Pliny’s Library: Why We Reread Books

I prefer old Penguins!

Pliny, the  Roman orator, politician, lawyer, and writer (ca. 61 A.D.-113 A.D), wrote in a letter that he kept his books in a cupboard shaped like a public library at his villa.  These books, he explained, were special.  They were “not books for reading but for rereading again and again,” or, in the original Latin, non legendos libros sed lectitandos.

And there we have it:  Pliny is a member of our rereading club.

Yes, I also prefer rereading. We do not, we confess, want to read Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, though  Ron Charles at The Washington Post and other critics hail it.   Though I loved Kingsolver’s earlier novels, especially Prodigal Summer, which reads like a 21st-century novel by Edith Wharton,  I am still recovering from her last novel, Unsheltered, which seems to be a series of political opinions pasted on a visible outline of two linked stories about struggling middle-class families. To be fair, I learned a lot about college debt, Cuba, the fall of the middle class, the resistance to Darwin, the pursuit of tenure, health insurance, and the crumbling American dream.  But it was less subtle than Kingsolver’s usual writing.

Some rereaders are even more comically critical of new books than I am. One cranky gentleman of the press who, along with other writers, was supposed to recommend new books for holiday shoppers, made the following irascible admission.  

Nothing that’s reached me in recent times do I wish to keep on the shelf and reread; nothing of the calibre of Kingsley Amis, Beryl Bainbridge or Muriel Spark exists. I’m sorry she died and everything, but I did think Hilary Mantel frightfully overpraised. Her novels will be placed by history next to Mrs Humphry Ward’s – stock impossible to shift in antiquarian bookshops.

Heavens, I thought.  He is far more severe than I am. Even I have read a few good new books this year, possibly six or seven.  And, I confess, I am fond of Mrs. Humphry Ward.

Yet I do prefer rereading classics and older books to reading new books.  I am happy to curl up with the cranky gentleman’s favorites, Kinglsey Amis and Muriel Spark, or some of my own favorites, which I will recommend at the end.

Standards of writing in every century are low, but they are dropping fast in our miserable times.  Why are books so long now? Are people buying by the pound?

And why does the Acknowledgements page go on for pages and pages?   The writers express gratitude to teams of editors and their many, many friends, whole writing groups, and first readers.  Too many cooks…?  How does this process work?

But I do adore books, and let me recommend a few of my favorite dead 20th-century authors ,  Molly Keane,  Alice Thomas Ellis, and Jean Stafford.  The great novelists have complex ideas, know how to shape dramatic scenes, write convincing dialogue, develop a distinctive voice, and interweave serpentine themes into  their magical narratives.

And now let me return to my very good, very old book:  a rereading, naturally!

The Holiday Emergency: Make a New TBR!

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  It was a calm and gently festive day when we were first married, living far away from home.  We spent the day roasting the turkey and sweet potatoes, steaming green beans (my husband hates green bean casserole), and  baking a pie. Then we went to a movie. 

And that is a perfect holiday.

Family makes things harder – especially dysfunctional families.  One Thanksgiving, after hours of holiday cheer, the men dug in to watch football, and the women did not dig in to watch football.  It was that restless hour when pretense falls off the edge.  Our hostess was in tears because the thoughtless relative who had cooked the meal had meted out leftovers to everyone except her.  And when I tore my husband away from football, insisting that we we had a long drive home, that same thoughtless relative said loudly: “Have you ever seen anyone more awkward?”  So then I was in tears, too.  

It is time to prepare for holiday stress emergencies – with a new TBR book list!

And by “book,” I mean something vaguely trashy, completely riveting, or so brilliant and lyrical that it takes us out of ourselves.

Let the book recommendations begin!  The first two are new, the other two old favorites.

1. Starlight Wood:   Walking Back to the Romantic Countryside, by Fiona Sampson.  In her bracingly intelligent, lyrical new book, Fiona Sampson, a British poet and biographer, discurses on the role of walks in the lives of the Romantic poets, artists, and philosophers.  By retracing their country walks, she connects not only to their radical art but to nature. “Romanticism isn’t a cultural artefact: it’s a way for thought to move,” Sampson writes.  I love her meditative, charmingly digressive essays on Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning,  John Constable, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Sampson herself.  You can read the book straight through, or just the chapters that interest you.  A brilliant, calming book for the holidays!

