Does anyone like short stories, I mean, really like them? I know that many of us (or at least me) say that we do, but then do we ever actually read them? I’m always going to, I really mean to; year after year one of my major resolutions has been to read just one itty, bitty story a week and every year, the result is the same — I read, say, three. Or in a good year, maybe four. I’ve tried everything, every rationalization, every form of persuasion to up my total — “oh, just read whatever The New Yorker is publishing this week, it’s an easy way to stay current with new talent;” “pick some critically acclaimed collection by a prestige writer; that way you can blather and impress your literary friends;” “go on, pull out a ‘Best of the Year’ collection cluttering the shelves, it’s a quick way to get a little dusting done,” “it’ll be easier to read stories around a theme — Christmas, ghosts, Halloween, family relationships, whatever;” or, at a really low point, “just read one of the damn things and then go bake some cookies ….” Well, anyway, I’m sure you get the idea. Despite all this clever self-psychology, with a very few exceptions (Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress; William Trevor’s After Rain) I always go for a novel rather than a short story or a story collection. I think at bottom the short story leaves me a little dissatisfied; just as I feel that I’m getting underway — poof! It’s gone. I also think the short story requires the ability to stop, savor, relish, luxuriate in what you’ve just read, all of which is antithetical to my habit of reading quickly to cover a lot of ground. Yet still I persist in my annual goal, because the short story is, as far more knowledgeable people than I have said, a great art form.
Well, my failure to appreciate the short story is about to change! The Guardian has just published the most wonderful list, “Bite Sized: 50 great short stories, chosen by Hilary Mantel, George Saunders and more.” It’s a great mixture of classic, contemporary, famous writers (Alice Munroe, William Trevor and so on) and writers who may very well be famous but who are unfamiliar to me (Ilse Aichinger; Jo Ann Beard; Gina Beeriault); some stories were originally published in English; some are translations; there are a few obvious selections (Jackson’s “The Lottery”) and some wonderful contemporary stuff (“We Didn’t Like Him” by Akhil Sharma). The great feature of the list is that each entry has a wonderful little paragraph explaining why that particular story is on the list. It’s so exciting! I must read them all! Perhaps one a week for the next year?
I loved, loved, loved this book! I actually finished reading it last week, but had to absorb its impact for a few days and mull over how to approach it in a review. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but books I really like, that touch me emotionally, tend to leave me speechless or whatever you call the literary equivalent of being tongue-tied. Why is that, I wonder? I think it’s partially a fear my review won’t do the book justice, that it deserves better than what I can give it and that if I could only write a better review my bookish treasure would get the consideration it deserves from any prospective readers out there. There’s also, however, another element that makes it hard for me to discuss this work — I loved it and what if others don’t? So be forewarned — I’ll listen to opposing opinions about its quality but be prepared to (strongly) argue your case!
Before I get started on the novel itself, I want to note a few mundane matters. I purchased The Ten Thousand Things many years ago, largely because it was on sale (see how honest I’m being?) and I felt a strong attraction for its exotic setting. I mean, really, a spice plantation in the Dutch East Indies in the early part of the 20th century? How could you possibly get more exotic? I had always wanted to travel in the Indonesia/Oceania part of the world and I was practically licking my chops at the idea of a painless way to learn something about the area and maybe to imbibe a bit of local atmosphere. Besides, the book is an NYRB Classic, meaning it has a beautiful cover, pages made from acid free paper and a really tactile quality in general (you just somehow want to stroke it, you know? ) Although I purchased this novel at least a decade ago, I finally read it for the first time — last week! In the first few years after it entered my rather motley collection, I’d occasionally take the book off the shelf and admire the cover art; then of course, back on the shelf it went; it just struck me as a “difficult” read that I didn’t have the energy for at whatever time I happened to be considering it; it always lost out to what I perceived as an easier novel (bring on another mystery or sci-fi space opera!); eventually it became just another of those beautiful NYRB Classics that I’m better at buying than actually reading. Two events were instrumental in converting this book from a dust catcher into a reading experience: I finished a course last fall on the art of the Dutch maritime empire during its Golden Age (i.e, the 1600s) and I needed a selection for the “Africa, Asia, or Oceania” category for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate. This time around when I picked up Marie Dermoût’s Ten Thousand Things my course in Dutch art history gave the novel context and an historical resonance; it seemed — and was — the perfect selection. The importance of having an historical context for a particular book is a very personal matter; while it’s important for me (I was a very enthused history major several eons ago, when I first attended college), it’s totally unnecessary to enjoy the novel, which, by the way, isn’t at all a difficult read. In fact, my quest for historical facts actually got somewhat in the way. I kept interrupting my reading to spend internet time trying to determine the real life counterpart of the narrator’s unnamed island, or whether the “sugar panic” on Java that impoverished her family actually occurred. Total, obsessive waste of time chasing irrelevant facts; much better, dear reader, to have simply sat back and enjoyed this lovely book.
What I (and many of the reviews I looked at) found among the most entrancing features of The Ten Thousand Things is the sensual, poetic quality of Dermoût’s prose and, closely related, her ability to draw you into the landscape of a dream, providing you remember that dreams are sometimes uneasy things. The novel opens with a description of “the Island in the Moluccas” where there are still a few “gardens” or plantations left from “the great days of spice growing.” The garden’s great house has long since fallen prey to earthquake and fire, but a guest pavilion remains, four large rooms on an open side gallery; this is the home of the lady who owns the garden:
She had a beautiful name — Mrs. von So-and-so [that had been her husband’s name; he was from an East Prussian noble family] — and she was the last of an old Dutch line of spice growers.
For five generations the garden had been in the family; after her, her son would have been the sixth generation; after him, his children the seventh — but it was not to be like that. Her son had died young and childless and she was an old woman, beyond fifty now, without other children, without other relatives — the last one.
According to the custom of the island, where they had trouble remembering difficult names and where everyone had a byname, she was called “the lady of the inner bay,” or also “the lady of the Small Garden,” for that was the name of the garden.
