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.


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.


Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Why I Wish I Knew Russian, & a Pushkin Giveway

Pushkin under the wicker reindeer!

Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin and a Folio Society “Queen of Spades” notebook, with reindeer.

I love Pushkin.

Who doesn’t?

The Russians consider him their best writer.

After a a few days of barely looking up from Pushkin’s  Collected Stories (and you must read “The Queen of Spades,” a ghost story about a gambling grandmother), I decided to reread Eugene Onegin.

I first read Pushkin’s lively novel in verse in college, as did my husband. We lost our identical copies years ago, and have no idea what translation it was.  And then two years ago I got a hankering to reread it.  I picked up a new Penguin and enjoyed Stanley Mitchell’s elegant, charming translation of Eugene Onegin.

So why did I need Anthony Briggs’ new translation, Yevgeny Onegin?  Because Nicholas Lezard at The Guardian listed it as one of his favorite books of the year.

Eugene Onegin Pushkin 56077-largeAlthough Briggs’ and Mitchell’s approaches to verse and word choice are different, both translations are readable. I wrote here in January 2015 about Mitchell’s translation:

In 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.   And yet he thoughtlessly wrecks their friendship by flirting at a dance with Olga, Lensky’s fiancée. The result is 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.

The narrator’s voice is almost always ironic, and the poem mixes lyricism with realism. Olga soon forgets Lensky and marries someone else. Tatiana visits Euegene’s deserted house and falls in love with his library. Eugene only falls in love with Tatiana years later, after it is too late.

Briggs’ translation is intelligent, but less elegant than Mitchell’s.  That  is not, however, why I am giving it away to a lucky reader. (Leave a comment if you’d like it.)   It’s because  I DON’T LIKE THE DESIGN. The Pushkin Press book is small, pretty, and chic, but has smaller print than the Penguin and is somehow less comfortable to hold.   I had this same problem with the Dorothy Project’s chic edition of Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Dead and Who Was Changed, another  little square book.  

Briggs' translation.

Briggs’ translation.

What I like most about  the Briggs edition is the scholarly introduction, which explains the history of Pushkin’s  invention of the Russian literary  language and his prosody, inspired by Shakespeare.

Briggs writes,

The writer’s greatest achievement, apart from the literary quality of his work as a whole, in which the disciplines of classicism mesh with new freedoms released in the age of Romanticism, is nothing less than to have reformed the national language.  This bold claim is no exaggeration.  As he grew up, the young Pushkin was presented with at least three different linguistic forces existing as separate entities in his large country .  Posh people spoke French, ignoring or despising ordinary Russian, though Pushkin heard a good deal of this tongue from the local lads and from his dear old nanny…(who makes an endearing guest appearance as Tatiana’s nurse in the third chapter of Yevgeny Onegin).  In addition, he was continually subjected in church and at school to the rich sonorities of Old Church Slavonic.  By some miracle, almost without thinking about it, he created modern Russian simply by using it, choosing at will between elegant Gallicisms, vernacular Russian and his nation’s equivalent of the King James Bible and Book of Common Prayer, with a sensitivity to sound, style and meeting that gives him an elevated place in the annals of linguistic reform.

Long ago, the beloved professor of my Russian lit in translation class examined the themes of maturity and metamorphosis in Eugene Onegin. He also lectured on the relationship between the narrator of Eugene Onegin and the reader, the narrator and Eugene, and the narrator and the work of literature.

If only I had taken better notes!


Why do Russian translations read so well?  I do wish I could learn Russian.  Translation (literally a “carrying across,” from the Latin transfero) is a precarious art:  it  captures sense but not sound, and only crudely suggests word arrangement, figures of speech and meter.

For years I devoted myself to classics and read little in translation.  Why?  Snobbishness and foolishness.  One of my best and most snobbish classics professors (and “classics professor” implies excellence and snobbery) used to tell us, ” You can’t do serious work in translation.”  I understand what he means–Mary McCarthy in The Groves of Academe also laughs at a student who writes her thesis on Broch’s The Death of Virgil, without being able to read Virgil –but where can we all find the time to be linguists?  I was committed  in grad school to eight to ten hours a day of ancient languages, studying for comps, and teaching  elementary Latin and a Virgil’s Aeneid independent study.   Learn Russian?  Forget it!

Fewer people in the U.S.  have opportunities to study foreign languages today.  The culture is now very business-oriented, and many colleges and universities are slashing humanities courses.  The state universities in the area are hanging on  by a thread to their language departments.   I do not expect this to get better under Trump’s rule.

Where I live?  All language departments eliminated at the local “private” university!

In Which I Am Surprised by Pushkin’s Stories


God bless the state universities!  Without education for the people, this particular Iowa City girl might never have read Pushkin. I went to college on Pell grants, loans, and part-time jobs, and had to sell my books to buy tampons, but who didn’t?  It only took seven years’ working at a poverty-level job to repay the loans.  Here’s a little secret they don’t share with Millennials: the economy back then was terrible, too.

One of the best reasons to go to the university:  you can read Pushkin as part of your work. I loved Eugene Onegin, a playful novel in verse, and enjoyed a few of the stories, though not as much.

At the Barnes and Noble Review,  Heller McAlpin writes about a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky,  Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin.  Mind you, I don’t have the new book but  I got out my trusty Everyman edition, The Collected Stories, translated by Paul Debreczeny.


New edition of Pushkin’s prose.

