The Cucumber King and Other Stories, by Edwin Samuel (1965)

I’m pretty sure this is the first book written by a member of the House of Lords I’ve included on this site. I came across The Cucumber King and Other Stories while looking for short story collections on the Open Library, and downloaded a copy to my tablet. I had no idea who Edwin Samuel was, and it was only when preparing this piece that I discovered that he was, in fact, better known as Edwin Samuel, 2nd Viscount Samuel. Not just a member of the House of Lords but an officer in the Jewish Legion in World War One who’d had Private David Ben-Gurion serving under him, and a long-time administrator of British Palestine. And he’d written four collections of short stories, starting with A Cottage in Galilee (1958) and continuing on to My Friend Musa (1963), The Cucumber King (1965), and finishing with The Man Who Liked Cats (1974).

After finishing another book on a recent flight, that I opened the file with Samuel’s book–for no better reason than that it was the next one listed–and began to read. The book opens with “The Cucumber King,” in which a fat and powerful Hollywood producer and his starlet third wife visit the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Although ostensibly on vacation, the producer has no idea how to properly relax, and so has brought along a film crew to help make a home movie to die for of their trip. Samuel clearly agrees with Blake that a lovely bird in a cage “puts all Heaven in a rage,” and manages to give the producer a just reward and leave the wife in the arms of a handsome and gentle Cambodian man.

The exotic setting and black humor of “The Cucumber King” reminded me of a number of Graham Greene’s short stories, as did a good share of the rest of Samuel’s stories. Like Greene, he clearly seems to have done his share of globe-trotting, as his settings range everywhere from Tokyo and Shanghai to the Middle East and Italy to London, Ireland, and New York City. He’s also comfortable with travel through time and space, taking us to “Israel in the Year 2000 A.D” (spoiler alert–no Internet, mobile phones, or Hamas) and the waiting room for Heaven.

Samuel’s taste in fiction tends toward the humorous, although with more than an occasional appetite for bitter irony and poetic justice. Death pops up on a regular basis and Samuel is not at all reluctant to shove one of his characters in front of an oncoming train to make his point. In “The Man Who Was Too Late,” Samuel leaves a fellow member of the House of Lords reflecting on the positive points of his death: “Perhaps it is lucky that I’ve now been run over by a taxi and killed–in my 64th year. Better than lingering on, with a small pension, but no wife or children or grandchildren.” As he wait for the angel to fetch his raiments, Lord FitzHugh ponders what to expect of Heaven:

Presumably, once I get beyond the Pearly Gates, it’ll be quite different. Rather splendid, in fact, in compensation for all that we’ve had to suffer on earth. I do wonder what Heaven will be like. The ardent believers, especially in earlier times, were quite sure they’d find a beautiful landscape, always sunny and warm —not too warm, I hope; I’ve had my fill of that in the tropics–with green lawns and shady trees, the murmur of a waterfall, soft music, good food—what a relief after that terrible cooking in East Africa. Some nice people, I hope–beautiful women, like this Angel, for example–after all those frightful Colonial wives. A few interesting men, too; not those awful Sports Club bores in Nairobi.

I thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories in The Cucumber King. They are a fine combination of British attitudes and rituals, exotic settings, and a rich sense that God has more than a few good laughs at our expense. On the other hand, they are also more like the sort of thing you might find in Collier’s or The Saturday Evening Post–if they’d published stories written by a British Jew: magazine fiction, in other words, which means a good story, a touch of novelty, but nothing too unsettling to one’s sense that whatever might be wrong with the world can be put right with a gin and tonic.

The Cucumber King and Other Stories, by Edwin Samuel
London/New York/Toronto: Abelard-Schuman, 1956

The Goodby People, by Gavin Lambert (1971)

Cover of first US editiion of 'The Goodby People'In my post on Gavin Lambert’s 1959 book, The Slide Area, I wrote that the character sketch was his forte, and the best proof of that is The Goodby People (spelled “Goodbye” in all subsequent reissues). In it, Lambert puts all his talents into crafting three remarkable portraits: Susan Ross, a one-time model and widow of a wealthy movie producer and businessman; Gary Carson, a draft dodging golden boy making his way through the world one bed at a time; and Lora Chase, a long-faded yet legendary actress–sort of a Greta Garbo–who attracts as an unlikely follower a young, blonde, motorcycle-riding woman.

As in The Slide Area, the challenge is that these characters from the fringes of the movie world, are well-practiced in adapting themselves to the expectations of those around them and hence, somewhat at a loss to know just who they are themselves. Born in Arizona and raised in Nebraska, Susan Ross takes on the look of a sleek, beautiful woman, a sophisticate accustomed from birth to the finer things. She marries a man the opposite of her sun-leathered, taciturn father: “He had a dry disenchanted humor, a fascinating inside knowledge of shady political deals and the secrets of the Pentagon and the FBI, and that aura of joylessness which surrounds so many rich, powerful and clever people and makes them truly dangerous.”

When her husband dies, Susan has money, influence, and reputation enough to carry her in luxury to her last days. She throws enormous parties at the spectacular home she has inherited: “I saw Susan surrounded by all the sons of the millionaires, and a movie actor with long sideburns, and I think a rock group, and various girls. She sat on a high-backed chair and it looked like a throne.” Unfortunately, as a widow and not a wife, as a former model and not a model, and as a farm girl long gone from the farm, she has, as the narrator puts it, “no tribe.” Finally, she builds a stark modernist house high on a ridge above Malibu and retreats there to study self-consciousness. “It’s a perfect place, up here,” she tells the narrator when he calls to check on her. “I’ve come to realize the mind can achieve anything so long as reality doesn’t get in its way.”

The narrator–as in The Slide Area something of a stand-in for Lambert himself, only this time ready to acknowledge his homosexuality–meets Gary Carson through a friend, an aimless heir whose hobby is “sheltering young wanderers and fugitives.” A year or so later, he calls up the narrator and invites his way into the man’s bed. “I am never seduced,” he later remarks.

Gary, it becomes clear, is without prejudice when it comes to his partners. Looking through the young man’s luggage, the narrator finds a bundle of letters:

Kept neatly in their envelopes and packaged together with a rubber band, they were notes from about thirty different people, all over the last two years. He’d apparently had brief affairs with most of them; the rest made offers…. They came from a French girl at the Sorbonne, another who was a model, the male secretary of an Italian industrialist, the wife of the same industrialist, a movie actress in Rome who’d had a walk-on in a Fellini film, a girl once quite well known in Hollywood movies and now married to an English producer, from whom there was also a letter. Gary had apparently spent a month with the wife in St. Tropez and ten days with the husband in Tangier.

Gary at one point refers to himself as “A blank envelope. But, address it, and it’s just another bill, or a love letter.” After a short spell living with the narrator, enjoying the attention, fine wines, and cultural refinements, Gary moves on, disappearing for a while. “He was never quite here, was he?,” friends ask. In keeping with the times, when Gary makes contact again, he is living in the hills outside L. A., part of a small cult family gathered around a would-be Jesus going by the name “Godson.” When the narrator asks Gary whether he ever worries about being arrested for draft evasion, Gary shakes his head: “That’s the future, and it doesn’t exist.” In other words, his quest is not to find himself, but to leave his past and ties to his identity behind.

In a brief epilogue, the narrator overhears a conversation between one of his friends, a very successful screenwriter on the prowl, and a young woman who’s been stranded at his house in Malibu: “Is there anyone you should call, Frances? Anyone who’ll be wondering where you are?” “No. There’s no one in the world,” she replies. Lambert leaves the reader to wonder: are these people saying goodbye to the worlds they came from? Or have their worlds said goodbye to them? The Goodby People is itself a sad farewell to the optimism that briefly lit up the initial innocence of flower power, sexual liberation, and the swinging Sixties.

The Goodby People, by Gavin Lambert
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971

The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life, by Gavin Lambert (1959)

“The action begins just before Christmas 1956 and ends two years later,” Gavin Lambert writes at the The Slide Area. From that, a reader could easily conclude that the book is a novel, and, indeed, Lambert refers to his stories as “sections.” I’m not sure that it makes much of a different whether one labels The Slide Area as short story collection or novel. It’s a marvellously well-written work of fiction regardless how it’s categorized.

As anyone who’s lived in Los Angeles knows, the city sits on the wrong side of a great geological fault line and its hills aren’t much more than temporarily-stabilized piles of earth and rock and have a tendency to fall away in great hunks with little notice, taking with them the big, showy, and expensive houses built along their flanks and ridges. So L. A. residents get used to seeing “Slide Area” signs, usually surrounded by scattered chunks of dirt offering hints of things to come. What goes up must come down–and afterwards, there’s room to erect yet another showcase home.

In much the same way, L. A. residents get used to see people falling from great heights while others are fighting their way up. The Slide Area is filled with such stories. There is the Countess Osterberg-Steblechi, “a great aristocratic wreck,” “a balloon blown up into roughly human shape and ready to burst.” But she has enough cash still left to entice her hangers-on to stage, in “The End of the Line,” a grand tour of the Continent that never actually takes her beyond the confines of her living room. It’s a cleverly-told tale but by far the weakest in the book, the closest Lambert ever comes to a stock magazine short story.

His forte is the character sketch. But in Lambert’s case, his characters are as shifting and unstable as ground they walk upon. They aspire to leave Nebraska or Oklahoma or Colorado behind, change their names, change their looks, lose their histories, and become what everyone else wants to be. Of Julie Forbes, a Joan Crawford/Bette Davis-like eternal star, coming into her living room as if walking onto a stage, he writes,

Her skin was golden, her figure trim and pliant as a young girl’s. She had been created a moment ago. There was no childhood, no past, nothing. I thought of a joke about the mortuaries in California: they supply human ashes to cannibals in the South Seas, who make them flesh by adding water. Instant people, like instant coffee. Julie Forbes, I decided, was an instant person. That must be her secret. Every few years she was reduced to ashes, then reconstituted in a new form. Different. Shining. Instant.

And of all Lambert’s characters, perhaps the greatest is Los Angeles itself. The Slide Area is studded with some of the best writing about L. A. ever put on paper:

Los Angeles is not a city, but a series of suburban approaches to a city that never materializes….

How to grasp something unfinished yet always remodelling itself, changing without a basis for change? So much visible impatience to be born, to grow, such wild tracts of space to be filled: difficult to settle in a comfortable unfinished desert. Because of the long confusing distances, the streets are empty of walking people, full of moving cars. Between where you are and where you are going to be is a no-man’s land. At night the neon signs glitter and the shop windows are lighted stages, but hardly anyone stops to look. A few people huddle at coffee stalls and hamburger bars. Those dark flat areas are parking lots, crammed solid.

The city itself is a mirror of the constant metamorphosis of inhabitants. And, of course, the combination of shape-shifting people and ever-remodelling city creates a reality that’s almost unreal. Looking down upon the city from high on one of its unstable hills, one of Lambert’s characters observes, “Looking down on the straight intersecting lines of pink and yellow and green is like finding a vast abstract painting laid out on the earth. It has nothing at all to do with living.”

When I first read The Slide Area about four years ago, I dog-eared at least two dozen pages featuring this sort of striking writing, and reading it again recently, I dog-eared at least a couple dozen more. Indeed, I could easily just fill this piece with quotes from the book. Although best known for his novel, Inside Daisy Clover, which was made into an even better-known movie starring Natalie Wood, “Inside Daisy Clover”, Lambert deserves to be recognized for The Slide Area, which ranks with The Last Tycoon, The Day of the Locust, and anything Raymond Chandler ever wrote about Los Angeles.

The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life, by Gavin Lambert
London: Hamish Hamilton, 1959

Collected Stories, by Viola Meynell (1957)

Cover of 'Collected Stories" by Viola MeynellViola Meynell worked hard as a writer all her adult life, publishing short stories, novels, and nonfiction to critical acclaim, steady if not exceptional sales, and the respect of her peers, helped support D. H. Lawrence in hard times and brought Moby Dick back to recognition as a classic, and helped her husband run a productive farm in Sussex. And for all that, she hasn’t got a single book in print today.

Collected Stories, which Meynell was helping to edit when she died in October 1956, offers perhaps the best introduction to her work. These 17 stories, compiled from previous collections–Young Mrs. Cruse (1925); Kissing the Rod, and Other Stories (1937); First Love and Other Stories (1947); and Louise and Other Stories (1954)–as well as several stories published in The New Yorker a year or so before her death. As an anonymous reviewer once wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, “The delicate and assured talent of Viola Meynell is admirably suited to the short-story form. Dealing in qualities and emotions which it would be easy to overemphasize in a novel, she is discreetly content with the brevity suited to a fragment of the truth.”

Some of the stories are not much more than fragments. In “Compassionate Leave,” a wife works out with her husband what to write to tell their son he will have to come to tend the farm because the father has fallen and shattered his leg. “Half of a Bargain” is nothing more than a few pages of dialogue between husband and wife, along with a few glimpses into their thoughts–but enough to show us the gulf separating them:

“Oh–surely–isn’t it something you could possibly put off?”

He hesitated. If he had had anything special to do he might have put it off. It was all the infinite chances that attended him on his rounds that he could not give up–the casual encounters, the attractive bits of business cropping up at odd turns, the knack of finding the way to where there was most to be gained, which made his daily life a pleasant adventure. One specific thing he could have given up, but not that whole wide field of possibility.

“One specific thing he could have given up, but not that whole wide field of possibility.” That is just the sort of fine observation one finds throughout this collection. A fellow neglected short story writer, Elizabeth Bibesco, once wrote that, “With Miss Meynell, you find yourself continually loitering over a phrase. You walk into a word as you might walk into a patch of sunlight.” As in this passage from “The Letter,” in which a pregnant farm girl being hounded by her parents to write to the man responsible walks through a morning field: “She had not walked far through the first field before each of her ankles was bound round and round with threads of moist cobweb, spun between one stalk and another. If those threads had been cords, she would have been a close prisoner, neatly caught and fastened up. But as it was she went idly through the stubble, unconscious that with each step she was bursting bonds, dragging chains, and escaping a thousand prisons.”

“This art is built straight upon reality, reality observed with such precision that perception not usually given to the physical eye seems to be involved,” Louise Bogan wrote in a review of Young Mrs. Cruse. She “notices the gestures, the inflections, the turns in manner and speech by which people betray themselves, the slight signs which Ibsen marked, from behind his unread newspaper, during long hours in cafes.” Bogan was a great fan of Meynell’s work and often recommended it to her acquaintances. “It is at first difficult to understand Bogan’s high opinion of Meynell,” Elizabeth Frank writes in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Louise Bogan: A Portrait:

… whose ordinary, middle-class characters are immersed in utterly quotidian lives. The novels are singularly free of melodrama, plottiness, and contrived effects. Not even the faintest trace of social criticism or political awareness invests the page. Yet it is just this fidelity to the domestic and insular scale of her characters’ lives that allows her to render them with great psychological keenness and extraordinary warmth and intuition.

In some stories, the lives she depicts are, in Thoreau’s words, ones of quiet desperation. In “Diminuendo,” a woman driving home with her husband through a bitter winter night finds in her thoughts a moment of happiness. “It was the kind of happiness allowed to a diminished life, the happiness of the wretchedest woman on earth.” In others, Meynell reveals comedy with the lightest touch:

The Butts were staying with the Longstaffes–very successfully too. It was not one of those plans, hearty in origin, which are wished at an end almost as soon as they have begun. The tensions which can exist when a middle-aged couple forsake their own surroundings to go visiting, and when another middle-aged couple are invaded in their Englishman’s castle, did not arise.

It might be only a small thing, but it so happened that four armchairs of absolutely equal comfort and accessibility to the fire–for it was winter–were part of the equipment of the living-room. Here no one usurped, no one was dethroned. Also there was no false delicacy about the necessity to be always on parade as hosts and guests. In those four armchairs could sit four people with four books, silent and separate, congratulating themselves that among less sensible people a futile stream of remarks might have been considered essential.

It’s ironic that Meynell’s very last stories were published in The New Yorker, for her technique and tone were consistent with what some have called The New Yorker formula: brief, spare anecdotes, really more sketches of incidents that tell the reader much about their characters while almost nothing seems to happen. Like a fine liqueur, however, in the hands of a master, even formulas can produce something consistently wonderful.

Collected Stories, by Viola Meynell
London: Max Reinhardt Limited, 1957

The Girl in the Black Raincoat, edited by George Garrett (1966)

Cover of 'The Girl in the Black Raincoat'

Once upon a time, a student in one of George Garrett’s writing classes at the University of Virginia turned in a story about a girl in a black raincoat that was about a real girl in a black raincoat in the class. “It’s a good short story,” Garrett writes in the introduction to The Girl in the Black Raincoat, “but a lot of the class reacted unfavorably. It didn’t seem right to them to make fiction out of something so close and near.” In Garrett’s view, such a choice was neither right nor wrong but exemplary of the kind of choices creative artists always have to make.

So he set the whole class the assignment of writing a story or poem about girls in black raincoats. Soon after that, talk of the assignment went around the English department and spread out to a variety of Garrett’s friends and former students, and he started to get other stories about girls in black raincoats. It was kind of a game, “innocent and scoreless as Frisbee.” The rules were simple: there just had to be a girl in a black raincoat in the story or poem. Eventually, he had so much material that he decided to collect them into this anthology. “What little editing there was to do was in choices,” he writes in the introduction, “for there was far too much in the end to be in one book.” As for sequencing, Garrett took the arbitrary option of placing the stories in reverse alphabetical order by the author’s last name.

In this case, the arbitrariness of the whole exercise also proves serendipitous. As in many short story collections, a really good story may be followed by a forgettable one, but quality spikes up more often than down and there are no extended dull patches in the whole book. Also, Garrett’s contributors are a mix of recognized, unrecognized, and later-to-be-recognized names. Later Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Mary Lee Settle contributed a sketch, “Paragraph,” only lightly adapted from her memoir, All the Brave Promises (1966). The journalist and historian William Manchester contributed a rare piece of fiction, “Out in the Crazy, All Alone,” a monologue by a sad, lonely, and slightly drunk young wife contemplating adultery. Novelist and Civil War historian Shelby Foote contributed what is basically an old dirty joke in a flimsy wrapper of fiction. Leslie Fiedler wrote Garrett saying he was too busy to contribute a story and then proceeded to write the first of the “Four Academic Parables” included here. William Jay Smith, later a Poet Laureate, offerded two poems and his soon-to-be ex-wife, the poet Barbara Howes, contributed “Roselma,” a far better fable than any of Fiedler’s:

Her name was Roselma Pantry, from Tiffin, Ohio, a slender girl of medium height, presumably pretty, but as she was never without her long black mackintosh, topped by a sort of snood or hood, one could not be sure. The textile industry might have despaired had they known of her, for she never sported a tweed or jaeger coat, or even silk or gabardine; she out-minked, or out-foxed, no one; winter and summer, night and day, she trotted up and down those gravel paths in the same black fabric–composed more likely in a test tube than on a loom. Nights, it gave off a faint phosphorescent sheen; once at a college dance she floated by in the arms of the French professor, but still in her black apparel, now unbelted, which under the bright chaperoning lights was near diaphanous.

UVA faculty and former students understandably predominate, including Annie Dillard (a poem, “The Affluent Beatnik”) and her first husband, R. H. W. Dillard (a story, “The Little Man with the Long Red Hair”), and later Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Henry S. Taylor (one of the best stories of the bunch, “And Bid a Fond Farewell to Tennessee”), as well as lesser-known alumni such as John Rodenbeck, later a translator and expert on Egyptian literature (a wonderful story of unsuccessful college romance, “Keep Your Eye on the Feet”).

“The raincoat girl in all her guises and disguises” is, as Garrett writes, “erratic, inconsistent, contradictory, sad, whimsical, mostly irrational and often marvelous. And so is The Girl in the Black Raincoat. I’ll take this arbitary anthology over any deliberate one any day of the week.

The Girl in the Black Raincoat, edited by George Garrett
New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1966

The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale (1955)

Nancy Hale was one of The New Yorker’s most prolific short story writers and author of a numerous well-received novels, including the 1942 best-seller, The Prodigal Women — and yet today, she’s virtually forgotten. She didn’t have a Wikipedia article until I just wrote one and her only work in print is a small sample of stories, along with several appreciative essays on her work, in the obscure university press book, Nancy Hale: On the Life & Work of a Lost American Master, published in 2012.

The only child of two artists, Philip Leslie Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale, granddaughter of the Rev. Edward Everett Hale, and great grand-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hale’s Boston Brahmin stock was of blue-plate quality. But she also came to maturity during the Roaring Twenties and soon after finishing school, she moved to New York City, where she quickly got a job working for Vogue magazine and, not long after that, snagged herself a handsome and well-to-do husband named Taylor Scott Hardin. She played the part of a Smart Set-er to the full, even parading down Fifth Avenue smoking a “torch of freedom” for PR pioneer Edward Bernays.

Hale went through husbands like shoes until she found the right fit with University of Virginia English professor Fredson Bowers and stayed with him for over 45 years, until her death in 1988. Hale settled easily into the life of a faculty wife in Charlottesville, and a fair number of her later short stories are set in and around the town.

If there is any unifying theme to her third collection of short stories, The Empress’s Ring (1955), it’s memory. But Hale has spent too much time in Manhattan to allow much room for the sentimental in her writing. In the story “The Place and the Time,” for example, the narrator decides to pull off the main highway while driving from Washington to Charlottesville and drive around Starkeyville, a quiet little Virginia town where his first wife had lived.

Parking across from the home of his former mother-in-law, he muses about walking up and knocking, unannounced, on the front door. He imagines several possible receptions, starting with a warm and gracious Southern welcome: “I’d say, ‘Hullo, Miss Grace. Do you remember me?’ And she’d say, ‘I reckon I remember my own son-in-law.’ I’d mention Elizabeth and she’d simply put her hand on mine.” But as he thinks a bit more, the cold truth cuts through his nostalgia:

What else could she say? Could she say, “You killed my daughter, with your neglect and your scoffin’, and your stayin’ out all night when the baby was comin’. That poor little baby, that never saw the light of day.” Could she say, “My daughter loved you, Mr. Peters, she was a lovely girl, a simple, singlehearted girl, and she gave you all her heart. And you repaid her with jeerin’, and belittlin’, and all your grand intellectual friends that she wasn’t good enough for.”

It had been a bad match from the start, and that fact is still too apparent to let him think otherwise. Guiltily, he heads back to the highway. “What the hell do I want, anyway, he asked himself. Do I imagine I want to live in Starkeyville?”

Many of the stories in The Empress’s Ring deal with adults coming into connection with memories of their childhood. Hale would go on to write two collections of her own memories of childhood–A New England Girlhood (1958) and The Life in the Studio (1969)–and it’s hard, despite the disclaimer at the start, not to believe that there is a strong autobiographical element running through this book as well.

In “Charlotte Russe,” for example, the fancy dessert–too sophisticated to serve to children–symbolizes the brilliant, unreachable world of adults that so tantalized the narrator. Any child who’s had to lie in bed and listen to a dinner party going on downstairs can relate to Hale’s recollection:

When I was in bed, I would lie still with the window open to the dark, snowy winter night, and let my feelings soar. I could faintly hear the hum of conversation in the dining room underneath me; when the door between the dining room and the kitchen was opened, a burst of laughter would float up the back stairs. The people at the dinner party were Olympian, seated around a Parnassan table loaded with the fare of gods. I could hear the footsteps of the maids, hurrying over the wooden floor of the kitchen to wait upon them. They drank from crystal goblets, their napkins were vast, satiny; they jokes were, surely, magnificent and immortal.

The connection of memories runs in both directions–putting the adult back in the child’s world and enabling the child’s perspective to illuminate the adult’s current experience, as in the case of “The Year I Had Colds”:

As I lie here, trying to get over this idiotic cold before the Hanson’s party, my mind becomes restless and inattentive if I try to read; I set up a game of patience on a tray and even then it is as though my mind’s eye were focussed on some other scene; until sometimes I give up altogether trying to distract myself and simply lie here, resting, and letting my thoughts wander about as they will in my childhood, in the time when I was kept out of school so much by colds.

The empress’s ring of the title story–a tiny gold ring given to the narrator as a girl that she was told had belonged to the Empress of Austria–represents just the kind of object that can create such a connection: “I worry about it still, even today, thirty odd years later. I close my eyes to go to sleep at night, sometimes, and I am back at the old, disintegrated sand pile where I lost it, digging in the dirt-mixed sand with my fingernails to find my little ring.” Her mother’s scoldings over the ring’s loss are echoed in her self-admonishments as an adult for various shortcomings–not having enough matching drinking glasses, not being able to sew clothes that quite fit. But there is also still the possibility that one day another little girl will find it–a bare bit of hope to offset the sense of loss and inadequacy.

In all, The Empress’s Ring is an elegant, cool, and moving set of reflections on life, memory, connections, and disconnections that rings clear and true even over a distance of sixty years.

The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale
New York City: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1955

The Stories of James Stern (1968)

When James Stern died in 1993 at the age of 88, most of his obituaries acknowledged him as a writer but noted that he was better known as a friend to the famous. An early acquaintance of W. H. Auden, he went on to break bread and knock back whiskies with a fair share of the good writers of the Anglo-American world of the mid-twentieth century. Malcolm Cowley once remarked to Stern, “My God, you’ve known everybody, his wife, his boyfriend, and his natural issue!”

The Stories of James Stern actually represents four fifths of his output, since it collects the best stories from his earlier collections (The Heartless Land (1932); Something Wrong (1938); and The Man Who Was Loved (1952)), along with a few new ones. By the time it was published, Stern had pretty much given up writing, aside from letters to his friends.

Those letters were somewhat legendary. He wrote as many as eight a day, in fine, precise handwriting. His correspondents included Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, David Garnett, Brian Howard, Arthur Miller, Lewis Mumford, Sonia Orwell, William Plomer, Katherine Anne Porter, V. S. Pritchett, and Patrick White. His one and only biographer, Miles Huddleston, was able to draw heavily upon them in his 2002 book, James Stern: A Life in Letters.

And he was a very well-traveled man. Born in County Meath, Ireland, to a Anglo-Irish banking family with an estate, servants, horses, and annual fox hunting parties, Stern attended Eton and Oxford, tried his hand at farming in Rhodesia, worked in the family bank in London and Frankfurt, then quit and went to Paris to try his hand at writing. “That I ever published a page of prose,” he once wrote, “was due primarily to the dread prospect of spending the rest of my days in a bank.” His first book, The Heartless Land, was touted by Auden and Christopher Isherwood as one of the great works of fiction of the Thirties.

In Paris, he met and married the German physical therapist and writer, Tania Kurella, and they moved to New York City just before the start of World War Two. Stern worked as a journalist in New York, and in late 1944, he was approached with an offer to join the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Bombing Survey, which studied the effects of Allied bombing on Germany. This experience led him to write his only book to be republished, The Hidden Damage (1947). Although some critics felt the book demonstrated remarkable sympathy for the plight of the Germans but was, overall, shapeless and unclear in its ultimate message.

This capacity for empathy is evident throughout The Stories of James Stern. With settings ranging from the Rhodesian bush to Welsh mines, Irish estates, Manhattan apartments, and a graveyard in Germany, these stories demonstrate a confident grasp of setting and a fine ear for the words of his characters.

“You bin down t’pit?”

I nod.

“Which one’s that’ bin down?”

“Number Five.”

Five! he shouts. “Why, tha’s seen best conditions in t’colliery. Who sent thee down, lad?”

“The Manager.”

“Ah!,” and his eyes narrow and he clenches his fists. “Down ‘ere, lad,” he suddenly bursts out, “in Pit One–four hundred yards under where ah’m standin’, is men an’ boys workin’ on theer stomachs, on theer backs, in two-an’-‘alf-foot seams. They can’t kneel, lad–t’ain’t ‘igh ‘nough. Seven-an-‘alf-hour shifts–roof may fall in an’ kill ’em tomorrow–fifty shillin’s a wik w’en lucky….”

This comes from “A Stranger Among Miners,” which Stern notes is actually a piece of non-fiction drawn from his visit to Welsh and English coal mining communities in the early 1930s. Also non-fiction are the last two pieces in the book, which are taken from The Hidden Damage. In “A Peaceful Place,” Stern recalls a graveyard he would often visit while stationed near Kempten in Bavaria:

Reading the fringe of the cemetery, I stood still and found myself admiring the good sense and taste of the man who had chosen such a spot to bury the dead. In a large, protected circle cut out of the pines, hundreds upon hundreds of crosses–all identical except for an occasional, surprising Star of David–gleamed white against a background of beautifully mown, very green grass. It was the first clean, orderly, peaceful place I had encountered in bomb-battered Bavaria. I stood for several minutes in the intense evening silence and though: If I should die tomorrow, I suppose this is where my bones, if not my dog-tags, would lie for ever….

Although the remainder of the pieces in the book are fiction, it’s clearly fiction that never stretches too far from Stern’s own experiences. In “The Broken Leg,” for example, he seems to be working through long-standing conflicts with his parents, who were avid fox-hunters and, apparently, quite intolerant of anyone who wasn’t–especially their son. Max, the younger son riding off with great trepidation to his first hunt, soon embarrasses himself and his parents by falling clumsily from his horse:

He felt that nothing he did in the future could ever atone for the humiliating performance his mother, father, and brother had just witnessed. He knew, moreover, that he had committed a great sin, two sins: he had shown fear while on a horse, and he had ‘cried before he was hurt.’ In the great hollow abyss of misery that only a child can know, he felt utterly, terribly alone; the whole of his tiny world was against him; there was none to whom he could turn; he was doomed.

It’s no wonder that one of his later friends, the novelist David Hughes, described Stern’s stories as “reports on his traumas lightly disguised as fiction.”

Yet Stern’s thin skin also made him extraordinarily sensitive to the hurts of others. In “The Woman Who Was Loved,” an ever-so-sophisticated socialite, struggles when she has to perform in the one role in which she can gain no notice in the columns: “The periods between governesses–the family averaged two a year–were not easy days for Mrs. Turnbull, for then she had to take charge of her children, a task for which she knew herself to be unfit and which embarrassed both her and them.” Stern himself provided perhaps the most accurate assessment of his work in an obituary he drafted in the early 1960s: “He is to be judged by the highest standards; but his art remains a probing of wounds and somehow, lacking as it is in power of invention and ultimate detachment, fails to achieve its own release from pain.”

Whether it was the growing rawness of his nerves after too many years of laying them bare to the sufferings of the people and characters he observed or struggles with drink or simply a decision to pursue translation (from German, of works by Mann, Kafka, and others) instead, Stern decided to give up writing for publication about the time he penned his own obituary. One assumes it was a decision he was content with. Stern’s literary executor, John Byrne, said that he “was not reticent about his friendships with writers better known that himself. In a way it was a compensation for not writing other things.” As Alan Ross wrote in Stern’s obituary in The Independent, “… if the gift for friendship is one of the most precious gifts of all, then Jimmy Stern was more blessed than as if he had written 15 books instead of five.”

The Stories of James Stern is also available online at the Open Library (Link).

The Stories of James Stern
New York City: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968

Stories, Fables and Other Diversions, by Howard Nemerov (1971)

I was skeptical when I started reading the poet Howard Nemerov‘s 1971 collection, Stories, Fables and Other Diversions. It gave all the appearances of being a minor work–a writer working outside his primary form; an early volume from a small (if well-respected) press; short (barely 121 pages); a title suggesting nothing more than a hastily-applied label for a miscellany. And the first few stories are more fables than stories and more jokes than fables.

But I hung in, and with the fourth story, entered a new class of writing. Almost like a specimen brought into focus under a microscope, a wholly unfamiliar perspective came into view, minute in detail, with wildly exaggerated features. In “Bon Bons,” a lonely widow, Mrs. Melisma, decides one day to undertake an odd and original study:

Inspired, she purchased a pack offiling cards and began, as she ate away, to note down a Descriptive Catalogue of Chocolates, measuring the dimensions and identifying the surface characteristics of each chocolate, and correlating with these both the objective qualities and the subjective sensations communicated to her by the inside. A series of rather odd thoughts began to form itself and emerge from the darkness.

Her dedicated and meticulously-observed research quickly reaches an inevitable obstacle: she realizes that she does not like chocolate. And yet she carries on, driving herself to penetrate her sensations ever more deeply, opening her imagination to new associations, venturing into new realms of philosophy, and eventually, into nihilism:

She perceived, in effect, that what she ate was not chocolate at all, but only anticipation, suspense; she was eating, as much as anything, not the chocolates themselves, but only the moment between one and the next; now, what did that moment taste of?

Nothing. It tasted of nothing at all. Mrs Melisma wept.

And finally, she is overtaken by a vision of wondrous breadth and tenderness, in a passage that reminded me of that amazing scene in Gravity’s Rainbow that begins, “Near her battery one night, driving Somewhere in Kent …”:

In which she saw the jungles, and, beside the jungles, the sugar cane in fields, the plantations of nougat and almond, the herds of cows giving their milk to be turned into fondant; she saw the black men and the brown men, naked to the waist, going among the trees and through the fields where lonely white men stood with rifles; she saw the great white ships riding, she saw the mumbling stainless steel factories from whose monotonous and automated ruminations a myriad moments of chocolate filled with mysterious sweetness came forth—endless they seemed—; and she saw the candy shops, with their cloying smells and their attendants dressed like nurses in starched uniforms; and she saw by miracle in a million rooms the lonely hunger that existed for the sweetness of life, that sweat and starvation and cold-eyed greed equally and helplessly competed for; and somewhere in all this a child sat, a monstrously chubby child with open mouth, who stretched out pudgy hands before him while he blubbered for the agonizing beauty of this world.

From this point on, Stories, Fables and Other Diversions rolls through a series of imaginative and philosophical whirlwinds, each carrying off in their force other wonderful fragments of prose. “The Native in the World,” for example, opens with this stunning sentence:

The climb from sleep was difficult, a struggle up a staircase of soft pillows into which he sank again and again, drowsily defeated, from which he clumsily climbed again to a sight of the room that, seen in the equivocal wisdom of sleep, seemed to him any room, or all the rooms, in which he had ever slept, or ever been at home.

In “The Nature of the Task,” Nemerov focuses his microscope on the smallest of subjects–literally nothing more than a man in an empty room–and demonstrates how quickly close observation can verge into madness: “But where—this problem proposed itself inevitably and at once—where did simply looking divide itself from looking and thinking at once?” It’s a powerful illustration of a comment Wallace Shawn makes in “My Dinner with Andre”: “I mean, you see, I think if you could become fully aware … of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant … I think it would just blow your brains out.”

Not every story in this little book has such mind-expanding power, but a good half-dozen do, and those are certainly worth rediscovery. This was Nemerov’s second collection of short stories. His first, A Commodity of Dreams , was published in 1959 and I have ordered a copy in hopes of finding more.

Stories, Fables and Other Diversions is available online at (link).

Stories, Fables and Other Diversions, by Howard Nemerov
Boston: David R. Godine, 1971

Habeas Corpus, by Peter Green (1962)

I’ve probably looked past a copy of the Signet paperback edition of Peter Green’s Habeas Corpus fifty times or more while browsing through used bookstores over the decades and looked right past it. But on the look-out for short story collections now and having the good fortune to spend an hour in one of Seattle’s last great used bookstores, Magus Books, a while ago, I finally saw it for the first time.

Habeas Corpus provided an excellent counterpoint to Hugh Walpole’s The Thirteen Travellers, which I’d read just before. Most of Peter Green’s stories are set 30-40 years after Walpole’s, but Green’s England is a very different world. It’s been through a second world war and a long grey time of rationing. The upper class is in retreat, the working class is getting into university, and everyone is drinking and smoking–hard. The veneer of English gentility is wearing through to the wood in spots.

Jack Newhouse, the … well, one can hardly say protagonist, once you’ve read what he does … of Green’s title story, for example, is quite the contrast to Walpole’s dandy, Absalom Jay:

… somehow an ineffectual figure despite the carefully calculated raffishness–bottlegreen corduroys, the old tweed jacket patched like a prep school master’s at elbows and cuffs, blond hair not so thick as it had been, too fine anyway to be worn quite so long by a man in his over-late thirties, blown now every which way by the tangling wind…. A fair if fashionable judge of College wine; slightly suspect politically, and apt to appear on television programmes rather more often than the unspoken norm allowed….

Newhouse proves to be just the sort of heel you might suspect from this description, but his sort of misdeed is less one of great evil than of the petty, cowardly kind–not doing wrong, just simply failing to do right. Many of Green’s characters are compromisers and prevaricators. Ideals are just bubbles waiting to be popped, as in “The Tea Party,” in which a naive but ambitious young student comes to realize the truth about an idolized professor: “And Grandison, his old world in shreds, saw from the heart of his confusion that the Professor was as naked as himself. Do not reject me, cried the stony mask beneath its stone.”

Illustration from the cover of the Signet paperback edition of “Habeas Corpus”

You might think from this that Habeas Corpus is a drab, depressing book, but in all but perhaps one of Green’s eight stories, there is a strong narrative, a sense of a revelation yet to come, that makes for irresistible reading. His characterizations are often enhanced through just the simplest details, and in each story, there is a vivid sense of place. Thumbing back through the book as I write this, I find myself recalling the settings as if I’d actually seen them. I tend to skip around stories in a collection, particularly if there is, as in this case, no evident pattern or sequence intended, but I read straight through Habeas Corpus and was only tempted to look elsewhere during “Proof of Identity,” which was a throw-away compared to the other stories in the book. It’s a shame that this is Green’s one and only collection of stories.

Although Green attended Charterhouse, one of the poshest public schools, his time at Cambridge was interrupted by the war, during which he spent five years in the R.A.F. in the heat and dirt of India and Burma, where everyone’s finer points eventually got blunted. After finishing with a degree in classics at Trinity, he scrabbled along for some years as a journalist until moving to Greece, where he wrote several works of fiction. By the time that Habeas Corpus was published in the U.S., however, he had moved into teaching and writing classical history, which has remained his focus ever since (he is still on the faculty of the University of Iowa as an adjunct professor at 92). Habeas Corpus was his last work of fiction.

Habeas Corpus, by Peter Green
London: Hamish Hamilton, 1962

The Thirteen Travellers, by Hugh Walpole (1920)

I put off my plan to devote a year’s worth of posts to neglected short story writers and collections for a year when I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave my year of the neglected woman writer quite yet. So I stretched that year into two and have made a pretty poor start of things by putting off this year’s project until–Jeepers, the middle of March. Yes, life is what happens while you’re making other plans.

In any case and not to procrastinate further, let me start things off with a lovely package of ripping yarns: Hugh Walpole’s 1920 collection, The Thirteen Travellers. I’ve wanted to cover this book ever since reading its first story, “Absalom Jay,” which manages to be both satirical and heart-tugging in its portrait of an aging and forgotten fop.

At the height of the Yellow Book era of the late 1890s, Absalom Jay was the perfect embodiment of the London dandy, caricatured in Punch and other magazines:

Everyone always noticed his clothes. But here again one must be fair. It may not have been altogether his clothes that one noticed. From very early years his hair was snow-white, and he wore it brushed straight back from his pink forehead in wavy locks. He wore also a little white tufted Imperial. He had an eyeglass that hung on a thick black cord. His favourite colour was a dark blue, and with this he wore spats (in summer of a truly terrific whiteness), a white slip, black tie, and pearl pin. He wore wonderful boots and shoes and was said to have more of these than any man in London. It was also said that his feet were the smallest (masculine) in the British Isles.

But when Walpole finds Absalom, a year or so after the Armistice, society as he had known it–which had been Society with a capital S–had been left behind, one of the war’s many victims, and good manners and light conversation no longer gained one reliable invitations to dinner parties and dances. He is now an old man, whose living has become increasingly tenuous due to a bit of imprudent speculation just before the war, and whose elbows and welcomes have worn exceedingly thin.

Absalom is one of Walpole’s thirteen travellers–all residents of Horton’s, a respectable residential hotel somewhere between Picadilly and St. James’ Square. Some of them, like Absalom, are moving down, some are moving up, and others are just passing through. For each, Walpole constructs an efficient, well-balanced, and soundly-built story as dependable as Mr. Nix, the manager of Horton’s. He even tosses in a jolly good ghost story.

One could see in The Thirteen Travellers a predecessor to Vicki Baum’s best-seller of a decade later, Grand Hotel, but this is format that’s been around since at least the time of The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales: the linked story collection. In Walpole’s case, the link is Horton’s Hotel and the transitional time just after the Great War and before the Twenties started to roar. His cast ranges from young to old, rich to poor, nobility to working class, but they share a common set of English values and prejudices. Not that Walpole is so obtuse that he can’t see that some of these values got banged out of shape in the war and are rapidly being replaced by harsher facts.

Hugh Walpole was one of the most successful English writers of his time, but his reputation took a serious hit after W. Somerset Maugham mocked him in fictional form as the sycophantic social climber, Alton Kear, in his novel Cakes and Ale. By the time he died in 1941, he was considered such a joke that his Time obituary dismissed his work with remarks such as, “He could tell a workmanlike story in good workmanlike English.” Since then, however, some of his works, particularly the six novels of the Herries Chronicle, have remained in print and held a small but loyal following. In recent years, his standing has been restored somewhat, but an honest critic would have to acknowledge that he is better remembered as a story-teller than as an artist. And his ghost stories in particular are well worth seeking out and now easily available in the collection, All Souls’ Night, released last year from Valancourt Books.

The Thirteen Travellers, by Hugh Walpole
London: Hutchinson & Company, 1920

The Gentle Bush, by Barbara Giles (1947)

I will admit guilt for committing an occasional theft. Once in a while, I find a book that cries out, “Please take me home with you.” These are always, naturally, neglected books. I usually find them in hotels or vacation rentals, in those little libraries of books that previous guests have left behind–perhaps in hopes that someone else would find them interesting, perhaps simply because they weren’t interesting enough to be worth carrying home.

The scene of my last crime was a small hotel in Luxembourg, a pretty forgettable place where I stayed one night while on a business trip. Taking up part of the landing on the staircase up to the rooms was a tall, narrow bookcase with a mix of French, German, and Dutch paperbacks–Dan Brown, John Grisham, and their Euro counterparts. But one book was definitely not new, not a bestseller, and in English. It was a thick, old (1955), and somewhat unusually-sized paperback (halfway between a pocket book and a trade paperback): The Gentle Bush, by Barbara Giles. Although clearly in English, the book’s publisher, Panther Books, had an address in Leipzig, which was in the German Democratic Republic at the time. Other Panther titles listed inside the back cover included English classics such as Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Letter, but also a few I didn’t recognize: The Volunteers, by Steve Nelson, and Goldsborough, by Stefan Heym. Nelson turned out to have been an activist, volunteer in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and member of the American Communist Party. Heym was a German writer who emigrated to the U.S. to escape Hitler, fought for the Allies during the war, wrote and organized for left causes after the war, and moved to East Germany in the early 1950s.

A little more digging confirmed that Panther Books mutated into Seven Seas Books, which was run by Heym’s American wife, Gertrude Gelbin, and continued to publish English-language books, mostly novels and mostly on leftist subjects by such writers as Ring Lardner, Jr., Alvah Bessie, and Dorothy Hewett, as well as many of Heym’s own books and those of fellow East German writers such as Anna Seghers and Christa Wolf.

I had, of course, slipped the book into my duffel bag before checking this aspect of the book’s back story, and I started to read at home the next evening. Giles takes her title from a line from Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes: “Let the gentle bush dig its root deep and spread upward to split one boulder.” Her story is set in bayou Louisiana at the turn of the 20th century, among the many members of the Durels, a family in slow decline from the grand beginnings made by their grandfather, who established a large plantation before the Civil War.

The only Durel still thriving financially is Agricole, who is looked down upon by his kinsmen: “Everyone knew that Agricole’s father, the first Agricole, had not married cette femme in New Orleans until his son was at least ten years old.” This doesn’t prevent Agricole (junior) from attempting to insinuate himself (and his three children) back in the family’s good grades. And from that point forward, the story is one big race to decay: will the poor but upright Durels decline into penury before wealthy Agricole (junior) loses his last shred of decency in his pursuit of filthy lucre?

I can’t say that I stuck with the story. I quickly lost track of Durels, what with Tante Abelle, Michel, Nicole, Auguste, Alcee, Amelie, Leonie, Lizette, and a good dozen more, along with the many other characters in the neighborhood of Bayou Teche. The 500-plus dense pages of The Gentle Bush require more commitment that I had in me.

gentlebush-firstAnd Giles was looking for readers with commitment. A frequent contributor to The New Masses, she seems to have taken her inspiration from a odd duo: Karl Marx and Taylor Caldwell. Particularly Caldwell’s saga about a family of American arms manufacturers, The Dynasty of Death, The Eagles Gather, and The Final Hour. She captures the energy of a successful entrepreneur but favors the poor but honest and down-trodden, the working whites and serving blacks, who seem to shine with a uniformly stalwart glow. Even as evil triumphs, we know that ultimately the workers of the world will unite and seize control of the means of production, or something like that.

The Gentle Bush was generally well-received when it was first published–by a mainstream publisher, Harcourt, Brace and Company–in 1947. The chill winds of the Red Scare were picking up, but it was still possible for activist writers such as Giles, Alexander Saxton, and Cedric Belfrage to get published by the big firms. A year later, The New Masses closed its doors. Giles continued to maintain her Communist Party membership even after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, only leaving in the mid-1960s when she felt it had become irrelevant. Giles never published another book.

The Gentle Bush, by Barbara Giles
New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1947

The Hepzibah Omnibus, by Olwen Bowen (1936)

Illustration by L. R. Brightwell, from Beetles and Things
Illustration by L. R. Brightwell, from Beetles and Things

Cover of The Hepzibah OmnibusWhen I saw The Hepzibah Omnibus in a bookstore in London a few months ago, I began wondering, “Why do I know the name Olwen Bowen?” A quick glance at the title page cleared up the mystery: “Foreword by Clemence Dane.” Kate Macdonald and I had read and discussed Dane’s massive theatrical saga, Broome Stages, earlier this year, and though neither of us much cared for the book, I did remember a few facts from the author’s life–in particular, that she and Bowen had lived together for nearly forty years.

nb_0640Unlike Dane, who wrote fiction, drama, and nonfiction, Bowen confined herself strictly to writing for children. Although her last book, Tales from the Mabinogion, was a retelling of stories from the King Arthur legends, most of her books were set in worlds inhabited almost exclusively by animals and insects. Her titles were simple and straightforward: Runaway Rabbit; Taddy Tadpole and the Pond Folk; Dog’s Delight; A Terrier’s Tale.

