Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Swiss Summer by Stella Gibbons


I love that Dean Street Press has re-published so many out-of-print women authors in their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint -- some of the more obscure books from my favorite authors are nearly impossible to find, and many of them are shockingly expensive! They recently released a whole slew of midcentury middlebrow books, which are delightful comfort reads. My latest was The Swiss Summer by Stella Gibbons, a prolific author best known for the hilarious Cold Comfort Farm. Though The Swiss Summer doesn't have quite the biting wit and satire of her best-known work, it's still a delight to read.

First published in 1951, it's the story of a group of English people spending the summer at Chateau Alpenrose, a chalet near Interlaken. The main character, a fortyish woman named Lucy Cottrell, meets Lady Dagleish, the owner of the chalet, while visiting her old friend, wife of the local vicar. The chalet was a gift of the Swiss government to her husband, a famous mountaineer. Lucy learns that Lady Dagleish is sending her paid companion, Freda, to spend the summer inventorying the contents of the chalet, and on a sudden whim, invites the envious Lucy to go accompany Freda for the summer. Delighted at the chance to leave dreary postwar London, Lucy eagerly accepts, and three weeks later finds herself in a picturesque chalet among breathtaking surroundings, with a woman she barely knows, and a curmudgeonly Swiss cook/caretaker, Utta.

I like to imagine the view looked something like this. 

Things go well at first, and Lucy enjoys helping Freda and exploring the nearby surroundings, breathing in the fresh mountain air. But the summer's plans take a detour with the arrival of Astra, Freda's nineteen year old daughter, who has left her job with wealthy family. She's gawky and awkward and doesn't know what to do with her life, but begins to form a friendship with the childless Lucy, who's always wanted a daughter. Things are further complicated when more visitors arrive -- the Price-Whartons, friends of Freda, with their snobbish daughter Kay, Astra's only friend. Meanwhile Lucy had already invited her outdoorsy godson Bertram, a forestry student, who brings his flatmate Peter.

Meanwhile, the cantankerous Utta resents all the visitors, especially Freda, whom she believes to have ulterior motives about the future of the chalet. Lady Dagleish has hinted in the past she'll remember Freda in her will, but she likes to amuse herself by manipulating people, and she eagerly awaits letters from Lucy to find out what's happening in Switzerland. Naturally it all plays out to a very interesting and sometimes unexpected ending. 

I really enjoyed this book -- it's a quick read and I finished it in just a couple of days. I did have an idea of how it would end, but not exactly how it would all play out, and Stella Gibbons also drops in a few bombshells about the future of some of the characters, making me wish she'd included an afterward or even a sequel about some of them. My only quibble with this book is it's sometimes really sexist -- the young men Bertram and Peter make some pronouncements about women's roles that are pretty cringey, though I'm sure it's not out of character for the early 1950s. But seventy years later it did make want to jump into the book and give them a piece of my mind. 

Nevertheless, this is a fun book with interesting characters and lovely descriptions of the mountains, and it would be a lovely vacation read, ideally while sitting a balcony overlooking the Swiss Alps. I hope to read more of the new Furrowed Middlebrow titles soon as possible.

I'm counting this as my Swiss selection for the European Reading Challenge.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton

Never was a girl more in love with the whole adventure of living, and less equipped to hold her own in it, than the Halo Spear who had come upon Vance Weston that afternoon.

According to my Goodreads account, I've read 19 works by Edith Wharton's, including short story collections and novellas, and I had assumed that by now, I've read all the best stuff. After The Fruit of the Tree, my hopes were not high for Hudson River Bracketed, one of her least-popular works. I was so happy last week when I absolutely loved it and could not stop reading -- high praise indeed, considering it's her longest novel, more than 500 pages long. Unlike most of Wharton's novels, the main character is not an unhappily married rich woman from New York, but a young, poor man, a struggling writer from the Midwest.

