Friday, December 08, 2006

Middle Ground

Happy Christmas. Mmm, you grumble. You’re Hamlet. And you can’t decide what to do for the holidays. Commercialism. Merry Capitalism.

Do you support the economy and glibly go into debt? Or do you have a simple Christmas and give to charity?

Mad Housewife's recommendations are for a few simple gifts:

OBLOMOV by Ivan Goncharev (there’s a new edition, translated by Tat'iana Tolstoya). A funny and poignant satirical novel about a very sleepy man, the Russian class system, and intellectuals.

THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS by Kiran Desai. Not only did it win the Booker Prize, it is the best contemporary novel I read this year.

REEF by Romesh Gunesekera. A former Booker Prize finalist: a novel about Sri Lanka.

THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Diane Setterfield. The story of an antiquarian bookseller who is invited to write a biography of a famous writer. Mysterious and filled with allusions to 19th-century novels.


NO NAME by Wilkie Collins. Even better than THE WOMAN IN WHITE.

THE BRAMBLES by Eliza Minot. A beautifully written novel of family, siblings, the suburbs, and New York.

TRIANGLE by Katharine Weber. A novel about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York, coming to terms with survival, and music

THE UNFINISHED NOVEL by Valerie Martin. Collection of short stories.

DREAM NUMBER NINE by David Mitchell. Set in Japan, weird and amusing.

THE BEST AMERICAN POLITICAL WRITING 2006 edited by Royce Flippin. Everything you didn’t want to know about your country.

Gift certificates are also nice.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Two on a Tower and Lady Chatterley's Lover

I'm not quite finished with the essay below, but have decided to blog what I have. I'll post the bibliography later.

Thomas Hardy’s Two on a Tower and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover Revisited

I didn’t plan to spend two months reading Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence.

It wasn’t as though I hadn’t already read them. As a college senior, I enrolled in a Hardy and Lawrence class because I had read almost everything on the syllabus, a plus to a woman in my situation. I was getting a divorce, hardly sleeping, and trying to accumulate credits towards graduation. I relaxed by flopping down on my bed in my minuscule rented room, drinking tea boiled up in a “hot pot,” and rereading the novels and poems.

Years went by without reading Hardy or Lawrence. On a camping trip when I tried to reread The Return of the Native, I found it unbearably heavy-handed: I had grown accustomed to the simpler prose rhythms of contemporary fiction. I gave away a copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles to my nieces, optimistic that one of them might read it. I gave away a copy of The Rainbow to a man I didn’t know during a fit of depression.

It was March 2006, time for a charity book sale. This biannual used book sale at the Fairgrounds seems to stretch for miles in one of those enormous agricultural buildings. For dedicated readerss, this sale is the event of the season: out-of-print novels, biographies, and travel books. But, disappointingly, I was unable to find many rare books this spring. The sale had gone mainstream, as though a clique of new volunteers, in a coup that would harm not just picky readers like myself but the whole community, had discarded titles that would appeal to the most sophisticated bibliophiles and collectors. Puzzled buyers, looking crestfallen, lined up with one or two books instead of the usual boxes and carts. As long as I was there, I was determined to find something. I came home with several novels of Hardy and Lawrence which I had first read 30 years ago.

And so it began: my reading of Two on A Tower, a forgotten, beautifully written, but uneven early novel of Hardy, which almost immediately reminded me of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

It is difficult to believe that reviewers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century accused Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence of writing pornography. Their passionate protagonists are deeply moral, though society brands them as outcasts. Critics condemned Hardy’s and Lawrence’s characters as lewd and repulsive and denounced their challenging of sexual mores, marriage, and divorce. The culture of the post-Freudian twenty-first century is defined by sex and money. When I emerged periodically from the pastoral, poetic, complex worlds of these novels, I was startled to find myself in an urban and suburban America characterized by a 50 percent divorce rate.

Divorce was not an option for Hardy’s Lady Constantine, nor would Lawrence’s Clifford Chatterley grant Lady Chatterley a divorce. Today, you can get a divorce on the internet: many Americans are more scandalized by the Clintons’ decision to remain together than by a vituperative divorce. Hollywood and the media drug the masses with images of pre-marital and extramarital sex (between car ads), which lead many to believe that contemporary society has a healthy attitude towards sexuality.

I had a revelation while reading a popular novel for a book group. I realized in amusement that Sue Monk Kidd’s The Mermaid Chair would have been banned in Hardy’s and Lawrence’s England. In the first fifty pages, the narrator, who has fallen out of love with her spouse, emerges from sex in the shower tattooed with the faucet (perhaps a symbol of sex with a husband she no longer loves). Later, she returns to her village on an exotic island and has an affair with a widower-turned-monk who regrets not having sneaked into the TV room to see a special on the making of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Although this novel is a beach read, Hardy and Lawrence paved the way for its existence. They paid a high price for struggling to portray realistic relationships between men and women. Throughout his writing life, Hardy was censored by editors and sensitive to accusations of immorality. Legal actions were brought against Lawrence for “indecency.”

They were anything but casual about their art and social criticism. In Thomas Hardy’s “Candour in English Fiction,” published in the New Review in January 1890, he lamented the fact that popular libraries and magazines dictated his characters’ actions. He writes: “Life being a physiological fact, its honest portrayal must be largely concerned with, for one thing, the relations of the sexes, and the substitution for such catastrophes as favour the false colouring best expressed by the regulation finish that ‘they married and were happy ever after,’ of catastrophes based upon sexual relations as it is.” And Lawrence wrote in his essay, “A Propos of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover,’” “Today the full conscious realisation of sex is even more important than the act itself.” Yet he also scorns “young people [who] scoff at the importance of sex, take it like a cocktail, and flout their elders with it” and adds that “marriage, or something like it, is essential....”

When Hardy’s ninth novel, Two on a Tower, was published in 1882, it disturbed critics nearly as much asLawrence’s notorious last novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, did in 1928. The biographer Carl Weber reported that reviewers described Hardy’s novel as “’hazardous,’ ‘repulsive,’ ‘little short of revolting,’ [and] ‘a studied and gratuitous insult.’” Lawrence’s novel, considered too sexually explicit to be published in England until 1960, was printed privately in Florence in 1928 and sold by mail order. Lawrence was called “a bearded satyr,” “obsessed by sex,” and his book, seized on Oct. 14, 1928 by British Customs Authorities, was said to “reek...with obscenity and lewdness about sex.” Lawrence wrote in August 1928: “Amusing how people disliked Lady C. I’m afraid I’ve lost 9/10 of my few remaining friends.”

