Elizabeth Taylor: A Wreath of Roses (1949)

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Published in 1949, A Wreath of Roses was Elizabeth Taylor’s fourth novel and the sixth I’ve read. Usually, when I decide to read everything by an author, I try to read in chronological order, not so in Elizabeth Taylor’s case. I seem to jump back and forth in time. I can’t say it minimizes my enjoyment but I might be less aware of her development as an author.

Every summer, Camilla, Liz and Frances meet for a month at Frances’ house in the country. Camilla and Liz have been friends for years. The much older Frances, who is now a painter, was Liz’s governess. For years, the month in the country was the highlight of their year, but this year things have changed. Liz who is newly married and wonders if she’s made a mistake, has brought her baby and is constantly afraid something might happen to him. Frances is getting very old and can hardly paint anymore. And Camilla, the main point of view character, is scared of old age as a spinster. All three of them are aware that things are not like they used to be. They still talk openly but they aren’t lighthearted anymore. While they still enjoy each other’s company, the changes and differences also bring out their darker sides.

The novel begins with Camilla waiting for a train. Richard, a very handsome man, is waiting next to her. He’s the kind of man she would never be interested in normally but the two witness a horrible tragedy and when they meet again, later at the local pub, they talk and she’s suddenly attracted. Liz who is there as well warns her. She has a bad feeling about this man. She is not the only one. Frances has invited an admirer of her paintings, Mr Morland, who stays at the same hotel as Richard. He finds him sneaky and dishonest. Richard is that and much worse. He’s a notorious liar and, as Camilla will find out, very dangerous.

Camilla’s affair with Richard stands in stark contrast to the rest of the novel, which explores the friendship of the three women and their characters. The book is filled with wonderful, psychologically astute character descriptions. The three women are very honest with each other and accept each other in spite of their differences and the many changes they have undergone. Some of their exchanges are wonderfully outspoken. Camilla doesn’t even shy away from telling Liz she hates her husband.

Loneliness is a theme in almost all of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. In A Wreath of Roses, she excels at exploring it from different angles. All of the characters are to some extent afraid of loneliness and try to combat or prevent it in different ways. Liz has married, almost out of the blue, a very pompous man, whom Camilla dislikes. Camilla has begun the affair with Richard because she dreads the idea of another lonely, uneventful year as a secretary in a school. And Frances, the most independent of the three, not only accepts Morland’s friendship but Liz’s offer to possibly live with her and her husband in the future.

Of the three women, Camilla is the one the reader gets to know best. She’s in many ways the most tragic because she’s alone although she’d like to be in a relationship. Only she hasn’t found the right man. Richard is only a distraction. In their discussions, the women speak openly about marriage and gender roles. They don’t seem to think that there could be camaraderie between a husband and a wife, but they know there is companionship, which might be preferable to loneliness. This view of marriage is quite pessimistic but what struck me even more is that the life of a single woman is portrayed in an equally pessimistic way. Unless a woman has a vocation that fulfils her completely, like Frances has her art, she will end up sad and lonely. On the other hand, marriage might stifle her development.

A Wreath of Roses caught me by surprise for many reasons. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did and certainly wasn’t prepared for something as sinister. But there was also a small disappointment. I didn’t appreciate the somewhat circular structure and the way it ended. Those who have read it will now what I’m talking about. But don’t get me wrong, it’s a minor reservation. Otherwise, this is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s richest and most nuanced novels. It combines a wonderful cast of characters with a tone and mood that is at times acerbic but mostly bitter-sweet and melancholic. An interesting combination, for sure. In spite of the somewhat puzzling ending, A Wreath of Roses has become one of my favourites, together with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and A Game of Hide and Seek.

Literature and War Readalong February 28 2017: Magnus by Sylvie Germain

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Sylvie Germain is a highly acclaimed French author of fiction and nonfiction. She earned a PhD in philosophy and studied with the famous French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Most of her novels have won multiple prizes. The most famous ones are Le livre des nuitsThe Book of Nights, Nuit d’ambreNight of Amber, Jours de colèreDays of Anger and Magnus. 

 

Here are the first sentences of Magnus:

Prologue

A meteorite explosion may yield a few small secrets about the origin of the universe. From a fragment of bone we can deduce the structure and appearance of a prehistoric animal; from a vegetal fossil, the presence long ago in a now desert region of luxuriant flora. Infinitesimal and enduring a plethora of traces survive time out of mind.

