Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bleak House at the Home Cafe

My reading of the epic Drood has inspired me to return to Dickens. I was afraid this would happen. I decided halfway through to jump over to Bleak House, though it would have made more sense to try The Mystery of Edwin Drood, since I could at least have pretended a scholarly motive.

So I’m reading Bleak House and Drood both at once, more or less, if that’s possible.

I sat outdoors this afternoon and couldn’t believe how gorgeous it was. Sun on steaming thawing mud: the mud is cold but the light was beautiful and warm and it was a preview of spring. I balanced my book, tea and sandwich on the soiled plastic table, which needs a shot or two of Windex: I pretend the table and chairs under the tree are our "Home Cafe." Coffee, tea, water: we have it all al fresco. Squirrels and dogs were running about the yard, birds were singing gently, and there was a fair amount of city traffic noise. The dog next door alertly watched me and occasionally barked to make sure I didn’t jump the fence into his back yard. That is his nightmare.

So...I'm loving reading about Lady Dedlock. Usually it’s Esther Summerson whom I find cleverest; she is sweet and witty...and I don’t understand people who consider her cloying, as does the character Wilkie Collins in Drood. But this time I’m fascinated by Lady Dedlock’s frozen bitterness and ennui, and it occurs to me that she’s more than the stick figure I dismissed her as before. That’s what is so great about Dickens. Every time you read him you find more.

I had expected a break from laudanum and opium scenes in Bleak House. But no. I was startled by the minor character Nemo’s death from an opium overdose, havingI completely forgotten this detail: Nemo, a figure from Lady Dedlock’s past, has fallen in the world, been reduced to earning his living a law writer (a copyist of legal papers), and dies an opium addict.

Why did I turn to Bleak House instead of the brilliant Our Mutual Friend? Bleak House is more likable. My busy mind told me the reading was overdue, because it’s as necessary to Dickensians to reread Bleak House constantly as it is to Austenites to read Pride and Prejudice. By the way, it strikes me as strange that there are so many sequels to Jane Austen books but so few to Dickens's.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Cheap Date in the Wild West

Although there have been beautiful days this February, we’re all longing for the end of winter. There’s no snow, but there’s a bone-chilling, tree-shaking wind which stupefies, induces headache, and creates the creaky impression of a haunted house. Duvets, shawls, scarves, and afghans drape every piece of furniture. Time to bring out the cocoa...

But the important thing is to KEEP WALKING. Gotta conquer the outdoors! We boldly walked the trail yesterday clutching our independent coffeehouse paper cups, huddled in puffy coats with hoods, battling the wind (“It’s at our backs on the way home.”).. Only the intrepid walked the trail: a few gloomy dog-walkers, a rosy-faced bicyclist in a face mask riding 100 miles an hour to keep warm, and one crazy runner in shorts and a t-shirt.

Fortunately the frosty walk ended at a used bookstore. We hadn’t been here in quite a while and were happy to see the stock had changed. There was lots of Updike on the sales rack, as well as Daphne du Maurier. I longed for a Pocket Book copy of The Glassblowers , but it was falling apart. "Why do you want that?" my other half asked. I found a copy of Wyndham Lewis’s The Vulgar Streak (completely unknown to me, but in one of those beautiful Black Sparrow Press editions) and Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days, a long novel about a World War One vet who has to adjust to teaching in a remote English boys' school - lots of class issues. Inspired by a Masterpiece Theater production, I read this years ago. And even if I don’t read either of these books, it was fun to browse and was basically a cheap date.

If only there were more used bookstores in town...but we have to drive 200 miles to the next one...

Sunday, February 22, 2009


I had to buy Drood.

Friends and acquaintances won’t be surprised. I was the goofy young woman who used to read Dickens on the roof of the office building . My co-workers and I would sit up there during breaks, illicitly soaking up the sun, even in the dead of winter, sometimes chatting, other times reading (most of us reading because we were bored to death with each other), and some of us smoking - something (not opium like Drood; mostly cigarettes and cigars). We wore old air force parkas with the fur flapping in fringes around the hoods: you get the picture. The Roofs on the Plains Are Freezing-Windswept. Occasionally someone would read something witty aloud from the Village Voice or even, very occasionally, from Dickens.