The Complicities, by Stacey D’Erasmo.  This fast-paced, entertaining middlebrow novel has all the components of good escape reading: financial fraud, a beached whale, and a woman’s reinvention of herself. 

This is a plot-oriented beach book, sans romance. When her husband goes to prison for financial fraud, the narrator, Suzanne,  gets divorced and reinvents herself  in a small beach town in Massachusetts.  To me, this seems a sensible decision! She earns a living doing bodywork, stops dyeing her hair, and lives simply in a leaky house hardly bigger than a shack.  

And we see her change from a thoughtless person who previously spent too much money into a mature woman who appreciates nature and is concerned about the environment.  There is a long, poetic section about her spiritual connection to a beached whale, which she tries to save by helping oceanographers and trained volunteers return it to the water. And when the whale dies, she goes every day to the beach to meditate upon its remains.   

 D’Erasmo has a surprising view of Suzanne:  she turns the book around and tries to convince us that Suzanne is immoral.  I couldn’t get my head around this at all.  Suzanne’s ex, Alan, who becomes a shady developer after prison, her son, Noah, who works with his father, Alan’s former business partner, Alan’s second wife, Lydia, and Alan’s birth mother, who only met him once and never met Suzanne, claim that Suzanne knew what he was doing all along.  They blame her for not returning the money I assumed belonged to both, so he could use it for restitution to his victims, among them his rich friends. She donates all the he money to a kind of Save the Whale organization. D’Erasmo agrees with Alan and his second family, and tries to prove that Suzanne was immoral to give the money to a good cause.   What did that long, poetic section about the whale mean then?  Suzanne is the only sympathetic character in the book, the only one who disapproves of  the Ponzi scheme, and I could not take the ending seriously. But the section about the whale makes this novel worth reading. 

3 The Group, by Mary McCarthy. Set in the 1930s, this page-turner follows a group of  eight friends who graduate from Vassar College in 1933.  (McCarthy also graduated from Vassar in 1933. ) They have absorbed that Seven Sisters College moral resolve to make a difference in the world, or at least to work: they teach nursery school, are freelance manuscript readers for publishing companies, work for the New Deal, the National Recovery Administration, Macy’s, etc. Over the years they grow apart, because of geographic differences, or different philosophies, but there is humor as well as drama.  In my favorite scene, two of the women, Kay and Dottie, wear wedding rings when they go to a doctor to get birth control, and when Dottie practices inserting the diaphragm, it pops out of hands and flies across the room.  Dramatic, often funny, realistic, and a perfect escape read! 

How Green Was My Valley, by Richard Llewellyn. All right, I cried.  So will you!  In this extraordinary, lyrical, sentimental 1939 best-seller,  Llewellyn delineates life in a coal-mining community.  The narrator, Huw Morgan, the youngest son of a Welsh family of coal miners, vividly relates the history of his family in relation to work. As a boy, he witnessed clashes over miners’ rights, unionization, and strikes.  His older brothers were hot-headed radicals, while his father was conservative. With the help of his older sister, Angharad, his strong-minded mother persuades her sons to return home after a devastating quarrel with their father.  The family remains close, bonded by their mother’s mediation and their work in the mines.

There are many tragedies for the miners and their families.  As a child, Huw is crippled after leading  his mother home from a Union meeting on the mountain at night:  some of the radicals had threatened to kill his father, considering him one of the owner’s pets because he gets promoted, and Huw’s mother told them she would kill anyone who hurts her husband.  And then there is Mr. Gryffydd, the radical minister who educates Huw and helps him walk again.  Later in the book, Mr. Gryffydd falls in love with Angharad but devastates her by refusing to marry her because of his poverty – so she makes a marriage in hell with a mine owner.  There is much drama, much melancholy, and moments of poetic happiness. Huw has a hard life, working side-by-side with his brothers, but it is also rewarding.

John Verney’s “February’s Road”: Political Skulduggery & Infelicities of Journalism

Why do classics go out-of-print? Even if you write the title and author in a reading journal – which I sometimes do – with a date beside it, the number of pages, and other arcane data – it does not necessarily recall the actual book. 
Perhaps you never wrote down titles of John Verney’s witty 1960s novels.  I didn’t! But I never forgot them. And I may be an expert on February’s Road (1961), because I own an old copy and have read it multiple times. This gem of a children’s book has been neglected, forgotten, and might even be banned by right-wingers (if they had read it, that is), because it is political novel for adults, disguised as a children’s book.
Narrated by February Callendar, a witty girl who likes ponies, hunting, comics, and pop records by Cliff Richards, this sharp-tongued narrative heads straight for an investigation of political skulduggery. The Ministry of Highways announces its plans to rush a trunk road through Cowdray Park, an unspoiled piece of land near the Callendars’ ramshackle country house.  They cannot fight it, because Feb’s father, Gus Callendar, a writer for The Messenger, has ranted for months about the need for new roads in England.

