring.  And that is discouraging, because she cannot compete with her younger self.

The financiers in The Way We Live Now play a dangerous game, but the marriage game is also fraught with mines.

Undercover Bronchitis: “Death of a Bookseller” & “The Widening Stain”

What do you do when you have bronchitis and can’t get a doctor’s appointment? Well, you inadvertently do an Undercover Bronchitis experiment.  I went to see one of the  medical paraprofessionals whose schedules are wide-open.  This person with a stethoscope detected no bronchitis and then under-medicated me when I staggered back in a week later.  By the time I finally saw the doctor the infection had worsened and I was suffering wretchedly but he prescribed the appropriate antibiotics and I am rapidly recovering. 
Mysteries were a solace this month during my constant coughing.  I am a fan of Golden Age Detective fiction, and so naturally was captivated by Bernard J. Farmer’s Death of a Bookseller,  a charming novel in the British Library Crime Classics series. Full disclosure;  I am so bookstore-crazy that I  enjoy even frothy-light cozies in which impecunious booksellers solve crimes with the assistance of cats.  But Farmer’s mystery is several cuts above these. 

Death of a Bookseller, published in 1956, is set in the cutthroat world of the antiquarian book trade.  It all begins when Sergeant Wigan, a sensible, dutiful police officer bicycling home from work, meets a drunk, who introduces himself as Mike Fisk, staggering down the sidewalk. Mike says he has been drinking to celebrate the find of a lifetime -John Keats’ own copy of Endymion – worth millions.  Wigan courteously escorts him home, and the two get to talking about the book trade.

Mike is what is called a runner.  “I go here, there, everywhere, picking up what I can find in the first-edition line, and selling to other dealers or sometimes direct to a collector.”

Soon Wigan is collecting books himself.  But when Mike is murdered and the Keats book goes missing, a hot-tempered runner named Fred Hampton is arrested.  Wigan is sure Hampton is innocent.   Fred once tried to wrestle a book away from Wigan, but recovered his temper and apologized.  “‘As a matter of fact,’ he added frankly, ‘I always quarrel with everybody sooner or later.'”

Wigan devotes himself to trying to prove Fred’s innocence.  But it is uphill work, and his interviews with eccentric, crooked booksellers and unethical collectors make this a much more exciting read than you might think! 

If you like this, you might also enjoy a bubbly American Golden Age mystery, The Widening Stain (1942), by W. Bolingbroke Johnson, which was the pseudonym of Morris Bishop, a Romance Languages professor at Cornell University.  Johnson wrote only one mystery, and it is set in a university library.

The witty narrator, Hilda Gorham, is the chief cataloguer.  She also proves to be a smart amateur detective after she discovers the dead body of a femme fatale French professor who fell from a rolling ladder in the library.  The police say it was an accident, but Hilda wonders.  Could it have been because she was up for tenure? Or connected with the suddenly much-in-demand Manuscript B 58? And when she discovers another corpse in a locked room containing rare manuscripts and erotica, the police admit it is suspicious.

This is a very slight, light read, hardly a classic, but one to add to your academic mystery collection.

Public Art, Hoboes, and the Great Depression: “The Trackers,” by Charles Frazier

“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.  

A fascinating portrait of the Depression.

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