Elizabeth Taylor: The Soul of Kindness (1964)

Published in 1964, The Soul of Kindness is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s later novels. It’s the seventh novel by her that I’ve read and since I want to read everything she has written, it won’t be my last. I have to be honest though – if this had been my first, I might not have been so keen to carry on. While most other novels have one, or two central characters, this is more of an ensemble piece. It says in the foreword that it is one of three novels that don’t centre on a main character. The other two being In A Summer Season and The Wedding Group, both of which I haven’t read yet. This may sound as if I didn’t like it – that’s’ not the case but I think it works better when you know her writing already and read it as part of her oeuvre. If not, you might feel a bit let down by the lack of plot and its feeling a bit disjointed at times, especially since the blurb tells us this is Flora’s story. I suppose that was a marketing decision, as it isn’t her story, not in a traditional way that is. She’s more like the central figure among a group of people. But she’s definitely “the Soul of Kindness” the ironic title alludes to.

When the book opens, we see her as a shining bride, all eyes on her. She’s the belle of the ball. While people do admire her and many think highly of her, nobody does so as much as she does herself. Right away she is presented as attractive and nice, but also too fond of herself and a little ridiculous.

“Here I am!” Flora called to Richard as she went downstairs. For a second, Meg felt disloyalty. It occurred to her of a sudden that Flora was always saying that, and that it was in the tone of one giving a lovely present. She was bestowing herself.

Most of the central characters of this novel, are present at the wedding. Especially those whose lives Flora wants to improve. Among those unlucky ones are Meg, her best friend, Kit, Meg’s brother, and Percy and Ba, her father in law and his mistress. They are unlucky because Flora might be well meaning but she’s so self-centred, her attempts to help leads to smaller and bigger catastrophes. To help another person one has to be able to see them for what they are and that’s something Flora is incapable of.

While there isn’t really a plot, and after these initial scenes, not even a main character, the book still offers a lot. There are so many astutely observed character portraits, small vignettes, and scenes, some of which quite funny, that it’s a joy to read. I was particularly fond of Elizabeth Taylor’s use of atmospheric descriptions to convey a mood.

Here’s a very melancholic passage. We see Mrs Secretan, Flora’s mother, who was wishing so much for Flora to marry well, but never thought what it would mean for her, as a widow, that her daughter would move out.

The air smelt autumnal. In no time there would be thick evening mist coming up from the water, a complete silence from the towing-path, and the river rising; perhaps floods. And Flora would be settled in London and never to come here again, except as a guest.

I made all the plans, Mrs Secretan thought; down to the last detail. But I forgot this, I forgot myself and the future. I particularly overlooked this evening. She read the letter through again, telling herself that Flora had meant well, meant very well, poor girl. In fact she had always meant well. That intention had been seen clearly, lying behind some of her biggest mistakes.

This passage shows us, quite clearly that even her mother doesn’t think of Flora as kind and good, but merely as well-meaning with fatal consequences.

And here’s a funny passage in which Mrs Secretan, encouraged by her son-in-law, thinks about travelling. It captures both characters, of Flora and her mother so well.

To Flora’s astonishment she (her mother) was quite seriously weighing the pros and cons – of Hellenic tours (‘might be too scholarly’), India (‘but I dare say it is spoiled, now that it doesn’t belong to us’), the Holy Land for Christmas.

‘Yes, I might plump for the Holy Land for Christmas,’ she had told Flora, who had been deeply shocked. At Christmas! she had thought in dismay. So what shall we do? Christmas had always been a sacred time, with cherished customs, not one for taking oneself off to the Holy Land.

Flora is so oblivious of other people and their needs that she’s pretty much the only happy character in this novel. All the others strive for something or someone they can’t attain. Or, because of Flora, they start to strive for something that’s not attainable, risking their contentment for a mirage.

In The Soul of Kindness, like in all of her novels, Elizabeth Taylor excels at creating well-rounded, believable characters. Their relationships are complex and at times complicated. Nothing is as simple as Flora perceives it. Not even her own husband Richard. He’s very much in love with his wife, because of her beauty, but knows that she’s too self-centred to be clever. No wonder he’s attracted to his unhappy neighbour. This relationship triggers Flora’s jealousy and we see, she can be perceptive when she feels threatened.

