Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Lost Lady

One of the saddest American novels I've read is Willa Cather's A Lost Lady. No one in the twentieth century writes more tragically and exquisitely than Cather, though she’s often designated a regional writer and craftsman rather than a tragedian and artist. She influenced F. Scott Fitzgerald, a midwestern writer who did not write about the midwest, and surpasses him because she realistically documented life on the prairie after she moved east, unlike Fitzgerald, who preferred to write about New York and France. Yet she is often despised for her "sentimental" novels about the pioneer era and its decline. Her work is passionate more often than sentimental, but many critics cannot see that and dislike her nearly perfect, simple style, believing it is less significant than that of her successors, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

A cup of tea and Cather’s descriptions of winter in A Lost Lady are grand: they make one feel the cold of the terrible Nebraskan winters. The structure of A Lost Lady is complex. We see Captain Forrester and his wife, Marion Forrester, through the eyes of Niel, a small-town boy who grows up to admire the Forresters. Niel's uncle, Judge Pommeroy, is one of their few social equals. Marion Forrester is a vivacious woman who flirts with men and boys, allows the boys to fish on her property, and feeds them fresh cookies. Her husband, one of the richest men in town, is 25 years older, but she seems devoted to him. Questions are raised about this as the novel continues, yet we understand her duality. As long as the Forresters can spend the winter in Denver with friends, Marion can endure life in Sweet Water, Nebraska. But after Captain Forrester gives away his money to protect the working-class men who have lost everything in a failed Denver bank, Marion begins to drink and no longer cares if people know about her affair with a man in Colorado. Her morals are worse than the Captain’s and her ideals non-existent: Niel and Judge Pommeroy are disappointed and shun her. After the captain's death, Marion allows Ivy Peters, a base, cruel lawyer, to control her investments and business affairs. She doesn’t care that he cheats Indians and the poor.

“Money is a very important thing,” she tells Niel. Later, she explains to him why she has given her business to the working-class, scornful Ivy Peters. “[Your uncle] wouldn’t attempt to sell [the house] for more than twelve. That’s why I had to put it into other hands. Times have changed, but he doesn’t realize it. Mr. Forrester himself told me it wouldn’t be worth that. Ivy says he can get me twenty thousand, or if not, he will take it off my hands as soon as his investments begin to bring in returns.

Hermione Lee writes a chapter on "Lost Ladies" in her amazing critical study, Willa Cather: Double Lives. She writes:"There is a crucial change, now, from the early pioneering novels. The foucs has shifted from the immigrants to the American 'aristocracy'; and from female heroism to femininity. These heroines are 'ladies,' socially adept, self-conscious, sophisticated, decorative. They have no children, they are separated from their family roots, they have no independent occupations, and they define themselves in terms of their relation to men. They are confined and thwarted, not expansive and self-fulfilling. Their energies are poured, not intos something impersonal and bigger than themselves--the shaping of the land, the making of an art--but into personal feelings and self-expression. They are much more elusive and less reliable than the pioneering women-heroes."

No one respects Marion Forrester after a time. Yet Niel retains an affection for her. He learns the end of her story: she has finally gotten away. So was she lost? Was she right to change her business in changing times? Niel has the old values. So do we. Yet we think she might have straightened out near the end, after leaving Sweet Water, which was a kind of death to her.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Kristin Lavansdatter

An Amazon book club plog is discussing Kristin Lavransdatter, a book I loved so much the first time that I tried to teach myself Norwegian.

Because I needed a respite from genre fiction, I turned first to Gissing and Trollope. Now I’m rereading Kristin Lavransdatter, the remarkable, luminous twentieth century trilogy about Kristin’s girlhood, marriage, and religious life in medieval Norway.

Penguin has a new translation of KL, which is supposed to be very good. I have the 1929 Nobel Prize Edition, translated by Charles Archer, which was fine when I first read it and is still fine now. One cannot be plugged into an iPod and read this; perhaps the Penguin edition is easier. In the first 35 pages Kristin runs away from an elf-maiden and a monk asks her to contemplate becoming a nun.

“’We have no child but me,’ answered Kristin. ‘So ‘tis like that I must marry. And I trow mother has chests and lockers with my bridal gear standing ready even now.’

“’Aye, aye,’ said Brother Edwin, and stroked her forehead. ‘tis thus that folk deal with their children now. To God they give the daughters who are lame or purblind or ugly or blemished, or they let Him have back the children when they deem Him to have given them more than they need. And then they wonder that all who dwell in the cloisters are not holy men and maids--’”

Having read this once before, I understand that Kristin would have been better off as a nun than married to an alcoholic (if I remember correctly he is an alcoholic: I haven't gotten that far).

