Transit: A Novel

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If I could, I would burrow deep into a Rachel Cusk book and never come out, completely escaping the world forever. Her writing continues to stun, mesmerize, delight. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is, or to draw attention to one specific example or phrase. It’s more the feeling that as you’re reading, her words wash over you with the peacefulness of waves calmly lapping you with warm soothing water. Her characters get into lengthy complicated dialogues that don’t seem such; the lack of “quotes” helps make the conversation seem deeper without jarring your ear with fragments of talk.

For just a sip, here’s the narrator interposing a question after pages of intense reveal from a woman she just met at a mutual friend’s house: “I asked her whether she still had the feeling of unreality, and why she thought it had come in the first place… ‘I like it that you ask these questions,’ she said. ‘But I don’t understand why you want to know.’ ”

The story involves a woman with two children newly free from her marriage, moving to London where she’s able to buy a bad house in a good neighborhood and then sink tons of money into repairs. Her downstairs neighbors are nicknamed trolls by her sons, an evil-spewing older couple who bang incessantly on the floor with their broom, tell neighbors outrageous lies about her, and cook abominably stinky food that reeks through the floor. The narrator is a writer, runs into her ex-boyfriend taking his daughter to school, goes on a jaunt to read her work, teaches creative writing and counsels a student named Jane about not spending her time writing about the painter Marsden Hartley. She meets a man, she visits friends in a fog-enshrouded country home. It’s all quite magical.

My previous exposure to Cusk was in Outline, wherein I describe being “pummeled” by her work. Now ready to read anything and everything by her.

A London Child of the 1870s

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Delightful reminiscences of a childhood in London near the dawn of the twentieth century, a daughter born with four older brothers and parents who fluctuate between having money and not. A very free and open and fun kind of childhood, lots of games got up, sneaking away to ride the “bus” (with horse) around London with her brothers, the 12 hour train ride to Cornwall where much adventure awaited them every summer. It ends abruptly with her father’s unexpected death from being hit by a carriage in the deep fogs of 1879, but apparently there are 2 more books that continue the story.

Cities I’ve Never Lived In: Stories

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Dreamy, ethereal, gauzy, not very good stories; mostly east coast, Maine and NYC. The only one that sticks out as interesting was about the woman with two kids whose husband ran away when he found out she loved another man on the island they lived on (in Maine); she goes and lives with her father-in-law, the grocery on the island closes, she must schlep groceries from the mainland where she works. The eponymous story was about a woman who travels around volunteering in soup kitchens then eating there, living in hostels. But overall the writing wasn’t anything you could sink your teeth into and appreciate.

O Fallen Angel

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Originally published in 2010 as Zambreno’s first book, it’s re-released with an awkward and unnecessary introduction by Lidia Yuknavitch who first published it. The end acknowledgments bookend us with praise for Yuknavitch in a way that just leaves me wishing we could have the text sans Lidia.

It’s a weird, triptych-ish book that follows the story of Mommy, Maggie, and Malachi. Mommy is in full denial that the world is falling apart, closing her eyes to her daughter Maggie’s self-destruction. Malachi sets himself on fire and jumps off an overpass onto the highway.

Zambreno’s language sparkles: “Cell phone towers of Babble.” ; “Mommy likes books with stiletto heels on the pink cover. Anything pink. Pink, pink, pink. Think pink! Don’t think at all!”; “Caution is GrandMommy’s middle name. Although it’s really Marie, like all good Catholic girls.”; “The whole family likes to watch TV—they gather around it, it is their altar… Missy she is three and needs to learn to sit like a lady! Which is on your ass watching the television! It’s best to practice the assumed position of apathy and defeat!”

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

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Cleverly titled and fun read about how data scientists are wielding their WMDs in finance, education, prisons, government, hiring, and ecommerce. O’Neil points out that WMDs tend to punish the poor because the rich are processed more by people and the unwashed masses processed by machines. One signature of a WMD is that the model contributes to a toxic cycle and helps sustain it, not pulling in enough feedback to allow it to correct itself.

Models are opinions embedded in mathematics.

