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Isabel Colegate’s “The Blackmailer:” What would YOU pay to have YOUR secrets kept?

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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 Blackmailer is 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 . . . . . .

 

 

If it’s Saturday …..Then it’s Museum Day (at least sometimes)

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The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland

I have a question for any of you wanderers of the web who may happen by my little space — do you like museums?  I realize that the automatic answer is usually a “yes” but with fingers crossed — we think we ought to like museums, just as we think we ought to like classical music, paintings and serious books.  Meanwhile, of course, we all spend far more time with movies, pop music and those wonderful paperbacks that promise a rollicking good time, especially when consumed with a nice glass of something white & dry, or a morsel or two of something dark and gooey!  The point I’m trying to make is that, while I (and perhaps some of you) may appreciate museums, along with other indicia of high culture, my enjoyment is a bit constrained and artificial; two hours max and I’m out of there!  Well, if you, too, share this limitation (and even if you don’t), I’d really recommend a visit to the Walters.  It’s a museum and it’s FUN!  Don’t be fooled by that forbidding exterior — there are wonders within.  Paintings!  Mummies!  Sculpture!  Stuffed alligators!  Shells!  Bugs (stuffed ones)!  Jewelry!  Chinese vases!  More stuffed things!  And — the staff is really, really nice and — admission is free.  It is, in short, a Baltimore treasure and not to be missed (especially the Chamber of Wonders).  I won’t bore you with blathering about the collection — that’s what websites are for — but here’s a brief sample of what’s on view:

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The Chamber of Wonders (or part of it): there are marvelous things in the cabinets!

 

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A brief glimpse of the Chamber of Wonders: to the 18th century, the alligator was an exotic beast from a mysterious new world. If you were lucky enough to have a stuffed one, well, you flaunted it!
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Isn’t that skull in the lower left wonderful? Memento Mori, y’all!

 

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This is a rare depiction of an what an actual 17th century Chamber of Wonders in the Spanish Netherlands would have looked like.  Note the sunflower in the bouquet on the left; a recent arrival from the New World, it was incredibly exotic!

 

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A portion of the Walters’ interior courtyard. If you’re really lucky, there could be a concert on the ground level during your visit!

 

My one criticism of the Walters is its lack of a cafe (there is a very nice snack bar, when art becomes too much, but sometimes you just want more).  But — Little Italy is reasonably close!  And there’s nothing like ending a day of culture with a nice plate of pasta ……………………..

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Bookish Thoughts for the Valentine Season ….Novels that go together!

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Hey, I know — Valentine’s Day was ages ago (well, yesterday!) but I sort of forgot about it because I became all engrossed in thinking about a notion that I, at least, found interesting.  So much so that I actually didn’t get around to writing anything in time for the big day itself.  But since “better late than never” is part of my credo (I’d be dead by now, if it weren’t, or at least homeless), along with “you might as well” do whatever it is you were going to do, I decided to persevere with my thought, which is simply that certain books, written by different authors, from very different eras, go together.  Or, to put it in fancier language, they engage in a dialogue, they ask and answer each other’s questions, one calls and the other responds.

This thought popped up (and whenever a thought does so, I cherish it) during my class on the 19th century novel, where we’re currently following the adventures of Jane and the brooding, Byronic Rochester.  [Do I need a “spoiler alert” here?  If you haven’t read Jane Eyre and you value suspense, well, proceed at your own risk!]  We’re at the point in the novel where horrible, bestial, degenerate Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic,” is about to appear and rain on Jane’s parade.  Because Bertha, despite her importance to the novel, never speaks, she’s defined largely through the words of Jane and Rochester, who are hardly disinterested parties.

In pondering Monday’s assignment to find a key passage reflecting Bertha’s importance to the novel (I should actually be doing that right now, rather than this, but this is more fun!) I found myself asking, “how fair is it that Bertha is voiceless?”  This question led me to remember Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a wonderful book I read many years ago.  Rhys was, like the unfortunate Bertha, of European descent; born on a Carribbean Island, she, like Bertha, only came to England as an young woman.  Taking umbrage at Bronte’s depiction of Bertha as “mad, bad and embruted” Rhys wrote a novel narrating Bertha’s side of the story, from her childhood as Antoinette Cosway, to her arranged marriage to Edward Rochester, who re-christens her “Bertha” and appropriates her money, and, ultimately, to her imprisonment by him in the attic of Thornfield Hall.  Bronte’s Bertha is voiceless because Rochester has stripped her first of her name and then of her identity; she is mad because she lives in a culture that literally drives women insane.  Because Bronte’s novel is such a great classic of the 19th century, it elicited Rhys’ equally great (in my opinion) counter narrative/response in the 20th.  After Sargasso Sea, Jane Eyre could never be read the same way again.  For a far better discussion than mine of both novels, click on this great short piece from the BBC, published on the 50th anniversary of Rhys’ work.

