Women in Public

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Elaine Kahn’s poetry was recently featured in Hyperallergic, so I took this book for a spin. The poems highlighted in that post are good examples of her work, particularly Adult Acne and Women in Public. For me, this toe dip back into poetry was/is to see what’s going on in the world of poetry, any new rule breakers out there, is it all just jib-jabber white space? Kahn shows me that it’s still about playing with words, plunking bits of thought into lines haphazardly, poking fun at sestinas, the usual lot but with plucky titles that function as standalone lines. Blargh, it didn’t pull me, knead my dough, in the way that I wanted it to. I’ll keep looking. Occasionally I’ve experienced a lightning bolt from a poem, I want that on demand. (Greedy)

Typhoon

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Joseph Conrad is the Polish ex-patriot who wrote several classic books in his third language, English (Heart of Darkness, Youth, Lord Jim, etc.). I was reminded of him again when immersed in reading Pilgrimage, where Miriam extols the virtues of his short works, including Typhoon. I’m a fan of sea-frolicking tales, most notably Moby-Dick, and somewhat enjoyed this short tale of Captain MacWhirr’s measured and somewhat blockheaded tone in the face of a hurricane/typhoon in the China Seas. When the barometer drops to unheard of levels, MacWhirr calmly notes this and sends his first mate, Jukes, into a tizzy. There’s also the question of how to handle the cargo of “coolies,” Chinamen picked up for transport who are all now fighting over dollars in the hold in the midst of the storm. And Jukes is scandalized by flying under a Siamese flag that supplanted the British flag when they were underway. My favorite parts were the mention of Mrs. MacWhirr and how she got upset whenever she thought her husband was coming home, much preferring him to be at sea, earning money. She yawns when she turns the pages of his thick and boring letters revealing his harrowing tale. The ship makes it through, but I fell decidedly into Mrs. MacWhirr’s camp on level of entertainment gleaned.

Drawn From Life

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Stella Bowen’s autobiography, written in 1940, recommended by way of Neglected Books, starts off with her as a child in Australia, then grinding out some meager existence in London, but soon I was swept up in tales of one of my favorite places in time— 1920s Paris. Bowen provides compelling evidence of a woman artist taking a backseat to her artist husband. She achingly wishes that she could have focused on her own work, but instead threw her energies into keeping Ford Madox Ford safely churning away his work, undisturbed by the thought of any of their domestic penuries, needing absolute silence for his creation. She also hires the services of a maid, and later governess-type, to watch over her daughter Julie so that she can still gallivant around with Ford, throwing parties and only meeting up with their daughter on the weekends.

The book really gets going once she meets Ford in 1918. He’s a tired, war-weary writer who merely wants to live in a cottage in the country, raise pigs and have a child. She marries him, gives him a daughter (with a difficult birth that she refrains from any details of). With Ford much older than she was, Stella “did not realize to what extent he would be putting his clock back, whilst I put mine forward.” They hid out in Sussex in a shabby farmhouse that leaked and was cold to fulfill Ford’s dreamy country life. Apparently visitors were dismayed to find themselves eating at late hours, “they found the dinner-hour an ever-retreating mirage and their hunger an increasing passion… even a greedy girl like Margaret Cole said she would have preferred a snack at seven-thirty to a banquet at eleven o’clock.”

We begin to see the weariness:

Ford never understood why I found it so difficult to paint whilst I was with him. He thought I lacked the will to do it at all costs. That was true, but he did not realize that if I had had the will to do it at all costs, my life would have been oriented quite differently. I should not have been available to nurse him through the daily strain of his own work; to walk and talk with him whenever he wanted, and to stand between him and circumstances. Pursuing an art is not just a matter of finding the time- it is a matter of having a free spirit to bring to it.

Any artist knows, that after a good bout of work one is both too tired and too excited to be of any use to anyone. To be obliged to tackle other people’s problems, or merely to cook their meals, the moment one lays down pen or brush, is intolerably hard. What one wants, on the contrary, is for other people to occupy themselves with one’s own moods and requirements; to lie on a sofa and listen to music, and have things brought to one on a tray! That is why a man writer or painter always manages to get some woman to look after him and make his life easy, and since female devotion, in England anyhow, is a glut on the market, this is not difficult. A professional woman, however, seldom gets this cushioning unless she can pay money for it.

