Richmal Crompton’s Merlin Bay

richmal crompton merlin bay 9781509810192Virago, Persephone, Bloomsbury Reader, the Feminist Press, and now Bello have reissued many great women’s novels.

In 2008 at The Guardian, Rachel Cooke wrote a lovely essay about the 30th anniversary of Virago.  She became a fan of the trademark green books when at 17  she discovered Stevie Smith’s novels.  She went on to read other neglected Virago writers,  including Miles Franklin, Sylvia Ashton Warner, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rosamund Lehmann.

The founder Carmen Calil had high standards in choosing books for Virago, Cooke writes.

But there was a point below which Carmen and her colleagues would not go: they referred to this as ‘the Whipple line’, after Dorothy Whipple, a writer of popular fiction in the Thirties and Forties. (Whipple does, however, have her fans; she is now published by Persephone, which also revives out-of-print work by women.)

I wonder if Persephone fans were upset by the Whipple line.  I  have very much enjoyed Whipple’s novels, though they are what I call middlebrow.  And so  I would draw a different line: the Richmal Crompton line!

Bello has recently reissued Richmal Crompton’s books, which I discovered  when I looked up Pamela Hansford Johnson (not available in the U.S. from Bello, for some reason).  Crompton wrote 38 books for adults.  Maybe I’ll get hooked, I thought.

Richmal_Crompton

  Richmal Crompton

And I am hooked!  I very much enjoyed Merlin Bay (1939), a novel about an ordinary family who spend their vacation together in Merlin Bay in Cornwall.  Crompton grapples with the limited affections and understanding of a group of far-flung relatives.  During the trip, they forge or renew difficult relationships.

It opens with the musings of Mrs. Paget, who  spent her honeymoon years ago in Merlin Bay.  She regrets having silenced her late husband when he tried to confide bout his past in Merlin Bay:  she could not bear to know too much.  Now she hopes to learn his secrets.  She travels with her daughter, Florence,  a nervous spinster who believes her purpose in life is to take care of her mother.   (Mrs. Paget finds her wearisome).  They will stay at a hotel near the overcrowded house of Pen, once Mrs. Paget’s most promising child, now a housewife who lives at Merlin Bay year-round and is unhealthily  absorbed in her six children:  she left her husband in London on the pretext of their daughter Rosemary’s health. Last but not least is Mrs. Paget’s son, Martin, who has lived in Malay for years and  hopes to find a wife in England.

I am delighted by Crompton’s portrayal of the honesty of old age.  Mrs. Paget is not looking forward to spending time with her children.

Her own three–Florence, Martin, Pen–had been delightful as babies, but she had to admit that they meant very little to her now.  It isn’t that I’m not fond of them, she assured herself hastily.  I’d do anything in the world for them (at least I think I would), but I don’t really love them.  They’ve grown up so dull….

We do not spend much time with Mrs. Paget, though.  Crompton  frequently changes point of view so that we get to know all the family members, including the grandchildren.  Her daughters Florence and Pen, who seem as different as night and day, somehow cannot bear to look reality in the face.  Florence feels inferior to everyone.  She especially looks up to her friend Violet, an arrogant middle-aged teacher who hopes to entice Martin into marriage and who is staying with them at the hotel. When they look at a view,

Florence preserved a respectful silence.  She liked a nice view herself, but she knew that her feeling was not to be compared with Violet’s.  Violet was quoting poetry now in a deep tremulous voice….

Pen is angry about the intrusion of family in her perfect life. She even hates it that her husband is on the way from London.  She is especially annoyed by Violet.

What was the name of that friend of Florence’s?  Violet Something-or-other.  She remembered that she’d disliked her intensely the only time she’d met her.  She always disliked those charming middle-aged unmarried Women…Pen knew all about schoolmistresses.  Just sitting at a desk for a few hours in the morning and looking on at games in the afternoon….  She’d like them to try her job for a day or two–on her feet and hard at it from first thing in the morning to last thing at night.

We get the feeling that Pen resents Violet because she could have been Violet.  Instead, she’s a wife and mother.

I so much enjoyed this fast-paced, engrossing novel.  Mind you, it is not a great novel, but it is entertaining and fairly well-written.   Crompton writes simply, focusing on plot  and characterization.  Story trumps style.  It is dramatic and a bit soapy.  But it is more than a domestic novel.  She understands the gamut of human emotions, from kindness to compassion,  malice to rage.

I look forward to reading more Crompton, though I haven’t the faintest idea where to begin.

The Gloomy Season: Cheer Up!

