Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady

a lost lady cather vintage 1972 51nRiPWgiIL._SX298_BO1,204,203,200_

“Money is a very important thing.  Realize that in the beginning, face it, and don’t be ridiculous in the end, like so many of us.”–Marion Forrester in A Lost Lady

Year ago I discovered Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, attracted by the pretty cover of a Vintage paperback (see above).  I have read this classic many times.

In 2007, we traveled to Willa’s hometown, Red Cloud, Nebraska, the headquarters of the Willa Cather Foundation.  On a splendid  tour of the pretty small town, we saw the house of the original models for two of the main characters in A Lost Lady, Captain Silas Garber, founder of Red Cloud and of the town’s bank, and his wife,  Lyra, a charming, pretty woman from California. In the novel, the couple are called Captain and Mrs. Forrester.

Red Cloud rekindled my interest in A Lost Lady.  It is a complicated novel, told in the form of a frame story. The narrator, Niel Herbert, depicts Marion Forrester through the lenses of idealization and disillusion. She and Captain Forrester are the aristocrats of the town.  They live part of the year  in Sweet Water, Nebraska, but winter in Denver.  Marion brings sophistication to Sweet Water.   She and the Captain are not only charming to Niel’s uncle, Judge Pomeroy, but also entertain bank presidents and railroad magnates who are traveling from Denver to Chicago.

Marion’s delicate charm  makes me think of a watercolor painting. When she gives Niel and the other boys permission to fish in the creek, Niel is the first to spot her bringing them a plate of cookies for lunch.  He sees

…a white figure coming rapidly through the grove, under the flickering leaf shadows,–Mrs. Forrester, bare-headed, a basket on her arm, her blue-black hair shining in the sun. It was not until years afterward that she began to wear veils and sun hats, though her complexion was never one of her beauties.  Her cheeks were pale and rather thin, slightly freckled in summer.

Mrs. Forrester/Mrs.Garber meant a great deal to Willa. In Mildred R. Bennett’s fascinating biography, The World of Willa Cather (University of Nebraska Press), she quotes a 1925 interview Cather gave to The New York World.  Cather said,

A Lost Lady was a woman I loved very much in my childhood.  Now the problem was to get her not like a standardized heroine in fiction, but as she really was, and not to care about anything else in the story except that one character.  And there is nothing bu that portrait.  Everything else is subordinate.

I didn’t try to make a character study, but just a portrait like a thin miniature painted on ivory.

willa-cather-a-lost-ladyIt takes time for Niel to realize that no one can live in an ivory portrait, any more than on a pedestal. He learns Mrs. Forrester is having an affair with one of her husband’s friends.  And after Captain Forrester loses his money by reimbursing the customers of  the failed bank, he has a stroke. Marion is  stuck in Sweet Water year-round, with no money for hired help. And she frenetically entertains young men from Sweet Water who are far beneath her in class, including Ivy Peters, a corrupt lawyer.

Hermione Lee observes in Willa Cather:  Double Lives that A Lost Lady signifies a new kind of writing for Cather:

There is a crucial change, now, from the early pioneering novels. The focus has shifted from the immigrants to the American ‘aristocracy’; and from female heroism to femininity. These heroines are ‘ladies,’ socially adept, self-conscious, sophisticated, decorative. They have no children, they are separated from their family roots, they have no independent occupations, and they define themselves in terms of their relation to men. They are confined and thwarted, not expansive and self-fulfilling. Their energies are poured, not into something impersonal and bigger than themselves–the shaping of the land, the making of an art–but into personal feelings and self-expression. They are much more elusive and less reliable than the pioneering women-heroes.

I pity Marion Forrester, living in Sweet Water, a small, dying town, losing population and wealth. After the Captain dies,  she is very lonely and  poor, and switches her legal business from respectable Judge Pomeroy to the hustler Ivy Peters. Niel loses all respect for her.  But when he  learns years later that she escaped from Sweet Water, he relents.  Her words on money (see epigraph to this post) look cynical, but Marion needed to leave Nebraska.  Ivy Peters found her the money; Neil and his uncle could not.  Is it ever right to stoop to the level of Ivy Peters?

I don’t know.  But Marion had to get out–under any circumstances.

This short, perfect book would make a perfect gift, by the way.  It’s spare, taut, and lyrical, and the new Vintage Classic edition also has a lovely cover..

Carpe Diem!

carpe diem IZvk9M7DI do not mind getting older. I had a Big Birthday last summer.

