Jan 312015

The Universe seems intent on continuing my BIG LIFE LESSONS/NO TIME TO MYSELF theme in 2015, so although I have been reading, I have had neither the time nor the inclination to write blog posts. Therefore, here is my January reading in mind-blip form.


Paris France, Gertrude Stein, Peter Owen, 2003.

Paris France is Gertrude Stein’s celebration of everything French. Weirdly, I happened to be re-reading it when things kicked off in Paris recently. Hmmm. Anyway, part memoir, part cultural exploration, Paris France was published in 1940, on the same day that Paris fell to the Germans.

But still now it is 1939 and war-time, well it was just beginning and everything was agitating and one day we were with our friends the Daniel-Rops they are our neighbours in the country and he was expecting a call to go to Paris and the telephone rang. He went quickly to answer it he was away some time and were all anxious. He came back. We said what is it. He said the quenelles the Mère Mollard was making for us have gone soft.

Yep. Ms Stein could do that. It seems to me that she wrote very much as she spoke, with the same rhythm and word-patterns, and I can imagine her enthroned on her chair, wearing her robe-like costume and sandals, pontificating on this and that, her mellifluous voice mesmerising, her wit and irony spinning a veritable web of words. My favourite Stein work is Tender Buttons, which I decided to re-read after Paris France.


Clearly, I rather adore Gertrude Stein and think that if she had not existed as a real person, we might have had to invent her, because the world just needs more eccentrics. Stein is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some of her writing is notoriously difficult and I shall not pretend that I ‘get’ the whole shebang, but I love that she was so playful and curious and clever when it came to words. She did not just string them together into coherent sentences and say the same thing in the same way as a million other people before and after her. No, she made words dance to her own tune, and her writing was Art with a capital ‘A’. She ‘made’ her poems, just as painters ‘make’ pictures. Instead of brush strokes, she used the symbols we call the alphabet. And despite the way that much of her writing appears to us as incomprehensible, it would be foolish indeed to dismiss Stein’s work as incomprehensible. The thing is, we will never understand it if we try to ‘figure it out’. Like Buddhist koans, which must be intuited and not figured out, Stein’s sly, clever, and wittily cryptic poems reveal themselves when you least expect it.


Book was there, it was there. Book was there. Stop it, stop it, it was a cleaner, a wet cleaner and it was not where it was wet, it was not high, it was directly placed back, not back again, back it was returned, it was needless, it put a bank, a bank when, a bank care.

Suppose a man a realistic expression of resolute reliability suggests pleasing itself white all white and no head does that mean soap. It does not so. It means kind wavers and little chance to beside beside rest. A plain.

Suppose ear rings, that is one way to breed, breed that. Oh chance to say, oh nice old pole. Next best and nearest a pillar. Chest not valuable, be papered.

Cover up cover up the two with a little piece of string and hope rose and green, green.

Please a plate, put a match to the seam and really then really then, really then it is a remark that joins many many lead games. It is a sister and sister and a flower and a flower and a dog and a colored sky a sky colored grey and nearly that nearly that let. From: Tender Buttons


The Driver’s Seat, Muriel Spark, Penguin, 2006.

This novella is wonderfully suspenseful and apparently turns the crime story inside out, but seeing as how I am not an aficionado of that genre I have no idea if that is indeed the case. However, I very much enjoyed the experience of reading the book because I never knew what would happen next. I have seen The Driver’s Seat described as a ‘whydunit': Spark lets us know very early what happens but never gives an explanation as to why it happens, and I found the story a bit chilling unsettling, really.

The protagonist is a woman named Lise who appears to be heading off for a much-needed holiday in Italy. But, it seems that she has a hidden agenda. What could that be? And why does she wear such garish clothes and behave so strangely, and why is the man in the seat next to hers on the plane so frightened of her? Mystery!Crime! I was impressed by Spark’s ability to pack so much into so few pages.


A Meal in Winter, Hubert Mingarelli, tr. Sam Taylor, Portobello Books, 2014.

