Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen 2021

Oh, what a terrible year for the world at large, but what a wonderful year of reading! I've worked from home on average three days a week this year, spending two days in the office, and it has really affected my quality of life even more than I could have imagined. Subtracting the stress and strain of a commute, adding the comfort of wearing shorts and a t-shirt for work, subtracting all the distractions of the office (and the shady neighborhood in which it's located), adding the mood-lightening sunshine our apartment receives most days and the mental and physical health benefits of lunchtime workouts, it's been a revelation of how civilized life can be even while getting one's work done just as well as ever. And this of course is not to mention that that commute time can now be used for reading, so it has been an extraordinarily fruitful year! 

Of course, if I could make the horrors and frustrations of covid for others go away with a snap of the finger, I would happily give up these benefits, but alas I don't have that ability, so I will make do by being very thankful and aware of how lucky we've been. And for now, at least, our office is continuing to allow us to work from home three days a week indefinitely, so here's hoping 2022 will be another excellent bookish year.

Even allowing for the 12 non-blog-related titles I mentioned last week in my first ever UNfurrowed Dozen (see here), it was terribly difficult getting this list down to 12 blog-related titles. With my addictive reading of numerous titles by a few authors, the list could have been completely dominated by D. E. Stevenson, Monica Stirling, and Violet Trefusis, so I've had to rigorously limit myself to one or two titles by each. DES's The Tall Stranger and The Blue Sapphire, two of our titles being released next week from Dean Street Press, were near misses, as were the two early non-mystery titles by Felicity Shaw, later better known as mystery writer Anne Morice (see here). Then there was the delightfully enjoyable (but pricey!) Emily, by Hilda Stewart Reid, which I discussed here. Two children's titles, Dorita Fairlie Bruce's The Bees on Drumwhinnie (1952), one of her historical Colmskirk novels, and Catherine Christian's Diana Takes a Chance (1940), which I didn't get around to reviewing, would also likely have made the cut in a slower year.

And as you'll see, I'm forced to risk irritating and annoying you with my top pick of the year. It was a choice between being a coy little tease or actually lying to you about the best book I read this year, so I've gone with the former…

And now, in the flesh, I give you the Dozen.

12) MARY CLIVE (as HANS DUFFY), Seven by Seven (1933)

Best known for her later memoir/novel
Christmas with the Savages, Clive wrote four earlier novels using the Duffy pseudonym. The other three have proven impossible to get my hands on, but this one was a delight, evoking (if not bettering) Evelyn Waugh and demonstrating once and for all how unjust the process by which some books are remembered and treasured and some fall by the wayside really is.

11) ISOBEL STRACHEY, First Impressions (1945)

And here is perhaps another example of said injustice. Strachey was taken quite seriously in her time, and is an absolutely brilliant metaphorist above all else ("The curate stood beside him in a curious toppling position. His clothes looked as though they were being blown off him although there was no wind."), but of course she's now forgotten as well. I read three of her novels this year (one still to review) and have four more to look forward to in the New Year.

10) IVY COMPTON-BURNETT, Daughters and Sons (1937)

My favorite novel yet by one of my favorite authors, though one that most readers either love or hate. If you must read just one ICB, this one, described as "one of the lightest and most comic of her novels" (though still delightfully bleak and morbid), is the one to try.

9) DOROTHY LAMBERT, Scotch Mist (1936)

Most of you know that in 2020 Dean Street Press reprinted Dorothy Lambert's wonderful village comedy Much Dithering, from 1938. I've since read a handful more of Lambert's novels, with varying results, but this year I found another treasure in this holiday frolic set in a Scottish boarding-house reluctantly managed by the increasingly impoverished Neil McPherson. Alas, more or less impossible to find, but perhaps one day we'll be able to reprint this one too?

8) NAOMI ROYDE-SMITH, Outside Information (1941)

A bit rough around the edges as it was compiled as events were actively unfolding, and perhaps all the better for it, this combination of diaries and letters (including a few from friends like Margaret Kennedy) by a prolific novelist provides some irresistible reportage on the Blitz, supplemented with humor, occasional poignancy, and vivid personality. An excellent complement to Frances Faviell's
A Chelsea Concerto.

