Posts Tagged ‘Social Satire’

christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford 001Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford ~ 1932. This edition: Curtis Books, 1973. Paperback. 238 pages.

My rating: 5.75/10

I had to go back to April to double-check my rating of the earlier companion piece to this very minor entry into the satirical humour, between-the-wars, Brit Lit canon, Miford’s 1931 Scottish grouse moor-set Highland Fling. I see I rated it at 5.5, which is, on further reflection, quite generous. Christmas Pudding therefore gets an also-generous 5.75/10.

This is Very Light Fiction, and not quite up to Wodehousian standards, which one would assume was the author’s goal. There is a certain flair for humorous phrasing which gives a strong hint of what the Mitford would later accomplish to a higher degree in her most critically, popularly and financially successful books, the semi-autobiographical The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing, and Don’t Tell Alfred.

Christmas Pudding is a romantic farce, with the expected eclectic cast of characters, most taken out of their usual urban habitats and tossed together into close proximity in the isolation of a country house Christmas. Here are the major characters, and a glimpse of the set-up:

  •  Paul Fortheringay, recently published author of Crazy Capers – a grim tragedy of a novel despite its name – is devastated when instead the “serious” book he has laboured over with such care is received as a humorous satire. “Funniest book of the season!” the critics bray. Paul is not amused. How to salvage his writerly self-esteem? Perhaps with a work of unmistakeable sincerity, such as a biography of a hitherto-neglected literary personage? But all the obvious subjects are already well written up, so Paul decides on an obscure pre-Victorian poetess, Lady Maria Bobbin, whose diaries and letters are rumoured to be still extant and sitting in dusty preservation at the country estate of Compton Bobbin.
  • Walter and Sally Monteath, the penniless yet well-born young couple at the centre of Highland Fling’s hectic action, have recently been blessed with a baby girl. Still on the brink of financial disaster, the couple (now with child and nanny) are most ready to accept any offer of hospitality over the holidays, graceful sponging on wealthier acquaintances being their speciality.
  • Middle-aged but very well preserved Amabelle Fortescue, retired and rather well-invested ex-demimondaine, moves in the better circles and includes such Bright Young Things as Walter and Sally among her chums. Paul is also a pal. Amabelle has decided to do something different this Christmas, and has taken Mulberrie Farm as her temporary abode, an amusing departure from the London whirl-of-gaiety norm.
  • Next door to Mulberrie Farm we have the sedate estate of Compton Bobbin (aha!), inhabited by hunting-mad Lady Bobbin, the unchallenged matriarch of her meek household and the terror of the countryside at large. Also in residence are her daughter Philadelphia, beautiful, bored, listless and waiting for something – anything! – to rescue her from her bleak existence in the rural purdah dictated by her mother, and young Roderick – Bobby – Bobbin, down from Eton for the hols. Bobby is an oldish sort of young man; he is rather well acquainted with our Amabelle, without his mother’s knowledge, of course.
  • Michael Lewes, of the diplomatic service, presently stationed in Cairo, but coming back to England for Christmas, which he will be spending as a guest of the Bobbins. Michael has long been in love with Amabelle, and persists in asking her for her hand in matrimony, to her continual good-natured refusal.
  • Major Stanworth is another neighbour Mulberrie Farm. A widower, he’s a rather good sort, hearty and cheerful and, as it turns out, at a stage in life where some womanly consolation for his single state is welcome.

Plot in a paragraph:

Paul writes to Lady Bobbin asking permission to go through Lady Maria’s papers. Lady Bobbin gives a brief but forceful “No!” Hang on, says Amabelle, when Paul bemoans the situation to her, I know the young Bobbin heir. So Paul is dispatched to Compton Bobbin under guise of being Bobby’s holiday tutor, the plan being that while he pretends to be closeted with young Bobby in academic solitude, he will in reality be working on his biography of Lady Maria, leaving Bobby free to go a-visiting on the quiet at Mulberrie Farm. Paul sees Philadelphia, and his heart goes thump-thump, as does Michael Lewes’ heart, which is open for consolation after yet another gentle put-down by Amabelle. Philadelphia, suddenly the focus of two sets of admiring male eyes, perks up marvellously. Major Stamworth’s more mature charms appeal to Amabelle, and hers to him; a romance quietly blossoms in the most unlikely way. Scads of Bobbin relations descend for Christmas on Compton Bobbin, as do a number of Amabelle’s friends on Mulberrie Farm, including Walter and Sally, who are just sort of there in the tale, though they don’t really play a major part in the intrigues. Will Paul have his cover blown? Will Bobby’s deception be revealed to his bossy mum? Will Philadelphia go for money, good nature and sterling worth (Michael) or poverty, hot passion and the literary arts (Paul)? Will urbanite Amabelle and country gentleman Major Stanworth get together for good and walk arm in arm off into the rural sunset?

I thought that Christmas Pudding, Mitford’s second published novel, was perhaps a more polished piece than Highland Fling, with its young author settling down a bit and finding it easier to maintain a narrative strand of sorts. (Well, not that young, really, for when I do the math I see that Nancy Mitford was 28 years old when Christmas Pudding was published, which surprised me rather – it reads as though she were 19 or thereabouts, with its frequently cheeky “Let’s shock the elders!” tone.)

