Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

Earth and High Heaven

May 17, 2017

If life has its ups and downs, then life with two children has its UPS and DOWNS. I was going to begin with some of the laughably low points, but I found myself repeatedly pressing delete as I realised what grim reading they make – revolving around various combinations of poo, sick, boobs, and tantrums. And then the ups are all so saccharine – they make for even grimmer reading! So instead, here’s an UP which has nothing to do with children.

Many of you will know how much I adore and admire Persephone Books. Their smart, secretive dove grey covers hide a multitude of delights, and I’ve written about many of them here.

So what an up it is to have my name inside those very dear grey covers!

Earth and High Heaven 1

I was beyond honoured to write the Preface to Persephone Books’ newly republished Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham, a little-known Canadian writer. It’s about a love affair between a Jew and a Gentile during the Second World War in Montreal. It interrogates how we treat migrants, misogyny and anti-semitism while being an unputdownable story of love against the odds. I urge you to read the book; and to further the cause, here is my Preface in full:

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Earth and High Heaven 2The first time I read Earth and High Heaven, I kept on turning back to the beginning; I must have read the opening sentence at least a dozen times. As Marc and Erica’s story of love against the odds grew increasingly desperate, I was ever keener to clutch at a tiny piece of hope in the phrasing of the first line:

One of the questions they were sometimes asked was where and how they had met …

Surely, I pleaded, the ease with which Graham uses the plural ‘they’ and the casual turn of phrase imply a well-established couple, fondly looking back to when they first met. This was my shard of hope, and yet, as soon as Graham offers it, she withdraws it:

… for Marc Reiser was a Jew, originally from a small town in northern Ontario, and from 1933 until he went overseas in September, 1942, a junior partner in the law firm of Maresch and Aaronson in Montreal, and Erica Drake was a Gentile, one of the Westmount Drakes.

The hopeful ‘they’ swiftly unravels. Moreover, we are given Marc’s potted biography in sharp contrast to the concise description of Erica – ‘one of the Westmount Drakes’ – and we cannot help but fear the improbability of two people from such different worlds ending up together.

From the first sentence, Graham sets up a will-they-won’t-they tension that hooks her readers in agonising uncertainty until the very end of the book. A contemporary reviewer described it as ‘Romeo and Juliet in Westmount’, a parallel which isn’t lost on the novel’s protagonists. When Marc and Erica hear birdsong during their first weekend away together, Marc says: ‘Romeo and Juliet had a nightingale but all we get is a whippoorwill.’ Erica corrects him:

“Incidentally, it was a lark, not a nightingale – remember?”

She repeated softly,

“‘It is the lark that sings so out of tune,

Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.’”

 Shakespeare’s lark is ‘so out of tune’ because, unlike the nightingale, he heralds the coming morning. Romeo and Juliet’s first night together will also be their last, so it’s no wonder the birdsong is full of ‘harsh discords and unpleasing sharps’. With this doom-laden omen called into play, we can’t help but worry that Marc and Erica’s time together will be similarly snatched away all too soon.

Graham’s choice of clans for her star-crossed lovers – Reisers and Drakes, Jews and Gentiles – is especially potent given the book’s timing. Written in 1944 and set two years’ earlier, rarely has the plight of the Jews at the hands of the Gentiles been so keenly felt.

Her decision to write so overtly about Canadian anti-Semitism was, however, both brave and unusual in the contemporary political climate. In the Canadian academic Max Beer’s study of Montreal’s response to the Holocaust, he argues that in order to avoid charges of anti-Semitism, which was becoming associated with Hitler, ‘the plight of European Jewry was camouflaged, hidden in a language that did not specifically mention the Jew’. So, for instance, Canadians argued against ‘refugees of Europe’ emigrating to Canada, rather than calling them Jews. Beer points out that the Canadian Jewish Community helped with this camouflage. They worried that ‘too much emphasis on Jewish suffering in Europe would lead not to sympathy but to an anti-Semitic backlash’, so the specifically Jewish nature of Hitler’s target was ‘sublimated to a theme that spoke of universal suffering under the Nazis’. After Kristallnacht, the editorial in the Montreal-based Canadian Jewish Chronicle argued:

To-day it is the Jews who have been reduced to serfdom, decreed into helotry, made lower than the worm. But to-morrow? … To-morrow it will be the Catholics, the Protestants, all Christians whose doctrine of love is anathema to the savages who have sprung up upon the seats of the mighty in Germany.

The international press was also complicit in masking the specifically Jewish nature of the Holocaust. During the War, the front page of The New York Times mentioned Hitler’s targeting of the Jews only six times, and the discoveries of gas chambers in 1942 were confined to the back pages.

In Earth and High Heaven, Gwethalyn Graham defies this oblique treatment of the Holocaust. Marc tells Erica about his cousin, ‘shot trying to escape from a concentration camp’, and Graham has a habit of ominously referring to the ‘pre-war’ figure of sixteen million Jews, implying the devastating decimation which was ensuing. She also shows the appalling extent of anti-Semitism in Canada, listing the various Montreal establishments that ‘don’t take Jews’, and even compares it to Nazi Germany, when Erica challenges her father with:

“We Canadians don’t really disagree fundamentally with the Nazis about the Jews – we just think they go a bit too far.”

Why, in a climate of reticence, and in what is ostensibly a romance novel, was Gwethalyn Graham bold enough to confront the plight of the Jews head on?

Graham believed that writers ought to engage with contemporary politics. In 1945, when an interviewer asked about her taste in reading, she declared that Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a searing critique of Soviet Communism, was ‘the greatest novel of the last ten years’. From her first published article in 1936, “Women, Are They Human?”, which argued for the rights of married women to work outside the home, to her letter to the Montreal Gazette in 1960, protesting at the Canadian Prime Minister’s support of South Africa’s readmission to the Commonwealth, Graham’s writing reflects her life-long concern with social injustice.

