Toni Morrison: God Help the Child (2015)

I’m so annoyed with myself. I have three or four unread books by Toni Morrison on my piles but instead of reading those, I went and bought her latest, God Help the Child. That wouldn’t be a problem if this was a good book but it’s not. It’s so flawed, it could be a beginner’s novel. And the style? Well, when you pick a Toni Morrison novel, you expect it to be challenging. You don’t expect it to be bland mainstream, with descriptions like “the sky was baby-blue”. Honestly, what went wrong?

The book’s premise had so much promise. The blurb said it’s a book about the way parents damage their children and the repercussions this has later in their life, but somehow that’s not really what it is about. The book doesn’t really take this theme seriously. Maybe because it’s about so many other topics— race, skin color, trust, self-esteem, child abuse.

When the main character Bride is born, her mother rejects her immediately because of her black skin. Nobody in Bride’s family is this blue-black. In fact, they are so light, some of them did pass as white. Her mother, too, could, if she wanted, pass as white. Bride’s father is so shocked that he leaves her mother. He can’t imagine that two rather fair African-Americans could be the parents of such a black child. Of course, he suspects she was unfaithful.

Bride grows up as an outsider and only later, in her twenties, is she able to embrace her skin color and discover her beauty. She even learns how to underline it by wearing only white. At the age of twenty-two, she’s a successful executive at a cosmetic company, ready to launch her own beauty line. While she’s still fighting for her mother’s love, she’s also happy about her success and her beautiful lover, Booker, until the day she tells him something and he leaves her without an explanation.

The reader learns that Booker’s reaction has something to do with Bride’s idea of helping a woman who was convicted for child abuse.

I will stop here as the book basically is about why Bride does what she does and why this makes Booker flee. Both reasons are tied to the protagonists’ childhood.

For such a slim novel – under 180 pages – it has just too many themes. While some are really well done, especially all those linked to colorism, others didn’t get the depth they would have deserved. It isn’t fully explored what being rejected by her mother really meant for Bride. She does something cruel to gain her mother’s love and this affects her, but there doesn’t seem any real and deep damage. This struck me as odd.

What also struck me as odd was the number of child molesters we come across in this book. This too is such a serious problem, but it just didn’t get the careful treatment it would have deserved.

I’m really disappointed and wish I hadn’t bothered with this book. At the same time, I find colorism such an important topic, that I liked the book for that.

I’m glad this wasn’t my first Toni Morrison. It would have been my last. I’d rather read some bestseller than something that is written like a mainstream novel but saddled with heavy, carelessly treated themes. Don’t read this unless you’re a Toni Morrison fan and want to read everything she’s ever written. That said, I think she’s a terrific author and I’ll be reading more of her. Let’s just hope this was a one-off.

Have you read Toni Morrison? Which of her novels do you consider must-reads?

Literature and War Readalong May 2017: War Poems

For the last readalong before the summer break we are reading something we haven’t read before—poems. I know people are sometimes reclutanct to read poetry, so to encourage you to participate, I’m keeping the “rules” very free. I’ve chosen four different collections and those who want to join can either pick only one or all of them, read only a few, or even only one poem. I don’t think I will review all four of the books in their entirety, but will choose several poems from the four collections

The Poems of the Great War collection is probably the one book most readers are familiar with. Memorandum is a collection by Vanessa Gebbie whose short story collection Storm Warning we’ve read last year. Vanessa even joined our discussion which was a special treat fo those who participated. Poet Caroline Davies has been a long-time follower of the read along. I’ve always enjoyed her thoughtful comments and when she suggested, we read poems, I was immediately enthusiastic, especially since this finally gives me the opportunity to read her poetry collections.

