Lost in a Novel, or the Heroine of My Own Life? (Part Two)

light summer-reading

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”–Dickens’s David Copperfield:

Every time I read the  brilliant opening sentence of David Copperfield, I ask myself: “Am I the heroine of my own life?”

The question haunts me because I am primarily a reader.   I would rather read than go to London, Paris, Rio, Provence, or the Mall of America.   I once absent-mindedly wrote “reader” instead of “self-employed”  on my passport application.   Can a reader be a heroine?  I’m not even sure she can get out of the country.

As a young woman in my thirties and forties, I was a “professional” reader.  I often reviewed for newspapers, little magazines,  and The ____ Review (defunct after decades).  The tiny checks bought bags of groceries.  Sometime I was paid in copies.  And what do you do with the copies?

Reviewing can be fun, but it can get silly. George Orwell’s essay about a fictional reviewer, “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” is hilarious.

Half hidden among the pile of papers is a bulky parcel containing five volumes which his editor has sent with a note suggesting that they ‘ought to go well together’. …Yesterday in a resolute moment he ripped the string off it and found the five volumes to be Palestine at the Cross Roads, Scientific Dairy Farming, A Short History of European Democracy (this one 680 pages and weighs four pounds), Tribal Customs in Portuguese East Africa, and a novel, It’s Nicer Lying Down, probably included by mistake.

I once got an assignment to review a true crime book.  I read every word dutifully, but I hated every word.  And I tried to ask myself “fair” questions:  What is the writer’s intention, execution, and genre?  In the light of the subject, “execution” seemed an unfortunate word.

As a reviewer, I was briefly a prima donna, because I was fast and reliable:  I could turn around copy overnight or pinch-hit for reviewers who missed a deadline.   And it was truly a privilege to review the work of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Muriel Spark,  Doris Lessing,  Oscar Hijuelos, and Shirley Hazzard (all now dead).  If I had just stuck to reviews…but alas I wasted time on ephemera.

janet-hobhouse-dancing-in-the-darkSome professional reading is more fun than others. What they don’t tell you:  there are a lot of badly-written books.  Many of the books I read in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and zips have vanished, some deservedly, others not. What happened to Ellen Currie, author of Moses Supposes, a National Book Award finalist? (I hope she’s still alive.)  Or Susan Dodd, a novelist who won the  Iowa School of Letters Prize for Short Fiction? (She was highly lauded:  I wonder if her work has stood the test of time.) And the superb books of Janet Hobhouse are out of print, except for her posthumous novel, The Furies, reissued by NYRB.  And does anyone still read Alice Elliott Dark?  How about Thisbe Nissen?

And that’s why reviewing, or any literary journalism, can make writers and editors hard and cynical. The reviews don’t last, and few of the books last.   I separated my “real” personal reading from my review reading to avoid messiness and only cautiously milled and thronged with other reviewers at parties. As I know now,  none of it would last for any of us. We would be primas only until the next editor came along.  Then we would  find other publications.  Again and again and again.

The last of my literary publications went out of business five or six years ago.  It paid only in copies, but that was fine. I found I did not want to review anymore.  I wanted to read only what I wanted to read!

Nowadays there are thousands of book blogs and other social media about books.  (And, by the way, this is my book journal, not a zine.)  Unemployed professional reviewers are frustrated to see publicists bombarding us bloggers, Goodreads reviewers, etc.,  with review copies of  (often not very good) books.  Recently a publicist contacted me to “review” a book on the basis of a five-star rating I had given a book at Goodreads. Good God!  Not even any writing!  Just stars!

This year I resolved to do no promos.  This is the one resolution I am not tempted to break.   I refuse to be deflected from my own reading.   “Where would my paycheck be?” I wondered cynically as I declined the marketer’s request in a short email, saying I had already read the book.  And then I was offered a different book.  Can you believe it?   He/she will find someone eventually.  But it’s not what I want to read now.

Ruth Jones as Flora Finching in "Little Dorrit"
Ruth Jones as Flora Finching in “Little Dorrit”

Because of the internet, publishers are more dependent on bloggers, or so they say. They are blurring the line between professional reviewers and bloggers, because they feel they have no choice.   I wonder if this is good for anybody. Perfectly good readers lose their directions and waste their time on a lot of mediocre books they should get paid to read, let alone review.   I wonder if Goodreads and blogs help or hinder more.   Are there more positive or negative reader reviews?  I see mostly positive at blogs.  They’re more brutal at Goodreads.

