The Lighter Side of Shirley Jackson

After reading about the dreams and disappointments of a Brazilian housewife, I simply had to return to Shirley Jackson’s delectable yet barbed stories of domestic bliss. Raising Demons is a sequel to her first series of snapshots of American middle-class family life, Life Among the Savages. That first book proved so popular that she was begged to do more in that vein – and it is such a contrast to her dark, disturbing fiction, you will hardly believe this is the same writer.

It is mostly a light-hearted affair, with a deceptively simple stream of consciousness style, as if a gossipy friend is telling us about her day. Yet I can feel a tension in these cheery accounts of moving house with four children, family trips to New York City, the joys and woes of Little League baseball and a broked-down refrigerator.

Shirley Jackson and her children (and dog) round about the time the book was published.

On the surface, this is the dream that women in the 1950s and 60s were supposed to aspire to… but it must have been difficult for gifted women to achieve those almost impossible standards of married bliss and domesticity (straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting) and still have the energy left to create art or literature or music. Yet many of them craved both – but had been taught to expect only minimal help from their husbands! We hear about these almost schizophrenic impulses nearly tearing creatives apart, from Sylvia Plath to Anne Sexton, Lee Miller to Frida Kahlo.

So there is an undercurrent of anxiety in Jackson’s stories. She alludes to financial worries and her husband’s complaints that they are all going to go bankrupt because of her extravagant shopping. You would never guess that her earnings from writing at the time were far outstripping her husband’s college salary. However, you might guess that he was controlling and tight-fisted when she jokes about the underhand ways in which she has to convince her husband to give her money for food ‘by a series of agile arguments and a tearful description of his children lying at his feet faint from malnutrition.’ Meanwhile, his coin collection grows and grows.

There are other hints of fissures within their marriage, with several sarcastic comments about the pressures of being a male lecturer at a girl’s college, or when he tactlessly announces the visit of an old girlfriend:

I said it was positively touching, the way he kept up with his old friends, and did Sylvia always use pale lavender paper with this kind of rosy ink and what was that I smelled – perfume? My husband said Sylvia was a grand girl. I said I was sure of it. My husband said Sylvia had always been one of the nicest people he knew. I said I hadn’t a doubt. My husband said that he was positive that I was going to love Sylvia on sight. I opened my mouth to speak but stopped myself in time.

My husband laughed self-consciously. ‘I remember,’ he said, and then his voice trailed off and he laughed again.

‘Yes?’ I asked politely.

‘Nothing,’ he said.

There is an even more pointed reference to her husband Stanley Hyman’s infidelities in the story of how he got invited to judge a Miss Vermont beauty contest.

‘Daddy is going to see a lot of girls,’ Sally told Barry. She turned to me. ‘Daddy likes to look at girls, doesn’t he?’

There was a deep, enduring silence, until at last my husband’s eye fell on Jannie.

‘And what did you learn in school today?’ he asked with wild enthusiasm.

This is the Shirley Jackson we know and love, always ready to plunge the knife in stealthily, when you least expect it.

I have no doubts some of the incidents have been exaggerated for comic effect, but many of her exploits and rants will sound very familiar to weary mothers everywhere.

Finally, after a good deal of worry I went out and bought a couple of epicure magazines, and leafed through them all morning looking for something exciting I could serve for dinner, and I found a recipe for a casserole dish based on stuffed cabbage with ground round steak and cashew nuts which I thought I could try… I decided to leave out the onion in the recipe because Sally would not eat anything so highly flavoured… I could not mix the ground round steak with rice because Laurie loathes rice. My husband could not bear tomatoes in any form, Jannie would not touch cabbage, and no one in the family except me cared for sour cream. When I had finished eliminating from the casserole what I had was a hamburger studded with cashew nuts, which was undeniably a novelty, although I am afraid that on the whole my casserole was not a success. Everyone carefully removed the cashew nuts and set them aside, and Laurie asked irritably if we always had to have hamburger for dinner.

These rants seem to be written in an effortless blurting out style, without any technique. But of course that is not the case. Shirley Jackson was a master stylist, carefully deliberating every word, and even if these stories were churned out much faster than her darker stories or novels, they are still full of rhythm and little darts landing in precisely the right spot.

Jackson certainly does not romanticise motherhood, and clearly longs for some time away from her brood. She is an inept housekeeper and pokes fun at herself for that. Behind the fatigue and exasperation, however, we detect a sense of wistfulness, a fear that they are growing up too quickly, and an ear well-tuned to her children’s vocabulary, fears and wishes.

