Day 573: The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Cover for The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent MillayPoetry is not really my expertise, so I feel awkward trying to write this. Of course, I came to this book familiar with a few of Millay’s most well-known poems, particularly “First Fig.” The poem that made Millay’s reputation was “Renascence,” about a person who is buried in the earth alive and springs back out.

I think this is an interesting book for someone not familiar with Millay. It contains most of her best-known poems from several different collections.

Although Millay was known as a master writer of sonnets and this book contains many sonnets, I think I prefer some of her less formal, cheekier poems, for example, “Thursday.” I also liked the poems that reflect her familiarity with old Celtic and British folk ballads—whose rhythms sound like someone singing a ghostly Border ballad.

After reading in Milford’s biography about Millay’s wonderful voice, I looked for a recording on YouTube. I was delighted to find an atmospheric performance of “The Ballad of the Harpweaver,” recorded for radio.

You might be interested in reading my review of the biography of her life.

Day 559: Snow Country

Cover for Snow CountryPerhaps I did not spend enough time considering Snow Country, because I kept feeling as if I was missing something. I couldn’t figure out if this problem was cultural or more an issue with the misogyny of the 1950’s, when it was written.

The novel follows the affair of Shimamura, an effete and sophisticated intellectual, with Komako, a simple country girl who during the novel becomes a geisha. Part of my initial problem had to do with understanding the implications of being a geisha. After all my prior reading lead me to believe that a geisha is different and in fact higher in status than a prostitute, I had to read the introduction to understand that in these hot springs villages, at least in the time the novel is set, a geisha was essentially a prostitute.

Nevertheless, when Shimamura meets Komako, she is a geisha in training, so clearly not a prostitute. Shimamura has come down from traveling in the mountains and immediately asks the hotel clerk for a geisha. None are available, so she sends him Komako. Shimamura spends the night talking to Komako but then asks her to send him a geisha. It is clear what he wants, but he seems to think he deserves some kind of credit for “behaving well” with her, whereas I, and Komako as well, understood his request as insulting. I do not think we’re supposed to like Shimamura, and I didn’t.

We know far more about Shimamura than we do about Komako. We first encounter him on a train on the way back to Komako’s village after the affair is already started. He is struck by Yoko, a girl who is tending to a sick man. Throughout, though, he is far more interested in his fantasies around Yoko than in actually getting to know her. The essence of Shimamura’s personality comes clear when we learn that he is an expert on occidental ballet even though he has never seen a ballet performed—and prefers not to.

For her part, Komako throws herself into the affair with Shimamura even though it is clearly doomed. Although Shimamura’s behavior remains consistent and it is clear that he is incapable of love, Komako is erratic. Toward the end of the relationship she says one thing and does another, she arrives roaring drunk, and she seems to have an inexplicable love/hate relationship with Yoko, as Yoko does with her.

Of course, the future for Komako is not bright, and she becomes more dissipated as the novel progresses. Although I feel we are supposed to sympathize with her, I found her exasperating. The love affair seems sterile, and I don’t see the point of it.

But this novel is set in the cold and gray snow country. Although part of the affair takes place in other seasons, the most important scenes are in the beginning of winter, and the affair ends in the fall. A sense of isolation permeates the novel.

The writing is beautifully spare, as Kawabata is a poet. I feel it is dense in meaning, but if so, I probably missed a lot of it.

Day 556: Stoner

Cover for StonerBest Book of the Week!
When I first began reading Stoner, I was afraid it was going to be a bleak modernist novel. But it is the opposite of bleak. It is a novel about a shy, awkward man who loves. Williams called it “an escape into reality.”

Williams begins the novel by describing William Stoner’s career at the University of Missouri:

“He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.”

It seems that Williams will be writing about a nonentity, but this is not the case.

On the surface, Stoner does not have a happy life. He is the son of a dirt-poor farmer who decides that William should attend college to learn new agricultural techniques. So, Stoner arrives at the University of Missouri a gawky, unsophisticated boy who has only a mild interest in his courses and begins an undistinguished career.

Then in his sophomore year, he takes a required English literature survey course. Although he is speechless in class, he realizes he has found the thing he loves and so changes his major. He eventually earns a doctorate and begins a teaching career at the university.

