Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

I really enjoyed Passing, but I might be in the minority when I say I loved Quicksand which I read first, even more. Quicksand adds into its complexity that little known element of being a TCK (third culture kid), Helga is not only of mixed race, but she was born and is growing up in a culture (America) that neither of her parents were born into or belonged to, there is no extended family for her to mould into, whereas in Passing, we meet two women who have a stronger sense of family and there is more of a focus on belonging to a race and by extension, its culture.

Passing Nella Larsen Harlem Renaissance ClassicBook Review

In Passing, we meet Irene who has just received a letter from an old friend, one who twice in her life she believed she would never see again and with distaste realises this letter is evidence of her reappearance in her life. Intending to resist seeing her, she ignores it.

The narrative then goes back in time to the earlier encounter when Irene was visiting Chicago where her parents live, doing last minute shopping for her children, overcome by the heat, she hails a cab and asks the driver to take her to a rooftop hotel. It is here that Irene practices her version of ‘passing’ as a white bourgeoise person, alone, unobserved, quietly taking tea by a window where no one is near, a moment to recuperate.

“It’s funny about ‘passing’. We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.”

To her horror, a man and woman appear and take the table next to her. The man leaves and the woman stares at her in an unsettling manner. Fear pervades her as the woman approaches, recognising her.

“About her clung that dim suggestion of polite insolence with which a few women are born and which some acquire with the coming of riches or importance.”

Passing is taut with tension beginning with this scene, Irene is careful, her old school friend Clare takes what to Irene  are unbearable risks, something she wants to distance herself from, doing all she can not to fall into her manipulative ways. But her charm is near impossible to resist, she is more practiced in passing and in getting what she wants, in ways Irene wouldn’t dare imagine.

Three Harlem Renaissance Women 1925Irene has strong and angry thoughts on Claire’s predicament, but in her presence is unable to act in accordance with them. She is stuck between loyalty to her race and guilt at her ability to pass for the thing that so oppresses them.

“Mingled with her disbelief and resentment was another feeling, a question. Why hadn’t she spoken that day? Why, in the face of Bellew’s ignorant hate and aversion, had she concealed her own origin? What had she allowed him to make his assertions and express his misconceptions undisputed?”

The fear Irene has turns it into something of a psychological suspense novel, use of the word dangerous planting the seed of it early on.

“Her brows came together in a tiny frown. The frown, however, was more from perplexity than from annoyance; though there was in her thoughts an element of both. She was wholly unable to comprehend such an attitude towards danger as she was sure the letter’s contents would reveal; and she disliked the idea of opening and reading it.”

Neither woman is totally content with the life decisions they have made, each of them reaching for something that eludes now them, witnessing it in the other, living with a pervasive level of anxiety that threatens to disrupt their lives. Their predicaments provide an insight into the country’s turbulent feelings towards integration and race relations in the 1920 -1930’s

Further Reading

My review of Quicksand by Nella Larsen

My review of From Caucasia With Love by Danza Senna

Lapham’s Quarterly: Passing Through by Michelle Dean: Nella Larsen made a career of not quite belonging

Essay in Electric Literature by Emily Bernard: In Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing,’ Whiteness Isn’t Just About Race

New York Times: Overlooked Obituaries – Nella Larsen (1891-1964) Harlem Renaissance-era writer whose heritage
informed her modernist take on the topic of race by Bonnie Wertheim

Harlem Renaissance Titles Reviewed Here

Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Good Behavior by Molly Keane

Thoughts On A Novel

I read this book with great discomfort all the way through. I have a sense of having being conned. It was mentioned more than once in an Irish Times article Laugh in the time of Corona: Favourite funny books. It was also nominated for the Booker Prize in 1981, Hilary Mantel calls it an ‘overlooked classic’.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, was also mentioned and I agree, there were many laugh out moments for me there and great compassion too, some recompense for the underlying sadness of a woman spending the end of her days in a hotel with strangers who become almost friends and the unexpected gift of a complicit friendship with a young man who makes up for an absent grandson.

In Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour, not only were there no laugh out loud moments, I may have grimaced all the way through. So utterly did I dislike the story and the characters, I questioned my understanding of the word behaviour, there wasn’t any good behaviour, even when the characters denied their true thoughts and said things to cover them, the behaviour remained appalling. The only exception being the maid Rose who kept the household going, working and caring her way through the narrative, shifting her alliances towards whichever household member required her attention.

The Anglo-Irish & Big Houses

Although Molly Keane was an Irish novelist and playwright, it felt like I was reading an old English novel and I saw many refer to her as Anglo-Irish, so I had to fill myself in on what that influence I could feel in the text was about. So for those like me who didn’t grow up in either of those countries, a quick explanation on what it meant to be Anglo-Irish.

Coolbawn House, County Wexford burned in 1923 By Mike Searle, CC BY-SA

The Anglo-Irish social class made up most of the professional and landed class from the 17th century up to Irish Independence around 1920, they were until that time the ruling aristocracy. They identified as Irish but retained English habits in business, politics, culture and society. They participated in English sports, they loved horse sports, racing, fox hunting, would send their children to boarding schools in England if possible and often intermarried with the ruling classes in Great Britain.

Many constructed large country houses in the first half of the 18th century, ranging from palatial mansions to more modest ‘large’ houses known as Big Houses, a symbol of their class dominance in Irish society. Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, published in 1800 is one of the original Big House novels. Elizabeth Bowen chronicled the decline of the Big House in The Last September.

275 were destroyed, deliberately burned by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) during the Irish revolutionary period (1919-1921) including Molly Keane’s family’s own estate, her father ignoring warnings to leave and take his family to England, refusing to leave the place even when he saw them coming to burn it down.

Book Review

The protagonist of Good Behaviour is Iris Aroon St Charles, daughter of an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, who grows up with her brother Hubert in ‘Temple Alice’ one of the ‘Big Houses’, built by an ancestor as his temporary residence until inheriting his titles and estates.

Now the title extinct and estates entirely dissipated, Temple Alice, after several generations as a dower house (a house intended as the residence of a widow), came to Mummie when her mother died. Papa farmed the miserably few hundred acres that remained of the property.