In the foreword, Flora is called demonic, which I find a total exaggeration. I don’t think she’s as bad as we’re initially led to believe. Yes, she’s self-centred, oblivious, and puts in motion some things that go terribly wrong, but she’s the glue that holds all these people together. Without her, this particular group of people and their relationships wouldn’t exist. And that’s not a little thing. It’s a gift to attract interesting people and to bring them together. I would, if I had to judge her, call her very imperfect, but neither demonic nor mean. That’s why, ultimately, she’s liked and forgiven.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this novel but I don’t think it’s as good as others. I believe it doesn’t succeed at being the portrait of one central character like Angel for example, but that’s how the beginning reads. All the initial chapters place Flora at the centre but this cohesion eventually fizzles out. As if Elizabeth Taylor had realized too late that Flora wasn’t a big enough character to carry a whole story. I could be totally wrong, of course, as critics have called this one of her, if not her best book.

Since this is one of three “group stories” I hope I will like the other two In A Summer Season and The Marriage Group more.

Here’s another take on this novel by Jacqui. 

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – Part 4

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Part 3 – “Chapters” 8/9

 

  1. Reinhold is possibly the biggest villain in the story. Would you agree? Do you find his punishment satisfying?

 

I found him the biggest villain because he seems so harmless at first. Almost helpless. He really tricked Franz, making him help him, trusting him. But even without that, the Mieze story shows his cruelty and viciousness and then, on top of everything else, trying to frame his “friend” shows the extent of his depravity. In light of this, no, I don’t think his punishment was satisfying.

 

  1. The quote that returns most frequently in the last chapters – at least as far I could see – is taken from Ecclesiastes (There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven . . . ) How did you feel about this use? Did you find it effective?

 

I found it downright creepy. Especially how it was used in the Mieze section, but also later on. Like an echo of evilness. It’s obviously not used in context. It’s one of those instances that made me want to read up on the book.

 

  1. Were you surprised by the ending?

 

I was surprised and somewhat disappointed. I’m not entirely sure what I expected but not this. First the episode in which Franz is catatonic, and at a mental institution and then picking up work, like everything that happened before didn’t take place. Possibly, Döblin wanted to tell us he redeemed himself. His love for Mieze, is certainly a redeeming factor.

 

  1. Looking back, what did you like the most about the book and what did you like the least?

 

At times I read it like a puzzle. Not the story itself, but the way Döblin used collage technique. Quoted songs, poems, the bible . . . It was fascinating to hunt them. Unfortunately, those were also the elements that I found annoying at times. There’s just too much and while it’s interesting to see what quotes he chose and how he changed parts of them, it made the book frustrating at times. It’s a book that requires close reading and I didn’t have the time to do that.

 

  1. Would you reread it and/ or are you glad you read Berlin Alexanderplatz?

 

My answer is a resounding no. I will definitely not read it again. I’m glad I read it. as I always felt I was missing out because I hadn’t read it yet. I found it intellectually stimulating but not exactly enjoyable. At other times in my life, the stimulating part would have been enough. Not so now. I didn’t realize before starting it that it’s so long. My edition has just 400 pages, but they are densely packed. The copies in translation showed that it was closer to 600.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – Part 3

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Part 3 – “Chapters” 6/7

 

  1. The German original calls the chapters “Books” not chapters. In my opinion this is a gross error and robs the English reader of seeing some intertextual links. How do you feel about this?

 

I feel it’s a problematic omission. As I mentioned in the previous post, I’m pretty sure that in writing Berlin Alexanderplatz, Döblin referenced Simplicissimus, which is also divided in books, not chapters, uses a similar structure with short summaries at the beginning of each chapter (there are chapters with long titles in the books). One of Döblin’s later works, the over 1000 pages long historical novel Wallenstein (maybe an excellent choice for next year’s readalong? – just kidding) deals with the 30-year war, the same era during which Grimmelshausen’s famous work takes place. By the time he wrote Wallenstein, he most certainly knew Simplicissimus, but looking at BA’s structure he already knew it then.

