Being American: Why I Don’t Understand English Culture & Am a Heroine in a Middlebrow Novel

Spotting this plaque at 52 Doughty Street made me feel I was in England.

Spotting this plaque at 52 Doughty Street made me feel I was in England.

You are an Anglophile.  You have read Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, Jane Austen’s Emma, Dickens’s Bleak House, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, and E. M. Forster’s Howards End so many times that they are  your culture.  If you lived in England, if you were much younger, you might possibly be Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest, or, more likely, the freelance indexer heroine of Barbara Pym’s No Fond Return of Love.

If  you do not travel to England, you do not understand the culture.  If you do travel to England, you do not understand the culture. As an Anglophile who believes the English are the best writers in the world, I was very excited about my brief trip to London. I loved the Dickens Museum, but it gave me less sense of Dickens than you might think.  Oddly enough, spotting a plaque on a house where Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby lived a few doors away was more thrilling.  Dickens, Brittain, Holtby, and God knows who else lived on Doughty Street!

I’ve always fancied myself the heroine of a classic, but I’m not.  I absolutely belong in a middlebrow novel.  And so in London I found myself feeling like Louise Bickford, the heroine of Monica Dickens’s underrated novel, The Winds of Heaven (free at The Internet Archive).

monica dickens 1 the winds of heavenLouise Bickford does not belong in London any more than I do.  As I walked around the city,  looking in shop windows and sitting down in coffee shops and restaurants, I had a vivid sense of her outsiderness.  Louise, a 57-year-old widow, is shunted from one daughter’s house to the next.  The highlight of visiting her daughter in London consists of meeting a stranger in a tearoom, Gordon, an extremely fat man who sells furniture but turns out to be a kindred spirit: he writes her favorite mysteries under s pseudonym. The chat with Gordon inspires her to make a bid for independence.  And if this includes an improvisational period living in a chilly caravan, so be it.

My trip to London had an improvisational feeling.  The hotel hall was crammed with suitcases, because tourists could not check in till 3. I  spent a bracing first night in jeans and several sweaters, because I did not recognize the Tall White Thing as a radiator. Then there was the night I did laundry…all night.  I started at 4 p.m., but the dryer was still twirling at 6 and 7.  “Keep checking,” they said at the desk.  At 8 the laundry room was locked till morning, and the cycle was still twirling.

London, like New York, is very international, and I spoke most often to tourists and people in service jobs (who are from all different countries).  I felt at home in museums and bookstores, which are like museums and bookstores everywhere.

I had a sense of visiting the London of Margaret Drabble’s The Seven Sisters. and Zadie Smith’s NW.  I should read more contemporary fiction before I travel again, I thought.

And I should make more literary travels to Haworth and Thomas Hardy country and all the rest.

Why didn’t I go out for tea?  I chose coffee shops.

Meanwhile, here is a quote from The Winds of Heaven, when Louise goes to Lyons:

It was that hour in mid-afternoon when those who are on the early lunch and tea break come forth among the exhausted shoppers to get themselves a bite of something to keep them going until five-thirty.  When she had stood in line and paid for her cake and cup of tea, Louise could not at first see anywhere to put down her tin tray.  Being a Londoner, she did not mind holding a tray laden with unlikely food for the hour of day, and women stacking dirty dishes and wiping off tables with damp cloths.

Colette’s The Vagabond & The Shackle

The music-hall…made me…a tough and honest little businesswoman.  It’s a profession which the least gifted of women learns quickly, when her freedom and her life depend on it.”–The Vagabond, Colette


Colette as a music-hall artist.

One of my favorite writers is Colette, the versatile author of vivid, gorgeously-writen novels, memoirs, sketches, and journalism.  She is known for her supple, sensual descriptions of nature,  feminist heroines who flee from love, and comic descriptions of animals.   The other day I curled up with two of my favorites, The Vagabond and its sequel, The Shackle.  The two can be read as one novel.

In The Vagabond, a lyrical, sexy novel based on Colette’s experiences as a pantomime artist, the narrator, Renee Nere, age 33, is a writer-turned-music-hall artist. Her philandering husband shattered her, and now divorced, she loses herself in travel and work.  She has written three novels, and writing is her vocation, but she also enjoys her work as a mime and dancer with her comradely partner, Brague.

