If you’re a bookish type (and if you aren’t, I’m surprised but very pleased that you’ve found my blog), you’re no doubt aware that we’re only days away from the September 10th publication of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the long-awaited sequel to her iconic The Handmaid’s Tale. The book’s publication must surely be the most hyped literary happening of the year. In July, months before its publication, Testaments was already long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker prize (judges get advance copies) and only this week it made the award’s short list. On the publication day itself, Atwood will speak at London’s National Theatre and her sold-out appearance will be live-broadcasted to over thirteen hundred cinemas from Canada to Malta. Increasing the hype is the measures Atwood’s publisher has imposed to prevent any pre-publication leaks: the Booker judges were bound by non-disclosure agreements and advance review copies (in some cases at least) were printed with a false title and author (perhaps to prevent them from falling into enemy hands? smiley face here!). In short, Testaments‘ publication is a very big deal.
I really hadn’t planned on posting anything today (have I mentioned that I have a research paper due, so very, very shortly? Oh, I did!) but as Fortuna would have it (please forgive, but I’m still on a classical kick from my last post), when I clicked on The Guardian this morning I discovered that its book section contained an exclusive advance excerpt from Testaments. I thought I’d share the wealth, so if you’re interested, click here. If, like me, you enjoy reviews, you may want to check out what critics in the Washington Post and the New York Times had to say (both have pay walls, so hopefully you haven’t used up all your clicks this month!) And, late-breaking news, I’ve just discovered that Amazon goofed, broke security and in the U.S. prematurely mailed out several hundred copies of Testamentswhen it wasn’t supposed to! Isn’t it all terribly exciting?
Hoopla aside, I have a substantive question to ask: how do you, dear reader, feel about Testaments’ impending publication? Were you so unimpressed by Handmaid’s that you greeted the news of a sequel with a yawn and a “why is she bothering” thought? Or did you pre-order your copy a year ago and make plans to be “sick” on September 11th to settle in and enjoy your exciting new acquisition? (I don’t know about you, dear reader, but Janakay always reads in bed when she’s sick! Janakay would have to be dying — very, very painfully so — to waste a perfectly good sick day by not reading!) Or, if you’re more digitally minded, do you plan to have your finger suspended over your kindle, waiting to download the minute the clock strikes 12:01 on September the 10th?
In the interest of encouraging group candor in responses to my little question, I’ll share my reaction first. I really wasn’t that interested in Testaments; in fact, I hadn’t planned on even reading it, at least not this year. Have I embarrassed myself? Are you so horrified you’ve relegated me to your list of bookish troglodytes, vowing never to read my blog again? I certainly hope not! I was a little puzzled myself at my lack of enthusiasm, especially given the fact that I adore Atwood’s work (I’ve read almost all of it, including some of her very good poetry) and regard her as one of the very greatest living novelists. As for Handmaid’s itself, I loved it! Aside from its narrative power, it’s one of those books that is very much bound up with my memories of a certain time and place, which increases its emotional impact for me. (Don’t we all have a few of these?) For me, Handmaid’s Tale is a cold, snowy day in early 1986 and apartment hunting in a new city with a (relatively) new Mr. Janakay, preparing for a demanding new job and a cross-country move (how can I possibly break the news to the cats? They hate to travel.). Just when I think my feet must surely be turning blue (my shoes are getting soaked), I spot one of those delightful small bookstores that doesn’t exist any more. It’s in an old brownstone with a large bay window, which has a fetching display featuring shiny, newly published copies of Atwood’s latest. I won’t say that I took my rent money, exactly, to buy it, but in those days newly published hardback books were not everyday occurrences in Janakay’s life! Nor did I regret my purchase. Atwood’s story was so gripping that I stayed up most of the night reading and couldn’t focus on much of anything else until I finished the novel a day or so later.
Given my intense reaction to Handmaid’s, why so little excitement now about its sequel? Perhaps it’s precisely because Handmaid’sTale did have such a powerful effect on me. I found Handmaid’s so perfect and complete in itself I didn’t see any need to continue the story. Its ambiguities didn’t trouble me; in fact, I thought the mystery surrounding Offred’s unknown fate actually increased the power of her fragmentary narrative. On a less lofty level, perhaps Handmaid’s impact has simply faded over the years since I’ve read it, particularly since I haven’t watched the (so I hear) very powerful TV series. Have any of you had a similar experience of closure, either with Handmaid’s Tale or another book?
