Overdosing, or should I say overindulging, in Jami Attenberg lately. This is my least favorite so far, the story of an obese woman whose husband leaves her after a few decades of marriage right as she’s suffering health declines. She’s the star, and supporting cast are the estranged husband, her new lover (Chinese chef), daughter Robin and her boyfriend, son Ben and his wife and kids. Spoiler alert, she dies of a heart attack eating ice cream with the freezer open.
This started out strong but whimpered out. It’s the story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman who was instrumental in codebreaking during the two great 20th century wars. Elizebeth met her husband William on a private estate, both paid researchers for millionaire George Fabyan, Elizebeth paid to prove that a code embedded in Shakespeare shows his works were written by Bacon. The pair marry and end up becoming the best codebreakers in the U.S., working side by side. Of course, only William was recognized and promoted to high rank… at least until his mental breakdown. Elizebeth carried on, supporting him and the children and running her own codebreaking crew out of the Coast Guard during Prohibition, then being swept into the Navy during WW2. She caught some Nazis and all of the credit was slurped up by J.Edgar Hoover. I did appreciate that the author devoted a lot of space to showing how the codes worked and including examples. The petering-out of my interest was caused by his constant wide-eyed amazement that such an amazing woman could be swept under the rug of history until he came along to shine a light on her archives.
It is refreshing and almost soothing to see that the same issues we’re grappling with now have been around for a while. This book came out 30 years ago in 1988 and the voices sound like they’ve been interviewed today—grappling with greed, capitalism, racism, neo-nazis, ultra-religious nuts, worrying about nuclear war and quality of life declining for future generations. Somehow this takes a bit of the sting out of the slap we were dealt in 2016 with the election of McDonald Tr*mp—this stuff has been simmering for a long time, we were just in our progressive bubble and refused to see it. The only real difference is that unions were a lot more prevalent back then. Now, they’re an anomaly. And more people were actively protesting nukes.
Per his usual style, Terkel interviews hundreds of folks and lets their words do the talking. Art Spiegelman kvetches about art students not knowing anything about the 1960s (“They had never heard of underground comics. Nobody in the class had ever heard of Robert Crumb. This is not the general public we’re talking about. These people are aspiring to be cartoonists…”) and he had to explain protests against the Vietnam War to his class. Another teacher discusses how censorship has morphed into people withdrawing books they don’t like from the library, “often one that is feminist in theme”, paying the fine and the book is never replaced.
I particularly liked Isabelle Kuprin’s interview: “I’m a copywriter for an ad agency. It involves being a total asshole. I do it for the money, it’s easy and horrible. I do nothing good for society. I mean, I help people sell cheese. The talent is being able to sit in meetings and listen to people talk about an adjective for four hours.”
Douglas Roth is also a hero– a pastor in a small Pennsylvania town that was ravaged by steel mills closing, he led an effort to get the bank to reinvest in the town. One of their tactics was to send people with $10 to ask for that in pennies and to drop some of them, get in line, pick them up, ask for nickels, cause chaos. Another was a fish action: taking out safety deposit boxes and filling them with frozen fish. “By Monday, they were beginning to raise their own odor. Boy it was really something! They had to drill out the boxes. They drilled into one lady’s jewels and somebody else’s heroin.”
Another hero: Jean Gump, mother of 12, jailed for a demonstration at a nuclear silo. As part of her interview, she reveals the ridiculousness of the government, telling the story about an inmate who lay in the yard and got a sunburn then an incident report was written up for “destruction of government property” because she destroyed her own skin.
Entertainment age: TV!
Echoes of current day ring out in this: “There’s this constant need to be entertained. Every kid has his little Walkman radio, playing tapes… There’s this constant need to be distracted. I think this is a rejection of thought.”
TV is blamed frequently. “Now you don’t talk to anybody ’cause you got your head stuck in that TV.” Also: “Television is fucking up the country completely, making us more violent and more druggy. The Sistine Chapel ceiling of American creativity is the thirty-second television commercial. That’s where America’s genius is concentrated. What are they telling us to do? Consume, look after number one, pamper yourself.”
“Television could be a very great thing for politics. It could create the revival of the stump. Instead, it actually destroys analysis, debate, reason, and substitutes advertising. One-liners. Two-liners take up too much time.”
Reagan’s election on race: “Reagan made it very accepted to be a white bigot. It’s the most fashionable thing. Now they say: America is white… When I was comin’ up, it was embarrassing to be considered a racist or bigot. Now I think people take pride in it.”
