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Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

Born in 1893 Vera Brittain struggled against her father’s opposition when she applied to study at Oxford. She gained a place and began her studies, but the First World War broke out and all the young men she knew and cared about had to decide whether to join up. During the Great War she lost her lover, her brother and their circle of friends and worked as a Red Cross VAD in London, Malta and northern France. By the time the war ended in 1918 her world was utterly different and her youth ‘smashed up’.

In the ‘70s, when I first read Testament of Youth women were coming to understand that the personal is political, and reading Vera Brittain helped me to see that history is personal and political. She wrote this in the Foreword to the autobiographical study:

Only, I felt, by some attempt to write history in terms of personal life could I rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the war. (11)

Testament of Youth is my choice for the 1930s in the Decades Project on Bookword.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

The book’s subtitle is: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925. Vera Brittain’s childhood was mostly spent in Buxton, in a middle class family with limited expectations of young women. She wished to study at Oxford but had to battle with her father about this before being ultimately successful and awarded an exhibition at Somerville. She took her place to read English Literature, but then the First World War broke out and everything changed.

She lost her lover Roland Leighton in the first months, two more friends from their circle in the next two years and her brother in Italy in 1918. She decided to join the Red Cross VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachment) partly to match the potential sacrifices of her circle but also to do something meaningful and distracting while those she cared for were at The Front.

copyright held by British Red Cross and used with permission.

She began nursing in London, volunteered to serve overseas in Malta following Roland’s death, and finally at Etaples in northern France, close to the action. She returned to work in London in the final months of the war. Following her brothers death in June 1918 and with no one else to lose she described the final months.

And now there were no more disasters to dread and no friends left to wait for; with the ending of apprehension had come a deep nullifying blankness, a sense of walking in a thick mist which hid all sights and muffled all sounds. I had no further experience to gain from the War; nothing remained except to endure it. (458)

After the war she returned to Oxford, where she found her experiences were ignored as she describes in a chapter called Survivors not Welcome. Until she met Winifred Holtby she found life very hard, but their friendship brought new direction to her life and following graduation they planned to earn their living writing and lecturing. They shared flats and campaigning activities, often travelling abroad to find facts for the League of Nations Union. And finally she began a correspondence with an academic specialising in politics. George Caitlin is not mentioned by name. She married him in 1933 and survived until 1970.

‘Smashing up my youth’

The cost of the war for Vera Brittain was very high indeed, and her enduring pain is very evident to the reader. To reveal some of this she draws on the many letters her circle wrote to each other, and also her own poetry. Her poem To My Brother provided the title for the only collection I know of First World War poetry by women. (see below).

Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart … (434)

Her analysis includes the cost of the loss of so many men to public life in the1920s. Writing near the end of the book she recalls the situation in 1924 as she travelled through Europe, and wrote this about the rebuilding of civilisation after the war.

… the men who might, in co-operation with the women who were not too badly impaired by shock and anxiety, have contributed most to its recovery, the first-rate courageous men with initiative and imagination, had themselves gone down in the Flood, and their absence now meant failure and calamity in every department of human life. Perhaps, after all, the best we who were left could do was refuse to forget, and to teach our successors what we remembered in the hope that they, when their own day came would have more power to change the state of the world than this bankrupt, shattered generation. (645-6).

Testament of Youth was published in 1933. In 1939 Britain was again at war.

It’s a long book and very detailed about her state of mind and her many experiences over its 25 year span. Her reactions to the treatment of VADs, her experiences of nursing wounded soldiers, including German prisoners, are vivid and shocking.

Her feminism is evident throughout and set against the wider context, especially of events in Europe during and after the war. Her struggle to get into Oxford against her father’s wishes, becomes almost insignificant once the war began. But she was still summoned home to care for her mother towards the end of the war, the duty of the daughter. After the war she notes that she was, for a while, a ‘surplus woman’ but writes to Winifred Holtby that she does not regret her single status.

Her friendship with Winifred Holtby is like a gold thread in the account of her post-war years, a new friendship that supported her writing ambitions and political involvement and thawed her emotional state.

Testament of Youth Lives on

Testament of Youth is a book that seems to be rediscovered every 30 or 40 years. In 1979 it was serialised in five parts on BBC tv with Cheryl Campbell in the main role. In 2014 a film was made with Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain.

Robert McCrum put Testament of Youth as #42 on list of 100 best nonfiction books of all time in the Guardian. Here’s his assessment from November 2016.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, first published in 1933. I used the edition published by Fontana in 1979. 661pp

The Scars upon my Heart collected and edited by Catherine Reilly published Virago in 1981. I drew on this collection in a post on women’s poetry of the Great War.

The Decades Project

For 2018 I decided to find non-fiction by women for each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are the links to the first three books in the Decades Project:

Ms Jekyll and her Garden (1900-9) and

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914)

Another look at A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1928)

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Image credit: copyright held by British Red Cross and used with permission.

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The 1977 Club: Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

There are no sweet old people in Quartet in Autumn. Barbara Pym takes an unflinching look at two women and two men as they end their working lives, and face their futures in London in the late 1970s. All four are single. All four have small lives.

I originally read and reviewed this book for the Older Women in Fiction series on this blog. It was the 17thin that series that now has more than 30 contributions. What follows is a reworking of the original post. It’s my contribution to the 1977 club, hosted by Kaggsy’sBookishRamblings and StuckinaBook.

