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The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

This post about The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy celebrates the birthday of another neglected female writer. Born on 23rdApril 1896 Margaret Kennedy was well known between the wars. Her most famous, even infamous, novel was The Constant Nymph. It was made into a stage play, a silent movie, and two further film adaptations in 1933 and 1943. Among people I asked, the book is well known but not well read.

The story of The Constant Nymph

Albert Sanger is a composer who dominates his family. He has rejected England and has taken his Circus, mistress and seven children of two marriages, to live in the Austrian Tyrol. The children grow up rather wild, living a life of freedom, running away, swearing, bathing in the nude, on familiar terms with adults.

Lewis Dodd is a composer as well as a disciple, who also enjoys the unpredictable Sanger family life. During Lewis’s visit Sanger dies and the Circus is broken up. Florence, the aunt of some of the children, arrives to resolve the issue of what to do about the children. The two older children go off to earn their living, and four of the younger ones, Pauline, Sebastien, Teresa and Antonia, are to be taken in by their mother’s family. But Antonia, who has recently returned from a short visit to Munich, where she lost her virginity with Jacob Birnbaum, decides instead to marry Jacob.

Lewis falls for Florence struck by the order and control in her life. She in turn is attracted to the bohemianism she finds. They marry quickly and organise the remaining children into schools in England.

Although initially in awe of Florence, her poise, her capable manner, the children find school impossible and run away to find Lewis, the only sympathetic person they know. By now it has become clear that Teresa although only fourteen is in love with Lewis.

With so many conflicting outlooks, in particular the cultivated versus the bohemian, relationships do not work out well. Florence soon comes to distrust Teresa, and then becomes jealous of her. Lewis will not conform to her life and expectations for him, and comes to disregard her.

Over time the love grows between Lewis and Teresa, becomes acknowledged, feared and finally overtakes them all.

Reading The Constant Nymph

The contrasts and tensions that play out in this novel begin with the title. A nymph, after all, is not normally regarded as constant, more as a flighty creature. But Teresa is steadfast in her affection for Lewis. She is presented as naïve and innocent in this.

Even when she has had some contact with the civilising influence of school and London she remains innocent as her uncle observes.

He found her very entertaining. Her way of talking had a turn that was at once innocent and shrewd, infantile and yet full of observations, adorned with quaint, half literary idiom, and full of inflections borrowed from other languages. She was refreshing, after a long surfeit of cultural provincialism. He saw ignorance in her, and childishness and a good deal of untutored passion, but of pose there was no trace and she was without small sentimentalities or rancours. (251)

The novel explores the many contrasts between convention and nature, art and practicality, and above all education in the proper ways of cultured society and the acceptance of feelings as an honest basis for action.

And, as the extract suggests, the tensions are not only between the characters, but also within them. Florence, for example, is the epitome of acceptable culture, but is challenged by her attraction to Lewis the composer, and by the children’s lack of appreciation of the proper way to do things. Lewis only begins composing again when Florence brings order to his life through their marriage, but he loathes her conformity and longs for the anarchism of the Sanger Circus.

The bohemian household of the domineering Sanger in The Constant Nymphreminds us of the notorious arrangements of the artists Augustus John and Eric Gill. Forty years later, in 1968 Elizabeth Taylor portrayed a similar household in The Wedding Group.

And what challenges accepted norms more than the sexual transgressions of bohemians? This is the core of the novel. Teresa’s sister Antonia had just escaped social opprobrium. She was sixteen when she ran off with Jacob, so not a minor, and they were pressured into marriage. In contrast, Teresa is fifteen when she and Lewis abscond, and he is already married. Although we are invited to have sympathy for their rather innocent involvement (he has not ‘made her his mistress’ before they leave England) Margaret Kennedy was not able to allow them to continue with their misadventure. However the failure of their escapade will bring no satisfaction to anyone.

The description of Jacob Birnbaum, who is frequently referred to as a Jew, is shocking, and of its time. He is a generous and perceptive person, who supports his wife and friends in practical and emotional ways. But his portrayal, and that of some of other characters are of stereotypes. Linda the slatternly mistress of Albert Sanger, the fat Russian choreographer Trigorin and even Sanger himself are much less nuanced as characters than Lewis, Florence and Teresa. Margaret Kennedy demonstrates psychological insight into the conflicts of these characters.

This novel deserves to be better known, even if we are less shocked by some of the activities of the children, instead would condemn Lewis and his self indulgences.

Margaret Kennedy

Margaret Kennedy, Smithsonian Institute via WikiCommons

Born in 1896 Margaret attended Cheltenham Ladies College and then shared her time at Somerville with Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, Hilda Reid and Naomi Mitchison among others. Her first book was a history book and she went on to write 15 novels. She died in1967.

Related posts

Jane on beyondedenrock blog posted A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authorswhich caught my eye. I support her suggestion that we celebrate birthdays of the more neglected women writers.

The Constant Nymphby Margaret Kennedy, first published in 1924. I used the edition published by Vintage in 2014, with an Introduction by Joanna Briscoe. 362pp

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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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My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst was written as Europe approached war in 1913-1914 and published as the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) ceased their campaigning. The WSPU were familiarly known as suffragettes, distinguishing them from the less militant suffragists. It is my choice in the Decades Project for 1910-1919 on this blog.

