Postettes: Turgenev’s Virgin Soil & T. H. White’s The Goshawk

Turgenev Manor House
Turgenev Manor House

I cannot write at length about every book I read, so here are quick “postettes” on two of the most brilliant books I’ve read this year, Turgenev’s Virgin Soil and T. H. White’s The Goshawk.

Turgenev’s Virgin Soil.  I have a passion for 19th-century Russian writers.  Pushkin, Gogol, Goncharov, Tolstoy…

But if I had an opportunity to meet one, I would choose Turgenev.  This charming writer of lyrical, philosophical novels sounds more down-to-earth than the others.  If I visited him in Baden-Baden, one of his favorite cities (he preferred Europe to Russia), I could wear preppy  L. L. Bean or slightly hippieish J. Jill rather than the sackcloth and ashes Tolstoy went in for.

Turgenev’s most famous novel is Fathers and Sons, a powerful story of two young nihilists, the gentle Arkady  and the scientific Bazarov,  and the divergence of politics between different generations.

IMG_3018Virgin Soil, Turgenev’s last novel, is also a masterpiece.  I recently read  Constance Garnett’s graceful translation in the NYRB edition.

In this little-known classic, Turgenev depicts the lives of idealistic Russian revolutionaries of the late 1860s and 1870s.  The radical movement, known as populism, brought together young educated Russians with the peasants as they sought to eradicate the class difference.

The moody hero, Nezhdanov, is the bastard son of an aristocrat, and is involved in a revolutionary group in St. Petersburg.  Depressed and disillusioned, he takes a job as a tutor in the country.  He soon grows to despise his upper-class employers,  despite the vivacity of the mistress of the house, Valentina Mihalovna.  And then he falls in love with their niece, Marianna,  a passionate young populist.  The two young people want to make contact with the peasants, but Nezhdavov simply cannot communicate with them.  Marianna remains enthusiastic, especially after they befriend a radical factory manager.  Other revolutionaries include a rash upper-class man who acts too precipitately and a lonely man who becomes a traitor by talking too much.  The novel combines action with philosophy and politics.

Sounds a bit like the politics of the 1960s, doesn’t it?

IMG_3017T. H. White’s The Goshawk.  I read this only because I have read so much about Helen Macdonald’s Costa Award-winning H Is for Hawk, her memoir of training a goshawk.  She was inspired  partly by White’s book.

The Goshawk is the story of White’s adventures in falconry, focusing on his training of a goshawk, the wildest of all hawks.

He ordered the bird from Germany..  It arrived terrified in a basket.  White named it Gos.

T. S. White: I'm not sure what the birds are.
T. S. White: I’m not sure what the birds are.

Although the writing is extraordinarily graceful, at first White’s account of the cruel training of Gos nauseated me. Only the splendid writing kept me going.  White learned about falconry from a book published in the Renaissance.  Keeping the bird awake for three to nine days until he took food from his trainer’s hand was considered more effectual than any other method.  The trainer also had to keep awake.

White explains,

In teaching a hawk it was useless to bludgeon the creature into submission.  The raptors had no tradition of masochism, and the more one menaced or tortured them, the more they menaced in return.  Wild and intransigent, it was yet necessary to “break” them somehow or other, before they could be tamed and taught.  Any cruelty, being immediately resented, was worse than useless, because the bird would never bend or break to it.  He possessed the last inviolable sanctuary of death.  The mishandled raptor chose to die.

After White got beyond the initial stages, I became fascinated.   He also discusses humane shortcuts he learned after going by the book.

He fascinatingly describes the  many pitfalls in the man-bird relationship. It was one step forward, two steps back.  White truly loved Gos, but Gos needed wildness.  It was who Gos was.

Animal stories are always sad, are they not?  This is no exception.

White is so elegant a writer, and the book is so perfectly-written that I did not  take notes in it at all. And that’s a tribute to this great classic.

Jonathan Lethem’s Lucky Alan and Other Stories

Lucky Alan Jonathan Lethem 41UjiHnZr5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I have read some remarkable collections of short stories this year.