The Story of Quartet in Autumn

The quartet share an office and are dispensable. We never find out the purpose of their jobs or the nature of the business in which they work. Whatever it is, computers will replace them. We are introduced to the foursome through their lunchtime habits and learn something of the smallness of their lives as they contemplate the prospects for their summer holidays. Their plans reveal that their connections to the world outside the office are almost non-existent. Edwin has church activities, and Letty a widowed school friend with whom she plans to live when she retires. Marcia always spends her leave at home.

Change moves slowly through their lives. The women retire and Letty’s plans to join her friend fall apart. Edwin and Norman miss the women as they wait for their own retirement but take their time to invite them to lunch.

In retirement Marcia retreats into her house, continuing to neglect it, the garden and her self. She has recently undergone surgery and the focus of her life is her visits to the surgeon, Mr Strong. She is a troubling older woman, ill and somewhat odd. She cherishes her milk bottle collection. She troubles the voluntary social worker who has decided to take her on. Janice, a do-gooder, is determined to get her to become more connected to other older people and is unable to understand Marcia’s resistance.

However, she is not cut off entirely having perceived Norman’s lack of resources to deal with life while they worked together. Her kind bequest releases him from his retirement difficulties and makes choice and change possible for him. Her death brings together the other three for only the second time since the women retired.

Ultimately Letty learns that her friend Marjorie has been jilted and now wishes to revive their plans of cohabiting. She has a choice of where to live for the first time and understands that this means she is significant in the lives of others. It is Letty who will do best in this quartet, for she has created a situation where change is possible and it is about her story that Barbara Pym makes that final observation that her ‘life still held infinite possibilities for change’ (186).

In many ways Quartet in Autumnis a dismal story, as no one seems to care about these older people.

Reading Quartet in Autumn

The darker themes of Quartet in Autumndo not obscure Barbara Pym’s close and humorous observations of the small but significant moments in life, which skill brings inevitable comparison with Jane Austen. She admired her and studied her technique. And like Elizabeth Taylor she has an undeserved reputation for being rather twee. Both are quiet and perceptive in their observations of social interactions.

Here is a delightful example that tells the reader and Letty everything about Father Lydell, Marjorie’s fiancé who has come to the country for his health. When they are introduced Letty asks if the country is doing him good.

‘I’ve had diarrhoea all this week,’ came the disconcerting reply.

There was a momentary – perhaps no more than a split second’s – pause, but if the women had been temporarily taken aback, they were by no means at a loss.

‘Diarrhoea,’ Letty repeated, in a clear thoughtful tone. She was never certain how to spell the word, but felt that such a trivial admission was lacking in proper seriousness so she said no more.

‘Strong drink would do you more good than the eternal round of parish cups of tea,’ Marjorie suggested boldly. ‘Brandy, perhaps.’ (34-5)

In the 1970s there was much talk about ensuring that less fortunate members of society should not ‘fall through the net’. All four people will fall through the social net, even if they do not need the welfare state. Barbara Pym herself knew what it meant to be overlooked in later life, when her publisher turned down a novel because it was not adequately commercial. In Quartet in Autumnshe describes a general attitude towards older people as they came to retire:

If the two women feared that the coming of this date might give some clue to their ages, it was not an occasion for embarrassment because nobody else had been in the least interested, both of them having long ago reached ages beyond any kind of speculation. Each would be given a small golden handshake, but the state would provide for their basic needs which could not be all that great. Elderly women did not need much to eat, warmth was more necessary than food, and people like Letty and Marcia probably either had either private means or savings, a nest egg in the post office or a building society. It was comforting to think on these lines, and even if they had nothing extra, the social services were so much better now, there was no need for anyone to starve or freeze. And if governments failed in their duties there were always the media – continual goadings on television programmes, upsetting articles in the Sunday papers and disturbing pictures in the colour supplements. There was no need to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory. (86)

This passage draws attention to assumptions about older people, and especially about women: their uninteresting social lives, their needs, their financial circumstances and that other people would look out for them. Older people are perceived as ‘other people’. Elsewhere Barbara Pym suggested that single women, like herself, need to be ‘drearily splendid’. How little has changed in 40 years. Barbara Pym makes it impossible to accept the prevailing view by showing us life from the perspectives of the four older people. By referring to the continual horror stories in the media she warns us that we doneed to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory and the two men.

Famously neglected, Barbara Pym’s reputation was resurrected when Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil both nominated her as the most under-rated author in 1977 in the TLS. Quartet in Autumnwas published later that year and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Related posts

An appreciation of Barbara Pym’s novelson the centenary of her birth by Philip Henscher was published in the Telegraph in June 2013

From the LA Review of Books 16thJuly 2015 by Mayotte, A Nice Hobby like Knittingsurveys Barbara Pym’s career and novels.

About the Older Women in Fiction series.

Quartet in Autumnby Barbara Pym, first published in 1977. I used the Pan/Picador edition. 186pp. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize

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Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan

‘This is a story of luminous beauty and rambunctious joy, of dark secrets and silences, revelations and, ultimately, the unknowability of those closest to us.  An in the face of the unknowable, personal history becomes fiction.’ (From the blurb on the cover of Nothing Holds Back the Night.) This is as good a description as any of this prizewinning book.

Every month I read and comment on a book by a woman in translation. Mostly they have been works of fiction. This book is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, an attempt by the French writer Delphine de Vigan to explain her mother’s life and death.

