Monthly Archives: August 2023

Fight Night by Miriam Toews 

Miriam Toews does not avoid difficult subjects. All my Puny Sorrows was a great success with my reading group, despite its story following the increasingly desperate attempts by a woman to keep her sister from killing herself. It was based on the author’s own experiences. I found Women Talking to be a shocking account of rapes in a Mennonite community, also based on a true story. Both novels, refer to the power of women’s relationships, and to their strength in the face of tragedy and human frailty and distress.

This novel, different again from those two in its themes, highlights the resilience, resistance and stubbornness of three generations of females. It’s about fighting hypocrisy, exploitation and above all injustice in everyday life. After one episode battling to get her grandmother to lunch with her friends the narrator reports:

Fighting is so hard and yet we’re never supposed to stop! (34)

Fight Night

Swiv is the narrator of this novel, and the reader meets her when she is 9 years old and has already been expelled from school, accused of a ‘lashing out tone, which I’m supposed to be working on’. She is at home in Toronto with her grandmother and mother. Both these older women are great fighters. No doubt Swiv was following their example and advice when she crossed the teacher.

The novel begins as a letter by Swiv to her absent father. This device mostly fades into the background. The family is not in a good place. Her mother is pregnant with a baby they call Gord, and her grandmother is grieving for the loss of her husband and most of her family. Their family therapist has advised them to write letters to the people they are missing. 

The first section outlines Swiv’s unorthodox life and education. She acts as carer to her grandmother, just as much as she is herself cared for. They have a hilarious home curriculum, homework of writing those letters, and some maths lessons that require calculations about a jigsaw of an Amish farm, or working out when the growing girl and the shrinking grandmother will be the same height. They are assailed by developers wanting to buy the house, and the religious bigotry of Willit Braun. And the family are challenged by the consequences of Grandma’s irrepressible love of people and life.

Grandma rants to Swiv about what the church and Willet Braun did to their community. It goes on for about three pages, but this part seems especially relevant to so much that we see being done in the name of religion.

They took all the things we need to navigate the world. They took the beautiful things … right under our noses … crept in like thieves … replaced our tolerance with condemnation, our desire with shame, our feelings with sin, our wild joy with discipline, our agency with obedience, our imagination with rules, every act of joyous rebellion with crushing hatred, our impulses with self-loathing, our empathy with sanctimoniousness, threats, cruelty, our curiosity with isolation, wilful ignorance, infantilism, punishment! (161)

Grandma has a great line in problem solving, which often means avoiding the obvious or breaking the rules. Here, for example, Grandma and her old friends are talking about dying, including the value of assisted dying. 

Wilda said she was worried about saying goodbye to everyone before she died. How would she get round to it all when she’d be so busy with dying. Grandma said no problem! Let’s say goodbye now and get it over with! We’re friends, we love each other, we know it, we’ve had good times, and one day we’ll be dead, whether we’re assisted or not. So, goodbye! They all thought that was a good idea so they all said goodbye to each other and got it over with. (35)

Swiv’s mother is for ever rehearsing a production of a play, despite being ‘in her third trimester’. She has a short fuse, but plenty of love for the grandmother and Swiv. 

The first section ends with Grandma’s planning to visit her nephews in Fresno, and the decision that Swiv will go with her. From this point on their adventures take off: the flights, meeting the nephews (but they are old), a sailing trip, a visit to an old people’s home and a dash home. Nothing progresses easily, but much of it is enjoyable because of Grandma’s presence. She is friendly and fearless, so as they move through the disasters of this trip, she attracts people who will help her, rescue her, look after her. 

Swiv is young, as we are reminded by her horror of anything sexual (such as a woman’s thong underneath the bed), and by her naive observations from time to time. She reports everything breathlessly, and without speech punctuation. See the quotation above for an example. I know this annoys some readers, but Miriam Toews is skilled at telling a harsh and tender story through the eyes of this child. Swiv does not avoid the difficult and intimate aspects of the episodes in which she is entangled. She has good teachers, for her two carers have made it plain that speaking the truth, being direct is as important as learning to fight.

