Archive for January, 2013

the strangers next door edith iglauerThe Strangers Next Door by Edith Iglauer ~ 1991. This edition: Harbour Publishing, 1991. Hardcover. ISBN: 1-55017-054-6. 303 pages.

My rating: 10/10 for her subjects – every one truly fascinating. Discounted heavily for the writing style, which I found frequently rather flat. I’m going to give this one a 7.5/10 overall. 10 for content, 5 for style. Worth a look; maybe you’ll find her easier reading than I did. Her topics are worth exploring.

Would I re-read it? Sure, bits and pieces of it. I wouldn’t tackle it cover to cover again, though. Once was enough for many of the articles, though I’m glad I read what Iglauer had to say. I find her prose hard to absorb – it certainly doesn’t “flow”, being more earnest than sparkling – and it’s a lot of work maintaining concentration, though she covers her subjects extremely thoroughly.

I hesitate to say too thoroughly, because I do believe that her tenacious peering into the heart of each of her topics is what enables her to include so many esoteric and absolutely fascinating details. I do wish that she had just a little more flair in her delivery, though.

Edith Iglauer was alive and well – though showing her age a wee bit, at 93 – and still actively writing the occasional article for Geist magazine in 2012. She was living in her own home with her third husband Frank on the B.C. Coast. Here is a vignette featuring Edith and Frank, by Ted Bishop. An inspiring note: Edith and Frank’s combined age was 189 at the time of the article, and they were both very much “with it” in every conceivable way, barring a few physical infirmities related to their age, like bad knees and failing hearing.

*****

Edith Iglauer is an American journalist with a long and varied history of being present during some very interesting times indeed. Born in Ohio in 1917, she decided while in college that she wanted to become a journalist, and persistently pursued that goal until she achieved it. Unable to stomach the requirements of a newspaper reporter’s job – she jibbed at inquiring of grieving parents as to how they felt about their young son’s tragic death earlier the same day – she was advised that free-lance writing might be her forte. Over the next fifty years Edith pursued interesting stories and people, meticulously researching them and becoming intimately familiar with every aspect of her subjects. Her work was published in leading periodicals of the time, such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, Christian Science Monitor, The Atlantic Monthly, Maclean’s, and many others.

The Strangers Next Door is a retrospective look at her long career, including excerpts from key articles and also her books, with added reflections as to how she came to write the pieces, and anecdotes about her subjects.

Several successful and well regarded books grew out of her articles and experiences, most with Canadian settings and themes. Edith travelled widely through Canada, found the country fascinating, and made her home permanently in British Columbia in the early 1970s, though she retained her American citizenship.

From the Introduction to The Strangers Next Door:

Looking over the pieces I have written, I realize that I have been like someone with family in two countries, attempting to acquaint them with one another. I am not just an American journalist writing in Canada for Americans, but a Canadian journalist writing about America for Canadan as well. Both countries, I have discoverd, still regard their neighbors across our common border as “the strangers next door”, and like any concerned relative, I want them to know and respect one another as much as I do.

The Strangers Next Door covers a broad range of topics.

From the 1940s, articles on:

  • Marian Anderson
  • Working in the radio-newsroom of the Office of War Information in Washington, D.C., which included weekly chats with Eleanor Roosevelt.
  • A posting as a post-World War II correspondent in Yugoslavia, during the rise of Marshal Tito
  • The UN Builds Its Home, 1947

From the 1960s, 70s and 80s:

  • The Mounted Men – an indepth look at the training of police horses and mounted policemen in New York City, 1962. (My favourite article in this book.)
  • The Biggest Foundation, 1972. The building of the World Trade Centre complex in New York.
  • Inuit Journey, 1963-1979. The development of Inuit co-operatives for the production and marketing of arts and handicrafts.
  • Baker Lake Art, 1964. A unique style of Inuit art from a remote corner of the Northwest Territories.
  • The Beautiful Day, 1966. A biographical short story inspired by Edith’s father’s death, published in The New Yorker.
  • Denison’s Ice Road, 1975. The article about the men and machines involved in winter-time road building and trucking across a frozen Arctic lake which grew into a bestselling book, and the inspiration for the current “reality” television series, Ice Road Truckers.
  • Don Snowden, 1929-1984. The detailed obituary of a man who worked to alleviate the poverty and hardships faced by Canadian Inuit peoples by helping them develop and profit from their unique skills and knowledge.
  • Prime Minister, 1969. A first-hand look at what makes Pierre Trudeau tick. Eight days travelling with the Prime Minister and countless hours of background research and interviews resulted in this indepth Profile.
  • The Strangers Next Door, 1973. An essay about Canada, for American readers.
  • “Capi” Blanchet. The mysterious author, M. Wylie Blanchet, of a British Columbia classic, the memoir The Curve of Time is researched and profiled for The Rainforest Chronicles # 8.
  • Seven Stones, 1979. A profile of British Columbia architect Arthur Erickson, the man who planned the University of British Columbia campus, and so many more unique structures . This grew into the 1981 book of the same title.
  • Hubert Evans, 1980. Another profile, this one of the esteemed B.C. writer and poet.
  • Bill Reid, 1982. A profile on the iconic Haida carver and goldsmith.
  • Bella Coola, 1975. Anecdotes of a visit to the fjord-side village, unlikely gem of the BC coast.
  • Fishing with John, 1987. An excerpt from the book. In 1974 Edith met and eventually married BC commercial fisherman John Daly. Their happy partnership ended with John’s sudden death only four years later. Fishing with John is Edith’s memorial, started while John was alive as a book about the salmon fishing way of life on the BC coast, and eventually becoming a personal saga.

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eugenie grandet honore de balzac 001Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac ~ 1833. This edition: Oxford University Press, 2009. Translated by Sylvia Raphael. Introduction & Notes by Christopher Prendergast. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-19-955589-5. 192 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

It is difficult to know how to “rate” a book such as Eugénie Grandet, as its status as an early 19th Century “classic” places it in a category of its own when compared to more contemporary books. I ended up judging it against others of a similar era which I am familiar with, such as works by Dickens, Thackeray, Dumas, and, of course, several of Balzac’s other novels in his ambitious “Human Comedy”.

*****

Eugénie Grandet is a short novel, almost a novella, and the action, such as it is, is limited to the four walls of a gloomy stone house in the French village of Saumur, inhabited by the Grandet family: the elderly Monsieur Grandet, his wife Madame Grandet, their only daughter, Eugénie, in her early twenties as the story begins, and their sole servant, Nanon.

The Grandets live in seemingly straightened circumstances. Their house is decaying around them, they subsist on a restricted diet of only the cheapest provisions, with sugar doled out bit by bit, and the table graced only by unsaleable spoiled fruit and sour wine from the Grandet farms and vineyards. Firewood is doled out stick by stick, and the inhabitants of the house huddle around a shared tallow candle in the evening; their clothes and shoes are worn until threadbare.

The reality however, is that Monsieur Grandet is exceedingly wealthy. By a series of lucky inheritances, a marriage which brought a substantial dowry, clever investments and very shrewd trading, he has purchased numerous estates which were seized from their dispossessed noble owners after the recent Revolution. The income from these properties is immediately profitably reinvested, or else converted to gold, which Monsieur Grandet, a former cask and barrel maker, seals up in wooden chests and stores away in his walled-up “office” in the center of the old stone house.

His wife, daughter, and servant, completely subservient to the soft-spoken but cunningly manipulative family patriarch, never question their situation but meekly go about their daily routines, gratefully accepting the few coins which occasionally are doled out – and promptly “borrowed” back – for “extras”. The villagers around them, however, are fully aware of the extent of the Grandet fortunes, and there is something of a competition underway to see who will be the fortunate man to storm the stone walls, marry the beautiful and devout Eugénie, and eventually inherit the riches.

Monsieur Grandet is well aware of this situation, and plays it to his best advantage, in particular by acquiring the unpaid services of the local lawyer and banker – possessed respectively of an eligible nephew and son –  who each hopes that his marital candidate will win out. Imagine the universal dismay among the families with their eyes on the Grandet fortune when an unexpected youing man suddenly arrives who immediately displaces both of the local swains, at least in Eugénie’s eyes. (Her father has secret ambitions for his daughter which involve neither local candidate.) Eugénie’s cousin Charles has been sent to visit his uncle in the country, as, it soon becomes apparent, to get him safely out of the way while his father – Monsieur Grandet’s brother – declares bankruptcy and then proceeds to kill himself, leaving Charles doubly bereft and dishonoured.

