Archive for May, 2011

The Flight of the Maidens

29 May 2011

The Flight of the Maidens. Jane Gardam
London: Chatto & Windus 2000. 288pp.

It is 1946. Three girls come of age in the weeks after they emerge from school. All of them are poor, all have won scholarships to elite English colleges.

They live in Yorkshire.  The background characters are passionate people who like to be seen as generous and self-sacrificing. They also tend to be petty and narrow, repressed and stunted, prone to selfishness and narcissism.  There is the legacy of the puritan era, and laid over that,  the first world war’s residue of widowhood, spinsterhood and male madness.

Over the last six years females have focused in on each other; in the towns and cities, buildings still lie in ruins. People are still digesting the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the reduction of Hamburg and Dresden to ‘paste’. A new order had not yet begun, the postwar boom not suspected. The old England is not yet fully chewed through: run-down aristocrats still cling to castle ruins, politics disturbs the thoughts of ordinary burghers over their morning papers, the Communist Party is still an option, the Pill not yet. Threaded through all this is the silent calm of Quakerism: the puritan tradition at its gentlest, in its most dignified clothing, Quakers are presented as the force that did most to help Jews out of Germany in the 1930s.

Hetty is the daughter of an erudite man, mentally smashed in WW1, who lets his social connections lie fallow while he digs graves for his income. Quite another story is Hetty’s saintly, pretty, suffering, hyper-attentive, Anglo-Catholic mother. In a ghostly way she extends everywhere: into her own tight grey circle of female acquaintances, into the life not only of the local Vicar but also of Hetty’s boyfriend, the ‘glass of cold water’ Eustace; into the past, into the future, above all into Hetty’s heart and mind. Sickened by these undue familiarities, Hetty has a few week’s holiday alone in the Lake District, where she is thrown in with farmers and daffy local aristocrats, never ceasing from spiritual combat with her mother, in all her inner and outer forms.

Liesolette is a refugee German Jew, sent out by her family in 1936. She was then raised by childless English Quakers. She has their calm silence on the outside, and another, appalling silence within. For a while before uni she moves to London, into the congested dwelling of another childless couple, German Jews like her, and she attracts a young Polish Jew as suitor; in their company the  brittle silence inside her shatters at last. But complicating it all is the offer of an alternative future, from a rich great aunt, childless again, in California. Liesolotte is pulled from afar into her eerie, suburban cocoon of  wealth, between forest and sea.

The third girl Una lives, or rather scrapes by, with her matter-of-fact, streetwise mother. Cambridge beckons but meanwhile Una is busy exploring life with her boyfriend: shy, sensible, laconic and stern, a union man and communist. Una is a relief from the intensity of the other two (despite the earlier suicide of her father, another one done in by the Great War) and serves to tie the story together.

The plot’s coincidences and contrivances may irritate some readers but really just lighten the tone and do not, I think, get in the way of what the tale sets out to do.

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Helen Chierego’s Solo Exhibition

25 May 2011

Join me at Helen Chierego’s Solo Exhibition,

‘Helen Chierego’s Digitally Painted Portraits’

Going into a Dark House

25 May 2011

Going Into a Dark House. Jane Gardam. London : Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994.  182 pp.

It is a set of short stories, which could be subtitled Tales of Spiritual Starvation. A duchess sweeps cheeses and fruit into her handbag at a charity event; market gardeners wading through produce can barely set a table for their children or themselves; other children grow into desiccated high-flyers.

While pettiness and prejudice can be life-altering, there is little sadism. Usually the suffering comes from people who are simply stripped clean of imagination or emotional generosity, apart from the odd quirk. (And when I say people it is usually, like so much good writing, woman-to-woman stuff.)

Affectionateness covers the chill incapacity to love.

There are quite a few ghosts, real or otherwise. The stories move back and forth across the border of the supernatural. But I believe the author always uses them to sketch character and real-world circumstance, like an actor using space off-stage, or a photographer ready to perch in any awkward or risky spot to catch the image. Nuns also come into it more than once.

The last three pieces are connected under the title “Telegony”, a study of the complex interweave of mother and daughter, and its lingering effects.

The cover is taken from the painting The Harvest is the End of the World and the Reapers are Angels by Roger Wagner. It is the only depiction of Judgement Day that I have ever found frightening. 

The Confessions of Edward Day

23 May 2011

The Confessions of Edward Day: a Novel.  Valerie Martin 286 pp. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday 2009.

This book has been widely reviewed, attracting some eminent commentary, particularly in relation to its setting – 1970s Broadway – and insights into the acting profession. The ‘confessions’ are a pseudo-autobiography, from an author exploring acting from from the outside. All the more impressive, then, that real actors and critics have treated the book with respect.

As usual, Valerie Martin walks around her topics to observe all sides, and isn’t scared of big themes. This time it is life and death, the double, the Self and Other, the limits of what we can know. Above all, though, it studies the impact of a persecutor in your life.

