Earth and High Heaven – Gwethalyn Graham

I have a very small Persephone Books collection. But what I have read from their catalogue so far has been simply great. Earlier this year, in March, I really liked Isobel English’s Every Eye, and followed it up with Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven this month. What a lovely novel it turned out to be.

Earth and High Heaven is a wonderfully absorbing novel the focal point of which is a love affair between a Gentile woman and a Jewish man portrayed against a backdrop of racial prejudice.

The novel is set in the city of Montreal in Canada in the early 1940s when the war was still raging in Europe. The opening lines pretty much sets the tone for what is to follow…

One of the questions they were sometimes asked was where and how they had met, for Marc Reiser was a Jew, originally from a small town in northern Ontario, and from 1933 until he went overseas in September 1942, a junior partner in the law firm of Maresch and Aaranson in Montreal, and Erica Drake was Gentile, one of the Westmount Drakes. Montreal society is divided roughly into three categories labeled ‘French, ‘English’, and ‘Jewish’, and there is not much coming and going between them, particularly between the Jews and either of the two groups, for although, as a last resort, French and English can be united under the heading ‘Gentile’, such an alliance merely serves to isolate the Jews more than ever.

We know from this that Erika Drake and Marc Reiser fall in love with each other but we are also made aware of how the couple are going to have a long struggle ahead given the backgrounds they come from. Racial tension was rampant in Montreal at the time, but Graham points out that the Jews weren’t necessarily singled out although they bore most of the brunt. There were nuances in discrimination within various strata of Montreal society.

Hampered by racial-religious distinctions to start with, relations between the French, English and Jews of Montreal are still further complicated by the fact that all three groups suffer from an inferiority complex – the French because they are a minority in Canada, the English because they are a minority in Quebec, and the Jews because they are a minority everywhere.

Erica is an English Canadian born in the affluent Drake family. Her father Charles Drake is the President of the Drake Importing Company and the family resides in a sumptuous home in Westmount. Erica has two siblings – an elder brother Anthony and a younger sister Miriam. Both Anthony and Miriam marry partners against Charles Drake’s wishes, but ultimately it doesn’t matter much because he is not close to either of them and does not care greatly for their opinion.

But Charles shares a special bond with Erica. They get along very well and Charles respects her in a way he does not respect his other two children.

Marc Reiser is Jewish, his parents having migrated to Canada from Austria several years earlier. Leopold Reiser, Marc’s father owns a small planning mill in Manchester, Ontario. Marc has an elder brother David who is a doctor in a remote, rural region of the country.

The book opens right in the midst of a big dinner party held at the Drake residence. Marc Reiser is brought to the gathering by an acquaintance of the Drakes’ – the French Canadian Rene de Sevigny whose sister has married Anthony Drake. Marc Reiser knows no one at the party and soon Rene abandons him leaving Marc to fend for himself. Eventually Erica and Mark meet and strike up a conversation. They immediately hit it off. When it’s time to say goodbye, Erica offers to introduce Marc to her father but Charles looks through Marc and completely ignores him.

Erica is offended by Charles’ rudeness. Attempts to make him understand this are futile because Charles is set in his ways and refuses to budge from his deep-seated prejudices against the Jews.

Charles behaviour does not deter Erica from seeing Marc. Quite the contrary. Soon the relationship between the two blossoms and starts getting serious. And Erica’s parents are aware of this.

A significant chunk of the novel then revolves around the discussions that Erica has with her parents regarding Marc as she tries to make them come around to her point of view. Erica, thankfully, is not entirely on her own. Her sister Miriam supports her and immediately likes Marc when she is introduced to him for the first time. Their parents, however, think differently and judge Marc without even meeting him. Continuous quarrels with her parents finally begin to take a toll on Erica and her health.

Will Erica succeed? Will she and Marc eventually surmount all odds so that they can marry?

Erica Drake is an interesting creation. Her upbringing means that she grows up with the same set of prejudices but she is discerning enough to be ashamed of them and change her way of thinking.

She had met a good many Jews before Marc, but in some way which already seemed to her inexplicable she had neglected to relate the general situation with any one individual. Evidently some small and yet vital part of the machinery of her thought had failed to work until this moment, or worse still, she might even have defeated its efforts to function by taking refuge in the comfortable delusion that even if these prejudices and restrictions were actually in effective operation, they would only be applied against – well, against what is usually designated as ‘the more undesirable type of Jew’. In other words, against people who more or less deserved it.