The reputation of Two on a Tower has fallen into obscurity in the twenty-first century. But the parallels between Two on a Tower and Lady Chatterley’s Lover must have been obvious in the late 1920s to readers who knew Hardy’s work in the revised Wessex editions of 1912. Lawrence, who received a complete set of Hardy’s novels as a wedding gift in 1914, consciously incorporated many of Hardy’s plots into his novels. Worthen wrote: “He tended to rewrite Hardy’s books so as to make them conform to the ideas he felt that Hardy had grasped but which his own novels could fully demonstrate.” Hardy, who did not read Lawrence’s novels and died the year Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published, categorized Two on a Tower as a “romance and fantasy.” Both plots center on clandestine love affairs between a sensitive lady and an intelligent lower-class man. Hardy’s heroine, Lady Constantine, finds herself pregnant after a technical legality, the date of her husband’s death, renders her secret marriage to an astronomer invalid. Lawrence’s Constance Chatterley has an affair with a gamekeeper.

Hardy wrote in a letter to Edmund Gosse on Dec. 10, 1882 (Purdy and Millgate 110): “I get most extraordinary criticisms of T. on a T. Eminent critics write & tell me in private that it is the most original thing I have done...while other eminent critics (I wonder if they are the same) print the most cutting rebukes you can conceive--show me (to my amazement) that I am quite an immoral person...”

Hardy’s radical criticism of marriage and class in his later novels, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895), caused more uproar. Wearied and hurt by attacks on the accuracy of his dialect and constant accusations of immorality, Hardy gave up writing fiction and turned to poetry). He rationalized his decision by observing that the novel was “gradually losing artistic form, with a beginning, middle and end, and becoming a spasmodic inventory of items, which has nothing to do with art.”

Just as William Barnes’ forgotten poetry influenced Hardy’s narratives of rural life, Hardy’s poetry and novels influenced Lawrence). “The only serious writer I heard him speak of with respect was Hardy,” wrote Barbara Barr. Lawrence pays homage to Hardy repeatedly, sometimes in the half-mocking manner of an affectionate but rebellious son towards his father. An aristocratic character admired by the famous Brangwens in The Rainbow bears the name of Mrs. Hardy, doubtless as an ironic tribute to Hardy, a master mason’s son who smashed class barriers to become one of England’s best novelists. Readers will recognize in Tom in The Rainbow a kind of anti-Jude, a man uninterested in education but sensitive to upper-class manners and longing to transcend his class. Much has been written about Lawrence’s allusions to Jude the Obscure, The Return of the Native, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Yet Two on a Tower, an obscure novel about class seldom mentioned by Lawrence, most powerfully influenced the schema of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the banned novel that outsold all his other titles.

Lawrence, an avid reader and critic of Hardy, was commissioned to write a short book about Hardy for the series “Writers of the Day” in 1914. Enraged by the senselessness of the outbreak of war, he could not confine himself to a literary study. He wrote in a letter to his agent on September 5, 1914: “What colossal idiocy this war. Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid--queer stuff--but not bad.” Aware that the publisher would reject his furious book, Lawence did not submit it. This strange, influential essay, a kind of Nietzchean literary manifesto with occasional remarks about Hardy’s novels, was posthumously published in Phoenix .

Lawrence claimed perversely that Hardy’s condemnations of Alec d’Urberville in Tess and Arabella in Jude as coarse seducers were unconvincing and then elaborated his complex views on love and sex . Lawrence uses his analysis of Hardy’s pastoral and social criticism to comment on the destruction of the social order and delineate his own theories of class, gender, sexuality, and work. In the chapter on class, Lawrence briefly mentions Two on a Tower, citing the heroine, Lady Constantine, as one of Hardy’s aristocrats and her lover, Swithin St. Cleeve, as a “bourgeois or average hero.”

Although Lawrence makes few references in “Study of Thomas Hardy” to Two on a Tower , the inter-class romance--reflected in his own marriage to Frieda--clearly interested him. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, though a much more radical exploration of sexuality and class, is filled with subtle references to Hardy’s minor novel.

There are basic plot similarities. Hardy’s Lady Viviette Constantine and Lawrence’s Lady Constance Chatterley both have illicit affair. Lady Constantine, who is isolated and depressed after her husband disappears in Africa, falls in love with Swithin St. Cleeve, who is characterized by Lawrence as an “unsuccessful but not very much injured astronomer.” Similarly, Lady Chatterley, who inhabits a sexual limbo after her writer husband returns in a wheelchair from World War I, has an affair with Oliver Mellors, a gamekeeper on their estate.

Lawrence’s first allusion to Two on a Tower is in the variant forms of his protagonist’s name. And though the heroines’ names share a Latin root, the different forms reflect their antithetical characters. Constantine is derived from constantia, a noun meaning”firm standing,” “steadiness,” or “constancy” (Lewis and Short). Hardy undoubtedly intended to evoke Christian associations with the name Lady Constantine. An agnostic who as a young man considered a career as a clergyman, Hardy often used “his writings [to] dramatize aspects of the pernicious influence of religious doctrines,” according to Robert Schweik (Kramer 55-56). The name is clearly a reference to Constantine I (306-37 A.D.), the emperor who Christianized the Roman empire), a conversion that some historians speculate contributed to the end of the Roman world. Hardy characterizes Viviette Constantine as a devout Christian whose religion hampers her independence of thought and eventually results in sexual martyrdom.

Lawrence’s Lady Constance Chatterley is too tough to sacrifice herself for the sake of propriety or to die like the sexually active women of Victorian literature. Having survived the horror of World War I, she is a stronger character than her predecessor Lady Constantine. World War I has smashed “the old England, the curious blood-connection that held the classes together,” and Lawrence’s men have fallen apart, unable to integrate the life of the mind with the life of the body. Lawrence wishes to create a fictional world which allows his characters to experience an idealized Christian marriage, which he defines as “Man and wife, a king and queen with one or two subjects, and a few square yards of territory of their own: this, really, is marriage” (“A propos 321). But Constance is in many ways the sole survivor, healthier than her veteran husband and lover.