The ice palace in Dr. Zhivago

  At least we don’t live in the ice palace in Dr. Zhivago! 

It is the gloomy season.

Sunset:  4:56 p.m.

Full-spectrum lamp:  bring it up from the basement.

Turkey (for high tryptophan content):  Thanksgiving

Dark chocolate (releases serotonin):  please.

Yogurt (another antidepressant):  we’ve got it.

Green tea (for theanine):  yes.

Some people revel in the dark.  They believe in Standard Time. My body needs Daylight Savings Time. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the Seasonal Affective Disorder syndrome (a winter depression) is triggered by the lessening light and lasts four or five months until the days become longer.

As soon as we set the clock back, I am blue.  It’s as if I am a vampire in reverse. Every day at 5 p.m., I am dispirited.

AND SO HERE ARE FIVE WAYS TO CHEER UP!  GO, GO, GO!

1.Watch Doctor  Zhivago.  David Lean’s dazzling film, starring Julie Christie and Omar Sharif, is set in a dark frozen Russian winter.  There’s balance in realizing winter can be so hard. It’s just not that bad here! And the acting is magnificent.  I defy you to take your eyes off beautiful Lara (Christie) and handsome Yuri Zhivago ( Sharif).  The ice palace scenes are breathtaking (Lara and Yury move into a deserted frozen country house in Varykino when they have no place to go and are on the run).  Filmed in Spain, the ice palace was actually a house filled with frozen beeswax.

Julie Christie and Omar Sharif in

Julie Christie and Omar Sharif in “Doctor Zhivago”

2. Play board games.  If you memorize the dictionary, you’ll win at Scrabble, and what’s not to like about building words on a board out of wooden letters ?   Oxford Dilemma, a trivia and spelling board game, is also entertaining.  Roll the dice, move around the Monopoly-style board, and earn money for answering trivia questions in four categories (Science, Famous, General, and Geography) and then spelling the answer. Despite our literary leanings, we had some glitches:  my husband misspelled “maneuver” as  “manoeuvre”  (later we found out  it is the French spelling!) and I wondered if an Inca city I’d never heard of might be spelled Mazo Pekzu!  Nope, not even close.  It’s Machu Picchu.  (And yet I won.)

Oxford Dilemma pic76303_md3. Read Aristophanes.  He is racy, satiric, poetic, and the best Greek comic dramatist. Laughter is a natural antidepressant.  He is hilarious, but also serious : Athens was at war with Sparta for 27 years of his career, and many of his plays are anti-war. My favorite is Lysistrata :  the heroine, Lysistrata, plots to stop the war:  the women must withhold sex until the men stop fighting.

Lysistrata 51xaUPzM9vLHere is an excerpt from the Paul Roche translation when she first tells a friend women can stop the war:

CALONICE: We’re just household ornaments in flaxen
dresses
and negligees you see through,
all nicely made up in pretty come-hither flats.

LYSISTRATA: Precisely, that’s
exactly what we’re going to need to save Greece:
a seductive wardrobe, our rouge, our negligees and our
pretty flats.

4. Listen to old albums:  Cream, Blind Faith, Jefferson Airplane, the Beatles, Lou Reed, the Mamas and the Papas.  You’ll be surprised how cheering you’ll find it, even when the songs are gloomy.

Cream

               Cream

Here’s a stanza from Cream’s “White Room”:

In the white room with black curtains near the station
Blackroof country, no gold pavements, tired starlings
Silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes
Dawnlight smiles on you leaving, my contentment
I’ll wait in this place where the sun never shines

Good writing, huh?

5.  Walk,  run, bike, or rake.  Get out!   It’s important to  get that Vitamin D from light, even if it’s not sunlight.  You’ll feel better if you move around,.

A Schoolmarm Ponders Star Ratings & Grades

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Call me “Schoolmarm,” but I deplore star ratings at customer reviews.

According to NPR, The Guardian, and Forbes, the new physical Amazon bookstore in Seattle carries mostly books with at least four-star ratings from customer reviews at Amazon and Goodreads (which Amazon owns).

I am not one of Amazon’s critics.  It is my favorite bookstore.  It has everything: reference books, small-press books, out-of-print books, classics, mysteries, poetry.  I cannot be forever flying off to New York or London to buy books.  I wish we had an Amazon bookstore here.

But many of my favorite books get less than four stars.

At Goodreads, Erica Jong’s new feminist novel, Fear of Dying, gets an average of 3.10 stars.

Oh, come on!  It should be at least a four!

