The Missing BBC Adaptations of George Gissing

It’s no secret that I subscribe to the TLS.  It’s no secret but it’s expensive. And why subscribe?  Well, the best thing in the TLS is J.C.’s column, “N.B.”

J.C. is well-read, snarky, and opinionated.  He muses on poetry, obscure novels, reference books, literary trends, and subjects like cultural appropriation.  (The latter is so controversial that I am horrified to think of the hostile mail he must receive.)

Although I avoid the crowd, as Seneca would say, I know from experience that some “users” of social media pounce on opinions they disagree with. They attack points taken out of context, because they don’t read entire articles. I was astonished when what I deemed a harmless post about book club rip-offs–which I had assumed readers would agree with!–triggered a storm of virulent comments. (I deleted them.)  Taking on cultural appropriation would be far beyond my strength.

Oh well, J.C. probably deletes his email, too.  But back to his column: he is a hard-core George Gissing fan, and I, too, love Gissing.  I have read Gissing’s best known work, New Grub Street (which I wrote about here) and The Odd Women, several times, along with more obscure books that I’ve had to buy second-hand.  In J.C.’s latest N.B. column, he quotes a piece from the Gissing Journal by Markus Neacey, who  says the BBC has never adapted a novel by Gissing.  And J.C. thinks they would make good films.

J.C. writes,

Since 1948, there have been nine British TV adaptations each of David Copperfield and Wuthering Heights, eight of Treasure Island, seven of Great Expectations. Sir Walter Scott was popular in the 1950s – serializations or spin-offs of Ivanhoe, Kenilworth, Rob Roy and Redgauntlet – but had begun to fade by the end of the 70s. The last Scott drama, according to the Neacey list, was made in 1997 (Ivanhoe, again).

Think of a well-known nineteenth-century novel, and you are likely to find it on the list. There have been ten dramatizations of novels and stories by Elizabeth Gaskell – three of Cranford alone – and the same number of works by Wilkie Collins. Seven Hardy novels have been filmed a total of thirteen times. Trollopes and Eliots abound. There was even a four-part series derived from The Ordeal of Richard Feverel by George Meredith in 1964.

J.C. recommends that the BBC adapt the following:

It takes no feat of the imagination to visualize Thyrza, for example, on the screen: a novel intended to “contain the very spirit of London working-class life”, starring the Lambeth hat-trimmer with the beautiful singing voice. Serious versions of The Crown of Life or In the Year of Jubilee would have audiences switching over in droves from the usual rubbish. If it’s relevance you want (that specious quality), then get to work on The Odd Women.

Bravo!  I can’t wait to see a TV series of my favorite Gissing novel, In the Year of Jubilee.  Many years ago I noted in my book journal:  It is Gissing’s best book, the story of a smart heroine, Nancy Lord, and Gissing takes on the subjects of New Women, upper-class seduction, class snobbery, yellow journalism, and secret marriage.

Which of your favorite Victorian novels are missing from the BBC canon?  I can’t wait to hear!

Dandelions by Yasunari Kawabata

The act of reading Yasunari Kawabata’s spare, elegant novels can feel like decoding a fragment of a poem.  Best known for his gorgeous novels,The Old Capital and Snow Country (which I wrote about here and here), Kawabata won the Nobel Prize in 1968.

His books have an eerie, dreamlike beauty, and a new translation of Kawabata’s Dandelions, an unfinished novel published in 22 installments in a Japanese literary magazine in the 1960s, is an exquisite, enigmatic work of art.

The translator Michael Emmerich writes so gracefully that even the afterword seamlessly blends into the text, like part of the novel.  I read Dandelions in one sitting.

Emmerich writes,

Dandelions is an intense, peculiar book…. It makes me think of a blurry photograph whose streaked colors and lack of clarity call to mind the hands gripping the camera, even though they are not there in the frame.  If the cameraman had been able to retake the photo, we would have been left with a sharper, more focused image, but it would not have communicated the same messy, vibrant warmth.

