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The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo

I have not reviewed a book in the older woman in fiction series for some months. I correct this here with a thriller from Korea, specifically put my way by Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.

What I liked about The Old Woman with the Knife was the serious way it undermined common ideas about how older women should behave, and how they decline physically. Older women often say that they have become invisible, meaning that they are not noticed, do not stand out from other people. The main character exploits this in order to carry out her trade: contract killing.

This is the 57th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed.

The Old Woman with the Knife

Hornclaw is 65 and has managed to survive as a contract killer in Korea. We meet her on the subway, when she is very deliberately not standing out from the crowd.

…she is a model senior citizen, wholesome and refined and respectable. Rather than making a show of how deserving she is of a seat, she stands by the full senior section at the end of the car and doesn’t complain. Her clothing is appropriate for a middle-class senior citizen, perfectly aligned with the standard of old age: off-brand but decent clothes, down to her hat and shoes, purchased at Dongdaermun Market or on sale at a department store. Unlike some, she doesn’t bellow songs, her face ruddy with drink, taking up space with various kinds of sporting equipment. She exists like an extra in a movie, woven seamlessly into a scene, behaving as if she had always been there, a retiree thrilled to take care of her grandchildren in her golden years, living the rest of her days with a frugality baked into her bones. People stare at their phones, headphones in their ears, shrinking from and swaying with the unending wave of humanity, quickly forgetting an old person has entered their midst. They excise her from their consciousness as if she’s unimportant, recyclable. Or they never even saw her to begin with. (13)

Many older women readers will recognise the idea of being ‘like an extra in a movie’, being passed over or not seen to begin with. Perhaps it happens to men too.

She has bought her survival as a contract killer at the cost of loneliness, close only to her dog, Deadweight. She has lost everyone she cared for along the way. She began life in a poor family, was sent to live as an unpaid servant in a distant cousin‘s household and abandoned there by her family. She had to find her own way and was helped and then more or less adopted by the mysterious Ryu. It was Ryu who rescued her, taught her the trade of murder and set up a company in which she was the chief worker. Even after many decades it is his voice that she hears guiding her to remain unremarked in a crowd.

In the opening chapter Hornclaw kills a commuter. He was behaving in an obnoxious way towards a young female passenger on the subway. There is, I admit, a small satisfaction in such a man being despatched. On leaving the cloakroom where Hornclaw cleans her poisoned knife she nearly collides with the emergency service workers who are rushing to the scene. 

When completing a job in a busy place and turning the corner …
Didn’t I tell you to slow down or stick to the edges but to make a big loop? What if you bump into someone and drop something? You would be announcing, here’s all the evidence, to the whole world.
She can recall Ryu’s expression when he told her that as if it were yesterday, and so she will trace the most complicated route home possible. (20)

But as she had grown older things have changed. In the agency for whom she works a younger male colleague seems bent on ruining her reputation and her effectiveness. A small mistake takes her to the doctor at the clinic, and she develops affection for Dr Kang and his family. This weakness is exploited by her rival and there is a violent showdown.

While I loved the feminist and anti-ageist stance of the story, I also found myself disconcerted by the lack of questioning of the morality of extra-judicial or contract killing. Perhaps I am asking too much. It’s a fantasy after all. But I find it hard to read about such things as though the victims are merely extras in a film, or disposable characters in a video game.

Gu Byeong-mo

Gu Byeong-mo was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1976. She made her literary debut in 2009 when her novelWizard Bakery won the second Changbi Prize for Young Adult Fiction. Her 2015 short-story collection Geugeosi namaneun anigireul received the Today’s Writer Award and Hwang Sun-won New Writers’ Award. This is her third novel, and the first to be translated into the English language. [From the Canongate website]

The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo, first published in 2013, and in the English translation by Canongate in 2022. 281pp. The English version was translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

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My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin

I had known about this book for many years, but I had been put off reading it by the rather colloquial title: I got the sense of going bung, but in my prim way thought it was a bit vulgar. I found a copy in a second-hand bookshop soon after I had reviewed My Brilliant Career and was intrigued. I so wish I had come across it earlier, because it was fun and I would have enjoyed it as a much younger woman too.

