Two Books for Fall: Zola’s “Germinal” and Stanley Middleton’s “Valley of Decision”

I retire early to bed with books these days.  What do I recommend?  Zola’s Germinal and Stanley Middleton’s  Valley of Decision.

Zola’s Germinal is not for everybody.  I was perusing James Mustich’s new reference book, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, and surprised to find Germinal named as Zola’s masterpiece. IT IS the most over-the-top book ever written!   When I read it at 21, I found it so depressing I raced through it just to be done.  And I’m a Zola fan.

What do I think many, many years later?  Well, it is gloomy. Set in a coal-mining town in France, it details the harshness of the work and everyday life.  People  live like animals, they sleep in shifts in crowded houses, they beg, they starve, they fornicate practically in public.  The main character is Etienne, the son of the alcoholics in Zola’s L’Assommoir (The Drinking Den). He arrives at loose ends and takes a job in the mines.  The focus is largely on Etienne and the Maheu family.  All of the Maheus, except the wife and youngest children, work in the mine, and the conditions  are horrendous.  Etienne preaches radical ideas and organizes a strike.  And the strike is a disaster, because the miners have no power.

Everybody dies.   Almost everybody.

I kept exclaiming out loud, “Poor horse!”  “Poor Catherine!”  Did I weep?  I think so.

I prefer Nana, The Ladies’ Paradise, and The Conquest of PassansGerminal is brilliant, but I can’t survive it every day.

Stanley Middleton’s Valley of Decision is melancholy but upbeat after  Germinal Middleton won the Booker Prize in 1974 for Holiday.  Set in the Midlands, Valley of Decision is a beautifully-written novel about musical careers and a marriage on the rocks.  David and his wife Mary are happy.  They have a lot in common:  David teaches music and is an amateur cellist; Mary is a former opera singer.  When she  is offered a gig in the U.S. singing opera on a two-months’ university tour, David and Mary agree she should do it.  It is an opportunity for Mary, though she doesn’t want a professional career.

While she is away, David begins to perform with a prestigious quartet.  It takes up time, and he loves it. Middleton’s descriptions of the rehearsals, conversations about music,  and the concerts are fascinating.  I’m not even musical.

Mary is a hit in Handel’s  Semele.  But suddenly she stops writing to David and won’t answer his phone calls. She is not in touch with her parents or David’s parents, either.  David  is worried.  He continues with his music, and that is a saving grace, but he becomes depressed.

Where is Mary?  we wonder.

A brilliant little novel, the kind of thing that might get overlooked now.  Personally I wish there were more short, pitch-perfect (no pun intended) novels like this.

AND NOW WHAT WILL I READ NEXT? 

Book Sales & Crumbling Paperbacks

My new book bag.

Every year we go to the Planned Parenthood Book Sale.

The books had been plundered and pillaged by the time we got there on the second night.  The  classics were down to a few Dickens and Brontes.  This is a slight exaggeration.

I had a sinking feeling I’d gone to the sale too many times.  We filled a book bag instead of a box.  I’m happy to have bought fewer books, though, because I have FINALLY shelved all my books and don’t want clutter.  But why go if there is nothing unusual?  I found a few in the trade paperback section.  I haven’t read this novel by Julia Glass, who won the National Book Award in 2002 for Three Junes.  And who doesn’t like David Lodge’s satires?

But, really, we have to find more book sales in the midwest.  Where have all the good books gone?

 REPLACING CRUMBLING PAPERBACKS!

Some of my  paperbacks have fallen apart.  Not surprisingly, my Washington Square paperback of Jane Eyre (the first I had) is no longer readable.

Traditionally I’ve been a paperback person, but in 2017 I got hooked on Folio Society books.  A group of friends and I purchased some FS books for a round robin.  We were co-owners and traded them back and forth.

We logged our reading time.  No reason.

My friend’s daughter, who had just gotten out of rehab,  kept a journal because she was supposed to try to change her behavior.  And she said she read enough to cut  half an hour to forty-five minutes from her phone time. Pretty good for anyone!

The Folio Society books were overall a good influence. Who needs to read the latest Booker Prize winner when we’re busy with the FS edition of Jude the Obscure?   My discovery?  I started rereading the classics because the books were so attractive.. I especially recommend the beautiful edition of Wuthering Heights, with an introduction by Patti Smith and illustrations by Rovina Cai.

A Penguin Hardcover Classic of “Bleak House” and coffee.

