Over on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group, many of us are taking part in a month-long celebratory read of Virago books which seems to be an annual event (and is always a good excuse to reduce the size of Mount TBR a little…..) I can’t promise to only read Viragos, but I’m certainly going to be doing my best to read several!

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Rebecca West is an author I’ve felt I wanted to read for some time, and there are certainly several on the pile, so I thought I would start with “The Harsh Voice” – a lovely green volume which collects together four long short stories/short novellas themed around the harsh voice of the title – that heard when money talks.

I thought I would run through the four stories – all set in the late 1920s/early 1930s – separately first, because I’m not personally convinced they’re all focusing on the same theme – but we shall see.

Life Sentence

The first story in the book is set in American and tells the grim tale of Corrie and Josephine, whose relationship is ruined by her grasping financial acumen and his weakness. The story opens with Corrie trying to pluck  up the courage to tell Josephine he cannot marry her as he doesn’t love her enough. But through sheer force of personality she wins him over and they set off on their life sentence. Josie is a modern American woman, financially astute and with an aptitude as a property developer. She buys the old estate Corrie loved to play on as a child, and turns it into luxury houses, destroying the only happy times he had. Eventually the differences become too much and the couple divorce. Both remarry, but never entirely shake off the influence of the other. When the financial crash comes, both are concerned that the other will need money and meet again. Despite their emnity, they are still locked together in a life sentence proving what a thin line there is between love and hate.

There is No Conversation

This story is set in Paris and American and is narrated by an unnamed English woman. She encounters in France the an old acquaintance, Etienne de Sevenac, a lightweight aristocrat, whom she does not really like spending time with. However, he accosts her and insists on taking her back to his flat to tell her how he has been ruined by an American woman, Nancy Sarle. Etienne’s narrative tells of how he took a plain, unworldly woman under his wing, dressed her, taught her how to behave, introduced her to good Parisian society and basically taught her the rules of the game. However, he tells how she fell in love with him and it became a bore, so when he threw her over, she ruined him financially.

The female narrator is intrigued by Nancy and so when she returns to American, where she lives with her husband and children, she searches Nancy out and befriends her. However, she finds herself liking Nancy very much and when she finally gains her confidence, the story Nancy tells of what happens in Paris is very different….

Salt of the Earth

“Salt of the Earth” is set in England and opens with Alice Pemberton preparing to return home to her husband and her extended family after staying with her mother following an illness. Initially Alice appears to be a good sort, kind and caring and willing to do anything to help – the salt of the earth in fact. However, it doesn’t take long for warning bells to sound as her mother seems very anxious to get rid of her… And when she returns to her town, visiting brother and sister and their families, all she seems to encounter is strain and conflict. It soon becomes clear that Alice is an interfering do-gooder of the worst sort, convinced that she knows what is best for everyone, unable to see what pain she causes them by the things she says, and capable of causing real damage in the world by her behaviour.

Her beloved husband Jimmy is under a terrible strain – he makes one last-ditch effort to make Alice see the huge damage she is causing, but she is completely blinkered, unshakable in her belief that what she thinks is right and unable to accept what he says. What will Jimmy do to avert catastrophe?

The Abiding Vision

The final story in the book is again set in America and opens with Sam Hartley, an American businessman who has crawled up from rags to riches, moving with his loyal wife Lulah into a fancy new apartment. They are both from humble beginnings and Lulah has helped make Sam what he is. However, she has aged and despite his love for her and her faithfulness, he is haunted by the thought of youth and falls in with a young actress, Lily.

Lily soon becomes a big part of Sam’s life: he ‘keeps’ her for 8 or 9 years while living his life with Lulah, who never knows, and their relationship becomes something more than business. However, the big crash strikes here too, and the business gradually goes downhill. Poor Lulah cannot cope and has a kind of stroke, so while using his last funds to care for her, Sam relies on Lily to support him. Just as he is at his lowest ebb, he finds work and the prospect of building himself back up again. But Lily has now become old from caring for him through the troubles, and once again Sam’s vision of youth returns…

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These remarkable stories certainly show what a great writer Rebecca West was. All are beautifully written and absorbing, though some I think are stronger than others. The descriptions are lovely and West can pinpoint someone in just a few words – this description of the Master of the old estate Corrie is so happy on springs to mind:

“He looked at the boy with the bewildered eyes of those whose saner parts have died first, and spoke to him in soft ceremonial accents that seemed to clothe too fully a shrunken will, like the fine white suit that flapped about his emaciated limbs.”

And I would rather hesitantly disagree with the assertion that they are all about the influence of money, which speaks with the harsh voice (not that I want to argue with an author about her own work!) It seems to me that the first and last story are very much about the financial influence, as Josie and Sam are pure business people, concerned with getting on and making something of themselves in what is perceived as a very American way. But “There is No Conversation”, which I think is the best story in the book, is much more about how different people’s perceptions are and how it is impossible for humans to really communicate or understand each other.

“There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.”

In the same way, there are intersecting lives but no real empathy. And “Salt of the Earth” is again concerned with perception – Alice’s image of herself is completely at odds with reality and she is utterly unable to recognise this. Corrie and Josie also fundamentally miscommunicate and Sam is unable to see the cycle of betrayal which perpetuates itself in his behaviour. I would also disagree strongly with the introduction to the volume which states that the last story is the most optimistic because in “The Abiding Vision”, the last lines are almost the same as the first – Sam has come full circle and is about to deceive another woman who loves him because of an obsession with youth. So I felt that the joining thread of these stories was not entirely money (as this is somewhat incidental to the central two stories) but more the inability of humans to reach any kind of real communion with each other.

As I said above, “There is No Conversation” was certainly my favourite of the four tales. It’s wonderfully written, a masterful story from two perspectives with a very distinctive voice for the mysterious female narrator. She’s intriguing in her own right and we wonder who is this cold and somewhat strange woman who gradually reveals more of her life temperament as she goes along. And the story has a few almighty kicks at the end so I won’t say anything her but urge you to read this!

I’ve really enjoyed my first AV/AA book and also my first Rebecca West – I can’t wait to read more of her work!

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