Eugénie promptly falls deeply in love with her handsome cousin, who, after sombrely considering his change in fortune, and realizing that his Parisian mistress must be parted from, returns Eugénie’s professions of love with willing good grace. Monsieur Grandet has an inkling of this infatuation, but he doesn’t worry about it at all, instead arranging to remove Charles from the family circle by buying him a passage to Nantes, where Charles will be able to find occupation as a trader to the Indies, and hopefully work his way back into solvency on his own.

Before Charles departs, he and Eugénie swear undying love to each other, and Eugénie, without her father’s knowledge, gives Charles her priceless dowry of gold coins to help him in his endeavours.

Much drama erupts when Monsieur Grandet discovers that his meek daughter has gone ahead and developed some ideas of her own; the subsequent events prove Eugénie to be as strong-willed as her father, though motivated by kinder emotions than ever that corrupt old miser has ever experienced.

In case you are not familiar with how this little domestic drama plays out, I will leave you right there, mid-story. It is well worth reading for yourself to discover how it all ends, though there are really no surprises, unless it is to see how wonderfully well Eugénie’s character holds up under her many woes.

Eugénie Grandet is still a most diverting read a good century and a half after its original publication. The character portrait of Monsieur Grandet is decidedly the strongest of the novel, despite the title featuring Eugénie; she is rather one-dimensional, but ultimately comes out of the drama with all flags flying, showing a purity of character as rare and precious as her father’s beloved gold.

Monsieur Grandet is one of the most gloriously “tight” of all the fictional misers I’ve yet encountered. Clever, adaptive, deeply cunning and immensely avaricious, he struggles to force himself to act decently to his wife, daughter and the truly unique and admirable Nanon, but he is continually undone by his greed. His last action before he dies is to grasp at the priest’s gleaming crucifix as the last rites are performed; we have no doubt as to his eternal destination, though the devout prayers of his daughter may at least gain him a respite in Purgatory!

*****

This book is the my first entry into the Around the World in 12 Books Challenge – 2013, hosted by Shannon at Giraffe Days .

This is my first time participating in this Challenge, and I noticed just now when I went to the site to include the link in this post that there are some questions included to help guide our reviews. I haven’t addressed any of these in my review of Eugénie Grandet, so I’ll answer them now instead. (This feels a bit like a school assignment! But not in a bad way at all. Let’s see … )

1. What did you learn about the country’s culture, history etc. from reading this book? Any new insights, any shifts in your perception, or did it align with what you knew/understood already?

I didn’t learn anything new about France from my reading of Eugénie Grandet, but it did make me mull over the aftereffects of the French Revolution of the 1790s on the general population; the Revolution’s destruction of the French aristocratic classes cleared the way for the rising Bourgeoisie, the shopkeepers, farmers and tradespeople who took advantage of the changing political climate to attain never-before-possible social and economic status. The book has a detailed description of how post-Revolutionary fortunes were made and how the properties of the nobles changed hands in the ensuing social turmoil.

2. How did land, geography, flora and fauna feature in the book? Did it have a distinct feel that helped you visualise and made you feel like you were there, or was the story more focused on plot?

The novel was decidedly plot-focussed, but there are detailed descriptions of the house in the rural village of Saumur where most of the story’s action takes place. There are also descriptions of the flora of the overgrown Grandet garden which allow us to envision the setting of Eugénie and Charles’ surreptitious courtship. I found that I could visualize the physical setting of Eugénie Grandet with great clarity from the “word pictures” drawn by the author.

3. Did the story make you want to visit/revisit the country, or explore it in a new way if you live there already; did it make you want to read more stories set in the country?

The story, being set almost two centuries before the present time, does not lead me to expect a similar world being present in these contemporary days, but the descriptions were very evocative of what one might still discover in isolated French villages. Reading the novel did leave me with a curiousity to discover a little more about the setting, and to perhaps find some pictures of the vineyards of the Loire. I would love the opportunity to visit rural France, though I can’t say that this novel either strengthened or lessened that desire – it merely confirmed for me how fascinating such a visit would be on so many levels – historical, literary and personal. I am looking forward to reading more of Balzac’s stories set in a similar time, to reacquaint myself with and widen my experience of his very entertaining Human Comedy.

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auntie mame patrick dennis 001Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis ~ 1955. This edition: Popular Library, circa 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 445-08261-095. 254 pages.

My rating: 8/10.

It is what it is – a blissfully easy-to-read, unapologetically American social comedy, with enough perfectly timed, backhanded slaps at social snobbery, racism and anti-Semitism to redeem it from total silliness.

*****

I don’t know quite where she came from, but Auntie Mame appeared one day in a stack of old paperback books I was sorting and putting away. I gave her a rather scornful glance – she was, after all, ensconced between tatty covers emblazoned with movie tie-in headlines, never a particularly endearing feature – and popped her into a box with a bunch of other “maybe someday” books. But not long afterwards she showed up on my night table, brought into the bedroom by (of course) a man, who’d been looking for a diversion, found her intriguing and decided to experience her lavish charms more intimately. After he’d finished with Mame, he left her there to work her charm on me.

“Well, darling,” she whispered to me with a we’re-all-girls-in-here-together-now intonation, “how about it? Don’t you want to find out what Auntie Mame is all about?”

So I read her.

Hotcha!

*****

I’m guessing almost everyone’s either seen one of the two movies based on this 1955 bestseller – the 1958 Rosalind Russell vehicle (pretty darned good), and the 1974 Lucille Ball effort (pretty darned bad) – or one of the countless stage adaptations, or read the actual book itself – printed and reprinted numberless times, most lately in, I believe, 2001. That’s a good half-century of popularity, and I think it’s safe to state that Auntie Mame has a decidedly secure place well up in the top end of the American pop culture archive.

Does she deserve it?

Well, yes, I rather think she does. She’s a deeply lovable creation – with that lovableness outshining her undeniable glamour and her bizarre goings-on as the key reason for my re-reading her spicy “biography” every so often, whenever Mame winningly works herself up to the top of the book stacks, like cream rising to the top of an old-fashioned bottle of milk.

Here’s the basic outline, for those of you who’ve so far been blissfully unaware of the existence of Auntie Mame and her impressionable young nephew, Patrick.

Orphaned at the age of ten in 1929, the very much fictional* Patrick Dennis is sent to live with his wealthy and gloriously extroverted aunt, who is presently holding court (apt term) in a lavish apartment at 3 Beekman Place in Manhattan.

*The author published this book under this pseudonym in order to add verisimilitude to the “memoir” form; after the novel’s success, the pseudonym was maintained for most of the author’s future writings. Edward Tanner is the real name of the author – actually, Edward Everett Tanner III. Mame was inspired by, but was not an accurate depiction of, the author’s real-life aunt, Marion Tanner. Edward Tanner also wrote under the pseudonym “Virginia Rowans”.

Mame welcomes her “own little love” with open arms, and Patrick returns that affection immediately and instinctively, despite his father’s rather foreboding words while making his will the year prior to his sudden demise.

…My father read his will to me in a shaky voice. He said that my Aunt Mame was a very peculiar woman and that to be left in her hands was a fate that he wouldn’t wish a dog, but that beggars couldn’t be choosers and Auntie Mame was my only living relative.

Despite the deathbed wishes of Patrick’s father for his son to receive a conservative upbringing, Mame craftily dodges the stodgy school which Patrick’s trustee, the estimable but strictly conventional Mr. Babcock, has chosen. Instead Patrick ends up in a very avant-garde establishment distinguished by its policy of complete nudity for all, students and staff – and absolute lack of any inhibitions, or actual academic teaching. Mr. Babcock’s visit as the students and their adult mentors are role-playing a school of spawning salmon puts a quick end to the experiment, and lands Patrick in that dreaded boarding school, far away from the influence of his aunt, whom Mr. Babcock regards as the epitome of evil decadence from that moment forward.

Luckily Patrick’s education had already received something of a unorthodox but most useful boost from his aunt’s insistence, from his very first day with her, of Patrick’s carrying a pad of paper with him and writing down any unfamiliar words for future explanation.

I spent that first summer in New York trotting around after Auntie Mame with my vocabulary pad, having Little Morning Chats every afternoon, and being seen and not heard at her literary teas, salons and cocktail parties.

