Sunday, June 30, 2019

a chance encounter: the stranger in my home

book cover
We'd spent the summer day at Lost Creek Winery in Virginia. We had stood under the trees and listened as the vineyard owners explained how they carefully tended and cultivated their crop throughout the seasons.  We had tasted their wines, paired with delicious courses, had met interesting people and enjoyed some lively conversation. But it wasn't until the bus ride home, that I made a truly memorable connection.

 Our host on this wine tour was GB. As we boarded the bus for our return home,  my husband Ben was telling him about my new poetry podcast and GB said I should talk to the man sitting on the bus seat directly in front of us.  "He has written a book."

His name was Manish Nandy. Ben graciously exchanged seats with him, and I found myself face to face with a distinguished Indian man a decade or so older than myself, dressed in a crisp cream shirt.  He had a gentle, intelligent and discerning expression. I felt immediately at home with him and interested in anything he had to say. 

My new friend Manish Nandy, taken during our first conversation

His book was called  The Stranger In My Home.  The stranger, he explained, was himself.  People think they know themselves, he told me, but actually we always surprise ourselves.  We have many chance encounters, and they have the capacity to bring out something new in us, something unexpected.

By way of example, he then recounted one of the stories from his book, which involved an exchange with a waiter and a meal he'd had on a boat which had been converted into a fish restaurant in Abu Dhabi.  It was a delightful story.  After hearing it,  I told him about my poetry podcast -which has many listeners in India.  In fact, I told him, the following week, I intended to record a selection from the great Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore, requested by one of my listeners. Our conversation moved on from Tagore to John Donne to poetry recitation in general, and before we knew it we'd arrived at our destination. 

Manish and I parted with joy and a sense of awe. We were thrilled to have made such a surprising connection with each other. I promised to send him the Tagore translation I planned to read.  We subsequently had a fascinating email exchange - culminating in his sending me his own translation of the Tagore selection, along with the original Bengali poem. I then shared this with my dear friend Ananya, also a Bengali speaker. Since a full explanation is a bit too complicated to go into, let me just add that when I got home, I immediately ordered Manish's book.  It arrived a few days later, and I was instantly captivated by its charm and poignancy.

One of the stories in his book which touched my heart is entitled "Somebody Waited."  It's about a man who, without explanation, left a woman he deeply loved.  He had a few other fleeting relationships later, but none with the resonance of this abandoned relationship.  Some years later, when he was on his way to Madrid, this man suddenly realized a painful truth. Nobody else had cared what he did or where he was. Certainly nobody had cared like this woman.  So on a whim, he decided to contact his long lost love.  He told her that since leaving her, his life had been a waste. He had accomplished nothing and made no real difference to anybody.  Hearing him out, she begged him to cut his travels short.  Visit her instead.  She begged him not to take his flight to Madrid.

 But the man was a fraud. After putting down the phone, he decided he would not visit her.  Instead, he shamefully allowed her to wait for him indefinitely. "It was enough for me that somebody was waiting for me," he said.  "I could go on and leave her in peace."

In another story, Manish writes about Auden and Yeats - "Do what Yeats did," he urges. "Sing of human unsuccess/ in a rapture of distress. Sing of your sorrow, write of your misery, but do it with verve and spirit, without shame and apology, know it to be a shared story of the human lot.  And let others join in."

I can hardly wait to see where our conversations about Rabindranath Tagore and my own shared stories of the human lot will go from here.  Manish Nandy's book The Stranger In My Home is full of sorrow and lost opportunity, but it's also full of joy, and because it is a shared story of the human lot it has enormous potential to accompany, comfort and enlighten all who read it.

Lost Creek Winery in Leesburg Virginia

Saturday, June 15, 2019

look how happy I'm making you - stories by polly rosenwaike

This afternoon at Politics and Prose bookstore I introduced a beautiful event for Elizabeth Geoghegan's collection of stories eightball - and Polly Rosenwaike's collection Look How Happy I'm Making You.  I have already blogged about Elizabeth's book -and about our friendship going back to my years in Rome, so I wanted to give a shout out for Polly's book too.