Trust me, the language and descriptions become even more hypnotic as the novel moves on; I’m having to restrain myself from quoting huge chunks of it. You’ll just have to read it for yourself (if you don’t, you’ll miss the description of the three graves at the edge of the garden, and the ghosts of the three little girls, daughters of a long-ago owner, who are seen by some to play under the spice trees and on the beach of the inner bay. Your life will be poorer).
The novel’s structure is based on the island’s geography. The opening section (“The Island”) depicts the island’s sights, its sounds, and its residents, living and dead, from the lady of the Small Garden, to the simple fisherman who dyed his hair blue, because his remarkable soldier son must be honored by having a remarkable father. “At the Inner Bay” is perhaps the novel’s most narratively cohesive section; it recounts the life of the girl, Felicia, who in her old age becomes the lady of the Small Garden; it tells of her birth, her early childhood and of her strange and powerful grandmother, with her herbs and cabinet of wonders guarded from evil by living shells. After Grandmother refuses to rebuild the big house, the scene of death and misfortune, Felicia is taken to Europe by her irate mother, the wealthy heiress of a Javanese sugar plantation. There, in a few brief paragraphs, Felicia grows to adulthood, living with her parents in a succession of luxury hotels, until she meets the “stranger from Nice,” whom she marries. When the “sugary money” runs out, so does he, taking Felicia’s jewelry with him and leaving her pregnant. After she tires of sponging off relatives in Holland, a penniless Felicia returns with her infant son Himpies to her Grandmother on the Island, where she spends the rest of her life.
In contrast to her years in Europe, which are covered in a paragraph or two, Felicia’s time with her grandmother in the Small Garden (which eventually passes to her) is recounted in great detail. This section of the novel also narrates the life of Felicia’s son Himpies, who dies as a childless young man. Dermoût paints a picture of Himpies at all stages of his life: the infant Willem, whom the islanders rechristen “Himphies” (remember, the island loves “bynames”); the child who is almost an organic part of the Small Garden; the youth who reluctantly goes to Holland for his education and the young officer who has knowingly chosen the wrong career because it enables him to return to the island. It also recounts, finally, his unnecessary, untimely and agonizing death.
In the novel’s third section, “At the Outer Bay,” the narrative shifts to the island’s only town and three of its residents, who are loosely connected to Felicia and Himpies. Each story centers on a character who, like Himpies, meets an untimely end. In the novel’s last section, “The Island,” we return in a sense to the novel’s beginning, where Felicia, now the old lady of the Small Garden, keeps vigil alone, one night each year; at this time the ghosts of those whose stories we’ve read (including Himpies) visit her. At dawn, when the ghosts depart, Felicia leaves off her vigil, goes “under the trees and indoors, to drink her coffee and try again to go on living.” As much as I love the poetry of Dermoût’s language and the fact that, for all her lovely descriptions, she also tells a good story, it was her almost pantheistic vision of life that appealed to me so much. In Dermoût’s island, everything — plants, animals, stones, wind, the sea — is connected; each has its role to play and its fate to be endured. Time is circular, like the serpent that swallows its tail; we travel a circle of life and death, to learn that which Felicia has known from the beginning — that the dead inhabit the island as much as the living.
This is as good a place as any to squeeze in a bit of info about Maria Dermoût herself. Although I was unaware of the fact until I read this novel, she is considered one of the leading writers of Dutch colonial literature. The Ten Thousand Things, which she wrote in her sixties, is a heavily biographical work. Like Felicia, Dermoût was born in Malaysia (specifically, Java in 1888), was educated in Holland, married a Dutch official and spent most of her adult life in Indonesia. Dermoût’s only son died in a Japanese concentration camp; in 1962 she herself died in Holland, alone like Felicia. Her output, alas, is small, being limited to this novel and to one other work; The Ten Thousand Things actually fell out of print in English before being rescued by NYRB Classics.
Remember my words at the beginning of this overly long post, about my fear that I’d fail to do justice to a wonderful work of literature? As I mull over what I’ve written, I fear that I’ve made Dermoût sound too sentimental. She isn’t at all. Colonial history, anywhere — Africa, the Americas, Malaysia — has a very dark side, which has its place and connection to events in Dermoût’s world. The Small Garden has the charming custom of sounding a bell when visitors approach or depart; it’s a little chilling to find that what’s being used is “the slave bell” from the Small Garden’s days as a major spice plantation. The island’s inhabitants include the ghosts of three little girls, daughters of one of Felicia’s distant ancestors. The three died together in a single day, most likely poisoned by a mistreated slave girl; the tale is so dark Felicia’s grandmother refuses to speak of it (it’s one of the reasons she also refuses to rebuild the great house, the scene of their deaths). Felicia’s son, young and charming and good, is killed almost by chance; his death is unnecessary, slow and painful. In addition to the exigencies of fate, Dermoût acknowledges the darkness that is part of human nature: many of her characters are murdered; more are selfish, greedy and domineering. And, of course, the Lady of the Small Garden, her grandmother and her son Himpies, are themselves the human remnants of the great tide of European conquest and exploitation that re-shaped a huge chunk of the globe; to carry my metaphor further, they are akin to the shells left stranded on a beach after the tide has receded.
With this last fact in mind, I can’t resist including this painting of an unknown official of the Dutch East India Company and his wife, standing next to a harbor in a city that centuries after their time will be called Jakarta. Behind them a native servant holds a pajong or parasol over their heads; in Javanese culture the pajong symbolizes high rank and status. The Dutch official points with the pride of ownership and authority to the huge Dutch ships riding at anchor, loaded with the spices that were far more valuable than gold, shortly to begin their voyage “home.” On the distant shore is Batavia Castle, a key component of Dutch military power over their conquered island.
Here’s another painting on the theme of empire; this is an image of Dutch military and political power rather than Cupy’s portrayal of the mercantile/commercial power of the East India Company. Painted from the perspective of the victorious Dutch, it depicts the “submission” of one of the last indigenous leaders who opposed their rule. The Javanese prince thought he was attending a peace conference held under a flag of truce. He wasn’t. After being arrested he was quickly exiled and that, as they say, is that.
