A Homage to the TBR

Someone else’s reading journal.

I keep a book journal, but do not have a TBR.  I buy books, I put them on shelves, I take them off shelves, I find I am not in the mood, I put them back for a year or ten years, I take them off the shelves again, and eventually I read them. Are people with TBRs more organized?  When I do plan, the dates are flexible.  Last spring I meant to reread Daniel Deronda, but didn’t get around to it till  fall.  Did it matter?  Not at all.  And did I hurry through 800 pages?  I did not.  George Eliot’s prose is buoyant and rich in texture, lush and leisurely.  Festina lente (“Hurry slowly”),as the Roman proverb says.

Not everyone shares my serendipitous style of selection, though. We don’t all have to be the same:  I very much like other people’s TBRs!  And so this post is a homage to pictures of  bloggers’ TBRs, which I always love, and to the “vloggers” at Booktube who show books to the camera and say they plan to read them. (Now that is a bit weird!)  The photo above is of what passes for my TBR (though I am committed to reading other books currently, so this TBR is in flux).  I have started some of these, so I can decide which to finish, and which to reject.

1.  Gail Honeymoon’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.  Everybody has read this except me, yes?  I have read 50 pages, and it is well-written.  Initially I thought it might be like Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, only Eleanor Oliphant is a 30ish eccentric heroine with a dead-end job in an office, not an elderly woman about to retire. But Honeymoon’s novel is both lighter and more issue-oriented:   The victim of some kind of abuse, Eleanor has scars all over her face but says she “is completely fine” without having any friends. And then, at  a concert, she is smitten by a musician, and buys a computer to stalk him online.  She plans to meet and seduce him and even gets a bikini wax.  But her most likely friend?  The nice, dull guy from the IT department.

I’m of two minds about this:   I do feel I read a very similar American novel in 2015 or 2016.  I actually blogged about it, but don’t remember the title.  It wasn’t very good:   the story of a obese woman who is completely alone until a kind woman befriends her–and naturally she blooms.  Gail Honeymoon’s novel is much more sophisticated.  I am not very intrigued by the story, though.

2.  Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits with Gun.  This is a Christmas present from a friend with very good taste.   And I loved Stewart’s nonfiction book about earthworms, The Earth Moved.  This mystery, set in 1914,  is based on the real-life Kopp sisters: Constance Kopp became of the nation’s first female sheriffs, after the sisters survived a shoot-out at their farm.  This is another of those books everyone loves, and  the opening pages are addictive.  AND SO IT WILL BE READ.

3.  Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. I read an article in The Guardian about publishers’ favorite books of the year:  Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury recommended Conversations with Friends.  I’ve read 62 pages of this beautifully-written little book, and it slightly reminds me of Barbara Trapido’s comic novels, only it’s aimed at Millennials and written by a Millennial.  The narrator, Frances, a poet who performs poetry at bars with her best friend Bobbi, develops a tangled relationship with a married actor, the husband of a woman who is writing a profile about Frances and Bobbi.   I’m of two minds about this:  I’m not its target audience, and I do not relate to the characters.  But  I will PROBABLY finish it because it’s blessedly short.

4.  Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke It’s a Golden Age Detective Story, and I love Allingham.  It is not her best but very exciting!  I’m a fan of her hero Albert Campion, so I’ll finish it.

5.  Browsings, by Michael Dirda, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for The Washington Post, is a collection of essays which he wrote originally for the homepage at The American Scholar. He is obsessed with collecting books, carries a notebook on walks, and tells us which notebooks he prefers (not Moleskines), lists titles of books about books, and guides browsers at a famous book sale at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart to learn which books are collectible and valuable.   Yes, I will finish this book, and it would make a great Christmas gift.

6.  Susan Richards Shreve’s Queen of Hearts.  I absolutely loved this well-written novel when I read it in the ’80s, and am loving it again.  It’s a moving tale with a hint of magic realism, set in a small town in Massachusetts.  The heroine is beautiful, kind, and has second sight, but on the eve of her wedding, an unforeseen incident occurs: she finds her fiance with another woman, and she kills him. What will she do with this secret?   The very talented Susan Richard Shreves is one of my favorite novelists. She bridges the gap between literary and popular fiction, and this is thoroughly enjoyable.

