The Teaching of Victor Crabbe: Anthony Burgess’s “The Malayan Trilogy”

Anthony Burgess’s anti-hero, Victor Crabbe, is one of his most memorable characters.  Who is Crabbe, you may ask? This idealistic teacher is a type everyone recognizes, though few teachers retain their idealism. 

Crabbe is the intellectual, quixotic, half-effective British protagonist of Anthony Burgess’s The Malayan Trilogy, written in the 1950s during Malaya’s struggle for  independence. The reader experiences the political and social upheaval partly through Crabbe’s eloquent observations, partly through the smouldering, eclectic clashes of  the Malay, Indians, Chinese, and Eurasians in Malaya.  

If you are a fan of Joseph Conrad and W. Somerset Maugham, you will enjoy this neglected trilogy, which consists of Time for a Tiger,  The Enemy in the Blanket, and Beds in the East.  There is a cast of hundreds of characters, or so it seems, but we always identify with Crabbe, who loves the tropical country but sweats up his shirts by the end of a morning’s teaching, because he walks to work, having refused to drive since he had an accident and his beloved first wife was killed.  

Crabbe is also hard-drinking.  In his free time, he drinks gin at bars with people of all races and easily makes friends, while his second wife, Fenella, a poet who longs to go home to England, miserably stays in bed with “a copy of Persuasion, a volume of John John Betjeman’s poem and a work of literary criticism by Professor Cleanth Brooks.” 

Burgess himself was a colonial officer in Malaya and Borneo from 1954 to 1960.  He writes in the introduction that one of the most attractive elements in Malaya at that time was “the profusion of race and culture and languages… [but] the Malays resented Chinese wealth and were determined to keep the Chinese out of politics.  They despised the Indians and had derisive names for them.  They even despised the English, whom they called ‘Mat Salleh’ or ‘Holy Joe.'”

In the first novel in the trilogy, Time for a Tiger, Burgess paints a vivid portrait of a sweltering, tropical country where extreme heat exacerbates the constant drinking of alcohol, which sometimes alleviates problems, sometimes intensifies them.   Crabbe, a talented, if often misunderstood, history teacher, hopes to promote tolerance and unity among the Malays, the Indians, the Chinese, and the Eurasians, before he leaves – or rather, till he is  kicked out with the rest of the British.  Burgess explains Crabbe’s point of view:  “The fact was that Victor Crabbe, after a mere six months in the Federation, had reached that position common among veteran expatriates – he saw that a white skin was an abnormality, and that the white man’s ways were fundamentally eccentric.”

Burgess’s sentences burst with intelligence and brim over with his polymathic vocabulary, complete with a glossary in the back with Malay phrases.  But none of the scholarship gets in the way of the page-turning story: he moves gracefully from musings on Malay politics to the description of a school staffed by permanently dissatisfied teachers to a dangerous trip through the jungle (where bandits and the Chinese communist terrorists live). 

Fenella is a complete innocent, pining for culture.  “Are the people really different up there?’ asked Fenella.  Cool libraries with anthropology sections were in her head.” 


In the second book, The Enemy in the Blanket, Crabbe has lost his teaching job but been promoted to headmaster in Dahaga, another Malay state.  Again, school politics are too much for him – rumor spreads that he is a communist, because he speaks of communism to a group of students, and the man who wanted his job digs up an article Crabbe had written on communism in college. (Actually, the article was supplied by one of Crabbe’s supposed old friends, a lawyer who has ended up in Malaya, and is one of Crabbe’s many ill-wishers. ) Unhappy Fenella finds a way to leave, and we are happy for her- anyway, Crabbe has been fooling around with a neighbor’s wife.

And, in the third novel, Beds in the East, Crabbe’s days are numbered, along with those of the British.  One of the most comic scenes is when he finds a paper in the train with a very bad poem by Fenella about their marriage.  He is startled.  But his role in this novel is disappointingly smaller than in the others.Here Burgess develops many of the characters native to Malaya.

Among the most memorable  in Beds is a beautiful Eurasian woman, Rosemary, who, like Fenella, longs to go to England. She keeps falling in love with Englishmen whom she fantasizes about marrying – but they have no intention of marrying poor Rosemary.

Then there is Victor’s protégé, Robert Loo, a Chinese merchant’s son who has written a brilliant symphony, without even knowing how to play the piano.  Robert loves math, and hears the music in his head.  Victor, who believes that, if performed, this symphony could improve the status of Malayan culture, contacts musical friends.  Loo, however, is an Aspergers type who is perfectly happy NOT to hear his music performed and doesn’t mind working at his father’s shop.

But no good deed goes unpunished:  But no good deed goes unpunished:  Crabbe has contacted musician friends, but Robert Loo rips up his symphony and begins to write jukebox-style songs – and Robet hates the jukebox –  after a single sexual encounter with Rosemary. 

And so – did any of Crabbe’s teaching make a difference?   Yes – no – perhaps – probably not. 

Burgess himself is both cynical and idealistic about the influence of the West.  

Light Reading for Hot Summer Days

 Air conditioners are for wusses, we used to think.

