Colette’s Duo and Le Toutounier

The name and image of Michel came to torment her. She harbored against her dead husband a grudge which often distracted her from her variable, capricious and ill-controlled grief.”—”Le Toutounier” by Colette

colette-duo-641782-_uy475_ss475_Colette was a fascinating bisexual woman with multiple husbands and lovers, a lyrical writer, a traveling music-hall artist, a critic, a journalist, and the owner of a cosmetics business. Not only was Colette extraordinarily beautiful and original but she wrote beautifully and originally about love and work.  As Erica Jong says in the introduction to The Colette Omnibus, “Colette’s fiction…is self-mythologizing in the way Proust’s or Henry Miller’s fiction is.   It often draws upon the author’s life with seeming candor, but is not literal autobiography.  The facts of the author’s life have been shaped, honed, and elevated to myth.”

And it is perhaps the myth that raises Colette to cult status.  Was any writer more popular than Colette among women readers when Farrar Straus Giroux reissued her books in paperback in the ’70s? Judging from the number of Goodreads reviews, she is still popular today.  How much is fiction? How much is fact?  Some years ago I read two biographies of Colette, Judith Thurman’s Secrets of the Flesh:  A Life of Colette and Creating Colette By Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier.  And still I mix up fact with fiction, because her memoirs seem so closely tied up with her novels.  Of course Renée, a traveling music-hall artist in the novel, The Vagabond,  is not Colette, but she is what we would like Colette to be.

The time comes when one can’t reread the favorites constantly, and goes back to lesser works.  I recently reread Duo, a novel I didn’t care for much years ago, and Le Toutounier, a sequel I’d never heard of.

In the quotation at the top of the page, from her novel Le Toutounier, the heroine, Alice, is bewildered, sad, and angry. Her  husband Michel drowned in what she calls “an accident” on the river while they were on vacation. She has returned to Paris and, as she lets herself into her bohemian, impoverished sisters’ flat, she does not quite allow herself to realize it was suicide.  In Alice’s case, he died so suddenly that she can’t come to grips with it.  Readers of Duo know he committed suicide.

duo-harcover-colette-9780672518492-usThis diptych of novels is rather stagy:  indeed Duo was later adapted as a play. And this “duet” between a theatrical couple, Michel and Alice, beautifully reveals their characters in dialogue.  Michel, who directs theatrical seasons in casino towns, is the more sensitive of the two, worried about the business.  Practical Alice, who grew up poor with three sisters who also worked in different capacities in the theater, designs costumes and doesn’t worry .

The plot of Duo centers on Michel’s discovery that Alice had a brief affair with his business partner. When she attempts to hide a purple portfolio, he insists on looking at it.  As he carries orchids in a glass jar to the table of the run-down family manor house where they are vacationing,  the dialogue is charming and lyrical.

“The purple light looked so pretty in your eyes and on your cheeks…like that. But we need that other thing too; it’s the same color—you know what I mean?”

“What other thing? Look out, Michel—you’re spilling the water from the flowers. Are you coming?”

“I’ve never knocked over the water from flowers in all my life! Some kind of blotter—it was there, on your bureau…it isn’t there anymore. Have you put it away? What were you doing with it? Were you writing?”

colette-duo-dell-9780440321439-uk-300There is a  love letter in the portfolio. He does not take the affair in stride, even when she tries to sugar-coat it.  He is, however, aware that he cannot express his anger while their housekeeper, Maria, is in the house. Alice is annoyed that he cares so much what people think but what Michel says is true:  they are vacationing in his manor house in the country where gossip spreads very quickly.  Finally, she tells him more about the affair, since he can’t seem to get over it, and he commits suicide while she is sleeping.  He is thinking grimly on the way to the river that she’ll have no problems dealing with the business and the estate.

