Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Favorites of 2020: Books

Clockwise from bottom left: Jean Parker (Beth), Joan Bennett (Amy), Katherine Hepburn (Jo), Frances Dee (Meg), and Spring Byington (Marmee), in the 1933 film version of Little Women.
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'What a trying world it is!' said Jo, rumpling up her hair in a fretful sort of way. 'No sooner do we get out of one trouble than down comes another.'
—Louisa May Alcott, Little Women [1]

2020 has not been a year that invites retrospection: confirmed pandemic deaths above 1 million worldwide (with the true toll likely much higher), political mendacity and wealth inequality at Gilded Age levels, black men and women killed by those sworn to serve and protect, livelihoods and careers threatened, education jeopardized, cultural institutions shut down, live performances cancelled, beloved bookshops and restaurants permanently closed, and communities destroyed by climate-change-fuelled wildfires that filled the skies of the western U.S. with thick, choking smoke that used to be our landscape.

Nonetheless, I will try to do my usual end-of-year favorites lists of books, movies, and recorded and live music. But I have a confession to make. Like many, I've found it hard to focus amid all the chaos and uncertainty, and I haven't been reading, watching movies, or listening to music nearly as much as I thought I would. To my own surprise and disappointment I haven't engaged in any Victorian novel binge-reading, living-room film festivals, or all-day opera marathons.

Despite my inability to turn our collective crisis to productive use, I do have some favorites to share, starting with books. And as always, they are chosen from works first encountered in the past twelve months, no matter when they were created.

Favorites: Fiction

Louisa May Alcott: The Annotated Little Women, edited with an introduction and notes by John Matteson, Norton, 2015.

I've seen two of the many film versions of Little Women (1933, with Katherine Hepburn, Joan Bennett and Spring Byington, and 1994, with Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst and Claire Danes), so when a relative suggested that I would enjoy reading the book I wondered whether I would find it too sweetly sentimental. But when I mentioned to my partner that I was reading it she sad, "Oh, that's the sad one."

What my partner remembered and I did not about the saga of the March sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy is that in addition to its "little homilies" it is full of pain and emotional trauma: bitter sibling rivalry, near-fatal accidents, broken hearts, illness and death. In Part I alone Amy nearly dies when she plunges through thin ice into a freezing-cold river; Beth nearly dies of scarlet fever contracted by nursing the sick children of a neighboring family; and their father nearly dies from an illness contracted while serving as a chaplain in the Union army. [2]

In short, as in the novels of Alcott's older contemporary Elizabeth Gaskell, in Little Women death is a constant presence and ultimately does not spare even major characters. And sometimes the emotions are raw: after the only copy of the precious manuscript of Jo's novel, over which she has worked for years, is burned by Amy in a fit of pique, Jo confesses her unappeased anger to her mother. Her mother responds, "I am angry nearly every day of my life."

The notes by John Matteson focus on the many biographical parallels between the characters' lives and those of the Alcotts and their circle in Concord, Massachusetts. Illustrations include those drawn from the many editions of the book, as well as film and theatrical adaptations. (Curiously, in a fit of misplaced modesty the images of classical statuary in the book seem to have been airbrushed to remove certain anatomical details.)

The only drawback of The Annotated Little Women is the reader-unfriendly format. The book is massive: several inches thick, weighing nearly 5 pounds, and when fully open is nearly two feet wide. As an adult man I struggled to hold the book on my lap; it's probably not the edition to buy a young person to whom you want to introduce the book.

Leonora Carrington: The Complete Stories, translations from the French by Kathrine Talbot and from the Spanish by Anthony Kerrigan, Dorothy Project, 2017.

Leonora Carrington was a British-born surrealist artist and writer who moved to Mexico in her mid-20s and remained there for much of the rest of her life. Her brief, intense, dreamlike short stories, most just a few pages long, are like fables or fairy tales without a moral. As in her paintings, certain images recur obsessively: forests, horses, birds, hybrid beings, and hyenas (which in some mythologies are both male and female). Mouths, teeth, eating, and strong smells feature prominently, and as you might guess from these lists, the stories can often be gruesome. The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington brings all of her short fiction together in English for the first time. Many thanks to the friend who brought this volume on a visit in early March; they were the perfect accompaniment to the sense of unreality inspired by the rapidly unfolding events of this spring.

Silvina Ocampo: Leopoldina's Dream, translated by Daniel Balderston, Penguin, 1988.

