Golden Age Detective Fiction: Nicholas Blake’s “The Beast Must Die” & Dorothy Sayers’ “Have His Carcase”

It’s summer!  Have you got your lawn chairs out?  Is your umbrella positioned to shade your table?  Do you plan to spend the next few months anointed with bug spray so you can sit outside whenever the mood takes you?

All right, I’m reading nothing but genre fiction for three months!  Well, three days, okay?  And today I’m writing a  straightahead post on two superb Golden Age Detective novels, Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die and Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase. 

Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die.  The poet Cecil Day-Lewis, whose excellent translations of Virgil still reside on our bookshelf, wrote 19 mysteries under the nom de plume Nicholas Blake.   I am a fan of Blake’s witty amateur sleuth /poet, Nigel Strangeways, who can hold his own with Dorothy Sayers’ brilliant Lord Peter Wimsey and Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn.  Lo and behold! I recently discovered an e-book edition of  Blake’s  1938 novel, The Beast Must Die (Ipso Books).  It was new to me, but according to The Telegraph it is one of his most famous books.

The Beast Must Die is structurally tricky, like walking through a house of mirrors.   The  first part takes the form of a journal written by Frank Cairnes, a writer of popular mysteries under the pseudonym Felix Lane.

It begins:

I am going to kill a man. I don’t know his name, I don’t know where he lives, I have no idea what he looks like. But I am going to find him and kill him.

C. Day-Lewis

Why is Frank murderous?  No, it’s not research for a new novel.  His son was killed in a hit-and-run accident, and when the police fail to find the killer, Frank utilizes the skills of his fictional sleuths to figure  out the trajectory of the car when it left the scene.  And he  discovers that someone saw  a movie starlet, Lena Lawson, in the front seat with the driver.

And then the plot gets much, much more convoluted.  He tracks down Lena and woos her to get information, but uses his nom de plume, Felix, so she will not realize he is the father of the victim.  And when he learns the driver is Lena’s brother-in-law and former lover, George Rattery, a garage owner, he wangles an invitation for a weekend visit to the Ratterys.  George is a bully, whose wife and son are nervous wrecks. He is odious, which makes the murder plot more viable from the point of view of a man with a conscience.

Nigel, the poet-sleuth, finally appears almost halfway through the novel, and it is as if there is a modernist confrontation between the consciousness of C. Day-Lewis and his other self, the mystery writer, Nicholas Blake.  Exhausted and ill from solving a different crime, Nigel  tells his wife, Georgia, an explorer, that he is “having a tête-à-tête with my unconscious” and composing ” a general knowledge paper.”  When Georgia reads the questions, she tells him it must be a terrible thing to have a classical education.  He agrees.  Among the nonsensical but learned questions are:

  1. How many fine words does it take to butter no parsnips?
  2. Who or what was “the dry wet-nurse of lions”?
  3. In what sense were the Nine Worthies?
  4. What do you know about Mr Bangelstein? What do you not know about Bion and Borysthenite?

Lovely to read, even if you haven’t the faintest idea what he’s on about.  And the questions to Frank/Felix are even more acute.

But is the journal fiction? Who done it?

If you liked Agatha Christie’s The  Murder of Roger Ackroyd, you will undoubtedly enjoy The Beast Must Die.  

Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase.  Perhaps Have His Carcase is the best of Sayers’ four Harriet Vane books, or perhaps it only seems that way because I have read her most famous one, Gaudy Night, a million times!

Sayers, a Dante scholar, is my favorite Golden Age mystery writer.  And Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers’ brilliant but affectedly foppish amateur sleuth, is one of the most vivid heroes of any mystery series. In Strong Poison, he cleared mystery writer Harriet Vane of murdering her loverand fell in unrequited love with her.  Although it’s difficult to know why she didn’t fall in love with Wimsey, we  see that she needs a breather after being a suspected murderess and escaping the death penalty.

