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The Fellowship of Animals

The classic children’s book, Wind in the Willows, was published in 1908 and originally began as stories. The author, Kenneth Grahame, was a banker by trade and would write letters home to his young son, affectionately called, “Mouse”. These letters were actually continuing stories about animal characters who lived by the river Thames and had adventures on the river and in the English countryside, presumably in such places as Wiltshire and The Berkshire Downs, as well as in the forest.

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Grahame describes generously, often poetically, the details in nature from a personified animal’s point of view, their adventures on the wide uplands and streams, along the river’s tributaries, bubbling brooks, runnels and little culverts. The animals, especially the Water Rat, have great escapades and picnics throughout these ebullient pools and backwaters. They go deep into the forest, too, and visit caves and underground tunnels that have been made into grand or quaint abodes, as with the Badger’s catacomb mansion underground and the Mole’s simple hideaway that he nevertheless calls home.

Ratty, the Water Rat, the wise, good-humored, avuncular animal in the story might be considered the main character, and yet, little Mole, who is naïve, impetuous, curious and childish, holds the center-stage, (that is at least when Mr. Toad is not hogging the limelight with his wild exploits). Mole starts out essentially blind to the world outdoors. Indeed, it seems as if Mole is born as the story of his adventure begins. As if in an underground liminal zone, he has been living for years doing nothing but scratching around for provisions and whitewashing his lair in the spring. His eyes are suddenly opened; he hears the birds singing for the first time, and when he reaches the river, he stops spell-bound… Mole has never seen the river before. Here, Grahame describes with Wordsworthian celebration, the spring that Mole wakes up to:

Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lovely little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing….
He sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him a babbling procession of the best stories in the world. Sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.

When Ratty and Mole meet, they become fast-friends whose friendship grows and develops as that of a blossoming, childhood friendship. Yet these characters are not so much like children as they are like people that children can relate to and learn from. Certainly, the story is a classic that can absolutely be enjoyed by both adults and children. Ratty and Mole perform great adventures on the river, including a very funny scene in which Mole impatiently tries to take the oars from Ratty. They have picnics and meet many other animals who live by the river. There is an intricate system of social order and yet a warm comradeship among the various animals. Most of them are rather sophisticated, especially Ratty’s closest chums; they speak in an elevated English, and wear stylish outfits. Ratty, however, is more wise than most, and often circumspect or patient when the other animals are not as poetic or naturally insightful: as if the Water Rat were worldly-wise, though he lives only by the river in the English countryside. Still, each animal has the gift of natural instincts, much like that of humans, but the natural, more super-instincts, that inter-communication of animals – of sensing when they are close to home or when some danger is afoot. Indeed, Grahame humanizes the animals with great charm:

“Who is it this time, disturbing people on such a night? Speak up!”
“Oh, Badger,” cried the rat, “let us in, please. It’s me, Rat, and my friend Mole, and we’ve lost our way in the snow.”
“What, Ratty, my dear little man!” exclaimed the Badger, in quite a different voice. “Come along in, both of you, at once. Why, you must be perished. Well I never! Lost in the snow! And in the Wild Wood, too, and at this time of night! But come in with you.”

In and among this milieu of sodality and amidst these various expeditions with a handful of close friends, Ratty and Mole maintain the closest bond. Theirs has become a cultivated friendship. They have had their little adventures, their strolls far-afield, for example, where they mingle with humans in society: paying a porter at the train station, lodging a complaint to the police… where, in the evening, they see people sitting by the fireside through their living-room windows along a cobbled sidewalk in the village. Ratty and Mole’s relationship has endured the perils of lovable, capricious, reckless Mr. Toad. Mole is going through some changes. He is growing as an individual and as a mole.

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As for Toad, he learns a few of life’s lessons, for sure, despite his insanely impulsive craving for cars and boats, or anything with a motor. Toad experiences the revelation of hope even at his lowest point, in jail, when the goaler’s daughter brings in a hot, fragrant meal. The aroma fills up his cell, and suddenly his old aspirations and dreams return and he sees a solution to his problems – scolding himself for becoming so morose, thus, hope springs eternal, might be Toad’s credo, even in the face of his shortcomings. He has a long conversation with the gaoler’s daughter, which is a more intimate example among Grahame’s portrayals of an encounter between an animal and a human. Still, Toad is possessed by a perpetual wild hair combined with his compulsive lying. Promising the train driver, for instance, he’ll wash the driver’s shirts in exchange for a ride home, knowing full well he won’t send them back, yet passionately believing he will wash the man’s shirts and send them on, once he returns to Toad Hall.

