November 12, 2013
If Margaret Laurence’s The Fire Dwellers were published today, critics would be lauding its uncanny sense of the contemporary moment, how Laurence dares to voice the unspoken truths of motherhood, her pitch-perfect portrayal of the subtleties of maternal ambivalence. Published in 1969, Laurence’s fourth novel belongs with Atwood’s The Edible Woman and Phyllis Brett Young’s The Torontonians as essential Canadian novels born out of the world of The Feminine Mystique. Which puts the book’s contemporary moment-ness in question, but then the lessons of The Fire Dwellers don’t tend to be the kind we pass on to our daughters, however much to their detriment. Not that they’d listen anyway. Isn’t it funny how the history of feminism is so profoundly uncumulative? How we have to learn it for ourselves over and over, and it’s a revolution/revelation every time?
But then The Fire Dwellers is largely about such disconnectedness, between generations, between spouses, friends, between the personal and the political, and—in the case of protagonist Stacey MacAindra—from one’s self, from one’s own life. Stacey is 39, sixteen years married, mother of 4, and according to the sensationalist copy on my Seal Book paperback, she’s looking for a lover. Which isn’t really true, though it’s probably a good way to sell a paperback. Anyone who has read the book, however, will tell you that she is looking for is herself beyond her oppressive roles of wife and mother. Roles which aren’t strictly oppressive; “They nourish me and they devour me too,” she writes of her children, and it’s in this in-between where she’s stuck, imagining the various ways she is destroying her children (by being overbearing, by too much attention, with her anger, all of these suggestions underlined by “helpful” magazine articles suggesting as much) and/or all the ways they would be destroyed anyway if she somehow managed to get away from them.
Through the novel, Laurence plays headlines from television news programs, broadcasting war, turmoil and unrest around the world. In one sense, the headlines are juxtaposed with the domestic, but we soon come to see that these are parallel, that the home-front is no safe haven after all.
“I can’t forget that piece in the paper. Young mother killed her two-month-old infant by smothering it. I wondered how that sort of thing could ever happen. But maybe it was only that the baby was crying, and she didn’t know what to do, and was maybe frantic about other things entirely, and suddenly she found she had stopped the noise. I cannot think this way. I must not.”
Children are hit by cars and killed, neighbours attempt suicide, Stacey and her husband worry about money, she fears that Mac is sleeping with his secretary, her youngest still isn’t talking (and what has she done to her to make this go wrong, Stacey wonders), and just as terrifying as the suffocating demands of motherhood is considering who she will be once the demands are rescinded, when the children are older. Who will she possibly be then?
Laurence’s The Diviners is so central to my literary consciousness, and I couldn’t help but see Stacey in the context of the Manawaka she’d fled from as a young woman, and in relation to Morag Gunn whom she’d stood apart from as a child but whom she’d have so much to talk about if they met up again in adulthood. And I was surprised to discover that Morag didn’t even exist when Laurence wrote The Fire Dwellers–The Diviners would be published 5 years later in 1974. But in The Fire Dwellers, you see the roots of The Diviners taking shape, its ideas and experiments with narrative and form.
Stacey MacAindra is Betty Draper, is calling out for Betty Friedan, though fat load of good a book is going to do her. (I always find it interesting when people critique Betty Draper’s character for her obviousness to Friedan, as though one day every woman in America read The Feminine Mystique, and society flicked a switch). Stacey MacAindra is also so many of us, as we remarked at my book club the other night. “Maybe we all turn into Stacey MacAindra sometime…” as I tweeted last week. Women for whom the day is never long enough to encompass all the things we want to do, all the people we want to or need to be. Women for whom motherhood and selfhood become a battle, with wifehood thrown in for good measure. You’d throw it all away, if you weren’t tied to it inextricably.
Stacey’s green slacks are dated, and so is her slang, but absolutely nothing else is in this novel which 45 years later is a challenge to and a reflection of the world at once.
June 2, 2013
I have nearly all of Barbara Pym’s novels on my shelf, the bulk of which I obtained when a contents sale was held at a house around the corner and I pretty much cleaned out the library. And this is how it is with Barbara Pym novels–it usually takes death for a reader to finally part with them. Though they also turn up at used book sales from time to time (probably after a death as well), which is how I first encountered Excellent Women, perhaps Pym’s best-known novel. I’d heard of Pym from Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing, Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading and also from this wonderful piece on the CBC on the Barbara Pym Society, which I joined shortly after becoming a Pym convert. It was Excellent Women that fast turned me into one too, and no wonder, I discovered, over the past few days as I read the book again.
