Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Paris in July 2022: The Loved and Envied by Enid Bagnold

My fourth book for this years Paris in July is The Loved and Envied, a Virago reprint I've owned for several years (I can't even remember where I bought it -- it has the price in USD). Originally published in 1951, it's a novel for adults by Enid Bagnold, most famous for her children's book National Velvet (which I've never seen nor read).

Inspired by the life of Lady Diana Cooper, it's the story of aristocratic families living in Paris after WWII. Though their titles are French, some of the characters are actually British. Most of the action is centered around the beautiful and charismatic Lady Ruby Maclean. Now in her mid-fifties, she's has been happily married to Sir Gynt Maclean for many years, but has always had a large circle of admiring men who find her irresistible -- Sir Gynt first saw her while walking down the street and instantly fell in love with her at first sight. She's basically Helen of Troy and men will do anything for her, much to the chagrin of her only daughter Miranda, who has always been overshadowed by her mother.

Also in the Macleans social circle is Edouard, the elderlyVicomte de Bas-Pouilly and his mistress Rose; Alberti, the Duca de Roccafergolo, who rents a cottage on the Vicomte's estate; Rudi Holbein, a famous playwright; and his ex-wife Cora, an artist and great friend of Lady Ruby. 

The Virago reprint. The cover image is the portrait of Lady Diana Cooper by J. J. Shannon.

The story begins the opening night of Rudi's latest play, with most of the characters in attendance, and what follows over the next few weeks. It's another book in which not much happens, yet many things happen, largely character driven. Most of the characters are aging aristocrats and much of the story concerns aging and mortality, particularly the question of aging beauty. Lady Ruby is 53 and still all the men hover around her, even those young enough to be her sons. 

The original 1951 cover

The story jumps around quite a bit at the beginning giving back story to all the characters surrounding Lady Ruby and their relationships to her. The first half was almost like a set of short stories about them before they actually got to the main character. Honestly, I don't even remember much about her except the many descriptions of how beautiful she is and was, and that got a little tiresome. It's well written and I liked a lot of the characters, but I found everyone besides Lady Ruby to be far more interesting than she was and would have loved to read more about them and less about her. I particularly liked the back story of Cora Holbein and would happily have read an entire novel about her.

One thing I didn't particularly like was (yet again) some of the persistent racism and some homophobia. Ruby's daughter Miranda is living in Jamaica for part of the book and there are some unfortunate slurs. There's more than one gay character and at first I thought the book was surprisingly progressive, then another gay character showed up at the end and yikes some of it was pretty cringe-worthy. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised since it was published in the 1950s but I still hate it.

Though nearly all the story takes place in France, many of the characters are British so it doesn't feel especially French. It was an interesting look at aristocrats of the period but it isn't one of the best Viragos I've read so far.

This is my eighth book completed for the TBR Pile Challenge.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Paris In July: Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir


I am extremely pleased with myself for finally finishing this book! I bought it more than ten years ago on a visit to the Frick Museum in New York City, when I went to see an exhibit of Dutch masters. Apparently they didn't have anything else in the gift shop and but the pretty cover of this NYRB classic (it's a detail from Garden at the Rue Cortot, Montmartre painted in 1876, below. It's at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh). 

So. I've owned this book forever and I know I've put it on my list of books to read for Paris in July multiple times. I finally cracked it open a couple of weeks ago and though it's not a fast read, I really enjoyed it. I love art and I'm fascinated by the lives of artists. I wouldn't say Renoir is my favorite Impressionist but I really gained a new appreciation of his work from reading this book. 

Originally published in 1958, it's a memoir by filmmaker Jean Renoir, Auguste Renoir's middle son. Jean was wounded during WWI and as he convalesced with his elderly father, who was already crippled with rheumatism, the younger Renoir spent a lot of time talking to his father about the artist's life. The book is a combination of a biography of his father's life and his own recollections growing up in Paris and various other parts of France. The family often spent summers in the countryside in various parts of France, particularly Essoys in Burgundy, where his mother Aline was born, and later in the south of France, near Nice (I was actually lucky enough to visit Nice a few years ago and was sadly unaware that there's a Renoir museum just 20 minutes away in Cagnes-sur-Mer, in his final home. I did get to visit the Chagall Museum and the Matisse Museum, so I really wouldn't complain but I wish I'd known!)