Hers is a moving and original collection of stories centered around questions of motherhood.  The stories are laid out pretty much chronologically, along the journey of becoming a mother - ending with stories about early motherhood. For me the most compelling stories deal with the question of when motherhood begins -and what kicks off the maternal instinct.  She explores a variety of early pregnancy experiences, especially the relationship potential mothers have to that time where, in her words, the fetus is "preoccupied with the big ontological stuff: to be or not to be; but at any moment could slip out in this world as clotted blood and fine tissue."

The quotation comes from what, in my view, is the most intimate and well crafted story of the collection "Period, Ellipsis, Full Stop." Here she juxtaposes a character's miscarriage with the editing work she is doing for a client who wants to debate every edit she makes in his work.  One of the flaws in his writing is that he keeps putting ellipses into his stories as a way of pointing towards a climactic moment he isn't capable of actually writing out.  His amateurish stories are written "as if you could set out to be something and get it right the first time, as if the whole of life wasn't about trying again."

I love what this says about the writing process - and also of course about the process of becoming a mother or a child.  I was particularly moved by the way her stories explore so thoroughly that uncertain space, both mentally and physically, in early pregnancy, pre-abortion, pre-miscarriage and conception as well as pre-motherhood and post motherhood.  When you think about it, it's a strange but very real place which almost all women experience one way or another, but I don't think it's ever been explored in quite this way.

Elizabeth and Polly busy signing books

Friday, June 7, 2019

dead men on holiday

On reading Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenpeck.

Refugees cross borders looking for safety in countries that don't want them. It's a critical issue on a global scale right now.  That's why Jenny Erpenbeck's Go, Went, Gone is such an important book.  It's a novel about refugees who have made their way from war torn countries on the African continent to Italy and then to Berlin,  where in the story, a German retiree named Richard finds himself caught up in their lives.  

When the Berlin Wall came down it was a miracle in the lives of all East Germans, including Richard himself, and it led to unexpected prosperity. And so, Richard reasons, "if this prosperity couldn't be attributed to their own personal merit then by the same token the refugees weren't to blame for their reduced circumstances." 

Later in the novel Richard wonders, "have people forgotten in Berlin of all places that a border isn't just measured by an opponent's stature but in fact creates him?"

The Africans who Richard finds himself involved with are, in the words of Eugen Levin-  like "dead men on holiday."  Yes they've made it from Africa into Europe without being killed in civil war or drowning on the way to Europe, but in a sense, it's just a matter of happenstance because "everyone of the African refugees simultaneously alive and dead."

Having found their way to Germany, they find they can't work or even (ultimately) remain in Germany since according to the rules they can only claim political asylum in the country where they first set foot.  Which is Italy.

 But because they can't find work in Italy, they come to Germany - and now they are shuttled from one refugee center to another, unable to work, unable to make headway, unable to connect to the society, but instead desperately mired in an endless convoluted bureaucracy.  "The more highly developed a society is," Erpenbeck observes, "the more its written laws come to replace common sense." 

Thus these men, who do have skills and education, but whose homes and lives have been destroyed, are stripped of their personhood.  They're reduced to nothing. At the outset of his involvement with these men, Richard prepares questions he'd like to ask them. He manages to talk with them (mostly in Italian).  But all the questions he wants to ask are actually beside the point, since the men are stuck in the terrible moments when their boat capsized and their children were drowned before their eyes. They exist in a holding pattern, traumatized by memories of murdered loved ones in their homelands, as well as others lost in their escape.

Some of them wish to cut away their memories.  But "a life in which an empty present is occupied by a memory that one cannot endure, in which the future refuses to show itself must be extremely taxing, Richard thinks, since this is a life without a shoreline, as it were."

