Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mrs. Macbeth Reads Mr. Skeffington

Call me Mrs. Macbeth. The basement is flooded. And all the fumes of popular cleansers couldn’t freshen the damp basement. Not the stinging whiff of Lysol, nor the chemical floral scent of Febreeze. We’ve swabbed the puddles and turned on the dehumidifier but the damp wafts upstairs and all the clothes now smell like basement.

I've been too busy to read much this weekend, what with the washing mania and all, but I did read Elizabeth von Arnim’s short, pithy Mr. Skeffington. This charming novel is the lightest of comedies, the tale of a woman’s coming of age at 50. A different kind of coming of age: the charming Fanny Skeffington, a London beauty, has lost her looks after an illness and fears that her 50s will hold only horrors. Her awareness of aging coincides with frequent sightings of the ghost of her ex-husband, Job Skeffington, which drive her, unnerved, to seek advice from a "women's doctor" who hates women and abuses her for being single- and Fanny, thank God, walks out on him. She invents her own treatment, to visit men from her past for reassurance. Her ex-suitors include a sychophantic Oxford undergraduate; a misogynist priest; a rigid, narcissistic judge; and a wealthy, poetry-loving lord who, after Fanny dumped him, married a younger woman and started a family. Her adventures bring back different aspects of her self and past. Upset that she has lost her allure for men, she realizes that she has outgrown her need for these particular men's approval. She has had nothing but her beauty to rely on and understands that she has no inner resources. Von Arnim comments not only on beauty but on money and prejudice against Jews (Mr. Skeffington is a Jew): she isn't sappy and ends this with a twist. It's amusing, though not nearly as entertaining as Enchanted April or The Caravaners.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Helena Trilogy

Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Helena trilogy, of which An Avenue of Stone is the brilliant centerpiece, is a masterly blend of Johnson’s confident voice and integration of psychological insights into well-drawn characters, precisely connected to time-frames and places - 1920s to late ‘40s in Bruges, London, and Paris.

To read the second novel first, An Avenue of Stone (1947), is both an advantage and a liability. Each novel is self-contained, so it is not necessary to read them in order. An Avenue of Stone is a tour de force, much more compelling than the other two, though it rather satirically portrays Helena, and one needs the first novel to understand her background. As Johnson says in the introduction to the 1972 edition of the first book, Too Dear for My Possessing, she was learning her craft when it was published in 1940, as opposed to the maturity of the second and the third novels, published in 1947 and 1948 respectively: “So, between books 1 and 2, I had seven years of learning to write: which is why I’ have decided not to revise Too Dear for My Possessing, but to leave it as it stands.”

Too Dear for My Possessing is a sprawling bildungsroman, following the fortunes of the narrator, Claud, a writer’s son, from age 13 to 30. Growing up in Bruges, he has an almost perfect childhood, tainted by occasional violent quarrels with his moody stepmother, Helena, a former chorus girl who bursts into spontaneous comic song or despairing tirades, depending on her quickly shifting moods. After Claud is sent to London to attend school, he adapts quickly to life with a kind, Dickensian uncle, but after his father’s death, he forms an obsessive Oedipal bond with Helena. At 15, he moves in with her and his half-sister, Charmian, and, at 17 gets a job as an insurance clerk. He is possessive and furious when Helena takes in a boarder.

It was because I felt myself a bread-winner that I so deeply resented Helena’s tenant.

“What the hell do we want with a lodger?” I demanded.

She stared belligerently at the space between my eyes. “He’s not a lodger, and I didn’t see why we should have that top back room doing nothing when we could make fifteen bob out of it.”

“But we’ve managed all right before! And now I’m earning we need money even less. Father would have had a fit. Have you been putting a card up?”

Her face was brick red. I noticed that she had dabbed fresh dye upon the widening parting of her hair. “No, I didn’t.”

“Well, then, how did you get him?”

“I met him.”

Claud becomes an art critic, has girlfriends, and marries a woman as a reaction to the news of a girlfriend's marriage. He is in love with a cabaret actress, Cecil Archer, who is obviously connected in his mind with Helena,r: he is too proud to follow her and settles for second-best. The Cecil sections are, to my mind, the dullest of the novel. But Claud is a fascinating character, and I enjoyed this very much.

