Time: The Present Selected Stories – Tess Slesinger

Boiler House Press has simply outdone itself with the publication of two superb works under the Recovered Books imprint. Earlier this year, I read Gentleman Overboard, a splendid, psychological tale of a man faced with the terrifying prospect of drowning at sea, and now it’s Time: The Present by Tess Slesinger, an American author who sank without a trace during her time but is now seeing a revival. In a nutshell, this is simply the best short story collection I’ve read this year, and a shoo-in to my end of the year list.

Time: The Present is a superb collection of 19 stories exploring marriage, relationships, unemployment and class differences  where Tess Slesinger displays the kind of psychological acuity that make them so distinct and memorable.

Most of these stories were published in the 1930s in various journals and publications and capture the great turmoil of the period; a country grappling with the Great Depression and its crippling, sobering consequences on everyday living as well as the grim prospect of the Second World War looming large.

In this piece, rather than comment on each of the nineteen stories, I will focus more on those that to me were real standouts.

We begin with “White on Black”, the second story in the collection, a sharply observed tale on race, the difficulty of assimilation that comes with it; a look at how outsiders are always perceived as outsiders. Set in a private school attended by “nice” children, our narrator recalls a particular time when schools were starting to plant the seed of diversity in the minds of its students.

One of the private schools attended by the “nice” children of the West Side some twenty years ago followed not only the liberal practice of mixing rich and poor, Gentile and Jew, but made a point also of including Negroes.

This is particularly exemplified in the tale of the Wilsons, Negro siblings and central characters whose arrival at the school cause quite a stir. Paul, exquisite with striking features, quickly makes his presence felt with the boys, while Elizabeth makes similar strides with the girls. Boisterous and confident, both Paul and Elizabeth fascinate their peers, and contrary to being left out because they are black, they go on to become extremely popular in the school. But the innocence of childhood rarely carries itself into the harsh, cruel world of adults. As the children grow, so do their attitudes change with the dawning realization that it is not easy to practice the ideals of inclusiveness and diversity in the real world. Paul resents this fact, Elizabeth tries to adapt to it with varying results.

Slesinger’s flair for sarcasm and sharp, biting observations are on full display in the piece “Jobs in the Sky” – a prescient tale of ruthless corporate culture, mindless consumerism and joblessness. It’s a masterclass of character study, the stream of consciousness technique, satire and tragedy. The scene of action is the book section of a departmental store during Christmas rush and here is its principle cast of characters…

Mr Keasbey is the archetypical aggressive, competitive and experienced salesman, who always “signed in daily at eight-forty (ten minutes before the deadline).” Miss Bodkin is irreverent and a tad cocky, what she lacks in punctuality and discipline she more than makes up for in her superior sales skills. Joey Andrews is the new young man on the block, eager to please and massively relieved at finally bagging a job. Miss Paley, a teacher in her previous role, is a misfit in the book department, not really adept at selling, the pressure of being fired hanging like a Damocles sword over her head.

There’s so much going on in this story – the crippling impact of the Great Depression, the disintegration of the American Dream, a fiercely competitive and vacuous corporate life…and it’s astonishing how expertly Slesinger coalesces these various threads into a polished, unforgettable whole. The depiction of the commercial world replete with clichés is spot on – the customary, meaningless speeches given by the bosses at the start of everyday, the fear of not meeting targets and being laid off; as well as the rush of the Christmas season where customers behave like “animals stampeding in panic inside a burning barn.”  

The machinery starts with a roar; unorganized come into conflict with organized; the clerks are over-powered, the floor-walkers swept along with the stream of customers; the aisles are drowned; arms reach like fishing-rods into the piled bargains on every counter. But gradually the frantic, haphazard customers are subdued and controlled by the competent motions of well-trained officers, who reason, who separate, who mollify and implore. Still mad, but under direction at last, the crowd settles around counters creaming to be fed.

Brilliantly enmeshed in the story are Joey’s inner thoughts which highlight the crucial points of his former life – the ambition of securing a good education, the depression era turning those dreams into dust in a heartbeat,  followed by scrounging on the streets and finally gratitude at being employed at the department store. Also poignant is Miss Paley’s plight, another victim of the Depression era, fired from her long-held teaching post. Poor Miss Paley is out-of-sorts in a sales role rousing both pity and embarrassment in her fellow colleagues. The story ends with two dismissals – one hardly surprising, but the other one pretty unexpected.

 “The Friedmans’ Annie” is superb and poignant, a terrific portrayal of the internal drama of a woman and an incisive tale of class differences and manipulation. The titular character Annie is a loyal housemaid at the Friedmans’, a well-to-do Jewish family in New York. In their employ for many years, Annie is sincere and efficient, takes her work seriously and it is a matter of great pride to her that she is indispensable to the family. Annie also feels a sense of achievement in the hardwork and discipline involved in being elevated to that position. From a newbie (Greenhorn) many years ago to an experienced maid now, that successful transition is a product of the Friedmans’ training and Annie’s will of iron.

And yet we learn that something is amiss; a sense of loneliness and emptiness that wells up in Annie every now and then. For Annie desires a happy married life and a home of her own. The mornings are busy and buzzing with work as are the evenings, but the lonely afternoons with the hours stretching endlessly accentuate feelings of uncertainty and fear; we see a gamut of emotions raging in Annie’s soul as she contemplates hanging up her working boots and settling down.

The dining-room looked gloomy and dead through the window in the swinging-door. When there was no longer work to be done in these big room beyond the kitchen, they seemed too strange to enter alone…Oh yes, the afternoons were lonely, and it was too bad that she wouldn’t be going out tonight with Joe to Trommer’s.

