Reading through Pain: Crime Fiction, a Booker-Longlisted Novel, & Humor

                  

The planet is so hot, it’s hard to imagine its getting hotter.   It was 100 degrees today, and it feels blazing, impossible.  
 
But in addition to suffering the heat, I’ve  been in a lot of pain this summer.  I  injured myself during a power yoga session.  Remember aerobic dance classes?  This was similar, only with yoga moves. I felt my ribcage rattling at one point.  For over a month, my ankles were swollen, and I could hardly bend my knees or  wrists.
 
I am now the queen of modified calisthenics:  leg stretches and gentle weight-lifting. Some days I managed to walk a mile (in pain), other days I could barely make it around the block.  One day I considered crawling home, but my knees weren’t bending properly.
 
I am almost 100 percent, but I couldn’t have gotten through it without Advil, calcium pills, gentle workouts, and some great books.
 
HERE ARE THREE BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS.

CRIME FICTION:  The greatest American fiction being written today is crime fiction. (I’m not the first to say this.)  And Sara Paretsky, author of the V.I. Warshawki series,  is the best American writer working today, says I.  
 
Her savvy, tough P.I. is V.I. Warshawski, a native Chicagoan and a cop’s daughter who became a lawyer and then opened her own P.I. office.  In Paretsky’s latest novel,  Overboard, V.I.’s  dogs run away from her on a walk along Lake Michigan and find an injured girl in a cave. The girl is taken to a hospital, and the case is turned over to the police, but it keeps coming back to haunt V.I.  The police thinks she’s holding out on them.  Really great writing, and if you know Chicago, or even if you don’t, her precise, deft prose will vividly recreate it.                       

BOOKER PRIZE NOMINEE:  I reread Elizabeth Strout’s stunning novel, Oh William!, longlisted for the Booker.  Her sentences are so graceful that they give a new meaning to the word “grace.”  Yet her characters have lived through a  lot of pain, and her lyrical sentences balance that in a way, not to make it palatable, but so that we can see their complexity more clearly.

Oh William! is a sequel to My Name Is Lucy Barton.  Lucy’s ex-husband William’s second wife and their daughter have left him, and he  invites Lucy to accompany him on a road trip to investigate his mother’s past.  He has just learned that before his mother left her first husband, a farmer, to marry William’s father, a German P.O.W., she had had a baby daughter. He never knew he had a sister. Can anything good come out of such a trip?  It’s not a Hallmark movie.   
Do read this because Lucy is good company.
             

 HUMOR WRITING:  I had read very few of P.G. Wodehouse‘s standalone novels, until I found a “Best of” list by Robert McCrum, one of Wodehouse’s biographers.  Piccadilly Jim is hilarious.   There are the usual imposters –  Jim, a practical joker  always in the society columns, changes his name so he can have a chance with a beautiful, bright American girl who scorns the antics of Piccadilly Jim. Imagine his surprise when he meets her family’s new butler – and it is his father, who has fled his wife in England because he couldn’t  bear to miss another baseball season.  I kept tipping back my head and laughing.  I don’t remember ever tipping my head before – that shows how funny Wodehouse is, I guess!

What to Read This Weekend: Joan Didion’s “A Book of Common Prayer”

When we talk about Joan Didion’s novels, we inevitably talk about Play It As It Lays. It seems that Play It As It Lays, published in 1970,  is the only one of her novels anyone has read.  Didion is primarily an essayist, so I understand the vagueness about her fiction. All I can say is, that if I have to spend another minute with the wispy, passive character Maria, I will scream – and I have spent hours with Maria, because people keep telling me Play It As It Lays is a masterpiece. Didion’s style is elegant and spare –  each word is resonant  of secrets in plain sight –  but  Play It As It Lays seems empty. 

Maria, the heroine, is one of those rich, purposeless, vapid women who never have to work and never make a decision without dithering.  The thing Maria likes best is driving very rapidly on the freeway, directionless and barefoot, so she doesn’t have to make a decision.  Couldn’t she become a chauffeur?  I mean, I would have liked to be an aimless, beautiful woman of whom nothing is expected, – but most of us have to work. 

I once attended a reading by Joan Didion, and was simply awed by meeting one of the best writers of the 20th century.  But I did notice, that in spite of her achievements, she seemed wispy and uncertain, a bit like  Maria. If I recall correctly, her husband, John Gregory Dunne, a novelist and screenwriter, sat protectively with her on the stage – or perhaps he simply stood very close and reassured her afterwards.   Didion’s career would suggest that she was strong and capable, able to talk to as well as observe her subjects. But then people are not what you think they are – are they?  It is easy to misinterpret.