Here are the first lines of each collection

In Flanders Fields (John McCrae)
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our Place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
(….^)
Cenotaph
Under duress, stone gives
up its constituent parts
Veteran shells, sediment
filled, crystalline. (…)
The Litany 
She has to look down as the roll call begins.
She knows all of them, each name, every family.
Thomas Arnold, G Arthur Caffrey, Thomas Cudworth, T Owen Davies
and then the moment of her son’s name when she raises her head. (…)
Sirens
When the sirens sound we huddle
under the kitchen table.
Mam, Nain and me.
It’s oak, it will keep us safe
when the house falls down.
Nain says Liverpool’s taking it bad. (…)

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Poems of the Great War

Published to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of Armistice, this collection is intended to be an introduction to the great wealth of First World War Poetry. The sequence of poems is random – making it ideal for dipping into – and drawn from a number of sources, mixing both well-known and less familiar poetry.

Voices from Stone and Bronze by Caroline Davies

A moving, honest and never sentimental collection that gives a voice to London’s many war memorials.
In her second poetry collection Caroline Davies turns her attention to the War Memorials of London. Voices from Stone and Bronze brings to life those who fought and died and those who survived, including some of the sculptors who had themselves come through trench warfare to a changed world.
Meticulously researched and deeply humane, these narrative poems apply a lyrical sensibility without sentimentalism; a deeply affective collection.

Convoy by Caroline Davies

Caroline Davies debut collection was inspired by the experiences of her grandfather, James Jim Honeybill, a merchant seaman in the Malta convoys of the Second World War.

The poems dramatically document the Navy s attempts to resupply the Mediterranean island, suffering severe losses at the hands of the German blockade. Beginning with the image of her mother as a child who has come to see her naval father as a stranger, the poems continue on to the voices of the men aboard the M.V. Ajax, fighting to get through against all odds, and making the greatest sacrifice of all. Skilfully incorporating a wealth of found material, recordings and interviews, this narrative poetry sequence captures a slice of history with visceral clarity.

Memorandum by Vanessa Gebbie

Memorandum is a haunting collection of poems that summons voices from the shadows of the First World War. Vanessa Gebbie transforms prosaic records of ordinary soldiers, and the physical landscape of battles, war graves and memorials, into poignant reflections on the small and greater losses to families and the world. Vanessa Gebbie is a writer of prose and poetry. Author of seven books, including a novel, short fictions and poetry, her work has been supported by an Arts Council England Grant for the Arts, a Hawthornden Fellowship and residencies at both Gladstone’s Library and Anam Cara Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat. She teaches widely. http://www.vanessagebbie.com “From the idea of a shell reverting to its unmade, peaceful state to dead men buried in Brighton and France being mourned by their mother in Glasgow … heartrending images such as the Tower of London’s ceramic poppies seen as callow recruits, doubts about a corpse’s identity and how dregs at the bottom of a cup can be reminiscent of the deadly Flanders mud. This is a modern view, wise and compassionate, of Europe’s fatal wound.” Max Egremont, author of Siegfried Sassoon and Some Desperate Glory, The First World War the Poets Knew “Vanessa Gebbie is that rare breed of poet who understands the trials and tribulations of the ordinary Tommy.” Jeremy Banning, military historian and researcher, battlefield guide “The dead who linger around memorials and battlefields slowly step again into the light. History may remember them collectively, but Gebbie’s achievement is to present, with sensitivity and without sentimentality, lives rooted in the particular rhythms of hometowns, families, and memories.” John McCullough, author of Spacecraft and The Frost Fairs “These poems rise like ghosts from a scarred landscape.” Caroline Davies, author of Convoy

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Should you feel like joining but don’t want to read a whole collection of poems, don’t hesitate to read and post on only one or just a couple of the poems. 

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The discussion starts on Wednesday, 31 May 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Marguerite Duras: The War – La douleur (1985) Literature and War Readalong April 2017

Marguerite Duras’ affecting book The War – La douleur  is a collection of texts based on her war diaries. Before beginning my review, I have to mention that I’ve read the French edition and don’t know how close to the English it is. It seems that the two last texts, two short stories, have been left out in the English edition but I could be wrong. I’m not going to review them here. Each of the texts covers another time period.