Her biographer, Barbara Meadowcroft, describes Graham’s childhood ‘in a home where international events and social issues were discussed round the dining-room table’. Graham’s mother, Isabel Erichsen-Brown, helped to organise the Equal Franchise League to campaign for votes for women in Canada, then joined the League of Women Voters, which educated women on public questions. In the 1930s, Graham and her mother helped Jewish refugees and welcomed them into their home in spite of widespread anti-Semitism. Her father, Frank Erichsen-Brown, was a barrister who supported his wife’s causes; once, when an all-male audience was heckling a suffragist speaker, he silenced them then urged them to listen to her ‘extremely important message’.

Clearly, Gwethalyn Graham grew up with an awareness of social issues, and a sense of moral justice, for which she knew how to fight. She had also spent some time in Europe, when she attended a Swiss finishing school, and again in 1938, when she went to England, France and Switzerland following publication of her first novel Swiss Sonata, which drew on her experience at the finishing school. Swiss Sonata is set in January 1935, at the time of the Saar plebiscite; the school acts as a miniature League of Nations, with tensions rife between pupils from many countries and of different religions.

So Graham was more attuned to the problem of anti-Semitism than many of her fellow Canadians, but perhaps the reason for such a passionate argument against it can be found within the pages of Earth and High Heaven itself.

When Erica first meets Marc at her mother’s cocktail party, they immediately have an ease with each other, a feeling of connection. In the course of their conversation, Erica asks Marc where he lives and he tells her about his ‘awful’ rooming house. Erica suggests an alternative, but Marc dismisses it because, he says, ‘the janitor told me they don’t take Jews.’ This has a profound effect on Erica, as she realises how often she’s heard casually anti-Semitic remarks and seen signs against Jews ‘in newspaper advertisements, on hotels, beaches, golf courses, apartment houses, clubs, and the little restaurants for skiers in the Laurentians’. She reflects that ‘until now she had never bothered to read them’ because, as she explains to Marc:

‘You see, the trouble with me is that I’m just like everybody else – I don’t realize what something really means until it suddenly walks up and hits me between the eyes. I can be quite convinced intellectually that a situation is wrong, but it’s still an academic question which doesn’t really affect me personally, until, for some reason or other, it starts coming at me through my emotions as well. It isn’t enough to think, you have to feel …’

This is the great moment of awakening to injustice for which Graham prepares us in her epigraph from A.E. Housman’s collection of poems A Shropshire Lad. She quotes the moment when the speaker goes from ‘I slept and saw not’ to becoming aware of:

Horror and scorn and hate and fear and indignation –

Oh why did I awake?

The words could just as easily be voiced by Erica, and also by Graham herself. Following a short and disastrous first marriage, Graham – like Erica – had an affair with a Jewish lawyer. Like Erica, she wanted to introduce this Jewish lawyer to her father, and, as in the novel, her father refused to meet him. Graham’s affair didn’t last, but her friend Joyce Tedman Austin described it as an ‘overriding passion’; her sister argued, however, that Marc Reiser wasn’t based on any particular affair, rather that ‘every man Gwen dated seemed to be a Jew’. Whoever is right, at some point a love affair with a Jewish man induced a similar moment of awakening in Graham, directing her passion for social justice towards Canadian anti-Semitism in this novel.

earth and high heaven

Gwethalyn Graham does not, however, confine herself to the Jewish cause. As soon as she has set up her opposition of Jews versus Gentiles, she complicates it. She shows that Montreal’s Gentiles are split into English and French Canadians – a divide to which Graham would return in Dear Enemies, her published dialogue with Liberal politician Solange Rolland, in which they sought a greater harmony between the two groups. Graham shows how English Canadians are further split along class lines:

[Erica] got a job as a reporter on the society page of the Montreal Post and dropped, overnight, from the class which is written about to the class which does the writing … she had ceased to be one of the Drakes of Westmount and was simply Erica Drake of the Post’.

She also stages the perennially complex power play between men and women – noted in details, such as Erica’s irritation when her friend René orders lunch for her in a restaurant, and explored more deliberately, as when her father tries to persuade Erica to leave the Post in favour of the family company:

As a woman you can just go so far, and then you’re stuck in a job where you spend your life taking orders from some fathead with half your brains, whose only advantage over you is the fact that he happens to wear trousers.

Graham’s Montreal is not just a city divided between Jews and Gentiles, but one split by numerous, complex, jostling rifts. As Vicky, the thoughtful Canadian heroine of Swiss Sonata, reflects, ‘Isn’t it funny how people will subdivide themselves, no matter how little space they have?’

Graham sets up so many divisions in order to point out the paradox of how they are at once utterly meaningless, and devastatingly meaningful. At one of the novel’s crisis points, Erica’s mother – who, in a show of solidarity with her husband, refuses to meet Marc – asks Miriam, Erica’s sister, what she thinks of him. Miriam replies:

I can’t tell you what Marc’s like, except that he’s the same kind of person as Erica, he’s the other side of the same medal. They just seem to belong together, that’s all.

It is an intriguing image. Marc can be ‘the other side’ of a division to Erica, and yet they remain part ‘of the same’ thing. It encapsulates Graham’s urging us to look at the greater unity beyond petty divisions. Crucially, Miriam refuses to describe Marc: ‘I can’t tell you what Marc’s like’. Instead of the wealth of prejudiced generalisations with which Marc is burdened, and which cause these divisions within society, Miriam lets him speak for himself.

In Swiss Sonata, the headmistress reflects on her own shortcoming when it comes to understanding the girls:

One’s theories remain intact only so long as one generalizes from ignorance, and avoids particularising from knowledge.

In Earth and High Heaven, time and again, Erica attempts to persuade her father to stop generalising so that he might see Marc as an individual, not as a Jew:

‘But we’re not talking about “Jewish lawyers”,’ said Erica. ‘We’re talking about Marc Reiser.’

