A Homebody’s Memoir: You Can’t Wear Fuchsia Sweatpants

Why not write a book? It seemed like a good idea.  For three days I’d worn the same fuchsia sweatpants, because my husband was out of town. I was sitting on the couch with the cats, rereading Barbara Pym’s No Fond Return of Love, when I realized that the heroine, Dulcie Mainwaring, an indexer, never wore fuchsia sweatpants, and if I wanted to write, I must get dressed.

I dragged my typewriter out of the basement. But what would I write?  I decided on a bibliomemoir. They’re popular and not too cerebral, and though I’m fairly bright, I’m basically a lightweight.  I  don’t have a gimmick or a grief to overcome: Phyllis Rose (The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading) read all the books on a library shelf; Nina Sankovitch (Tolstoy and the Purple Chair) read a book a day after her sister died; Will Schwalbe (The End of Your Life Book Club) discussed books with his dying mother; Rebecca Mead (My Life in Middlemarch) was madly in love with Middlemarch; and Robert Dessaix (Twilight of Love:  Travels with Turgenev) retraced Turgenev’s footsteps in Russia and Europe and meditated on the writer’s influence.

No,  I didn’t have high aspirations, but I had a cause.  You might say the Republicans, writers of dreadful tweets and enemies of the NEA, inspired me to raise my standards.  A disappointed Democrat, I’d upgraded my reading  to maintain the tenets of civilization. Yup, I wrote  in my notes: “Read classics to uphold tenets of civilization.”   And, in a cute little notebook from England, I’d taken a lot of notes.

To organize the notes I had literally to rip out pages, shuffle, and spread on the floor.  As I looked at the pages  I cheerfully meditated on principles of organization: (a) the importance of being “Ernest,”  mixed with  (b) the  glee of being lightweight.   I’d recently read a very disparate bunch of writers:  Pushkin, Barbara Pym, Margaret Drabble, Catherine Aird, Trollope, E. Nesbit, Ada Palmer, Valerio Massimo Manfredi, and Ovid…

Whom to write about and whom to cut?  Oh, well, write ’em up and then figure it out.  “I’ll think about that tomorrow” (Scarlet O’Hara).  I typed happily most of Day 4, wondering if  Bess Streeter Aldrich or Conrad Richter was the best, most neglected regional writer.

And then I ran out of paper. I called my cousin Megan, who came by with a pack of paper and carry-out. While we heated  the pizza, she skimmed two very short “chapters”—she approved of the pages on Agatha Christie, but said I must cut the Ovid  because it reminded her of horrible Mrs. Westcott’s Latin class, which her mother made her take, and she still had nightmares about something called hyperjump. (“Hyperbaton,” I corrected.)  I listened absent-mindedly as I organized my vitamin pill caddy, because writers who type on typewriters need to fortify body and brain with many, many, many vitamins and herbal and botanical supplements, as well as packets of a fizzy orange energy drink I keep next to the Morning Thunder tea.

When I got up from the table, Megan informed me that I had a hole in my black stretch pants.   Dear Reader, those stretch pants were all that stood between me and a life of reading novels on the couch (very Oblomov).  The fuchsia sweatpants were as comfortable as pajamas–too comfortable.  Well, I changed back into them until Megan went home, and then  did a load of laundry at midnight.

As soon as the jeans dry I’m ready to type on.

Pétronille by Amélie Nothomb

Pétronille is a pitch-perfect short novel, and, that’s the author on the cover, Amélie Nothomb, a popular Belgian writer whose award-winning books have been translated into 25 languages.

The daughter of a Belgian diplomat, Nothomb grew up in Japan, China, New York, Laos, and Burma, and now lives in Paris.  Her work is new to me, but Nothomb is a celebrity:  she is famous for wearing black hats and writing a book every year since 1992.  And she often is a character in her own books.

In  Pétronille, the narrator, Amélie, a 30-year-old novelist, is a champagne connoisseur who explains that intoxication is an art, and that fasting enhances the experience of drinking champagne.  Drunk on champagne, she sees and hears jewels tinkling and animated by a serpentine crawling.  Her observations are exquisitely weird.

As they approached me, I could feel their metallic chill.  I felt the rapture of snow; I would have liked to bury my face in this frozen treasure.  The most hallucinatory moment was when the palm of my hand actually felt the weight of a gemstone.

Each sentence is crystalline, and her  musings are as sharply observed as those of the lyrical American writer Elizabeth Strout.   But her love of champagne makes her wish she had a drinking companion.   Then at a book signing in Paris, she meets Pétronille, a fan with whom she has corresponded.  Twenty-two-year-old Pétronille looks so young that Amélie mistakes her for a teenage boy. But Pétronille wins her attention when she gets rid  of a paparazzo who disrupts the reading:  she grabs him by the scruff of the neck and drags him outside, much to the gratitude of the stupefied booksellers.

