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All Virago, All August : You can’t go home again…

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Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton

I confess to feeling a little smugger than usual this August, as I’ve managed to read several Viragos – more than I normally manage, as there are so many bookish distractions around. Particularly pleasing is that this book is a large (over 500 pages!) and epic tale by Edith Wharton, who I haven’t read enough of – and I absolutely loved it! I read it while I was on my travels, visiting my mum and my offspring, and it was the perfect companion for train journeys and reading whilst away.

hudson river
“Hudson River Bracketed” (the titled refers to a style of architecture) was published in 1929, and it tells the story of Vance Weston. Born in the American mid-west, the son of a successful real estate developer, Vance is used to a modern, comfortable, forward-looking life. The family have gradually moved upmarket, from smaller houses to larger, even more modern ones and Vance has had a college education. But instead of taking the obvious course and going into the family business, he wants something different; some of the spark of his grandmother is in him, something that sees more in the world than just the quotidian, and Vance wants to be a writer. After an illness, he leaves the family home in the town of Euphoria and goes to board with a distant cousin, Mrs. Tracy, who has a ramshackle house in Paul’s Landing, up the Hudson River from New York. Basing himself here, he plans to make an assault on the Big Apple and make it as an author. However, the culture shock he experiences when he arrives on the Hudson is immense; for the first time in his life he comes across a way of life unlike his, with long roots to early American settlers. And the sight of his first old house has a dramatic effect on Vance, so much so that it changes his course mid-stream.

As they left the house he realized that, instead of seizing the opportunity to explore every nook of it, he had sat all the afternoon in one room, and merely dreamed of what he might have seen in the others. But that was always his way: the least little fragment of fact was enough for him to transform into a palace of dreamss, whereas if he tried to grasp more of it at a time it remained on his hands as so much unusable reality.

The Tracy family are related to the Spear family (I could have done with a family tree here) but the latter are of a different class. Cultured and refined, their only contact with the Tracys is to employ them to clean and keep an eye on The Willows, an old house owned by a cousin in the Lorburn branch of the family.

Whilst helping his cousins Laura Lou and Upton, Vance stumbles on the library and it is here that his real education begins. A college education has not prepared him for the splendours of classic literature; neither is he prepared for his meeting with Heloise “Halo” Spear, another distant cousin who will become his muse and obsession, as well as guiding him through the books at The Willows..

“Don’t shake the books as if they were carpets, Vance; they’re not. At least they’re only magic carpets, some of them, to carry one to the other side of the moon. But they won’t stand banging and beating. You see, books have souls, like people: that is, like a few people…”

But Vance’s life is going to be anything but straightforward. As he begins to explore literature and try to find his voice as a writer, he’s pulled between the draw of his art and the need to live so as to feed that art. Halo, despite his adoration of her, seems as far from him as a goddess; however, Laura Lou is human and loves him, and they will eventually make an ill-judged marriage. Vance struggles to write, to make a living so as to support the sickly Laura Lou and soon realises the mistake he’s made by marrying her. Despite the success of an initial novel, Vance’s naivety and immaturity means that he finds it impossible to find a balance in his life, torn between his loyalty for Laura Lou and need for companionship, as against his desperate urge to write. The struggle will prove to be too much for some…

wharton
“Hudson River Bracketed” could really be subtitled “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” because that’s most definitely what it is; and how unusual to have that portrait painted by a female author! Vance is a remarkable creation – complex, nuanced and perhaps more finely drawn than might be the case by a male writer. Interestingly, in the afterword by Marilyn French, the latter states that she regards the book as flawed because of the fact that Vance, as hero, is flawed, which I personally found an odd judgement. Vance is certainly no perfect hero – he has talent, but he’s weak, and his compassion and need for companionship overtake any logical thinking at times in the story. His treatment of women is often unthinking, but he’s driven by the need to write and struggles to do this while he’s burdened with a wife who has no comprehension of his needs and also has no money to support her.

