Colette’s My Apprenticeships & Music-Hall Sidelights and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man

I have been busy.

I am reading Proust. (Proust is long, life is short.)

When I looked at my book journal, I discovered to my surprise that my book count is down this year.

A few bloggers, some a bit desperately, have written about this phenomenon lately:  they are reading less than usual, or finishing fewer books.  Blogging, new jobs, reading too many books at one time, and putting aside “difficult” books to read more entertaining novels have been blamed.

It is obvious to me that this is about the internet.

Our attention spans are shorter.

And so we have several books on the go.

Every year I try to decrease my time online to have more time for “real life.”  Last year I cut out Twitter; this year it was Goodreads.

I am behind on my book-blogging.

I’ve cut down on blogging so I can get more done, but here is a Reading Catch-up post.

Colette My Apprenticeships & Music-Hall Sidelights 102499b1.  Colette’s My Apprenticeships and Music-Hall Sidelights.  I’ve had this Penguin for years, and have  procrastinated reading it.  I am so glad I finally got around to it.  What a delightful book!  My Apprenticeships is a stunning memoir of Colette’s first marriage.  Her first husband was Willy (Henri Gauthiers-Villars), a philanderer, liar, writer and journalist, who hired a stable of ghostwriters to do his work.  He locked Colette in her room to write the partly-autobiographical Claudine books, which went through hundreds of editions, first under Willy’s name and later under Colette’s.  A popular play, starring the famous actress, Polaire, was adapted from the books, and Claudine merchandise was manufactured, including “Claudine” shirts with round collars.  Colette did not admire the Claudine books–they were spiced up by Willy’s erotic suggestions–but she did take credit for these first novels eventually.  She was fondest of Claudine in Paris and Claudine and Annie.

As to Willi:  why he did not write his own books and articles she did not know. He came up with the ideas and  plots.  Once the manuscript came in, he had it retyped so it would look like his work, farmed it out to editors, and sometimes farmed it out again to other writers and editors.

I also loved Music-Hall Sideights, a charming series of scenes and sketches about Colette’s years as a pantomime artist in the music-hall.  If you have read her novel The Vagabond, you already know about her life as a traveling performer, but she approaches it here from a different angle.  She writes vividly about the troupe lounging in a park during train delays, a circus horse,  the exhaustion of matinees, a talented young ballerina, and a listless young lesbian abandoned by her actress friend and kindly taken into their music-hall troupe as a chorus girl because she has no home.

sassoon memoirs of a fox-hungint man faber and faber image2.  Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man:  The Memoirs of George Sherston Is this a classic?  Yes, no, maybe.  It is charming, well-written, and won the James Tait Memorial Prize. But after 200 pages of horse purchases, fox-hunts, and point-to-point races,  I did wonder if I would ever get through it.

The last chapters about the beginning of World War I make it worth reading.

The Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is the first of a trilogy of novels based on Sassoon’s life as a soldier. This first book describes pastoral life in England, which is, of course, ended by the war.  George, the narrator, has no intellectual interests:  he is content to read Surtee’s racing novels and pursue sports.  After coming down from Cambridge without a degree, he lives on a small stipend with Aunt Evelyn in the country and soon becomes involved in the world of horses.

I am not a horsey person. Please, dear God, don’t make me go to the races ever again.  I learned everything I know about horses from Trollope, and here from Aunt Evelyn’s groom, Dixon. I did very much enjoy George’s schooling by Dixon in riding and hunting. George is such a simple soul, not very bright, and he has a good sense of humor.  The first hundred pages or so are captivating.

But one really reads this for the last two chapters, when George enlists in the army and describes the incredible boredom of military life.  After he breaks his arm, he has a kind of nervous breakdown, malingering at home with Aunt Evelyn for months. Fortunately a colonel friend gets him transferred into the Special Reserve, where life is less grim.

It is grim at the front.  It is hell in the trenches.  Friends die.  Dixon dies.

Sassoon’s book reminds me very slightly of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, which is much more complicated, better-written, and more interesting.

Fox-Hunting Man has historical interest, but it is very slight.

I do, however, look forward to reading the other two books, because I am interested in World War I.

