Alas, Poor Lady

Alas, Poor Lady

The pleasure of losing oneself in 450+ pages between the grey covers of a Persephone book on a rainy day cannot be understated. This overly detailed tale of the transition out of Victorian life into the modern world of the 1930s follows the birth of Grace in 1870, the eighth daughter of the Scrimgeours. Luckily for Captain Scrimgeour, a son finally arrives after Grace, and all his funds and energy go toward raising that heir as his daughters are variously married off or become spinsters huddled around his hearth (or escape to a nunnery, as one does). Gertrude, his oldest daughter, has her first child as her mother gives birth to Grace, making Grace an awkward “Aunt” at dances she goes to with her niece as soon as she’s of age. Gertie is the one strong woman throughout this story that you don’t feel sorry for (Mary wavers between strength and the desire not to rock the boat and head back to her books).

The spinsters lumber on through life, their mother turning spendthrift after the father dies, almost willfully mismanaging their money so that the three unmarrieds end up penniless when she finally kicks it. The other sisters do their best to support the three (Queenie, Mary, and Grace), but eventually they have to give up as well. Mary dies while Grace works as a governess and then bounces around from post to post. When Grace finally achieves a pension from the “Gentlefolks Protection Association” at the end, she has a heart attack after hosting her favorite people to tea, her worries finally over.

It’s fairly terrific to be a spinster in 2017 reading this tale and recognizing the great freedom and abundance of opportunity that exists compared to those restrictive days where “it wasn’t done” to go out and work and where the only goal in life was marriage and babies.

The author’s preference for the old days is perhaps most evident in this: “If wages were low so was the price of a room, and if education was disorganized and hard to come by, who shall say that it was missed The masses knew their limitations, were trained to their jobs and opportunities and seldom sought beyond them, and if they lacked the costly smatterings of largely useless, compulsory information to be dealt out by the coming century, at least they escaped the heartbreaks of disillusion, the alienation from their own families, that a slight social rise in occupation commonly brings, together with the uphill business of eternally straining to go one better than the person next door.”

There’s some brilliant lines attacking Catholicism when Agatha decides to go to a nunnery, saying that the religion stifles the brain. “Naturally it ropes in the lonely woman, and the woman who has been thwarted in one of the dozen ways women can be thwarted, or who wants colour and variety in her life, or who, without being a good organizer herself, enjoys regularity and system in her life, or who yearns to be ‘mastered’… I’m not an intellectual woman or a clever one, but I agree with you that any religion that dares not let its follower think must have rather more than one rotten spot.”

The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks

Katherine Mansfield Notebooks: Complete Edition

This two volume set was carefully collected by Margaret Scott, who began her work by transcribing a few sentences a day when she worked as a librarian in the New Zealand library where Mansfield’s manuscripts (and most of the notebooks) were stored. Scott surprisingly does not come after Murry (KM’s husband) hard, excusing him for the thankless task of deciphering her handwriting and dealing with the poison pills of hate for him she left behind. She even manages to avoid casting aspersions of him selling off KM’s notebooks to pay for a tractor on his farm.

In the intro, Scott specifically mentions the relationship KM had with her father’s cousin, “Elizabeth” (Mary Annette Beauchamp, who wrote a best seller called Elizabeth and her German Garden in 1898.) What struck me was the similarity to what I’ve been pulling out of VW’s writing about KM. Scott: “The two women, a generation apart in age, admired each other but were to some extent rivals. KM envied Elizabeth’s literary popularity and money and luxurious mode of life, but knew that she herself was the better artist. It was a comfort to have Elizabeth living only half an hour away from the Chalet des Sapins where KM lived with Murry for that period, yet the two women never fully accepted each other. They were both constantly wary – KM’s side of which is reflected here.

A note on the numbering– I can’t find confirmation of this, but I believe the notebooks are numbered based on their order of being acquired by either the Turnbull Library (NZ) or Newberry Library (Chicago).  Scott has then ordered them based on chronology of the contents.

Volume I (1898-1914?)

There are juicy gems lying in wait throughout the early notebooks, completely disregarded by Murry in his roundup of her Journals. Notebook 1 contains “I feel passionate & mad. Why not write something good. Here’s a thought. Of course it may be nothing.” Notebook 39 contains a boatload of quotations, mostly Oscar Wilde but also several from KM herself. Two of hers: “Happy people are never brilliant. It implies friction” and “Ambition is a curse if you are not armour-proof against everything else, unless you are willing to sacrifice yourself to your ambition.” Later in this notebook, “I must wander. I cannot- will not – build a house upon any damned rock. But money – money – money is what I need and do not possess.” Also “I want to practically celebrate this day by beginning to write a book. In my brain, as I walk each day, as I dress, as I speak, or even before playing my ‘cello, a thousand delicate images float and are gone. I want to write a book – that is unreal yet wholly possible because out of the question – that raises in the hearts of the readers emotions, sensations too vivid not to take effect, which causes a thousand delicate tears, a thousand sweet chimes of laughter. I shall never attempt anything approaching the histrionic, and it must be ultra-modern.”

More gold from Notebook 39, written in 1907: “I am so eternally thankful that I did not allow J – to kiss me – I am constantly hearing of him, and I feel to meet him would be horrible. But why? It is ridiculous – I used him merely for copy. I am always so supremely afraid of appearing ridiculous. The feeling is fostered by Oscar who has so absolutely the essence of savoir faire. . I like to appear in any society entirely at my ease, conscious of my own importance – which in my estimation is unlimited – affable, and very receptive. I like to appear slightly condescending, very much of la grand monde, & to be the centre of interest. Yes, but quelque foi to my unutterable chagrin, unmistakable shyness seizes me… I thank Heaven that at present, though I am damnable, I am in love with nobody – except myself.”