I chose the title of this post deliberately, as it also spotlights another strong trend in the book, the clash between Vance’s two lives. He pretty much abandons his family in Euphoria to follow his muse, rejecting their values and way of life. At one point in the story he’s forced to return because of lack of finances, but the situation is impossible as he’s moved away from his family and their beliefs. He stands it for a while until he’s impelled to leave once more for New York. However, there’s a saying that “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy” and this kind of applies here; Vance is somehow caught between two worlds, neither of which he really fits into, and in the end you wish someone would give him some money to go off and write his masterpiece. The title of this post is also relevant because Wharton apparently based her story on the early life of American author Thomas Wolfe, who wrote a book of that name, and his books (like this one) reflect the culture of the time. In Wharton’s book in particular New York’s literary elite of the 1920s come in for quite a lot of sly criticism and it’s obvious the author had no love for faddish writing (though she does allow Vance to discover and be entranced by “The Russians”!)

HRB is a long book yet immensely readable, and beautifully written. There are vivid scenes of Vance and Halo watching a sunrise over the Hudson River; Vance and Laura Lou exploring in the snow; the countryside around The Willows and the house itself; and all of these are stunning and memorable, as were the characters. In particular, the troubled and intelligent Halo Spear is a wonderful creation. Married to a man she doesn’t love because of the fact that her family owe him money, she struggles to maintain an intellectual life and sees the genius in Vance Weston. Trying to help him draw this out, she becomes his muse and eventually the pair fall in love. This is always handled sensitively and convincingly by Wharton, and though they can’t be together out of loyalty to their spouses, I couldn’t help wishing they were as Halo seemed to be the only person able to help Vance attain his potential.

Despite its length HRB finished too soon for me; I had become completely absorbed in the story of Vance and Halo, and so it was a real delight to find out that there’s a follow-up book, “The Gods Arrive”. I’ve read little Wharton up until now, but I’ll certainly be looking out for “Gods…” and also checking out the other books by the author that are lurking on my shelves!🙂

A few lovely finds in Leicester!

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So, I’m just back from a little trip – my Summer journey to visit mum and then the Offspring for a few days. The latter always involves visiting the various bookshops and charity shops of Leicester, but this time I was surprisingly restrained and only came home with these:

leics finds aug 2016

The Leskov was a gift from Youngest Child who found it in one of the charity shops a while back and nabbed it for me. I’ve wanted this particular edition for some time so was very pleased!

The Lawrence is because, I have to confess, I’ve never read anything by him…! Middle Child is regularly scandalised by this, and persuaded me I should read “The Rainbow”. She found a pretty old Penguin in one of the shops so who knows – maybe this will be the year I read Lawrence.

Middle Child also spotted the “Daughters of Decadence” Virago collection of Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siecle, which sounds excellent.

And “The Emperor of The Amazon” sounded – unusual – so I thought I would give it a try.

Now I need to take a few more titles to the charity shops to compensate…. :s

All Virago/All August – Catching up with Dorothy!

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Behind her closed door she stood alone.

I have indeed let my reading of Dorothy Richardson’s great series of books, “Pilgrimage”, slip behind a little and I need to catch up with June’s book (“Revolving Lights”), July’s book (“The Trap”) and also that for the current month (“Oberland”). I have finally found the time and space to read them, so I thought I would do a composite type of post, covering them all!

Revolving Lights

revolving lights

“Revolving Lights” opens with a long stream-of-consciousness chapter with Miriam mixing with Mr. Leyton’s female cousins, debating with herself deeply about her relationship with Michael Shatov. She’s acutely conscious of the differences of attitude between men and women, and frustrated by his inability to understand the problems they would face if they married. Despite meeting a Russian couple, the Lintoffs, who have a ‘mixed marriage’, Miriam is still unconvinced and makes the break with Michael – her need to be alone is one of the strongest things in her psyche. There is a weight lifted from her by this break, but she’s exhausted and goes to spend a month with the Wilsons in the country. Here, she mixes with literary types, particularly Edna Prout, and grows closer to Hypo – interestingly enough, she seems to be developing a writing career of sorts, writing reviews. The book ends on a further note of change, with her dentist boss Mr. Hancock going it alone and taking Miriam with him.

