Can Bad Bookstores Sell Good Books? & Four Literary Links

pile of books open_booksThis year I made two resolutions:

  1. I would no longer accept “free” books from publishers.
  2. I would buy books only at bricks-and-mortar stores.

Guess which one I’ve kept?  The first.  I’m gobsmacked as to how anyone can keep the second.

It’s hip, it’s chic, and, according to all book publications, it’s revolutionary to shop at bricks-and-mortar stores.  Support local businesses!  Support writers!  Where’s my Che Guevara beret? Do they even give their employees health insurance?   Well, you can shop for books in London. There are good bookstores in London.  It can be done in Portland. It can be done in Nashville.  But in the Midwest it’s a challenge. It comes down to:  what on earth do they have that I want to buy?

The bookstores here are in a decline.  The indies are often owned by rich hobbyists–tax write-offs, I suppose.  The Bookworm in Omaha used to be a pretty good store,  located in a rather pretty strip mall, with trees growing along the side of the parking lot.  The store’s displays were clever:   Dan Brown’s Inferno surrounded by Dante’s Inferno (and the rest of The Divine Comedy).  An attractive shelf of  the small-press Pharos Editions’ reissues of American classics like Brian Kittredge’s Still Life with Insects.  A display of copies of Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone, a novel about Louise Brooks, next to a flapper dress.

But then…

I love you, Charlotte, but I've already read so many biographies of you!

I love you, Charlotte, but I don’t need another biography of you!

It moved. Why?  According to hearsay, the  landlord of the old building didn’t keep up the maintenance.   The store at the new mall is ugly.  And what happened to the new fiction and new nonfiction sections?  A few new hardbacks are mixed in with the paperbacks, but the new titles are missing.  And they have lost their oomph:  no more displays or small press books.  I thought of buying last year’s biography of Charlotte Bronte , but you know what?  I have already read biographies of the Brontes.

And then there are the chain stores. I would say, thank God we have chains, but I am doomed to live in a region with moribund chains.  It’s like going to the Scotch tape store in the dying mall on Saturday Night Live. When I wanted to buy Doris Lessing’s last novel, Alfred and Emily, Barnes and Noble had never heard of it and I went to Borders.  When I wanted to buy John Sayles’s A Moment in the Sun, B&N had never heard of it and I had to go to Borders.  When I looked for the new translation of Pushkin before Christmas, they didn’t have it, and I didn’t ask.

To be fair, I doubt the local Barnes and Noble has an individual buyer or any control over which books are shipped there.  I heard, or read, they are given maps of what to display where.  I am doomed to live in a region where it is assumed the readers read junk.  Perhaps they do, judging from the Little Free Libraries.   But, alas, we need  good books, too.  And what IS the point of NOT carrying the latest books?  It’s Barnes and Noble!

Oh, dear, I miss Borders, but we need our Barnes and Noble. Desperately.



emma-tennant-2356009092_b8de2754ce1.  The writer Emma Tennant died on January 21 at age 79.  (I wrote about her novel Confessions of a Sugar Mummy here.)  She was the author of comic fiction, women’s fiction,  surreal fantasy and  science fiction (The Crack, Wild Nights), autobiography, and sequels to Austen, Hardy, Stevenson, and others. I very much enjoyed The Crack and Wild Nights.   Here is a link to the obituary at the New York Times .

2.  At the blog Leaves and Pages, I read about a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim I have never heard of, Introduction to Sally:

 Oh joy! Oh bliss! What a sweet romp of a thing. I loved it. What happens when an unbelievably beautiful girl is born into a modestly situated, working class, strictly God-fearing family, unable to fathom how best to protect their jewel of a child from the increasingly lecherous gaze of every man who sees her? By marrying her off, of course, to the first man who offers for her, thereby shifting the responsibility to other shoulders. Beauty as burden is the theme of this little novel, with a dash of reluctant Eliza Doolittle-ism thrown in.

3. At the Guardian Lorraine Berry writes about “Bibliomania: the strange history of compulsive book buying.”  Here’s an excerpt:

When I was a young woman, I drew a sort of perverse pride from my willingness to skip a meal or two in order to afford books. Soon enough, with the ubiquity of credit card touts on campus, I could buy both books and meals. I justified my increasing debt as necessary for my education, and joked with friends that while others spent their money on cars and expensive clothes, anything of value that I owned was on my bookcases.

4.  And at Tor, Steven Brust writes, “Five Roger Zelazny Books that Changed My Life by Being Awesome.”

You always get asked, “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” And, of course, there’s no answer, or a thousand answers that are all equally valid. But I usually say, “In high school, when I read Zelazny’s Lord of Light.”

You see, until then, I had never known you could do that. I never knew you could make someone feel all those different things at the same time, with all of that intensity, just by how you used 26 characters and a few punctuation marks. What was it? Well, everything: Sam and Yama were the most compelling characters I’d come across; it was the first time I’d ever stopped reading to just admire a sentence; it gave me the feeling (which proved correct) that there were layers I wouldn’t get without a few rereadings; and, above all, it was when I became of what could be done with voice—how much could be done with just the way the author addressed the reader. I remember putting that book down and thinking, “If I could make someone feel like this, how cool would that be?” Then I started reading it again. And then I went and grabbed everything else of his I could find.

Henry James’ Bad Romances: Why Good Girls Don’t Win


Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh! Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh!
Caught in a bad romance
Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh! Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh!
Caught in a bad romance
—Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance”

Henry James wrote soap operas. Why pretend otherwise?  His prose is polished and his exquisite periods deftly-balanced,  but his innocent American heroines are does in headlights and his  plots are melodramatic.  James would have been horrified by the spare lyrics of Lady Gaga’s pop “Bad Romance,” written on a tour bus when she was 23, but he, too, spun “bad romances,” and he too started early.   And is it impossible that Lady Gaga, between gigs, has read a book or two by James? Even pop stars have down time.

the-golden-bowl-james-259020I read James’s best and most famous books first, the three novels of his ‘golden” period, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl. Their polish and convolutions fascinated me.  I especially love The Golden Bowl, in which the innocent American heroine, unlike so many of her Jamesian sisters,  triumphs over a double-crossing false friend.  Maggie Verver, the rich, generous, unsophisticated heiress, manages with subtlety and a kind of terrified intelligence to squelch an affair between Charlotte, her old friend, now her father’s wife, and her own husband, the Italian prince Amerigo.  She restores order to her world.