In Le Toutounier, Alice returns to Paris, after being hassled by the insurance agents trying to prove it was suicide. She moves into the crowded flat with her sisters, bright, brittle, pretty women, Colombe and Hermine, with married lovers. Actually, Colombe is a virgin, faithful to her inaccessible man, while Hermine is dramatic, having a nearly fatal meeting with the wife.   Le toutounier is the  big American sofa where they relax and where two of them sleep. And, ironically, her sisters’ involvements with their inappropriate men mean that soon Alice will have le toutounier all to herself.  She doesn’t want to be alone, but she will be alone.

I preferred Le Toutounier to Duo, though that, too, was much better than I had remembered.  Her best books are great; her lesser books are better than you think.

What’s on my Nightstand?

the-romanovs-618fqfo-orlWhat’s on my nightstand?

I don’t actually have a nightstand.  What I have is a box of books by the bed. And now the books have spilled out of the box on to the floor, so the nightstand takes up about three feet of the floor. My nighttime reading lately has been The Romanovs: 1613-1918, a fascinating 744- page history by Simon Sebag Montefiore.  But, alas, my reading of The Romanovs has been interrupted by a SPORTS INJURY.

doctor-thorne-trollope-51nmupbvcxl-_sy344_bo1204203200_This sounds impossible, but I hurt my wrist by my two favorite low-impact activities.  During a week of reading  hefty classics by Trollope while  lying down, my wrist began to hurt from holding up the books.  Then over the weekend, I went on a very long bike ride with my speedy husband and it was a point of honor to keep up with him (well, sort of, since he slows down for me). Anyway, my wrist hurt like hell while pedaling up a hill and pressing down on the handlebars.

And so I’ve been icing my wrist, slinging ice into a ziplock bag and balancing it on top of or under the wrist.

Meanwhile, I am reading paperbacks so as not to irritate the muscles, tendons, what they may be. Here are three of the books on the nightstand.aird-stately-home-murder-51dwlzrcjjl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

1 The Stately Home Murder by Catherine Aird. I love Catherine Aird’s Inspector Sloane mysteries, and though I may or may not have read this one, published in 1970, I certainly like rereading as well as reading. Here is the Goodreads description:

On a stately home public tour, mischievous boy lifts the visor from a suit of armor – and finds corpse. Inspector Sloan and inadvertent joker Constable Crosby must sort out who stashed the body and why. Key is tea served to batty great-aunts. Clues also are in ne’er-do-well nephew and attempted blackmail.

2 Simenon’s The Shadow Puppet. It’s Simenon.  Everyone loves Simenon.  I don’t dislike Simenon, but I don’t love him. I prefer English cozies to police procedurals, and my experience has been the translations of Simenon are not always elegant.  Still, this new Penguin series, with new translations, has been praised, so perhaps I’ll really like it. What we do with our Simenons  is pass them around to  cousins e in Nevada, Iowa (pronounced Ne-vay-da ),What Cheer, Washington, or Muscatine.  And they pass it on to friends in Davenport, or Riverside.

simeon-shadow-puppet-233655273 Thomas McGuane’s The Bushwacked Piano. Thomas McGuane is a literary writer, a wild writer, and I love this  very nice Contemporary American Fiction original paperback, known as a yuppieback in the ’80s.  McGuane is wild, he is really out there, and he is much praised.  Here’s the Goodreads description.

As a citizen, Nicholas Payne is not in the least solid. As a boyfriend, he is nothing short of disastrous, and his latest flame, the patrician Ann mcguane-bushwacked-pianao-1439049270708Fitzgerald, has done a whose thing by dropping him. But Ann isn’t counting on Nicholas’s would persistence, or on the slapstick lyricism of Thomas McGuane, who in The Bushwhacked Piano sends his hero from Michigan to Montana on a demented mission of courtship whose highlights include a ride on a homicidal bronco and apprenticeship to the inventor of the world’s first highrise for bats. The result is a tour de force of American dubious.

Okay!  These are my choices.  I’m starting with a mystery.  And I hope I’ll be done with it before I go to bed.


