Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘contemporary literature’

As it happens, I’ve only read two novels by Doris Lessing – The Grass is Singing a few years ago, and The Fifth Child a few months ago. I didn’t write about The Grass is Singing after I read it, and I realize now what a mistake this was because I’ve let some of the book’s power fade from my memory. I have held onto a series of distinct visuals and sense memories from this book: the front porch of the house, the heat created from the tin roof, something about a yellow dress, and this image of a stick-thin woman, not more than a shadow, lurking about her home. What I wish I could remember better is Lessing’s writing style and how it worked to create this atmosphere throughout the novel.

I’m interested in this—and the only solution is to re-read—because I was struck with the efficiency of her writing in The Fifth Child and I’d like to compare. I say efficiency because while the prose isn’t overly spare, there is nothing lavish or wasteful about it either. And she manages to tell a difficult and provocative story in about 150 pages.

The premise of The Fifth Child is simple enough – a young English couple buy a big rambling old house and spend a few years filling it up with more children than they can really afford; despite constant nagging financial concerns they create a happy and enviable family life. Until, of course, they get pregnant with their fifth child, a boy, who is somehow abnormal. Not in any easily understandable or diagnosable way, however. He is simply other—somehow ferocious, superhuman and violent. The mother, Harriet, begins to think of him as a kind of goblin.

At first the family copes with his differences as best they can, but things begin to fall apart and a series of very difficult, very painful decisions must be made. It’s an extraordinary book, I feel, because it manages to discuss a number of difficult social and emotional questions without leaving the strict confines of a simple, albeit disturbing, story. What is to be done about Ben? What are Harriet and David’s responsibilities to this child? How do they manage those responsibilities without shirking the responsibilities toward their other children? But also, and this is where the book has left its mark on me as a reader, how does a parent deal with the reality of not loving, of even fearing, their own child? What a frightening possibility.

The following passage encapsulates the dilemma Lessing has given her characters:

One early morning, something took Harriet quickly out of her bed into the baby’s room, and there she saw Ben balanced on the window-sill. It was high – heaven only knew how he got up there! The window was open. In a moment he would have fallen out of it. Harriet was thinking, What a pity I came in… and refused to be shocked at herself. Heavy bars were put in, and there Ben would stand on the sill, gripping the bars and shaking them, and surveying the outside world, letting out his thick, raucous cries.

Later on, the book hinges on this same idea in a slightly different way… whether Harriet allows Ben to be “taken care of” and what her decision means for the rest of her family. It’s a terrible question, a riveting one. What struck me as fascinating, however, about the book and where Lessing ultimately goes with it, is that right from the beginning Ben’s difference is depicted in extreme terms. He’s so obviously monstrous, so inhuman. And while the story unravels, the reader finds it almost too easy to sympathize with the people willing to do whatever it takes to make things normal again for this family. When Harriet finally does make her decision, it’s almost shocking. Almost. But it effectively recasts all the earlier questions we’ve had to the situation, and what decisions we—as readers, as people, as parents—might have entertained.

There is a sequel to this novel called Ben in the World, which Lessing published twelve years after The Fifth Child. Has anyone read both?

Finally, while I sat here writing this out, I realized that I’ve actually read a third Lessing title, The Grandmothers, which is a collection of four novellas and was the first Lessing I read. It was quite good, especially the title story “The Grandmothers.” I remember enjoying the second piece, “Victoria and the Staveneys,” as well.

So, really, I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by her… I know that I will read The Golden Notebook at some point, along with her other novels—although I admit I’m a bit lost as to where to go next, so suggestions would be very welcome. (I don’t believe I would be interested in any of her science fiction-esque work, but perhaps I’m wrong.)


Non-stop bookishness today that began with a trip to my favorite 2nd hand bookstore in Lausanne. I had to engage in a small but mostly polite skirmish with another Anglophone and obvious book-lover as he and I negotiated four slim shelves of English books, eyeing each other to make sure the other wasn’t about to grab a coveted title. I was in a hurry but did get this little stack of paperbacks:

  • The Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories
  • Borges and the Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando Verissimo (I read almost a third of this on the train ride back to home and so far it is a light & clever satire, written as a letter to Borges and involving a fiftyish translator and an Edgar Allan Poe conference in Buenos Aires)
  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
  • Best American Essays 1987, edited by Gay Talese & Robert Atwan (some great names in this collection)
  • The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitov Ghosh
  • Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour An Introduction by J.D. Salinger

I also raced through the French section and picked up Alain de Botton’s Petite Philosophie de l’Amour.

