I am consumed with shame (well, figuratively if not literally) when I realize how little I’ve posted lately. I can’t say I have any reason for my sloth, except that I’ve been enjoying the incredible luxury of unscheduled time; in other words, I’ve been slothful because I’m slothful! I’ve read a few books (but not written any reviews — too analytical, for my present mood); done a little museum hopping (not nearly as exciting to normal people as pub crawling); and made a half-hearted attempt to clean up a closet or two. The closet cleaning has been quite distracting, as I’ve uncovered a number of lost or forgotten treasures — a great old paperweight (I warn you, I adore paperweights, so you probably have a Monday Miscellany on this subject headed your way); a wonderful glass fish that’s only got a slightly broken tail — it’s got to be good for something; and a lifetime supply of yellow sticky notes! Have any of you wanderers on the internet discovered similar wonders in your closets or cupboards?
In addition to these rather domestic activities there’s always something interesting going on in the natural world. Even casual birders such as myself have certain little rituals they observe, particularly in the spring when there are actually some birds to look at for those of us living in the (mostly) urban portion of the northern hemisphere. One of these, which I posted about last month, is a trip to Magee Marsh, a wonderful natural area and major stopping off point for song birds migrating through the central United States. Another, which comes a little later in May, is a short trip north to the shores of Delaware Bay, where every spring the horseshoe crabs come ashore to lay their eggs. In one of those marvels of the natural world, the egg laying coincides with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of shorebirds trekking from South America to their far northern breeding grounds. Unfortunately for the birds, horseshoe crabs are extremely useful in medical research and commonly used as bait, and are being heavily over-harvested, leaving the famished birds with nothing to eat. This misuse by humans threatens to break yet another strand in nature’s great web of life.
First, for a little geographic orientation:
Have any of you ever seen a horseshoe crab? They’re actually not crabs. Popularly referred to as “living fossils,” they belong to a far more primitive species closer akin to scorpions or anthropoids. And — they’re big! I believe there are only four species left on the planet; three are in the Indo-Pacific area and one is found in the coastal waters of North America.
Although Red Knots tend to be popular favorites, they’re only one among many bird species that feast on the crab eggs. On a good day, you can also see Ruddy Turnstones, Dowitchers, Dunlins, Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, and Yellowlegs. One of the best viewing areas that I’ve found is:
In addition to all these attractions, the Nature Center even has art work:
In addition to the Horseshoe Crab-shorebird spectacle, a trip to Delaware in the spring offers other delights. You pass through several scenic little towns (but beware! many of them have speed traps!) with odd little bits of local history:
Delaware is surprisingly rural in spots, to be so close to so many east coast cities; in the spring many of the farm fields are gorgeous:
Delaware, like many other states, also has links to a darker past ….
Are there any Guy du Maupassant fans out there? If so, I’d certainly welcome your thoughts on his work. I’ve just finished one of his novels, Like Death, and don’t know quite what to think. I, dear reader, also have a confession to make that does not speak well for myself, namely that despite du Maupassant’s international reputation as a master of the short stoy, I was barely acquainted with his work. And, my heavens, there’s certainly a lot of it to meet!
Although dying at age 42, Maupassant was an incredibly prolific writer who produced over 300 short stories, six novels, several travel books and lots of journalism in his brief writing career. Of all that treasure trove I had read, prior to this time, one short story — “The Necklace” — and that only because I was required to do so in a literature class I was taking oh, so many, many years ago. Despite enjoying the story (more than many of the others I was required to read), I had no interest at the time in further exploring Maupassant’s work. Well, dear reader, a few years ago I purchased a copy of Maupassant’s Like Death (reissued by NYRB Classics in one of those gorgeous paperbacks that it does so well, i.e., acid free paper, tasteful cover art and introductions written by well-known folks), with the idea that his time for me had finally come at last! And yet, and yet — the book has sat on my shelves, gathering dust for, oh, at least a couple of years. All I can say is “thank heavens for reading challenges,” particularly ones that require me to stretch myself a bit. Because I needed a selection for the “Classic in Translation” category for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate, I’ve actually, finally gotten around to reading a second work, and a novel, no less, by Guy du Maupassant.
Like Death revolves around a simple but piquant situation. Olivier Bertin is a wildly successful society painter, acclaimed by the critics and beloved by the haute monde of late 19th century Paris. As though to prove that life never seems to distribute its gifts fairly, Bertin is also good-looking, witty, athletic and, on the whole, not a bad guy. The novel implies, without telling us his precise age, that Bertin is somewhat past the midpoint of life; although he is beginning to feel his age, Bertin is still vigorous and eager to enjoy all the good things that life has to offer.
