Where We’re Coming from: Reading Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories & Dismayed by Too Much News

I have gone through phases where I read only  Katherine Mansfield, and phases where I find her unreadable.

On a third reading of Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and Other Stories (1920), I once again admired her spare, elegant style. With grace and sharp wit, she  pays homage to Chekhov’s stories and plays, and her detailed descriptions  of nature and interiors of houses are beautiful and revealing. 

Mansfield (1888-1923) grew up in New Zealand, later lived in London, and also traveled widely and lived in Europe. She married John Middleton Murry, a critic and editor, and socialized with D. H. Lawrence (who portrayed her as Gudrun in Women in Love), Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and the Bloomsbury group.  She died  of tuberculosis in 1923.

She is often compared to Virginia Woolf, her great rival and sometime friend.  I have never understood the comparison.   Mansfield’s realistic stories are wryly understated and lyrical, while Woolf’s prose is brilliantly poetic and often experimental.   

Mansfield is particularly astute at describing women and the parties they give.  In “Bliss,” Bertha Young, a 30-year-old wife and mother, is inexplicably excited before a dinner party. “…she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, or throw something in the air….”   She walks around the house checking details:  she has bought a big cluster of purple grapes that matches the dining-room carpet; and a bowl of vivid colorful fruit makes her ecstatic.  As she dresses for the party, she looks forward to the arrival of her mysterious new friend, Miss Fulton, to whom she is very attracted. Her husband grumbles about Miss Fulton, saying she will put on weight like “all blondes.”  Bertha shows Miss Fulton the garden and feels utterly appreciated.  But a scene at the end of the party shocks her out of bliss.

I am also a fan of “Pictures,” in which Mansfield describes the life of a middle-aged woman who is fallin into poverty.  Miss Ada Moss, a contralto singer with no work, lies in bed in her room in Bloomsbury, craving a big breakfast she cannot afford.  Her landlady comes into the room and threatens to evict her if she doesn’t pay the rent.  Ada isn’t overly-worried, but shea spends the day going from bar to bar, and theater to film studio, trying to find work as an actresss, snubbed because she is middle-aged.  Finally, she sits down for a cup of coffee.  If she is to live, she  must do something.  This story reminds me  of Storm Jameson’s excellent novella “A Day Off,” about another down-and-out middle-aged woman.

I also loved “Revelations,” in which a wealthy self-indulgent woman spends the morning in bed with a headache .  She feels indignant that no one recognizes her pain, and that her husband invites her to lunch when she is suffering.  Finally, she takes a cab to her hairdresser’s where she often goes when she feels blue.  But everyone is silent at the salon, and she doesn’t get the attention she wanted.  Her  inability to deal with real problems underscores her shallowness.

I do love the stories, and doubtless will reread the others later this summer.  

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TOO MUCH NEWS. I can only keep up with one tragedy at a time.

Although the pandemic is still very real, the newspapers have moved on to the George Floyd protests. I worry not only about the racist police brutality, but also about the spread of the virus in crowds.  

On one particularly horrible night of TV news, three reporters, speaking on Zoom or Skype, were fervently condemning one of Trump’s tweets.

I burst out laughing.  “Three grown-up white men on Skype, criticizing Twitter:  do they ever wonder how they reached this point of unreality?”

I had to turn the TV off because I was hysterical.

The unreal is more real than the real these days.  Twitter isn’t real, is it?  How can anyone take it seriously?

We’re living in a novel by John Brunner or Philip K. Dick.

“I Can’t Breathe!” The Connection between Police Brutality & Covid-19

Some people are peacefully protesting; others are rioting; and still others come in from the suburbs for Instagram selfies.

This is already a tragic time, with more than 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 in the U.S.  And now we are witnessing what may retrospectively be considered viral genocide against protesters who march and gather in huge crowds. Their cause is just,  but the outcome may  be shattering.  Experts say it  will spread the virus, and they expect to see a spike  in the next two weeks.

If only our government leaders would  acknowledge the horror of the murder of George Floyd, talk with the protest leaders, and find a way to work together.  They could abate the violence and prevent a new wave of Covid-19.