Great anecdotes throughout, from the DC school teacher who lost her job due to an algorithm based on her students’ test scores, to the rejection that a Vanderbilt-dropout got from several part-time minimum wage jobs due to personality tests (Kyle was tested for extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to ideas).

She covers wellness programs and their invasive tracking, along with social media tracking, search behavior logging, all adding up into bits that go into the Big Data cauldron to be sipped at leisure by the WMDs or other interested parties.

Double Game

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My Sophie Calle obsession continues as I followed the breadcrumbs from Paul Auster’s Leviathan to her response here in this volume. For backstory, Auster based one of the characters in Leviathan (Maria) on Sophie, using examples of her real work but also making up a few projects which she hadn’t done. In response, she does the projects that he made up, and also invites him to create another project for her that she’d focus on for up to a year. Auster pens four pages of a Gotham Handbook, with instructions for Sophie—smile at people and count how many you give/receive, talk to strangers, hand out sandwiches and cigarettes to the needy, and cultivate a spot somewhere.

She dutifully takes on all of these, and commandeers a phone booth at Greenwich and Harrison in Tribeca by painting the floor, installing flowers, kleenex, snacks, orange juice, ashtray/cigarettes, comment card, magazines, folding chairs. Every day she swings by for an hour and tapes the phone conversations, tidies up and re-installs things that go missing.

Paul’s directive about talking to stranger has some lyrical passages about the importance of talking about the weather, “the great equalizer…. To discuss the weather with a stranger is to shake hands and put aside your weapons. It is a sign of good will, an acknowledgement of your common humanity with the person you are talking to.”

The rest of the book is filled with images and text explaining the other projects that Auster had referenced, some new details overlain on things I already had seen. Most blown out was The Hotel, with pictures and descriptions of every hotel room she cleaned during her 3 weeks in Venice.

Moments of Being

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There was a frenzy of publication of VW’s unpublished works once she died, this collection of memoir writing no exception. This edition is comprised of  Reminiscences (written about Vanessa for her unborn child, Julian, with lots of detail about Julia, their mother ), A Sketch of the Past (100-odd pages written in 1939 in gulps taking a break from writing Roger Fry’s biography), and three pieces VW launched at the Memoir Club—22 Hyde Park Gate, Old Bloomsbury, and Am I A Snob?

It’s a hodgepodge, and the bits of greatest interest to me are, as usual, around her voracious reading habits. She mines the vein of her complex feelings about her father, rehashes details she can remember about her lovely mother, and gives us rich detail about the daily lives of Victorians and Edwardians, including the existence of a town crier at St Ives that was actually used by one of their guests who lost a brooch, shuffling along with a bell crying “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez.”

There’s also a phrase that rings particularly true in 2017 w/r/t Vanessa as she rejects George’s efforts to bring her into high society, (emphasis mine):

“But poor George was no psychologist. His perceptions were obtuse. He never saw within. He was completely at a loss when Vanessa said she did not wish to stay with the Chamberlains at Highbury; and would not dine with Lady Arthur Russell —a rude, tyrannical old woman, with a bloodstained complexion and the manners of a turkey cock. He argued, he wept, he complained to Aunt Mary Fisher, who said that she could not believe her ears. Every battery was turned upon Vanessa. She was told that she was selfish, unwomanly, callous and incredibly ungrateful considering the treasures of affection that had been lavished upon her—the Arab horse she rode and the slabs of bright blue enamel which she wore. Still she persisted.

On Leslie Stephen:

Yes, certainly I felt his presence; and had many a shock of acute pleasure when he fixed his very small, very blue eyes upon me and somehow made me feel that we two were in league together. There was something we had in common. “What have you got hold of?” he would say, looking over my shoulder at the book I was reading; and how proud, priggishly, I was, if he gave his little amused surprised snort, when he found me reading some book that no child of my age could understand. I was a snob no doubt, and read partly to make him think me a very clever little brat. And I remember his pleasure, how he stopped writing and got up and was very gentle and pleased, when I cam into the study with a book I had done; and asked him for another.

