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Archive for August, 2020

Some Tame Gazelle was Barbara Pym‘s debut novel, published in 1950. I thought it was a postwar book, because there are a number of unmarried women, but she started writing it in the 1930s, when she was still very young. It’s about two unmarried sisters, Harriet and Belinda, in their 50s but still hoping for love. Belinda has been in love with a man for thirty years, Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve (who had a cameo appearance in A Glass of Blessings), but he married someone else. He also happens to be the priest at their village church and a rather vain and self-important man. Harriet fusses over every curate that comes to work with Henry. She receives regular marriage proposals from an Italian count who lives in the village, a kind man who loves to garden and is working on a collection of letters written by his late friend, a gentleman diplomat well known to all in the village who died in the Balkans.

Belinda and Harriet, and several other unmarried women in the village, lead quiet lives that revolve around church, books, knitting, and what to have for luncheon, tea, and supper. Belinda, despite her thwarted love, is a dependable friend to the Archdeacon and his wife, Agatha. While Pym is clearly commenting on gender roles, and on the differences among high and low church Anglicans (including a moment when Belinda muses that it’s easier in the city where clergy can move in theri favorite circles, whereas in their country village the Archdeacon and his neighboring Anglo Catholic colleague make subtle digs at each other), her social commentary is understated.

Pym’s humor is also gentle — her characters are decent people even when they act in humorous ways, and she makes no one ridiculous. And some of what I found funny might not have been as she was writing it. Harriet has to hide the corsets she’s mending when someone comes to the door, Belinda worries over whether “cauliflower cheese” is a fine luncheon for the woman seamstress who makes and then after taking so much care, faces the fact that it goes uneaten because a caterpillar has stowed away in the cauliflower. There are also some archly funny bits about Belinda’s friend Nicholas Parnell, now librarian at their old University. Reading a letter from him:

“Belinda sighed. Dead Nicholas was really quite obsessed with the Library and its extensions. She wished he would remember that the two things which bound them together were the memory of their undergraduate days and our greater English poets.”

If it seems frivolous to read this kind of thing while our world is falling apart — while people are dying of COVID, black people are dying at the hands of police because legislators’ promises about change have faded away once again, our President is trying to prevent a free and fair election and our government systematically lies to us, well, maybe it is. I think it’s more of a defense mechanism. There are more Barbara Pym novels on Hoopla so I look forward to continuing to seek refuge in them.

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It had been years since I’ve read Niall Williams. I own the series of nonfiction books he and Christine Breen wrote about moving from New York to County Clare. We went through a serious phase in our thirties of wanting to live radically differently than we do. We researched various alternatives, and that was how I found the Kiltumper books.

I knew that Williams went on to write fiction (and so has Breen, I learned this evening), but I hadn’t read any of his novels until now. This is Happiness caught my eye in the spring when I still thought I’d be ordering new fiction sometime this year for the library. I put a hold on the eBook and just got to check it out last week.

It’s the story of Noe, a seventeen year old who has left seminary in the early 70s and comes from Dublin to Clare to visit his grandparents, Ganga, a perennially happy but not very productive small farmer and Doady, his long suffering wife. While Noe is staying with them, their Faha, is being connected to the electrical grid. Not long after he arrives, Christy comes to board. He works for the electrical company and is there to assure the various property holders have signed off on the paperwork necessary to install the poles and lines.

But as Noe learns, Christy is really in Faha on a mission. He jilted a woman fifty years before, and is there to gain her forgiveness. In the meantime, he rides bicycles around the countryside with Noe, seeking a particular fiddle player. An unlikely friendship, this older man who is trying to walk back his regrets and a young one, unsure of his future? Perhaps, but it makes sense. In a way they are both trying to understand how best to live.

Noe is recalling all of this as an old man. Williams weaves the stories through a spring and summer when miraculously, it stops raining. Noe’s and Christy’s stories unspool slowly, and maybe because I read this book during a week when it was hot and mostly dry, that seemed fitting. At one point, Noe explains his long, winding digressions:

“The known world was not so circumscribed then nor knowledge equated with facts. Story was a kind of human binding. I can’t explain it any better than that. There was telling everywhere. Because there were fewer sources of where to find out anything, there was more listening.”

Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?