Erica is sensitive enough to realise that she too suffers from this affliction. When Marc tells her about his brother David:

She kept trying to dismiss the feeling that something about Dr. David Reiser did not seem to fit, and then, suddenly angry at her own evasiveness, she swung around and deliberately faced it. Her surprise was due to the fact that Dr. Reiser did not sound like a Jew.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect about our habit of seeing individuals through generalisations is that the person suffering from the discrimination can become complicit with it. Towards the end of the novel, Marc’s brother David tells him that when he was passing through Montreal, he decided to look up the Drakes to ‘see what it was all about’. After months of not being allowed to meet Erica’s parents or even set foot inside her home, Marc is astonished as David describes how he called for Erica and had a drink with her father. David tells him:

The point is that it takes two to play the game Drake was playing, and he couldn’t have got away with it at all if you’d behaved like an ordinary, intelligent human being, instead of like a Jew with an inferiority complex.

The critic Michèle Rackham calls this suggestion that Marc is partly to blame ‘unsettling’. It is, but it is also empowering. For if Marc is partly to blame, then he is also partly able to put it right. Rackham draws our attention to Marc’s lack of agency in the book, from when he stands around like a piece of furniture at the opening cocktail party, to when he tells Erica that, in spite of being a lawyer, in Montreal he feels he ‘can’t change anything’. Rackham argues that Marc is cast as the helpless Romantic heroine, whereas Erica – or ‘Eric’ as she is often called – is the hero, in her androgynous clothes, with her job at the Post, and her role as something of a ‘surrogate son’ to Charles. In that case, the great turning point of the novel is when Marc finally understands that he is in part to blame, that his actions aren’t meaningless, and so he can in fact be an agent of change. Gwethalyn Graham urges us not just to see other people as individuals but moreover for us all to act as individuals, rather than carrying on along the ‘particular groove’ society carves out for us.

earth and high heaven

The timing of Erica and Marc’s affair is precise: the four months from June 1942, when they first meet at a cocktail party, to September, when Marc is drafted abroad. Throughout the novel, Graham draws our attention to time passing, noting, for instance, that Marc and Erica talk to each other for half an hour at the opening cocktail party, and repeatedly highlighting the clock in Erica’s father’s office. This sense of time ticking is heightened by the War, which we hear rumbling relentlessly in the background, imbuing each moment with added urgency.

Yet Graham also shows us how time can be seized and stretched into something quite different. Each moment Marc and Erica spend together pushes against the boundaries of time as meted out by Erica’s father’s clock, and, conversely, every moment apart feels insufferably long. After their second meeting, they arrange to meet on the Wednesday for dinner, only for Marc to phone and ask to see Erica that very night instead. In showing us a love which refuses to be bound by time, Graham also gives us a love which is timeless.

It oughtn’t be a surprise to find that the novel retains its power. For how many of us reading Earth and High Heaven today, in a different continent, in a different century, feel that we know an Erica and a Marc, or indeed that there is an echo of Erica and Marc’s situation in our own? When it was first published, the novel was a hit not just in Canada, but it topped the American bestseller lists, was translated into eighteen languages, and sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide. Its international success is testament to the story’s universal appeal, which is what Samuel Goldwyn must have seen when he bought the film rights for $100,000, planning to cast Gregory Peck and Katherine Hepburn as Marc and Erica (though, alas, the film was never made).

Since the Second World War, societies have grown infinitely more diverse, and yet we still all know people from different backgrounds who, like Marc and Erica, have struggled to be together in the face of prejudice – whether they practice different religions, are from different classes, or have different shades of skin. Gwethalyn Graham wrote Earth and High Heaven to confront the divisive prejudices that were all too prolific in Montreal in 1944, but – sadly – her call to arms resounds just as urgently in Britain today.

Gwethalyn Graham

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Wise Children

February 24, 2014

wise children‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.’

Indeed! Angela Carter’s invocation of Jane Austen at the start of chapter four couldn’t be more appropriate; Wise Children is a wonderful, ebullient, rich, bawdy, optimistic carnival of a novel.

So we all thought at Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday. (All, except for one lady who thought it ‘too clever by half’.) We longed to go round chez Chance for a gin and a natter with winning narrator Dora toot sweet! Indeed, we felt a touch guilty for walk-talking the novel in North London, not far from Melchior Hazard’s swish Primrose Hill residence, rather than on ‘the bastard side of Old Father Thames’.

There was something about yesterday’s walk which was particularly wonderful. Perhaps it was because, in an attempt to avoid muddy patches and wind-exposed hill-tops, I led us on an unusually long loop. Perhaps it was thanks to the enormous tree that had blown dramatically across the path, which felt symbolic, in a Carteresque way, of an uprooted family tree. Or perhaps it was simply because Wise Children is an especially good book and we felt so exceptionally fond of Dora that it was almost as though she (and Nora, of course) were high-kicking alongside us on the Heath.

Dora Chance is the forceful narrator of the novel. We meet her on her seventy-fifth birthday, which is also the birthday of her twin sister Nora, the hundredth birthday of their father (though they are illegitimate and unacknowledged) – grand thesp Melchior Hazard, and it is Shakespeare’s birthday too. The novel takes place over the course of one day, from breakfast that morning to wandering home from Melchior’s centenary party that night, with Dora’s final exclamation:

What a joy it is to dance and sing!

In a feat of storytelling, Carter manages to contain over a century’s history of dancing and singing in this single day. We begin with Dora’s paternal grandmother Estella, born in 1870, a child actor on the provincial circuits, who came to London to be a Cordelia who married her Lear – Ranulph Hazard. They went to America, then all over the Empire: acting in Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, America again – with everything from an ice-cream sundae to a township named after them in their wake.

Then we come to their (possibly illegitimate) offspring, twins Peregrine and Melchior Hazard. Melchior wound up in a Brixton boarding house, where, so Dora likes to think, her mother, who ‘emptied the slops, filled the washstand jugs, raked out the grates, built up the fires…’ and was only ‘a slip of a thing but she was bold as brass’, locked his door behind her and:

“Now I’ve got you where I want you!” she said. What else could a gentleman do but succumb?