The ending is funny and sad but also uplifting.

I read Grandma’s letter to Gord the other day. You’re a small thing and you must learn to fight. (250)

Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews by Alessio Jacona (Rome Italy) Capri 2015 via wikicommons

Born in 1964 and brought up in a Mennonite community in Manitoba, Miriam Toews left when she reached 18. She lives in Toronto. Fight Night is her 8th novel. Speaking about Women Talking, she said, 

My goal is always to tell a story and to create characters that will move the reader. But I’m of course a feminist. I have a need to challenge that status quo that I’ve experienced. [From an interview with Katrina Onstad in the Guardian 18.8.18]

In writing Fight Night she has continued to create interesting and sympathetic characters, and to provide a plot that challenges the status quo. Recommended.

Fight Night by Miriam Toews, published in 2022 by Faber & Faber. 252pp

Related Bookword posts

Women Talking by Miriam Toews (September 2019)

All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (August 2015)

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg

Natalia Ginzburg was a writer with a very direct and precise style. Here are the first lines of The Dry Heart:

‘Tell me the truth,’ I said.
‘What truth?’ he echoed. He was making a rapid sketch in his notebook and now he showed me what it was: a long, long train with a big cloud of black smoke swirling over it and himself leaning out of the window to wave a handkerchief.
I shot him between the eyes. (1)

Just over 100 pages later this scene is retold. In the pages between the unnamed narrator describes her meeting with Alberto, their walks together, how they married and how the marriage fell apart, all within four years.

This intense and rather shocking novella is newly available in the translation from the Italian by Frances Frenaye, published by Daunt Books. Here is my response to it as part of Women in Translation Month 2023.

The Dry Heart

This novel was first published in 1940, in Italian. The blurb makes a great deal of the anonymous narrator’s apparently casual attitude to the murder she commits, (‘she shoots her husband and walks to a café for a coffee’) – cool as you like. But it quickly becomes clear that she is not level-headed, or cold-blooded. She has been suffering in an exceedingly dreadful marriage. Unlike many novels containing murder, this one does not leave you wondering who committed the crime, or how it was done. That cleared out of the way, the narrator goes to have her coffee and the reader gets to think about why she might have done such a dreadful thing. What is the truth of this event?

In concise, spare and unbroken narrative, the anonymous wife describes their meeting, four years before, their subsequent marriage, and descent into awfulness. Alberto has a long-term lover and is unable to stop himself leaving the narrator periodically to meet up with Giovanna. 

They appeared unsuited from the start. He is much older than her: 40 to her 26. She is much taller than him. She is lonely in the city where she has come from a rural background to teach in a school. He is a confident city-dweller and enjoys showing her around. She finds pleasure in her time with Alberto, and believes she is falling in love. She is surprised that he makes no affectionate move towards her and challenges him. He too has enjoyed their talks and walks together and is lonely himself as his mother has just died. He agrees to marry her. They live in his mother’s house.

In due course they have a daughter who, like her mother, is never named. But although Alberto is affectionate towards the child their lives become more separate, until the death of the child when she is about 2 years old. Alberto comforts his wife in her grief, but soon takes up his old ways. As he is about the leave her again for time with Giovanna the narrator challenges him. She asks for the truth, and not getting it she shoots him between the eyes. Thus it begins and ends. A tough novella about a marriage that should never have happened and ended in murder.

In part it is a novel that describes loneliness, of both husband and wife. Here she describes being alone and without confidence when she first arrived in the city.

When a girl is very much alone and leads a tiresome and monotonous existence, with worn gloves and very little spending money, she may let her imagination run wild and find herself defenceless before all the errors and pitfalls which imagination has devised to deceive her. I was a weak and unarmed victim of imagination as I read Ovid to eighteen girls huddled in a cold classroom or ate my meals in the dingy boarding house dining room, peering out through the yellow window panes as I waited for Alberto to take me out walking or to a concert. (6-7)

After spending her summer holidays with her parents she returns to the city. She has not heard from Alberto. He does not call. She explains that this is how she fell in love with him: imagining his life, what he is doing, becoming obsessed with him, ‘sitting all powdered and primped in my boarding house bedroom’ waiting for him to appear. 

