A Lost Psychedelic Fantasy of the ’60s: Joan North’s The Whirling Shapes

“We’ve moved into a place, mode of being–call it what you will–where imagination is extremely powerful. That’s what I keep trying to drum into your thick heads.”  Aunt Hilda looked rather cross.

Is it a children’s book?  Is it an adult book?

That, so often, is the question when we revisit a beloved  book from childhood.

Mind you, it took me a long time to return to Joan North’s The Whirling Shapes, a great forgotten English fantasy novel of the ’60s.  (I forgot it, too:  it’s out-of-print.)   Published as a children’s book in England in 1966 and in the U.S. in 1967, it is a quintessential ’60s book, right down to the gloomily psychedelic cover:  the unhappy white face surrounded by the black coils reminded me of Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane.

During my Jefferson Airplane years, I found a copy of The Whirling Shapes during study hall, where I did very little except ask for library passes, since I had no intention of studying in public.  Studying, such as I understood it, was done in my room, listening to records. The Whirling Shapes was one in a long line of fantasies that shaped my imagination, including all of E. Nesbit (generously subsidized by my mother, since the library had few of her books), Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Michael Moorcock’s Elric books, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, C. S. Lewis’s Space trilogy, and John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy.

Grace Slick resembles the cover image of TWS!

A recent rereading of The Whirling Shapes was delightful.   In this strange, minimalist portal fantasy,  the mid-twentieth-century soul is threatened by conformity and all things mechanical.  If you don’t pay attention, you lose who you are.  It’s a psychedelic cozy catastrophe, where the mind can be a portal.

This inner-space fantasy has a multi-generational cast.  It begins traditionally, with the appearance of an outsider.   When Liz, the 14-year-old heroine, comes to live with relatives at 21 Arlington Crescent in London while her mother is in a sanatorium, she finds Aunt Paula and Uncle Charles pleasantly insignificant, but her boy-crazy cousin Miranda and the eccentric anthropologist Great-Aunt Hilda, who lives in the flat upstairs, inspire her affection.

There are mysteries:  a  brightly-lit house on the heath occasionally appears at night (only Liz can see it).   One night she goes outdoors and struggles to reach it, but just as she is about to arrive she finds herself back on the stoop of the house at Arlington Crescent with Aunt Hilda looking over her.

When Liz tells her she saw the house, Aunt Hilda says she knows.

“I’m responsible for it.  I imagined it and it came,” said Aunt Hilda, offering her the plate of cookies.

Liz took one as though hypnotized.

“I did it the night you arrived,” said Aunt Hilda.

Liz bit the cookie dazedly.  “I don’t understand.  Did you say you imagined it?”

Aunt Hilda went over to her desk, opened a drawer, and took out a small object wrapped in a white silk handkerchief.  She unraveled the handkerchief to disclose an oval piece of wood somewhat the size and shape of an egg; this she gave to Liz.

“I did it with the help of that,” she said.

“That” is a piece of wood from the sacred tree of the Dingas, known as the Tree of Dreaming True.  (The Dingas are a tribe Hilda’s great-grandfather studied:  North has her bit of humor with the name.)  And Aunt Hilda is very afraid that, since the power of thought is real, she may have opened a pathway into an unknown world.

And she has.  Sinister whirling shapes are released through the mind of her nephew, James Mortlake,  a melancholy artist who wanders into the portal house.  When James disappears,   a thick fog encircles the house on Arlington Crscent, and the whirling shapes threaten to dissolve human beings.  To conquer the whirling shapes is now the responsiblity of  the intergenerational extended family, including Miranda’s boyfriend, Tom, a poet and medical student.

The style is simple, but North waxes lyrical in a series of surreal episodes near the end.  And there are some surreal  ’60s-ish poems, written by Liz and Tom, interspersed with the text.

No vampires or Harry Potter to fit today’s Y.A. market, but I do think it could be reissued and do well as a crossover fantasy novel.

North wrote two other novels, too, The Cloud Forest and The Light Maze. They are also out-of-print, but perhaps I shall find them.

More Midwestern Lit

Everybody loves Midwestern Lit:  it’s a pity there isn’t more of it.

Commenters on yesterday’s post made valuable  recommendations, and I came up with seven more.

