Thursday, June 29, 2023

Review: O Pioneers!, by Willa Cather

Review: O Pioneers!, by Willa Cather

by Rich Horton

Last week right after I finished My Ántonia I sort of by accident read O Pioneers! -- in a single sitting, literally. (Sitting in the emergency room waiting for my wife to get to see a doctor. (In the end, she didn't -- we left. And she's OK. It should have been an urgent care visit anyway.)) So, what the heck, I'll review it too!

O Pioneers! was Willa Cather's second novel, but the first in which she leaned into writing about her childhood landscapes -- and landscapes are key to Cather, though of course so are people. This got her branded, for a while, as "just" a regional writer, but she was so much more than that. And, you know, as a midwesterner myself I have some sensitivity to the whole "the coasts don't think the Midwest matters thing -- "flyover country" or in Cather's time, "take the train through country". Maybe we're oversensitive about that? But, I think not, really. And the way Cather's reputation -- not so much during her lifetime, but pretty much as soon as she died -- became sort of "well, she wrote nicely about Nebraska which nobody ever did, so nice but not important" is kind of an aspect of that. But, happily, in recent decades she's been if not exactly rediscovered at least reevaluated, and has again taken her place as one of the greatest American writers.

Anyway, back to O Pioneers! It's a short novel (about 50,000 words.) It's the first of what is called her "Prairie Trilogy" -- along with The Song of the Lark and My Ántonia. In a way I feel like O Pioneers! and My Ántonia along with A Lost Lady are a better "trilogy", all set in Nebraska towns that very much resemble the Red Cloud of Cather's childhood. (Song of the Lark is set in Colorado (and in non-prairie places like Chicago and Germany!)

O Pioneers! is primarily the story of Alexandra Bergson, a Swedish immigrant to Nebraska. We meet her as a teenager. She and her little brother Emil are in town, shopping, and the boy's cat has run up a street lamp. Alexandra fetches her friend Carl Linstrum, who shinnies up the pole and fetches the cat. And then they head home, where Alexandra's father is dying. And we realize that Alexandra, only about 14, must be the head of her family.

The story is told in third person, but Carl Linstrum becomes in a way the person through whom we see Alexandra -- and, also, the other major woman character, Marie Tovesky. So he sort of resembles Jim Burden from My Ántonia, though certainly Jim and Carl are different people, as are Alexandra and Ántonia. And over the years, as Carl goes to university, heads to St. Louis to become an engraver, then to the Klondike gold rush, then back to Nebraska, he encounters Alexandra again and again, sees how she has made a great success of the Bergson farm, though, as she says once, she's often lonely. Alexandra's brothers have a harder time of it, though they benefit from her success -- though Emil, the best of them, perhaps, has special problems. And there is always Marie Tovesky, who fascinates Emil, but who unhappily marries another man ...

There is tragedy aplenty in this novel, and one particularly lurid event. But, too, there is as ever the land, and the people either being conquered by it or conquering. And Alexandra, strong, simple, stolid, unimaginative but intelligent and ambitious, is certainly in that sense a conquerer. Marie is the contrast to her -- very imaginative, loving, not at all simple. The novel ends in a marriage, but it is in no sense a romance. It's effective, and sometimes beautiful -- but it's not the novel My Ántonia is -- in some ways it seems sort of a rehearsal for the later novel. 

I ought to add that the edition I read, a Bantam Classics edition from 1989 (though my copy is a 2008 reprint) has an excellent introduction by Vivian Gornick, which addresses Cather's life and ambitions and achievements, and touches on her prairie novels, especially this one and its immediate successor, The Song of the Lark. Gornick ends by comparing her to a couple of near contemporaries: Jean Rhys and Virginia Woolf. She concludes by saying "Today Jean Rhys seems dated, Virginia Woolf important, and Willa Cather wise."

My other reviews of Willa Cather:

My Ántonia 

Death Comes for the Archbishop

A Lost Lady

Monday, June 26, 2023

Review: The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

Review: The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

by Rich Horton

The other day I reviewed Willa Cather's My Ántonia and mentioned that she and Edith Wharton might be my favorite (classic) American writers. My Ántonia is generally regarded as Cather's best novel -- and so here's a look at what is generally regarded as Wharton's best novel. 

I have discussed Wharton numerous times before:

The House of Mirth

A Backward Glance

Old New York

Major Short Stories: "Roman Fever", "Xingu", "The Eyes", "Autre Temps ..." and "The Long Run", "The Lady's Maid's Bell"

Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862 (11 years before Cather) to a wealthy New York family. She was raised much in the manner of wealthy young women of her time, plenty of travel, a private education (tutors and governesses), and the expectation of an appropriate marriage. She rebelled to an extent, writing from an early age (she tried a novel at 11, completed a novella when 15, and published a translation of a poem anonymously at 15). She married an older man, Edward ("Teddy") Wharton, when she was 23. The marriage foundered, largely, it appears, because of Teddy's mental illness. They divorced in 1913, but Edith had begun an affair with Morton Fullerton several years earlier. She lived primarily in France from about 1908, and she died in 1937.

Wharton published a few short stories and poems in the '80s and '90s. Aside from a privately printed collection of poems, her first book was non-fiction: The Decoration of Houses, in 1897, which is indeed about interior decoration. Her first book length fiction was a novella, The Touchstone, in 1900. Another novella and a full-length novel appeared before The House of Mirth in 2005, which was her first major success. Her other major novels are The Custom of the Country (1913) and The Age of Innocence (1920). She also wrote a great deal of short fiction, including a lot of ghost stories, and a lot of novellas. Her best work at that length is probably those in the collection Old New York; plus the high school assigned reading warhorse, Ethan Frome. At shorter lengths my favorites are "Autre Temps" and "Roman Fever", but there are a lot more -- she was a magnificent writer of short stories. Many of her stories are ghost stories.

The Age of Innocence is set primarily in New York in the 1870s -- in fact, I think it can be precisely dated to 1875. This was, I understand, a purposeful change of pace for Wharton, as most of her fiction was set in contemporary (to her) times, though that is somewhat lost on present-day readers, for whom New York in around the turn of the 20th Century (as with The House of Mirth) is indistinguishable from New York in 1875. But the difference mattered a great deal to Wharton, and it is crucial to this novel.