While I was reading, I recalled the many African refugees of Rome, where I lived for four years.  You'd see them lining the bridges over the Tiber, spreading blankets which displayed knock off designer handbags for sale.  I remembered one conversation I had with an African trinket seller on the docks in Naples, when I was taking a ferry to Ischia.

He told me he had sometimes worked as a fisherman, but there was no work for him now.  He had no visa or papers and so he sold wooden key chains, beaded purses and beaded bracelets for a living. "But there are many rip off artists here," he told me in Italian. "Not a good place.  Keep your bag inside your coat," he advised me. "People will rob you all over."

I asked how much he made each day? "Some days ten," he said. "Other days twenty or five.  This is not easy." 

There was also a Rwandan refugee I befriended when we lived in Brussels for four years. He came door to door, selling a magazine about African wildlife.   We had many conversations on numerous occasions. He spoke French.  I learned all about his wife and family and how they  had escaped the genocide. He had seen it all.  But all I could do was chat on the doorstep now and again, and give him bags of clothing. 

I remembered too other refugees who have crossed my all too privileged path-  students I taught at NOVA. One came from Sierra Leone. I learned he had walked a thousand miles across the desert during the civil war and somehow made it to political asylum in the United States where he was studying,  in the hopes of becoming a nurse. He hoped to get his daughter out of Sierra Leone, because this was during the Ebola outbreak, but he didn't know how he was going to achieve this.

His name was Moses and he came to class early every day and sat in the front row.  His work was always meticulous and thoughtful.  Then one day he asked me to explain how he could attach a document to an email.  I learned he had only known how to use a computer for two years.   

But he made it through somehow.  He got his nursing credential.  But not without tremendous struggle.  At one stage in the middle of his studies he had tuberculosis of the spine which could have paralyzed him had it not been discovered and treated.  I visited him in hospital. Things looked pretty dire but somehow I managed to contact some of his family members in Florida and help arrange for him to get transferred out of Northern Virginia.  We may try to help people - but somehow the help we offer is never quite enough.

One of the things illuminated in Jenny Erpenpeck's novel is the impossibility of true communication. 
 "To understand what a person means or says," she writes, "it's basically necessary to already know what that person means or is saying.  So is every successful dialogue just an act of recognition? And is understanding not a path, but a condition?"

Later she writes, "In just the same way as the listener always understands more than just words, the act of listening always contains the questions: what should you understand ? What do you want to understand? What will you never understand but want to have confirmed?" 

It's impossibly difficult  for the men in Go, Went, Gone to learn the German language, because they don't know what's going to happen to them next or what it is ultimately for. There are too many ghosts in the room -  there are ghosts all around.  As for our protagonist Richard there are the ghosts of the Holocaust.  And he wonders what questions would lead him to the land of beautiful answers.

Maybe such a land does not exist.  In the end, this novel raises more question than it answers.  Nevertheless, the questions are important to consider.  What is to become of these people? What can be done for the traumatized and lost, those who have lost everything, including their sense of being human.

The meals Richard used to have by himself were comprised of two slices of bread - one topped with cheese, the other with ham.  In the end of the novel, he gives up his knife and fork and private dish and stands at the kitchen counter and scoops up the food together, from the communal pot of African stew and couscous, with all the other Africans in his household.  The richness of this life, and the way in the end these men have opened him up to his own memories, personal failings and heartaches demonstrates the value of embracing a wider community.  But even such  beautiful connections as these are stopgaps on an impossible journey. 

And yet the alternative to reaching across borders and making individual connections is too dreadful to contemplate.  One of the refugees, Osarobo. who Richard tries to help, ultimately rejects his kindness.  Although this is not spelled out, it looks as if he is complicit in a robbery of Richard's home.  Richard tries to contact him afterwards but Osarobo avoids him and disappears from his life. Perhaps Osarobo is too traumatized to be helped.  Even as Richard continues to reach out "he feels that the Osarobo he knows is now flying out into the universe, flying somewhere where there are no longer any rules, where you don't have to take anyone else into consideration but in return you are left forever, completely and irrevocably alone."

