Saturday, January 22, 2011

Making Conversation by Christine Longford

The beautiful endpapers
 from Making Conversation

I'm slowly but surely making my way through the Persephone books list.  I recently received four new Persephones as belated Christmas gifts -- even though they arrived in January, I can still count them towards part of the TBR dare, since they're technically Christmas gifts. (I will make exceptions due to the slow arrival of the mail because of weather and holidays.)

Anyhoo.  I put Making Conversation (1931) on my Christmas wish list back in December, and now I can't remember why.  The description in the Persphone catalog says it's a comic novel, in the vein of Cold Comfort Farm.  Well, I don't know if it's because I'm not British, or because I'm not educated enough, but I just did not get this novel.  It's about a young woman's education just after WWI, and about conversations in general (which you might have gathered from the title).  The book is full of Martha's conversations.  In fact, the whole book is mostly conversations, and not much action.

The novel begins in the 1910s, when Martha Freke is a young teen.  She's being raised by her single mother, since her father, a former military officer, has done a runner.  Her mother has been forced to take in lodgers (it is NOT a boarding house!) who are mostly students, so Martha gets an unconventional education from the interesting people who seem to drift through her life.  It certainly seems better than the school in which she's enrolled which sounds just horrible.  She's forever putting her foot in her mouth and there are lots of misunderstandings, one of which ends up getting her kicked out of school. Nevertheless, Martha is bright enough to get a scholarship to Oxford, where she has lots of other conversations, mostly with female students since they appear to be quite segregated from the men.

I suppose this is supposed to be satirical in some way, but I just didn't get it.  I know that Cold Comfort Farm was poking fun at the pastoral novels of the era, and I really enjoyed it, even though I didn't get all the references.  I also loved Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (and if you've read Brideshead Revisited, this is nothing like it.  Brideshead has its great moments, but Decline and Fall is just a hoot).  Maybe the humor in this is too subtle for me, or too specific, or maybe I would have gotten much more out of it if I'd read classics or history at an elite British university (for the record, I majored in journalism and history at a well-respected university in the Midwest, so I'm not a complete moron).   I was hoping the introduction would give more insight, but it's mostly biographical information about the author.

Anyhow, I'm not saying this is a bad novel.  I just didn't really connect with Martha or her friends, most of whom I couldn't keep straight, and I didn't find her story particularly interesting or compelling.  It was an easy read, but I wasn't at all excited about it the way I have been with most Persephones.  I'm mostly just disappointed because I've really liked most of them so far. If anyone has read this novel and can help explain it to me, please do.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

This extraordinary novel was published in 1930 and has fully established Jean Rhys as one of my favorite authors.
After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie follows Julia Martin, a thirtyish woman who has shunned polite society to live off the generosity of various men and who’s main occupations are sleeping and wandering the streets. When the novel begins she’s living in Paris on an allowance from her former lover Mr. Mackenzie. When he decides to cut her off she returns on a whim to London where she reconnects (unsuccessfully) with her mother and sister. We then follow her ten-day tour of disaster before she leaves London to return to Paris.
Similar in theme to Good Morning, Midnight, which I read last month, this novel is, in my opinion, better. Unlike Midnight, we occasionally see the story from the other characters’ viewpoints so we’re not stuck in Julia’s sick head the whole novel. Also, this novel is funnier and has a lightness that Midnight is lacking and could have used. The following passage is typical of Rhys’ humor:
“The landlady was a thin, fair woman with red eyelids. She had a low, whispering voice and a hesitating manner, so that you thought: ‘She can’t possibly be a Frenchwoman.’ Not that you lost yourself in conjectures as to what she was because you didn’t care a damn anyway.”
I’m so impressed with Rhys’ writing and sad that her troubled personal life halted her creative abilities and that she didn’t write more novels. I’ll next read Voyage in the Dark and then her masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence

Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen are school teachers in the village of Beldover who begin relationships with Gerald Crich and Rupert Birkin, respectively. Women in Love recounts the ups and downs of their courtships, the desire and ambivalence and fear of beginning a new relationship.
I was struck by Lawrence’s stunning and quite brilliant descriptions. He is an expert scene setter, a genius at painting pictures of memorable and gorgeous vividness. The scenes I loved the best were the chapters focusing on nature – the water party and the various descriptions of the snow and ice in Austria.
This book is also has fiercely drawn characters, characters of extremes, characters with all their faults and weaknesses exposed. Lawrence risks readers hating these characters by truthfully portraying their ugliness and darkness. And I have to say I didn’t really like any of the characters as I strove to understand them and found myself arguing with them in my head.
The power struggles between men and women are dismayingly emphasized and left me with the feeling that Lawrence had little hope for the state of marriage or partnerships. The constant wavering and arguments over the meaning of love, the futility of committed relationships, the intense fear that leads to tedious pronouncements by the characters and cringe-worthy decisions is the major thread of the novel.
At first this quote by one of the characters described how I felt about the book:
“I really do not want to be forced into all this criticism and analysis of life. I really do want to see things in their entirety, with their beauty left to them, and their wholeness, their natural holiness.”
On reflection, however, I do believe Lawrence has much of importance to say on the subject of relationships and he brutally depicts the negativity of relations between the sexes in an honest way that I haven’t seen portrayed in quite this way.
In the end, Lawrence’s writing saves the day and will carry a reader through the tough spots (including his ridiculous descriptions of sex) and you’ll come out the other side not being able to forget this passionate book.

-Published in 1920