While the novel opens with a chapter when she is fifty-seven-years old at her mother’s death-bed, the remainder of the novel focuses on their life under the tutelage of a governess Mrs Brock up until her sudden departure through to her twenties when she is an unhappy, overweight, unmarried daughter without prospect, living a life of gross deception and delusion. Seeds of her discontent are sown early on, with a mother lacking in maternal feeling.

She simply did not want to know what was going on in the nursery. She had had us and she longed to forget the horror of it once and for all. She didn’t really like children; she didn’t like dogs either, and she had no enjoyment of food, for she ate almost nothing.

Animals, food and her brother are her consolation, her mother rarely responds even when Aroon reports that she thinks her baby brother is dead, she enquires where the staff are. Her father responds and inspires hope. She seeks out his company, a kind word, favour, he seeks comfort elsewhere.

We adored Papa, and his hopeless disapproval paralysed any scrap of confidence or pleasure we had ever had in ourselves or our ponies.

When Mrs Brock intervenes and with kindness and encouragement succeeds in endowing them with the necessary confidence, he turns away shaking his head.

In those days one did not quite admit the possibility of cowardice, even in young children. The tough were the ones who mattered;  their courage was fitting and credible. A cowardly child was a hidden sore, and a child driven to admit hatred of his pony was something of a leper in our society. It appeared to Papa that Mrs Brock has rescued our honour and his credit.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

An awkward teen she revels in her brother’s company and his friend Richard. The time the three spend together is the height of her happiness, little realising they too are indulging in ‘good behaviour’ masking an ulterior motive, using her as an alibi. Her self-deception knows no bounds.

Here, to my delight , Hubert and Richard danced with me in turn. I almost preferred dancing with Hubert because I loved showing off to Richard…I was fulfilled by them. I felt complete. There was no more to ask.

Aroon is constantly striving for connection and endlessly blind to reality, and when connection is possible, where genuine friendship might have a chance to flourish, she is locked into the conventions of her class that forbid it. She lacks empathy and is unaware of her own bitterness, so we have little sympathy for her predicament.

The family live in denial of their escalating debt, living beyond their means and incapable of doing anything for themselves. When her father returns from war injured, Aroon tries to get close to him and is thwarted once again. Without prospect of marriage, her mother closing her out, her father’s attentions elsewhere, she seems doomed.

And then a final twist.

And yet. The thirty years in-between the beginning and the end leave a lot more unsaid.

Selina Guiness in the Irish Times says Keane writes the most spectacularly “nasty” black comedies in Irish Big House fiction and Keane herself request her daughter to make the biography she wrote about her more like a novel adding, “I’m afraid you won’t be nasty enough.”

Perhaps it is this that so disturbs, I like a book in which a character can in some way redeem themself, can change or transform, ‘nasty, black comedies’ and characters that take pleasure in using their wounds as weapons against another isn’t entertaining for me, I am unable to wear a mask and pretend otherwise.

I know I’m in the minority as this is a popular English novel, but I’m wondering if anyone else read this with a similar feeling of discomfort?

On Molly Keane

She was full of uncertainties, anxieties, even fears, capable of striking out in anger and of little streaks of prejudice and snobbery, but in spite of all of this, Molly’s essence was in the generosity, kindness and wisdom which won her so many instant friends. It was almost as though there were two of her, one shaped by class and family circumstances, against which she often rebelled but from which she would never quite escape, and the other which stirred into life whenever she worked her way through to writing level, and this Molly became able to see through her first self with calm amusement.  Diana Athill

Further Reading

An excellent review by a reader who loved (5 star) the book – I do know how to behave – believe me, because I know. I have always known. Dear Molly, by Juliana Brina

Diana Athill on editing and befriending Molly Keane 

Molly Keane’s Anglo-Irish life: ‘Courage, glamour and fantasy’

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor, a popular English novelist who wrote 12 novels, was compared by Anne Tyler to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Bowen, she described them as “soul sisters all”.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was named by the Guardian as one of ‘the 100 best novels,‘ and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1971. It is a humorous and compassionate look at friendship between an old woman and a young man at a time in her life when she has little to look forward to.

We meet Mrs Palfrey as she is checking in for a long stay at the hotel, after having visited her only daughter in Scotland. A widow who is not ready for a nursing home, she joins an eccentric group of fellow residents, doing their best to maintain their dignity and cope with boredom while competing with each other over the calibre of their visitors.

‘And you wouldn’t care to live in the North?’ Mrs Arbuthmot asked, probing.

Mrs Palfrey had not been invited to, and she did not get on well with her daughter, who was noisy and boisterous and spent most of her time either playing golf or talking about it. ‘I doubt if I could stand that climate,’ she replied.

Regrettably, she mentions the existence of her grandson Desmond, who works at the British museum and for whom she is knitting a sweater. It comes to their notice that he hasn’t visited.

‘If we don’t see him soon, we shall begin to think he doesn’t exist.’

‘Oh, he will come’ Mrs Palfrey said, and she smiled. She really believed that he soon would.

Photo by tom balabaud on Pexels.com

He doesn’t come and it causes her to participate in her age old habit of ‘saving face’ which also involved small lies and having to keep track of what she’d said, which became a strain.

One day on her return from the library she falls and is helped by a young man named Ludo, whom she learns is a struggling but determined writer. She misunderstands when he says he works in Harrods.

‘Oh no, I don’t work for Harrods. I work at Harrods. In the Banking Hall. I take my writing and few sandwiches there. It’s nice and warm and they’re such comfortable chairs. And I save lighting this gas-fire, which eats up money.’

To thank him, she invites him to dine with her at the hotel and when letting the waiter know she would be expecting a guest on Saturday, declines to correct one of the residents. It is a fortuitous meeting and the beginning of an unlikely but mutually beneficial friendship.

‘So your grandson is coming to see you at last’, Mrs Arbuthnot had said on her slow way past Mrs Palfrey’s table and, for some reason she searched for later, Mrs Palfrey let her go without a word.

