Elizabeth von Arnim’s Eccentric Charm

After reading The Enchanted April and Elizabeth and Her German Garden in quick succession, I have to concede I have fallen in love with the witty, sly, unconventional author best known under the name Elizabeth von Arnim. These two novels are fairy-tales to a certain extent, where the brutal reality of married life is somewhat swept under the carpet, where amused forgiveness is still possible and desirable. I do worry about Mrs. Wilkins in The Enchanted April, and how she and the other ladies will fare once they return to the less romantic English landscape and climate.

In Elizabeth and Her German Garden the narrator openly refers to her husband as the Man of Wrath and his humourless, judgemental pronouncements (which she excuses with an ironical laugh) make me want to slap him around the face at times. Clearly, the author herself did not find her first husband all that congenial either, and none of her marriages or love affairs were fully satisfactory. She emerges as a strong-willed and eccentric woman, very dreamy, absorbed by nature and literature, but still caring about other people’s opinions and needs.

Although I barely knew the plants she was listing and describing, I enjoyed the passion she felt for her garden, her sadness at not being able to do the digging herself, the detailed study of seed catalogues and obvious pride at the results. It is utterly charming and unusual, the very essence of Englishness, full of astute observations about people and cultures. And sometimes she voices opinions which sound remarkably modern.

Archive picture of Nassenheide manor with April, May and June babies.

To most German Hausfraus the dinners and the puddings are of paramount importance, and they pride themselves on keeping those parts of their houses that are seen in a state of perpetual and spotless perfection, and this is exceedingly praiseworthy; but, I would humbly inquire, are there not other things even more important?… It cannot be right to be the slave of one’s household gods, and I protest that if my furniture ever annoyed me by wanting to be dusted when I wanted to be doing something else… I should cast it all into the nearest bonfire and sit and warm my toes at the flames with great contentment…

The hours fly by shut up with those catalogues and with Duty snaring on the other side of the door. I don’t like Duty – everything in the least disagreeable is always sure to be one’s duty.

Well, trials are the portion of mankind, and gardeners have their share, and in any case it is better to be tried by plants than persons, seeing that with plants you know that it is you who are in the wrong, and with persons it is always the other way about…

Miss Jones looked as though she did not like Germans. I am afraid she despises us because she thinks we are foreigners – an attitude of mind quite British and wholly to her credit; but we, on the other hand, regard her as a foreigner, which, of course, makes things very complicated.

Happiness is so wholesome; it invigorates and warms me into piety far more effectually than any amount of trials and griefs… In spire of the protestations of some peculiarly constructed persons that they are the better for trials, I don’t believe it. Such things must sour us, just as happiness must sweeten us and make us kinder, and more gentle.

Original picture of Nassenheide from 19th century.

If your lot makes you cry and be wretched, get rid of it and take another; strike out for yourself; don’t listen to the shrieks of your relations, to their gibes or their entreaties; don’t let your own microscopic set prescribe your goings-out and comings-in; don’t be afraid of public opinion in the shape of the neighbour in the next house, when all the world is before you new and shining, and everything is possible, if you will only be energetic and independent and seize opportunity by the scruff of the neck.

If this sounds like a self-help book, it is not. And the narrator is quickly brought down to earth by her friend’s retort to the above exhortation:

To hear you talk, no one would ever imagine that you dream away your days in a garden with a book, and that you never in your life seized anything by the scruff of its neck.

It is this down-to-earth quality, this endearing exchange of firmly-held points of view, as well as the love of nature which makes this book such a delightful companion, although it is clear that the author is speaking from a position of privilege to which we may find it difficult to relate. A true mood-booster, which should not have been relegated to the dark, dank reserve stock cellars of the library.

Another archive picture of Nassenheide during Elizabeth’s time there. The property has been demolished and now lies within the borders of Poland.

Raymond Antrobus: To Sweeten Bitter (poetry review)

Author picture from raymondantrobus.com

It was poignant and entirely appropriate to dwell in the poetry pamphlet To Sweeten Bitter by Raymond Antrobus on Father’s Day (published by Outspoken Press). For this is a very personal exploration of the father/son relationship, a more ambiguous one than we are used to reading about in the standard gushing outbursts of sentiment on this day.