Dermoût’s novel has a scene in which Felicia, a penniless young woman newly returned from Holland, persuades her grandmother to begin selling the Small Garden’s produce in the town market. Grandmother is indignant — “what do you mean? sell for money things that we didn’t pay money for?” — but relents when she realizes Felicia needs money to provide an education for Himpies. Since I’m on a visual roll, this is all the excuse I need to throw in this painting of a street market in the Dutch East Indies:
The painting is attributed, probably incorrectly, to Albert Eckhout, a 17th century Dutch artist who’s known primarily for his paintings of life in the short-lived Dutch colony in Brazil rather than Indonesia. Although it predates Felicia’s mercantile adventure by two centuries or so, I think it conveys some of the exotic (to westerners, anyway) quality of Felicia’s world (as well as the ethnic typecasting frequently found in western paintings of non-western cultures). Lastly, the painting at the beginning of my posting is from a genre known loosely as “Mooi Indie” or “pretty Indies pictures,” i.e., somewhat stereotyped portrayals of beautiful and/or picturesque scenes of Indonesian life and scenery, often (but not always) painted by Europeans. I wasn’t able to determine the artist’s identity or the location of his scene and I did feel a bit reluctant to use it, but it was so beautiful I couldn’t resist.
Well, that’s it for tonight! I have a few more paintings I’m itching to include, but I’ll spare y’all. Hopefully I haven’t frightened anyone away from reading a wonderful novel. I can’t think of a better closing than the one used by Dermoût herself, a line of poetry from Ts’en Shen:
“When the ten thousand things have been seen in their unity, we return to the beginning and remain where we have always been.”
Alice Greenway’s White Ghost Girls is a skinny little novel (scarcely more than a novella) that has taken me almost seventeen (!!!!) years to read. If I hadn’t decided to participate in the 2019 TBR Challenge, in fact, it might have languished on the shelf for another decade, or never have been read at all, which would be a shame. For all its brevity, Greenway’s beautifully written novel packs quite a punch. Despite my great delay in getting to it (I always meant to read it!) I am happy to have selected it as my first 2019 TBR Challenge read!
Greenway’s novel could be categorized in a number of equally accurate ways. Ghost Girls is a debut novel and, like many such, is also a coming of age tale. Most reviewers stopped there. In my mind, however, this tale of an expatriate American family living in Hong Kong also falls into the “innocent Americans abroad in a dangerous world” category, a variation on the well-beloved 19th century trope of naive Americans entrapped by an older & exotic culture. On a very mundane level, Ghost Girls also concerns a dysfunctional family (dysfunctional family novels are one of my favorite literary sub-genres). Its Hong Kong setting, described in lovely, lyrical prose, also places the novel in that group of books that you might pick up for an afternoon’s mini-vacation in an exotic locale. The novel is also a study, brief but concentrated, of loss and memory. Finally, although I don’t think Greenway intended it as such, her novel is a bit of a period piece. Its action takes place in 1967, when America’s adventure in Vietnam was at its tragic height and Mao’s Red Guards are fomenting unrest in Hong Kong in a process that will eventually see the end of British rule over the crown colony. Both these political events determine the lives of Greenway’s characters and her depiction of them adds a great deal to the novel’s atmosphere.
It is the summer of 1967 and the news is filled with images of the war that is raging in southeast Asia. The family’s father is a photographer for Time Magazine, assigned to cover the war. While he works on assignment in Vietnam, his wife Marianne and his two daughters, Frankie and Kate, live in Hong Kong where they await his occasional visits from the war zone. It’s one of the novel’s ironies that Hong Kong, chosen as a safe refuge from war, is itself descending into intense street violence brought about by clashes between police and communist demonstrators. During her husband’s absence Marianne uses the charms and comforts of the colony’s British elite (Sunday luncheon, anyone, or perhaps tea?) to barricade herself against the violence and her fear; an artist, she also immerses herself in painting charming water colors of an idyllic, imaginary China that never existed. Twelve year old Kate and her older sister Frankie are left largely to Ah Bing, the family’s Chinese nanny and house keeper; they are her gwaimui, or white ghost girls (on occasion, she also refers to them as houh hoi, or “little whores.” Marianne is oblivious.) The combination of an unreachable mother, and a father becoming increasingly addicted to the lure of Vietnam and the adrenaline of war, mean the two girls essentially navigate adolescence and the street dangers created by political turmoil on their own.
The story is told in the first person, from the perspective of the adult Kate, who is remembering the events of her family’s last summer together. It is clear from the opening page that something terrible will happen to Frankie; the novel’s suspense lies in learning the precise form the catastrophe will assume and how it will occur. As with any first person account, the reader has to judge for herself the reliability of the narrator, a point that Kate herself raises rather obliquely midway through the novel. Greenway uses beautiful, lyrical prose to contrast the innocence of late childhood with the growing menace surrounding Kate and Frankie. When the act occurs that sets in motion the novel’s horrifying climax, we see it as twelve year old Kate sees it, half comprehending, half not.
Greenway is particularly good at family dynamics. Kate and Frankie are studies in contrasts. Frankie is voluptuous and rebellious; as the older sister she is bigger, stronger and faster; she is also more emotionally needy and feels she must come first in any situation. Kate is younger; more boyish; quieter and observant; it is Kate who sees the fractures in the family’s relationships and feels responsible for mending them. Despite their differences, the sisters have a close relationship but one that begins to fray over the course of that fateful summer. Although it is hardly the dominant strain in the novel, Greenway skillfully depicts the struggle each girl wages with the other and with their mother for the father’s attention on the rare occasions when he is physically with his family.
