Smart Rereadings: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Colette’s The Vagabond, & D. H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gipsy

Rereadings:  Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman, is a little-known classic.  When I first read this charming collection of essays, I was inspired by Evelyn Toynton’s  “Revisiting Brideshead” to reread Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.  The first time I’d read it, I was teaching at a lovely snob school, and so steeped in classics that Brideshead did not measure up.   When I reread it in 2005,  I admired the exquisite style and the witty dialogue.  Toynton, on the other hand, disliked it.

In Waugh’s great Catholic novel, Brideshead Revisited, published in 1946, the narrator Charles Ryder remembers a romantic pre-war past.  At Oxford he was befriended by the Catholic aristocrat Sebastian Flyte; later he falls in love with Sebastian’s sister Julia.  At Oxford, the charming Sebastian carries his teddy bear, Aloysius, everywhere.  I regret to say that no one I knew ever carried a teddy bear, but then I didn’t know any English aristocrats.

The essays follow a pattern of discovery and reassessment, and quite often the book turns out to be different from the writer’s memory of it.  In my favorite essay, “Love with a Capital L,” Vivian Gornick revisits  Colette’s The Vagabond and  The Shackle, its sequel.  And what she loved in her twenties is not what she loves now.

Gornick writes,

When I was in my twenties, my friends and I read Colette as others read the Bible.  She was our Book of Wisdom.  We read her for solace, and for moral instruction.  We read her to learn better who we were, and how, given the constraint of our condition, we were to live.

Gornikc found the experience of rereading Colette “unsettling.” She writes,  “The wholly unexpected occurred:  I came away from them with mixed feelings.” She loved the lyricism but was surprised by the emptiness of the narrator Renee, whose life revolves around love.   Although  The Vagabond is my favorite of Colette’s books, I know what she means.  In The Vagabond, Renee rejects a charming lover who isn’t quite as intelligent as she:  she feels it wouldn’t work.    But in The Shackle she falls for a man who has beaten his previous girlfriend.  Why?   What happened to Renee that she would find him attractive?

Most of the essays in the collection are elegant and insightful, though I am not interested in David Micahelis’s revisiting of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band (and anyway wasn’t that cheating?).  Pico Iyer writes brilliantly about D. H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gipsy, which he read at an English boarding school and admired upon rereading. I reread the novella in 2016 and wrote here:  “Think Lady Chatterley’s Lover, only sillier.”

In Rereadings, Patricia Hampl writes perceptively on Katherine Mansfield, Jamie James on Joseph Conrad, Philip Lopate on The Charterhouse of Parma,  David Samuels on J. D. Salinger, and more.  A very entertaining book.  I want to read more on rereadings.

A Turgenev Sighting in “Women in Love”

After reading much excellent but verbose nineteenth-century fiction this winter, I am finding D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love a breath of fresh air. 

 I am a huge Lawrence fan.  I have always loved this book, and I feel a deep affection for the two heroines, the Brangwen sisters, Ursula, a competent teacher who is both creative and sensual, and Gudrun, an artist who has returned from London and works as an art teacher.

I first read Women in Love after I saw the 1969 movie, directed by Ken Russell, starring Glenda Jackson, Jennie Linden, Alan Bates, and Oliver Reed. Its flamboyance was very much in keeping with the ’60s.  (My guess is that I didn’t see it till the ’70s, though, because it was R-rated, and how would we have gotten in?)  My best friend and I giggled and called each other Ursula and Gudrun.  We both loved and mocked Lawrence!

The publication in 1969 of Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics seemed to excise Lawrence from the canon for women of my generation, but I never minded his maunderings about sex, and read him for his poeticism and philosophical dialogue.  I don’t think he is sexist.  What would that mean in the context of his work?  But I admit, when I was in high school, we did mock the dialogue.  Here is how the women talk.

‘Ursula,’ said Gudrun, ‘don’t you really want to get married?’ Ursula laid her embroidery in her lap and looked up. Her face was calm and considerate. ‘

‘I don’t know,’ she replied. ‘It depends how you mean.’

So we used to repeat the dialogue and giggle, as was our wont.

Anyway I was delighted in this rereading by a Turgenev sighting. (I have also read a lot of Turgenev lately.)  At a country house party, an Italian woman is sitting on the lawn reading Fathers and Sons, and she finds a very odd phrases in the translation.

“There is a most beautiful thing in my book,” suddenly piped the little Italian woman. ‘It says the man came to the door and threw his eyes down the street.’

There was a general laugh in the company. Miss Bradley went and looked over the shoulder of the Contessa.

‘See!’ said the Contessa.