First, recommendations from the commenters:

Lory of The Emerald City Review: “Willa Cather’s books are all so wonderful…  I’m also fond of Thornton Wilder, and his novels The Eighth Day and Heaven’s My Destination. And of  course there’s American Gods by Neil Gaiman, with its memorable scenes in a “perfect” midwestern town.”

Nancy:  “You can’t go wrong with Willa Cather. My personal favorites are O Pioneers, Death Comes for the Archbishop and The Song of the Lark.”

Stephanie:  “I would recommend: all of Wendell Berry’s Port William fiction (set in Kentucky), nearly anything by Willa Cather and Louise Erdrich, and Jessamyn West (specifically The Friendly Persuasion and Except for Me and Thee).  I’m going to feel very negligent if I don’t add William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow and They Came Like Swallows.”

And more recommendations from me:

Merle Miller’s A Gay and Melancholy Sound.   The narrator of Miller’s brittle novel is Joshua Bland, a former quiz kid from New Athens, Iowa. It begins with drinking and misery: think Revolutionary Road meets Something Happened and Main Street. In the late 1950s, Joshua, now a successful Broadway producer, is on the verge of suicide, shattered because his wife Charley has left him. And so he tells his life story on a tape recorder.  Miller, a writer, editor, and gay activist, grew up in Marshalltown, IA, as did the actress Jean Seberg.  Their hometown did not appreciate them in their lifetime.

Larry Woiwode’s What I’m Going to Do, I Think, winner of the William Faulkner Foundation Award for best first novel, and Beyond the Bedroom Wall, a stunning novel about the Neumiller family, whom he also writes about in other books.

Bess Streeter Aldrich’s A Lantern in Her Hand, a remarkable pioneer novet set mostly in Nebraska, with a strong heroine, Abby Deal; and the sequel, A White Bird Flying, about Abby’s granddaughter, Laura, a teacher and aspiring writer.

Faith Sullivan’s out-of-print 1985 novel, Mrs. Demming and the Mythical Beast.  This should be a cult class if it’s not.  In this  partly realistic, partly fantastic women’s classic,  Sullivan tells the story of Larissa Demming, an artist in her late 40s. Although friends think her husband, Bart, a professor, is adorable, he’s actually stiff and dull, shut up all summer in his study writing, unsupportive of Larissa’s art.  During a summer alone in Belle Riviere, Minnesota, Larissa sketches, paints, joins an ecology campaign, and opposes her investment banker daughter’s wedding.  She also has a picnic with Pan, who has a major impact on her life.

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. A naturalist  classic, this story of the struggles of a small-town girl, Carrie Meeber, to find success in Chicago, is a fast read but very depressing.

Are Midwesterners Defensive? My Top 8 Midwestern Novels

Are Midwesterners defensive?

We’ve all been there.  The “flyover states” don’t exist for New Yorkers and Californians.  To hear our friends on the coast talk, Midwesterners live in desolate boarded-up beauty parlors side-by-side with truck-driving rednecks armed with crossbows,  or perhaps at that desolate crossroads in the crop-dusting scene in North by Northwest.  A friend in an Eastern city informed me that Midwesterners think nothing of driving hundreds and hundreds of miles to stores or movies.  (She once flew to Chicago; that is the source of her expertise.)  I was astonished: I live in an unusually pretty small city, where commutes are so short that people may drive less than they do elsewhere. And I don’t drive at all: it’s an environmental choice.

I thought about this Midwestern culture gap as I  read an essay in the Literary Hub by Amanda Arnold, “Why Literature and Pop Culture Still Can’t Get the Midwest Right.”

Arnold is defensive about the Midwest, as only a very young person can be, and writes that the region struggles to assert its identity and is misunderstood. And she is concerned about the dearth of Midwestern literature and “a conversation” she would like to have:  she interviewed Mark Athitakis, author of The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt.

Arnold reveals her prickly desire to please in the first paragraph.

When they ask, I tell people that I’m from the Midwest. Indiana, I’ll say with a playful, nasal intonation if badgered further, though I don’t typically expect a follow-up question. Only on the rare occasions when explicitly asked “but what city?” will I offer up my hometown: Fort Wayne, which I describe as a small place where “there’s not too much,” despite it being the second largest city in the state.