The world of professional writing has changed in the last 20 years:  according to a journalist friend, it is a “blood bath,” with a multitude of unemployed journalists and writers competing for the few writing jobs left (most of which are poorly-paid).

In times like this, we turn to  Dickens.  I need Dickens.  I love Dickens.  My favorite of his books is Our Mutual Friend, his last finished novel, which Desmond on Lost saved in a plastic bag because he had read the rest of Dickens.  Dickens would have recognized Desmond as the hero of his own life, but I am not sure he would have cared about middle-aged heroines:  think of   chatty Flora Finching in Little Dorrit, the former fiancee of Arthur Cleming, who thinks she’s old and ridiculous, though he is the same age.  He intends to win the love of Little Dorrit, a very young woman who has grown up in her debtors’ prison with her family.

This year I’m reading the dead.  I’m reading Dickens. I’m reading the greats.  And though I have not read one book by a living writer, these books nourish and fuel my imagination.  Live or dead.

Winter Reading Recommendations from Bloggers, Commenters & Friends, Part Three

Happy winter! We had an ice storm Sunday night, and I only hope you have had better weather.  This is the last post on winter reading recommendations from bloggers, commenters and friends.  Thank you to all who participated!

the-convert-robins-erobinsconvertcoverDiana Birchall, author of Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma: A Sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the blog Light, Bright, and Sparkling,  and a contributor at Jane Austen Variations, writes,

Anything about the life of Elizabeth Robins, actress, suffragette, novelist, playwright, early Alaskan adventuress and much more, makes compelling reading. Born in 1862, she was an actress in New York and in London, where she was the first to produce Ibsen plays, and became famous for her roles in Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House. Always progressive and committed to women’s rights, she wrote the feminist novel The Convert, and adapted it for the stage as Votes for Women in 1907. It was in 1900 that her brother Raymond went missing in Gold Rush Alaska, and she took the long arduous journey to search for him in Yukon Territory. The story of her adventures is described in her books The Magnetic North and The Alaska-Klondike Journals of Elizabeth Robins. Her search for Raymond, the hard conditions they endure together, and the fascinating characters they meet, are all vividly described: I can highly recommend her breathless tales of the Far North for winter reading.

Ellen Moody, editor of Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde (Valancourt Press, 2016) and author of  the blogs Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two, Reveries under the Sign of Austen, and Under the Sign of Sylvia II, writes,

sontag-volcano-lover-51zpj85d-mlIn the last week of last year I read a novel I enjoyed more than I have any other in a long time. It may sound odd to say this but because I read so much I become jaded, and no matter how much I like a book, I usually have no problem putting it down. I’ve also trained myself to read several books at once so I can read with others online, teach different groups of people, work at reviews and papers. But Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover I sat down and read straight through, for quite a number of hours, day after day. I love historical fiction when well done but this went beyond or was different from the usual: Sontag took a wholly unexpected angle: instead of telling say Emma Lady Hamilton’s story or Nelson’s as a dual romance, her center was Sir William Hamilton, the collector-husband of Emma, and we saw the later 18th century from a highly corrupt marginalized cityscape: Naples where he was ambassador. The book was a meditation on why people collect, on art, on obsessions, and the fun was how the narrator was sometimes your conventional implied presence hovering between 1992 or so and the later 18th century, but then she would become more distinct, as herself, almost the scholar-essayist, and move in time to just after WW2 – because part of her story was the disastrous rebellion by a small enlightened and artisan group in Naples, savagely murdered. Eventually the perspective turned and you also realized  it was about the collector’s (her way of referring to Sir Wm) wife (whom I felt so for) before Emma, Emma herself, Emma’s mother (who Emma never left behind), and a remarkable journalist-poet, Eleanor de Fonseco-Pimentel (hung). Deeply feminist, parallels among women, exploding any notions of human beings as responsive to morality, reasonableness, the very foundations of the enlightenment. The gargantuan corruption, the asinine king, all seemed so relevant to that week in December. It was worth reading almost for that last sentence by Eleanor as she waits to be taken away to be senselessly (from her point of view) humiliated and killed: “Damn them all.”

