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 by Celia Paul
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
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.