There are so many books about the Holocaust, but this one is gem. It might be a slim novella of only 138 pages, but it contains a powerful story. Three German soldiers take the opportunity to go over their immediate superior’s head when he is absent one day and tell a higher officer that they would rather do the hunting than rather than the executing at the Polish camp where they are stationed. They are all suffering from nightmares and profound distress after witnessing the horrors of the Jewish genocide. The frozen countryside is peaceful and beautiful and they are in no hurry to begin their task of hunting for ‘them’, but they stumble across a young Jewish man hiding in a hole in the ground and capture him. What happens next raises profound moral questions that speak to the very heart of what it means to be human, and humane. I found this narrative bleak and disturbing, but it is an important book and deserves to be widely read.


The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Archives of the Planet, David Okefuna, Princeton University Press, 2014.

Albert Kahn was a French financier and banker who, in 1909, instituted a project to produce a colour photographic record of human life on Earth. Throughout the subsequent twenty years he financed the travels of a group of photographers who journeyed to fifty countries and made more than 72,000 images using the autochrome photography technique, the first portable true-colour photographic process. Sadly, the Great Depression saw Kahn’s financial ruin and he had to curtail the project before it was completed, but this book draws on images from the archive of collected images that languished, unrecognised, until quite recently.

The photographs are amazing! They made me think about what we have lost in the world since the advent of ‘globalisation’. There were so many wonderful national costumes, different types of dwellings, diverse urban and rural landscapes, but now everyone everywhere pretty much dresses and looks the same. I kept wondering who the people in the photographs were, what their stories were, and what happened to them. Did the woman locked in the wooden crate in the barren wastes of Mongolia manage to escape? What happened in the lives of those dandified Canadian cowboys, and who were all those magnificently mustachioed men wearing glittering jewels and turbans at that gathering in India? There are frontline nurses, wounded soldiers, a wrecked train, laughing children, tired old men, a beautiful reclining concubine, all in wonderfully soft and washed-out colours. Some of the archival images can be seen here. Not all of these images are in this book, but they are a good representation of the archive’s content.


Art and Music in Venice: From the Renaissance to the Baroque, Hilliard T. Goldfarb, Yale University Press, 2014.

In 2013 the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts held an exhibition called Splendore a Venezia, which sought to explore the interaction between the visual arts and music in Venice from the early sixteenth to the late eighteenth century, from Titian to Guardi, from Willaert to Vivaldi. This is such a gorgeous book and I loved leafing through its pages and discovering all sorts of new things:

Lavishly illustrated, Art and Music in Venice brings Venice’s golden age to life through stunning images of paintings, drawings, prints, manuscripts, textbooks, illuminated choir books, musical scores and instruments, and period costumes. New scholarship into these objects by a team of distinguished experts gives a fresh perspective on the cultural life and creative output of the era.


Limonov, Emmanuel Carrère, tr. John Lambert, Allen Lane, 2014.

Eduard Limonov is another of those people who, if they did not really exist, would need to be invented, because his life has been so unbelievably weird and fascinating. Carrère’s book is a biography, but it is published as fiction because, obviously, he has taken liberties. But, I loved it to pieces.

Limonov has had many incarnations: from a poverty-stricken factory worker he raised himself up by dint of his own steely determination and became a celebrated writer, but he is no hero and I found that my reaction to him changed constantly depending on his behaviour, which could at times be appallingly bad. This NYT review manages to distil the complexities of Limonov’s life to manageable proportions and is worth reading. I think that Carrère has produced a narrative that is wonderfully evocative of time and place, and he gives us a multi-faceted portrait of a complicated and controversial man. I really enjoyed reading the book and I think that Carrère is now one of my new favourite writers.

I have no reading plans for February. Hopefully, I will find some time to write posts and read other people’s blogs. Maybe I will finally begin one of the reading projects I made notes for last year.

Jan 092015

Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence, Oxford University Press, 2009.