The hero is Newland Archer, a man of about 30, a somewhat dilettantish lawyer, of a very good and very wealthy family. As the novel opens, he has just become engaged to May Welland, a very eligible young woman (of about 22), from a similarly prominent family. He is very happy. He has not long before finished an affair with a married woman, and is sure that he is now mature and experienced enough to settle down, and he loves May. At the opera that evening, as he is wondering when their engagement will be publicly announced, he notices a woman in the Welland box. This is the Countess Ellen Olenska, a cousin of May's, who has just returned from Europe, having left her abusive husband (a Polish count.) Ellen is about Newland's age, and he had known her well when they were younger. She had a slightly unfairly rackety reputation even then, due to her mother's scandalous life; and as a result she and her mother had moved to Europe, where she had married. It is only the social standing of May's grandmother, the redoubtable Mrs. Manson Mingott (who appears in other Wharton stories) that allows Ellen to appear in public. The intricate social politics of the situation lead Newland and May to allow their engagement to become public earlier than planned, and soon Newland is somewhat intimately involved in other actions aimed to repairing the Countess' social standing.

The next part of the novel concerns an intricate web of parties, other social events, and maneuvering. Newland presses May to convince her parents to move up the wedding -- at first the engagement was to last 18 months or so. The Countess is introduced in various places, but also takes some steps of her own, which include being seen with a notorious and not much trusted married banker (who is, gasp, an Englishman among other crimes.) She is also pursuing a divorce, which her family and the rest of New York society consider a step too far -- living separated from her husband is fine, and conducting discreet affairs is OK, but divorce? No. And Newland is deputized by his law firm to advise her that a divorce would be unwise. This is a problem for him, partly because he has fallen for her, and, it seems, she for him; but he does his duty, and she acquiesces.

Newland Archer is presented as a slightly unconventional young man in his milieu. He is interested in art and literature (Middlemarch is namechecked as a book he has ordered.) He is -- he would maintain -- less bound by his society's conventions. And as events proceed, he contemplates throwing over May and running off with Ellen -- but she is unwilling to do so many people so much hurt. And so the marriage proceeds, and the honeymoon follows ... and a year later there is another crisis, and another decision.

I think most people know how that ends -- how it must -- and then follows the famous and moving last chapter, set decades later, after May had died, and Newland, along with his son and daughter-in-law, visit Paris, where Madame Olenska retires. Wharton manages this beautifully, and it is an achingly sad but inevitable bit of closure ...

I've brushed over a lot of incident, and a lot of nuance above. (And quite a few comic touches.) This truly is a lovely novel. And it continues to raise questions in me. Newland's character is one thing -- he is by no means as unconventional a man as he'd like to think. And May is by no means the innocent and ignorant woman he thinks. Early on we see him thinking about how he will educated her -- almost as a sort of surrogate father, he wishes to introduce her to his passions. But in many ways she remains a step ahead of him -- she is never as innocent or ignorant as he thought, but she is wholly and dutifully a woman of her class, and she knows she does not want to do what Newland wants -- she doesn't want to read the poetry he likes, she doesn't want to travel, she wants him to be the husband she expected. And she gets all that. And, of course, she knew all about his near affair with Madame Olenska.

This was famously made into a well-regarded movie in 1993, directed by Martin Scorcese, and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland, Michelle Pfeiffer as the Countess, and Winona Ryder as May. I saw the movie back then and quite enjoyed it. I need to see it again, and see what I think now. 

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Review: My Ántonia , by Willa Cather

Review: My Ántonia , by Willa Cather

by Rich Horton

When I was younger -- even just 20 years younger -- I don't think I'd ever have thought that my two favorite American writers might end up being Edith Wharton and Willa Cather -- two near contemporaries (Wharton about a decade older) and two otherwise very different women, and very different writers, to each other. As that time I had a completely false view of Willa Cather's fiction, assuming it was dour, dreary, and message bound; and I had read nothing by Wharton save Ethan Frome, which is a novella I like but which is not characteristic of her work. My eventual entrée to Cather was also a novella: A Lost Lady (which is actually somewhat characteristic of much of her work.) I loved A Lost Lady (much as I also loved Wharton's The House of Mirth, which I read at about the same time) and I've since acquired many of her books. But I hadn't had time to get to her masterful "Prairie Trilogy": O Pioneers!, Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia. (I consider A Lost Lady a sort of pendant to those books.) But the time has finally come!

My copy of My Ántonia is a Houghton Mifflin Sentry Edition, a trade paperback, probably from the '70s. It's signed inside by (I suppose) the first owner, one Susan Caine. The illustrations, by W. T. Benda, are included. (Apparently, in the first edition, Cather had to fight to get them added as loose inserts.) I also listened to parts of the books in audio form, narrated by Andrea Giordani. And finally, I should credit a truly wonderful website, the Willa Cather Archive, maintained by the University of Nebraska, which has the text of her books (sometimes multiple editions) along with critical commentary, textual discussion, illustrations, etc. 

Willa Cather was born in 1873 in Virginia. Her family moved to Nebraska in 1883. Cather published pieces in the Red Cloud, NE, newspaper early, but planned to become a doctor. But at the University of Nebraska she continued to write, and switched to an English major, graduating in 1894. She moved to Pittsburgh in 1896, and taught school while also working for magazines and newspapers, and publishing occasional stories. She moved to New York to join the editorial staff at McClure's in 1906. (I encountered some editorial correspondence between Cather and a McClure's contributor, H. G. Dwight, when I was writing about Dwight's collection Stamboul Nights.) McClure's serialized her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, in 1912, and the "prairie novels" soon followed. She won a Pulitzer in 1923 for her World War I novel One of Ours.  (Wharton, in 1921, was the first woman to win the Pulitzer for Best Novel, and Cather was the second.)

Cather lived in New York from 1906 (summering in New Brunswick eventually), and from 1908 she lived with Edith Lewis. Her only other close relationships were with women, and so it is (plausibly) assumed by many that she was a Lesbian, but she never so identified (publicly.) Of course that last is easy to understand given societal pressures. 