Would  Pétronille make a good drinking companion?  Amélie wonders.  She invites her to La Gymnase, a seedy cafe.   Pétronille, the daughter of working-class communists, is a seasoned drinker, but is far from the perfect companion.  She is snide about Amélie’s upper-class origins, but she appreciates champagne.  And she is eloquent on her love of the bad boys in Shakespeare, and the ghastliness of her two years spent teaching French in Glasgow. Pétronille amuses but goes too far:  during a brief walk outside the bar,  she stops to pee between two cars.  Amélie is appalled, gives up the idea of a drinking companion, and forgets about Pétronille.

But a few years later Amélie finds a copy  of Pétronille’s first novel, Honey Vinegar, which she reads in one sitting and loves. It is a riff on the theme of Henry de Montherlant’s The Young Girls, in which an author receives love letters from female readers and somehow finds ways to triumph and reject their love.  In Pétronille’s novel, the readers devour the writer. She wonders how Pétronille, a debut novelist,  knows about the behavior of female readers.  And then Amelie attends Pétronille’s reading:  this time she is the fan.   Now they are equals.

After the reading  Amelie teases her.

I took her to the Cafe Beaubourg, where I was a regular.  I apprised Pétronille of the fact that the establishment did have toilets.

“You can be so old hat!” she said.

At first, their friendship is supportive. In London, after Amelie is humiliated by a punk fashion designer  she interviews for a magazine, she invites Pétronille to join her in London. They visit the British Museum, separating so each can see the exhibits that interest her, and meet in  “Mesopotamia” before going out tor fish and chips in Soho.

Then the book takes a macabre turn.  Pétronille becomes weirder, tougher, and wilder. She continues to write and to look like a 15-year-old boy, but her  life takes a dark turn.  She cannot support herself by writing, so she participates in drug trials for money and gets ill from side effects.  Amelie cannot persuade her to quit and get a job:  Pétronille would rather risk her life than work regular hours.

Amelie is like the more successful big sister, trying to help Pétronille find her way.  But things don’t always work out between sisters.

Very weird, very enjoyable.  Really gorgeous writing, translated by Alison Anderson.

Emily Dickinson’s “A Light Exists in Spring”

It is Amherst Poetry Week (March 22-29) at Amherst College.  There is a Robert Frost symposium, a group discussion of “Emily Dickinson and Animals,” and an exhibit at the Morgan Library, “I’m Nobody! Who are You? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson.”  And while you’re there, you can visit the Emily Dickinson Museum.

Well, I just found out about it, so I am going to miss it.

But here’s a lovely Dickinson poem about spring.

“A Light exists in Spring,” by Emily Dickinson.

A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period-
When March is scarcely here
A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.
It waits upon the Lawn,
It shows the furthest Tree
Upon the furthest Slope you know
It almost speaks to you.
Then as Horizons step
Or Noons report away
Without the Formula of sound
It passes and we stay-
A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.

Happy Spring!

R.E.M.’s comical video of “Happy Shiny People” is springy, sweet, and satiric.  Kate Pierson of the B-52s adds so much to it.  I love it.  Happy Spring!

Alice Thomas Ellis’s Pillars of Gold

I’ve written bookish things recently, but have not kept up with my posts on reading.

Here goes.

I recently read Alice Thomas Ellis’s elegant comic novel,  Pillars of Gold.  Ellis was the pseudonym of Anna Haycraft, the wife of Colin Haycraft, owner of Duckworth publishing company.  Her novel The 27th Kingdom was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1982. And I love her hilarious columns about family life (she had seven children), published in four volumes as Home Life.

If  you haven’t read Ellis, Pillars of Gold  is a good place to start.  This dark comedy, set in a gentrified neighborhood in London, begins with a paragraph in a local newspaper about a woman’s body found in the canal.  The neighbors realize the corpse might be Barbs, an obnoxious woman who has been missing for weeks. Nobody misses Barbs.  Nobody likes her.  But Constance peeped in the window and noticed the plants were dead.  What should they do?

Alice Thomas Ellis

The attitudes of this mostly-autonomous community toward the police are comically revealed. Everyone guiltily agrees that someone might want to murder Barbs. Scarlet, an unhappy housewife married to an advertising executive, wonders if they should go to the police.  Constance, a jewelry maker who deals in illegal goods and has lived a disreputable life next door, formerly with her shady brothers and late mother, says she’ll report it but changes her mind. And when Scarlet says that Barbs had no family except in America, Constance decides no one will miss her.  The same is true of neighbors who attend a dinner party at Scarlet’s house.  Everyone thinks Barbs might have been killed, but no one does anything about it.

