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Thursday, 18 September 2014

POET OF THE MONTH #20: Anna Świrszczyńska



Our embrace lasted too long.
We loved right down to the bone.
I hear the bones grind, I see
our two skeletons.

Now I am waiting
till you leave, till
the clatter of your shoes
is heard no more.  Now, silence.

Tonight I am going to sleep alone
on the bedclothes of purity.
is the first hygienic measure.
will enlarge the walls of the room,
I will open the window
and the large, frosty air will enter,
healthy as tragedy.
Human thoughts will enter
and human concerns,
misfortune of others, saintliness of others.
They will converse softly and sternly.

Do not come anymore.
I am an animal
very rarely.

from Talking To My Body (1996)

Translated by

The Poet: Anna Świrszczyńska (pronounced 'Swirsh-tinsht-ka') - whose surname was sometimes abbreviated to 'Swir' in the West - was born in the Polish capital Warsaw in 1909.  Her family was artistically minded but poor, obliging her to go to work at an early age in order to help support it.  She continued to work while attending university, where she studied for and eventually gained a degree in Medieval Polish Literature.

During the 1930s she worked as an editor and as secretary to a teacher's association.  It was during this decade that she also began to publish her first, erotically-charged poems.  She joined the Resistance after the Nazis invaded her homeland in September 1939 and worked as a nurse during the bloody and ultimately unsuccessful Warsaw Uprising of August-October 1944.  During this time she was arrested by the Germans and made to wait an hour while they debated whether or not she should be executed.

After the war she moved to Krakow, where she wrote children's plays and stories and served as director of a local children's theatre until her death from cancer in 1984.  She was the winner of the Krzyz Kawalerski Oderu Odrodzenia Polski (1957), the Medal Komisji Edukacji Narodowej and many other prestigious Polish literary awards.

Click HERE to read more poems (in English) by ANNA SWIRSZCZYNSKA at website.

Ci, którzy lubią czytać polskie mogą kliknąć TUTAJ, aby dowiedzieć się więcej o jej pracy w swoim ojczystym języku.

You might also enjoy:
POET OF THE MONTH #9: Julian Tuwim 
POET OF THE MONTH #7: Esther Granek
POET OF THE MONTH #12: Clementine von Radics

Thursday, 11 September 2014


To tell the truth, I can't help thinking that we already talk too much about the novel, about and around it, in proportion to the quantity of it having any importance that we produce.  What I should say to the nymphs and swains who propose to converse about it under the great trees of Deerfield is: 'Oh, do something from your point of view; an ounce of example is worth a ton of generalizations; do something with the great art and the great form; do something with life.  Any point of view is interesting that is a direct impression of life.  You each have an impression colored by your individual conditions; make that into a picture, a picture framed by your own personal wisdom, your glimpse of the American world.  The field is vast for freedom, for study, for observation, for satire, for truth.'...Tell the ladies and gentlemen, the ingenious inquirers, to consider life directly and closely, and not to be put off with mean and puerile falsities, and to be conscientious about it.  It is infinitely large, various, and comprehensive.  Every sort of mind will find what it looks for in it, whereby the novel becomes truly multifarious and illustrative.  This is what I mean by liberty; give it its head, and let it range.  If it is in a bad way, and the English novel is, I think, nothing but absolute freedom can refresh it and restore its self-respect.

'Letter to the Deerfield Summer School,' published in The New York Tribune [4 August 1889] 

Click HERE to view a list of the best 10 books by HENRY JAMES as selected by his latest biographer MICHAEL GORRA.

You might also enjoy:
WRITERS ON WRITING #50: Ford Madox Ford 
WRITERS ON WRITING #36: John Steinbeck 
WRITERS ON WRITING #2: Willa Cather  

Thursday, 4 September 2014

ALBERT CAMUS La chute [The Fall] (1956)

Folio France, 2008

C'est si vrai que nous nous confions rarement à ceux qui sont meilleurs que nous.  Nous fuirions plutôt leur société.  Le plus souvent, au contraire, nous nous confessons à ceux qui nous ressemblent et qui partagent nos faiblesses.  Nous ne désirons donc pas nous corriger, ni être améliorés:  il faudrait d'abord que nous fussions jugés de faillants.  Nous souhaitons seulement être plaints et encouragés dans notre voie.  En somme, nous voudrions, en même temps, ne plus être coupables et ne pas faire l'effort de nous purifier...

It's so true that we rarely confide in those who are better than us.  Rather, we shun their society.  On the contrary, we confess most often to those who resemble us and support our weaknesses.  We don't want them to correct us, nor to improve us; it's necessary first of all that we be judged as failures.  We only wish to complain and be encouraged to follow the path we've chosen.  Finally, we want, at the same time, not to be guilty anymore and not to have to make the effort to absolve ourselves... 

Translated by BR

The Book:  Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a lawyer from Paris living an obscure life of voluntary exile in Amsterdam, recounts to an unnamed listener he meets in a dockside bar how he took pride and even pleasure in aiding the poor, the orphaned and the downtrodden during the course of his now-abandoned legal career, how indulging in supposedly selfless acts like helping a blind man to cross a busy street provided him with his greatest source of contentment if not of actual joy.  He always had an unnatural fondness, he confesses, for all high places - for mountains, for tall buildings, for the upper decks of boats - and viewed himself as being a socially, morally and spiritually superior human being whose sense of worth, he's since discovered, was entirely dependent on the pleasure he derived from feeling that he was looking down on the 'ordinary' mass of humanity from such remote and lofty vantage points.  