Though the book is set during the holiday season, one can’t really call it a “Christmas book” in the heart-warming, nostalgic, feel-good sense; the smiles it engenders are just a little too cynical, though there is a rather funny episode Christmas morning which I think will stick with me, concerning one of the wee children roistering about the country house where most of the characters are staying.

At about five o’clock in the morning Master Christopher Robin Chadlington made a tour of the bedrooms, and having awoken each occupant in turn with a blast of his mouth organ, announced in a voice fraught with tragedy that Auntie Gloria had forgotten to put a chocolate baby in his stocking. “Please might I have a bit of yours?” This quaint ruse was only too successful, and Christopher Robin acquired thereby no fewer than fourteen chocolate babies, all of which he ate before breakfast. The consequences, which were appalling, took place under the dining-room table at a moment when everybody else was busily opening the Christmas post. After this, weak but cheerful, young Master Chadlington spent the rest of the day in bed practising on his mouth organ.

Forgive me, for I laughed out loud at this passage.

“Weak but cheerful.” Oh, indeed! That could well describe this frothy little novel.

P.S. – Young Christopher Robin has a sister named Wendy. I know some of you will deeply appreciate that tidbit. 😉

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pomp and circumstance noel coward 001Pomp and Circumstance by Noël Coward ~ 1960. This edition: Pan, 1963. Paperback. 287 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Havoc under the sun…

Samolo – a lazy, sun-drenched island in the South Pacific where nothing ever really happens…
Until suddenly it is announced that the Queen and Prince Philip are to pay a state visit. From then on chaos reigns. And the arrival of the curvaceous Duchess of Fowey, who brings out the beast in every male, only adds confusion to confusion.

Here we have an easy candidate for the most unexpected book of 2014.

I can’t quite recall where I acquired this tattered and very well read paperback; it just sort of appeared one day at the top of a book stack, like the frothy sort of thing that it is, effortlessly rising above the (comparative) heavyweights below.

As this seems to be my year of reading mostly lightweight novels, and its year of publication was so-far blank in the Century of Books list, what could I do but succumb?

I was initially a little uneasy as to whether I could sustain my interest for the whole thing, as it started off at frenetic high speed, all very much a-laugh-a-minute, and that sort of style can get tiresome early on, especially if the writer bobbles, but Coward, old pro that he was by his point in his career, kept up the pace marvellously well, and completely won me over.

“Charming” is an overused term in describing the light novel, but in this case it is most apt. With a bit more consideration, charming isn’t complex enough, for there is a lot of snark here, too, of the most readable sort.

Maybe a page scan is in order, to give one a sample of the contents.

First, an overview.

The curtain rises over the (completely fictional) small South Sea island of Samolo, an idyllic tropical paradise populated by a happy-go-lucky native population and a large colony of British nationals who make up the bulk of the government. For Samolo was never conquered in the warfare sense of the word; the inhabitants merely welcomed the superior managerial style of the inhabitants of that other, colder isle and gladly made way for a dual society of semi-equality. The native upper classes mingle easily with the Brits; the ones a bit farther down the social scale are apparently quite thrilled to provide staffing for the expatriates in their various cottages, villas and stately homes. Everyone is very hail-fellow-well-met, with a bit of resigned-but-not-bitter bitching about the occasional laziness of the servants and their tendency to wander out of paid employment when the mood strikes them providing reliable tea table and cocktail party conversation. (Yes, this is most definitely a fantasy.)

Our narrator, one Grizelda Craigie (Grizel), is the happily married forty-something wife of banana grower Robin. Coward sustains the first-person voice of his female narrator beautifully, something I had serious qualms about when I realized that this was what he was undertaking.

Grizel moves in the upper social circles of Samolo, being on best-friends basis with the British Governor’s wife, Lady Alexandra (Sandra), so of course is the first person to be confided to when the news of the impending Royal Visit breaks.

This is just the start of the drama, for in quick succession Grizel must cope not just with the professional stresses (so to speak) of her highly placed friend, but with an incident in which her small son is mixed up in a very below-the-belt assault on a schoolmate (either triggering or in retaliation for a sharp knock on the head by the other party; the parents on both sides predictably receive conflicting stories from the superficially wounded lads), by the sudden confession of a bachelor friend that he has used her name in telegrams inviting his latest (aristocratic and very prominently married) paramour for a visit, with the intent that the lady actually spend her nights with said bachelor while pretending to occupy Grizel’s guest room, and by involvement in the island’s amateur dramatic association as it plans an elaborate aquatic pageant to be presented to the Queen and her consort, despite prognostications of squally weather soon to come.

Mix in an assortment of Samolan and expatriate characters of all walks of life – from gardener to Prime Minister to journalist to ex-secret-service-agent-turned-sugarcane-planter to aristocratic Duke, and add for good measure a brusque English nanny, numerous beloved-but-high-maintenance visitors, maddening letters from Mummy back home in England who always seems to know the latest Samolan news well before there-at-the-source Grizel, an intense lesbian who is openly smitten with our narrator, the various clashing personalities of the Dramatic Society members, and an epidemic of chicken pox striking in the most unexpected quarters.