Once they finally break free of the soggy English countryside, they spend a few weeks in Paris before heading further south. Stella begins to realize the benefits of a delicious climate: “Climate is one of the few things in life that really matter. Other things, friends, fame, or fortune, may elude or disappoint you, but a good climate never lets you down.”

Leaving her husband and child for a few weeks, she manages to squeeze off some alone time to visit the frescos and museums of Florence: “… this taste of freedom would alone have been sufficient to reawaken all my old excitement about painting.” While there, she pronounces resolute opinions about painting that she later blushes over:

It shocks me now to remember how narrow was my view at that time. But a narrow view, for a painter, has its advantages. It concentrates his effort and his enthusiasm.

Really digging into the local artists in Italy, she realizes that people who paint in a convention have an advantage: “Any convention or ritual has the advantage of being able to produce results beyond the scope of one man starting from scratch; it is as though the starter gets given a life by train over the first part of his journey and is thus able to penetrate further than if he had had to walk all the way.” This not having to invent the wheel every time is beneficial to writers as well.

After meandering around the south of France for months, they end up in Paris again, and Stella gives up her freedom to watch their daughter while they save money on child care. “I had to stay at home to mind Julie while Ford went to the cafe in the evenings.” This sentence breaks my heart.

Ford takes the money that they made from selling the English cottage and starts the Transatlantic Review (some of this money coming from her selling her Australian capital… the magazine will only last a year and will end in financial failure). This creates a maelstrom of interest, people coming out of the woodwork:

People who have lately escaped from something that has been cramping them for a long time, whether war, or wage-slavery, or an embittered marriage, are the best company in the world. They are reaching out feelers in every direction to find new subjects for self-expression. They are gloriously egotistical and at the same time madly interested in their surroundings.

They meet Gertrude Stein, “the studio was large and light and warm, the deep-sprung chairs shabby and comfortable, and it felt, then, like a friendly place. We first met GS through Hemingway with whom she had not yet quarreled.” Later Stein sends Stella a copy of As a Wife With a Cow but Stella thanked her without reading the book, failing to recognize an incident in the book regarding Stella’s daughter Julie. “I had never read a word she wrote,” Stella almost proudly proclaims. “You would have said that she was just a dear old Auntie with a taste for plain speech. But, of course, she was nothing of the sort. She was a very great careerist, skilfully stage-managed by Alice Toklas.”

Running out of money in Paris, they look to cheaper lodgings in Toulon: “I fell in love with Toulon at first sight.” She sees basic life unfolding in a very French way, reveals the state of bliss, “the birthright that belongs especially to France…” in the interest people have in selecting a simple loaf of bread from a bakery.

In Paris, she “sat at hundreds of cafe tables with Ford, listening to talk about literature and ‘le mot juste.’ In Toulon, I was able to listen, at last, to talk about painting.” She hangs out with Juan Gris, Othon Friez, Francis Carco. “Beside these giants I was miserably conscious that my notions about painting were extremely embryonic… I have always been late with everything I have learned and everything I have become.”

She has a terrific rant about marriage:

It is platitudinous to say so, but being a woman does set you back a good deal. You begin longing for a satisfactory emotional life even before you are grown-up, and this occupies an unreasonable amount of your thoughts and energies. When at last the emotional event comes, you put into it everything you have got. Afterwards you begin to grow up and to see more of the sky than can be filled by one person, but if by then you have given your life into that person’s keeping, you will have become bound and entwined in every detail of your being, and will have developed simply into a specialist in ministering to his own particular needs. Perhaps you never intended to devote your life to his kind of specialization, but society, and your won affections, and the fear of loneliness that beset us all, may keep you at it. And you will very likely find that it suits you well enough. But beware; unlike other specialists, you will receive no promotion after years of faithful service. Your value in this profession will decline, and no record of long experience, or satisfaction given, will help you if you want to change your job. By the time you are forty, you will probably have got your children through babyhood and provided your husband with all the emotional excitement he is going to get out of being in love with you. Teachers will step in to educate your children, and sirens to educate your husband, whose own career will be just beginning to expand. There remains the housekeeping, your social life, and possible a profound friendship with your spouse, but this is definitely less than what you have been accustomed to. Can you make a life of it?

No. If you are a woman, and you want to have a life of yoru own, it would probably be better for you to fall in love at seventeen, be seduced, and abandoned, and your baby die. If you survived this, you might go far! Otherwise, emerging from a love-affair into the position of a middle-aged housekeeper, you may suffer the most desperate sensations of constriction and futility which your situation will give you little chance to surmount.