Maggie and her fellow good-girl sisters rarely triumph.  Much as I love The Portrait of a Lady, his  first successful novel, published in 1881, isn’t he awfully hard on  the smart, willful American heroine, Isabel Archer?  She travels in England and befriends wealthy cousins and attracts aristocrats; then she unexpectedly inherits money, which should free her to do whatever she wants.  Unfortunately, after rejecting two good men, Caspar Goodwood, an American, and Lord Warburton, an English aristocrat, she falls in love with an American expatriate in Italy, the sadistic Gilbert Osmond.  To make matters worse, the marriage has been plotted by her charming friend Madame Merle, who has been Osmond’s lover, and, it turns out, is the mother of his daughter, Pansy, who lives with him.   Isabel’s spirit is not quite broken, but she is wounded.  She should leave the marriage, but stays to help  Pansy, who is too terrified of Osmond to act.  Should Isabel stay?  What will happen to Pansy if she does?  It is a knotty dilemma.  Whatever Isabel does, it can hardly be a “win.”

henry-james-washington-squareWhat about James’s early novels?  They follow a similar pattern.  I recently reread James’ other 1881 novel,  Washington Square, which was not very popular when it was published.  It is very short but  covers decades in New York, from the heroine’s youth to middle age.  The heroine, Catherine, is hardly a heroine, or so we are informed:  she is the plain, rather large daughter of the successful Doctor Sloper,  who despises her because she is not talented or beautiful.  Only her widowed aunt, the meddling Mrs. Penniman,  who lives with them, spins romances about Catherine.  Mrs. Penniman has a romantic temperament.

Then at a party, Catherine meets a man.  Actually, he singles her out; he knows who she is. The charming Morris Townsend, whose cousin is about to marry Catherine’s cousin, converses wittily though she says nothing.  Catherine is wearing a red gown with gold trim, about which her father  had chided her, and she thinks the rich gown has attracted Morris.  He fascinates her: he has traveled all over the world, squandered all his money,  and is now back in New York, looking for a gig, while living with his widowed sister and her five children.

And what if his gig could be marrying Catherine?

Jennifer Jason Leigh tries to look like a plain Catherine in "Washington Square."

Jennifer Jason Leigh tries to look  plain  as Catherine in “Washington Square.”

Doctor Sloper forbids the marriage.  He is sure Morris is after Catherine’s money.  He is right.  He tells Catherine he will disinherit her if they marry.  Catherine does not defy him; she plans to wait him out.  She says she doesn’t care about the money and they should be able to live comfortably on her inheritance from her mother.  And even if Morris only wants her money, there will be plenty of it.  Couldn’t Catherine be happy with an unstable husband who wants her money but is charming?  Well…I’m not sure.

On the other hand, Mrs. Penniman cannot help meddling.  She has a little crush on Morris herself and keeps having illicit rendezvous with him.  He is impatient and thinks she wastes his time. Sometimes he is barely polite. Then she goes home and invents things to say to Catherine.

Catherine is  annoyed when she learns of the secret meetings.  Mrs. Meddle claims she is reporting Morris’s feelings for Catherine’s good..

“If you succumb to the dread of your father’s wrath,” she said, “I don’t know what will become of us.”

“Did he tell you to say these things to me?”

“He told me to use my influence.”

“You must be mistaken,” said Catherine. “He trusts me.”

“I hope he may never repent of it!” And Mrs. Penniman gave a little sharp slap to her newspaper. She knew not what to make of her niece, who had suddenly become stern and contradictions.

This tendency on Catherine’s part was presently even more apparent. “You had much better not make any more appointments with Mr. Townsend,” she said. “I don’t think it is right.”

Catherine is solid, much more solid than Morris or Mrs. Penniman.  Surely her father will soften?  He doesn’t. Surely Morris will marry Catherine without the money?  He doesn’t., though her own money is more than sufficient.   Catherine is devastated when he jilts her . Her whole value has been reduced to money.

The years tick by.  She has chances to marry, but does not.   Is she destroyed?  No, she is not. In some ways she has won, by not showing her pain.   But her paranoid father in old age becomes convinced Morris will come back and marry Catherine.  He punishes Catherine monetarily again.  But in a way Catherine triumphs. She didn’t want the money anyway.  As she always said, she had her own.

This odd little novel reminds me of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.  Catherine is more or less Ethan, caught between a sickly wife Zeena and his lively cousin Mattie.  In this case, her father is Zeena and the lively cousin is Mrs. Penniman.  Well, at first I thought it was Morris, but I changed my mind.

None of these books turn out very well, do they?  But I do admire Catherine.  This was the first reading when I genuinely appreciated her.

Sometimes it takes a lot of readings.

I like her stolidity.

On Rereading Henry James: Maggie in The Golden Bowl


For the essential thing about Mr James was that he was an American; and that meant, for his type and generation, that he could never feel at home until he was in exile.”—Rebecca West

the-golden-bowl-henry-james-hardcover-il_570xn-1035222447_jyyrHenry James is a spellbinding American novelist. Ignore his reputation for verbose opacity: his elaborate novels are page-turners. You read on and on at breakneck pace, wondering what will happen next to his innocent American heroines, preyed on by duplicitous American expatriates and Europeans. (The vampirical expatriates and Europeans are often lovers.) The advent of romance is always a danger. “Watch out,” I want to wail to Isabel Archer (The Portrait of a Lady), Maggie Verver (The Golden Bowl), and Milly Theale (The Wings of the Dove) as they become embroiled with devious lovers.  James, an Anglophile educated in New York, London, Paris, Geneva, and at Harvard , moved to Europe and lived in London from 1876-1898 and then in Rye, Sussex, till he died in 1916.  He spent much of the time writing about American heiresses abroad.  He  set most of his novels in England or Europe, while retaining his American point of view.  He was influenced by his friends Turgenev and Flaubert.