My Ántonia is introduced in (we presume) Cather's voice, as she recounts a meeting with an old friend from her Nebraska childhood, Jim Burden. Jim is now a successful New York lawyer, but they discuss their childhood, and especially the remarkable woman they knew, Ántonia Shimerda; and Jim proposes a dual memoir of her. A few months later, he dumps the manuscript on Cather's desk, and she confesses that she hadn't had time to write her half -- so the rest of the book is Jim Burden's story of his relationship with Ántonia.

(And already I have to make a comment -- that introduction is from the first edition, and from the audiobook version I listened to. I also have a print version, and the introduction is quite different there -- it's somewhat shorter, it lessens some critical (and rather snarky) comments about Jim Burden's wife, and it is not written so as to imply that the narrator of the introduction is Cather herself (for example, it removes a line that identified the narrator as a young girl when they knew Ántonia.) The critical consensus seems to be that the changes -- which occurred in the 1926 reissue -- are an improvement; and I can see the point, but I have to say I was intrigued by the paragraph or so about "Mrs. James Burden", and I didn't mind the identification of the narrator of the introduction as probably Cather.)

The novel (that is to say, Jim Burden's story) has five sections: "The Shimerdas", "The Hired Girls", "Lena Lingard", "The Pioneer Woman's Story", and "Cuzak's Boys". The first tells of Jim's few years on his grandparents' farm, of other local farmers and hands, in particular the Shimerdas, Bohemian immigrants who arrived with their daughter Ántonia (or Tony), who is 14 to Jim's 10, but who becomes his close friend (in part because at first she is the only Shimerda with any English.) The second is set after Jim and his grandparents move into town, followed soon by Ántonia and a number of other girls (most or all also immigrants) who work in town to make money for their families. The third follows some of the career of one of those girls, Lena Lingard, who moves to Lincoln around the same time Jim goes there to university. The fourth concerns Ántonia, and her disastrous "marriage" to a train man everyone but she knew was a cad, and her subsequent return, pregnant, to her family farm. And the final part is set around the time of Jim's meeting recounted in the introduction, when he had, for the first time in many years, visited Black Hawk and caught up with Ántonia, now truly married and the mother of a large family.

The story is centrally about Jim Burden and Ántonia, but there is a horde of further characters. The Shimerdas: Mr. Shimerda -- a skilled weaver and musician but a terrible farmer -- who has a hard time adapting. His elder son, Ambrosch, is surly, not terribly intelligent, but strong. The other son, Marek, is mentally disabled. The cranky and suspicious mother and her youngest daughter, Yulka. The Shimerdas' crooked countryman, Peter Kraijek, who lured them to Nebraska. Two Russian men, Pavel and Peter, who are trying to establish their farm near the Burdens. The Burdens' two farmhands, Otto Fuchs and Jake Marpole, who serve as sort of archetypes of the kind of lonely men who headed West to try to make a life, without the resources to really thrive, despite some real skills. All the "hired girls": Lena Lingard, Tiny Soderball, the "Bohemian Marys". The Harlings, who employ Ántonia when she moves to town: the father a successful businessman, his much admired son, who will go in the Navy, his impressive elder daughter, Frances, who becomes his business partner, Mrs. Harling, indulgent but rigid in some ways. Ántonia'a other employer, Wick Cutter, the crooked moneylender, and his wife, who hates him. Gaston Cleric, the professor at the university who becomes a mentor to Jim, and who is obviously coded as gay. (Jim's sexuality is less clear -- he marries, but there are no children and perhaps the couple are not close, his only other extended relationship with a woman is with Lena, and seems mostly or entirely platonic, he clearly adores Ántonia but there never seems a question that they'd be romantically involved (though at least to begin with that's explained by their age difference.)) The Widow Steavens, who buys the Burdens' farmhouse and is there to help Ántonia through her first pregnancy. Ántonia's eventual husband, Anton Cuzak, and their huge family, especially Ántonia's favorite, Leo.

There is little conventional plot but much in the way of incident. The Shimerdas' early struggles. Jim and Tony's encounter with a huge rattlesnake in a prairie dog colony. The horrifying story of the reason Pavel and Peter had to leave Russia. Controversy over the cow the Burdens sell the Shimerdas, and Ambrosch's careless ways with harnesses they lend him. Mr. Shimerda's suicide, and Otto making his coffin. Lena being attacked by Crazy Mary, who is convinced Lena is corrupting her husband. The sudden fashion for dancing in Black Hawk, when a couple of dancing instructors come to town. The story Ántonia tells of a tramp who convinces the men operating the threshing machine at harvest to let him help, then purposely falls into the machinery to commit suicide. The blind black piano player who comes to perform at the hotel in town. Ántonia nearly being raped. Ántonia running off to Denver on the promise of marriage to the slimy Larry Donovan, who soon deserts her. Her return, to go back to work on the farm and have her baby. Tiny Soderball's adventures -- running an inn in Seattle, then heading to Alaska for the Klondike Gold Rush, and returning, a wealthy woman, to live in Salt Lake City and San Francisco, with Lena nearby to keep her dressed even as Tiny makes sure Lena takes care of her own money. And finally Jim's visit to Ántonia -- which provides real closure.

So much to admire here -- so much to love. The characters are all completely real (and, to be sure, many were based to some extent or another on people Cather knew as a child ... with Jim Burden, arguably, being based somewhat on herself.) Ántonia is a wonderful character, though neither a saint nor a prodigy. (Unlike Alexandra Bergson, from O Pioneers!, who though flawed in many ways is truly a farming prodigy.) The novel is profoundly feminist, it seems to me -- so many of the major and minor women characters are powerful women making their own way: Ántonia of course, and Frances Harling, and Tiny Soderball, Lena Lingard, Mrs. Gardener (the innkeeper in town.) The book is also a story of immigrants -- who face problems including language, finance, homesickness, prejudice; and who sometimes surive heroically and sometimes fail. It's tremendously moving at times. And it's beautifully written. 

A few short passages:

At Mr. Shimerda's funeral: "Years later, when the open grazing days were over, and the red grass had been plowed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie, when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-lines; Mr. Shimerda's grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross."