It was a shock to turn 30, but subsequent decades have been illuminating.

Health?  Good.  Activities? The same.  Loss of looks?  F– that.  Menopause? No hot flashes.

And I am still laughing at The Who’s “My Generation” (1965), written when they were twentyish.

I hope I die before I get old
(Talkin’ ’bout my generation)

logans-run-vintage-books-2015“Don’t trust anybody over 30,” said Jack Weinberg during the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964. Psychologist Timothy Leary advised us to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.”  Logan’s Run, the 1967 dystopian novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, examined authority from a different angle. Set in a future with a population control law requiring people to die at 21, it is the story of Logan, a Sandman/law enforcer who hunts and kills “runners” who try to evade the law.  Then he becomes involved with activists on an Underground Railroad escape route and changes his politics.  (The book and movie are a bit like Fahrenheit 451, though not as good.)

Now I have never believed in mortality.  This decade has taught me about it.

I did not believe my mother would die.  I thought she had another decade.  She died a few years ago.

Horace said, Carpe diem.  (Seize the day.)

And getting older is about that.

I’m not one of those people who will travel to India to find myself.

What I notice with each birthday is that I am pickier about the books I read.  How many times will I be able to reread Madame Bovary?  I hope many. How about Jane Gaskell’s Atlan quintet?  Well,  yes, I still have  time.

Ian McEwan wrote in The Guardian in 2013 about his loss of faith in literature. (He got it back.)  His  description of the loss is fascinating.

I’m 64. If I’m lucky, I might have 20 good reading years left. Teach me about the world! Bring me the cosmologists on the creation of time, the annalists of the Holocaust, the philosopher who has married into neuroscience, the mathematician who can describe the beauty of numbers to the numbskull, the scholar of empires’ rise and fall, the adepts of the English civil war.

I don’t feel the urge to read the cosmologists, but I did gave up on Sara Paretsky’s latest mystery.  It wasn’t bad.   I just don’t have time.

I am not yet a “Senior Citizen,” but it is closer…  Have you ever noticed that powerful old people are not called “seniors?”    What a term for old age!

Six Series to Lose Yourself in Over the Holidays: Balzac, Durrell, Ferrante, Burgess, Gabaldon, & Le Guin

"Marley's Ghost"

           “Marley’s Ghost”

I do not like Christmas books.

One year at a posh friend’s, we listened to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol on public radio. Luv ya, public radio, but the reader’s enunciation was excessive!  Everybody looked glazed and drank a lot of wine. I don’t drink.  And I have never cared for A Christmas Carol.

So what do I do to escape the holiday madness?  I dive into trilogies, quartets, quintets, long series…and come up for air next spring.

Here are Six Series You Can Lose Yourself in over the Holidays.

1 Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy), a series of approximately 90 novels, short stories, and novellas in which Balzac portrays French society during the 19th century period of Restoration and July Monarchy. The plots are racy and the characters memorable.   Several are available from Penguin and Modern Library, and  most are available free in nineteenth-century translations at Project Gutenberg.  Personally, I prefer the newer translations, but Lost Illusions  and Cousin Pons are good in any form.   And here is a link to an excellent Balzac blog.

Lost Illusions Modern Library2 Lawrence Durrell’s The Avignon Quintet.   This year I devoured Durrell’s modernist masterpiece,  The Alexandria Quartet, and Prospero’s Cell, a  travel memoir.  And now I’m reading his odd metafictional  Avignot Quintet, consisting of Monsieur, Livia, Constance, Sebastion, and Quinx.   This labyrinthine series questions the nature of reality and love, authors and their characters. Not until the end of the first novel,  Monsieur,  do we discover the characters are characters in a novel written by  the bitter character Blanford.  And then in the next books Blanford weaves together his stories with those of his  fictional characters.  He even has telephone conversations with Rob Sutcliffe, the novelist in his own novel.  Intriguing but weird.

durrell avignon quintet 51GoOSphbOL._AC_UL320_SR204,320_3 Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series: My Brilliant Friend,The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child.   These pop literary pageturners are about two difficult women who are friends from childhood to old ag,.  They are entertaining, beautifully-written, and  I swear  as popular as Gone with the Wind.   I have read the first two, and they are very good indeed, though, honestly?   The hype about them is too much.

