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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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How Fiction Works
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Housekeeping
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This page re-visits favourite books and authors from the past. So far: Jean Kerr, James Joyce, Albert Camus, Henry James, Anthony Powell, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch and W. Somerset Maugham;  then The Edge of Day (Lee) and The Waterfall (Drabble). The most recent reviews appear at the top of the page.

Please Don't Eat the Daisies by Jean Kerr (1957)

During a retreat a couple of years ago, this book was the best that the convent library could do to match my mood. I remembered hearing my mother discuss it with a very soignee girlfriend of one of my older brothers one summer afternoon around 1958. From their tone, it was obvious that something very witty and sophisticated was on offer. And so it turned out to be on my investigation.

     There wasn't any mention in that conversation, or indeed in the book, of Ms. Kerr's Catholicism, but I can't help thinking that there was a covert pride in the women's admiration of her: to think that she should be a member of that dazzling New York social circle, all those glittering theatrical openings (with her husband, critic Walter Kerr), all that hob-knobbing with glamorous celebrities -- and that she should be one of our own, a good Catholic mother with all those kids (four sons)!

            Re-reading Please Don't Eat the Daisies now (a copy from the local library), it amazes me to find so much of it still very funny. Many of the best lines I remember verbatim from my first reading nearly half a century ago. It would take too long to list favourites. One would be the comment about why her kids won't have to pay psychiatrists years hence to find out why their parents slipped up so badly. "We'll tell them why we rejected them. Because they're impossible, that's why."

     Among other favourite bits: her explanation of why she became a writer -- so that she could stay in bed in the morning. I treasure her description of why she does all her writing in the car. The problem, see, is that, in any other location, she'll avoid writing by reading anything available, even the label on a milk of magnesia bottle. In the car, however, she has memorized all the writing on hand: "Chevrolet, E-gasoline-F, 100-temp-200." Her hilarious send-up of writers who move to the country to commune with nature acquires even more point in retrospect, given the back-to-the-land fad of the 70s. One of her best subjects is the exasperation of coping with kids: eg. her observations on the different bedtime behaviours of a middle-aged man and an eight year old boy.

     It seems to me that Ms. Kerr was a pace-setter in the colloquial, breezy use of English with a typical American flavour. Just one example, her explanation of why she's not nuts about nature: "When I see a tree whose leafy mouth is pressed against the earth's sweet flowing breast, I think, `Well, that's a nice-looking oak, but it doesn't change my way of life." Time and again, she gets off the quip with just the right cadence, the perfect flip tone.

      It also strikes me that Ms. Kerr was something of a forerunner of the women's movement. Through the whole book, you can detect a subtext about the absurdity of trying to be the competent homemaker and all-knowing mother and wife that the 1950s American culture expects her to be. Take her chapter on home decorating. In her floundering with wallpaper and upholstery samples, you can feel the liberated woman drying to break out. Her rebellion as a comic would never go as far as Phyllis Diller's; Erma Bombeck was a follower more in the spirit of Ms.Kerr. You know you can count on her to be an essentially nice person but you feel that there's a sharp intelligence operating and a shrewdness that sees through most of the falderol around her.

     Surprisingly few chapters have faded with the passage of time. Her jokes about dieting seem a bit lame now, given our recent obsession with fitness. And her theory that the fat wives are the happily married ones doesn't bear up well. Parodies of a Mike Hammer mystery and an existential angst novel have a sophomoric feel to them. The only joke they have to offer is the fact that somebody thought of doing them. Satire has come a long way since the 1950s (Saturday Night Live, Monty Python), so it's hard to squeeze much fun out of these mild pieces.

      But the few faded passages make the rest shine all the brighter. For me, Ms. Kerr's death last year marked the passing of one of the great spirits of American humour. But don't, by all means, pul-eeese don't, go looking for the movie based on the book. That was my first experience of the way Hollywood buys something and destroys it. On the other hand, the very thought of seeing herself played by Doris Day probably gave Ms. Kerr a good laugh. Maybe she's still laughing.

Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)

I think it's fair to enter this on the "Re-readings" page since I started it so many times over the years. Eventually, I did finish it after Jane gave me a copy for my birthday a few years ago.

     Yes, it's a great book. Teeming with life. It's tragic, comic, beautiful and touching. Molly Bloom's soliloquy is a marvel. I especially love the shenanigans of the guys living in the tower. (While staying with friends who lived just down the road in Dun Laoghaire in the 1960s, I visited that tower and saw scrawny old men looking like George Bernard Shaw leaping naked into the sea.)

   Given the number of references to the Catholic latin liturgy that I picked up, and knowing that they would be opaque to young readers today, I could only guess at the vast number of alllusions that I was probably missing. No matter. You never feel that you're immersed in anything less than the chaotic, confusing, deliriously stimulating and exciting business of real life.

     Except for that surrealistic section about the nighttime prowl. How are we supposed to take that? I would assume it's meant to be a dream sequence. But subsequent references make it seem that we're supposed to take it as something that really happened. Is my mind just too literal to make the imaginative leap that would unlock the key for me? Some day I must see what the scholars have to say.

 

L'Etranger (1942) and La Chute (1956) by Albert Camus

About a year ago, Eleanor Wachtel (CBC radio: Writers & Co.) was asking some celebrated writers to name books that had had an impact on them as young people. Colm Toibin, the Irish author of The Heather Blazing, said that L'Etranger bowled him over when he was about fifteen. Having read it myself many years ago, I wondered what the big deal was. So I took another look at it recently.

     Now I can see how the defiant aetheism rather convincingly articulated at the end of the book, in the prisoner's tirade at the chaplain, would have shocked a young man who had been swaddled all his life in the comforting faith of Holy Ireland. How come it hadn't had such an effect on a lad raised in Saintly Sarnia, Ontario? I can only assume that the religiosity of my surroundings was so intense that I was impervious to the potential threat of M. Camus' writing. Or maybe I was just too stupid to get the point.

     Something that I read in connection with that book mentioned that La Chute was M. Camus' real masterpiece. Since it happened to be on one of our basement shelves, I made it my doctor's office waiting room reading for a while. Having now got through it twice, I have to confess that I still don't get the point. It's about a very cynical lawyer who has a very negative view of everybody, including himself. Apparently he undergoes a conversion of some kind but to what effect I cannot tell. There are passages of brilliant writing but the thread keeps breaking and I can't see how one passage leads to another in some sort of coherent progression.

   This could be the fault of the translation by Justin O'Brien. I say that because I've had great difficulty reading other works where the translation seems to be the problem. For instance, a selection of the essays of Montaigne in the 1603 John Florio translation. I wanted to read this one because it's supposedly the one that William Shakespeare read. (And I think I caught one or two bits that he stole from M. Montaigne: eg. something about a man as a naked, forked thing.) But it's virtually impossible to read several pages continuously because you can't keep the line of thought in your mind. Individual sentences are stunning but they surge constantly on in new directions and you can never pause to take your breath and see where you've arrived at. This is largely because any sense of pagraph unity is utterly lacking. (Some of Harold Bloom's writing suffers from the same syndrome, in my opinion.)

     Yet, I have read more recent translations of Montaigne in a collection of essays edited by Philip Lopate and have had no such difficulty: everything crystal clear. This is why I'm thinking the translation may be the problem with La Chute. Perhaps I will try another translation or the French original. Failing that, I will take the edition on hand and make a precis of every paragraph to see if I can find a link through them leading to some sort of conclusion. At least, that's the plan if I can find a doctor who will diagnose some sort of ailment requiring extended bed rest.

 

The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers by Henry James

A little volume containing these two novellas came to hand one evening when there was nothing else to read. It had found its way to our house along with several other items when a friend was breaking up her library (as explained further below).