When I was writing this post, I pulled down my (very) old copy of Handmaid’s Tale to check out a few details. You can imagine my surprised delight (my heart actually started pounding) when I re-discovered the fact that I’d had my copy autographed by Atwood. I very much remembered hearing her speak (in fact, I went to a good deal of trouble to attend) but I had forgotten the autograph, as I’m almost always too lazy to stand in line for them. In this, however, as in all else, Atwood was so special I made the effort.
Maybe I’ll pre-order a copy of Testaments after all.
Have I mentioned that I have a big research paper to write on Renaissance child portraiture? Oh, I have!!! Since making that communique I’ve actually managed to complete a few pages at an astonishingly slow rate of production, so slow it would have gotten me promptly fired from my old brief-writing job, pleading (with utter sincerity) for truth, justice and the American way of life, not to mention the government’s right to collect its trust fund taxes or to impose appropriate market designs on various energy exchanges. (If you’re unfamiliar with trust fund taxes, market design or energy exchanges consider yourself very, very fortunate. I thought I had mercifully blanked it out, but I do believe the pressure of writing my portraiture paper is giving me stress induced flashbacks. I suppose it’s the equivalent of PTSD for a Vietnam vet). Anyways . . . . since I’ve just completed a paragraph or two on Renaissance family life (nutshell summary: father knew best) I felt totally justified in taking a teensy, weensy little break this morning involving breakfast out (i.e., someone else cooked), a farmer’s market and new (to me anyway) books. And, since it’s Monday, I have a perfect recipe (so to speak) for a Miscellany!
In a truly rare work break (smiley face here) from my Renaissance research this morning, I decided to catch up with my blog reading. My very first (and, as it happened, last) click of the day landed me here, where “Stuck in a Book” described in voluptuous detail a very recent and quite major book haul. Well, dear reader, Janakay has been a very good (and fiscally responsible) girl this summer vis à vis book purchases (interlibrary loan works quite well thank you) but . . . it’s just never safe, dangling temptation in front of an addict! And the combined omens were just so overwhelming — my very first blog stop discussing a book binge; the absolute necessity for a reward after all my hard work; the fact that my favorite breakfast spot is practically on the way to:
Well, it just all came together!
When I first drove up I thought the yellow “50% Off” sign was hyperbole but no! These guys were really discounting everything in the store by FIFTY PERCENT!!! What did I tell you about those omens? I mean — it was so obviously MEANT to be! I headed for the fiction section straightaway, but (another intervention by Divine Fortuna. If you follow my post to the end, you’ll see I’m in a Roman mood) I first had to pass through “Art History.” This section was pretty tightly packed (I had to move a few piles to get to stuff) and space was a bit limited, requiring me to sit on the floor to examine the treasures. The effort, however, was more than worth it, as I scored some major finds. (A tip for the temperate — you know it’s a binge when the cashier gives you a box and offers to help you carry your books to your car!).
My last art image, I promise, but I couldn’t resist just one more!
Miscellany third: Ancient Rome
At this point, I bet you thought I’d never get around to ancient Rome but ha! fooled you. I was headed that way all the time!
Last week I was very excited to have my first class in Roman art and archaeology. Back in the day, i.e., when I was a “real” student (trying very hard not to think about getting a job) I was very interested in classical subjects. Although my interest has waned over the years I still love classical culture and was thrilled when I was finally able to enroll in this course;
As I long ago discovered, however, one can love a subject and still find one’s mind wandering down wayward paths, particularly when one is trying to distinguish between two early Roman temples that look distressingly similar! During one such detour from required learning I found myself thinking about what a presence, still, ancient Rome holds in popular culture; from there I began mentally listing movies and books with a Roman theme (perhaps the equivalent of counting sheep?) Because there are literally hundreds and hundreds of these, I established the following parameters to keep my list manageable: (1) I allowed only 30-40 minutes to come up with titles (and a little longer to research a few); (2) I listed only items about which I had personal knowledge (i.e., I’ve either read it, read a review of it or have it on a TBR list) and (3) I attempted not to annotate (that part wasn’t very realistic, as you can see below). Since I may actually get around to making this into a real bibliography one day, I’d love to have additional recommendations or reactions to the titles. Also, as you’ll see, most of the listed books are pretty dated, so if you know more recent titles, please share!
