A Giveaway of Graham Greene, Mary Wesley, Lawrence Durrell, & Robert Graves

It’s the summer giveaway!  Here are four free books for anyone energetic enough to request them.  Leave a comment if you would like one or more, and do ask for as many as interest you.  I’ll do a drawing Wednesday.  (N.B.  The images show the editions I’m giving away.)

1 Graham Greene’s classic, The Quiet American. (You can read my post  here). In this tense, fast-paced novel, the narrator, Fowler, a cynical English war correspondent in Saigon in the 1950s,  has witnessed battles, bombings, and atrocities in the war between the French  and the Vietminh guerrillas.  The European papers are interested in very few of the incidents, so he regards himself as an observer, not an activist, until an American fanatic threatens the Vietnamese way of life and that of expatriates like Fowler.

Mary Wesley’s Part of the Furniture.  Mary Wesley published her first novel in 1983 when she was 71.    Here is the description of Part of the Furniture at Goodreads:  “Early in 1941, seventeen-year-old Juno Marlowe is hurrying down a London street. Planes thunder overhead; a battery of guns opens up. She is rescued from this nightmare by a gaunt stranger who offers her the protection of his house. Given this respite from the bleakness of an existence where she has no home and family, June encounters a series of events that take her to a house in the West Country, where war only occasionally intrudes, where she may find peace, and no longer just be part of the furniture.”

Lawrence Durrell’s Livia.  This is the second book in the Avignon Quintet, which I wrote about a few days ago here.  Poetic metafiction!

4.  Robert Graves’s Count Belisarius.  Graves’s most famous book is the brilliant novel,  I, Claudius, but I also enjoyed Count Belisarius, the story of the sixth-century general who repeatedly saved the Byzantine empire, including Rome, until the jealous emperor Justinian and other less gifted generals interfered .  I wrote in more detail about it here.

Lawrence Durrell’s Lush Metafiction: The Avignon Quintet

I do not much enjoy literary events, but I am such a fan of Lawrence Durrell’s lush prose that I would ecstatically travel back in time to attend his readings (though It seems unlikely that he would give readings).  His gorgeous masterpiece, The Alexandria Quartet, is one of my favorite novel sequences (and, by the way, you can read my post on it here.) But this summer I’ve moved on to Durrell’s The Avignon Quintet, a luminous metafictional series.

In Monsieur: The Prince of Darkness, the first novel in the Avignon Quintet (which I wrote about here),  Durrell experiments with point-of-view.  The narrative shifts are radical and there are many twists–madness, incest, suicide, and bisexuality–along the way. At the end we learn that Monsieur is a novel within a novel, and the character Rob Sutcliffe, a novelist, is the fictional alter ego of the character Aubrey Blanford, the real writer of Monsieur–or the alter ego of Durrell, who won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Monsieur in 1974.

I struggled through some of the more overblown episodes in Monsieur, but I very much enjoyed the more straightforward second novel, Livia, or Buried Alive.  Blanford is grieving over the death of his best friend Constance,  the sister of Livia, his dead wife.   A phone call from Rob Sutcliffe comforts him, though at first Blanford skewers the relationship between the writer and his creation.

All process causes pain, and we are part of process. How chimerical the consolations of art against the central horror of death; being sucked down the great sink like an insect, into the cloaca maxima of death, the anus mundi! Sutcliffe, in writing about him, or rather, he writing about himself in the character of Sutcliffe, under the satirical name of Bloshford in the novel Monsieur had said somewhere: “Women to him were simply a commodity. He was not a fool about them; O no! He knew them inside out, or so he thought. That is to say he was worse than a fool.”

Only a writer as lyrical as Durrell could get away with this flamboyant overwriting, but he is not without humor.  Blanford and Sutcliffe have much in common:  their wives were both, absurdly, lesbian sirens who led them a merry chase through Europe (Livia had sex with the female private detective Blanford hired to track her).

But Blanford tries to remind Sutcliffe he is not real.

“You are dead, Robin,” said Blanford. “Remember the end of Monsieur?”
“Bring me back then,” said Sutcliffe on a heroic note, “and we shall see.”

