The latest edition of Shiny New Books is up – brilliant as ever – and guess what lucky Helen was asked to review? (There is a clue in this post.)
The latest edition of Shiny New Books is up – brilliant as ever – and guess what lucky Helen was asked to review? (There is a clue in this post.)
You can read about it in more detail at their blogs by clicking on the links above, but the essence of it is during the 19th to the 31st October you read and post about a book initially published – in any land, in any language – in 1924. If you don’t have a blog and would like to take part, you could post a review in the comments here (assuming that I manage to fulfil my promises, see below) or, I’m sure, on one of Karen’s or Simon’s posts.
If lots of people take part, and there’s a wide selection of books, we should get quite an interesting if partial snapshot of literature in 1924. Simon and Karen have both posted links to lists of books published in that year in their posts, and there are more ideas in the comments on their posts. In fact, it’s in the comments on Karen’s blog that I noticed that Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter is eligible (thank you Tom!). Now there’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for aeons! But 1924 was a great year for literature; also published were Billy Budd, A Passage to India, The Rector’s Daughter, The Constant Nymph, The Magic Mountain, and poetry collections by W.B. Yeats, Edith Sitwell, H.D., Pablo Neruda, William Faulkner and Marianne Moore. Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield surely competes with Seducers in Ecuador by Vita Sackville West for best title of the year. There’s also work by Agatha Christie, John Buchan, A.A. Milne, Winifred Holtby, Ford Madox Ford, Johan Fabricius, Joseph Roth and Arthur Schnitzler (And according to Wikipedia, on 15th January 1924 the first radio play was broadcast, Danger by Richard Hughes.)
As regular readers of a gallimaufry will know, I don’t have a great pedigree when it comes to readalongs or communal projects of this nature, but I am always hopeful and surely even I can manage this? Are you planning to join in, and if so, what will you read?
Yes, I too have a TBR, although it’s a bookcase rather than a pile. I am working my way through it. Some of it goes back decades...
(William Hogarth, The Graham Children, 1742; National Gallery, London)
Which is why I recently came to read Ingenious Pain and The Giant, O’Brien. Embarrassingly, I purchased them when they first came out in the late 1990s, and have been part of that merry band of TBR ever since. It can take a long time for a book to have its moment. I used to buy books just because it was so exciting to do so, because I had money in my pocket, because they looked interesting and maybe I might enjoy them... True, this approach has led to the TBR bookcase, but it also meant I read more widely in those days than I do in these more careful times when I try to pick only what I want to read right now and have done away with my youthful fancy of Building a Library (what, did I imagine I’d end up living in a castle? Does every home really need a complete set of the works of the Roman philosophers in order to be considered civilised?).
Both of these two novels, first published in 1997 and 1998 respectively, are set in the eighteenth century, both contrast Enlightenment science with the transcendent, both involve freaks and freak shows, medical experiments and dissections. Ingenious Pain, Andrew Miller’s first novel, is the story of James Dyer, who is born unable to feel pain. As a consequence of this – and it’s made clear it’s a consequence – he is also unable to feel compassion or experience pleasure. A lack of empathy for others turns out to be an advantage when practising medicine in an age without anaesthesia and when patients had a pretty high mortality rate, and Dyer trains as a surgeon. But while this lack steadies his hand with the knife and renders him an expert at his job, it makes him into something un-human, who regards his patients as little more than interesting problems clothed in meat for him to solve. For instance, on one occasion, when staying at an inn, he is propositioned by a maid:
‘Five shillings. In advance. Nothing fancy or unchristian.’
He looks at her. The neck of her dress is absurdly low. On her right breast the half-moon of a cicatrix peeps from her tucker.long
He touches it. ‘What was this?’
‘A hard bit, sir, that the surgeon cut out before Christmas.’
He presses her breast around the wound. The girl pulls his hand away. She looks rattled, as if his touch has disturbed an old nightmare.
‘In advance, I said.’
He has found two more lumps. She pushes him away and steps back into the passageway. In the grey rainlight of the passage she is already half ghost, and in a ghost’s voice she says, ‘Five shillings.’
James shakes his head. ‘I would not give sixpence for you. Have a fire made up.’