ferrante neapolitan series quartet lctpnk325gzcumijtsdc4 Anthony Burgess’s The Complete EnderbyInside Mr. Enderby, Enderby Outside, The Clockwork Testament, and Enderby’s End.  The hero, Enderby,  is a Kingsley Amis-ish character who writes poetry while sitting on the toilet, farts a lot, and is shocked to receive a literary award.  Winning the award is his downfall, though he is up and down throughout the books.  Inside Enderby  is hilarious, but there are actually some startling serious bits that I didn’t remember.   An excellent reread of the first book, and hope to get to the others.

the complete enderby anthony burgess 51Y8C7CHQNL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_5 Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  I hope to lose myself in this popular series of time travel romances someday, because friends love them and assure me that they are entertaining and erotic.  There is also an Outlander coloring book, DVDS of the Outlander TV series (which I’ve heard is good), and totebags.  Do you think Outlander is Game of Thrones for women?

outlander gabaldon 1322638297Outlandertpb3wide

6 Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, The Other WindNow that I’ve read David Mitchell’s the introduction to the new Folio Society edition of A Wizard of Earthsea in The Guardian, I would like to go back and reread the series.  Plus there were only  four books when I read it:  it has grown!

wizard of earthsea le guin 8504013716

Off to read one of my series books!

“Macbeth” or “Christmas in July”?

"Christmas in July"

Preston Sturges’s film, “Christmas in July,” with Jane Drew and Dick Powell

It rained all weekend.

You can only read so much. You can only knit so much.

And so we decided to see the new Macbeth movie, with Fassbender.

There was a hitch:

I thought Fassbender was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the brilliant German director of Ali:  Fear Eats the Soul.  I’m a little behind.  Fassbinder died in 1982.

Probably not my Macbeth.

Probably not my kind of Macbeth.

Turns out Michael Fassbender is an actor in movies I’ve never heard of, such as X-Men:First Class and X-Men:  Days of Future Past. To be fair, I have heard of 12 Years As a Slave. 

The movie has been well-reviewed, but I was leery when the reviewer at the Independent called it ” Shakespearian tragedy as macabre action movie. “Oh, dear. And the clip is graphically violent.  Probably not my kind of Macbeth.  Sorry, but I like my Shakespeare as in Shakespeare in the park.

And so what could we do?  All the theaters show the same movies.  None of them seemed to be aimed at adults.

The Night Before has Mindy Kaling, the brilliant creator and star of The Mindy Project,  but it is a slapstick male bonding movie, with guys on cocaine (see clip).  Not my kind of thing.

Never let it be said that I don’t go for star vehicles.  I was willing to see Trumbo, because Bryan Cranston is in it.  But my husband hated Breaking Bad.

So we stopped at the library to look for Christmas movies, because we were now in a thoroughly bad mood.

The only thing we could find with Christmas in the title was Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July.

Turns out this charming, sentimental 1940 comedy is not really about Christmas.

Preston Sturges won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for The Great McGinty, a satiric movie about a politician who ruins his life by a moment of honesty.  In Christmas in July, the conflict is between the naive little guy and soulless Big Business.The hero, Jimmy (Dick Powell), is an office worker.  He and his co-worker girlfriend, Betty (Jane Drew), want to get married, but they are very poor.  He dreams of winning $25,000  in a slogan contest for the Maxford Coffee Company.  His slogan is not snappy.  “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.”

Neighbors standing with Jimmy and Betty when Maxford tries to arrest him.

Neighbors standing together with Jimmy and Betty when Maxford accuses Jimmy of fraud.

At work, practical jokers convince him he has won the contest. He claims the winning check at Maxford Coffee with no problem: no one knows what’s going on.   Jimmy  and Betty are so excited and happy: it is like Christmas.  Department store clerks know the power of the dollar and can’t do too much for  Jimmy, who buys  an engagement ring and fur coat for Betty, a  sofa bed with comical pop-up accessories for his mother,  and gifts for all their working-class neighbors.  The only one he doesn’t buy for is himself!

But even true happiness has its enemies.   Dr. Maxford learns the contest judges are deadlocked and haven’t decided on a winner. So who the hell is Jimmy?  He calls the department store, and everyone calls his lawyers.  Maxford drives to the apartment house to confront Jimmy, who is celebrating with the neighbors.  When Dr. Maxford wants him arrested, everyone is stunned.  They stand up for Jimmy’s character.  The police refuse to arrest him.

The dialogue is simple but good, and takes shots at Hitler and Mussolini.

What really got me about this comedy was the idealism.  Everybody deserves enough money to live, and so much of it is about getting a chance in the workplace.