It’s all highly silly, but increasingly enthralling. There are moments of sincerity here and there: the portrayals of both Griselda’s and Sandra’s marriages are warm and believably true-to-life, and the family scenes with the children are hugely enjoyable. Most of the sarcasm – which is in relentless but in general quite gentle – is reserved for Grizel’s outer circle of friends and acquaintances, with some deep digs being got in here and there at anti-monarchists both in Samola and back home in England; Noël Coward’s staunchly pro-monarchy patriotism is unabashedly on view.

Several homosexual couples play significant roles, with stereotypical behaviour paraded in full technicolour. I felt just a bit ashamed to find these characters and episodes so amusing, but comforted myself with the thought that the depictions were coming from a writer of that persuasion himself, for Noël Coward was well known to be gay, though always politely reticent about his private affairs.

Pomp and Circumstance was Coward’s one and only attempt at novel writing. One rather wonders what inspired this project, amidst all of the plays and musical compositions. It definitely works, and in my opinion deserves to be shelved alongside the older but similarly giddy Wodehouse tales, as more than slightly goofy, cheerfully amiably, decidedly literary entertainment.

I had a difficult time deciding where to take a page scan from, as much of the joy in this thing is in the building of the story and the connections and contexts of each succeeding episode, so perhaps a bit of Chapter One will be best. This will give a taste of what is going on here; it definitely gets better.

And keep your era-appropriate sense of humour dusted off. One can find much which might be viewed as potentially offensive and politically incorrect these five decades on. Disturbingly vast quantities of alcohol are consumed, mostly in cocktails with oddly evocative names – the “Horse’s Neck”, presumably a long sort of drink, seems exceedingly popular – though sometimes straight from the bottle. Cigarettes are prominently smoked during every emotional and romantic moment, too.  If these sorts of things bother you, best to stay clear. Everyone else, it’s a richly glorious vintage romp.

Pomp and Circumstance has been reissued numerous times since its first appearance in 1960, though it appears to be out of print at present. A quick look online shows it easy to find, and I’m guessing the larger library systems will still have copies. Enjoy!

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no fond return of love barbara pym 001

Great cover on this 1981 Granada edition, designed by someone who has obviously read and “got” the book.

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym ~ 1961. This edition: Granada, 1981. Paperback. ISBN: 0-586-05371-9. 287 pages.

My rating: 8/10 on a first reading. Perhaps to be elevated after a future re-read. This author is always better the second time around.

Barbara Pym is in rather fine form with this further delving into the complex lives of a number of single women in various stages of contentment (or otherwise) with their unpartnered state.

As with the stellar Excellent Women, and most of her other stealthily pithy novels, No Fond Return of Love has twin strands: the inner voice of a quiet spinster of the keenly-watching-from-the-shadows type, and the omnipotent authorial observation (not always uniformly benign) of various relationships playing out in that spinster’s sphere.

The set-up is familiar to the Pym reader. A single, upper middle class lady of no-longer-young vintage, engaged in some sort of quasi-intellectual undertaking, encounters a number of new people, including a man who both repels and attracts her. The man may or may not look upon the spinster with equal interest; the interest, if piqued, may or may not be romantic. Pym then shines an illuminating light on her chosen small segment of society; she dances her puppets about in increasingly bizarre postures until at last pairing them up in sometimes unexpected partnerships, which frequently feel less than wholly satisfactory, though cleaving to the traditional pattern of a tidy, “happy” ending.

Dulcie Mainwaring is our key character here, though she occasionally steps aside to allow others to have their moment in the dusty spotlight of Pym’s regard. A pleasantly attractive and undeniably intelligent women in her early thirties, Dulcie has just been given her walking papers (in the most tactful way) by her long-time fiancé – he has recently informed her, in acceptably clichéd terms, that he is “not worthy of her love” – and though Dulcie unprotestingly goes along with this charade, her inner confidence is badly shaken.

Pulling herself together, Dulcie decides to divert herself with attendance at a conference designed to address some of the various complexities of her particular line of work. Dulcie belongs to that of the vast network of poorly paid, unseen people (mostly female) who proofread, fact-check, do minor research, tidy up footnotes, and compile indexes and bibliographies for scholarly works of research and biography, and the conference is highlighted by lectures on such arcane topics as “Some Problems of an Editor”, by presenters mildly well-known amongst their peers.

As anyone who has been to this sort of a limited-interest conference may have found, the really interesting networking happens during coffee breaks and over evening drinks, and this event is no exception. Making a deliberate effort to shake off her post-broken-engagement gloom, Dulcie winds herself up to approach a fellow attendee, the slightly younger, slightly more experienced-in-the-arena-of love, and more than slightly patronizing Viola Dace. Though not exactly kindred spirits at first encounter, the two find themselves sharing an interest in one of the conference’s key speakers, the handsome and apparently charming Aylwin Forbes.