Whether or not Toad changes and matures for good: this is only implied at by the restraint he shows in front of his friends by not indulging in self-centered speech-making and hogging the limelight at the Toad Hall party. But we the audience perceive how capricious Toad can be. He’s tricky and holds his cards close to his chest. Therefore, only the author really knows if Mr. Toad has actually changed.

Ratty has remained throughout: wise, clever, sociable, yet circumspect, good-humored and adventuresome; perhaps Ratty has become more so, in every quality. The other characters are not as delved into; they are who they are. However, Mole has changed as a central character. He has transformed from a naive, myopic little animal living in a narrow hovel underground into a more knowledgeable; indeed, wise; well-traveled (albeit of the English countryside, villages and forests); more experienced and sociable mole who has learned true comradeship and has in fact performed brave, heroic and kind deeds since he left his lair and unwittingly enrolled in the apprenticeship of the Water Rat. Even Badger gives his nod of approval by calling Mole, “clever Mole” and “good Mole,” tributes that Toad jealously covets from anyone, but especially from practical, austere, fatherly Badger.

When choosing your copy of Wind in the Willows, any book will do as long as it contains all twelve chapters. I found one large, hardbound version with the most beautiful illustrations that I’ve ever seen for this book, however, it was missing chapters. Oddly, the chapters that were left out happened to be some of the most magical, mythical and mysterious chapters of the entire story, such as: Piper at the Break of Dawn, Wayfarers All and the unedited The Return of Ulysses. To have these chapters is to enjoy the full enchantment of Grahame’s genius.

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Christmas Stories

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Everyman’s Pocket Classics

Christmas tales are meant to cheer us and to help usher in the Christmas spirit; yet, every favorite tale embodies a degree of struggle, an element of danger or some darkness that must be gotten through. There may be magic and wonder leading up to the final, satisfying denouement of Christmas morning – upon waking to find everything wished for sitting under the starry lights of the Christmas tree, but the waiting is always prolonged.
Most of the stories in the Everyman’s Pocket anthology follow this pattern distinctively, in 20 different ways. From Charles Dickens to Richard Ford the inveterate Christmas struggle is traced.

Dickens and Early Russian Writers

The anthology begins with a Dickens tale called The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton (from The Pickwick Papers). Charles Dickens was only 25 when he wrote this playful tale, and the ironic humor that we have come to love in just about every Dickens story is delightfully fresh in this selection from his first novel. It is a Christmas Eve ghost story amidst a nighttime landscape of snow and stars and a bad-tempered old grave digger named Gabriel Grubb. A bit like A Christmas Carol, Grubb is visited, in this case, by a fantastical goblin king and his goblin courtiers. They sing terrifying ghostly songs to Gabriel Grubb and, rather violently, teach him a lesson about life and his disagreeable attitude toward other people. Dickens, the eternal humanitarian, makes a case for women as being the most compassionate of the human race.

He saw that women, the tenderest and most fragile of all God’s creatures, were the oftenest superior to sorrow, adversity, and distress; and he saw that it was because they bore in their own hearts an inexhaustible well-spring of affection and devotedness.

Of the Russian writers in the anthology, Nikolai Gogol is most similar to Dickens, yet Gogol’s devils and witches of Christmas Eve are finally conquered by the, mostly benevolent, characters of a snowy village near St. Petersburg in The Night Before Christmas. This is a famous Russian fairy tale about a gifted painter and blacksmith who paints frescoes of the saints on the church walls and who is therefore most sought after by the devil. This devil, whose lover is a witch, steels the moon on Christmas Eve and tempts the best, god-loving people of the village. Another delightful, fantastical tale!
Leo Tolstoy’s Where Love Is, God Is and Anton Chekhov’s Vanka are both heart-warming stories that evoke questions of morality, spirituality and the love of God and people.

Vladimir Nabokov’s more modern narrative reflects an elegant mastery of story-telling with a unique, stream-of-consciousness style in the beautiful yet tragic story titled, Christmas.

The night was smoke-blue and moonlit; thin clouds were scattered about the sky but did not touch the delicate, icy moon. The trees, masses of gray frost, cast dark shadows on the drifts, which scintillated here and there with metallic sparks.