But even if these intertextual links wouldn’t exist, I’m not sure why a translator has to change “book” to “chapter”. It seems a bit shoddy.

 

  1. Were you surprised to find out what happened to Franz after Reinhold pushed him out of the car? Do you find that Döblin is unnecessarily cruel to his creation?

 

It was a bit of a shocker and reinforced my earlier assumptions that Döblin likes to emphasize what a strong hold he has on his creature. Poor Franzeken is at his mercy.

 

  1. What does Berlin Alexanderplatz tell us about Döblin’s “Menschenbild” – his philosophical conception of human beings?

 

I find his concept of man very pessimistic. Not only does it seem that people can’t better themselves, they are also puppets on strings without any freedom. They are driven and things happen to them. Once the “machine infernale” is set into motion, there’s no stopping it. Fate will get you, no matter what. At the time when he wrote this novel, Döblin was an atheist. He’d been army doctor during WWI, and I assume that might have shaken his faith. When he was writing Berlin Alexanderplatz, he was “Nervendoktor”, – psychiatrist. He must have seen his share of tragedy and depravity. All this seems to come into play in his work.

 

  1. Do you have a favourite character so far?

 

I really like Herbert and Eva. Even crooks have a certain code of honour and while Reinhold is a character that doesn’t know any loyalty or honour, both Herbert and Eva are representative of this roguish code of honour, as I would call it and I like them for that. Yes, Herbert is a criminal and Eva a type of prostitute, or kept woman, but they are loyal to Franz and genuinely care. They help with anything they can.

 

  1. In these chapters, we see Franz attending political meetings. What did you think about these sections and his friend’s reactions?

 

I thought the reactions were extreme. I can only assume they didn’t like him exposing himself like this and drawing too much attention. The meetings he attends are meetings of the communist party. Franz isn’t even a communist, he’s far closer to national Socialist thinking. I read these sections as criticism of communism. I don’t know anything about Döblin’s political convictions, but maybe anti-communism was his own position.

 

  1. Most novels can be read without the reader knowing anything about the author’s life. What about this case? Were you compelled to read up on the author?

 

I find it always helps to know a bit about the author but often it’s not necessary. Not so in this case. I read up quite a bit. I was particularly interested in Döblin’s religion. For someone like me, who grew up in a Catholic environment, this was peculiar to read. While it’s very pessimistic, I also felt it had so many Catholic elements. It was interesting to me to know, while he was born into a Jewish family, Döblin converted to Catholicism. I could already sense it here and it helped me understand some passages and the use of some quotes.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – Part 2

I don’t think I’ve ever been this inactive during a German Literature Month and I’m sorry about that. I had made plans but now I even struggle to keep up with our readalong. It’s like everything that is annoying and time-consuming came at the same time, robbing me of what precious little time I had to begin with.

  1. What do you make of Döblin’s structuring of the novel?  The short summaries at the beginning of each chapter, each section? The montage technique? 

I think the structuring works well in this context, as it breaks up the narrative and, in doing so, moves away from traditional storytelling techniques. Since Franz is pretty much a guinea pig for Döblin to demonstrate his world view, identification with the protagonist was never his aim. The short summaries convey an ironic tone but also mirror older books, that had a similar approach. I’m thinking of Candide, or Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus. Both have tragic heroes the authors use to illustrate their philosophy and world view. Obviously, the older protagonists are very different from Franz. They aren’t criminals or depraved people, but, just like him, victims of the circumstances.

  1. Women and the treatment of women in Berlin Alexanderplatz …. Discuss.

This is such an interesting question. So far, we haven’t seen any positive depictions of women. There will be one in the next book but so far, I’m constantly shaking my head and would like to talk some sense into them. Why do they fall for these men? I can only assume it’s mostly about sex. Many of these relationships are between a pimp and his women, and those can be very complicated. Dependency and addiction come into play. Seeing how so many women are attracted to Franz, I was wondering what he looked like. I don’t seem to remember reading a description. The way Döblin depicts women made me wonder what relationships he had with women. But then again, one can’t say that the men are described in a more positive way.