Then, waking up to yet more tragic news, this time about a terrorist attack on Muslims in London, this slim volume of poetry remains appropriate, for it has a resonance well beyond the personal. This is also poetry about finding one’s cultural identity, about trying to belong and being found wanting, about never quite fitting in, never knowing how to describe one’s self, trying to come to terms with one’s heritage.

Half-caste, half mule, house slave – Jamaican British.

Light skin, straight male, privileged – Jamaican British…

In school I fought a boy in the lunch hall – Jamaican.

At home, told Dad I hate dem, all dem Jamaicans – I’m British.

He laughed, said you cannot love sugar and hate your sweetness…

In Look, There’s a Black Man, Touch Him the poet captures not only his father’s experience of coming to England, but touches on broader issues of immigration and race, people ‘turn me away for showing up the wrong colour’. The men in Scratched Light miss their home and communities, struggle to share their bewilderment and loneliness with others who have been displaced, perhaps even build a transient community of the lost and grieving in the shadow of the Southbank security guards. Not all of the poems are wistful, however. There is humour but also drama and menace in Miami Airport, with the staccato questioning by the border guards: ‘why didn’t I see anyone that looked like you when I was in England?’

Yet when the Jamaican British son returns to the land of his father, he feels just as unsettled and unwanted. He tries to shake off the tourist image. He falls for the misguided idea that following roads marked on a map (with ridiculous English names) will help in Jamaica, where ‘the road itself rebelled and gave up making way for those who’ve forgotten what swung in this wind’. The guilt of the Empire is even stronger in the more overtly political poem Two Days and Two Nights in Kisumu, Kenya, where the poet has gone to teach poetry but fears that English is not the right language with which to approach these children for

our language has not come from the future,

it has crawled from a cave

and rowed to so many shores

that we speak in crashed waves and trade winds.

Ultimately, however, the personal poems are the most powerful in this anything but straightforward account of a father’s legacy, a father lost to dementia quite a few years before death. The collection starts and ends on the hospital bed, with a heart giving out, a son holding hands with a father who has not always been there for him, trying to find forgiveness in his heart. This is a recognisable situation for so many, that there is a danger of reverting to hackneyed sentiments, but Antrobus injects freshness and real grittiness into it. Dementia ‘simplified a complicated man’, confers warmth where perhaps there was none initially. Sometimes the expression of pain is uncomplicated, as in the simple but not at all simplistic short poem When He Died:

I told no one

how old he was

in case

his death

seemed too

inevitable…

More often, there are complicated and contradictory strands of feeling woven in. The title poem To Sweeten Bitter describes the paradox lying at the very heart of this relationship, the deeper grooves a father makes in our lives, the years of hurt and misunderstanding and the attempt to sugarcoat situations. The later poems are clearer in describing an absent father, an abusive father, the threats and shaming he stooped to, that forgiveness was only possible because ‘he promised me one day he was going to die.’ There is also recognition of a mother’s sacrifice, compensating for an absent father. In What Is Possible, we find the touching image of her sitting up all night to thread jewellery to sell in the market, with only the TV for company, while her son complains about the TV disturbing him. Yet as he lies in his bed, he dreams he will fly and grow too big for his bed, he understands the safety and security that his mother has given him, the feeling that all possibilities are still open to him.

The video below is the poet performing his own Sestina for My Father, which is not in the present volume, but deserves to be mentioned alongside it.

Yet this slender book reminds us that, for all the imperfections, for all of the pain, instead of yearning for the father we wish we’d had, we should attempt to understand and forgive the one we were given. Whether present or absent, they shape us far more than we can imagine or accept

where someone I love is the shape

of the missing thing.

 

 

 

WWW Wednesdays – 14th June, 2017

WWW Wednesday is a meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently

Nelly Arcan: Folle

Still taking my time over this one, reading a few pages at a time. Not that I don’t like it, but it’s taking you too deep perhaps in a troubled, jilted, suicidal woman’s mind, so you need frequent breaks.