So, do you have a TBR?  Do you plan your readign?  Or do you read as you go? What’s on your TBR?   Let me know!

Which Translators Changed Your Life?

In the 1990s you probably attended at least one poetry slam. You did not intend to: you would be at a pub or coffeehouse when suddenly an emcee would announce the Boston Slam team vs. Hyannis.  (It was fun.)  In a recent essay at  the NYR Daily, “Gained in Translation,” Tim Parks describes an event I never dreamed of:  a translation slam.  At this particular slam, two writers translated passages from Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island,  and then discussed their very different word choices with a moderator.

Readers of translations do not have to be language buffs.  Still, even if the last time you read a foreign language was in college, you will have noticed that the literature did not have an exact word-for-word match in English. I am a keen reader of Greek and Latin poetry (master’s in classics, former Latin teacher), but translations are imperfect.  The cognate languages Greek and Latin are more economical than the English language, and the word order is more flexible:  the order does not have to go Subject – verb – direct object, as it does in English, so the way you think actually changes.

Virgil’s Aeneid is in vogue because of the many reviews of the poet David Ferry’s new translation. I do not often read translations of Latin, so it was a strange experience to sit down with Ferry’s book.  His version of the Aeneid reads very well: the language is beautiful, the  translation is sometimes very precise, then goes astray, then returns. Robert Fagles’s translation is more exact, but less elegant.  My inner Latin teacher chooses the Fagles.  Would a poet prefer Ferry?

Yes, I read classics but depend on translators for other languages. And translators of 19th-century Russian and French literature transformed my life when I was a young woman.  Can I  express the joy I felt  in discovering Louise and Aylmer Maude‘s graceful translations of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace?  (The Maudes really are the best! says she who does not know Russian.)   And the English poet Kathleen Raine brought Balzac into my life, with her engrossing translations of Lost Illusions and Cousin Bette.

In “Gained in Translation,” Parks brilliantly describes the gift of translators.  He writes,

Translators are people who read books for us. Tolstoy wrote in Russian, so someone must read him for us and then write down that reading in our language. Since the book will be fuller and richer the more experience a reader brings to it, we would want our translator, as he or she reads, to be aware of as much as possible, aware of cultural references, aware of lexical patterns, aware of geographical setting and historical moment. Aware, too, of our own language and its many resources. Far from being “just subjective,” these differences will be a function of the different experiences these readers bring to the book, since none of us accumulates the same experience. Even then, of course, two expert translators will very likely produce two quite different versions. But if what we want is a translation of Tolstoy, rather than just something that sounds good enough sentence by sentence, it would seem preferable to have our reading done for us by people who can bring more, rather than less, to the work.

What a lovely essay!

Which translators have changed your life?

George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda & the Myth of Actaeon and Diana

Is George Eliot the most elegant writer of the nineteenth century?

Many of you have doubtless read Middlemarch, her superb novel about provincial life.  Some of you may have been introduced to Eliot in high school by  Silas Marner, her sentimental novel about a miser redeemed by a child.  Not the best introduction!

Over the years, Eliot’s books have delighted me, perhaps because I started with the best.  I read Middlemarch in an independent reading class in high school, and, then as now, identified with Dorothea Brooke, the bright, fiery, naive young heroine who marries a homely middle-aged scholar, Mr. Casaubon, because she mistakes him for an intellectual.  When I reread Middlemarch in 2010 and again in 2015 (I posted about it here), I channeled my inner good girl  as I pored over the story of Dorothea with bated breath and the crazed hope that Dorothea would not marry Mr. Casaubon.  (Do you ever hope a novel will have changed, too?  But then what would the story be?)

Much as I love Middlemarch, it is not my favorite Eliot, though it is a very great book.  No, I much prefer Daniel Deronda, her last novel, a strange hybrid book which is partly an inversion of the myth of Diana and Actaeon, partly the story of a man’s search for identity and his study of Judaism.