‘Bazarov came to the door and threw his eyes hurriedly down the street,’ she read.

Again there was a loud laugh, the most startling of which was the Baronet’s, which rattled out like a clatter of falling stones.

‘What is the book?’ asked Alexander, promptly.

Fathers and Sons, by Turgenev,’ said the little foreigner, pronouncing every syllable distinctly. She looked at the cover, to verify herself.

‘An old American edition,’ said Birkin.

‘Ha!—of course—translated from the French,’ said Alexander, with a fine declamatory voice.” ‘Bazarov ouvra la porte et jeta les yeux dans la rue.’

He looked brightly round the company.”

‘I wonder what the “hurriedly” was,’ said Ursula.

They all began to guess.

I wonder what American translation that was? I never thought of anybody translating a Russian novel from the French.

A scene from the movie, “Women in Love”

What Could Be More Predictable Than Too Frothy Summer Reading? The Virgin & the Gipsy, A Too-Cozy Cozy Mystery, and a Very Simenon-y Simenon

The virgin and the gipsy lawrence pulp 586-1

I’ve already done my summer reading:  three silly books that would have been better saved for that horsefly-haunted fishing lodge I will find myself in soon.

But they are no less frothy than most of what will be promoted this summer!


D. H. Lawrence is one of my favorite English writers. I love his poetry, novels, and travel writing.  His style can be intense,  but I appreciate intensity. Why, why, why did I not get on a train to Nottingham, his birthplace, when I was in England?  Well,  he didn’t like Nottingham much. And he wasn’t that keen on England.

Is he still in fashion? I have no idea.  My obsession began when I saw the movie Women in Love, starring Glenda Jackson, who won the Oscar for Best Actress, Oliver Reed, Alan Bates, and Jennie Linden. And then I was enraptured by the novel Women in Love, though I tried to be cool about it, because my best friend thought it was very funny.  It is one of the strangest, loveliest, most seductive books I’ve ever read.  The Rainbow, its prequel, is even more stunning.  I also like  Sons and Lovers, his beautiful coming-of-age novel.

438 D H Lawrence The Virgin and the Gypsy Berkley 1And then there’s The Virgin and the Gipsy.

Mind you, I enjoyed The Virgin and the Gipsy, but Lawrence’s sexual philosophy can seem ridiculous when concentrated in a novella.  He needs a short story or a novel.

It is actually a typical Lawrence story  of forbidden sexual attraction between a middle-class woman and a lower-class man.  Think Lady Chatterley’s Lover, only sillier. It begins almost like a fairy tale.  The rebellious Yvette and her older sister, Lucille, are trapped in the rigid life of a rectory dominated by a grim granny referred to as the Mater.   We learn that their mother, Cynthia, left the rector for a penniless man when the girls were children.  And their Aunt Cissie sizzles furiously about the house hating both girls, but especially Yvette.

So, naturally, the girls like to get out.  One day the wild Yvette is out in a car with Lucille and  some other young people, and they almost run down a gipsy cart.  The cart finally gets over to the side of the road, but the driver is furious.

Yvette’s heart gave a jump. The man on the cart was a gipsy, one of the black, loose-bodied, handsome sort.

He asks if they would like their fortunes told.

She met his dark eyes for a second, their level search, their insolence, their complete indifference to people like Bob and Leo, and something took fire in her breast.  She thought:  “he is stronger than I am!  He doesn’t care!”

Yvette experiences pure sexual attraction.  This is a little overwritten, though.

Yvette has clandestine meetings with the gipsy.  Sometimes he drives his cart past their house and she runs out, other times Yvette resists.  She is also scandalizes her granny by befriending a couple who are living in sin while they wait for the woman’s divorce.

It’s a little silly.   Still, it seemed pure sex when I was an adolescent.

So maybe it’s a Y.A. book?


Moyes down among the dead men 41Im6NYYYiL._SX297_BO1,204,203,200_I picked up a couple of mysteries by Patricia Moyes, because they were  very nice paperback editions with crisp pages. I THINK I read about them at a blog.

Well, damn, Down Among the Dead Men is just not that  good.

Chief Inspector Henry Tibbetts and his wife Emmy go on vacation with friends, Rosemary and Alastair, who have a sailboat.  And then they (and we) have to learn everything about sailing.

Alastair looked at him pityingly.  “If the jib didn’t have a port and a starboard sheet, how could you come about?”  Henry said he had no idea, and watched humbly as Alastair picked up another rope from the deck.

If the jib didn’t…?  It’s a lot like Nancy Drew. Everything has to be explained, and over-explained, until you’re ready actually to put your backs into it and heave ho!