The novel takes the form of that eighteenth-century favourite, the picaresque, chronicling Dyer’s whole life and his career as a doctor, his service in the Navy, a dare that leads to a chase across Europe, a spell in Bedlam. It includes letters too, another favoured narrative trick of the time. But it begins with Dyer’s death, surprisingly young, and when he is living in quiet retirement on the charity of a vicar, mentally scarred and clearly no longer free from pain or compassion. What has changed him?
A problem for me with this novel was that it is stuffed full of ‘normal’ characters who do not seem overburdened by compassion for others either. His inability to feel physical pain apart, how different is Dyer really? Any distinction seems interior, and we only have glimpses of Dyer’s inner life via his speech. The question felt a little underexplored. However, Miller’s writing is terrific; I really noticed how it had texture to it after I’d been reading The Goldfinch, whose prose is smooth. (I don’t think these are proper lit. crit. terms.) I will definitely read more of his work.
(Charles Byrne in a 1784 etching by John Kay, alongside the Brothers Knipe and dwarves; National Portrait Gallery, London; found here)
The Giant, O’Brien also centres on a freak, an Irish giant, who leaves the poverty and oppression of his occupied home country to travel to London with a small entourage in the hope of fame and fortune exhibiting himself to the English aristocracy. His story is braided with that of John Hunter, a Scot, who has risen to fame if not great fortune as a doctor and surgeon, and who has a dirty secret – he pays resurrection men to bring him corpses to dissect. Gradually, the trajectories of the Giant and Hunter blend, as we know they must, as each falls prey to physical and mental dissolution.
The world Mantel vividly creates is a violent, filthy world of bodily needs, sicknesses, odours, where everyone is trying to scrape a living and most are either exploiting others or being exploited. Everything is decaying: even the sunlight is like ‘rancid’ butter. If James Dyer is untouched by empathy, so too is John Hunter, although he feels pain well enough. What, he wonders, differentiates people from animals? The ‘normal’ from the ‘freak’? He seeks the answers in the observable, in the bones he boils and the flesh he slices. He is driven by an horrific curiosity, which can only destroy. He believes that all the evidence he needs to understand life is in the material world:
And yet the dead defy him. Something in their nature. The principle of life has gone out of them – the principle that he knows exists, but he is not sure what it is. He tells his men, you can never be sure, with the hanged no more than the drowned – re-animation is possible – do not pick their pockets, for fear of future prosecution. But when the body is brought to him, and stretched on the slab, it is frequently the case that he finds tears in his eyes. He says to himself, Come now John Hunter, this is mere dissection-room nostalgia, mourning for the days when you used to cut shoulder-to-shoulder with Wullie [his brother], before you had your schism over the nature of the placenta [...]
But he will never find it there. The Giant, storyteller and poet and fantasist, sees this at once:
‘Hunter has no God. What is faith? He cannot anatomise it. What is hope? He cannot boil its bones. What is charity – aye, what is charity, to a bold experimentalist such as he?’
The Giant’s stories, bleak as they are, have sustained his friends through their miseries and deprivations and given them hope.
‘A year or two ago,’ said the Giant, ‘there was a young woman, pretty and light of foot, walking the road alone at night, coming to her cousin in Galway, with her babby of scarce six months laid to her breast. She had been walking for many a mile, walking through a dense wood, when –‘
‘A demon comes up and eats her,’ said Pybus, with confidence.
‘– she emerged at a crossroad,’ the Giant continued, ‘just as the moon rose above the bleak and lonely hills. [...]
Yet tales do not protect anyone from hunger, poverty, rape, murder, betrayal, and they leave the Giant to die in terror because he believes the story that if his body is dissected it will be rendered unfit to rise again on the Day of Judgement. Hunter’s belief that all flesh is meat serves him no better, leaving him sitting in the dark with his collection of bones, raddled with the syphilis which he has injected into himself.
Mantel might have taken as her epigraph Oscar Wilde’s words, ‘we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’, although in this novel it would have to be inverted: ‘some of us are looking at the stars, but we are all in the gutter’. Instead, she has chosen some lines by George MacBeth:
... But then
All crib from skulls and bones who push the pen.
Readers crave bodies. We’re the resurrection men.
Mantel is here perhaps suggesting that she is as much Hunter, the seeker and dissector, as the poetical and whimsical Giant. She’s also implying that creative writing is some sort of Frankensteinian animation of corpses. In The Giant, O’Brien she has resurrected the poor Giant and Hunter, who were real people; she has dug up other’s ideas and questioned them and pressed them into her own use. Like Miller she captures the strangeness and difference of the eighteenth century in vivid prose. I’m very glad that I live now, not then.