Silvina Ocampo was an Argentinian writer, the wife of Adolfo Bioy Casares and a friend of Jorge Luis Borges. Like those two writers, her stories can border on the fantastic or supernatural, but Ocampo's are grounded in the characters' feral emotions, unthinking cruelties, and mutual incomprehensions. In "The Velvet Dress" a woman who insists on trying on a too-tight dress is unable to remove it and is suffocated; in "The Voice on the Telephone," the neglected children at a birthday party turn matricidal; and in "The Lovers," a clandestine couple's true desire is to greedily devour an entire cake—sex is an afterthought.

Leopoldina's Dream was reissued in an expanded edition by New York Review Books in 2015 as Thus Were Their Faces. The disturbing atmosphere of Ocampo's stories is so intensely concentrated that I found the expanded edition to be almost too much of a good thing.

Margaret Oliphant: Miss Marjoribanks and Phoebe, Junior

Victorian novelist Margaret Oliphant is not as well-known today as her contemporaries Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot, but the reason for her relative neglect is mysterious. She can be strikingly acute about the strategies that determined, ambitious women in her era had to pursue in order to achieve their aims. In Miss Marjoribanks, the title character (pronounced "Marchbanks") wants to transform the moribund society of Carlingford and inject some youth and life; her matchmaking is so successful that she runs out of eligible bachelors for herself. In Phoebe, Junior, Phoebe Beecham is beset with suitors, and faces a choice between one that is intelligent, sympathetic and poor, and another who is dim, malleable and wealthy. Her choice is a surprising one for a 19th-century heroine (though not, perhaps, quite so rare in real life).

As I wrote in my full-length post on Miss Marjoribanks, "As long as there are readers who appreciate wicked irony, keen wit, emotional complexity, and independent, self-directed women, Miss Marjoribanks will be (re)discovered, and treasured." The same could be said of Phoebe, Junior. I'm very much looking forward to my next Margaret Oliphant experience; soon I'll be reading Hester: A Story of Contemporary Life.

Honorable mentions: Fiction

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis: Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, Liveright, 2020.

As I wrote in my full-length post on Posthumous Memoirs, the narrator is skeptical and self-deprecating, and unsparingly points out his own blindnesses, follies, hypocrises, and failures. As the title implies, though, he's also dead. Machado's great novel anticipates many fictional techniques later called postmodern, and the narrator is an elegant and bemused observer of himself and others.

I keenly anticipated this new translation by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (their translation of Machado's Collected Stories was one of my favorite books of 2018), but it did not markedly improve on Gregory Rabassa's translation of 1997, and at some points was not as good. In the post I wrote "in whatever version you choose to read Machado's brilliant work you'll be amazed that a novel written 140 years ago can seem this modern," but if you have not yet read Posthumous Memoirs I recommend turning first either to Rabassa's translation for its renderings of Machado's prose or Flora Thomson-DeVeaux's (Penguin, 2020) for her notes and commentary.

Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities, translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike, Knopf, 1995.

This was my second attempt to read this great unfinished novel, and as with my first attempt I made it through the first volume but couldn't quite work up the fortitude to continue with the second. The setting is Austria just before World War I, and Ulrich, the man without qualities, is a detached observer of the foibles and hypocrisies of those who surround him. Unfortunately he is largely blind to his own, and to the looming conflict that will shortly lead him and his countrymen into disaster.

Musil writes brilliantly about our self-deceptions, the comforting falsehoods we tell ourselves about our behavior and motivations. But knowing more than the characters do about their own situations, for hundreds of pages, ultimately becomes a burden for the reader. And the unfinished nature of this massive work—there are hundreds of pages of drafts and fragments that attempt to complete the second part—discouraged me from continuing, for a second (and probably final) time.

Favorites: Nonfiction

Sarah Bakewell: How To Live —or— A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, Other Press, 2010.

Bakewell's book on the 16th-century French essayist Montaigne won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography in 2010, and it's easy to see why. Her book is a lively introduction to Montaigne's life and ideas. Of course, starting with an appealing subject is half the battle, and Montaigne is one of the most engaging of companions. Whatever their ostensible subject, his essays probe his own thoughts, feelings and actions. Even when the picture they form—of both the author and ourselves—is unflattering, his very candor is disarming.