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst wrote her story before she knew the outcome of the struggle to gain votes for women. Raised in a radical family, married to a man who promoted women’s suffrage, like many others she was frustrated by the lack of progress, despite many years of suffragist campaigning. She writes about the reasons for establishing the WSPU in 1906.

This, then, was the situation: the government all-powerful and consistently hostile; the rank and file of legislators impotent; the country apathetic; the women divided in their interests. The Women’s Social and Political Union was established to meet this situation, and to overcome it. (53)

She launched the WSPU with her daughters Sylvia and Christabel. They determined to draw attention to the cause by any means necessary until victory was achieved. In her account she relates how it was necessary to increase the pressure as they were successively knocked back. They began with peaceful demonstrations and other activities to publicise their demand for Votes for Women, such as unfurling banners at election meetings and asking ‘when will there be votes for women?’ and making speeches in as many places as possible. The campaign was aimed at recruitment of activists and at discomforting cabinet members who were resisting their demands. They were frequently thrown out of meetings. Hostility, including violent reactions, was common.

As franchise reform was repeatedly postponed by Liberal governments the WSPU took to opposing Liberal candidates in by-elections and general elections. The government’s response became more determined. Women were arrested, charged and imprisoned. Police were instructed to manhandle the demonstrators as they marched towards Parliament on Black Friday 1910.

Ernestine Mills at the entrance to Parliament November 1910.

The suffragettes aimed to cause as much difficulty as possible for the authorities, so in prison they campaigned for political prisoner status, refused to follow prison regulations, including going on hunger strike. The official response was brutal: force feeding and later the Cat and Mouse Act.

From Mrs Pankhurst’s account one learns the meaning of this brutality for individual women. They continued, devising more and more ingenious ways to thwart the authorities, and adopted tactics of guerrilla groups to keep going as leaders were picked off. Following the failure of the Conciliation Act in 1910 they escalated the campaign to include damage to property. Golf courses were damaged, empty houses set alight, post boxes burned, windows broken.

Mrs Pankhurst is voluble about the sexist double standard in treatment of political activists. Women were harshly treated by the justice system for advocating the same actions as the Irish Nationalists, although the WSPU did not go as far as taking lives. The men were allowed to get away with these crimes. The women were repeatedly arrested and imprisoned, released if on hunger strike, rearrested after a few days of recovery, and the organisation of the WSPU, including its weekly newspaper, was disrupted.

Arrest of Mrs Pankhurst in 1910

 

One learns of the determination of members of the WSPU, and especially of Mrs Pankhurst’s single mindedness. I think she was an unpleasant woman. Those who were not with her were considered her enemies. Certain that her ends and methods were right, she allowed no democracy within the WSPU.

Her arch nemesis was the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith. She spares none of her vitriol as she charts his political chicanery. Lloyd George and Churchill are not far behind.

Many at the time felt that the WSPU had set back the cause of women’s suffrage. She did not agree. Reflecting on the achievements of their campaign in 1914 she has this to say.

… It must be plain to every disinterested reader that militancy never set the cause of suffrage back, but on the contrary, set it forward at least half a century. When I remember how that same House of Commons, a few years ago, treated the mention of women’s suffrage with scorn and contempt, how they permitted the most insulting things to be said of the women who were begging for their political freedom, and how, with indecent laughter and coarse jokes they allowed suffrage bills to be talked out, I cannot but marvel at the change our militancy so quickly brought about. (326)

And what did happen to Votes for Women?

In February 1918, even before the war had ended the coalition government passed the Representation of the People’s Act which enfranchised more men (on residency qualifications) and some women: those over 30 with property or married to men with property or graduates voting in a university town. 8.4 million women gained the vote, about 43% of the electorate.

War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides. It has made it, I think, impossible that ever again, at all events in the lifetime of the present generation, there should be a revival of the old class feeling which was responsible for so much, and, among other things, for the exclusion for a period, of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise. (George Cave, Con, Home Secretary. From Hansard)

The government that introduced this legislation contained many ministers who had vigorously opposed women’s suffrage before the war. Women had to wait until 1928 to gain the vote on the same terms as men.

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914) Vintage 327pp

See also No Surrender by Constance Maud a novel by a suffragette published in 1911, republished by Persephone Books.

In March the Decades Project choice is A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, published in 1929.

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Photo Credit.  Ernestine Mills, artist and suffragist, is on the ground with gloved hands over her face. The man in top hat intervening in her behalf is Mills’s husband, Dr. Herbert Mills. Beyond the scrum of police, protesters, and spectators lies an entrance to Parliament. Daily Mirror 19 November 1910 via WikiCommons.

Photo credit: Arrest of Mrs P Nationaal Archief on VisualHunt.com / No known copyright restrictions

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Some Tough Reading

I have chosen to read some pretty tough books recently. They all concern the large-scale political events of the 20th and 21st centuries, and all concern wilful and intentional policy of inhumane treatment towards others. Depressing indeed!