Later, still trying to understand her relationship with her father:

But from my present distance of time I see too what we could not then see—the gulf between us that was cut by our difference in age. Two different ages confronted each other in the drawing room at Hyde Park Gate. The Victorian age and the Edwardian age. We were not his children; we were his grandchildren. There should have been a generation between us to cushion the contact. Thus it was that we perceived so keenly, while he raged, that he was somehow ridiculous. We looked at him with eyes that were looking into the future.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden

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The first book by Katherine Mansfield’s cousin Mary, the one that gave her the name “Elizabeth” forever, is like a sandwich at tea time, crusts cut off the bread, proper, yet lacking. There are some good bits, such as when she first begins, glorying in her solitude for six weeks as she fixes up the house by overseeing those who are actually doing the work, and spending all of her time reading alone in the garden. She affectionately nicknames her husband Man of Wrath and after thoughtfully capturing baby owls for him to train, he is shocked at the idea, Elizabeth remembers that phrase “Two paradises ’twere in one to live in Paradise alone.” But no, she has 3 babies and a husband, and scores of people who insist on visiting. When conversation at a dinner party in a neighboring town veers towards Elizabeth being “abandoned” in her house, she insists that she enjoys it and is quite happy “buried” in her home. She almost mentions that she was surrounded by books but “reading is an occupation for men; for women it is reprehensible waste of time.” So she pretends with them that she is not happy. The rest is a diary of her garden, what blooms, what is planted, and then the last half taken up by a Christmas visit of a friend, Irais, and a stranger brought in because she is a friend-of-a-friend, Minora. Unfortunately, Minora is an Englishwoman intent on writing a book, and she whips out her notebook to record the many amusing things Elizabeth and Irais say. There’s a brief interlude where the Man of Wrath lectures about why women are inferior, and then the women leave after a month. It’s a curious artifact, pub’d in 1898.

The Women’s Room

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One of the signs of enjoying a book is when I prolong its completion, choosing to sip at the bubbly goodness instead of gulping it in one sitting. Thus went reading this one, a feminist classic from 1977. Brilliant in parts, somewhat draggy and long-winded in others, but overall a gem. The narrator inserts herself into the story in 3rd person as Mira, revealing her dual identity at the end as she’s writing this book over the summer break along the Maine coast, the months free from her teaching gig. Throughout there is a recurring theme of string beans and shit, “years spent scraping shit out of diapers with a kitchen knife, finding places where string beans are two cents less a pound…” —the image is referenced seven times through the book. “When your body has to deal all day with shit and string beans, your mind does too.”

Mira at the beginning is hiding in the women’s room at Harvard, unable to face the fact that, as a 40-year-old woman in graduate school, people look right through her. We then whirlwind back to her previous 15 years, a marriage that breaks up with two sons in tow, but more importantly a grim and extremely detailed view of the madness gripping suburban white women that Friedan covers in Feminine Mystique. All the women in the group Mira joins end up going insane, attempting suicide, or just being beaten (or beaten down). After Norm, the husband, asks for a divorce, Mira tots up a bill for her services over the fifteen years and gets a nice settlement for herself.

On pregnant women: “It is this sense of not being a self that makes the eyes of pregnant women so often look vacant. They can’t let themselves think about it because it is intolerable and there is nothing they can do about it.”

“I wanted my life to be a work of art, but when I try to look at it, it swells and shrinks like the walls you glean in a delirious daze. My life sprawls and sags, like an old pair of baggy slacks that still, somehow, fits you.”

The acronym “mcp” (male chauvinist pig) was so common in 1977 that it’s scattered throughout these pages without any explanation.

