Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Best of the Year of the Dog



Wall Clock, bar, Cluj-Napoca, Romania

Happy… Chinese new year? We’re already well into February, so I might as well use that as an excuse for my tardiness in putting up this end-of-year post. These annual exercises, alas, seem increasingly to be turning into poor stand-ins for the whole concept of blogging. Nevertheless, I had a great year of reading and will pass along some highlights, presented here without further ado except to note that names of translator(s), as appropriate, are provided in parentheses. 

Les Nuits de Sertão, by João Guimarães Rosa (J.-J. Villiard)
I was transfixed by this French translation of Buriti, the last of the seven novels that make up Brazilian writer João Guimarães Rosa’s great cycle of novels, Corpo de Baile, which are set in various areas of the vast sertão of Brazil’s interior and can be read in any order. I won’t discuss Buriti at length here as I am determined to write a more detailed post on it, but suffice to say that I reveled in this return to Guimarães Rosa: his constantly inventive prose, which seems to grow organically like some wild, incredibly ornate plant; his rich evocations of the natural world and the cultures of the sertão; his complex explorations of human relations; and his grand, singular vision. Guimarães Rosa sets his novel around a remote fazenda where a worldly-wise woman from the urban coast, abandoned by her faithless husband, has been brought to live with her husband’s father and family. A giant buriti palm serves as a silent, imposing sentinel around which the action dances. Having now read four of the seven novels of Corpo de Baile in French (it hasn't been translated into English), I'm coming around to a view that the cycle may be an even greater achievement than the author’s celebrated Grande Sertão Veredas (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands).

Middlemarch, by George Eliot
The New Yorker magazine once featured an anecdote describing someone coming to the end of George Eliot’s Middlemarch while riding  on a public bus and being confronted by another passenger who exclaimed through frustrated tears, “You’re actually going to finish it, aren’t you!” Far from finding completion of Middlemarch the hard-won accomplishment it’s sometimes rumored to be, I reveled in Eliot’s language and almost fairy-tale like framing of her novel, and laughed aloud at her fine-grained sense of humor as she tracks the changing fortunes and enlarging capacities of her marvelous creation, Dorothea Brooke. Eliot examines the position of women and queries the institution of marriage while simultaneously creating a catalog, almost a sophisticated zibaldone, of aspects of English provincial life. This first reading seemed a mere casual introduction; I look forward to a return visit.

Kolymsky Heights, by Lionel Davidson
Thanks to Dorian of Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau, I read five books last year written by this British writer previously unknown to me but whose work I am now determined to read in its entirety. Kolymsky Heights was by far the best of the five and almost certainly the most purely enjoyable escapist reading pleasure of the year, but I greatly enjoyed Davidson’s other books too (Making Good AgainThe Night of WencelasThe Rose of Tibet and his imaginative young adult fantasy novel Under Plum Lake). Kolymsky Heights, Davidson’s final work, appeared after nearly a dozen years of silence from the writer. The pay-off for that wait is a genuinely exciting, smart spy thriller that unfolds across the frozen landscapes of eastern Siberia and features the Chukchi people of the region. And since I just happened to have another book about the region sitting on the shelf unread, Chukchi writer Yuri Rytkheu’s fascinating novel A Dream in Polar Fog, I hauled it down and read that too. This made for a terrific pairing of the kind I’d only once before experienced: with Guimaraes Rosa’s The Devil to Pay in the Backlands and Euclides da Cunha’s Backlands: The Canudos Campaign. Maybe someone oughta write a blog post about great book pairings like this.

The Children’s Crusade, by Marcel Schwob (Kit Schluter)
I turn now to a book of only 50 or so pages. I took up several of Marcel Schwob’s works in 2018, including his Imaginary Lives in both the original French and in an outstanding new translation by Chris Clarke, as well as some of his essays on poet François Villon. But the Schwob that really wowed me was his concentrated, slim book The Children’s Crusade, in which the author employs the fictional portraiture he exhibited in Imaginary Lives to create characters peopling the route taken towards the Middle East by children enlisted in one of the medieval crusades. Schwob blends innocence and depravity to forge a dramatic, rich and disturbing prose poem.

The Sioux, by Irene Handl
A similar mix of innocence and cruelty appears in British character actress Irene Handl’s nearly uncharacterizable novel The Sioux, which I reviewed here. I read Handl’s campy, Southern Gothic tale (and its sequel, The Gold-Tipped Pfitzer) open-mouthed, not quite believing what I’d stumbled upon. Handl’s funny/not-funny, part English/part French tale of the sordid complexities of a filthy rich French family who shuttle between Paris and New Orleans dragging about their leukemia-stricken adolescent dauphin provided one of the more insolite reading experiences I’ve had in years, a work to  shelve next to Terry Andrew’s The Story of Harold, two smart, singular novels that cut sharply through American niceties and made me laugh and cry in nearly equal measure. 

The Werewolf of Paris, by Guy Endore
Remarkably, The Sioux was not the only novel I read in 2018 written in Franglish, as Endore’s 1933 novel mélanges a lot of Français avec his Anglais, including a number of words completely new to me. Also new to me was the book’s author, an American communist who worked in Hollywood and later became an activist known for his successful work to free 17 Mexican-American youths falsely accused of a crime. If asked to rank the works in which some of the Famous Monsters of Filmland got their start, I’d be obliged to put Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at the top, but Endore’s weirdly entertaining, sometimes genuinely chilling romp might well edge out Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to take second place. Told in a conversational tone by an engaging, sometimes erratic narrator, The Werewolf of Paris unfolds against the backdrop of the Paris Commune and features some terrific evocations of the Commune’s chaos. 

The Belly of Paris, by Emile Zola (Brian Nelson)
I’d been attacked by Endore’s werewolf on my way to a group read of The Belly of Paris, and so only got to Zola’s novel later. But once I did, I gorged myself on his indelible portrayal of late 19th century life in and around Les Halles, today a commercial shopping zone utterly void of character but for more than a century the great food market of the city. What delicious fun, from start to finish! Zola serves up catalog after catalog of the market’s gastronomical offerings with indulgence and delirium and, in a few scenes, a decadence that almost certainly inspired Raymond Roussel’s surreal, over-the-top creations. Amid the novel’s dazzling showiness one almost forgets that there’s an actual plot.

The Fortunes of War, by Olivia Manning
Olivia Manning’s massive The Fortunes of War is another work I read thanks to Dorian, who kindly invited me to join him in reading and writing about The Levant Trilogy, the second half of this sprawling work that stretches across six novels and almost as many countries. The story follows English teacher Guy Pringle, his intrepid young wife Harriet, and a coterie of Brits and others as they are pursued from Bucharest to Athens to Cairo by the darkening, encroaching events of World War II. I had a blast reading these books and will be living with Manning’s memorable characters for a long time.