People started naming their cats Nat Hentoff and Drood.

I was browsing at Borders the other day with a 40%-off coupon. It turned out to be inapplicable towards buying Dan Simmons’s new 30%-off bestseller Drood, which I snapped up. I've heard about Simmons for years because everyone insisted that I needed to read his science fiction account of the Iliad, Ilium - though Achilles seemed a sufficiently sci-fi-ish hero already in the epic. But a historical novel narrated by Wilkie Collins and centered on Dickens and his research for The Mystery of Edwin Drood was necessary to my life immediately.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood isn’t my favorite, but that’s all right - because Drood is as much about Wilkie Collins as it is about Dickens’ unfinished last novel. Cleverly presented as Wilkie Collins’s account of the last five years of Dickens’s life, it focuses on his bitter jealousy of Dickens (particularly of his most perfect book Our Mutual Friend), Collins’ growing addiction to laudanum, and his night walks with Dickens through London’s ghostly underworld in search of Drood, an opium addict/angel of death, whom Dickens claimed to have met during a traumatic train crash he survived in 1865 (along with his girlfriend, the actress Ellen Tiernan and her mother).

It’s an eerie novel. Well-written, well-researched, and historically accurate except for the Drood fantasy, it also cleverly takes the form of a sort of gigantic Wilkie Collins melodrama. There is the borderline hysteria of the novel of sensation: Dickens is a nervous wreck after the train wreck, and his motivation for pursuing Drood, who may or may not exist, baffles Collins as he is dragged by Dickens through crypts and tunnels, occasionally guided by Detective Hatchery, and later persecuted by Hatchery’s boss Inspector Field, a blackmailer who, though this doesn’t make much sense, needs Wilkie to tell him everything Dickens says about Drood (since his employee is guiding Dickens to Drood, this plot device seems thin, but it’s best not to think. It combines the character of Bucket in Bleak House with the detective in The Moonstone).

Anyway I’m enjoying this enormously (771 pages: I’d better). Collins's voice is easier to imitate than Dickens's, and though Simmons doesn't exactly claim he is doing that, it seems to work.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Night and Silence Who Is Here?

This winter I have read Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Dorothy Merlin trilogy twice, and it would be fibbing to say I’m not going to read it again. Her three riotous satires on the writing life, The Unspeakable Skipton (still in print and considered a classic), Night and Silence Who Is Here?, and Cork Street, Next to the Hatter’s, have saved me from the February doldrums. These suberb comedies are loosely connected by the character of Dorothy Merlin, an obnoxious poet/playwright who extols maternity in her deliciously terrible, pretentious verses (cleverly and merrily ghosted by Johnson). In The Unspeakable Skipton, she is only a minor character, a tourist in Belgium despised and exploited by the impoverished expatriate novelist Skipton, who ekes out a living brokering fake antiques, arranging seedy sexual shows and other shady deals.

The second book, Night and Silence Who Is Here?, though not quite as perfect as the first and third, is very, very funny, a kind of Lucky Jim-ish comedy about Dorothy’s friend, Matthew, an aristocratic playboy who is lionized by an American college after Dorothy bullies him into writing articles about her. “Since he mildly liked her work, he saw no reason why not to; and as her total oeuvre consisted of twenty shortish poems and four slim verse-dramas, the labor was not demanding. He had all the luck of those who find themselves, by accident, first in the field. He was immediately accepted as the world authority on Dorothy Merlin, because he was literally the only one.”

Matthew looks forward to his term as a Visiting Fellow. But college life in a freezing New Hampshire village without shops or pubs comes as a shock since he can neither cook nor drive and must cadge meals or drink them when the union restaurant is closed (as it constantly is). He spends most of his time foraging for food and huddling in misery with the other fellows (two of whom are also English non-drivers) and thus writes little about Dorothy except for the book's title: ‘Dorothy Merlin: Tentative Steps Towards a Synthesis of Imagery” (which he steals from Cobb College's Emily Dickinson Fellow), The Fellows are both absurd and likable. Ruddick is writing about Emily Dickinson's drinking and forever cornering Matthew to listen to the latest "drinking" quotes from her poems. "Partake as doth the Bee/Abstemiously." Etc. Ruddick is really hysterical and somehow sympathetic: he's crazy but is, well, sweet.