Now, alas, we need them.

It changed very fast – about 10 years ago in the U.S.  The temperatures are very hot now.  Day after day of 90-plus. Storms, wildfires. Yet it seems “normal” to everybody:  no one is driving less, no one connects the information about climate change with our actual life-style. In fact, Biden cut the price of gas to placate American drivers – and lost a chance to educate and ask Americans to make sacrifices.

Remember Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Meanshile , stay cool, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! 

And here’s a list of light fiction for hot days of summer.

THE LIST! 

1.  Try Anthony Burgess’s Enderby and Enderby Outside, the first two novels of the Enderby quartet.  Enderby, a dyspeptic English poet, is happily writing poetry in the lavatory, writing on toilet paper, and storing pencils in the TP roll, until an arts maven, Vesta Bainbridge, seduces him away from his lavatory and dominates him. In  the second novel, Enderby Outside,  Enderby has been cured by a psychiatrist of writing poetry, but when a pop star, Yod Crewsley,  launches a book of poetry that turns out to be an unpublished tome of Enderby'(stolen by Vesta), Enderby goes berserk.
                    

2.   The Marvelous Misadventures of Ingrid Winter, by the Norwegian writer, J. S. Drangsholt, is a very funny academic novel. The narrator, Ingrid Winter, is a harried English professor whose students accuse her of “mindfucking” when she talks about Lacan;  a frazzled mother of three who is always the last mom to pick up her pre-schooler; and  so in love with her dream house that she commits funds they don’t have in a bidding war –and wins!   When the head of the department sends Ingrid to a meeting in Russia with two unlikable colleagues, the situation is hilarious.

3.   Doris Langley Moore’s A Game of Snakes and Ladders, first published in 1938, is an utterly charming novel about two women in a traveling theater company.

At the end of World War I, Lucy and Daisy become friends:   Lucy, a charming vicar’s daughter and talented actress, finds an acting  job for Daisy, a lower-class woman stranded in Australia after a bad marriage.  When the company arrives in Egypt, the social gap between the two widens: Daisy climbs the social ladder by having  an affair with the owner of the theater company, while Lucy falls down the social scale as she tries in vain to save money to return to London.  Lucy loses her money, her looks, and job after a long illness, but she is courageous.  You will love Lucy’s story–she never loses hope but is stranded for years–and you will  admire Moore’s graceful, dazzling prose.  
              

4.  Elaine Dundy’s witty novel, The Dud Avocado,was ublished in 1958 and has been reissued by Virago and NYRB Classics.The narrator, Sally Jay Gorce, an aspiring American actress in Paris, has thrown herself into the bohemian life. She has a middle-aged lover, Teddy, Alfredo Ourselli Visconti, so she feels that she has left behind the stuffy mores of women’s colleges. And she doesn’t consider herself a tourist until she runs into Larry, a handsome American actor she worked with in a stock company. This time around, Sally falls in love with him at first sight, but he is less impressed with her. She has dyed her hair pink and and happens to be wearing an evening gown in the morning (everything else is at the laundry). Larry lectures her on the perils of “going native” and then tells her about the the different types of tourists. Sally won’t admit she is one.
                   

5.  Mariana Leky’s lovely novel, What You Can See from Here, translated from German by Tess Lewis, is another charming book.  This gem-like novel, set in a village in Germany, is narrated by Luisa, whom we first meet at the age of 10.  Picture a group of quirky Anne Tyler characters, only not in Baltimore. In the first chapter, Luisa’s grandmother, Selma, divulges her dream of an okapi the night before.  (The okapi belongs to the giraffe family and is known as the zebra giraffe.) 

 
6.  The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks. Pragmatic Jane Graham is respected at her public relations job. A sexual slip-up–an unplanned pregnancy–forces her to examine her life. In a bug-infested L-shaped room, she befriends some unconventional Londoners and makes peace with her disapproving father. (Two sequels published in the ‘70s, The Backward Shadow and Two is Lonely, relate Jane’s further adventures.)

7.  Bassett by Stella Gibbons.  In this delightful novel, two middle-aged women go into business together. Miss Hilda Baker, a Londoner who works in a pattern-cutting office, wants to invest her savings of 300 pounds.  She sees an ad in Town and Country that might offer what she wants:  Miss Padsoe, a spinster in a country town, needs a partner in the conversion of her house into a rooming house. Miss Baker cautiously visits Miss Padsoe, but doesn’t decide to invest until her boss fires her (he is downsizing).  And thus the adventures of Miss Baker and Miss Padsoe begin. 

8.  Charlotte Armstrong’s A Dram of Poison is at heart a gentle comedy of suspense. The hero, Mr. Gibson, a middle-aged bachelor who teaches poetry at an obscure college, marries Rosemary, who is 22 years younger, for altruistic reasons. Poor Rosemary is sick, hopeless, helpless, plain, destitute, and about to be evicted, because her late father, a cranky professor emeritus who spent his latter days writing angry letters to the editor, left her nothing.  And so  Mr. Gibson to the rescue!  they fall in love, but this is not a romantic comedy:  it is a comedy of suspense.  
                  