In Have His Carcase, Harriet takes a solitary walking trip, happy to get away from everyone and everything.  But then she discovers the body of a murdered man on a deserted beach, and though she takes pictures, the tide has washed him away by the time she reaches a phone and calls the police.  Peter shows up, and he and Harriet, with the police, investigate the murder of  Paul Alexis, a professional ballroom dancer at a hotel,  amidst a whirl of other professional dancers  (it’s almost like Dancing with the Stars), itinerant barbers with sharp knives, and ostensible Russian spies. But how do you investigate a crime when there isn’t a body?

It takes time.

Swamped in the Flood of Literature & Should We Review Our Friends’ Books?

Should we review our friends’ books?  Yes, at our blogs!

In journalism, strictly speaking, it is a conflict of interest to review a friend’s book.

But the ethics of literary journalism are always in flux–you never know who knows who–and literary mores were entirely more flexible in George Gissing’s 1891 novel, New Grub Street.  In this fascinating book about the writing world in nineteenth-century London, the characters dash off anonymous book reviews, often having barely skimmed the book.  One particularly vicious editor does hatchet jobs on his enemies’ books: the level of paranoia being what it is, the authors sometimes blames the wrong man for the bad review.

And so we applaud the ambitious, not altogether likable Jasper Millvain when he writes anonymous rave reviews for two different journals of his friend Biffen’s naturalistic novel, Mr. Bailey, Grocer.  The starving Biffen spent two years writing this nearly perfect, if tedious, book, and risked his life to save the manuscript  from a fire in his lodging house.

Jasper doubts if the reviews will do much good, even though he uses the word “masterpiece.”  He tells his sister Dora, who admires the book,  “Most people will fling the book down with yawns before they’re half through the first volume.”  And he knows some would think it unethical for him to review the same book twice.

And then he delivers a soliloquy about the trade of literature.

Speaking seriously, we know that a really good book will more likely than not receive fair treatment from two or three reviewers; yes, but also more likely than not it will be swamped in the flood of literature that pours forth week after week, and won’t have attention fixed long enough upon it to establish its repute. The struggle for existence among books is nowadays as severe as among men. If a writer has friends connected with the press, it is the plain duty of those friends to do their utmost to help him. What matter if they exaggerate, or even lie? The simple, sober truth has no chance whatever of being listened to, and it’s only by volume of shouting that the ear of the public is held. What use is it to Biffen if his work struggles to slow recognition ten years hence? Besides, as I say, the growing flood of literature swamps everything but works of primary genius.

Today many good  books are still “swamped in the flood of literature.”  From my amateur reader’s point of view, the same few books are reviewed in every paper, and yet tens of thousands of books (too many books?)  are published.  The list of books to be reviewed is magically pre-determined by a conspiracy of marketers, editors, and (possibly) witches and warlocks(!).  Yes, I want to read about established writers, but am dubious about some of the “hot” debuts.  Caveat Emptor is my motto.  Some of the “cooler” debuts might be my reading.

Naturally, a lot of the oddball stuff goes missing from book review journals. This year two excellent novels which deserve more press are Karen Brown’s eerie novel, The Clairvoyants (which I wrote about here), and Erica Carter’s harrowing novel about three down-and-out women in Arkansas, Lucky You (which I wrote about here).  Some books are passed around by word of mouth.  Still, reviews help.

And what about the small press stuff? Where is that reviewed?   A small press editor told me many, many years ago that, from the monetary point of view, it was better to publish a bad book by a charming writer with a lot of friends than a good book by a solitary writer with few friends.  (The bad writer’s book sold; the good writer’s did not.)  But he wanted to publish good books, so instead got a lot of grants.  And did not make money.

Hm, I never thought of it that way!

But what if it’s a great book?  Where are all the great books?  I loved Lidia Yuknavitch The Book of Joan, a stunning novel that is, thank God, widely reviewed.