Reading Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises & Literary Links

margaret-drabble-the-dark-flood-rises-51zpqxcwb2l-_sx337_bo1204203200_What am I reading?

I am halfway through Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises, a new novel which harkens back to her ambitious multi-character masterpieces of the ’70s and ’80s (my favorites are The  Needle’s Eye, The Realms of Gold, and The Radiant Way). She boldly balances the struggles of her ageing characters and their children with a fictional investigation of the plight of the elderly, the sick, and the dying.  Appropriate housing for the aged is at the core of the novel, and is in many ways at the core of the problems of ageing.

Drabble’s new novel is not as dark as you might expect.  It is positively cozy compared to what we found as we searched for the right assisted living facility or nursing home for my mother. (In other words, we knew nothing about eldercare until we had to know.) My favorite character in The Dark Flood Rises is Fran Stubbs, an  exuberant woman in her seventies,  who works for “a charitable trust which devotes generous research funds to examining and improving the living arrangements of the ageing.” She is not slowing down, which we find cheering, and travels all over England to conferences, driving her car.  She lives in a high-rise (not recommended for the aged), where she sometimes must walk up many flights of stairs. Her friends, many of whom are sick and dying, live in retirement communities, at home with aides, or, in one case, in the Canary Islands with a younger lover.

Brilliant writing!  and depressing, but my mother would NOT have found it depressing.


1917-ows_1481847425738301. ARE YOU A RUSSIAN LITERATURE FAN? The TLS has recently published several articles on Russian literature.

Go here to read a review of 1917:  Stories and poems of the Russian Revolution, edited by Boris Dralyuk

Go here to read a 1967 review by Edwin Morgan of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which, by the way, had its fiftieth anniversary last year.

2 RACHEL INGALLS’ FICTION.  At the Literary Hub, Daniel Handler writes on “The Best Writer You Don’t Know:  Rachel Ingalls.”  Pharos has republished three of Ingalls’ novellas in a new book, Three Masquerades.


The 36,000-word “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle,” which was discovered last summer by a graduate student, is being republished online on Monday by The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and in book form by the University of Iowa Press. A quasi-Dickensian tale of an orphan’s adventures, it features a villainous lawyer, virtuous Quakers, glad-handing politicians, a sultry Spanish dancer and more than a few unlikely plot twists and jarring narrative shifts.


4. IS THE TEMPEST YOUR FAVORITE SHAKESPEARE PLAY?  At the Barnes and Noble blog, Kelly Anderson writes about Jacqueline Carey’s new novel, Miranda and Caliban, a retelling of The Tempest

Enjoy your reading!

Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor & Under My Skin

Doris Lessing memoirs-of-a-survivor-my-copy

I’m checking in briefly to make a few remarks about Doris Lessing.   I  just finished rereading her superb 1974 post-apocalyptic novel, The Memoirs of a Survivor, and want to say a few words about it while it is fresh in my mind.

Some read The Memoirs strictly as dystopian fiction, but it is also a psychological, often surreal, portrait of Lessing. The narrator, an “older woman,” tries to understand the breakdown of society as the city crumbles around her and the media become increasingly unreliable and propagandistic.  She knows that eventually she will have to leave her flat, because the city is becoming dangerous, people must scrounge and barter, tribes of young people are leaving the city, and only the rich are still on the grid.  In a surreal scene, she becomes the guardian of a young girl, Emily: throughout the novel, the narrator struggles to help Emily, obviously her younger self  (and very like Martha Quest in The Children of Violence series).  You should also know that Lessing’s mother was named Emily, and that Lessing frequently explored mother-daughter relationships in her work.