Much of Livia is devoted to Blanford’s  first trip to Avignon on a long vacation from Oxford with friends.  He and  Sam are invited to camp out in Avignon with Hilary, whose sister Constance has inherited a chateau from a mad aunt:  the aunt had let it crumble Miss Havisham-style around her.  (There is a high level of mental illness in The Avignon Quintet.)   Blanford falls in love with beautiful Constance, but  then her seductive sister Livia arrives.  Poor Constance!  Not only does Livia steal Blanford’s affections, but she also fascinates their friend Felix, the consul of Avignon.  One night Blanford and Felix, jealously searching for Livia, visit a brothel where Livia is said to work as a prostitute.  The rumor is not true, or at least she is not there.  Instead, she often dresses in men’s clothes and takes long walks at night, and sometimes has sex with a random gypsy girl. Yes, the decadence gets a little tiring. Why, why, why are these men so fascinated by Livia? The best parts of the novel are Durrell’s long descriptions of Avignon, its ruins, its river, its gypsy quarter, and the history of Templar heresies.

Read The Alexandria Quartet first.  The Avignon Quintet is less interesting, not for everybody.  But if you like metafiction, it’s for you.

A Neglected Classic: The Rain Forest by Olivia Manning

There’s nothing like discovering a great out-of-print book, especially when one has no expectations.

I have a collection of old tatty Penguins, which fall apart as I read them. Of those that remain bound, I have a favorite.  I was immediately caught in the tightly-plotted web of Olivia Manning’s The Rain Forest, published in 1974, set on an island in the Indian Ocean. If you are a fan of Graham Greene or W. Somerset Maugham, you will not be able to put it down.  This hypnotic story of an expatriate couple living on a jasmine-scented island ruled by the British is a trenchant examination of colonialism and culture clash.

Manning is no longer a neglected writer; she has been rediscovered in recent years.  In 2010 NYRB  reissued her partly autobiographical masterpiece,  Fortunes of War, in two volumes as the Balkan trilogy and the Levant trilogy.  In this compelling series, Manning follows the fortunes of a British couple, Guy Pringle, a university lecturer, and his wife, Harriet, during World War II. Adapted by the BBC as a TV series  starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, the DVD  brought me to Manning’s books.   A biography of Olivia Manning was published in 2013.

Though Manning’s other books don’t quite live up to  Fortunes of War, The Rain Forest is a little gem.  In this strange, striking novel, she writes about another British couple, Hugh Foster, an unemployed script writer, and his wife Kristy, a novelist.  They cannot pay their income tax in England, so Hugh takes a government job in Al-Bustan, a British-ruled island populated by Arabs, Africans, and Indians.  Hugh feels like a failure as he tries to break into the class-bound society, and Kristy laughs at everybody.

From the beginning, the class system is rigid.  While the rich live at the Praslin Hotel, the middle-class British rent rooms at the Daisy Pension, where Hugh and Kristy are shunned as bohemians and outsiders.   The clique-y residents won’t even speak to them, and their only friend is the pension owner’s son, Ambrose, a former Cambridge scholar (the best in his year) who ventured into publishing, was bankrupted twice, and now lives with his mother, scheming to find investors for a new quixotic project to find a treasure ship..

Manning brilliantly captures the oppressive atmosphere of the Daisy.  And in the following passage, Manning describes the Fosters’ first meeting with Ambrose.

The government workers in their suits of khaki drill , the wives all much alike in flowered, sleeveless dresses of unfashionable length, seemed to keep dry by a refrigeration of the will.  The newcomer–who had entered late and whose table was close to the Fosters–glistened with sweat and his clothes, too heavy for the climate, were shabby, sweat-stained and, in places, split.  Bent over his food, he was still remembering Kristy and her pleasure. He was so different from the other inmates that Kristy whispered, “A human being!

As the weeks go on, Kristy is befriended by Arabs, Indians, and Africans, all of whom say they hope to take over when the British leave. (The government favors the Africans.) And Hugh also makes a dangerous friend, a doctor who wheedled a pass from him to explore the rain forest on the other side of the island, which is off limits:  he is trying to discover what caused a mysterious disease there.  Things go from bad to worse.

Loved the book.  Extraordinary writing,  great characters.

Memorably Manic: On Folio Society Books & Reading Robert Graves’s “Count Belisarius”

Do you love shopping?  Have you ever bought a $2,900 handbag after watching The Devil Wears Prada? Or spent $300 on a Folio Society limited edition ? (Yes, the latter.)

Mind you, you don’t have to suffer from manic-depressive illness to have Memorably Manic moments.  We apply the MMM phrase to any $250-plus purchase that is not a computer or a washing machine.