Friday, May 31, 2019

on reading julie orringer's flight portfolio

Julie Orringer with Katherine Noel - taken at last nights event

In the middle of Julie Orringer's ambitious new novel The Flight Portfolio one of the characters recounts a German proverb. "It goes like this. Who's most important, the farmer who feeds the cow, the cow who makes the milk, or the girl who milks the cow? None of them.  The most important is the boy who carries the milk to the market.  One wrong step and the work of all the others is lost in an instant."

The proverb demonstrates the crucial role that Varian Fry played during Nazi occupied France. Fry is the protagonist of this historical novel, and in 1940 he spearheaded a rescue operation to get imperiled artists and writers out of France.  It involved first verifying who the importance artists were; then obtaining passports and visas, be they forged or legitimate.  In some cases the artists had to be hidden before they found safe passage to the United States.  The work was done without much cooperation from the United States government, with the exception of some heroic efforts on the part of Hiram Bingham, a vice consul who against State Department guidelines issued hundreds of visas.

You can imagine too, the moral questions besetting such a program. With a limited number of visas on hand, who was deemed worth the opportunity of escape?  In fact, who was worthy of survival?  And what about the question of potential?  There are so many difficult questions.

The novel runs about 550 pages. When you have other reading projects and obligations (which I do) there has to be something great about a book of this complexity and scope that keeps you coming back.  I was immediately drawn into the narrative with the opening sequence where Varian Fry visits the Chagalls.  He must impress upon Chagall the crucial importance of leaving France.  His life is at stake.  But Chagall believes his reputation will protect him. The scene plunges you immediately into the difficulty of Fry's mission.

Over the next several hundred pages we meet many artists and writers of the time, including a lot of surrealists.  There are wonderful scenes where surrealist games are played - all based on fact.  They took up residence at a gorgeous Marseille villa called Air Bel - where they were able briefly to live a different life and escape the horrors of war.  We meet such people as  Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst, Andre Breton and Andre Gide.  Other important figures of the time, like Peggy Guggenheim and Eleanor Roosevelt also make appearances in the book.

But this is historical fiction, and as such it imagines fictional characters too.  Among those is Elliott Grant, an imagined Harvard classmate of Varian Fry who shows up in Marseille with a special request:  to enable the passage out of France of a brilliant young physicist who is the son of a very close friend.  The inclusion of this fictional character lets Orringer open up further provocative questions about race, sexual preference and artistic accomplishment.  How have they influenced our assessments of who and what is deemed worth opportunity and survival.  And yes, as well as being the story of Varian Fry’s courageous rescue operation, this novel is also a love story.

Some critics have taken issue with this.  Writing in the New York Times Cynthia Ostik questions what she refers to as "a knot of intertwined characters, who together come to dominate, even to override, and finally to invade the historical Fry."  But last night at Politics and Prose where I was honored to introduce Julie Orringer's book talk, she explained her reasoning.  After poring over twenty something boxes of memos, letters, memoir drafts and diaries in the Varian Fry archive for ten years, she made sure all historical facts were accurately portrayed.  But at the same time, there was absolutely no doubt in her mind, after reading between the lines, that Varian Fry was gay.  

By the way, the flight portfolio which gives the novel its title, was a portfolio of donated lithographs by artists of the day,  collected with the intention of exhibiting them in the United States, in order to gain support for the cause and demonstrate what was at risk.

This novel is long, there's no question about it. Cynthia Ostik called it "movie tone make-believe" And to be honest in the middle you do get the sense that one more revision would have made the book that much better.  Perhaps it was a revision too far for an author who had been immersed in the complexities of this story for a decade.  So yes, some of the dialog begins to read like a film script, with a lot of exposition, and not so much inner life. Some scenes beg for actors to breathe life and heart into them.