     It seemed a good idea to start with The Aspern Papers since I knew nothing about it. First published in 1888, it's a droll story about a man who is working on a biography of a famous writer. The biographer inveigles his way into the Venice household of an elderly American woman who had been one of the famous writer's great loves and the inspiration for much of his work. Most of the story consists of a cat and mouse game as the biographer tries to pry secrets out of the old lady who resists strenuously. Something of a Sphinx, this woman cannot be deterred from her convictions and she is impervious to importuning. Seemed to me that this tough old bird has more strength of character than I could hope to accumulate in nine lives. The writing is a trifle fussy at times and the prolonged foreplay stretches a bit thin, but there are some clever switches in the last few pages that manage to be as fresh as anything in the best Neil Simon play and, at the same time, psychologically true.

     I had some vague sense that The Turn of the Screw, first published in 1898, was about a governess looking after two kids in an old mansion in the country where something dreadful was happening. Hadn't there been a stage adaptation of it? A movie? Maybe even an opera?

     After a long preamble setting us up to be really scared, we get to the governess, the kids and the mansion. The main part of the story is told by way of a manuscript written by the governess. What a fastidious writer that woman is. She constantly trips me up with her meticulous, super-careful grammatical structure; many of the sentences are so larded with explanatory phrases that the general sense is impenetrable. I would have taken this for a characteristic of Mr.James' writing, were it not for the fact that The Aspern Papers was much easier to read. And I couldn't remember having any such difficulties with some of his weightier tomes read years ago.

    I slogged on, though, ever hopeful for an explanation of the bizarre events. The fact that the story hooked me to that extent must mean that, on some level, it was well written. I began to think the irritating writing style was a tip-off to the governess' neurotic character. That led to a marvellous theory about all the spooky stuff: it was a hysterical projection on her part due to sexual repression. What it was all about was that she was obsessed with the children's gorgeous uncle, their guardian, who had forbidden her to contact him.

     But Mr. James was having none of that. The story ends with no explanation at all and with a pointless death that is melodramatic in the extreme. Mr. James apparently wants us to take the supernatural goings on at face value. I don't get it. Is this a genre that's impossible for a 21st century skeptic to appreciate? Maybe this kind of thing went over big before people had soap operas to get them through the day with mindless pap. Not that I'm knocking tv. That governess could have done with a few zaps of the remote control.

 

A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell (1951)

My first reading of Anthony Powell's eight-volume opus A Dance to the Music of Time brought me lots of pleasure. Returning about ten years later to this, the first book of the series, I find it rather odd. Mr. Powell certainly creates a believable world, that of upper-class Brits just leaving public school, and he draws you into it with great skill. But nothing much happens other than long dinners with the parents of one's friends. Oh yes, there's one school boy prank. And I almost forgot: some tentative overtures towards females of the opposite sex. It's hard to imagine a publisher taking a chance on such a bloodless work nowadays. The writing is a bit too precise, all the i's dotted and the t's crossed. It feels like the kind of thing some anal Brit like Jack Worthing (from The Importance of Being Ernest) would produce if he took up writing.

    The one great achievement of the book, however, is the introduction of Widmerpool, who is surely one of the most memorable creations of modern fiction. He is one of those strange people everyone has run into at some time and yet I've never seen one of them so vividly portrayed in fiction: the person who is intelligent and capable in his way, but eccentric, weird and off-putting. Such people always tend to be marginalized through no fault of their own; and they never seem to notice that they're being rejected constantly. (At least one hopes they don't notice.) I'll never forget the apotheosis of Widmerpool in the final volume of the series. (Think I caught a glimpse of it on a TV Ontario broadcast of the adaptation of Powell's opus.) This volume deserves its place in literary history for the introduction of Widmerpool if for no other reason.