On the fragility of the male ego as artist:

It was easy enough for me to escape Ford’s feelings of humiliation at being poor and anxious and insecure, for I had never had a position to keep up, nor a reputation at stake; nor had I bound up my thoughts and feelings into publicly-printed books and offered them in the marketplace… Masculine vanity is one of the biggest motive forces in the world, and if it suffers deflation, the result is often a moral collapse.

After seeing Natalie Barney dancing with her husband, Ford, to get a party started, Stella echoes what I believe, “there will never again be anything like the Paris of the nineteen-twenties in our lifetime. Those were the days before international finance collapsed and the depression pulled us all into the mire.” Diaghilieff and his ubiquitous ballet is of course mentioned in the Paris chapters.

On what to do about all the “superfluous” women, “only the girl who was trained for a job and has never stopped working has the privilege of continuing to work when she’s mature.”

Finally, she extricates herself from the marriage with Ford, as his eye inevitably roves and roves and roves. “Falling out of love is as delicate and important business, and as necessary to the attainment of wisdom as the reverse experience.”Later, “I think that the exhilaration of falling out of love is not sufficiently extolled. The escape from the atmosphere of a stuffy room into the fresh night air, with the sky as the limit. The feeling of freedom, of integrity, of being a blissfully unimportant item in an impersonal world… it is a true re-birth.”

But while Ford greedily devoured texts, his relationships were not that important to him. “They loomed very large in his own view, but they were not intrinsically important. I don’t think it matters much from whom the artist gets his nourishment, or his shelter, as long as he gets it.”

So they bust up, and Stella heads to America to paint some commissioned portraits. Peggy Guggenheim loans her the money for her ship ticket. She’s wildly successful in the U.S. for six months and then heads back, clutching her coins. Unfortunately, Europe is not as kind. Eventually she slinks off to England, and she miserates about that until the end of the book.

Art on the Edge: Creators and Situations

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I continue to be grateful for the breadcrumbs dropped for me by authors of books and articles, leading me to other authors. My discovery of Harold Rosenberg came via a Baffler article by Rochelle Gurstein, W(h)ither the New Sensibility. I struck out when attempting to find Rosenberg’s De-definition of Art at the main library (it’s missing from the shelf), but loaded up on a few other titles, including this one. The book consists of essays on art previously published in the New Yorker between 1971-1975.

The collection is worth getting for the first essay alone, a meditation on Duchamp that helped me understand more about his motivations, theories, and antics. Duchamp congratulates himself on never having worked for a living, even as an artist; Rosenberg calls him a squatter in the outskirts of art and details his long effort on the Large Glass: “Like a life, the Large Glass was never finished but simply came to an end. It ‘held me,’ Duchamp said, ‘until 1923, the only thing I was interested in, and I even regret not finishing it, but it became so monotonous, it was a transcription, and toward the end there was no invention. So it just fizzled out.'” … “Duchamp’s denigration of art, his equalizing it with urinals and dog combs, was a matter of principle, he was determined that art should not be overestimated and that the ‘art habit’ should not produce the reactions of blank solemnity that had once been associated with religion.” … “Duchamp accepted almost any means to pay his way (he even functioned briefly as an art critic) except that of becoming a professional artist. Enslavement by art, he was convinced, is no different from enslavement by other tyrannies of work.”

After this, he dives into Miro, Mondrian, Newman, Olitski, Ellsworth Kelly, Hamilton, Lester Johnson, Joan Mitchell, Dubuffet, Warhol, Steinberg, and Giacometti. “With the passage of time and the fading of the Marxist utopia, Mondrian’s paintings have lost their political afterimage. History has diminished them to their bars and rectangles; their social and metaphysical meanings have passed out of the paintings and become data of the biography of the artist…Today, the paintings of Mondrian are in constant need of being filled out with the thought and will of their creator. To dissociate them from their intellectual origins on the ground that the spectator must confine himself to what is presented to him on the canvas is shallow aestheticism.”