A note about the artwork, for the visually minded out there. The artist is George Chinnery, who was active in the second quarter of the 19th century and spent much of his life along what was then called the “China Coast.” Chinnery, a contemporary of the far more famous J.M.W. Turner, was the only western painter resident in south China during this period. Because Chinnery spent only a limited amount of time in Hong Kong itself, the painting actually portrays a panoramic view of Macau, at the time a more important city located about 40 miles to the southwest. At one point in the novel, Kate attempts to understand her emotionally aloof and distant mother by examining her mother’s art. Kate describes her mother’s paintings as “nostalgic, suggestive” of a nineteenth century Hong Kong, similar to “the playful sketches of George Chinnery’s depictions” of “the faded charm of nearby Macau.” While I may have cheated a bit by using a 19th century painting of Macau to illustrate a 20th century novel set in Hong Kong, Greenway gives me some support for doing so!
Although I wasn’t quite as taken with this novel as many reviewers (I think it was long-listed for the Orange Prize, or some such) it was definitely worth reading on both stylistic and substantive grounds. I’d especially recommend it for readers who enjoy beautiful lyrical language, atmosphere and exotic settings in their novels.
I’ve recently finished reading Henry James’ The Tragic Muse, my first book of the new year and the 19th century novel I selected for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I feel quite a sense of accomplishment; if I haven’t summited Everest, I feel like I’ve at least reached base camp! My choice of a mountain climbing metaphor is quite deliberate. I’ve at least gotten started on the Challenge (we all know what tends to happen to those good intentions, don’t we?). Even more importantly, however, I’ve reacquainted myself with one of those “classic” writers whom I suspect is more admired than actually read. Although I tremendously enjoyed The Tragic Muse, it was a lengthy novel that demanded time and a fair amount of attention. No skimming or multitasking while I parsed those subtle Jamesian sentences!
In the brief life of this blog, I’ve referred to Henry James at least twice, both times in terms of adoration. Despite my current high regard for James, however, I did not begin my reading life as an HJ fan. After an unpleasant teenage encounter with his Portrait of a Lady (my “mature” judgment at the time was that Portrait was tied with Eliot’s Silas Marner for the title of the most boring book ever written!), I consigned HJ to the category of writers who had little to offer me personally. My opinion changed drastically about fifteen years later. The catalyst for this transformation came when I casually purchased a paperback sales copy of Leon Edel’s multi-volume biography of James. Unbeknownst to me, Edel was the 20th century specialist in James studies. Although later scholars (perhaps most notably Sheldon Novick) have attacked certain aspects of Edel’s work, his James biography continues be an indispensable source of knowledge about the author’s life. Edel was a tremendous scholar and a marvelous writer who used great sensitivity in evaluating many areas of James’ life about which little is known (James, who was no admirer of the biographer’s art, deliberately destroyed certain personal writings before his death to preserve his privacy). Because his work was a literary biography, Edel combined a factual account of James’ life with very perceptive discussions of James’ novels and major fictional works. At that particular time in my life I had the great gift of an undemanding job that allowed me the spare time and mental energy to plough through Edel’s biography. As I learned the details of James’ life, which included financial problems, a tortured sexuality and some very difficult family relationships, I began to see him as a far more sympathetic figure than I had previously considered him to be; increased knowledge about his life also made his work more interesting and accessible. Perhaps more importantly, however, Edel’s biography was a wonderful introduction to James’ literary output. As I read about James’ novels, I became interested in James’ novels, particularly as I saw how his literary work related to his own life and reflected the culture of which he was a part. Although I read a lot of other things during this time in my life, I primarily focused on James’ novels and, to a much lesser extent, his shorter fiction (James was also a gifted travel writer and perceptive literary critic; alas I’ve read next to nothing of his output in either field). Nineteenth and early 20th century literature, however, requires time and attention, and as both became increasingly scarce over the years (eventually I had to get a real job) I’m afraid I gave James’ novels more shelf space than attention. I was in fact quite startled when I realized some time ago that for all my prattle regarding my love for James’ fiction it had literally been years since I had actually read any of it. I decided to participate in the Classics Challenge this year in large part because it increased the likelihood that I’d actually re-read at least one novel by a writer whom I hold in such high regard.
Because James was a prolific author (he turned out a lot of writing as he was heavily dependent on the income it produced), I had a wide array of novels to choose from in making my selection for the Classics Challenge. I settled on The Tragic Muse(Muse) largely because this was one of the novels I had never re-read (unlike, say, Portrait of a Lady) and so remembered few details about the plot. Another important factor in my selection was style. Although James’ writing is synonymous in the minds of many with subtle complexity, this idea is rather inaccurate when applied to his output as a whole. While it is certainly true that the sentence structure and syntax of his “late” novels (The Golden Bowl, Wings of the Dove and The Ambassadors) can be quite bewilderingly complex, his earlier novels (and even Muse, which dates from the mid-period of his productivity) are often quite straightforward stylistically. It’s also worth mentioning that Muse doesn’t fit a couple of other familiar tropes regarding James’ novels. Rather than offering an intense psychological study of a few individuals (as in, for example, The Golden Bowl) it has a large, sprawling cast of characters. Muse also doesn’t concern the theme, so prevalent in James’ early fiction (Portrait of a Lady; Daisy Miller) of naive American innocents forced to grapple with the sophisticated wiles of an older European culture.
Muse contains two separate but symmetrical narrative arcs, one centering on Nick Dormer, an upper class Englishman who rejects family and heritage to become a painter, and the other on Miriam Rooth, a penniless girl of partially Jewish ancestry (a point that matters to several of the other characters) who is determined to become a great actress. James sets his novel in the Paris and London of his own day, i.e., the late 19th century, and depicts how the acts and attitudes of an interrelated group of English aristocrats affect the decisions, and fates, of Nick and Miriam. His story begins in Paris, where we first meet the Dormer family. The widowed Lady Agnes, attended by her daughters Grace and Biddy, has reluctantly accompanied her son Nick, who has insisted on attending the latest Paris exhibition of avant-garde art. It’s easy to miss a certain dry humor that often turns up in James’ work; here, for example his description of the Dormer ladies’ reaction to the French avant-garde is quite funny (Lady Agnes observes that in London art is “much less unpleasant” than the Parisian “horrors” admired by her son). Nick himself is a charming and devoted son, a quintessential golden boy, destined by birth and training to emulate his late father’s political career. Although outwardly amenable to this plan for his future, Nick secretly cherishes an ambition to be a painter.