I had a fabulous time re-reading Sons and Lovers. I used to have a bit of a difficult relationship with ‘Bert’ in my rabid-feminist days. I remember nodding along with Kate Millett’s excoriation of his work as I read her Sexual Politics when I was doing gender studies at uni. Anyway, I put Lawrence on the back burner but kept a wary eye on him because, for a time, he was very close to Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry. He kept cropping up in books and articles I was reading about them and their wide acquaintanceship, and I thought of him as big-brained but irascible and arrogant, and a not very nice man. He could be ferocious and violent, and sometimes he hit his wife (often, she hit him first but that is no excuse), and he hit his dog, too. I thought there was something of the satyr about him, with those eyes and the beard and the rampant interest in sex. I thought of him as being slightly creepy, somehow, a bit like Henry Miller. I would not have invited him to my fantasy dinner party, although his contemporaries would be there: Woolf, Mansfield, Joyce…

Anyway, this time around I paid more attention as I read. I consulted the biographies on my shelves and read a few critical analyses of his work. I read some of his letters and poems, and studied his paintings. And somehow in the middle of all that a light went on over my head (DING!) and suddenly I had a Lawrentian groove thing happening. His books are not just random semi-autobiographical novels, but together they form an exploration of his self and his way of seeing the world. He was engaged in digging deep into his being and trying to put what he found there into words. In Sons and Lovers, he describes the intense confusion and pain he experienced in the two years before his mother’s death from cancer. He describes how he nearly went off the rails, how he almost chose to follow her into the darkness and oblivion rather than head towards the light, and life.

As I see it, Lawrence attempts to dig very deep into his psyche. He tunnels down and down, exploring the underground terrain of his elemental emotions: his hate, fear, jealousy, lust, sexual desire, etcetera. Apparently, Lawrence was very interested in Greek philosophy and held the view that the four elements (earth, water, fire, air) were the source of all life and creativity (Jones: 105). I think this poem, written the year before he died, goes a little way towards explaining his thinking on the matter:


Why don’t people leave off being lovable
Or thinking they are lovable, or wanting to be lovable,
And be a bit elemental instead?

Since man is made up of the elements
Fire, and rain, and air, and live loam
And none of these is lovable
But elemental,
Man is lop-sided on the side of the angels.

I wish men would get back their balance among the elements
And be a bit more firey, as incapable of telling lies
As fire is.
I wish they’d be true to their own variation, as water is,
Which goes through all the stages of steam and stream and ice
Without losing its head.

I am sick of lovable people,
Somehow they are a lie.

In Sons and Lovers, Lawrence shows us what happens when people live their lives ‘lop-sided’. The tale of woe begins with Walter and Gertrude Morel, the mis-matched parents of the protagonist Paul. They met at a dance when she was an almost-on-the-shelf spinster and he a laughing, good-looking charmer, and were once passionate about one another. However, they quickly realised the truth of the aphorism: ‘marry in haste; repent at leisure’. Gertrude learns to hate her husband for his earthiness (literally, because he is a poverty-stricken coal miner, and also because he lacks social graces and education). She is intelligent and curious about the world and decides that although many doors are closed to her because of her gender, class, and marital status, her sons will venture forth into the world on her behalf and she will live her dreams vicariously. The problem with this idea is that she cannot control the universe and things happen and her plans are shattered. The time comes when Paul wants to live his own life separate from his mother’s clutches, but she will not surrender him gracefully. The fight that ensues is long and brutal. Paul has relationships with two women, one of whom is intelligent and companionable, but she is devoutly religious and does not believe in pre-marital sex and he is not willing to trade a wedding ring for access to her body. The other woman is separated from her husband and sexually available, but cramped housing conditions and inquisitive neighbours means that sex outside marriage is a risky proposition when reputations are at stake. Paul’s world soon becomes a tangled web of high emotion and sexual frustration. He is pulled in all directions by his competing needs, and does not know which way to turn next. Much of the novel is given over to the exploration of this situation, with the added complication that Paul feels great love and loyalty towards his mother, even though she is desperately hanging on to him as a lifeline to the wider world. The loyalties and emotions of his love interests are also fraught with difficulties, and the whole situation is in danger of spinning completely out of control.