There must be more like Lidida Yuknavitch writing.


The rain stopped late Saturday afternoon, and we’re wallowing in green.  This is what Memorial Day weekend looked like.

So green, isn’t it?

Yellow flowers always cheer me up!  And does anyone know what these are called?

Happy biking, happy swimming, happy sitting around in shorts!

Ann Hood’s Morningstar: Growing up with Books

Maybe that’s why I reread it every year. Maybe, as time beats me up and grief or loneliness or a new kind of bittersweet melancholy take hold, I need to remind myself to keep going, keep reaching, to not forget the girl who believed she could have everything and anything at all.
—Ann Hood’s Morningstar: Growing up with Books

I love reading books, and I love reading books about reading books.  As an amateur reader I am fascinated by  bibliomemoirs.

Some writers concentrate on a memoir of a single year or period of personal reading; others focus on a gimmick (reading all the books on one library shelf, or a book a day) or a single author’s influence . One of my favorites is Susan Hill’s Howards End Is on the Landing, a brilliant book about  her year of reading only books on her shelves.  When my mother was in the hospital in 2011, I was so inspired by Hill’s chapter about Iris Murdoch that I dashed around the corner to Murphy-Brookfield, a  used bookstore, to find a copy of The Bell.  And that kept me going through a couple of days when my mother lay in bed watching TV at the loud level she needed to hear anything at all.

In Morningstar:  Growing up with Books, the  novelist Ann Hood has written a graceful, inspiring memoir of her childhood reading.  (The book will be published Aug. 1.)  And she has me searching for my copy of Marjorie Morningstar to read this weekend.  (It’s here, in a box, somewhere.) She  grew up in an Italian-American working-class family in a small town in Rhode Island. Although her parents didn’t own books,  her aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered at the kitchen table on weekends and told stories.   She learned “that you had to earn your place at that table. Your story had to start with a hook, include vivid details, have strong characters, and be full of tension or someone who talked louder and could tell her story better would overpower you.”

But Ann was bookish, and she wanted literary stories, too.  She didn’t have access to many books:  the Italian neighborhood’s library was in a moldy basement, and the school didn’t have a library.  When her cousin lent her a copy of Little Women, it changed Ann’s life.   She lost herself in the story.   She writes, “All these years later I recognize how magical this experience truly was. I wanted to live inside a book, and this was the first time I really did.”

Ann and I are of the same generation, and my parents didn’t read books, either, so I understood her experience perfectly . One thing we absolutely agreed on:  it was necessary to read  the  yellow-spined Nancy Drew books.  Ann saved her allowance and spent it on the Nancy Drews at the second-hand store, much to her mother’s disapproval; and after my mother had a showdown with a librarian who refused to order “badly-written” series books, my mother was determined to save money week after week, so I could gradually  acquire a nearly complete set.

As adolescents in the  early ’70s, Ann and I, in our different parts of the U.S., listened to Simon and Garfunkel, strung a beaded curtain, and were fascinated by the counterculture.  Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar had a powerful effect on Ann .  I love her delicate description of the book’s design.

She wrote,

The summer of the beads, I read The Bell Jar. I remember the cover. A pink so pale it almost looked white. The black letters with their curlicued T and B and J. The red rose stretched across the edge. Unaware as I was of things like book reviews, I didn’t know that the book I’d plucked from the library shelf was a new one, just published in the United States. I didn’t even know—though surely this was in the author’s bio—that Sylvia Plath had committed suicide on February 11, 1963, just a few weeks after The Bell Jar had been published by Harper & Row in Britain under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas.

With just a few strokes of the pen she describes a book cover I had forgotten, though I had the same edition, and I was able to identify it on google immediately.  Plath’s heroine Esther, who won a contest to be a Mademoiselle writer, may have inspired Ann,  who became a Marsha Jordan girl, one of eight models for a Boston department store, and then won a contest to be a teen editor for Rhode Island for SEventeen.