Ántonia and Jim watching a sunset: "All those fall afternoons were the same, but I never got used to them. As far as we could see, the miles of copper-red grass were drenched in sunlight that was stronger and fiercer than at any other time of the day. The blond cornfields were red gold, the haystacks turned rosy and threw long shadows. The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed. That hour always had the exultation of victory, of triumphant ending, like a hero's death — heroes who died young and gloriously. It was a sudden transfiguration, a lifting-up of day.

"How many an afternoon Ántonia and I have trailed along the prairie under that magnificence! And always two long black shadows flitted before us or followed after, dark spots on the ruddy grass."

The prairie under snow: "The sky was brilliantly blue, and the sunlight on the glittering white stretches of prairie was almost blinding. As Ántonia said, the whole world was changed by the snow; we kept looking in vain for familiar landmarks. The deep arroyo through which Squaw Creek wound was now only a cleft between snow-drifts -- very blue when one looked down into it. The tree-tops that had been gold all the autumn were dwarfed and twisted, as if they would never have any life in them again. The few little cedars, which were so dull and dingy before, now stood out a strong, dusky green. The wind had the burning taste of fresh snow; my throat and nostrils smarted as if some one had opened a hartshorn bottle. The cold stung, and at the same time delighted one. My horse's breath rose like steam, and whenever we stopped he smoked all over. The cornfields got back a little of their color under the dazzling light, and stood the palest possible gold in the sun and snow. All about us the snow was crusted in shallow terraces, with tracings like ripple-marks at the edges, curly waves that were the actual impression of the stinging lash in the wind."

Jim at the end, following the track of the first road he and Ántonia took to their farms, as children: "On the level land the tracks had almost disappeared -- were mere shadings in the grass, and a stranger would not have noticed them. But wherever the road had crossed a draw, it was easy to find. The rains had made channels of the wheel-ruts and washed them so deep that the sod had never healed over them. They looked like gashes torn by a grizzly's claws, on the slopes where the farm wagons used to lurch up out of the hollows with a pull that brought curling muscles on the smooth hips of the horses. I sat down and watched the haystacks turn rosy in the slanting sunlight.

"This was the road over which Ántonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past."

Truly, Cather has no equal in depicting the great landscapes of the prairies. My Ántonia is a masterwork, one of the great American novels, on one of the most central American themes.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Review: Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë

Review: Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë

by Rich Horton

My latest Victorian novel is Anne Brontë's first novel, Agnes Grey. This was Anne's first novel, published simultaneously with her sister Emily's only novel, Wuthering Heights, in 1847. I had read Charlotte's first published novel, Jane Eyre, long ago, and quite liked it; and I read Wuthering Heights for a high school class, and hated it. But -- to some extent because I accepted the long held notion that Anne was the least of the three sisters as a novelist, I hadn't read either of her novelsI think this notion is less accepted these days, or, at least, Anne's novels (perhaps particularly her second, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) are held in much higher critical esteem now than in the past. (Perhaps this can be laid in part at the feet of Charlotte, at least in the case of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, of which she wrote it "had an unfavourable reception. At this I cannot wonder. The choice of subject was an entire mistake." Charlotte also prevented republication of Wildfell Hall after Anne's death in 1849.)

I had determined I should read Anne's work, and also Charlotte's later novels. I bought copies of both of Anne's novels, and decided to read Agnes Grey first, primarily because it is significantly shorter, at perhaps 70,000 words. I have a copy of the Oxford World's Classics edition, edited by Robert Inglesfield and Hilda Marsden, with a useful introduction, and endnotes, by Sally Shuttleworth, as well as a copy of Charlotte Brontë's somewhat notorious "Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell" (signed as by Currer Bell,) written for the second edition (1850) of Wuthering Heights/Agnes Grey.

The novel is told in first person, from Agnes' point of view. She is the younger of two surviving daughters of Richard Grey, a clergyman. Agnes' mother is from a richer family than Richard Grey's, but she was disinherited because her father disapproved of the marriage. However, they live happily enough until Richard decides to make a risky investment (out of guilt over his poor circumstances relative to those his wife grew up in) and inevitably loses all his money. Eventually the two sisters try to make some additional money to help the family make ends meet -- Mary, the elder, is a talented artist and will try to sell some paintings, and Agnes resolves to become a governess.

Her first situation is with the family of a Mr. Bloomfield, a wealthy man, though but a tradesman. There are three children, all quite young. The mother is convinced they are angels, but of course they are utterly horrible. The boy is a bully, tortures small animals, etc., while the older girl is incorrigibly lazy. Neither will attend to their lessons, and both know very well how to complain to their parents about Agnes' efforts to correct them. Both parents are quite horrible to, as are the grandmother and uncle, and before long Agnes is dismissed.

After a little while back home, Agnes determines to get another position, taking care to insist on higher pay, and on clients of a better class. The new family, the Murrays, live at the excellently named Horton Lodge, rather further from her home than she has yet been. There are four children, all somewhat older than the Bloomfield children. Mr. Murray is described as a "roystering country squire", while Mrs. Murray is a handsome woman, apparently much interested in fashion and parties. The elder Miss Murray, Rosalie, is a budding beauty of 16, a pleasant enough girl but vain and shallow. Her sister Matilda, at 14, is a hoyden, something of a tomboy, rather impolite and inconsiderate but not quite terrible. The two boys are 11 and 10 -- the elder a somewhat normal boy, though not much of a scholar, the younger being more of a piece of work, an habitual liar. But with a year or two both are bundled off to boarding school.

So most of Agnes' efforts are to educate Rosalie and Matilda. And both girls are capricious, not much interested in learning, and not willing to hew to any schedule, so that Agnes is required sometimes to be up very early, only to have them sleep in, and otherwise put to much inconvenience. Still and all, this situation proves a bit better than at the Bloomfields, and Agnes stays for a few years, and thus we see the main action of the novel.