I do love  her  third, more complex novel, A Book of Common Prayer (1977).  The principal character, Charlotte Douglas, is a flighty Maria-type, but I like Charlotte.  She is obscenely rich, but in a small Central American country she administers cholera inoculations, kills a chicken with her bare hands, bizarrely identifies different  types of assault weapons, and volunteers at a birth control clinic where she encourages the women to get diaphragms instead of IUDs (pointless, though, because there are no diaphragms).  

Charlotte is misunderstood,  so scattered, and yet so  competent.  One day she had impulsively flown to Boca Grande, a country in Central America on the brink of a coup. Charlotte knew nothing of the politics, but believes that she is only a tourist and thus will never be in any danger.  But then she doesn’t know that she on a “Persons of Interest” list, provided by the U.S. government.    Later, we find out why, though she never suspects.

The narrator,  Grace Strasser-Mendana, a retired anthropologist, an amateur student of biochemistry, is studying Charlotte.  “I will be her witness,” she says.  

Grace says of Charlotte:


She talked constantly.  She talked feverishly.  She talked as if Victor had released her from vows of silence by walking up to where she stood with Ardis Bradly and offering her a crab puff.   Every memory was “lyrical,” every denouement “hilarious,” and sometimes “ironic” as well. … She seemed to be receiving these pointless but bizarrely arresting stories out of some deep vacuum of nervous exhaustion, transmitting them dutifully in a voice soft and clear and oddly confidential. She used words as a seven-year-old would, as if she had heard them and liked their adult sound but had only the haziest idea of their meaning…


 

The men refer to Charlotte as  norteamericana, or norteamericana cunt. She talks to them so intimately,  jumping from one subject to the next, mentioning her family as though everyone knows them:  Warren (her first husband, a mean-spirited professor who wears out his welcome wherever they go),  her second husband, Leonard, a famous radical lawyer (“He runs guns,” she says shockingly at one point), and her daughter Marin, who they assume from her conversation is a child. But Marin is actually a member of a terrorist group, responsible for a bombing.

Charlotte has a tragic life.  In general, she doesn’t pay much attention to what others say:  she is focused on her own past.  It would seem she remembers only in flashes and small, soon-forgotten revelations.  Grace learns her history by a series of conversations with  Charlotte and Charlotte’s family:  eventually she even visits Marin, whom she recognizes from the stupid revolutionaries in her country.


I loved Charlotte. She is a tragicomic character – more tragic than comic, but no one really knows that about herself.  She has courage.  And we can’t really see quite what she knows, because occasionally she says something that implies real discernment.


And, of course, Joan Didion’s writing is superb.

Kurt Vonnegut on Loneliness, Old Age, and the Extended Family

 

I have always admired  Kurt Vonnegut’s unique, ineffably sane take on the destructive history of the 20th century.


In the remarkable documentary, Kurt Vonnegut:  Unstuck in Time, filmmaker Robert B. Weide interviews Kurt Vonnegut and intersperses their witty chats with old home movies provided by Kurt’s older brother, Bernard Vonnegut, photos of family and friends, his children’s reminiscences, Kurt at his high school reunion, love letters, accounts of his two marriages, high school plaques with names of men he knew who died in World War II, and historic footage of wars and other events. 


 Vonnegut grew up in a huge extended family in Indianapolis, Indiana: there were at least 30 Vonneguts in the Indianapolis phone book.  He underwent his share of trauma later:  he was a Prisoner of War during World War II, who survived the fire-bombing of Dresden because he was imprisoned at night in a slaughterhouse.  Later, while working in the PR department of GE,  he discovered that  GE was creating machines that would do men’s jobs and replace them in the workplace.  He quit to become a short story writer and novelist.

Vonnegut’s jokes are so outrageous that I fear he would offend today’s milquetoast audiences.  College students were once his biggest supporters, but I’m not sure they “get” satire anymore.

Here’s a witty, heartbreaking Vonnegut quote from the documentary.

My books are about loneliness and people being driven out of the Garden of Eden.  The world’s full of lonesome old people.  And when trouble comes they call either the police or the fire department.  Lonesome?  Dial 911.  And I say, Get an extended family.


In Slapstick, he makes similar observations. The hero, Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, runs for President of the United States on the radical platform of “Lonesome No More!”  He promises to provide every American with a huge, supportive extended family.  But first, because there is a fuel shortage, he has to burn Nixon’s papers from the National Archives to generate electricity so the computers can assign new middle names to the citizens.   (The middle name will identify your new family of tens of thousands of people.) 