But of all the books she read, Marjorie Morningstar was her touchstone.   She read it when she was 15 in 1972 and reads it every year.  Marjorie’s big Jewish immigrant family reminds Ann of her big emotional Italian immigrant family.  Marjorie defies her parents by becoming an actress and embarking on a sexual relationship with the director, Noel Airman. Ann understood Marjorie’s longings, as Marjorie stood in the snow staring at the apartment of the man she loved. Ann’s heart had been broken by Peter Hayhurst, and she sometimes stops the car and looks at his house.

And I have reread it almost every year since. As an adult, I saw the similarities between the Morgensterns and my own family. Marjorie’s father had come to the United States at the age of fifteen, “a fleck of foam on the great wave of immigration from Eastern Europe.” I lived with a dizzying array of Italian immigrant relatives. In the novel, Mr. Morgenstern owned the Arnold Importing Company, “a well-known dealer in feathers, straws, and other materials for ladies’ hats.” Like my own father, who commuted several hours every day to his job in Government Center in Boston so that we could rise above our blue-collar immigrant roots.

I am posting this too early–consider it a pre-review–but it really is the perfect book to read on a holiday weekend.  I also very much like her novels, which are hard to classify.  I think of them as women’s novels, but my husband enjoyed her latest novel, “The Book That Matters Most” (more or less about how reading saves a grieving wife and a drug-addicted daughter).  I have followed her career from the ’80s, and it is always a pleasure to read a new book by her.

George Gissing’s “New Grub Street” & My Top Five Summer TBR List

In 2007 I scrawled in my book journal:

Why read anything but George Gissing? One can’t read genre fiction all the time. If one isn’t reading a mystery or a science fiction novel, one might as well read Gissing. Not a likable writer:  too gloomy, too depressive. But his books are  both pageturners and classics. In New Grub Street, he writes about money-grubbing writers in unrelenting poverty.  It is a masterpiece about churning out pages  for pay.

Musing about my badly-paid freelancing years, I recently returned to Gissing’s New Grub Street. Unlike the characters in New Grub Street, I happily wrote pop articles and reviews, and felt under no pressure, because it was not our main income. I enjoyed the work and appreciated the flexible schedule.  So many women of my generation needed flexible hours.

That is not the case in New Grub Street, where writers live in attics or depressing rooms, and must support themselves by churning out pages, and more pages.  In the first chapter,  Jasper Milvain, a savvy writer/networker, tells  his sisters that his novelist friend  Alfred Reardon will likely commit suicide.

“Things are going badly with him.  He is just the kind of fellow to end by poisoning or shooting himself.”

Reardon is one of the most wretched writers in literature.  His first two novels were successful and respected; now he is desperately writing a bad novel to support his his family.  His wife Amy refuses to leave their small flat for rooms in a poor neighborhood.  She  has suggested he write a “popular” novel, but it is beyond him.  When Margaret Home is published, he is depressed and is paid less than he’d anticipated.  It is a bad book.

In a chapter called “Rejection,” Gissing writes,

One of Reardon’s minor worries at this time was the fear that by chance he might come upon a review of ‘Margaret Home.’ Since the publication of his first book he had avoided as far as possible all knowledge of what the critics had to say about him; his nervous temperament could not bear the agitation of reading these remarks, which, however inept, define an author and his work to so many people incapable of judging for themselves. No man or woman could tell him anything in the way of praise or blame which he did not already know quite well; commendation was pleasant, but it so often aimed amiss, and censure was for the most part so unintelligent. In the case of this latest novel he dreaded the sight of a review as he would have done a gash from a rusty knife. The judgments could not but be damnatory, and their expression in journalistic phrase would disturb his mind with evil rancour. No one would have insight enough to appreciate the nature and cause of his book’s demerits; every comment would be wide of the mark; sneer, ridicule, trite objection, would but madden him with a sense of injustice.

