Calumny in Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Redux & Ford Madox Ford’s Some Do Not…

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Lovely editions: I do not, of course, have these!

If ever a young woman read too many English novels, I was that young woman. I  read so many Victorian and modernist classics that I believed the English must behave like characters in English novels. (Americans do not behave like characters in English novels.)  I spent many happy hours with Emma Woodhouse, Jane Eyre, Esther Summerson,  Christopher Tietjens, and Mrs. Dalloway, who inhabited a glimmering fantastic England unimaginably far, far away from the Midwest.

You only read like that when you are young:  perhaps no one ever really behaves like a character in a novel.

Nonetheless, these books are far from cozy.

When I recently reread Trollope’s Phineas Redux and Ford Madox Ford’s Some Do Not…, I was astounded by their dark contemporary relevance.  In these two novels, the heroes must confront the savagery of defamation of character.  Slander, gossip, and libel threaten the reputations of Trollope’s Phineas Finn and Ford’s Christopher Tietjens.

Calumny is the stuff of daily newspapers and gossip, right?

Libel, slander, rumor, gossip…

Parade's End ford madox ford 51TxQjZ6-TL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In Some Do Not..., the first novel in Ford Madox Ford’s modernist tetralogy, Parade’s End, Chritsopher Tietjens, an Edwardian gentleman and a brilliant statistician with a complicated code of ethics, must deal with calumny.  His cruel wife, Sylvia, has left him with her lover, but people say she left Christopher because he was promiscuous.  They think Valentine, a suffragette, the daughter of an old friend of his father’s, is his lover..  They are in love, but they are not lovers.   Christopher cannot divorce Sylvia, who is a Catholic.  He does not think it is right to involve the much younger Valentine.

Some do not…

This is just the first book, set on the eve of World War I. .

But Sylvia returns and continues to spread scandal about Christopher  She spreads the rumor that Christopher’s lover is Ethel Edith, his friend MacMaster’s wife.  One of Sylvia’s banker boyfriends manages to queer Christopher’s account and credit rating by some clever fakery that make it seem he is irresponsible and overdrawn.

Ford describes Chris’s feelings so well.

He considered that he was dull-minded, heavy, ruined, and so calumniated that at times he believed in his own infamy, for it is impossible to stand up forever against the obloquy of your kind and remain unhurt in your mind.”

Phineas redux trollope 41gfICLC-IL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_That feeling of helplessness:  how can Christopher stop the talk? Occasionally he finds a way to disprove some of the lies, but people are altogether too eager to believe calumny.

Trollope is a far from cozy writer, though that is his reputation (perhaps people have seen too many costume dramas?).  In Phineas Redux, the fourth in his political Palliser novels, Phineas Finn, an Irishman, returns to politics.  Chosen and backed by English friends to stand for a liberal seat in Parliament, he wins a tough, corrupt election.

There is prejudice against the Irish.  In addition, Phineas has two powerful enemies hindering his political success: Mr. Bonteen, another liberal, baits Phineas publicly and influences the Minister against him, and Quintus Slide, the editor of a tabloid, the “People’s Banner,” opposes Phineas politically and is determined to bring him down.

One of the strongest weapons used against Phineas is his attractiveness to women.  A scandal is made of his loyalty to Lady Laura Standish Kennedy, an intelligent woman who has left her mad husband, Robert Kennedy, a wealthy landowner who will not divorce her.  Lady Laura is living with her father in Dresden, partly to evade the scandal, partly so Kennedy cannot force her to return by law.  (The marriage laws are cruel.)  When Laura invites Phineas to visit them in Dresden, he feels he must, because he is obligated to them for helping him financially and politically.  He has a complicated relationship with Laura:  she turned down his proposal of marriage a few years ago, but is actually in love with him. He is not in love with her.

This visit inspires  Kennedy to send  a truly mad letter to Quintus Slides’ newspaper, vilifying both Lady Laura and Phineas.  And though Phineas’s lawyer manages to slap a cease-and-desist order on the publication of the letter,  Slide viciously prints so much other scandal about Phineas that even some of his fellow politicians believe it.  And when Phineas is accused of murder, many believe he is guilty.  It is his women friends who keep him from hanging.