Having said this, the final chapters brought it all together again.  Oh, the love lost.  And the lost lives - lives forfeited for no better reason than that others were spared instead. Also, the dreadful sense that in spite of the countless heroic rescue efforts accomplished, there might always be more that didn't happen.  Underlying this, is Varian's personal heartache from which you sense he may never recover. For me, this made Fry's nobility, Fry's actual person more vivid, rather than less so.  Very personal emotional struggles certainly lie behind great heroic public deeds. 

By the way, during the q&a portion of last night's event one audience member stood up to say that as a girl in Connecticut she was a play mate of Varian Fry's daughter.  When he died suddenly at 59, and everyone read his obituary, they were astonished at the life this man had led during the war.

Some of the things Julie Orringer revealed in her talk last night added still new dimensions to this already complex tour de four of a book. A recording of the talk will be available on the Politics and Prose youtube channel in a few weeks time. I encourage you to listen - and of course to read this incredible book.

#julieorringer #flightportfolio #varianfry

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

man on the edge of a nervous breakdown - on reading Saul Bellow's Herzog

1st edition cover

Sometimes I begin to read book club selections like a recalcitrant student, plowing through dutifully, and without much enjoyment.  Why do I pick these books? If I hadn't been contracted to facilitate the book group discussion, I probably wouldn't finish some of these selections.

But perversely, that's why I pick them.  I pick them because something inside me knows that I can't just stick to what comes naturally, to what comforts and entertains.  I want to grow as a person and as a reader, so I must get out of my comfort zone.  Probably this is why lots of people participate in book clubs.  The added incentive of discussion at the end,  gets us through books we wouldn't read otherwise.

Nine times out of ten, I understand upon finishing such books - in this case, upon finishing Herzog, why it was important reading and why it's considered a masterpiece. My understanding of literature and of humankind has been broadened.  My capacity for empathy has enlarged,  as has my admiration for the author, and for what goes into writing something that will stand the test of time.

But when I started Herzog, I was thoroughly annoyed. Something about Saul Bellow has always annoyed me.  Maybe because he comes from a certain epoch where casual sexism and racism, a sense of white male entitlement and being at the top of your game is never for a moment questioned.  And although this novel was written in 1964, there's no nod to a contemporary sensibility about the culture. It is a man's world - an intellectual white man's world at that, and there's no inkling of any social or political unrest brewing, any shifting mores for women or people of color, nor any attempt to see things through their eyes.

This is underscored by the character of Moses Herzog (and Herzog is a roman a clef), recently divorced and in a fragile psychological state. He decides to write letters to all and sundry: ex wife,  dead family members, New York Times, childhood pals.  He's sorting through his life, airing grievances, ranting and looking for escape. He buys new clothes although he professes not to care about them, and takes up social invitations in the hopes of distracting himself. But since most of the action takes place inside his head - the letters pour forth as the ramblings and scrawlings of a disturbed but brilliant mind.

Here he is writing to the Times.  "Ours is a bourgeois civilization. I am not using this term in the Marxian sense. In the vocabularies of modern art and religion it is bourgeois to consider that the universe was made for our safe use and to give us comfort, ease, and support. Light travels at a quarter of a million miles per second so that we can see to comb our hair and to read in the paper that ham hocks are cheaper than yesterday. De Tocqueville considered the impulse towards well-being as one of the strongest impulses of a democratic society...." etc.   Do you get why it's annoying?

Yet Herzog is perfectly justified to himself. He's no cuckold and no fool. Nor is he mad; he has intellectual range and taste. He appreciates women as sexual objects, especially Ramona who is "lovely, fragrant, sexual, good to the touch. " He also has a finely tuned sense of the injustice of his own personal history.  Maybe because his intellectual faculties are so finely tuned, as is his sense of his position in the world, I did not at first recognize that he's holding on to sanity by a thread.  He pays great attention to his physical care - to bathing,  shaving and dressing rituals with a self-satisfied vanity, and as he muses about his ex wife Madeleine, his friend and betrayer Valentine Gersbach, his childhood friend Asphalter, or lover Ramona,  we experience his whole life.