She is already seeing a man called Joe who is crazy about her, but he resents how Annie is always at the beck and call of the Friedmans’ and how uppity she has become after years of working there. Joe feels Annie is being exploited while Annie, fiercely loyal, is always defending them. Thrown into this mix are Mrs Friedman and her daughter Mildred. Mrs Friedman expertly manipulates Annie’s feelings agreeing to her decision to marry but also subtly conveying how important it is for a woman to remain financially independent. Mildred, leaning towards the left, hates her privileged life and her mother taking advantage of Annie, but she is unable to make Annie understand her position. As the tale progresses, the sense of distress in Annie reaches fever-pitch as she is confronted with the frightening prospect of Joe possibly leaving her out of sheer frustration.

“Ben Grader Makes a Call” explores the psychological consequences of unemployment on a marriage, the erosion of self-esteem and the burden of dependency that this development involves. Taking place over the course of an afternoon, this is a tale of Ben Grader, a young man with a successful career who one day is unexpectedly fired from his job. At first, Ben displays a fair amount of bravado but as the day progresses as do his wanderings around the city, this bravado transforms into uncertainty, loss of self-esteem and resentment, the latter particularly aimed at his wife who would now take on the role of sole provider.

“Missis Flinders” is a scalpel-like, hard-hitting tale of an abortion, the emotional burden of which sets in motion the unraveling of a marriage. The story opens with Margaret Flinders on the front steps of the hospital waiting for her husband Miles to hail a taxi to take them home. We learn that Margaret was in the hospital for an abortion, and she is stricken with grief at the step she has taken. Margaret and Miles are left-wing intellectuals immersed in a life of exciting ideas, freedom, and independence. To them, raising children is not an option, it is simply too bourgeoisie and an unnecessary burden.

But when Margaret gets pregnant, she realizes that she wants to keep the baby, while Miles is against it. During an evening of drinks that leaves them both intoxicated and exhilarated, Miles convinces her to abort the pregnancy. Margaret goes through with it but she is devastated at the irreversibility of her actions. What deepens her sadness is the uncomprehending reaction from the other residents in the maternity ward – the women who have delivered babies, whether alive or stillborn – who can’t fathom Margaret’s decision to abort. Moreover, when she observes these womens’ husbands excited at the prospect of fatherhood and their indulgence towards their wives, she begins to wonder whether there is any substance to her married life with Miles.

…intellectuals, with habits generated from the right and tastes inclined to the left. Afraid to perpetuate themselves, were they? Afraid of anything that might loom so large in their personal lives as to outweigh other considerations? Afraid, maybe, of a personal life?

“In The Times So Unsettled Are”, Heinrich and Mariedel are Socialists who refuse to leave Vienna during a time of great political upheaval, when the Socialists are hell-bent on transforming the political and economic landscape of the country. But their dreams and plans are perennially in the threat of being torn to shreds. During endless conversations over cups of coffee in a traditional Viennese café, Heinrich and Mariedel become entranced by the American couple Richard and Mahli (Molly) – their infectious humour, love for one another and the aura of happiness that they convey warm the hearts of the Austrians. Richard and Mahli try to convince Heinrich and Mariedel to begin life anew in America, but they refuse. Several years later, Heinrich is killed and his death leaves Mariedel in a state of shock she is not willing to acknowledge, but it provides her with the impetus to finally leave Vienna for America, reunite with Richard and Mahli and live vicariously through their happiness. But things don’t turn out as planned and what Mariedel witnesses disturbs her even more. This is a beautifully written tale of love, loss, friendships and broken dreams.

Fractured relationships and mismatched wavelengths of both husband and wife are running themes, the myriad facets of which shine in many of these tales. Yet Slesinger is not keen on taking sides, both the men and women she portrays are flawed. For instance, in “Kleine Frau”, a young couple on a honeymoon is disconcerted by the drowning of a child belonging to one of the local families, but while the husband is bereft at not doing his best to help, the wife in her selfishness is unhappy with him for ignoring her in the mounting cold. “Mother to Dinner” wonderfully captures the intense conflict in a young woman who is torn between pleasing her cold, intellectually superior husband and her bourgeoisie mother who the husband never fails to deride. In “After the Party”, Helene Colborne, a wealthy upper class woman is tormented by her husband’s Socialist tendencies and later by his sympathies with the working class; and suffers a nervous breakdown when he pledges all his wealth to the Communist Party.

What’s remarkable about Time: The Present is the sheer variety of themes on display marked by Slesinger’s grasp on a wide range of subjects. Slesinger is as adept at painting a picture of the economic perils and complex social issues of her time as she is at showcasing the nuances of marriage and relationships, expertly weaving these elements together to form a rich tapestry of stories. Often written in a stream-of-consciousness style that is accessible and engaging, most of these stories are set in the 1930s but the topics that form the nucleus of these tales exhibit a timeless quality. These topics carry much weight even today – the travesty of race and its non-inclusive aspect; disparities of class and that unbridgeable economic divide; a bleak corporate culture that epitomizes soul crushing competition and mind-numbering drudgery; politics with its clear demarcation between socialism and capitalism; not to mention life changing events such as job loss, abortion, death and divorce that expose cracks in the relationships of ill-matched couples. At once astute, razor-sharp, gut-wrenching, tragic, perceptive and wise, Time: The Present is a magnificent collection, one that definitely deserves to be better known.


Sunburn – Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman turned out to be an excellent discovery this month. I liked Sunburn so much that I ended up buying two more of her books – The Lady in the Lake and After I’m Gone and I’m also keen to explore more titles from her backlist, she seems to have quite a few under her belt.

He looks into his own drink and says out loud, as if to himself:

“What kind of an asshole orders red wine in a tavern in Belleville, Delaware?”

“I don’t know,” she says, not looking at him. “What kind of an asshole are you?”