The heroine of Daniel Deronda, Gwendolen Harleth, is a spoiled, haughty young woman who marries the wrong man. Gwendolen is over-confident, beautiful, witty, snobbish, and rather lazy, and very much reminds me of Austen’s Emma. Gwendolen is accomplished, but she could be more accomplished if she practiced or studied.  She wins a golden star at an archery contest, but the golden arrow goes to someone else. She is a pleasing singer but hasn’t practiced enough to be proficient. She is a Diana, a chaste huntress, who rides to hounds wildly, and at first seems as cruel and powerful as Diana.  When her male escort falls from his inadequate mount and strains his shoulder, she appallingly thinks it funny and has no sympathy. She does not want to marry, and dreams of doing something great. But her mother loses her money, and Gwendolyn must give up her dreams. She marries the wealthy Grandcourt beause she thinks she will be able to control him–but it is the sadistic Grandcourt who controls her.

The fraught relationship of Gwendolen and Grandcourt is an inverted reinterpretation of the myth of the struggle of Diana and Actaeon. In Ovid’s version in Book III of the Metamorphoses, Diana, goddess of virginity, archery, and the hunt, is omnipotent, while Actaeon, the hunter, is stripped of power for seeing the goddess naked in the bath . She furiously throws water at him and  he metamorphoses into a stag, who then is horribly killed by his own hounds.

Gwendolen’s arrows are less accurate than Diana’s. Grandcourt first sees her at the archery competition; he admires her beauty and wants to crush her power.  Gwendolen refuses his proposal of marriage after she is approached by his mistress, who has children, but changes her mind when her mother loses her money.  Although she marries to support her mother and sisters, she had another option: her uncle had arranged for her to be a governess to a bishop’s family. And so Gwendolen, too, has committed an immoral act.

My much-read Everyman copy, with the lettering on the title fading.

Grandcourt restricts her social contacts and isolates her, forbidding her to develop a friendship with Daniel Deronda and ordering her not to invite her mother for a visit.  Gwendolen/Diana is slowly reduced from huntress to hunted.

Eliot writes,

Of what use was the rebellion within her? She could say nothing that would not hurt her worse than submission. Turning slowing and covering herself again, she went to her dressing-room. As she reached out the diamonds it occurred to her that her unwillingness to wear them might have already raised a suspicion in Grandcourt that she had some knowledge about them which he had not given her. She fancied that his eyes showed a delight in torturing her. How could she be defiant? She had nothing to say that would touch him—nothing but what would give him a more painful grasp on her consciousness.

Grandcourt has many dogs.  They dote on him, but he is indifferent, sometimes cruel.  Gwendolen observes,

“He delights in making the dogs and horses quail: that is half his pleasure in calling them his,” she said to herself, as she opened the jewel-case with a shivering sensation.

“It will come to be so with me; and I shall quail. What else is there for me? I will not say to the world, ‘Pity me.'”

Finally, Grandcourt manages to isolate her completely on a sailing trip off the coast of Italy. She is more trapped, more confined, than she has ever been on land.

But water conquers Grandcourt, as it conquers Actaeon.There is an accident, and Grandcourt  falls into the sea.  There is one moment,  Gwendolen later relates to Daniel,  when delayed throwing him the rope, paralyzed, though whether or not this would have made any difference we do not know. (Daniel says it would not.)  Guiltily, she jumped into the sea after Grandcourt. She is rescued; Grandcourt drowns.

Water killed him, but was his drowning her fault?  She believes it is.   If indeed she killed him, as she fears, the motive was her freedom, not his money:   she already knew the money would go to Grandcourt’s mistress and son if she did not produce an heir.

Diana, too,  uses water to kill Actaeon.  Here is a literal translation of Diana’s reactions (Metamorphoses III.188-190)

Though she wished she had her arrows at hand,
she took the water which she had and threw it in his virile face,
sprinkling his hair with avenging waters…

… ut vellet promptas habuisse sagittas,
quas habuit sic hausit aquas vultumque virilem
perfudit spargensque comas ultricibus undis…

Eliot’s novel is in many ways a feminist realist retelling of the myth of Diana and Actaeon. Water can be treacherous; water can be death or rebirth.    Gwendolen’s doppelganger, Mirah, the talented Jewish singer, also wrestles with water:  she is saved by Daniel from suicide by drowning.  Which heroine do we prefer?  The sinful, shattered woman who withholds the rope, or the sinful, shattered woman who tries to obliterate herself because of poverty and solitude? Curiously, Mirah, who as had a much harder life, is portrayed as almost too pure and goody-goody to be true.  Gwendolen is entirely human.  A brilliant, fascinating novel.