One Goodreads consumer who gave it three stars writes,

I haven’t read Fear of Flying or anything else by Erica Jong to compare it with, but I’m not sure what I just read. I feel like I read a long meditation – perhaps a thinly veiled autobiographical one – about aging and death.

Yup, I’m going to read this reviewer regularly because she’s so brilliant.

Holly LeCraw’s stunning novel,The Half-Brother, recommended as an under-the-radar read by the librarian Nancy Pearl, receives a 3.32 average rating at Goodreads.  Amazon reviewers give it a 3.6 star rating.  Pretty good, right?  But not a four.

Great Expectations gets a 3.72 at Goodreads but the Amazon reviewers know their stuff:  four!

Lawrence Durrell gets high ratings at Goodreads because only extraordinary people read him.

But how did:

L. P. Hartley end up with 2.86 stars for My Fellow Devils?

Anne Beattie with 3.10 stars for The State of Things: Maine Stories?

Edna O’Brien’s with 3.76 for The Love Object: Selected Stories?

I am also not keen on grades at reviews or blogs.

As a former schoolmarm, I know that “A” means “brilliant and worked hard,” “B” means “breezed in with fairly good work that didn’t take hard work,” and “C” means “barely acceptable.”  The true meanings of grades do not apply to book reviews.

At Entertainment Weekly, which features brilliant, lively, thoughtful, short book reviews, the grade is a gimmick.  Lucia Berlin’s brilliant posthumous collection of short stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women, gets an A, as it should, but Mary Gaitskill gets an A-  for The Mare and Isabel Allende a B- for  The Japanese Lover.  All three are “A” writers, so it’s absurd to grade them. Judge the book and  review it, but the grade undercuts the review.

And what if Virginia Woolf had given Persuasion four stars?

In her essay, “Jane Austen,” in The Common Reader, she wrote,

There is a peculiar dullness and a peculiar beauty in Persuasion. The dullness is that which so often marks the transition stage between two different periods. The writer is a little bored. She has grown too familiar with the ways of her world. There is an asperity in her comedy which suggests that she has almost ceased to be amused by the vanities of a Sir Walter or the snobbery of a Miss Elliott. The satire is harsh, and the comedy crude. She is no longer so freshly aware of the amusements of daily life. Her mind is not altogether on the subject. But, while we feel that Jane Austen has done this before, and done it better, we also feel that she is trying to do something which she has never yet attempted. There is a new element in Persuasion, a quality, perhaps, that made Dr. Whewell fire up and insist that it was “the most beautiful of her works.”

She did not mean Persuasion got a B!

Good Saturday Books: L. P. Hartley’s My Fellow Devils, Storm Jameson’s A Day Off, & David Mitchell’s Slade House

Hartley my fellow devils 512kugsKhlL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_We all love a really good read. Preferably with shoes off, a cup of tea on the table, and all electronic devices turned off.

Saturdays especially are great days for discovering really-good-bordering-on-great books.  Mind you, not every good Saturday book is a classic.  But I recently read three superb novels that are right on the edge.

L. P. Hartley‘s The Go-Between and the Eustace and Hilda trilogy are masterpieces. In recent years, John Murray has reissued some of Hartley’s less well-known books. In My Fellow Devils, Margaret Pennefeather, a prim upper-class spinster,  devotes herself to committee work and social work.

“But she was far from being discontented or shut up in herself.  She had a great deal to give; and in the small town where they lived, within easy reach of London yet surprisingly not a dormitory town, she found outlets for it.”

Friends think she is too cloistered. When they learn she has never even seen the actor Colum MacInnes, they insist on a night out at the movies.  It is a gangster film:  she doesn’t care for his acting.  But she becomes infatuated when she  sees him in a sentimental play in London.  She breaks off her engagement to a man who loves her and marries Colum.

Churches are important in their marriage from the beginning. Colum, who describes himself as a bad Catholic, is a charming deceiver.  Margaret, who is not religious, refuses to convert to Catholicism, but they get married in a beautiful Catholic church in Italy by some special dispensation.  And while they are in Italy, Margaret sightsees at all the famous cathedrals and churches.

The more she learns about Colum, the more comfort she takes in visiting churches.  The marriage is miserable.  He is barely on the right side of jail.   He robs their apartment for the insurance money:  it happens a few times before she figures it out.  After she learns of Colum’s crimes, she talks to a priest who adamantly warns her about Colum.   I am not a fan of Hollywoodish novels, whether they are set in Hollywood or London, but this one is unputdownable.  It is a great Catholic novel, and yet Hartley was not Catholic!

storm jameson a day off 415ytCIo5FL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_The underrated  writer Storm Jameson had brilliant ideas if a somewhat uneven style.  Her powerful novella A Day Off is  absolutely stunning.  It has recently been reissued by Bloomsbury Reader as an e-book.  It is also included in a Virago collection, Women Against Men.