He had not slept for long before a shrill crying sounded in his ears. When he woke, the room had something in it that was fluttering and battering against the ceiling and the walls. When his eyes grew accustomed to the light he saw that there was a bat in the room. He had always loved bats, because of their bright eyes, cocked ears, and nice leathery umbrellary wings and the little hooks to them. He had always longed to be a bat, so that he could fly in the twilight and hook himself up head downwards somewhere high up in a steeple when he was tired. Now here was a bat actually crawling along his bed to him.
‘Good evening, Kay,’ the Bat said. ‘I’ve come from my friend Tom Otter; we thought what fun it would be if we could persuade you to spend an evening with us. We live in an interesting old place wich you might like to see, and I’ve brought you a suit of wings, in case you care to come.’
‘I’d love to come,’ Kay said, ‘it is most frightfully kind of you to think of me.’
‘Hurray, he’s coming,’ the Bat said. ‘We hoped you would. Now I’ll help you to put on the wings.’
Kay found that it was really quite easy after the first attempt. ‘Come on, then,’ the Bat said. ‘You keep by me. It isn’t far, really, to our place. I generally go this way.’
Kay put on his pair of fox-eye spectacles and followed him. It was amusing to see his friends, the grocer and the carpenter, walking in their gardens, and to fly just over their heads. It was eerie to hear them say: ‘The bats are very bold this year; that one nearly knocked my glasses off.’
I write this when I should be planning the term’s lessons for a new course I’m teaching, business English for people who left school without a qualification and are re-training. This course is killing me, and may in fact be killing my students, going by the expressions on some of their faces last week. Since I have been worrying that this may be a challenge too far for my teaching skillz, I have plunged back into reading children’s books to sustain me when I’m not contemplating, for instance, the use of the present perfect in place of the past simple, or where I am going to find a recording of people discussing accounting in simple English. I have just finished The Midnight Folk by John Masefield, a novel I never read as a child, the greater the pity because it is, quite simply, one of the best children’s books ever written.
The plot is this: young Kay Harker lives in a large house which is crumbling a bit round the edges; his existence is somewhat blighted by an unsympathetic governess who flies into conniptions at any signs of dirt, lateness or laxity where Latin conjugations are concerned. During one of his infrequent visits to Kay, his guardian, Sir Theopompus, wonders why Kay does not find the treasure of Santa Barbara, reputed to have been brought back to England and concealed somewhere nearby by Kay’s great-great grandfather. That very night, Kay is woken by one of the cats, Nibbins...
Waking up, he rubbed his eyes: it was broad daylight; but no one was there. Someone was scraping and calling inside the wainscot, just below where the pistols hung. There was something odd about the daylight; it was brighter than usual; all things looked more real than usual. ‘Can’t you open the door, Kay?’ the voice asked. There never had been a door there; but now that Kay looked, there was a little door, all studded with knops of iron. Just as he got down to it, it opened towards him; there before him was Nibbins, the black cat.
‘Come along Kay,’ Nibbins said, ‘we can just do it while they’re at the banquet; but don’t make more noise than you must.’
Kay peeped through the door. It opened from a little narrow passage in the thickness of the wall.
‘Where does it lead to?’ he asked.
‘Come and see,’ Nibbins said.
Nibbins is one of the Midnight Folk, usually encountered after dark, who are really the alter egos of their daytime personae. They take Kay on a series of adventures, flying on stolen broomsticks, diving with mermaids, fighting black knights. Seven-league boots, potions of invisibility and magic cloaks abound. Kay’s quest is complicated by Abner Brown and seven witches, led by Mrs Pouncer, who are also seeking the treasure. Throughout, he has the greatest fun. How could he not?
The story is really the consciousness of Kay, I think: it’s written in the language of an imaginative boy of the 1920s, albeit a little heightened, and with a poet’s sense of rhythm and elegance. (Using Kay’s consciousness also allows a fair amount of humour, as the first quote in this post delightfully shows.) Kay is the moral centre, those who ally themselves with him, including Rollicum Bitem the fox, a far from salubrious character, are good, whereas those whom he dislikes (the governess!) are revealed to be bad and rightfully opposed. The Midnight Folk all naturally recognise Kay as being an important person, and Kay swims through the novel never doubting or expressing wonder or disbelief at what he encounters, I suppose because at some level he is creating it.