A Little Fanfare: Four Books You May Have Missed in 2017

An intense commuter-reader!

No one has time to read everything.  If you work full-time, perhaps you read 50 books a year.  And that’s if you manage to read on the bus or the subway.

After  a certain age, I wanted to emulate Thomas Hardy, who, I believe, spent six hours reading every night.  And the more I read, the fussier I became.  In my forties, it seemed that either (a) much worse books were suddenly being published, or  (b) my taste was so honed that fewer books passed my standards.  (N.B.  The less exhausted you are when you read, the pickier.)

Here’s the good news:  I have read some outstanding new books  in 2017. And here’s some curious news:  I happened upon some stunning new books that were published with little fanfare. So here are four great finds you may have missed in 2017.

GENRE:  LITERARY FICTION/FANTASY.

Ellen Klages crafts one perfect sentence after another in her  dazzling new collection of short stories, Wicked Wonders.  Published by Tachyon, a small press in San Francisco, this extraordinary collection is introduced by PEN/Faulkner Award winner Karen Joy Fowler.   Klages has a reputation for eclecticism:  she won the Nebula Award in 2005 for her novelette “Basement Magic” and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2007 for her Y.A. novel, The Green Glass Sea.  This pitch-perfect, genre-crossing collection demonstrates her diverse gifts:   magic realism, retold fairy tales, and some smart homages to Ray Bradbury’s brilliant work.   (You can read my entire post here.)

GENRE:  HISTORICAL NOVEL/POP FICTION

Crystal King’s clever, entertaining historical novel, Feast of Sorrow, was my favorite pop fiction read of the year.  Set in ancient Rome in the first century A.D., it is narrated by the slave Thrassius, who is the gourmet cook (coquus) for the household of  Apicius, a Roman gourmet after whom an actual Roman cookbook was named.  In King’s  novel, Thrassius is the author of the cookbook, though  Apicius takes credit for it.  It is great fun to read about the dinners (cenae), but there are also fascinating political intrigues and personal feuds. And King is a witty writer, she creates  believable characters,  and has a great sense of humor.  The pages fly.

  GENRE:  LITERARY FICTION/FANTASY

The award-winning writer John Crowley’s new novel, Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr,  is brilliant and beautiful, a perfect book for  lovers of myths, legends, and epic poetry.  In this novel about a  crow who learns human language and steals immortality,  there are allusions to Dante and Virgil.  On one level,  I love the bird’s-eye view of history, and the mythic journeys of the crow Dar Oakley over 2,000 years.  On another level, it explores the meaning, or lack thereof, of  life and death.  And the crow’s autobiography is occasionally interrupted by a dying human narrator,  who is reconstructing the story from his own conversations with Dar Oakley.  I found this an enthralling read, really hypnotic.  It reminds me slightly of Kazuo Ishiguro’s literary fantasy, The Buried Giant.  You can read my entire post here.

GENRE:  NONFICTION/CLASSICS/LITERARY CRITICISM/WOMEN’S STUDIES

The best nonfiction book I read this year was Yopie Prins’s  Ladies’ Greek:  Victorian Translations of Tragedies.  It is the story of Victorian women writers, poets, and classicists who fell in love with Greek and translated tragedies, among them Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Virginia Woolf, H.D., Amy Levy, and Edith Hamilton.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was very keen on Greek, and the phrase “lady’s Greek”  comes from her  novel/poem, Aurora Leigh.  The heroine of the poem, Aurora Leigh, is a passionate reader of Greek who hopes to become a  poet.  Her cousin Romney, who proposes to her on her 20th birthday  cannot resist teasing her, i.e., denigrating her education.  He mocks her Greek marginalia in a book of poems.

I adored this book, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in the education of Victorian women and the role they played (or were allowed to play) in reading and promoting classics.   You can read my entire post here.

Finally, what books do you think were overlooked or underreviewed this year?  I love lists…

Literary Links: Frankenstein, L. M. Montgomery, & More

I have read some excellent bookish pieces online lately!  Here are the links:

1.   I love L. M. Montgomery‘s Anne of Green Gables series, but did not read her other books.  And so I was intrigued by this excellent essay at Tor on Montgomery’s adult novel, The Blue Castle.