And so Dora and Nora Chance were conceived.

One of the things I love most in Wise Children, is how time and again Carter rejects the role of wispy delicate woman, overpowered and badly treated by man. Their servant girl mother wasn’t raped by tough young Melchior, but took advantage of him! (I feel Rachel Cooke in her excellent column in yesterday’s Observer would approve.)

Elsewhere Carter rewrites the role of Ophelia. Beautiful young Tiffany – strewn with flowers, driven mad with grief at being impregnated and then  seriously, serially cheated on by her awful boyfriend Tristram (Melchior’s son) – is thought to have drowned herself in the Thames. So far, so Ophelia … but no, at the end of the novel she reappears, ‘as fresh as paint … sound in mind and body almost to a fault … our heart’s delight.’ Tristram begs her forgiveness, to which she replies, bluntly, “Fat chance,”:

“Pull yourself together and be a man, or try to,” said Tiffany sharply. “You’ve not got what it takes to be a father. There’s more to fathering than fucking you know.”

Then she strides off. Brilliant!

Grandma Chance is the owner of the boarding house and she brings up Nora and Dora, as their mother died in childbirth and Melchior disowned them. Rather being raised in a stifling patriarchy, they grow up in a carnivalesque family, surrounded by singing and dancing from the moment they’re born, in a house where people are either naked, in a nighty, or dressed up as pirates, and stray souls are made very welcome. Again, rather than suffering at the hands of the badly behaving man, the women flourish.

Dora and Nora have dancing lessons and soon become high-kicking chorus girls, a career that eventually takes them to Hollywood, where they are Peaseblossom and Mustardseed in Melchior’s doomed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The descriptions of the Hollywood set of the Wood near Athens are spellbinding:

Daisies big as your head and white as spooks, foxgloves as tall as the tower of Pisa that chimed like bells if shook. Gnarled, fissured tree-trunks; sprays of enormous leaves – oak, ash, thorn, like parasols, or glider planes, or awnings … And rolling around at random underfoot, or stuck on buds, or hanging in mid-air as if they’d just rolled off a wild rose or out of a cowslip, imitation dewdrops, that is big faux pearls, suspended on threads.

Everything has been scaled up so that the actors look the size of fairies on screen. It is extremely surreal in reality in order to look real on screen. And yet, what on earth is reality in this context? It is The Dream, after all, and made in Hollywood, the ‘major public dreaming facility in the whole world’. It is a dreamlike landscape, for this dream of a dream, and like dreams, it is uncanny, beautiful and disturbing at the same time. Then, in a genius stroke of irony, it proves to be all too real, when Nora trips up and spikes her bottom on a giant conker and the wound goes septic.

The film flops; Shakespeare’s and Melchior’s Dream doesn’t work in Hollywood. Neither does the intriguing, sad character of Gorgeous George. He is first seen doing a bawdy show on Brighton Pier with great success. Next, he is imported to Hollywood to be Bottom in The Dream, where he fails rather unspectacularly. Finally, he is in the gutter outside Melchior’s hundredth birthday party, ‘some old cove in rags, begging’.

Gorgeous George is not just any old character. As Carter tells us:

For George was not a comic at all but an enormous statement … Displayed across his torso there was … a complete map of the entire world.

When they see him in Brighton, he strips almost naked (the vital bits are covered by a ‘gee-string of very respectable dimensions … made out of the Union Jack’) and sings God Save the King and Rule Britannia. ‘Most of his global tattoo was filled in a brilliant pink’ – the colour of Empire. So George’s downward spiral is that of Great Britain: it once ruled the world, lost to America, and now is reduced to begging.

Gorgeous George’s tragic trajectory mirrors that of the Hazards – from the paternal grandmother who acts in all corners of the Empire, through Shakespearean success Melchior, to his son Tristram who presents a third-rate television game show. It echoes the fate of the music halls and chorus lines.

‘Lo how the mighty are fallen,’ thinks Dora when she sees George in the gutter. Much has fallen, much dwindles, and yet, don’t forget, ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.’ Carter tells us throughout that there is no place for tragedy in this book.

The British Empire has crumbled, but if it is represented by Gorgeous George – at his best a stripper-comedian – was it really so wonderful? Who cares about him, when we have Dora and Nora, who remain ‘The Lucky Chances’, happy, joyful, making-the-best of things, singing and dancing to the very last line.

It is a profoundly optimistic novel, made all the more so by these lines of downfall that run through it. Wise Children encourages you to laugh and make merry, not cry when disaster inevitably strikes. Fate deals a cruel hand, the trick is not to take it lying down. (Or, at least lie down and enjoy it!) Perhaps it sounds rather naf and daft when put like this, rather than guised in Carter’s rich, raucous prose. No doubt it’s best to read it for yourself. Do – and I’d love to know what you make of it.

PS. For those of you who want to venture beyond EmilyBooks, here is a humblingly brilliant article on Wise Children by Kate Webb, here are my latest crop of reviews for The Spectator, and here‘s a little something I wrote on the Daunt Books Festival for The Bookseller.

Angela Carter

The Group

November 25, 2013
  • The Group by Mary McCarthy
  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing.

When I went to hear Margaret Drabble give a talk a little while ago, she cited these three books, all published in the sixties, which helped her to know how to live her life. She talked about how she trusted the reports of life written in these novels, and how invaluable they’d been.

I’m ashamed to say that while I knew these novels by reputation to be brilliant and important, I’d not read any of them. So I resolved to read them right away, but of course you know what life is like, other books surface and then you decide to read The Luminaries and lo and behold several months have passed and you’re no closer to having read whatever it was you intended.