It's quite an interesting memoir about Renoir's life and how became and artist and met up with his fellow Impressionists. He's one of the most prolific of the group, with at least 4000 paintings to his record (and the book includes stories about other paintings that were lost or stolen which just made me aghast. Some were literally used to patch up holes in a leaky roof). 

There are also great stories about the other painters including one about his good friend Gustave Caillebotte, who named Renoir executor of his estate and personal art collection after his death. Apparently it was Caillebotte's wish that the collection be given to the Louvre who didn't want the whole collection and turned 2/3 of it away. The third that they kept was stored away in the Luxembourg Museum. After his widow's death they just went to various heirs and were mostly sold outside France. Well, France's loss is the world's gain, I suppose! 

I feel very fortunate to have been to Philadelphia last year where I saw the biggest single collection of Renoir's works at the Barnes Foundation, a total of 181! Barnes was a huge art collector and began amassing Impressionist works in the 1920s. His entire house was designed to showcase his collection and was eventually left to the city of Philadelphia as a private museum. The collection was eventually moved to a larger space in downtown Philadelphia which resembles the original house with the exact layout of the all the artworks. If you ever get the chance it's absolutely worth visiting! 

I'm also extremely fortunate to live only a short drive away from the Phillips Collection Museum in DC near Dupont Circle. One of the highlights of the collection is Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. The last time I visited one of the docents told me that Phillips and Barnes were rival collectors. Phillips was annoyed that Barnes had the bigger collection of Renoirs but always bragged that he had the best one. 

Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1881.
Renoir's future wife Aline is in the left hand corner with the little dog;
Renoir's friend and fellow Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte is on the lower left leaning back. 

I enjoyed visiting Renoir's world but the book is pretty dense and took a lot longer to finish than I expected -- I am rather behind on Paris in July reading list and also my Big Book Summer Reading Challenge! But this book was on both lists and I'm also counting this as my Classic Nonfiction for the Back to the Classics Challenge

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Paris in July: The Martha series by Margery Sharp


I thought I'd start Paris in July with a short, fun book. Margery Sharp's Martha in Paris fit the bill perfectly -- only 166 pages and it was one more I could cross off my owned-and-unread pile. However, when I bought this at Strand Books several years ago I didn't realize it was second in a series. Naturally I would need to read them in order, so I had to track down the first book and buy that one too, though it's set in London, not Paris.

Published in 1957, The Eye of Love is the first book of the Martha series. Set in 1932, it begins with Martha's aunt, who was christened Dorothy Hogg but now goes by the name of Dolores Diver. Miss Diver, on the wrong side of 30 and fading, has just been left by her longtime lover Mr. Gibson, who is about to become engaged to the daughter of an associate, in order to preserve his failing furrier business. Times are hard and during the Depression, furs aren't selling well. Mr. Gibson and Miss Diver are despondent, but there's nothing to be done. He must leave his Spanish rose to marry an annoying woman he doesn't love. The least he can do is pay the lease on their love-nest through the end of the year, and give her all the contents which they've accumulated.

Miss Diver is also the guardian of her orphaned niece Martha, now ten years old and obsessed with drawing -- so much so that she basically eludes school and spends all her time sketching trees, stoves, and anything that catches her fancy. One day while sketching a tree she meets Mr. Phillips, who is looking for new lodgings, and he becomes their boarder, but soon suspects Miss Diver has some money and decides to make a play for her. 

I love this pulp novel cover - so dramatic! 

Meanwhile, Mr. Gibson has merged his business with the charming and steadfast Mr. Joyce, his future father-in-law, and they soon develop a deep friendship -- much more so than with his future wife Miranda. He cannot bear the thought of marrying her instead of Miss Diver but doesn't see any way around it. Coincidentally, Mr. Joyce, a lover of art, also encountered young Martha while sketching and sees that she has talent. Naturally all the stories converge, and without going into too much detail, I'll only say that it's witty and charming and has a very satisfactory ending. 