But the death of an unknown girl who jumped off a Paris bridge into the Seine - an event Clamence overheard but did not personally witness yet nevertheless made no effort to prevent - triggered a process of self-realization which culminated in him confronting and admitting the truth about himself for the first time in his life.  What he loved, he explains to his perpetually silent confessor over the course of the next five days, was not the act of doing someone a kindness, but the thought of being perceived as having acted kindly towards them by his fellow human beings.  Being perceived as being someone 'kind' and 'good' - rather than the genuine possession of these qualities and the consistent application of them in his everyday life - was what motivated Clamence's actions and caused him to behave, or rather not behave, in the shameful way he did that night.  He was nothing, he admits, but an actor playing a familiar, conscientiously rehearsed role which allowed him to create and project the image of himself he wanted others to validate by accepting him for what he pretended to be rather than the charlatan he always secretly knew himself to be.  The splash he heard as the girl's body hit the water signified more than the beginning of her death by drowning.  It also signified the beginning of his own fall from his former state of self-deceiving naiveté to one of bitter if clear-eyed self-contempt.

Stripped of his illusions, Clamence has now become a non-active non-participant in life, a self-appointed 'judge-penitent' whose efforts to lose himself in debauchery have proven as futile as his previous efforts to portray himself as an altruistic, noble-minded individual ultimately proved to be.  His decision to exile himself to the 'hell' that is the red-light district and former Jewish quarter of the Dutch capital was a conscious act of self-negation, his way of avowing and simultaneously disassociating himself from his former life of careless, socially-condoned hypocrisy.  Complacency has now replaced altruism as his new 'religion,' while his desire to hide from those who dared to question his formerly sacrosanct image of himself as a worthy and compassionate man - the girl on the bridge, the motorcyclist he argued with before leaving Paris who punched him on the street and publicly humiliated him - is surpassed only by his desire to avoid the memory of his other moral failures:  his unacted-upon plan to join the French Resistance during World War Two, his eventual decision to escape the war in Europe by fleeing to North Africa, the time he spent in a concentration camp where he was chosen to act as spokesman - their 'Pope' as he describes it - by his fellow inmates, only to betray their trust by snatching the last cupful of water from the hand of a dying man. 

Clamence's tale ends with him wondering aloud to his unnamed confessor - or, in other words, the reader - how he might react if another young woman threw herself off a bridge while he was nearby, thereby offering him the chance to redeem himself by saving her as he so clearly failed to save her predecessor.  ' "O jeune fille, jette-toi encore dans l'eau pour que j'aie une seconde fois la chance de nous sauver tous les deux!"  Une seconde fois, hein, quelle imprudence!  Suppose, cher maître, qu'on nous prenne au mot?  Il faudrait s'exécuter.  Brr, l'eau est si froide!  Mais rassurons-nous!  Il est trop tard, maintenant, il sera toujours trop tard.  Heuresement!'  [' "O, young girl, throw yourself into the water again so that one might have the chance to rescue both of us!"  A second chance, eh, how ridiculous!  Imagine, dear master, that they took us at our word?  We'd have to go through with it.  Brr‚ the water's so cold!  But we can reassure ourselves!  It's too late, now, it will always be too late.  Fortunately!']

Vintage Books UK, 2009
Jean-Paul Sartre, Camus' fellow writer and friend and later his critic and outspoken ideological enemy, called La chute 'perhaps the most beautiful and the least understood' of all of his books.  Sartre was right.  La chute is a beautiful book but in no sense is it a pretentious or difficult one in terms of its language or the simple (but never simplistic) humanistic message it conveys.  (Camus was a great writer and the mark of a legitimately great writer, as opposed to a merely clever or fashionable one, is the clarity of their prose.  Like his English contemporary George Orwell, Camus had something very specific to say and generally found a way to say it with enviable precision.)  It's been described as an attempt to re-tell the Christian myth of the 'fall' of mankind - from the state of innocence to that of sin - in secular terms, an allegory of World War Two and how it and the various atrocities it inspired were permitted to occur and even, by some critics, as a post-modernist update of Dante's Inferno.  (Nine evenly spaced streets ring the port of Amsterdam, just as nine concentric circles surround hell in Dante's famous fourteenth century poem.)  

La chute may or may not be any or all of these things but what it remains, first and foremost, is a fascinating study in human psychology which raises fundamental questions about the nature of identity and what motivates us to act in the way we choose to act or, more significantly, in the way we may choose not to act.  Are we what our actions reveal us to be or are we what we pretend to be in order to maintain our self-esteem and discourage others from viewing us in a negative light and damning us for our complacency?  If Clamence's honesty condemns him to live out the rest of his days as a tormented 'judge penitent,' his own accuser and perhaps his own redeemer then, Camus implies, the rest of us are surely condemned to share the same unhappy fate.  

Or are we?  If God is dead, as Clamence himself suggests throughout the novel, and mankind is truly alone in a cold uncaring universe, then who besides ourselves is ultimately capable of judging us?  This, I believe, was what Camus strove all his life to make us realize as individuals and act upon as a society.  Civilizations, after all, are only as fair, tolerant and compassionate as the human beings who collectively comprise them.  To end hypocrisy and the evils it inspires - complacency, selfishness, greed, famine, war and destruction - it's first of all necessary for all of us, whoever we are, to possess the honesty, and the intractable moral courage, to recognize this same hypocrisy in ourselves and do whatever we can to eradicate it.

The Author:  Albert Camus once said that 'Men are convinced of your arguments, your sincerity and the seriousness of your efforts only by your death.'  His life was, in a sense, a testimony to this belief, a philosophical work-in-progress which elevated him, by the time he died in a car accident in January 1960, to the level of an intellectual cult figure and one of the world's most read and still most widely admired writers.