The Trap

pilg 3

“The Trap” heralds more changes, as it opens with Miriam moving to new lodgings, sharing with a Miss Holland. In the same area of London, it appears, the rooms are not particularly inspiring and involve actually sharing a bedroom, with a curtain down the middle – not something I’d expect Miriam to be particularly keen on, as she likes her own space, but she appears cheerful enough about it. It’s not clear straight away why she’s made the move, though a later sentence would suggest for reasons of economy – but then there is always much that isn’t clear with Richardson. So Miriam settles in, attend Lycurgan meetings and dances, socialises with Miss Holland and Dr. Densley (is he a suitor as well as  her doctor?), copes with exhaustion and takes great joy in being a member of a women’s club. Michael Shatov makes fleeting appearances, as does the poet Yeats (who apparently lives just over the road!) and all the while Miriam continues her interior dialogue with herself. Densley is of the opinion that her exhaustion could be cured by marriage and settling down, which Miriam dismisses. However, there is a sense that she’s becoming set in her ways and certainly her outlook is often inflexible. Inevitably, there’s a falling out with Miss Holland and the book ends with the hint that Miriam may be moving on again.

Oberland

oberland

“Oberland” brings a change of scene as it opens with Miriam setting off on for a holiday in Switzerland, a trip that had been mentioned in passing while she was at the Wilsons’ as her ideal visit. And here we see the real strength of Richardson’s writing as she captures brilliantly the feeling of travelling and the effect of the landscape on Miriam as she arrives in Oberland. Switzerland comes vividly arrive and Miriam obvious loves the place; she toboggans and walks in the mountains; makes tentative friends with other residents; and spends quite a lot of time attracting men! In fact, she’s something of a flirt, drawn to a brooding Italian whose views are very much opposite to hers, and also to a young American whose free and easy New World manners are more in touch with her personality. However, it does seem as if she’s toying with them a little, and there are hints of Hypo in back in London “waiting for her decision” – on what we don’t know, but presumably it will be a love affair of some sort.

Short enough to be classed as a novella, “Oberland” was probably the easiest of these three books to read – shorter chapter, shorter paragraphs, less inner musings and more outward looking. We still experience Miriam’s way of thinking and her view of the world, but in a form that’s easier for the reader to assimilate.

****

So, having read three Pilgrimage novels in quick succession, I’ve had a concentrated dose of Miriam and I have to say that it did cross my mind that she’s a person who seriously overthinks things! Accepting that we all have random thought processes, constantly picking up subtleties around us and analysing motives and the like, Miriam takes this to an extreme degree, so much so that I did wonder how much it was interfering with her life. However, putting this aside, there are great riches to be found in the books.

For a start, some passages are quite beautiful, and in particular Richardson vividly brings alive the summer stay at the Wilsons. The landscape and the garden and the sleeping out on a summer night are wonderfully painted scenes, with Miriam contemplating the large things of life. And as always, Miriam/Richardson celebrates London and the life there in some wonderful sequences – Miriam’s refuge is often the streets of the capital, where she is at home and very much at one with herself. Switzerland too had a strong presence and Miriam always responds to landscape.

Dorothy Richardson in 1932

Dorothy Richardson in 1932

Bizarrely, in places Richardson starts to switch from the third person to the first person, and towards the end of “The Trap” a whole sequence is done in first person – which rather unsettles the reader. Another oddity is her constant way of dropping important bombshells into the narrative as passing comments; I’m thinking of one particular huge life-changing event in “The Trap” which happens so much in metaphorical parenthesis that you might actually miss it… There are also the ongoing frustrations of references to past events we know nothing about – for example, as Liz pointed out, the mention of Miriam having spent time with cousins in Cambridge is the first we hear of it, and this kind of sudden detail can be disconcerting.

