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      Wednesday, 2 December 2020

      The Soul of Kindness

      Elizabeth Taylor, born in 1912, was one of the most accomplished English novelists of the Twentieth Century. She can be thought of continuing in the way pioneered by Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf of depicting people’s inner lives but extending this to include several characters’ thoughts in relating and conversing with a set of other people who include relatives, friends, and lovers. She published twelve novels, a children’s book, and many short stories, which she conceived and thought about while bringing up two children. She was outraged by the fact that most male writers have not needed to divide their time in this way. So here, from her
       A View of the Harbour (1947) is Beth, a novelist on her way up to London on a train to see her publisher. "A man, she thought suddenly, would consider this a business outing. But, then, a man would not have to cook the meals for the day overnight, nor consign his child to a friend, not leave half-done the ironing, nor forget the grocery order as I have now forgotten it" (p. 186). 


      Elizabeth Taylor’s The Soul of Kindness (1964) can be regarded as a variation on Jane Austen’s Emma, in which the protagonist encourages others to marry. Elizabeth Taylor's novel starts with the wedding of Flora Secretan to Richard, a businessman. In the early part of the book Flora influences her best friend Meg to yearn for a sexual relationship with Patrick, a novelist, without seeming to know that, although he is willing to take Meg out for an occasional meal, it won’t go much further because he is gay. She also influences Richard’s father to marry his mistress, Ba; they do so and both find their lives much more boring than they had previously been. Meg’s brother, Kit, adores Flora and thinks of her as a goddess. He has been to drama school and has had one or two tiny walk-on parts. Although no one else thinks he has the slightest chance, Flora encourages him to believe that he will triumph and become a great actor. In Chapter 2, (p. 14 in the Kindle version) we read this: “she had inconvenient plans for other people’s pleasure, and ideas differing from her own she was not able to tolerate.” Then here, at the end of Chapter 2, are Flora and her new husband, Richard, in bed.

      She was glad that there was a way of coaxing him out of his black humour. She turned him to face her, her silky arms around his shoulders. An end to the sulks. Benignly, she made a present of herself.

      Flora … the soul of kindness.


      Flora’s friend, Meg, works in an office in the middle of London but cannot afford to live in Kensington. So, with a small amount of money inherited from her father and some encouragement from Patrick, she moves into a little house that allows an occasional distant glimpse of the funnel of a ship passing on the river in an area that seems to be somewhere between Greenwich and Woolwich. Near this house lives Liz whose studio is upstairs from a deserted shop that is scheduled for demolition. Liz lives in the most awful mess: dead flowers, cow parsley, some feathers, dinner plates, sea-shells, all over the floor. But she paints pictures:

      The rubbish on the floor and about the room had been re-created, reassembled over and over again, into delicate and intricate patterns … there were also some pale girl children, with staring eyes (p. 39).


      The artistic arrangements are beautiful. It doesn’t seem to be an accident that the painter is called “Liz,” because here is a quote from the end of the Wikipedia article on Elizabeth:

      The whole point is that writing has a pattern and life hasn't. Life is so untidy. Art is so short and life so long. It is not possible to have perfection in life but it is possible to have perfection in a novel.


      I don’t think The Soul of Kindness is quite perfect, but it seems to me that aspects of it are. It does have a plot, but that’s not really what it’s about. It is a book that one needs to read slowly; it’s unlikely to work if you skip or speed-read. It depicts characters’ thoughts, then thoughts of what they might or might not say, maybe could say or should say … but instead they say something else which is sometimes a cliché, which isn’t quite what they meant to say but, because it’s been heard before, could possibly be alright. People’s beliefs and ideas about each other and about themselves also get passed around. At this book’s centre is the issue that although we human beings are completely dependent on our relationships, we often don’t quite know, and some of us seem unable to know, what effects we might have by saying certain things to others.


      In this novel, too, are observations: as characters look at gardens and shops and houses. What they see, mingled with their thoughts of what they might say, is a multitude of English peculiarities. The result for the reader (at least this one) was quite a bit of giggling out-loud as I proceeded. In this book as well—rather touchingly depicted—there’s loneliness, particularly for Flora’s mother and for Flora’s friend, Meg.