The best is Jonathan Lethem’s Lucky Alan and Other Stories.

Readers of this blog will know that Lethem is my favorite American writer.  His genre-bending fiction ranges from realism to realism laced with magic realism to science fiction and noir.  And he won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999 for Motherless Brooklyn, a novel about a detective with Tourette syndrome.

I read these brilliant stories in one sitting.  In my favorite story, “Lucky Alan,”  the narrator, Grahame, an actor, goes every day to the movies, where he keeps running into Blondy Sigmund, the “legendary” theater director. Sometimes they go to wine bars after the film, sometimes months go by without their seeing each other. When Grahame realizes that Blondy has left the neighborhood, he tracks him down.  Blondy tells the story of why he left his rent-controlled apartment, which centers on a geeky neighbor named Alan.

Lethem’s flamboyant writing is laced with buoyant humor. Here is a quote from “Lucky Alan.”

If this multiplex-haunting practice didn’t square with Blondy’s reputation as the venerated maestro of a certain form of miniaturist spectacle (Krapp’s Last Tape in the elevator of a prewar office building, which moved up and down throughout the performance, with Blondy himself as Krapp, for cramped audiences of five or six at a time, it didn’t matter, since that reputation hardly thrived.

Some of his stories verge on absurdity.  In  the hilarious story, “The King of Sentences,” two pretentious bookstore clerks (who snub their customers, as bookstore clerks do everywhere) try to write perfect sentences and stalk a reclusive writer they call the King of Sentences.

In “Traveler Home,” a kind of dark fairy tale, Traveler, who has moved to the country from the city, waits for the Plowman to dig him out of a snowstorm. He hears wolves howl, and finds a baby in the woods. Is this somehow related to the Plowman’s eccentric,, slightly witchy daughter?

Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Lethem

One of my favorites is “The Empty Room,” in which the volatile father of an eccentric family insists that one room in their big house be designated “the empty room.”  It becomes a running joke, and the kids’ friends like to visit it after school. The empty room has a sign-up sheet, but gradually splits the parents as they pursue divergent interests..

“The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear” is a  clever horror story about a psycho blogger.  Oh, dear, why don’t writers like bloggers?!  Lethem writes:  “It was the Whom I tried to keep out and the Whom I laid low with a single remorseless thrust with the blunt editorial object I had carried with me hidden on my person and with which, gripped knuckle-tight, I lay in wait inside the entranceway of my blog.” I’m sure non-bloggers will appreciate this one more than I did.

“Procedure in Plain Air” is a surreal masterpiece.  The umemployed Stevick, whose excellent severance package has slowed his job hunt, is drinking coffee on a bench when two men in jumpsuits jump out of a truck, dig a hole, and lower a bound-and-gagged man in a jumpsuit into it.  When the men get ready to go, Stevick complains that the boards over the hole won’t keep the rain out, and is handed an umbrella.

All of these stories are excellent, and a good introduction to Lethem’s work if you don’t know it.

The TLS, The Last Trojan Hero, & Adventures in Stationery

tls the_times_literary_supplement_16_january_2015_1I have just renewed my subscription to the TLS,.

It is a guilty pleasure: I end up buying many scholarly books on classics reviewed in this publication.

Right now I am finishing up Philip Hardie’s  The Last Trojan Hero:  A Cultural History of Virgil’s Aeneid, an entertaining overview of Virgil’s influence on literary works ranging from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to  Michel Butor’s nouveau roman, La Modification (which my husband has promised to translate–we’ll see!).

But even the TLS has its lighter side.  I enjoyed Catharine Morris’s recent review of James Ward’s Adventures in Stationery: A Journey through Your Pencil Case.   Are you as enchanted by stationery as I am?  I  have added this book  to my TBR list.  (By the way, Ward has a blog called I Like Boring Things.)

image-adventures-in-stationery-a-journey-through-your-pencil-case-james-ward-mainMorris’s review is filled with charming quotes.  Ward writes, “It’s only a slight exaggeration to say the history of stationery is the history of human civilization.”