The three Russian writers are similar to Dickens in their sympathy toward humankind; they are quite clear about the virtues of compassion. In the modern tales, however, the narrative of compassion and human mercy is more implicit.

British Writers Apart from Dickens

When it comes to expert story-writing, leave it to the British. And when it comes to writing a great detective yarn, leave it to Arthur Conan Doyle to tell an amusing Sherlock Holmes story. The investigation in The Blue Carbuncle takes place in the bustling streets of London, in Covent Garden Market, two days after Christmas. Holmes is just as we like him: clever, articulate, circumspect, and yes – merciful.

Anthony Trollope’s whimsical Christmas at Thompson Hall mixes suspense with a smattering of cheeky humor. His name, Trollope, like his writing style, gallops or trots along and is as ever: impeccably English. And Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant Bella Fleace Gave A Party takes place in Ireland, outside Dublin in the Market town of Ballingar where a wealthy, eccentric lady decides to divert death and instead throw a party. The story is expertly written, detailed and surprisingly ironic. Elizabeth Bowen, who always wrote a flawless tale, is somewhat dated in Green Holly, yet the witty cadence makes this bizarre ghost story worth the read. And Muriel Spark whisks the reader along in Christmas Fugue. It is a romantic tale, a travel piece, in which the main character, Cynthia at twenty-four is suspended in a kind of limbo or liminal zone up high in the air on a passenger jet. Questions of belief… in Christmas, in the start of a new life, in a love affair and in reality itself are raised in an unforeseen way.

American Writers

Willa Cather, a favorite American poet and novelist, had a beautiful way of drawing in the reader and maneuvering the plot. The Burglar’s Christmas takes place on Christmas Eve in Chicago. Reminiscent of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, juxtapositions of excitement vs. safety, and poverty vs. success, drive this touching story along, together with the prevailing theme of motherhood and mother-son relationship.

John Cheever’s excellent Christmas is a Sad Time For the Poor examines the benevolence of people in a New York City high-rise apartment-building one day out of the year when these sophisticates have the chance to give. And Truman Capote’s now famous A Christmas Memory is the striking memoir about a seven-year-old boy and his elderly cousin. Capote’s style is compelling from the first sentence:

Imagine a morning in late November.

This poignant tale is a must-read at Christmastime.

John Updike’s evocative The Carol Sing takes us through a melancholy surveillance of the cycles of life, death and seasonal holidays in highly intelligent, sharply witty prose.

Strange people look ugly only for a while, until you begin to fill in those tufty monkey features with a little history and stop seeing their faces and start seeing their lives.

Grace Paley’s The Loudest Voice is about a Jewish schoolgirl, Shirley, who has the most resonant voice in a Christmas play. Her family and the Jewish families in her neighborhood struggle to accept their children being in a Christian play. Shirley, representing the only first-generation American in her family, is open-minded, curious, helpful and resoundingly confident.

Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award winner, Richard Ford depicts a divided American family mired deeply in issues. In Creche, the main character, Faith, a successful L.A. attorney, narrates the story amidst growing resentments, threats and dangers. Yet, by Christmas Eve, the snow still glistens over everything and the children are tucked away safely in their beds. Ford holds our interest and sustains a measure of hope with his buoyant prose, as when Faith goes for a solo, nighttime ski-run:

Here the snow virtually hums to her sliding strokes. A full moon rides behind filigree clouds as she strides forward in the near-darkness of crusted woods.

Canada

Nobel Prize winning, Canadian author, Alice Monro’s gamey tale is a bold and effective portrait of human nature. The Turkey Season describes the acute observations of a fourteen-year-old girl who is surrounded by small town people who tend to be decidedly small-minded and cruel. Still, Christmas appears to win in the end.

These stories represent a fine collection of esteemed writers. I have not mentioned all of the stories here, some of them are simply short and sweet, but for a good measure of the Christmas spirit and a reminder of what it is to have a sympathetic heart, all of them are worth reading.

The Quandary of Carrie

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Like the gritty, metropolitan angst of a Dickens tale, such as Little Dorrit: the dark, cobbled streets and the beguiling characters of a large city, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie portrays how an unkind and apathetic city can engulf and hide a person under a wave of indifference, but will eventually lift her up to societal success and even stardom. But unlike Dickens, in Drieser, the driving human force becomes self-ambition instead of love.

