Category Archives: Uncategorized

Book Chat: Interior Decorators and the Art of Creating Faux Libraries

This is not a bookshelf!

Every few years we rearrange our books.  Nothing fancy, nothing finicky, but after you reach the number of, say, 1,000 books, you need to order the chaos.  One afternoon my husband and I spent several satisfying hours sprucing up the two bookcases in the dining room. We pulled the books off the shelves, alphabetized them on the floor, then carried small numbers in cloth shopping bags to the shelves, so they would not get disarranged en route.

Some bibliophiles arrange by genre or publisher:  I’ve heard of Virago shelves, Penguin shelves, classic crime shelves, mass market mystery shelves, classic science fiction shelves, and Folio Society shelves. We have a simple system:  we alphabetize our fiction and organize biographies and history by the subject.  Our so-called reference section- which is double-shelved and occupies a dark corner of the study – at times defies bibliography. It features books on poetry and literary terms, The Oxford Book of English Poetry, R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz, and Country, a newish edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves,  a Pelican Complete Shakespeare,  an ancient Atlas, an Atlas from the ’80s, The Opera Book by Edith B. Ordway (1917), OK, I’ll Do It Myself (an outdated book on home repair), criticism on Greek and Latin texts, and several oversized volumes of Cathy Guisewite’s Cathy cartoons (which don’t fit on the other shelves, but perhaps are comic sociological treatises on women’s work, clothing, shopping, dating, and trying to find a husband in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s – there is something slightly post-meta-meta-something about them!).

Today I decided to cozy up with two articles on books, “Simple Tips for Creating a Beautiful Bookshelf” in The Washington Post  and “Is It So Wrong to Accessorize with Books?” in The Millions.

As I flicked through The Washington Post article and looked at the photos,  I thought, Wait, these photos can’t be right !   Honest to God, these so-called bookshelves are used to showcase plants, bowls, knickknacks – almost anything but books.  I was so confused.  I honestly thought they’d printed the wrong illustrations.

I do not consider this a bookshelf.

And then I read.  The decorators’ advice to The Washington Post writer raised my hackles. 
 

Set everything on the floor where you can see it, and take a few minutes to identify your key pieces. “Take inventory of what you have and group by size: large, medium, small and tall,” says Brandi Wilkins, an interior designer in Frederick, Md. “Keeping scale and proportion in mind, you want to make sure your decorative accessories and books vary in size and height.”


The  D.C.-area designer Shannon Claire Smith tells the reporter, “Just like in photography, you want to split each shelf into three sections: a left, a center and a right,” she says. Each shelf should contain accents that differ in height, but the configuration of pieces should not be the same everywhere.: “This creates a varied and collected look on a bookcase.”

This is small, but these are real bookshelves. In need of tidying!


 The not-D.C.-based Kat of Thornfield Hall says, “Look up the syllabus of  a university class you’re interested in and order the books. Or go to the the bookstore, browse in  a section that interests you, and pick them out the books yourselves.”

Do you suppose Jeff Bezos would give bibliophiles seats on his rocket ship to a more habitable planet?  Because it looks as though readers are DONE here – and our collections of books likely to be pulped if they cannot be accessorized.

Bill Morris at The Millions takes a more philosophical attitude in his essay, “Is It So Wrong to Accessorize with Books?”   He writes,


 
While visiting a friend of a friend in Key West many winters ago, I was smitten by the bookshelves in his living room. The built-in shelves wrapped around a window and ran to the ceiling, obviously the work of an expert craftsman. But from across the room it was the books themselves that dazzled my eye—their spines, meticulously arranged by size and color, made the wall look like a gigantic pointillist painting. When I complimented my host on his bookshelves and asked what he liked to read, he looked at me as if I was one very dim bulb. “I bought those books by the yard,” he said. “Then I arranged them in a way that’s pleasing to my eye. I haven’t actually read them.”