A View of the Harbour, Elizabeth Taylor
Taylor’s novel is a departure from the other works I’ve read by her, all set in London. Here Taylor appears deliberately to evoke Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, but I have not been able to tease out whether she intended homage, a realist reaction against Woolf’s experimentalism, or a bit of both. I’m going to go with the last. Like Woolf’s novel, Taylor’s focuses on a family and the people around them in a small seaside town. It’s a place remote in time and space, where the enforced intimacy of small town life generates its own hidden yearnings and secrets. A visiting painter, Bertram Hemingway, substitutes here for Lily Briscoe, as he’s engaged in painting a view of the harbor from the novel’s opening until at the end he achieves his own vision (and Taylor hers). Taylor’s characteristic lightness of touch and tender humor are knitted with an unsparing honesty as her own lighthouse beam illuminates her characters in a work quite a bit darker than its airy seaside setting might suggest. Jacqui over at the Jacquiwine blog has been burning through Taylor's corpus of work, and also wrote about A View of the Harbour. 

Robertino, L’Apprenti de le Corbusier, by Louise Doutreligne
This creative-non-fiction “récit” by French author Doutreligne takes on an unusual subject: the sponsorship by a great artist of a young person, in this case the architect Le Corbusier’s “adoption,” encouraged by his wife Yvonne, of Roberto (Robertino) Rebutato, a 12-year-old who worked in the humble seaside restaurant that furnished meals during Le Corbusier and his wife’s stays at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. It’s a beautifully-told story of mentorship, commitment and attentiveness, of the impact opportunity and a great mentor can have on a young life, particularly since young Rebutato developed into a well-known architect in his own right. The book has been adapted into an acclaimed theatre piece by Doutreligne and her partner, Jean-Luc Paliès.


Le Croissant et la perle, by Dominque Fernandez
This terrific volume takes first prize in this year's non-fiction category. French art historian Fernandez provides an illustrated overview of the baroque from Naples to St. Petersburg. As a guide to the Baroque, Fernandez is witty, smart, knowledgeable and full of gems of observation, such as his view of Viennese pastries as a delectable example of the Baroque continuing into the present day. All required in the way of confirmation is to turn one’s gaze from Graban’s Plague Column in the center of Vienna to the pillar of cream on one’s own dessert plate.

Cappella Carafa, Rome

Italian Literature
I realize I’ve yet to mention any Italians, even though Italian literature remained a major focus of my reading this past year. I read 14 Italian works to completion, plus a few others concerning Italy. Favorites this year included Sicilian writer Gaettano Savatteri’s La Conjuration des loquaces (Claude Galli), the title here given in French since that’s the language in which I read it - another novel unavailable in English translation. I fully shared the enthusiasm of reader JLS, who’d kindly recommended the book. Leonardo Sciascia’s The Moro Affair (Sacha Rabinovitch) remained one of the few books I had not yet read from this great writer, also Sicilian, so I was pleased finally to get to it. Italian politician Aldo Moro had been a fixture in my head since my first trip to Rome, when I had to pass by the memorial of his 1978 assassination twice daily to get to and from my hosts, who lived just down the street. This short work, an extended essay more like a novel, is quintessential Sciascia: unsentimental, rigorously methodical, ferociously moral. He dissects Moro’s kidnapping by the Red Brigades during Italy’s Years of Lead, carefully examining and weighing the response of negotiators and the failure of the government, the press and all of Italy to liberate Moro. The result is little less than a vivisection of the state of Italy, a careful picking apart of the inept arguments and the abdication of democratic principles that led to Moro’s killing, and also a sharp rebuke to expedient and facile arguments that one should never negotiate with terrorists. I read two works by Swiss/Italian writer Fleur Jaeggy, including her own inventive take on Marcel Schwob, These Possible Lives (Minna Zelman) and Sweet Days of Discipline (Tim Parks), an intimate novel of female friendship, alienation and the exercise of authority in a Swiss boarding school. I found Domenico Starnone’s Trick (Jhumpa Lahiri) a delight, another great literary pairing since it engages deeply with Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner” (I had little enthusiasm, however, for Ties, another of Starnone’s works). I’ve seldom felt more ambivalent about a novel than I did about Luigi Malerba’s jolie-laide, slightly dated tale The Serpent (William Weaver), with its memorable narrator, an unreliable madman/cannibal whose observations are as imaginative as his actions are execrable. I loved Pietro Chiara’s Le 28 Octobre (Marie-Françoise Balzan), a spry, wry, witty novella with echoes of Fellini’s Amarcord and which itself might make a great short film if for no other reason than to capture its grand, cinematic denouement, a mocking of Mussolini’s pomp and fascism on the order of Bernini’s famous elephant ostentatiously presenting its derrière to the seat of the Papal Inquisition in Rome. 


Bookstore, Brașov, Romania


Honorable mentions go to Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the ArchbishopBrian Merriman’s The Midnight Court, a bawdy, free-wheeling 17thcentury poem translated from the Gaellic into modern English by acclaimed contemporary poet Ciaran Carson; J. L. Carr’s concentrated, elliptical novella A Month in the Country, which touches obliquely on the devastation of WWI; Jules Verne’s atmospheric South American work Magellania (Benjamin Ivry), which had me poring over maps of Patagonia; a non-fiction trilogy of essays about art and nature in Nevada’s Great Basin, The Void, the Grid and the Sign, by William Fox, whose book I’m happy to add to my list of great works about the desert; a reread of Miklós Bánffy’s They Were Counted (Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen) while on a visit to Transylvania that included a stop at the Bánffy family’s ruined castle outside of Cluj-Napoca; and Javier Marías’ Berta Isla (Margaret Jull Costa), a work in which a character’s job consumes his personal life and thus seemed a little too relatable. 

Mystery Hotelby Louisa Mae Johnston
Finally, I wish to acknowledge the passing of my dear friend Louisa last spring just before her 92nd birthday and highlight her delightful children’s novel, Mystery Hotel, which I finally got around to reading last year. In addition to a long career in editing, Louisa had also been an author in her own right. Besides writing several mysteries and romances while in her eighties, she also put out a few books of children’s literature, including Mystery Hotel (1964), which is set in a Chicago hotel and involves a jewel theft. There are also cookies. The book beautifully conveys Johnston’s warmth, generosity and playful wit, as well as her love of all things French; she was learning the language in her final years.