Anyhow, they sail with a bunch of friends, including a saucy sexpot of a woman, Ann, whom the other women hate (including me).

And Henry figures out that a friend of theirs who died tragically was actually murdered.

And Ann puts her hands all over him and makes him promise to stop saying he was murdered.


Okay, but not good enough.  Maybe this isn’t Moyes’ best?


simenon grand banks cafe 41s2qOWJFAL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Of course Simenon is excellent, if you like that kind of thing.  The Grand Banks Cafe is a police procedural, straight investigation with no real rounded characters, and lots of re-creation of the crime going on in Maigret’s mind.

Maigret, a French detective, and his wife go on vacation in a fishing port so he can help clear the name of a teacher friend’s student, Pierre, who was the wireless operator of a ship whose voyage was apparently doomed.  (Lots of accidents.)  Pierre is  accused of murdering the captain after they came ashore.  The investigation gets stranger and more bizarre as Maigret discovers that a femme fatale was involved with three of the men on the ship.

Very tight, short, and fast.  One of the better Simenons.

And if you want it, it’s yours.  I’m giving away the Simenon.  Leave a comment if you’d like the book.


Culture, Lost in the Scandinavian Section, & D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie,  Nebraska

When we moved, everybody warned me, “There’s no culture there.”

It is, however, a beautiful place to live.  We bicycle on the prairie, we ride by the Mississippi, we career over walnuts in the fall and almost fly off our bikes, we pedal through the woods, we fix tires beside lakes, we coast down hills, we ride past Amish farms, we avoid the bar on the trail (The Flat Tire), we stop to eat pie or grab a snack at Casey’s in small towns where there are cow statues.

When we want culture, we drive to Nebraska and visit Willa Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud or Bess Streeter Aldrich’s house in Elmwood.

Or we go to a university library.

Without university libraries, I would go crazy.  All you fans of English literature, Canadian literature, American literature, German literature, Russian literature, know you can’t find every book you want at the public library.  The university library in Iowa City would let us check out books if we got photo IDs at the Union, but that is not possible on weekends, so we gave up.

There is another university library where we can check out books for $20 a year.  It is not a liberal arts school, but the library has a big literature section, always deserted.  During my Anna Kavan phase (it never occurred to me that I would shock my family on Thanksgiving with talk of “heroin addict lit”:  Kavan, Will Self, Edward St. Aubyn, William Burroughs), I found many of Kavan’s books, a biography, and even Rhys Davies’ novel about Anna Kavan, Honeysuckle Girl.

Last week I got lost in the Scandinavian literature section.

Lost in the Scandinavian Section

Lost in the Scandinavian Section

I picked up a book by Tove Jansson  before I found the American lit section and the new book club selection for Emily Books, Sarah Schulman’s Empathy.

WHAT I’M READING.  I’m reading D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, the first in the trilogy which includes Women in Love and Aaron’s Rod.

The Rainbow is a family saga, poetic, incandescent, and rich with adjective-and-adverb-heavy prose, Thomas Hardy on drugs.

On the opening page, Lawrence describes the Brangwen family.

They were fresh, blond, slow-speaking people, revealing themselves plainly, but slowly, so that one could watch the change in their eyes from laughter to anger, blue, lit-up laughter, to a hard blue-staring anger, through all the irresolute stages of the sky when the weather is changing.”

Shouldn’t this be read aloud?

rainbow d-h-lawrence- modern libraryParts of The Rainbow are fascinating, parts are dull, parts are surprisingly erotic.  (The erotica was considered shocking, and the book was prosecuted in an obscenity trial in 1915, prefiguring the prosecution of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in obscenity trials in the UK and U.S.) Lawrence is lyrical about sex, except when he’s maundering about powerful women destroying men through sex:  Anna is somehow destroying Will’s supremacy through dancing around naked and pregnant.  It’s sort of a Gaia vs. Chronos thing, I suppose.  Anna is lost in her fecundity:  she has so many children that we don’t exactly know how many.

But on page 200, the powerful section about their daughter Ursula begins.

In The Rainbow, we follow Ursula’s story from birth through young womanhood.  She struggles as a student and a teacher to make her life mean more than the mechanization of society. (In  Women in Love, she is very much in control of her own life, negotiating a relationship with artistic Rupert Birkin, a school inspector.).  Ursula dreams about poetry and love, loves freedom, and dislikes the discipline of school until she becomes involved with a lesbian teacher who takes advantage of her.  (I had completely forgotten this lesbian relationship, which doesn’t last long:  Ursula fobs off her lonely, pathetic lover on her industrialist uncle.)

