Review 2030: Down Below

Leonora Carrington was a Surrealist artist who for years had an affair with the much-older Max Ernst. During World War II, Ernst kept being imprisoned as an enemy alien in France, and the resultant tribulations broke Carrington’s mental health. As she and some friends traveled to Spain to escape the German invasion, she became disassociated from reality. Down Below is her recollection of her state of mind and thoughts during her break from reality.

Reading this very short work is an odd experience, as Carrington’s delusions seem as surrealistic as any artwork. It also feels elliptical, reticent about the events that brought on her insanity and really about anything personal except her state of mind. It would have been almost impossible to understand without the background provided in the Introduction to my NYRB edition.

It’s pretty crazy. Unfortunately, this breakdown made her a heroine of Surrealism, which must have been personally difficult for her.

Just as a coincidence, shortly after I read this book, I read Julie Orringer’s The Flight Portfolio, about Varian Fry, the man who helped many writers and artists, including Ernst, I think, escape the Nazis. Review coming in a few months.

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Review 1708: Leaving the Atocha Station

Adam Gordon is an American pursuing a project in Madrid in 2004. He only hints at the project’s purpose, but he spends most of his time taking drugs, visiting museums, and doing what he calls “translating,” in which he takes lines from other people’s works, substitutes words, and moves things around. He is supposed to be a poet on a grant to write a long poem about how the Spanish Civil War has affected poetry, but he is not doing any research and knows very little about Spanish poetry.

In fact, Adam lies almost all the time. He doesn’t consider himself a poet but a fraud. He is self-loathing and is constantly manipulating his face or thinking up things to say to seem deep. He talks about not feeling anything or experiencing the experience of the event rather than the event itself.

This novel, which seems more like a disguised memoir, is funny at times. It asks a lot of its audience intellectually, and at times I got lost in its logical circumlocutions. The narrator is not very likable, but he grows on you, and he undergoes a sudden transformation at the end.

Would I recommend this book? Only to certain people. I would like to say, though, that its cover design, which starts with snippets from The Garden of Earthly Delights on the right and then smears the colors of each snippet into a shape of a train, is fabulous.

This is a book I read for my James Tait Black Prize project.

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Review 1539: Mary Lavelle

It was interesting to me to learn that Mary Lavelle had been banned in Ireland as an immoral book, for in its own way, it’s very moral. Still, I guess it was shocking for 1936.

Mary is a young Irish woman who is engaged to be married to a kind and worthy young man who must wait to marry her until he can earn enough. His prospects are good, but he is paid a niggardly wage by his miser father.

Almost on a whim and despite her fiancé’s objections, Mary decides to take a governess job for a year in Spain, and the beginning of the novel finds her on the way there by train. Spain is not as she imagined it, but from the first she likes it. The Areavaga family are gracious and kind, and their three daughters soon like Mary very much. She makes some friends within a group of British governesses she meets at the local café, although she is sometimes shocked at their behavior and their airs of superiority toward the Spanish.

Mary is unconsciously beautiful and innocent. She is immediately attractive to Pablo Areavaga, her charges’ father, but he is too principled to show it. Trouble comes, though, with the arrival of Juanito, Areavaga’s married son, for Juanito falls in love with her at first sight.

I have read two books now by O’Brien, and both gave me a sense of a ferocious intelligence. Both are set in Spain, and in both, she examines the conflict between religion, principle, and emotional drives. The descriptions of the scenery and people of Spain are vivid and sometimes lyrical. This is another good book from my Classics Club list.

One comment on my new edition of Virago Modern Classics. Almost as soon as I began reading the book, the last six or eight pages fell out. Thereafter, I was constantly tucking them back in, afraid I was going to lose them.

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Review 1453: Station Wagon in Spain

Years ago, I read several books by Frances Parkinson Keyes, although I was familiar with her as a historical novelist. Station Wagon in Spain is a contemporary novel for its time, set in 1959.

Allan Lambert is a Spanish professor who has come into an unexpected fortune from his uncle. He has moved into his uncle’s large house and has been ignoring his friend Charlotte’s hints that they get engaged. As term is out and it is the beginning of his sabbatical, he finds he is restless and realizes he is bored.