Education about the transmission of the virus has failed among the majority of Americans, who were so eager to get back to the beach–some protested with guns– that lockdown was prematurely lifted.  Many of the protesters against the police killing of George Floyd  are wearing masks, but there is no possibility of social distancing. And  I hate the idea that thousands of protesters, black and white, may fall into the hands of white supremacists, who will certainly not lament their illness or deaths.

According to The Atlantic,:The virus seems to spread the most when people yell (such as to chant a slogan), sneeze (to expel pepper spray), or cough (after inhaling tear gas). It is transmitted most efficiently in crowds and large gatherings, and research has found that just a few contagious people can infect hundreds of susceptible people around them. The virus can spread especially easily in small, cramped places, such as police vans and jails.”

Someone needs to intervene and help…

Covid-19 Summer Reading: Books for Local Trips

It’s summer!  Long, leisurely hot days divided between the lush outdoors and the domestic indoors. This is the summer of Covid-19, so  we will not camp on the shores of Lake Superior, travel to Pompeii, or explore a national park. But we will still have a shopping bag with books by the kitchen door, so we can riffle through it and grab a book for outside.  The odd thing is that my taste hasn’t changed much:   I spent a summer lugging around The Complete Jane Austen (Modern Library) when I was so young I could barely carry it.   Nowadays, I prefer to carry an individual copy.

Books get so tattered on the go that I recommend cheap books to stuff in your purse or book bag. But as you see I  break my rule with the first book on the list, which happens to  be new, but is very short and light.  

A LONG ESSAY.  I loved Coffee by Dinah Lenney, a charming little book in the Object Lessons series, published in partnership with an essay series in The Atlantic. Lenney, a writer and former actress,  is a coffee connoisseur.  She is so authoritative on the art of making coffee that she  “was suddenly having trouble letting anyone else make the coffee.” In this gorgeous essay, she describes her own experiences with coffee, that of her friends and family, compares the coffee culture in the U.S. to the more casual cups of coffee in France.  She also interviews experts on the history of coffee and the new artisan coffees. A perfect gift book!

THE CHEAPEST OF THE CHEAP.  Summer is a good time to catch up with the classics, but you don’t want to compromise your nice copies when you’re on the go.  Opt for the Wordsworth editions!  Though the covers  are rather strange and inappropriate–and I prefer the ’70s blue cover of The Professor to the 2012 black cover of Mary Barton— they are cheap and sturdy–under $5. You can pack them with your lunch and they’ll still survive.

BEAUTIFUL INEXPENSIVE  BOOKS.  Everyone adores Elizabeth Gaskell’s short novel Cranford, and Pride and Prejudice is the favorite of many Janeites.   A used copy of theattractive Vintage edition iof Cranford starts at  $4.50, and the colorful Modern Library paperback  of P&P is $8 new.

OLD FAVORITES.  On the left is Mary Wilkins Freeman’s stunning collection of stories (which I wrote about here), on the right are two mysteries,and you can’t go wrong with Simenon and Michael Innes. Be cheap!  Support used books!

Any suggestions for summer to-go books?  And do you prefer any particular publishers for outdoors reading?

Are You a Yahoo?

Pool party at the Lake of the Ozarks, Memorial Day weekend.

Since Memorial Day, my friend Janet and I have asked ourselves the flippant question, “Are we Yahoos?”

We are haunted by scenes on the the news of an outlandishly crowded pool party in Missouri and  hordes cavorting on beaches in Florida, with no semblance of social distancing.

“Oh my God–it’s the Yahoos!” we exclaimed.

The dictionary defines yahoos as “an imaginary race of of brutish beings in Swift’s  Gulliver’s Travels.” It is, in my imaginary dictionary, the cry inspired by the “reopening” of the beaches.  The cry “Yahoo!  Yahoo!” is reminiscent of “Thalassa! Thalassa!”

Actually it is more like Carpe diem, but Horace didn’t intend for us to seize the day by throwing a coronavirus party.

Mind you,  it is difficult not to be a yahoo.  We are used to having everything, and having it now.  Live-streaming, same-day delivery, multi-tasking, Alexa, the State Fair, designer tacos from the premier taco stand, jazz festivals, the latest Wonder Woman movie, and beach vacations.  

Patience is no longer a virtue.  It’s been three months…in the scheme of things, not that long.