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Aylwin Forbes effortlessly repulses Viola’s attempts to renew their nebulous relationship with well-practiced urbanity; Dulcie watches their wary exchanges with an eyebrow secretly cocked; she catches every nuance. There is something about Aylwin which piques her interest, and after the conference is over and Dulcie is back home in the over-large house she has inherited from her late parents, she finds him popping back into her field of awareness.

Well, what else to do but research the man, then? Which Dulcie proceeds to do, with a tenacious thoroughness which does credit to her meticulous skill in tracking down elusive references and firmly knitting up tenuous connections. Dulcie’s technique, which involves much trudging about and putting herself into situations where she can inquire as to her subject without causing undue alarm to the interviewee, might well be what we refer to nowadays as stalkerish, but Dulcie, though obsessed with the minutiae of Aylwin’s life and the state of his troubled marriage, somehow manages to stay just on the sane side of this sort of behaviour. We view her actions as manifestations of her innate desire to acquire and organize information, even as her curiousity leads her into some exceedingly unlikely situations, in which the author’s sense of humour is fully indulged.

Dulcie is joined in her home by her eighteen-year-old niece Laurel, and then, in an odd plot twist, by the perennially sulky Viola Dace. Aylwin himself shows up, still vaguely attracted to/repulsed by Viola, and mildly interested in Dulcie in a platonic sort of way – she might be useful to him in a professional sense, Aylwin practically muses – and then increasingly infatuated with the oblivious (and half his age) Laurel, who has herself become romantically interested in the florist-shop-owning son of the family next door.

Meanwhile Dulcie has scraped acquaintance with Aylwin’s clergyman brother, Neville, who himself is having romantic problems with the aging spinsters of his flock, and with Aylwin’s rather soppy but ultimately likeable estranged wife Marjorie, with his matter-of-fact mother-in-law, and eventually with his surprisingly “common” mother, who owns a not-very-good guesthouse (complete with moulting taxidermied eagle in the lobby) in a seaside town, where most of the characters converge for what one fears will be a tremendous confrontation. This never materializes, though Dulcie has a bad moment or two as she crouches behind a piece of guesthouse furniture while Aylwin and Marjorie emotionally discuss the dissolution of their marriage, thinking they are alone.

The tale has strong elements of farce, as you may have gathered from this sketchy outline of some key points, but Pym’s dry tone, and the ever-apt inner thoughts of Dulcie kept me quite enthralled, even while I was mildly annoyed with myself for my collusion in such a nonsensical sort of thing. Dare I say that this reminded my of something which David Lodge might have dreamed up? Or even Robertson Davies, on one of his lighter-hearted days? Full of in-jokes which leave the reader feeling slightly on the fringes of the intellectual circle in which the author has placed his/her characters, and coming close to outright vulgarity with some of the more outlandish developments.

I didn’t much care for the ending, which seemed to argue that any man is better than none, after a book’s worth of practical examples of why a spinster’s fate might not be such a bad one. I thought that after going to great pains to demonstrate her character’s rich inner life, Barbara Pym let Dulcie down. Perhaps, writing at the end of that “happy housewife”-focussed decade, the author caved in to the 1950s’ ideal of marriage always being better than the alternative?

 

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I recently put myself in the mildly surreal situation of simultaneously reading two very different books set in the same location and covering a similar time period. Luckily they were both so very strongly voiced that I managed to focus on each as it deserved.

The first book, a novel by Gavin Lambert, a British-born author who moved to California in the 1950s and had considerable acclaim as a screenplay writer, was much better than I had anticipated from its cover appearance. The bizarre images of Natalie Wood starring as the titular character in a movie version of the novel and the fulsome blurb shouting out “-the happiest, saddest, sexiest Hollywood novel of all!” were a bit off-putting, but the first page grabbed me and pulled me into the story and never let me go until the nebulous but satisfying conclusion.

The second book was an engaging though fairly workaday movie star autobiography, written by Rosalind Russell with the assistance of a co-author, fellow actress-turned-writer Chris Chase. Published a year after Rosalind Russell’s much too early death from breast cancer, it is a mostly flattering self-portrait with a leavening of self-criticism, which left me with a warm-all-over regard for this very matter-of-fact and very dedicated screen and stage actress, famously “in Hollywood but not of it”, as one of her friends declares in the memoir. Rosalind Russell appears from this account to have had an admirably stable personal life, at least compared to the majority of her Hollywood peers.

inside daisy clover gavin lambert 1963Inside Daisy Clover by Gavin Lambert ~ 1963. This edition: Penguin, 1966. Paperback. 265 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Thirteen-year-old Daisy Clover, father vanished from her life some years previously, is living a squalid life in a trailer park in rundown Playa del Rey, California with her mentally troubled mother The Dealer (named for her fixation on solitary card games).

Daisy finds joy in saving her nickels and dimes for occasional forays to a recording booth where she unselfconsciously belts out songs with more than a little “rare natural talent”, and she has just purchased the first of what will turn out to be a vast number of notebooks in which she will record her inner thoughts for the next two decades.

