Julia Strachey: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding (1932)

Cheerful Weather

It seems my reading is very influenced by Danielle’s these days as this is the second book in a row I bought after having read an appealing review on her blog.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is an absolutely delightful little book; charming but still witty, filled with dry humour, detailed descriptions and quirky characters.

On the cover it is compared to Katherine Mansfield, E.M. Forster and Stella Gibbons which is apt but isn’t giving Julia Strachey enough credit for her originality.

A very crisp March morning slowly turns into a gloriously bright but chilly day. Dolly is about to get married to the Hon Owen Bingham who is eight years her senior. While she is getting ready in her room upstairs, the guests arrive and gather downstairs. Among the guests is Joseph with whom Dolly has spent a wonderful summer and possibly a love story.

The closer we get to the wedding the more things go topsy-turvy. Mrs Thatcham, Dolly’s mother, who is a very muddle-headed person assigns the same room to different people, the young cousins of Dolly chase and tease each other loudly, Dolly empties a bottle of rum, Joseph starts crying and in the end Dolly and Joseph are caught by Dolly’s soon-to-be husband in something that looks like an embrace.

Reading this book is like watching a dance on a slightly crowded dance floor. While all the dancers know their moves, they get into each other’s way, bump into each other and what we get to see is graceful chaos.

The character portraits are very witty. Dolly and Kitty’s mother, Mrs Thatcham is such an airhead. While there is huge drama going on behind the scenes, she wouldn’t even notice it, if it was brought to her attention. All she seems to care about is that there is cheerful weather for the wedding. Dolly and Joseph’s relationship is a mystery. We really wonder whether she is doing the right thing in marrying Bingham.

The people and their drama unfold within pages full of delicate descriptions which reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s early work. There are descriptions of the way light falls into a room through fern pots and colors it in a greenish hue, of the shades of dresses, the shape of a flower, the pattern on a lampshade. These are delicate and exquisite descriptions which paint a wonderfully rich picture.

Cheerful Weather for a Wedding is a most enjoyable little book which I can recommend to anyone who likes the writing of the early Virginia Woolf or E.M. Forster, infused with a dose of dry wit.

The novella has just been made into a movie starring Elizabeth McGovern (Downton Abbey) as Mrs Thatcham. I was very keen on watching it but it has received an incredible amount of bad reviews and an IMDb rating of 5.1.

Has anyone seen the movie?

And has anyone read other books by Julia Strachey?

Dickens in December – A Christmas Carol – Readalong

Dickens button 01 resized

It didn’t take Delia and me very long to decide which book to choose for our Dickens in December readalong. There really couldn’t be a more fitting book to read just before Christmas than Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Last week we sent out a few questions. Some of you have chosen to answer them for the readalong, others wrote a review. Both is fine and all the links to the different contributions can be found at the end of my post and will help you to find the participants and visit their blogs. It’s updated regularly, so come back and check who else has contributed.

Is this the first time you are reading the story?

I have read A Christmas Carol before, I guess some 5 or 6 years ago and already knew then that I would read it again some day.

Did you like it?

I liked it very much 5 years ago that’s why I knew I would read it again. I still liked it this time around but for very different reasons. I was much more attentive this time to the moral of the story. The first time I was paying more attention to the descriptions.

Which was your favorite scene?

I have two favourite scenes or parts. One is the scene when Marley’s ghost appears. It’s quite spooky and Scrooge’s shock is shown so well. It’s also a very dark passage as there is clearly no redemption for Marley. It’s too late for him to change anything. While the whole story is about the power of change, this first part is a cautionary tale showing us that while Dickens did believe in change that didn’t mean he was an optimist who didn’t see that there were lost souls too.

The second part I liked a lot was when Scrooge first follows the second spirit. The descriptions are among the most evocative. They show Dickens’s style amazingly well.

Which was your least favorite scene?

I couldn’t think of a scene I didn’t like.
Which spirit and his stories did you find the most interesting?

I found the third spirit and how he was described, his appearance, the most interesting. He was the most ghostly but I liked the stories and what the second spirit showed Scrooge the most. These were the stories, I think, which reached Scrooge’s heart and let it melt.
Was there a character you wish you knew more about?

