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Excellent Women by Barbara Pym – Meet Mildred, the spitfire spinster.

April 7, 2019 35 comments

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952) French title: Des femmes remarquables.

Our Book Club had picked Excellent Women by Barbara Pym for our March read and what fun it turned out to be.

The narrator of this little gem is Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried thirty-year-old Londoner. We’re in 1952, which means that Mildred should be married with children right now and she’s reaching her expiration date for the only career allowed to women at the time, wife and mother. She’s the daughter of a clergyman, her parents have passed away, leaving her a little money. She lives on her own in a flat. She’s involved in the church nearby and she’s friends with its single pastor, Julian Malory and his sister Winnifred. She used to have her friend Dora as a roommate but she moved out to take a teaching position elsewhere. Mildred’s little world is made of church activities, tea with church friends and the occasional meetings with Dora or her bachelor brother William.

Her tidy world is disturbed when the Napiers move into her apartment building. Helena Napier is a pretty young anthropologist and her husband Rockingham (Rocky) is in the military, coming back to England after being stationed in Italy. This couple is not like any of the people in Mildred’s usual social circle.

First, she meets with Helena and she opens Mildred to unthinkable ways-of-life. Ones where a woman has a man’s job, goes on missions abroad with male colleagues and is no homemaker. A world where the husband might compensate part of the housework himself.

The Napiers befriend Mildred and introduce her into their social circle. She goes to an anthropology convention to hear Helena and her partner Everard talk about their work. Mildred wonders if the two are lovers. Meanwhile, she’s getting friendly with Rocky, a charming young man who enjoys her company. The Napier marriage is sailing into stormy weather and Mildred is a good listener, sought out from both parties.

She’s just starting to get used to the upheavals brought by the Napiers when Mrs Allegra Gray, an attractive widow,  moves into the apartment above the Malories. Allegra is a newcomer who will worm herself into Julian and Winnifred’s lives, disturbing the balance of their friendship with Mildred.

I loved Excellent Women and especially Mildred. You expect the classic spinster having an ill-fated romance with a married scoundrel. And that’s where Barbara Pym turns all the tables on the reader and chooses a totally different path. She wrote a comedy with lots of references to classics with female protagonists. Mildred is not Emma Bovary and Rockingham is no Rodolphe.

Mildred is well-appreciated for her good sense and often helps friends and acquaintances. She is more sense than sensibility. She’s not secretly in love with Father Julian Malory. She’s not a doormat or a wallflower. She’s not a cliché. She doesn’t fall in love with roguish Rockingham, she’s not a Catherine Sloper either. She keeps her wits and when she finds herself in the middle of everyone’s drama, she keeps calm and takes action.

From the first page, Pym sets the tone as Mildred tells us:

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.

Doesn’t that remind you of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice? Pym will later insist on distancing her heroin from others famous ones.

She [Mrs Napier] was fair-haired and pretty, gaily dressed in corduroy trousers and a bright jersey, while I, mousy and rather plain anyway, drew attention to these qualities with my shapeless overall and old fawn skirt. Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.

I’ve always thought of Jane Eyre as a spineless doormat anyway. I’m team Mildred.

Mildred is what Emma Wodehouse would have become if she had not married Mr Knightley. She enjoys her independence. Like Emma, she doesn’t see marriage as her lifegoal. It’s not a necessity as she has enough money on her own. She doesn’t see the point of becoming a man’s glorified maid. Mildred is not Charlotte Lucas. I loved that she refused to go to Everard’s place for diner when she discovered she’d have to cook it first. For the next invitation, he managed to find someone else to do the cooking. Go Mildred! She points out:

And before long I should be certain to find myself at his sink peeling potatoes and washing up; that would be a nice change when both proof-reading and indexing began to pall. Was any man worth this burden?

Mildred is not actively looking for love but if it came her way, she’d probably change her mind. She doesn’t want a man to choose her as a partner because she’s practical, organized or would be a good housewife. Like a useful farm animal. Her parents are dead, she’s financially independent and she has a room of her own. Despite being a clergyman’s daughter, she feels closer to a Virginia than to a Jane:

My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.

She might not be an anthropologist like Helena but she’s quite modern under her conservative shell and I loved her for that. I had a delightful time in her company. She’s fun to be with, like here at a diner table:

Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one’s struggles. Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite somebody eating spaghetti?

She’s sensible and witty. Pym created a protagonist with a quick mouth, a wonderful sense of observation and a healthy dose of self-deprecating sense of humour. (I felt that I was now old enough to become fussy and spinsterish if I wanted to.) Her quick wit and sarcastic tone are refreshing. She doesn’t want to impose her way of life to anyone, she doesn’t judge other people’s lifestyle and in that she differs greatly from your usual churchy protagonist. Mildred remarks Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing. Isn’t she delightful?