The power of Quintus Slide helps us that the power of the press can be for good or ill.

Reading these two novels reminds us that gossip can be a bitch.

Both these novels are remarkably well-written, and not only good stories but  curiously contemporary in their treatment of age-old problems.

Lord a Mercy! It’s a Big Responsibility to Be a New York Editor

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Editors and publishers can’t quite get their minds around the concept that Amazon serves customers, not publishing houses.  Publishers prefer dealing with rich Independent bookstore slavies, who truckle under to their ridiculous prices.

In a Jan. 8 article at Slate, Daniel Menaker, an author of very good fiction and memoirs and the former Editor-in-Chief at Random House, explains why he is not keen on Amazon. It is mostly about prices.  Naturally he was annoyed by Amazon’s feud with Hachette over e-book pricing.  (It was resolved in November.)

Menaker says publishers and editors have the education and experience to balance art and commerce.  He writes that “between 20 and 30 New York publishers and editors…are in fact the main curators of letters.”

And he thinks Jeff Bezos and some other entrepreneurs envy publishers and want a piece of that action.

 Well, they can’t have it. Like patrons of old and some of new, they can stand back and support it, sponsor it, admire it. They can give it parties at retreats in New Mexico. They can even sort of own it. But they can’t have it. Because they need to make a lot of money. And because they don’t have the background, wide experience, native zeal, eye for talent, editorial skill, intuition, and intermittent disregard for probable profit necessary to perform the role of literary concierge.

Lord a mercy!  It’s a Big Responsibility to be a New York Editor!  If the top 20 or 30 are part of the Ivy League cocktail crowd, aren’t they milling and  thronging with Bezos anyway, who graduated from Princeton?

Where do the writers come in?

Perhaps publishing was in better shape when Menaker was at Random House. There are some very bad books being published:  I can’t be bothered to finish, say, Michael Faber’s  mediocre novel, The Book of Strange New Things (whether the writer or editor botched it, I don’t know.). And, by the way, I keep finding Latin errors, even in A.S. Byatt’s masterpiece, The Children’s Book.

I do respect many modern writers: Jonathan Lethem, D. J. Taylor, Karen Joy Fowler, Jane Gardam, Tim Winton, Richard Flanagan, and Michelle Huneven, to name a few. But I have read brilliant writers who have published a few stories in literary magazines and then disappeared.  What happened?

Amazon sells new and used books to readers like me who do not have access to great bookstores or libraries.  I can obtain titles published  by Dalkey Archive, NYRB, Europa, and many of the less popular Penguin classics.  If you think I can get these at my local Barnes and  Noble, you are crazy.

The service at Amazon is superb.

Meanwhile, publishers have tantrums about Amazon.  They don’t like the selling of used “new” books, and they don’t like the low prices on e-books.    My personal opinion is:  why publish e-books at all? Why not throw out the e-readers and go back to the book?

Yes, that’s very prim of me, but that’s how I feel.

We used to hear that Borders and Barnes and Noble were about to seize control of the book industry:  everything from book covers to content.   Now it’s Amazon.

Please.  The end of civilization is more likely to be caused by climate change and fracking.

In Which I Receive a Book in Deplorable Condition

Being a fan of English women’s novels, I was agog when I learned that several of Stella Gibbons’s books have been reissued as Vintage Classics editions in the UK.

And so I ordered an inexpensive copy of Stella Gibbons’ Westwood from a UK bookseller via Abebooks.

The bookseller’s description said it was in “good or better” condition.

It has no tears to the pages and no pages will be missing from the book. The spine of the book is still in great condition and the front cover is generally unmarked. It has signs of previous use but overall is in really nice, tight condition. Shipping is normally same day from our UK warehouse. We offer a money back guarantee if you are not satisfied.

Finally the book arrived. Oh, joy!  I couldn’t wait to curl up on this snowy, freezing cold winter day with Westwood.

I hoped my book in "good" condition would resemble this.

I hoped my book in “good” condition would resemble this.