On a slightly negative point, I found the constant emphasis on race in the first of these three books a little frustrating. I suppose that nowadays we’re used to people of all races and faiths and creeds marrying without a second thought, but Richardson seems to define, and often condemn, people, particularly ones of Jewish origin, because of that heritage. Granted that it’s a way of life and belief that is alien to her, nevertheless I felt slightly uncomfortable with her categorisations here. And in “Oberland” in particular, her consciousness of class differences comes to the fore. I ended up perceiving a real danger that Miriam’s outlook and character can be too rigid – she obviously is looking for a life companion of some kind, or else why would she spend so much time pursuing the various menfolk, but any relationship has to completely on her terms. There is no room for any kind of compromise in her outlook and that could well have a detrimental effect on her life long-term.

So a fascinating series of three books – and I’m keen to see where Miriam’s journey takes her next, as “The Trap” ended on a note of ambiguity as far as her future sharing digs with Miss Holland is concerned. I’m glad I used All Virago/All August to catch up, and as the final four volumes are really quite short, hopefully I’ll have no problem completing this challenge…

(Liz’s review of “Oberland” is here and you can find the rest of her reviews on her blog too)

Exploring My Library – Colette (#WIT Month)

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As it’s Women in Translation Month, I thought it might be a nice idea to share a part of my library which features works from someone who qualifies; and there are lots of candidates but I’m going for an author who was probably one of the earliest translated women I read, and is still among my favourites – Colette.

I’ve written about Colette here before, and she was a gutsy, fascinating woman who lived an incredible life. Her writing is just wonderful and so let’s got onto the books – and I own quite a few… In fact, they go two rows deep on the shelves and here they are:

front shelf

This is what the front looks like – a mixed selection of biographies and fiction.

back shelfAnd this is the back row – mainly my original Penguins from the early 1980s when I first read Colette, stored in chronological order together with other editions – because there wasn’t a complete set in Penguin, which was one of my bugbears, and still annoys me.

matching penguinsAs you can see, the Penguins at that time were quite lovely, with beautiful covers featuring a vintage photograph and very pretty design around it, in varying colours. I bought and read my way through all of these that were available, absolutely loving Colette, and I do wish Penguin had brought out all of her books in this style. Alas, not all were in Penguin and so the gaps were filled by different publishers.

unusual ones

These are some of my more unusual ones – two copies of “Mitsou” (which I only read recently), a very odd “Earthly Paradise” apparently featuring a flapper, a pretty older Penguin of “Ripening Seed” and an old hardback of “The Blue Lantern”. The latter is one of my favourite Colettes and yet not very easily obtained – I can’t imagine why…

animalsAnother more obscure title in a couple of variants – Colette’s “Dialogues des Betes” is another lesser-known title which I’ve only just picked up. She was known for her love of animals and it’s a shame this work isn’t easier to come by.

letters storiesCollected Stories is a wonderful volume, and I’d recommend it without hesitation – her shorter fictions are presented chronologically here, covering her time in music hall to the later stages of her life, and she’s as good at short stories as longer fictions. Her Letters are a delight too, and both of these books are overseen by Robert Phelps, something of a Colette scholar I believe.

some biogsThere’s a lot of biographical material on Colette as well, and these are just some of the books I have. The Thurman book is an excellent read, and probably a good place to start if you’re new to Colette and want a good biog.

claudines

Evidence, if  you ever needed it, that I really do buy too many books. I have a lovely set of the Claudine books in the original Penguin pastel type covers, so I don’t need an omnibus or a set of the older Penguins. But they’re so pretty………

break of day

Last, but certainly not least, “Break of Day”, my first and possibly favourite Colette. The Women’s Press edition on the left is the one I read back in about 1981 and it completely sold me on Colette. I then went on to read all of the books I could get in chronological order. Recently I picked up the Capuchin edition in a charity shop, just because I could – I did have another edition, a Heron hardback with a nasty cover, so I donated that as it was taking up a lot of space. I love “Break of Day” – I’ve read it more than any other Colette and can’t help thinking I’d like to pick it up again soon!

