What to Read When You’re Ill: Mary Wesley, Muriel Spark, Dodie Smith, Jacqueline Susann, Mary McCarthy, & Pushkin

Many years ago, on an idyllic vacation in the northern woods, a spider bit me My swollen ankle turned black with necrosis, I developed clonus (involuntary muscle spasms, symptomatic of neurological disease),  became delirious, and spent three weeks in the infectious disease ward of a hospital.  I was given every test:  MRIs, EMGs, EKGs, etc., etc.   Was it encephalitis?  I did not respond to the medications at first.

Slowly, I recovered.  Very slowly.  One afternoon, encouraged by a kind nurse, I ventured down to the  cafeteria, forgetting to change out of my pajamas.  When I scooped the money out of my pink bathrobe pocket, I was embarrassed to realized I wasn’t dressed. In pajamas, not fully cognizant.   I consoled myself : Who cares?  I’m a sick person in pajamas at a hospital.  And I ate my sandwich in front of a fountain, marveling at the rush and flow of water.

Since I could not yet go home, I found refuge in books. One afternoon,  as I sat in a chair by the window with its gloomy view of the hospital complex, I became lost in Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington, one of my favorite books.   A doctor  came in, asked me what I was reading, and was obviously relieved to see me becoming human again.  He said I was well enough to go home.

“But what was the disease?” I asked.

He said that it is not always necessary to identify the disease.  Not all diseases follow a typical course. They had tried different medications until I responded.  They did not think I’d had encephalitis.  I’d had a serious infection.  I did not have brain damage.  I should not worry.

Many years later, I try not to think of this illness.   Everything was much harder for me for a month or two than it had ever been.  At first I could barely walk to the corner and back. nd, paradoxically, I was hesitant about lying down, because I had trouble getting up again.  I was in my thirties.  I regained my health, little by little.

Books help with pain.   One day after coming home, I lost myself in Mary Wesley’s novel, An Imaginative Experience The novel opens with a stopped train: a sheep is lying on its back in a field, and a young woman, Julia Piper,  who is returning from the funeral of her young child and estranged husband,  pulls the emergency cord on the  train so she can help the sheep. Two men watch her from the window:  Sylvester Sykes, a charming editor whose wife is divorcing him, and  Maurice, a  sinister birdwatcher/stalker (yes, really) who reeks of tobacco and alcohol.

Although the novel is a love story, the prospective lovers, Julia and Sylvester, do not meet till near the end of the novel.  Sylvester wonders who the plucky sheep rescuer is, but Julia is not thinking of men.  Her young son Christy was the love of her life;  her irresponsible husband, Giles, whom she had veen in the process of divorcing, had had his license revoked and should not have been driving.  Her mother had lent Giles the car.

Sylvester’s pain is less intense, but it is still pain. His  wife  has left him to return to her first husband, who has grown very rich.  Sylvester once loved her, but has a slightly comedic attitude toward their five-year marriage:  sex had been their only connection, and she had dreadful taste. He  especially hated a plaster cupid in the garden.   When he comes home from the train, he smiles to see a taxi in front of the house, and his wife heaving the TV  into the trunk, cursing  the driver for not helping.    Although she has taken almost everything he owns, he is glad to start over again, with his own things.

Sylvester and Julia come together accidentally:  Sylvester needs a cleaner for her house, and Julia responds to his  ad at the grocery store they frequent.  Julia has a key and cleans when he is at work: they communicate by note, and never meet.  And when he writes that he would like his garden tidied up, she creates a kind of secret garden.  Each had assumed the other was old:  when they meet, they are startled.

The now underrated Mary Wesely, who published her first novel when she was 71, had a reputation for perspicuity, a graceful style, and sharply drawn characters.  Her witty novels are short and well-plotted. As a writer, her work falls somewhere between the very literary short novels of Penelope Lively and the buoyant popular fiction of Elizabeth Jane Howard.  Second Fiddle is my favorite Wesley novel:  I wrote about it here.

 BOOKS TO READ AFTER AN ILLNESS.    HERE ARE SOME RECOMMENDATIONS.

1  Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye (which I posted about here.)

Muriel Spark’s mordant comedies are the flip side of P. G. Wodehouse’s featherlight farces.  Ballad, published in 1960, makes you wonder who exactly the angels and the devils are in Spark’s light satire. The hero, Dougal Douglas, a Scottish trickster, moves to Peckham and, without a twinge of conscience, accepts two jobs from rival textile companies.  The company directors, Mr. Druce at Meadows, Meade & Grindley, and Mr. Willis at Drover Willis, say they want him to bridge the gap between art and industry in his new position as assistant personnel manager.

Dougal is so outrageous that the reader cannot feel sympathy for him.  Although he has a deformed shoulder–I kept thinking of Richard III– he uses it to get sympathy from women.   He has no compassion:  he refuses to visit his fiancee, Ginny, when she is ill, especially when she is in the hospital, because his “fatal flaw” is an intolerance of illness. Ginny doesn’t think much of his fatal flaw, and drops him. But Dougal uses this breakup with Ginny to get to know women at work:  he has a crying breakdown in the canteen, and the women pity him, comb his hair,  and tell him their stories.