Carrie’s focus begins with the material – on the train bound for Chicago, when she notices a passenger, the young man, Charles Drouet, who is gorgeously dressed, and this, along with Drouet’s flowing and dazzling conversation, impresses Carrie. Yet she also sees and appreciates the beauty of the landscape rushing by outside – the author keeps a sense of hope tethered in this beauty. There is always some sad nostalgia lingering in Carrie’s face, around her sad, expressive lips.

Dreiser’s genius is in these details, as at the beginning of Carrie’s assent when still a neophyte searching for a job in the big city: As she contemplated the wide windows and imposing signs, she became conscious of being gazed upon and understood for what she was – a wage-seeker. The writer remains consistent in surprising his reader with such precise descriptions of the inner world of his characters. These finer points render the characters captivating, and thus, we care about their lives.

Though beauty and sensitivity persevere in this tale, real love, other than for success, seems disappointingly absent. As the story falls short of depicting any true love, true hatred is also just as absent, apart from that of the ubiquitous hatred in the mean, city streets. Only Drouet hints at feeling any genuine passion when he becomes jealous of Hurstwood and Carrie. Yet, the author implies that Drouet never really intends to marry her. Sadly, instead of love, or even hatred, overall indifference and self-centered gratification are the driving human qualities.

Still, Drouet’s eternal good nature makes him a true protector of Carrie, though he is extremely superficial and lacks the subtlety and sensitivity that Carrie needs; she is far beyond him in the intuitive senses. However, Drouet has introduced Carrie to the theater, and so a small desire to act has secretly blossomed. She loved to modulate her voice after the conventional manner of the distressed heroine, and repeat such pathetic fragments as appealed most to her sympathies.

Hurstwood’s kidnapping of Carrie, as appalling as it is, eventually brings her to New York City. As if destiny had finally provided the means to secure her success. As he stealthily abducts her and leads her onto a train under the darkness of night, Hurstwood is very cordial and sensitive to her comfort. He wants her, but one wonders whether he truly loves her or just the idea of escaping his wife and family to be with someone young and beautiful like Carrie

So earnest an effort was well deserving of a better reward ~ This becomes a mental refrain of Carrie’s from the early days of her job-hunting in Chicago, through most of her relationships, and on up to her great success in New York City. From her beautiful suite at the Astoria, she lingers over this astonishing lack of fulfillment and reward as she gazes out on the city from her window, where below the homeless shiver on their street-corners, while: All about was the night, pulsating with the thoughts of pleasure and exhilaration – the curious enthusiasm of a great city bent upon finding joy in a thousand different ways.

Theodore Dreiser came from the Chicago school of Realism, in which the natural human responses to the environment are stressed, rather than romance. There seems to be a moral message in this story, yet Sister Carrie was deemed immoral and was not published right away upon its completion in 1900. The heroine, Carrie Meeber, was viewed as sexually loose, yet today the sexuality is only implied and is hardly perceptible. Dreiser was also a believer in the notion that art is an imitation of life, rather than life being an imitation of art. This philosophy is apparent in Carrie as she makes a study of human nature and turns it into art on the stage.

 

 

 

 

Tessa Hadley’s “Silk Brocade”

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To American readers, there is something delightfully appealing, captivating and perhaps nostalgic in an English story. The lively dialects and slightly foreign expressions, even when unfamiliar, attract us. It is an old infatuation that remains fresh with each new encounter. Tessa Hadley, one of the best story-writers we have today, makes this reading experience all the more pleasurable, as she crafts the story of a young woman and builds these episodes over a period of time, so that as readers our sense of time changes and the tale ends much sooner than we’d like.

There is to be a June wedding and a dress needs to be made. Ann Gallagher is young and talented. She is an astute seamstress with a genius for style and fashion-design. Uniformly, Hadley stays true to the continuity of clothing, appearance, fabrics and textures throughout the tale, weaving in, as it were, a tactile setting of fluid lighting and palpable drapery, furnishings and landscape.

Now her scissors bit in with finality, growling against the

wood surface of the table, the cloth falling cleanly away from the blades.

The atmosphere of metaphor begins here and resurfaces in exquisite fragments indulging the reader with portent. At this point in the story, Ann is still young and single, a brilliant dressmaker on her way up with bright dreams of one day soon making it in London couture. Yet, the scissors growl a foreboding, even as the studio brims with light and promise:

Morning light waited, importantly empty, in the cheval glass. 

