Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal; and Photos of Vienna

Posthumously published in 2013, The Exiles Return is the first of Elisabeth de Waal's novels to be published by Persephone (the above image is a Picador edition). Grandmother of author Edmund de Waal, Elisabeth de Waal was born in 1899 as a member of the wealthy Ephrussi family, a banking dynasty. Her mother was a Baroness, and Elisabeth studied law, economics and philosophy and was a poet. 

The Exiles Return is the story of five people who return to Vienna in the mid-1950s. Some are loosely connected, and some closely. The story begins with Dr. Kuno Adler, a Jewish research scientist who is returning to Europe for the first time after the war. Though his wife became a successful businesswoman in New York, he longs to return to Vienna and is able to return to his laboratory, albeit in a less prestigious position. 

The second character is a wealthy Greek named Kanakis, who returns to Vienna in search of a little Vienna palais to enjoy the society life. He has money and influence, and surrounds himself with beautiful and interesting people, including the young and beautifully handsome Prince Lorenzo Grein-Lauterbach, nicknamed Bimbo. Now impoverished, he has returned with his older sister Nina, who works in the same laboratory as Dr. Adler. 

Endpaper from the Persephone edition of The Exiles Return

Finally, the reader is also introduced to Marie-Theres (nicknamed Resi), an eighteen-year old Austo-American, whose parents fled before the war. Daughter of a princess, she has never really fit in to American life and her family thinks visiting her mother's family in Vienna will do her good (and possibly marry her off). 

At first it seems that these disparate characters have nothing to do with one another, but eventually, their stories intertwine, at least somewhat. The end of the novel is not a surprise, as it begins with a dramatic event reported in the newspapers, so the story is not so much about what happens, but why. It's a fairly short book and I think having so many characters in so short a novel is a bit disappointing. This almost feels like a first draft, and as an unpublished manuscript, it may well be (there's even a note explaining that the first page of a particular chapter is missing.) Dr. Adler and Resi get the most attention, and I feel like the other characters were underdeveloped -- the Grein-Lauterbach siblings are really just secondary characters but Nina in particular could have been really interesting. 

Vienna and Austria, however, get a lot of wonderful descriptions. Resi spends a summer in a country estate which sounds just heavenly, and then a season in Vienna, going to lectures, parties, and the opera. In 2018 I was able to spend my Thanksgiving weekend in Vienna, which was just as wonderful as you'd expect. 

The Ringstrasse 
St. Stephen's Cathedral. The Christmas markets had just opened that weekend.
The National Library of Austria, surely the inspiration for the library in Beauty and the Beast. 
Belvedere Castle was a quick walk from my hotel, it's now a museum with artwork by Gustav Klimt. 
The Ferris wheel at the Prater, made famous by Orson Wells in The Third Man.

And the pastries were to die for. 
I really should have brought this book with me and read it while I was there, but my book group was meeting the day after I returned so I was busy reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel -- a book about a pandemic! Who knew? 

I'm counting this as my book set in Austria for the European Reading Challenge

Friday, April 24, 2020

Crossriggs by Jane & Mary Findlater

Not a great cover image, but the only one I could find.

I don't know who I can credit for recommending Crossriggs -- I'm sure it was someone in the blogosphere, and I wish I knew so I can thank them. (Updated: it was Furrowed Middlebrow!) This book is exactly in my wheelhouse, including : 
  1. A Victorian(ish) time period 
  2. Set in Scotland
  3. A strong female protagonist 
Basically, a trifecta of all the things I love in a book. Published in 1908, Crossriggs is the story of Alexandra Horn, a woman in hear late twenties/early thrities, living with her father in the village of Crossriggs which is "about an hour's train ride from Edinborough. Besides the Horns, there are three or four other families of note around which the story is centered. Alexandra, known as Alex, has been living rather quietly with her father, an educated man with interesting and progressive ideas (but not much money) when her recently widowed sister Matilda arrives in tow from Canada with her five (!) children. The eldest daughter is 13, then there are three boys in a row, and finally a baby girl. 

Of course this throws the whole house into turmoil, but Alex and her father take it all in stride until they realize they will be more financially strapped than ever. Her father borrows some money from a close neighbor, Mr. Maitland, but Alex is aghast and vows to find a way to earn some ready cash. She begins by reading every day to a blind neighbor, the retired Admiral Cassilas, who is kind but somewhat gruff and snobbish. The admiral's only living relative is his grandson, Vanbrough, who has just finished school and is about twenty-one. 