We recognize James’s Americans, don’t we?  We identify with them, or at least I do:  it is always a struggle to understand the subsets of American culture, let alone a foreign culture. What does our choice of language mean when traveling in a foreign country? Maggie in The Golden Bowl teases her fiancé, Amerigo,  the Italian prince, that his only flaw is that his English is too good.

“When I speak worse, you see, I speak French,” he had said, intimating thus that there were discriminations, doubtless of the invidious kind, for which that language was the most apt.

I especially love The Golden Bowl, James’s masterpiece, his last novel, published in 1904.  I  recently reread it, admiring the subtle novelistic distinctions  between Americans and European. Beautifully labyrinthine, The Golden Bowl is also extremely entertaining.  Is there a kinder, more generous , intelligent heroine than Maggie Verver? She is equally solicitous for the happiness of her widowed father, a collector of art and antiquities for his museum in American City, and her charming husband Amerigo.  Well, Gore Vidal, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition, prefers her manipulative friend, Charlotte, an American raised in Europe who hates America, and who, it turns out, used to be Amerigo’s lover.   Maggie and her father, Adam Verver, a widower  who  later marries Charlotte, at the nudging of their meddling friend Mrs. Assingham, have no inkling of their spouses’ relationship.

The Machiavilleian Charlotte carefully times all her entrances and exits.  On the eve of Maggie and Amerigo’s wedding she arrives  in London uninvited and stays with Mrs. Assingham.   She manipulates Amerigo into meeting her secretly, allegedly to shop for a wedding present for Maggie. Charlotte is the instigator, reminding him of old adventures; he remains slightly aloof. She  offers to buy him a present, but a gorgeous golden bowl she admires, which is really gilded crystal, has a crack and is rejected.  In the end they buy nothing for Maggie or each other.   After Charlotte and Adam marry , she initiates an affair with Amerigo, on the grounds that Maggie and Adam are too much together and busy with Maggie and Amerigo’s son, the principino.  But when Amerigo and Charlotte return very late together from a long weekend at a country house, Maggie notices and is anxious.  She discovers she is in love with her husband and doesn’t want to lose him.

Critics from Rebecca West to  Vidal have underestimated the subtle Maggie and labeled the Ververs’ close father-daughter relationship  incestuous.  (Where are we?  In a Greek myth?)  I can tell you for a fact that Rebecca West’s short study of Henry James is riddled with errors and her judgements of his work can be bizarre.  She writes, “Decidedly The Golden Bowl is not good as a novel.”  Well, that is the first time I’ve read that!

West writes that Maggie “arranges a marriage” between her father and Charlotte. No, that is not the case. What happens is:  Charlotte once again shows up unannounced in London, staying at Mrs. Assingham’s,  and Maggie suggests to her father that they  invite her to their country house. Maggie is taken aback when her father misinterprets her and offers to write the invitation to Charlotte himself:  she understands the implications better than he does. And then , while Maggie and Amerigo are traveling in Europe,  Adam proposes to Charlotte at the prompting of Mrs. Assingham who tells Adam it would take a burden off Maggie.  The four get along very well on the surface, but Charlotte is smoldering.

So if the Ververs are incestuous, what about  Charlotte, who sleeps with her son-on-law Amerigo, saying the Ververs won’t notice. Eventually we learn the falsity of Charlotte:  she has been one step ahead of everybody in her plans all along, even leaving Rome when the Ververs showed up so the impecunious prince could have a shot at marriage.

What a complicated book, and so many ways to read it.  In Volume 1, The Prince, James superbly, obliquely reveals the complications of the situation mostly concentrating on the sensibilities of the prince, and, fascinatingly, the gossip of the Assinghams. In Volume 2, The Princess, we see everything through Maggie’s nervous perceptions, as she works very hard to keep her husband and protect her father from knowledge of his wife’s crime.   To me Maggie is the heroine:  she even feels compassion for Charlotte, because Charlotte has always been in control, and now has lost.  And Charlotte does not know that Maggie knows.  “Charlotte is great,” she tells her father, who is moving with his wife to American City.  “Charlotte is beautiful.” Charlotte is these things, but she is also a monster.  And her banishment to America City cannot possibly be all that bad:  she has the money she always wanted and needed.

Ovid and the Art of Love: Still Fun, Still Politically Incorrect

If anyone in Rome does not know the art of loving,
let him read this poem and let him love.
—Ovid’s “The Art of Love”

art-of-love-ovid-51cogrldpfl-_sy344_bo1204203200_It could be said that Ovid taught me Latin.

It didn’t seem that way at the time.

Ovid? I loved Ovid. I  read his epic poem, Metamorphoses, a collection of retellings of Greek and Roman myths, when I was eight, because it was in the “mythology” section of the library.   Years later, I wrote an “effervescent” paper on Metamorphoses  (i.e., not scholarly: I was the master of bubbly pop prose) and was urged to take Latin.

Latin? Who had time?  I was busy. I had no time.  And overnight life had changed when I signed up for Greek. Before that, I had long lunches every day at the Union, coffee at Grace and Rubies (a women’s club immortalized in a story by T. C. Boyle), and at night went to movies. To acquire leisure, I signed up every semester for at least one class where I had already done the reading:  the Brontes, Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Eliot, Hawthorne, Melville, Hardy, Lawrence.

