March 1st, 2015

A Half of Two Lives, by Alison Waley (1982)

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Covers of UK and US editions of 'A Half of Two Lives'
First, let’s start with the facts, since these are not this book’s strong suit.

Sometime in 1929, Arthur Waley, who was working as Assistant Keeper of Oriental Prints and Manuscripts at the British Museum and who had began to be known as a translator and popularizer of Asian literature with his publication of A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems, met Alison Grant, a young woman recently emigrated to London from New Zealand. She fell headlong in love with him and he was at least strongly attracted to her. Soon after, he took her back to his flat and they spent the night lying together, fully clothed, in his bed. As he led her to the street the next day, he tells her, “You must never come here again.” Why? Because “There is a lady in Fez….”

The lady in Fez was Beryl de Zoete, a dancer, writer, and researcher into exotic dance forms, with whom Waley had begun living in 1918. Although Beryl was “in Fez”–with three male admirers in tow–Waley implied that her return was imminent and that their ambiguous relationship had to take precedence over whatever he might like to start up with Alison. And so they parted, only to catch glimpses and exchange a few words while passing in and out of the British Museum. Alison married, bore a son, and carried on–the whole time still carrying a torch for Arthur.

Then, sometime in 1943, they met again in the midst of the Blitz and decided to resume the affair. Alison’s husband walked in on the pair–again lying together fully-clothed–and left her. Arthur, however, stayed firmly embedded with Beryl. And even more firmly embedded to the life of the solitary scholar. A man who spent his life studying and translating the literature of Asia, he never actually traveled more than a few hundred miles from London and was never able to converse in Chinese or Japanese. By all accounts other than Alison’s, he was at his happiest alone with his books and papers.

Nearly twenty years passed. Ten years older than Arthur, Beryl began to suffer the effects of Huntington’s chorea and was eventually confined to a bed in their Bloomsbury flat, where she died in 1962 at the age of 82. Alison swooped in and began to arrange for a life together with Arthur. Arthur appeared somewhat less enthusiastic at the prospect–in fact, he went and rented a studio flat–but after injured in an automobile accident while Alison was driving and, in its aftermath, diagnosed with cancer of the spine, he agreed to spend his few remaining months with her. Weeks before his death, they are wed at the local registry office. Arthur died in 1966 at the age of 76; Alison lived on to the next millennium, dying at the age of 100 in 2001.

Now, to the book.

In some ways, I’m tempted to call this the greatest of all English romances.

I say that because A Half of Two Lives features some of the most passionate love scenes, some of the most operatically intense raptures, some of the most uncontrolled and unashamed outbursts of desire to be found in any pages of English prose. Although she had to wait until the age of 82 to publish her love story, Alison Grant Robinson Waley managed to channel all the energy and focus of her inner teenager into its telling.

And I say that because, at the same time, this is a very English romance. Whether Arthur and Alison or Arthur and Beryl ever did actually have sex remains in doubt. Some writers suggest that Arthur was actually a tightly closeted homosexual, and among the weirder passages in this book are recollections of his distaste and dismissal of gays (“No party without buggers,” he sighed when reviewing a list of guests prepared by Alison). Although Arthur assures Alison at the very onset, “I love you. Every sort of way. Even physically,” it becomes clear that “even physically” is defined as holding hands, snuggling, and, in very special moments, kissing. By the time Arthur and Alison are living together, he is paralyzed from the chest down. There was a rumor, back in 2008, that the Hungarian director Istvan Szabo was planning to make a film based A Half of Two Lives. Had he stayed faithful (no pun intended) to the book, the film would been lucky to earn a “PG” rating.

What no one–other than Alison Waley–questions, though, is that this is not a work of nonfiction. Reviewing it for the New York Times, Humphrey Carpenter wrote, “There are many kinds of biography, and this is none of them.” He preferred to call it “a kind of mad, splendid poem.” Marina Warner, in The Sunday Times politely demurred that “it does not resemble a conventional biography,” while Hermione Lee was–by TLS standards–blunt in calling it “a fervent, fragmentary, and extremely odd narrative.” Even Hilary Spurling, in her well-modulated introduction to the book, advised that, “Some of the stranger episodes … do not tally with other people’s recollections any more than the anguished and tormented Arthur of this book matches previously published reminiscences of the great sinologist.”

Writing in the London Review of Books, Penelope Fitzgerald was characteristically insightful and deft: “Alison Waley, although she is a poet, has been too close to what she calls ‘every tear, every pain, every certainty’ to record them with precision. Sincerity should be the same thing as clarify, but isn’t.” And even between her own lines, Alison Waley occasionally betrays herself. At one gathering of the Bloomsbury elite, Arthur refused to introduce her, remarking, “One doesn’t introduce a child.” A further clue to Waley’s reservations can be found in this note from a 2011 auction of a collection of his letters and postcards to Beryl and Alison: “Waley’s correspondence with his future wife, Alison Grant Robinson, chiefly comprises the briefest notes, suggesting an elusive and apologetic relationship: ‘I shall be delighted to see you, on condition you don’t say nasty things about Beryl'; ‘I hate to cause you pain & disappointment'; ‘Will you obey me or not?'”