A few years ago  Jenny Diski, in her “memoir” of Doris Lessing, which was first published in the London Review of Books, claimed that she was Emily in the novel.  Well, I was skeptical, but my assumption was that all writers and most sophisticated readers  realize that memoirs are to a certain extent made up, and that all would take this with a grain of salt.  Some of the material in Diski’s book is mined from Lessing’s novels,  without attribution.  So I was surprised that so many bloggers, at least, read her book as the literal truth about Lessing.  And so it makes me wonder about the breakdown of critical thinking, as well as the breakdown of society.  (But has there ever BEEN critical thinking?)

under-my-skin-lessing-41gwuvmd8yl-_sx330_bo1204203200_Well, obviously I’m not writing a thesis about this, but  tonight I opened Lessing’s Under My Skin:  Volume One of My Autobiography at random, and, as I suspected, my reading of The Memoirs is correct:  Emily IS Lessing (and sometimes Lessing’s mother)!

Compare these two incidents, one from Memoirs of a Survivor and one from Under My Skin, in which Emily/Doris is sadistically tickled by her father, a World War I veteran.  In Memoirs of a Survivor,  we see this scene because the narrator frequently visits the past: she travels behind the walls of her flat where there is another house in a different dimension in which rooms (her psyche) need tidying, painting, etc.  She also visits Emily/Doris’s past, set in different times, sometimes at the turn of the (20th) century, sometimes mid-century, but always long before the time of the events of the novel.  Well, Lessing was born in 1919, hence our travels through the 20th century.

From The Memoirs of a Survivor:

In a large chair set against the curtains, the soldier-like man sat with his knees apart, gripping between them the small girl who stood shrieking.  On his face, under the moustache, was a small tight smile. He was “tickling” the child.  This was a “game,” the bedtime “game,” a ritual.  The elder child was played with, was being made tired, was being given her allowance of attention, and it was a service by the father to the mother, who could not cope with the demands of her day, the demands of Emily.  …  her body was contorting and twisting to escape the man’s great hands that squeezed and dug into her ribs, to escape the great cruel face that bent so close over her with its look of private satisfaction. …  She shrieked, “No, no, no, no”…helpless, being explored and laid bare by this man.

From Under My Skin:

And then the moment when Daddy captures his little daughter and her face is forced down into his lap or crotch, into the unwashed smell–he never did go in for washing much, and–don’t forget–this was before easy dry-cleaning, and people’s clothes smelled, they smelled horrible.  By now my head is aching badly, the knocking headache of over-excitement.  His great hands go to work on my ribs.  My screams, helpless, hysterical, desperate.  Then tears…

… But I did not stop having nightmares about those great hands torturing my ribs until I was seven or eight.  Those nightmares were clear in my mind now as they were then, though the emotion has long gone away.  I became an expert on nightmares and how to outwit them when I was a small child, and the nightmare of being helpless and “tickled” was the worst.

A horrifying scene!  And I’m sure there is more, much more, in her autobiography to  parallel scenes in this novel.  I am writing this because I think it is important to realize that this novel is not about Jenny Diski.

Here is what Diski said (I don’t have her book, but I copied this excerpt from the LRB into a blog post a few years ago):

t made familiar and disturbing reading. I could see Emily in me, just as I could see my elderly neighbour’s description of me aged three. It is as accurate a reading of me as Emily’s harsh commentary on others. It is true, but it is, of course, a doubly edited version, a view of me from the narrator’s point of view, which itself has been taken and worked for fiction’s purpose from Doris’s point of view. If there is pity in the narrator’s response to Emily, it is strained for. I discovered after a while that Doris had a habit of describing people in fiction and in life as, for example, ‘heartbreaking’ in her most distant, coolest tone, as if to mitigate her dislike of them. She saw it as being fair, I think.

I do not believe for a minute that The Memoirs of a Survivor is about Diski.  It is a misreading, and, believe me, this is one of her kinder interpretations of Lessing.  I guess it’s possible to publish anything, if you say it’s about Doris Lessing.  Honestly!  Writers.  (I really have nothing against Diski,  but this book…ugh.)