Included among the good things is Bertin’s long-standing relationship with Anne, Countess de Gilleroy, who has been Bertin’s mistress for over twelve years; the two began their passionate affair when Anne’s politician husband retained Bertin to paint his wife’s portrait. Anne, a beautiful and intelligent woman, is quite adept at maintaining a delicate equilibrium between husband and lover; when as a young woman Anne was first presented with her husband-to-be, she quickly realized that “one cannot have everything” but must seek a balance between the good and the bad aspects present in every situation. The countess is a successful society hostess, a devoted wife who listens with apparent interest to her husband’s accounts of his legislative triumphs (monsieur le comte particularly enjoys discussing agricultural issues) and a tender mother to her only child, her daughter Annette. The chatelaine of an elegant establishment (designed principally to appeal to her lover Bertin), the countess has structured her entire emotional life around her relationship with Bertin. She is, in short, as passionately in love with the artist as she was as a young girl while Bertin, on the hand, regards their long-standing affair as more of an amitié amoureuse — a loving and irreplaceable friendship that is, nevertheless, lacking the magic and intensity of its earliest days.
The lovers’ delicate equilibrium is upset by the entry onto the scene of Annette, who has returned to Paris after a country upbringing to make her debut and to marry the excellent young aristocrat whom her father has selected for her. Annette, whom the painter has not seen since she was a child, is the very image of her beautiful mother minus twenty years or so. The aging Bertin is immediately and inevitably attracted; with great psychological acuity Maupassant charts Bertin’s emotions as he transfers his love from the aging countess to her young and unsophisticated daughter on the cusp of marriage and adulthood. Bertin initially justifies his feelings for Annette by conflating his love for the two woman; his attraction for Annette, he (falsely) tells himself, is due simply to the fact that she is in some ways a reincarnation of her mother; his love for one inevitably includes his love for the other. Ultimately, however, Bertin realizes that his passion for the countess has been totally subsumed by his love for her daughter. The countess, of course, realizes far sooner than Bertin what is happening; while the novel focuses on Bertin it also presents a masterful and sympathetic portrayal of a strong and intelligent woman who is facing her emotional death and physical mortality with both dignity and courage.
Plot-wise, that’s it! The “action” in this novel — the countess gives a dinner; she and Bertin meet their friends at the opera; Annette and Bertin walk through the park and so on — is a dull affair to us barbaric 21st century types. There is, nevertheless, a great deal going on in this novel, albeit on an emotional and psychological level. Although I did not find Like Death to be an altogether successful novel (more below), I have nothing but admiration for Maupassant’s grasp of psychology. Based on the vast knowledge obtained from reading a single short story (please understand, I’m being sarcastic here) I had expected a well drawn, realistic description of late 19th century life among the well to do, as well as a twisty ending. I was totally unprepared, however, for the subtlety of Maupassant’s psychological insight and the skill with which it was presented. To give just one example, Maupassant sets a key scene in which Bertin realizes both his mortality and the hopelessness of his passion for the young Annette at the opera, where Bertin is listening to Faust, a story in which an aging scholar sells his soul for eternal youth and the love of a much younger woman. Time and again Maupassant uses a small but convincing detail to expose a character’s state of mind, or sketches a scene of utterly convincing psychological realism.
So what’s my overall assessment of the novel, both positive and negative? In addition to the positive points that I’ve already discussed it’s worth noting that various critics (who, unlike myself, can actually read French) have found the NYRB translation to be extremely well done and lively (apparently stiff and artificial translations have in the past hampered Maupassant’s popularity with anglophones). On the negative side, however, I thought the interior nature of the story was perhaps better suited to a short story than a novel and that certain melodramatic plot devices rather undercut the subtle psychology that was elsewhere so evident.
There are a number of equally successful ways for a modern reader to approach this novel. The easiest, and the most fun, is to regard it simply as a wonderful period piece. If you choose this approach, pretend that a maid has just dusted your reading space (this requires a lively imagination if you’re reading in my living room), imagine that those wilting flowers from the farmer’s market are a fresh bouquet of ivory-colored roses in a crystal vase, pour yourself a glass of champagne (make this part real, not imaginary), put some Debussy on the stereo (or, better, Fauré) and settle in to enjoy the wealthy and well-connected life of 19th century Paris. If you’re a bit more of a literary scholar, read the introduction by the novel’s talented translator, who makes a very cogent argument that Maupassant’s techniques influenced the latter work of Marcel Proust. If you’re attracted to issues of gender, well, focus on the countess, the societal constraints dictating her choices and how a strong and determined personality can nevertheless fashion her own life. Finally, the novel’s treatment of aging and mortality, and of how we all face both, give it a universal appeal.