The Hepzibah Omnibus collects four of her animal tales. The first two, “Hepzibah the Hen” and “Hepzibah Again,” take place in the farmyard shared ruled over by the vain Hepzibah and her friend, the equally self-absorbed pig, Gertie Grunter. Most of the Farmyard Folk stick with alliteration when in comes to names: Reginald Rat, Kathleen Cow, Cuthbert Cockerel, etc.. Each chapter is a small object lesson that usually comes as the result of some animal foible–vanity, pride, jealousy–but always ends happily. Rather like Aesop with the edges sanded down. It’s a world where even the rodents loved their most fearsome predator:

And all the Farmyard Folk were very grateful to Barny, the Barndoor Owl. They liked to hear him at night as he flew about among the barns, calling out to himself as he flew, “I see you! I see you!” just out of habit; for they knew that he was a very friendly person really and they all felt much safer when he was about.

yapThe next tale deals with Yap, a young fox with still a bit too much fellow-feeling in his heart to realize that the rabbits might not feel quite comfortable with him crashing their Rabbit Fest in a rabbit suit. In most chapters, though, he proves exceptionally adept at team-building. At different times, he joins causes with a toad, a vole, an otter, three badgers, and a hedgehog. The alliances usually seem to involve getting some kind of food, but I guess we don’t have too feel too much remorse over the sacrifice of eggs, fish, or fruit. And when it does involve something a little closer to home, it’s a roast chicken that Yap’s father, Barker Fox, steals from a circus tent, not a live one.

beetles-bwI found the last tale, “Beetles and Things,” by far the most charming, perhaps because of the illustrations by Harry Rountree (the illustrations for Hepzibah and Yap are by L. R. Brightwell). Montgomery Beetle, in particularly, looks a bit like Harry Langdon. As with the farmyard, the insects exist in a peaceful, alliterative form of coexistence, in which Septimus Spider would never dream of ensnaring Ena Earwig or Bill Blue-Bottle. The only inter-species competition in the book is over a lot of overripe plums (and, of course, that gourmand Thomas Tit gets most of those).

It’s hard to imagine that many kids would enjoy The Hepzibah Omnibus these days. Bowen wrote for children capable of dealing with compound sentences and with a wider vocabulary that the sort of 4-5 years olds who might still go for simple animal stories: “Lena Fly and Bill Blue-Bottle flew quickly away, while Cedric, Ena Earwig, and many of the others spend a cramped and uncomfortable afternoon curled up in any tiny niches and crevices they could find in the tree itself.” And, on the other hand, I’m not sure I would put Hepzibah on a par with The Wind in the Willows as a timeless classic of children’s literature. But I was happy to give up an hour or so of my time to see what Olwen Bowen was up to while her partner was busy hammering away at Broome Stages.

The Hepzibah Omnibus, by Olwen Bowen [Davies]
London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1936

What to Talk About, by Imogene B. Wolcott (1923)

nb_0635What proportion of your business is selling drugs?

Do you sell more drugs to keep people well or to help them recover from sickness?

What would you do if a man came into your store to purchase some bichlorid of mercury tablets?

These are a few of the questions that Imogene B. Wolcott (Mrs. Roger Wolcott, the title page advises us) proposes her reader ask a druggist. What to Talk About is a simple pocket-sized handbook full of what Mrs. Wolcott suggests are “Clever Questions” that aid in “Social, Professional, and Business Advancement.” Her theory is that the key to a successful conversation is to express interest in people: “Forget yourself and think only of the person to whom you are talking.”

And so she offers the reader nearly three hundred pages worth of questions to use in a conversation. What to Talk About is a classic of the first great era of the American self-help book, a contemporary of James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh and Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows, when the shortest path between a person’s problems and their solution was a straight line. Like the first pre-packaged foods, all you had to do to enjoy the banquet you craved was add water and stir.

In Mrs. Wolcott’s world, a man’s line wasn’t something he used to pick up women in bars–it was his job, and his job was his identity. The first third of her book is devoted to questions organized by jobs and professions. Of civil engineers, she proposes one ask that probe their expertise: “Why is steel used to reinforce concrete?” “Which usually offers the greater engineering difficulties: drainage or irrigation?” She offers contemporary questions: “How much progress has been made on the tunnel under the English Channel?” “What use has been made of the valuation of the railroads made by the Interstate Commerce Commission?” And she explores the civil engineer’s philosophical side: “Which of these characteristics is most important to an engineering career–a mind of precise accuracy, the power to dream great dreams, or the ability to carry visions to a successful completion?”

Mrs. Wolcott’s selection of professions offers us insights into the working world of a century ago. Lumbermen and newspapermen rubbed elbows with trolley officials, steamship officials, detectives, dry goods merchants, jobbers, public office holders, and sculptors. Because it was the Roaring Twenties, she was careful to include flappers (“Why don’t you like chaperones?”), debutantes, and “Matrons (Society)”–for whom she offers the obvious question, “What do you think of the conduct of the younger generation?” (And its follow-up, “Does the fault lie with the young men of today, with the girls, or with their parents?” Me, I blame Society (Matrons)). She does not, however, provide a category for gangsters or rum-runners, so were the reader to run into Al Capone, he would have to make do with “Importers and Exporters”: “What proportion of our foreign trade is done on American bottoms?”

Mrs. Wolcott also wrote in the midst of the first great wave of American leisure time. And hence, she provides a substantial section devoted to questions based on a person’s hobby. This might be a sport (Ice Hockey, Jiu Jitsu, or Tobogganing) or an indoor occupation (Weaving, Stamps, or Painting). She was not above recognizing that some might indulge in minor vices (Billiards, Poker, or Smoking). She includes a sample of questions for the person interested in “Heredity and Eugenics” that would certainly liven up a conversation today: “Should first or second cousins marry?” “What is meant by the mutations theory?” Or, if you should run into a fan of this site, you can ask, “Which do you think is more healthful, the coarseness of the eighteenth century novel or the brutality of a school of our novelists?”

Finally, What to Talk About reminds us that there was a time when, no matter where you went, you never quite shook the dust of your home ground off your shoes. A time when people wore such labels as “Yankee,” “Dutchman,” “Irishman,” and “Philadelphian.” In fact, she suggests asking a Californian, “Do you see many Mexicans? Japanese? Chinese? Iowans?” Iowans? So it is only natural that Mrs. Wolcott ends her book with questions to ask the natives of such places as Denmark, Deauville, Indianapolis, Palm Beach, and “The South” and “The West.” Most aim at confirming some stereotype about each place and its inhabitants: “Is it ture that people of Charleston dine at four o’clock in the afternoon?” “Is cheapness of labor the only factor that permits China to compete in a commercial way with the rest of the world?” “Do the majority of the women who spend the winter in Florida try to get tanned or to avoid a coat of tan?” “Is it true that one seldom sees a sunset in Pittsburgh?” “What has been done in your section of the South to combat the boll weevil?”

A few of her questions, though, would probably stump even a native nowadays:

“What is meant by the three-cent cult?” (Cleveland, Ohio)

“What has the Pan-American Conference accomplished?” (South America)

“In what regard do Philadelphians hold Edward Bok?”

“Did you see many lepers?” (Holy Land)

“Were you shown the site of Annette Kellerman’s diving activities in the preparation of her most famous moving picture?” (Anyone? Anyone? … The correct answer is Bermuda.)

A book as full of questions as this one cannot help but raise a few that reach beyond the limits of place, profession, and hobby, timeless questions we could all do well to take a moment to ponder:

“Does the fear of death become stronger or less strong as one grows older?”

“Does personality or ability count more in business?”

“At what age does a hen cease to be profitable?”

“What is the future of Palestine?”

And one many of us have asked recently:

“Why is it that so many of our Vice-Presidents have come from Indiana?”

What to Talk About: The Clever Question As an Aid to Social, Professional, and Business Advancement, by Imogene B. Wolcott
New York & London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1923

Jacques Barzun on The Springs, by Anne Goodwin Winslow

Cover of first US edition of 'The Springs'A few weeks after my post on Anne Goodwin Winslow’s 1949 novel, The Springs, I came across the following, from American Panorama (1957), edited by Eric Larrabee, a collection of essays on the 350 books chosen by the Carnegie Corporation as “most descriptive of life in the U.S.A.”:

Mrs. Winslow’s reputation as a novelist is based on an exquisite specialization. She writes about the Southern gentry at the turn of the present century. This might well prove trivial or suffocating if it were not for the author’s astonishing power to make life pulse vigorously in the constricted places, situations, and people that she chooses. Her outlook is perhaps best expressed in the contrast between the title of one of her other novels—— A Quiet Neighborhood (1947)——and the violent events, the passions leading to murder, which inform the work.

Mrs. Winslow belongs to no school, for although some of her perceptions are akin to William Faulkner’s and her technique is in the tradition of William Dean Howells, her temperament, style, and biography set her in a world apart. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, which is to say a “border state” in the great North-and-South struggle of the past century, Mrs. Winslow married a Northern army engineer and spent many years in New England and abroad. She has returned to live in her home state and it is the distillation of her childhood memories through her traveled mind—emotions recollected in tranquillity — that she gives us in her novels and tales.

The Springs is a study of character which by its subdued atmosphere makes one think of Henry James’s The Europeans. But the “culture” in which the characters evolve is markedly different, as is the fact that Mrs. Winslow’s interest in household detail lends a peculiar vividness, almost a pathos, to the scene. It is as if, suddenly transplanted to those quiet old days we sometimes long for, we discovered their slow terror, which not even conventional happiness could allay.

Barzun’s last sentence captures the unique quality of Winslow’s writing that I probably haven’t done justice to: it’s delicate, subtle, and somewhat nostalgic, but there is an underlying potential for same anger, pain, and violence that percolates much closer to the surface in Faulkner. And if we had forgotten that this potential is apparently an ineluctable element of the American character, the events of the last year have done much to remind us.

Four Memoirs of the Aftermath of War

As a veteran, I would like to take this day as an opportunity to remember that one of the worst things about a war is the suffering that continues after its end. In the stereotypical versions of the end of World War Two in Europe one sees in America and Britain, the symbol of V-E Day was the great joyous crowd doing the Lambeth Walk in Piccadilly Circus. But on the Continent, the end of the war merely opened a time of displacement, disruption, and slow, painful reconstruction.

Four fine neglected books, all written by women, remind us of one of the greatest tragedies to follow the war in Europe — namely, the plight of the millions of prisoners, forced laborers, and refugees who were displaced from their homes and stranded in foreign countries, often without the means to return.

Aftermath, by Francesca M. Wilson (1948)

aftermathWilson, an English academic who had already worked with refugees from the First World War, Russia, and the Spanish Civil War, joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in early 1945, and was one of its first staff members to arrive in Germany to begin to deal with the enormity of the problem created with the liberation of concentration camps by the Allies. The first DP (Displaced Persons) camp she worked at was Feldafing in Bavaria, which the U.S. Army set up to house a trainload of Hungarian Jews one of its units found near Mühldorf , a satellite camp of Dachau. In these early days, those organizing relief quickly realized that they were dealing with people who had been subjected to a dehumanization more extreme than anything that even an experienced worker like Wilson had ever experienced:

They had the furtive look and gestures of hunted animals. By years of brutal treatment, by the murder of relatives, by the constant fear of death, all that was human had been taken away from them. We went into the dormitories where they were eating — the collected their food from the kitchen and brought it back to devour in relative privacy: nothing would persuade them to eat in communal dining-rooms. I noticed a man who was trying to eat but was too weak to finish his food. Three boys were staring at his plate. I had once seen the same look of burning yet cautious intentness on the Russian steppes. When the sick man pushed his plate away a thin arm shot out and seized the lump of meat left on it. The lad who had secured it slid out of the room, like a starving dog with a bone.

Despite the challenges of woefully inadequate supplies and staff, an oncoming winter, and a population devastated by malnutrition, disease, and depression, UNRRA and other relief organizations gradually established some degree of sanitation and comfort in the camps. But none of them was quite prepared to delete with the special challenge presented by the former residents of lands now incorporated into the Soviet Union. And their responses were not always something to be proud of:

They are now in exile because they do not wish to become Soviet citizens. Only they can decide about this. Soviet citizenship should be accepted voluntarily, and the policy not to compel their return is a right one: but the policy of leaving them to rot in DP camps is utterly wrong. Poland will not accept her former Ukrainian citizens — those who tried to go back there were turned back from her frontiers. Military authorities in Austria were trying last September to make a temporary solution. They reduced their rations, which had been kept to the 2,000 calorie level, to the 1,200 of the surrounding population, saying at the same time that all those who were physically able must pay for their board and lodging in the camps…. But unless these uprooted peoples are to be permanently absorbed in the German or Austrian economy — and this neither they nor their hosts desire — this is only a temporary solution. When all have gone home who will or can, there will still be three-quarters of a million irrepatriable DPs….

The Wild Place, by Kathryn Hulme (1952)

the_wild_placeIn 1945, Kathryn Hulme arrived as UNRRA director of the Wildflecken DP camp in northern Bavaria. Like Wilson, she encountered a desperate situation and struggled in the first months to establish conditions fit for the people in the camp. Her first impressions, she wrote “entered with such sharp shock that never again would I be able to look on a refugee mass, even in pictures, and see it collectively, see it as a homogeneous stream of unfortunate humanity that could be handled with the impersonal science of the engineer who does not even think of the drops of water when he is controlling the flood.” At Wildflecken, she also met Marie Louise Habets, a Belgian nurse and former nun. The two became close friends and were to remain together as companions when they left the camp. Hulme would later fictionalize Habets’ experiences as a nun in the 1958 best-seller, The Nun’s Story. The Wild Place won the Atlantic Monthly award as best non-fiction book of 1953. Although not rare ( lists over 50 copies for sale), it’s become something of a collector’s item, with prices starting at $35 and running to over $400 a copy.

The Walls Came Tumbling Down, by Henriette Roosenburg (1956)

walls_came_tumbling_downRoosenburg was a young Dutch woman imprisoned in 1944 by the Nazis as a Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) inmate for her activities as a member of the Dutch Resistance organization. When the war ended, she and four other Dutch women were inmates of a prison near Waldheim in Saxony, in the Russian zone of occupation. Because one of the women was too ill to walk, they were left behind in the initial evacuation, and after turning their friend over for medical care, they had to work their way back over four hundred miles of territory that was still in chaos. It required an extraordinary amount of strength, ingenuity, and persuasiveness, and reading The Walls Came Tumbling Down serves as another illustration of the fact that a group of women is usually ten times smarter, better organized, and more practical than any equivalent group of men. Roosenburg, who worked as a journalist after the war, first wrote about these experiences in a four-part series in The New Yorker titled, “Annals of Liberation — The Journey Home.”

The Children, by Charity Blackstock (1966)

the_childrenThe Children was the only book of non-fiction published by Ursula Torday under the pen-name of Charity Blackstock that she used mostly for murder mysteries and light thrillers. In it, she recounted her five years’ work as director of a scheme organized by an association of British Jews organized to help locate and reunite family members who had survived the Holocaust. The scheme involved arranging for displaced Jewish children being kept in group homes in France to be placed — only temporarily at first — with Jewish families in England. The Children provides a vivid demonstration of the paradoxes of memory: how quickly people in France and England could forget their own troubles during the war and grow callous to the plight of children orphaned and displaced in its wake; and how long these children remained scarred and disturbed by their experiences. Even for herself, Torday admits, “This business of going back is dangerous: by doing it one virtually stands still, and tomorrow is surely more interesting than today.” And she is able, writing nearly fifteen years later, to recognize that for the children, “The Scheme, the families, the Homes, are all part of a black and stinking past, to be remembered by all of us, but to be forgotten as far as it is possible by them. Even I myself, even the best of hostesses, must be unwilling reminders of a time when they were dependent on charity, deprived children, pathetic victims.”

The Buzzards, by Janet Burroway (1969)

Cover of first US edition of 'The Buzzards'To mark the last day of what has been an ugly and troubling election campaign, let me note a fine neglected book about the toxic cocktail that results when you mix family dynamics, political ambition, and relentless media coverage: Janet Burroway’s 1969 novel, The Buzzards.

The Buzzards centers on Arizona Republican senator Alex Cofer, running for President and finding it forcing him to make uncomfortable choices between his ambition and his family.

It shouldn’t take much to guess which wins out in the end.

Cofer is, at the start, a relatively decent if clueless man, safely conservative but not unpalatably rabid, with stereotypical politician’s good looks — silver hair, blue eyes, chiseled features. His wife, Claudia, is already bitter from years of his neglect. Their elder daughter is a frustrated housewife finding her life being drained away by the demands of three kids. Orin, their son, has given up on America and take refuge in Paris. Only Evie, a teenager with all-American girl good looks — isn’t loaded down with psychological baggage, and even Evie becomes a bit of a problem when she acquires a boyfriend who’s a little … well, brown.

And as the campaign progresses, Alex finds himself becoming more strident in his statements and positions, just to put himself in contrast to his more liberal opponent: “Every man who takes an oath of office in this country, implicitly declares himself ready to use force as he deems it necessary for the preservation of a peaceful and lawful union. He declares himself ready to place in jeopardy the lives of those nearest to him in spirit….”

You can imagine how well the family bonds bear up when doused with the battery acid of months of campaigning and media coverage. Raised in Arizona, it’s not surprising that more than one of the Cofers compares the press to a flock of buzzards, constantly circling, waiting to dive down and feast on the victims.

I’ve read that The Buzzards was a finalist for the 1970 Pulitzer, but can’t confirm from the Pulitzer site. Though an interesting read in any election year and full of points ready-made to make one reflect on today’s equivalents, I found it awfully full of fictional devices for the sake of … well, because Burroway could. Multiple narrators, stump speeches, a diary, stream-of-consciousness, news reports — ample evidence that she was well qualified to write the book she’s best known for, the standard of college courses everywhere: Writing Fiction. Still, if you feel the need to remind yourself of the soul-grinding spectacle of the last umpteen months in American politics, you can do far worse than to pick up a copy of The Buzzards.

The Buzzards, by Janet Burroway
Boston/Toronto: Little, Brown, 1969

Music At Midnight, by Muriel Draper (1929)

Front cover of 'Music at Midnight'I don’t believe in golden ages. Pick anyone’s candidate for a golden age — the Athens of Socrates, the Italian Renaissance, Paris in the Twenties, Eisenhower’s America — and without much looking you will find someone — the slaves, the serfs, the blacks — for whom the time was no great party. But I do believe in golden moments — a few months or a few years when circumstances allow a few people to something uniquely marvelous and irreproducable. Music at Midnight is a memoir of one of these golden moments: two years (1912-1914) when Paul and Muriel Draper rented a house at 19 Edith Grove, Chelsea, and it became the center of the music world of London.

Paul Draper was an aspiring American tenor who came to London to study lieder with a renowned voice coach, Raimund von Zur Mühlen, bringing his socialite wife Muriel and their two sons in tow. Although Draper proved a good but not great singer, the couple quickly managed to attract many of the finest musicians living and performing in London at the time. A list of their friends and acquaintances is impressive: Igor Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Chaliapin, Rubinstein, Pierre Monteux, Pablo Casals, Eugene Goossens, Gertrude Stein, John Singer Sargent, and even Henry James were among those who spent evenings at the Draper’s. And no gathering was complete without music.

It often occurred that an artist who did not live in London would arrive for the night of the concert only, leaving London the next day. This meant that he would not arrive at Edith Grove until after the concert and its tedious artist’s-room salutations and compliments were terminated (though I never knew one who did not like them) anywhere between ten-thirty and midnight, and would not leave until it was time to catch the boat-train in the morning. He would find perhaps a movement from a Brahms violin sonata, a Beethoven trio for flute, violin, piano, a Chopin mazurka or German song cycle already in full swing and would creep into a chair or on a cushion until it was over. Then, usually hungry and a little tired from the strain of a concert, we would carry him off upstairs for food and drink. After which the really serious work of the evening would begin and continue until the skylight in the roof above us would turn from black to black-blue to blue-grey to yellow-grey and at last show clear blue sky beyond yellow sunlight, seen through blue-yellow-grey layers of smoke from burning wood, burning tobacco and burning candles. It would be six o’clock — seven o’clock — eight o’clock in the morning before we would make another visit to the dining-room, where the miracle maids after eight hours’ sleep had somehow managed to clear away the debris of Chester’s pink food and lonely parts of deserted fowl and make room for fresh coffee, scrambled eggs in an enormous chafing dish, raspberries and strawberries in big bowls. Oh! those English berries! We would breakfast, and break day by going to bed.

Their neighbors were less enthusiastic about the Draper’s musical soirées. The folks behind them once staged a protest one evening, going from window to window, “blowing policemen’s whistles, shooting off torpedoes, and filling the night air with hootings and rattles.” In response, Rubenstein and John Warner merely attacked the Bach prelude and fugue with even greater enthusiasm. “Bach is stirring enough played by two hands: by four, it is not conducive to sleep,” Muriel notes.

In one way, Music at Midnight is a bit like a snooty man’s version of People magazine — or, as Jim Gaffigan puts it, McDonald’s of the soul. It’s utterly superficial and primarily of interest for the glimpses of the great when they let down their guards. But what English major can resist an account of Henry James on the phone?

To be called to the telephone by Henry James was an experience in itself. The first time it happened I, all unaware, took up the receiver eagerly, and said, “Yes — this is Muriel.”

A voice that began to twist and turn on the other end of the wire, finally spoke.

“Would you be — er — or, rather, my dear, — er — my very dear, if I may call you so, child, would you, — not by — er — er arrangement, but would you — more — er — truthfully speaking — be — er — er NATURALLY at home — this afternoon?”

By that time I was not naturally anything at all, and could only gasp, “Yes, always, any time — yes, yes, this afternoon at five, I will, unnaturally or not, be here — yes,” and hung up.

Muriel soon discovered a trick that many a reader of James has probably been tempted to repeat:

I soon learned to talk with him and listen to him, by withdrawing the weight of my attention from his actual words and the anguished facial contortions that accompanied them, and fastening it on the stream of thought itself. I even diverted my eyes from that part of his face from which the phrases finally emerged, namely, his mouth, and directed them to a more peaceful spot between his eyes, which I imagined to be the source of tought. It proved helpful. … My effort to ignore the words and extract the meaning by a sense of weight, inflection and rhythm which emanated from him … proved an excellent modus operandi from then on….

Muriel Draper, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1934
Muriel Draper, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1934
Even though Carl van Vechten groused in his diary that Muriel Draper couldn’t write, Music at Midnight bubbles with what one critic called “the zeal of a child anticipating a good time,” and is filled with memorable sketches of the greats. Of the actress Eleanora Duse, for example: “She permeated the air with the ethereal assurance that she was inhabiting her body, but could leave it if she chose.” Or the intimidating Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, who “had the shape and substance of a rock, the smell and sound of vast stretches of earth and water, and breathed like the winds in the air.”

The parties at 19 Edith Grove might have carried on for years, but like most golden moments, it came to a ugly and unexpected end with the start of World War One. Caught on a tour in Germany, Paul Draper obtained passage back to America, leaving Muriel and the boys in London. She hung on, selling off bits of furniture for cash while foreign exchange with the U.S. was restricted, but by mid-1915, after the sinking of the Lusitania, she decided it too risky to postpone their own return. When the cab arrived to take them to the train station, a group of friends serenaded their departure.

The Drapers divorced not long after Muriel’s return to the US. Paul Draper married a show girl in 1920 and she divorced him a few years later. He died in 1925 at the age of 38. The New York Times reported the cause as heart disease, but in truth, he drank himself to death. Muriel carried on without him, remaining active in New York social and artistic circles. Despite the fact that Van Vechten dismissed Muriel’s ability to write, he photographed her often in the 1930s. And she was a great supporter of young talent, as actress Marian Seldes recalls in this YouTube clip.

Muriel Draper and her sons Sanders  (L) and Paul, Jr. (R), in the late 1930s
Muriel Draper and her sons Sanders (L) and Paul, Jr. (R), in the late 1930s

Her son Paul Jr. became a well-known dancer, particularly for his fusion of tap and modern dance. His brother, Sanders, went to England and joined the Royal Air Force in 1940. He died a hero’s death when he steered the plane he was flying, which had been severely damaged and was plummeting to the ground, and avoided crashing into a school full of children in Hornchurch, just outside London. Muriel became a proponent of Communist and socialist causes until scared off by investigators from the House Un-American Activities Committee. She died in Manhattan in 1952.

Music at Midnight, by Muriel Draper
New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1929

The Springs, by Anne Goodwin Winslow (1949)

springs_anne_goodwin_winslowWhenever I think about Anne Goodwin Winslow, I tend to pair her up with Isa Glenn (whose work was discussed in my interview with Veronica Makowsky). They were both true Southern belles, daughters of wealthy and powerful men, who married Army officers, followed them to exotic assignments, and then, as widows, turned to writing (for a few years) and then faded into obscurity.

Whatever the similarity in their lives, however, their approaches to writing were strikingly different. Glenn, who settled in Manhattan after her husband’s death and started publishing in the 1920s, was usually satirical and looked back upon the South in which she grew up without an ounce of nostalgia. Winslow, on the other hand, retired to her family home, Goodwinslow, outside Memphis and portrayed the South in light strokes and subtle tones. This is not to suggest that she saw her past as a better time — simply that she was a sketcher, while Glenn was an etcher.

Winslow’s delicacy of style may be her greatest handicap in appealing with today’s reader. As I wrote in my post on her final novel, It Was Like This (1949), “Winslow spent most of her time paring away her prose, taking away inessential details, replacing the direct with the indirect, until what was left was timeless in its simplicity and perfection.” It seems like so little happens in her books that it’s easy to miss what does.

Not that there isn’t drama in her third, and best-regarded, novel, The Springs. A jealous husband arrives one night and murders the handsome local boy with whom his wife has become infatuated, leaving the body lying beside the springs of the title and calmly walked away, knowing his money and influence would keep him from any punishment. From the moment Mr. Dupree had arrived from New Orleans to deposit his wife and children at the hotel, people had smelled trouble. Stocky and arrogant, his capacity for violence was palpable, and Mrs. Dupree was quickly seen to be a stupid and foolish woman unable to admit her age.

But what I’ve just written is crude and obvious compared to how Winslow tells the story. And it isn’t even the central story in The Springs. In fact, I somewhat suspect that Winslow included the Dupree’s re-enactment of Othello to enhance the contrast between the coarse lines of their drama and the almost imperceptible filaments of the triangle that forms around Alice, the seventeen year-old girl through whose memory the story is filtered.

Mr. Mason, a man from Charleston, South Carolina sent to work in Memphis in the cotton business, falls for Alice at first sight. But though he spends hours walking and talking with her, often telling her of his family’s once-grand plantation, he feels himself encumbered by a commitment to help restore his parents to their former status in Charleston society. When Mason introduces Alice to Brian Howard, a rich and handsome young Englishman (“They really do seem to be surprisingly like they are in the books they write about themselves,” he observes), he consciously puts Brian forward as a more suitable candidate for her hand.

Though Alice seems oblivious to the maneuver, when Brian falls for her and returns the next year with his family’s approval, she accepts his proposal. Mason has gracefully exited stage right, and when he comes back later, she is somewhat perplexed, feeling that it was Mason who had failed her. To her, Mason is the poetic soul and Brian just the rugged outdoorsman, best seen with shotgun in hand and brace of pheasants hanging from his belt. The fine, the beautiful, the romantic thing to do would be to flee with Mason to his doomed plantation by the sea.

But the real story Winslow is telling in The Springs is not about passion or romance but about perspective. The perspective than transforms experience into memory.

Once when they were going through the woods and the others had gone on ahead, she and Mr. Mason stopped under the tree where they used to spend so much time talking, and it made her feel a little strange. In spite of all you could do, and no matter how happy you were, things were always slipping. You never could hold on to them; you just had something else instead.

“It seems so long ago, doesn’t it?” she said.

He had taken off his hat and stood looking up into the tree, but now he looked at her. “How can it, when you’ve never been in any long ago? That’s a place you are never going with me. I’ve told you that.”

“Do you mean you can really hold on to things — in your mind — so that you don’t feel sad about them?”

“Maybe they hold on to me.”

“This place, for instance?”

“This place. But I have had you here with everything green around you. Stand over there and let me put the colors in. Without your hat.”

She stood quite still, helping him to get the picture he wanted to keep; then he let her go and they walked on.

“You mustn’t ever worry about the past, Miss Alice,” he said. “It hardly ever lets you down. As a rule we like it better and better as we go along, or we can keep working on it until we do.”

Mason sees Alice from the distance of a man twenty years her elder. Alice recalls this time from a distance of forty years and another continent. Winslow, who was 74 when The Springs was published, had the perspective of even greater distance, and was able to show — subtly — delicately — indirectly — how each separation from experience loses something in intensity but gains something in proportion.

The Raleigh Inn
The Raleigh Inn

Winslow never suggested it, but from a few bits of information, one can determine that there was a strongly autobiographical element to The Springs. The home where she grew up, Goodwinslow, butted up against the edge of Raleigh Springs, a resort that was set up in the late 1800s to take advantage of the supposed medicinal benefits of the local natural springs, somewhat of a Deep South competitor to the Greenbrier and Saratoga. Like the Springs in Goodwin’s novel, the Raleigh Inn eventually lost its prestige and was turned into a girls’ school. Winslow kept up Goodwinslow, however, dying there in 1959, and it remains one of the fine Southern mansions gracing the outskirts of Memphis.

The Springs, by Anne Goodwin Winslow
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949

Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, by Elizabeth Coatsworth (1976)

Cover of first edition of 'Personal Geography'For a writer who became associated with Maine and the Northeast and life on a small farm, Elizabeth Coatsworth managed to cover more of the rest of the world’s terrain in her first 25 years than many of her more cosmopolitan peers. And her last book, Personal Geography is aptly named, covering both great travels and years spent in the space of just a few square miles.

The book’s subtitle, “Almost an Autobiography,” is also apt. While Coatsworth manages to tell us most of the essential facts of her life, she does it by weaving together passages from her diaries and journals, going as far back as the early 1900s and running up to the time she was writing — an amalgam of things, she calls it, “Each piece a moment in my life, caught in passing.” And she recommends it be read the same way she wrote it: “in snatches — picked up and put down, and I hope picked up again.”

Coatsworth was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1893. She refers to Buffalo as “my Middle East”: “There is a Middle East in this country as surely as there is a Middle West, but it is not called by that name. It is an emotion rather than a nomenclature.” Her father owned Buffalo’s largest grain exchange and the family lived in one of the best houses in town, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson. They wintered in California, traveled to Europe and Egypt, and sent Elizabeth and her sister to Buffalo’s best girl’s school and, in Elizabeth’s case, on to college at Vassar.

When her father died in 1912, her mother sold the mansion. After Elizabeth graduated from college in May 1914, they set off, with her younger sister Margaret, for Europe. They visited England, France and Holland before war broke out, but carried on regardless, moving on to Spain, Italy, Egypt and Palestine. Then they sailed to Japan and China, down to Southeast Asia, and finally back to California. Of all the countries they visited, she loved China the best: “I think my whole preference for China could be epitomized by a flaking wall near a temple, on which someone had sketched a narcissus and a line of Chinese characters. In Japan that would have been tidied up. But not in China, the lovely decrepit China of those days.”

Elizabeth’s idle itinerant life ended in 1929 when she married the writer Henry Beston. Beston had just written his best-known book, The Outermost House, which related the story of a year living in an isolated house on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. A year later, they bought Chimney Farm, near Nobleboro, Maine, which remained their home for the rest of their lives, and Coatsworth published her second book, The Cat Who Went to Heaven, which went on to win the Newberry Medal as the best children’s book of the 1930.

Though they together wrote nearly two dozen books at Chimney Farm, Beston and Coatsworth had fundamentally different approaches to writing. Beston would spend months planning, researching, organizing, thinking — and lining up his publishing contract. Coatsworth tended to write in a flash. “Writing was for me an addiction like drink, which I kept as much as possible out of sight.” A dedicated naturalist, Beston helped her learn to observe the life of the plants and animals in and around Damariscotta Pond, the lake alongside Chimney Farm. And she came to find outside her window sights as amazing as anything she’d seen on her world travels:

Now and then a heavy shower passes over our road eastward beyond the lake and its dark shores. The clouds will mass in a black wall there on the other side, while the sunshine strikes in the fields on this side, and every grass-blade, weed, and flower in them, to a wet and burning green. A tremulous rainbow hangs against the clouds. Looking out through your skull’s two windows you know you are seeing a beauty rare and certain to be gone in a moment. It is one of the miracles of daily life that you should see it at all. It is, surely, an enchantment more fit for the eyes of magicians than for everyday human beings ourselves.

Still, she never thought she could match Beston’s gift for observation: “I think sometimes that when Henry and I die, Henry will go knowing that he has given an exact impression of the world and life as he has seen it, but that I shall know that I have left behind me only glimpses, random remarks, things seen at a tangent.” Henry, who was five years older, died in 1968. When Coatsworth wrote Personal Geography, she had lived alone on the farm for eight years. “After so many travels, I am home, and my happiness here is no less than it was in foreign lands and my sense of wonder has not dulled with all these years. I am as happy as an old dog stretched out in the sunlight.”

Yet she is in no hurry. “I don’t want to die because even in this narrower radius there are so many people and things still to enjoy.” And even as she acknowledges having to give up driving, her mind is still wandering far afield. She imagines the lost cities in the oases of the deserts between China, India and Russia, the icebergs off Greenland, and the hundreds of small volcanic cones in Anatolia. “None of these places have I ever seen and certainly never will see. But I do not wish to see them. They swim in my fancy, often nameless. They are a living part of my thought.”

Personal Geography belongs on many a nightstand, to be picked up and put down and picked up again.

Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Brattleboro, Vermont: The Stephen Greene, 1976

Snake, by Kate Jennings (1997)

Cover of US edition of "Snake"Snake is a tight short novel about two people who come at their marriage from very different directions.

Everybody likes you. A good man. Decent. But disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? That wife. Those children.

Your wife. You love and cherish her. You like to watch her unobserved, through a window, across a road or a paddock, as if you were a stranger and knew nothing about her. You admire her springy hair, slow smile, muscled legs, confident bearing. If this woman were your wife, your chest would swell with pride.

She is your wife, she despises you. The coldness, the forbearing looks, the sarcastic asides, they are constant. She emasculates you with the sure blade of her contempt. The whirring of the whetstone wheel, the strident whine of steel being held to it, that is the background noise to the nightmare of your days.

Just 157 pages long with 77 chapters, some no more than a paragraph long, Snake is a novel distilled to a series of moments across a twenty-year relationship, and goes down as strong and biting as a good whiskey. Setting her story in a dry land of farms where drought and dust sometimes leech the life out of all living things, Jennings also reduces her words to lean, sinewy lines: “She chewed on the injustice of it like a dog with a piece of hide”; “Irene always said nobody could read thoughts; they were the only things that were truly your own”; “These were people so certain of their own superiority they need not remark on it; in their complacency, they resembled well-stuffed sofas.”

Snake is one of just two novels written by Kate Jennings. Moral Hazard (2002) is equally brief, with a similar structure of pithy chapters. It draws upon Jennings’ experiences of working as a corporate speechwriter to help pay for care for her husband, graphic designer Bob Cato, who developed Alzheimer’s, and now seems prescient in its depiction of the risk-heedless appetites of Wall Street that led to the crash of 2008.

Both Snake and Moral Hazard are available via

Snake, by Kate Jennings
Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1997

All the Books of My Life: A Bibliobiography, by Sheila Kaye-Smith (1956)

all-the-books-of-my-lifeAll the Books of My Life came about fifty years too early for the wave of what some refer to a “bibliomemoirs” — books such as Reading Lolita in Tehran, Howards End is on the Landing, How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much, The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life, and about a gajillion others (see Jenny Bhatt’s multi-part disquisition on the topic, which is already about a couple dozen titles out of date). Unlike these, however, it’s available free, via Project Gutenberg Canada, provided you’re willing to swear you’re not accessing the site from the U.S..

All the Books of My Life was the last of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s over fifty books, most of them novels with settings in rural England — the sort of books that Stella Gibbons parodied in Cold Comfort Farm. In scope, it puts the bibliomemoirs of the 21st century to shame: this is truly a lifetime’s account of reading, starting with the books she came to know at the foot of her nanny and ending with the religious works that came to command a larger part of her reading list as her interest in Catholicism and mysticism grew over the years. And in the titles covered, it provides a remarkable contrast with the kinds of titles one finds in recent bibliomemoirs.

I doubt, for example, that many of today’s girls would be willing to put up with the earnest Victorian morality and innocence found in the many tales by L. T. Meade that she devoured. They will not find the works of Rosa Nouchette Carey, Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey and Mrs. Philip Champion de Crespigny filling up the tables of their local lending library — particularly since lending libraries were already a thing of the past when Kaye-Smith was writing. Nor are young readers likely to come across a copy of Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, let alone spend the next months reading it. Kaye-Smith’s mother encouraged her daughter to follow her interests wherever they might lead, as long as they remained within the confines of the school library: “If you find anything that’s improper you can always skip it. It seems a pity not to read the book when you’re enjoying it so much.”

sheila-kaye-smithShe acknowledges that her youthful hunger for reading often led her past the point of her own understanding. “Read Thackeray later,” one of her mother’s friends advised. “You wouldn’t understand him now. You’d miss a lot.” “This was perfectly true,” she admits, “and I only wish her advice had been applied more widely, for I spoilt a number of books and authors for myself by reading them too early.” Among these was Middlemarch: “I read it painstakingly, without skipping a word, but most of its virtues — and they are pre-eminent — were thrown away on me.” I have to say that I thought the same thing many times when I saw the college-prep reading lists our kids received: “King Lear? For a sixteen year-old? Are you kidding me?”

She admits to have struggled unsuccessfully with certain authors who were regularly recommended to her. While Austen became a lifelong love, each time she picked up something by Trollope, “I waded —- yes, that is my word —- through Trollope’s prosy style, in which his characters struggle for life like sheep in a swamp.” She also argues that a fair number of the authors whose works were considered classics in her youth have failed the test of time: “Any novelist in the second or third rank today could make rings round Maria Edgeworth; and compare Bulwer Lytton’s method of writing history with that of Oliver Onions or H. V. Prescott —- it is not only changing fashion that has blurred the colours of the earlier writers. They were always dingy and no closer to what they represented than a Victorian stained-glass window.” Ironically, one could say the same thing now if comparing a book by Oliver Onions or H. V. Prescott to Wolf Hall or The Seige of Krishnapur. Of the two writers whose work she stored up to tide her through the dark years of World War Two, P. G. Wodehouse’s readership stays comic and carries on; I’m not sure the same could be said for the Catholic theologian Friedrich von Hügel or his relatively light Letter to a Niece.

“In spite of all the books I have read there are so many more that I want to read and there is so much more that I want to know,” Kaye-Smith writes at the end of All the Books of My Life. Sadly, however, she did not even live to see this last of her own books in print.

All the Books of My Life: A Bibliobiography, by Sheila Kaye-Smith
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956

Dear Rat, by Julia Cunningham (1961)

Cover of paperback edition of "Dear Rat"I’m a great believer in the miracle of serendipity. For me, it usually takes the form of the thing that appears in my path while I’m looking for something else. In this case, it was a children’s book that fate had arranged to have misplaced in a shelf of literary fiction in a bookstore in Ellensburg, Washington. I was rapid losing interest in browsing any further, since it was obvious that the store’s stock was almost entirely made up of recent trade paperbacks, when I pulled out a rare hardback, a thin volume titled Dear Rat. I quickly twigged that it was a children’s book from the illustrations, but there was something so likable about the book’s opening lines that I had to buy it: “I am a rat. I’m tough and I’m tender. I know my way around, thanks to having been bounced off the hard surfaces of the world.”

Dear Rat is narrated by Andrew, a rat from Humpton, Wyoming who finds himself in Chartres, France, having smuggled his way onto a freighter and then hopped a train from Le Havre. He quickly runs into the worst and the best that France has to offer. The worst is a thug named Gorge, a local rat gangster whose henchmen dust up Andrew before he manages to get away.

The best is a great building that confronts him when he scurries out of the cellar where he’s gone in search of food: “My brain searches around in my head like a squirrel for a name for this great, wonderful thing. It comes up with ‘cathedral’ and then quiets down again into blank astonishment.” He’s stumbled onto the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres . Wandering inside, he is struck speechless by a statue of a lady on a pillar wearing a crown of gold studded with jewels.

The worst and the best becoming intertwined in a caper that leads Andrew to the court of King Depuis Longtemps the IV, ruler of the Paris sewers and into a romance with the King’s daughter, Angelique Rocqueville de Chenonceau de Tournevallance de Mistraille de Chauminceparcyne de Lot (which is just a big mouthful of French nonsense), or Angie for short. Andrew discovers there’s a rat (sorry) in the court in the form of the Prime Minister, who subjects him to a battle of wits–or, as Andrew puts it, “plays checkers” with him. An upstanding character and a little American ingenuity, however, and, as you might expect, the hero gets the girl.

Dear Rat was Julia Cunningham’s second book, and shared many elements with her first, The Vision of François the Fox (1960), which was also set in France and told the story of a scavenging critter who tries to become a saint after being moved by something he sees in a cathedral. Cunningham had spent a year living in France, and French themes would make their way into a number of her books.

Cunningham’s best-known book, Dorp Dead (1965), about a boy who finds himself trapped as the ward of an abusive grandfather, was one of the first modern works for children to treat a dark subject openly and deliberately, and is now considered a fore-runner of the Young Adult genre. It was reissued back in 2002 but is out of print once again.

Cunningham knew something about grim childhoods. Her father abandoned his family when Julia was six and never returned. Her mother struggled to raise two children on her own, which became even harder when the Depression hit and what was left of the family’s money was wiped out. She made her way through a series of low-paid jobs for nearly twenty years before she saved up enough for her trip to France. In the late 1950s, she moved to Santa Barbara, California, where she worked in a bookstore and continued to send manuscripts to publishers until she sold The Vision of François the Fox Houghton Mifflin.

Cunningham had considerable success as a children’s author. Burnish Me Bright (1970) was selected as a New York Times Outstanding Book for the year, The Treasure Is the Rose (1973) was a National Book Award Finalist, Come to the Edge (1977) won a Christopher Award, and Flight of the Sparrow (1980) won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor. But then, in 1986, her publisher, Pantheon, dropped its children’s book line and her contract along with it. She kept writing and submitting manuscripts, but it was not until 2001, when Susan Hirschmann of Greenwillow Books brought her back in print with The Stable Rat and Other Christmas Poems. Cunningham never married, but was close friends with a fellow children’s author in Santa Barbara, Clyde Bulla, and mentored other writers in her community. Her brother John Cunningham was also a writer, mostly working in Westerns. His story, “Tin Star,” was the basis of the movie High Noon. I highly recommend reading her obituary in the Santa Barbara Independent website.

Dear Rat is available through (link), as is Dorp Dead (link), Macaroon, Onion Journey, a lovely little Christmas fable (link), Macaroon (link), The Treasure Is the Rose (link), and several others. Although the site has a link for The Vision of François the Fox as well, it’s an error and leads to a Spanish encyclopedia from the 1800s.

Dear Rat, by Julia Cunningham
New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1961

Modern Chivalry; or A New Orlando Furioso, by Mrs. Catherine Gore (1843)

An illustration by George Cruikshank from "Modern Chivalry" by Mrs. Catherine Gore
An illustration by George Cruikshank from “Modern Chivalry” by Mrs. Catherine Gore

In Modern Chivalry, Silver Fork novelist skewers an easy target, the idle man of sufficient status in Victorian society to live “the life of those the business of whose day is digestion.” In this case, the man is Frederick Howardson, sometimes known as Howardson of Greystoke (his family estate) or Howardson of Sentinel (a race horse he briefly owned). Gore tells us in her introduction that she set out to sketch a stereotype of a “Man of No Feelings,” a consumate egoist, and she succeeds superbly.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Gore tries to characterize Howardson’s efforts to remain exactly in the mean, comfortably set with an income sufficient to keep a house in town, a reputation sufficient to earn him a place in the right clubs, and no talent exceptional enough to arouse anyone’s jealousy as a constant and courageous struggle. She compares it to the struggle of Waterton, the naturalist, who “asserts that whenever he encountered an alligator tete-a-tete in the wilderness, he used to leap on its back and ride the beast to death.” “Just so are we situated with regard to the world,” she argues:

Either we must leap upon its back, strike our spur into its panting sides, and in spite of its scaly defences compel it to obey our glowing will, or the animal will mangle us with its ferocious jaws, and pursue its way towards its refuge in the cool waters, leaving us expiring in the dust. Either the world or the individual must obtain the upper hand.

At the start of the story, Howardson has mastered the alligator. “Everybody was glad when he came, — everybody was sorry when he went.” He had not “that inconvenient appendage, a confidential friend — otherwise, an intimate enemy, who becomes the depositary of your secrets for the good of the public.” Instead, he had so many friends that none of them had any claims upon his confidence and rarely did any of them entrust him with theirs. He enjoyed, as Gore puts it, that “smooth, level, unmeaning mediocrity [that] affords a wider and sublimer view of the distant horizon.”

He even has the good fortune to have a beautiful and gracious woman of good reputation, Lady Rachel Lawrence, whose company he can enjoy as he needs of an evening, located just next door. Indeed, “her chief attraction in his eyes consisted in being a next door neighbour, who relieved him from the trouble of getting rid of his leisure hours, and ordering out his cab in rainy weather.” Being married to a Lord well-rooted to his own estate, Lady Rachel has the further advantage of presenting no risk of matrimonial entanglements.

Because Howardson’s chief quandary is that of making the absolutely perfect match. Which means a woman of substantial fortune unencumbered by a meddlesome family; a woman of admirable beauty and sophistication but not so much as to compete with him in social circles; a woman who will dote upon him whenever he needs tea and sympathy yet leave him alone for the many hours he would prefer to spend by himself or at the club; a woman of purest virtue yet sufficiently refined to ride with the changing waves of social mores. Each woman he considers has something not quite perfect about her, and so he moves on to another. In other words, he’s caught in the same dilemma as the man in Seinfeld’s “Gas — Food — Lodging” joke:

I think that for some reason when a man is driving down that freeway of love, the woman he’s with is like an exit, but he doesn’t want to get off there. He wants to keep driving. And the woman is like, “Look, gas, food, lodging, that’s our exit, that’s everything we need to be happy… Get off here, now!” But the man is focusing on sign underneath that says, “Next exit 27 miles,” and he thinks, “I can make it.”

In Howardson’s case, he ends up driving past all the exits and winds up in a sad old hotel in Paris, with “grey hair and crowsfeet within, as without; and his soul was bald with a baldness that set Macassar oil at defiance.”

Modern Chivalry is as insubstantial and irresistable as a potato chip. Howardson is one of the great egoists, a precursor of George Meredith’s The Egoist and a whole lot more fun. By the way, Modern Chivalry is attributed in American editions to William Harrison Ainsworth, but the “CFG” credited in the original English edition is most definitely Catherine F. Gore.

Modern Chivalry; or A New Orlando Furioso, by Mrs. Catherine Gore
London: John Mortimer, 1843

Mercury Presides, by Daphne Fielding (1954)

Cover of first US edition of "Mercury Presides"When Evelyn Waugh read Daphne Fielding’s memoir, Mercury Presides, he quipped that the book was “marred by discretion and good taste.” Considering that the author was one of the more sparkling of the Bright Young Things whose exploits and indulgences Waugh satirized in Vile Bodies and other early novels, one can understand his assessment.

There is an awful lot of material about her travels with her first husband, Henry, Viscount Weymouth (later 6th Marquess of Bath) and their efforts to prop up Longleat, the family estate that Henry’s father dumped upon him in the early 1930s. Though considered one of the stateliest of the stately homes of England, Longleat was a money pit and Henry and Daphne had to resort to ingenious measures (read, selling tickets for tours and opening up parts of the grounds for public use) to keep it up. Even then, they got the occasional complaints from their guests, such as Lord Beaverbrook’s sharply-worded letter about the dust on the windowsills and the dried-out inkwell in his room.