This concerns a couple of things ... Rosalie's "coming out" and eventual marriage (with sad results); and in the interim her very unwise flirting ways with numerous local young men. Secondly, there is drama at the church: the vicar is a youngish man, very conceited and not terribly religious, and soon he gets a new curate, Mr. Weston, a poorer man, but devoted and virtuous and very religious. The vicar takes an interest in Rosalie -- but is not rich enough for either she or her mother. And, the reader soon realizes, Mr. Weston is just the man for Agnes Grey. The novel quite nicely wends it ways through various complications and misunderstandings -- Rosalie setting her cap at Mr. Weston just to be mean, Agnes and Mr. Weston both help some of the poorer and older members of the parish but sometimes this becomes awkward, and eventually Mr. Weston gets a new position, and Agnes also leaves Horton Lodge, as her charges age out and, more importantly, her father dies, and she decides to open a school with her mother.

It's a fine novel, if not a great one. Honesty forces one to admit that Agnes can be a little prosy, and rather prudish (if in response to true provocations.) Brontë's prose is just fine. Her depiction in particular of Rosalie's fate, very much driven by her character (and that of her mother) is effective, and Agnes' love story is nice. On the whole, I enjoyed the novel but didn't love it. I understand that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a different animal, more challenging, more modern, and I will get to it sometime. 

I should add that there are very distinct autobiographical aspects to Agnes Grey, particularly as to the two governess jobs Agnes holds. Both are apparently based to some extent -- a very considerable extent, it seems, in the case of the first one -- on Anne's own experiences as a governess. (I wonder if the models for these characters read the novel and were embarrassed or enraged.)
In addition, the novel appeared at a time when the general mistreatment of governesses had become, or was becoming, something of a national issue, and this novel certainly contributed to that conversation.

Friday, June 16, 2023

Review: The Count of 9, by "A. A. Fair" (Erle Stanley Gardner)

Review: The Count of 9, by "A. A. Fair" (Erle Stanley Gardner)

by Rich Horton

A few months ago I read and reviewed my first "A. A. Fair" novel. "A. A. Fair" was the pseudonym Erle Stanley Gardner used for his books about Cool and Lam -- that is to say, Bertha Cool, a rather portly 60ish woman who owns a detective agency, and her partner, Donald Lam, a scrawny ex-lawyer who is pretty much the brains of the outfit. That book was Crows Can't Count, and it didn't fully work for me. This book is somewhat later in the series than Crows Can't Count, and I have to say it didn't quite work for me either. I have a couple more Cool and Lams, and I'll try them some time.

I have two copies of this one, actually. I bought the Hard Case Crime reprint at Worldcon last year, with a nice Robert McGinnis cover. And a few months later I was at an estate sale and there were some '60s Gardners on sale for a buck apiece, and why not? So I bought the 1962 Pocket Books reprint (in the 5th printing, from 1969), with a very nice Mitchell Hooks cover. I note for the nitpickers that the Hard Case Crime edition claims "First publication in 50 years", but as it appeared in 2018, it was really only 49 years!

Gardner wrote an introduction to this novel, urging a more humane approach to penology, especially the treatment of prisoners, and better efforts at rehabilitation. He dedicated the novel to Douglas C. Rigg, warden of the Minnesota State Prison at Stillwater, and apparently a leading light, as of the late '50s, in that movement. (The novel itself does not really touch on those themes.)

As the novel opens, Bertha Cool is arranging for some publicity for their detective organization, via some photographs, conveniently featuring the new and quite attractive filing clerk. These pictures have been arranged by the publicist for Dean Crockett, a rich "explorer" type. In exchange, Crockett wants Bertha to handle security at an upcoming party, where he'll be discussing his latest trip, and also showing off some of his collection. But a jade Buddha figurine had recently been stolen, so he figures he needs protection.

Bertha is only too dazzled by the prospect of a magazine article about her, and she agrees. (The file clerk, as well, is perhaps only too dazzled by the photographer's compliments, but that's another story, sort of.) But Donald has concerns, and they are justified when Bertha calls in the middle of the night, demanding he come to Crockett's penthouse. And when he gets there, he finds that another Buddha figurine has been stolen, and also a poison dart blowgun Crockett had acquired in a trip to Africa.

What follows is a dizzying sequence, concerning things like Donald cleverly recovering both stolen items (which seems to be not wholly satisfactory to Crockett,) Donald uncovering the photographer's sleazy side business, some intrigue with the latest Mrs. Crockett, a beautiful woman, a painter, who's on the outs with her husband; more intrigue with Mrs. Crockett's also lovely friend and sometime model; the murder of Dean Crockett; dealings with a noted fence; questions about the nature of Crockett's business; and a lot of sometimes strained examination of the security at the penthouse (including an x-ray machine in the elevator), and of the murder itself, and the weapon -- the recovered blowgun. Donald gets badly beaten (apparently a common occurrence,) the police get involved and bungle everything except that Donald saves them ...

It's pretty fun, but also a bit implausible. It's a very fast-moving book. Donald's techniques are outrageous -- he plants evidence, lies all the time, frames people he knows are guilty, but of course he gets results. He deflects the attentions of the bad women who want to use their wiles on him; but (it's implied, not shown) that he's happy to sleep with innocent women if they want it (though he seems to have on ongoing relationship with his secretary, Elsie Brand.) (All the sex in these books is implied, not at all shown, and I waver between thinking that's effective, and thinking that a bit more directness (as I think would have been the case not much later) would be nice.) As I said above, I don't think it wholly successful -- a bit too pat in some ways, and a bit too implausible. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Review: Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison

Review: Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison

by Rich Horton

This weekend, at the Montreal convention Scintillation, I bought a book from the Montreal bookstore Argo Books (which is Scintillation's bookdealer) -- a book I'd never heard of. This is Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison. I have known of Mitchison for a long time, but only for one book, the 1962 SF novel Memoirs of a Spacewoman. But this book, first published in 1952, looked enticing -- a fantasy about a girl who is saved from her evil stepmother by her nurse, who turns into a bear and spirits the girl away to live with the bears. This edition is from Small Beer Press's Peapod Classics line, and was published in 2005.