Historical novels about ancient Rome (alphabetical by author):
Bulwer-Lytton, Edward. The Last Days of Pompeii. Perhaps the best known novel by an unfortunately prolific Victorian novelist. You may not know that Bulwer-Lytton penned the immortal opening lines, “It was a dark and stormy night.” His greatest claim to contemporary fame is that lines such as this inspired the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which entrants compete to see who can write the worst possible opening sentence for a novel. If all this doesn’t scare you off from reading Pompeii, I say — go for it! (You’ll be sorry.)
Caldwell, Taylor. A Pillar of Iron. The novel gives star treatment to Cicero; Caesar is a vaguely sinister character. I can’t believe it’s still in print, but life is full of such mysteries. Since my assessment may be inaccurate (it’s certainly biased. I spent a miserable semester trying to translate one of Cicero’s speeches) I feel compelled to note that one reviewer on Amazon refers to it as “one of the best books I’ve ever read.” Don’t you think that it’s differences in taste such as this that make our big beautiful planet so very interesting?
Dolan, Mary. Hannibal: Scourge of Imperial Rome (also published as Hannibal of Carthage). The Romans are the bad guys in this fictionalized recreation of the lost account of Sosylos, a real-life Greek historian (probably a freedman) who accompanied Hannibal over the Alps and into Italy in the Second Punic War. I read this novel several times as a kid and loved it. Tragically out of print.
Douglas, Lloyd. The Robe. A 1940s? 1950s? best seller with a religious theme (Roman soldier is present at the crucifixion); the stuff many movies are made of. Watch them and skip the book.
Duggan, Alfred. Family Favorites (not the warm and fuzzy kind! Set in the reign of an emperor who made Nero look like Santa Claus) & Three’s Company (the second Triumvirate of Mark Anthony, Octavian & Marcus Lepidus; told, in a typically Duggan touch, from the point of view of the non-entity Lepidus). I don’t think Duggan is much read these days; a pity as his wit is dry and his historical research impeccable. I prefer his novels set in Medieval times (Count Bohemund is great) but these are definitely worth checking out (Favorites at least is available on Kindle).
Fast, Howard. Spartacus. A best-seller from the 1950s; the movie, I suspect, is better known. Haven’t read it in years, so I’m not sure how it’s aged.
Flaubert, Gustave. Salammbo. I was so intrigued to learn that Flaubert wrote an historical novel set in the time of the first Punic War I bought a copy. What are TBR lists for?
Graves, Robert. I, Claudius & Claudius the God. Fabulous books, thankfully well known and readily available. Less well known but worth checking out if you like late empire (I do) is Graves’ Count Belisarius.
Harris, Robert. Pompeii. The title rather explains what’s going on, doesn’t it? My reaction was “meh” although Harris has a lot of fans out there. Are you one? If so, speak up! Janakay is open-minded (about books, that is!)
Shakespeare, William. Anthony & Cleopatra. O.K., I know it’s a play (I could have also listed Julius Caesar, but I like this one better). Worth it just to read Anthony’s “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch Of the ranged empire fall. Here is my space.” If the story didn’t happen this way, it should have!
Sienkiewicz, Henryk. Quo Vadis? Did you know that Sienkiewicz won the 1905 Nobel Prize for literature? Neither did I, until I did this list! I do know that this novel has been the basis for a couple of movies. And — one of the novel’s great characters, Petronius the Arbiter, was “real;” Tacitus wrote all about him! (spoiler alert: Petronius comes to a tragic end when he falls out of favor with Nero). Petronius turns up again (below) as the author of the Satyricon.