      The book’s principal focus is on self-absorption. Although, in Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971), there’s affection, there’s not much of it in The Soul of Kindness. Instead there’s reflection … prompted by the question of what we human beings are up to in our lives, and on how we search for meaning within ourselves and with each other.


      Jane Austen (1816). Emma. Oxford: Oxford University Press (current edition 2003).


      Elizabeth Taylor (1947). A view of the harbour. New York: New York Review Books (current edition 2015). 


      Elizabeth Taylor (1964). The soul of kindness. London: Virago (current edition 2010).


      Elizabeth Taylor (1971). Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. London: Virago (current edition 1982).




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      Tuesday, 13 October 2020



      Mollie Panter-Downes became well known for her column in the New Yorker on life in London during World War II (republished as London War Notes). Her fifth novel, One Fine Day, came out in 1947. Its title might have been One Day, because that’s what it is: a day in the life of a family who live in an aging house, somewhere south-west of London, one year after the end of the War. 


      Here's the plot. Eight o’clock in the morning, the sun is shining. Laura and Stephen Marshall at breakfast. Stephen leaves the house, drives to the station to go up on the train to London, where he works. Their twelve-year old daughter Victoria goes to school. Laura, age 38, the main protagonist, goes on a bus to do some shopping in a nearby town. Provisions in short supply, coupons needed. She returns; does some stuff around the house, and in the garden, then in the afternoon rides on her bicycle to collect the family dog who has wandered off. Having collected him from where he sometimes goes, to a gypsy who lives with several dogs in an abandoned railway carriage, she climbs a small hill, and looks out over the countryside. She lies on the grass, falls asleep, with the dog on a lead beside her. It’s early evening when Victoria returns, having had tea with her friend Mouse Watson. Her mother isn’t home. Later, Stephen comes back from work. Laura still not home. Victoria finds some fish and cooks it. She and her father eat it for dinner. Both of them worried. Where can she be? Laura is woken by a noise. It’s a hiker whom she’d seen on the bus that morning. She sees how late it is; thinks of something she was going to tell her husband but can’t remember what. Thinks she’d better hurry home. That’s it. 


      The middle of the novel is taken up with episodes, Laura’s meetings with people such as a working class family one of whom, George, is extraordinarily handsome, and might be able to do a bit of gardening but can’t because he’s going off elsewhere, and the Vicar, “a saint who had the misfortune to sound like a bore.” Incidents occur. And memories: Laura remembers a man she might have married but feels relieved that she did not. She sees huts that Canadian soldiers had lived in, sees holes in a wall where army trucks had bashed through. She has thoughts about this house and that one. It’s hard to imagine anything more redolent—I think that’s the word—of South-of-England upper-middle-class life in the aftermath of World War II. One could re-arrange some of the episodes and meetings without making much difference, because the sequence—morning, afternoon, evening—is not what this novel is about. At a deeper level it’s reflection: by Mollie, by Laura (with smaller pieces by Victoria and Stephen), and by us readers, on what it is to be human, on what our relationships within ourselves and with each other are all about.


      For me the novel succeeded in prompting reflection, but with some parts that didn’t quite work. And it is so very, very, English. But the inwardness did work, somewhat like Virginia Woolf, but warmer, more interpersonal.


      In his obituary of Mollie Panter-Downes, in the third of February 1997 issue of The Independent, Anthony Bailey reported her as saying, "I'm a reporter. I can't invent." What she was doing however was something that poets of the Tang Era in China did. Not invention, but perception of episodes in the world that are reflected in inner consciousness and writing (see OnFiction: “Patterns in the World and in the Mind,’ 9 January 2012; you can reach it by doing a search for “Tang” on the OnFiction home page). In Mollie Panter-Downes’s case, although some of her world is to do with nature, predominately it’s people.


      Panter-Downes, M. (1947). One fine day. Current edition: London: Virago, 1985).

      Panter-Downes, M. (2004). London war notes. London: Persephone.