Much of this is autobiographical:  Colette was married for 13 years to Henri Gauthier-Willars, known as Willy, a writer of novels penned by ghostwriters. Colette was one of the ghostwriters, and her Claudine novels appeared under his name (some say he locked her up and forced her to write). He was promiscuous, and she left him in 1906 and was divorced in 1910.  During her years as a music-hall artist, she became involved with her lesbian partner, Missy.

In The Vagabond, Renee describes the joys of writing.

To write, to be able to write, what does it mean?  It means spending long hours dreaming before a white page, scribbling unconsciously, letting your pen play round a blot of ink and nibble at a half-formed word, scratching it, making it bristle with darts and adoring it with antennae and paws until it loses all resemblance to a legible word and turns into a fantastic insect or a fluttering creature half butterfly, half fairy.

Colette vagabondBut love follows her.  In music-halls, she dances in veils; men send her flowers and notes.  A particularly persistent fan, whom she calls “Big Noodle” or “Big Ninny” (depending on the translation), Maxime Dufferien-Chautel, stalks her at her flat in Paris and wins her reluctant love.  But Renee flees from him as Daphne flees Apollo:  she goes on another 40-day tour, telling Maxime he can wait.  As their correspondence reveals their differences, Renee discloses her real attitude towards love.

In The Shackle, Renee’s circumstances have changed, and she is no longer working, independent but drifting.  Having inherited money, she travels and lives in hotels.  In Nice she has gotten too close to a quarrelsome couple, May and Jean, who are in an abusive relationship, and Masseu, an opium addict.  Finally the situation becomes too intense:  Renee flees from Jean when he makes it clear he is attracted to her after Masseau plays a trick on them.  Jean, a very complicated rich man, pursues Renee, and they truly fall in love.  But nothing is easy for Renee.

The Shackle ColetteThe Shackle is not as well-crafted as The Vagabond, but Renee’s intense, often unhealthy relationship with Jean in many ways seems more real than the simple one between her and Max. Of course it is because Jean is more complicated that he attracts her.  (Oh, and just so you’ll know, he is not abusive to Renee.)

These two remarkable novels should be in the canon if they are not. She is one of the best writers of the 20th century. Farrar Straus Giroux is keeping many of her books in print.

An Interview with Robert Hellenga, Author of The Confessions of Frances Godwin

An Interview with Robert Hellenga, Author of The Confessions of Frances Godwin

Robert Hellenga

Robert Hellenga

My background is in classics, and I taught Latin after graduate school.  So when I tell you that Robert Hellenga’s brilliant novel, The Confessions of Frances Godwin, is the story of an extraordinary Latin teacher, you will not be surprised it is one of my favorite books of the year.  Frances, the witty narrator, who retires after her popular Latin program is phased out, decides to write her confessions, which, she says, are “really a kind of spiritual autobiography.”  She adds that the police are unlikely to come knocking at her door, and she is not joking. Frances has a crime on her conscience.

Hellenga, a professor emeritus at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, has generously agreed to be interviewed about this contemporary woman’s version of Saint Augustine’s Confessions.   I am very grateful for his thoughtful answers.  Thank you, Bob.   (N.B.  You can read my post on his  novel here.)

An Interview with Robert Hellenga

Mirabile Dictu: The love of classical literature has shaped the identity of the narrator, Frances, a brilliant Latinist whose translation of Catullus has been accepted for publication. Why did you choose to make Frances a classicist, and is this an integral part of her character?

confessions of Frances godwin Robert HellengaRobert Hellenga:  I like to use the classical world as a frame of reference. It give us (me, Frances, the reader) a place to stand outside the modern world. Other things being equal I would have gravitated toward a college Greek professor rather than a high school Latin teacher, but I’ve already written a novel about a college Greek professor (The Fall of a Sparrow), so I didn’t want to do that again. I’ve studied Greek and Greek literature, but not much Latin or Latin literature, so I had to work up a “frame of reference” that resonated with me. So I reread Virgil and Catullus. The Aeneid gives us a sense that with the founding of Rome the world has turned a corner, that history has a sense of direction (as opposed to the Greek view that history just goes round in a circle). This is a view that Frances has to abandon at the end, when Father Viglietti tells her that what she needs is no absolution but a grappa and a nap. Catullus is already closer to this view. My wife and I have lived in Catullus’s home town (Verona) and last year we spent six weeks in Rome, so I had a sense of place to draw on in both cases.