Camus was born on 7 November 1913 in the town of Mondovi (now known as Dréan) in El Taref, the northernmost province of what was then the French-speaking colony of Algeria.  His father Lucien, a farm worker and cellarman who only knew his second son for eight months before being called up to serve in an African Zouave regiment, was killed in 1914 at the Battle of the Marne, leaving his sons to be raised by his wife - a poor, half-deaf woman of mixed Algerian/Spanish heritage named Catherine who scratched out a meager living for herself and her children as a cleaner.  Like her dead husband, Catherine Camus was a pied-noir [black foot, as in 'treader on black soil'] - a French-speaking ancestor of Algeria's original French colonizers who considered Africa, rather than Europe, to be their true ancestral home.  Ironically, the pieds-noirs would find themselves double exiles, as unwelcome in their adopted homeland as they were in France after Algeria was finally granted independence in 1962.  The idea of exile, social as well as emotional, was to become a dominant theme of Camus' writing.  When Civil War broke out in Algeria in 1954 he found himself caught between his genuinely sympathetic understanding of Arab grievances and the desire to see the civil and property rights of pieds-noirs like his mother recognized and protected - a moral dilemma as profound, for him, as any he examined in his work. 

Catherine raised her sons in Belcourt, a working class suburb of Algiers, in a three room apartment without electricity or running water which they were obliged, due to their extreme poverty, to share with her own tyrannical mother and her two brothers.  Camus, who was by nature a bright and curious child, did not attend school until the age of ten.  A diligent student who was already passionate about reading and football, he was encouraged in his studies by his teacher Louis Germain - a man he would publicly thank for the positive influence he'd had upon his life in the acceptance speech he gave after winning the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature.  It was Germain who persuaded Camus' grandmother to allow the boy to apply for the scholarship that permitted him to finish school and gain admittance, in 1933, to the University of Algiers.  Unfortunately, his academic career was interrupted - as was his by-now promising career as a footballer - by his contracting of what was, at that time, the usually fatal lung disease tuberculosis.  

The disease, which is highly infectious, forced Camus to leave the family home and move to the childless home of his aunt and uncle, Antoinette and Gustave Acault.  His uncle, a self-educated butcher who owned complete editions of Balzac and Zola, described himself to his customers as an Anarchist - a label his nephew, who adored the work of André Gide and André Malraux and enjoyed dressing like a dandy courtesy of the small allowance his uncle provided while he was recuperating, would eagerly apply to himself in a few more years.  The relationship between nephew and uncle soured, however, after they argued about Camus' habit of bringing girls home and 'entertaining' them in his room with the door shut.  Camus moved out of the Acault household for good when he was twenty-one and, by June 1934, found himself married to Simone Hié, the flirtatious, morphine-addicted former sweetheart of a friend.  He had, by this time, found a new, more useful mentor in Jean Grenier, a philosophy professor who helped him get a few articles published in the Algerian literary magazine Sud.  It would be Grenier who would encourage his young protégé to join the Algerian Communist Party and become, for a time, one of its most devoted and hardest-working members.

Camus earned his licence de philosophie (what in English-speaking countries would be called his BA) in 1935, following it a year later with his diplôme d'études supérieures (his MA) for a thesis titled Néo-Platonisme et Pensée Chrétienne [Neo-Platonism and Christian Thought].  He planned to become a teacher but was prevented from doing so by the condition of his lungs, which had stabilized to some degree without showing any significant signs of improvement.  (The disease would continue to plague him all his life.)  His marriage was also in trouble by this time, with Simone refusing to seek treatment for her addiction while she continued to take lovers (as did her husband, a habit he never abandoned).  They split for good in 1936, freeing Camus to pursue his interests in politics, philosophy and writing.  Under Grenier's guidance, he began writing propaganda plays for the party and delivering pro-Communist lectures - activities he felt uncomfortable recalling after being expelled from the party in 1937 and eventually disavowing Communism and the totalitarianism he felt to be inseparable from it.  He would spend the rest of his life looking for a non-tyrannical, Socialistic alternative to Communism that was as tolerant and non-partisan as Communism itself had originally and falsely claimed to be.  In time, he would develop his own philosophical response to the problems of politics, morality and existence, a system which favored individual action over collective inaction and the abandonment of any form of doctrinaire approach which obliged human beings to deny their individuality.  As he once put it:  'The only real progress lies in learning to be wrong all alone.'

After returning from a trip to France, Camus, denied access to the Communist-run theater group he'd been writing plays for prior to his ejection from the party, decided to seek work  as a journalist.  He was unhappy about this, viewing journalism as hack work rather than as a true vocation, but was left with little other choice after abandoning the novel he'd been working on for several months and needing to earn some sort of steady income.  (This abandoned novel, titled Un mort heureuse [A Happy Death], was an early version of his debut novel L'étranger [The Stranger] and remained unpublished until 1971.)  He worked as a court reporter, political correspondent and occasional book reviewer for the newspaper Algiers Républicain while continuing to work on his own projects, which by now included L'étranger, his full length play Caligula and a long essay on the absurdity of the human situation that would eventually appear, in 1942, under the title Le mythe de Sisyphe [The Myth of Sisyphus].  

By the time this essay was published Camus' name was already reasonably well-known in Paris, where he had worked for Paris-Soir following the closure of the pacifist Algiers Républicain by the reactionary Algerian government.  He was in Paris when the Germans began bombarding the city in the spring of 1940 and, despite several attempts to enlist in the French army which saw him rejected for service on medical grounds, was relocated along with the rest of the newspaper's staff to Clermont before the Germans gained full control of France in May.  The war did not hamper his sex life in any way and saw him conduct relationships with several different women including Francine Faure, who had become his second wife in December 1940.  It was with Francine that he returned to Algiers in early 1941, where he soon began to complain to friends of feeling bored and suffocated.  He was to remain in this dejected mood until April of that year, when he sent the completed manuscripts of L'etranger and Caligula to his Paris friends Pascal Pia and Jean Grenier.  They arranged to send on his manuscripts to his childhood hero André Malraux, who in turn arranged to have them published by the prestigious firm of Gallimard.   

