A Guide To Berlin

berlin

Title: A Guide to Berlin.
Author: Gail Jones.
Publisher: Vintage Books (2015).

Synopsis: Six strangers agree to meet at a disused apartment in Berlin to engage in weekly ‘speak- memory’ sessions. They are all foreigners and Nabokov fans. The group comprises a young Japanese couple, two thirty-something Italian men, one middle-aged American man, and a young Australian woman. Each of them speaks their memory and the others listen, and afterwards they drink and make merry. And then something bad happens…

My Thoughts: I heard Gail Jones being interviewed on the radio and thought the premise of the book sounded interesting, so I hunted down a copy and instead of leaving it to marinate on a shelf for a few years, I actually read it! Overall, I liked it a lot. Jones uses intelligent language in grammatically correct sentences, which is a BIG plus in these times of lazy and inept writers who utilise sentence fragments and egregious syntax. There are multitudinous references to all things Nabokovian and I liked that a great deal. Also, I liked the way the narrative mirrored the cold, barren landscape of Berlin in winter, and the way Jones placed the train system both at the heart of the city, and at the heart of the novel.

However, there were a few things that detracted from my enjoyment, and repetitive references to that cold barren landscape was one of them. Yes, Berlin is cold in winter, and it snows, and snow is cold, so very, very cold. I understood that after the first few pages, but Jones went on and on about the cold in a way that only someone from the warm and sunny climes of Australia could. The descriptions of the cold got boring very quickly and after a while I kind of hoped that the protagonist would slip over and crack her head open, just for a bit of relief from the weather descriptions. Another thing I had a few problems with was some of the dialogue, which sounded pedantic and inauthentic to me. How many people take care not to split infinitives when they speak? I abhor written split infinitives as much as the next ex-literary studies major, but when I talk I split them left, right and centre, because that’s just how we speak. In addition, I thought that the characters seemed to draw on national stereotypes to a large degree, and I found that a bit disconcerting. But, my biggest gripe was the twist, which was handled in a bland manner that didn’t allow it the impact it should have had on the reader. However, I wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from reading the book, because it is beautifully written and extremely engaging, despite the few mentioned glitches. This is a novel about strangers bonding over a shared interest, about secrets revealed and secrets kept, about being a damaged outsider, and about Berlin – cold, bleak, grey Berlin bundled up in its thick winter coat.

Selected Poems and Fragments

Selected Poems and Fragments, Friedrich Holderlin, tr. Michael Hamburger, Penguin, 1998.

Friedrich Holderlin (1770-1843) had bioplar disorder in a time when his illness had no name, except hypochondria and madness. His suffering doesn’t bear thinking about. For the last thirty-six years of his life he depended on the kindness of a carpenter called Ernst Zimmer and his family who took him in. Although Holderlin came from a reasonably well-off family, they wanted nothing to do with him. Such is the stigma of ‘madness’.

These days, Holderlin is recognised as one of the great poets of German Romanticism. He made wonderful poems, including many about his doomed love for the wife of one of his employers – very Branwell Bronte.

::

The Farewell

So we wanted to part? Thought it both good and wise? Why, then, why did the act shock us as murder would? Ah, ourselves we know little,
For within us a god commands.

Wrong that god? And betray him who created for us Meaning, life, all we had, him who inspired and moved, Who protected our loving,
This, this one thing I cannot do.

But a different wrong, different slavery
Now the world’s mind invents, threatens with other laws, And, by cunning, convention
Day by day steals away our souls.

Oh, I knew it before. Ever since deep-rooted Fear, Ugly, crippled, estranged mortals from heaven’s gods To appease them with bloodshed
Lovers’ hearts must be sacrificed.

Silent now let me be! Never henceforth let me know This, my deadly disgrace, so that in peace I may Hide myself where it’s lonely
And the parting at least be ours.

Pass the cup, then, yourself, that of the rescuing, Holy poison enough, that of the lethal draught
I may drink with you, all things,
Hate and love be forgotten then.

To be gone is my wish. Later perhaps one day, Diotima, we’ll meet – here, but desire by then Will have bled away, peaceful
Like the blessed, and like strangers we’ll

Walk about, as our talk leads us now here, now there, Musing, hesitant, but then the oblivious ones
See the place where they parted,
And a heart newly warms in us,

Wondering I look at you, voices and lovely song As from distant times, music of strings, I hear And the lily unfolds her
Fragrance, golden above the brook.

::

Home

Content the boatman turns to the river’s calm From distant isles, his harvest all gathered in;

So too would I go home now, had I
Reaped as much wealth as I’ve gathered sorrow.

Dear river-banks that reared me and taught me once, Do you allay love’s sufferings, promise me
You forests of my childhood, should I
Come to you now, the same peace as ever?

Where by the stream, the cool, I saw wavelets play And on the river’s meadow watched boats glide past, There soon I’ll be; you long-loved mountains,
Once my protectors, and still the homeland’s

Revered and certain frontiers, my mother’s house, Embrace of a loving brother and sister there
I’ll welcome soon, and you’ll enclose me,
Healing my heart like a gentle bandage*,

You ever loyal ones; but I know, I know,
This grief, the grief of love, will be slow to heal, Of this no lullaby that mortals
Chant to give me comfort will now relieve me.

For they who lend us heavenly light and fire, The gods, with holy sorrow endow us too. So be it, then. A son of earth I
Seem; and was fashioned to love, to suffer.

::

*This edition has the original German on the verso page and the English translation/transposition/transliteration/interpretation/stab-in-the-dark on the recto page. I don’t know if the translation comes close to the original. ‘Healing my heart like a gentle bandage’? I’d really like to know if that’s what Hölderlin wrote. I tried the original in Google translate and it came up with major weirdness. That bandage sounds all wrong, though. I don’t know. Fret, fret, fret…

Anyway, Holderlin/Hamburger gives us some gorgeous imagery:

…like mated swans in their summer contentment
When by the lake they rest or on the waves, lightly rocked,
Down they look, at the water, and silvery clouds through that mirror Drift, and ethereal blue flows where the voyagers pass…

(Menon’s Lament for Diotima, 4).