What there isn’t is much about Daphne’s carryings-on, which led the 5th Marquess of Bath and his Marchioness to disapprove of her marrying their son (not “steady wife” material). Before the marriage (which was first made in secret to avoid the wrath of the parents), Daphne was known as the kind of girl who liked to par-tay — which in those days usually involved lots of French champagne, driving too fast on narrow country roads (which was pretty much all the British road system in those days), and making absurd impositions on servants and other members of the working class. Ah — good times, good times. No wonder Waugh remarked that “the adult part [of the book] is rather as though Lord Montgomery were to write his life and omit to mention that he ever served in the army.”

We do, however, learn why Daphne might have been inclined to be a bit out of control. Her mother ran off with another man when Daphne was four (or, as she was told, her mother had “gone away to the sea-side”), and her father appears to have struggled to understand that Daphne and her brother Tony were not to be treated as just a couple more of his hunting dogs (his usual admonishment to his children was “Heel!”). And her mother’s father was a right charming old Victorian who used to bring prostitutes home and order them at gun-point to undress and climb in bed with his wife. No wonder that Granny McCalmont, as Daphne knew her, “was a great hater.”

In fact, Daphne had more than her share of odd pieces of fruit in her family tree. Take, for example, her uncle Shugie — Sir Hugo de Bathe, Granny McCalmont’s brother:

He was a tall, thin, sunburnt man with lean hollow cheek-bones, side-whiskers and a brushed-up moustache which particularly enthralled me. His arms were tattooed, and one of them was disfigured by a long burn scar. He accounted for this by explaining that he had once loved a princess of the South Sea islands, whose name had been tatooed in the place of honour in the middle of his forearm, but since she had been untrue to him he had held his arm in the flame of a candle and burnt her out of his flesh.

Once married to the Viscount, much of Daphne’s time and energy, up to the start of World War Two, went into having children — four sons and one daughter. She reprints a long extract from her diary about the birth of her fourth son, Valentine:

They started giving me chloroform. Nanny B. did not give it well; it was either too much or too little, and the cotton wool seemed to smother me and burn my nose, nevertheless it was balm. Roy Saunders arrived to give me the anaesthetic. I vaguely took him in; he had helped with Christopher’s birth. Whenever they let me come round the pains seemed to be crushing me and all my strength pressed down to fight them out. Roy Saunders is really a gynaecologist but gave the chloroform beautifully. How I love it — the buzzing, swimming feelings, the dreams which solve everything. I become a Jimmy-Know-All in the ether.

I came to in my own big bed, crying, and wanting to see Henry. “Lady Weymouth, you have got a beautiful little boy … a beautiful little boy … beautiful little boy ….” Another boy? I wished it was triplets, or black … or a furry little animal, different in some way … just not a boy. But the baby was there, a new person … I opened my eyes, sat up quickly and asked for the child. Unutterably sweet was the new little son shown to his mother.

When the war did come, Longleat was soon commandeered as a military camp, first by the British and then by the Americans. Daphne helped out in various ways, including running the camp switchboard at one point. The Viscount spent most of the war as a prisoner of the Germans. Aside from further mentions of trips taken and problems with Longleat, she offers little about their relationship — until, three paragraphs before the end of the book, she simply states that, “During and since the war we both developed along different lines, so divorce became inevitable.”

Of course, the fact that she had spent six months gallivanting about Crete with Alexander (Xan) Fielding, best known for his SOE exploits on the island during the war alongside Patrick Leigh Fermor, might also have had something to do with it.

But you’ll have to read the sequel, The Nearest Way Home (1970), to find out what happened after that. I suspect that a lot of Lord Montgomery’s army career is missing from it, too.

Mercury Presides, by Daphne Fielding
London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1954

A Martini on the Other Table, by Joyce Elbert (1963)

Covers of first US and UK editions
Covers of first US and UK editions

“Joyce Elbert had just turned thirty and divorced her second husband when she wrote this astonishing first novel … a daring story of a single woman’s frantic search for love in a loose living, free-wheeling world,” blares the cover of the Bantam paperback original of A Martini on the Other Table. I think I’ve seen about three hundred copies of this and other Elbert novels (Crazy Ladies, Drunk in Madrid) in used bookstores and thrift shops over the years and never paid the slightest attention to it, but when I spotted it in a discard box a few months ago, I thought, “Well, I’m focusing on women writers this year — why not?”

Looking for something quick, light, and a little newer after devoting a month to Dorothy Richardson’s weighty (in both length and substance) Pilgrimage, I fished A Martini on the Other Table out on the stack of cheap paperbacks perched precariously in front of a double row of other cheap paperbacks crammed into one of the bookcases in the basement.

I am something of an eternal optimist when it comes to cheap paperbacks. Experience has shown me that there is always a possibility that some remarkable and hitherto neglected gem lies behind a cover cleverly disguised to look like all the other junk that sat in a revolving wire book rack in front of the cigarette stand or the drugstore check-out. A slim possibility, but then you don’t maintain a site like this unless you’re willing to trust in outliers.

A Martini on the Other Table proved to be neither gem nor junk. A lost classic it ain’t, but it was something of a satisfying nostalgia trip for a kid who remembers spying on cocktail parties as I crouched in the hallway in my Dr. Dentons. Set in New York City, it’s narrated by Judy, just separated from her husband, a novelist enjoying his first wave of critical acclaim, and making her way writing superficial pieces for women’s magazines. No longer starry-eyed about love or fame, she makes the rounds of parties and gallery openings, having decided to post her picture next to the definition of blasé in the dictionary. She drinks too much and finds herself in bed with strange men on a regular basis. I half expected one of them to be Don Draper.

Most of the book is taken up with a intricately woven tangle of relationships, as a struggling artist and his socialite girlfriend befriend, and then bed (in turn) Judy, as a wealthy gallery owner watches her husband fall for a good-looking would-be actor, as Judy herself falls for a director of “industrial films” who turns out to be married (but not any more — or is he? — or isn’t he?). It’s all very complicated and utterly uninteresting, since none of these characters is anything but a name, hair color, facial expression, and personality quirk.

Joyce Elbert
Joyce Elbert

How much of Judy’s story is based on Joyce Elbert’s is anyone’s guess. Elbert is quoted on the back cover as saying, “The greatest thing that happened to me was when I turned thirty and divorced my second husband…. Fitzgerald was all wet. Freshness and youth don’t stand a chance alongside anxiety and dissipation.”

If you squint hard enough, that line almost looks like something from Dorothy Parker. There are more than a few echoes of it in A Martini on the Other Table. When Judy and the film director take in a play, she says she’s “glad that Ed and I had not driven in from the suburbs after a rushed supper and anxiety over the new baby sitter…. If a man is going to cut out on his wife I would much rather be the girl friend than the wife, who usually gets him back in the long run. Uncertainty beats the A&P-on-Saturday syndrome any time.”

But Elbert’s rebel act rings a little hollow. A lot of people go to a lot of parties in this book, and none of them seems to have any fun. Judy spends far more time brooding about men and relationships than about independence and sexual freedom. “The only person I ever really cheated was myself,” she confesses just after the director proposes to her. It’s hard not to believe there’s an A&P lurking on a Saturday not too far in her future.

Well, I was looking for something quite unlike Pilgrimage — and on that one count, I can say A Martini on the Other Table succeeded.

A Martini on the Other Table, by Joyce Elbert
New York: Bantam Books, 1963

Backwater, 2nd Chapter of Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Richardson (1916)

First UK edition of Backwater
First UK edition of Backwater

In Backwater (Internet Archive, Amazon), Miriam once again goes to work as a teacher in a girl’s school, but closer to home this time, on opposite Banbury Park in North London. (Dorothy Richardson’s real life equivalent was on Seven Sister’s Road, opposite Finsbury Park.) The book’s title reflects Miriam/Dorothy’s opinion of North London: “shabby, ugly and shabby.” She despises the same-ness of the houses, the little neat houses with little neat fences, all aspiring to a common denominator of conventionality. Although Miriam is still in an early stage of her journey of self-discovery, she already recognizes a great divide between herself and the people she meets in North London: “The people passing along them were unlike any she knew. There were no ladies, no gentlemen, no girls or young men such as she knew. They were all alike. They were . . . She could find no word for the strange impression they made.” Indeed, for her, there is almost an alien quality to them:

Off every tram-haunted main road, there must be a neighbourhood like this where lived the common-mouthed harsh-speaking people who filled the pavements and shops and walked in the parks. To enter one of the little houses and speak there to its inmates would be to be finally claimed and infected by the life these people lived, the thing that made them what they were.


Miriam joins the staff of Wordsworth House, which is run by the Pernes, three spinster sisters — Miss Deborah, Miss Jenny, and Miss Haddie, all “dressed in thin fine black material” and with “tiny hands and little softly moving feet.” Miriam quickly develops mixed feelings for the sisters. On the one hand, she finds a genuine spirit of Christian charity in them, and she appreciates the freedom they allow her in shaping the curriculum she teaches the younger girls in the school. But she also finds the sisters stereotypical in their conventional attitudes toward education, culture, religion … and women.

Likewise, the sisters find Miriam a bit of an odd fish. One Sunday, after she rejects the value of the Anglican service they have attended with the girls, she and Miss Haddie find themselves on opposite sides on the basic question of the role of clergy. Miss Haddie is ready to put all her trust in their vicar’s ability to see to their spiritual needs. Miriam disagrees: “Oh, but I think that’s positively dangerous,” said Miriam gravely. “It simply means leaving your mind open for whatever they choose to say.”

“Did ye discuss any of your difficulties with yer vicar?” Miss Haddie asks with concern.

“He wasn’t capable of answering them,” replies Miriam.

“Ye’re an independent young woman,” concludes Miss Haddie.

As usual, George H. Thomson helps explain the links between the fictional world of Backwater and its counterparts in Richardson’s own life. In an article for the Proceedings of the Dorothy Richardson Society, he writes,

Who were the Pernes of Backwater? They were a trio of maiden sisters named Ayre who conducted a private school in North London called Edgeworth House at 28 Alexandra Villas, which was also 28 Seven Sisters Road opposite Finsbury Park. In the Autumn of 1892 Dorothy Richardson began to teach in their school, her job was to look after the younger students. Her employers were Anna Mary Ayre, the Principal, and her sisters Emma Ainsley and Isabella Reed Ayre. A fourth sister, Fanny Ellen Ayre, had died in March 1892, six months before Dorothy Richardson arrived. And a fifth sister Annie Oxley Ayre, in 1884 at the age of 40, had married.

Miriam’s personal revolution against the conventions of her day is marked by several small victories in Backwater. She realizes, for the first time, that a young man is interested in marrying her — and quickly dismisses the idea as ridiculous. She discovers a source of cheap popular novels, including some by Ouida, and sits up into the wee hours reading in her room. Inspired by Ouida’s passionate — and politically liberal — romances, she thinks, “I don’t care what people think or say. I am older than anyone here in this house. I am myself.” And she smokes her first cigarette:

Her nostrils breathed in smoke, and as she tasted the burnt flavour the sweetness of the unpolluted air all around her was a new thing. The acrid tang in her nostrils intoxicated her. She drew more boldly. There was smoke in her mouth. She opened it quickly, sharply exhaling a yellow cloud oddly different from the grey spirals wreathing their way from the end of the cigarette. She went on drawing in mouthful after mouthful of smoke, expelling each quickly with widely-opened lips, turning to look at the well-known room through the yellow haze and again at the sky, which drew nearer as she puffed at it. The sight of the tree-tops scrolled with her little clouds brought her a sense of power. She had chosen to smoke and she was smoking, and the morning world gleamed back at her….

And she begins to experience a sense of herself that, at times, strikes her with near-ecstatic intensity: “She became aware of a curious buoyancy rising within her. It was so strange that she stood still for a moment on the stair…. It was as if something had struck her, struck right through her impalpable body, sweeping it away, leaving her there shouting silently without it. I’m alive…. I’m alive…. ‘It’s me, me; this is me being alive.'”

Miriam stays at the school for nearly a year and a half, but finds the gulf between she sensibility and that of the Pernes sisters too great to be endured, and once again, she moves on. As the sisters present her with an expensive umbrella in a farewell ceremony, though, she is surprised, to witness the effect she has had on the sisters and the students: “… the amazement of hearing from various quarters of the room violent and repeated nose-blowings, and away near the door in the voice of a girl she had hardly spoken to a deep heavy contralto sobbing.”

Backwater, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1916

A Prison, A Paradise, by Loran Hurnscot (Gay Taylor) (1958)

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'A Prison, A Paradise'Depending on one’s perspective, A Prison, A Paradise is one remarkable book or two remarkable books in one cover. The first half, “The Summer Birdcage,” is the diary of a woman caught up in a mad, bad love triangle that nearly destroyed two of the three principals; the second, “The Tilted Spiral,” the diary of a woman consumed in a quest for a spiritual love that could overcome her earthly concerns. The first book competes with Alison Waley’s A Half of Two Lives, discussed here last year, as an account of a passion pursued about twenty exits past all reason; the second has been compared with Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. And together, they tell the story of a woman who, as Kathleen Raine put it in her introduction, “followed the unfashionable vocation of living her thoughts.”

In A Prison, A Paradise, the names have been changed to protect the guilty. “Loran Hurnscot,” an anagram of “Sloth and Rancour” — which she saw as her principal sins — was Ethelwynne (Gay) Stewart McDowall, who was known Gay Taylor after she married Harold Midgeley Taylor (referred to as Hubert Tindal in the book), an idealistic and tubercular aesthete whose failed enterprises included the Golden Cockerel Press, which became one of the premier British art presses after it was bought by Robert Gibbings in 1924. In Taylor’s largely untrained hands, however, it was strictly an amateur affair. A. E. Coppard later wrote of the Golden Cockerel edition of his first collection of stories, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me that, “the type was poor, the paper bad, the leaves fell out, the cover collapsed….”

Coppard (referred to as Barney) was also, as it happened, the third corner of the triangle. Barely capable of taking care of themselves, Gay and Harold convinced themselves that they shared enough interests to justify getting married. As Loran/Gay put it in her Afterword to “The Summer Birdcage,” “I married n the eighth proposition of Euclid.” Unable to perform as a sexual partner, Harold encouraged Gay to take Coppard as a lover. Then, when she did, he became insanely jealous … while also becoming increasingly dependent upon her as his illness grew worse. Gay fell madly in love with Coppard, running off to sleep with him in the fields, to dance naked in the rain, and to generally rub salt into Hubert/Harold’s wounds. To compound problems, Coppard (already married) was a philanderer.

Within a year of starting the affair, Loran/Gay was writing, “I live with him [Coppard] in superficial happiness, but with a grief of heart, a loss of self-respect, that doesn’t end.” She began to see that the only way to keep Coppard’s interest was to constantly keep him wondering: “He loves me best when he is loved least.” “There’s something sub-human about Barny … that will eventually destroy our relation.” At the same time, she was “deeply convinced” that Hu/Harold “only wants me near him so as to have something weaker than himself to bully.” Still, all three remained entwined in their own miserable, self-destructive web until finally Loran/Gay found herself abandoned by both men. Harold died, leaving her just £50, and Coppard carried on with other women. Looking back on the affair, Loran/Gay would conclude that “the central sin was that no one loved anyone.”

Volume Two, “The Tilted Spiral,” picks up over a decade later. Loran/Gay is barely surviving, living in cheap flats in London and taking whatever work came to hand. Having given up on romantic love, she is desperately seeking salvation if unclear on how to find it. She went to endless lectures by P. D. Ouspensky. She studied Buddhism. She studied Swedenbourg. She read Thomas Merton. She scoured astrological charts, and developed an intricate system by which to record her moods:

Towards the end of the war I started to keep a mood chart, just to see whether I was turning into a melancholy gloomy character: I classified the mental states by colours, of which there were ten divisions, based on the spectrum but ending in dark blue and black. It was kept in a book of squared paper, and I put down my “temperature” as T. B. cases do, twice a day. Perhaps, as I have often held, the observed thing changes. But to my surprise the general level was far higher than I’d supposed; there were weeks and even months that could be called happy and equable; the descents were rare and rapidly recovered from. I kept it for two or three years and then laid it aside.

Much of this part the book is a record of Loran/Gay’s encounters with different belief systems, in each of which she initially finds something attractive and satisfying, only to grow disenchanted — often more with the personalities involved (Ouspensky) or the dogmatic constraints (“even the cloister is now like the Civil Service,” she writes of one Christian retreat). Yet she also managed to find joy. While living in a particularly dingy rooming house, at one point, she wrote that, “Almost immediately, heavenly bliss flooded me, and even in my wretched room, the Beloved was there. The flow of divine love was almost overwhelming, and tears of adoration and sorrow stood in my eyes.”

In the end, Loran/Gay came to believe that the only spiritual guide she could truly trust was herself. “There has always been a fastidiousness in Loran Hurnscot that rejects all that rings false in human behavior, or in religious cant,” Raine remarks in her introduction, and the days recorded in “The Tilted Spiral” had as many moments of disgust and disillusionment as they did of serenity.

“You must understand,” Loran/Gay once said to Raine, “all I have is my life.” And A Prison, A Paradise ranks with Alice Koller’s An Unknown Woman as an account of a woman following Polonius’ injunction, “To thine own self be true,” to such an extent that friendships, creature comforts, and the conventions of society could all be sacrificed in the interest of self-discovery. And yet, it’s also sensual, acerbic, and even, on occasion, funny, as in this encounter with a census-taker:

“Let me see — are you a housewife?” “No, I am not a housewife.”

“Well, are you employed?” “No, I am not employed.”

“Self-employed, perhaps?” “No, at present I am not self-employed.”

“Well, then, you must be unemployed.” “No, I’m not unemployed either.”

He began to look sweaty and anxious. “I’ve got to put you down as something,” he said.

“Haven’t you any other categories,” I suggested.

“Only incapacitated.”

“Then put me down as incapacitated,” I said firmly. “I’ve been looking for that word for years.”

Elizabeth Russell Taylor tells more of the story of Loran Hurnscot/Gay Taylor in this London Magazine piece from May 2014. A Prison, A Paradise was also #319 in the lot of books from Marilyn Monroe’s library that was auctioned off by Christies in 1999. Gay Taylor died of pancreatic cancer in 1970.

A Prison, A Paradise, by Loran Hurnscot (Ethelwynne (Gay) Stewart McDowall Taylor)
London: Victor Gollancz, 1958
New York: The Viking Press, 1958

My Life as a List: 207 Things About My (Bronx) Childhood, by Linda Rosenkrantz (1999)


Ten Things I Like About My Life as a List

  1. It’s short, funny, and not overly sentimental.

  3. The memories of her mother’s bad cooking.

  5. Her pen-pal Abbie Raymundo, who wrote letters “in black ink, green ink, and white ink on blue paper, in mirror writing and on handcrafted jigsaw puzzle pieces” and who once sent “a selfauthored, handwritten booklet ‘How to Burp,’ giving numerous multicultural (e.g., the Chinese After Tea Burp) variations on the theme.”

  7. Her mother’s clothes shopping technique: “Buy half a dozen, … try them on at home after school, return five of them the next day, bring home some more and start the cycle again.”

  9. All the aunts and uncles. Aunt Pearl, whose peculiar way of venting her anger at Linda’s mother was to whisper over the girl’s crib, “You have a bad mother, you have a good aunt, you have a bad mother, you have a good aunt.” Uncle Harry, “dapper as Adolphe Menjou” but petrified at being left alone by himself at night.

  11. The family myths. Offered the choice of marrying one of two sisters, her grandfather answered, “I’ll take the fat one.”

  13. Aunt Beck’s way of swearing: “Canary!”

  15. The Wise Old Aardvark: “My favorite picture book was The Wise Old Aardvark, the story of a wiseman-turned-anteater who got a job giving diabolically clever solutions over the radio to the perplexing problems of people all over the world—such as a Chinese family whose grandmother had been carried up into the sky by a huge balloon, some Eskimos who saw two scary eyes glaring out of their igloo, and two Egyptians whose camels hated each other. The wise old aardvark finally earned enough money to retire and employ an esteemed Italian singer named Signor Pompinelli Ragusa to sing to him exclusively for the rest of his life.” Published in 1936 and written and illustrated by Dorothy Kunhardt, best known for Pat the Bunny, this children’s book is scarcer than hen’s teeth now: I found one copy for sale, at over $300. I want this book!

  17. The structure, which stems from a list Rosenkrantz began making on a flight from New York to Los Angeles: “I opened my notebook and found myself writing the words ‘500 Things About My Childhood: My Life is [sic] a List,’ followed by a few sentences: All my elementary school teachers had the same handwriting. All my aunts floated but none of them swam. There were only two girls in my class who weren’t Jewish.


    It’s not one that would sustain a long book, but neither could it make for a book worth reading without (a) the individual entries being striking or interesting enough to stand on their own and (b) there being a sufficient shape and flow to the whole collection. Rosenkrantz remarks that “the thought struck me several times that in a sense this was an exercise that would be interesting and revealing for other people to try doing, in their own way.” Yet, if this was only a therapeutic exercise, it wouldn’t have deserved publication.


    Rosenkrantz’s first experiment with form, her 1969 novel, Talk, was reissued last year as a New York Review Classic. Talk is entirely composed of dialogue among three characters and was based on tapes she recorded as she lay on the beach in New York talking with her friends. Given that most of the rest of her published output consists of a bunch of books about naming a baby, the downside to her creative approach is that it apparently hasn’t produced too many finished works.


  19. It’s available for free on Open Library: Link

My Life as a List: 207 Things about My (Bronx) Childhood, by Linda Rosenkrantz
New York: Clarkson Potter, 1999

Me & My Mom, by Marianne Hauser (1993)

meandmymom-hauserThe late Marianne Hauser (who still lacks a Wikipedia article of her own nearly a decade after her death) was something of a chameleon in her art and attitude toward things. In her one novel still in print, The Talking Room, written when Hauser was 65, she assumed the voice of a 13 year-old girl. In The Memoirs of the Late Mr. Ashley (1986), she wrote in the voice of a bisexual art collector who was writing from beyond the grave. Born in Alsace, which changed from France to Germany and back to France before she graduated from the gymnasium, and having spent her young adult years in India and China before settling in the U. S., she developed a rather fluid sense of nationality.

So it’s not surprising that in this slender novel, Hauser managed to convey with convincing accuracy the voice and outlook of a young mother while also providing a depressingly vivid characterization of the woman’s mother, whose slide into alcoholism and dementia have led the daughter to admit her into a nursing home. The Bide-a-Wee (“A+ rating”) home is neither heaven nor hell-hole. It’s just an institution — which, a doctor explains to the daughter, is effectively a form of tranquilizer: “Here one learns how to avoid punishment, though hardly humiliation.”

Hauser wrote Me & My Mom at an age (82) when she could easily have been in just such an institution. Clearly, she was no stranger to their tendency to drag their residents down to a lowest common denominator. The narrator, like anyone in her situation, is torn over what she has had to reduce her mother to, but also able to recognize that there are no apparent alternatives. Her mom’s suffering from short-term memory problems, easily disoriented, unstable on her feet and prone to falls.

There is a certain bitter satire in Hauser’s recounting the tale through the daughter’s voice. Though struggling with dementia, the mother has been an intelligent and passionate woman, one who worked as a proof-reader and has little patience for fools. She remembers fondly moments from her earlier life, such as the perfect Eggs Benedict served at the Hotel Majestic. The daughter sees the Majestic as nothing but a dump, a derelict building that collapses, killing a few of the junkies and homeless people crashed in its rooms. Just as the finer things in her life fade due to the mother’s loss of memory, so do they fade due to the daughter’s youth and cluelessness.

The daughter’s distress only grows when she has to move to rural Ohio, a thousand miles from the Bide-a-Wee and New York City. She can’t have mom stay with her, there are no homes to which she could be moved, and she’s reduced to calling and hoping that she can have a few minutes’ coherent conversation. And an occasional postcard:

dear mom
miss you
want to
see you
p.s. I’m pregnant mommy

As one whose own mother has been in a home for several years and who also hopes for a few minutes of coherent conversation as her memory limitations cause more and more of our lives together to fade away, I can only say that Me & My Mom hits close to home. Like life, our memories and connections with those we love are evanescent things we can’t hold onto forever. And yet we have to try.

Me & My Mom, by Marianne Hauser
Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1993

Two Under the Indian Sun, by Jon and Rumer Godden (1966)

Two_Under_the_Indian_Sun“This is not an autobiography as much as an evocation of a time that is gone,” write Jon and Rumer Godden at the start of this magical book. At the time the book was published, both women were experienced writers of novels and short stories. Rumer was the more prolific and successful, best known for her 1939 novel, Black Narcissus, and her 1963 best-seller, The Battle of the Villa Fiorita. Jon did not begin publishing until she was over forty, but like Rumer, she set a number of her books in India, including her 1956 novel, The Seven Islands.

Two Under the Indian Sun is a lyrical, funny, and charming recollection of the seven years the sisters spent with their family in Narayanganj, a city on the Shitalakshya River in then-East Bengal (and now Bangladesh). The girls had been sent to live with relatives in England and receive proper English educations in 1913, but a year later, with war about to break out in Europe, they were brought back to the relative safety of India.

And safe India was, particularly from their child’s eyes: “We never felt we were foreigners, not India’s own; we felt at home, safely held in her large warm embrace, content as we were never to be content in our own country.” Their father, referred to as Fa, ran a steamship company based in Narayanganj, and the girls enjoyed the run of a large house with a courtyard and a retinue of cooks, amahs, maids, babus, and other servants. Like many of the better-off Anglo-Indians, the family travelled into the lower reaches of the Himalayas and summered in one of the hill stations like Simla.

They also had the chance to travel up some of the wide, slow rivers on their father’s steamships and were able to experience a considerable part of East Bengal. “We never thought,” they write, “as many people do, that the Bengal landscape was monotonous and dull; each little village, with its thatched roofs among the tall slim coconut palms and dark mango trees against the jewel-bright background of the rice or mustard fields, was beautiful in its own calm way and full of interest.” These trips were among their favorite times. “It was bliss to wake early and lie watching the reflected sunlight dancing on the ceiling, to feel the comfortable beat of the engines beneath us, to listen to the tinkle of the carafe on the washstand, and to know that another whole river day was before us.”

Rumer and Jon Godden, 1966
Rumer and Jon Godden, 1966
Taught at home by their Aunt Mary, the girls quickly discovered a talent for writing. They competed in devising stories and offered rudimentary criticism to each other as — usually — the sole readers of each other’s work. Only rarely did any of the adults take notice, as in the case of Jon’s carrot saga:

Jon could illustrate her books; she seemed set fair to be that luckiest of combinations, an author who could illustrate her own writing, an artist who could write her own text, and this double talent meant that her books were more exciting that Rumer’s, but most even of Jon’s efforts stayed unnoticed. Occasionally, though, one would soar into attention, as unpredictably and, to us, as inexplicably as any best seller in the real literary world. It happened, for instance, when Jon wrote a novel about a family of carrots, four male carrots called No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4. In spite of their prosaic names they were surprisingly alive characters and, in its miniature way, the book was a complete novel; very often we did not finish ours. There were two villains, a cross cabbage and an apple tree that spitefully rained apples on the carrots’ heads. Then, “Ho, horror!” as the book said, a human boy dug up No. 1 and carried him away, but it was only to scoop him out and hang him up in the window to grow again — as we had done in our London day school. Finally the cabbage was dug up and eaten, the apple tree had its apples picked; No. 1, having grown, was replanted and four more carrots came up in the carrot bed, luckily all females, so that “there were four little carrots more.” It was vividly illustrated and Mam and Fa showed it to their friends. Jon was congratulated, which she half liked and half detested.

Reading Two Under the Indian Sun, one is challenged to tell one author’s voice from the other. The two blend together into an almost seamless narrative, and the only clue to a change is when one of the sisters is named: if it’s Jon, then Rumer is writing, and vice versa. And the book was also something of a unique creation from the publishing standpoint, as it was released under the dual imprints of Knopf, Rumer’s publisher, and Jon’s publisher, Viking. Distributed by Viking and picked up by the Book of the Month Club, it was probably Jon’s best-selling book. It was reissued in the late 1980s by Beech Tree Books, but is now out of print.

from Two Under the Indian Sun, by Jon and Rumer Godden
New York: Alfred A. Knopf and The Viking Press, 1966

Pen to Paper: A Novelist’s Notebook, by Pamela Frankau (1962)


Should somebody penetrate the barbed-wire entanglement of my handwriting and read my Rough [draft], it would make little sense to him. He would find bewildering changes of time and place. The people would confound him with sudden new characteristics. Some would change their looks. Some would be whisked away without explanation. Som would put in a late appearance, yet be greeted by the rest as though they had been there from the beginning. He would find, this reader, traces of style followed by no style at all; pedestrian phrases, clichés, straight flat-footed reprting. Here a whole sequence of scenes complete and next some mingy skeleton stuff with a burst of apparently contemptuous hieroglyphs on the blank left-hand page beside it. Nor is the left-hand page reserved for “Exp” (meaning Expand, “X” (meaning Wrong), “//” (meaning much the same as “X” only more so) and “?” (meaning what it says). The left-hand page is likely to be a shambles, taking afterthought insertions for the right-hand page; paragraphs whose position may not be indicated at all. No; a reader would have no more fun with the Rough than the writer is having.

Pen to Paper “should be be firmly forced into the self-confident hands of any enthusiastic amateur who imagines that writing novels is easy,” Noël Coward once wrote. His implication, of course, was that writing a novel is bloody hard and the world might be the better if a few would-be novelists were scared off by an injunction from someone with far more experience at the business.

Pen_to_PaperAnd experienced she was. At the time Pen to Paper was published, Pamela Frankau had nearly thirty novels to her name, along with an autobiography and a short story collection or two. She was one of that generation of industrious British women writers, now referred to — admiringly or dismissively — as “middlebrows,” who managed to produce at least a novel or two a year for decades on end, until they had as many titles to their credit as a polygamist has grandchildren.

She came by it naturally. Her father, Gilbert Frankau, and his mother, Julia Frankau were themselves prolific novelists, and Pamela got her own start, with Marriage of Harlequin, at the age of 19. As with her father, money needs led her to writing and the comfort of somewhat steady income kept her writing books we can safely call works of craft, not art.

Still, she had her standards, and three of her books — A Wreath for the Enemy, The Winged Horse, and her most popular novel, The Willow Cabin — were reissued as Virago Modern Classics about eight years ago. And she’d had successes in both England and the U.S., earning in the latter the Bronze Star of commercial achievement, selection of one of her novels as a Readers’ Digest condensed book. Which is why she could write with authority on how to write for the two different audiences. (She demonstrates some prescience in writing of America as “the place where umbrage grew wild”: “Never, surely, were so many offended so easily by so little.” And this was back in 1962!)

I long ago realized that I probably didn’t have the stuff of a novelist in me, but it was still a useful learning experience to read Pen to Paper. Frankau doesn’t stint in stressing how much energy and time is involved in writing a novel. In her case, she wrote all her novels out by hand at least twice: the first draft the haphazard hodgepodge she refers to above as the “Rough”; and the second a more painstakingly assembled second draft she called the “Smooth.” She insisted in carving out hours to write almost every day, whether at home or staying as a guest, while on a train or a cross-Atlantic steamship, and with or without inspiration. Although she relates how some of her best ideas came to her, she also admits that a few evaporated before her eyes when she tried to describe them to a friend or transformed over the course of creating the Rough into something completely different. And no matter how well or badly a book finally turned out, she was never truly satisfied: “I believe that in the difference between a writer and a hack, the discontent is all.”

But she does have some encouragement for those who would take on the challenge she’d faced at least thirty times before. In particular, she dismisses the notion that, for a writer, there is no substitute for first-hand experience:

“I never robbed an old-age pensioner: I couldn’t: I don’t know how it feels. It’s too revolting.”

You have, in your time, stolen a piece of toffee; cheated the Customs; conveniently forgotten a debt; pocketed the money you found on a taxi-floor; helped to destroy a reputation; denied a vulnerable person a kindness and seen the look in that person’s eyes….

By the time I am engaged on this kind of experience, I’m well on the way to writing the scene.

In an obituary, Rebecca West — who’d had a fairly erratic friendship with Frankau — judged her a second-rate writer: “None of her novels, though they are better than most, was as good as she was.” So it might be easy to dismiss Pen to Paper as even less worthy of rediscovery than these novels, but I suspect the reverse is true. Although it might not inspire many would-be writers, it certainly provides a candid and self-deprecating inside look at the craft from one who’d spent over thirty years working at it.

Pen to Paper: A Novelist’s Notebook, by Pamela Frankau
Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1962

The Department Store, by Margarete Böhme (1912)

Interior of Warenhaus Wertheim, Berlin 1910
Interior of Warenhaus Wertheim, Berlin 1910
The Department Store: A Novel of Today was German novelist Margarete Böhme’s magnum opus, five hundred pages long and stocked with nearly as many characters as flowed through the doors of the great Berlin store, Müllenmeister’s Emporium, around which the story centers. Böhme is remembered today for her novel, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (The Diary of a Lost Girl) (1905), which purported to be the authentic journal of a young woman forced by circumstances into prostitution. A huge best-seller in its time, it was twice filmed, the second version (1929) directed by G. W. Pabst and starring the iconic American silent film actress, Louise Brooks.

Reviewing the novel in The Bookman, Frederick Taber Cooper found it hard to believe that, “with such a thoroughly virile grasp of the theme, and strong, bold, unflinching portrayal of its dramatic elements,” the book could have been written by a woman:

It contains the life history of a dozen families, in all the various social strata of the Prussian capital, a sweeping and comprehensive bird’s-eye view of German manners and customs, in the social world and half-world alike….

You are not merely made to see the surge and rush of bargain day, the disciplined army of clerks working, like the separate cogs and wheels in some monster machine, driven at full pressure, the eager crowds, pushing, jostling, laughing, frowning, catching the contagion of the hour, yielding to the shopping craze — you not only see all this, but you become actually part of it; you feel yourself caught and drawn along, gasping and breathless, in the very thick of the press, you almost start to take out your own pocket-book and buy recklessly of things that you in no wise want!

The Department Store, an electronic copy of which can be found on the Internet Archive (link), is something of the flip side of Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) (1883), in which the great Paris department store, modeled on Le Bon Marché, is portrayed as a symbol of the abundance and extravagance of the Industrial Age at its height, and in which the owner/entrepeneur is won over by the beauty and virtue of one of his shopgirls.

While Böhme’s emporium overflows with just as many goods as Zola’s, its celebration of capitalism is undermined by a sense of corruption and shoddiness. The store’s furniture shines as brilliantly as those in the most exclusive shops, but its manufacture and materials are cheap and unreliable. The underpaid salesgirls spend ten or twelve hours a day standing behind their counters, while shop chiefs keep the stock boys and warehousemen scurrying back and forth without relief. And the shopgirl with whom the young heir to the store falls in love proves craven and unfaithful. While not quite a radical novel, it’s not too many steps from the kind of stories of worker exploitation and organized labor that were just beginning to appear.

The Department Store was one of the very first books reviewed by the young Cicely Fairfield under her new pen name of Rebecca West, in The Freewoman. West made her opinion of department stores plain from the start: “A great department store is an offensive thing, because it pretends that trade is carried on in a dignified manner. The strong towers and wide façades of these immense shops make believe that Commerce has become a god, for whom it is meet to build a temple: whereas, in its present-day development, it is a vampire, to be buried at the cross-roads, with a stake through its heart.”

Margarete Böhme
Margarete Böhme
Unlike The Ladies’ Paradise, which she called “a miracle of sensuous perception,” Böhme’s won West’s respect as “the brooding of a masterful intellect over a social phenomenon.” Where Zola’s heroine is near saintliness in her virtue, Böhme’s leading female character, Agnes Matrei, is “the woman who is the kind of flower that grows in that hot-house: hardly a woman, rather some phantom formed from the unwholesome mist that rises from the marsh by moonlight.” In West’s estimation, the novel was “an absorbingly interesting book.”

Not everyone had such a high opinion of The Department Store, though. Borrowing his metaphor from the book’s subject, The New York Times’ reviewer dismissed it by writing that “In a shop one can get pretty nearly everything under the same roof and carry on a successful business; but the same tactics do not good in writing a novel.”

Having taken up writing as a way to make a living after she divorced her husband in 1900, Margarete Böhme went on to publish a total of forty novels over the space of the next twenty-some years. By the time of her death, however, none of her books were in print, her most famous novel, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, having been banned from republication by the Nazi Party for its disreputable portrait of German womanhood. It was resurrected a few years ago in both German and English editions featuring stills from Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl.

The Department Store, by Margarete Böhme, translated by Ethel Colburn Mayne
New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1912

Two Sets of Three-Volume Memoirs

In the course of this year of devoting my time to reading and writing about neglected books by women, one genre that has particularly captivated me is the autobiography. Like many men, I find women a subject of endless fascination and every piece of autobiographical writing by a woman seems to be an opportunity to understand just a little better these extraordinary creatures who share my habitat. In my search for lost books, I’ve come across a rich trove of autobiographies and memoirs written by women over the last 150 years, assembling a list of titles that could easily keep me going for another couple of years.

A few women have found autobiography an especially fruitful form and carried on from a first volume for three, four, or even more. I’ve discussed Ethel Mannin’s six volumes of memoirs here earlier this year, and will have to find time soon to mention G. B. Stern’s equal number of … well, let’s call them logo-psycho-philosophic-autobiographical rambles for the lack of a precise label. Marie Belloc Lowndes, best remembered for the novel that was the basis of Hitchcock first great silent film, The Lodger, wrote four volumes of autobiography in the last years of her life, while Anthony Powell’s wife, Lady Violet Powell, wrote her four volumes over the span of more than fifty years. But here I want to mention two trilogies of memoirs, both out of print, and both well worth rediscovering.



• Janet Frame

It’s a little astonishing to see that New Zealand writer Janet Frame’s autobiographies are out of print. Frame’s life is a testament to the challenges and rewards of not fitting in. Her behavior as an adolescent was considered eccentric at the time, but in hindsight seems more understandable given what was going on around her (two sisters died of drowning, two brothers regularly suffered epileptic seizures). After a difficult time while attending college, she attempted suicide, and, not long after that, was committed to the psychiatric ward of her local hospital for observation. She spent much of the next eight years in mental hospitals, receiving 200 electroshock treatments. But she also began writing and publishing, starting with short stories, and was saved from a schedule lobotomy when it was announced that her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories (1951), had been selected for the Hubert Church Memorial Award.

Frame left New Zealand in 1956 and lived in England and Europe before returning home in 1963. She published numerous novels and short story collections and her reputation as one of the leading figures in contemporary fiction grew, particularly as she was able to grapple with issues about madness, loneliness, and the destruction of language and meaning. In the late 1970s, she began writing her autobiography, which was published in three volumes between 1982 and 1985: To the Is-Land (1982), Angel at My Table (1984), and Envoy from Mirror City (1985). Australian Nobel Prize winner Patrick White said the books ranked “amongst the wonders of the world.” When the trilogy was published in a single volumen in 1990, English biographer Michael Holroyd called them “One of the greatest autobiographies written this century.” In his Sunday Times review, Holroyd described the books as, “A journey from luminous childhood, through the dark experiences of supposed madness, to the renewal of her life through writing fiction. It is a heroic story, and told with such engaging tone, humorous perspective and imaginative power.” In the same year, Jane Campion directed a wonderful film, An Angel at My Table, and the two events brought Frame worldwide acclaim.



• Kate Simon

Simon was born Kaila Grobsmith in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Warsaw ghetto, came to the U. S. with her family in steerage at the age of 4, and grew up in the Tremont section of the Bronx. After graduating from Hunter College, she went to work as a journalist, and, beginning in the 1950s, as a travel writer. Her first memoir, which recalls in a vivid but utterly unnostalgic manner her experiences growing up, was titled Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood. It was selected as one of the twelve best books of 1982 by The New York Times Book Review and one of the five best of the year by Time. A Wider World: Portraits in an Adolescence, was published in 1986, and dealt frankly with her early sexual experiences, which included brushes with lesbian faculty members and living with a man outside of marriage–both of which were generally considered shocking and rarely discussed at the time. The last volume, Etchings in an Hourglass (1990), was written as she was suffering from the cancer that took her life, and described her travels and adventures–cultural and sexual–in places such as Mexico, India, Italy, and France. It also dealt with death of her first husband, her sister, her daughter (at the age of 19)–all of brain tumors–and her own, which she referred to as “The Bone Man.” Throughout all three books, Simon is candid, open-minded, self-deprecating, cosmopolitan, and a thoroughly engaging narrator.

Running Away From Myself, by Barbara Deming (1969)

runningawayfrommyselfWhen Barbara Deming published this study of the American dream as portrayed in American films of the 1940s, she had spent over a decade speaking, writing, organizing, marching, and being imprisoned for the causes of racial and sexual equality and non-violent resistance. The same “strange split in consciousness” she saw in some of the movies she had watched and written about twenty years before was now on display at the national and global level: the United States applying all its economic and military power to fight the North Vietnamese at the same time it proclaimed support for the average Joe. “Believe in me or I will have to destroy you!” is how she summed up the philosophy of the Hollywood stereotype she labelled “Success Boy” in the late 1940s. By 1969, she was watching Success Boy becoming a political predilection she felt compelled to resist.

Deming had written by book — subtitled “A Dream Portrait of America Drawn from the Films of the 40’s” — in the late 1940s, after working as a film analyst for the Library of Congress from 1942 to 1948, during which she estimates she watched a quarter of all Hollywood film features released. While viewing each film, she took extensive notes in shorthand, sometimes directly transcribing onscreen action and dialogue. As a result, her discussion of most films covered is deep and detailed. Unlike a lot of books devoted to films, particularly film noir, this is not a grazer’s guide. After reading her analysis of now well-worn classics such as Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, you will not only want to see them again, but you will see them through Deming’s eyes–even if not always accepting her interpretation.

“All the characters whom I trace in Running Away From Myself can be seen to be products of a deep crisis of faith.” The 1940s are often seen as the golden age of Hollywood, when many of the mythic figures that came to epitomize American culture–Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Bugs Bunny, Gary Cooper–had their heyday. Deming’s view is considerably less rosy: “Virgil describes Hell to Dante as that blind world in which the good of the intellect has been surrendered. His words could also be used to describe the darkened world of the movie theater.” The act of sitting in a darkened theater–“playing a more passive role than he does in relation to any other art”–makes the viewer more suggestible, more open to manipulation. In these chapters, Deming often reaches over to her fellow moviegoers and challenges them: “What’s really going on here?” she demands.

On the other hand, for someone who so immersed herself in film, Deming is quite removed from the actual business and process of film-making. The fact that there was a whole studio system, with armies of writers, stars often locked into pretty narrow boundaries of roles and images, the need to generate a constant stream of new material to keep people going to theaters two or three times a week, and a strong drive to make movies that set American life and values in contrast to those of Fascism and Communism, is rarely acknowledged. And I have to wonder, after reading Running Away From Myself, whether Deming actually knew anyone directly involved with film-making when she wrote this book. She’s also quite selective in what she does and doesn’t cover. It’s striking that neither of the huge classics from 1946–The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life–are mentioned.

Still, if you love films–and especially if you love to dig into films, to treat them as more than just escapism–Running Away From Myself is a satisfying read. Whether you always agree with Deming’s analysis or not, you cannot argue that she doesn’t consistently reveal how much more is going on than the simple story playing out onscreen.

Running Away From Myself: A Dream Portrait of America Drawn from the Films of the Forties, by Barbara Deming
New York City: Grossman Publishers, 1969

All That Seemed Final, by Joan Colebrook (1941)

all_that_seemed_finalReading All That Seemed Final, I was often reminded of another multi-player London novel I’ve listened to as audiobooks in the last year–John Lanchester’s Capital. Both books interweave the stories of a cast of characters over the space of roughly one year, switching from one to another from chapter to chapter, and drawing many links between the “Big H” history going around them and the immediate facts and issues of their own lives. And, as with Capital, throughout All That Seemed Final, I kept asking myself: “This is wonderfully entertaining, but is it more than that?”

I was perhaps jaded from having read several reviews that criticized Lanchester’s book for being somewhat superficial, for playing tried-and-true cards like death and bankruptcy for easy emotions. After listening to the book, however, I have to disagree, if only on by the simple litmus test of how much I still recall so much of its story and mood nearly a year later. And–with the exception of a few lightweight characters–I think I will be able to say the same of All That Seemed Final a year from now.

The story opens in the Spring of 1939, just as the flowers in St. James’ Park are beginning to bud and Hitler is invading Czechoslovakia. Colebrook introduces her cast in midstream–hosting a party for charity, heading home on a crowded bus, wondering whether to end an affair or a marriage. Quite a few are on the margins of society–a minor art critic, a shell-shocked veteran clerking in a tobacco firm. If they take note of the headlines about the possibility of war, it is, of course, only to wonder what inconveniences it might bring. “Will they intern my wonderful cook for being Austrian?” frets an aging femme fatale. Those most have memories of the last war, they are (the former soldier aside) as something fought “over there,” leading them to assume the next will also be somewhat distant from their own lives.

Colebrook takes her title from Proust: “Thus the face of things in life changes, the center of empires, the register of fortunes, the chart of positions, all that seemed final, are perpetually remoulded, and during his lifetime a man can witness the completest changes just where those seemed to him the least possible.” And, to the credit of her originality, not all of the changes that come to Colebrook’s characters result simply from the outbreak of war. While the slick and successful painter finds substance and moral fiber within when he joins the Army, the adulterous wife is forced to a decision for reasons quite apart from the events around her. Although all feel themselves to be in a sort of limbo, for some the uncertainty contains more promise than dread. But Colebrook also shows, with great skill, the crushing fear of pain and destruction felt by a few for whom the waiting is the worst ordeal of all.

All That Seemed Final received positive reviews went it came out in the fall of 1941. Writing in The New York Times, Marianne Hauser called it “a fine, clever book, well written and thoroughly convincing.” But timing was against its success: English readers were already caught up in the war and American readers soon had problems of their own to worry about. The book has never been reissued.

Colebrook, who was born and raised in Australia, emigrated to England in the mid-1930s, and felt moved to write the book in frustration with “this callous and rather hopeless disregard of the obvious fact that Europe was again drifting toward open conflict.” It was not until she moved to America in late 1940, however, that she was able to finish the novel. She wrote just one other work of fiction, The Northerner (1948), which was set in rural Australia. She worked as a journalist and, on occasion, as a social worker, in New York City. She published three works of nonfiction, including The Cross of Lassitude (1967), a study of juvenile delinquency. She died in 1991 at the age of 80.

All That Seemed Final, by Joan Colebrook
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company

Sibyl Sue Blue, by Rosel George Brown (1966)

nb_0499Sibyl Sue Blue is an undercover cop who wears chartreuse mini-skirts, rouges her knees, smokes cigars, and knows how to take the wind out of an obstreperous Centaurian with a quick sledge-hammer swing of her handbag. Nearing forty, she’s passing as the girlfriend of a high schooler, thanks to a wig, cheek pieces and an occasional dab of skin-tightening cream. Though she carries a torch for her husband Kenneth, who was lost on a failed expedition to the planet Radix some years ago, she’s ready to go after the right man, if she finds him attractive. She reads Thucydides in original Greek while grabbing a quick sandwich for lunch. And she’s a single mother trying to raise a high schooler herself while keeping the streets clear of benzale dealers.