Illustration by John Verney

The villagers are agog. They do not want the road there. But when someone damages the bulldozers the night before work starts on the road, the police suspect February – unjustly, but her fingerprints are found on a pan.  Shortly thereafter, a flock of reporters descend on them.  When the first reporter knocks on their kitchen door, Mrs. Callendar, though she should know better as a journalist’s wife, invites him in because it is cold.

Here are a few witty excerpts that reveal Verney’s comical impressions of the infelicities of journalism and journalists. 

We asked him in for tea and he told us he was what they called a “stringer” – that is, he had a job on the Querbury Advertiser, but also reported for one of the largest, and nastiest, of the London dailies if anything cropped up locally.  They had phoned him and told him to get a story about – me!

Mrs. Callendar asks if he is ever ashamed of prying into people’s problems – but she puts sugar in his tea at the same time.

“Well, of course, I do often get asked that question, Mr.s. Callendar,” he answered very politely. “I think you should perhaps try and see it from this angle…”  And he told us how he himself deplored unnecessary prying and would certainly put a stop to it when he became editor of The Times, but that meanwhile any self-respecting reporter had a responsibility toward the public at large…

And then other reporters and a photographer show up and are invited in. February goes on:  “He asked if Mummy would like a snap of the family having tea.  Mummy never can resist snaps of us children…”

The Callendars forget the reporters, busy as they are with the chaos of family life, but then Friday (February’s brother) bursts in on Tuesday morning with an armful of papers. 

February observes:

For sheer imaginative fiction, the young men we’d entertained at tea were geniuses, and to read them you’d think I had sworn to take on the Ministry of Highways single-handed, but the headings will give you an idea of the sort of stuff.”YOU’VE GOT TO FIGHT THESE DAYS,” SAYS FEBRUARY.  “GOOD OLD FEB FAIRLY BASHED THOSE BULLDOZERS!” SAYS BROTHER FRIDAY… THE FIGHTING CALLENDARS… . HER FATHER’S DAUGHTER….

Verney also shows the  positive side of journalism:  a smart American columnist at The Messenger understands that February is a red herring, a distraction from  the politics and profit motive of the road. Thrillingly, he recruits February to help him do research. There is a certain amount of espionage.

Oh, and by the way, some papers are classier than others: The Times and The Messenger are the only two that report  the damage to the bulldozers without conjecturing about February.

This book is sheer enjoyment, my favorite of Verney’s four books about the Callendar family. 

By the way,  Paul Dry Books has reissued Friday’s Tunnel (the first book in the series) and February’s Road (the second).  This is good news indeed!

A Reimagined Myth: “The Professor and the Siren,” by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa

As a zealous reader of the classics, I was enchanted to happen upon Lampedusa’s short story, “The Professor and the Siren,”  an evocative retelling of the siren myth, and a weighing of the balance between gods and men.  Lampedusa, best known as the author of The Leopard, a historical novel that won the Strega Prize in 1959, two years after his death, also wrote short stories that were not published in his lifetime.  In his version of the siren myth, she is a sexy mermaid goddess, human above the waist, with a fishtail below, who seduces men, yet is capable of lasting love.

Published in a slim volume of three of Lampedusa’s short stories by NYRB Classics, the title story is a tour de force.  The narrator, a lively young journalist, Paolo Corbero, lives in Turin in 1938, where fascism and censorship are on the rise.  Paolo himself is more concerned with personal problems: he has just been dumped by two women.  Girl 1 found out about Girl 2, and that was the end of his sexual affairs.  Paolo now spends all his free time at a dark cafe that is not the most cheerful of bistros.  Though he has no interest in classics, he humorously observes that the cafe is Hades.

It was a sort of Hades filled with the wan shades of lieutenant  colonels, magistrates, and retired professors. These vain apparitions played checkers or dominoes, submerged in a light that was dimmed during the day by the clouds and the arcade outside, during the evenings by the enormous green shades on the chandeliers.  They never raised their voices, afraid that any immoderate sound might upset the fragile fabric of their presence.  It was, in short, a most satisfactory limbo.

