Sunday, August 19, 2012

Howard's End, by E.M. Forster

Howard's End has joined Lolita on my list of classic novels that I will read at least once a decade, and I predict that each reading (or listening) will reveal new joys. I'm sure I read A Room with a View when I was younger, too young to appreciate it, but this Forster gem just glistens. The plot, the characters, the settings, the prose...  Published in 1910, Howard's End comes across as both startlingly modern and yet charmingly nostalgic, set solidly in Europe before the great wars. It's deliciously atmospheric, mixing substance with wit. I sometimes finish novels with the morbid wish that I could have written them; I would sell my soul for a fraction of E.M. Forster's style.

This time I listened to the book, read by John Franklyn-Robbins, often so absorbed that I was lucky to have gotten off the bus at the right stop. As with Lolita, Howard's End is a magnificent audio book, and no less stunning to read in print. They are two very different but wonderful experiences.

Forster's cast includes the Wilcox family, owners of Howard's End, Mrs. Wilcox's beloved house in the country. Mr. Wilcox is a pragmatic and gruff businessman; his sons Paul and Charles will acquire his black-and-white world view.  Mrs. Wilcox is more ethereal, drifting through her gardens, loving her witch elm tree, neither really here nor there.

The Schlegel family is quite something else. Well-to-do, having inherited wealth from their German father, they are educated and intelligent, creative and full of verve. They question societal norms and are quick to rail at perceived injustice. Margaret and Helen are progressive women, going to clubs to debate social issues; Theobald, nicknamed Tibby, has gone up to Oxford to study linguistics. Or religion. Or, well, just anything, really, to keep his mind occupied.

Then we have the Basts, Leonard and Jackie, who flail about at the lower end of the London food chain. Leonard is a decent young man, and he has a good mind, but that's not enough to get him out of the tenuous state in which he subsists as a clerk in this firm or that. Jackie, his companion-turned-wife is a woman of ill repute who is desperate only to survive.

The intersections of these characters provide the rich plot, with all its class and gender tensions, with the Schlegel sisters in the middle of it all. Forster's England encouraged people to mix with those of their own class, but he, as a member of the brilliant and slightly bohemian Bloomsbury Group, resisted these boundaries. The novel opens with a succinct epigraph:  "Only connect."

The Schlegels and the Wilcoxes first meet on a tour of Germany. As the novel opens, Helen Schlegel is visiting the Wilcox family at Howard's End, where she has a brief and silly flirtation with younger son, Paul Wilcox. Much later, having overcome the drama of that incident, Margaret Schlegel befriends the quiet, other-worldly Mrs. Wilcox, who invites her to Howard's End. Margaret initially refuses the invitation but then senses that she has been rash and has missed an important opportunity. She dashes off to board the train, and the two women meet at the house that is so precious to one of them.

Much to everyone's shock, Mrs. Wilcox weakens and dies shortly thereafter, having mentioned nothing to her family about her illness. Margaret Schlegel is uncannily grieved at the death of her new friend. This family now seems very linked indeed with her own, despite all their differences.  Mrs. Wilcox had very quietly made a monumental impact.
She was parting from these Wilcoxes for the second time. Paul and his mother, ripple and great wave, had flowed into her life and ebbed out of it for ever. The ripple had left no traces behind: the wave had strewn at her feet fragments torn from the unknown. A curious seeker, she stood for a while at the verge of the sea that tells so little, but tells a little, and watched the outgoing of this last tremendous tide. Her friend had vanished in agony, but not, she believed, in degradation. Her withdrawal had hinted at other things besides disease and pain. Some leave our life with tears, others with an insane frigidity; Mrs. Wilcox had taken the middle course, which only rarer natures can pursue. She had kept proportion. She had told a little of her grim secret to her friends, but not too much; she had shut up her heart – almost, but not entirely. It is thus, if there is any rule, that we ought to die – neither as victim nor as fanatic, but as the seafarer who can greet with an equal eye the deep that he is entering, and the shore that he must leave.
 The last word – whatever it would be – had certainly not been said in Hilton churchyard. She had not died there. A funeral is not death, any more than baptism is birth or marriage union. All three are the clumsy devices, coming now too late, now too early, by which Society would register the quick motions of man. In Margaret's eyes Mrs. Wilcox had escaped registration. She had gone out of life vividly, her own way, and no dust was so truly dust as the contents of that heavy coffin, lowered with ceremonial until it rested on the dust of the earth, no flowers so utterly wasted as the chrysanthemums that the frost must have withered before morning.
The Schlegel sisters meet Leonard Bast at a concert of Beethoven's music, and one of them inadvertently leaves the concert hall with Leonard's umbrella. When he meets them again to collect it, they both recognise him as a vibrant spirit, oppressed by his social status. They try to maintain contact with him, and when Mr. Wilcox casually mentions that the firm for which Leonard works is in imminent financial peril, the sisters feel they must intervene. They invite him for tea.
Leonard accepted the invitation to tea next Saturday. But he was right; the visit proved a conspicuous failure.
  "Sugar?" said Margaret.
  "Cake?" said Helen. "The big cake or the little deadlies? I'm afraid you thought my letter rather odd, but we'll explain – we aren't odd, really – not affected, really. We're over-expressive: that's all."
  As a lady's lap-dog Leonard did not excel. He was not an Italian, still less a Frenchman, in whose blood there runs the very spirit of persiflage and of gracious repartee. His wit was the Cockney's; it opened no doors into imagination, and Helen was drawn up short by "The more a lady has to say, the better," administered waggishly.
  "Oh, yes," she said.
  "Ladies brighten – "
  "Yes, I know. The darlings are regular sunbeams. Let me give you a plate."
  "How do you like your work?" interposed Margaret.
  He, too, was drawn up short. He would not have these women prying into his work. They were Romance, and so was the room to which he had at last penetrated, with the queer sketches of people bathing upon its walls, and so were the very tea-cups, with their delicate borders of wild strawberries. But he would not let Romance interfere with his life. There is the devil to pay then.
  "Oh, well enough," he answered.
persiflage:  1750-60, <French, derivative of persifler, to banter. Equivalent to per+siffler, to whistle or hiss, < late Latin sifilare, for Latin sibilare, sibilant.
Trivial gossip is most often hissed and whistled, isn't it? Perfect onomatopoeia.  