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This?
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Or this?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or Both? My choice!

Well, every writer can’t be as effective as Jean Rhys, can she?  But this whole line of thought did give me an excuse to continue evading Monday’s homework (and Tuesday’s for that matter) by attempting to come up with other, similar “pairings.”  The idea of companion works seems particularly appropriate, doesn’t it, in this Valentine season of double happiness, or happiness doubled or paired or whatever?  To be clear, I’m not referring to a novel which simply uses the same characters as a prior novel, or merely expands in an unoriginal way on situations or themes that were previously explored without offering any new insights (I would, for example, exclude the many variations on Austen’s novels that are currently flooding Amazon).  Rather, I’m thinking of works that essentially spin the original story around by requiring us to visualize a familiar story in a new way.   After much (painful) thought, I came up with Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, in which the eponymous heroine is a young maid who experiences in her own way the transformation of R. L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyl into Mr. Hyde, and Grendel, where John Gardner re-casts the epic Beowulf from the point of view of the lonely, savage, ruthless heart-breaking monster.  While neither has quite the impact of Wide Sargasso Sea, which is in a league of its own, they are both wonderful novels that will alter the way you experience the previous works to which they respond.

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Pop quiz time (I’m thinking in student mode these days) — name some more pairings!  Since I’ve had the benefit of reading the BBC piece I linked to above, I’ll make it easy by listing a few pairs, with the disclaimer that I’ve not read these particular “re-inventions:”

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Peter Carey, Jack Maggs, in which the convict Magwitch gives his version of  the events in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
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J.M. Coetzee, Foe, in which the tale of Robinson Crusoe is reinvented/reimagined through the story of a female castaway.
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Ronald Frame, Havisham.  Dicken’s Great Expectations again but focusing on the psychological background of Miss Havisham.
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Sena Jeter Naslund, Ahab’s Wife, in which the author builds on a brief passage from Moby Dick to create her own saga.
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Geraldine Brooks, March; Little Woman re-envisioned from the point of view of the absent father.

Well, this is my list!  Did I miss anyone’s favorite, or, if you happen by and have any additions, please share!

What I’ve been Doing In My Spare Time …

I’ve realized with dismay that it’s been several days since I posted anything on my beloved new book blog!  How have y’all survived out there, without my insightful musings on various literary works, my exegesis on Henry James or my moving narration of the struggles and triumphs of meeting the TBR or Back to the Classics challenges?  (To any who happen by, you do realize I’m joking, right?)  Anyway, I’ve been busy with the books shown below.

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To translate the visual into the verbal, spring semester started about ten days ago and I’m taking courses!  The Tintoretto book is actually a catalog for a major exhibition on that artist opening (“god willin’ and the government don’t shut down”) in March at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.; I’m reading it in conjunction with an incredible course in Renaissance Venetian Art.  The novels (Frankenstein; Middlemarch; Great Expectations; Jane Eyre and Dr Jekyll) are required for my course in the 19th century English novel, which I signed up for on a whim and which has turned out to be wonderful!  We finished Frankenstein last week (I’m thinking of doing a review) and are well into Jane Eyre; Great Expectations is next.  I’d read several of the novels, but all many years ago and quite honestly didn’t really like some of them; it’s amazing, so many years later, to find that I’m having an altogether different reaction to these works.  The two remaining books about Renaissance art relate to my desperate attempt to settle on a topic for a major research project (I have some ideas, but have a very long way to go on this!).  Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to — how about y’all?  Reading anything good these days?

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Short Stories, anyone?