::

To the Fates

One summer only grant me, you powerful Fates, And one more autumn for mellow song,
So that more willingly, replete with
Music’s late sweetness, my heart may then die.

The soul in life denied its god-given right Down there in Orcus also will find no peace; But when what’s holy, dear to me, the Poem’s accomplished, my art perfected,

Then welcome, silence, welcome cold world of shades! I’ll be content, though here I must leave my lyre
And songless travel down; for once I
Lived like the gods, and no more is needed.

::

Oh, how I do love that ode to the Fates.

A Hero of Our Time

hero

A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov, tr. J. H. Wisdom and Marr Murray, Dover Publications, 2011.

I bought this edition of A Hero of Our Time a while ago and it has been sitting unread on a shelf ever since. I own ‘a few’ copies of the novel, including a much read and battered copy of this very edition. What can I say? Usually, I end up with multiple copies of favourite books. Anyway, when I read that next year Alma Classics is bringing out an edition of Martin Parker’s 1947 translation, which was revised by Neil Cornwall in 1995, I decided to give the J. H. Wisdom and Marr Murray translation another read. Published in 1916, this version contains a fair bit of archaic language, which is why I love it so much. It’s the same translation that is available at Gutenberg.

Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841) is one of Russia’s most famous poets and he has quite a following amongst those interested in Romanticism, due to his short but fascinating life. He is said to have hero- worshipped Byron, and his life definitely resembled that of a Byronic hero. Born into wealth and privilege, Lermontov was both intelligent and well-educated. He became a cavalry officer, which was an honourable profession for a man of his time and class, but he was a thinker, and this got him into a lot of trouble, including with the Tsar. He was bored out of his brain by the crushing ennui wealthy people of his era had to endure because they were so bound by social convention. When A Hero of Our Time was published, in 1839-40, it created quite a storm of controversy and created a moral panic amongst the affluent.

A Hero of our Time perfectly portrays both the inner and outer worlds of a young cavalry officer named Pechorin. Although Lermontov denied the novel was autobiographical, it’s fairly obvious that he was fibbing. There are too many similarities between author and protagonist for them not to be two sides of the same coin, and the psychological insights in the novel are too profound not to have been wrenched from deep inside Lermontov himself. What upset contemporary readers so much is that Pechorin is utterly world-weary, bored, and deeply cynical. His morals are questionable and often downright despicable, and his thinking is often offensive, as this sardonic comparison of beauty in horses and women shows:

Certainly never before had I seen a woman like her. She was by no means beautiful; but as in other matters, I have my own prepossessions on the subject of beauty. There was a good deal of breeding in her. Breeding in women, as in horses, is a great thing: a discovery, the credit of which belongs to young France. It – that is to say, breeding, not young France – is to be detected in the gait, in the hands and feet; the nose, in particular, is of the greatest significance. In Russia a straight nose is rarer than a small foot.

Like Byron, Pechorin sets about breaking hearts and generally behaving badly, because he can. His familial ties to the nobility confer on him the kind of privilege that allows him to do whatever he wants, and he enjoys pushing the envelope to see what he can get away with. As an anti-hero, Pechorin is a brilliant creation, with his hard and shiny carapace shielding his soft and vulnerable heart. Of course, I’m very fond of dear Grigory Pechorin – how could I not be, seeing as how he embodies all the quintessential Byronic tropes, including an ecstatic love of nature, devastating cynicism, and a fierce sense of humour. Here are some snippets from the book:

Pechorin, gentlemen, is in fact a portrait, but not of one man only; he is a composite portrait, made up of all the vices which flourish, full-grown amongst the present generation. You will tell me, as you have told me before that no man can be so bad as this; and my reply will be: ‘If you believe that such peons as the villains of tragedy and romance should exist in real life, who can you not believe in the reality of Pechorin?

A feeling akin to rapture is diffused through all my veins. The air is pure and fresh, like the kiss of a child; the sun is bright, the sky is blue – what more could one possibly wish for? What need, in such a place as this, of passions, desires, regrets?

I clasped her closely to my breast, and so we remained for a long time. At length our lips drew close and became blent in a fervent, intoxicating kiss. Her hands were cold as ice; her head was burning.
And hereupon we embarked upon one of those conversations which, on paper, have no sense, which is impossible to repeat, and impossible even to retain in memory. The meaning of the sounds replaces and completes the meaning of the words, as in Italian opera.

She is decidedly averse to my making the acquaintance of her husband…

Returning home, I mounted on horseback and galloped to the steppe. I love to gallop on a fiery horse through the tall grass, in the face of the desert wind; greedily I gulp down the fragrant airand fix my gaze upon the blue distance, endeavouring to seize the misty outlines of objects which every minute grow clearer and clearer. Whatever griefs oppress my heart, whatever disqueitudes torture my thoughts – all are dispersed in a moment; my soul becomes at ease; the fatigue of the body vanquishes the disturbance of the mind. There is not a woman’s glance which I would not forget at the sight of the tufted mountains, ilumined by the southern sun; at the sight of the dark- blue sky, or in hearkening to the roar of the torrent as it falls from cliff to cliff.

My present feeling is not that restless craving for love which torments us in the early days of our youth, flinging us from one woman to another until we find one who cannot endure us. And then begins our constancy – that sincere, unending passion which may be expressed mathematically by a line falling from a point into space – the secret of that endlessness lying only in the impossibility of attaining the aim, that is to say, the end.

There are a LOT of English translations of this book, including one by Vladimir and Dmitri Nabokov. I like that one: it’s very elegant and, well, Nabokovian, but I keep coming back to the slightly raw, sometimes slightly off-kilter, Wisdom and Marr translation of 1916. I like that there are words like ‘whither’, ‘perforce’, and ‘plashing’, and that ‘[t]he Translators have taken especial care to preserve both the atmosphere of the story and the poetic beauty with with the Poet-novelist imbued his pages.’ I don’t like reading classic novels that have been rendered into ‘modern English’ as a sop to readers with a stunted vocabulary, or who are too lazy to use a dictionary. A Hero of Our Time is a wonderful book: the descriptions of nature alone are reason enough to recommend it, but it also has adventure, romance, and philosophical ruminations, all of which combine to give us not only a telling snapshot of the past, but an insight into the mind of a most interesting human being.