After matriculation,  Ursula hates staying home with her lax mother and all the undisciplined children, so she becomes a teacher at 17.

The school is horrible, as so often these places are.  Lawrence is brutally honest:  he was himself a teacher for a time and does not sentimentalize.   Ursula  has 60 students (an impossible number, as any teacher will tell you),  has no training, and barely knows what she is saying half the time.  Her view of education is artistic and Rousseu-like, but this is not suitable to the dynamics of the large group or the expectations of the headmaster.   She must learn to discipline the students mechanically, stop seeing them as individuals (which is difficult to do anyway in a huge group), and prepare them for tests.   Ursula learns she will lose her job if she doesn’t discipline the students:  her headmaster often grabs one of them, canes them, and says they are the worst group in the school.  After she has been so soft and sympathetic, the students despise her.  They taunt her, and some of the boys throw rocks at her as she walks home.  Finally she canes a boy and regains authority.  It is a horrifying experience.  But then she is accepted as a teacher.

I star and bracket p. 393.

I star and bracket p. 393.

Her friend, Maggie, another teacher who does the job as a job and dislikes it, helps her survive.  Both love poetry and nature, and this time it Ursula has a straight relationship, a warm non-sexual friendship with a woman.

I used to teach part-time to eke out a living, and at one particularly horrible school (the only horrible one, to be honest), another rebellious teacher, a man who couldn’t believe FOR THIS HE’D GONE TO COLLEGE, respected the school so little that he turned in his grades only when it was convenient for him, and begged me to run away to San Francisco with him and teach at a hip school he’d heard of, which made me laugh very hard, because my particular subject wasn’t taught much out west, and did his girlfriend know about the proposed menage?  He was a good friend, and thought this was very funny, too.

I don’t usually write in books, but starred and bracketed page 393, fascinated by Lawrence on suffragettes, freedom, and work.

Here Ursula passionately denounces the workplace.

It was so difficult.  There were so many things, so much to meet and surpass.  And one never knew where one was going.  It was a blind fight.  She had suffered bitterly in this school of St. Philip’s.  She was like a young filly that has been broken in to the shafts, and has lost it freedom.  And now she was suffering bitterly from the agony of the shafts.  The agony, the galling, the ignominy of her breaking in.  This wore out her soul.  But she would never submit.  To shafts like these she would never submit for long.  But she would know them.  She would serve them that she might destroy them.

A very great book:  Lawrence is original, writes strangely but poetically, is often underestimated, and is sometimes sexist, occasionally absurd, but has created some of the best women characters in literature.

Bookless in Mexico: D. H. Lawrence’s “Strike Pay” and “What Is a Man Without an Income?”

D. H. Lawrence

D. H. Lawrence

After I scribbled some notes about D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (at my old blog), a very kind writer emailed me and suggested that I might enjoy Lawrence’s poetry.

And now I am reading Lawrence’s poetry, and am awed by its odd grace.

I have also been reading Lawrence’s short stories. I feel considerably less awed by their equal grace, but only because reading fiction is my forte.

I have long been a fan of Lawrence. I read The Plumed Serpent in  Veracruz, relieved to have found an English novel in a Mexican bookstore.  (I had run out of things to read.)   It was a ghastly trip: I got bad sunburn and stayed in the hotel applying vinegar to my burns; I read all our books,  George Eliot’s Romola (which was supposed to last me a week), Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude, and my husband’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

And then we tried to trade books with some tourists at the hotel, but most of the tourists were German.  The American family was frankly unwilling to trade.  “I’ve read those,” the guy snapped, while his wife pleaded with him to give me a book.

Bookless in Mexico!  It was terrible.

I must say The Plumed Serpent is a very strange book.

I’m sure Lawrence would have written a book if he’d been bookless in Mexico, but I had to read one.

Out of Sheer Rage dyerCritics have vastly different views of Lawrence.  Kate Millett, in her feminist book of criticism,  Sexual Politics, hates his depiction of women, and I do know many women who feel the same; Geoff Dyer, in his witty  book, Out of Sheer Rage:  Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence, writes of traveling around the world trying, or not trying, to write a book about Lawrence, and often writing about himself.  He says of his delaying tactics that he had planned for years to write a homage to Lawrence and:

…as part of my preparation for realizing this cherished ambition I had avoided reading anything by Lawrence so that at some point in the future I could go back to him if not afresh the at least not rock-stale.  I didn’t want to go back to him passively didn’t want to pick up a copy of Sons and Lovers aimlessly, to pass the time.

I do know what he means about going back to the novels passively.  Sometimes they are overwhelming.

Not having any intention of writing a homage,  I will now dash off a few remarks about Lawrence’s short story, “Strike Pay.”

