Sunday, November 25, 2012

Books That Get You through the Holidays: Olivia Manning's The Doves of Venus

This year Marilyn French's The Women's Room, my chosen trashy book to read while basting the turkey, didn't hold my interest.  

The turkey was dry and overcooked. That was okay, because I don't have much vested in cooking.  But it happened because the old guys returned late from a community center one illicitly has the key to. 

I opened a jar of gravy.

 Over pie a drunken friend recited Hart Crane's "The Bridge," the subject of her dissertation, until given an alcohol-free Martini, which she thought had alcohol in it. Then there was some listening to the Beatles and Wynton Marsalis.  Then there was Charades, and someone did "Fifty Shades of Grey," and, yeah, I guessed it.  

Then our friend Natalie burst into tears, because her evil ex- stole her car, which is, yeah, his officially, but he zooms around in an SUV, and she needed the old Chevy to get to Walmart to work the graveyard shift.  Usually she can cope with him, but somehow...The holiday?  Anyway, we called to say we'd put it up on our Facebook page if he didn't give the car back so she could work Grey Thursday.

Well, that was a blatant lie because we don't have a Facebook page.

What counter-culture person has a Facebook page?

I have been very tired the last couple of days.  I slept till ten Friday and Saturday. Then I took a hike on a hilly trail in the wrong pair of shoes and limped back to a picnic table to wait for a ride--the first time I've ever broken down on a walk.  

So reading and more reading was the answer. 

Olivia Manning's The Doves of Venus is a gorgeously-written, exuberant novel about what it meant to be female in the mid-twentieth century.  It traces the career of Ellie, a young woman who leaves her home in Eastsea for London, where she finds a job painting and "antiquing" Regency furniture.  She doesn't mind living in a tiny room, and is utterly intoxicated by her unfaithful lover, Quintin, the middle-aged man who  seduced her and got her the promotion to work in the studio. 

Parallel to the narrative of Ellie, and possibly more interesting, though much less developed, is the sketch of Petta, Quintin's wife, a suicidal drifting former beauty.  She is living with Theo, a tabloid journalist, and Quintin doesn't expect to hear from her.  But a stranger calls Quintin in the middle of the night to say he has talked Petta down from jumping off the parapet of Westminster Bridge.  Quintin is stuck with Petta, because there is nowhere for her to go.
Manning's descriptions are incomparable.  Here is Quintin looking at Petta after her suicide attempt.

"Under the ghastly violet-white of the fluorescent strips, Petta had the pallor of the unliving....

"She gave him a quick, uncertain glance, then, making a movement coquettish and pathetic, turned away.  She had been crying.  Looking down on her head, he noticed in the filmy fairness of her hair a sort of dusting of gray hairs.  Her whole appearance had taken on a kind of lifeless dryness as though, during the months she had been away, she had been pressed colourless like a flower in a book."   
Petta is an unsympathetic character, and yet haven't we women all been there?  Why should she/we be compared with girls of 18?  Why should she not be upset and sneery?  She is upset at a party by the younger generation, who are sensible and conventional, not chic and nonchalant, as she and her friends were in the aftermath of World War II.  When she sees her daughter from her first marriage, Flora, she is envious that Flora plans to be a doctor, bypassing the dependence of the beautiful woman. 

 But most of this charming novel is not about Petta.  Manning describes Ellie's struggles with genteel poverty, her work, and her exhilaration with the sights of London.  She also vividly delineates Ellie's friendship with Nancy, an artist in the studio who is also poor.  We see the girls giggling together, floundering, yet invincible, determined not to go back to the provinces.  And when they visit Nancy's uncle, Tom Claypole, a wealthy old man, for a weekend, they love the food and warmth, so different from their experience in London.  But Nancy uses Ellie to distract him from Maxine, a former friend who is trying to usurp Nancy's place in Tom's will.

Manning (1908-1980) is best known for The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, autobiographical novels about her experiences during World War II in Bucharest, Greece, Cairo, and Germany.

The voices of the women in The Doves of Venus are pitch-perfect, and this is one of the best "middlebrow" novels I've read this year.

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