Another similarity to current times: in 1987 there was a football players’ strike. “What really disturbed me was the attitude of the fans. How easily they were manipulated into support-not of the players, whom they come to see and love to watch-but of the owners, who never played a game in their lives… It was amazing to hear million-dollar sportscasters criticize half-million dollar ballplayers: ‘They make too much money.'”
Somewhat related: “People are really not interested in politics. They’ve got too many other interests. You find people know so much about football.If they knew the same amount about the stock market, they’d be millionaires. Trivialities have overwhelmed us.”
While we’re on the subject of politics: “The scandals, open or secret, are happening so regularly, it’s as if one is constantly irritated by a blow on the shins to a point where he’s no longer sensitive. What the Reagan administration has discovered is that that which becomes commonplace is no longer a scandal. The violations have been unprecedented in their repetitiousness. People have lost their sense of outrage.”
“Unfortunately, America has got religion in a way that it hasn’t had before… Shrewd political people have recognized the potential of grabbing hold of the religions constituency… Their basic appeal is to people who feel left out. Marginalized people, who have an emotional hunger. W.H. Auden has a line about the wild prayers of longings… In a world that’s in chaos, fundamentalist religion provides you with a well ordered world, an architectonic world. It helps you get through. These programs have a lot of appeal to people without a sense of history… It’s fast food. It’s just there, it’s bland, it’s inoffensive, it fills you up for a while. And it helps. Sadly. You’re given answers. You’re not presented with problems. The idea is not to reflect, because that’s disturbing.” — Roy Larson, Methodist minister, Chicago
On the opposite end, Dennis McGrath, fundamentalist Christian in Brooklyn: “Most problems in public schools come from our throwing out prayer. Where’s the authority? It comes from God. Armageddon will come, of course. It’s part of God’s plan. Why stop it? I see no reason to stop it.”
Sexism in Technology Sector
Nancy Miles is a 23-year-old engineer who graduated from Cornell in 1985. “The attrition rate is enormous, people leaving engineering, especially women. There’s a lot against us…. During the interviews, the company would ask if you could get a security clearance. Wow, I’m gonna be working at a place where the government has to know about me, know what I do, know my politics. How much of myself am I willing to give up to work in Silicon Valley?”
Black women will save us
A flight attendant whose pilot-husband regularly crosses her strike line complains about the lack of support the women have gotten in general. Except: “You know who have been doing the most fighting and sticking together in our union? Black women. Here in Chicago, black flight attendants have been our strongest core. They have been able to handle the negatives of being out on strike for six months a lot better than their white counterparts.”
Robots are here + age discrimination
“An ironic touch has been added during these past 10 years. Our life-cycle has lengthened in every decade, yet we are seeing early retirement more and more frequently… That’s the au courant phrase these days: early retirement. In some cases, it’s a euphemism for being fired. It may be a case of wanting a younger person. Or they may just do away with the job. The job is robotized or faded out. The job is eliminated. Of course, for people this age it is difficult to find work again.” – Maggie Kuhn, of the Gray Panthers, a national org militantly concerned with the rights of the elderly.
Anthony Bouza is the police chief of Minneapolis: “As for the country, I honestly believe we are observing a decline of the republic. There’s a major shift in American values, between the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor. We are screwing the poor people.” This is also a guy whose wife has been arrested 5 times for protesting nuclear bomb-making plants in town.
Dumb rich people
Terkel interviews a socialite, Sugar Rautbord, who has incredibly idiotic things to say, including about her visit to the White House where she’s briefed on Grenada and thinks there is still a war there. Terkel corrects her, saying that the U.S. won the war there already. “Well, whatever. We live in a democracy, so everyone has a right to an opinion.” At the end of the interview, she says it’s important for her and her ladies to run around with their Tiffany cups out looking for donations to their pet causes. Terkel: “Tiffany what?” Sugar: “Cups out. Panhandling, you know.”
Another great read from Jami Attenberg! This one tells the story of Mazie Phillips, a woman who spent most of her life in the “cage” in front of the movie theater she eventually owned in NYC, rescued at age 10 from abusive parents by her sister Rosie along with younger sister Janie. Mazie is adored in the neighborhood but loses her heart only a few times, once to a passing sailor (Captain Ben) who returns to town every year and they meet up, once to the nun Tee whom Mazie cares for as she dies of cancer. She’s well known as the Saint of the neighborhood for taking care of all the homeless and down on their luck people during the Depression. The story is told through snippets of her diary, interspersed with pages from her unpublished memoir, interviews with current Brooklyners and children of those in the story. Well done, an excellent choice for a taste of 1919-1939 NYC life.