The SF Turkey Trot and Six Links

The Peripheral william gibson 81WCwPZNGyLMy cousin and I are in a Turkey Trot race.

We’re racing to finish two science fiction books between now and Thanksgiving.

That’s because I recently bought two hardcover SF novels,  William Gibson’s The Peripheral ($28.95) and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks ($30)..

“I can read them and then give them as Christmas gifts,”  I said chirpily to the clerk.

But then I had a spark of genius.

My cousin Megan and I are competing to lessen our cooking responsibilities.  The loser has to “make” the pies.  That means picking them up at the Village Inn.

“It will be a blast,” I said confidently.

Megan, a librarian who flaunts the fact that she doesn’t read (“Librarianship is just a job”) and mocks Library of Congress classifications (“The Luminaries is shelved in the mystery section”), does in fact read science fiction.

She even went to WorldCon, a science fiction convention, a few years ago in Chicago.  “It was a drunken weedy blast.”  She dressed up as a character from an SF novel, went to a panel on “Are you a Dickhead?” (about Philip K. Dick), did science fiction origami, and toured the Science and Industry Museum.

William Gibson is a fast,brilliant writer, and. I adored  Zero History, an SF thriller about postmodern marketing, fashion brands, and corrupt American military contractors. It is the third of a trilogy, but can be read as a standalone.

And David Mitchell’s new novel, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, is a shoo-in for folks who belittle science fiction but will read anything reviewed by James Wood.  In other words, it is a perfect Christmas gift.

I’m also reading Proust, so I’ll be very surprised if I win this contest, and Megan reminds me that she has a full life watching TV, though our favorite “Selfie” was canceled.

Who will win?

Probably both of us, or none.

Laurie Colwin
Laurie Colwin

Laurie Colwin News:   Laurie Colwin’s  brilliant books, among them her novel Happy All the Time and her charming cookbook, Home Cooking,  have been published  as e-books by Open Road Media. Check out their webpage on her life and work.

I wrote of her masterpiece, Family Happiness:

Those of you who have read Laurie Colwin’s wonderful fiction and charming cookbooks will understand what brings me back again and again to her masterpiece, Family Happiness. This slender, quirky novel is a comic version of Anna Karenina, as might have been written by Jane Austen, with many comic twists, much confusion, and ultimately triumph for the heroine.

productimage-picture-testing-the-current-327William McPherson, author of the American classic, Testing the Current (NYBR), has written a harrowing essay about poverty in old age at The Hedgehog Review Since his retirement from The Washington Post, he has descended into poverty.

…Like a lot of other people, I started life comfortably middle-class, maybe upper-middle class; now, like a lot of other people walking the streets of America today, I am poor. To put it directly, I have no money. Does this embarrass me? Of course, it embarrasses me—and a lot of other things as well. It’s humiliating to be poor, to be dependent on the kindness of family and friends and government subsidies. But it sure is an education.

On a lighter note, here  is a charming Abebooks article about a 20-year-old book club in Vancouver.

Karen Gillan and John Cho in "Selfie"
Karen Gillan and John Cho in “Selfie”

And here’s my question:  Why did my favorite new sitcom, “Selfie,” get canceled?  Entertainment Weekly analyzes it.

And here is a link to my favorite episode of “Selfie”:

Why I Left Goodreads

When book sites are bookstores.

The Goodreads community, with its 25 million members, is wildly diverse, as I should have expected. There are intellectuals who attempt to explicate Barthes to the masses, participants in bookish “alphabet” games, serious readers of Proust (they are discussing the last volume of In Search of Lost Time), and muddled masochists who state that Anastasia Steele of Fifty Shades of Grey  is a feminist.

It is indeed a revelation.

It is also a bit of a mess.

agnesgreyI reread Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey for the Victorians! group (2913 members). Daunted by members who thought Agnes was wimpy and lacklustre, I did not participate.  I will not pretend that Anne is as brilliant as Charlotte Bronte, nor that Agnes Grey is  as sharply-drawn as Lucy Snowe, the plain-passionate teacher heroine of Charlotte’s Villette.  But the obvious comparisons to Charlotte’s novel were not made at all (perhaps I missed them). Readers’ “I-didn’t-like-the-heroine” complaints seemed based on personal expectations, not the book.