I haven’t included any of Lermontov’s poems here because I have a bit of a problem trusting poetic translations: it’s hard enough to re-write prose in another language, but re-writing poetry is a whole other thing and I don’t altogether trust that particular translation process. I mean, how can you choose words in English that not only convey the original Russian meaning but also preserve the correct metre and rhyme etc? Is that even possible? This is definitely something that keeps me awake at night and pondering.

 

By Heart: Elizabeth Smart, A Life

By Heart: Elizabeth Smart, A Life, Rosemary Sullivan, Viking, 1991.

By Heart is a hybrid of literary analysis and biography: Sullivan seeks to understand how Elizabeth Smart’s life informed her writing and relies heavily on psychoanalytic theory in her analysis. Born into wealth and privilege and blessed with great intelligence, talent, drive, and physical beauty, Elizabeth Smart (1913-1986) spent half her life chasing after an impossible dream. One day, when she was twenty- three, she opened a random book of poetry in a book store and discovered George Barker. Right on the spot, so the legend goes, she decided that he was the ONE, the object of her desire, the man she was going to marry and have children with. Barker was already married, Catholic, impecunious and feckless and Smart had no clue what he looked like, but none of this gave her pause for thought. As Sullivan notes:

She invested all her ego in a vision of heroic love. Love with the whole soul, without reservation and control, with abandon and urgent desire, was to be the experience to crack open the self. …What makes such ecstasy so heady is that the lover is made to assume the projection of all that is most desired in the self. But the headlong rush is also an escape from the self. Elizabeth’s need to liberate her deepest creative resources was so profound that she had to evolve an ethic of love large enough to effect it (pp.80-1).

To cut a long story short, Smart deluded herself that hitching her star to a male poet’s trajectory through life, being doggedly, unreservedly, and very deliberately in love with him and having his children, would

somehow liberate her from her dreary rich-girl life and unleash her rage to live and her ability to write. Sadly, she kept believing this fantasy for over eighteen years before she gave up on the misogynist Barker, who strung her along for years, never did divorce his first wife, and went on to have a fifteen children with four women. Smart was left literally holding four babies in an era when illegitimacy still mattered. She even tried to hide the existence of her first two children from her parents because her mother would have been so profoundly outraged. Despite promising to leave his wife and making half- hearted attempts to do so, Barker was either unable or unwilling to commit himself to Smart, and rather than helping her to feed and clothe his children, Barker actually took money from her that she couldn’t afford to spare. However, no matter what, Elizabeth was determined to keep on loving him:

The fact though, the terrible fact probably is that you can, & can never, leave her. So if you can’t, you can’t & if you can’t I won’t ask you to. If you don’t belong to me how can I want you even though I am dying for you…

Don’t think I’m not bleeding from every pore. I’m only lucky to be able to hypodermic myself & cover over every gape so that I can feel nothing cold or hot or pleasant or excruciating…

I do love you more than anything else in the world or the world. That’s not the trouble or rather perhaps that is the trouble (pp.171-2).

I can’t figure out if she was a masochist, a martyr, or just plain deluded. Anyway, although Smart was a wonderfully talented writer, she was so busy trying to feed and house her children that she had no time to write. After publishing one book in 1945, which was mostly well-received but disappeared very quickly, she didn’t publish anything more for 32 years. She lived in poverty, with a small allowance from her parents only just keeping her afloat until the children were old enough for her to get a decent job. She then worked in magazines, as a writer and editor, and also wrote copy for an advertising agency. She was very good at her job, apparently, but she also started drinking heavily and taking pills to pep her up, and was often found with her nose in the container of glue kept for pasting up layouts! Clearly, Smart found it difficult to cope with being a single mother of four. However, she did manage to send her children to the best private schools and despite all the hardships she endured, she seems to have been a devoted mother, except perhaps for that one time she hit her baby son in the face with her fist because she was so angry and frustrated with her life… [Yes, I wonder about that, too.]

Smart had numerous affairs with both men and women, but Sullivan keeps most of that quiet. The biographer’s self-censoring, if that’s what it is, was a problem for me. It’s obvious that Sullivan makes a great effort to remain reverential towards her subject at all times. Apparently Smart’s family and friends were most generous with their time and memories and Sullivan clearly does not want to offend them in any way. Also, Sullivan knew Smart personally and seems to have liked her. Negative aspects of Smart’s character are mostly glossed over, so although we get the idea that towards the end of her life she drank a lot and was a nightmare to be around when she was drinking, her behaviour is largely characterised as being of the ‘elegantly wasted‘ variety rather than ugly ‘pissed-as-a maggot’ shenanigans, although people did try to avoid her when she was drunk so I’m guessing it was more the latter.

Would I get along with the Elizabeth Smart portrayed in this book? Probably not. I found her too subservient and mired in convention, despite her bohemian veneer. I wanted her to (metaphorically) kick George Barker to the curb and stomp on his head. I wanted her to stop being afraid of herself and to start writing again. I wanted her to let someone love her. That’s what I wanted for her most of all: I wanted her to let someone other than her children love her, and for her to believe that she was worthy of love. As the saying goes, we only accept the love we think we deserve, and sadly, Elizabeth Smart seems to have thought that she only deserved George Barker’s misogynistic mistreatment and neglect. She was not a feminist and seemed to believe that her biology was her destiny, and that pregnancy, childbirth and mothering was inevitable if one was born a female. She was very attuned to nature and seems to have had a ‘Woman = Goddess/Earth Mother’ mindset and believed that a woman’s real ‘power’ emanates from her ability to give birth. Of course, a woman needed a man to procreate in those days and Smart seems to have chosen Barker mostly because she was attracted to his poetic sensibility.