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“The story to me is like an eye drop for the mind. It doesn’t offer a resolution to life’s muddiness, but it offers a moment of clarity.” Yiyun Li

Does anyone like short stories, I mean, really like them?  I know that many of us (or at least me) say that we do, but then do we ever actually read them?  I’m always going to, I really mean to; year after year one of my major resolutions has been to read just one itty, bitty story a week and every year, the result is the same — I read, say, three.  Or in a good year, maybe four.  I’ve tried everything, every rationalization, every form of persuasion to up my total — “oh, just read whatever The New Yorker is publishing this week, it’s an easy way to stay current with new talent;” “pick some critically acclaimed collection by a prestige writer; that way you can blather and impress your literary friends;” “go on, pull out a ‘Best of the Year’ collection cluttering the shelves, it’s a quick way to get a little dusting done,” “it’ll be easier to read stories around a theme — Christmas, ghosts, Halloween, family relationships, whatever;” or, at a really low point, “just read one of the damn things and then go bake some cookies ….”  Well, anyway, I’m sure you get the idea.  Despite all this clever self-psychology, with a very few exceptions (Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress; William Trevor’s After Rain) I always go for a novel rather than a short story or a story collection.  I think at bottom the short story leaves me a little dissatisfied; just as I feel that I’m getting underway — poof!  It’s gone.  I also think the short story requires the ability to stop, savor, relish, luxuriate in what you’ve just read, all of which is antithetical to my habit of reading quickly to cover a lot of ground.  Yet still I persist in my annual goal, because the short story is, as far more knowledgeable people than I have said, a great art form.

Well, my failure to appreciate the short story is about to change!  The Guardian has just published the most wonderful list, “Bite Sized: 50 great short stories, chosen by Hilary Mantel, George Saunders and more.”  It’s a great mixture of classic, contemporary, famous writers (Alice Munroe, William Trevor and so on) and writers who may very well be famous but who are unfamiliar to me (Ilse Aichinger; Jo Ann Beard; Gina Beeriault); some stories were originally published in English; some are translations; there are a few obvious selections (Jackson’s “The Lottery”) and some wonderful contemporary stuff (“We Didn’t Like Him” by Akhil Sharma).  The great feature of the list is that each entry has a wonderful little paragraph explaining why that particular story is on the list.  It’s so exciting!  I must read them all!  Perhaps one a week for the next year?

Maria Dermoût’s The Ten Thousand Things

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Mooi Indie painting

I loved, loved, loved this book!  I actually finished reading it last week, but had to absorb its impact for a few days and mull over how to approach it in a review.  I don’t know about you, dear reader, but books I really like, that touch me emotionally, tend to leave me speechless or whatever you call the literary equivalent of being tongue-tied.  Why is that, I wonder?  I think it’s partially a fear my review won’t do the book justice, that it deserves better than what I can give it and that if I could only write a better review my bookish treasure would get the consideration it deserves from any prospective readers out there.  There’s also, however, another element that makes it hard for me to discuss this work  — I loved it and what if others don’t?  So be forewarned — I’ll listen to opposing opinions about its quality but be prepared to (strongly) argue your case!

Before I get started on the novel itself, I want to note a few mundane matters.  I purchased The Ten Thousand Things many years ago, largely because it was on sale (see how honest I’m being?) and I felt a strong attraction for its exotic setting.  I mean, really, a spice plantation in the Dutch East Indies in the early part of the 20th century?  How could you possibly get more exotic?  I had always wanted to travel in the Indonesia/Oceania part of the world and I was practically licking my chops at the idea of a painless way to learn something about the area and maybe to imbibe a bit of local atmosphere.  Besides, the book is an NYRB Classic, meaning it has a beautiful cover, pages made from acid free paper and a really tactile quality in general (you just somehow want to stroke it, you know? )  Although I purchased this novel at least a decade ago, I finally read it for the first time — last week!  In the first few years after it entered my rather motley collection, I’d occasionally take the book off the shelf and admire the cover art; then of course, back on the shelf it went; it just struck me as a “difficult” read that I didn’t have the energy for at whatever time I happened to be considering it; it always lost out to what I perceived as an easier novel (bring on another mystery or sci-fi space opera!); eventually it became just another of those beautiful NYRB Classics that I’m better at buying than actually reading.  Two events were instrumental in converting this book from a dust catcher into a reading experience:  I finished a course last fall on the art of the Dutch maritime empire during its Golden Age (i.e, the 1600s) and I needed a selection for the “Africa, Asia, or Oceania” category for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate.  This time around when I picked up Marie Dermoût’s Ten Thousand Things my course in Dutch art history gave the novel context and an historical resonance;  it seemed — and was — the perfect selection.  The importance of having an historical context for a particular book is a very personal matter; while it’s important for me (I was a very enthused history major several eons ago, when I first attended college), it’s totally unnecessary to enjoy the novel, which, by the way, isn’t at all a difficult read.  In fact, my quest for historical facts actually got somewhat in the way.  I kept interrupting my reading to spend internet time trying to determine the real life counterpart of the narrator’s unnamed island, or whether the “sugar panic” on Java that impoverished her family actually occurred.  Total, obsessive waste of time chasing irrelevant facts; much better, dear reader, to have simply sat back and enjoyed this lovely book.