But now there was Greek.  I could no longer get by on witty little essays about gender issues.  No,  I had to know things!  I memorized paradigms, learned the strange rules of grammar and syntax, and translated adapted Xeonophon. Then we read tiny amounts of Lysias, parsing every sentence and identifying rhetorical figures of speech. Why did I love it? Who knows?

Ovid Amores 419-MO1CbKL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Finally I agreed to take Latin.  I do not know what happened to my brain then.  The Latin fell into place like tiles on a Scrabble board.  Honestly, it had to be reincarnation:  I was a Roman matron in another life.  I scanned poetry at sight, while everybody else laboriously divided lines into syllables and marked the feet…

I fell in love with witty, charming Ovid during a summer poetry class.  Breezy Ovid for breezy summer.    His Latin is indescribably elegant:  lines of poetry are braided with  figures of speech and interlocking word order.  Take  Ovid’s version of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus.  When Daedalus makes wings for himself and his son to escape from Crete,  he puts the finishing touches  on the work and then,

“the artisan balanced on twin wings…”

But in the Latin,  the word “artisan” is placed between the adjective “twin” and the noun “wings,”making it literally seem that Daedalus is balanced on wings.

…geminas opifex libravit in alas
… [on] twin the artisan balanced on wings

We can’t do this in English, because word order determines meaning.

In addition to Metamorphoses, I have enjoyed Ovid’s witty love elegies (Amores) and  The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria).  These poems are mostly comical, but occasionally touch on serious issues:  in Amores, there are two poems about his mistress’s abortion.

I am now rereading The Art of Love ( Ars Amatoria), a satiric didactic poem on how to  pick up women (and the last section is for women on how to pick up men). May I just say this is my least favorite of his poems?  There was a tradition of Roman didactic poems, Lucretius on Epicureanism, Virgil on farming, but Ovid’s is silly, lusty, satiric, and outrageous.  It goes too far sometimes.

Love is a frivolous entertainment in Ovid’s world.  He acknowledges the goal is to find a woman you love, but is not adverse to a one-night stand.

How do you meet women, if you haven’t read his book of love?  He has many suggestions:  parties, porticos, the Palatine, the races. The best place?  The theater.

But especially hunt in the theater’s curve,
this place is more fertile than your wildest desire.
There you will find someone to love, or someone you can play with,
someone to touch, or someone you wish to hold.

And  sometimes he goes far, too far, really too far, in his mythological parallels about love . In fact, there is a whole section on grotesque myths about women’s loves, starting with Pasiphaë, Minos’ wife, who falls in love with a bull and gives birth to the minotaur. (What IS the origin of that myth?)

And, by the way, Pasiphase and Minos are connected to Daedalus, who built the labyrinth for the Minotaur, and then angered Minos by giving the clue to help Theseus escape.

The exasperated editor of my Latin commentary writes copious notes on  Pasiphaë but then abruptly pauses to explain,

327ff.  More stories of disgusting and unnatural female lust.

And, yes, they are disgusting, but I have never seen a note like that/

Ovid’s version of the  Pasiphaë  myth is often hilarious.  He asks why she brings a mirror  on the mountains among the cows and why she keeps foolishly combing her hair:  “Trust the mirror, which says you are not a heifer.”

Pasiphaë wonders why the bull thinks the heifers dancing in the grass are pretty.  And she eliminates some of his mistresses by sending them to plow, or sacrificing them for some made-up religious ritual..  She is very violent during the sacrifices.

At one point Ovid flippantly comments,

Whether or not Minos pleases, no adulterer should be sought;
but if you prefer to deceive a man, deceive with a man.

I agree!

Finally, she deceives the bull with a wooden cow and is impregnated with the minotaur.   He does not give details, thank God. There was a similar rumor about Catherine the Great and a horse.  What is the origin of these stories?  Well, hm, one day, maybe next year, or the year after, I’ll go to a library in a distant city and look it up!

Poor Ovid.  He was not living in good times–are any of us living in good times?–and it was not apparently a  good time to write racy poems about love.  Augustus banished Ovid to an island  for carmen et error, a poem and an error, or at least that’s what Ovid wrote..  Scholars speculate that the poem was Ars Amatoria.  But speculation means so much to scholars…and so little to the rest.

Rural Reading: Mary Webb’s Precious Bane

“It was at a love-spinning that I saw Kester first. And if, in these new-fangled days, when strange inventions crowd upon us, when I hear tell there is even a machine coming into use in some parts of the country for reaping and mowing, if those that may happen will read this don’t know what a love-spinning was, they shall hear in good time.”
—Mary Webb’s Precious Bane

mary-webb-precious-bane-60de0240bc0947471016e4a87852a4aeThere are a handful of dazzling books about rural English life I read again and again: Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, Flora Thompson’s autobiographical Lark Rise, and Mary Webb’s classic, Precious Bane.  Hardy’s novel is in no danger of neglect:  a recent movie of Far from the Madding Crowd starred Kerry Mulligan; and the BBC dramatized Lark Rise to Candleford.

Would I have read Mary Webb’s Precious Bane had I not seen a BBC dramatization on Masterpiece Theater?  Probably not. (The series is not on DVD.)  The book is now out-of-print in the U.S.:  I acquired a 1926 Modern Library edition at a used bookstore.  It won the Prix Femina as the best English novel in 1925, but it has taken some severe hits since then. Stella Gibbons satirized “loam and love-child” novels in Cold Comfort Farm.  Her favorite targets were Webb, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, and Sheila Kaye-Smith.  Since I love all four, the satire must be a compliment. Well, I also enjoy the entertaining Gibbons.

Webb’s masterpiece, Precious Bane,  should be set apart from her early books, which I call rural Gothic. But I can happily read Precious Bane in a day and then reread lyrical bits about nature the next day.  Oh, and I always cry, because I know what will happen.  Life in Shropshire is tragic.  The Sarn men are unlucky.

