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?)