Sibyl Sue Blue can be sold as a long-forgotten cross between Barbarella and Modesty Blaise. It’s fast, violent, sexy, and adventurous, the sort of thing that could easily be translated into a camp but savvy film. There are fights and plenty of them–Sibyl is a walking poster girl for proactive self-defense. There’s a wild ride through a spooky night, with Sibyl and a cohort clinging onto the roof rack of a speeding car. There’s a space ship trip to Radix, during which Sibyl falls in and out of love with its billionaire playboy captain.

And there is a relatively effective attempt to depict a planet-encircling organic intelligence, something Stanislaw Lem had already done in his as-yet (in 1966) untranslated masterpiece, Solaris. But the promise of the novel is undermined by too much scope stuffed into what is basically a whodunnit with exotic trappings. Brown rushes to bring her story to an end in under 200 pages and left out more story construction material than might be safe. Imagine watching Barbarella on fast forward and you might get the idea. A narrative shouldn’t go so fast that the reader is left somewhere between disoriented and disinterested.

Rosel George Brown, 1965
Rosel George Brown, 1965
Sibyl Sue Blue was Rosel George Brown’s first novel and was originally published as part of Doubleday’s science fiction series. At the time, Brown was living in New Orleans with her husband, Tulane history professor W. Burlie Brown, and their two boys. The couple had met while Rosel was studying Greek as an undergraduate at Sophie Newcomb College, which was associated with Tulane.

Brown began writing short stories in the late 1950s, publishing her first, “From an Unseen Censor,” in Galaxy magazine in 1958, and went on to publish nearly two dozen in similar SF magazines over the next six years. A selection of these were collected in A Handful of Time in 1963. She collaborated with Keith Laumer on Earthblood (1966), and followed soon after with her own Sibyl Sue Blue. Unfortunately, she died less than a year later of lymphoma. Her husband assembled material for a second Sibyl Sue Blue she had been working on prior to her death and sold it to Doubleday, which published it as The Waters Of Centaurus in 1970. One of Brown’s early short stories, “Step IV,” is available online at Project Gutenberg (link).

Sibyl Sue Blue (later reissued as Galatic Sibyl Sue Blue), by Rosel George Brown
Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1966

The Passions of Uxport, by Maxine Kumin (1968)


You’ve gotta love ’60s paperbacks.

This Dell edition of Maxine Kumin’s The Passions of Uxport, a “probing novel of marriages and matings,” features a man and woman moments before doing something unsuitable for supermarket shelf display. The back blurb compares it to Updike’s novel of group sex, Couples, and John Cheever’s novel of suburban obsessions and murder, Bullet Park. You can bet that lust, adultery, and who knows what other steamy, sweaty things will be found inside.

I knew Maxine Kumin as a poet and vaguely knew she had written some novels, and would never have picked up this book if not for her name on it.

But as Bo Diddley sang, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover. Here is the opening sentence of The Passions of Uxport: “At the time of his arrest, Ernie Makkinen had just come upon a well-developed Irish setter, two or three days dead, lying on its side, eyes fixed on what must have been the last object it had seen–a beer can suspended in a clump of frost-blackened goldenrod.”

“Crows had cleaned the spilled guts up to the limits of the matted hair of the dog’s flanks,” Kumin goes on, and “A crew of beetles was busily at work under its tail.” Ernie, we quickly learn, is a holy fool convinced that God has assigned him the task of collecting all the roadkill from the highways of New England and giving it a proper burial.

We are a long way from a casual hop in the sack here.

Now, sex and its consequences is certainly an element in this novel. Although we start with poor, mad Ernie and his truck full of rotting carcasses, adultery does eventually wander in, as does an unwanted pregnancy and even an old man’s sexual fantasy. But Kumin might better have titled this The Frustrations of Uxport, because this is mostly a book about people struggling with some of the crappy things that come their way: the anger of teens trying to break away from parents, the arrest of someone they know and trust, the death of a child.

At the center of the book are two couples living in Uxport, a suburb somewhere on the northwest side of Boston. Hallie and Mellon got married in college when she got pregnant, and their twins are about to head off to college. Sukey and Martin met and fell in love while experiencing Europe on $5 a day and, despite their very different interests and personalities, have a cozy little family with their young daughter, Binky. By the time the book is ended, they will all have been raked over the coals in one way or another and have managed, for the most part, to survive.

But what’s most memorable about The Passions of Uxport is not so much the story as the detours. The book is of moderate length–about 350 pages–but it reads like something twice the length. Kumin is comfortable with wandering away from center stage to spend time exploring the odd corners of the set, discovering the lives of the bit players, as in this aside, which appears in the midst of the most dramatic scene in the book:

(Later, Joan Mixter, whose maiden name had been Shadwell–it was a Shadwell who had founded the Et Ux Club and died at the age of eighty-three, choking on a fishbone at the annual Dry Fly banquet–confessed to the same confusion of sounds that had confounded Hallie. She had been standing in the next aisle over between the Pepperidge Farm cookies and the sesame cocktail crunchies when Ernie erupted, and although she had always known Harriet Peake was of Jewish extraction, hence rendering the otherwise impeccable Mellon ineligible for club membership, she was rooted to the floor in horror. A can of Strongheart live had thereupon grazed her shin, raising an ugly lump, but she was not one of those who rushed forward to subdue the poor mad soul. Yet the Shadwells were not unaccustomed to such outbursts, for Joan had had a twin whose youthful hallucinations involving the Virgin Mary had been held responsible for her early decline. When she pined away and died at the age of nineteen, her name, which had been Agatha, died with her until this day, when it flew back into Joan Mixter’s head. Poor Agatha! she thought with charity–the Agatha she had killed in hundreds of adolescent dreams until death had kindly come and done its own murdering.)

I am just in awe of this paragraph, which wanders all over the place, is funny and bizarre and touching, has nothing whatsoever to do with the main scene, yet manages to be more striking than it.

And also illustrates the problem with The Passion of Uxport: what is best about the book–most interesting, most unexpected, most moving–is not the story but the things that happen in the margins. Ernie and his roadkill epiphanies. Iris, the aging secretary Mellon has a one-night stand with. John Ventury, the construction site supervisor whose prescription glasses constantly remind him of all he yearned for when he was a poor and hungry kid. Aram Ramabedian, the dry cleaner whose heart is breaking over his dead wife and his mentally handicapped son. Even Hallie and Mellon’s dreams and fantasies are more interesting than their lives.

In other words, while The Passion of Uxport is not a particularly good novel, it is full of particularly good reading. In the end, that’s what matters more, anyway, but that’s also what guarantees a book will be dismissed by reviewers and quickly forgotten.

Which is why we shouldn’t let the reviewers make our decisions for us. You can miss the heart-broken dry cleaner and the saintly collector of run-over Irish setters.

The Passions of Uxport, by Maxine Kumin
New York: Harper and Row, 1968

Small World, by Carol Deschere (1951)

Cover of first edition of 'Small World' by Carol DeschereA long time ago (by the Internet clock), I mentioned the efforts of Karen DeCrow, one-time president of the National Organization for Women, to get a publisher interested in reissuing Small World, a 1951 novel written by Carol Deschere. DeCrow sent a letter to dozens of publishers, urging them to take another look at Deschere’s book. As DeCrow wrote,

Twelve years before publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963), Carol Deschere wrote a novel which could have spurred the feminist revolution, had enough women read it. In Small World, a simply written and simply plotted novel, Deschere tells us the story of a bright, educated, and cultured woman who leads the life of a middle-class housewife. Her husband is kind and generous, her children are intelligent and obedient, her home is stylish and comfortable.

Her world, however, is so small that it revolves totally around food, clothing, furniture, and an occasional outreach of interest to music, art, and literature. The novel takes place during one of the critical periods in American history: World War II had just ended, the alliances of nations in the world were dramatically shifting, capitalism as an economic system was being seriously questioned for the first time in a century, and the seeds of the Cold War period were being developed in the United States. Yet Kay Hiller, the hero of the novel, does not deal with these issues, despite the fact that she is both bright and intellectual.

Given my decision to focus on books by women this year, I didn’t hesitate when I spotted a copy of Small World for a little less than the starting price of $48 that I found back in 2008.

I have to confess that I felt a bit mislead by DeCrow’s take on the book. Yes, it’s true that this is a book about the life of a housewife–her home, family, and neighbors–with little sense of the big world beyond, but DeCrow seems to have found the book more interesting as an example of the limitations experienced by women like Deschere than as a piece of writing. In reality, if there is any tone that prevails in Small World, it’s one of joy, not frustration.

Small World is a thinly-fictionalized account of about ten years in the life of Deschere and her husband, Ralph Berendt. It follows the couple from their decision to move from New York City to Ithaca (more centrally located for Ralph’s work as a salesman for his family’s shoe company) and then to Syracuse, through their starting a family and encountering all the typical mishaps and misadventures of 1950s suburban life. The Saturday Review summed up the plot, such as it is, nicely: “We moved from New York City to Ithaca, where we kept house for a year with my husband’s brother and his wife, Lois, then we moved to Syracuse and Lois and I each had a baby, and then in a couple of years I had another, and we lived in several apartments and then we bought a house and the children went to school.”

If anything, it’s far more in the spirit of The Egg and I–or Lesley Conger’s Adventures of an Ordinary Mind, another domestic comedy by a woman of intellectual aspirations mentioned here a few months. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine a decent 50s comedy film being based on the book. What distinguishes this book isn’t the story or the post-historical context but simply the delightful voice of its narrator. I love the way the Saturday Review reviewer put it: “I read somewhere that it is a test of a lively imagination and a glib tongue to be able to expatiate for fifteen minutes on the characteristics of a billiard ball without pause and without repetition and to hold one’s listeners spellbound in the process. This, in effect, is what Carol Deschere does with her Small World.”

Deschere’s approach to telling a story is never straightforward and, occasionally, wanders so far afield as to never arrive at its intended conclusion. But with the right story-teller, it’s the journey and not the destination that matters. Here, for example, is how she introduces an episode about the family dog bringing home its first piece of roadkill:

I was in the cellar sorting a load of wash and putting it through the machine, a process which occupied only the hands, leaving the brain free to drowse a little. The pulsing rotation of the machine, like the rocking of a cradle, added its soothing in?uence. Doing the laundry was one of the pleasantest of household chores, with a robot assistant which could be summoned, like a genie out of a bottle, at my command. Paul had tried to explain to me how the Bendix worked, but, losing itself somewhere among the thermostats and timing elements, my mind had wandered off to the old Victrola we had had when I was a child. A man lived inside of it; his name was Caruso; he sang music with words you couldn’t understand, and that made it all right, somehow, for him to stay in that cabinet all the time. My thinking still ran along those lines; it was so simple to pretend there was a human activator concealed within the washing machine, a perfect laundress, who turned the faucets with strong, bony ?ngers, and tested the temperature with a sharp, swift elbow. She had a personality too, but it was so unvaryingly eficient I didn’t care to contemplate it. . . .

The machine began to drain itself of suds. Next door, a child’s wagon clattered down the porch steps, and I heard my neighbor call out, “Micky, on your way home from the park, stop at the store and get me the things on this list, of, and a pack of Camels, too.” Micky grumbled and the clatter dwindled down the street. My mind still dozed. These sounds were part of my habitat; they barely touched the surface of my consciousness.

By the time the dog shows up, we’ve long forgotten it was a story about him. In fact, the mutt kind of gets in the way of an otherwise respectable meander.

Yet, in deference to Karen DeCrow, one must acknowledge that there is a consistently feminist note that now and again rises to make itself heard:

Evelyn felt that she always had to appear at her super-best for the simple reason that, plain and unvarnished, she mightn’t be able to compete with her husband’s other interests, while we felt no such compulsion. Keeping herself and her house well-groomed was part of Evelyn’s job, and Harold praised her for it to pay off his own conscience. It wasn’t vanity at all; it was insecurity . . . and maybe it wasn’t exactly insecurity but a kind of guilt-edged security! Oh, we had really hit on something this time. The women’s magazines, always harping on the idea that a girl must look fresh as a daisy even if she was feeling like a piece of stinkweed, had put this thing on a national basis. Then there was insufficiency to consider, too. You made a full-time job out of housekeeping because that was easier than looking for something else to do; it was an out that society handed you, and the busier you kept yourself with furniture polish — and nail polish — the less time you had to fret over the fact that you weren’t doing anything else.

Carol Deschere’s most profound influence as a writer was not on other women, however, but on her son, John Berendt. Forty-some years later, he saw a book he had worked on for years, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, achieve spectacular success, earning a Pulitzer Prize nomination and spending over four years on The New York Times bestseller list. As he told an interviewer, “The book sold about 2,000 copies and, although my mother never wrote another book, Small World was a life-changing experience for me, because in addition to making me enormously proud of her, it showed me for the first time how real life could be transformed into words and stories and published in a book for all to read. It also planted the first seed in my mind that I might become a writer one day.”

Carol Deschere
Carol Deschere
The following appears on the back cover of Small World:

A Letter from the Author of Small World

I was born in New York city, and although I see no reason why the date should appear on the jacket of my book, I’m perfectly willing to confide to your files that it was April 13, 1915. When I was six, my parents reluctantly acted on their belief (now shared by me) that the city was not the best place in which to bring up children, so we moved to the nearest available “country,” which happened to be Westchester. I went to school in New Rochelle, and the ink on my high-school diploma was hardly dry when, my childhood being officially over, we moved back to New York.

I went to Hunter College–which I loved–and was graduated in 1933, having been married the year before. I can highly recommend the combination of going to school while learning to keep house, as it give the bride the properly casual attitude toward housewifery. (Another effect, however, may not be quite so wholesome. After sixteen years, I find myself still taking courses.)

We left New York in 1936, and have been living in Syracuse for years. The children, aged thirteen and eleven, have always had an enormous amount of civic pride, and we have finally caught a mild form of it from them. At least, we now regard Syracuse as home.

From the Syracuse Post-Standard, 20 May 1951:


Finally, I must reproduce this early example of a publisher’s attempt to collect feedback, which was still securely nestled midway inside the immaculate copy of Small World that I received from thebooksend:


Small World, by Carol Deschere
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951

Colours and Years, by Margit Kaffka (1912)

coloursandyearsOne of the best ways to guarantee a writer’s work will be overlooked is to write in a less-widely known language, especially if it’s thought difficult to translate. If, on top of that, the writer is a woman, the barrier to entry to a wider audience is even higher.

A good example is the work of Margit Kaffka, a Hungarian woman who published a number of novels before and during World War One that dealt with the constraints that her contemporary society–as with most Western societies at the time–placed on a woman’s ability to make her own life decisions. Her 1912 novel, Színek és évek, translated here by George F. Cushing as Colours and Years, is considered one of the great works of Hungarian fiction of the 20th century as well as a significant fiction of feminist fiction, yet it was only in 1999–eighty years after Kaffka’s death–that it was translated into English, and already it’s out of print. And so few non-Hungarians, occasional academics aside, are even aware of this fine novel.

Colours and Years is narrated by Magda, an “old” (early fifties) woman who looks back on a life marked by failures, tragedies, and countless reminders of the narrow set of roles and rights available to a woman of her time. The daughter of a family of waning gentility, Magda is barely eighteen when she is married to Jeno, a young lawyer from a family of some money and thought to have a promising career ahead of him. Having been raised with few skills aside from making decorative little things and reading romantic poetry, she quickly grows dependent upon Jeno but chafes as their domestic routine.

She dabbles in a bit of romantic fancy with a local cad, but mostly tries to be a faithful and supportive wife. Jeno runs for a local office, imagining it the start of the path to a post at the national level, but soon discovers that his naïveté is little better than Magda’s. He irritates a few local power brokers, is defeated, and finds his law practice evaporating before his eyes. He takes ill and dies, leaving Magda with a young son and debts, and she is forced to return to a family little able to care for her.

In fact, life is nothing but a series of setbacks for Magda, defeats made worse by her own lack of skills and her utter dependence upon the choices made for her by men. “I had no real understanding of the value of money or of the connection between life and work. While my husband was alive, no large sum was ever entrusted to me, but he provided me with everything; we never talked much about trifling material matters …. Small lovers’ tiffs and letters caused much more turmoil in me.” As her situation steadily deteriorates, she feels an ever-growing sense of weariness: “I lived a life, a miserably miniscule, creaking, dull, hard and grinding life.” It makes for some grim reading.

Although Magda is essentially a passive victim in her own life, the bleakness of her situation is relieved in the end by a spiritual, reflective outlook: “Life goes on at a great distance from me, problems, altercations, industry and application….” She achieves an almost-Buddhist sensibility. Old age, she announces, “is not as horrible as it may seem from a distance. You do not feel one state more acutely than another, nor do you feel the lack of things for which the desire has long since died in you.”

Published in 1912, Colours and Years is something of a novel of two centuries. With its rich set of characters and strong tragic narrative, Kaffka’s tale is one that could easily be placed alongside those classic 19th century novels of Balzac, Zola, or Perez Galdos. Yet Kaffka’s message about the fate of women assigned to negligible roles in a society controlled by men would soon find its echo in the work of Virginia Woolf and other 20th women writers.

Kaffka herself was something of a woman of her new century. She trained as a teacher, and although she married at the age of 25, she found she was not made for domesticity and separated from her husband after five years, taking her son with her to Budapest. There she was able to make a living as a writer, publishing poetry, short stories, and several novels, starting with Colours and Years. She divorced her first husband, took up with a man ten years her junior, a Jewish medical student, and married him. Her sales and critical reputation continued to grow with each book, and she had started on a historical novel when she contracted the Spanish flu and died on 1 December 1918. Her son died the day after. A few months before her death, Kaffka’s close friend, the poet Endre Ady, wrote of her, “Let us rejoice in Margit Kaffka because she has arrived and proves the triumph of Hungarian feminism: one need not be polite, pay false compliments to her. She is a strong person, an artist with an assured future: no criticism can hinder her true destiny, the path marked as her own.”

Colours and Years, by Margit Kaffka, translated by George F. Cushing
Budapest: Corvina Books, 1999

Blood Memory, by Martha Graham and Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, by Agnes De Mille (1991)

marthagrahamI am not a follower of ballet or dance, but when I started leafing through Martha Graham’s autobiography, Blood Memory: An Autobiography, I soon found I had to keep going and finish it. Now, this is hardly what one would call great writing. Indeed, there are some suggestions that it was more dictated, to her companion and assistant, Ron Protas. Protas himself cautioned Martha’s editor at Doubleday, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, “Jackie, this is a mix of Martha and me talking.” Kirkus Reviews said the book “feels as if it were dictated a few minutes at a time and left largely unedited,” and the Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote that it reminded one of the “rambling, disjunctive quality as the dangerously long, seemingly shapeless pre-curtain speeches she insisted upon making once she could no longer dance her own repertoire.” And toward the end, the names start dropping like bits of shrapnel.

But, at the same time, you’ve got to respect the kind of passion that could keep Graham going until she succumbed to pneumonia just a few weeks short of her 97th birthday. Graham doesn’t try to sugarcoat the fact that a double helping of ego tends to be part of the package when one is a creative genius, nor is she apologetic about the fact that she liked men and went after those she wanted. When it became clear that she had to stop dancing herself, it led to too much drinking, too much brooding, and a personal crisis: “A dancer, more than any other human being, dies two deaths: the first, the physical when the powerfully trained body will no longer respond as you would wish.”

And she would probably have agreed with Arnold Palmer that “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” “I believe that we learn by practice,” she declares in the second line in the book, and she goes on to describe just how much practice she would put herself and her dancers through, starting with intense drilling in basics–400 leaps in five minutes, as a start. Though Graham obviously didn’t aim for this to be a self-help book like Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, the pages are full of inspirational words that any dancer, artist, or other creative person could draw ideas and encouragement from. Graham recounts more than a few situations where it was only her “damn the torpedoes” attitude that got her through.

Blood Memory: An Autobiography was published about four months after Graham’s death. It was followed three weeks later by the publication of Agnes De Mille’s biography, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, and I’d encourage anyone interested in Graham to check it out, too. De Mille and Graham had danced together and known each other as close friends for over fifty years, and De Mille had been working on the book for years, holding it back from publication out of respect. She approached it as a serious, almost scholarly work, despite her feelings for Graham, and in itself, is a remarkable book, particularly considering that De Mille was past 85 when it was finally published.

Blood Memory: An Autobiography, by Martha Graham
New York: Doubleday, 1991

Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, by Agnes De Mille
New York: Random House, 1991

I Know What I’d Do, by Alice Beal Parsons (1946)

One has to wonder what the residents of Piermont, New York thought of Alice Beal Parsons. A writer and–for her day–a radical feminist, with a strong liberal tack to her politics, she bought a house–more like a cabin–on the slopes of Tallman Mountain (now a New York State Park in the late 1920s. Probably few had read or were even aware of her book, Woman’s Dilemma (1926), which argued for equal rights in work and sexual matters at a time when that was still a decidedly minority view.

Parsons commuted to New York City by ferry most days, working for The Nation and The Bookman as a book reviewer, but she had enough time to observe the residents of Piermont and their doings to become inspired. Within a year or so of settling near the town, she had fictionalized it as Pawlet-on-Hudson and made it the setting of her first novel, John Merrill’s Pleasant Life (1930), which told the story of an idealistic young engineer who has his life spirit drained from him even as he rises to great success running the town’s main factory. Two years later, she used the setting again in A Lady Who Lost (1932), which portrayed the place as a microcosm of the social disturbances caused by the Great Depression. In the book, an idle woman married to a wealthy man becomes involved with the case of a woman tried for the murder of a lover and then with a strike (also at the town’s big factory) organized by Communists.

Then, during the Second World War, she published The Mountain (1944), which was an autobiographical account of life in and around Piermont. She described how her attitude and relations with her neighbors evolved over the course of time, with her initial prejudices and stereotypes gradually giving way to more nuanced and sympathetic understanding and affection. She also rhapsodized about the beauties of the changing seasons on the mountain and offered some comic sketches of her own life and a few of her more colorful neighbors. The book was very favorably reviewed. Saturday Review called it, “… one of those books whose subject matter defies formal classification and whose charm depends partly, of course, on the style of its writing, but almost more on the intimate relationship the author manages to establish between you and her from the start. When you finish it you feel almost as if you had been the week-end guest of a delightful hostess.” One imagines her standing rose at least a little in the eyes of the Piermontese.


But then, a couple of years later, Parsons published I Know What I’d Do (1946), which made poor little Pawlet-on-Hudson a hotbed of adultery, racism, Xenophobia, and violence. The title comes from something several folks in town tell Al Miller, a returning vet, soon after he arrives back in town: “Yes, I know damn well what I’d do if I heard the sort of story some of youse fellow is agoin’ to hear now you’re back home. It ain’t no Sunday School story some of youse is goin’ to hear.” In other words, while Al was off training in England and fighting in Italy, his wife, Sally, had an affair with someone in town. Al’s friend, Jim Phelan, in fact.

At first, Al tries to be rational about things. He’d slept with an English girl himself while overseas. And it’s just innuendos at first, until Sally confesses to him one night. Only in her version, it wasn’t an affair–it was rape. And she got pregnant and now needs money for an illegal abortion. Oh, and just to ratchet up the melodramatic volume, the local Ku Klux Klan klaven burns a cross on their lawn–their version of a red letter A.

Things quickly spiral out of control. Al Miller hunts down and murders Jim Phelan. The scene instantly becomes the center of attraction in town:

In spite of the gas and rubber shortage, the traffic on Prospect Avenue out of which Penross Drive opened was greatly increased by the murder of Jim Phelan. Cars drove slowly by, obstructing north-bound traffic. Because of the jam, parking was forbidden on the Avenue. Sight-seers got around this difficulty by turning into abutting driveways and gazing their fill from these safe vantage points. Some determined individuals actually left their cars and strolled up Penross Drive, though everyone knew it was a one-way street. If they encountered anyone they pretended, according to sex and condition, to be looking for apartments, or stray dogs, or to be selling insurance.

The murder and the sordid details behind it split the community into factions like a prism. Much muck is shoveled up and raked over in the course of the subsequent trial. Fortunately for Al, his case is helped by a sympathetic woman writer living near the town–a fictional version of Parsons herself, one imagines–and civic rationalism prevails.

When I Know What I’d Do came out, critics divided into two camps. One saw the book as a soap opera and an opportunistic attempt to cash in on the very current topic of the struggles of returning veterans. The other applauded Parsons for her multi-faceted approach to her subject and characters. And it’s true that while there are bigots, bullies, and gossips a-plenty in Parsons’ Pawlet, there are others who demonstrate the same kind of depth and complexity of character that Parsons revealed among her neighbors in The Mountain. Grace Frank, writing in Saturday Review, easily spotted the parallels with Parsons’ earlier book:

Most of the portraits in the book, even the incidental ones, are admirable likenesses: the returned soldier, abstracted and uninterested until someone accidentally speaks his language; the young woman, a devoted wife and mother, who nevertheless yields to the excitement of an experienced seducer; a bullying sport, making another man pay for his fun; a worldly-wise writer, equating the effects of love and loneliness on Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Sally, and herself; the opposing lawyers, a woman of the man-eating type, a shrewdly cantankerous young doctor, a dowager aristocrat, and finally the different local characters, including the irreconcilable families of Sally and Al. Pawlet may be purely imaginary, as the author contends, but for all that it and its inhabitants are as real as Route 9W [Route 9W is the highway that runs through Piermont.–Ed.]

Parsons quickly followed up with a return to the subject of her most successful book. In The World Around the Mountain (1947), she carries on with her portrait of life around Piermont, including a comic and self-mocking account of her impassioned but quite unsuccessful attempt to get involved with local politics.

This was her last book, and other than a short story that was published in The American Mercury in 1950 (available at, Parsons appears to have published nothing after it. She died in a hospital in Nyack, just north of Piermont, in April, 1962.

I Know What I’d Do, by Alice Beal Parsons
New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1946

A Matter of Time (1966) and The Woman Said Yes (1976), by Jessamyn West

west2A Matter of Time and The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death offer a reader the rare opportunity of seeing an author tell the same story in two different ways: one as a novel, the other–ten years later–as a memoir.

The story is about how Jessamyn West helped her sister, Carmen, in the terminal stage of bowel cancer, commit suicide in 1965. In A Matter of Time, Jessamyn’s character is named Tasmania, Carmen’s Blix. In the novel, Blix is able to kill herself with the help of a cache of pain-killers conveniently left her by her doctor over the preceding weeks. In the memoir, Jessamyn vaguely suggests that Carmen was able to buy them herself over the preceding months, while still able to drive herself to pharmacies around her area, but one suspects this is in the interest of protecting Carmen’s doctor, who would certainly have risked real, not fictional, prosecution in 1976.

For their time, both books were courageous. The right to die question was just becoming a very public issue in 1976 over the case of Karen Ann Quinlan, and even in her 1966 fictional version, West makes it clear that she aided her sister in the process. In neither book, however, does she attempt to make any generalizations or moral judgments. West simply responded to Carmen’s plea, which reached her by letter, while she was working in New York: “Sister, dear sister, come home and help me die.”

Revisiting the story as memoir ten years later, what changes is not the narrative but the perspective. Not to be too simplistic, but in A Matter of Time, the story is told from the inside looking out. Through Blix’s sleepless nights, the sisters sit together, reminiscing about their family, contrasting Tasmania’s older, more distant and intellectual outlook with Blix’s younger, more sensual responses. In The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death, West takes a big step back, devoting the first half of the book to the story of her own illness and care.

While working on her Ph.D., West was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and, through her mother’s swift intervention, quickly admitted to a sanatorium outside Los Angeles. First considered a terminal case, she was able to be moved where she could get more active treatment, again thanks to her mother’s hounding of the hospital management. For the better part of two years, her mother would visit her four times a week,

… driving the round trip of eighty miles through rain, through Santa Ana sandstorms, through fog so thick headlights were turned on at four in the afternoon. She came with brow anointed with Musterole, with varicose veins swathed in stretchable rubber bandages, with truss laced in place. What I suffered, in actual pain, dying though I might be, was a pinprick to her multiple aches. But she came. She came laughing. She came laden with things I had never dreamed of wanting, but which proved exactly what would give pleasure to a patient next door to a terminal ward.

Aided perhaps from the long, reflective spell alone in a trailer in the Arizona desert that she recounted in Hide and Seek, published a few years earlier than The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death, West new sees how much of her response to Carmen’s illness is rooted in her mother Grace’s response to Jessamyn’s tuberculosis. Not so much in approach–Grace recognized how much the weak and ill Jessamyn needed a strenuous advocate, while Carmen, worldlier and possessed of a self-confidence Jessamyn always envied, needed an accomplice she could trust to carry out her plan. Grace said “Yes” to life, nursing and coaxing Jessamyn back from death, and Jessamyn said “Yes” to Carmen’s wish to end her own life. But her memory of her mother’s care helps West set aside personal concerns and simply focus on Carmen’s needs, whether it was to talk into the night or to be left alone to struggle with her pain.

And this, in the end, is what makes both books–but particularly The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death–so effective. West tells us how three women dealt with the life-and-death crises they encountered together, and nothing more than that. There is no message but that of accepting and understanding a specific situation on its own. Carmen chose to end her life rather than endure what West calls “nature’s savage torture,” but there is no suggestion that any general principles can or should be derived from her example. There are only these two versions of what happened.

A Matter of Time, by Jessamyn West
New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966

The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976


Important to Me, by Pamela Hansford Johnson (1974)

importanttomeWhen I was in high school, I used to keep a copy of C. P. Snow’s Variety of Men, a collection of memoirs of his encounters with such men as Einstein, Churchill, and H. G. Wells, beside my bed. I had picked it up from a sale box at the base exchange, as I thought myself a very serious young man and was already in the habit of reading thick volumes about powerful dead white men. I was also in the habit of spending too many sleepless hours, laying in bed and agonizing over whether I had it in me to make my own great mark in the world.

There was something in Snow’s book that I found tremendously calming. I think it was his tone. Although Snow had, by the time he published the book in 1967, certainly made his mark on English literature as well as on then-contemporary thought (with his The Two Cultures), he was hardly in the same category as Einstein or Churchill. And yet there was such assurance in his treatment of these men. Snow was probably just another geek to Churchill, but that fact didn’t stop Snow from feeling that the world would want to share in his thoughts and memories of the great man. That self-confidence–so self-confident as to be effectively unconscious–was so reassuring to a boy with utterly none. And the fact that its short, self-contained chapters were conveniently packaged for reading before falling back to sleep helped, too.

Now, some forty years later, I still find myself awaking with self-doubts, although they tend to be over things such as paying for college, keeping old cars running, and whether reading about cancer (viz.) will give me cancer. And I have found myself a new bedside companion to provide some reassurance and coax sleep back. Interestingly, it’s a similar book of short reminiscences–but this time, by C. P. Snow’s wife, the novelist Pamela Hansford Johnson. Already a successful novelist at the time they married in 1950 (his first, her second), Johnson had grown up in an impoverished family of actors, gone to work as a typist, and began publishing poetry in her early twenties. She had over a dozen novels under her belt; he had three, plus a few mysteries.

Although the two kept on writing right up to their deaths (Snow in 1980, Johnson in 1981), it was soon Snow rather than Johnson who earned the lion’s share of the spotlight. She seems to have been quite content with the bargain. “He has been all I could wish. More might be said but it isn’t going to be,” she remarks at one point in this book. By the time she wrote
Important to Me, they had settled into a comfortable life with a country house, a London flat, and occasional all-expense-paid trips to America to teach and lecture on college campuses or to defend the realist stream in literature against the onslaughts of modernism at conferences in Europe and the Soviet Union.

In a recent review of Wendy Pollard’s 2014 biography, Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times, Hilary Spurling referred to Snow and Johnson as “Literature’s least attractive power couple.” She was Snow’s most fervent promoter; he, in turn, kept her hard at work, pumping out over twenty more books, to help maintain their lifestyle.

The strain took its toll on Johnson, who admits to battling migraines and depression in this book (and in Pollard’s biography is revealed to have other problems with pills and alcohol). Yet, in true Victorian fashion, she refuses to admit there are any cracks in the glass. “With Charles, I am always happy, if he is free from professional worries, or when any of the children are causing serious anxiety,” she writes. And if the black dog comes around, well, “I do not know what I should do without The Times.”

“This book is not a straight autobiography,” Johnson declares in her introduction. Instead, it is a collection of mostly short essays, “reflections upon things that have been important to me in my life.” Although she admits freely to many faults and deficiencies–no musical talent, little interest in food, idiosyncratic tastes in art–she feels “I am, perhaps, old enough now to write these things with some confidence.” And so we learn about her father, an administrator with a British railroad company in Africa, who died young and left his family nearly penniless; about an encounter with a ghost in the streets on London; her love of Shakespeare; her acquaintances and impressions of Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, and Ivy Compton-Burnett; her love of detective stories; her travels to America and Russia; her run-in with a man claiming to be Jesus Christ on the streets of Los Angeles.

It’s all written with care, selective in including a nice balance of descriptive details and personal assessments, discreet in avoiding too private or painful disclosures. And a comfortable foundation of self-confidence unperturbed by even the most gruesome aspects of modern life. Johnson wrote a short book about the Moors Murders (On Iniquity (1967)), she dismisses the notion of collective guilt for the violence of modern society: “We are ‘all guilty’–somehow–of the Moors Murders. I am not. I have never, by speech or writing, contributed to the ambience that could make such horrors possible.” Those who think otherwise are simply “totally permissive cretins.”

Better to focus on beautiful music, lovely paintings, pleasant scenery, and the love of husband and family. The “exquisite friendship,” the “absorbing unity of interests” of a successful marriage. And, of course, The Times crossword puzzle.

Some, like the anonymous review in Kirkus Reviews, may feel that Important to Me “will primarily attract those to whom Pamela Hansford Johnson is important.” A masterpiece, it certainly is not. A book you can dip into on a grim and restless night and quickly find something interesting, well-written, and filled with a voice well-grounded in its own sense of self and the rightness of its place in the world, however, it most certainly is.

Important to Me is back in print again as part of a series of her books–mainly novels–published by Bello Books, a line of Pan Macmillan, to celebrate her centenary in 2012.

Important to Me, by Pamela Hansford Johnson
New York City: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974

Intimations of Mortality, by Violet Weingarten (1978)

intimationsofmortality“Is life too short to be taking shit, or is life too short to mind it?” Violet Weingarten wonders after being told by an acquaintance–erroneously and spitefully–that her husband was having an affair while she is undergoing chemotherapy.

A few years later, Anne Lamott, watching as her father, writer Kenneth Lamott, was dying of cancer, went looking for books to help her understand what was happening. As she later wrote, “I found myself desperate for books that talked about cancer in a way that would both illuminate the experience and make me laugh.” The only one she found was Weingarten’s Intimations of Mortality. She was so struck by Weingarten’s candor and caustic humor that she used the question above as the epigraph to her book, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994).

While many more books about the experience of being treated for cancer have been written since 1978, Intimations of Mortality remains worth rediscovering for the pleasures (and pains) of Violet Weingarten’s unique voice and perspective. Growing up in New York City, she spent over fifteen working as a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle, where she met her husband, Victor. The two would later be named as members of the Communist Party by reporter Winston Burdett in testimony before a Senate committee. She quit the paper in the early 1950s, choosing to focus on raising their two daughters. As the nest emptied in the early 1960s, she went back to work–but this time as a novelist. Her first novel, Mrs. Beneker (1967) won a respectable amount of critical and popular acclaim, and she was working on her fourth book, Half a Marriage, when she was first diagnosed with cancer.

violetweingartenHer first reaction was surprise, followed quickly–and unexpectedly–by euphoria: “The shoe I had been listening for–unconsciously–all my life had dropped. The fear that makes me human, my knowledge of my own mortality, the fear I had hidden so resolutely and displayed so obviously (none of use see his own ostrich rump sticking up there in the air) was suddenly allowed to surface, and I felt an enormous sense of relief.” Leave it to Weingarten to put in such commonplace words the profound message of Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, The Denial of Death (1974).

After further tests and some surgery, Weingarten was given a clean bill of health. But from the very beginning, her instincts told her that any reprieve would be temporary, and by February 1975, she was preparing herself for her first round of chemotherapy. She set herself the task of keeping a journal of the experience, and quickly filled a dozen pages with an account of her thoughts on the prospect. “I have indeed become the long-winded lady,” she concludes: “It’s the switch from third to first person. I got drunk on it.”

Fortunately for the reader, writing remained something of a tonic over the next thirteen months. Her chemotherapy took its toll on her stamina, added enough pounds to leave her constantly anxious over her looks and the fit of her clothes, tested her patience, and brought on its share of secondary illnesses, but appears not to have been severely debilitating until the very end. And Weingarten is very selective in what she shares about her cancer directly. This is not a journal about cancer but about the thoughts and feelings of a woman being treated for it.

At times, it makes for difficult reading. Not because of the details of her treatment or her descriptions of any of its side effects.” What makes this painful to read at points is the extent to which Weingarten was willing to share her thoughts, even if they were often maddening in their relentlessness: “What succeeded that phase was an idée fixe–an unending undercurrent–‘I think I am well, I am sure I am well,’ and the thought of my not being well never leaves my mind.” And when the anxieties of cancer combined with the forebodings of an author with a new book about to be published, her thoughts machine-gun onto the page:

… this time it’s a little different. Partly because I really don’t know what I am going to write next (but I never did). Partly because it is so important for me to have something going on now (I think that was what saved me when I got out of the hospital in January–I had work to pick up right away). But most of all because of all the unknowns. Will I see it published? (Next spring.) How will I feel then? (Will I be another Cornelius Ryan [who died of prostate cancer just after his A Bridge Too Far was published in 1974]?) Will they push it (in part because)? How will I feel about that? Diffident if they do, angry if they don’t. Also, a whole lot of me went into it. I can’t retreat any more–write what Gottlieb calls “cutesy”–I can only write from my gut now. But what I have to write about now is, in a way, unwritable. Except here.

“This is a special journal,” Weingarten wrote about two months after starting it. “I shan’t end it, life will.” And life did, in April 1976. “Wouldn’t it be nice if it turned out to be a virus?” read the last line in her journal. She entered Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, where she died on July 17th. Her husband and her daughters, Jan and Kathy, struggled over the decision to publish the journal. “To allow the death of our wife and mother, for us a very private event, to become public was disturbing.” But they decided that she had written it with the intent that it be read, and worked with Robert Gottlieb of Knopf to have it published: “Because she was a good writer, her journal should make her own experience significant to a great many people.” I can only hope that this article helps a few more people share in Violet Weingarten’s remarkable last experience.

Intimations of Mortality, by Violet Weingarten
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978

The Journal of Mary Hervey Russell, by Storm Jameson (1945)

I found this intriguing book on the Internet Archive (link), started reading it, and kept on and on, wondering where its meandering and, at times, mirage-like thread would lead. By the time I realized that it didn’t fully qualify as neglected (it’s been reissued, along with over a dozen other titles by Storm Jameson, as an e-book by Bloomsbury Publishing), it was too late.

Although Jameson presents it as the journal of the fictional Mary Hervey Russell, daughter of the domineering Sylvia (portrayed with both empathy and acidity in The Captain’s Wife) and her husband, captain of various small freighters, the intersections between the fictional Mary and the real-life Storm Jameson are too many to mistake this as anything but Jameson’s own journal, lightly disguised. It’s also not always a journal, as it includes a short play featuring Odysseus and a conversation about contemporary English poetry conducted by the corpses of several British soldiers killed during the German invasion of France in 1940.

Many of the entries are undated, but one can safely say that the journal covers the period between the Sudetenland crisis of 1938 and early 1943. Much of the first half of the book deals with the fears and trials of European intellectuals that Russell/Jameson encounters and assists in her role as president of the British branch of PEN, and the second half with her experiences during the first years of World War Two, including the Blitz and rationing. While I initially thought Jameson’s reflections on these contemporary events would be the most interesting parts of the book, there is often such a relentless seriousness that too much of it becomes tedious. (Or ridiculous: “Turning her back on us, France is bequeathing us a summer. Very kind. It would be kinder still if she sent us her Fleet.”)

Instead, perhaps the strongest connecting thread in the book is that of Russell/Jameson’s memories and emotions about her family. Her mother was imperious, selfish, unloving, and dismissive of her husband and children. Though seen from a distance of thirty years or more, her actions and words left wounds still raw. Jameson mourns the loss of her brother, a pilot killed in the First World War and then, just at the end, of her sister, killed in a German bombing raid. And she reflects upon the parallels between her family’s small dramas and the great changes she has witnessed in her lifetime:

Mine is the last generation brought up to know a great many hymns. And the last which remembers, as a thing felt, the Victorian certainties, hollow as these were, wormed inside, in 1900. Isolated, sarcastically indifferent to the rest of England, our Victorianism was almost of 1840. I rebelled against it, but it had formed and deformed me; even my revolt was filial. My deepest self, when I am conscious — you won’t expect me to answer for any sleeping or disinterested self — is patient, stubborn, a little cracked in its dislike of being told what to do. Anything which is repeated a great many times, a chair, a sentiment, words, repels it.

The lyricism of some of Russell/Jameson’s recollections are almost Proustian in their intensity, and I will have to excerpt one later to illustrate this.

While some parts of The Journal of Mary Hervey Russell are abstruce, dated, histrionic, or simply tedious, there are also some wonderful passages:

My landlady, a woman about forty, was in her room on the ground floor, the door open, while her hair was waved. Looking in the glass she could watch it as well as note who came in and out. In a monotonous voice she was telling the hairdresser that her husband had spent the night “with those women”, and was asleep in his room. “First thing when he wakes he’ll ask me to give him a clean shirt, and then what money I have in the drawer. What disillusion!”

The lines of her mouth formed a single word, of surprise and bitterness.

The streets here, behind their mask, unsmiling, of sunlight, are grey and hard with age. The life going on continuously, every inch occupied by it, in every room someone coughing, working, bartering, baking, or pressing offal into a cheap pate, ironing, giving birth, dying, was self-supported and self-devouring, completely cut off, by a hard membrane, from the soil.

This was the eighth book Jameson published during the war, and over the course of a sixty-year career, she published well over five dozen books. As with Ethel Mannin, Phyllis Bottome, and a number of her other contemporaries, Jameson’s work was a remarkable combination of the prolific, the popular, the psychological, and the political. It’s hard to imagine all of these qualities coexisting in a successful writer today.

The Journal of Mary Hervey Russell, by Storm Jameson
London: Macmillan, 1945

Adventures of an Ordinary Mind, by Lesley Conger (1963)

Cover of 'Adventures of an Ordinary Mind'Sitting in her kitchen nook, sipping her mid-morning cup of coffee–“the best part of being a housewife” — Lesley Conger decided one day in October 1961 that, “The shape my ambition has taken this year is this: I shall begin to read all the books I should have read by now….” Adventures of an Ordinary Mind is the diary of that year of reading.

Today, such books are becoming almost a micro-genre on their own, with such recent titles as Susan Hill’s Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home, Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, Phyllis Rose’s The Year of Reading Proust (not to mention her dive into neglected books, The Shelf). The only easily-found precedent to Conger’s book, however — which she does mention — was Bernard Berenson’s A Year’s Reading for Fun, an account of how he and his fellow inmates of I Tatti (hardly the worst place to get stuck) wiled away a year during World War Two mining Berenson’s priceless library.

Lesley Conger and her book are quite the contrasts to the refined taste and elevated atmosphere of Berenson and his book. Mother to six children ranging in age from five to fifteen, she squeezed her reading in between loads of laundry, stirred stewpots with a book in one hand, and found the energy to get through a canto or two of Dante before turning out the light. Instead of Renaissance masterpieces, her walls featured PTA notices, children’s crayon drawings, maps with vacation routes marked in red and “an oil painting by a nobody, left over from Greenwich Village days, which nobody likes but it has such a nice frame.” And Berenson probably never wondered, “If a child is going to drop a doughnut thickly crusted in powdered sugar, why does he do it at the top of a flight of stairs carpeted in dark red?”

Lesley Conger was the pen-name of Shirley Suttles — who. at the time, really was a housewife, living in Vancouver, B.C. and raising seven kids (the last one came after this book) with her husband, Wayne. Contrary to her title, though, Suttles was no ordinary mind. She and her husband studied at the University of Washington and Berkeley, and she spent at year at the New School for Social Research, sharing a room with the very young James Baldwin, before reuniting with Wayne back in Seattle (he was the UW’s first Ph.D. graduate in anthropology). Even as their family began to grow, she still found to write articles and short stories for magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and McCalls, and even published a humorous account of life in the Suttles house, Love and Peanut Butter (1961). Her husband went on to become a pioneering ethnographer and linguist of Indians of the Pacific Northwest, publishing such works as Musqueam Reference Grammar (still in print, by the way).

And her year’s reading included works that can challenge even the least distracted readers: Vergil; Euripides; the Bhagavad Gita; Bouvard et Pécuchet; Camus’ The Plague. She puts a remarkable effort into sticking with her program through its dryest spells. But then she is, she admits, addicted to reading:

I will read anything. I will even read it twice. And because I have a large house and six children and a cat and a dog, and can’t always find an uninterrupted hour or two to sit down peacefully with a book, I read on the fly, as it were. I read while stirring a pudding; I read while darning socks. There is always some book I am reading, and I carry it around with me, propping it open wherever I happen to be. I can, for example, read a page or two while the dirty water drains out of the washing machine, and a page of Maugham is more diverting than a view of mud from blue jeans under a scum of detergent suds.

When she goes to the library, it’s “in the mood of a logger hitting town after six weeks in the bush.” She does confess at one point, though, that Plato’s Dialogues “are not what a weary mother wants to read between bouts of caring for a small patient.” And I had to shout, “Amen!” when I read that she found “reading Faulkner like wading through waist-deep water thick with seaweed.”

Sadly, this book was seen as a mix of Erma Bombeck and the Great Books Program, didn’t please the fans of Love and Peanut Butter nor those looking for something a little more intellectual. Kirkus Reviews dismissed it as “a pleasant annotation of a full life and an eager mind — but no more.” The only printing was quickly shuffled to the remainder pile.

And though, late in the book, she celebrates carving out a room of her own (actually, just a closet) so she can concentrate on finishing a novella, Conger/Suttles did not publish another book for adult readers, aside from To Writers, with Love, a collection of her “Off the Cuff” columns, which appeared in The Writer for over fifteen years.

Shirley Suttles died in 2006, at the age of 88, a year after her husband Wayne’s passing, leaving behind a large family — and a few happy readers.

Adventures of an Ordinary Mind, by Lesley Conger
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1963

An American Journey, by Ethel Mannin (1967)

Cover of UK edition of 'An American Journey'
I’ll admit it: I bought this book because of its cover. That Day-glo orange and blue Manhattan skyline illustration is one of the most visually exciting dust jackets I’ve seen since Helen Ashton’s People in Cages.

But there was more to it. I was vaguely aware of Ethel Mannin as “a popular British novelist,” as her Wikipedia entry puts it, one of the generation of “middlebrows” celebrated on and Lesley Hall’s site. I didn’t realize, though, just how prolific a writer she was until I saw the list of book “By the Same Author”: two columns of densely packed titles in small print. In the course of a 50-plus year career starting in the early 1920s, Mannin published over 100 books–a half-dozen volumes of memoirs, some political tracts, a few on child education, over a dozen travel books, and 40-plus novels.