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      Monday, 21 September 2020

      Eleanor Oliphant

      Gail Honeyman said that the idea for her first novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, came from two sources. One was reading an article about a woman in her twenties who lived alone in a big city. She would leave work on Friday and would often not speak to anyone until she returned to work on Monday. The other was how someone might manage if they were conversationally awkward. Eleanor Oliphant’s work and home life are similar to those of the woman in her twenties. And she is not just conversationally awkward but often inappropriate, sometimes rude. 


      Eleanor was hired by Bob to work in the accounts office of a graphic design company in Glasgow. She has been there for nine years. She is clever and did a degree in classics. She gets the Daily Telegraph, not because she likes the newspaper but to do its cryptic crossword. She thinks she isn’t liked by the others who work in her office, which is probably right, because she can’t do small talk. At weekends she drinks vodka, so that Saturday and Sunday pass in a bit of a haze. 


      On television one evening, she sees Johnnie, a musician. Immediately, she falls in love with him, because she can see from the three-piece suit that he wears and the way that he leaves undone the bottom button of his waistcoat, that he is a gentleman. He’s the one for her. He’s a musician and she knows that the moment they meet he will fall in love with her. She starts to make preparations to make herself look more beautiful. 


      Every Wednesday evening, Mummy gets in touch. In Chapter 4, Eleanor thinks that it was hardly surprising that her mother had been institutionalized, given the nature of her crime. During these conversations, Mummy is scathing and horrible but Eleanor tells her about this chap she is thinking of, and Mummy is encouraging. 


      In her office, Eleanor’s computer malfunctions. She gets in touch with Raymond, a new bloke who has come to work in IT. He fixes the computer. Eleanor observes that he has scruffy hair, and a bit of a paunch. He wears running shoes, and silly t-shirts. He shaves infrequently and looks unkempt. Not only that but he smokes cigarettes. 


      “How disgusting,” says Eleanor. “The chemical constitution of cigarettes includes cyanide and ammonia. Do you really want to willingly ingest such toxic substances?”


      Eleanor receives a visit from a social worker. This occurs every six months. She was in foster care from the age of ten. She lived with several families and didn’t get along with any of them. Because of her background she has been housed in a low-rent flat. This time the social worker is new; during her visit, as she flicks through her file on Eleanor, a look of shock comes over her. 


      One day, although they have only just met, Eleanor and Raymond find themselves leaving work at the same time. As they walk along, they see an elderly man staggering, then falling down in the street. Raymond goes to help him and gets Eleanor to do so as well. Although reluctant, she does. They call an ambulance, and the man is taken to hospital. They find themselves making visits to the old man in hospital. His name is Sammy. He tells them they saved his life. Just before they leave, one day, he takes Eleanor’s hands in his. This feels to her very warm and cozy.


      Although love is the most popular topic in stories from all round the world—love of the sexual kind—this story is not about that. It’s not a love story, it’s a friend story. 


      In Chapter 10, Raymond has invited Eleanor to go with him to visit his Mum, which he does nearly every Sunday. It involves Raymond going around his Mum’s house and doing everything that needs doing. She has terrible arthritis, but she keeps everything clean and neat, and is able to look after the vegetable garden in the backyard. Eleanor is asked to stay for tea, which she does. It’s soup with stock and vegetables from the garden. Lovely. Afterwards Raymond says he’ll do the washing up. Noticing Eleanor’s hands have eczema, he says that he would wash and she could dry. At one point, conversation among Raymond, his Mum, and Eleanor, turns towards Raymond’s dad, and how he lived long enough to see his daughter get married. Eleanor wonders why Raymond had not mentioned that he has a sister.  His Mum asks her if she has any brothers or sisters. She says she hasn’t. She says that this is a source of sadness for her, and bursts into tears. Apologies all round. She says she never knew her father, and that she talks to her Mummy once a week. It all seems perfectly ordinary … it IS perfectly ordinary, except this is the first time that Eleanor has ever talked about herself to anybody.


      The novel also has an aspect of mystery. We wonder what happened to Eleanor, what had shocked the social worker, what the Wednesday evening conversations with Mummy are really about. We ask ourselves why Eleanor burst into tears when asked about a sibling. 


      Towards the end of the novel, Raymond says this: “I remember when I first met you … I thought you were a right nutter.”