7) D. M. LARGE, The Quiet Place (1941)

For somewhat lighter reading about the early days of the war and the Blitz (albeit from a distance), this novel about the Irish O'Hara sisters, who open their quiet country home to paying guests seeking escape from bombs is a lovely, funny, warm-hearted book about the idiosyncrasies of its eccentric characters, who find the war creeping up on them even in the Irish countryside.

6) DOROTHEA TOWNSHEND, A Lion, a Mouse, and a Motorcar (1915)

Just what the doctor ordered for pure giddy escape, this utterly daft spy adventure/comedy rollicks along like nobody's business. Delia Gwyn, a rector’s daughter, finds herself swept into international intrigue, complete with Russian princesses, a short stint in a Spanish prison, a near miss of an assassination attempt, and a dramatic rescue from a kidnapping attempt. It's completely implausible, but no less fun for that, and I send my thanks again to Kathy Reed, who dared to send her vanishingly rare copy of the book to San Francisco for me to read. It has happily returned safely home now.

5) D. E. STEVENSON, Kate Hardy (1947)

VERY difficult narrowing down the DES titles I read this year to only one. Many of the 11 novels we're reprinting in just a few days (see
here if you've somehow escaped knowing this!) were, believe it or not, new to me this year, and I loved them all. The Tall Stranger and The Blue Sapphire, mentioned above, are loaded with charm, and Young Mrs Savage is a perfect holiday story. But I finally settled, for purposes of this list, on this lesser-known gem, which I never got round to writing about in any detail. A novelist in the immediate postwar years spontaneously buys a home in the country and finds the country may not allow her much more time for writing than London does! (This one has been virtually impossible to find, but not anymore, as of next week!)

4) MONICA STIRLING, Dress Rehearsal (1952)
3) MONICA STIRLING, Ladies with a Unicorn (1953)

The author I read more than any other this year might well have dominated this list if I'd allowed her two, but these two titles represent, for me, her best efforts in two different styles.
Dress Rehearsal is largely a comedy set in a girls' boarding school and, despite the publisher's assurance that it's not autobiographical, reflects in almost every detail Stirling's own upbringing. Ladies with a Unicorn, meanwhile, is in what I call Stirling's Proust Lite style, with its characters' present-day, postwar dramas largely filtered through their wartime traumas. Scintillating elegance and high fashion in the Roman film industry combines with gritty recollections of darker days, and I found the combination impossible to put down.

2) VIOLET TREFUSIS, Tandem (1933)

Dear Violet could also have dominated this list, but this one is the clear winner for me out of her six novels available in English (all of which I read this year, as well as cursing the literary stars that her other two haven't been translated from French). Beginning in 1892 with sisters Pénélope and Iréne in girlhood,
Tandem soon leaps forward to show us the girls getting married and then their very different (but intriguingly echoing) married lives. The characters are possibly based on Violet's friends, Anna de Noailles and Princesse Marthe Bibesco (mentioned in last week's UNfurrowed Dozen), also novelists. Broderie Anglaise, about Violet's romantic triangle with Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, has always got more attention than this novel, understandably but definitely not deservedly.

1) ?????????????????, ????????????????

And finally… Just in the past couple of weeks, my planned list has been upended by an email revealing (and then sending) a manuscript of an unpublished novel, previously thought to have been lost, by a favorite author. I can't say much more (and not just because of a perverse urge to tease), but the novel is sooooooo lovely and brilliant and funny and poignant, it has to occupy this spot. It's not any exaggeration to say it's by far my favorite read of the year, and I hope it will some day be a favorite of yours too…

And there, teasing aside, you have my favorite reads of the year. Now it's time for you to share your happiest discoveries!

Friday, December 24, 2021

The UN-furrowed Dozen

This year I'm doing a little something different with my year-end listmaking. No, I'm not tampering with the FM Dozen, which has since time immemorial (or 2014 at least, which at this point feels almost as long) counted down my favorite blog-related reads of the year (i.e. those which are directly relevant to the main topic of this blog, British women writers 1910-1960). That will still be posted right around New Year's (give or take a bit, depending on how much eggnog I have). 

But for this week, I thought I'd expand my horizons a bit and list some of my favorite reads from outside of my main topic. Since the pandemic began, about 900 years or so ago, and particularly since I joined Twitter this year, my reading has not only increased (less commute time does indeed equal more reading time, it seems, not to mention more exercise time and more happy time, though I know that not everyone has felt the same way), but it has also been more varied than in some previous years. I've rediscovered my love for modernist fiction and for European and Latin American lit in translation, and even for the "classics". I actually read not one but two of Stendhal's blockbuster novels this year, not to mention Flaubert's Sentimental Education, which I first read as an undergrad or soon after, though I'm not including these here because I don't think either author requires my seal of approval. (The fact that I read three classics this year and my TBR shelves now boast an entire shelf of such grandiose aspirations as The Tale of Genji, Madame Bovary, The Decameron, Dostoevsky's Demons, Gargantua and Pantagruel, and quite a fair number of others is certainly not disproportionate at all…)

At any rate, I thought it would be fun to share this side of my reading a bit. I'm sure that, like me, many of you read all sorts of books, not only books by British women 1910-1960, so we may sometimes find we have other authors in common besides Elizabeth Fair, Frances Faviell, D. E. Stevenson, and Agatha Christie, and some of the books below fit in with our FM titles surprisingly well. And if you are only interested in British women 1910-1960, then feel free to skip over this post and rest assured the FM Dozen is coming soon!

Even though middlebrow fiction is still a substantial majority of my reading, it was surprisingly difficult to narrow down this list to only twelve titles. And as always, ranking them is impossible and relatively random—apart, I should say, from my top three, which really are the top (as Cole Porter would say). Those are genuinely Shakespeare sonnets, Napoleon Brandy, and the smile on the Mona Lisa all rolled into one. They might even be camembert, but they're certainly three titles that particularly blew me away this year.

Drum roll please…

Glory (1932)
(translated by Dmitri Nabokov with Vladimir Nabokov)

I've had a love/hate relationship with Nabokov for years. He's one of those writers who can wow you with his brilliance and then make you want to slap him with a wet noodle for his "isn't he just sooooo clever" kinds of tricks. Pale Fire nearly finished me off as a grad student, but in the past couple of years I paid a first visit to a couple of his early novels, and Glory in particular caught my fancy. I'm always interested in the Russian émigré experience, and this novel is a wonderful bit of nostalgia for Russia combined with some of Nabokov's most beautiful writing. In other words, even if Nabokov isn't your thing, Glory might just be.

Sleep of Memory (2017)
(translated by Mark Polizzotti)

In 2021, I was finishing up with Patrick Modiano, who absolutely consumed by Unfurrowed reading in 2020. Of the final books of his I finished, Sleep of Memory was the most haunting. For those unfamiliar, Modiano's short, potent novels are more or less always about older characters looking back on youthful experiences, which can only be remembered in fragmented and uncertain ways. For me, the novels are themselves riveting, but also, rather like hypnosis, they always bring back vivid memories of my own past. Something about their dreamlike quality allows the reading experience to morph into something much more personal. This one for whatever reason brought back living in DC in my 20s–buildings I would pass, restaurants I hadn't recalled in years, people I met in passing, places I would walk when restless late at night. It seemed to even bring back the energy, the mood of the city, the sounds of traffic, the rustling of leaves on one particular tree-lined street. By the time I finished, I wasn't sure whether some of the images in my head were from the novel of from my own experience. Heady stuff indeed, so do give Modiano a try if you haven't (and if you dare!).

The Green Parrot (1924)
(translated by Malcolm Cowley)

I knew that Bibesco was a close friend of Violet Trefusis, of whom I've written a lot this year, and that she was a successful novelist herself, but it wasn't until our Thanksgiving trip to San Diego that I came across one of her novels. At first, I thought it was entertaining but too melodramatic for my taste. But as I read this very odd tale of a woman, neglected in girlhood by parents who can only adore the memory of her dead brother, and of something bordering on sibling incest aided and abetted by reincarnation (!!), it became more than the sum of its parts. I found Bibesco's sensibility and intelligence, and her perspective on the situation of woman in society and in love, irresistible. I want to re-read this novel, and it likely won't surprise you to learn I already have two more of her books on my shelves…

Lion Cross Point (2013)
(translated by Angus Turvill)

Last year, I read what was really Masatsugu Ono's second novel in translation, Echo on the Bay, and merely liked it. But then I kept thinking about it, and flashing back to its setting and scenes. So I decided I should try the earlier Lion Cross Point, and now I'm hopelessly hooked. Both of these short works deal with childhood and trauma, both are set in small Japanese fishing villages, and both are dreamlike and addictive. One critic called Ono a cross between Garcia Marquez and Simenon, which is both ridiculous and … kind of true? Ono's third novel in English, At the Edge of the Woods, is coming next April from Two Lines Press, and I can't wait.

Bina: A Novel in Warnings (2019)

Fragmented and dark, but also flowing like a dream and often outright hilarious, this tale of a woman who's had all she can take might be a blast even for those who don't think they like edgier, more experimental fiction. I can't praise it too much, and I can't say too much about it, because Bina herself has warned me:

So if you are listening to a woman
Hoping she'll shut up
Try imagining the 2,000 years
Where she did all the listening.
Sit down
Shut up
And if the woman is talking, listen.

I've never had so much fun listening, and I'll listen to Anakana Schofield's shopping list if she publishes it.

The Golden Fruits (1963)
(translated by Maria Jolas)

The most experimental and "difficult" work on this list, for sure, but also a riot. It's a chaotic cacophony of anonymous voices ranting about a novel called The Golden Fruits. First the voices are praising and parroting, name-dropping, then disenchanted; the novel is first a sign of sophistication and being "in the know" and later a sign of being hopelessly "déclassé", and it's all such a brilliant skewering of intellectualism and faux cultural cachet. If you can overcome the complete lack of a plot or identified characters, it's sooooo much fun. Sarraute should be much more widely read than she is.

When We Cease to Understand the World (2018)
(translated by Adrian Nathan West)

So many other people have written about how good this one is that I won't say much. I was sceptical that a novel (in the loosest sense of the word) flirting with—and sometimes fictionalizing—scientific history would be my cup of tea, and yet it completely was. Ambitious, life-or-death themes, and yet also a page-turner.

Now Now Louison (2016)
(translated by Cole Swenson)

A very short novel about the life of artist Louise Bourgeois, but that doesn't begin to cover it. I knew nothing at all of Bourgeois when I started reading (based on a Twitter recommendation), but Fremon's potent, poignant look at her past and her obsessions, mostly "narrated" by Bourgeois herself, got me hooked, and I'm ready to travel the world in search of spiders (as well as more Fremon).

Garden by the Sea (1967)
(translated by Maruxa Relaño & Martha Tennent)

If our publications were to go international, I'd absolutely choose this one for an FM España imprint. Much of Rodoreda's work is darker and more experimental, but this one is perfectly lovely. Set in the roaring 20s over the course of several summers in a villa by the sea, as a solitary gardener observes the Beautiful People coming and going. There are dark undercurrents, and the looming suggestion of bad times ahead, but they only make Rodoreda's subtle tale glitter even more. 

The Love Parade (1984)
(translated by George Henson)

What a crazy, wild, wonderful ride this one is. Sergio Pitol is surely, in the English-speaking world, the best kept secret of Latin American literature. His "Trilogy of Memory" sustained me last year in the early days of the pandemic, and this one, very different but equally wonderful, gave me a necessary break from the world news. Set in the 1970s in Mexico City, on the surface it's a mystery about a historian investigating a murder from 1942, at a time when the city was a hotbed of immigrants, refugees, shady business dealings, and spies. But it's really a magnificent symphony of eccentric voices demonstrating that memory and history are as slippery and elusive as some of the novel's characters. I feel sure this one will repay any number of re-readings. Pitol also makes me yearn for more of this evocative setting—any recommended books about Mexico during World War II?

Empty Wardrobes (1966)
(translated by Margaret Jull Costa)

Be still my heart, I love this novel so much, and this one could absolutely be a Furrowed Middlebrow publication if we published Portuguese authors. Several wonderfully-delineated women and their troubled relations in 1960s Portugal. At the time, I made a note that it reminded me of both Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome and Pedro Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and if you can imagine that, I don't think you're so far off of this gorgeous little jewel. I can imagine re-reading this every year or so as I used to do The Great Gatsby (in my younger, shallower days).