Elizabeth von Arnim: Elizabeth and Her German Garden

The perfect contrast to the above, this charming and gentle reflection of the passing of the seasons in a garden is calming even to a non-gardener but flower lover like myself. Plus, it’s a wife’s bid for having her own personal space, so what’s not to like?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recently

Pierre Lemaitre: Three Days and a Life (transl. Frank Wynne)

Not really a crime novel as such, but a very believable description of a young boy’s way of dealing with guilt when he accidentally causes the death of another boy. Excellent social and psychological observation, although the end feels somewhat fortuitous.

Elizabeth Jane Howard: Marking Time (Cazalet 2)

Another feel-good book supposedly – although the subjects in this second book in the series are rather grim: war, death, abortions, abuse, cancer…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next

Goran Vojnović: Yugoslavia, My Fatherland (transl. Noah Charney) – representing Slovenia for #EU27Project, also an attempt to get my Netgalley shelves cleared.

Alison Lurie: Real People

A book about writers at an artists’ colony reminiscent of Yaddo, this satirises pretentious artistic egos and relationships. Apparently, Lurie was banned from Yaddo and other such places after publishing the book.

Well, that was the plan, at least, when I wrote this post at the weekend, but I ended up reading the Alison Lurie book before starting on the Elizabeth von Arnim one, so you will have seen the review of Real People already.

A Book About Writers’ Retreats: Real People

Alison Lurie: Real People (1970)

Borrowed from the library following a recommendation by Smithereens, it was in the reserve stock section in the basement and had last been taken out in 1988. Clearly, it has fallen somewhat out of favour, but it is a fun book and a quick read, while also posing some interesting questions about artistic ambition.

‘Are those artists, Mom, or are they real people?’ 

That is what a child visiting the luxurious artists’ colony Illyria asks, and with good reason, as hyper-sensitive mid-career mid-successful lady writer Janet Smith finds out. At first, it seems like Eden, with perfect weather, wonderful quiet, friendly and gentle artistic people. Although she seems to lead quite a privileged existence, it is such a relief to be away from the humdrum everyday worries of family life, and focus only on the writing. A sentiment all writers who dream about peaceful retreats will echo no doubt:

At home there’s always the telephone and the doorbell – Bessie will answer, but of course I hear the ring and wonder who it is. And whenever I raise my eyes, I notice something I ought to do something about: smudges on the wallpaper, that peculiar bill from the cleaners… If I look out the window, I don’t see a view; instead I’m reminded that the garage will need repainting soon, I must call White’s Nursery about spraying the fruit trees, and we’ve simply got to have the Hodgdens over to dinner. And when I look back at my story, it’s fallen apart again. I suppose the wonder really is not that I’ve had so much trouble working in Westford, but that I’ve been able to work there at all.

Yaddo, said to be the inspiration for this book.

But all is not well in paradise, of course. The Garden of Eden is beset by worms, serpents, temptation, envy and monstrous egos, especially when a pretty young girl turns up in their midst. Artists prove obtuse or vulgar, pretentious, self-absorbed, while Janet muddles through, feeling guilty about not working, feeling she has nothing new left to say, desperate to prove herself in this milieu yet blind to her own failings. It is beautifully precise social comedy about the scandals and squabbles of the artistic and literary community, but also has something to say about dreams and ambitions and selling one’s self short. Finally, Janet admits to herself that she has in fact a patron, her husband, who is supporting her lifestyle and writing ambitions, although he doesn’t see her literary merit. She considers herself lucky that she doesn’t have to apply for grants or work three jobs to support herself, but in a moment of complete honesty she realises she has given up writing to a certain degree:

… when I decided not to write stories that would embarrass Clark and the children, I gave up writing seriously… Not that it happened all at once. I censored myself gradually over the years, as the children learned to read, as Clark became more prominent locally, as my stories began to be published in magazines more people read… But what I see now is something else even more disquieting. It’s that over the years I’ve begun to avoid doing – and sometimes even seeing – any thing I couldn’t write about.

Fiction is condensed reality; and that’s why its flavor is more intense, like bouillon or frozen orange juice. I know all this; I’ve known it for years. But all the same I’ve begun adding water, more and more lukewarm water, to every batch I made. Because I was afraid the that undiluted stuff would freeze and burn me, and everyone around me.