Written in the form of a conversation between a man and a woman who have reluctantly left a young woman in a mental asylum, this strange novel has a surreal and dreamlike mood. The woman, who Kawabata calls only “the mother of Ineko,” is adamant that her daughter needs treatment for her strange disorder,  an intermittent inability to see body parts and other things in her range of vision.  (This disorder exists:  it is a glitch in somatognosia,  our ability to see body parts.)  The first time it happened to Ineko was during a ping-pong tournament, when she suddenly could not see the ball.  Now it happens when she and her fiance, Kuno, are intimate:  his body slowly disappears from view.

Kuno thinks her symptoms are trivial and that she will recover once they are married.  The mother of Ineko vehemently disagrees.   Kuno respects her, but he wants to go back to the asylum and retrieve Ineko.

Meanwhile, he discusses their own selective omissions of sight, which may or may not be glitches in somatognosia. On their walk back to the town, he has seen a white rat and a white dandelion, which she claims were not there and do not exist.  She  has noticed a tree which he did not see; he says it may not exist.  And she spots a boy who looks like a dandelion or a fairy;  Kuno says he is just an ordinary boy.

Told that by the doctor that the patients take turns ringing the temple’s bell as a therapeutic measure, Kuno analyzes the tone of Ineko’s ringing (she is scheduled to ring it at 3). Later, at the inn where he and Ineko’s mother stay the night, the bell rings again at 9 and he invents a story about the patient who rings it.

The mother is far too pragmatic to think in narrative form, but she reveals Ineko’s unhappy past.  When Ineko was a child, riding side by side on a trail with her father, who taught at a riding school, his horse slipped over the cliff and both he and the horse died.  At the exact moment, Ineko fainted on her own horse.  And the mother connects this fainting incident to Ineko’s disorder.

We never know what Ineko thinks, but I couldn’t help but hope that Kuno would go back for her.  And yet her mother has a point:  it would be traumatic for a young bride not to be able to see her husband’s body parts.

Yes, this is very strange, but the writing is beautiful.  I seldom like unfinished novels, but this one is brilliant.

Aegypt, or The Solitudes, by John Crowley

John Crowley is an underread American writer whose Aegypt series is one of my favorite tetralogies.  I am not alone:  Michael Dirda has written about it in The American Scholar and Harold Bloom includes it in his  Western canon.   The quartet consists of  Aegypt (reissued as The Solitudes), Love and Sleep, Daemonomania, and Endless Things.

I recently returned to Aegypt, the first novel in the quartet, and loved it.  In fact I enjoyed it much more, because the first time I read the books out of order.  I began with the last book, Endless Things, because it was widely reviewed  in 2007. And then I scrambled to find used copies of the other books.  I do not think all were in print then.

Aegypt manages to be one of the most intricate novels of the 20th century, and yet it is also lucid, accessible, and delightfully imaginative.  It begins  in the late 1970s, but it shifts back and forth in time, even to the Renaissance, and the influence of the 1960s as experienced by the hero Pierce Moffett is powerful.  Pierce, a lazy historian who has never finished his Ph.D. dissertation,  has been a popular history instructor at Barnabas College in New York.  But he  has lost both his vocation and teaching job after a mind-blowing affair with a drug-dealing diva. Needless to say, he did not do his best work on cocaine.

Those of us who grew up in the ’60s or ’70s will recognize the experimental history curriculum at Barnabas College. Pierce is encouraged to change the syllabus to accommodate students of the Age of Aquarius. (By the time I was in college, I was so bored by experimental education that I studied classics.).  And reading about Barnabas  College reminds me not to take too seriously the changing college curricula today. Everything will change again in 20 years to accommodate a generation who will revolt against political correctness.