And I also like this.

The physical means something,” writes Ward. “People like it.” You can’t beat a handwritten letter, it’s true; and, as Ward points out, the materials we use have symbolic power: “Visiting a stationery store, you are surrounded by potential; it’s a way of becoming a new person, a better person.”

Few write letters, but I do correspond with a few old-fashioned friends.  Before the stationery store in town closed, I stocked up on stationery, fountain pens,  and Apica notebooks.  I also adore going to office supply stores on New Year’s Day.    My favorite episode of The Gilmore Girls is “Help Wanted,” when Lorelai and her father, Richard, stock up on post-its at an office supply store.  And of course The Office is set in a corporate paper supply business.

Did you know there is a blog called Letters of Note?

If you want to read some Roman classics, try Cicero’s Letters, Pliny’s letters, and Seneca’s letters.

I am fond of  Fanny Burney’s Evelina, the letters in Ausen’s novels (I especially like Lydia’s in Pride and Prejudice), Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross, Cathleen Schine’s The Love Letter, and there’s a lot of e-mail in Gary Shteyngart’s comic masterpiece, Super Sad True Love Story.

And then there is all that correspondence by favorite authors, Keats, Emily Dickenson, Thomas Hardy, Katherine Mansfield, etc.

What are your favorite books on/with letters?

Why We Don’t Want to Be Characters in Other People’s Books

Doris Lessing and Jenny Diski
Doris Lessing and Jenny Diski

Someone kindly gave me a subscription to the London Review of Books this year.

It is a very male-oriented publication. I read an appallingly misogynistic article about Hillary Clinton. (They might respect her if they did not call her “Hillary.”)   But I have read with great interest Jenny Diski’s column, particularly her memoirs of Doris Lessing.

Diski, a brilliant memoirist and novelist, lived with Doris Lessing for several months in 1963 after she was expelled from boarding school. There were good times and bad times–she met many famous writers–but how did she know Doris would not kick her out?  Everyone else did.

Doris Lessing memoirs-of-a-survivor-my-copy

Eleven years later,  Diski had the disconcerting experience of finding herself a character in Lessing’s  The Memoirs of a Survivor.

Let me say here that Lessing is my favorite writer. The Golden Notebook and the Martha Quest books influenced the course of my life.  These books are oxygen to me.  I also love her dystopian fable, The Memoirs of a Survivor.

In The Memoirs of a Survivor, the narrator describes the disintegration of society by food shortages and power outages. The “memoir” describes a future  of regression and barbarism, but it is also a reminder of techniques of off-the-grid survival. (Gangs, barter, and flea markets are important.) The future may be most difficult for those of us who remember civilization, Lessing hints.

I also read Memoirs as Lessing’s psychological memoir, and the character Emily as a doppelganger of the narrator’s younger self.

Diski says Emily is based on her..

Diski writes,

Memoirs of a Survivor was published in 1974, 11 years after I began to live with Doris. She gave me a copy of the novel, as she did every one she wrote. It was inscribed ‘To Jenny love Doris 25/11/74’. It made familiar and disturbing reading. I could see Emily in me, just as I could see my elderly neighbour’s description of me aged three. It is as accurate a reading of me as Emily’s harsh commentary on others. It is true, but it is, of course, a doubly edited version, a view of me from the narrator’s point of view, which itself has been taken and worked for fiction’s purpose from Doris’s point of view. If there is pity in the narrator’s response to Emily, it is strained for. I discovered after a while that Doris had a habit of describing people in fiction and in life as, for example, ‘heartbreaking’ in her most distant, coolest tone, as if to mitigate her dislike of them. She saw it as being fair, I think.

The truth of the matter is, no one wants to be a character in someone else’s novel. I do feel sympathy for Diski, who was hurt by Lessing’s portrayal.   But perhaps Lessing was also writing about herself as Emily.   And I myself thought the portrait of Emily was compassionate.