This made me think about the importance of reviews. I  read reviews to find out about new books, not necessarily for the critical judgment.  Good reviews sell books, but do bad reviews kill them? I have blithely read between the lines and discovered some excellent books, despite bad reviews.  I loved Beverly Lyon Clark’s scholarly book, The Afterlife of Little Women, which a reviewer didn’t care for much.

Here is My Top  Five  Summer TBR list (and how I found out about the books).

1.  Jane Austen the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly.   I read a good review of this at The Guardian.  This intelligent book is the antidote to the conservative romantic interpretations of Austen’s work   I have been dipping into the book and very much admired the chapter, “The Age of Brass–Sense and Sensibility.”

She writes,

What we can say is that Sense and Sensibility, even in 1811, would have been read as a novel about property, and inheritance–about greed and need, and the terrible, selfish things that families do to each other for the sake of money.

2.  All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Sanders.  This well-reviewed SF novel just won the Nebula Award.  The back cover says, “An ancient society of witches and a hipster technological start-up are going to war as the world tears itself apart.”  Sometimes it takes an award…

3.  The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes.  All right,  I will read anything about classics (it’s my background–go, team!), and this retelling of the Oedipus tragedy, with its emphasis on the women in the myth, sounds fascinating.  In spite of lukewarm reviews in the UK, I cannot wait to read this novel. What do reviewers know?  Yes, Colm Toibin just retold the Oresteia, and everyone will read that, but I want to read a woman’s voice.  I do hope The Children of Jocasta  will be published here.

4.  P. G. Wodehouse’s The Mating Season, a Bertie Wooster and Jeeves book I’ve never heard of!  Found it by browsing online.

Kathleen Hill’s Who Occupies This House Her stunning small-press novel, Still Waters in Niger, popped up as a recommendation on my Amazon screen in 2000.  It is one of my favorite books.   Who Occupies This House, also published by the prestigious Triquarterly Press, has been moldering on my shelves for a while.   Am looking forward to it, but have read no reviews.

AND DO LET ME KNOW IF REVIEWS, GOOD OR BAD, INFLUENCE YOUR READING.  Yes, I’ve asked you before, but this time I mean it!

Are Coffeehouses Bohemian?

Smokey Row in Oskaloosa

My relationship with coffeehouses goes way back.

Long before Starbucks arrived in Iowa, I knew how to rate a cup of coffee. And when Starbucks made its debut in Des Moines in 2002, David Letterman joked about it on Late Night. Yes, Iowa is square, but the real joke is that it didn’t need Starbucks.  It had thriving independent coffeehouses, among them Friedrich’s, Java Joe’s, and Grounds for Celebration in Des Moines; The Java House  in Iowa City; and  Smokey Row in Pella, Oskaloosa, and Des Moines.  (David Byrne blogged about  biking to Smokey Row after he gave a concert in Des Moines.)

Where did I get the idea that coffeehouses were bohemian?  It dates from reading books set in New York, especially in Greenwich Village. I lost my NY mojo eventually, when invited to interview for a posh teaching job that paid only $8,000 a year. I felt like blurting out over the phone, “But I don’t have a trust fund!”

Characters who drink coffee in literature often  long to be bohemians.  When Zane, the narrator of  Alix Kates Shulman’s  neglected novel, Burning Questions, moves from Indiana to Greenwich Village, one of the first things she does is check out the Figaro Cafe. Although artists and writers frequent it, it does not pave the way to friendship, jobs, or  fulfilling her desire to write.

Zane recalls,

I wandered among the Village streets noting addresses only of shops; and when I forced myself to return to the Figaro for a coffee on Tuesday and again, despite my discomfort, on Wednesday, I wondered why. It was a silly position to be in, sitting there all alone with a tiny, long-empty cup (in which I had dropped a swirl of lemon peel), waiting for something or someone unknown—especially when nothing came of it but a growing conviction of the essential futility of waiting.