Hannah Arendt film posterI was given another prompt a few weeks ago when I went to see the completely amazing, thought-provoking, brilliant film Hannah Arendt, which focuses on the German philosopher’s coverage of the Eichmann trial in 1961. When Arendt published her report in the New Yorker, in which she wrote that what was so shocking was that Eichmann was really just another bureaucrat, and the horrific things he’d done showed the very ‘banality of evil’, she came under fierce attack. Throughout the film, she has a close and supportive friendship with a certain American novelist called Mary. Hummm… I wondered, could it be Mary McCarthy? Indeed, I later gathered that they did indeed have a very close friendship and their correspondence, published in the nineties but now out of print (might some clever publisher like to reprint it?), is apparently wonderful.

This film, coupled with the sad news of Doris Lessing’s death, made me feel beyond any shadow of a procrastinating doubt that now is the time to read these three novels, no excuses, and so, as soon as I put down the colossal weight of The Luminaries, I picked up The Group.

The GroupThe Group begins in 1933, when a set of young women, newly graduated from Vassar, gather together for one of their member’s rather unorthodox New York wedding. We follow their different trajectories over the coming years, until the novel comes to a close in the early years of the Second World War. The structure of the novel, with the long time lags between chapters, reminded me a little of One Day. Similarly, I loved watching how this group of friends, who all burst out of college more-or-less on the same footing, drift apart, their lives carrying them in different directions, and then chance to come together again.

Published in 1963, The Group caused a great furore over McCarthy’s frank observations and descriptions of sex, contraception and breastfeeding. There’s a brilliant bit in the second chapter when Dottie loses her virginity:

But the group would never believe, never in a million years, that Dottie Renfrew would come here, to this attic room that smelled of cooking fat, with a man she hardly knew, who made no secret of his intentions, who had been drinking heavily, and who was evidently not in love with her. When she put it that way, crudely, she could scarcely believe it herself, and the side of her that wanted to talk was still hoping, probably, to gain a little time, the way, she had noticed, she always started a discussion of current events with the dentist to keep him from turning on the drill. Dottie’s dimple twinkled. What an odd comparison! If the group could hear that!

So far, so conventional, albeit rather endearing and funny too. But then, just a couple of pages later we get it all in very graphic detail:

Then she felt it the thing she feared … surprisingly warm and smooth, but it hurt terribly, pushing and stabbing.

Until:

Then, all of a sudden, she seemed to explode in a series of long, uncontrollable contractions that embarrassed her, like the hiccups, the moment they were over…

!!

The next chapter begins with her lover telling her to:

‘Get yourself a pessary.’

Dottie goes off and gets herself fitted out with some contraception, only to find herself stranded in the park, waiting to meet him:

In the dark, she began quietly to cry and decided to count to a hundred before going. She had reached a hundred for the fifth time when she recognized that it was no use; even if he got her message, he would never come tonight. There seemed to be only one thing left to do. Hoping that she was unobserved, she slipped the contraceptive equipment under the bench she was sitting on and began to walk as swiftly as she could, without attracting attention, to Fifth Avenue.

Poor Dottie!

These two chapters encapsulate exactly what is so brilliant about the novel. Mary McCarthy manages to get inside the heads of each of her characters, telling us what is happening, as focalised through their point of view. So we learn that Dottie is about to go to bed with a man, and that his flat smells of ‘cooking fat’ – what a thing to notice! – and then we are also taken off on her own funny tangent of thought about going to the dentist, and imagining what on earth would the group think. Her orgasm reminds her of having the hiccups! We see the scene as Dottie sees it and swiftly empathise with her, so that when she is left deserted on the bench, it is hard not to share her despondency.

So, firstly, we identify with the characters. Secondly, McCarthy does not shy away from the gory details. Everything is written about with a certain clinical detachment. Here it is sex, then it is getting her diaphragm fitted, later it is the ins and outs of breast-feeding and potty training. If, in the sixties, you were a young woman new to the adult world without a clue what to do and not knowing who to ask, The Group would be a very useful instruction manual. I can see why Margaret Drabble found it so invaluable.

Thirdly, McCarthy makes the – I think – feminist point of how, in spite of the education of these women, their talents, intelligence, money and energy, they are still utterly subject to men. Dottie thinks she knows what she is getting into, having no qualms about losing her virginity to a drunk man who doesn’t love her. She is efficient and organised, going to get herself fitted with contraception so quickly. Then, alas, all this independence crumbles to nothing as she sits on the bench in the park, waiting in vain for her man, and feeling utterly wretched.

It would be too simple to write a novel set in the thirties about a young woman who takes the world by storm.  McCarthy’s point in The Group, emphasised by having so many protagonists, is that in spite of these women having every asset, it is a man’s world and no woman can succeed in it.

Dottie, heartbroken by this rejection, ends up marrying someone else, in spite of knowing that she doesn’t really love him. Marriage is the only thing to which these women can really aspire.

Another protagonist, Polly, has a long affair with a married man. When he eventually leaves her to return to his wife, it coincides with her parents divorcing and her father coming to stay. Her father is financially dependent on her and rather profligate with money. Polly soon gets into debt and worries about how they can stay afloat, casting about for a means of supplementing her pay:

She thought of needlework or of marketing her herbal jellies and pomander balls through the Woman’s Exchange. She and her father could make plum puddings of fruit cakes. But when she figured out one day at lunch the profit on a jar of rosemary jelly that would retail, say, at twenty cents a jar, she saw that with the cost of the jars, the sugar, the labels and the shipping, she would have to make five hundred jars to earn $25, and this on the assumption that the fruit and herbs and cooking gas were free … It would be the same with needlework. For the first time she understood the charms of mass production. Her conclusion was that it was idle to think that a person could make money by using her hands in her spare time: you would have to be an invalid or blind to show a profit.

Her father, a manic-depressive, sees the solution and tells her:

‘I intend to find you a husband. For purely selfish reasons. I need a son-in-law to support me in my old age.’