I would have liked to know more about Marley. Why did he become such an embittered old man?
How did you like the end?

It’s a perfect ending, Scrooge’s joy can be felt in every line and is very contagious. It’s the illustration of the belief that people can always change as long as they are still alive. And it also shows that there are good people in the world. While Scrooge has to make an effort and change, if the others were not ready to forgive him, we wouldn’t have this happy ending.
Did you think it was believable?

I think that someone can change profoundly but maybe not in such a short time.
Do you know anyone like Scrooge?

I know people with Scrooge-like traits but nobody who is as bad as he is.
Did he deserve to be saved?

Scrooge had a heart of stone but he wasn’t treating himself any better than others which I think makes a huge difference. If he had been spending a lot, living in luxury, feasting but depriving others, I would not so easily say yes to this question but given that he didn’t harm others for his own sake or actively inflict pain, I’d say, yes, the change of attitude and sentiment is reason enough for him to be saved.

Other contributions

50 Year Project (TBM)

Dolce Bellezza (Bellezza)

Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Polychrome Interest (Novia)

Postcards from Asia (Delia)

The Argumentative Old Git (Himadri)

The Things You Can Read  (Cynthia)Questions and Answers

The Things You Can Read Student Comments

The View From the Palace (Shimona)

Lost in the Covers (Elisa)

Leeswamme’s Blog (Judith)

Lynn’s Book Blog

Love. Laughter and a Touch of Insanity (Trish)

A Work in Progress (Danielle)

Sandra – please see comments section

Tabula Rasa (Pryia)

Slightly Cultural, Most Thoughtful and Inevitably Irrelevant (Arenel)

My Reading Journal (Ann)

Vishy’s Blog (Vishy)

Resistance is Futile (Rachel)

Too Fond of Books

Beauty is a Sleeping Cat (Caroline)

Arthur Schnitzler: Short Fiction – Lieutenant Gustl (1900) and Fräulein Else (1924)

Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler was one of those whose books were burned in Nazi Germany. Hitler considered him to be a typical example of what he called ‘Jewish filth’. What infuriated the Führer and created a lot of controversy among other readers of the time was, among other things, how outspoken Schnitzler wrote about sexuality, notably in his most famous play Round Danca aka La Ronde (Der Reigen). La Ronde is easily one of the best plays to convert people who don’t read plays,  as it’s such a stunning piece. It’s a play about promiscuous and venal love in which we always see one of the two characters from the preceding scene in the next one too.

Schnitzler was highly influenced by Freud, a fact that is most apparent in Dream Story aka Dream Novella (Traumnovelle) on which Stanley Kubrick’s last movie The Eyes Wide Shut. While I liked the movie a great deal, I was pleased to find out the novella is even better.

I have read both The Dream Novella and La Ronde some years ago and wanted something else and finally decided to re-read Lieutnant Gustl and (after Tony’s suggestion) added Fräulein Else. Both are available in the collection Short Fiction.

They are both written entirely as interior monologues, a technique which was very new at the time and also influenced by Freud’s theories. At 35 pages, Lieutenant Gustl is the shorter of the two, Fräulein Else is twice that size.

Both monologues show young people in distress. Both are victims of their society. The effect of listening to their hidden fears and desires, their hopes and wishes, their silliness and despair, is spellbinding.

Lieutenant Gustl takes place in Vienna during one night. Gustl is a young officer and has a history of duels to show for. When we are introduced to him during a Oratorioum which bores him to death, we also learn that this is the evening before another duel with a doctor will take place. Gustl is all about honour and reputation. All that is on his mind are girls and the hope people will respect him. When on the way out of the theater, a master baker insults him, he feels there is only one way to save face – he has to kill himself. As the man is below him, he couldn’t ask for satisfaction in a duel. He spends the whole night debating, looking at pros and cons of his decision, imagining the reaction of the people he knows when they will find out about his death, remembers similar cases like his. At the same time he displays how much he loves life.