They used a lot of new words, too, and I acquired quite a vocabulary by the end of the summer. I still have some of the vocabulary sheets of odd information picked up at Auntie Mame’s soirees. One, dated July 14, 1929, features such random terms as: Bastille Day, Lesbian, Hotsy-Totsy Club, gang war, Id, daiquiri – although I didn’t sell it properly – relativity, free love, Oedipus complex – another one I misspelled – mobile, stinko – and from here on my spelling went wild – narcissistic, Biarritz, psychoneurotic, Shönberg, and nymphomaniac. Auntie Mame explained all the words she thought I ought to know and then made me put them into sentences which I practiced with Ito, while he did his Japanese flower arrangements and giggled.

Once Patrick is incarcerated in conventional school, his visits to Auntie Mame are restricted to occasional weekends and the holidays. No matter, though, as the two are already bound by a strong and abiding love which will see them through the most outrageous of Mame’s excesses and the rapid ups and downs of her changing fortunes and continual reinventions of herself.

Mame’s fortune is decimated by the Stock Market Crash of October 29, 1929, and she hits the lowest point, financially speaking, of her life, ending up selling roller skates (ineptly) in Macy’s department store, before being rescued at the 11th hour by a wealthy Deep Southern white knight, Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, who sweeps her of her feet and sets her up for the rest of her life, leaving her a seriously large fortune when he dies rather tragically only a few years into the marriage.

Mame sincerely mourns Beau, but continues on her merry way charming and being charmed, and enjoying the attentions both platonic and amorous of a huge range of people, including at one point one of Patrick’s college friends – Mame refuses to let a little thing like age difference stand in the way of her relationships of any sort.

Patrick drifts in and out of Mame’s circle, observing and pithily commenting on her friends and latest fads, which range from the oriental stylings of their first meeting to the Southern belle of the Beau years, to literary pseudo-Irish tweed and brogues, to war-time Friend of England sponsoring some truly horrible Cockney refugee children in a Colonial mansion which they promptly completely destroy.

Patrick falls in and out of numerous relationships on his own, from gold-digging waitress Bubbles, to über-snobbish fiance Gloria Upson, to a poverty-stricken but determinedly aristocratic trio of blue-blooded and stunningly beautiful sisters. He finally finds true love, marries and produces a son of his own, only to have Mame swish in sari-bedecked and trailing a pet swami during her Indian reincarnation period, to carry her latest “little love” off to the orient, thus bringing our tale full circle.

*****

Undeniably funny – though I never did “laugh out loud” as many reviewers report themselves doing – this satirical tale is as full of barbs as a porcupine is of quills. The author uses his humorous platform to trot out his very decided views on the state of middle class American mores, while amusing us with his bitchy delivery – there’s a decidedly contemporary feel to a lot of the humour, despite the book being well into its sixth decade by now.

“Risque” is a word not often used today, but it applies in full force to Auntie Mame – the book and the character. Inhibitions – pshaw! If it feels good and doesn’t harm anyone, go for it! is the credo Mame lives by, and Patrick slips into that attitude easily, though prudishness occasionally rears its head in his case. The innuendo throughout is frequently gloriously bawdy, though there are a few groaningly bad double entendres, as when Patrick reports on his first social occasion at Auntie Mame’s, as an still-innocent ten-year-old. (Needed information: Norah is Patrick’s Irish nurse, and Ito is Mame’s Japanese houseman; Prohibition is in full swing.)

One lady with red hair said that she spent an hour a day on the Couch with her doctor and that he charged her twenty-five dollars every time she came. Norah led me to another part of the room.

The little Japanese man gave Norah a glass and said it was right off the boat and Norah said she wasn’t used to spirits – even though she was always telling me about seeing ghosts and haunts – but this time she’d take a drop of the creature. She seemed to be feeling very happy all of a sudden. And in a little while she asked Ito to give her another Nip.

Oh. My. Goodness. That was pretty dire, Mr. Dennis/Tanner. Had to read this bit twice to make sure I’d seen it correctly. Groan. How many desperately bad puns did the author cram into these few sentences? I think I counted six.

Luckily most of the jibes aren’t quite so deeply awful, but in the interests of full disclosure the prospective reader should be warned of these types of things!

To sum up, I do ultimately enjoy this gloriously campy period piece. Yes, it’s chock full of period-typical stereotypes and attitudes towards women and “foreigners”, but that doesn’t bother me one whit in this one – it’s an innocently era-correct sort of prejudice, and there’s enough social awareness going on of the greater evils in the world of the time to excuse the bits which would be politically incorrect if written today.

It’s a refreshingly easy read, too, as I think I mentioned earlier, and has a very American type of blatantly outrageous humour which appeals in its own way as much as the typically lower key, straight-faced British literary wit does. You do need to pay a certain amount of attention while reading to catch all the nuances, but Auntie Mame romps along at such a good pace that drowsing off in her company is not a danger at all.

(And I’m glad to report that I didn’t use the term “madcap” once in this review. Ha! Points for me!)

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Midnight on the Desert: chapters of autobiography by J.B. Priestley ~ 1937. This edition: Readers’ Union & William Heinemann Ltd., 1940. Hardcover. 312 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10. Extremely hard to classify this book, but I found it completely engaging. The time theories near the end were completely over my head, but I appreciated Priestley’s enthusiasm nonetheless.

*****

I had expected a travel book of sorts, and Midnight on the Desert could certainly fall under that classification, but it is also so very much more. An examination of what it means to be a writer and an artist; a critique of the state of the world in politics, religion, philosophy, architecture and the performing arts; an ode to nature; a manifesto for seeking the good in the world and overcoming adversity and “doing one’s part”; a record of observation by a keen and analytical observer.

I have been spinning out my reading of this marvelously unexpected gem, and have been racking my brains over how best to convey what this unique work is all about and why I found it so compelling. Words do not come easily to me, which is why I’m a reader and not a writer, aside from these attempts at distilling the essence of what I find on the printed page. Perhaps I will let Priestley speak for himself.

First, the “set-up”.

Let me begin with what I can remember quite clearly. It was the end of my stay on the ranch in Arizona, last winter…There was the usual accumulated litter of letters and odd papers to be gone through, and most of it to be destroyed. But that was not all. I had decided during the evening to burn certain chapters, many thousands of words, of the book I had been writing…Yes, thousands and thousands of words would have to go, along with the rubbish; good words, all arranged to make sound sense, and with a cash value in the market, and representing, too, something more than money – time, precious and priceless time, of which, they say, only so much is allotted to each of us. I dare not wait for morning. Midnight was the hour for such a deed.

The first chapter starts with an appreciation and evocation of a place dear to the author’s heart, a small writer’s hut at the edge of the desert on a guest ranch in the Mojave Desert, where Priestley had spent the better part of the winter. He describes the beauty and majesty of the still, clear desert night, and then branches of in a dozen different directions in a sort of free association of ideas – random – oh, yes! – but most clear and sensible – he never loses us in his side trips though we fetch up back at the beginning a mite breathless and dazed at the speed and scope of our journey.

The papers are not yet set alight, though the fire is lit and is roaring in the wood stove, but we are far away now from the desert, back in England, getting ready to set sail for America, at the beginning of this particular trip. The Atlantic is crossed, New York attained, and Priestley is off.