The books refer to Russia in the time of Stalin’s great purges, Paris and Auschwitz in the 1940s, China from the 1930s through to Tiananmen Square and the plight of refugees in Europe today. Books take you to places you have never been, but can profoundly depress you while you are there. What follows is a kind of inhumanity Mash-up.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

I put off reading this novel, and then I had to restart it. It was difficult to read. With brilliant story-telling gifts Madeleine Thien retells the history of China through its effects on several generations of one family and their friends. At the centre of her narrative is Sparrow, a Chinese composer, and Lai his friend and a brilliant concert pianist. But the story stretches back from the wanderings of Sparrow’s mother in the 1930s and forward from the starting point of the novel when Sparrow’s daughter meets Kai’s daughter in Toronto. The fathers have both died.

What links them through this terrible period of Chinese history is music and literature in the face of oppression and mob enforce repression.. Music and literature forge family loyalties, even in the face of violent opposition to Western culture, or any artistic expression.

The stories of the family members over time merge, as they wander off, surface again in distant provinces, often in exile or in terrible prison camps. They suffer enforced re-education, the mob mentality of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards, the demonstrations and repression of Tiananmen Square. The willingness of the people to try to do as bidden in order to make China better is heartrending in the face of so much brutality. One asks: and today?

It’s a captivating book and one that I have frequently seen read on train journeys.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016) Published by Granta 473pp

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and short-listed for Bailey’s Women’s Fiction prize 2017

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

Endpaper for Into The Whirlwind

This book is a memoir, beginning with an account of the author’s arrest in 1937, accused of betraying the Revolution. Sentenced to 10 years in solitary, she endures two in the company of Julia before being sent on to a labour camp in East Russia.

From the moment she is sentenced she has no knowledge of her husband, or of their children (seeing only one of her sons in later life). It’s a grim story, beginning with the Kafka-esque accusations that began the great purge, the cult of personality. The conditions under which the first three years of her sentence are served are so appalling both in isolation and in the work camp, that one wonders anyone survived. At each stage the women support each other, learn how to deal with their warders and those who control their lives. This volume (but not her imprisonment) ends in 1940, and she continued her memoirs in another volume, up to the point of her rehabilitation in the 1950s.

The personal cost of Stalin’s monstrous campaign to ensure his own rule is vividly revealed. Remaining human was a constant struggle, to do with clothes, footwear, keeping warm, eating and acts of generosity towards others.

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg (1967) Published by Persephone Books 344pp

Translated from the Russian by Paul Stevenson and Manya Harari

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead

While this book is a story of courage generosity and hope (cover blurb) it is also a depressing account of barbarity, inhumanity and the infliction of suffering. It focuses on the 230 French women sent to Auschwitz in January 1943, arrested for anti-German activities. It leaves us to imagine what happened to their menfolk, friends, children and the others who died in huge numbers even before the women arrived in Auschwitz.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen.

I included my reflections on this book in a post about visiting Auschwitz, Bookword in Poland.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011) Published by Vintage 374pp

And just in case you think that this kind of inhumanity doesn’t happen any more in Europe, I refer you to the recent post reviewing a novel about refugees in Germany: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck.

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Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen

Eva Trout was Elizabeth Bowen’s last novel, published in 1969. It is a daring and extravagant novel. The main character, Eva, is not a very sympathetic one and although her story has great comic scenes, she behaves in a way that the author refuses to judge. The reader is left with work to do, and I admire Elizabeth Bowen for that.

 

The Story

At the start of the novel Eva Trout is the heiress to a huge fortune, her parents both being dead. She is still the responsibility of her guardian, Constantine, her father’s former lover. She has endured a motherless and peripatetic childhood, and two boarding schools. As she approaches the birthday on which she will inherit she is living with her former teacher Izzy Arble and her husband, and has befriended the family at the vicarage, the Danceys. This is how Mrs Dancey sees Eva, who was very tall, in the opening chapter.

The giantess, by now, was alone also: some way along the edge of the water she had come to a stop – shoulders braced, hands interlocking behind her, feet in the costly, slovenly lambskin bootees planted apart. Back fell her cap of jaggedly cut hair from her raised profile, showing the still adolescent heaviness of the jawline. (12)

Mrs Dancey’s observations show us a character not interested in how she appears to other people, and one who has not studied how to look feminine. It emerges that Eva has few social skills, little awareness of what others think or feel and so creates chaos around her. Her guardian and Izzy consult about their difficult charge. Eva disappears, as she does frequently in the novel. As soon as she comes into her money she runs away to Broadstairs, Kent, to a broken down house by the sea. She is found by Eric Arble, who has a bit of a thing for her, and by Constantine. So she disappears again, announcing that she is pregnant.

In Chicago she meets some old school friends and acquires a baby illegally. Returning to London after 5 years she sets off another chain of events for the Arbles, the Danceys and Constantine, whose lives have all changed while she was away. The baby Jeremy, is now growing up both deaf and mute. She escapes to France in search of treatment for him.

