Posts Tagged ‘1940s’

I present to you my Grade Four review of Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford.
Things I liked about this book:
  • It’s by a Mitford. The good thing about this set of British aristocrats is that, while they were boating about having affairs, being friends with fascists and designating upper-class English usage, they also turned out some good books.
  • Love in a Cold Climate continues Austen’s tradition of humorously depicting upper-class life and times, though with far more racy scandals than dear chaste Jane would ever have described. To quote the blurb: ‘When Polly, a beautiful aristocrat, declares her love for her married, lecherous uncle — who also happens to be her mother’s former lover…’ etc.
  • The characters are beyond funny. The main character, Fanny, is first known among society as the daughter of the ‘Bolter’, because her mother continually bounced from lover to lover. [Edit: the 'Bolter' is real!] Fanny’s uncle, Davey, writes the names of people he hates on a slip of paper and puts the paper in chests of drawers in accordance with a superstition that the named person will die. Cedric Montdore is the Brüno of 1940s England. Boy Dougdale, who has a keen taste for young girls, is also a keen embroiderer.
  • British names of the early 1900s are so good, always: Boy Dougdale, Mrs Chaddesley Corbett, Leopoldina Montdore.
  • Mitford’s rendering of young girls’ chatter is really charming: they twitter and coo like actual doves.
  • Great title. Apparently it’s taken from a George Orwell book.
  • It was a very pleasant read.
Things I didn’t like about this book:
  • Boring first few pages. So boring that I would have almost given up on the book if I hadn’t had to read it for book club.
  • Though the characters are hilarious, they mostly interact with each other as types with funny qualities rather than actual people. In this respect, very different to Austen, though of course that’s not a failing in itself. But it’s pretty hard to care about anything that happens to the characters since they have so little depth.
  • Fanny, the narrator, is one of the most boring narrators I have ever encountered in literature. She hardly has an interesting emotion of her own except when it’s thought necessary to marry her off. Then, she desultorily falls in love with a couple of people and settles down, hands in lap, to tell the rest of the story. The interaction between her and her indifferent Oxford don husband is pretty good, though.
  • In contrast to the rest of the book, the end is rather abrupt, neat and coy, probably owing to the fact that homosexuality was not the most acceptable topic in mid-1900s England. So, a bit ooh-ahh in 1940s; a bit nothing now.
  • When I think about this book in retrospect, I feel slightly ill because I can’t really remember reading it. Kind of like eating fairy floss, which is never to be recalled without assessing the sensory impression as somewhat disparate to its caloric intake.
  • In fact, I felt so bored thinking about this book that I had to put the review in dot points to keep myself on track. And now it’s finished, and I’ll never have to think about it again.

‘You like to hunt?’
‘Yes, man. More than anything. We all hunt in my village. You do not like to hunt?’
‘No,’ said Robert Jordan. ‘I do not like to kill animals.’
‘With me it is the opposite,’ the old man said. ‘I do not like to kill men.’

Dear The Rest of the World,

This is a little epistle about the anxiety of reading Very Important Books. This point has become of interest to me because I have finally read For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. It’s the only Ernest Hemingway book I’ve ever read (apart from The Old Man and the Sea, which almost doesn’t count because it’s so beautiful and austere it reads like a story that has always existed about the creation of the world). I read For Whom the Bell Tolls every day on the train, swallowing that restraintful, resolute prose in twenty-page increments. How could someone portray the scale of war so well by simply writing about the monoplanes that fly over one small patch of Spanish sky and the cafes where Communist heroes go to meet their mistresses; and how is it possible that in the same book, that author can desolate as well as exhilarate a reader by furnishing them with a many-layered portrait of a man behind enemy lines?