Photo by Jordan Benton on Pexels.com

And so the comedy begins, Ludo relishing his role as Desmond and the opportunity to observe them all, seeing it all as research for his novel, which he renames after one of Mrs Palfrey’s comments at dinner.

‘Mrs Arbuthnot has been at the Claremont for years.’

‘It has entered her soul.’

”But we aren’t allowed to die here.’

He threw back his head and laughed….He thought, I mayn’t write it down, but please God may I remember it. We Aren’t Allowed to Die Here by Ludovic Myers.

It’s like watching an old style, witty English television series, you read the lines and can imagine the way they speak, with air of pompous superiority, which has become even more elevated in the bourgeois elderly.

I loved the little lie Mrs Palfrey tells and the consequence it brings her, it’s perhaps the most interesting thing that happens to her and that she really looks forward to in her time at the Claremont, a random connection with a stranger, a budding new relationship, the envy of others and for him, a character study, a kind of mother figure of a different kind, and the title of his novel.

It was interesting how in this era people lived in inexpensive hotels as an alternative to independent living, not having to cook or clean or take care of any of the infrastructural requirements of a house or apartment. I’ve just read another novel about a woman who lived in a hotel in France, Colette’s The Shackle, only her protagonist was close to 40 years old, so she and her “hotel companions” got out and about more and their escapades were of a different nature.

Have you read any of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels?

Further Reading

Guardian: The 100 best novels: No 87 – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

Buy a Copy of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont via Book Depository

Transit by Anna Seghers tr. Margot Bettauer Dembo

I have wanted to read this novel for a while, ever since reading Jacqui’s review a few years ago. With August focused on #womenintranslation and being asking for a suggestion for our upcoming bookclub, it seemed the perfect moment to read it.

It is an incredible novel, written in a surreal time, while the writer was living in exile in Mexico, Anna Seghers (having left Germany in 1933 to settle in France) was forced (with her husband and two children) to flee from Marseille in 1940, the only port in France at that time that still flew the French flag, the rest under German occupation.

With the help of Varian Fry, (see his autobiography Surrender on Demand) an American journalist who came to Marseille for a year and helped 1500 artists, writers, intellectuals escape Europe; they found safe passage to Mexico, where they stayed until able to return to East Berlin, where she lived until her death in 1983.

While in Mexico she wrote this thought-provoking, accomplished, “existential, political, literary thriller” novel narrated by a 27-year-old German man who has escaped two labour camps (in Germany and France) before arriving in Paris where he promises to do a favour for a friend, coming into possession of a suitcase of documents belonging to a German writer named Weidel, who he learns has taken his own life.

There is an element of the absurd in many of the encounters throughout the entire novel, and one of the first is when the young meets the hotel proprietor, inconvenienced by the death of this man in her establishment, which she’d had to officially register and arrange for burial, she complains that he’d caused her more trouble than the German invasion and that they hadn’t ended there and goes into detail.

“Don’t think that my troubles are over. This man has actually managed to create trouble for me from beyond the grave.”

Our unnamed narrator offers to assist, requiring him to travel to Marseille, where he hopes to stay indefinitely. To avoid checkpoints, he leaves the train a few stops early and descends into the city.

Walking down from the hills, I came to the outer precincts of Marseille. At a bend in the road I saw the sea far below me. A bit later I saw the city itself spread out against the water. It seemed as bare and white as an African city. At last I felt calm. It was the same calm that I experience whenever I like something very much. I almost believed I had reached my goal. In this city, I thought, I could find everything I’d been looking for, that I’d always been looking for. I wonder how many times this feeling will deceive me on entering a strange city!

Descending into Marseille today

Alongside many others genuinely trying to flee, we follow him to hotels, cafes, consulates, shipping offices, travel bureaus and stand in line as he apples for visa and stamps that he has little vested interest in, observing the absurd demands made of people trying to find safe passage to what they hope is a free world. He is given a one month residency and then settles in to watch the world go by, ignoring that he must still establish his intention.

By now I felt part of the community. I had a room of my own, a friend, a lover; but the official at the Office for Aliens on the Rue Louvois had a different view of things. He said, “You must leave tomorrow. We only allow foreigners to stay here in Marseille if they can bring us proof that they intend to leave. You have no visa, in fact not even the prospect of getting one. There is no reason for us to extend your residence permit.”

The man he knows is dead, has a wife widow waiting for him in Marseille, her story becomes part of the young man’s quest, in this transitory city that holds a thin promise of a lifeline to the fulfillment of desperate dreams for so many refugees.

The complexity of requirements means many more are rejected than succeed and all risk being sent to one of the camps that the authorities without hesitation dispatch those whose papers are not in order.

Our narrator is independent, without family and not in possession of a story that invokes sympathy in the reader. A drifter without purpose, he likes the city and wants to stay. His circumstance removes something of the terror and tragedy of what people around him are going through, allowing the reader to see the situation outside of the tragic humanitarian crisis it was.

Instead we witness the absurd situation people have been put in, the endless, near impossible bureaucratic demands refugees encounter, when they are forced to flee homes they don’t want to leave, to go to a safe(r) place equally they don’t necessarily wish to go to, but will do so to survive and in an attempt to keep their families together. And the irony or blindness of those around them who continue with their lives as if nothing has changed.

Sometimes you find real Frenchmen sitting in the Brûleurs des Loups. Instead of talking about visas, they talk about sensible things like the shady deals that go on. I even heard them mention a certain boat that was sailing for Oran. While the Mont Vertoux customers prattle on about all the details of booking a passage on a ship, these people were discussing the particulars of the cargo of copper wire.

I highlighted so many passages that I will go back and reread, it’s a fascinating book that could perhaps only have been written from the safety of exile and from the perspective of the everyday man and woman, without going into detail about the reasons for their haste, for even a safe place can become unsafe, and a manuscript sufficient to sign a death warrant. And even though this book was written 77 years ago, there is much about the bureaucracy that continues to ring true for immigrants in Europe today.