A better image of the cover artwork. 
It's "Lady in Grey" (1859) by Daniel Macnee, National Galleries of Scotland

Young Van is bored staying at gloomy Foxe Hall with his grandfather, and the two don't always see eye to eye. He quickly strikes up a friendship with Alex and spends more and more time with the loud and boisterous Hope family. Eventually, his grandfather starts parading a succession of eligible young women around Van, and Alex's sister is pressuring her to accept the hand of James Reid, who is good steady but whom Alex finds dull. And Van is jealous of her friendship with their neighbor Mr. Maitland, who seems excessively fond of Alex, who is married with a sickly wife. Eventually this love triangle (or quadrangle?) comes to a head, and after a dramatic turn of events, there is a tragedy.

I really enjoyed this book -- it reminded me a bit of Jane Austen, but also a little bit of Anne of Green Gables. I really liked that Alex was trying to make her way in the world without just husband hunting -- she seemed like a new modern woman. The plot moved along nicely, and though it's almost 400 pages long, it seemed shorter, probably because the Virago edition had very wide margins. 

This book had some interesting plot twists. There was a lot of foreshadowing about the three men who seemed interested in Alex, so I had strong suspicions about how it would all end up -- and I was right about some of the events, but not the characters I was expecting, if that makes sense. And I was amused by Alex's father, who was a "fruitarian" -- basically, a vegetarian who made the family eat crazy things like nuttose, an early meat substitute developed in the late 1890s. They were also forced to eat carrots, of all things! Apparently this was a vegetable only fit for horses. 

Aside from some cringey racism, I liked this book very much, though the ending was a bit rushed. I did like how Alex's story was wrapped up, which was not how I expected. I would like to read more by the Findlater sisters, who wrote books individually and together. Sadly, I don't think any of their other books are readily available. Crossriggs is currently out of print, but there are used copies of the Virago Modern Classic edition available at a reasonable price online. And I've just discovered it's available as an audio on BBC Radio 4!  

I'm counting this as my Classic with a Place in the Title for the Back to the Classics Challenge and for my UK Classic for the European Reading Challenge

Monday, April 20, 2020

#Zoladdiction 2020: The Sin of Abbe Mouret

It's April, and that means it's another edition of Fanda's Zoladdiction! Hosted by Fandaclassiclit, this is a month-long celebration of the life and work of Emile Zola, my favorite French writer. I've been reading Zola's novels for ten years, and I'm more than halfway through with his Rougon-Macquart cycle of twenty novels. This year I selected The Sin of Abbe Mouret, first published in 1875.

This is the fifth book in the series, and at just under 300 pages, it's also one of the shortest -- which is honestly why I chose it from the five Zola novels on my TBR list. I'm still recovering from Les Miserables and just could not face the 600 pages of La Debacle, another war novel. As such a short novel, there are few characters and the plot line is fairly simple. Abbe Serge Mouret, age 25, is the priest of a small parish of Les Artaud, a village in southern France, where he lives with his younger sister, Desiree, and an elderly housekeeper, La Teuse. Serge and Desiree are the two younger children of the Mouret family introduced in The Conquest of Plassans, the previous volume of the series (their older brother Octave moves off to Paris and reappears in books ten and eleven, Pot-Bouille and The Ladies' Paradise).

One spring day Abbe Mouret is out on an errand -- he must persuade a pregnant village girl to marry the baby's father. The girl's father is unwilling to give up unpaid labor, and most of the villagers seem nonplussed about the situation. On his way back to the parish, he runs into his uncle, Doctor Pascal (last seen in the first volume, The Fortunes of the Rougons.) The Doctor is on his way to check on a patient, Jeanbernat, the elderly caretaker of a vast abandoned estate known as Le Paradou (the Paradise). Jeanbernat lives in this isolated, ramshackle ruin with his niece Albine, who has become rather wild. 

It turns out Jeanbernat is just fine and not on death's door. but Abbe Mouret catches a glimpse of this idyllic garden paradise and the wild Albine. A few weeks later, Abbe Mouret falls ill from a terrible fever, and is sent to convalesce in the secluded estate. When he is recovering, he has no memory of his life as a priest, and soon he falls in love with Albine and with the gardens of Le Paradou -- basically, it's a 19th century Adam and Eve story, except that Adam is a priest. When Mouret remembers his life as priest, he wrestles with his conscience -- can he overcome his sin and return to his spritual ways as a priest? Or will he succumb to his earthly desires and run away with Albine? Zola isn't known for happy endings, so the outlook is not favorable.