Mari Ness writes,

The Blue Castle is the story of Valancy, who lives a life that makes the word “repressed” sound positively liberated. In her late 20s, she lives with her mother and her aunt in a life of relentless sameness and repression, unable even to read novels, choose the decorations for her own room, purchase her own clothing or attend a church of her choosing. Part of this stems from her family, who as individuals and en masse shredded her self-confidence, but part of this is also her society: a society that sees only one fate for women, marriage. And Valancy does not have the money or education or self-confidence to escape this.

This was a reality that Montgomery knew well from her own experience—apart from the self-confidence part. Well aware that she would inherit little or nothing from her own extended family and financially shiftless father, Montgomery realized early on that she had very few financial options other than marriage. Her extended family paid for full educations (and the occasional trip to Europe) for sons, but not for the ambitious Montgomery, who paid for her one year at college by saving up money by staying in terrible boarding houses while teaching and with a small sum from her grandmother, who apparently wanted to help equip her then-unmarried granddaughter for later life.

I will check this out.

2 Do you love George Eliot?  I enjoyed Rachel Vorona Cote’s essay at Literary Hub,  “Justice for Maggie: On George Eliot’s Most Underrated Heroine.”

In this plug for the heroine of The Mill on the Floss, Cote writes,

I’m always on the watch for Too Much Heroines—women who, in the face of patriarchal dictates, cannot or will not contain themselves emotionally, sexually, physically, or intellectually. A heroine like Maggie Tulliver, one who, over the course of her life, is considered too clever and impetuous and exuberant, commits the gravest of crimes: she occupies space explicitly denied to her. Maggie emotes with lavish immoderation; reads everything her brother does, and exponentially more; and, as a child, thwarts attempts to render her a dainty specimen of girlhood. In other words, she demonstrates a fundamental aversion to gender conventions. You might reasonably compare her to Catherine Earnshaw, minus the sociopathy, or to Anne Shirley, sans the preoccupation with storybook romance, or even call her a Victorian Ramona Quimby.

My favorite Eliot heroine is the difficult, proud Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda.  Who is yours?

3  One of my favorite books, Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs. Caliban, has been reissued by New Directions. The heroine of this sad, witty, moving novel is  Dorothy Caliban, a desolate housewife who falls in love with a monster, Larry.  Wouldn’t you have given refuge to an amphibious monster on the run from a research lab, too, if your child had died and your husband was cheating?  Poor Dorothy!

Jean Zimmerman writes at NPR:

This season’s secret weapon in literary cocktail banter will be Mrs. Caliban, a peculiar but wonderful and long-overlooked novella by Rachel Ingalls. Originally published in 1983 and seemingly doomed to a dead end ride on the oblivion express, Mrs. Caliban was briefly rescued by an unlikely deus ex machina: The British Book Marketing Council, which in 1986 named it “one of the 20 greatest American novels since World War II.” Its 15 minutes in the public eye ended quickly enough, and this strange, unlikely fable once again sank into obscurity.

Read it as a monster novel, or as a parable.  We Are All Mrs. Caliban!  (That makes no sense, but I can imagine the words on a sign on a protest march.)

4  Did you know that 2018 is the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?  At NPR I read a fascinating review of Christopher Frayling’s new book, Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years.

Genevieve Valentine writes,

Half scholarly study, half art book, The First Two Hundred Years offers some great details about the story’s blockbuster success on the stage, and you-know-this-one glimpses of the movie versions of everyone’s favorite monster. But it spends the bulk of its energy on the moving pieces behind the novel itself. Mary Shelley introduced her tale in the famous story contest with Lord Byron and her husband Percy in a villa outside Geneva one dark and stormy night, but beneath it was a sea of contributing factors: Her research into galvanism, her parents’ social views, the landscape of their journey, and her own inner strain (as big a demon, Frayling suggests, as anything in their horror stories).

I do love Shelley’s Frankenstein and this book sounds fascinating.  The cover of Grayling’s book is so hideous, though, that I went with an image of Shelley’s novel.

Happy Weekend!

The Habit of Living Indoors: Are Narcissists the Best Writers?

Do you have to be a narcissist to be a good writer? Or a bad writer, for that matter.