I don’t think Undset is read much these days, even though she won the Nobel Prize. Perhaps the Penguin translation will introduce Kristin to a new generation. There is also a movie available at Amazon.

You may wonder why I can't stick to my reading plans. 2007 was supposed to be the year of the genre book. But can anybody read nothing but SF/fantasy and mysteries? I’ve read about medieval falconers and hawkmistresses (I love _Hawkmistress!_), psychics, women with vampire boyfriends, and crimes solved by detectives in ancient Rome and Egypt. Then I said one should read nothing but Gissing.

Next week...what?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Gissing, Vampires (Ugh), and Trollope

I mentioned that you might as well read nothing but Gissing.

One could make Gissing one’s life work. I loved The Nether World, which is one of his best novels about class. There is no escape for most of his lower-class characters, but a few of the slum dwellers who sacrifice themselves to help others are educated, virtuous, and philanthropic. They don't exactly find their rewards, though. If you can’t find Gissing's books at the library (and I can’t), most of his novels are at Project Gutenberg so you can read them on your computer or PDA or Sony Reader.

At Amazon I discovered, with a lot of work, that Gissing’s books are in print. Typing in George Gissing wasn’t enough. I then had to click on George Gissing after clicking on a title to get all of his books to come up. Something has happened to the Amazon database since they “improved” it a few years ago. Jeff Bezos’s book database was the best in the world until it was improved. It's still good, but one has to be very creative. I had to think like an idiot to find a boxed set of Leonard Woolf's autobiographies (finally found it: God knows how).

Instead of reading more Gissing this weekend, I decided to read one of those science fiction mystery series about women with vampire boyfriends. Who on earh would want a vampire boyfriend? Good vampire boyfriends, but a little of that goes a long way. Like 100 pages. There aren’t enough hours to read about women with vampire boyfriends.

After 100 pages I threw down the vampire book in disgust. I needed a classic. Finally I picked up Ralph the Heir. Reading Trollope is like going back to an old boyfriend who writes sensibly about money, marriage, class, and politics. Ralph the Heir, a playboy, doesn't pay his bills for clothes and boots, relying on his great expectations of a legacy. Since his uncle shows no sign of dying, he may have to marry the breeches-maker's daughter, Polly. It's so entertaining. Some people read nothing but Trollope, and though he's not as good as Gissing, he's great in a different way.

Friday, January 19, 2007

George Gissing

Why read anything but George Gissing? One can’t read genre fiction all the time. If one isn’t reading a mystery or a science fiction novel, one might as well read Gissing. Not a likable writer. Too gloomy, too depressive. But one can’t put his books down. Unlike Dickens, he shows unrelenting poverty and the daily grubbing for money. New Grub Street is a masterpiece about writing junk for money. The Odd Women and In the Year of Jubilee portray women who must work for their living or starve. Marriage doesn’t prevent starvation. Men drink and are estranged from their wives, who struggle to raise children and sometimes also drink. These three novels are underrated like many notable realistic novels of the nineteenth century. Realism wasn’t quite the thing. Dickens was comic. Gissing has no sense of humor. The British weren’t happy about Zola, one of Gissing’s cherished writers. What novel did I read in which a Zola novel is taken away from a young woman? Something by Colette, perhaps My Mother's House. And Gissing reminds me so much of Zola.

Having spent the day in Gissing’s thrall, reading The Nether World, a novel about working-class London, I am pondering the editor Stephen Gill’s suggestion that the novel is based on Great Expectations. it seems so much more complicated. The characters include slum dwellers, orphans, alcoholics, factory workers, barmaids, actresses, and one wealthy old man who hopes to use his money to help the lower classes. No one can fight his or her way out of the Nether World. I am not reminded in any way of Dickens. There are no caricatures. Dickens could be dark, but not like this. Dickens was an entertainer. Gissing wants to educate.

Gissing began The Nether World after being called to see his estranged wife, who had died of alcoholism in a bare room. In his diary her wrote: “Henceforth I never cease to bear testimony against the accursed social order that brings about things of this kind.”

In the twenty-first century most American novels seem to be about the upper classes. Some American writers assume there is no class. One exception is Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, largely set in Nebraska, about a working-class man who suffers from a rare neurological disease after a car accident. But Powers doesn’t quite capture the tone of working-class men in dialogue. The dialogue about sports and women could take place among any men. He can’t do class.

It’s very hard to do.

That’s why we might as well read Gissing.

Check out George Gissing Website

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Genre Fiction

Snobs hate genre fiction. It's never been clear to me why. The best mysteries and science fiction novels are seldom if ever included in the canon, though some are certainly classics.