Blathering: The Future of Social Media

Abbott and Costello meet Leo Tolstoy.
Abbott and Costello meet Leo Tolstoy.

This year I’ve been re-evaluating my use of social media. In the last year, I have lost interest in the internet. Power to the people—but the people are not always knowledgeable.  Absurdities are tweeted,  marketers mine Facebook and other platforms, and ads pop up everywhere.  For what it’s worth, I can read international newspapers and journals online. For what it’s worth…will it be worth it in the end?

The internet started as a way of building community, or so they say.  But a lot of good it has done it:  it  has destroyed public libraries. Many people plugged into the net have problems evaluating sources:  Wikipedia and even sketchy results of Google searches have taken the place of  scholarly books, reference books,  journals, etc..  In England, hundreds of libraries have closed, as fewer people use them.  In the U.S., the use of libraries has also declined. According to a recent Pew research study , only 44 percent of Americans visited a library or bookmobile over the last 12 months. Three years ago that figure was 53 percent.  On the rare occasions when I visit university libraries, I do not see  students reading books. All are glued to their computers. Shouldn’t university students be expected to read books?

Social media give everyone a voice. But books are not, as far as I can see, improving as a result of publishers’ mining data from consumer reviews. If anything, worse.  And many journalists, critics, and writers–and who can blame them, since the internet has destroyed their work?– are bitter about social media. In Howard Jacobson’s savage satire, Zoo Time,  the hero, Guy, a novelist, is furious that  his books are out of print.  His publisher is depressed because he is expected to ask Guy to “twit” and “blag.” (Tweet and blog.)  But Guy wants to tell him that”the blog is yesterday,” and that the blame lies on “myBlank and shitFace and whatever else was persuading the unRead to believe everybody had a right to his opinion.”

Well, Jacobson is very harsh,  though I know what he means about the unRead, and doubtless he considers me one. I can hardly say much against blogs, since I have one. Generally, the blog is a “no-harm” medium.  It can be used as a diary, an op/ed page, a collection of thoughts, even as a site for polished essay. (The latter is rare.) But I want to assert that mine is a book journal with informal notes about books:  I am not writing reviews. Very few bloggers are writing reviews. The problem is that the average blogger does believe he or she is writing  reviews.  And now that marketers have colonized blogs–I   turned down a review copy yesterday, of an e-book, not even a real book! –the “review” factor is even shakier than it used to be.

In general, bloggers read short books and earnestly, or whimsically, as the case may be, tell you their opinion of the book.  I find blogs very skimmable, but in recent years have read fewer. Every few weeks I read the bloggers who comment on my blogs, and then I leave comments, because it’s an obligation. But I am still as unconnected to other bloggers as Hillary Clinton was to the electorate.  Deep down, I know  that most of this internet writing is a waste of time, and that Bernie should have been the Democratic candidate.

Some bloggers love to read, but have no background in literature and are completely baffled by classics .  If you don’t often read blogs, you may be surprised, as my husband was the other night, to find a blogger declaring  Herman Mellville’s short novel Billy Budd “worthless”  and giving it a  D-. Yup, some bloggers actually grade books or work on the movie review star stystem.  The thing I’ve noticed is, when bloggers read classics, they often pick a short book,  presumably so they can tick it off a list–they’ve done Melville–without dong any real work.

My husband was so fascinated by this nervy blogger that he and I decided to write short fake  reviewettes by an imaginary cranky blogger.   Here they are.


Melville’s Billy Budd.  86 pages. ZERO STARS. “Could have 1 star if he cut out all the stuff about sailing. It’s crap! Don’t read Moby Dick.  I bet it’s crap!  Where’s Gordon Lish?”

Henrry James’s The Turn of the Screw.  121 pages.  1 star.  “James can’t write. Boy, was this a waste of time.  Crap!”

Colette’s Gigi.   68 pages.   1 star.  “God, what crap. I don’t care about the characters. Read at a blog that C was an immoral lesy.”

