Light Reading: Tara Isabella Burton’s “Social Creature” and Elizabeth von Arnim’s “Christine”

This summer I have done LOTS of light reading.  Since the middle of May, when we first saw the sun after a tenebrous winter, I have been soaking up rays (for Vitamin D!) and lounging and reading, if not beach books, very fast books.

There is a puritanical strain in the family that says it is a sin to read a book not reviewed in The New Yorker, but I have broken some rules.  While my husband was out of town, I read Tara Isabella Burton’s creepy thriller, Social Creature, recommended by Janet Maslin  in The New York Times.  Compared by reviewers to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, this racy novel comprises a sticky web of socialites, social media, and lack of social boundaries.  Louise, a mousy wannabe writer, is down-and-out in New York, and though she’s about to turn 30, she is determined not to return to New Hampshire.  She works three jobs, as a barista, an SAT tutor, and a writer for an online catalogue–and she never has money to go out.  Then she meets Lavinia, a rich, wild socialite who takes her under her wing.  They go to posh party after posh party, and are always drunk or stoned.   Louise makes contacts and begins to write for acclaimed publications.   But it can’t last:  Lavinia has a history of adopting best friends, and then dumping them.  The novel takes a horrific turn …  and I had to leave the lights on all night for a week.

Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941) may be more to your taste if you’re looking for something light and literary.   (I posted here about Fräulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther.)  I recently discovered her out-of-print anti-war epistolary novel Christine, originally published under the pseudonym Elizabeth Cholmondeley (available under both names as a free e-book).

Twenty-two-year-old Christine, a violinist, moves to Berlin in 1914. She is there to study music with a famous violinist so she can make a living, not as a teacher, but as a musician.  In long letters to her mother every Sunday, she records the details of her life.  But she greatly misses her mother.

The worst of it is that we’re so poor, or you could have come with me and we’d have taken a house and set up housekeeping together for my year of study. Well, we won’t be poor for ever, little mother. I’m going to be your son, and husband, and everything else that loves and is devoted, and I’m going to earn both our livings for us, and take care of you forever.

At first she is unhappy.  Rude pedestrians actually knock her off the narrow sidewalks into the road when she takes a walk.   Her stout landlady and eccentric fellow roomers shun her  because of a strong anti-English feeling. Eventually they soften, because she is charming, but is music worth the price of loneliness in Berlin?  Yes, because Kloster, her music teacher, a short, chubby middle-aged violinist, becomes angelic when he plays the violin.  He tells her she is his most talented student, and she improves by long, joyful practice in her room. Kloster and his wife take her under their wing, and sen her to the country when it gets too hot and she looks pale.  He also introduces her to  handsome, musical Bernd, an aristocrat who, unfortunately, because of his class and tradition , is an officer in the army.  They fall in love and get engaged, though his family does not approve.

She knows something political is brewing:  the roomers boast about the strong German army.  And then Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is assassinated.  Everyone insists  that there will be war, though she can’t understand why.

Here day and night, day and night, since Wednesday, soldiers in new grey uniforms pass through the Brandenburger Thor down the broad road to Charlottenburg. Their tramp never stops. I can see them from my window tramping, tramping away down the great straight road; and crowds that don’t seem to change or dwindle watch them and shout. Where do the soldiers all come from? I never dreamed there could be so many in the world, let alone in Berlin; and Germany isn’t even at war! But it’s no use asking questions, or trying to talk about it. I’ve found the word “Why?” in this house is not only useless but improper. Nobody will talk about anything; I suppose they don’t need to, for they all seem perfectly to know. They’re in the inner circle in this house. They’re not the public. The public is that shouting, The public here are all the people who obey, and pay, and don’t know; an immense multitude of slaves,—abject, greedy, pitiful. I don’t think I ever could have imagined a thing so pitiful to see as these respectable middle-aged Berlin citizens, fathers of families, careful livers on small incomes, clerks, pastors, teachers, professors, drunk and mad out there publicly on the pavement, dancing with joy because they think the great moment they’ve been taught to wait for has come, and they’re going to get suddenly rich, scoop in wealth from Russia and France, get up to the top of the world and be able to kick it.

And frankly we are terrified for Christine.  The anti-English feeling is very strong.

Von Arnim writes brilliantly at times, at other times her prose is pedestrian, but overall this is an extremely moving anti-war novel.  Surely some press should reissue it!

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