For years I had to conceal a taste for mysteries because only Dorothy Sayers and P. D. James were acceptable in my circle. Oh, no, nobody read mysteries, until I met a plucky woman who told me she read nothing but mysteries and showed me a whole room devoted to them.

Then suddenly Agatha Christie was back in vogue with the new BBC Jane Marple series. Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series was also helped along by the BBC.

Interestingly, mysteries are often adapted for TV, but never science fiction or fantasy novels.

Genre people are extreme fans. That makes me not quite a genre person. Some genre enthusiasts read nothing but police procedural mysteries, others nothing but cozies about English villages, the crimes often solved by old ladies, others nothing but P.I. novels, others hard science fiction, and still others fantasy.

Historical mysteries are often excellent. I recently discovered Lauren Haney’s first-rate Lieutenant Bak mysteries, set in ancient Egypt. Haney is a former technical writer, with a plain flawless style. She doesn’t attempt to win the reader too quickly but contrives her plots thoughtfully and analytically . She includes historical details about Queen Hatshepsut and police and the military in ancient Egypt. At first her protagonist seems to have little character, but Lieutenant Bak of the Egyptian Medway police is a quiet, tough, and tenacious character who speaks wittily when he speaks, and who interrogates everyone associated with a crime and keeps going when others have long given up.

In Haney’s A Curse of Silence , Lieutenant Bak investigates the murder of a popular local prince. The murder was committed in the house of an inspector who has been sent by Queen Hatshupset to evaluate the worth of army fortresses and storehouses from the city of Buhen to the southern frontier. The people of Buhen and the provinces are furious, believing the inspector’s men are responsible for the murder and that they will shut down fortresses and cause unemployment. Lieutenant Bak must solve the crime, advise the inspector, and also provide protection for the inspector and his party as they travel through the south.

Haney writes so well that I was a little disturbed to see the series seems to have stopped in 2003. I hope she’s still writing something.

Trixie Lore

Ellen Moody of Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Too has often mentioned Bobbie Ann Mason’s study of Nancy Drew. Although I avidly read Nancy Drew as a girl, I preferred a rival series about the tomboyish Trixie Belden. Sixteen books in the series have been reissued by Random House and are worth a look by collectors and others. I reread several recently, considering writing a retrospective about the female role models of my youth, and though I found the Trixie Belden books uneven, they are enjoyable in a kitschy way. She is indeed a sympathetic heroine. Fourteen-year-old Trixie believes there's nothing she can't do. Although she simply has too many distractions to succeed in school, she is very bright: she spends her time sleuthing, horseback riding, raising money for UNICEF, elderly displaced women, the school art department, and other charities, and attending meetings of the club she belongs to.

Julie Campbell Tatham, the creator of Trixie Belden, conceived of the series as an alternative to Nancy Drew, which she thought badly written. She wanted Trixie to be a more realistic character than Nancy, so Trixie has faults, occasionally makes mistakes in her sleuthing, and often jumps to conclusions, though she always solves her crime in the end. The first novel was published under Tatham’s maiden name, Campbell, in 1948; after the sixth book she left to write Cherry Ames and a stewardess series (both created by another writer). Then Western Publishing Company, publisher of the Trixie Belden series, which had paid her a flat fee for her books, insisted that it owned the rights to continue the series with other writers. Tatham fought them in court and won royalties for the other books, which were written by several different ghostwriters under the name Kathyrn Kenny, In 1986, after the publishing company had been bought a couple of times, the series died. If I remember correctly, Mattel was the last owner of the company. They were probably too busy with Barbie to appreciate Trixie.

It’s fascinating to see how Trixie changes over time. So many writers were involved that no one is quite sure who wrote some of the books. Some have been identified, others not. My favorite ghostwriter wrote both The Mystery of Cobbett’s Island and The Mystery of Mead’s Mountain. This particular “Kathryn Kenny” is a better stylist than most. Trixie is considerably more worldly and mature in the 1980s than she was in the ‘50s and ‘60s, though even then she could knock guns out of gang members’ hands (The Mystery of Cobbett’s Island), solve a sheep theft case and survive one of the worst floods in Des Moines (The Happy Valley Mystery), and briefly pilot a plane (The Mystery of Mead’s Mountain).

Most of the plot is told in dialogue. The novels are a bit clumsy, but I thought them incredibly witty as a child and was mesmerized by Trixie and her best friend, Honey. My mother had to buy me these and the Nancy Drew books. She had an argument with the librarian, who did not pity my mother for having to buy me the two series. The librarian told her the books were too poorly written to be in a library. Well, that has changed over the years...