Also in Paris is Julia Dallow, a widowed cousin and friend of the Dormer family. Rich, beautiful and talented, Julia is indifferent to art and contemptuous of painting. From the outset it is clear that Julia is not only in love with Nick but is also extremely eager to put her money and formidable talents behind his political career. Her reasons for doing so are far from disinterested; unlike Nick, Julia is fascinated by politics and sees their marriage as a way for her to become a great political hostess. As the novel progresses Nick becomes increasingly unable to hide his boredom and distaste for the political life in which he is engaged, while Julia increasingly reveals the full extent of her antipathy and contempt for the life of an artist. When Nick ultimately resigns from Parliament, he does so knowing that it will cost him his marriage to Julia as well as a large bequest from a family friend who is willing to back a political career but refuses to leave his money to a painter. One constant in James’ novels is that choices have consequences and he never spares his characters the full weight of their decisions.
One of the most interesting and ambiguous characters in Muse is Gabriel Nash, whom James purportedly modeled on Oscar Wilde, an acquaintance and fellow writer. Although Nash and Nick Dormer were friends at Oxford, they subsequently drifted apart and, when they meet by chance at that fateful art exhibition in Paris, have not seen each other for many years. Nash, like his real-life counterpart Wilde, is a kind of 19th century performance artist. After dabbling with literature in his Oxford days, Nash forswears any active engagement with the arts (or with anything else for that matter) in favor or simply enjoying beautiful sensations in whatever form they assume. In Nash’s view, creating or producing a tangible work of art is a crude and imperfect expression of the ultimate art of simply living a “beautiful” life. He and Nick quickly reestablish their old friendship, much to the dismay of Nick’s family. In his subsequent struggle to balance the demands of his family and heritage against his urge to lead the life of an artist, Nick regards Gabriel Nash as a kind of “artistic conscience” or lodestone who constantly reminds him of the primacy of art over all other endeavors (while painting may be crude, it beats canvassing for votes!). The other characters, however, view Nash as an irresponsible tempter or frivolous wastrel; essentially they see him as a Mephistopheles who leads Nick away from his duty to family and country. Every reader of Muse will, of course, have his/her own interpretation of this equivocal character and the role he plays in Nick’s choice. In addition to functioning as a symbol (good or bad) of the supreme value of a certain type of art, James uses Nash to advance the novel’s action and to link the symmetrical plots; it is Nash, for example, who effectively launches Miriam’s career by introducing her to Nick’s circle.
Miriam’s parallel narrative recounts her rise from an untrained “wannabe” to one of the great actresses on the English stage. When the novel opens she is a penniless and awkward girl, who wanders Europe with her rather feckless mother, living hand to mouth in a series of cheap hotels and pensions. Outwardly at least Miriam is distinguished by nothing except good looks and a fierce conviction that she is destined for theatrical greatness, an opinion unshared by those who view her informal “audition” before a retired great of the French stage. Although she acknowledges her performance was bad, Miriam’s belief in herself as an artist remains unshaken. She realizes, however, that she needs training and opportunities but lacks the financial means and social connections to secure them. Her material situation changes when Gabriel Nash introduces her to Peter Sherringham, a relation of the Dormer family and a rising star in the British diplomatic service. Extremely ambitious (he sees himself as a future ambassador), Sherringham’s one unprofessional passion is for the dramatic art of the classical theater. He provides Miriam with the financial backing and emotional support she needs and becomes intensely involved with her expanding prospects. Although Sherringham steers clear of a sexual entanglement, and prides himself on keeping his emotional distance, it is clear to his friends, to Miriam and to the reader that he is soon totally, hopelessly in love with her. It is a measure of his passion that this cool, self-controlled man proposes marriage; because a diplomat of his stature can’t be married to an actress he conditions his proposal on Miriam’s leaving the stage. The scene in which she refuses Sherringham’s proposal, and exposes his hypocrisy to himself and to the reader, is perhaps the most powerful in the novel.
As this brief (and, I hope, not too tedious) summary makes clear, there’s a lot going on, plot-wise, in this novel. As was common in the 19th century, Muse was first published as an ongoing serial in The Atlantic Monthly, one of the fashionable magazines of his day; James was writing for a popular, albeit prosperous and literate, audience and knew what his readers expected for the $15 per printed page that he was ultimately paid. In addition to the developments alluded to above, James also included at least two love triangles (one involving Nick’s young sister Biddy, who has nursed a passion for Peter Sherringham since she was a child; the other concerning Miriam’s incipient passion for Nick, which comes into play when he paints her portrait); an engaging and ironically humorous subplot involving the family friend who disinherited Nick and several very interesting supporting characters (for example, Basil Dashwood, the actor whom Miriam ultimately marries. She does not leave the stage!). The novel also includes some powerful and very emotionally gripping scenes and, as an extra bonus, has an ambiguous ending that leaves hope for Nick and Julia. While I can’t speak for the reaction of James’ contemporaries, there was more than enough action and suspense to keep me turning the pages.
As with most great novels, moreover, Muse suggests a dimension extending beyond the quotidian actions of its characters. Most obviously, James is offering his meditation on the demands that art places on its practitioners and the barriers, both tangible and psychological, that an artist must surmount to achieve his or her goal. He also contrasts the visual and dramatic arts and the different demands, training and pitfalls that each places on the artist and actor. Remember how, at the beginning of this far-too-long posting, I noted how the facts of James’ life often play into his fiction? Muse was the last full length novel he wrote before turning to the stage; one could make a strong argument that the entire novel is James’ attempt to define the very nature of dramatic art, in all its tawdry glory (although Miriam is one of James’ great creations, HJ is tough on her at times). As a sidenote for the historically inclined, James’ career as a playwright ended in public humiliation in 1895. It’s a testament to his enormous talent and strength of will that he survived this ordeal and, in his 60s, went on to write what many regard as his greatest novels.