Sutcliff, Rosemary. A wonderful English novelist who specialized in writing about Roman Britain (her Sword at Sunset is a wonderful, very realistic re-telling of the Arthurian legend). She did several novels classified as YA that, depending on your mood, are well worth reading regardless of your age (hey! I’m ancient and I just finished re-reading one); the best, IMO being The Silver Branch,The Lantern Bearers and The Eagle of the Ninth. I loved these books so much I’m seriously considering a nostalgia purchase of the reprints (with original illustrations) offered by the folks at Slightly Foxed (a wonderful quarterly publication for those who read BTW).
Waltari, Mika. The Etruscan & The Roman. Waltari was a Finnish writer who did several of these single title thingeys; perhaps the best known is The Egyptian. I’m not sure I’d like them now, several thousand books after I first encountered them, but I do recall particularly enjoying The Etruscan, perhaps because that pre-Roman culture is just so very mysterious.
Vidal, Gore. Julian. The life of this last pagan emperor of Rome (and enemy of the emerging Christian faith) was grist for Vidal’s pen. If you like Vidal, you’ll probably like this. If not, stay away, life is short.
Wallace, Lew. Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Did you know that Wallace was a general (Union variety) in the U.S. Civil War? Mr. Janakay, who knows quite a bit about the subject, informs me that Wallace was “not bad” as a military commander and that he rather unfairly took the fall for the Union’s first-day losses at the battle of Shiloh. As for his literary ability — well, I’d probably just watch the movie (particularly if you like mega-Hollywood, old-timey Charlton Heston things).
Warner, Rex. The Young Caesar and Imperial Caesar. Warner was an English classicist; these two books are fictionalized first person accounts of Julius Caesar’s life. Although they’re stand alones, you’ll need to read both to get Caesar’s entire life. I was pleasantly surprised to learn they’re available on kindle for a modest price; they’re now on my “will one day re-read them” list. When I do so, I’ll let you know if they’ve held up well!
White, Edward Lucas. The Unwilling Vestal (a Tale of Rome Under the Caesars). A former professor of mine (“The Classical Epic in Translation”) spent much class time raving about this old novel’s whimsical charm. Being an impressionable child, I wasted a couple of days discovering the guy had lousy taste for novels originally written in English. Learn from my example, grasshopper!
Wilder, Thorton. Ides of March. Set in the last days of the Roman Republic & a very popular read in the 1950s, when (I believe) it reached best seller status. Not sure how it would date; if you’ve read it — let me know!
Williams, John. Augustus. Re-issued fairly recently in one of those nice NYRB classics editions. This is one that’s been on my TBR list for some time. Williams BTW is also the author of Stoner, the newly re-discovered lost classic du jour.
Yourcenar, Marguerite. Memoirs of Hadrian. Another permanent resident on my TBR list.
Contemporary (and popular) mystery series set in ancient Rome:
Davis, Lindsey. Marcus Didius Falco mysteries. I started reading these as they were being published and lasted through the first four or five. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderfully funny, well-plotted and entertaining series but . . . we all have to say good-bye sometimes.
Saylor, Steven. His Sub-Rosa series is set in the time of the late Republic and centers on the exploits of a detective known as Gordianus the Finder. There are a lot of books in this series (twelve? fourteen? difficult to count, as I believe there’s also a novella or two); the few I read back when were quite good but — three was enough!
Science Fiction directly inspired by Roman history:
Asimove, Isaac. The Foundation Series. An incredibly influential sci-fi classic (Elon Musk & Paul Krugman cite it as inspiration); the ancient Galactic empire is dying and humanity faces centuries of barbarism. Edward Gibbon’s Decline & Fall, anyone? I read this work repeatedly in my teens; my attempted re-read about twenty years ago was a tragic failure. Like much of early sci-fi, brilliant ideas combine with a clunky style, which I can no longer handle (after a similar experience with another Asimov novel, I’ve decided my love affair is over!). Others, however, have had different reactions, so check it out for yourself.
Contemporary essays about the classics (includes Greek classics):
Mendelsohn, Daniel. How Beautiful It is and How Easily It is Broken. Mendelsohn is a scholar steeped in the classics; he has the rare and wonderful ability to link classical themes to current pop culture. I’m not a big reader of essays, but I loved this collection.