L'étranger appeared in 1942 and was immediately hailed as a work of genius by Jean-Paul Sartre and other left-wing intellectuals.  Camus, however, was not there to enjoy the acclaim his work now began to earn him.  Back in France but sick again, he was advised to remain with Francine's family near Lyon while she returned to Algeria and the job she had waiting for her there.  The Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942 effectively severed all links between Algeria and the Continent, separating Camus from his wife until France was finally liberated in June 1944.  Francine wasn't with him, therefore, when he had returned to Paris in December 1942 to be hailed by Sartre and others as a major new literary talent.

ALBERT CAMUS and JEAN-PAUL SARTRE (seated), c. 1950
In 1943 Camus joined the staff of Combat, a French resistance newspaper for which he wrote articles under the pseudonym of 'Beauchard.'  He soon became editor of the newspaper and finally met Sartre in June of that year.  Their friendship was never as close as it has often been portrayed as being and broke down completely after the war when Camus publicly attacked Communism in the pages of Combat and then again during a US lecture tour.  The 1951 publication of L'Homme Révolté [The Rebel], his book length study of rebellion and revolution which was highly critical of Communist doctrine, turned him and Sartre into ideological enemies and saw both Camus and his work reviled by many other left-wing intellectuals as well.  From then until his death Camus remained a firm opponent of Communism, protesting in the pages of Combat, and later in L'Express which he began writing for in 1955, against the USSR's crushing of a worker's strike in East Berlin and its efforts to crush similar uprisings in Poland and Hungary.  

He was equally outspoken in his condemnation of capital punishment and the problem of Algerian independence, which he believed could only be resolved by the adoption of tolerant, non-violent attitudes by both sides.  He remained emotionally and morally divided on the subject of Algeria, with his failure to take the expected, politically-correct public stance on the question further isolating him from Sartre and many other French intellectuals, some of whom even went as far as accusing him of being a closet imperialist.  Camus responded by accusing Sartre and his friends of being nothing more than 'armchair revolutionaries.'

Although Camus became the father of twins in 1945, his new role did not prevent him from conducting numerous affairs with women like the actress Maria Casarés and the young American writer Patricia Blake - a habit which, in time, led to his wife's emotional breakdown and a failed suicide attempt.  (Francine attempted to throw herself off a balcony - an event which found its way, with the balcony substituted for a bridge, into the pages of La chute.)  Depressed by his inability to help his wife and feeling alienated from and even despised by many of his former friends and political colleagues, he continued to be plagued by ill health and disturbed by his financial and critical success, once stating that 'What makes my books a success is the same thing that makes them a lie for me.'  As the war in Algeria escalated he also found himself coming increasingly under attack for remaining silent on the issue of Algerian independence, with a student he encountered at one meeting angrily accusing him of cowardice - an accusation that went unanswered and quickly reduced him to tears.  His winning of the 1957 Nobel Prize only added to what were now his almost continuous fears and anxieties, reminding him that his time on earth was limited due to his lung problems and that he had yet to write what he considered to be his masterpiece.  Later works like his story collection Exil et le Royaume [Exile and the Kingdom] (1957) were greeted coolly by the critics who expected him to follow the unexpected return to form of La chute with another major novel.  

Camus was working on this new novel, based on his childhood and tentatively titled Le premier homme [The First Man], when he died in a car accident in the Burgundy village of Villeblevin on 4 January 1960.  He'd originally planned to take the train to Paris but was persuaded by his publisher, Michel Gallimard, to accompany him there by car.  (Gallimard also lost his life in the accident.)  His unused train ticket was found in his pocket, while his briefcase was found to contain drafts of the early chapters of his incomplete final novel which was published, under the supervision of his daughter Catherine, in 2009.

Click HERE to visit the homepage of THE ALBERT CAMUS SOCIETY, where you will find a wealth of information about his life, work and philosophy.  To read some interesting (but unfortunately unreferenced) quotes by ALBERT CAMUS, please click HERE.  There are several biographies available, the most recent of which is Albert Camus: Elements of a Life by ROBERT ZARETSKY, published by The Cornell University Press in September 2013.  It should be easily obtainable via your local bookstore or favorite online retailer, as should the less scholarly Albert Camus: A Life by OLIVIER TODD, published in a new edition by Vintage/Random House in 1998.

You might also enjoy:
TAHAR BEN JELLOUN Au pays [A Palace in the Old Village] (2009)
CARLO LEVI Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945)
GABRIELLE ROY Bonheur d'occasion [The Tin Flute] (1945)

Thursday, 28 August 2014

WRITERS ON WRITING #53: Mohammad Hassan Alwan

Censorship’s worst side is that it makes writers overly self-conscious during the process of writing.  However, it is a permanent fact in writing that is not likely to go away.  If you are not being censored by the state, you are going to be censored by either social sensitivities or the audience’s expectations.  I therefore learned not to waste my time complaining about censorship and rather look at it as the playing boundaries of the field.  No player wants to be out of bounds, and such is also the case for writers.

Looking at the Longlist: Nine Questions with Saudi Writer Mohammad Hassan Alwan (14 December 2012)

Click HERE to read the full interview with Saudi novelist MOHAMMAD HASSAN ALWAN on the excellent Wordpress blog Arabic Literature (In English) created and maintained by M. LYNX QUALEY. 