A couple of great scenes:

  • Early mansplaining: The party where Mira discovers Harley is a monologuist and cannot carry a conversation. When two men are speaking together, “it was not dialogue, it was one-upmanship… it was two monologues carried on simultaneously…. He was interesting as long as he was explaining things…”
  • Val’s radicalization after her daughter is raped, where she resigns from all her social justice work and only focuses on radical feminist causes (which ends up getting her killed by the police when they try to free a prisoner, a woman who stabbed her rapist and was convicted of murder).
  • Description of Mira’s visit to her parents where conversation rules kept things extremely boring. This reminded me painfully of the gulf between myself and family, a gaping void into which real conversation is not permitted. “But still she had to listen to the boring recital of actions performed by strangers, or people she could barely remember. They were actions without motive and without consequence, and about as interesting as the parts list for an atomic submarine… But on and one they went. They could fill three days with it.” More telling, “They shuddered at the word socialism, and even socialized medicine seemed to them something tinged with evil… She tried, in simple language to suggestion something of this to her parents, but they could not hear her. The things were in two different categories in their minds: capitalism was good, high medical bills were bad, but they had no connection with each other. She gave up. By nine thirty, Mira’s head ached. She longed for ten o’clock, when the Wards would turn on the news, after which they would go to bed.”

Also interesting to note that it was a common practice for people to bring their TVs over when they visited people, or to rent them when her sons were in town visiting. The portable sets of the 60s and 70s would just plug in and get the channels the antennae fetched.

The Givenness of Things: Essays

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Ms. Robinson’s brain jumps out of this collection as if it’s a pop-up book to entertain children. She’s smart, not just “like, a smart person” smart, but actually intelligent and a great writer. Unfortunately, despite the grand premise of this book, my eyes got too squinty trying to follow her through the parade of religious figures and Shakespeare and Marx and discussions of ontology. The book begins with a bang, a strong cry in defense of the humanities that are being flushed down the toilet by current culture. This phrase in particular haunted me: “the spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency…” While meandering through the Reformation, she brings up an interesting point about how in addition to bringing knowledge to the masses by way of freeing it from obscure Latin, an immediate result was “The emergence of the great modern languages out of the shadow of Latin, with their power and beauty and dignity fully demonstrated in the ambitious uses being made of them.”

Sophie Calle: And So Forth

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A gorgeous art book collecting dozens of Calle’s works, interspersed with interviews, photographs, yellow pages with three hole punches, details on her performance art pieces, close-ups of her showings in galleries. The book is edged with a metal plate on three sides of the cover (both front & back). The design of everything is overall stunning, a pleasure to read and provides the right atmosphere for absorbing Calle and her work over many decades. Not much was new to me, except the piece where she took her mother’s jewels to the North Pole and buried them there, a tribute to her dead mother who always had wanted to go.

South Riding

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Let’s not get too carried away here. The 500+ pages of tweener life (in between the wars) in a village in England are of occasional interest but such melodrama! A spinster headmistress (Sarah Burton) comes to take over the local school, working wonders, butts heads against the landed gentry, falls in love with said gentry (Robert Carne) who is busy selling off his ancestral goodies to pay for fancy treatment for his mad wife. There’s a cast of supporting characters, old Mrs. Beddows the woman Alderman being top of the list and most fleshed out. The others just are scarecrow versions of characters who dance and frolic and do as you’d expect. That’s perhaps the most disappointing part, nothing is unexpected here. Except perhaps the death of Carne 100 pages from the end, failing to consummate the romance with Burton. I see that VW shared this opinion, saying of the book, “One’s never pulled up by a single original idea.”

Entirely skippable, though some weirdos have likened it to Middlemarch.

Suite Venitienne

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Seattle’s Bay Press issued this 1988 translation of Sophie Calle’s 1983 photo essay documenting the spur-of-the-moment trip to Venice she took to follow someone she just met; she had followed and photographed him before meeting him at a party later, then learned he was traveling. In Venice she calls all the local hotels trying to figure out where he’s staying, then sets up a lookout wearing her blonde wig. Yes, it’s creepy to track someone like this, but the resulting document wasn’t interesting.

Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters Of Virginia Woolf

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The selected letters is Joanne Trautmann Banks’s collection of the greatest hits, and this volume does a great service for those of us who are dipping our toes into the letters and not yet ready to read all six volumes. There are also 12 new letters that appeared after the complete collection was released. A remarkable collation giving the breadth and depth of VW’s life in a more easily digestible format. “Gracious child, how you gobble!”