I’m still reading A Summer to Decide. More on that later!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

An Avenue of Stone

We drove 200 miles to our favorite town of bookstores, hoping it had recovered from last year’s flood. The first thing we did was walk along the river. The river is usually the scene of readers, ducks, dogs playing frisbee, canoeists, runners, artists, strolling lovers, and workers rejuvenating themselves on their lunch breaks. Now much of the riverbank is fenced off, and we walked quite a way to find access. Cranes and bulldozers stand minatory among the sandbags, defacing the landscape with their crude reds and yellows. The flood destroyed several buildings, among them the Art Museum, and, since FEMA money can't be used to rebuild on a floodplain, we suppose they're working on a new levee. The river is very high, even with the bank, as you can see from the photo above.

The rising water also threatened the library last summer. Employees and volunteers saved rare books by passing them from hand to hand up the stairs. The library survived.

We sat down to admire the blue water and beautiful spring sunlight. I finished Pamela Hansford Johnson’s An Avenue of Stone; this unforgettable novel is a masterpiece, the second of a trilogy, which can stand alone. In this brilliant novel, set at the end of World War II, the narrator, Major Claud Pickering, an art historian and writer, describes the volatile relationships of his stepmother, Helena, amidst the deprivations of rationing and the disintegrating class boundaries of the postwar society.

The novel begins with Helena's ramblings about class.

“As a class,” Helena said, “we are doomed...”

Helena, a former chorus girl who married into the upper class and has established herself as a glittering hostess, loves to talk about the rebellion of the proles. As the novel begins, the sixty-something Helena is entertaining guests with outrageous complaints about the collapse of society, illustrated by exaggerated anecdotes about rude bus conductors and insolent shop girls. After her second husband, Lord Archer, dies, leaving the majority of his money to Helena’s daughter, Charmian, and, shockingly, to his former lovers, Helena can no longer live on the grand scale to which she is accustomed. She is persuaded to let her hunky chauffeur go and move into an apartment with Claud and Charmian. Helena, unused to living without admiration, becomes vulnerable to a kind of asexual love affair with Johnny Field, an irritatingly self-denigrating young man, whom Claud introduces into the household, assuring her that Johnny needs rest and “does nothing but read.”

At first she uses Johnny as a lackey to pass appetizers at parties and install linoleum at her cottage , but later she is fascinated by him and insists that she can't live without him. Claud and Charmian can't bear the situation and move out. Johnny the unlikely gigolo, is, surprisingly, a magnet to older women. One of Lord Archer’s former lovers, Mrs. Olney, a lamp shade maker, also tries to lure him to live with her.

Claud’s observations of this unlikely triangle are the center of the novel. But his wry observations keep him in the forefront, and it is for his voice that we read. This very slightly reminds me of Anthony Powell's novels.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fields of Prairie Grass

This afternoon I bicycled past a burning field. As the yellow-brown smoke thickened into a ghastly smog, I accelerated past the burning prairie grass, and though I’m not a smoke reader (there are people who calculate emissions for a living), I didn't want to breathe the obviously polluted air. Men in yellow coats and hard hats stood nonchalantly at the edges, not wearing safety masks, ready to put out the fire if it got out of hand.The parks department probably yawns over coffee: “Gotta do three fields today.” It’s the cycle of work for them. The prairie grass will be thick and wavy again in another couple of months. A renaissance.

Well away from the fire, I sat down with my thermos and book. A taped-together Penguin of Pamela Hansford Johnson’s An Avenue of Stone is not geographically correct after the burning of prairie grass. More appropriate farm books: Willa Cather’s O Pioneers; Bess Aldrich’s A Lantern in Her Hand; Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres; Martha Bergland’s A Farm under a Lake; Larry Woiwode's What I Think I Did; and, for light relief, Betty MacDonald's The Egg and I.

But one cannot live always in reality, and Pamela Hansford Johnson, a genius at depicting class differences in England, sweeps me far away. An Avenue of Stone promisingly begins:

“As a class,” Helena said, “we are doomed” - indicating consciousness of her absurdity only by a bright flash in my direction from her Tiberian eye.

More about this later.

By the way, nobody was surprised about the fire. "Oh yeah, I saw it." That laconic prairie matter-of-factness is even part of the cities here.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

More Dodie Smith

I spent the lovely day basking in the warm sun in an old Road Runner t-shirt and holey sweats, sipping iced tea and reading Dodie Smith’s The New Moon with the Old. This 1963 pop masterpiece has somehow fallen below the critical radar, but this witty, elegant novel is even more engaging than the classic, I Capture the Castle. It begins with Jane Minton, a glamorous secretary-housekeeper, arriving at the beautiful Dome House to take a job. And though she is intimidated by the size of Dome House and ironically quizzes herself as to why she has taken a job she does not need, the portents are good.