Inside book cover, Mystery Hotel

Many thanks to everyone who stopped by seraillon in 2018, and happy reading to all in 2019  - and all through the Year of the Pig. 




Monday, January 28, 2019

"A survivor of myself" - Luce d'Eramo's Deviation




If Luce d’Eramo’s Deviation (1979, first English translation 2018 by Anne Milano Appel; publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux) proved difficult enough to read, it’s been even more tough to write about. This is not your typical Holocaust book, if any such work could be described as typical. D’Eramo begins her story literally in the shit, with a matter-of-fact description of a Dachau work crew assigned to clean out Munich’s sewers and the toilets in factories and public buildings. 

But the worst was when they brought us in to rural villages to empty the cesspools: out there, there are no sewer pipes, When  the black holes fill up you have to empty them with buckets and eventually climb in yourself. Only then did they give us masks and rubber boots, and we worked covered in shit until we finished.

A lot of people got sick and there were some who died from toxicity. 

The tone here - flat, direct, unemotional, notably understated – seems off-kilter, as though d’Eramo might have been writing about household chores: ”Cleaning out sewers is a more varied job than it may appear at first: there are assorted chores involved.” 

This is hardly the only time that d’Eramo will use understatement in a forceful way, nor is it the only time the reader will be confronted with bodily wastes in Deviation, a narrative of “shit, urine and gangrene” that places a heavy emphasis on the corporality of experience, of the factuality of the human body faced with monstrous indignities. At the same time, the sang-froid with which d’Eramo seems to weigh her terrible experiences extends throughout Deviation’s 350 pages, a troubling work of searching retrospection written across a quarter century, from 1953 to 1977. Deviation’s four parts, each focused on a distinct period of d’Eramo’s war-time and post-war life, read like memoir or a collection of autobiographical writings, with all but one written in first person (the other cleverly employs third person to emphasize how d’Eramo is perceived by others). That the book is labeled a novel and referred to as such its author is a confounding ascription to which I’ll return later. 

The author herself seems like someone out of a fiction: the 18-year-old daughter of an official in the Fascist puppet government of Salò, herself a Fascist, whose fealty to the cause leads her to travel to Germany in the winter of 1944 out of a refusal to believe the rumors of deportations and atrocities in German camps. Arriving as a volunteer worker in the Westerners’ section of alagerat the vast IG Farben facility outside of Frankfurt, d’Eramo comes face-to-face with  the wretched realities of camp life and begins to fight against Nazi oppression as well as other internees’ wariness, given her credentials as a Fascist, an intellectual, a member of a privileged economic class and possibly even an informer. Adept at languages (she notes her fluency in Italian, French, German and Russian; a knowledge of Latin and Greek; and conversant in a host of other languages), d’Eramo becomes a conduit for linking the displaced diaspora of Europe she encounters wherever she happens to be, a skill that earns her a role in the unsuccessful strike she helps organize at IG Farben. Although Deviation’s curious structure mixes up chronology (one of multiple resonances of the book’s title), the reader can loosely piece together a path from the author’s time at IG Farben to her departure, possible return to Italy and subsequent capture by the Gestapo, a chain of events that takes her through 12 weeks in Dachau, from which makes a daring escape during an air raid then   finds her way to a transit camp. She eventually lands in Mainz, where on February 27, 1945, while helping dig out survivors in a building bombed by the Allies, she is crushed by a falling wall, her spine and pelvis shattered, her forehead split, the injuries to her back so severe that her lungs can be seen through her gaping wounds. The cataclysm forced upon d’Eramo by her decimated body entwines with that imposed by the Nazis to form the subject of Deviation’s challenging narrative. 

Taken strictly as a work about the Nazis, Deviation gives further evidence of the necessity of such works to help shine light into every corner of that history, to flesh out details. I learned, for example, of the differences between the various camps set up by the Nazis:

There are five types; in addition to the transit camps for everybody (Durchgangslager), there are the camps for free workers where volunteers are sent (Freiarbeitzlager); camps for prisoners of war (Kriegsgefangenenlager); labor camps (Arbeitslager), where those deported following a roundup are interned along with hostages, the families of political prisoners, partisans, and foreign deserters; and finally there are the concentration camps (Konzentrationslager), which hold the victims of the racial purges – namely, Jews – as well as political suspects, saboteurs, illegal prostitutes, pimps and lesbians, common criminals, thieves, murderers, fences, rapists, and the list goes on, “which is not to mention the so-called final solution camps, you get me? Annihilation.” 

D’Eramo also reveals a corner of Holocaust history new to me concerning those who volunteered to work in German factories, and delves into the enforced stratification of various ethnic and national groups as well as the varying conditions both between and within the camps. In contrast to the Westerners wing of the work camp, for instance, Russians and Eastern Europeans suffered under dramatically different conditions with regard to hygiene, overcrowding and the quantity and quality of food rations. D’Eramo expresses astonishment that no one has yet written about the presence of some three million escapees circulating in the Third Reich, but unfortunately fails to fill in this story. She has an eye for catching memorable detail: the SS tattoos found in the armpits of the unit’s members; the bizarre apparel among some refugees who picked through ruined homes of the wealthy; a “lake of suicides,” so named because of the many young women who drowned themselves rather than face the shame of having gone with Nazis; and particular indignities she suffered herself, such as burns she received on her chest and hands from being assigned to carry blocks of frozen sulfuric acid. There are grim descriptions more common to such works, of the journey to Dachau in a cattle car, and a memorable account of lice in the Dachau barracks:

Most our time, however, is spent at the camp, where we pass the long hours of the day killing body lice.
            We strip and, by the feeble light that filters through the windowpanes, the grayish light from the yard, we search through our clothes, all of us women in the corner, hunting for those repulsive insects; we ball them up between our fingers like children do boogers, and crush them. I have a smooth rock I use for the purpose.
            Some are very swollen, gray with pale streaks, their step wobbly from their big bellies; others have dark spots, some intensely brown; the ugliest, the most sprightly, splatter like worms. There, in the cobwebs of light in the mud-colored shadows of the large room, those multipedes clinging to the fabric of our clothing and blankets gleam like bronze.
            …I’ve also discovered that body lice keep you warm. 

Not all of d’Eramo’s commentary is descriptive; she engages philosophically with the “why” of the Holocaust, the reasons people submitted, how they acted with cruelty out of a sense of being automatons or simply reacted without caring at whose expense. She rages against “the social circumstances that allow some people to pass through war unscathed” and at economic discrimination, which she identifies as the basis for racial discrimination. She comes to see the Nazis as having nothing behind their masks of authority and intentional cultivation of a fear so great that “even our morale is in their hands,” and initially tests her theory on the camp’s German Shepherds by learning how to tranquilize the dogs by mastering her own fear. 