This lyrical,  beautifully-written novel, set in the northern country of Shropshire, tells the story of a  highly competent, intelligent  woman with a harelip, Prue Sarn. As an old woman, she looks back and describes the beauty of a vanished way of life during her childhood, her work on the farm as a young woman, love-spinnings  (spinning parties rather like quilting bees, only the women spin thread for cloth instead) and played cards, her anxiety for her ambitious brother Gideon, and her quiet love for Kester, a weaver. Shunned as a witch by some villagers because of her harelip,   she  has a lovely figure but is afraid to show Kester her face.  Kester himself is different:  he stops a bull-baiting by offering to fight the dogs one by one.  Dogs love him:  he makes friends with most of them.  But Prue runs to the pharmacist for help when she sees a mean guard dog growling.  The dog attacks and she saves his life.

The novel is tragic: the arrogant Gideon not only neglects his fiancée, Jancis, but he has blood on his hands:  near the beginning of the novel, his  father, Old Sarn, threatens to beat him and Gideon stands up and knocks him down..  Old Sarn has a fit and dies.  Gideon is not blamed, but at the funeral he will not pay for a sin eater.

Now it was still the custom at that time, in our part of the country, to give a fee to some poor man after a death, and then he would take bread and wine handed to him across the coffin, and eat and drink, saying–I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man, that ye walk not over the fields nor down the by-ways. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul.”

Gideon says he will be the Sin Eater if his mother will give him the farm.  She is upset, but is even more frightened of her violent husband’s dying with all those sins on his soul.  Gideon thinks it is a superstition.  But, as things turn out, you can’t be sure. Owning the farm is very bad for this greedy man as he works himself almost to death trying to get rich.

Some things work, out some don’t.  The tragic story of Gideon unfolds.  He is a monster, with no morals, and eventually is half mad.   Prue survives and lives to a happy old age, but she remembers the stories, the harvests, the celebrations, and Gideon’s monomania and hubris.  She mourns the dead.

Gorgeous, lyrical language!  You will love it.

I think I’ll reread it tomorrow.

On Reading Turgenev: Turgenev’s Smoke and V. S. Pritchett’s The Gentle Barbarian

pritchett-turgenev-9780880011204-us-300Since New Year’s Day, I’ve been been absorbed in Turgenev’s books: Diary of a Superfluous Man, Rudin, Home of the Gentry, On the Eve, Smoke, and some of the longer stories. I recently finished Mumu, the very sad story of a deaf-mute peasant and his loyal dog, and then depressed everyone by retelling it.

Why this zest for Turgenev?

Well, it’s winter.  I read Russians in winter.

And the holidays were so depressing.

smoke-turgenevI don’t know about you, but on New Year’s Day I shopped for reams of paper and a new calendar diary.  Then I went to a coffeehouse and sat among bleary-eyed customers who stared askance at their Christmas bills.

Turgenev’s novels, usually set in spring or summer, are a wonderful escape from winter.  They are short and lyrical; his fluid style is deceptively simple. Characters are revealed in dialogue as they take country walks  or sit in comfortable drawing rooms, and Turgenev, a successful playwright, had an ear for dialogue.  He wrote about love and politics, and  analyzed the Russian character.  He describes the tension between Western-oriented intellectuals (known as Westerners) and the radical Slavophils who emerged after the Crimean War.  Turgenev was a Westerner.

I’ve blogged much about Turgenev lately, but want to say a few words about Smoke and V. S. Pritchett’s stunning literary biography, The Gentle Barbarian: The Work and Life of Turgenev.

smoke-turgenev-garnett-51npupcvybl-_sx322_bo1204203200_In Smoke, Turgenev’s penultimate novel, set in Baden-Baden, he satirizes both the Slavophil radicals and the Russian gentry. The young hero, Litvinov, a landowner who has studied farming methods for four years, is on his way back to Russia to manage his estate and facilitate the emancipation of the serfs.  He stops in Baden-Baden, a gambling resort, to wait for his fiancée, Tatyana, and her aunt, who are expected in a few days.  He reluctantly attends a very unpleasant party of  radical Slavophils who imagine they can live like the peasants;  he is equally infuriated by a group of effete aristocrats who oppose the emancipation.

Turgenev fits politics into this novel, but there is also a fascinating love affair. Litvinov meets Irina, his former fiancee, who jilted him.  This femme fatale, who is in Baden-Baden with her wealthy husband,  mocks the politics of the aristocrats, but clearly likes her clothes and life-style.  Yet she cannot resist seducing Litvinov after she learns he is engaged.

Turgenev identified with Irina’s friend, Potugin, who has followed her all around Russia and to Baden-Baden.  This earnest, intelligent middle-aged man approaches Litvinov on her behalf, almost as a pimp.  But he and Litvinov are both Westerners, and Potugin, in a passionate but awkward speech (usually Turgenev is elegant), voices Turgenev’s ideas:

…given a dozen Frenchmen, and the conversation will infallibly turn upon amorous adventures, however much you try to divert them from the subject; but let a dozen Russians meet together, and instantly there springs up the question—you had an opportunity of being convinced of the fact this evening—the question of the significance and the future of Russia, and in terms so general, beginning with creation, without facts or conclusions. They worry and worry away at that unlucky subject, as children chew away at a bit of india-rubber—neither for pleasure nor profit, as the saying is. Well, then, of course the rotten West comes in for its share. It’s a curious thing, it beats us at every point.”

I found V. S. Pritchett’s biography, The Gentle Barbarian:  The Work and Life of Turgenev, fascinating and also very helpful in explaining 19th-century Russian history and the rift between the different groups. Like Potugin in Smoke, Turgenev was in love with a married woman, Pauline Viardot.  He lived for years off and on with Pauline, a Spanish opera singer, and her husband.  It is not clear whether he had sex with her or not; Pritchett and other biographers seem  to think not.  Or perhaps they were briefly involved, and then lived together as friends.