Doris Lessing’s The Grass Is Singing.  208 pages.  ZERO STARS.  “The worst book I’ve ever read.  Everybody pretends they  read The Golden Notebook but they don’t. Jenny Diski hated Lessing, and SHE wrote short books. so knows.  A bitch online said Doris Lessing satirizes TGIS in The Golden Notebook but  she’s so full of crap. I hate feminists.I voted for Trump. I will never read another book by a woman.”

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  838 pages.  ZERO STARS.   “I didn’t like Oblonsky, Levin, Dolly, Kitty, Anna, Karenin, Vronsky, Nikolai Dmitrievich, or Princess Betsy.  Pevear and Volokhonsky are bad translators.”

Okay, you get the idea?

I’m going to look back at all the hours I’ve spent online–and wonder.

Trollope’s Doctor Thorne

doctor-thorne-trollope-41fcbtvv3tl-_sx324_bo1204203200_I cannot tell you how much I love Trollope’s Doctor Thorne.  Have I ever had more fun reading a book? If you want to read a charming, lightning-fast comedy, this is your novel.

Trollope’s brilliant six-book Barsetshire series (The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, and The Last Chronicle of Barset) was tremendously popular in the 19th century, and is, I would imagine, still his most popular series.  I enthusiastically recommend beginning with Doctor Thorne,  the third, because Trollope is always better when he writes long than when he writes short, and you don’t have to read them in order. (Of course some of you will read the short just to cross him off your list.)   Doctor Thorne is light, bright, and entertaining, and though the novel has its serious, even dark, moments, it is not grounded in darkness like two of his masterpieces, He Knew He Was Right (which I wrote about here), or Phineas Redux (which I wrote about here).

doctor-thorne-trollope-51nmupbvcxl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Trollope had reservations about the best-selling Doctor Thorne.  He wrote, “The plot of Doctor Thorne is good, and I am led therefore to suppose that a good plot,–which, to my own feeling, is the most insignificant part of a tale,–is that which will raise it or most condemn it in the public judgment.”

Well, it is true he has a good plot, but character is the most important element.  Get past the opening melodramatic pages, which provide background,  and the characters are brilliantly-drawn, the dialogue scintillating, the satire of the aristocrats is hilarious, and the writing much more sophisticated than Trollope is ever given credit for.   David Skilton wrote, “…one of the  most remarkable things about Doctor Thorne is how little he exploits the sentimental or sensational possibilities…”

The book revolves around marriage, as so many of Trollope’s books do.  The strong-minded, plainspoken Doctor Thorne has a successful medical practice, and a happy home life  with his orphaned niece, Mary Thorne, the daughter of his dead ne’er-do-well brother, Thomas.  Years ago Thomas seduced a beautiful lower-class woman, Mary Scatcherd, whom he despicably pursued after he learned she was engaged to a tradesman.  When Mary’s stonemason brother, Roger Scatcherd, found out she was pregnant, he killed Thomas in a rage.  Doctor Thorne felt some sympathy for Roger, and arranged for his defense: Roger served six months in prison.  And Doctor Thorne has raised their niece, not thinking it prudent to tell Roger that his sister’s baby lived.

trollope-doctor-thorne-oxford-51fx2zh7x5l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Mary does not know her own identity, though, as Doctor Thorne’s niece, she assumes she is good enough to marry anyone.  When Frank Gresham, the 21-year-old heir of a great estate, flirts with her and says, at first half joking, in a spontaneous moment while walking with her at his coming-of-age party, that he loves her, one of his sisters, Augusta, overhears him and tattles to their aunt, Countess de Courcy (a ridiculous woman right out of Jane Austen). Frank’s mother, Lady Arabella, agrees with the countess that Frank must marry money.  Why?  Because her husband, Squire Greshem, is in debt, partly because of Lady Arabella.  He has sold much of their land, has borrowed huge amounts from Sir Roger Scatcherd, and the estate is mortgaged.

