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.

Beware the Ides of March!

Julius Caesar (1953), with Louis Calhern as Caesar, Marlon Brando as Antony, and Greer Garson as Calpurnia.

Beware the Ides of March!

Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March (March 15) in 44 B.C.

At our house we always commemorate the Ides of March. Latin was our bread and butter, and that of many of our friends,  until we inevitably segued into better-paying professions.  At the lovely snob school where I taught, I was grammar-and-translation-oriented, but we treated this tenebrous anniversary as if it were a festival.  We drank “wine” (sparkling grape juice), played Julius Caesar Trivial Pursuit, and extra credit seekers recited 10 lines of their choice from Caesar’s Gallic War (usually a passage about the Druids, whom they weirdly loved).

Since you either don’t know or have forgotten all your Latin, here is a snippet translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn.

The Druids do not go to war, nor pay tribute together with the rest; they have an exemption from military service and a dispensation in all matters…. They are said there to learn by heart a great number of verses; accordingly some remain in the course of training twenty years. Nor do they regard it lawful to commit these to writing, though in almost all other matters, in their public and private transactions, they use Greek characters. That practice they seem to me to have adopted for two reasons; because they neither desire their doctrines to be divulged among the mass of the people, nor those who learn, to devote themselves the less to the efforts of memory, relying on writing; since it generally occurs to most men, that, in their dependence on writing, they relax their diligence in learning thoroughly, and their employment of the memory.

Fascinating, yes?

And since you may want to read a book or two by or about Caesar on the Ides of March, I recommend:


Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Caesar and Cleopatra by George Bernard Shaw.


Caesar’s Gallic War, an account of his campaigns in Gaul.  Very elegant in Latin, fascinating even in English.

Caesar’s Civil War, an account of his struggle with Pompey to gain the leadership of Republican Rome.


The Ides of March  by Valerio Massimo Manfredi (Europa).  This brilliant Italian historical novel is billed as a “political thriller set during the tempestuous final days of Julius Caesar’s Imperial Rome.”  And, by the way, I love Europa Editions, which publish so many remarkable works in translation.

The Ides of March by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder, first published in 1948, is billed as “a brilliant epistolary novel set in Julius Caesar’s Rome.” Honestly, I prefer Manfredi’s.

Caesar by Colleen McCullough (Masters of Rome, 5).  I’ve never read this popular series by the author of The Thorn Birds, but the Goodreads description says:  “In the long, fabled history of Rome, there was never one so beloved by so many–yet so feared and despised by lesser men whose power he eclipsed–than Gaius Julius Caesar. On the field of battle, he is invincible, and those who fight at his side would gladly give their lives for his glory. But even as Caesar sweeps across Gaul–brutally subduing the united tribes who defy the Republic–his enemies at home are orchestrating his downfall and disgrace.”

Young Caesar and Imperial Caesar, two historical novels by Rex Warner.  The latter won the 1960 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction.


The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius.  Very entertaining short biographies  of Julius Caesar and 11 more emperors.

Rubicon by Tom Holland.  This compelling history is billed as “a vivid historical account of the social world of Rome as it moved from republic to empire…, [beginning] in 49 B.C., the seven hundred fifth year since the founding of Rome, [when]Julius Caesar crossed a small border river called the Rubicon and plunged Rome into cataclysmic civil war.”

And here is Casesar’s most famous tripartite sentence (the first), so savor the Latin:

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur.

Tolstoy & Political Correctness

Drawing of Leo Tolstoy by David Levine (New York Review of Books)

Two English professors, Melvin Jules Bukiet and Lyell Asher, write in The American Scholar that Tolstoy is politically incorrect for students of the twenty-first century. (Was he ever politically correct?)  They say students’ exaggerated consciousness of racism, sexism, LGBT rights, etc., interferes with their ability to read and understand Tolstoy–and, in the age of trigger alerts, they  ask to be excused from class if content offends them.

Thank God they’re not teaching D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover! (John Thomas and Lady Jane would set off trigger alerts.) But, seriously, Tolstoy is one of my favorite writers, and I pray they exaggerate students’ misreadings.

Melvin Jules Bukiet, a professor at Sarah Lawrence, recently reread War and Peace, a novel he has loved since college.  In his essay, “By the Content of Its Characters,” he writes,  “All happy writers may be alike, but nowadays they’re also different in their own special national, ethnic, racial, religious, or sexual ways. Paradoxically, they’ve become individual by category.”

Then he satirizes how Tolstoy could be misinterpreted in the trigger alert culture.

When Pierre Bezukhov, arguably the protagonist in a novel that follows scores of lives, is introduced, he is described as “fat.” Well, that’s a bit harsh, but Tolstoy created Pierre, so if he says the man is fat, he is, and I wouldn’t want a euphemistic translation like “dietarily challenged.” Fat. Fat. Fat.

He  suggests that Pierre today would be considered a pedophile because of his relationship with Natasha; that Prince Andrew Bolkonski  and Count Nicholas Rostov (Natasha’s brother), both officers in the war against Napoleon, are male imperialists;

“and the ultimate class offense finally struck me: nearly every character in War and Peace is noble.”

All right, a little satire goes a long way.

In “Low Definition in Higher Education,” Lyell Asher, an associate professor of English at Lewis & Clark College, says that he has taught Anna Karenina for more than a decade. Students often simplify this long, complex text, believing Anna is right to have an affair because of her passion, and that Karenin is an unfeeling stick figure who deserves to lose her.  They don’t see shades of gray.  (I might add, nor did I when I was young.)