Now she saw for the first time that it was the label, not the man, that mattered.

Indeed, by working as a reporter at the Post, she has no qualms coming down the society ladder a bit or two even among her own set.

When she was twenty-one, her fiancé had been killed in a motor accident two weeks before she was to be married; not long after, she awoke to the realization that her father’s income had greatly shrunk as a result of the depression and that it would probably be a long time before she would fall in love again. She got a job as a reporter on the society page of the Montreal Post and dropped, overnight, from the class which is written about to the class which does the writing,. It took people quite a while to get used to the change.

Marc loves Erica enough to keep meeting her till regimental duty beckons him, but at the same time he is bogged down by the seemingly insurmountable odds against them. He has a fatal sense of the relationship not surviving even though Erica thinks otherwise.

The implication of racial prejudice, then, is a big theme of the novel, particularly the danger of making sweeping generalisations. Erica tries hard to make Charles see Marc as an individual and appreciate his many qualities rather than being dead set against him because of general racism towards Jews. Every individual is different and it is important to understand these nuances as against taking a collective approach and putting everyone on the same boat.

The other theme Graham looks at is the power play between men and women. This is displayed in details, such as Erica’s irritation when Rene orders lunch for her at a restaurant without consulting her and also explored a bit deeper when Charles tries to persuade Erica to leave her job at the Post and join the family business instead.

…as a woman you can just go so far and then you’re stuck in a job where you depend your life taking orders from some fathead with half your brains, whose only advantage over you is the fact that he happens to wear trousers.

Earth and High Heaven then is a brilliantly immersive novel. Graham’s writing is sensitive and intelligent and many of the discussions and arguments between Erica and her parents and Erica and Marc are tense but riveting. The characters are wonderfully fleshed out. Plus, Graham has a deep understanding of the various facets of 1940s Montreal society and this is superbly articulated in various dialogues between the characters.

Highly recommended!


Look At Me – Anita Brookner

Until now I had never read any Anita Brookner but she has been getting a lot of love on Book Twitter. So I decided to jump on the Brookner bandwagon with the novel that had been garnering rave reviews – Look At Me. I can safely say that the book is every bit as good as everyone says it is.

At a little under 200 pages, Look At Me is a compelling and searing portrait of loneliness and wanting to belong.

The novel opens with a bang.

Once a thing is known it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten. And, in a way that bends time, so long as it is remembered, it will indicate the future. It is wiser, in every circumstance, to forget, to cultivate the art of forgetting. To remember is to face the enemy. The truth lies in remembering.

Our narrator is a young woman Frances Hinton who works at the library of a medical research institute studying mental illnesses. Frances has a set and very predictable life. The only people she meets at work are her colleague and friend Olivia and the regular visitors Mrs Halloran and Dr Simek. When not at work, Frances spends time in her large flat left to her by her parents who are no more. Their long-time housekeeper Nancy is the only one who resides with her.

So deeply set in her current way of life is she that Frances shows no inclination to make drastic changes. The antique and heavy pieces of furniture present since her parents’ time are left as they are. Even Nancy prepares the same boring meal everyday.

Frances, however, has a flair for writing and spends her evenings in solitude in her flat as she composes what she hopes to be her first novel. For this she takes inspiration from real life for creating her characters. For Frances, writing is her way of wanting the world to notice her.

Sometimes I wish it were different. I wish I were beautiful and lazy and spoiled and not to be trusted. I wish, in short, that I had it easier. Sometimes I find myself lying awake in bed, after one of these silent evenings, wondering if this is to be my lot, if this solitude is to last for the rest of my days. Such thoughts sweep me to the edge of panic. For I want more and I even think I deserve it…

…I feel quite deeply, I think. If I am not very careful, I shall grow into the most awful old battle-axe. That is why I write, and why I have to, when I feel swamped in my solitude and hidden by it, physically obscured by it, rendered invisible, in fact, writing is my way of piping up. Of reminding people that I am here.