9.  Elizabeth Goudge’s A City of Bells is a charming, once popular  novel of the 20th century.  Set in Torminster, a Cathedral town based on Wells in the UK, this well-written post-war novel is rich with comedy, descriptions of the city, and witty, believable dialogue.

 The hero of the novel, Jocelyn Irvin,  has been physically and psychologically damaged in the Boer War.  He has no vocation, so he goes to Torminster to stay with his grandfather, a canon of the cathedral. And while there he falls in love with Felicity, a charming, well-read actress who is visiting her aunt.  Due to the influence of Felicity and Grandfather, he opens a bookshop.  And there he finishes the manuscript of a poem by the former tenant;  he and Felicity produce it as a play in London.  When Jocelyn goes to London for rehearsals,  Grandfather runs the bookshop.


Goudge writes,


 Grandmother was outraged … That she should live to see her own husband on the wrong side of a counter was really the last straw in a married life strewn with straws.  “A Canon of the Cathedral serving in a shop,” she said indignantly to Jocelyn.  “I never heard of such a thing in my whole life.  What the Dean thinks I don’t know and don’t want to know.  And what your poor Grandfather, who has never, let me tell you, been able to subtract a penny from three-halfpence since the day he was born, gives in the way of change I’m sure I don’t know.”


 
  10.  The action of Grace Dane Mazur’s exquisite novel, The Garden Party, is set in a single day.  Two writers, Celia and Pindar Cohen, host a wedding rehearsal dinner in the garden for their son Adam, a professor poet, and his bride, Eliza Barlow.   


But the Cohens dread the party.  Celia is a literary critic and Pindar is researching a book about Babylonian cookery;  the Barlows are lawyers with whom they have nothing in common.  Celia would like to put the Barlows at a separate table.  She is still brooding over the seating chart and the menu as the guests arrive.


In the course of the day, there are many uncomfortable interactions.  The whimsicality of the Cohens’ garden does not appeal to their future in-laws, the Barlows.  And the bride and groom, Eliza and Adam, so dread the huge wedding that Eliza’s brother, Harry, a former seminarian, offers to officiate at a private ceremony to reduce the pressure of the big day.  An utterly brilliant novel, full of surprises, and slightly reminiscent of Virginia Wool!

Mrs. ‘Arris and the Arts

I’m disconsolate.  Nothing dramatic.  It’s an ordinary pandemic arts-deprived depression, precipitated by the realization that there’s nothing to do in town except go to the movie, “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.”

Years ago I read the charming, feather-light novel, Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris (the book title charmingly drops the “H”)  and the movie, starring Lesley Manville, may be even lighter – too light.  I recall the basic plot from the book:  Mrs. ‘Arris, an English char-lady with a delightful Cockney accent, decides to go to Paris and spend her savings on a Dior evening gown. 
 

Darling Mrs. ‘Arris! Or do I mean Harris?  Naturally, her unaffected charm wins  the hearts of Parisian snobs.  Perhaps Lesley Manville- what better source? – will teach me the art of charming designers.  But the other movies in the theater – I shudder to mention this – have titles like Thor: Love and Thunder


I have read that movie ticket sales are recovering ground. The Hollywood Reporter says that box office sales in June were almost up to $1 billion, last achieved in December 2019.  Sales were boosted by a cartoon called Minions:  The Rise of Gru.  But I wonder, Where is the adult fare? How long must I stay in my living room watching Netflix limited series?

The pandemic shattered the arts, films, music, and theater, though many are slowly reopening – others killed for good. According to an article in Time magazine in June 11, 2021, “Putting an End to the Pandemic Means Putting Artists Back to Work,” half an estimated 500,000 jobs in the performing arts in New York were cut during the first year of the pandemic.  Elizabeth Alexander, the president of the Andre W. Mellon Foundation, writes warmly of the value of the arts in New York and California. 

What she doesn’t mention is that the states in between the coasts (America with a ‘k’?) also desperately need the arts.  Some of us drive 200 miles to an art museum, only to learn that it is closed for the next four years.  I know of one independent movie theater that never reopened, its proprietor claiming that there are no longer any independent films.  Bad news if true!

Well, the Met Opera is thriving (or at least singing its heart out), and for $500 we could have seen Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick in Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite on Broadway.   


Despite my doubts about Mrs. Harris, the film may win an Oscar, judging from the rapt critics, who liberally sprinkle their reviews with the phrase “fairy tale.”  Forget the fairy tale – all I ask for is entertainment. 

The Spinster Problem: D. H. Lawrence’s “The Lost Girl”

By the middle of July, there is no question that I’m haggard. Try staying up and reading D. H. Lawrence till 2 a.m.  Wait till morning to slather on cold cream and rejuvenate yourself with cucumber slices.  In films women apply cucumber slices to their eyes,  but I find them more refreshing in a salad. 

I am reading Lawrence’s The Lost Girl (1920),  a mesmerizing, if uneven, novel about a woman with a paucity of sexual choices. It seems inevitable that Alvina Houghton, a maternity nurse whose inheritance was devoured by her once rich father’s debts, will run off to Italy with Ciccio (pronounced Cheecho), a traveling performer in a pseudo-American Indian dance troupe.  Alvina has had bad sex with him once, but she is afraid she will find no one better.