I guess the critics didn’t like his attack on the loneliness of the nuclear family:  Vonnegut himself says he never got nastier reviews.   But in this darkly comic post-apocalyptic novel, Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain is working for the good of the crumbling American society.


. What I love about Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, or do I mean Vonnegut?, is that he laughs in the darkness.

And so we will vote for Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain in the next election.  We love his ideas!

Rereading Jane Austen: Is “Sense and Sensibility” Sultry?

          
      


This summer I have read mainly books by men – which is an unusual choice for me.  But I did reread Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.


 And I’m so glad I reread it.  It has always seemed to me the weakest of her books, but on a third reading I appreciated it. The characters are livelier than I remembered, and this time I loved Elinor Dashwood. (In the past I’ve been a Marianne person.) Elinor is a bit of a martinet, with her perfect manners and conventional mores, but she is intelligent and kind.  She holds the impoverished Dashwood household together after her father’s death.  


Elinor doesn’t get much help:  her younger sister, 17-year-old Marianne, is Elinor’s opposite.  Marianne is fantastically romantic, despising anyone who doesn’t have strong emotions, and is passionate about music and art. Elinor is repressed and dutiful and isnow, more or less, the man od the family.
 


How, you may wonder, could Sense and Sensibility be sultry with this cast?  There is one sultry scene – sultry by Austen’s standards.  After Marianne falls on a hill and sprains her ankle, a handsome stranger comes to the rescue. 
 

Austen writes,

A gentleman carrying a gun, with two pointers playing  round him, was passing up the hill and within a few yards of Marianne, when her accident happened.  He put down his gun and ran to her assistance.  She had raised herself from the ground, but her foot had been twisted in the fall, and she was scarcely able to stand. The gentleman offered his services, and perceiving that her modesty declined what her situation rendered necessary, took her up in his arms without further delay, and carried her down the hill.
 

It is the classic man-saves-the-injured-woman trope.  (Another incident occurs  in Persuasion.) I am amused when the gentleman scoops up Marianne: this was never my fantasy.  But this memorable gentleman is Willoughby, the most charming man in the novel.  (The only charming man in the novel!)  Marianne and Willoughby spend every day together after this meeting, discover they share the same interests,  and fall in love.  But then he leaves without proposing.  


 Elinor’s suitor, Edward Ferrars – who, like Willoughby, does not propose – is a moping, listless, charmless man who seems anemic compared to the other chracters.  But Elinor does love him. And yet… why do the Dashwoods have parallel love problems.  Why aren’t the men proposing?
 
Jane Austen has strict ideas about love.  She values friendship more than love, which is unfortunate for Marianne.  You can almost hear the maxims:   Handsome is as handsome does. The worthiest men are not always the wittiest. 

In one of Margaret Drabble’s novels, the heroine shudders at Knightley in Emma – far better to be with Frank Churchill, or the libertine Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, she thinks.   


I seldom like Austen’s heroes, but I love her writing.  Sense and Sensibility, her first published novel, is rather awkward, but it has its moments.

A Neglected Novel & a Melodramatic Bildungsroman: Jean Stafford’s “The Catherine Wheel” and “Boston Adventure”

                     

Jean Stafford is my favorite American writer, or, rather, she has written two of my favorite books.  She won the Pulitzer in 1970 for her stunning Collected Stories. I also return again and again to The Catherine Wheel, her restrained, elegant, little-known Jamesian novel, set during a summer in Maine. 
 

The Catherine Wheel is a sophisticated, if chilly little book, told from the perspectives of two troubled characters.  

The seemingly tranquil  Katharine Congreve, a middle-aged spinster who believes in “the pleasure principle” but also dislikes change of any kind,  now faces a sexual crisis.  As a young woman, she was in love with John Shipley, an architect who inexplicably fell for her blander cousin,  Maeve.  Weirdly, John and Maeve invited Katharine to accompany them on their honeymoon, claiming that she had made the match.  And now she is having an affair with John, who wants to divorce Maeve, and insists Katharine must marry him to “save him.”  This salvation is not what Katharine had meant by the affair.
         

The Shipley children spend summers with Katharine in Maine while Maeve and John go to Europe, and this summer is no different.  The teenage twins, Honor and Harriet, are excited about having new dresses made and meeting new boys at tea; but 12-year-od Andrew, bullied at prep school and friendless in the city, is crestfallen because his local friend, Victor, has dropped him.  