Marseill’s thoroughfare, Le Canibiére

The depiction of Marseille, though in a time of terror is evocative too of that city today, only the places mentioned here are now frequented by people from a different set of countries, those who have fled or left in search of something better in the last 30 years, from parts of Africa, Vietnam, Lebanon and those who just need to disappear for a while, finding anonymity and comradeship in the small alleys and cafes of Marseille, a city of temporary refuge, where everyone has a story that begins elsewhere.

Immigrants of the 21st century – Balade de Noailles

Coincidentally, a few weeks ago, I visited a quartier of Marseille, just off Le Canibiére, called Noailles, with a small group of university professors, looking to know the city’s immigrant population and influence a little better in anticipation of further developing their teaching classes to incorporate the reality of today.

Bénédicte Sire & One of the Legends of Noailles

The personal tour was guided by local comedien/actress/director, Bénédicte Sire, who introduced us to a new generation of immigrants who’ve adopted Marseille as their home. We visited them in their shops tasting their food while listening to personal family stories, which were narrated either by Bénédicte taking on the persona of a relative, or a combination of her oral storytelling and the shop owner narrating.

It was perhaps the most informative and personal visit I’ve ever made to Marseille, and was like a live version of the many novels I’ve read, translated from countries far away, only here they are living in a city 25 minutes away, facilitated by a warm, cheerful, empathetic woman who has developed authentic relationships with her fellow residents, gently opening them to trust in sharing their often traumatic, personal stories with outsiders genuinely interested to know.

Highly Recommended if you ever visit the city of Marseille and wish to see it from within.

Buy a Copy of Transit via Book Depository

How Sister Outsider Lead to a Chat Between Eloquent Rage and Good and Mad

Sister Outsider is something of a classic collection of essays that I first heard about some years ago, a collection that if you have any interest in issues of gender, feminism, or equality should be near the top of the list.

Audre Lordre was a poet, academic, speaker, feminist activist, sister and mother of two, who grew up in 1930’s Harlem. She wrote 12 books and tragically passed away at the age of 58 from cancer in 1992.

I have long wished to read it and was reminded of that recently, when a Goodreads Group I was invited to join and now belong to, Our Shared Shelf, a Feminist Book club created by Emma Watson, inspired by work with UN Women (dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women) posted a link to a video (linked below) of a conversation between two writers who have recently published books that reference Audre Lorde’s work, in particular pertaining to women, anger, and race.

Here was an invitation to listen to and participate in a dialogue about the power and consequence of women’s rage, both personal and political, a conversation across race, across cultural contexts, across the things that make us both different and the same

The conversation was in response to the three books chosen for the Book club’s Nov/Dec 2018 reads and online discussion, they’d chosen Sister Outsider and two recent publications Dr. Brittany Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower and Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger.

Audre Lorde was one of the foremost thinkers on the importance of understanding anger, suggesting that most women had not developed tools for facing anger constructively, except to avoid, deflect or flee from it. She wrote about women’s anger transforming difference through insight into power, how it could birth change, that the discomfort and sense of loss it often caused was not fatal, but a sign of growth.

“every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.”

With the rise of hard right authoritarian regimes around the world, many determined to roll back human rights – the very freedoms previous generations of angry women worked to achieve – women today are again being called to embrace their rage – its force, its potential, its messy complications.

To that end, and just as crucial as the call to angry, eloquent expression, is the responsibility – instilled by Lorde – to listen and learn, with curiosity and respect to the rage of the women around us.

On Rebecca Traister’s book:

Rebecca’s book Good and Mad will give you a deep and engaging (and sometimes enraging) historical deep dive into the way that women’s anger has been used throughout history to drive social movements, as well as how rage at the inequalities replicated within those social movements has worked to both slow them and make them stronger.

The stories will make you mad but they’ll also inspire you.

 

On Dr. Brittany Cooper’s book:

Brittney’s book invites the question of what it takes to meet Audre Lorde’s challenge: how do we focus our anger with precision? Through a range of personal stories about becoming a feminist, navigating friendships and romance and the white-washed shoals of pop culture, as well as contending with the limits of white feminists and the legacy of white feminism, Brittney demonstrates what it means to harness anger as a superpower.

Eloquent rage keeps us all honest and accountable with her provocative, intelligent thinking.

Unlikely to be able to read all three in the time frame, I decided I’d slow read Lorde’s essays and read the other two when paperback versions came out. In the meantime, I entered a competition asking readers who’d watched the interview between these women discussing their books, to answer the following question:

QuestionWhat surprised you about this conversation around anger and how it’s perceived differently depending on who is expressing it?

My Response: First of all I was surprised to be given the opportunity to listen to such a high calibre conversation from within the comfort of one of my favourite online dwelling places – Goodreads!

The whole conversation around the perception of anger depending on who is expressing it surprised me as it articulated what so many of us have felt, experienced, witnessed and NOT been able to articulate, and I loved that they addressed that question of voice and gave kudos to listening and learning.

It just made me want to share this with all women and read both their books! Thank you so much for bringing this opportunity to those of us far, far away to listen, I hope there will be many more.

And since I now find that I am indeed one of the winners and will eventually be receiving copies of the two books mentioned above, I am doing what I said I would do and sharing this enlightening conversation between two eloquent writer’s voices and look forward to being able to share more when I’ve read their works.

Please do have a listen to the brief conversation below that inspired this post, and if you’re interested, join in with me to read their books over the coming months. My attempt to review Audre Lorde’s essays to follow.

Click Below to Buy a Copy:

Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider

Dr. Brittany Cooper’s Eloquent Rage

Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad

 

 

Top Reads of 2017

In 2017 I anticipated that I wouldn’t read as much as I had read in previous years, due to giving my reading time over to some personal studies and the reading that would accompany them and to the social visits I had from many of the men in my family, brother, Uncle, Fathers. As a result, less of my writing appeared here in Word by Word and more of it found its way in the old-fashioned long form between the pages of journals that I keep.

However, I did still manage to read 48 books from 21 countries (10 in translation) including Sri Lanka, Trinidad, Turkey, Ireland, Nigeria, Ghana, Palestine, Italy, Canada, Scotland, Pakistan, France, South Africa, Guadeloupe, Greece, Spain, Mauritius, Australia and of course the UK and the US.