Same notebook, 1908: “To weave the intricate tapestry of one’s own life it is well to take a thread from many harmonious skeins, and to realise that there must be harmony.”

Notebook 18 is dated 1914 I believe. On the 26 of March, she noted being uncomfortable in society: “I was wretched. I have nothing to say to ‘charming’ women. I feel like a cat among tigers. The ladies left to themselves talked ghosts & childbeds. I am wretchedly unhappy among everybody – and the silence…”

Notebook 10 contains Shakespeare quotations that Murry noted were copied out sometimes by KM and sometimes by him when they used to read part of a play of S each night. Whomever wasn’t reading would jot down lines that struck them. I love this thoroughly pleasurable way of spending an evening!

Volume II (1914? – 1922?)

I was glad to recognize some old friends here from passages Murry selected for his version of her Journals, like her musings on Henry James (“I can wade through pages and pages of dull, turgid James for the sake of that sudden sweet shock, that violent throb of delight that he gives me at times”). This volume also includes tons of new stuff, reinforcing things that I highlighted before, such as her obsession with making money. Notebook 4: “For this year [1915] I have two wishes  to write  to make money… It is only poverty that holds us so tightly. Well, J doesn’t want money & wont earn money. I must. How? First, get this book finished – that is a start. When. At the end of January. If you do that you are saved. If I wrote night & day I could do it. Yes I could. Right O.”

KM had money issues with Murry as well, and he wrote her a series of letters that are “a constant cry about money. He has none: he saw no chance of getting any, ‘heavy debts’, ‘as you know I am bankrupt’, ‘I know it sounds callous’, ‘I can’t face it’… Before that I’d been the man and he had been the woman & he had been called upon to make no real efforts. He’d never really ‘supported’ me. When we first met, in fact, it was I who kept him and afterwards we’d always acted (more or less) like men friends.”

You can see why Murry heavily edited himself out of his version of her Journals. “But my life with Jack I’m not inclined to [relive at will]. It doesn’t enter my head. Where that life was there’s just a blank. The future – the present life with him is not. It has got to be lived. There’s nothing in it. Something has stopped – a wall has been raised and its too recent for me to wish to go there even… I’m not in the least curious either – & not in the least inclined to lament… If one wasn’t so afraid – why should I be – these aren’t going to be read by Bloomsbury et Cie – I’d say we had a child – a love child & its dead.”

9 Feb 1920: “I feel I must live alone alone alone – with artists only to come to the door. Every artist cuts off his ear & nails it on the outside of the door for the others to shout into.”

Unbound papers dated 1919-1920, KM is much more revealing than I’ve ever seen: “True to oneself! Which self? Which of my many – well, really, thats what it looks like coming to – hundreds of selves. For what with complexes and suppressions, and reactions and vibrations and reflections – there are moments when I feel I am nothing but the small clerk of some hotel without a proprietor who has all his work cut out to enter the names and hand the keys to the wilful guests. Nevertheless, there are signs that we are intent as never before on trying to puzzle out, to live by, our own particular self. Der mensch muss frei sein – free, disentangled, single. Is it not possible that the rage for confession, autobiography, especially for memories of earliest childhood is explained by our persistent yet mysterious belief in a self which is continuous and permanent, which, untouched by all we acquire and all we shed, pushes a green spear through the leaves and through the mould, thrusts a sealed bud through years of darkness until, one day, the light discovers it and shakes the flower free and – we are alive – we are flowering for our moment upon the earth. This is the moment which, after all, we live for, the moment of direct feeling when we are most ourselves and least personal.”

In Notebook 38: “Oh to be a writer a real writer given up to it and to it alone! Oh I failed today I turned back, looked over my shoulder and immediately it happened I felt as tho’ I too were struck down.”

Her love of nature in Notebook 25: “September is different to all other months. It is more magical. I feel the strange chemical change in the earth which produces mushrooms is the cause, too, of this extra ‘life’ in the air – a resilience, a sparkle.”

Unbound papers, October 1920: KM struggles with the idea of a story: “What I ought to do, though is to write it, somehow, immediately, even if it’s not good enough to print. My chief fault, my overwhelming fault is in not writing it out. Well, now that I know it (and the disease is of very long standing) why don’t I begin at least to follow a definite treatment? It is my experience that once an ‘evil’ is recognised any delay in attempted to eradicate it is fatally weakening. And I who love order, with my mania for the ‘clean sweep’, for every single thing being ‘ship-shape’… I to know there’s such an ugly spot in my mind! Weeds flourish in neglect. I must keep my garden open to the light and in order. I must at all costs plant these bulbs and not leave them (oh shameful!) to rot on the garden paths! Today (October 18th.20) is Monday. I have raised my right hand & sworn. Am I ever happy except when overcoming difficulties? Never. Am I ever free from the sense of guilt, even? Never. After I had finished that slight sketch of The Young Girl wasn’t there a moment which surpasses all other moments? Oh, yes. Then – why do you hesitate? How can you! I take my oath – not one day shall pass without I write something – original.”

Notebook 35, she wrestles with the idea of peace of mind. “What is peace of mind? Did I ever have it?” Murry is hiding letters which are evidence of his affair with Princess Elizabeth Bibesco. “So whenever I look at him and whenever I am with him there is that secret and I can’t give him all I long to give him nor can I rest in him because of it. I have no abiding place. Peace of mind. Yes, I had it when I was first here…. No, I’ve been poisoned by these ‘letters’. How can he know someone so strange to me? To us? Not only know her but cherish her?” The “I have no abiding place” breaks my heart into a million pieces; KM was always on the move, looking for a place to settle down, a home.