Ann’s business partner, Kit, dashes in and out with flair and sparkle, a joie de vivre. Though, she couldn’t design for toffee or cut a pattern, Kit had style and could sew well and work hard for the right clients. Kit was raised in Paris, not the English suburbs, like Ann. So, alas, Kit is a snob. Yet she is wild, untamable and chic, with mad exuberance. Kit is a loveable character, as frivolous, superficial characters often are.

Nola, for whom the wedding dress is being fashioned, is the complete antithesis of Ann and Kit. Nola did grow up in the suburbs like Ann, but, as appearances go, Ann is the one who broke from the mold of provincial Fishponds. Nola is a nurse, wearing the same set of clothes every day:

Nola Higgins stood with military straightness, shoulders squared; she was buttoned up into some sort of navy-blue uniform, unflatteringly tight over her heavy bust.

Ann invites Nola in for an impromptu fitting. “I’ll put some coffee on to perk.” It would seem that Ann finds Nola a bit austere and too plain, yet Nola turns out to be sweet with a soft disposition and quite malleable in the expert hands of Ann and Kit, whose attentions improve when they learn that Nola is to marry a wealthy, young man whose estate goes back many generations. Nola suddenly takes on a new significance, like a newly discovered treasure in an attic full of unwanted cast-off materials. Despite Nola’s simple, almost dowdy appearance, Ann has a personal philosophy:

Ann really was convinced that if you could only find the right clothes you could become whatever you wanted, you could transform yourself.

Ann applies her credo to Nola, who really did have lovely, matte pink skin, and Nola entrusts the dressmakers completely, as they tug and smooth the fabric around her large waistline.

And, the light falls in patches on Ann’s cutting table.

Whether Ann’s credo ultimately affects the desired outcome for her own life is a question. Yes, she has a magical way of transforming cloth into a beautiful garment, but for all of her capability and finesse, does she become what she wanted, after all? When Donny Ross is introduced into the story, the narrative is wary, as if the narrator is suggesting that Ann could have heeded these precautions. Donny Ross is apparently a jazz pianist. He is a medic with cavernous cheeks, and thin as a whip. He is mostly saturnine and judgmental. Indeed, most of the descriptions of Donny Ross are unflattering. So, why does an intelligent girl like Ann end up taking such a rude, arrogant and untalkative man for a husband? It seems there was an unexplainable attraction. Though Donny Ross comes prowling seductively into her life, he exhibits no interest in what’s important to her but withdraws into his own inner world, tapping out tunes on her sewing table and humming to himself.

And yet, Ann is unreasonably attracted: She carried on steadily, concentrating on her work, feeling as if some new excitement were waiting folded up inside her, not even tried on yet.

Donny’s pursuit of Ann is as intent and intense as a cat’s, when the three couples spend the afternoon at Nola’s fiancé’s estate in Thwait Park. Ann’s perspective on the day, with regards to Donny Ross, becomes shadowy and yet sparkling, as when she describes her impressions upon entering the Park.

A few skinny lambs scampered under the ancient oaks, where new leaves were just beginning to spring out, implausibly, from gray crusty limbs.

With Hadley, transformation takes place moment by moment. The spring newness of nature or of a great house is ultimately transient, the newness fading into the old, as it becomes ancient with mineral crusts and decayed, peeling wallpaper. Ann and Donny Ross lay side by side, close together but not touching, in the long grass under a tall ginkgo tree of this beautiful, old estate. They’re in a sultry liminal zone, where the future is open with hope and desire, yet Hadley shifts to the reality of fate, ominously.

The light faded in the sky to a deep turquoise and the peacocks came to roost in the tree above them, clotted lumps of darkness, with their long tails hanging down like bellpulls.

The final two columns of the story change perspective to that of Ann’s daughter Sally, years later. At sixteen, Sally Ross knows the story of the silk brocade meant to be used for a wedding that was never realized. This presumptive wedding becomes the perfect example of the ideal marriage, that is to say, a marriage that never actually happens but is only planned for, dreamed of, with genuine longing. The dream is immortal along with the love. Indeed, it is preferable to a marriage wherein the husband goes errant for an entire summer with another woman, as Donny Ross does.