The barbs are fully in place when she describes the ‘joys’ of being a faculty wife. So much so that the college president told her husband off for allowing the publication of the book.

A faculty wife is a person who is married to a faculty. She has frequently read at least one good book lately, she has one ‘nice’ balck dress to wear to student parties, and she is always just the teensiest bit in the way… She is presumed to have pressing and wholly absorbing interests at home… It is considered probable that ten years or so ago she had a face and a personality of her own, but if she has it still, she is expected to keep it decently to herself.

I was not bitter about being a faculty wife, very much, although it did occur to me once or twice that young men who were apt to go on and become college teachers someday ought to be required to show some clearly distinguishable characteristic, or perhaps even wear some large kind of identifying badge, for the protection of innocent young girls who might in that case go ont o be the contented wives of furniture repairmen or disc jockeys or even car salesmen…

I put in four good years at college, and managed to pass almost everything, and got my degree and all, and I think it was a little bit unkind of fate to send me back to college the hard way, but of course there were things I might have done – or, put it, people I might have married – which would have landed me in worse positions. Bluebeard, anyway.

We know that Jackson suffered from depression and agoraphobia later in life, that she and her children felt occasionally ostracised by the small-town community. In these stories, however, she shows us her funny side, the imaginative and quick-witted mother that her children would remember with delight.

To Raise Your Blood Pressure…

  • simply take a few news items from around the world
  • read the ‘witty’ and ‘informed’ comments below the said news items
  • scroll down through a Twitter storm
  • realise how lucky you are that you no longer look at Facebook (because the comments there are even uglier)
  • feel the hairs on the back of your neck rising when you recognise that people and countries that you thought were politically mature and sophisticated seem to be sleepwalking into situations you were desperate to leave behind once upon a time
  • breathe in, breathe out, tell yourself you are over-reacting
  • have far more deadlines and projects going on than one person with normal capabilities and normal working hours can accomplish
  • have tricky conversations all day at work
  • get stuck in rush hour delays
  • come home to lazy teenagers who ask ‘What’s for supper?’ but haven’t thought at all about clearing the table or buying milk
  • do not allow yourself be provoked by emails from your ex (i.e. do learn to swallow down all the clever retorts that he might then forward to his solicitor to use against you in court)
  • go out to buy tonic water to make yourself a G&T
  • realise it’s the third time this week you’ve been buying tonic water at the corner shop
  • worry about the amount of alcohol you are consuming
  • wonder if you could drink gin without the tonic
  • agree with your mother on the phone about what a failure your life has been and will be, how she told you so years ago if only you’d listened, and how much better the sons and daughters of her acquaintances are doing
  • oh, don’t forget to hmm-hmm and not answer back when she says about how much children of divorce suffer and how they are irretrievably damaged, she knows of approximately three such examples herself and can remind you of them repeatedly
  • feel guilty for making faces at the phone when you hold it a distance to escape the monotony
  • worry about your father’s health and whether you will have to care for your mother in her undoubtedly difficult old age, full of health problems and loneliness, for ‘age will not wither her… complaints’
  • accept that your children will probably not care for you in old age, although you’ve been a much kinder, more understanding and less demanding mother to them than yours has been to you
  • compose yet another letter for your French pension provider to try and figure out if you will have any pension rights there at all after Brexit
  • try to find an affordable smaller (but not too small) house in your area in case you have to sell the current one – although you have lost the will to move or even to decorate or do any home improvements, knowing that it will just be a stop-gap solution for 4-5 years and a total waste of money
  • make a list of To Do lists and watch the money go down, down, down in your account as you buy all the ‘back to school’ necessities
  • find out the cost of a barrister and watch your account being emptied even more
  • buy a book reviewed by a blogger friend to make you feel better
  • feel guilty about spending £9 on a book or £15 on a film or play, although saving that amount won’t actually help with the legal costs
  • drown your guilt in cake
  • wonder until what time the corner shop is open and if you can still nip over there for another cake and a tonic water

That’s just an average day: anything I’ve missed out?

Russians in July: Odessa Stories

Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel, translated by Boris Dralyuk (Pushkin Press)

Odessa was a lawless, cosmopolitan port town on the fringes of the Russian Empire, on the Black Sea coast, home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. I say ‘was’, because, although it remained an important trading port during the Soviet period, it was also savagely attacked during the Second World War (it was one of the four Soviet cities to be given the title of Hero City, together with Leningrad, Stalingrad and Sevastopol) and 80% of its Jewish community was exterminated during the first 6 months of the occupation.