Nora Ephron’s book came up as an example of humorous women’s writing so I decided to take a break from serious reading to slurp this up in an afternoon. The narrator is a 7-month-pregnant woman who discovers her husband is having an affair and when she confronts him, he simply says that he loves the other woman. She flees DC for her native NYC, 2 year old child in tow, and tries to make sense of her life. Husband shows up a few days later, not contrite but asking her to come back. She does, and they hang on for a few more weeks, she has the baby early and discovers that he’s purchased an expensive necklace for the other woman while she was recovering from her C-section in the hospital. She sells her diamond ring for $15k and realizes she can walk out now, but not before she tosses a key lime pie in his face. It’s a mediocre book that’s heavy on recipes and light on subtle humor, but a good change from serious brainwork.
This starts with a beautiful introductory section, worth quoting in full. In addition to dissecting the trouble of capturing one’s travel experience in words, Vita discusses the art of writing (and reading) letters.
One nit-pick I have is with the photo captions; her son, Nigel Nicolson injects unnecessary commentary into the story, saying Vita “unaccountably fails to mention” that Howard Carter was excavating King Tut’s tomb when she was there, and that Dorothy Wellesley “to her disgust” was not mentioned in the book although she traveled with Vita as far as India. In her defense, Vita only started writing the book once she left India, and the passage up to that point in the book is quite solid without the mention of her companions or the specific details at Luxor. She’s poetic in her descriptions, humorous about travel, and contains all the shortcomings of rich travelers of that age—low-key racism and dismissing the various landscapes as being empty sandy vistas. On occasion she makes up for it with interesting observations, such as “To read of Proust’s parties [while one is] in the Persian Gulf is an experience I can recommend, as a paradox which may please the most fastidious taste. Indeed, I came to believe that every book should be read in the most incongruous surroundings possible, for then it imposes its own unity in a way that startles the reader when he has to emerge again into his own world; thus, when I passed from a ball at the hotel de Guermantes into the little dining saloon of the s.s. Varela, Proust’s world was still truer than the ship and I was puzzled to know, really, where I was.”
I loved this while reading it, then got annoyed with the constant repeating of information, but finally came around to appreciating her structure. She tells the story of a single woman almost in rounds, the same details being sung over and over about her junkie dad overdosing, her brother making it as a musician before marrying an amazing woman and having a severely disabled daughter they raise in New Hampshire, her mother throwing “rent parties” with a bunch of skeezy old men who insist on putting teenage Andrea in their laps and jostling her, and her own narrative arc of leaving Chicago art school to settle back home in NYC where she grew up on the Upper West Side and now lives in Brooklyn but working in advertising instead of as an artist.
Some of her lines are simply devastating. Throughout, she is wry and funny and real. I was hooked in the first chapter, where she describes her run-down apartment in Brooklyn with a view of the Empire State Building she’d sketch every day:
Still you draw. This is the best part of your day. This is your purest moment. This is when the breath leaves you body and you feel like you are hovering slightly above the ground. On New Year’s, that day of fresh starts, you allow yourself to flip through some of the old sketchbooks. You recognize you have gotten better. You are not not talented. That is a thing that fills you up. You sit with it. You sit with yourself. You allow yourself that pleasure of liking yourself. What if this is enough?
At her therapist she runs through a list of things that she is, besides being single (woman, Jewish, designer, friend, daughter, sister, aunt). In her head she thinks of another list (alone, drinker, former artist, and “the captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh.”) She dates, usually unsuccessfully. About one encounter: “This is not a date; this is an audition for a play about a terrible date.”
She begins to think about making art again.
What if I did just that? That is the thing I love, that is the thing I miss the most. For so long I have believed I could never catch up, but now I realize there’s nothing to catch up to, there’s only what I choose to make. There’s still time, I think. I have so much time left.
E.B. White’s 1948 love letter to NYC is just as readable 70 years later. It begins, “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” He calls what the city gives its citizens “a dose of supplementary vitamin—the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty, and unparalleled.”
The three types of NYers are natives, commuters, and people who migrate there to live; of those, White calls the migrants the greatest, the cause of all the art and literature and energy of the city. He dismisses the commuters as a pack of locusts descending each day and not experiencing anything except the bus schedule and the closest place to get lunch from work.