Notebook 36 (with “1. Baby 2. Thief 3. Snow” written on the cover), on writing: “Oh, I must not yield! I must, this evening, after my supper, get something done. It’s not so terribly hard after all. And how I shall live my good life if I am content to pass even one day in idleness. It won’t do. Control – of all kinds. How easy it is to lack control in little things. And once one does lack it the small bad habits – tiny perhaps –  spring up like weeds & choke on’e will. that is what I find.”

In Notebooks 6 and 44, KM records her impressions of various Shakespeare plays, pulling out her favorite lines and analyzing them.

The very short Notebook 21 starts with a list of household accounts and also includes this gem: “It is remarkable how much there is of the ordinary man in J. For instance, finding no towels in his room tonight his indignation, sense of injury, desire so to shut his door that it would bring the house down – his fury, in fact in having to look for the blarsted things – all was just precisely what one would have expected of his Father … It makes one think again of the separation of the ARTIST and the MAN. It’s like his Why is lunch late? As tho’ I had but to wave my hand and the banquet descended. But doesn’t that prove how happy he would have been with a real WIFE!

Newberry Notebook 6, on writing. “Wasting time. The old cry – the first and last cry. Why do ye tarry! Ah, why indeed! My deepest desire is to be a writer, to have a “body of work” done, and there the work is, there the stories wait for me, grow tired, wilt, fade, because I will not come. When first they knock how fresh and eager they are. And I hear & I acknowledge them & still I go on sitting at the window playing with the ball of wool. What is to be done. I must make another effort, at once. I must begin all over again. I must try and write simply, fully, freely, from my heart. Quietly, caring nothing for success or failure, but just going on.”

Notebook 41: “I wonder why it should be so difficult to be humble. I do not think I am a good writer; I realise my faults better than anyone else could realise them. I know exactly where I fail. And yet, when I have finished a story & before I have begun another I catch myself preening my feathers. It is disheartening. There seems to be some bad old pride in my heart; a root of it that puts out a thick shoot on the slightest provocation… This interferes very much with work. One can’t be calm, clear, good as one must be while it goes on. I look at the mountains, I try to pray, & I think of something clever. It’s a kind of excitement within one which shouldn’t be there. Calm yourself. Clear yourself. And anything that I write in this mood will be no good; it will be full of sediment. If I were well I would go off by myself somewhere & sit under a tree. One must learn, one must practice to forget oneself.”

Unbound papers: “I seem to have lost all power of writing. I can think, in a vague way, and it all seems more or less real and worth doing. But I can’t get any further. I can’t write it down. Sometimes I think my brain is going. But no! I know the real reason. It’s because I am still suffering from a kind of nervous prostration caused by my life in Paris. For instance, those interviews with the dentist.” More on writing in that same bundle: “I have been thinking over this story this morning. I suppose I know as much about it now as I shall know. So it seems. And if just the miracle happened I could walk into it and make it mind. Even to write that brings it all nearer. It’s very strange, but the mere act of writing anything is a help. It seems to speed one on one’s way. But my feet are so cold.”

January 1922 diaries are in Notebook 20. “I have left undone those things which I ought to have done and I have done those things which I ought not to have done e.g. violent impatience with L.M.   Wrote The Doves Nest this afternoon. I was in no mood to write; it seemed impossible, yet when I had finished three pages they were ‘alright’. This is a proof (never to be too often proved) that once one has though out a story nothing remains but the labour.” Also something I think I already copied from Murry’s version of Journal about what she admires in Austen “what she promises she performs i.e. if Sir T. is to arrive we have his arrival at length and it’s excellent and excels our expectations. This is rare; it is also my very weakest point. Easy to see why…”

On January 11, 1922 a visit from ‘Elizabeth’ – “In the afternoon Elizabeth dame. She looked fascinating in her black suit; something between a Bishop and a Fly. She spoke of my “pretty little story” in The Mercury [The Garden Party]. All the white she was here I was conscious of a falsity. We said things we meant; we were sincere but at the back there was nothing but falsity. It was very horrible. I do not want ever to see her or to hear from her again. When she said she would not come often I wanted to cry Finito. No, she is not my friend. There is no feeling to be compared with the joy of having written and finished a story.” Despite her threats, on January 14 Elizabeth comes again “She and I were alone. She wore a little blue hood fastened under the chin with a diamond clasp. She looked like a very ancient drawing. She suggested that if I did become cured I might no longer write…” On January 27, another visit: “A strange fate overtakes me with her. We seem to be always talking of physical subjects. They bore and disgust me for I feel it is a waste of time and yet we always revert to them.”

Also in the January 1922 diaries, thoughts on Chekov & writing. “The truth is one can get only so much into a story; there is always a sacrifice. One has to leave out what one know & longs to use. Why? I haven’t any idea but there it is. It’s always a kind of race, to get in as much as one can before it disappears. ”

Notebook 5 begins with my favorite theme: “I find the rapture at being alone hard to understand. Certainly when I am sitting out of sight under a tree I feel I would be content to never return… Should I be as happy with anyone by my side? No. I’d begin to talk, & it’s far nicer not to talk.” She goes on with a bit of caution that strikes my heart: “I do not want to be a book worm. A worm burrows everlastingly. If its book is taken away from it the little blind head is raised, it wags, hovers, terribly uneasy, in a void until it begins to burrow again.”