There is darkness here too. Exactly what has happened to Kay’s parents is never spelled out, but it is clear that they are dead, and he is being brought up by two people, Sir Theopompus and the governess, who do not understand or like him. Many of his adventures involve parental substitutes, good and bad. His childhood toys have been removed because they will ‘remind him of the past’, presumably his parents; Kay misses them. The spooky tales of pirates, murders and highwaymen which Ellen cheerily relates to him contribute to his bedtime anxieties – what is under the bed? What is under the hearthstone? The countryside around him seethes with violence as hunters pursue foxes, poachers trap rabbits and foxes kill whatever they can lay their paws on.
Day, night, dreams, visions, stories and songs are woven together into a narrative where fantasy and reality are equal and inform each other, where your wishes (for instance, to be a bat) are fulfilled. You might think at first that the Midnight Folk are figments of Kay’s fancy, suggested by what happens during his waking hours, but it quickly becomes clear that they are not and that in fact they represent a facet of reality which is both more wonderful and more truthful – ‘more real’, as Kay experienced when Nibbins woke him – than the more readily perceived mundane world in which we seem to move. Imagination isn’t an adjunct to ‘reality’: it triumphs over it. If you have a child or if you have ever been a child, you really must get a copy of this book.
(The pictures in this post are all covers of different editions of The Midnight Folk with the exception of the last, the illustration of Rollicum Bitem Lightfoot, which is by Sara Ogilvie for the Folio Society edition)
... instead of posting here.
I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam with a dear friend and her children. It was insanely busy, but full of beautiful paintings like this one (Cypresses and Two Women, oil on canvas, 1890).
I let my partner cut off all my hair. Advantages: much less bother to wash or brush, I look less like a hearth rug. Drawbacks: I have nothing to hide behind, I have to wash the back of my neck occasionally, I look like a standard lamp.
I read quite a few books:
Little, Big, by John Crowley
Beauty, by Robin McKinley
Weathering, by Lucy Wood
Cuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge
Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood
The Tortoise and the Hare, by Elizabeth Jenkins
The New Moon with the Old, by Dodie Smith
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Severina, by Rodrigo Rey Rosa
Ingenious Pain, by Andrew Miller
The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge
The Tin Princess, by Philip Pullman
Longbourne, by Jo Baker
Extra(ordinary) People, by Joanna Russ
The Earthsea trilogy, by Ursula Le Guin
The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova (not pictured because I didn’t keep it)
The Behaviour of Moths, by Poppy Adams (ditto)
Now that term has begun, I’m rereading The Midnight Folk by John Masefield. I can’t really cope with anything too taxing at this time of year, and this is magical.
At the moment, we have two hens, and one of them, Daisy, kept getting broody. As she receives no gentleman callers, we asked our neighbours (whose hens do) if we could have some of their eggs for her to hatch. Daisy nobly sat on the eggs for three weeks and two duly hatched. Goodness but chicks are tiny! And if I’d been anxious about the kittens, I was a thousand times more anxious about these tiny, piping little puffballs. Cats! Rats! Crows! Magpies! Small, eager children! Wolves! Eagles!
I didn’t like to mention the chicks on here, lest I tempt fate and the day after I posted, something ate them. But Fluffy (the yellow one) and Night Fluffy (the dark one) are flourishing and growing and in fact most of their potential predators don’t seem terribly interested in them. Not even Mister Puss.
And the kittens... I am not given to peering at cats’ bums, but our kittens do rather brandish theirs in one’s face and after a few weeks it occurred to me that Clara’s bottom was quite radically different from Sootica’s. Further examination by K, our resident cat expert, ably assisted by the internets, confirmed that Sootica is a boy kitten. We are thinking about a new name, but our Chief Pet Namer has only offered Black Cat and Black Boy Cat and I am sorry but there are limits and those names are objectively crap. Any suggestions from total strangers gratefully accepted...