In "Our emotions get carried away beyond us," Montaigne writes, "We are never 'at home': we are always outside ourselves. Fear, desire, hope, impel us toward the future; they rob of of feelings and concern for what now is, in order to spend time over what will be—even when we ourselves shall be no more." Bakewell's book is very enjoyable, but perhaps the highest praise I can give it is that it will make you want to read Montaigne.

Paula Byrne: Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson, Random House, 2005.

Mary Robinson (née Darby) was born on a dark and stormy night, and as she wrote in her Memoirs, published after her death by her daughter, "Through life the tempest has followed my footsteps, and I have in vain looked for a short interval of repose from the perseverance of sorrow."

Hardship indeed seemed to pursue her. At 16, encouraged by her mother, she unsuspectingly married an impecunious law clerk who, it turned out, had lied about his prospects. Soon she and her infant daughter were living with him in Fleet Street Prison, where he had been imprisoned for debt. There she turned to writing to earn money and published her first books of poems, but much of what she earned by her pen was absorbed in clearing her husband's debts. At 19 she decided to go on the stage; even as the protégé of the famous actor David Garrick and a married woman, she was risking her reputation. It was a risk that paid off, at least in the short term: soon she was celebrated by all London as "Perdita" ("the lost one"), her role in a shortened version of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale.

Robinson was considered to be one of the most beautiful women of her age, and was painted by Gainsborough, Romney and Reynolds; she became a leader of fashion and was emulated by many wealthier and more respectable women. When she was approached by a go-between for the teenaged Prince of Wales with an offer of £20,000 to become his mistress, Robinson decided to turn her beauty to account. (Again, perhaps, she was too credulous; she never received the promised money in full.) After the Prince ended their liaison she became involved with a succession of well-born men. But inevitably her youth and allure faded, and her money was spent faster than it was earned. Robinson, alone and in poor health, turned to writing Gothic novels and romances. While some achieved popular success, she died in poverty before she turned 45.

Byrne's biography of this complicated and not always admirable figure is sympathetic. She also offers a fascinating picture of late 18th-century England and its intersecting worlds of the stage, demimonde and aristocracy, its growing marketplace for women's writing, and its stifling constraints on intelligent, ambitious, and unruly women like Perdita.

Diane Johnson: The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives, New York Review Books, 2020; originally published by Knopf, 1972.

Diane Johnson writes the kind of biography that generally drives me up the wall: she attributes feelings, relates thoughts, and ascribes motives to her subjects, all with only the scantiest of evidence. (In fact, the lack of evidence gives her invention freer reign.) What not only redeems her method but makes it highly entertaining is that she is fully cognizant of the unfounded liberties she is taking and imagines multiple possibilities for her—no longer subjects, but characters. It makes for a very lively and enjoyable read; while none of us can say what degree of truth any of her reconstructions holds, the unhappy marriage of the writers Mary Ellen Peacock Nicolls and George Meredith, and Mary's attempt to find freedom and mutual love, starkly illustrates the limitations on women's choices and lives in the mid-19th century. The True History of Mrs. Meredith, originally published in 1972, was the inspiration for Phyllis Rose's Parallel Lives (see below) and informed my post Six Victorian marriages, part 3: Mary Ellen Peacock Nicolls and George Meredith.

Phyllis Rose: Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages, Knopf, 1983.

Parallel Lives has become a classic, and deservedly so. Rose examines five mid-19th-century marriages from the perspective of the struggle for power and sex. As was all too commonly the case in that era, the wife tended to have the worst of it: while Effie Ruskin escaped her cruel, domineering and self-involved husband, Jane Carlyle and Catherine Dickens could not escape theirs.

Fortunately there were other models that privileged men and women could follow: Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill achieved the marriage of true minds, while George Eliot and George Henry Lewes worked to create a companionate intellectual, creative and erotic union. Even if you are not interested in Victorian art and literature—and if you're reading this, how is that possible?—Parallel Lives is fascinating for the light it shines on how these couples negotiated (or failed to negotiate) the sometimes precarious balance between self and other in their romantic relationships. Rose's book was the main basis of my series Six Victorian Marriages.

Mark Morris and Wesley Stace: Out Loud: A Memoir, Penguin, 2020.

In 1988 Mark Morris, then a relatively unknown choreographer from New York City's downtown dance scene, was appointed to succeed the world-renowned Maurice Béjart at Belgium's national theater, La Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie. At the press conference introducing the wild-haired enfant terrible to the Belgian press and public, Morris was asked to describe his philosophy of dance. He responded, "I make it up and you watch it. End of philosophy."