Random bits

Virginia Woolf is only mentioned once in the 700+ pages: “1 July 1920… Virginia Wed. afternoon”. T.S. Eliot only mentioned as his address is in her address book (Eliot, T.S. 18 Crawford Mansions, Baker Street, London).

A postal strike in France keeps letters from KM in 1919.

She includes details of her income and expenses, like toilet paper, soap, cold chicken, taxis, cigarettes, laundry, telegrams, flowers, medicine, envelopes, stamps, ink, butter, oatmeal, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, garlic, rice, flour, vinegar, mustard, nutmeg, chocolate, rennet, eggs, lettuce.

The notebooks also contain unfinished scraps of stories and plays, too numerous to mention.

She’s hilarious at times, such as this rant against her constant companion, Ida Baker/Lesley Moore: “L.M. is also exceedingly fond of bananas. But she eats them so slowly, so terribly slowly. And they know it somehow: they realise what is in store for them when she reaches out her hand. I have seen bananas turn absolutely livid with terror on her plate – or pale as ashes.”

Discovered Georges Banks in a footnote: a woman artist who with her friend, the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, physically attacked Murry in his office in 1913 because they thought he cheated them out of payments. Sydney Janet Kaplan has this explanation in her book, Circulating Genius: John Middleton Murry, Katherine Mansfield and D. H. Lawrence:

Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq

Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq

Just because a book is a graphic novel does not mean it will provide an escape from the torments of modern life in 2017. I turned to Rolling Blackouts without knowing much about what I was getting into, and found myself deep in a swirl of minutely detailed journalism about Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and a trip that a group of friends took to suss out stories of refugees in 2010. Glidden is the graphic journalist who goes along to document the process of her friends Sarah and Alex working their freelance journalism, along with Sarah’s childhood friend Dan’s reaction of returning to Kurdistan after having served as an army vet. Heartbreaking stories, gripping yet mindnumbing details. I picked up some tips on journalism along the way, such as asking subjects to talk about how their group or work is misunderstood – everyone has an answer for that one. “What are some common misconceptions….?”

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin

This is a scary book to be reading in the early days of 2017 as we find out more and more about the current administration’s deep ties to Russia. Published five years ago, it clearly lays out how a low-level KGB agent wafted his way into the power vacuum Yeltsin left and submerged Russia back into repression. Chapters like “The Day The Media Died” and “The Dismantling of Democracy” are not pleasant bedtime reading for anyone living during Toxic T’s administration. It was probably the easiest thing in the world to infiltrate their campaign and meld their minds. Other similarities? The protests/rallies at the end as Gessen tries to point a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not convinced.

Putin is painted as the thug he is, a runt picked on in school who learned judo and other martial arts, who lurked around the KGB headquarters trying to get recruited. On his first day of power, he signed a set of bills that began dismantling the country’s fragile democratic structures.

There are lots of bodies, as expected. Am I naive to think that our own intelligence community racks up fewer civilian killings? When one of Putin’s early connections (Sobchak) didn’t get in line with the new Putin, and also talked too much, he was eliminated. Interestingly, there’s a theory that journalist Arkady Vaksberg put forward that Sobchak was killed by poison placed on the electrical bulb of a bedside lamp, so the substance heated and vaporized when the lamp turned on. “This was a technique developed in the USSR.” A few months after Vaksberg’s book was pub’d, his car was blown up in Moscow; luckily without him in it.

Lots of lessons to be learned… Ekaterina Podoltseva successfully fought off the brass band brought in to drown out the pro-democracy speeches by having everyone pull out lemons and eat them in front of them, because when people see someone eating a lemon, they begin producing lots of saliva, making it impossible to play. One dissident says she always told people there was no point in going to jail voluntarily, better to leave the country. Another announced, “what a shitty time we’ve lived to see… We once lived in a totalitarian state that had two main features: totalizing terror and a totalizing lie. I hope that totalizing terror is no longer possible inour country, but we have now entered a new era of the totalizing lie.”

Bricks and Mortar

Bricks and Mortar

A middling Persephone title that may be of serious interest to anyone with a passion for architecture. The story follows young architect, Martin, in Rome to do some sketching before starting his apprenticeship in London, who is maneuvered into marriage by Lady Stapleford, intent on getting rid of her daughter Letty. The young couple have a daughter, Stacey, and a sickly son, Aubrey. The son is petted and spoiled by the mother and grandmother, no expense spared for education despite his lackluster success. Stacey is far more interested in mathematics and sketching and follows in her father’s footsteps as much as allowed for a woman. WWI comes along to disrupt the apple cart, Stacey’s hasty marriage to a handsome brute luckily cut short when he dies, but she must suffer for several more years before her first love, Oliver, ‘s wife also succumbs (poisons herself). Richly decorated text flush with architectural details (at points it seemed like yammering on). Letty dies eventually, Martin becomes an old man, Stacy & Oliver marry and have healthy children, Martin finally gets a home in the country he’s always dreamed of, but meets his end of life after toppling off a ladder to view some of his son-in-law’s work.