Fräulein Else’s story is similar but far more tragic. Else is a young girl from a rich family whose father, a gambler, again and again maneuvers the family into impossible situations. While she stays in Italy at a hotel with her aunt, her cousin and a few other people she knows, her father has lost a lot of money, some of which belongs to his charges. Because he has lost such a lot of money before, he owes most of his family and acquaintances already a fortune and there is nobody left he could ask this time. Else’s mother decides to write to her and begs her daughter to save her father. There is a rich man, Dorsday, staying at the hotel with her, someone who fancies her and the mother thinks if Else asks him, he will lend her the money. This puts Else in a very delicate situation. Not only is she deeply ashamed, she also senses that asking a man like Dorsday for money will lead to complications and most certainly he will want something in exchange. The story is quite upsetting as we get the feeling the parents know very well that this request is as if they were asking her daughter to prostitute herself. Else, like Gustl, contemplates suicide, sees herself dead, imagines escape routes and hopes for help.

What finally becomes of Else and of Lieutnant Gustl is for you to find out. I would really encourage you to read these stories, if you haven’t done so already. I liked them a great deal and think Schnitzler may be one of my favourite authors. What impressed me a lot as well was how fresh the stories and the language are. The society has changed but the things that are at stake are still the same: love, death, money. And the style is precise and emotional without ever being sappy or sentimental.

Balzac: The Deserted Woman – La Femme abandonnée (1832)

When I read Le Père Goriot Old Goriot years ago I was fascinated by the tragic story of Mme de Beauséant. I knew Balzac had dedicated a novella to her which is included in the Scenes from Private Life. After reading one of Guy’s recent Balzac reviews, I decided it was about time to finally read the story. For those who read French you can find the story of The Deserted Woman or La Femme abandonnée in  Les Secrets de la Princess de Cadigan et autres études de femmes.

Gaston de Nueil, a young noble man, leaves Paris for Bayeux, a provincial city located in the Basse-Normandie region. His health is rather poor and he has to stay away from the capital until he recovers. Used to more interesting society than the one he finds in Bayeux, he is soon terribly bored and his imagination is set on fire by the story of the countess de Beauséant who lives like a recluse in her château in the Normandy. She is said to be a young woman of great beauty and even greater esprit who fled to Bayeux after having been abandoned by her former lover, the marquis d’Ajouda-Pinto. The separation was devastating and as she is trapped in a loveless marriage which cannot be divorced, the only way to keep at least some of her self-esteem was to withdraw from the world and dedicate her days to reading and praying.

Young, bored and curious about love, de Nueil falls in love with the unhappy countess before he has even set eyes on her. He walks in her gardens in the night, tries to catch a glimpse of her and is finally so love-sick that he decides to use a ruse in order to get access to her house.

When he finally stands before the woman he fell in love with because of her story and her reputation, he finds her even more beautiful and tragic than he expected.

The countess is 30 years old by now, while de Nueil is barely 23. She is trapped in a void, a loveless life, no contact to society, no future joy in sight. It’s not surprising that de Nueil’s infatuation moves her and finally leads her to accept him as her lover.

Writing more would spoil the story which is one of the best of Balzac’s short stories. You can read it on its own but when you are familiar with the Comédie Humaine you will like it even more. The countess is a key figure in Old Goriot and therefore important for the whole oeuvre. The story as such reminded me of many others. It bears some resemblance with Mme de Lafayette’s The Princesse de Clèves. The countess sounds just like the princesse when she first meets de Nueil. I was also reminded of  Henry James’ Mme de Mauves but most of all it reminded me of Colette’s Chéri. The end however is entirely different from all of these.

I like it when the title has a special significance, is complex and multi-layered. The title of this story seems simple but is excellent. To fully appreciate it, you will have to read the story.

As excellent as this story is, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is not familiar with Balzac. I would still recommend Old Goriot as the best starting point. Paired with this novella, it would be an amazingly great introduction to Balzac’s work and convey a good feeling for the diversity of his talent. The Deserted Woman also contains all of the themes which are important in Balzac’s work such as the mechanics of society, the role of women, marriage, adultery, money and some sub-themes like the “inheritance”, the “fallen woman”, the “aging woman” etc.