1945

La douleur – The pain is the first text in the book and is also the longest and appears to be the only one that she left as she found it. Duras said that she couldn’t remember writing this diary and that, to her, it seemed more powerful than any of the literary texts she’d ever written. La douleur, which was written during April 1945,  describes in painful details, how Marguerite Duras waited for the return of her husband, Robert L., a member of the resistance, who had been deported to Buchenwald in 1944.

Duras managed to convey the anxiety of those waiting and the incredible difficulties to take care of someone who came back. They knew to which camp Robert had been brought and so, knowing the Germans had lost the war, they followed the news closely and went to the centres to which those who returned came and questioned them. Duras knew that Buchenwald had been liberated, but she didn’t know if by that time Robert was still alive. Once she found someone who had seen him, there was still the fear that he might have been among those shot by the fleeing Germans. Why, she wonders did they shoot them just minutes before the arrival of the Allies? In Buchenwald alone 51,000 were shot, while 20,000 survived. Possibly, he was among the survivors but if so, he might still die of exhaustion or an illness. A little later, when they hear that the German cities are literally burning, another anxiety joins the fears she had before. He might be trapped in a fire storm and get killed that way.

In the end, two of her friends travel to dacha (Robert had been moved a few times) and bring him back. Before they arrive, they warn her – she might not recognize him. The tall man weighs a mere 38 kilograms and looks horrific. He’s very ill and his survival is almost a miracle.

1944

Monsieur X – Pierre Rabier is the second text in the collection. It describes the cat-and-mouse game a Gestapo official plays with Marguerite Duras. He pretends her husband hasn’t been deported yet, meets her often, wants to have an affair with her. He may think he’s the stronger one, but Duras plays a game with him as well. She learns everything about him and later uses it to help sentencing him to death.

After the war

Albert des capitales and Ter le milicien both describe how Duras and other members of the resistance take part in torturing and forcing people to give them information that will lead to their or other people’s sentencing. In these two pieces she changed names and wrote about herself in third person, calling herself Thérèse.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I’m familiar with Marguerite Duras and love her writing but I still thought this would be just another WWII memoir. It isn’t. Most memoirs fous either on the war – on the battle field or the home front – or on the camps. I don’t think I’ve ever read a memoir by someone who was waiting for someone and about the challenges of the return. There’s so much going on in these pages. Every day, there’s a new anxiety regarding her husband and every day the people in France find out more details about the war. The French sent 600,000 Jews to the camps. One in 100 came back. They didn’t know any details about the camps until the end of the war. Other arresting details capture that for France the end of the war also meant the end of the occupation. Or what it was like to see Paris at night illuminated again.

As I wrote before, some of the texts deal with what happened to collaborators. Duras seems to have taken an active part in their arrest and punishment. I couldn’t help but wonder what I would have done. I can absolutely not imagine myself watching someone being tortured or even torturing someone.

There were also aspects that were especially interesting for me, as a French person, because the liberation and its aftermath, the coming to power of de Gaulle have led to problems France is battling to this day. Marguerite Duras mentions that de Gaulle only wanted to emphasize that the Allies won the war. He didn’t mention the camps, nor did he want them mentioned because it had to be about glory not about pain. Possibly this explains the choice of title because she thinks you have to discuss the pain. You have to hear the people who suffered. I’m afraid that the logic behind not mentioning the camps isn’t only linked to “glory” and such. If you don’t talk about the camps, you don’t need to talk about those who were deported to the camps and the people who sent them there. Ultimately, this leads to the refusal to admit responsibility and the denial that there were collaborators.

French politics aside, this is one of the most important WWII texts I’ve ever read. The writing is tight, evocative and detailed, just what I had expected from Marguerite Duras.