Beard, Mary. Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations. Your very own tour of the ancient world, with one of the greatest classical scholars on the planet as your guide. And — she can write! If you’re at all interested in the classics, this is a necessity.
Hamilton, Edith. The Roman Way. An oldy, but a goody; very readable essays on the major Roman authors. Hamilton gives non-Latinist a wonderful sense of the various authors’ styles, as well as lots of substantive information about the works’ contents. Hamilton’s The Greek Way is even better, but that’s off topic!
Writings by actual, real life ancient Romans that are worth checking out:
Please keep in mind that I’ve only read a smidgen of the vast amount of available material, and did that years and years ago. (In other words, additional suggestions are welcome.) But since I’m nothing if not foolhardy, here’s my very selective, highly idiosyncratic and very limited list. Do you have any Latin favorites? If so, share, share!
Apuleius. The Golden Ass. The only Latin novel to survive in complete form; adventures of a would-be sorcerer who mistakenly turns himself into a jackass (if memory serves, I think he wanted to change into a bird but got the spell wrong). Aside from its considerable literary merits, I have a soft spot for this one. Back in the day, I loaned my copy to a friend who was driving home for Christmas. When she was pulled over for speeding (hey! we all want to get home quickly for the holidays!), my loaner was clearly visible in the empty passenger seat. The cop who flagged her down not only found the title hilarious, he also thought it perfectly described his patrol partner. The cop was so amused, in fact, that my friend got off with a warning rather than a ticket! Never say reading great literature doesn’t pay off!
Petronius. Satyricon. The author was a favorite courtier of Nero’s until he criticized the imperial poet’s rhymes (not to mention his musical skills) once too often (see Henryk Sienkiewicz, above). Only fragments survive, but as one of them is Trimalchio’s Feast, it’s a must-read. Warning: not for the squeamish or puritanical (I learned lots of interesting Latin verbs the semester we read this). The translation you choose is everything for this particular classic; look for the liveliest, most irreverent possible. You could always watch the Fellini movie of the same name if you don’t feel like reading (it’s filled with arresting images) but the book is better.
Virgil. Aeneid. If you like epics, only the Iliad is better (well, maybe Beowulf, but that’s a different culture). Read the poem and you’ll discover why Dante made Virgil his guide through the afterlife, the poetry is that good (particularly the chapters about Dido, one of the best female characters in all of classical lit).
Catullus. If lyric poetry’s your thing, it doesn’t get much better. Catullus was probably the only guy of his day and time who didn’t realize his beloved Clodia was the most sexually promiscuous woman in Rome and a husband-poisoner to boot; but it’s that kind of blindness that makes great love poetry. Although the Clodia poems (he calls her “Lesbia” but no one was fooled) are probably his best known work, Catullus’ poetry covers much more ground. His poem on Attis, who joins the priesthood of the savage goddess Cybele, is incredible (not, not, not for the faint at heart) and there’s the wonderful poem written when Catullus visited his brother’s grave (“now and forever, brother, hail and farewell”). Many, many translations are available.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. A prime source for every myth you ever wanted, or needed, to read. Trust me, reading Ovid will make it much easier for you to enjoy the artwork the next time you visit the museum (when in doubt European artists have always turned to Ovid for a subject).
Histories: if you’re into the (technically) non-fiction, there’s lots and lots to chose from. A “you were there” account from the front: Caesar’s Gallic Wars, perhaps the oldest surviving piece of cleverly disguised political propaganda (Caesar wrote it to convince the folks back home that he was a serious military commander). Juicy, filthy, wonderful gossip (in the 21st century, this guy would be working for the tabloids): Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars. Stern, republican, “this is what made us great” virtue: Livy (in our day, he’d probably be writing political speeches).
Well, that’s it for tonight folks! I’d love to hear comments, or additions to my list, but for now it’s back to those two very similar, early Roman temples . . . I think one of them has a few more columns on the left side . . . .