Excellent Women is a laugh-out-loud comedy and with Mildred, the reader is in excellent company. Very highly recommended.

Other reviews: Read Jacqui’s here and Kaggsy’s here

I can’t resist adding a last quote, a last taste of Mildred’s oh-so-British sense of humour.

I began to see how people could need drink to cover up embarrassments, and I remembered many sticky church functions which might have been improved if somebody had happened to open a bottle of wine. But people like us had to rely on the tea-urn and I felt that some credit was due to us for doing as well as we did on that harmless stimulant.

Theatre : a crime fiction vaudeville and a musical fantasy

February 24, 2019 8 comments

I just love going to the theatre. There’s something incredible about seeing actors perform live and imagine all the practice, constant organization and talent to direct a play and be on stage night after night. I have a subscription to the Théâtre des Célestins in Lyon but I also go to other theatres when I have the chance.

 

I had the opportunity to go to Paris and stay a night. I booked a seat at the Théâtre Le Palace to go and see The Comedy About a Bank Robbery by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields. (2016) translated into French as Le gros diamant du Prince Ludwig. This comedy originally created in London won the Molière prize for Best Comedy in 2018.

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is a crime-fiction vaudeville. Yes, this genre exists. Its playwrights have also written The Play That Goes Wrong, a disaster whodunnit I had the pleasure to see at the Théâtre Saint-Georges, also in Paris. At the time, it helped me realize what a well-oiled machine a theatre play must be.

Set in Minneapolis in 1958, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery has a rather simple plot. The Prince Ludwig of Hungary is coming to Minneapolis to retrieve the big diamond he left in the custody of the city’s bank. The perspective of this huge diamond whets the appetite of the local criminals, confirmed or amateur. Take Mitch, who escapes from prison with Cooper in order to steal this priceless diamond. His first stop in Minneapolis is for his lover Caprice, the daughter of the bank’s director. She’s a crook who lives off her charms, not as a hooker but more as a kept woman. When Mitch arrives, she had just sunk her claws into a new prey, Dave. He’s a lowly pick-pocket whose mother Ruth works as a teller at the bank but she thinks he’s rich and has a bright future.

Imagine a play where Dalton-like characters try to rob a bank. Ruth looks like a provincial Marylin Monroe. She and Caprice are the femmes fatales of the play, Ruth using of her charms on the bank security team and Caprice manipulating Mitch, Dave and her father’s long-life intern.

The whole thing is farcical with all the usual tricks of a laugh-out-loud comedy. The production was innovative, especially for the scene where Mitch, Cooper, Caprice and Dave are in the ventilation ducts, trying to find out where the strongroom is. It’s fast-paced, funny, full of mistaken identities and people hiding in faulty fold-up beds and cupboards. It respects the codes of crime fiction with the guy embarked in criminal activities for the sake of a woman (Dave), a hardened criminal on the run, ready for anything except failure and going back to jail. (Mitch) The parallel work of two femme fatales from two different generations, middle-aged Ruth and young Caprice, keeps the action going. You never get bored with this entertaining play, its twists and turns and characters that are so stupid that they are hilarious.

Highly recommended if you’re looking for an evening of fun. It’s still on at the Théâtre Le Palace in Paris and it’s on tour in Ireland and the UK. It’s appropriate for children too.

The week after, I booked seats to see Life Is a Bathroom and I Am a Boat by and with Ivan Gouillon, produced by the Théâtre Comédie Odéon in Lyon. (I looked it up, there are more than fifty theatres in the Lyon area).

According to its program, Life Is a Bathroom and I Am a Boat is a musical fantasy. Accompanied by a pianist, Igor the Magnificent tells his story as an artist on transatlantic cruises, starting with how he survived the Titanic shipwreck. Our mythomaniac but friendly narrator takes us through the twentieth century, mentioning Proust, Churchill, Fitzgerald and others. He seems to have survived all the great shipwrecks of the century, befriended people who became famous and unintentionally inspired masterpieces and political events. I bet you didn’t know that The Great Gatsby was meant to be The Great Igor but since Igor and Fitzgerald had fall-out, Fitzgerald eventually changed the character’s name. The whole show is like this, taking us down memory lane with a pleasant character who obviously lies but is still charming. There are a lot of famous songs in the show illustrating the times Igor is telling us about. They are standards the public knows well and we spend quite a pleasant evening in Igor’s company. He’s a cabaret artist, mixing singing and comedy.

It’s a feel-good show. Igor’s story is unrealistic and his adventures are deliciously farfetched. He’s probably nothing more than a bathroom singer who dreams a little too much. But he takes us with him on this fanciful journey, leaving our worried at the theatre door to sing along with him.