 

Other Reviews

My Book Strings

 

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The War – La douleur is the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next readalong is dedicated to war poetry. Discussion starts on Wednesday 31 May, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

Truman Capote: The Glass Harp (1951) The 1951 Club

I’m glad that I finally managed to participate in one of Simon and Karen’s reading years series. It wasn’t easy to find a book for 1951, not because there aren’t many but because I already have read so many books published that year. Nonetheless, there were a few left on my piles. Dürrenmatt, Koeppen, and Heimito von Doderer’s Die Strudlhofstiege. The latter is a book I’m really keen on reading but it has almost 1,000 pages. I wasn’t in the mood to read in German, and so I picked Truman Capote’s novella – The Grass Harp. I’m so glad I did. It will probably be on the best of list at the end of the year.

Truman Capote’s novella The Grass Harp is set in 1930 or 40, in a small town in Alabama. It’s loosely inspired by Capote’s own childhood.

After the death of his mother, Collin’s father sends him to live with his two estranged cousins Verena and Dolly. The two elderly women live alone, together with Catherine, an African-American woman who pretends to be of Indian origin. It’s a very colorful household because the three women are, each in their own way, eccentrics. Verena is a formidable, bossy woman, the head of the household and main bread-winner. She’s a shop owner and seems to make a lot of money. Dolly, her older sister, is stuck in her childhood. Her room is painted pink all over, she loves to eat only sweets and her imagination’s always running a little wild. But she’s also entrepreneurial. As a kid, a gypsy woman told her a secret recipe. With the help of Catherine, who is also her best friend, and Collin, she collects herbs, tree barks, roots, and berries, and concocts a potion against dropsy. Catherine, who has no teeth, speaks with the help of cotton balls she’s pushed into the cavities in her mouth. Dolly’s pretty much the only one who can understand her mumbling.

Collin’s childhood is lovely. He spends most of his time with Dolly and Catherine who tell tales and behave just like children. They are often outside, go on long walks, collect things from the forests and the meadows.

Beyond the field begins the darkness of River Wood. It must have been on one of those September days when we were there in the woods gathering roots when Dolly said: Do you hear? that is the grass harp, always telling a story—it knows the stories of all the people on the hill, of all the people who ever lived, and when we are dead, it will tell ours too.

Until Collin is sixteen, nothing really troubles him or the household he lives in. But then Dolly makes much more money with her dropsy cure and Verena thinks she has to take things in her hands. Without asking Dolly, she buys machinery and a building and brings along a man who should help them commercialize the “gypsy cure”. Dolly, who never refuses anything, is shocked. She doesn’t want to sell her recipe. She doesn’t want to give up the only thing she has. In despair she, Catherine, and Collin, flee in the middle of the night and take refuge in a tree house.

The tree house is soon visited and surrounded by friends and enemies. An elderly judge and a young man whom everyone admires and despises alike, move in with them. The sheriff and other notables of the small town want to force them down but they fight valiantly.

This is such a lovely, heartwarming story, and told in such lyrical prose. It’s as beautiful as it is melancholy and sad. It’s a much older Collin who tells this childhood tale and the tone he uses indicates that a lot of the things and people he describes in this story, are long gone.

If some wizard would like to give me a present, let him give me a bottle filled with the voices of that kitchen, the ha ha ha and the fire whispering, a bottle brimming with its buttery sugary smells . . .”

While it is lovely, it has serious undertones. One could say this is a tale of misfits who stand up for their rights. While Verena is an unusual character for the time, a successful business woman, each of the others stand for a minority or group of people that’s not taken seriously. Catherine is an African-American woman who doesn’t let anyone treat her like a servant. Dolly might have what we would call “Special needs” today. Collin is a kid and back then, they mostly had to do as they were told. The judge is retired and with retirement, he’s lost a lot of the respect he used to have. He was a very just judge. A bit too just for the liking of some and now that he’s older, they want to pay him back.