Nothing holds back the Night

Nothing holds back the Nightis an attempt to understand the life and death of the author’s mother, who she calls Lucile. Her mother committed suicide at the age of 62 in Paris. While a suicide often defines a life, in this case Lucile’s life appears to be shaped by her long history of mental ill health, bi-polar disorder. By setting her mother’s story within her network of relationships – family, lovers, friends, neighbours and work mates – Delphine de Vigan shows us so much more than one person’s life. We see how families and society respond and react to damaged people.

Delphine de Vigan was already a recognised writer when she decided to write this book. She drew on interviews with the surviving family members and friends, on documentary evidence including Lucile’s own writings, on a tv documentary made about the family when Lucile was a teenager, and from her own memories. That which she could not discover from these sources has been created by her. This means she is adding to the same family mythology to which she refers.

Every day that passes I see how difficult it is to write about my mother, to define her in words, how much her voice is missing. Lucile talked very little about her childhood. She didn’t tell stories. Now I tell myself that that was her way of escaping the mythology, of refusing to take part in the fabrication and narrative reconstruction which all families indulge in. (115)

She also wrote this book to get beyond the fear with which Lucile’s life infected her and makes her fear for her own family.

I am writing this book because I now have the strength to examine what troubles and sometimes assails me, because I want to know what I am passing on. I want to stop being afraid that something will happen to us, as though we were living under a curse, and to be able to make the most of my good fortune, my energy, my happiness without thinking that something terrible is going to happen to destroy us and that sadness is forever waiting in the wings. (231)

Lucile’s Life

Born to French parents in 1946, Lucile grew up with a total of 8 brothers and sisters. She was the 3rdchild. She was 8 when a younger brother died in a terrible accident by falling into a well. The family were knocked sideways by his death. As the years went by death and suicide affected other siblings and friends.

The first part of this book recounts Lucile’s life in a big family. In a large family the dynamics are always changing, always difficult, always mediated by parents. Lucile was exceptionally pretty and used as a photographic model, especially in the commercial world. The family was in the public gaze but they were dominated by an opinionated and demanding father and a lively and loveable mother. There was never enough money.

It is likely that her father abused Lucile when she was a teenager, drugging and raping her. Lucile’s revelation of this event some years later was simply ignored by the family. Soon after the incident Lucile met Gabriel, fell in love, became pregnant, married and gave birth to Delphine. She was not out of her teens. A second daughter was born and later Gabriel left and Lucile brought up the children more or less alone.

The episode in which Lucile was hospitalised is horrifying. It was witnessed by 12-year old Delphine, who retells the events of her mother’s restraint and removal as she saw them. The children were sent to live with their father and barely saw their mother for a while. They were later reunited but the fear of a relapse was always present, even when the two girls became adults. After years of psychotherapy Lucile recovered enough to retrain as a social worker and develop a new life for herself. But the fear remained and ultimately she took her own life.

Of everything in this detailed book, this quotation from her own writing, in 1979, shocked me for what it reveals about Lucile’s inner life.

This year, in November, I will be thirty-three. A rather uncertain age, I think, if one were superstitious. I am a beautiful woman except that I have rotten teeth, which in a certain way I’m very pleased about, sometimes it even makes me laugh. I wanted it to be known that death lies beneath the surface. (213)

Delphine de Vigan, in Nancy (Le Livre sur la Place 2011) Ji-Elle via Wikicommons

It is shocking, today, that Lucile’s revelations about her father, considered to be true by her daughter, were ignored, perhaps because they did not fit the family’s mythology. The book leaves the reader with a sense of sadness for Lucile, who suffered so much. And sad too for the others touched by her life, not least her two children. Yet Lucile died on her own terms, while still alive. It’s a difficult read, but one that honours its subject.

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

Notes of a Crocodileby Qiu Maojin, translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie.

The Winterlingsby Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.

Memoirs of a Polar Bearby Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Over to you

Do you have any recommendations of books by women in translation? Next month (May) I plan to read Loveby Hanne Orstavik.

Nothing holds back the Nightby Delphine de Vigan, published in English by Bloomsbury in 2013. 342pp. Winner of the Prix FNAC and the Grand Prix des lectrices de ELLE.

The French title is Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit. Translated by George Miller

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Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is the longest title so far in the Older Women in fiction series. The title is not the only outstanding feature of this book. Among the pleasures of the series are researching books to read, and following up recommendations by other readers. Recent posts have taken me out of the usual Western literary tradition and into other cultures. Two Old Women draws directly on Alaskan traditional stories from the Yukon, predating European arrivals. The Woman next Door is set in modern day South Africa. For the 32nd novel in the series Sarah Ladipo Manyika brings you a woman of 75, living in San Francisco and of Nigerian origin.

Morayo de Silva

Our first impressions of Morayo da Silva are from her own narration. Her voice begins the novel with these words.

The place where I live is ancient. ‘Old but sturdy,’ our landlady tells us. (1)

Later she tells us

For I, like the building am ancient. Ancient if you are going by Nigerian standards, where I’ve outfoxed the female life expectancy by nearly two decades. (2)

Here is a nice set of contradictions. By African standards, buildings in San Francisco are not ancient. Nor yet by European standards. Yet in the rich US, life expectancy has surpassed African norms. In her mail that morning she receives a notification that she must have medical and sight tests to verify her fitness to drive, now she is turning 75. She is aware that her sight is failing. We also learn that she is a flamboyant dresser, has travelled widely and is well educated.