First a bit about Mitchison. She lived a very long time -- from 1897 to 1999. She was born in Scotland, and her maiden name was Haldane -- and, yes, the great scientist J. B. S. Haldane was her older brother. The longevity may have been in her genes -- three of her children, all prominent biologists, lived to be 98, 94, and 89. Her husband, Dick Mitchison, was a Labour MP, later named a Life Peer as Baron Mitchison. In her own right, Naomi was named a Commander of the British Empire. Mitchison was a very prolific writer, publishing over 90 books, and is considered one of the giants of Scottish writing. She was a committed Leftist, though she was frustrated by such things as their defense (or at least avoidance of criticism) of the Moscow Show Trials, and by the end results of the Russian Revolution, and she was good friends with J. R. R. Tolkien, and indeed helped edit The Lord of the Rings. She also worked with her brother on some genetic experiments, so she had scientific chops as well. She was a regular visitor to Africa, especially Botswana (which may account for me thinking at one time that she was a South African writer.)

Her best novel may be The Corn Kings and the Spring Queen (1931), though Memoirs of a Spacewoman is also highly regarded (especially in the SF community), and I suspect there are likely many neglected jewels in her oeuvre. She's probably best known for her historical fiction, but she wrote a lot of Fantasy, some SF, and some contemporary fiction (including the notorious We Have Been Warned (1935), which was censored (more, I gather, for the controversial treatment of sexual issues that for its warning about fascism) and which nearly got her publishers prosecuted.

As for Travel Light ... Halla is the daughter of a King, but when the King remarries her stepmother insists that "the brat must be got rid of." And so her nurse, who is part bear, takes her away to live with the bears. Quite soon, however, she encounters a dragon, who offers to adopt her himself (thus avoiding the issue of hibernation.) And for some long time, Halla lives with the dragon, and considers herself a dragon as well. She learns to hate human "heroes", who only want to kill dragons; and to covet treasure in the dragonish way. But she won't ever grow wings ... and when her dragon father is killed, she is off again (rescued from the murderous hero by a Valkyrie).

Then comes her traveling time, for she comes across a wanderer, whom she recognizes as Odin, the All-Father. And he gives her some advice -- travel light -- as she has decided to go to Micklegard (Constantinople) where she thinks the dragon emperor might live. On her journey she joins with a small band of men who have a petition to bring to the Emperor, concerning a corrupt Governor. As Halla can speak all languages (human and animal) she offers to interpret for them. In Micklegard they encounter more troubles -- a complicated bureaucracy, and more corruption, and lack of money. Here Halla's ability to speak to horses comes in handy ...

And things do resolve themselves, but with complicated results. For one of the man, his hometown is not worth returning to, so he and Halla head up the river to Holmgard (Novgorod), and a final resolution, again with ambiguities, and violence and sadness mixed with hope; and with some revelations about Halla as well.

This really is a delightful book. It is often funny -- the attitudes of bears, and horses, and the Valkyrie, and especially dragons are amusing. The syncretic mixing of myths and fairy stories is very well handled. But it's no pure comedy -- there are very dark events, real pain, real growth. It's also effectively "out of time". It's honest and deep when it needs to be, extravagantly imagined, morally affecting, and at the core optimistic despite depicting much tragedy and human wrongs. The (unsigned) introduction is quite good, but its opening claim -- that, with luck and the right illustrator, Travel Light could have become one of the last century's most popular children's books. That's all fine except -- I don't think it's a children's book. It's an adult book (though fine for children to read.) But I do endorse this comment from the introduction: "more than just a story: it is a map for living."

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Review: The Burning Air, by Eugene Mirabelli

The Burning Air, by Eugene Mirabelli

a review by Rich Horton

Eugene Mirabelli was born in Massachusetts in 1931 -- same state, a month earlier than my father. He became a professor of literture, and wrote his thesis on Faulkner, and taught for a few years. His first novel, The Burning Air, was published in 1959, and a few more followed. He married Margaret Black in 1959, and they had three children, and Gene published three novels. She worked as an editor, and after Gene stopped teaching he worked for a left wing weekly, and returned to academia later. More novels such as The Language Nobody Speaks (reviewed here) and The Goddess in Love with a Horse followed. Margaret died suddenly in 2010, and Renato the Painter was published soon afterwards. In 2003 he had published a very fine story in F&SF, "The Only Known Jump Across Time", and several other SF and Fantasy stories followed, in F&SF, Asimov's, and Not One of Us. (I reprinted three of these stories, in my Best of the Year volumes and in Lightspeed.) Gene is still alive at 92.

I think his SF/F stories from the decade between 2003 and 2013 are remarkable and deserve a collection. I decided to explore his non-SF work a few years ago, and I read The Language Nobody Speaks (1999), an erotically charged and quite effective book, reviewed here. Just a couple of months ago I saw a post about the paperback edition of The Burning Air, which, not unusually for paperbacks in that era, emphasized the erotic aspects of the novel (which are present, but hardly in a sleazy way.) (The cover, which is really not sleazy at all, is by the great Robert McGinnis, and it's fairly faithful to the novel except giving Giulia blond hair.) I looked for a copy to try, and bought the first edition, and I've finally read it. 

It's a short novel, just under 40,000 words. It's told by a young man named George, who is visiting his girlfriend Giulia Molla's parents for the first time, with the intention of getting their approval for the couple to marry. But the novel's first sentence tells us how it's going to end: "The last time I saw Guilia was at the train station in Bayfield." The rest of the book tells the story of a seemingly rather nice weekend, but over it all hangs a sort of dread as the reader knows that George and Guilia's relationship is doomed.

Both young people are Italian-Americans, nominally Catholic, well-educated. There may be hints to fissures early in some of that -- does George's name as opposed to Giulia's hint his family is more assimilated? (After all Giulia's grandmother insists on calling him Giorgio -- but also, Giulia's teenaged brother is named Michael. And, we learn eventually, the Molla's have been in the US much longer than George's family.) George may have been raised Catholic, but he never goes to Mass, and indeed Giulia conspires to skip Mass this weekend. As for education, George is working as a free-lance journalist, but vows to get a teaching job if his finances remain vulnerable; while Giulia has a chance for a graduate fellowship in Italy, which her mother desperately wants her to attend. But there are other issues -- the couple have been dating for about three years, but for a period they had broken up, and Giulia had had another boyfriend, of whom George is very jealous. They are sleeping together -- and they take the chance to make love a couple of times over the weekend -- but it's clear they feel a bit guilty about doing this knowing that Giulia's mother and grandmother, at least, are very opposed to premarital sex.

The weekend involves some awkward conversations between George and the rest of Giulia's family -- as he helps her father do yard work (and fixes the lawnmower), as he washes some dishes, goes to the beach with Giulia and Michael, visits with married friends of Giulia, shares a big family dinner, and as the two tell Mr and Mrs Molla of their plans to marry. Mr Molla gives his approval though Mrs Molla is clearly against it. But Giulia and George are determined, almost to the point of eloping. And in the end -- which is ambiguous in a sense but clearly a true end as the first sentence indicates -- it seems that the real problem is with George himself.

This is a fine first novel, though I'd say clearly a first novel, and not wholly successful. The structure is elegant, but the long middle does drag just a bit, though the events portrayed are all important. The conclusion is strong and moving, as George seems to ultimately shy away from trusting himself. This isn't by any means Mirabelli's best work, but it's a good debut that presaged a strong and varied career -- though I'm not sure Mirabelli's novels ever had broad commercial success.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Review: Clovis, by Michael Fessier

Clovis, by Michael Fessier

a review by Rich Horton

A couple of months ago I read an issue of F&SF with a story by Michael Fessier, an author with whom I was completely unfamiliar. I read up on him, and learned that he had written a couple genre or genre-adjacent novels, and, especially after I enjoyed his story in that issue, I decided I'd track down the novels. And here then is Clovis, a very short novel (about 33,000 words), published in 1948. (It was reprinted as recently as 2000.)

Fessier (1905-1988) published several SF or Fantasy stories (three of them reprinted in F&SF and another anthologized by Murray Leinster) and a couple of fantastical novels. He's better known as a screenwriter, with credits including the Fred Astaire/Rita Hayworth musical You'll Never Get Rich and even an episode of Gilligan's Island. In the '30s and '40s he worked in Hollywood, writing a couple of dozen produced screenplays, then he moved to New York and wrote for television, with his final contributions being six episodes for The High Chaparral, ending in 1969. From 1961 until his death in 1988 he was married to the actress Lilian Bond, but he must have been married at least once before because the jacket copy on this novel states that as of its publication in 1949 he is married with two children. (The 1940 census shows that his wife was named Suta, and he had two children, Josephine (3 years old) and Michael (10 months old).) He also wrote a good deal of short fiction -- not just the SF but a fair amount of crime fiction and some fiction for the slicks. He wrote at least one other novels: Fully Dressed and in his Right Mind, a noirish novel with fantastical elements, from 1935. His papers are at the University of Oregon, and their catalog claims manuscripts for three novels -- I can't find the third unless it is Nessuno l'avrebbe detto, published in Italy in 1949 (but in translation). That means "Nobody Would Ever Say", and I'm inclined to believe it's a translation of Clovis.

Clovis is an intelligent parrot, the result of hundreds of years of breeding by the von Lerner family. The last of the von Lerners is August, and Clovis is the last of his line of parrots. They live in Brazil. Clovis is remarkably intelligent (much more so than August) and he is cynical, and he is tired of his life. He decides to leave August, and find some parrots, and give them the benefit of his greater knowledge. He also might get some female action. But of course, as he learns to his displeasure, life in the jungle is harder than he had realized, and the parrots don't have any interest in his intellectual discourse.

He is captured by some local Indians, who are ready to roast him when an American named Thad rescues him -- only to cage him and put him on a boat to New York, figuring a talking parrot will fetch him a tidy sum. But Clovis escapes, and ends up in a pet shop. He manipulates his potential buyers until he ends up with a nice-seeming old lady, but of course that doesn't go well either. And his adventures continue -- he uncovers a plot to murder a young heiress, cures her cousin of alcoholism, and ends up back in the hands of Thad, who has fallen for the heiress, and she for him except she is convinced she has no sex drive and frustrated when Thad won't confirm the diagnosis by giving in to her attempts at seduction. Thad's moneymaking schemes come to nothing until he runs into a crooked evangelist -- and suddenly Clovis' cynicism and ability to talk have an outlet. But ...

Well, I won't say more. The book is out and out satire, though mostly somewhat gentle (except in the treatment of the evangelist.) And it is often very funny. The romance plot with Thad and the heiress, and the drinking cure, are almost Wodehousian. Clovis' cynical utterances are quite amusing as well. The murder plot is very light-hearted, and doesn't come off quite as amusing as the rest of the book. The book doesn't outstay its welcome -- though it probably reaches the limits of its welcome! Fun stuff on the whole, and I have to say I'm glad I read it.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Old Bestseller Review: The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas (with Auguste Maquet)

a review by Rich Horton

This is one of the most famous 19th Century novels, and has never stopped being read, and adapted. The central story has been the basis for any number of works, including one of the greatest SF novels of all time: The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester. I myself have known the vague outline of the story for a long time, partly due to osmosis, partly due to such fractional adaptions as the Mr. Magoo cartoon version. I found a free audiobook version, from Librivox, and figured it would be a good thing to listen to for the next 54 hours of driving! It's read by David Clarke, and he does an excellent job, if on occasion his accents get a touch hammy. (That said, his versions of the Count's many voices are very nice.) I should mention that I complained about the last Librivox audiobook I tried, because the narration was pretty amateurish. This is much much better. (I will note that there's at least one other Librivox reading of The Count of Monte Cristo, and the reviews of it suggest that it is not nearly as good as the one I've read.) I don't know which translation Clarke is reading, but I also have the 2003 Penguin Classics edition, translated by Robin Buss. I believe the Buss translation is better than the one Clarke is reading, but that one is not bad. (I suspect it may be the earliest English translation, from 1846; or one of the later translations that were largely based on that one, such as an 1894 version that Robin Buss mentions a few times in his introduction.)

