Alice Thomas Ellis’s Pillars of Gold

I’ve written bookish things recently, but have not kept up with my posts on reading.

Here goes.

I recently read Alice Thomas Ellis’s elegant comic novel,  Pillars of Gold.  Ellis was the pseudonym of Anna Haycraft, the wife of Colin Haycraft, owner of Duckworth publishing company.  Her novel The 27th Kingdom was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1982. And I love her hilarious columns about family life (she had seven children), published in four volumes as Home Life.

If  you haven’t read Ellis, Pillars of Gold  is a good place to start.  This dark comedy, set in a gentrified neighborhood in London, begins with a paragraph in a local newspaper about a woman’s body found in the canal.  The neighbors realize the corpse might be Barbs, an obnoxious woman who has been missing for weeks. Nobody misses Barbs.  Nobody likes her.  But Constance peeped in the window and noticed the plants were dead.  What should they do?

Alice Thomas Ellis

The attitudes of this mostly-autonomous community toward the police are comically revealed. Everyone guiltily agrees that someone might want to murder Barbs. Scarlet, an unhappy housewife married to an advertising executive, wonders if they should go to the police.  Constance, a jewelry maker who deals in illegal goods and has lived a disreputable life next door, formerly with her shady brothers and late mother, says she’ll report it but changes her mind. And when Scarlet says that Barbs had no family except in America, Constance decides no one will miss her.  The same is true of neighbors who attend a dinner party at Scarlet’s house.  Everyone thinks Barbs might have been killed, but no one does anything about it.

Camille, Scarlet’s daughter, who constantly cuts school, reads the item about the murder at a bar. Soon it is the talk of her friends, who take advantage of Barbs’ absence by having a party in Barbs’ house.  It turns out to be a bad idea because they, too, become increasingly uneasy.

Why does no one report that Barbs is missing?  She was a liberal political activist, partly admirable, but extremely annoying to her neighbors. She comported herself as if she were beautiful, and this greatly irritates Scarlet, who finds her ridiculous.  Some of the men might have slept with Barbs, too.

Ellis writes,

Barbs prided herself on her deep and politically informed compassion.  She concerned herself about everyone–the neighbours, the tramps, the gipsies, the feral cats and the condition of the local trees.  When the council had organized a festival to alert the people to the plight of Nicaragua, she alone of all the neighbors had climbed into the mobile coffee shop, which the council had provided, to drink Nicaraguan coffee and read the Nicaraguan posters which adorned the bulkheads and bulwarks of the van.  She went on gay rights marches–although, as far as anyone knew, she was heterosexual–and was wont to punch the air with her fist at moments that seemed to call for affirmation or triumph.  Sometimes she also uttered a cry which she had picked up somewhere:  a kind of ‘Yah.’

We all know people like Barbs.

I am very fond of Scarlet, who wants to scream at the crumbs on the counter after breakfast. She worries constantly about pesticides and  food, calculating vitamins in broad-leafed veg vs.r radioactivity, and is so exasperated with the details of housekeeping that she wishes she were dead.

She ought to feed the cat–and then there was the washing.  The builder should be summoned to scrutinize the small growth on the pantry’s outer wall, and her husband had informed her that the bank had made another balls-up and requested her to deal with it.  Tonight they were going to the theatre.

All this is beyond her, and she has no interest in going to the theatre.

Constance is also endearing, just back from a vacation in Greece, where her boyfriend Memet deserted her  and left her with his family.  She lives outside law and order–she mocks the council,”…benefactors of humanity and kidding themselves about the perfectibility of man–silly bastards…They got no grasp of reality.”

In their way, all the characters are realists, but what did happen to Barbs?  Read on.  It’s not a mystery, but events take an odd turn.

P.S. And I wondered (with no evidence at all) if Constance were based on Beryl Bainbridge, a close friend of Ellis.  The community’s attitude towards the police reminds me of that of characters in Bainbridge’s novel, The Bottle Factory Outing. 

Back to Book Blogging: Alice Thomas Ellis’s The Summer House

"Reading in the Garden," by Susan Ricker Knox

“Reading in the Garden,” by
Susan Ricker Knox

It is a gorgeous spring day.

And so I am writing outside.

I went for a long walk…had two cups of coffee…am  delighted to hear the birds sing…discovered that no one at the Free Little Library wants the books I’ve donated, a Dover edition of Edith Wharton’s short stories and an excellent “Darkover” book by Marion Zimmer Bradley….. and I found it is too puddly to take a bike ride.