My Career Goes Bung

My Brilliant Career was not a sophisticated novel. The storyline follows the history of the Australian writer, written with a great deal of energy and brashness. According to the introduction by Carmen Callil, Miles Franklin said that she ‘conceived and tossed it off in a matter of weeks’. It was published in 1901. The reception of this novel caused her to refuse to allow it to be reprinted. 

She wrote My Career Goes Bung in 1902, when she was in her early 20s, but felt that it would be unacceptable to readers until much later. It wasn’t published until 1946.

In My Career Goes Bung the first novel having earned much notoriety for its young author, Sybylla has to deal with the reactions of people within her limited community, and then later from the cultural set in Sydney. Both novels are based on what happened to Miles Franklin. 

I loved this second volume. The heroine/narrator exposes so much hypocrisy about the role of young women at the start of the twentieth century in Australia, even though women had gained the vote by 1902. The surprising success of her first novel is regarded as below comment in ‘Possum Creek, although she becomes the centre of gossip and attention. There is no local person who takes her talents seriously, except her father. He is not a successful businessman and is interested in politics, but not very successful at that either. 

Her mother tells her that if she is against marriage she will have to take up a profession. Sybylla considers her options:

This brought me to consider my prospects and to find that I hadn’t any. I loved to learn things – anything, everything. To attend University would have been heaven, but expense barred that. I could become a pupil-teacher, but I loathed the very name of this profession. I should have to do the same work as a man for less pay, and, in country schools, to throw in free of remuneration, the speciality of teaching all kinds of needlework. I could be a cook or a housemaid and slave all day under some nagging woman and be a social outcast. I could be a hospital nurse and do twice the work of a doctor for a fraction of his pay or social importance, or, seeing the tremendously advanced age, I could even be a doctor – a despised lady-doctor, doing the drudgery of the profession in the teeth of such prejudice that even the advanced, who fought for the entry of women into all professions, would in practice “have more faith in a man doctor.” I could be a companion to some woman appended to some man of property.
I rebelled against every one of these fates. (20-21)

Sybylla finds it impossible to stay at home, for there is no one with whom she can be friends.

From ‘Possum Gully to Spring Hill and round about the Wallaroo Plains there wasn’t a real companion of my own age, nor any other age. The dissatisfaction of other girls stopped short of wondering why life should be so much less satisfactory to them than their brothers, but they accepted it as the will of God. None of them was consumed with the idea of changing the world. (31)

The opportunities for a feminist are limited at home, especially for one who does not wish to marry and would rather change the world. So Sybylla’s mother arranges for her to spend time in Sydney with an old lady who would be pleased to have her to stay. Here her notoriety is the object of considerable interest, and Mrs Crasterton’s standing in Sydney society is enhanced by the presence of her curious guest. Men seem to find her fascinating, and it takes her a little time to work out how to deal with them, their attentions and their offers of marriage. 

She demonstrates great perceptiveness at the hypocrisy of the society which still believes that a woman’s duty and calling is marriage and motherhood, while playing court to her originality. She is determined not to marry and escapes all attempts to lure her. Most of them think she will grow out of writing when she is married. But it was to stand up for herself, young, female and without much ‘EXPERIENCE’. She rejects all their suggestions and returns home, her writing career going nowhere.

Warned by a loyal suitor back home that she might become despised as an old maid Sybylla responds:

Despised for being an old maid, indeed! Why are men so disturbed by a woman who escapes their spoilation? Is her refusal to capitulate unendurable to masculine egotism, or is it a symptom of something more fundamental? (227)

Finally, she decides to go wider than Sydney, to the world beyond Australia, to London.

One my strongest pleasures in this vibrant, heart-felt novel is the language she uses, with such freshness. Here’s a favourite as her mother pours cold water on any idea of Sybylla going on the stage.