Ivan Turgenev

Ivan Turgenev

A landowner and the son of an overbearing, abusive woman, Turgenev escaped his mother to study at universities in Moscow, Petersburg, and Germany.  His career as a writer in Russia was successful but he paid the price:  he was jailed for a month after he wrote a eulogy of Gogol, and then a letter to a friend was intercepted. Goncharov, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy were  jealous of his success.  Goncharov accused Turgenev of plagiarism (there were no grounds), Dostoevsky, a right-winger and a gambler whom Turgenev tried to help, caricatured him in The Brothers Karamazov, and Tolstoy, who never realized it was Turgenev who had pushed for the French translation of  War and Peace,   was very pugnacious with hims.   In Russia, writers were constantly censored, exiled, or jailed.  It was dangerous.  But in France, Turgenev found friends.   He was appreciated by Flaubert and George Sand.

Pritchett describes Turgenev as a gentle, shy, plumpish giant. As a young man, he fell in love with Pauline Viardot’s voice at the opera and went over and over:  he couldn’t afford it, so he went with friends.. Turgenev writes,

His gentleness and shyness vanished as his shrill voice screamed applause, his mad behaviour was the joke of the season. There is nothing like the sight of a giant who is out of his mind.

This short perfect biography, only 258 pages, is beautifully written and very accessible in terms of literary criticism.  Pritchett brilliant.  Would that all biographers had his style!

And I love Turgenev, “a giant who [was] out of his mind!”

Have We Gone Too Far with Literary Anniversaries?

Anniversary of publication of Austen’s “Persuasion” and “Northanger Abbey” in December.

The Guardian has an excellent book page. Yes, there are brilliant reviews of new books, but that’s not why you will read it.

Do you like sensational book news?  Alison Flood will uproot it…somewhere!  How about the wonderful lists?   Top 10 this and Top 10 that, with clever synopses/reviews, unlike the stark lists at Book Riot, where there is often no description of the books.  Dead authors?  Diana Athill’s recent essay on Molly Keane is superb.  Do you wait for books to come out in paperback?  Nicholas Lezard zeroes in on some of the best.

But the 2017 Literary Calendar made me pose the question:  have we gone too far with literary anniversaries?  Do we really want to know that   Aug. 9 is “the 50th anniversary of the death of Joe Orton, who was killed by his partner Kenneth Halliwell in August 1967 in the London flat they shared”?

So I have listed the anniversaries as “legitimate “and “illegitimate.”  Let me know what you think.



Carson McCullers

Feb. 19:   Centenary of birth of Carson McCullers in Columbus, Georgia.

March 1: Centenary of the birth of Robert Lowell in Boston.

March 19: Albert Camus’s L’Etranger was published 75 years ago in France, with The Myth of Sisyphus appearing in the same year.

May 30: It is 50 years since the publication in Buenos Aires of Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude)

Oct. 14: It’s 125 years since The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was published, the first collection of Holmes stories.

November 30: The 350th anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Swift in Dublin, 1667.

Dec.  Bicentenary of the posthumous publication of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, when Jane Austen was identified as the author of her novels for the first time in a biographical note by her brother.


Jan.: It’s 250 years since the completion of Tristram Shandy, with the publication in 1767 of Laurence Sterne’s final volume.  (The first two volumes appeared in 1759, and the seven others in the next seven years, so…  Oh, well.)

Feb. 22:  75th anniversary of the Austrian author Stefan Zweig’s death in 1942 in exile in Brazil.  (Why do deaths??)

June:  Centenary of publication of TS Eliot’s debut pamphlet, Prufrock and Other Observations.  (Okay:  maybe that’s going too far?)

June 26: Twenty years since the publication in 1997 of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first in the series.  (That’s an anniversary?)

July 18: Bicentenary of death in Winchester of Jane Austen.  (Why deaths?)

Aug. 9: 50th anniversary of the death of Joe Orton, who was killed by his partner Kenneth Halliwell in August 1967 in the London flat they shared.  (Very grisly!)

Aug.  31 150th anniversary of the death of Charles Baudelaire in Paris in 1867.  (Okay, why the death?)

Russian Lit Night: Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry & Dostoevsky’s The Gambler


I am entranced by nineteenth-century Russian literature.  It is not just for entertainment:  it is the pleasure of tracing the development of  Russian fiction from Pushkin to Chekhov. Pushkin, the “father of Russian literature,” developed literary Russian when French was the preferred language and aristocrats seldom wrote in Russian. He is best known for Eugene Onegin, a stunning novel in verse, but he made the transition from poetry to prose, and his influence ranges from Lermontov to Chekhov .

Tonight  I’m writing a catch-up post about Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry  and Dostoevsky’s The Gambler.  Turgenev is sprightly and lyrical; Dostoevsky, never my favorite, is, thank God,  less moody and masochistic here than usual,.

turgenev-nest-of-gentlefolk-11127107760Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry, his second novel, was published in 1859.  The title has been translated variously as Home of the Gentry,  Nest of Gentlefolk, A Nobleman’s Nest, and Liza

Turgenev is known for his portraits of the “superfluous man,” an  intellectual character with a Hamlet-like garrulousness and inability to act.   His first novel, Rudin, centers on a shallow Westernized intellectual who has become a parasite on Russian society. In later novels, he censured the “superfluous man”  less  and expanded his range of thoughts and feelings.   In  Home of the Gentry, Lavretsky, the hero, is self-doubting but multi-faceted, with the ability to change. He has left his promiscuous wife, Varvara, in Europe with her lover. and returned to his estate in Russia to find himself and “plough the land.”

Yes, in case you’re wondering, this short novel is a predecessor of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, focused on the slow rehabilitation of the cuckolded husband.  Turgenev’s style is exquisite and every action and interaction has a reason.  Lavretsky reminds me of Levin, the irritable landowner  in Anna Karenina.  But Varvara is truly Machiavellian, not at all like Anna.