Crowley writes amusingly of the college in the ’60s,

Barnabas College, like a fast little yacht, had quickly tacked with the new winds that were blowing, even while old galleons like Noate were wallowing in the breakers.  Courses in the history, chemistry, and languages of the old everyday world were semester by semester cut to a minimum (Pierce’s History 101 course would, eventually, very nearly reach the present day from time-out-of-mind, even as the 200-level courses, out of his provenance, came to deal chiefly not with the past at all but in possibilities, in the utopias and armageddons that all adolescents love).  The old standard textbooks were chucked, replaced by decks of slim paperbacks, often the students’ own choices, they are after all (said Doctor Socrabasco) paying the bills.  Veteran teachers faced with this fell tongue-tied or turned coats garishly; young ones like Pierce,  his students’ coeval almost, still had trouble facing children who seemed to have come to Barnabas chiefly to be instructed in a world of their own imagining.

And so, having lost his job, Pierce has to find a new job outside of New York, and he can hardly imagine living out of New York.  He rides a Greyhound bus to another small college where he has an interview.  But when the bus breaks down in the Faraway Hills, he by chance meets his former student Spofford, a Vietnam vet who now raises sheep.  And Spofford hosts an outdoor party which has the effervescence of a modern Midsummer Night’s Dream.

And then the next day Pierce learns he doesn’t have a job interview after all–the letter was some kind of automated mistake, sent after someone else was hired for the job.  Spofford suggests that Pierce stay  and research regional history.  But  Pierce returns to New York and gets his old teaching job back, partly because he is inspired to try a new line on history inspired by the alternative culture of the Faraway Hills.

A scholar of  the Renaissance, Pierce lands a book contract to write an alternative history of the Renaissance dominated by gypsies, myth, astrology, crystal balls, Shakespeare,  hermeticism, the Italian heretic Giordano Bruno, and the occultist John Dee. And he refers to the source of this non-traditional magical history as Aegpt, an imaginary country.  And of course he moves to the Faraway Hills to write his book.

The other main character, Rosie Rasmussen, has left her husband and moved with her daughter into  an eccentric uncle’s house. They run a family foundation, and she is hired to work on some projects, including putting local historical novelist Fellowes Kraft’s papers in order .  And she is connected to Pierce through Spofford, who is in love with her, and also through Pierce’s  love of  Fellowes Kraft.  Rosie is escaping from her problems through reading the complete works of Fellowes Kraft  which she finds surprisingly good.  (I like the excerpts, too, especially the chapters from a novel about Shakespeare’s boyhood.)

And then Pierce discovers a lost manuscript by Kraft about Giordano Bruno, which complements and changes his own work.

Mind you, this book is weird.  You’ll be happily reading about one character or another, and then suddenly you’re reading about Giordano Bruno (and I admit I was not entirely fascinated by him).  Overall this is a very enjoyable book.  But there are many, many threads, and it is not for everyone.

Crowley has a distinctive American voice. He occasionally descends into sentimentality, and I do think that’s an American thing, but he also has an enormous vocabulary and arranges words in beautiful sentences.  He is an intellectual who  reminds me of Robertson Davies, not in style, but in wide-ranging knowledge of hermeticism. In  Davies’ The Rebel Angels (which I wrote about here), Renaissance scholars are scrambling and competing to find documents by Rabelais, and there is much involvement with gypsies, tarot cards, and the occult.

The eclectic Crowley has won an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Literary  Award and a World Fantasy Award .  This  year his novel Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr (which I wrote about here) has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award for best novel.  I am rooting for him.


In Which I Cannot Find My Copy of Le Fanu’s “The Rose and the Key” & Alphabetize Some Books

I cannot find my copy of Le Fanu’s The Rose and the Key.

If you have read this mediocre novel, you will wonder why on earth I’m looking for it.  My own reaction a decade ago was:  “A 400-page poorly-plotted Gothic.”  Well, even though it is bound to be disappointing, I am a mad Le Fanu fan. Uncle Silas is my favorite Gothic novel, and so I want to reread The Rose and the Key.