For many years I eked out a living as a freelance writer. I scribbled book reviews, features, and PR at a rapid rate. I bubbled over with thousands of words a week, enjoying writing frivolous, fun pieces.  Alas, most of the articles were ephemera, and  I have hung on mostly to the reviews and pieces about writers.  But reviews are not lucrative:   I had to fund my habit of living indoors.

Books were my life and still are, but I have never written seriously about books. If only I’d been prettier, more charming, more political, perhaps I’d have been more successful…but I suppose I would not have liked that prettier, more charming, more political person. In that respect, I am narcissistic.   I often felt like Jo in Little Women, enjoying my blood-and-thunder stories but haunted by money worries and patriarchal disapproval–Jo/Kat’s not a serious writer! I stopped writing in my free time.   All I really wanted to do was read.

When I was 18 or 19 I was sure I’d write a novel someday–when I felt like it!  The first novelist I met, outside of a fiction writing class, was a friend’s handsome, pretentious boyfriend. I was awed that he had  finished a novel, and eagerly started to read his manuscript. He was very smart… but his prose was bombastic and unpublishable.   One sentence has stayed with me: “Even the crack of dawn made him horny.”

At that age, I had more talent than I have now.  Words unselfconsciously flowed from my pen in my free time, between classes, work, and a late dinner with my boyfriend.   One evening, when a friend and I were studying for an exam for a core psychology class we’d rarely attended and bought lecture notes for at the Union, she took time off from reading about lab rats to riffle through my desk drawers.  Why didn’t I finish my brilliant novel? she demanded after half an hour.  (There wasn’t much there.)   “Well, it’s not a novel,” I tried to explain. Fiction was not my forte.  If it was, I’d have written it.  I specialized in short ephemeral articles, and now in a blog that is really just a journal of my reading!

I did write one novellla, at a rapid pace. To show how little writers know themselves,  I was not aware of the kind of book it was till I finished.   I had aimed for literary fiction, but it turned out to be women’s fiction.  One day I may go back and revise, tighten the plot, lengthen the book, and make the characters more likable.   But the project doesn’t interest me that much.  I would rather read…

 I have recently mused about the writer characters in Pamela Hansford Johnson’s superb novels.   In her books, writers are divided between the sane and sensible camp and the narcissists.   In The Last Resort (which I wrote about here), the lovely narrator, Christine, is a successful novelist, a happy wife and mother.  At weekends spent writing at a hotel, she sees a friend made very unhappy by an affair with a married man.  And after the man’s wife dies, he marries someone else.  It is a shattering scene.

And in Johnson’s brilliant Helena trilogy, her masterpiece, which I last wrote about here, the narrator, Claud Pickering, is a writer and an art historian with a deep understanding of his dysfunctional family, especially of his narcissistic stepmother, Helena.  He is one of the sanest and most responsible of characters, a cross between Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Nick Jenkins in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.  Claud is the kind of guy you want to spend time with.

But in Johnson’s hilarious Dorothy Merlin trilogy, which I chortled over last weekend, the writers are all ridiculously narcissistic. In the first book in the trilogy, The Unspeakable Skipton, we learn that the hero Daniel Skipton believes he is the best writer of his generation. He hustles a bare living in Bruges by  exploiting tourists with various scams, but his life is writing his new novel, his masterpiece, in an attic in a mouldering house.  Unfortunately, he libels so many people that the book is unpublishable.  And he has so little sense that he even satirizes his publisher, who kindly sends advances money on books they both know Daniel will never write.

But, narcissistic and malicious as Daniel is, he genuinely loves writing.  Johnson describes his touching enjoyment of the routine.

Having had his lunch and rinsed out a pair of socks (he had only two pairs and always kept one in the wash), he took his manuscript from the table drawer, ranged before him his three pens, one with black ink, one with green and one with red, and sat down to the hypnotic delight of polishing. The first draft of this book had been completed a year ago. Since then he had worked upon it every day, using the black pen for the correction of simple verbal or grammatical slips, the green pen for the burnishing style, the red for the marginal comment and suggestions for additional matter….  It was not only a great book, it was the greatest book in the English language, it would make his reputation all over the world and keep him in comfort, more than comfort, for the rest of his life.