I told myself severely that for once I must take New York quietly, as just another city. I had some work to do – to produce my play – but I must do that work as calmly as if I were at home in London. (I overlooked the fact that it is quite impossible for me to produce a play calmly anywhere; for that mad old witch, the Theatre, tolerates no calmness…)

… All other cities … seem in retrospect like mere huddles of mud huts. Here .. be Babylon and Nineveh in steel and concrete, the island of shining towers, all the urban poetry of our time … I would hurry down these canyons and gulfs they call avenues, cry out as one magnificent vista of towers crowns another, hold my breath at nightfall to see the glittering palaces in the sky, and wonder how I can ever again endure the gloomy and stunted London …

… There is a deep inner excitement, like that of a famished lover waiting for his mistress, that I cannot account for – not when it outlasts the mere novelty of arrival, and goes on week after week … I would begin to feel empty inside. It would be impossible for me to sit still and be quiet. I must go somewhere, eat and drink with a crowd, see a show, make a noise. Time must not merely be killed, but savagely murdered in public. In this mood, which has never missed me yet in New York, I feel a strange apprehension, unknown to me in any other place. The city assumes a queer menacing aspect … I begin to fancy that perhaps it is waiting for some other kind of people – chromium-plated giants without dreams or tenderness – to come along and claim it …

.. I feel like a midget character moving in an early scene of some immense tragedy, as if I had had a glimpse in some dream, years ago, of the final desolation of this city, of sea-birds mewing and nesting in these ruined avenues. Familiar figures of the streets begin to move in some dance of death. That baker outside the Broadway burlesque show, whose voice has almost rusted away from inviting you day and night to step inside and see the girls, now seems a sad demon croaking in Hell. The traffic’s din sounds like the drums in the March to the Gallows of a Symphonie Fantastique infinitely greater, wilder, more despairing than Berlioz’. Yes, this is all very fanciful, of course, the literary mind playing with images; yet the mood behind it, that feeling of spiritual desolation, that deepening despair, are real enough…

That was the distillation of, let’s see, four pages or so, and the man can keep it up indefinitely. He turns the same sort of passionate stream-of-consciousness writing to everything he observes and experiences. Further along in the book we are treated to similar digressions on The Theatre and the experience of working as a novelist-dramatist taking the written word to the stage, and about the challenges of being an author in general, and the quest to both satisfy the inner urge to record and create, and to fulfill the ever-difficult goal of please one’s readers.

Give us, please, you cry, the real world, not some triviality taking place in a pretty-pretty imaginary world, no mere escape stuff. Certainly, madam; certainly, sir. Now what is happening in this real world? The Communists and Fascists are demonstrating and counter-demonstrating, preparing for a fight; the economic system of our fathers is breaking down; Europe is bristling with armaments and gigantic intolerances, Asia is stirring out of her ancient dream, America is bewildered and bitter; one kind of civilization is rapidly vanishing and God-knows-what is taking its place; some men are marching in column of fours, shouting slogans, and making ready to kill and be killed; some men – many of them in exile because their minds are honest and not without distinction – are arguing in a melancholy circle; other men are lining up in hope of finding a little bread, a little work, a little peace of mind.

And Priestley goes on:

But no, no, no, this will not do, you tell us: you want a novel, a fiction to take you out of yourselves, not a newspaper, a fat pamphlet, a slab of propaganda. After all, private life goes on; men still fall in love, women fall out of it; there are entertaining quarrels between the Smiths and the Robinsons; young men are suddenly promoted and girls are given fur coats and diamond bracelets; and there is still plenty of comic stuff about – oh, uproariously comic stuff. This being so, get on with your novel, and don’t give yourself airs, don’t come over the propagandist, the gloomy prophet, over us.

… You may be sure that whatever he [the author] decides, he will be blamed. He may succeed in displeasing everybody. Lucky enough in other respects, I have been unlucky in this. Some years ago, because I had long cherished the plan and was now in the mood to work it out, I wrote a long, comic, picaresque, a fairy-tale sort of novel, called The Good Companions. I am neither prouder nor more ashamed of having written it than I am of having written any of the other books and plays under my name. But it happened to achieve an astonishing popularity. Since then – and this s an exact statement – I do not think I have met or corresponded with five-and-twenty persons who have not blamed me, either for having written this particular novel, or for not having written a lot of other novels just like it. One party denounces me as a hearty, insensitive lowbrow. The other party asks what the devil I mean by turning myself into a gloomy highbrow … I am condemned – and for a long term, it seems – to offend all round … No wonder, then, my new novel needed some thinking out. I was not bored on those trains …

Travelling by train, observing every fellow human being he comes across, from baggage car attendant to well-preserved and painted elderly matron sharing the dining room, Priestley goes off on more tangents, such as the difficulties of being an American woman, never being allowed to drop your eyes from your goal of “keeping up” for a moment; then looking out the window, asit were, to the American landscape itself and the need for painters, writers and poets to develop to capture its unique quality – the processes of developing a regional form of the arts, true to the physical space which inspires the artists.

Odes to the great physical beauty of the American West are in this book – the deserts and mountains, the Grand Canyon, the stark glories of rock and sand and rivers carving out their otherworldly sculptures. Priestley is in love with this aspect of America, and he sings his praises most eloquently well.

What a fascinating book; what a full book. One to read right through without stopping; one to tackle in small bits, to digest and mull over and agree with and occasionally refute. Not all that much autobiography, despite the tag on the title, but many insights into what went on in the mind of this deeply creative and opinionated man.

An excellent read; a grand glimpse into the mind of a master writer.

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hans frost dj hugh walpoleHans Frost by Hugh Walpole ~1929. This edition: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1929. Stated First Edition. Hardcover. 356 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10.

*****

No one perhaps in the United Kingdom was quite so frightened as was Nathalie Swan on the third day of November, 1924, sitting in a third-class carriage about quarter to five of a cold, windy, darkening afternoon. Her train was drawing her into Paddington Station, and how she wished that she were dead!

She sat in a corner on the hard, dusty seat, her hands clenched, her heart beating with hot, thick, hammering throbs. She wished that she were dead. She was an orphan. No one in the world needed her. The Proudies whom she was abandoning had been very, very good to her, but certainly did not need her. The famous Mrs. Frost to whom she was going would almost surely not be good to her–and as to needing her . . .

Open upon her lap was a number of that shiny geographically illustrated paper the London News, and among other portraits was one of Hans Frost, and under it was written:

Mr. Hans Frost, whose Seventieth Birthday occurs on November 3. His friends and admirers are marking the occasion with a suitable presentation.

She had had this face in front of her, framed in a neat black frame for the last six years, had carried it with her everywhere, had had it always in her bedroom wherever she might be. For was he not her uncle, her famous, marvellous uncle whom she had never seen but had made her hero, her conception of God, indeed, ever since she could remember?

Nineteen-year-old Nathalie arrives at her Aunt Ruth’s and Uncle Hans’ house, only to find that this is the night of that gala 70th birthday dinner. She’s tremendously relieved that she isn’t expected to attend, and after she is shown to her room, finally breaks down into tears of homesickness and apprehension, after her bags have been unpacked and her dinner delivered on a tray.

Meanwhile Hans Frost, the great writer, has received his guests and graciously accepted the wonderful gift his admirers have pooled together to purchase for him:

And it was a lovely thing! It was a very small oil painting and the artist was Manet.

The picture had for its subject two ladies and a gentleman outside a print shop in Paris. One lady wore a blue crinoline and the other a white; there was a little fuzzy white dog, the glass windows shone in the afternoon light, and beyond the pearl-grey wall of the old house there was a sky of broken blue and swollen white cloud. It was a very lovely little Manet. . . .

“Oh!” cried Hans Frost … He saw only the picture. He had always adored Manet, a painter closer to his soul than any other. He entered into the heart of a Manet at once, as though it had been painted for himself alone. He could be critical about everything else in the world (and was so), but not about Manet. When he was depressed or troubled by his liver he went and looked at Manet. . . . And now he would have a Manet all of his own, his very own–that deep and tender beauty, that blue crinoline, that fuzzy little dog, that white cloud against the gentle blue; these were his forever.

The dinner has been given, kind words have been spoken, Ruth has been a spectacular hostess – as always – but tonight an essential something has changed in Hans Frost’s world. He has unexpectedly met his niece, for, hearing her crying, he has gone into her room and comforted her – something of a surprise to both of them, especially Hans as he had not even known she was coming. The unexpected meeting has affected him strangely, triggering deep within him one of the creative impulses which have in the past led to the some of his best fictional creations. Hans feels like something is about to happen, an immense upheaval of his predictable, comfortable world, and of course, this being a novel, he is completely correct!

Hans, much to Ruth’s dismay, takes Nathalie under his wing and squires her about town. Ruth is deeply jealous of this new interest, this infatuation with the lovely young niece. She had assumed Nathalie would be far below Hans’ notice, and she immediately fears the worst, that the affection Hans feels for Nathalie is romantic, possible even sexual, though Hans has long since laid aside that part of his life, at least as far as Ruth is aware. But the relationship that has sprung into existence is something even more dangerous to Ruth’s peace of mind. Nathalie and Hans find they are true kindred spirits, and an idealized father-daughter, or rather, meeting-of-two-minds-as-equals friendship is quickly evolving.