“Garden variety.”

Sunburn takes its name from the opening scene in the novel. Adam Bosk is drinking at the bar of a rundown motel called High-Ho in the equally dead-end town of Belleville, Delaware. He observes an attractive redheaded woman, our protagonist Polly, just a few barstools away from him, all by herself and lost in thought. Her shoulders are peeling from too much exposure to the sun.

It’s the sunburned shoulders that get him. Pink, peeling. The burn is two days old, he gauges. Earned on Friday, painful to the touch yesterday, today an itchy soreness that’s hard not to keep fingering, probing, as she’s doing right now in an absentminded way. The skin has started sloughing off, soon those narrow shoulders won’t be so tender. Why would a redhead well into her thirties make such a rookie mistake?

Adam finds her presence in this small, unremarkable town a bit disconcerting. Belleville is not the kind of place that screams tourism; on the contrary, it’s the sort of place that no person will even look at twice.

And why is she here, sitting on a barstool, forty-five miles inland, in a town where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening? Belleville is the kind of place where people are supposed to pass through and soon they won’t even do that.

And yet strangely enough Polly has landed up in Belleville. At that point, her motive is a mystery to Adam and to the reader (“One thing’s for sure: she’s up to something. His instincts for this stuff can’t be denied”).

But for that matter, the same could be said of Adam. What is Adam Bosk also doing in this run-of-the-mill town?

Adam tentatively attempts to strike up a conversation with Polly, a cautious banter that only heightens the sense of mystery around the two.

“You from around here?”

“Define from.” She’s not playing, she’s retreating.

“Do you live here?”

I do now.”

“That sunburn – I just assumed you were someone who got a day or two of beach, was headed back to Baltimore or D.C.”

“No. I’m living here.”

He sees a flicker of surprise on the barmaid’s face.

“As of when?”


It immediately becomes clear that Polly is running away from something, and a sufficiently curious Adam books himself a room in that very same motel where Polly has chosen to reside. In the second chapter, we are introduced to Gregg, Polly’s husband, who is taken aback by Polly’s sudden decision to abandon him and their daughter Jani. A typical conservative man, Greg finds himself saddled with the unnerving prospect of being Jani’s sole caregiver, a role he did not take seriously before.

Things take a turn when Adam finds himself falling hard for Polly against his better instincts, and Polly begins to reciprocate. The fact that both have secrets they would rather hide only complicates matters.  As the novel progresses, Polly’s motives become clearer as do Adam’s and their lives become intertwined in a potent manner, a combination that involves both attraction and mistrust. 

Sunburn, then, is a riveting piece of noir fiction that explores themes of identity, violence, survival and trying to start life afresh.

Polly is a fascinating character with a dark, checkered past; a past dotted with violence and murder. Largely sidelined to the fringes of society because of what happened to her before, Polly through sheer resilience and instinct for survival soldiers on, always trying to think ahead. Her quiet demeanor and attractive persona make her irresistible to men and Adam, unsurprisingly, is taken in by her charms. Precisely because of her reputation of having an uncanny way with men, it’s also not surprising that most of her relationships with women are largely strained, marked by hints of suspicion.

Lippman is great at portraying the intrusive atmosphere of small town life – the gossip, the unflattering insinuations, and the conservative outlook…plus through the stuff that Polly has to grapple with, it’s also a book that subtly makes digs at gender stereotypes.

Sunburn appears to be some form of homage to James McCain and his brand of hardboiled noir. During a particularly disturbing period in her life, Polly seeks refuge in cinema halls watching adaptations of his novels, particularly Double Indemnity.

Then she found the films series at the museum, free on Thursday afternoons, and she escaped the long Baltimore summer in that cool, hushed place…The summer of 1985, the film series was all black-and-white films from the 1940s. Double Indemnity. Mildred Pierce. The Postman Always Rings Twice. Polly didn’t understand at first how they were linked, why the series was called Raising Cain, but then someone explained they were all based on books by a Maryland man who had lived in Baltimore and Annapolis, grown up on the Eastern shore.

With Lippman’s flair for sharp dialogues and the creation of an unforgettable, tough-as-nails female lead, Sunburn is smart, expertly-paced and intelligently written, and well worth one’s time.  

A Month of Reading – June 2022

June turned out to be an excellent month of reading in terms of quality; a mix of short stories, 20th century literature and memoir/biography. All the books were great, ones I would highly recommend. As I mentioned in my May 2022 reading post, I am lagging a bit in my Pilgrimage reading, and finished Interim in June with plans of hopefully catching up in the coming months.

So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first three you can click on the links.

THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE by Elizabeth Jenkins

The Tortoise and the Hare is a brilliant, disquieting tale of the gradual disintegration of a marriage told with the kind of psychological intensity that makes it very absorbing.

Our protagonist is Imogen Gresham, a beautiful woman married to the dynamic, successful and distinguished barrister Evelyn, many years her senior. Evelyn Gresham is a man with a strong, forceful personality, quite demanding and opinionated. Gentle and sensitive, Imogen could not have been more different. She is blessed with beauty and charm, qualities that first attracted Evelyn to her, but it is pretty apparent early on that she plays second fiddle in their marriage. And then there is Blanche Silcox, the Greshams’ neighbour in the village. Blanche is about the same age as Evelyn and in the eyes of Imogen, an elderly, dowdy woman no man will look at twice. But what Blanche does not have in the looks department she more than makes up for in her sensible, matter-of-fact attitude.

Not taking her seriously at first, Imogen is gradually disconcerted to find Evelyn begin an affair with Blanche, a development that pushes Imogen into a state of crisis.