The FS books will last, but I’ve been musing:  how long will my other hardbacks?  Will my cute affordable Penguin hardback classics last for 50 years?  I am a fan of Coralie Bickford’s  cover designs, especially the birdcages on the cover of Bleak House (think of Miss Flite). And these  books are good value:  usually under $20.  The print is a nice size and the paper is sturdy.

But perhaps we are not meant to sit in bed and hold Bleak House in one hand while we slurp coffee.  The cover of Bleak House took a beating!  And, oops, a coffee stain on one of the pages.

Has anyone bought Knickerbocker flexibound classics?  They’re on sale at Barnes and Noble for $10.  They look very cute, with a flexible cover and a strap that closes it like  a Moleskine notebook.  I have read most of the titles, though.

I buy strictly reading copies. (Well, except for the FS splurge.)   Should we buy paperbacks or hardbacks for replacements?  Or do you buy first editions?

What’s Twee & What’s Not?

I’ve been thinking about the kind of books I read.  Classics, pop fiction, poetry, biography–anything except romances.

Ten years ago I collected and perused many out-of-print British novels by Rumer Godden, Dodie Smith, D. E. Stevenson,  Rachel Ferguson, and Pamela Frankau.

It’s been a while since I’ve read these authors, but I  wonder:  is my taste twee?

What’s twee and what’s not?   The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says it is “affectedly or excessively dainty, delicate, cute, or quaint.”

Can writers be great and twee?  I love Rachel Ferguson’s Alas, Poor Lady, a brilliant novel about a distressed gentlewoman.  But an earlier book, The Brontes Went to Woolworths, is so fanciful that I conclude it is twee. As the book description at Goodreads says, the Carne sisters “live a life unchecked by their mother in their bohemian town house. Irrepressibly imaginative, the sisters cannot resist making up stories as they have done since childhood; from their talking nursery toys, Ironface the Doll and Dion Saffyn the pierrot, to their fulsomely-imagined friendship with real high-court Judge Toddington…”

What about the brilliant, underrated writer, Rumer Godden?  She is usually delegated to the rank of dead pop writers, but  I adore  Kingfishers Catch Fire, a kind of pre-hippie novel about a single mother and two children who move to Kashmir to live cheaply.  But there is occasionally something mannered about her voice, her rhetorical repetition, and chronological jumping around.  I happen to like that myself.   Twee or not twee?

George Eliot:  never twee.  Max Beerbohm:  always twee.  I am definite about those two.

On Chic Blogging & Margaret Drabble’s “The Waterfall”

Some family members are happy for one’s success; others suffer from Schadenfreude.

Recently a relative expressed concern about my starting  Thornfield Hall when my old blog, Mirabile Dictu, was booming.  Living in X City  was a huge drag already, she said, about as exciting as a glass of milk.  Where would I be without my blog?

“Milk is kind of a chic thing,” I wrote back. “And we writers like to move on. Think of Colette bored out of her mind writing the Claudine books.   She went on to write better books, like The Vagabond and Break of Day.”

And perhaps we don’t like to “boom.”

drabble the waterfall 6774807224WHAT I’VE LOVED READING THIS WEEK.   Margaret Drabble’s novel, The Waterfall, published in 1969, is a beautifully-written, if challenging short novel.  In part that is because Jane, an agoraphobic poet, is not as appealing as the typical Drabble heroine.  Separated from her musician husband and pregnant with their second child, Jane lives alone in run-down house in London. Housekeeping is beyond her.  She has no energy.  When her water breaks, she reluctantly calls her cousin Lucy because there is no one else she can bear to tell.

And so Lucy and her husband James alternate staying the night to care for Jane.  And Jane and James are weirdly attracted:  the two begin a semi-incestuous affair.  Or are they in love?

I’ve never given birth, so I don’t understand the new mommy attraction, but James falls head over heels.  And since Jane is Lucy’s double, there’s a perverse logic to it.  Both women are literary–Lucy is an editor–and they resemble each other.  Lucy, however, was the sexy one at Cambridge. James has little in common with either, but it doesn’t matter. He proves to be excellent with children and can do a gorgeous card trick called the Waterfall.  He owns a garage and drives fast cars.

Drabble’s real strength here is in her account of Jane’s state of mind. Jane loathes Jane Austen and loves passionate Jane Eyre, and that in a way defines her.  Every encounter is painful for Jane; sometimes the only person she talks to for days is a shop clerk.  Finally she decides she needs to make life more normal for her son Laurie.

And in the end she made it. She decided to send Laurie to the local nursery group. She had had his name down for a year, but she had never thought she would get round to sending him. It was not losing him that she feared: it was the confrontation with the other mothers, the daily task of delivering and collecting the child, the daily greetings, the daily partings. Such a trivial decision became to her something momentous, terrifying, impossibly difficult.