This keeps echoing in my head and has been working as a great incentive to be a good person: “How I adore nice people. What else makes life worth living?” (19 Sept 1937 to Ethel Smyth)

On reading:

  • 30 Oct 1904 to Violet Dickinson; “… the only place I can be quiet and free is in my home, with Nessa: she understands my moods, and lets me alone in them… I long for a large room to myself, with books and nothing else, where I can shut myself up, and see no one, and read myself into peace.”
  • 16 April 1906 to Violet: “I lead the life of a Solitary: read and write and eat my meal, and walk out upon the moor, and have tea with Madge, and talk to her, and then dine alone and read my book, which I might be doing now if I weren’t writing to you.”
  • 21 Aug 1927 to Saxon Sydney- Turner; “Do you agree that one never thinks of Saxon or Barbara singly, but always as the centre of a nest of other objects? this fact has never been observed by the novelists—but my word, what a set of dunderheads and duffers they are! Even Scott has passages of an incredible imbecility. Trollope has gone up in my estimation however. But then, as its all a question of mood, and of what one’s just read, or whom one’s just seen, whats the good of criticism?”
  • 19 Feb 1929 to Vita: “I am sometimes pleased to think that I read English literature when I was young; I like to think of myself tapping at my father’s study door, saying very loud and clear ‘Can I have another volume, father? I’ve finished this one’. Then he would be very pleased and say ‘Gracious child, how you gobble!’… and get up and take down, it may have been the 6th or 7th volume of Gibbons complete works, or Speddings Bacon [Life and Letters of Sir Francis Bacon, edited by James Spedding], or Cowper’s Letters. ‘But my dear, if its worth reading, its worth reading twice’ he would say. I have a great devotion for him —what a disinterested man, how high minded, how tender to me, and fierce and intolerable—”
  • 28 Dec 1932 to Ethel Smyth: “Nobody but the postman can possibly interrupt me between today and tomorrow. Therefore I am sunk deep in books. Oh yes, I write in the morning—just a little joke [Flush] to boil my years pot: but from 4.30 to 11.30 I read, Ethel. Isn’t that gorgeous?… D’you know I get such a passion for reading sometimes its like the other passion —writing—only the wrong side of the carpet. Heaven knows what either amounts to. My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery—always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud. And why? Whats this passion for?… oh so may books —doesn’t it break your heart almost to think of me, with this passion, always consumed with the desire to read, chopped, chafed, bugged, battered by the voices, the hands, the faces, the bodily presence of those who are pleased to call themselves my friends? Its like knocking a bluebottle off its lump of sugar perpetually…”
  • 29 July 1934 to Ethel Smyth: “Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading. Its a disembodied trance-like intense rapture that used to seize me as a girl, and comes back now and again down here, with a violence that lays me low.”
  • 8 Feb 1936 to Hugh Walpole: “I’m reading David Copperfield for the 6th time with almost complete satisfaction. I’d forgotten how magnificent it is. Whats wrong, I can’t help asking myself? Why wasn’t he the greatest writer in the world? For alas – no, I won’t try to go into my crabbings and diminishings.”
  • 25 June 1936 to Ethel: “I’m almost floored by the extreme dexterity insight and beauty of Colette. How does she do it? No one in all England could do a thing like that.”
  • 1 Feb 1941 to Ethel: “Did I tell you I’m reading the whole of English literature through? By the time I’ve reached Shakespeare the bombs will be falling. So I’ve arranged a very nice last scene: reading Shakespeare, having forgotten my gas mask, I shall fade far away, and quite forget… They brought down a raider the other side of Lewes yesterday. I was cycling in to get our butter, but only heard a drone in the clouds. Thank God, as you would say, one’s fathers left one a taste for reading! Instead of thinking, by May we shall be – whatever it may be: I think, only 3 months to read Ben Jonson, Milton, Donne, and all the rest!”