She finished me to squashation like a sucked gooseberry. (44)

I loved her observations and wit, her determination not to be seduced by the dominant ideas about women, love, marriage and motherhood. Miles Franklin largely kept to that. She never married and before returning to settle in Australia in 1932, encouraging Australian writing, she spent more than two decades in America and in England.

My Career Goes Bung: purporting to be the autobiography of Sybylla Penelope Melvyn by Miles Franklin, first published in 1946. Republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1981. 234 pp

Related posts

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin on Bookword January 2020

Heavenali included a review of this novel on her blog in September 2015.

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Beowulf 2, in which he meets a feminist

A few months ago, I posted my first piece on the ancient poem Beowulf, saying I would have more to say later. I referred to versions of the poem that I had on my shelves, two of which were designed for children. The post featured versions for present-day readers by Seamus Heaney, Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo.

Beowulf is a poem that delights in masculine power and it is a story told by men about men for men. Maria Dahvana Headley suggests that we can look at Beowulf another way. In her novel she gives a name to Beowulf’s second opponent, Grendel’s mother, and tells a modern version of the story, avoiding depicting her as a monster.

Maggie Gee, in an article in The Author reminds us that ‘female monsters and villains have been an avenging presence in myth ever since human story-making began’. Some of them have been half animal and half human. We need them, she suggests, to counter the apologetic behaviour encouraged in women.

On to the page they stride and out across the landscape, laughing maniacally, axes in hand. The tact we try to display in real life is equalled by the dark side of our fictional monsters. [The Author Autumn 2019] 

Her own monster can be found in Blood, published in 2019. 

Maria Dahvana Headley challenges the idea of Grendel’s mother being monstrous. The avenging threat of Grendel’s mother is just that – a mother who has lost her son, ‘carried on a wave of wrath, crazed with sorrow, looking for someone to slay, someone to pay in pain for her heart’s loss’ (l. 1275-7). She is a much more interesting character than the tactful and conforming Willa (a version of Wealhtheow).

At the time of my first post, I was not aware of the Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf, which referred to several versions, and mentioned an upcoming translation by Maria Dahvana Headley and her novel The Mere Wife. Since then (February 2021) I have read both books by Maria Dahvana Headley, attended an on-line event with her, and listened to the podcast.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The novel is a feminist telling of part of the Beowulf story, focusing in particular on Grendel’s mother, set in a place and time which is something like present-day America. Dana Mills, a marine, was filmed being executed in a desert war but she somehow manages to return home. She is pregnant and gives birth secretly to Gren, who she sees will be categorised as an enemy to be destroyed. She finds refuge in the caves in the mountain above her former home. They had been part of a railway system, long since abandoned and forgotten. 

Herot Hall has been built over the previous settlement where Dana had been brought up. It is a gated and privileged community run and profited from by the Herot family. Willa Herot has a son and is concerned to keep up appearances for the rest of the community. 

Willa’s son Dylan is intrigued by what he sees out of his window: Gren, Dana’s son. The two boys form a secret friendship, but at her Christmas party Willa finds evidence of Gren, and Dana, watching the party from outside, sees that her son is in danger and tears through the party. The outcome is that Willa’s husband is killed. The tall, blonde, muscular chief of police – Ben Woolf (say his name) – is believed to have killed Dana by drowning her in the mere. In fact, Dana and Gren have retreated to the underground railway station inside the mountain. Later Dylan runs there too and then the hunt is on.

I really liked the way that the author used the details of the original story. The dragon that emerges from the underground lair is here represented by the restored train. The policeman is seen as a hero because he is big and golden and appears to stand between the comfort of the Herot community and danger represented by Dana and Gren. 

We see that those who define others as monsters have power and authority. They include the police, but also the important families, and the press. At play here is the destruction of the history of the US, gender struggles and the damage done by wars. 