The structure of this novel is gorgeously symmetrical and literary.  The first-person narrator even brilliantly dissects her own literary third-person narrative.

IT WON’T, OF course, do: as an account, I mean, of what took place. I tried, I tried for so long to reconcile, to find a style that would express it, to find a system that would excuse me, to construct a new meaning, having kicked the old one out, but I couldn’t do it, so here I am, resorting to that old broken medium. Don’t let me deceive myself, I see no virtue in confusion, I see true virtue in clarity, in consistency, in communication, in honesty. Or is that too no longer true? Do I stand judged by that sentence? I cannot judge myself, I cannot condemn myself, so what can I make that will admit me and encompass me? Nothing, it seems, but a broken and fragmented piece: an event seen from angles, where there used to be one event, and one way only of enduring it.

The Waterfall is one of Drabble’s more challenging novels, but well worth reading.  A post-modern Jane Eyre?

A Perfect Day: Not Crossing Anything off My To-Do List!

I did not cross anything off my to-do list today.  Is that why it was a perfect day?

Since it was gorgeous, I rode my bike and then sat in in an urban park.  I attempted to read a library book, a light comic novel by Elizabeth Cadell, which turned out, alas, not to be my thing.  And I was distracted by the leaves falling.  Eventually I just watched the leaves.

SIGHT OF THE DAY:  the toppled No Smoking sign in the park. Was it deliberately toppled?  “Power to the people–smash the state!”  A motley crowd of people hang out here, from Kum and Go corporate executives to secretaries on breaks to the homeless.  So, yes, there are smokers in the park.  I hate the smell of cigarette smoke but honestly–are smokers criminals?  Where are they supposed to smoke?

CURRENTLY READING: A Winter’s Promise: Book One of The Mirror Visitor Quartet by Christelle Dabos.  This French fantasy novel, just published by Europa Editions, is one of the most absorbing books of the year.  The heroine is a museum curator who reads the history of objects by touching them. She can also travel through mirrors.   When her family arranges a marriage for her to a chilly man in an alien sexist country at the Pole, she is horrified.  And her explorations of the city  prove dangerous:   a flirtatious ambassador  picks her up (literally) when she wanders into a masked ball.  She has no more sexual interest in him than she does in her fiance.  Dabos writes, “She’d once read a romantic novel lent by her sister. All those amorous outpourings had done nothing for her and the book had bored her to death. Was this abnormal? Would her body and heart be forever deaf to that call?”

Now how am I going to wait til April for Book 2? Should I just learn French?

More on this remarkable book later!

CURRENTLY WONDERING:  how the organizers of Victober, a charming event that entails reading Victorian novels in October, can keep up with their busy schedules.  They are devoted to reading multiple Victorian book, have group reads, buddy reads, a Goodreads group, and cross off the number of pages read per day  on spreadsheets. It’s a lot of work.  I do think private schools would happily recruit them to teach English.

CROSSED OFF ON MY TBR TODAY:  cooking dinner!

A Readerly Cat, a “Jane Eyre” Notebook, & Are You Charlotte, Emily, or Anne?

I am an allurophile (a cat fancier).  I have lived with, oh, fifteen or twenty cats over the years.   I’m not sure of the exact number.

It started when a friend’s roommate’s boss in Bean Blossom was giving away free kittens.  I wanted a free kitten, but I also aspired to visit Bean Blossom. (Southern Indiana is gorgeous and Bean Blossom is the home of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Festival.) The Siamese kitten turned out to be a genius who helped me get my master’s by providing much needed recreation.  She batted my pens and plopped down on Liddell and Scott (a Greek dictionary) when I did too much work. “No need to be a scholar,” she seemed to say.  Her favorite game was “Kakodaimon” (“evil genius”), in which she batted at a scary rag doll of the same name. She also raced up the curtains and hung by her claws from the fiberglass ceiling.  Her most mischieveous act:   knocking over a  professor’s Christmas tree when she boarded with him over winter break.

Uh oh, you may wonder:  Is this a satire in which an academic career in classics is ruined by a Siamese?  Nah, that’s probably one of Rita Mae Brown’s Sneaky Pie cat mysteries.

Anyway, we became allurophiles.  Every time I passed a sign for “Free Kittens,”  I came home with a new cat. Mind you, these are not collectible cats with pedigrees.  A box of tuxedo kittens at the Farmers’ Market?  I’ll take one, sure.  If we had more space I’d become a foster cat mom.