Our books used to be well-organized, even catalogued, but then we had a black mold scare in the study.  We packed up our books so the  de-molding crew could do its thing, which seemed to be painting the walls. (N.B.  The CDC  website says there is no black mold menace. All houses have mold,  and no link has been proved between black mold and any diseases.)

Well, some of our books are still packed in boxes, so I decided to reorganize them.  Our library is so huge that I am doing them bookcase by bookcase, alphabetized by author.  Each bookcase has its own A-Z shelves.

Here are some messy stacks on the floor.  I wonder if I will ever reread George Meredith’s Evan Harrington.

All right, they’re shelved now.  Here is a partial photo of the front of two reorganized double-stacked shelves in one bookcase.  Curiously, I have read almost all of them, but I don’t feel the urge to weed these (mostly) classics.

Well, we’re not ready to go on Booktube with this look.  Booktubers have spare, tastefully-ordered, often white-painted bookcases. Their books often match!  I should do this by color code.

But I didn’t find my copy of The Rose and the Key.  Very sad.  And reading the e-book is just not the same.

The Best Read of the Summer: Conscience by Alice Mattison

Oh no, I think as I riffle through the latest novels:  is there anything I want to read?

Perseverance has its rewards.  I absolutely loved Alice Mattison’s smart, well-written new novel,  Conscience.   The characters are mature, the structure is brilliantly complex, and Mattison has something to say (so much to say).  Told from three points-of-view, Conscience focuses on the consequences of reading, or rereading, a Vietnam-era novel, written by a friend and  based on the life of another friend, a conscience-stricken anti-war activist who became a terrorist.

It begins in the present with the musings of Olive Grossman, an editor of crafts books and a biographer of women writers, who says she will never write a memoir, but  wants to recall the exact moment of the commencement of a series of painful events.  It began, she thinks,  when her husband Griff,  a high-school principal, asked to borrow  Bright Morning of Pain, a novel written by her high school friend, Valerie Benevento.  He has always refused to read the book, because it presents a a romanticized view of the actions of their friend Helen, who decided in the ’70s that words and demonstrations were not enough to end the war. And Griff and Olive are both characters in the book, too. Indeed, Olive and Griff separated years ago, partly because of their attitudes toward Valerie’s book. But Olive has been asked to write an essay about it for a magazine, in conjunction with a publisher’s reissuing a paperback with a readers’ guide.   When Griff insists it’s time for him to read it,  she is flattered.

What I’m saying is that Griff’s need for the book was sexy. It was also something else, though Griff wasn’t talking about Val Benevento’s book that morning as anything more than a book that mattered to me. Griff too had a connection with this book. Some men would have seized it the day it was published, read it, dismissed or condemned it, or become briefly famous discussing their connection to it. Another sort of man would be more comfortable pretending it didn’t matter and could be left unread, and Griff was one of those. This was different—and despite my nervousness, I was curious. Barefoot, I crossed the hall into my study and took my copy of Bright Morning of Pain from the shelf: the hardcover first edition, with its familiar green-and-gold matte dust jacket (green tree, gold lettering, against a blue sky). The paper had soft, frayed edges and a row of tiny parallel tears at top and bottom that looked familiar. I had marked it up—both years earlier when I first wrote about it and later, when I wrote about it again. The older marks were in ink, the newer ones in pencil.

Alice Mattison

But Griff loses the book, and she thinks that he has done it unconsciously on purpose.  He says he found it compelling, and that it made him cry.  When it finally turns up in the office of Jean, a director of a drop-in center for the homeless, she says she is reading it and doesn’t want to give it back yet.  Griff, the president of the board, left it in her office when he went in to use her phone. And he needs to recover the book so he can finish it, but mainly because it has his wife’s notes in it.