Asher writes,

At more than 800 pages, Tolstoy’s saga can invite hurried reading, so a lot of class time is spent applying the brakes: “Not so fast.” “How do you know that?” “What’s it look like from her point of view?” There’s a useful speed bump in that famous first line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In its own way. Don’t assume you know who these people are, Tolstoy cautions, however familiar they may seem.

And he goes on to say that college administrators today encourage this over-simplified thinking.

But what happens when the administrators…—sometimes in tandem with professors who teach the courses—pretend to have so mastered the difficult questions of race, of social justice, of meaning and intention, that they feel entitled to dictate to others? What happens when they so pixelate the subject matter that what emerges is a CliffsNotes version of human experience, the very thing that a college curriculum should be working against?

What happens is that many students will accept these simplifications. Some will even cling to them for dear life. Finally a map—with shortcuts!—and a way out of bewilderment. Feeling offended implies an offense, and where there’s an offense there must be a culprit guilty of having committed it. No need to bother with the complexities of context and intention—it says here that “impact” is what matters, that how I feel is what counts. No need to wonder whether an expression of hatred is real or a ruse, isolated or endemic—assume the worst and take the part for the whole.

Well, in my day, we radical students embraced controversy, not whining, and we wouldn’t have accepted pixelated pamphlets on life.   But perhaps these students are not radicals?  Is this the common culture now?

I’m going to blame it on the internet, the way I blame everything else.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita

“Granted the circumstances surrounding its composition, and the political background of its author, one might expect this novel to be a thinly disguised attack on either Stalinism or the Revolution, but in fact, although much incidental satire on Russian life is used, any kremlinological approach to the deep creative quality of the book would be irrelevant.”
—A TLS review by Edwin Morgan of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (December 7, 1967)

A very attractive Penguin Deluxe Classic.

I planned to reread Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita in 2016, the 50th anniversary of its publication. I love anniversaries.  But honestly?  I didn’t enjoy it much the first time.  I’d read it during a four-day power outage:  there was much huddling on the stoop and reading while crossly waiting for the electric company trucks to arrive (we had no superstars on our street to demand “power” quickly), drives to the next town to dine in a lighted place, and the general crankiness that goes with lack of electricity.  So I decided then and there that I didn’t like Soviet literature.

Lo and behold! the TLS recently reprinted a review from 1967, and I enjoyed the reviewer’s condemnation of the “kremlinological approach”(see quote at top of post), and was persuaded to get out my old Everyman copy, a 1967 translation by Michael Glenny.  What a joy to read!

My Everyman copy: no book jacket!

Even if you know little about the Soviet Union, this satirical novel is great fun.  (I waited till after I finished the book to read the introduction).

It is a joyful read.  The language is gorgeous and bold, and there is much humor.  What’s it about?  Well, it’s hard to say.   First,  the devil, disguised as Woland, a mesmerist/professor, and his companions, including a large talking black cat, visit Moscow and terrorize writers and theatrical managers (and audiences).  The devil attacks Soviet atheism:  he assures the writers, much to their shock, that Jesus exists.

Interwoven with the fantastical narrative of Woland’s visit is a very good historical novella about Pilate and Yeshua.   Pilate is haunted by his decision to crucify Yeshua, a perfectly innocent man, who said that he was misrepresented by the muddled Matthew, a disciple who took notes but got everything wrong.

Then there is the story of Margarita, who turns into a witch after invited to be the hostess at the devil’s ball.  Her goal? To rescue her lover, the man she calls the Master, the author of the stunning novel about Pilate, who burned his manuscript and committed himself to a mental hospital.  All comes together in the end:  Woland and his sidekicks fly away with dignity having doffed their absurd human incarnations, the Master and Margarita find rest, and Pilate and Yeshua come together.

In the 1920s and ’30s, Russian writers were more and more horrifying suppressed  and discouraged from writing satire.   Bulgakov, a novelist and a playwright,  wrote The Master and Margarita secretly and gave it to his wife before he died.  It was finally published in 1966 and translated into many languages.  And in addition to Bulgakov’s  comedy and satire, he conveyed the horror and terror of a totalitarian regime:  many of the characters in The Master and Margarita are driven mad by the devil, and when they try to tell the truth they end up in  the mental hospital.

When the devil/Woland arrives in Moscow, he approaches two writers, Berlioz, a pompous editor, and Ivan Nikolayich, a poet.  As  Woland says one outrageous thing after another, they think he is a spy trying to trick them into saying something forbidden.  Here is an example of the zany dialogue.

“And what is your particular field of work?” asked Berlioz.

“I specialize in black magic.”

“Like hell you do…!” thought Mikhail Alexandrovich.

“And…and you’ve been invited here to give advice on that?” he asked with a gulp.

Then Woland claims that he is in Moscow to decipher the manuscript of a ninth-century necromancer.

“Aha!  So you’re a historian?”  asked Berlioz in a tone of considerable relief and respect….

…the professor beckoned to them and when both had bent their heads towards him he whispered:

“Jesus did exist, you know.”

“Look, professor,” said Berlioz, with a forced smile, “With all respect to you as a scholar we take a different attitude on that point.”

“It’s not a question of having an attitude,” replied the strange professor.  “He existed, that’s all there is to it.”

“But one must have some proof…” began Berlioz.

“There’s no need for any proof,” answered the professor.  In a low voice, his foreign accent vanishing altogether, he began:  “It’s very simple–early in the morning on the fourteenth of the spring month of Nisan the Procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, in a white cloak lined with blood-red…”

And that is the first line of the novel about Pilate.

A classic! The novel about Pilate is elegaic, strikes a different tone.  I can’t quite put it all together:  but Pilate’s regret is a recurring theme.