Ann’s philosophy of renewing oneself may help her survive her marriage. She and Sally invent projects of transformation together: of makeovers, outings, dieting and redecorating, but ultimately these will never change the choices Ann made. Still, there is the hope of regeneration. Sally represents the present and also the future when she happens upon the old Thwait mansion wearing a jacket that Ann made from Nola’s silk brocade. Sally stands at the same spot where Nola stood when she was a hopeful bride, making egg sandwiches at the old Belfast sink. Now sally has the wide continuum of hopes and dreams before her.

The silk brocade jacket links the past, the present and the future. Tessa Hadley has a way of turning the usually mono-chronological thought of time sequence inside out, weaving in possibility, shedding light, and discarding with the old to reconstruct the new. After all, the past and the present are really simply jumbled together.

Tessa Hadley’s Silk Brocade appeared in The New Yorker, July 27, 2015.

Tessa Hadley’s “Silk Brocade”

Reading The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt Image via BBC

Donna Tartt Image via BBC

With her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt captivates, charms and mesmerizes with potent characters, richly textured settings, and turns-of-plot: from New York City to the strange, alien-like, suburbs of Las Vegas and its star-filled, drug addled nights, then back again. Tartt begins at the end – in an Amsterdam hotel room during Christmastime when Theo Decker is twenty-seven,

It was Christmas, lights twinkling on the canal bridges at night; red-cheeked dames en heren, scarves flying in the icy wind, clattered down the cobblestones with Christmas trees lashed to the backs of their bicycles.

then swings the story back around to the beginning, to Theo at thirteen, at the turning point just before the explosion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A dying elderly man pushes a priceless, seventeenth-century Dutch painting, The Goldfinch, into Theo’s hands, the very painting by Carel Fabritius that Theo’s mom had been softly lecturing about, moments before the explosion,

“He was Rembrandt’s pupil, Vermeer’s teacher,” my mother said. “And this one little painting is really the missing link between the two of them – that clear pure daylight, you can see where Vermeer got his quality of light from,”

Feeling horrifically sorry for the dying man, Theo takes the painting out of a sense of duty – in dazed obedience – and the painting of the tethered bird follows Theo like an albatross, or a good luck charm, for the remainder of the story. For the truth is: the dying old man, Welty, pointed Theo in the direction of his future.

Published in 2013, the book takes place in our present day, post-911 world of home-grown terrorists, high security, iPhones and texting as the preferred mode of communication. The ethereal scenes where Theo exits the ruined, white-dust and ash-covered museum read like a movie; thus, movie proposals were in the offing as the presses were still churning. Theo climbs through the blinding debris, as if ascending certain realms of Purgatorio, into a rebirth – into chaos.

Counselors, teachers, and even the eccentric, Park Avenue Barbour family fails to get to the core of Theo. Enter Hobie: the one stabilizing, unlikely anchor of Theo’s life. As if coming home to a loving grandparent, a bit musty and given to “maunder on” – wistful yet eloquent, somehow refined, Hobie becomes the only person who can coax Theo into eating some food, for example, and to have a “normal conversation.” The initial meeting of Theo and Hobie in Hobie’s curiosity shop in the Village, like so much of Tartt’s prose, transfixes the reader with anticipation and resonates with such an underlying sadness – then swings around with a mirthful quip or observation.

The Las Vegas chapters are suffused with Boris, one of the most interesting and likable characters in the book. A boy who has traveled, Boris speaks Russian with an oddly incongruous, Australian accent. He is the Artful Dodger to Theo’s Oliver Twist. Boris, not surprisingly, admires Theo’s flashy yet untrustworthy dad, but anyone’s dad would be better than Boris’. Both Mr. Decker and his little firecracker, waitress girlfriend, Xandra, topple in and out of the house like an itinerant circus act – absent-minded, vacant, yet always entertaining. Still, Theo is often alone in the house when he is not ravaging himself on drugs with Boris.

I sat downstairs rigidly for an hour or so with War of The Worlds on but the sound off, listening to the crash of the icemaker and the rattle of wind in the patio umbrella.

Theo retains an habitual love of classic movies – another endearing thread that keeps him connected with his mother. He reads Poe and a lot of Russian literature, including The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Boris, still somewhat naive to American culture, echoes Theo’s obsession as if all American teenagers should love watching old movies and reading Russian novels.

The adolescent bond has been established and made genuine by a female writer who seems to have lived as a teenage boy in some other life. The terse dialogue, the philosophical rants, companionable silences, flashes of insight, fraternal punch-outs, sexual blurriness, they seem to love each other most when spitting the words fuck you!