Outstanding Read of 2017

The one stand out novel for me came very early in the year, in February and I knew as soon as I finished it, that it was likely to be my outstanding novel of 2017.

This novel came out with a lot of fanfare and so I was a little dubious to begin with, novels that arrive with great expectations have a tendency to disappoint avid literary readers, so I read with intrigue what other reviewers had to say. Some loved it, others saw it as a collection of stories, and then my very dear Aunt, who totally knows what kind of books I love sent it to me for my birthday. Of course I dove right in.

Here is what I had to say in my review:

“I love, love, loved this novel and I am in awe of its structure and storytelling, the authenticity of the stories, the three-dimensional characters, the inheritance and reinvention of trauma, and the rounding of all those stories into the healing return. I never saw that ending coming and the build up of sadness from the stories of the last few characters made the last story all the more moving, I couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my face.”

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana, but lived most of her life in the US. After revisiting Ghana, she began writing her novel by asking herself what it meant to be black in America today and through the lives and descendants of two sisters, her narrative will arrive eventually in the modern day. Here’s what she was trying to do and in my opinion totally succeeds. Read my review here.

I began Homegoing in 2009 after a trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle [where slaves were incarcerated]. The tour guide told us that British soldiers who lived and worked in the castle often married local women – something I didn’t know. I wanted to juxtapose two women – a soldier’s wife with a slave. I thought the novel would be traditionally structured, set in the present, with flashbacks to the 18th century. But the longer I worked, the more interested I became in being able to watch time as it moved, watch slavery and colonialism and their effects – I wanted to see the through-line.

Top Reads 2017

Here in no particular order are a few books that have stayed with me long after I read them and the year has passed.

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan is a slim novella, the third book by this young Irish writer and his best in my opinion.

The story is told in a way that pulls you inside the book and makes you feel it happening. Incredibly the author writes from the first person perspective of Melody, a 33-year-old woman who discovers she is pregnant to a young Traveller, a turning point that disrupts the confined world she has created and had been living in.

He has such penetrative powers of observation, that create a sense of foreboding and intrigue, it’s a book you’ll likely read in one sitting and then wonder in awe, how he did that. Just brilliant.

You can read my full review here.

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar was published by Gallic Books new imprint Aardvark Bureau, I’ve loved all the books they’ve brought out under this imprint and Salt Creek might just be the best so far. It’s an historical novel, inspired by the events of the authors family, who immigrated to Australia from Britain, portraying one family trying to find success in farming in a harsh, unforgiving environment of South Australia.

This too is a book that gets under your skin, especially as a woman reading about the lives of other women and children (particularly daughters) who are at the mercy of the dreams and aspirations of men, men who have little empathy for how disruptive and out of the comfort zone, this life might be for a woman, and ironically, on the contrary, how quickly young children adapt, how easy it is for them to integrate and thus cross societal taboos when it comes to mixing with indigenous populations. It’s a novel richly populated with colonial issues of the time, that make you wish at times, that it could have a fantasy element, where it all might end differently.

Read my full review of Salt Creek here.

The Complete Claudine by Colette (translated by Antonia White) was my One Summer Chunkster for 2017, a French classic, relatively little known outside France among general readers, but an author who should be more widely read, especially by young adult readers, as it charts the young Claudine’s journey through her last year in school, then her adventures in Paris with her father, through marriage and into maturity.

The book includes an excellent introduction by Judith Thurman, which I devoted a full post to, as she was such a fascinating woman, so far ahead of the era in which she lived, being such a free spirit, determined to experience love, to live her artistic desires and be financially independent, wild and adorable!

Below are the links to the introductory piece and the four books that are contained in this one volume.

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette by Leopold Reutlinger

A brilliant choice for my one fat summer book of the year.

The Complete Claudine – An Introduction

Claudine at School

Claudine in Paris

Claudine Married

Claudine and Annie

Two Old Women by Velma Wallis is a quirky fable-like book I read about and was intrigued by, recommended by a fellow reader. It is an Alaskan legend of betrayal, courage and survival, one which features, as the title suggests, two old women.

This is one of those stories, like Najaf Mazari’s excellent collection The Honey Thief, handed down in the oral tradition from generation to generation and now finally, thankfully, someone has captured it in print, so it can endure and be discovered by an even wider audience than originally intended.

I loved it because it teaches us the value of paying attention to our (women) elders, who possess much wisdom, something that if ignored wastes away and can even be forgotten by those who possess it. Let not our elders sit too quietly, lest they believe they have creaky bones and limp minds! Read my full review here.

My Story by Jo Malone is one of the six memoirs I read in 2017 and the one that was the most intriguing and personal to me, not because I’m a fan of her perfumes, but because I too have a love of the aromas of plants, flowers, resins, herbs and like to create remedies from essential oils and mix them with other plant oils to use therapeutically.

Knowing Jo Malone to be a high-end luxury brand, I had little idea that she came from such fascinating and humble beginnings and was a woman of such incredible perseverance. As I say below, I loved it!

“I absolutely loved this book, from it’s at times heartbreaking accounts of struggle in childhood, to the discovery of her passion, the development of her creativity and the strong work ethic that carried her forward, to finding the perfect mate and the journey they would go on together.”

Read my full review here.

Worthy Mentions

I could go on, but rather I will just say that I also really enjoyed the excellent debut novel Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo, Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller was an accomplished evocative novel, Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors was as exquisite, heart-breaking and lyrical as I expected after her brilliant What Lies Between Us I’d read in 2016.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso and The Story of the Cannibal Woman by Maryse Condé were a brilliant pair to read together, both placing a black Caribbean woman in South Africa while observing her relations with others around her, in a post-apartheid era. And personally I thought Zadie Smith’s depiction of female friendship in Swing Time easily rivalled Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, with her poignant insights and ever-present mastery of that sense of place and community, particularly in London. And though it didn’t reach the heights of Homegoing for me, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing also left an equally strong impression:

“how living through Chairman Mao’s and the subsequent communist regime imprinted its effect on people’s behaviours forcing them to change, leaving its trace in their DNA which was passed on to subsequent generations, who despite living far from where those events took place, continue to live with a feeling they can’t explain, but which affects the way they live, or half-live, as something crucial to living a fulfilled life is missing. “

So did any of these books make your top reads for 2017? If not, what was your one Outstanding Read of the Year?