Very different from the kind of comedy playing in most movie theaters now.

Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories

tolstoy the kreutzer sonata and other stories 4164Top38+L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I am mad about Russian literature.

And I am fascinated by the development of the nineteenth-century Russian novel, as writers began to experiment with point of view and psychologization. What a century!  Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov.

But is there any greater writer than Tolstoy?

If you a admire his realism, beautifully-crafted scenes, and depth of characterization, you read and reread War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Resurrection. And then you turn to his stories and novellas, though they are less satisfying than his novels:  Tolstoy needs space. The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories (Penguin), translated by David McDuff and Paul Foote, is a collection of four stories about the consequences of love and sex.

“Family Happiness” is an early story, a predecessor of Anna  Karenina. It is an astute, if somewhat rambling, story of a marriage. After her mother’s death, the narrator, Masha, falls in love with her guardian. They had meant to move to the city for Masha’s “coming out.” in society, but now she is stuck in the country with her governess and younger sister.  At the age of 17, she is depressed.

The loss of my mother was a very great grief, but I must admit that there was also a feeling that I was young and pretty, as everyone told me, but that I was wasting a second winter in seclusion on our estate.  Before the end of the winter, this feeling of melancholy, loneliness, and sheer boredom increased to such an extent that I never left my room, never opened the piano and never took a book in my hands….  In my heart a voice said:  “Why?  Why do anything, when the best days of my life are being wasted like this?”

Sometimes falling in love is a matter of being primed for an emotion.  Sergei, their neighbor and guardian, arrives in March for a visit, and Masha  plays the piano for him and enjoys their conversations.  Masha makes the first advances in the summer, while Sergei is, appropriately, picking cherries for her.  He feels too old for her, and they discuss the nature of love.   They  get married and are sexually compatible and very happy.  Masha has a baby.   Then Sergei takes her to the city and she finally enjoys the whirl of society.  As Masha becomes excited by flirtations with other men, she spends more time in cities and travels.  Perhaps Sergei was never her soulmate, but they do manage to work out their problems after Masha glimpses the ugliness of a potential lover’s cynical view of her. And so it is an optimistic story, though Tolstoy clearly believes that first love cannot last.

Kreutzer sonata yale 9780300189940Tolstoy’s famous novella, “The Kreutzer Sonata,” was banned in 1890 by Russian censors for its sexual content.  It is by far the most idiosyncratic  story in this collection.  It is misogynistic to the point that Tolstoy’s wife Sofia  wrote her own version, as did their son.    (The counterstories are published in The Kreutzer Sonata Variations, along with Tolstoy’s novella, translated by Michael Katz)

Set on a train, this brilliant novella is told in the form of a frame story.  In the opening chapters, the narrator describes his fellow passengers and recounts their discussion of marriage and divorce.  A merchant claims that women’s education has ruined marriage: a feminist woman believes women should not have to live with their husbands if they fall out of love.  And then another passenger, Pozdnyshev, tells his story to the narrator:  he murdered his wife but was acquitted because she committed adultery. He verbally attacks the “animal” nature of human sexuality, women’s use of contraceptives (one of the things that pushed him over the edge),  and preaches abstinence.  But Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata was the trigger for the murder, when he found his wife and a violinist playing it together on the piano.  One of Tolstoy’s later, quirkier beliefs was that music could be too “infectious.”  You had to be careful that art didn’t affect your mood!  But in many ways the story is redeemed by the reaction of his dying wife, who shows her contempt for him and screams, “Nurse, he’s killed me!”  He cannot take it in that he really killed her.

Fascinatingly, Tolstoy meant this story in part as an attack on Turgenev, whose lyrical, philosophical writing he disliked, according to Donna Tussing Orwin, the editor of the Penguin edition.  And “The Kreutzer Sonata” duplicates the structure of Turgenev’s First Love (1861) and Spring Torrents (1871), in which philosophical dialogues about love predominate.

Orwin writes,

In these stories Turgenev depicts failed romantic love and opportunities that his characters usually lacked the courage to pursue.  By contrast, The Kreutzer Sonata attacks romantic love, and even associates it with murder.

I admire the brilliant structure, but must admit I hate the story.

In the last two stories, Tolstoy brilliantly continues to explore sexual problems.  In “The Devil,” the hero is torn between love of his wife, who does not sexually excite him,  and lust for another woman.  In “Father Sergei,” the handsome hero breaks off the engagement when he learns his fiancée used to be the czar’s mistress.  He becomes a monk, then a hermit, to get away from women, who continue to pursue him sexually.  But his ineluctable fall is in a way his return to grace.