On writing:

  • January 1907 to Lady Robert Cecil (Nelly): “I think you ought to write novels: you can write letters which is far harder.”
  • 25 Aug 1907 to Violet: “Never did any woman hate ‘writing’ as much as I do. But when I am old and famous I shall discourse like Henry James [whom she had just described as saying ‘My dear Virginia, they tell me… that you… as indeed being your fathers daughter nay your grandfathers grandchild – the descendant I may say of a century… of quill pens and ink – ink – ink pots, yes, yes, yes, they tell me… that you, that you, that you write in short.’]
  • 22 June 1930 to Ethel Smyth: “And then I married, and then my brains went up in a shower of fireworks. As an experience, madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets, as sanity does.”
  • 2 June 1935 to Ethel Smyth: “I’m sorry I’ve been incommunicative, but I can only write letters when my mind is full of bubble and foam; when I’m not aware of the niceties of the English language. You dont know the bother it is, using for one purpose what I’m perpetually using for another. Could you sit down and improvise a dance at the piano after tea to please your friends?”
  • June 28, 1936 to Julian Bell: “[re: his piece on Roger Fry] My criticism is; first that you’ve not mastered the colloquial style, which is the hardest, so that it seemed to me (but my mind was weak) to be discursive, loose knit, and uneasy in its familiarities and conventions. However you could easily pull it together. Prose has to be so tight, if it’s not to smear one with mist.”

On dispassionateness:

  • July 1906 to Madge Vaughan: “But my present feeling is that this vague and dream like world, without love, or heart, or passion, or sex, is the world I really care about, and find interesting.”

On her brain:

  • Dec 1907 to Violet: “Now my brain I will confess, for I dont like to talk of it, floats in blue air; where there are circling clouds, soft sunbeams of elastic gold, and fairy gossamers – things that cant be cut – that must be tenderly enclosed, and expressed in a globe of exquisitely coloured words. At the mere prick of steel they vanish.”

On not wanting children:

13 May 1908 to Violet: “I doubt I shall ever have a baby. Its voice is too terrible, a senseless scream, like an ill omened cat. Nobody could wish to comfort it, or pretend that it was a human being… the amount of business that has to be got through before you can enjoy it is dismaying.”

On French:

  • 25 Dec 1906 to Violet: “… I think it a virtue in the French language that it submits to prose, whereas English curls and knots and breaks off in short spasms of rage.”

On autobiography:

  • 28 Dec 1932 to Hugh Walpole; “Of all literature (yes, I think this is more or less true) I love autobiography most. In fact I sometimes think only autobiography is literature—novels are what we peel off, and come at last to the core, which is only you or me.”
  • 22 Dec 1934 to Victoria Ocampo; “Very few women yet have written truthful autobiographies. It is my favourite form of reading (I mean when I’m incapable of Shakespeare, and one often is)”
  • 5 April 1928 to Ling Su-Hua: “I find autobiographies much better than novels.”


  • 17 July 1935, to Vanessa; “I have been asked to be President of the P E.N Club in succession to [H.G.] Wells: this is about the greatest insult that could be offered a writer, or a human being.

Gertrude Stein:

  • 16 Sept 1925 to Roger Fry: “We are lying crushed under an immense manuscript of Gertrude Stein’s [Hogarth Press pub’d Composition as Explanation in Nov 1926]. I cannot brisk myself up to deal with it – whether her contortions are genuine or fruitful, or only such spasms as we might all go through in sheer impatience at having to deal with English prose. Edith Sitwell says she’s gigantic, (meaning not the flesh but the spirit). For my own part I wish we could skip a generation – skip Edith and Gertrude and Tom and Joyce and Virginia adn come out in the open again, when everything has been restarted, and runs full tilt, instead of trickling and teasing in this irritating way.
  • 2 June 1926 to Vanessa: “We were at a party at Edith Sitwell’s last night, where a good deal of misery was endured. Jews swarmed. It was in honour of Miss Gertrude Stein who was throned on a broken setee… This resolute old lady inflicted great damage on all the youth. According to Dadie [Rylands], she contradicts all you say; insists that she is not only the most intelligible, but also the most popular of living writers; and in particular despises all of English birth. Leonard, being a Jew himself, go on very well with her.”
  • 26 May 1938 to T.S. Eliot: “Dear Tom, Whichever Woolf it was, it wasnt this Woolf; but now it is this Woolf – which sounds like a passage from the works of the inspired Miss Stein.