The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism

The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism

Disappointing, because the book had such promise, such a killer first paragraph where she outlines the “new selfishness” in the various things a narcissistic millennial says about shutting down Peachtree Street in Atlanta for her sweet 16 birthday party, giggling as she suggests that ambulances can just wait to get to the hospital across the street. Great introductory sentences like how “it’s getting harder to remember if there was a time before being a manipulative, shallow, grandiose asshole was something to brag about…” Parallelling the millennial’s behavior with that of the Norwegian psychopath who killed 69 teenagers along with the wounded rants all the murderers post online before doing their deed, “as if a moment’s celebrity is worth any human life, even their own.” All the blogs and websites and articles and books are all pointing to the fact that “we live in a time so rampant with narcissisms, so flush with false selves masquerading as real selves so selfish that they feed on other selves, a time so full of contagious emptiness, that ours is a moment in history that is, more than any other, absolutely exceptional.” She skewers Karl Ove as well, “the literary establishment has read the first two volumes of a 3,500 page, six-part autobiographical novel about every mundane detail of the life of a sweet but anxious and self-absorbed Norwegian man.” The thing is, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is now so prevalent that it’s not a disorder, but “our culture exactly.”

Those were the good bits. Then comes a hundred pages of humdrum drawn out fleshing out that picture with cites from forums of sad websites for people just dumped by their narcissistic boyfriend, diving into Freud’s false thoughts on narcissism, details about the ultimate bad boyfriend–one of those pickup artists, even an interview with the Atlanta millennial who didn’t care about shutting down Peachtree. She lost me after the strong opening chapter with a wandering, rambling chapter “The Epidemic” where her main point, I think, was that our obsession with narcissism is more interesting than the actual epidemic itself. Seems like she saw this bandwagon, jumped on it, and rolled around in the hay a bit before emerging with bits in her hair and with us readers a bit more bewildered than before.

The Casino

The Casino

Margaret Bonham’s collection of short stories caused flutters of laughter to emit from my mouth all afternoon. Naturally, some were better than others. Favorites were probably:

The Horse: wherein a newly published woman has a small soiree at her home and her daughter nestles in to do her homework assignment, gathering suggestions about her essay on horses from the other writers in attendance. The resulting essay very disappointing to the mother, who sneaks it out to read later.

Inigo: a baby quasi-abandoned outside a cottage that a woman passes by four times a day as she goes to and from work. She decides to adopt it, and her landlady is pleased that she (the landlady) has conjured up a ready-made family with a widower (the lady’s boss), the spinster, and the bastard child.

The Miss: a couple attending the cinema are surprised to hear the woman next to them rush out crying “Meat! Meat!” and leave, giving her a lift back to her home where yes, she has forgotten to take out meat in the oven. She claims her maid is out, and the maid returns home only to claim that The Miss is her maid. The next door maid tells the couple that the pair are loony. He leaves his beret and his wife suggests that the batty pair are boiling it with incantations.

Annabel’s Mother: a widowed mother takes her twelve-year-old smarty pants daughter to vacation over Easter, meets a doctor who puts Annabel, the daughter, in her place. On the train back, Annabel asks if he’s always going to boss her around if he becomes her stepdad, and he gleefully says yes.

Virginia Woolf’s Modernist Path: Her Middle Diaries and the Diaries She Read

Virginia Woolf's Modernist Path: Her Middle Diaries and the Diaries She Read

Barbara Lounsberry is quickly becoming one of my favorite Woolf scholars, what with this look at her diaries from 1918-1929 and her earlier Becoming Virginia Woolf which dips into the early diaries. Once again, she dons her literary detective cap and sets off to pick out the influences of VW’s diaries from other diaries she’s reading at the time, expertly pointing out how these threads show up in Woolf’s finished essays, books, and novels. It’s quite helpful for us armchair quarterbacks (? not the right metaphor, but is there something similar for amateur scholars?) to have her descriptions of the actual source documents themselves, whether they are notebooks turned upside down and repurposed as journals or a tidy collection of loose-leaf papers or journals missing covers perhaps from the 1940 bombing of Woolf’s London home. Also very helpful to have her incisive comments decimate Murry’s release of Katherine Mansfield’s journals, which I suspected in my reading of them. I went back to add in her withering invective at the end of my review of those 1927 Journals. At times Lounsberry overstates her case, like when she announces similarities between journals that are just common sense, not that VW would have picked up those habits from things she read, such as using initials instead of names and talking about happiness.

In the 1919 diary, she continues to be curious and ask questions and begins to write about her own writing and that of others. Her 1920 diary tips her enthusiasm for London, wanting a “city community to complement her country commune” as Lounsberry notes. As VW says: “The ease & rapidity of life in London a good deal impressed me—everything near at hand, to be compassed between lunch & tea, without setting out & making a job of it. Roger, Duncan, Nessa, Clive & so on; I seeing it all much composed & in perspective owing to my outsider’s vision.”

Illness returns in 1921 and she thinks for the first time of making a will. “Sometimes it seems to me that I shall never write out all the books I have in my head, because of the strain.” VW and Katherine Mansfield echo each other in this worry.

In 1926, she reads the diaries of Beatrice Webb, My Apprenticeship, and is much influenced by it. Lounsberry notes that the main difference between “restless searcher” and “social investigator” defines neatly the difference between VW & Webb. Also in 1926, she read Benjamin Robert Haydon’s journals which she reviewed and identified with. Lounsberry credits Haydon’s 1836 diary entry “if I had £500 a year regularly, never would I cease painting, morning, noon, or night, and never have a debt” for the £500 necessary in A Room of One’s Own. I was struck by the idea of vacancy as a spur to invention—ideas flashing into the mind where a blank spot remains to be filled. Don’t over-describe, but allow for the reader’s mind to flesh out, to participate.