The second section of Deviation focuses on d’Eramo’s catastrophic injury and long, slow return from what her doctors assume will be certain death. A part of this section entitled “As Long as the Head Lives” refers to d’Eramo’s having been left paralyzed by her accident. Emerging at last into an ability to communicate with others, d’Eramo painfully adapts to her new reality, becoming a formidable force despite and due to her infirmities. In one hospital, she and a 16-year-old Polish orphan set up a “Good Mood Room,” a black market operation accepting cash, food and alcohol for other patients to gain admission to parties and to get advice, comfort or a boost of encouragement. She discovers a sustaining religious faith, but a harsh one in which God is “perfect, owing to the detachment that left Him objective; that is, owing to his indifference,” and only half-jokingly chastises him as “Dieu Nazi!” for his having taken her desire for a sacrifice too literally, wondering whether “we might one day find out that God is paralytic.” Such musings are often delivered with a dirt-dry humor tinged with bitterness, but following a failed suicide attempt, d’Eramo acquiesces to a lifeforce so engrained in the body that her tissues appear to be regenerating as though themselves engaged in activism. We learn later that she earns a doctorate in philosophy, marries, has a son, and commences a writing career encouraged by the likes of Alberto Moravia, Elio Vittorini and Ignazio Silone.

Either of d’Eramo’s traumatic confrontations - with Nazism and with her destroyed body - could have made for an independent, powerful narrative, but to these d’Eramo adds an unexpected third that makes Deviation’s difficulty not simply one of subject matter. The last section of the book, from which the novel takes its title, details a ruthless self-examination, a scouring of ideas and presumptions in d’Eramo’s “thirst for the depths” to get at the veracity of her own experience. She battles against what her friend Vittorini calls “the oppression of memory,” an effort to tease out fact from fiction, exclaiming “To hell with literature” and making determined attempts not to allow her undependable memory or the desire to whitewash her own actions get in the way of arriving at the truth. 

One might query the need for such justification given the wrenching and wretched trials through which d’Eramo passes, but her questions are hardly idle: behind her she leaves a trail of others who did not get out, of those who, lacking her intellectual aptitude, ferocity, and access to resources of privilege - and/or simply because of the deliberate, capricious and arbitrary cruelties created by the Nazis and occasioned by war - ended up raped, tortured, shot, gassed. The “literature” that d’Eramo seeks to tamp down keeps interfering, presumably one reason she refers to Deviation as a “novel.” Beset by traumas external and internal, her struggles with memories repressed and fractured from psychological and physical pain as well as by a cascade of drugs to which she becomes addicted. Trying to avoid her own “swerves” and “obstinacies” and discover which among her memories actually occurred, d’Eramo seeks all the while to find some conviction that she did right rather than profit from the privilege granted to her by politics and class, which occasionally intervene behind the scenes to rescue her from lethal punishment. She also employs the word “deviation” to refer to a specific memory she claims to have repressed, that surrounding her return to Italy between the IG Farben lagerand her arrest and incarceration in Dachau.

D'Eramo’s wrestling eventually settles into a truce between warring sides of herself.  

It seems incredible but what saved me from the silence of the rationality I was striving for – so that I finally said to myself , if I have to be my own Gestapo, I give up – in short, what unexpectedly saved me (an unhoped-for intervention) was the literary compartment of my brain.
            “What are you complaining about?” it asked me, as it usually does, telepathically, to soothe me. “If things are really as you fear, from a compositional point of view you can only rejoice: you don't have to understand the repression – your search fails, and that’s that. You even have a nice conclusion: you reveal to the reader that the story of your deviation was a dream in which your imagination enacted one of the most tenacious (and vain) aspirations of all mortals, the eternal human dream of correcting the past

Almost needless to say, though, the “nice conclusion” is not the end of d’Eramo’s restless efforts with regard to uncovering memory. 

This constant revising of the past, however, makes d’Eramo’s story, for all of its striking indignation and vivid testimonial contributions to grasping the Holocaust, a problematic narrative. What is one to believe from “a woman who’s always told herself imaginary stories,” as d’Eramo calls herself, and who expresses an existential need “for things not to have gone any differently”? What to make of omissions and elisions with regard to her relationship with her family, or with such a relentless focus on d’Eramo’s own internal struggles with memory? It’s small wonder that Deviation is such a difficult narrative. Towards the end of the book, d’Eramo finds strips of paper, cut-up letters she wrote back to her family revealing the conditions of the lager, which she takes as concrete evidence of the factuality of her experiences and of her having acted in good faith with regard to her democratic ideals and commitment to life. But even this evidence – almost certainly a deliberate literary allusion to Gabriel D’Annunzio’s writing of his poem “Nocturne” on strips of paper following his own near-death accident and lengthy, bed-ridden recovery - raises questions for the reader as to what is and isn’t fiction here. Given the enormity of suffering within Deviation's pages, perhaps that's irrelevant.

Deviation became a bestseller when it appeared in Italy, and I wondered whether some of its appeal might have been in the tortured manner with which d’Eramo confronts her own history, a soul-searching no doubt common (albeit probably to a less extreme degree) among millions of Italians who subscribed to Fascism. It would obviously be outrageously facile for a reader of today - at a distance of 75 years, good health, and freedom from the horrors allowed by the political structures of Nazism - to second guess what he or she might have done in d’Eramo’s grim circumstances. But I don’t think I’ve ever read a Holocaust narrative so knotted, so deviant in the multiple positive and negative resonances of the word, or that has left me so exhausted by its ruminations. Deviation, like “Nocturne,” is undoubtedly a remarkable text, a work to appreciate for the fierce determination and intelligence of its author, for its poetic phrasing and challenging construction, its insights and testimonials to a tale that must be told. It is also a book I’m rather relieved to be done with. 


I read Deviation along with Dorian Stuber of the Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau blog


Luce d'Eramo

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

“A ride on les cochons hygèniques” – Irene Handl’s The Sioux





Little did I suspect when I stumbled upon The Sioux in the fiction section of a second-hand bookshop that lurking beneath its deceptive title I’d find a neglected masterpiece of high camp Southern Gothic - one written by, no less, a British character actress famous for being typecast as a humble charwoman. Irene Handl’s 1965 work is almost undoubtedly the sort of book one should simply read and let be read. But I’m unable to contain my… my what? Enthusiasm? Bewilderment? Awe? Horror? Bouche-bée-edness? Handl’s ferocious, sui generis novel quite nearly gave me the screaming habdabs. 