With the warm spring day, I have renewed enthusiasm for book blogging:  those who come here strictly for the book chat will be gratified.  You may have wondered, What the f— , as I rambled about travel, the humanities, and other non-bookish topics.

But now I’m back.

Summer Houe Alice Thomas EllisI can’t decide if ALICE THOMAS ELLIS’S’S gorgeous trilogy,  THE SUMMER HOUSE, is quite a classic, but it is very good indeed.  Ellis, a Catholic writer, has the relentless intelligence of Flannery O’Connor:  there is zero sentimentality in these bold, dazzling comedies of  sin, sacrifice, and redemption.

In each of three very short  novels, the same events before a wedding are observed by three different women (who form a kind of unholy female trinity).  In The Clothes in the Wardrobe, we meet the bride, Margaret, a passive young woman who has been stupefied into agreeing to marry Syl, a middle-aged Englishman, after a love affair in Egypt with a young man who commits a murder.   In The Skeleton in the Cupboard, Mrs. Monroe, Syl’s mother, has doubts about the impending wedding as Margaret’s lack of enthusiasm for her son becomes apparent.  And in The Fly in the Ointment, Lili, the Egyptian femme fatale at the center of the action, is admired, loved, and sometimes feared.  Lili, who identifies with Lilith, the mythic first wife of Adam in the Bible, is determined to help Margaret (and herself) by doing whatever it takes.

Ellis’s prose is wickedly superb as she sketches the portents against the wedding in brief, powerful sentences.  The wedding dress doesn’t fit; Syl embarrasses Margaret and her friends;  and her mother decides for her and Syl to cancel the honeymoon in Egypt because she thinks Margaret is ill.

Every observant phrase and word of dialogue fits Ellis’s spare prose as smoothly as Margaret’s wedding dress does not.

“It doesn’t fit,” I said with satisfaction.

My mother couldn’t deny it.  The wedding dress hung loosely on me and I appeared to myself, reflected in the cheval mirror, gratifying ridiculous.

“It looks silly,” I said more positively.

My mother irritatedly seized two handfuls of old brocade and dragged them behind my back.

“You’ve lost weight,” she observed in a tone which indicated she could have expected nothing else of me.  “It’ll have to be taken in at the seams.”

Already the tiny triumph had withered in me.  I thought the dead whiteness of the dress made me more of a corpse than a bride but hadn’t enough energy to infuriate my mother by telling her.

In the second book, the elderly Mrs. Monroe looks forward to Syl’s leaving home.  At the same time, she knows Margaret is even less suitable than Syl’s last fiancée.  And she dislikes Lili strongly, because she caught her late husband long ago having sex with Lili in the summer house.

There was nothing too terrible about my life, no need to turn away from it or pretend it was other than it was.  The truth is I was bored.  I had not been bred to suburbia.

And in the third book, we are both shocked and fascinated by Lili’s schemes.

I seemed to leave my body as a ginnee leaves a bottle and floats above all the people, invulnerable, omnipotent and–not to be trusted.  Everybody knows that the jann can’t be trusted.  They share with man the promise of salvation but they go round at night doing bad things.

summer-house-movie-poster-1994-1010265552There is a kind of unholy female trinity, mother, daughter, and jinn.

It was a real pleasure to read this:  Alice Thomas Ellis is one of my favorite writers.

And there is a very good movie version of The Summer House, starring Jeanne Moreau, Joan Plowright, and Julie Walters.

Ms. Mirabile Does Short-Shorts: Alice Thomas Ellis’s The Inn at the Edge of the World

Alice Thomas Ellis

Alice Thomas Ellis

I don’t read a lot of Catholic classics.

Raised a Catholic, I am no longer even sure how to do the Sign of the Cross. At my mother’s funeral last summer, my brother, an atheist, prayed loudly.  My father, another atheist, was disconcerted by my brother’s prayers. As the agnostic only daughter,  I decided I had as much right to pray as anyone.  I  took a deep breath, crossed myself (perhaps backwards:  I’m not sure), took Communion (my brother didn’t dare go that far), and said the Lord’s Prayer without the Protestant addendum that has been adopted as an interfaith gesture.

Alice Thomas Ellis, the English writer, was a real Catholic, a Catholic convert.  She wrote remarkable novels that I consider both women’s classics  and Catholic classics.  Her  books are not widely known in the U.S, except for The Summer House, which was made into a movie with Jeanne Moreau, Julie Walters, and Joan Plowright.  But most of Ellis’s books have been published here, in paperback by A Common Reader, a defunct book catalogue and publisher, and in hardback by Moyer Bell, a small publisher.