Rosenberg spares no clever phrase when it comes to tearing apart the ridiculousness of other critics or curators. He attacks the WPA art project of the 1930s for making art into a profession open to everyone (“before the thirties, the practice of art in America had been limited to the well-to-do and their proteges, and to artists supporting themselves through commercial work… The Depression brought forth the novel idea of the unemployed artist-a radical revision of the traditional conception, for it implied that it was normal for artists to be hired for fees or wages and that in the absence of commissions they were idle.”

In What’s New: Ritual Revolution, Rosenberg warns that with “increasing speed and with little evidence of resistance, ‘art of today’ is becoming whatever attracts crowds to museums or is sold in galleries… An advance in art is considered to take place to the degree that art divests itself of the characteristics of art.”

He’s particularly incensed by the Documenta 5 exhibition in Germany, where curators and art historians were responsible for pushing the boundaries of art, instead of the artists, too eager for theory to leap forward and hope that artists catch up. The fusion of art and words was openly acknowledged without fear of scandal. “Adrift on the measureless ocean of ‘today’s imagery,’ paintings, gestures, environments relied on inflatable cushions of phrases to rescue them from oblivion.” As he sums up his anger, there is “something disturbing about seeing students in beards and long hair wandering through the galleries with their mouths shut… Beyond continuing the modernist questioning of art ‘as a social institution,’ Documenta 5 had no significant message. Certainly, no exhibition on this scale was needed to bring the news that people today are introverted, dreamy, prurient, vulgar, mentally unbalanced, and superficial (kitsch-loving), or to take sides iwth Mao or urge ending the war in Vietnam.”

Looking forward to digesting more of Harold Rosenberg.

The Middle Class in the Great Depression: Popular Women’s Novels of the 1930s

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Jennifer Haytock puts the magnifying glass on middle class life that was usually overlooked during the Depression, much more attention being focused on the lower than the mid- or upper-classes. She does this by recapping and analyzing several books by women authors detailing the everyday lives of the middle class, which was the main hook for me. Another cornucopia of forgotten women writers!

I came away with a dozen more titles to investigate, which will hopefully be more enjoyable than reading the recaps from Haytock. Then again, it could be a complete bust, since I see titles in here that I’ve already attempted (Katharine Brush’s rather weak This is on Me that I couldn’t finish).

For perusal:

  • We Too Are Drifting by Gale Wilhelm
  • My Story & The Wall by Mary Roberts Rinehart
  • If I have Four Apples by Josephine Lawrence
  • Now in November by Josephine Johnson
  • Edna Ferber’s So Big & American Beauty (same as movie?)
  • Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life & Bank Street
  • Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes

Inferno (A Poet’s Novel)

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It’s painful to be finished with this book, but I assuage with the idea that I will purchase a copy of it and so begin a neverending reread cycle. Nearly ever page is filled with inspiration, the freeing idea of poetry, that hated, unrespected, ill-paid art form that I’ve forgotten for so many years. I’m reminded again that Eileen Myles spent time in the same beach town in Massachusetts that I did, a connection that pulls me closer.

She begins with an epigraph from Walter Benjamin, whose Arcades Project I just broke down and purchased, it being too meaty to consume from the library—”The distracted person, too, can form habits.” This autobiographical tale leads her from Boston to New York, looking to establish herself as a poet first, and then find time and energy to become a lesbian. Along the decade that it took her to write this book, a friend donates her Pennsylvania country house, or she finds refuge in a winter cottage in Rhode Island, or she scribbles away at it in New York.

We share an obsession with finding the perfect bag:

I had a canvas bag, a white one. I had spent months searching for it—to hold my cigarettes, a book, a notebook and a black spring binder for keeping my poems in. The search for the bag produced a poem or two because of course it was a mythic search. The bag I wanted was beyond reason—something to hold my poems, twice as big as the universe and it must be androgynous. Cause, you know. And I found it: tough and white, and resembling something I’d wanted for a long, long time. All my life. A newsboy’s bag. I just wanted a paper route. To fling the Globe thunkily hard from the moving vantage of my bike, and speed off to the next address.

As she searches for her poet identity:

I walked east. I smoked while I walked because it made time go faster and it kept people away. Not really, but it had an effect. My destinations came from the back of the voice where they listed readings. On Tuesdays poets met at Emily Glen’s on Avenue D in the projects. She was nice, but what. She was like sixty and looked like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. She served little cookies and tea and had her special shiny chair and two fat men sat on her couch, and a swarthy looking youngish guy sometimes came. James. I had a dog with the same name and the coincidence embarrassed me, but the dog didn’t stay in the picture. James, the man, was overly serious, but sexy somehow, and I think he was married. He was rich. It seemed unclear what he did. It sounded like he built buildings, but that didn’t seem possible. He was about the same age as me but he treated me like a little girl. Would you like to read Emily said to me. Go ahead, smiled James. Egging me on. I’d shrug and hold my papers on my shaking knees, sweatily reading into this indecipherable bunch of kooks of which I was part.

