Viragos Are Sometimes Inconsequential, Europas Aren’t Always Good, & What Was Dickens Thinking When He Wrote The Old Curiosity Shop?

washing my mouth out with soap won't do any good

…after I read a bad book.

Although I have read some excellent books this month, I have also read my share of second-rate books.  One is so contrived and mawkish I almost refrained from writing about it, the second is the most violent book I have ever read, and Dickens’ early novels were not all classics.

Oh, Viragos, I thought.  Oh, Europas.  Oh, Dickens.  I can read these very good books without screening them for quality.

Not so.

I hoped to enjoy Mary Renault’s The Friendly Young Ladies, a library book I picked up because it’s a Virago; I recently read and loved her novel Fire from Heaven.   Caryl Ferey’s Mapuche (Europa) says on the cover, Winner Larderneau Prize for Crime Fiction 2012.  And I decided to reread The Old Curiosity Shop to prepare for the Dickens tour I may or may not take on my trip to London.

I must have been brainwashed by the Virago/Europa reputation.  And if I didn’t like The Old Curiosity Shop years ago, is it likely that I’d like it now?

Many of my blogger friends love books published by a single publisher, whether it be Virago, Europa, NYBR, or Dalkey Archive. (I do like many of these publishers’ books, but not all.)   At my old blog, I accidentally alienated several English bloggers by gently mocking Virago Week (or was it Persephone Week?), and you don’t want to get the English riled up.  Fortunately the Europa fans didn’t mind when I gently mocked the Europa Challenge, probably because they’re Americans.  (And I read two outstanding Europa books last year, Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter.)

Well, anyway, let’s take one of these books at a time.

The Friendly Young Ladies RenaultMary Renault’s The Friendly Young Ladies. Though I was dazzled by Fire from Heaven, a novel about Alexander the Great, this is one of the worst books I’ve ever read.

I can only think Virago published this because it’s an early example of gay lit, or queer lit.

Some of the scenes are fascinating, but the writing is maudlin.

Renault does a masterly job of portraying Elsie, a silly teenager who runs away to find her sister Leo, who left under a cloud years ago.  Peter, a doctor she has a crush on, suggests it will help Elsie get over her inhibitions. Peter is a Freudian who likes to flirt with his patients and then dump them.

Elsie thinks Leo may be a prostitute.  Hardly.   Leo, a writer of Westerns who often dresses in mannish clothes, lives on a houseboat with Helen, a beautiful nurse, and yes, she and Helen are lesbians, or are they?  Or aren’t they?  Or are they?  Or aren’t they?

Leo and Helen sleep in the same bed.  But they embrace men at parties.

What the f___, as I like to say.

And then they go home and sleep in the same bed again.

And they both gently make out with Peter (separately) and don’t respond much.

And Leo tries to seduce Peter’s girlfriend, not sexually, but by charming her off the houseboat.  She is furious that Peter has brought a woman to their home when he knows Elsie is in love with him.

And Joe, a writer of literary fiction, is in love with Leo, who practically drowns so she won’t have to have sex with him. Joe invites Leo to go to Arizona with him, and explains he has had other relationships, and she says, “On my side there’s Helen.  I don’t suppose you want to know anything about that, either.”

The houseboat scenes are good and really interesting.  Leo is constantly pumping water, and she and Helen do a lot of boat housework.  Helen really doesn’t like having Elsie around, because she doesn’t help at all and doesn’t have a job; their finances are squeezed.

And Helen is terrified of losing Leo.  She had heterosexual relationships before meeting Leo, so got that out of the way, but Leo apparently has not.

Some of Pamela Frankau’s books, as I recall, also deal with gay life, but are more realistic and better-written. Some of  them have been published by Virago.

Mary Renault in the Afterword seems surprised that Virago wanted to reissue this 1944 book.  She laughs at parts of the book.  She dislikes the word “gay,” makes fun of The Well of Loneliness (I haven’t read that one, but I do have a copy), and said that she wouldn’t be more explicit if she wrote it in the ’80s.

Congregated homosexuals waving banners are really not conducive to a good-natured ‘Vive la difference!’  Certainly they will not bring back the tolerant individualism of Macedon or Athens, where they would have attracted as much amazement as demonstrations of persons willing to drink wine.

Mapuche fereyCaryl Ferey’s Mapuche.   After the coup d’etat in Argentina in 1976, many people disappeared (the Desaparecidos).   Ruben, one of the main characters, was tortured in a prison, and his father and sister died.  He is now an investigator who helps a group called the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo search for the Desaparecidos.  He becomes involved with Jana, a Mapauche (an Indian of the pampas), after her friend, a transvestite named Paula/Miguel, is tortured and killed.  A well-known photographer disappears at the same time, and her connection to Paula is sad and unexpected.

Ruben’s months in the prison as an adolescent are told in violent detail,  but there are historical reasons for that. In the last 50 pages or so, when Jana takes revenge, hunting and tracking and using multiple weapons, even Ruben throws up at the violence.  And I was close to it.

It is a political thriller, but not my kind of thing.  It is badly-written, at least in translation.  If you want it, it’s yours.

Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop.  I love Dickens, but I tried to reread this one a few years ago, and couldn’t get past the wax works.

I’m having the same problem this year.

the-old-curiosity-shop dickensThe writing is vivid, but there’s not much of a plot.  Little Nell takes care of her grandfather, a gambler who loses the Old Curiosity Shop to Quilp, a dwarf who causes havoc wherever he goes.  The grandfather and Nell take off, meet some puppeteers on the road, and then meet Mrs. Jarley, a kind of Madame Tussaud, and Nell becomes a docent for the wax works.  But her grandfather gambles away their money and..

I really love most of Dickens’ books, but this one is not very compelling.  It’s not actually a bad book, but it’s not very good.

Disappointing to read three bad books in one month.