Although I’ve already gone on for far too long, I simply must ask whether anyone else loves the painting I used at the beginning of this post? Although a good deal of 19th century art leaves me cold, Cailebotte’s Rainy Day is one of my favorite paintings in the entire universe (and just think — we’re lucky enough to have it in the U.S., in Chicago!). I cheated a bit to use it here, as Bertin, an academic painter, would have been horrified by Cailebotte’s new-fangled Impressionist style, with its cropped figures and unusual geometry.
I’m afraid my blog has been distressingly free of any new content for — my heavens! — can it be a week now? Say it ain’t so, Joe! Well, it does happen, especially when we get just a teeny bit preoccupied, which does make all those good intentions fly right out the window! The distraction last week was SPRING! And not just toasty weather, nice new green leaves and flowers, but SPRING Migration! This may not mean much to all you normal people out there, but for birders (even for halfway, fairly frivolous birder types such as myself) spring migration is a very big deal indeed, especially if you live in a northern location where for the rest of the year the birding can be rather dull.
Migration’s most fundamental attraction is simply visual — birds are beautiful to look at, especially during the spring when they’re wearing nice new feathers and bright colors. The reason is obvious; they’ll soon be staring in their own version of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” as they’re migrating to summer mating and nesting areas. There’s also the simple fact that there are birds to look at, after a long winter during which there are few to be seen. During migration you not only see more birds, but you also have the chance to see bird species that are passing through your area as they travel to their summer home somewhere else. Spotting a species that you don’t normally see, or that you see only rarely, is like winning a lottery prize, albeit a non-material one.
There’s a more serious note, at least for me, however, that underlies the visual beauty and the enjoyment of being out of doors and that’s an almost mystical sense of how various creatures and processes make up the great web of life. Did you know that a North American warbler, for example a Blackpoll, weighs less than a ballpoint pen and is only about 5 inches (15 cm) long? Yet in the fall that tiny thing (and keep in mind that a Blackpoll is one of the larger warbler species) flies over 1800 miles non-stop, crossing parts of the the Atlantic Ocean to reach its wintering grounds. The journey is so tough that the bird’s body starts to literally consume itself, feeding off muscle and even organs that the bird doesn’t need as it flies, such as its digestive system (remember the warbler’s not eating after it launches itself over open water). Warblers and other song birds can only sustain their flights for so long; for them it’s literally reach ground before their bodies consume themselves or die. And, of course, many of them do. A storm; unusual weather patterns; a strong wind from the wrong direction; a housing development where a feeding stop used to be; gulls or migrating raptors looking for a snack and … well … you get the idea. The individual bird perishes, but the species goes on, at least until we finish paving the world over with concrete. When I see a migrating warbler I sometimes think of the moment when that warbler reaches the Atlantic, or the Gulf of Mexico or Lake Erie and, without knowing the outcome, strikes out into the unknown, simply hoping to reach a good spot on the other side of those vast and terrifying depths. If that isn’t a metaphor for human existence, I don’t know what is.
I spent my week of non-blogging (and rather limited reading, I must admit) at Magee Marsh, a nature refuge on the southern shore of Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes along the northern United States (four of the Great Lakes form part of the border between the U.S. and Canada).
Although it’s not on a flyway, Magee Marsh is a critical stopping point for migrants that come to Lake Erie and need food and rest before they’re strong enough to attempt a crossing. Essentially the Marsh, which is one of Lake Erie’s last bits of undeveloped wetland, is a giant bird hotel that provides shelter, food and water for the birds, and a boardwalk trail for the birders. Both groups appear happy with the arrangement.
Here are some of the things I saw at Magee Marsh last week:
Over 300 different bird species pass through Magee Marsh each year. Although warblers are certainly the main attraction, many other wonderful things also rely on the Marsh to survive during spring migration:
For a wildlife refuge, Magee Marsh is easily accessible from several midwestern cities, including Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit. It’s easy to stay in one of several small towns withing driving distance. I usually pick Port Clinton, a small town that’s primarily centered on sport fishing (it styles itself “the Walleye capital of the World” and who’s to say it isn’t?). Port Clinton has a sprinkling of older houses and an impressive array of yachts; it also doesn’t really come alive until late May, after spring migration is over and birds and birders have left.