Mirabile Dictu: I’m always interested in novels with Midwestern settings, because I’ve lived most of my life in the Midwest; yet there seem to be few Midwestern novels. Were you making making a radical decision by setting a novel in Galesburg, Illinois?

Robert Hellenga:  The Midwest has been a theme in all my novels, generally in contrast to Italy. Our family spent a year in Florence in 1982-83 and it was a turning point in our lives. It’s hard for me to write a novel in which no one goes to Italy, although in Snakewoman of Little Egypt the protagonist, Sunny, goes to France rather than Italy. Like the classical world, Italy offers a place to stand outside the Midwest, but in every case my Midwestern characters hold their own against their Italian counterparts. They love Italy, but the Midwest is home. In The Fall of a Sparrow Woody is in love with a wonderful woman from Bologna. He wants her to move to Illinois; she wants him to stay in Italy. In a later novel, The Italian Lover, the same thing happens again, with a different wonderful woman.

The decision to set Confessions in Galesburg was a conscious decision but not a hard one. I didn’t need a big city (Chicago) for this novel; I didn’t need a big university, as I did in Snakewoman, which is set in a fictional town very near Galesburg. Galesburg has the last remaining site of a Lincoln-Douglas debate; it’s got Carl Sandburg’s old house. It’s got a great college, which I taught for many years. I didn’t need anything else.

Mirabile Dictu: Frances’s intense pain over the tragic decision of her daughter Stella, a poet in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to live with the dangerous ex-con, Jimmy, is intensely, disturbingly realistic. How were you able to portray the psychology of this fraught mother-daughter relationship?

Robert Hellenga:  As I’ve often said, “A man with three daughters will never run out of stories.” My wife and I have never been seriously at odds with our daughters, but I think that all a father has to do it tap into his fear-fulfillment fantasies to come up with someone like Jimmy.
At an early stage of Confessions my agent said that he couldn’t understand what had happened to Stella to make her such a piece of work. “Abuse” would have provided a convenient explanation–the dark secret that eventually emerges–but that was out of the question for me. So I gave Stella a long history of making bad choices about men, a history going back to high-school bad boy Howard Banks, and later on the face that she enters into a stable lesbian relationship with Ruthy suggests that maybe her sexual orientation was the problem all along, but I didn’t want to make too much of this. I just wanted it to be part of the frame, and Frances feels the same way.

Mirabile Dictu: Did any writers influence you in the writing of The Confessions of Frances Godwin?

Robert Hellenga:  I keep going back to the same sources for inspiration: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven, and Gail Godwin’s Finishing School, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, and now, Flora. I didn’t exactly name Frances after Gail Godwin, but I sort of did. I started out with a name I liked, Frances Cochrane, but (a) I’d already used that name and (b) I didn’t want to suggest an Irish theme. I liked the way “Godwin” hints at a relationship with God (= “God-friend” in Old English).

Mirabile Dictu: What are you reading now and who are your favorite authors?

Robert HellengaConfessions was one of two novels assigned for a religious-studies course at Beloit College. The other was Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. I read a library copy and liked it so much I bought my own copy. Right now I’m rereading Kent Haruf’s Benediction and Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land.

I’ll probably reread Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteredge and Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven, while I’m working on a new novel, and Anna Karenina too, though I’ve read it so often that I tend just to dip into in when I need a shot of writing adrenaline.

Mirabile Dictu:  Thank you very much for this fascinasting interview, Bob.

You can read more about Robert Hellenga at his website,

Are Social Media Book Sites Replacing Blogs?

Once a week I make the rounds of blogs, and am always happy to find new blogs.  New bloggers are fresh, while those of us who have been around for several years have our tired days.

My sense is that many people are switching to social media sites like Goodreads, Shelfari, and LibraryThing.

I recently joined Goodreads, which claims to be “the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations.”  You can keep a book journal, review books,  join book groups,  or participate in the 2014 Reading Challenge, where 657,404 members challenge themselves to read a certain numger of books: the average is 52.  There are also 90 pages of giveaways.