When Theo returns to New York City, the streets are more Dickensian than ever, especially in the chapter where Theo glimpses Mr. Barbour ranting to himself in the gloaming, rush-hour mayhem near Central Park. Tartt’s cast-of-characters emerge and reappear out of the past. The grown-up Theo, in his twenties, replaces the teenage boy. If he carries a burden of self-absorption, as he carries the explosion “in his body,” then learning of the Barbours’ family tragedy brings Theo out of himself. He cares about Mrs. Barbour, though something of an ice-queen, she is at least steadfast, reliably cultured and ultimately human.

In the process of being whisked away to Amsterdam by Boris and drawn into the underworld of stolen, precious art, Theo has what he calls his Conversion. Much is resolved in Tartt’s generous, riveting prose, even though both Theo and Boris have been rendered colossal drug addicts.

Pippa, the girl who represents a connection to life when it had some semblance of normalcy, remains undeniably, the love of Theo’s life. What has been labeled obsessive and not possible is love: Theo’s pure love for Pippa. This is the wonderful force upon which all hope hinges. Because, though life is short and mostly a miserable chaos, more Of Human Bondage than The Catcher in the Rye, love and art have sustained this protagonist in strange and mystifying ways.

A Goldfinch Illustration

Image via New York TimesImage via Vanity Fair

Faces in Literature

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Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for her book, The Goldfinch, in 2013. A Southern writer, she is originally from Greenwood Mississippi. The Goldfinch takes place, not in the American South, but in NYC, Las Vegas and Amsterdam ~ and it is an amazing story!

(Book review to follow.)

Photo via The Times UK

Dickens Mourning The Girl Who Loved Camellias

Book Cover

Book Cover

“For several days all questions political, artistic, commercial have been abandoned by the papers,” a bemused Charles Dickens wrote to a friend from Paris. “Everything is erased in the face of an incident which is far more important, the romantic death of one of the glories of the demimonde, the beautiful, the famous Marie Duplessis.” – Charles Dickens, 1847

When I read this Dickens quotation in the introduction to The Girl Who Loved Camellias, I wondered if Charles Dickens, one of my literary heroes, ever had an affair with this famous, or infamous, courtesan, Marie Duplessis. I read on and discovered something unexpected, and I’m probably the last to know, that Dickens did have a serious love involvement, not with Marie but with an eighteen year old actress, Ellen Ternan – an involvement that was kept secret.

Although, the attachment of the forty-five-year-old Dickens and the young actress did impress Marie Duplessis and gave her encouragement to pursue a love interest of her own with Alexandre Dumas (pere), the older, celebrated author of such works as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. So, even then, Dickens was an inspiration to young women! Still, it seems he did not get any closer to Marie than a distant admiration, though they did orbit around one another in the same elite circles.

The author, Julie Kavanagh, offers captivating minutiae about where Dickens stayed in Paris at the time of Marie’s death and what he said about her – he was very frank, though he never dishonors the beguiling courtesan. Indeed, Dickens wanted very much to write a book about Marie, “feeling that her short life contained a powerfully moralistic story.” Now, that sounds like the Dickens I know. I can imagine his novel being in the same vain as Little Dorrit or Oliver Twist – about the life of a young, coquettish courtesan who’d had a perilous childhood.

Dickens was obviously fascinated with Marie’s life, as many people were, and he felt compelled to report to his friends near and far the widespread reaction to Marie’s death. He describes the somber mood of the extraordinary crowds at an auction of Marie’s belongings: “One could have believed that Marie was Jeanne d’Arc or some other national heroine, so profound was the general sadness.” Hence, Dickens certainly did some general reporting about Marie but whether or not he was one of her lovers is uncertain.

Kavanagh chooses an interesting subject in Marie Duplessis and does an outstanding job of bringing her back to life. The story flows with rich details of Paris scenery, famous landmarks and characters, while mingling the life-style of a precocious Parisian girl with a bit of history in the time of Louis Philippee, the last king to rule France. The book depicts the drastic difference in social classes and how Alphonsine Duplessis straddles that chasm and becomes the lady, Marie Duplessis. Indeed, the story captures the reader’s curiosity. I find it compelling to learn about a contemporary of Charles Dickens and to see him woven into this historical rendering.

Marie Duplessis

Marie Duplessis

{Quotations from The Girl Who Loved Camellias by Julie Kavanagh}