Having researched a little more into Mannin’s life and work, I find it rather astonishing that her work–particularly her novels–sold so well, since her political and sexual views were far from that of the average British book-buyer of her time. She had affairs with Yeats and Bertrand Russell, among others, organized for the Labour Party until she found it too corrupt and conservative for her taste, married a Quaker who channeled support to Gandhi while he was working against British rule, protested against torture of Mau Mau members in Kenya, and was a vocal supporter of Palestinian opposition to Israel. Ironically, though Mannin was an avowed atheist, one of her most popular novels, Late Have I Loved Thee, about the conversion of an Irish man to Catholicism, came to attention again last year after it appeared on a list of Pope Francis’ 11 favorite books.

An American Journey is the account of a trip Mannin took to the U.S. in 1965. The dust jacket states that, “The author insists that this is not a travel book about America but the story of a journey and that there is a difference.” I suspect this is the sort of hair-splitting that Mannin defiantly insisted upon throughout her life.

Mannin’s American journey reveals more about its author than its subject. Travelling around the U.S. by Greyhound bus, she finds a country bursting with economic and engineering excess–helicopters landing on the roof of the Pan Am building in New York; a radio talk show broadcast from a Chicago restaurant; six-lane freeways and fifty-car pile-ups in Los Angeles. She also tends to see a culture whose worth decreases in inverse proportion to the country’s wealth. She is far more impressed by Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers and Navaho pottery than by the fact that you can order a martini on an evening commuter train out of Manhattan.

And she is quick to spot the cracks in the American dream. A taxi driver taking her to visit a school in a black neighborhood in Washington D.C. tells her that he would rather see his daughter “dead in the river than at a nigger school.” She counters boosterism in Oklahoma City with the following quote from John Collier’s Indians of the Americas: “The local looting of Indians became a principal business in eastern Oklahoma, continuing with brazen openness until past 1925, and not wholly ended yet.” Of attempts by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to introduce small manufacturing enterprises on southwestern reservations, she remarks that, “Industrialisation is invariably the answer in the modern world to poverty and unemployment–whether it is or not.”

Through her many, many hours on the bus, she encounters dozens of Americans–black and white, male and female, young and old–but rarely seems to have made more than a cursory attempt to strike up conversations. Of those she mentions, the most common feature is the speaker’s utter ignorance of England or anything else outside the U.S.. On several occasions, she prefers to turn away and bury her nose in the Simenon novel she brought along. In any case, conversation was probably never her strongest suit. Waiting at the bus station in Los Angeles with a friend she had visited, she remarks that, “The grey early morning, when body and soul are only narrowly held together by a cup of coffee, is anyhow no time for conversation, anywhere, in any circumstance.”

For today’s reader, the pleasures of An American Journey are mostly incidental. Mannin saw the U.S. at a moment when you could still ride a Super Chief train from Chicago to L.A. and book its Turquoise Room for a private afternoon cocktail party, while passengers arriving at Eero Saarinen’s space age modernist Dulles Airport were carried direct from their planes to baggage claim in moving lounges that featured armchairs and tables with magazines and newspapers. (Sadly, neither luxury survived long after that.) The interstate highway system was complete, but you still arrived in most towns on a road studded with motels, diners, car lost, flashing signs, and what Mannin, in her stubborn Britishness, refers to as “hoardings” (billboards). If you were to retrace her journey today, you could probably spend every night in a Holiday Inn Express within 100 yards of a freeway after eating the same dinner at the nearby Appleby’s.

I did become intrigued to understand just how such an adamantly radical woman could exploit an adamantly capitalist publishing industry to finance her political, artistic, and personal interests and passions for over fifty years, and as part of this year’s program of reading works by women, I plan to read a few more of Ethel Mannin’s books and see what I can discover.

An American Journey, by Ethel Mannin
London: Hutchinson, 1967

Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma Lady Furness (1958)

doubleexposureYou don’t read Double Exposure, the dual-narrated memoir of identical twins and society dames Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt and Thelma Morgan, Lady (later Viscountess) Furness as literature, but as a combination of specimen and spectacle. And as the latter, it offers more nooks and crevices than a Mandelbrot set.

For those into abnormal psychology, there is their half-Irish, half-Chilean and 100% drama-queen mother, Laura Delphine Kilpatrick Morgan. Nora Ephron once wrote that, “If you give your kids a choice, your mother in the next room on the verge of suicide versus your mother in Hawaii in ecstasy, they’d choose suicide in the next room.” If you asked Gloria and Thelma, they’d go for the Hawaii option: anything to get away from that woman. Their daddy, on the other hand, the fine, dignified and long-suffering diplomat, Harry Hays Morgan (Senior), could do no wrong. Is it any wonder that both girls pretty much marry the first men who show any interest in them and who shared the outstanding attribute of being about the age of their father when they were born?

No matter, for each is quickly disposed with. Thelma’s first husband, Jimmy Vail Converse, grandson of AT&T co-founder Theodore Vail, turns out to be an abusive and bankrupt alcoholic. A quick trip to California produces a divorce, followed in about a year by marriage to Marmaduke Furness, British shipping magnate and member of the House of Lords … and also over twenty years her senior. His good manners and huge fortune could not hold a candle to the likes of Edward Prince of Wales, and Divorce Number Two followed within eight years of Divorce Number One. Sadly, Thelma lost out to another American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, and had to drown her sorrows in a quick fling with Prince Aly Khan (later husband to Rita Hayworth). She managed somehow to overlook the fact that, for once, she was the older one.

Meanwhile, Gloria fell for and married Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, heir to the fortune established by “Commodore” Vanderbilt. Gloria and Reggie got along famously (sorry), but sadly, Reggie had to go and ruin things by choking to death on his own blood due to a mysterious throat hemorrhage medical condition he had kept secret from her. A man whose chief accomplishment, according to his Wikipedia entry, was that, “He was the founder and president of many equestrian organizations,” Reggie left his widow and daughter (the Gloria Vanderbilt of fashion fame) comfortably off. Unfortunately, he and his lawyers left open a legal loophole through which his sister, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (yes, those Whitneys, swooped a few years later, making off with daughter Gloria and most of (mother) Gloria’s money. Nothing for it but a few more affairs. Oh, and a few years after that, daughter Gloria and lawyers swooped again, took mother Gloria’s annual allowance, and donated it to a charity for the blind. Had the expression been invented back then, one imagines (daughter) Gloria’s lawyers shouting, “BOO-YAH!”

But wait–there’s more! There are the rare and elusive Vanderbilt siblings–three of them. You have to keep a sharp eye out for them, though: no sooner than you spot one and it’s off into the mists for another decade or two. There are more transatlantic steamship trips than there are Washington-New York shuttle flights. There are their many close, intimate acquaintances–humble folk “such as Peggy Stout, who married dashing Lawrence Copley Thaw and later divorced him; Jimmy and Dorothy Fargo, whose name is associated with Pony Express fame; the two daughters of Mrs. Richard T. Wilson, Marion and Louise; Juan Trippe, now president of Pan-American Airways; the two Jimmys, Leary and O’Gorman; and Margaret Power, who had introduced us to Margaret Hennessy. They were both from Montana; their families at one time jointly owned the Anaconda copper mines.” And you: who do you watch polo with? Thought so.

Kirkus Reviews praised the twin authors for “sparing no detail no matter how unorthodox,” but half the fun of this book are the details they left out. Like, say, a moral and ethical framework. As Thelma is falling in love with Prince Edward, she and “Duke” Furness head off to Africa for a spot of safari and shooting. Lying in her tent one night, Thelma wails, “Why did I have to be the big white hunter?” A short ellipsis later, and she totes up her toll: “I shot an elephant, a lion, a rhino, and a water buffalo.” Even in those days, scruples were so passé. If you ever needed proof positive that the very rich are different from you and I, take a stroll through Double Exposure. For us proles, it’s available for free on the Internet Archive (Link).

from Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma Lady Furness
New York: David McKay and Company, 1958

Mrs. Beneker, by Violet Weingarten (1967)

Cover of first US edition of 'Mrs. Beneker'Depending on your perspective, Violet Weingarten’s debut novel, Mrs. Beneker (1967) is outdated or timeless. Mr. and Mrs. Beneker could live next door to half of John Cheever’s characters or across the street from Rob and Laura Petrie. She picks up Mr. Beneker from the 6:23PM train to Westchester, takes an adult education class on comparative religions, worries about her son at Harvard and her daughter, pregnant and off to Egypt with her aid-organizer husband, and wishes she could land one of those highly-coveted volunteer jobs teaching reading to youngsters in Harlem. She did work, back in the late 1930s, when she was single, radical, and infatuated with her newspaper’s dashing red-headed star reporter, but now she is in something of a limbo, no longer in daily demand as a mother and too young to retire to Florida like her parents.

She spends much of her time watching and weighing the world around her–both refining her public persona and wondering at its ludicrousness:

She reached over and patted Mr. Beneker’s hand, perfectly aware she was doing so for the benefit of two women at an adjacent table who had been staring at them from the moment they sat down. Mrs. Beneker loathed them. Obviously they got their exercise circulating petitions against liberal school-board members. They rode in open cars in Memorial Day parades, paper poppies on their breasts and overseas caps spiked to their iron-grey heads with bobby pins.

What a devoted pair we must seem, thought Mrs. Beneker, adding a winning smile to her performance. The lobsters came, and Mr. Beneker, as usual, reached over and cracked her claws for her. And are, she concluded.

Oh so it seems under she picks up the phone one evening and hears her husband say, “Nothing. I just wanted to hear the sound of your voice.”

Left on her own while he flies off to California on business, she has the chance to exercise her role as a woman scorned to the fullest. “Coals of fire, she thought. Let him writhe under them.” She imagines prying a hefty settlement from Mr. Beneker and moving into a “new, bright, ultramodern” apartment overlooking the East River. But the more she thinks of the apartment, the more it “echoes with emptiness,” and the more she thinks of Mr. Beneker, the harder she finds it to accept this new identity of his: the adulterer. In the end, reality is more muddled and less stark, and a good healthy slap goes a long way toward clearing the air.

And this is typical of the crises in Mrs. Beneker’s life over the course of the year depicting in the book. Dangers seem most fearsome when they hover in the near future, her wits sharper and character stronger in the heat of contact. And her sense of humor intact. “Eskimos have the right idea,” she often jokes at the prospect of aging. “The only thing to do with old people is to abandon them on ice floes.”

Mrs. Beneker was the first of four novels Violet Weingarten published between 1967 and 1977, when she died of cancer at the age of sixty-one–an experience she recorded in a journal later published as Intimations of Mortality (1978). All are about women of roughly her own age, economic, and social status, liberal in outlook, well-educated, mothers of grown children, living in or around New York City. All of her novels received respectful reviews and sold well enough to come out in book club and paperback editions, and here and there around the Internet, you can find readers who remember them with fondness.

Are they outdated or timeless? Mrs. Beneker is certainly a work of its particular time and place, yet I often found myself finding scenes and comments that were still relevant. I began to form a theory that these four books by Violet Weingarten were, in their way, every bit as timeless as any of the Jeeves books by P. G. Wodehouse. I will have to read on to put that theory to test.

Mrs. Beneker, by Violet Weingarten
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1967

Risk, by Rachel MacKenzie (1971)

Cover of first US edition of "Risk"

Risk, Rachel MacKenzie’s brief account of her hospitalization and initial recovery from open-heart surgery to repair an aneurysm of the left ventricle of her heart is one of the shortest books covered on this site, just 59 pages in all.

Adapted from an article she published in The New Yorker in November, 1970 as “fiction,” it’s a model of the ultra-efficient narrative. There is nothing unnecessary in her account. A student of the progress of heart surgery could easily trace the entire course of her diagnosis, examinations, surgery, and post-operative difficulties, including the game of drug roulette her cardiologist plays until settling on Dilantin as the most effective treatment for arrhythmia, yet no individual element of her medical care gets more than a few lean paragraphs’ attention.

And her choice of the third person allows her to be ruthlessly selective in what she mentions of her own emotions and sensations. She notes pain–when it comes, where it stays, how long it takes to leave. The widely different abilities of doctors and nurses to insert catheters–quickly, barely noticeably or ineptly, leaving bruises and soreness from repeated assaults–gets special notice.

Risk takes its title from the fact that open-heart surgery was still a new field in 1970, one where full recovery could not yet be taken for granted. Her surgeon tells her,

“I have to tell you that we could get your chest opened up and I might decide the risk was too great to proceed. It’s large. The men who did the arteriogram figure between fifty and sixty. They think nearer sixty. I still think fifty. It will depend on our judgment of the strength of what’s left of the ventricle to carry on.”

Later, another doctor puts the situation in starker terms:

“Dr. Jamison,” she [MacKenzie] said, “I’ve been thinking. Are there particular risks and complications in this surgery I ought to know about? Do you really aprove of my having it?”

The expression of special pleasure that had been on Dr. Jamison’s face gave way to one of reserve. “Nobody’s rushing you into this,” he said. “It’s entirely your decision.”

“That isn’t what I mean. My decision was made before I ever came in here. But I would like to know what the risk is.”

“It makes no sense to talk about risks in a thing like this,” Dr. Jamison said. “Risks are statistics. Averages. So far as you’re concerned, they’re on hundred per cent or they’re zero.”

The surgery itself is successful, but MacKenzie experiences a number of post-operative complications that leave her variously frustrated, depressed, and impatient. But she progresses from ICU to Cardiac Care and finally to a normal recovery ward, and is able to return home.

Months later, discussing her case with her cardiologist, she is able to put the risks into human terms:

“How many of those operations have they done?” she asked.

“Between fifteen and twenty–seventeen is the exact number, I believe.”

Dr. Rudd had said the risk was thirty-five per cent or a little more. She figured. Had they lost six? Seven?

Looking back on her own experience, she thinks, “Dear God, the miracle.”
Rachel MacKenzie at The New Yorker
Rachel MacKenzie was a editor at The New Yorker from 1956 until just before her death in 1980, and worked with some of the magazine’s most intimidating contributors–Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer–and fostered the early work of Philip Roth, Muriel Spark, and Bernard Malamud. Born in a small town in Ohio in 1909, she spent over twenty years as a teacher, first at Ginling College in Nanjing, China, then at the College of Wooster, Radcliffe, Wellesley, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. The American Heart Association presented her with the Blakeslee Award “for lasting service to physicians as well as laymen” in honor of Risk. Her one novel, The Wine of Astonishment, published in 1974, tells the story of two spinster sisters and their lives in the tight-knit and strictly conventional community of a small upstate New York town.

Ironically, one of the earliest of her few published pieces was a short story titled, “The Thread,” which appeared in Harpers in September 1947. Relating the experience of Ellen, a young girl hospitalized for injuries that require some surgery, it greatly foreshadows Risk, even down to the constant refrain of doctors and nurses warning, “Just a pinprick” before giving another of her countless injections. Harpers subscribers can read “The Thread” on the Harpers Archive (link).

Risk, by Rachel MacKenzie
New York: The Viking Press, 1971

A Tower of Steel, by Josephine Lawrence (1943)

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

Van Zanten’s Happy Days, by Laurids Bruun – reviewed by Helen Bevington

vanzantenFrom Along Came the Witch: A Journal in the 1960s, by Helen Bevington:

June 1966

E. B. White says a favorite book of his is a novel by Laurids Bruun, Van Zanten’s Happy Days. Since my favorite book is anything Mr. White writes, I hurry to the library to share his delight.

Ball One for Mr. White. Every man to his own lotus eating, but he is wrong about Van Zanten’s Happy Days. Aside from a good title, it lacks persuasion. Van Zanten went native in a simpleminded manner on a South Sea island among black savages, convinced that Eden still exists and he had returned to it in a bamboo hut. After finding unmixed joy in the arms of a female savage, with her fears, superstitions, indolence, and lusts, then losing her in a typhoon, he hated thereafter all white women, who by contrast appeared civilized.

Mr. White used to dream in print about Dorothy Lamour wearing only a sarong and a hibiscus flower, rising up from a swamp to welcome him to Jungle madness. Or, as he said, to “amorous felicity.”

Van Zanten’s Happy Days: A Love Story From Pelli Island, by Laurids Bruun

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922

Forsaking All Others, by Alice Duer Miller (1931)

forsakingallothersThe Golden Gate (1986), Vikram Seth’s novel in verse (to be precise, in Onegin stanzas) is one of my all-time favorite books, and there is something about a verse novel I find particularly attractive. Perhaps it’s the way the flow of the verse gives the narrative an added momentum. When I picked up Nazim Hikmet’s Human Landscapes from My Country in the Istanbul airport a couple of years ago, it read so fast that I felt like I was inhaling it.

Alice Duer Miller’s Forsaking All Others (1931) was probably the most successful verse novel in English since Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh or her husband Robert’s The Ring and the Book, and it got a second wind when Miller’s second verse novel, The White Cliffs, a salute to England’s defense against the Nazis, sold over a million copies and led to its reissue. Running just under 100 pages in its original hardback edition, it’s perhaps more accurate to call it a novella in verse.

aliceduermillerUnlike Vikram Seth, Miller mostly stuck to simple rhyming couplets and alternating rhymes (ABAB), and used a variety of foot lengths rather than sticking to one particular metre. However, the first couple parts of the poem may remember readers of the light, sophisticated, ever-so-slightly tongue-in cheek tone of much of the romance between Seth’s two protagonists. In this case, there is the added spice that the lovers are married–to other people. Lee Kent’s husband is locked away in an asylum, apparently a victim of combat fatigue from his time on the Western Front. Millionaire Jim Wayne (no relation to Bruce) has married his childhood sweetheart, the faithful but somewhat dreary Ruth.

The story in Forsaking All Others is played out in five parts. Part 1: Lee and Wayne meet at a dinner party and exchange some flirtatious banter. Part 2: Interested by Wayne, Lee wonders why he doesn’t contact her until they meet again at a art auction. Part 3: Lunches ensue. Part 4: The affair develops, and Wayne starts using the demands of business as an excuse to avoid joining Ruth at their summer place in Maine.

With Part 5, however, Miller takes her story on an express train from the Jazz Age to the heart of the Victorian era. Ruth, who knows that something is going on, dies tragically from a dramatically-convenient illness. “Is that you, Jim?” she murmurs in her fever before dying in a scene worthy of “Ten Nights in a Bar-room.” Stricken with grief and remorse, Wayne sails for the Mediterranean. The moral of the story? Vide the Seventh Commandment.

Personally, I’d have been happy to stop at the end of Part 4. Wayne is already struggling between attraction to Lee and loyalty to Ruth, but there are still plenty of bubbles in this champagne:

They would meet for luncheon every day
At a small unknown French cafe
Half-way up town and half-way down
With a chef deserving great renown.
And Pierre the waiter would smile and say:
Bonjour, Monsieur, dame,” and they
Would see by his smile discreet and sly
That he knew exactly the reason why
A couple so proud and rich should come
To eat each day in a squalid slum.
And nothing delighted his Gallic heart
More than to find he could play a part
And protect “ces amoureux foux d’ amour
And guide their choice through the carte du jour.

In its way, it could have been more conventional version of W. M. Spackman’s little classic of civilized adultery, An Armful of Warm Girl.

Nevertheless, Forsaking All Others still has something of a loyal following. One of Miller’s fans has brought her into the 21st century at, where Forsaking All Others can be read. It’s also available in Kindle, and I’ve provided a PDF version here for anyone who’s interested.

Forsaking All Others, by Alice Duer Miller
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1931

Enter, Sleeping, also published as The Sleepwalkers, by David Karp (1960)

entersleepingI picked up a copy of Enter, Sleeping in the £2 box outside a bookstore in London a few weeks back and enjoyed reading most of it on the Eurostar ride back. Karp, whose dystopic novel, One, was reissued a few years ago by Westholme Publishing (but appears to be out of print again), was usually serious, almost moralistic, in his approach, but this is an out-an-out farce. If you’re a fan of 1960s movies, I’d describe it as a blend of “The Producers,” “Lord Love a Duck,” and “The President’s Analyst”: Broadway, young love (er, sex), and Looney Tunes conspiracies. All in all, great fun.

Young Julius Schapiro, a play reader for an erstwhile Broadway producer (more Max Bialystok than David Merrick), meets the lovely, tender Daphne one evening and ends up walking her back to her home. At the door, she nearly lassos him into bed, but Julius is stopped on lift-off by her father, the uber-earnest Ernest Leydecker. Ernest quickly proves a granite stone-faced mind-fucker first class:

“What do you do?” her father asked as he sat opposite him. His manner, his posture were the same. Flat, calm, unassailable, impenetrable.

“I work for a stage producer,” he said.

“But what do you do?” he was asked again.

“I read plays.”

“To what end?”

“To inform the producer which plays are good.”

“Does he take your advice?”

“He reads what I recommend he read.”

“And does he produce what you recommend he produce?”

“Not very often.”

“Then why do you do it at all?”

“Because I need a job. I have to eat, to live.”

“You don’t have to live,” her father said with a voice that was almost kindly. “If you find life burdensome, I know a doctor who will provide you with a poison which is almost painless.”

Later, Ernest gives Julius his reassuring assessment: “I don’t understand what my daughter sees in you. I consider you a total imbecile.”

On his own home front, Julius has the comfort of living with a mother one character describes as, “… a triple-plyed monster of the old school of Jewish monsters. She’s not a monster. She’s a growth.” When he tries to make some connections to get his career as a budding songwriter going, he runs into the hyperbolic, hyperactive agents, Lou Cohen and Al Douglas:

“I got to find this guy Julius Schapiro, I yelled,” Al said, his face contorted with pain. “Lou, Lou, I yelled, we’ve got to find this guy! We’ve got to find him! I called the magazine! I called the Writers Guild! I called the papers! I called the Dramatists Guild! I called the Coast! I called all the networks! I called every agent in New York! I must’ve made a hundred calls. Right, Lou?”

“He spent nearly two days on the telephone,” Lou said, shaking his head in awe.

Poor, sane Julius, who wants only to woo Daphne and make a buck, is like a cork caught in a torrent of obsessions and conspiracies. Nowadays, we would call him clueless, but in the book’s terminology, he’s a sleepwalker.

In pursuit of Daphne, he winds up helping Ernest’s Truth-Seekers, whose primary occupation is writing letters of complaint over the slightest of wrongs. In support of a member who felt ripped off at the price of a lousy movie, they write to “the management of the theater … the producers of the motion picture, the Mayor of the City of New York, the Governor of the State of New York, Governor of the State of California, where the picture was manufactured, the Mayor of the City of Los Angeles, the place of manufacture, and, of course, the usual copy to the President of the United States and to the Secretary General of the United Nations for his information.”

In the real world, no one could take such letters seriously, but in Karp’s loony bin, it’s only natural that the Truth-Seekers soon attract the interest of the F. B. I. … or is it the Secret Service … or is it some dark, unacknowledged arm of the government?

Enter, Sleeping might have collapsed under the weight of such cartoonish exaggerations, but Karp’s touch with his broad brush is light and deft. Running under 180 pages, the book is too brief, the momentum too fast, to let anything bog down. Karp wraps up his story with a last-minute happy ending in the tradition of a good Shakespearian comedy, complete with matched pairs of lovers. All in all, a fast, fun farcical frolic with a nice blend of Sixties innocence and Cold War paranoia. Absolute worth the £2.

(Enter, Sleeping as also published as Sleepwalkers in the U. K.)

Enter, Sleeping, by David Karp
New York City: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1960

Imperial City, by Elmer Rice (1937)

imperialcityFull of cardboard characters, stereotypes, cariacatures, clichés, and hackneyed situations Elmer Rice’s 1937 novel, Imperial City is the most enjoyable read I’ve encountered in months. It’s got something for nearly everyone: a murder in a crowded night-club; a race riot; a raid on a high-class whore house; adultery (both hetero- and homosexual); a solo flight across the Atlantic that ends tragically; a protest by undergraduates at Columbia; an unsuccessful hold-up and high-speed getaway; a black-out that cripples Manhattan just as a sickly child is undergoing an emergency surgery. Something’s happening on nearly every page, and with close to 700 pages, that’s a lot of action.

I’ve had a copy of Imperial City for a few years but always shied away from reading it. I’m a sucker for city novels, particularly ones set in New York, but the few reviews of the book I’d been able to find were pretty lukewarm in their praise. The fact that its one reissue was as an abridged Avon paperback with a cheesy cover didn’t say much for its long-term literary merit, either.

But when I finally picked it up, I was 50 pages in before looking up again, and found myself reaching for it in every spare moment after that.

Not for Rice’s style, mind you. Probably the closest comparisons I could find to Imperial City would be The Bonfire of the Vanities or one of James Michener’s geographic doorstops like Hawaii or Centennial, and compared to Rice, Wolfe and Michener are poets. Here, for example, is how he handles a stressful period in his leading man’s romance:

These activities, together with his constant attendance at the trial, had left him almost no time for Judy. For more than a week he had hardly seen her, except for two or three brief visits to the hospital to which her father had again been removed. They talked listlessly and almost impersonally. Judy was preoccupied with her father’s illness, and Gay with his brother’s critical situation and his efforts to avert the strike. Emotionally neither was capable of sharing the other’s anxiety, and for no good reason, each was hurt by the other’s apparent lack of sympathy; so that an indefinable coolness sprang up between them and their parting had none of its accustomed warmth.

This is reporting, not writing.

And yet, it’s easy to look past such clunkiness and just keep stuffing oneself with pages like handfuls of potato chips or popcorn. Imperial City is the fictional equivalent of empty, addictive calories.

Although centered on the Colemans–one of the wealthiest families in Manhattan–the novel is a veritable solar system of characters, ranging from a couple dozen planets whose names gradually grow familiar to minor moons and satellites to asteroids that go screaming past in a few pages, never to appear again. I suspect Rice’s cast list would put Tolstoy’s biggest to shame, and given how superficial many of his characterizations are, even harder to keep straight. Names disappear for hundreds of pages only to pop up again with no re-introduction (“Arnold Rayford … is he the lawyer or the power company executive? Oh, no that’s Charles Albertin … or is it Livingston Ward?”). More than a few times, I just gave up and hoped to figure things out as I went along.

What redeems the book, however, is its tremendous momentum and enough telling details to make the stage sets convincing. An early highlight is a visit to Coney Island on a hot summer day:

Everyone’s jaws were moving; those who were not munching ice-cream cones and hot dogs or licking lolly-pops were industriously chewing gum. The air was thick with the smells of brine, pickles, sauerkraut, spiced sausage-meat, sizzling lard, and human exhalations. People shoved and trod on each other’s toes to reach the booths where stentorian vendors extolled the merits of pop-corn and pink spun sugar and Eskimo pies. Spectators stood five-deep behind the players of skee-ball, Japanese ping-pong, and coney races. There were long queues waiting to buy tickets for the Old Mill, the Love Ride, the jolting little electric auto-racers, the barrel in which the motor-cyclist risked death, the crèche where the pre-maturely born babies were displayed in incubators. In the swimming-pools of the large bathing establishments, the divers shouted and splashed.

The prose may be trite or awkward (particularly that last sentence), but despite Rice’s clumsiness with the brush, a lively and colorful picture emerges. As a portrait of Manhattan in the 1930s–one of the city’s most vibrant decades–Imperial City isn’t the most deftly painted, but it may be one of the richest and most fascinating. Great art it ain’t, but it is great entertainment. Summer is a long way off, but if you’re looking for a neglected beach book next year, remember this.

Best known as a playwright (“The Adding Machine” and “Street Scene”, among many others), Elmer Rice only published three novels. His first, A Voyage to Purilia (1930), was a satire of Hollywood set on a distant planet (Penguin reissued it in the 1950s as a science-fiction novel). His last, The Show Must Go On (1949), was epic-sized, like Imperial City, about the ups and downs of a young playwright’s career. His last book was an autobiography, Minority Report, published a few years before his death.

Imperial City, by Elmer Rice
New York City: Coward and McCann, 1937

The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, by Charles Neider (1956)

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones'I first mentioned The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, back in 2010, in a post about “Classics Lost and Found,” a feature in the Independent. In that post, I wrote that it was only book mentioned in the article that could be considered truly neglected.

It’s really quite remarkable, in fact, that such a good book could be so easily forgotten. In a short review on Amazon, record producer Russ Titelman wrote, “As far as I’m concerned, it is one of the great unsung American masterpieces on a par with A Death in the Family and So Long, See You Tomorrow. It is spare, poetic and honest.” In the Independent piece, Clive Sinclair called it “better than any other book on the subject of men, horses and death, except Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry.” And in his introduction to the 1972 Harrow Books paperback reissue, Wirt Williams wrote that it “may be the greatest ‘western’ ever written”:

Why? Well, certainly, it offers so many of those elements indispensable to the form as popular fiction: a supergunfighter as hero, a powerful story, a colorful background, great authenticity of detail. But Hendry Jones has more than these and is much greater than their sum. It is, quite simply, a first-rate work of literature.

Neider started out with the intent of writing a fictional account of the life of Billy the Kid, and his title pays tribute to Sheriff Pat Garrett’s own book, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. But despite a long visit to New Mexico, during which he tracked down and interviewed a few of the surviving witnesses from Billy’s time, Neider was stuck until he decided to shift the setting to the central California coast and Baja Mexico, and cut any strong ties to the historical Billy.

Williams argues that what distinguishes the novel is “its mythic quality.” Neider certainly made a deliberate choice to make the story somewhat timeless. His hero has no name other than “the Kid.” His narrator, “Doc” Baker, a former member of the Kid’s gang, does say that his account is set “in that summer of 1883,” but he refuses to offer any biographical information:

Some people had told me I ought to tell about the Kid’s early life, who was his mother who his father, where he went to school, how he killed his first man, how he got to be so good with the gun, the great fighters he met and knew, the women he had, the men he killed, the way he cleaned out the faro bank in the Angels that time. But I see no point in going into all that.

But I have to differ with Williams. I think it’s the book’s specificity that makes it great. Every page shines with prose that’s clean, precise and poetic:

It was good to sit in that town after the hills and Punta, to sit in a plaza and listen. Cries on the bay; bark of a dog; rattle of carts’ clopping of hooves; voices laughing and shouting. It made us wonder how it would be to live in a place like that, with all the houses and faces and business and all the smells–grapes being pressed, eucalyptus trees, pine smoke, roses, meat curing, cheese drying, and the perfume you caught as you passed a lady on the street.

The book is told entirely in “Doc” Baker’s voice, and much of the reason the book works so well is due to Neider’s success in finding just the right tone, a combination of dry, matter-of-fact, life-hardened realism, a casual familiarity with violence, and a subtle touch of the poetic–enough to be effectively atmospheric, not so much as to become intrusive.

In fact, re-reading the novel recently, I suddenly realized why this prose seemed so familiar. Compare these two passages:

Jackson fired. He simply passed his left hand over the top of the revolver he was holding in a gesture brief as a flintspark and tripped the hammer. The big pistol jumped and a double handful of Owen’s brains went out the back of his skill and plopped in the floor behind him. He sank without a sound and lay crumpled up with his face in the floor and one eye open and the blood welling up out of the destruction at the back of his head. Jackson sat down. Brown rose and retrieved his pistol and let the hammer back down and put it in his belt. Most terrible nigger I ever seen, he said. Find some plates, Charlie.


It was at this point that Shotgun Smith fired a barrel into Modesto’s head. The boy dropped and Curly Bill dismounted and kicked his face with the high heel of his boot. Cal dismounted too, got a large rock and laid it under Modesto’s head for a pillow. Then Curly Bill, spotting Modesto’s piebald in the corral, roped her, led her close to the boy and shot her in the head. When she lay dead, steaming, the urine running out of her and the blood staining the ground, he got Modesto’s hat, which had fallen near the body, and put it under the mare’s head.

“You go and tell the Kid about this,” said Curly Bill to Modesto’s boss. “Tell him this is what he’s going to get too.”

The first is from Blood Meridian, the second from Hendry Jones. I don’t think I’m entirely off the mark in noting an awful lot of similarity between Cormac McCarthy’s Western voice and Charles Neider’s. Which is another reason why it’s hard to understand why The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones has fallen into neglect.


Finally, there is the reason why the book is most often mentioned these days–namely, that it was the inspiration for Marlon Brando’s one and only credit as a director, the 1961 film, One-Eyed Jacks. As you can read in more detail in the Wikipedia article, the screenplay took a tortuous path from source to screen and, other than being shot on the California coast and retaining some of the characters’ names, the film bares little resemblance to Neider’s book. If you wish to see it, though, there are several copies of the film available on YouTube.


There have been several reissues since the book was first published by Harper in 1956. It was released as Crest paperback (1960) aimed squarely at traditional readers of Westerns. In 1972, it was issued in the U. S. as a Harrow Books paperback and in the U.K. by Pan Books. Finally, University of Nevada Press issued it in 1993 as part of its “Western Literature Classic.”

Given that Cormac McCarthy’s books are the closest thing to the gold standard when it comes to best-selling serious fiction these days, I can only hope that some bright editor catches a clue and ushers a new release of The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones into print. Maybe even with an introduction by McCarthy … although that may be coming too close to home.

The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, by Charles Neider
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956

A Sample of Lost Sixties Fiction

In its 1981 tribute to R. V. Cassill, whose pulp fiction I’ve covered over the last year, December magazine included an extensive bibliography of Cassill’s works. I was intrigued by the list of titles reviewed by Cassill, primarily for the New York Times and Book World, between 1961 and 1974, as it provides a wide survey of the fiction of that time. There are now-well-established titles such as William Gass’s Omensetter’s Luck, Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City, and Donald Barthelme’s Come Back, Dr. Caligari, along with others from Kingsley Amis, Gore Vidal, Iris Murdoch, and Thomas Berger.

But there are also a fair number of books that have since been swepted under the rug and forgotten, and I wanted to take a few minutes to mention some of these, in hopes that one or more will catch the interest of a by-passer and be rediscovered.

A Married Man, by Benjamin DeMott

DeMott was best known during his lifetime as a cultural critic and prolific book-reviewer, but this, his second novel, was well-received when it came out. Writing in Saturday Review, James McConkey saw it as proof of the value of fiction in a time when its purpose was widely being questioned: “In A Married Man, DeMott takes as a fictional premise all the arguments that have been raised to prove that the novel as a genre has lost its relevance. Accepting that there may be no such thing as a clear human identity, he agrees with the view that human relationships are likely to be without point. The author raises no argument against the banality of middle-class activities, and emphasizes the degree to which words themselves can become but a series of cliches established by a person as protection against communication with self or another. He creates a character who is haunted by all the contemporary threats to human meaning, puts him into the most stereo-typed situation possible–and proceeds to demonstrate that his dilemma is the stuff of fiction.”

Racers to the Sun and Us He Devours, by James B. Hall

Somewhat like Cassill, James B. Hall’s influence was perhaps greater as a teacher than a writer himself. Ken Kesey once said that a comment by Hall about single line in a Hemingway short story, “unlocked for me the door to the resounding hall of real literature.” Us He Devours, a collection of short stories, was kept in print for decades by the New Directions press. Racers was Hall’s first novel, about a day in the life of a motorcycle mechanic and racer. The late D. G. Myers mentioned it earlier this year in his A Commonplace Blog, in words that speak to my heart: “Will … Racers to the Sun repay your time, or only waste it? Are you willing to accept the risk of recommending either of them to a friend? If you take seriously the adventure of reading you must involve yourself, sooner or later, in the romance of certain old books.” Amen.

Negatives, by Peter Everett

Written in the space of three weeks, Negatives received enthusiastic reviews in the U. K. and won Everett the 1965 Somerset Maugham Award. Depending upon your viewpoint, the book, which told about a couple whose peculiar fetish is to re-enact Dr. Crippen’s murder of his wife, was either black comedy or just plain gruesome. U. S. reviewers tended to the latter. Writing in Saturday Review (and obviously enjoying himself), Nicholas Samstag described Everett’s technique: “Mix in plenty of sex and squalor, and stir sluggishly. Then simmer in a prose thickly manured with unwashed old clothing from a sort of London Thrift Shop. Drench with whiskey, sprinkle heavily with vomit, and serve.” The novel was made into a film, directed by Peter Medak, which you can watch online on YouTube.

The Three Suitors, by Richard Jones

Originally published in the U. K. under the title, The Age of Wonder, The Three Suitors was the first of four novels published by Jones over the space of about ten years. As Jane Barnes wrote in a 1982 Virginia Quarterly Review article, “There is not enough sense in the rise and fall of commercial reputations to dwell on Jones” lack of reception. Suffice it to say, he has had a lot of bad luck, culminating in the publication of his most recent book, Living in the 25th Hour, during the 1978 newspaper strike in New York City. If there is no real way to account for the success of some authors and the frustration of others, there is still a special poignancy in the absence of a properly intelligent response to Jones” work.”

John Wain wrote of The Three Suitors in The New York Review of Books,

Mr. Jones writes out of a sense of the richness and variety of human beings and their history, and since this involves him in seeing every character and every incident in their full perspective, it would be difficult to say in one phrase what his book is “about.” In one sense, it is about Wales; in another, it is about old age; in another, about the nature of family life; in another, about the impact of the modern world with its formless emptiness on the last remains of a more ordered existence. But to say that it was “about” any one of these things, or all of them, would be to put too cramping a limit on one’s pleasure in the book’s vitality.

Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, calling it, “a novel with presence, and a perfect collaboration between sympathy and intelligence.” Ironically, it may have been just such restraint that caused Jones’ work to be underappreciated when published and largely forgotten ever since. Jones himself, according to his Guardian obituary, was devastated by the death of his 12 year-old daughter in a road accident, and “came to see fiction writing as an irrelevance.”

Time Out, by David Ely

This is a collection of short stories, mostly on macabre themes, by a writer best known for his 1963 novel, Seconds, which was filmed by John Frankenheimer in 1966 and featured Rock Hudson’s best performance. Ely’s fiction deserves a serious re-look, as it’s very much about taking various aspects of conventional life in the 1960s and twisting it to a revealing extreme.

Farragan’s Retreat, by Tom McHale

When his first novel, Principato came out in 1971, followed within months by Farragan’s Retreat, Tom McHale became the hottest new name in American fiction. “Tom McHale has so much going for him it’s scary,” began a review in Life magazine; “McHale writes as if born to the craft.” Farragan’s Retreat was nominated for a National Book Award and for years thereafter, you saw the Bantam paperback editions of Principato and Farragan’s Retreat in every bookstore. Farragan’s Retreat, in particular, was a timely work, telling the story of a conservative Catholic so enraged with his son’s draft dodging that he undertakes to have him assassinated. McHale went on to write four more novels, earning a Guggenheim fellowship for Alinsky’s Diamond (1974), but, that first blast of critical acclaim faded and with it, so, apparently, did the notion that his work was something of lasting value. When McHale took his own life in 1982, the event received scarce notice. A few sites here and there pay tribute to his work, and one can safely argue that time has come for a serious reconsideration.

When the War is Over, by Stephen Becker

This, the sixth of Becker’s eleven novels, relates a small episode, just days after the surrender at Appomattox, in which a group of Northern soldiers execute a young Kentuckian who might or might not have been an actual member of a Confederate raiding party. Subtle, measured and nuanced in its perspectives, it “demonstrates beautifully,” in the words of the Saturday Review, “demonstrates just what the business of fiction is all about.” David Madden later told a reporter from the Orlando Sentinel, “I agree with George Garrett (novelist and critic) and many others that When the War is Over deserves its underground reputation as a distinctive, original Civil War novel.” All the same, it’s been out of print since 1970, and hardly anyone mentions Becker’s name as one of the better American writers of the sixties.

If you’re interested in other recommendations of lost Sixties fiction, I recommend taking time to read D. G. Myers’ post on “Fiction of the ‘sixties,”, which will quickly give you at least a dozen other titles to locate.

The Glory is Departed (The Standard), by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1936)

I became interested in The Glory is Departed after finding it on the Modern Novel site (which you must go lose yourself in, if you haven’t yet). I read Count Luna, a later novel by Lernet-Holenia, last year and found it a brilliant black comedy, as grim and funny as Kafka’s best. And when I discovered that there are literally no copies of the English translation of Die Standarte available for sale on the Internet, interest turned to obsession. Fortunately, I was able to borrow a copy through the University of California Library system and enjoyed reading it on my trip back from the U. S. last week.


The glory that departs in this book is that of the Hapsburg dynasty and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Drawing upon Lernet-Holenia’s own experiences as a dragoon (a member of a light cavalry regiment) in the Austro-Hungarian Army, the story tells both of the collapse of the empire as a whole and one young man’s reactions to the end of the world he has always known. Most of the book is related in flashback, as Herbert Menis, a well-off married man in Vienna, tries to explain to a fellow veteran his outlook on the war and its aftermath.

Wounded on the Eastern front, Menis spends much of the war in rehabilitation, comfortable and safe from harm. But in October 1918, he is sent to Belgrade, Serbia, to serve at a headquarters there. On his first night, however, he becomes enraptured with a beautiful young woman accompanying the Archduchess, and his attempt to make her acquaintance ends up getting his orders changed to duty with a dragoon regiment near the front.

Although the signs of collapse grow more obvious with each day, Menis is too smitten to notice them, and we spend nearly half the book racing back and forth between his camp and Belgrade as he tries nightly to catch an hour with his beloved. Soon, however, the English and French forces begin pushing the Austrians back to Belgrade, and the awkward coalition of Poles, Ruthenians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Hungarians and other ethnic groups that formed the Austro-Hungarian Army quickly falls apart.

However much we had foreseen, we had never supposed that something so strange and incomprehensible to us, something so terrifyingly different, always kept down till now, had laid hidden beneath the exterior of these men. Now it was breaking out, as when a herd shakes off some mighty power that has till then restrained it; and though the men actually did nothing except give vent to their feelings by inarticulate yells, one felt that with these yells they and the Regiment were discarding everything that had made themselves and the Regiment what they were–that is to say, a mighty, significant, powerful engine, an organism charged with a historic mission, an instrument of world policy. It was as though the helmets and the uniforms, the badges of rank and the Imperial eagles on the cockades, dropped off the men, and the horses and the saddles disappeared into thin air, leaving nothing but a couple of hundred naked Polish, Roumanian and Ruthenian peasants, who were sick of helping to bear the burden of responsibility for the destiny of the world under the sceptre of the German race.

When his regiment refuses to cross a bridge into Belgrade, Menis watches in horror as his own men are shot down as mutineers, and takes up the regimental standard–the small pennant and battle ribbons carried into battles for over a hundred years. The standard becomes for him evidence of the strength and values of the Empire, even as he sees it falling apart around him. His love, Resa, struggles to understand his obsession with the standard:

“It’s of no importance. Why, people have quite forgotten what a standard is: I, for instance, have never seen one. I won’t allow you to risk your life for that. I tell you I love you: don’t you understand? I love you! You can’t go off and get yourself killed, because I should die too if something happened to you. You can’t give me up for a little piece of silk that has ceased to have any significance of purpose and no longer means anything to anybody.”

“It means everything to me,” I said quietly.

Menis smuggles the standard with him as he, Resa, and a few survivors manage to escape the English and work their way back to Vienna. There, he attempts to return the standard to the last Emperor, Karl I, but finds the Emperor and a small party rushing to leave the Schönbrunn Palace for a new life in exile. He sees some men tossing other battle flags into a fire, to prevent them from falling into the victors’ hands, and, finally, throws in his standard, too. He leaves with Resa, resigned to his own new life.

Among German readers, The Glory is Departed (published in England as The Standard) is considered on a par with the other great classic of the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. In his memoirs, Anthony Powell wrote that Lernet-Holenia was a writer on a level equal to that of his now-better-known countryman and contemporary, Robert Musil. He described The Glory is Departed as “a genre of novel of which I can recall no precise equivalent in British writing: romantic; realistic; satirical; moving.”


Although The Standard is in print in German, Spanish, Italian and French, and perhaps other languages as well, it’s been out of print in English for almost 80 years. Lernet-Holenia’s 1941 novel, Mars in Aries, was released by the Ariadne Press in 2003 as part of their Austrian literature series (which includes works by Stefan Zweig, Leo Perutz, Odon von Horvath, Hemito von Doderer, Arthur Schnitzler and other fine writers), and Pushkin Press released his thriller of mistaken identities, I Was Jack Mortimer, in 2013. However, two other volumes released by the Eridanos Library in 1989, The Resurrection of Maltravers and Baron Bagge/Count Luna (two novellas) are out of print, although used copies are still available.

I have to agree with the writer of the Modern Novel website, though, who called The Glory is Departed a good read but not a great book. While the narrative gallops along through 300 pages, the protagonist often seems more clueless than passionate. He has a gorgeous young woman madly in love with him and ready to risk life and limb for his sake, and yet his primary concern is for a scrap of fabric, even though he had spent most of his war as a complacent slacker far back from the front. However, if you manage to locate a copy yourself, like me you will probably find yourself closing the book before you’ve had the chance to think about that.

The Glory is Departed, translated by Alan Harris from the original Die Standarte by Alexander Lernet-Holenia
New York and London: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1936

My Sister’s Keeper, by R. V. Cassill (1960)

Cover of 'My Sister's Keeper' by R. V. Cassill
Winding down my tour through novelist R. V. Cassill’s decade-long excursion into pulp fiction, I come now to the hot mess of psychological confusion that is My Sister’s Keeper (1960).

The title offers us the unsubtle suggestion that the book’s subject is incest, but as has been the case in the rest of his pulp novels, Cassill prefers to take sex on a tangent rather than head-on. Yes, young Joe Haver is more than slightly obsessed with his sister, Corlis, but he’s less interested in having her than in keeping anyone else from doing it. Which is why the most intense scene in the book is closer to sadism than sex. This, of course, didn’t prevent Avon Books from excerpting just enough of this scene on the front endpaper to lead would-be buyers to think the opposite.

In poor Joe–nineteen going on infantile–Cassill crams a baker’s dozen disorders. His mother’s dead, his father’s a useless lecher living off a grand inheritance, his father’s alcoholic mistress spends most nights sacked up with dad just down the hall from Joe, he spent a requisite number of miserable years in expensive boarding schools, and, as the story opens, has taken up stalking and breaking-and-entering as a hobby. Still a virgin, he’s reached the point of dysfunction where his approach to chatting up a girl is to put her in terror of rape or murder or both.

The one bright spot in his life is his 15-year-old sister, Corlis, just returned from a year’s study in Europe. For Joe, Corlis is the last bastion of innocence in his world, and he’s ready to do anything to anyone–including Corlis–to keep it that way. For her part, Corlis appears to have run much the same gauntlet as Joe with nary a mark–aside from a few from Joe’s belt.

Life would be challenging enough for Joe, but Cassill decides to spice things up by tossing in Dr. A. T. Steele, a “lay analyst” and Mephistopheles stand-in. In a history that Cassill leaves suitably muddy, Steele has been a Hollywood actor, playboy aviator, private eye, and all-around man of mystery. Or, as Goodreads reviewer, Karla, puts it much better than I could have, “a parasitic mind-fucker who leeches off the largesse and warped privileged psyches of his rich marks.” I’ve noted before that Cassill seems to have used his pulp fiction to experiment with different techniques and subjects, and I strongly suspect that Dr. Steele was the prototype of the title character of Doctor Cobb’s Game (1970), his “serious” novel based on the Profumo affair.