In spite of all Polly’s lateral thinking, this is, in the end of course what happens.

Marriage is not, however, shown to be a bed of roses.

Kay, whose wedding opens the novel, is soon seen to be in a dreadful plight. She gets a job at Macy’s but her marriage is dreadfully unhappy as her husband is a smug, drunk philanderer, who ends up beating her. Grim already, it takes a very sinister turn towards the end when Kay’s husband has her committed to a mental asylum, and she, faced with the choice of going home with him or staying there, decides to stay.

Another character marries a man who sleeps with their baby’s nurse and then blames the wife for letting it happen. Another marries a pediatrician, and is bullied into letting their baby be little more than a case for his career.

Time and again, these enterprising women come up against an obstacle which highlights their dependence on men and the severe limitations of marriage being the only solution. (There is one other solution which is posited, but I don’t want to give a plot spoiler here as it is revealed right at the end. Let it be said, however, that one character manages to sidestep the marriage problem rather neatly, and even gets the better of Kay’s horrible philandering husband.)

Having said all this, The Group doesn’t read like an angry feminist book. McCarthy makes her point, but does so through a very enjoyable narrative, peppered with humour and wry observations. It is not just the plight of women that is portrayed, but New York in the thirties – its literary scene with book-review editors ‘like kings … holding levees, surrounded by their courtiers, while petitioners waited eagerly in the anteroom and footmen trotted back and forth’, its political idealists, its enthusiasm for psychoanalysis, its children of the Depression, and the worries of the impending war in Europe.

The Group manages to be both enjoyable and political, plot-driven and ideologically persuasive. One wonders how Mary McCarthy achieved such a feat. Moreover, one wonders why its publishers today so diminish it by marketing it as little more than the inspiration for Sex and the City.

Mary McCarthy

Now on to The Bell Jar

Tender is the Night

June 24, 2013

Curious people sometimes ask how I pick the books for my Walking Book Club. (Yes, I tyrannically insist on choosing all of them, which I know speaks of control issues. All I can say is that I’m a youngest child, and the only girl.) Well, I try to pick hidden classics – that is brilliant books which have somewhat dropped off the radar, books which people might otherwise pass over, without knowing that they’re missing out.

Tender is the NightYesterday, as we wandered over Hampstead Heath, we discussed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, which, I hear you protest, is hardly off the radar. My point is that everyone goes on and on about The Great Gatsby while paying relatively little attention to Fitzgerald’s other works.

I greatly prefer Tender to Gatsby, finding it messily meaty, resisting straightforward interpretation, and written in lush, opaque prose. There was also something poignant about discussing the book, so close to where Keats wrote his ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ from which Fitzgerald took his title.

Tender is the Night begins when young Hollywood starlet Rosemary Hoyt meets Dick and Nicole Diver, a golden American couple, while holidaying in the South of France with her mother. Needless to say, she falls for their allure and gets romantically entangled with Dick. But all is not as it seems with the Divers, and, by way of a lengthy but compelling flashback, Fitzgerald reveals the disturbing truth at the foundation of their marriage. Once we are back to the ‘now’ of the book (1925), we follow the Divers around Europe, as their marriage flounders, their charm fades, their friends slip away and Dick turns to drink. It becomes clear that Dick has peaked and, as his name Diver suggests, now he will fall.

One gripe raised on the walking book club was that the plot is unnecessarily complicated. Indeed, perhaps it is a little puzzling that Fitzgerald should initially cast Rosemary as such a key character, but then let her slip out of the story for such a long time, resurfacing eventually but with much less importance. Even a tiny bit of research shows that Fitzgerald laboured over this, his final complete novel, for nine years. While his initial focus was the Rosemary plotline – a young Hollywood star, only originally it was to be a man, and his overpowering mother – it then came to be about his friends Sara and Gerald Murphy, the couple who ‘discovered’ the French Rivera and turned it into a fashionable resort. Then, in 1931 Fitzgerald’s father died and in 1932, his wife Zelda was hospitalised for schizophrenia – elements of autobiography that fed into the novel. Add to this the historical context of the First World War and The Great Crash of 1929 and some psychoanalytical ideas from Freud and Jung, and the result is messy, yes, but rich.

I can’t hope to cover everything here, so I’ll just stick to one aspect which I found particularly striking – women come out of Tender is the Night much better than the men:

Dick drinks and Dives to his downfall; Abe North does the same thing. Dick’s father dies, and so does – in an act of horrific violence – a negro (Fitzgerald’s term) shoeshiner with whom their paths briefly cross in Paris. Of course, there is the shadow of the deaths of the hundreds of thousands of men who fought in the First World War, a point which is reinforced when the Divers and their gang visit the trenches.

Women, on the other hand, come out on top. We meet Rosemary at the very start of her success and she continues to thrive. Her mother has outlived two husbands and lives vicariously, contentedly, through Rosemary. Nicole we see at rock bottom, and watch her progress. Nicole’s sister, who lost her fiancé to the War, may be romantically unhappy but she is financially empowered. Even Mary North outlives her husband and flourishes after his death.

Yet, Tender is the Night doesn’t read like a celebration of women’s newfound, post-war agency. When Dick goes to meet Rosemary’s mother, Fitzgerald muses:

Women are necessarily capable of almost anything in their struggle for survival and can scarcely be convicted of such man-made crimes as “cruelty”.

Fitzgerald is clear that women are better at surviving in this world of the 1920s than men. Yet here he suggests there is something ignoble about their survival, something dishonourable. While it is as though he lets them off the hook – they ‘can scarcely be convicted’ of cruelty – the implication is that women live by a different, lesser, code to men. “Cruelty” is ‘man-made’, not woman-made. Women don’t have the moral compass to recognise their cruel behaviour.