The Tortoise and the Hare, then is a domestic drama of the finest quality; a simple, straightforward story that is deliciously disturbing; infused with psychological depth that makes the book so utterly compelling. It’s also an interesting way of turning the concept of the extra-marital affair on its head –  an older man, rather than being besotted with an attractive young woman, falls hard for an older, plain-looking woman instead.

THE TROUBLE WITH HAPPINESS & OTHER STORIES by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

The Trouble with Happiness are terrific stories of fear, anxiety, guilt, loneliness, told by Ditlevsen in her customary frank, lucid, absorbing style. The book is an amalgamation of two collections – “The Umbrella” and “The Trouble with Happiness” with around ten to eleven stories under each.

In “My Wife Doesn’t Dance”, an innocuous comment made by the protagonist’s husband opens the floodgates for a host of her insecurities to spill out. In “Queen of the Night” we get a glimpse of a toxic marriage through the eyes of a young girl, while “One Morning in a Residential Neighbourhood” is a heartbreaking tale of a breakup of a marriage and family life and its shattering impact on the various parties involved.

In the “Two Women”, a woman looking to be luxuriously pampered in a salon so that she can leave her growing anxieties on the backbench for a while, comes out feeling more rattled than ever; while in “The Little Shoes”, an ageing woman laments her middle-age exacerbated by her lovely, spirited daughter and the possibility that her second husband is infatuated with her. While in the titular story, “The Trouble with Happiness”, which has echoes of Ditlevsen’s terrific memoir Childhood, a young woman decides to take charge of her own life by leaving behind her despondent family home so that she can harness her ambition of being a writer.

The Trouble with Happiness, then, is a biting, scalpel-sharp, devastating depiction of love, marriage and family; succinct, intense tales that make for compelling reading. 


Letters to Gwen John is a stunning meditation on the creative process, women making art, the pleasures of solitude, living life on your own terms, ageing and loneliness.

It’s an imagined conversation between two artists – Gwen John and Celia Paul – born in different eras, and yet sharing striking similarities in terms of relationships and their approach to art. A wonderful blend of artistic biography, memoir and the epistolary form, Celia Paul addresses her letters to Gwen John giving readers insight into various facets of their personalities. For Celia Paul these letters are homage to an artist with whom she feels a kinship and a spiritual connection, a guiding light particularly during some challenging moments.

Interspersed with sublime paintings by both artists, Letters to Gwen John is an exquisitely produced book and a pleasure to read. The scope is wide-ranging and there is both a historical and contemporary feel to the narrative – from Gwen’s life at the turn of the 20th century to the global Covid pandemic and lockdown.

INTERIM (PILGRIMAGE 2) by Dorothy Richardson

Interim is the fifth installment in Dorothy Richardson’s extraordinary Pilgrimage cycle of novels, after Pointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb, and The Tunnel

The first thing that’s different about Interim is that we don’t see Miriam arriving at a new place to begin a new position as was the case in the previous four novels. During the entire course of Interim, Miriam continues to be in London, staying at Mrs Bailey’s on Tansley Street and working at the Orly dental practice on Wimpole Street.

These different series of jobs in the earlier novels introduced Miriam to newer people, and it would be natural to assume that her staying put at Mrs Bailey’s would mean a status quo as far as her social life goes. Quite the contrary, it turns out. Miriam’s circle of acquaintances in fact widens primarily because of Mrs Bailey’s decision to house boarders introducing her to a wide array of people from beyond England.

Thus, we are introduced to Mr. Antoine Bowdoin, a Frenchman interested in music, the violinist Mr Gunner, a Spanish Jew Mr Bernard Mendizabal, and four Canadian doctors who are also studying, one of whom Dr von Heber is romantically interested in Miriam.

Introverted and comfortable in her solitude, Miriam struggles with the hustle bustle of the boarders early on, although gradually she begins to socialize with them lured by the promise of newer ideas and worldviews. 

But this is also a phase in Miriam’s life when she feels at home in London, a period that sees her dabble in a range of cultural experiences the city has to offer. She finds the lectures on Dante thought-provoking, attends a musical evening hosted by Mr Bowdoin, as well as Sunday concerts, and even finds refuge in a restaurant run by Donizetti Brothers.

The little man was sitting writing with a stern bent face at a little table at the far end of the restaurant just in front of a marble counter holding huge urns and glass dishes piled with buns and slices of cake. He did not move again until she rose to go when he came once more hurrying down the aisle. Her bill was sixpence and he took the coin with a bow and waited while she extricated herself from the clinging velvet, and held the door wide for her to pass out. Good evening thank you very much she murmured hoping that he heard, in response to his polite farewell. She wandered slowly home through the drizzling rain warmed and fed and with a glow at her heart. Inside those frightful frosted doors was a home, a bit of her own London home.

The presence of boarders at Mrs Bailey’s from different countries and different walks of life also offers Miriam the enticing prospect of knowledge and debate – for instance, the earlier chapter sees her argue with Mr Mendizabal on the concept of “Cosmopolis”, an idea he dismisses.

Miriam found herself in the midst of a train of thought that had distracted her during her morning’s work. Cosmopolis, she scribbled in her note-book. The world of science and art is the true cosmopolis. Those were not the words in “Cosmopolis” but it was the idea. Perhaps no one had thought of it before the man who thought of having the magazine in three languages. It would be one of the new ideas. Tearing off the page she laid it on the sofa-head and sat contemplating an imagined map of Europe with London Paris and Berlin joined by a triangle, the globe rounding vaguely off on either side. All over the globe, dotted here and there were people who read and thought, making a network of unanimous culture. It was a tiring reflection; but it brought a comfortable assurance that somewhere beyond the hurrying confusion of everyday life something was being done quietly in a removed real world that led the other world. People arrived independently at the same conclusions in different languages and in the world of science they communicated with each other. That made Cosmopolis.