I think Smart was a very complicated woman and that this book only skims the surface of who she was. I plan on reading Smart’s journals, Necessary Secrets and On the Other Side of Angels, and The Arms of the Infinite, a biography of Smart and Barker written by their son, which should shed some more light on her life. I think that the selective use of Smart’s journals in By Heart gives us a skewed impression of her because as we all know, journals tend to be places where we thrash out our anger, disappointment and frustration, rather than where we record our happiness and contentment. I’m hoping that by reading the journals I’ll get a more rounded picture of what she thought and how she felt. I’m sure Elizabeth Smart had humour, light and wonderment in her life, along with the Sturm und Drang and the hard times. In her later life she became a wonderfully talented gardener, although even in this endeavour she seems to have been somewhat passionate:

When my avaricious eyes reeled round Notcutts, in their first experience of the instant garden centre – an experience which makes all other distractions, temptations, forbidden fruits and self- indulgences wan by comparison – they lighted lustfully on rhododendrons. So shapely. So large. So important-looking. Noticeable even from far off. Extravagant with their blossoms. Exotic even without. Evergreen. …I had to have some rhododendrons. And I did, tottering out to the car weak with their weight and the wild unwieldly emotions that gardening seems fraught with. Like a jaguar (who’d promised not to) biting into the neck of a gazelle. …Exultant. Shameful. Furtive. Fulfilled. You want those rhododendrons so much you don’t care if you kill them (p.311).

I think I may have developed a new literary obsession interest, so I’ll probably write a bit more about Elizabeth Smart in the months to come. I’ve revised this draft 21 times and it’s still totally unsatisfactory to me, but there comes a time to hit ‘publish’ and move on. I think the fact that I had very mixed feelings about this most fascinating person is clearly evident in this post!

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Elizabeth Smart, Flamingo, 1992.

I’m currently reading By Heart, Rosemary Sullivan’s biography (1991) of Elizabeth Smart. I thought I had better refresh my memory by re-reading Grand Central, because it has been a while since I last put to sea on that beautiful ocean of words.

Grand Central is an amazing piece of writing that lays bare one woman’s passion for her lover. He happens to be married and their relationship is tortured and volatile, but is intense, oh, so intense. The narrative is based on Smart’s own life, although it deals in archetypes, too: the most obvious ones are the love triangle and parental disapproval, which are everywhere in literature. Anyway, in the late 1930s, when she was twenty-three, Smart visited a book store in London and, taking down a random book from the shelf, discovered the poetry of George Barker.

Smart decided then and there that Barker was THE ONE. She didn’t know anything about him, except that he was already married, but she decided that they were destined to be together. So, this beautiful young Canadian heiress, who wanted to be a writer, set about what she called her ‘manoeuvres’ to reel him in. She managed to get on letter-writing terms with Barker via Lawrence Durrell, and posing as a manuscript collector, offered to bring him and his wife to the USA from Japan where they were living and he was teaching. World War II was looming and the impecunious poet was looking for a way out, so he and his wife travelled to America at Smart’s expense. By now she was living in a writer’s colony at Big Sur, and after meeting Barker and his wife at the train station, they all travelled to the the colony together. It wasn’t long before Barker and Smart began a torrid affair that lasted, on and off, for eighteen years. They had four children together, and he had eleven additional offspring with three other women, including his two wives. There were twists and turns galore in their relationship, but Smart was in love with the idea of being in love, and she just couldn’t, or wouldn’t give him up.

It seems that Smart thought the most important things in life were art, love, and children, and that each of those things informed the others. She wanted to live out loud, and she did, but it was not exactly a joyous existence. She made grand passion out of what was a rather tawdry affair that hurt a lot of people, including herself in the long run. Grand Central is kind of like an opera, full of churning emotion and massive human frailty, and longing and desire and weeping and wailing, and moments of sublime bliss. Smart writes pure emotion, and she does it beautifully.

Every tear is wept and lies staining its falling place. I am without words. I am without thoughts. But quia amore langueo. I am dying for love. This is the language of love.

Grand Central doesn’t dwell on the beloved but is more concerned with his wife’s feelings and the narrator’s experience of her all-consuming passion. Her obsession with her beloved does not falter, even when the couple is arrested under the Mann Act* and she is humiliatingly interviewed and briefly jailed. The narrator suffers for her love, truly and deeply suffers, and at the same time revels in the chaos and craziness of it all. It’s painful to read Grand Central sometimes. You want to give her a good shaking and tell her that she needs to get out NOW, that this is all going to end in tears and she needs to salvage some dignity, but you know she wouldn’t listen. You want to tell her that it’s not OK to make his wife suffer so terribly, that she’s caught up in a fantasy, and that she can’t just will things to happen, but you know she’d just shake her head and tell you that you know nothing about love. She wants to burn with ecstasy, because ordinary life isn’t enough for her.

Tomorrow at ten I shall take a train. All trains lead me to rivers that beckon and wink. Through the day, or through the twilight, I rush past rivers to the river. One river waits. One is the one, and knows how I shall fall into the water with a thud.

And I am drenched before I reach the surface. I am drowned before I reach the waterweeds at the bottom. I avoid the glance the river gives me. But it dances on. It has lust for me. I am almost succumbed.

In my dreams of most terror, the water freezes into ice, the waterfall that promises liberation stands stock-still and disobedient. I am baulked then, like a man coffined alive, or a chained ghost never to be let loose.

his hand of sympathy foes out to me, soft as a dove, his cheek like early apples. He weeps consolation on my mouth. He kisses the circles on top of the water beneath which I lie drowned. Soft as a fish the kisses glide down me, trailing its bubbles of love. All the ton pressures of the oceans cannot withstand that touch that prods me with regret.

Through the layers of impenetrability, Tomorrow, like an ardent boy of Socrates, looks down at the drowned with resurrection in his eyeballs. I see my lover’s limbs all intertwined with his. My lover is making signs. He smiles. He points. He stoops his hand into the water and destroys my image with ripples. The mud covers me up. The mud puts curtains over my eyes. My cries now rise back in bubbles, my screams only prick the air like dragonfly’s messages.