The name Constance is derived from constans, the present active participle of consto, which has a slightly different meaning from Constantine: standing with some person, remaining like one’s self, standing firm, or being intellectually or morally certain, faithful, or unchangeable (Lewis and Short). Lawrence’s Constance attempts to remain faithful o herself under difficult circumstances. Her husband, Clifford Chatterley, a disabled war veteran and writer of “clever, rather spiteful, and yet, in some mysterious way, meaningless” stories (Penguin `16), is named Chatterley because of his empty chatter. He and his intellectual friends criticize Bolshevism, capitalism, Socrates, and theoretically condone free sex, but words take the place of action. Constance remains attached to Clifford but has a discreet sexual affair with an Irish playwright. She “always had a foreboding of the hopelessness of her affair with Mick.....Yet other men seemed to mean nothing to her.” It is not until she has an affair with the gamekeeper that she experiences sexual passion.

On the other hand, Hardy’s Lady Constantine has qualms about infidelity. Near the opening of the novel, Viviette struggles to remain faithful to a husband who exacted an unreasonable promise before disappearing on a hunting expedition in Africa. He had demanded that she “consider what my position would be...; hoped that I should remember what was due to him,--that I would not so behave towards other men as to bring the name of Constantine into suspicion...” She asks the rector, Mr. Torkingham, whether she need continue to refuse social invitations and “live like a cloistered nun in his absence.” The kind but ineffectual Mr. Torkingham advises her to keep her word even after she confesses that her “life has become a burden,”.

“My conscience is quite bewildered with its responsibilities,” she continued with a sigh. “Yet it certainly does sometimes say to me that--that I ought to keep my word. Very well; I must go on as I am going, I suppose.”.

Her conformity and fear of scandal eventually prove her undoing after she secretly befriends Swithin St. Cleeve, a younger man, an astronomer. Completely absorbed by his astronomical studies, he does not view her as a sexual being or understand that she gives him gifts for his observatory because she loves him When she hears a rumor that Sir Blount has returned to London, she persuades Swithin to travel there on her behalf. After hearing the news of her husband’s death, he still does not understand that her interest in astronomy has an ulterior motive. Not until he overhears the villagers gossiping about her interest in him does he experience a sexual awakening.

The class-conscious Swithin and Viviette marry secretly mainly because of Viviette’s position, though he insists that in his “present position you could not possibly acknowledge me as husband publicly.” Swithin learns that his uncle has left him 600 pounds a year on the condition that he not marry twenty-five. He sacrifices the legacy for the marriage. Ironically, his determination to honor his commitment to Viviette results in the loss of Swithin’s reputation. The secret marriage proves a disadvantage. When the Bishop discerns that a woman is hidden in Swithin’s hut, he does not, of course, suspect Viviette. He lectures Swithin on his morals and implies that he should not have received the sacrament of Confirmation--which, ironically, Viviette had insisted on.

Swithin is as sensitive to the Bishop’s accusation of immorality as Hardy was to critics’ accusations that his art was immoral.

“...Swithin’s nature was so fresh and ingenuous, notwithstanding that recent affairs had somewhat denaturalized him, that for a man in the Bishop’s position to think him immoral was almost as overwhelming as if her had actually been so, and at moments he could scarcely bear existence under so gross a suspicion. What was his union with Lady Constantine worth to him when, by reason of it, he was thought a reprobate by almost the only man who had professed to take an interest in him?”

When he pleads with Viviette to tell the Bishop about their marriage, Viviette refuses because to reveal that she had hidden “would make me ridiculous in the county; and anything rather than that!” She also learns that Sir Blount did not die until after the date of her secret marriage to Swithin, so insists that he accept his uncle’s legacy and travel to do his research. After his departure from England she discovers her pregnancy and, unable to reach Swithin, marries the Bishop. In a hasty ending, Hardy kills the Bishop and Swithin returns to England. Resolved to do his duty though he no longer finds her attractive, he offers to marry her--and Viviette ecstatically shrieks and dies in his arms, paying a high price for passion.

In the postwar England of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Constance is better prepared to stand up to society. She first meets Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper, when Connie is walking and Clifford is riding in his motor-chair. He has just asked, “But you do agree with me, don’t you that the casual sex thing is nothing, compared to the long life lived together?” Then the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors, appears, a handsome man with thick, fair hair, to whom she is immediately attracted. Clifford asks Mellors to turn the chair around. .

Their second meeting occurs when she hears finds Mellors in “a secret little clearing, and a secret little hut made of rustic poles,” hammering wood for coops for the young pheasants. And his name is obviously derived from the word mell, which means a heavy hammer, or to beat with a mallet.

Mellors is a collier’s son, a former lieutenant in World War I, who went to India and after an illness, he returned to England and became a gamekeeper. He lives alone because his spouse, a blowsy, tartish Arabella-like character, has left him. Like Swithin, is conflicted about class; he frequently reverts to Derbyshire dialect to show his scorn for the upper classes. Like Clifford, he is benumbed by war and the smash-up of society.

Mellors has a pessimistic post-war view of the mechanization of emotions and the industrialization of England. “Their spunk’s gone dead--motor-cars and cinemas and aeroplanes suck the last bite out of them. I tell you, every generation breeds a more rabbity generation, with indiarubber tubing for guts and tin legs and tin faces. Tin people! It’s all a steady sort of bolshevism--just killing off the human thing, and worshipping the mechanical thing. Money, money, money! All the modern lot get their real kick out of killing the old human feeling out of man, making mincemeat of the old Adam and the old Eve....”

Constance, like Lady Constantine, becomes pregnant. Constance and Mellors meet not in a phallic tower, but in a womb-like hut. Lawrence, who writes from the woman’s point of view, emphasizes Constance’s sexuality even in the symbolic meeting place of the hut.

Hardy’s phallic tower is a symbol unneccessary in Lawrence’s freer century. Lawrence writes erotic sex scenes, though the lovers’ naming of their genitals--John Thomas and Lady Jane--may seem absurd to twenty-first century readers. Lawrence replaces the tower with the hut and house--a symbol of marriage.

Lawrence ends the novel with a letter from Mellors, who is working on a farm while his divorce is pending. Constance is miserable because Clifford refuses to divorce her, but is so repulsed by his childish attitude that she cannot maintain a friendship with him Reviewers ignored the realistically drawn sequence of events, focusing on the “coarseness” of the women’s sexuality.

