Mirabile Does Middlebrow: Ann Hood’s The Obituary Writer & Colette’s The Blue Lantern

Last year I read innumerable middlebrow novels, and especially enjoyed Nancy Hale’s Dear Beast, Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone, and Mary McCarthy’s The Group.

Nancy Hale

Nancy Hale

This year it may seem that I’ve read mainly classics, or perhaps just Balzac, Balzac, and Balzac.  (Does my repetition of his name make it sound like a law firm?)

Yes, this has been the year of the classics.

But I continue to enjoy new middlebrow literary novels that may or may not last, and older books, sometimes out-of-print, other times reissued as rediscovered classics by optimistic publishers.  Often such books are written by women for women, because women after all, according to studies in the U.S. and Canada, make up 80% of the fiction readers.

Don’t we want to know what women are writing?  I mean, we’re reading it.  Aren’t we?

I have a recurring dream in which I own a writers’ retreat.  Actually it is an apartment house that resembles a motel, and it happens to be located behind my house. I am very anxious.   It is a lot of work.   Whom will I allow to stay?   It’s always a shock to walk in and find the apartment to the right of the biggest bathroom inhabited by a man I don’t know and don’t approve of.  (Is he even a writer?)   Yet if Jonathan Lethem or Ann Hood shows up in my dream, they’re serious writers so they get nice rooms; but if Tom Wolfe or Tina Brown come, they have to be sent elsewhere, because they’re  off doing journalism and socializing and won’t be around the rooms much anyway, see?   In my dream I’m the all-knowing landlady with rules like, “Lights out at 1 a.m.”  How’s that for sternness? That’s like saying, “Lights out, never.”  But the worst thing is trying to gather all the animals in every night.  You wouldn’t believe how many dogs, cats, and hamsters come to live at a writers’ retreat.

Ann Hood

Ann Hood

“Ballbody!”  “Muffy!”  Don Juan!”  “Cheri!”  If you can convince them you have food, they’ll come in.

It’s good to get out of the dream and talk about books again.

I have long been a fan of Ann Hood, and am two-thirds of the way through her new novel, The Obituary Writer.

the obituary writer by ann hoodIn alternating chapters Hood relates the stories of two women of different generations: Claire, a ’60s housewife, who dislikes her husband deeply and is pregnant with her lover’s child, regards John F. Kennedy’s inauguration as a symbol of hope; Evelyn, a teacher whose lover disappears in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, becomes a traumatized, almost psychic writer of literary obituaries.  This thoughtful, nuanced book focuses on women’s emotions and sensibilities, and I can tell you right now, our husbands are never going to read this delicate novel about loss.  But Hood’s  crystal-clear prose has depth, and though this is unlikely to make the New York Times Notable Books list, it is perhaps her best book, and it is worth reading.



How I love Colette!  Her lush prose reads like poetry, and her laudations of nature are both subtle and sensual. But I admit I had put off reading The Blue Lantern, her journal and memoir about old age, because the subject naturally is one to be avoided.

Colette’s meditations in her seventies are just as sharp and astonishing as ever, even when she humorously admits to some faltering of her vision and hearing.  If she has to travel by car instead of on foot in her seventies, she makes the best of a different vantage point.

She writes of the frailty of aging:

More than once of late, turning my eyes from my book or my blue-tinted writing paper towards the superb quadrangle that I am privileged to view from my window, I have thought ‘The children in the Garden are not nearly so noisy this year,’ and a moment later found myself finding fault with the doorbell, the telephone, and the whole orchestral gamut of the radio for becoming progressively fainter.”

The Blue Lantern Colette She still visits vineyards and markets, still eats good food and drinks wine. She tells funny anecdotes about her famous friends, Jean Cocteau and Gide.  One day she is determined to copy a lovely rug in Cocteau’s country house at Milly.  She must have it!  But her friend Cocteau is abroad, Jean Marais is on a film location, and Paul of the Bookshop says he’ll go to Milly and charter an airplane.  Colette tells him to forget it.  The next thing she know,

…out of the blue Jean Marais sprang to life before my very eyes, tall enough to brush the ceiling with his orange–no, moonlight blue hair–no, auburn mop of hair!  And what in the world was he trailing behind him, slung from his shoulder?

The rug!  Colette’s friends will do anything for her.  They’re all so brilliant and funny.  Don’t you feel sad that you weren’t a brilliant actor/filmmaker/bookshop owner/writer who hung out with Colette?

She also quotes letters from fans, which amuse her, even when they ask outrageously that she write a preface to their “life work.”

Oh, Colette, we love your voice!

7 thoughts on “Mirabile Does Middlebrow: Ann Hood’s The Obituary Writer & Colette’s The Blue Lantern

  1. Oh yes, I do love Colette’s voice, although I’ve only read her fiction and wasn’t aware of this Journal. Another one for the TBR pile.

    My recurring day dream is of a readers retreat where friends can come for long weekends to get away from their busy lives and just read, talk, eat and sleep books for a few days. This is the only reason I do the lottery each week.


  2. I *love* Colette but I only read The Blue Lantern recently – when I first read her in the 1980s it was harder to get hold of some of her works (in those pre-Internet days). I thought BL was one of the loveliest and saddest of her works but still full of her joy in life. She’s one of those authors I’ll always go back to…


  3. Alex, a readers’ retreat! That sounds actually like a good business… Maybe it could be an Enchanted April vacation, with lots of reading. We couldn’t have it here, because we’d have to be in our denim barn coats and mud boots. It’s still freezing! It’s been a chilly spring, and I want my readers’ retreat.

    Kaggsybookishramblingls, I’m not even sure this one is still in print, but it IS lovely and worth reading. I’m glad you’ve read it. Sometimes I think no one reads Colette anymore, but I believe Capuchin Classics (?) reissued Break of Day last year, so we’re not alone.


    • No, I don’t know either – I often have to resort to second-hand Internet copies to get hold of her books. “Break of Day” is possible my favourite Colette and I have at least two copies of it already or I would have been chasing down the Capuchin version – in fact, I may still do so because it’s so pretty. I *do* get a sense that Colette has slightly slipped out of the limelight outside France which is a shame because in the seventies and eighties when I was first a feminist and discovering all these wonderful writers she was very high profile.


  4. Lovely post! I read my French-English version of Colette’s “Cheri” in French from time to time, whenever I vow, again, to learn to speak French fluently. I’ve never finished it, though, and because I have to keep looking at the English side to translate words, I never have gotten a feeling for her voice. But from time to time, the French kicks in and I detect a rhythm and grace in her prose that feels, yes, lush. Maybe I should read the English side — but that’s my reward for finishing it in French!

    I recently read GELLHORN, a biography of the journalist and author Martha Gellhorn. Her first lover was the man after whom the protagonist in Cheri was patterned, and had been Colette’s lover. Naturally, Martha Gellhorn did not care for Colette.


  5. Sherry, my Colette comes a la Roger Senhouse! I’m sure reading the French is wonderful, but you should treat yourself occasionally to a few lines of English. Why not? Though I’m more like you this way…

    Ooh, if I’d been Martha Gellhorn, I’d have been upset, too. How could anyone compete with Colette? Actually, Gellhorn was pretty gorgeous, too, as I remember, but not an erotic writer, that’s for sure.


  6. Pingback: Are You Reading New Books? and What I’m Reading – mirabile dictu

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