The details are so vivid in this book you’ll see the “car” Doady and Ganga take to church, pulled by an aging horse, smell the turf smoke, feel the heat that induces naps and the people bumping close together in St. Cecelia’s where everyone just moves down the pew and makes space. Williams’ musical, witty turns of phrase can help you picture expressions. For example, describing a neighbor:

“Bat was a man who tried in vain to make himself believable. He often looked like he was in mid-sum and realising he had forgotten to carry the one.”

And, when Noe develops a truly crushing crush on a young woman:

“I said her name, and, like the first man to eat the egg of a bird, felt a little ascension, and like him wouldn’t have been surprised to find feathers at my back.”

While we actually never learn whether Noe decides his future, Williams does bring Christy’s story to a tidy conclusion. And we learn that it’s his philosophy that “this is happiness” — meaning we can be content in the moment, even when things aren’t going our way (as they frequently don’t, in Faha). Ganga also ascribes to this, as he tells Rushe, and engineer from the electric company, that he and Doady aren’t “taking” the electricity which Rushe tells them contains, “In one switch, all the cures for loneliness.”

“Aren’t we happy as we are?” Ganga asks.

Imagine that. a lovely book about life and love, and yes, happiness.

 

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Ever since I read Lolly Willowes a few years ago I wanted to read more Sylvia Townsend Warner. Recently, I was looking for an escape, and picked up The Corner That Held Them. It fascinated me that the same author who wrote a book in which the devil appears as a sympathetic character would write another — considered a masterpiece — about a convent in the English countryside in the 1300s.

Although some people include this on plague novel lists, the Black Death plays a small (albeit pivotal) role in the book. It’s really about the human drama of a close-knit community, and about the management of a small convent in the Middle Ages, when such places got by on the dowries rich families paid for their daughters to become novices. And on the rents paid by by nearby tenants, and the manors on which they were founded. Which are some topics I’m a bit hazy on, and I plan to look into further.

The novel tells the story of the nuns’ lives — as a community, without dwelling too long on individuals —  their ambitions and fears, the way the convent’s well being depends on the bishop as well as the bailiff. Which near as I can tell is the property manager or overseer, who manages things like firewood and harvests and livestock. The prioress has some power but must manage up — the bishop, his custos (another kind of overseer, who reports on the management of the convent itself), the nuns’ priest (Sir Ralph, who is quite a fascinating character), the families who would place their daughters as novices.

There are a number of dramas of varying impact — a building project that goes awry, some personality clashes that even become violent, and endless financial issues. And towards the end of the novel, an uprising of poor people who are tired of being sent to the king’s wars, and tired of the church’s wealth. In fact, the pivotal events that lead to a surprise ending are triggered by the uprising, and by a visit from a beggar woman, Annis, who has fallen in with a thief who was raised at the convent.

Annis is working out what to do with a silly nun who wants to sell something (that isn’t hers to sell) “for the relief of the poor” when she has a thought that could probably sum up the novel’s theme:

“It is not hunger or nakedness that worst afflict the poor, for a very little thieving or a small alms can remedy that. No, the wretchedness of the poor lies below hunger and nakedness. It consists of their incessant incertitude and fear, the drudging succession of shift and scheme and subterfuge, the labouring in the quicksand where every step that takes hold of the firm ground is also a step into the danger of condemnation. Not cold and hunger but Law and Justice are the bitterest affliction of the poor.”

Townsend Warner wrote this in the 1940s about the 1300s . . . and it’s still an accurate description of systemic poverty.

And the writing took me away. Here’s a bit about the family members of Dame Matilda, come to see her installed as prioress in 1368: “Even with one’s eyes shut one could tell what manner of folk they were by the smells that came from their garments: an uncle’s lined boots, a grandfather’s hat, the velvet gown a great-great-grandmother had bequeathed.”

Or this description of Sir Ralph, ensconced in his role as nuns’ priest: “Now, in his dusty chamber or walking his accustomed rounds, a mere thinking could pierce his heart with pleasure.” Townsend Warner lists a number of these pleasurable ordinary thoughts, including, “. . . Saint Paul’s transfigured faith suddenly bursting out amid his polished arguments as the face of a satyr looks out from the laurel bush.” As vivid a simile of Paul’s letters as you’ll read.

An entrancing read, as forthright about the problematic power structures of the church as about human nature, entertaining and beautiful and strange. I’ll be thinking about this book for a while.

 

 

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