Alberto is older than his wife, but no wiser, and unable to extricate himself from his lover. They live two lives separately, in separate beds after the birth of the daughter. He disappears periodically. She sees her life narrow to the care of their baby. She has little idea of an alternative to her life. Her cousin Francesca tries to persuade her to leave Alberto.

‘Let’s go for a trip somewhere. He’s a little rat of a man. What good is he to you?’
‘I love him,’ I said, ‘and then there’s the baby.’
‘But he’s deceiving you. He does it in the most blatant sort of way. I see them together sometimes. She has a behind like a cauliflower. Nothing much to look at.’ (54)

The spare, intense prose makes direct contact with the reader. There is little reported speech, and few names. Not only do we never discover the names of the narrator and her daughter, but the city is not identified either. And although the Second World War had been over for three years before the book’s publication, it seems to have left no shadow on this book, not on the story anyway. No one is reported to have died, or been imprisoned, and the city has not been damaged. The war does not appear to have been in any character’s backstory.

Leone and Natalia Ginzburg before February 1944 when Leone Ginzburg died. Source unknown via wikicommons

The absence is strange, for the author had not had a comfortable time during the war, being known to have left-wing tendencies, and to be Jewish. Her first husband was tortured for his activities against the Fascist regime resulting in his death in 1944. They had three children.

There are also some lighter moments in this bleak account. In the boarding house where the narrator lives when she first came to the city, she imagines the pleasures of her own establishment as a contrast to how she lives.

The boarding house was gloomy, with dark hangings and upholstery, and in the room next to mine a colonel’s widow knocked on the wall with a hairbrush every time I opened the window or moved a chair. I had to get up early … The colonel’s widow knocked furiously on the wall while I moved about the room looking for my clothes, and in the bathroom the landlady’s hysterical daughter screeched like a peacock while they gave her a warm shower which was supposed to calm her down. (6)

Such vivid details add authenticity to this account.

Jacquiwine’s review in July 2023 is enthusiastic and points to the humour in the novel.

The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg was first published in Italian as È stato cosi in 1949. The English translation by Frances Frenaye was published in 1949. I used the edition by Daunt Books published in 2021. 108pp

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, translation, Writing

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Writing in her diary about her short story, Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street, Virginia Woolf observed that ‘she ushers in a host of others, I begin to perceive’ [August 16th 1922]. She had already appeared in Virginia Woolf’s first novel The Voyage Out (1915). Ten years later she was one of the two main characters in the novel Mrs Dalloway (1925).

It was not just her own writing that was influenced by Clarissa Dalloway. In 1998 Michael Cunningham published his novel The Hours, using Virginia Woolf’s original title. Since then, there has been a film made of Cunningham’s novel, and an opera. And Mrs Dalloway featured in the ballet Wolf Works. She certainly ushers in others.

The Hours

Michael Cunningham’s novel is structured around three versions of Mrs Dalloway, in different times and different places. Clarissa Vaughn (Mrs Dalloway) in New York at the end of the twentieth century. Virginia Woolf (Mrs Woolf) in Richmond, near London, as she is writing Mrs Dalloway in 1924; and Mrs Brown in Los Angeles in 1949, who is reading Mrs Dalloway. Short chapters tell a little of their stories in turn.

This is not a reimagination of Mrs Dalloway (the character and the novel), or of Virginia Woolf, in different times and places. It is not an adaptation. Rather Michael Cunningham has taken many of the themes of the novel and considered them from different viewpoints.

The title of his novel is significant. It is about time, and the life we have to fill time. Not everyone feels able to cope with this. Every story has a character who considers ending their life. Richard has HIV\Aids for which treatments are only just being provided. He is being encouraged by Clarissa to attend the party she has organised, and to receive an award for his poetry.