Overall I liked this book, though it isn't my favorite in the series. Obviously, there's a lot of religion in this book, and the struggle between man's spirituality and man's human desires. Sex and religion are hot topics at any time, and the combination of the two is just somewhere I'm going to avoid. 

I will say that there are a lot of wonderful descriptions of the gardens of the Paradou, though if you are a gardener, you will realize that miraculously, many of these plants don't normally bloom at the same time, so suspend your disbelief. Or maybe it's a magical microclimate? It is meant to be an Eden, so I'll let it pass. 

Forest Interior by Paul Cezanne, 1898-1899. Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco. The cover image above is a detail from this painting. Ironically, Cezanne and Zola were close friends until Zola used him as inspiration for his novel The Masterpiece. They never spoke again after that.

Mostly what I didn't like about this book was the way women were depicted, and the misogyny of one character in particular. There is another priest, Brother Archangias (an archangel?) who has such an overwhelming hatred of women he literally says they should all be strangled at birth. To him, all women are temptresses and sluts -- the only women he seems to tolerate is the housekeeper La Teuse -- and there are several scenes in which they are playing the card game War. Zola is pretty heavy-handed with the symbolism in this book, if you hadn't noticed already. I can't decide if Zola really feels this way about women or if he's satirizing the sexism of the church. 

The only female character that Zola depicts favorably is Serge's sister Desiree, but she's supposed to be simple-minded -- not stupid, but I wonder if she would now be classified as on the autism spectrum. She loves nothing more than her animals and treats them like her own children, though she doesn't seem to mind pigs being slaughtered. I'm not quite sure what to make of her. 

Desiree and the uncle, Doctor Pascal, are basically the only good characters in the novel. As in The Conquest of Plassans, Zola uses Doctor Pascal to give us his naturalist theories about the family: 

You, of course, you're a priest, you've done the right thing, it's a very happy state being a priest. It's completely taken you over, hasn't it, so you've really turned towards the good. You'd never have been happy doing anything else. Your relatives, who started out like you, have committed their villainies without finding any consequent satisfaction. . . . There's a logic to it, my boy. A priest completes the family. It was inevitable anyway. Our blood was bound to go that way in the end. . . . So much the better for you, you've been the luckiest. (p. 33)

Doctor Pascal is the subject of the final novel in the series, and I've just recently discovered that a new translation is scheduled to be published by Oxford World's Classics this fall. Of course it could delayed by current events, but I'm hopeful. Finally, the series will be complete in new translations! 

I'm counting this as my Classic with a Proper Name for the Back to the Classics Challenge and also for the Victorian Challenge

Friday, April 17, 2020

#1920 Club: In the Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim

I always love when Simon and Kaggsy host one of their year-themed reading clubs -- it's so interesting to see the range of different books published in a given year. This round they've gone for the centenary celebration of 1920. It was tougher than I thought to find a book I hadn't read, but I realized that In the Mountains, one of Elizabeth von Arnim lesser-known works, was published that year. It's really a novella, though it's out of print in English it's available online through Gutenberg.org and iBooks.

Set in 1919, this epistolary novel is the diary of an anonymous Englishwoman who has returned to her summer home in the Swiss Alps, after an absence of five years due to WWI. She retreats to her cozy home to rest and recuperate after the trauma of the war. She is trying to get back to some sense of normalcy and in the beginning she does little more than sit and contemplate. She does have two servants, Antoine and Mrs. Antoine, a caretaker and housekeeper. Some of the most amusing bits are the narrator dealing with the minutia of life. There's a part about Antoine's acquisition of livestock which I really enjoyed. 

Out of print in English, but I love the cover of this Italian edition.