What I (and many of the reviews I looked at) found among the most entrancing features of The Ten Thousand Things is the sensual, poetic quality of Dermoût’s prose and, closely related, her ability to draw you into the landscape of a dream, providing you remember that dreams are sometimes uneasy things.  The novel opens with a description of “the Island in the Moluccas” where there are still a few “gardens” or plantations left from “the great days of spice growing.”  The garden’s great house has long since fallen prey to earthquake and fire, but a guest pavilion remains, four large rooms on an open side gallery; this is the home of the lady who owns the garden:

She had a beautiful name — Mrs. von So-and-so [that had been her husband’s name; he was from an East Prussian noble family] — and she was the last of an old Dutch line of spice growers.

For five generations the garden had been in the family; after her, her son would have been the sixth generation; after him, his children the seventh — but it was not to be like that.  Her son had died young and childless and she was an old woman, beyond fifty now, without other children, without other relatives — the last one.

According to the custom of the island, where they had trouble remembering difficult names and where everyone had a byname, she was called “the lady of the inner bay,” or also “the lady of the Small Garden,” for that was the name of the garden.

Trust me, the language and descriptions become even more hypnotic as the novel moves on; I’m having to restrain myself from quoting huge chunks of it.  You’ll just have to read it for yourself (if you don’t, you’ll miss the description of the three graves at the edge of the garden, and the ghosts of the three little girls, daughters of a long-ago owner, who are seen by some to play under the spice trees and on the beach of the inner bay.  Your life will be poorer).

The novel’s structure is based on the island’s geography.  The opening section (“The Island”) depicts the island’s sights, its sounds, and its residents, living and dead, from the lady of the Small Garden, to the simple fisherman who dyed his hair blue, because his remarkable soldier son must be honored by having a remarkable father.  “At the Inner Bay” is perhaps the novel’s most narratively cohesive section; it recounts the life of the girl, Felicia, who in her old age becomes the lady of the Small Garden; it tells of her birth, her early childhood and of her strange and powerful grandmother, with her herbs and cabinet of wonders guarded from evil by living shells.  After Grandmother refuses to rebuild the big house, the scene of death and misfortune, Felicia is taken to Europe by her irate mother, the wealthy heiress of a Javanese sugar plantation.  There, in a few brief paragraphs, Felicia grows to adulthood, living with her parents in a succession of luxury hotels, until she meets the “stranger from Nice,” whom she marries.  When the “sugary money” runs out, so does he, taking Felicia’s jewelry with him and leaving her pregnant.  After she tires of sponging off relatives in Holland, a penniless Felicia returns with her infant son Himpies to her Grandmother on the Island, where she spends the rest of her life.

In contrast to her years in Europe, which are covered in a paragraph or two, Felicia’s time with her grandmother in the Small Garden (which eventually passes to her) is recounted in great detail.  This section of the novel also narrates the life of Felicia’s son Himpies, who dies as a childless young man.  Dermoût paints a picture of Himpies at all stages of his life:  the infant Willem, whom the islanders rechristen “Himphies” (remember, the island loves “bynames”); the child who is almost an organic part of the Small Garden; the youth who reluctantly goes to Holland for his education and the young officer who has knowingly chosen the wrong career because it enables him to return to the island.  It also recounts, finally, his unnecessary, untimely and agonizing death.

In the novel’s third section, “At the Outer Bay,” the narrative shifts to the island’s only town and three of its residents, who are loosely connected to Felicia and Himpies.  Each story centers on a character who, like Himpies, meets an untimely end.  In the novel’s last section, “The Island,” we return in a sense to the novel’s beginning, where Felicia, now the old lady of the Small Garden, keeps vigil alone, one night each year; at this time the ghosts of those whose stories we’ve read (including Himpies) visit her.  At dawn, when the ghosts depart, Felicia leaves off her vigil, goes “under the trees and indoors, to drink her coffee and try again to go on living.”   As much as I love the poetry of Dermoût’s language and the fact that, for all her lovely descriptions, she also tells a good story, it was her almost pantheistic vision of life that appealed to me so much.  In Dermoût’s island, everything — plants, animals, stones, wind, the sea — is connected; each has its role to play and its fate to be endured.  Time is circular, like the serpent that swallows its tail; we travel a circle of life and death, to learn that which Felicia has known from the beginning — that the dead inhabit the island as much as the living.