So there you have some of my Colette collection – I could have made this post a lot longer by showing you the inside of some of the picture books I have about her, reminiscences of her third husband, etc etc but I’d risk boring you to death. Colette was a wonderful woman and a marvellous writer, and is certainly a good choice if you’re looking for a translated woman to read this month!

 

#Woolfalong Phase 4 – Dazzling flights of fancy

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Orlando by Virginia Woolf

I hadn’t intended to read more than one book for the current phase of the Woolfalong, as there are so many other books and challenges I need to get through this month. But when I reached the end of “Recollections of Virginia Woolf” I couldn’t help myself – I just had to pick up the other book I’d been considering reading, and that’s her love letter in a novel to Vita Sackville West, the faux biography “Orlando”.

orlando panther

Woolf’s love life was always a complex one, and she had had affairs of the heart with women before. Vita was of course very different from Virginia – a successful popular novelist with two sons, she was also a member of the landed gentry with a long heritage. Virginia was fascinated by this history and used Vita and her past as the springboard of her wild, dazzling story.

“Orlando” opens in the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1; the titular character is a young man of noble birth living in a huge mansion in a country estate. Dreamy and somewhat clumsy, Orlando has a pivotal encounter in the early pages of the book, espying a small, scruffy man sat at the kitchen table – could this be the great English bard? This vision runs through the book as Orlando struggled continually with his life and art.

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

Orlando is taken up by queen Elizabeth, who admires the youth’s beauty (and also his shapely legs – another recurring motif!) London in Elizabethan times is a fascinating place, and we watch Orlando experiencing all that lively and ribald world can offer. Love of all sorts comes his way freely until he is smitten with a visiting Russian princess, Sasha. Against the background of the Great Frost the affair is played out and Orlando betrayed, with the flood that follows the thaw sweeping away Sasha along with much else of London at the time.

Vita as Orlando

Vita as Orlando

But Orlando has several strange capabilities. For one thing, he gets to a certain age and then seems to stop ageing. So we follow him through decades and then centuries and as the world changes, and Orlando goes through a number of escapades, he doesn’t change. Well, that isn’t quite right – he in fact changes quite dramatically at one point, suddenly becoming a she! So the lady Orlando continues her life – ambassador in Constantinople, poet, hostess of a literary salon, always a landowner in love with the soil and eternal seeker of the truth about art and life.

In fact, putting aside the sparkling tale and the dazzling portrait of a changing England, the struggle between art and life is the crux of this tale. Orlando cannot help but write, though he/she spends much of the time wondering whether this is the right thing to do and if simply living for the day and the experience is better. Encounters with Pope and Dryden and Addison do not help matters; nor does the poet and critic Nicholas Greene; and it is not until the modern age that Orlando is able to write her great work and see it published and recognised. But even here Woolf is a little ambivalent about whether success is worth it and why one writes.

From the foregoing passage, however, it must not be supposed that genius (but the disease is now stamped out in the British Isles, the late Lord Tennyson, it is said, being the last person to suffer from it) is constantly alight, for then we should see everything plain and perhaps should be scorched to death in the process. Rather it resembles the lighthouse in its working, which sends one ray and then no more for a time; save that genius is much more capricious in its manifestations and may flash six or seven beams in quick succession (as Mr Pope did that night) and then lapse into darkness for a year or for ever. To steer by its beams is therefore impossible, and when the dark spell is on them men of genius are, it is said, much like other people.

It must be 35 years since I read “Orlando”, on my first great chronological read of Woolf’s works, and yet much still seemed familiar. In particular, the sequences on the frozen Thames during the Great Frost are one of the best things I’ve ever read, bringing to life a vivid impression of London at the time. In fact, the portrait of a changing land over several centuries is masterfully painted, bringing a novelist’s sensibilities to a historical tale and making that history stunning. Woolf really captures the effect the changing times had in a way a dull textbook can’t and the book is all the more wonderful because of it. The sheer brilliance of her prose takes your breath away, and her flights of imagination are exhilarating. At one point, where the eighteenth century turns into the nineteenth and heralds the Victorian era, she audaciously characterises that century of darkness and dullness and gloom (so the Bloomsberries thought of it) as being defined by damp! So the ivy creeps, everyone is cold and wears huge layers of clothes and even Orlando becomes feeble in a crinoline.