Then onto lunch with a good friend of mine who is also a translator and we had a quick book trade – I’m pretty sure I came out the winner here (although I did give her a copy of Robert Pagani’s Mon Roi, Mon Amour, a book I really enjoyed) with these lovelies:

  • Une Forme de Vie by Amélie Nothomb
  • The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys (Apparently the Thames has frozen over exactly forty times between 1142 and 1849, and this is a book of stories that tell of those freezings – it’s small and square and has plenty of illustrations. It looks wonderful).
  • Fireworks by Angela Carter
  • The People’s Act of Love by James Meek
  • The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa
  • Foreign Words by Vassilis Alexakis
  • See Under: Love by David Grossman (this book looks wonderful, but no publisher should ever be allowed to print in type this small)

On the back and forth from my still-moderately-snowy mountain to town, I read Salman Rushdie’s essay in The New Yorker about the beginning of his time in hiding, about how it happened that he needed to invent a new name and life for himself after the publication of The Satanic Verses. It’s a personal history piece and he’s written it, but it’s done in the 3rd person, which tricks you into thinking it’s investigative journalism (and there’s probably much to be discussed about this choice), but it’s clearly an excerpt from his memoir Joseph Anton and I enjoyed it, especially the history he gives on the inspiration for writing The Satanic Verses as well as his telling of how he came up with the pseudonym he would live under for so many years.

And finally, as if all this concentrated bookishness were not enough – I arrived home to a box of books from The Folio Society, including a really beautiful and slim edition of Turgenev’s novella First Love. I think it’s safe to say that if the snow comes back and I’m forced to stay inside, I’ll have plenty to read.


Things have been quiet around here lately, but I have been reading some wonderful fiction.

First is Jean Stafford’s The Mountain Lion. I read this book for the Dead Writers Book Group and we discussed it (a little) on Twitter two Mondays ago. Discovering Stafford is a real find – an American writer I’d never heard of and one with a wonderfully unique voice. There are some great comparisons to be made between Stafford and Carson McCullers, for example, because Stafford has much of that Southern Gothic feel, except she isn’t a Southern writer but a Western writer (who lived in New York for most of her adult life). She is better known for her short stories… and so I’ve just picked up her Collected Stories and will write about them once I’ve started reading.

In a perfect universe, I will come back and write up my thoughts (properly) on The Mountain Lion but for now let me say that this is a book about two children, a brother and a sister, stuck between two vastly different worlds, and how those worlds pull at them and shape them in different ways. The two children are mostly unloved, and so both do things to become unlovable, as children unfortunately will. It is a powerful story, simply told, with a unique structure.

Next is Karen Brown’s Little Sinner & Other Stories – which I reviewed this past week for Necessary Fiction. I say as much in my review, but these were excellent:

Despite the mini-novel feel to each of these stories, when looked at as a collection there are several themes linking throughout—one I especially enjoyed was Brown’s explorations of infidelity, and in particular, the feminine side of what is too-often portrayed to be an exclusively male issue. First presented in the collection’s second piece, “Swimming,”—a dark and delightful recasting of John Cheever’s classic “The Swimmer”—several of the stories in the collection tell of women (of all ages) who cheat on their partners or spouses. One of the best parts of the way Brown handles this theme is that it isn’t ever a story’s main preoccupation but a kind of subtle side-story, a detail of a life turned upside down, and the woman’s infidelity could be the cause or the result of that upset.

You can read the entire review here.

Also, I just finished reading my second Clarice Lispector – Agua Viva. I’ll be reviewing this title in a few days, so will mention it again soon. But let me just say now that my first impression of Lispector holds firm. An incredible writer, a vivid talent. The Lispector revival that is currently underway in the English-speaking world is exciting and I can’t wait to read her start to finish. She’s got nine novels and the two I’ve read are from her later work, so it’s time to go to her first, Near to the Wild Heart, and start reading her properly.