Isn’t this a wonderful cover photo? Don’t you wonder who she is, and what she’s thinking, that woman of great but unconventional beauty, lost in her thoughts, so suggestive of mystery? And the title — the “driftless area” — whatever could it mean? It’s embarrassing to admit — but, dear reader, I hold nothing back from you — that I had never heard of Tom Drury, the author, when I bought this book, a purchase based strictly on the title and the cover art. Unbeknown to me, however, at least until a month or so ago, Drury is considered a “writer’s writer,” described by the New York Times, no less, as “a major figure in American literature, author of a string of novels without a dud in the bunch.” Oops! My bad! To add to my humiliation, only a few weeks ago the Guardian included The Driftless Area in its “Top Ten Books Set in the American Midwest.” At least by that point I had actually begun reading the novel, which had been gathering dust on my shelves since its purchase in 2013. All I can say is — thank heaven for Challenges! Had I not listed this as one of my selections for the 2019 TBR Challenge, The Driftless Area might still be sitting, forlorn and unread, in my upstairs junk room. And that would be a personal loss, for it’s a truly wonderful book.
The wonder, as far as I’m concerned, begins with the title, which is not only poetic but geologically precise. The Driftless Area (or Zone, as it’s sometimes called) is a relatively small area in the American Middle West that extends over parts of several states (for the precisionists among you, it covers extreme southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and western Wisconsin). Because the ice age glaciers that smashed into the center of North America and created those flat-as-a-pancake midwestern corn fields missed the Driftless Area, the region has hills, caves, some of the oldest rivers in the world, sink holes, and rare bird and animal species that aren’t found elsewhere in the Midwest. I don’t often wax rhapsodic about book titles, but Drury’s is a gem. Not only does it give you the novel’s precise physical setting, it also hints at the strangeness and mystery of the story you are about to read. And, on yet a third level, it’s a subtle comment on the way some of these characters navigate or, more accurately perhaps, drift through their lives. A title like this sets the bar pretty high for the novel to come. Fortunately, Drury is such a skilled writer he carries it off.
One of the pleasures offered by Driftless is to be drawn very gradually, almost imperceptibly, into the very peculiar world that Drury describes. Conversely, this quality makes the novel difficult to review — aside from the fact that you don’t want to give too much away, it’s just a very difficult book to characterize. On one level, it’s an ultra-realistic story set in a small town in the rural midwest; on another level, well, it’s not. The blurb refers to Driftless as a type of “neo-noir” revenge drama, which it is, but — that’s not all it is (although that part of the novel is quite well done). Although I think the professional reviewers might differ from me here, I found that Driftless operates on what I can only call a metaphysical level. As one of the characters explains to another, there’s an “idea *** that time doesn’t exist;” that “everything that happened or will happen was here from the start” or that different versions of it were. In other words, what seems to be chance might not be; that in the Driftless Area the seemingly random course of events might actually be precisely and irrevocably charted.
Oh, dear — haven’t I made this novel sound terribly, terribly serious? Portentous even? Well, it isn’t either. The events revolve around Pierre Hunter, a mid-twenties graduate of Iowa State, who’s taken his science degree and cello, and returned to his small home town of Shale, where he tends bar at a speakeasy called the Jack of Diamonds. Pierre isn’t a slacker, exactly — he’s far more complex than that — but he lives his life stripped of the pretenses that most of us navigate by and that quality leads to unintended consequences. One of which is Stella Rosmarin, the beautiful, mysterious solitary who saves Pierre’s life and becomes his lover. Another is Shane, an itinerant criminal who tries to rip him off and ends up losing a small fortune in ill-gotten gains. Drury is a master of terse, elegant dialogue that can be extremely funny in a very dry way. He also has a wonderful knack for creating characters; even his minor ones tend to linger in the mind (one of my favorites is Pierre’s boss, a former Silicon Valley type, who worries that the Jack’s red vinyl chairs might be “too busy.” The locals who patronize the place, on the hand, are impressed by the air conditioning).
In conclusion, dear reader, I enjoyed this book immensely. Do I recommend it without reservation, with enthusiam, to you? Well……………… do you enjoy the Coen Brothers? Do you like your reality straight-up, or do you prefer it mixed with a hint of the strange? Can you accept that sun needs shade, that life needs death, that, as Pierre puts it “everything that succeeds creates the conditions for its own demise”? If your answer to at least a couple of these questions was a resounding “yes,” then go for it! You’ll love this book as much as I did.
Despite my inability to concentrate on any one object for more than ten minutes, or to spend more than a couple of hours, max, on an art stroll, I adore museums. Perhaps it’s because of their variety: there’s a museum for everyone and for every mood and personality type. Interested in the history of fire alarms? The next time you’re on the Baltimore Beltway, take a detour to The Fire Museum of Maryland, which has one of the world’s greatest displays of working fire alarms. Want to see some interesting stuff without getting out of your car? Well, the Museum of Wonder in Seale Alabama (which claims to be the world’s only drive-through museum) is where you need to be!