The Sioux has next to nothing to do with Native Americans. The title refers to the name the Benoirs apply to their own outré tribe: an aristocratic French family exiled to the Antilles and then to Louisiana around the time of the Revolution, and whose current generations shuttle between opulent homes in and around Paris and New Orleans. The novel opens with a phone call between Marguerite Benoir (a.k.a. Mimi, a.k.a Mims, a.k.a. the Governor of Alcatraz) and her beloved eldest brother, the family head Armand (a.k.a. Benoir, a.k.a. Herman), who, at his house outside Paris, has been tending to Marguerite’s son George-Marie while Marguerite and her new husband, British banker Vincent Castleton, honeymoon their way around the world. The conversation centers on young George-Marie, whom Armand plans to accompany on the next boat to New Orleans to reunite him with his mother and new papa-chéri. Other characters rounding out the “general bashi bazoukerie” of this filthy rich troupe include Armand’s mousey wife Marie, his spoiled young adult son Bienville (a.k.a. Viv), whose marriage of convenience to an Elaine in France is impending, and a whole host of servants, most of whom appear to be descended from the slaves owned by Benoir ancestors before the Late Unpleasantness. Oh, and there’s a monkey, Ouistiti, who hangs about on Armand’s shoulder, stealing food and baring his teeth at just about everyone. 

The Sioux themselves are scarcely more civilized. They carp and snipe at one another, throw their weight and privilege around to get what they want, castigate the servants, use the word “chic” a lot, display bursts of violence and an evident regret over the demise of slavery, and live “in a perpetual state of je m’en-foutism… under the impression that they are still living in pre-secession and are happy to spend the rest of their lives up to the eyebrows in spanish moss.” Few books I’ve read contain so much sheer nastiness; there’s almost no difference this family hasn’t explored in its own way, from incest to a capacity for outrageous venality to a disdain for those “Apaches” outside the tribe (including the newest interloper, Castleton). At 26, the beautiful and cruel Marguerite has already been married twice before, first to Georges, a French race-car driver killed in an auto accident outside of Chantilly while swerving to avoid an animal, then a short-lived second marriage to the rich, reactionary Governor Davis Davis of Mississippi. Castleton is both amused and scandalized by the monstrous family into which he has been wed. Sensing that he’ll always remain an outsider, his attitude echoes a claim of George-Marie: “Oh, it is farouche the way Benoirs will look at you, as if there is not a single part of you they do not own.” 

The novelty of this cast of miscreants might on its own lift The Sioux well beyond mere camp, but further elevating its literary pedigree is Handl’s dangerously inventive, rapid-fire language, mesmerizing to the point of éblouissance. Handl is able to switch moods on a franc; there are some extraordinarily poetic passages, which almost instantly give way to the whole vaudeville show. Rafts of prose appear in Franglish, reflecting the Benoirs’ blend of formal French and Queen’s English with elements of Louisiana Creole, “Ol’ Kintuck” and “Miss’ippa” thrown in. That’s not even counting George-Marie’s peculiar grammatical convolutions, Castleton’s Anglicisms, his manservant Bone’s idiomatic Cockney and a constant eruption of Siouxian neologisms, such as “creolising” to refer to the servants’ tendency to lapse into languor when the Benoirs aren’t around. 

An out of context quotation may be as likely to send potential readers scurrying for cover as to draw them in, but I’ll provide one here to give a flavor, with the caveat that one glittering excerpt scarcely hints at the novel’s considerable depths. The scene is the end of a Benoir dinner, as young George-Marie heads off to bed:

He is replete with Iced Melon, Homard Thermidor, Happiness, Kisses, Cailles en chemise, Champagne, Love, Filial Piety, Champagne, Colibris and Humming-birds, More Champagne, a Little Brother, Ouistiti, Salade à l’Orange, Pommes duchesse, Viv’s wedding, AspergesSauce Mousseline, Shyness, Father Kelly, Putting Oneself Last, Fraises à la crême, two tiny Petits Fours shaped like paniers des roses, More Champagne, a taste of maman’s Crépes Suzette, Obedience, Nice Fruits from everybody, and an oyster direct from the Brochette d’huîtres served as a special attention to Mr. Castleton who is the favorite of them all and don’t eat desserts much.

The Sioux also employ a panoply of nicknames for one another so dizzying that I had to read the first chapter a second time just to get a handle on who was who. George-Marie, for example, possesses “more names than Jehovah,” including George-Marie, George, Marie, Puss, Moumou, the Wizard, Ducky, the Dauphin, King Nutty, les Spooks and Thingo, to name but a few.

The gravitational center of The Sioux resides in this minable nine-year-old, one of the most singular, memorable literary characters I’ve encountered in a lifetime of reading. This moony mixture of vulnerability, innocence, fragility, precocity and defiance is a lost child caught up in the competing, selfish interests of his various family members, their swirl of languages and international hop-scotching, their parental and familial inadequacies. Fed on oysters and champagne and suckled with “canards” (sugar cubes in spoons of cognac and coffee), George-Marie suffers from social isolation and the fact not only of resembling his deceased Delta-born grand-mèmère, revered and detested in equal measure by other family members, but also of having had already, in his short life, three different fathers spread across two continents and an insufferably immature mother whose behavior towards her son ranges between smothering attention and appalling verbal and physical abuse. The hapless George - pale, bruised, skeletal, “whose natural habitat is the firing line, and whose nerves in consequence are one delicious quaking jelly“ - is given to bouts of spontaneous crying. Castleton quips that the boy has no tear ducts, but rather “a Device, like windscreen wipers” which should be loaned out to wash down the cars. Most significantly, in this rarified world of privilege floating high above the grim realities of life, George represents one inescapable, grim reality that pierces privilege’s bubble: he is severely ill, stricken with megaloblastic leukemia. 

***

How did such a thing come into being? I’m at a loss. No obvious literary precedents come to mind, and the idea is so original that it must have emerged from deeply idiosyncratic personal experience. Handl’s own mother was French, but my suggesting any personal history at play here would be purely conjectural. Handl’s indelible characters seem simultaneously like grossly-inflated caricatures and completely flesh and blood, and the manner in which she can maneuver almost seamlessly from melodramatic absurdity to the most tender and abject realities astounds. Those abject realities include the South’s original sin, its legacy of slavery, here reproduced and perpetuated in a grotesque dynamic of arrogance, privilege and punition. I even wondered if the novel might have originated from Handl’s having come into actual contact with the object that in The Sioux takes the place of Chekhov’s gun-in-the-first-act, a beaded whip, a “soupir d’amour,” small enough to fit in a coat pocket and handed down from a previous generation of slave-owning Benoirs, a repugnant object which, like a coiled serpent in the garden, alters the story in an irrevocable way.

