Posts Tagged ‘1950s’

You know, I never read Pippi Longstocking when I was little. I know, right? I went to the City Library to borrow Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (a childhood favourite, but my copy now no longer has a cover, nor a spine), and saw Astrid Lindgren’s classic sitting cheerfully beside. It piqued my interest on another account: Stieg Larsson has said that Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of his wildly popular Millenium Trilogy, was inspired in part by Pippi. I suppose Astrid Lindgren is to Swedish children what Enid Blyton is to British children; or perhaps it’s not as geographically specific as that. But Salander’s such an outsider, so wild, that I wondered what a beloved children’s heroine could have in common with her.

Well: a lot, as it turns out. Like Salander, Pippi is an orphan, almost alone in the world. She has ‘neither mother nor father, which was really rather nice, for in this way there was no one to tell her to go to bed just when she was having most fun, and no one to make her take cod-liver-oil when she felt like eating peppermints.’ She’s also isolated, though happily, and lives in an old cottage in an orchard with no one but a monkey called Mr Nelson for company. Her next-door neighbours, Annika and Tommy, are delighted at Pippi’s particular brand of absurd fun – her unpredictable cooking style is likely to see eggs on the cook as well as the bowl. But she’s not like anyone they’ve ever met before.

Another point of similarity between the two Swedish heroines is their fringe status. Pippi is a bit of a conundrum for the townspeople, who decide that she should be in a children’s home. But Pippi uses her abnormal strength to evade the police when they attempt to take away. And, unlike many other children’s books, it’s not normality, assimilation or integration that wins out. Pippi leaves you at the end of the book exactly as you found her, shouting ‘I’m going to be a pirate when I grow up … Are you?’

A little while back, I had a chat with the lovely Davina Bell – founding editor of harvest magazine, and editor in the children’s/young adult division at Penguin Books – about the books we devoured when we were, well, wee. Some of my favourites were Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, the Silver Brumby books, Roald Dahl’s nutty capers and Enid Blyton’s stories of blancmange and boarding school. And, okay, Sweet Valley High books. But no long stockings until now, which is a real shame. Pippi’s so anarchic and fun. I kind of want her to be my friend now.

What were your favourite childhood reads?

A woman, standing, with an eagle on her arm.

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What do I say about this book? Just be brief: ‘I hated it’? Simply state the facts: ‘This book contains 13 short stories’? Attempt to entertain instead of just being grumpy by exaggerating my response: ‘I was so bored while reading this book that I started to wonder if it would be okay to return it to the person I borrowed it from with “I want those hours of my life back, Vladimir” written in eyeliner on the front cover’? Just ask rhetorical questions instead of actually writing something of substance? Hokay, then.

Trying to formulate a compelling comment about a book I disliked so much feels like being in the chair of a halitosic dentist after having eaten nothing but sweets for seven years. I’ve read Lolita, of course, a long time ago, and remember being enthusiastic in no minor way about it. Nabokov’s faculty for witty and beautiful language is an absolute treat in that book. His familiar/formal tone perfectly made present the strangeness of child-lover Humbert Humbert. Just think upon this little excerpt:

Finally, on a Californian beach, perverse privacy in a kind of cave whence you could hear the separate part of the beach, behind rotting trees; but the fog was like a wet blanket, and the sand was gritty and clammy, and Lo was all gooseflesh and grit, and for the first time in my life I had as little desire for her as for a manatee.

Just look at that sentence structure, all elegant echoes; and the way Humbert seems fussy, while the language itself is not. I picked this sentence out pretty well at random, but it’s a juicy one: clean and balanced and alliterative; a tensile string prettily plucked at its end.

The problem in Nabokov’s Dozen (and who on earth picked that title?) isn’t the language. It’s a collection from which an interested random-excerpter could easily isolate many sweetly flavoured phrases of incomparable virtuosity and verve. I love this, from the end of ‘Signs and Symbols’:

His clumsy moist lips spelled out their eloquent labels: apricot, grape, beech plum, quince. He had got to crab apple, when the telephone rang again.

I mean, you can’t fault this writing. And there is a lot of the real breathtaking, high-wire stuff in here, too: there are model firmaments and teetotums gyrating and things get a bit violaceous. A reader’s attention can be well fed by writing like this for a little while. But there’s only so much this reader could take before she began to feel herself giving less and less of a shit about what happens. Sentences like these are fabulous on their own, but they aren’t put to much use in Nabokov’s Dozen. Instead, they have the brave, panicky sense of having been shoved up against each other like prize pooches at an animal show that’s particularly short on space.

Part of why this book failed to fully charm me can be characterised as a tendency towards over-the-top drama. Two of the stories have similar plosive endings, even though the characters and the situations are quite different. Just use your imagination a little bit, Vlad. However, these two stories were the ones I probably enjoyed the most in the collection, seeing as they actually had some drama in them. One was ‘Spring in Fialta’, a lovely but distant chase through a man’s memories of a woman, Nina, whom he loved but never managed to properly hold on to. The other, ‘The Aurelian’, tells the story of Paul Pilgram, a seller of butterflies, whose life is unexpectedly enlivened by the arrival of a customer with great enthusiasm for Pilgram’s colourful specimens. It’s a gorgeous story that depicts with pathos the inevitable decline of dreams, which is made more cruel by the exotic, unattainable nature of the insects Pilgram loves so much. Bonus points: Nabokov was a real-life butterfly enthusiast.