Alexandre Dumas was born in Picardy in 1802. His father was born in Haiti, the illegitimate son of a Marquis and an enslaved woman. His mother was an innkeeper's daughter. Dumas was his grandmother's family name, adopted by Alexandre's father after a break with his noble father. Alexandre's father was a successful general under Napoleon, but died of cancer in 1806. Dumas's family connections got him a decent position with Louis-Philippe, future King of France. Dumas soon began writing articles and then plays, and after a couple of successes became a full-time writer, and turned to novels. His most significant works appeared in quick succession between 1844 and 1847: The Three Musketeers and its sequels; The Corsican Brothers, and The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas died in 1870. His son, also named Alexandre, also illegitimate (the elder Dumas had multiple marriages and many affairs) became a successful writer as well, by far best remembered for La Dame Aux Camellias, the source material for Verdi's La Traviata, one of the greatest operas of all time. The father is often styled Alexandre Dumas père, the son Dumas fils

I have above given co-credit to August Maquet. Dumas, incredibly prolific, ran a sort of fiction factory, employing other writers to plot his books and to research them. It does appear that Dumas, in most of the books, did the bulk of the page by page writing. But Maquet, his most common assistant, eventually sued him for credit, and while Maquet did not get credit, he did get a considerable financial settlement. In the case of The Count of Monte Cristo, Robin Buss suggests that it was Maquet who insisted on adding the early chapters in which Edmond Dantès is framed and thrown in jail.

So, what to say about the story itself? Any kind of detailed plot summary seems silly -- to say too much might give away some of the pleasure, and would take a while -- it's a long book. And most everyone knows the basics. I'll quickly summarize them anyway. The novel tells of Edmond Dantès, a young sailor just returned from a voyage on which his Captain died, leaving him in charge. He is chosen by his employer to take the permanent position of Captain -- and thus he can marry his beloved, the Catalan girl Mercédès. But the jealousy of another Catalan, Fernand, who loves Mercédès, plus that of Danglars, supercargo on his ship, who dislikes Edmond, leads to them accusing him of Bonapartist sympathies. (This part is set in 1815, just as Bonaparte is leaving Elba for his last "100 days".) Villefort, the prosecutor in charge of the resulting case, realizes that Dantès is innocent but has him imprisoned in the Chateau D'If anyway, as it will benefit his political advancement and also because his own father is a Bonapartist.

Dantès remains in jail for 14 years, and befriends another prisoner, the mad monk Faria, who, over many years, gives him a remarkable education, and also reveals the location of a fantastic treasure, on the island of Monte Cristo. Dantès finally escapes (in a wonderful sequence), and manages to locate the treasure ... and, nine years later, he emerges, first in Rome, then in Paris, as the Count of Monte Cristo. In the mean time, he has learned, his enemies have reached high positions (partly through additional corrupt actions): Villefort is the Crown Prosecutor, Fernand has become the Comte de Morcerf, and Danglars is now a Baron. The Count makes a sensation, partly because of his money, partly his mystery. But his goal is revenge on those who betrayed him -- and all three of the main villains begin to see their luck strangely turn ...

Well, that's rather skeletal, and it misses a lot. But that's OK! The fun is in the discovering. I will mention as many other key characters as I can: Maximilien Morrel, son of M. Morrel who owned the ship Edmond worked on; Albert de Morcerf, son of Fernand; Franz d'Epinay, a close friend of Albert's; Haydée, a beautiful young Greek-Albanian woman, the companion or slave of the Count of Monte Cristo (Haydée's back story (which is loosely historically based) is central to the book, but I'll leave it for the reader to learn); Valentine de Villefort, the daughter of M. de Villefort by his first wife; Mme. de Villefort, Villefort's sinister second wife; Eugénie Danglars, the daughter of one of Dantès' betrayers, and a rather sympathetically portrayed Lesbian (some people nowadays suggest she is a trans man) who is unwillingly supposed to marry Albert; Caderousse, a baker and neighbor of Edmond's father, who by inaction abets Fernand and Danglars' plot against Edmond, and whose greed sends him on the path to ruin; Luigi Vampa, a Roman bandit; Mme. Danglars, a beauty who married Danglars for his money, and who has carried on serial affairs, including one with M. de Villefort which leads in the end to tragedy; Bertuccio, the Count's faithful Corsican servant, who coincidentally is entangled with the lives of Villefort and Danglars and thus the Count himself (though, as becomes clear, almost every seeming coincidence in the novel is the result of the Count's knowledge and planning); Benedetto, an habitual criminal who the Count hires to portray an Italian nobleman as part of his plans of revenge; and Noirtier, M. de Villefort's father, who ends his life horrifyingly paralyzed, with only his granddaughter Valentine to care for him.

This list of characters, most of whose stories are significantly and entertainingly elaborated, is one reason the novel is so long -- and also never boring. And there are many more minor characters -- the newspaperman Beauchamp, Caderousse's sickly and shrewish wife La Carconte, Major Cavalcanti, Maximilien Morrel's sister Julie and her husband Emmanuel, the Count's mute Nubian servant Ali, to say nothing of such pivotal but secretive people as the English Lord Willmore and the Italian cleric Abbé Busoni; and even such minor characters as the telegraph operator who appears only in the chapter with the delightful title "How to Rescue a Gardener from the Dormice who are Eating his Peaches".

The novel is well-written if not beautifully so (as always, I should caution that I am basing such an evaluation on the translation(s) I read and heard.) Dumas was a very witty writer. The characters are nicely limned, if (as Buss argues, and I agree) it is somewhat difficult to square the early depictions of Fernand and Danglars with their later incarnations as the Comte de Morcerf and the Baron Danglars. It is clearly a work of popular fiction in that the plot is far from realistic -- that said, the depictions of 1830s Paris and Rome seem pretty solid (and Dumas sprinkles in mentions of things like a couple of his favorite inns and hotels.) And for all the unrealism of the plot, and the near magical nature of the Count's powers and his fortune, the central themes: corruption, vengeance, and the ultimate dangers of living for vengeance (especially with regards to collateral damage) -- all leading to a paean to forgiveness -- are quite powerful.

The bottom line is simple: this novel has been extremely popular since it first appeared in 1844. And it wholly deserves this -- it is glorious, sometimes delirious, fun. It is first of all entertainment, but entertainment with some depth behind it. It is a very long novel -- roughly half a million words -- but always interesting, never a slog. And you know what -- a long TV adaptation -- in a dozen or twenty hour long episodes, say -- could be really wonderful.