  1. This section introduces Reinhold, who will prove to be Franz Biberkopf’s main antagonist.  What do you think of Biberkopf’s initial underestimation of Reinhold?

Unfortunately, underestimating Reinhold is quite typical for Franz who is anything but astute. In some ways, one could say, the author wanted to show that Franz is, despite what he does, not a totally bad person and he doesn’t immediately think bad of people or situations. You can’t be entirely bad, if you’re this naïve. One could also say, that Franz triggers something dark in Reinhold.

  1. What was the highlight of this section for you? What the lowlight?

The last scenes were the highlight and the lowlight. I had a hard time believing that Franz didn’t realise was he was signing up for when he joined Pums, Reinhold and the others. I’m not entirely sure what Döblin wanted to tell us. That Franz really meant to become a better man, but was stupid enough not to see what was coming? Franz is decidedly not a very intelligent man, but I think Döblin’s intention was another one.  Once more, Döblin shows us that Franz is a construct. An invention he uses to make us see certain things. He deliberately places him in harm’s way and then pushes him even further down, to illustrate how unfree Franz is. Franz can decide to become better as much as he likes, it won’t work because it’s not up to him. Society and fate are against him. And, most of all, his author who won’t stop before he has destroyed him completely. At least, that’s how it feels at this point.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – Part 1

Due to some time constraints this and next week, my post is very short.

Welcome to the #germanlitmonth readalong of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.  What enticed you to readalong with us?

When I buy a book in a bookshop, I sometimes keep the receipt. I did so in this case and that’s how I know that the book has been on my shelves for 19 years. I bought it in September 2000. I know that when I bought it, I was extremely keen on reading it. But for some reason I didn’t and because I always felt it was a book that had to be read during autumn – possibly because I visited Berlin in autumn – I postponed it from year to year. When Lizzy mentioned she wanted to read it during this GLM, I decided that the time had finally come.

Summarise your initial expectations.  Are they being met?

It’s pretty much how I expected it. Highly readable in some places, and more experimental in others. I struggled more reading the first book than I thought I would. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, but once I made more time for reading it and saw certain patterns in the storytelling emerge, I was captivated.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading? If you’re reading the original German, is there anything noteworthy about Döblin’s language?

I’m reading the German original and am constantly thinking that it’s almost impossible to translate this adequately because of the extensive use of Berlin vernacular. But since Döblin uses a collage/montage technique there are other challenges. He uses bits from songs, slogans, poetry, and many other sources. Occasionally he uses them verbatim, quite often though, he changes words. Of course, you can translate them, but they won’t mean the same to a foreign reader. With the changes, they might even be more unrecognizable. I was also wondering, if the translators really caught all the allusions and quotes. They would have to be extremely knowledgeable about German culture and literature

The more descriptive passages, especially those in which the narrator/author are present are very beautiful. There’s a rhythm and sound to his sentences that’s unique. The choice of words is very careful.

What are your first impressions of Berlin and Franz Biberkopf?

Because of the way Döblin chose to tell this story, I think of Franz as a guinea pig or a marionette. I feel like I see the threads, the author is using to make him move. I can’t think of him as a real person at all. Interestingly, I feel very differently about Berlin. The city comes across as more of person than Franz. The city comes to life. One has the feeling of experiencing a particular moment in a very particular place.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – German Literature Month 2019

In order to commemorate the centennial of the founding of the Weimar Republic, Lizzy and I are hosting a readalong of Berlin Alexanderplatz  during German Literature Month 2019. Döblin’s tale is one the seminal novels (if not the seminal novel) of that era.

We will discuss the novel over 4 weeks and we are intending to send out discussion questions a week in advance of each date. You can answer these or post your own thoughts, entirely as you please. If you’re intending to participate, please leave a comment and your email below.

The schedule is as follows.  (Each section is circa 100-140 pages in the NYRB classics edition.)