Confided to her diary, Daisy has a soberly related sexual awakening assisted along by a certain Milton, an older boy, “quite nice looking, he had muscles and butch hair and good teeth, but also a slight weight problem”, with their relationship consummated on an old, mattress-less brass bed in Milton’s father’s used furniture store, “priced at $25.00 and marked VERY NICE. Dot, dot, dot, dot.”

Daisy turns fourteen on a disastrous day which includes her mother inadvertently setting fire to their home, and it seems that despair is the theme of her young, angst-ridden life, but things are about to take a strange turn. Daisy enters one of her recorded discs (a new recording; all of the old ones having been destroyed in the fire) in a talent contest, and is “discovered” by Magnagram Studios magnate Raymond Swan.

Turns out that not only can our heroine sing like an angel, she can also act like a reincarnation of Mary Pickford (with the added benefit of being able to supplement her performance with vocals), and stardom bursts upon Daisy.

But this is not, of course, without its drawbacks.

Daisy’s patron Mr. Swan and his oddly hot-and-cold wife Melora keep Daisy on the path to ever-increasing fame, and while she finds deep satisfaction in the singing and acting aspect of her new life, being a true artist and all that jazz, the personal cost of her new life is rather brutal.

The Dealer has been whisked off to a mental home and erased from Daisy’s official biography, allowing her to be billed as “The Sensational Singing Orphan” (or something like that – couldn’t find the exact term in my flip-through just now), and Daisy is now under the care of her gosh-awful older sister Gloria, who married some years earlier and scooted out of Playa del Rey without a backward glance. Now that Daisy is a potential movie star, Gloria is very much back in the picture, and Daisy has quite a lot to say in Dear Diary about that development.

The years roll on. Daisy is a definite success as per Mr Swan’s planning and Gloria’s fervent pushing, but then the Star Train derails, when Daisy falls deeply in love with the worst possible prospect for promotional purposes she could come up with.

Once a top notch star, but now fading fast, the much older actor Wade Lewis is now a notoriously self-destructive drunk and a reportedly manipulative lover-of-many, but Daisy ignores the hissing whispers and goes with her emotions. The two find a common ground in their dislike for the lives they lead, and a genuine connection develops. The relationship strikes enough sparks to catch widespread attention, and through Daisy’s bullheaded  insistence a marriage takes place. Too bad Wade’s real sexual interests are not in women, despite his reputation in the gossip columns…

Gosh, what a grand little slice-of-American-life novel, right up there with the smutty California romances and pill-popping exposés of Jacqueline Susann, albeit much better written than anything she pumped out just a few years after Lambert’s Daisy Clover appeared.

A measure of redemption is (predictably) found after the inevitable crash-and-burn of the aging child star, and the ongoing relationship between Daisy and The Dealer adds a poignancy and appeal to what might otherwise be an utterly depressing condemnation of everything that’s wrong with the American Star Machine.

Gavin Lambert turned his novel into a screenplay, though with considerable changes to adapt it to the screen, and the movie Inside Daisy Clover was released in 1966, starring Natalie Wood as Daisy, Christopher Plummer as Mr. Swan, and Robert Redford as Wade (with the character changed, at Redford’s insistence, to vaguely bisexual versus the original completely-homosexual-passing-as-straight).

The movie was, by all accounts, a flop.

But the book most definitely isn’t, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for some of Lambert’s other Hollywood novels, apparently seven in total, as well as a collection of short stories and a number of well-regarded celebrity biographies.

Gavin Lambert was – no surprises here, after finishing Daisy Clover and considering some of its themes – homosexual himself, and his sympathetic and ultimately open portrayal of gay characters was unusual and rather brave for his era.

life is a banquet rosalind russell 1977 001Life is a Banquet by Rosalind Russell and Chris Chase ~ 1977. This edition: Ace, 1979. Paperback. ISBN: 0-441-48230-9. 260 pages.

My rating: 7/10

From mince-no-words fiction to slightly airbrushed real life, with this cheerful autobiography set mostly in the early years of Rosalind Russell’s career, but with enough concentration on the decades of the 1950s and 60s to add a supplementary picture of this most unique setting to my concurrent reading of Daisy Clover.

Rosalind Russell was unusual among her peers in that she willingly (by her account) turned her back on Hollywood for a time to return to her roots as a Broadway actress. She then went back to Hollywood, taking along her stellar role of Auntie Mame  from Patrick Dennis’ bestselling book-turned-theatrical production which was one of her outstanding stage performances, and then transitioned gracefully from first-run star to character actress in her later years.

Happily married for thirty-five years (to the same man, of course, making her rather unique in Hollywood circles – meow, meow!), Russell’s description of her relationship with her husband, Frederick Brisson, was downright heart-rending, especially in conjunction with his tribute to her in the book’s introduction.

Rosalind Russell died in 1976, aged 69, after years of struggle with both serious rheumatoid arthritis and breast cancer. Life is a Banquet was published a year after her death.

Though the autobiography is decidedly self-edited, it made me most sympathetic to its writer, not to mention deeply curious about the bits which were glossed over, though none of them appear to be at all scandalous. Rosalind merely kept a ladylike silence over other people’s private business, and obviously chose not to go into salacious detail regarding her own black moments.