She was an English Professor but these days she arranges her books not alphabetically but according to which characters should be talking to each other.

That’s why Heart of Darkness is next to Le Regard du Roi, and Wide Sargasso Sea sits directly above Jane Eyre. The latter used to sit next to each other but then I thought it best to redress the old colonial imbalance and give Rhys the upper hand – upper shelf. (23)

This is eccentric, but has a logic. Books are treasured and she is upset when a well-meaning friend causes some of her books to be thrown away.

As she walks on the streets of San Francisco we are shown different aspects of Morayo by other characters. We see her talking with a Palestinian stall holder, a gay man who pays her a compliment, a homeless girl, and we see that she notices these things, loves the city that is so friendly, loves to stand out in it. Later she meets and talks with more residents of the American melting pot.

Morayo has a strongly independent spirit, but when she falls and is injured she has to go to a care home to recuperate. The staff find her independence threatening, but she makes friends with the Guyanese husband of a resident who visits every day, and with the substitute chef called Toussaint whose food is tastier than the regular diet.

And when she returns home she accepts her physical limitations but is defiant in her response. Not for her the acceptable behaviour of aging women with failing sight. She has a last fast drive in her beloved old Porsche, Buttercup.

Reading Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun

The changes of point of view take a little getting used to. But the writing is direct and immediate and the main character so full of life that it is easy to enjoy. These different perspectives confirm the reader’s impression of a great character, and also provide insights into her interactions.

There is not much story to this short novel, but it moves along as people meet and talk which add up to small and important stories. The reader also learns more about Morayo’s rich past. Like a Mule is less a story, more a portrait.

The novel’s title is the last line of a poem, and seems to me to speak of those who take life, despite its obstacles and challenges and push on being alive. And Morayo does in her 75th year. You can read the poem by Mary Ruefle, Donkey On or see and hear the poet reading it on You Tube.

Sarah Ladipo Manyika

The author was born in 1968 and was raised in Nigeria. At one point in her life she taught English Literature in San Francisco State University. Her previous novel was In Dependence (2008). She has written about older people in fiction in an essay called For the Love of Older Characters in Good Books.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika, published by Cassava Republic in 2016. 118pp. It was shortlisted for the Goldsmith’s Prize in 2016.

Recent posts in the older women in fiction series:

Penelope Lively How it All Began

Velma Wallis Two Old Women

Tillie Olsen Tell me a Riddle

Yewande Omotoso The Woman Next Door

Please make suggestions for further fiction for this series.

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The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

We know we are in for an interesting read when we find this near the start of the novel:

As they realised themselves in varying degrees, few people alive at the time were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means. (9)

The time is 1945. The ‘savage’ girls live in the May of Teck Club which exists for

The Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years …(9)

This is my second contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali. Memento Mori had older people as its subjects while The Girls of Slender Means are young. I plan to reading more of Muriel Spark’s work – she wrote 22 novels – in this anniversary year of her birth.

The story of The Girls of Slender Means

The events in the Club in Kensington occur between VE Day and VJ Day in 1945, but also at a later date. A number of young women live in the Club, on the lower floors in dormitories but increasing in social standing as the accommodation rises to the fourth floor. There are many young women, and our attention is drawn in particular to Selina the beautiful one, Jane the fat one doing ‘brain’ work and Joanna who, having failed in love has come to London and teaches elocution. Joanna recites poetry throughout. There are lesser characters, such as the older women including Greggie who manages the garden and claims there is an UXB buried there.

The young women are obsessed with having a good time now and expect their futures, with suitable young men, to come along in due course.

Love and money were the vital themes in all the bedrooms and dormitories. (26)

Men are attracted to the hostel. Nicholas Farringdon is a poet philosopher ne’er-do-well. We learn that after the events of the novel he converted to Catholicism and martyred in Haiti. This is reported by Jane to one of the other survivors of the disaster at the May of Teck Cub.

Jane is employed by a dodgy publisher to write letters to authors so that he can sell their replies. You know he is dodgy because he changes his name every two years and has abandoned two of his three wives. Jane’s activities are referred to, by her, as brain work. Her employer asks her to investigate Farringdon and so he comes to the Club and falls for Selina. None of the young women really have a handle on the world, and they are too naïve to know it. Jane, for example, naïve in 1945, is really on the make as much as her publisher boss. In the later time frame of the novel, after Farringdon’s death, we find she is collecting material for a feature on him.

There is a role for a Schiaparelli dress, passed around the young women for various activities and stolen by Selina under cover of the chaos of the building as it collapses.

And there is a part for a skylight out onto a flat roof. The girls are forbidden to use it, but some of the most slender are able to slip through the opening, others have to smear their bodies with cold cream or margarine. It is the focus of the climax of the novel.

Some reactions

I really enjoyed Muriel Sparks’s spikey style. Her descriptions of people nearly always include a twist, undercutting what on the surface.

Her description of war-battered London is a marvel of compression. Here is the novel’s opening paragraph:

Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wall-papers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit. (7)

And the novel ends with the words ‘long ago in 1945’ (142). The focus is on the poverty of spirit of the young women emphasised in those not so far off days.

A review in the New York Times in 1963 by Virgilia Peterson points to the qualities of this novel, at the time of its publication.