Handl balances her tale at the acute angle where the pathos of this terminally-ill child meets the limitless sense of entitlement and invincibility of his ingrown family, a tension Handl exploits to relentless comedic effect, yet without the affectation of zaniness for the sake of zaniness. An undercurrent of indignation runs beneath the most comical scenes. “Mon dieu, hold him properly, Vincent! He won’t break! He isn’t made of sugar, you know!” exclaims Marguerite while chastising her husband for allowing George-Marie to kiss him on his probably germ-filled mouth. If there’s any moral compass in the novel, it’s Castleton, who soberly reflects in response, “That’s all she knows about it. He is made of purest meringue. The slightest pressure and all they would have left is a pretty little hill of sparkling white sugar.” Handl combines her campy comedy with a fierce moral sense, making The Sioux at once laugh-out-loud funny, unabatedly cringeworthy and caustically, emotionally devastating. 

Irene Handl published just one other work of fiction, a 1977 sequel to The Sioux entitled The Gold Tip Pfitzer. The sequel, taking up where the first novel left off and moving the action to Paris, is certainly worth reading. However, it feels almost superfluous, like an additional bonbon when one is already full but can’t (and won’t) say no to more. It primarily serves to provide the reader an extended opportunity to spend a bit more time in the world of the “ruddy, habit-forming Sioux,” this complex, awful, intoxicating family to whom even Castleton, in perhaps the best position to recognize the tribe’s abysmal failings, admits “an addiction.” 

Bien entendu


Irene Handl

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Domenico Starnone's Nifty Trick



Peter Milton, illustration from "The Jolly Corner," 1979


If Domenico Starnone’s Trick (Scherzetto, 2017) is any indication, I need to read more contemporary Italian fiction; I found this Strega award-winning author’s most recent novel, translated into English by his friend the American writer Jhumpa Lahiri, to be an exceedingly clever, entertaining and haunting short novel. I swallowed it in a day. 

Starnone’s atypical protagonist in Trick is 75-year-old Daniele Mallarico, a reputable artist who, as the novel opens, is recovering from an operation, struggling with a contract to provide illustrations for a book, and has just been asked by his daughter Betta to come from his house in Milan to the old family home in Naples to look after Betta’s 4-year-old son Mario for a few days. This last is not a task Daniele relishes, given his age and health, the stress of the book deadline, and his young publisher’s negative reaction to two sample plates he has submitted. His annoyance is amplified when he arrives in Naples to find Betta and her husband Saverio on the verge of divorce and the housekeeper, Sally, unable to show up for one of the three days the curmudgeonly Daniele must supervise “that live feral puppet” Mario. 

A “type of sport, a chess match, a game halfway between hide and seek and cat and mouse” between the two unfolds over these three days, beginning with a succession of slapstick mishaps which gradually snowball for the reader into anxiety concerning what small moment of connection or catastrophe might occur next. Starnone brilliantly conveys the old man’s difficulty in keeping up with the child’s impetuosity, mercurial emotional swings and mischievous “tricks” as young and old try to figure one another out amid fiercely competing interests and the desire to please, tenderness alternating with rancor bordering on outright hostility. As the visit wears on, the situation devolves, with the boy seeking constant entertainment and his grandfather desperate for peace and time to work on his illustrations. 

At an impasse with this work, Daniele begins to sketch the rooms of this apartment overlooking Piazza di Garibaldi, the home in which he grew up. It’s an escape from the actual work he has to do and an exercise in memory, “making images of the double house, the present one and the one from the past, one inside the other.” Mario, looking at one of the sketches, points to a squiggle in the corner and says, “That’s you,” then shows his grandfather an old photo in which the young Daniele stands in the same spot as the squiggle. Even prior to this, the child has uttered mystical pronouncements on his grandfather’s work, calling it “dark” and liking a use of yellow that Daniele can’t see anywhere. In another effort to find peace, Daniele allows Mario to sit beside him as they draw together. At first, Mario’s drawings  resemble those his proud mother has hung around the apartment, but suddenly the boy produces a startlingly mature image that reveals true talent. It’s a portrait of his grandfather, who reels. 

Dario Maglionico, Reifaczione #9, 2014

The refreshing conceit of Trick - a self-absorbed elderly man stuck with a needy, petulant 4-year-old - could on its own have carried the story, but Starnone turns Trick into a fascinating dialogue with the book Daniele is attempting to illustrate: Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner.” In James’ short story, Spencer Brydon, an American of late middle-age who has returned to New York after having spent most of his adult life in Europe, passes his nights wandering the empty house where he grew up, and where he experiences a disturbing encounter with an indistinct figure, a sort of ghost of his erstwhile self, or perhaps the self he might have been had he never left New York. 

In constructing his contemporary riff on “The Jolly Corner,” Starnone amplifies its themes, making both Trick and James’ story grander, more intriguing. Like “The Jolly Corner,” Trick is a summing up of life choices, of paths taken and not taken, capturing a moment of abrupt and frightening existential confrontation. Taking the visitation with a self one might have been a step further than James, Starnone brilliantly embodies the ghost, this double self, in an actual, physical child, then cleverly conducts his exploration of the theme through art. Seeing Mario’s drawing, Daniele comes face to face with his own “clarifying event,” his own ghost essentially emerging from the volatile, unpredicatable ectoplasm of a child’s mind: 

He’d shown me that he could do them better, immediately, now, at the age of four. And he did all this so that I intuited what he would be able to do in the future, once he’d stopped growing, when – in the event that he embarked on my same path, scaling down the thousands of other possibilities open to ferocious beasts like him – he’d erase me with his bravura, he’d cancel every memory of my work, he’d reduce me to a relative with a feeble creative vocation, to a clump of time spent in mediocrity. 

Starnone’s choice of “The Jolly Corner” is an inspired one for a Neapolitan writer. If there’s a common, consistent theme in modern Neapolitan literature, it gravitates around the deep ambivalence the city’s native sons and daughters feel about their hometown and the equally terrible pull it exerts on those who leave - creating a ghost itself, a semblable -  what Starnone’s Neapolitan predecessor, Rafaelle LaCapria, called “a mortal wound.”[i] That Daniele makes his home in Milan, the northern pole of the geographical divide that may be Italy’s most salient cultural (and literary) feature, is hardly an insignificant detail. The Neapolitan specificity of the tale is emphasized again and again as Daniele weighs his fruitless attempt to shake off his origins:

I’d made efforts, in those years, to escape the various possible violent paths of my surroundings… I was  a crowd of variations… I'd done it, I’d managed, always gasping for breath… And I’d become flesh, the rest were ghosts. But now here they were, they were parked in the living room of the apartment in which I’d grown up… The sense that everything was precarious, a feeling Naples had conveyed to me since my adolescence, and which had prompted me to flee when I was twenty, was resurfacing. I dredged up the agglutination of construction and savage corruption, of looting and theft.