She’s invited to attend a group reading in Princeton, so Eileen hops on a bus from the Port Authority in NYC, arriving late:

I called somebody’s house and a bald guy came and got me at the bus station and he told me their night was mostly over but maybe would you like to read a poem and I felt like a balloon with the air letting out, and after my poem I looked up at them all completely scared, and they asked me if I had studied poetry in college and I said no. I hadn’t.

I felt like they thought I was some kind of fool coming to Princeton; they taught in college these people, and had jobs so maybe they weren’t even real poets. Pretenders…. What I did get from this entire crowd was that anything goes. About time. I had a whole life of things to discuss… I was in public but I was totally alone. and I relished the opportunity to not be smothered. This was art.

On listening to people’s reading styles:

I had noticed that if somebody considered themself a Patti Smith person they arced the end of each line to fall, but then at the last second they shoved you a little bit with a whine. Like Patti Smiiith. Patti didn’t do that. Reading styles marked sides of the river. You knew in a whiff whether to listen to someone. And a perfectly good poet can sometimes learn to read wrong. It’s sad because they will probably never be able to hear themselves and change.

Poetry as the ugly stepsister of art:

I am so glad I am not an artist. A poet kind of is, but really it’s like you’re like a professionalized person. Poetry. Nobody knows what the fuck it is. And what makes it entirely odd is that there’s no money in it.

More on poetry:

Poetry (and his is why I love it and will until I die) always winds up being the conga line between random chaos and it. It being the real monster moving up the coast. The Norm. Pretty much the white norm though if you agree to its terms, anyone can come. Well, one of anyone. That’s what makes it so insufferable here. This horrible view. That the mind’s possessed of two stops. Good (which includes everything from “safe for kids” to the entire grim suburban American maw full of uplifting, meaningful, accessible verse), then dirty and crazy. And I would include “inaccessible” in there as well. Poetry that refuses to give it up on the first reading. We don’t have time for that!

On society:

It feels like we are missing something—a layer—well, maybe 2 or 20 got washed away by the storm, quietly removed, scrape-scrape, or plunk, dropped in the trash. In the past twenty years or forty years—not much public thinking going on in this country (watch out, world!) outside the academy, itself a very expensive and disconnected finishing school for artists who indenture the next ten years of their lives gambling on the prospect of their art career paying out getting a gallery, selling a book so they don’t have to sit with a bunch of losers wasting time sleepless working millions of hours a week to pay rent here in New York especially during their highly marketable youth while the government, Leviathan, fartingly collapses onto the vulnerable context of its own stupidity, the poor suffering world.

Being a poet is about observation, spying, infiltrating. Myles talks about Lucy Lippard’s book about the scarcity of working class artists, something I’ve been thinking about lately. Plus I just saw Lippard on screen, looming large in the Eva Hesse documentary at the Roxie, I’ve added her book to my list. Other tidbits to dig into: movies by Pasolini, Deleuze’s Masochism book

Astro Noise: A Survival Guide for Living Under Total Surveillance

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I missed Laura Poitras’s show at the Whitney this summer by a few days, but had been eagerly awaiting this companion book. Much more than a compendium of what was in the exhibition, instead this is a book that stands on its own, with essays from various and sundry figures. The book begins with 14 pages of glossy, colorful “anarchist” images, snapshots taken from the British Army’s communications headquarters to intercept signals from satellites, drones, and radars in the Mediterranean.