Camille, Scarlet’s daughter, who constantly cuts school, reads the item about the murder at a bar. Soon it is the talk of her friends, who take advantage of Barbs’ absence by having a party in Barbs’ house.  It turns out to be a bad idea because they, too, become increasingly uneasy.

Why does no one report that Barbs is missing?  She was a liberal political activist, partly admirable, but extremely annoying to her neighbors. She comported herself as if she were beautiful, and this greatly irritates Scarlet, who finds her ridiculous.  Some of the men might have slept with Barbs, too.

Ellis writes,

Barbs prided herself on her deep and politically informed compassion.  She concerned herself about everyone–the neighbours, the tramps, the gipsies, the feral cats and the condition of the local trees.  When the council had organized a festival to alert the people to the plight of Nicaragua, she alone of all the neighbors had climbed into the mobile coffee shop, which the council had provided, to drink Nicaraguan coffee and read the Nicaraguan posters which adorned the bulkheads and bulwarks of the van.  She went on gay rights marches–although, as far as anyone knew, she was heterosexual–and was wont to punch the air with her fist at moments that seemed to call for affirmation or triumph.  Sometimes she also uttered a cry which she had picked up somewhere:  a kind of ‘Yah.’

We all know people like Barbs.

I am very fond of Scarlet, who wants to scream at the crumbs on the counter after breakfast. She worries constantly about pesticides and  food, calculating vitamins in broad-leafed veg vs.r radioactivity, and is so exasperated with the details of housekeeping that she wishes she were dead.

She ought to feed the cat–and then there was the washing.  The builder should be summoned to scrutinize the small growth on the pantry’s outer wall, and her husband had informed her that the bank had made another balls-up and requested her to deal with it.  Tonight they were going to the theatre.

All this is beyond her, and she has no interest in going to the theatre.

Constance is also endearing, just back from a vacation in Greece, where her boyfriend Memet deserted her  and left her with his family.  She lives outside law and order–she mocks the council,”…benefactors of humanity and kidding themselves about the perfectibility of man–silly bastards…They got no grasp of reality.”

In their way, all the characters are realists, but what did happen to Barbs?  Read on.  It’s not a mystery, but events take an odd turn.

P.S. And I wondered (with no evidence at all) if Constance were based on Beryl Bainbridge, a close friend of Ellis.  The community’s attitude towards the police reminds me of that of characters in Bainbridge’s novel, The Bottle Factory Outing. 

A Turgenev Sighting in “Women in Love”

After reading much excellent but verbose nineteenth-century fiction this winter, I am finding D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love a breath of fresh air. 

 I am a huge Lawrence fan.  I have always loved this book, and I feel a deep affection for the two heroines, the Brangwen sisters, Ursula, a competent teacher who is both creative and sensual, and Gudrun, an artist who has returned from London and works as an art teacher.

I first read Women in Love after I saw the 1969 movie, directed by Ken Russell, starring Glenda Jackson, Jennie Linden, Alan Bates, and Oliver Reed. Its flamboyance was very much in keeping with the ’60s.  (My guess is that I didn’t see it till the ’70s, though, because it was R-rated, and how would we have gotten in?)  My best friend and I giggled and called each other Ursula and Gudrun.  We both loved and mocked Lawrence!

The publication in 1969 of Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics seemed to excise Lawrence from the canon for women of my generation, but I never minded his maunderings about sex, and read him for his poeticism and philosophical dialogue.  I don’t think he is sexist.  What would that mean in the context of his work?  But I admit, when I was in high school, we did mock the dialogue.  Here is how the women talk.

‘Ursula,’ said Gudrun, ‘don’t you really want to get married?’ Ursula laid her embroidery in her lap and looked up. Her face was calm and considerate. ‘

‘I don’t know,’ she replied. ‘It depends how you mean.’

So we used to repeat the dialogue and giggle, as was our wont.

Anyway I was delighted in this rereading by a Turgenev sighting. (I have also read a lot of Turgenev lately.)  At a country house party, an Italian woman is sitting on the lawn reading Fathers and Sons, and she finds a very odd phrases in the translation.

“There is a most beautiful thing in my book,” suddenly piped the little Italian woman. ‘It says the man came to the door and threw his eyes down the street.’

There was a general laugh in the company. Miss Bradley went and looked over the shoulder of the Contessa.