McAlpin hopes that Pevear and Volokhonsky’s lively new translation will help new readers discover Pushkin, but has compared translations and does not find them very different. He writes,


In the brief introduction to her translation of my well-worn Everyman edition of The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories, Natalie Duddington wrote, “As a poet, Pushkin is untranslatable: the exquisite beauty and the austere simplicity of his verse cannot be rendered into a foreign tongue . . . But his prose has none of this poetic quality and loses but little in translation. It is vigorous and straightforward and sounds as simple and natural today as it did a hundred years ago.”

Clearly, prose is easier to translate. So it’s not surprising that a comparison of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s new edition with earlier translations — by T. Keane, Rochelle Townsend, and Natalie Duddington — reveals just minor differences: “gloomy Russia” becomes “sad Russia,” “the damned Frenchman” becomes the more humorous “that cursed moosieu.” More salient is the title of Pushkin’s frustratingly unfinished novel based on his great-grandfather Ibrahim Gannibal: The Moor of Peter the Great instead of the more common The Blackamoor of Peter the Great or Peter the Great’s Negro. Despite the avoidance of the racial epithet, none of the ironic edge of this comment is lost in translation: “Too bad he’s a Moor, otherwise we couldn’t dream of a better suitor.”

And so I quickly fell into my book.  The first narrative,  The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, is based on the story of Pushkin’s maternal grandfather, an African who was taken hostage as a boy and purchased for Peter the Great, who raised him as his godson.  In Pushkin’s fascinating story of the relationship between the czar and the hero, Ibrahim,  a handsome, charming black man, Pushkin explores attitdues toward race.  In Paris, Ibrahim is eventaully accepted, to the point that his color is almost forgotten, partly because he attracts women, and he has an affair with a duchess.  But when the czar writes wishing his godson were bakc in Russia,  Ibrahim dutifully deserts his Duchess and goes to Petersburg, where he works very hard for the brilliant czar.  But ironically this relationship does not guarantee the Russians’ acceptance of Ibrahim in society.  An aristocratic family resists the czar’s suggestion of a marraige between Ibrahim and their duaghter.

And then suddenly the story ends, six paragraphs into Chapter 7, and I thought I’d gone out of my mind.

So I skimmed the introduction and learned The Blackamoor of Peter the Great is an unfinished novel.

And now I’m haunted by the characters and will never know what happens.

I do wish the fragments were labeled as such in the contents.  I read a sample of the new translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, and the introduction is better organized.  There are other prose fragments as well.

Here are a few sketchy notes about why you should read Pushkin.

  1. Pushkin established intimacy between the reader and writer.  Explored basic themes of maturation and metamorphosis.
  2.  Pushkinesque–opposed to romantic–clear, spare; few similes, metaphors, metonymic style, contiguity, evocative.
  3. Pushkin played with form.  More natural prose.
  4. Attempt at psychological fix. The beginning of realism for Russian novel.

Okay, you’re just going to have to read an introduction, because I’m done!

Notes for the Common Reader on Eugene Onegin

Judy Holliday and William Holden e922123-05bornyesterday_main

Judy Holliday and William Holden in “Born Yesterday.”

At my Big 10 university, we amused each other with what I call “smart-dumb”  chat.  Feminism was in, but bubbly blondism and dangly earrings were not out.  We Midwestern women had not gone to prep schools, we were studying hard for the first time, and we were neither pompous nor very competitive. When I went out for coffee at Things & Things & Things with a friend from Russian Literature in Translation, we chatted about Russian names.  (We were not Russian students.)

“How does one pronounce Knyazhnin?”


“I skip over the middle letters of the names and just see the K and N.”

I still don’t know how to pronounce Knyazhnin. He was a writer, an imitator of French tragedies and comedies, according to a note in the Penguin translation of Eugne Onegin.

Our effervescence over Russian literature came back to me  because I reread Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (pronounced Oh-nay-gin) in Stanley Mitchell’s 2008 translation (Penguin).

It is just as much fun as it was the first time, in whatever edition that was.

Eugene Onegin Pushkin 56077-largeIn 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.

The narrator’s voice is almost always ironic, and the poem is a mix of irony with realism.  Olga soon forgets Lensky and marries someone else. Tatiana visits Euegene’s deserted house and falls in love with his library.  .Eugene only falls in love with Tatiana years later, after it is too late.

So what is love anyway?

I very much appreciate the introduction and notes when I read books in translation.  And yet there weren’t always notes in paperbacks then.  I’m sure I depended mainly on class notes.

In the Penguin edition, Mitchell has written an exceptionally good introduction.  He quotes a letter by Pushkin:

I am writing now not a novel, but a “novel in verse”–the devil of a difference.  Something like Don Juan–there’s no point in thinking about publication; I’m writing whatever comes into my head.

Pushkin, one of Russia’s most beloved poets, was of the second generation to write literature in Russian.  He took European themes and made them Russian.  Aristocrats spoke French before Russian, and literary Russian was “new” in the late 18th and 19th century.

But what I want to do is share my love of Eugene Onegin. (You can read the introduction and notes on your own.)   Whether you like reading about  bookishness, boredom, poetry, intensity, love, partying, rejection of all of the aforementioned, or strong women, it’s all here.

It is winter here on the prairie.  What better description can I find than in Eugene Onegin?

What pastime can you find that’s pleasing?
Out in the backwoods? Walking? Try.
For all the countryside is freezing.
The naked flatness tires the eye.
A gallop in the bitter prairie?
The very mount you ride is wary
In case its blunted shoe should catch
Against an icy patch.
Under your lonely roof take cover,
Let Pradt and Scott divert your mind
Or check expenses, if inclined,
Grumble or drink, somehow or other
Evening will pass, the morrow too:
With ease you’ll see the winter through.

I very much enjoyed it.  So entertaining!

But I can’t stress how important it is to have notes.  How did we survive in the old days when even Penguins seldom had notes?