Published in 1929 but set in the early 1920s, it's a coming of age story of Vance Weston. Young Vance is only nineteen at the beginning of the story, and is resisting pressure from his family to join his father's successful real estate business outside of Chicago. What Vance really wants is to be a poet, but that will never fly with his conservative middle-class family. After a serious illness, Vance is allowed to travel to the Hudson Valley outside of New York, to stay with the Tracys, distant relatives in a quiet, small town. Vance hopes that somehow he'll manage to visit New York and make some contacts for a writing career; instead, his life changes forever when he meets Halo Spear while visiting a house called The Willows. (The title Hudson River Bracketed refers to a specific type of architecture in the area, of which The Willows is an example).

Wyndclyffe estate in Rhinecliff, NY, inspiration for The Willows

Vance's poor cousins earn extra money by acting as caretakers for this empty mansion, which must be left exactly as it was when the previous owner passed away. Vance is enchanted by the mysterious Victorian house and its back story -- and by its magnificent library. He is secretly perusing the books when he meets Heloise Spear, a wealthy cousin of the Tracys. Nicknamed Halo, she's several years older than Vance and is impressed by his love of books, though she seems amused at his lack of education. They begin to bond over poetry and literature, but things take a drastic turn over a series of misunderstandings, and Vance is sent back to the Midwest in disgrace. 

A few years later, Vance returns to New York determined to make a career as a writer, and reconnects with Halo, now married, though her husband, the publisher of a new literary magazine, who sign Vance to a very poor three-year writing contract. Vance also reconnects with his cousins the Tracys -- in particular, his cousin Laura Lou, who has grown up quite a bit in the last three years -- enough to steal Vance's heart on first sight. So Vance is a typical starving writer in New York, madly in love with someone who doesn't understand his literary world, and trying to live enough to have something to write about so he can make more money. Naturally, it's a vicious circle that doesn't end well. 

Like The Fruit of the Tree, my previous Wharton read, this is another of her novels that hardly anyone ever reads anymore. My expectations were pretty low and frankly I was shocked by how much I liked it -- and how quickly I sped through it! Granted, I didn't have much to do over last weekend, but I was really absorbed in the story and couldn't wait to find out what happened next. It's Wharton's longest novel at 536 pages, but the pages flew by. According to the book's afterward, Wharton wanted to write about her experiences as a writer, and thought it would be easier for the reading public to accept a story about a young male writer, rather than a female. I loved reading about the writing process and Vance's experiences trying to get published, though it was often infuriating to see all his bad decisions. 

. . . they wanted to know what else he had written, what he was doing now, when he was going to start in on a novel, when he would have enough short stories for a volume, whether he had thought up any new subjects lately, whether he found it easier to write in a big city or in his own quiet surroundings at home, whether Nature inspired him or he had to be with people to get a stimulus, what his best working hours were, whether he could force himself to write so many hours a day, whether he didn't find that regular work led to routine, whether he didn't think a real artist must always be a law unto himself (this from the two or three of the younger women), and whether he found he could dictate, or had to type out his own things. . . .

There are also some thinly veiled references to other writers of the period which I found highly amusing: 

Of the many recent novels he had devoured very few had struck him as really important; and of these The Corner Grocery was easily first. Among dozens of paltry books pushed into notoriety it was the only one entitled to such distinction. Readers all over the country had felt its evident sincerity, and its title had become the proverbial epithet of the smalltown atmosphere. 

Some of the novels people talked about most excitedly--Price of Meat, say, already in its seventieth thousand, or Egg Omelette, which had owed its start to pulpit denunciations and the quarrel of a Prize Committee over its exact degree of indecency--well, he had begun both books with enthusiasm, as their authors appeared to have; and then, at a certain point, had felt the hollowness underfoot, and said to himself: "No, life's not like that, people are not like that. The real stuff is way down, not on the surface." 

I'm just guessing, but I think that The Corner Grocery is a reference to Main Street by Sinclair Lewis (which lost the Pulitzer Prize to Wharton's Age of Innocence in 1920 because the committee thought it was unflattering to small-town America). Could Price of Meat be The Jungle by Upton Sinclair? And I originally thought that Egg Omelette was a reference to West Egg in The Great Gatsby, but further research told me it's meant to be Ulysses by James Joyce. There are also multiple references to the Pulsifer Prize . . . what could that possibly be? 

There's also a mention of Zola that I found delightful: 

Nothing else new about him--might have worked up his method out of Zola. Probably did."