(c) Compton Verney; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Compton Verney; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

For those who love paintings, the first part of the text (remember Sr Wm is the collector) are real, and when the intertextuality of the talk is over, you have learned much more about them. Part of the fascination is how she brings in through allusion biographies as well as other historical fiction as part of history. It’s anti-genre, also anti-foundational, to take the term from another book I recommend which I’ve not finished as yet as I’m using it to explore its terrain, and it was from its citations I took down Volcano Lover from my shelf where it had been since 1993: Martha Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley. This has been my companion, director of reading for a couple of months on and off now. What counts as history and what doesn’t: Graham Swift played with this in his Waterlands: why is the person executed on the guillotine more history than a pro-revolutionary teacher in a counter-revolutionary village. From Bowden I’ve been led to re-think about Walter Scott, read a book on The Winter Queen (Elizabeth of Bohemia), a whole group of historical romances featuring historical woman, and a little later tonight I’ll watch the movie, Restoration based on Rose Tremain’s novel of the same name which I loved so long ago because it is about a very marginal figure (invented) who opted after much experience of the “world” and an asylum, and the Stuart court.

Oh yes just finished after about five months Hermione Lee’s massive masterpiece of literary biography Virgina Woolf, read with a few people on a small listserv at Yahoo. You cannot do better if you want to get close to this writer if as you go along you follow Lee up on many of the shorter pieces of life-writing, the same kind of original historical fiction and biography and books called novels (for after all how sell them) by Woolf.

Ali of Heaven Ali writes,

girl-in-winter-larkin-2183553090_7b707ddc5f_bI have just finished reading The Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin, a superb novel, from a man best known for his poetry, it was his second novel. I am just off to bed, with a brand new old book The Indian Woman by Diana Gardner. I took a chance on it paying more I usually do for old second hand books.

I wasn’t sure if I really have winter books and summer books until I stopped to think about it, and realised that sometimes I do. From around late October until December I have in the past enjoyed reading some classics which are perfect for long dark, cosy nights in The Woman in White, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes stories and the like. Around Christmas time I often read one or two books with a vaguely Christmassy theme or setting. Once we are into January however, I like to comfort myself with reading books I really want to read, have looked forward to perhaps. In the past I have usually had a new year long challenge to get to grips with so the first book of the year has often been for that. This year I am not doing any big challenges – I have a lovely, relaxed, free feeling. I try to avoid review copies in January as I like to start the year on a high and avoid a disappointment (this year though, I had two review copies, but they were fine) and often read VMCs, Golden Age crime, or Persephone books or something with a slightly positive, perhaps nostalgic air about it, something I can feel sure of and at home with. I feel that Miss Buncle type books, Miss Pettigrew or I Capture the Castle would suit me in January (if I hadn’t already read them) – or if you want something a little darker perhaps Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca – or her short stories Don’t Look Now – one of my books of 2016. I had so much planned to read this January I already know I won’t manage them all. Last year I read Cider with Rosie in January which I would definitely recommend for winter reading. I would like to read a Vita Sackville West after the Gardner and perhaps a Margery Sharp, and I have another Mary Hocking planned to read with some other readers on a Mary Hocking Facebook group I started.

Lyn of I Prefer Reading writes,

mysteries-of-paris-eugene-sue-9780143107125Although it’s summer here, my reading doesn’t change much regardless of the weather.

I’ve just finished reading The Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue, a big, sprawling melodrama about life in Paris, the low-life & the high-life. Originally serialised in a newspaper, it’s plot-driven, has cliffhangers galore & a dizzying cast of characters. It was the bestseller of 19th century France & influenced other writers like Victor Hugo.

I’ve also been tempted to start another big book, Samuel Richardon’s Clarissa. The blogger Ivebeenreadinglately has started a group read. As it’s an epistolary novel & the first letter arrives on January 10, the plan is to read the novel through the year  on the dates the letters are received.

I also have a review copy of The Chalk Pit, the new Ruth Galloway mystery by Elly Griffiths. Love this series & can’t wait to dive in to this one.

Part Two: Winter Recommendations from Bloggers, Commenters & Friends

"Lavacourt under Snow," Claude Monet
“Lavacourt under Snow,” Claude Monet

It’s winter!  What are you reading?