Finally, I’ve had a number of great books make their way into the house recently. Here’s just a sample of what I’m looking at for fall reading:

  • • Going to Meet the Man – James Baldwin
  • • Best European Fiction 2013 – ed. Alexsander Hemon
  • • My Mother was an Upright Piano (stories) – Tania Hershman
  • • The Slow Natives – Thea Astley
  • • The Very Air – Doug Bauer
  • • Athena – John Banville

Looking forward to all of these and more…


While on holiday two weeks ago, I read Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. Not even the unruly multi-family party of Scandinavians sharing our hotel, who slammed doors, ran down hallways at 3am and yelled to each other from their balconies at midnight, could make me unlove this beautiful book (of Finland). I wrote immediately on Twitter how this book fits my idea of a “perfect” piece of writing—plotless but absolutely riveting, graceful and honest—and several weeks after finishing its pages, this still holds true.

The Summer Book is set on a small island in Finland, in a vacation home, and the book catalogues the interactions and adventures of an elderly grandmother and her young granddaughter Sophie. In quite short, disarmingly simple and themed chapters like “Playing Venice,” “The Cave” or “The Robe,” Jansson comments on a variety of powerful subjects. The book is, quite simply, about life and the many difficult questions of existence that humans ponder. And that pondering is presented honestly, through the unique ways that humans consider such things, and by that I mean: off-hand, in absurd conversations, in solitude, in our physical relationship to nature and in our love and hate for other human beings.

One of the things that Jansson does, and does incredibly well, is evoke how human beings find magic in the simplest things. Not real magic, she never goes quite so far, but she knows how to bring the reader (through her characters’ actions and thoughts) to that little feeling of awe that strikes at any given moment and for unexplainable reasons. Jansson really has her finger on this human impulse and this is what most of The Summer Book seems to be about. These moments of awe aren’t always joyful, of course, and both sorrowful awe or angry awe are strong currents in the book as well.

Something I found very curious about the book was the portrayal of the father character. I would have to double check, but I don’t think he ever speaks a line of dialogue, and mostly he is absent—either working or away in his boat. But he is this incredibly affecting presence throughout the book, yet without any real engagement with either the grandmother or Sophie. They talk about him, they disobey his stern rules, they watch him a lot. It’s a technique I haven’t come across before in other books, at least not often or that I can remember. I loved it. Also, the reader learns quite early that Sophie’s mother has died. Jansson gives us this piece of information quickly and without ceremony, and she never goes back to it. But this reality haunts the entire book, and these two people—one truly absent, the other perhaps absent out of grieving or loneliness—are powerful characters.

The Summer Book is a serious book, but it’s filled with some excellent humor. Sophie and her Grandmother are often in conversation about very difficult things, although they don’t often touch these subjects head on. Instead, they talk “around” things or they say silly things which are truly very serious. And they are often prickly with one another, but that prickliness reveals a deep mutual need and love. I do not think I have seen this kind of love expressed so well in many other books. Perhaps, however, this is especially striking because it’s accomplished through the non-traditional pairing of a grandmother and a little girl.

It’s a real pleasure to discover a novel and know immediately that I will reread it often. The Summer Book is the kind of book that doesn’t have to be picked up and gone through from start to finish (although I will do this and am looking forward to doing this again soon), but I could nearly choose a chapter at random and enjoy its atmosphere again whenever I feel like it. It is an example of one of those rare books that become life companions. I do not put many books in this category, and it’s a very special treat to be able to add another volume to this, my most precious of book lists.


This week at Necessary Fiction, I review a début short story collection from the Irish writer, Mary Costello. I had the pleasure of first reading Costello in an issue of The Stinging Fly, an Irish literary journal, and have now come to really admire her work after reading this entire collection. The book is called The China Factory.

Here is a short except from my review:

Again and again Costello creates stories in which the human connections are both delicate and tender. Stretched thin and raw. Connections that contain an ache. Most of her characters are endowed with an almost painful empathy—attuned to the mysteries of their loved ones and bound to the intricate emotional structures of their own inner landscapes. In “The Patio Man,” a gardener is witness to his boss’s miscarriage and the event, clearly life changing for the woman, is as deeply afflicting for this quiet and watchful man. He is shaken to the core. While never neglecting the woman in the story, Costello actually explores the effects of this man’s empathy to a far greater degree.

I make it very clear in my review how much I enjoyed these stories but I can add a bit of personal anecdote here in this less formal reviewing place. I finished reading The China Factory in a local café, just across the street from my daughter’s daycare. My childcare schedule is somewhat inconvenient and so most Tuesdays and Thursdays, when she goes only for a few hours in the afternoon, I drop her off and head directly across the street to work, so as not to lose any time. In any case, I’m usually reading or writing or translating and I’ve gotten quite good at working in public (which is, I believe, an acquired skill).