Alison Lurie, from her website.

This kind of over-specialised musing and satire may appeal only to other writers, but it’s a shame that there aren’t more books set in artists’ colonies, as there is a rich seam of humour to be mined. Sadly, perhaps all writers are aware that if they let rip, they will alienate their writer friends and publishers, and risk never being granted permission to attend such retreats (above all, to teach at such retreats, a valuable source of income).

Reading Summary for May 2017

May seems to have sped by like a runaway train, and I can’t believe that I’m already doing another monthly reading summary. This month seems to have been all about what is somewhat annoyingly described as ‘self-care’, which brings to mind a candle-lit bath and a warm cocoon of a towel. In my case, however, it means reading books in which I can lose myself, preferably without crying.

A rather productive reading month, 15 books read (one of them a re-read), only one turkey, and quite a few winners. 9 books by women writers, 6 by men, 5 in translation.

Mood boosters

Matt Haig: The Humans

Funny, humane, instantly recognisable and imaginative. Reminded me in parts of The Man Who Fell to Earth, except it shows more love for humans in spite of all of our flaws. Some moments had me laughing out loud, while others are almost in danger of descending into sentimentality. But, as the author says,
‘Sentimentality is another human flaw. A distortion. Another twisted by-product of love, serving no rational purpose. And yet, there was a force behind it as authentic as any other.’ Perfect mood-boosting book for all who have felt a little out of step with life and the others.

Muriel Spark: A Far Cry from Kensington

Rereading this zany look into the world of publishing, with all of Spark’s trademark humour, precise wording, wit, and just a tinge of cruelty.

Vivienne Tufnell: Away with the Fairies 

Pantheistic approach to nature, life, creation and love.

Jane Gardam: The Stories

Elegant, witty yet very empathetic account of marginalised, ignored, insignificant little people. Some may be annoying, some inspire pity or sadness, but all are presented with a lot of heart.

Elizabeth Jane Howard: The Light Years

Searched for this at the library after reading Sarah Perry’s loving tribute to the Cazalet series in the Foxed Quarterly. I knew I had read one or two of the books, out of order, but couldn’t remember which ones or much else, so I started at the beginning. Perfect comfort reading for these turbulent times, although it actually depicts a Britain with odd similarities to the present-day, just before WW2, considerable uncertainty and fear, conflicting attitudes towards war and Hitler. All the little details of life are here, with recognisable concerns and characters, even though the main characters are all rich and privileged, have servants and seemingly endless baths and meals.

Crime busters

Andrée Michaud: Boundary

Susie Steiner: Persons Unknown

Tina Seskis: The Honeymoon

Matt Wesolowski: Six Stories

Antti Tuomainen: The Mine

Perfectly captures the chilly beauty and sinister quality of the Finnish winter. This book pushes the boundaries of a conventional thriller – yes, we have a hitman and quite a few murders along the way, we have a conspiracy about a mining project which has gone wrong, but it is really about family, having principles and values, feeling conflicted between finding out the truth and protecting your loved ones. Fully realised characters and an unobtrusive, limpid, muscular storytelling style (without ever being garishly macho, like in most action thrillers).

Clever Observation in Prime Location

Delia Ephron: Siracusa

All the pretentiousness of rich Americans and Brooklynites abroad mercilessly exposed in this tale of marital break-down, selfish adults and abundant self-delusions. Review to appear shortly on Shiny New Books.

Sarah Stovell: Exquisite

Not so much a psychological thriller, as a carefully orchestrated duet and a welcome respite from the relentless insistence on implausible twists for the sake of twists in recent books. From my review on Crime Fiction Lover:

‘The fun of the book lies in the inevitable downward spiral into obsession, jealousy and revenge. You might be tempted to read Exquisite quickly, breathlessly, but I would advise you to take your time and savour the journey. The author is completely in control of pace and characters, like a fine piano tuner able to make the most minute adjustments to the tension in each string, each chapter, each interaction. Allow yourself to be played. Enjoy the music.’

Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Road to Babadag

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Sand

Bogdan Teodorescu: Spada

When I heard that this was about a serial killer targeting criminals of gypsy origins in Romania, I expected it to be a police procedural with some political echoes. In fact, it is an unusual political thriller which examines how inflammatory rhetoric, extremist discourse and racial hatred are peddled by politicians for their own purposes and the devastating consequences it can have. Highly relevant for our times, not just in Romania.

 

 

Experimenting with Form: Six Stories and Sand

I have to admit I still get excited about novels which experiment with narrative structure and confound expectations. There is far too little tolerance for that from publishers (and perhaps readers too, but not as much as publishers think) nowadays. However, if I say that both Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski and Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf are postmodern novels, you will probably yawn and want to run away a hundred miles. However, they both are postmodern thrillers, and one of them worked well for me, while the other didn’t.

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Sand (transl. Tim Mohr)

This mash-up of spy thriller, action movie and film noir is intent on messing with our heads – and it fully succeeded as far as this reader was concerned. I was confused, struggled to keep the various names, narrators and events apart, although the story was roughly chronological. The main character is ‘Carl’, an amnesiac who is found wandering in the desert, and who some believe to be a spy. He tries to find out more about his identity and encounters all sorts of villains, desperate people and a blonde femme fatale along the way.

Here are some of the post-modernist techniques I observed: parody (of thriller genres), black humour, clever little intertextual references (Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind, but also Casablanca and others) and metafiction (multiple possible beginnings, deliberate misdirection, unreliable narrators all undermining the authority of the author).

I have to admit there are flashes of brilliance and farcical situations in the book which made me laugh and gasp out loud (perhaps also wipe away a tear). But they were few and far between, not enough to make me rush back for more. I struggled to finish the book, which I felt became a victim of its own ambition to say something about the overall state of the world. Yet it succeeded, in a way, even if at the expense of coherence. That is, if the bleak message the author intended was the futility of being honest and good in a world where incompetence and stupidity reign supreme.

Matt Wesolowski: Six Stories 

In contrast, Wesolowski did not set out to be ambitiously and deliberately post-modern. Instead, he uses the popular format of serial podcasts to structure his novel and in doing so creates a Rashomon-like controversy over whose interpretation of events do you believe. Patterns emerge, but so do the gaps –  what are all these storytellers deliberately avoiding? Memory is of course notoriously unreliable, and over twenty years the participants in those mysterious events have had time to repress unpleasant memories or to reinterpret them in a self-justifying light.

So we find plenty of misdirection here, as hidden fears emerge and it becomes clear that the youngsters from 20 years ago misunderstood certain events or were projecting different personalities than they came to inhabit later in life. There is also a strong pastiche of podcasts, selfie-culture and our apparently endless appetite for true crime (including the rather bizarre practice of hooded interviews). Aside from Rashomon, there are allusions to The Wasp Factory, A Clockwork Orange, the Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps even Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and other books about disaffected youth and trying to piece together the truth about a so-called accidental death. Finally, here too we have a sense of mourning about the casual cruelty of youth, recklessness, stupidity and the senseless tragedy that ensues.

This book is not pretentiously post-modern and pregnant with weighty themes, it simply wants to tell a good story. And that is exactly why it works. I could not put it down until I finished it. While Sand had the heavy atmosphere of wading to the top of a steep sand dune, Six Stories was an exhilarating gallop through woodland and moors. There was an addictive quality to the writing, tinged with just enough horror and unexplained phenomena to make you shudder and read on, peeking through your fingers.

 

 

Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Road to Babadag #EU27Project

This is in many ways the perfect #EU27Project read, although three of the countries it refers to are outside the EU.

Stasiuk is a Polish writer who is not smitten with the idea of the West or even Central Europe, as so many other writers and citizens from former Communist states are, in moth-like fascination. Instead he is looking at lesser-known and decaying pockets of Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, Albania and Hungary. He is therefore doing those neglected and forgotten places a favour. Yet, by deliberately staying away from the tourist route (there is no mention of Budapest or Bucharest or Brasov or any of the more popular sights), he is presenting perhaps an equally lop-sided view as the Tourist Offices of those countries.

