20 Books of Summer, #5–8: Anderson, Cusk, Fitch & L’Engle
I’ve been reading a feminist memoir set on Cape Cod, a subtle novel about the inner life and outward experiences of a writer, a soapy literary thriller about a troubled mother and teen daughter, and a slightly melancholy reminiscence of an aged mother succumbing to dementia.
A Walk on the Beach: Tales of Wisdom from an Unconventional Woman by Joan Anderson (2004)
This is the third volume in a loose autobiographical trilogy about Anderson’s experiment with taking a break from her marriage and living alone in a Cape Cod cottage to figure out what she really wanted from the rest of her life. Specifically, this book is about the inspirational relationship she formed with Joan Erikson, who moved to the area in her eighties when her husband, the famous psychologist Erik Erikson, was admitted to a care home. Joanie was a thinker and author in her own right, publishing books on life’s stages, especially those of older age. She encouraged Anderson to have the confidence to write her own story, and to take up challenges like a trip to Peru and learning to weave on a loom. Joanie’s aphoristic advice is valuable, but there’s a fair bit of overlap between this book and A Year by the Sea, which I would recommend over this.
Some of Joan Erikson’s words of wisdom:
“Doing something with your hands, rather than your head, is often the best route to clarity.”
“wisdom comes from life’s experiences well digested. Stop relying so much on your mind and get in touch with experience.”
“The struggle is to try and obtain a sense of participation in your life the whole way through. We must treasure old age, but not wallow in nostalgia.”
Transit by Rachel Cusk (2016)
I finally made it through a Rachel Cusk book! (This was my third attempt; I made it just a few pages into Aftermath and 60 pages through Outline.) I suspected this would make a good plane read, and thankfully I was right. Each chapter is a perfectly formed short story, a snapshot of one aspect of Faye’s life and the relationships that have shaped her: a former lover she bumps into in London, a builder who tells her the flat she’s bought is a lost cause, the awful downstairs neighbors who hate her with a passion, the fellow writers (based on Edmund White and Karl Ove Knausgaard?) at a literary festival event who hog most of the time, the jolly Eastern European construction workers who undertake her renovations, a childless friend who works in fashion design, and a country cousin who’s struggling with his new blended family.
Like in Outline, the novel is based largely on the conversations Faye overhears or participates in (“I had found out more, I said, by listening than I had ever thought possible”), but I sensed more of her personality this time, and could relate to her questioning: Why do her neighbors hate her so? How much of her life is fated, and how much has she chosen? I doubt I’ll read another book by Cusk, but I ended up surprisingly grateful to have gotten hold of this one as a free proof copy of the new paperback edition from the Faber Spring Party.
Some favorite lines:
“we examine least what has formed us the most, and instead find ourselves driven blindly to re-enact it.”
“Without children or partner, without meaningful family or a home, a day can last an eternity: a life without those things is a life without a story, a life in which there is nothing – no narrative flights, no plot developments, no immersive human dramas – to alleviate the cruelly meticulous passing of time.”
White Oleander by Janet Fitch (1999)
Man, that Oprah knows how to pick ’em! This was a terrific read; I’m not sure why I’d never gotten to it before. I read huge chunks during my travel to the States and then slowed down quite a bit, which was a shame because it meant I felt less connected to Astrid’s later struggles in the foster care system. It’s an atmospheric novel full of oppressive Los Angeles heat and a classic noir flavor that shades into gritty realism as it goes on, taking us from when Astrid is 12 to when she’s a young woman out in the world on her own.
Astrid’s mother Ingrid, an elitist poet, becomes obsessed with a lover who spurned her and goes to jail for his murder. Bouncing between foster homes and children’s institutions, Astrid is plunged into a world of sex, drugs, violence and short-lived piety. “Like a limpet I attached to anything, anyone who showed me the least attention,” she writes. Her role models change over the years, but always in the background is the icy influence of her mother, through letters and visits.
Fitch’s writing is sumptuous, as in a house “the color of a tropical lagoon on a postcard thirty years out of date, a Gauguin syphilitic nightmare.” I might have liked a tiny bit more of Ingrid in the book, but I can still recommend this one wholeheartedly as summer reading.
Some favorite lines:
The knock-out opening two lines: “The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blossoms, their dagger green leaves.”
“I couldn’t imagine my mother in prison. She didn’t smoke or chew on toothpicks. She didn’t say ‘bitch’ or ‘fuck.’ She spoke four languages, quoted T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, drank Lapsang souchong out of a porcelain cup. She had never been inside a McDonald’s. She had lived in Paris and Amsterdam. Freiburg and Martinique. How could she be in prison?”
The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle (1974)
L’Engle is better known for children’s books, but wrote tons for adults, too. In this second volume of The Crosswicks Journal, she recounts her family history as a way of remembering on behalf of her mother, who at age 90 was slipping into dementia in her final summer. “I talked awhile, earlier this summer, about wanting my mother to have a dignified death. But there is nothing dignified about incontinence and senility.” L’Engle found herself in the unwanted position of being like her mother’s mother, and had to accept that she had no control over the situation. “This summer is practice in dying for me as well as for my mother.”