It’s wonderful. I could see how encountering Pym first through some of her other novels might be a less delightful experience, one not truly appreciated until one understands the nature of the Pymmian universe. But Excellent Women, as subtle and small as her other books, is so absolutely funny, its goodness immediately graspable. As ever, the delicious gap because what is written on the page and the reader’s apprehension of the true situation. It’s the story of Mildred Lathbury, spinster daughter of a clergyman whose life changes with the arrival of new neighbours Rocky and Helena Napier, plus a clergyman’s widow who steals the heart of the vicar whom everyone had assumed that Mildred was in love with.
And the lines: “A little grey woman… brewing coffee in the ruins.” The austerity of 1950s’ England is not at the novel’s forefront, but instead a shadow in the background with references to bombed-out buildings, ration books, and bad food. But ordinary life goes on anyway, church services conducted in the half of the church that was not destroyed in the war, which gives the congregation a heightened intimacy.
And the vicar with his plaintive call: “May I come up? I can hear the attractive rattle of tea things. I hope I’m not too late.” Oh, so much tea. “Perhaps there can be too much making cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. We had all had our supper, or were supposed to have had it, and were met together to discuss the arrangements for the Christmas bazaar. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look. ‘Do we need tea?’ she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realize that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind.”
There are so many landslides in this tidy book, whose whole world is turned inside out by its final page. Most aren’t the landslides you’d notice and it doesn’t end with a wedding (though a further glimpse of these characters in another Pym novel reveals that one will come about eventually!!!), but more with a change in consciousness, the main character’s heightened awareness of her place in the world. And it’s a funny little world too, quintessentially English, rattling tea things and all. How I adore it, absolutely.
This past week, I also reread A Glass of Blessings, which is more subtle and infused with a touch of melancholy in spite of its delights. So many musings on a furniture storage facility–such a curious book. A bored and idle married woman fancies herself the object of another man’s affections, though he turns out to be gay (which is as expressly stated as you’d imagine for a book published in 1958). Pym is truly the master of the unrequited love narrative.
I do look forward to much Pym rereading this summer. I’ve read most of her books in a pleasurable blur, and welcome the opportunity to think deeper about them. I also look forward to baking a victoria sponge cake this afternoon in celebration of her centenary. It’s either bake a cake or have a baby, and the latter doesn’t appear to be happening yet.
May 27, 2013
I just finished rereading A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym, which I remember reading for the first time about 3.5 years ago in my room with the lighting so dim I could hardly see the words, and there was a little baby napping on my chest. Oh, is there anything worse than a little baby napping on your chest and then feeling a coughing spasm coming on? I remember that too. Of the many ways in which I’m in limbo at the moment, reading-wise is one. I have the new Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel waiting on my shelf, but it’s huge and I can’t make such a commitment to anything at the moment while I’m waiting for baby to begin to arrive. After baby comes, I will crack open Where’d You Go Bernadette, but I’m saving it ’till then. I reread Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin last weekend when I was sick. “What to read next?” is not usually a question I spend much time grappling with, as the books usually seem to be lined up for me, but not here and not now. Which is kind of lovely, a luxury–the only bit of this waiting in which I’m really revelling. And all I really want to do is reread. I think I’m going to pick up a Margaret Drabble next–the follow-up to The Radiant Way (my first and best Drabble…) which is A Natural Curiosity–I read it once the summer I got married. (I keep plucking these books off the shelf and they’re covered with dust.)
You might recall that my computer died in June 2009, with nothing on it backed up, including my list of Books Read Since 2006. Which means that I soon after started a new list, which is basically “Books I’ve Read Since Harriet’s Birth”. I updated it this evening–503 books read in my child’s lifetime. Not counting the hundreds and hundreds of books I’ve read to her.
And speaking of Barbara Pym, whom I am really anxious to reread all summer long, a fun online reading project will be taking place in celebration of her centenary on Sunday. Barbara Pym Reading Week runs from June 1-8, with giveaways and a virtual tea party even. Ideally, I’ll be lost in newbornhood by that point, or even pulling off my ultimate celebratory stunt (giving birth on the big day), but I think I may be rereading Excellent Women at some point in solidarity.