The result is easily the most interesting, if not the most artistically, of all Cassill’s pulp novels. While his aspiration might have been to weave a complex psychological drama, his final product is more rat’s nest than tapestry. If Cassill had been a chef, this is one dish he certainly would have been accused of overthinking. At the same time, there are plenty of choice bits in this potpourri, and it’s a shame that there appear to be, according to, no more than two or three copies available for sale at the moment.

My Sister’s Keeper, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Books, 1960

The Old Indispensables: a Romance of Whitehall, by Edward Shanks

oldindispensablesI’ve been saving this one up for a rainy day. So, as I watch the grey drizzle blanketing our neighborhood, I have to share one of my favorite discoveries of the last few years: The Old Indispensables–not a romance, but a wonderful comedy of bureaucracy raised to the nth power.

Set in the Circumvention Branch of the Circumlocution Office, The Old Indispensables is a farce in which no one–not the reader and certainly not any of the characters–quite knows what’s going on. Working in dogged earnest in commandeered hotel rooms sometime toward the end of the first year of the World War One, the staff of the Circumvention Branch–a mix of veterans of the civil service wars, well-meaning but clueless young men down from university, and bright-eyed young women continually being sent off with great stacks of papers–labors away on a constant flow of requests of uncertain intent.

All they ever seem to do with these requests is to allow them to age in their in-baskets for a few days, after which they scribble down a brief note and send the package off to another part of the vast machine of the wartime government. And there is such a variety of offices to choose from: Derogation of Crown Appanages Office; the Controller of Tombstones; the Director of Delays and Evasions; the Divagation Commission; the Board of Interference.

The primary focus of the Branch’s civil servants is on advancement of their own careers–as long as it involves the minimal amount of effort. Mr Evans, for example, somewhat self-conscious of having taken his degree from the little-known University of Llangollen, constantly mulls over his chances:

His bath that morning had been disagreeably chilly; and, as he had stepped into it, he had reflected that he was nearly thirty-four and that he would be due for compulsory retirement at the age of sixty. This gave him only twenty-six years in which to reach the summit of his desires and he fancied that he had lost ground rather during the last three weeks. All through the day dark thoughts filled his mind and oppressed him with sinister suggestions. Perhaps he would never be Permanent Under-Secretary, never a K.C.B., perhaps not even a C.B.; and when his good angel whispered to him that the C.M.G. and the I.S.O. still existed, the mocking demons of melancholy arose and extinguished even this gleam of hope.

Meanwhile, the senior bureaucrats battles with rival departments to gain ever-larger numbers of staff–and then to evade the dreaded Towle Committee, which is busily rooting out examples of over-staffing in the government.

A junior member of the Branch, sent off with the vague instruction to “get some facts,” learns that another distant branch of the bureaucracy, the Manx Office, has managed to ensure its existence by disappearing almost entirely:

Here were no machine-guns in sight, no detachments of troops. There were not even any plain-clothes men loitering purposefully about, for, when the grocer had completed his mission by mbarking the empties, and had driven rapidly away, the street was quite empty. Cyril proceeded down it, looking for a brass plate; and at length on the railings outside a small and respectable house, in no other way distinguished from the rest, he saw a brass plate plainly inscribed with the words, “Manx Office.” He paused a moment, finding the appearance of the closed door a trifle unfamiliar in a Government department. At last he went up the steps and pushed at the door. It was locked; and another brass plate requested the visitor not to ring unless he required an answer.

Cyril therefore rang and waited. After several minutes, feeling his desire for an answer still undiminished, he rang again. A prodigious interval went by; and then he heard an uncertain shuffle of feet approaching the door from the inside. There followed the sound of bolts being pushed back and chains undone, mixed with the heavy groans of a lethargic person stirred to uncongenial activity. At last the door fell open and Cyril beheld an elderly man in shirt-sleeves, with no collar, who stood rubbing his eyes and blinking, presumably at the unaccustomed light.

“Is Mr. Choop in?” Cyril asked politely.

“Mr. Choop?” the porter repeated. “Mr. Choop? Is ‘e in? I’ll go and see. Just you wait there.” Cyril advanced into the semi-darkness of the hall and waited, while the porter lumbered into the complete darkness of the stairs and was lost to sight, though not to hearing. After several minutes he returned and said in a dull voice:

“Yes, Mr. Choop, ‘e’s in.” After this he seemed to expect that Cyril would go away.

He does finally get escorted up to the dark alcove from which Mr. Choop presides, and is warmly welcomed. After offering a cigarette and going into great detail about the many fine points of his new lighter, Mr. Choop then rises, saying, “Well, I’m sorry you must go,” and sends the young man off without disclosing a single fact about the Manx Office or its purpose.

In the end, the Circumvention Branch manages to earn a favorable report from the Towle Committee and various staff members earn various sorts of honors. The Armistice is signed–although whether with or without the contributions of the Branch remains a mystery.

For anyone who’s a fan of Yes, Minister, I heartily recommend taking a look at The Old Indispensables

Edward Shanks served on the Western Front until wounded in 1915 and went on to write over a dozen books of poetry and fiction, including the dystopian SF novel, The People of the Ruins. He received the very first Hawthornden Prize in 1919 for his book, The Queen of China and Other Poems.

The Old Indispensables is available online at the Internet Archive (link).

The Old Indispensables: a Romance of Whitehall, by Edward Shanks
London: Martin Secker, 1919

Complete Cheerful Cherub, by Rebecca McCann (1932)

cheerfulcherubThe first time I saw a copy of a Cheerful Cherub book was in an enormous antique mall that seemed to have swallowed my wife, leaving me to seek some meager distraction in the tiny handful of books that could be found there. As hours dragged on and I found myself beginning to think, “Hmm … Taylor Caldwell. Maybe I should try one of hers,” I finally picked up what I had taken to be the world’s oldest and fattest “Love Is” book.

My mistake was understandable. There is a certain similarity between the cartoon style of Kim Casali (creator of “Love Is …”) and Rebecca McCann (creator of the Cheerful Cherub). Both feature nude but genital-free homonculi with infantile bodies but engaging in adult activities. Both refine cuteness to near-lethal intensity. Casali always shows a male and a female character (we can tell only by the hair and eyelashes). McCann always showed an infant neither male nor female and an adoring little puppy.

If you were me, you’d probably have stopped reading already.

But stay with me, people.

Because as I took more time to read through that Cheerful Cherub book, I began to realize that Rebecca McCann’s little cartoons operated on a level of sophistication and yes, even wisdom, far beyond that of the “Love Is …” pieces.


Take “Masks” (above). “And yet sometimes I see/A prisoner behind their eyes.” That’s not “Love Is …” or “Family Circle”–that’s the existential attitude in four lines of iambic pentameter. Or “Innocence,” which could easily be read as a damning commentary on the detachment with which we view events going on in the world around us. “Oh, the dreadful business in Gaza. Well, nothing to do with me.”

Rebecca McCann began publishing Cheerful Cherub cartoons in the Chicago Evening Post around 1917, when she was just twenty, after editor Julian Mason took an interest in the little drawings and verses that dropped out of McCann’s portfolio as she tried to show him more serious work. The feature was soon picked up for syndication, and at its peak appeared in over 100 papers around the United States.

McCann also continued to work as an illustrator for magazine stories and wrote a childrens’ book, About Annabel (1922), about the fantastic adventures of a little girl–a slightly milder version of Windsor McCay’s “Little Nemo.” The first collection of Cheerful Cherub cartoons was published by Covici-McGee in 1923, and a second in 1927.


Meanwhile, McCann’s personal life was a series of disasters. She moved to New York City in late 1917, where she met, fell in love with and married Harold “Jimmie” Watson, an Army pilot, five days before he shipped out to France. Although he made it through the war, he died in an accident not long after. On the rebound, she married another officer, this time in the Naval Medical Corps, but the marriage soon ran into problems and the couple divorced. Around 1924, she met the novelist Harvey Fergusson (whose 1923 novel, Capitol Hill, was featured here back in 2006).
Fergusson was married at the time, but the two felt enough of a connection that Fergusson eventually divorced his wife and married McCann. Fergusson was working on perhaps his best-known book, Wolf Song (1927), and the couple spent happy weeks in the mountains outside Salt Lake City.

In December of 1927, Fergusson drove down to Albuquerque, where they planned to spend Christmas with his parents, while McCann took a quick shopping trip out to San Francisco. Never having a robust constitution, the trip and the winter weather brought on a cold. A few days after arriving in Albuquerque, it developed into pneumonia and McCann died soon after. She was just 32. Fergusson had her body cremated and scattered her ashes along the shore of Lake Michigan near Chicago.

Covici-Friede collected 1,001 Cheerful Cherub cartoons, along with a short memoir by McCann’s friend, Mary Graham Bonner, in Complete Cheerful Cherub, which was published in 1932. The book was a perennial favorite and was reprinted sixteen times between 1932 and 1945. They also posthumously published a collection of McCann’s poems, Bitter Sweet: Poems, in 1929.

“I’m not trying to reform the world or to make every one smile,” she once told Bonner. “I’m trying to make my little verses human; sometimes they’re sarcastic, sometimes they’re ‘flip.’ They’re cynical, too, and I like to make them about all subjects–including the frailties of the readers….” And of the author, too, as one quickly sees.


Complete Cheerful Cherub, by Rebecca McCann
New York: Covici-Friede Publishers, 1932

Night School, by R. V. Cassill (1961)

Cover of Dell original paperback edition of 'Night School'On the downhill slope of my scenic tour of the pulp fiction of novelist and short-story writer, R. V. Cassill, a tour begun back in March with his tale of wife-swapping in small town Iowa, The Wound of Love. Published in 1961, Night School was his next to last paperback original, with only Nurses’ Quarters (1962) to follow.

As with all his pulp novels, Night School draws upon Cassill’s own experiences. Cassill was one of the first to plant himself firmly in academia and teach writing while continuing to write and publish, and among his early gigs in the mid-1950s was a stint teaching an evening class at the New School of Social Research.

I’ve speculated before that Cassill used his pulp novels to experiment with various techniques and topics while weaving in enough sex and violence to satisfy his editors’ demands. If this was in fact the case, then the experiment in Night School was just the sort of thing one might expect as a night school writing class assignment: tell a story through the viewpoints of multiple characters.

It’s one of the oldest situations in the books, dating back to The Decameron and beyond. And in the case of Night School, it gave Cassill to explore the different sexual attitudes and experiences of the students in his class–as well as of its instructor.

Houston Parker, Cassill’s night school teacher, is a divorced writer with one critically successful novel and many years of writer’s block behind him. For him, the class is a turning point–the bottom from which he will rebound or the trap door to even greater failure. The class is equally a turning point for a number of its students, but their dilemmas have more to do about love than literature. One student is a shark, trolling his way through half the women in the class. Another is an ingenue trying to decide whether to become an adventuress or settle for married monogamy and the stifle fantasies of her mother. And two of them, middle-aged, with complicated lives behind them, find a happiness worth risking all the security they have.

All this confirms Parker’s suspicion “that some of these ladies and gentlemen were looking for more than instruction in writing fiction.” And the fact that it’s a night school class means that most of the students have been working and living on their own for some time. So when some of the students get together for a drink after class, it’s usually in one of their apartments, and the conversation tends to be a fix of war stories and regrets for past mistakes. Most of these people–including Parker himself–know they won’t be the great successes they once aspired to be, but haven’t given up on trying to achieve or create something.

The sex–what there is of it–in Night School is more often about what doesn’t happen. One quiet, otherwise pleasant, man is celibate because, as he reveals to everyone’s discomfort during one of the after-class session, he views most of humankind with just rabid hatred that he could never be attracted to another person. After the shark doesn’t sleep with one of the women, she turns into a vengeful demon who threatens to castrate him.

And so, despite what the editors at Dell paperbacks might have been hoping, Night School turns out to be more about life choices and consequences than sex–which is why it’s also one of the more interesting and satisfying of Cassill’s pulps. Admittedly, his protagonist is just as uninteresting as 95% of writers in fiction. (There seem to be only two models: the out-of-control wild man (ala Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan or Cassill’s Clem Anderson); and the angst-written clod. Cassill’s Houston Parker is one of the clods.) But Cassill did manage to create some convincingly grown-up characters among Parker’s students, and for that alone the book rates better than the average Cassill pulp.

Night School, by R. V. Cassill
New York City: Dell Publishing Inc., 1961


The Pork Butcher, by David Hughes (1984)

Cover of first U. K. edition of 'The Pork Butcher'The Pork Butcher is a book one can easily admire, but it’s hard to imagine anyone liking it. In this slender novel–barely 120 pages–Hughes pulls off a feat similar to that of Nabokov in Lolita–that is, allowing us to see the world through the eyes of a man who’s guilty of horrible things while neither repulsing us nor gaining our unguarded sympathy.

In Hughes case, the crime is both a war crime and a crime of love. Ernst Kestner, now a butcher in Lubeck, recently widowed and even more recently diagnosed with lung cancer, decides to head to France to confront memories he has tried to suppress for years. As a soldier in the Wermacht serving in France in 1944, he took part in the massacre of the entire population of a town, an incident based on the destruction of Oradour-sur-Glane. Among the town’s residents was a woman with whom Kestner was in love and was conducting an affair. The orders to attack the town comes, in fact, on the very day he was planning to desert and attempt to run away with her to neutral territory.

Hughes never identifies Ernst’s precise motivation for following these orders–fear, loyalty, hatred or simply the habit of obedience, and Ernst himself seems to lack the introspection to find out for himself. In fact, he appears, as one character puts it, to have “less and less ability to absorb what happened on that one day.” Even so, Ernst is certainly more nuanced in his moral reasoning than Major Kane, the protagonist of Hughes’ other portrait of evil, The Major. While he may never come to grips with his reason for doing what he did, he never pretends it was anything but wrong.

The Pork Butcher was easily Hughes’ most successful novel, both critically and commercially. It won the Welsh Arts Council fiction prize in 1984 and the W. H. Smith literary award in the following year. Hughes sold the film rights for the book, and the movie version, Souvenir, starring Christopher Plummer, was released in 1989. Hughes’ own verdict on the movie? “Terrible, just terrible.”

British critics were lavish in their praise–and still are. In The Guardian’s obituary, Giles Gordon called it one of “the novels that define our time and are metaphors for it.” U. S. reviewers were less enthusiastic. Kirkus Reviews wrote that it suffered from “talkiness throughout and an awkward bunching-up of developments in the busy yet ineffectual final pages.” Personally, I would put the book somewhere between the two extremes. I found its strongest points not related to the moral issues but Hughes’ ability to capture the sensual–sights, sounds, smells, feels–in a few choice, precisely drawn strokes. His description of a picnic of sausages, cheese and bread beside a little brook in France will get you checking on airfares. Overall, though, I rate The Major as a stronger and more convincing work.

One thing David Hughes could never be faulted for, however, is long-windedness. I’ve got copies of two other novels–Memories of Dying (1976) and The Little Book (1996) waiting to be read, and they, along with The Major and The Pork Butcher represent fewer than 500 pages total. At that length, I’d be silly not to give more of Hughes’ work a try.

The Pork Butcher, by David Hughes
London: Constable and Company, 1984

He Feeds the Birds, by Terence Ford (1950)


I stumbled onto this book while rooting around the Internet Archive, as I like to do from time to time, in search of interesting titles somewhere in the region between what’s in print and what’s been out there long enough to enter the public domain. He Feeds the Birds is one of those texts you can find in the Archive–but only for borrowing in Adobe Digital Edition format, which means for reading on a computer, which I can’t stand. (I don’t mind using a Kindle or Nook, but still prefer real books.)

So I went off to find a used copy, and quickly discovered this novel’s odd publication history. It was first published by the Dial Press, in hardback, in 1950. Then, two years later, Avon Books brought it out in paperback but decided for some reason (OK, the reason was to grab attention and sales) to change the title to The Drunk, the Damned and the Bedevilled. Seven years after that, Berkeley Medallion Books brought it out as a cheap paperback for a second time, only with yet another title: Easy Living. All three publishers learned that a dud by any other name is still a dud.

Well, like Billy Mumphrey, I’m a cock-eyed optimist–at least when it comes to looking for diamonds in the rough and dusty shelves, and I was determined to find out what got three different publishers to give this novel a shot, and ordered the cheapest copy I could find, which turned out to be a near-mint copy of The Drunk, the Damned and the Bedevilled. I’m easily awed when I find in excellent condition something that should be even more beat-up than me, and so I carefully opened its cover and began reading with some respect, not to say reverence.

It wasn’t the most promising beginning, I have to admit. The book opens with a fight between Rex Lannin and his wife, Betty, both in their cups, then introduces us to several other men and women of their acquaintance. The main thing that seems to bring them together is booze, time on their hands, and enough money to buy one to kill the other. Ford does make a point to specify that the story is set in the summer of 1939, but events in Europe affect their lives about as much as a termite infestion in a house on the other side of town. “A hell of a summer,” Rex grumbles a few weeks after Betty moves out on him:

Hot days, drunken nights and a crummy furnished room and Hitler in the headlines and in the back-buzz of barrooms and Hitler on the radio in the furnished room without Betty where getting drunk was the easiest thing to do and Hitler and Smigly-Ridz and Danzig and no Betty and Smigly-Ridz, Smigly-Ridz, Smigly Ridz. . . .

Gradually, though, Ford seems to gain confidence in himself and his story. Instead of just swirling around in some boozy imitation of a dance, his characters start to take directions. Some start heading on, some head out, and at least one, an heir to a small fortune starts spiraling down into self-destruction after the last of his money runs out:

Here was another day. Another day of living in the streets aglare with the hot sun and its cruel revealing light. Another day of walking without destination. Up one block, down another. Turn west for three blocks. Down four blocks. Across to the park. Now ten blocks north. Or ten blocks south. Across and up and down and across. No place to go. Public libraries. Toilets. Park benches. Streets. And always the ache of hunger chiseling inside him, driving him on and through the empty, timeless hours.

Rex, on the other hand, spends his time bar-hopping, moping around his little apartment, and pretending to write a play with one of his friends. A little monthly allowance from his mother is enough to keep his going and enough to keep him from wanting to make any great changes. He suggests that he could blame his stagnation “on the fact that I’m one of the half-generation that was a half-step behind the Lost Generation. Call it the Unclaimed Generation.”

The whole cast of characters appear to be unclaimed–unclaimed, that is, but any force or motivation strong enough or persuasive enough to ally with. Communism, fascism and capitalism are all equally unconvincing, at least compared to another round. Even love seems a dead-end street for most of them. But Rex is at least honest enough to admit that his problem is simple laziness: “Right now, I’m the laziest guy, pound for pound, in the world,” he jokes.

The book ends in early 1940, with war going on in Europe, newspapers speculating about Roosevelt running for a third term, and most of the characters having been forced to take some decision or action. One man attempts suicide. A woman who spends most of the book bouncing between lovers decides her salvation lies in staying with the husband she already has and having a baby. Rex, having been signed off on the divorce papers and sent them back to Reno, leaves New York to try writing away from his old haunts and drinking buddies. And one Joe Gould-like carries on as a bum and self-proclaimed poet.

Whether the reader or the characters really learns anything in the course of the story seems beside the point. Whatever reason Ford had for writing the book, it clearly wasn’t to deliver a moral lesson. He Feeds the Birds takes its title from a religious tract: “Live close to God, your faith renew, he feeds the birds and he’ll feed you” (which, in turn, comes from Matthew 6:26). Ford’s God takes care of some, seems to abandon others, has no effect at all on others.

My guess is that Ford wrote the book for no other reason that to try his hand at it. About a third of the way into it, he started to stretch out and give into his lyrical impulses, and my own assessment is that he was pretty successful at it. As an evocation of a particular time and place–America while it was standing outside the war in Europe–it’s far less successful than John P. Marquand’s So Little Time. But there are some great descriptions like the one above or another about waking up drunk and self-disgusted or a third about passing spots known in better days (“I wish I was as successful as I thought I was at twenty”). And he manages a multi-player cast in a multi-threaded story without getting either tangled up or lost. I think he rates a solid B and some extra marks for some of the passage. Not a diamond in the rough, but hardly a paste gem, either.

Terence Ford was in his early forties and working as a public relations man when he wrote the book. Before that, he had quite a varied resume:

I worked on a couple of newspapers, was an actor, an oiler on coastwise ships, a barker on Broadway for baseball batting cage, the manager of a Park Avenue antique shop, the maitre d’hotel of a 3rd Avenue bakery lunchroom, a barrel jockey in a shellac factory, the ultimate assistant editor of a trade journal, a barely perceptible contributor of satirical pieces to The Bookman and Vanity Fair. . . .

He Feeds the Birds was his first and only novel. He stuck with the PR business until he died of a heart attack in late 1958 at the age of 52.

He Feeds the Birds, by Terence Ford
New York: The Dial Press, 1950

also published as The Drunk, the Damned and the Bevilled
New York: Avon Books, 1952

also published as Easy Living
New York: Berkeley Medallion, 1959

It Was Like This, by Anne Goodwin Winslow (1949)

Cover of first US edition of 'It Was Like This'

Anne Goodwin Winslow’s subtle and fine novel, It Was Like This (1949), offers a remarkable contrast with another book I discussed recently, John T. McIntyre’s 1937 union novel, Ferment. At the core, both books share the same dilemma: two brothers both in love with the same woman. And, ironically, both Winslow’s and McIntyre’s woman is an orphan who was raised in the same household as the brothers.

That’s where the similarity ends, however. Where McIntyre slugs his way through his story with page after page of talk, one gets the sense that Winslow spent most of her time paring away her prose, taking away inessential details, replacing the direct with the indirect, until what was left was timeless in its simplicity and perfection. Where McIntyre pushes his trio into an inevitable confrontation, in which one brother wins over the other and gets the girl, Winslow respects the intelligence of her readers and her characters enough to realize that confrontation would only insult all.

The story is set in the late 1800s along the Mississippi coast. The Martins survived Reconstruction better than most, having lucked into a profitable business of growing pecans. Quiet, serious Lawrence Martin has taken charge of the plantation while his brother Hugh–shorter, softer, more of a reader–has moved to Richmond, where he writes editorials and essays for a newspaper. Lawrence has married Anna, left with Mrs. Martin as an orphan, and now renown for her beauty, if not her personality. “A lot of things must have been left out of Anna to start with–to make room for her looks,” a neighbor speculates.

When Hugh returns for a visit, a series of minor events–the worst of them the brief appearance of a threatening vagrant–puts him in the implausible role of Anna’s protector. And closer contact and memories of his own past interest in Anna leads … well, nowhere. These are all people of moderation, even Hugh, though he aspires to be a novelist, and people of moderation often benefit or suffer–or both–from the capacity to see things from several perspectives.

“It’s an old question–does love want to give everything, or take everything? … Arguments like that are never settled because as a rule nobody is talking about the same thing,” Hugh observes at one point. Though the two realize they have a connection that may be stronger than anything Anna will ever feel with Lawrence, Hugh understands that feeling could be just as destructive as it could be fulfilling. And so he leaves. Not suddenly, not dramatically. “Decently and in order; there was no danger of everything not being kept in its place, as usual.”

Hugh leaves as quietly, as familiarly as he arrived at the start of the book, and we know he will return again and that nothing more will happen between him and Anna.

Having put such an emphasis on the subtlety of Winslow’s touch, it’s difficult to reach for hyperbole to praise It Was Like This. If this book were a painting hanging in a gallery, it’s the one you wouldn’t notice until you’d visited a few times and grown tired of the big, bold works. But when you finally did, you’d think: “Yes, this is a fine and lovely piece.” I look forward to discovering and savoring more of Anne Goodwin Winslow’s fiction.


Incidentally, It Was Like This features a binding design by the pioneering book designer, William Addison Dwiggins. Similar bright two-color designs can be found on a few other Knopf books from around the same time. I know I’ve seen them on several novels by Angela Thirkell and perhaps one of P. H. Newby’s first novels as well, but not many more. It’s a shame the practice was discontinued so soon after it started.

It Was Like This, by Anne Goodwin Winslow
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949

In the Land of Pain, by Alphonse Daudet, translated by Julian Barnes (2002)

Cover of 'In the Land of Pain'

I first learned of Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain from references to it in Julian Barnes’ Nothing to Be Frightened Of. Barnes finds one passage from Daudet so moving that he quotes it twice:

It’s all going … Darkness is gathering me into its arms.
Farewell wife, children, family, the things of my heart …
Farewell me, cherished me, now so hazy, so indistinct

In the Land of Pain is Barnes’ own translation, with extensive annotations, introduction and afterword, of La Doulou (literally, The Painful), which was published in the 1920s, nearly three decades after Daudet’s death.

The book is merely a collection of notes, written over the course of over a decade, while Daudet suffered increasing pain and debility from the ravages taken on his body and mind by syphilis in its tertiary and terminal stage–or, as the Kirkus Reviews reviewer put it, “a 19th-century account of slow death by syphilis.”

One could hardly come up with a less attractive description.

And yet, In the Land of Pain almost radiates with Daudet’s humanity and good humor. Henry James once wrote that Daudet had “an extraordinary sensibility to all the impressions of life and a faculty of language which is in perfect harmony with his wonderful fineness of perception,” and these qualities are on ample display in this slender little book–small in format and under 100 pages long.

And in Julian Barnes, his text has the perfect guide. Barnes notes the unbalanced effect of pain on its sufferer: “… you discover that your pain, while always new to you, quickly becomes repetitive and banal to your intimates….” He provides footnotes that, in themselves, are often quite moving:

Edmond de Goncourt and his brother Jules were so inseparable that in twenty-two years after the death of their mother they were only twice apart for as much as twenty-four hours; so inseparable that they wrote their joint diary in the first person. They moved to Auteuil in 1868; Jules died from tertiary syphilis in 1870. During his final decline, Edmond asked him, “Where are you, my dear chap?” and after a few moments Jules replied, “Always in space, in empty space.” After Jules’ death, Daudet became Edmond’s closest friend, literary confidant and surrogate brother–whereupon Edmond had to witness a harrowing syphilitic decline for the second time. Daudet, for his part, used to quiz Goncourt about Jules’ symptoms, comparing them with his own.

Alphonse DaudetSyphilis took its toll upon Daudet in numerous ways, from random, intense and stabbing pains he could only stay for a few hours with frequent injections of morphine–which had their own unhappy consequences, to the erosion of his spine and the loss of his ability to balance himself and, ultimately, to walk at all. And the range and barbarity of treatments Daudet underwent, as some of them most renowned doctors of his time tried vainly to alleviate his symptoms, if not to effect a cure, are described by Barnes and Daudet in harrowing terms. One learns to value even more the discovery of penicillin.

The disease also attacked Daudet’s very abilities to be a writer:

Are words actually any use to describe what pain (or passion, for that matter) really feels like? Words only come when everything is over, when things have calmed down. They refer only to memory, and are either powerless or untruthful.

His notes became a refuge where he could hide the deterioration of his very ability to hold a pen: “I find it impossible to write an address on an envelope when I know that people will read and examine it; whereas in the intimacy of a notebook I can guide my pen as I choose.”

Nonetheless, the comic aspects of his situation are never too far away:

This resort for anaemics has its funny side. No one remembers anyone’s name; brains are racked all the time; there are great holes in the conversation. It took ten of us to come up with the word “industrial.”

Edmond de Goncourt, Marcel Proust, Zola and other acquaintances all noted that as the disease put Daudet in ever greater pain and invalidity, his patience with and concern for others grew to saint-like dimensions. And one of the strongest themes throughout the book is his concern for how his illness affected his family. His greatest regrets are not for himself but for them: “I only know one thing, and that is to shout to my children, ‘Long live Life!’ But it’s so hard to do, while I am ripped apart by pain.”

Daudet stopped writing his notes about three years before his death. He died on 16 December 1897 as he sat at dinner with his wife, children and mother-in-law, chatting about the playwright Edmond Rostand. He was 57.

In the Land of Pain, by Alphonse Daudet, edited and translated by Julian Barnes
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002

The Major, by David Hughes (1964)

Covers of first UK edition, Pan paperback edition, and Tower Books paperback edition of 'The Major'
David Hughes’ 1964 novel, The Major, is a perfect example of the gems one can find by picking through the rubbish heap of literature. Out of print, like Hughes’ nine other novels (including his W. H. Smith Award-winning The Pork Butcher (1984)), it would likely escape notice by even the most diligent book scavenger, given the ho-hum covers provided its various U.K. and U.S. editions.

Like a real gem, The Major is made of incredibly dense material. Just slightly more than novella length, it features one of the most vile characters I’ve come across in years, and packs into its short pages a remarkable amount of violence and malevolence.

Major Kane is a Royal Army officer whose best days were spent crashing through the Italian and French countryside in a tank, and whose most noteworthy combat exploit involved shooting three escaping German officers. Enjoying a cushy assignment as a liaison officer in Hamburg, he’s brought back to his regiment near Salisbury Plain for reasons unknown. A truly blood-thirsty man, he’s given his first quarry when his renters, an elderly knight and his lady, refuse–with the utmost grace and delicacy–to vacate and give him back his house. This launches the Major into a campaign of harassment through a variety of malicious schemes. He eventually gets rid of them by sabotaging their heating system, which leads Sir Austen to contract pneumonia.

Major Kane’s motivation for taking back the house is purely territorial. There is not the least bit of love or tenderness in his heart for his pregnant wife or their teen-age daughter, and, in fact, there are subtle clues that Kane could be capable of incestuous rape if he let his guard down. The battle for the house, though, is just the prelude to his fight to evict the few families living in a hamlet on the edge of the Army’s exercise range. “If you can keep the Jerries happy,” his General tells him, “you can certainly bash some sense into this lot of wets.” As it turns out, the General knows full well just how Major Kane will approach the problem and is careful to have distanced himself when the sordid affair finally blows up in the press.

Hughes is a meticulous writer, and many of his sentences are honed to a razor-sharp edge. At the same time, however, he is able to introduce dozens of different perspectives on the story, so that Major Kane’s narrow and vicious outlook is offset by that of everyone from his patient but bewildered wife to a group of young thugs who decide to interfere with his plans. And in the end, Hughes manages to draw from this story not just the portrait of a mean-hearted man made all the nastier by his experiences in–and since–the war, but of an institution–the Army–willing to use its people in the most cynical and cold-blooded manner, and of a Britain learning to step away from two centuries rich with battles and military memories. Major Kane himself would likely be impressed by its power and efficiency.

The Major, by David Hughes
London: Anthony Blond Ltd., 1964

The Wife Next Door, by R. V. Cassill (1959)

Cover of 'The Wife Next Door'
“They met like two comets in the night–the bored and restless man, the lush and willing woman.”

That line and the cleavage, pink nightgown and knowing look of the woman on the cover of The Wife Next Door are classic examples of Gold Medal Books at their sleazy best. Anyone buying the book knew that at least one commandment would be broken in the course of this story.

As usual with Cassill’s pulp novels, he gave himself the opportunity to explore material he was interested in while also providing the publisher with material that fit the desired formula. In this case, the story is set at Blackhawk University, Cassill’s fictional version of the University of Iowa, where he studied and taught, which was also the setting of an earlier pulp, Naked Morning. Cassill also drew upon his own experiences, as he, like the characters, lived in the former Army barracks on campus that served as housing for married students during the boom in attendance after the passing of the G. I. Bill.

The story opens with a preposterous incident in which Tom, a hard-partying pre-med student, spies Karen (the wife next door) through his bathroom window, develops a drunken infatuation, and invades her apartment later that night with the aim of consummating his lust. He strips naked and staggers toward Karen, only to have her react as any normal woman might–screaming and kicking and trying to force him out of the place. Somehow Tom manages to escape without either Karen or his own wife learning his identity, although running around naked and drunk does eventually land him in jail.

The entire episode serves no purpose and could have been dropped entirely, for Cassill then begins where we might expect it to–namely, with Tom and his wife becoming acquaintances with Karen and her husband, their new neighbors. Indeed, it’s as if Cassill changed his mind, and from Chapter 4 on, made this more of a story of the predatory wife than the predatory husband. Karen and Tom’s wife Amelia become good friends, although Karen does seem to be more than a little interested in Tom and Amelia’s love life. In short, Tom is a stud while Karen’s husband Willard is … well, not, and Karen soon wants to find out what she’s been missing.

What for Tom is just a lucky jump in the sack becomes an obsession for Karen, and while he appreciates the occasion bit on the side, she convinces herself that the two are in love and destined to be together. While not quite in the league with Glenn Close’s character in “Fatal Attraction,” Karen is an early prototype of the jilted lover stalker. Once again fascinated with unstable substances, Cassill goes overboard by introducing a sub-plot in which the sight of Tom and Karen steaming up the car windows in a deserted Iowa state park sends a respected member of the Blackhawk medical faculty into an erotic fugue state that eventually leads him to rape Tom’s wife and then force her to submit to sex with a taxi driver. Even by Gold Medal’s standard, Cassill delivered way more sex, alcohol, violence and weirdness than they asked for. Who knew such things went on in Iowa?

In a way, The Wife Next Door is the most effective pulp novel by Cassill that I’ve read so far. It’s not a very good novel, even if we forget the ridiculous opening of Naked Tom in the Night. But it is effective as pulp fiction along the lines of, say, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, where the characters are fast, loose and out of control. I read the thing in about two hours and felt like I needed to take a shower to clean off afterwards. Which I guess is some kind of benchmark.

The Wife Next Door, by R. V. Cassill
Greenwich, Connecticut: Gold Medal Books – Fawcett Publications, 1959

Dormitory Women, by R. V. Cassill (1954)

Dormitory Women was R. V. Cassill’s second novel. His first, The Eagle on the Coin (1950), had been a substantial, serious novel published by a substantial, serious firm, Random House. It would be a decade years before he published another one. In between, he wrote a dozen cheap paperback novels–most of them original works, a few of them novelizations of films like The Buccaneer (1958).

I’ve become fascinated with Cassill’s pulp novels after reading Wounds of Love a few months ago. In truth, they’re not great pulps, not in the way that, say, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is a great pulp novel: stripped to the narrative bone, full of rough men and tough dames, with no pretension and no apologies. Nor are they great as serious novels, worth proclaiming as undiscovered masterpieces.
What they are, I’ve decided, are experiments. We can appreciate the qualities of a good piece of pulp fiction now, but at the time, the criteria for getting something published by a company like Lion Books or Gold Medal had more to do with the writer’s ability to produce on time and to formula. Chances are that title of Dormitory Women existed before the book did (“Get the title in there and go to work,” to paraphrase Roger Corman’s instructions to the director of one of his sleaze films). The story had to involve women on a college campus and it had to be lurid. The rest was up to Cassill to fill in.

Cassill wasn’t the only writer to recognize that as long as he stayed within its simple limits, the pulp format offered him freedom to try out notions that were risky for mainstream fiction. In A Taste for Sin, he was able to work with sexual material–domination, rape, homosexuality–that would have been tough to get any hardback publisher to accept–material he would later revisit frequently in Doctor Cobb’s Game and other novels of the Sixties and Seventies. In Naked Morning, he tried out a story set in the campus environment he was familiar with from teaching at the University of Iowa, Columbia, and other schools. In The Wound of Love and The Wound of Love, he tossed sexual hand grenades into quiet small town settings and let the havoc ensue.

In Dormitory Women, the material Cassill experimented with was psychopathology. The men who picked it up in hopes of getting some steamy scenes of sophomoric sex did get a little taste of what they were looking for early in the book. Within the first two chapters, we are treated to that scandalous fifties fad, the panty raid. Soon after, Cassill offers up an attempted rape out on Lovers’ Lane.

But then the tale swerves wildly off track. The would-be rapist leaves the girl in the dust, blasts onto the highway back to town, and goes up in flames in a wreck. And we launch into the warped perspective of Millie, the girl. “I’ve got to go all the way through it again,” she says to herself. All the way through what?, the reader wonders. Well, we soon discover that Millie had some traumatic encounter with a man dressed in white in the barn behind her Grandpa’s house, and her attack by the aggressive frat boy sparks a series of psychotic episodes.

Although she convinces her roommates that her nightmares and ravings are just anxiety about getting into her college’s “good” sorority, Millie is actually in schizophrenic fugues in which another voice urges her to sink a butcher knife into the chest of her unwitting targets: “I knew how people could divide themselves and send one part outside time and space by a crooked path that let them sneak up on those they had to kill in order that those they loved be protected.” Twenty years later, Stephen King was able to take similar material and turn it into a best-seller, but in Dormitory Women, Cassill struggled–unsuccessfully–to put his agent of chaos to good use. Maybe readers in 1954 were naive enough to wonder about Millie’s flash-backs to Grandpa’s barn, but any adult today could figure out that she’d been raped by Grandpa (um, he worked in a bakery?). And, despite her violent fantasies, the murder of her favorite professor’s wife and children turn out to be entirely coincidental. In the end, the only thing Cassill can do with Millie is ship her off to an asylum.

For me, Dormitory Women was a failed experiment. Yet it was the only one of Cassill’s pulp novels to earn a review in a major paper, and Anthony Boucher’s praise in The New York Times was enough that his last phrase was quoted on many of his subsequent ones:

R. V. Cassill attempts (and successfully) an even more ambitious study in psycho-pathology in Dormitory Women (Lion, 25c). Disregard the lurid jacket copy (“an explosive novel of sex on the campus”) on this one: it’s a serious and completely terrifying account of the flight of a 17-year-old girl from almost-normal adolescent fantasy (“I am a princess … I can make things happen to people”) into full psychosis. The university background is admirably realized and the novel well-conceived and well-written. Previously known to readers of little magazines and Foley annuals, Cassill shows here that he can combine paperback storytelling at its strongest with subtle literary quality.

One might think that having the main character go mad is one of the cheapest and easiest tricks in the book, but Dormitory Women is proof that it’s harder than it looks.

Dormitory Women, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Lion Books (216), 1954
New York: Signet Books (1646), 1959

Erasmus of Rotterdam, by Stefan Zweig

erasmusThanks to reissues of his fiction by New York Review Classics and Pushkin Press, and, now, a new biography by George Prochnik, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World and a Wes Anderson film, Grand Hotel Budapest, inspired by his works, Stefan Zweig can no longer be considered a neglected writer. Among English language readers, that is–his works have stayed popular in German, French and other languages.

Very few of Zweig’s non-fiction books have been reissued in English, however. I think this is partly due to the fact that tastes and standards in biography have fundamentally changed in the decades since World War Two. To be taken seriously now, a biography has to be based in a fair level of objective research backed up with proof in the form of footnotes or citations and an extensive biography. In Zweig’s time, it was assumed that the writer had done his or her homework and this left them free to focus on biography as an investigation into character or into the relationship between and individual and his time.

Yet the latter is exactly what makes Zweig’s biographies so interesting now. One cannot read them without being aware of the context in which they were wrote, which gives the books a double effect: one sees both the subject and the author in relation to their respective eras.

Zweig wrote Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1934, not long after Hitler came to power in Germany, but when he and others could already sense that the world he knew and loved, The World of Yesterday as he titled his memoir, was entering a “terrible moment of mass intoxication.” Erasmus’ life was also caught up in the conflicts that arose from the rise of the Protestant faiths. It’s hard not to read the following, for example, and not find oneself thinking simultaneously of the Reformation and the rise of Nazism:

In general, those events which we are wont to deem of great historical importance hardly enter the sphere of popular consciousness. Even the huge waves of the earlier wares merely touched the outside margin of folk-life and were confined within the borders of those nations or those provinces which happened to be engaged in them. Moreover, the intellectual part of the nation could usually hold aloof from social or religious disturbances, and with undivided mind contemplate the welter of passion on the political stage. Goethe was such a figure. Undisturbed amid the tumult of the Napoleonic campaigns, he quietly continued his work.

Sometimes, however, at rare intervals through the centuries, antagonisms reach such a pitch of tension that something is bound to snap. Then a veritable hurricane stampedes over the earth, rending humanity as though it were a flimsy cloth the hands could tear apart. The mighty cleft runs across every country, every town, every house, every family, every heart. From every side the individual is attacked by the overwhelming force of the masses, and there is no means of protection, no means of salvation from the collective madness. A wave of such magnitude allows no one to stand up firmly against it. Such all-encompassing cleavages may be brought about by social, religious, or any other problem of a spiritual and theoretical nature. But so far as bigotry is concerned, it matters little what fans the flames. The only essential is that the fire should blaze, that it should be able to discharge its accumulated store of hate; and precisely in such apocalyptic hours of human folly is the demon of war let loose to gallop madly and joyously throughout the lands.

In such terrible moments of mass intoxication and sundering of the world of mankind, the individual is utterly helpless. It is useless for the wise to try and withdraw into the isolation of passive contemplation. The times drag him willy-nilly into the fray, to right or to left, into one clique or into another, into this party or into that.

Zweig himself essentially suffered this fate, being forced, as a Jew and a liberal intellectual, into exile–an intolerable exile, as Prochnik puts it, during which he grew increasingly despondent. Less than three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he and his wife took their lives by drug overdose, feeling that a Nazi conquest of the Americas was inevitable. No doubt in the years leading up to that decision, he often felt himself dragged willy-nilly, utterly helpless.

Knowing where his despair eventually led him, the final sentences in this chapter have a bitter irony:

Fanaticism is fated to overreach its own powers. Reason is eternal and patient, and can afford to bide its time. Often, while the drunken orgy is at its highest, she needs must lie still and mute. But her day dawns, and ever and again she comes into her own anew.

How sad that Zweig was not able to hold onto this confident outlook.

You can read about Jules Romains’ tribute to Zweig in this post from 2008.

Erasmus of Rotterdam, by Stefan Zweig, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul
New York City: Viking Books, 1934

A Taste of Sin, by R. V. Cassill (1955)

Cover of first edition of 'A Taste of Sin'Continuing to scarf down R. V. Cassill’s pulp fiction like potato chips, my latest handful is A Taste of Sin (1955), his third paperback original and his second for Ace Books.

Of the four Cassill paperbacks I’ve read so far, A Taste of Sin most easily fits the stereotype of a cheesy, sleazy book whose contents deliver the “whirlpool of wild parties, illicit loves, and degeneration” promised on the cover blurb.

It’s a fascinating exhibit in the museum of 1950s sexuality. Worth Hudson, a thirty-something ad man married–well, if not happily, then at least conventionally–to the efficient Margaret. Both head off to work each morning and return to the apartment they’re devoting most of their spare cash to fix up smartly. Sex is off limits on work nights, and openness and honesty all the time. Worth is bored and a bit frustrated but afraid to say so to Margaret. And so their marriage percolates along, steadily losing all flavor and interest.

And so it might continue for years if not for an agent of chaos in the form of Worth’s friend Harold, a loud, boozy and lecherous artist. Harold recognizes a patsy when he sees one, and regularly leans on Worth for help, whether its a hand-out or a drinking buddy or someone to break the bad news to a girl Harold needs to dump.

As the book opens, Worth and Margaret are sitting in a bar, and Margaret is pressing Worth to cut Harold off for good. Then Harold comes reeling in, and Worth’s descent into the maelstrom begins with that fatal phrase, “Just one last time.”

Lying, deception, adultery, prostitution, alcoholism, bunko rackets, nymphomania, group sex, rape, sadism and masochism–even a fist-fight in a lesbian bar–Worth’s decision to help out his old buddy leads him into a downward spiral that leaves Worth without a wife, a job, or any self-respect. Cassill actually does quite an effective job of using the same reticence that kept Worth from talking about difficult subjects with Margaret to make him a failure as a sinner, too. In situation after situation, Worth’s dithering about whether to take the wrong step–to bed an alluring call girl or to seduce his wife’s best friend–leads something even worse.

Indeed, A Taste of Sin works best as a character study. After losing all his self-respect–and having what was left of it wrenched away from him, Worth gets together again with Margaret together, ready now to rebuild their relationship on a foundation of honesty. It’s such an implausible and ineptly introduced ending you can see the staples. The book would have been far better ended a chapter earlier, with Worth chasing in vain after a woman who’d already demonstrated that her greatest talent was for leaving ardent and horny men shamed and frustrated. Someone once described Cassill’s paperback fiction as “Dostoyevskian.” Happy endings and “Dostoveyskian” don’t go together.

The most I could say of A Taste of Sin is that it could hold its place on the shelf next to James M. Cain’s two great fables about the unpleasant consequences of men thinking with the wrong head, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. It’s cheap, sleazy, fast, rough, violent, and full of people you’re best off not knowing. Knock off the last chapter and it’s a great slice of pulp. If Jim Cain rates a spot in the Library of America, then someone ought to give a fair shot to Verlin Cassill as well.

A Taste of Sin, by R. V. Cassill
New York City: Ace Books, 1955

The Hungering Shame, by R. V. Cassill

Cover of original Avon paperback edition of 'The Hungering Shame'Continuing my journey through the pulp oeuvre of R. V. Cassill–a novelist and short-story writer whose mainstream fiction is nearly as forgotten as his more quotidian work–we come to The Hungering Shame (1956), his fifth novel and his first paperback original for Avon Publications.

One would have to be thick not to figure out that it’s a story about rape. “Four Men, A Lonely Road, and A Girl” is splashed under the title, on which we see an attractive woman examining the torn sleeve of her dress, her hair slightly mussed. These were the days before Avon became noteworthy as the publisher of Latin American and other innovative fiction, days when its marketing aim was not so high(brow).

But, as I found with The Wound of Love (1956), his second Avon original, and Naked Morning (1957), his third, the lurid cover and blurb of The Hungering Shame deceives by disguising the seriousness of Cassill’s purpose and his results.

The Hungering Shame is not actually a story about rape, but rather one about the effects of rape. Cassill uses a set of first-person narrators to play out his drama, which concocts an unstable mixture of characters and circumstances and then sets it alight.

rvcassill1955Unlike his next two books, The Hungering Shame is set not in Iowa but in a resort town in the Colorado Rockies. Late the summer before the story opens, a local girl, Joy Everest, was picked up by four visiting frat boys, taken up a deserted forest road, and raped. One of them was the son of Bob Horn, manager of one of the big resort hotels in the town. A divorced father with a weak heart and a guilty conscience, Horn had helped Joy get medical care after the crime and convinced her not to report it. Engaged to marry Al, a local boy, Joy had her own reasons to keep quiet.

Now, a year later, the marriage has disintegrated. Still traumatized by the rape, Joy has been unable to sleep with Al. Then several pieces of bad advice upset the precarious balance of Joy and Al’s psyches. Joy, we learn, has already been scarred from discovering, as a child, her father’s dead body after his suicide, and Al is a nascent sociopath. Add to these ingredients Bob Horn’s genetic predisposition to bad luck (his father tells him that just about anyone other than a Horn “has a better chance than you nor me when it comes time to do the right thing instead of the wrong thing”), a social climbing young woman, and the reappearance of one of the rapists, and it all explodes.

Men might have been hoping for some good old fashioned sleaze in The Hungering Shame, but I doubt they would have been prepared for the brutality of the finale. Al spirals down the path of a classic sociopath, cruising for women, contemplating molesting a young girl, caught masturbating in his car, taking Joy along as he shoots cornered animals, and finally, attacking a couple necking in a parked car. Cassill goes well beyond conventional literary psychology of the 1950s, revealing that Joy finds relief for her own pain by helping Al inflict it upon others.