Now that we have had kittens in the house for, oh, nearly three weeks, I am a Kitten Expert and what could be more natural than sharing my easily won knowledge with the internets? After all, someone considering acquiring a kitten might stray here. Possibly. If you are that person, this is all you need to know about kittens:
Mister Puss news
After about ten days of Dignified Withdrawal/Sulking (depending on how you like to frame it), during which he sat outside our landlord’s barn door and ate eighty times his own body weight in emerging rats, Mister Puss was driven indoors for the first time by a mighty thunderstorm. As Hamlet appeared to Ophelia, pale, piteous and down-gyvéd, as if looséd out of hell, so appeared Mister Puss to me in our kitchen that evening, soggy and wild-eyed and cross because his dish of food, which is kept outdoors since his refusal to set paw indoors, was wet with rain and inedible.
Then he started hanging round his old haunt, our afdak (which is a humble sort of verandah), rather more and sunning himself on our manky old garden chairs. This hasn’t been wholly successful: the kittens interpret his Stony Stares of Hate as invitations to creep closer and – horrors! – play with his tail! Whereupon he hisses with rage and – runs off. But Clara and Sootica are relentlessly curious and friendly, they don’t even seem daunted when he gives them a slap round the face (seriously – could you slap this?:
Then last night there was a very loud party which lasted until about two in the morning, and Mister Puss not only came indoors again but slept all night on our bed. Things are looking up! Maybe!
(This image has nothing to do with the post that follows, but I like it. From here)
Like many people who never read science fiction, I suppose it to be full of things I don’t like – violence, skintight polyester, poor writing – to justify my avoidance of it. At the same time I suspect, since many people I admire do read it, that it’s not like that at all (or, not all of it). So when I recently spotted a copy of Joanna Russ’s Extra(ordinary) People in a charity shop, I was curious; and then the cover was intriguing and the publisher was The Women’s Press, for whom I have a weakness. And I’m so glad to have read it! There was indeed some violence and some skintight polyester trousers, but the writing was excellent and I enjoyed the whole book very much. In fact, it’s definitely a gateway book for people who think they won’t like science fiction…
‘I […] was seeking out very commonplace ideas, very ordinary story lines and assumptions, and doing something else with them. […] one way to make people aware of how morally atrocious and even downright stupid many of their assumptions are is to confront them with a pattern whose meaning they think they’re comfortable with—and then to undermine the whole thing, forcing them to see how arbitrary and wrong they’ve been.’
(Joanna Russ talking about Extra(ordinary) People, interviewed in Across the Wounded Galaxies)
Extra(ordinary) People consists of five stories, connected by a very loose frame – they are a series of history lessons being delivered to a child by a robot teacher – and by recurring themes.Each challenges our assumptions, both in terms of gender, masks, otherness, and in terms of many fictional tropes. Each is some sort of record: usually a series of letters or communications to someone.
The first story, however, ‘Souls’, is not a missive but takes the form of an account written by an old man of a Norse attack on an abbey where he lived as a child. He recounts how, when the local villagers sight the approach long ship, they take refuge within the walls of the abbey. Yet Radegunde, the abbess, goes out with the boy in tow to speak to the Norsemen, to negotiate with them and, if possible, save the lives of those who look to her for protection. Thus the narrative begins in a very straightforward way, this happened, and then this, and then this, yet all the while it’s very tense – will the abbess succeed? And then something happens which is just so weird and unexpected that it blows the story out of the water and I was left thinking ‘What?’
I was a little surprised to discover that this story won the 1983 Hugo Award, just because it is so strangely structured, with this explosive event which flips the story into something else entirely without any foreshadowing. It’s not a structure I expect of a short story; that’s the point though. Russ spends the rest of the collection playing around with narrative and expectations and is here giving fair warning of her intentions. In another story, ‘What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?’, you have to work really very hard to piece together the fragmented and elided narrative, and even then, some things remain unclear (they do to me, at least). The other stories are much easier to follow, but Russ clearly enjoys playing around with how to tell a tale.
The second story is ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’; here we jump forward to the nineteenth century. The narrator, the young gentleman, is accompanying ‘his’ ‘niece’, Maria-Dolores, on the sea crossing from Europe to America, and is writing a long letter home to Denver about their observations and experiences. It quickly becomes clear that the narrator is not male – but not female either – or human – and possessed of astonishing telepathic powers. It is crucial that this is all hidden from the other passengers, including a very curious doctor.