Tolstoy  is a superb writer, though his  philosophy is sometimes cranky.  Yet these stories are structurally little gems.

Rumors in War and Peace

The Maude translation (Everyman)Tolstoy’s War and Peace is my favorite novel–or one of them.

If I hadn’t read it so often,  I could have learned Russian and read it in the original.

Why didn’t I think of that?

And so I am looking forward to the new BBC adaptation of War and Peace by Andrew Davies, which will surely be shown eventually in the U.S.

There has been an uproar in England regarding the adaptation :  Andrew Kaufman, a Tolstoy scholar and the author of the excellent pop book, Give War and Peace a Chance, is annoyed by a gratuitous incest scene between Helene and Anatole Kuragin.  Kaufman told The Telegraph, “That has absolutely no justification in the text. It just doesn’t exist in it.”

Well,  I know from my many readings that there actually is a rumor in W&P that the Kuragin siblings have committed incest.  Kaufman obviously knows this, too,  so I conclude his quotes in the interview were edited  for maximum dramatic effect.

Give War and Peace a Chance Kaufman 51DPHjQm15L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Like Kaufman, I can’t imagine why the BBC writer, Andrew Davies, included a full-blown incest scene.  There is so much happening in 1,400 pages.

But the immoral brother and sister, Anton and Helene Kuragin, are horribly materialistic, stupid beautiful villains: the enchanting Helene, with the help of her father, traps the bumbling Pierre into a wretched marriage.  And Anatole can’t keep his dick in his pants: he almost destroys the reputation of charming, innocent, naive Natasha when he arranges to elope with her.  The elopement is prevented by her friends and relatives.

So is the incest hyperbole a hook for audiences ? Like the rumored incest of Caligula and Drusilla in I, Claudius, which was the last costume drama I watched?  (No, I’m joking. I watch a lot of costume dramas.)

But there has never been a good film of War and Peace.

Will it sell books?

TV Sitcoms for the Holidays

Roseanne white trash christmas santa 2877794

“We’re not doing this for tips.  We are degrading ourselves for the sheer holiday joy of it,” says Roseanne in the ’90s sitcom, Roseanne (Season 6, Episode 12, 1993), in defense of the family’s tacky outdoor Christmas decorations.

When the  neighborhood association singles them out and asks them to tone their display down, they decide, as Roseanne ironically says, to “go for the national title” of tackiness.  Dan (John Goodman)  finds  two mangers, and Roseanne says, “Dueling Saviors–hoo ha!”

Gotta love it. And it is such a joy after watching the frenetic, saccharine Christmas episodes of today’s family sticoms.

The Middle, a pretty good sitcom about a working-class family, can’t compete with Roseanne.  Why?  It’s just no longer real.  This is the seventh season, and the writers are having trouble tying up the plot with a bow.

Tonight, the colorful Heck family missed a Christmas Eve church service because  (a) the clocks are all wrong, (b) Frankie (Patricia Heaton), the mother of the family, can’t get it together, and (c) she decides they will  watch church on TV instead.   The children are reluctant, Frankie asks them to be quiet during “church,” then, during the commercial, daughter Sue asks them  to wear Santa hats in bed  for a Christmas picture (why bed?),  then she accidentally deletes the whole family album on the computer, and then Frankie lies down on the floor and cries and kicks her heels…

Work with me here. What the f…?

Bev (Wendi McClenden-Covery) onf The Goldbergs"

Bev (Wendi McClenden-Covey) on The Goldbergs”

The Goldbergs, a sitcom set in the ’80s, was a tad better.  For one thing, the Goldbergs are Jewish. For another thing, Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and Murray (Jeff Garlin) are the most outrageously funny parents on TV.

Bev, who is the ultimate iconic Jewish mother, decides to create a holiday called Super Hanukkah, which is basically a rip-off of Christmas, because her children aren’t on board for Hanukkah, eight nights of presents like underpants.  Now there are lots of decorations, a Hanukkah bush (suspiciously like a Christmas tree), and great presents.  Everybody is happy.

Until Bev’s dad, “Pops” (Geroge Segal), shames them for not honoring Hanukkah. And, wow, he is intense (I’ve never seen that side of him).  Soon Bev is in tears.  Poor Bev!  She didn’t deserve that!  The family was happily hanging out together.