The code that men live by in Tender is the Night is a violent one. Right at the beginning there is a duel, with pistols. Then there is the violent murder of the shoe-shiner. Later, drunk and incensed, Dick punches an Italian policeman, only to be utterly beaten up himself. As I mentioned, this all takes place in the violent shadow of the First World War. Fitzgerald implies a respect for this violence: there is an honour in fighting a duel, although it risks sending a man to his death. So many men go to their death in this book – perhaps Fitzgerald sees some glory as their stars fade and are extinguished. The women, while they might survive the men, do so in a slippery, shameful way that is beyond the label of  “cruelty”. The violence is there for the women – in Nicole’s tortured past and moments of breakdown, in Rosemary’s desire for Dick and cold pursuit of success, and in Baby’s (Nicole’s sister) frigid flinching at physical contact, yet the violence here is controlled, under the surface, hardened into a more sinister drive to survival.

Fitzgerald attempts to cast his women as ‘Daddy’s girl’ – the film which brought Rosemary her first success. They are, supposedly, innocents that need rescuing, just as Dick attempts to play the father figure. Fitzgerald, the author, is the ultimate father figure, controlling and protecting his inventions and so perhaps disapproving of their icy struggle to survive independently, thriving as the men fall. Unlike Fitzgerald, I have to admit to feeling rather satisfied to see these women, albeit cold and in many ways unappealing, prove their own agency and flourish at the expense of all the alcoholic, egotistical men.

Daphne and Fitzgerald

I tried to construct a highly sophisticated ‘Tortometer’, to see whether Daphne – such a discerning tortoise – was inclined to prefer The Great Gatsby or Tender is the Night.

At first, I thought she was going for Tender is the Night, but, in fact, she was just turning around to go back to her little hot house. Fitzgerald, no doubt, would be furious at the slight.

Daphne turns around

The Millstone

March 4, 2013

What can we do when words fail us?

What happens when we aren’t able to find the words to express ourselves? What can we do if we simply cannot say what we want to?

If someone can’t express themselves using language, perhaps it suggests that language won’t let them say it. Perhaps what they want to say is not allowed to be said. It is taboo, not permitted by society – the words aren’t there to be spoken. Or perhaps what needs to be said is felt so acutely, so deeply, that language seems like too superficial a tool for the job. Perhaps it’s both, in which case one might resort to the following:

I started to scream. I screamed very loudly, shutting my eyes to do it, and listening in amazement to the deafening shindy that filled my head. Once I had started, I could not stop; I stood there, motionless, screaming, whilst they shook me and yelled at me and told me that I was upsetting everybody in earshot. ‘I don’t care,’ I yelled, finding words for my inarticulate passion, ‘I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care about anyone, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.’

Eventually they got me to sit down, but I went on screaming and moaning and keeping my eyes shut; through the noise I could hear things happening, people coming and going, someone slapped my face, someone tried to put a wet flannel on my head, and all the time I was thinking I must go on doing this until they let me see her. Inside my head it was red and black and very hot, I remember, and I remember also the clearness of my consciousness and the ferocity of my emotion, and myself enduring them, myself neither one nor the other, but enduring them, and not breaking in two.

This astonishing, heart-rending, passionate scream takes place at the heart of Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. Rosamund Stacey, a young academic and our heroine, has had a baby, in spite of being a single woman. She suffers the indignities given to pregnant women in the sixties who were unmarried – a ‘U’ at the end of the hospital bed, being called ‘Mrs’ by the nurses as ‘a courtesy title’, and suffering people’s general puzzlement as to why she doesn’t ‘have something done about it’ instead. Rosamund, who is quiet but determined, intelligent but unworldly, and who tends to say things like ‘mildly’ and ask ‘whyever not’, somehow gets through her pregnancy and has a baby. But a few weeks later her baby has to return to hospital for an operation:

Possessed by the most fearful anguish, aware, as all must be on such occasions, that my state had changed in ten minutes from unknown bliss to known though undefined sorrow.

Thank God the operation is a success and the baby is said to be recovering well. Rosamund of course wants to go and see her daughter, but is told by the nurse that she can’t. Naturally inclined to do anything at all rather than make a fuss or cause trouble, she eventually agrees to go away, but is ‘out in the corridor before I heard her saying that perhaps in a fortnight or so I might be able to visit.’ Rosamund cannot bear to endure the separation from her baby, in part for herself, but moreover because of the thought of ‘my baby’s small lonely awakening’. She returns to the hospital and insists on seeing her baby, refusing to go away, or be pushed out the door, repeating again and again that she ‘must see’ her baby. Eventually, words evidently failing her, she resorts to this scream. It is made all the more powerful by Rosamund’s quietness, mildness, awkward shyness up to this point. It must be something truly awful to have made her resort to this.

I went to hear Margaret Drabble give a talk last week about women and the novel. She spoke about how she thought of writing as means of ‘creating a future’. I’ve so often thought of that all-too-common piece of advice to write about what you know, to use your experiences, i.e. your past, to inform your writing. I felt very inspired by Drabble’s idea to use writing as a tool to shape the future. Fiction, she said, could be a means of exploring the ‘frontiers and future of female experience’. Yes!

Claire Tomalin wrote that Drabble ‘is one of the few modern novelists who has actually changed government policy, by what she wrote in The Millstone about visiting children in hospital’. Now, thanks in part to Drabble, mothers will never have to scream like Rosamund in order to see their babies. To push at this frontier of experience, Drabble came to the frontier of language; she had to channel ‘inarticulate passion’, the base wordless power of a scream, to achieve change. Society had not allowed her words ‘I’ve come to see my baby’ to be heard or recognised. Only after Rosamund’s unforgettable scream could that bit of language function correctly.

The Millstone is a brilliant novel. It is compelling and deeply affecting, and its power is nicely set off by moments of humour, wry observation, and dry wit. It’s not often in literature that you come across a great and inspiring mother. All too often they’re awful, or dead (see this post I wrote for the Spectator last year on just this subject). With Mother’s Day this coming Sunday, I can’t think of a better novel to read about an unlikely and thoroughly heroic mum.