Then there is the marketing.  Lori Hettler, the founder of The Next Best Book Club, announced blithely that she is officially working as a marketer for a new author.

Conflict of interest?  Well, she revealed it.  Nonetheless, I prefer my book groups to be free of marketing.

Integrity is hard-won in the online world.

Remember the days when we naively believed online life was about community?  Book ads didn’t wink at us from the margins as we chatted on book boards.  People communicated in paragraphs, as opposed to one or two lines.

When did it change?

All over the internet, ads pursue us from shopping sites.  For a while I couldn’t go to The Washington Post or The Guardian without pictures of products from sites I’d browsed at popping up in corners.  Amazon and Goodreads try to sell us books determined by algorithms based on what we’ve clicked on or added to our shopping carts.  Besieged by marketers, even consumer reviewers and bloggers cross the line between reviewing and marketing.

The line isn’t even considered online.  No one speaks of conflict of interest.

We’re all too happily shopping.

One of the best novels I've read this year.
One of the best novels I’ve read this year.

Goodreads inundated me with recommendations, which I thought quite good, probably because I’d read so many of them, and because they were different from Amazon’s.   But when you start adding titles you would never consider were you not dazed by an attractive site, it’s time to quit. I did find one absolutely stunning small-press book, Steve Himmer’s The Bee-Loud Glade, an allegorical novel about an office drone who, after losing his job and months of not showering and dazedly surfing the net,  is hired by a multi-millionaire as a hermit in a manmade paradisiacal garden.  (I’ll write about this one soon.)

So why did I leave Goodreads?

I had fun at Goodreads.  My book journal (“shelves” of books) was fun to play with.  I put five stars beside almost every title on my “shelf.”  I thought the star ratings were a joke at first, but turns out they mean something different to each reviewer.  A book can be praised and loved and only get three stars.   It is puzzling.

I quit because I don’t want my book groups to be a shopping experience, and I don’t want book titles twinkling at me from the sidebars, know what I mean?

And so I closed my account.

I prefer small book groups where there are fewer distractions.

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights

The Folio edition of Wuthering Heights
The Folio edition of Wuthering Heights

Last month at The New Yorker Festival, Patti Smith signed copies of the new Folio Society edition of Wuthering Heights. She wrote the introduction.

What a brilliant pairing, I thought!  Smith, the iconic rocker and memoirist, and Emily Bronte, the most intense, poetic writer of the nineteenth century.

An illustration by Rovina Cal for the new Folio Society edition.
An illustration by Rovina Cal for the new Folio Society edition.

At the Folio Society blog, the editorial director, Tom Walker, writes, “I’m still not quite sure how we persuaded her to write an introduction to it, but I do know that …she had an unbelievable determination to craft and hone every line of her piece until she was ready to submit. And then craft and hone some more. My kind of writer.”

I reread Wuthering Heights this weekend.  It is a short, perfect novel, with lyrical yet muscular prose, brilliantly narrated by two unreliable narrators:   Lockwood, who rents Thrushcross Grange, spends a harrowing night at Wuthering Heights with his moody landlord, Heathcliff, after he is caught in a blizzard; and Nelly Dean, Lockwood’s housekeeper, tells him the story of “villainous” Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights.


It is a story of doomed love:  Heathcliff, an orphan, is raised with “saucy” Catherine Earnshaw, and they are like one person.  After Catherine’s father dies, Heathcliff is “degraded” by her older brother, Hindley, and denied education, and Catherine ditches him for the refined Edgar Linton.

Before she marries Edgar, she tells Nelly Dean about a dream of leaving Wuthering Heights. 

…heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth, and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights, where I woke sobbing for joy. That will do to explain my secret, as well as the other. I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s so handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.”

Heathcliff’s sadistic degradation of the second generation, his own son, Catherine and Edgar’s daughter, Cathy, and Hindley’s son, Hareton, is gruesome.  But there is a twist.

The Folio Society edition of Wuthering Heights is pricey at $69, though I would be interested in reading Smith’s introduction.  Amazon is sold out of the book.