Happy Reading!

Order now via BookDepository 

 

Claudine and Annie (Book 4) by Colette tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

After her abrupt departure from Paris back to her father’s home in Montigny, to the village home where she grew up, I was curious to know what was to come of our troubled Claudine and her errant husband.

It was something of a surprise to realise that in this fourth book, we are back in Paris, but in the home and seeing through the eyes of a weeping Annie who is the narrator of this fourth book in The Complete Claudine series.

Annie is weeping because her husband of four years Alain, whom she known since she a child and rarely left his side, is about to depart on a boat for Brazil, due to notice of a recent inheritance which necessitates his going there to relinquish assets, prize bulls or something or other!

“Before I had turned thirteen, he was already the master of my life. Such a handsome master! A red-haired boy, with a skin whiter than an egg and blue eyes that dazzled me.”

Annie writes in beautiful notebook he gave her for the purpose of keeping her ‘Diary of his journey’. She reads the list of duties he drew up for her, with his usual solicitous firmness, in which we see reference to Claudine among those she has permission to call on and with which frequency:

“Only one call on Claudine and her husband. Too fantastically unconventional a couple for a young woman to frequent while her husband is away on a long journey.”

However he is more than happy that she spend time with his sister Marthe, about whom he writes:

“My dear Annie will give me much pleasure if she frequently consults my sister Marthe and goes out with her. Marthe has a great deal of good sense and even common-sense under her rather unconventional exterior.”

Annie’s perception of herself at the beginning is defined only in terms of her husband, and her husband’s interests are solely related to himself and how he wishes her to be.

“I don’t know anything…except how to obey. He has taught me that and I achieve obedience as the sole task of my existence…assiduously…joyfully.”

She even goes so far to refer to herself, as if it were a term of endearment as his ‘little slave girl’, a term her husband often called her, of course he says it without malice, with only a faint contempt for my dark-skinned race.

This passive, domestic Annie, grieving for her master husband is something of a disappointment, after the more confident, sensuous and outspoken Claudine, but I’m thankful there is at least an acquaintance, which promises Annie’s potential awakening.

In fact, Annie’s awakening and change in perception begins, soon after, when her sister-in-law makes an unkind comment on a portrait of her brother, likening him to a cockerel, an image thereafter Annie finds hard to remove from her mind, it serves to lift a little the blinkers from her view of this husband.

Parisian friends depart for the summer, to a thermal spa for the cure, to the annual opera festival in Germany, and it is here we see glimpses of Claudine and her husband, showing her grown in confidence within her marriage, having negotiated a way to curb their potentially destructive impulses.

Marthe’s husband is a novelist she continuously pushes to write faster, to hurry deadlines to meet the many financial commitments required to keep their lifestyle in the lavish manner she is accustomed to.

While Annie is able to confide in Claudine, the behaviour of her sister-in-law is too much for her and she decides to return to Paris to consider and prepare for the return of her husband, to make sense of how his absence has changed her.

“To free myself from the obsession – was it really to free myself?…I jumped out of bed and ran to look for Alain’s latest photograph that I had hidden between two sachets.

Whatever had happened? Was I actually dreaming? I could not recognise that handsome young man there. Those harsh eyebrows, that arrogant stance like a cock! No, surely I was mistaken or perhaps the photographer had absurdly overdone the re-touching?

But no, that man there was my husband who is far away at sea. I trembled before his picture as I tremble before myself. A slavish creature, conscious of its chains – that is what he has made of me ..Shattered, I searched obstinately for one memory of our past as a young married couple that could delude me again, that could give me back the husband I believed I had. Nothing, I could find nothing – only my whipped child’s submissiveness, only his cold condescending smile.”

Colette and Willy

Claudine and Annie is very different to the first three books and while I don’t know why Colette turned to an alternative narrator and wrote about such a submissive character, it makes me ponder a corollary with her own life, as she was a free-spirited child, close to nature, who married young to an older man, who put her to work on these novels.

It is said she was no great writer initially, but that he turned her into one, locking her in her room until she turned out something, which he faithfully edited and published in his own name. After thirteen years of such an apprenticeship, she was undoubtedly disillusioned, divorced him and then fought to be recognised for the work she had produced. She was also determined not to be financially dependent on a man.

Claudine and Annie strikes me as a novel of resistance, but using a character that is almost unrecognisable, the alter-ego of Colette perhaps, that aspect of her that was suppressed and oppressed all those years, whose slow awakening allowed her to see that man before her for who he really was, her slave master.

I was asked which of the series had been my favourite and I find I am really unable to choose as they go together so well and should be read as one.

Clearly, as this review suggests, the first three have a particular harmony as they are all narrated by Claudine and more centred around her life and growth, this fourth book is less about Claudine and we see her only from afar, as a confidante of the troubled Annie, however it deserves its place as I suspect there is more to Annie than the character on the page, for me it was read with a question hanging over it in relation to the life Colette was living at the time.

I loved Claudine at School for her exuberant overconfidence and love of nature, Claudine in Paris for her naivety and prudence, realising there was much about life she had still to learn and Claudine Married for the melancholy of marriage, of the realisation of her false ideals and indulgence of strong emotional impulses.

And where to from here? Well, I will be continuing to read a few more women in translation during August, but will also be looking out for La Maison de Claudine (My Mother’s House), a memoir of Sido (her mother) and her own provincial childhood.

Further Reading

An Introduction to the Author, Colette

Book 1 – Claudine at School

Book 2 – Claudine in Paris

Book 3 – Claudine Married

Claudine Married (Book 3) by Colette tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

The impulsive Claudine, thinking a marriage of her own making and choice (not one chosen by her father or suggested by a man who had feelings for her that weren’t reciprocated) embarks on her marital journey which begins with fifteen months of a vagabond life, travelling to the annual opera Festival de Bayreuth, in Germany, to Switzerland and the south of France.

