Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Greengage Summer and the '60s


It’s a slow Thanksgiving, as it’s meant to be. There is no traffic on the street, a pumpkin pie was won at the Turkey Trot (not by me), the aroma of slowly roasting turkey permeates the house (baste every 15 minutes till the thermometer reads POULTRY) , and I am devoting the day to ‘60s literature.

The ‘60s literature puts me in the ‘60s holiday housewife spirit, which is my camouflage for the season. Actually I’m reading a 1963 omnibus of Rumer Godden’s novels, a book club edition bought at the Fabulous Charity Book Sale. Godden is one of my favorite writers - I especially love Kingfishers Catch Fire (reviewed here), her autobiographical masterpiece about a kind of pre-hippie widow who moves with her two children to an obscure village in India and almost gets killed because she doesn’t understand the culture.

Why does this make me feel like a ‘60s housewife?

Well, the pre-feminist ’60s is what my mother experienced. It was "before everything changed - before The Graduate,” as she recalls. She admired the Kennedys, read book club books, went to all the movies, used Green Stamps, made daily trips to the grocery store and the “locker” to get meat (our grandfather was a farmer), stayed home and took care of the children without complaint. The '60s was not for her primarily a period of social change, though she opposed the Vietnam war. Now that has not been my life, but I find it helpful to replicate the quiet atmosphere of Thanksgiving here. Nobody was depressed or suicidal over our holidays!

So there is a lot of reading going on - and there would have been a lot of smoking, too, if this had been that era. There is a little classical music in the background, but earlier we listened to Eric Clapton on “Bellbottom Blues” (1970, but close enough). And I finished The Greengage Summer - and am now blogging, a 21st-century activity, so I'm out of period.

The Greengage Summer is not Godden’s best novel, but it is a revelation: another autobiographical novel (I’ve read her autobiography), about a family of children who end up living alone at a hotel in France one summer while their mother is hospitalized for blood poisoning.

The story is divulged retrospectively through the perceptions of the narrator, Cecil, a 13-year-old girl who is beginning to understand the “grown-up” world as the action happens. Shadows waver and solidify and become human as Cecil analyzes her family’s fascination with Eliot, a kind, handsome Englishman who befriends them. Eliot comes and goes and is having a desultory affair with the owner of the hotel, the rather scatterbrained Zizi, but when Joss, Cecil’s beautiful older sister, recovers from a stomach illness and comes down from her room, Eliot is entranced and begins spending all his time with them.

The children love him, but Eliot’s girlfriend, Zizi, begins to humiliate Joss, upset by what is going on. And though Eliot and Joss don’t have an affair, Joss becomes competitive with Zizi in payback for the humilation. And as other men begin to pay attention to Joss, a tragedy unfolds.

The tone is fairly light - Cecil does not understand everything that happens as it happens - none of them understand what Eliot is up to. But the strange ambiguous ending does show him in a heroic, if rather warped, light.

I really enjoyed this. If you want to read more about Rumer Godden, go here.

Off to play Clue!

7 comments:

Maia Haines said...

Really interesting about your retreat into pre-Swinging Sixties 1960s! (which, sociologically speaking, is really still the 1950s) because for the past months I have been similarly immersed myself. Finished my re read (read it first time as a kid) of Greengage Summer last week, too. Some parts of it--innocence loss, sexual awakening, young girl's cruelty undertones--reminds me of Bonjour Tristesse, which pretty much defined that era and the coming cultural crises, albeit in a French way. Another part of my current madness with that era comes from watching, enthralled, Mad Men. Do you like it?
Really, really enjoy your blog!

Frisbee said...

Yes, the '60s didn't quite catch up with us till the end of the decade. By then we were all enthralled with the Chicago 7, Bob Dylan, The Avengers, and Doris Lessing. Some of my friends were political and introduced me not only to Betty Friedan but Catch-22! It was as though many of us lived in an alternate/parallel '60s (the '50s kind!).

Yes, I have enjoyed Mad Men. It's so stylized! I haven't read Bonjour Tristesse but I looked it up and it looks good. I'll put it on my list. And did I hear from somebody there's a reading list at the Mad Men website? John O' Hara, etc.

Danielle said...

I have this book out to read over my break from work during the holidays (so have just skimmed the part of your post talking about the book). I was a tiny tot in the 60s, but I remember some of it. What a totally different world. People came over to your house and smoked as a matter of course--ash trays were just sitting on tables as a normal knickknack! Now people don't dare smoke without asking and then they may be shooed outside. Anyway, I'm really looking forward to this one!

Frisbee said...

Danielle, I hope you enjoy it. I love Rumer Godden's books. Apparently there is also a movie based on this one. I read about it in Godden's autobiography.

Yes, people used to smoke. Now it's illegal! I'm so unused to it that when I am around a smoker my eyes water, and I never got the hang of smoking myself. Still, I have to admit I'm in favor of smoking.

Nicola said...

Interesting that Kingsfishers Catch Fire is set in India. I read The Peacock Spring a couple of years ago and that is set in India, too. I don't know a lot about Godden's life but I wonder why if she had a particular affinity for India. I adored The Greengage Summer. Wasn't Joss based on Godden's own sister!

Frisbee said...

Nicola, Godden did live in India for a number of years. She was raised there and lived there for many years as an adult: she even had a dance school there!

She's one of my favorite writers, though few of her books are in print anymore. I even like her most famous nun book: In This House of Brede (in print by Loyola Press).

Susan said...

Great review. During the late sixties my family used to rent a cottage in the Pocono mountains and the teenagers went to a drive-in movie. After watching two movies that I can't recall, they played the British film which may have had a different name. We had to leave because it was so late. Keeping in mind that this was before VHS tapes, I hunted for this movie and ended up seeing it at 10:00 a.m. about seven years later when I was at home with my daughter. I have never found it again and would love to hear that it had been made into a dvd. I subsequently read the book which became a great favorite, along with the Battle of the Villa Florita. It would be grand if someone republished Rumer Godden's books.