I love everything Spark wrote, and this satire is perfect light reading.

2.  Dodie Smith’s The New Moon with the OldFans of Smith’s charming novel, I Capture the Castle, will love  The New Moon With the Old, a kind of fairy tale of work.   It begins when  Jane Minton, the new secretary of busineesman Rupert Carrington, arrives at Dome House to take up her duties. His four children are charming:  Richard, a composer; Claire, 21, whose only ambition, she light-heartedly insists, is to  be “a king’s mistress,” a la the women in Dumas books; Drew, 19, who is writing an Edwardian novel; and Merry, 14, an aspiring and very talented actress.

But a few days after Jane arrives,  Rupert flees the country because he is guilty of fraud, and Jane is left to cope with the household.  The novel is a fairy tale of work:  all  the Carringtons must cope with their work, and the story is fascinating.

You can read the rest of my post here.

3.  Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls.  Believe it or not, this is available in a Virago edition, but the cover of the 50th Anniversary Grove Press edition is more fun!  Susann’s pop classic proceeds along the lines of Nancy Hale’s The Prodigal Women and Mary McCarthy’s The Group: it is the story of three young women who move to New York, become friends at the beginning of their careers, and climb the ladder of the entertainment industry, not without much popping of pills.  Anne, the emotionally stable one from New England, works as a secretary and then becomes a model.  She doesn’t need pills (well, only very briefly).    But you can imagine what the pills do to Neely, the Broadway star who becomes a screaming home-wrecking harridan, and Jennifer, the lovely, sweet,  pill-dependent woman who decides to act in French art films because no one values her for anything except her body.

4.  Mary McCarthy’s A Charmed Life, a satiric novel, published in 1955,  centered on several residents of an artists’ colony in a New England village. Is this a comedy or a tragedy?  I loved every minute of it, and it is time to rediscover Mary McCarthy:  her complete works are now available in Library of America editions.  You can read my post here.

5.  Pushkin’s Eugene OneginIn this brilliant novel in verse, Pushkin tells the story of Eugene Onegin, a rakish Byronic hero who, bored by carousing, wine, women, song, writing, and even books, moves from St. Petersburg to the country after inheriting an estate.  He befriends a young poet, Lensky, to whom he is very devoted, but thoughtlessly wrecks their friendship by flirting  at a dance with Olga, Lensky’s fiancée.  The fiasco results in a duel with Lensky.  (Eugene doesn’t want it, and yet somehow he doesn’t say no.)  And the whole thing is complicated by Eugene”s rejection of Olga’s sister, Tataina, who writes a love letter to him.

You can read the rest of my post here.

AND DO RECOMMEND BOOKS YOU LIKE TO READ WHEN OR AFTER YOU’RE ILL!

Completely Dissimilar: Edna O’Brien’s The Love Object: Selected Stories, & Dodie Smith’s The New Moon With the Old

Mirabile Does

Mirabile Does “Nothing in Common”

I used to love writing “Mirabile Does Middlebrow” posts.

They were fun and no pressure, short columns in which I bunched together  five or six books.

But my reading has been so eclectic lately that it is difficult to group the books.  And so  I am “doubling up”  with two completely dissimilar books, Edna O’Brien’s The Love Object: Selected Stories, and Dodie Smith’s comic novel, The New Moon With the Old.

Edna O'Brien The Love Object 71MdmZSzh8L1.  I expected great things of  Edna O’Brien’s new book, The Love Object:  Selected Stories.  And she delivers, so I ended up buying the hardcover of this stunning collection as well as the e-book.  I prefer her lively early stories, many of which are set in Ireland, to the sophisticated stories that portray women in love with powerful men in London.  These heroines are often wispy and forlorn.   Yet O’Brien’s writing is always lyrical and sensual, and her development of characters is rich.  This collection of 31 stories, written between 1968 and 2011, is a classic.

In “Sister Imelda,” two characters  from O’Brien’s charming 1960s trilogy, The Country Girls, are resurrected (or perhaps born?).  I love the voices of Caithleen, the narrator, and her rebellious friend, Baba.  When they return after the summer to their convent school, they are surprised that a pretty  nun with flashing eyes is teaching geometry and home-ec.  Why would someone so attractive be a nun?

O’Brien has a gift for comedy, and Caithleen is a hilarious narrator.

She was a right lunatic, then, Baba said, having gone to university for four years and willingly come back to incarceration, to poverty.  We concocted scenes of agony in some Dublin hostel, while a boy, or even a young man, stood beneath her bedroom window throwing up chunks of clay or whistles or a supplication.

Geometry is Caithleen’s worst subject, and Sister Imelda becomes so irritated that she throws a duster at her.  But she gives her a holy card after she loses her temper, and soon there is a strong attachment between the two.