Mellors writes: “Never mind about Sir Clifford. If you don’t hear anything about him, never mind. He can’t really do anything to you. Wait, he will want to get rid of you at last, to cast you out. And if he doesn’t, we’ll manage to keep clear of him. But he will. In the end he will want to spew you as an abominable thing.”

Monday, October 16, 2006

Viragos and Persephones

After a long summer of reading 19th century novels and 20th century poetry, I’ve been reading women’s novels, especially Viragos and Persephones. I’m having a Viragofest.   Or a Persephonefest.  Maybe both.

Some of the Viragos are first-class literature, like Vita Sackville-West’s THE EDWARDIANS, Oliphant’s  HESTER, Rose Macaulay's TOLD BY AN IDIOT, and Emily Holmes Coleman’s THE SHUTTER OF SNOW.  The latter is a novel about the author’s hospitalization for bipolar disorder. This is her only novel, an account of Coleman's experience and a record of the attitudes of doctors and nurses toward mentally ill patients in the ‘20s.  It’s out of print, but historically significant.  Coleman is an exceptional writer, more interesting in some ways than Janet Frame, a surreal writer about mental hospitals to whom Coleman has been compared.

As for the Persephones, I discovered them quite by accident while browsing at Amazon. These popular novels and non-fiction books of the '20s, '30s, '40s, and '50s have been revived by an English publsher. I think of them as women's comfort reads, but some are superb books one could recommend to one's husband. Viragos tend to be feminist novels, but not all Persephones are feminist. Noel Streatfeild's SAPLINGS, for instance, is a World War II novel which gives a good idea of life during the war. Sarah Waters mentioned this novel in a Guardian article as one she read when researching her own very good novel, THE NIGHT WATCH, a Booker Prize finalist and Orange Prize finalist.

One of my favorite Persephones is Dorothy Whipple's SOMEONE AT A DISTANCE. The novel is beguiling, Whipple's style simple. It's an early example of chick-lit, much more complex and sophisticated, though, with parts having been stolen (perhaps) by Elizabeth Buchan for the much lighter, less interesting THE REVENGE OF THE MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN. The flawless family in SOMEONE AT A DISTANCE is almost too good, honorable and comfortable, but that makes it pleasing: a well-written escape. The characters are completely absorbing, people one wants to spent time with. The forty-two-year-old protagonist, Ellen, gardens and cooks, is always rumpled, and has no idea her husband is having an affair with the disdainful French woman who has come to stay. Their daughter Anne loves her horse and family, especially loves her father, but refuses to see him after she learns about the affair. Her parents' divorce fragments her personality and wrecks her happiness. But Ellen, also destroyed by the divorce, refuses alimony and finds a job. Work saves Ellen. Schoolwork saves Anne. Ellen saves her mother-in-law's ex-maid by finding her a job.

The characters who are not saved--but that would be telling.

This is a feminist novel.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Stephen Spender

The latest war in the Middle East made me think of Stephen Spender's stunning, sad, cynical poem, "The War God."

Here's the poem:

Stephen Spender's "The War God"

Why cannot the one good
Benevolent feasible
Final dove, descend?

And the wheat be divide?
And the soldiers sent home?
And the barriers torn down?
And the enemies forgiven?
And there be no retribution?

Because the conqueror
Is victim of his own power
That hammers his heart
From fear of former fear--
When those he now vanquishes
Destroyed his hero-father
And surrounded his cradle
With fabled anguishes.

Today his day of victory
Weeps scalding lead anxiety
Lest children of these slain
Prove dragon teeth (sown
Now their sun goes down)
To rise up one morning
Stain the sky with blood
And avenge their fathers again.

The defeated, filled with lead,
On the helpless field,
May dream the pious reasons
Of mercy, but alas
They know what they did
In their own high seasons.

The world is the world
And not the slain
Nor the slayer, forgive.
There's no heaven above
To make passionate histories
End with endless love.
Yet under wild seas
Of chafing despairs
Love's need does not cease.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


I haven’t blogged in a while. Why not?

It’s a strange thing about bloggers. Some are chatty and prolific, while others fall silent. Some of my favorite bloggers have been silent lately.

I remember Tillie Olsen’s SILENCES, a study of one-book writers and the effect of gender and class on the creation of literature. Critics stated that Olsen should have been writing fiction instead of writing a literary study. But her theories were revelatory and apply to many contemporary writers. Stephanie Vaughan, Elizabeth Tallent, John Thorndike, and Larry Woiwode seem to have vanished from the literary scene. They had a lot to say and I miss their writing. Perhaps publishers don’t bother much with middle-aged writers.

There are so many new writers out there. Sure, they deserve their shot. But shouldn’t there be a place for the talented writers of the ‘80s and ‘90s too?

Not much is happening here. Except for spring, of course.

Recently I’ve read Mervyn Peake’s TITUS GROAN, the first novel in his grotesque Gormenghast trilogy, Thomas Hardy’s pleasant, underrated third novel, A PAIR OF BLUE EYES, and Pamela Sargent’s CLONED LIVES, an out-of-print science fiction novel (the second novel I’ve read about clones, the first being Ishiguro’s NEVER LET ME GO, which was a finalist for the 2005 Booker Prize and one of the best novels I read last year).

Good night and--not good luck--but pleasant dreams.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Aging in Literature

There should be a campaign to bring Enid Bagnold’s novel, THE LOVED AND ENVIED, back into print. First published in 1951, it focuses on a group of friends who confront the difficulties of aging through work, art, outings to the theater, improbable marriages, and mutual support.

Ruby, who has retained her beauty into her fifties, is loved, criticized, and envied by her friends. At the debut of her friend Rudi’s play, she mourns the news that a 70-year-old friend has married his fiftysomething housekeeper. It leads her to consider male aging in general.

“Alberti’s news, the light on his lonely condition, had so shaken her that when she caught sight of Edouard in the stalls and saw him bend his head to talk to his crumpled companion she felt for him too a tender and speculative compassion. All her men friends were getting older. The whole band, like a wagonette of picnickers, was driving towards the edge of the world. It was not so much the extreme edge, however, that gave her apprehension, as the pity she felt for hearts inwardly taken aback by the arrival of age. Contrary to what was supposed, it was easier for women.”