Richard nods, and does not move. His ravaged head, struck by full daylight, is geological. His flesh is as furrowed and pocked, as runneled, as desert stone.
He says, “I don’t know if I can face this. You know, the party and the ceremony, and then the hour after that, and the hour after that.”
“You don’t have to go to the party. You don’t have to go to the ceremony. You don’t have to do anything at all.”
“But there are still the hours, aren’t there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there’s another. I’m so sick.” (197-8)

Writing her novel, Mrs Woolf thinks at first that Clarissa will commit suicide, but comes to think that this will be the action of a different character. Mrs Brown sees no place for herself in all those hours, and at the end of the novel we learn that she botched her suicide. The novel opened with a description of Virginia Woolf’s suicide, nearly twenty years after she had written Mrs Dalloway

Famously, Mrs Dalloway is set within 24 hours, and each of these three narratives unfold in a day, but also over 70 years. This is a comment about time, and how lives are connected with each other, even over time. I was pleased to read The Hours in a day.

Here are some of the other ideas explored in The Hours, some more, some less explicitly than in Virginia Woolf’s novel: 

  • the effects of war on husbands, 
  • sexuality and social attitudes to it,
  • marriage and its value,
  • motherhood,
  • the excitement of the city,
  • changing possibilities for women,
  • legacy, what will be left after death,
  • the damage wrought by HIV/Aids,
  • what it means to care for someone, and to be cared for by someone,

All these themes and ideas are explored in both novels (except HIV/Aids, which was of its time in New York in the late ‘90s).

Clearly Michael Cunningham immersed himself in Mrs Dalloway and has created something new and his novel enhanced my understanding of Virginia Woolf’s novel at the same time as providing new perspectives. It is not necessary to have read her novel to enjoy The Hours, but I would recommend it.

Survivors have to go on living through the hours too, like Clarissa who in the penultimate sentence of the novel, reflects, ‘here she is with another hour before her”. (226)

And of course there was a film, released in 2002, starring Meryl Streep (Mrs Dalloway), Nicole Kidman (Mrs Woolf) and Julianne Moore (Mrs Brown), directed by Stephen Daldry. And in 2022 an opera. (A note on the film casting of Meryl Streep: there’s a nice little self-reference here because Clarissa, seeing a celebrity’s trailer, imagines it might be Meryl Streep inside p27.) 

The Hours by Michael Cunningham first published in 1998 and in the UK by 4th Estate. 230pp

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Pen/Faulkner Award in 1999.

 

Related Links

The Hours at 25: The book that changed how we see Virginia Woolf, by Lillian Crawford on BBC Culture, August 9, 2023

In step with Virginia Woolf about the Ballet Woolf Works (Bookword May 2015) 

Inspired by the Writings of Virginia Woolf about the exhibition in Pallant House, Chichester called Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings (Bookword August 2018)

With Virginia Woolf in Cambridge about the summer school I attended (Bookword August 2023)

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Bookword February 2020)

The second Mrs Dalloway (Bookword July 2019)

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street by Virginia Woolf (Bookword May 2016)

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, Virginia Woolf

Beginning again with Katherine Mansfield

Following my week’s immersion in a Virginia Woolf summer school, I decided to give Katherine Mansfield another go. I started with In a German Pension.

Katherine Mansfield

She was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1888. In 1903 she came to England, at the age of 19, and became friends with some of the Bloomsbury Group. DH Lawrence was one, Virginia Woolf another. She had been writing for some time and had published in school and other local publications in New Zealand. She travelled in Europe in the next three years, somewhat unsettled she returned to New Zealand but returned to England in 1908. She had a small income from her father but was usually short of money.

She had an unsettled love life as well. She had relationships with both men and women, and at one point went to Germany to recover from a miscarriage. This was the background to the publication in 1911 of the first of her collections of short stories – In A German Pension. She was 23 years old.

At first the collection was successful, running into three editions. But the publisher went bankrupt and the collection disappeared. The author was not very unhappy about the loss. When her next collection Bliss was published and successful in its turn, she resisted the idea of the earlier stories being reprinted.