Next theatre episode will be: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Half Life by Roopa Farooki – A lovely journey back to full life.

December 16, 2018 6 comments

Half Life by Roopa Farooki (2010) French title: Le Temps des vrais bonheurs. Translated by Jérémy Oriol.

It’s time to stop fighting, and go home. Those were the words which finally persuaded Aruna to walk out of her ground-floor Victorian flat in Bethnal Green, and keep on walking. One step at a time, one foot, and then the other, her inappropriately flimsy sandals flip-flopping on the damp east London streets; she avoids the dank, brown puddles, the foil glint of the takeaway containers glistening with the vibrant slime of sweet and sour sauce, the mottled banana skin left on the pavement like a practical joke, but otherwise walks in straight line. One foot, and then the other. Toe to heel to toe to heel. Flip-flop. She knows exactly where she is going, and even though she could have carried everything she needs in her dressing-gown pocket – her credit card, her passport, her phone – she has taken her handbag instead, and she has paused in her escape long enough to dress in jeans, a T-shirt and even a jacket. Just for show. So that people won’t think that she is a madwoman who has walked out on her marriage and her marital home in the middle of breakfast, with her half-eaten porridge congealing in the bowl, with her tea cooling on the counter top. So that she won’t think so either. So she can turn up at the airport looking like anyone else, hand over her credit card, and run back to the city she had run away from in the first place.

The opening paragraph of Half Life by Roopa Farooki has in itself most of the key elements of her novel. This is Aruna’s point of view.

It’s time to stop fighting, and go home is a verse of a poem by a minor Bengali poet, Hari Hassan. Hassan is dying in a hospital in Kuala Lumpur and reflects on his life. His last wish is to see his estranged son one last time. Hassan looks back on his love life, on past friendships and on the war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. He and his best friend weren’t on the same side. He will be the second voice of Half Life.

Aruna read this verse in a collection of poems by Hassan that her childhood friend turned lover gave her. Jazz, that’s his name, lives in Singapore and will be the third voice of Half Life.

Aruna has been in London for two years after she fled from Singapore, leaving Jazz behind, never looking back, never contacting him again. She got married to Patrick, a doctor who works in a local hospital. She’s bipolar and struggles with her illness. Her tone is rather detached, as if she goes with the flow of her life without being truly engaged in it. Her description of her relationship with Patrick is quite harsh and I pitied him a bit. But is Aruna a reliable character? Is Patrick as oblivious as she thinks?

Jazz has stayed in Singapore, has a new girlfriend and tries to move on from Aruna. He doesn’t speak to his father Hari Hassan anymore and doesn’t know he’s dying in Kuala Lumpur. Aruna’s departure was brutal after they discovered a disturbing fact about Jazz and her. They grew up together, their parents living in the same neighborhood, two Bengali kids in school, looking alike and linked by a strong bond. Their relationship moved from deep friendship to lovers. Until a family secret shattered their love bubble.

And then Aruna left. Abruptly. Just like she does this very morning in London, leaving her husband, their flat and their life behind in the middle of breakfast. It’s time to go back to Singapore, see Jazz again and look for the answers behind the secret they discovered. It’s time to stop hiding, to learn the truth to finally heal.

The good part of writing billets about books I read a few months ago is to assess what stayed with me. If I don’t read my notes or reread passages of Half Life by Roopa Farooki, I’m left with a bittersweet impression of a main character, Aruna who goes on a few days journey to put together the puzzle of her identity and her life. It will take her three days and three nights.

I didn’t like her very much at the beginning, I thought she was cruel to others and quite selfish. But maybe she felt so bad that all her strength was used to keep living her everyday life, work, interact with Patrick, his family and friends. Perhaps it consumed all her energy and left nothing to reach out to other human beings around her. Nothing left to give. Selfishness in survival mode.

Jazz and Hassan need closure. Jazz does to move on, to have Aruna in his life as a friend and not as a partner. Hassan wants to die in peace and reconcile with his son and his best friend.

Half Life is what these three characters have been living. Hassan has forever been cut in half after the civil war that brought the creation of Bangladesh. His former life was in Pakistan. His heart was in Bangladesh. Aruna and Jazz cannot live a full life without a new foundation to their relationship. They have to move back to friendship because they need each other. Without this, they only engage half way in their life and current relationships. It’s time Aruna gives more credit to her feelings for Patrick. (In a way, she reminds me of Marguerite Duras in The Lover.) It’s time that Jazz invests in his relationship to June. Their partners deserve it. Half life also refers to geography. For the three characters, half of their life is in another country.