But in Matthew's subversive protests against the inadequate arrangements for the Fellows, he begins to politick for the job as Director...

It's a very silly book, but so much fun.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Poppy Shakespeare

Sometimes it may seem that I read no contemporary books. Certainly I rarely write about them. Once upon a time I was a freelance book reviewer (for real journals, not my book journal); but I eventually lost interest and found that I’d rather read classics, or the “ quirky" tomes published by Overlook Press, Virago, Persephone, or Capuchin Classics, than sit down at my computer and write about mediocre new books. Did my snarkiness help the book industry? No.

So what a thrill when I come across a contemporary book like Clare Allan’s Poppy Shakespeare, a madly satiric, poignant, and witty novel about madness which I found so addictive I could barely tear myself away to watch Battlestar Galactica (date night at our house). That says it all.

N, the narrator, has been mad all her life. She is an out-patient at a day program at a mental hospital, where she sits around the common room smoking cigarettes and exchanging jibes with Astrid Arse-Wipe and Middle-Class Michael, occasionally attending “life goals” groups where she learns to make lists of pros and cons (heavily weighted by her desired result, of course). She has spent her life shuttled around from one home or hospital to another. The day program has been as good as it gets. She calculates like a canny stockbroker to earn straight 6es on her yearly mental health assessment, because she needs her “mad money” and it’s hard work to remain an out-patient.

But life changes for N when she is assigned as a guide to Poppy Shakespeare, the new patient.

Poppy doesn’t want to be mad. She has been rounded up and dragged into the day program, a fiasco that resulted from a multiple-choice personality test she takes on the first day of a New Careers program. And she can’t persuade anyone she’s not mad. The “mental health” lawyers won’t work for her unless she’s on the “mad money” register.

It is N's original, vulerable, but pitch-perfect comic voice that makes this novel perfect. ("You know what I'm saying" is included in every insecure but incisive paragraph.)

“‘So you neurotic, psychotic, or what?’ I said, like just making conversation. Ask most dribblers what’s wrong, they’re that fucking grateful, they’ll talk till their throats is raw, but Poppy just stopped where she was, head down, not moving so much as a muscle and she didn’t say nothing for maybe a minute then, I can’t describe it like anything else, she turned to me and gave me this look like I’d pissed on her mother’s grave. ‘Let’s just get one thing straight,’ she said. “I Am Not a Nutter. There is Nothing Whatever Wrong with My Head. Alright?’”

To N Poppy's wish to escape the mad community is madness. But the story of N's and Poppy's friendship and Poppy's desperate attempt to escape the day program are touching and absorbing. It is ironic that Poppy is a compulsory patient just as the new Minister of Madness is threatening to privatize the health system and pressuring hospitals to “cure” patients and release them into the community.

A great book.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Green Dolphin Country

Some books hold up; others don’t.

You can still find worn-out, well-read books by Elizabeth Goudge at the library, but her old-fashioned novels appeal to a narrower constituency these days.

Elizabeth Goudge was one of my favorite authors when I was growing up: I segued eagerly from her children’s books - The Little White Horse won the Carnegie Award - to adult novels like The Dean’s Watch and Green Dolphin Country (published as Green Dolphin Street in America). I read her books again and again. And I remember being puzzled: why weren’t these classics?

Who could not adore her beautifully embellished descriptions and eccentric Dickensian characters?