She did not believe in omens but instantly knew that this was a good one: the afternoon sun, coming from behind the clouds, had turned the gray of the glass dome to a shimmer of gold. Seen from this hilltop where she had got out of her car to reconnoiter - and there could be no doubt that was Dome House- the effect was quite dazzling, and extremely cheering.

Only a moment before, her spirits had been low. The slate roof surrounding the dome was so large, the chimneys sprouting from the roof so numerous - and she had undertaken to do the housekeeping. That might prove to be a polite name for housework. One didn’t mind a reasonable amount; as a resident secretary one was usually roped in for it. But with a house that size...!

Now, in this sudden sunlight...

And she promptly falls in love with the Carrington family: Clare, the beautiful, unconventional, but rather harried older daughter who has been the housekeeper since her teens (she hilariously wants to be a king's mistress); Drew, a brilliant 19-year-old writing a historical novel set in Edwardian times; Merry, a 14-year-old aspiring actress who is prone to whimsical statements and can rattle off Chekhov, Sheridan, and Shakespeare: and Richard, a reticent composer who soon accepts her. The family watches TV every night with the two maids, who are treated charmingly as members of the family. But shortly thereafter Jane's absentee employer, Rupert Carrington, a London businessman, visits Dome House and confides that he must flee the country because he is about to be arrested for fraud. And all of them must suddenly get jobs...

Their jobs are fascinating: they reveal much about their psychology. In a way the Carringtons are like the Mortmains of I Capture the Castle: earning power nil (if you remember that scene). But they do embark on a variety of adventures and prove very creative.

I was so fascinated that when I absently spilled tea on it I frantically swabbed the cellophane cover, only to discover that thank God the book was pristine while only my t-shirt was ruined: the book smells of 1963 old library book, a vintage paper aroma that somebody should immediately bottle.

Interlibrary loan can be a godsend...

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Death of the Heart & Friends and Relations

Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart is one of the best “diary” novels of the 20th century: this brilliant portrait of a girl's coming of age is drawn partly through a diary and letters, and partly through her guardian brother and his wife's witty, despairing conversations about her awkwardness.  The orphan Portia moves to London to live with her chilly half-brother, Thomas, and his arrogant, sophisticated wife, Anna. She is self-conscious in their glittering, too-perfectly decorated house. She records their drawing-room conversations and foibles in her journal. And Anna furtively reads it and complains even more about Portia's invasive watchfulness to two male writer friends than to Thomas.

Bowen's books were not read much during my student days. Viragos were just starting: we were more likely to know Antonia White or Elizabeth Taylor. A professor with a soft spot for me recommended The Death of the Heart during my miserable final year of grad school, when I became notorious for reading novels in my library study carrel between stints of long nail-biting study - I was a nervous wreck.

“Did you read Knox?”

“I can’t do anymore today.” (Swallowing a gummy worm.)

“Oh, then don’t. So you’re reading X? Have you read Elizabeth Bowen?”

In critical reassessments in the future, he thought that Bowen might be considered a better stylist than Virginia Woolf. I'm never sure what people mean when they say such things. The two are so different: Woolf and Bowen are at opposite ends of the spectrum - except that they record feminine experience. But Bowen has her own peculiar lyrical style. Her characters in her early novels sometimes seem wooden in comparison to her oddly shaped sentences - just a poetic word too many -, but it doesn't matter because the writing is so good. That is, if you’re a Bowen person.

Here's an example of her prose from the beginning of her 1932 novel, Friends and Relations:

The morning of the Tilney-Studdart wedding rain fell steadily from before daylight, veiling trees and garden and darkening the canvas of the marquee that should have caught the earliest sun in happy augury. The bride's relations frowned in sleep and were roused with a sense of doom by rain's inauspicious mutter on roofs and windowsills Clouds with their reinforcements came rolling over the Malvern hills. Till quite late, the rooms at Corunna Lodge were dusky as though the morning had been delayed.