Are you an aficionado of the circus? Then go immediately to Sarasota, Florida! It was formerly the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus (many circus performers settled there, not to mention John and Mabel Ringling themselves) and has a really great circus museum, founded in the late 1940s.
And, of course, there are the big boys of the U.S. museum world — the Metropolitan, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Frick, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, to name only a few — those places you go when you’re in need of a serious dose of heavy culture, or a nice cafe to relax in on a hot day in the city or a browse in a great store full of art books and prints. My favorite of these — the place where I head when I’m not in the mood for one of our quirkier little cultural hors d’oeuvres — is Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art. It’s a fabulous museum to visit especially when, as now, there’s a major exhibition or two going on.
Although I love the East Building, which houses a wonderful collection of 20th century art, my focus today is on the older part of the Museum. So — back to the dome! We all have our little rituals and one of mine is to always stop here for a moment or two to admire and to contemplate.
The NGA usually has some sort of special show or exhibition going on. The current attraction is a fabulous show on 16th century Venetian art, featuring the paintings of Tintoretto, a contemporary and rival of the great Titian (the two artists, by the way, loathed each other). Since many of Tintoretto’s paintings are really, really large and seldom travel, this is a great opportunity to see something of his best work without a trip to Italy!
Besides the special Tintoretto exhibition (around for the next month or so), there’s always something to see or enjoy at the NGA. If you’re not in the mood for paintings, or food, or books — well, the building itself is worth a visit!
And when the weary museum visitor needs a physical and mental time-out, he or she can always head for one of the garden courts in the old West Building, which are thoughtfully provided with very comfortable seating around the edges ……
first things come first!!! If you weren’t watching ………. well … you should have been! I had to give up drafting a Monday blog post for dragons and undead, and I had to keep careful track of which series stars made their final sword thrusts.
Doesn’t this look like the artist painted a “real” bouquet? Surprise! He didn’t, at least not in the strict sense of the word. I love Dutch art from 16th-17th centuries because it’s so sneaky — the reality portrayed in the paintings is illusory (also, the paintings are justfun!) Even a very wealthy person, much less an artist (even a successful one like van Huysum) couldn’t afford a bouquet like this — the flowers would simply be too expensive. So artists painted imaginary bouquets, juxtaposing flowers that bloom at different times of the year, flowers the artists had never seen (these guys sometimes worked from prints or other paintings) or flowers that were so rare they could only be seen by visitng a specialized botanical garden, as van Huysum did on occasion (there was one in Haarlem).
It’s hard to see all the details (if you want to really zoom in on the digital image, go to the website of London’s National Gallery. It’s worth the time), but do notice the butterflies flitting about among the blossoms, the droop in a few of the flowers and, oh yes the fly! (it’s the little brown speck on the left side of the ledge supporting the vase, above the bird’s nest and below the blue flowers; find the grapes and look slightly above and to their right). A century before, these items would have been intended as a reminder that we, like the flowers and the butterflies, are emphemeral beings, and, like them, will soon disappear. Van Huysum, however, was the last of the great Dutch flower painters and by his time these floral masterpieces were largely cherished for their sheer visual beauty rather than their moral message. For any gardners wandering by my blog — how many different species of flowers can you count? (hint — there are at least twelve!) And, while you’re enjoying the blossoms, notice those adorable little cupids in the relief on the terracotta vase! And the fruit! And the bird’s nest and ……………….
Has anyone out there read Isabel Colegate? I don’t intend my question to be either cruel or facetious — I adore Isobel Colgate and think (I hope incorrectly — after all, I’m not a professional literary type and I base my opinion on absolutely nothing objective) that her work deserves more readers than it gets. I’ve been a big Colegate fan since I first read her novel Winter’s Journey a number of years ago; I liked it so much I immediately bought copies of several of her other books with the idea that I’d work my way through the eight remaining novels that I hadn’t yet read. These books have rested, peacefully, undisturbed and unread, on my shelves for quite some time now! What can I say, except that life and more current writers intervened?
The 2019 Back To The Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate provided me with a dual incentive — I could not only discover whether I continued to regard Colegate’s writing so highly but I’d also dust off at least one pretty grungy bookshelf and the novels it contained. After a great deal of thought (I love going through all my unread books) I decided to read Colegate’s debut nove, The Blackmailer (published in 1958), as my selection for the “Classics by a Woman Author” category. I think I chose it over Colegate’s far better known novel, The Shooting Party, because I was intrigued by its title (I confess that I’ve also purchased books on the basis of their cover art! I love book covers and have been known to purchase a second copy of a book simply because I liked the cover of a different edition!). I also passed over, with some reluctance, Colegate’s A Pelican in the Wilderness, a well regarded non-fiction work in which she examines the value of solitude and the lives of certain individuals, ancient and modern, St. Anthony to Howard Hughes, who have chosen to live apart from others. In other words, I took a gamble on choosing a much less well known and very early work. You’ll have to read my post to the end (or skip to the last two paragraphs) to see whether I think my gamble paid off!