A scrap of papyrus or a shard of pottery can take us back to a civilisation that disappeared thousands of years ago. The root of a word can illuminate for us a constellation of derivations and meanings. Remains, pit-stones always retain an indestructible kernel of vitality.

In every instance, imagination and intuition are needed to help interpret the enigmas.

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

Magnus by Sylvie Germain, 190 pages, France 2005, WWII

Magnus is a deeply moving and enigmatic novel about the Holocaust and its ramifications. It is Sylvie Germain’s most commercially successful novel in France. It was awarded The Goncourt Lyceen Prize. Magnus’s story emerges in fragments, with the elements of his past appearing in a different light as he grows older. He discovers the voices of the deceased do not fall silent. He learns to listen to them and becomes attuned to the echoes of memory.

 

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The discussion starts on Tuesday, 28 February 2017.

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

N. Scott Momaday: House Made of Dawn (1968) Literature and War Readalong January 2017

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This is going to be a pretty short post. I finished the book but I didn’t get along with it. It had its moments but overall it was frustrating to read.

Published in 1968, House Made of Dawn was N. Scott Momaday’s first novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize. Critics say it’s his most inaccessible novel. Since it’s the first book, I’ve read by him, I can’t say whether the later novels are more accessible or not, I can just confirm that this one is not. At first the writing reminded me of the more challenging Toni Morrison novels I’ve read (Jazz came to mind), but while I could always make sense of her books, this one lost me. Don’t get me wrong, it has beautiful moments and chapters but it goes back and forth in the chronology, uses stream-of-consciousness, fragments, bits from dreams, mythology. The worst was that I wasn’t always sure whose stream-of consciousness I was reading. And I was never sure why he chose the different approaches. At times, it felt like some of the chapters were creative writing exercises. The chapter that was the most readable read like a short story. It comes towards the end and it helped me make sense of what came before. It’s very powerful and the writing is beautiful. The biggest problem I had is that there is no real story. We just follow the protagonist, Abel, stumble from one episode to the next.

Like Abel, the main protagonist, Momaday grew up on different reservations. What Momaday manages to convey is the confusion. The culture Abel grows up in, isn’t intact. Some of it is part of his heritage but a lot is part of other Native American heritages. Then he joins up and fights during WWII. When he comes back, like his mother and brother, he starts to drink. He kills a man, is sent to prison, comes back and drinks again and gets into fights.

We’re held at arm’s length the whole time, never get a good feeling for Abel’s’ emotions.

The beginning was hard to read because there are descriptions of hunting that made me sick. One in particular, in which Abel captures an eagle.

I’m also not entirely sure, this was a good choice for the readalong. Yes, Abel seems to suffer from PTSD, but he suffers from a lot of other things too. He might not have been better off if he hadn’t joined up.

I’m sorry for this lousy review. I hope someone else has read along and enjoyed it more. I’m sure, if I wanted to spend a couple of days doing research, read secondary literature, then I would find more to like but I’m not really in the mood for that.

 

Other Review

TJ@My Book Strings

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House Made of Dawn is the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the French WWII novel Magnus by Sylvie Germain. Discussion starts on Tuesday 28 February, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

Seicho Matsumoto: A Quiet Place (2016) – Kikanakatta Basho (1975)

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Seicho Matsumoto’s A Quiet Place is the second Japanese crime novel I’ve read this month. While it is very different from Keigo Higashino’s Devotion of Suspect X, they have one thing in common – they are both unusual and full of twists.

However, the similarities stop there. Higashino depicts a modern Japan, while Matsumoto shows us a very traditional Japan. Of course, Matsumoto’s book is much older. It was originally published in 1975. The world it depicts, the world of government officials, still exists, but the society as a whole has undergone changes. It’s a ritualised, rigid, and restrictive world with strict hierarchies and rules. There isn’t a lot of freedom and losing face is something that can happen all too quickly and always has devastating consequences.

This world is the backdrop of Matsumoto’s novel. Tsuneo Asai, a government bureaucrat, is informed of his wife’s death while he’s on a business trip to Kobe. The way he handles this situation, more afraid to inconvenience his superior than to rush home and find out what happened, is typical of his mindset. Unlike most others at the department of agriculture, he doesn’t come from a good family or a prestigious university. He’s not automatically promoted but he has to work hard for every step he wants to climb. His fear, not to get promoted or to displease his superiors is so great that it overshadows every single decision.