The connection between the Wilcoxes, Schlegels and Basts grows only more entangled after Mrs. Wilcox's death. In her illness, she had scribbled a note indicating that she would like to leave Howard's End to Margaret Schlegel. The Wilcox children object furiously, and their father decides that the scrawled message has no legal standing. Shortly afterward, he finds himself proposing marriage to Margaret. They are an odd couple -- he is much older, she more emotionally charged -- but they do develop fondness, respect and tenderness for each other. Passion is not part of the picture, but that is most likely for the best. His proposal is akin to a congenial business arrangement. And, of course, they are so very English.
He bent nearer; the sentence died unfinished. Margaret's head turned very stupid, and the inside of it seemed to revolve like the beacon in a lighthouse. He did not kiss her, for the hour was half-past twelve, and the car was passing by the stables of Buckingham Palace.
I will most likely reach for the print version of this glorious book in the next year or two. If the film version with Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham-Carter crosses my path, I won't avoid it, either.  But can it possibly sparkle like the book?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Voices, by Arnaldur Indridason

It's Christmastime in Iceland as this novel opens, so can one reasonably expect a merrier mystery than usual from Arnaldur Indridason?  Hardly.

A maid at a Reykjavik hotel has just found Santa Claus (who is also the hotel's portly, middle-aged doorman) stabbed to death in his basement room, wearing his festive red costume and a condom.  Only an Icelander, I think, could open a book with a scene like this and resist the urge to have some salacious fun with it. Chief Detective Erlendur simply moves into one of the hotel rooms -- bitterly cold as the radiator does not work -- and views it as a refreshing change from sitting alone in his apartment. From this new base, he plods through the murder case, ignoring his colleagues' questions about how he plans to celebrate Christmas.

The victim's room yields few clues apart from the cadaver -- the murdered man seemed to own nothing, apart from a framed poster of Shirley Temple in "The Little Princess" and a couple of LPs of a children's choir.  Interviews prove unenlightening as none of the hotel staff seem to know anything about the victim, although he'd worked at the hotel for decades. The man's own sister and father seem irked that Erlendur has troubled them to come to Reykjavik for questioning, claiming they'd had no contact with the murdered man for decades. The hotel manager of course just wants to avoid scandal. No one seems to give a damn about the deceased doorman.

This troubles Erlendur, who has his own gloomy interest in Icelanders who vanish, some never to be seen again.
Sometimes he bought a bottle of Chartreuse at Christmas and had a glass beside him while he read about ordeals and death in the days when people travelled everywhere on foot and Christmas could be the most treacherous time of the year. Determined to visit their loved ones, people would battle with the forces of nature, go astray and perish; for those awaiting them back home, Christmas turned from a celebration of salvation to a nightmare. The bodies of some travellers were found. Others were not. They were never found. These were Erlendur's Christmas carols.
The voice of the murdered doorman, however, lives on. Erlendur discovers that one of the hotel's guests is an English collector of children's choral music, and he reports that the doorman had been a renowned boy singer in his youth, making only two recordings -- the LPs found in his room -- before disappearing from view. Those recordings are reportedly worth a fortune to collectors, and as he digs further into this line of inquiry, Erlendur uncovers a miserable childhood with a maniacal, controlling stage-father and ending disastrously when the boy's voice breaks at the beginning of a major concert performance. The path from promising child star to sordidly murdered non-entity is heart-breaking. Erlendur's investigation is hobbled by the classic Icelandic reticence to discuss one's family tragedies in public, even with a detective. Much as it frustrates him professionally, Erlendur also excels at bottling up his own history and emotions as his own daughter, a recovering addict, demands to know more about him.