Is the arrival of age easier for women? Not all characters in the novel agree. Bagnold describes their rage against the absence or loss of beauty and attributes some of Ruby’s generosity to her lucky appearance. Rose, Eduard’s mistress, mourns the loss of her hair: “Her turbans were to Rose what false teeth might be to another woman.” Cora, a gifted painter, tells Ruby bluntly: “It puts me in a rage to think you aren’t grateful to God! If I could have one day of beauty, if the dear God in his kindness would let me change for one day the impedimenta I’ve had to put up with for fifty conscious years!” A character who attempted suicide because of her deformed face ironically profits from running an exclusive beauty salon.

Yes, the men suffer. They seek female companionship in old age as they become lonely and regret lost opportunities to connect. On the other hand, some of the women grow more independent.

A fascinating, witty novel about upper-class friendship, aging, and gender.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Amitav Ghosh

A political novelist reminiscent of V. S. Naipaul, Amitav Ghosh describes in THE HUNGRY TIDE the struggles of the people of the Sundarbans, a group of islands off the eastern coast of India. Nature is their biggest foe: tigers attack men in the mangrove forests; storms and tidal waves destroy villages; women expect to be widowed at a young age. But government policy has also been their enemy.

Ghosh interweaves the stories of Kanai Dutt, an interpreter, Piya, a marine biologist, Fokir, a poor fisherman, and Kanai’s uncle, illuminating the political policies that have conspired to destroy lives and the environment. Ghosh’s description of the massacre of Bengali refugees in Morichjhapi in the 1970s gives us a terrifying glimpse of an incident virtually unknown outside of India, according to Ghosh, who says the only published historical treatment in English is an article in the 1999 JOURNAL OF ASIAN STUDIES.

The following two passages are not about the massacre of the Bengali refugees, however. One is about passion for work, the other about ecology.

In the passage below, Kanai, an interpreter and businessman, makes a fascinating connection between marine biology and translation while observing Piya, a marine biologist, at work.

“...she was back in position with her binoculars fixed to her eyes, watching the water with a closeness of attention that reminded Kanai of a textual scholar poring over a yet undeciphered manuscript: it was as though she were puzzling over a codex that had been authored by the earth itself. He had almost forgotten what it meant to look at something so ardently--an immaterial thing, not a commodity nor a convenience nor an object of erotic interest. He remembered that he too had once concentrated his mind in this way; he too had peered into the unknown as if through an eyeglass--but the vistas he had been looking at lay deep in the interior of other languages. Those horizons had filled him with the desire to learn of the ways in which other realities were conjugated.”

The next passage describes the dwindling Orcaella (river dolphin) population in the Mekong, where Piya had worked before journeying to India.

“The Orcaella population of the Mekong was known to be declining rapidly and was expected soon to fall below sustainable levels. The Mekong Orcaella had shared Cambodia’s misfortunes: in the 1970s they had suffered the ravages of indiscriminate American carpet bombing. Later they too had been massacred by Khmer Rouge cadres, who had hit upon the idea of using dolphin oil to supplement their dwindling supplies of petroleum. The once abundant population of Orcaella in the Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s great fresh-water lake, had been reduced almost to extinction. These dolphins were hunted with rifles and explosives and their carcasses were hung up in the sun so their fat would drip into buckets. This oil was used to run boats and motorcycles.”

The horror of the massacre of the dolphins, in a spooky way, parallels the massacre of the Bengali. Ghosh also captures the commitment and frustration of the activists as they attempt to rescue people and the environment.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


"And in my heart such envy used to burn,
If I’d caught some one looking pleased with life,
Thou wouldst have seen how livid I could turn."--Canto XIV, vv. 82-84, Dante’s PURGATORY, tr. by Dorothy Sayers, Penguin

The envious dwell in Purgatory. Oddly envy isn’t discussed anymore. (Sexual jealousy, yes. Sexual jealousy is a popular theme in films and novels. But other forms of envy seem to be considered acceptable in contemporary society.) Dante’s hard-edged description of this sin makes it evident why the envious spend time in Purgatory. Guido del Duca, a 13th-century political and legal administrator in Ravenna, speaks the words above to Dante. Although Guido repents, he admits the ugliness of his past emotions. One envisions envy surging up like bile inside him.

One can imagine envy leading to crime: political character assassination; the falsification of information that led to the war in Iraq. Of course, the sowers of scandal end up in Dante's hell. But doesn’t it begin with envy?

Perhaps I don't think about envy because I'm not a careerist. I opted out of the traditional workplace years ago. Envy flourishes when people jockey for position and power. People in competitive professions talk about “having to watch their backs.”

The poor envy the prosperous. That's expected. Yet I’d never thought about the unhappy envying the happy, which shows a failure of imagination on my part. Dante reveals the hideous nature of sin.

Reading PURGATORY is an astonishing experience. Dante is not only a brilliant poet but understands the gamut of human emotions.

The Nobel Prize-winning poet Eugenio Montale writes in his introduction to the Everyman edition of THE DIVINE COMEDY: “It seems to me that if Dante is a universal patrimony (beyond a certain level of necessary study)--and such he has become, even if he remarked more than once that he was speaking to few who were worthy of hearing him--then his voice can be heard today by everyone as it never was in other ages and as may never again be possible in the future, so that his message can reach the layman no less than the initiate, and in a way that is probably entirely new.”

Saturday, March 11, 2006


The cover of THE HUNGRY TIDE reminds my spouse of LIFE OF PI. “Do you think they did it deliberately?”

I laughed at his acuity. “There are actual tigers in the book, though.”

Honestly, the two novels couldn’t be more different. I'm very much enjoying Amitav Ghosh’s THE HUNGRY TIDE, set in the Sundarbans, a group of islands off the eastern coast of India. Ghosh’s political novel is beautifully written. The complex narrative alternates the stories of Kanai, a translator from Delhi, with that of Piya, an American marine biologist of Indian descent who is studying dolphins. Kanai is on his way to a remote village to visit his aunt, the organizer of a women's union and a hospital. She wishes him to read the papers of his late uncle. At the railway station, Kanai spots an unusual young woman.

