The Fortnight in September – R C Sherriff

I love Persephone Books and some of their titles that I’ve read are just wonderful – Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven, Julia Strachey’s Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, and Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-longue are a few examples that come to mind. It is hardly surprisingly therefore when I state that The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff was also absolutely terrific. This is a book I should I have read in September instead of October but I happened to read it just before my own beach holiday and so it was perfect in that sense.

The man on his holidays becomes the man he might have been, the man he could have been, had things worked out a little differently. All men are equal on their holidays: all are free to dream their castles without thought of expense, or skill of architect.

There’s a scene on the first day of the Stevens’ holiday when the father Mr Stevens goes for a walk all by himself. It’s an essential part of the family’s travel philosophy (and one that I identify with) that the members occasionally break up to do things on their own, and for Mr Stevens this walk is therapeutic in the way it clears his mind and allows him to reflect on the past, more specifically the twin setbacks in his professional life that continue to cause him a bit of heartache. It is amazing how the abundance of greenery, lush landscapes and natural beauty can fuel a shift in perspective that is restorative and uplifting, and for Mr Stevens this solitary walk offers exactly that…

It had been the little chance things that made him aware of his yearning to understand far more than had come his way: little chance things that seemed to raise a curtain and reveal almost frightening depths beyond. He was glad that he had always had the instinct to step forward and not shrink back – to go groping on – exploring and probing for another beyond.

These wonderful nuggets of wisdom that make up everyday life punctuate the text at regular intervals to make The Fortnight in September – a beautiful, soothing novel about an ordinary family on holiday, an annual tradition they have adhered to over the years – a pleasure to read. 

The book opens with the Stevens family getting ready to embark on their journey. They are to leave for the seaside town of Bognor the next morning, preparations are in full swing and a sense of excitement is palpable. Mr Stevens, a thorough and meticulous man, has drawn up a “to-do” list called “Marching Orders” in the Stevens lexicon, with precise set of instructions on the various duties to be carried out by each family member before they lock up the house and set off.

The last evening at home is always a momentous occasion, tedious hours of work have finally been put behind and there is the big holiday – two whole weeks of it – to look forward to. Anticipation is running high, but for Mr and Mrs Stevens it is also a bittersweet moment – their two elder children Dick and Mary have turned twenty having unleashed vague hints of wishing to spend future holidays with friends. Thus, given that the future of this annual tradition seems mired in doubt, it heightens the significance of this family holiday for Mr and Mrs Stevens even more this time around.

How splendid it all was!—The whole family going away together again, after those dark, half-thrown hints from Dick and Mary about separate holidays with their friends. Thank God they had come to nothing!

On the day of travel, the weather turns out to be gorgeous (such a crucial factor for any holiday), and Mr Stevens in a spirit of generosity, makes tea for the entire family. There are some unpleasant duties to be carried out and only once the family boards the train does the feeling of freedom finally sink in.

At Bognor, the Stevens stay at the same guest house (‘Seaview’) as in the years before, but the gradual signs of decay and deterioration of the rooms and the furniture within are imminent and noticed by each of them in their own way.

For Dick and Mary, going once more into their old, familiar little bedrooms, had wondered with sinking hearts why they had never noticed in other years how dreadfully dingy and terribly poor they were. Was it a growing desire for better things?—or had these little rooms suddenly shrunk—become darker—and almost squalid?

Mr Stevens is disconcerted by these subtle signals which only highlight the transient nature of things, the looming spectre of change that is sometimes frightening but also a precursor to new beginnings.

The rest of the novel then charts the entire fortnight of the family holiday – lounging in the beach hut, swimming in the sea, hours of leisure on the golden sands soaking up the sun, and indulging in sports and games. Evenings are spent by the promenade enjoying band music and endless people gazing. At other times, Mr Stevens enjoying taking solitary walks and spending some hours in the local pub catching up with old friends and making new ones, and mildly flirting with the barmaid Rosie; Dick and Mary go for walks together by the promenade, and Mrs Stevens enjoys an evening alone at the guesthouse with her feet finally up and a glass of port with no constant demands on her time.

That’s really the crux of the novel and as you can see it’s largely plotless and yet such a wonderful, immersive read because there are so many aspects of the Stevens’ personalities and travel mantras that are familiar and spot on. What’s truly remarkable about the novel are the character studies – the Stevens’ are ordinary people, not too financially well-off, but they have a goodness of heart that make them so memorable.

We are given glimpses into the thinking of each of the family members – their hopes, aspirations, fears, disappointments – and how the holiday becomes the perfect setting for tranquil reflections on the past and altered perceptions about the future laced with hope and energy.