One day he receives a letter from Spain. It’s a Spanish Prisoner letter, very similar to the Nigerian Letter scam that is still around today. According to the novel, this scam has been around roughly since 1542. Allan recognizes it as a scam but thinks it would be fun to follow up on it and see what happens. He answers the letter and soon has purchased a station wagon and arranged to ship it and himself to Spain.

On board the ship, he meets an attractive woman named Ethel Crewe, who is traveling to Spain to meet her businessman husband. He is inclined to become more closely involved, but things don’t work out that way.

Upon arriving in Spain, Allan offers her and her husband, Anthony, a ride to Madrid. Later, when he meets the representative of the “Spanish prisoner,” he is astonished to find out it is Anthony Crewe.

Although this novel is billed as a romantic suspense and does have some action and skullduggery in it. the plot unravels slowly and at times is much more concerned with the romance after Allan meets a beautiful daughter of a newly impoverished aristocrat. Still, it’s a charming story even though I have my doubts that a Spanish duke, no matter how impoverished and grateful, would assent to his daughter’s marriage to an American academic, certainly not in 1959.

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Review 1401: The Muse

In 1967 London, Odelle Bastien has been making her way with difficulty. Although she is well educated, her race and origins in Trinidad are keeping her from getting a job. Then she gets a break. Marjorie Quick hires her as a secretary in an art institute and makes friendly overtures.

Odelle finds Quick mysterious. She asks Odelle about herself but tells her nothing. She does, however, encourage Odelle to write.

Odelle has also met Laurie Scott, a young man who is interested in being more than her friend. His mother has just died, leaving him only an unusual painting. To support himself, he intends to try to sell it. Odelle encourages him to bring it to the Skelton Institute, her workplace. When Quick sees the painting, she has a strong reaction to it.

In 1935, Harold Schloss, an art dealer, has fled Vienna with his family. Unfortunately, he has chosen Spain, which will soon be little safer, to flee to. His daughter Olive has been accepted at Slade, but she hasn’t told her father. He believes that women can’t be artists, just dabblers.

Olive meets Isaac Robles, an artist, and his sister Irene. Both are servants for the house the Schlosses are renting. Olive is struck by Isaac’s good looks and begins painting in a new style with vibrant colors.

The novel follows these two time threads as it explores the mystery of the painting. Who painted it, and how did it end up in London? How does Quick know about it?

I was struck by Burton’s weird and wonderful The Miniaturist, so much so that as soon as I finished reading it, I bought this book. I found The Muse to be a bit more mundane, with few surprises. For a long time, I was much more interested in Odelle’s section than Olive’s, particularly because Olive makes a decision about her art that I found shocking and unbelievable. In theme, this novel is similar to The Blazing World, and in an action taken by an artist, but with a crucial difference.

Also, like some other bloggers, I am wearying of the dual time-frame format. I am beginning to think it is a little lazy. After all, it seems easier to write half a book about two historical time periods (or one depending upon the time chosen for the more recent period) than a whole book about one. One of the delights of The Miniaturist was how it immersed me in the period. This novel doesn’t really do that.

Mind, it’s not a bad novel, and many people will like it. I just found it a disappointing follow-up to Burton’s first book.

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Day 1284: Hot Milk

Cover for Hot MilkSofia is an anthropology graduate student who has given up her job and her room in a storage cupboard to care for her mother, Rose, as she seeks medical help at a clinic in Spain. Rose has a myriad of symptoms, but no one has been able to diagnose a problem. Mostly, she is concerned about her legs. She can’t walk, at least when she doesn’t want to. She can’t feel anything, except when she does. She complains constantly, and nothing is ever right.

Sofia is unhappy with her life—her unfinished dissertation, her job as a barrista, the cubbyhole she lives in, her subservience to her mother. Her father left them when she was five and despite being wealthy, seems to feel no responsibility for them, even in the days when they could barely afford to eat. He has made a religious conversion and now has a young wife and baby daughter.