Okay, these are weird, weird books. I’m rereading Green Dolphin Country in a new Capuchin Classics edition, which makes it look respectable because the design looks like a Penguin, so I don’t have to read it secretly. This is so enjoyable: it transports me into Goudge’s magical world, and her whimsical style, her liberal use of adjectives and sweeping descriptive paragraphs, really turn this into a a fantasy; it wouldn’t suit every reader. This romantic novel is set in the Channel Islands and New Zealand in the 19th century; the heroines are two sisters, the demanding, ambitious Marianne and her peaceful, lovely younger sister Marguerite. William, the generous “boy next-door” who often “screws up,” as Obama would say, is loved by both. And in their late twenties they’re still unmarried, both waiting for William, though they haven’t heard from him since he left the island. William, ever impulsive and blundering, has inadvertently deserted from the English navy in China after an encounter with a conwoman prostitute. His ship sails without him; he eventually settles in New Zealan. After ten years in the lumber business, he writes a letter proposing marriage, naming Marianne as the bride instead of Marguerite by a drunken slip of the pen. And the rest of the novel revolves around the slip of the pen and its consequences.

Such a lovely book: so passionate, absorbing, and fun.

Yet I could not recommend this to everybody. It’s not that I don’t love it; I do. I simply couldn’t guarantee that everyone would like this flowery style. It’s for a special kind of reader, someone who doesn’t mind long stylized unwindings of ideas - the first 200 pages are devoted to growing up in the Channel Islands. William doesn’t arrive in New Zealand till page 231. The novel is out of date, written for a different time. In 1944 it won the Literary Guild Award and the MGM Literary Award, but no one writes books like this anymore.

It begins: “Sophie Le Patourel was reading aloud to her two daughters from the Book of Ruth, as they lay prostrate upon their backboards, digesting their dinners and improving their deportment. This spending of the after-dinner hour upon their backboards instead of in the parlour was as a matter of fact a punishment for insubordination during the morning, but their Papa being from home Sophie was softening the punishment by reading aloud. She was an indulgent mother, adoring her children, anxious to keep them with her as long as possible, afraid of what might be done to them by the great world outside the schoolroom window, the great world that in this mid-nineteen-century horrified her with its bustle and vulgarity and noise, George Stephenson’s terrible steam engine hurtling people to destruction at twenty-five miles an hour, its dreadful balloons in which man in his profanity was daring the heavens in which it was never the intention of his Creator that he should disport himself, its restless young people with thoughts for ever straining towards new countries and new ways, and its insubordinate children like her daughter Marianne.”

There are Goudge enthusiasts out there. Check out the Elizabeth Goudge Society at:


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep

Last year I became a Virago addict: I read so many Viragos that I began to recognize the types of heroines: curious spinsters who question the status quo, mischievous curate’s wives, ambitious working women, courageous political activists, trapped women, and mothers who learn to "think outside the box." Much as I loved these books, I needed to branch out.   Gradually I began to remember the cherished women’s literature of my own childhood and youth.  So this is the winter of establishing my personal “Virago-Persephone” list, meaning that, though I’m not a publisher, these out-of-print books have merit and should be shared.  

It's been a Rumer Godden marathon around here.  On Monday I stayed up most of the night reading her compelling and beautiful memoir, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep, which spans her first 38 years. Godden, raised partly in India, partly in England, had an idyllic childhood before being banished by well-meaning parents to a succession of horrifying English boarding schools.  "I still cannot fathom why, as it had been decided that Fa would go back to India alone and Mam would stay with us four in a rented house, we could not have been day girls which would have been more merciful; perhaps Fa and Mam had decided Jon was out of hand and, of course, where Jon went I went too."

At a convent boarding school, which obviously inspired her best-seller, Black Narcissus, a group of brutal, narrow-minded nuns resolved to crush Rumer and her older sister Jon's obstreperous spirits.  Rumer was branded a "liar" for telling exaggerated stories about India; and when Jon had malaria she was accused of "rubbing the thermometer on her blanket - a school trick we poor innocents had never heard of - and she was told to get up, dress and go back to her class at once."  Eventually they were yanked out of this school:  Mam realizing something was wrong when they ceased to write letters:  Jon refused to write because of the nuns' censorship.