I liked the story a great deal. I thought the way Balzac described how de Nueil falls in love is perceptive and uncanny at the same time. Falling in love of an idea, or ideal, may unfortunately very often be the reason for falling in love. I haven’t seen it described as eloquently very often. I think this part of the story applies to all sorts of idealisations; people falling in love with stars or other people they hardly know like people in chat rooms, internet forums or blogs.

If you’d like to read the novella in English and are interested in an overview of Balzac’s work and how it is grouped here is an excellent link The Human Comedy – La comédie humaine.

Alvaro Mutis: Amirbar (1990) The Fifth Adventure of Maqroll

And if you want to change your life – for the better – and have never read the Colombian novelist Alvaro Mutis, you owe it to yourself to get acquainted with The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. A collection of seven novellas that can be read at a run or singly, it features the greatest rainbow-chaser since Quixote, but a lot sexier and ravenous for both learning and love, not to mention fantastical, doomed schemes to make a pile of loot.

Alvaro Mutis is a Colombian author who lives in Mexico. He is famous for his stories about Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout). The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll – Empresas y tribulaciones de Maqroll el Gaviero is composed of seven novels and novellas which can be read as a whole or individually. Each tome is around 120 pages long and they seem to vary greatly in style and narrative technique. Some are like diary entries, others are letters, still others contain more straightforward story telling.  I’ve had  the novella Amirbar, part 5 of Maqroll’s story, on my book piles since years and never got around to reading it. Richard’s (Caravana de recuerdos) and Stu’s (Winstonsdad’s BlogSpanish Literature Month seemed like the perfect time.

Reading Amirbar was an amazing experience. While Mutis is compared to Conrad – although he himself calls Dickens his greatest influence – I felt he was much more like a Latin American Blaise Cendrars. Amirbar reminded me of Cendrars’ amazing book L’or – Gold but is still a very distinct book. It has also something of the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights.

All the Maqroll stories are told by a narrator who works for some big corporate company and meets his friend Maqroll in different countries and cities at different times. Maqroll is a mariner and adventurer who travels the world without ever settling down for long. The sea is his chosen home and when he is at land it’s only to make business, most of it either illegal or highly adventurous. Whenever he meets his friend, the narrator, he tells him all of the stories that have happened in the meantime. When they do not meet, he writes long and winding letters all containing fantastic stories as well.

At the beginning of Amirbar, Maqroll and the narrator are in the US. Maqroll is ill and almost dying, he has contracted some tropical fever. The narrator takes care of him and sends him to live with his brother in California for a while. It is there that Maqroll tells them the story of Amirbar – a gold mine.

This is how the novel begins (translation taken from the English version)

Los dias mas insolitos de mi vida los pase en Amirbar” nos cuenta Maqroll el Gaviero. En Amirbar deje  jirones de mi alma y buena parte de la energiaque encendio mi juventud. De  alli descendi tal vez mas sereno, no se, pero cansaado ya para siempre. Lo que uno despues ha sido un sobrevivir en la terca aventura de cada dia. Poca cosa. Ni siquiera el oceano ha logrado restituirme esa vocacion de soñar despierto que agote en Amirbar a cambio de nada.

I spent the strangest days of my life in Amirbar. In Amirbar I left shreds of my soul and most of the energy that fired my youth. Perhaps I came down from there more serene, I don’t know, but I was everlasting weary too. What has happened to me since then has been a matter of simply surviving each day’s difficulties. Trivialities. Not even the ocean could give back to me my vocation for dreaming with my eyes open; I used that up in Amirbar and received nothing in return.”

Maqroll is driven by the urge to find gold, not so much because of its monetary value as we understand but because it symbolizes much more to him. It’s an obsession, a magical metal, something that calls for him from the entrails of the earth in which it is buried. The mine is in the Colombian Andes. He first discovers another one but has to flee it when they find a grave with people who have been murdered by some sort of Military Junta. Finding the skeletons puts them in grave danger. The next mine he explores is Amirbar. The wind in the tunnels systems of the mine seems to have a voice and what it is calling is the word “A-mir-bar” which has a special meaning for Maqroll.

