Vertigo & Ghost – Fiona Benson

My reading in all these years has always veered towards prose – be it novels, short stories, or memoirs. Poetry, somehow, has always seemed daunting. But in recent times, I have been taking a greater interest in poetry although I must admit, I am still testing waters here, and there is much to explore.

Fiona Benson’s newly released collection ‘Vertigo & Ghost’ caught my attention for a couple of reasons – it was receiving strong reviews, and well, I loved the cover (the image is of Aphrodite crying).

And I thought the collection lived up to all the hype; it was brutal and bracing all at once. I loved it.

Vertigo Ghost

Vertigo & Ghost begins with the first poem ‘Ace of Bass’ and it is one of the most beautiful evocations of sexual awakening that I have read…

That was the summer

hormones poured into me

like an incredible chemical cocktail

into a tall iced glass, my teenage heart

a glossy, maraschino cherry

bobbing on top as that rainbow

shimmered through me, lighting me up

like a fish, and I was drunk,

obsessed, desperate to be touched,

colour streaming from my iridescent body

But little does it prepare you for what is about to come next. From a summer where teenage girls are hopeful for love, we are suddenly transported to a prison cell, where a woman is separated from her abuser by a glass partition.

days I talked with Zeus

I ate only ice

felt the blood trouble and burn

under my skin

 

found blisters

on the soft parts

of my body

 

bullet-proof glass

and a speaker-phone between us

and still I wasn’t safe

The abuser is none other than the god of gods in Greek mythology – Zeus.

This is Part One of the poetry collection, and Benson’s writing is furious, raw, visceral and unlike anything I have ever read. The poems surge along at a frenetic pace, terrifying but gorgeously expressed.

Zeus here is a serial rapist, unable to control his urges, wanting to exert his power over women and little girls.

The women that Zeus terrorizes take on many forms – they are either nymphs or goddesses or mortals.

Out beyond the pale there’s no straight course,

just waterlogged fields and Daphne’s hectic

blurts of speed. She’s at the edge of her wits,

retching with fear, and he is everywhere,

stumbling her up

Not all the poems are from the point of view of the women. Sometimes, Zeus also does the talking, about his conquests and his incarceration. Benson displays this in CAPS, possibly because of how Zeus perceives himself – the ruler of gods and men, egoistic and important.

NO FUN

THIS ANKLEBAND

TAZERS ME

EVERY TIME

I BRUSH THE BOUNDS

AND YET IT IS

SHALL WE SAY

EROTIC?

ITS SUDDEN CURSE

ITS THRILL

Ultimately, the poems in this section convey the fear as well as the anger and rage of women – of being objects for men, who think they can control and abuse them.

I came to understand

rape is cultural,

pervasive;

that in this world

 

the woman is blamed

These are themes that are very prevalent in today’s times and Benson’s form of expression in this regard is unique.

If Part One of this poetry collection was literally ‘fast and furious’, in Part Two, the pace considerably slows down and is more reflective and meditative. But without losing any power.

This second section deals with the themes of depression, nature and the first stages of motherhood – especially the fear and anxiety of being a new mother.

There is a flow to how the poems are presented. The first few poems are about nature, birds and insects, the elements of the earth. And then, they ease into the phenomenon of giving birth, into motherhood.

The poem ‘Ruins’ is about the physical changes that a women’s body goes through post childbirth.

Here’s my body

in the bath, all the skin’s

inflamed trenches

and lost dominions,

‘Daughter Drowning’ explores the fear that grips a mother when she has a newborn baby to look after, how the elder child longs for her mother’s attention, which of late has been diverted increasingly towards the newly born child.

I plunged through the shallows and caught her up;

she was spouting like a gargoyle,

spluttering and weeping, clinging to my neck.

Now she’s trying to get me to look,

and I almost can’t do it, some weird switch flipped

that means I watch the new-born like a hawk

afraid she’ll forget to breathe…

There is a considerable difference in the tone and pacing of the poems in both the sections…In Part One, the poems are shorter, like staccato beats, the urgency leaping off the pages. In Part Two, the poems are longer, the lines are flowing, and the nature of these pieces is more inward-looking and contemplative.

But ultimately, there is a common thread that runs through both these sets of poems – the fears and anxieties that most women have to grapple with in today’s modern world.

Fiona Benson is definitely a poet to watch out for.

 

Good Behaviour – Molly Keane

My fascination with early 20th century women writers continues.

Just last week, I wrote about The Great Fortune, the first book in Olivia Manning’s stellar The Balkan Trilogy.

Earlier this year, I had also loved The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark, The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer and The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter.

And now Molly Keane joins this strong list as another wonderful discovery with her novel Good Behaviour.

Good Behaviour frontispiece
Frontispiece in the Folio Society Edition

Good Behaviour is narrated in the first person by Aroon St Charles, the main protagonist in the novel. When the book opens, Aroon is fifty seven and is living with her aged mother and their housemaid cum cook Rose in Gulls’ Cry, a gothic house built on the edge of a cliff.