Muriel Spark

There was a time in the 1960s when I was president of the London, Ont., Muriel Spark fan club. Or was I vice-president? Or secretary? Not sure, because there were only two members in the club. Myself and a teacher friend had somehow discovered The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) and instantly became diehard Muriel Spark fans. Everything she wrote was touched with magic for us. I was very pleased with myself for jetting over to London (the first one) to catch Vanessa Redgrave in the original stage adaptation of Brodie. (If you want I will rhapsodize about how superior Miss Redgrave's performance was to Maggie Smith's oscar-winning one. While Ms. Smith was eccentric and amusing, almost cozy, Miss Redgrave strode about the stage like a cool, aloof goddess.)

    Lately, I'm not so sure what to make of Ms. Spark's oeuvre. The most recent of her works that I've read Reality and Dreams (1996) had something to do with a movie director recovering from an accident with an overhead crane. I couldn't make much of it. As in many of her later works, Ms. Spark seems to be jerking her characters around like puppets for the sake of scoring some satirical point. I'm reminded of a comment by a writer friend of my father's who met Ms. Spark in his agent's office in New York. "She was too clever for me," this lovely, gentle man said. I begin to know what he meant. You feel that you're in the presence of a critical intelligence operating in a void of human feeling.

     Returning to some of her earlier works, I notice that in some but not in others. The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1965) features a bunch of young people in some small English town. A guy of questionable character is claimed by various women (this seems to be a recurring motif for  Ms. Spark). There's some lively, sharpish dialogue but the whole thing feels like a cast of  characters shuffled around for the author's wry amusement. On the other hand, A Far Cry from Kensington (1988) charmed me with the genteel but shrewd voice of the middle-aged female narrator. An editor in a small publishing house, she made some memorable comments about writing and publishing.

   The Bachelors (1960) confuses me with too many characters. I never did sort out the personalities of three middle-aged unmarried men.The book revolves around the shenanigans of a group of spiritualists. One of their members (again a two-timing male) is being sued by a woman d'un certain age, as they say. It all seems rather trivial and yet the trial at the end of the book manages to be gripping because it is so well written. And there are some very interesting characters, particularly one graphologist named Ronald. He's treated by the others as something of an oddity because of his epilepsy but he has more dignity and integrity than any of them. Occasionally, in the most unlikely conversations, usually involving Ronald, there are surprising outbursts of profundity about life, death and various matters in between.

 

Iris Murdoch

In my 30s, Iris Murdoch was my favourite author. That is to say, I had read more books by her than by any other author, so presumably that makes her my favourite author at the time. When I came home from work as a letter carrier on a summer afternoon, I would settle with beer and potato chips on our tiny patio near Davenport and Avenue Roads in Toronto and would immerse myself in the very different world of Ms. Murdoch's novels. I loved the way her witty, sophisticated characters obsessed endlessly about their problems. I was there in the parlour with them when they kept drawing the velvet curtains on the rain in the garden and pouring sherry for themselves. (Quite a leap from potato chips and beer at Dav and Av Roads!)

    Some of the best of them: A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), An Accidental Man (1971), The Black Prince (1973) and The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974). I have never forgotten the opening of one of her books; it went something like this:

      "Darling, will you marry me?'

      "What?"

      "I said, will you marry me?"

      "Why?"

      Given my enthusiasm for The Black Prince, my wife Jane ploughed dutifully through it but she requested me never again to ask her to read a book like that. That might have been a portent of what was to come.

      Was it living with Jane that changed my view of things? Or was it ageing (just a tiny bit), having children and those other life-changing experiences? In any case, my recent attempts to return to Ms. Murdoch's writing haven't been very satisfying. I still enjoy, up to a point, the characters' mulling over their complex emotional lives. And I like the ambiance as much as ever -- the velvet drapes, the rainy garden, the sherry by the fire. But these people don't seem real to me. They don't have their feet on the ground. Does any of them have an ordinary job, the kind that demands some sort of regular attendance and commitment? They always seem free to take off for a couple of weeks in a cottage at the seaside with some friend who's having a crisis of some sort or other. In The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, the only decent person of the bunch gets killed in a senseless accident. Come on!