"Zola--who's he?" somebody yawned.

"Oh, I dunno. The French Thackeray, I guess."

"See here, fellows, who's read Thackeray, anyhow?"

"Nobody since Lytton Strachey, I guess."

This German edition looks a little French New Wave to me!

I loved this book, though I did have a few quibbles about some characters that are a little too deus ex machina for me, miraculously showing up at just the right time. But overall, it's one of Edith Wharton's truly underrated novels. And there's a sequel! Wharton published The Gods Arrive only three years later in 1932, the only one of her novels with a sequel. I suppose since it's based on her own life, she really wanted to finish the story. I'll say no more since any hints about the next volume are spoilers for the first. Sadly, copies of the Virago edition of The Gods Arrive are a lot pricier than Hudson River Bracketed so I'll have to read the iBooks copy that I downloaded for only 99 cents. I'm also inspired to finally tackle her massive biography by Hermione Lee that I've been meaning to read forever -- it's 869 pages long! 

I'm counting this as my 20th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge; also counts towards the Chunkster Challenge

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig

He lived one of those lives that seem otiose because they are not linked to any community of interest, because all the riches stored in them by a thousand separate valuable experiences will pass when their last breath is drawn, without anyone to inherit them. -- A Summer Novella

Short story collections are tough for me to review, especially enormous volumes like this one -- normally I have to spread out the reading over several weeks or even months, and it's hard to remember all the stories to comment on them as a whole. But I loved The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig so much that I sped through it in just over a week. They're so wonderfully written I simply could not stop reading this 700 page volume.

There are twenty-two stories in this volume, but the hardcover edition more than two inches thick and weighs in at two pounds! It's an unwieldy chunkster, to say the least, but luckily one of the nearby libraries had an ebook copy, so I could read it on my laptop and even on my phone. I made a goal of reading one short story every day, but I sped through them and sometimes read three or even four. Some of them are fairly short, and some are closer to novellas, like Amok and Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman.

Stories are arranged chronologically by publication date. As I expected, most of them are set in Vienna and eastern Europe, but others are set in Renaissance Antwerp, Malaysia and Scotland. Like the stories of W. Somerset Maugham, several of them are framed as a story being retold to an anonymous narrator. I'm not going to going to go through all 22 stories, but here are some quick thoughts on a few of my favorites. 

Nice cover on this German edition.
Could it be Lake Como or Lake Geneva?

The Star Above the Forest
: A waiter falls in love with an unobtainable countess. One of the shortest stories, but heartbreaking, beautiful prose.

Wondrak: A heartbreaking story about a disfigured recluse living in the forest, and her desperate attempt to save her son from being conscripted to fight in WWI. Sadly, this story is unfinished so we'll never know how it ends. I wish this story were a full length-novel.

Conscription: Another story about a man struggling with the decision whether to obey his orders to fight in the war. In this case he's an artist living in Switzerland. 

Amok: Closer in length to a novella, it's riveting story of a man's confession to a stranger on a sea voyage. It reminded me very much of the stories of W. Somerset Maugham, possibly because of the colonial setting and the shocking ending (and, sadly, the anti-Asian racism, which disappointed me).

Letter From an Unknown Woman: Another novella, about a writer who receives an anonymous letter from a woman obsessed with him. 

The Invisible Collection: Melancholy story of an antique dealer visiting a longtime collector during the period of massive inflation in Germany.

Did He Do It?: A cautionary tale of overindulgent dog owners, with a horrifying ending. 

The Debt Paid Late: The most uplifting story in the collection, about a woman's chance encounter with a faded actor. 
Stefan Zweig

I'm both glad I finally got around to reading this, and annoyed with myself for waiting so long! I definitely want to read more Zweig. I've also read The Post-Office Girl and Chess Story, both of which I loved, and I still have Beware of Pity unread on my TBR shelves -- might save it for next year's European Reading Challenge! I'm also tempted to buy his Collected Novellas and some of his other works published by Pushkin Press. I had actually resolved not to buy any new books this year but I do have a birthday coming up in a few months!

I'm counting this as my Austrian read for the European Reading Challenge; also counts towards the Chunkster Challenge.