Daniel Skipton is not the only narcissist in the trade. His rival, Dorothy Merlin, a poet/playwright who visits Bruges with her husband, Cosmo Hines, and two friends, has an inflated opinion of her own drama in verse about wombs and motherhood, which was staged as a multi-media production in London.  When she informs Daniel that her plays have to be read “on two levels,”  he is very annoyed, because he believes his own work is deeper and  should be read on seven levels!  She says,”You see, the womb in my verse is not just my womb.  It is the womb of everyone.”  And she compares herself to the Flemish painters who add scenes of domestic life behind the Madonna.

This is the kind of narcissism we love to laugh about.  Are  writers like this in real life?  Well, perhaps I’ve  met one or two, but the majority are very kind and generous.  Writers are no more alike than, say, lion tamers or Wal-Mart cashiers. Yes, they tame the lions or punch the cash register keys, but it is their bookishness that unites them at any party in a room full of geeks scanning bookshelves.

Writers Living Cheaply: Pamela Hansford Johnson’s “The Unspeakable Skipton”

I spent the weekend in bed with a bad cold. You know the kind of thing:  there is much coughing and dizziness, you feel you might faint in line at the store,  and the cold/flu/whatever hangs on forever. (After two weeks, go to the doctor.)  It is the kind of cold which, I assure you, will be exacerbated by a cheerless masterpiece by Dostoevsky.  No, you must turn to light reading.

The eclectic English writer Pamela Hansford Johnson did not specialize in light novels, but her Dorothy Merlin trilogy is hilarious.  The first of these satires of the writing life, The Unspeakable Skipton, focuses on a narcissistic novelist/con man; the second, Night and Silence Who Is Here, is an academic satire; and the third and best, Cork Street, Next to the Hatter’s, features Dorothy Merlin, a pretentious poet/playwright, holding court in her husband Cosmo’s bookshop, along with other artistic Londoners.  By the way, these can  be read as stand-alones.

The Unspeakable Skipton is potentially a cult classic–if anyone knew about it. I chortled over this short, witty, very weird novel about the vanity of a novelist/huxter hero, Daniel Skipton, who does nefarious odd jobs to afford a cheap garret in Bruges, “in one of “the last of the patrician houses,” as he says.   He has fallen in love with the beauty of Bruges.

Yes, he thought, this was the place for him and none other: he would die here.  He had come to live in Bruges for cheapness at the end of the 1920s:  had muddled through and out of the war by means of ill-health and broadcasting in Flemish for the BBC, and had come back not for cheapness, since the country was bloated with money and everything was dear, but because he could not bear to live anywhere else.  And, so long as Flabby Anne kept up her payments, he could just about get along.

Skipton believes he is the greatest writer of his time, but his tiny output of 250 words a day, many of them libellous, belies his opinion.  He is a paradoxical mix of personal priggishness and con artist: he wears socks with individually knitted toes because he thinks it’s obscene for toes to touch, but is not at all fastidious about finance.  He  hustles advances from his publisher for imaginary projects and cadges money from a cousin he’s never met, whom he calls Flabby Anne. He also procures fake antiques for a dealer and organizes voyeuristic parties to view obscene skits in mime.

At the center of the book is Skipton’s chance meeting with a group of literary tourists and his attempts to dub them out of money: Dorothy Merlin, a poet/playwright, her husband, Cosmo, a bookseller, Duncan, a photographer, and Matthew, a mysterious aristocrat. He’s equally matched here, however, and underrates his opponents, particularly Dorothy’s husband.

Skipton despises Dorothy, who writes poetry about her fecund womb–she has had seven children–but she cares nothing for his opinion,  and the contretemps between the conceited pair is hilarious.

“I am alien to you,” said Daniel, “utterly so.  I do not sing in chorus.  I do not rattle out, in a half-baked fashion, the Freudian claptrap which has been so successful because any dirty-minded dunce can understand it. Not that I am accusing you, Miss Merlin, of being dirty-minded. Where no mind exists, it is impossible for there to be either dirt or cleanliness.”

She said with dreadful charity, “I don’t think you can be well.  Do let us help you.  I’m not in the least offended with you, I–“

Very, very funny, and I look forward to rereading the other two shortly.  This is very short, only 192 pages.  Just enough of Skipton!  A little of him goes a long way.  I prefer Dorothy:  she’s a snob but not a scam artist!