The unnamed middle-aged heroine lives in a dingy room in London.  The weekend client who  has supported her financially for a few years has deserted her. She is almost penniless but decides to go out for a day on a spree:  she wonders who buys all the books on Charing Cross Road, fantasizes about meeting a man who will take care of her, goes out to tea, and steals a purse from an old woman.

Jameson’s heroine is desperate, dishonest, and determined to survive.  Here is her reaction to two women who stare at her.

Rude old ape.  Actually pointing.  She swung round to stare angrily after two elderly ladies.  What if I was singing.  There’s no law is there?  She wanted to shout a word or two after them. Give them a few they won’t have heard.  Tightening her lips, she stalked on, but now was all on edge and bothered.  The disagreeable impression faded slowly.

This is fascinating, convincing, and horrifying.  We can all imagine ourselves on the brink:  what if we lost everything?  Women’s lives are so often precarious.

David Mitchell slade_houseDavid  Mitchell, who has been shortlisted twice for the Man Booker Price and recently won the World Fantasy Award for The Bone Clocks, is always in the news.  He has written literary fiction and he has written science fiction. He has spoken up on behalf of genre fiction.   In his new literary horror novel, Slade House, he skillfully manipulates the tropes of horror and fantasy.  Imagine E. Nesbit’s children’s fantasy,  The Enchanted Castle, fused with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of  Hill House.  In Nesbitt’s classic, children find a magic ring in a seemingly enchanted garden, but the warped artefact twists all their wishes:  in one terrifying scene, it brings the Ugly Wuglys ( life-size dolls made by the children of broomsticks, old clothes, and masks) to life. Add Jackson’s eerie haunted house and you crank up the nightmare.

In this genre-busting page-turner, a supernatural brother and sister prey on the dearest fantasies of gifted human beings.  They lure them into Slade House.  In the opening chapter, the  narrator, Nathan, who is autistic with a touch of OCD,  and his musician mother have been invited to a concert at Slade House.  The problem is they cannot find the house on Slade Alley.  Finally, they discover  “a small black iron door, set into the brick wall.”  It is so small they have to stoop.  And then they are in a fantasy garden.

…and we’re looking into a garden; a buzzing, still summery garden.  The garden’s got roses, toothy sunflowers, spatters of poppies, clumps of foxgloves, and lots of flowers I can’t name.  There’s a rockery, a pond, bees grazing and butterflies.  It’s epic.  “Cop a load of that,” says Mum.  Slade House is up at the top, old, blocky, stern and gray and half smothered by fiery ivy, not at all like the houses on Westwood Road and Cranbury Avenue.

Gorgeous, lyrical writing, no?

Nathan plays a terrifying game with a strange boy who disappears, and then Lady Grayer summons him into the house.  Nathan  discovers paintings of  people with no eyes, and when he finds the painting of himself, we know he’s in a trap..

The novel consists of five linked stories between 1979 and 2015, each with a different narrator who is lured into Slade House.  The ending is disappointing–it seems to prepare us for a sequel.  But otherwise it’s a rocking good ghost story!

Anyway, three very good books!

Angel Court

I wish our e-mail looked like this!

       I wish e-mail looked like this!

On a recent trip to England, the electronic tablet was a godsend.

My tablet is tiny, about the size of a book, and you can fit it in your purse.  I was glad I had it. It was cheering to write e-mail  at the end of the day.  You make your tea, get into bed, and write about your trip.

Big Chief Tablet 2578148312_155ff5161a

Remember the Big Chief tablets?

“I just got here. All went well. Hope you had a great day and I’ll write tomorrow!”

That was about as much as I could write, since I was tapping it out with one finger.

I am a great believer in maps, but my husband  e-mailed additional directions the first time I went to St. James Park.  It is very nice to combine the diagram with the “left-and-right” directions if you get lost.

To get there by walking, from Fortnum & Mason:
1. Head south on Duke Street
2. Turn right on King Street, walk only a short distance on King and then
3. Turn left onto Angel court, then
4. Turn right onto Pall Mall, walk only a short distance on Pall Mall and then
5. Turn left onto Marlborough Road and that should take you right to the park. You are close to Buckingham Palace when you get to this park.

Duke Street. King Street.   But I could not find Angel Court.  I was convinced it didn’t exist.