Wuthering HeightsThere are many, many editions of Wuthering Heights. I have a hardcover edition, published by Heritage Press in the early 1940s, with lithographs by Barnett Freedman.  (The Heritage Press published affordable editions of classics published by the Limited Editions. Hurrah for the egalitarians!)  I picked this up cheaply at a used bookstore.

Here is the first edition I read (Dell). It fell apart.

Dell Wuthering Heights 5371030484_88cec82eb0This is a lovely White’s Books edition:

Wuthering Heights pretty cover 51fYyXtoWdLThen there’s the old Penguin:

Wuthering Heights old Penguin mO8S9sBtnMTZq6nVhx3DFow

Then there’s the new Penguin:

penguin wuthering-heights-by-emily-bronteThen there’s a new Penguin aimed at adolescents:

wuthering heihgts new penguin 9780143105435There’s a very pretty Modern Library edition.

The Modern Library is pretty.
The Modern Library is pretty.

Here’s the old Signet:

wuthering heights signet blogger-whAnd last of all, here’s the Vintage.vintage wuthering heights
Any edition will do.  It’s a great book!

Which edition do you have?

More on Proust Translations: A Letter to the TLS, The Boston Review on Moncrieff’s Translation, & Is It Shorter?

C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Proust
C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Proust

On Oct. 31 in the TLS, A.N. Wilson reviewed a new biography, Jean Findlay’s Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C. K. Scott Moncrieff.  Wilson says that Moncrieff’s English translation of Proust is a masterpiece and raises the question of whether it is better than Proust.

I was fascinated by Wilson’s review since I am reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in the marvelous Moncrieff translation corrected by Terence Kilmartin and later by D. J. Enright.  I do have two volumes of the Moncrieff original in old Modern Library hardback editions.  Should I read this musty hardback of The Guermantes Way in the original translation?  (The smaller print makes it less attractive.)  My other  flippant thought was, “Is Moncrieff’s translation shorter?” It is not.

In the Nov. 7 issue of the TLS, Christopher Prendergast, the general editor of the Penguin translations of Proust, wrote an outraged Letter to the Editor about Wilson’s “eccentric” claim that Moncrieff is better than Proust.  He says he called Moncrieff’s efforts “heroic” and the translation “majestic” in the introductions to the Penguin translations.  That does not, however, mean that the new translations are not superb.

Literary tastes naturally vary, and there are many ways of tasting Proust.  Lydia Davis’s translation of the volume re-baptized by her, largely for reasons to do with Proust’s own tetchy reservations over Scott Moncrieff’s version, as The Way by Swann’s is characterized by Wilson as “technically more ‘accurate,’  but no one, reading it, could consider it an atmospheric piece of writing.”  I leave it on one side what possibilities there are for us with The Way by Swann other than by “reading it.”  By “no one,” I take it that…this is code for Wilson.

He then quotes two passages, the first by Moncrieff and the other by Lydia Davis, and asks us which we like better.  The passage he chose?  Davis’s is by far more vivid.

Translations fascinate me, and I am certainly not adverse to the Penguins. For one thing, these are gorgeous books.  I respect the idea that we need new translations for a new century, and certainly there are different philosophies of translation.  Do you go with Moncrieff’s title Swann’s Way, or Davis’s more literal The Way by Swann’s?  (By the way, Davis’s is still called Swann’s Way in the U.S.)  We do have a copy of Davis’s translation (the book sale), and though I admired the first 125 pages, I went back to my Moncrieff-Kilmarten-Enright.  I prefer it.

What do others think of Moncrieff?  In The Boston Review, on June 16, 2014, Leland de la Durantaye reviewed a new Yale University Press edition of the C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation of Swann’s Way, edited and annotated by William C. Carter.  Carter believes the Moncrieff is the best, but de la Durantayef finds it very odd that Carter undid the revisions by Kilmarten and Enright.