Do any of you out there “do” book prizes, i.e., follow the various competitions, note the winners, and even sometimes (gasp!) read the nominees? If so, yesterday was a significant one on your calendar, as the long list for 2019’s Man Booker prize (self-described as “fiction at its finest”) was announced. As you may know from previous posts of mine, my reading choices tilt mildly toward British authors, mainly because I get so many of my recommendations from The Guardian’s excellent book section. In line with this slight preference, I tend to follow the nominees for, and the ultimate winner of, the Booker; more so than, say, the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award, which are the big literary events in the U.S. or even the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which honors “fiction written by women. For everyone” (my bad! The 2019 winner was Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, now a fresh entry on my TBR list). The extent of my “involvement” varies by year; a few times I’ve read all thirteen nominees before the prize was awarded in October; I usually read at least the short list of six finalists (announced in September); in a really bad year I may read just two or three of the nominated books.
Following the Booker process has become one of my beloved summer rituals, from the July announcement of the long list (all thirteen nominees), to September’s short list of six, to October’s big enchilada, when the winner is announced. It’s a fun little activity that ties in nicely with my love of lists and reading projects, as well as a very pleasant way of staying somewhat current with contemporary literary fiction, particularly that of non-U.S. writers (by reading the Booker nominees I’ve discovered some great writers I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered). Do you have any literary contests or rituals to which you are similarly attached? Or do you just generally ignore the whole literary contest thing, feeling that artistic competition is inappropriate or that the nominated books generally don’t interest you very much?
As much as I’ve enjoyed my pleasant little summer ritual, however, in the last year or so it has taken a back seat to other activities. Dominating everything else for the past two years has been my course work for an undergraduate degree in art history (I refer to it alternatively as my “vanity” degree or “my second childhood folly” as I have no sane reason for being an undergraduate at this point in my life); this has required, oh, ever so much non-fiction reading which has soaked up my spare time like a sponge. In addition to this limitation, my reading choices this past year have returned somewhat to the classics, leaving me a bit less interested in contemporary writers. Last year I read only three of the nominated books (in addition to getting about half-way through two others) and never quite got around to reading the actual winner (Anna Burns’ The Milkman). This year —- gasp! — I even forgot that yesterday was the big day for announcing the long list (in some years, I’ve been online at the big moment because I want to see the list as quickly as possible, get a jump on obtaining copies of the more obscure works and draw up my rough reading schedule. Janakay, dear readers, can be obsessive about her hobbies!)
Before I roll out the list, do keep two things in mind if you’re not familiar with the Booker rules (if you’re British and/or know the rules, please forgive me if I get something wrong). For much of its history, the competition was open only to writers from Britain, Ireland and Commonwealth countries (plus South Africa and Zimbabwe); a rules change in 2014, however, opened the contest to writers from the U.S. (this change has been quite controversial in the British literary world). Additionally, a book may be eligible for consideration provided that it is published by September 30 of the relevant year; the judges have read all the novels included in the July long list because they get advance copies, but ordinary folk have to wait (also, if you don’t live in the U.K. you may have to wait for your country’s publication date unless you’re willing to do an international order). This can at times be very frustrating if you’re obsessive about completeness (believe me, I know). Keeping this in mind, along with an imaginary drum roll, here’s the long list:
Margaret Atwood: The Testaments (the eagerly awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale; set 15 years afterwards and follows the lives of three women of Gilead. It will be “out” on September 10. Remember what I said about the judges’ advance copies?)
Salman Rushdie: Quichotte (inspired by Don Quixote; a tale of an aging salesman who falls in love with a TV star and travels across America to win her hand; U.K. publication in August; remember! Judges get advance copies)
John Lanchester: The Wall (a dystopian novel set on an unnamed island isolated from the rest of the world by a concrete barrier; the New York Times liked it and thought few readers would “stop until they reach the final page”)
Do you have any thoughts on the books and writers up for the prize? If so, please share! Although I’m somewhat familiar with a few of the writers (I’ve read previous novels by Lanchester, Levy, Barry, Rushdie & Obioma), this is the first time in many years that I haven’t read a single one of the nominated works. I love Atwood (and anything associated with her) but despite this I hadn’t included even Testaments on my own little list of books I’d like to read in 2019 (check it out if you’re interested! The only criterion for inclusion was — I just wanted to read it! If you really, really enjoy lists you may want to check a Goodreads list of the books that readers thought merited the award or nominate your own favorite novel for The Guardian’s 2019 “Not The Booker Award” (grand prize is a coffee mug rather than $62,000)). Quite honestly, I was a bit unenthused about this year’s long list, but perhaps that’s due to its including so many novels dealing with current world crises, as I’m in a bit of an escape mode right now (also, I have some distressing and potentially tragic academic deadlines to meet in the next couple of months, so can’t get too engrossed with new novels!). Do you feel differently right now about socially relevant books or do you think that now more than ever it’s critical for fiction and literation to focus on social, environmental and economic issues?