I enjoyed the setting, the descriptions of Singapore and of Aruna and Jazz’s childhoods. It brought me to places I’ve never been to. Farooki’s writing is fluid, with a pleasant melody, one that stays with you and makes you remember fondly of this unusual story and its engaging characters.

PS: According to her biography on Wikipedia, Roopa Farooki has moved from corporate finance and advertising to literature, a brave and radical change of career that she can be proud of.

PPS : I’m sorry but again, I prefer the French cover to the Anglo-Saxon one.

Saturday news: two abandoned books, a missed literary escapade and a sugar-without-cellulite read.

September 22, 2018 33 comments

I’ve been away for work, weekends have been busy and my TBW (To Be Written) pile has not decreased. So far, September has been made of two abandoned books, a missed literary escapade in Moscow and a sugar-without-cellulite novel as comfort read.

The first abandoned book is The Secret River by Kate Grenville (2007) and it starts like this:

The Alexander, with its cargo of convicts, had bucked over the face of the ocean for the better part of a year. Not it had fetched up at the end of the earth. There was no lock on the door of the hut where William Thornhill, transported for the term of his natural life in the Year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and six, was passing his first night in His Majesty’s penal colony of New South Wales.

Follows the story of William Thornhill and his wife Sal from London to the newly founded Sydney. The Secret River is a famous and well-beloved Australian book but I couldn’t finish it and I abandoned it after reading one third of it.

I thought that the part in London where Grenville explains how Thornhill was deported was way too long. There were too many details about a poor man’s life in London, his job on the Thames and how misery led him to steal goods from boats in order to feed his family. Grenville could have made her point in a lot less pages and it could have been even more powerful.

Then there’s the arrival in Sydney and the story progressed slowly again, with details that were useless to me while others were missing. I would have liked more information about how the Thornhills dealt with the strange land and the workings of the colony.

William Thornhill has no flaw: he’s hardworking, doesn’t drink, doesn’t gamble, loves his wife and was a good apprentice. There were too many pages about this in the London part, as if Kate Grenville was trying to prove that Thornhill was a good man. I had the feeling she was trying to buy respectability to the convicts that were sent to Australia and by transitivity to all the white people who founded the current Australian society.

I stopped reading when I reached Part III. I was still not interested in the Thornhills’ fate and I thought that if Grenville had failed to engage me by then, it was a lost cause. In my opinion, she was trying too hard to make of this book an homage to the white ancestors of Australia by telling an uplifting story about how honest hard work will make you successful.

The Secret River felt like a book that had already been done, about “pioneers” who arrive to a strange land, have a successful life and participate to the foundation of a new country. But it doesn’t have the power of Cather’s My Ántonia and it didn’t work for me. I can’t believe it’s a trilogy! If you’ve read The Secret River, what did you think of it?

I’ll spend less time on the second book I abandoned since it’s L’homme qui marche by Yves Bichet, a French novel that has not been translated into English.

The main character is Robert Coublevie and he spends his time walking with his dog Elia on the border between France and Italy in the Alps.

His wife has left him for another man and he sort of replaced her by a dog named after her. Sometimes he goes back to town and spends time at the Café du Nord. The owner has a teenage daughter named Camille and when he’s back on the mountain, he realizes that Camille is there, walking with a stranger.

The blurb was crime-fictionish, which attracted me in the first place. But in the end, I didn’t like Bichet’s style with all the descriptions of the mountains and of his walking.

Again, I wasn’t engaged in the story.

These were the two first sad experiences of September but the most frustrating one was a missed opportunity for a literary escapade in Moscow.

I was there for work and all I could think about was that out there were the houses or apartments of Pushkin, Chekov, Lermontov, Bulgakov, Tolstoy and others.

I’ve only seen Moscow by night and the closest to any literary thing I went was the Pushkin square and seeing bookshelves in all the restaurants I went to. I am so frustrated.

I also read Pike by Benjamin Whitmer (more of this one in another billet) and after this gritty noir and the busy weeks at work, I needed something sugary and I turned to Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom, a book I’d downloaded after reading Caroline’s review.

The kindle cover is dreadful and I’m glad you don’t see them when you read on the kindle. I picked the paper book cover for your eyes. It’s a bit like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson.

Ann Clement is 35, unmarried and works as a secretary in a London office. She’s bored with her life, spent between work, chores and visits to her brother’s family. Ann was brought up in a corseted family who denies pleasures in life and is narrow-minded but she yearns for more.

Her brother’ name is Cuthbert and his way of thinking and his behaviour is are as medieval as his name.

Cuthbert had the usual outlook of an Englishman, with the beautiful belief that though the Almighty had made the British Isles, with the possible exception of Ireland, which was Popish and Sinn Fein, the devil had undoubtedly made every other part of the world. And that was that!

When Ann wins a large sum of money in a sweepstake, she decides to embark on a cruise on the Mediterranean.

We follow her on the ship and in her excursions in Gibraltar, Marseille, Venice and more as she discovers the world outside of England, observes her contemporaries and finds herself. It was written in the 1930s and it shows the condition of single women of the time, trapped in a narrow choice of employment and living under thumb of relatives. I enjoyed watching Ann coming out of her shell and learning how to let go of old-fashioned life principles.

Besides Ann’s awakening, Bloom draws a funny picture of Brits abroad and of the misfortunes of mass tourism. They go on tours like sheep, complain about the hot weather and compare everything to some place back home. Ann is a keen observer of her surroundings, she basks in the beauty of the landscapes and points out the ridicules of her travel companions.

I found some of the comments about France and French people quite funny. Here’s Ann’s vision of Paul Vallé, one of her diner companions.

Monsieur Paul Vallé came next. He was twenty-four and he spoke extremely bad English, but thought that he spoke it very well. He sat the other side of Ann, and before the meal started she realized to her horror that he was a distinctly French eater! He spiked her with his elbows as he ate; he was very noisy; he masticated freely and thoroughly. He was little and rotund, with small dark eyes peering at the red-lipped Ethel through goggle glasses. She intrigued him ‒ he called her Mees ‒ if he had been the girl sort probably he would have had an affaire du coeur with Mees. But he wasn’t the girl sort. He was the food sort. He had come for the menu, and he wasn’t going to allow Mees to distract him from that menu.

I wondered in which alternate universe Ann Clement was living because it’s one where a Frenchman books a cruise solely to binge on British food. 😊

It’s definitely a Sugar-Without-Cellulite and Beach-And-Public-Transport book. It’s light, the comments about other people on the ship are funny and Ann is a nice character to spend time with. It’s not the literary work of the century but it did the unwinding I needed.

Here’s another review by Hayley at Rather Too Fond of Books.

That’s all for today, folks. I hope I’ll have more time for blogging and reading your reviews in the coming weeks but I doubt it.

The Grand Babylon Hôtel by Arnold Bennett

April 14, 2018 31 comments

The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett (1902) French title: Le Grand Hôtel Babylon.

I’d never heard of Arnold Bennett before Tom from Wuthering Expectations (or Les Expectations de Hurlevent during his stay in France) recommended The Grand Babylon Hotel to me. Published in 1902, it’s a funny novel set in a luxury hotel and full of twists and turns.

It starts as Mr Racksole, an American millionaire, stays at the Grand Babylon Hôtel in London with his twenty-three years old daughter Nella. The hôtel is a palace that caters for the aristocracy, royalty and millionaires. It was founded by Felix Babylon in 1869 and its staff prides itself for the impeccable style of the hôtel, always spelled à la French, with a ^ on the o, for the Swiss chic.

If there was one thing more than another that annoyed the Grand Babylon—put its back up, so to speak—it was to be compared with, or to be mistaken for, an American hôtel. The Grand Babylon was resolutely opposed to American methods of eating, drinking, and lodging—but especially American methods of drinking. The resentment of Jules, on being requested to supply Mr Theodore Racksole with an Angel Kiss, will therefore be appreciated.

His choice for a drink was Mr Racksole’s first mistake. His second was to request a beer and a steak for his daughter for it’s the only thing she wanted for dinner. This triggered contempt from the staff, brought Mr Racksole in Mr Babylon’s office and Racksole ended up buying the hôtel. Things go downhill from there as Mr Racksole sums it up here:

‘But perhaps you haven’t grasped the fact, Nella, that we’re in the middle of a rather queer business.’ ‘You mean about poor Mr Dimmock?’ ‘Partly Dimmock and partly other things. First of all, that Miss Spencer, or whatever her wretched name is, mysteriously disappears. Then there was the stone thrown into your bedroom. Then I caught that rascal Jules conspiring with Dimmock at three o’clock in the morning. Then your precious Prince Aribert arrives without any suite—which I believe is a most peculiar and wicked thing for a Prince to do—and moreover I find my daughter on very intimate terms with the said Prince. Then young Dimmock goes and dies, and there is to be an inquest; then Prince Eugen and his suite, who were expected here for dinner, fail to turn up at all—’

There are a lot of plot twists in this high paced tale. It was first published as a feuilleton in newspapers, so it’s made of short chapters full of cliffhangers, with chases, kidnappings, mysterious deaths and all.

But that’s not the most interesting part of the book, at least, not for me. I loved observing Bennett’s unintentional tendency to consider all things British superior to anything else and I enjoyed his delightfully quaint style.