I remember how I surprised I was, years ago, when I read that Harper Lee and Truman Capote had been friends since childhood and that she helped him with his book In Cold Blood. While I haven’t read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, thinking of that novella and other elements of Capote’s life, made me assume he was from New York. I realized then, that I had been mistaken. Reading The Grass Harp, makes it obvious where Capote comes from and, given the close friendship with Harper Lee, it’s not surprising that this slim book has a lot in common with To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe it inspired Harper Lee. The stories and the writing are different, but there are many similar themes; childhood, friendship, authority, love, justice, money, society, death, outsiders, life in a small town, the South, the role of women and African-Americans . . .

I’m grateful to Karen and Simon because they finally made me discover an author I’ve only known through his short stories and essays so far. What a wonderful, nuanced, and stylish writer. And so quotable.

I’ll leave you with some more of the quotes I liked:

But, ah, the energy we spend hiding from one another, afraid as we are of being identified.

 

What one says hardly matters, only the trust with which it is said, the sympathy with which it is received.

 

If you are not admired no one will take the trouble to disapprove.

 

Dreams are the mind of the soul and the secret truth about us.

Literature and War Readalong April 2017: The War – La douleur by Marguerite Duras

Usually I like to say a few introductory words about my readalong titles, but I’m in bed with the flu and my head feels like it’s filled with cotton. The book has to speak for itself. Luckily, I found the first pages of  the translation of Marguerite Duras’ The War – La douleur online.

Here is the beginning:

I found this diary in a couple of exercise books in the blue cupboards at Neauphle-le-Chateau.

I have no recollection of having written it.

I know I did, I know it was I who wrote it. I recognize my own handwriting and the details of the story. I can see the place, the Gare d’ Orsay, and the various comings and goings. But I can’t see myself writing the diary. When would I have done so, in what year, at what times of day, in what house? I can’t remember.

One thing is certain: it is inconceivable to me that I could have written it while I was actually awaiting Robert L.’s return.

How could I have written this thing I still can’t put a name to, and that appalls me when I reread it? And how could I have left it lying for years in a house in the country that’s regularly flooded in winter?

The first time I thought about it was when the magazine Sorcieres asked me for a text I’d written when I was young.

The War is one of the most important things in my life. It can’t really be called “writing.” I found myself looking at pages regularly filled with small, calm, extraordinarily even handwriting. I found myself confronted with a tremendous chaos of thought and feeling that I couldn’t bring myself to tamper with, and beside which literature was something of which I felt ashamed.

April

Opposite the fireplace and beside me, the telephone. To the right, the sitting-room door and the passage. At the end of the passage, the front door. He might come straight here and ring at the front door. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Or he might phone from a transit center as soon as he got here. “I’m back — I’m at the Lutetia to go through the formalities.” There wouldn’t be any warning. He’d phone. He’d arrive. Such things are possible. He’s coming back, anyway. He’s not a special case. There’s no particular reason why he shouldn’t come back. There’s no reason why he should. But it’s possible. He’d ring. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Lots of other things like this do happen. In the end they broke through at Avranches and in the end the Germans withdrew. In the end I survived till the end of the war. I must be careful; it wouldn’t be so very extraordinary if he did come back — it would be normal. I must be careful not to turn it into something extraordinary. The extraordinary is unexpected. I must be sensible: I’m waiting for Robert L., expecting him, and he’s coming back.

The phone rings. “Hello? Any news?” I must remind myself the phone’s used for that sort of thing, too. I mustn’t hang up, I must answer. Mustn’t yell at them to leave me alone. “No, no news.” “Nothing? Not a sign?” “Nothing.” “You know Belsen’s been liberated? Yes, yesterday afternoon…” “I know.” Silence. “You mustn’t get disheartened, you must hold on, you’re not the only one, alas — I know a mother with four children…” “I know, I’m sorry, I haven’t moved from where I was. It’s wrong to move too much, a waste of energy, you have to save all your strength to suffer.