He makes an unfortunate choice for a wife, marrying a girl whose training makes her more suitable for a society wife than that of an impoverished instructor. It is not clear why Edith marries him except possibly to get away from home. She makes very clear how distasteful she finds sex, and he is too inexperienced to know what to do about it.

Edith’s sexuality changes briefly when she decides she wants a child. After their daughter Grace is born, though, Edith takes little interest in her or in him. Stoner, on the other hand, falls madly for Grace. He takes on almost all the care for her in her first five or six years of life. Then Edith does everything she can to separate them and mold Grace into the type of girl Edith thinks she should be.

Stoner’s solace is in his work, for which he eventually finds a talent for teaching Medieval literature. His progress in his career is hindered, though, by university politics. He finds himself in a dispute over the fitness of a student to enter the doctoral program. Although Stoner’s position is completely justified and his actions misrepresented, he earns himself the enmity of the student’s mentor, Hollis Lomax, who eventually becomes department chair.

Stoner falls in love and finds for awhile some tenderness, but he knows his relationship will be short-lived. It is also ended by university politics.

What Williams accomplishes in this novel is to turn that first assessment of Stoner on its head. Stoner is a flawed man who owes many of the difficulties of his life to inaction, but he is doing work he loves, he is completely conscientious in his efforts, and he even manages a minor victory over his enemy after years of patience. The introduction to the novel states that although readers think Williams is depicting a sad life, he sees it as a novel about love, all the forms it takes, and the forces against it.

You may think this novel sounds dreary. It is not, and it is not often that you feel as if you know and love a character so thoroughly.

 

Day 550: The Invisible Woman: The Story of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan

Cover for The Invisible WomanThe Invisible Woman is the interesting story of the relationship between Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan, the true nature of which is still being debated. Although Dickens’ reputation was jealously guarded by himself during his life and by his friends and family after his death, Claire Tomalin shows convincing evidence that the two had an affair during the last 13 years of his life.

They met when Nelly was just 18 and he was at the height of his fame at 45. She and her mother and two sisters were struggling, hard working but respectable actresses, or as respectable as actresses could be during the Victorian era. It is possible that Dickens at first thought he had latched onto a bird of a different feather as he befriended the family.

Although Nelly was excited by the attention of such a famous man, it seems clear that she succumbed to him only reluctantly. He offered her a chance at a life free from the worries of poverty but one in which she could not be a member of society.

This is a fascinating story, particularly because of the lengths Dickens went to protect his own image even while shedding his wife Catherine in a cruelly public way and telling lies about it. The actions of his sister-in-law at this time toward her own sister seem almost inexplicable. Also interesting is how Nelly managed to reinvent herself after Dickens’ death.

This book is an engrossing, well written, carefully researched account of events in Dickens’ life that were hidden for years. Only a few years ago I read another biography of Dickens that glossed over this friendship, alternately suggesting that it was perfectly innocent and that Nelly was a gold digger while never actually committing itself about the nature of the relationship. Although there were rumors even at the time of the affair, the cover-up was so pervasive that details are still being uncovered.

Day 546: Boy, Snow, Bird

Cover to Boy, Snow, BirdI find it fascinating when someone takes a well-known story and puts a wildly creative spin on it. Such is the case with Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi’s re-imagining of the story of Snow White.

The story begins in the 1950’s with Boy Novak. Boy flees to a small town in New England to escape her verbally and physically abusive father. Although Boy is a strikingly beautiful icy blonde, she has no sense of herself, so much so that when she looks in a mirror, she sometimes cannot see herself.

Boy meets Arturo Whitman, a widower with a little girl named Snow. Although Boy believes she loves someone else, she marries Arturo. It is not until she has her own dark-skinned daughter, whom she names Bird at Snow’s suggestion, that she learns she has married into an African-American family passing for white.

Boy is appalled to learn that Arturo has a sister, Clara, whom she has never met. Arturo’s mother Olivia sent Clara away as a child because her features were too African-American.

Boy is also worried about Snow, a beauty who has always been fawned over by her family for her pale skin. Boy sees something hidden in Snow and begins to fear for Bird. Finally, she has Arturo send Snow away to live with Clara.