Not much action takes place at the library on most days, but occasionally the charismatic and charming doctor Nick Fraser drops in and creates quite a stir. When Frances is introduced to his equally dynamic wife Alix, Frances finds herself enthralled by the couple.

And just like that Frances becomes part of the Fraser circle and is delighted although both Nick and Alix are critical and prone to bouts of cruelty when it comes to her routines and way of living. Alix is clearly dominant of the two, expects to be entertained all the time, and gets what she wants. Frances often ponders why they put up with her given her dull existence. But she is fascinated by their vibrant personalities and lifestyles. And yet, Frances can’t help but notice that many a time Nick and Alix flaunt their relationship as a spectacle for the public infusing it with an element of cheapness.  

Things coast along until Frances begins interacting with James Antsey, Nick’s colleague, who has also become part of the Frasers’ social life. Frances and James become close although the relationship remains ‘innocent.’

It’s a golden period in Frances’ life as she enjoys the company of the Frasers as well as her budding relationship with James all of which inspires her to look forward to new beginnings. Until it all goes wrong.

Since Frances is the narrator, the book in a way is primarily a character study of her. And she comes across as a complex woman full of contradictions. Her highly analytical and forensic way of explaining things gives the impression that she is self-aware and yet she fails to really understand the Frasers and the vindictive rules by which they operate.

Frances also keeps oscillating between her craving for a dynamic social life as well her need for solitude. For instance when Alix offers Frances a spare room in their flat, Frances is almost tempted to take up the offer. After all, it’s the perfect opportunity to shed her old lifestyle which she is beginning to abhor and embrace the new. And yet she hesitates because she knows that she will lose forever her moments of solitude which are crucial for her writing.

Look At Me then is quite a fascinating but heartbreaking account of a lonely woman who can never really belong to the social circle she wants to be a part of, having to contend with the role of an outsider.

Brookner’s writing is brilliant. Her sentences are precise and exquisitely crafted and she captures perfectly Frances’ mental state as she is drawn towards the allure of the Frasers and then cruelly cast aside. The penultimate chapter is frightening as Frances in a fit of despair walks the cold, dark streets of London alone, her shock leaving her oblivious to possible dangers lurking around.

I will be reading more Brookner.

Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes was the first book I read by Sylvia Townsend Warner and it was a joy. I read it last month but am writing about it now because I have been struggling in general to write. Luckily, my reading has been progressing steadily and that’s a big plus in these trying times.

Lolly Willowes is wonderful tale of a single woman looking to lead an independent life by breaking away from the controlling clutches of her family.

Till her late twenties, Lolly is shown to lead a pretty sheltered life in the country where her father has a brewing business and an estate called Lady Place. While Lolly has two elder brothers Henry and James, it is quite clear from the start that Mr Willowes is attached to his daughter. The eldest son Henry shows no aptitude for running the family business, preferring to practice law in London instead. He soon moves to the city, marries Caroline, establishes a home, and starts a family.

James, though, is interested in brewery and begins to learn the ropes. Eventually, he marries too and along with his wife Sibyl settles down at Lady Place.

Meanwhile, Mrs Willowes passes away, and the running of the household falls on Lolly’s shoulders, which she accepts as a matter of course. However, Lolly shows no interest in marriage whatsoever. On one hand, her father feels guilty that he is not doing his duty in finding a suitable match for her, but he does not want to lose her company either.

With the death of Mr Willowes, Lolly’s idyllic life in the countryside comes to an end. Henry and Caroline decide that she is to come to London and stay with them. A spare room in the house is converted into a bedroom for Lolly and soon she is neck deep in the day to day household chores along with Caroline, shopping and looking after the children.

It is during that phase in her life that a sense of restlessness and foreboding begins to creep into Lolly. A London existence with its grinding routine increasingly depresses her.

She was subject to a peculiar kind of day-dreaming, so vivid as to be almost a hallucination: that she was in the country, at dusk, and alone, and strangely at peace. While her body sat before the first fires and was cosy with Henry and Caroline, her mind walked by lonely seaboards, in marshes and fens, or came at nightfall to the edge of a wood.