As her relationship blossoms with Henry Dancey, the vicar’s son, she returns to London and they stagger towards a decision to marry. The final scene assembles all Eva’s circle at Victoria Station as the couple prepare to depart for a wedding on the continent. But a shot is fired …

Adventurousness of the novel

There are many daring features of Eva Trout. In the first place, the heroine is unusual and behaves in a way that challenges the other characters and the reader. Her name is a little off-putting, suggesting fishy features. However, she is not unpleasant, simply unaware. This provides comic possibilities, as when she interacts with Mr Denge, who manages the property in Broadstairs. He is out of his depth in dealing with her, and is frankly afraid of her and her wealth. In contrast, while Jeremy is clearly important to her, she has no dilemmas that we are told of in acquiring him illegally, and is rather cavalier in her attempts to bring him up.

The plot itself is unusual. The events become more and more extravagant, beginning with a claim of an engagement, phantom, and culminating in the shooting on the final page. The narrative makes no attempt to explain, or to explore the inner lives of the characters. We learn about their actions, and surmise some motivations, from their conversations and letters. The action is revealed in scenes that are rich in description and sensual perceptions.

The narration is largely sequential, although Eva’s time at the two schools is revealed in an extended flashback. While it is mainly sequential it leaps forward from time to time, and the reader must find what has happened to the characters in the intervening years or months from the dialogue.

Much of the plot and delight of this novel comes through the dialogue. In this extract Eva is talking to a priest, Father Clavering-Haight. He is trying to put her right but she remains innocent while not unravelling the situation. Having discussed her father he asks whether she resents anyone else.

‘Yes, I resent my teacher.’

‘We’re not speaking of the subsequent Mrs Arble?’

‘Then you do know.’

That’s a business, apparently, that nobody can make head or tail of. What – exactly – took place?’

‘She abandoned me. She betrayed me.’

‘Had you a Sapphic relationship?’

‘What?’

‘Did you exchange embraces of any kind?’

‘No. She was always in a hurry.’

‘Good,’ he said, ticking that one off. (184)

Elizabeth Bowen is famous for her ‘prickly sentences, resisting conventional word order’. This too can slow the reader and force her or him to consider the meaning contained and what is revealed by the prickliness. The description is from Tessa Hadley who wrote the introduction to the Vintage edition.

Success of Eva Trout

Elizabeth Bowen’s style of writing, the absence of explanations force the reader to ask questions: she says, look at this unusual person, and these people and think about what they are doing and why, how they are reacting to each other and why, and watch how this unfolds. What forms a person’s life, she asks. Izzy, the teacher, has an interesting conversation about the possible effects of nature and nurture. Chance seems to play a very big part as well, according to the author. Perhaps that is what we are to make of the novel’s full title: Eva Trout or Changing Scenes.

I liked the audacity of this book, the challenge it presents to the reader, and recommend it as I do all her novels that I have reviewed so far on Bookword. It was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1969 and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize the following year. It is a shame that it has rather slipped the public consciousness since then.

 

Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen, first published in 1969. I used the Vintage edition of 1999. 268 pp

Related posts

Cosy Books blogger reported that Eva Trout had swept her away, like previous novels by Elizabeth Bowen.

And reviewed on this blog:

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen in February 2013

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen, her first novel, in May 2013

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen in September 2013

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen in June 2014

Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen in June 2016

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Bookword in Iceland

Reading and travelling are both experiences of visiting new worlds. I like combining them and set about finding bookish connections when I’m on the move. I went to Iceland in February. Not my idea, but my brother is celebrating what people call a ‘big birthday’ and I said I would go with him. He hoped to see the Northern Lights. I’m up for such things, especially when I get to visit a new place. Here are some bookish reflections on my brief time in Iceland.

Strangers in Iceland

In 2009 Sarah Moss went to live in Iceland with her partner and children. She had a contract for a year with the University of Reykjavik. 2009 was the year following Kreppa, the Icelandic term for the financial crash. Kreppa ended the years of silly and false money-making in Iceland. People were suffering.

Sarah Moss is a novelist, author of Night Waking (2011) and The Tidal Zone (2016), both excellent novels published by Granta. The book she wrote about her time in Iceland is categorized as ‘travel’. It is not like any travel book I have read. It is more of a what-I-noticed-when-we-lived-in-Iceland-for-a-year kind of book. It is called Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland. I recommend it even if you are not planning a visit.

From Names for the Sea I got the impression that Icelandic people may look and behave like other Western people, but actually they are very different. Icelandic people have sense of themselves as distinct, and what it means to be Icelandic, and a pride in their country and culture. They like the perception that theirs is the safest country in the world (1.1 murders a year are committed on average. Sadly, the week before we visited, Birna, a young girl was murdered. There were searches and a vigil and a man from Greenland has been arrested.)

Our sense of Iceland, as tourists, was that we should not be stressed. They had everything covered. Coaches and minibuses crisscrossed Reykjavik, fetching tourists from hotels and taking them on tours, information always provided about the arrangements. Even when our minibus broke down on the way back to the airport, a substitute was quickly fetched, and we proceeded with very little problem, delay or stress.

During her residence Sarah Moss found food banks, half finished blocks of flats and a poor exchange rate. We did not see the first two, but it was not cheap if you kept calculating the cost of things in £££s.