I cannot have The German Pension reprinted under any circumstances. It is far too immature, and I don’t even acknowledge it today. I mean I don’t ‘hold’ by it. I can’t go foisting that kind of stuff on the public. It’s not good enough. But if you send me the note that refers to it, I will reply and offer a new book by 1 May. But I could not for a moment entertain republishing the Pension. It’s positively juvenile, and besides that, it’s not what I mean; it’s a lie. Oh no, never! 
[Letter from Katherine Mansfield to John Middleton Murry in 1920, quoted in his Introductory Note p8.]

Penguin Modern Classic cover showing Mrs Rayne’s Tea Party by Henry Tonks (Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum)

In A German Pension

There are 14 short stories, some only a few pages long, all set in an unnamed town where people stay to take the cure. The narrator does not feature in all the stories, but where she does, she refers to herself in the first person, is usually dodging a question or impertinence of another guest at the pension and is described as English or possibly American. 

She writes about her fellow guests at the pension in a mostly unflattering way. Many of them are shown to be hypocrites, very ignorant and rude. For example, Frau Godowska and her daughter have just been introduced by the professor to ‘my little English friend’, when this conversation follows. 

‘I have never been to England,’ interrupted Fräulein Sonia, ‘but I have many English acquaintances. They are so cold!’ She shivered.
‘Fish-Blooded,’ snapped Frau Godowska. ‘Without soul, without heart, without grace. But you cannot equal their dress materials. I spent a week in Brighton twenty years ago, and the travelling cape I bought there is not yet worn out – the one you wrap the hot-water bottle in, Sonia. My lamented husband, your father, Sonia, knew a great deal about England. But the more he knew about it the oftener he remarked to me, “England is merely an island of beef flesh swimming in a warm gulf of sea of gravy.” Such a brilliant way of putting things. Do you remember, Sonia?’ (From The Modern Soul, p44-45)

Some of the German characters are very patriotic, often at the expense of the English. Then there are the monstrously selfish men, for example Herr Binzer who suffers so much when his wife is having a baby, lamenting that he is too sensitive (A Birthday). Then there is the brutish Herr Brechenmacher, a postman, who spoils his wife’s enjoyment of a wedding party by reminding her of the trouble she gave him on their wedding night. She checks on her children and then goes to bed. The story ends like this.

Then even the memory of the wedding faded quite. She lay down and put her arm across her face like a child who expected to be hurt as Herr Brechenmacher lurched in. (From Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding. P40)

Katherine Mansfield rejected these stories as not good enough, juvenile, a lie. Yet we see some clever character sketches, some subtle humour, and some engaging writing. But it is easy to see why the attitudes of the Germans and the ‘English’ guests at the pension towards each other might have struck the wrong note in the years after the First World War. 

Now after an interval of more than 100 years, rather than less than 10, we can judge the merits of In a German Pension better perhaps than Katherine Mansfield could, even if we still see some of the stories as containing juvenilia.

Katherine Mansfield by Lady Ottoline Morrell, vintage snapshot print, 1916-1917.

Virginia Woolf met Katherine Mansfield a few years after this collection was published, probably in 1917. In her first references to her new friend, Virginia Woolf frequently uses the term inscrutable. She was ‘intelligent and inscrutable’, ‘very inscrutable and fascinating’, and ‘inscrutable’. They admired each other’s writing and formed a close friendship which lasted until Katherine Mansfield’s death in 1923. Virginia Woolf told a friend in 1931 that she dreamt of Katherine often ‘- now that’s an odd reflection – how one’s relation with a person seems to be continued after death in dreams, and with some odd reality too.’

In A German Pension by Katherine Mansfield. I used the Penguin Modern Classic edition, published in 1964 with an Introductory Note by John Middleton Murry. 117pp

Picture credit:
Katherine Mansfield by Lady Ottoline Morrell, vintage snapshot print, 1916-1917.
National portrait Gallery NPG Ax140568
Reproduced under the Creative Commons Agreement

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, short stories, Virginia Woolf, Writing

With Virginia Woolf in Cambridge

I risk making some readers jealous, but I have just returned from a 5-day summer school in Cambridge, devoted to Virginia Woolf. Not all of Virginia Woolf, but 5 specified books. And I want to share some of it.