The Blackmailer is set in 1950s London and revolves around the relationship between Judith, the young widow of Anthony Lane, and Baldwin Reeves, an up-by-his bootstraps barrister who aspires to a political career, financial success and social acceptance by the landed gentry. Judith’s deceased husband Anthony was not only handsome, intelligent and charming, but also endowed with fortune and birth, being the heir to an large estate and the son of a prominent family. To top it off, Anthony was a renowned war hero, taken prisoner and executed by the enemy during the Korean War. Could any mortal man possess more virtues?
Ah, but there’s a secret, you see! In the parlance of a bygone era, Anthony was actually a bit of a bounder — or is it a rotter or maybe pigeon-hearted? (It’s so difficult for us Americans to get the slang right; I’d welcome a correction if anyone from the U.K. ventures by!) It seems that while commanding his company in Korea, Anthony bungled a retreat order; thinking it was a command to advance, which he didn’t want to do because he might get wounded or killed, he kept it to himself. By the time his mistake was discovered, Anthony and his men were in a hopeless position and were taken prisoner by the North Koreans. As if that wasn’t enough, in the prisoner of war camp Anthony collaborated to the extent of betraying his men’s escape plan, getting one of them shot. This being too much for even the famed stoicism of the British soldier, Anthony’s justly exasperated subordinates executed him by hanging after holding an informal trial among themselves (during the Vietnam war, American soldiers used the term “fragging” to describe their own version of this activity vis à vis their officers). None of this is ever disclosed, however, and after the war Anthony Lane is regarded by the British public as a national hero (one of Colegate’s nice touches is her brief allusion, towards the end of her novel, to an “upcoming film project” about Anthony’s heroic life). For anyone ready to attack me for spoilers, hold your fire — Colegate tells you all about Anthony and his disreputable military career in the first page or two. Rather than being about Anthony, Colgate is interested in the effect of his “secret” on his survivors and how they handle the truth. For Baldwin Reeves, you see, was Anthony’s second in command; and although he has remained silent he knows all about the bungled order, the betrayal and Anthony’s trial and execution by his men.
The novel begins a few years after Anthony’s death, when Judith has established herself as a partner in a (very) small publishing house; she’s successful, maintains close ties with her deceased husband’s mother and grandfather and is reasonably content with her life. While ignorant of the true facts of Anthony’s death, Judith is an intelligent and pragmatic woman who is well aware that Anthony was not what others perceived him to be; although she loved him, her marriage (unbeknowst to others) was less than happy. Reeves by contrast is scrambling to make ends meet; although he’s justly confident of his ultimate success, he’s in the early stages of getting there and he needs money. He also has a lingering resentment of Anthony Lane, war hero and golden boy, who had everything — money, family, social position — that Reeves is struggling so hard to get for himself. So far, so predictable, right? Reeves approaches Judith, threatens to tell all and begins extorting money from her. What isn’t predictable is where Colegate takes the story, setting up an intricate game of cat and mouse, where Judith and Reeves exchange roles as victim and each gets off on the power he or she has over the other.
I’ve made The Blackmailer sound terribly grim and serious but it isn’t at all — the dialogue is crisp and witty, it has some incredibly funny passages and Colegate has a wonderful knack for creating marvelous supporting characters (if you like dogs, the novel’s worth reading just for Bertie, Judith’s pet spaniel, whose personality is depicted as vividly as that of the human actors. If you don’t, read it to enjoy Anthony’s hilarious old nightmare of a Nanny, or Feliks, Judith’s very funny friend, publishing partner and social climber extraordinaire). As I hope I’ve made clear, The Blackmailer is primarily a book for those who enjoy dialogue and relationships; readers who demand a lot of action in their novels will most probably find it a bit dull. Keep in mind, as well, that The Blackmaileris a debut effort and, although I was satisfied with Colegate’s depiction of Reeves and Judith, I did wish she’d given a bit more space to their inner psychology. I have a few other quibbles not worth mentioning, none of which detracted from my enjoyment of the book.