‘Icelanders knit everywhere,’ said Sarah Moss (281). The only person I saw knitting was a woman in the wool shop I visited, who demonstrated the way in which they hold their needles and wool. Icelandic sweaters and other necessary warm garments are widely available. I bought some yarn – how could I not?

I also learned from Sarah Moss that Icelanders take a coat with them all year round. In February this was not really in doubt. But in Reykjavik, we had rain and wind and the worst combination of these I have experienced this winter. But the temperature during the day never dropped below freezing. Out of the city it was another story.

Independent People

And now I am wading through Halldor Laxness’s novel Independent People. It’s a long story (more than 500 pages), an epic, about Bjartur a farmer in the desolate countryside, who is determined to become independent, who sees independence as the ultimate goal of all his labours. And labour he does, against the elements, bad fortune, hapless neighbours, the death of his first wife and a determined child. And Bjartur pays the price for his stubbornness.

Set in the early twentieth century, but describing life as it had been lived for many centuries, Laxness spares no detail of the crofters’ lives. Meetings of the men, coffee, rounding up sheep, falling into the Glacier River, the governance, relationships with neighbours … it’s all here. Especially the snow and the coffee.

Pingvellar National Park

What, I wondered, is the value of independence in an environment where cooperation and collaboration are clearly more likely to achieve desired outcomes?

Halldor Laxness, 1906 – 1998, published his novel in 1934-5. He produced other novels and translations, and wrote for the theatre. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.

Halldor Laxness 1955

Other bookish things

I need to reconnect with the Icelandic Sagas. The shops offered a hefty and attractive Penguin edition, but it seemed crazy to add such an object to our suitcase and to pay the Icelandic price. Iceland was only settled from 870. People had lived there before, but not successfully. The inhospitable landscape and climate would put off most folks. This is the stuff of good stories.

One of the many, many tours offered to tourists was The Game of Thrones Tour. We swam in the Blue Lagoon instead.

Our hotel had a bookshelf for guests. Prominent in the collection was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, one of President Obama’s recommendations, and one of mine.

I’m not a fan of Nordic-noir, or whatever genre in which you would include Icelandic thrillers. There are plenty.

Go to Iceland! It’s another country; they do things differently there.

Book details

Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss (2012) Granta 358pp

Independent People by Halldor Laxness (1934-5). Translated from the Icelandic by James Anderson Thompson and first published in 1946, in translation. Available in the Vintage edition. 544pp

And go to TripFiction’s website to find other location-based fiction.

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Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

Older people, it is assumed, live lives defined by approaching death. And older women are often portrayed as eccentric and difficult. I watched the film of Alan Bennett’s book The Lady in a Van while I was reading Ghost Light. At the opening of the novel Molly Allgood appears to have a lot in common with Miss Shepherd, Maggie Smith’s character in the film.

However, Molly is 67, and very much concerned with the present, with living her life, and with pondering the life she once lived. While being almost penniless, grateful for some charity, she is not eccentric. She still finds occasional work as an actor. She started her career in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and was engaged to marry the playwright John Millington Synge. He died of Hodgkin’s Disease aged 37 in 1909. Molly was 24. She lived on for four decades.

This is the 25th in the series of reviews of older women in fiction. For others you can see the page ‘about the older women in fiction series’.

Molly Allgood

The older Molly in 1952 was 67 and living in London. London is in pretty bad shape, still full of bombsites, poverty and lodging houses. Molly is not in good health either. She has difficulty scraping together the means to live, and in the first scenes she evades a police officer who warns her against an old Irish vagrant who has been begging. She returns some empty bottles for the deposit and begs a loan and is given free food by those who look out for others.

Molly addresses herself in this self-description.

But you’re no beauty yourself any more. Be honest – the years aren’t kind. And you feel you have submerged into fretfulness with age, hear yourself murmuring of your anxieties with the troubled watchfulness of a child in an unfathomable world. And your old woman’s voice – how did that happen? Your wheezing, brittle croakiness, distracted, muted, and you gossiping to the teacups for company. There was a day many years ago in Connemara or Kerry, when you happened upon an old rowboat that had been dumped in a bog. Crossbench crushed and buckled, rotting tiller wrenched askew, it had sunk to its oarlocks in the oozing, black peat. Often, of late, when you become aware of your voice, the image has appeared in your thoughts. (59-60)

I love the Irish rhythms of Joseph O’Connor’s writing, especially when he is writing in Molly’s voice. And I like the way her references are from her past, from her home country, strong despite her travels and residence in America and London.

After her marriage she was known as Maire O’Neill, and she is sometimes referred to in this way in Ghost Light. She bemoans the lack of parts for older women actors.

But for a woman, once she has offended by outliving the age of childbirth, the roles disappear as honeybees in winter. A jealous auld hag. An irrepressible washerwoman. Some bitch to be bested in pantomime. (30)

It sometimes feels that these are the roles assigned to all older women in life, not just actors. I note again the film of The Lady in the Van. And in some ways Molly is pathetic, or at least draws out sympathy, like when she is warned by the policeman, or in the BBC studio when her health takes a turn for the worse. As the novel progresses we learn that she is not a person to whom life has been generous.