Back home in Tokyo, Asai learns his wife died of a heart attack in front of a boutique. He knew she had a weak heart but it is still a shock. She was so careful to avoid exertion. Even though he was fond of her, to find himself widowed again, is more an inconvenience than true heartbreak. What puzzles him the most is the question what she was doing in that neighbourhood. She wasn’t someone who went out much. He knew she attended haiku classes, but other than that, she mostly stayed at home. It isn’t entirely clear why he suddenly gets so obsessed with his wife’s doings but he does. Soon he finds out that he didn’t really know her. He was sure that her haiku writing was mediocre and now he learns she had great talent. When he discovers a hotel near the boutique in front of which she died, he begins to suspect she might have visited that hotel with a lover. He’s wrong but that doesn’t stop his suspicions.

As soon as he begins to suspect his wife, he starts an investigation and even hires a private detective. Asai is as obsessed as he is tenacious. At the same time, he knows that people at work shouldn’t find out what he suspects and what he is doing. The longer he investigates, the more he entangles himself.

I followed this character with great fascination and astonishment, but for the longest time I didn’t understand why this was called a crime novel. It’s clear from the beginning that Asai’s wife wasn’t killed. So why was this labelled crime? I can assure you, it’s labelled correctly but I won’t tell you why.

Apparently Matsumoto was called the Japanese Simenon. While I enjoyed this book a lot – especially for its depiction of Japanese society and certain neighbourhoods in Tokyo – I don’t see a resemblance. Matsumoto was very prolific, so possibly other novels led to that comparison. Luckily, quite a few of them are available in translation.

I came across Matsumoto’s book on Guy’s blog here.

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This review is my third contribution to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge X

Here’s the review list.

Hayden Carruth’s Poem “California”

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I discovered American poet Hayden Carruth on subrosa here. The poem Sigrun posted was so poignant that I ordered one of Carruth’s collections Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey. I haven’t finished the collection yet and I can’t say that every poem speaks to me but some are stunning.

California is a poem he dedicated to Adrienne Rich. I particularly liked the third stanza. The poem was probably written in the 90s but what he expresses is just as valid today. Maybe even more so.

CALIFORNIA by Hayden Carruth

for Adrienne Rich

To come again into the place of revolutionary
thought after years in the wilderness
of complacency and hard-eyed greed
and brutality
is extraordinary. A’s kitchen
in Santa Cruz
isn’t greatly different from her kitchen in
West Barnet in the old days,
small interesting ornaments here and there,
many good things to eat
and how ideas flew from stove to table,
from corner to corner. In Santa Cruz
after twenty-odd years it was the same. Tolstoi said
the purpose of poetry is to provoke
feeling in the reader, to “infect” the reader,
he said,and so to induce a change,
a change of conscience
that may lead to a change in the world, that will
lead to a change in the world!
How can poetry be written by people who want no change?

To be reconciled after so long,
in sunshine, among Latino voices. A. showed me
where earthquake two years ago had changed Santa Cruz
and how the people were rebuilding, making it better. Had she
been frightened? Of course. Would she move away?
Never. Here earth itself gives us the paradigm.
And the great ocean hurling its might always thunderously against
the land at Half Moon Bay is our measure
of flux and courage
and eternity.

We drove among hills, redwood and eucalyptus,
dense growth, the richness and ramifying intricacy
of the world’s loveliness, and asked
what would be left
for our grandchildren, already born, when they are
as old as we? No longer do we
need an insane president to end us
by pushing a button. People
need only go on living as they are, without change,
the complacent and hard-eyed
everywhere. At the airport
after dark
among hard lights
with the massive proportions of human energy
surrounding them, two old people
embraced in love of the injured and poor, of poetry,
of the world in its still remaining remote possibilities,
which were themselves.

Agnes Ravatn: The Bird Tribunal (2016) – Fugletribunalet (2013)

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Agnes Ravatn is a Norwegian journalist, essayist and short story writer. The prize-winning crime novel The Bird Tribunal (Fugletribunalet) is her second novel.

Allis has done something terrible. What it is we’ll only learn later in the book. We only now it’s something shameful and it made her leave her life and her husband behind. Since she was a public figure, many people know about it and she’s scared of being recognized in the streets. That’s why she applies for a job as a housekeeper and gardener for the summer in a remote house on a fjord.  To her surprise, her employer, Sigur Bagge, isn’t elderly but a 44-year-old man. He says that he needs help while his wife is away.

Sigur’s age isn’t the only thing that surprises Allis. She’s also puzzled by the way he wants them to live together. Strictly apart. She’s to prepare his food but eat on her own, after he’s finished. She is not do disturb him or talk with him.