Both father and son worry about their careers staring at an uncertain future, but while Dick is just launching himself into the professional world quite lost without a sense of purpose or direction, Mr Stevens could very well be staring at an end. For instance, we learn about the frustrations that mark Mr Stevens’ working life – having steadily worked his way to near the top, Mr Stevens is forced to confront the possibility of his career having reached a dead end based on his limitations in terms of ability and background. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Dick, who is just starting out, his career like a pristine piece of clay to mold as he chooses, and yet he remains increasingly fretful about his prospects. Thanks to his father’s efforts, Dick lands a position in a respectable firm, but is quite unhappy and thus guilty for feeling this way lest his father thinks him ungrateful.

Mrs Stevens is a woman whose schedule has always revolved around her husband and children, she is not as excited as her family about the holiday in general and keeps those feelings strictly to herself, but she cherishes the moments when she is alone at Seaview with time only for herself. Mary feels like there’s so much about the world she does not know, she envies the smartly dressed girls who talk so confidently with men and yearns for a personality along those lines, a leap into a world which is not marked by poverty and constrained circumstances.

Some of the core themes explored in the novel are family life, career, the importance of fresh perspectives but it is also a novel that examines wealth and class. The Stevens have come up the hard way bringing in its wake some disillusionment as is expected, yet there is something heroic about how they are grateful about the things that they do possess without harbouring deep resentment or bitterness about their fate. There is a particular set piece in the novel, when Mr Stevens unexpectedly meets a wealthy valuable customer of his firm and the whole family is invited for tea to their extravagant palatial home and yet despite the differences in wealth and class, it the Stevens that come away as the richer family.

The Fortnight in September, then, beautifully captures the simple pleasures that make such a difference to the ordinariness of everyday life, how holidays offer that much needed shot in the arm for rejuvenation, how a change of surroundings can refresh the mind, vitalize the body and provide some clarity of vision.

So much of the travel details as highlighted by Sheriff strike a chord – anxiety mixed with euphoria on the day of travel (the holiday to look forward to but also not missing any train connections), the sense of disorientation on reaching the holiday destination when it’s all new and one has to still blend in (“they had reached the strange, disturbing little moment that comes in every holiday: the moment when suddenly the tense excitement of the journey collapses and fizzles out, and you are left, vaguely wondering what you are going to do, and how you are going to start”), how time plays tricks on the mind (it flies so much faster on holidays than it does otherwise)…

But he knew that time only moved evenly upon the hands of clocks: to men it can linger and almost stop dead, race on, leap chasms and linger again. He knew, with a little sadness, that it always made up its distance in the end. To-day it had travelled gropingly, like an engine in a fog, but now, with each passing hour of the holiday it would gather speed, and the days would flash by like little wayside stations. In a fortnight he would be sitting in this room on the last evening, thinking how the first night of the holiday seemed like yesterday—full of regrets at wasted time…

In a nutshell, The Fortnight in September is just superb, a novel fraught with poignancy and the fleeting nature of things, tints of nostalgia and slices of bittersweet moments woven into a fabric that otherwise throbs with the humble delights of a family enjoying a good time together. It is a timeless story, joyous and laden with quiet courage, but sometimes achingly sad when it dwells on its characters’ yearnings, missed opportunities and a growing sense of loss. As the blurb aptly states it is an extraordinary story of an ordinary family and one I highly recommend.  

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.

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.

Ethan Frome & Summer – Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is one of my favourite authors as can be gauged from the number of books I have reviewed on this blog – The Custom of the Country, The House of Mirth, Old New York, and The New York Stories. Her best novel in my view – The Age of Innocence – I had read pre-blog, and one I hope to reread and review in the near future. But this post focuses on Ethan Frome and Summer, two novellas that boast of the same emotional depth and intensity as her New York novels and stories.

ETHAN FROME

Ethan Frome is a brilliant, dark, wintry tale of doomed love set in a remote New England town, a starkly different setting from Wharton’s classic, old New York.

When the book opens, we are in Starkfield, Massachusetts; a bleak, remote town characterized by winters so bitterly cold that they only accentuate a person’s sense of loneliness and isolation. Our narrator is a young man, visiting Starkfield for a short period on some urgent business. On his way to the post office driven by Harmon Gow, his glance falls upon the pitiable, weighed down profile of Ethan Frome for the first time…

It was there that, several years ago, I saw him (Frome) for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man. It was not so much his great height that marked him, for the “natives” were easily singled out by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed: it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of a lameness checking each step like a jerk of chain. There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man and was surprised to hear that he was not more than fifty-two.