And she has reason to worry.  Lawrence informed us portentously on page 2 that in Woodhouse, Alvina’s hometown,  “there was a terrible crop of old maids among the ‘nobs,’ the tradespeople and the clergy.”  Her governess, Miss Frost, was an old maid, as was her father’s manager of a sewing workshop, Miss Pinnegar, both of whom lived with the family in Woodhouse. Miss Frost ran the household and essentially supported the family by giving music lessons.  After a while, Alvina gave piano lessons, too. Alvina’s mother, her only married role model, was an invalid. 

Alvina has few prospects. She has experience as a piano teacher, but it is not her vocation. And she is repulsed by the few eligible men in Woodhouse. In particular, an Australian teacher working on an Oxford degree who lives entirely in his head – and seems to have no heart – is confident that they are “walking out” together.” He will not take a hint:  he stalks her, and believes she likes him, until she bluntly tells him she is not interested.


 And later, Alvina desperately feels it’s better to run away with a young, attractive, impecunious, stupid, masculine Italian than to marry the smart, fiftysomething doctor WHO IS IN LOVE WITH HER, HAS A BEAUTIFUL HOUSE, MONEY, AND WILL GIVE HER ANYTHING SHE WANTS!  Oh, dear, I doubt her choice will bring much joy.  But she did not want to marry the doctor, and that is that.

But really, Ciccio? He’s so stupid!  Out of curiosity, I looked ahead at the next chapter, and as I suspected, she ran off with dreary Ciccio. Such a disappointing arrangement.

Lawrence is both brilliant and stupid about male-female relationships. As you can imagine, there is little communication between Alvina and Ciccio. Here is Lawrence’s take on them in Italy.  He writes,


Curious, he was somewhat afraid of her, he half venerated her, and half despised her. When she tried to make him discuss, in the masculine way, he shut obstinately against her, something like a child, and the slow, fine smile of dislike came on his face. Instinctively he shut off all masculine communication from her, particularly politics and religion. He would discuss both, violently, with other men. In politics he was something of a Socialist, in religion a freethinker. But all this had nothing to do with Alvina. He would not enter on a discussion in English.

Somewhere in her soul, she knew the finality of his refusal to hold discussion with a woman. So, though at times her heart hardened with indignant anger, she let herself remain outside. The more so, as she felt that in matters intellectual he was rather stupid. Let him go to the piazza or to the wine-shop, and talk.

Yes, yes, “somewhere in her soul.”  Very Lawrencian.  


This novel is kind of a mess, but it is fascinating and often gorgeously written.  A pity Alvina has so few choices – but after all she was born and raised in a town of old maids! And now I must read the last 30 pages. 

What Happened to Old-Fashioned Book Clubs? Miranda Mills Has the Answer

 I adore book clubs, and have belonged to many:  literary fiction groups, mystery groups, an Oprah book group, science fiction groups, celebrity memoir groups (Lauren Bacall’s By Myself is a classic), and a silent reading group from which I was, alas, expelled, because I was whispering, and I regret to say I giggled – very undignified.

Most online book clubs these days are what I call “unstructured parallel reading.”  For instance, during Virago Month (August), everybody solemnly swears to read a Virago, any Virago.  Call me crazy, but if I’m reading a wicked satire by Molly Keane, and you’re reading a surrealist novel by  Leonora Carrington, isn’t the only common ground the publisher? 
             

Perhaps the smartest book club on the internet today is run by Miranda Mills, host of the YouTube channel, Miranda Jane Mills:  Sharing My Love of Books.  In her early thirties, Miranda gives off a calm pre-Raphaelite vibe, with her long, flowing hair and floral-print dresses.  She addresses viewers from her beautiful home in Yorkshire, where we admire the decor, the flower arrangements, the table set for tea, and the  bookshelves filled with Penguin clothbound classics, reprints by small presses, gardening books, and art books.  Her succinct reviews and recommendations are always welcome, and her photography is of professional quality. 

She also runs the monthly Comfort Book Club at the YouTube channel with her charming mum, Donna. Among the titles they have discussed are Jane Austen’s Emma, Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April, and E. M. Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady.  And during the pandemic, the Comfort Book Club really has been a comfort.

Here is Miranda’s description of the club:

The Comfort Book Club started in 2021 and is a book club for those who enjoy classic comfort reads. I run the CBC with my Mum, Donna, who is also an avid reader, and the books we choose reflect our tastes in literature: primarily classic British comfort reads (both fiction and non-fiction) from the 19th or 20th Century, although we do sometimes pick contemporary books too.
 

I look forward to Miranda’s new selection at The Comfort Book Club, P. G. Wodehouse’s Joy in the Morning, one of the best of the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster series.  The discussion will be held on July 22. 
          