NYC’s neighborhoods give much of its charm, and each small two or three block neighborhood is somewhat self-contained. No matter where you live, you’ll find within a block or two “a grocery store, a barbershop, a newsstand and shoeshine shack, an ice-coal-and-wood cellar (where you write your order on a pad outside as you walk by), a dry cleaner, a laundry, a delicatessen (beer and sandwiches delivered at any hour to your door), a flower shop, an undertaker’s parlor, a movie house, a radio-repair shop, a stationer, a haberdasher, a tailor, a drugstore, a garage, a tearoom, a saloon, a hardware store, a liquor store, a shoe-repair shop.”
This part struck me; remember, this is from 70 year ago:
New York has changed in tempo and in temper during the years I have known it. There is greater tension, increased irritability. You encounter it in many places, in many faces. The normal frustrations of modern life are here multiplied and amplified — a single run of a cross-town bus contains, for the driver, enough frustration and annoyance to carry him over the edge of sanity: the truck that blocks the only opening, the coin that slips to the floor, the question asked at the wrong moment. There is greater tension and there is greater speed. Taxis roll faster than they rolled ten years ago — and they were rolling fast then. Hackmen used to drive with nerve; now they sometimes seem to drive with desperation, toward the ultimate tip. On the West Side Highway, approaching the city, the motorist is swept along in a trance — a sort of fever of inescapable motion, goaded from behind, hemmed in on either side, a mere chip in a millrace.
Finally, it’s inevitable to recall 9/11 when he speaks of one change that no one talks about: “The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.”
Vita takes us on a house tour of her ancestral home, the ridiculously large and elegant Knole in Kent. Apparently this is the 3rd largest residential home in England. Rumor has it that there are 52 staircases (for each week of the year) and 365 rooms, but she never could be bothered to count them. Growing up here in the care of her grandfather, you somehow lack pity for Vita when she muses, “after a lifetime of familiarity, I still catch myself pausing to think out the shortest route from one room to another. Four acres of building is no mean matter.”
Having access to hordes of documents locked up in chests on the property, Vita reconstructs its history from the 15th century onward, ignoring the previous centuries due to lack of documentation. In the 16th century it was briefly given to Henry VIII, then granted to the Sackvilles by Queen Elizabeth in 1586. Vita charts the ups and downs of her illustrious family with the help of letters, diaries, speeches, along with contemporary accounts from the likes of Pepys, Macaulay, etc.
The most interesting person to waft from the dusty pages was Lady Anne Clifford, who died in 1624. “It so happens that a remarkably complete record has been left of existence at Knole in the early 17th century—an existence compounded of extreme prodigality of living, tedium, and perpetual domestic quarrels. We have a private diary, in which every squabble and reconciliation between Lord and Lady Dorset is chronicled; every gown she wore; every wager he won or lost (and he made many); every book she read; every game she played at Knole with the steward or with the neighbors; every time she wept; every day she ‘sat still, thinking the time to be very tedious.'” Lady Anne Clifford was an heiress in her own right, married off to the Earl of Dorset, Richard Sackville, who was a spendthrift who wanted access to her fortune which she denied him.
Also of interest are the myriad of lists of expenses for various items, ranging from armor to banquet menus. Another list is of slang used by thieves in the 17th century that was scribbled on the back of another document with words like “bleating-cheat” (sheep), “tip me my earnest” ( give me my part), “fambles” (hands), “knapper of knappers” (sheep stealer), “lullabye cheat” (child), and “mumpers” (gentile beggars).
I just discovered this incredibly useful resource that has compiled a searchable database detailing the history of reading in Britain from 1450 to 1945. Yowza.
Here’s a list of 381 works VW read, pieced together from letters and diaries. Basically, I found this site because I was wondering what her exposure to Dickens was, and was too lazy to page through the indexes of her letters/diaries myself. (And here’s what Dickens was reading.)
I knew Vita Sackville-West was a fan of Proust (“To read of Proust’s parties [while one is] in the Persian Gulf is an experience I can recommend”) and her list of books contains quite a few references to the Frenchman.
This is a rabbit hole I won’t be falling out of anytime soon.
Another gem from British author Elizabeth Taylor (I also read her Angel earlier this year). In this one, Mrs Palfrey is a widow who arrives at a London residential hotel because she has nowhere else to go, her daughter not having invited her to live in Scotland with her, ignored by her grandson, Desmond, who works at the British Museum. It’s brimming with tragic descriptions of how barren life can be for an oldster, how the residents cling to their routine and savor the tiny enjoyments like reading the day’s menu, trying to make time pass as quickly as possible.