Sofia is dabbling in an affair with a German girl, Ingrid, from Berlin, but they seem to be at cross purposes.

This novel is intelligent and sometimes almost hallucinogenic as it explores Sofia’s attempts to wake up and take responsibility for herself. At times, I found it a little confusing and its incidents unlikely but mostly I was engaged in Sofia’s journey.

This is another book I read for my Man Booker Prize project.

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Day 897: That Lady

Cover for That LadyThat Lady is another book I’ve read for my Classics Club list, and a good one it is, too. In the Preface to the novel, Kate O’Brien states that it is not a historical novel because, although all of the events are real, the scenes between characters are wholly imagined. But I would argue that this is the very definition of a historical novel, with the proviso that the author attempt to preserve the true nature of the peoples’ characters, if they are known. That Lady is based on a curious interaction between Philip II of Spain and Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli, that historians are still struggling to understand.

The novel begins in 1576, when Ana is a 36-year-old widow. Her husband was Ruy Gomez de Silva, Philip’s secretary of state. But Ruy has been dead for several years, and Ana has been living a retired life with her children on her country estate of Pastrana.

Philip comes to visit, however, and tells her he wishes her to return to Madrid. He and Ana have enjoyed friendship and a mild flirtation, and he misses her company.

Ana does not return to Madrid immediately, but she eventually does in the fall of 1577. There, she becomes reacquainted with Don Antonio Perez, her husband’s former protégé and friend, who is Philip’s current secretary of state.

Although Ana has heretofore been a virtuous woman, she begins an affair with Perez, partially because she realizes she has done nothing of her own volition for years. This relationship eventually becomes a complication in a political battle.

This novel is primarily a character study of a fascinating woman and to a lesser extent of Philip II, whose poor government of Spain has stricken with poverty the inhabitants of what was at the time the wealthiest country in the world. It is also a very interesting study of the politics of the region of Castille.

At first, I found it difficult to grasp Ana’s character, but the novel centers on her strong sense of principle and protection of her privacy. It is also about the tension between her religious beliefs and her principles. That is, having committed herself, she refuses to abandon her lover when he is in trouble, even to save her soul or her life.

That Lady is a powerful novel about an unusual, strong woman who struggles against the restrictions of her life based on sex and station. I highly recommend it. By the way, the picture on the cover above is of a painting of the actual lady.

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Day 707: Don Quijote

Cover for Don QuijoteI know. This is not the spelling of “Quixote” most people are accustomed to seeing, but it is the one used in my Norton Critical Edition, translated by Burton Raffel. And a sprightly translation it is.

Don Quijote is the story of an old man who has studied the popular chivalric romances so much that they have addled his brain. He declares himself a knight errant and takes to the road seeking adventure. Accompanying him is a neighboring farmer, Sancho Panza, who he has convinced to come with him as his squire in exchange for a share in certain rewards. In particular, Sancho has his heart set on the governorship of an island.

Don Quijote doesn’t just look for adventure. In the first book, he hurls himself at every passer by, convincing himself that windmills are giants, a barber is a knight, an inn is a castle. Above all else, he worships his lady, the beautiful Dulcinea, whom he has never met but whom Sancho remembers as a muscular peasant girl.

Don Quijote is both a parody of the chivalric romances and a satire against the Spanish conquistadores. Its most important distinction is that it is considered the first modern novel. I found volume one to be amusing in a sort of slapstick style, as Don Quijote’s adventures always go wrong and end up with him and Sancho Panza being beaten up.

Volume two was a little too much of the same, though. In a bit of metafiction, Cervantes lists some of the things readers criticized from the first volume and then attempts to avoid them. So, for example, the two adventurers are not beaten up as often. However, both volumes contain long disquisitions on such topics as marriage, poetry, chivalry that don’t all translate well into modern times.

Finally, after Don Quijote had himself lowered into Montesino’s Cave to see its wonders and then fell asleep and dreamt a bunch of nonsense and never even saw the cave, I had to stop. Quijote was in the midst of recounting his ridiculous dream, which he took for reality, and it seemed to go on and on. I leafed ahead, looking for the end of it, never found the end, and finally lost patience. I fully believe, since apparently someone else published a book about our hero after the first volume came out, that Cervantes only brought Quijote back out on the road so that he could kill him off at the end.