Then the confusion clears. I see it is a summer’s evening above. My lover lies under the lindens- tree kissing Tomorrow with his mouth that was all mine. O the tumult, the unavailing ineffectual uproar of the damned. O the language of love. The uninterpreted. The inarticulate. Amore. Amore. Amore.

I think Barker and Smart were like two cats in a sack, fighting like crazy one minute and curled up all cosy together the next, and that went on for years and years. This unquenchable need for MORE is what forms the essence of Grand Central, and although it would be pretty dull to read about in straight prose, the licence that prose poetry affords a writer allows Smart to be inventive and original with her metaphors and allusions. It really is wonderful writing, all lush and verdant and mysterious, but also spiky and brutal sometimes.

I am lonely. I cannot be a female saint. I want the one I want.He is the one I picked out from the world. I picked him out in cold deliberation. But the passion was not cold. It kindled me. Love, love, give my heart ease, put your arms around me, give my heart ease. Feel the little bastard. [The narrator is pregnant.]

Smart draws on Greek myth and, although I’m largely unacquainted with the Bible, even I am able to recognise the lines from Song of Solomon that she writes around. Grand Central is ethereal and haunting and draws you into her fantasy world, even though I’m far too cynical to share in her rapture. The book was first published in 1945, sank without a trace, and Smart didn’t publish anything else for 32 years. Since the 1970s, Grand Central has gained a cult following, but people tend to mix up the real Elizabeth Smart with the character in the book. Whilst the narrative may reflect Smart’s inner life, she was actually a lot less “away with the pixies” in real life and held down decent jobs and cared for her children, albeit in a somewhat ramshackle and bohemian way that many of us would raise an eyebrow at. I hope to learn more about her as I read By Heart: at the moment I’m a bit bogged down in her tedious childhood. She had a hell-witch of a mother who ruled the household with the proverbial iron fist, so I’m thinking that it’s no wonder Smart rebelled in such a startling and self-destructive manner.

Parents’ imaginations build frameworks out of their own hopes and regrets into which children seldom grow, but instead, contrary as trees, lean sideways out of the architecture, blown by a fatal wind their parents never envisaged.

*A 1910 US law which made it a crime to transport women across state lines for “immoral” purposes.

Love All

love-all

Love All, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Pan Macmillan, 2015.

This was my introduction to Elizabeth Jane Howard’s fiction, and I think I may have caught her on a bad day. I wanted to like this book but I didn’t, for the following reasons:

There are too many characters, and too many characters who are too similar. I had real problems trying to keep them all straight in my head and remembering who was related to whom and where they lived, etc.;

There was too much uncomfortably weird brother-sister co-dependency going on – one brother joked to his sister that they should get married – and those suffocatingly close relationships seemed a bit too intimate, somehow;

The book wasn’t about love, really, it was about men’s sense of entitlement and women’s sense of sacrifice, and considering it was set in the late ’60s I thought there should have been a bit of feminist consciousness raising or something to show that not all women were doormats, even back then;

The book is about posh people’s problems – all that upper-class poverty coupled with stately mansion woes, and all the emotionally crippled adults because their parents were self-obsessed, or they were orphans raised by rich aunts;

The segmented structure of the narrative annoyed me. The novel is written in the third-person and divided into chapters with the characters’ names as headings. Each of these sections features one or more characters and a part of the story is told from their point of view. I found this distracting because most of the characters are too much the same and it just felt as though Howard was repeating herself by giving all the points of view;

The book is far too long to sustain the slight narrative – I got bored with it quite quickly;

The narrative is humourless, except for the bits of business with the cat. It felt as though I were wading in circles through treacle – the female martyrdom and sacrifice just went round and round and ended up back where it started, and this is one of those books where you really do want to slap a few heads and shout at the characters to WAKE UP TO THEMSELVES!

Things I liked about the book were:

Howard writes beautifully and has a wonderful facility to capture and describe scenes from nature – I liked that aspect a lot, and it’s always a bonus these days to read a book that contains proper grammar and joined-up sentences;

Hmm. That seems to be about all that I liked.

I know this is not EJH’s best work – she was rather old when it was published – and I intend to read some of her others, indeed I have a few of her other books on the shelf, including some of the Cazalet series, and I hope I’ll like those more. This book reminded me a little of Barbara Pym without the levity or grace, if you know what I mean. There’s that same sense of being trapped, of doing the right thing, of sacrifice and duty which also translates to opportunities relinquished, biting one’s tongue until it bleeds, and being totally miserable for life.

Maybe it comes down to moral and philosophical questions about what ‘duty’ and ‘sacrifice’ mean, and whether we should seize the day and live our own life to the hilt, or should we give up our own contentment in order to be of service to other people? Are adults responsible for their own lives and wellbeing, or should their nearest and dearest take care of them? Should we live by the motto Carpe Diem, or Amor est Sacrificium?

Finding Audrey

finding-audrey

Finding Audrey, Sophie Kinsella, Doubleday, 2015.

Sometimes I vet the content of books to see if they’re suitable for inclusion in our suggested reading list. I don’t have any qualifications in bibliotherapy, but occasionally I suggest a book that I think might inspire, comfort, or provide solace. Poetry is particularly good in this regard and I can usually find a poem or two to recommend, but fiction can be a bit trickier. Anyway, when I heard about Finding Audrey, a YA novel about a teenage girl dealing with anxiety and depression, I thought I’d read it and see if it was a candidate for the list.

Sadly, I found the book to be entirely fatuous, but not quite as inane as the reviews on GoodReads that describe the book as ‘cute’ and ‘fun’. Those readers seem relieved that the author catered for their aversion to reading anything ‘depressing’ and laud Cabot for presenting ‘serious issues’ in a light-hearted and ‘fun’ way. (I swear that trying to get my head around other people’s self-delusion will drive me completely insane one of these days!)