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2018 by Scribe. 306pp

Beowulf: a new translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

In this new translation of the poem, Maria Dahvana Headley refutes Tolkien’s suggestion that the language used in its translation must be ‘literary and traditional’. Instead, she brings to it a modern idiom, the boastful, male fraternizing tradition of the ‘dude text’. Here’s the opening.

Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings! In the old days,
everyone knew what men were: brave, glory-bound. Only
stories now, but I’ll sound the Spear-Danes’ song, hoarded for hungry times. (l.1-3)

Compare with Heaney’s translation:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. (l.1-3)

The original Old English poem begins with the word Hwæt. Listen to the podcast for a discussion of its possible pronunciation and meaning. 

This is how the boastful Beowulf introduces himself to Hrothgar, offering to defend the hall against Grendel. 

I’m the strongest and the boldest, and the bravest and the best.
Yes: I mean – I may have bathed in the blood of beasts,
netted five foul ogres at once, smashed my way into a troll den
and come out swinging, gone skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea
and made sashimi of some sea monsters.
Anyone who fucks with the Geats? Bro, they have to fuck with me.
They’re asking for it, and I deal them death. [l.416- 422]

Beowulf is all male and aggression, like the hero of an action movie or a video game. 

Her introduction on translating the poem and her interest in it, through Grendel’s mother, is a good explanation of the approach she took and the decisions she made for this new version. One of the interesting things about the text of Beowulf is that it seems to be a very adaptable text, and to have relevance to many different times. I have some thoughts about why that might be which I am saving for a future post.

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2021 by Scribe. 140pp

Relevant Links

Beowulf 1 on Bookword.

The Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf

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Potterism by Rose Macaulay

About 100 years ago Lloyd George, the wartime UK prime minister, was accused of selling peerages. Sound familiar? In this novel, one was awarded to Mr Potter, the founder of a chain of publications that had done exceptionally loyal work during the war. Another current concern that has its roots in those days was the attitude, in the press as much as in wider society, of British exceptionalism, ‘we hate all foreigners’ (47). Potterism, published in 1920, was Rose Macaulay’s 10th novel and her first best seller. Rose Macaulay had something to say about this attitude, especially when expressed as anti-Semitism. She was an advocate of values, truth and integrity. 

I am grateful to Kate Macdonald for the advance copy from Handheld Press. Potterism is published on 24thAugust 2020 as is a collection of Rose Macaulay’s anti-war writings, including her short novel Non-Combatants and Others, written in 1916.

Potterism: a tragi-farcical tract

Potterism was a kind of attitude which Rose Macaulay tries to define and subvert in this novel. It was named for the publisher of a paper which appeals to low tastes, nationalism and a dislike of others. The Potter publishing empire is complacent, smug, conservative and without concern for the truth. One might have thought it was modelled on Lord Rothermere, a bit like the Daily Mail, only Lord Rothermere himself appears in the novel. 

The Anti-Potterism League consists of a few Oxford intellectuals, including the twin children of Mr and Mrs Potter. Jane and Johnny both dislike what their father’s papers stand for, and their mother’s romantic fiction. Other members of the League include Arthur Gideon, son of a Jewish émigré, Jukes, a clergyman and Katherine Varick, a scientist. 

Gideon is the leader of this group, and has the clearest idea of what feeds Potterism.

… Potterism has, for one of its surest bases, fear. The other bases are ignorance, vulgarity, mental laziness, sentimentality, and greed. The ignorance that does not know facts; the vulgarity that cannot appreciate values; the laziness which will not try to learn either of these things; the sentimentality which, knowing neither, is stirred by the valueless and the untrue; the greed which grabs and exploits. But fear is worst; the fear of public opinion, the fear of scandal, the fear of independent thought, of loss of position, of discomfort, of consequences, of truth. (72)

The start of the novel lays out the relationships between these people and then the war with Germany arrives. Gender divides them as the men volunteer and go off to war, Gideon is wounded, losing a foot. Johnny escapes with no injuries. Mr Potter’s newspapers adopt the most nationalistic and propogandist attitudes they can. Truth becomes less of a consideration still.