It takes time to “own’ your new territory and it does take time to make peace between what you know about a place and what others think they know.  And I do agree that few books are set in the Midwest. I wonder if more pop fiction than literary is set in the Midwest. The inequity doesn’t bother me, and I don’t demand fair representation, but the paucity may account for the disproportionate thrill of reading about any place I recognize.  To narrow it down, my  impression as a lifelong reader is that at least 90% of American novels are set in New York.  (That must be off, no?  Statistics will  doubtless disprove that wild theory.)  Raised on New York literature, I have an entirely imaginary vision of the glittering city I haven’t visited in decades.  My New York is based on the books of Tess Slesinger, Dorothy Parker, Jonathan Lethem, Erica Jong, Sue Kaufman, Philip Roth,  John Updike, Dawn Powell, Paula Fox, and more.

There is some excellent Midwestern literature, though

Here is my Top 8 List of Midwestern Novels.

1 Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1924

Set in Iowa during and after the Civil War, this compelling novel has both a protofeminist theme and a philosophical bent. It centers on a family secret.

Wully McLaughlin, a Civil War soldier at home on leave, is anxious and ill when he meets Chirstie McNair, the beautiful daughter of a parsimonious neighboring farmer. With someone to love and fight for, Wully faces the terrors of war again, but when he returns for good, something has happened. Chirstie will barely look at him and even threatens him with a gun. The secret is that Chirstie has been raped.  The novel is about what they do about it, and how they heal.

2 Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (1983), winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award NS Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize

First, let me say that Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia is magnificent. Set on an Ohio farm in the 1950s, it tells the story of three generations of women: Gram, also referred to as the Queen of Persia, is a sharp, often rude, old woman who rose from poverty and purchased the farm when an uncle took an interest in her and gave her money. Gram has had a hard life: she scorns her alcoholic husband. After she does her housework, she dismisses the demands of family and goes out with her friends to the races or Bingo. The women dominate: Gram and her five daughters and four granddaughters are the stars.

You can read the rest of my post here.

3. Marge Piercy’s Braided Lives (1982)

Piercy, a feminist poet and novelist, is a bold, inventive storyteller whose fast-paced work appeals to a wide range of women readers.  In Braided Lives, set in Detroit, Ann Arbor, and New York, Piercy tells the story of Jill, a successful poet and radical abortion rights activist who, having survived the age at which her palm-reading mother predicted she would die, is looking back at her younger self….

As young women at the University of Michigan in the 1950s, Jill and her friends must confront the demands of school, work, and sex, and the expectation that they will receive their “Mrs.” degree. This earthy novel is reminiscent of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, a sexually explicit novel about eight Vassar graduates in the ’30s. But unlike The Group, Braided Lives describes the lives of working-class students.

You can read the rest of the post here.

4. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin (1991)

Pamela Dean’s novel Tam Lin, set at a small college in Minnesota in the ’70s, is a whimsical chronicle of an undergraduate education. Part college novel, part offbeat fantasy, it is A Midsummer Night’s Dream crossed with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History–with a dash of the ballad Tam Lin.  One of my favorite books.

You can read the rest of the post here.

5.  Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart

I love this novel partly because of the lyrical prose, and partly because it describes the struggles of a young woman to transcend the narrowness of a small Midwestern town through music.

Divided into three parts, the novel vividly chronicles the brief life of Lucy, a graceful young woman and piano student who suffers a terrible loss and then is lost herself. The first-person plural narrator of the opening chapter tells us that Lucy is dead and still missed, remembered by the people of her hometown, Haverford, Nebraska, “as a slight figure always in motion, dancing or skating, or walking swiftly with intense direction, like a bird flying home.” But this narrator, describing her absences from Nebraska, doesn’t quite see her as the ardent young woman she is.

You can read the rest of the post here.

 6. Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons won the Pulitzer in 1919.

The Magnificent Ambersons is a small masterpiece. It’s not so much the style, which is very plain, as the development of the parallel themes of the decline of a wealthy family who dominated a midwestern town with the rise of the automobile and urban sprawl. It very radically connects the popularity of the car to the desertion of once wealthy neighborhoods in the inner city.

You can read the rest of the post here.