A review that captures the social nuances of the May of Teck Club can be found on Jacquiwine’s Journal blog (from July 2017).

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963) Penguin 142pp

More Muriel Spark

The first of my contributions to #ReadingMuriel2018 was Memento Mori by Muriel Spark first published in 1959. I read the Virago version.

In May/June I will read and report on a novel by Muriel Spark from the ‘70s. Any recommendations?

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A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

A Horse Walks into a Bar sounds like the opening of a joke. And it is – one of the jokes told to the Israeli stand-up comedian Dovaleh who is the central character of this short novel. Dovaleh is on stage in a club in Netanya, a town in Israel, and the reader must witness his profoundly unsettling performance. Its description is a tour de force. David Grossman succeeds in telling Dovaleh’s story through the point of view of a member of the audience. We are held, like the narrator, until his act is over. We are pinioned by this man who flays himself alive in our presence. It’s a bleak tale.

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

This novella was translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen and it won the International Man Booker Prize in 2017. I didn’t expect to read it, but it was chosen for one of my reading groups and it gripped me from the start.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is without chapters and with some flashbacks that link to the comedian’s performance. To begin with David Grossman builds the world of the club in which Dovaleh is performing. The descriptions of the performance, together with the comedian’s repartee are vividly done in the present tense. Here’s an example:

He slowly walks towards a worn, overstuffed red armchair on the right-hand side of the stage. Perhaps it too – like the big copper urn – is left over from an old play. He collapses in it with a sigh, sinks further and further down until it threatens to swallow him up.

People stare at their drinks, swirl their glasses of wine and peek distractedly at their little bowls of nuts and pretzels.

Silence.

Then muffled giggles. He looks like a little boy in a giant piece of furniture. I notice that some people are trying not to laugh out loud, avoiding his eyes, as though afraid to get mixed up in some convoluted calculus he is conducting with himself. Perhaps they feel, as I do, that in some way they already are embroiled in the calculus and in the man himself more than they intended to be. He slowly lifts his feet, displaying the high, almost feminine heels of his boots. The giggles grow louder, until laughter washes over the entire club.

He kicks his feet and flutters his arms as if drowning, yells and sputters, and finally uproots himself from the depths of the armchair, leaps up and stands a few steps away from it, panting and staring fearfully. The audience laughs with relief – good old slapstick – and he gives them a threatening glare, but they laugh even harder. … (17-18)

This extract captures the descriptive powers of the writing, but it also illustrates the unsettling nature of the story being told. The audience is not sure what is happening. And the reader comes to see that the performer is manipulating the audience.

And we ask the question, as the narrator does: why has Dovaleh asked him to attend?

The tension is heightened as the evening wears on. The narrator is forced to remember his childhood connection with Dovaleh. As the comedian moves his act into the story of his own childhood, our narrator is forced to see what he did not see at the time, and worse, what he did not do to protect the juvenile Dovaleh.

As readers we too want to find the truth of what happened to the boy, the outsider, with strange parents, and strange behaviours. The tension is sustained until the bleakness of the revelations is almost unbearable. His long journey from the cadet camp to a funeral is stretched to the limits. It is on this road trip that Dovaleh hears the opening lines of the joke about the horse, but there is no humour in his performance now.

David Grossman

David Grossman in 2015

David Grossman was born in Israel in 1954. Our press has suggested that he is ‘an outspoken left-wing peace activist’ and that he ‘epitomises Israeli left-leaning cultural elite’ (both quoted on Wikipedia). You can say that the novella is a description of someone forced to flay themselves in public. David Grossman’s son was killed in action in Israel. As he remained a critic of Israeli policy he too has had to face public dissection. Perhaps Israel is flaying itself before the eyes of the world, although David Grossman has not dealt directly with Israeli politics in his fiction. A Horse Walks into a Bar is to some extent a meditation on grief, and on the scars of childhood, and the scars of war. It is all these, but more. Above all it is a powerful work of literature.

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman, published by Vintage 2016. 198pp. Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. Winner of Man Booker International Prize 2017.

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Miss Mole by EH Young for her birthday

A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. That’s the kind of title that catches my attention. The post by Jane on beyondedenrock blog was about celebrating birthdays of the more neglected women writers, so I decided to join in, in an ad hoc way. Here’s my first offering – some thoughts about EH Young’s novel Miss Mole to celebrate her birthday. She was born on 21st March in 1880, and this novel was published in 1930. This is a revision of my original post from June 2015.

Emily Hilda Young by Howard Coster 1932. National Portrait Gallery (22909) used under Creative Commons Agreement

Miss Mole by EH Young

Miss Mole is an unlikely heroine, especially for the 1930s. She is not very young, pretty, innocent or socially well placed. At the start of the novel she seems to delight in being less than straightforward and we wonder what will become of her over the next 288 pages. But she quickly captivates us and we are charmed by her resilience and resourcefulness.

The novel is set in Radstowe, modelled on Bristol. Although Miss Mole loves the city, she was brought up on a farm, and now must find her living among people who have tight rules about what is appropriate behaviour, especially for women.

The Story

We meet Miss Mole as she is about to be dismissed from her position as a lady’s companion. She has more or less engineered the dismissal, as she is bored and unhappy to be reduced to living at the beck and call of an old woman with restricted interests. Miss Mole does not like to be demeaned.