Daniele even pointedly connects his artistic ambitions to a greater one aimed at saving Naples from itself:

A long time ago, when I was twenty, I thought I’d play a part in defeating the worst citizens of Naples and with my harsh and hopeful little works, uphold the best. It wasn’t the case. The worst don’t give a fuck about art, they want power, always more power, and so they keep spreading wealth and terror, thinning down the number of people who won’t join them. 

Dario Maglionico, illustration for Scherzetto, 2016

There’s a 20-page appendix to Trick, a parallel tale in itself, consisting of excerpts from Daniele’s diary during the period the novel has just recounted and accompanied by sketches he is making for “The Jolly Corner.” In the narrative up to this point, Daniele has behaved in a manner that awkwardly tries to bridge Mario’s four years and his 75, but here, in a more intemperate, embittered voice, he tells the tale to himself while also setting down thoughts on “The Jolly Corner” as he struggles to illustrate it. The story “unnerves” him, particularly through associations it raises concerning his own father, a gambler and drunk. The section’s informal literary critique questions aspects of James’ story such as the notion of “an unexplored compartment” in Spencer Brydon’s mind and delves into the tale’s odd details, including the blackness of “the black stranger” Brydon meets and the “severed fingers” of a hand it raises to its face. Starnone extends James’ theme of the encounter with one’s past to one’s legacy to future generations. Frustrated and fed up, Daniele nonetheless wonders, “What will this child become in this city? Will all his I know, I’ll do it, already at the age of four, morph into a vacancy unsheathing foolish notions, inexistent skills, the sharp thirst for revenge, swagger?” 

There’s a lot more to recommend Trick, including the conspicuous care with which Starone structures his novel and toys with atmosphere, register, negative space and contrasting elements – light and dark, interior and exterior, the concrete and the indistinct, object and image (using drawings, photos, mirrors, reflections), heat and cold, wet and dry, even down to the weather backgrounding the drama (a drenching rainstorm may well allude to Nicola Pugliese’s best-selling 1977 Neapolitan novel, Malacqua, republished in Italy for the first time in over three decades only a few years ago). There are subtle, comic nods to James’ other work, including what may be a pointed contrast with the relatively rarified world of James’s own Italian settings (this isn’t exactly Isabel Archer’s Venice) and even a physical turn of the screw(driver) which plays a key role in the story. But such brainy, entertaining, expertly controlled conceits come secondary to Trick’s unsettling existential concerns, its confrontation with what our choices mean in relation to our pasts and to those who may follow us. Cose internationali - universal things, one could say. But the resonance of them in the novel’s Neapolitan context, given the price the city can exact from those born there, both those who leave and those who stay, is particularly haunting.


Peter Milton, illustration for "The Jolly Corner," 1979[ii]


[i]The theme is so prevalent that it only takes until page 2 for it to show up in the 500 pages of another Neapolitan novel I picked up the same day, Ermanno Rea’s A Mystery in Naples:  “All damned then? I’m afraid so. Everyone. I mean, both those who remained and those who departed.” 

[ii]As I reread James’ “The Jolly Corner,” I became convinced that Starnone had also been inspired by the particular edition of that story my library happened to have: that published in 1979 by Terra Nova Editions with illustrations by Peter Milton. Mario’s comment on a yellow in his grandfather’s work that Daniele can’t see is almost certainly one of Starnone’s typically playful, subtle allusions, this one to Peter Milton’s discovery that he was color-blind only when an admirer commented on a use of pink in his work. 



Thursday, September 20, 2018

“She would have liked to say something about love and economy…” – Dorothy Whipple Takes on Arnold Bennett


Dress pattern from 1930, 
from the endpapers of Persephone Books' edition of High Wages


“Everything was covered in 1913; it was a discreet age” observes Jane Carter, the intrepid heroine of Dorothy Whipple’s lively and nimble novel High Wages (1930), set in a dress and drapery shop in Tidsley, a fictional town of the British Midlands. This early realist work by Whipple (1893-1966) seeks to uncover the age a bit, particularly with regard to the lives of young working women in the crucible of a small town setting where classes must inevitably intersect.

When we meet 17-year-old Jane it is 1912, and she has just spotted a notice in the window of Chadwick’s haberdashery. The job, as a live-in sales girl, offers a chance at independence and escape from a suffocating home. In Whipple’s rags-to-better-rags story, spanning ten years that form an understated parenthesis around World War I, Jane’s ingenuity, attunement to innovation and fundamental sense of justice take her from shop-girl drudgery to successful small business owner. Along the way, Jane must deal with an exploitative employer, leering London vendors, snooty upper crust matrons and the scions of their families, who assume women of Jane’s station exist solely for their amusement. Jane’s chief companions along this voyage include the faithful and enamored Wilfrid, a poet and worker at the free library; Jane’s dull, shop-girl roommate Maggie, who assumes Wilfrid to be her own boyfriend; the Chadwick’s poor cleaning girl, Lily; Noel, a wealthy young man who keeps crossing increasingly entwining paths with Jane; and a lonely but jovial client, Mrs. Briggs, who herself has crossed from the lower class to the upper by way of marriage and who bankrolls Jane’s business and takes her on a lark to Blackpool - a welcome breath of air and light in this claustrophobic novel. I don't think I'm giving too much away here; I found High Wages’ chief interest to lie outside of its somewhat conventional plot. 

One might imagine an edition of the novel illustrated with the pieces of clothing that parade through it as though on an invisible catwalk, but Whipple is even more attuned to the businessof fashion. She positions her work at the cusp of a small revolution in capitalist mercantilism, which was just beginning to place a high value on marketing. For clothiers, this meant attention to window displays and interior aesthetics as well as the necessity of adapting to the new phenomenon of ready-mades. For customers, such changes spurred the development of modern consumerism. Some of Whipple’s keenest observations limn the manner in which her provincial customers, whose days rarely offer more than household chores, card games and gossip, needlessly buy fashionable attire in order to fill the vacuum of their lives, a prescient exploration of a world in which material goods and desire were becoming increasingly and deliberately entangled.