Her 1927 diaries contain evidence that she had accepted her childlessness: “And yet oddly enough I scarcely want children of my own now. This insatiable desire to write something before I die, this ravaging sense of the shortness & feverishness of life, make me cling, like a man on a rock, to my one anchor. I don’t like the physicalness of having children of one’s own. This occurred to me at Rodmell; but I never wrote it down.” The pleasure in childlessness returns in her 1928 diary, in a picture of dinner with Maynard Keynes and wife “two couples, elderly, childless distinguished;” and also declaring “I don’t want [children] any more, since my ideas so possess me & I detest more & more interruption & the slow heaviness of physical life & almost dislike peoples bodies, I think, as I grow older; & want always to cut that short & get my utmost fill of the marrow, of the essence.”

Most interesting to me was her take on VW’s reading of Mansfield’s Journal in 1927, a later-discredited version that revealed her hubby Murry making many changes, removing all mention of her disapproval of him. Lounsberry credits this work with giving VW ideas for Orlando about androgyny, passages for The Waves, and even the idea that A Room of One’s Own may have been VW’s private gift to the dead KM. A 1921 entry is cited, “But I bitterly long for a little private room where I can work undisturbed” along with a 1919 letter from KM to Murry: “How I envy Virginia; no wonder she can write. There is always in her writing a calm freedom of expression as though she were at peace—her roof over her—her own possessions round her—and her man somewhere within call. Boge what have I done that I should have all the handicaps—plus disease and an enemy.”

In her 1928 diary she mentions reading Moby Dick and Proust, affirming that she needs to experiment and explore. “At 46 I am not callous; suffer considerably; make good resolutions – still feel as experimental & on the verge of getting at the truth as ever.” Lounsberry does a tremendous job, she has prepared me to drop deeply into the diaries themselves, those books that have sat quietly on my shelves for decades, waiting for my attention.

Flight out of time : a Dada diary by Hugh Ball

Chris Kraus set me onto Hugo Ball’s diaries, but I’m afraid that I’m not in much of a mood to appreciate this primary source view of 1916-era Zurich & the creation of the Dadaism movement. “What we are celebrating is both buffoonery and a requiem mass” hits just a little too close to home now. But for further study, I would like to dive into Emmy (Ball-)Hennings life a bit more.

Ball explains that Dada is “yes, yes” in Rumanian, “rocking horse”  and “hobbyhorse” in French, a sign of foolish naivete & preoccupation with the baby carriage in German.

Some invaluable advice on writing:

“It is imperative to write invulnerable sentences. Sentences that withstand all irony. The better the sentence, the higher the rank. In eliminating vulnerable syntax or association one preserves the sum of the things that constitute the style and the pride of a writer—taste, cadence, rhythm, and melody.”

On avoiding being a concrete presence:

“It is a mistake to believe in my presence. I am just polite and accommodating. I have difficulty in feigning a real existence to myself. If a salesclerk sells me a pair of suspenders, he smiles smugly in an unmistakable way. My shy tone of voice and my hesitant behavior have long since shown him that I am an ‘artist,’ an idealist, a creature of air. If I take a seat at a party, I can see even from afar that only a ghost is sitting there. Every citizen who is only halfway brave and solid regards me as inferior and suspicious. So I avoid letting myself be seen.”

Madness from boundless desire to be different:

“With all the passion at my disposal I am trying to put aside certain paths and possibilities (e.g., career, a bourgeois existence, etc.) completely and forever. My present life is likely to give me substantial support in this intention. From time to time, whenever the suspicious ‘harmony’ of my nature breaks through, I smell a rat and instinctively try to commit some foolish act, an error, an offense, to bring myself down again in my own eyes. I cannot let certain talents and abilities appear. My higher conscience and my understanding forbid it.

‘Know thyself.’ As if it were so simple! As if only good will and introspection were needed. An individual can compare himself, see himself, and correct himself wherever an eternal ideal is firmly anchored in closely knit forms of education and culture, of literature and politics. But what if all norms are shaky and in a state of confusion? What if illusions dominate not only the present but also all generations; if race and tradition, blood and spirit, if all the reliable possessions of the past are all profaned, desecrated, and defaced? What if all the voices in the symphony are at variance with each other? Who will know himself then? Who will find himself then?

I notice that I am falling into a slight madness that comes from my boundless desire to be different.”

Avoid defenestration!

“Remove yourself as far as possible from the times in order to assess them. But do not lean so far out of the window that you fall out.”



All the Birds in the Sky

All the Birds in the Sky

I loved this book, choosing to forego sleep in order to consume in one blast. Two ends of the spectrum, nature vs machine, battle it out for the future of the planet, fate stemming from the early childhood friendship of Patricia and Laurence. The book begins with Patricia discovering she has the ability to understand what birds are saying, and they lead her to a tree (Parliament) where she discovers that she must be a witch. But then her powers disappear for a handful of years, until she starts hanging out with Laurence, the local geek who builds himself a 2 second time machine wristwatch and who ends up creating artificial intelligence (CH@NG3M3 -> Peregrine). An assassin masquerades as a guidance counselor trying to get Patricia to kill Laurence. Patricia grows up to be a fierce witch, ends up battling the project that Laurence has devoted his life to. In adulthood, they dash all around San Francisco, hitting up spots like the Dovre Club and Ocean Beach/Great Highway.

It was especially fitting to read during these uncertain times. “When the whole world turns chaotic, we must be the better part of chaos,” says Ernesto, the witch who is locked away in the mini mall on Mission and who turns into green vegetation once outside. Patricia also has words of wisdom: “She held on tight to her anger… had no time for grief, blame, or a broken heart, but anger, there was endless time for. Stay angry. Hold on to it. Anger is your tightrope over the abyss.”