It's not easy being a misfit in the stern, stoic culture of Iceland. Some retreat, some turn to drugs and alcohol, and some simply disappear during the long winter nights.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Important Artifacts... , by Leanne Shapton

The full title of this quirky little book is Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry. I can imagine a 141-character book title giving database admins all over the world ulcers, especially considering that the book contains only 129 pages. It is designed as an auction catalogue, published by the fictional company of Strachlan & Quinn Auctioneers of New York, London and Toronto, for an auction to be held on 14 February 2009 in New York.

To be auctioned in over 300 lots are the artifacts illustrating the relationship of Lenore Doolan and Hal Morris, from its beginning at a Halloween party in 2002 to its end in 2006.

The book opens with an apt epigraph: "We seek the absolute everywhere, and only ever find things."  -- Novalis

Shapton has done a couple of things exceptionally well.  Every teacher of fiction-writing inevitably spouts two adages: "Show, don't tell"  and "Avoid cliches!"  The lot descriptions occasionally include hand-written notes scribbled in the margins of playbills or books, and the odd e-mail printout here or there, but most often the items speak. The items she has chosen are not the typical memorabilia that we stash in boxes and drawers and trunks. They are cleverly chosen tessurae in the mosaic portraits of two bright, creative, professional New Yorkers.

Hal is a professional photographer. Lenore writes a column for the New York Times called Cakewalk -- yes, all about cake.  He gives her an antique cake-cutter, newly engraved. She gives him a vintage 1930s chair. From the bathroom in their apartment comes the box of Trivial Pursuit questions which "the couple read to each other during their morning and evening ablutions."  Lot 1306 is "A white noise machine: A No. 500 Sleep Sound by Invento white noise machine, kept by [Hal] Morris in the bedroom of 11a Sherman Street. Irreparable damage done to top and sides, as if struck by a hammer.  $5-12."

This is a whimsical and wistful book, and one that I'm glad to have in print. I can't quite imagine it working as an e-book.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey

At the urging of an Australian friend who raved about it, I read Peter Carey's Booker Prize-winning novel, The True History of the Kelly Gang. It just left me flat. I took Carey's novel, My Life as a Fake, into the recording booth at Malaysian Ass'n for the Blind and regretted it -- I actively disliked that one. I had concluded that Peter Carey and I simply don't mix when I heard a podcast review of Parrot and Olivier in America and decided to give him one more go. This proved to be a good decision.

Olivier de Garmont, like Alexis de Tocqueville, is a French nobleman who visits the United States in the early 19th century and writes a book called Democracy in America. Those are, as best I can tell, the only similarities between the title character and his historical counterpart. The other title character is pure invention, aptly described by Thomas Mallon in the NY Times Review of Books:  "Parrot, his feisty English secretary, is almost 50 and has the kind of dizzying, Dickensian résumé that often qualifies a character for employment in one of Peter Carey’s books." And then there is the artist, Mr. Watkins, whose stunning avian etchings are collected in a book titled simply Birds of America but who has nothing else in common with John James Audubon.

Carey makes no attempt to present history accurately in this novel, but it still rings very true. The language, behaviours, sentiments and settings -- all feel very right, comfortably plausible.