Mary meditates on whether or not she should marry Frank. He repeatedly asks her.   Of course she loves him; of course she knows that Lady Arabella opposes the match.  And so she  ruminates,

If she were born a gentlewoman! And then came to her mind those curious questions; what makes a gentleman? what makes a gentlewoman? What is the inner reality, the spiritualised quintessence of that privilege in the world which men call rank, which forces the thousands and hundreds of thousands to bow down before the few elect? What gives, or can give it, or should give it?

And she answered the question. Absolute, intrinsic, acknowledged, individual merit must give it to its possessor, let him be whom, and what, and whence he might. So far the spirit of democracy was strong with her. Beyond this it could be had but by inheritance, received as it were second-hand, or twenty-second-hand. And so far the spirit of aristocracy was strong within her. All this she had, as may be imagined, learnt in early years from her uncle; and all this she was at great pains to teach Beatrice Gresham, the chosen of her heart.

Mary is such a good soul!

The more adamantly Lady Arabella opposes the match, the more Frank is determined to stick to Mary.  He is ordered on a visit to his Aunt de Courcy’s castle to woo one of the most comical, intelligent characters in the book, Miss Dunstable, a thirtyish heiress to the” Ointment of Lebanon” business.  Frank believes she must be 40, and doesn’t find her attractive, but she is a smart conversationalist. She teases him out of his flirtation–she is used to everyone trying to marry her–and becomes one of his best friends.  She reminds him throughout the book that love of Mary Thorne is worth more than marrying an heiress he doesn’t love.  Without Miss Dunstble, it is probable that he might not have married Mary.

There is not just a marriage plot; there is a potential in-law plot.  It is not uncommon for potential in-laws to oppose a marriage.  In-law problems are usually treated as comical, but very often they are not comical at all.  And Lady Arabella is especially vicious in her treatment of Mary:  she bans Mary from the house, and prevents her daughter Beatrice from meeting Mary even at other people’s houses.  Beatrice and Mary, educated together, have been inseparable for years.  This is very painful for Mary and angers Doctor Thorne.  The whole village knows Mary is no longer welcome at Greshamsbury.

Sir Roger Scatcherd also plays a big role in this novel.  After six months in prison, he manages slowly to get on in life and eventually makes a fortune building railways.   He does not know that Mary is his niece, but he knows Doctor Thorne.  And his sweet wife, very uncomfortable as a “Lady,” has Mary over on a visit and loves her, not knowing the relationship.  And their sickly son, Louis, is like a shadow figure of Frank, drinks hard, has no morals, but also likes Mary and proposes to her.

As for Trollope’s writing, Adam Gopnik put it well in his article, “Trollope Trending,” in The New Yorker (May 4, 2015):

Yet, beyond saying that his writing feels like life, it’s hard to say just how he works his magic—and a little digging shows that a sense of Trollope as a slightly guilty pleasure has been around since people started reading him.

Trollope is a pleasure, but I don’t regard him as a guilty pleasure.   I think he is a better writer than most people admit.  I promised yesterday I would point out some of his high-flown (!) rhetorical figures of speech. Trollope was a great fan of Cicero the orator, whom he wrote a life of, and Cicero had an influence on his prose.

The two sentences below illustrate parallelism: the elements of the sentence are repeated in the same order.

There, in one big best bedroom, looking out to the north, lay Sir Louis Scatcherd, dying wretchedly.  There, in the other big, best bedroom, looking out to the south, had died the other baronet about a twelvemonth since, and each a victim to the same sin.

And here is an example of chiasmus,  a reversing of the order of words in corresponding pairs of phrases.

“I hope so.  I have had much doubt about this, and have been sorely perplexed; but now I do hope so.”

Trollope is not as flamboyant as Dickens, whose knowledge of rhetoric astounds all of us, but he is clever,  consistent, and positively Ciceronian at times.