My Memorably Manic moment occurred in 2014 when I ordered the Folio Society edition of the complete text of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children.  In my defense, I am a Trollope fan.  But you may wonder:   How could I afford it?  Did I take to the streets and sell my prescription thyroid drugs?  (No! I went without new clothes.)

I am a fan of paperbacks, which are compact, flexible, and suitable for reading in the horizontal position.  But I was mesmerized by an article in The Guardian about the publication of the complete text of The Duke’s Children.  Steven Annick, an American Trollope scholar, had restored the complete text from the manuscript at Yale.  When Trollope’s sales were waning, his editor, Charles Dickens, Jr., had required Trollope to cut 65,000 words.

Annick put them back.

And so I ordered the limited edition– an enormous leather object.

Oh, dear, it was lovely, but unwieldy.  I usually read in the horizontal position, and that was impossible.  So I gave the oversized  book to a charity sale.

Was the FS limited edition a one-off?  No, because I have bought used editions of FS books at reasonable prices.  I don’t care for the REALLY oversized FS books, but I love my used set of  Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy .

WHAT AM I READING NOW?  I am loving Robert Graves’s historical novel, Count Belisarius, a brilliant retelling of the story of Belisarius, who was a Byzantine general  in the sixth century under the rule of Justinian. If you are a fan of Graves’s dazzling  I, Claudius, you will love Count Belisarius (why isn’t it a BBC series?).  Belisarius, known as the Last Roman because of his courage and integrity (what the Romans would call virtus), was loyal to Justinian, despite his taking credit for Belisarius’s victories.

Not all historians have been Belisarius fans:  Belisarius’s secretary, the historian Procopius, reviled Belisarius in his over-the-top book, The Secret History, along with Justinian, Justinian’s wife, Theodora, and Belisarius’s wife Antonina (the women were former actresses and prostitutes).  But in The Wars of Justinian, Procopius praised the achievements of Justinian and Belisarius. So perhaps Procopius had manic moments, too. (I recently wrote about The Secret History here.)

Graves is sympathetic to Belisarius. He intended to write the book from the point-of-view of Antonina, Belisarius’s wife, but at the suggestion of his girlfriend, the poet Laura Riding, changed the perspective to that of Eugenius, Antonina’s eunuch slave. Lindsey Davis, who wrote the introduction to the Folio Society edition, finds this decision disappointing.  But she points out that the trusted domestic servant has been the model for later narrators of historical novels (think Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy, narrated by Cicero’s secretary).   Davis writes,

Use of such a figure has since become standard practice where men of letters write their novels about famous fellows from history.  It can have the advantage that as part of the hero’s household, the narrator supplies private insights, though we get no pillow talk from Eugenius.  Graves fits him out with an appealing background (he is the son of a British king, captured by Saxon pirates) and he is no cipher, because from time to time he assists his mistress Antonina with her schemes, not least helping to dethrone a pope.

Theodora and Antonina, childhood friends and the powers behind the throne, are by far the most interesting characters. But Graves is such a master of plot and characterization that there are no stick figures:  Belisarius, noble and courageous from boyhood, is commanding and believable.  As a boy, during a dinner at his uncle’s, Belisarius speaks eloquently of what it means to be Roman.

“‘Roman’ is a name borne by hundreds of thousands who have never seen the City of Rome and never will; and so it was, I believe,in the greatest days of the Empire.  To be Roman is to belong not to Rome, a city in Italy, but to the world.  The Roman legionaries who perished with Valens were Gauls and Spaniards and Britons and Dalmatians and many other sorts; of true-born Romans among them there cannot have been many hundreds….  Now, suppose that one could combine Hun archer and Gothic lancer and civilize him as a Roman, and put him under camp discipline–that, I think, would be to breed a soldier as near perfection as possible.  I intend to command such troops someday.”

Don’t fear being bored by soldiers: Graves’s war scenes are vivid and suspenseful.   If, as a Latin student, you fell in love with Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (for the gorgeous prose!), and Livy’s history (also gorgeous prose!) and even admired Belisarius’s enemy, the Greek historian Procopius, you will appreciate Graves’s facility in describing battles:  it is part of a long narrative tradition.   Trained in rhetoric,  Belisarius delivers speeches worthy of Cicero, especially when preventing mutiny, or cementing the plan for recapturing Carthage from the Vandals.

There is much to muse about in Grave’s intelligent chronicle of Justinian’s age, which he describes in the preface as  the overlapping of the Classical Age with the Romantic Age of medieval legend.