I do so love Pym, whose essence was Englishness, who knew much about nuance, psychology, tea, womanhood, longing and romance. But who perhaps knew less about motherhood, if this passage from A Glass of Blessings is anything to go by…
“We were in her bed-sitting-room after supper, and I had been telling her about Sybil’s forthcoming marriage and what an upheaval it was going to make in our lives.
‘Yes,’ said Mary, ‘marriage does do that, doens’t it?–and death too, of course.’
‘But not birth.”
‘No–people seem to come more quietly into the world…’”
Which is not exactly how I remember it. But maybe I remember it wrong?
October 25, 2012
I’ve started reading Isabel Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories, because mention of it keeps turning up here and there, and because I keep spying it on terribly clever people’s bookshelves. I got a used copy last weekend, and opened it for the first time this morning to start reading “Celia Behind Me”: “There was a little girl with large smooth cheeks who lived up the street when I was in public school.” And I realized that I’d read this story before, more than once. It was so strangely familiar, like something I’d known in a dream, but somebody else’s dream. So distant because I’d read it a long time ago.
A little investigation revealed that I’d read the story in The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories, edited by Margaret Atwood and Robert Weaver. I remembered the text, a row of spines lined up on the shelf in my grade 12 English classroom. I’d remembered “Celia Behind Me,” and also a story called “White Shoulders” (I remember being perplexed by it) which I was surprised to find out was by Linda Svendsen. (Alice Munro’s “The Red Dress” was not in the collection, but I remember reading that story too in the class.)
I was most surprised to discover that right there in my high school text were all these writers who I feel as though I’ve discovered in the last few years and who’ve become really important to me– Bronwen Wallace, Caroline Adderson, Cynthia Flood. And that Leon Rooke was there too, and John Metcalf, Clark Blaise, Diane Schoemperlen, Barbara Gowdy, Douglas Glover, Thomas King. I am pretty sure that we didn’t read “We So Seldom Look on Love” in my grade 12 English class, but I am just as sure that if I encountered many of these stories again, they would seem as instantly familiar as “Celia Behind Me” did.
This re-encounter has given me a new appreciate for the hoopla surrounding the Salon de Refuses and the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories in 2008. Well-curated anthologies are the optimum way for students to discover the short story, each one onto itself, one at a time. These seminal texts are also more important and influential than I’d before supposed, definitely sowing the seeds of love for short stories and for (Canadian) literature.
For me, it would take awhile for the love to bloom. I would not be exposed to contemporary writing this good again for years, and years, and I’d have to seek it out for myself. But maybe I hadn’t been on my own entirely. It’s been a meandering path from from there to here, but I am pretty sure that the me who picked up Isabel Huggan this morning (for fun) has The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories to thank for a lot of the journey.
July 15, 2012
I do make a point of often rereading Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but mostly because it’s just that quite often I get the urge to do so. And it’s usually summer when I do, like last week on the coattails of Valery The Great. I read Slouching last in 2010, and wrote quite a bit about it. This time, my reading around was coloured by having read Didion’s new book Blue Nights last fall. I’ve already written about how much her new book is a response to the voice we hear throughout this book, to her 32/33 year-old self who imagines (in “Goodbye To All That”) that she’ll never be so young again, who has figured that “someday it all comes” and that it even stays.
And yes, it’s jarring to encounter Slouching… with the perspective of Blue Nights. I’d never thought about Quintana in the context of the “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” essay, but I wondered where she’d been, and noticed Didion herself in the essay more than I ever had before: “Norris says it would be a lot easier if I’d take some acid. I say I’m unstable.” I think of the simplistic way that Quintana herself is described in so many of these essays: “Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singular blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up.” Quintana was one when that essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” was written. It’s so odd that the normally astute Didion would ever imagine that any person, especially in their infancy, could be so known.
I reread this book with the perspective of Mad Men too, and Lucille Maxwell Miller in “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” came right out of the world, even on the opposite coast. Same with the “Slouching…” essay, the disintegration the show begins to grapple with in Season 5, which ends with the beginning of 1967. And yes, this essay reminded me of the present too, as it probably ever will, but even more than it did when I read it two years ago:
“The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snaked shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together.”
I understand the “Personals” essays better and differently every time. I love “Notes from a Native Daughter” which is a preview of one of my favourite Didion books, 2002′s Where I Was From. I continue to find “The Seacoast of Despair” completely incomprehensible, every single one of its references a blank space for me.