I was even entertained by the Acknowledgement page, where Anders says she hopes we enjoyed the book and if anything didn’t make sense she can come over and act the whole thing out, maybe with origami finger puppets.


Reco’d by Maggie

Miss Lonelyhearts

Miss Lonelyhearts

This weekend, a bookstore clerk was ranting about how much she loved reading Miss Lonelyhearts, so I figured I could give it a re-read, since it’s been a few decades since I perused it. Unfortunately, my opinion of Nathanael West still stands— I classify him in the grimy bucket along with Norman Mailer of filthy modern slop that remains unappetizing to me at the moment. Viewed completely objectively, the story is a wonder, pub’d in 1933 and well ahead of its time for darkness, bleakness, hopelessness. But I have little tolerance for books that suggest women authors need a “good rape” after complaining about the number of female writers. The story is an acidic bath of lemonade without the sugar, propped up on the flimsy prospects of an advice columnist in NYC.

Journal of Katherine Mansfield

Should you trust the journal of an author edited and released by her husband a few years after her death? (Answer? No. See addendum at very end.) Murry’s gotten a lot of flak over the years for supposedly exploiting KM by releasing her journal, but I’m glad we have something, even if it’s an edited version. I wonder if he stripped any bits about Woolf out, specifically because I’m on the hunt for traces of their relationship, the Woolves being the high-powered literary couple that perhaps he did not want to anger. Virginia writes in a letter to Vita her reactions upon reading KM’s Journal: “I’ve been reading KM with a mixture of sentiment and horror. What odd friends I’ve had – you and she.” (5 Aug 1927) I’ve yet to get to her diary reaction, perhaps there’s more gold there. Lounsberry notes that the “horror” was likely driven by Mansfield’s revealed religious bent.

At any rate, this Journal covers the last eight years of Katherine Mansfield life as she struggles with illness (pleurisy, consumption) and with getting all the writing done that she had in her.

March 31, 1914: A splendid fine morning, but as I know I have to go out and change the cheque and pay the bills, I can do nothing and I feel wretched. Life is a hateful business, there’s no denying it. When G and J were talking in the Park of physical well-being and of how they could still look forward to ‘parties,’ I nearly groaned. And I am sure J could get a great deal of pleasure out of pleasant society. I couldn’t. I’ve done with it, and can’t combat it at all now. I had so much rather lean idly over the bridge and watch the boats and the free, unfamiliar people and feel the wind blow. No, I hate society.

May 16, 1915: I bought a book by Henry James yesterday and read it, as they say, ‘until far into the night.’ It was not very interesting or very good, but I can wade through pages and pages of dull, turgid James for the sake of that sudden sweet shock, that violent throb of delight that he gives me at times. I don’t doubt this is genius: only there is an extraordinary amount of pan and an amazingly raffiné flash – One thing I want to annotate. His hero, Bernard Longueville, brilliant, rich, dark, agile, etc., though a witty companion, is perhaps wittiest and most amused when he is alone, and preserves his best things for himself… All the attributive adjectives apart I am witty, I know, and a good companion – but I feel my case is exactly like his – the amount of minute and delicate joy I get out of watching people and things when I am alone is simply enormous – I really only have ‘perfect fun’ with myself… Life with other people becomes a blur: it does with J, but it’s enormously valuable and marvellous when I’m alone, the detail of life, the life of life.

Feb 13, 1916: I have written practically nothing yet, and now again the time is getting short… I keep half-doubting my will to perform anything… Why do I hesitate so long? Is it just idleness? Lack of will-power? Yes, I feel that’s what it is, and that’s why it’s so immensely important that I should assert myself… This year I have to make money and get known. I want to make enough money to be able to give LM some [Lesley Moore/Ida Baker]. In fact, I want to provide for her. That’s my idea, and to make enough so that J and I shall be able to pay our debts and live honourably.

Feb 19, 1918: I don’t want to be ill… I don’t want to find this is real consumption, perhaps it’s going to gallop – who knows?  – and I shan’t have my work written. That’s what matters. How unbearable it would be to die – leave ‘scraps,’ ‘bits,’ nothing real finished.

May 22, 1918: [Looe, Cornwall, England] The sea here is real sea. It rises and falls with a loud noise, has a long, silky roll on it as though it purred, seems sometimes to climb half up into the sky and you see the sail boats perched upon clouds – like flying cherubs.

July 1918: I pose myself, yet once more, my Eternal Question. What is it that makes the moment of delivery so difficult for me? If I were to sit down – now – and just to write out, plain, some of the stories – all written, all ready, in my mind ‘twould take me days. There are so many of them. I sit and think them out and if I overcome my lassitude and do take the pen they ought (they are so word perfect) to write themselves… Whenever I have a conversation about Art which is more or less interesting I begin to wish to God I could destroy all that I have written and start again: it all seems like so many ‘false starts.’ Oh how badly this is expressed! How confused and even ungrammatical!

May 19, 1919: I really only ask for time to write it all – time to write my books. Then I don’t mind dying. I live to write. The lovely world (God, how lovely the external world is!) is there and I bathe in it and am refreshed. But I feel as though I had a DUTY, someone has set me a task which I am bound to finish. Let me finish it: let me finish it without hurrying – leaving all as fair as I can.

May 31, 1919: Shall I be able to express one day my love of work – my desire to be a better writer – my longing to take greater pains. And the passion I feel. It takes the place of religion – it is my religion – of people – I create my people: of ‘life’ – it is Life.