Horace vs. Stephen King: Which is the Better Horror Writer?

Horace is rarely compared to Stephen King.  In fact, he is never compared to Stephen King.  I am the first to make the comparison.  And I don’t read Stephen King, because his books give me nightmares.

Although my “Truth in Wine” series of posts depicted Horace as an adorable oenophile who conversed with a wine jar, there are serious, even stern, facets to his character.  The six poems known as the Roman Odes (the first six odes of  Book III) are very disturbing. His descriptions of the wrath of Juppiter, Juno, and other gods are as blood-curdling as any passage in Stephen King. Yes, we are patriotic, but I am always disturbed by Horace’s famous line,  dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” (Carmina III.2).  It gave me flashbacks to writers’ conferences where the war veterans submitted disturbingly violent short stories in which the teachers had to find positive elements to praise in order to support the men psychologically.  And of course Wilfred Owen, the World War I poet, wrote his own response to Horace in the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

Wilfred Owen

  Here’s the dulce et decorum bit of Wilfred Owen’s poem
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

 

Life was one long war in the first century B.C. in Rome.  Horace  had fought (on the wrong side) of the civil war between Octavian (later called Augustus) and Antony.  In his poetry, Horace alludes to the peace established by Augustus, who became a benign emperor, though never called that, in the wake of three civil wars.  Horace praises the cardinal virtues, the morals, and the old Roman religion:  Augustus wanted to reform the decadent society.   Some consider Horace’s Roman odes propaganda, but others point out the ambiguities that sometimes undercut the surface.

In Book III, Ode 6,  the dulce et decorum sentence is the crux of the fourth stanza,  which falls in the middle of Horace’s eight-stanza poem.  And the placement of the stanza emphasizes Horace’s  view of war and death.  Here is the entire stanza (the Latin below the English):

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit imbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo.               15

It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.
Death chases even the man who flees
and does not spare the peace-loving youth:
it gets him in the back or the knees.

* “peace-loving” is often translated “cowardly”

Horace says that no one can escape war or death. They’ll get your back or knees if you turn away.    And does this knowledge of the inevitability of death make it easier for the survivors of war and the parents of the dead?  I am not a member of a military family.  I have never faced this situation. Would the Romans have found comfort in this philosophy?

Cool Books in Air Conditioning: Patricia Moyes’s Murder a la Mode & Graham Greene’s The Quiet American

Matisse, “Woman Reading with Tea”

One never gets used to the Midwestern heat. My husband dislikes air conditioning, but in these record-high temperatures I couldn’t live without it.  Though I can be sprightly and cheerful  in front of fans blowing at top speed, I need the AC at night.

We struggled over the issue of AC for years.  No, my husband said.  But during a drought one summer, I bought the last air conditioner in town–I called many, many stores before I found one at Sears.  We stuck it in the bedroom window, wedged a copy of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire beneath it, and then fanned out the plastic pleated shutters on either side.  Not the safest installation: the vampire Lestat held it up.

Even with central air and no vampire installations, the heat is exhausting. So I stayed home last week and took a mini-vacation indoors. And I read the perfect cool books. What can be cooler than the fashion world and a Graham Greene quasi-thriller?   I recommend:

1. Murder a la Mode by Patricia Moyes.  Patricia Moyes’s mysteries are delectable, especially Murder a la Mode, a cozy classic–now back in print, published by Felony and Mayhem Press.  Set in the 1960s at the offices of a London fashion magazine, it captures the hectic quibbling and high-pitched tension of the staff’s hurrying to put out the Paris fashion issue.  Having returned late from the spring show in Paris, they are still bickering over layouts at midnight.  The art department is histrionic, and only the level-headed,  soon-to-retire editor Margery French can soothe Patrick, the art editor, who refuses to give a double spread to an ugly hat:  “that…that pudding on stilts.”  Teresa Manners, the posh fashion editor, has a pitch-perfect fashion sense and insists that the hat will be the axis of the season.  Meanwhile,   Helen, the assistant editor, must stay behind to write the copy and photo captions after the others leave. When Helen is found dead the next morning from  cyanide in her tea, Inspector Henry Tibbett investigates, with the help of his niece, Veronica, a model.  (P.S.  Moyes worked as an assistant editor at Vogue, so she gets the details of the fashion magazine just right.)