With its Mediterranean architecture, mixed ethnic composition and gang culture, Odessa might remind you of Marseille or Naples.

Its great variety of ethnicites remain tangled even nowadays: it is part of Ukraine, with a majority Ukrainean population, but the main language spoken is Russian, albeit an idiosyncratic Russian with a lot of local slang. It is this rich Odessan argot that the translator Dralyuk tries to capture, and he makes the completely logical choice to use the language of American pulp fiction and films for that purpose.

Babel published these stories in the early 1920s, and they consolidated the myths about the city and its gang culture. Legendary gang leaders such as Sonya the Golden Hand and Mishka the Jap (from the turn of the 20th century) were admired as well as vilified, perceived as rebels and Robin Hood type of characters (when in actual fact they were probably ruthless monsters). They are still a popular source of stories not just locally, but throughout the Russian (and then Soviet) empire. Babel creates his own gang leader, the charismatic yet cruel Benya Krik, known as The King.

The first part of the book narrates (not in linear fashion, these are all distinct stories) the rise of Krik – how he intimidated the new head of police in Odessa by setting fire to the police station, how he first acquired the nickname The King, how he took revenge on those who messed up his deals. It also introduces many other colourful local characters: old gangster boss Froim the Rook, avaricious landlady and smuggler Lyubka the Cossack, Aryyeh Leib the elder of the almshouse, the hapless broker Tsudechkis who seems to misread every situation. Although it can be tricky keeping track of who’s who, these are stories in the best oral tradition, fun, full of sly humour, exaggerated, larger than life, designed to make the listener laugh or cry out in shock.

If the first part of the book is a celebration of diversity and virility, the second part shows what happens when virility becomes aggressive and when innocent bystanders get caught up in events. This is not about quarrels between gangs anymore and the style is much more serious and lyrical, showing the broad range that Babel was capable of.

The narrator here is Babel’s alter ego, a slightly idealistic young Odessan who recalls his childhood and youth in the city. While many of the incidents he recalls are quirky and funny, full of Jewish humour and family foibles, some of the texts, such as The Story of My Dovecote, are heartbreaking, showing the many inequities and dangers to which the Jews living in the city were subjected. A ten-year-old boy who has been saving up assidously to buy a pair of beautiful dovers gets caught up in a vicious pogrom on his way home.

I lay on the ground, the crushed bird bird’s innards sliding from my temple. They ran down my cheek, winding, dribbling, and blinding me. The dove’s tender gut slipped down my forehead, and I shut my only unplastered eye, so that I wouldn’t have to see the world laid bare before me. This world was smal and terrible. There was a pebble lying in front of me, a jagged pebble, like the face of an old woman with a large jaw; and a piece of string; and a clump of feathers, still breathing.

I’ll finish on a more cheerful note, a brilliant quote from the slippery trickster Benya the King himself, who tries to excuse himself for having killed someone ‘accidentally’.

Aunt Pesya, if you want my life, you can have it, but everyone makes mistakes, even God. That’s what it was, aunt Pesya – a huge mistake. But wasn’t it a mistake on God’s part to put the Jews in Russia, where they suffer as if they’re in hell? I ask you, why not have the Jews live in Switzerland, with nothing but top-quality lakes, mountain air and Frenchmen as far as the eye can see? Everyone makes mistakes, even God.

Let’s pretend we don’t know about Babel’s untimely death and his subsequent erasure from Soviet literature. Luckily, he has been rehabilitated now and we can enjoy this earthy, lively, somewhat madcap collection of stories, bringing a new streak of – well, I wouldn’t exactly call it realism, perhaps ‘heightened realism’, but certainly a lot less gloom and pessimism than some of the great Russian writers.

Cleaning the Palate with Two Unusual Books

lesignorantsÉtienne Davodeau: Les ignorants. Récit d’une initiation croisée

Davodeau is a French author/illustrator of BD, Richard Leroy is a small-scale producer of dry white chenin in the Anjou region of the Loire valley. The project is very simple: they spend a year together, learning from each other about vineyards, grapes, the soil, but also about books, writing and drawing, storytelling. Wise and witty words and illustrations ensue about the world of publishing and bandes dessinées, and a down-to-earth view of the wine-making world. We find a vivacious exchange of ideas (sometimes confrontational), two adorable strong-headed main characters and simple drawings that give you room to breathe and enjoy.