Finally — which of the two actresses whose likenesses are at the beginning of this post best fits your idea of Miriam? French Rachel in red, so very classical, or English Sarah Siddons, so romantic and tasteful in Reynolds’ subdued palette? Both women were the leading actresses of their day and both, I believe, have been suggested as models for Miriam. My answer, a very Jamesian one, is both! Miriam receives her earliest training in Paris, from a legendary French actress of the classical school; visits the Théâtre Français, where James places her in front of “Gêrome’s fine portrait of the pale Rachel, invested with the antique attributes of tragedy;” has her breakout performance in London as a romantic lead in a traditional English comedy and, as the novel closes, reaches the pinnacle of her art in the tragic role of Juliet.
Isn’t it incredible to think that it’s mid-January, with all the shiny newness already being worn off the year? I usually give myself the entire month of January to make resolutions, do lists and so forth (hey! Only organized people get that stuff done by January 1st!). This year I’m in pretty good shape with my lists. After spending a very enjoyable day reviewing the titles of the books I read last year (when I finally get organized I’ll probably post the list) I spent an even more enjoyable few days looking at other people’s lists of past and future reads. After a lot of hesitation, I decided to start my own blog, mainly because I wanted to participate in a few challenges this year; ultimately I settled on the Back to the Classics Challenge and the TBR Pile Challenge. This was a wonderful decision, as it gave me an excuse to spend lots and lots of time pulling books from my shelves, internally debating what books to include on various reading lists and actually reading little bits and pieces of my “rejects” (actually, these books are “postponements” — I will read them next year!). In the course of all this, I found myself pondering the question of why deciding what to read is just so much fun, at least for me. Is it the lure of the unknown, the excitment of possibility, the hope that this particular book will be something really, really special, that if I complete a list of, say, 19th century classics, I’ll be a better rounded person? Reading itself, of course, is intensely pleasurable but I find that there’s a special and separate thrill that comes from pawing through my piles and piles and piles of books and making plans for everything I intend to read in the upcoming year. If you happen by, I’d welcome your thoughts on the subject and whether you have the same experience.
Well, enough of the philosophical questions and back to lists! Before settling down to actually reading and writing about my various Challenge books (I finished my first one, Henry James’ The Tragic Muse, a couple of days ago and I’ve been thinking about how to approach it in a review), I decided to have the fun of doing one last list of prospective reads. I skim a lot of book reviews and I’m always finding things that look at least mildly interesting; I usually forget to jot down the titles and then, when I’m looking for something newly published to read, a book that’s a change of pace or something quick to read in-between class work or such, I’m at a loss. I’ve decided this year to be a bit more organized and do a list, which in the “might-as-well spirit” that is my blog’s guiding philosophy, I decided I “might as well” post. My criterion for inclusion is pretty simple — these are books that, at the present moment, I want to read! They don’t fit any of the various challenges’ criteria, at least none that I know of; most, if not all, are recently published, or about to be published, and they’re almost all fiction. Because my list is very idiosyncratic, it excludes some very good writers and certain books that either have, or can be expected to get, a lot of buzz. For example, I don’t include Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, which is scheduled for publication in September 2019. Although I love Atwood’s novels and short stories (and those poems of hers that I’ve read) and regard The Handmaid’s Tale as a moving and powerful work, I have mixed feelings about a sequel; while I may read it this year, I’m not planning to and, in fact, may never read it at all. How many of the books on my list I’ll actually read, or when I might read them, is totally open; both factors will depend on time, circumstances and inclination. With this in mind, and in no particular order of preference, here goes my list of interesting, relatively recent books.
The Witch Elm by Tana French. I’m proud to say that I’ve been a follower of Tana French since she published In the Woods, her stunning debut and the first of her Dublin Murder Squad novels. As good as they were, life intervened and I never read the entire series. Not to worry, however, for this is a standalone novel, described by the Guardian as “a brilliant examination of male privilege and family secrets.” Sounds fun!
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James. Drawing on African history and myth, James has written a fantasy novel centering on the search for a mysterious child by a mercenary and his misfit companions. James became one of my literary deities after I read his A Brief History of Seven Killings when it won the 2015 Booker Prize. I was so impressed with James’ talent I resolved to read his previous novels, but I may go for this new one instead. It should be very, very different from Seven Killings, which was set in contemporary Jamaica; because it’s by James, however, I’ll risk it, although I probably won’t get around to reading it until next summer.
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley. Hadley’s novels, including this one, get glowing reviews. I’ve never quite taken to her work, however, probably because I disliked some short stories of hers I read a few years ago in The New Yorker. Still, I like to keep up with contemporary authors. This tale of the “lives of two closely intertwined couples” (Washington Post) looks pretty interesting and I may read it as a break between between various Challenge books.
Sadie Jones, The Snakes (UK publication in March 2019; available on Amazon U.S. in June). The Guardian describes this as “a suspenseful, beautifully written thriller about the corruption of money and abuse within a dysfunctional family.” What could be better?
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (available September 2019). This is a follow-up to Strout’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize Winner, Olive Kitteridge. I was slow to jump onto the Elizabeth Strout bandwagon, which I mentally dismissed as overly hyped; how could anyone be that good? Well, she’s that good. Although I preferred her Lucy Barton (its subsequent, connected story cycle Anything Is Possible was equally good) to Olive Kitteridge, Olive was nevertheless a wonderful read and I’m really looking forward to a continuation of Olive’s life.
Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. I’ve always been interested in how modern writers treat classical myths, either as fairly straight re-tellings albeit with unusual angles (think Madeline Miller’s Circe or Song of Achilles) to outright reinterpretations (a good example here is Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, a type of Oedipus re-telling set on the canals of Oxford). Needless to say, I was keenly interested when the great Pat Barker (have you read her Regeneration Trilogy yet? If not, stop now and do so immediately) published her version of the Iliad, told from the point of view of one of the captured female war prizes (Briseis, for the classicists among you). I wasn’t surprised that Silence made several of the “best of 2018” lists; I am surprised that I haven’t read it yet.
Laura & Emma by Kate Greathead. A generally well-received debut novel, centered on the relationship between an eccentric single mother, scion of Manhattan’s uber wealthy Upper East Side, and her only daughter.