In tonight’s episode there is also a riff on the movie A Christmas Story, but it isn’t as funny as the Super Hanukkah stuff. It’s apparently hell on TV writers to weave the different skits together.

So I’m sticking with Roseanne.  I know all about “White Trash Christmases.”  Believe me, I’ve spent Christmas in a lot of different places.

Amatory Lit 101: Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid & Doris Lessing’s Landlocked

pulp love cover cd0c32c52e8a6ed2730d959432329ddeThe first amatory classic I read was Jane Eyre.  I don’t think Peyton Place,  The Robe, or Max Shulman’s Rally Round the Flag, Boys!, count, do you?  At 12, I was enthralled by Jane’s love for  Mr. Rochester.  I knew that one day I, too would fall in love with Mr. Rochester.  The operative word was “fall.”

But is “falling” love?

I suppose so.

Amatory lit can be sexy.  But so often it is not quite about love.

Take two amatory classics I read recently.  They are about sex and passion, but love?

Aeneid Rolfe Humphries c99ea633518bd50c8c3027ab79b6d8a6Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid is one of the world’s most famous tragic love stories.  I reread it every year, preferably on the Mediterraean, actually at Ahkwabi State Park, since I never  find myself on the Mediterranean.  Dido, Queen of Carthage, is desperately in love with the Trojan hero, Aeneas, who is is driven off course to Carthage by a storm on his way to Italy.  There are many different interpretations of this elaborate, glittering poem:  it is the sympathetic portrait of a passionate woman, or a condemnation of a queen who puts love before duty, or a vindication of Aeneas’s obedience to the gods and devotion to the pursuit of power. It was the most influential Latin poem in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,  the inspiration for Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage, Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas, Berlioz’s opera, Les Troyens (The Trojans), and innumerable works of art.

Dido is a powerful widowed queen in exile, building a new city for her people.  But in Book IV, she is obsessed with Aeneas, and fears it is disloyalty to her dead husband.  Virgil describes her love as a disease:  wounded by love, she feeds the wound.

One of the best translations of the 20th century is Rolfe Humphries’, which is close to the Latin and reflects the economy of the language. (I also love Robert Fagles’ translation, but he adds phrases that are not in Virgil.)  Book IV begins,

But the queen finds no rest. Deep in her veins
The wound is fed; she burns with hidden fire.

The Latin lines are alliterative and arranged in interlocking word order:  The second line of the Latin below shows the repeating v’s and c’s, as you can see here:

vulnus alit venis, et caeco carpitur igni.

(vulnus = wound)… (venis = veins),,, (caeco = blind) (carpitur = consumed)

"Dido Building Carthage," b JMW Turner

“Dido Building Carthage,” b JMW Turner

The balance and style of the poem are elegant and the plot is compelling, especially for women.    During a storm, Dido and Aeneas take refuge in a cave and make love.  Dido regards their relationship as a marriage.  But Mercury comes with a message from Jove, ordering him to go to Italy, reminding him he must found Rome for his son.  Aeneas prepares the fleet’s departure without telling Dido, but she confronts him.  After he leaves, she commits suicide.  And Virgil revives the images of the fire and the wound:   she builds a pyre, then kills herself by falling on his sword.

Virgil’s description of the end of her life is  grotesque.

And her wound made a gurgling hissing sound.
Three times she tried to lift herself; three times
Fell back; her rolling eyes went searching heaven
And the light hurt when she found it, and she moaned.

Traditionally, classicists speculate that the Romans would have mistrusted the love affair, comparing  the dalliance of Dido and Aeneas to that of Cleopatra and Antony. Antony’s affair with a foreign queen fueled a war and drove Cleopatra to suicide.  And Augustus had defeated Antony, and Virgil was a patriotic poet, very much Augustus’s poet.  So would the audience  at Virgil’s poetry readings have approved Aeneas’s flight from Dido?  Or would the women have been fuming?  Should we be postmodern? Or traditional?

Love is a wound.

Lessing landlocked 328419Doris Lessing’s Landlocked., the fourth in Nobel Prize winner Lessing’s Children of Violence series.

 Landlocked, written after her masterpiece, The Golden Notebook, which certainly taught Lessing how to write about love and sex, is the most polished novel in this series.  Set during World War II, Martha waits in Africa for the end of the war to divorce the husband she married for political reasons.  She  left her first husband, a civil servant, and their daughter Caroline to  become a Communist activist and support herself as a secretary.   She made the disastrous marriage to Anton Hesse, a communist refugee from Germany, so he would not be interned in a camp or deported.  Anton is terrible in bed, they have no chemistry, and Martha insists on having affairs, reminding him that they are not really “married.”