I really enjoyed it and was also enchanted by the sequel, Martha in Paris. The story has jumped forward and Martha is now eighteen. Mr. Joyce is now Martha's patron and decrees that she MUST study in Paris. Martha is still obsessed with her drawing and resists at first, but then sees the advantages and begins studying art while staying with a widow and her daughter. She's very focused and is oblivious to everything else -- in once instance, she doesn't even realize that while sketching in the Tuileries Gardens, the nice young Englishman named Eric sitting next to her is asking her out on a date. In a very amusing turn of events, she turns his invitation to Friday night dinner with his mother into an opportunity for a really good bath in their renovated English-style tub. 

This book is equally witty and charming and surprisingly feminist for its time (first published in 1962). Martha is portrayed as an artist completely focused on her work, but she actually struck me as someone who today might be considered on the autism spectrum. She's completely obsessed with drawing and art, and really bad at picking up at social cues. I'm no expert but if the book were published today I think readers would really speculate about that. 

This cover is just SO WRONG it's laughable. 
Martha wouldn't be caught dead in stockings and black pumps.
It's so bad I had to include it. 

My one tiny quibble about this book is that if the first book starts in 1932, the second would be set squarely in WWII and the French occupation of Paris. There is not a single mention of this and people are traveling back and forth over the Channel from England,so clearly, this book is set in an alternate universe in which the war never took place (but now I'm nitpicking).

I don't want to give away too many details for fear of spoilers, but Martha in Paris ends on such a cliffhanger I absolutely had to find out what happened next, and I found a online copy of the final novella, Martha, Eric and George online and read the whole thing in a couple of hours. If I gave any but the loosest setup it would absolutely spoil the plot of the second book. The third books picks up immediately after the end of the second, and after a couple of chapters, jumps forward ten years later with Martha as a successful artist who has to finally deal with the fallout of her actions in the end of the second novel. I loved the third novel as well as the first two but I do think it ended rather abruptly. 

I love this retro cover.

Like the second novel, it's also very feminist for its time (1964). Like Martha, author Margery Sharp was very successful and focused on her work. I also wonder if Martha's devotion to her work was a reflection of Sharp's own feelings about women working. I'm guessing some people will find Martha unsympathetic but if she'd been a man no one would have raised an eyebrow at her absolute dedication to her work and confidence in her talent. 

I've now read a dozen of Margery Sharp's books for adults (she also wrote the Rescuers children's series adapted into two animated Disney movies.) I've really enjoyed all of them and I'm happy to report many have been reprinted, including six recent paperback editions by the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Press. The DSP editions are available on Kindle for around $3 or $4 US, a real bargain, and I'm sure I'll be downloading some of them soon. 

Saturday, July 2, 2022

Paris in July 2022

It's July already, the year is half over -- how did this happen? But for me July will always include the Paris in July reading challenge hosted by Thyme for Tea. I started participating in this event back in 2011 and I've posted my Francophile book reviews nearly every year since! 

As always, I'm trying to read mostly from my own shelves in my never-ending quest to empty the TBR shelves. Some of these can also count for the Back to the Classics and TBR Pile Challenges, and from my Classics Club List. I'm sure I won't finish all of them but reading goals are always good, right? 

First, the French books in translation: 

  • Claudine Married by Colette. The second novella in the Claudine omnibus; I'm sure I won't finish the entire series this month.
  • The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos. Found this whilst browsing in the library and it looked interesting (and short!). 
  • Maman, What Are We Called Now? by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar. 
  • Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir
  • A Fine of Two Hundred Francs by Elsa Triolet
  • The Bright Side of Life by Emile Zola

Books originally written in English but set in France: 

  • The Loved and Envied by Enid Bagnold
  • Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden
  • Martha in Paris by Margery Sharp
  • The Golden Lion of Granpere by Anthony Trollope
  • Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner
So - mostly fiction and fairly short books - more than half of them are under 300 pages and a couple are under 200! The longest is the Renoir biography (not counting the Claudine omnibus but all three of the remaining novellas are under 200 pages). I wonder if I could actually finish the entire list? 

Bloggers, have you read any of these? Which are your favorites and should be read first? And what else do you recommend for Paris in July?