It’s the phrases like “in happy augury,” "with a sense of doom," and "clouds with their reinforcements" that mark Bowen as a poet, but some of her beautiful adverbial phrases are excessive in the eyes of her detractors. She underlines and illustrates the augury for the marriage, which turns out to be mixed - the bride, Laurel, doesn't care about the weather, and only wants the wedding to Edward be over - but the sun comes out before the wedding. There are complications: Edward's mother, an eccentric divorcee, prefers Laurel’s sister, the more practical Janet, and is disappointed about her son's choice: she treats Janet as the daughter-in-law. And though Laurel marries Rodney, a wealthy man, the meetings between the sisters and their husbands are awkward, because Edward can't get over the fact that Rodney's uncle had a notorious affair with his mother, which ruined his childhood.

One of the main reasons to read early Elizabeth Bowen is to see how it develops into later-period brilliant Bowen. Friends and Relations is good, but one should start with The Death of the Heart.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Babbling Book

In 1998 I was lounging in a bookstore, fervently praising John Thorndike's memoir, Another Way Home, when an eavesdropper swooped upon a copy, whisked it off to the cashier, and thanked me for the recommendation.

Smilng, he told the owner, “Hire that woman.”

1998 was a pretty good year for unpaid bookselling.  I'd been an accidental bookseller at The Owl for at least 10 years, since the buyer and I mutually sold each other on the strange novels of Rachel Ingalls and Robert Irwin.    I enjoyed hanging out at The Owl, reading bits and pieces of books I'd never heard of, and conducting ridiculous “first sentence tests” and “sincere or suck-up reviewer blurb tests.” I would daringly buy a book on the basis of a good first sentence, but not on a famous author’s blurb after discovering their frequent sell-outs. Customers overheard my ravings, as I overheard theirs . And sometimes we decided to buy each other's favorite books.

The owner of The Owl, a very cute little bookstore, offered me a job.

I thought the offer was ridiculous, because my already tiny salary as a greeting card writer would shrink to Lilliputian proportions if I accepted. “If you’d change your name to The Could I Make Any Less Money? Bookstore,” I said.

"What? Oh. Well, we'd give you a Christmas bonus."

I couldn’t honestly see that I’d be any good at running the cash register. This indie bookstore didn't have a computerized cash register, and I had serious money issues: like how much to tip in restaurants and at the hairdresser’s? Making change wasn’t something I’d done since sixth grade. But of course I was also supposed to chat to people.

“And that will be your strength.”

“Could you call yourself The Babbling Book?  The Accidental Bookseller?”

Bookstores don’t demand great social skills.

I didn’t take the job. I often wish I had. Not then, of course. The bookstore closed six months later, as so many independent bookstores have . But I would have liked to have been one of those arty bookstore saleswomen with jangly jewelry and glasses on a chain, and elegant dresses over tights and Mary Janes. It would have been fun except for the money. It would have been fun if the bookstore hadn't closed.

There are so few indie bookstores now. The Owl was a particularly good one.

But - and I could have told them this - owls were bad luck to the Romans.

N.B.  John Thorndike's Anna Delaney's Child is one of my favorite novels.  Save this novel!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

To Serve Them All My Days

I can't fall into old-fashioned historical novels the way I used to. I keep coming up for air. Yet I've entertained myself the last couple of nights with To Serve Them All My Days, which is great fun, a sheer escape into a gentle post-World War I landscape that probably didn't exist. (By the way, To Serve Them All My Days is still in print and also readily available at used bookstores.)

This is the only book by R. F. Delderfield I've read. I despised his blockbuster novels on the basis of the titles until I saw To Serve Them All My Days on "Masterpiece Theater," the classics-adaptation showcase to which I was addicted as a young anglophile (though I’ve lost touch since then). As I was a "militant" anglophile, not an imperialist, I scorned books with chauvinistic titles - and titles don't get much worse than Delderfield's - like God Is an Englishman and Theirs Was the Kingdom. But perhaps the titles were code to alert a certain niche of readers who were half-nostalgic for the interwar period. At any rate, they were very popular. And perhaps the frame of “Masterpiece Theater” allowed the rest of us to enjoy them.

To Serve Them All My Days is a behind-the-scenes school novel, and if you've taught at a private school it will ring true. It is realistic in its descriptions of staff squabbles, politics, and changing alliances, though its depiction of the boys' quirky mischief, loyalty, and occasional gallantry may seem simplistic . The hero, David Powlett-Jones, a Welsh coal miner's son and a veteran of World War I, metamorphoses into a genius teacher at a private school. We first meet David on the brink of his interview for the teaching job for which he has applied at the urging of a doctor, who believes the healthy setting and fresh air will restore David's shattered nerves. And Bamfylde, located on the beautiful moors, does heal him. The challenge of teaching history to boys of all ages stimulates his intelligence and sparks his inherent creativity: he links WWI history with the distant past in a way that engages the boys. There's also romance, tragedy, and second chances. Delderfield is an intelligent writer whose solid novel is scaffolded on fascinating characters, an understated style, and old-fashioned, chronological storytelling.