Sally Rooney, Normal People. Another hold-over read from last year. This Irish author has gotten so much favorable attention I feel almost morally obligated to check her out. I thought I “might as well” start with this, her second novel, which recounts the relationship of Marianne & Connell, beginning in a small town in western Ireland and continuing through their university years in Dublin.
Anna Burns, Milkman: A Novel. I usually keep up at least a little with the various novels annually nominated for the Booker Prize (it’s one of my hobbies); in years when I have a lot of time I generally read at least the short list. This year, alas, I let things slide; although I read four or five of the nominees, I lost interest in the process and didn’t even read Milkman, the 2018 winner. The novel is set in an unnamed Irish city during the Troubles and concerns “middle sister,” who reads old books and keeps to herself. Her life changes dramatically when a local guy with a dangerous reputation as a paramilitary begins to take an interest in her and she’s unable to break free of the gossip. At least in some quarters the book has a reputation as a somewhat “difficult” read, which may be what has kept me away. 2019, however, is shaping up as an ambitious year for me . . . . .
Sara Gran, The Infinite Blacktop: A Novel (Claire DeWitt). Have you ever really, really liked a particular author or book while knowing that it isn’t to everyone’s taste, or perhaps that it’s not “great” in a cosmic sense? It’s a “some people like pistachio ice cream and some don’t” kind of thing. Well, I like Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt mysteries, which have been described as a combination of classic noir, hipster funk and eastern mysticism. I’ve been saving this, the latest in the series, for a weekend when I really need a relaxing treat.
The 7 1/2 Deathsof Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. This mystery is a holdover read from 2018, when I very badly wanted to read it but just didn’t have the time. Inspired by Agatha Christie and quantum time travel, with a touch of groundhog day thrown in, the narrator has eight days to solve a murder. Each day he’s reborn in the body of a different witness and hence with that person’s memories of the crime; some of these are helpful, some not. Most reviewers considered the novel fiendishly clever and a lot of fun to read (in addition to the pro reviews, I’ve also seen several book blog postings extolling it).
Megan Abbott, Give Me Your Hand. I’m a little surprised this caught my interest, as I’m not normally fond of books described as “thrillers,” even for relaxation reads. Here, however, the former friends whose intense competition drives the novel are two female scientists, which is unusual enough to catch my attention. NPR’s description of it as “a nuanced and atmospheric study” of the lure of big dreams, especially women’s, ensured it a place on my list.
The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt. After ending up as a single mom in London, American Sibylla turns to unconventional child rearing methods, which include replaying Kurosawa’s films for her fatherless son. As is evident from my list, I’m drawn to quirky, off beat tales of unconventional families. I believe this book has actually been around for a few years, but only recently came to my attention.
Walter Kempowski, All for Nothing. This is a gorgeous NYRB Classic reprint of a 2006 work originally published in German (translator is Anthea Bell). It’s 1945 in East Prussia, with the German army in retreat and the Red Army approaching; although life in all its banality continues in the von Globig estate, the family’s manor house is becoming filled with refugees and change is coming. Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? Although I have a big historical read on my Back to the Classics Challenge list, I may end up reading this as well.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. I’ve been interested in this one since reading a Guardian review last year. Because it was only published in the U.S. in early 2019, however, I almost forgot about it until seeing in on Danielle’s list at her Work in Progress blog. Silvie’s dad is an enthusiast of early human history; for vacation the entire family takes an anthropology course in which the students reenact the lives of Iron Age Britons. The “ghost wall” of the title refers to barricades build to ward off enemies; when Silvie’s group builds one they rediscover a connection with their early ancestors. Judging from the reviews, Moss’ novel asks whether connections like this can go too far. This one is pretty high on my list for a 2019 read.
Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman. This English language debut of a contemporary Japanese writer centers on oddball Tokyo resident Keiko, who eschews a “normal” life to work in a convenience store. Keiko is perfectly happy with her choice; her family and friends are not and apply increasing pressure on her to start a career and find a husband. This book received a lot of favorable attention; it’s another one that turned up on Danielle’s Work in Progress blog, although I can’t now find precisely where (hence, no link).
Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir. I’m so resistant to the memoir genre that reading two of them last year was a real milestone. This year I might actually read another, as I’ve long been very interested in Educated. In this memoir, Westover recounts her journey from a survivalist upbringing by fundamentalist religious parents to successful academic stints at Harvard and Cambridge.
French Exit by Patrick DeWitt. Since reading The Sisters Brothers, his (very) unconventional take on the classic American western, I’ve been a mild Patrick DeWitt fan. While not being quite my cup of tea, DeWitt is a very skilled, interesting writer who’s worth checking out. This, his latest, is DeWitt’s take on what one reviewer described as a “tragedy of manners;” a once wealthy mother & son, fleeing penury and scandal, desert New York for Paris, meeting a number of unusual characters along the way. I can’t imagine anything more different from the setting of The Sisters Brothers and I can’t imagine anyone other than DeWitt carrying it off.
What Red Was by Rosie Price (available in U.S. August 2019; UK May 2019). A young university student gets drawn into her boyfriend’s rich & privileged world; all goes well until her life is shattered by a sexual assault during a party at his family’s London home. The Guardian marked this debut novel as one gathering lots of “buzz.”
If you happen by, and you’ve actually read or have any insights into the books on my list, I’d appreciate your thoughts!
So here we are, almost two weeks into our shiny new year! Is everyone busy reading their challenges? I’m in a lackadaisical kind of mood these days myself — not a bad mood but certainly not a high energy one. I always think of mid-January as a time to re-group, to conserve resources after the excitement of the holidays; those extra minutes of daylight aren’t registering yet and spring seems far, far away. Aside from an unwelcome bit of exercise this morning with a snow shovel, I’ve had a lovely day, wrapped up in a blanket, sipping the results of a new recipe for hot chocolate (it uses two different kinds of chocolate and real cream) and reading Henry James. Oh, I did have a bit of a reading mishap — Percy has hidden my print volume of The Tragic Muse and substituted other James novels, thinking I’d never notice! (Percy’s main interests are ornithological; as a literary philistine he thinks James’ novels are interchangeable. They aren’t). As a result, I’ve been following the adventures of Nick and Miriam by kindle clicking, rather than page turning. Even so, it’s a wonderful read, with those long 19th century sentences and subtle, Jamesian delineations of thought and emotion. It’s a slow read, very much suited to a slow time of year; it’s made even more leisurely by being punctuated every thirty minutes or so by dreamy interludes of staring into space (maybe I’ve been hanging with Percy too long). Somehow, the day has just vanished.