Victor’s neglect of Andrew seems pathological. Victor is nursing his older brother, Charles, a sailor, who has come home with malaria.  Victor does not even speak to Andrew when he passes the house.  He refuses to allow Andrew into the house to visit him and Charles.


And so  Andrew lies in a hammock all day, violently fantasizing about killing Charles. 


In this small town in Maine, everyone meddles in everyone’s business.  People  gossip when Katharine’s lights are on all night, and speculate that she is ill, or that she was up reading Gone with the Wind.  Katharine feigns calm and pretends she has been making a list for a grand outdoor party, which will end with her favorite firework, the Catherine Wheel,  named after the martyr St. Catherine of Alexandria.

Needless to say, Katharine is no saint, and it is a difficult summer, despite her aristocratic manners and dependence on tradition.  Stafford, who was raised in Colorado and graduated from the University of Colorado, learned the manners not from childhood from her husband, Robert Lowell, who grew up in a wealthy Boston family. 


Ready for melodrama?   Finally I am reading Stafford’s debut novel, Boston Adventure (1946).  It is a little dated, and though it is well-written (okay, anyway), I find it heavy-going.   

Stafford’s debut dud

This 500-page bildungsroman is a dud. There!  I’ve said it! I had my doubts from the beginning, with the narrator Sonia’s simple statement that she “used to sleep on a pallet of old coats and comforters in the same room with my mother and father.”  


Sonia’s family life is violent and poverty-stricken.  Her father, Hermann, a German immigrant shoemaker, has physical fights with his wife, a Russian immigrant, and both of them drink too much.  He deserts them after reading too many Westerns translated into German – to the West, they presume. Sonia’s mother, who possibly killed Sonia’s epileptic younger brother,  is too lazy to work, and depends on Sonia’s after-school earnings as a maid.  Finally Sonia’s mother  is committed to a lunatic asylum.  Sonia is both relieved and guilty.

In the second part of the book, Sonia fulfills her dream of moving to Boston, where she is taken in by Miss Pride, a Boston spinster who spent her summers at the hotel in Sonia’s hometown, Chichester. Now Miss Pride is writing her memoirs, and sends Sonia to secretarial school.  Oh, and there is a Proustian tea party…

I have not finished this yet, but  I am not overly pleased.  It is now my midnight-falling-asleep reading. It reminds me of nothing so much as Nancy Hale’s best-selling blockbuster, The Prodigal Women, the sob story of three women who were friends as girls, and grow apart dramatically as adults.  (Both Stafford’s work and Nancy Hale’s short stories have been published by Library of America). 


Other best-sellers of the time included books I prefer to Boston Adventure: Vera Caspary’s Laura, Olive Higgins Prouty’s Now Voyager, and Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd books.


Stafford is a great American writer, but do start with her later books.

Weekend Reading: Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slapstick”

                    



Kurt Vonnegut is our weirdest great American comic writer, and if you’re looking for a laugh, you will marvel at his wit and acumen even as he chronicles the most horrific events of the twentieth century.  His most famous novel is Slaughterhouse-Five, which describes Billy Pilgrim’s survival of the fire-bombing of Dresden (based on Vonnegut’s own experience) and Billy’s subsequently coming unstuck in time. But Cat’s Cradle and Timequake are funnier and lighter, and I much prefer them.

I recently read and enjoyed  Kurt Vonnegut’s best-selling post-apocalyptic comedy, Slapstick (1976), which received the worst reviews of any of Vonnegut’s novels.  Vonnegut wrote, “The reviewers…actually asked critics who had praised me in the past to now admit in public how wrong they’d been.  I felt as though I were sleeping upright in a German box car again.”  
 
In Slapstick, Vonnegut apparently went too far for the critics, though not too far for me: I do appreciate satire.  Vonnegut’s description of American society in the post-apocalyptic future – which occurs a bit later, but not much later, than now, or perhaps in a parallel time – satirizes American politics, the National Archives, American loneliness, the nuclear family, the fossil fuel shortage, and The Green Death, a pandemic. 
 
The energy crisis is acute when the narrator, Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, is elected President of the United States.  He has run on the platform of the eradication of American loneliness. His political slogan was,  LONESOME NO MORE!  Everybody could relate to that.

But how do you obliterate loneliness?  Swain plans to assign new middle names to each citizen.  These computer-generated middle names will automatically align them with a new extended family – tens of thousands of people who will be committed to caring for its members – as opposed to the too-often neglectful nuclear family.