Pamela Hansford Johnson's The Honours Board is a much, much more interesting school novel; but I've enjoyed my Delderfield.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Dodie Smith Canon

The lively writer Dodie Smith can be read again and again without pall, but only her classic novel, I Capture the Castle, and her children's book, The Hundred and One Dalmations, are in print. Therefore, I was thrilled to find The Town in Bloom, a 1965 novel, at a sale. it’s amazing when a rare book like this turns up . Some public libraries have a severe weeding policy - a banner at our library practically says, NO ‘60s POP FICTION AVAILABLE -and this book is, indeed, an ex-library book.

I’ve read I Capture the Castle eight or nine times, and once carried it as a talisman when I taught at a school that didn’t hire substitutes and had to proctor my classes during a bout of laryngitis. When students approached, I looked so glazed and threateningly germy that they took turns scrawling my notes on the board, fetched me cups of lukewarm tea, and allowed me to read my Smith comfort book. (Later I disinfected it and passed it around. I’m afraid I Capture the Castle may have been more popular than anything I assigned.) I have never met anyone who was less than charmed by Smith’s characters and blithe voice. The young, dreamy narrator, Cassandra, an aspiring writer, writes droll sketches in her diary of her family life in a dilapidated castle. “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,” she begins.

The Town in Bloom is very stagy, so if you’re interested in the theater, you’ll enjoy it. It begins with a luncheon. LIke the author, the narrator, Mouse, is an amusing dilettante writer and a former aspiring actress; one minute she aches to finish writing a book, the next she decides she'd prefer to paint. Her wry viewpoint charms us from the beginning. When her eccentric friend Lilian, a former actress, invites three old theater friends to lunch by dramatically placing a personals ad in The Times, Lilian, Mouse, and Molly are the three who show up. But when Mouse glimpses an old woman on a park bench who might be the missing Zelle, she embarks on a taxi chase across London.

The novel is quite charming, though Mouse is not as interesting as Cassandra. The luncheon forms a frame for the book: Mouse's narration of an unforgettable period of their youth makes up the main story. At 18, the stagestruck Mouse moves to London. Although she cannot find a job as an actress - she is told again and again that she is a bad actress - she lives in a club for actresses and artists where she meets Lilian and Molly, who act in musical comedies. When Mouse lands a job at a prestigious theater as a secretary, she learns the business of the theater. Unfortunately, when she understudies for an understudy, she turns a drama into a comedy and infuriates the actors. She also falls for the famous actor/manager Rex Crossway.

Some scenes are extremely entertaining. The three meet Zelle on a rainy afternoon when they park their suitcases and handbags at a NO-VACANCY boarding house while they search for a cheap place to stay. Then they forget where the boarding house is (they can't even find the street). In desperation they finally dash out of the pouring rain into an unlocked empty house to use the telephone. While nervously drying off, they tour the house, and when Zelle finds them she is instantly amused, helps them find their boarding house in a taxi, and then treats them to dinner. (She pretends at first that she has a gun, but isn't afraid because she has eavesdropped on them and finds them hilarious.)

Some scenes are flat, but others show her dramatic flair (Smith was also a playwright). I Capture the Castle is the better novel, but I’m also enjoying this mildly. The cover flap, to which one should never pay attention, informed me: “The unusual little heroine’s freshness of outlook recalls that of Cassandra in ICTC, but Mouse is a more fully developed character with a deeper knowledge of life.” When I finish I’ll let you know. Smith fans might be disappointed; theater fans might like it.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Survival of the Fittest

I took time out from Drood (which has become increasingly terrifiying) to peruse another Pamela Hansford Johnson.