One day, Mrs Palfrey slips and falls on the street, and is rescued by Ludo, an aspiring author who lives in a basement apartment where she fell. He cleans her up and gives her a cup of tea before calling for a cab. Ludo slips into her life and Palfrey passes him off as her grandson Desmond, whom the residents have been clamoring to meet. In fact, Ludo is a much nicer “grandson” than her actual one.
The lone male resident decides he wants to marry Palfrey and she is horrified by the prospect. But still, she hints at his proposal in a letter home to her daughter, which sends consternation flurrying at the idea that they might not get her money after all.
Clever, charming book, a delightful treat for an afternoon’s reading.
This year I added a new tag to make it easier to find books that I really liked. This makes the year-end recap a cinch instead of having to wade through 300+ titles to handpick my favorites.
It’s been quite the year. Despite trying to slow down my reading, I gobbled down a record number this year: 336. My consumption of women writers dropped to 69% this year, down from last year’s 78%; men clocked in at 29% with the remainder a mix of both. Non-fiction (64%) edged out fiction (36%) for the second year in a row. These are some of my favorites that were absorbed in 2017:
The first five on the list are absolute must-reads. The last three are delicious treats.
- Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
- Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson
- Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
- Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder
- Up and Down California in 1860-1864: The Journal of William H. Brewer
- The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford
- The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination by Sarah Schulman
Fiction is extremely hard to recommend since it is such a personal taste. Here are a few.
- Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh; also McGlue, which is not for everyone. Moshfegh’s talent is jaw-dropping.
- We Were Witches by Ariel Gore.
- The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett. You might know her as the author of “The Shoes” books for YA – “Ballet Shoes”, etc. She also wrote killer fiction for adults.
- Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz. Fell hard for Babitz and liked this one especially.
- White Teeth by Zadie Smith.
- Transit by Rachel Cusk.
- I also read 24 titles by Patricia Highsmith. Favorites were A Suspension of Mercy and Those Who Walk Away.
- A Visit to Don Otavio: A Traveler’s Tale from Mexico by Sybille Bedford – excellent, witty, well-written.
- West with the Night by Beryl Markham – memoir about growing up in East Africa. “Entertaining, with equal parts adventure and understated philosophy.”
- The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston. Cannot believe I had not read this before.
- A London Girl of the 1880s by Molly Hughes – The whole series is worth reading. I think this is the 2nd of 4 books.
- The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed.
- I read seven by Charles Dickens this year, but favorites were Bleak House and Little Dorrit and The Pickwick Papers. Hilarious and just the right touch of absurdity to help you get through 2017.
- Finally gave Middlemarch another read. Worth it.
- Moby-Dick got another re-read, along with a bio of Melville and scads of background notes for M-D. Little sips of Moby were a tremendous lift to my spirit for weeks.
- I dove deep into Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf’s friendship this year. KM’s The Montana Stories were an interesting way of collecting her work based on when she wrote them.
A smorgasbord of various pieces across Vita’s career—travel writing from Persia, diaries of her exhausting lecture trip across the U.S., excerpts from novels, bits of poetry, letters, diaries, memoirs. I enjoyed her incessant carping about Americans being loud, dumb, and fat in her 1933 travel diary, her inflicting a cold blast of air on reporters in Chicago by leaving the window open, her insistence that the red on her cheeks was not rouge—go ahead and wipe it off, she encouraged, so much train travel and arriving dirty and tired.
I’m also keen on reading Passenger to Teheran in full, especially on the heels of reading MacCannell’s thoughts on tourism. VW got letters from Vita and noted in her diary that “[Vita] is not clever: but abundant and fruitful, truthful too.” After getting the manuscript for the book, she declared it full of “nooks and crannies.”
I keep thinking about Dean MacCannell’s The Tourist so decided to see if he’d written anything else recently. This seems to be his latest book, but I hope he’s hard at work on something that layers in how the necessity of creating content for social media sites, that incessant hungry beast that demands jealousy-producing photos, has cranked tourism into overdrive.
This 2011 book has the same pitfalls of The Tourist, the muddy writing whilst pontificating in a scholarly voice. Tragically, it’s a disaster of a book with only a few redeeming qualities, outlined below. Much blather, poor planning, and overcompensating for his lack of a cohesive theory by stuffing our eyes with Lacan and Stendhal references. I hate to be a stickler, but his “slip is showing” (e.g. lack of any kind of structure) when he doesn’t bother to mark where Part 2 begins, then just slaps a lame “Part 3” heading atop a random chapter, before settling into proper single page announcement treatment of Part 4 (like Part 1).