He also notices other features on Frome’s face, features that indicate a hard life lived, but with meager explanations provided by Gow, the aura of mystery around Frome only deepens. For instance, we learn of a red gash across Frome’s forehead which in the past is a result of an accident or a “smash-up.” We are told that accident had also “shortened and warped his right side”, so that it was an effort for Frome to take the few steps from his buggy to the post office window.

Information on Frome from the residents is cryptic, not shedding much light on the extent of his calamity or the reason for the defeated expression on his face (“That man touch a hundred? He looks as if her was dead and in hell now!”).

An unexpected offer from Frome to drive our narrator to his workplace on a particularly stormy, snowy night followed by an invitation to his home gives our narrator a clearer picture of Frome’s tormented past, a tale that the narrator then communicates to us readers (“It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to put together this vision of his story…”).

Rewind back twenty-five years and Ethan Frome is a young, strong man barely making ends meet.  Harbouring dreams of pursuing studies in science, those plans are thwarted by his father’s death and a host of misfortunes thereafter. Forced to subsequently take care of his mother as well as the family mill and farm, Frome becomes tied down in Starkfield with no hope of escape.  Meanwhile, the mill and farm hardly contribute much to the income, reducing the Frome household to a perpetual state of penury.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Zeena, Ethan’s wife, a hypochondriac, who for the most part of the day is to be found lying in her bedroom beset by a host of illnesses, for which she is on a quest to find a cure. These treatments are an additional burden on Frome, who is struggling as it is to get through the days. It is easy to discern that Ethan and Zeena are estranged in a way, Zeena’s continuous whining and complaining begins to take a toll on Ethan.

In this bleak, despondent household comes Mattie Silver like a breath of fresh air…to Ethan. Mattie is Zeena’s cousin (not closely related), and she finds a place in the Frome household to help Zeena with the housework and to do most of the heavy lifting because of Zeena’s lack of strength. This arrangement works to Zeena’s advantage – she can keep Mattie without paying her because of the latter’s father’s unsavoury past which left him heavily indebted to Zeena’s extended family and relatives.

Mattie is a lively, sensual, joyous young woman and Ethan falls head over heels in love with her and relishes the moments he can spend alone with her, however, frugal. It would seem that after traversing a darkened, suffocating tunnel of poverty, thwarted ambitions, and a dead marriage, he would finally embrace a spot of brightness at the end of it, a slim chance for happiness. But a little domestic mishap destroys that sliver of hope and as if life wasn’t already hard enough for Ethan, a cruel twist of fate in the final pages delivers the ultimate crushing blow.

Ethan Frome, then, is a devastating tale of a wretched marriage, a romance nipped in the bud as well as a brilliant character study of a man defeated by forces beyond his control, and the cruelty of fate.

It’s a very atmospheric read where the weather plays a dominant role in shaping up the lives of the principal characters. The bleakness of the harsh cold winters that gets under your skin, the feeling of being cut off from the world as heavy snowfalls blanket the region transforming it into an expanse of white, only heighten Ethan’s loneliness compelling him to make a bad decision of marrying Zeena. Indeed, Zeena was brought in to nurse Ethan’s ailing mother but once the mother dies during one such deep winter, he mistakenly believes that marrying Zeena is a better alternative than spending the rest of his days alone in this remote town where the cold is so unforgiving.

The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations.

Ethan’s plight is heartbreaking and poignant all the more so because of his gentle, helpful personality which unleashes a wave of sympathy and sadness in the reader. And he finds himself at the mercy of Zeena who while is not always physically around because of being locked up in her room, is nevertheless perceptive about the goings-on in the house in her absence.

Wharton’s writing is impeccable as ever, her vision for this novella is unremittingly bleak but she infuses such depth in her characters so as to make the narrative utterly compelling. A slim novel with a big impact.

SUMMER

Summer is also set in a New England town but during the blazing days of summer with Wharton herself calling this sensual, sensory novella the “hot” Ethan. Often considered a companion piece to Ethan Frome, this novella is a tale of a young woman’s sexual and social awakening.

Our protagonist is Charity Royall, a young, attractive woman residing in the small, puritanical town of North Dormer with her guardian Mr Royall. The book opens with her emerging from the Royall house on a translucent July afternoon where “the springlike transparent sky shed a rain of silver sunshine on the roofs of the village.” Her glance falls on a young man who rushes to retrieve his hat which has fallen in the duck pond, a man she has never seen before…

As he ran to fish it out the girl on lawyer Royall’s doorstep noticed that he was a stranger, that he wore city clothes, and that he was laughing with all his teeth, as the young and careless laugh at such mishaps.