And, mostly profoundly, I think I have finally grown out of “Goodbye to All That”. I still think it’s as lovely as I ever did, but it no longer makes me want to hang yards of yellow silk from my windows and cry in Chinese laundries. I no longer think it’s romantic. It’s dawned upon me that the voice of experience in that piece is still so absolutely, so tenderly young. Blue Nights, of course, emphasized this point, but I probably would have seen it anyway. I still love the part where she writes, “I would stay in New York, I told him, for just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed for eight years.”
But I’m started to realize that who we were at 23 means less and less as we get older, and that the decade we traverse to get to 33 is still absolutely nothing compared to the journey just beginning. That we shall be made so young and stripped of our illusions over and over again.
April 26, 2012
As it was when I first read this book in 2008, the plot is weak, but then plot is not the point in Maggie Helwig’s Girls Fall Down, which is this year’s One Book Toronto read and also one of the most evocative Toronto books I’ve read ever. And it’s been a funny week on my end, nothing dire, much that’s lovely, but just very busy and divorced from the strict routine my life is constructed around usually. Yesterday, I rode the subway so many times I bought a day-pass, and it was a strange thing to be reading this book on the TTC and carrying it through other places where some its most important scenes are set. It was a strange thing also to come home from a gathering where emotions were particularly heightened, and I kept thinking about the line on page 128, “our lives marked always by the proximity of others.”
It’s such an atmospheric book, and the atmosphere keeps stealing into my own. Today I felt like Alex does: “…everything now seemed to assimilate into the city’s larger narrative.” Or rather, the city assimilating into Maggie Helwig’s narrative. It’s remarkable, isn’t it, the curious places where fact and fiction meet. Today I encounter the newspaper headline, “Students, staff at Scarborough elementary school fall ill”. ““They did a thorough inspection of the school and carbon monoxide or any other airborne problems were deemed not to be the cause,” said… spokesman for the Toronto Catholic District School Board”. And even the abortion clinic scenes, and today’s attack on Canadian women’s reproductive rights.
“So it was like that now, catastrophe inevitable at the most empty moments. Everyone waiting, almost wanting it, a secret, guilty desire for meaning. Their time in history made significant for once by that distant wall of black cloud.”
And it’s funny because my reaction to this book upon first read was that the Toronto under siege depicted felt so foreign to me– I’d missed the SARS epidemic, and the big black-out. But Helwig’s city feels more familiar now, and not just the police brutality since this happened, or how much awful the world is in 2012 as compared to how it was in 2008 (which is much). More amusingly, there’s the scene where the pigeon gets into the hospital, which definitely means more since this happened (and the birds! How I have to reread Headhunter).
But I think basically I’ve just been overwrought this last day or so and that the weather has been funny, but still. What crazy things fiction can do to our minds, and the innumerable ways our stories appear to affect the world.
March 28, 2012
Funny reread of Byatt’s The Children’s Book, and I’m convinced that furious consumption was how it meant to be read, in fact, and that I got it right the first time. When I read 600+ pages in just three days because my life depended on it. This time, I picked it up again and I’ve been so busy the last week or so that I could only manage it in small amounts, amounts too small for me to get caught up in the story before I had to put it down again. And all that picking up and putting down was hard work for a book that was so enormous. I found myself skimming the surface of the narrative instead of getting lost inside it, and the surface of this novel is so many-sided that it was disorienting. I would much rather get lost in a wood than slide down a polyhedron. Also surprised to find the novel so much less “about” the things I’d thought it was about– fairy tales, childhood, families, Edwardian England, history etc– than embodying the things themselves. The effect is overwhelming. It’s a truly brilliant novel but I will have to re-reread it again when I’ve cleared enough space in my head to totally devote to it.
Anyway, I also have to read the biography of E. Nesbit now as per here, which I probably should have just done instead of rereading The Children’s Book. More insight into Byatt’s influences for the novel here.