Rosalind Russell was a truly beautiful woman – her photographs leave me smiling in admiration of the absolutely lovely composition of her face – those winged eyebrows over those dark, wide-set eyes! – and those sultry eyes show a glint of something else: deep intelligence and a love of laughter. Her well developed sense of humour shines through in this book.

As I mentioned earlier, Life is a Banquet is written in a slightly pedestrian style, and though it was pleasantly engaging and held my interest well, I couldn’t give it a higher rating than a “7” on my personal reading quality scale.

This memoir has left me with a warmly approving regard for its writer, and with a strong desire to watch the movie version of Auntie Mame again, and to seek out some of Rosalind Russell’s other movies, of which there is a large choice, from 1934 to 1971.

I think one might safely say Rosalind Russell was a Star well deserving of that designation in all of the best ways.

 

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therapy david lodge v2Therapy by David Lodge ~ 1995. This edition: Penguin, 1996. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-025358-0. 321 pages.

My rating: 7/10

I still do not unreservedly love David Lodge.

In fact, until just a few mornings ago, when I set aside what I should have been doing in order to finish up this book, I was more than a little ambiguous about his work, having previously read Changing Places and Nice Work with no more than mild pleasure and a fair bit of tuning out in the more long-winded bits.

This confession out of the way, I must say that I really like what he has done here. Therapy has struck an appealing chord with me, despite its narrator being of the wallowing sort, mired in his narcissistic bog, gazing pensively at his own reflection even as he continues to sink further and further down into a stinking morass of his own making.

Laurence “Tubby” Passmore, serendipitously successful writer of a long-running sitcom, The People Next Door, is feeling down. Really, really down. There’s no logical reason for it, as he continually reminds himself. He’s making more money than he can spend; his thirty-year-old marriage is placid and his university professor wife is keen on keeping up their sex life; his grown children are well launched; he has an outlet for sharing his thoughts with his platonic “mistress” in London, where he keeps a pleasantly-appointed luxury flat for overnight stays; his rural home is a welcome haven after days spent in the city; his posh silver car (the “Richmobile”, of unspecified Japanese make) is absolutely fabulous; and his various therapists – Miss Wu for acupuncture, Dudley for aromatherapy, Roland for physio, and Alexandra the cognitive behaviour therapist –  are solicitously caring and even somewhat helpful, giving short periods of relief from his overwhelming emotional blah-ness.

To be sure, there is that nasty thing with his knee, those occasional searing twinges of excruciating pain which occur at random and which have defied surgery, but surely that can’t account for the pervasive feeling of gloom which has settled around him, his eternal angst-ridden state, his abstraction which is starting to affect all of his relationships. But at least things are stable on the home front. For, after all, with three decades of marriage one comes to rather rely on one’s loyal spouse for eternal acceptance and understanding…

While mulling over his own personal Existentialist Dread, and doing a bit of research on the topic as a whole, Laurence happens upon the name of Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, and, upon delving into Kierkegaard’s Journal, becomes obsessed with the man, finding – or perhaps more accurately, fabricating – parallels between their two dissimilar lives. As he becomes more and more emotionally involved with the philosopher, Laurence’s grip on his real life loosens even further, which is perhaps why his wife’s calm statement that she is leaving him comes as such an unexpected shock.

Therapy is a lot of fun to read, cringe-worthy narrator and all.

It is divided into four segments, the first being a straightforward, tell-all journal, with Laurence’s musings on the various structures and forms of writing obviously (and most interestingly) reflective of David Lodge’s own thoughts on the topic. The second section of the book is a collection of character portraits of Laurence written by him from the perspective of a number of his intimate associates, followed by a poignant flashback episode to Laurence’s teen years and his first love, the virginal (and staunchly Catholic) Maureen. Here is where the narrative takes an interesting though rather predictable twist, leading into the fourth section, which serves to bring Laurence’s narrative to a conclusion by sending him on a very personal pilgrimage along the road to Santiago de Compostela.

David Lodge is a very engaging writer, being just crude enough in his humour to elicit a certain amount of vulgar snickering, and then soaring away from the muck with some truly poignant bits of prose regarding the human condition and our universal quest for self-knowledge and the eternal why-are-we-here. Occasionally the navel-gazing gets a bit intense, but if one can soldier on one is rewarded by some gloriously funny bits, and some rather terribly true and relatable reminders of the absurdities of interpersonal relationships. (And the actual therapy episodes – of all sorts – are tellingly described and possibly the most deeply humorous bits of the book.)

I found myself mostly in sympathy with Laurence Passmore, despite the ick-factor of Lodge’s detailed descriptions of his sexual woes – for what with Laurence’s age (late fifties), physical condition (not great), and emotional turmoil (excessive), things are getting a bit difficult to, um, sustain in that department – which were kept from being too off-putting by the aforementioned humour of the author. (Though I’ll never be able to look at a bottle of Paul Newman’s Salad Dressing in quite the same innocent way again…)

Laurence/Tubby hits rock bottom, but struggles to his feet, and his redemption, though utterly predictable, left me feeling downright cheerful.