Living with Lessing sounds relatively heavenly to me. When I was a  teenager, a lesbian teacher installed me in her house and seduced me.  I was always having to pretend I was 18 so she wouldn’t be arrested.  When I moved out, she stood on the curb outside the house where I had a room and yelled, “I hope it hurts like hell when you screw.”

There are observant writers; there are distorting writers.  There are kind writers; there are sociopathic writers.

Of course I’m fascinated by Diski’s memoirs (I  loved Skating to Antarctica), but Lessing’s are more fascinating.  I look forward to the third volume of Lessing’s autobiography, if she ever wrote it and if it is published.


Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing

Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse

Hothouse Aldiss 9780141189550I have been meaning to read Brian Aldiss’s science fiction since I read his introduction to the American paperback edition of Anna Kavan’s surreal apocalyptic novel,  Ice.  It is the best piece on Kavan I’ve ever read.

Ice anna kavan 51NlrxAicRL._SL500_AA300_Aldiss thought Ice was the best science fiction novel of 1967.  When he wrote Kavan a letter praising it, they arranged to meet. She said she was not familiar with SF, nor had she intended write science fiction, but was fascinated by his precis of trends in speculative fiction and liked the idea of being part of an up-and-coming genre.

Aldiss is the author of Hothouse, a modernist SF novel in which the earth has heated up of instead of cooled down. In Hothouse,  first published in 1961 and reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic in 2008, human beings are determined to survive on a future  earth, though they are threatened by lush man-eating vegetation.   Aldiss’s gift for brilliant, gorgeous, rhythmic language makes this novel a classic.

In the distant future, the sun is burning out.  The cities are long gone, and the few humans left live in small tribes in trees.   In the first chapter, the child Clat is killed by a trappersnapper, which senses its prey through a layer of foliage and is in essence a pair of a pair of square jaws with teeth.

Hothouse(Aldiss)There are many characters,  but Aldiss focuses on Gren, an intelligent young man treasured as one of the very few males of the species.   Nevertheless, he is  banished by the tribe leader for disobeying orders and exploring on his own;  luckily, he is joined by Yattmur, a woman from another tribe.

Vegetation ironically is more intelligent than humans.   A morel plops on Gren’s head and invades his brain, mining his race memories to learn the history of earth.  Gren and Yattmur are enslaved by the morel’s need to know and his dependence on Gren.  They escape a hostile jungle in a boat with people called the tummy-belly men, who were attached to the intelligent Tummy trees by tails until Gren cuts their tails.  The boats take them to an islet, where they live happily until the morel presses them to travel by huge plants called Stalkers that take them to the dark side of the world.

Aldiss’s descriptions of the vegetation are almost visionary and psychedelic.  Here is a description of three threatening trees.

Standing apart from all other vegetation, the trees bore a resemblance to giant pineapples.  A collar of spiny leaves projected outwards directed from the ground, protecting the central fleshy trunk, which in each of the three cases was swollen into a massive knobbly ovoid.  From the knobs of the ovoid sprouted long trailers; from the top of the ovoid sprouted more leaves, spiny and sharp, extending some two hundred feet into the air, or hanging stiffly out over Long Water.

We also follow the aging tribe leader, Lily-Yo, who realizes she has lost her youth and must Go Up.  And so she and the older members of the tribe attach themselves in pods to a plant called the traverser, which takes them to the moon.  (They had no idea what their destination was.)

I loved this book and look forward to reading more Aldiss:  in his introduction to Kavan he compares Ice to his novel, Report on Probability A.  I’ll have to look for that.

And here’s a wacky picture of a cover of a pulp paperback edition:

Hothouse sphere classic 7824329196_b8747deb6e

Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower

harrower the watch tower text 9781921922428Last fall I added the Australian writer Elizabeth Harrower to my TBR list after reading James Wood’s fascinating essay in The New Yorker, “No Time for Lies:  Rediscovering Elizabeth Harrower.”  Her critically-acclaimed books, published in the 1950s and the ’60s, have been reissued by Text, an Australian publishing house, along with her never-published novel, In Certain Circles, which she withdrew before publication in 1971.  I recently read In Certain Circles (the e-book is on sale for $2.99), and found it beautifully-written, if a little stagey.  But the novel I want to write about is The Watch Tower (1966), deemed her best book by Wood.