It’s time for cocoa and books.

And so I asked several bloggers, commenters, and friends for winter recommendations.   Fiction? Poetry?  Nonfiction?  Cozy? Mysteries? Classics?  You’ll find it all.

You can read Part One  here.

And now:


tale-of-cuckoo-wood-albert-paperback-1957697-mJean writes,

Currently, I am reading “The Tale of Cuckoo Brow Wood” by Susan Wittig Albert. It is the third in The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter. Normally, I am not a “cozy” mystery person, but I love Beatrix Potter (her 150th Birthday was celebrated in 2016) and these books are delightful! Please note: you must be able to suspend all sense of reality when the animals start talking. If this type of book doesn’t interest you, I recommend “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I’ve read it three times and each time, I just fall into the story within the first paragraph. Who wouldn’t want to find the Cemetery of Forgotten Books? A great family saga for long winter nights is “Greenbanks” by Dorothy Whipple. I’ve been turning to old favorites too. Willa Cather, Jane Austen (especially “Persuasion”) and you reminded recently me how much I love “On the Eve” by Turgenev. I must reread it soon!


Elaine Pigeon of Pigeonfiles:  Reading and Travel Writing  writes,

odd-women-gissing-6a00e55268c31388330154378a1673970c-320wiAlong with a small online group, I’m reading George Gissing’s The Odd Women [1893]. The novel is a response to an actual imbalance in the ratio of women to men in England, resulting in a shortage of marriageable males, which led to the emergence of the “New Woman.” While the so-called new woman earned her living by writing, other women were forced to find jobs and these were quite limited: service, governess, companion, shop girl, or type-writer. The narrative hinges on three middle-class sisters who must make their own way in life and a feminist figure, who tries to help these women by offering office training, the best of the available jobs for women. While this background is interesting on its own, Gissing also provides a feminist critique of marriage that is quite the eye-opener.

Gissing wrote 23 novels, yet many readers have not heard of him or read him. He is a rewarding find, so we plan to read his most popular novel next, The New Grub Street, about the conflict between hack writing versus art. Gissing is proving to be a great find.

I also started reading the bio on the fascinating Jean Rhys and another one of her short novels. To counter her rather grim take on life, I am also expanding my reading of Clarice Lispector, another modern writer who in her experimental writings is more uplifting. This should keep me busy for a while.

Joan Kyler of Planet Joan writes,

I’m about a third of the way into Pere Goriot. After a slow start, I’m dying to know what happens to Goriot, his daughters, and the characters at Maison Vauquer. I’m also reading Richard Adams’ A Nature Diary and Jo Nesbo’s Cockroaches. I like a bit of variety in my reading. I wish I could read a book a day. As I’m reading and enjoying ‘this’, I have my eye on ‘that’!


Lory Widmer Hess of  The Emerald City Book Review writes,

troy-chimneys-img_0781-e1454393078788In 2017 I’m trying to tackle a bunch of books that have been sitting on my shelf for some time. This shouldn’t be such a chore — when I got them I was really excited to read them, but somehow I’ve never managed to crack them open.

First up was Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy, a multi-layered, enigmatic historical novel that I really enjoyed once I got past the epistolary framing device in the first few pages. I’m now reading I Was a Stranger by John Hackett, who was wounded and captured in enemy territory during WWII, but was helped to escape and sheltered by a family in Holland. His loving portrait of these courageous people is a bright light during a dark time.

Next I think I might do a reread of an old friend like The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin or Midnight Is a Place by Joan Aiken. With its dark Gothic atmosphere and alternate-historical setting, the latter feels especially appropriate for winter reading — although LeGuin’s anarchist utopian planet could be calling to me too.

Stephanie writes,

As I grew older I began to read more than one book at a time. At first it felt undisciplined. It has come to feel prudent as in: I don’t have enough time to read just one book. That said, I’m currently reading Middlemarch, Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs (wonderfully well written), Pine Island Paradox (Kathleen Dean Moore) and A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm (Edwin Way Teale). The fiction book I last finished was Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.



Winter Reading Recommendations from Bloggers, Commenters & Friends, Part One

It’s winter.

What should you read?

doctor-zhivago51kbsizoufl-_sx322_bo1204203200_That’s what I asked several bloggers, commenters, and friends.