It might have been more enjoyable had she not had to endure the many introductions to numerous of her husband’s friends and their families, whom he made himself most agreeable to and put himself out for, something the young bride was unable to fully appreciate.

“As he explains, with impudent charm, it is not worthwhile doing violence to one’s nature to please one’s real friends, since one’s sure of them anyway…”

Claudine demands mercy and a fixed abode and thus this book of her marriage begins when they are reinstalled back in Paris, however Claudine still feels as though something is lacking. Before they returned she requested they visit Montigny and while unable to visit her childhood home (now rented), they visit the school and for a brief period she reconnects to something of her former self and notes one of the differences between herself and her husband in so doing.

“How willingly I look back over this recent past and dwell on it! But my husband lives in the future. This paradoxical man who is devoured by the terror of growing old, who studies himself minutely in looking-glasses and desperately notes every tiny wrinkle in the network at the corner of his eyes, is uneasy in the present and feverishly hurries Today on Tomorrow. I myself linger in the past, even if that past be only Yesterday, and I look back almost always with regret.”

This living in the past causes her even to forget that she now lives in this new apartment, coming out of her daydream, she readies herself to return home (to her father) only to realise she no longer lives there and ponders where her home really is.

“To go home! But where? Isn’t this my home, then? No, no, it isn’t, and that’s the whole source of my trouble. To go home? Where? Definitely not to Rue Jacob, where Papa has piled up mountains of papers on my bed. Not to Montigny, because neither the beloved house…not the School…”

Her husband decides to re-initiate his “at-home day”, a day when society friends can call to visit, Claudine isn’t too enthusiastic, but agrees as long as she doesn’t have to be the hostess. It is here she will meet Rézi, a woman she is both charmed by and fearful of, one whom she becomes attached to, visiting her daily, encouraged by her husband.

“Rézi… Her whole person gives off a scent of fern and iris, a respectable artless, rustic smell I find surprising and enchanting by contrast..”

Having achieved his objective in coming to Paris, to find his daughter a suitor, Claudine’s father announces he’s had enough of Paris and is returning to Montigny, and taking her cat Fanchette with him.

Claudine is drawn into the intoxicating intimacy of her friendship with Rézi, albeit somewhat bothered by the overly attentive encouragement of her husband.

“The violence of Rézi’s attraction, the vanity of my resistance, the sense that I am behaving ridiculously, all urge me to get it over and done with; to intoxicate myself with her till I have exhausted her charm. But, I resist! And I despise myself for my own stubborn obstinacy.”

Their relationship plays itself out, up to the denouement, when Claudine seeking refuge decides to return to Montigny, to the safety of her childhood home, the woods, her animals whose loyalty she is assured of, and the affection of the maid Mélie and her humble, absent-minded father.

She writes a letter to her husband, the last pages arrive and we are on to the next book, in English entitled Claudine and Annie, in French Claudine s’en va, meaning Claudine Leaves!

Further Reading:

An Introduction to Colette

Book 1 – Claudine at School

Book 2 – Claudine in Paris

Book 4 – Claudine and Annie (to come)…

Claudine in Paris (Book 2) by Colette tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

After years of freedom in her beloved countryside of Montigny, having been Queen of her domain and revered in school, Claudine weakens on arrival in Paris, forcibly confined to the rooms within their new home in illness. She wonders what has happened to her, hardly recognising herself.

Her father assumes his previous habits, embarking on his latest project, confined to his library most days, employing an assistant to help him, a young man who appears to have a crush on Claudine.

Seeking company outside the home, Claudine asks after her father’s sister.

“Why haven’t we seen my aunt yet? Haven’t you written to her? Haven’t you been to see her?”

Papa, with the condescension one displays to mad people, asked me gently, with a clear eye and a soothing voice:

“Which aunt, darling?”

Accustomed to his absent-mindedness, I made him grasp that I was actually talking about his sister.

Thereupon he exclaimed, full of admiration:

“You think of everything! Ten thousand herds of swine! Dear old girl, how pleased she’ll be to know we are in Paris.” He added, his face clouding: “She’ll hook on to me like a damn’ leech.”

She is delighted to finally meet her Aunt and to discover Marcel, the young man Claudine’s age who she is guardian to, in fact Marcel is Claudine’s nephew, sent to live with his grandmother after the premature death of his mother.

If Claudine at School represents the unfettered, exuberant joys of teenage freedom, of the innocent and immature love between friends and the cruel indulgences of playful spite, Claudine in Paris is the slap in the face of regarding an approaching adult, urban world, one where the streets are inhabited by hidden dangers, the skies are more gloomy, people are not what they seem, even old friends from school become unrecognisable when the city and her frustrated inhabitants get their clutch onto the innocent.

Claudine wants to embrace it all with the same fervour she did her old school, but discovers her own prudence, when confronted with the reality of entering adulthood.

“There I was, making myself out completely sophisticated and disillusioned and shouting from the rooftops ‘Ha, ha! you can’t teach me anything. Ha, ha! I read everything! And I understand everything even though I am only seventeen.’ Precisely. And when it comes to a gentleman pinching my behind in the street or a little friend living what I’m in the habit of reading about, I’m knocked sideways. I lay about me with my umbrella or else I flee from vice with a noble gesture. In your heart of hearts, Claudine, you’re nothing but a common everyday decent girl. How Marcel would despise me if he knew that!”

Marcel’s father, whom she calls Uncle Renaud, introduces her to the theatre, she gets outfitted with a more appropriate wardrobe for a social life in Paris, she begins to delight in her new surroundings, although a melancholy often arises when she thinks of her life in the countryside, an affliction she thinks might be resolved by finding the right relationship.

“The lilies-of-the-valley on the chimney-piece intoxicated me and gave me a migraine. What was the matter with me? My unhappiness over Luce, yes, but something else too – my heart was aching with homesickness. I felt as ridiculous as that sentimental engraving hanging on the wall of Mademoiselle’s drawing-room Mignon regretting her fatherland. And I thought I was cured of so many things and had lost so many of my illusions! Alas, my mind kept going back to Montigny.”