She said, “You know Belsen’s been liberated?” I didn’t know. One more camp liberated. She said, “Yesterday afternoon.” She didn’t say so, but I know the lists of names will arrive tomorrow morning. I must go down and buy a paper and read the list. No. I can hear a throbbing in my temples getting louder and louder. No, I won’t read the list.

 

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

La douleur  – The War by Marguerite Duras, 217 pages, France 1985, WWII

This 1944 diary of a young Resistance member, written during the last days of the French occupation and the first days of the liberation, is only now being published – Duras says she forgot about it during the intervening years, and only recently rediscovered it in a cupboard. The loneliness and ambivalence of love and war have appeared in Duras’ work before, from The Lover to Hiroshima Mon Amour, in which a Frenchwoman reveals to her Japanese lover, after the bomb, that she was tortured and imprisoned in postwar France for her affair with a German soldier. In the first section of The War, Duras the heroine waits for her husband to return from the Belsen concentration camp. When De Gaulle (“by definition leader of the Right – “) says, “The days of weeping are over. The days of glory have returned,” Duras says, “We shall never forgive him.” It’s because he’s denying the people’s loss. When her husband returns, she has to hide the cake she baked for him, because the weight of food in his system can kill. (We are spared no detail of his physical degradation, even to being told the color of his stools.) When he is stronger, she tells him she is divorcing him to marry another Resistance member. In the second section, set earlier, at the time of her husband’s arrest, a Gestapo official plays a cat-and-mouse game with Duras, to whom he’s attracted, preying on her desperation to help her husband. In the third section, post-liberation, she switches roles, becomes an interrogator as Resistance members torture a Nazi informer. She also half-falls in love (with characteristic Duras dualism) with a young prisoner who childishly joined the collaborationist forces out of nothing more than a passion for fast cars and guns. In her preface, Duras says it “appalls” her to reread this memoir, because it is so much more important than her literary work. Certainly, like everything she has written in her spare, impassive voice, the book is at once elegant and brutal in its honesty: in her world, we are all outcasts, and the word “liberation” is never free of irony. A powerful, moving work. (Kirkus Reviews) –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 28 April 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Bohumil Hrabal: Closely Observed Trains – Ostře sledované vlak (1965) Literature and War Readalong March 2017

Published in 1965, Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains – Ostře sledované vlaky, was one of the author’s greatest successes and has even been made into a movie. Hrabal wrote a first version of this book, which was more radical but had no chance of getting published. While this second version still contains a lot of what was unacceptable in Czechoslovakia at the time – the depiction of unheroic death and sex – by the time it was published, the public was ready and embraced Hrabal’s irreverent tale, in which sex ultimately leads to a young man’s demise.

Closely Observed Trains tells the story of a young man, Milos Hrama, who is an apprentice at a train station. Milos is back at work after three months of sick leave. He tried to kill himself after failing in bed with his girlfriend. He’s still a virgin and afraid that if he has a second chance with his girlfriend, the result will be the same.

It’s the end of the war and the Germans are slowly being defeated. But still trains from and to the Eastern front arrive at the small but strategically important station. Trains that transport wounded soldiers, maimed cattle, animals on their way to the slaughterhouse. Some of this is described quite graphically. I even had to put dow the book a few times.

The little station has been the scene of a scandal. One of the employees, dispatcher Hubicka, used the official stamps and applied them to the naked bottom of a beautiful telegraphist. The story has made the rounds and people come to have a look at the audacious Hubicka. Many are scandalised, but many more admire him for his gutsy behaviour. The station master pretends he’s shocked, but he’s too involved with his own life to really care. He’s busy climbing the social ladder, licking asses, caring for his beloved pigeons, and shouting at people.

All this fascinates Milos whose over sexed imagination is combined with the fear of failing again in the future. In many comic scenes he tries to talk about his fears to different people.

The sexual aspects of the novel are in many instances hilarious, but the book is still very serious. Some of the humour is used to ridicule collaborators and the Germans themselves aren’t spared. There’s no empathy for the enemy. Towards the end, when Dresden is bombed, one of the character’s laconic comment to a wounded German soldier, “You should have stayed home, shouldn’t you?”, is quoted again.