Like so many of Turgenev’s novels, it develops through sketches of  everyday life , sharp dialogue, and gorgeous descriptions of characters and landscape. The nature scenes are incomparably beautiful.

Home of the Gentry begins in spring, at the house of Marya Dmietrievna Kalitan, a widow and the mother of two daughters, who lives in the provincial town of O….

Here is the opening sentence.

A bright spring day was drawing toward evening; small pink clouds stood high in the clear sky and seemed not so much to float past as to recede into the very depths of the blue.

Guests arrive one by one, and  the most important to the hostess is Panshin, a smooth-talking, charming government official who is courting her daughter, Liza. But the  gossip soon turns to Lavretsky:    the women believe he should have stayed with his wife.

An illustration from "Home of the Gentry" by Dmitry Kardovsky

An illustration from “Home of the Gentry” by Dmitry Kardovsky

Lavretsky drops in at the house unexpectedly,  makes courteous conversation, drinks tea,  and dislikes the shallow  Panshin, who is his rival . (Panshin is he Westernized superfluous man, though he does not regard himself as such.)   Lavretsky is intrigued by the lovely, intense,  religious  young woman Liza, one of Turgenev’s many graceful,  heroines.  In fact, all the men are in love with Liza, including her poor, elderly German music teacher, Lemm.  The attraction between Lavretsky and Liza is palpable,  but she asks him to pray with her for forgiveness of his wife and advises him to reconcile with Varvara.   Their experience in church together is almost erotic:  it is their propinquity.  When Lavretsky reads a rumor in the newspaper  that his wife is dead, he believes he has a shot at happiness with Liza.  Well…that is not how it works in Turgenev.

I love the contrast between Varvara and Liza. We feel Liza’a intensity, and realize she is aredently in love  beneath the piety.  But Turgenev turns Liza turns into a stereotype.  That is the flaw in this otherwise perfect book.

I read Richard Freeborn’s very readable translation, but have never yet found a bad translation of Turgenev.

Dostoevsky’s The Gambler (1866) .  I’m not a fan of dark psychological novels, but this tale of gambling in Baden-Baden is short, fast ,and relatively cheerful.  In fact it is not so very far from the charm and grace of Turgenev.  (Turgenev’s novel Smoke is also set in Baden-Baden, though it is not a gambling story.)

the-gambler-dostoevsky-ad5495abf5The narrator Alexei Ivanovicha, a tutor, is staying in a hotel in Baden-Baden with his employer, the General, an inveterate gambler. Furious about his inferior status in the household, Alexei believes himself the equal of the general and his hangers-on, and is in love  with the general’s stepdaughter  Polina, a bitter young woman who also has low status in the household and no control over her fate.  The genera is in thrall to a seductive Frenchwoman,  who will marry him only if he inherits money from a rich aunt.  There are countless telegrams sent to see if she is dead. When the aunt, called Grandmother, shows up, alive and kicking, and insists that Alexei show her the ropes of roulette, everyone watches in horror.  When Alexei begins to gamble, too… well, it could be darker.  Dostoveksy dictated this novel, so perhaps he didn’t have time to make it as truly horrific as we know he must have wanted to. He had missed a deadline!

George Steiner writes about The Gambler:

Gambling is a recurrent, almost obsessive motif in classic Russian literature.  It is the core of Pushkin’s Queen of Spades; Gogol’s Dead Souls is a full-scale gambler’s myth; gambling appears constantly in Lermontov’s and Tolstoy’s tales of military, rural, and city life.  The card table and debt of honor are a frequent source of temptation or suicidal ruin to the hero.  The gambler at whist or billiards, now amateurish and reduced to petty stakes, is a stock figure in the repertoire of Chekhov.

Steiner is brilliant on Russian literature!

More next week….not necessarily about Russians.

President Barack Obama, Reader



Last fall in the UK, a cheeky young man lectured me on American politics and criticized Obama.

I was taken aback, but I mentioned a few of Obama’s achievements. And I added, “We’re really going to miss Obama.  I mean we’re really, really going to miss him.”

Count the number of “really”s. It isn’t hyperbole. I mean it.

Obama is the best president of our lifetime. Well, whom else would we pick?

What impressed me most?  The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Americans at least have (had) a shot at visiting doctors. Illness is terrible.  Can you even see a doctor without insurance?  There is always much presenting of cards and Xeroxing them.  And without insurance, the cost of medication is shocking :  one pill can cost $100 or more.  Hence the number of  homeless people tragically off their meds.  How many middle-class, lower-middle-class, and lower-class deaths could be prevented by affordable medication?

What else do I like about Obama?  Well, he is a great reader. The act of reading, the absorption of  ideas, history, and literature, is a spur to the imagination. He is also a pro-education president who wanted to make community colleges free.

My husband and I intended to send him a thank-you card, but alas…we didnt!

We will miss him.

Things are changing drastically already.  Unfortunately, even the media are changing.  NPR is obsequiously going “red” (as in Republican), unless it was just an off night.   I do not listen to NPR for interviews with Republican college professors and whiny businessmen who want to underpay their employees.  Is this what it’s come to?

Oh, well, it’s only four years.  If we cannot support NPR, we’ll give more to Planned Parenthood, the Food Bank, the American Lung Association, NARAL, NAMI, the APL, and the Democrats.

And Obama fans will enjoy a fascinating article in The New York Times, “Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books,”in which Michiko Kakutani interviews him about his reading.

Here is an excerpt from Kakutani’s  Critics’ Notebook piece about the interview.  (You can also read the whole transcript.)