One of the traits of Maqroll is that he has a lover wherever he is. In Amirbar it is Antonia who gets unhealthily attached to him. The relationship between Maqroll and Antonia is one of many small side stories in the book, one of many stories which turn into a desaster. Another important trait is Maqroll’s love of books. He is always reading. Most of the books he reads are obscure historical texts. He loves to immerse himself in another era and read about people who are long gone.

As fantastic as some of the stories sound they are infused with a high dose of realism. Set in a corrupt country, some of the characters are arrested, the gold is confiscated more than once and those who help Maqroll end up in prison and are tortured.

You can easily read Amirbar or any other story on its own but one thing is for sure, it will very probably make you want to read them all. I’ve read a few reviews since I started the book and it seems Amirbar isn’t even the best of the stories. In Maqroll Mutis has created some sort of alter ego, a character who feels so real that in his real life Mutis speaks about him with his friends as if he really existed.

Amirbar is a wonderful book, full of life, stories and tales. Reading it is an adventure in itself. I think it would be an excellent introduction to Latin American literature because despite of its complexity and exuberant story telling it is a very accessible, entertaining book.

Amirbar is a contribution Richard’s and Stu’s Spanish Literature Month.

William Trevor: My House in Umbria (1991) Novella and Movie

My House in Umbria is one of two longer novellas contained in the book Two Lives. The other one is called Reading Turgenev. I’ve had the book for a while and since Mel u’s Irish Short Story Week has been prolonged, I decided to read it now. William Trevor is one of those authors I always wanted to read more of.

My House in Umbria is a surprisingly somber and complex novella. As lovely as the setting is, a villa located near Siena, there are some dark undercurrents, nasty secrets and a back story unlike any other to discover.

The story is told in the very unique voice of Mrs. Emily Delahunty. Delahunty is one of a few names she has chosen for herself. She is a romance novelist with a more than troubled past. Sold by her parents as a child, abused by her step-father and later abandoned by a lover and stranded in a hotel in Africa where she meets Quinty. Quinty isn’t any less mysterious or adventurous than Emily and this strange couple forms an interesting alliance. At the beginning of the story they live in the afore-mentioned villa in Umbria. Surprisingly Emily’s novels have brought money and fame and she lives a comfortable life. She is haunted by the past but her incredible imagination helps her to flee to nicer places whenever the clouds get to dark. And there is always alcohol as well, to help circumnavigate the roughest cliffs.

At the beginning of the story she boards a train to Milano. The wagon she is sitting in is blown up and most of the passengers die. Only Emily, a young German man who loses his girlfriend, an old general who loses his daughter and Aimée a little American  girl whose whole family dies, survive.

After a stay at a hospital, Emily invites the three people to stay with her in her house in Umbria. The calm and peacefulness of the country-side, the beauty of the house, will help them recover, she hopes.

These four highly traumatized and maimed people share some moments of great intimacy, – reminiscent of the group in Enchanted April – until the day Aimee’s uncle announces that he will come and fetch the girl.

What follows is equally sad and dramatic and what little peace these wounded  people  have acquired is shattered for good. The idea that a man she has never seen before and who seems distant and unlikable, comes to get the girl who still suffers from amnesia is particularly painful for the three other victims.

Mrs Delahunty sounds like an unreliable narrator for most of the book but she isn’t. Some of the things she tells sound unbelievable but they turn out to be true, only, she mixes things she imagines with things that happened. She has a a habit of inventing back stories for each and every person she meets. It’s not surprising she has become a novelist. Hearing her we think she would have had what it takes to write great literature, yet she chose to write romances as a means to escape the memory of her past. Not only was she abused but it seems that before discovering that she is a writer, she was an escort girl in Africa.

It’s not often that I watch a movie based on a book right after having finished the book but I watched My House in Umbria the day after finishing Trevor’s novella.