“Orlando” was a brave book to publish at a time when sapphic relationships were very much frowned upon; and the original edition had pictures of Vita posing as Orlando so there could not be much doubt who the book was about. Add in the fact that Vita was notorious for having run off to the continent with Violet Trefusis and you can see that Virginia was taking a bit of a risk.

However, “Orlando” is much more than just a frivolous love letter to Vita; in fact, I would argue that much of its value comes from the discussions of art and writing. I couldn’t help feeling the Woolf was putting her own thoughts and beliefs on the subject into the book, and I wondered if the conflicts she has Orlando enduring reflected those she felt in her own writing life.

As I’ve said, the vision of an evolving England is a vivid and wonderful one; but there’s also the joy of Woolf’s sparkling and wonderful prose which is unparalleled here. Never has her writing been so humorous and playful, and the book was a joy to read from start to finish. In fact, if you’re new to Woolf, “Orlando” might well be a decent place to start as it’s quite accessible and I think gives a real insight into Woolf herself. Re-reading “Orlando” was a truly wonderful experience, and one that will be a highlight of my reading year. I actually can’t wait for the next phase of the Woolfalong and I think I may well end up reading more than one title…..

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three orlandos

As an aside, my original read of Orlando all those decades ago was in the form of a little Panther edition (as were all of my Woolfs at the time). However, as I later discovered, the illustrations from the original book were left out and so I recently picked up what was billed as the definitive edition for this reread which included the illustrations. However, when I went to get my copies off the shelves for a photo I found that I already had one of these – truly I need to pay more attention to what’s already on the stacks…..

A Final Shiny Link!

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SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245Just time to give you a link to my final piece for Shiny New Books this issue!

I was very flattered to be approached to offer thoughts on books that had had a profound effect on me for a piece called “A Novel Calling”. This took some hard thinking about, and I ended up with books ranging from Dr. Seuss to Camus! It’s an interesting idea to try yourself, but if you’re at all interested in reading about the books that changed my life, head over to Shiny New Books here!

The Book-Finding Fairy makes a reappearance…

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I’ve been purposely ignoring the charity shops lately, as it’s not as if the TBR mountain isn’t teetering; plus my reading speed has been surprisingly slow, and I keep getting distracted by cheap crafting supplies (that’s another story…) However, for some reason I felt the call of the Sense charity shop as I passed by it yesterday, and as I hadn’t visited it for a while I decided to drop in – which I was obviously meant to do…

pet dovlatov

The first two finds are particularly exciting as they’re both books that have been on my mental wishlist for a while – so to find them in excellent condition for only ÂŁ1 each was a treat. They’re really not the usual type of thing that turns up in the Sense shop, so I can’t help thinking they were meant for me…

wandererI took a punt on the Hamsun, as I couldn’t remember if I had this one or not (I have several of his titles) but fortunately I didn’t – so I’m really glad I did pick it up!

The Oxfam hasn’t had quite such brilliant stock recently, and their literature section really isn’t very well curated or organised. Everything is in the wrong category or order (though they haven’t got the howlers Sense has – Anna Karenina shelved by author under K…..) However, this caught my eye:

the russian girl

I’m keen to explore more of Amis senior’s work and so I thought I’d give this a try. I already have a couple of recent postal arrivals by Amis too, it’s just finding the time to read them:

amis x 2

I’ve read good things about both of them, and so I have high hopes!

Finally, I thought I’d share a couple of incoming volumes via my dear friend J. who, noting my interest in Soviet sci-fi, procured them from a book dealer friend of hers.

more soviet sci fi

Since both feature the Strugatsky brothers, I’m rather excited! Now I just need to focus myself on *actually reading*!!!!

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