Because of the book, they invite Jean to dinner and she becomes a family friend.  She is fascinated by the  complexity of Griff and Olive’s relationship. She sees that Olive is angry at Griff, and Jean is angry, too, because Griff keeps trying to block new services at the drop-in center, particularly a program that will allow the homeless to sign up for private rooms for an hour or two during the day.  Jean and Olive become friends, and Jean sides against Griff on some of the center’s issues. Will the marriage thrive or break?  And, dangerously, for Jean is the one radical at the dinner table, she begins to date an inconsiderate younger man, Zak, a doctor Olive’s daughter used to date, and who Jean knows has the ability of causing great grief.

Oddly, Griff was a radical in the ’60s, and believes his own use of a gun at a protest inspired Helen’s using a gun at a bank robbery.   He feels guilty, but Olive insists that there was no connection, that Helen had long been involved in radical politics before she knew Griff.  And Olive has her own guilt:  she spent hours talking about Helen to Valerie when Valerie was doing research for the book.  And Valerie sold out Helen, Olive, and Griff.

The compulsive readability of Conscience is slightly reminiscent of two other poltical page-turners, Marge Piercy’s Vida, a fast-paced novel about a ’60s radical who goes underground, and Doris Lessing’s A Ripple from the Storm, a brilliant autobiographical novel about Martha Quest’s involvement with  a small communist group during World War II in Southern Rhodesia.  Lessing brilliantly captures the mix of excitement and exhaustion:  the intensity and dreariness, the analysis and self-criticism, and the daily meetings (usually more than one) at which there is much talk, little action.

I thought about so much when I read Conscience.  There are a few faults:  occasionally the writing is choppy, but that fits the flexible form of the book.  Can a book be great because of the intensity of the content and history?  I think it can, and that is the case here.

What to Read When You’re Ill: Novels with Memorable Scenes of Illness

My husband caught a cold at the office.  I blame it on paper clips, post-its, and office supplies.

And now everyone has it. The city is stricken with the common cold.  And I’m surprised there’s not a quarantine.

And so I am coughing and drinking Cold-Eeze and wondering if there’s a yoga pose that will banish the cold.  Meanwhile, I’m making a list of novels with memorable scenes of illness.  Alas, I cannot remember many scenes with the common cold.

1.  In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Bennet catches a violent cold while visiting Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst at Netherfield Park, the home of her future fiance, Mr. Bingley.  She becomes so ill that they refuse to let her go home and she sends a letter to her sister Elizabeth.


“I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday. My kind friends will not hear of my returning till I am better. They insist also on my seeing Mr. Jones—therefore do not be alarmed if you should hear of his having been to me—and, excepting a sore throat and headache, there is not much the matter with me.—Yours, etc.”

2.  In Turgenev’s On the Eve, the  heroine, Elena, an intense young woman who wants a purpose, falls in love with Insarov, a Bulgarian revolutionary, and educates herself about the cause.  Alas, he catches pneumonia, and though he recovers for a time, he does not live long.  Elena is heartbroken but she lives to fight another day.

‘Elena!’ sounded distinctly in her ears. She raised her head quickly, turned round, and was stupefied: Insarov, white as snow, the snow of her dream, had half risen from the sofa, and was staring at her with large, bright, dreadful eyes. His hair hung in disorder on his forehead and his lips parted strangely. Horror, mingled with an anguish of tenderness, was expressed on his suddenly transfigured face.

‘Elena!’ he articulated, ‘I am dying.’

She fell with a scream on her knees, and clung to his breast.

‘It’s all over,’ repeated Insarov: ‘I’m dying… Good-bye, my poor girl! good-bye, my country!’ and he fell backwards on to the sofa.

3.  In Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, the hero, Hans Castorp, visits his tubercular cousin at a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, and laughs at the easy life-style there before he, too, is diagnosed with TB.

It would not have taken much for Hans Castorp to be seized by another fit of laughter.  “What?  You lie out on your balcony rain or shine, night or day?” he asked, his voice wavering on the edge.