Now, I am a seasoned reader. I read all kinds of beautiful and/or difficult literature and although I do engage with it deeply, I usually have no trouble reading anything in public. This was not the case with The China Factory. I re-read “Insomniac,” the second to last story and then blithely read on into “The Sewing Room.” By the time I realized what this quiet story was about, it was too late. I was sobbing. I put the book down, got myself under control and picked it up again. I told myself I could get through it. I took a quick peek around the café, which was about one-third full, and decided to go for it. Before I had turned that last page, the café owner had come over, put a kindly hand on my shoulder and asked me what on earth I was reading. She was visibly disappointed when she saw I was reading in English and wouldn’t get a chance to see for herself, but she quickly re-filled my teapot and hovered until it was clear that I wasn’t going to fall apart.

This all makes for a good story now, but the point I’m trying to make is that it is difficult to do this kind of poignancy nowadays. I admit that my being a relatively new mother made that last story particularly devastating for me—and the fact that it’s only through the support of my husband and family that I can continue working and be a Mom, something that wasn’t, or isn’t, available to many women around the world and so there were/are other, sometimes horrible, choices to be made—but Costello is so restrained in her depiction of these characters and their lives. There is no melodrama. She says it all in the simple handover of an apple from an 18-month-old child to its mother, and how that mother looks at this piece of fruit two days later, and my heart literally broke for these fictional people.

That particular story touched me quite personally and so remains my strongest memory of the collection. But the other stories were all as simple and profound. I cannot recommend this book more highly. Read the entire review here.


Tomorrow starts the very first discussion of the newly established Dead Writer’s Book Club—a discussion I’m very much looking forward to—and so I thought I would write out some of my thoughts on this first book, Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers, as a way to organize my thoughts before the lovely chaos of a Twitter and Facebook and blog discussion.

What strikes me first and foremost about Reflections in a Golden Eye is how contemporary it feels, especially in terms of language and style. Without some of the older dialogue formulations, I would have had to continually remind myself it was written 70 years ago, and not last week. Even the subject—a bizarre love triangle (actually a love hexagon or heptagon, depending whether you count the horse) set on an army base and leading to a murder is as classic as it is contemporary. There is obviously a reason that McCullers has continued to speak to contemporary writers and readers. She engages with timeless elements of human nature.

And yet there is something wonderfully particular about her writing. For me this comes from her fascination with loneliness and how it brings out the unusual, even the freakishly bizarre, in a person. McCullers makes loneliness as destructive and devastating as any kind of real disease. Her first novel, and probably her most famous, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, features five such desperately lonely people. I’ll never forget how McCullers renders each of those five characters, especially the young girl Mick Kelly and all that music floating around in her head and making her nearly crazy. Or Jake Blount who loses himself completely in an enraged attempt to communicate his understanding of the world to anyone who will listen. Of course no one does. This kind of loneliness portrait is done more quietly in Reflections in a Golden Eye, but it’s extremely sinister. Just look at these lines from early in the book, after Private Williams sees Leonora Penderton walk naked through her house before a dinner party:

The four people at the table had not been alone. In the autumn darkness outside the window there stood a man who watched them in silence. The night was cold and the clean scent of pine trees sharpened the air. A wind sang in the forest near-by. The sky glittered with icy stars. The man who watched them stood so close to the window that this breath showed on the cold glass pane.

There is a lot of paralyzed surveillance in the novel. Private Williams goes every night to the Pendertons, Captain Penderton follows Private Williams around during the day, Alison Langdon stares out of her window every night instead of sleeping. For different reasons and with varying levels of self-awareness, these three individuals are almost completely cut-off from all normal human interaction and McCullers reveals how painfully they suffer.

The different reasons for their isolation are fascinating to me. Captain Penderton and Alison Langdon seem to share a similar heartbreak; they both love and want something from life that they cannot have. Private Williams is infinitely more mysterious. Indeed, if I’m not mistaken, McCullers does not let her narrator go into his mind. She details his often peculiar actions—like riding a horse naked in a hidden meadow or sneaking into Leonora Penderton’s room to watch her sleeping—but doesn’t give the reader the satisfaction of an understandable motivation. It’s almost as if he has suffered an enchantment and the sensual has taken over the rational.