Young Molly

John Millington Synge

In the first decade of the 20th century, in Dublin, amid the growing nationalism of the Irish, Molly met John Millington Synge at the Abbey Theatre. Both Molly and her sister Sara were struggling to escape their impoverished Catholic childhoods and to make something of themselves on the stage. Synge was an esteemed Protestant playwright, favoured by Yeats and Lady Gregory.

Molly in 1912

There were so many contrasts between them: religion, age, health, profession, but they fell in love. When she found out about it, his mother objected to their relationship. Much of their courtship was spent walking out at the weekends in places where they were not known. They steal a month away in Wicklow. He becomes notorious as the author of The Playboy of the Western World, which caused riots when it was first staged in 1907.

The story as fiction

Joseph O’Connor makes it clear that this is a work of fiction. For example, there are no surviving letters between the couple to draw on, probably no holiday in Wicklow. But the settings are authentic, and the characters of the novel are quite believable too.

The novel has an interesting structure, one that takes care to indicate that Molly did not end up as this lonely old woman because of her affair with Synge. Nor was the affair with Synge the only thing in her life as she lived for 43 years after his death – there was her acting career, her rivalry with her sister who went to Hollywood, a marriage, a son and a daughter.

Sara Allgood and Kerrigan in Playboy in 1911

The novel moves back and forth between young and old Molly, and is presented in a number of perspectives. At times Molly addresses herself, as in the extracts above. At other times we have a play script, a letter and the tenses are carefully handled, close to Molly in the present tense, using the past tense for more distance.

It is beautifully written, and its structure reflects life experienced not as a linear process, but revisiting episodes time and again.

Joseph O’Connor at Literaturhaus Cologne 2015. Hpschaefer www.reserv-art.de

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor. Published by Vintage, 2010. 246pp

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Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

This is a dark book, not so much frightening as – well, dark. Although in her 20s the narrator, Eileen, appears to be obsessed in the ways that adolescents can be: bodily functions, secret passions, easily influenced, hard exterior. She does not have much going in her favour in the novel: a dreary job, a dead mother, a drunken father. And she lives in a town so dull that she calls it X-ville.

It’s a book that has done very well in the literary awards and accolades:

  • Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016
  • Shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize 2016
  • Shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger Award 2016
  • Hemmingway Foundation/PEN award.
  • Selected as a Book of the Year 2016 in The Times, Observer and Daily Telegraph

The Story

The story is located in coastal New England, near Boston, in 1964 at Christmas time. The narrator is reflecting on events 50 years before. Eileen is introduced to us as a rather non-descript kind of young woman, with few memorable or redeeming features.

I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I look like nothing special. It’s easy for me to imagine this girl, a strange, young and mousy version of me, carrying an anonymous leather purse or eating from a small package of peanuts, rolling each one between her gloved fingers sucking in her cheeks, staring anxiously out of the window. (1)

All readers know that appearances can deceive.

Eileen works in an admin job in the local prison for young offenders. She has no friends, no interests except for her at-a-distance obsession with the guard Randy. She lives with her father, a drunk and an ex-policeman who is a liability to his daughter and his neighbours. Neither of them make any effort to keep the house clean or pay attention to what they eat. Eileen has taken to keeping his shoes in the trunk of her car so that he will not wander out and terrorise the neighbours. A local policeman takes her father’s service pistol off him and gives it to Eileen for safe keeping. Her father ignores Eileen, or makes abusive comments to her. She considers killing him, much as she wonders about being saved by Randy.

Then just before Christmas Rebecca arrives at the prison to take up an education job. It is clear to the reader that this young woman is unsuitable for the post, but Eileen is immediately in awe of her. Her sophisticated taste in dress is entirely inappropriate. The young women go out drinking together and Rebecca, more knowledgeable about the world, abandons Eileen to the attentions of a barman. Rebecca shows too close an interest in one of the boys in the prison.

When Rebecca invites Eileen around to her house for a Christmas Eve drink, Eileen anticipates an exotic evening in tasteful surroundings. Many things are unexpected in this book, but the reader is not surprised that the evening turns out to be very different, critical in Eileen’s young life, even if the events themselves are surprising.

Some themes in Eileen

Patricide by badly fathered children threads its way through this novel. The children in the prison, Eileen herself, and perhaps Rebecca all appear very damaged by poor parenting. Eileen is well on the way to becoming as much of a drunk as her father. She has learned to keep what she calls her death mask face for the outside world.

Another theme is the allure of the other for deprived people, especially deprived young people, and especially if they live in a dull city like X-ville. The unknown is the attraction of Randy for Eileen at the outset of the novel, and of Rebecca as it proceeds. We pick up clues that Eileen managed to create a life for herself, albeit not a very happy one, after leaving X-ville.

And death and physical danger and unsettling details lurk in every scene. At one point you learn that Eileen’s mother died while her daughter slept beside her. We find that Eileen dresses in her mother’s clothes, which are mostly too big for her. She drives a car that is in danger of killing the occupants from a leaking exhaust. Her physical fixations are hardly less than disgusting. The state of the house she shares with her father is no less revolting.

The narrator is aware of some of her own shortcomings.