But when Swain is elected, he has to figure out first how to generate electricity.


The fuel shortage was so severe when I was elected, that the first stiff problem I faced after my inauguration was where to get enough electricity to power the computers which would issue the new middle names.

I ordered horses and soldiers and wagons of the ramshackle army I had inherited from my predecessor to haul tons of papers from the National Archives to the powerhouse.  These documents were all from the administration of Richard M. Nixon, the only President who was ever forced to resign.


 Vonnegut is very funny about Nixon:  he says that Nixon and his cronies weren’t really criminals, they were just lonely.  And so they wanted to commit crimes so they could belong to a crime family.  Vonnegut adds, The National Archives are full of papers about political crimes committed by lonely politicians.

 The structure of Slapstick is odd, as so much of Vonnegut’s work is. Vonnegut says this novel is as close as he’s ever come to writing an autobiography.  It’s what life feels like to him. In his autobiographical prologue, he says he prefers “common decency” to love, and examines the importance of the extended family in his own life and that of his brother.

Chapter 1 begins not in medias res (in the middle of things), but in ultimas res (the end of things).  Swain, now very old and long retired from office, is living on the first floor of the Empire State building with his teenage granddaughter and her lover.  The Green Death has wiped out much of the populsyion. Sickness and disasters are widespread and living conditions are primitive.  The King of Michigan is at war.  Swain’s  granddaughter was lucky that people helped her reach New York safely.


Swain is writing his memoirs, though he doesn’t know for whom:  the young can no longer read or write.    Born in New York City, Swain and his twin sister, Eliza Mellon Swain, were “monsters” from birth, black-haired giants with the features of adults, not Mongoloids, but born with out-of-the-ball-park high intelligence.  He explains, “We were something new.  We were Neanderthaloids.”


 Their beautiful, rich parents were repulsed by their children, and for years hid them away in an isolated house.  The twins could literally put their heads together and solve any problem:  math, science, linguistic, psychological, creative, you name it.  And so a cruel psychologist evaluated the twins and decided to separate them:  their IQs dropped  considerably when they were apart, and thus the psychologist felt secure and brilliant again.

Meanwhile, the Chinese had learned to miniaturize themselves  to solve the food shortage. Part of the formula came from a paper written by the twins when they were children. 


Swain  has the humor and intelligence to know he cannot control the future.  That is for his granddaughter, Melody, and her generation to figure out.

Genius has had its day.


Perhaps my favorite part of the book is the prologue.  Here is an excerpt.

The Booker Prize 2022 Longlist: A “Holiday” Read

The annual Booker Prize longlist is a “holiday” read:  there is a glamour about this prize.  It is more alluring than the didactic International Booker, whose motto seems to be “LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION IS UNDER-READ,” (but is it?) or the more relaxed, where-are-all- the-women Women’s Prize, formerly known as the Orange Prize.  (That said, I have best luck with the longlisted books for the Women’s Prize.)

The 2022 Booker longlist was announced today.

I love the Booker. I became obsessed with it when I discovered Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Booker-winning novel, Heat and Dust.  I read a review in the Chicago Tribune, and  when I found the book at a local store, it came with a Booker Prize sticker.


But you want to know about this year’s longlist! There are  many fascinating titles, but the list is heavily weighted by Americans:    six Americans, three Britons, two Irish, one from Zimbabwe, and one Sri Lankan. (Source:  The Guardian.) 
 

The inclusion of so many Americans is disappointing to us Anglophiles, because we use the list to learn about  British and (formerly)”Colonial” literature. We have our own American prizes.

 I have read one novel on the longlist, Oh William!, by the American Pulitzer Prize winner, Elizabeth Strout, who writes so gracefully she is like a prose ballerina. I loved My Name Is Lucy Barton, a piercingly lyrical novel about a complicated mother-daughter relationship, and Lucy’s escape to New York, where she reinvents herself as a writer.  Her latest novel,  Oh William!, is a sequel.  Lucy pities her ex-husband, William, whose second wife has just left him, taking their daughter with her.  Lucy, his first wife, left him years ago, taking their two daughters, and seems to have set a precedent. 


I enjoy the eclectic work of the American writer, Karen Joy Fowler, who has experimented with genre over the years, including science fiction/historical fiction (Sarah Canary) and women’s fiction (The Jane Austen Book Club).  Her masterpiece,  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2013 and and won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2014 – a family novel, about a psychologist’s daughter who is raised with a chimp, Fern, whom she regards as her sister – and then Fern disappears.  Fowler is nominated this year for her historical novel, Booth, apparently an unusual take on the story of Lincoln’s assassin, which is described at Goodreads as “an epic and intimate novel about the family behind one of the most infamous figures in American history.”