But more importantly, the innate foreignness of these boarders fascinate her, rousing her interest in varied cultures and the manner in which they differ from the English way of life. Here, she reminisces about her German sojourn as a governess (in Pointed Roofs), as well as a holiday in Ostend of which we are given a brief glimpse.

Miriam is also exposed to the wonders of café life – the smoking, exotic food and wines, and an overall air of gaiety and bonhomie.

Ruscino, in electric lights round the top of the little square portico, like the name of a play round the portico of a theatre, the sentry figure of the commissionaire, the passing glimpse of palm ferns standing in semi-darkness just inside the portico, the darkness beyond, suddenly became a place, separate and distinct from the vague confusion of it in her mind with the Oxford Music Hall; offering itself, open before her, claiming to range itself in her experience; open, with her inside and the mysteries of the portico behind … continental London ahead of her, streaming towards her in mingled odours of continental food and wine, rich intoxicating odours in an air heavy and parched with the flavour of cigars, throbbing with the solid, filmy thrilling swing of music. It was a café! Mr. Mendizabal was evidently a habitué…

…In a vast open space of light, set in a circle of balconied gloom, innumerable little tables held groups of people wreathed in a brilliancy of screened light, veiled in mist, clear in sharp spaces of light, clouded by drifting spirals of smoke. They sat down at right angles to each other at a little table under the central height. The confines of the room were invisible. All about them were worldly wicked happy people.

…She could understand a life that spent all its leisure in a café; every day ending in warm brilliance, forgetfulness amongst strangers near and intimate, sharing the freedom and forgetfulness of the everlasting unchanging café, all together in a common life. It was like a sort of dance, everyone coming and going poised and buoyant, separate and free, united in freedom. It was a heaven, a man’s heaven, most of the women were there with men, somehow watchful and dependent, but even they were forced to be free from troublings and fussings whilst they were there … the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest … she was there as a man, a free man of the world, a continental, a cosmopolitan, a connoisseur of women. 

On the personal front, Miriam is excited to meet her elder sister Eve, who has left her job as a governess at the Green residence to take up a position of an assistant in a London flower shop, an excitement that gives way to disappointment (I think?), and she also briefly meets Jan and Mag, the independent women we are introduced to in the Tunnel, and who were some of my favourite characters.

But there’s a sense that Miriam still has a lot to learn about people, and her naiveté particularly becomes apparent in the later chapters, when her actions are grossly misunderstood by one of the boarders.  

One of the pleasures of Pilgrimage, for me at least, has been Dorothy Richardson’s evocative descriptions, be it nature or interior decors; surroundings which heighten Miriam’s sense of well-being and indicate the joys to be found in the everyday. Here is a passage from the earlier chapters when Miriam is staying for a short while with the Blooms (her friends Grace and Florrie, who were also her students in Backwater), and their aunt Mrs Philps.

Miriam emerged smoothly into the darkness and lay radiant. There was nothing but the cool sense of life pouring from some inner source and the deep fresh spaces of the darkness all round her. Perhaps she had awakened because of her happiness… clear gentle and soft in a melancholy minor key a little thread of melody sounded from far away in the night straight into her heart. There was nothing between her and the sound that had called her so gently up from her deep sleep. She held in her joy to listen. There was no sadness in the curious sorrowful little air. It drew her out into the quiet neighbourhood…misty darkness along empty roads, plaques of lamplight here and there on pavements and across house fronts … blackness in large gardens and over the bridge and in the gardens at the backs of the rows of little silent dark houses, a pale lambency over the canal and reservoirs. 

I enjoyed Interim, but must admit that to me it paled in comparison to The Tunnel, which was much more rich, vibrant and interesting, and therefore a better reading experience even though it was the longest novel. On to Deadlock next!

That’s it for June. I began July with the brilliant Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks as well as Tess Slesinger’s wonderful collection of stories, Time: The Present. I also plan to read the sixth and seventh books from the Pilgrimage series – Deadlock and Revolving Lights.

Maud Martha – Gwendolyn Brooks

Faber Editions is putting out some excellent titles. Earlier this year, I read the wonderful Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, and now it’s Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks, which at barely 114 pages is an absolute gem of a novella.

First released in the US in 1953, Maud Martha is the only novel published by Gwendolyn Brooks, a Pulitzer-prize winning poet. It’s a striking and evocative portrayal of black womanhood in 1940s Chicago told with poetic grace and intensity.

Composed of 34 vignettes, sometimes bite-sized, sometimes running into not more than four pages, these mini-portraits build up to depict the ordinary life of an indomitable, black woman and her people – dreams and desires, dashed hopes and disappointments and yet finding meaning in the simple pleasures of life.

What she liked was candy buttons, and books, and painted music (deep blue, or delicate silver) and the wet sky, so altering, viewed from the steps of the back porch: and dandelions.

Thus begins the first description that we get of Maud Martha, a dreamy, young woman, who would have liked either a lotus, or China asters or meadow lilies, but is fascinated instead by dandelions (“yellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress of her back yard”). Considering herself plain-looking in sharp contrast to her lovely sister Helen, to Maud the dandelions epitomize an accurate depiction of herself (“it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower.)”

Maud Martha’s family comprises her parents, sister Helen and brother Harry and they have a home they can truly call their own, although for a short period they are faced with the danger of losing it due to financial troubles. Maud mostly has blissful memories of her childhood – a warm family life even if she’s not the apple of her parents’ eye, traditional Christmas celebrations and the camaraderie with her schoolmates.   Even as a child, her perceptive quality shines through – when she notices her parents embracing, she is glad that they have ended their quarrel and patched up, and the death of her grandmother frightens and saddens Martha as she ponders, “I never saw anybody die before. But I’m seeing somebody die now.”