The political climate changes, the town again become hostile to the left, and the communist group is unraveling..

But the most important aspect of the novel is Martha’s discovery of sex.   Tomas, a Polish Jew, a farmer, and a communist who simply loves women, introduces her to great sex.  She has never been happier. But the affair is a brief idyll, and she knows it.  He will not leave his wife, and is determined to go back to Europe.  She will go to London.

Nothing can wipe out the memory of violence.  Martha is  aware that if he had not left Europe with his wife, he would have died.

If he had not–well, none of his family was left alive, several dozen brothers, sisters, cousins,, relations–they were all dead, they had died in the gas ovens, on the gallows, in the prisons and the concentration camps in those years of our Lord, 1939-1945.   But here Thomas was alive.  And all her life Martha would say to herself–whatever else had  been untrue, whatever else had not existed, this had been true:  this was true, she must hold on to it, even though, when she touched Thomas it was with the anxiety that related not to Thomas now and here, but to the scene she could create by a slight dislocation in her mind: Thomas very nearly had not left Poland.

This is a gorgeous novel, with some of Lessing’s best writing.  It is the gateway to the experimental, genre-busting fifth book in the series, The Four-Gated City, which is actually my favorite.

It is so good to see Martha happy.  So much lies ahead of her after the war, when she goes to London.

Jingle Bell Rock, Catalogues & Christmas Trees

The very cool 1960s Tammy doll house!

The very cool 1960s Tammy doll house!

Looking at catalogues used to be a mother-daughter bonding activity in our household.  In the 1960s, my mother and I pored happily over the Sears Christmas catalogues.  She put checkmarks beside  mini-dresses that would look “adorable”on me,  and I circled mini-dresses for my Tammy doll, and put multiple exclamation points beside the very cool Tammy dollhouse, which had a soda fountain, ping pong table, and jukebox.

In the last years of Mom’s life, I lugged a shopping bag of catalogues  to the  nursing home.  We spent hours flipping through Talbot’s, Land’s End, and Harry and David. We speculated,  “What would Michelle Obama wear?” or  “What would Hillary wear?”

Since Mom died in 2013, I have lost all desire to shop for the holidays.  Ironically, I am so glutted with catalogues this year that I schlepped 40 directly from the mailbox to the recycling bin last week.

Happy Holidays, Jingle Bell Rock, etc. but I no longer swoon over pictures of Christmas trees and ask , “Would our Christmas be improved if we ordered a tiny decorated evergreen tree from L. L. Bean that we could later plant outside?”

Or maybe I do.

My husband says we don’t need a potted evergeen.   He says the ground would be too hard for planting it.

I say, “You wait till spring!”

He says, “But do we want an evergreen?”

No, we’d rather plant a maple.

And yet I look at the catalog and think,  MAYBE THIS IS THE YEAR.


tinsel christmas trees and tigger IMG_0574I love our tiny kitschy tinsel trees decorated with LED lights. Put in a battery and they light up.

And the cats enjoy an artificial tabletop tree that lives in the basement year-round. The branches are so unkempt from cat love that we no longer bring it upstairs.

My holiday decorating has always been sporadic, but Mom took it seriously.  I fondly remember her silver aluminum tree with blue ornaments. After I moved away from home, she acquired some scary huge white-clad angel dolls that moved their arms when she plugged them in.   She also had a white flocked Christmas tree in the shower in the basement.  Obviously nobody used the shower.  “Do you want it?” she would ask.  No.  Now I sort of wish I had.  What happened to the angel dolls?

“Do you realize we’ve never had a real Christmas tree?”  I ask my husband.

“We have a real Christmas tree,” he says indignantly.

“That’s an artificial tree.”

Would I enjoy a real tree so late in the game of Christmases?  I’m past the age where I would enjoy stringing popcorn while we listen to Jingle Bell Rock or watch A Christmas Carol.  And the cats really prefer batting ornaments on the floor like soccer balls to seeing them on the tree.

And guess who would vacuum up the evergreen needles?

It is unnecessary to replicate the holiday from old Christmas cards or my favorite Betsy-Tacy books.  Every family has its own traditions.  Ours?  Go to the bookstore on Christmas Eve, plug in our tinsel trees, make a dinner from Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking, and watch Christmas in Connecticut.  It’s good enough.