Saturday 9.11.2019 Chapters 1-2

Saturday 16.11.2019 Chapters 3-5

Saturday 23.11.2019 Chapters 6-7

Saturday 30.11.2019 Chapters 8-9

Mapp and Lucia by E. F. Benson (1931)

Feeling a little under the weather a couple of weeks ago, I decided I needed something to cheer me up. E. F. Benson’s much-loved novel Mapp and Lucia seemed an excellent choice. I didn’t expect to have such a peculiar reading experience though. Mapp and Lucia has been on my piles for ages and ever since I got it, I saw people mention it as a novel they loved. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was planning to read it, the reactions were enthusiastic. Logically, I was sure, I would love it but for the first hundred pages I did not only not love it, I almost hated it. And then, I still don’t know why, I started to like it so much, that I still miss reading it. I believe that’s what some people call a book hangover.

At the beginning of the novel, we find Lucia and her best-friend Georgie, still in Riseholm, where Lucia owns the most beautiful house and occupies the centre of the social life. That is, she did before her husband died. While he’s been dead for over a year, Lucia felt it was her duty to still live like a recluse. But enough is enough and she’s planning to re-enter Riseholm’s social life and be its queen again. Georgie who missed her shenanigans, is happy that she’s finally back. We’re led to believe that her mourning was only in part real, a lot of it was just for show. And so are most things with Lucia. She does and says so much just for show and to grab the attention of the people around her. One of the funniest things she does for show, is pretending that she speaks Italian. She addresses Georgie, and other people, constantly with little Italian sentences and phrases, exclaims her joy or distaste in Italian morsels. The people of Riseholm and Tilling admire and envy her for that.

After reclaiming the Riseholm stage, Lucia is soon bored and wishes to conquer new territory. She decides to rent Mallard, the most beautiful house in Tilling. The house belongs to Miss Mapp, the centre of Tilling’s social life. Just like Lucia, she’s an attention-grabber, self-centred to the max, and never shies away from thinking about her own advantage. It’s the custom amongst the Tilling upper middle-class to sublet their homes in summer. Mallard being the most expensive one, it’s rented to foreigners; the next in line, Diva’s house, is taken by Miss Mapp. Diva rents someone else’s, and so on. Luckily for Lucia, Georgie decides to rent Mallard cottage and join her for the summer. He will prove, once more, to be her most ardent ally.

At first, things are amicable enough, but soon Lucia isn’t satisfied anymore and wants to become the centre of Tilling. Things are a bit different here though. While there was no real competition for her in Riseholm, there’s formidable Miss Mapp in Tilling to be reckoned with. She’s the most important person in Tilling and there’s nothing that she doesn’t preside over, nothing she doesn’t decide, much to the annoyance of some of the other inhabitants of Tilling. Lucia might always have wanted to become Tilling’s most influential person, but having competition spurs her on even more. In Miss Mapp, she’s found her match. While things don’t often turn out the way Miss Mapp has planned, she still wins more than one small skirmish in this war.

As I said, initially, I hated the book because I found the characters obnoxious and nasty. But once the reader gets to see behind Lucia’s mask and Miss Mapp defeats her more than once, it’s more and more enjoyable.

And there’s life at Tilling. A carefree life that’s so different from most of our lives nowadays. Not only because it’s set before WWII, but because it’s set among the British upper middleclass. Nobody works in this book. All the main characters own beautiful houses. All they think about is, where they will dine next, who gives the best tea party. Gossip and petty quarrels aside, it’s a peaceful world. The conflicts are entirely the character’s own making. Nothing dramatic ever comes from outside. At least not until the end. After a while, I found spending time in this world very comforting. And funny. It’s a terrific social comedy. Lucia’s pretence to know Italian is hilarious and so is the way they constantly try to outsmart each other.

When I got the book, I wasn’t aware that it was part of a series, and not even the first in the series, but the fourth. Luckily, it works very well as a stand-alone. As far as I know, this is the first of these books that feature both Lucia and Miss Mapp.

Has anyone read other books in this series? Are they just as good?