It is in deplorable condition.  In fact, I’ve never seen a book in worse condition.

There are tracks and blobs of something jammy mixed with glitter on the cover.

My cousin has this suggestion:  “Perhaps it’s jism with glitter thrown on.”

Yes, it is really that gross.  Not only is the glitter disgusting, but the spine is cocked (the book is practically bent in half) and the cover is very creased.

And so I went to the bookseller’s website to figure out where this  book has been.

In 2004, ____ was founded by a group of people who loved reading and wanted to spread the love with like minded bookworms. They found that despite the sometimes pricey nature of tomes on highstreet, there were many other cheaper sources of books which were either being thrown away, were sitting around idle on dusty bookshelves or being sent directly to paper recyclers for pulping. Having experimented in one unfortunate mother’s basement (sorry Mum!) to see if these could be sold online, they found there was great demand for used books and that customers always knew a good bargain when they saw one.

I can tell you why they’re not selling on “highstreet.”

It’s very much a “Caveat Emptor” situation when you order used books online. I have had good luck with ordering books in “very good”condition, but this “good” book was a disgrace to booksellers everywhere.

P.S.  The copy of Westwood went into the trash.  And I have written demanding a refund.

I’ll let you know what happens.

Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza

Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley 51zTlNl-wJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Aldous Huxley’s best-known book is the dystopian classic, Brave New World, but some of us are aficionados of his early comic novels, such as Point Counter Point, a satire of 1920s intellectual life, and Crome Yellow, a charming frothy house-party novel in which eccentric characters exchange outlandish ideas.

In his introduction to Crome Yellow (Dalkey Archive Press), the critic Michael Dirda writes that he prefers the early novels of the 1920s.  He says, “…as the 1920s advance Huxley grew more earnest as a writer and lost his youthful pizazz.”

I am a Huxley groupie–I even read Sybille Bedford’s biography–but I know what Dirda means.   By the 1930s, Huxley was experimenting in his novels with long philosophical musings and tirades on modern life.

I recently discovered Huxley’s witty modernist masterpiece, Eyeless in Gaza, which was published in 1936.  Once I realized it was a serious novel–Huxley is so witty that at first I thought it was a comedy–I became completely absorbed and added this to my list of Huxley favorites.

In this compelling  novel, Huxley explores the vicissitudes of the life of Anthony Beavis, a sociologist who was educated at Oxford.  His emotional detachment began in childhood after his mother’s death.   Eventually, in middle age, he tries to break free of the past that has created his cynicism and dispassion..

Eyeless in Gaza Penguin e1839983d310fac16b800bc80e779fbfWe first meet Anthony as a middle-aged man in 1933, looking at snapshots of his beautiful mother at the turn of the century and of Mary Amberley, the gorgeous, malicious older woman who was his first lover. The trope of the snapshots perfectly introduces Huxley’s experiment with time in narrative.  While looking at the photographs Anthony inhabits several time periods at once.

David King Dunaway’s writes in his introduction to the Harper Perennial edition of Eyeless in Gaza:

The work’s structure was controversial in its time, for this is no ordinary, begin-at-the-beginning narrative.  Broken into six time periods, the narrative cuts across time as though sawed into pieces.  Each time signature is distinct, yet based on what precedes it….  the effect of the time-shifting is fatalistic and oddly moving.

Huxley jumps back and forth between six time periods:  1933, 1934, 1902-4, 1926, 1912, and 1931.

Huxley reveals Anthony’s character through journal entries, traditional narrative, musings, sharp, witty dialogue, and chapters from Anthony’s book. We learn of the usual trials at public school, the joy of life at Oxford, the affair with Mary that ends in the death of a friend, his pacifism, and his relationship with Helen, Mary’s impulsive, socialist daughter.

The same characters crop up again and again.  Anthony’s school friends turn up at parties, sometimes much changed.  Some are heteroexual, others homosexual, and still others asexuall.  In a way, Eyeless in Gaza is a predecessor of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, in which the same few characters are connected over time to the narrator.

Huxley has the gift of creating a character in a few sharp lines.  In the opening chapter, when Anthony’s lover, Helen, walks into the room, he ignores her and continues to study his snapshots.