It is a very good idea to keep your social distance.

So stay home, stay safe, and ignore the politicians.

Is Thomas Hardy Old-Fashioned?  Tess of the d’Urbervilles 

Not everyone is a  fan of Thomas Hardy. The Southern poet James Dickey found him old-fashioned.

When I briefly met Dickey some years back, he was plotting his escape from a PR woman. She had entrusted him to my care while she took a 15-minute break. During our desultory conversation, he asked if he could come to my house (“No”); he also asked who my favorite writer was.  My mind was blank and I blurted: “Thomas Hardy.”  The Wrong Answer bell immediately chimed on Dickey’s Favorite Writer Quiz Show as he said, “He was our grandfather’s writer.” 

I have encountered many people with similar opinions of Thomas Hardy.  Hardy is out of style: perhaps he was always out of style. Certainly, he struggled against the censorship of critics and many editors, who were severe about his “immoral” descriptions of sex, sexual harassment, rape, and unhappy marriages in the 19th century.

Hardy’s books are serious, usually tragic, but they also crackle with witty dialogue and comic scenes.  He balances considerations of social mores, class, poverty, education, and the nature of love with everyday scenes of life in the setting of his imaginary Wessex area. His graceful style is spare and poetic, exceedingly modern at times.  But I fear that modern readers do not, as a rule,  take to Hardy.  A few years ago a writer at Book Riot said she hated Tess of the D’urbervilles and wanted to tell Tess to “grow a pair.”  I think you will agree with me that Dickey’s designation of Hardy as “our grandfather’s writer” was much sharper and more descriptive.

When I reread Tess of the d’Urbervilles this weekend, I was struck by the lyricism, the realism, and the sheer exhaustion of Tess’s struggles. Doom haunts the characters from the beginning.  Hardy fans will not be surprised that the  plot takes an immediate downward swerve.  The novel opens with a minister’s telling Tess’s father, John Durbeyfield,  that he is the last descendant of the aristocratic d’Urberville family. The wealthy buyers of the d’Urberville estate took the name, but the Durbeyfields have the  blood.  Ironically, this knowledge leads to the downfall of the Durbeyfields and the faux d’Urbervilles.

Through one of Hardy’s classic strokes of fate, the Durbeyfields lose their livelihood.   Tess, pushed by her mother, reluctantly visits the  d’Urbervilles, who offer her the job of looking after the poultry.  The son of the house, Alec d’Urberville, flirts with her, stalks her, and rapes her after a dance.  Tess moves home and has a baby, but after the baby dies she finds a job as a dairymaid miles from home.  Most important, she meets and falls in love with Angel Clare, a minister’s son studying to be a farmer, who is so charming and handsome that all the the young women are smitten,  even Tess’s two roommates. After much resistance, Tess agrees to marry Angel,  but isn’t sure it is moral in the light of her past. When after the wedding he admits he has had sexual relations with a woman,T ess confesses her past, thinking he will empathize.   As soon as he learns her history, he takes off for South America to learn more about farming. He leaves Tess a bit of money, but she struggles to make a living as a laborer on a farm.  Will he be back?

As to who is worse, Alec or Angel, I would say they are on a par. But Tess does encounter Alec again, and he is  concerned about her, as well as in love.  Tess does not want him–she is obsessed with Angel–but Alec looks after her family and saves her from poverty.  Each time I read this, I am more annoyed with Angel.

Since I didn’t expect the struggling Tess to be a modern woman in Manhattan or London, I admired this book very much.  But it has a difficult publication history.   Because the first publisher didn’t read the book until the proofs had been printed, and then found the content offensive, he offered to pay Hardy for the manuscript with the understanding it would not be published.   Hardy, who was well-respected and knew someone would publish it,  suggested they cancel the contract without any payment. The novel went through many revisions, and there were wrangles with publishers. The harsh criticiscm of Tess and then Jude the Obscure depressed Hardy so that he stopped writing fiction. Think of the novels we might have had!

By the way, D. H. Lawrence  wrote that Hardy was the most important novelist of the 19th century (or that was the gist; it’s been a while since I read Lawrence’s essays). Hardy’s influence on Lawrence is apparent.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover is modeled on Hardy’s Two on a Tower.