This is a novel from the 19th century or I should say pre-WWI. It’s a novel written by an Englishman sure of the power of his country with its colonial empire. I don’t think Bennett did it on purpose but he is condescending towards non-British people or ways-of-life. Europeans are acceptable as long as they are at their place, meaning for exampla that French and Italians take care of the cuisine. As I said before, the hotel is spelled hôtel during the whole book, because the owner is from Switerland.  The dining room handled by a faux-French maître d’hôtel is called the salle à manger. French means cuisine and luxury. For the rest, the best is British. People need to have a polsih of Britishness to be accepted. Felix Babylon, as a little Anglicized Swiss, can be considered as an equal because of the Anglicized thing. It saves him.

Just when I was thinking that Racksole – despite being named Theodore as the newly elected Theodore Roosevelt– didn’t sound American, I read:

‘I am a true American,’ said Racksole, ‘but my father, who began by being a bedmaker at an Oxford college, and ultimately made ten million dollars out of iron in Pittsburg—my father took the wise precaution of having me educated in England. I had my three years at Oxford, like any son of the upper middle class! It did me good. It has been worth more to me than many successful speculations. It taught me that the English language is different from, and better than, the American language, and that there is something—I haven’t yet found out exactly what—in English life that Americans will never get. Why,’ he added, ‘in the United States we still bribe our judges and our newspapers. And we talk of the eighteenth century as though it was the beginning of the world.

We’re saved. We can consider Racksole as a gentleman because his being educated in England redeems his infamous American origins. This undertone of superiority sometimes got on my nerves. Bennett writes as a man from a superior civilisation that is probably a marker of his time. He represents the end of an era. These men didn’t see WWI coming, so sure of their place in the world and of their right to rule it. They see the USA as an unruly child with poor manners, a country full of parvenus.

The beginning of the book is definitely the battle between the Old World and the New World, between old money and new money. (And I won’t linger of the disagreeable comments on the appearance of Jews from the Finance world.) And yet, Racksole seemed a man better equipped for the coming century than the other protagonists. Bennett wrote what the public wanted to read and his book is probably representative of a certain state of mind in the British society of the time. It reinforce their feeling of belonging to a superior civilisation.

I was referring to outmoded language and it goes with the territory. It made me think of Miss Marple, I almost expected to see quotes of poems by Tennison between paragraphs. Phrases like perhaps he had helped himself rather plenteously to mustard. made me smile. I discovered words like propitiate, nincompoop or fandango. Sometimes it sounds a bit pompous like here: he could not fairly blame himself for the present miscarriage of his plans—a miscarriage due to the meddlesomeness of an extraneous person, combined with pure ill-fortune. Phew, I’m not sure I can say it without breathing.

Despite these odd expressions, The Grand Babylon Hôtel is like a delicious sweet coming from great-grandparents. Bennett has a definite sense of humour and makes a lot of fun of the Babylon’s staff and guests.

At the close of the season the gay butterflies of the social community have a habit of hovering for a day or two in the big hôtels before they flutter away to castle and country-house, meadow and moor, lake and stream.

Later…

It seemed as though the world—the world, that is to say, of the Grand Babylon—was fully engaged in the solemn processes of digestion and small-talk.

Can you imagine all these fancy rich guests making small talk in the lobby, discussing the weather and the cook’s new dish? Their universe seems unmoveable, protected from the vicissitudes of the world, a world that will be shattered in 1914.

 

PS: I can’t resist a last quote, Nella speaking: Well, I am a Yankee girl, as you call it; and in my country, if they don’t teach revolver-shooting in boarding-schools, there are at least a lot of girls who can handle a revolver. 

Wait until the idea comes to the mind of some US President with tweeting fingers, dear Nella, and they might teach AR-15-shooting in boarding schools. Just in case kids need it for self-defence, of course.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah & Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

November 24, 2017 19 comments

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah (2014) // Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James. (2011)

I usually don’t write about two books in the same billet but this time I’ll make an exception for these two crime fiction novels that I’d qualify as fan fiction books. I’m not particularly attracted to ersatz of classics or spin offs. I received The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah with my subscription to Quais du Polar and I put it on the shelf, not particularly attracted to this new investigation featuring Hercule Poirot, even if it’s been published with the consent of Agatha Christie’s heirs. I got tempted by Death Comes to Pemberley because it was written by PD James and I thought there was enough sass and wits in Elizabeth Bennet to change her into a funky amateur sleuth.