Hans introduces Nathalie into the rather messy world of the striving writers, musicians and artists which Ruth has always scorned – at least until success and renown add a stamp of respectability to the untidy bohemians. Nathalie soon falls in love with a Russian refugee – London in 1924 is packed with “orphans of the storm” from the recent revolution – and Hans finds himself acting as benevolent advisor and rather bemused sponsor to the young lovers. Meanwhile, his own marriage is in deep trouble, as he decides that the only way he can return to a semblance of his former creativity as a writer is to break away from his comfortable life and his socially ambitious wife and retreat to some place of solitude to await the return of his muse.

Hans and Nathalie solve their respective dilemmas, but not before much drama, most of it involving an offended and officious Ruth. The ending of the story is delicately poignant and emotionally satisfying, and the author has a few surprises for his readers in how he tidies up all his many loose ends.

An engaging story, which I have enjoyed with renewed appreciation each time I’ve read it. Very much a period piece, but of a superior type, in that the modern reader can fully enter into and embrace the world that the author has created and captured for those of us willing to experience it almost a century later.

The author has a well-developed sense of the absurd, which he uses to create satirical observations of the more outrageous characters and habits of the time he’s portraying, all the while maintaining a rather sentimental tone regarding his sympathetic protaganists, while setting up his antagonists for their eventual rout. Walpole maintains a good balance throughout, showing the internal struggles which make even the least likeable characters very understandably human, and worthy of at least a morsel of our sympathy.

I wish I could express in words the special quality of Hugh Walpole’s writing in this novel, and why I find it so appealing, but I won’t bother with over-analysis for fear of destroying my affection for it by too much probing. No deep messages or life-and-death dramas, merely an entertaining tale, competently told, focussing on various human relationships. Not much more – but in this case that is quite enough.

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the lonely life bette davis 001The Lonely Life by Bette Davis ~ 1962. This edition: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1962. Hardcover. 254 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10.

*****

I’m not a particularly dedicated fan of Bette Davis, though I’ve liked what I’ve seen of her acting – films I can remember watching are Dark Victory, Now, Voyager, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Death on the Nile, and of course, most memorably, that glorious 1950s classic, All About Eve. Probably a few others over the years. But I do like a good autobiography, no matter who it’s about, and this one passed the browse test recently and found its way home.

I’d wavered a bit on it, because of the price (let’s just say “not cheap”) but the bookseller kindly gave my a nice discount – without my asking, because I very seldom dicker, figuring most people in the used book business aren’t exactly getting rich. I already had a generous collection assembled on the front counter, and this particular chap believes in encouraging his repeat customers. (The Final Chapter, downtown on George Street, the block between 4th and 5th Avenue, if you’re ever in Prince George, B.C. Cheerful, chatty owner – a self-confessed “non-reader” <gasp!> – his store has a quite decent selection, affordably priced for the most part. I’ve found some prizes there.)

Back to the bio.

*****

Bette Davis comes across in this tell-all much as she does on the screen – confident, outspoken and decidedly unapologetic. She fixes her eye on the goal, and powers ahead until she gets here, quite happily stepping on as many toes as need be.

The quality of writing is quite good, if a bit choppy in style – lots of short sentences. There often seems to be an assumption that the reader will have prior knowledge of whatever’s being discussed. Fair enough, coming from such a celebrity; this memoir was published at a time when most people reading it would have been fans, with intimate knowledge of the career of this prominent movie star.

Bette Davis was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in 1908, famously during a thunderstorm, as she relates in The Lonely Life:

I happened between a clap of thunder and a streak of lightning. It almost hit the house and destroyed a tree out front. As a child I fancied that the Finger of God was directing the attention of the world to me … I always felt special – part of a wonderful secret. I was always going to be somebody. I didn’t know exactly what at first … but when my dream became clear, I followed it.

Bette, her younger sister Bobby, and their mother Ruth – “Ruthie” – were deserted by their father and husband when Bette was seven years old. Her mother refused to wallow in self-pity, but set herself to make a successful and prosperous life for herself and her daughters. Ruthie took on a wide variety of jobs, sending the girls to good boarding schools, and always arranging to spend vacation times together in interesting locations.

Bette received an unorthodox but adequate education; she was a great reader, and took singing, piano and dance lessons, apparently excelling at all of these pursuits. At some point she decided that her Great Big Goal was a theatrical career, and several seasons of New England theatre made up Bette’s dramatic apprenticeship.

As we all know, Bette eventually made the jump from dusty New York theatres to California sound stages. Roundly criticized as being homely in appearance and with zero sex appeal, there was paradoxically a certain something about Bette that came across as mesmerizing when she took on a dramatic role, and of course, there were those beautiful eyes.

Bette was never meek or humble. From a very early age she was tremendously focussed and not afraid to set her sights high, though she often fell afoul of fellow actors and her employers for her outspoken ways. She wasn’t afraid to take on unpopular characters, or to look less than glamorous if the role called for it – another characteristic which shocked many in “the business” was her insistence on realism over “pretty”. And though she full well knew what people were saying about her, she brazenly professed not to care.

If you aim high, the pygmies will jump on your back and tug at your skirts.The people who call you a driving female will come along for the ride. If they weigh you down, you will fight them off. It is then that you are called a bitch.

I do not regret one professional enemy I have made. Any actor who doesn’t dare to make an enemy should get out of the business. I worked for my career and I’ll protect it as I would my children – every inch of the way. I do not regret the dust I kicked up.

Speaking of those children, it is very obvious from this book that Bette’s dedication to her family matched her ambition. Frankly and with bitter regret, Bette reports that her first husband convinced her to have an abortion, fearing that a baby would damage her career. Years later, with husband number three, Bette did at last have a child. Barbara Davis Sherry – “B.D.” – was born in 1947, when Bette was 39. Under doctor’s orders to avoid further pregnancies, Bette and her fourth husband later adopted two more children, Michael and Margot. Margot was later found to have been brain-damaged at birth, and after being diagnosed as severely mentally handicapped, was then institutionalized, though she continued to spend much time with her family, and appears prominently in Bette Davis’s family publicity photos.

Bette’s personal life was predictably tumultuous; she was married four times, divorced from three of those husbands, and widowed tragically when her “true love”, her second husband, died suddenly of a blood clot in his brain after collapsing while walking down the street.

The Lonely Life was written in 1961, the year after Bette’s divorce from her fourth and final husband, actor Gary Merrill, her co-star and screen husband in the iconic All About Eve.

The Lonely Life, Bette says, refers to her resolution to live without a man in her life. She’s had rotten luck with husbands; better to go it alone.

After 1962 Bette had a number of career ups and downs and come-backs; she never really retired, never rested on her considerable laurels.

Several other memoirs followed The Lonely Life. Mother Goddam (1974) and This ‘n’ That (1987), continue the tale. Bette Davis died in 1989 from breast cancer, at the age of 81.

bette davis back cover the lonely life 001

Here she is on the back cover of The Lonely Life, aged 54.

I wondered how much of The Lonely Life was actually written by Bette herself; it did have an authentic-sounding ring to it. The dedication gives the answer to this question:

I attribute the enormous research, the persistence of putting together the pieces of this very “crossed”-word puzzle which comprises my life, to Sandford Dody.

Without him this book could never have been! His understanding of my reluctance to face the past was his most valuable contribution. We were collaborators in every sense of the world.

-Bette Davis

March 8, 1962

Sandford Dody was an aspiring actor-turned-writer who ghost-wrote a number of Hollywood memoirs. His own story seems worthy of a follow-up, and my attention was caught by his 2009 obituary in the Washington Post.  Dody’s version of his own life, Giving Up the Ghost (1980), is now on my wish list of future Hollywood memoirs to read.

The Lonely Life was a fast-paced and engaging, once I found my way into the choppy rhythm of the writing style. I particularly enjoyed the  well-depicted childhood and young adulthood reminiscences. My interest faded a bit in the later parts, when Bette Davis talks about her film career and the encounters with studio owners, directors, and fellow stars – lots of name-dropping, and assumptions that we know what she’s going on about. Much of the time it made sense – the names were mostly very recognizable – but occasionally I felt out of the loop.

While Bette is gracious about most of the people in her life – loyalty to her chosen friends is one of her positive traits – it is obvious that there was also a substantial baggage of animosity and bitterness in some of her working and personal relationships.

I don’t necessarily like Bette Davis any more after reading this personal saga, but I did feel like I understood her, and appreciated what she had to say, and why she said it. She was frequently too strident in her self-justification for me to feel that I could really relate to the egoism of the “star” aspect of her personality, but I did feel that she came across as worthy of admiration and respect for her many accomplishments.