The novel opens: “Kanai spotted her the moment he stepped onto the crowded platform: he was deceived neither by her close-cropped black hair nor by her clothes, which were those of a teenage boy--loose cotton pants and an oversized ite shirt....

“Why would a foreigner, a young woman, be standing in a south Kolkata commuter station, waiting for the train to Canning? It was true, of course, that this line was the only rail connection to the Sundarbans. But so far as he knew it was never used by tourists...”

At the end of their casual meeting on the train, he invites Piya to visit him. And after she tussles with two thuggish men on a boat and is rescued by a poor fisherman, she is glad to have the name of his aunt’s village.

Ghosh gracefully interweaves an exposition of Indian history and politics with Kanai’s memories of his last visit to his aunt and uncle and Piya’s involvement with a fisherman and his son.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Remembrance or Search?

The following passage from Part Two of WITHIN A BUDDING GROVE is a typical Proustian meditation on memory,both poetic and philosophical. It also provides a strong argument for translating A LA RECHERCHÉ DU TEMPS PERDU as REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST rather than IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME.

Proust writes: “That is why the better part of our memories exists outside us, in a blatter of rain, in the smell of an unaired room or of the first crackling brushwood fire in a cold grate: wherever, in short, we happen upon what our mind, having no use for it, had rejected, the last treasure that the past has in store, the richest, that which, when all our flow of tears seems to have dried at the source, can make us weep again. Outside us? Within us, rather, but hidden from our eyes in an oblivion more or less prolonged. It is thanks to this oblivion alone that we can from time to time recover the person that we were, place ourselves in relation to things as he was placed, suffer anew because we are no longer ourselves but he, and because he loved what now leaves us indifferent. In the broad daylight of our habitual memory the images of the past turn gradually pale and fade out of sight, nothing remains of them, we shall never recapture it. Or rather we should never recapture it had not a few words (such as this ‘head of the Ministry of Posts’) been carefully locked away in oblivion, just as an author deposits in the National Library a copy of a book which might otherwise become unobtainable.”

Reading Proust is by turns ecstatic, intellectual, humorous, philosophical, and boring. In the above exquisite passage he analyzes memory, its relationship to concrete imagery and abstract emotions. Then he returns to the story, to M.’s train journey from Paris, away from his habits and pain over Gilberte, to his stay in Balbec, where new scenery and characters distract him from his neuroses.

Sometimes I tire of M.’s stream-of-consciousness. I admit I’m occasionally as bored by M. as Gilberte must have been. At other times I’m immensely amused, as when he describes the snobbish clientele at the hotel and the deterioration of the service after maid Francoise makes friends with some of the hotel employees (she refuses to disturb them on behalf of her employers).

It’s a long, brilliant, beautiful novel by a neurotically attentive writer who can turn a piece of furniture or a train journey into poetic prose.

M is such a sexist, though. Only his grandmother and the women of her generation are portrayed as well-educated and sympathetic. M. sees most women only as sexual beings or, in the case of Odette, as a kind of ideal fashion plate.

Five and a half more volumes to go...

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Sayers or Mandelbaum?

Sayers or Mandelbaum? Their styles are so different that their translations read like different poems.

Here are their two versions of vv. 1-9 of Canto IV of PURGATORIO.

Sayers’s translation:

When some one faculty, by its apprehension
Of pain or pleasure, grows so clamorous
That it commands the soul’s entire attention,

Of all powers else the soul’s oblivious--
Which goes to show how false is the surmise
That soul is kindled above soul in us.

Thus, when such things engage our ears or eyes
As bend the soul towards them totally,
Time passes, and we mark not how it flies;

Mandelbaum’s version of the same lines:

When any of our faculties retains
a strong impression of delight or pain,
the soul will wholly concentrate on that,
neglecting any other power it has
(and this refutes the error that maintains
that--one above the other--several souls
can flame in us); and thus, when something seen
or heard secures the soul in stringent grip,
time moves and yet we do not notice it.

My old Bantam paperback of the INFERNO had the Italian text side-by-side with the translation. My newer editions of PURGATORIO and PARADISO have only the English. I suppose the publishers are saving money.

I’ll return to Mandelbaum for PARADISO, as Sayers died before she finished her translation. A friend of Sayers finished the PARADISO and I don’t know her work.

It’s very, very wearisome having to depend on translations of poetry. Maybe I could teach myself Italian.

Yeah. But will I?


N.B. The line indentations of Sayers's and Mandelbaum's translations don't come out right on Blogger. Apologies. I can't fix it.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

"Twilight of the Superheroes"

There are no dull moments in “Twilight of the Superheroes,” the title story of Deborah Eisenberg’s new story collection.

The italicized surreal prologue reads like science fiction. On New Year’s Eve in 1999, people all over the planet anticipate Y2K, the widely predicted computer breakdown that fails to happen. Nathaniel, the author of a comic strip, PASSIVITYMAN, tells his grandchildren about the millennium.

“It must be hard for you to imagine--it’s even hard for me to remember--but people hadn’t been using computers for very long. As far as I know, my mother (your great-grandmother) never even touched one! And no one had thought to inform the computers that one day the universe would pass from the years of the one thousands into the years of the two thousands. So the machines, as these experts suddenly realized, were not equipped to understand that at the conclusion of 1999 time would not start over from 1900, time would keep going.”

Nothing came of Y2K. No disaster happened. Nathaniel, who had spent the evening partying with friends, awoke with a hangover.

But in 2001 Nathaniel, his friends, and his uncle Lucien, an art gallery manager who had found him a loft apartment sublet, witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Lucien, mourning not only his dead wife but the death of history as he understood it, tries to analyze the meaning of events and to brace himself for the future.

“But the future actually ahead of them, it’s now obvious, had itself been implied by a past; and the terrible day that pointed them toward that future had been prepared for a long, long time, though it had been prepared behind a curtain.

“It was as if there had been a curtain, a curtain painted with the map of the earth, its oceans and continents, with Lucien’s delightful city. The planes struck, tearing through the curtain of that blue September morning, exposing the dark world that lay behind it, of populations ruthlessly exploited, inflamed with hatred, and tired of waiting for change to happen by.”

The curtain imagery is reminiscent of the Iron Curtain imagery that dominated the ‘50s and “60s. It seems appropriate.