After the usual gladhanding of a foreword and introduction, we get into the contributions, starting off with some fiction by Cory Doctorow which convinces me that my opinion of his writing is not changed—mediocre. Next comes an essay from a current Guantanamo prisoner, currently on hunger strike. Ai Weiwei includes a photo essay of surveillance shots of him post-release from prison. Poitras’s Berlin journal was one of the most interesting pieces, her burgeoning relationship with Snowden unfolding before us and reminding me that CITIZENFOUR is ready for a re-watch. Snowden himself contributes a tiny piece, as well as the video-artist-extraordinaire, Hito Steyerl (yes I am a fan-girl). Jacob Appelbaum also adds his two cents, along with a few pages of redacted info from the FBI released via FOIA requests. Inexplicably, Dave Eggers also “contributed” to this, mailing in a few pages of the screenplay for his novel The Circle. I resisted the urge to redact his name from this book entirely. Interspersed between the essays are stills from Poitras’ 2001/2011 short film O’Say Can You See, reactions of people looking toward the World Trade Center a few days after 9/11.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

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I suppose I should be thankful for a few hours of non-challenging reading, but it almost feels like hours wasted if not spent thrilling the tips of my brain with the stack of other books that await. Regardless, I somewhat enjoyed this quick dip into the slums outside Mumbai and the detailed picture outlined by Katherine Boo in this well-researched non-fiction account. She spent several years lurking at the edge of the sewage-choked lake, translator nearby, taping and recording the stories of the inhabitants. We follow the threads of several families, one of which has been climbing precariously out of poverty by sifting through garbage and selling for a higher price back to recyclers the garbage they purchase and sort. This family is pushed off their upward climb by a false claim by a one-legged neighbor who sets herself on fire but claims they did it. Another family is led by a woman looking to be the first woman slum lord, seeking power and facilitating corruption. We see the ragged lives of the children either killed or suiciding on rat poison, but yet also gleaming full of hope. Behind this detailed picture, we spot India flexing its 21st century muscles and trying to attain wealth of its own despite the obstacles of constant corruption and malaise.

Edited to add that yes, I have also been taking “breaks” with the graphic novels recently consumed, but those at least lacked the pretension and taking-itself-so-seriously of this book. Give me lighthearted comics any day of the week for release from high falutin’ intellectual work over puffed up pieces like this one. Especially grating was the author’s note at the end, where she reveals that she was afraid of venturing into the slums but then when she cracked her ribs tripping over an unabridged dictionary in her home, she realized she could face anything.

Antigone

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This is the perfect book to clutch when in the midst of a panic attack about the 2016 election. Creon’s actions as a tyrant are tiresome–from banishing Antigone to death because she buried her dead brother (Polynices, the traitor leading an invading army against his brother and the city of Thebes), to snarking about the blind man’s prophesy (“What now? What earth-shattering truth are you about to utter?”). Creon’s son Haemon is set to marry Antigone, madly in love with her, yet his stubborn father won’t relent from the death penalty for a crime that wasn’t recognized by the gods. A few of Haemon’s lines were perfect to be spoken by Trump’s progeny: “Now, you see? Who’s talking like a child?” and “If you weren’t my father, I’d say you were insane,” or even:

Now don’t, please, be quite so single-minded, self-involved, or assume the world is wrong and you are right. Whoever thinks that he alone possesses intelligence, the gift of eloquence, he and no one else, and character too… such men, I tell you, spread them open—you will find them empty.

There’s also a tirade that Creon gives about money worth quoting these 2,500 years later:

Money! Nothing worse in our lives, so current, rampant, so corrupting. Money—you demolish cities, root men from their homes, you train and twist good minds and set them on to the most atrocious schemes. No limit, you make them adept at every kind of outrage, every godless crime—money!

Robert Fagles never fails as a Greek translator. His rendition of Sophocles’ Antigone was lyrical, digestible, and makes sense to the modern reader. I also very much appreciated the intro section in this Penguin edition that Bernard Knox contributed about Greece and the origins of theater. Fun fact: the Greeks cut their wine with a ratio of 3:1 water to wine.

Turned on to reading this finally by discovering what a powerful impact it had on Virginia Woolf when she translated it from the original during her Greek lessons with Clara Pater.

Deerbrook

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Harriet Martineau rarely wrote novels. Instead, this 19th century woman of letters focused on sociological writing like Illustrations of Political Economy, Society in America, and Retrospect of Western Travel. Deerbrook (1839) was her first attempt at fiction, a three volume Victorian novel that came after Jane Austen but before Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Gaskell. The book is best appreciated as a historical artifact of women’s literature rather than able to stand on its own merits. I freely admit to only making it through the first volume, not terribly interested in the tedious musings about marriage that seemed destined to carry me through the remaining 400 pages.