     However, I did recently read one of Ms. Murdoch's earlier books, one that doesn't seem typical of most of her work. While we were staying with friends a while back, the best reading on offer was The Red and the Gold (1965), Ms. Murdoch's account of the 1917 Easter Rebellion in Dublin. She conveys a very fair and empathetic picture of the situation from both the British and the Irish points of view. One pompous Brit predicts that Ireland, cut off from England, will end up a hopeless backwater of economic and cultural stagnation. One hopes that the Alzheimers disease that eventually killed Ms. Murdoch spared her long enough for her to enjoy the retrospective irony of that prediction. Near the end of the book comes one awkward plot device involving blackmail. One wouldn't have found a clumsy business like that in Ms.Murdoch's later writings. But then, we never did read her for plot, did we?

 

A Writer's Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham (1951)

This is one of the little books that came my way when a friend was dispersing her library. Around the same time, a couple of other references to Mr. Maugham came up. In The New Yorker, Roger Angell wrote about a trip to Europe as a young lad with his parents who took him on a pilgrimage to the Riveria to pay homage to the great man in his lair. And The Globe and Mail published a review of a new biography of Mr. Maugham. It surprised me to hear him dismissed as a low-brow writer of schlock. I'd always thought The Moon and Sixpence and Of Human Bondage were great, whopping examples of everything novels should be.

     The title of this little book would appear to be fairly accurate, in that the book gathers personal notes made through the course of Mr. Maugham's career. The first part of the book consists mostly of cynical aphorisms in a Wildean style, the kind of thing an up-and-coming writer pens to show off his cleverness: "Few misfortunes can befall a boy which bring worse consequences than to have a really affectionate mother." The young Mr. Maugham's contempt for Christianity looms large. He prefers the heroics of Prometheus to the submissiveness of Jesus. Mr. Maugham's  comments on the classics of literature are interesting, especially when he adds a footnote correcting his earlier impressions. And there are some touching vignettes of his service as a soldier in the First World War.

     The best parts of the book are the stories about his travels to locations that were impossibly exotic and remote in those days. Lots of quick sketches of fascinating characters he encounters. Often, on the basis of an anecdote picked up from some fellow traveller, he'll sketch the outline of a novel in about 100 words. Sometimes, he'll mention the novel that resulted from that note; other times, he'll explain why the hoped-for novel didn't pan out.

    These days, everybody talks about what a bitter old bugger Mr. Maugham was. Funny, he doesn't see himself that way. In fact, he says that success made him a nicer person. In his summing up at about age 70, he describes himself as bemusedly watching the shadows steal over his spot in the sun. We should all have the last word on ourselves. Biographers be damned!

The Edge of Day by Laurie Lee (1960)

When Eleanor Wachtel invites me onto her program "Writers & Company" and asks me what book had the most influence on me as a young person, I will have my answer ready. Mr.Lee's memoir of growing up in a godforsaken corner of rural England came to our house as one of my mother's book club selections. (Since this was an American club, we had the US edition; the title of the British edition was Cider With Rosie.) I read this book at about age15. It may not be stretching the point to say that an aspiring poet at that age is likely to be a trifle impressionable. Let's just say that the book had about as much impact on me as did psychedelics on teenagers a few years later.

   Ever since first reading, I've remembered more or less how the first lines of the book went: "I was taken off the wagon and set down in hay over my head. I howled and this is how my life began." Well, on re-visiting the very volume that we had at home, it turns out that my memory isn't perfect, but that's the gist of it. I was echanted. Enthralled. Dazzled. I was stunned to discover that words could create so much beauty.