Much of High Wages is devoted to uncovering the social and economic lives of such provincial women. As a child Jane “often wished the front of a row of houses would fall down and allow her to see what was going on in all the rooms at once,” and her abiding interest in others provides intimate glimpses into these conditions. Though she manages to bob up and down across class lines, her sympathies clearly lie with the downtrodden. She essentially rescues Mrs. Briggs from domestic isolation and the condescension with which those born into the upper-class treat this interloper. Jane’s generosity of spirit and sensitivity to human weakness extends even with those incapable or unwilling to accept it, such as when she tries to assuage Maggie, blindly convinced Jane is trying to steal away Wilfrid, and in scenes with Lily, who fairly worships Jane but is unable to leave an abusive relationship with a drunk. Even Jane’s mounting intolerance of Tidsley’s insularity (“You were so known. If, in absence of mind, you walked in to a lamp-post, the fishmonger knew”) is tempered by an affection for such “an ugly place, a small place, a dirty place,” which happens to be home: “it also meant a great deal to her. She knew it in all its aspects.” The indignities Jane faces in such an environment, though, accumulate into an advocacy for herself and the women around her, leading her to rebel against class injustices, patriarchal attitudes, and - in a transgressive relationship – even marriage, a confining institution in which she sees unhappy people remaining simply because “its’s so hideous getting out.”

Whipple pulls off a remarkable balancing act between the sensitivity she expresses through Jane and the critical eye she casts about her. She can bring a devastating, nearly Caroline Blackwood level of acerbic humor to her descriptions of her small town, small-minded characters: 

Mr. and Mrs. Chadwick went to church on Sunday morning; Mr. Chadwick in his morning-coat, his two scallops of hair showing like the wings of a bird that had got imprisoned under his bowler hat; Mrs. Chadwick in a toque like a humble relation of Mrs. Greenwood’s; she carried before her a round muff like a hedgehog, and another strip of hedgehog bristled round her flat, creased face.

Maggie flounced along in a frock printed all over with large flowers; she looked like something upholstered, and ate caramels without pause.

Customers were often strange creatures; so incredibly confidential. Miss Parsons, for instance, disclosing her life’s sorrow – the hairs on her legs. She had refused an offer of marriage because of these hispid limbs. All her life she was condemned to virginity because of them. Rather prim, thought Jane. She wondered if Guy de Maupassant would have made a tale out of it. A woman resisting temptation with inexplicable virtue; the reasons to be revealed in the last line with dramatic effect: ‘Ses jambes étaient couvertes de poils.’

One of the most surprising aspects of High Wagesis the degree to which it engages another Midlands author, Arnold Bennett, to whose work Whipple’s novel could be considered a companion volume. Bennett is everywhere in High Wages. Early in the book, Jane is seen reading The Old Wives’ Tale, and Whipple even names a minor character after Bennett. Bennett shows up again in the architectural conception of Chadwick’s shop, which closely echoes that of the shop in The Old Wives’ Tale, and in Jane’s observations on the industry of the area. A description of a train trip Jane takes to Manchester could have come right out of Anne of the Five Towns:

She could see the occupants of the first-class carriages playing cards, or fallen into unlovely sleep. They did well to avert their eyes from the landscape they had made. They had made it; but they could not, like God, look and see that it was good. Monstrous slag-heaps, like ranges in a burnt-out hell; stretches of waste land rubbed bare into the gritty earth; parallel rows of back-to-back dwellings; great blocks of mill buildings, the chimneys belching smoke as thick and black as eternal night itself; upstanding skeletons of wheels and pulleys. Mills and mines; mills and mines all the way to Manchester, and the brick, the stone, the grass, the very air deadened down to a general drab by the insidious filter of soot…But Jane, Lancashire born and bred, did not find it depressing. It was no feeble, trickling ugliness, but a strong, salient hideousness that was almost exhilarating.

Taking Bennett’s similarly conflictual expressions of distaste and affection for the Midlands, Whipple fleshes them out in a literary treatment that seems both homage and riposte. At one low point, Jane adopts Bennett’s advice to read Marcus Aurelius, whose aphorisms fall significantly short of addressing the array of problems she faces, and Whipple’s novel suggests that while the author admired Bennett’s work, she may also have seen it as skirting the very real issues that working women in the region faced. 

I found a great deal more to recommend High Wages, and I’ll just note a few of these. For one thing, there’s a huge amount of literature in this novel. In the first chapters, Jane is smitten by the word when Wilfrid recites a poem. She readily accepts his offer to supply her with books, devouring Bennett of course, but also works by H. G. Wells, Algernon Swinburne, John Galsworthy and others of the age. She reads Shakespeare, Jane Austen’s Emmaand Marguerite Audoux’s “perfect thing” Marie Claire (a book which, not coincidentally, was first published in English with an introduction by Bennett). Jane also references the literary tastes of her well-to-do clients, who rarely aspire higher than Marie Corelli or fashion magazines. 

The language in High Wages is also tremendously entertaining (at least to a Yank reader). An automobile is a “mangle.” Home-made cakes at a party include “rock-buns, jumbles, parkin.” Jane refers to a large nose as having “bubukles and welks.”  A woman’s hat is a  “fascinator” (a term new to me but apparently still in use). Some memorable nomenclature also comes from the Cockney accent of Lily, who calls Jane’s perfume “odyclone,” and from Jane’s clients: “Mrs. Thomas called underclothes ‘neathies.’ ‘Neathies!’ said Jane. ‘Lord!’” 

While High Wages is primarily focused on women, commerce and provincialism, it’s also very much concerned with World War I and its aftermath. Whipple shows us Tidsley’s young men departing for battle, the women volunteering at local hospitals, hints of deprivation. Mrs. Chadwick, for example, sneaks into the shop-girls’ butter allocations, using a razor blade to pare off slices to add flavor to her own insipid soups. Wilfrid, who reluctantly goes off to war and returns not quite the same person, is almost emblematic of the whole conflict, and Jane’s own attitude towards the war is summed up in a violent thought she has that the only way to stop the killing “was for more men, for every man to go out and kill.” Ultimately, the war lends High Wages a dark cast; despite the work’s humor and sparkle, it is not particularly optimistic. 

But small matter – the engaging High Wages serves as a great introduction to yet another member of that remarkable group of terrific mid-century female British comic writers. Kudos to Persephone Books for bringing it back into circulation. 


I learned of the Persephone Readathon at the Dwell in Possibility blog just after finishing High Wages; please check out posts on other Persephone Press books appearing there now through September 30, 2018