The most striking aspect of the book is that it combines scenes of horror and humour and in doing so achieves a distortion that gives the story an absurd feel. It’s as if the war wasn’t taken seriously, not because the people don’t get how serious it is but as an act of defiance. It’s as if the characters were saying to the Germans—you may think you defeated us – think again – you failed because we refuse to take you and your war seriously.

I enjoyed reading this book a great deal. It reminded me of some Czech movies I’ve seen during a Czech movie festival. Many of them used the same type of humour. It’s a mix of the absurd and the burlesque. Exaggerations, tall tales. At times this humour is close to slapstick but always stops right before turning into this cruder humour. It’s the behaviour, the attitude of the people that’s funny. They aren’t goofs, they are eccentrics.

I expected a lot from this slim novel and am happy to say – I wasn’t disappointed.

 

Other Reviews

TJ (My Book Strings)

Marina Sofia (findingtimetowrite)

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Closely Observed Trains is the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the French WWII memoir La douleur  – The War by Marguerite Duras. Discussion starts on Friday 28 April, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

On Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955)

I finished Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne two weeks ago, but am still not sure how to write about it. My reaction to it was very strong; it even gave me nightmares. I wonder if I can do it justice as there’s so much to discuss. It’s excellent and multifaceted and has a lot to say about religion, spinsterhood, family duty, shattered dreams and the woes of being an unattractive woman.

It’s peculiar that after having written two reviews about women who were punished for being too beautiful (Asking For It and Little Deaths), I’m now writing about a book in which the main character suffers, among other things, from being unattractive. Clearly, it’s hard to be a woman.

Judith Hearne is a 40-something spinster who has lived a rather dull and lonely life. Out of a sense of family duty and fuelled by her religious beliefs, she has cared for an ailing aunt until her death. The aunt in question was a rather formidable person and Judith lived under her thumb. Caring for her took up all of Judith’s time. It made it impossible to find love and friendship and now, at 40, she thinks it’s over. Even in her youth she wasn’t good-looking and sadly, age hasn’t made her look interesting. Not yet.

Here’s what she thinks about herself:

She watched the glass, a plain woman, changing all to the delightful illusion of beauty. There was still time: for her ugliness was destined to bloom late, hidden first by the unformed gawkiness of youth, budding to plainness in young womanhood and now flowering to slow maturity in her early forties, it still awaited the subtle garishness which only decay could bring to fruition: a garishness which, when arrived at, would preclude all efforts at the mirror game.

At the beginning of the novel, Judith Hearne has just moved into new lodgings in a shabby boarding house in Belfast. Here’s how the novel begins:

The first thing Miss Judith Hearne unpacked in her new lodging was the silver-framed photograph of her aunt. The place for her aunt, ever since the sad day of the funeral, was on the mantel piece of whatever bed-sitting-room Miss Hearne happened to be living in. And as she put her up now, the photograph eyes were stern and questioning, sharing Miss Hearne’s own misgivings about the condition of the bed-springs, the shabbiness of the furniture and the run-down part of Belfast in which the room was situated.

After she has found a place for her aunt’s picture, she needs to find another one for the Sacred Heart. This beginning shows exactly what kind of person Judith Hearne is. She’s poor and single and the two only things that give her solace are the memory of her aunt and her religion. And a few possessions of value like a watch and pretty shoes with buttons that look like winking eyes.

Judith Hearne is a piano teacher with only a few pupils left. One of the reasons she’s losing pupils is only discovered later in the novel—when things get too stressful, she drinks. Her good education and valuable belongings, catch the eye of one of the other boarders, Mr Madden, the brother of her landlady. Unfortunately, poor Judith thinks he’s really interested. She knows her time is running out and seeing how kind Mr Madden is with her and how he likes to talk to her, gives her hope.