It isn't until the final third of the novel that all the pieces pull together.  He goes to Chicago to visit his daughter June and after a car accident visits a house he owns in the Berkshires.  The full force of his breakdown comes crashing down and the writing reaches a glorious crescendo.  Finally the notion of  "a man at the top of his game" is questioned and collapses.

Entering the house- the money pit Herzog invested in for Madeleine and June's sakes, he finds it in  terrible disrepair.  He enters the bedroom where "He found the young owls in the large light fixture over the bed where he and Madeleine had known so much misery and hatred. (some delight as well.) On the mattress much nest litter had fallen - straws, wool threads, down, bits of flesh (mouse ends) and streaks of excrement.  Unwilling to disturb these flat faced little creatures, Herzog pulled the mattress of his marriage bed into June's room.  He opened more windows, and the sun and country air at once entered. He was surprised to feels such contentment.... contentment?  Whom was he kidding, this was joy!"

And what joy I experienced reading these final chapters. The writing is so good that it almost disappears - and you are fully inside the experience. With the last lines of the novel, tears came into my eyes.   No, I never liked Moses Herzog. I actively disliked him. Were I to encounter a man like this in real life, I'd have neither patience nor sympathy.   So it's pretty wonderful to have spent several hours in his company and to have allowed his state, his story, to affect me like this.  The best kind of reading can be like that sometimes.

#herzog #saulbellow 

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

reflections on teaching in Rome - and on reading eightball by elizabeth geoghegan

When I lived in Italy ten years ago, I taught writing at the American University of Rome.  It was a tiny college on the top of the Gianicolo, downhill from the American Academy and surrounded by umbrella pines. Across the road was a beautiful park and on the corner the Archi Bar where we always went for coffee in between classes.  My students were Americans and Europeans,  mostly Italians with American connections and Americans with Italian roots who wanted to reclaim their heritage whilst following an American curriculum.

What a beautiful place it was for me to land, as a writer and teacher and wife of an American diplomat.  We were posted in Rome for a four year tour, and had two sons in middle and high school, but I found at AUR  a place I could pursue my own professional life.   The campus with its graveled walks had small classrooms overlooked the city. I taught composition and literature there.  At one stage, I even taught business writing.  But what I taught didn't matter as much as my students mattered to me. I loved my students and all of us knew we were experiencing something amazing together, living here in Rome.

some of my students and me pretending to smoke chocolate finger biscuits.
Which brings me to Elizabeth Geoghegan,  treasured colleague and dear friend.  Like me, Elizabeth was a writer and dedicated teacher.  She was also a free spirit, living in Rome on her own terms.  When we first met, she looked at me a little skeptically standing there in a doorway at the college overlooking the courtyard. She was smoking and looking through me as I talked: who are you, she seemed to ask.

But yet we were a similar type.  In fact, people occasionally confused us with each other.  The provost frequently mistook me for Elizabeth.   Elizabeth, she'd say. No, I'd reply,  I'm Amanda.  Hmm.. Really?  As if I didn't know who I was.

I guess it was because we were both iconoclasts, writers and eccentrics.  As such, when we met together over  coffee, we found ourselves talking about what we both loved and connected on: books and writing, our students and the men in our lives, our struggles to get published and the difficulty of living as expats.

That was me and Elizabeth.  She was my literary touchstone for four years, while I was trying to get a book published, and she was trying to get her stories published.   Oh, my agent  in London was always sure my book was going to be a great big hit. Then she dropped that book like a hot potato and while I wrote another book, Elizabeth was there through it all.  I was also there for her, while she went through her own publication throes - submitting wonderful stories,  getting them rejected or just plain overlooked.  What we wanted to achieve in our writing seemed to be  at odds with the market,  even though we both had friends who had found themselves amongst the so called anointed.  Still, we lived on the fringes.