You might also enjoy:
WRITERS ON WRITING #31: Jana El Hassan
WRITERS ON WRITING #27: Tahar Ben Jelloun
POET OF THE MONTH #17: Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf

Thursday, 21 August 2014

POET OF THE MONTH #19: Townes Van Zandt



At my window
Watching the sun go
Hoping the stars know
It's time to shine

Aloft on dark wings
Soft as the sun streams
At day's decline

Living is laughing
And dying says nothing at all
Baby and I lying here
Watching the evening fall

Time flows
Through brave beginnings
And she leaves her endings
Beneath our feet

Walk lightly
Upon their faces
Leave gentle traces
Upon their sleep

Living is dancing
Dying does nothing at all
Baby and I lying here
Watching the evening fall

Three dimes
Hard luck and good times
Fast lines and low rhymes
Ain't much to say

Feel fine
Feel low and lazy
Feel gray and hazy
Feel far away

Living is sighing
Dying ain't flying so high
Baby and I lying here
Watching the day go by

At My Window (1987)
The Poet:   The following biographical statement is taken from Wikipedia.  [It is re-posted here for recommendation purposes only and, like the material quoted above, remains its author's exclusive copyright-protected intellectual property.]

John Townes Van Zandt I (March 7, 1944 – January 1, 1997), best known as Townes Van Zandt, was an American singer-songwriter. Many of his songs, including If I Needed You and To Live Is to Fly, are considered standards of their genre. 

While alive, Van Zandt had a small and devoted fanbase, but he never had a successful album or single and even had difficulty keeping his recordings in print.  In 1983, six years after Emmylou Harris had first popularized it, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard covered his song Pancho and Lefty, scoring a number one hit on the Billboard country music charts. Despite achievements like these, the bulk of his life was spent touring various dive bars, often living in cheap motel rooms, backwoods cabins, and on friends' couches.  Van Zandt was notorious for his drug addictions, alcoholism, and his tendency to tell tall tales.  When young, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and insulin shock therapy erased much of his long-term memory.

Van Zandt died on New Years Day 1997 from health problems stemming from years of substance abuse. The 2000s saw a resurgence of interest in Van Zandt. During the decade, two books, a documentary film, and a number of magazine articles about the singer were created.  Van Zandt's music has been covered by such notable and varied musicians as Bob Dylan, Nanci Griffith, Norah Jones, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Cowboy Junkies, Andrew Bird, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Laura Marling, The Avett Brothers, and Devendra Banhart.

The music of Townes Van Zandt was and remains that of a true American troubador, as beautiful as it is haunting and, in its own way, inimitable.  His is music from the heart that speaks directly to the heart, music that, despite its apparent simplicity, still manages to express the profound and sometimes very bitter truth of what it means to be human and alive.

Click HERE to visit the official website of US singer/songwriter TOWNES VAN ZANDT.  Many more songs by him can by found on YouTube by clicking HERE.  To read his full Wikipedia entry, please click HERE.

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POET OF THE MONTH #18: Lawrence Ferlinghetti
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Thursday, 14 August 2014

BENTLEY RUMBLE Early Reading (2013)

Little Golden Books/Random House US, c. 1942
Marvel Comics Group, 1975
Sphere Books UK, 1981

The first book I have a clear memory of reading and feeling in any way affected by was a Little Golden Book called The Saggy Baggy Elephant.  Its plot – or at least the little of it that my unreliable memory now permits me to recall – related the adventures of a cute if somewhat mawkish baby elephant who was teased by all the other animals he knew because his skin hung so loosely on his puny, under-developed body.  It was a tale of an individual being unjustly singled out and persecuted by a mob for being ‘different’ and ‘ugly’ and, for that reason alone, was bound to appeal to a child whose sense of empathy was as strongly developed as mine happened to be.

File Size: 
21 pages (.pdf) / 7593 words / 4 MB

eBOOK Formats: 

.azw3, .epub, .mobi & .pdf

Mediafire eBook/Zip File Download Link: 

BR-Early Reading (2013)-eBOOKx4

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BENTLEY RUMBLE Blues for Eddie Clay (2014) 
BENTLEY RUMBLE Recognition: A Novel (2009, revised 2013)
BENTLEY RUMBLE Layover (2012)

Thursday, 7 August 2014

DOROTHY WHIPPLE Someone at a Distance (1953)

Persephone Classics UK, 1999

As for his wife, thought Louise, hearing Ellen hurrying downstairs to make breakfast, the foolish creature didn't seem to realise that it was necessary to fight.  The battle was joined and would be over before she knew there was one.  But Louise had no compunction.  The woman didn't deserve what she had if she couldn't keep it.  Besides, why should other people always have everything and Louise Lanier nothing?  It was time for a change.

The Book:  Ellen and Avery North are a happily married middle class English couple, no longer passionate about each other but still affectionate and very much devoted to their children, fifteen year old schoolgirl Anne and eighteen year old Hugh, the son whom Avery hopes to take into his publishing business once the boy completes his mandatory National Service.  World War Two has only recently ended and the Norths - along with everyone of their generation who endured air raids, food rationing and enforced separation for six miserable years - can hardly believe their luck at having survived the conflict relatively unscathed.  They still have 'Netherfold' - their comfortable home in the semi-rural village of Newington, only an hour by train from London - and the sort of settled, family-oriented life they both want and enjoy, even if that enjoyment is occasionally dampened by the presence of Avery's mother, a cantankerous, difficult to please woman who lives nearby in her own, even larger house known simply as 'The Cedars.'