As the years roll on by, Maud Martha will go on to have a couple of boyfriends, meet Paul Phillips, marry him and settle down, have a house of her own, give birth to a daughter Paulette and enmesh with her community.

Maud Martha beautifully conveys not only the experiences and dreams of the titular character but also the broader aspirations of her community and the difficulty in attaining them due to class and race barriers. The piece on New York is vibrant with colourful images – Maud has visions of herself in New York with its splendid tapestry of well-heeled, sophisticated people, delectable food, expensive wines, posh luxurious restaurants and hotels, the art and culture scene. In another piece, one of her boyfriends, her second beau, who “belonged to the world of the university”, covets the finer things in life – well-furnished apartment with bookcases, records, symphonies, a dog; things that are a hallmark of the well-bred, upper class set. But what chance does he have of achieving this kind of status given his poorer roots, he laments.

What chance did he have, he mused, what chance was there for anybody coming out of a set of conditions that never allowed for the prevalence of sensitive, and intellectual, yet almost frivolous, dinner-table discussions of Parrington across four-year-old heads?

We are also given a glimpse of the working class community that Maud Martha is part of, exemplified by her neighbours in the building where she resides. Named “Kitchenette Folks”, it is the longest chapter in the book that wonderfully depicts the building inhabitants and their wide-ranging personalities, expectations and circumstances. There’s Oberto, who adores his wife Marie, often criticized by the women who gossip about her poor housekeeping skills, but Oberto considers himself blessed because he would rather have a wife who invests her time in caring for her looks. There’s the little boy Clement Lewy, whose mother has lost the will to carry on after being deserted by her husband. But Clement is a spirited boy, revels in the orderly, sameness of his life, and is always joyful when he greets his mother coming back home after a hard day’s work. There’s the strange youth of twenty who one day barges into Maud’s apartment, and the Whitestripes (“the happiest couple Maud Martha had ever met”), whose close bonding and affection Maud knows she will never have with Paul. There’s Richard, the truck driver, whose weekly earnings barely support his family of five, and the daily stress becomes so hard to bear that one day he just doesn’t come home.

It’s also an astute depiction of marriage and the tempering of expectations that come with it witnessed through the lens of Maud’s relationship with Paul. Maud has no illusions about her marriage. She knows Paul will marry her because she is sweet and good (“He is thinking that I am all right. That I am really all right. That I will do.”), although a part of her wonders whether he is beset with thoughts of finding someone better. As a couple, they are often mismatched as far as interests go – Maud loves theatre, art and culture which Paul does not much care for. He has an affinity for a dazzling social life filled with glamorous beautiful people, and being recognized in exclusive clubs. With the birth of their daughter Paulette, Paul is often overwhelmed with the dreariness of his existence (“she knew that he was tired of his wife, tired of his living quarters, tired of working at Sam’s, tired of his two suits”), and yet she is fiercely protective of her world when her mother comments that they could do better (“I have a husband, a nice little girl, and a clean home of my own”).

She watched the little dreams of smoke as they spiraled about his hand, and she thought about happenings. She was afraid to suggest to him that, to most people, nothing at all “happens.” That most people merely live from day to day until they die. That, after he had been dead a year, doubtless fewer than five people would think of him oftener than once a year. That there might even come a year when no one on earth would think of him at all.

There are undercurrents of darkness that lace the novella, the racial slurs and insults that slip through the holes in the fabric of Maud Martha’s life; the bigotry and condescending attitude of the whites that she and her family can’t always escape. When visiting a movie hall, Maud and Paul worry about getting “suspicious looks” because they are the only black couple in the theatre, while in a heartbreaking scene, a department store Santa Claus looks through Maud and her daughter Paulette when the latter lists the gifts she wishes Santa to bring her for Christmas.

Like an exquisitely carved doll-house of extraordinary workmanship with each compartment having a unique story to tell, these perfectly crafted miniature stories are complete by themselves, and yet unique in the way they reveal various facets of Maud Martha’s personality. She is a child saddened and bewildered by her grandmother’s death. She is a self-aware teenager who envies the prettiness of her sister Helen. She loves books, boasts of a rich inner world and a lively imagination. She becomes a wife and a mother and manages the highs and lows with aplomb – the happiness, challenges and inevitable frustrations that these roles entail. All the while reminded that she is a black woman who will not be considered an equal to her white counterparts but she handles their oblique insults with dignity, although internally rebelling against them. She is a woman who loves tradition, festivities that made her childhood such a jovial place. But more importantly, she is a woman who despite life not having panned out exactly the way she wanted, still manages to find gladness and beauty all around her.

Maud Martha learns to make best use of the raw materials that life has accorded her and fashion it into something memorable. She would have loved a stately home and a lavish lifestyle but she takes pride in decorating her little kitchenette. She would have loved Paul to be more compatible with her, but does not harbour resentment when that does not happen. She bears no ill-will towards her father who clearly panders to her sister Helen’s every whim. There is a wide gap between her imagined life and the hardcore reality but she does not slide into unhappiness and despondency.  

What’s also great about Maud Martha is the magical prose awash with lush and vivid imagery and descriptions – the “shafts and pools of light, the tree, the graceful iron” that form an intrinsic part of her family home; New York which “glittered in front of her like the silver in the shops on Michigan Boulevard” as she stood before theatres “of the thousand lights”, the snow as “finest bits of white powder coming down with an almost comical little ethereal hauteur.”

The episodic structure of Maud Martha is reminiscent of Evan S. Connell’s fabulous novel Mrs Bridge – the miniature scenes are perfectly rendered, much nuanced and subtle, sumptuous language with a poetic touch. However, as a character, Maud Martha is very unlike Mrs Bridge; she is definitely not a helpless woman by any stretch of the imagination, even if her life has not always evolved as per her wishes.