In the first volume, the lovely Ibbotson sisters come to stay for the summer at their distant relative Mr. Grey’s house in Deerbrook. Marriage speculation and plotting begins as soon as they arrive, with the doctor Mr. Hope being set up to marry the prettiest sister, Hester. Unfortunately, he really loves her sister Margaret, who despite being plain is of the kinder/gentler persuasion. Hope gets entangled in a marriage with someone he doesn’t love, and Margaret lives with them, bringing fresh pain daily. There’s an amusing rivalry between the wives of the two business partners, Grey and Rowland, but as it slogs on without reprieve for at least the 200 pages that I suffered through, it began to grate on the nerves.

Martineau herself never married, describing herself as ‘probably the happiest single woman in England.’ Her deafness may have played some part in this, but it enabled her to write a fiction brimming with cautionary tales about marriage. In one scene between the schoolmistress, Maria Young, and Margaret, they muse about the silliness of brides. “And yet all girls are brought up to think of marriage as almost the only event in life. Their minds are stuffed with thoughts of it almost before they have had time to gain any other ideas.”

Pilgrimage (Vol 4: Oberland, Dawn’s Left Hand, Clear Horizon, Dimple Hill, March Moonlight)

I’ve been having the most vivid dreams since I’ve been falling asleep to the voice of Miriam in my head for the past month. Alas, I’ve reached the end of the journey, the final volume containing the last five books of Pilgrimage. The volume starts off incredibly strong—I absolutely love the descriptions of Switzerland in Oberland, evoking memories of reading Mann’s Magic Mountain (1924), which was published three years before Oberland. In it, Miriam has saved up for a delightful trip, taking herself alone to Switzerland to a ski chalet, tobogganing down the snowy hills and chumming it up with her fellow travelers for a fortnight. She will continue to reminisce about the wonders of Oberland throughout the remaining books.

Dawn’s Left Hand details Miriam/Richardson’s affair with Hypo/HG Wells, kicked off by attending an opera with him and his wife, Miriam’s friend Alma. She continues working at the dentists’ office in Wimpole Street, has moved out of the shared rooms with Miss Holland and back into her boarding house with Mrs. Bailey on Tansley Street. “Whatever else awaited her at Tansley Street, these moments waited there. And daily moments of return to a solitude that whenever she crossed the threshold of her empty room ceased to be solitude.” She meets the French/Irish woman Amabel at the Lycurgan/Fabian society, and they both fall madly yet platonically in love with each other.

Miriam introduces Amabel to Michael, the Jew she refuses to marry, in Clear Horizon and they go on to marry in the later books. Amabel also gets deeply into the suffrage cause, participating in marches and getting jailed. Miriam also introduces Amabel to Hypo, and he whisks away with Miriam to her Donizetti coffee shop to focus attention solely on her. “His swift glance towards the next table revealed his everlasting awareness of neighbours-as-audience, and his search, even here, for a sympathetic witness of his tolerant endurance of a young person’s foolish remarks, or for escape into some interesting aspect of his surroundings.” Ah yes, I have also spent time with such a narcissist. As she begins the process of cutting loose from Hypo, she receives a letter that she wants to return to him.

But anything would have been better than responding, to his zestful sketch of himself, so thoroughly in the masculine tradition, and which any ‘sensible’ woman would indulgently accept and cherish, with something that had been dictated by a compensating complacent vision of herself as the Intimate Friend of a Great Man; but without the justification so amply supporting his complacency, without a single characteristic to qualify her for the role, or a sufficient background of hard-won culture to justify a claim to it. His rebuke, though addressed to a non-existent person, the meekly admiring follower he desired rather than an opponent facing the other way, was well earned. But his manner of administering it, insufferable.

At the end of Clear Horizon Miriam decides to cut all ties to London and her previous life. As she discusses this with Hypo, he mentions that she has ten years of material she could use in a dental novel.

‘You know, you’ve been extraordinarily lucky. You’ve had an extraordinarily rich life in that Wimpole Street of yours. You have in your hands material for a novel, a dental novel, a human novel, and, as a background, a complete period, a period of unprecedented expansion in all sorts of directions. You’ve seen the growth of dentistry from a form of crude torture to a highly elaborate and scientific and almost painless process. And in your outer world you’ve seen an almost ceaseless transformation, from the beginning of the safety bicycle to the arrival of the motor car and the aeroplane. With the coming of flying that period is ending and another begins. You ought to document your period.’