How wrong I was.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah turned up to be an easy and rather pleasurable read. Hercule Poirot is hiding in a boarding house in London to make everyone believe he left the country. He wants some rest but also some familiarity and decided to play tourist in London. In his lodgings, he gets acquainted to Inspector Catchpool, a young policeman from Scotland Yard. When a peculiar triple murder is committed in the hotel Bloxham, Catchpool is overwhelmed by the investigation and Poirot offers his services. Follows a typical whodunnit plot.

Now Death Comes to Pemberley. *rolling my eyes and smacking my forehead* What was PD James thinking when she wrote this?

We’re at the eve of Pemberley’s great ball when Lydia arrives in a rush and cries that Wickham and his friend Denny disappeared in the woods and that she heard the sound of bullets. She’s hysterical and Darcy, Bingley and Colonel Fitzwilliam brave the night and the wind to go and find Wickham and his friend. When they arrive on the scene, they discover that Denny is dead and Wickham is prostrated on his friend’s body and repeats that he killed him. Now, what really happened in these dark and hunted woods? I bet you’re dying to…read something else. And you would be right.

While The Monogram Murders was pleasant read, Death Comes to Pemberley was totally ridiculous. Elizabeth Bennet must have been brainwashed on her wedding day. She lost all her spirit and her sparks to become a dull and dutiful mother and wife. Yuck. A loving doormat in admiration with her husband, that’s what she is. She has the psychological depth of a moth, Darcy sounds like a carpet, if carpets could talk. The book is peppered with unnecessary reminders of the original story, as if this could have other readers than Jane Austen’s fans.

These two books have something in common though: none of them manages to recreate the magic of the originals. They lack of warmth, they’re not realistic. The Monogram Murders doesn’t bring you back to the London of Agatha Christie’s time. And Hercule Poirot is not smug enough. I missed the slightly outdated tone of Agatha Christie’s novels, this special tone that sends you back to a time when boarding houses were common. Sophie Hannah resuscitated a passable Poirot, but you couldn’t mix him up with the original if you were reading this blindly, without knowing the writer’s name. And Death Comes to Pemberley kills more than Denny, it kills the original characters and morphs them into weak and sad puppets. Lizzie had the potential to be a fantastic sleuth, exasperating her husband by playing amateur detective and breaking out of social conventions. What a disappointment! And I will spare you the mawkish passages about her and Darcy’s marital bliss. Gag. Poor, poor Jane Austen! This is not crime fiction, it’s a crime against fiction.

The good news is your TBR is not going to grow after reading my billet. Count your blessings. We should just reread Pride and Prejudice.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

October 22, 2017 28 comments

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. (April 1938) French title: Hommage à la Catalogne.

It is very difficult to write accurately about the Spanish war, because of the lack of non-propagandist documents. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest.

I started to read Homage to Catalonia when I was in Barcelona in July, so before the terrorist attack on the Ramblas and before the current conflict between Catalonia and Madrid. I was just curious about the Spanish Civil War and after my disastrous attempt at reading Georges Bernanos’s pamphlet about it, I turned to another George, one I knew would be a better writer.

George Orwell arrived in Barcelona in December 1936 and upon recommendation of the ILP (Indepedant Labour Party), enrolled in the POUM, the revolutionary militia from Catalonia who had joined forces with the PSUC (Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya), a party linked to the Spanish Communist Party and the government from Catalonia to fight against Franco’s coup d’état. Orwell fled from Spain in June 1937 and went back to England through France.

Homage to Catalonia relates his time in Spain and aims at setting the record straight about events in Catalonia. It’s a short book but it covers a lot of things, from Orwell’s personal experience on the front and on leave to a clear summary of the political situation and analysis of the events.

On the personal side of the book, I enjoyed Orwell’s candid tone. He never tries to turn himself into a hero. He describes how cold it was on the front during the winter, how bored he was, how frightened he was when he had to fight.

It was the first time that I had been properly speaking under fire, and to my humiliation I found that I was horribly frightened. You always, I notice, feel the same when you are under heavy fire – not so much afraid of being hit as afraid because you don’t know where you will be hit. You are wondering all the while just where the bullet will nip you, and it gives your whole body a most unpleasant sensitiveness.

He got wounded and shows how weak it made him. He doesn’t picture himself as a great warrior but mostly as a humble soldier who had boots problems, was covered with lice and mud and who had to live with poor food supplies. He tries to make light of the harassing moments of the most important battle he was in:

Now that we had finished wrestling with those beastly sandbags it was not bad fun in a way; the noise, the darkness, the flashes approaching, our own men blazing back at the flashes. One even had time to think a little.

You almost expect him come out with a portable tea set and take a four o’clock break for a cup of tea and crumpets. His wife could even have provided for them as he reminds us By this time my wife was in Barcelona and used to send me tea, chocolate, and even cigars when such things were procurable.