Morris, a novelist and a staff writer at The Millions, is respectful of aesthetes who want to be surrounded by books, even if they don’t read them.  Nowadays you can hire library curators to buy your books by the yard and create a certain image. 

Morris explains that books have also become fashion accessories.

The fashion world has also recently adopted this books-as-accessories aesthetic. In the Times article, Nick Haramis explores how fashion houses have begun weaving books into their promotions, from runway shows to panel discussions to podcasts. At Dior’s 2022 fall menswear show, for instance, the runway consisted of a giant replica of the scroll of typing paper on which Jack Kerouac pounded out the original draft of On the Road. Etro recently sent each of its models onto the runway holding a small, nondescript book. Meanwhile, the supermodel Gigi Hadid trooped around Milan Fashion Week clutching a copy of Camus’s The Stranger. “The worlds of literature and fashion have flirted with each other since long before Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe tied the knot in 1956,” Haramis writes, “but in the past few years, books have become such coveted signifiers of taste and self-expression that the objects themselves are now status symbols.”
 
 

Hey, y’all, what say we take turns providing titles for the fashion designers? Enough with the Kerouac (though I do think the scroll replica was a brilliant design idea ) and Camus! How about Walden or The Blithedale Romance?  Models would be proud to flaunt Sue Kaufman’s classic, Diary of a Mad Housewife,  Proust’s Swann’s Way, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, or Alice Hoffman’s masterpiece, The Red Garden (magic realism and fashion surely go together), Joan Didion’s collection of essays, Slouching towards Bethlehem, or Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart, a tragic exploration of the clash between the the classical music scene in Chicago and the culture of Lucy’s prairie hometown.

Any other suggestions?

Don’t ask the interior decorators!

Staircases and Ladders: Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha

Every detail of my trip to London has been lived and relived, doubtless because life has been so dull since the pandemic struck in 2020.  Remember when we quarantined books?  I quit that early on. But I have decided to record my London adventures here, in some form or other, in various degrees of verity, or rather veraciously but from various points-of-view, and I may interweave them with new adventures in the U.S.

And so I begin.

“Nothing ever happens to me,” Camilla Haven, the heroine of Mary Stewart’s witty Gothic novel, My Brother Michael, claims in a cafe in Athens.  (I wrote about this novel here.) And then Camilla makes an impulsive decision to drive someone else’s hired car to Delphi, and turn it over to the  mysterious Simon, who allegedly needs it, while she needs to see the Delphi ruins.  But suddenly she is in danger and the adventure turns Gothic as she roams and scrabbles up the mountains!

Ah, I know just how Camilla feels.   At the Royal Academy in London I commenced a Gothic climb up a gorgeous but treacherous glass staircase.  Instead of admitting to vertigo as I neared the top, and sitting with my head between my knees till the dizziness passed,  I actually hastened my footsteps because I heard someone behind me. Did I fear a villain in pursuit? No, I did not.  It was my spirit of competition!  Camilla?  Are you hearing this?  God  forbid that anybody should pass me on the glass staircase!  Now climb that mountain faster!

  Well, my dears, I have something new to record  in American life.  We visited Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha – a huge, excellent used bookstore, established in 1993, which has an eclectic collection,  as good as anything I saw in London, and many ladders, because the bookcases are floor-to ceiling. According to the website, and to what we have seen over the years, it has ” a special interest in scholarly titles in all fields with a focus in the subjects of art, literature, architecture, design, history, science and philosophy.”

Jackson Street Booksellers

Do you want a complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary?  Are you looking for a particular Library of America book? The novels of Hugo Charteris? The Penguin Virgil in English?  A history of the 1960s?  Civil War books?  Essays by the Transcendentalists? Books on anarchism? Frederick Exley’s trilogy? Poetry published by Black Sparrow Press and  Folio Society Trollopes?   Old, valuable books locked in glass cases? 