‘Bodies’ is a message written by a fifty-year-old woman and posted on the Net (this was published in 1984, well before most of us had heard of the internet). She and James, a young man, are twentieth-century humans, but they have been revived at some point in the future when humanity has evolved to become kind, loyal and empathetic. The woman, who spent most of her first life as a second-class citizen, and James, who is gay and suffered for it during his first life, feel both liberated and oppressed by the acceptance and niceness of everyone around them in their second lives.
‘What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?’ relates the adventures of a woman who is sent to Storyland/Ruritania (‘a two-bit less-than-medieval Earth’) undercover as an arch-demon – or fairy prince – called Issa. In the final story, ‘Everyday Depressions’, which is set even further in the future, a woman outlines to her lover (?) Susannah (or Susan or Suzanne or something similar) a lesbian Gothic novel she will never write (more’s the pity, it is very funny: ‘Now I need an estate name. Pemberly? Woking? Bother? Bother was always loveliest in the spring...).
Russ roots her stories in science fiction but is fundamentally concerned with relationships, and this is perhaps why her stories are so accessible to someone who doesn’t read this genre. Characters are constantly negotiating their relationships with each other. The narrator and James in ‘Bodies’ have sex with each other yet dislike each other yet need each other; the writer of ‘Everyday Depressions’ seems to be using her outline of a novel’s plot to discuss something about her and Susannah. For many characters, everything is complicated by the necessity for disguise. The young gentleman, Radegunde and Issa are all compelled to masquerade they are not. The young gentleman is usually able to pass this off as a game, albeit a tiring one, but the burden for the others is heavy indeed. ‘Radegunde’ has inhabited her persona for so long that she has started to become her – for good as well as ill – and when she shucks off that identity it came as a loss for me, because Radegunde was such an interesting and, yes, likeable persona. The woman who passes as Issa is overwhelmed by the physical burden of her disguise, which involves introducing viruses to her eyes, nails and hair to turn them silver, hooking a parasite to her skin to blacken it and grafting on painful new teeth and claws. Were human beings kinder and more tolerant, most of these disguises would be unnecessary.
(Portrait of Joanna Russ, found here)
In the interview published in Across the Wounded Galaxies, Russ says that all five stories are conceived as take-offs of science-fiction motifs and narrative conventions, and of course I have no idea about those so miss a raft of allusions. But this is generally a very meta-fictional collection which references Norse sagas, gothic novels, nineteenth-century pulp fiction, cod-mediaeval fantasy novels as well as sci-fi. There’s so much richness here, I don’t mind missing some things. The writer Russ reminds me of most is actually Angela Carter, of her Heroes and Villains and The Passion of New Eve period. Russ’s language isn’t as lush as Carter’s but she shares many of Carter’s concerns, her playfulness and her imaginative fireworks. I’d like to read some of her (Russ’s) novels now. Does anyone have some suggestions of where to start?
I know I have neglected this blog shamefully.
I am sorry.
But look: kittens!
Clara and Sootica are five months old and have been living with us for ten days now. Their favourite things are playing, being stroked, stomping on computer keyboards, stomping on everything, hiding in my skirts. They are very friendly and even tolerant of adoring five-year-old girls. We all love them.
During Shirley Jackson Week (13th to the 18th July 2015), hosted by Jenny, Ana and Simon, I’ll be on holiday. So I’m writing this post in advance; when you read it, I’ll be sunning myself on the Costa del Suffolk. Never having read any of Jackson’s work before, I followed Simon’s recommendation of We Have Always Lived In the Castle as a good place to start and ordered a copy. But it hasn’t arrived in time! Fortunately, I found a short story, ‘Paranoia’, in The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows (edited by Marjorie Sandor). I’m going to write about that now, and put it on timer to appear during SJW.
According to Sandor’s notes in The Uncanny Reader, ‘Paranoia’ was found in one of dozens of boxes of papers left by Jackson and now in the US Library of Congress, and was first published in 2013 in The New Yorker (where you can read it). In an interview also published in The New Yorker, Jackson’s son discusses how the story was found and why he believes it’s dated from around 1948.