The perfectionist little girl with the lofty goals did achieve her ambitious destiny. She stood up for her ideals of artistic integrity her entire career. She was literate, thoughtful and highly intelligent and articulate, and she was a darned hard worker.

I put down this book with the strong inclination to seek out and watch some more of Bette Davis’s films – the ones she spoke favourably of, among the vast array of B-movies she also appeared in – so you may take this as a pleased-with-the-read recommendation.

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A blog post found in my internet wanderings, and too good not to share with those of you who have expressed an interest in Walpole. We are not alone!

Is it time for a Hugh Walpole revival of sorts?

  Other People's Words: The Quivering Pen Discovers Hugh Walpole

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Who is Hugh Walpole and Why Has He Invaded My Library?

When I tell you the story of how I met Hugh Walpole, I’d have to start off by saying something grandiose like “It was one of those moments when luck, timing and commerce converged.”

Mr. Walpole, for as much as I know him by now, would appreciate grandiosity, mottled with pomposity.  And, by the way, when I say “met Hugh Walpole,” I am strictly speaking in the biblio sense of the word.  The dude’s been dead for 69 years.

I discovered him on a bookshelf, dirty with neglect, in the garage of a modest house in the foothills of Butte, Montana…

Continued here:

David Abrams Books Blogspot – The Quivering Pen

Enjoy!

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man & nature efb 2012

Thinking of T.S. Eliot tonight, because of the way his poetry has been showing up in my reading lately. I’ve just finished reading Hugh Walpole’s The Joyful Delaneys, and was intrigued by the snippet of Eliot verse on the frontispiece, so I searched it out. It’s from a play, The Rock, written and performed in 1934. I’ve gone through the verses and highlighted those which I found the most compelling; the entire work is 21 pages long, so it is a bit lengthy to include in its entirety here.

The Rock was performed as a pageant to raise money for the building of new churches in London. It speaks to mankind’s relation to God, about the implications of a world lived without religion, and, more to the point, what it means to build a church. The famous “Choruses” are spoken by bands of workmen. The Rock is strongly pro-religion with anti-fascist/anti-communist overtones, in reaction to the looming shadow of the totalitarian regimes building in Europe, and the rumblings of the coming Second World War.

The entire text can be found here: T.S. Eliot – The Rock

Even taken out of context with the whole work, many of these verses are memorable.

*****

The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,

The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.

О perpetual revolution of configured stars,

О perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,

О world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!

***

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

***

I journeyed to London, to the timekept City,

Where the River flows, with foreign flotations.

There I was told: we have too many churches,

And too few chop-houses. There I was told:

Let the vicars retire. Men do not need the Church

In the place where they work, but where they spend their

Sundays.

In the City, we need no bells:

Let them waken the suburbs.

I journeyed to the suburbs, and there I was told:

We toil for six days, on the seventh we must motor

To Hindhead, or Maidenhead.

If the weather is foul we stay at home and read the papers.

In industrial districts, there I was told

Of economic laws.

In the pleasant countryside, there it seemed

That the country now is only fit for picnics.

And the Church does not seem to be wanted

In country or in suburbs; and in the town

Only for important weddings.

***

The world turns and the world changes,

But one thing does not change.

In all of my years, one thing does not change.

However you disguise it, this thing does not change:

The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil.

***

The desert is not remote in southern tropics,

The desert is not only around the corner,

The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you.

The desert is in the heart of your brother.

***

The voices of the Unemployed:

No man has hired us

With pocketed hands

And lowered faces

We stand about in open places

And shiver in unlit rooms.

Only the wind moves

Over empty fields, untilled

Where the plough rests, at an angle

To the furrow. In this land

There shall be one cigarette to two men,

To two women one half pint of bitter

Ale. In this land

No man has hired us.

Our life is unwelcome, our death

Unmentioned in “The Times.”

***

What life have you if you have not life together?

There is no life that is not in community,

And no community not lived in praise of God.

***

And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads.

And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour

Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,

But all dash to and fro in motor cars,

Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.

Nor does the family even move about together.

But every son would have his motor cycle,

And daughters ride away on casual pillions.

***

In the land of lobelias and tennis flannels

The rabbit shall burrow and the thorn revisit,

The nettle shall flourish on the gravel court,

And the wind shall say: “Here were decent godless people:

Their only monument the asphalt road

And a thousand lost golf balls.”

***

When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?

Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”

What will you answer? “We all dwell together

To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?

And the Stranger will depart and return to the desert.

О my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger,

Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.

О weariness of men who turn from God

To the grandeur of your mind and the glory of your action,

To arts and inventions and daring enterprises.

To schemes of human greatness thoroughly discredited.

Binding the earth and the water to your service,

Exploiting the seas and developing the mountains,

Dividing the stars into common and preferred.

Engaged in devising the perfect refrigerator,

Engaged in working out a rational morality,

Engaged in printing as many books as possible,

Plotting of happiness and flinging empty bottles,

Turning from your vacancy to fevered enthusiasm

For nation or race or what you call humanity;

Though you forget the way to the Temple,

There is one who remembers the way to your door:

Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.

You shall not deny the Stranger.

***

But it seems that something has happened that has never happened before:

though we know not just when, or why, or

how, or where.

Men have left God not for other gods, they say, but for no god;

and this has never happened before

That men both deny gods and worship gods, professing first

Reason,

And then Money, and Power, and what they call Life, or Race,

or Dialectic.

The Church disowned, the tower overthrown, the bells up-

turned, what have we to do

But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards

In an age which advances progressively backwards?

***

T.S. Eliot ~ 1934

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Tthe joyful delaneys hugh walpolehe Joyful Delaneys by Hugh Walpole ~ 1938. This edition: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1940. Hardcover. 401 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10.

Lost the half point because of the too-convenient wrap up of the ending. A very minor complaint!

What an enthralling read this was. Much better than expected.

*****

2013 is going to be  good reading year, if this omen is correct. The very first 2013 book, an ancient copy of one of Hugh Walpole’s London novels, The Joyful Delaneys, has been lurking on the edges of my awareness for at least ten years, possibly more. It was purchased at a library book sale, and its tattered condition, many interior stamps – Tulameen and Princeton had enthusiastic librarians! – and dog-eared and marked pages testify to its one-time popularity. This copy at least has been very well read.

Just not by me, until the last few days. The Joyful Delaneys was one of the lonely oddities left behind after my recent tidying of the bedroom bookshelves –  books which are sometimes the sole representatives of their author’s literary line in my collection, books I’m not quite sure about – stay or go? – will I really read this one again? – and books I haven’t read yet, but truly mean to, someday…

On January 1st, 2013, I finally picked up The Joyful Delaneys with the stern instruction to myself to just read this already and decide once and for all if it’s a keeper or a pass-along. Settling down with a mood of grim purpose to that self-imposed task, I was immediately surprised by the very first lines:

‘Happy New Year!’ Fred Delaney said, standing in the doorway and smiling at the in-no-way beautiful person of Mr. Munden.

He had switched on the electric light, and the illumination revealed Patrick Munden lying half in, half out of the bedclothes. No, he was not beautiful, his thin pointed face unshaven, his black hair spread about the pillow, his lean body protected from the cold by pyjamas, grey with blood-red stripes, by no means so fresh as they should be. The light pressed on Munden’s eyes and he opened them, stared wildly about him, then, cursing, buried his face in the pillow.

‘Happy New Year!’ Delaney said again.

‘What the hell–‘

Promising, no? And the serendipitous timing! A book opening with New Years Day, being read by me on New Years Day! A complete and utter unplanned coincidence. Surrendering to the moment, I settled down to my suddenly-not-so-tedious-seeming read. And was rewarded by its general excellence, much more so than I deserved for my previous neglect. Why, oh why, hadn’t I read this one earlier?!

Here’s a bit more, continuing the snippet from the first page.

‘Eight-thirty. You asked me as a special favour to call you.’

Munden raised his head and stared at Delaney. It was not a bad-looking face. The blue eyes were good, the forehead broad and clear, the chin finely pointed. He looked clever and peevish and hungry. He stretched himself, his open pyjama jacket showing a chest skeletonic and hairy. He rubbed his eyes with a hairy wrist.

‘Oh, it’s you, is it? Let me sleep, can’t you?’

Delaney watched him with genial good temper.