I personally am a fan of Hortense Calisher, but did not care to to climb a FOUR-STEP LADDER to look at these books.    No, I would have to find someone to climb for me, because the glass staircase in London was challenging enough for one year. After an hour and a half, I spotted my husband in one of the aisles and he clambered up the ladder to retrieve some books for me.  It wasn’t easy, because he had to remove books piled on top of the top-shelf books. He gingerly juggled them and moved them aside  then handed down  my books.  Eureka!  They were in stunning shape.

Carl Ashford, co-owner of Jackson Street Booksellers


 I only bought two books, now that I am no longer a bibliomane.  One was $4, the other $6.  My husband bought a book for $6.  

By the way, Jackson Street Booksellers is as good as – or better than – the bookstores I’ve visited in London. The books are in superb condition.  That is because they have guidelines for what they will or will not buy.They will not buy:

  • Book Club Editions
  • Textbooks
  • Ex-Library Books
  • Romances
  • Out-of-date Travel Guides
  • Computer Programming Manuals
  • Anything that is highlighted or underlined
  • Any book which has a broken binding or missing pages.

And that, in my opinion, makes them a super bookstore! Do visit:

Jackson Street Booksellers, 1119 Jackson Street Omaha, NE 68102

Second location: Solid Jackson Books, 3925 Farnam Street, Omaha, NE 68104
And they also sell on Abebooks.

What Happened to the Gothic Novel? Mary Stewart’s “My Brother Michael”

Gothic novels are thrilling.  When we recall the intoxicating pleasures of the Gothic, we think of 18th- and 19th-century ghost stories, haunted castles, secret passages, unexplained lights wavering, and supernatural phenomena revealed to be the product of human agency.

Victorian writers manipulated these tropes to great effect. In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, a mad woman escapes from the attic and terrorizes Jane and Mr. Rochester. In Charlotte’s later novel, Villette, the teacher Lucy Snowe sees the ghost of a nun in an attic and later is drugged by the villainous headmistress/owner of the school.  In The Rose and the Key, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Maud Vernon thinks she is going to a party only to find herself kidnapped and locked in an insane asylum. 

In the twentieth century, Gothic tropes remained vigorous.  Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is full of grotesque Southern characters and suffused with a moody atmosphere.  In Shirley Jackson’s novels and short stories, there are haunted houses, good families gone bonkers, and ignorant villagers who will stone a person as soon as look at him. 


But what interests me this summer is the renaissance of women’s Gothic novels in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.   If you have read Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, Dorothy Eden, and Anne Maybury, you know these engrossing mysteries with Gothic elements.  The heroines travel, visit mansions, meet very masculine men, solve murders,  and investigate crimes, but are often startled by strange, unexplained apparitions.  And, of course, there is romance.  Falling in love is probably the most common trope in the history of the English novel.

These mid-century Gothics are now reclassified as romantic suspense. Perhaps the term Gothic no longer sells.  These heroines do meet attractive men – quite often two, as in Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic – but there is the Gothic possibility that one of the men is himself the murderer/smuggler.  

The most elegant of these Gothic writers is Mary Stewart, who published her first novel, Madam, Will You Talk?, in 1955. I am  fond of My Brother Michael, published in 1959, and recently reread it.  In this Gothic thriller, the heroine, Camilla Haven, a Latin teacher, travels alone on vacation in Greece. Camilla’s solitary trip goes about as well as these things can, until a Greek man approaches her in a cafe in Athens and insists on giving her the keys to a hired car.  She did not hire the car, but he says it was for Simon in Delphi, “a matter of life and death.”

But before I go on, let me share the Author’s Note, which shows Mary Stewart’s intellectualism and knowledge of Greek literature – and how she differs from the Gothic writers of her time.