He talks about her regularly but never says her name. She’s always “my wife” as if she was nothing else than a spouse and had no existence as a person. I’m a bit upset on her behalf, so I’ll say that her name was Eileen O’Shaughnessy and she must have been more than a homemaker. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have followed him to a war zone and I can’t imagine him married to a wallflower. I think she deserves more than this treatment in his work; he sounds like Maigret with his blanquette-cooking wife.

Along the way, Orwell also makes observation about Spain and he describes a country backward compared to France and England. We need to remember that the Republic who was fighting against Franco was only 5 years old when the Civil War started. An agrarian reform was in full swing. Catalonia was very modern but Orwell explains that very few Andalusian soldiers could read. I was shocked by this as we’re in 1936 and in France, school had been mandatory since 1882. He writes a bit about Spanish ways and customs, the use of goat skin bottles, the olive oil cooking and the streets of Barcelona.

On the war side, he exposes how ill prepared the POUM militia was. They were amateur soldiers, with no real uniforms and weapons were scarce.

Obviously if you have only a few days in which to train a soldier, you must teach him the things he will most need; how to take cover, how to advance across open ground, how to mount guards and build a parapet – above all, how to use his weapons. Yet this mob of eager children, who were going to be thrown into the front line in a few days’ time, were not even taught how to fire a rifle or pull the pin out of a bomb. At the time I did not grasp that this was because there were no weapons to be had. In the POUM militia the shortage of rifles was so desperate that fresh troops reaching the front always had to take their rifles from the troops they relieved in the line.

He writes about the lack of organization and knowledge of the art of war. Foreign soldiers were welcome for their military experience. As the army of a Marxist party, the militia had flattened the usual military hierarchy and Orwell was quite enthusiastic at this disappearance of class distinction.

Incidentally, Orwell was in Spain during a major shift on the Republican side of the war. Upheavals occurred in Barcelona in May 1937 and the POUM was declared illegal. The PSUC and the government of Catalonia got rid of the POUM because they didn’t share the same political view.

In Catalonia, for the first few months, most of the actual power was in the hands of the Anarcho-Syndicalists, who controlled most of the key industries. The thing that had happened in Spain was, in fact, not merely a civil war, but the beginning of a revolution. It is this fact that the anti-Fascist press outside Spain has made it its special business to obscure. The issue has been narrowed down to ‘Fascism versus democracy’ and the revolutionary aspect concealed as much as possible.

Orwell explains that the POUM aimed at a Marxist revolution while the PSUC aimed at a bourgeois democracy and were backed up by Moscow, as strange as it seems. I will let you read Homage to Catalonia yourself if you want to explore this side of the book. I found it fascinating on several accounts. I knew there had been internal fights among the Republican front and that it did them a disservice to fight against Franco. Orwell put things in perspective with simple words. It struck me that the Republican front was a swarm of political parties and ideas and that they lost time fighting against each other. Orwell argues:

As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names – PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT – they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials. (…) I did not realize that there were serious differences between the political parties.

While the Republican front is divided and fails at delivering a simple and efficient message to our brains, the Fascist side bulldozes everything with simple ideas aimed at our basest instincts. Doesn’t that remind you of something?

Orwell is partial to Socialism and he was quite enthralled by the atmosphere in Barcelona in December 1936.

I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites.

And

One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.

After the POUM was declared illegal, a witch hunt was organized to imprison POUM members and soldiers of the militia. Orwell and Eileen had to flee the country and Orwell deplores:

No one who was in Barcelona then, or for months later, will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues and prowling gangs of armed men.

This episode made him lose faith in the future of democracy in Spain but he still thinks that beating Franco is possible.

No one in his senses supposed that there was any hope of democracy, even as we understand it in England or France, in a country so divided and exhausted as Spain would be when the war was over. It would have to be a dictatorship, and it was clear that the chance of a working-class dictatorship had passed. That meant that the general movement would be in the direction of some kind of Fascism. Fascism called, no doubt, by some politer name, and – because this was Spain – more human and less efficient than the German or Italian varieties. The only alternatives were an infinitely worse dictatorship by Franco, or (always a possibility) that the war would end with Spain divided up, either by actual frontiers or into economic zones.

Homage to Catalonia was written in April 1938 and the Spanish Civil War ended on April 1st, 1939. The poignant part of reading Orwell’s thoughts is that he doesn’t know that Franco will win but we do. We know that this will end up in a long-lasting dictatorship. And reading Orwell’s lucid recollection of the events, we can only wish that short-term political battles had been put on the back burner for a greater good.

Highly recommended reading, as are all reads about the 1930s in these desolate times. Orwell is a writer I would have loved to meet. His Down and Out in Paris and London is well worth reading too.

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