My own predilection?  I curl up with Russian novels.  I love the beautiful descriptions of snow and sleigh rides in Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

But for a dark take on winter, get out Boris Pasternak’s depressing masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago.   This hibernal classic, set during the Russian Revolution, describes the struggles of the hero, Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and poet, and his brilliant, sensitive lover, Lara, to survive war, politics, and changes of regime.  The winner of the Nobel Prize, Doctor Zhivago was deemed too radical to be published in the Soviet Union and first published in Italy in 1957.

But what do you read if you’re not reading Russian novels? Here are some recommendations from bloggers, commenters, and friends, in the first of two (or possibly three) posts.


1. Belle of Belle, Book, and Candle writes,

nichols-merry-hall-618mqj6rl1l-_sx348_bo1204203200_Since the New Year, we have had snow, followed by days in the high 60s, followed by a week of rain and thunderstorms. OK. That’s enough weather for one year!

I hope to escape this meteorological madness by rereading the delightful Merry Hall house and garden restoration trilogy – where there is always Sunlight on the Lawn and Laughter on the Stairs – by Beverley Nichols. Also ready to join Bill Bryson for One Summer: America, 1927 which I bought a couple of years ago but never read. Perhaps now that we are on the cusp of the 90th anniversary of that season it will prove to be prime reading for winter.

I just bought four books on a recent Bookstore Quest that I hope to read before the dust settles too thickly on them:

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead; The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs; The Outermost Dream: Literary Sketches by William Maxwell; and Notwithstanding by Louis de Berniers. I will most likely begin with the Maxwell and de Berniers books. The first is nonfiction and the other includes fictional tales from a small English village in the 1930s.

2.   Roger writes,

kilverts-diary-513h3n6tbdlOne of the best evocations of winter is Philip Larkin’s novel A Girl in Winter – the whole book, not just descriptions, and for the psychological feel of winter. Robert Bridges’ poem “London Snow” came to mind because of the panic caused by half-an-inch of snow today.

In passing Francis Kilvert’s Diary evokes winter wonderfully, Take this passage, describing Christmas Day, 1870:

“As I lay awake praying in the early morning, I thought I heard a sound of distant bells. It was an intense frost.

I sat down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke in the middle into large pieces whilst sharp points and jagged edges stuck all around the sides of the tub like chevaux de frise, not particularly comforting to the naked thighs and loins, for the keen ice cut like broken glass.

The ice water stung and scorched like fire. I had to collect the floating pieces of ice and pile them on a chair before I could use the sponge and then I had to thaw the sponge in my hands for it was a mass of ice.

Gilbert White’s nature diary is another book with wonderful observations of winter weather. And, of course, Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight.” “The Ancient Mariner,” for all its evocation of cold isn’t really about winter.

As for anthologies, Walter de la Mare’s – Come Hither, Behold This Dreamer, Love…- and Daniel George’s – Tomorrow Will Be Differennt, A Peck of Troubles…– all have very light attribution and annotations and obscure sources, so they are great pleasure to use with the ‘net.

3. Kevin Neilson writes,

righteous-mind-41h9bymawl-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt—arguably the most important book in popular science since the Selfish Gene. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt plumbs the latest in neuroscience, genetics, social psychology, and evolutionary theory to provide an account of how people think and the evolutionary forces that have shaped our thoughts and feelings—in morality, politics, and religion.

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams—Moby Dick meets Little House on the Prairie. An exceptional novel by a colossally talented writer. I also highly recommend Augustus for the snooty literary type. Bone up on Cicero in advance or the glories of the novel will be partially, maybe even substantially, lost on you.

Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean—yes, that N. Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It. The book is about the Mann Gulch fire that devoured a young crew of cocky, athletic firefighters. Although Maclean fails at the end of the book, as he must, when he is consumed by the Platonic fire of mathematics, I forgive him and love him for it, because he’s cocky and athletic in his own right.

Leaving Cheyenne and The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry—Well, I admit it: I love Lonesome Dove, and I was curious if these two offerings are as good. Of course they’re not as majestic, but they’re damn fine pieces of writing.