2.  Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Greene is one of the most intelligent writers of the 20th century, and his intelligent  well-plotted novels are peopled with intelligent men who agonize, Greek tragedian-style, about their emptiness and angst.  I am not Greene’s biggest fan–I prefer his pop predecessor, W. Somerset Maugham–but his characters definitely know how to be cool in the most volatile situations.

That is true of The Quiet American,which I recently read to stay cool.  The narrator, Fowler, an English war correspondent in Saigon in the 1950s,  has witnessed battles, bombings, and atrocities in the war between the French  and the Vietminh guerrillas.  He knows just what his newspaper will or will not publish, and he regards himself as an observer, not an activist.

The British empire has fallen, and Fowler cynically watches the new world politics enacted in Vietnam.  But when an American comes to Saigon and threatens Fowler’s way of life (and the Vietnamese way of life), Fowler eventually must act.  Pyle, an American employed in the Economic Aid Mission, seems at first friendly and naive, irritating and sincere:  he earnestly believes that  “a third force” can save Vietnam.   Pyle wants not only to Americanize Vietnam but to poach on Fowler’s personal territory:  he falls in love with and steals Fowler’s mistress, Phuong, after chivalrously warning Fowler of his intentions.  But when one of Fowler’s contacts tells him the truth about the death-dealing “plastics” industry Pyle is setting up, Fowler must cross a moral line.

Gorgeous writing, even though this book is not for me.   Greene needs only a paragraph or two, or a line of dialogue, to establish character and mood.   In the following passage, he describes his first meeting Pyle at a cafe.  Pyle asks to join him, because there are no free tables.

“Was that a grenade?” he asked with excitement and hope.

“More likely the exhaust of a car,” I said, and was suddenly sorry for his disappointment.  One forgets so quickly one’s own youth:  once I was interested myself in what for want of a better term they call news.  But grenades had staled on me; they were something listed on the back page of the local paper–so many last night in Saigon, so many in Cholon:  they never made the European press.  Up the street came the lovely flat figures–the white silk trousers, the long tight jackets in pink and mauve patterns slit up the thigh.  I watched them with the nostalgia I knew I would feel when I left the region forever.  “They are lovely, aren’t they?” I said over my beer, and Pyle cast a cursory glance as they went up the rue Catinant.

The Pyles of the world turn out not to be what they seem, and the Fowlers have more to them than you noticed.  Love the writing, but am indifferent to the book.  It’s something about Greene:  not for me.

Dare We Buy Informally “Banned” Books?

The other day, I went to a used bookstore. For once I was very well-organized: I was looking for books  for my science fiction project, and I was determined to buy only books on my checklist.  But alas, I found nothing:  they did not have Liu Cixin’s award-winning novel, The Three-Body Problem, nor could I find Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, nor Vonda N.  McIntyre’s The Exile Waiting.

I had ridden my bicycle, and it was so hot outside that the asphalt glittered and a steamy haze rose off the cars.  I couldn’t face leaving immediately, so I browsed in the literature section. There was nada–we already have tons of Jane Austen, Trollope, and T.C. Boyle–but finally I noticed a copy of Sherman Alexie’s memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.

Some years ago, my husband and I were very amused by Alexie at a reading in Iowa City:  he is as witty as a stand-up comedian.  But the minute I took the book off the shelf, I began to sweat.  Perhaps I was dehydrated, but it was also nervous sweat.  And then I remembered that Alexie is under a cloud due to sexual harassment allegations. As I recall, they were of the “he-kissed-me-in-a-bar-without-consent” category, and one was actually “he-didn’t-help-me-publish-my-poetry.” I don’t consider those serious accusations,  but I decided not to buy Alexie’s  book,  because I was afraid the surly young clerk would humiliate me or call me out.

I usually don’t give a damn what anyone thinks.  But then I remembered the cause of this Alexie-rooted fear. A month or two ago a Millennial blogger (sorry, no idea who it was) expressed indignation because one of Alexie’s short stories appeared in an anthology. Good God! Forget talent, and forget “innocent until proven guilty.”  If it’s posted on Twitter or Facebook, it must be true, right?

The award-winning Alexie is a witty, brilliant chronicler of Native American life.  He grew up poor on a reservation, and writes about it. Whether or not he is a perfect man,  he has not, as I understand it, committed a crime.

If great writers had to be role models, we wouldn’t have any of either sex. Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay–all pretty much assholes.

I bought nothing at the store that day.