And maybe, although it was a thing you could hardly bear to think about, like death or your last judgment, maybe he would be the last one ever and he would walk away now and it would only be a question of waiting for it all to end and hoping for better things in the next world. But that was silly, it was never too late.

It soon becomes clear that Mr Madden is looking for a business partner, not for a wife. He’s returned from America where he has lived for a long time. According to Miss Hearne, he’s more American than Irish. He lacks manners and dresses differently. If she was honest to herself and not so desperate, she would have to admit that he’s not her type.

Being single might not have been as bad for Judith Hearne if she had friends and family but she doesn’t. There’s only one family she calls her friends, the O’Neill’s. Judith pays them a visit every Sunday. It’s the highlight of her week. She tells herself that they are like family, that the O’Neill kids are like her grandchildren. And she’s sure that they look forward to seeing her too, after all, she goes there well prepared.

For it was important to have things to tell which interested your friends. And Miss Hearne had always been able to find interesting happenings where other people would find only dullness. It was, she often felt, a gift which was one of the great rewards of a solitary life. And a necessary gift. Because, when you were a single girl, you had to find interesting things to talk about. Other women always had their children and shopping and running a house to chat about. Besides which, their husbands often told them interesting stories. But a single girl was in a different position. People simply didn’t want to hear how she managed things like accommodation and budgets. She had to find other subjects and other subjects were mostly other people. So people she knew, people she had heard of, people she saw in the street, people she had read about, they all had to be collected and gone through like a basket of sewing so that the most interesting bits about them could be picked out and fitted together to make conversation.

Brian Moore uses stream-of-consciousness and various points of view to give us an insight into most of his characters thinking. That’s why we know that nobody in this novel thinks kindly about Judith Hearne. Seeing the O’Neill’s before Judith’s arrival on one Sunday is enlightening. Moore is brilliant at unmasking his characters’ feelings and thoughts and knowing what they think and comparing it to what she thinks they think is chilling.

Before moving into this boarding house, Judith Hearne isn’t happy but once things go wrong with Mr Madden, she heads for a crisis. A crisis that unhinges her, because she pretty much loses everything including her faith. The end of the novel, which I won’t describe, tells us how she moves on, after having lost her faith and her illusions.

Different readers will find different things interesting in this book. As someone who was born into a Catholic family, I found the religious aspects especially perturbing.

Just before starting the book, I saw the title of an article about the pope saying he thought it was better to be an atheist than a hypocritical Christian. I couldn’t help but think of this while reading The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, a book that is, among other things, very much about just that – religious hypocrisy.

Being rejected by a man, is painful but being let down by her religion and its representative, a priest, is far worse for Judith Hearne.

It’s not often that a title is so well-chosen or that it does double duty like in the case of Moore’s eponymous title. Yes, the book is about loneliness, and it’s about the last hope to find love. But it’s also a description of utter despair and suffering and that’s alluded to in the title as well. After all, “passion” is also a reference to the “passion of the Christ” or his final suffering and martyrdom. We find in this book the same doubts, the same “why have you forsaken me feeling”, only Judith Hearne, being human, has another fate awaiting her.

Before ending, I’d like to say a few words about confession. There’s a heartbreaking scene in this novel, in which Judith Hearne goes to confession. She goes to confess her sin – drinking – but also because she hopes for spiritual help. The scene reminded me of one of Frank O’Connor’s amazing short stories First Confession.

This is a bit of a hodgepodge review and I’m sorry for that. It’s an excellent novel but it reminded me of so much, that it was hard to write about it coherently and I didn’t want to turn this into a memoir piece, telling you all about me and why I left the church. Maybe I’ll do that in another post some day.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is an excellent novel because Moore is astute. The characters are brilliantly drawn and explored. We see all of their foibles which, at times, is quite funny. The ending however was heartbreaking.

This post is a contribution to  Cathy’s and Raging Fluff’s Reading Ireland Month