Well, here I am, ” she said without smiling.  She pulled off her hat and with a beautiful impatient movement of the head shook back the ruddy-brown curls of her hair.  “Hideously hot!”  She threw the hat on to the sofa and crossed the room to where Anthony was sitting at his writing-table.  “Not working?”  she asked in surprise.  It was so rare to find him otherwise than immersed in books and papers.

In another scene, we see Helen as a young socialist, determined to steal something from every shop she visits with her stuffy sister.  By the end of the novel, she is passionately communist.

Huxley also fills chapters with Anthony’s writings.  In Chapter XI of his Element so Sociology, he analyzes personality and psychology.

Psychologists have no new instruments, only new techniques of thought….To be a tolerably good psychologist was possible, in the past, only for men of genius.  Compare Chaucer’s psychology with Gower’s, even Boccaccio’s.  Compare Shakespeare’s with Ben Jonson’s.  The difference was not only of quality, but of quantity.  The men of genius knew more than their merely intelligent counterparts.

Isn’t that the truth?

If you don’t have patience to read about Huxley/Anthony’s analysis of modern life, this novel is not for you, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Notes for the Common Reader on Eugene Onegin

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Judy Holliday and William Holden in “Born Yesterday.”

At my Big 10 university, we amused each other with what I call “smart-dumb”  chat.  Feminism was in, but bubbly blondism and dangly earrings were not out.  We Midwestern women had not gone to prep schools, we were studying hard for the first time, and we were neither pompous nor very competitive. When I went out for coffee at Things & Things & Things with a friend from Russian Literature in Translation, we chatted about Russian names.  (We were not Russian students.)

“How does one pronounce Knyazhnin?”


“I skip over the middle letters of the names and just see the K and N.”

I still don’t know how to pronounce Knyazhnin. He was a writer, an imitator of French tragedies and comedies, according to a note in the Penguin translation of Eugne Onegin.

Our effervescence over Russian literature came back to me  because I reread Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (pronounced Oh-nay-gin) in Stanley Mitchell’s 2008 translation (Penguin).

It is just as much fun as it was the first time, in whatever edition that was.

Eugene Onegin Pushkin 56077-largeIn this brilliant novel in verse, Pushkin tells the story of Eugene Onegin, a rakish Byronic hero who, bored by carousing, wine, women, song, writing, and even books, moves from St. Petersburg to the country after inheriting an estate.  He befriends a young poet, Lensky, to whom he is very devoted, but thoughtlessly wrecks their friendship by flirting  at a dance with Olga, Lensky’s fiancée.  The fiasco results in a duel with Lensky.  (Eugene doesn’t want it, and yet somehow he doesn’t say no.)  And the whole thing is complicated by Eugene”s rejection of Olga’s sister, Tataina, who writes a love letter to him.

The narrator’s voice is almost always ironic, and the poem is a mix of irony with realism.  Olga soon forgets Lensky and marries someone else. Tatiana visits Euegene’s deserted house and falls in love with his library.  .Eugene only falls in love with Tatiana years later, after it is too late.

So what is love anyway?

I very much appreciate the introduction and notes when I read books in translation.  And yet there weren’t always notes in paperbacks then.  I’m sure I depended mainly on class notes.

In the Penguin edition, Mitchell has written an exceptionally good introduction.  He quotes a letter by Pushkin:

I am writing now not a novel, but a “novel in verse”–the devil of a difference.  Something like Don Juan–there’s no point in thinking about publication; I’m writing whatever comes into my head.

Pushkin, one of Russia’s most beloved poets, was of the second generation to write literature in Russian.  He took European themes and made them Russian.  Aristocrats spoke French before Russian, and literary Russian was “new” in the late 18th and 19th century.

But what I want to do is share my love of Eugene Onegin. (You can read the introduction and notes on your own.)   Whether you like reading about  bookishness, boredom, poetry, intensity, love, partying, rejection of all of the aforementioned, or strong women, it’s all here.

It is winter here on the prairie.  What better description can I find than in Eugene Onegin?