Hannah Mole has a cousin, Lilla Spenser-Smith who is anxious that her relationship with a mere domestic should not be known, and so finds Miss Mole a position as a housekeeper with a non-conformist widower, the Reverend Corder, and his children. The family would be called dysfunctional today. After some initial difficulties, Hannah finds ways to gain the trust of the children and to help them through their difficulties. Her position as a housekeeper provides her with the opportunity to do good within the Corder household.

The reader gradually understands that Hannah hides a secret, unknown even to Lilla. It is a secret such that if it were revealed she could not be employed as a domestic servant, and she would be ostracised in Radstowe. The tension of the novel increases as the revelation of this secret creeps closer, threatening to undermine her work within the Corder family.

Hannah understands how people judge others and make mistakes. Her secret results from her own mistaken judgement.

’Not the thing itself, but its shadow,’ she murmured, as she saw her own shadow going before her, and she nodded as though she had solved a problem. She judged herself by the shadow she chose to project for her own pleasure and it was her business in life – and one in which she usually failed – to make other people accept her creation. Yes, she failed, she failed! They would not look at the beautiful, the valuable Hannah Mole: they saw the substance and disapproved of it and she did not blame them: it was what she would have done herself and in one case when she had concentrated on the fine shadow presented to her, she had been mistaken. (9)

Miss Mole

Hannah Mole is not quite 40, a single woman with great independence of spirit, not always apparent to people she meets. She is described in the first chapter in this way.

She stood on the pavement, a thin shabby figure, so insignificant in her old hat and coat, so forgetful of herself in the enjoyment of the scene, that she might have been wearing a cloak of invisibility … (10)

We are soon made aware of Hannah’s resourcefulness, playfulness and creativity. We discover that she is a woman of integrity. In the first chapter she helps prevent a suicide. She is quiet about this event although it brings her into contact with people who appreciate her: Mrs Gibson who provides temporary lodgings and friendship, Mr Blenkinsop who is struck by her liveliness of spirit. Much of the pleasure of this novel derives from her approach to life, and especially her psychological insights into the Corder family. She is not without faults, getting locked into a battle with the Rev Corder, which she realises she has undertaken in order to score points.

Like many women of her age, situation and time she has a struggle to survive and time is not on her side. As she walks at night towards her new position in the Corder household she is visited by a brief moment of fear.

What was to become of herself? Age was creeping on her all the time and she had saved nothing, she would soon be told that she was too old for this post or that, and, for a second, fear took hold of her with a cold hand and the whispering of the dead leaves warned her that, like them, she would soon be swept into the gutter and no one would ask where she had gone, and her fear changed into a craving that there would be at least one person to whom her disappearance would be a calamity. ‘No one!’ the leaves whispered maliciously, while a little gust of laughter came from the bushes, and at that, Hannah paused and looked disdainfully in their direction. She was not to be laughed at! She was not to be laughed at and she refused to be frightened. (51)

The Style

EH Young’s style in Miss Mole reflects Hannah’s lack of clarity at the beginning and her increasing sense of herself and her own integrity. Episodes, fragments of memories, scraps of information are given to us in small pieces. We do not quite understand that Hannah has saved a life between stepping out to buy a reel of cotton and meeting with her cousin Lilla in the first chapter.

This mode of telling the story reflects Hannah’s character. While she is resourceful and lively, she has to guard herself, and her past, to live a little like the mole after which she is named. She is a complex character and develops through the novel so that by the final chapters we are aware of her true value.

The Themes

The book deals with the nature of morality and the contrast between received morality, socially accepted behaviour and Miss Mole’s integrity. She does good to so many. She knows that they would reject her if they learned about her secret, and so she is a challenge to the restrictive teachings of the church, the social attitudes of Lilla and Lilla’s social set.

EH Young herself had an unusual domestic arrangement – a ménage a trois. She kept this secret for 40 years. She knew something of the tensions between secrecy and truth, appearances and integrity.

Miss Mole by EH Young (first published in 1930) republished in 1984 as Virago Modern Classic with an introduction by Sally Beauman. 288pp

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A Tribute to Ursula le Guin

Ursula le Guin died on 23rd January 2018. We lost two inspirations on that day. Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpeter, also died. Hugh Masekela was my sound track in the ‘90s. In exile he played his accessible and lively jazz. I heard him once at the Town and Country Club in London and again at the Free Nelson Mandela Concert in Hyde Park in June 2008. Remember Bring him back home (Nelson Mandela) and Soweto Blues? Both involved in the struggles for freedom and equality.

Humanity of Ursula le Guin

The South African Hugh Masekela and the American writer Ursula Le Guin shared a belief in the power of the imagination, and also the determination not to compromise democratic principles. Masekela endured the traumas of apartheid and exile.

Ursula Le Guin endured treatment as an outsider, as an “other”. As a woman at Radcliffe in the 1940s she was not quite at Harvard. As a woman writer she was treated with disdain and was ignored. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy she was dismissed. Yet she held onto her ambitions and her determination and has written powerfully about voice, ageing, beauty, death, women writers and the publishing industry. In her tribute Margaret Atwood praised Ursula Le Guin’s thought experiment. I salute her long career fighting against exclusion and discrimination.

Ursula le Guin the storyteller

Her narrative talents are evident in all her fiction. Many, like me, have been attracted to her novels for young people, in particular The Earthsea novels, and gloried in the stories well told. There are important moral ideas in these novels, about growing up, responsibility, self-awareness and the power of language.