Her mind was groping after something that eluded her experience, a something that was shadowy and menacing, and yet in some way congenial; a something that lurked in waste places, that was hinted at by the sound of water gurgling through deep channels and by the voices of birds of ill omen. Loneliness, dreariness, aptness for arousing a sense of fear, a kind of ungodly hallowedness – these were the things that called her thoughts away from the comfortable fireside.

Lolly is now in her mid-forties, feels trapped and stultified, and longs for a change. During one of her shopping trips, she chances upon a flower shop and learns of a village in the Chilterns called the Great Mop. Soon she begins poring over books and maps on the place. It’s a region that tickles her fancy and on a whim she decides to establish herself there and live independently.

The first half of Lolly Willowes proceeds conventionally as Lolly sinks into domestic routines both at Lady Place and in London, her role in both these houses being taken for granted. It’s in the second half that the novel slips into a bit of whimsy and magic as ‘witches’ comes into play, but it’s all quite charming and more importantly Sylvia Townsend Warner pulls it off.

One doesn’t become a witch to run round being harmful, or to run round being helpful either…It’s to escape all that-to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others…

The one big theme in Lolly Willowes is the position of women in society. This novel was first published in 1926 and at the time a woman living by herself was probably unheard of. In the novel, it is expected that when the mother died, Lolly has to manage the household duties and when both the parents are no more, it is assumed that she is now the responsibility of the elder brother Henry. So much so that when she expresses her desire to carve a life for herself on her own in the country, Henry takes it as a personal affront. In those days, the concept of a woman leading an independent life was not the norm – if she was not married, she was expected to stay under her family’s wing.

Lolly refreshingly chooses to eventually defy these conventional societal roles. It’s a statement that even in the mid or late forties, it is never too late for a woman to entirely change her course of life if she really wants to.

I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded…There they are, child-rearing, house-keeping…And all the time being thrust down into dullness…I tell you that sort of thing settles down on one, like a fine dust…

There is a dreadful kind of dreary immortality about being settled down on by one day after another…They (women) are like the trees towards the end of summer, heavy and dusty, and nobody finds their leaves surprising, or notices them till they fall off. If they could be passive and unnoticed, it wouldn’t matter. But they must be active, and still not noticed.

The other interesting fact about the novel is that it was published around three years before Virginia Woolf released one of her famous books – A Room of One’s Own.

In this regard, Alison Lurie in my NYRB Classics edition very aptly states:

Woolf was to make much the same point, saying that if a woman is to be more than a convenient household appliance, if she is to have a life of her own, and especially if she wants to be a writer, she must have freedom and privacy and “a room of one’s own.” She spoke, we know now, for thousands of women then and in years to come. But Sylvia Townsend Warner had spoken for them first.

To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is one of those authors whose books I can read only when the timing is right. Years before, I abandoned Mrs Dalloway twice, only to try it much later when I was on a sabbatical. I loved the novel on my third attempt.

Something similar happened with To the Lighthouse. In a previous attempt I had not made much headway, but the current lockdown was the perfect opportunity to give this novel another go. And I loved this one too.

Despite her daunting reputation as a novelist and the perception that her novels are difficult to read, I ultimately found both Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse pretty accessible.

To the Lighthouse is essentially an impressionistic portrayal of the Ramsay family and their circle of friends during a holiday on the Isle of Skye told through various perspectives.

When the book begins Mrs Ramsay’s youngest son, James, who is around eight years old asks Mrs Ramsay whether they can visit the lighthouse. Mrs Ramsay believes the weather will be fine to make this excursion, but Mr Ramsay turns out to be a damp squib. He dashes their hopes stating that inclement weather is bound to make any such trip impossible.

This exchange at the beginning brings to the fore the tensions within the Ramsay family. Young James harbours resentment towards his father (which continues ten years later), and Mrs Ramsay is inwardly unhappy that her husband should be a spoilsport.

This brings us to one of the themes of the novel – the portrayal of a marriage, in this case the dynamic between Mr and Mrs Ramsay.

Mr Ramsay is quick tempered, and worries whether his body of work (he writes philosophy books) will stand up even after his death. He is insecure about being remembered by posterity and constantly craves for reassurances regarding his worth. For this, he more often than not turns towards his wife. To his kids, Mr Ramsay comes across as a tyrant.