The Library Problem

ALL LIBRARIES CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.

Mind you, I have my own books, and I don’t go to the public library often.   But I wish I had made it to a university library before the Covid-19 outbreak. There are some books I NEED which are too expensive to buy.  Occasionally I check the university library websites to see if they are open.  Still closed.  They’re not CRAZY.

Some people complain that they can’t get their books on reserve.   I empathize.  There the books are, in a building a mile or two away, and they can’t pick them up.  We cannot even return books here,  because apparently the books have to be quarantined.  

The governor has declared libraries can reopen, but they’re not doing it here–yet.  I read an essay in Book Riot about the frustrations of Chicago librarians, who have been ordered to return to work.  According to the writer of the article, the planning is pretty hazy.  Employees will not be given protective gear and have been told that patrons will automatically practice social distancing.   In Chicago???!!! 

Speaking of which, are your social distancing standards rigorous?.  Six feet?  That’s for amateurs.  I like a good ten, twelve feet distance. First, I was a crazy person hopping into the street.  Then everybody was doing it! I was a role model.  Back to crazy person now that the state has reopened, I suppose.

If only things were normal this Memorial Day weekend, we would go to a park, have a picnic, take a walk…but there are huge crowds.  

It’s one big Jane Austen novel these days.  Take a walk, take another walk, take another walk–and if only we could go to Bath, like Anne in Persuasion.

The Portable Chekhov

It is difficult to “follow your bliss” during a pandemic; I have been all over the map with my reading.  But one of the great comforts this month has been Anton Chekhov, whose graceful style and genuine characters make it easy to lose yourself in his world.   

I began with 100 pages of the new translation of Chekhov’s stories by Pevear and Volokhonsky, but realized I prefer the plays.  After rereading The Sea Gull and The Cherry Orchard, I dusted off our copy of The Portable Chekhov, a brilliant collection of short stories, plays, and letters, edited and translated by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, except for five stories translated by Constance Garnett.

Let me digress by saying how much I have always loved The Viking Portable Library, which has been around, I think, since the 1940s. We were forever being assigned these books in college, because they were inexpensive, attractive, and edited by scholars:  The Portable Thomas Hardy, The Portable D. H. Lawrence, The Portable Chekhov, The Portable Nineteenth-Century Russian Reader, The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, The Portable Nietzche–so many Portables!   I love these volumes because they are lightweight, with perfect-sized print even for the nearsighted, and the heft of a much smaller book than their average of 700 pages.

This is my the one i have.

Chekhov, who was a doctor as well as a writer, had a wide-ranging knowledge of people of different classes. The early stories  are often simple tales and sketches about peasants; later he moves on to more complicated and, to my mind, more interesting stories and novellas about the middle- and upper-classes. Sometimes there is a hint of Tolstoy in his style, sometimes of Turgenev, sometimes even of Lermentov.  I  alway admire his  gift for describing unhappy circumstances concisely and sharply without a  trace of sentimentality.

Yet you will be devastated by the early story” Vanka,” with its cruel sense of irony.  Vanka,  a nine-year-old orphan who has been a shoemaker’s apprentice in Moscow for three months, stays up on Christmas Eve to write a letter to his grandfather. Vanka wants to go home:  he is bewildered by the big city,  where boys don’t go caroling; he is beaten by his master and mistress for for falling asleep while rocking the baby in a cradle, and not cleaning the herring properly; and he is given only bread or porridge to eat.  He is so hungry.

“Do come, dear Granddaddy.  For Christ’s sake, I beg you, take me away from here.  Have pity on me, an unhappy orphan, here everyone beats me, and I am terribly hungry, and I am so blue, I can’t tell you how, I keep crying.”

At this point, we need Dickens to intervene and save him, but alas, it does not happen. Chekhov is an observer, not a social worker.   And so  Vanka addresses the letter to “Grandfather in the village” and mails it.  He is happy and full of hope, and we are saddened by the irony.  