Five years later, when Mam and her four daughters returned to India, Rumer and Jon were debutantes, and Rumer, who had never had a beau, was so flattered that she almost married at 18.  She regained her senses in time, broke the engagement, and returned to England to study dance education. (Fa said it would have been cheaper to keep her at home).  She ran a dancing school in Calcutta for several years and, between classes, wrote her first novel; then, during World War II, as a wife and mother of two children, having written her first "big" book, Black Narcissus, Godden retreated to Kashmir as “an abandoned wife” (her irresponsible, Mr. Micawber-type husband joins the army and takes up with another woman).  She renovated a bungalow, taught the children, gardened so they could live off their own vegetables, and with a sculptor neighbor traded their  children  back and forth:  it was the only way she could have uninterrupted work time.  Eventually a shocking episode with the servants cut short the idyll.  This fascinating memoir uncovers the roots of her more autobiographical novels, and in the cases of The Greengage Summer and Kingfishers Catch Fire, she quotes excerpts. A fascinating life is obviously needed

Godden captures the atmosphere of India with beauty and wit and lightly conveys the advantages of living in such a multicultural society. She also elucidates the joys and problems of a writer’s life. The book ends with her return to England. Her second memoir, A House with Four Rooms, describes her years in England.

Godden grew up inseparable from her older sister Jon, a talented writer whose bouts of mental illness impeded her stamina and prevented her achieving the same stature as Rumer.
I haven't read her, but I certainly would be interested.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

More Rumer Godden

This winter I’ve begun to read Rumer Godden again.

I rejected her many years ago, in my late teens, after I began to concentrate on the classics. Godden wasn’t good enought. Reading in bed after a day of work was too good to waste on pop fiction when I could be reading Dickens or Austen. (I’d Rather Be Reading Dickens: the T-shirt.)

I obviously hadn’t read Godden’s India novels.

Breakfast with the Nikolides and Kingfishers Catch Fire are both minor classics. Kingfishers is a little better than minor.

Kingfishers Catch Fire, an autobiographical novel based on Godden’s experiences as an impoverished mother of two children who moves to Kashmir to “live simply,” is a beautiful, moving, and symmetrically perfect gem, a poetic, sometimes comic narrative in which Godden contrasts the relative meanings of poverty to an English family and Indian villagers. Painted against a gorgeous landscape, described in colorful, piercing detail of sights and sounds, the novel delineates the misunderstandings and resentment catalyzed when the rebellious, hip mother intrudes on village life and transgresses social barriers without understanding the traditions and hierarchy dictated by pride and poverty.

In Breakfast with the Nikolides, the action revolves around the death of a dog.

When Louise Pool and two daughters return to India after eight years in France, Charles, still at odds with Louise, tries to get to know his children. He gives a dog to Emily. The dog comes down with rabies, and as Louise recognizes the symptoms, she hysterically demands that they put down the dog; she screams until she gets her way, though Charles and the young veterinarian, Dr. Das, are more conservative about the diagnosis.

The family is shattered by Louise’s actions. The children have been away at breakfast with the Nikolides. The dog’s death is a trauma, and Emily will not forgive the mother. The dog’s death also has ramifications for a widening circle, including Dr. Das, who has struggled into the middle class, and his friend, Anil, a Brahmin.

Of course it is Godden's elegant style that makes the books. But the elaborate structure underlying the style is worth studying, too.

I can remember how dismayed and dumbfounded I was when a teacher friend told me Rumer Godden was her favorite writer.

Now I respect her for standing up for this undervalued writer.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Unspeakable Skipton

Pamela Hansford Johnson's The Unspeakable Skipton is an "underclassic," an unknown, under-read, potentially cult-status humor novel - if anyone knew about it. The good news: it's still in print. The bad news: it's not readily available in the U.S. (Just ask your bookseller.) But it is well-worth reading; in fact I intend to start all over and read it again tonight.