But then I found this blog, Ornamental Passions.

Angel Court is a rather dismal alley off King Street, enlivened by a remarkable series of reliefs by E. Bainbridge Copnall. They commemorate the St James’s Theatre that stood on the site until it was scandalously demolished in 1957 despite a vociferous campaign led by Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, who managed it.
Under the arch where smokers from the Golden Lion huddle, the heads of Olivier and Leigh are flanked by themselves in their legendary production of Antony and Cleopatra. Cleo lies on a divan brandishing the asp and Antony broods in his tent, reaching for his sword. The pyramids fill the background.

Relief of Antony and Cleopatra by E. Bainbridge Copnall.

Relief of Antony and Cleopatra by E. Bainbridge Copnall.

I must go to Angel Court next time.

Meanwhile, my ancient tablet is broken!  I wrote a few blog posts on it, and must have worn it out with typing.  Oh, well, I’ll pick up a cheap one next trip…

Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons

Constance Garnett Fathers and Sons 51VqYYrYBKL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_

“My God!  What a magnificent thing Fathers and Sons is! It simply makes you desperate.”–Chekhov  in a letter to A. S. Suvorin in 1893.

I have just read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons for the fifth time.

It is a masterpiece in any translation. I especially admire the graceful translation of Constance Garnett, who introduced the Russian novelists to English readers of the early twentieth century, such as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. (Garnett is very good at Turgenev; less good at Tolstoy.) Turgenev’s elegant prose, his witty dialogue, the succinct development of philosophical and political arguments, and his depictions of  doting parents and rebellious youth are pitch-perfect. Although I may prefer Turgenev’s gentle, comic unmasking of the phony intellectual in his first novel, Rudin, I return again and again to the classic, Fathers and Sons.

Fathers and Sons sparked an explosion of debate among readers, though this is not what Turgenev intended.   He was primarily an aesthete, known for beautifully-written novels of talk, not of action.  But his depiction of the hero,  Bazarov, a  nihilist outsider who causes turmoil when he visits his friend Arkady at his country home, enraged both radicals and conservatives.  Some thought the character was too sympathetic, others that he disparaged youth.

No novel has ever caused more controversy in Russia, wrote Sir Isaiah Berlin in  “Fathers and Children: Turgenev and the Liberal Predicament.”  And Ralph Matlaw wrote in the preface to Fathers and Sons (Norton, 1989), “The controversy is not yet over.  It has flared up in a new form in the Soviet Union, and in various ways it engages the attention of all who write on Turgenev, so that it becomes a central problem for those who study Russian intellectual life in the second half of the nineteenth century.”

Fathers and Sons is about the conflict between generations, and the mid-19th-century conflict between nihilism and humanism. As in many of Turgenev’s novels, an outsider arrives and causes trouble. But the novel begins charmingly with with the eagerness of a father waiting for his son, Arkady.  Nikolai Petrovitch Kirsavov has been waiting at the posting station for for five hours.  Arkady has just graduated from the university.   The natural, easy dialogue below shows their closeness, though Turgenev tells us that Nikolai Petrovitch is timid in the presence of his son.

“Let me shake myself first, daddy,” said Arkady, in a voice tired from travelling, but boyish and clear as a bell, as he gaily responded to his father’s caresses; “I am covering you with dust.”

“Never mind, never mind,” repeated Nikolai Petrovitch, smiling tenderly, and twice he struck the collar of his son’s cloak and his own great-coat with his hand.  “Let me have a look at you; let me have a look at you,” he added, moving back from him, but immediately he went with hurried steps towards the yard of the station, calling, “This way, this way; horses at once.”

Illustration of Bazarov and Madame Odintsov, by Fritz Eichenberg (Heritage Press edition of Fathers and Sons)

Illustration of Bazarov and Madame Odintsov, by Fritz Eichenberg (Heritage Press edition of Fathers and Sons)

Fathers desperately look forward to their sons’ return after their graduation from the university, but the sons do not really want to come home.  Arkady has brought Bazarov with him, and Bazarov, a natural science graduate and aspiring doctor, despises the arts and poetry beloved by Arkady’s father and his uncle, Pavel Petrovitch, and temporarily persuades Arkady that nihilism is the way to the revolution.  Arkady takes away his father’s edition of Pushkin, because humanism is dead.  Pavel Petrovitch is especially indignant.

There is also a love story:  Arkady and Bazarov leave his father’s house to go to a town.  They go to a ball and meet a beautiful intellectual woman, Madame Odintsov.  Both are infatuated, but Arkady prefers the down-to-earth Katya, Madame Odintso’v sister.  Neither Bazarov nor Madame Odintsov are very good at emotional engagements, though they are attracted.