In a 1986 article in the Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries, Marian Ury quotes Edith Sitwell, writing to William Plomer after a visit from Alison: “[She] thinks one has to be screwed up to the pitch at which one writes, the whole time–otherwise one isn’t a writer.” And that, finally, defines what makes A Half of Two Lives simultaneously horrifying and wonderful. “Time must have a stop,” Alison quotes at several points in this book, but it’s obvious she never felt that applied to her passions, which she could still let blast full-bore in her ninth decade.

Even at a distance of over twenty years, for example, she cannot mute the tone of romantic madness in her last encounter with Beryl:

Beryl–propped with a dozen pillow–regards me with wavering glance.

I take her wildly jerking hands in mine and they are suddenly still. Looking only into her eyes, now fixed on mine and strangely glowing, I say: “Hullo, Beryl …” I lean forward and kiss her brow–sweat-soaked, dark and strange under its flying wisps of white. I sit back on my heels and lay my bare arms along her own–no more than withered sticks: but our eyes hold. And in that long moment we are known to one another so that nothing stands between. In some no-place, in some mid-heaven, a truce is called: all is as it might have been. I feel only a surge of love and joy that from that grotesque mask the eyes–oh, but unbelievably–are smiling into mine.

The next time an English composer is in need of a good libretto, he should take a careful look at A Half of Two Lives. If the book’s not the basis for the Great English Opera, there’s no question that Alison Waley is certainly a perfect candidate for the Great English Operatic Heroine with her motto, “Keep Hysterically Passionate and Carry On.”


A Half of Two Lives, by Alison Waley
London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1982
New York: McGraw Hill, 1983


 

February 27th, 2015

Dinner Party at Sea, from Flamingo, by Mary Borden

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oceanliner

The dinner party, thanks to the little pills that Mr. Parkinson always had by him, was a great success. Mr. Parkinson swallowed one, and made Mrs. Prime do the same, saying in his high, funny falsetto voice, “Here you are, Biddy,” and then the cocktail table shot across the floor and he went with it, landing on his head in a flowerpot. But he didn’t seem to mind. He picked himself up, ruefully feeling his head and smiling, and Mrs. Prime cried out, “Oh, darling Perky,” rather crossly, and pulled his clothes straight. They were evidently great friends.

That sort of thing kept happening during the evening. Still, Mr. Daw’s little dinner was very nice. It was like all pleasant expensive dinners, except that the ship turned over on its side every ten minutes, carrying with it down the sliding slope of a rushing monstrous mass of water the panelled restaurant with its gleaming white cloths and its pretty shaded lamps; except that the waiters clasping bottles of champagne fell on their knees and shot swiftly backward like crabs, and the peaches from California rolled round the floor, and the musicians went headlong with their fiddles and music racks on top of them, after the piano, crash, into a heap in the corner; except that Gussie’s slim little feet were covered with a soft warm mess of scrambled eggs that came scuttling and spilling under the table from somewhere, and that the iced soufflé went into Bridget’s lap. Otherwise, one would have thought one was at the Berkeley or Claridge’s or the Embassy Club.

from Flamingo, by Mary Borden
New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1927


 

February 24th, 2015

“How Like a Woman,” from Poems, by Alice and Caroline Duer (1986)

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Women in tea-room

How Like a Woman

I you to come to-day–
Or so I told you in my letter–
And yet, if you had stayed away,
I should have liked you so much better.
I should have sipped my tea unseen,
And thrilled at every door-bell’s pealing,
And thought how nice I could have been
Had you evinced a little feeling.

I should have guessed you drinking tea
With someone whom you loved to madness;
I should have thought you cold to me,
And revelled in a depth of sadness.
But, no! you came without delay
I could not feel myself neglected:
You said the things you always say,
In ways not wholly unexpected.

If you had let me wait in vain,
We should, in my imagination,
Have held, what we did not attain,
A most dramatic conversation.
Had you not come, I should have known
At least a vague anticipation,
Instead of which, I grieve to own,
You did not give me one sensation.

from Poems, by Alice and Caroline Duer
New York: George H. Richmond & Co., 1896

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

Alice Duer married Henry Wise Miller a few years after publishing this book of poems with her sister Caroline, and became Alice Duer Miller, who wrote “Forsaking All Others,” a verse short novel featured here recently (post).

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.