Because I don’t have a lot of time right now, I’m sticking mostly to Challenge books for my pleasure reading, so I’ve gone through a lot of mid-century British fiction in my recent postings (Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, Bowen’s Friends and Relations and Kate O’Brien’s The Last of Summer; when you add to these my reading for my class in the 19th century English novel I really feel it’s time to return to my native land for a book or two. Perhaps a gangster novel set in New Jersey?) Of these, I believe The Blackmailer has aged the best, perhaps because the “secret” that propels the action — the falsity of a “war hero’s” glorious reputation — is one that a person of our own era might still wish to conceal. There’s also something very modern about the psychological struggle between Reeves and Judith; she, as much as he, is intent on exerting power in their relationship. Add in the fact that the novel is extremely well written and contains a very rare portrayal of an independent woman, in the 1950s, who works at a real job and actually enjoys doing so and, well, I’d say you have a gem.
Several years after it was originally published, Penguin reissued The Blackmailer in an omnibus volume with two other of Colgate’s early novels, A Man of Power and The Great Occasion (you can pick up a used copy on Amazon for $2 or less; although it’s delightful to get such a bargain, it’s sad that work of such quality appears to be so little read or valued). Although it will have to wait for a month of two, I look forward eagerly to reading them both. Who knows, maybe I’ll continue to keep the dust off the shelf holding my Colgate novels . . . . . .
I know, I know — theoretically, we all love, love, love poetry! We love it so much, in fact, that we never read it! Or am I judging everyone by myself (I think psychologists call this phenomenon “projection”!). I pretty much skip reviews of modern poetry collections and become positively indignant when the NY Times Book Review devotes an entire issue (once a year, I believe) to poetry; I immediately click away to something else if my internet journey takes me, by mistake, to a poetry site, and yet ….. it wasn’t always so. When I was a kid, I loved poetry, read tons of it and can still recite bits and pieces of my favorites by heart. I even composed quite a bit of bad poetry myself, teenagey angst-filled stuff handwritten in a grubby little notebook, which was thankfully lost in one of my many moves (there were some advantages to living in a pre-computer age — no backup files!). Admittedly, my taste (not to mention my work product) was pretty pedestrian but it was heartfelt; poetry meant something to me and I thought it should matter to everyone else. But then, in my mid-twenties, I just stopped reading and (thankfully) writing the stuff.
I think several factors led me away from poetry. Foremost, as it usually is, was “life itself” — things got busy, there were jobs and husbands to get and lose, journeys to take and places to visit, degrees to earn — well, I’m sure you get the picture. As I got older, I took to reading different kinds of literature, switching from non-fiction and poetry to a heavy diet of contemporary and classical fiction. Then, most poetry is hard; it needs to be read with care and attention (no skimming!), with the meaning slowly teased out over time and from repeated readings; quite simply, I think I just didn’t have the intellectual energy to deal with it. Last, but far from least, when I tried venturing back into poetry at various points over the years, it seemed as though poetry had moved on and that contemporary poets were writing in a language I literally didn’t understand and didn’t much like.
So — where do I stand now vis à vis this oldest of all the arts? In the last few years, I have begun to realize how much poorer my reading life is without at least a little poetry in it. Very, very tentatively I’ve returned to reading a few old favorites and I’ve actually dipped a toe into modern waters and tried the work of a few new poets (Jane Hirshfield is a favorite. If things aren’t going quite your way, try her “Three-Legged Blues.” If that doesn’t give you a little perspective on the doldrums, you probably need some serious professional help). I pay at least token homage to poetry: every April, I buy a book of poetry; I still give shelf space to the remnants of my poetry collection and I keep a skinny little file of poems that catch my eye now and again. And, this year, I’m writing this blog post! For ideas far more creative than mine on how to make your life a little more poetic, check out these suggestions from the Academy of American Poets.
Are there any other former poetry addicts out there who’ve gone cold turkey, in a way similar to me? Or better yet, or there any avid poetry readers who’d share their thoughts on what poetry means to you or how you’ve incorporated poetry into your life?
Have any of you cyberspace wanderers read Somerset Maugham? If so, I’d love to know your opinion of his work. Maugham is a writer who, to me, is full of contradictions. Incredibly popular in the first half of the 20th century — his biographer states that during his lifetime Maugham was the most famous writer in the world — today he is little read and many of his novels are now out of print. Despite his enormous successes (his work was frequently adapted for TV and movies, he once had four London theater productions running at once and every novel seemed to be a best seller), Maugham himself was quite modest about his talents. The literary critics of his day mostly shared Maugham’s opinion on this point; one flatly described his output as “second rate” and without exception the literary establishment preferred the more experimental works of Maugham’s contemporaries such as Joseph Conrad and Virginia Wolf.