Allis isn’t used to so much isolation but at first she plays along. In a way, it’s even soothing. She’s too glad he doesn’t know her or her story and that his way of life allows her to stay hidden. As much as Sigur may want them to stay apart, it’s difficult when you share a house and they finally get to know each other anyway. Allis is glad but at the same time there are so many things that make her uneasy that she’s not sure the new situation is really a blessing.

This book is so eerie. It made me feel uncomfortable from the beginning. The last thing I would want, is to share an isolated house with a brooding, taciturn stranger. Not even the descriptions of the beautiful fjord made me ever forget what this would be like. And in Allis’ situation at that. She’s really done herself a huge disservice in doing what she did back home. Her life is shattered and the things she did has left her very vulnerable. While she hopes things can only get better, the reader senses from the beginning that the house on the fjord might not be a safe haven. There are too many sinister indications that something’s wrong, and that Sigur might be hiding a secret of his own.

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Agnes Ravatn does a great job at creating an eerie atmosphere. I also liked how she uses foreshadowing and the way she infuses her story with dream segments and stories of Nordic mythology.

The Bird Tribunal is a claustrophobic story, dark and mysterious, and held me captivated until the end.

I discovered The Bird Tribunal on Raven Crime’s end of year list, which is a list I look forward to every year. As he focusses on crime, his list is dangerous. It always makes me buy books.

Kent Haruf: Our Souls At Night (2015)

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Our Souls At Night, Kent Haruf’s last and posthumously published novel, is a work of sheer beauty. It’s so beautiful in fact, that if there wasn’t also a heavy dose of heartbreak, it would have been too beautiful for its own good.

This is how it begins

And there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters. It was an evening in May just before full dark.

They lived a block apart on Cedar Street in the oldest part of town with elm trees and hackberry and a single maple grown up along the curb and green lawns running back from the sidewalk to the two-story houses. It had been warm in the day but it had turned off cool now in the evening. She went along the sidewalk under the trees and turned in at Louis’s house.

Addie Moore and Louis Waters are both in their seventies and have been widowed for a long time. One evening, Addie calls on Louis and asks him if he wouldn’t like to spend the nights at her house. The reader is just as surprised as Louis, as it’s clear from the start that these two people barely know each other. Addie correctly assumes that Louis is just as lonely as she is and that for him, too, it’s hardest at night.

No, not sex. I’m not looking at it that way. I think I’ve lost any sexual impulse a long time ago. I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably.Lying down in bed together and you staying at night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?

Louis accepts her proposal. At first, they are shy but they quickly warm to the possibility of friendship and after getting to know each other better, after many evenings spent in bed talking, they even fall in love with each other.

It’s such a tender story and I loved it very much. When I started reading, I thought it was a lovely idea to tell the love story of two seventy-year-olds and could hardly believe that people called this novel sad and depressing. Unfortunately, I soon found out that it wasn’t as uplifting as I thought it was.

I often wonder, why people speak unkindly about people who fall in love later in life. Why do they oppose it so much? In Our Souls At Night, Haruf explores some of the possible reasons. The book starts almost like a fairy tale. Addie and Louis have found something very rare – a person they can love and talk to, a friend with whom they can discover things and find new joy in life. They do a lot of things they never did before or haven’t done in a long time, like camping or just going out. All would be perfect if there were no other people, but those around Addie and Louis, don’t react kindly. Neighbours, children, so-called friends, are shocked and try to sabotage their friendship and throw mud at them. The tragedy of these two lovers is that, just like very young people, they are dependent on others and staying together comes at a very high price. Whether they are able and willing to pay that price I’m not going to tell you. You’ll have to find out for yourself.

I loved the story, which is first sweet then bittersweet, but what I loved even more was the beautiful, luminous writing. In most of his sentences Kent Haruf uses the conjunction “and”. Not only once but often two, three, even four times. This gives his sentences a leisurely pace, a gentle, tone that works so well with the peaceful fictional small town, Holt, his favourite setting. I don’t think he would get away with the overuse of the conjunction, if he didn’t pair it with a very precise vocabulary. All of these elements are present in the first sentences already. That’s why I quoted them. If you like the opening paragraphs, there’s a good chance you’ll like the rest as well. He maintains this pace, the use of descriptions, the gentle tone and mood until the last paragraph. It looks so simple, but it’s very skilful writing.

I have to thank Jackie Cangro for mentioning Our Souls At Night. I hadn’t heard of it before.

The year has only just begun, but I know this book will be on my best of list. I’m even thinking of adding it to my all-time favourites list.

Our Souls At Night is being made into a movie starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.