In Chekhov’s wickedly astute stories, wisdom is not always held by the best-educated.  In “The Letter,” Archdeacon Fyor Orlov unwillingly entertains  two collegues, Father Anasty, an old man who has been forbidden to officiate because of drinking and negligence in keeping church accounts, and  deacon Lubimov, who has just heard disturbing news that his son is living with a woman out of wedlock.  Archdeacon Orlov says he must write a letter to his son, and ends up writing the letter for Lubimov.  Both Lubimov and Father Anasty praise the letter, but Father Anasty later tells Lubimov not to send it. “What’s the good of it?  You’ll send it, he’ll read it, and then what?  You’ll only upset him.  Forgive him, let it be.”  And this story has a happy, comical ending.  

I have to admit, the famous stories are famous for a reason.  “The Kiss” is an exceptional story, in which  a shy army office is kissed in the dark at a party by a woman who mistakes him for someone else. For the next year, he fantasizes about her and wonders which woman she was.  An ironic circumstance prevents from form finding out. 

In my favorite, “The Name-Day Party,” a young pregnant woman is outraged when she overhears her husband flirting with a young girl and complaining about his life.  She has to behave pleasantly, because the guests will be there till midnight, but she is raging under her mask.  And their fight after the party unveils their true relationship.

So what can be more fabulous than Chekhov?

And shall I read the letters?  But I’m not sure I want to know that much about Chekhov!

This is the original 1947 edition.

Minimalist Contact: Light Reading, More Exercise, & Less TV

I don’t miss minimal contact.  During a dashing-to-the-store interaction, I might have said, “Isn’t it a lovely day?” and the clerk might have said, “I won’t see it till I get off work.”

But now that we’re all in masks, there is no conversation. The older employees have quit or been laid off, and I hope they’re okay.   I find it hard to say ANYTHING in a mask.  Sometimes I say, “Keep the change.”  But I’m thinking more about money germs than I am about leaving a tip.

Now here’s what is very, very sad.  Curbside pick-up.

We’ve done this only a couple of times.  But how stressful to be a masked employee (or often a store owner) and tote a basket outside with the item, and set the basket down on a sidewalk, or transfer the item from the basket to the trunk! 

We never counted on “minimalist” contact, did we?  It’s a whole new world out there.

I SHOOK UP SOME HABITS TO  DEAL WITH PANDEMIC ANGST.  Three Do’s and Don’ts:

TREAT YOURSELF TO A LIGHT NOVEL.  My mood lifted as I read Emma Straub’s witty, absorbing  new novel, All Adults Here.  The setting, Hudson Valley’s Clapham, New York, is a quaint charming small town which becomes blessedly quiet after the summer tourists leave.  I loved the town as much as the characters.  And I lost myself in the daily drama of the slightly dysfunctional family at the core of the novel, the Stricks. 

The first sentence will hook you.  

Astrid Strick had never liked Barbara Baker, not for a single day of their forty-year-old acquaintance, but when Barbara was hit and killed by the empty, speeding school bus at the intersection of Main and Morrison streets on the eastern side of the town roundabout, Astrid knew that her life had changed, the shock of which was indistinguishable from relief.

This tragic death unnerves Astrid,  a 68-year-old widow who suddenly finds herself examining her  control-freak habits and superficial relationships.  She isn’t pleased with what she sees, especially her take on Barbara.  And so she decides to be more honest with her family: she has had a long affair with the owner of Shear Beauty, a beauty salon, and decides to come out.  

It turns out Astrid’s children and granddaughter have secrets, too.  Her daughter, Porter, who runs a goat farm and makes cheese, has chosen a sperm donor and is pregnant ; her son Nicky, a Buddhist pothead who has a French dancer wife, dispatches their stressed teenage daughter, Cecilia, from Brooklyn to live with Astrid, because he can’t cope with her problems; and Astrid’s  oldest son, Elliott, the unlikable one, is proud of the McMansions he builds, but knows his mother looks down on them.

This is a character-driven book: the plot, such as it is, is fairly predictable. But I like the narrative, with each chapter told from a different third-person  point-of-view.

I’ve also been reading light nonfiction.  Who knew there was such a thing?

TO GET OUT OF YOUR RUT, DO SOME NEW EXERCISES.  Yes, you may walk or use the elliptical, but you need to SHAKE IT UP if you’re depressed during this traumatic pandemic.   Find a workout online, even if it’s only 10 minutes.  Yoga or 1980s aerobics class videos can help your mood as well as your body.