I would recommend the Earthsea Trilogy to anyone who has not read them, as well as her many books and short stories for adults.

Ursula le Guin’s approach

In an interview with John Wray in the Paris Review from 2013 she reveals her essential interest as a writer.

I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches. …

INTERVIEWER

What it is that draws you to this “trying on” of other existences?

LE GUIN

Oh, intellectual energy and curiosity, I suppose. An inborn interest in various and alternative ways of doing things and thinking about them.

That could be part of what led me to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one. And, in a deeper sense, what led me to write fiction, maybe. A novelist is always “trying on” other people.

We can read this playfulness as she tries out various ideas about what society might be like if one element was different. One example that appeals to me is The Left Hand of Darkness which explores what a society might be like that is not founded upon gender distinctions. The Dispossessed plays with ideas about anarchy and Natasha Walter, writer and activist, recently picked it as her life-changing book.

I suspect that searching for one answer was a common masculine approach to writing in the mid-20th century and one reason why she was marginalised. Her work was described as science fiction or fantasy, labels used to marginalise the writing. Yet it was precisely her ability to open up questions, to consider other possibilities, other lives, to challenge ‘othering’ and discrimination that appealed to me when I first met her writing.

Ursula le Guin on writing

In addition to her fiction Ursula Le Guin has written many essays, and provided some guidance for storywriters. Steering the Craft (1998) has the subtitle Exercises and discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator and the Mutinous Crew. In this book she provides many insights for writers and writing groups, including the importance of sound and rhythm in writing. She quotes Virginia Woolf often, explaining

I find her thought and work wonderful in itself, useful to anyone thinking about how to write. The rhythm of Woolf’s prose is to my ear the subtlest and strongest in English fiction. (47)

I have referred to her wonderful essays in Words are my Matter in previous blogposts, especially her ideas on imagination and how it is not the same as creativity and why writers need it and how to develop it in two posts: A Writer trains her Imagination and Imagination and The Operating Instructions.

Ursula Le Guin has referred to the instrumental view of learning and literacy summed up in this way: ‘Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions’. She ends by endorsing the central significance of literature.

The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we are visiting, life. (6 Words are My Matter)

She has plenty more to say in these issues about a range of topics.

Some Playfulness

I love her way of spiking some worn-out arguments, like the use of the generic pronoun “he” to include “she”. It doesn’t.

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter…

That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon.

This is from another collection of essays: The Wave in the Mind (another quote from VW). She writes well on ageing too:

I know what worries me most when I look in the mirror and see the old woman with no waist. It’s not that I’ve lost my beauty — I never had enough to carry on about. It’s that that woman doesn’t look like me. She isn’t who I thought I was.

This is another example of her ability to magically combine playfulness, imagination and seriousness. I wish I had read that essay when we were writing about ageing.

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

I will miss both formative influences – Ursula Le Guin’s and Hugh Masekela’s. You won’t be surprised to learn that I have been listening to his music while I have been writing this post. Thank goodness we have their recordings and books to return to.

Some references

I must remind readers of the BrainPickings blog which present writers’ ideas so well.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

The Wave in the Mind: talks and essays on the writer, the reader and the imagination by Ursula Le Guin (2004) published by Shambhala Publications

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin first published in 1969. I have an edition published by Orbit in 1992. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

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Another look at A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Reading non-fiction by women for the Decades Project brings me to a classic. For March I planned to consider a book published between 1920-29, so here is Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Virginia Woolf wrote two papers for two Cambridge women’s colleges in October 1928, and combined them into the six chapters of this short book. She starts in this way:

But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction – what has that got to do with a room of one’s own? (5)

She made the connection on the next page with this famous line:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. (6)

The 1920s and A Room of One’s Own

In the first decade of last century the only nonfiction by a woman that I could find were Gertrude Jekyll’s gardening books. Eight years of suffragette activity, the Great War, ten years of votes for some women and peacetime progress came between A Room of One’s Own and Emmeline Pankhurst’s autobiography My Own Story. By 1928 the impediments to women’s fiction had been removed, claims Virginia Woolf with her tongue in her cheek: the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good.

May I remind you that there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; that after 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 – which is a whole nine years ago – she was given a vote? May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now? When you reflect upon these immense privileges and the length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning five hundred a year in one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good. Moreover, the economists are telling us that Mrs Seton has had too many children. You must, of course, go on bearing children, but, so they say, in twos and threes, not in tens and twelves. (111)

What struck me as I read this essay for the third time was Virginia Woolf ‘s description of how deep the impediments were entrenched in English society. It is a blast against exclusiveness – ‘how unpleasant it is to be locked out’ (25).

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is not gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my min. (76)

The novelist and A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf brings her skills as a novelist to make the case that women’s lack of financial independence has been an underlying cause of the failure to produce fiction in the past. She follows an imaginary young woman, Mary Seton, on an day in Oxbridge, dining first at a man’s college, where she has been denied entry to the library and shouted at for being on the grass. Then she is entertained to supper at a women’s college, altogether a more meagre affair. She visits the British Museum (meaning the Library) where she looks for books on men and women. The books on women are all written by men. Men, she observes, had also taken it upon themselves to define what women could write about – and certainly they could not write critically of men. Some of her quotations of men writing about women make your eyes water.