What else? Let’s see…

Grand glimpses of the actual process of creating sit-com episodes; the television studio bits are nicely done.

I rather liked the flashback sequence to Laurence’s teen days and his first love Maureen. Rather sweet, and an interesting excursion into a more innocent(ish) past, teen courtship-wise.

All in all, a decent read in a modern-light-novel sort of way, with the bonus of a mini-course in Kierkegaardian philosophy, delivered quite painlessly.

I do believe I may be reading more of David Lodge in the future, though I will allow a decent interval to pass before tackling him again. Enjoyable as I ultimately found it, I was very ready to be done with this book when I did close the last page; at over 300 pages it was a significant investment of reading time and attention, and there was a certain amount of authorial musing here and there which took some concentration to properly absorb.

 

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a far cry from kensignton pb muriel sparkA Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark ~ 1988. This edition: Penguin, 1989. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-010874-2. 189 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

I am breaking my several-weeks’ book-discussing silence to applaud this brief novel by the increasingly enjoyable Muriel Spark.

Isn’t it interesting that there sometimes seems to be a proper time for certain writers in a reader’s life? I think I may have entered into a deliciously Spark-ling phase of my own, for recently I found The Mandelbaum Gate to be unexpectedly good, as is this other nicely crafted thing.

A Far Cry From Kensington turned out to be happily mesmerizing, being a tightly written tragi-comedy narrated by once-obese Mrs Hawkins – I mention the obesity because it is crucial to the plot in a most bizarre way – looking back three decades to her life in 1954-55.

At the period of time which is the focus of her reminiscences, Mrs Hawkins works “in publishing” – she is employed as an editor at a soon-to-be-doomed small press situated in Kensington – and throughout the novel we get intriguing glimpses of the workaday side of the flourishing-yet-troubled literary scene of London in the 1950s, an era and an atmosphere which Muriel Spark knew in intimate detail.

Widowed soon after her impetuous wartime marriage, Agnes (“Nancy”) Hawkins, always a large girl, has effortlessly transformed into a cheerfully fat woman, “massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it.” And people confided in Mrs Hawkins: “I looked comfortable. Photographs of the time show me with a moon-face, two ample chins and sleepy eyes… It was not until later, when I decided to be thin, that right away I noticed that people didn’t confide their thoughts to me as much, neither men nor women…”

Living in a rooming house presided over by the warmly maternal and personally high-principled Milly, Mrs Hawkins is fortunate in her housemates, whom she describes with concise but living detail: the ultra-respectable and preternaturally quiet married couple, the Carlins – he an accountant, she a nursery school teacher; the cleanliness-obsessed district nurse Kate; the gloomy and excessively emotional Polish seamstress Wanda; the young and vivacious post-deb Isobel, trying out her downy wings in London as a secretary, though in constant close contact with her doting father via a private telephone of her very own; and, not least in eventual importance to Mrs Hawkins’ personal story, the brilliantly promising, dragged-up-by-his-own-bootstraps medical student William Todd.

All of these lives are intertwined with that of Mrs Hawkins; some exceedingly closely, as we will discover later in the narrative, though Muriel Spark frequently dangles just the briefest, most tantalizing fragments of information in front of us in the course of Mrs Hawkins’ tale.

Mrs Hawkins is prone to giving advice, much of it quite good, as it turns out. Pragmatic common-sense spiced with opinionism is Mrs Hawkins’ style. We learn how simple it is to lose weight (eat just half of your regular portions, and then, when the willpower is adjusted, half again); to control rheumatism (eat a banana a day, as advised by “an American negress met on a bus”); to write an engaging narrative (pretend one is writing to a single close friend); to attain concentration (acquire a cat).

This last was one of my favourite asides in this vignette-rich novel. At a dinner party, Mrs Hawkins meets a gruff, red-faced, retired Brigadier General, who mentions that he “could write a book” about his life.

‘Why don’t you?’

‘Can’t concentrate.’

‘For concentration’ I said, ‘you need a cat. Do you happen to have a cat?’

‘Cat? No. No cats. Two dogs. Quite enough.’

So I passed him some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. The light from a lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.

The Brigadier listened with deep interest as he ate, his glaring eyes turning back and forth between me and his plate. Then he said, ‘Good. Right. I’ll go out and get a cat.’ (I must tell you here that three years later the Brigadier sent me a copy of his war memoirs…On the jacket cover was a picture of himself at his desk with a large alley-cat sitting inscrutably beside the lamp. He had inscribed it ‘To Mrs Hawkins, without whose friendly advice these memoirs would never have been written – and thanks for introducing me to Grumpy.’ The book itself was exceedingly dull. But I had advised him only that the cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.’

Ha!

If you smiled sympathetically at this excerpt, this book is for you.

Read it, then, and discover just what a pisseur de copie is, and what significance The Box in the esoteric (and deeply weird) practice of radionics holds, and just what Muriel Spark really thought about one of her ex-lovers, here immortalized as the deeply dislikeable Hector Bartlett.

And, for another agreeable opinion, click on over to His Futile Preoccupations, one of many other favourable reviews of this quietly malicious minor masterpiece.