This is as good a place as any to squeeze in a bit of info about Maria Dermoût herself.  Although I was unaware of the fact until I read this novel, she is considered one of the leading writers of Dutch colonial literature.  The Ten Thousand Things, which she wrote in her sixties, is a heavily biographical work.  Like Felicia, Dermoût was born in Malaysia (specifically, Java in 1888), was educated in Holland, married a Dutch official and spent most of her adult life in Indonesia.  Dermoût’s only son died in a Japanese concentration camp; in 1962 she herself died in Holland, alone like Felicia.  Her output, alas, is small, being limited to this novel and to one other work; The Ten Thousand Things actually fell out of print in English before being rescued by NYRB Classics.

Remember my words at the beginning of this overly long post, about my fear that I’d fail to do justice to a wonderful work of literature?  As I mull over what I’ve written, I fear that I’ve made Dermoût sound too sentimental.  She isn’t at all.  Colonial history, anywhere — Africa, the Americas, Malaysia — has a very dark side, which has its place and connection to events in Dermoût’s world.  The Small Garden has the charming custom of sounding a bell when visitors approach or depart; it’s a little chilling to find that what’s being used is “the slave bell” from the Small Garden’s days as a major spice plantation.  The island’s inhabitants include the ghosts of three little girls, daughters of one of Felicia’s distant ancestors.  The three died together in a single day, most likely poisoned by a mistreated slave girl; the tale is so dark Felicia’s grandmother refuses to speak of it (it’s one of the reasons she also refuses to rebuild the great house, the scene of their deaths).  Felicia’s son, young and charming and good, is killed almost by chance; his death is unnecessary, slow and painful.  In addition to the exigencies of fate, Dermoût acknowledges the darkness that is part of human nature:  many of her characters are murdered; more are selfish, greedy and domineering.  And, of course, the Lady of the Small Garden, her grandmother and her son Himpies, are themselves the human remnants of the great tide of European conquest and exploitation that re-shaped a huge chunk of the globe; to carry my metaphor further, they are akin to the shells left stranded on a beach after the tide has receded.

With this last fact in mind, I can’t resist including this painting of an unknown official of the Dutch East India Company and his wife, standing next to a harbor in a city that centuries after their time will be called Jakarta.  Behind them a native servant holds a pajong or parasol over their heads; in Javanese culture the pajong symbolizes high rank and status.  The Dutch official points with the pride of ownership and authority to the huge Dutch ships riding at anchor, loaded with the spices that were far more valuable than gold, shortly to begin their voyage “home.”  On the distant shore is Batavia Castle, a key component of Dutch military power over their conquered island.

Opnamedatum: 2017-10-05
Duch East Indies Merchant at Batavia Harbor (now Jakarta) (Aelbert Cuyp, c. 1640-1660)

Here’s another painting on the theme of empire; this is an image of Dutch military and political power rather than Cupy’s portrayal of the mercantile/commercial power of the East India Company.  Painted from the perspective of the victorious Dutch, it depicts the “submission” of one of the last indigenous leaders who opposed their rule.  The Javanese prince thought he was attending a peace conference held under a flag of truce.  He wasn’t.  After being arrested he was quickly exiled and that, as they say, is that.

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The Submission of Prince Dipo Negoro at the end of the Java War in 1830 (Nicolaas Pieneman, c. 1830-1835)

Dermoût’s novel has a scene in which Felicia, a penniless young woman newly returned from Holland, persuades her grandmother to begin selling the Small Garden’s produce in the town market.  Grandmother is indignant — “what do you mean? sell for money things that we didn’t pay money for?” — but relents when she realizes Felicia needs money to provide an education for Himpies.  Since I’m on a visual roll, this is all the excuse I need to throw in this painting of a street market in the Dutch East Indies:

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The painting is attributed, probably incorrectly, to Albert Eckhout, a 17th century Dutch artist who’s known primarily for his paintings of life in the short-lived Dutch colony in Brazil rather than Indonesia.  Although it predates Felicia’s mercantile adventure by two centuries or so, I think it conveys some of the exotic (to westerners, anyway) quality of Felicia’s world (as well as the ethnic typecasting frequently found in western paintings of non-western cultures).  Lastly, the painting at the beginning of my posting is from a genre known loosely as “Mooi Indie” or “pretty Indies pictures,” i.e., somewhat stereotyped portrayals of beautiful and/or picturesque scenes of Indonesian life and scenery, often (but not always) painted by Europeans.  I wasn’t able to determine the artist’s identity or the location of his scene and I did feel a bit reluctant to use it, but it was so beautiful I couldn’t resist.