This is not a place where Paolo will meet women.  He is, as Lampedusa says, in limbo.  But he is curious about the old men who frequent the cafe.  One elderly man, Rosario La Ciura, is especially arrogant, so Paolo is intrigued when one day Rosario asks to  borrow a Sicilian newspaper.  Both men are from Sicily, and nationality is their bond.  At the newspaper office, Paolo learns that Rosario is a world-famous, now-retired classics professor and a former senator.   

The two become friends, and meet regularly to dine, walk,  and chat.  Rosario confesses he is relieved that Paolo hasn’t befriended him to discuss his love of the Greek aorist tense.  Paolo laughingly admits he barely passed Greek, and that he studied law at the university.  But Rosario’s apartment is so filled with Greek prints and bits of sculpture that it is like walking into a Greek myth.

While the fascists begin their war, Paolo and Rosario value the power of words, place, history, art, love, and myth.  Paolo has wondered why  Rosario was such a misogynist – was he still a virgin? – but when he sees a photo of Rosario as a god-like young man in his twenties, he realizes that Rosario must have known love.  

And then Lampedusa cleverly begins a story within the story. On the night before Rosario travels to an international classics conference, he confides in Paolo the story of his love affair with a mythic siren. He was in his mid-twenties, and his 20 days with the siren were an idyll.  And this story is also the story of the siren, who throughout history has known many men, and who has told him he can come to her at any time, when he is tired of life.  

“The song of the Sirens, Corbera, does not exist; the music that cannot be escaped is their voice alone,”  Rosario says.

And then he describes her voice.

“It was a bit guttural, husky, resounding with countless harmonics; behind the words could be discerned the sluggish undertow of summer seas, the whisper of receding beach foam, the wind passing over lunar tides.” 

Myth provides the professor with everything modern life cannot.  He despises the Italian fascists and the Germans, and is bitter about the degradation of the classics.  The siren is a goddess, but is not human, and it is her distance from humans, her nearness to animals and gods, that make love possible for Rosario. 

Paolo is the one who will survive the war.  He has managed to save a few things of the professor’s but much has been destroyed, including his house.  What is he left with?  Memory, myth, and life.  Paolo must deal with the present (war, law, journalism, rebuilding) while the late Rosario dealt with the past (classics, ancient myth, history, death). 

Classics That Are Not Quite Classics: “The Bloater,” by Rosemary Tonks

 I  heard that the English poet Rosemary Tonks’s 1968 novel, The Bloater, is a neglected classic. 

I love ’60s novels! And a blurb by Michael Hoffman on the cover of the New Directions edition seduced me:  “Writing like this – a bit of Rhys, a bit of Knut Hamsun, a bit of Wyndham Lewis, a bit of Muriel Spark, overlaying the everlasting Shakespeare/Austen/Bronte/George Eliot marriage drama – is far too beautiful and accomplished to be kept on the shelf.”

Though I get it – the writing is fun and edgy, if a bit haphazard – I was too irritated by the narrator’s voice to enjoy it whole-heartedly.   Min is a narcissistic, mean-spirited sound engineer at the BBC.  She is married, but has suitors, among them an opera singer she nicknames “the Bloater” (a swelled, salted herring – we would visualize this better if we were English). 

Min is married to George, who does something very quiet at the British Museum, but she doesn’t seem to like men much.  She teases her male friends, and is vicious to the Bloater.  The only character she seems to relate to is Jenny, a friend and colleague whom she admires for her mod 1960s mien. 

Here is one of her typical fashion reports about Jenny. 

Today she is very got up; a tight, sexy green jersey, a leather skirt in a very  elegant brown with scruffy patches to prove it’s real, things on her wrists which she shakes about too quickly for me to focus, and black hair combed down to her shoulders and then fixed in position with sparkling glue pressed on.

Min is at her best with Jenny.  They go to sordid pubs and discuss men, and also talk endlessly on the phone about men.  Jenny falls in love with “the Guitar,”  a sexy rock musician, and, needless to say,  Min wishes her opera singer were like him.  Perhaps Min is more rock-and-roll than opera, though she does love opera.

So where is this going?  At the end, she falls in love, quite abruptly, and though we are happy for her, we wished we’d seen more of the charming Min earlier in the book.  I found myself begrudging Tonks her neat turns of phrase because the narrator was so cold.