‘You’ve been a great chucker-up, I admire that. But I’m not sure that you’re being wise this time, Miriam. What are you going to do?’

Whence this strange prophecy? Nothing she had written or said could have suggested that she was going away for good. Even in her own mind the idea had risen only in the form of a question to be answered in the distant future, at the end of her reprieve that seemed endless.

‘Nothing. I’m going away.’

‘Where?’

‘I don’t know.’

With that, she leaves her London life forever. Dimple Hill has her beginning her journey with the Broom sisters (Grace and Florence) but then settling in as a border with a Quaker family. “I realized one of the Quaker secrets. Living always remote, drawn away into the depths of the spirit, they see, all the time, freshly. A perpetual Sunday.” This book was completed in 1938, the final book Richardson would live to see completed. March Moonlight was cobbled together posthumously, a process I’m not entirely a fan of. This last book is a strange hodgepodge of rolling up bits from the past, and according to her biographer, it was written in sporadic bursts over the last few decades of her life while she was living hand to mouth with her poet husband, both sickly and struggling to make ends meet.

Now that I’m finished, I’d have to say that my favorite books were The Tunnel, Oberland, Dawn’s Left Hand, and Clear Horizon. As soon as she leaves London, the interest fades quickly. I’m immediately on the hunt to purchase this complete set, but find that it is nearly impossible to get. I think I heard rumblings of an annotated, scholarly version hitting the presses in a few years, and will probably wait to grab that for my next reading.

 

Notorious RBG

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Delightful recap of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s life so far, that amazing powerhouse of a Supreme Court Justice who has been churning out forceful dissents against the right-leaning court. The sexism she faced during law school and beyond will turn your stomach, but always a good reminder of how much bullshit had to be dealt with. Told she had to accept a very modest salary because her husband already had a good job, she asked about a bachelor colleague and was told that he was getting a normal salary despite not having a family to raise.

The book dissects some of her most notable dissents, and layers in a few of the best graphics from the Notorious RBG meme alongside biographical info. RBG’s tactic has been to make slow and steady progress, chipping away at the disgraceful stone of our discriminatory laws for years upon years. Here’s to as many more years of RBG as we can handle.

Tidbits:

* RBG had Vladimir Nabokov as a lit prof at Cornell

The Big Feminist But: Comics about Women, Men and the IFs, ANDs & BUTs of Feminism

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A palate cleanser of some lighthearted yet powerfully feminist comics. Huge variety of contributors lends the collection a somewhat disjointed air, but it helps convey the many perspectives on feminism (including men’s). Favorite discovery was Corinne Mucha and her Am I A Spinster Yet? comic which reminded me of Kate Beton’s style.

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Killing and Dying

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Accused of literary snobbery, I am forced to include this book in the catalog of what I have read this week. I’m highly indebted to B for his impeccable taste in graphic novels and appreciate being steered towards this one. Adrian Tomine draws six distinct stories: Hortisculpture, Amber Sweet, Go Owls (tale of abusive relationship with a guy she meets in AA), Translated from the Japanese, Killing & Dying (the eponymous story, a tale of stand-up comedy and death of a mother), and Intruders. Good stuff, a welcome salve to soothe the brain that toils too much in volume 4 of Pilgrimage at the moment.

Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism

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This bio of Mary McGrory started out strong, interspersing bits of her columns along with info about her life. But it bogs and sinks in the sludge of politics, and is not for the faint of (political) heart. If you’re not interested in a detailed review of every presidential campaign since the 1960s, you’re not going to enjoy this book. I also take umbrage with the pompous title– first queen of journalism? Have we so quickly forgotten about Fanny Fern’s tremendous popularity in the 1860s?

She was a successful woman journalist during the early days when this made her stand out as an oddity. Never married, carried a torch for a wishy-washy rich dandy who ultimately left his wife and married someone else. Supposedly in love with Eugene McCarthy during his run for the presidency. Supposedly regretted not settling down with a hubby and a brood of children in her later life (Irish heritage coming home to roost?).

The book makes grand, sweeping, unverifiable statements like “She helped make objecting to the [Vietnam] war respectable.”

Tidbits:

  • LBJ hit on her, schmoozing into her apartment with several secret service dudes in the middle of the night to declare his love only to be rebuffed
  • As a successful journalist she was offered a position at the NY Times DC bureau but told that she’d also need to “handle the switchboard in the morning.”