Then Bazarov takes Arkady to his home, and his doctor father and housewife mother are very emotional.  Bazarov cannot bear the emotion:  after a few days, they return to Arkady’s father’s estate.

There is a kiss, and a duel.  I will not tell you more.  But the unfeeling Bazarov becomes more sympathetic.  We may hate his views–please, I love art and poetry!–but we do not wish him ill.  In the end, humanism prevails.

But the Russian radicals thought Turgenev was vilifying them through Bazarov, and the conservatives believed Bazarov was too sympathetic. The power of a good book.

Turgenev was stunned by the fury.  He was interested in portraying his time and different social types.

It is a great book–powerful and realistic.

Comments, No Comments

peace signs yike8dMpTI am turning off my comments.

I’ve done this before.

In 2012, I had an epiphany about the triviality of online life. I am not the first person to have  had that revelation. That year I’d had to sift through so many tweets in the “live” Oscar Coverage at The New York Times that I literally could not find who had won Best Actor.

What if an editor similarly ruined the book page?  I wondered.  What if I had to read a review by Michiko Kakutani  interspersed with tweets from a rock star memoirist?  Luv the rock stars, but they’re not critics.

The internet is a narcissist’s dream.  We all love our social media:  some of us sign our names; some do not.   Even non-rock stars get the blues…err, I mean get to publish.

I prefer blogs to other social media.  But why, why, why have intelligent grown-up people taken to leaving trifling comments?  Well, it’s because we are bloggers reading bloggers, we want to be supportive, and we also try to  generate new  readership and more comments!  But I honestly am sleep-writing comments. Many of my fellow bloggers read second-tier women’s books, probably because, like me, they’ve already read the great women’s classics.   And so one commits to readalongs of the second-rate.  Did  I actually say I thought “Eighteen Earnest Eighteenth-Century American Writers Week” was a good idea? Was I high?   (Maybe on coffee.)  Did I say I’d reread Susanna Rowson’sCharlotte Temple?  Oh, pray, not!   It was bad enough the first time through.

Whoever chose this cover design WAS high!

Whoever chose this cover WAS high!

Anyway, I’m taking a break from comments!

I’ve turned off all the buttons I can think of so you don’t have to leave comments here!  Read and enjoy instead.  You can always contact me at mirabiledictu.org@gmail.com

The Maples Stories by John Updike

The Maples Stories Updike 51p-HnrK0oL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_

The Maples had talked and thought about separation so long it seemed it would never come. –“Twin Beds in Rome,” The Maples Stories, by John Updike

At the turn of this century, we all thought John Updike would win the Nobel; that is, unless they gave it to Joyce Carol Oates or Philip Roth. (No American writer has won since 1993.)  Best known for the Rabbit tetralogy, a brilliant chronicle of a bewildered anti-hero who peaked playing basketball in high school and balks at the prospect of working at his father-in-law’s car dealership, Updike wrote approximately 60 novels and collections of  short stories, essays, criticism,  and poems.

He often explores the fragility of conventional relationships and life in the suburbs.   He was so well-known for writing about adultery that his novel, Couples, inspired  a Time cover story in 1968, “The Adulterous Society,” with Updike’s portrait on the cover.

I think his short stories are actually his best work. I recently read The Maples Stories, an elegant collection about the decline and fall of  the marriage of Richard and Joan Maple.  Written between 1956 and 1994, these vibrant stories are slices of life filled with poetic details about daily routine as well as sharp, witty dialogue about the couple’s disagreements and adulteries.  In “Snowing in Greenwich Village,” when we first meet Richard and Joan,  they have been married two years and are madly in love.  But  their marriage is subtly threatened when Joan’s friend Rebecca invites Richard up to her apartment after he walks her home. He is not interested in her, but we realize adultery looms not far in the future.

Each story is a subtle paean to the joys, sadness, and inescapable limits of connubial love.  The stories are told from Richard’s point of view, and he both loves and is irked by Joan, the intelligent, clear-sighted, yoga-practicing daughter of an Episcopalian minister.  In “Wife-Wooing,” he finds her so beautiful while they eat hamburgers and french fries with the children that he is relieved when on Monday she “wakes up ugly.”  In “Marching through Boston,” he mocks “the salubrious effect” of the Civil Rights movement on Joan, who comes back from the march in Selma and persuades him to accompany her on another march in Boston.  Afterwards, he mocks the speeches and insists on immaturely satirizing the whole event in Southern dialect.  How maddened Joan must have been by his teasing!  (I can see why Updike was the editor of The Harvard Lampoon.)