Well, that’s it for tonight!  I have a few more paintings I’m itching to include, but I’ll spare y’all.  Hopefully I haven’t frightened anyone away from reading a wonderful novel.  I can’t think of a better closing than the one used by Dermoût herself, a line of poetry from Ts’en Shen:

“When the ten thousand things have been seen in their unity, we return to the beginning and remain where we have always been.”

Another List?

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Considered, but not included, on my Challenge lists for 2019; better luck next year guys …..

Isn’t it incredible to think that it’s mid-January, with all the shiny newness already being worn off the year?  I usually give myself the entire month of January to make resolutions, do lists and so forth (hey!  Only organized people get that stuff done by January 1st!).  This year I’m in pretty good shape with my lists.  After spending a very enjoyable day reviewing the titles of the books I read last year (when I finally get organized I’ll probably post the list) I spent an even more enjoyable few days looking at other people’s lists of past and future reads.  After a lot of hesitation, I decided to start my own blog, mainly because I wanted to participate in a few challenges this year; ultimately I settled on the Back to the Classics Challenge and the TBR Pile Challenge.  This was a wonderful decision, as it gave me an excuse to spend lots and lots of time pulling books from my shelves, internally debating what books to include on various reading lists and actually reading little bits and pieces of my “rejects” (actually, these books are “postponements” — I will read them next year!).  In the course of all this, I found myself pondering the question of why deciding what to read is just so much fun, at least for me. Is it the lure of the unknown, the excitment of possibility, the hope that this particular book will be something really, really special, that if I complete a list of, say, 19th century classics, I’ll be a better rounded person?  Reading itself, of course, is intensely pleasurable but I find that there’s a special and separate thrill that comes from pawing through my piles and piles and piles of books and making plans for everything I intend to read in the upcoming year.  If you happen by, I’d welcome your thoughts on the subject and whether you have the same experience.

Well, enough of the philosophical questions and back to lists!  Before settling down to actually reading and writing about my various Challenge books (I finished my first one, Henry James’ The Tragic Muse, a couple of days ago and I’ve been thinking about how to approach it in a review), I decided to have the fun of doing one last list of prospective reads.  I skim a lot of book reviews and I’m always finding things that look at least mildly interesting; I usually forget to jot down the titles and then, when I’m looking for something newly published to read, a book that’s a change of pace or something quick to read in-between class work or such, I’m at a loss.  I’ve decided this year to be a bit more organized and do a list, which in the “might-as-well spirit” that is my blog’s guiding philosophy,  I decided I “might as well” post.  My criterion for inclusion is pretty simple — these are books that, at the present moment, I want to read!  They don’t fit any of the various challenges’ criteria, at least none that I know of; most, if not all, are recently published, or about to be published, and they’re almost all fiction.  Because my list is very idiosyncratic, it excludes some very good writers and certain books that either have, or can be expected to get, a lot of buzz.  For example, I don’t include Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, which is scheduled for publication in September 2019.  Although I love Atwood’s novels and short stories (and those poems of hers that I’ve read) and regard The Handmaid’s Tale as a moving and powerful work, I have mixed feelings about a sequel; while I may read it this year, I’m not planning to and, in fact, may never read it at all.  How many of the books on my list I’ll actually read, or when I might read them, is totally open; both factors will depend on time, circumstances and inclination.  With this in mind, and in no particular order of preference, here goes my list of interesting, relatively recent books.

14king2-sub-articlelargeThe Witch Elm by Tana French.  I’m proud to say that I’ve been a follower of Tana French since she published In the Woods, her stunning debut and the first of her Dublin Murder Squad novels.  As good as they were, life intervened and I never read the entire series.  Not to worry, however, for this is a standalone novel, described by the Guardian as “a brilliant examination of male privilege and family secrets.”  Sounds fun!