Visit Kevin at https://www.instagram.com/jkneilson

4.  Eleanor Gluck, author of the blog Silver Threads, writes,

I have just finished reading The Night Manager by John LeCarré. It’s a good thriller with important themes and a romantic undertone but not ideal for winter reading. I have been alternating the novel with Sisman’s biograpy of LeCarré. As a delayed birthday present I have treated myself to a hardcover copy of Michael Chabon’s new book, Moonglow, and I plan to read that next. If you want a book to put you in a good mood (whatever the weather) I recommend Tepper Isn’t Going Out by Calvin Trillin.


long-winter-laura-wilder51rvqurgsyl-_sx334_bo1204203200_5.  Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings writes,

Currently reading – The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft. My first experience of this author, so far it’s a rather chilling read, reaching back to the time of Salem and featuring alchemy and all manner of unnatural things – ideal reading for this time of year when the cold dark nights are naturally spooky.

Winter recommended reading – my therapy book for when I’ve had enough of dark and cold and snow is The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It always reminds me that a couple of inches of the white stuff is nothing compared with what some areas of the world have to deal with, I’m not like likely to starve to death and I should quit moaning and get on with life!


Am I the Heroine of My Own Life?

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
—The opening sentence of Dickens’ David Copperfield

David Copperfield and Mr. Mawber (illustration by Fred Barnard)
David Copperfield and Mr. Micawber (illustration by Fred Barnard)

I love David Copperfield, and by the way, the Inimitable Boz group at Yahoo is reading it.  Every time I read the  opening sentence,  I muse on the question: Am I the heroine of my own life? What if I am the narrator, but not the heroine?  Since I am a former governess/teacher, do I qualify as a Dickensian heroine?  Isn’t that Bronte territory?

Well, yes, it is.

The semi-autobiographical world of  David Copperfield is comic, tragic,  both real and surreal, and ultimately cozy.  Like Dickens, David knows he is the hero of his own life:  the indirect question is rhetorical.  David Copperfield is a comedy.  And though he suffered as an orphan, banished as young child by his evil stepfather, Mr. Murdstone, to labor in a blacking factory, and live like a little adult in London, he is never far from fragile and outlandish friends who model the virtues of loyalty and charity.  His eccentric friend and landlord, Mr. Micawber, is always in debt, but treats David as one of the family and kindly gives him good advice about not going into debt. And even when Mr. Micawber is in debtors’ prison, the depressed but loyal Mrs. Micawber  pays homage with the cry, “I never will desert you, Micawber!”

Like most women,  I feel more at home with the Brontes,  because I understand all too well the work open to penniless educated women of the 19th century. (We still do that work today.)   I identify with despairing and desperate Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette:  she must teach in a school in Brussels (called Villette in the book) because she is destitute, not because she loves the work. She proves to be a talented English teacher and good disciplinarian, so her unruly students cooperate and at least learn a little.   Alas, she is plain, so the doctor she falls in love values her friendship but does not think of her as a woman. Lucy  does find another boyfriend but the relationship is, well,  second-best, if that.  T

Lucy knocking on the door of the school in Villette.
Lucy knocking on the door of the school in Villette.

In Anne Bronte’s underrated Agnes Grey, Agnes, a minister’s daughter, is a governess to a family of rich children who can only be described as ruffians, dominated by a sadistic boy  who tortures animals. Their mother forbids Agnes to punish them, but their tantrums are so frequent that she is blamed for lack of discipline.  Later she becomes the  governess to two manipulative teenage girls whose morals leave much to be desired. Rosalie, with the collusion of her sister,  mischievously attempts to win the affection of the curate.  Why?  Because he is interested in Agnes.  Rosalie already knows she will marry a rich man.

I AM the heroine of my own life.  I am a resister, a rebel,  thoroughly in the camp of the Brontes.

I love Dickens, but there’s just not a part for me there!  I mean am I supposed to be Peggotty?

The Athens of the Midwest

Roman woman writing

It started in the Midwest.

I grew up in Iowa City, a hip university town.  I wish I could live in a university town:  Iowa City, Madison, Bloomington, Ann Arbor,  it hardly matters, since they are all nicknamed “the Athens of the Midwest.”

In some ways, Athens saved me. That is, fifth-century Athens.

The Athens of the Midwest failed me for a year and a half.