Old Mrs North's most frequent complaint is that she isn't visited enough by her daughter-in-law and grandchildren, to whom she remains an exasperating figure they nevertheless can't help feeling sorry for because she has a heart condition and is obviously lonely, living in such a grand house with only her housekeeper, the ever-devoted Miss Daley, to keep her company.  Mrs North's loneliness prompts her to answer a newspaper advertisement, placed by a French girl seeking a 'position' in an English home for the summer where she will offer 'French conversation' and 'light domestic duties' in exchange for her room and board.  Ellen and Avery are skeptical, dismissing the idea as one of the old woman's attention-seeking whims, but Mrs North is adamant that the girl must come and spend the summer with her as her companion, whether they approve of the idea or not.  Letters are exchanged and the arrival of Mademoiselle Lanier - who lives at home with her parents in the small provincial town of Amigny - is eagerly awaited.

Louise Lanier has reasons of her own for seeking a summer job in England.  A spoilt, imperious girl who thinks nothing of bullying her adoring mother and father if doing so will get her what she wants, she's just been jilted by her lover, Paul Devoisy, so he can marry a girl more suitable to his position as the favoured eldest son of the wealthiest, most respectable family in town.  Louise can't stand Paul's prim and proper fiancée Germaine and has no desire to marry any of Amigny's currently eligible bachelors, all of whom bore her to distraction and, worse, have no prospects of earning or inheriting the kind of wealth that Paul is poised to inherit upon his father's death.  

Expecting little from her trip to England, Louise is surprised to find something of a kindred spirit in her new employer - a woman not averse to speaking bluntly when she feels the situation warrants it and criticizing others, especially her virtuous and well-meaning daughter-in-law, behind their backs.  Although Louise initially fails to make a favourable impression on Avery, Ellen or the girlishly innocent Anne, she makes a very favourable impression on Mrs North who, as the summer progresses, begins to treat her more like a confidante than an employee, further alienating the already suspicious and disgruntled Miss Daley.

Ellen, however, has no time to dwell on what's happening at The Cedars.  She has her own house to run and her civic duty to perform which, in her case, means paying regular visits to Somerton, a former manor house converted into a residential hotel (a polite English pseudonym for a nursing home) and occupied, for the most part, by elderly widows like her friend Mrs Brockington.  The ladies are always as delighted to see Ellen as she is to see them, finding in her unselfish kindness a welcome respite from the unpredictable, sometimes abrasive personality of the hotel manager, the formidable Mrs Beard.  Ellen and her children also have a sentimental attachment to Somerton, having spent a lot of time there during the war while Avery was off serving in the Army.  It's these visits, along with preparing for Anne's impending return to school, which occupy Ellen's severely limited spare time - so much so that Louise's return to France is barely noticed by her despite the fact that Avery has now been won over by the visitor to a certain degree, so glad has he been to see the positive effect the girl's presence has had on his mother's health and fractious disposition.

The same cannot be said of Louise, who faces the same frustration when she returns to Amigny, compounded now by her former lover's marriage and the disturbing news that his mealy-mouthed bride is now pregnant with his child.  Insult is added to injury when Germaine begs her help to run the annual church charity bazaar but Louise, eager as always to humiliate her rival, uses their meetings as a means of impressing everybody with her firsthand knowledge of exotic 'English ways,' taking pleasure in the thought that news of her recently acquired sophistication must inevitably find its way back to Paul.  But her plan backfires.  Being in Paul's house without being able to see or touch him proves too much for her to bear and when a letter from Ellen arrives, begging her to return to England because Mrs North has fallen ill and is desperate to see her again, she writes back immediately, promising to return by the very first boat.

This time, Louise pursues a different approach with the Norths.  She makes more of an effort to make herself agreeable to them and especially to the handsome, often befuddled Avery, who's again relieved and pleased to see his mother's health improve as a direct consequence of her arrival.  So dependent on Louise's dubious affection does Mrs North become that she persuades Avery to speak to the girl on her behalf, asking her to consider the idea of remaining in Newington indefinitely.  This, of course, proves to Louise how indispensable she's become to her employer and, to a lesser extent, to the much friendlier, almost completely won-over Avery.  This knowledge gives her power, which she exercises by immediately returning to France and the home of her timid shopkeeping parents.  Here she plans to wait, biding her time until Mrs North's need for her - and her son's clearly growing attraction to her - become too strong for either party to successfully resist.  

Louise is still biding her time in Amigny, silently despising everyone and everything around her, when a letter brings the news that Mrs North has died and left her the sum of £1000 in her will - a legacy, her father soon informs her, equivalent to nine hundred thousand French francs.  Better still, she must return to England to collect her inheritance, where she will stay at Netherfold as the North's guest, not as anyone's employee, until the details of the old lady's will have been scrutinized and her estate finally settled.

Louise's presence at Netherfold soon becomes a nuisance to Ellen, who finds her reluctance to help around the house irritating but is too polite - and too dejected by the death of her mother-in-law and the wearying business of clearing out her house - to say so.  Yet this is not enough to encourage Louise to return to France.  She remains at Netherfold well past the time she was expected to remain there - ostensibly to help Anne improve her poor French during the girl's summer holidays - flirting with Hugh and, when that fails to produce the desired result, flirting openly with Avery, who finds himself flummoxed at the sight of her stretched out on his back lawn one Saturday afternoon, sunbathing in a bikini.  Finding himself physically attracted to Louise, his initial reaction is to blame his entirely innocent wife for what he's feeling.  'Avery felt a stab of anger.  Really Ellen shouldn't...she should realise...She shouldn't take it for granted that he was as safe as all that.  Damn it all, he was a man like any other, and whether she knew it or not, this girl was more provocative than any he had come across.'  Safe or not, his attraction to Louise becomes impossible to deny and sees him pay a nocturnal visit to her room one night where nature quickly and unsurprisingly takes its inevitable course. 