March 19, 2012
Harriet was scheduled to born on a Tuesday, and the Friday before, late in the evening, a copy of AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book turned up at my door. I spent my last days without her, my last days alone, scrambling to get this book read because I’d been waiting for it for so long already, and it was so massive I knew I’d never get to it after the baby’s birth due to matters of weight and time. I finished reading it on Monday at 5:00, and don’t remember so much of the book itself save for the scramble, a fantastic race to the finish, which was wholly symbolic of life at the time (with no imagining of what would come after). So I’ve been intending to reread it ever since, an intimidating prospect because it’s still a hulking book, but so much of my reading lately– Joan Bodger, Arcadia, Among Others– has been gesturing toward it, so it’s time now. I’m excited. Because I’ve no idea what it is to read The Children’s Book when one isn’t scheduled to give birth on Tuesday. To read this book now as a mother myself, and with such a richer appreciation of children’s stories than when I encountered this the first time. Not quite three years ago, but how it seems a whole other lifetime.
February 29, 2012
As I read Joan Didion’s 1966 “On Keeping a Notebook” today, it occurred to me that this essay is the piece that is the bookend to her new book Blue Nights, and not The Year of Magical Thinking as so many critics have suggested. (I also don’t understand why no one talks about Where I Was From. I think it’s my favourite book of all of hers.)
But first, Blue Nights is not a book about Didion’s daughter Quintana Roo. So many readers have got that wrong too. As Didion writes in “On Keeping a Notebook”, “however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of what we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I’.” Like everything Didion has ever written, Blue Nights is profoundly about herself. She’s not even opaque about it, but some readers are still so unable to get around the fact of a woman writing honestly about motherhood than they’ve been hypnotized into thinking motherhood is all that Blue Nights is about.
But yes, to read “On Keeping a Notebook” after Blue Nights is to invest the essay with a whole new level of meaning. “Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singular blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up.” And then later, “…I have always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.” In Blue Nights, Didion writes, “How could I have missed what was so clearly there to be seen?”
And then further on the essay when she addresses her notes, her compulsion to maintain these notebooks in order to keep in touch with the people she used to be, “paid passage back to the world out there”. She was 32 when she wrote this essay, which is the age I am now, and it’s an age at which you feel there are whole lifetimes behind you, and it’s so fascinating to consider these. 32 is an age where your preceding decade has changed life beyond all recognition, and you’ve finally sensed an order to it all. How, as the older woman in Didion’s essay tells her, “Someday it all comes.” And none of it has started to leave you yet; the future is all promise, and it’s here.
Blue Nights is a 77 year old Didion looking back at her 32 year old self who’d supposed herself older than she’d ever be again. In Blue Nights, she notes the boxes and drawers in her apartment stuffed with history, the notebooks, the stuff she’s been acquiring through her years, all items she’d once blithely advertised as “paid passage back to the world out there.”
She writes, “In fact I no longer value this kind of memento./ I no longer want reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted./ There was a period… when I thought I did./ A period during which I believed that I could keep people fully present, keep things with me, by preserving their mementos, their “things”, their totems.”
She writes, “In theory these mementos serve to bring back the moment./ In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.”
“It all comes back,” Didion writes in 1966, unaware of the shallowness of what she’d lost so far, convinced by the rhythm of her words. And Blue Nights is her realization more than 40 years later: there comes a day when it doesn’t anymore.
February 16, 2012
“It was not that I merely read The New Yorker; I lived it in a private way. I had created for myself a New Yorker world (located somewhere east of Westport and west of the Cotswolds) where Peter de Vries (punning softly) was forever lifting a glass of Piesporter, where Niccolo Tucci (in a plum velvet dinner jacket) flirted in Italian with Muriel Spark, where Nabokov sipped tawny port from a prismatic goblet (while a Red Admirable perched on his pinky), and where John Updike tripped over the master’s Swiss shoes, excusing himself charmingly (repeating all the while that Nabokov was the best writer of English currently holding American citizenship). Meanwhile, the Indian writers clustered in a corner punjabbering away in Sellerian accents (and giving off a pervasive odor of curry) and the Irish memorists (in fishermen’s sweaters and whiskey breath) were busy snubbing the prissily tweedy English memorists.
Oh, I had mythicized other magazines and literary quarterlies, too, but The New Yorker had been my shrine since childhood. (Commentary, for example, held rather grubby gatherings at which bilious-looking Semites-all of whom were named Irving-worried each other to death about Jewishness, Blackness, and Consciousness, while dipping into bowls of chopped liver and platters of Nova Scotia.) These soirees amused me, but it was for The New Yorker that I reserved my awe. I never would have dared to send my own puny efforts there, so it outraged and amazed me to find someone I had actually known frequenting its pages.” –Erica Jong, Fear of Flying