There was a reason I worked at the prison, after all. I wasn’t exactly a pleasant person. I thought I would have preferred to be a teller in a bank, but no bank would have taken me. For the best, I suppose. I doubt it would have been long before I stole from the till. Prison was a safe place for me to work. (174)

And in case you think that there is no connection between Eileen’s story and your own, she corrects you.

I don’t know where we went wrong in my family. We weren’t terrible people, no worse than any of you. I suppose it’s the luck of the draw, where we end up, what happens. (256)

The novel is framed as a reflection from 50 years later. Occasionally the narrator addresses the reader, as in the quotation above. But mostly she just reminds you that this is a memory.

by Larry D Moore

Ottessa Moshfegh at the 2015 Texas Book Festival, photo by Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0. via Wikicommons

In interviews Ottessa Moshfegh has made it clear that she was trying ‘to push the narrative to awkward extremes’. She was thinking about difficult questions: Can we ever escape the identity we’re born into? What does it mean to be free? Does altruism exist? As a result this novel is always surprising, always revulsion-inducing, but in the end it is hard to know who was the victim and who the wrong doer. That’s life. Happy New Year!

PS Thank you Eileen for the loan of the book.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (2016) Vintage 260pp

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The Door by Magda Szabo

The novel begins with the door, the narrator facing it in a dream. She is struggling to turn the lock. The door will not give way to her efforts and no one will come to help for although she is shouting she has lost the power of speech. This is a recurring nightmare from which the narrator, who is a writer, is wakened by her own screaming.

It’s a powerful opening scene, and it sets up the privacy and secrecy of the woman who lives behind the door, closed to the efforts of the narrator to create closer ties. The relationship of the two women lasted twenty years, was difficult and is the subject of The Door, a Hungarian novel.

272 The Door

This is the 22nd post in the Older Women in Fiction Series on this blog. Thank you Robin Dawson for the suggestion. It was chosen because August is Women in Translation month. The Door was translated by Len Rix.

The Story

Emerence came to clean for the writer who had moved with her husband into a bigger Budapest apartment. Having been disapproved of for some time, during the Stalinist era, the writer is now more successful and needs time and space for her work. She needs a cleaner and Emerence has been recommended. Emerence makes it clear that she interviews the couple not vice versa. Later she takes over their dog as well. For twenty years Emerence cleans for the couple and becomes a major presence in their lives. It is in an uneasy relationship, especially at first as Emerence dictated the terms of her employment.

The story is told in a series of scenes, each one illustrating how Emerence keeps the narrator at a distance, or indeed turns her back on her if she feels affronted. They fall out over Emerence’s present of a plaster dog. She will never accept a present from the narrator. The narrator asks her to return, even if the dog must stay. And Emerence does return to work for them, and she hurls the dog to the floor, lesson learned. In this uneasy way, gradually the writer and the older woman develop affection, although it does not prevent the writer from getting things wrong. The climax comes when Emerence falls ill and needs assistance but will not unlock her door. What are the ‘lady writer’ and the community to do?

272 NY The Door

The old woman

Emerence had a hard childhood, born into a rural area and rejected by her family and her lover, who also stole her savings. She came to Budapest with no ties, in the war, and it emerges that she helped other people survive, especially a Jewish family. She has done numerous favours for many people so that her nephew, the Lieutenant Colonel of the police and many others all look out for her interests and protect her from the worst of life in its intrusions, especially officialdom. Emerence allows no one into her house, except the narrator just once. She has immense pride, and immense strength.

She was tall, big-boned, powerfully built for a person of her age, muscular rather than fat, and she radiated strength like a Valkyrie. Even the scarf on her head seemed to jut forward like a warrior’s helmet. (6)

At the end of The Door Emerence falls ill and is confined to her house. Her absence reveals that the community has come to rely upon her. The narrator has to ask the local priest to provide a church funeral, for the benefit of the local community. He opposes the request because of her well-known and rigid opposition to the church.

‘She’s not asking for it,’ I replied. ‘I am. And so is every well-disposed person. It is appropriate, as a form of homage. She may have heaped expletives on the Church as institution, but I’ve known few devout believers who were as good Christians as this old woman. … This woman wasn’t one to practice Christianity in church between nine and ten on Sunday mornings, but she had lived by it all her life, in her own neighbourhood, with a pure love of humanity such as you find in the Bible, and if he didn’t believe that he must be blind, because he’d seen enough of it himself.’ (250-1)

And after death her influence lives on, she’s still solving problems for other people.

The Themes

The Door isn’t so much about the old woman as about the relationship between the narrator and Emerence. They reflect many of the themes, which are set up in tension or as opposites. Emerence stands firm for the value of manual labour, while the narrator is a writer, an intellectual. Emerence does favours for the whole community, keeps the streets clear of snow, cleans their houses, services the block of flats for which she is curator. Her selflessness means that she accepts no favours, no presents. The lady writer, on the other hand, thinks of herself and her own needs constantly, as if her sensibility were especially fragile. The writer’s Catholicism is important to her, but Emerence wants nothing to do with the Church and its rituals. And so on.

It is clear that the best of life is in the combination of these qualities, labour with intellectualism; selflessness and selfishness; faith and scepticism; privacy and public approval.