As a child, I was a fan of the award-winning British children’s author, Alan Garner.  My favorite was The Owl Service (I still have my copy), though I’m a little vague about the others.  Garner has been longlisted for his new adult book, Treacle Walker, which is published by a small press in the UK.  I would love to read this novel,  but alas! it is not available in the U.S.


I would like to read Selby Wynn Schwartz’s After Sappho. (I have never heard of this author but am a fan of all the Greek lyric poets.) According to The Guardian,  this novel “is a fragmented collective biography of female artists and writers in the late 19th and early 20th century – women pushing at the bounds of an oppressive society and asserting their desire to study, create, and love other women. It’s lyrical, scholarly, passionate and entirely unique.”  Again, there is the small press problem.  This book is not available in the U.S.


Below is the complete Booker prize 2022 longlist!  Let me know if you’ve read any of these.


Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo
Trust by Hernan Diaz
The Trees by Percival Everett
Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
Treacle Walker by Alan Garner
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shahan Karunatilaka
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet
The Colony by Audrey Magee
Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer
Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley
After Sappho by Selby Lynn Schwartz
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

A Short Novel for the Weekend: Colette’s “The Vagabond”

Last spring, I did not require a soporific cup of Ovaltine at bedtime, nor did I pop a daring over-the-counter sleeping pill.   After 10 minutes of reading Proust’s self-indulgent musings in Sodom and Gomorrah (Book IV of In Search of Lost Time), I fell into a deeply bored, dreamless sleep. The character Albertine was  back, and I wished the narrator would hurry up and decide whether she was his girlfriend or a lesbian.  But no, he went on and on and on and on.  Finally I dismissed Proust as a  boring old droner who had only one good book in him – Swann’s Way.

And then I turned to Colette, my favorite French writer of the 20th century, who may be underrated these days because her short, lyrical,  decidedly feminine novels often take the form of  irreverent meditations on love.  People tend to think a sprawling  novel in need of a very strict editor is more impressive than a short, concise, perfect novel.
                 

Colette was a celebrity writer, an actress, a music hall artist, bisexual, and married thrice.  My favorite of her books is The Vagabond, a charming, witty novel based on Colette’s experiences as a traveling music hall artist.  The narrator, Renée, is divorced and a former writer, who has found peace in the routine of the theater and enjoys her financial independence. She describes her life backstage and onstage, the eccentricity of her colleagues, and her blissfully solitary home life with her dog, Fossette.
 
Renée captures her experiences succinctly and gracefully.  From her dressing room she writes:  

It’s absolutely freezing in here!  I rub my hands together, grey with cold under the wet white which is beginning to crack.  Good Lord!  the radiator pipes are icy; it is Saturday and on Saturdays here they rely on the high-spirited popular audience, rowdy and slightly drunk, to warm the auditorium.  No one has given a thought to the artistes’ dressing-rooms.
 

This is primarily a theater novel, but it is also the story of a love affair.  Renée has an admirer whom she calls Big Noodle: he keeps sending her notes and flowers, though she does nothing to encourage him.  Divorced and traumatized by her first marriage to a famous philandering painter (Colette’s first husband was a famous philandering employer of ghostwriters),  she does not want a relationship with a man.

You know how it is when you’re in your thirties and single.  You tell your friends you don’t want to meet anyone, and still they arrange blind dates. Friends and fate conspire against Renée.  They worry that she will be lonely as she ages.  And they think Maxime is a good egg.  Renée jokingly thinks Maxime is the courtesan, doing nothing, while she goes out to earn her daily bread.  She finds it ridiculous that he doesn’t work.  And she is determined to go on a 43-day spring tour in France with her co-worker, Brague, and a young man they call “the troglodyte.” 


  I love Renee’s descriptions of life on the road in the many letters she writes to Maxime.  Spring arrives, and she is enchanted by the sudden appearance of flowers (all of which she knows by name) and takes long walks in parks.  And she is not at all sure she wants to exchange her solitude for wifehood. 


We love Colette’s novels because her characters are shrewd and vulnerable at the same time, as women usually are.  But in one of Colette’s later books about a middle-aged women (Break of Day may be the one I’m thinking of), she admits that she and her fictional counterparts diverge in their choices. Colette is not Renée.

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!

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