No one could say that the Potter press did not rise to the great opportunity. The press seldom fails to do this. The Potter press surpassed itself, it nearly surpassed its great rival presses. With energy and whole-heartedness it cheered, comforted, and stimulated the people. It never failed to say how well the Allies were getting on, how much ammunition they had, how many men, what indomitable tenacity and cheerful spirits enlivened the trenches. The correspondents it employed wrote home rejoicing; its leading articles were notable hymns of praise. In times of darkness and travail one cannot but be glad of such a press as this. So glad were the Government of it that Mr Potter became, at the end of the 1916, Lord Pinkerton, and his press the Pinkerton press. (31-2)

After the war Jane tries to get a job and goes to the Paris peace conference as her father’s secretary where she meets the Adonis that is Oliver Hobart. He did not fight in the war, strings being pulled by Potter to ensure his exemption. He is very beautiful and the editor of the flagship Potter newspaper: the Haste. He begins by courting Claire, Jane’s older sister, but soon transfers his affections and marries Jane. Arthur Gideon gets a job on the rival paper to the Potterist publication called Fact but it never achieves a wide circulation.

There is then a murder as Oliver Hobart falls downstairs and is killed. Who killed him? Gideon and Jane are in love and each thinks the other responsible. But in the time before the murderer is revealed several people get to put their opinions, including Mrs Potter who assumes it was Gideon because he is a Jew.

All is resolved and Jane is free to marry Gideon. 

Gender in Potterism

Rose Macaulay was a lifelong feminist and through the device of the twins, Jane and Johnny, she captures the different experiences resulting from their different genders. Jane is the cleverer, but it is Johnny who can go and fight and find a job after the war. And he doesn’t have to have babies, an idea which disgusts Jane. Jane is not a very sympathetic character, despite being a member of the Anti-Potterism League. She is greedy and selfish and not much concerned about anyone but herself. 

The scientist, Katherine Varik, appears calmer than Jane, and less greedy and selfish. Her voice is one of reason. At home she continues her scientific experiments in her laboratory, despite the uncertainty in her circle. There are not many female scientists in literature of that time I think.

Structure in Potterism

The first and last sections of this novel are narrated by RM (Rose Macaulay?). The central chapters are narrated in turn in the first person by Gideon, Leila Yorke (which is the pen name of Mrs Potter), Katherine Varik and Laurence Juke, who has become a deacon in the Anglican church despite being a bit of a radical. By using these voices the writer is able to emphasise different aspects of her concerns. For example, the section narrated by Leila Yorke is so full of conceitedness, so smug, so anti-Semitic that one cringes on reading it. We know, then, that Mrs Potter’s conclusion that the murder was committed by Gideon is not founded on anything more than prejudice. Both Juke and Katherine offer less histrionic versions of the events. 

This use of multiple inner voices was somewhat new at the time. Virginia Woolf uses it in Mrs Dalloway, published 5 years after Potterism. In that novel the shifts between voices are made without the signposts that are given to the reader by Rose Macaulay.  

Rose Macaulay

Here is another prolific twentieth century woman writer, and one who has been somewhat neglected in the last 50 years. Born in 1881 Rose Macaulay lived until 1958, having written 23 novels and a great deal of journalism, and other works. Potterism (her 10th novel) was one of the first to sell well, but perhaps her best known is The Towers of Trebizond (1956). She was well respected in her lifetime, but her popularity has not been sustained. It is good that Handheld Press is reissuing her work, bringing her to our attention, for she had some important things to say. And she has things to say to us today, as I have tried to indicate. And Handheld books are beautifully produced and designed. 

Potterism: a tragi-farcical tract by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1920 and reissued by Handheld Press in 2020 with an introduction by Sarah Lonsdale. 247pp

Other relevant on-line commentaries

Stuck in a Book reviewed Potterism as part of the #1920Club in April. And the publisher of the new edition wrote about it on her blog katemacdonald in January 2015 and has suggestions for further reading.

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