As that quote suggests, Morris's memoir is very entertaining, and is filled with eyebrow-raising anecdotes and blunt opinions. But his determination to avoid analysis of his work becomes a noticeable weakness in the last quarter of the book. Once his struggle to become established is over, there is only the work to discuss, and Morris resolutely refuses to illuminate how he conceptualizes his dances. Nonetheless, this book is essential for all Morris fans (and of those who have seen the Mark Morris Dance Company in any of its incarnations, who has not become a fan?). And for those who have not yet seen his company, this memoir will convince you to do so at the first opportunity. I've previously written about Morris's Mozart Dances, Dido & Aeneas, and Layla and Majnun.

Honorable mentions: Nonfiction

Julian Barnes: The Man in the Red Coat, Knopf, 2020.

The Man in the Red Coat opens with a visit to London in 1885 by three men. As Julian Barnes points out, all were known to Marcel Proust, and two of the three were models for characters in his In Search of Lost Time. The third was Dr. Samuel Pozzi, subject of the John Singer Sargent painting partially reproduced on the cover, who seemed to know everyone and go everywhere in Belle Époque Paris. Barnes uses Pozzi (and a set of remarkable photographic cards of society figures that were packaged with Potin chocolates, examples of which are reproduced throughout the book) to give a portrait of the age.

Pozzi had a wide acquaintance, a flourishing gynecological practice, and many affairs, including with women who were his patients. He made significant medical advances and was frequently invited to dinner parties. But perhaps Barnes himself suspected that the details of Pozzi's life did not quite justify book-length treatment, and the narrative keeps veering off to follow other, more colorful figures of the period. Among them is Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fézensac, one of Pozzi's companions on that London trip, and the model for both Proust's Baron Charlus and Huysmans' des Esseintes in À rebours (Against Nature). Amid the cameos by Montesquiou, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, and many others, Pozzi gets a little lost in the shuffle.

Claire Tomalin: Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, Knopf, 2002.

If Samuel Pozzi is perhaps too genteel to make a completely compelling biographical subject, Samuel Pepys presents the opposite problem. He was an opportunist who betrayed superiors, underlings, and family members whenever it was to his advantage, a corrupt Navy official who during a time of war siphoned off needed money and resources for his private gain, and a sexual predator who routinely assaulted vulnerable women of his own class or below. Of course, biographical subjects need not be admirable, and Pepys may have been no worse than most men of his class, time and place. But given that Pepys' greatest accomplishment is the candid description of his own appalling behavior, it's difficult to spend 500 pages in his company—even when the portrayal is by the excellent Claire Tomalin (who has also written biographies of Jane Austen, Nelly Ternan, Mary Wollstonecraft, and others).

William Dalrymple: The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, Bloomsbury, 2019.

When the East India Company received its royal monopoly on trade west of the Americas and east of Africa in 1600, it found itself in a position of disadvantage with respect to the Portuguese, French and Dutch, which had long-established outposts in South Asia. It also found itself facing the awesome Mughal Empire at the height of its power.

Two hundred years later, after exploiting internecine conflict among India's princes, employing superior military force, and acting with ruthlessness against subject populations, the East India Company's forces captured Dehli and held ultimate power over vast swathes of the subcontinent. The company had become the first corporate state.

This isn't where the story ends, of course. But as the subtitle suggests, this volume is about the company's rise, not its decline, and as a result it becomes a recounting of one military victory against long numerical odds after another. (That most of the East India Company's troops were themselves Indian is one of the ironies of history.) The end of the company's monopoly on trade, the 1857 Uprising and its brutal suppression, the takeover and expansion of the company's administrative apparatus by the British government, and the ending of British rule in 1947 are all outside the scope of this book. But their absence makes The Anarchy feel incomplete. Perhaps it is best read in conjunction with Dalrymple's book on the Uprising, The Last Mughal.

Next time: Favorites of 2020: Movies

  1. Part First, Chapter XVII, "Little Faithful"
  2. In the Civil War more than 600,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed. For some perspective, in 1860 the U.S. population of (white) men between the ages of 15 and 39 (the age range covering the vast majority of Civil War soldiers) was only 5.8 million; more than one in ten men in that age range died as a result of the war. And most died of disease: for every three men killed in battle, at least five more died of disease. In a military hospital, Robert March is in grave danger.

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