Ellen, however, trusts her husband implicitly, never believing him capable of adultery, let alone of betraying her with a remote, immaculately groomed creature like the haughty Louise.  This is what makes it so shattering to discover him making love to Louise on their living room sofa one afternoon - a sight she witnesses only because she decided to accompany Anne on a shopping trip to the village and thoughtlessly left some letters she needed to post behind on the hall table, letters she automatically and unthinkingly returned to the house to fetch.  Anne also sees everything her mother sees, destroying forever her illusion of Avery as the loving and indulgent father she had, up till that moment, unconditionally respected and adored.  Anne can't bear the sight of her father's shame and flees from it, but Ellen remains behind, demanding that Louise leave at once and still trusting, in her innocence, to Avery to take charge of the situation just as he's done during every other crisis they've encountered during their marriage.  

But Avery, too wracked with guilt to do much more than preen and bluster, has one more surprise in store for his heartbroken wife.  While Ellen goes out to search for Anne, who has taken her horse and ridden away from the house in order to put as much distance as possible between herself and the day's shattering events, he packs his bags and leaves for London with Louise, who, as might be expected, is far from dissatisfied with her day's handiwork.  She has Avery to herself and winning him away from Ellen, awkward though things were for a time, was much easier than she'd expected it to be.  Her only regret is that the hotel he finds for them in London isn't The Ritz or The Savoy.  This will change though, she assures herself, once she persuades him to divorce his naïve fool of a wife and marry her.

With this previously unthinkable chain of events set in motion, it hardly takes any time at all for the secure if  mundane life the Norths have lived together to begin to unravel.  Avery, stung to the core by the powerful combination of guilt and pride, refuses to consider the option of returning to Ellen, preferring to make a 'quick clean break of it' to the dismal prospect of 'eating humble pie' for the rest of his life.  He soon turns to brandy for solace, having found none in the distant and self-centred Louise, whom he soon comes to realize he doesn't even like, much less love.  His actions have a similarly devastating effect on his children, with Hugh vowing to reenlist in the army once his National Service has been completed rather than work for the man who so callously betrayed his mother, while Anne, formerly a happy and vivacious girl, becomes quiet and withdrawn, shunning the company of her school friends to the point where her behaviour begins to be of genuine concern to her teachers and headmistress.  

In the meantime Ellen, her world as she previously knew it  literally destroyed overnight, is forced to face the harsh reality of being a divorced middle-aged woman with nothing but the income from a very small personal annuity to support herself and her children.  (She refuses to accept any alimony from Avery, taking only what's necessary to pay for Anne's education.)  Her only option is to ask Mrs Beard for an assistant manager's job at Somerton, where her housekeeping skills can be put to some use and she and the children can live in the disused stable she's eventually given permission to convert into a house.  Gradually, she emerges from her depression and begins to build a new life for herself while Avery, who's persuaded by his partner to quit his job so that Hugh can take his place, is dragged to New York and then to France by the increasingly shrewish Louise, who intends to repay him for his months of slothful silent drunkenness by bleeding him dry of every cent he possesses.  But not even the coldly calculating Louise gets everything her own way.  Taking Avery home to meet her parents, she's shocked to discover that they want nothing more to do with her after realizing that it was she, acting purely out of selfishness, who destroyed the North's marriage, bringing shame not only upon herself but upon their good name as well.

Yet, despite it all, Ellen can't stop loving her ex-husband, the man who stayed by her side the night their son was born and she came so perilously close to dying.  A chance meeting at Somerton, where Louise has unknowingly insisted is the ideal place for herself and Avery to stop and eat lunch one day, brings about, not a reconciliation, but an understanding and even a tiny glimmer of hope for the future.  'Ellen,' Avery realizes as the unfed Louise waits for him to drive them away from what, to her, is now a grim and hateful place, 'had forgiven him.  His children never would, he knew; but Ellen had forgiven him.  In those few moments, she had given him hope and purpose.  He would redeem himself.  He could, now that he had something to work for.  She was the harmony of his life.  What a disordered existence he had led without her.  If it took years - and it would, until Anne had settled in a life of her own - he would wait and hope to get back to Ellen.'

Persephone Books UK first reprint edition, 1999
The power of a novel like Someone at a Distance lies in its subtlety, in its muted yet profoundly engaging depiction of a middle-aged couple coming to terms with an unthinkable calamity in their humdrum lives and responding to it - not with hate, recrimination and teams of writ-serving divorce lawyers - but with dignity, restraint and a mutual desire to secure a decent future for their children.  If it's a novel about adultery and betrayal, then it's also a novel about forgiveness and the possibility of redemption.  Some may be put off by its perhaps too hopeful ending, but to be disappointed by it is to deny the book's real purpose, which is to suggest how everything we take for granted in life can be stolen from us in the blink of an eye, given the right opportunity and the right combination of insidious or merely unforeseen circumstances.  

The book also addresses the idea of human evil in the same allusively understated way that Henry James addressed it in novels like The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Wings of the Dove (1902).  Like James, Whipple understood that evil begins in giving way to emotions like envy, greed and vanity and, as such, often reveals itself as the attractive and glamorous alternative to what we perceive as being 'good' and therefore dismissible and worthy of nothing but our scorn.  Louise is everything the devoted, eager to please Ellen is not - dark rather than fair, striking rather than plain, lewdly French rather than modestly and unprotestingly English.  She's also a woman incapable of thinking of anyone but herself, unwilling to spare a moment's thought for her parents, her employer, Ellen, Anne, Hugh or the man she so cunningly and, to his lasting regret, so efficiently seduces.  At no time does she express even the slightest remorse over what she's done to Ellen and Avery, suffer even the mildest pang of guilt over the catalytic role she's played in ruining what, until her arrival, had been their happy if unexciting marriage.  