But there are some stories that lacked drama, or even any narrative drive. The final story, ‘Lance’, is like an overworded version of The Little Prince, with gerbils. I gave up on trying to understand what was happening — and I think only a couple of lines really served the ‘plot’ — and tried not to get a headache from all the florid prose. A couple of the stories are based loosely on people from Nabokov’s past; his childhood French instructor gets a look in (‘Mademoiselle O’) and his first beloved, as well (‘First Love’). Non-climactic and strongly sentimental, these are more like personal essays than stories per se. I don’t know why he bothered to fictionalise them; they might even have been more interesting as actual essays.

So, I don’t think I will be reading this. I might have to re-read Lolita soon, though. I really like stories with strong narrative arcs and finely judged moral or character tension. Good luck finding much of that in Nabokov’s Dozen. The writing’s nice, though.

Uh-oh. I’ve been outed as ‘a dog person’.

I bought The Elements of Style at the RMIT bookshop a little while back, sucked in by the morose basset hound on the front. I don’t live under a rock, so I’d heard of the book, and was curious about its take on the do’s and don’ts of the English language. My go-to style guy is Henry Dubya Fowler, but I thought my horizons could do with a little expanding.

While I was amongst it, as they say, I came across this article, 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice, by Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (via The Mumpsimus). From the title, you will be able to guess that Pullum doesn’t think ‘pon this little book with approval. In fact, he says that the authors are ‘grammatical incompetents’, Strunk having ‘very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less’. Ouch. I had noticed a few things that perturbed me, particularly over-rigid and outdated rules such as the exhortation not to start a sentence with ‘however’ when the meaning is ‘nevertheless’. Er, doesn’t everyone do that? Pullum agrees. He declares the advice in The Elements of Style anything from ‘sensible’ to ‘toxic’.

Some wisdom can be had from this book, especially for those like me whose education did not explicitly deal with the rudiments of grammar and style. (Is it just me, or is the Australian educational system a bit hands-off with those aspects of writing?) The authors counsel the writer to ‘omit needless words’, an oft-heard dictum which blessedly rings in my own ears from time to time, perhaps not often enough. The Elements of Style is also entertaining, an artifact recalling a grumpy professor who had probably corrected one too many crappy essays. For example, Rule 21 urges the unknowing to ensure that summaries are written in the same tense throughout. The authors plaintively disparage useless generalisations:

Facility: Why must jails, hospitals, and schools suddenly become “facilities”?

Yet, as with any book spawned by human beings with proclivities and their opposities, readers should be wary of taking the rules as gospel. Some of the rules are specific to a geographical usage area, such as S&W’s US-flavoured preference for the serial comma (the comma appearing before the ‘and’ separating the final item in a list, as in: ‘She ate apples, cakes, and radishes.’) and veteran language mavens will find some of the rules gratingly basic. Other times, the authors distill their irritation into rules that are unforgivably misformed. Take the explanatory section expanding on rule 22: ‘Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.’ Fine, except that halfway through this section appears the somewhat silly assertion: ‘The other prominent position in the sentence is the beginning.’

I’m in two minds about this book. On the one hand, The Elements of Style is a fascinating cult book, and certainly you can learn something from its pages. Actually, it’s not so cult: have you ever wondered why your Microsoft Word document has so many goddamn green zigzag lines through it? You’re probably using too much passive language, one of the S&W bugbears. But as a reference, I don’t recommend it, particularly for an Australian/British English writer. Its reasonable advice can be easily found elsewhere, and its deleterious propositions have actually muddled in my head with other, more legitimate fodder. It’s not particularly comprehensive, either, and non-US writers are better off picking a guide that is more appropriate to their writing region.

As I mentioned earlier, my bet for stylistic curmudgeon is Fowler, even as somewhat tempered by Burchfield. Pam Peters’ The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage is an up-to-date, non-prescriptivist behemoth for antipodean enthusiasts. For US writers, The Mumpsimus recommends Huddleston & Pullum’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar, Harper’s English Grammar by John Opdycke, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage and Patterns of English by Paul Roberts. If anyone out there champions any other Australian/British English usage guides, I’d love to hear what they are.

So my first attempt to characterise this book didn’t go so well. A conversation between me and my boyfriend about this book:

Me: It’s so French.
Him: What do you mean?
Me: Oh, I am zo in love, zis woman ‘as come along and iz ruining my life, she wants to marry my fazzer…
Him: The only thing French about that description is your accent.