Thinking about the book in terms of McCullers’s thematic development as a writer is interesting as well. It was her second novel and she followed it with The Member of the Wedding. However, she stopped in the middle of that third novel to write her novella, The Ballad of the Sad Café. Thematically, there is a lot to connect these four works: the loneliness as physical and psychological destructor, the troupe of social misfits with unfulfillable wants, the idea of jealousy and vengeance, and finally, the problem of gender and sexual orientation.

For its publication date, Reflections in a Golden Eye is extremely forthcoming about sexual orientation. The word homosexual doesn’t appear once in the book, but McCullers asks some very direct questions about the painful nature of loving someone that society tells you it is wrong to love. Captain Penderton feels only disgust for his wife’s body and a passionate but painful longing for the other men in the book, especially Private Williams. Looking at this relationship with a view to the ending shows where the real tragedy lies.

I haven’t read her autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare, or what appears to be an excellent biography of McCullers, The Lonely Hunter by Virginia Spencer Carr, but from what I’ve gathered online and in articles about McCullers, she knew first-hand what she writing about. Reflections in a Golden Eye is actually dedicated to Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, a Swiss writer and photographer, who was openly gay. (N.B. I would highly recommend The Cruel Way by Ella Maillart—a famous Swiss adventurer and travel writer—it’s about her trip through the Middle East with Schwarzenbach and it details Schwarzenbach’s struggle with drug addiction as the two women traveled alone from Geneva to Kabul in 1939. It is a fantastic book.) McCullers and Schwarzenbach must have met sometime in 1940 and McCullers apparently fell in love, but Schwarzenbach didn’t. This is all I know and I’m curious what her autobiography and any biographies of her have to say further.

So without further ado, I’ll stop here knowing that tomorrow’s discussion of Reflections in a Golden Eye will bring me back in a few days with more thoughts.

Cross-posted at: Dead Writer’s Book Group



Books that involve politics while keeping sight of the personal issues are a favorite of mine, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I really enjoyed Anne Korkeakivi’s An Unexpected Guest. Here is a book that very elegantly mixes politics and history with a complicated personal story.

Quick story summary: Clare Moorhouse is the American wife of a high-ranking British diplomat. They live in Paris; their two teenage sons are at different boarding schools in Britain. Clare has a big secret in her past, a secret that has formed her exterior personality for the last twenty-five years and a secret that could ruin her husband’s career were it to get out now. The book is concerned with a single day—a neat time limitation that makes for a close and intense reading experience—and a day in which, obviously, the threat of her past looms larger than it ever has before.

The political intrigue of An Unexpected Guest deals primarily with The Troubles between Northern Ireland and England, and especially with the American perspective on that issue during the 1980s. However, while these events work mostly in the novel’s past, Korkeakivi manages to make some provocative parallels to contemporary political struggles – namely the American invasion of Iraq and the current War on Terror. The book involves a very interesting subplot that deals specifically with these contemporary issues, but also, subtly comments on how the War on Terror has fueled a dangerous kind of racism.

The scenes of An Unexpected Guest that work to grease the wheels of this political story are what make it somewhat of a thriller. Korkeakivi creates a very palpable sense of impending danger. It is to her credit that the book doesn’t stop there, as the exploration of Clare’s personality is a fascinating one. Here is a woman that committed a grave mistake in her youth—a mistake that caused her to lose someone she loved, but also required her to relinquish a part of herself. Giving up aspects of one’s personality may be a normal part of the growing up process, but Clare must enact a permanent about-face. After what happens in her youth, she must choose to be someone very different and she must guard herself very carefully.

Early on in the novel, Clare remarks on this process. Her thoughts come about after a comment made by her husband, which he intends as a compliment but which hurts her very much, when he says that she fits so perfectly into the orderly and composed diplomatic residence.

She was pale, smooth, beige, a sea pebble of the kind one picks up along the beach and slips into one’s pocket to run one’s fingers over while pondering the meaning of life—or where to eat dinner. She knew it, she had even cultivated it—as much as she had ever manufactured anything about herself, for her development had been more like an act of erosion, a sanding away of all extraneous or undesirable elements, and this was how she felt more and more, as though each year were a grand wave washing away a little more of her.