7. Martha Bergland’s A Farm under a Lake

I absolutely loved this book and plan to reread it soon.  From Goodreads:  “Home health care nurse Janet Hawn agrees to drive her latest client, a silent Alzheimer’s patient named May, from Green Bay, Wisconsin to her daughter’s house in northern Illinois. Janet and her husband Jack, an out-of-work salesman, grew up on neighboring farms in Illinois, and on the long drive through familiar territory, Janet reflects back on her childhood and courtship and tries to figure out where her life took a wrong turn.

8. Louise Erdrich’s A Plague of Doves.

Exquisite linked stories depict the lives of generations of several families affected by a racist lynching of Native Americans who have been blamed for the murder of a white family near the Obijwe Reservation in North Dakota in 1911. Laced with magic realism and poetic dexterity, the tales are gorgeous to read; Erdrich jumps back and forth in time. The novel begins with a short sketch, a kind of prologue, “Solo,” a bleak description of the crime, shocking and puzzling us for several chapters.

Read the rest here.

And do let me know your favorite Midwestern books.  I have so many!

Great Genre Fiction: Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning

First, let me say that I love genre fiction.  Not all genre fiction:  just the very best.  And Ada Palmer’s Too like the Lightning, a science fiction novel set in a utopian future world whose culture is based on eighteenth-century philosophy, is one of the best. This elaborate novel, categorized as SF, has much to interest readers of literary fiction. Believe me, it is the first time I have raced through a book with multitudinous references to Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire, and de Sade.

Palmer’s background is eclectic.  Not only is she an SF geek, she is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago and a historian who specializes in the Renaissance, early Europe, and the Enlightenment.  Her first book was  Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance (Harvard University Press).

And now she has moved on to science fiction.  Let’s talk about Too Like the Lightning.

It’s complicated.

The narrator, Mycroft Canner, is a convict. He is a brilliant man, sentenced for life to be a servicer, meaning he must work on call for anyone who needs his services.  Sometimes he works in sewers, other times he works as a political consultant. We do not learn exactly why he has been punished until we are well into the book,  and it is a shocker.   But whatever he did, he eloquently records, in the language of the Enlightenment, the events that transformed the world in 2454.

He begins with “A Prayer to the Reader”:

You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.

Do you love it?  I do.  But if you don’t, you will be happy to know that much of the book is written in simpler language, and the rules of language are explained.  Gendered speech is forbidden, though Mycroft frequently breaks the rule and uses “he” and “she” for the pronoun “they” (ouch!) the people use instead.   The dialogue combines English,  translated Chinese and French (she makes the English sound a bit like those languages), and, what I like the most, some of the characters speak Latin.  The lovely thing?  This is the only book using Latin, with the exception of Peter Stothard’s The Senecans:  Four Men and Margaret Thatcher (I wrote about it here)  and of course scholarly books, I have read without Latin errors since 2015.

At the center of the book is a political plot that threatens to unravel many well-kept secrets.  The maverick Mycroft and Carlyle Foster, a Sensayer (a cross between  psychologist and a metaphysician), are employees of a powerful household  protecting and hiding  Bridger, a philosophical boy with a frightening ability to animate inanimate objects.  (My favorites are the toy soldiers, especially the Major.)  Mycroft and Carlyle are devoted to him, and the household protecting him–among them Thisbe (who makes “smelltracks” for films), and Cato, a fanatical science teacher at a museum–are all in the family business of managing the flying “cars” and traffic–and recognize that he needs shelter.   But their business and the safety of Bridger are  jeopardized when a high-profile theft is committed in their “bash'” (household).

World-building is a big part of this novel, and it is complicated.  “Hives” have taken the place of nations:  people from all different backgrounds define themselves by their talents rather than geography or race:  they choose to become humanists, Utopians, Masons, and several other categories that make no sense out of context.  What happens when somebody steps outside of the box–I mean far, far out of the box–in a peaceful world?  Havoc is created.

Here is a quote from  Palmer’s  history blog, Ex Urbe, that also sheds light on her novel.

All my projects stem from my overall interest in the relationship between ideas and historical change. Our fundamental convictions about what is true evolve over time, so different human peoples in different times and places have, from their own perspectives, lived in radically different worlds with radically different rules.

A very enjoyable read!  Very brilliant, very complicated.  And there’s a sequel.  That’s  on my list.

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.

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”