Sometimes Goodreads recommends books I am dying to read, like Louisa Treger’s The Lodger, a historical novel about the modernist writer Dorothy Richardson, sometimes said to have invented stream of consciousness.

Goodreads gets a lot of attention from the press. On Feb. 12, 2013 The New York Times published an article about social media groups, highlighting the popular Goodreads book group founded by Lori Hettler, The Next Best Book Club.  The group is currently reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Line and Giano Cromley’s The Last Good Halloween.  Occasionally it reads small press books.

In this same New York Times article, Amanda Close, who runs digital marketplace development for Random House, said:

“Because Goodreads is not a publisher or retailer, people feel that the information is not getting manipulated.  People trust them because they are so crowd-sourced and their members are fanatics. You can’t buy a five-star review there.”

I have joined more Goodreads groups than is wise, since I have a poor record of participating. I enjoy “Victorians!,” which is currently discussing Agnes Grey.

I also joined Retro Chapter Chicks, because I love the name.  They’re reading Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, and how can you go wrong with that?

I have looked at Shelfari, but find it hard to navigate.  It’s got what I call a “moving text” column  of  recent reader updates, always in motion,and I find it distracting.

Amazon now owns Goodreads and Shelfari.  To give it its due, Goodreads doesn’t push Amazon:  if you want to buy a book you can also click on the tab “online bookstores,” which lists Barnes and Noble, Better World Books, and many other choices.

Am I becoming a Goodreads person?  Well, nothing will replace blogs.

Giveaway of Colette’s The Vagabond, Margaret Kennedy’s Lucy Carmichael, Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey, & Georgette Heyer’s The Black Sheep

The Vagabond Colette dover 51N3M9YULxL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I am weeding again and giving away books.  I am happy to give multiple books to the same readers, so comment if you would like one or more.  We’re neatening up the bookshelves.

1.  Colette’s The Vagabond.  This is one of Colette’s best books, in a very nice Dover edition, with a  new translation by Stanley Applebaum (2010).  I do, however, have another copy of the book.  I loved Applebaum’s translation, though

2.  Margaret Kennedy’s Lucy Carmichael.  There has been a craze for Margaret Kennedy recently (and no wonder with those beautiful new Vintage editions).  Some years ago after reading the Viragos,  I tracked down this at Amazon.  It is not her best, but I hope someone will enjoy it. Its is a 1951 hardcover book club edition, in good condition.

3.  Has everyone read Charlotte Bronte’s Agnes Grey?  I have two copies (or course).  This is a Wordsworth paperback.  It’s all yours!

4.  Georgette Heyer’s Black Sheep.  This is one of my favorite Georgette Heyers, in an attractive Sourcebooks edition (2008).  I have some other Heyers to read, so you can have this if you want it.

Lucy Carmichael Kennedy 14419

How to Stop Cyberobsession

The best thing about getting older is that you accept yourself.

You don’t have to be fashionable.

You don’t have to dye your hair.

You don’t have to wear makeup, though you need it more than you ever have.

You will never again attempt to squeeze yourself into a sparkly mermaid gown for a wedding.

You are settled in a relationship, or revel in your solitude.

So all is well until…

Your obsessive ex starts cyberharrassing you.

Perhaps I should use the word “cyberobsession.”

He tracked me down on the internet, as will sometimes happen.

My husband didn’t understand why he had surfaced after 30 years.  I thought he was harmless and pitied him for being alone.

it soon became apparent that I shouldn’t have mentioned my blog.  I love to have readers, but his attention was excessive.

His long, personal emails made me uncomfortable.  Sometimes I detected veiled hostility.  I thought he was drinking and emailing.  When I learned he had lied about his relationship status, I thought, Oh, thank God!  I don’t have to worry about him.  But in his increasingly incoherent emails, I wasn’t quite sure what was true and what was false.  Oh, no, I thought.  He’s having a breakdown.  After he sent me a long “snail”  letter ranting about a counselor who did not know his situation from the news (!) or anything about his former workplace,  I urged him to see a psychiatrist.  When he replied he didn’t need one, I ended the correspondence.

My husband helped me block him from my email and blog comments. Being obsessed, my ex then tracked  me down at my Mirabile Dictu email address to say he knew I had blocked him and would unsubscribe from my blog.