Reading the Victorians, Lost in Trollope, & Why I Don’t Read Their Modern Equivalents

He Knew He Was Right trollope 41RJjyDTOLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

If you wonder why I’m not writing more on my reading lately,  it’s because  I’m in a Victorian phase.  Some of the books are very, very, very, very long.  And you do not want to read me every day on the Victorians, because so many excellent books have been written, there are scholarly introductions to all the books, and there is not much for us bloggers to do except enthuse or condemn. Since I am so chatty, you will soon know all.

MY READING THIS WEEK:  I’ve been reading Swinburne’s poems, and I love his reinterpretations of myths, but mostly I let the poetry wash over me. Can I admit that?  Does anyone know a good book about the pre-Raphaelite poets?   I’m  also reading Trollope, and of course I can drone on about Trollope, because he’s so accessible:  we don’t really need notes on Trollope, who is one of the greatest storytellers of the nineteenth century. But I have read so many excellent introductions to his books, plus Glendinning’s biography of Trollope, that it’s overwhelming.

Last weekend I turned down a day trip to Iowa City and said I had do things around the house, which I did, but I actually was reading  He Knew He Was Right, his brilliant retelling of the Othello story.  This is my third reading of this stunning novel about Lewis Trevelyan, a jealous husband, and his strong-minded wife, Emily.  They separate because he goes mad from jealousy of a flirtatious friend of Emily’s father’s, who does try to egg him on. (I did jot some notes about the book here in 2015.)

Since I love the Victorian novelists, whether they wrote short (Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford) or long (Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right), I wonder why I don’t care much for today’s equivalent popular “literary” novelists. Were the Victorians better writers because they were  better-educated, even if they were not formally educated? I have a theory about why we all love Trollope.  It’s not just the engrossing stories and the vivid characters.  He read Cicero every day–he even wrote a life of Cicero–and his style reflects Cicero’s rhetorical skill:  for instance Trollope uses parallelism, tripartite structure, and anaphora (the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive phrases or clauses). Today’s stylists just don’t (can’t?) do that.  Do they?   Can they?  There are some great writers out there, but literature is very different.

Some of today’s prize-winning literary writers seem overrated, among them Jonathan Franzen,  Jeffrey Eugenides, Jennifer Egan,  Donna Tartt, Elena Ferrante, and even Ann Patchett (by far the worst of this lot).  It’s not that I dislike these writers–I don’t–but can we even begin to compare them to the great 19th-century novelists?

Perhaps these critically-acclaimed best-selling authors ARE the great writers of today.  Who am I to say? But will they be read in 50 years?  All right, my guess is yes, Franzen will be read, because he says something about American life.  (He is not my favorite: it’s just a hunch.)  Jeffrey Eugenides, ditto:  I loved The Marriage Plot, with all its references to Victorian novels, though honestly found The Virgin Suicides misogynist.  I think of Jennifer Egan as artsy dystopian–will that play in the future?  Everyone loves Elena Ferrante, and she writes insightfully about women’s lives and Euripidean emotions, so how can she go wrong?  But I prefer her earlier more “experimental” (if that’s the word) work.  Picky, picky, aren’t I? I am just getting ready to read Tartt’s The Goldfinch and it looks very good.  I waited for the hype to fade.  I would say Patchett, who is really in the pop category, absolutely not will be read, unless everybody’s brains have caved in.

Do you read these writers?  Whom should we read instead?  Are any writers like the Victorians?

There are many excellent contemporary writers, and I PROMISE to write about them soon.  I admired Laura von den Berg’s literary dystopian first novel, Find Me, though it is not a perfect book,  but it probably deserves a better reception than it got.  And I admired Elizabeth Tallent’s collection of stories, Mendocino Fires, last year, the first book she’d published in (I think) two decades.  And she is undoubtedly at the height of her powers, even if the powers are very different from those of the prize winners.