I really enjoyed how the movie brings to life the great character of Mrs Delahunty. Maggie Smith is amazing in this role. They way she plays this very kind, vulnerable and sad woman is touching and funny at the same time. The movie changed the ending completely but stayed true to the rest of the story. It underlines and enhances the characters and episodes in the novella and I would say I liked it even better. Others may prefer the darker novella; I liked the way the movie interpreted some facts and changed a few others. In any case they work extremely well together. What the movie offers, apart from great acting, is enchanting pictures of a beautiful landscape and some truly comical moments when the worlds of Mrs Delahunty and Aimée’s uncle clash. It’s one of my favourite movies so far this year. But don’t get me wrong, the book is excellent as well.

It’s rare that a main character in a book is so memorable but I’m beginning to think that creating great characters is one of William Trevor’s strengths.


Henry James: Mme de Mauves (1874)

It was exactly one year ago that I reviewed Edith Wharton’s Mme de Treymes. Mme de Treymes – Mme de Mauves? Both novellas, both set in Paris, or in the case of Mme de Mauves in St-Germain-en-Laye. It’s hardly a coincidence. And who was influenced by whom is also not hard to find out as James wrote his novella in 1874, while Edith Wharton published Mme de Treymes in 1907.

Henry James and Edith Wharton are both novelists whose each and every book I would like to read sooner or later. Discovering Madame de Mauves of which I hadn’t known anything before was a real pleasure and the first sentences managed to capture me right away.

The view from the terrace at St.Germain-en-Laye is immense and famous. Paris lies spread before you in dusky vastness, domed and fortified, glittering here and there through her light vapours and girdled with her silver Seine. Behind you is a park of stately symmetry, and behind that a forest where you may lounge through turfy avenues and light-chequered glades and quite forget that you are in half an hour of the boulevards. One afternoon, however, in mid-spring, some five years ago, a young man seated at the terrace had preferred to keep this in mind. His eyes were fixed in idle wistfulness on the mighty human hive before him.

Like in Mme de Treymes we have the theme of intercontinental marriage and its difficulties. The young American Longmore, the narrator of Henry James’ novella, meets the beautiful and sad Mme de Mauves on one of his walks in St. Germain. A mutual friend introduces them and before leaving for London asks him to keep her company and distract her, as she is trapped in an unhappy marriage. Mme de Mauves is a young, very rich American woman, married to an aristocratic Frenchman. While she married because she romantically idealized the title, she also married for love, while he married her for the money only. It is known that he not only spends her money but has one affair after the other.

The more time Longmore  spends in her company, the more he admires her, pities her and finally falls in love with her. He would want her to confide in him but she refuses. As much as he is in love with her, he would never attempt anything and is taken aback when her sister-in-law suggests they should have an affair. It’s only natural, according to the sister-in-law, for a Frenchman to have affairs but it isn’t natural for a woman to make him one scene after the other and to torment him with reproaches. In an earlier conversation with Longmore, M de Mauves complains about his wife. He thinks that she is too morbid, to fond of reading and solitude.

A lot of what we find in James’ later novels can already be found here. The contrast of morals between France and America, the almost impossibility of a marriage between a rich American and an aristocratic Frenchman. Adultery. Divorce seems no option although Longmore hopes so at a certain point. I think it would be really great to read Wharton’s and James’ novella together. Both have drastic and surprising endings but in the case of Mme de Mauves, I’m not sure whether it isn’t surprising because it is implausible. If anyone has read the novella I’d love to discuss the ending.

It seems that of all of his novels The Golden Bowl is the most similar to this novella, although, without the tragic end. The negotiation that fails in Mme de Mauve is successful in The Golden Bowl, or so it seems. I have not read the Golden Bowl yet but would like to very much.

The writing in Mme de Mauves is complex, typical for James, it’s by far less readable than Mme de Treymes.

While this may not be his best work, it has reminded me of all I like in his writing and has certainly put me in the mood for another of his longer novels.

Has anyone read Mme de Mauves? Which are your favourite Henry James novels? Portrait of a Lady is one of my favourite novels but I also like many of his other books with the exception of The Turn of the Screw. I didn’t get along with that at all.