     What do I think of it now, as someone who has read a lot more and done a fair bit of writing? The crowning jewel of the work, the chapter on Mr. Lee's mother, remains one of the funniest, most charming and most heart-rending portrayals of any real-life character I've ever read. The chapter about two feuding old ladies bears up well too. Sad to say, though, the writing on the whole now strikes me as a little too self-consciously poetic.Too much description for my taste. Words are used in an arty way that strikes me as show-offish on the part of the writer. I have come to prefer a leaner, more spare style of writing.

    Even more troubling to report: I being to suspect that some of the charm of the book had to do with the illustrations. They're done in that scratchy pen and ink style that conjurs up childhood affection for Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows -- those sorts of things. Looking at the illustrations in The Edge of Day now, from the viewpoint of someone who knows a bit more about art, I'm not sure that all of them are so very well done.

    Still, I'll always be thankful for the great pleasure the book once brought me.

 

The Waterfall by Margaret Drabble (1969)

I have greatly enjoyed many of Ms. Drabble's books. Titles like The Realms of Gold (1975) and The Needle's Eye (1972) bring back especially fond memories. Ms. Drabble annoyed me very much, though, when she took a frivolous turn in The Witch of Exmoor (1996). It wasn't so much her mocking of us middle-aged men with our fear of heart attacks; it was her toying with the man in question, as she pondered how to kill him, like a mean kid with an insect. In posing her rhetorical questions to the reader about the various options for his demise, she was stepping outside the role of the novelist, I thought; she was abandoning her responsibility to stick to the story and make us believe it's real. I felt like telling her: if you're fed up with the job at the height of your fame, then quit writing.

     There's certainly nothing frivolous about The Waterfall. This book came to me when a friend's home was breaking up recently and she asked me to help myself to various items from the library. As I was out and around town that day, I could only take the slimmer volumes, of which this was one. Having acquired them, I have dutifully ploughed through them and my comments on them will appear here in due course.

     This is the story of a young woman who, while recuperating from the birth of her second child, welcomes her husband's cousin into her bed. I'm giving away most of the plot here but it's hard not to, because little else happens. The book consists of the woman's endless mulling over the affair. Nothing if not obsessive, this woman turns over every stone in the rocky landscape of her inner world. It's fascinating in a kind of appalling way but I must admit it was rough going trying to follow the twists and turns of this person's tortured thought processes.

     Even at this early stage, Ms. Drabble was experimenting a bit with the novel format. The narration switches back and forth between the first and third person. At first, this doesn't seem to serve any purpose but, come the major crisis of the story, it's an interesting way of raising doubts about the truth of what people say about themselves.

      There's a peculiar quality of this book that I'm beginning to note in a lot of British novels and movies. I call it "dis-connectedness", with a nod to E.M. Forester's famous coment "always connect." People don't seem plugged into real life and the lives of the people around them. Granted, their love affairs are convincing, but the context of ordinary daily existence is lacking. In this book, we go several pages after the birth of the baby before any mention of feeding or diapers. And what's with this lying in bed and being pampered for days and days after giving birth? In my day, when you had a baby, you got up next day and looked after your family.

     Ms. Drabble makes an effort to show how the woman's two children impinge on the love affair but they seem something of an afterthought. They don't occupy the huge space that children occupy in the lives of most parents I know. Even more so than the children, in this book extended family, relatives, in-laws, neighbours are all pushed to the outer fringes. Nobody ever phones or drops in unexpectedly lest that would interfere with the narrator's preoccupation with the love affair. I'm reminded of William Trevor's Lucy Gault. Not that I'm knocking Mr. Trevor. Critics keep saying that he is the greatest living writer of the English language and, for all I can tell, that's true. But this tale of Anglo-Irish could only be plausible in a world of Brit Lit, where nobody has any extended family to get in the way of the story's tragic course. 

     And where, except in the England of some fiction writers, would a badly wronged wife respond the way she does in The Waterfall: with one angry outburst, then a shrug of the shoulders and a diffident carrying on as though nothing happened. That Royal modelling must run awfully deep: chin-up, old chap!

     

Still to come: Barbara Pym, et al.