Bob Horn also discovers unpleasant truths as his fragile world comes crashing down. I liked how Cassill captured the voice and sensibility of an ordinary man being forced to look past the limits of his comfortable notions of evil:

I guess there are, for unlucky men, those times when you are forced to look clear past the edge of what people ought to be asked to stand. It’s a mistake to think there’s nothing out there, a lucky mistake, because in the dark around us there’s a slop and muck and stink that’s stronger than all the daylight we’ll ever get. It moans at you through its stinking lips and says Help me and if you’ve been caught where you hear it you’re tempted to gather it up in your arms and pat it.

The savagery of The Hungering Shame‘s denouement is really quite shocking for its time. I speculated in my post on Naked Morning that Cassill may have used his pulp fiction as experiments where he could try out techniques for use in more serious works. In the case of The Hungering Shame, his ability to work with highly combustible materials proved short of the mark just at the book’s very end.

Q: How to end a story that’s already gone over the edge?

A: Put all your volatile characters in a car and send it careening off a cliff.

Effective–but crude.

The Hungering Shame, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Publications, 1956

Ambrosia and Small Beer, arranged by Christopher Hassall

The delight of reading John Guest’s Broken Images, which I posted about recently, led me to look for his other works. A short search, as his few other publications were collections of other people’s work.

ambrosiaandsmallbeerOne, for which he did not even claim credit, bears the odd title of Ambrosia and Small Beer. Subtitled “The Record of a Correspondence between Edward Marsh and Christopher Hassall, Arranged by Christopher Hassall,” the book was being prepared for publication by Hassall when he died suddenly at the age of 51. Guest, who had been a close friend of Hassall since the two served together in an anti-aircraft battery in 1940, was a senior editor at Longmans, Green and Company, Hassall’s publisher, and took over the final work on the book.

Christopher Hassall and Edward Marsh first met in March 1934. Hassall was 22, just graduated from Oxford, trying to pull together his first book of poetry, and working for Ivor Novello, the legendary singer, actor, composer and playwright. Marsh was 61, a senior Civil Servant nearing retirement, and already well-known as a mentor and patron to creative talents such as Novello, D. H. Lawrence, and Rupert Brooke. The four collections of Georgian Poetry he edited had been hugely successful–selling as many as 20,000 copies each–and Marsh was also known to have been responsible for editing and maturing the prose style of his minister/MP, Winston Churchill. Marsh’s Wikipedia entry categorizes him as a “polymath”–probably one of the few people to earn that label.

Marsh was also something of a cornerstone figure in the homosexual community of his time. At 22, Christopher Hassall was a beautiful young man, and that, combined with his poetic talents, certainly held a strong attraction for Marsh. Within days of their meeting, Marsh was writing long letters filled with detailed criticisms–word by word examinations in some cases–of Hassall’s poetry. Soon, however, the correspondence moved into the wider world of Marsh’s intellectual interests, artistic passions, and social contacts.

Marsh never married and appears never to have had any long-term intimate relationships. He lived alone and had the time and, apparently, tremendous energy to devote to those friendships he most valued. Hassall identifies this as an vital factor in their relationship: “As a solitary man, Marsh tended to live the private lives of other people. Some of his most intense experiences were lived vicariously.” While Hassall includes excerpts from many of his own letters and notes to Marsh, the bulk of Ambrosia and Small Beer comes from Marsh’s pen.

Fluent in a half-dozen languages, Marsh had a prodigious memory for facts, concepts, and poetry. His was a mind of both tremendous breadth and surgical precision. “Nothing seems to have got lost between the brain and the pen,” the writer George Moore once remarked of a letter calling for a civil list pension to be granted for James Joyce. But he was also a great lover of gossip and jokes. Hassall called him “an ornament of society with an inexhaustible fund of small talk,” and the title comes from his description of Marsh’s conversation: “an engaging blend of ambrosia and small beer.”

Marsh continued to write to Hassall as the young man became–in partnership with Novello–a successful librettist, as he married, served in the Army during the Second World War, and enjoyed success as an actor, poet, and producer after the war. Indeed, the correspondence continued right up to Marsh’s death in 1953. Ambrosia and Small Beer collects perhaps a third of the total material, but one suspects that what is omitted is hardly to be missed. As Hassall remarked in his preface, Marsh loved to indulge in gossip that had little lasting value.

What’s left, however, is great fun for anyone who loves literature, people and humor. Marsh knew almost everyone who was anyone in Britain of the 1930s and 1940s, and a healthy share of them invited him to dinner and country house weekends. He read a good share of the better and lesser books published during that period and is generous in devoting space to his personal reviews. I’ve discovered a fair number of neglected titles in the course of reading this book. And he delighted in sharing jokes. I suspect that one of the services Hassall performed on posterity’s behalf was to weed out the duds from the gems, because there are plenty of good laughs to be found here.

In many ways, Ambrosia and Small Beer reminds me of James Agate’s Ego–the nine volumes of diaries that he published between 1935 and 1946: it’s erudite, bitchy, and funny. I would give Ambrosia a slight edge, however, for the invaluable leavening effect of Hassall’s editing and his own contributions. While Agate was notorious for endlessly rewriting his own work, Hassall had a wonderful sense for what to include and what to delete.

We can be grateful, for example, that he chose to include the text Marsh enclosed to accompany the following comment, from a letter in April 1944:

Someone named Adrian Earle wrote to say he was writing a life of Lionel Johnson, and asked if I could contribute anything. I send you the rough copy of what I wrote for him–it’s inexpressibly slight.

Marsh’s piece is as follows:

I met Lionel Johnson only once, when we both stayed with the late Lord Russell for a night in the latter nineties at a little house near London. I forget who else was there, except Harry Marillier and Edmund Garrett. When Russell and the others went to bed, L. J. asked me to stay up with him: he was born with insomnia, he told me, and had never been able to sleep, in his cradle or since; so we settled down to talk. His conversation was enthralling, but alas very little of what he said has stuck in my memory. One topic was the novels of George Meredith, which he put very high; but he owned that after giving one week of his life to the first chapter of The Egoist he had come to the conclusion that it had no meaning whatever. Later in the night he discoursed with eloquence on the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas, which he exalted as the most wonderful structure of thought that the world had produced; and–this is my last fragment–he said that he had never in his life been able to do a sum of any kind.

At about five or six in the morning he poured himself out a tumblerful of neat whisky, after drinking which he said that now he would be able to sleep; so I went to bed, leaving him curled under a rug in a big armchair.

For the justification to forego reading The Egoist alone, I am grateful that Hassall chose to include this.

After Marsh’s death, Hassall began collecting materials for a biography, which he published in 1959: Edward Marsh: Patron of the Arts. One reviewer called it, “The most entertaining biography since Boswell.” If Ambrosia and Small Beer is any indication, I am eager to make my own assessment of the biography.

Ambrosia and Small Beer: The Record of a Correspondence between Edward Marsh and Christopher Hassall, Arranged by Christopher Hassall
New York City: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965

Naked Morning, by R. V. Cassill

Cover of Avon paperback original of 'Naked Morning'After reading R. V. Cassill’s The Wound of Love (1956), which I discussed in a post a few weeks back, I’ve become intrigued by the rest of Cassill’s pulp oeuvre–eight or nine novels that he published as paperback originals between 1954 and 1963. One of the most influential writing instructors of his time, Cassill was also a prolific author in his own right, publishing around a dozen other novels as serious mainstream hardbacks and nearly ten times that number of short stories, several of which were included in O. Henry Prize and Best American Short Stories collections.

Born in Iowa, Cassill studied art at the University of Iowa and later became one of the mainstays of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. This experience is well reflected in Naked Morning (1957), which is set in the fictional town of Blackhawk, Iowa, home of Blackhawk University–Cassill’s stand-ins for Iowa City and his alma mater.

The novel’s actions play out over the course of about four days in early September, during the break between summer and fall sessions. One of the lead characters, a graduate instructor, “liked that time better than any other part of the year:

Then the campus lay ripe and vacant under a succession of fine days. It was a period when most of the human sounds vanished or were subdued by the heat. The noise of power-driven lawnmowers sham-battled through the afternoons and the shadow of campus trees was as blue as it could ever get.

Cassill knows this Midwestern university town well. He knows the upright but pallid character of the men in administration, the driven wives relentlessly fueling faculty politics, the frustrated cliques of artists and intellectuals feeling themselves exiled from the big time, and the townspeople always a bit bewildered or bemused by the university’s pretensions and eccentrics. He knows the great Victorian monstrosities–“like an oversized statue of two bisons and a wapiti”–now moldering away as faculty homes and student houses. And he knows the kind of bars that offer some of the few places where students and younger members of the faculty can cut loose:

The outrage of authority sprang from semi-public disclosures that liquor was being sold here to minors, that obscene movies had been shown on stag nights, that the ROTC staff was using it as an outlet for the French erotic supplies they imported from tours of duty at overseas posts, or that whores from Chicago and Kansas City occasionally based there during the football season or the annual state basketball tournament.

The cover of Naked Morning proclaims, “A young and innocent stray in a world of men.” In case that was too subtle, Avon Books plastered across the back:


“I have to get of in this here town unless I have some money. So if you want me to go with you….”

As was the case with Cassill’s The Wound of Love, a cheesy, come-on cover hides an otherwise serious work of fiction. In both books, there is a loose link between the cover and the contents. Naked Morning opens with a young man, a student returning to Blackhawk by bus, being approached by Sissie, a young girl somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen, who seems penniless, homeless, and ready to sell herself to survive.

The story revolves around the havoc her arrival in Blackhawk provokes. Sissie is something of a feral child, a corn-fed Lolita with no inhibitions, which, of course, means that she attracts a variety of abusers, exploiters and would-be saviours. A buyer hoping to find the salacious treats suggested by the cover would have been quite disappointed. Cassill only hints at Sissie’s sexual exploits–a glancing reference to a possible gang-bang in a frat house basement is as far as he goes.

Sissie really only serves as the spark to set off crises of character for the student on the bus, his girlfriend, and the graduate instructor. She is off-screen through most of the book, with much more space devoted to the others and their thoughts. And, as is too often the case with novels where the reader has to spend most of the time inside someone’s head, introspection is a poor substitute for action or description. The best parts of Naked Morning are not the result of Cassill’s ability as a story-teller or creator of characters but his ability to capture what Iowa City must have looked like, what it must have been like to live there, in the mid-1950s–as was the case for the small Iowa town setting of The Wound of Love.

Cassill’s superficial motivation for writing Naked Morning may have been money, but it’s clear that writing the book also had some artistic value for him–perhaps as a way to safely perfect his craft away from the harsh scrutiny of mainstream editors and critics. I suspect this was true for his other pulp novels, which is why I’ve ordered a few more to read over the coming months.

Naked Morning, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Books, 1957

Gog, by Giovanni Papini

Giovanni Papini’s 1931 satire, Gog, rates its own Wikipedia and is easily available in Italian, Spanish, French and German, but in English, it’s been out of print since its first publication. Barely noticed, what few reviews the English translation did get were negative. The American Mercury dismissed it for its “somewhat sophomoric and trashy cleverness.” Yet readers in other languages still praise the book, along with its sequel, Il libro nero (The Black Book, never translated into English, for its anarchic humor.

gogWith a short introduction, Papini places Gog as a packet of papers presented to him by Goggins, an eccentric American millionaire he encountered at a private insane asylum while visiting an acquaintance. Papini hesitates to call them “a book of memoirs nor, still less, a work of art,” but merely ” a peculiar and symptomatic document, perhaps startling but possessing a certain value for the study of mankind.”

Son of a member of the Hawaiian nobility and a white father, Gog signed on as a cook’s assistant on an American ship at the age of sixteen, and through a series of business deals, managed to become one of the richest men in America by the end of World War One. At that point, he decided to retire completely from business and devote himself to “enjoyment and journeys of discovery.” The rest of Gog collects about 90 entries, most under three pages long, from his subsequent years of travel and encounters with a wide variety of geniuses and idealists.

libroneroThese include some of the great names of the time–Freud, Edison, Einstein, Henry Ford, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Lenin–with whom Gog gains audiences and records their thoughts. Papini later caught some flack for this device, as when ,i>Life magazine–among others–mistakenly quoted an interview with Pablo Picasso from Il libro nero as if it were the real thing. In the case of the interview with Lenin, it very well could have been the real thing–in hindsight: “It is my ambition to convert Russia into a vast penitentiary…. [W]e should then be able to murder all the peasants as being of no further use. They will either have to turn into laborers or perish.”

The lesser-known men Gog encounters each harbors a unique mania. One proclaims that he has devised the perfect form of sculpture–carving smoke into shapes that dissolve as soon as they are created. Another asks him to endow a chair in phthiriology–the study of lice. He discovers the shop of Ben-Chusai in Amsterdam, devoted exclusively to products made from humans–shrunken heads, “cigar holders made from finger bones, incisors set in gold or platinum, penholders and necklaces of carved vertebrae.” His meeting with the architect Sulkas Perkunas foreshadows Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities: the City of Perfect Equality; the Polychromatic City; the Hanging City; the Titanic City; and, yes, the Invisible City. Cocardasse the poet declares he will revolutionize poetry by incorporating all the world’s vocabulary:

Beloved carinha, mein Weltschmerz
Egorge mon âme en estas soledades.
My tired heart, Raju presvétlyj
Muore di gioia, tel un démon au ciel.
Lieber Himmel, castillo de los Dioses
Quaris quot durerà this fun désespéré?
Λαμαδα Φηιξ, drevo zizni….

Liubanoff, on the other hand, gives Gog a book of poems consisting of nothing but titles: “‘The Siesta of the Forsaken Nightingale.’ It contains all the elements of poetic efflorescence.”

There is an understandable amount of humor to be found in taking a notion to its extreme, but the series of encounters with monomaniacs soon grows, well, monotonous. Every person in the book is a figure of ridicule and the end of the book leaves one no wiser than the start. At one point Gog notes, in fact, that there is “nothing more delightful than to be able to isolate oneself from one’s own odious kind.”

If one accepts experimental fiction as a legitimate form, Gog is more successful as experiment than fiction.

At the moment, there appears to be just one copy of Gog available online, but there are dozens available through public and university libraries, according to

Gog, by Giovanni Papini, translated by Mary Prichard Agnetti
New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1931

The Wound of Love, by R. V. Cassill

A prolific novelist and short story writer, as well as an influential teacher of other writers, R. V. Cassill spent most of the 1950s bouncing around the sort of jobs a writer could get–teaching, working on an encyclopedia, editing such noteworthy magazines as Dude and Gent. And writing pulp fiction.

Although he would go on to earn critical acclaim for such novels as Clem Anderson (1961) and Doctor Cobb’s Game (1970), Cassill produced an impressive series of novels for Ace, Avon, Gold Medal and Signet. The titles are evidence enough that Cassill might be called the Fifties’ equivalent of Tiffany Thayer:

The Wound of Love (1956) is one of these. “A respectable town and the iniquity seething underneath” proclaims the cover, which shows a Susan Hayward look-alike and a Mad Man making out in a corn field. Now, anyone who’s ever seen a corn field knows it’s a miserable make-out spot, but the story is set in Iowa and I suppose the editors asked the cover artist to tie that in somehow.
I came across The Wound of Love a couple of years ago in the stacks at Wonder Book in Frederick, Maryland–one of the dwindling number of bookstores in the U. S. where you can still find paperbacks from the 1950s and 1960s. I recognized Cassill’s name, but I also recognized the book as classic pulp fiction–a paperback original, under 200 pages long, with a lurid cover and plenty blurb promising sex within. At the time, I wasn’t aware of Cassill’s pulp career and picked the book up simply out of curiosity.

I finally got around to reading it recently, and I have to say that it wasn’t too bad. Set in Pinicon, a rural town somewhere between Des Moines and Omaha, the story centers on Dick Fletcher, who’s returned to his home town to work on his father’s newspaper after a few years as a journalist in New York and Chicago. Dick is finding it hard to get used to the slow pace of life in Pinicon, and his marriage to Marsie, a nervous girl from the East Coast is suffering under the strain of living under the same roof as Dick’s parents. He’s befriended by Vance Holland, a hard-drinking, hard-partying local entrepeneur, and soon things begin spinning out of control.

Vance’s farm is sort of the local hang-out for other restless young marrieds, and it only takes one party at Vance’s to find Dick in the backseat of his car with another man’s wife. Although Dick never strays again, Marsie takes to frequent visits to Vance’s, and Dick learns that Vance is also the facilitator of the local wife-swapping circle. Small-town sex intertwines with small-town politics, and Dick eventually gets caught up in a complex deal to buy the town’s co-op electric plant–an issue that Dick’s father has opposed for years.

Born and raised in Iowa, Cassill would return to the state a few years after publishing The Wound of Love, joining the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the book is full of small touches that reflect a writer very familiar with his story’s setting and people. Dick’s father is a good Midwest Lutheran, which means he disapproves of Dick’s drinking and his marital problems–but doesn’t feel it’s his place to say anything about it. Even Dick hasn’t lost all sense of propriety. Early on he cools on Vance Holland simply because “He didn’t like people who insisted on a demonstration that you liked them.” It’s a comment very characteristic of a certain outlook you find in the Midwest.

Cassill manages to fit a fair amount of scandal into 160 short pages–not just the swapping of house keys and wives but gambling, bribery, shooting, alcoholism, and even a climactic airplane crash. Although it’s neatly integrated into the story, I can’t help but wonder if Cassill received a letter from his editor at Avon Books–something along the lines of Roger Corman’s instructions to Jonathan Kaplan when he hired Kaplan to direct one of his legendary low-budget films, “Night Call Nurses”: “Frontal nudity from the waist up, total nudity from behind, no pubic hair, and get the title in the film somewhere and go to work.” What Cassill created, in and around the sex and booze, is a neat exercise about the crisis of character, about the transition from youth and idealism to middle-age and ugly compromises.

Is it deserving of reissue? No, probably not, but it was certainly good enough to make me want to try another of Cassill’s pulp works. He once remarked that he wrote one of his pot-boilers while on jury duty. If The Wound of Love was that book, I’m eager to see what he did when he gave his full attention to what he was writing.

The Wound of Love, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Publications, Inc., 1956

The Simmons Papers, by Philipp Blom

The Simmons Papers“The Only Novel about the Letter P” proclaims the bright blue wrapper around the Faber and Faber original edition of Philipp Bloms’s odd little novel, The Simmons Papers (1995). Not the finest bit of marketing in the company’s history, certainly, but it’s hard to imagine what tag line would have been more enticing. “Kafka Meets the O.E.D.” is the best I can come up with.

Blom himself nearly manages to put off all but the most persistent reader with an introduction that treats the work as a manuscript discovered among the papers of the late P. E. H. Simmons, a fellow in Philosophy at Balliol College. An eccentric figure who spent most of his life in seclusion, Simmons attracted considerable academic interest with this posthumous piece, which is held by various critics to be a diary, “a coded account of masonic rituals,” or a translation of some ancient hymns. Blom includes numerous quotations from several of these exegeses as footnotes throughout the book, managing with every one of them to cloud the meaning of the passages they are meant to clarify. From all this, one could easily categorize The Simmons Papers as a satire on critical theory and similar movements whose interpretations are often more obscure than the original texts.

Myself, I would advise the reader to ignore the introduction, skip right to page 23 and dive into what I’d describe as a lexicographical soliloquoy. The nameless narrator is at work on “the Definitive Dictionary of our language,” a massive work that outreaches even the Oxford English Dictionary in its ambition. Its goal is to “finally define our language beyond the level of ambiguity and doubt.” “With an entry in the Dictionary all questions are settled, all uncertainties removed.”

NB305Such an enterprise involves a large team of contributors and editors. The narrator, who is responsible for the section devoted to words beginning with the letter P, knows almost none of his colleagues, and never met Dr. Javis, the editor-in-chief or even Mr. Lloyd, his personal assistant. He relies entirely upon Malakh, the ninety-three year-old porter who conveys the correspondence and papers from office to office.

Although he acknowledges that P “was a small and modest letter” for much of its history, he is proud to note that, thanks to the influx of words from other languages, it has grown to stand as the third largest section in the Dictionary (after S and C):

It is a letter of immigrants; the loving and attentive ear hears the buzzing of a hundred foreign tongues within it: hymns of the early church; the babble and yelling of Arabian bazaars; Latin precision, elegance and brutality; Germanic harshness; words sailing with William the Conqueror; words drowned with the Spanish Armada (some of which mysteriously drifted ashore); Arabic prose and philosophy; commands given by Hadrian; and psalms, all humming, bubbling and chattering, colorful and delightful.

He sees himself, though, as a liberator: “Once unchained from their heavy bond of syntax and strict grammaticality, they can do anything, start to dance, whirl and revolve, like a bunch of mad little devils.” For each word in the Dictionary, the narrator has to assemble as many known usages as he can find, and then sift and sort through them to eliminate any imprecision in definition that might allow a remnant of confusion to survive the Dictionary’s publication. “I am a mineworker of language,” he writes, “I inhale ambiguities and meanings like coal dust.”

Indeed, the task is so difficult that every day Malakh brings another editions of the Communications of the Great Academy, an endless series of instructions to the dictionary workers attempting to refine their methodology to such a level of perfection that there will be no risk of the Dictionary not achieving its objective. The narrator spends as much time reading and interpreting the Communications as he does working on the Dictionary itself, searching for their central argument: “First the ideal method must be found, and only then can detail and procedures be dealt with.”

Looking out of the one tiny window in his room one day, the narrator catches a glimpse of a woman in a brightly-flowered dress. She becomes a figure of mystery and fascination for him, and, eventually, the antithesis of his own world: “The free range of flowers on her dress defies every method and system, her beauty has no name.” And with this discovery, the narrator’s utility for the Great Academy comes to an abrupt end. The work ends as he is summoned to a final audience with Dr. Javis.

A dedicated reader has to be a lover of words, and I found The Simmons Papers a rhapsody–in words and to words. Let not the stiff academic introduction deter you: there is some wonderful writing in this book, intertwined with some delightful philosophical insights. Although it’s a somewhat uncategorizable book, I would venture to class it as what Ted Gioia has called “conceptual fiction“–“stories that delight in the freedom from ‘reality’ that storytelling allows”–and recommend shelving it alongside the works of Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, and Stanislaw Lem. And perhaps another odd novel that suffered from ham-fisted marketing, Raymond Cousse’s Death Sty.

Power to the Odd!

The Simmons Papers, by Philipp Blom
London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995

The Conquest of Rome, by Matilde Serao

If I were looking for an Amazon review headline for The Conquest of Rome, Mathilde Serao’s 1885 novel, I’d probably opt for “Zola Does the Italian Parliament.” For, like a number of Zola’s novels, such as The Belly of Paris, Money, or The Ladies’ Paradise, the story is really just the author’s excuse for a long, leisurely and meticulously detailed description of the workings of the behind-the-scenes world of some enterprise most people would have taken for granted.

conquestofromeIn this case, it’s the world of the Montecitorio, the Italian Parliament, as seen through the eyes of Francesco Sangiorgio, the newly-elected deputy from a remote rural area of Basilicata, one of the poorest parts of southern Italy. Intensely driven, with great ambition despite deep insecurity for his poverty and humble status, Sangiorgio has fought his way from school teacher to country lawyer to district advocate, and now heads to Rome to launch his political career.

A man with little in the way of personality, Sangiorgio soon learns how low is the position of an unknown deputy from a backward district in a parliament as large as the U. S. House of Representatives. Taking a cheap room in a dank and dirty boarding house, he makes almost no acquaintances until he is befriended by Tullio Giustini, a hunchbacked deputy from Tuscany. Shunned for his physical defects, Giustini uses his position as an outsider to act as an acerbic critic of the Montecitorio and its social strata.

“Why should it be concerned with you,” he asks Sangiorgio, “an infinitesimal atom, passing across the scene so quickly? It is indifferent; it is the great cosmopolitan city which has this universal character, which knows everything because it has seen everything.” To conquer Rome, he advises, one must have “a heart of brass, an inflexible, rigid will; he must be young, healthy, robust, and bold, without ties and without weaknesses; he must apply himself profoundly, intensely to that one idea of victory.” It’s obvious that Giustini considers this a fool’s goal, but instead, Sangiorgio is inspired and vows to become the next conqueror.

With no money and no social connections, Sangiorgio has little chance of being noticed, but Giustini takes him along to a reception hosted by Countess Fiammanti, whose salon is one of the true centers of power. Sangiorgio’s looks are nothing to speak of, but the Countess is attracted by his passion for political success, and spins an idle web to see if she can instigate an affair between him and Donna Angelica Vargas, the wife of a Cabinet member.

Although Donna Angelica never puts her position at risk, she encourages Sangiorgio just enough to fill him with a dangerous blend of romantic and political passion, supercharged by his utter naivety. He rushes headlong into a session of Parliament, at which Donna Angelica’s husband is giving a long and dull speech introducing the new budget. It is a predictable matter, and after droning on for an hour, the Minister concludes and begins accepting the congratulations of his colleagues when another speaker is announced: “Honourable colleagues, I beg for silence. The Honourable Sangiorgio has the floor.”

“‘Who ? Who ?’ was the universal inquiry.”

Taking advantage of the suprised silence, Sangiorgio plays the moment for its full dramatic value.

Hereupon the curious eyes of the members sought out that colleague of theirs, whom scarcely anyone knew. … No one thought him insignificant. And then divers speculations grew rife in the Chamber. Would this new deputy speak for or against the Minister? Was he one of those flatterers who, scarcely arrived, hastened to make a show of loyalty to the Government? Or was he some little impudent nobody who would stammer through a feeble attack before the House, and be suppressed by the ironical murmurs of the assembly? He was a Southerner and a lawyer — only that was known about him. Therefore he would deliver an oration, the usual rhetoric which the Piedmontese detested, the Milanese derided, and the Tuscans despised.

Instead, the Honourable Sangiorgio began to talk deliberately, but with such a resonant, commanding voice that it filled the hall and made the audience give a sigh of relief. The ladies, whom the warmth had half lulled to sleep, revived, and the press gallery, empty since the conclusion of the Minister’s discourse, began to refill with reporters, returning to their places.

Sangiorgio delivers a riveting speech that condemns the Government for its neglect of the very peasantry that elected him, and gains the attention of the press, opposition, and a few members of the Government.

matildeseraoIt is, however, just a flash in the pan. Sangiorgio’s only real agenda is to be accepted, and when Donna Angelica begins to take him a little more seriously, he quickly loses all interest in anything aside from having her accept him as a lover. He neglects the affairs of his electorate. He spends money he doesn’t have to create an elegant love nest to entice her. He succeeds only in annoying a better-placed would-be suitor, and the two end up fighting a duel. Sangiorgio wins, but in a manner that merely further alienates him from the people he would engratiate himself with. And so he climbs aboard the train back to the Basilicata, Rome having never really noticed his existence.

It’s a fairly predictable story pattern, one that could be found in dozens of other novels about an ambitious young man from the sticks trying to make it in the big city, and on its own would provide little incentive to read The Conquest of Rome.

What the book really is, though, is a rich and carefully observed journey through Rome as it existed in the 1880s. Serao started as a journalist, and The Conquest of Rome is probably more successful as descriptive rather than artistic work. Here, for example, is Serao’s sketch of the room in which constituents wait for hours on end in hope of an audience with their deputy:

It might have been the anteroom of a celebrated physician, where invalids came, one after another, waiting their turn, looking about with the indifferent gaze of people who have lost all interest in everything else, their thoughts for ever occupied with their malady. And as in such a lugubrious anteroom, which he who has once been there on his own behalf or for one dear to him can never forget, as in such a room are assembled people with all the infirmities that torment our poor, mortal body — the consumptive, with narrow, stooping shoulders, with lean neck, his eyes swimming with a noxious fluid; the victim of heart disease, with pallid face, large veins, yellowish, swollen hands; the anaemic, with violet lips and white gums; the neurotically affected, with protuberant jaws, bulging cheekbones, emaciated frame; and the sufferers from all other diseases, hideous or pitiful, which draw the lines of the face tight, which make the mouth twitch, and impart an unwelcome glow to the hand, that glow that terrifies the healthy — thus, in such a room, did the possessors of all the moral ills unite, oblivious of all complaints but their own. … Every one of those people has a grievance in his soul, an unfulfilled desire, an active, torturing delusion, a secret sorrow, a fierce ambition, a discontent. And in their faces may be seen a corresponding spasmodic twitching, a contraction of angry lips, a dilation of nostrils trembling with nervousness, a knitting of the brows which clouds the whole countenance, hands convulsively doubled in overcoat pockets, a melancholy furrow in the women’s smile, which deepens with every new disillusion. But all of them are completely self-centred, entirely oblivious of foreign interests, indulging in a single thought, a fixed idea, because of which they watch, meet, and conflict with one another, although seeming neither to hear nor to see each other.

There are several dozen such set-pieces in the book–the galleries in the Montecitorio, the grimy quarters of the poorer deputies, the teeming life in the slums along the banks of the Tiber. Like Zola, Serao sometimes forgets to come up for air when she dives into the details, but you just have to slip a page or so further to avoid suffocation. But if you appreciate the chance to step back into a world from 100-plus years ago and soak up the sights and sounds and smells, I can recommend taking a trip through Matilde Serao’s The Conquest of Rome.

You can find electronic editions of The Conquest of Rome on the Internet Archive (Link).

The Conquest of Rome, by Matilde Serao
New York City: Harpers, 1902
First published as La conquista di Roma, 1885

Philosopher’s Holiday, by Irwin Edman

irwinedmanDespite the fact that he was born and raised within a few blocks of Columbia University, graduated from it, and spent most of his professional life as a member of its faculty, Irwin Edman was very much a citizen of the world, and Philosopher’s Holiday (1938) is a delightful anecdotal account of some of his favorite places and people in that world. In fact, his outlook could be summed up in the words of a veterinarian in southern France who befriends him: “There is only one country–it is that of people of intelligence. Its citizens are few; they should be acquainted.”
“A professor of philosophy studies philosophy; a philosopher studies life,” Edman writes in this book, and there probably haven’t been many professional philosopher/academics who were as ready to jump feet-first into life. In one of the chapters in this book, Edman receives a fan letter from a sailor named Jewell V. Jones stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Respectful of an inquiring mind regardless of the social status of its holder, he corresponds with the young man and winds up taking him to his first encounter with classical music at Carnegie Hall. “Boy!, that Wagner certainly could whoop it up!” Jewell remarks after hearing the overture to Die Meistersinger. “Do you think we could get him to play it again?”

Edman is too curious to stick to a set itinerary, and the lack of a particular design to Philosopher’s Holiday shows it. There’s chapter on the role music has played in his life, another one recalling some of the teachers who most influenced him, and a third recalling a debate he had with a director of the I. G. Farben company–an ardent supporter of the Nazis–on the veranda of a hotel near the ancient Greek temples in Agrigento. He encounters the Islamic worldview in conversations with Syrian students during a stay at the American University in Beirut. And, in one of the most enjoyable chapters in the book, he recalls growing up in Manhattan–discovering the varieties of vaudeville, learning to love Childs’ Restaurant, figuring out how to avoid being mugged for his pocket change by neighborhood gangs.


Philosopher’s Holiday was something of a best-seller when it was published, so you can find dozens of copies for sale for less than five bucks. He wrote something of a sequel to it, Philosphers’ Quest (1947), which also easy to locate. You can also find his 1939 book, Candle in the Dark: A Postscript to Despair, on the Internet Archive.

Philosopher’s Holiday, by Irwin Edman
New York City: The Viking Press, 1938

In Search of Myself, by Hans Natonek

Hans Natonek, Paris 1939About a year ago, I posted a short item on Hans Natonek’s In Search of Myself, his account of his experiences as an exile from Nazi-occupied Europe coming to grips with a new life in America. At the time, there were no copies of this book to be found for sale on the Internet, and that’s still the case today.

However, thanks to my son and his access to the great resources of the University of California Library system, I was recently able to borrow a copy and can supplement the reviews I quoted on the original note.

In Search of Myself opens with Natonek and his fellow refugees awakening from their rude beds in the hold of a ship arriving in New York Harbor from neutral Lisbon. The time is somewhere in the fall of 1940.

As we learn, Natonek was one of a number of German and central European writers who fled to France in the late 1930s to escape Nazi persecution. Then, when France fell to Hitler in June 1940, they were uprooted again. Some of Natonek’s friends, such as Ernst Weiss, lost all hope and chose suicide as their escape. Natonek, like Lion Feuchtwanger, made it to Marseilles and were able to link up with Varian Fry, whose Emergency Rescue Committee was able to secure passages to America for over two thousand artists, writers, and others marked for capture by the Nazis.

Natonek did not regard America “as a kind of umbrella under which I may huddle until the storm is past.” He was convinced from the very beginning that it could only be a temporary refuge: it would either join the fight against Hitler or find itself another victim. His frustration with the isolationist view of America as a haven made safe by the Atlantic comes up again and again until the attack on Pearl Harbor brings the US into the war.

A street in lower Manhattan, 1942. From the Charles W. Cushman collection (Archive ID P02677)

He arrived with just four dollars in his pocket and a few vague references. He had no plan for how to survive, and the first fifty-some pages of the book, which describe his first two days in New York–walking around Manhattan, eating in a drugstore, encountering orthodox Jews on the Lower East Side, discovering the cheap hotels in the Bowery where a quarter bought one night in a bed in a room full of other dirty and drunken men–are the most vivid and exciting in the book.

He struggles with a language he knows very little of:

The business of making oneself understood with a minimum vocabulary has a charm of its own, particularly for a man who has made the use of words his métier. I had delighted in the splendor and the ornate richness of my native tongue. I reveled in its abundance, squandering it in intricate expression. Now I found a sober joy in economy, building what words I had into simple patterns solid with meaning. At first I tried self-consciously to carry out this feat. Then, as I embarked upon the vast sea of my subject, my few words began to fail. How could I bail the sea of sorrow with the thimble I had?

While Natonek was early on filled with admiration for the optimism and opportunities of America, he did not consider himself a candidate for a starting a new life from scratch. His counselor at the National Refugee Service quickly dismisses his hopes to continue working as a writer, surviving on the meager $18 weekly allowance provided by the service. “I hope you will not persist in your attitude. Writing is a hobby ….”

Natonek, however, considered it full-time job requiring the most intensive commitment of himself: “To learn a new language at fifty, to learn it intimately as a writer must know it, is, of itself, an almost superhuman undertaking. For only by making the language a part of myself shall I ever succeed in expressing not only what I am, but what I have seen.”

In the end, he is forced by circumstance into a rough compromise. He works a variety of small jobs, often getting fired for incompetence within the first few days, but making enough to eke out a survival and still find time to begin writing a new book in the Reading Room of the New York Public Library. He makes a few friends and eventually manages to speak with a literary agent who takes a sample of his new diary and encourages him to carry own.

He connects with Anna Grunwald, an acquaintance from his time in Paris, and through her is able to travel outside New York. The size and openness of America thrills him:

The road unwound like cotton from a spool. I imagined it leaping onward, Nebraska, Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming. … It was not necessary to plan this trip or any trip within the confines of this country’s boundaries. You could cross a line and never know that you had entered a new state.

The money I had in my pocket would buy the necessities of living from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There was not a hot-dog stand, a soda fountain, or a tourist camp that would not welcome me. The political ideas in my head were my own business.

Will I ever become accustomed to the wonder of these things?

He continues to scrape by, however, stumbling from job to job, until he accepts, sight unseen, a position as porter working in the morgue of Harlem Hospital. It is while there that he finally hears back from his agent, who has managed to land a contract for his American diary: this book.

Natonek married Anna and took U. S. citizenship in 1946. Although he wrote, late in In Search of Myself, that, “One day, perhaps, if God grants me another year, I will stammer a book in English,” he never did. Nor did he ever publish a new book in German, despite attempts, after the war. He died in Tucson, Arizona, in 1963.

The novel he refers to working on throughout the book, about the life of Gilles des Rais, companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc and a notorious child killer, was published posthumously in 1988 as Blaubarts letze Liebe (Bluebeard’s Last Love). Just a few months ago, Lehmstedt, a German publisher, released a collection of Natonek’s short pieces, Letzter Tag in Europa: Gesammelte Publizistik 1933-1963, along with the first biography, by Steffi Böttger, Für immer fremd (Forever Foreign or Forever an Outsider).

At the Green Goose, by D. B. Wyndham Lewis

greengooseAt the Green Goose, by D. B Wyndham Lewis (“not to be confused with the novelist Wyndham Lewis,” as nearly every biographical sketch notes), is an utterly throw-away book that you will either love or wonder why anyone would have published it.

It’s nothing more than a collections of absurd philosophico-academic monologues–or rather, monologues with occasional interruptions–by one Professor Silas Plodsnitch, “great poet, philosopher, and neo-Pantagruelist.” The professor walks into the Green Goose, orders a coffee, lights up his pipe, and begins to talk. His subject may be bees and bee-keepers, celebrity, matrimony, the works of Ethel Biggs Delaney (writer of stories for women’s magazines) or the Sitwells (Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell), but he veers off into other topics, carries on erratically, and then exits, usually without reaching a point.

“For three pence you can buy the index to the Estimates for Civil Services for the year ending March 31, which I have been looking through with some interest,” starts one of his lectures:

I calculate, after reading under the index letter I that every third man in these islands is an inspector of something or other–agriculture, aliens, alkali works, ancient monuments, audits, bankruptcy, canal boats, explosives, fisheries, inebriates, milk, mines, prisons, town planning–heaven knows what beside! This does not include, I suppose, the hordes of sub-inspectors, assistant inspectors, and pupil-inspectors (at present taking a correspondence course), nor yet the Inspector of Inspectors and his staff.

This leads to an imagined dialogue between a harried Inspector of Bankruptcy and an Inspector of Ancient Monuments, whose schedule is considerably more relaxed, which ends in one biting the other on the leg. Then he cuts abruptly into a meditation on the various ways of pronouncing the line, “Bring in the body,” which he’s recently read in a contemporary poem, and the various meanings one might take from them. After detours into a couple of more topics, he breaks off abruptly and marches out of the pub.

These pieces came from Lewis’ humorous column, Beachcomber, which he started writing for the Daily Express starting in 1919. Equally worth finding, if not quite so anarchic in style, are two collections of Lewis’ “Blue Moon” pieces from the column he wrote after switching over to the Daily Mail: (At the Sign of the Blue Moon (1924) and At the Blue Moon Again (1925)). They are, arguably, the funniest and most surreal things to have been printed in a major newspaper until the Irish Times started publishing Flann O’Brien’s amazing Cruiskeen Lawn column.

If you’re a fan of shaggy-dog tales, Tristram Shandy, Professor Irwin Corey, or Monty Python, you’ll find At the Green Goose well worth a read. If, however, you prefer to get from Point A to Point B by the shortest path, keep moving. Nothing to see here.

At the Green Goose is available on the Internet Archive.

At the Sign of the Green Goose, by D. B. W. Lewis
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1923

The Big Drag, by Mel Heimer

“Life along the Big Drag is a pinwheel, a rollercoaster, a fast-motion movie; everything is stepped up twenty times in tempo, and the Broadwayite, whether for better or worse, has at thirty-five lived four times as many lives as the Kansan at seventy.” That sentence tells you everything you need to know about Mel Heimer’s 1947 ode to Broadway, The Big Drag. Yeah, it’s a bucket-full of eyewash and a crystalline gem of the Big Apple myth. “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere”: you know how the number goes before you’ve finished the first line.

melheimerHeimer’s New York City is “a town full of thieves, touts, fanatics, pigeon-lovers, pigeon-haters, dreamers, schemers, professional bums, dancers, refugees and knife-throwers.” His man wears slacks with a razor-sharp crease–even if the seat is shiny with wear–and loud neckties: “Riotous colors, weird designs, lush batik prints, paintings of horses or ducks or geese the Broadway boy goes for them all.” His Broadway is “a winding path full of shooting galleries,
movie houses, shirt shops, pineapple juice stands and cafeterias.” His list of celebrities includes the still-remembered (Milton Berle, the somewhat-remembered (Tallulah Bankhead), and the hardly-remembered (Rags Ragland, Richard Maney, and Renee Carroll, the hat-check girl from Sardi’s who was once enough of a name in her own right to publish a book about her experiences in the club (In Your Hat (1933)).

This book is an express ticket to “Guys and Dolls” land:

Nine out of every ten guys along Broadway are betting men; they were when they came to the main stem, and if they weren’t, they soon were converted. They will bet on everything and anything on the respective speed of two raindrops skidding down a restaurant window, on the poker hands involved in automobile license-plate numbers, on which horse will finish last in a given race, on whether the next batter will walk or strike out.

In other words, if you’re a sucker for the New York you’ll never see again, except on a movie screen, The Big Drag is like a big bag of potato chips: empty calories that are utterly irresistible. If Damon Runyon’s work now rates being packaged as a Penguin Classic, then Mel Heimer’s The Big Drag rates at least an honorable mention as its postwar counterpart.

You can find The Big Drag in electronic format for free on the
Internet Archive (link).

The Big Drag, by Mel Heimer
New York City: Whittlesey House, 1947

The Young Person’s Complete Guide to Crime, by C. G. L. Du Cann

youngpersonsguidetocrimeLast month, I posted an item on The Toady’s Handbook by William Murrell, a satirical D. I. Y. guide on how to succeed through concerted obsequiousness. Murrell’s book was part of a trilogy of sly little self-help books published by Grant Richards and Humphrey Toulmin back in 1929. Of remaining two, Charles Duff’s A Handbook on Hanging was rescued a few years ago as a New York Review Classic. The Young Person’s Complete Guide to Crime, by Charles Garfield Lott Du Cann, however, shares a common state of neglect with Murrell’s book.

The three books take a contrarian view of their subjects. Murrell argues, quite convincingly, that toadying is not only an effective way to gain a secure and influential place, but the only sane way to approach life as a member of society. Duff disparages those who would abolish hanging as cruel and offers a defense of its merits as both deterrent and art-form. And Du Cann holds that “the real truth is that crime is a highly respectable, semi-skilled, sheltered occupation,” one “reasonably accessible to the ambitious” and to be commended to the young.

A barrister and member of Gray’s Inn, Du Cann clearly took an impish delight in his tongue-in-cheek argument. Perhaps a little too much–for the book quickly veers down a side street and Du Cann spends most of the work skewering the ways and players of the British system of justice rather than noting the advantages of a life of crime. One gets the sense that the profession Du Cann referred to in his expansive subtitle is that of the law, not crime.
In fact, one of the primary advantages to becoming a criminal, according to the book, is that prison isn’t such a bad place to end up if you do get caught. That’s a little like recommending a restaurants by saying, “If you do get food poisoning, it won’t be too bad.” Du Cann does score a point, however, in noting that, for older men without fortune or family–at least in the England before the time of social welfare–prison offered a safer and healthier alternative to anything else life could offer.

Aside from this Swiftian advocacy of life in prison, however, the main pleasures of The Young Person’s Complete Guide to Crime are the epigrams Du Cann tosses in as asides to his mocking commentary. “When a respectable Englishman is convinced that there is nothing more to be done he always writes to the Times. It is the last gesture of despair and disillusionment,” he observes in the midst of a discussion of whether all or just almost all persons brought before court are guilty. (Du Cann sides with the “all guilty” camp).

He also offers, at the end, his own variant on Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary:

  • ACCUSED (THE). Indispensable raw material of the industry. Often manufactured by the industry itself.
  • HEARING IN COURT. A talking match. Hence the name.
  • SEX-OFFENDER. A male.

Of the three books in Richards & Toulmin’s set, Du Cann’s has aged most poorly in terms of subject and is least suitable for export. Occasionally, though, a still-relevant observation leaps off the page:

Expert Witnesses are often highly-paid, and they are expected to be (and are) entirely unscrupulous. It is true that Expert Witnesses are more frequently employed in civil than criminal proceedings, but the world of crime has a great use for them in deciphering hand-writing, detecting poisoning, and the like. The expert witness is not (as his name seems to say) an expert in giving testimony (that is called a policeman) but a man who considers himself, and is put forward as being, an authority on the matter upon which he testifies. He speaks to opinions, not to facts, but of course he tries to make the Court accept his opinions as facts.

Although only a slight jest, The Young Person’s Complete Guide to Crime remains entertaining today on the merits of Du Cann’s amusing and self-deprecating commentary. Du Cann wrote at least a dozen other books, but most of them appear to have been taken up as escapes from the duties of his life as a working lawyer. He seems to have been quite adept at adapting his arguments to his clients and subjects–how else can you explain the same man writing Getting the Most Out of Life and Will You Rise From The Dead? An Enquiry Into the Evidence of Resurrection?

The Young Person’s Complete Guide to Crime, by C. G. L. Du Cann
London: Grant Richards and Humphrey Toulmin at the Cayme Press, 1929

The Toady’s Handbook, by William Murrell

toadyI discovered this book in a very roundabout way. A few months ago I posted the title essay from Alec Waugh’s 1926 book, On Doing What One Likes. I didn’t recognize the name of the publisher–Cayme Press–but admired the book’s construction and wondered what else Cayme might have published.

This quickly led me to Charles Duff’s A Handbook on Hanging, originally published in 1929 but reissued as one of the early NYRB Classics, with an introduction by the late Christopher Hitchens. Hanging is very much in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,”–in this case, reflecting upon the many advantages of an aggressive policy of capital punishment. Duff advocates, for example, to reintroduce the practice of public hanging on the basis of the economic benefits (ticket sales, film rights, concession sales).

Hanging was one of three books published “Uniform with this volume,” as noted on the fly-leaf. The other two titles, one can easily deduce, are variations on Duff’s satirical tract: The ‘Young Person’s’ Complete Guide to Crime, by Charles Garfield Lott Du Cann, and The Toady’s Handbook, by William Murrell. The ‘Young Person’s’ Complete Guide to Crime took the format of an earnest guide to a worthy subject such as art (or, as Benjamin Britten did some years later, the orchestra) and turned it into tongue-in-cheek tour of the upside of crime–which has, throughout history, proved a profitable venture–at least for some.

The third book, The Toady’s Handbook is a celebration of the benefits of artful obsequiousness. “Toadyism,” Murrell writes, “may accurately be defined as that art which deals with life in terms of its own vanity.” The vanity he refers to is the vanity of others: “the Toady is he who most per-, con-, and insistently administers to our vanity”–and as such, he argues, “should be and is nearer to us and more fervently to be embraced than our own blood brothers.” Indeed, the English word “toady,” he notes, “comes from the Spanish mia todita, my servitor. And what more honourable function than that of service?” [My Spanish colleague tells me that mia todita actually means “my little whole” or “my humble share.”–Ed.]

Murrell’s great model of the toady is Talleyrand, who managed to hold influential positions under eleven different French regimes–Royalist, revolutionary, Republican, Imperial, Restoration and, again, Royalist. Talleyrand’s motto is a précis on the art of survival as a toady: “Be a lion in triumph, a fox in defeat, a snail in council, and a bird in the hour of action.” Talleyrand today has a reputation for intrigue, deviousness and manipulation, but Murrell argues that this assessment utterly misses because it’s rooted in the assumption that whatever regime was in place was, in its way, rightful and deserving of honest support.

Instead, the Toady is the one sane person in an otherwise mad world. “I have been faithful to individuals as long as they obeyed the dictates of common sense,” Talleyrand once said. Murrell holds that by ensuring that his lot endures through all the follies of life, love, art and politics, the Toady displays better sense than all the fools who throw themselves completely into their causes. “All our painfully developed notions of honour, loyalty, fraternity, et cetera, are nothing but hypocritical humbug,” he writes.