What pastime can you find that’s pleasing?
Out in the backwoods? Walking? Try.
For all the countryside is freezing.
The naked flatness tires the eye.
A gallop in the bitter prairie?
The very mount you ride is wary
In case its blunted shoe should catch
Against an icy patch.
Under your lonely roof take cover,
Let Pradt and Scott divert your mind
Or check expenses, if inclined,
Grumble or drink, somehow or other
Evening will pass, the morrow too:
With ease you’ll see the winter through.

I very much enjoyed it.  So entertaining!

But I can’t stress how important it is to have notes.  How did we survive in the old days when even Penguins seldom had notes?

Why Do Reviewers Lie About Books?


This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.
–Dorothy Parker

The Book of Strange Things Michael Faber 20697435For Christmas I requested Michael Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, a literary science fiction novel praised by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian.

Typical of me, right? I am  a fan of literary science fiction.   Many  SF books are “mainstream” classics, not to be confused with stereotypical novels about interplanetary or time travel.    Among my favorites are Jonathan Lethem’s Amnesia Moon, Karen Walker Thompson’s The Age of Miracles, Nicola Griffith’s Slow River, John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar,   Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, and Clifton D. Simak’s They Walked Like Men.

The Book of Strange New Things was supposed to be a masterpiece.   How could one go wrong?

I opened my present happily.

Book Woman gets tough.

Book Woman gets tough.

And so I read 117 pages on Christmas day, becoming increasingly dismayed by the colorless prose and pedestrian plot.  A “man of faith” goes on a mission to another planet.  At home his wife sees Earth deteriorating as  a result of climate change, and reports changes via “the Shoot.”  (Just email, I think.)   In the hands of Jonathan Lethem, this would have been poetic, psychedelic, and genre-bending. In the hands of Faber, it is an anonymous best-seller.

Here is a paragraph about how much Peter misses his cat.

He missed Joshua already.  Beatrice often left for work at dawn, when Joshua was still fast asleep on the bed. Even if he stirred and meowed, she would hurry off and say, “Daddy will feed you.”  And sure enough, an hour or two later, Peter would be sitting in the kitchen, munching sweet cereal, while Joshua munched savory cereal on the floor nearby.

Very dull, isn’t it?

I hunted on the internet to see if any reviewers panned it. The Boston Globe disliked it.  And though Niall Alexander at (a science fiction website) said it was a “masterpiece,” he added a guilty caveat:

…but I was, if I’m honest, disappointed by bits of it. First and foremost, it’s slow, if not excruciatingly so; a little action in advance of the packed last act would have livened it up a lot. It’s also overlong—and I can’t help but think the book would have been better served if Faber had engaged in some way with the speculative elements of its premise rather than rinsing and repeating certain sequences. Relatedly, there are a load of loose ends, and plot holes aplenty that the science fiction faithful are sure to struggle with.

Does that sound like a masterpiece to you? Why do reviewers so often dither about books?  Are they afraid to be too hard on Michael Faber lest they lose work and friends?   Can they only criticize him a little if they first say it is a “masterpiece”?  Although reviewers in the UK are usually tougher than American reviewers, they are on the same page about The Book of Strange New Things.

From a readers’ perspective, it finally comes down to this:  the literature of the 21st century is in trouble.   Writers simply are less well-educated, and writing less well.

Some years ago, a famous writer said that he could always tell when a book was written on a computer. He himself wrote on a manual typewriter.

I miss my typewriter.   The whole process was messier but easier.  On a computer, you’re looking at a screen,.  You may have trouble controlling the drafts. It was much easier to  arrange the typewritten pages side by side or end to end and combine and compare. Sometimes we  literally cut and pasted paragraphs together.  And then we rewrote them again.  You assume your editing will improve your work but sometimes it goes to hell and you have to start over.

Well, perhaps I’ll finish The Book of Strange New Things, just because it IS well-reviewed.  Perhaps it gets better.  I don’t see it turning up as a Man Booker Prize nominee, do you?  But you never know.

Any reviewers reading this:  I do respect your work, but sometimes it goes astray.  Work harder!