He rails against “Staged Authenticity” that has overwhelmed all of life, how it’s not just for tourism anymore. He briefly touches on our blithe acceptance of the surveillance state, gladly handing over privacy to reap the rewards of being internet famous or going viral, “desire for fame and recognition trumping (or Trumping) all other desires.” He asks what happens when everything that was once a “societal secondary adjustment (gangster lifestyles, lost weekends, profit skimming, exercise addiction, extramarital affairs, resume inflation, test cheating, dope dealing, dope taking, food fetishism…) what happens when everything that was once a secondary adjustment becomes merely another suburban lifestyle choice?”
Mocking our forced casual fashion, “we comfortably inhabit the space of staged authenticity and dress accordingly, that is, like tourists… The same expensive exercise outfits can be worn in public by suburban women and young inner city [kids].” You can’t tell who’s important anymore by what they drive, either. Limos signify nothing, everyone wants a huge SUV. “You could be going nowhere or anywhere. Other than having money and a willingness to waste it, the purchase signifies positive nothingness; a large investment in maintaining zero specific identity, no purpose, and no direction.”
Later, he’s eviscerating the ever-present command: Enjoy! “Pleasure itself has become a new moral imperative. Today, we are all supposed to be having fun… Everyone’s life should resemble a beer commercial… In postmodernity, if you are not having fun, or appearing to be having fun, it means you have done something wrong. Someone who just ekes out a living, always doing the right thing but never getting anywhere or going anywhere must now carry the burden of guilt for having failed to ‘Enjoy!'”
One of his claims is that tourists are so overwhelmed in the presence of the Sight that they’ve come to See, they clam up, unable to speak, anxious that they don’t get it or might forget it. “The main protection tourists have devised against anxiety-provoking exigencies is manic picture taking and repetition of information about the attraction.”
Brilliant novella by Vita, written in 1924 and dedicated to Virginia Woolf, who said “I wish I had written it.” In the collection of Vita’s writing that I’m reading, it’s described as “the most complex and the most highly stylized, the most interesting and the most modernist” of her works.
Arthur Lomax is a nonchalant Englishman whose life is changed when he agrees to join a pleasure-cruise to Egypt. This is where he discovers the joy and transformation of wearing colored glasses, first blue then green and black. The very first sentence gives away a major plot point: “It was in Egypt that Arthur Lomax contracted the habit which, after a pleasantly varied career, brought him finally to the scaffold.”
He loves the effect of the colored glass and refuses to go anywhere without them. “He resolved, however, not to initiate a soul into his discovery. To those blessed with perception, let perception remain sacred, but let the obtuse dwell for ever in their darkness.”
How did he end up in Egypt anyway? He’s sitting beside a man at his London club who mentioned that he was sailing to Egypt the next day and bemoaning the fact that his third guest backed out due to family problems:
“Family ties,” he grumbled; and then, to Lomax, “somehow you don’t look as though you had any.” “I haven’t,” said Lomax. “Lucky man,” grumbled Bellamy. “No,” said Lomax, “not so much lucky as wise. A man isn’t born with wife and children, and if he acquires them he has only himself to blame.” This appeared to amuse Bellamy, especially coming from Lomax, who was habitually taciturn, and he said,”That being so, you’d better come along to Egypt tomorrow.” “Thanks,” said Lomax, “I will.”
A few paragraphs later, Vita introduces the rest of the cruising passengers:
It is now time to be a little more explicit on the question of the companions of Lomax.
Perhaps Miss Whitaker deserves precedence, since it was she, after all, who married Lomax.
And perhaps Bellamy should come next, since it was he, after all, for whose murder Lomax was hanged.
And perhaps Artivale should come third, since it was to him, after all, that Lomax bequeathed his, that is to say Bellamy’s, fortune.
The practised reader will have observed by now that the element of surprise is not to be looked for in this story.
And there you have it—the entirety of the plot line. The rest of the novella flows along these lines, finally ending with Lomax arrested for Bellamy’s death and Artivale not getting the money after all due to a contested will. The seducer of the title is the unknown man who has impregnated Miss Whitaker, causing Lomax to marry her out of pity. Bellamy supposedly has a fatal disease and asks Lomax to help him die, but once the deed is done, his body is exhumed and no disease found.