I was happy growing up in Iowa City.  Then, in my teens, my idyllic life crumbled when my parents divorced.  My irresponsible father, who was my guardian, left town to  live with his girlfriend.  Now that was a good call.  And so I  became the live-in concubine of a lesbian English teacher (fortunately not my English teacher). It all started innocently, as far as I was concerned.  She invited me out for coffee repeatedly, and lent me her copy of Anne Sexton’s poems.  Then she got  hysterical over the phone about Sexton.  Oh, her notes in the margins would tell me she was a lesbian, she wept, and she didn’t know how I’d feel about it.   I politely said it didn’t matter, and it didn’t, since I had no intention of reading Sexton.

Nonetheless, I ended up living with her.  Having a place to live was a big part of my decision. (I had been staying with some benevolent hippies, in a back room without a door.)  A room with a door had its appeal, and lesbian feminism was not only fashionable but attention-getting.   But it was dull, and I only dared tell a few of my most radical friends, because she was in her thirties and stressed I was a minor and she could go to jail, plus it was still taboo to be gay.

All right, I was extremely bored. We had nothing in common, the sex was terrible, and I wasn’t even gay.   She never read a book, liked to shop at K-Mart (so unhip!), and listened to Melanie (Lay Down Candles in the Rain).

I was unhappy.  I did not see how life could go on like that.  And it didn’t.    I got away a few years later and had lots of books and boyfriends.  And what else does a person need?

But it is no exaggeration to say my discovery of classics in college saved me.   The beauty of ancient languages, the enjoyable memorization of paradigms, the fascinating vocabulary, hours with lexicons and grammars, and the joy of translation gave my life a much-needed structure.

I started with Greek, though everyone said I should start with Latin.  Baffled by Lattimore’s Homer—how could anyone take his prosy epic seriously?—I wanted to read the Iliad in the original.   Soon I was spending hours with Homer, Lysias, Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus,  the Greek lyric poets, Plato.  And I also studied Latin, a cognate language of Greek, and was unprepared for the wit and vivacity, because it is a literature that does not translate well into English.  And yet it always felt familiar to me, and I came to love it more than Greek.  It is the literature that influenced the Western canon.

catullus-poems-51fhu8iesgl-_sx325_bo1204203200_Let me share with you a  witty,two-line Latin epigram by the Roman poet Catullus.

My literal translation:

I hate and I love. You may ask why I do so.
I don not know, but I feel it and I am tortured.

Here is Horace Gregory’s four-line translation, which is also fairly literal and much more elegant.

I HATE and love.
And if you ask me why,
I have no answer, but I discern,
can feel, my senses rooted in eternal torture.

Here are  the two lines of Latin”

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucio.

Can you tell odi (“odious” is a derivative) means ” I hate” and amo (“amiable,” “amatory”) means love?  Bet you can!

And, by the way, another wild girl from my high school also took Latin.  We agreed to keep mum about our past lives.  “I’m working on getting my virginity back,” she said.

I’m pretty sure both of us managed to do so because of our hours of study!

A Turgenev Roundup: Rudin, On the Eve, & Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev

rudin-penguin-turgenev-big-514q04r4xl-_sx319_bo1204203200_I spent the first week of January rereading Turgenev.  It has been freezing cold here, down to zero at night.   Except for a  jaunt to the stunning musical, La La Land, choreographed by Mandy Moore of Dancing with the Stars, I have toughed out the cold under blankets with tea and books.

I finished Rudin, Turgenev’s first novel, On the Eve, his second novel, and Robert Dessaix’s bibliomemoir, Twilight of Love:  Travels with Turgenev.  Since I have already written about these books and want to share my enthusiasm, I am posting slightly revised versions of  previous posts.

on-the-eve-penguin-turgenev-9780140440096ON THE EVE (1860)

I have read both Constance Garnett’s translation ( free on the internet) and Gilbert Gardiner’s translation (Penguin, Folio Society). This was Henry James’ favorite Turgenev novel.

Set on the eve of the Crimean War and written in 1859, the year before the emancipation of the Russian serfs, this stunning novel reflects Turgenev’s own agitation on the brink of political unrest.  In the introduction to the Folio Society edition, Hisham Matar quotes one of  Turgenev’s  letters. Like one of his own despairing characters, Turgenev asks,

Is there any enthusiasm for anything left in the world? Do people still know how to sacrifice themselves? Can they enjoy life, behave foolishly, and have hopes for the future?