I am especially interested in strikes, not that I have ever had a chance to strike.  One day my father came home  and told my mother that the factory workers were going on strike. She entreated him not to strike.  “You won’t get your job back.”  They were of different classes:  she the daughter of a successful businessman, he the son of a poor farmer.  I never heard them talk about the strike again, but my mother usually had her way.   Either he didn’t strike, or the strike didn’t last long.

Complete Short Stories Volume One Lawrecne Lawrence, the son of a miner and an ex-teacher, did not work in the mines, but obviously knew them.  In  his story, “Strike-Pay,” a group of men collect their strike pay at the Methodist chapel, and then go off for a day of fun.  Lawrence crafts the nine-page story as  adroitly as an architect designs a building (or perhaps more as a writer crafts a novel than a short story), with dense background details and dialogue skillfully enhancing the form.  In fact he begins by describing a  building, the Primitive Methodist Chapel where the miners go to collect their weekly strike money.  The chapel is an enormous, ugly edifice “built, designed, and paid for by the colliers themselves.” It was so poorly designed that it threatened to fall down and they had to bring in an architect.

This seems a sad comment on the miners.  They want independence, they need to live like human beings, they need more money, yet they are bound to the pit.  They have no other work experience.   They cannot build.

The men and their families also live at the Square where the chapel is.

Forty years ago, when Bryan and Wentworth opened their pits, they put up the ‘squares’ of miners’ dwellings.  They are two great quadrangles of houses, enclosing a barren stretch of ground, littered with broken pots and rubbish, which forms a square, a great, sloping, lumpy playground for the children, a drying-ground for many women’s washing.”

Lawrence writes poetically, whether he is writing prose or poetry:  the transcendent beauty of the white clothes “waving in the wind from a maze of clothes-lines” on Wash Day, and the women calling to their husbands and children, is far too vivid to be merely lyrical.

And the banter of the men while waiting for their pay is pitch-perfect and very funny.    One man says to the union agent who distributes the pay:

Tha’rt hard at work today, Ben.”  This was sarcasm on the idleness of a man who had given up the pit to become a union agent.”

“Yes.  I rose at four to fetch the money.”

“Dunna hurt thysen,” was the retort, and the men laughed.

Lawrence-the-Complete-Short-Stories-of-D-H-9780140043822After the men get their pay, one group sets off on a nine-mile walk to Nottingham for a football match.  On the way they see the pit ponies in a field, inert and lazy, not knowing what to do above ground, missing the pits.  Young Ephraim, 22 and only two months married, says, “It’s like a circus turned out.”  He and his friend Sam decide to ride the horses; Ephraim is thrown twice.  Afterwards, he realizes he has lost his money, but when they go back to the field they cannot find it.  Each man gives Epraim two bob.  They stick together.

They go to a bar, bet on  a skittles game, and then go to the football match.  But even the match does not make Ephraim happy.  He sees an accident near the football field, where a man working on drainage problems falls through a crust of ooze and is killed.  The horse is saved, but its neck nearly broken by being pulled out.  Ephraim goes home “with a sense of death, and loss, and strife.”

And at home there is more strife.  His mother-in-law is furious because he has brought home such a small amount of money.  His wife, however, says nothing, and it is clear that at least these two are amicable.  This is not one of Lawrence’s stories where the men and women struggle in love.

So there is a kind of peace, but it is tenuous.  There is too much going on, the strike in the background, the unsettled feeling of agitation.

All of Lawrence’s stories are brilliant.  There is a kind of romantic sensuality about many of them.

Although I am not writing about poetry today, here is Lawrence’s poem, “What Is Man Without an Income?”, which complements the short story very well.

“What Is Man Without an Income?” by D. H. Lawrence

What is man without an income?
–Well, let him go on the dole!

Dole, dole, dole
hole, hole, hole
soul, soul, soul–

What is man without an income?
Answer without a rigmarole.

On the dole, dole, dole
he’s a hole, hole, hole
in the nation’s pocket.

–Now then, you leave a man’s misfortunes alone!

He’s got a soul, soul, soul
but the coal, coal, coal
on the whole, whole, whole
doesn’t pay,
so the dole, dole, dole’s the only way.

And on the dole, dole, dole
a man’s a hole, hole, hole
in the nation’s pocket
and his soul, soul, soul
won’t stop a hole, hole, hole
though his ashes might.

Immortal Caesar dead and turned to clay
would stop a hole to keep the wind away.

But a man without a job
isn’t even as good as a gob
of clay.

Body and soul
he’s just a hole
down which the nation’s resources roll