This may be a classic for some, but not for me.

Duty or Right? Why I Voted

 I vote in the presidential elections, but usually skip the midterm elections. 

So why did I join the voters today?

Officium vocat. (Duty calls.)

Tonight on the news, we will see film clips of urban voters standing in long lines that snake out the door.  Shivering in the cold, they will make cheerful remarks about their determination to vote. I am a grumpy voter: like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, I would turn around and go home if the line were too long.  The difference:  he would pretend to have voted! I would  deliver a tedious monologue on the angst of voting.

This year I was sick:  but I voted anyway. I admit, the Dems have disappointed me in the last two years, but the alternative is much worse.   Aside from arming the Ukraine with weapons, a morally ambiguous move at best, the government has accomplished little since 2021.  They have done nada for the environment, nada for women’s rights, as good as nada for gun control, and under their watch, Trump’s Supreme Court has revoked Roe v. Wade.   

The Republican agenda is so over-the-top that I could not in good conscience stay away from the polls. The Repubs campaign relentlessly against abortion, pass fetal heartbeat laws, draft bills to ban books and send teachers to prison for assigning Y.A. books, want to crush Affirmative Action, deprive public schools and universities of funding, and what next?  Perhaps a bill to deprive women and Blacks of voting rights? I would not be surprised.

There was no line.  There were three ID checkers, who scanned the IDs and gave us receipts, which we handed over at another table to get our ballots, and then we sat in a  cubicle and filled in rectangles next to the Dem. candidates’ names.  

I voted, because I don’t want to live in It Can’t Happen Here, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451, or Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future.

And so I voted. It can’t hurt.  It might help.

Good luck!  We should know the results by 10 or 11 p.m., yes?

Failure to Thrive: The Ghosts of Mapleville

There is a beautiful town called Mapleville, just off the interstate.  Drive too fast and you’ll miss the exit.  It is a medium-size university town, in the exact middle of the Midwest, with a bustling downtown, patched together with restaurants and bars, to fill the gaps where the department stores, bakeries, hardware store, and theaters used to be.

The number of bars in Mapleville is ridiculous, since the drinking age has been raised from 18 to 21: this new Prohibition, in theory, bars budding alcoholic students from the premises. The adult alcies who patronize the bars tend to be middle-aged divorcees, head cases, or talented bohemians who stayed in town after finishing, or not finishing, their dissertations.  There are thousands of underemployed people in Mapleville, but not enough to fill all these bars, surely.   In the early fall and late spring, however, the students muscle their way in, flashing their fake IDs, and pouring outdoors to sit on rickety chairs at unsteady tables on the sidewalks.  

Mapleville sounds simple, doesn’t it?  A -ville of maple trees, with a university among them.  But it might  have been called Elmville, since every lawn once had an elm, though all (or most) elms had died of Dutch elm disease by the 1980s. The town might also have been called Ashville, but the ash trees are threatened by Emerald Ash Borers now. The maples continue to thrive, so Mapleville is auspicious. 

Mapleville was many things to me.  There was always something  going on – a poetry reading (dull, but soothing, too), a Robert Altman movie, or a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This was my introduction to the so-called intellectual life, or, more accurately, the place that zapped my “intellectual” curiosity. I was wildly excited by Greek tragedy, dead languages, Andrew Marvell, Milton’s Paradise Regained, which I preferred to Paradise Lost, and Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage.  I’m sure others were thrilled, too, but we midwesterners tended to keep a poker face.

One professor was so excited about The Lusiads (1572), a Portuguese epic poem by  Luís de Camões, that we all longed to read it.  After searching for a copy for years, he had  finally found a translation in a hardcover edition published by a completely unknown press, and ordered the books for us.  But the translation proved so unwieldy, such heavy going, that he canceled the assignment, apologizing wittily, telling us to get a refund, and waved us on to Rabelais’s bawdy Gargantuua and Pantagruel, which everybody enjoyed. 

I was also an aficionado of Victorian literature, and sometimes signed up for classes whose syllabi I had already read:  that freed up time for other pursuits. But to this day, I am haunted by John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, which I read for a class.  John’s father began teaching him ancient Greek at the age of 3. (If you have studied Greek, you will be concerned:  this isn’t quite the age to memorize complex irregular verbs and construe Aristotle.)  Then John started Latin at age 7or 8, and was given the responsibility of teaching his sisters what he learned. He claims that his father’s intense curriculum and overly-ambitious syllabi did not damage him psychologically, but he writes about a “mental breakdown” he had in 1826, at age 20.  Nothing gave him pleasure any more, not books, not music, not philosophy, not his debate clubs.  He was in hell.  And he was sure neither his father nor his intellectual friends could help. 