Ambivalence about Stella Benson’s writing:

  • 20 April 1931 to Ethel: “Stella Benson I dont read because what I did read seemed to me all quivering—saccharine with sentimentality; brittle with the kind of wit that means sentiment freezing: But I’ll try again: I’ll think about jealousy.”
  • 28 Dec 1932 to Ethel: “And I’m reading Stella Benson: with pleasure…”
  • 12 Jan 1933 to Stella Benson; “I have just finished Tobit and so can say… I like it immensely.”
  • 19 Dec 1933 to Ott; “Did you know Stella Benson? I’m sorry for her death—I think one of these days she might have written something I liked—And I wanted to see her, apart from the dull little man [her husband] who never left her alone for a moment.”


Novels and Novelists

Almost immediately after Katherine Mansfield died from tuberculosis, her husband John Middleton Murry began cashing in on her legend, her work, her talent—possibly because he had none of his own. Several editions of her stories, letters, and notebooks began to hit the presses, Murry plotting this mere weeks after her death, despite her injunction to destroy most of her letters:”Have a clean sweep, Bogey, and leave all fair – Will you?” This volume issued forth in 1930, a staggering collection of all of KM’s book reviews that she churned out for Murry’s periodical, The Athenaeum, between April 1919 and Dec 1920. 321 pages worth, all delicately phrased, intelligent reviews of books that were published during that time.

The quality of her reviews makes me want to stop pretending that I come close to reviewing books here (and actually, I don’t claim to. This is a mere memory aid for me). She frequently pairs novels together, like her cousin Elizabeth’s Christopher and Columbus reviewed alongside Rose Macaulay’s What Not.

It seems to me that her feelings about the authors influenced her opinions of their work. Compare her attitude toward her cousin’s writing (whom she loved) to that of Virginia Woolf’s (with whom she had a complicated relationship). The first example below is for Elizabeth.

‘Elizabeth’ appreciates their danger, for the minds of toads and spiders are open books to her. But having them by heart, she, with her delicate impatient pen, is not in the least tempted to make a solemn copy of them. All that she wants she can convey with a comment – at a stroke. There is a whole volume for one of our psychological authors in Mr. Twist’s quarrel with his mother; she dismisses it in a little chapter.

And therein perhaps lies her value as a writer; she is, in the happiest way, conscious of her own particular vision, and she wants no other. She is so enchanted with the flowers growing in the path she has chosen that she has not, as the twins might say, a ‘single eye to spare’ for her neighbors. In a world where there are so many furies with warning fingers it is good to know of someone who goes on her way finding a gay garland, and not forgetting to add a sharp-scented spray or two and a bitter herb that its sweetness may not cloy.

On Virginia’s Kew Gardens:

But it would seem that the author, with her wise smile, is as indifferent as the flowers to these odd creatures and their ways. The tiny rich minute life of a snail—how she  describes it! the angular high-stepping green insect—how passionate is her concern for him! Fascinated and credulous, we believe these things are all her concern until suddenly with a gesture she shows us the flower-bed, growing, expanding in the heat and light, filling a whole world.

On Virginia’s Night and Day (a review which rankled VW, who noted “KM wrote a review which irritated me – I though I saw spite in it. A decorous elderly dullard she describes me; Jane Austen up to date.”):

It is impossible to refrain from comparing ‘Night and Day’ with the novels of Miss Austen. There are moments, indeed, when one is almost tempted to cry it Miss Austen up-to-date. It is extremely cultivated, distinguished and brilliant, but above all—deliberate. There is not a chapter where one is unconscious of the writer, of her personality, her point of view, and her control of the situation. We feel that nothing has been imposed on her: she has chosen her world, selected her principal characters with the nicest care, and having traced a circle round them so that they exist and are free within its confines, she has proceeded, with rare appreciativeness, to register her observations. The result is a very long novel, but we do not see how it could be otherwise. This leisurely progression is essential to its manner, nor could the reader, even if he would, drink such wine at a gulp.

Among other notables, she reviewed Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, a seemingly positive review until the last line, “Heaven forbid Miss Stein should become a fashion!”