We learn that Charity has been residing in North Dormer since she was five years old. A dull place, remote from everything else, she sometimes wonders what people from other parts of the world could possibly think of it. Charity realizes that her worldview is very narrow when for the first time she travels by rail to the nearby bigger towns of Hepburn and Nettleton. Having experienced the pleasures of theatre and fancy glass plated shops in those towns, Charity begins to feel increasingly disillusioned with her claustrophobic life.

That journey makes her realize that there’s a bigger world beyond, and this unleashes a thirst for information. She takes advantage of her position of a library custodian to read as much as possible, but soon the sheen of Nettleton wears off and Charity once again settles into her present staid life.

But then comes along the young man, Lucius Harney, and once again that wave of discontent rises in Charity as she is forced to admit how small and limited her existence is.

Meanwhile, Lucius Harney is residing with Mrs Hatchard (they are cousins), and has arrived in North Dormer because he is interested in the architecture of this town. On his visit to the library, he notices Charity for the first time and is so struck by her beauty that he willing to brush aside Charity’s ignorance of the requirements of her job.

After some misunderstandings between the two, Harney and Charity embark on a passionate affair that unfurls over the course of a hazy, languid summer.

All her tossing contradictory impulses were merged in a fatalistic acceptance of his will. It was not that she felt in him any ascendency of character – there were moments already when she knew she was the stronger – but that all the rest of life had become a mere cloudy rim about the central glory of their passion. Whenever she stopped thinking about that for a moment she felt as she sometimes did after lying on the grass and staring up too long at the sky; her eyes were so full of light that everything about her was a blur.

Meanwhile, there’s Mr Royall with whom Charity has a very complicated relationship. Sort of like a father figure to her, Mr Royall is also prone to spells of debauchery and he makes no mistake about his romantic interest in Charity with hopes of converting their relationship to that of husband and wife. Thus, Charity’s feelings are transformed overnight from pity to contempt when Mr Royall first makes his inclinations clear.

Wharton’s depiction of a sultry, languorous summer is so evocative, the portrayal of an Impressionist painting setting where the romantic and sexual relationship of Harney and Charity plays out. For a girl like Charity whose social sphere is so restricted, her affair with Harney is sort of a rebirth and she is drunk with joy. The two arrange to meet secretly and regularly at a secluded empty house to spend time together, and while North Dormer would consider this arrangement scandalous (“She had lived all her life among people whose sensibilities seemed to have withered for lack of use”), Charity simply does not care (“She had always thought of love as something confused and furtive, and he (Harney) made it as bright and open as the summer air”).

She was always glad when she got to the little house before Harney. She liked to have time to take in every detail of its secret sweetness – the shadows of the apple-trees swaying on the grass, the old walnuts rounding their domes below the road, the meadows sloping westward in the afternoon light – before his first kiss blotted it all out. Everything unrelated to the hours spent in that tranquil place was as faint as the remembrance of a dream. The only reality was the wondrous unfolding of her new self, the reaching out to the light of all her contracted tendrils.

Summer, then, is a bold, beautiful novella, not just of a woman’s sexual awakening but also of class differences and the paucity of choices available to women. From the outset, Charity is made aware of her origins, a fearful place called the Mountain whose residents are steeped in poverty and allegedly lack morals. Mr Royall makes no qualms about deriding Charity’s mother, branding her a loose woman. Having never met her mother or even visited the Mountain, to Charity it’s a place that signifies menace and terror but at the same time she remains a bit curious.

In sharp contrast, Lucius Harney is a cultured, well-educated man and in the course of their passionate tryst, Charity often realizes how out of depth she is with a person of Lucius’ class – she is pretty enough to attract him, but naive and unworldly otherwise. Charity also experiences jealousy whenever she thinks of her peer or rival Annabel Balch, who may not be as stunning as Charity, but has the benefits of class and privilege that are beyond Charity’s grasp.

As with Wharton’s novellas, in Summer too, there is an undercurrent of darkness that lurks beneath the façade of a joyous, carefree, sizzling summer and Charity’s fate is sealed in a way that may not be as cruel as the one dealt to Ethan Frome, but still a situation that suggests an uneasy compromise.

TO CONCLUDE…

Ethan Frome and Summer and deviate from the Wharton’s New York novels in many aspects – both these novellas focus on the working class set in provincial towns as opposed to the wealthy upper and middle class milieu of New York. But in terms of the weight of emotional power they remain on an equal footing. Both these tragic novellas are potent in the way they depict repressed desires that have far reaching consequences on the fates of their protagonists.