Don’t we all know the futility of waiting? When  I moved from Indiana to Washington, D.C., a city much dowdier than New York , I was sanguine that a coffeehouse would be my gateway to friendship.  How could it not be?  I had bought preppie clothes at L. L. Bean, shaved my legs for the first time in years, and had dropped from a size 11 to size 8 due to anxiety.  Casual friendliness had been a big part of the coffeehouse scene in Bloomington.  People were always skootching their chairs up and making plans to go to Days of Heaven a second or third time (it was my favorite movie). When I moved to D.C.,  this was not the case.   I ate tasteless tofu dishes at a natural foods cafe in Bethesda, or walked  to Dupont Circle to buy books and drink delicious coffee at Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe. I was out of my league among the hip clerks (were they really hip, or  was I just very, very  tired?) and the sleek lobbyists, politicos, and lawyers in their three-piece suits looked so dull.    Call it reverse snobbery, but I didn’t want to know them.  I wanted to go home to the Midwest!

There are many reasons to go to coffeehouses.  If you are poor, coffeehouses are a godsend.  First of all, they are very cheap: for the price of a cup of coffee, you establish squatting rights. Second, it gives you the illusion of having friends, even if you are just on nodding terms with the multi-tattooed barista.   Third, they are refuges for writers: every third customer is a writer looking for an excuse not to write.

But in my casual thirties, when I was a freelancer, I went to coffeehouses every day. At home the phone rang constantly, I gossiped with editors and was sworn to secrecy about scandals, did phone interviews, arranged in-person interviews, and spent hours at the typewriter (eventually, a computer). To get away from my work, I had to get out of the house. I would suddenly grab my keys and head for the neighborhood coffeehouse.

Lots of temperamental writers sat drinking coffee or reading a newspaper.    Writers like to brood or endlessly tell you why they cannot finish an article for an airline magazine.  They do not laugh when you ask if they have thought of writing about air.

In Henry James’s The Tragic Muse, there is much sitting and reading in coffeehouses in Paris.   Miriam, an aspiring actress, laughs when Peter Sherrington, an English diplomat, asks if she would object to  going to a cafe with him.

“Objection? I’ve spent my life in cafés! They’re warm in winter and you get your lamplight for nothing,” she explained. “Mamma and I have sat in them for hours, many a time, with a consommation of three sous, to save fire and candles at home. We’ve lived in places we couldn’t sit in, if you want to know—where there was only really room if we were in bed. Mamma’s money’s sent out from England and sometimes it usedn’t to come. Once it didn’t come for months—for months and months. I don’t know how we lived. There wasn’t any to come; there wasn’t any to get home. That isn’t amusing when you’re away in a foreign town without any friends….”

Reading  is a common coffee-related activity. Her mother reads there for hours.

…mamma was always up to her ears in books. They served her for food and drink. When she had nothing to eat she began a novel in ten volumes—the old-fashioned ones; they lasted longest. “

n Karl Ove Knausgaard’s’s My Struggle, Book 2, the narrator goes out for coffee every afternoon, but switches cafes every five days so he won’t have to chat with a barista. Most baristas keep their distance, but I know what he means:  you don’t want it suddenly to turn into Cheers.

There’s lots of good coffee in life and literature.  What are your favorite coffeehouses in life or lit?

Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan

Science fiction is my genre.  Or at least that’s what I always say.

Some of the best experimental American writing comes out of SF these days.

Lidia Yuknavitch’s s strange, haunting literary novel, The Book of Joan, has roots in science fiction. This  spare meta-fictional masterpiece, set in the year 2049, has a sophisticated two-tiered structure: it consists of a book and a book within a book, twin books, if you will, about a post-apocalyptic world.  Christine Pizan, the narrator, is an artist, a “skin writer,” a storyteller, and rebel.  She lives on CIEL, a space station-like structure that orbits a devastated Earth. And Christine’s heroine is Joan of Dirt, a post-apocalyptic Joan of Arc who led the Resistance on Earth.  There is a rumor that Joan is still alive, though politicians, including the populist dictator, Jean de Men,  claim she is dead.  Her burning was filmed, but Christine knows these things can be staged.

