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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