 

 

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Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James.  Drawing on African history and myth, James has written a fantasy novel centering on the search for a mysterious child by a mercenary and his misfit companions.  James became one of my literary deities after I read his A Brief History of Seven Killings when it won the 2015 Booker Prize.  I was so impressed with James’ talent I resolved to read his previous novels, but I may go for this new one instead.  It should be very, very different from Seven Killings, which was set in contemporary Jamaica; because it’s by James, however, I’ll risk it, although I probably won’t get around to reading it until next summer.

 

51gkwpvcrcl._sx329_bo1,204,203,200_Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley.  Hadley’s novels, including this one, get glowing reviews.  I’ve never quite taken to her work, however, probably because I disliked some short stories of hers I read a few years ago in The New Yorker.  Still, I like to keep up with contemporary authors.  This tale of the “lives of two closely intertwined couples” (Washington Post) looks pretty interesting and I may read it as a break between between various Challenge books.

 

 

51s7yxtz0-l._sx329_bo1,204,203,200_Sadie Jones, The Snakes (UK publication in March 2019; available on Amazon U.S. in June).  The Guardian describes this as “a suspenseful, beautifully written thriller about the corruption of money and abuse within a dysfunctional family.”  What could be better?

 

 

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (available September 2019).  This is a follow-up to Strout’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize Winner, Olive Kitteridge.  I was slow to jump onto the Elizabeth Strout bandwagon, which I mentally dismissed as overly hyped; how could anyone be that good?  Well, she’s that good.  Although I preferred her Lucy Barton (its subsequent, connected story cycle Anything Is Possible was equally good) to Olive Kitteridge, Olive was nevertheless a wonderful read and I’m really looking forward to a continuation of Olive’s life.

51f8+ycxvql._ac_us218_Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls.  I’ve always been interested in how modern writers treat classical myths, either as fairly straight re-tellings albeit with unusual angles (think Madeline Miller’s Circe or Song of Achilles) to outright reinterpretations (a good example here is Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, a type of Oedipus re-telling set on the canals of Oxford).  Needless to say, I was keenly interested when the great Pat Barker (have you read her Regeneration Trilogy yet?  If not, stop now and do so immediately) published her version of the Iliad, told from the point of view of one of the captured female war prizes (Briseis, for the classicists among you).  I wasn’t surprised that Silence made several of the “best of 2018” lists; I am surprised that I haven’t read it yet.

 

51gnhfbaxjl._sx331_bo1,204,203,200_Laura & Emma by Kate Greathead.  A generally well-received debut novel, centered on the relationship between an eccentric single mother, scion of Manhattan’s uber wealthy Upper East Side, and her only daughter.

 

 

 

 

41qpb6elo-l._sx309_bo1,204,203,200_Sally Rooney, Normal People.  Another hold-over read from last year.  This Irish author has gotten so much favorable attention I feel almost morally obligated to check her out.  I thought I “might as well” start with this, her second novel, which recounts the relationship of Marianne & Connell, beginning in a small town in western Ireland and continuing through their university years in Dublin.

 

 

 

41eox0cbt8l._sx331_bo1,204,203,200_Anna Burns, Milkman: A Novel.  I usually keep up at least a little with the various novels annually nominated for the Booker Prize (it’s one of my hobbies); in years when I have a lot of time I generally read at least the short list.  This year, alas, I let things slide; although I read four or five of the nominees, I lost interest in the process and didn’t even read Milkman, the 2018 winner.  The novel is set in an unnamed Irish city during the Troubles and concerns “middle sister,” who reads old books and keeps to herself.  Her life changes dramatically when a local guy with a dangerous reputation as a paramilitary begins to take an interest in her and she’s unable to break free of the gossip.  At least in some quarters the book has a reputation as a somewhat “difficult” read, which may be what has kept me away.  2019, however, is shaping up as an ambitious year for me . . . . .

 

4181gpd-hul._sx330_bo1,204,203,200_Sara Gran, The Infinite Blacktop: A Novel (Claire DeWitt).  Have you ever really, really liked a particular author or book while knowing that it isn’t to everyone’s taste, or perhaps that it’s not “great” in a cosmic sense?  It’s a “some people like pistachio ice cream and some don’t” kind of thing.  Well, I like Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt mysteries, which have been described as a combination of classic noir, hipster funk and eastern mysticism.  I’ve been saving this, the latest in the series, for a weekend when I really need a relaxing treat.