For I now saw, or thought I saw, what I had always before received with incredulity:  that the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings:  as indeed it has when no other mental habit is cultivated, and the analysing spirit remains without complements and correctives.

He finally recovered, with the help of poetry,  especially Coleridge and Wordsworth.  Note that it wasn’t a case of being helped by Bentham’s treatises, or Plato’s Republic.  No, there was no intellectual cure.  He read  poets who had suffered depression. He was able to cry over literature.

I would like to say John Stuart Mill’s disease was unknown in Mapleville.  Alas, it afflicts people everywhere.

 “Mapleville has always been a death trip for me,” a nervous, chain-smoking, skinny lesbian feminist activist told me over coffee. 

A death trip!  That rattled me. 

I asked where she was going.  “Home to Mama,” she said bitterly.

I was worried – I did not even know her name. A professor had introduced me to her at a lecture on Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy.  I think she was a grad student in philosophy. 

“Do you hate Mapleville so much?”

“I’m fed up and have to make a fresh start.”

“Are you sure you’re all right?”

She laughed. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill myself.  I’m going to be as obnoxious as possible to all these fuckers here if I meet them again.”

I wrote my phone number on a scrap of paper.  “If you need anything…  Oh, and Wordsworth helped John Stuart Mill.”

“Wordsworth!”  She sounded amused.

I have no suicide hot line skills, so am thankful she never called. 

Would my husband and I have been happy if we had stayed in Mapleville? If we’d joined the ranks of the underemployed and become a clerk, a city inspector, or a hospital technician?   No, we felt at the time we had to leave.  We had to have professional jobs.  But why?   Should a job determine who we are and where we live?  

Alea iacta est.

 I will always be an elemental spirit who throve in Mapleville, whether I return or not. 

Anita Brookner & The Accidental Emperor: “Elizabeth Finch,” by Julian Barnes

Aficionados of Julian Barnes may have read his new novel,  Elizabeth Finch,  based loosely on the life of the subtle writer, Anita Brookner. (Both are Booker Prize winners.)  I read it in an afternoon,  completely absorbed but astonished.  I had expected an imitation of a Brookner novel, with a spinster heroine, afternoons at The National Gallery,  and unexpected friendships with surprising characters. 

Of course, Julian Barnes does not do the expected thing. This short book, divided into three parts, is part traditional novel, part essay, part biography. The narrator, Neil, a former student of Elizabeth Finch, takes her class “Culture and Civilization” in his thirties.  She warns the class that, though she does not pretend to be Socrates, she may not be the right teacher for all students:  they will engage in dialogue.  She speaks precisely, without notes, in  perfectly formed sentences, recounting the controversial history of Julian the Apostate, the Roman emperor (362-363) who tried to save paganism by quashing the Christians.  Julian’s death in battle, in her view,  hastened the end of paganism and the rise of fanatical, book-burning Christianity.  History would have been different had Julian lived.   She gives equal time to the legends of Christian martyrs, among them St. George and St. Ursula.
Neil, a twice-divorced actor-turned-vegetable farmer, feels his mind expanding in response to her rigorous interpretations of history.  He idolizes and, indeed, loves EF, as he calls her, and at the end of the semester asks her out to lunch.  The two become lunch companions, but their relationship is never sexual. Barnes writes,

Our lunches continued for nearly twenty years, a still and radiant point in my life….  As she grew older – well, as we both got older -she was beset by the usual ailments and mishaps, of which she always made light.  But to me she was unchanged:  in dress, conversation, appetite (small), smoking (determined).

In an essay by Julian Barnes on Anita Brookner in The Guardian, Brookner seems very much like EF. Well, she is EF.  Barnes writes that he  knew her for thirty years – “not well” – and at their lunches, “Anita, who was always in situ, however early I arrived, greeting me with her usual unsettling opener: ‘So, what have you got for me?’”

Elizabeth is a charming, unknowable friend.  And she clearly loves Neil.  After her death, the novel takes an unexpected turn when Neil inherits her library and papers.  Poring over her short notes, he decides to write an essay on  Julian the Apostate, thinking this would please her.    And I loved this essay, which includes a short biography of Julian and a compendium of literary and political reactions by poets and essayists through the ages.