She even misses her homework and having to explain those mindless subjects she used to abhor, such as ‘Idleness is the mother of all vices,’ one she has had the misfortune to come to understand better .

A marriage proposal awakens her from her misery, an idea forms in her mind and before we know it, the page has turned and we are into Claudine Married!

Further Reading:

An Introduction to Colette

Book 1 – Claudine at School

Book 3 – Claudine Married (to come)

The Complete Claudine, by Colette – An Introduction by Judith Thurman tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

Every summer I choose to read one chunkster, a big fat book, and this year knowing August would be the month that many others are reading books by women in translation, I decided to combine the two things and so chose to read a book translated from French to English, a classic, by the renowned author and personality Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, referred to by her surname and pen name Colette.

The book I chose The Complete Claudine, is in fact four books combined in one volume, however I’ve written them up separately, including this first post, which is an introduction to the extraordinary personality behind the writer.

Introducing Colette

The book begins with an intriguing introduction by Judith Thurman, which I found helpful as I really knew little about Colette which she used as her writing pen-name.

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette by Leopold Reutlinger

She was a colourful, eccentric, driven character, a woman way ahead of her time, who wanted it all and seems to have pretty much lived her life, pursuing that goal, ignoring societal stereotypes and rejecting all labels about who, what and where a woman’s place should be,  attracting as many admiring fans as scathing critics. She detested labels, and while her attitude may be thought of as feminist, she was far from abiding by political correctness or aligning herself with any kind of women’s group.

“Me, a feminist?” she scoffed in a 1910 interview. “I’ll tell you what the suffragettes deserve: the whip and the harem.” She saw no contradiction between supporting conservative positions and living her life as an “erotic militant” in revolt against them. Better worlds and just rewards were of no more consequence to her than the prospect of an afterlife. – Judith Thurman, Introduction

She was born in the Burgundy village of Saint-Saveur-en- Puisaye on January 28, 1873, a countryside upbringing that informs the autobiographical Claudine at School; the first volume in this book. Her own school years were likely more conservative that those expressed in her novel, which was influenced by her husband Willy, the pen name she would use when these books were first published, as it was he who introduced her to avant-garde intellectual and artistic circles while engaging in sexual affairs and encouraging her to do the same. It was he who suggested the idea of  “the secondary myth of Sappho…the girls’ school or convent ruled by a seductive female teacher” (Ladimer, p. 53)

Her mother, “Mme Colette – the splendid earth mother known to Colette’s readers as Sido” came from a family of mixed African and Creole descent from the colonies (Martinique) and:

had boundless ambitions for her youngest daughter and “second self,” Gabrielle, and these never included domestic – or sentimental – drudgery. Sido called marriage, only half-ironically, a “heinous crime,” and would rejoice in Colette’s liaison from 1905 to 1911 with a cultivated and melancholy lesbian transvestite (transgender man), the Marquise de Morny, largely because “Missy’s” generosity and solicitude were so wholesome for Colette’s fiction. Nor was Sido’s “precious jewel,” childless until forty, ever encouraged by her mother to procreate.

She published nearly 80 volumes of fiction, memoir, drama, essays, criticism, and reportage, Gigi the best known to readers in the English language, though unfortunately so according to Judith Thurman as its promise of happiness so misrepresents Colette’s view of love.

The character Claudine was Colette’s invention of the century’s first teenage girl, one who was rebellious, secretive, erotically restless and disturbed, free-spirited and determined to carve her own path. Her rebellion was against convention not family, she had free rein at home, her single parent father poring over his slug manuscript left her to her own devices, though somewhat constrained by the maid who took care of her basic needs.

 

“It is not a bad thing that children

should occasionally, and politely,

put parents in their place.” Colette

Colette married at twenty(1893) and moved to Paris, separating from Willy in 1906 though with no access to royalties for her books as she had penned them in his name, leading her to a stage career in the music halls of Paris, her experience of that way of life informing her novel The Vagabond (1910).

“a novel that anticipates by ninety years, the contemporary fashion for wry, first-person narratives by single, thirty something career women. Its heroine examines her addictions to men with amused detachment, and flirts, alternately, with abstinence and temptation. Is there love without complete submission and loss of identity? Is freedom really worth the loneliness that pays for it? These are Colette’s abiding questions.”

Her move to Paris heralded the beginning of a public personality, as she would go on to become one of the most notorious and exuberant personalities of fin-de-siècle Paris. Her subsequent divorce and the years working on the stage exposed her to a poverty consciousness she’d not until then experienced and induced in her a steely determination to be independent and earn her own living at all times. After his death, she sued to have his name removed from her earlier books.

“The frugality of Virginia Woolf’s five hundred a year and a room of one’s own had as much allure for her as the ideals of Woolf’s feminism, which is to say, none at all. Colette’s models were never the gentlewomen of letters living on their allowances but the courtesans and artistes she had frequented in her youth, whose notion of a bottom line was fifty thousand a year and a villa of one’s own – with a big garden, a great chef, and a pretty boy.”

She would have a child (a daughter) at forty, though her maternal instinct never developed sufficiently for her to spend much time in the role of mother, allowing her to be raised by a nanny, though she marry the baby’s father Baron Henry de Jouvenel, an influential, flamboyant political journalist in Paris.

Below is a summary of Lessons We Can Learn From Colette, written by Holly Isard on the anniversary of her death, 3 August, do click on the link to read the lessons, they provide an interesting insight into the individualist character Colette was and lived according to. Each lesson has a wonderful anecdote connected to it.

Famous for her free spirit as much her style of writing, Colette was a chronicler of female existence, a precursory feminist who pushed against the bounds of sexuality for women in Paris. To the abhorrence of Parisian society, Colette experimented with androgyny on and off stage. She also frequented the spaces where marginal sexualities were beginning to find some visibility, in the cabarets and pantomimes. Even 142 years after her birth, Colette remains an icon and an indisputably formidable woman. Here, we consider five key lessons we can learn from the great lady herself.

1. Continue on in the face of controversy 

2. Stick with your gut instinct

3. Don’t underestimate a woman’s influence 

4. “Perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.”

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