“Now, effen,” he said, “bah some unfoh-choonut chayunce, mah spirrut should pass owen, bureh me bah de levee, so mebbe Ah kin heeah de singin’ an’ de banjos an’ de cotton bolls a-bustin’…”

It is not his flippancy, but  adultery that finally divides them. Richard has lovers, and Joan knows about them.  She even knows about the red herrings, the women he flirts with so she won’t know who his real lovers are.   And sometimes it seems that Richard is trying to push her into adultery.

In “Your Lover Just Called,” Richard comes home from buying cigarettes and through the window Joan kissing their guest, Mack, who is getting divorced,.  Mack claims it was just a fraternal kiss.

“Really, Dick,” Joan said.  “I think it’s shockingly sneaky of you to be standing around spying into your own windows.”

“Standing around!  I was transfixed with horror.  It was a real trauma.  My first primal scene.”

Later, she is furious when he claims a hang-up call is her lover calling.

“Go to her!” Joan suddenly cried…. “Go to her like a man and stop trying to maneuver me into something I don’t understand.  I have no lover!”

Later, she does have lovers.  But is it because he does?  Or is it just a part of marriage?  The way to their divorce is difficult, because they are so fond of each other, and there is the bond of four children and the house.

A very moving collection of stories, and I liked both characters so much.

Updike, of course, says it better than anyone else can.  He writes in the preface,

The musical pattern, the rise and retreat, of the Maples’ duet is repeated over and over, ever more harshly transposed.  They are shy, cheerful, and dissatisfied.  They like one another, and are mysteries to one another.  One of them is usually feeling slightly unwell, and the seesaw of their erotic interest rarely balances.  Yet they talk, more easily than any other characters the author has acted as agent for.

It is very sad when the Maples get divorced.

Reading Interrupted!

Multi-tasking is for suckers taintor 009_01463-500x500Those of us who grew up in the age of letter-writing worry about the future of writing.  There is so much e-mailing, tweeting, texting, commenting, and posting that the necessary attention for any long-form writing, let alone letters, is dying.

It can even affect our reading.

I am all about reading.  It’s what I do.  Before the internet, I read at least six hours a day.   I still read a great deal, but it is in a different, more itinerant style. Instead of reading one book, I always have a couple on the go.   It is a process I call legendum interruptum  (“reading interrupted” –you know, like coitus interruptus!).  The temptation to check my e-mail (and what am I looking for?) was irresistible, until I realized my typical e-mail says: “Your order has been shipped!,” or “Flash Sale: English National Opera (Save 40%).”

After some of my longer, more futile sessions on the internet, I used to feel a bit like Mildred, the empty housewife, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

In  Bradbury’s dystopian classic, the metaphor for not reading is not the internet, which was not yet invented, but addiction to interactive TV. Books are banned, and firemen do not put out fires; they burn books.  The hero, Guy, a fireman, enjoys the burnings, but his personal life is empty. The morning after his wife, Mildred, makes a suicide attempt, she is so absorbed in a new big-screen TV interactive gimmick that she remembers nothing about taking the sleeping pills.

She explains the gimmick to Guy.

“They write the script with one part missing. It’s a new idea. The homemaker, that’s me, is the missing part. When it comes time for the missing lines, they all look at me out of the three walls and I say the lines. Here, for instance, the man says, ‘What do you think of this whole idea, Helen?’ And I say–‘ She paused and ran her finger under a line on the script. ‘I think that’s fine!’ And then they go with the play until he says, ‘Do you agree to that, Helen?’ and I say, ‘I sure do!’ Isn’t that fun, Guy?”

Truffaut's film, "Fahrenheit 451"

                     Truffaut’s film, “Fahrenheit 451”

Does this sound familiar? I am dismayed to say that it does to me. My comments on the internet are very much of the “I sure do!” variety. Friendly bloggers comment at my blog; I comment at their blogs. It is a supportive activity. Obviously I do not want to leave unfriendly comments. But I am embarrassed that I have little to say except: “Wonderful review!” or “This sounds great.” We obviously cannot write letters in response to every blog,But since I am not a witty one-liner, should I continue to comment?

I need to read, and really cannot do without it. On vacations, I do not care to hike the Berkie Trail or see Paris.  No, I  have spent vacations reading Dickens, Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Anne Tyler in a cabin or, better yet, our favorite motel by the sea, a converted chicken coop!

When we stayed in the converted chicken coop, our days went something like this.