  • Mrs Dalloway
  • To the Lighthouse
  • Orlando
  • A Room of One’s Own
  • Between the Acts

The popular view pictures Virginia Woolf as an effete, delicate, isolated, and icy woman. One of my major strands of learning on the summer school is how connected she was to the events of her time, and to the changes that women might be able to benefit from through her social circle, her reading, her thinking and her experiences to the wider world.

So here are a few ‘orts, scraps and fragments’ (Between the Acts) to pass on.

Women in her life

My first ort, scrap and fragment is the understanding of how connected Virginia Woolf was to so many different women. The summer school was focussed on Virginia Woolf and her women, and we met many of them. She had a wide range of female friends and connections. We heard about her friendship with Katherine Mansfield, her intimate relations with Vita Sackville West (Orlando), her connection to Newnham College, in particular with the classicist Jane Harrison who was a rule-breaker and a pioneer, and Pernel Strachey, librarian and Principal. She was very fond of the wonderful, larger-than-life Ethel Smyth, whose character echoes through Between the Acts. And the struggles of the painter Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, surely owes something to Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell.

The second ort concerns her thinking about the important issues of her day, which also resonate with us today. What does it mean to be a woman? How shall we understand colonialism? How did the two great wars affect women and the well-lived life? Between the Acts was written during the initial years of the Second World War, when fear of invasion and the unknown clouded every horizon. We were reminded of Covid-19 and that first year when we knew so little and feared so much. We too looked back, made our own pageants, summoned our history to help us deal with the situation. 

Women’s situation was changing fast during Virginia Woolf’s life. In particular, higher education was gradually opened up to women. Both Girton and Newnham Colleges were established and eventually accepted into the University of Cambridge. It was in these colleges that she gave the lectures that gradually evolved into A Room of One’s Own. I loved sitting in the room in Girton where she spoke at the invitation of a student. The walls are covered in amazing embroidery/tapestries. 

Later we got to see the manuscript of the book in the Fitzwilliam Museum archives, seeing something of how she worked on her text – right-hand side of the page only, wide margins, left-hand side for substantial rewriting. This wasn’t simply cultural tourists admiring the very pages she had written. It was more an insight into her craft.

Dr Mathelinda Nabugodi, Research Associate at the Fitzwilliam Museum, shows us the manuscript of A Room of One’s Own.

I love the playfulness and the in-jokes in her books. Orlando is full of unattributed quotations and references and plays with the ideas of changing gender and living for 400 years. But she is always playful for a purpose and I was appropriately challenged by these books, by the ideas and possibilities that are implied and set out for the reader. So here’s what I am going to think about.

Plans from here

I shall reread (it will be for the fourth time) Between the Acts, thinking in particular about representations of our history, and luxuriating in the possibilities that Virginia Woolf provides ways of understanding history and how we tell it. What, no armies in a pageant of British history?

I shall be reacquainting myself with the fiction of Katherine Mansfield, whose work I have rejected for reasons I can’t remember. Virginia Woolf clearly thought highly of her friend’s writing, so I would like to find out what there was to admire.

I want to look at Lily Briscoe and Mrs Ramsey in To the Lighthouse more closely. Mrs Ramsey wants Lily, and all women, to get married. She had no less than eight children. Lily wants to paint but finds it hard.

And I want to reread the second part of To the Lighthouse, called Time Passes, and to think about that passage with some new ideas in my head. And to think about female language, sentences and approaches to the novel form.

I met many wonderful people, from different parts of the world, and enjoyed their warmth and shared pleasures with them. We benefitted from some excellent lectures and supervisions. How lucky to see the splendid gardens of Newnham College.

 

Thank you to Literature Cambridge for the summer school, and for providing so much on-line stimulation, including when we were locked down. I have many links to previous lectures, photographs and further possibilities to explore, thanks to you. Thanks to Graham for the use of his photograph of people inspecting the manuscript of A Room of One’s Own.

14 Comments

Filed under Books, Essays, Feminism, Learning, Reading, Virginia Woolf, Writing