While Lucien tries to make sense of current events, his nephew Nathaniel, a newcomer to New York City, becomes depressed and loses his sense of creativity. Instead of concentrating on his career, he dreams about Delphine, a cosmopolitan woman who had tolerated him and allowed him to sleep in her apartment while the debris from the Twin Towers was cleaned from his loft. He must also leave the loft that has been his home, because the owner is returning.

A sad, moving, brilliant story, characterized by arresting imagery and insights.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006


“All the ideas that I had formed of the hours, different from those that exist for other men, passed by the Swanns in the house which was to their everyday life what the body is to the soul, and whose singularity it must have expressed, all those ideas were distributed, amalgamated--equally disturbing and indefinable throughout--in the arrangement of the furniture, the thickness of the carpets, the positions of the windows, the ministrations of the servants.”--Proust’s WITHIN A BUDDING GROVE

I’ve been slowly reading IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME. I’m reading the second volume, WITHIN A BUDDING GROVE.

Proust evokes the slow passage of time and the changes wrought, and the slight plot revolves around the love life of Swann and the narrator M.’s budding passion for Swann’s daughter, Gilberte, then for Albertine. Proust ‘s ornate sentences and elaborate descriptions of upper-class life have an opiate effect on me.

I’m occasionally bemused by Proust’s meditations. Much as I love the elegance of this translation (by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright), the experiences of the narrator, M., differ from my own.

In short, I’m not rich.

Life in IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME consists of lunch, tea, salons, reading, walks to the Champs-Elysées, going to the theater, and, apparently, worshipping furniture. Proust describes the architecture of churches and interiors of houses in loving detail, often matching them to his psychological and emotional states.

As a middle-class person, my pleasures are simpler.

What’s this about furniture? The exquisite passage describing the possessions of Swann, which goes on and on, slightly exasperated me.

“...and there was nothing, not even the painting by Rubens that hung above the chimney-piece, that was not endowed with the same quality and almost the same intensity of charm as the laced boots of M. Swann and the hooded cape the like of which I had so dearly longed to wear...”

I have known a Swann or two in my time and have admired their luxurious houses. But their Oriental carpets, windows, comfortable sofas, and paintings have never stimulated me to M’s pitch of ecstasy.

Furniture means nothing. A Barcalounger chair is more comfortable than an antique wingback.

Proust’s reveries on nature, madeleines, and reading move me. His passion for furniture does not.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Dante Translations

The most daunting task for the Dante reader is selecting a good translation.

I used to despair of translations. For years I read English poetry or poetry in the original of the few languages I’d studied, because I saw no point in reading unreliable translations. Stripped of its language, poetry is often reduced to a crude outline. And translators play fast and loose with the texts. Not that I blame them: turning an inflected language into syntactically rigid English is nearly impossible.

But I left school long ago, and at last it dawned on me I didn’t need to play by scholarly rules. I was unlikely to read THE DIVINE COMEDY if not in translation.

So I’m bending the rules, and it’s a pleasure.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I admire Mandelbaum’s translation of the INFERNO. Now I’ve begun Dorothy Sayers’s introduction to her 1955 translation of PURGATORY. She writes so beautifully and is so brilliant that I wish I had a copy of her INFERNO as well.

Although I read and admired Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries years ago, I’d been led to understand that her Dante translation and scholarship were out of date. The best writers never go out of date, though.

Her translations have been reissued in attractive new Penguins, and if they live up to her introductions, they’re well worth the price.

Here’s part of her fascinating opening paragraph:

“Of the three books of the COMMEDIA, the PURGATORIO is, for English readers, the least known, the least quoted--and the most beloved. It forms, as it were, a test case. Persons who pontificate about Dante without making mention of his Purgatory may reasonably be suspected of knowing him only at second hand, or of having at most skimmed through the circles of his Hell in the hope of finding something to be shocked at. Let no one, therefore, get away with a condemnation--or for that matter a eulogy--of Dante on the mere strength of broiled Popes, disembowelled Schismatics, grotesque Demons, Count Ugolino, Francesca da Rimini, and the Voyage of Ulysses, even if backed up by an erotic mysticism borrowed from the Pre-Raphaelites, and the line ‘His will is our peace,’ recollected from somebody’s sermon. Press him, rather, for an intelligent opinion on the Ship of Souls and Peter’s Gate; on Buonconte, Sapia, and Arnaut Daniel, on the Prayer of the Proud, the theology of Free Judgement, Dante’s three Dreams, the Sacred Forest, and the symbolism of the Beatrician Pageant. If he cannot satisfy the examiners on these points, let him be to you as a heathen man and a publican....”

Sunday, February 26, 2006


I'm a fan of epic poetry: the grand themes, the complicated narratives, the struggles of the heroes, and the imaginative descriptions of gods and mythic monsters. Ovid’s METAMORPHOSES, Virgil’s AENEID, and Milton’s PARADISE LOST are three of my favorite poems.

Yet no one writes epic in the 21st century. It’s a dead form. Poets presumably study epic, but compose lyric and narrative poetry instead. The epic form doesn’t suit the casual mores of modern times, I suppose.

This is my year of reading THE DIVINE COMEDY, a long allegorical narrative poem. I found three translations of the INFERNO on our shelves: Robert Pinsky’s, Alan Mandelbaum’s, and John Ciardi’s. My original plan was to read Pinsky’s, the most contemporary, but after inspecting all three, I chose Alan Mandelbaum’s translation. The language is lucid and passionate, the images vivid and horrific. And the lines correspond exactly to the Italian.

Much as I admired the INFERNO, I can’t say I enjoyed my tour of hell. Dante had a grisly imagination, influenced by his knowledge of the works of Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, Statius, and St. Thomas Aquinas. The deeds of the sinners are often sinister, but the punishments are disproportionate. This is a 14th-century person’s vision of hell. In Canto 28, the Sowers of Scandal are perpetually wounded by a demon with a sword, and after healing, wounded again. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, walks maimed, split open, with his bowels hanging between his legs. His sin? Dante considered him a “sower of dissension.”

The last canto in Dante’s INFERNO describes Dis, or Lucifer, emperor of the king of hell, a three-faced monster with wings beneath each face, whose wings agitate cold winds that freeze Lake Cocytus. Dante is horrified.

O reader, do not ask of me how I
grew faint and frozen then--I cannot write it:
all words would fall far short of what it was.
I did not die, and I was not alive;
think for yourself, if you have any wit,
what I became, deprived of life and death.
--vv. 22-27 of Canto 34, Alan Mandelbaum’s translation of INFERNO

I couldn’t wait to get out of hell. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when Virgil grabbed Dante and clambered over Lucifer’s body and got out of there.

I’m looking forward to PURGATORIO, in Dorothy Sayers’s translation.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Gaylord No. 10

Few of the books I read are library books. This winter I've read SWANN'S WAY and Dante's INFERNO, books I've had in my collection for years. I buy books at library sales and used bookstores, shopping for books the way other women shop for clothes. I have so many books that, when I vacuum or dust, I get distracted by the fascinating titles on my own shelves.

Let’s see. Would I like to read Rebecca West’s THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER or Colette’s THE CAT next?

My local librarian doesn’t have a clue what I read. Since I own most of my books, Big Librarian, ha ha, can't turn over accurate records to Big Brother. Although I support my local library, I'm not a regular patron. I impulsively check out new novels, mysteries, and DVDs on my bimonthly visits. The librarian must think I’m addicted to the works of Anita Desai and Ngaio Marsh, though as often as not these books sit on the table undisturbed until I return them unread.

I love the smell of libraries, though--old paper?--and approve the mix of great literature, genre books, biographies, and reference books.

I recently checked out a 1960s mystery from the library. It had a shiny cellophane cover, the kind which crackles when you open the book.

It made me nostalgic. These days my branch library applies practically invisible, noiseless book covers instead of the old-fashioned kind I prefer.

I opened the ‘60s book and read the underside of the book jacket. It reads like a poem:

Gaylord No. 10

For Books 91/2 Inches to 10 Inches


The Trusted Source

Gaylord Bros.

Syracuse, NY

Los Angeles, CA



Insert dust jacket between the liner and the plastic cover.

Slide book jacket to top edge of cover, fold bottom of cover to the height of this jacket and

Replace protected dust jacket on book and attach flaps with tape or adhesive.

Call 1.800.448.6160 to Re-order.

Gaylord is still in business, by the way, 109 years old. Check out their website:

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


It didn’t make the Best of the 20th Century List. Yet John Wyndham’s THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS is a great example of apocalyptic literature.

This 1951 science fiction classic, reminiscent of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, is creepier and more entertaining than Wells’s more famous masterpiece. Wyndham isn’t a greater stylist than Wells: his prose is workmanlike--no flourishes. The plot, however, is riveting. My spouse advised me not to read THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS at night, claiming it was too damned scary. But I was glued to it for a couple of evenings, notwithstanding my fears.

Wyndham begins the third paragraph: “The way I came to miss the end of the world--well, the end of the world I had known for close on thirty years--was sheer acccident: like a lot of survival, when you come to think of it.”

The narrator’s philosophical observations enhance this end-of-the-world narrative. While mysterious green lights flash and blind the majority of the world’s people one night, the narrator is hospitalized for an eye ailment. He awakens to a strange silence and leaves his room to find the remaining patients blind. He takes to the streets, one of the few sighted people left in London, and saves a sighted woman, Josella, who has been enslaved by a blind man to help him forage for food. The narrator and Josella, horrified by the chaos and riots, form a relationship and quickly fall in love.

Gangs and looters are not the only danger. Walking plants called triffids, once farmed for oil, have escaped and are killing people. Yes, it sounds far-fetched, but Wyndham’s long pseudo-scientific chapter persuaded me.

An organized gang separates the narrator from Josella. After a plague decimates London, he escapes to the country in search of her and other survivors. He observes:

“The sight of the open country gave one hope of a sort. It was true that the young green crops would never be harvested when they had ripened, nor the fruit from the trees gathered; that the countryside might never look as trim and neat as it did that day, but for all that it would go on, after its own fashion. It was not, like the towns, sterile, stopped forever. It was a place one could work and tend, and still find a future. It made my existence of the previous week seem like that of a rat living on crumbs and ferreting in garbage heaps. As I looked out over the fields I felt my spirits expanding.”

Wyndham is brilliantly imaginative. The atmosphere is definitely ‘50s--there’s a glum post-atom-bomb certainty of the inevitablility of man’s destruction, combined with a lack of hipness --but the story still speaks to us. Are we more or less optimistic about the future than Wyndham was? Possibly more, possibly less: I’m out of touch. Wyndham’s dystopian tale is also a thrilling adventure of survival.

And, I must add, it has been richly plagiarized by the writer of the film 28 DAYS LATER. No infected monkeys in THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, but both heroes survive because they are in the hosptial when other human beings are stricken.

The photo of John Wyndham was found at:

Monday, February 20, 2006


I ordered a madeleines pan from Williams-Sonoma. This sounds extravagant, but I couldn’t find one at Target or K-Mart. I was reading IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME and wanted a Proustian experience. But madeleines aren't a popular cookie.

Everyone knows the scene in SWANN’S WAY in which M., the narrator, describes the exquisite experience of eating a madeleine. He equates the taste of madeleines with joy and sensuality. If madeleines were the source of joy, I would bake them.

Proust wrote: “ day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petite madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory--this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence, or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. When could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?” (p. 62, C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation, Modern Library edition)

Making the madeleines was fun. I combined two recipes from THE GOOD HOUSEKEEPING COOKBOOK and THE NEW YORK TIMES COOKBOOK. First you melt one-fourth cup butter or margarine and let it cool. Then you whip two eggs with a pinch of salt until it peaks. Then add one-third cup of sugar, two tablespoons at a time, beating the mixture until the froth becomes a stiff peak. Then add a half teaspoon vanilla. Then fold in two-thirds cup flour and the margarine (or butter).

Fill the seashell molds of your French nonstick madeleines pan three-fourths full and bake for 8 minutes in a 375-degree oven.

My oven must have been too hot, because the fluted bottoms of the cookies were too brown (I turned them over when they’d cooled so I could admire the shell pattern). I also had trouble figuring out how to remove them from the pan. The spatula was too big, so I used a knife to scrape them out.

The overall taste was disappointing. I had wanted homemade Pepperidge Farm cookies. Instead, I had shell-shaped sponge cakes (which I later learned they were supposed to be anyway).

Next time I’ll try a different recipe and perhaps I’ll use butter instead of margarine.