 

As a longtime fan of P. G. Wodehouse’s goofy, inimitable classics, i am not only reading Miranda’s book club selection but revisited one of Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle books, Pigs Have Wings.  Lord Emsworth’s prize pig, the Empress, is at the center of the conflict – as is, I think, true in all the Blandings books. His neighbor,  Sir Gregory Parsloe, has purchased a new sow, Queen of Matchingham – a contender for the Fat Pig prize.   Due to a misapprehension, Lord Emsworth’s younger, wilier brother, Galahad, kidnaps (pignaps) Queen of Matchingham, while several mixed-up guests in love dither and wander the grounds,  – and even Beach the butler can’t keep everything straight.

What are your favorite online book clubs? I know there are many to choose from.

A Henry James Binge: “The Other House” and “The Spoils of Poynton”

I paid $1 for a used copy of Henry James’s The Other House (NYRB Classics).  I had never heard of it, for reasons which became clear as I read on. The prose is un-Jamesian, consisting of short, spare sentences rather than elegant, serpentine periods.   Divided into three short books, it reads like a three-act play.

This plot-driven novel may well be the right choice for non-James fans.  It is very short, and almost a genre novel.  It is not quite a whodunit, but there is a murder.  One might call it a psychological horror novel.  The moral is, Be careful what you wish for.  Words can be weaponized – and that happens here. 

The premise of the novel depends on a deathbed promise exacted offstage by Julia Bream from her husband, Tony Bream. After giving birth to their daughter, she feels ill and is convinced she is dying.  The doctor can’t find anything wrong but insists that Tony humor her.  And so Julia elicits a promise that Tony will not remarry within their daughter’s lifetime.  That last phrase seems very lawyerly – and yet its inclusion proves to be fatal.  To ensure the fulfillment of the promise ,  Julia repeats it to her neighbor, Mrs. Beever, asking her to repeat it to all in the house. Julia had an evil stepmother, but it is hard to see this promise as a safeguard for her baby.  Asking Mrs Beever to repeat the promise publicly can also read a a warning:  Women, keep off.

Julia has reasons for jealousy. Two attractive young women are in the house, Julia’s best friend, Rose Armiger (whose name means “arms-bearer”),  and Jean Martle, a very young, pre-Raphaelite beauty, who is staying with Mrs. Beever in the house across the bridge. Rose, a clever, plain woman who becomes beautiful when she is animated, is the most complex character in the novel, though whether anyone can be more complicated than the Machiavellian Julia I cannot say.  All the men except Tony are in love with Rose.  In fact, when her fiancé returns from China, Rose refuses him. 

So doesn’t Rose have everything? Well, she doesn’t have Tony.

The other young woman, Jean Martle, attracts Tony. His reaction to Jean makes us understand why poor Julia wanted an eye kept on Tony:  while she is dying, he is admiring Jean’s masses of red hair and flirting .  

Julia does die.  And when four years later, the same set of people meet again, the situation becomes very – shall I say complex? 


This novel, though a fast read, is not one of James’s best.  The characters have little depth.  Once he reveals the identity of the villainess, we continue to see her only on the surface.  Her character lacks the intricacy of Kate Croy in The Wings of the Dove, or Charlotte Stant in The Golden Bowl.  The women in The Other House are not materialistic like Kate and Charlotte, but it doesn’t prevent bad behavior. 

What I think about this novel is:  it is James’s beach book.  It is what you read when you have read all or most of James.


Do Read Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton!
             
On the other hand, I was enthralled by a third reading of The Spoils of Poynton,  a masterpiece that examines the fine line between collecting objets d’art and materialism.

Mrs. Gereth’s house, Poynton, is filled with a collection of precious objects.  She and her late husband scrimped and saved to buy them. 

But the novel begins with a friendship. Mrs. Gereth meets Fleda Vetch at the Brigstock family’s hideous country house, Waterbath.  Mrs. Gereth and Fleda are skulking in the garden Sunday morning to avoid the other guests. They begin to chat, and discover that they have similar tastes, and even deplore the same people.

The following excerpt  is very Jamesian, witty,  exquisite, convoluted, and stylistically stunning.  Mrs. Gereth is very much a collector, and as such has her eye on Fleda Vetch.


This girl, one of the two Vetches, had no beauty, but Mrs. Gereth, scanning the dullness for a sign of life, had been straightway able to classify such a figure as the least, for the moment, of her afflictions. Fleda Vetch was dressed with an idea, though perhaps with not much else; and that made a bond when there was none other, especially as in this case the idea was real, not imitation…. for a minute, as they sat together, their eyes met and sent out mutual soundings. “Are you safe? Can I utter it?” each of them said to the other, quickly recognizing, almost proclaiming, their common need to escape. …That the poor child no less quickly perceived how far she could now go was proved by the immense friendliness with which she instantly broke out: “Isn’t it too dreadful?”

“Horrible—horrible!” cried Mrs. Gereth, with a laugh, “and it’s really a comfort to be able to say it.”


The Brigstocks’ house is particularly horrible to Mrs. Gereth because of the mass-produced furniture and decorations that reflect no one’s taste.  And  Mrs. Gereth is so taken with Fleda’s wit and understanding that she invites her to Poynton .  Fleda is hungry for knowledge – she is ecstatic to learn about art.