The silence and solitude is therapeutic for the narrator but after a while she longs for human contact, and I found this passage to be particularly timely:

I suppose, however, for most people complete freedom is too lonely a thing, therefore the absence should only be just long enough to make room for one to see clear again. Just a little withdrawal every now and then, just a little, so as to get a good view once more of those dear qualities we first loved, so as to be able to see that they're still there, still shining. (August 4)

Eventually, the author has some random house guests, two English sisters she who literally stumble their way into her yard, looking for a pension, and quite quickly, she invites them to stay. I liked this as it reminded me a bit of the four women sharing the villa in Enchanted April. I didn't expect it, but this book had quite a few parallels with the self-distancing we're all experiencing:

Yet the days are packed. Mine, at any rate, are. Packed tight with an immense monotony.
Every day we do exactly the same things: breakfast, read aloud; lunch, read aloud; tea, go for a walk; supper, read aloud; exhaustion; bed. How quick and short it is to write down, and how endless to live. At meals we talk, and on the walk we talk, or rather we say things. At meals the things we say are about food, and on the walk they are about mountains. The rest of the time we don't talk, because of the reading aloud. That fills up every gap; that muzzles all conversation. (August 25)
(This is essentially my life right now, except we don't read aloud, we're reading silently or watching TV. Or on our phones, sadly).

The sisters, two widows named Mrs. Barnes and Mrs. Jewks, then become the focus of the novel. Mrs. Barnes, the elder, is very buttoned-up about their family history and situation so close to the end of the war, and I could see parallels with some of the current racism in our country. But the best part of the novel was the witty dialogue and lovely descriptions of life in the Alps. I did get to visit the Alps when I was in Germany, once on a day trip to Interlaken, and another on a trip to Innsbruck, Austria. I didn't actually visit any chalets but the scenery was stunning. 

Near Wengen, Switzerland

View from the top of Grindelwald in the Swiss Alps 

After a bit of a slow start, I really enjoyed this novel and finished most of it in one sitting. It really picked up after Mrs. Barnes and Mrs. Jewks arrived, and though it doesn't quite have the charm of The Enchanted April, I could see hints of that book which was published only two years later. My only quibble with In the Mountains is that we never really learn that much about the narrator -- aside from never learning her name, we know very little about her family history, her life, or what happened to her in the war. We learn about one significant wartime loss, but that's it. What was her role in the war? Did she lose a husband or sweetheart? She never says. I wonder if she is supposed to represent an everywoman, or that the she is so neutral so that the reader can more easily identify with her. In the Mountains is considered one of von Arnim's lesser novels but I'm very glad I read it. Thanks to again to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting this event, I'm looking forward to the next one!

I'm counting this as my Classic with Nature in the Title for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and as my book set in Switzerland for the European Reading Challenge

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Classics Spin #23

I haven't participated in a Classics Spin for a while, but what else do I have to do? I'll let the Classics Spin random number generator pick my next read. Next Monday, April 19, they'll announce a number from one to twenty, and that number will determine which book I should read from the twenty books I've selected below.  I'm nearly halfway through with my second Classics Club list, and all of these are books on my own shelves, so that's a win-win.

I've put them in random order to mix things up a bit and make it more interesting, I hope. Here's my list:
  1. My American by Stella Gibbons
  2. Noli Me Tangere by Jose Rizal
  3. Jenny Wren by E. H. Young
  4. Westwood by Stella Gibbons
  5. The Fruit of the Tree by Edith Wharton
  6. The Hireling by L. P. Hartley
  7. The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker
  8. The Misunderstanding by Irene Nemirovsky
  9. Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton
  10. A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym
  11. The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer
  12. Mandoa, Mandoa! by Winifred Holtby
  13. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
  14. Beware of Pity by Stephan Zweig
  15. Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy
  16. Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamund Lehmann
  17. The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim
  18. Imperial Palace by Arnold Bennett
  19. The Little Ottleys by Ada Leverson
  20. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macauley

Most of these are Virago Modern Classics, all but three are by women writers. I think the one I'm least excited about is Dorothy Parker, as I have a hard time blogging about short stories. I'm hoping for one that I can count for one of the categories in the Back to the Classics Challenge. 

Bloggers, which of these do you recommend? And what's on your Classics Spin list? 

UPDATED: The Classics spin came up as #6, so I'll be reading The Hireling by L. P. Hartley. I'm very pleased and look forward to reading it!

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Les Miserables, Books 3-5, and the West End Musical

It took me two months, but I've finally finished Les Miserables, Victor Hugo's sprawling masterwork. Originally I had planned on posting after each of the five books within the novel, but the last month has been difficult for me, as I'm sure it has been for everyone else. I've had a hard time concentrating and often can barely make it through a short story a day. I ended up listening to quite a bit of the book on audio while walking the dog. The audiobook is split into 56 parts, almost 58 hours of listening time. And of course I'm hardly driving anywhere nowadays, so it took even longer.