“At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted,” he said, reading gave him the ability to occasionally “slow down and get perspective” and “the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.” These two things, he added, “have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.”…

Other novels served as a kind of foil — something to argue with. V. S. Naipaul’s novel “A Bend in the River,” Mr. Obama recalls, “starts with the line ‘The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.’ And I always think about that line and I think about his novels when I’m thinking about the hardness of the world sometimes, particularly in foreign policy, and I resist and fight against sometimes that very cynical, more realistic view of the world. And yet, there are times where it feels as if that may be true.”

Lost in a Novel, or the Heroine of My Own Life? (Part Two)

light summer-reading

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”–Dickens’s David Copperfield:

Every time I read the  brilliant opening sentence of David Copperfield, I ask myself: “Am I the heroine of my own life?”

The question haunts me because I am primarily a reader.  In fact I would rather read than go to Paris, Rio, or the Mall of America.   I once absent-mindedly wrote “reader” instead of “self-employed”  on my passport application.   Can a reader be a heroine?  I’m not even sure she can get out of the country.

As a young woman in my thirties and forties, I was a “professional” reader.  I often reviewed for newspapers, little magazines,  and The ____ Review (defunct after decades).  The tiny checks bought bags of groceries.  Sometimes I was paid in copies.  And what do you do with the copies?

Reviewing can be inspiring, hilarious, or just plain annoying.  In George Orwell’s essay about a fictional reviewer, “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” he satirizes the reviewers’s job in the face of an editor’s choices for a round-up.

Half hidden among the pile of papers is a bulky parcel containing five volumes which his editor has sent with a note suggesting that they ‘ought to go well together’. …Yesterday in a resolute moment he ripped the string off it and found the five volumes to be Palestine at the Cross Roads, Scientific Dairy Farming, A Short History of European Democracy (this one 680 pages and weighs four pounds), Tribal Customs in Portuguese East Africa, and a novel, It’s Nicer Lying Down, probably included by mistake.

Occasionally I agreed to review what was patently the wrong book for me.  I once got an assignment to review a true crime book.  I read every word dutifully, but I hated every word.  And I tried to ask myself “fair” questions:  What is the writer’s intention, execution, and genre?  In the light of the subject, “execution” seemed an unfortunate word.

As a reviewer, I was briefly a prima donna, because I was fast and reliable:  I could turn around copy overnight or pinch-hit for reviewers who missed a deadline.   And it was truly a privilege to review the work of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Muriel Spark,  Doris Lessing,  Oscar Hijuelos, and Shirley Hazzard (all now dead).  If I had just stuck to reviews…but alas I wasted time on ephemera.

janet-hobhouse-dancing-in-the-darkSome professional reading is more fun than others. What they don’t tell you:  there are a lot of badly-written books.  Many of the books I read in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and zips have vanished, some deservedly, others not. What happened to Ellen Currie, author of Moses Supposes, a National Book Award finalist? (I hope she’s still alive.)  Or Susan Dodd, a novelist who won the  Iowa School of Letters Prize for Short Fiction? (She was highly lauded:  I wonder if her work has stood the test of time.) And the superb books of Janet Hobhouse are out of print, except for her posthumous novel, The Furies, reissued by NYRB.  And does anyone still read Alice Elliott Dark?  How about Thisbe Nissen?

And that’s why reviewing, or any literary journalism, can make writers and editors hard and cynical. The reviews don’t last, and few of the books last.   I separated my “real” personal reading from my review reading and only cautiously milled and thronged with other reviewers at parties. As I know now,  none of it would last for any of us. We would be primas only until the next editor came along.  Then we would  find other publications.  Again and again and again.

The last of my literary publications went out of business five or six years ago.  It paid only in copies, but that was fine.  And I realized I did not want to review anymore.  I wanted to read only what I wanted to read!

Nowadays there are thousands of book blogs and other social media about books.  (And, by the way, this is my informal book journal, not a review zine.)  Unemployed professional reviewers are frustrated to see publicists bombarding us bloggers, Goodreads reviewers, etc.,  with review copies of  (often not very good) books.  Recently a publicist contacted me to “review” a book on the basis of a five-star rating I had given a book at Goodreads. Good God!  Not even any writing!

This year I resolved to do no promos.  This is the one resolution I am not tempted to break.   I refuse to be deflected from my own reading.   “Where is my paycheck?” I wondered cynically as I declined the marketer’s request in a short email, saying I had already read the book.  And then I was offered a different book.  Can you believe it?   He/she will find someone eventually.

Ruth Jones as Flora Finching in "Little Dorrit"

Ruth Jones as Flora Finching in “Little Dorrit”

Because of the internet, publishers are more dependent on bloggers, or so they say.  They frenetically givie away books  left and right to bloggers and online reviewers, hoping to find a wider audience.     It is a case not so much of Caveat Emptor, as Caveat Lector.  Perfectly good readers lose their direction and waste their time onmediocre books they should get paid to read, let alone review.   I wonder how many books online reviews sell.  Are there more positive or negative reader reviews?  I see laudations at blogs.  Goodreads reviewers can be brutal.

The world of professional writing has changed in the last 20 years:  according to a journalist friend, it is a “blood bath,” with a multitude of unemployed journalists and writers competing for the few writing jobs left (most of which are poorly-paid).

In times like this, we turn to  Dickens.  I need Dickens.  I love Dickens.  My favorite of his books is Our Mutual Friend, his last finished novel, which Desmond on Lost saved in a plastic bag because he had read the rest of Dickens.  Dickens would have recognized Desmond as the hero of his own life, but I am not sure he would have cared about middle-aged heroines:  think of   chatty Flora Finching in Little Dorrit, the former fiancee of Arthur Cleming, who thinks she’s old and ridiculous, though he is the same age.  He intends to win the love of Little Dorrit, a very young woman who has grown up in debtors’ prison with her father and family.

This year I’m reading the dead.  I’m reading Dickens. I’m reading the greats.  And though I have not read one book by a living writer, these old books nourish and fuel my imagination.