The adorable cat pictured at the top of this post used to be a very wild kitten: she mischievously hopped into the refrigerator if you weren’t looking.  You’d find her sitting on the lettuce…  that happened once!  Today she was in a readerly mood, though. She sat down with a copy of Wuthering Heights.  Or should I say beside Wuthering Heights?  Doesn’t she look serious?

I took snaps of my Bronte collection because Lolly, a longtime member of one of my book groups, gave me a really cute Charlotte Bronte notebook. I do love the purple flex-cover!  Yes, there’s a quote from Charlotte, but the opening pages of Jane Eyre are also printed in tiny print on the cover.   I am saving this journal for a special occasion.  Maybe for special Bronte notes.

The pages of the notebook are ruled not with lines but also with the text of Jane Eyre. I wonder if the entire text is in the notebook?

 

Anyway, I needed to look at my Bronte collection.  Here’s a snap.

And here’s my Heritage Press edition of Wuthering Heights.  It’s too tall to photograph with the others!

I can’t decide if my favorite Bronte is Villette or Wuthering Heights!  It was Wuthering Heights for many years, until I began to see my life less in terms of Gothic passion (Catherine and Heathcliff can be exhausting) than f work and everyday life spiced up by the occasional ghost and unsolicited Gothic laudanum trip (I am Lucy Snowe in Villette).

Life is extreme.  There’s no getting away from it.  And I’m Emily and Charlotte rather than Anne.

ARE YOU EMILY, CHARLOTTE, OR ANNE?  Male or female, you’re one of these if you love the Brontes!  Go ahead–choose one!

The “Bleak House” Journal: Notes on Reading Dickens

No fan of Dickens should scribble the following drivel in her journal:  “I read Bleak House because others don’t” (2012).  It isn’t even true. I was doodling.  Tens of thousands are reading Bleak House as we speak (probably).  Maybe tens of millions.

But people on the internet are often flummoxed by Dickens.  They speed through the succinct Tale of Two Cities  but are defeated by the bulk of Bleak House. In an online forum somebody wrote: “In doing a little research I ran across an article arguing that if Dickens were alive today he’d probably be writing soap operas, and I completely agree.”

This is a person who reads for plot not for language.  But as I scrawled in my journal I became as inky and indignant as one of my favorite characters in Bleak House, Caddy Jellyby, who miserably pens long letters dictated by her philanthropist mother about fund-raising for a project  in Borrioboola-Gha in Africa.  Mrs. Jellyby neglects her family.

Like Dickens fans John Irving and Desmond in Lost, I have reserved one of Dickens’s books to read in old age.  That does not mean I don’t go back to the others over and over.  In September I started rereading my favorite, Bleak House. And I’m recording some of my journal notes here, since I’m trying to get away from the bad habit of writing formulaic plot summaries–a trap we bloggers too often fall into.

September 26, 2018

I am reading quietly, interrupted only by the cats, and it does seem the best book I’ve read in ages. For a few hours a day I  am free from worry about politics, leaky roofs, tornado warnings, and renewing library cards and state IDs.

I love Dickens’ masterly use of English.  Where did he learn the rhetorical language?  His use of anaphora is flamboyant–acrobatics in a circus of repetition.   Here is one of the most famous passages.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

The action pivots around a court case about a will.   In the nightmare world of Chancery, Jarndyce v Jarndyce drags on for decades, and  the litigators kill themselves or go mad.  But the charming, well-educated orphan Esther Summerson shines a light on her circle.  Esther, whose lovely first-person narrative (“Esther’s Narrative”) is at the heart of the novel, is a kind of Cinderella character (not princessy, though).  Raised by a godmother who devastates her by saying she would have been better off unborn, Esther does not know her parentage.  Yet Esther, whose education is paid for by her guardian John Jarndyce, is the most filial, loving character of all.  First she becomes an adored teacher; then she is invited to Bleak House by John Jarndyce to live with two other orphans,  wards of court, pretty Ada  and witty Richard.  Richard, alas, believes Jarndyce and Jarndyce will make him rich.

There is redemption among many of the orphans. Interestingly,  nuclear families are less nurturing than makeshift families.  (Are we talking about the 1960s?)   Orphans, bachelors, spinsters, elderly eccentrics, the mad, the poor, the single, and the rootless come together.  The nuclear families are damaging, among them the Jellybys, the Pardiggles, and the Skimpoles.

Esther is connected to everyone, I think.  But I won’t give away her lineage.

Enough!