Hotel du Lac

August 20, 2012

I knew I was going to enjoy Hotel du Lac when I reached the third page, on which Anita Brookner described Edith’s hotel room as ‘the colour of over-cooked veal’. It sounds so perfectly disgusting – the insipid colour, the dryness, the foul tough chewy taste and also curiously old-fashioned, as veal is one of those things rarely eaten these days.

The book is peppered with moments like this, these little phrases which are spot on – imaginative, evocative and also drily funny. To my mind, Penelope Fitzgerald (see here) and Elizabeth Taylor (see here) are the real mistresses of them, but Anita Brookner is not far behind.

In Hotel du Lac, these pert phrases sparkle against what some might find to be rather a quiet, dull background of a Swiss hotel with its dotty residents who sit around not doing very much. But I liked the quietness of the novel, the feeling of the hotel’s slow crumbling decline, while clinging on to its delusions of grandeur – an attitude not unlike that shared by many of its ageing, fading residents.

The hotel is the setting for a short episode in the life of Edith Hope. A romantic novelist, Edith has been bundled off to the Hotel du Lac in the wake of a mysterious ‘event’ in order to escape the scandal and – it is hoped – reflect on her bad behaviour. Her story gradually unfolds as she observes the peculiar residents of the hotel, who have their own rather idiosyncratic tales to tell.

In many ways Hotel du Lac feels like an older novel. I suppose, as it was written in the eighties, it is reasonably old now. But it feels more like a novel of the thirties – which was probably the heyday of the Hotel du Lac. People still dress for dinner, ask people to join them for coffee, and enjoy other dated forms of behaviour – it is as though the hotel exists in something of a time warp. Some of my favourite moments are when this old-fashioned feel clashes with something terribly eighties, such as one of the guests dressing for dinner in:

pink harem pants, teamed, as they say in the fashion mags, with an off the shoulder blouse.

Not the elegant silk gown one was expecting!

Anita Brookner is revisiting this old-fashioned scenario of a grand Swiss hotel and re-examining it in a modern light. Not only in terms of fashion, but as a background to re-asses ideas about love and about women.

It becomes clear pretty early on that Edith has been having an affair with a married man. David and her have an affair that seems to consist of visits to private views at art galleries, lots of sex and then her cooking him tremendous fry ups in the middle of the night. Actually that sounds quite fun. But we are often reminded that David has a wife and children; Edith is the other woman. And yet, as Edith is the narrator, and is timid and a bit hopeless, the reader can’t help but sympathise with her. She is not the scheming ‘baddie’ one would automatically expect the other woman to be.

In thinking about the age-old issue of affairs, Anita Brookner calls up an older literary exploration of it, Elizabeth Jenkins’s 1954 novel The Tortoise and the Hare, which is one of my favourite books – terribly sad, too brilliant and I wrote about it here. Edith has a conversation with her agent about the tortoise and the hare, which she terms ‘the most potent myth of all’:

In my books it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero, while the scornful temptress with whom he has had a stormy affair retreats baffled from the fray, never to return. The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie, of course … In real life, of course, it is the hare who wins. Every time. Look around you. And in any case it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market … Hares don’t have time to read.

In The Tortoise and the Hare, Jenkins deploys Aesop’s fable as an extended metaphor for a failing marriage and an adulterous other woman. What is so clever about Elizabeth Jenkins’s book, as Carmen Calil points out in her Afterword, is that while you read it you are endlessly reassessing who you think is the tortoise and who the hare. From this conversation, it would seem that Edith thinks the slow unassuming wife is the tortoise, the swift scornful hare the adulteress. She bemoans the fact that in the novels she writes the tortoise always wins, when that isn’t true to life.

But hang on a minute, Edith is herself a character in a novel, and she is the adulteress. Does that mean that she is the swift scornful hare? Does that mean that, because she is encased within a novel, she will lose? Or, in terms of her ‘real life’, as opposed to the novels she writes, will she win?

Perhaps Anita Brookner is just as clever as Elizabeth Jenkins here, because Edith is as much a tortoise – timid, miserable, reading lots of books – as a husband-stealing hare. And the little we see of David’s wife does not make her seem particularly tortoise-like:

Highly coloured, drinking rather a lot, argumentative. Sexy, she thought painfully. But discontented, nevertheless.

The metaphor of the tortoise and the hare, so brilliantly employed by Elizabeth Jenkins, rather falls apart in this context, where the women in question are shown to possess qualities of both. That was the fifties, this is the eighties, says Anita Brookner, and things have changed.

I suppose what feels rather depressing about Hotel du Lac – aside from the grey light and veal-coloured rooms and somewhat lost, rejected-by-society cast of characters – is that Brookner gives such a negative portrayal of love affairs. Things haven’t changed for the better, in terms of relationships.

Edith has to choose whether to marry and live the life of a tortoise or to continue with her affair and live the life of the hare. Neither seems particularly appealing or fulfilling. Really what makes Edith happy is writing and sitting in her garden – man-free activities. Could Brookner be suggesting that the race to win a man simply isn’t worth running anymore? By exploding these roles of tortoise and hare, Brookner suggests that rather than trying to squeeze into such ill-fitting moulds, women should run in a different race altogether, a race in which men don’t feature.

This pulling apart of the tortoise and the hare myth is part of Brookner’s wider assessment of women. Here is Edith’s scathing description of women who are ‘ultra-feminine’:

the complacent consumers of men with their complicated but unwritten rules of what is due to them. Treats. Indulgences. Privileges. The right to make illogical fusses. The cult of themselves. Such women strike me as dishonourable. And terrifying.

Terrifying indeed!

Ladies, I suppose the lesson here is to tend to your garden, as Voltaire instructed, and live as a self-sufficient individual without needing to ‘consume’ men in such a hideous way. Rather than choosing between being a tortoise or a hare, Brookner suggests that a woman can be a different creature altogether.