One of the reasons L’Engle was driven to write science fiction was because she couldn’t reconcile the idea of permanent human extinction with her Christian faith, but nor could she honestly affirm every word of the Creed. Hers is a more broad-minded, mystical spirituality that really appeals to me. (Her early life reminds me of May Sarton’s, as recounted in I Knew a Phoenix: both were born right around World War I, raised partially in Europe and sent to boarding school; a frequent theme in their nonfiction is the regenerative power of solitude and of the writing process itself.)
Some favorite lines:
“I said [in a lecture] that the artist’s response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, not to impose restrictive rules but to rejoice in pattern and meaning, for there is something in all artists which rejects coincidence and accident. And I went on to say that we must meet the precariousness of the universe without self-pity, and with dignity and courage.”
“Our lives are given a certain dignity by their very evanescence. If there were never to be an end to my quiet moments at the brook, if I could sit on the rock forever, I would not treasure these minutes so much. If our associations with the people we love were to have no termination, we would not value them as much as we do.”
Classic of the Month: The Moon and Sixpence
This was indeed the perfect follow-up to Fabrizio Dori’s Gauguin, the SelfMadeHero graphic novel I reviewed earlier in the month. W. Somerset Maugham’s short novel functioned like a prequel for me because, whereas Dori focuses on Gauguin’s later life in the South Pacific, Maugham concentrates on his character Charles Strickland’s attempt to make a living as a painter in Paris.
The Moon and Sixpence – the unusual title comes from the TLS reviewer’s description of the protagonist in Of Human Bondage as so absorbed in reaching for the moon that he doesn’t notice the sixpence at his feet – is narrated by an unnamed author drawn into Strickland’s orbit through his wife Amy Strickland’s attendance at London literary soirées. He hasn’t gotten to know the couple very well at all when he hears that Charles, a stockbroker, has abandoned his family and left for Paris to pursue painting – a hobby for which he’s never previously shown any aptitude.
Amy sends the narrator off to Paris to talk sense into her husband, but Charles never shows the least remorse. The narrator marvels at his insouciance and utter conviction that he is meant to be an artist.
He was single-hearted in his aim, and to pursue it he was willing to sacrifice not only himself – many can do that – but others. He had a vision. Strickland was an odious man, but I still think he was a great one.
I noted familiar themes from Of Human Bondage (published in 1915, four years prior to The Moon and Sixpence), especially the artist’s struggle, nomadism and the threat of poverty. Dirk Stroeve, the talentless Dutch painter who becomes friendly with the narrator in Paris and recognizes Strickland’s brilliance even as he lets the man walk all over him, reminded me of the happy-go-lucky Thorpe Athelny in Bondage.
At less than a third of the length of that earlier novel, though, The Moon and Sixpence struck me as a condensed parable about genius and sacrifice.
Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul. … It was the work of a man who had delved into the hidden depths of nature and had discovered secrets. … There was something primeval there and terrible. It was not human. It brought to … mind vague recollections of black magic. It was beautiful and obscene.
This is a fascinating character study, whether or not you’re aware of Gauguin’s life as the inspiration, and would be a great introduction to Maugham’s work if you’ve not read him before. (Secondhand copy from Bookbarn International.)
Gauguin Gets the Graphic Novel Treatment
Fabrizio Dori’s Gauguin: The Other World is the third graphic novel I’ve reviewed from SelfMadeHero’s “Art Masters” series, after Munch and Vincent. Like those previous volumes, it delivers salient snippets of biography alongside drawings that cleverly echo the subject’s artistic style. Here the focus is on the last 12 years of Paul Gauguin’s life (1848–1903), which were largely spent in the South Pacific.
The book opens with a macro, cosmic view – the myth of the origin of Tahiti and a prophecy of fully clothed, soulless men arriving in a great canoe – before zeroing in on Gauguin’s arrival in June 1891. Although he returned to Europe in 1893–5, Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands would be his final homes. This is all covered in a whirlwind Chapter 1 that ends by, Christmas Carol-like, introducing a Spirit (as pictured in his 1892 painting Manaó Tupapaù (Spirit of the Dead Watching)) who will lead Gauguin – in a morphine haze on his deathbed in 1903 – and readers on a tour through his past.
Gauguin grew up in Peru and Paris, and at age 17 joined the crew of a merchant marine vessel to South America and the West Indies. Back in Paris, he tried to make a living as a stockbroker and salesman while developing as a self-taught artist. He married Mette, a Danish woman, but left her and their children behind in Copenhagen when he departed for Tahiti. The paintings he sent back were unprofitable, and she soon came to curse his career choice.
The locals called Gauguin “the man who makes men” for his skill in portraiture, but also “the woman man” because he wore his hair long. He moved from Papeete, Tahiti’s European-style colonial town, to a cabin in the woods to become more like a savage, and also explored the ghost-haunted island interior. Teura came to live with him as his muse and his lover.