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. (37)

I think of all those women speaking out in the #MeToo campaign about how they were abused by men. We can understand the abusive behaviour as serving to magnify a man’s natural size.

She invents a sister for Shakespeare and shows how, despite Judith’s talents being equal to her brother’s, she would not have been able to succeed in the theatre in the 17th century. In her lyrically argued prose, Virginia Woolf explores the state of mind women necessary to write fiction. Having been required to attend to a restricted sphere, the new art form of the novel provided the opportunity to use their understanding of human interactions. She notes three of the first novelists used male names: Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte and George Eliot. She also pointed out that a writer’s ideas and artistry depends upon what has already been written.

The core of her argument is that women need financial independence and privacy. Since 1928 it has become very clear that the problems for women are deeper than £500 a year (or its equivalent) and a room of one’s own with a key. Deeper even than the pram in the hallway. We must still struggle against male patriarchy especially now we have come to understand how it is bolstered by physical abuse and sexual violence.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. First published in 1928. I used my falling apart Penguin Modern Classics edition. 112 pp

The Decades Project

In 2017 I considered one novel by a woman each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). For 2018 I decided to find non-fiction by women for each decade. For next month I am hoping to find my copy of Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1933). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are the links to the first two books in the Decades Project:

Ms Jekyll and her Garden (1900-9) and

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914)

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Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

Choosing a novel by a woman in translation is not an easy task, as I have complained before. There are few reviews in newspapers or on blogs. I find recommendations in lists by other readers, and from organisations that support translations. I notice that animals feature in several titles (see the polar bear), and since it is several months since I read anything translated from Chinese, this is my choice for this month’s women in translation post.

Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin was translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie.

The story of Notes of a Crocodile

Set in Taipei in the last years of the 1990s, the central character is a young woman, finding it hard to understand her sexual identity within her group of friends. Lazi falls for a young woman, a student who is a few years older than her. Shui Ling is an obsession for the narrator. Their relationship blows hot and cold and Lazi is confused both by her feelings and by Shui Ling’s reactions.

Her other friends are also finding their way in the difficult time. Meng Sheng is a charismatic young man, challenging, wayward and rich. He and his partner Chu Kuang are both experimenting with their sexuality. These two young men reappear in her life from time to time, often high on drugs or inebriated. And two young women friends are also finding it hard to maintain their intense friendship. The affectionate Tun Tun and her companion Zhi Rou. Finally, Lazi meets a woman, Xiao Fan, who cares for her, but is herself so damaged that a painful split is inevitable. Without apparent studying, Lazi graduates, celebrates alone, but having learned about her desires and the raw places her desires take her to.

The structure of Notes of a Crocodile

The novel is presented as a mash-up of diary entries, fantasies or short stories on the subject of crocodiles or notes. The innovative post-modern style partly explains Qiu Miaojin’s cult status. The crocodile elements of the novel provide a different beat to the painful narrative of Lazi’s life. The crocodile is trying to pass as a human. In crocodile world, the media are in a frenzy to discover crocodiles, and everything about them. Lazi’s crocodile has been living a lonely life, believing s/he (it is hard to ascertain the gender of crocodiles apparently) is alone in the world. But about half way through the novel the crocodile finds an ad from the Crocodile Club for a Christmas Eve gathering.

When the crocodile discovered the ad, it was so excited that it didn’t sleep for days. It had never occurred to the crocodile that there were other crocodiles, and what’s more they had already formed a club! Could that possibly mean there was a place to go and others to talk to? As it sucked on the corners of its comforter, giant teardrops welled up in its eye. (139)

The crocodile theme relates to how LGBT people were seen in Taiwan in the late 1990s. The country was not long out of martial rule. Heterosexuality had been the only acceptable form of human sexual behaviour. But the LGBT people were demanding recognition and rights. The playful argument of pro- and anti-croc reveals the basic level of the discussion.

For more on the context of Notes of a Crocodile, see the comments by Ari Larissa Heinrich in Consider the Crocodile: Qiu Miaojin’s Lesbian Bestiary, in the LA Review of Books.

Reading Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

I did not find Notes of a Crocodile an easy read in part because there were so few connections to my experience. Qiu Miaojin (1969 – 1995) was Chinese, from Taiwan. The story she recounts was about the university years of her characters. She was a lesbian, writing about the lesbian experience in Taipei at that time.

The experience recalled my lack connection I experienced when I read Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami – all angsty, endless picking over the smallest of interactions, and appealing to another readership. Qiu Miaojin references Murakami on the first page, and later tells us Lazi took a copy of Norwegian Wood as she flees from another break up with Shui Ling.

The intensity of the failing relationships became wearing. So did her attempts to change her life, undertaken in the knowledge that she would fail.

For my entire life, I had been inherently attracted to women. That desire, regardless of whether it was realized, had long tormented me. Desire and torment were two opposing forces constantly chafing me, inside and out. I knew full well that my change of diet was futile. I was a prisoner of my own nature, and one with no recourse. This time, however I was determined to liberate myself. (182-3)

Sadly Qiu Miaojin committed suicide when she was only 26. Notes of a Crocodile was published posthumously. She gained something of a cult following. I do not expect to pick up her other novel, Last word from Montmartre, very soon.

Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin New York Review Books (1994) 242pp

Translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

The Winterlings by Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, translation from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Next month (April) I plan to read Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan.

Over to you

Do you have any recommendations of novels by women in translation?

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