In the story, Mr Halloran Beresford leaves the office with a box of chocolates for his wife, whose birthday it is. He is ‘pleased with himself’ for remembering his wife’s birthday, but there is nothing especially distinctive about him: ‘There were twenty small-size gray suits like Mr. Beresford’s on every New York block, fifty men still clean-shaven and pressed after a day in an air-cooled office, a hundred small men, perhaps, pleased with themselves for remembering their wives’ birthdays.’ Everything seems very ordered and regulated, both in Mr Beresford’s neat appearance and in office life more generally. Although Mr Beresford dislikes the subway ‘intensely, and found the public display and violent exercise necessary to catch a taxi usually more than he was equal to’, he is a little late going home owing to having had to buy the box of chocolates so he tries to hail a taxi. It is at this moment that he encounters a man ‘in a light hat’. Mr Beresford is repelled by him. ‘Ugly customer,’ is his reaction.
From this moment on, the menace builds. The man in the light hat pushes on a bus, preventing Mr Beresford from boarding it, but then reappears behind Mr Beresford and then starts walking beside him. He seems to be following Mr Beresford and even trying to direct his journey. Around Mr Beresford are crowds of people, but they offer no protection. Indeed, all of those who do interact with Mr Beresford – the shopkeeper, the bus driver, the old lady who spills her shopping – may actually be assisting the man in the light hat. But what does he want?
(George Grosz, Berlin Street (1931), oil on canvas; Metropolitan Museum of Art, found here)
The story’s title, ‘Paranoia’, implies that this is all in Mr Beresford’s mind, which is misinterpreting or distorting the world around him, creating the horror itself. But the persecution seems so real, because everything else is so ordinary, so calmly related and in such detail, the neatly pressed trousers, the bin marked ‘any item 25c’, the shifting of the box of chocolates from under one arm to the other. Around Mr Beresford normal life continues, people laugh at match-holders shaped like lavatories or buy tickets for the subway, until a moment before he was part of that, and now he has stepped into a sort of parallel existence with an inexplicable but clearly malevolent rationale, but just as real as the other. In fact, as we all know, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you... (You knew I was going to write that somewhere in this review, didn’t you?)
It’s been insanely hot here in lovely Belgium. Some people enjoy hot weather and wear beads and turn beautifully brown; it brings out the worst in me. My brain stops functioning, I become foul-tempered and prickly heat breaks out along my fingers and elbows and knees. I know I should be writing about Book III of Little, Big, but at the moment I can find nothing interesting to focus upon. This is no criticism of the novel, but rather of myself, I’m feeling rather dried out generally at the moment and spend as much time as possible lying near electric fans (no nubile young slave boys for me, sadly) and grumbling.
This has carried over into my reading. I can’t really face anything new, so I’ve been rereading a great deal. The last novel I reread was Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare, first published in 1954, which charts the disintegration of a marriage as observed by the woman. Imogen is wife to Evelyn, a brilliant, successful and hard-working barrister, and mother to Gavin, and entirely absorbed in these two rôles. She’s romantic in temperament, responsive to beauty, pretty, pleasant and attentive to her husband’s comfort. However, while this was what Evelyn sought when he first married her, success has changed him, and she has remained the same. It seems that they had more in common when they lived in London; the countryside exacerbates their differences.
She could not have said exactly when she had become aware of how often their neighbour Blanche Silcox’s name occurred in Evelyn’s conversation as that of a woman immensely knowledgeable on rural topics, whose opinions on the ethics of tied cottages, drainage and poultry-keeping for profit called for respectful agreement. To all such topics Imogen herself could only listen in silence. Evelyn was deeply moved by natural beauty [...] but he looked at the scene not only as a devotee but as an economist. He scolded Imogen for any admiration of natural beauty which disregarded usefulness and sense, for admiring dead trees that raised their arms spectre-like against dark woods, or poppies and cornflowers among wheat [...]
‘You talk like a townee!’ he would exclaim. ‘There’s no room for sentimentality in the country; it’s too big, too important, it’s the basis of life itself; that’s what you’ll never realize. I love it – I love it as much as you do, but I respect it much more than you. I don’t think of the countryside as a picture-book. I recognize it as something vital to our very existence.’
‘I do see that. I do really,’ she said earnestly. ‘But that squirrel seemed to ripple along. It was outlined in silver light.’
Evelyn’s dissatisfaction with his wife, who doesn’t participate in village life or the WVS, is increased in comparison with their neighbour Blanche. Blanche is the scion of a wealthy family but while she is practical, shrewd and an excellent businesswoman, she has been prevented from working in the family firm because she is a woman. Now fifty and unmarried, she has hitherto directed all her considerable energies into rural affairs; these energies she channels towards obtaining Evelyn.