  1.   Walk to the Big Zero (a convenience store) and buy two huge cups of coffee.  Drink coffee and read till 10 a.m., when we get dressed to go the beach.
  2. Bike to the beach.  Sit on a towel and get out a book to read. Do I want to go swimming?  Heavens, no, I haven’t  been in that germy sea in years.
  3. Go to J&B Subs for lunch.  Sit on the picnic table and read.
  4. Go back to the motel.  Loll on the couch (the rooms are huge!) and read until three, when you  go to the beach again.
  5. Go to dinner.  No reading at dinner, so we have to converse!
  6. Go out for homemade ice cream or coffee and read on the pier.
  7. Go home and read some more.  Oh, except that night you watched that terrifying movie Flatliners, on late-night TV. A big mistake! I couldn’t sleep that night!
  8. Number of books read on vacation:  seven.  Number of swims:  zero.  Number of crabcakes eaten: six.

Do you know this kind of vacation?  I’ll bet you do.

We’ve got to love the internet, but “do” it more gently. Another reading vacation is coming up soon.

Out of Fashion: Clifford D. Simak’s They Walked Like Men

Clifford Simak - They Walked Like Men_AVON 195 Jan EstevesClifford D. Simak’s They Walked Like Men is one of my favorite SF novels.  Originally published in 1962, it has been out of print since  1979.  This radical little satiric novel questions the wisdom of urban sprawl, the cynical practices of real estate czars, and suburban flight to…well, nowhere.  Everybody should have a copy of They Walked Like Men.

I wrote an enthusiastic book journal entry in 2009:

Aliens are taking over the world – but not by hackneyed means – they’re buying all the real estate on Earth. They look like bowling balls – and somehow combine with dolls to simulate human beings. The narrator, Parker Graves (love the last name!), is a newspaper science writer who investigates the aliens after he foils a trap they’ve set outside his apartment. He also discovers that all the real estate has been bought up by a mystery man – and that even wealthy people are homeless because once they sell their homes, there’s nowhere to go.

It’s typical that such a smart little satire would disappear.  Hardly the stuff of McCarthy blacklists, but perhaps thought better supressed?  (Yes!  Bowling balls are taking over the world!  Oooohhhh!). Perhaps I’m the only reader who thought the bowling balls were funny!

Simak (1904-1988) not only had great ideas, he was a pretty good writer.  He won three Hugo awards, a Nebula, and was named the third Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.  He is known for  “pastoral” science fiction, with an emphasis on humanity, rural areas, and the ecosystem rather than technology.

The novel begins like a noir pulp classic.  The  journalist narrator, Peter Graves, has the tough voice of a guy who knows how to find a story, and stop crime.  (Simak, too, was a journalist.)

It was Thursday night and I’d had too much to drink and the hall was dark and that was the only thing that saved me.  If i hadn’t stopped beneath the hall light just outside my door to sort the keys, I would have stepped into the trap sure as hell.

Its being Thursday night had nothing to do with it, actually, but that’s the way I write.  I’m a newspaperman, and newspapermen put the day of the week and the time of day and all the other pertinent information into everything they write.

The plot takes many bizarre twists and turns.  Eventually, Peter meets a talking Dog.  It’s the dog who tells Peter that the aliens don’t just buy cities.  They buy solar systems.

“I see you do not realize,” said the Dog, “exactly what you have.  There are, I must inform you, few planets such as this one you call Earth.  It is, you see, a regular dirt-type planet, and planets such as it are few and far between.  It is a place where the weary may rest their aching bones and solace their aching eyes with a gentle beauty such as one seldom comes across.  There have been built, in certain solar systems, orbiting constructions which seek to simulate such conditions as occur here naturally.  But the artificial can never quite approach the actual, and that is why this planet is so valuable as a playground and resort.”

They walked like men clifford d. simak 51Vzxyz853L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Simak knew all about the building of highways and the flight to the suburbs after World War II.   Today downtowns are deserted, the farmland is developed, and people buy  poorly-built houses on lots with no trees.  Earth has been devastated by human beings.  It has become a dystopian nightmare.

I have enjoyed many of Simak’s other books, especially the canine classic,  City, in which talklking dogs inhabit the cities abandoned by human beings. Eventually, humans are just a legend to the dogs.

Much as I like Simak, I must admit that I have abandoned a newly-published collection of Simak’s stories, I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories.   I was quite excited about it, but the writing is ghastly.  According to the preface, Simak was dissatisfied with the first story in the collection, “Installment Plan,” and it was a bad idea to open a collection with a bad story.