Top 10 Dancing Characters in Fiction We’d Like to See on “Dancing with the Stars”

Nastia Liukin, a Gold Medal-winning Olympic gymnast, and Derek Hugh, semifinals, spring 2015.

Nastia Liukin, a Gold Medal-winning Olympic gymnast, and Derek Hugh, semifinals, Spring 2015.

I am a fan of Dancing With the Stars.  In my favorite season, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the Olympic Gold Medal-winning ice-dancers, competed for the Mirror Ball Trophy. (Meryl won.)

This fall the show was lacklustre, possibly because two women dropped out with health emergencies. After Tamar Braxton was hospitalized for blood clots, there was Bindi, the plucky teenager whom the judges and interviewers deemed “the nicest girl in the world,” “inspiring,” “my favorite person,” and “the person whose best friend I’d like to be if I were younger.” Guess who won?  Bindi!  And she was an elegant dancer, but didn’t have much competition at the end.  Or any!  I rooted for Carlos, but he was eliminated in the semi-finals.

Here is my solution to the slump:  a list of the Top 10 Dancing Literary Characters I’d like to see on DWTS. The mechanics of bringing them to life would be difficult, but it’s Hollywood!


1 Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice.  He is  “hot” (sorry, I got that horrible word from DWTS), but he is also snobbish.  After Darcy rejects the Bennet girls at a dance and deems Jane a gold digger, he notices Lizzie’s grace and intelligence. But it is too late:  Lizzie is prejudiced.   Eventually they fall in love.  Well, he was kind to her, but she also likes his mansion and  estate. So wouldn’t we like to see Darcy dancing?  Yes!  He is so proud.  How about the Samba?

2. Prince Turveydrop in Dickens’s Bleak House. I adore the harried Prince Turveydrop who runs a dancing school to support his father, Mr. Turveydrop, a model of “deportment.” And Prince is engaged to Caddy Jellyby, my favorite sulky character in literature.  Her philanthropist mother turns her into a secretary-drone, but she secretly learns housekeeping skills from Miss Flite, a sweet but addled old woman who spends her days trying to settle an imaginary lawsuit in Chancery.  Prince needs some fun:  let him do the Jive!

3. Natasha in War and Peace is the belle of the ball, and she also does a lively folk dance. She’s got passion:  let’s see her do the Paso Doble!

4. At a dance, Jo in Little Women burns the back of her dress while standing too close to the fire. Her neighbor, Laurie, rescues her,  and they dance and romp in the hallway.  What would this tomboy dance on DWTS?   Something athletic, possibly the Quick Step!

5.  Eugene Onegin in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.   Eugene doesn’t have much pep.  He is one of those languorous Byronic heroes.  So let’s see him dance.  How about the Cha-Cha-Cha!

6. Glencora Palliser in Trollope’s Palliser series. In Can You Forgive Her? Glencora, an heiress, is in love with Burgo Fitzgerald, an  impecunious aristocrat.  They have a dance or two, though she doesn’t marry him.  Can’t we see Glencora doing the Viennese waltz?  (Preferably with Burgo.)

7.  Donald Farfrae fiddles at a dance in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge  when he’s not reversing spoiled grain by science or marrying the Mayor’s girlfriend.  Let’s get him on DWTS:  how about  the rumba?

8.  In Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, Linda Radlett, the charming daughter of an eccentric lord, can’t wait for her first dance.  But the dance given by the Radletts is stodgy, until the neighbor Lord Merlin brings his fashionable house guests.  Let Linda do the Charleston!  It’s her era.

9.  In Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Last Resort,  Celia, a businesswoman who is in love with a married man, takes her happily married novelist friend Christine to a club where they dance with professional dance partners–for money!  Christine isn’t keen on it.  Let’s get Celia on the show so she doesn’t make the terrible marriage she chooses as the last resort!  Give her Contemporary!  She needs to express her feelings.

10.  In Carolina De Robertis’s new novel, The Gods of Tango, the heroine, Leda, disguises herself as a man so she can play violin in a tango band at clubs in Argentina when the tango is a new dance.  Eventually she falls in love with a woman who thinks she is a man who turns out to be a lesbian who knew she was a lesbian….  But before that there is quite a lot of tangoing. And so give her the Argentine tango)!

I would ask you for your favorite dancing literary characters, but I’ve turned off my comments!