So, again. Seventeen year old Cécile has just failed her exams, but it doesn’t bother her or her father, Raymond. Instead, they spend the summer confiding in each other about their lovers, dining and drinking together on the coast with their friends. However, Anne Larsen, an old friend of Cécile’s deceased mother, comes to visit them and exerts her calm, productive influence on their lives. Cécile is by turns grateful and resentful, and develops a plan to rid her and her father of Anne, who has designs on Raymond.

It’s a really enchanting little book (only 113 pages) mostly due to how Sagan portrays her heroine. Cécile should be distasteful; she is self-centred, cowardly, fulminant, crafty, changeable. Yet she is also contemplative, passionate and has been given an opportunity to benefit from her natural ability to understand human nature. When Cécile is chided for a giddy comment about her father’s love life, her emotions flare up, but the thoughtfulness of Anne has given her pause:

I suddenly felt angry…All the same I felt she was right: that I was governed by my instincts like an animal, swayed this way and that by other people, that I was shallow and weak. I despised myself, and it was a horribly painful sensation, all the more since I was not used to self-criticism. I went up to my room in a daze.

Yet her habits of self-possession and waywardness leads her to take a 26 year old lover, Cyril, and she co-opts him and Elsa, a pretty ex-lover of her father’s, into a scheme that will allow her and her father to live as before. However, she constantly suffers crises of confidence about whether she really does want Anne to depart, and spends as much energy desiring for her plan to fail as to succeed. The tragedy of the novel stems from Cécile’s inability to take her childish plan seriously:

And that is how I set the whole comedy in motion, against my better judgment…still it was amusing to try the plan out, and see whether my psychological judgement proved right or wrong.

Sagan pulls off a great trick by making a kept daughter a charming protagonist. Cécile has no illusions as to her ambitions or personality: ‘I realized that I was more gifted for kissing a young man in the sunshine than for taking a degree.’ There is something about her nonchalance that is quite lovely. In and amongst Cécile’s chatty, intimate disclosures, Sagan also allows her heroine moments of hyperbolic poetry:

We were of the same race; sometimes I thought we belonged to the pure and
beautiful race of nomads, and at others to the poor withered breed of hedonists.

Despite these self-evaluatory interludes, the novel crumpled into a bathetic end that reminded me of an execrable French film I attempted to watch on the plane once. (If you’re interested, La Fille de Monaco, IMDB user comments: ‘A comedy that turns serious for no very good reason’.) Still, considering Sagan was herself around Cécile’s age when she wrote the book, Bonjour Tristesse is a diverting novel with plenty of vitality and grace.

I must confess to very little knowledge of the triumphs and vagaries of the Roman empire. I know the names of the gods, and their Greek predecessors; I know a couple of humdrum Latin words, but nothing that would impress the boys behind the bike shed. Yet if it were possible for the life of each emperor in those fifteen centuries to be beheld through the passionate and tender words of Marguerite Yourcenar, I would amortize the debt of my ignorance most gladly. Her Hadrian’s intelligence and ceremony seethe throughout Memoirs of Hadrian‘s sinuous grace, which also owes a debt to Yourcenar’s friend Grace Frick’s translation. It is not easy to do justice to the fullness, the coherency of a life; the discrete clues of history are not always amenable to an embrace that is two thousand years behind.

A background in classics is not necessary for the enjoyment of the fineness of Yourcenar’s (a pseudonym, an approximate anagram of her actual surname, Crayencour) portrait of Rome’s 14th emperor. Rich is the tapestry placed before our eyes, dripping are the names and places from the pen of the emperor, but not an otiose or jarring word is to be seen. Such treatment is evidence of the great respect possessed by the author for her subject. However wild the religious experiments, however ceaseless the conflicts of the expanding Empire, however lavish the commonplaces of Principate life, Hadrian as expressed here is a clear-headed sophisticate who resists excesses of pride and display of power. But like many of literature’s and history’s best beloved, he cannot resist excesses of love or guilt. Therein lies the heart of this story, which for the first hundred pages is elegant and systematic and useful, but static; a great amount of pain brings experience into minute focus, and the narrative thereafter vibrates with the humanity of pain.

A ten year labour of research and writing was necessary for the work to come about, a labour which, as detailed in an appendix of the author’s notes, lacked no dramatic moments of self-doubt and derailing. Such endurance and toil paid off, and with interest. Yourcenar’s grasp on the politics, the geography and the personages of the early years AD would be oppressive if it were not so radically germane to the novel’s success to capture the feel, the heat of that burgeoning period of progress. The possible scale of one man’s life was so different then (and the possible scale of a woman’s life, one might say, was not so different). Hadrian has, in place of avocations, cities; wars, instead of simple mistakes; but also philosophy in place of leisure; the ecstatic and divine, the mysterious rather than the mundane; and to magnify all this, perpetuity.

It might be difficult in theory to trust a man like Hadrian, trained to speak with persuasion and act with cunning. His legacy, as presented in Memoirs of Hadrian, is nevertheless to be honoured, and unreservedly. The life of one who can assess the gifts and grit of mankind with so little self-pity and so much lucidity has much to offer. The words of one speaking from a time when man stood alone strike a plangent note for the notice even of an audience at the opposite extremes of time and space.