She writes,


The quotations from Professor Gilbert Murray’s translation of the Electra of Euripides appear by kind permission of Messrs. Allen & Unwin.  I am also indebted to the editors of the Penguin Classics for permission to use extracts from Sophocles and Euripides in translations by E. E. Warling and Philip Vellacott; to Messrs. Faber and Faber for their leave to use the lines from Dudley Fitts’ translation of The Frogs by Aristophanes…

Stewart often uses the quotations as epigraphs, or interweaves them in the text. The following epigraph in Chapter 1 draws attention to Camilla’s character, as it complements the opening passage.

Why, woman,
What are you waiting for?
                    Sophocles:  “Electra”
                   (tr. E. E Watling)

“Nothing ever happens to me.”
I wrote the words slowly, looked at them for a moment with a little sigh, then put my ballpoint pen down on the cafe table and rummaged in my handbag for a cigarette.

An amusing, brilliant opening of a novel!

Camilla dithers when the Greek drops the car key on the table, but she is running short of money and  has longed to go to Delphi, so she takes the car – Delphi  is so small she should be able to find Simon, she reasons.   And along the way there is much humor, because she is not an experienced driver, and has a few adventures en route – including an encounter with a macho bus driver who will not let her pass.

Simon Lester, an Englishman, the only Simon in Delphi, has not hired the car but tries to help her find the other Simon. (There is none.) There is a natural sympathy between them:   Simon is a classics teacher and housemaster, while Camilla, of course, teaches Latin.  As Camilla wryly tells Simon, she is not quite a classicist, because at girls’ schools only Latin is taught.  And, so, yes, the man who knows Greek is acknowledged by Camilla as superior, which is, by the way, unusual in Stewart’s books. But quiet Camilla becomes stronger as the plot unravels – and God knows she has to use her wits, because Simon is investigating the murder of his brother Michael 14 years ago in Greece, where he was stationed during World War II and then worked  in the Greek resistance.  Stewart also outlines the fascinating history of the war and the resistance in Greece.

Before I go,  I must describe one of Stewart’s travel scenes:  she is a natural travel writer, and traveled in order to set her novels in different countries. At night, Camilla and Simon visit the temple at Delphi. It is a magical experience. And then in  the small theater, Simon, at Camilla’s request, recites some Greek.  He chooses a passage from Sophocles’s Electra.  The acoustics are marvelous, and the passage evocative.  The spirits of the ancient Greeks seem eerily present. This is a charming, brilliant novel, which I cannot recommend too highly.  I would call it a mystery with Gothic elements, rather than a pure Gothic novel.  But that is often true of this particular subset of women’s novels.  I will, however, post soon about a purely Gothic novel of the ’60s. 

If you enjoyed this, let me know, and look forward to more posts on the Gothic reading experience.

                                   

Oh, Dear, I’m a Bibliomane!

It is possible to have too many books.  Sometimes we idly chat about opening a bookstore. 


 While light-heartedly organizing a bookcase the other day, I discovered we had two, sometimes three, even four, copies of each of Thomas Hardy’s novels.  It seems excessive – but if you read and reread a dingy, dusty, coffee-stained library discard of Two on a Tower, you might replace it when it gently disintegrates.   You might- but I might replace it with two Penguins with different covers! And why do I have two copies of The Well-Beloved, surely Hardy’s worst novel?  Well, one of them is used to prop open a window.  But why the other copy?

Oh, dear, I really am a bibliomane! 

 And after reading Marius Kociejowski’s  charming, poignant memoir, A Factotum in the Book Trade, I had a wake-up call – not the point of the book, by the way.  Kociejowski differentiates between bibliophiles – book lovers who buy books in moderation – and bibliomanes – book lovers who manically can’t stop buying.


Some of the collectors he describes really are mad – misers who have no furniture, just boxes of books, and dress in rags so they can spend all their money on first editions.  They are obsessed with chasing down a book they really must have.  

Am I so different?  I fear not!  I have a mad number of books.   I wasn’t consciously collecting, but isn’t that collecting if you unwittingly collect multiple copies of Hardy’s books – I’ve even got The Dynasts!  