June 21, 1919: I have consumption. There is still a great deal of moisture (and pain) in my BAD lung. But I do not care. I do not want anything I could not have. Peace, solitude, time to write my books, beautiful external life to watch and ponder – no more. O, I’d like a child as well – a baby boy; mais je demande trop! [This confused me… it seems from her stories and letters that she’s pretty anti-child]

Feb 29, 1920: Oh, to be a writer, a real writer given up to it and to it alone! Oh, I failed today; I turned back, looked over my shoulder, and immediately it happened, I felt as though I too were struck down. The day turned cold and dark on the instant. It seemed to belong to summer twilight in London, to the clang of the gates as they close the garden, to the deep light painting the high houses, to the smell of leaves and dust, to the lamp-light, to that stirring of the senses, to the languor of twilight, the breath of it on one’s cheek, all those things which (I feel today) are gone from me for ever… I feel today that I shall die soon and suddenly: but not of my lungs. There are moments when Dickens is possessed by this power of writing: he is carried away. That is bliss. It certainly is not shared by writers today.

August 1921:  “I have been writing a story about an old man.” She looked vague. “But I don’t think I like old men—do you?” said she. “They exude so.” This horrified me. It seemed so infernally petty, and more than that… it was the saying of a vulgar little mind. Later: I think it was shyness.

January 2, 1922: I have not done the work I should have done. I shirk the lunch party [see The Doves’ Nest]. This is very bad. In fact I am disgusted with myself. There must be a change from now on. What I chiefly admire in Jane Austen is that what she promises, she performs, i.e. if Sir T is to arrive, we have his arrival at length, and it’s excellent and exceeds our expectations. This is rare; it is also my very weakest point. Easy to see why…

Added notes once I read about Murry’s treatment of the material:

Barbara Lounsberry: “Although readers must be grateful for Murry’s devotion and skill in translating Mansfield’s almost illegible hand, the 1927 Journal is astonishingly unreliable and self-serving. It also serves Mansfield in a misguided way, for it projects an image of a purse soul, a saintly suffering mystic, that in the full spread of her notebooks and papers proves simple, sentimental, and false.” Later she notes that Murry’s 1927 version has been “discredited and supplanted” by The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks by Margaret Scott, but that the version is a “curious yet brilliant monument to reputation-making, to a husband’s mythologizing a dead wife.”

She notes that Murry claimed KM destroyed all record of the time between 1909 and 1914 when in reality he had four notebooks and many unbound pages from that time period. Comparing Margaret Scott’s complete version of the Notebooks with Murry’s whitewashed version, he left out his loss of status in her eyes and her unhappiness with him. To wit, this has been excised: “How little Jack shares with me… He ought not to have married. There never was a creature less fitted by nature for life with a woman.” In another passage, he leaves out “I do not trust Jack.”

The White Album

I think I really just don’t like Didion. Unless my mood is swinging hither & yon and causing me to veer one way and the next. The White Album I thought would be a terrific dinner mint about the 1970s. Instead, I could barely muster enthusiasm to turn the pages as Joan drones on in her dull flat unemotional voice. Some parts are good– descriptions of the abandoned Governor’s mansion that Jerry Brown refused to live on, opting instead for a mattress on a floor in an apartment in Sac, a glimpse at Nancy Reagan attempting to act naturally as she’s in front of a TV crew “going about a normal day” as the governor’s wife, tales of the dryness of California, especially quoting Bernard DeVoto: “The West begins where the average annual rainfall drops below twenty inches.” Also an interesting peek at a Jaycee convention where the 1960s appeared not to have happened:

The word “apathy” cropped up again and again, an odd word to use in relation to the past few years, and it was a while before I realized what it meant. It was not simply a word remembered from the Fifties, when most of these men had frozen their vocabularies: it was a word meant to indicate that not enough of “our kind” were speaking out. It was a cry in the wilderness, and this resolute determination to meet 1950 head-on was a kind of refuge. Here were some people who had been led to believe that the future was always a rational extension of the past, that there would ever be world enough and time for “turning attention,” for “problems” and “solutions.” Of course they would not admit their inchoate fears that the world was not that way any more. Of course they would not join the “fashionable doubters.” Of course they would ignore the “pessimistic pundits.” It occurred to me finally that I was listening to a true underground, to the voice of all those who have felt themselves not merely shocked but personally betrayed by recent history. It was supposed to have been their time. It was not.” (1968-70)

Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York

Reading about the Mary Tyler Moore show, I was curious to read Gail Parent’s first novel, Parent a writer for the show. Fortunately, a copy of the book existed in the stacks of the library. Unfortunately, I read it. It seems like a strong concept– single gal in NYC troubled by her inability to find the right apartment, job, or marriage. The jokes come at you from the side, and frequently aren’t that funny. In the end, the narrator, Sheila, decides to kill herself and like a good Jewish daughter, arranges to buy her own grave and tombstone. She finally finds a guy who she likes sleeping with, but he’s into her suicide pact and encourages it, along with whining for her to send him pot while he’s in jail avoiding alimony charges. Meh, hands thrown in the air.

Blue of Noon

Hmm. A reminder that not all that is shouted about by others turns into gold-plated reading material. Bataille is beloved by many, including Chris Kraus, but I found this “erotic” novel rather humdrum and bland. Written in 1935 on the cusp of the Spanish Civil War, there are odd scenes of Henri Troppmann carousing with his girlfriend, “Dirty” (Dorothea), ignoring his wife and his mother-in-law, tooting about with prostitutes and raving like a madman. Thankfully slim at under 150 pages, I could consume without guilt and toss aside shaking head wondering what the big deal is.