Later in the scene I have quoted above, Evelyn and Imogen hear Blanche shooting something in the woods. Evelyn tells Imogen he hopes that it’s squirrels, the sort of brutal remark he makes to her more and more as the novel progresses. (This one perhaps takes the biscuit: when he finally acknowledges – albeit not in words, he is a lawyer after all! – that he is sleeping with Blanche, he complains to his wife, ‘You have never appreciated her. I think you never did her justice from the beginning.’) The shooting in the woods warns us that Blanche is engaged in a metaphorical war; she intends to ‘win’ Evelyn. Imogen, however, fatally discounts Blanche as a real threat because she is middle-aged and plain. Men are only attracted to young, beautiful women – aren’t they?
My Virago edition has a wonderful introduction by Helen McNeil, written in 1981. McNeil, citing Elaine Showalter’s categorisation of fiction written by women into feminine, feminist and female, calls this a mainly feminine novel. Feminine novels, Showalter wrote in A Literature of their Own, are the first ‘phase’ of women’s fiction: ‘[a] prolonged phase of imitation of the prevailing modes of the dominant tradition, and internalization of its standards of art and its views on social roles.’ The feminist novel, on the other hand, ‘is a phase of protest against these standards and values, and advocacy of minority rights and values, including a demand for autonomy.’ Now the impression I receive of Elizabeth Jenkins from this novel and from her non-fiction is that she was conservative in outlook, but I believe that even if she herself might be classed as a feminine writer, this book has somehow crept out from under her fingers, shaken itself and become something more feminist.
Stylistically the novel is realist, thus being imitative of the ‘prevailing mode’, but it is almost entirely from Imogen’s perspective. It is also structured so that the only other characters are those which reflect back an element of Imogen’s situation or a distortion of it. So there is Paul, enduring a loveless marriage to much younger, pretty woman – a variation on Evelyn’s and Imogen’s partnership. There is Mrs Pender, idle and self-absorbed, a possible future Imogen. And there is Tim Leeper; if Gavin is a young Evelyn then Tim is a young Imogen. In terms of plot and pace, there is no fat on the novel either and the momentum never slackens.
McNeil calls Imogen ‘submissive’ and it’s true that for most of the novel she appeases Evelyn, blames herself for the breakdown in their relationship and does absolutely nothing for the wider community. She doesn’t challenge anything at all. But it’s fairly clear that it hasn’t always been like this. Imogen used to ‘pity’ those who feared Evelyn’s anger; it’s only since she has lost his love that she has become craven. She is weak in that she cannot fight. However, ultimately she does deny Evelyn what he really wants – which is to have his cake and eat it, of course – rejects Paul’s counsel to ‘endure’, and chooses a path which will be uncomfortable for herself but also more honest.
Even if the central character is not feminist, that does not preclude a novel from being so. The unfairness and waste of Blanche’s exclusion from the family firm is made abundantly clear. Imogen’s dear friend Cecil, also unmarried, is similarly capable and clever. Lacking a fortune, she is forced to work but her talents are not put to their full use and she is generally condescended to. Married middle-class women fare little better: they are quite clearly useless, on the whole. Mrs Pender, Blanche’s sister, spends much of her time going on ‘rests’ although her children are all at boarding school and her house is run by servants. The vilified Mrs Leeper neglects her own house and children for ‘ballet work’ and other artistic endeavours. (Here Elizabeth Jenkins’s views on the duties of a wife are very clear! And she writes disgustedly that the Leepers have no nursery and children’s toys are scattered all over the sitting-room, good GOD what would she think of the gallimaufry household?)
Poor Imogen faces a dreary future at the end of the novel, well aware that her upbringing and background have left her unfit for any sort of paid employment. She has failed as a wife and failed as a mother, the only two roles available to her. Yet in separating herself from Evelyn, there has been a shift in her, she is having to become stronger. The novel finishes with her saying, ‘I must improve [...] There is a very great deal to be done’, and she’s not just talking about housework. The end of the novel is the beginning of something else, an opening out. The Tortoise and the Hare is not overtly feminist but in its scrupulous delineation of the constraints of middle-class women’s lives and of marriage (there are no happy marriages in this novel), its implication that there must be some other possibility, it is still subtly feminist. What do you think?
(Photograph of Elizabeth Jenkins in the 1920s from the Persephone Books website)