In the starting chapter, it is hinted that Aroon has been dominating over the household – especially her mother and Rose – making life difficult for them. Or so Rose implies. And then a dramatic event happens but in such an understated way that it sets the tone for the events leading up to this moment.

After the first chapter, the rest of the novel goes back several years when Aroon is a child living in the estate called Temple Alice in the Irish countryside with her younger brother Hubert and her parents.

Aroon’s father is a gentleman, extroverted, who loves horses and manages the affairs of the estate. That said, despite the affection he has for his wife, he is prone to drinking and having extra-marital affairs, which Aroon’s mother strangely does not mind too much.

Aroon’s mother is just the opposite. She cherishes the intimate moments with her husband, but does not care much for running the household or looking after her children. She is largely withdrawn, preferring to lose herself in her hobbies – painting, gardening and even collecting antique furniture.

It is no surprise then that Aroon grows to love her father more, as her mother remains cold and indifferent towards her.

This brings us to Aroon herself. Throughout the novel Aroon is always at the fringes, longing to belong, to be included, to be loved. With no hope for affection from her mother, Aroon becomes greatly attached to her brother Hubert and their father, who, in fragmentary moments, does display kindness towards her.

It is a family that prides itself on manners and insists on ‘good behaviour’, where feelings and emotions are hidden, and not explicitly stated. As a result, when it comes to relationships, all of them in some form or the other come across as emotionally stunted.

Our good behaviour went on and on, endless as the days. No one spoke of the pain we were sharing. Our discretion was almost complete. Although they feared to speak, Papa and Mummie spent more time together; but, far from comforting, they seemed to freeze each other deeper in misery.

We are also, earlier, introduced to Mrs Brock, governess for Aroon and Hubert when they were children. Mrs Brock is more generous and expressive and naturally Aroon comes to love her as well. Through Mrs Brock, the details of her earlier stint as a governess are revealed to us. This is at the home of Captain Massingham and his wife Lady Grizel, where we are also introduced to their eldest son Richard.

Many years later, at one time, Richard comes to stay with the St Charles family during the holidays, and Aroon falls in love with him. But it becomes obvious that Richard mostly does not harbor the same feelings towards her.

This is just the broader outline of the novel.

What makes the novel so brilliant is that it is such a multi-layered work. Desire and secrets abound in the St Charles family, but its members do not believe in openness and frank discussion. This is conveyed by Keane in prose that is subtle, elegant and understated – much in line with how the family believes things should be; that keeping up appearances is what matters at all costs.

Major events such as suicide, death, which take place over the years and over the course of the novel, are brushed under the carpet, as there’s too much awkwardness in openly discussing these episodes and coming to terms with them.

The family also lives in a world of its own, choosing to eschew reality when it comes to finances and other household matters. The world of aristocrats and country estates is slowly fading away across Ireland and England, but the St Charles family pretends it has nothing to do with them. Their decadent household rots, the debts keep piling up, but all of this seems too much of an inconvenience to deal with.

Good Behaviour illustration
An Illustration from the FS Edition…Aroon and Her Father Having Tea with the Crowhurst Girls

In the midst of all this, Aroon stands out as a woman who is incredibly naïve and yet strangely compelling. Her physical attributes – she is big and ungainly – only amplifies her awkwardness.

Her naiveté becomes all the more apparent in her inability to grasp any deeper meaning in the way her dysfunctional family behaves. Hints or the significance of things she has seen pass her by. She is largely consumed by loneliness and it’s her desperation to be loved that takes the centrestage for her.

I stood for a moment waiting for Papa to say a word in my praise or favour. I stood there stupidly, betrayed in his silence. I saw her looking up at him, with something else to say.

I turned away, my loneliness walking with me, taller than my own height as a shadow is tall – and irremediable as my height was.

There are some brilliant set pieces that are peppered throughout the novel, and there is one towards the end, when Aroon is invited to a ball, that is particularly poignant. Here, Aroon’s isolation in the midst of company is so pronounced that it’s heartbreaking.

All of this makes Good Behaviour akin to a dark, delicious cake – it is rich, intriguing, wonderfully spiced and layered with dollops of hidden meanings. Molly Keane’s writing is superb and the narrative never sags. It had me riveted throughout.

Jane Gardam, in her introduction to this novel, writes that Good Behaviour is considered to be Molly Keane’s tour de force, and was written in 1981 when she was 77 years old.

Here’s another fact that Gardam throws light on…

What is so interesting is that Good Behaviour was turned down flat by two publishers because it was ‘too dark’ even in a time when ‘darkness’ was in fashion. In other words it was contemporarily realistic and had stepped away from the notion of romantic, lovely, comical Ireland. It is a hunting, shooting and fishing book but the great houses are crumbling and there is every kind of physical and moral decay. 

All in all, Molly Keane has turned out to be another terrific writer whose back catalogue I certainly intend to sample and savour in the coming months.

Good Behaviour cover
Folio Society Hardcover Edition

 

Slow Days, Fast Company – Eve Babitz

It’s always great to discover a superb author whom you have never heard of before, let alone read his/her work, and thanks to NYRB Classics, Eve Babitz is one of them.

While I did have her book Eve’s Hollywood, I never got around to reading her…and in a busy month when I was scouring my shelves for something shorter, Slow Days, Fast Company seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

What a stellar read it turned out to be.

Slow Days Fast Company
NYRB Classics Edition

Slow Days, Fast Company is a wonderful collection of pieces in which Eve Babitz makes L.A. and Hollywood come alive in a writing style that is conversational and witty.

I can’t get a thread to go through to the end and make a straightforward novel. I can’t keep everything in my lap, or stop rising flurries of sudden blind meaning,. But perhaps if the details are all put together, a certain pulse and sense of place will emerge, and the integrity of empty space with occasional figures in the landscape can be understood at leisure and in full, no matter how fast the company.

Eve Babitz was a firm fixture in the L.A. circuit. But her flamboyant lifestyle, her string of lovers and the fact that she played chess nude with Marcel Duchamp lent her a notoriety that unfortunately overshadowed her work as a strong writer. As a result, her books probably remained relatively unknown for the most part of her life, although the recent reissue of her work has led to a revival of sorts.

The book begins with Babitz’ musings on L.A, a city she clearly loves and which has gotten under her skin.

Los Angeles isn’t a city. It’s a gigantic, sprawling, ongoing studio. Everything is off the record.

From thereon, Babitz touches upon topics as wide ranging as her one trip to Bakersfield, her relationships with both men and women, the price of success that women have to deal with, the complexities of Californian weather – the rain and the Santa Ana wind, and a weekend in Palm Springs gone wrong.

In ‘Bakersfield’, Babitz tastes food that is hearty and wholesome so different from the diets and food fads that dominate Hollywood.

There are three main Basque restaurants in Bakersfield that I’ve heard of: The Nyreaga, The White Bear, and The Pyrenees.

The forty of us from the party went to The White Bear and thirty-nine of us were prepared for what happened next. I was not.

In ‘The Flimsies’, her wit shines when she starts going around with an actor who seems perfect until he reads the outline of a future script and realizes he is going to be permanently disabled.

I don’t really know if it was the flimsies or the dinner but I’ve often noticed that there is a moment when a man develops enough confidence and ease in a relationship to bore you to death.

I have found that what usually brings this lethargy on is if the woman displays some special kindness. Like making dinner.

In one of my favourite chapters ‘Heroine’, Babitz dwells on the success of women and how they are not prepared for it. Janis Joplin is a perfect example of a successful artist who made her mark in music only to overdose on drugs later. What is it that made her so disillusioned?

Women are prepared to suffer for love; it’s written into their birth certificates. Women are not prepared to have ‘everything’, not success-type ‘everything.’ I mean not when the ‘everything’ isn’t about living happily ever after with the prince.

Babitz is also at the height of her descriptive powers when it comes to the brutal Santa Ana wind. She states that Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion both regarded the Santa Anas as some powerful evil, while on the other hand, Babitz ‘put on her dancing spirits.’

From earliest childhood I have rejoiced over the Santa Ana winds. My sister and I used to run outside and dance under the stars on our cool front lawn and laugh manically and sing…imagining we could be taken up into the sky on broomsticks.

Once, when I was fifteen, I walked for an entire afternoon along the empty cement in 110 degrees of hot dry winds just to get the feel of them, alone. Everyone else was hiding inside.

I know those winds the way Eskimos know their snows.

In some of the later chapters, the character Shawn becomes a regular feature whom Babitz begins to love. Shawn is bisexual and in one particular chapter called ‘Sirocco’ when L.A is blazing and badly in need of rain, Babitz falls into Shawn’s arms when a relationship with her former lover goes sour.

The thing is now that when I’m with Shawn I don’t even care if there’s some grandiose carnival in the sky I might be missing. Just think, if we didn’t have Santa Anas, how straight we’d all be. Like the patterns of those searchlights outside the Blue Champagne. 

Babitz also excels at describing people especially when bringing to the fore how shallow they are.

In a chapter called ‘Emerald Bay’, here’s how she paints the personality of a hostess Beth Nanville…

She had the same untouchable hair, the same bright-pink lipstick, the same terrible vague look around her eyes that got more confused when she was told that not only was I Shawn’s girlfriend (she knew Shawn was gay, and how could he be with me if he was gay?) but I was also a writer.

Slow Days, Fast Company is fabulous and simmers with hedonistic qualities. It would have been easy to dismiss this book as another vapid attempt at writing from a personality in the show business but that would have been doing Babitz a great disservice.

While there is an easy going, gossipy feel to the book, Babitz comes across as spunky, witty and worldly, a woman who understands the trappings of her milieu, and is frank about it.

There’s a perceptive trait in Babitz’ writing – it’s a book filled with astute observations and immensely quotable lines and paragraphs – that reminded me a lot of Lucia Berlin who I rate very highly.

I absolutely loved this work and definitely intend to explore more of her books.