But oh, what fringes they were!

One semester, a colleague who was supposed to get tenure was shockingly denied it and then disappeared.  Suddenly Elizabeth and I were about the only writing teachers on campus to be trusted. So we decided to set up a Writing Center.   We took over the top floor of one of the buildings at AUR where there was a little terrace looking across Ancient Rome. In our tiny unheated office on the top of the Gianicolo I  remember saying, " Elizabeth - this is it!  We are actually doing it RIGHT NOW! It doesn't matter about our books or what we're being paid. Here we are actually DOING it, while no one is watching! LOOK WHERE WE ARE! We can shape the writing program at this college!

And we did.

A year or so later, both of us having been denied the opportunity of a full time job at AUR, we both moved on. I went back to the United States, taught at Northern Virginia Community College and ultimately ended up as a bookseller at Politics and Prose. One of my novels was published by an independent UK press.  Meanwhile Elizabeth stayed in Rome and her stories did the rounds, and then her extraordinary novella The Marco Chronicles was picked up by Shebooks  and published to great acclaim.

But what about her more literary stories?  They have now been published in this wonderful collection  eightball.  I have read these stories repeatedly. I read them ten years ago and I read them again this month, and still they resonate. They are lyrical, funny, heartbreaking and hip.  They are tragic even in their humor. In words she applies to her characters, they are "hipper than thou" and "caught between rancor and desolation."

Their settings span from Rome to Paris to South East Asia. On one level they are evocative beautifully written travelogues.  But really, it's Elizabeth's characters who breathe life into these places, even as they pass through.   Elizabeth's characters'  most heartfelt moments are often experienced alone, while their passionate connections with others, though intense, are short lived.  My favorite story of the collection is The Violet Hour - which I read in its earliest stages, and which affected me then as it affects me now, for its badass beauty,  its courage, its longing and ultimately its heartbreak.

Elizabeth Geoghegan has given us a memorable collection here.  These stories are Elizabeth  through and through,  and at her finest. The Marco Chronicles was fucking great.  Reading that book was like sitting with Elizabeth in a cafe and listening to her war stories, her wicked one liners  and intelligent take downs of men and the dating scene in Rome.  This collection goes deeper.  This is Elizabeth at her heartbreaking and lyrical best - full of insight into what it means to be a strong independent woman looking for connection and love in the world.  It will capture your heart.  It will make you laugh, it will make you cry and you will not forget it.

#elizabethgeogheganeightball  #eightballstories #greatshortstories #shortstoryrome

Saturday, April 20, 2019

on the death of the heart

Some novels in the reading feel more real than life itself. Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart is one such book, considered by many to be her best, although Bowen did not regard it as such.  Having just finished it,  I find it hard to backtrack through the many twists and turns, so thoroughly did I immerse myself in each stage of the narrative.  I lived in this book while I read it, and  only see its overarching narrative now, at the end. 

The story concerns sixteen year old Portia, who upon her mother's death goes to live with her half brother Thomas and his wife Anna in London. Portia has been accustomed to living in temporary rooms at various second rate hotels. Her father (Thomas's father) was cut off from his family home once he became involved with Portia's mother.  Portia is the only offspring of her father's second ill conceived marriage.  As Anna explains to a friend at the beginning of the novel, "At the end of the party Mr Quayne all in a daze already, saw her back in a taxi to Notting Hill Gate, and was asked in for some Horlicks.  No one knows what happened...." 

The genius in this novel is in its lightness of touch, humor and intelligence which extends through the character descriptions and insights into sixteen year old innocence. We initially see Portia through Anna's eyes. We see her untidy bedroom, and the unflattering diary Anna finds there, and reads.  But in a cunning structural devise, we don't return to Portia's diary again until the end.