So. The third book introduces the character of Marius, a young lawyer who is the son of Pontmercy, a retired army colonel who was badly wounded at the Battle of Waterloo, which takes up an enormous long section in Book Two. At the very end of the battle, deserters are scavenging the bodies of the dead for valuables, and one of them discovers a survivor, whom he pulls from the bottom of a pile and ostensibly saves. The deserter is of course the shady Thenardier who ends up adopting the hapless Cosette; the survivor is Pontmercy, the father of Marius. There's a lot of back story about Marius' maternal grandfather and his estrangement with Pontmercy. Eventually, Marius grows up, learns about his father, leaves his grandfather's house to live in a garret, falls in love with Cosette, Thenardier finds Jean Valjean who then disappears with Cosette; Marius joins the uprising of June 1832; is wounded then saved by Jean Valjean (of course!) by dragging him through the sewers of Paris.

I really should have split this posting into three, but I'll just give my final thoughts. Overall I liked it and was glad I stuck with it, but wow, this book is a commitment. There are some very long passages which are essays about history, politics, religion, etc, and some of them are pretty dry. They're often turned into long soliloquies by characters. I had wondered how the heck this 1260 page behemoth was adapted into a six-hour mini series, much less a feature film or stage musical about three hours long. Obviously, they cut a lot, starting with these passages. It's a great plot, despite the amazing coincidences, and I'm sure I would have gotten more out of it if I'd studied it as a work or literature or even followed the blog postings and podcasts in great detail. Honestly, I cannot imagine a book like this being published today -- editors would be trying to make cuts everywhere. I do think some of the character development is a little sketchy.

So, now a bit about the West End production. A couple of years ago when I still lived in Germany, I took a trip to London to finally meet some of the people from one of my online book groups. I decided to make a long weekend out of it, and planned in some West End shows, tours, and museums -- that trip was packed. I don't normally plan out a detailed itinerary, but on that trip there was so much I wanted to do, I actually made a spreadsheet. There was an opening for the last night of the trip, and I settled on Les Miserables because it's such an iconic show -- it's been running almost continuously since 1985 with more than 14,000 performances to date. However, I didn't have enough time to read the book first, and I didn't want to watch the movie version, so I went to see with only vague memories of the plot.

I enjoyed the show but I hadn't realized that it's a sung-through musical, meaning that there's hardly any dialogue, like a traditional musical -- there's far more singing so it's closer to an opera. The show was completely sold out, and it was quite long, nearly three hours. I did appreciate the quality of the singing and the sets and costumes, but at the time, I don't think I understood why people are so in love with the show. In retrospect, I really wish I had read the book first, I think I would have gotten more out of it, though, obviously, a lot of the plot was cut. As I was reading I realized how abridged it was! Now I'd really like to see it again, but apparently the Queen's Theater in the West End closed for several months for renovations (reopened as the Sondheim Theater), and now the show is different, closer to the touring show version. There was quite a hullabaloo among the fans, especially because the set is also different -- there was a revolving stage which is now gone. So I'm glad I got to see the previous version.

Anthony Perkins as Javert in the 1978 miniseries
I still haven't seen any of the TV or film adaptations since I was a child -- the version I saw starred Anthony Perkins as Javert which is still available on DVD, so I might have to track it down. I do have the most recent miniseries adaptation checked out from the library and I guess I'll have time to watch it now that the library is closed until further notice -- that is, if I can tear myself away from the Scandinavian murder mysteries streaming on Netflix.

UPDATED: While researching images for this blog post I found an interview with Andrew Davies who did the most recent six-hour TV adaptation. Davies said he'd been to see the West End musical and hated it, calling the performers "second- or third-rate." I found that so offensive -- I've been to quite a few West End performances and NEVER seen anything less than first rate singers and actors. Even if I didn't care for the story or the staging, the performers are always top-notch. Does he have any idea how hard it is to do eight shows a week for months? Now I'm rather put off him and don't know if I want to watch his miniseries after all (and I reeeallly hated Sanditon, but that's another whole blog post.)

What's everyone else reading and watching now that we're all hunkered down? Is anyone else making progress with those classics we've been putting off forever, or is everyone just craving comfort reads?

I'm counting this as my Abandoned Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge (I'm halfway through!); the Second Chances category for the Victorian Reading Challenge; and as my French classic for the European Reading Challenge