The Watch Tower is riveting and suspenseful.  Harrower’s crystalline prose is sharp and precise. It begins like one of those Rumer Godden novels in which children observe dark adult intrigues and only gradually put together the pieces of the puzzle.  Stella Vaizey, the mother of Laura and Clare, is yanking them out of boarding school.  In the headmistress’s office, she announces, “Now that your father’s dead, the three of us are going to live together in Sydney.”  Miss Lambert, the headmistress, hopes to keep Laura on a scholarship, but  Mrs. Vaizey is firm.  She does not value education.  What she does value is her leisure.

In their small flat in a suburb of Sydney, she does absolutely nothing.  She lies in bed while the children attend school and do housework, the shopping, and the cooking.  Laura is sent to secretarial school so she can support their mother:  she gets a job at a box factory.  When the fees are too high for Clare’s not-very-good school, Mrs. Vaizey suggests that Clare should go to an even worse school nearby.

The girls are completely isolated and know no one. They know from devouring books that other people have friends.   One day Clare wants to know why they can’t speak to strangers.  The sad thing is that it is not strangers they need to fear:  it is the ones they know and love. Responsibility has killed Laura’s liveliness and curiosity.  Clare is the one who questions their way of life.

It was true.  If you knew no one, Laura thought, and were not allowed to speak to someone till you knew him or her, how would you ever get to know anyone?  Because you were unknown yourself, and could not be approached either.

the watch tower old copy harrowerThen at the beginning of World War II, the worst thing that can happen happens.  Their  mother announces she is moving to England without them.  Laura must now support Clare.

If you are deserted by a parent (my father, who had custody of me, moved to another town to live with his girlfriend when I was 16) , you find yourself announcing at random that you need someplace to live.  There are good people (Doris Lessing took in the writer Jenny Diski when she was a teenager, though this wasn’t bliss) and bad people (the ones who expect you to have sex with them).  One of the things you learn is that you never talk about this period of your life to anyone.  “I think I’ve got my virginity back,” a friend who also was on her own in high school anxiously told me.  Like me, she was secretive about her past, and like me, she was studying classics at the university. Ovid was banished to an island for carmen et error.  We feared that we, too, would be banished if anyone knew about our teenage years.

In The Watch Tower, Laura’s very odd, middle-aged boss, Felix, offers to marry Laura and pay Clare’s school fees when he hears about their mother’s departure.  Like children in a fairy tale, Laura and Clare are enchanted by his beautiful big bungalow with the garden.  It will be their house.

But living with Felix is an even a worse trap than living with their mother.  Felix is abusive, misogynistic, sadistic, and often drunk.  Every time he gets rich, he sells his business at a loss to whatever man he has a crush on, and takes it out on Laura  because the man deserts him after the sale.  Clare iescapes into Russian novels; she eventually gets a job in a government office, and has more freedom than Laura.  But Laura is forced to spend all her time with Felix, at the office by day, going over the accounts at night.  He calls her names and viciously crushes her self-respect.  Sometimes he is violent.    She does not believe she could leave Felix and find a job.

Who could break out?  Who could do more than marvel dully at survival?  Who had energy and initiative now to spare for what was merely reasonable?  What promise had the world held out ever that there was anything to escape to?  What was there to desire in this nightmare but the cessation of strain?

Is there a way out?  Clare thinks there is.  And when they take in a young man, Bernard, who collapses at the factory, Felix calms down for a while.  But Laura, the abused and battered woman, behaves much as abused and battered women do.  She is now a quiet, mousy wreck, dependent on Felix, though she is also a brilliant businesswoman.    Her home is the only thing she believes she has.  She does not want to leave her home.

This is a great, brilliant classic, and I look forward to reading Harrower’s other books.