Bird takes up the story at the age of fourteen. She shares her mother’s problems with mirrors. She is a bright, lively girl who is intensely curious about her sister Snow. Soon she begins a correspondence with Snow. When Boy, Snow, and Bird are finally reunited and other secrets emerge, they are forced to explore the differences between appearance and reality.

The setting of this novel during the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement adds dimension to this truly original novel. It is also beautifully written. I felt it slowed down a little in the section where Snow and Bird are corresponding, but it was otherwise absorbing. Although the novel has a realistic setting, it harks back to its fairy tale beginning through dreams, a few hallucinatory moments, and the symbolism of the mirror.

 

Day 544: Death in Venice

Cover for Death in VeniceGustave Aschenbach is a renowned author who has devoted his life to intellectual pursuits and his art. He leads an orderly life, conscientiously applying himself to his work.

One day when he is feeling over-taxed, he goes out for a walk and spots a red-haired man dressed as a traveler. Although the man appears to view him with disdain, at the sight of him Aschenbach is suddenly possessed with the desire to travel.

After stopping a few days on an island in the Adriatic, he decides to go to Venice. The city is gray and unwelcoming. The air is miasmic, and he wonders if he should have come. Then at the hotel he sees a beautiful boy. At first he simply enjoys looking at him, but eventually he becomes erotically fixated.

In writing this novella, Mann wanted to examine the relationship between art and the mind, a life of the senses and a life of intellect. At first, Aschenbach tries to rationalize his obsession by philosophizing about it. Mann makes many allusions to Greek mythology and calls the boy’s beauty godlike. But Aschenbach is lead inexorably into mental degradation. On the boat to Venice he was repelled by an older man, hair dyed and face rouged, who was traveling with a bunch of students. By the end of the novella, he has become that man.

While respecting the merits of the novella, I found Aschenbach’s obsessions and rationalizations repulsive, but I believe that is what Mann intended. In many ways, the story has similarities to Nabokov’s Lolita. However, while Nabokov’s language was beautiful enough to make me somehow grasp what Humbert Humbert felt, Mann’s was written with a different intent, I think.

Day 535: The Known World

Cover for The Known WorldBest Book of the Week!
I found The Known World disorienting for some time. I think this was because the standard blurb describes it as being about Henry Townsend, an African-American owner of slaves who is mentored by his white owner. The novel starts with Henry Townsend’s death, and I kept waiting for it to circle back around and cover his history. But it’s not so much about him as about the world around him. Once I settled in to the world Jones creates, I began to appreciate the novel.

Henry Townsend’s act of becoming a slave owner is so shocking to his parents that they refuse to stay in the house he built with his slave, Moses. His parents, Augustus and Mildred Townsend, worked hard to buy themselves and their son free. Augustus at one point muses that he may have made a mistake in buying Mildred first, leaving Henry too long under the influence of William Robbins, his white master and the richest man in the county. We actually don’t see much mentoring going on between Robbins and Henry, except when Robbins chides Henry for rough-housing with his new slave Moses.

Jones’ focus is on a larger story than that of one man. His story is about the life on Henry Townsend’s plantation and in the county and how it is affected by slavery—particularly by the decision of African-Americans to own slaves.

At first, I found it difficult to keep all the characters straight—or even the timeframe—for Jones has a habit of fixing on a character for a brief moment and telling about that character’s entire life. He also interjects facts and census details about Manchester County. These details are so convincing that he had me believing it was a real place. It is not.

This nonlinear narrative means we don’t fully know any one character. Henry himself is one of the biggest enigmas, and we see more of his slave Moses than we do of Henry himself. Certainly, a handful of characters are more important than others, but that handful keeps changing. Still, some threads of the people’s stories are captivating, and even surprising. Does Augustus, kidnapped by unscrupulous slave dealers when he is returning from a job, ever see his home again? Did Moses actually murder his wife Priscilla in hopes of marrying Henry’s widow?

If I had to state briefly the theme of this unusual novel, I would say that slavery corrupts. Characters who start out with good intentions do despicable things because they have absolute power over other people. When we see the effect of the “institution” of slavery on people, especially upon Henry’s blameless parents, it is sometimes shocking.

There are true villains in this novel but no heroes. Some of the characters are doing the best they can; others are not.