Then she thought of her life. Decent childhood, happy Christmases; some shreds of romance, a marriage, a pregnancy and the giving birth, her growing child, her experiments in sewing, her books, her conversations with her friends and enemies.

“It hasn’t been bad,” she thought.

Maud Martha, then, is a gorgeous depiction of ordinary life, where Brooks through sheer poetry and wisdom conveys the beauty of the everyday – the hopes, ambitions, pitfalls, joys and sorrows. Through Maud’s personality and the environment she grows up in, Brooks explores broader themes of racial and class differences, family life, marriage and community. Maud Martha lives life on her own terms, and refuses to let regrets, disillusionments and the cruelty of racism bog her down. It’s her refusal to let ways of society always dictate her actions that is testament to her spirit and individuality and gives the novella its power.

To create – a role, a poem, picture, music, a rapture in stone: great. But not for her.

What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha. That was the offering, the bit of art, that could not come from any other.

She would polish and hone that.

The Trouble with Happiness & Other Stories – Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Tove Ditlevsen first came to my attention three years ago with the publication of her remarkable The Copenhagen Trilogy, the three memoirs – Childhood, Youth and Dependency – released in slim, individual volumes by Penguin Classics. I loved that trilogy, some of the best books I read in 2019. Another book called The Faces, a lived experience of mental illness, was also pretty good. And now we have the latest offering, her short story collection, The Trouble with Happiness, another superb book that in terms of content and style pretty much mirrors the trilogy.

The Trouble with Happiness are terrific stories of fear, anxiety, guilt, loneliness, told by Ditlevsen in her customary frank, lucid, absorbing style. The book is an amalgamation of two collections – “The Umbrella” and “The Trouble with Happiness” with around ten to eleven stories under each. Just like the previous collections I have reviewed, I won’t focus on all of them but more on those stories that really stood out for me.

In the first story, “The Umbrella”, we are introduced to Helga who “had always – unreasonably – expected more from life than it could deliver.” Helga is presented to us as on ordinary woman having never demonstrated a special talent of any kind.” She is hardworking, accommodating, and quiet and like her girlfriends interested in dancing and men, although she never displays the kind of desperation her friends sometimes do.

Over time, many small infatuations rippled the surface of her mind, like the spring breeze that makes new leaves tremble without changing their life’s course. 

But then Egon comes along, falling hard for Helga and they get engaged. Egon is a mechanic, interested in sports, and not culturally inclined, and yet during their days of courtship he reads poetry, using modes of expression very unlike him. Egon is happy with the fact that he is engaged to a chaste woman. But her first experience of physical intimacy leaves her confused with the sinking feeling that there was nothing very extraordinary about it.  For her parents though, it’s a perfect match, but Helga is beset by uneasiness, the source of which she can’t put a name to.

When she was half asleep, a strange desire came drifting into her consciousness: If only I had an umbrella, she thought. It occurred to her suddenly that this item, which for certain people was just a natural necessity, was something she had dreamed of her whole life. As a child, she had filled her Christmas wish lists with sensible, affordable things: a doll, a pair of red mittens, roller skates. And then, when the gifts were lying under the tree on Christmas Eve, she’d been gripped by an ecstasy of expectation. She’d looked at her boxes as if they held the meaning of life itself, and her hands had shaken as she opened them. Afterward, she’d sat crying over the doll, the mittens, and the roller skates she had asked for. “You ungrateful child,” her mother had hissed. “You always ruin it for us.” 

The umbrella, in many ways, symbolizes a secret desire, a want, and an alternate world that Helga keeps longing for and thinking about, because the reality has turned out to be a disappointment. While her life has all the hallmarks of respectability – a home, husband and child – Helga increasingly becomes indifferent, lost in her inner world. But then, a day dawns when she converts her desire for an umbrella to a reality that has dramatic consequences.

In “My Wife Doesn’t Dance”, an innocuous comment made by the protagonist’s husband opens the floodgates for a host of insecurities to spill out (“A hollow melancholy enveloped her with an unmerciful darkness she could not escape”). Our unnamed woman hears her husband answer the telephone, and tell the person at the other end who is advertising dance classes that his wife doesn’t dance. Nothing wrong with that statement when taken at face value, but for the protagonist it reveals many hidden meanings. We learn that she suffers from a limp that is quite conspicuous when she walks but it soon becomes apparent that this is a childhood torment that she hasn’t completely left behind, ready to resurface at the slightest hint. She is an accomplished woman capable of eloquently speaking on a variety of topics such as art, literature, politics and is married to a man who loves and desires her. So why is she on tenterhooks?

Did he think about it when they were out together? All the time? Had she lulled herself into a false sense of security here, inside the walls of the home they had created together?

In “Queen of the Night” we get a glimpse of a toxic marriage through the eyes of a young girl. When the story opens, Grete is kneeling on a chair observing her mother put on make-up for a carnival she’s about to attend, a spectacle that completely absorbs the young girls’ attention.  Grete’s father is nearby, seemingly fast asleep, after having worked a night shift, and the mother is anxious about not waking him up. Grete loves her mother’s costume called Queen of the Night that “made a nice crinkling sound when she moved”, the nicest and the most expensive dress in the catalogue. This costume becomes a symbol of how mismatched the couple is, money as always remains a bone of contention.

The cloth for that one had only cost two kroner, but her father, as usual, still had to calculate how many bags of oatmeal or pounds of carrots could have been bought with the money. What nonsense. They had oatmeal and carrots to eat anyway, and her mother didn’t get many chances to enjoy herself, and it wasn’t her fault he was unemployed half the year, so she had to go out and clean for other people.