Mrs Ramsay is described as a beautiful woman. In a way, she is the life of the assembly of people at their holiday home, the axis around which everything revolves. She is an intelligent woman but resigned to playing second fiddle to her husband, assuaging his moods, which often puts a strain on her. When it comes to their family life, however, she plays a central role, managing her eight children, being on top of household duties and taking care of her guests.

They came to her, naturally, since she was a woman, all day long with this and that; one wanting this, another that; the children were growing up; she often felt she was nothing but a sponge sopped full of human emotions.

It doesn’t mean the marriage is not successful because husband and wife love each other. Yet there are tensions between the two and the individual viewpoints of both Mr and Mrs Ramsay are presented to the reader.

And so she went down and said to her husband, Why must they grow up and lose it all? Never will they be so happy again. And he was angry. Why take such a gloomy view of life? He said. It is not sensible. For it was odd; and she believed it to be true; that with all his gloom and desperation he was happier, more hopeful on the whole, than she was. Less exposed to human worries-perhaps that was it. He had always his work to fall back on. Not that she herself was ‘pessimistic’, as he accused her of being. Only she thought life-and a little strip of time presented itself to her eyes, her fifty years.

Providing another perspective on their marriage outside of the family is Lily Briscoe – a young, aspiring painter who is also one of the guests at the holiday home.

Lily is very unsure of her talent as she frets over the form and composition of her paintings. It doesn’t help that Tansley, another guest, quips about how women ‘can neither paint nor write’.

Always (it was in her nature, or in her sex, she did not know which) before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt. Why then did she do it?

When she is not looking after her children, Mrs Ramsay spends her energy match-making and thinking about possible alliances. Mrs Ramsay knows she is beautiful but is also aware that her charms are not for everyone.

She bore about with her, she could not help knowing it, the torch of her beauty; she carried it erect into any room that she entered; and after all, veil it as she might, and shrink from the monotony of bearing that it imposed on her, her beauty was apparent. She had been admired. She had been loved….it injured her that he should shrink. It hurt her. And yet not cleanly, not rightly. That was what she minded, coming as it did on top of her discontent with her husband; the sense she had now when Mr Carmichael shuffled past, just nodding to her question….

The novel also explores the power dynamics between Mrs Ramsay and Lily Briscoe. Mrs Ramsay takes it upon herself to pair up people and in this she attempts to team up Lily with Mr William Bankes – a much older man. Lily does not fall for it and also on her part ponders on the relationship between Mr and Mrs Ramsay and the why the latter doesn’t stand up to him a bit.

There must have been people who disliked her very much, Lily thought – people who thought her too sure, too drastic. Also, her beauty offended people probably. How monotonous, they would say, and the same always! They preferred another type – the dark, the vivacious. Then she was weak with her husband. She let him make those scenes.

To the Lighthouse is made up of three sections. The first section – ‘The Window’ – is the longest; the focal point of which is the time spent by the family and their friends at their holiday home before the start of the Second World War as highlighted above. It ends with a large dinner party organized by Mrs Ramsay – where the various dynamics between the characters come into play – and the announcement of a wedding.  

We then move on to the second section – ‘Time Passes’ – which is peppered with some of the most poetic and beautifully written passages in the novel. The years roll by, the war rumbles on and the Ramsay holiday home gradually sinks into decay. Important developments in the Ramsay family are conveyed in various chapters in parenthesis.

In the third section – ‘The Lighthouse’ – ten years later, the Ramsay family are back on the island again and this time make that much delayed trip to the lighthouse.

One of the questions that many of the key characters ponder over is – What is the meaning of it all?

What does one live for? Why, one asked oneself, does one take all these pains for the human race to go on? Is it so very desirable?

Mr Ramsay does not want his fame to diminish even after his death. Lily Briscoe does not aspire towards such lofty ideals, nor does she appear to have much ambition of being a great painter, although she does brood over the details of the creative processes of painting.

What is the meaning of life? That was all-simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.

In terms of plot, there’s not much that happens in To the Lighthouse, the drama is all internal. Woolf’s writing is gorgeous, whether she is describing the Ramsay marriage, the creative energy of Lily Briscoe and the painting process, the changing of the seasons and the passing of time. The novel is a lovely portrayal of family life, of the love between a mother and her children and the accumulation of moments which leave an indelible mark on the mind.