The Survival of the Fittest is a long, ambitious, sprawling novel which chronicles the relationships of a leftist group of friends from their youth in the 1930s through middle age in the 1960s. This is a remarkably earnest novel for Johnson, who doesn’t usually go in for epics. The Survival of the Fittest unknots the intertwined threads of leftist politics, history, love, and literature which link the group. The friends consists of a mixture of intelligent upwardly-mobile lower-middle-class workers and leftist aristocrats who, in the early days, denigrate or denounce their origins. Their coming of age in the wilds of the shadow of World War II marks them and sets them apart from subsequent generations. But in the time of crisis, literature unites the group: the unassuming, kind, stable Alison and the hard-drinking, mercurial Kit rise from anonymity to become successful, well-reviewed novelists; Clem is a well-known political journalist who analyzes the war; Bobby writes communist novels heavily edited by his publisher; and Jo publishes only one short story. All, both writers and non-writers, attempt to help the aspiring writer Jo, who cannot escape his childhood home because he and his sister Mildred, a teacher, must care for their domineering, crippled mother. And friendship means the most to him, since he does not form new familial bonds. This makes him the central figure of the group, as his home situation is static over the decades.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Musings on Warm Weather

I ran across the lawn to intercept my B&N packages. “Can I save you a trip?”

The UPS lady looked at me askance and wordlessly handed over my boxes. Then she rolled slowly down the street, idled in front of a nearby house, and spied on me until I shambled back into the house. She really did wait (maybe she was on a break). Perhaps she didn’t recognize me with my new short hair ( I barely recognize myself) and was determined to make sure I wasn't some light-fingered Jehovah's Witness camping on my porch. Her mission done, she roared off in the truck. (In the pic below, don't the trees look ready to wash their hair? It's the reflection!)

It was a stunning, high-blue-skied, warm day of dripping sunshine - too lovely to stay indoors and read Bleak House. After a lazy morning with Esther and the the Jellybys, I mounted my bicycle and headed downtown to the Coffee Garden, skirting the smashed glass on the bridge - why do alienated drunks break bottles on pedestrian bridges in the spring? And where do they get the glass since everything is made of plastic nowadays? Though glass is biodegradable, so there should be a concerted effort to shut down plastic factories and go back to glass and WAXED CARTONS.

After grabbing my coffee and cookie, I sat outside on a bench squinting (forgot my sunglasses) and counting the number of people in black. Fifteen in black inside, five in the garden. People in pastels and raggedy smokers in smoke-bleached garments tended to dominate the garden. Black-clad business prima donnas clung to their artificial air-conditioned comfort zone. The air was good today, according to an air quality emissions expert. Perhaps we should have spread the word and liberated the primas? But who would have been their eco-leader? Not I, because sadly I committed a fashion faux pas wearing jeans with muddy hems (from the road) and a mail-order blouse I didn't have the patience to return. A wardrobe of black can make infinite fashion statements. If you don't know who you are, black is also handy. That stretchy black dress can be tarted up with green jewelry and a scarf around the waist. That black jacket looks rather well with your black silk t-shirt, slacks, and dominatrix boots.

Then I went into the library, which is shaped like a giant airplane made apparently out of copper screen. I grabbed a book, The Tea-Olive Birdwatching Society, and plopped down at a table. The birdwatcher characters were all Baptists who inherited some land and were apparently prepared to murder to keep it intact. Since I'm not as religious and deluded as Beulah-Land and Love-Divine and the other birdwatchers named after hymn phrases, I certainly wasn't keen on their murder plan. So much for cozies.... I discreetly moved away from the nearest homeless person after a bug appeared on my table. SQUASH. I GOT IT. Traumatized, I curled up in a ghastly meta-armchair upstairs. The back of the chair is several feet back even from tall people's backs, so that if I wanted to sit back comfortably and didn't want my long legs dangling above the floor, my one hope was to find a footstool and spread out as though on a chaise longue. Footstool, footstool! There are no footstools. Someone has taken them home, or something. So I had to sit cross-legged, muddy soles up: and if that didn't make me look like a homeless person....well! I was expecting to be herded out any minute. I was reading a library book that made very little sense. I abandoned The Tea-Olive Birdwatching Society conspicuously beside a computer. I was afraid to put it back: bugs.