Anyway, on with the tale of Audrey, who is fourteen and experiencing anxiety and depression as a result of something that happened at school. We’re never told exactly what happened, but it seems as though she was bullied by three classmates and everyone else stood by and let it happen. As the book opens we learn that Audrey has had a breakdown and spent time in hospital, but is now back home. She’s supposed to be starting at a new school soon, but she’s so anxious that she can’t make eye contact with anyone and wears sunglasses all the time. She never leaves her parent’s house except to attend her therapy sessions, and she spends a lot of time in bed. Poor Audrey has a lot of difficulty dealing with daily life and although medication helps her out, she’s still struggling.

In the telling of the tale, Cabot makes liberal use of caricatures and cliches we’ve all encountered a million times before: Audrey is the quintessential bright but quirky teenage girl; her mother is hysterical, controlling, and totally inept; her father is emotionally distant and ineffectual; her older brother is the stereotypical male teenager (messy, smelly and non-communicative); and her little brother, aged four, is one of those cute-as-a-button kids who says and does the most charming things, and seems to take care of himself most of the time because he only pops up now and then for comedic relief. And then there is Linus, the friend of Audrey’s brother who, surprise, surprise, has beau potential. He is only sixteen and Audrey is fourteen, but they behave like much older people and I felt a bit disturbed about their incipient relationship. Audrey is still a child, but the way Cabot writes about her and Linus I doubt that they’d be content to just sit on the couch and kiss one another for the next two years, if you know what I mean.

More disturbingly, the fact that a boy finds her attractive serves as the catalyst which sets Audrey on the road to an extraordinarily speedy recovery. One minute she’s unable to leave the house or look anyone in the eye, and the next minute she’s out and about and talking to strangers. I’m sorry to spoil the daydream this book is based on, but anxiety and depression are just not like that, and finding a boyfriend is not a cure for anything.

I wanted to get along with Audrey because she seemed like a nice enough kid, but then Cabot revealed Audrey’s Cinderella Complex. Audrey didn’t really try to get well for herself, but as soon as Linus came along she tried to behave ‘normally’, so he would be more attracted to her. She seemed to think that Linus paying attention to her meant that she must be worthy, or something. Oh, I could go on and on and on, but you get my drift. This book just sends so many wrong messages about relationships and self-respect, but most of all about mental illness. Although I’m sure Finding Audrey makes some readers think that dealing with mental illness has cute, fun and light-hearted aspects, I’m afraid that the book doesn’t do anything to make readers aware of the cold and very hard reality of mental illness. I can’t think of one single ‘fun’ thing about having anxiety and depression. They are serious illnesses that can kill people. Audrey’s miraculous recovery bears no resemblance whatsoever to the reality of trying to recover your equilibrium after having a psychological meltdown. If only it were as simple as Meg Cabot makes it out to be.

I found the book to be totally inane and I won’t be suggesting that anyone else read it. I just don’t understand why readers ‘like’ books such as this and the egregious The Rosie Project which, it seems to me, invites people to laugh at someone who has Autism Spectrum Disorder. I had a hard time reading that book, just as I did reading this one. If anyone wants to write a book about such things, the least they could do is to get it right. Some things simply are not laughing matters, and I think that other people treating them as if they are just smacks of ignorance and disrespect. Cabot’s heart is probably in the right place, but I think that her frivolous treatment of mental illness serves to trivialise something that needs to be taken very seriously, and the messages she sends via the character of Audrey, about the healing power of ‘love’, are just all wrong. Waiting around for a Prince Charming to rescue you from your brain is never going to work in the real world, and being dependent on a Prince Charming for your feelings of self-worth is never going to work, either. There are ways to deal with anxiety and depression, and it is possible to recover, but Cabot’s brand of magical thinking is not the answer.

I was surprised to learn that Sophie Kinsella, a pseudonym for Madeleine Wickham, is almost 46 and has five children. She looks about 25 in her website photos. You never can trust online portrait pictures. 🙂 Not that it matters, but insinuating that an author is ‘young and fun’ strikes me as being one of the tricks employed by publishers/marketers to entice readers to adhere to a ‘brand’. Oh, I should just crawl back into my cave and read Ulysses, or something. *sigh*

P.S. If you (or someone you know) is struggling with anxiety and/or depression, do please talk to a health care professional about it. There is hope. *hug*

Book Website: Finding Audrey

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense

This Should be Written in the Present Tense, Helle Helle, tr. Martin Aitkin, Harvill Secker, 2014.

‘I wrote too much about that step. Where I locked myself out in March, Where I sat and stared inApril. Where my mum and dad stood in down jackets well into May, heads at an angle. The lilacs were in bloom. A bus swung away from the station. A hot smell of diesel, then lilacs again. My arms were bare, the air was warm and mild.

‘You forgot these,’ said my dad, and handed me the carrier bag. ‘We’ll head up and wash the place down.’
‘Your dad’s let them out,’ said my mum.
They turned and went back to the car, and my mum got in. A bucket and mop stuck up from the back seat. My dad raised his hand in a wave, his hair lifted in the wind. I went back into the kitchen. I left the door open behind me. I poured a glass of milk and heard them drive away. This is how it might have been’ (p.1).

Dorte, a twenty-year-old Danish girl, is having a bit of an existential crisis and seems to be adrift in the world. She’s supposed to be going to university, but she’s not. She doesn’t know what she wants, or how to carry on living in her present circumstances. When the book opens she’s dwelling alone in a rented house beside a railway track, in a village outside Copenhagen. The narrative recounts a couple of years of her past and present life, as she drifts from one lover to another, and frequently moves house. There is no plot to speak of, and not a lot happens on the surface of the text, because Helle’s writing is beyond cut-to- the-bone spare. Apparently, she is a multi-prize-winning-author in Denmark and an adherent of the Minimalist school of writing, according to Wikipedia. Having read her one and only novel published in English, I can attest to the fact that it is indeed minimalist, but it is also clever and sly and gorgeously written, and I loved it a lot once I got used to the narrator’s slipperiness. Expecting to see the author pin Dorte down is like expecting to see cats herded into a sack – it’s just never going to happen. I was only really able to settle into the novel after I accepted that 80% of the story was going on below the surface and I had to work to construct a great part of the text for myself. It certainly does require a bit of work on the reader’s part to make sense of the somewhat confusing timeline, which winds through the narrative like a train track through the Danish countryside. As for who or what her dad ‘let out’, and where her parents were heading with the mop and bucket, well, I’m not giving anything away. I can’t say much about the storyline because I don’t want to spoil it for others, but if you like self-reflexive fiction and don’t mind reading books that are more a beautiful work of art rather than easily-consumed entertainment, then this is probably a book for you.