In Louise's jaded eyes, Avery and Ellen are nothing more than ridiculous figures ripe for exploitation, as are her petit bourgeois shopkeeping parents, small people of small means whose nervous love for her is exceeded only by their constant fear of incurring her endlessly simmering wrath.  She doesn't care about destroying love because the shabby treatment she received at the hands of her former lover, Paul Devoisy, has robbed her of the capacity to feel anything but contempt, resentment and an all-consuming envy for those whom fate has chosen to bless with wealth, position and the power which, to her mind, is their natural concomitant.  What she wants is not Avery, but what she thinks, mistakenly, that a man like Avery is capable of giving her provided she nags him for it often enough and doesn't let him stray too far off the leash.  She's an extraordinary creation and a testament to Dorothy Whipple's uncanny ability to take what, in the hands of a less gifted, less emotionally insightful novelist, might only have been another standard love triangle plot and transform it into something that remains a thought-provoking and genuinely moving work of art.

The Author:  Once described as 'the Jane Austen of the twentieth century' by her contemporary JB Priestley, Dorothy Whipple suffered the same fate as many of her fellow 'women novelists' whose work had been popular during the 1930s and 1940s only to find itself falling out of favour as the vogue for books featuring sex and scandal came to dominate publishing during the latter half of the 1950s and on into the 'swinging' 1960s.  Although she published nine popular and well-received novels between 1927 and 1953, it was as a writer of children's fiction that Whipple was best remembered until her work began to be reprinted by UK publisher Persephone Books in 1999.  She's now the company's most popular author, her books selling steadily and gaining her the new readership she was unjustly denied for so many years.

Whipple was born in the Lancashire city of Blackburn in 1893, one of a family of eight children sired by local architect William Stirrup.  Her family were what the English call 'middle class' (and the rest of us call rich) and she was encouraged to pursue her literary interests by her mother Ada, herself the daughter of a well-to-do man whose company specialized in providing the engraving and gilding for many of Blackburn's stateliest homes and public buildings.  Young Dorothy was also close to her grandmother and to the family servant, a harsh-talking but softhearted woman named Kate.  Hers was a happy and secure childhood, free from the financial worries which beset her less privileged contemporaries in what was known as 'Cotton Town' thanks to its abundance of highly profitable cotton mills.  She was educated privately and then at the city's high school before completing her education at the Convent of Notre Dame.  In 1905, at the age of twelve, she made her first appearance in print when a story she had written for a school assignment was published in the Blackburn Times.

Following the death of her friend (possibly her fiancee?) George Owen in the trenches of France in the very first week of World War One, twenty-one year old Miss Stirrup took a job as secretary to the city's current Director of Education.  His name was Henry Whipple and the fact that he was a widower who was also twenty-four years her senior did not deter her from falling in love with him and agreeing to become his wife in 1917.  Henry Whipple's job took him to Nottingham in 1925 and this was where the childless couple remained until 1939, when they moved to the East Midlands manufacturing town of Kettering.  Kettering would remain their home until Henry Whipple's death in 1958, when Dorothy returned once more to Blackburn.

Jonathan Cape Limited first UK edition, 1930
The English firm of Jonathon Cape published her first novel, Young Anne, in 1927.  It sold moderately well and was followed in 1930 by High Wages, a female variant on HG Wells' Kipps (1905) which told the tale of a lowly draper's assistant who aspires to the seemingly impossible goal of opening her own dress shop.  Whipple's second novel became a bestseller, as did every one of her succeeding novels - Greenbanks (1932), They Knew Mr Knight (1934, filmed in 1946 starring Mervyn Johns and Nora Swinburne), The Priory (1939), They Were Sisters (1943, also filmed in 1945 starring Phyllis Calvert and James Mason), Because of the Lockwoods (1949) and Every Good Deed (1950).  Her final novel, Someone at a Distance, appeared in 1953 but failed to duplicate her previous success, being entirely ignored by the critics and a reading public who, as her editor put it, were all 'going mad for passion and action.'  

Having published The Tale of the Very Little Tortoise, her first book for children, in 1962, it was in this genre that Whipple worked until her death, in her beloved Blackburn, four years later.  She also published an autobiography, The Other Day, in 1950 and two volumes of short stories, the last of which, Wednesday and Other Stories, was described as 'illuminating and startling' by Anthony Burgess when it originally appeared in 1961.  But it was another critic, reviewing her first volume of stories in The Times Literary Supplement twenty years before that, who perhaps best described what made Dorothy Whipple such a clever and, for so many years, undervalued writer: 'Nobody is more shrewd than Mrs Whipple in hitting off domestic relations or the small foibles of everyday life.'  

Click HERE to visit the DOROTHY WHIPPLE page at the PERSEPHONE CLASSICS website.  In addition to publishing Someone at a Distance in both traditional and eBOOK formats, the company also publishes many of her other novels and a selection of her short fiction titled The Closed Door and Other Stories.

You can also click HERE to read reviews of Someone at a Distance and other novels by DOROTHY WHIPPLE on the entertaining Wordpress blog Book Snob.

You might also enjoy:
BARBARA PYM Excellent Women (1952)
ELIZABETH TAYLOR A Wreath of Roses (1949)
DAWN POWELL Come Back to Sorrento (1932)