‘I’m doing you a favour. You said last night it would be the greatest of your life. You have to see the editor of something or other at ten sharp.’

‘He can go to hell. Turn the light off and let me sleep.’

‘You said I was to drag you out of bed if necessary–that your whole life depended on your getting there at ten.’

‘Well, it doesn’t. Let me sleep, can’t you?’

‘All right. But I’ll leave the light on . . .’

‘No, don’t go.’ Munden sat up, blinking. ‘How damnably fresh you look! It’s revolting. You were up till three, I don’t doubt–‘

‘I was,’ Delaney said cheerfully. ‘I don’t need a lot of sleep.’

‘Well, I do. . . . Oh, blast! Why did I ever tell you anything about it?’

‘You were very serious. Most earnest. You said you must begin the New Year properly.’

‘Speaking of which, can you lend me a fiver?’ Munden asked. ‘Only for a week.’

‘Afraid I haven’t got such a thing,’ Delaney said, laughing.

‘Hang it all, I paid you the rent only a week ago–‘

‘Thanks very much. But those are the terms, you know. If you don’t pay you go. Although we’d hate to lose you.’

Munden sighed.

‘Look in the trousers, old man, will you? They’re hanging over the chair. See if there’s anything there.’

Delaney looked in the trousers and found half a crown, some coppers, a lipstick and a half-filled packet of cigarettes. He laid these things on the dressing-table.

‘You don’t use lipstick, I hope, Patrick?’

‘No, of course not. What do you think I am? How much is there?’

‘Two and ninepence halfpenny.’

‘I’ll make them advance something on the two articles. You wouldn’t like to buy a Chrysler, would you?’

‘A Chrysler? Whatever for?’

‘It’s a marvellous bargain. Ponsonby’s only had it a year and simply not used it at all. He’d let you have it for one-fifty and I’d get a commission.’

Delaney laughed. ‘We go round in our Morris–just as we always have–same old family, same old Morris.’

Munden looked at him with curiosity. ‘I don’t understand you, Fred. You own this house; every bit of it is let to people who pay their rent. You’re none of you what I’d call extravagant and yet you never have any cash.’ He stared resentfully. He went on: ‘You’re a horrid sight–so cheerful and clean and bright. You’re all like that. I ought to hate the lot of you. So unintellectual too. You never read a book, have horrible bourgeois politics, believe in things, in England, beautiful virginal girls, Dickens, cricket, football. . . . Oh, God! You’re vile! I don’t know why I go on living here.’

*****

It seems like I’ve recently been reading authors who have been quite taken with T.S. Eliot – most recently Rumer Godden (in Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time) and Diana Wynne Jones (in Fire and Hemlock); here is a third. Hugh Walpole begins this beguiling novel with this quotation from Eliot’s The Rock:

When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city ?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’
What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together
To make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’?
And the Stranger will depart and return to the desert.
O my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger,
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.

The answer, ultimately, is that the community wins over commerce, at least in this one instance, at least for a while. But there is a lot of ground to cover before this satisfactory state of affairs comes to pass.

The Delaneys – Frederick and Meg, and grown children Stephen and Kitty – are the financially struggling owners of one of the last houses in their corner of London’s Mayfair – Shepherd Market – which has not been pulled down and built over or converted into modern flats. The house has been in the family two hundred and fifty years; this year, 1934, looks very much like it will see the Delaneys rousted from residence at last.

A precarious existence is made possible by the renting of rooms to a number of similarly situated people – the random waifs and strays, the elderly and the dispossessed of the former upper classes who are now very much down on their luck. A pair of the Delaney tenants, Dodie and ‘Smoke’ Pullet, have exhausted every financial avenue, and are preparing to give notice. Smoke mulls over his bleak future possibilities with Fred, including that of the ultimate escape – suicide.

‘You’ve no idea, old boy, of the kind of life that Dodie and I’ve been leading in the last year. We’ve cadged deliberately on everybody we know. We’ve angled for meals, been everywhere and anywhere with the chance of getting something for nothing. We’ve spent days and nights with the most awful people to be safe for food and drink. It can’t go on for ever…

…Unless something happened Smoke would do just as he said. And perhaps it would be the best thing for him. That was the real problem at the heart of the trouble. There was no place in this present world for the Smoke Pullets unless there was a World War again–then they would be admirable.

Before 1914 they had played a very necessary part; they were a real need in English life and had been so for centuries. They had been the Squire and the Squire’s son; some property, possibly a seat in Parliament, beneficent, tyrannical, understanding in their country community, conforming, traditional, safe and sound. So it had been since the Wars of the Roses; from Agincourt 1415, say, until Serajevo 1914. And now, within the space of twenty years, they had become only a burden, and a wearisome burden at that. There was no future of any kind for Smoke and he without a leg which he had lost in the service of his country. Probably a nice gas-oven would be the best thing.

But Fred Delaney can’t stay grim for long. Along with the pervasive background atmosphere of despair there are plenty of opportunities for love and laughter. He and Meg have long enjoyed what might be termed an “open” marriage, though Meg has not taken advantage of her freedom as her spouse most definitely has. The two deeply and truly love each other, but Fred has indulged his physical desires for other women regularly through the years. Meg knows this, and has made her peace with it, and now at long last is in her turn preparing to indulge in a little fling with an old flame from her youth who has re-entered her life, and who has confessed a lifelong infatuation with Meg, despite his own married state.

Fred is currently pursuing a beautiful though frigid socialite; Kitty makes the acquaintance of a young man clerking in an antique shop; Stephen falls in love with the sixteen-year-old daughter of a dissipated gambler. 1934 promises to be an emotionally charged year in the tight-knit Delaney family enclave, even before their house woes escalate, which they soon do.

Hugh Walpole skilfully weaves together these story strands and half a dozen others into this increasingly absorbing saga. His characters step off the page in living, breathing colour; his descriptions are better than photographs, including as they do sounds and smells and tastes and emotions as well as vivid visual descriptions; he skilfully plays on our feelings by including us as benign fellow voyeurs sharing a god’s-eye view of his fantastical world.

Why has Walpole fallen out of favour? (Or has he? I don’t hear his name much, or see his works in the second-hand book shops.)

I’ve only read a few other things by him, a book I’ve owned for some time, which I’ve just re-read, and which I’m intending to review in the next day or two, Hans Frost, plus a book of short stories which I can’t recall seeing around recently (must be packed away) called A Head in Green Bronze. Hugh Walpole wrote so many more!

The Joyful Delaneys was very, very good. Amusing, thought-provoking, wonderfully evocative of the time and place. I was completely absorbed in the story, much to my surprise. I quite literally growled at any interruption of my rare reading times these past two days, and even sent the teens off to town in my precious car last night, with movie, snack and gas money liberally provided, so I could have a few hours of peace and quiet to finish the book off, even though I had to put aside some “real” work to do so.

Anybody who will name a fictional dachshund “Endless” has my full approval. Hugh Walpole definitely goes onto the 2013 look-for list.

One last note: the dustjacket image above is not from my own copy. Mine is a faded, stained and threadbare, green cloth-bound volume. I couldn’t bring myself to scan it – it’s too terribly tired.

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What an easy list to put together, after all! The hardest part was ranking them.

I simply scanned over my book reviews index, and these titles popped right out at me. Memorable for the most compelling reason I read – pure and simple enjoyment. My long-time favourites which I reviewed this year and which should really be included were left off the list, because if I noted those down there’d be no room for the marvelous new-to-me reads I discovered in 2012.

*****

BEST NEW-TO-ME READS 2012

Who could rank them?! Well, I’ll try.

A classic countdown, ending with the best of the best – the ones joining the favourites already resident on the “treasures” bookshelves.

Unapologetically “middlebrow”, most of my choices, I realize.

The jig is up. Barb is an unsophisticated reader at heart!

*****

10. Mother Mason (1916)

by Bess Streeter Aldrich

I know, I know – two titles by Aldrich are on my “Most Disappointing” list. But Mother Mason was marvelous, and I loved her. Molly Mason, happily married and with a normal, well-functioning, healthy, active family, is feeling jaded. So she runs away. But without telling anyone that that’s what she’s doing, and covering her tracks wonderfully well. She returns refreshed, to turn the narrative over to the rest of her family, though she remains in the picture, sending her family members off into the world and receiving them back with love, good humour and anything else they need when they return. A very sweet book; a happy hymn to domesticity at its best, with enough occasional real life angst to provide counterpoint. Nice.