Here is Dorte going for a ride on her bicycle:

There were still a lot of skylarks, and a pair of lapwings in the middle of the road. It struck me that I hadn’t been in the countryside all summer, only in the town, it was the first time in my life. Many of the fallow fields were bright pink, the fireweed was in season and I thought about the word as I went, it wasn’t one you forgot in a hurry. Washing flapped in a farmhouse garden, a breath of fabric softener in a gust of wind (p.120).

I’m a bit sad that none of Helle Helle’s other books have been translated into English, although translations do appear in thirteen other languages, apparently. I bought the novel because I wanted to read books by female writers from Scandinavia, but translated works seem mostly to be in the mystery and crime genres, which don’t interest me very much. I have to admit to being a little in love with the Scandinavian landscape after watching the highly stylised Wallender series, and The Bridge. (It’s a shame that Kim Bodnia isn’t reprising his role as Martin in the third series, because I liked the warmth and humanity he brought to the show.) I know it’s not all massive wind turbines and lovely pastel summer houses beside pristine waterways, crisp air and birch tress, but the Denmark countryside is pretty much the opposite of where I live and that’s probably why it appeals to me so much. In a similar vein, I think the book probably appealed to me because it’s the complete opposite of the bloated Victorian novels I sometimes read, in which the narrator is intrusive and hectoring and tries to direct your thinking, and as much as I love those novels, it’s a welcome change to read something different.

Albrecht Durer: A Biography

Albrecht Durer: A Biography, Jane Campbell Hutchinson, Princeton University Press, 1990.

I think I expected far too much from this biography of Albrecht Dürer, because in reality he and his work remain something of a mystery to even the most knowledgeable art historian. Hutchison seems comfortable with the available material, but I think her approach leans more towards reporting, rather than interpreting, what she knows.

Anyway, I bought the book a few years ago and after a cursory glance at its content, consigned it to a shelf. Having finally gotten around to reading it, I have to say that that although it’s carefully researched and written in an easy-to-read, non-academic tone, the book is more about Dürer’s milieu rather than about the man himself. Of course he is the subject of the book and we get to read about his various travels and his friends and family, and about his works of art, but despite the inclusion of quotes from Dürer’s papers, I never got much of a sense of who he was from this book. There are a couple of sexually suggestive passages in his letters to a male friend that raise questions about his sexuality, but no one knows for sure what the playful remarks might have signified. His letters also contain a lot of references to money and the sale of his art, and descriptions of the places he saw on his travels, but it’s all rather mundane. None of this is surprising considering Dürer’s life spanned the years 1471-1528: that any letters and journals remain at all is quite a marvel, really. However, there was something about the book that I found unsatisfying and I longed for a less scholarly approach. I wanted more of a narrative in which the writer was prepared to speculate a little, to add colour and shade and render Dürer’s portrait in a more lifelike manner. The choice of one of his less complex self-portraits to adorn the book’s cover rather hints that the content is going to be plain and unadorned.

I’ve had a bit of a crush on Albrecht for the longest time, not only because he was a brilliant artist and craftsman, but because his art somehow seemed to reveal a startlingly modern sensibility. He made self- portraits that sizzle with sensuality and hubris. He made etchings that gaze deep into the human condition, and his nature studies show us his sympathetic way of seeing the natural world. He was a perfectionist, an iconoclast, and something of a show-off: in some of his work the painstakingly fine strokes were placed on the canvas with a brush made from guinea-pig hair. He seemed to be ahead of his time in many ways, and certainly more skilled than many of the artists of his day. I wanted to know what motivated him, besides money, what drove him, besides fear of death and the quest for renown. I wanted to know more about the ‘why’ of him and his art, and I suppose I’ll have to read other books in order to find the answers to those questions.

I’ve never really been interested in the Protestant Reformation, what with me being an atheist and all, but I think I’m going to have to delve into that era a little in an effort better to understand the prevailing mindset. Dürer was a contemporary of Luther, so there was a lot going on in his intellectual life. His apocalyptic world vision owes much to his religious sensibility, and to the realities of life in a plague- infested environment. Despite my thinking that Dürer was somehow more ‘modern’ than his contemporaries, I’m sure that’s just wishful thinking on my part.

I want to read The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer by Erwin Panofsky (which of course the Western Australian public library system doesn’t have because it’s not farm lit or a history of derring-do at Gallipoli).

The local public library branches have culled the literature section AGAIN and incorporated the few remaining books into ‘Music, Film and Literature’. There are a lot of over-size photography books about bands, and biographies of celebrities I’ve never heard of, and then, tucked away in a corner, there’s the tiny ‘literature’ collection. I went all ice-cold with fury when I saw what new outrage they’d perpetrated, the book-hating philistines that run the libraries in my area. It’s no use complaining, because apparently public libraries here are all about being ‘community hubs’ and their main concern is to provide internet access and play areas for children, and ‘books that patrons want to read’: cookbooks, travel guides, contemporary fiction, and books about World War I. Plus, only books published after 2010 are permitted to reside on the shelves. No wonder I have my own library!

Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow

We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise, In counting all our tears and sighs? Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile Beneath our feet, and long the mile; But let the world dream otherwise,

We wear the mask!