de Tocqueville seems to have been a personable, likeable fellow. Olivier is a persnickety snob with frail health. (Parrot refers to him as Lord Migraine.)  Far from embracing democracy, he pines for the French social order that is once again imperilled after the Revolution. He is an aristocrat and doesn't waffle about it. When he arrives in America, he loses his sense of place and entitlement.
I will be disliked or even killed for saying this, but it is only with nobles, those of my own blood, that I have ever felt completely at home... Blacqueville and I were stallions bred for racing, now condemned to pull a cart of night soil.
Well, this 'racing stallion' is actually more of a maman's boy. Seeing the writing on the wall and fearing that the guillotine will start its work on noble necks again soon, Olivier's mother contrives with Tilbot, a noble acquaintance with a spotty past, to send her son off to America with Parrot as his secretary and watch-dog. His ostensible mission is to explore the new American concept of incarceration as reform and return to France with ideas for improving French prisons. Olivier stumbles upon his mother and Tilbot scheming, and it is after all a fascinating concept. (A pity the Americans never really managed it after all...)
I asked them what they were so fascinated with. My mother replied she had discovered that the Americans had invented prisons which would reform the people they contained.
The book's narration goes back and forth between Parrot and Olivier. If Olivier is a spoilt, effete fop, Parrot is his perfect foil: an Englishman who started life as a "printer's devil", was saved from a deadly raid on a counterfeit operation by Monsieur Tilbot, bounced around the world thereafter, earning his nickname by his early propensity to repeat whatever Tilbot said to him in French. When they are first thrown together on the ship bound for America, there is no love lost between the two men, and Olivier is galled by the Americans' insistence that his servant (Parrot) should share his quarters. Their egalitarian tendencies are merely one of many faults that Olivier finds with his ship-mates.
My companions... are nothing if not charming but it is already clear that the Americans carry national pride altogether too far. I doubt whether it is possible to draw from them the least truth unfavorable to their country. Most of them boast about it without discernment and with an aggressiveness that is disagreeable to strangers and shows but little intelligence. In general it seems to me that they magnify objects in the way of people who are not accustomed to seeing great things.
While Olivier consistently derides the Americans, Parrot, the more pragmatic of the pair, immediately grasps the opportunities presented by the young nation. Hard work and creativity can earn success, regardless of one's station in life. Carey does a superb job of making Parrot's delight as he grasps the implications of this new democratic concept almost palpable. Olivier, however, never ceases struggling with it, cherishing what had been his class privilege.
No matter how strong their religious sentiments, or their passion about the reform of criminals, the Americans quickly revealed themselves to be obsessed with trade and money and beyond the walls of that particular cell they simply could not see anything that diminished their enthusiasm for self-congratulation. They had got their hands on a mighty continent from which the least of them could, by dint of some effort, extract unlimited wealth. There being so much to be extracted it scarcely mattered how or if they were governed, because there is no need to argue when there is plenty for all. The energy put into this quest for wealth left little room for anything one might think of as culture, and so marked was this lack that I would always, in speaking of the wealthier families, use the English term middle class and never bourgeoisie. There was, as they were continually pleased to tell me, no aristocracy required.
But then Olivier meets Miss Amelia Godefroy, the fetching and intelligent young daughter of his host in Wethersfield, Connecticut, and he falls in love. Much as he admires both Amelia and her father for their gentility and keen observations, he continues to struggle with their democratic ideals.
Here in Wethersfield, where I am as unexpectedly content as I have ever been, we would find our ideas questioned at every moment. They believe that aristocrats will mingle with the common mass, while I despair of seeing the end of that noble class. My dear Miss Godefroy believes that the European will one day mingle with the Negro. To me this is a wishful delusion and nothing one observes can possibly support it.
While Parrot and his French artist wife, Mathilde, meet Watkins, the engraver who had been badly burnt in the same fire that killed Parrot's father and who is now producing stunning portraits of American birds, all of them seizing upon the great opportunities they see before them, Olivier continues to visit prisons and woo Amelia. Her father is delighted when Olivier asks him for permission to marry her, and Amelia prattles on about how lovely it will be to live in France. Only to Mr. Godefroy does Olivier admit the impossibility of that dream: His mother and the French aristocracy in general would never accept Amelia as one of their own; she would be excluded, the topic of caustic gossip. Amelia overhears this conversation, or at least "enough of it to break my heart!", and Mr. Godefroy gently escorts Olivier to an inn in another town.

Completely embittered, Olivier goes to find Parrot, his one-time nemesis and now friend, who is living happily and thriving on a farm in New York state. Olivier begs Parrot to return to France with him. Only the French can properly appreciate the art that Parrot, Mathilde and Watkins are making -- it is wasted on the boorish Americans! He launches a vitriolic tirade, predicting nothing good for the up-start nation.
"Yes," he cried, and he had changed now, for there was none of the early condescension. He was no longer reclining but sitting, and his voice had risen. "Yes, and you will follow fur traders and woodsmen as your presidents, and they will be as barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science, the leaders of a mob daily educated by a perfidious press which will make them so confident and ignorant that the only books on their shelves will be instruction manuals, the only theater gaudy spectacles, the paintings made to please that vulgar class of bankers, men of no moral character, half-bourgeois and half-criminal, who will affect the tastes of an aristocracy but will compete with each other like wrestlers at a fair, wishing only to pay the highest price for the most fashionable artist. Do not laugh, sir. Listen. I have traveled widely. I have seen this country in its infancy. I tell you what it will become. The public squares will be occupied by an uneducated class who will not be able to quote a line of Shakespeare."
"...the poor little sausage," thinks Parrot to himself as Olivier stalks off, a broken man.  At once Carey has captured both the wonders of the young America -- all of its promise and optimism and opportunity -- and the darker aspects of its future: an uneducated and materialistic class who will not be able to quote a line of Shakespeare; barbarians at the head of armies...