      “I am a right nutter,” she says.


      Then Raymond says: “Aye, sure you’re a bit bonkers—but in a nice way.” 


      And maybe that’s a bit like some of the rest of us.

      Gail Honeyman (2017). Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine. Toronto: Viking. 

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      Wednesday, 24 June 2020

      Clarice Lispector

      The novella, The Hour of the Star, by Clarice Lispector, is unlike anything else I have read. This review can be thought of as following on from my previous post about authors hearing the voices of their characters, and characters having independent agency. It’s about the lives of someone called Rodrigo, an author-narrator who starts by thinking of writing a book (the one you would have in your hands as you read The Hour of the Star) and the book’s protagonist, Macabéa, a nineteen-year-old woman, who is thin and not good-looking, who grew up a very poor area in the north-east of Brazil, who had only three years at school, then moved to Rio de Janeiro to be employed as a typist.

      Clarise Lispector was born in 1920, in the Ukraine, and her family moved to this same area in the north-east of Brazil, before moving to Rio de Janeiro.

      In the story Macabéa meets the arrogant Olímpico, with whom she falls in love. On page 38, the author-narrator says of him: “He had, I just discovered, inside of him, the hard seed of evil.” Later we read that he had killed someone in the north-east of Brazil, and that he was also a thief. A few pages later we read that when walking along with Macabéa, Olímpico says he is strong, so he lifts her into the air. She is euphoric: “what it’s like to fly in an aeroplane” she thinks. Then he dumps her in the mud. Then, another few pages on, Olímpico says to her: “are you just pretending to be an idiot or are you actually an idiot?” Macobéa: “I’m not sure what I am, I think I’m a little … what? … “I mean I’m not quite sure what I am.”

      Then Olímpico goes off with Glória, a blond chubby girl who works in the same office as Macabéa. Feeling guilty, Glória recommends that Macabéa should visit a fortune teller, Madame Carlota, who sees in Macabéa’s cards that her life has been and continues to be horrible. Then she relents and tells her client that her life will be wonderful, that she will be courted and marry someone called Hans. Macabéa is enchanted. As she leaves the fortune teller’s place, and steps off the pavement, she is run over and killed by a large and expensive Mercedes.

      As Colm Tóibín wrote in a very engaging review: 
      In October 1977, shortly before her death, she [Lispector] published the novella The Hour of the Star in which all her talents and eccentricities merged and folded in a densely self-conscious narrative dealing with the difficulty and odd pleasures of storytelling and then proceeding, when it could, to tell the story of Macabéa, a woman who, Lispector told an interviewer, "was so poor that all she ate were hot dogs". But she made clear that this was "not the story, though. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery." [Then], Lispector told a TV interviewer: "I went to a fortune-teller who told me about all kinds of good things that were about to happen to me, and on the way home in the taxi I thought it'd be really funny if a taxi hit me and ran me over and I died after hearing all those good things.”

      But this novella isn’t about the plot. It’s about how Lispector the writer, created Rodrigo, the author-narrator, who created Macabéa as a character, and how this character in turn seems to take part in the process of creating not just author-narrator Rodrigo but also, perhaps, in a certain kind of way, Lispector. 

      If we knew that that someone had decided to enter the police, or to be shop assistant or office worker, we might think that she or he had taken a decision, to become a person of a certain kind and that, in turn, the role she or he has taken on would shape something in that person. But an original idea of this novella, is that a somewhat similar process can occur with a writer and the story and characters that the writer decides to create. As we read on page 13 the author-narrator says: 
      I have a fidgety character on my hands who escapes me at every turn expecting me to retrieve her … I see that north-eastern girl looking in the mirror and—a ruffle of the drum—in the mirror appears my weary and unshaven face. We’re that interchangeable.

      Then on page 61 the author-narrator says to his readers:
      As for me I’m tired. Maybe of the company of Macabéa, Glória, Olímpico… I have to interrupt this story for about three days … For the last three days, alone, without characters, I depersonalize myself … as if taking off my clothes … and now I emerge and miss Macabéa. Let’s continue.

      But this novella is not just about this fascinating conversation among the writer, the author-narrator,