As a writer, Lawrence has an artist’s eye and revels in form, line, colour and texture. His prose, when he describes nature, is lovely, albeit highly allusive:

A flush came into the sky, the wan moon, half-way down the west, sank into insignificance. On the shadowy land things began to take life, plants with great leaves became distinct. They came through a pass on to the beach. The long waste of foreshore lay moaning under the dawn and the sea; the ocean was a flat dark strip with a white edge. Over the gloomy sea the sky grew red. Quickly the fire spread among the clouds and scattered them. Crimson burned to orange, orange to dull gold, and in a golden glitter the sun came up, dribbling fierily over the waves in little splashes, as if someone had gone along and the light had spilled from her pail as she walked (Lawrence 2009:402).

And he wrote excellent letters. In 1913, when he was 28, Lawrence attempted to explain his personal philosophy:

My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle. What do I care about knowledge. All I want is to answer to my blood, direct, without fribbling intervention of mind, or moral, or what not (Boulton 2008:53).

Clearly, socially imposed moral strictures are anathema to Lawrence and he chafes against the bit, longing to be able to express the ‘wisdom in his blood’. He longs to be untrammelled by propriety and convention; he wants to be free to live as he chooses.

This painting he made taps into that theme of the elemental. I am intrigued by the inclusion of a goat, with all its inherent Christian and Pagan symbolism:


I enjoyed re-reading the book, although I do not concur with Philip Larkin when he wrote, ‘I have been reading Sons and Lovers and feel ready to die.’ I can see how Lawrence could have that effect on the susceptible, though. I knew I was reading something big and important and wonderful, and I did not want it to end. There are so many layers in the book to tease out and so many things to think about. Lawrence made life in a Nottinghamshire mining village come alive for me: I could smell the poverty, and taste the bluebells in the woods. I could see the gorgeous sunsets and feel the cold waves washing over my feet. I could hear Gertrude’s carping and feel Walter’s shame and misery. That scene where Paul and Clara go to the theatre and he has to sit beside her and not touch her? Oh, my goodness; pass the smelling salts! I felt Jessie’s despair at not being enough for Paul, and I heard the tramp of the men’s boots as they walked towards another day of exhausting graft underground, hewing coal from rock. But mostly, I felt Paul’s desperation to get out and to live a different sort of life.

I would like to read the unedited and unexpurgated ‘manuscript’ edition of Sons and Lovers, which is published by Cambridge University Press. As with most of Lawrence’s novels, there were many re-writes, which led to different extant versions. The widely-read version of the book is a reprint of the 1913 edition, which was edited by his publisher with Lawrence’s permission. Consequently, about a tenth of the original was excised. In 1992, what is now known as the ‘manuscript’ edition was published but it is quite hard to find at an affordable price. I am not keen on paying $52.95 for a paperback book, sight unseen. What if the font is ugly and the pages horribly cramped? It looks as though Cambridge University Press has a nice little sideline going, publishing ALL the Lawrence works at non-student prices. No doubt I shall find a used copy somewhere. Meanwhile, I am continuing to read Lawrence’s selected letters and trying to decide whether to press on with my ‘Bert’ binge and re-read The Rainbow. Clearly, I have changed a great deal since my early encounters with him, although I am still not enthusiastic about inviting him to my fantasy dinner party.


Boulton, James, T. (ed.) (2008) D. H. Lawrence: Selected Letters, Oneworld Classics.

Jones, Bethan (2013) The Last Poems of D. H. Lawrence: Shaping a Late Style, Ashgate Publishing.

Lawrence, D. H. (2009) Sons and Lovers, Oxford University Press.

Millett, Kate (2000) Sexual Politics, University of Illinois Press.

Jan 032015

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence, Modern Library Classics, 2001.