Because I do tend to natter on, as certain characters in my beloved old novels say, I’ll keep the Baltimore portion of my post brief. The Guardian has a wonderful reoccurring feature (honestly, I don’t work for The Guardian, I just read its book section on a daily basis) called “The Top Ten Books” about a variety of topics (past lists have ranged from “top ten queer rural books,” to works about Burma, the river Thames, cults and houseguests. Utterly addictive!) This week’s “Top Ten” is about Baltimore, a wonderful old east coast (U.S.) city that has a rich history, great art and fabulous writers. I’m very fond of Baltimore, which I visit pretty frequently and feel somewhat protective about, as I don’t think many people realize how much the city has to offer. Laura Lipman, one of the best thriller writers around, has strong ties to Baltimore and compiled this week’s list, which includes works by Frederick Douglass (an enslaved child in rural Maryland, he learned to read and write only after he was sent to Baltimore); Ta-Nehisi Coates (who grew up there); Madison Smart Bell (a Baltimore resident who formerly ran the creative writing program at a local college); film maker John Waters (another Baltimore resident); and Anne Tyler (whose Accidental Tourist is a “classic Baltimore novel”). And, of course, you can read Lipman herself, who gives many of her superb novels a Baltimore setting.
If you’re a visitor to my blog, you may have noticed that my postings have been a little, ahem, erratic in the last month or so. What I have posted has perhaps been more visual and nature oriented than literary or bookish, which isn’t to say that my interests have shifted. As much as I love my nature viewing and museum visiting (I’ve at least two very nice regional museums to share with you, so watch out!) my life remains centered on books and the printed word, as it has been since I learned to read around the usual age of six or so. While I’ve been nature viewing, I’ve also been reading as much as ever (perhaps even more so) but — I hide nothing from you, dear reader — Janakay is just a teensy-weensy bit lazy! And it’s so much easier to read the wonderful books than to organize my thoughts and string them together in coherent sentences! Although I’m actually on track as far as the reading goes to meet my two challenges (Roofbeam Reader’s TBR, and Books and Chocolate’s Back to the Classics), I’m woefully behind in writing and posting the reviews of all that I’ve read. Monday is “Miscellany Day,” however, so I’m doing a hodgepodge of related topics; because the relationship is a rather loose one, feel free to skip around!
My first Miscellany is — Anna Maria, a barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, and its nearby areas (I’m just back from a visit and sorting through photos).
While I was visiting Anna Maria, I did lots and lots of reading, which brings me to my second Miscellany: books that I started, stopped or finished during my time there:
And since I’m doing books, make sure your visit to Anna Maria includes a side excursion to nearby St. Petersburg (the drive is lovely) and the wonderful:
Are you surprised to learn that I’ve added to my TBR pile?
My third and final miscellany: Jane Austen’s Sanditon, the novel left unfinished at her death. Has anyone read this? Or, unlike myself, realized the importance in Austen’s fiction of seaside resorts and beach villages? Today’s Guardian has a wonderful article discussing Austen’s use of seaside resorts — a key scene in Persuasion occurs in Lime Regis; Lydia Bennet elopes from Brighton and Austen herself may have enjoyed a seaside romance. The article suggests that in Sanditon, Austen may have written the first seaside novel; at any rate, she certainly anticipated “what the seaside has come to represent in later modern fiction,” such as Chopin’s TheAwakening, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse or Banville’s The Sea.
The exciting news? Sanditon is being adapted for an eight part series on ITV, which will air this autumn! Thoughts anyone, about Anna Maria Island, Sanditon or any of my other reads?
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 . . . . . .
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.