Clare is in an interesting position since what drove her toward the life she has now was a solid quest for safety, for predictability, and more than anything else, civility. She admires her husband for his capacity for rational thinking and for his belief that the world’s problems can and must be resolved through clear-headed negotiations. Knee-jerk emotional reactions will never save the day. And yet she still secretly harbors a passionately emotional individual beneath her unruffled exterior and she cherishes the memory, however painful the memory might be, of a man who functioned in a much different manner. In this way, the book goes beyond its bombs and diplomatic maneuvering and conducts a very careful examination of this woman’s psyche.

An Unexpected Guest is a curious hybrid of a book. It has elements of a thriller, it contains several echoes of Mrs. Dalloway, and it is set in a posh world of diplomacy and expatriate families. Even Korkeakivi’s writing is a blend of straightforward storytelling and the gently lyrical. Yet despite these fascinating variations, more than anything it is an intelligent book. Emotionally intelligent and politically astute.


Wanted to announce a new project coming up called The Dead Writer’s Book Group. This idea came up last week between myself, Myfanwy Collins (of Echolocation, I book I loved and wrote about at Necessary Fiction but also here) and Anne Korkeakivi (of An Unexpected Guest – this book is just out and I am reading right now and will write about soon!).

The idea is quite simple: each month we will host a group discussion of a work by an author who has (unfortunately!) passed on. Our first pick is Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers. Discussions can take place in two places – either on the blog The Dead Writer’s Book Club or on Twitter, and will run for the entire day on the first Monday of every month. We aren’t starting in May but in June, so we will be discussing McCullers on Monday June 4th.

I will for sure be posting about the book on the DWBG blog just before the first “meet-up” on Twitter, so whether you prefer a blog discussion or tweeting, anyone and everyone is welcome to join in. And I hope you will!

For the Twitter discussion look for: #ddwritersbkgp .

I’ve read all three of McCullers’s best known works: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Member of the Wedding and The Ballad of the Sad Café, which is probably my favorite. This will be a chance to read one of her lesser known works and discuss it. I can’t wait.


After discovering Barbara Pym earlier this year, I went on a mini Pym binge and read several of her books in quick succession – Excellent Women, No Fond Return of Love and Jane and Prudence. Then I jumped ahead and read her “come-back” novel, Quartet in Autumn, which is markedly different from those earlier books. In those earlier works, Pym is often laugh-out-loud funny. Although many of her characters are lonely, they are almost always able to take an ironic stance toward that loneliness, which lightens it – at least for the reader.

However, Quartet in Autumn, although it has some traces of humor, is a thoroughly serious book. I’d even go so far as to consider this short novel a quiet tragedy. Much of Pym’s usual preoccupations are present, including unmarried men and women and clerical life, but she isn’t teasing anyone with these ideas. The focus of her revelatory concern goes beyond these smaller social issues; she exposes the very nature of loneliness.

Quartet in Autumn is about four office colleagues – Marcia, Letty, Edwin and Norman – and their respective solitary lives. Much of what Pym describes is heartbreaking. Marcia storing up empty milk bottles and canned food, Letty listening to the radio alone in her room in the evening, an angry Norman watching young people play in a park at lunch, and Edwin’s cultivated obliviousness. These four individuals are horribly, horribly lonely, but so stuck in their mode of living that they are unwilling to do anything that might rumple the surface of that loneliness. Each time an offer comes about (and there are several throughout the book) that might somehow decrease someone’s isolation, it is always immediately rejected.

Pym has an incredible eye for character differentiation. With a less careful writer, these four people could all start to resemble one another because, at least on the surface, they really do all have a lot in common. But no, Marcia and Letty are so different they can hardly speak to one another and Edwin and Norman also sit on different ends of the “old bachelor” spectrum. Watching these four interact, first at the office and then later after Marcia and Letty have retired, is somewhat funny at its lightest, but quite painful at its worst.

I must say that one of the things I find curious about Pym is her complete and utter lack of sensuality. These four people are lonely, yes, but she doesn’t really push their loneliness outside of an intellectual representation. How do I put this? There is never much concern for the physical reality of being lonely. The issue of never being touched for a person who lives alone is mentioned once, via another character, a social worker who checks on Marcia actually, but Pym never allows her actual characters to express themselves through this filter. What is remarkable to me is that Pym is so effective at conveying the loneliness of her characters without really resorting to an investigation of their physical loneliness.

Although, having said that, one of the characters in this novel, Marcia, manifests her loneliness through anorexia, which could be considered a physical representation. Yet this is also about control, about denying the physical. So it’s almost an extreme version of what I just said above.