 

 

51373pbsb2l._sx322_bo1,204,203,200_The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton.  This mystery is a holdover read from 2018, when I very badly wanted to read it but just didn’t have the time.  Inspired by Agatha Christie and quantum time travel, with a touch of groundhog day thrown in, the narrator has eight days to solve a murder.  Each day he’s reborn in the body of a different witness and hence with that person’s memories of the crime; some of these are helpful, some not.  Most reviewers considered the novel fiendishly clever and a lot of fun to read (in addition to the pro reviews, I’ve also seen several book blog postings extolling it).

 

 

415monyefsl._sx329_bo1,204,203,200_Megan Abbott, Give Me Your Hand.  I’m a little surprised this caught my interest, as I’m not normally fond of books described as “thrillers,” even for relaxation reads.  Here, however, the former friends whose intense competition drives the novel are two female scientists, which is unusual enough to catch my attention.  NPR’s description of it as “a nuanced and atmospheric study” of the lure of big dreams, especially women’s, ensured it a place on my list.

 

 

 

51zlisjjx-l._sx322_bo1,204,203,200_The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt.  After ending up as a single mom in London, American Sibylla turns to unconventional child rearing methods, which include replaying Kurosawa’s films for her fatherless son.  As is evident from my list, I’m drawn to quirky, off beat tales of unconventional families.  I believe this book has actually been around for a few years, but only recently came to my attention.

 

 

 

 

61xya-pkcfl._sx311_bo1,204,203,200_Walter Kempowski, All for Nothing.  This is a gorgeous NYRB Classic reprint of a 2006 work originally published in German (translator is Anthea Bell).  It’s 1945 in East Prussia, with the German army in retreat and the Red Army approaching; although life in all its banality continues in the von Globig estate, the family’s manor house is becoming filled with refugees and change is coming.  Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it?  Although I have a big historical read on my Back to the Classics Challenge list, I may end up reading this as well.

 

 

51cmihoku8l._sx398_bo1,204,203,200_Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss.  I’ve been interested in this one since reading a Guardian review last year.  Because it was only published in the U.S. in early 2019, however, I almost forgot about it until seeing in on Danielle’s list at her Work in Progress blog.  Silvie’s dad is an enthusiast of early human history; for vacation the entire family takes an anthropology course in which the students reenact the lives of Iron Age Britons.  The “ghost wall” of the title refers to barricades build to ward off enemies; when Silvie’s group builds one they rediscover a connection with their early ancestors.  Judging from the reviews, Moss’ novel asks whether connections like this can go too far.  This one is pretty high on my list for a 2019 read.

 

51vew3wvcgl._sx367_bo1,204,203,200_Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman.  This English language debut of a contemporary Japanese writer centers on oddball Tokyo resident Keiko, who eschews a “normal” life to work in a convenience store.  Keiko is perfectly happy with her choice; her family and friends are not and apply increasing pressure on her to start a career and find a husband.  This book received a lot of favorable attention; it’s another one that turned up on Danielle’s Work in Progress blog, although I can’t now find precisely where (hence, no link).

 

 

 

41qzuq2h2wl._sx327_bo1,204,203,200_Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir.  I’m so resistant to the memoir genre that reading two of them last year was a real milestone.  This year I might actually read another, as I’ve long been very interested in Educated.  In this memoir, Westover recounts her journey from a survivalist upbringing by fundamentalist religious parents to successful academic stints at Harvard and Cambridge.

 

 

 

51kvj27kvel._ac_us218_French Exit by Patrick DeWitt.  Since reading The Sisters Brothers, his (very) unconventional take on the classic American western, I’ve been a mild Patrick DeWitt fan.  While not being quite my cup of tea, DeWitt is a very skilled, interesting writer who’s worth checking out.  This, his latest, is DeWitt’s take on what one reviewer described as a “tragedy of manners;” a once wealthy mother & son, fleeing penury and scandal, desert New York for Paris, meeting a number of unusual characters along the way.  I can’t imagine anything more different from the setting of The Sisters Brothers and I can’t imagine anyone other than DeWitt carrying it off.

 

41gxxlrawul._sx318_bo1,204,203,200_What Red Was by Rosie Price (available in U.S. August 2019; UK May 2019).  A young university student gets drawn into her boyfriend’s rich & privileged world; all goes well until her life is shattered by a sexual assault during a party at his family’s London home.  The Guardian marked this debut novel as one gathering lots of “buzz.”

 

 

 

If you happen by, and you’ve actually read or have any insights into the books on my list, I’d appreciate your thoughts!