And then a threat to the collection looms.  Owen is engaged to Mona Brigstock, one of the daughters of Waterbath.  On a visit to Poynton, Mona shows no interest in the objects and paintings: she tells Vleda she wishes there were a billiards room and “a winter garden.”


Money matters to Mona, though.  When she learns  that Mrs. Gereth plans to move the things to the dower house, she realizes they must be valuable.  She tells Owen she will not marry him unless the collections remain intact at Poynton.  She nags Owen to hire lawyers and sue his own mother.


And so begins the battle between Mrs. Gereth, the collector, and the materialists. her son and his fiancee.  Mrs. Gereth genuinely delights in her things, loving the details of the work, as does Fleda.  But Owen is riled up and insists he is the master of Poynton, and that he has inherited his mother’s collections.  And Mona  is greedy;  she will deprive Mrs. Gereth of her lifetime collections just for the sake of ownership.


Are Owen and Mona in love?  Owen seems cowed by Mona.   Mrs. Gereth’s hopes for her collections depend on something less tangible than the legal courts:  can she manipulate  Owen into falling in love with Fleda?

And poor Fleda!  She loves Owen, who says he loves her and wishes they could live together in the dower house.  But Fleda’s ethics are so strict that she insists on a plan of action unlikely to end in anybody’s happiness. And that is primarily because she doesn’t understand Mona Brigstock.  She cannot imagine that Mona would not be, ultimately, as chivalrous and generous as Fleda.

Fleda’s naivete may prove disastrous, as did Julia’s in The Other House.  But I guarantee that you will not predict the ending of The Spoils of Poynton.

Katherine Mansfield’s Letters and Journals

Katherine Mansfield’s Letters and Journals are exquisite. These fragments capture her love of her native New Zealand, the ups and downs of her marriage to the critic John Middleton Murry, the exhaustion of train journeys in France during the First World War, and trying to write while she was ill (she had tuberculosis). 

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine and her husband, John Middleton Murry. were close friends of D. H. Lawrence, but Katherine disliked his wife, Frieda, a German woman who, unaware of Katherine’s annoyance, sought Katherine’s company.  Katherine was fastidious and private; Frieda blowsy and confiding. I give Frieda credit for trying to be friends with Katherine!
                 
In the following journal entry, Katherine reacts to Frieda and Lawrence.

January 10, 2015. Windy and dark.  In the morning, Frieda suddenly.  She had had a row with Lawrence.  She tired me to death.  At night we went to the Lawrences’, leaving her here.  It was a warm night with big drops of rain falling.  I didn’t mind the going, but the coming back was rather awful….  L. was nice, very nice, sitting with a piece of string in his hand, on true sex.

Katherine was hyper-critical and had a sharp tongue: at one point she became so bored by Lawrence’s rants on sexual philosophy that she suggested he name his cottage Phallus.

Katherine was a voracious reader.   In a letter to Murry she fulminates:  “…I find the Oxford Book of English Verse is very poor.  I turned over pages and pages and pages.  But except for Shakespeare and Marvell and just a handful of others it seems to be a mass of falsity.”  (N.B. I think I have this same edition – mine is edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch.)

Katherine loathes E. M. Forster’s Howards End, the great urban sprawl novel about the problems of moving house and inter-class sex.  But Katherine is unmoved. 

She writes, “E. M. Forster never gets any further than warming up the teapot…. And I can never be certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella.  All things considered, I think it must have been the umbrella.”

Katherine and Murry remained close, though she was unfaithful to him. I enjoyed her passage about their reading poetry together. Murry adored Hardy’s poem to Swinburne, but Katherine admits, “I, an inferior being, was a little troubled by the picture of Sappho and Swinburne meeting en plein mer (if one can say such a thing) and he begging her to tell him where his manuscript was.  It seemed such a watery rendezvous.”

 As I read this volume, edited by C. K. Stead, I understood why Lawrence modeled his character Gudrun on Katherine.  Gudrun in Women in Love is an artist, aloof, brilliant, whimsical, with a touch of cruelty – an exaggerated version of Katherine, the woman who resisted Rupert/Lawrence’s sexual philosophy.

The Blogger Life-Style: Compiling a TBR List

Compiling a TBR list is part of “the blogger life-style.”  All over the world, I imagine bloggers hunched over their desks at the beginning of the month, staining their fingers with ink as they jot down dates on a calendar and the list of books they plan to read.

Having a TBR makes me feel like a legitimate blogger.  I fill a planner with titles and dates, as though I might be launched on an important wave of social media any minute.  You know, Oprah might want me to select her next book pick! Or I might get a message from a charismatic book group leader:  “We will meet on Facebook to discuss Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad.” And then we will take the hemlock together because we’ll be so depressed!

Actually, my whimsical TBR list reminds me more than anything of those odd employee picks at indie bookstores. The rookie booksellers enthuse about their favorite new books, scrawling a sentence or two on index cards scotch-taped to the shelf.   “YOU WILL LOVE THIS POIGNANT NOVEL ABOUT A BIPOLAR DEAF QUEER WAITRESS WHO MEETS THE WOMAN OF HER DREAM IN REHAB.” 