Neil writes, “Julian was a Roman emperor who never set foot in Rome.  He was an accidental emperor – though accidents led to imperial power more often in those days.  He spent his life as a scholar, far from court, far from military duty.”  

 I like that phrase, “accidental emperor.”

In the last part of the novel, Neil is still obsessed with EF.  He continues his investigation of her life by visiting his former lover, Anna, who had also been EF’s student, to pick her brain. But Anna, who startles him by admitting she was  a close friend of EF, does not give away much information. 

Do we get closer to EF in the process of Neil’s musings and writing?  We certainly get closer to Neil, who is desperate not to lose the memory of EF.  If our mentors had combined the best qualities of the Romantics and the Stoics, we, too, might have considered writing about Julian the Apostate. But then they were not Elizabeth Finch/Anita Brookner.

How I miss Brookner’s novels!

 Misheard Lyrics: Does The Strand Have Chairs?

I never fall into a stupor and sigh, “I belong in New York.” New York is glamorous and fun, if overwhelming, with an infinite number of things to see and do: art museums, concerts, plays, foreign film festivals, poetry readings, markets, grazing at gourmet restaurants, cozy cafes, ferry rides, and sight-seeing.

It is also ruinously expensive.
New York City is a magnet for young, ambitious people.  Years ago when I was starting out, I applied for a teaching job at a private school in Manhattan.  I declined the interview when I was told the salary was $8,000 a year. I tried to get my head around living in New York on that. Would I inhabit a homeless camp, getting up at 3 a.m. to rush to school to shower and don my one suitable outfit, a designer suit from a thrift shop? 

New Jersey might be more affordable – but  it was quite expensive, too.  Perhaps Bruce Springsteen and his wife would let me rent a corner of their attic.  In return, I would recite lyrics I’ve misheard: “Your almost enemy has come to town” is my edgy version of “Your own worst enemy has come to town.” But perhaps it is tactless to admit I haven’t quite understood the lyrics.

In New York, the bookstores  ensorcell me.  About a decade ago, a friend sent me a picture postcard of The Strand, a famous four-story bookstore with 2.5 million new and used books.  I stared at it, saucer-eyed.  Where I live, the choice of bookstores is between Barnes and Noble…and Barnes and Noble.  

 I would love to go to New York to shop at The Strand. I have one question:  does The Strand have chairs?  After an hour (or a day), I like to flop in a cozy chair and sort my stack of books to decide which I’ll buy.

I’ll settle for a wooden chair.  Sitting must be done.

If they don’t have chairs, they must accompany me to a coffee shop where I can sit and sort the books.

Strange Encounter, or, Don’t Talk to Strangers!

In this photo, Susan Sarandon is in her 60s!

When Susan Sarandon was 50, the age of Bilbo Baggins when he embarked on his first adventure, or perhaps 60, an age that can engender panic in women, she had a croning ceremony.  Her then-partner, Tim Robbins, paid for Sarandon and friends to fly to an island for the croning.

Sarandon never looked like a crone, but rejected the stereotype of the aging woman and embraced her power. Good for her! For the rest of us, it may be slightly different.  Like the late Carrie Fisher, who admitted that she hadn’t aged well, and was annoyed by a movie critic who trashed her looks because he thought Princess Leia at 60 should be able to wear a gold bikini, I do not resemble my younger, pretty self.  

Change is inevitable, though we do not expect it. I am haggard, and yet I do not consider myself a crone, a hag, or any of the other sexist, ageist terms used to denigrate women. I spend so little time in front of mirrors that I refuse to be a crone!  My self-image has never depended on appearance.  As far as I go:  Did I comb my hair?  Fashion statement: Blue or brown jeans?  Reality check: Does this tiny stain on my sweater show?                      

  One day this fall, a strange woman approached me and belittled my appearance. She told me I had a hair growing out of my chin. 

I  responded with the horror of a teenage girl:  “No!  I didn’t know.  My husband didn’t tell me!”

“Maybe he didn’t see it,” she said.

Later, my husband said, “I didn’t see it, because there isn’t one.” 

And really, was it a complete stranger’s business to mention a hair on my chin?  I was so embarrassed.

It turns out that older women can make sexist, ageist assumptions about women’s priorities, too. Who knew?

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