Of course, the irony of the Toady’s situation is that there is nothing to guarantee that survival is, in the end, any less of a folly than pursuit of some noble cause–as Murrell recognizes by ending his short tract with a verse that appears in Thomas Love Peacock’s comic dialogue novel, Crochet Castle:

After careful meditation,
And profound deliberation,
On the various pretty projects which have just been shown,
Not a scheme in agitation,
For the world’s amelioration,
Has a grain of common sense in it, except my own.

All three of these little books (each measures 4.5″ by 7″ and is under 150 pages long) deserve to be brought back to print, at least electronically, as they are wonderful examples of just how much we can learn about ourselves by taking a completely contrarian viewpoint for an hour or two.

The Toady’s Handbook, by William Murrell
London: Grant Richards & Humphrey Toulmin at the Cayme Press, 1929

Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling, by Madge Jenison

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Sunwise Turn'
“Separated from Fifth Avenue by about a hundred feet of sidewalk, but by an immeasurable difference in atmopshere, is the shop that most booklovers have dreamed of, a place in which to meet old friends in books and to discover new ones, to browse alone by an open fire, or to discuss your literary hobbies–and incidentally, but never obtrusively, to purchase books you really want.”

So opens a profile of the Sunwise Turn bookshop published in the Independent magazine in 1916. At the time, the shop had been open for just a few months, and though it was to close about ten years later, it had a significant impact on both American bookselling and American culture.

Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling, published in 1923, is an account of the shop’s first few years written by Madge Jenison, who founded it along with Mary Mowbray-Clarke, wife of the sculptor John Frederick Mowbray-Clarke.

Jenison and Mowbray-Clarke were, like many novice entrepreneurs, long on enthusiasm and short on common sense. They took an evangelical approach to bookselling. For them, the shop was more than an outlet for merchandise–it was a way to inform and expand the awareness of their customers. “Our function was to pass on what had been nobly created, to see that it circulated, instead of lying lost in a dust heap to keep the wind away.”

And they were not interested in mass marketing. Indeed, their first notion of a target customer base was “fifty patrons who bought $500 worth of books a year.” With this in mind, they started to build their collection: “The first day we went out to order our stock we bought everything that we liked and everything that we especially wanted people to read.” This included a hundred copies of Hunting Indians in a Taxcab, a slim 1911 comic piece by Kate Sanborn about collecting cigar-store Indians. It was an utter flop.

Sunwise Turn is something of an early forerunner of contemporary gospels of entrepreneurship such as Paul Hawken’s Growing a Business. She describes how the care they put into every aspect of the shop: not just the books it carried, but its location, its decor (“We intended the room to look like a place in which you could read a book,” not a “denaturalized warehouse room”), its packaging, and what today one would call its corporate image (although that statement probably sent Jenison spinning in her grave). They also published about a dozen or so books, most of which can now be found on the Internet Archive, under their own imprint, including a study of the sculptor Rodin written by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Were Jenison around today, she might be considered a subscriber to the tenet, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” In a discussion on advertising, she writes,

The chief factor in making a thing known, outside of the forced methods of advertising, seems to be to make it honest in the best sense–something of your own, and alive, and not drawn from the general vat of experience. Only give the world something with character to talk about, and it will carry your name to sunset.

On the other hand, toward the end of the book–written, to be precise, before the shop went out of business–Jenison discusses various practical and economic aspects of bookselling, but notes: “Nobody knows much about bookselling. It is a trade in which there has been little constructive research.” She advocates for an analytical approach to the business that would take more of the risk off the bookseller’s back. However, as even the experience of Amazon has shown, no matter how much data about customers’ interests and behavior you gather and crunch, reading and book-buying is still rife with failures and serendipitous successes.

The shop’s name, by the way, came from an anecdote that Amy Murray later included in Father Allan’s Island, her 1920 book about the people and culture of Eriskay, a small island in the Hebrides. “They do everything daesal (sunwise) here, for they believe that to follow the course of the sun is propitious. The sunwise turn is the lucky one.”

Sunwise Turn is still something of a dangerous book. Reading it will almost certainly lead to fantasies about opening one’s own version of the Sunwise Turn bookshop: Do not attempt this trick on your own, however.

Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling, by Madge Jemison
New York City: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1923

The Cook, by Harry Kressing

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'The Cook'I am certainly not the first to acclaim Harry Kressing’s 1965 novel, The Cook as a neglected masterpiece. It rates seven five-star reviews on Amazon, and at least a handful of enthusiastic posts on other blogs (Wilson’s Pick; Hella D; Browser’s Bookstore; five o’clock teaspoon; and The Kind of Face You Hate). Still, something is out of whack when a book pops up so often as a forgotten favorite and commands upwards of $29.95 for what was originally a 75-cent paperback.

The Cook is a perfect fiction. It takes place in a stateless world. The characters seem American but could just as well fit in a dozen other countries. Kressing wastes nothing on anything but the story, and when he has achieved the effect he has been aiming at, he ties it off with a quick snip.

The story takes place in the town of Cobb, into which rides Conrad, an exceedingly tall thin man dressed in black. He is mesmerized by the Prominence, an enormous castle-like estate sitting high above the town on an almost inaccessible plateau. The people in the town work for one of the two great families that run its industries. The Hills and the Vales have something of a family curse that hangs over them from generations back, although it’s faded to the point that they manage to socialize on occasion. After quickly demonstrating to the townspeople that he is a chef of formidable knowledge and skill, Conrad insinuates himself onto the staff at the Hill’s mansion.

From then on, the plot of The Cook unreels through a series of episodes by which Conrad increasingly exerts his will upon all he encounters. Within days, his wonderful cooking wins the Hills’ gratitude, but his goal is not to feed them but to control them–indeed, to control the whole town.

Soon, he has not only convinced the Hills to fire most of their staff, but he has managed to subvert the Hills themselves to work as their own servants, under his increasingly forceful direction. The whole process is undertaken with just enough subtlety to make it seem inevitable:

The three Hills continued to stare at him silently. In appearance, Conrad was not quite the same as when he had arrived in Cobb. Most striking, he was no longer gaunt and starved-looking. Not that he was fat, but it was his size that would catch the eye rather than any want of proportion: before, he had only seemed very tall and thin; now he looked huge, which made his presence more powerfully felt. His face, too, was fuller and, consequently, less eagle-like in aspect. Yet, this impression remained quite evident: his nose, which really gave his face its cast, was still sharp and hooked, even though it was broader and not so pointed. Still, it was unmistakably a beak. Indeed, if anything it was a slightly larger and more forceful beak, as befitted the greater bulk of his figure. The eyes, of course, were as black as ever. That some of the lines around the corners had been smoothed didn’t seem to change their expression: they were still disconcertingly piercing.

It is as if he is consuming the Hills not just psychologically but physically as well. By playing with their minds and their diets, Conrad eventually rearranges lives of the Hills and the Vales in such a way that he becomes the all-controlling force over them, and ends up as master of the Prominence.

The Cook is a masterful diabolic fable, worked in elegant prose within the space of barely a hundred-some pages. Considering that we are living in a golden age of foodies, it’s crazy that this tale of gourmet wizardry (literally and metaphorically) hasn’t been republished with an intro by someone like Anthony Bourdain (who would certainly appreciate the book’s black humor).

Harry Kressing seems to have been a pseudonym, and although there have been a number of attempts to put a face to the name, so far the Internet has not revealed his secret. He (assuming someone else didn’t steal his pseudonym) published a second novel–or rather, a collection of two novellas–under the title of Married Lives in 1974. Married Lives is nothing like The Cook–instead of a fabulistic tale, we get two set-pieces that seem more like technical exercises than serious fiction. It’s best left neglected.

The Cook, by Harry Kressing
New York: Random House, 1965

Lord Bellinger: An Autobiography, by Harry Graham

Cover of first U. K. edition of 'Lord Bellinger'Imagine my delight, upon taking Lord Bellinger down from a shelf in one of the few remaining used book shops along Charing Cross Road and discovering that it was not some arthritic attempt at a ripping yarn or a petrified Edwardian romance novel, but a mocking pastiche on the life of the idle nobility. Visions of Augustus Carp, Esq. danced in my head as I took it up to the cashier. This could easily be one of my great finds.

Sadly, after devouring the book in the course of the next day or so, I had to conclude that Lord Bellinger is a good find, but not a great one. Unlike H. H. Bashford, who managed in Augustus Carp, Esq. to find a narrative voice that was both sincere in its allegiance to his subject’s smugness and withering in its comic mockery, Graham displays a restraint that often undermines his satirical intent.

Despite being just one generation away from his family’s roots in the brewery business, Richard de la Poer Tracy Bellinger, the third son of John, the first Baron Bellinger, is truly to the manor born. He prides himself that, like his father, he is “naturally disinclined to anything approaching effort.” When he succeeds his father to the House of Lords, he takes it as given that the peers of the upper chamber are the rightful rulers of England: “I feel sure that I am only voicing the unanimous opinion of my class when I say that it is essential for the maintenance of the Constitution that the affairs of Empire should be conducted by gentlemen who are prepared to consider the questions of the day with open minds, unbiased by any kind of commercial or business experience whatsoever.”

Although still a relatively young man, Lord Bellinger has chosen to write his autobiography as a protest against the effects of the Parliament Act of 1911, which removed many of the legislative powers of the House of Lords. He is proud to stand–or rather, sit–beside “able, brilliant, painstaking men, inspired by a strong sense of duty to themselves: the solid backbone upon which the House and the nation can always depend.” Among these luminaries are such men as:

Lord Slaugham, with whom divorce has become more of a habit than an event (his marriage with his fourth wife was quite one of the most interesting of last year’s society functions); Lord Thrapstone, who absentmindedly wrote a friend’s name on a cheque, was found guilty, and bound over to come up for judgment if called upon, it being rightly considered that the disgrace of being found out was a sufficient punishment for a man of his social standing; Lod Blissworth, who, on the strength of possessing an acre of land and two gum-trees in the West Indies, floated the Yumata River Company, whose collapse ruined so many domestic servants. Here, too, was Lord Lythe and Saythe (formerly Sir Benjamin Salmon), who so generously offered to subscribe £50,000 to the scheme for a National Opera House on condition that a thousand other people would do the same; old Lord Bletchley, who, though eighty-nine years of age and mentally deficient, is still able to touch his toes with his fingers without bending his knees; Lord Meopham, who shot his coachman in the back with a revolver because that domestic happened to take a wrong turn in Park Lane; Lord Swaffield, who as Sir Moses Hamilton earned a world-wide reputation by walking down the Duke of York’s steps on his hands for a wager; Lord Dunbridge, famous as the husband of Lady Dunbridge, whose enthusiasm for the cause of Woman’s Suffrage has caused her to cut her hair off, and to take her meals in a liquid form and exclusively through the nose; Lord Brancaster, who as Sir Thomas Tilling failed seven times to get into Parliament–though he stood impartially on both sides–but who, on the death of his uncle, at last earned the reward of patriotism and became a true representative of the people; and a host of others.

Richard Lord Bellinger’s preparation for a seat in the House follows a well-worn path: Eton, a stint in the Army, a bit of sports, a bit of travel, and marriage into greater wealth. His two elder brothers conveniently give way before him: one, a churchman, decapitated in the Boxer Rebellion; the other a con artist who disappears in the South Seas after scandalous detours at the gaming tables of Biarritz and Monte Carlo. He takes naturally to his peerage, and accepts the responsibilities that come with the position. He relates, for example, the heart-rending tale of Alfred, his family’s doorman, who is fired for being found asleep on the job (at 4 A. M.), and who ends up spending his last penny for his son’s Christmas present. Lord Bellinger is so moved by this glimpse into the lives of the lower classes that he is moved to undertake charitable work. “I found, however, that this would entail the sacrifices of more time than I could possible spare–and was consequently forced to relinquish the idea.” He is, however, proud to declare that each Christmas he presents a brace of rabbits to “Every labourer on the estate who has reached the age of ninety without receiving a ‘parish relief.'”

Lord Bellinger ends with a fond look back at his wedding, which has somewhat the effect of a hanging note. Having gently skewered his peer for the last two-hundred-some pages, Graham balks at a final thrust and, instead, leaves him to live happily ever after. Sixty years later, the Monty Python troupe dispatched with the grandchildren of Lord Bellinger’s counterparts in under five minutes in their memorable “Upper Class Twit of the Year” sketch. Not all forms of restraint are laudable.

The best part of Lord Bellinger isn’t the ending, in fact–it’s what comes after the ending. This is one of the few works of fictional autobiography to come with an index. It starts with this highly informative quartet:

Abergeldie. See Aberlochie
Aberladdie. See Abernethy
Aberlochie. See Abergeldie
Abernethy. See Aberladdie

And continues on to such gems as:

Banchory, Earl of, half-witted condition of, 221; unattractive nature of remaining half, 221


Cowan, Sir Simeon, 44; worth a million and a quarter, 45; not safe to kick his son, 45

and coming, finally, to words I will always prefer to remember as the true ending of Lord Bellinger:

Zinc, grandmother’s dental cavities stopped with, 172

Harry Graham, himself the son of a K. C. B. and former Guardsman, was a prolific writer of comic poems, stories and plays. He’s probably best remembered now for his very first book, Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes and More Ruthless Rhymes (Hilarious Stories), which can be considered the forerunner of Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, Edward Gorey’s macabre ABC books, and A Series of Unfortunate Events:

Making toast at fireside,
Nurse fell in the grate and died;
And, what makes it ten times worse,
All the toast was burned with nurse.

Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes and More Ruthless Rhymes (Hilarious Stories) is available in all sorts of forms: as a Dover Thrift paperback, as an Audible audiobook, in ebook formats on Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive, and on its own website,

Lord Bellinger: An Autobiography, by Harry Graham
London: Edward Arnold, 1911

The Persians Are Coming, by Bruno Frank

The Persians Are Coming is a short novel set in Italy and on the French Riviera–something of an allegory about the death of liberalism and humanism and the rise of fascism. It starts with a German liberal politician taking leave of his favorite holiday spot in Italy–a place of classical beauty now being taken over by the blackshirts. Expecting to return to Germany and take a high office in a new government, he stops along the Riviera to meet a like-minded French politician, and the two have a dialogue about the possibility of redemption through the simple goodness of ordinary folk (c.f. 1984: “If there was hope, it must lie in the proles”).

In Marseilles on his way to Berlin, however, he finds his world unravelling with increasing speed. He sees newspapers announcing the collapse of his government and thinks he hears his name being whispered all around him. As the sun sets and the streets darken, his walk takes him from the modern streets into a nightmarish quarter full of Arabs, thieves, addicts and prostitutes. He leaves the light of the Marseilles founded by the ancient Greeks and descends into an Eastern world of sex, drugs and violence–violence that ultimately claims him. This final passage has more than a few reminders of Mann’s Death in Venice and the child sacrifice scene in The Magic Mountain.

Translated, coincidentally, by Mann’s regular English translator, the ham-fisted H. T. Lowe-Porter. But despite that, there is some elegance in the prose, and the story is profoundly sad, aside from the lurid ending. What’s interesting is that it was published in 1928, when Nazism was still just one of a number of competing ideologies, and yet Frank seems already to have conceded the defeat of liberal democracy.

The Persians are Coming, by Bruno Frank, translated from Politische Novelle by H. T. Lowe-Porter
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929

Hizzoner the Mayor, by Joel Sayre

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Hizzoner the Mayor'Zumphmeeeabmeeab!

Joel Sayre’s 1933 satire of machine politics, Hizzoner the Mayor, opens with the sound of a pesky mosquito attacking the big toe of John Norris (Jolly John) Holtsapple, four times Mayor of the Greater City of Malta, as he awakens from another wild night of drinking with the boys. “Barrelled again,” he thinks, and swears to get back on the wagon until his election is over.

In Hizzoner the Mayor, Sayre–who went on to work as a writer on such classic films of the 1930s as Gunga Din–revels in cariacatures and wise cracks every bit as much as his subject does in booze and babes. The City of Malta is obviously a stand-in for New York City and Jolly John a cartoonish take on James John (“Gentleman Jimmy”) Walker, who charmed the proles, indulged in all his favorite vices, and openly condoned bootlegging and other rackets.

Like Gentleman Jimmy, Jolly John considers himself quite the ladies’ man:

“Ladies,” the Mayor resumed, “I’m deligh’ed see you. I’m always deligh’ed to see a lady. Thass me alla time. I doan care if she’s white or black, Democrat or Repub’ican. It ain’t the race with me, friends, it’s the lady. I doan care if she’s Protes’ant or Cath’lic, I doan care if she’s a Jew or Gentile, I doan care if she’s Chinaman or Jap, I doan care if she’s rich or poor, I doan care if she’s drunk or sober. Just so long she’s 100 per cent American and a lady.”

Like Walker, Jolly John is more of an entertainer than a politician. He’s more than happy to shake hands, kiss babies, cut ribbons, and even wrestle with Waldo, the Wrassling Bear, while leaving the business of running the city to the operators of the Malta Democratic Club and gangsters like Jerry Gozo. With Holtsapple’s help, Gozo manages to rack up a total of 241 arrests and only two convictions:

… a suspended sentence (when he was twelve years of age) for possessing burglar’s tools and thirty days in the County Jail for getting behind in his alimony (imposed by a woman magistrate in Family Court). The other charges, all unsubstantiated, had run the gamut from disorderly conduct (61 times) and horse-poisoning (17 times) through carrying concealed weapons (54 times) and violation of the Eighteenth Amendment (83 times) to kidnapping (10 times) and murder (11 times). The remaining items were distributed pretty evenly over such offenses as felonious assault, grand larceny, arson, extortion and public nuisance (playing a radio after 11 p.m.).

Unfortunately for both of them, Gozo is discovered dead that morning, sitting in a men’s room stall with the imprint of a horseshoe on his forehead. And over the course of the following weeks, other notorious Malta figures and Holtsapple supporters suffer the same fate.

At the same time, a crusading reformer, Phillip Dorsey, is organizing a campaign to unseat Jolly John. Hizzoner the Mayor is the tale of the battle between virtue and corruption. The themes of the infiltration of unions, manipulation of black voters, contract fraud, and abuse of city construction projects will be familiar to anyone who has read Robert Caro’s classic, The Power Broker.

Sadly for Dorsey, however, Sayre’s heart is clearly on the side of the rogues. It’s hard to argue with his choice: the rogues are painted in brash, lurid colors and speak in pure Noo Yawk slang when the reformers dress and speak in proper Yankee grey. And the fun in Hizzoner the Mayor is all in the language:

What Al Smith christened “boloney pictures” the previous summer were posed for in profusion: the Mayor on one knee at the finals in the State-wide Marble Shooting Championship; Satchells in a Boy Scout hat being sworn as a Tenderfoot into Troop 16; the Mayor in the cab of the largest B. & O. engine at the Grand Union Depot with the far too small cap of the engineer on his great head; Satchells with his arm around the skinny shoulders of Micajah Hudgins, Malta’s oldest voter, who had first marched to the polls for William Henry Harrison. . . In every conceivable position the two were snapped: kissing babies, dandling gluey-mouthed children, laying wreathes, baking bread, tanning hides, throwing baseballs, kicking footballs, riding gang plows, shooting, swimming, waving at people. The Divine Cal himself had no more versatile a repertoire.

Both sides sent out their dirt-squirters, each carefully instructed never to squirt before more than one person at a time. The Mayor held a long conference over just what squirted on Satchells would do him the most harm. Mike Raffigan told him about Inge.

“Who is she?”

“She’s a massooze, John.”

“A what?”

“You know, she gives massadge to the society dames. Got a big jernt of her own on Federal

“Good Gawd,” said the Mayor, “do you want to elect the guy? Lay off that dame stuff or the people are li’ble to think it’s swell and vote for him!”

Hizzoner the Mayor was Sayre’s second novel. His first, Rackety Rax, was a similarly over-the-top satire, in this case of the intrusion of gambling interests in college sports–a topic that still comes up on a regular basis in the news. Rackety Rax gave Sayre his first screenwriting job, as he was hired by Fox to turn it into a 1932 film starring Victor McLagen. He published two more books in the 1940s: Persian Gulf Command (1945), a collection of his New Yorker articles on military operations in that region during the Second World War, and The House Without a Roof (1948), a novel about the experiences of an ordinary German family under Hitler. His daughter, Nora Sayre, was a writer and long-time film critic for The New York Times. He died in 1979.

Copies of Hizzoner the Mayor are rare and go for prices of $250 and up. Luckily, however, you can enjoy this delightful period piece for free thanks to the Internet Archive: Hizzoner the Mayor.

Hizzoner the Mayor, by Joel Sayre
New York: John Day Company, 1933

Blow the Man Down! A Yankee Seaman’s Adventures Under Sail, by James H. Williams

In his autobiography, Living Again, Felix Riesenberg mentions that, during his time as editor of Seafarer and Marine Pictorial magazine, “I printed what I believe to be one of the outstanding sea stories ever written, ‘The Passing of Pengelley,’ by a sailor named Williams, a protégé of Hamilton Holt, the editor of the Independent.”

blowthemandownGoogling “passing of pengelley” and “williams” produced just two hits: one to Living Again, the other to the Google Books page for Blow The Man Down: A Yankee Seaman’s Adventures Under Sail, subtitled “An autobiographical narrative based upon the writings of James H. Williams,” a 1959 book edited by Warren F. Kuehl.

In his preface to the book, Kuehl describes how he stumbled across a collection of Williams’ manuscripts while researching a biography on Holt:

In style and story, it held me spellbound. Here were daring adventures, heroic deeds, and colorful descriptive passages. And here was the lure of a romantic age now lost save in our imagination.

From reading the pieces, Kuehl soon learned more about the writer:

He called himself a common sailor, but he was a most uncommon man. With little formal education, he wrote in a style which would embarrass many polished scribes. Although a self-confessed murderer according to his own account, he possessed a high sense of moral virtue which like an unseen hand directed his actions. Although a practical man who survived innumerable storms and two major shipwrecks, he was a romantic soul who instinctively sought out the ships of masts and spars in an age in which the merchant marine was making its transition from sail to steam, from Wood to steel. Within him, too, burned a reforming fever so intense that he became an uncompromising enemy of crimps, jackals, avaricious shipowners, heartless masters, and all who preyed upon the common seaman. And he labored with some success to achieve through unions and legislation the humane treatment and legal rights which he felt his comrades of the sea deserved.

jameshwilliamsHe was, Kuehl continues,

James H. Williams, Negro seaman with reddish hair and light-brown skin. He was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, on May 21, 1864, the son of James C. and Margaret Crotty Williams and, as he narrates in describing his family background and childhood experiences, went to sea at an early age. It was in 1897 that he first began to write about life in the old merchant marine. He was then thirty-three years old and had been a sailor for twenty-one years. Hamilton Holt, then the managing editor of the Independent, a prominent national magazine, opened the columns of his journal to Williams and subsequently prints over thirty articles and editorials from Williams’ pen.

As Williams writes in the first piece, “A Son of Ishmael,” his father was a black sailor, whose mother had been a slave, and his mother a white working-class woman from Fall River. Williams’ father rose to the status of pilot for a Long Island Sound line, and had ambitions of a college education for his son, but these ended with his death in an accident in 1870. At the age of twelve, Williams took to sea, bound to a shipmaster as a cabin boy.

By the time Williams went to sea, the great age of sailing ships was already coming to an end. Steamships were rapidly replacing sailing ships, and three-masters were being elbowed out of the most profitable routes. Although Williams was quite clearly a highly perceptive and intelligent man, for some reason he chose to stick with the older ships–a decision that relegated him to a series of rough, dangerous, and poorly-paid posts on ships plying secondary routes to such places as Bombay and Buenos Aires. Most of his jobs were on British ships, although he considered this “entirely the result of chance and not of choice.”

“I am proud of my hard-earned distinction as a maritime A. B. and of my lifetime of intimate and fraternal association with the ‘common’ sailors of the old merchant marine. No nobler or braver or more loyal, devoted and self-sacrificing martyrs than the merchant seaman ever lived.”

“The Passing of Pengelley” offers a dramatic illustration of the risks taken by these seamen. It describes the death of one of Williams’ shipmates, Alfred Pengelley, on the British ship, Late Commander, on a transit from Southhampton to Calcutta. As they huddle together on deck, sheltering from a terrific storm while standing watch, Pengelley confides in Williams that he has a crippling fear of climbing the masts and believes that he is destined to die from a fall. Pengelley’s premonition comes true that night. Williams then recounts his burial at sea and how the ship’s captains and owners then attempt to cover up the cause of the accident–the lack of proper safety attachments–and put the blame on Pengelley’s own negligence. It’s a vivid story that not only demonstrates the dangers of shipboard work but also Williams’ own advocacy of better working conditions and pay for sailors–a cause he championed both while at sea and later through his articles and columns.

The story illustrates why Kuehl is apt in comparing Williams’ writings to Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s classic, Two Years Before the Mast. Both men were eloquent in conveying the drama and degradation of life as a working sailor, and both played important roles in organizing movements to improve their lot.

Ironically, though, at the same time that Williams began to write, the very organizations he was trying to support were making it more and more difficult for a black man to work as a merchant sailor. By the time he came ashore for good in 1910, it would have been difficult for him to get a posting as anything other than a cook or steward.

Williams’ time at sea took a considerable toll on his health. Although supported by Holt and others, he still had to rely on odd jobs on the Manhattan waterfront to get by. He collected his manuscripts and wrote an introductory foreword to them in 1922, hoping to publish them as a book. It was this collection that Kuehl discovered among Hamilton Holt’s papers.

In 1926, he retired to Sailor’s Snug Harbor a home founded in 1801 to give refuge to “aged, decrepit and worn-out” seamen. He died a year later after an operation to treat his throat cancer and was buried in the Sailor’s Snug Harbor cemetery.

A paperback reproduction of Blow The Man Down is available from Literary Licensing, LLC. for $32.95, but used copies of the original 1959 hardback can be found for a fraction of that price on Amazon and elsewhere.

Blow The Man Down: A Yankee Seaman’s Adventures Under Sail, based upon the writings of James H. Williams, edited by Warren F. Kuehl
New York City: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1959

The Prisoners, by Orhan Kemal

Business travel took me through the Istanbul Airport for the fifth time since the start of the year, and I had enough time to check the same bookshop where I found Nazim Hikmet’s wonderful Human Landscapes from My Country. In the small section of Turkish literature in English translation dominated, naturally enough, by Orhan Pahmuk, I found Orhan Kemal’s slim novel, The Prisoners (72. Ko?u? or Ward 72 in the original).

Kemal, a prolific and popular writer specializing in novels about the lower classes, was a contemporary of Hikmet and served time with him in the same jail–an experience he recounted in his 1947 book, In Jail with Nazim Hikmet“>In Jail with Nazim Hikmet. His most famous book, The Idle Years, now available from Peter Owen Ltd. with a preface by Pahmuk, is a semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman. Like Hikmet, he died in exile–in Bulgaria, in his case–and his works have since become recognized and accepted as some of the best Turkish literature of the 20th century. A substantial site, including an English language section, is available at, and Everest Publications, a Turkish press, has brought many of his books, including a few English translations, back to print.

The Prisoners tells a classic tale of human hopes and tragedy. Ahmet, known a “Captain” by his fellow inmates from his time as a merchant seaman, receives a little money from his mother while serving a sentence for the murder of two men who’d killed his father. Against his instincts, he’s talked into gambling it in the running crap grame controlled by another prisoner, Solezli. He wins some, and treats the other inmates of Ward 72, a filthy hole to which the lowest tier of prison society is resigned, to a little food, some beans and meat.

The taste of warm, filling food soon leads Captain to return to the crap game. He wins again, and soon is off on a winning streak. Ward 72 is transformed with his takings. He becomes a force in the prison. He begins to have hopes of a life after his sentence is up decades in the future.

Nothing good lasts forever, of course, and it all comes to a grim end. You know this from the moment Captain comes back to Ward 72 with cash in hand, but Kemal succeeds in making the story fresh and gripping. Despite the bleak and ruthless prison setting, The Prisoners is as simple and powerful as a classic short novel such as The Red Badge of Courage.

One copy of The Prisoners is available on Amazon for the ridiculous price of $231, but you can order it for much less at or from the Turkish bookstore chain, D&R.

The Prisoners, by Orhan Kemal, translated by Cengiz Lugal
Istanbul: Everest Publications, 2012

Kingdom on Earth, by Anne Brooks

In his story, “Just One More Time,” John Cheever portrayed the Beers, a couple hanging tenuously onto respectability, a pair of “pathetic grasshoppers of some gorgeous economic summer” who nevertheless possessed some enduring charm, the power “to remind one of good things–good places, games, food, and company.” Anne Brooks’ 1941 novel, Kingdom On Earth, we come to know the Randolfs, a family equally charming but whose parasitic nature is revealed when their fortunes collapse.

The book–Brooks’ first novel–takes place in seven snapshots between mid-1938 and Labor Day 1940. In the midst of a relaxing summer break at their Connecticut country home, the Randolfs’ banker arrives to break the news to the mother, Elaine, that what little capital her late husband had left the family has evaporated in the stock market. She has to sell off their heavily mortgaged country home and Manhattan apartment and move into a cheaper apartment with her two daughters and son-in-law, soon to be joined by her son Joel and his new wife, Harriet.

We watch the story unfold through Harriet’s eyes. The only daughter of an introverted and widowed professor, she is dazzled by the Randolf’s effortless grace. She confides to her brother-in-law, “We think they live life more completely, they feel things physically, because they act by instinct. We think they’re complete naturals. That charms us; they have more fun, we think, than the thoughtful people.” Harriet feels sorry about their plight only because “it wasn’t fair that people like the Randolfs should have to worry and think about money.”

At first, they take it in as a momentary inconvenience. Living on the remnants of their fortune is a comic bit of “roughing it,” the cramped apartment “a sort of camping place.” As time wears on and the money continues to evaporate, however, their charm wears as thin as the elbows in Joel’s old jackets. He gets a job with an advertising firm but his good looks and ingratiating manner fail to compensate for his utter incompetence. He loses the job and starts drinking earlier and earlier in the day. One daughter, Kit, gets a job in a fine department store and soon learns to get ahead through pure ruthlessness masked by a thin veneer of style. Pris, the youngest, is incapable of doing anything but attracting clueless men with her beauty.

And Elaine, utterly useless, does little but pine for her comfortable past. “The trouble with Elaine was that she was really stupid,” Harriet comes to realize. Her only assets were “a lovely, sensitive face, and excellent taste in dressing herself and arranging her home.”

Of all the family, it is Harriet who proves the most resourceful. She not only does all the cooking and housekeeping for the lot, but she teaches herself typing and gets a job when Joel gives up any pretence of looking for work. And the Randolfs appreciate it–in the way that a wealthy family might appreciate the work of a particularly good maid or butler. “You’re good at this sort of thing, aren’t you, Harriet?,” remarks Pris.

“This sort of thing” is a phrase that recurs throughout the book. It always refers to accommodation to the practical necessities of life–something the Randolfs seem to regard as either onerous or unthinkable. As Joel and Elaine grow more helpless and dependent, Harriet discovers her own strength and independence.

In the end, however, the Randolfs, like the Beers in Cheever’s story, manage to survive through a series of decisions that defy Harriet’s conventional reason:

The resilience of this family was almost immoral, she thought. In the books, weakness and irresponsibility fall when the props are taken away just as the Randolfs had fallen. But in the books weakness never picks itself up again, and here were the Randolfs bright as day and just as charming as ever. All because Pris has kidnaped a rich man into marrying her, Kit has booted out a poor husband and relentlessly cut a few throats, and Elaine is sponging off her son-in-law.

Although Kingdom On Earth was written when Brooks was just twenty-five, it displays a remarkably mature and well-rounded perspective. While showing the Randolfs with all their flaws, she is sympathetic rather than caustic, understanding rather than mocking.

Anne Brooks published a second novel, Hang My Heart, a year after Kingdom On Earth. The story of an ambitious woman starting her career in the magazine business, it received even better reviews, and Brooks was described as one of the more promising young American novelists. From that point on, however, she seems to have disappeared, at least from the world of publishing. I would be interested in finding out the rest of her story.

Although several direct-to-print publishers offer copies of Kingdom On Earth, you can download it for free from the Internet Archive at

Little Apple, by Leo Perutz

Cover of 'Little Apple' by Leo PerutzThe works of Leo Perutz have been praised by such diverse writers as Ian Fleming, Jorge Luis Borges, and Graham Greene, compared to the works of everyone from Franz Kafka to Victor Hugo to Agatha Christie, and utterly unlucky in gaining the lasting attention of English readers. Over the course of a forty-year career, Perutz wrote over a dozen novels, some of which were translated and published in English within a year or two of their first appearance in German, others that were published by Arcade (and Harvill in the U. K.) in a fine effort back in the early 1990s. Arcade is taking up the torch again later this year, promising to re-release three of Perutz’s novels later this year.

Perutz was a contemporary of Kafka and Stefan Zweig, one of that remarkable generation of secular Jews that grew up under the Austro-Hungarian empire and whose world was utterly wiped out by Hitler. Born in Prague like Kafka, Perutz, in fact, worked for the same insurance company as Kafka, Generali, although in Trieste. Recruited into the army during World War One, he served on the Russian Front and was wounded.

Perutz’s experiences during and immediately after the war are reflected in the pages of Little Apple (original title “Wohin rollst du, Äpfelchen…?”), which was originally published in 1928. The title comes from a Russian song popular just after the war, when Red and White forces were rolling back and forth across the land and territory changed hands as much as a dozen times in the course of a year.

Little Apple takes place during this period. Vittorin and a group of fellow Austrian soldiers are travelling back to Vienna after being released from a Russian prison camp. During the long, slow train ride home, they talk about life in the camp, and about its brutal commandant, Staff Captain Selyukov. They all agree that they must return to Russia, hunt down Selyukov, and make him pay for the pain and torture he inflicted upon the inmates.

Only Vittorin, however, holds onto this obsession after he returns to his family in Vienna. The other men refuse him when he tries to organize a revenge expedition, and he heads off on his own. Vittorin plunges headlong into the chaos of the Russian Civil War, and finds himself at various times a soldier, a prisoner, a refugee, an entertainer, a manual laborer, and a thief. In the fluctating circumstances of the Civil War, he can never be too sure of which side he’s on–geographically or politically.

Throughout it all, however, he never loses focus on his goal: to find and punish Selyukov. The comparisons between Perutz and Victor Hugo are not due solely to the fact that Perutz translated a number of Hugo’s novels into German. In his monomaniacal obsession to bring Selyukov to justice, Vittorin shares the same ability to tune out his surrounding circumstances, no matter how threatening to his survival, as Hugo’s Inspector Javert:

He no longer saw selyukov as an arrogant Russian officer who had insulted him. Selyukov was the evil personification of a degenerate age. He was the medium through which Vittorin hated everything sordid that met his eye–all the crooks, currency speculators and human predators that had shared out the world between them…. They haggled, they cheated, they supplied both Whites and Reds with saddlery, horseshoe nails, revolver holsters, cleaning rag, axle grease, cans of tainted bully beef. They belonged to the highest bidder, and champagne flowed wherever they did business.

They were numerous, invulnerable, and ubiquitous–in Paris, in Bucharest, in Vladivostock. Vittorin could avenge the humanity they were betraying, the world they had polluted, by exterminating just one of them, and his name was Selyukov.

wherewillyoufallLittle Apple was first published in English in 1930 as Where Will You Fall?, translated by Hedwig Singer, who also translated Perutz’s second novel published in English, The Master of the Day of Judgment. His first book published in English, From Nine to Nine, has recently been translated again, this time by Thomas Ahrens and Edward Larkin, and is available in print as Between Nine and Nine from Ariadne Press

There is a timeless quality to Perutz’s books. Some are set in the past–the Thirty Years’ War, the Renaissance–and some in his present, but all share one thing in common: the power and fascination of a pure narrative. There is always something pulling the reader along but not quite within reach–rather like the image of Selyukov in Vittorin’s mind. His prose–at least as translated–is clean, spare and full of momentum, and his books brief–usually under 200 pages. Perutz’s power as a storyteller can be seen by the number of his novels that remain in print in German, French, Italian and Spanish. I can only hope that more English readers will discover that power when Arcade releases Little Apple, Master of the Day of Judgment, and By Night Under the Stone Bridge in a few months.

Little Apple, by Leo Perutz, translated by John Brownjohn
New York: Arcade Publishing, 1992

Passing Strangers, by Felix Riesenberg

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Passing Strangers' by Felix RiesenbergIn his autobiography, Living Again, Felix Riesenberg mentions his 1932 novel, Passing Strangers, just once, calling it “a failure.” Riesenberg’s criticism is hardly any harsher than that of time itself, since the book has vanished along with most of his oeuvre and has apparently never even earned a mentioned in academic articles on literature of the Great Depression.

Yet Passing Strangers is a powerful specimen of the effect of the Depression on the creative mind. In the book, Riesenberg takes a cross-section of society and subjects it to the disruptive and erratic effects of a great economic collapse. As he put it in his preamble, “A group of people, caught in the mesh of cams and gears, are tossed about by the machinery of life.”

Riesenberg starts his story with “The Average Man,” Robert Millinger, a lowly elevator operator in the new and splendid Babel Building, the pride and envy of all Manhattan. Millinger is a perfectly working cog:

After a time people who entered and left the elevator, familiar or strange, no longer meant things to Mr. Millinger. They were merely presences. He responded to them without thought, or reason, but correctly. Clever as his car was, it was crude compared with that stranger flexible, self-oiling, economical machine, Robert Millinger, elevator operator No. 243, Imperial Holding Corporation. Residence 749 Taylo Street, Brooklyn. Married.

Millinger himself is a cipher, but he believes that makes him an invaluable source of insights into the common man, and fantasizes about being taken into the confidence of an important executive, such as Isidore Trauenbeck. Trauenbeck runs the Babel Building and dozens of other properties. “His day,” Riesenberg writes, “was marked by the grease spots of those completely squelched.” Even greater than Trauenbeck is his own boss, the mysterious tycoon, A. Thouron Clamson, an amalgam of Donald Trump, Howard Hughes, and John D. Rockefeller. Clamson puts Tom Wolfe’s “Masters of the Universe” to shame:

A. Thouron Clamson hadn’t a single title. He signed his name with a flourish, beginning with Clamson, weaving the A. Thouron into the device with a degree of skill grown from long practice. He owned in many things, almost endless things, holding control of such vast interlocking and intermeshing activities that great charts were prepared to keep the picture reasonably in hand. He always prepared to shift his money from one raft to another at a moment’s notice. He owned sixty percent of Mid-Continental Gas. Then he bought out the rival pipe line of Sioux Service, and suddenly dumped his M. C. G., pounding it down while booming Sioux. On the swing, he drew back all but five percent of the first company. These two were then combined and on the seventh day he rested from his labor. But the labor, of course, was done by others. He merely decided.

Riesenberg reaches down from Clamson to Millinger through a string of almost random connections, drawn in such a way that only a few of his characters share acquaintances. They are, as the title suggests, passing strangers, but they share one thing in common: all are affected in some profound way, by the stock market crash and the resulting depression. Millinger loses his job, is abandoned by his wife and daughter, and nearly dies of hunger and exposure on the streets of New York. Millinger’s wealthy cousin, Zekor, is forced to move from Park Avenue to a slum in Brooklyn and dies on a park bench, worn out by the relentless loss of property and self. Willy Jennings, the department store owner who takes Millinger’s wife, Launa, as his lover, finds his web of speculations and leveraged deals collapsing around him and jumps from his office window [Riesenberg recounts one of these supposedly apocryphal suicides in Living Again.] Millinger’s daughter, Diana, in turn, becomes Clamson’s mistress, until she sickens of his esthetic and moral excesses. Clamson experiences the it all as mild turbulence, not even bothering to buckle his seatbelt.

Riesenberg wraps everything up in a climactic disaster scene somewhat foreshadowing events at the World Trade Center, as radicals set off truck bombs and explosives in the subway system to protest the human destruction caused by capitalism. Clamson is assasinated as he sits in traffic in his limousine. Millinger’s daughter escapes from the chaos with a man who used to drive Zekor Millinger’s Packard. And, ironically, Millinger is rescued by a young woman who brings him to Clamson’s wife, a noted supporter of social causes.

While certainly less experimental than his previous novel, Endless River, Passing Strangers lacks nothing in comparison when it comes to ambition. Riesenberg didn’t have quite the technical mastery to bring off all he aspired to, but the book is never less than enthralling. I read it in just three days, sitting in cafes as my wife and daughter shopped around London during Thanksgiving. It demonstrates yet again that we need to find a place in our memories for the like of Felix Riesenberg, who may not always have succeeded in his literary attempts but deserves to be recognized as a bold American artistic adventurer.

Passing Strangers, by Felix Riesenberg
New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932

The Court of Charles IV, by Benito Pérez Galdós

The Court of Charles IV was the second of the forty-six historical novels, referred to as Episodios Nacionales, written by the great Spanish novelist, Benito Pérez Galdós, whose masterpiece, Fortunata and Jacinta, was the first title featured on this site in 2012. It’s a considerably lighter work–less than a fifth the length of Fortunata and Jacinta and told in first person by young Gabriel Araceli, a poor but amibitious lad whose backstage adventures in both the theaters and court of Madrid around the year 1807 make up the book.

Gabriel, son of a poor Cadiz fisherman, was first introduced in Trafalgar, Galdós first Episodios Nacionales novel, which depicted Nelson’s great victory from the eyes of a bystander on the losing side. Gabriel has made his way to Madrid and is now in the service of Pepita Gonzalez, one of the most successful actresses of her time. Among his duties, which he itemizes at the book’s start, are to hiss performances of “The Maiden’s Yes,” a play by Leandro Fernández de Moratín, whose work she despises.

Which leads to the first of several delightful set-pieces that are the book’s real highlights. In the company of a failed poet, Gabriel attends the play to make his obligatory interjections. Galdós weaves together Gabriel’s mocking account of the performance, his observations of the antics of the theatre’s audience, which is as busy talking and fighting among themselves as watching the play, and the poet’s non-stop commentary on the flaws of the writing and references to superior elements of his own work.

Indeed, the whole of The Court of Charles IV is something of a weaving demonstration by Galdós, with the threads of love, sex and politics as the raw materials. Gabriel’s mistress Pepita is in love with and insanely jealous of her director and leading man, Isidoro Maiquez–a real-life character from the time. Isidoro, in turn, is madly in love with Lesbia, the beautiful niece of a minor member of the Spanish nobility. And Lesbia, in her turn, is being watched and manipulated by Amarantha, another duchess with whom Gabriel becomes enthralled.

Gabriel’s experiences form the backing material against which Galdós winds and twists his fictional and historical characters. Some back the King, Charles (Carlos) IV; others support a coup by his son, Ferdinand, who favors the British. All despise the prime minister, Manuel de Godoy, known as “The Prince of Peace.” As the various intrigues of court and stage are being played out, the figure of Napoleon looms in the distance, utterly misinterpreted and misunderstood by all. Within a few months after the novel’s ending, he will invade Spain and drive them all into exile.

Typical of the clueness nobles is Lesbia’s uncle, a marquis and one-time diplomat, who has perfected obscurity as a tool for appearing to be all-knowing: “He always took care to maintain a studied reserve and utter himself in half-sentences, never expressing himself clearly on any subject, so that his hearers in their doubt and darkness should question him and insist on his being more explicit.” “What will Russia do?,” he often wonders aloud, to the perplexity of his listeners.

Gabriel is a Huck Finn-like character who maintains a healthy dose of skepticism about all he sees around him. Gabriel observes of the nobility at one point, “For my part, these typical specimens of human vanity have always been a delight to me as being beyond dispute those who amuse and teach us most.” One hears the voice of Galdós in these words. Though Lady Amarantha manages to lure him into acting as a spy, he wisens up before things get out of hand and lights out from the palace of El Escorial rather as Huck lit out from Widow Douglas’ house.

Galdós wraps up his story with a last bravura set-piece, in which the different love triangles come crashing together during a private performance of Othello–or rather, of Teodoro de la Calle’s translation of Othello, which was itself based on a French translation by Jean-François Ducis. And Gabriel manages to turn the tables on Lady Amarantha with a bit of dirty linen from her own past, allowing him to exit stage right with dignity intact and another boost up the ladder of success.

Overall, a fast and enjoyable tale–nothing too deep and certainly not a book that Galdós meant to be anything more than a historical entertainment, something like a precursor of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series.

The Court of Charles IV was translated into English by Clara Bell (who also translated Ossip Schubin’s fine comedy, Our Own Set, another neglected gem) and published by W. S. Gottsberger in 1888. You can find electronic copies of this translation, full of usual OCR errors, on the Internet Archive at

Endless River, by Felix Riesenberg

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Endless River'
Continuing my way through the works of Felix Riesenberg, the long-forgotten American merchant mariner-engineer-writer, I took up his most experimental work, Endless River (1931). I’ve yet to make up my mind whether Riesenberg was a great or merely a good writer, but he was, unquestionably, a remarkable one, and there is no better proof of that than this striking book.

On the epigraph page, Riesenberg quotes the critic Harry Hansen: “There is only one definition for a novel–it is the way the man who writes it looks at the world. And there are as many ways of writing a novel as there are ways of looking at the world.” As one reviewer, Robert Leavitt, wrote in The Saturday Review, “Accept Mr. Hansen, and Endless River is a novel. Reject him, and it is a formless pot pourri.

Well, even as a novel, it’s a formless pot pourri. Or rather, it has no more form than a river, which is why one of the very few critics to even notice the book compared it, not surprisingly, to Finnegans Wake. “Books–novels, treatises, tracts, and the like–are chopped into chapters. But you cannot cup up a river. You cannot stop it and let a little trickle out after filering impurities. The river keeps on, and so does this, until lost in the endless paths of time.”

Unlike Finnegans Wake, though, Riesenberg’s river is not one continuing stream of words but three-hundred-some pages of fragments. Some are little essays. Some are segments of short stories or character sketches that span a few pages. Many are, I assume, Riesenberg’s own musings. One after another they flow through the pages until the end is reached.

Unlike a real river, however, which at least has gravity as an identifiable driving force, Endless River appears to have no purpose behind it other than to satisfy Riesenberg’s fascination with the swirling currents of humanity he observes in the streets of Manhattan. In which case, a better parallel to Endless River than would be Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, which is less a novel than a collage of narratives, popular songs, advertisements, and set pieces.

In Dos Passos’ case, however, as with his trilogy U.S.A., the stories are threads that run throughout the book, while Riesenberg’s characters are more like landmarks his river touches and then leaves behind for good.

There are some wonderful sketches in the book, such as the wealthy dandy who finds himself stranded in upper Manhattan late one night and finds himself slowly losing his identity on his long walk home. Or Major John Hollister Truetello, who writes out the same four letters every night (“My dear sir, may I not adress you so, you the happy father of a newborn babe…”) and sends them off to four addressees picked out from various directories. Or Old Mr. Kindleberry, who carefully records names in his notebook.

Each day he chose a letter, and for twenty lines, after the greatest care and consideration, he wrote euphonious words, one under the other, spelling them out with rare and discriminating joy. Mr. Kindleberry never made a mistake in spelling; it was a little joke of his own, for the words he wrote down were