I decided to re-read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, to see if I liked it any better this time around. I first read the book when I was about fourteen and I was not terribly impressed. I expected Mellors to be more alluring, somehow, not bitter and faded and crass. I did not see the attraction Connie had for him and I found the horizontal folk dancing scenes embarrassingly laughable. I have read it a few times since then, hoping each time that I had changed, or the book had, but alas, I still find it all rather tedious. Of course, it was outrageous in its day, what with the class divide being trampled on and Connie getting her groove on with the gamekeeper. And that whole female sexuality thing that Lawrence lays bare, her desire, her refusal to live the rest of her life as a celibate nurse to her disabled husband. Powerful ideas, indeed, and totally offensive to conservative thinkers of the day.

Lawrence has been labelled a misogynist because he has some harsh things to say about women, but I see him as voicing the opinions of others in his fiction. What he writes is not necessarily what he thinks or believes. It is true that he had ‘women issues’, mostly to do with the fact that he was the very embodiment of the Oedipus complex, and he was probably attracted more to men than he was to women until he found his mother substitute in Frieda. He was sometimes violent and could be scarily irascible, and his TB frightened him into hysteria at times. He had a hard, hard life. But, he came from a village where most of the male population ‘went down the mines’ and yet he ended up being one of the greatest writers ever. Like him or not, there is no denying that this was a superb achievement. He was brave for tackling controversial subjects and challenging prevalent attitudes. He showed the ugliness of men’s thinking about women, and argued for the importance of expressing the needs of both mind and body in our dealings with ourself, and with others.

Anyway, Lady C did not float my boat this time, either. Still, I could not see the attraction in Mellors, and I suspect it was only the ‘liberating’ outcome of the ‘unconventional’ sex act in chapter 12 that made Connie set her heart on him, much the same as Lizzie sets her heart on Darcy when she sees Pemberley and realises that she could be mistress of all she surveys. Mellors has the ability to give Connie something she wants, and that makes him irresistible to her and worth chucking over everything for. But, I would rather that she went away and made a life for herself somewhere else and did not just sit around and wait for him. It seems to me that she is only moving from one prison to another, but this time she will be ostracised from her family and from society, and I doubt that, in the long-term, ‘John Thomas’ would be compensation for all that loss. Their relationship is a bit like that of Anna and Vronsky, with added crudity. I think they would soon tire of one another when the novelty wore off, and what would they do then?

No, there was a definite ‘ick’ factor for me in re-reading the book and I doubt that I will try it again. I appreciate that it is a ‘great’ novel, inasmuch as it struck a blow for freedom of speech and artistic endeavour, but I just do not think it is such a great novel when it comes to the actual writing. All the flower metaphors and all that panting and sighing in the woods amounts to embarrassingly turgid writing. I think the thing that I do not like the most is that the narrative is not at all romantic: it is voyeuristic and probably would have been titillating in its day, but it is all so brutal and grim, and the encounter in chapter 12 could be interpreted as a sexual assault that plays into the whole ‘rape fantasy’ phenomenon, and oh, my feminist brain hurts just thinking about it all. I suppose what I am trying to articulate is that for me, their interaction lacks real substance and I did not believe that the relationship between Connie and Mellors would last beyond their initial sexual adventuring.

I am re-reading Sons and Lovers at the moment, because Lady C made me feel a bit antagonistic towards Lawrence and I wanted to take the edge of that feeling. I liked the first part a lot, although I felt sad about poor Mr Morel, having to spend his days slogging his guts out hewing coal from a rock face down a mineshaft and then go home to his pious, sanctimonious and carping bitch of a wife. He had lived most of his life in the dark since he was ten years old and all she could do was criticise him. No wonder he drank! I think they are both beautifully written characters, though. I love the descriptions of nature, and it is wonderful how Lawrence manages to convey the sense of bleakness and poverty that permeates the Morels’ world.

In the second part, Lawrence writes about Paul Morel’s (his own) relationships with women and I would have quite liked to have been the editor and wielded the red pencil a bit more. Paul’s relationship with Miriam becomes rather tedious to read about because he draws it out for too long, but I can well imagine how shocked poor Jessie Chambers must have been when she read what he had written about ‘her’, because although the Miriam character is a composite, anyone who knew Lawrence knew to whom he was referring and all her young-girl insecurity and uncertainty and longing is laid bare. It was rather cruel of Lawrence to do that, I think.