4.   In The Painted Veil, one of my favorite novels by W. Somerset Maugham, Kitty’s husband Walter is furious when he learns she has had an affair.  He takes her with him to mainland China, where he must deal with a cholera epidemic.  Needless to say no one is safe from the cholera, but Walter and a group of nuns put up a good fight. Kitty wants to help the nuns.

“There is no need to scrub the floors.  That is done by after a fashion by the orphans.”  She paused and looked kindly at Kittty.  “My dear child, do you not think that you have done enough in coming with your husband here?  That is more than many wives would have had the courage to do, and for the rest how can you be better occupied than by giving him peace and comfort when he comes home to you after the day’s work?  Believe me, he needs tthen all your love and consideration.”

5. I’ve run out of respiratory illnesses and cholera and am on to a zombie novel.  There is some beautiful writing at the beginning of Carrie Ryan’s  The Forest of Hands and Teeth:

My mother used to tell me about the ocean.  She said there was a place where there was nothing but water as far as you could see and that it was always moving, rushing toward you and then away.


The narrator, Mary, has grown up in a village behind a fence, to secure the villagers from zombies, known as the Unconsecrated, who infect human beings with  their bites.  After her mother becomes a zombie, Mary becomes an outcast.  The Sisters, a group of secret-loving nuns who know the true history of the world, shelter her for a while after her mother “turns”–her mother chooses to become a zombie rather than to die.  Although Mary is badly treated by the Sisters, she learns that the nuns have contact with the outside and that a young woman named Gabrielle has come in with news.  Is there any hope?  Not much.

6.  Graham Greene’s A BURNT-OUT CASE deals with leprosy, but I’m too tired to write about it!


Do You Plan to Read the Man Booker Prize Longlist?

Every year I am enthralled by The Man Booker Prize longlist.

It was announced in The Guardian today.  Ah, the joy of reading, or thinking about reading, the longlist of a famous prize!

Bloggers always support the prize.  In 2009, Dovegreyreader and several other bloggers read the complete longlist.  I, too, managed to read more than half the list that year, including two I had to order from the UK:  A. S. Byatt’s brilliant The Children’s Book (should have won!) and Sarah Hall’s remarkable How to Paint a Dead Man.

I lost interest in the Booker in 2011. The judges chose a number of very violent novels, and I caught hell from a small press for a negative review of an extremely violent book (which is why I seldom deal with the divas of the tiny presses).

This year I’m changing all that.  I intend to read half the longlist (half of a half will be sufficient).  But it is a bizarre-o list, in that I’ve only  heard of three of the books:  Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, Richard Powers’ The Trees, and Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight.  And these three are doing very well here, as I imagine they are in the UK.

The big news:  Nick Drasno’s Sabrina is the first graphic novel to make the Booker longlist.  As my husband says, “That will be this year’s winner.”

Naturally, the British bloggers are annoyed about the three Americans on the list.  I say with a hand on my hip:  “Deal with it, honey.” For whatever reason, the Man (or Booker or whatever) company is determined to favor Americans.  Famous writers have submitted petitions saying
Bring back the British!, and nothing has changed.  What’s in it for the ManCo  I couldn’t say.

But surely an American won’t win this year, after George Saunders and Paul Beatty’s wins in 2016 and 2017.  But of course the graphic novel, Sabrina, is by an American.

And now here is the longlist.  Let me know if anything looks good, or if you have plans to read the Booker list.  Not all titles are available in the U.S. yet.

• Anna Burns, Milkman
• Nick Drnaso, Sabrina
• Esi Edugyan, Washington Black
• Guy Gunaratne, In Our Mad and Furious City
• Daisy Johnson, Everything Under
• Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room
• Sophie Mackintosh, The Water Cure
• Michael Ondaatje, Warlight
• Richard Powers, The Overstory
• Robin Robertson, The Long Take
• Sally Rooney, Normal People
• Donal Ryan, From a Low and Quiet Sea