 

February 21st, 2015

A Tower of Steel, by Josephine Lawrence (1943)

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Cover of first US edition of 'Tower of Steel'
You probably couldn’t find a more resolutely practical novelist than Josephine Lawrence. In the 30-plus adult novels she wrote between 1932 and 1975, she consistently wrote about people coping with problems of everyday life: growing old, growing up, dealing with children and aging parents, trying to make ends meet, getting laid off, finding a decent house to live in, figuring out how to get along with annoying neighbors, figuring out whether the person you’ve been going with for the last two years is the one you’re supposed to marry.

Partly this may be due to the fact that she spent a few years writing “Question and Answer,” an early advice column ala “Dear Abby” that appeared in the Newark Sunday Call. Coming early in her career, this experience put her in touch with the dilemmas of her readers, and these became the vein she mined for over forty years at the rate of a book every fifteen months.

In the case of A Tower of Steel, the problems revolved around the fact that the United States had entered a war, enlisting or drafting millions of men, consuming precious resources, and leaving many of the non-combatants in an odd sort of limbo. Marsh Lyman, well into his seventies (his staff call him “the Old Man”), has to hold off on retirement while he keeps the law firm of Lyman, Lyman, Lyman, and Lyman going in the absence of his three nephews and partners, all serving in uniform.

… the silence of the room in which she and the Old Man sat had in it a curious quality of pressure or of waiting. That oppressive heaviness, suffocating, labored, shutting them away from reality, extended, she fancied, beyond the closed door. those other silent offices, empty except for shadows, pulled constantly at the Old Man’s thoughts. He looked in each one every morning, had instructed Mrs. Mullane to clean and dust them. The rooms waited, he waited, and it was the struggle not to let life stop, not to listen to the silence, that weighted the quiet atmosphere.

Supporting him is a staff of four women, each dealing with one or other of the challenges of life. Thalia, Marsh’s experienced and capable secretary, endures living with a rough-and-tumble extended family sharing a ramshackle house with just one bathroom. Frannie, the office manager, tries to stay ahead of a shopaholic mother coming out of her third marriage and on the hunt for a fourth, along with an uncle still suffering PTSD from the Spanish-American War. Leis, another secretary, worries about her husband, off at an Army camp in some dusty town in Texas. Bon, 17 and in her first full-time job, worries about just one thing: finding a boyfriend.

Reading A Tower of Steel is an immersion into life on the homefront during World War Two. Characters keep careful track of their meat and fat points, calculate whether they can afford to take a weekend trip with the remaining gas they have in the car, get crammed and jostled in over-crowded buses and trains, tip-toe past G.I.s on two-day passes sleeping on couches in their apartment house lobbies, shed a tear for their last pair of pre-war nylons, get married after three days’ acquaintance when orders come to ship out, and dread the sight of a Western Union messenger with a telegram from Washington.

Yet there is also much that seems strikingly contemporary. All the stories in A Tower of Steel pivot around the same axis: the office. A working woman herself, Lawrence recognizes the special place that work has in our lives. “This office,” says Thalia, “is all that keeps me from going completely out of my mind.” Frannie agrees. “In fact, Thalia, I’ve come to the conclusion that if a man needs two wives, it’s doubly true that a woman needs two lives. One in, and one out.”

Perhaps the most interesting perspective on work comes from Marsh Lyman’s wife, Caroline, who feels that, lacking this second life leaves her “unprotected and vulnerable” when her husband comes home “beset by the secret heaviness that cannot be shared”:

Office workers, Caroline believed, shared nothing, at least not honestly. There was always something left which belonged only to the single identity. The office might–might it not?–under these circumstances, furnish an escape, a sedative, or simply stabilize?

“Sooner or later there must be born a generation of women wise enough to balance their lives,” she hopes–a thought that still comes to many people today.

One has to call A Tower of Steel a work of craft, rather than art. Although Lawrence occasionally rises to some fine prose (a wedding party where laughter “spiraled above the voices and cracked into fragments like broken glass”), her primary goal is to move her characters through their trials and tribulations. While some critics have written that Lawrence’s characters tend toward the cardboard, I found them sketched convincingly enough to have distinct personalities. And while there is one case of love at first sight, most of the romances are moderated and believable. Bon becomes smitten with a likeable young sailor, certain they will share the rest of their lives together, and just as quickly realizes there are other fish in the sea moments before they say farewell at Grand Central. Leis decides to join her husband in Texas but dreads the fact that she will be nothing but an encumbrance in the eyes of the Army.

And, frankly, I thoroughly enjoyed, for a change, a story completely free of any symbolism, mannerism, pretense or artfulness. If filmed at the time it was published, A Tower of Steel would have been the second feature at the movie house–a good second feature, but one without award-winning directing, memorable cinematography, or lines that would get quoted decades later: just a good story with a cast of solid professionals, told well and without much fuss and muss. Not great art, but very good craft.


A Tower of Steel, by Josephine Lawrence
Boston: Little, Brown and Company


 

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