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Day 496: My First Classics Club Review! The Long Ships

Cover for The Long ShipsBest Book of the Week!
Today I’m posting my first review for The Classics Club, the one chosen for me by the Classics Club Spin #5!  The Long Ships is a great start to the Classics Club for me. I found it to be a rousing adventure story full of deadpan humor.

This book is the result of Bengtsson’s desire to write a realistic novel about the Vikings. A poet, Bengtsson also wrote essays and a biography of Charles XII, but he became more widely known for The Long Ships.

His protagonist Orm Tostesson is only a boy when the novel begins. Orm is eager to go a-viking to Ireland with his father and older brother, but his mother tends to be protective of him, so he stays home. Shortly after the men leave, he attempts to stop some sheep stealing on the part of a group of Vikings from Lister and is kidnapped by them. The Vikings soon find him an able and intelligent companion, so he becomes part of their crew rather than being kept a slave.

In the course of their adventures down the western coast of Europe, they are initially successful but eventually are captured and sold as galley slaves. In return for a service they performed for a Jew from Córdoba, they are freed to serve as bodyguards for lord Almansur, the regent and imprisoner of the young Caliph of Córdoba. There they serve for years until circumstances force them to flee for home.

This voyage is the first of three related in the novel, during which “Red” Orm meets his bride to be, loses her when his best friend Toke steals her father’s concubine, goes a-viking to England to try to retrieve her from English priests, and many years later travels down the Dnieper to bring back a stash of hidden gold. Even when he is settled at home, he is involved in tiffs with his neighbors, attempts to murder him on the orders of the evil King Sven, visits from unusual acquaintances, rowdy celebrations, and a Thing, a convocation of various groups of Vikings for settling their differences.

There is plenty of action in this novel, but what I find most charming are its air of insouciance and its ongoing (although somewhat grisly) humor. It has a sense of playfulness, especially about the differences between the Norsemen’s old religion, Christianity, and Islam, to which Orm and his fellows are temporarily forced to convert. Take, for example, this passage from the prologue, about the arrival of the shaven men, or priests, in Skania:

They had many strange tales to relate, and at first people were curious and listened to them eagerly, and women found it pleasant to be baptized by these foreigners and to be presented with a white shift. Before long, however, the foreigners began to run short of the shifts, and people wearied of their sermons, finding them tedious and their matter doubtful . . . . So then there was something of a decline in conversions, and the shaven men, who talked incessantly of peace and were above all very violent in their denunciation of the gods, were one by one seized by devout persons and were hung up on sacred ash trees and shot at with arrows, and offered to the birds of Odin.

To give you another idea of the humor in this novel, a Viking tells a story of a wedding that broke up into a fight. When the bride sees the groom’s friends beating up one of her relatives, she hits the groom with a torch, which starts his hair on fire, beginning another fire in which 11 people are killed. Everyone agrees that it was the best wedding they ever attended.

The story of Red Orm is told in a detached manner but by a truly talented storyteller. It is full of sly humor and observations of human folly. I really enjoyed it.

Day 466: Literary Wives: The Inquisitor’s Wife

Today the Literary Wives blog group members all review The Inquisitor’s Wife. Be sure to check out the other reviews at the links at the bottom of this review. We encourage you to participate by submitting your comments or a link to your own review to any of our blogs, or you can submit a comment or link on our new Facebook page! For more information, see my Literary Wives page.

Cover for The Inquisitor's WifeThe Review

The Inquisitor’s Wife is a historical novel with a promising concept that is not fulfilled. Although set in an interesting era and place, its characters behave as they need to just to drive the plot.

Marisol Garcia is the daughter of Diego, a respected Old Christian of 15th century Seville, and Magdalena, a converso, or Jewish woman forcibly converted to Christianity. Although as a child Marisol observes her mother’s celebration of the Sabbath on Friday nights without understanding what it means, when she is 11, she is ridiculed by the neighborhood children for being a Jew. Humiliated, she turns against her mother and refuses to take part in her rituals.