Angela Huth’s Invitation to the Married Life

Invitation to the Married Life huth 516137F8QKLThere are some books I read again and again:  Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven, Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin,  Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year, and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Sometimes a small perfect book can give as much pleasure as a classic.

Angela Huth’s Invitation to the Married Life is another of my favorite rereads.  In this charming novel, which has the feel of a Shakespearean comedy, Huth explores the changing face of love in middle age.  She tells the story of four married couples, two of whom are contented, two wretched.  As they receive invitations to a ball in Oxford to be given by the wealthy Fotheringoes (perhaps the novel’s least happy couple)  in four months, their reactions tell us about their relationships.

Rachel Arkwright, my favorite character, a neglected wife and mother of two grown children, opens the invitation at breakfast while she is waiting for her irritable husband, Thomas, to go to work. She must open letters quietly and turn pages slowly so as not to disturb him, but is so excited about the invitation she forgets.

There he was, a caricature of a husband, almost completely hidden–guarded against her–by the Daily Telegraph (he had presently switched from The Times).  Two pinkish blobs of fuzzy-backed hands held the pages wide open.

When she opens the invitation and asks Thomas if she should accept, she is suffused with joy when he ungraciously says,

I suppose so.  You obviously want to go.  Though what the middle-aged want to give balls for I can’t imagine.  A more ridiculous way of spending money–“

Invitation to the Married Life huth Rachel has a secret life:  she sleeps every afternoon in her beautifully-refurbished bedroom with its soft bed and expensive linens.  She has a degree in law, but here is a woman who has her priorities right. The nap rejuvenates her, and makes her happy.

Thomas thinks parties for the middle-aged are absurd because he does not find middle-aged women attractive:  he is fixated on younger women, and has no idea that he has grown fat and less attractive to the young.  Planning to break up with his current girlfriend, he wanders into an art gallery and falls for an etiolated young woman who rejects his advances.  But  she is the daughter of the artist, R. Cotterman, whose paintings he buys, and she sends him to her mother’s house.  He is determined to fall in love with Rosie Cotterman before he even meets her.

Mary and her husband Bill, a retired naval man obsessed with time tables, are busy with the upkeep of their country house and the woods.  They are happy with their quiet life, and Mary is not excited about the party.   But Bill insists that she must go to London for a new dress, and reminds her that they can stay at their  daughter Ursula’s in Oxford. When Bill dies and Mary attends the party with her neighbor, Rosie, everyone supposes she must be devastated. But Mary is still happy and peaceful, and is relieved to know that she can continue living happily on her own.

Angela Huth
Angela Huth

The gorgeous Ursula needs the party less than anyone.  She has a perfect life:  she is madly in love with her husband, Martin, an Oxford don,  is the mother of two charming children, and has a friend, Ralph, who believes he is in love with her. Ursula likes her work as a garden planner, though she must compromise with clients who know nothing about nature.   There is just one flaw in her happiness: she hates living in Oxford, and her husband, who works there, sees no reason to move. And then she is often annoyed by Ralph’s lovesick puppy-dog manner.  She teases Ralph,

You know why I think Frances has these parties?  Apart from something to do?  Her real reason is so that she has a chance to dance with you.”

No man and woman can be less compatible than Toby and Frances Fotheringoe. Toby is a computer genius and a nature lover who watches badgers at night in the woods. Frances is a very lonely woman who plans parties to have something to do and to be noticed.  She pays almost no attention to her daughter.  She wants very badly to find some kind of work, perhaps as a designer in the theater.  But at the party itself, she will hook-up with the band leader, who thinks he can find her work as a party planner.  And as for Toby…well, we don’t see that coming.

Who belongs with whom?  Some of the answers are quite surprising.  A ball in middle age shakes people up just as much as it does in youth.

Well, I don’t actually know.  I’ve never gone to a ball, have you?  But I do like Rachel’s reaction.  She finds a bed in a spare room and curls up and goes to sleep.

Rachel has a chance of happiness…