TURN OFF THE TV.  Since we got a smart-ish TV, we have watched lots of dumb TV.  Who knew that every comedy on Netflix and Hulu had mandatory toilet jokes? And, really, I’ve seen nothing more hackneyed than the edgy Netflix originals, Amazon originals, and so on.  Good luck to you in finding anything good besides Homeland.  Turn off the TV and you’ll immediately feel smarter.

On Not Believing Cassandra: My Covid-19 Anxiety

Cassandra

When the Covid-19 pandemic began, people barely believed in it.  My husband barely believed in it.  I was terrified for him.  When I tried  to explain why we needed to cross the street to avoid other pedestrians, he thought I was delusional.  “If you keep talking like this, I’m taking you to a doctor.”

Talk about Cassandra!  “So wait–you want to take me to a doctor for telling you about coronavirus?”  I was petrified:  the only thing worse than a psych ward would be the infectious disease ward.

Fortunately,  his boss sent everyone home the next day, and he started to believe.  I  am thankful he is working at home: I would not have had a moment free of anxiety otherwise.  Because, well, men try to be too brave.

Much of my time now is spent trying to be “normal.”  I have been anxious. The other day as I crossed a parking lot I realized I’d left my mask in the car, and loped back to get it.  I’m always on alert:  the  anxiety has settled in my vertebrae.

Today I did a yoga/meditation workout for people with upper back pain. Ah!  During the stretches,  I could feel the chest and back “opening up,” as they say.   The instructor kept telling us to breathe deeply–I can’t hold my breath long enough, though–and focus on what we were feeling.   I had a revelation near the end:  what I felt was rage.  

A lot of people are raging now.  Look at the protesters with guns, protesting shelter-at-home orders in Michigan, Wisconsin, California, and even Europe.  They want to go out!  They want to go to bars!  They’re spreading the virus, but they can’t stand to stay home.  

Then there are the many pouting moms writing essays about how hard it is to be home with their kids.  Yes, yes, but in the scheme of things, it’s hard to care.. They are (upper?) middle-class and made the  choice to have them.  And if they can’t  NANNY-up, too bad.  People are sick and dying. 

My own problems are minuscule right now.  We’re on top of each other, but at least we’re here.  

STAY HOME AND SAVE LIVES,  a plaque in the neighborhood says.

The politicians are…well, opening up the beaches.  But what wouldn’t I give to be on a beach, or at least on vacation somewhere.  Alas, I can imagine  inadvertently taking the virus somewhere or bringing it back home.  Not a good time for a vacation.

Reasons for Rage and Anxiety:  None of us have control right now.  None of us can prevent the stupid mistakes being made during the pandemic.

I think of all those women in 18th-century and 19th century novels, going on their walks. Have you, too, taken many, many walks lately?  Every time someone takes a walk in one of my books, I mark it.  The latest walk?  In Chekhov’s short story, “The Name-Day Party.”

All Dressed up and Nowhere to Go? Read Proust!

 Kristin Stewart reading Proust

It is your mission. You decide to finish Proust.  “It’s all downhill after Swann’s Way,” a friend confided. And since it has been five years since you read the last volume, you don’t even remember who the characters are.   So Swann’s Way again?

Funny, you’d rather read catalogues. One thing new this spring: all the models are suddenly LGBT.  Yes, the women are all holding hands…on a beach…and wearing plenty of things you’d like to buy:  embroidered jeans, summery tunics, and slip-on sandals that doubtless would slip off.  

If you bought these lovely clothes, you’d be all dressed up with nowhere to go. These days, you mow the lawn for fun. Or go to the grocery store! 

The state has “reopened”–it  proudly is a hotspot– and it is a bit too much.  And so many people are staying home.  Restaurant dining rooms are empty.  The parking lot at Perkins is empty (perhaps it’s closed altogether).  Penney’s is out of business.  Supposedly drive-in theaters are open, but I’d like to know where the heck these drive-ins are.

The drive-through at Starbucks is very popular:  I’ve seen the lines!

Really, it’s enough to inspire you to stay home and keep reading Proust.  I’m going to go eenie-meenie-mo and pick a volume.