And yet ….. could so many readers be that wrong? Wolf and Conrad are fabulous artists, truly among the greats writing in English but ….. don’t you think there is (or should be) a place in the pantheon for someone with a knack for telling an interesting story really, really well, particularly if it has a well done twist or an exotic setting, as Maugham’s novels frequently do? Nor can Maugham’s talents be totally disregarded; his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage, regularly pops up on any list of the 20th century’s greatest novels. Even by my late teens and early twenties, however, Maugham’s literary star was fading fairly rapidly. Nevertheless his novels were still easily available and I, being, as usual a bit behind the curve went through quite a Maugham phase. I loved his short stories, went through several of the novels in rapid succession and did multiple re-reads of Of Human Bondage, which I regarded as one of the most moving and profound novels that had come my way (remember, I was very young and quite uncritical). And then — well, I just drifted away to newer, trendier writers, all the while retaining fond memories of Maugham’s works. A few years ago I noticed that at least some of the novels were being reprinted, with these really neat covers (see the beginning of my post!) and I decided I owed it to myself to re-stock my book stash with these neat new editions of my old favorite’s works. And then — the books just sat there, catching dust, while I somehow never quite got around to reading them. When I decided to participate in the 2019 TBR Challenge, well, a Maugham novel was a natural choice, wasn’t it? As I explained in a previous post, participating in the Challenge just seemed a perfect time to see if the old Maugham magic still worked for me.
For my literary experiment, I selected Cakes and Ale, which I had never read, rather than Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Age, or The Moon and Sixpence, which I had. I wanted to read something new and that was regarded as one of Maugham’s better novels. The story revolves around issues associated with posthumous fame, literary reputation and how survivors shape (and frequently distort) the narrative of their loved ones’ lives. The novel opens with the death of Edward Driffield, one of the last of the great Victorian novelists. Driffield’s very proper widow (and second wife) has devoted herself to polishing the rough edges off her working class husband and to cultivating a carefully edited version of a great man of letters. Now that Driffield is dead, she has no intention of relinquishing her efforts and has hired a sycophantic novelist acquaintance to write a carefully crafted version of the great man’s life. A prime area for revision, in her opinion, concerns Driffield’s early life with Rosie, the beautiful, free spirited barmaid who was his first wife and the inspiration of his greatest novels.
Maugham gives you the story in flashbacks through the recollections of his narrator, who as a young boy knew Driffield as a penniless and unrespected writer, with a habit of skipping out on his rent. The narrator is also a great admirer (and eventual lover, among many) of the warm-hearted, shrewd and captivating Rosie; when she absconds to New York with her chosen favorite among her pack of admirers the narrator is almost as heart-broken as Driffield himself. Needless to say, the second Mrs. Driffield has no intention of publicizing these events and will go to considerable trouble to suppress them from her edited version of the great man’s life.
So, the great question — after so many years away from Maugham’s work, did the magic hold? Well, yes and no. Maugham is quite a story-teller and knows how to throw the reader a curve ball that, while consistent with the story, adds a bit of interest and excitement. In what is perhaps a disturbing example of my own arrested development, I also found that I enjoyed Maugham’s tone of detached, slightly ironic cynicism almost as much now as did when I was much, much younger. And, although Maugham doesn’t offer any penetrating psychological insights into his characters, making them a tad two-dimensional, Rosie is a great creation — funny, shrewd and full of life. Maugham’s musings on literary fame (which work would survive time, which wouldn’t) made the novel drag a bit at times; also, Maugham’s contemporaries no doubt enjoyed his thinly veiled portrayals of some of his fellow novelists much more than I did (Driffield, for example, is apparently based loosely on Thomas Hardy; Driffield’s sycophantic biographer on Horace Walpole, the details of whose career I had to gleam from Wiki). Maugham’s treatment of an issue that interests me greatly — the biographer’s art of emphasizing certain aspects of his subject’s life, while downplaying others, and the factors dictating his/her choices — is, shall I say, pretty superficial (for a far more perceptive fictional treatment of these issues, read Penelope Lively’s fantastic novel, According to Mark). Nevertheless, C&A was a quick, fun read that offered a fair amount of entertainment for a minimal amount of effort. Will I continue my trip down the somewhat overgrown, semi-deserted Maugham highway? Yes, but the journey isn’t a high priority right now.
Finally a brief word or two about Maugham’s life, which in many respects is as interesting and exotic as the best of his novels. He had a disastrous and unloving childhood, worked in intelligence during WWII, traveled extensively (and exotically), lived lavishly and juggled a manipulative and neurotic wife with several male lovers. He was, in short, a biographer’s dream and Selina Hastings does his life justice. If you’re interested and don’t have time for her biography, I’d recommend the New Yorker’s very good discussion of Maugham’s life and literary reputation.