Post-apocalyptic life is as wretched as you might imagine. Humans have devolved.  They no longer have genitals.  They cannot reproduce. Christine  meditates on gender politics and resistance.

Christine writes,

I am without gender mostly.  My head is white and waxen. No eyebrows or eyelashes or full lips or anything but jutting bones at the cheeks and shoulders and collarbones and data points, the parts on our body where we can interact with technology. I have a slight rise where each breast began, and a kind of mound where my pubic bone should be, but that’s it.  Nothing else of woman is left.  Herein is the recorded history of Christine Pizan, second daughter of Raphael and Risolda Pizan.  I think briefly of my dead parents, dead husband, my dear friends and neighbors and all the people who peopled my childhood on Earth.

Lidia Yuknavitch

She  has two projects to finish before she is euthanized on her 50th birthday. (All on CIEL are euthanized at 50).  Skin grafting is the new storytelling and she is an expert:   she is carving on her body the text of the story of Joan.  Her other project is to record her own history and the history of Ciel, founded and ruled with an iron hand by Jean de Man.  She also must find a way to communicate with her best friend Trinculo, who is imprisoned and has been sentenced to death.

Yuknavitch subtly intertwines the many threads of the story.  And here’s a  little intellectual background:  the name Christine Pizan is a reference to Christine de Pizan, the medieval  poet and philosopher who challenged and reviled the anti-feminism of the Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose.  And the dictator Jean de Men?  Well, like de Meun he fancies himself a writer (skin grafter); he prefers romances.  And the pseudo-artist despot is  determined to find a way for the species to reproduce, through cruel experimentation.

I especially loved the book within a book about Joan.  Christine is all intellect; Joan is all action and instinct.  Joan is also the only person on Earth who still has genitals.  The chapters about Joan are part fairy tale, part war story: Joan is connected with nature and hears the trees and sea singing. One day she comes back from a swim with a blue light in her skull.  She is of the earth, but is also a brilliant general who has fought wars since childhood.   She does what she can to save the very few remaining humans and other species. While CIEL drains the few remaining resources on Earth through technology,  Joan and her companion Leone keep fighting.

This beautiful but disturbing book is short and complex.  Each word matters.  It is by far the best new book I’ve read this year.

I look forward to rereading this slowly.  It’s that kind of book.

Not Quite Art: Leonora Carrington’s Down Below

Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst

It is the centenary of the surrealist painter and writer Leonora Carrington’s birth.

Publishers have scrambled to cash in on the anniversary.  Mind you, I love Carrington (1917-2011).  Cash in all they want:  it’s art. But even from a Carrington fan’s perspective, the number of new books is staggering.  So far we have seen the publication of The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington (Dorothy, a publishing project), Carrington’s Down Below (NYRB), Carrington’s The Milk of Dreams (NYRB Children’s Collection), The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead (Virago), and Leonora Carrington and the International Avant-Garde (Manchester University Press).

I love Carrington’s brilliant, humorous, macabre sensibility. I read the short stories spellbound, sometimes laughing.

But her book Down Below is a very different story:  a memoir of madness more or less lost in translation.  (Some call it a novel.)  It was originally  written in English, then rejected by Janet Flanner, then lost by Carrington; then in 1943  she dictated it in French to Jeanne Megneb; and then n 1944 it was translated into English by Victor Llona  for publication.  (The NYRB  text was compiled from both the French and the English translation.)