This, aside from a complete lack of a sense of their household and daily life, was my first problem with this novel, because Marisol’s loyalties and feelings about her heritage shift back and forth throughout the novel. Having adored her mother, she turns against her in an instant after one incident. Later, she changes her mind several times, and in general her behavior as a young woman is more like that of a spoiled adolescent.

As Queen Isabella gains power, the conversos of the city hope she will protect them, as she herself has married one of them, King Ferdinand. They are about to be gravely disappointed.

Eventually, everyone hears rumors of an Inquisition, and Magdalena becomes terrified that the horrible events of her childhood will recur. She urges Diego to move the family to Portugal, but secure in his own innocence and unaware of his wife’s activities, he is firm in his belief that they are not in danger. Marisol follows her mother outside one night to the river and sees her drown herself, apparently from despair.

Marisol has been in love with her neighbor Antonio since they were children. They are engaged while he is away studying, but after she does not hear from him for over a year, she believes he has abandoned her. Shortly after her mother’s death, she finds out her father has made some kind of deal with another neighbor, whom she detests, Gabriel Hojeda, who is a civil administrator for the Inquisition. She is forced to marry him, and her father renounces her.

Of course, he is trying to protect her as the Inquisition is going after him (for no apparent reason but that his wife was a converso), but it takes her awhile to figure this out. She continues to be clueless throughout the novel, not picking up on any of the hints that are strewn everywhere. Then, on her wedding night, Gabriel’s intimidating brother Fray Hojeda asks for a promise that the two will not consummate their marriage for a month. There is no apparent reason for this request either except the plot’s need to save Marisol for Antonio and to introduce a sadistic sex scene toward the end of the novel.

I can go on and on about the unlikeliness of the plot as Marisol and her father fall deeper into danger. But one tiny spoiler reveals how poorly thought out this novel is. Marisol and Antonio don’t hear from each other in a year. Why? Because jealous Gabriel is stealing their letters. How he does this is not explained, but mail is not exactly sitting out in the mailbox. Oh, let’s have another example. In a late scene in the novel, Marisol and Antonio swim to safety—this in a time when most Europeans didn’t swim, even sailors, not to mention gently born Spanish ladies dressed in enveloping and heavy garb. She would have sunk immediately.

As I mentioned before, there is no sense of the characters’ daily lives except for Magdalena’s time spent painting ceramics, and that is in service of the plot. When Marisol gets married, instead of taking over the household as a well-trained wife of her class would do, she asks her husband what she should do and since he gives her nothing to do, apparently does nothing except run around town unchaperoned. Except for Marisol, all of the characters are completely undeveloped. Everyone is either good or bad. Although this novel has the opportunity to say something about the Inquisition, it disintegrates into a messy damsel in distress story that becomes more absurd as it continues. If it was purely a romp, I wouldn’t judge it so harshly, but it seems to have pretensions to something more serious.

Literary Wives logoWhat does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

Marisol’s marriage to Gabriel is just a plot device. Even its motivation doesn’t make sense, because if she and her father are in danger just because of her mother, Gabriel’s having married Marisol would logically put him in danger. He would not be able to protect her and in fact, does not really try to. As to the other marriage, her parents’ is warm but only scantily depicted. The only true family, that of Marisol’s uncle, comes to the novel late, and we don’t see much of it.

In what way does this woman define “wife” or is defined by “wife”?

This novel doesn’t really concern itself with wifehood. Gabriel’s definition of a wife is someone who is in his power. Other than being another threat to the damsel and a way to keep her and Antonio apart, Marisol’s status as a wife is hardly even regarded or treated with. In fact, in another unlikely plot twist, she is asked to keep her marriage a secret, even though she is living in her husband’s house unchaperoned and would have her reputation damaged if she was not thought to be married. Diego and Magdalena love each other, but Magdalena deceives Diego in continuing to observe her religion, and we don’t see much of them together.

Be sure to view the posts of the other “wives,” as follows:

Ariel of One Little Library
Audra of Unabridged Chick
Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses
Cecilia of Only You
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors