Friday, April 30, 2021

Lost in time: RUMER GODDEN, Pippa Passes (1994)

As a general rule, I love Rumer Godden so much that, as the kids these days say, I can’t even. And I have to admit that, even though I know from past experience that late Godden is not everything that mid-career Godden was (see my brief mention of her final novel [along with an excellent mid-career novel]
here), I still had high hopes for this one. Widening world story, talented young ballet dancer making her way, a touch of romance, and Venice. What could go wrong?


Pippa Fane is 17 and with London's Midlands City Ballet, a school and dance company just building its reputation with an Italian tour, first stop Venice. Pippa has been selected for the corps de ballet, but the ballet mistress, Angharad Fullerton, sees bigger possibilities in her (in more ways than one, alas), despite the company director Humphrey Blair's occasional reluctance.

Pippa is immediately overcome by the romance and beauty of Venice--and then by the romance and beauty of Nicolò, the young gondolier she meets on her first night (and keeps serendipitously encountering everywhere she turns). Nicolò is of relatively humble origins, but conveniently speaks fluent English and has impressive connections as the private gondolier and protégé of a local Marchesa (the latter one of Godden's classic imposing women with hearts of gold), though his motives for romancing Pippa are mostly about the uses he can make of her in his pop band. (Pippa is a savant, as blessed as a singer as she is as a dancer.)

The novel begins much like a Mabel Esther Allan story—luscious setting, innocent girl (almost preternaturally innocent, in fact, considering the novel was published in 1994—Godden seems to have believed teenage girls hadn't changed since the 1950s), hopeless romance, golden opportunity thanks to an injury incurred by another dancer. It's quite charming, and initially reminiscent of Godden's earlier classic about a ballet school, the postwar A Candle for St Jude, which I loved and reviewed in the same post linked above. 

To some extent, too, the novel continues to read like it's from the 1950s rather than the 1990s, and if it had maintained that old-fashioned appeal, I might be giving it a thumbs up right now. But it’s very much as if some sleazy publisher read Godden's original manuscript and demanded that she "sex it up" in order to sell to 1990s readers. (Come to think of it, that might very well have actually happened.) Sadly, she took his advice.

It's clear from early in the story that Angharad, the dance mistress, has eyes for Pippa (and has apparently been infatuated with other young students in the past, as Pippa's friend Juliet tries to warn her):

'I understand myself only too well,' Angharad would have said had she been honest, and she seemed to see Pippa that morning as she had been in Angharad's bi-weekly class: 'lissome' was the word that came to Angharad for Pippa, lissome but strong; her skin had the cool smoothness of a petal. In Angharad's work she had, physically, to correct legs, arms, hands, necks and heads; it was a continual naked but legitimate touching - but Pippa's skin was so delicate that, 'Don't go into the hot sun,' Angharad wanted to tell her, knowing quite well Pippa would go into the sun. 'Well, the young throw away, with both hands, what they have.' Pippa's hair was brown - 'Mouse,' she would have said; Angharad knew how silky it was from when she had to alter the tilt of her head. Her eyes were deep blue and Angharad had seen how the long lashes curled against her cheek when Pippa, who had been so shy at first, looked at the floor every time Angharad came near her. 'And she works so hard and willingly in her efforts to please. If only she knew how she pleases me,' Angharad wanted to cry, but now in the office with Humphrey she managed to say, in her normal calm voice, 'Yes, I am keen. Call it instinct, Humphrey.'

Not a lot of doubt about what's going on there...


I can't really talk about the strangely conflicted nature of this novel without spoiling a climactic moment, so if you are eager to read the novel, by all means stop here (and come back to finish the post after you've regretted your decision…).

So, we know that Angharad is infatuated with Pippa. Well and good, if perhaps slightly creepy considering Pippa’s youth. But most Godden fans will be quite surprised when Angharad maneuvers to have Pippa stay in her apartment "for her protection", premeditatedly gets her drunk at a nice restaurant, and then proceeds to, we could euphemistically say, assault her, but in fact it seems clear even from Godden's relatively veiled language that it's a rape pure and simple. Pippa fights her off and escapes, traumatized and bleeding, not quite the passive creature our sexual predator had expected, and finds Nicolò sleeping in his gondola nearby. He takes her to the Marchesa, who comforts Pippa.

Now, what bothers me here is not that the novel includes a rape scene. Such things do happen, and Godden had every right to explore the issues (she had previously wrestled with prostitution in Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, and done so surprisingly effectively—and with far more of a modern sensibility and insight than in Pippa). It's not even that her compassionate approach to the victim (one of the Marchesa's first statements is "Poor Angharad") might rub some readers the wrong way in 2021. Compassion is entirely in keeping with Godden's philosophy, and is one of the things her fans love about her. (Though I might say that, again, the idea of a successful lesbian—in the ballet world, no less!—who is closeted and so desperately lonely as to rape a young girl, again suggests that Godden was not exactly up-to-date on the world around her in 1994). 

But what makes Pippa Passes a bit of a train-wreck, in my opinion, despite it's lovely setting and a charming, if rather vaguely delineated, heroine, is the bizarre insertion of a Jackie Collins scene into a Mabel Esther Allan story (and the later scene when Pippa has sex with Nicolò, though less disturbing because consensual, is somehow almost as awkward and off-putting in Godden's elegant language, again as if she felt she had to move with the times). There's such a conflict between the 1950s-ish sensibility that dominates most of the novel and the 1990s salaciousness of these two scenes that the novel feels absolutely anachronistic and jarring. It's difficult to imagine any reader of the novel who would not be either irritated by the unrealistically naïve and silly Pippa, or startled or offended by the sexual scenes disrupting their otherwise cozy read.

All in all, then, my advice to Godden aficionados, or those who are only just discovering her, is to stick with (and savor with all the delight and enthusiasm they deserve) her brilliant work from the 1930s into the 1960s—Black Narcissus, An Episode of Sparrows, A Candle for St Jude, The Greengage Summer, Kingfishers Catch Fire, In This House of Brede, China Court, etc. There are bits and pieces of the Godden magic in her later novels, but go to the treasures first. And unless you’re particularly intrigued by the idea of the heroine of a girls’ school story being set down in the middle of a 90s Cinemax movie, keep your distance from Pippa Passes.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

It was the least I could do: Pandemic book shopping

Just wanted to share how selflessly I've been supporting booksellers in the U.S. and the U.K. (and perhaps one or two in New Zealand) in the past year.

Of course, the cynics among you will assume that I've done this partly for selfish reasons. Not at all. I mean, for heaven's sake, who on earth actually wants a pile of old books like this?! Nope, it's all been purely out of the goodness of my heart.

And if you think that this pile suggests that I got a bit carried away while sheltering in place, perhaps I shouldn't mention that there are actually many more, but these were the most photogenic and blog-relevant... (Nor does it include a tiny bit of D. E. Stevenson purchasing that I highlighted here.) You'll even get reviews of at least a handful of these, which surely makes it all worthwhile. You see how good I am to you?

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

"He looks as though the police were after him": CAMILLA TRACY, Cousin Charles (1950)

"Look, Lydia, there's Charles running away over there. Shall we call him? Where is he going?"
"Into the woods. He looks as though the police were after him." 
"Oh, I expect Cousin James has just been horrid to him again," Penelope said, turning the pony's head for another jump. 
And Lydia, herself: "We'll say he's gone the other way if they come to look for him." For when all was said and done you had to defend that Charles. He was your cousin.
Camilla Tracy's charming, quirky, slightly uneven, one and only novel begins with Penelope and Lydia Goodwin visiting with cousins Thérèse Kelly (Tessa) and Charles Goodwin at the family estate of Campion. None of the girls particularly like Cousin Charles, who has a rather prickly personality, no doubt largely because of his emotionally abusive father, but there is a certain curiosity nevertheless, and they like his father even less.

Campion is now owned by their quirky childless cousin Norman, who loathes all men out of principle, and his sister Eleanor, a classic delicate lady with a heart condition, and it's not long before we realize that speculation is already afoot about who his chosen heir will be. The family's relationships are dizzying—Norman and Eleanor's mother divorced their father and remarried, producing more sons, so that the family tree included at the beginning of the book is essential indeed. (Surely, there must be an autobiographical element there—it's hard to imagine a first-time author producing such a complex cast of characters.) But the only other characters who really feature centrally are Norman's mother, Isabelle Kelly, who has been residing in Paris with her artist son Frederick and his daughter Tessa, and Hamilton Sheppey, the son of Norman's solicitor, who befriends Tessa and harbors undisclosed romantic feelings for her, and Miss Yates, initially a governess and then a sort of companion/housekeeper to Norman.

As Isabelle and Frederick lead a rather bohemian life and Tessa is beginning to grow up, they ask Norman to take over her care. From there, the novel makes sudden leaps forward in time, to the period of Tessa's coming out and her first balls, around the time that Isabelle and Frederick relocate to London and come back into her life, and then, with nary a mention of approaching war, to the very end of WWII and beyond. Lydia becomes a journalist, Penelope marries and has children, Tessa becomes more intrigued by Charles after he nearly marries an heiress but drops her at the last moment, and then succeeds in making his own small fortune.

In some ways, it's rather a muddle (and no doubt this muddled summary makes it sound even more so). It was difficult for me to get a handle on what the novel was actually about, though there were lots of charming and sometimes very funny passages. There is always, in the background, speculation about the future of Campion, and it emerges that Charles has his own ambitions about the property, but ultimately I don't think its main concern is with money matters. It seems, like so many other novels of the period, to really be about the symbolics of grand old houses and their gradual deterioration. Among the obscurities I've reviewed and/or that we've reprinted, Rachel Ferguson's Evenfield and A. M. Champney's Miss Tiverton Goes Out cover similar ground, as do even works as varied as Gone with the Wind and Rebecca.

It's also very much about nostalgia. Penelope and Lydia have fond memories of times spent at Campion, but view it primarily from a practical standpoint. Tessa, who spent the last part of her childhood there on her own, sees it as a place of isolation and comes to dread the house. Norman primarily treats it as a gift he will bestow on the most deserving person (though his final decision is the least practical of all the options). But for Charles it's something very different. Victim of a bullying father (also a good-for-nothing, gambling, manipulative freeloader), Charles found some of his only childhood happiness at Campion, where he could elude his father for long periods of time. For Charles, Campion symbolizes the possibility of happiness and represents the key to finally escaping his father's influence once and for all.

There are some really amusing passages here and there. For instance, Charles teaching Tessa the basics of ballroom small talk at her first ball:

The wailing throb of "Night and Day" carried them round the room again, then Charles, a little absently said: "Been to many dances lately?"

She had dealt with this six times already during the evening and answered mechanically:

"No, you see this is my first one."

Charles gave a little snort of laughter.

"That's quite the wrong answer. You ought to say: 'Every night this week—I'm really too exhausted to crawl.'"

"But I'm not."

"Is it really your first one? Are you enjoying it?"

"Yes, I think it's lovely."

"That's all wrong, isn't it?" he said, tightening his hold on her. "You ought to say the band's rather bad or just drawl: 'Are you going to the Poglingtons to-morrow?' or something like that."

"Then what do you say?"

"Me? Oh, I don't bother to answer. Why should I? I yawn and start talking to someone over my left shoulder."

"Do you? How very polite. Then what do we say?"

"Nothing. We have four minutes' silence. Then probably if I'm feeling very garrulous, I say, 'Been to any good shows?'"

"I suppose I wouldn't be allowed to like any of them if I had?"

"Certainly not. They're all too frightful for words. After that the conversation dies down again."

"We don't seem to be getting on very well, do we?"

"We're getting on beautifully. If either of us said anything more original the other would drop dead from shock."

But the only character I felt really attached to here was Lydia, and it's on her the other two passages I'll share focus. First off, how I relate to the demon that haunts her appearance:

Lydia seemed to have changed very little, Tessa thought, when Hamilton brought her to the house three-quarters of an hour later. Her hair was now cut short, but her dark eyes were still popping with curiosity, and she was—as she always had been—slightly untidy. But this she explained later was no fault of hers. She invariably started from home immaculately neat, but she had been haunted all her life by a personal demon who unhooked her clothes, loosened her buttons and disordered her hair before she arrived anywhere. There was nothing to be done about it unless she got herself exorcised.

And then there's the mystery novel she proposes to write:

"It's the hardest thing in the world to do—you have no idea what you're scoffing at," Lydia said, leaning across the table and forgetting to eat. "And mine's going to be in the highest tradition. I shall have an Oxford don for the detective, quoting such obscure poetry that nobody will be able to recognise or understand it. Then my minor characters will be so whimsical and engaging that every time one of them speaks, you'll shake with laughter and dissolve into tears simultaneously. The murderer—no, I think the murderess—will be an old lady of ninety-five who collects variegated seaweed."

I'm sure I'm not the only one who rather wishes Camilla Tracy had proceeded to write just such a mystery!

It's all a bit uneven, though such high points make it a pleasurable read. It drags here and there, as the plot seems to meander, but bang! the ending is really quite effective, and ties things together tidily. All in all then, if Cousin Charles isn't quite a buried treasure, it was still well worth a bit of digging to retrieve it. And that cover!

By the way, I hadn't done any substantial research on Tracy until after finishing the book. Her real name was Vera Benedicta Gage, born in London in 1899, and her teens must have been difficult, as she lost both of her parents (father in 1912, mother in 1916). On the 1939 England & Wales Register, she is listed as an artist, married to one Francis L. Birch. And her gravestone (in St. Peter's Churchyard in East Sussex) reveals that she was an Honourable, daughter of the 5th Viscount Gage. She lived until 1983, and it's rather sad she apparently never picked up the pen again.

Monday, April 12, 2021

The pretentious lady goes to Paris: MARTIN HARE, Diary of a Pensionnaire (1935)

I'm beginning to wonder just how many novels there were which were inspired by the success of E. M. Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady and its sequels. Just among books I've reviewed in the past year or so, there's Maud Batchelor's The Woman of the House and Elena Shayne's Everyday, quite different books but both surely inspired by Delafield.

And then there's Diary of a Pensionnaire, by Martin Hare, pseudonym of Lucy Zoe Girling, married name Zajdler. Presumably based at least loosely on Hare/Girling's real life situation, the diarist is a woman who has been left in a Paris pension due to her Polish husband's being suddenly called back to Poland, and the novel is her humorous record of the habits and eccentricities of her fellow pensionnaires. It begins, rather promisingly:

Curious desire, said to be shared by practically all wives, to know what it feels like to be a widow, at last gratified as husband is removed for indefinite period by Paris-Warsaw rapide from Gare du Nord. I weep; Yasha weeps. Pretty French vendeuse, in overall of peculiarly repulsive pink, flirts with conductor who ought to be attending to Yasha's bedding, and sprays him with perfume from tray slung round neck. Unfortunately sprays me also but omits to apologise. Creep out of the Gare very dispirited, inadvertently leave new gloves in autobus, and regain suburban Pension, kept by old friend of Yasha's, where have been hurriedly dumped to await his return. Unsuspected, but characteristic, deficiency of necessary papers responsible for inability to enter Poland with him at twenty-four hours' notice. No expectation of sleep.

(Of course, the next entry then begins, "Convinced of extreme personal heartlessness by excellence of night just passed.")

Thus on page two I was settling in for, at the least, an entertaining evening or two of amusing Delafield-esque humor. Even if it doesn't match up to Delafield herself, I thought (and none of these books really do--when the gods created the provincial lady, they threw away the mold), it must certainly be entertaining and good for some chuckles, right? I mean, how bad could it be?

And there were indeed some chuckles:

Interesting discussion during dejeuner as to surgical processes undergone by various music-hall favourites. Quiet Gentleman who takes patent medicine before each course declares that a certain lady has had les seins lifted so often that le nombril is now completely lost to sight. Cannot believe this to be true.

And the afternoon our lady spends with a school friend's joyless daughter Vera, who feels that "the true object of life is to Pass on Happiness," is suitably provincial lady-esque. ("Should like to tell her that she has certainly not Passed on Happiness today, but refrain.")

But, like in one of those eerie films where someone goes to an idyllic locale that initially seems perfect before little distressing things begin to happen, it soon became clear that something was a bit off with our pensionnaire. It might have been when she goes out shopping and finds her cheerful mood fading when she realizes that the men around her are paying her insufficient attention (though she assures us they always do when her husband is around). Or perhaps it's when she discovers that two friendly women who share a room are lesbians and is clearly distressed and worried that they are interested in her--though not worried enough to avoid them, as this presents her with a

unique occasion for finding out How It Is Done, which does not sound so morbid an enquiry in French language as in English. Blonde lady, when sounded, as veiled and unilluminating as all the books I have ever read on or around the subject.

And then there are the instances of what I found more poor taste than humor, as when the pensionnaire spots what appears to be a dead dog floating in the Seine, or her ongoing speculations about an elderly woman under whose chair there is always a mysterious puddle ("Must ask somebody what this can be, as it surely cannot be what it most resembles."). Was an elderly woman's incontinence widely considered hilarious in 1935?

In short, I managed something like 100 pages before realizing that the small bits of genuine humor here and there were far outweighed by my overall distaste for a narrator who always manages to feel superior to those around her. She is, I realized, the opposite of Delafield's wonderful, self-effacing heroine. In Delafield, the humor is in the diarist's own inability to fit in or maintain grace under pressure, something many of us can relate to very much. By contrast, our pensionnaire is always the one who's right, and those around her are merely ridiculous or embarrassing, and quite inferior. I don't relate to that at all. 

Far from making me feel cozy and comforted, this book was entirely bad for my blood pressure. Which just goes to reinforce yet again what a delicate balance this sort of writing must maintain, and what a genius Delafield herself was. 

Some of Hare/Girling's other novels sound almost as irresistible as this one sounded in reviews. It looks like I also have If This Be Error (1934) on my shelves, as well as Polonaise (1940), which I attempted once years ago and got side-tracked from (I don't recall actively disliking it, just happened to put it aside). So perhaps I'll see if either of those work for me. But I can't say that Diary of a Pensionnaire has inspired in me any particular eagerness to be inside this author's head again...

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Well worth a migraine or two: MOLLY CLAVERING, Touch Not the Nettle (1939)

You might recall (well, I kind of hope you recall) that a few weeks ago I announced the nine new Furrowed Middlebrow titles coming from Dean Street Press in June. I’ve reviewed most of the new titles elsewhere, but it’s those I’ve never got round to that haunt me.

In particular, having had the astonishing good fortune of finding a copy of Molly Clavering’s Susan Settles Down on eBay, I have to try to convey the excitement not only of getting, not too many months later, to read Clavering’s other three delightful Scottish comedies from the 1930s--Love Comes Home, Yoked with a Lamb, and Touch Not the Nettle--but also realizing (and letting out a giddy shriek that sent Andy through the roof, no doubt) that the last was a sequel to Susan.

To set the scene a bit, I’ve had a lot of excuses over the years for not getting round to writing about books, but these three did pose their own unique challenges. Without going into detail about the circumstances, and never mind how much indebted I am to the diligent soul who undertook this task, these books actually came to me photographed--meticulously, patiently, heroically, self-sacrificingly snapped, page-by-page, in some sacrosanct library which shall remain nameless (I didn’t ask which one, but the options are very limited), probably in violation of library policies (though I’m not entirely sure why that should be). These photos were carefully quality-checked and then compiled into three staggeringly large PDFs, which I was able, with some difficulty, to read on my Kindle.

Because the photos were presumably taken with at least a certain amount of surreptitiousness, they were shot at an angle, close to the desk they were resting on, meaning the top lines of each page were rather small and the bottom lines were large. But they were all readable, which was the only thing that really mattered, and what’s an occasional migraine in exchange for getting to read a Molly Clavering novel I never thought I’d so much as glimpse? They’re all terrific, but of course the high point was when I first opened Touch Not the Nettle and discovered familiar characters that I could hang around with for another 250 pages!

The most frustrating part of the reading process, actually, was that I’d be completely engrossed and wanting the book to go on forever, but my eyes would reach an absolute saturation point having read about 50 pages this way on any given day, so I would have to stop in media res, yearning for more. Other books, however good, paled by comparison.

Perfectly readable (at first)

Of course none of this is really a good excuse for not making decent notes as I read and being able to write proper reviews, but I’m afraid my enthusiasm for reading the books got away from my blogging instincts. However, I have just unearthed, as I’ve been sorting through the debris of the past few months and trying to get on top of things again, two quotations from Touch Not the Nettle that I had made notes of. Hopefully they’ll give a hint of what my undoubtedly brilliant full-scale review would have contained…

First off, Susan and her friend Peggy are discussing how difficult it is to get good help these days:

“Well, never mind her, Susan dear. There’s no need to worry about superior parlourmaids here,” said Peggy. “I’ve got a new house-tablemaid, like a young cart-horse, and about as destructive. She only came five days ago, and she’s broken something every day. And yesterday I told her she was to wait at lunch, and what do you think she did? Shut the dining room door, pulled out a chair, and sat down on it—to wait! Of course, Oliver began to laugh, and I had to tell her just to go away. She has done one good thing, though, and that was to smash the awful vase that the Miss Pringles gave Oliver and me for a wedding present. She managed that the day before yesterday.”

“Never!” exclaimed Susan. “Not that funerary urn painted with mud-coloured roses and magenta leaves?”


Peggy nodded solemnly, her blue eyes dancing. “It was in about seven pieces, so Oliver took them out to the tool-shed and pounded them to dust with a hammer.”

I still laugh when I read that. Subtle psychological humor it ain’t, but how often have I possessed items I would have liked to finish off with a hammer!

Next, if for no other reason I wish Clavering had written a whole series of novels about Susan so that we could have had more memorable visits from the ludicrous but intimidating Miss Pringles:

“Susan! The Miss Pringles!” she hissed, snatching the baby from his perambulator and flying with him into the house as if bloodhounds were at her heels.

The passionate desire for escape at any cost to which Peggy had so spontaneously yielded was a sensation all too frequently felt by acquaintances of the three Miss Pringles on seeing those notable women bearing down upon them. The Miss Pringles never merely arrived or came—their action was that of a small fleet of pirate vessels swooping on some rich prize and cutting it out from its attendant convoy.

Oh dear. One really wants a film adaptation to get a full visual.

But I’ll leave you with a quote from nearly the beginning of the novel, which reminded me that Susan was my kind of character:

“Old age really must be creeping upon me at last,” said Susan. “I find more and more that what I most enjoy is a quiet evening at home by the fire, with a book…"

Naturally, her quiet evening is almost immediately disrupted--by a visit from young Amanda, a relative whose ace pilot husband is missing (and none too sorely missed), complications with the embittered Larry Heriot and his spiteful sister Ruth, difficulties with the aforementioned, formidable Misses Pringle, and much more. Of course, it all works out in the end, but not before some distressing confusion, grave misunderstandings, and rollicking adventures. And in these early novels even more than the later ones, Molly Clavering offers vivid descriptions of scenery and local color throughout.

I’ve really grown quite infatuated with dear Molly, and I can’t wait for folks to get a chance to read more of her come June.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Credit where credit is due: DIANA SOUHAMI, No Modernism without Lesbians (2020)

I had to write about this book here because it might have been written with me in mind, and if the assertion of its title at first seems like hyperbole, by the last page you'll likely feel that, if anything, it's an understatement.

My interest in modernism goes back to my first discovery of literature and what it can do. My love for Gertrude Stein knows no bounds. And I have a particular interest in women writers and other creatives who haven't gotten the attention they deserve. Of the four women Diana Souhami spotlights here, one is an author included on my British & Irish Women Writers of Fiction list, one is the founder of the most famous bookstore of the period and the first publisher of James Joyce's Ulysses, one was an American who inspired lesbian artists (and others) worldwide, and one, well, one is Gertrude Stein, always named as one of the most important writers of the period even by people who can't bear to read her.

As soon as I came across No Modernism without Lesbians while browsing Book Depository around the New Year, I ordered it, and it turns out I'm far timelier than I usually am in writing this post, as the American edition is due on May 1. Diana Souhami has made a brilliant career out of documenting the most famous and influential lesbian artists of the 20th century, including writers Radclyffe Hall and Gertrude Stein, painters Hannah Gluckstein and Romaine Brooks, and great-grandmother of Camilla Parker-Bowles, Alice Keppel, and her daughter Violet Trefusis, novelist and lover of Vita Sackville-West. Her latest book clearly stems from the boundless research she has done on lesbian life, art, and culture in the first half of the century, and she seems to know everything about everyone who mattered during this period.

The first section of the book, about Sylvia Beach, was perhaps the most packed with new information for me. It's hard to believe what Beach—who had moved to Paris from the U.S. and opened the famous Shakespeare & Company bookstore across the street from her partner Adrienne Monnier's French-language bookshop—was willing to sacrifice of herself and her resources (and occasionally her friends' resources) in order to usher into print the greatest novel of the 20th century (according to the Modern Library), or at least the most famous and influential, and perhaps the most talked about and judged by people who haven't read it.

I confess that, having read Ulysses twice back in my foolish youth (undoubtedly without understanding most of it), I had rather expected never to tackle it again. But reading of Beach's passion for the book, her selfless aid to Joyce and his family (scarcely acknowledged and never repaid), and her unfailing belief that it was the crucial literary work of its time, so inspired me that I purchased a new copy of Ulysses—the extensively annotated Oxford World's Library edition, no less, weighing in at a bit over 1,000 pages.

I thought it would be interesting to see how I would experience it now, a hundred years later. It's still on my TBR shelves at the moment, but even just sitting there, and even despite the fact that it must seem distinctly old hat for today's literature students, it still somehow has the power to make me feel a bit edgy and avant-garde. It brings to mind how modern fiction helped me to break out of oppressive small town life (not coincidentally, modernists often wrote about doing just that) and out of a soul-destroying family life (ditto many moderns), and how reading Woolf and Joyce and Hemingway and Proust gave me a much-needed boost to find my own way. I actually recall carrying Ulysses with me to a public swimming pool in Washington DC, aged 25 or 26, presumably imagining that folks around me would be impressed, when of course most of them had surely either never heard of the book or had read it and merely thought it odd reading for poolside. Lord, what a little idiot I was, but also, how amazing the power of literature to change our lives and help us on our way. Flailing my way through Ulysses was part of what made me who I am today (however unlikely that might seem).

Also of particular interest was the section about Bryher, a fascinating figure whose excellent Blitz novel, Beowulf, I've mentioned here multiple times. Souhami mentions Beowulf only once, suggesting that Bryher was already at work on it during the Blitz itself, though it was not published until 1956. (I should note that Beowulf has now been reprinted in paperback and e-book—had that new edition not already been in process, it was high on my wish list for our WWII batch of books a couple of years back.)

But Bryher was much more than a novelist. Apart from her writing, her claims to fame include being the partner of American poet and novelist H.D. (Hilda Dolittle); helping Robert McAlmon finance the Contact Press in Paris (first publisher of an extraordinary array of young modernists—including Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and William Carlos Williams); supporting James Joyce and his family before Joyce became world famous (what would Joyce have done without lesbian sugarmamas??); starting the experimental film company POOL; and lending financial support to Freud and the early psychoanalytic movement in Austria. This not to mention helping Jewish refugees escape from Germany in the years before WWII. I knew about many of Bryher's accomplishments already, but, supplemented by Souhami's revelations, I am in greater awe of her than ever.

Some of the interactions in No Modernism without Lesbians, and the accomplishments, will be familiar to even the most casual fans of modern art or fiction, but there are hundreds of little tidbits that I didn't know—connections I had never made, realizations that two things always encountered separately were happening simultaneously and shared much of the same energy. And in addition to Beach, Bryher, Stein, and Natalie Barney, the four women highlighted, there are cameo appearances by the likes of James Joyce (obviously), Djuna Barnes, Romaine Brooks, Dolly Wilde, Truman Capote, Marlene Dietrich, Janet Flanner, Greta Garbo, Radclyffe Hall, Winnaretta Singer, and Violet Trefusis, among others.

NMWL will make fascinating reading for anyone who enjoyed Square Haunting, The Love-Charm of Bombs, or other similar evocations of creative folk sharing the same swirl of cultural upheaval, and influencing, inspiring, and even repulsing one another in the process.

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