The 'real' Richard Leroy in his vineyards, from wineterroirs.com
The ‘real’ Richard Leroy in his vineyards, from wineterroirs.com

A complete surprise and a delightful book that left me with a long TBR list of graphic novels and an even longer list of wines to try! I also like the humble premise of ‘ignorance’ about each other’s profession, with both friends eager to learn from each other.

The book has been translated into English under the title ‘The Initiates’ by Joe Johnson, published by NBM Publishing.

Wendy Cope (ed.): The Funny Side

This is, as the editor explains, a very personal selection of 101 humorous poems – not funny poems, not light verse, no long essays about definitions, simply poems that have amused Wendy Cope at some point in her reading and writing life. Some of them are laugh-out-loud funny, some are more droll or curious. Some are very well-known indeed (such as the limerick ‘There was a young bard of Japan’ or Dorothy Parker’s summary of suicide methods), others are a pleasant new discovery. Finally, there is a third category, those that leave me with an ‘Oh, is that all?’ feeling of disappointment. But that’s fine, because we all find different things amusing.

funnypoemsMy personal favourites are (unsurprisingly perhaps) on gender themes or mocking the life of organisations: May Swenson on ‘The James Bond Movie’, Liz Lochhead’s ‘Men Talk’ and Simon Armitage’s ‘Very Simply Topping Up the Brake Fluid’ (anyone who’s been patronised at a garage will love that one) for the first, Julie O’Callaghan’s ‘Managing the Common Herd’, Hugo Williams’ Desk Duty’ and Gavin Ewart’s ‘The Meeting’ for the second.

But, for a taster, I’ll share two very different poems in their entirety. Facetious? Perhaps, but they brightened up my day.

Scintillate by Roger McGough
I have outlived
my youthfulness
so a quiet life for me

where once
I used to
scintillate

now I sin
till ten
past three.

Alma Denny: Mrs Hobson’s Choice

What shall a woman
Do with her ego,
Faced with the choice
That it go, or he go?

 

 

I’ve Fallen in Love…

… with a pen.

Just look at you – you are  the stuff that dreams are made of! Svelte, classy, not easily intimidated…

MontBlancPen

 

You are photogenic from all angles.  I’ve examined you in close-up and hereby pronounce you irresistible.

MontBlancNib

 

So what if I barely use fountain pens anymore? I do prefer their smoothness, but usually end up with inky fingers.  I’m sure that you’ll  never let me down like that.  Once I am in your thrall, I might even consider abandoning my laptop for you.

Just imagine the masterpieces we could write together.  The royalties and contracts we could sign, covered in smiles.  The Nobel Prize acceptance speech we could produce five minutes before we have to give it.  You would be my secret weapon, my talisman, my precious.

And maybe you could also be a reminder that if I don’t start behaving like a writer, I do not deserve to have friends like you in my life.

MontBlanc3

No, my sweet, our time has not yet come!  But I promise you, when I publish my first book, whether it does well or not, whether anyone likes it or not, I shall find you and buy you and we shall live together in eternal bliss.

N.B. No pens, real or fictional, were harmed in the writing of this post.  Nor have I been paid by a certain luxury producer of writing instruments to advertise their products. This love is genuine, incorruptible… and, much like my novel, forever postponed.

Birth of a Class Clown

marblesAfter all that, he’d forgotten the frigging marbles at home!  He knew there’d be a price to pay for that at break-time.  Two weeks at this school had been enough to teach him that no one, not even Jacques with the kind eyes and shy smile, no one got away unharmed when they promised something to Noah… and failed to deliver.

There was only one way out of it.  Miss break-time.  Fake an illness.  Would it work?  Would the teacher grasp enough of his stuttering French?

The teacher finally looked up, just before his arm went to sleep.  He hadn’t wanted to speak up.

‘Yes?’

‘Je peux sortir?  J’ai mal au…’ What was the word for it again?  Never mind, he’d say it with a French accent. ‘Au… tummeee.’

‘Je peux sortir, Madame,’ the teacher corrected him sternly.

‘Madame… tummee.’ He didn’t know what possessed him to repeat the word.  Perhaps he thought it would inspire some sense of urgency.  Instead, laughter rose like waves on a dried and sunken beach.  Some of it was abandoned, hysterical.  The teacher’s frown deepened.  Some of it was derision, as usual, at his lack of language skills, but for once he could live with that.

Of course he wasn’t allowed out.  Not then, not later.  But that day he discovered his weapon of choice: disarming through laughter.