Quartet in Autumn has a typically Pym-like ambiguous and perhaps frustrating ending. A possible reprieve from loneliness is again on offer, but Pym doesn’t tell the reader whether it will come to anything.

I am not usually very interested in the life of a writer – I prefer to take the whole of their work and let that sit with me – but the trajectory of Pym’s writing career intrigues me, especially the forced 13 year hiatus she took because no one was interested in publishing her after she’d finished her sixth novel. She was resurrected apparently because two prominent male writers championed her work. I’m curious how she managed those 13 years – I know that she continued to write because what she wrote was eventually published. Her diaries are published as A Very Private Eye and there is a biography of her by Hazel Holt called A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym.

Has anyone read either? Thoughts?


My French book group meets this coming Monday evening, and this month we selected Delphine de Vigan’s 2009 novel – Les Heures Souterraines. De Vigan has six novels to her name, although this is my first experience reading her. Les Heures Souterraines was a Goncourt finalist and translated into English as Underground Time (Bloomsbury).

The book follows two desperately unhappy people—Mathilde and Thibault—for exactly one day. Their unhappiness stems from two very different situations. Mathilde (who is a widowed mother of three boys) is being bullied at her job. The bullying is pretty horrific, so horrific in fact that it starts to undermine the book’s verisimilitude. Mostly because about halfway through, it becomes very hard to understand why Mathilde has even stayed in this office – unless we are to assume that it would be otherwise nearly impossible for her to find another job. This is a detail, perhaps, but one which the author could have easily dispensed with and didn’t, and so it weakened my otherwise intense sympathy for Mathilde.

The bullying, however, was expertly done. And quite frightening. Les Heures Souterraines draws an extremely realistic portrait of a kind of harassment—not at all sexual—that gave me chills. After daring to publicly contradict her boss (at a moment when she was “in favor” with this vain and power-hungry man), Mathilde is subsequently ostracized and then repeatedly set-up to fail or disappoint. The day the novel follows her she is at the breaking point.

Thibault’s unhappiness is less defined. He’s recently realized that the woman he’s been seeing will never love him back, in fact, she finds pathetic, even enraging, the whole idea of his loving her. There is more, namely a drunken argument fifteen years ago that resulted in the loss of two fingers and wrecked his chances at becoming a surgeon. So when we meet him, he’s been working for years as an on-call emergency doctor in Paris, a stressful and unsatisfactory job.

Les Heures Souterraines is a work novel in many ways, and it spends a considerable amount of time exploring how our professional life, separate as we may keep it from our personal life, becomes a strong and unavoidable reflection of a person’s identity. What happens to Mathilde is so unexpected, a completely unforeseen violence and an attack on who she believed she was, that she becomes paralyzed, and by the time she realizes that she must act, do something to change what is happening, it is already too late. For Thibault, the disconnect between the person he wanted to be and the person he finds he has become is so great that he has simply become numb.

De Vigan sets up the expectation that Mathilde and Thibault are destined to meet on the day in question and that this meeting will change the course of their lives. I won’t give anything away, except to say that de Vigan both fulfills this expectation and completely subverts it. That dual result is as frustrating as it is thought-provoking—I suspect my book group will have much to discuss.

Although I read this book in two sittings, and last night I literally could not put it down, I also found myself mostly reading for Mathilde’s story and quite uninterested in Thibault, except as a possible catalyst for Mathilde getting out of her difficult situation. I don’t think this was an inherent problem of the novel’s dual narrative, a technique I usually like, but more because of the contrast between Mathilde and Thibault, which could easily be described as active and passive. Some of the problem comes from Thibault’s psychological state on the day in question—he is so numb that he is difficult to access—but it’s also because de Vigan seems content to leave him more of a sketch compared to the intricately detailed portrait she creates of Mathilde.

After this first experience, I’ll be interested in reading more de Vigan. She is apparently best known for an earlier novel, No et Moi. Her other books include both autobiographical works and true fiction. I’m always quicker to pick up fiction, and her novels seem to favor urban-setting solitude narratives, something I feel (although I’m saying this off-the-cuff and could be wrong) that not many contemporary women writers take as their subject. Loneliness in a domestic setting, yes, loneliness within a couple or because of a broken family setting, yes, but a book that explores the loneliness of the greater urban world seen through a female protagonist strikes me as relatively unique.