A completely unneccessary communication, but thank God.

And now he has resubscribed.

“Why?”  I asked my husband.

“To upset you.”

Apparently such behavior is common among exes on the internet.

Dear Reader, is there any way I can block him from subscribing to the blog?  Any suggestions?

How I Got my Nook & The End of Summer Reading: Sally Beauman’s The Visitors & Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens

A nice picture of someone reading on an  Original Nook

A woman reading on an Original Nook

The TV was on all day in my mother’s hospital room.  I was horrified to find myself parked in front of The View, The Young and the Restless, General Hospital, The Talk, Rachel Ray, and Dr. Phil. (“His guests must be actors,” my savvy mother insisted.)

Sometimes I would take a break and sit in a chair by the elevator and read Pride and Prejudice.  Ding!  Ding! the elevator insisted.  The hospital cafeteria was the quietest place, so I fetched a lot of snacks and coffee.

Then one night I  got hypnotized by pro-Kindle posts by Dovegreyreader and Random Jottings, who, by the way, could have had careers in advertising.  I decided an e-reader would be a practical device for reading in the hospital, so I bought a sleek, beautifully-designed Nook.

Well, the TV was still on, so…

I have, well, too many e-books, but I certainly have gotten a lot of use out of my Nook. This year I chose a couple of “summer  e-books” to read outdoors,  but there were so many mosquitos that I didn’t  finish them.

Here are a few notes on two of the books still in progress, Sally Beauman’s The Visitors and Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens.

Sally Beauman's The Visitors 511BTvQFE0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_1. Sally Beauman’s The Visitors. (I’m on p. 371 of 572 pages). Egyptology aficionados will enjoy Beauman’s elegant, diverting, well-plotted  novel.  The acerbic narrator, Miss Lucy Payne, now in her 90s, traveled in her 1920s childhood to Egypt, and after befriending an archaeologist’s daughter, became acquainted with the famous archaeologists who excavated Tutankhamun’s tomb.  In the present, Lucy feels irritated and even hounded by Dr. Fong, an archaeologist who is doing research for a TV show.

Here is one of her amusing reactions to Dr. Fong.

We fenced around for forty-five minutes. I may have divorced two husbands, buried a third, and generally led what has been desired as a rackety life, but for the past two decades I’ve lived alone.  I’ve reverted to the solitude of my childhood, and reacquired old habits, one of which is caution.  I’m nervous with strangers and suspicious of them.  I dislike taking others into my confidence and avoid doing so.  As I’ve outlived most of the friends who had gained my trust, there are precious few confidants the days.  Dr. Fong did not fail to point this out:  he ran through a roll-call of eminent men, including all those involved in the astonishing discovery and excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, all those that I first met in Cairo, as a child; those I knew at Luxor and the VAlley of the kings.  Evey last one of them was dead as a dodo.

Although the novel goes back and forth in time, most of it is told from the point of view of Lucy as a girl. One of the perks of the book:  there are lists of historical characters and notes on their accomplishments in the back of the book.

dissident-gardens2.  Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens. (I’ve read 178 pages of 381).  I often say that Jonathan Lethem is my favorite American author, because I am fascinated by his distinctive, quirky novels, marked by flights of dazzling language and fantasy bordering on magic realism.  In Chronic City, a masterpiece, where it has been winter in New York for years, an aging pop cultural critic, Perkus Tooth, and ex-child star, Chase Insteadman, bid obsessively and unsuccessfully on e-bay for beautiful vases that are actually holograms.  Lethem includes many comic details:   Perkus has dial-up, so it takes forever to get to e-bay.

In Lethem’s latest realistic novel, Dissident Gardens, which is devoid of fantasy, he tells the story of Rose Zimmer, a Jewish Communist who lives at Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, and her brilliant daughter, Miriam, who is more interested in the counterculture of Greenwich Village.  Somehow the characterization of  the two heroines is less compelling than Lethem’s portraits of the heroes of his recent novels.  At times they border on caricature.

I am, however, inclined to think that I picked it up at the wrong time. I simply wasn’t in the mood.  Perhaps if I read this later this fall or  next winter, I will enjoy it more.

As always, his use of language is bold and breathtaking.