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staying with relations rose macaulay 001Staying with Relations by Rose Macaulay ~ 1930. This edition: Pan, 1947. Paperback. 224 pages

Provenance: The Book Man, Chilliwack, February 2014.

My rating: 7/10

What did I just read?

My fourth encounter with the brilliant but unsettling fiction of Rose Macaulay – the others so far being Crewe Train, The Towers of Trebizond, and The World My Wilderness.

Of these, The World My Wilderness was closest to being a “plausible” story; the others were decidedly surreal. One cannot apparently read Macaulay on complacent auto-pilot; she takes a straightforward narrative and gives it the occasional twist sideways, just enough to catch the reader off guard.

Un-credited poem, one would then assume to be by Rose Macaulay herself, on frontispiece page.

Un-credited poem, which I assume to be by Rose Macaulay herself, on frontispiece page.

Among other disconnects from reality on this latest addition to my small Macaulay collection, it was the mention of tigers in the Central American jungle that caused me my greatest bemusement. I could handle all of the other scenarios – the luxuriantly roccoco villa built upon an ancient Mayan temple/Spanish monastery, the sophisticated love lives of the family of English step-brothers, -sisters and cousins living lives of lazy pleasure financed by their older relations, the American con-man with his uncanny knowledge of hidden treasure and his bizarre plot to attain such – but the tigers threw me off my stride.

At first I thought they were merely hypothetical tigers, and that the man referencing them was harking back to years spent in India, but they popped up again (figuratively speaking), apparently as a threat as “real” as the stalking jaguars which lurk in the overgrown Guatemalan forest. Had to stop and do a bit of research, it bothered me so much, and no, there do not appear to be actual tigers endemic to this region of the world. Such a relief! – I thought not, but there was that tiny bit of niggling doubt…

Okay, I’m going off on a strange tangent. Well, perhaps rightly so. This is a rather odd and slightly unsatisfactory tale.

It starts off conventionally enough. This is what the back cover of my old Pan paperback says:

Staying with Relations is about a family who live in a baroque, Maya mansion in the heart of the Central American forest. A young woman novelist goes from England to visit her relatives in Guatemala. Theft, kidnapping and hunting for treasure left there long ago by Spanish priests occur. There is an earthquake; a girl is lost in the jungle while escaping from kidnappers; unexpected aspects of the characters of the dramatis personae emerge. Rose Macaulay has enjoyed in this book the three pleasures of relating adventures, describing exotic scenery, and writing about people…She wrote this book largely as compensation for not having, in a tour of Central America, reached Guatemala and seen its ancient temples buried in jungle…

Macaulay dips her pen deeply into the satirical ink well; she jabs away at herself as much as at her invented characters, being continually cutting about the phenomenon of the English woman novelist and her apparently universal habits. Well, the writer should know.

staying with relations rose macaulay excerpt 001 (2)

Once we get this sort of thing out of the way, the novel proceeds on its way detailing the adventures of the not particularly sympathetic cast of characters. Though Catherine-the-lady-novelist at first seems to be the main character, with the action viewed through her eyes, the point-of-view increasingly shifts until we realize, with something of a shock, that we don’t really know any of these people at all. And certainly not Catherine!

As Macaulay puts her puppets through their paces, one strains to see what her intent is; what is she really going on about? And I wish I could say that I figured this out for myself, but I must give credit elsewhere. It was a comment by Simon at Stuck in a Book , in a discussion of The World My Wilderness, that clicked on the light:

‘Reliable’ is just another word for ‘consistent’, really, and Macaulay does seem to write in a consistently dry, almost satirical style, pursuing a similar theme in each novel – albeit a theme so broad that she could have written two thousand novels and never needed to approach it from the same angle twice.  It is dangerous to summarise thus (and others may have said this before me…) but I believe Macaulay’s broad theme across her novels is: ‘What does it mean to be civilised?’

Once one views the novel with this thought in mind, it all begins to make much more sense. Macaulay is continually discussing, both by the dialogue of her characters and her scene setting, the difference between the “barbarians” and the “civilized” folk. No conclusion is committed to, but the concept of “civilization” trumps all of the other scurryings to and fro which make up the conventional skeleton of the story.

I enjoyed this book as much as one can when one feels as if the author is speaking rather over one’s head. As a dramatic fiction it is as unnervingly just off normal in the same way as something like Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel The Loved One is, or his slyly funny Decline and Fall. (Though Waugh is rather more accessible, in my opinion; Macaulay can be downright obscure, giving her readers very little help at all.)

I should probably quit now, having not really talked about the plot or any of the details of the story, and digging myself deeper with every sentence into a situation which I am going to have a hard crawling back out of. A veritable tiger-pit of a post, as it were!

For those who are already Macaulay aficionados, Staying with Relations will be a most interesting read. But I wouldn’t start here for my first introduction to this unique novelist. Perhaps try Crewe Train instead; it is just as satirically twisted but there are less characters to keep track off, and a more clearly defined heroine. Who is also, now that I come to think of it, “staying with relations”…

 

 

 

 

 

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