At the center of the novel is one of Turgenev’s most  intense heroines, Elena, an aristocratic young woman who lives in the country and longs to  fall in love or undergo some life-changing experience.   The daughter of a hypochondriac mother and a materialistic father who openly visits his mistress,  Elena has high ideals and wants a change.  She “struggled like a bird in a cage, though there was no cage.”

The Folio Society edition
The Folio Society edition

Sometimes it seemed that she wanted something that no one else wanted, that no one dreamed of in all Russia.  Then she would calm down, and spend day after day in carefree indifference, even laughing at herself; but suddenly some strong, some nameless thing which she could not control boiled up inside her and demanded to break out.  The storm passed, the tired wings dropped without being flow; but these moods were not without their cost…

Men  fall in love with Elena.  Two close friends, Bersyenev, a philosopher, and Shubin,  an artist who loves to tease, are enjoying their summer in the country.  Both young men are in love with Elena, whose cousin Shubin, is staying with her family.  She cannot take Shubin seriously, and anyway he has made out with  Zoya, a German girl who is  her companion.  She is more interested in Bersyenev,  but she falls in love with Insarov, a Bulgarian revolutionary in exile.  She needs the political cause as much as love, but her journey does not end where you think it will.


An illustration of Elena looking out the window (Folio Society edition)
An illustration of Elena looking out the window (Folio Society edition)

RUDIN (1856)

I enjoyed both Constance Garnett’s translation (Faber Finds, or free on the internet) and Richard Freeman’s translation (Penguin).

turgenev rudin constance garnett 17179.books.origjpgRudin, Turgenev’s first novel, is elegant, lyrical, and spellbinding.  Not much happens, but you don’t need action with this exquisite level of lyricism.  The characters are delicately drawn, like figures in a water-color painting.   They converse endlessly and take long walks, and we learn about them mostly through dialogue

Turgenev  begins the novelwith the first of many walks.

She moved without haste and as though she were enjoying the walk. The high nodding rye all round her moved in long softly rustling waves, taking here a shade of silvery green and there a ripple of red; the larks were trilling overhead. The young woman had come from her own estate, which was not more than a mile from the village to which she was turning her steps.

The walker is Alexandra Palovna Lipin, a widow who lives with her brother. She is on her way to visit a sick old womanand meets Lezhvyon, an intelligent, eccentric  landowner who is in love with her.  Both love the quiet rural life in Russia.

These two are contrasted with their urbane neighbor, Darya Mihailovna, a pseudo-intellectual who holds a  salon at her summer country house. Her guests include Pigasov, a misanthropic old man,  Pandavlevsky,  a parasite, and Bassistoff, a tutor. But it is her teenage daughter, Natalya, who is most susceptible to the charms of strangers.

As in so many of Turgenev’s novels, the action, such as it is, is touched off by the appearance of an outsider.  Rudin, a stranger, arrives unexpectedly at Darya Mihailovna’s estate, bearing a note from her friend the baron.  She invites Rudin to stay.  He dominates the conversation, and he turns ideas  and relationships upside-down as he discourses on philosophy and human nature. Only Lezhvyon, who knew Rudin years ago, is unimpressed.  As each character gradually finds that Rudin is not quite who he seems to be, Rudin himself undergoes a transformation.


dessaix-travels-with-turgenev-439938This short, lyrical,  meditative book is part biography of Turgenev, part memoir/travel book, and part literary criticism.  If I were Oprah, and thank God I’m not, because then I’d have to share my thoughts by underlining passages for the special e-book version, Dessaix’s Turgenev-inspired travel book would be my Book Club “pick.”

Dessaix, an award-winning Australian writer, novelist, scholar, and former Russian professor, fuses personal and literary history. This genre-bending volume of belles-lettres is divided into three parts: Baden-Baden, France, and Russia. As Dessaix retraces Turgenev’s footsteps and sight-sees with his friends, he meditates on his own relationship with Russian literature, and connects his own Australian identity to the “barbaric” Russian identity of Turgenev in the 19th century (both places were said to have “no culture,” and travel to Europe was necessary for intellectual development). Dessaix recreates not only the atmosphere and mood of Turgenev’s 19th-century world and novels, but also describes the changes in Europe and Russia since the ’60s and ’70s when he first traveled there.