The novel is divided into different parts - The World, The Flesh, The Devil -  and we gradually see the constructs of this world come apart from Portia's innocent perspective. The rules of engagement in 1930's London society seen through Portia's candid and innocent eyes, do not fare well.  No wonder Anna feels uncomfortable with Portia,  because without meaning to, Portia sees right through all the artifice. We see the Quaynes, their servants and friends in how they relate to Portia.  But Bowen also shows us Portia "enjoying what could be called a high time with Major Brutt.  It is heady," Bowen writes, "when you are so young that there is no talk yet of the convention of love - to be singled out; you feel you enjoy human status."

Then along comes Eddie, charming, impossible, and bad news.  He is kept in Anna's circle and given a job at Thomas's firm, because Anna is flattered by his attention. He reinforces her sense of her seductive power.  But we know immediately that Eddie is up to no good - even when Portia recalls the sweet things he says to her while sitting on a rug. "When you love someone all your saved up wishes start coming out," he says.  Eddie expands Portia's range, her sense of herself and female experience, but not without sustaining damage.

I read so much of this novel wistfully.  I also found myself laughing out loud.  For instance, there's  the relationship Portia has with her school friend Lillian - who also experiences pitfalls of attractive young womanhood. At one point Lillian finds herself in the company of an actor who makes the moves on her. He behaves "in an awful way"  subsequently disappears and then wont communicate with her.  And she, poor darling, worries that she must have hurt his feelings.

Lillian's story parallels Portia's relationship with Eddie.  When Eddie visits Portia at the seaside and they go to the cinema - something happens that allows her to see him for what he really is - "the sort of boy who plays you up."  But before that happens, Bowen describes Eddie so that we can see who he is, before Portia recognizes it.  "He sat with his shoulders forward, in some sort of close complicity with himself."

Even so,  you also feel for Eddie, who is clearly a lost cause. He's a loser although he's a charmer - one who cant follow through with anything, whether work or a relationship.  How heartbreaking it is when he tells Portia, "In that full sense you want me, I don't exist."  Also later, as he explains how he's got to live in the world: "You pin me down to everything," he says.

I loved the descriptions of the school in which Portia is placed - and the atmosphere of the classroom where they study. "Now and then a gurgle came from a hot pipe, the tissue of small sounds that they called silence filled the room to the dome."  Even the descriptions of the fog took me back - and as always the writing is full of humor.  "We were to have had a lecture on the appreciation of Mozart," Portia explains, "but because of the fog we had a debate on consistency being the hobgoblin of small minds."

But the most gorgeous chapters have got to be at the seaside when she stays with Anna's former governess Mrs Heccomb at her house called Waikiki. Meanwhile, Thomas and Anna are going on holiday in Calais and she imagines them taking the ferry: "By the time they landed in Calais, their lives would have become hypothetical."

Now she is free to explore a new life with Mrs Heccomb, her step children Daphne and Dickie and all their friends.  Their parties, their shopping expeditions, their liveliness, their class consciousness, was all delightful to read.  I felt I knew these people and I loved them.

These people, unlike the London people, allow Portia to be herself because they are also completely themselves - if not entirely candid.  Just get a load of this priceless excerpt from Portia's diary when  Mrs Heccomb wonders if she should have stepped in in some way, regarding Eddie.  It's nothing short of genius in conveying both characters without revealing anything overt.

"Mrs Heccomb said she did hope she hadn't said too much, she said she had a quite sleepless night. I said oh no, she hadn't because of Cecil. I said I hoped I had not done anything, she said oh no it was not that, only she did wonder. I said wonder what, and she said she did wonder what she ought to have done. I said done when and she said that was just it, she was not sure when she should have done it. She meant if she had done anything, she said she did hope I knew she was fond of me and I said I was so glad."

The Death of the Heart is one of those rare books that could stand up to an immediate second reading.  I hope to get round to reading it again - but meanwhile I've got so many on my list.  I can only encourage everyone else to read it, at least once.  I've already hand sold copies at the store, got my mother to re- read it, and am currently working on my daughter.

#deathoftheheart #elizabethbowen #booksaboutlostinnocence