~ Paul Laurence Dunbar

::

I first encountered this poem when I was about thirteen years old and struggling with societal expectations that I should stop being a rambunctious, scruffy, androgynous child, and start behaving like a feminised girl. It was not explained to me how I was supposed to accomplish this overnight miracle and start performing the feminine gender role: it seemed to be taken for granted by everyone else that performing ‘femininity’ was ‘natural’ for females and I should just know how to do it, and more importantly, that I should also ‘want’ to do it. I had some epic battles with my mother: she even confiscated most of my clothes at one point and replaced them with dresses and skirts, but I still refused to wear any dress except my school uniform. I also refused to get a proper haircut or wear lipstick (at 13!) and refused to stop reading and ‘ruining my eyes’, or stop playing football and with my male friends. I was forbidden to continue doing athletics, lest I develop unladylike muscles, and yeah, my mother was totally batshit crazy, basically. Fortunately, I was much more stubborn than her though, and eventually she admitted defeat. I was deemed to be a lost cause and treated as such. What a relief that was!

Anyway, during this time I discovered Dunbar’s poem in an anthology and something in the first two verses reached out and touched me. Here was another person who seemed to understand the way I felt about not being allowed to be who I really was. I felt that that I was being exhorted to hide behind a gendered mask. I was used to seeing my mother don her ‘nice lady’ mask and pretend to be someone she wasn’t every time she stepped out the front door. My father did the same thing too, displaying a large degree of false bonhomie and a devil-may-care attitude in public. The way adults behaved seemed to me, and still does to a greater degree, so fake and stereotypical and ghastly, and I didn’t want any part of it.

Jump-cut to a few years later and imagine my surprise when I found out that Paul Laurence Dunbar was actually an African-American man born in 1872, whose parents were former slaves. I remember feeling shocked and guilty, as if I had committed an act of cultural appropriation for applying his poem to my own ‘white girl who doesn’t want to conform’ situation when, in fact, he had been referring to the racism, discrimination, prejudice, segregation and existential despair he experienced in a racially divided society. Anyway, I held him in the back of my mind for a few more years and then, one day, saw this book online and decided to buy it.

lyricsof

Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Courtship of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore, Eleanor Alexander, Plume, New York, 2004.

In 1895 Paul Laurence Dunbar saw Alice Ruth Moore’s photograph in a magazine and became infatuated with her. He wrote her a letter and she replied, and they ended up having an epistolary relationship for two years before they met and became secretly engaged. Alice was only twenty when they started corresponding and twenty-three when they married. Her parents didn’t approve of Dunbar because she was from a respected middle-class New Orleans family. Alice was also amongst the 1% of ‘colored people’ (I don’t like that term at all!) to attend university, and she was a qualified teacher, and a writer with a promising future. Clearly, she was not only beautiful, but intelligent and capable as well.

Dunbar’s past was more problematic. His family was riven by alcoholism, poverty and violence, but through his own hard work and the unstinting support of his mother, Dunbar had gained a high school education. He had been the only black student at his high school, and was so popular that he was elected class president. Too poor to attend university, however, he decided to be a writer and although he eventually became one of the best-known African-American poets of his day, both in America and internationally, his life had not been easy. The trauma he experienced as a child clung to him and he had grown into a very angry man. One night in 1897, during the year that Dunbar and Alice were engaged to be married, he got drunk and raped her. The attack was so vicious and sustained that she had to seek medical treatment for her injuries. Alice felt ashamed and disgraced: if she told anyone what had happened she would be deemed ‘damaged goods’ and no one else would want her, so she half-believed Dunbar when he told her that he’d only raped her because he loved her so much and was unable to contain his passion, and when he suggested that it was her own fault for being so ‘chaste’, she accepted some of the responsibility for what had happened. In 1889 they eloped and settled into a cycle of abuse and violence rather than into domestic bliss: Dunbar continued to drink heavily after they were married, and he continued to beat Alice in drunken rages. One night in 1902 he bashed her so badly that she almost died from her injuries. However, Alice had finally had enough, and when she recovered she got on a train and travelled to NYC, and despite his pleading and begging letters, she never did return. She never communicated with him again either, except for a one word telegram that said, ‘No.’

Brava, Alice.

Dunbar died in 1906 from the effects of tuberculosis and alcoholism. He was only thirty-three years old and somewhat disillusioned with the literary world, because although people liked his ‘dialect’ poems, they didn’t pay as much attention to his ‘serious’ writing. Personally, I dislike his dialect poetry, which idealises ‘plantation life’ and seems aimed at an audience nostalgic for the Old South.

::

Excerpt from: The Plantation Child’s Lullaby

Wintah time hit comin’ Stealin’ thoo de night; Wake up in the mo’nin’ Evah ting is white;
Cabin lookin’ lonesome Stannin’ in de snow,
Meks you kin’ o’ nervous, W’en de win’ hit blow. Trompin’ back from feedin’, Col’ an’ wet an’ blue, Homespun jacket ragged, Win’ a-blowin’ thoo…

~ Paul Laurence Dunbar

::

It seems that Alice had a whole other life after her marriage to Dunbar ended. She had a long lesbian relationship with the Head of the school where she worked as a teacher, and she married again, twice. Apparently, she had several other relationships with women and men, and was an activist for African-Americans’ and women’s rights. She became a journalist and her articles and essays appeared in a wide range of publications, including academic journals. Alice continued to write fiction, but she was often not paid for her work, and many publications refused to carry her work when it dealt with the hard issues to do with racism. Alice died in 1935 and although in her own lifetime she didn’t receive the mainstream recognition she deserved, today her life and work are subject to analysis and discussion. Eleanor Alexander is an academic who has delved deep into the archives and produced a highly-readable book that not only details the courtship and marriage of Paul Dunbar and Alice Moore, but also deals with a number of social phenomena affecting African-Americans’ lives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Reading about Dunbar shattered my idea about what he was like as a person, and effectively tugged the rug out from under me with regard to the poem I once loved.

Now, I want to read more about Alice Dunbar-Nelson and find out more about her life. I’d like to read her diary, and her essays, stories and poems, some of which are available at Gutenberg. I can also see my interest in Alice blossoming into wanting to learn a lot more about the Harlem Renaissance.