But even though the famous terse locution thrilled me, and the intimacy with the protagonist, Robert Jordan, edified me, I have to admit to you, The Rest of the World, that sometimes I felt a little adrift. I don’t know much about the Spanish Civil War, and I don’t know much about Hemingway either. And when I felt my attention begin to wane, I panicked a little. Did I not know enough about the context to enjoy this canonical book? Was there something else I just wasn’t getting? Can I ask you a question, The Rest of the World? (And do you mind if I just call you ‘World’?) Do you get this anxious about reading canonical novels? Is it like going out on a date with the quarterback (or the full-forward)?

So I did what I usually do in these situations: turn to people who know more about things than I do. I found four academic articles about For Whom the Bell Tolls. In true me-style, I had picked one article which only referred to the book once, so that left me with three. The others were interesting, though. Kristine A. Wilson introduced me to the word ‘tauromachy’ (show-off synonym for ‘bullfighting’) and more importantly Federico Garcia Lorca’s concept of duende as a way of interpreting the novel. Duende is a slightly amorphous notion, but can approximately be described as ‘a depth and quality of emotion, a dramatic sense of emotional intensity, manifested in the production and experience of great art.’

Vague as that definition might be, World, I found this a very useful concept. Lorca claims that this variant of pathos resonates especially for the Spanish people, who accord death a special status. Duende arises out of a recognition of the tension between life and death, as well as the spectre and ‘weight of human history’. All this tension is aimed at an audience and ‘inspires passion for life’ –a little like the Greeks’ catharsis. Wilson’s article helped with the parts of the novel I found most difficult, which were the love scenes between Jordan and his guapa, Maria. These scenes are positively flowery compared to the terseness of the language elsewhere, and full of the kinds of claims–the earth moves!–that romantic little boys and girls everywhere might find sigh-inducing. I found them grossly misjudged at the time of reading, and I still find them some of the worst-written passages of the book, but Lorca’s schema gives them a place in Hemingway’s emotion-building.

The third article, ‘Gendering Men: Re-Visions of Violence as a Test of Manhood in American Literature’ by Josep Armengol, proposed that Hemingway was obsessed with the idea of violence as a test of manhood because of a violent father and evidenced by participation in military activities and hunting, and of course, his novels which ‘recurrently explore “the condition of a man in a society upset by the violence of war”‘. Thus, it follows that violence was one of his main fictional subjects. My understanding of For Whom the Bell Tolls was not as radically improved by this article, World — I didn’t think it was rigorous enough in defining its terms. But it did shade in a few pale areas of Hemingway’s personal history.

Finally, the work of Karen Engle, which used For Whom the Bell Tolls as a springboard for discussion of how sexual war crimes are conceptualised by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. That’s two of my favourite topics together, World, human rights and literature. Engle wrote about the judicial treatment of rape by the ICTY and how it functioned ‘to limit the narratives about women in war, denying much of women’s sexual, political, and military agency.’ Although many people consider Hemingway a misogynist, Engle argued that Hemingway’s portrayal of Maria was more complex than simply ‘victim’; she is also a woman who fought her abusers, assists with the partizans‘ preparations for the blowing up of the bridge, and continues to have a successful sexual life despite the suffering she sustains every day.

So, World, I think I succeeded in milking For Whom the Bell Tolls of as much meaning as I could happily extract without getting a qualification/payment out of it. I’m no longer embarrassed to say that I did get bored at times with the seemingly interminable minutiae in the novel. But I’m at peace with that being a subjective judgment, rather than the corollary of being poorly informed. As a bonus, my not-quite-connection with the book tossed me into contact with some interesting things. Sure, I’m a neurotic reader, but I’m a contented one now, too.

Nice feelings,

(Picture also includes evidence of my weekend lifestyle magazine habit. I’m totally busted.)

Okay, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. There’s a new highly coveted prize in town: the 3000 Books Book of the Month. Yes, that’s right.

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How do you feel about that? I feel pretty good about it.

Anyhow, this book blew my mind and then some. Konrad Lorenz was the post-Hugh Lofting Dr Dolittle, an ethologist whose house was besmirched by the droppings of birds, monkeys and dogs alike. Lorenz had a blessed combination of curiosity, patience and skill which enabled him to observe and comprehend the activities of animals. Not only that, in King Solomon’s Ring he relates them with such humour and gentle enthusiasm that you’re a fair way to being as in love with him as the jackdaw who tried to feed Lorenz with mealworm goo.