Magda Szabo

272 Szabo, Magda

The author lived between 1917 and 2007 in Hungary. According to sources on the internet, the novel draws upon her own life. Her work was not published during the Stalinist years. Ali Smith observed, I am not sure where, that Emerence was Hungary, a notion that came to me during my reading of the novel.

 

 

The Door by Magda Szabo, first published in 1987. Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix and reissued by Vintage in 2005. 262 pp.

Winner of the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize 2006.

Memorial Room of Magda Szabo

Memorial Room of Magda Szabo

Related Posts

Two reviews:

Claire Messud in the New York Times in February 2015, described the novel as a masterpiece and mesmerising and suggested it changed her way of understanding the world.

Cynthia Zarin in The New Yorker in April 2016, said ‘to read it is to feel turned inside out’, a ‘bone-shaking book’.

Two most recent posts in Older Women in Fiction series:

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine in April 2016

Olive Ketteridge by Elizabeth Strout in June 2016

 

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More bookish things in the Cevennes

At the end of May I went walking in the Cevennes region of France. The area’s most famous literary connection is with Modestine, the donkey. The previous post looked at Robert Louis Stevenson and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. Now I consider three other books connected with the area.

Le Rozier

  1. Village of Secrets: defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead

The Cevennes lies in the southern part of le massif central. Northeast of Robert Louis Stevenson’s route lies the large plateau Viverais-Lignon where the villages, farms and forests are frequently cut off in winter and require effort to reach at other times of year. It is high, remote and isolated. It also has clean, restorative air and, long before the Second World War, had been a place for the French to improve their health during the summer months, especially children.

257 VofS cover

During the time of Vichy government and the occupation of France hundreds, perhaps thousands of people fled from the German occupiers to the plateau. First it was the Spanish refugees from the Civil War in Spain; then the foreign Jewish families who had escaped to France and needed to hide from the occupying German forces when France was defeated; then it was the French Jewish families, who had been assured of the protection of the Vichy government and then betrayed; later on, the Service de Travail Obligatoire (STO) introduced national service for the French to work in Germany and many people went into hiding to avoid the STO; and the Maquis, the local resistance movement also found cover on the plateau. Most of these people survived the war.

La Causse Mejean

The book tells the reader what happened, but also asks the question, what was it about the people of the plateau that enabled them to successfully defy the demands of the occupiers and to shelter these fugatives?

The geography of the plateau made it excellent for hiding.

The bravery of individuals and the determination of the organisations that hid those in danger, especially the Jewish children, was another feature.

There was a history of Protestant resistance, stretching back to the bloody wars of religion in the 18th Century, described in some detail by Robert Louis Stevenson in his book of 1879. Some of the pastors were pacifists, all dedicated to assistance. Two sects, offshoots of Plymouth Brethren, were present on the plateau, austere and with an entrenched privacy and resistance to asking questions. Even some of the local police turned a blind eye to the hidden children.

It’s an important story, but was not an easy book to write, Caroline Moorehead tells us in an article Caroline Moorehead on Village of Secrets: ‘I received warnings’. The warnings came from a group who wished to preserve the story of the heroism of a single man, whereas she celebrates the efforts and commitment of the whole community. It was not a story of a single hero. There was no monopoly on goodness, she explains.

And as a footnote, Albert Camus spent two winters on the plateau, writing La Peste.

Village of Secrets: defying the Nazis in Vichy France. Caroline Moorehead (2014) published by Vintage. 374 pp. Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

  1. Trespass by Rose Tremain

257 Trespass cover

This novel was shortlisted for Man Booker Prize in 2011. I read it when it was published and these comments are from my notes.

This was quite an easy read, but the story felt a little unresolved. It concerns disputed property in the south of France, and a vivid family past. A parallel story concerns a gay English woman who writes and gardens in the same area, whose brother wishes to buy a property in the area to recover his sense of self. Their stories collide badly, and little resolution is made, except by the perpetrator of the murder, who is not apprehended. This did not leave me with a sense of calm, a story ended. On the one hand satisfying revenge is had, on the other people have been plunged into grief and trauma as a result.

It’s quite a short novel, and told from a number of perspectives. Resentments, built up over long lives, are well portrayed, but it is hard to know whose story this is, and why one should care. Ultimately it feels like the rich middle class English causing rifts and damage in their new colonies.

Trespass by Rose Tremain, published by Penguin in 2011. 384pp.

Aver Amand

  1. Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne

257 Verne_-_Voyage_au_centre_de_la_Terre.djvu

And then there was Jules Verne, greeting us in the limestone caves of Aven Armand. The tour of the caves used the device of his novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth to introduce us to the fantastical stalagmites and stalactites. It was slightly dodgy as Jules Verne wrote his book before the caves were found. But the idea of great scientific discoveries being made in the 19th Century, the excitement at the new knowledge, especially about the age and development of the earth, was a point being made. Did you know that it takes a century for the stalagmites to grow 1 cm? The literary connection gave me an excuse to include a photo

257 Jules Verne

Relevant posts and websites

Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes (June 2016) on this blog.

Trip Fiction for advice on fiction related to your journeys.

Reading Guide for Trespass by Rose Tremain.

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