‘See!’ said the Contessa.

‘Bazarov came to the door and threw his eyes hurriedly down the street,’ she read.

Again there was a loud laugh, the most startling of which was the Baronet’s, which rattled out like a clatter of falling stones.

‘What is the book?’ asked Alexander, promptly.

Fathers and Sons, by Turgenev,’ said the little foreigner, pronouncing every syllable distinctly. She looked at the cover, to verify herself.

‘An old American edition,’ said Birkin.

‘Ha!—of course—translated from the French,’ said Alexander, with a fine declamatory voice.” ‘Bazarov ouvra la porte et jeta les yeux dans la rue.’

He looked brightly round the company.”

‘I wonder what the “hurriedly” was,’ said Ursula.

They all began to guess.

I wonder what American translation that was? I never thought of anybody translating a Russian novel from the French.

A scene from the movie, “Women in Love”

When Everything We Read Applies: Trollope’s The Way We Live Now and Cicero’s Pro Archia

“For unless I had convinced myself from my earliest years, on the basis of lessons derived from all I had read, that nothing in life is really worth having except moral decency and reputable behaviour, and that for their sake all physical tortures and all perils of death and banishment must be held of little account, I should never have been able to speak up for the safety of you all in so many arduous clashes, or to endure these attacks which dissolute rogues launch against me every day.”
—”Pro Archia,”  from Selected Political Speeches by Cicero (Penguin)

It has not been the happiest of spring breaks. Spring turned into winter, and we didn’t get out much.  Oh, well, I had the opportunity during the cold snap to reread Cicero’s Pro Archia and Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now.

And here’s a bracing discovery.  Everything I read, from Cicero’s defense of a Greek poet’s Roman citizenship to Trollope’s satirical novel The Way We Live Now, applies to the political situation.  Naturally, the disgraceful political events in Washington D.C., if indeed our nation’s capital is still there and not at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, are at the back of our minds.  It’s not exactly comforting, but it’s obviously true that such struggles are centuries old.

I know that many of you have read The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope, and indeed I wrote a short post about it in 2014.  According to the introduction of the Oxford edition by John Sutherland, Trollope wrote this superb satire in reaction to the dishonesty and corruption he observed in London when he returned after a year and a half in “the colonies.”

Trollope’s delineation of the  relationship between financial scams and politics is still very pertinent. The villain, Mr. Melmotte, a financier, floats a fraudulent railway company by selling shares for a nonexistent enterprise, and not only grows richer but buys his way into Parliament.  And Trollope’s characterization of Mr. Melmotte applies to more than one politician these days.

 He knew nothing of any one political question which had vexed England for the last half century,—nothing whatever of the political history which had made England what it was at the beginning of that half century … He had probably never read a book in his life. He knew nothing of the working of parliament, nothing of nationality,—had no preference whatever for one form of government over another, never having given his mind a moment’s trouble on the subject. He had not even reflected how a despotic monarch or a federal republic might affect himself, and possibly did not comprehend the meaning of those terms. But yet he was fully confident that England did demand and ought to demand that Mr. Melmotte should be returned for Westminster. This man was Mr. Melmotte himself.

Uncannily apt, isn’t it?

And then there’s Cicero’s Pro Archia, translated in the Penguin edition of Selected Political Speeches as “In Defence of the Poet Aulus Lincinius Archias.”  I read the Latin, but the Penguin is accessible.

Here’s the background:  In 64 B. C. a law of the tribune Giaus Papius expelled non-citizens of Rome.  (Does this sound familiar?)  Cicero’s speech was written in defense of the Greek poet Archias, who was accused of not being a Roman citizen. But Cicero’s brilliant speech is best known for its long laudation of reading, rhetoric, and, in short, the liberal arts.  Without books, poetry, and the study of rhetoric, Cicero says he could not successfully defend clients.  Archias was one of his teachers.

How could I find material, do you suppose, for the speeches I make every day on such a variety of subjects, unless I steeped my mind in learning? How could I endure the constant strains if I could not distract myself from them by this means? Yes, I confess I am devoted to the study of literature. If people have buried themselves in books, if they have used nothing they have read for the benefit of their fellow-men, if they have never displayed the fruits of such reading before the public eye, well, let them by all means be ashamed of the occupation. But why, gentlemen, should I feel any shame? Seeing that not once throughout all these years have I allowed myself to be prevented from helping any man in the hour of his need because I wanted a rest, or because I was eager to pursue my own pleasures, or even because I needed a sleep!

So here’s to the power of books!  The history is there, in novels, speeches, and poetry. And life is always, always, always a struggle.