I don’t buy rare books – I am a common reader – but  I love 19th-century novels, and I do have multiple paperbacks of some of my favorite authors. I have at least six copies of War and Peace in different translations.  Now I will hang onto these copies -Tolstoy is one of my favorite writers – and my husband pretends not to see the different editions, because he knows I’m obsessed with that book.  One  day when I put it in my bike pannier, he said I didn’t need to carry such a big book..  I pointed out that I was reading it and needed it for our coffee break.  


“No wonder you have a bad back!” He offered to carry it in his pannier, but I refused.

I’m like my mother, who used to collect knick-knacks.  She collected so many that she had to store boxes and boxes and boxes of them in the basement.  And from time to time she would bring up favorites from the boxes and box up those she tired of.


Perhaps it is a genetic trait.

The End of the Bookshop Era: “A Factotum in the Book Trade,” by Marius Kociejowski

Marius Kociejowski’s A Factotum in the Book Trade has joined my favorite books about books on my bookshelf, among them Helen Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road,  Elif Bautman’s The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, and Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage.

 Marius Kociejowski, a poet, travel writer, and former bookseller, is a memoirist of the moribund bookstore culture.  A Factotum in the Book Trade is a fierce, lively, comical, and at times lyrical memoir of his decades in the antiquarian book trade.  He begins at the end of an era, i.e., the present, after his employer of 10 years,  Peter Ellis, decides to close the antiquarian bookshop in Cecil Court in London and  sell books online.  


This is shattering to Kociejowski, who regards the bookshop as a cultural imperative. He muses,


Where’s everybody gone?  Secondhand bookshops, once a feature of almost every borough, town and village, continue to close, even in supposedly bookish bookish places like Oxford and Cambridge.   When I first settled in London, in 1974, I could walk from my bedsit in Earls Court Square and within half an hour be at one of six or seven bookshops.


He is a keen analyst of the role and influence of bookshops and the meaning of their absence. 


There has been an overall failure of imagination, an inability to see consequences.  With the collapse of individual enterprises, and with people finding their solution on the internet, it has got so that one area of London looks much like any other, the same wretched chains.  Will somebody write the book that’ll describe how the internet has changed the cityscape?


Kociejowski grew up in a small, nearly bookless town in Ontario. Then he moves to London in 197,. He amusingly recounts his job at  the Poetry Society, where poets behave badly and administrators embezzle funds.  Then he becomes an all-round cataloguer-archivist-buyer-bookseller at prestigious antiquarian bookstores. 


He includes fascinating anecdotes about encounters with celebrities like Annie Lennox (whom he doesn’t recognize) when she buys a volume of Edith Sitwell’s poetry to set to music; the strange, obsessive collectors who live in poverty so they can spend all their money on first editions and other rare books; and the strange, sometimes disturbing, things that turn up in writers’ archives. 

At the end of the book, after two lockdowns, Kociejowski walks through London.  “The city was drained of life, so many shops and cafes familiar to me gone.”

And when he visits Cecil Court and sees the empty Peter Ellis store, he mourns the end of an era. 

A Factotum in the Book Trade  is poignant, powerful, and very amusing. Read it!

Memorial Day Weekend: Two Balzacs and a Mystery

Mary Cassatt’s “Woman Reading”

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

Memorial Day is also the unofficial beginning of summer. 

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Depilation Dilemma

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

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

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

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

You can read the post at Thornfield Hall Redux
https://thornfieldhallredux.blogspot.com/2022/05/the-depliation-dilemma.html

The Poetry Section: In Swinburne’s Corner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE POETRY SECTION:  DOES IT HAVE SWINBURNE?

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

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

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

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


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

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

Barbara Pym: The Gentle Art of Indexing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Friendship in Literature: Balzac, Cicero, and Barbara Pym

“You’ve got a friend.” –  Carole King

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


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

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

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

My mother said nothing.

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

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

And, like me, she was sometimes too honest. 

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


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


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


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

He goes on, 

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

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