Written in the form of a diary, Down Below is a brief account (68 pages) of Carrington’s nervous breakdown and painful stay in a Spanish mental hospital in 1940.  She had been living in the south of France with her lover Max Ernst, who was captured by the Nazis and incarcerated in a concentration camp.  She  fled  across the border from France to Spain with friends.  Terrified and exhausted, she suffered a complete psychotic break.

Although her description of terrifying hallucinations and delusions is poetic, the experience was traumatic.  She writes,

We were riding normally when, 20 kilometers beyond Saint-Martin, the car stopped; the brakes had jammed.  I heard Catherine say:  “The brakes have jammed.”  “Jammed!”  I, too, was jammed within, by forces foreign to my conscious will, which were also jamming the mechanism of the car.  This was the first stage of my identification with the external world.  I was the car.  The car had jammed on account of me, because I, too, was jammed between Saint-Martin and Spain.  At that time, I was still limited to my own solar system, and was not aware of other people’s systems, the importance of which I realise now.

If you or a family member have suffered from a mental illness*, you will find this book  painful.  You will wearily  recognize  the symptoms (though for what illnesses, is never clear:  major depression overlaps with bipolar disorder overlaps with schizophrenia overlaps with…).  Carrington sparely shows the reality of psychic wounds, yet her vivid account of illness and a scary hospitalization l seems almost unclouded by emotion.

There are better memoirs of mental illness.  Carrington’s lacks context.  William Styron’s Darkness Visible:  A Memoir of Madness is a classic; so is Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Kesey’s psych hospital is also a metaphor for the machinery of society). Carrington’s  poetic yet realistic and muted description of symptoms is very upsetting:  I have never heard them described with such detachment.

Carrington reminds me of a relative  I will call “Zelda,” who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and did not speak, eat, or bathe for three weeks in the hospital after a complete psychotic break. She stood paralyzed, mute, in front of the locked glass doors to the courtyard, staring at the heaps of snow.  She believed she had caused the blizzard. Her mind was that strong (or weak, if you prefer).  While “solving” the catastrophe of “contaminated nuclear snow”, she drank water out of styrofoam cups,  hoarded them in her room, left different levels of water in each cup, arranged them on her bedside table like models of atoms (she said later), and tried to work out how to “decontaminate the snow.”

“I was a nuclear physicist and the cups were atoms,” she said later, laughing.  Do not show pain.  That is the Code of the Woosters.  Or do I mean ours?

And things did not go that differently for Carrington, though the facilities and treatment were more primitive then.  Having suffered a psychotic break, she was locked up in a mental hospital  in Spain.   She begged to move to the ground floor, which she called “Down Below,”and believed was, relatively,  Paradise.  Meanwhile, she had to solve the problems of the universe between injections and other  treatment.  LIke”Zelda,” she was responsible for the world and terrified of her power.

…back in my bed, I would sit up again very straight and examine the remnants of my fruit, rinds and stones, arranging them in the form of designs representing as many solutions to cosmic problems.  I believed that Don Luis and his father, seeing the problems solved on my plate, would allow me to go Down Below, to Paradise.

The treatment was dreadful:  she was given injections of a drug called Cardiazol that mimicked shock treatment. She did not quite know where she was.  She did not understand who the people were.   Undoubtedly pills are better these days.  Still inadequate, but better.

Eventually Carrington’s rich English parents sent her old nanny by submarine to Spain to take care of her; Carrington might have mouldered in the hospital forever had Nanny not arrived. The plan was to send her to another hospital in South Africa for the duration of the war.  Carrington ran away to the Mexican embassy in Lisbon and married in order to escape from Europe to New York and eventually to Mexico.

Down Under starts out strong, but the  narrative loses impetut and becomes repetitious:  even 68 pages is too long for a translated dictated remembrance of madness without context.

But look at Carrington’s paintings and read her fiction.  And when you run out, turn to this strange, uneven little book.  You might like it more than I did.


*According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), approximately 9.3 million adults, or about 4 percent of Americans ages 18 and up, experience “serious mental illness” every year.