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.

Reading Short Books: Rachel Hadas, Rumer Godden, & Marjorie Wilenski

After a year of reading 155 books, including 17 nineteenth-century novels, I have given way to the temptation of short books.  I am now the trendy reader who finishes a new book every day before sunset (like a vampire) and walks it down the street to the Little Free Library.  I could, at this point, do a double Goodreads challenge.   

This seasonal break of reading slim volumes has been rewarding.  I particularly admired Rachel Hadas’s Poems for Camilla, a luminous collection of poems inspired by her rereading of Virgil’s Aeneid. Each poem begins with a quotation of Latin lines from the Aeneid, followed by elegant meditations on the lines. “Filing System” refers to the disarrangement of the Sibylline books and the scattering of the pages by the wind of Hadas’s own manuscript.  “The Cause” is a reflection on the princess Lavinia as the reputed cause of war (like Helen of Troy).  My own favorite  is “Stride by Stride,” a poetic commentary on the friendship of Aeneas and Fides Achates (faithful Achates).  Here is an excerpt from this poem. ( Sorry, the blog insists on double-spacing these lines!).

Fidus Achates: my Latin teacher taught us

to snicker at the epithet as too

predictable.  But that’s not how I see it

now. The companion, the fidelity,

the sharing of a burden

too heavy to be carried all alone–

far from predictable. Precious and rare.

Your younger brother is your dear Achates.

Worry matching worry, stride for stride,

you pace and talk together a long time.

I have also enjoyed several short novels.  Here are brief reviews of two.

Rumer Godden’s Breakfast with the Nikolides, set in India during World War II,  is a small masterpiece about a dysfunctional English family. The tragic arc of this  novel fans out from a single event, Louise’s decision to have her daughter’s dog killed when she thinks it has rabies.  Her two daughters, Emily and Binnie, who have been sent to have breakfast with the Nikolides, their neighbors, while the spaniel is put down, are devastated when they hear of his death.   To torment her mother, Emily insists that Don is still alive and half believes it.  And the ramifications  extend to the guilt of Dr. Das, the Indian veterinarian, for killing an innocent creature, and his attempts to share his doubts with his strangely manic, charming student boyfriend, who rebels against the college and writes poetry.  Godden’s style is lyrical, and she has an astonishing gift for structuring a novel like a poem.   The ring composition will make you gasp with admiration.  

I wish that all short books were equally stunning, but I found Marjorie Wilenski’s novel Table Two disappointing.    The book description hooked me, claiming Table Two was “as biting and funny as Barbara Pym at her crankiest, follows an office of women translators at the fictional Ministry of Foreign Intelligence in London [during World War II].”  

I am a fan of office novels, and at first enjoyed getting acquainted with the cast of middle-aged characters.  I thought that the heroine was Elsie Pearne, an intriguing, embittered, extremely smart but paranoid middle-aged woman who could have run the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence single-handed, if it weren’t for her gruff personality. She despises her co-workers and shows it. But then the narrative shifts to a bland, sweet young woman, Anne, a new employee who, because she she is from an aristocratic family, is assumed to be capable of quick promotion.  Elsie and Anne are briefly friends, despite  class differences,  until Elsie starts to resent Anne’s romance with a handsome RAF officer.  And since Anne is less interesting than the others,  I wish we’d stayed in the office.  Don’t expect Pym!  The book description here is better-written than the book.

Libraries, Rumer Godden, and Ovid

I didn’t have time to read Rumer Godden’s  Gypsy, Gypsy.  After 30 pages, I regretfully put it away. Set in France, this charming novel focuses on Henrietta, a young woman who has been raised by Aunt Barbe, a Colette-like debauchee with “gentlemen” friends. Henrietta wistfully wants a simple life in the country but her warped aunt has other ideas. The book is a study in the contrast between simplicity and dissipation. Published in 1940, this does not seem to be one of  Godden’s better-written novels, but I do intend to finish it someday (if I can find it). I predict the end will be (1) marriage, and (2) a move to the country.

I was at the library to do research for an article which is not exactly scholarly but perhaps a bit esoteric. It wasn’t exactly boring—I enjoyed much of the reading—but then I found some lighter books in the stacks that I prefer. There was Gypsy, Gypsy, as well as Dear Dodie, a biography of Dodie Smith, and Dodie Smith’s Look Back with Gratitude, a volume of her autobiography.  Such a treat!

But there is much to do when you’re on a brief “research” trip. If you don’t do research, the trip is not justified, let alone deductible, and I’m not at all sure about the “deductible” part anyway. You look up articles in a not very orderly way, you drag a lot of books to a table, you take a lot of notes.… and then decide to change the focus of your article.  I was delighted by Sarah Lindheim’s  Mail and Female: Epistolary Narrative and Desire in Ovid’s Heroides.  And so I wondered, Should I mention the Heroides, though I’ve always considered these poems substandard? This book  had caught my eye  in the stacks, and is  unusually well-written.  Some scholarly stuff really is not.

I was also astonished by what I could access on my tablet.  Free access to articles from obscure journals!  What? You don’t have to go up in the dark stacks and find the right journal? Oh, wait, this article is by a former friend and who knew how smart she was! Well, you did know… still. And it turns out you can subscribe to a service online and access these journals. But so much more fun to go to a library and get it free.

They try to make libraries “fun” these days.  The “fun” is on the first floor. There is a cafe, really more a market where you grab wrapped sandwiches and drinks. Then two TVs are on ALL THE TIME. I did not care for this concept. The sound was off, thank God.

The library IS a bit spooky at night. The lights are on a sensor system, so you walk miles in the stacks before the lights come on. I got the jitters one evening and got the hell out of there.  It’s a daytime place!

But then there are the books. Books and books and books, occupying four of the five floors, I think. Wouldn’t it be fun just to read at the library for a week?

The copy of Gypsy, Gypsy has that old-fashioned library binding. I like the feel of the cover and the library book smell. The dust jackets are not a part of a research library’s apparatus, even though the special library binding seems dead.

What is your favorite thing about the library?

What’s Twee & What’s Not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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