Grete loves her mother and resents her father taunting her all the time (“Grete was completely convinced that they would be better off if her father wasn’t around”), and the reader observes a brief moment of bonding between father and daughter but that spell is quickly broken.

“One Morning in a Residential Neighbourhood” is a heartbreaking tale of a breakup of a marriage and family life and its shattering impact on the various parties involved. On one particularly cold morning, a young girl is wearing her new brown winter coat for the first time, in anticipation of a journey she is about to embark on with her father. Her nanny Miss Hansen is inconsolable, and wakes up the girl that morning unable to stop crying. The girl’s mother is also dazed, trying to brace herself for this difficult moment, vaguely aware that she is being judged and secretly admonished by everyone around her. The father is obviously coming to take the young girl away, as previously arranged with his wife, but the girl is unaware of the real circumstances of this ‘so-called trip’ she’s about to take with her father (“Children are so willing to be tricked to avoid the truth they don’t want to hear”).

In “Depression”, another excellent piece, a woman married to her depressed husband, comes pretty close to a nervous breakdown herself. The story opens with Lulu, washing stacked plates at the sink, dead tired after playing the perfect hostess at a house party. The festivities aren’t entirely over yet, her husband Kai, who has smoked and drank copiously, is still regaling his guests, but by this time Lulu could not be bothered. We learn that Kai is suffering from depression, the first bout having lasted five months…

Of course, it was unfortunate, but to her mind it wasn’t the end of the world. And certainly not for him. In the end, she was the one who had to do the heavy lifting.

Lulu is seemingly content and well-adjusted to Kai and his unemployment is not a nagging source of worry because they are supported by his parents financially. But a sense of discontent is gradually looming large within Lulu. Kai is visiting a psychoanalyst but it doesn’t seem to be helping, while the costs of those visits keep mounting. During periods when he manages to cast away the shackles of his mental illness, Kai becomes a transformed person, happy, carefree and eager to socialize. Those moments gladden Lulu but it feels fragile, as if a bomb is ticking, because the next bout of depression could just be around the corner ready once again to drown Kai. Meanwhile, Kai seems to be taking Lulu’s good health for granted, because Lulu often wonders “how he would take it if one day she ‘gave up’!” Until one day, she does come close to breaking point.

Bullying fathers and passive-aggressive behaviour forms the backbone of “The Knife”, another superb story and the first in the second collection. The father in this tale is an overtly cold, rational man who abhors affection and sentimentality.

One of the duties he adopted, for some obscure reason, was to show his family a cool and slightly accusatory tone, which was supposed to express his general attitude toward life, and reinforce his own estimation of himself as a rational person who disdained sentimentality.

He is married to a woman called Esther and they have a young son, although the father is ambivalent towards them, sometimes struck with the thought – “My life would have evolved quite differently if they weren’t around.”

Meanwhile, the father has gifted his son a very special knife, a relic that has passed hands through the generations. And the boy has been warned not to lose it and look after it well. Every Christmas, it becomes a tradition for the son to display the knife to his parents, but one Christmas, the son in a fit of extreme fear and panic is forced to confess that he has lost the knife. The mother senses the fear and immediately takes her son’s side, nonchalantly declaring that the knife is probably just misplaced and bound to turn up soon. The father, however, is livid. But is the father genuinely upset that a family relic has been lost or is he secretly happy at the chance of asserting his authority over his son?

“Anxiety” is an excellent but nerve-wracking tale of a claustrophobic marriage, of a woman distressed by her husband’s tyrannical behaviour only to find her world slowly shrinking. Married to a man who is a light sleeper, our protagonist’s life is defined by the tone of the creaking noises made by the bed on which her husband sleeps or tries to sleep. Gripped by the fear of rousing him and incurring his wrath, the woman is compelled to move around on tiptoe in her own home. Stressed by the momentous effort required to remain quiet, she often longs to just head out and spend time with her sister Henny. Until one day she does. At Henny’s welcoming home, bristling with warmth, noise and children, our protagonist experiences that rare pocket of joy where her doleful existence seems like a surreal dream. But soon it is time to head back home and to the suspense of wondering whether her husband noticed her absence or not…

In the “Two Women”, a woman looking to be luxuriously pampered in a salon so that she can leave her growing anxieties on the backbench for a while, comes out feeling more rattled than ever; while in “The Little Shoes”, an ageing woman laments her middle-age exacerbated by her lovely, spirited daughter and the possibility that her second husband is infatuated with his step-daughter. While in the titular story, “The Trouble with Happiness”, which has echoes of Childhood, a young woman decides to take charge of her own life by leaving behind her despondent family home so that she can harness her ambition of being a writer.

The Trouble with Happiness, then, is a biting, scalpel-sharp, devastating depiction of love, marriage and family; succinct, intense tales that make for compelling reading. These stories offer readers slices of domestic life in Copenhagen; gloomy, gut-wrenching situations which see her characters teetering on the edge. The women particularly are in a perpetual state of anxiety, paralyzed by an unnamable fear – unhappy in love, gripped by feelings of doom, grappling with stressed financial circumstances and unnerved by insecurities that sometimes threaten to overwhelm them. These haunting, unsettling vignettes, simmering with undercurrents of desire and violence, are made all the more arresting by Ditlevsen’s clear-eyed vision and an honest, lucid writing style that conveys multitudes in a few paragraphs.

It’s a rich, layered collection sizzling with a gamut of themes – mental illness, impact of broken marriages on children, bullying fathers, deteriorating relationships, a longing for happiness that is forever on the fringes seemingly an illusion. The subject matter, reminiscent of The Copenhagen Trilogy, is doled out to us in short, measured doses this time, but the brevity matches the brilliance of those memoirs. Highly recommended!