Fortunately in light of my mental lassitude, following the novel’s action is not too difficult. James’ plot is relatively straightforward (I defer to the experts on this point, but I wouldn’t read this novel for his plot, myself). He follows two protagonists, Nick Dormer, an aristocratic young Englishman with a bright political future, and Miriam Rooth, a beautiful penniless young woman from a dubious background. Nick is torn between painting and politics; although he’s elected as a member of the House of Commons in the early portions of the novel, he’s bored by the political life and only comes alive when he escapes to his “horrid” (his fiancée’s words, not mine) little studio to engage in his painting. Everything in Nick’s life compels him to choose conventional, worldly success: his heritage and training; a promise to his dead father; an adored and adoring mother who has no doubts her boy belongs in Parliament; a beautiful, wealthy lover who will only marry a successful political guy; and a wealthy benefactor who won’t leave his money to an artistic loser. James is interested in Nick’s choice between his passion for art and his world’s ideal of a successful life and of the personal sacrifices often required from those who persist in following a higher consciousness. Spoiler alert here for those who demand suspense in reading an 1889 novel: Nick rejects his political career to follow his art. The decision costs him him his fiancée, a magnificent bequest from his benefactor and the regard of his family and friends. Although James intimates that Nick has real talent, Nick also has little formal training and is beginning a career as a serious artist at a relatively late point in life. Despite every inducement to turn his back on art, Nick becomes totally committed to being a painter, although his worldly success as an artist is (at least at this point in the novel) very much in doubt.
Miriam’s situation could not be more unlike Nick’s. The daughter of a fantastical, ineffectual mother, Miriam’s businessman father is dead, and the modest income he provided his family is gone, leaving his daughter without worldly prospects or financial security. Miriam and her mother eke out a paltry existence, moving from one European city to another, living in a succession of cheap boarding houses and pensiones, lingering in cafes to save money on fuel and frequently going without. Miriam’s mother lives in the novels she reads (when she can get them. Sound familiar, anyone?); Miriam lives in her imagination. Surprisingly, she is neither dreamy nor indecisive. James makes clear that Miriam is simply a born actress, so thoroughly consumed by her need to express herself through her art that nothing, but nothing, will deter her. When we first meet Miriam in Paris in the opening pages of the novel she is an awkward, badly dressed (and remember, in James’ world manners and appearance matter) young girl. Gabriel Nash, a English aesthete who will play a pivotal role in the novel, takes her up as an amusing divertissement. Nash and Peter Sherringham, a young English diplomat who will also play an important part in James’ tale, enable Miriam to gain an audition with Madame Carre, a legendary French actress who serves as a type of acting coach/guide to a younger generation of thespians. Madame Carre’s verdict, shared by Nash? Miriam has no talent. Miriam’s reaction? She will be a great actress, opinions otherwise are irrelevant; she simply needs to learn her craft. Despite generally agreeing with Madame Carre’s assessment, Sherringham thinks that, possibly, there may just be something to Miriam and almost on a whim provides her with the financial backing that allows her to perfect her dramatic skills. As the novel progresses, so does Miriam’s talent and growing stature as an artist. By the time Nick decides to chuck it all away for art, Miriam is experiencing her first success on the London stage. Gabriel Nash is now a firm believer in her greatness (and, as an connoisseur and aesthete he’s well placed to spread the word) and Peter Sherringham? Well, the discrete wisdom of the diplomat is on holiday! Despite being the well-trained and rising young star of the Foreign Office, and knowing full well the career folly of his choice, Sherringham is hopelessly in love with Miriam; he’s even offered her marriage, providing she gives up the stage.
Well, that’s all for tonight folks. Despite certain soap opera aspects of the plot, James presents us with a serious meditation on what it is to be an artist, of the demands and sacrifices of practicing the arts and of the elements comprising the dramatic art (James was very interested in the theater and thought about this subject a great deal). In this novel he has given us two contrasting protagonists — golden boy and poor, beautiful and underrated girl — who must choose whether, and how, each will practice his/her art. Although there’s a certain commonality in the barriers each faces, there are also significant differences; while Nick is more constrained by expectations of family and society, Miriam’s primary obstacles are money and opportunity (I find it interesting, but unsurprising in view of the time in which he wrote that James doesn’t explicitly discuss the constraints of gender to any notable degree). Choices have been made and, because this is James, consequences must be faced …..
For those who chance by, I know you’re all agog, positively breathless, with hearts pounding with suspense, to learn the latest developments in Henry James’ The Tragic Muse. And, not to be a tease, a lot has happened since that opening luncheon in Paris and our first glimpse of the Dormer family. Since we’ve met indecisive, artistic Nick and his ambitious mom (aka “Lady Agnes”) several key players have moved into position and the scene has shifted from Paris to England. Miriam Rooth, the tragic muse of the title, has appeared center stage, in all her glorious egotism, indecisive Nick has made a (tentative) career decision, a bad influence has reared his tempting head, and so on. And — guess what? You’re going to have to wait to hear about it because my primarily activity this week is viewing not verbalizing!
Since I’m a lady of semi-leisure for the next week or so, I decided on a pilgrimage to visit the temple:
Opps! Wrong temple! I mean this one …….
Like all great temples, it has a fabulous interior …..
….and lots of devotional objects of various types
And when you tire of one pilgrimage site, there’s always another:
with different objects of contemplation …..
It’s all a question of whether you prefer this …
And now — for something completely different — even in winter there are reminders of spring: