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My bookclub read Mrs. Dalloway this month. I read it, and other work by Virginia Woolf, in college, but re-reading it was enjoyable. I remembered the book generally, but re-reading it I was struck once again by Woolf’s creativity and daring. She addressed things that we are still struggling to talk about today — gender roles in society, mental illness, post traumatic stress, income inequality and its impact on opportunity. And she did it in a beautiful, poetic book with some very memorable characters who are also reflecting on what they’ve done with their lives, and how they’ve fared in terms of love and family.

To me, the way that Woolf juxtaposes Clarissa Dalloway’s inner life with the other characters’, is brilliant. She compares the constricted life of Clarissa as a society hostess with the limits that restrict Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked WWI veteran whose promising future is strangled by mental illness; Miss Kilman, whose class, intellectual ability and fervor, and appearance place her firmly outside Clarissa’s and her daughter Elizabeth’s social orbit; and Peter Walsh, whose passions and probably bad luck seem to have limited his ability to achieve his full potential in life.

The minor characters are also wonderful — Septimus’s Italian wife Rezia, Clarissa’s husband Richard, Hugh Whitbread, Sally Seton, Lady Bruton. While the style of the book doesn’t call for full character development, I feel Woolf paints exquisite miniatures of each, and we get glimpses of their humanity, their longings, their minds, their limitations in the details she portrays — Peter with his pocket knife, Clarissa mending her dress, Richard bringing Clarissa flowers, Rezia making a hat, Lady Bruton holding court at lunch before consulting Richard and Hugh about her letter and then, snoring on her couch. Woolf creates these portraits with prose that is somewhat strange and quite lovely, a little like poetry, a little like a dream sequence in a film, such as this passage where Septimus is in a park waiting until it’s time to go on to Harley Street to see a new doctor:

“He had only to open his eyes; but a weight was on them; a fear. He strained; he pushed; he looked; he saw Regent’s Park before him. Long streamers of sunlight fawned at his feet. The trees waved, brandished. We welcome, the world seemed to say; we accept; we create. Beauty, the world seemed to say. And as if to prove it (scientifically) wherever he looked at the houses, at the railings, at the antelopes stretching over the palings, beauty sprang instantly. To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now and again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks — all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere.”

Mrs. Dalloway is a sad book, but that was the point — to help readers feel. As writer and scholar Maureen Howard wrote in her forward to the 1981 Harcourt paperback edition, “As readers of Mrs. Dalloway fifty years after its publication, we see that the novel endures. We admire the originality of concept, the brilliance of style, but it is the feelings in the book that remain so very fresh and we wonder that Virginia Woolf had to ask herself ‘How can one weigh and shape dialogue till each sentence tears the shingles in the bottom of the reader’s soul?'”

 

 

 

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The subtitle of John Gilbert Winant’s memoir of his time as US Ambassador to Britain during WWII is “An account of a stewardship.” Several years ago I read Lynne Olson’s terrific history of this time, Citizens of London and I became a fan of the unassuming Winant. His view of ambassadorship as stewardship is one of the reasons why: he was a public servant, who took seriously his call to serve the greater good and not American interests alone.

Winant opens the book, addressed to Geoffrey Story Smith godfather of Winant’s son John, by explaining that he is writing from the flat in the embassy building in London, which he is moving out of, reflecting on the momentous years he’s lived there. “One of the deeper reasons for wanting to write to you is the growing disillusionment of today; which not only dims and obscures the present, but is trying to cloud the past.” He wants to set the record straight: men and women did selfless things, quietly heroic things, to defeat fascism.

What’s especially moving about that line  is that Winant committed suicide around the time Letter from Grosvenor Square was published. The book is so full of kind and admiring observations, even about people who don’t come across as well in other accounts, like Roosevelt. Winant seemed to see the better nature of people, and to principles of fairness and justice, including fair labor practices. After describing how women contributed to the British war effort, he notes, “The part women played is still a binding force in the light and life of human progress.”

Because this is a first person account and not a history, it’s incomplete — Winant tells the things he felt were memorable or notable about his work, and the work of those around him. He explains some details of U.S. farm policy that made it possible to supply England with more food, but he doesn’t talk about his son being shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans, except briefly in the opening chapter addressed to Smith. And he tells a number of stories about Churchill and other British leaders but speaks particularly admiringly of ordinary British people who carried on with their lives regardless of the relentless German bombing.

If you want the full story of Winant’s time as ambassador, don’t miss Citizens of London, and if you want a glimpse into the generous spirit of the man who spent his entire adult life in the service of others, read Letter from Grosvenor Square.

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If you’ve followed this blog for any time you know I’m a Margaret Drabble fan. At some point in the last year I came across the 1967 paperback edition of her 1963 debut novel, A Summer Bird-Cage. I read it over the past few days. It’s marvelous, and shows that she was already a powerful, insightful, beautiful, feminist writer at age twenty-four. It makes me both very glad she became a writer and very irritated with my own twenty-four year old self. I was still pretty silly at that age. And had certainly not come into my own thinking by then.

A Summer Bird-Cage is about two sisters. Louise, the elder of the two, who has been “down from” Oxford for a couple of years, and Sarah, who has just come down and then spent some time in Paris. She gets a letter summoning her home to be a bridesmaid for Louise’s wedding — a surprise, since she had no idea Louise was engaged. The rest of the book is comprised of Sarah’s reflections on that time and the months that followed, and what it’s like to be young, well educated, and female at a time when society’s expectations of women are still pretty limited.

At one point one of Louise’s friends asks Sarah what she’d like to do with her life, and she answers immediately, “Beyond anything I’d like to write a funny book. I’d like to write a book like Kingsley Amis . . . .” But she goes on just a few lines later, after the friend calls her “a little egghead,” arguing the term but owning the sentiment and then protesting, “But if you think that implies that my right place is sitting in some library, you couldn’t be more wrong . . . .” But she immediately misses the library. All this after a page or two earlier she told her sister she couldn’t teach at a college because “You can’t be a sexy don.” Sarah is seriously conflicted, in other words. She and Louise talk about wanting it all — love, freedom, intellectual challenge, satisfying work, etc.

In addition to being a novel of social commentary, it’s also, as all of Drabble’s work seems to be, a gorgeous examination of relationships. There are Louise and Sarah, sisters who haven’t been close but come together as they begin to understand each other as adults in a way they didn’t when they were younger. And there is Sarah and her fiancee, absent the entire book, a fellow scholar who’s studying at Harvard. And Sarah and her close friend Gill, who she tries living with in London after Gill’s marriage of equals turns out to be drudgery and falls apart. And Sarah and her cousins, the boring and unattractive Daphne and her brother, the far more attractive Michael.

Drabble is so insightful about human nature. Take this passage, after Sarah and Gill have had a routine roommates’ quarrel about washing the dishes:

Sarah begins, “But I really wanted to tell you about Louise.” And Gill replies, “So you did . . . . You came in full of Louise, and I shut you up like a clam, and here I’ve been going on about you not telling me things. Isn’t it strange how in this kind of thing everything seems to be its own opposite? You know what I mean?”

Sarah thinks, “Again, I did know what she meant, and the joy of having had so many intelligible things said to me during one morning sustained me for the rest of the day. Odd, that one doesn’t mind being called insensitive, selfish, and so on, provided that one can entirely understand the grounds for the accusation. It should be the other way round; one should not mind only when one knows that one is innocent. But it isn’t like that. Perhaps the rare and simple pleasure of being seen for what one is compensates for the misery of being it.”

Think of that, the next time you get into a spat with your roommate.

A delightful read, short but just lovely. The final page has one of those Drabble specialities, an anecdote one character shares and the other thinks something insightful about. I loved every word.

 

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I started The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble in Maine last Saturday, and then came back to the last minute cleaning, cooking, etc. and the Christmas Eve and Christmas festivities, and went back to work on Boxing Day, so it took me several days to finish. This is actually part of a trilogy about the same group of characters, centered around three women who meet at Cambridge in the 1950s. When the book opens, one of them, Liz Headleand, a London psychiatrist, is preparing to host a huge New Year’s bash on the last day of 1979. It ends in June 1985, on her friend Esther Breuer’s fiftieth birthday. Which they spend together, along with their third university friend, Alix Bowen.

In the nearly 400 pages between, Drabble spins the story of these women’s adult lives, occasionally dipping into their childhoods, describing the society they live in (mainly well educated but not posh London, and the north of England, where Alix and Liz are from), the disciplines they devote themselves to (psychiatric medicine for Liz, art history and especially the Italian Renaissance painter Crivelli for Esther, literature and teaching it to under-served people, like women prisoners, for Alix), the men they love, and the children they bear.

As I’ve written here before, I love the way Drabble writes about people as they relate to each other — friends, relatives, lovers — and the way those relationships knit together create society. She works into the story politics and culture, literature and art, anthropology and history and myth, but always returns to the relationships. And these not only populate society but also Drabble’s fictional world. Kate Armstrong, the main character of The Middle Ground appears on the edges of The Radiant Way, for example. As in other Drabble books the women here are serious, thinking people no matter how they spend their days, and she captures the way they manage their own needs, goals, ambitions, work with the care of others in a way that really resonates with me.

I’ve read some criticism of Drabble — she gets too caught up in description and explanation, she injects too much (read too liberal) political commentary into her fiction, she writes about privileged people, her novels are uninteresting for all of the above reasons. But I love her lens, I love vicariously living in her England for a few days, and I love her writing, and I’ve started the second book in the trilogy, A Natural Curiosity.

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My experiment with reading only (or at least mainly) Europa Editions books til the end of the year might continue — after the last book I wasn’t so sure — because The Flight of the Maidens was the kind of terrific read I hoped for. Of course, I cheated because I knew if Jane Gardam wrote it, I’d love it. This is another book Gardam published quite some time ago but reissued. It’s set in 1946 and tells the story of the summer before three young women head to college — all having won scholarships, all set to leave their small Yorkshire town for a world they know little about, mainly because of the war.

Una Vane is the daughter of a widow who opened a hair salon in the house when she had to manage on her own. Una is off to Cambridge to study physics, but she wants to spend her summer trying to understand her relationship with Ray, who grew up in a poorer part of town and is now a railroad man dabbling in socialist politics. Hetty Fallows is off to a guesthouse in the Lakes District to try to read everything she thinks she hasn’t read before she goes off to college in London. Her father, a gentleman before WWI left him shocked, is a gravedigger and her mother is overbearing and flirts with both the vicar and Hetty’s first boyfriend. And Liselotte Klein, who grew up the foster child of Quakers, spends the summer before she starts at Cambridge piecing together her identity. She can’t recall much about Hamburg, and she knows nothing of how her Jewish family fared and whether any of the rest of them got out. She lands with a mysterious elderly couple in London and then with a distant aunt on the California coast, trying to understand her past so she can decide on her future.

The three friends — Una and Hetty since childhood, Liselotte since they all began to apply themselves to getting into college — go through the pangs of leaving school and starting adult life, along with the challenges of adapting to the postwar world.They have very different experiences but are all in flight, as Gardam imagines. As they struggle to reconcile what they know with what’s in the world and with the hopes they have for themselves and others have for them, the three girls teeter on the edge of womanhood with all the people they know rallying around them to one extent or another. The presence of these people, both dear to them and maddening, provides insights into all kinds of detail about England in the 1940s.

Gardam’s ability to bring people so fully to life, in such vivid detail, never fails to delight. Such vivid people and dialogue — more than many of her books, I could imagine this as a film. I hope it becomes one. Anyway, a terrific read about the end of childhood, the beginning of growing up, the challenge of recovering from war for those in it and near it, the carrying on so many people do when their lives aren’t full of great achievements but they hope their children’s will be. I’m sad that I seem to be all caught up on Gardam’s reissues now.

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At the Five Colleges Book Sale last April I got a Penguin Street Art edition of Armadillo by William Boyd. I have to admit I hadn’t heard of Boyd nor read any of his work, but I was intrigued. I picked it up over the weekend and really enjoyed it. Dark humor, a bit of intrigue, a hero who wants to live and prosper as his own man yet is also deeply loyal, kind, and ethical — I devoured it.

Lorimer Black, said hero, is “a young man not much over thirty, tall — six feet plus and inch or two — with ink-dark hair and a serious-looking, fine-featured but pallid face, went to keep a business appointment and discovered a hanged man.” That’s the opening sentence. Lorimer, we learn, was born Milomre Blocj, youngest of five in a family of Transnistrian Rom (gypsies) whose parents emigrated to Fulham during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, having landed there during previous upheavals in Eastern Europe.  After a formative and “life changing” experience (too hilarious to give away here) at a Scottish Univerisity, young Milo makes a fresh start in the insurance business as Lorimer Black, the name he legally gives himself.

The dead man we meet on page one is proprietor of a factory that had suffered a fire, and Lorimer, who works as a loss adjustor was there on behalf of his employer. Lorimer is a fascinating character, who buys fresh flowers for his flat (but hates carnations), is partial to very old helmets and takes fashion advice from his antiques dealer, is part of a sleep study conducted by a man in his building, is sweet to an old lady and her dog who live downstairs, is in a relationship of sorts with a woman who owns a scaffolding company, and a strong moral code that leads him to life changing actions. The minor characters are also fascinating and even those with cameos — a surly waitress at Lorimer’s favorite “caff,” or the misogynist anti-tax flower seller whose kiosk Lorimer frequents, for example — come fully to life.

Throughout the book, Boyd includes excerpts from Lorimer/Milo’s diary, The Book of Transfiguration, where he muses on everything from revelations from the Institute of Lucid Dreams (where his sleep is analyzed) to the history of insurance to Milo’s personal history to words, literature, mythology. These shed even more light on Lorimer/Milo’s character. Between this very interesting hero and the other fascinating characters, the detailed settings (you can see, smell, and hear Lorimer’s world as you read) and the intriguing, black humor-laced plot, I could not put this down. The writing, too, kept me fully engaged. Here’s an example: ” . . . he gazed across the road through the porthole of clarity he had smeared in the condensation.” It’s the kind of book that you can’t read at breakfast, because it’ll make you late for work. The kind you might get a sunburn reading because you’ll forget to reapply sunblock.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to find William Boyd’s work but I want to read more of it. I feel like I’ve been saying that a lot lately, but I think that’s because I’ve found a lot of interesting things to read this summer!

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This was another of the books I bought with my job leaving gift card. Bookconscious regulars will know I read another of Russell Hoban’s novels, Linger Awhile, not too long ago. I’d had Turtle Diary in mind for a while. Incidentally, this is another New York Review of Books classics title.

This short novel is about two Londoners in their 40s, William G. and Neaera H., and is set in the 1970s. William is a divorced former advertising executive who works in a bookstore and rents a room in a house, thinking to himself, as he cleans up after the other male tenant before he can use the shared bath and kitchen, “I’d had a whole life, a house and a family!” Neaera H. is a children’s book author and illustrator, successful by most measures, but lonely, and stuck, not just with writer’t block, but life block.

Their lives intersect because they both have an interest in the sea turtles at London Zoo. Unknown to each other at first, they each think the turtles deserve to be freed into the ocean, and each talk to George, the keeper in the aquarium area of the zoo. Through George they realize they are both thinking the same thing, and are drawn together. As William notes, “Funny, two minds full of turtle thoughts.” How can they not join forces? The story is told in alternating chapters from William’s or Neaera’s point of view, and sometimes their thoughts are worded nearly identically.

Besides this central story, Hoban writes beautifully of the pain of being lonely, unhappy, stuck, perhaps a little more sensitive to things than others. Both William and Neaera are close observers, who notice more than other  people do in the world — the letters and numbers on a manhole in his neighborhood (K257) is to William the number of Mozart’s Credo Mass in C. Neaera notices, as she passes a train, “the sky successively framed by each window as the carriages passed.Each window moving quickly forward and away held briefly a rectangle of blue. The windows passing, the blue remained.”

Or do they notice more? William, towards the end of the story realizes he’s been too much in his own head, “I’d always assumed that I was the central character in my own story but now it occurred to me that I might in fact be only a minor character in some else’s.” And that, to me is what Turtle Diary is about: getting out of ourselves and into the world enough to see, as both of them think in almost identical words: “I didn’t mind being alive at the moment. After all who knew what might happen?”

Getting through the dark times, the shark in the waters times as Neaera imagines them, requires getting out of our  heads. The way forward, Hoban seems to say, is to step away from our private way of tending the thoughts that keep our minds buzzing. I don’t know if he was interested in meditation — there is a scene where William goes with his coworker Harriet, to an “Original Therapy” demonstration with an American woman in a bikini holding eager volunteers in wrestling scissors holds until they experience the “primordial soup” or their own rebirth, that seems to be Hoban laughing a bit at the New Agey. But mindfulness is all about not allowing distracting thoughts to preoccupy you so much that you miss what’s right here now, in this moment.

William and Neaera get there, in their ways, in Turtle Diary without calling it mindfulness. It’s a lovely, wise book full of literary and musical references and myriad little details about London, and the Cornish fishing village of Polperro. It was the perfect read on my last day of vacation, sitting in a comfy chair looking out at the sea, not thinking of what lurks within, but just noticing the sun and the birds and the way the wind leaves itself behind on the sand.

 

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