1) DOIREANN NÍ GHRÍOFA, A Ghost in the Throat (2020)

My top three this year are really all neck-and-neck, but if one has to have the illustrious honor of the #1 position, it should be this treasure (which also happens to have been my first Book Twitter discovery). Part memoir, part novel, it's a totally unique hybrid about a young modern Irish wife and mother who becomes obsessed with an 18th century noblewoman who composed an impassioned poem of mourning for her murdered husband. Its theme of obsessive research into a forgotten woman writer had obvious appeal for me (ahem!), but it's also exquisitely written and oh-so-beautifully structured. I think lots of fans of FM titles would also enjoy this one.

And that's that. I hope you've enjoyed the history-making inaugural UNfurrowed Dozen. More great books to come next week on the FM Dozen!

Friday, December 17, 2021

"That monkish bed": VIOLET TREFUSIS, Broderie Anglaise (1935) & From Dusk to Dawn (1972)

In most bedrooms, pride of place is given to the bed, but in Alexa's it was so small and shy you positively had to look for it. It seemed to be apologising for itself. All those laboured flowers, that monkish bed, that parsimonious light, appeared to he waiting for something. What? A vision, an angel visit?

If you haven't noticed, I've become quite infatuated with Violet Trefusis in the past couple of months. All because I happened across a copy of Echo a while back, and then found a library that had her rarest book, Tandem. After that, I was lost in infatuation. On our recent trip to New York, I found time to read these two, the first of which is undoubtedly Violet's best-known work, being as it is a sort of roman à clef about the triangular relationship of Violet, her one-time lover Vita Sackville-West, and Vita's subsequent lover Virginia Woolf. 

Although I had never really thought about it, I found myself surprised by the fact, noted in the introduction by Vita's biographer Victoria Glendenning, that although Broderie Anglaise was published in France (et en français) in 1935, it is quite likely that neither Virginia nor Vita ever knew of its existence. It wasn't translated into English until much later, and to some extent Violet's fame, always smaller than Vita's and (particularly) Virginia's, only really seems to have grown in later years when a wider public learned of the scandalous attempt made, circa 1920, by her and Vita to run away from their husbands. It's quite striking to think that even Vita, who lived into the 1960s, never came to learn of the book--through friends if not from Violet herself (who probably wished to shield herself from any resulting kerfuffle).

The novel focuses on Alexa Harrowby Quince, a brilliantly successful English novelist who pours her passions into her work and has none left for real life:

"I use up all my vital force in my books. There's nothing left over for life," she suggested, with the famous touching smile which was so admired in the literary world but which John found exasperating because it was to be seen in all her photographs.

Alexa is in love with the aristocratic John, Lord Shorne, who is rather a scoundrel and thoroughly enslaved to his domineering, temperamental (bordering on insanity) mother, Lady Shorne. Alexa also believes John to be haunted by memories of the "one that got away", Anne Lindell, who effectively stood John up at the altar years before. As the novel opens, Alexa has received a letter from Anne, asking to pay her a visit, said visit providing the tension of the story.

When you know who these characters "really" are, it's all quite irresistible, catty fun. Poor Virginia is presented as emotionally and sexually stunted:

"Even though I've known what love is," she went on painfully, "I'll always be an old maid. Yes, I shall. It's not a question of virginity--nothing so simple. It's an attitude, a routine that my mind can't throw off."

But interestingly, it is Vita and (particularly) her mother who come out of Violet's fantasy retelling of reality the worst. The scene in which Lady Shorne coerces Alexa into helping her with an inventory of her jewellery is unforgettable, and it's just as well poor Lady Sackville never knew of her portrayal here:

I've sent John to London, to make sure we're not disturbed. Sit there, my dear, facing me. I've put everything on at once--to be certain nothing's left out. Everything has to go down on the list, everything-even this little turquoise scarab. Come, now. Here's a pencil."