Foster – Claire Keegan

Claire Keegan is a wonder. I absolutely loved her short story The Forester’s Daughter as well as her latest novella Small Things Like These, the latter having garnered rave reviews, and very rightly so. With Foster, her earlier penned novella, she continues to impress.

“God help you, Child,” she (Mrs Kinsella) says. If you were mine, I’d never leave you in a house with strangers.”

There’s a moment in this achingly beautiful novella when our narrator, a young girl, is asked by Mr Kinsella whether she can run. She is confused by the question, but what Mr Kinsella wants to know is how fast she can sprint from the end of the lane to the post box. When she runs as fast as she can, Mr Kinsella is impressed by her speed given it’s her first time but indicates that they will try again tomorrow to test whether she can improve. The girl is struck by the idea that she is expected to run any faster to which Mr Kinsella replies, “By the time you’re ready for home you’ll be like a reindeer.” That haunting scene of the young girl racing down the lane is once again presented to the reader in the final pages, but rather than something as innocuous as collecting letters from the postbox, it’s for a reason that’s much more sad and heartbreaking.

Foster, then, is a gorgeous, perfectly crafted novella of great emotional depth where love, kindness, warmth and affection play a significant role in transforming the life of a young girl.

The novel opens with our narrator undertaking a journey with her father deep into the heart of the Wexford countryside where she is to reside with the Kinsellas on their farmhouse for a few months. The girl has many siblings, she’s born into a family that continues to grow, and her mother is once again expecting another child shortly. Having been brought up in an environment of poverty and neglect, the girl is apprehensive about her short stay at the Kinsellas and consoles herself by the thought that she’s only there for a short period.

Her father leaves her at the Kinsella home with no suitcase of fresh clothes other than the ones she is already wearing. Intimidated by her new surroundings, the girl is at first homesick and longs to be back in her familiar space, however imperfect. But things gradually begin to change.

As the days roll by, she becomes absorbed in the daily routine of the household, helping Mr and Mrs Kinsella in the house, kitchen and on the farm, deriving joy from these simple pleasures. The aroma of good, wholesome food instills a sense of wellbeing, and she revels in warm baths (“The water is deeper than any I have ever bathed in. Our mother makes us bathe in what little she can, and makes us share.”)

The Kinsellas buy her new clothes and she develops a fine camaraderie with Mr Kinsella who takes her out on walks and to the beach, and expands her worldview by introducing her to books.

We fold my clothes and place them inside, along with the books we bought at Webb’s in Gorey: ‘Heidi’, ‘What Katy Did Next’, ‘The Snow Queen.’ At first, I struggled with some of the bigger words but Kinsella kept his fingernail under each, patiently, until I guessed it and then I did this by myself until I no longer needed to guess, and read on. It was like learning to ride the bike; I felt myself taking off, the freedom of going places I couldn’t have gone before, and it was easy.

But the Kinsellas harbour a terrible secret and its discovery makes the girl realize for the first time how easily her idyll could shatter to pieces.

Among other things, Foster is a stunning meditation on class differences and the pivotal role a child’s upbringing plays in the shaping of its future. It’s a poignant depiction of how a little bit of compassion and tender loving care can make a marked difference in an individual’s life, considerably altering it for the better. For instance, given that our narrator’s parents have to grapple with financial constraints and are barely making ends meet, it does not help matters that the family keeps expanding. Lack of time and money only exacerbates their precarious situation – her siblings are neglected too and must learn to fend for themselves. For our narrator, life with the Kinsellas is a whole new world altogether, akin to being transported to another orbit and she marvels at how different it is from her family experiences so far. The Kinsellas don’t have children and are relatively well-off and it is no surprise that she begins to blossom under their care.

I go down steps until I reach the water. The sun, at a slant now, throws a rippled version of how we look back at us. For a moment, I am afraid. I wait until I see myself not as I was when I arrived, looking like a tinker’s child, but as I am now, clean, in different clothes, with the woman behind me.

The greatest strength of Foster, though, is how it pulsates with a gamut of emotions, and how Keegan effortlessly packs multitudes in such a short space. Her writing drips with so much beauty and tenderness; there’s something soulful about her spare, finely chiseled sentences that leaves a deep impression on the mind. As with a perfectly composed piece of music, absolutely nothing in this novella strikes a false note. In a nutshell, Foster is an 88-page display of sheer virtuosity, a mini marvel that I’ll remember for a long time to come.