What a small and narrow life Lawrence could have had but for his mother’s ambition and his father’s hard graft. Meeting Frieda that day was probably the most significant thing he ever experienced, because she opened up the whole world for him. Ah, life. It can be a funny old thing sometimes, full of happenstance and surprise. I guess I wanted that for Connie, for her to have opportunities to live a bigger life than the one she would be stuck with as a runaway wife who had taken up with an embittered employee. In my imagination, seeing as how Lady C ends on an ambiguous note, maybe she got her divorce and moved to Italy where she fell in love with a handsome count, and Mellors ended up marrying a buxom farmer’s daughter. Yes, that is how it could have ended. :)

Dec 272014

The Housekeeper’s Tale: The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House, Tessa Boase, Aurum Press, 2014.

Tessa Boase is a journalist who apparently always wanted to write a book, and so it came to pass:

‘…one lucky day I got the call. ‘Housekeepers’, said the man at Aurum Press. ‘Great country houses, Victorians, Edwardians, Downton Abbey, Mrs Hughes…’ Was I up for it?’ (source)

The Housekeeper’s Tale is squarely aimed at the Downton crowd. It is gossipy, highly interpretive and imaginative, which is not in itself a bad thing, because Boase does breathe vivid ‘life’ into subjects who are long-forgotten and mostly absent from history books. However, her style of writing owes a lot more to fiction writing than it does to history writing, even though she has done the hard yards as far as research goes. She has trawled through boxes of records held in the archives of country houses and libraries, and tracked down people’s movements through census data. She has deciphered old spidery handwriting and gathered oral tales, but most of all, she has applied her empathetic imagination to telling tales about the lives of women throughout history who worked as housekeepers (sometimes as cook-housekeepers) in grand country houses. She has turned a few references found on old scraps of paper into stories, and in the process has effectively created her own versions of her subjects. Ordinarily I would have had a bit of a problem with the sort of ‘history’ that places the writer squarely in the frame, but I think this book will appeal to readers, nevertheless. Boase writes really well and I think she has a good future in fiction writing, if she wants to head in that direction. Just be prepared for Boase describing people, places and events as she imagines them to have been: what she lacks in hard evidence she supplies in copious supposition.

I did not really learn anything new about the ‘downstairs’ world, but this book did serve to reinforce how horrible it was to be a domestic servant in days gone by. The work was grindingly hard and employment was always precarious: most of the women Boase writes about were unfairly dismissed for trivial matters, such as gossiping, or being married and pregnant. It was a miserable existence with low wages and fraught with all the issues inherent in the class divide. There was, of course, blatant gender inequality, which meant that male servants with fewer responsibilities were paid more, and the demands placed on cooks and housekeepers by clueless employers is quite unbelievable at times. And when things went wrong, as they often did, who got the blame?

I read the book because I wanted to see what Boase wrote about about Grace Higgens, who was the housekeeper at Charleston, the farmhouse in East Sussex where Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and their coterie gathered. Boase uncovers nice little vignettes of the Woolfs and members of the Bloomsbury Group in the diaries Grace kept during her thirty-seven year tenure at Charlston, from 1934-1971. She had started working for Nessa as a sixteen-year-old maid in 1920, and during her years at Charlston she married and had a son. The three of them lived upstairs in the draughty attic at Charlston, which really is quite a small house to contain all that energy and drama.

I borrowed the ebook from the library, which is a first for me, but it has suddenly become a LOT more expensive to buy certain books from Book Depository. In fact, it is cheaper to buy this book from an Australian online store, although the ebook costs $38.50 and the hardback is $34.99 + $6.95 postage. Geo restrictions prevent Australians from buying the Kindle edition at all. If I were to order the hardback from the nearest book shop, it would cost about $50, but the paperback will be out in May 2015 for around $20. Ah, the crazy prices publishers set. :)

Here is the book’s website.