Sister Imelda pursues the friendship too intensely, and one pities Caithleen, stuck in a girls’ school.  At the end of the year, Sister Imelda believes Caithleen will return and become a nun, but Caithleen flees and never writes her a letter.  (We are much relieved.)  A few years later, she and Baba pretend not to see Sister Imelda on the bus.

O’Brien is eclectic.  She is adept at comedy, but she she can make it realistic or surreal.  In two short stories about the character, Mrs. Reinhardt, O’Brien proves her mettle.

In “Number Ten,” Mrs. Reinhard “sleepwalks” and has a secret dream life.  O’Brien begins,

Everything began to be better for Mrs. Reinhardt when she started to sleepwalk.

The pictures she sees in her dreams are more compelling than those in her husband’s art gallery.  One day she is sorting laundry and finds a little golden key in the pocket of her husband’s seersucker jacket. Soon she “sleepwalks” into a taxi and goes to a mews house, Number Ten, which turns out to be her ideal house, especially the bedroom.  But Mrs. Reinhardt’s interpretation of the dream/sleepwalking may be different from the reader’s.  What really is Number Ten?  We have our suspicions.

In “Mrs. Reinhardt,” the heroine has separated from her husband, who is having an affair with a younger woman.  At a beautiful hotel, she  cries and misses her husband, but enjoys the gorgeous scenery, walks in the woods, and unwisely wears her expensive necklace in the dining room. O’Brien connects this story to “Number Ten” by saying she was “like a sleepwalker ”

After a brief affair with a handsome man she meets in the woods, she panics (and, I might add, so would we). She has difficulty surviving on her own.  But, lo and behold, it is a comedy and has a happy ending

In “Paradise,” a beautiful young woman becomes involved with a millionaire who has a villa on the Mediterranean.  She enjoys the luxury, the beautiful view of the harbor, and the tranquility of the household created by servants.  (She takes tranquilizers, too.)  But there is a problem:  the guests are snobbish about her inability to swim. And so her lover, who is equally appalled,  extravagantly hires an English swimming instructor. As she fearfully learns to swim, something happens: she begins to feel disconnected from the man and his guests.

In the title story, “The Love Object,”a young woman wmeets a married lawyer at a party. Going to bed with him is bliss, but he is not often available.   He calls the shots, and at one point they break up.  But the heroine has strong needs.  Will she keep away from him?

O’Brien is a prolific but extremely accomplished writer, and I savored each of the 31 stories.  This collection is truly a classic, and I can’t say that about many modern books.

The New Moon With the Old Dodie Smith 732423The New Moon With the Old by Dodie Smith.  Smith is best-known for her children’s novel, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, but we adult fans love her charming novel, I Capture the Castle.. (It is in print, thank God.) Narrated in the form of a diary by 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, it tells the story of her family’s colorful life in a crumbling castle  the father is an indigent writer, who hasn’t written in years; the artistic, affected stepmother used to be a model;  the beautiful older sister, Rose, knows no men and has learned to flirt from old books; and the younger  brother, the intelligent Thomas, goes to school.

Smith wrote other books, but we had to scour the internet for them until a few years ago when Corsair reissued them  as paperbacks and e-books.  My favorite of her novels is The New Moon With the Old , a 1963 pop masterpiece that has fallen below the critical radar.

The New Moon With the Old is a fairy tale about work, a subject seldom treated in novels. Even better, the fairy tale is about unconventional jobs.  The novel begins with the arrival of Jane Minton, the new secretary at Dome House. She has seldom been so excited by a job: she is half in love with her new  employer, the businessman Rupert Carrington,  But a few days after she arrives at Dome House he flees the country because he is guilty of fraud, and Jane is left to tell his four children, and cope with the household.  The novel is the story of what happens to Jane and the four Carringtons afterwards, when all must fend for themselves. (Three of the four children are adults.)

Dodie Smith andher dalmatian.

Dodie Smith and her dalmatian.

Smith divides the novel into five Parts, one for Jane and the other four for the Carringtons. The novel is held together by Jane, who must get another secretarial job but stays on to organize the penniless household. All must find jobs, and the results are very comical.  Fourteen-year-old Merry, a talented actress, is kicked out of her girls’ school, runs away, has her hair dyed red and teased by a provincial  hairdresser, and finds a job directing an aristocratic family’s amateur theatricals. Nineteen-year-old Drew becomes a companion to a 70-year-old woman who is slavishly trapped in an Edwardian life-style (he is writing a novel about Edwardian life.). Clare, 21, who wants to be “a king’s mistress” (because she has read so many Dumas novels), is really fit for no job.  But she becomes a companion to an ex-king  in London (she reads aloud to him), and finds love (not with him, though)..  The oldest son, Richard, a composer, is the most tedious of the lot,  and is briefly pursued by his father’s mistress, but even he finds his way to work eventually.

Smith is just so damned funny.  This is a book you laugh out loud at, and one you’ll want to read again.