The droll Skipton inhabits the same portrait-of-a-writer universe as Anthony Burgess's hilarious Enderby and Updike's Bech: A Book.
Skipton is a horrific character, but Johnson's short, witty book about his horribleness is perfect: she reveals his insecurities as well as his exasperating self-centeredness. Her style mimics the somewhat anemic prissiness of Skipton, who is the most finicky, narcissictic, self-deluded of writers: he lives in a garret in Bruges ("in one of "the last of the patrician houses," as he fussily reminds himself); wears socks with individually knitted toes because he thinks it's faintly obscene to have toes touching; writes 250 often libellous words a day, which preclude his neverending new epic from being published; and also repulsively cons his fond publisher and a relative, whom he refers to as Flabby Anne, out of money, hassling them via insane invectives. Without conscience, he acts as a hustler/procurer of fake antiques and voyeuristic private parties at which mildly obscene skits of Leda and the Swan are performed. The misanthropic Skipton's shady business depradations are completely, fascinatingly detached from his writing.

Skipton always needs money. He is the greatest artist of his time, so he believes, but he must sneak out of his patrician house to evade his landlady. Her daughter thinks he's so hilarious that she smuggles up food he hasn't paid for. But the tricklings of cash are not enough - he occasionally must pay his landlady - and he honestly is incapable of making a living. Yet he is so unprincipled that he believes that everyone is fair prey, and has no morals where conning the rich is concerned. At the center of the book is his chance meeting with a group of literary tourists and his attempts to dub them out of money: Dorothy Merlin, a playwright, her husband, Cosmo, a bookseller, Duncan, a photographer kind of playboy, and Matthew, a mysterious aristocrat. He's equally matched here, however, and underrates his opponents, particularly the prima donna Dorothy Merlin's husband.

Ruth Rendell writes the enthusiastic introduction to the Prion Humour Classics edition.

Anyway, it's a coincidence that I read this and Bech in the same week.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Bech: A Book

I've been attempting to read Bech: A Book, in memoriam of Updike. The buzz is that Henry Bech is "Updike's irreverent alter ego," so naturally I was curious to have a go at this lighter Updike. But these linked stories about the witty, patronizing, and often spiteful Bech utterly dismay me. Bech, on a literary tour of Russia and eastern Europe, teases and ridicules his well-meaning guides. In "Rich in Russian," he enjoys skewering the English of his guide, the translator Kate. After she earnestly shares her feelings about their tour of Tolstoy's house, rambling on about where he wrote his books, he rudely apes her English syntax, "I also like the way Upton Sinclair was in his bookcase." At one point, he reduces her to tears, and then guiltily tries to make it up to her by a surreal shopping trip In Moscow. (Kate doesn't enjoy the understocked Russian shops.)

In the next chapter, "Bech in Rumania," he gently mocks Petrescu, the polite, helpful guide and translator of Melville : Petrescu is "a fool for books." While Petrescu eagerly quizzes him about American literature, Bech, bored and rude, mimics him. Petrescu: "Is it possible to you that Pierre is a yet greater work than The White Whale?" Bech: "No, I think it is yet not so great, possibly." Petrescu: "You are ironical about my English." Yes, this is humorous --but Bech, oblivious, doesn't seem to care that people catch on to his barbs. Of course Updike portrays Bech's insensitivity, as well as his humor. Everyone is fodder for Bech's satire, and for Updike's too. Updike obviously enjoys himself, giving payback for the indignities of writer tours and other demands on his public persona. And it's all a literary joke: it opens with the fictional character Bech's letter to Updike, flippantly giving his blessing to Updike's "indecency of writing about a writer. Thus the metafictional Updike plays Boswell to Bech's Johnson.

"Until your short yet still not unlongish collection, no revolutionary has concerned himself with our oppression, with the silky mechanism whereby America reduces her writers to imbecility and cozenage....We veer between the harlotry of the lecture platform and the torture of the writing desk, only to collapse, our five-and-dime Halloween priests' robes a-rustle with economy-class jet-set tickets and honorary certificates from the Book-of-the-Month Club, amid a standing corwd of rueful Lilliputian obituaries. Our language degenerating in the mouths of broadcasters and pop yellers," etc.

It's brilliant, and yet it palls very quickly. Obviously writers experience these difficulties on writers' tours. But a little of this satire goes a long way..