The book is full of wonderful colors and spooky imagery. The palette shifts to suit the mood: dusky blue and purple for the nighttime visit of the Spirit, contrasting with lush greens, pinks and orange for other island scenes and simple ocher and black for the sequences where Gauguin is justifying his decisions. The black-robed, hollow-faced Spirit reminded me of similar figures imagined by Ingmar Bergman and Hayao Miyazaki – could these film directors have been inspired by Gauguin’s Polynesian emissary of death?
Overall this struck me as a very original and atmospheric way of delivering a life story. Although the font is a little bit difficult to read and I ultimately preferred the art to the narration, they still combine to build a portrait of a brazen genius who shunned conventional duties to pursue his art and cultivate the primitive tradition in new ways. Gauguin ends with a short sequence set in Paris in 1907, as Pablo Picasso, fired up by a Gauguin retrospective show, declares, “We must break with formal beauty. We must be savages.”
I appreciated this brief peek into the future, as well as the five-page appendix of critical and biographical information on Gauguin contributed by art critic Céline Delavaux. What I said about Vincent holds true here too: I’d recommend this to anyone with an interest in the lives of artists, whether you think you’re a fan of graphic novels or not. It will be particularly intriguing to see how Dori’s vision of Gauguin compares to that in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, which I plan to start soon.
With thanks to Paul Smith of SelfMadeHero – celebrating its 10th anniversary this year – for the review copy. Translated from the French by Edward Gauvin.
Failing at Classics of the Month
I’ve attempted two Dickens novels in the last five years, and left both unfinished. I at least got about 200 pages into Dombey and Son in 2012 before I gave up, but my recent attempts to get past the first couple of chapters in Our Mutual Friend have been utterly unsuccessful. I finally gave myself permission to set it aside at page 41 – and I didn’t even read all of that; I’d started skimming in a last-ditch attempt to get myself hooked by the story. Have I lost my Dickens mojo? Do I not have sufficient patience to read Victorian triple-deckers anymore? I truly hope this is just a phase and I’ll be able to get back into Dickens someday. I certainly intend to read his whole oeuvre eventually, even the obscure ones.
So I don’t have a classic for April, nor a true doorstopper (I’ve classified David France’s How to Survive a Plague as such – a bit of a cheat since I only skimmed it). Instead what I have to offer are a modern classic and a graphic adaptation of another Dickens novel.
On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin, which I mostly read during our trip to Hay-on-Wye earlier in the month, is worthy of being called a modern classic. It has echoes of D.H. Lawrence and especially Thomas Hardy, and it’s a pleasantly offbeat look at the developments of the twentieth century as seen through the lives of Welsh identical twins Benjamin and Lewis Jones. Opening in the 1980s, when the brothers are eccentric old gents sleeping side by side in their late parents’ bed, the book then retreats to the beginning: at the turn of the last century ornery Amos Jones fell for an educated rector’s daughter and their volatile relationship played out at The Vision farm. One son was caught up in the First World War, one had love affairs; neither “ever strayed further than Hereford.” Through sickness, community scandal, and the rise and fall of fortunes, they remain wedded to Welsh village life.
I especially loved Chatwin’s descriptions of the natural world (he’d visited Radnorshire as a boy and considered it a kind of spiritual home), and the glimpses he gives into the twins’ preternatural closeness:
Lewis and Benjamin gambolled ahead, put up grouse, played finger-football with rabbit-droppings, peered over the precipice onto the backs of kestrels and ravens and, every now and then, crept off into the bracken, and hid. They liked to pretend they were lost in a forest, like the Twins in Grimms’ fairy-tale, and that each stalk of bracken was the trunk of a forest tree. … They lay on their backs and gazed on the clouds that crossed the fretted patches of sky … they would press their foreheads together, each twin losing himself in the other’s grey eye.
(Clearance book from Blackwell’s in Oxford. )
The David Copperfield graphic novel by Jacqueline Morley (illustrated by Penko Gelev) is part of the Graffex series of graphic novel literary retellings issued by Salariya Book Company. It’s remarkably faithful to Dickens’s original, with just a bit of condensing in terms of the plot and a few secondary characters cut out or greatly reduced in importance. Although this is no substitute for reading David Copperfield itself (my favorite book), I could see it being useful for high school or college students who need a quick recap of what happens when preparing for a quiz or essay. The three main young females are amusingly similar and idealized, but all the other characters’ looks are true to the novel’s descriptions (and previous adaptations). The end matter – a brief biography of Dickens, commentary on the novel, a timeline of stage and screen versions – is particularly helpful, though in the chronology of Dickens’s works they forgot Dombey and Son!
(Remainder copy from Addyman Books in Hay-on-Wye. )
Next month: I’ve pulled out a couple of short (~210 pages each) classics from the shelf. I recently read a graphic novel about Gauguin that I’ll be reviewing on Monday, so I fancy following it up with W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, which is said to be based on Gauguin’s life. It’ll be only my second Maugham after Of Human Bondage, which I loved in 2015. Anna of the Five Towns will be my first taste of Arnold Bennett’s fiction (though I’ve read his Literary Taste).