Idyllic village image from Publikon.ro

If Britain or the US might be said to have a nostalgia for empire or world domination, Stasiuk here has a nostalgia for marginalisation and oppression, for what he calls the ‘Balkan shambles’. As if suffering confers authenticity and profundity. This is not so much a tribute to a vibrant and resilient community as a eulogy to a dying way of life.

I’m not sure I agree with this premise, which is why I read this book with a mix of feelings. On the one hand, I loved his atmospheric descriptions of everyday life in villages, which reminded me of summers spent at my grandmother’s house:

From occidentul-romanesc.com

Telkibanya, a village that hadn’t changed in a hundred years. Wide, scattered houses under fruit trees… From windows of homes, the smell of stewing onions. In market stalls, mounds of melons, paprikas. A woman emerged from a cellar with a glass jug filled with wine… Old women sitting in front of the houses on the main street. Like lizards in the sun. Their black clothes stored the afternoon heart, and their eyes gazed on the world without motion and without surprise, because they had seen everything.

The author also has a good grasp of the historical and political nuances of this troubled part of the world, and is adept at conveying all this complexity with a frankness which would be unwelcome from a writer who has not grown up there.

…everyone should come here. At least those who make use of the name Europe. It should be an initiation ceremony, because Albania is the unconscious of the continent. Yes, the European id, the fear that at night haunts slumbering Paris, London, and Frankfurt am Main. Albania is the dark well into which those who believe that everything has been settled once and for all should peer…. so I drank black Fernet and tried to imagine a country that one day everyone would leave. They would abandon their land to the mercy of time, which would break open the envelope the hours and months and in pure form enter what remained of cities, to dissolve them, turn them into primal air and minerals.

It soon becomes clear that this is not a typical travelogue. The author criss-crosses these countries, and there is little attempt at chronology or systematisation of his travels. Instead, one memory gives rise to another, themes flow easily from one to the next. Yet he has an uncanny ability to define a region’s main characteristic. Here he talks, for instance, about the fertile hills of Moldova, conveying something of the gentle nature of the Moldavians.

Continual green, continual fecundity, the land undulating, the horizon rising and falling, showing us only what we expect, as if not wishing to cause us the least unpleasantness. Grapes, sunflowers, corn, a few animals, grapes, sunflowers, corn, cows and sheep, on occasion a a garden, and rows of nut trees always on either side of the road. No free space in this scenery, no sudden disjunction, and the imagination, encountering no ambush, soon dozes. Most likely events took place here a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago, but they left no trace. Life seeps into the soil, disperses into the air, burns calmly and evenly, as if confident that it will never burn out.

So what did I dislike about it? I am conflicted regarding his romanticism about the messiness, untidiness, lack of discipline, the sheer ‘Orientalism’ of this part of the world.  He claims to genuinely love the shambles

…the amazing weight of things, the lovely slumber, the facts that make no difference, the calm and methodical drunkenness in the middle of the day, and those misty eyes that with no effort pierce reality and with no fear open to the void. I can help it. The heart of my Europe beats in Sokolow Podlaski and in Husi. It does not beat in Vienna. Or in Budapest. And most definitely not in Krakow. Those places are all aborted transplants.

Yet this to me smacks of traveller’s voyeurism, like the British love for India at arm’s length. ‘Everything half-assed and fucked up’ is a wonderful place to visit for the authentic experience, but it is not necessarily a desirable place to live. I’ve never understood the appeal of disaster movies either, other than a triumphalist affirmation of our own superiority in the face of catastrophe (meanwhile, great swathes of the world are still trying to recover from the previous disaster).

And yet, and yet… expecting all parts of our naughty, moody, spotty continent to behave in consistent and elegant fashion is neither realistic nor desirable. Much of this messiness is not just historically inflicted, but also self-inflicted. So what should those unruly teens aspire to? Especially when some of the older democracies and hitherto solid ‘grown-up’ civilisations seem to be losing their elegance (ahem! naming no names!).

Ultimately, Stasiuk sees himself as a chronicler of the period of transition from East Bloc to post-Communism. Many of the scenes he describes have perhaps already disappeared. So yes, it is a valuable document, rooted in its time and place. Just forgive this reader for not being able to read it entirely objectively.

The depressing and still unrecognised republic of Transnistria, from The Calvert Journal.