Loving Rumer Godden’s “Black Narcissus” & Dottily Reading to Blog

Oh, joy! The holidays are behind us and the days are getting longer.  I love sunlight, and if I lived in ancient times I would worship Helios. 

I took a middlebrow book break in December to cheer myself up in the dark days before the Winter Solstice.  I am now hooked on Rumer Godden, who is very high middlebrow.  I recently finished her engaging first novel, Black Narcissus, published in 1937. 

Godden weaves the fascinating story of five Anglican nuns who establish a convent in the Himalyas–a mission with very mixed results.  Distracted from their meditations, partly because of the altitude, partly because of the extreme weather, partly because of the constant noise of construction/revovations in the palace-turned-convent, the nuns become daydreamers.  It’s as if they are on a reluctant drug trip, escaping through fantasies of might-have-been marriages, exotic gardens, and tragic personal histories.  The mother superior, Sister Clodagh, tries to hold everything together, but even she finds herself slipping.

Godden’s whimsical descriptions of daily life in the convent and her character-revealing dialogue are charming.  In the following excerpt,  it is Christmas Eve, and the nuns have  returned to the convent soaking wet and freezing cold after cutting boughs in the forest on Christmas Eve and find a gift waiting for them.

‘It’s a parcel for us!’ cried Sister Honey.

‘Not for us,’ corrected Sister Clodagh. ‘Mr Dean knows better than to send us presents. It’s for the Order.’

‘That’s splitting a hair,’ said Sister Ruth boldly, but, as if she had not heard her, Sister Clodagh opened the parcel. Inside were five pairs of Tibetan boots, knee high and made of felt and worked with wool and lined with fleece.

‘Ahh!’ whispered Sister Briony, going down on her knees as if they were something holy. ‘Dear goodness! Just feel the warmth and the fleece and the softness. Blessings on the dear, dear man. Now I shall be able to get about on my poor feet without wanting to cry at every step.’

Middlebrow Book Break is over. I am in the middle (can’t get away from middle!) of  two big, relentlessly long books. I love them, but it will take a while to read them.  Meanwhile, as a  constant blogger, I wonder, What will I blog about?

I had a little talk with myself.  “You know better than that.  YOU DO NOT READ TO BLOG.”

 THAT IS JUST THE END if I start giving myself assignments.  No, Kat, you are certainly not an editor pitching books to yourself.

The dialogue between self as editor and self as writer goes like this.

“There’s a new book out; somehow we missed it; everybody else has reviewed it.  Can you read it overnight and do a quick phone interview with  the author?  Oh, and can you take five buses,  three trains, and walk a mile to pick up the book?”

Now you can get the books on Netgalley.  But is it a privilege to be a pinch hitter?  

Perhaps I’m going on another reading path now.  I want to get back to pre-Wifi days, when I savored Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks without worrying about getting it done.  I loved Buddenbrooks so much I went to a free showing of an old black-and-white German movie, and was enraptured even though I hardly understood any of it.

Before I began my book journal in the zips, I never thought about the number of books I read.  I recently looked through it, and you know what?  Reading the titles, dates, and authors means little to to me.  In the zips I discovered Monica Dickens and read a lot of her, in the 2010s I reread a lot of Charles Dickens.  What does it mean?  

Somehow, this doesn’t sum up those years for me.  Sometimes I can remember a particular day when I read a book, or the bookstore where I found it.  But it leaves me with the question, What was I like back then?  Wouldn’t it be almost better to write down the weather report?  Sunny…sunny…rained…misted.

The Blogging Scene in the Marketing Age

I’ve had at least six blogs, and deleted two of them.  I don’t remember the title of the first.  Blogging was THE trend in the early twenty-first century. It was an amateur effort, in the best possible way, in the true sense of the Latin origin,  amare, to love, and amator, lover.

It didn’t last.  It couldn’t.  The cowgirls and anarchists faded from the scene.  Publishing companies co-opted bloggers.  Blogging turned from a labor of love into a publisher’s marketing opportunity.  The naive bloggers became shills.

Mind you, there are many sophisticated bloggers.  My personal “circle” of bloggers, such as it is, prefers books published before this century, and  distinguishes between reviews and marketing.

But I miss the early blogs, which were an “alternative” to the media. I don’t see that anymore.  Remember when writers and editors of book reviews attacked bloggers for ruining criticism?  The review publications have terminated the blogs they established in imitation of saucy blogs, because the  new bloggers’ second- and third-rate imitations of their criticism provide no competition.  (And, yes, there are some brilliant bloggers, as I’ve said before.)

Overall, I haven’t seen so much brown-nosing in years.

Where do we go from here?  Words are disappearing faster than I can turn a page.

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

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

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

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

And perhaps we don’t like to “boom.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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