Do the index cards facilitate communication between buyers and sellers?  A friend who is a longtime bookstore manager (a melancholy woman who thinks independent bookstores are “doomed”), says employee picks are a hopeless sales pitch :  not once in seven years has a customer bought one of her picks (though I did tell her Stalingrad might not be everyone’s cup of tea), nor do any of those more frivolous titles chosen by her underlings sell.

I am immune to bookstore picks.  But on the rare occasions when I allow myself to visit BookTube (Youtube channels for readers), I am mesmerized.  I write down the title of every book the presenter holds up in front of the camera.   Most recently I have added Summer Pudding by Susan Scarlet (Noel Streatfeild’) and Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott.  Neither of these books is available in the U.S., so we’ll hope the titles  sink to the bottom of the TBR before I have an opportunity to buy them.

Last year I bought Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines, after a vlogger said she hoped it would make the Women’s Prize longlist (it did not). When I bought this novel at a store, the cashier said, “You must have read my index card!”  She was all smiles, and I told her how great her index card was, though of course I had discovered the book at a different venue. Although I didn’t find Danforth’s book particularly well-written, I did finish it, and that’s something.

Finally, let me share my TBR for July.  I might read one of these six books this month. Or all six. We shall see.

  1. The Letters and Journals of Katherine Mansfield:  A Selection.  I carry this in my purse and have read some  diary entries and letters at the doctor’s office.  But I do need to sit down and read this short book cover to cover. 

 2.  Ship of Fools, by Katherine Anne Porter.  I love Porter’s short stories – she truly is a great American writer – and I hope I’ll enjoy her only  novel, which takes place in 27 days in 1931 on a freighter-passenger ship traveling from Veracruz, Mexico, to Bremerhaven, Germany.

3.  We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin.  A Russian dystopian novel that, according to the jacket copy, “accurately predicted the horrors of Stalinism. ” Why do I think I’ve read this before?  Have I read it before? 

4.  Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong.  In this comic pop feminist novel, Isadora Wing, who is afraid of flyint, is on a plane with 127 analysts , one of whom she is married to and six of whom have treated her for fear of flying. They will all be attending a conference in Vienna.   But Isadora’s done with analysis.  She wants freedom, feelings, and what she calls “the zipless fuck.  I read this when I was very young, and hope I’ll appreciate it more now. Henry Miller influenced Jong. I loved her recent novel, Fear of Dying

5.  Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.  Why?  You may ask.  Why? You may ask again.  Well, I can’t find my Collected Poems of Tennyson, so I found these Arthurian poems on a bookshelf.   I am enjoying some of it immensely, though some of it is stodgy.  You know who’s really annoying?  Lynette of Gareth and Lynette. She is the most annoying character in the book – I swear.

6.   The Wrath of Dionysus, by Evdokia Nagrodskaia.  A Russian best-seller in 1910, according to the book jacket: “Long before post-modernism suggested that gender was a social construct rather than a biological absolute, Nagrodskaia’s novel put this issue before middle-class Russian audiences hungry for popular fiction.”  All I can say a is:  We’ll see!

What are you reading in July?  Are you ticking things off a TBR list?  Inquiring minds want to know!

The Attack of the Cars on Bicyclists & Pedestrians

 I made a decision years ago not to drive. I have never needed to drive.  I have never regretted not driving.  I do not have a driver’s license. People find this mysterious. “Were you in an accident?”

 I don’t overexplain, because they will not get it anyway.  “No, it’s because fossil fuel emissions pollute the air.”

According to the EPA, “the transportation sector generates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions (27% of 2020 greenhouse gas emissions). Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation primarily come from burning fossil fuel for our cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes.”

Bicycling, walking, and mass transit are viable alternatives to driving in a city or large town.  Americans, however, regard their cars as giant purses, mechanical nomad tents, or, in the case of the pathological, as weapons.  Raise the price of gas and there will be rioting and weaponizing.

Today I took a bike ride.It was not exactly a beautiful day, but it was below 90 degrees, and there was a breeze.  Good weather for bicycling after what we’ve seen this summer.  I rode along shady, tree-lined streets, and lush green bicycle trails.

And then on the trip home a car tried to kill me.   

At an intersection I looked to the right:  no cars.  I looked to the left:  no cars. “Head on a swivel,” as a friend says. I was about to cross when in my peripheral vision I saw a low-slung dark gray car racing down a short slope. When the driver saw me, he or she accelerated.  I slammed on the brakes and barely had time to yank the bike out of the intersection. I seem to have escaped an attempted hit-and-run in a peaceful park-like neighborhood where there is little traffic, hence no traffic security cameras.

I leaned against my bike and drank most of a bottle of water before continuing.  Perhaps I will write a letter to the state’s bicycling organization. There have been incidents where drivers have deliberately run bicyclists off the road.  And every year bicyclists are killed by drivers.