There is always a tension in translation between the spirit and the letter, between conveying things we might call tone, mood, feel, or music, and being as literally faithful to the original as possible. Moncrieff excelled at both. He created a rich and recognizable style that became, for English readers, Proust. Because the translation was the only one in existence for so very long, it naturally became closely intertwined with the fate of the work in the English-speaking world. But translations age differently—and more quickly—than originals, and Moncrieff’s monumental achievement, with its many Edwardian intonations, came to feel increasingly dated. With this in mind Moncrieff’s translation was reviewed and revised in 1981 by Terence Kilmartin, and then re-reviewed and re-revised in 1992 by D.J. Enright, who changed its title to the more literal In Search of Lost Time. Ten years later, with the book at last out of copyright, a new translation was produced with a different translator for each volume, beginning with Lydia Davis’s 2002 translation of Swann’s Way—which she lobbied energetically, but in vain, to have retitled more literally as The Way Past Swann’s Place.

Translators have difficulty capturing the very real differences of the experience of reading a book in a foreign languages.  For instance, the best translations of Catullus I have read are in David Ferry’s 2012 National Book Award winner, Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations.  They are far from literal, but they capture the spirit. Are they Catullus?  Sort of.

And so as a common reader,  I am going with the Moncrieff-Kilmarten-Enright.  I love it, so why switch?

That said, I am sure the Penguins are worth reading.  Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary is a masterpiece.

The Barbara Pym Society of North America & Why Men Are Laundry Addicts

Barbara Pym at the International African Institute
Barbara Pym at the International African Institute

I recently joined the Barbara Pym Society, thinking I might attend the conference in Boston in the spring.  Though it does involve singing hymns, which I am not keen on, not being musical, as all know who have heard my stirring rendition of “All the Way to Reno,” I would enjoy meeting other Pymites and hearing papers on A Quartet in Autumn.

The real reason to join literary societies, however, is to collect the newsletters.  The house used to be awash in publications from the Trollope Society (a bit of a snooze), the Willa Cather Foundation (fascinating), and The Angela Thirkell Society (quirky).  Today I received two editions of Green Leaves, The Journal of the Barbara Pym Society.  It is a perfect blend of scholarship and entertainment, including well-written articles with such titles as “The Spinster’s Natural Clothing:  Postwar Styles in Excellent Women,” “Barbara Pym Society Knitting Competition:  Keith’s Sweater,” “Homosexuality in A Glass of Blessings,” and “Austen, Love, and Pain in the Novels of Barbara Pym.”

Pym is one of the best writers of the twentieth century, but not everyone understands her. (I am not talking about you.)  I have met a few men who scorn her.  On the other hand, one male friend of mine reads almost nothing but Pym.  When I tried to introduce him to Penelope Lively’s books, he said, “There is no comparison.”

And yet Pym seems to be stuck in the middlebrow women writers category, along with wonderful writers like Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Taylor.  Pym is the best of these three:  she never wrote a bad sentence.  Bowen is superb but can be a bit stagey, and though Taylor’s books are enjoyable, I honestly never remember anything about them once read (with the exception of a few of her short stories).

But Pym can be read and reread.  Her wit, elegance, and liveliness never fail me.


One night I found five shrunken cotton sweaters in my laundry basket.  My husband had thrown them into the washer with regular detergent, and then into the dryer.

What an incentive to lose weight, right?

What do you do when a man gets ahold of your laundry?

My husband loves to do laundry.  It gives him a feeling of accomplishment.  Sometimes he does not use enough detergent, so I  sneak it back downstairs and do it again.

“You can wash those sweaters with Woolite, but you know how you always see sweaters drying on towels around here?  That’s because you can’t put sweaters in the dryer.”

I have had to replace a few of the sweaters.  I have many pilled sweaters to wear around the house, but I need a winter wardrobe reserved for out of the house, preferably something the cats haven’t clawed.

The mall has nothing warm in my size.  I’ve complained before about how difficult it is to find large clothing.

Catalogues have more choices, but there is much sending back and forth to find the perfect fit.

The same sweater in the exact same style as those lost costs $10 more than it did in 2010.  And so I decided to go for something a little nicer and slightly more expensive.

Diet, you say.  It is the perfect solution.  I do, I do.  Lose 15 pounds or 50 pounds, it all comes back.  That is the dieter’s secret.  And so I gain and lose the same weight every year.  I have clothing in five sizes and a size 8 coat I wore for three months in 2001.

Oh, well, it is time to go on a diet again.  Fifteen pounds off before the holidays.  But will I be able to fit into the shrunken sweaters?  Let’s go for 25…