9. Death and Resurrection (2011)

by R.A. MacAvoy

I deeply enjoy MacAvoy’s rather odd thrillers/sci fi/time shift/alternative reality/fantasy novels, and was thrilled to get my hands on this latest book, the first full-length new work the author has published in almost 20 years – she’s been otherwise occupied by dealing with some serious health issues, now happily manageable enough for a return to writing. MacAvoy’s new book is just as wonderfully off-key as her previous creations. I love how her mind works, though I experience quite a few “What did I just read?” moments when reading her stuff. Makes me pay attention!

Ewen Young is a pacifist Buddhist with a satisfying career as a painter, and absorbing side interests such as perfecting his kung fu technique and working with his twin sister’s psychiatric patients, and at a hospice for the terminally ill. When Ewen is inadvertently faced with a violent encounter with the murderers of his uncle, strange powers he never realized he had begin to develop. Factor  in a new friend and eventual love interest, veterinarian Susan Sundown, and her remarkable corpse-finding dog, Resurrection, and some decidedly dramatic encounters with the spirit world, and you have all the ingredients for a surreally mystical adventure. Friendship, love, and the importance of ancestors and family join death and resurrection as themes in this most unusual tale. Welcome back, Roberta Ann.

8. Parnassus on Wheels (1917)

by Christopher Morley

Another escaping homemaker, this one thirty-nine year old spinster Helen McGill, who decides to turn the tables on her rambling writer of a brother, much to his indignant dismay. A boisterous open road adventure with bookish interludes, and a most satisfactory ending for all concerned.

7. Fire and Hemlock (1985)

by Diana Wynne Jones

An intriguing reworking of the Tam Lin legend. Polly realizes she has two sets of memories, and that both of them are “real”.  DWJ at her strangely brilliant best.

And while we’re on the subject of Diana Wynne Jones, I’m going to add in another of hers as a sort of Honourable Mention: Archer’s Goon (1984). Gloriously funny. Don’t waste these on the younger set – read them yourselves, dear adults. Well, you could share. But don’t let their home on the Youth shelf at the library hinder your discovery of these perfectly strange and strangely attractive fantastic tales. Think of Neil Gaiman without the (occasionally) graphic sex and violence. Same sort of kinked sense of humour and weird appeal.

6. Miss Bun, the Baker’s Daughter (1939)

 and

Shoulder the Sky (1951)

by D.E. Stevenson

Two which tied for my so-far favourites (I’ve only sampled a few of her many books) by this new-to-me in 2012 by this vintage light romantic fiction writer. Both coincidentally have artistic backgrounds and sub-plots.

In Miss Bun, Sue Pringle takes on a job against her family’s wishes as a housekeeper to an artist and his wife; immediately upon Sue’s arrival the wife departs, leaving Sue in a rather compromising position, living alone with a married man. She refuses to abandon the most unworldly John Darnay, who is so focussed on his painting that he forgets that bills need to eventually be paid, let alone considering what the gossips may be whispering about his personal life. An unusual but perfectly satisfying romance ensues.

Shoulder the Sky takes place shortly after the ending of World War II. Newlyweds Rhoda and James Johnstone settle into an isolated farmhouse in Scotland to try their hand at sheep farming. Rhoda, a successful professional painter, is struggling with the dilemma of compromising her artistic calling with the new duties of wifehood. Her husband never puts a foot wrong, leaving Rhoda to work her priorities out for herself. Though things came together a little too smoothly at the end, I was left feeling that this was a most satisfactory novel, one which I can look forward to reading again.

5. All Passion Spent (1931)

by Vita Sackville-West

Elderly Lady Slane determines to spend her last days doing exactly as she pleases, in solitude in a rented house (well, she does keep her also-elderly maid), thereby setting her family in an uproar by her 11th hour stand for self-determination. This short episode ends in Lady Slane’s death, but it is not at all tragic; the escape allowed Lady Slane to find her place of peace with herself, and it also served as a catalyst for some similar actions by others. Definitely unusual, full of humour, and beautifully written.

4. A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep (1987)

by Rumer Godden

A brilliant autobiography which reads like one of Godden’s novel, only way better, because she’s in full share-the-personal-details mode here, and there are pictures. Beautifully written and absolutely fascinating. Reading this breathed new appreciation into my reading of Godden’s fiction. Followed by a second volume, A House With Four Rooms (1989), but the first installment is head-and-shoulder above the other – much the best.

3. The Benefactress (1901)

by Elizabeth von Arnim.

Anna Estcourt, “on the shelf” as an unmarried young lady at the advanced age of twenty-five, unexpectedly inherits an uncle’s estate in Germany. Full of noble ideas, and relieved at being able to escape her life as a dependent and portionless poor relation – orphaned Anna lives with her elder brother and his high-strung and managing wife – Anna visits the estate and decides to stay there, to build a new life for herself, and to share her good fortune with some deserving ladies who have fallen on hard times. Needless to say, things do not go as planned. A quite wonderful book, clever and observant and often very funny; serious just when needed, too. Excellent.

2. The Proper Place (1926)

The Day of Small Things (1930)

 Jane’s Parlour (1937)

by O. Douglas

These novels about the Scottish Rutherfurd family belong together on the shelf. Of these The Proper Place is my definite favourite, but the others are also must-reads if one has become engrossed with the world of the stories, rural Scotland between the two world wars. What a pleasure to follow the quiet ways of  likeable protagonist Nicole Rutherfurd, her mother, the serene Lady Jane, and Nicole’s perennially dissatisfied cousin Barbara. At the beginning of The Proper Place the Rutherfurds are leaving their ancestral home; Lord Rutherfurd has died, and the family’s sons were lost in the war; it has become impossible for the surviving women to make ends meet as things are. So off they go to a smaller residence in a seaside town, where they create a new life for themselves, shaping themselves uncomplainingly to their diminished circumstances, except for Barbara, who connives to set herself back into the world she feels she deserves. Many “days of small things” make up these stories. I can’t put my finger on the “why” of their deep appeal – not much dramatic ever happens – but there it is – a perfectly believable world lovingly created and peopled by very human characters.

1.  The Flowering Thorn (1933)

 Four Gardens (1935)

by Margery Sharp

These were my decided winners – the ones which will remain on my shelves to be read and re-read over and over again through the years to come. The Flowering Thorn is the stronger work, but Four Gardens has that extra special something, too.

In The Flowering Thorn, twenty-nine-year-old socialite Lesley Frewen is starting to wonder if perhaps she is not a lovable person; she has plenty of acquaintances, and is often enough pursued by young men professing love, but those she views as emotional and intellectual equals treat her with perfect politeness and fall for other women. Acting on a strange impulse, Lesley one day offers to adopt a small orphaned boy, and then moves to the country with him, in order to reduce her expenses – her London budget, though perfectly managed, will not stretch to a second mouth to feed, and her elegant flat is in an adult-only enclave. Quickly dropped by her shallow city friends, Lesley sets herself to fulfill the silent bargain she has made with herself, to bring up young Patrick to independence and to preserve her personal standards. But as we all know, sometimes the way to find your heart’s desire is to stop searching for it, and Lesley’s stoicism is eventually rewarded in a number of deeply satisfying ways. An unsentimental tale about self-respect, and about love.

Caroline Smith has Four Gardens in her life. The first is the gone-to-seed wilderness surrounding a vacant estate house, where she finds romance for the first time. The next two are the gardens of her married life; the small backyard plot of her early married years, and the much grander grounds surrounding the country house which her husband purchases for her with the proceeds of his successful business planning. The fourth garden is the smallest and most makeshift – a few flowerpots on a rooftop, as Caroline’s circumstances become reduced after her husband’s death, and her fortunes turn full circle. A beautiful and unsentimental story about a woman’s progress throughout the inevitable changes and stages of her life – daughter-wife-mother-grandmother-widow. Clever and often amusing, with serious overtones that are never sad or depressing.

Margery Sharp was in absolutely perfect form with these two now almost unremembered books.

This is why I love “vintage”. I wish I owned a printing press – I’d love to share books like these with other readers who appreciate writerly craftsmanship, a well-turned phrase, and a quietly clever story. They don’t deserve the obscurity they’ve inevitably fallen into through the passage of time.

*****

So there we are – I’ve made it to midnight – the only one still awake in my house. I’m going to hit “Post”, then off to bed with me as well.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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