Here is a heart-rending example of one of the bicycling obits:

“Lorna Moss, age 69, of Sioux Center, was killed when hit from behind on September 3, at 5:53 p.m., on Hickory Avenue, two miles north of Hull, IA. Moss was traveling northbound on a bicycle in the northbound lane on Hickory Avenue. Seth De Jong, age 27, of Doon, IA was driving a 2006 Dodge Grand Caravan northbound on Hickory Avenue behind Moss when he struck the bicycle. Upon further investigation, deputies suspected that De Jong was under the influence of alcohol. De Jong was transported to the Sioux County Jail where he was charged with homicide by vehicle caused by operating while intoxicated and homicide by vehicle caused by reckless driving.”
 
Aggressive drivers are also dangerous to pedestrians. The other day a friend almost got killed crossing the street.  When the light turned green and the walk sign was on, she stepped into the street.  Suddenly an old beater car turned right almost on top of her, barely missing her, and then broke another law by veering across a traffic lane, narrowly missing another car.
 
According to Outside magazine, almost 47,000 bicyclists a year are hit by cars in the U.S.  The article informs us, “Cyclist fatalities have been on the rise since 2010 and are now at 30-year highs. Pedestrian crash rates show an almost identical pattern. (Vehicle-occupant deaths, meanwhile, have dropped around 25 percent since peaking in the early 2000s.) According to a 2018 report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the rate of pedestrian involvement in crashes rose 13 percent from 2009 to 2016, accounting for population change. But the percentage of pedestrians killed rose at more than twice that rate.”

 If the weaponization of cars is the new road rage, a syndrome which apparently is on the rise since the pandemic began, I can only speculate that insanity is the primary symptom of American aggression.

Musings on Summer Days & Six Summer Reading Suggestions

The twentieth century was cooler, metaphorically as well as literally.  It used to cool off at night.

But my mother loved her air conditioning:  “Don’t cool the outdoors” was her favorite imperative as people ran in and out.

We found many ways to escape the heat, since we didn’t like AC. We drank lemon Coke at Woolworths, or went to Things and Things and Things for frozen yogurt.  Sometimes we perched on the steps of the limestone buildings on the Pentacrest on the tree-lined campus.  The limestone was cool to the touch on hot days.  On the hottest days, we went to McBride Hall, which had a natural history museum, glass cases of stuffed wild animals lining the halls on three floors. Or we headed to the River Room at the Union, where we could sit all day without buying anything.

  And so as we head into a hot July, let me stop my musings, pray for  cool days, and  celebrate summer with some good escape books.  Here are some suggestions:


1.  I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith.  “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” is the first sentence of this charming English novel.  The observant narrator, Cassandra Mortmain, writes a lively diary of family life in a run-down castle:  her famous father, author of a Joycean masterpiece,  is either blocked or lazy; her stepmother, Topaz, a former model, communes with nature in the nude;  romantic Rose, the older sister,  longs for romance but knows no men; and the younger brother Thomas is still at school.   Naturally, comic romance drives the plot.  N.B. You can read about Cassandra’s Midsummer’s Eve rites in Chapter XII (p. 199 in the St. Martin’s paperback edition).
                      

2.  The Portable Greek Reader, edited by W. H. Auden.  This anthology of ancient Greek literature, philosophy and history includes excerpts from Hesiod, Homer, Plato, the Greek tragedians, Aristophanes, Thucydides, all of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, but I keep it mainly for Auden’s introduction, which I reread.  I’m surprised by how many of these selections I read in Greek in my youth.  Auden does make a few odd choices, though.  Why include Plato’s little-read Timaeus in its entirety?  But it was fun to reread excerpts from Hesiod, and to rediscover Pindar. 

                         
3.  Margery Allingham’s Flowers for the Judge.  Allingham is one of the greatest Golden Age Detective Novel writers, and I love this one because it is set in a publishing house.  Amateur sleuth Albert Campion, who is rather like Peter Wimsey, is called in when one of the directors is murdered.  The suspect couldn’t possibly have done it. He’s simply too naive.  But then who…?

                      
4.  The Murder of My Aunt, by Richard Hull. In this slight but entertaining Golden Age mystery, published in the British Library Crime Classics series, the crazed narrator, grumpy Edwin Powell, decides to murder his controlling aunt.

                        
5.  The Shivering Sands, by Victoria Holt. In this mediocre 1969 novel, which I read when I was revisiting ’60s Gothics, Caroline investigates the disappearance of her sister, an archaeologist, by taking a job at the estate where she was last seen.  A bit formulaic, and certainly not to be read for style – but the last suspenseful 100 pages are truly Gothic!

                               
6.  Darling Girl, by Liz Michaelski. I read an enthusiastic review of this modern retelling of Peter Pan.  I wish I were enjoying it more. The story is sinister, but it could do with some stylistic dazzle.  The basic plot: Holly Darling, the granddaughter of Wendy Darling – who knew Peter Pan – is a scientist and the CEO of a cosmetics company, with a complicated personal history. She was driving the car when she had an accident that killed her husband and one of her twin sons.  The surviving son has a rare blood condition.  And then her daughter, who has been in a coma for years, disappears.  Even if I don’t finish this, I assure you the daughter’s disappearance will be connected with Peter Pan.

Happy July 4 Weekend Reading!

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