Alexa was hypnotised. Such will-power emanated from this strange old goddess, it never occurred to her to resist. She took the pencil with a trembling hand. It was only three in the afternoon but the curtains were already drawn and the chandelier lit. The little room was stiflingly hot. Alexa, bent over her task, felt as if she were sinking into a nightmare. How could she escape? There was no hope of their being interrupted. More attention was paid to Lady Shome's orders than to John's. Alexa felt as oppressed as if she were shut up with a corpse--and a corpse could not have been more unmoving.

Of course, Anne's character is portrayed with more than a little of Violet's characteristic narcissism, particularly in the ways in which Alexa assumes that she is the superior and more seductive woman. But I do love that Violet was able to mock herself in Alexa's disappointment upon meeting her:

Alexa made the surprising discovery that she would have preferred Anne to have been beautiful, wily, irresistible--in short, the "vamp" she had expected. It was intolerable that John's life could have been ruined for five years by this plump woman with mocking little eyes and an evident passion for chocolate eclairs (the only thing Alexa had not got wrong). She felt as if her artistic imagination had been insulted, and naturally blamed John, the source of her delusion. She felt intuitively that he would have given Anne an equally flattering portrait of her, out of conceit and vainglory.

As I said, it's all quite fascinating with the knowledge of who's who, though as a novel (rather than a roman à clef) it might actually be one of Violet's least entertaining efforts. I suspect that Violet was far too close to it's characters, emotionally, to pull it off with her usual humorous flair. There are some rather excruciatingly soppy descriptions of love, reminiscent of Violet's early, overwrought letters to Vita, which suggest that Violet was a lot to handle. One wonders if Violet was really far better at romantic fantasy than she was at the realities of love.

But as a work of gossipy vengeance, Broderie Anglaise is about as delectable as it could possibly be.

I turned from Broderie to Violet's final work, written nearly four decades later during the last year of her life. From Dusk to Dawn was reportedly taken up to distract her from the pain of her final illness. It features the eccentric and increasingly impoverished aristocratic residents of Castle Doom, described as "near the industrial town of Bilchester in Wiltshire". A bunch of ne'er-do-wells indeed, engaged in various romantic entanglements and maneuverings for power. Lady Aurora, the eldest, "too grand ever to have married", feels cheated that she will not inherit Castle Doom (shades of Vita yet again). Tristram, known as "Husky", the hereditary lord of Castle Doom, is still grieving his wife Timidity. Then there are three younger sisters: Ferocity, with "second sight and a tendency to witchcraft", Publicity, who resembles a horse, and Duplicity, a brilliant nudist pianist. 

And there's Lord Peregrine, heir presumptive, a Cambridge don obsessed with his mathematical research but having somehow accumulated along the way three wives, former students all, who with their offspring live together in cheerful paternal neglect at nearby Mulberry Farm, representing all the colors of the rainbow--one wife is Chinese, one Hindu, and one from the West Indies, we are told. (There are some slightly uncomfortable racial assumptions here--I don't think Violet intended anything harmful, and the book as a whole is full of outrageous behavior, so she obviously wasn't attempting anything like a realistic portrayal of her international characters, but a contemporary author wouldn't be likely to portray such a situation in quite the same light).

The plot, to the extent there is one, has to do with Aurora's attempts to rule over Doom, and her sale of various family treasures to finance it, while Peregrine is focused on his equations and Husky is (shall we say) exploring his sexuality, first with the gardener's son and then whooping it up in Capri. This is not to mention a long digression following Publicity's husband's rather naughty exploits in Poland during the war. It's all accompanied by some rather charming illustrations by Violet's friend Philippe Jullian, himself an author and biographer, who would collaborate with her on several works and also co-author her own biography a few years after her death.

As a novel, it's impossible to deny that From Dusk to Dawn is a bit of a mess: meandering and random, eccentric to say the very least, sometimes difficult to differentiate the many characters, and not all of the humor works. It couldn't possibly be called a successful work of art.

And yet, if you are able to accept all of that (a fairly large ask, no doubt) and just settle in for a ridiculous, flamboyant ride, there is still plenty of charm and entertainment to be had, and there's a fascination in the simply very ODD fantasy world that Violet created from her suffering and her preparations to shuffle off her mortal coil. That she was able to laugh and frolic in such a way at such a time is touching, even if it's not eloquent.

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