King Solomon’s Ring is so readable because, as well as possessing a charming and occasionally distinctly German turn of phrase (“You have got a chaffinch, he is lovely and sings well.”), Lorenz is a genius at describing animals with reference to human behaviour. Thus, the war-dance of the male fighting fish, probably perceived by the regular Joe as a mere watery wriggle, takes on the significance of Homeric lay. It is an honest-to-God page turner, and I can’t recommend it any more highly. I even used ‘jewel font’.

God, but that annoyed me: if he wanted someone educated all he had to do was marry Jeanne Beder, she’s got breasts like hunting horns but she knows five languages.

I felt a misled by the title of this book. Jean-Paul Sartre’s collection of existentialist short stories, Intimacy, is called Le Mur in french, or ‘The Wall’. The renaming of a work when translated always has the potential to go awry. Both titles are taken from one of the stories within, but as you can see, the ones chosen are not really interchangeable. Of course, such changes can be deliberate in drawing attention elsewhere. But I really feel that the french title is more telling. The stories deal with the crises that crop up in a life, such as problems in love, philosophy or politics, and each sufferer’s troubles are personally significant and difficult to surmount.

‘Intimacy’, as a title, seems to promise the elucidation and the minutiae of relationships between people, but this is not really the case. The title story does deal with a crisis point within the marriage of Lulu and Henri, and introduces Lulu’s various supports (a friend, the ripe Rirette; and a lover, Pierre, basically absent). By the first page, you’ve also got a quotable quote about intimacy: ‘when Lulu put it in the dirty laundry bag she couldn’t help noticing the bottoms were yellow from rubbing between his legs.’

The other stories are very different though, particularly two (‘Erostratus’ and ‘The Childhood of a Leader’) in which Sartre deals predominantly with the thoughts and actions of one individual. It would be easy enough to stretch the thematic aegis of the title to include intimacy with one’s self, though contrived. In that case, ‘Intimacy’ might be an appropriate title, but by no means is it an illuminating one. Intimacy is assumed, and necessary, with all of Sartre’s characters — he shows you their barest and most motivating thoughts. But what is viewed through that intimacy is far more interesting, and the salient lesson can be characterised as the cruelty of freedom and decisions; deciding how to die, deciding to kill — this book could as appropriately have been called ‘Death’.

Of commercial interest: this book is hard to get a hold of. There is only one used copy of this book at Amazon, and one new copy at Better World Books. None at Book Depository.

Thirteen stories: a giant is walking. You are between her articular cartilage and patella, deep within the knee, wedged to the quick – then suddenly released. Such is the effect of Anais Nin’s fierce, intimate writing. One moment a reader dreads pending discomfort, but the next moment remembers suffocating and delightful intensity.

Nin’s indulgent, figurative prose may not appeal to everyone; her prose can be self-involved to a fault. Many of the stories read as undisguised excerpts from her famous and numerous diaries, and still others evoke their centrality in her creative life: “I was eleven years old when I walked into the labyrinth of my diary” (The Labyrinth). However, her life-long practice of journal writing has enabled her to shore up a capacity for observing others as well. Under A Glass Bell is magnetic when the narrator (often an ‘I’ barely distinguishable from Nin herself) extols the virtues of one of her various and terrible characters, whether a woman deep in the incoherent throes of childbirth or an artist conversing in his insanity.

Much of the stories’ impact comes from Nin’s penchant for vivid imagery, exemplified by the rare and beautiful Persian prints sent to the title story’s heroine, Jeanne. Such singular images signify emotion, often without bending to plot. Thus the stories of Under A Glass Bell read like postcards from a place withstanding a Mount Washington wind, featuring pictures of things which have been burnt long ago yet retain an extreme heat.

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