Inn at the edge of the world alice thomas ellisHer 1990 novel,  The Inn at the Edge of the World, begins with the innkeeper’s thinking of murdering his sexy wife.  He is fascinated by Mabel, but she treats him badly.  He has lost his faith in his work, and decides to advertise a Christmas holiday at the inn for people who want to skip Christmas.  When Mabel makes fun of his ad, they fight, and she accuses him of deliberately hitting her as he pushes back his chair and the armrest hits her stomach.

It was guilt, thought Eric, that made her so determined to blame him for the occurrence.  She had been particularly bad that day, taunting him as he had struggled all by himself to perform the multifarious tasks of a small innkeeper; asking him if he were satisfied that he had dragged her away from the comfort of their modern luxury home in Telford and dumped her here in the teeth of the Atlantic gales with no one to talk to and nowhere to go.

“It was partly because of the people she had talked to and the places she went that Eric had resolved to realize a vague ambition and buy himself an inn at the edge of the world.”

Mabel takes off for a party on the mainland, leaving Eric to cope with Christmas.

And five people respond to the ad:  Jessica, an actress who does commercials;  Jon, an actor who, unbeknownst to her, is her stalker; Harry, an ex-soldier who wants to die, because his wife and son have died, but who cannot commit suicide because of his faith; Anita, a lonely single woman who has promised herself not to think about her work in a retail store during her vacation, and Ronald, a psychoanalyst.  All are in a spiritual crisis.

But they cannot leave their pasts behind.  And their inability to recognize Christmas leads to a bigger crisis.  It is only Harold, as he works on a book about Gordon of Khartoum, who understands Christmas.

The novel has a fairy tale feeling:  there are ghosts and selkies (seal people with webbed hands and feet) in the characters’ peripheral vision.  The couples who form on the island simply aren’t meant to be, and they often end up walking around in groups of three.  Two of the island’s inhabitants, a professor and a faithless wife, show a level of spiritual bereftness none of the guests, except for Jon, has quite reached.

It’s a beautiful book, well worth reading.

I cannot tell you how much I miss the Common Reader catalogue and publisher.

Off to binge on more Ellis.

P.S.  I had meant to write a very short post here, but it’s not as short as all that, is it?

Merry Christmas & Alice Thomas Ellis’s Home Life

Community, a Christmas episode

Community (a Christmas episode)

Merry Christmas!

We read, took a long walk, and ate turkey in front of the TV.

Did you know that Channel 23 shows reruns of Community, The Middle, and Modern Family?

I haven’t vegged out like this in a long time.

Home Life by alice thomas ellisIt was not exactly like the Christmas scenes in the brilliant novelist Alice Thomas Ellis’s Home Life columns.  Are you familiar with her light, charming essays about domestic life, written for The Spectator and collected in four volumes?

Home Life is vaguely like E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady, only urban, circa the 1980s.  A white Persian cat is in the sink, so Ellis has difficulty brushing her teeth; a man mistakes her for a prostitute when she is in a bar with Beryl Bainbridge; she gets snowed in in the country; and the pipes burst and inundate a set of Thackeray.

She had seven children, so I can’t imagine how she wrote so beautifully, though there is someone named Janet in the background, an assistant(?)/friend who helps run the household.

Here is a Christmas scene from “Liberated Lady” in Home Life, Vol. 2

Well, after all that fuss it wasn’t such a bad Christmas after all–really quite agreeable.  I always feel a bit daunted as I regard fifteen shining expectant faces and glance from them to the turkey crouching in a threatening stance, waiting to be carved, but as I’ve gone quite limp by that time anyway I leave the carving to any delightful gentleman who cares to try his skill:  Michael this year, and a very good job he made of it–and the ham.  Someone presided over the claret with his usual urbanity, and I even remembered to put the gravy on the table.  We all looked particularly lovely, especially me in a glitzy coat that Beryl gave me, which made me rather resemble a salmon who had been muscle-pumping, since it has Dynasty-type shoulder pads.

Did you dress up for Christmas?  I’m in corduroy stretch pants (I thought I’d never wear this gift from my mother but they’re heavenly indoors), a zip-up sweater, and a knee-length cardigan.  My husband is in jeans, sweater, and stocking cap.  (It’s freezing in here.  He keeps it at 60 when he’s home.)

I managed to clean the house for the great day, if you don’t count the books I transferred from the tables to the bedroom floor.

It was a good Christmas, as these things go.  Keep expectations low.

And, like everyone else, I start my diet tomorrow after the feast I didn’t particularly enjoy.