I saw a boat roaring - BRRRRRrRR- on the river and didn't even mind. Several rangers were hauling and chopping trees downed by last year's brutal storms. Alas, the reading tree is gone. For many summers I saw the same man reading next to the river under a particular tree I always called the reading tree.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Mrs. Tim News

In August, Bloomsbury will reissue D. E. Stevenson's charming Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, the first novel in the out-of-print Mrs. Tim quartet. It is one of the launch titles of Bloomsbury's new reprint library, the Bloomsbury Group. I raved about Mrs. Tim last fall when I found it at the library - it is one of those books you can't help but laugh aloud over, even if you wake up your spouse while reading in bed - and if you're apprehensive about the prospect of militaristic overtones, the breezy Mrs. Tim of the Regiment has none. The intelligent, witty Hester records her daily life in a gossipy diary, which is loosely based on D. E. Stevenon's own diaries. Published at approximately the same time as The Provincial Lady, the narrative is to my mind much more fleshed-out and amusing. But it's safe to say that if you like The Provincial Lady - and even if you don't like The Provincial Lady - you'll like Mrs. Tim, because she is frankly less dry and snobbish. I can't wait to acquire it: when I looked last fall, the prices were too high, though they might have come down since. Remember last summer when the Virago edition of Rachel Ferguson's The Brontes Went to Woolworths was selling at the scandalous price of $50? So was Mrs. Tim. (And, by the way, The Brontes Went to Woolworths is another of the Bloomsbury Group titles, so we can also buy that in an affordable edition).

Here is the link to Bloomsbury's Mrs. Tim page:

And here is the link to my review:

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Honours Board

We went to Carpe Diem today, our favorite coffee house, which was teeming with college students studying for midterms and writing furiously on their computers. Of course they could have been writing e-mail. Some were definitely surfing the internet. No cell phones, though. Minimal conversation. At any rate there we were, all of us quiet, sipping coffee, and reading. The atmosphere of a library annex.

I continue to swoop upon out-of-print middlebrow novels at university libraries. My taste for the underrated is galvanized by my infatuation with Pamela Hansford Johnson, my favorite writer of the moment. I just finished The Honours Board, which is one of her better books, a fascinating portrayal of the lives of the disparate, volatile, questing, and sometimes anguished staff of a liberal boys’ prep school. Johnson's books are really novels of character rather than style: her plain style is serviceable and energetic and her intelligence shines through, but it is her energetic characters who keep you reading. Even when her plots falter (which is seldom), her characters are unusually well-drawn - though often like no one you would want to meet in real life.

In this novel, however, the characters are equally divided between the genial and the horrific. The headmaster, Annick, and his super-competent wife, Grace, strive to provide a “family” atmosphere for the faculty, genuinely wanting harmony in the school, smoothing the conflicts between good teachers and demonized, conservative and liberal, popular and unpopular. But Annick is increasingly nervous about the school’s financial problems and the failure of his students, despite good teaching, to move on to top public schools. So the novel begins at a double crisis: Annick is resisting the offer of a conservative - and sadistic - math and gym teacher, Rupert Massinger, who, with his gym teacher wife, Blossom, want to buy the school; and he is also welcoming a brilliant student, Quillan, who he hopes will win a scholarship and raise the reputation of the school. There is pressure on all sides.

But the book really focuses on the secrets of the faculty. Johnson’s teachers are not stereotypical, and it is their very individuality that makes their "case histories" and neuroses believable. The terrible Rupert, who is an unsuccessful math teacher , has a secret drawer of kinky literature (the less said the better) and insists on borderline-rape-style sex with the secretary who discovers it . Mrs. Murray, the French teacher, another uncharismatic teacher, is hysterical and lonely, older than most of the teachers at 56, and socially inept: “She had never been able to accept the kindly attempts of the Annicks to draw her into the family life of the staff; asked for sherry or a chat, she would almost invariably find some excuse for not going.” Yet she desperately needs support. “As usual the boys were stealthily out of hand. Richard Searle had dipped a snail in an ink-pot and was setting it to trail across his book. David Maitland was making spit-balls and piling them up like miniature cannon balls in a heap. Morgan was humming under his breath, just quietly enough to escape rebuke...”

(Oh dear! Johnson must have taught at a private school.)

Then there is the brilliant Canning, a scientist from the lower-middle class, who lives a sort of alternate childhood through creating wonderful lessons and labs at this school for the upper classes. The star teacher of Downs Park, Canning is constantly being offered huge salaries to go work in industry . But his affair with Annick’s daughter, a beautiful widow with a complex sex life, is one of the draws of the schools. One strait-laced teacher's wife is a frivolous, witty alcoholic, who unfortunately falls down all over campus and during the art classes she attempts to teach. And then there is Betty Cope, the ultra-feminine assistant matron, a lesbian who inspires unrequited love. And on and on.

Anyone who has taught at a private school will appreciate this book, though it is not just a school novel.

Oh, the picture is of Eton, by the way. I couldn't find anything better.