Edward was one of four boys to a mother who had longed for a daughter. He was the most girlish of them and closest to his mother, but she abandoned her family for a lesbian relationship. Edward’s first night of sex with a girl coincides with his mother’s suicide. It leaves him with a wish to be other than he is. He declares that his acting isn’t about narcissism or even self-expression, but rather the chance to be someone else.

A talented fellow actor later tells him: “I get myself from what I see you getting about me.” But that is different to seeing oneself only through a persona, through an outer shell seen by others, like politicians crafting themselves around their images. That “is not, perhaps, a bad way to start”, Edward tells us, but you truly find yourself as an actor when you discover and draw out your inner self, and subordinate it to your purposes.

Such subtlety distinguishes Edward from fellow actor Guy Margate. Guy sees himself only through a persona, even in moments of crisis. He is unaware, for example, of how his jealous gaze at Edward could be applied on stage. His gift for mimicry actually brings out the limitations of that form, its distance from true acting; mimics, we’re told, are rarely good actors.

The story turns around Guy and Edward. They are both aspiring actors, very similar looking, chasing the same parts. In one scene they actually stare at each other’s reflections in the mirror. They pursue the same woman, fellow thespian Madeleine. This ‘double’ stuff is so blatant that we are being invited, I think, to look beyond it.

The reader first encounters Guy in the act of saving Edward’s life. One night Edward swims out from a beach near the holiday house where he has been partying with other young actors (and seducing one of them), but gets caught a riptide. Guy swims out and pulls him free, but from then on Guy is toxic for Edward. Like Edward’s mother, Guy follows the gift of life with small but ongoing doses of death.

Guy sets Edward up, puts him in a bad light whereever possible, overpowers him in any social situation he can. He finds and plays on weak spots, sends varied signals of menace. A true proficient, he also seeks to disorient Edward through moments of phoney friendship.

The biggest problem for Edward is Guy’s parasitic hunger for his life. His hard-won bits of money will do for a start. Then there is the issue of Edward’s latent theatrical talent. Perhaps Guy senses that whatever his own short terms successes he is hollow as an actor and person. The “dead gazing upon the living”, he fastens on Edward, he will never just drift away.

Perhaps it amused a female writer to study rivalry between men.

Above all, it is a fight over the fellow young thespian Madeleine. Within this triangle another theme of the book plays out: the limits of what we can know of the world and one another. We see only through Edward’s eyes, so a lot of their interplay is hidden. But Guy’s cold commentary on Edward show that our enemies have insights about us, knowledge we ourselves lack or won’t look at.

In these memoirs Edward does not give Madeleine’s personality the same attention as Guy’s; indeed, once he has her for himself his interest in her declines, until Guy makes another move on her, and the story darkens.

Madeleine’s vagueness contrasts with the dazzling power of Marlene Webern, as she blazes briefly through Edward’s career. An older, accomplished performer, Marlene sees deeply into Edward and shocks him to life as an actor. He lusts for her yet she is really the Good Mother he’s missed, and whom Guy will never have.

At one curious moment early in the book, when Guy and Edward walk away from the noctural beach rescue, Guy insists that they already know each other. Perhaps so: his animosity to Edward is already fully formed. In that case Edward as autobiographer has left many blanks, and has let this anecdote slip through a calculatedly false account of their relationship. Some reviewers have taken this approach and one interpreted Edward himself as a monster. But I think it would be more in keeping with the story to understand Guy’s assertion as the first of many ploys to knock his enemy off balance. In that case his hatred of Edward had ignited only hours before, during a the party in which Edward was busy with Madeleine, still blessedly unaware of Guy’s existence.

Italian Fever

22 May 2011

Italian Fever : a Novel  by Valerie Martin. London : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004. 259 pp.

‘DV’ is a famous US novelist now based in Italy. Lucy is his assistant back in New York, annoyed at the success of his punishingly bad prose. But DV dies in the prologue, while walking at night; there are hints of supernatural involvement. She studies photos of his corpse and sees signs of torment before the end. And there is the disappearance of DV’s lover to account for. Lucy is sent to Italy to settle his business affairs.

With irony and black humour the book takes us through ghost-worlds, deadness, hell, relationships, womanhood, beauty, and art.

Spoiler alert

Near DV’s house in Tuscany Lucy encounters a faintly sinister family of aristocrats: the elegant but feeble-looking Antonio, his mother, his fiery but elderly father. Lucy seeks evidence of their involvement in DV’s death and the disappearance and possible demise of his lover Catherine.

The blonde lovely Catherine, however, is far from done. It turns out that she had indulged DV’s swooning only until she’d learnt that his money was all locked up by ex-wives. Upon learning that, she turned on him with a ridicule that lashed him to the core. This chastisement scoured out DV’s smugness and self-obsession, and set him on the road to better writing, as Lucy discovers in his final ms. Catherine herself learned nothing from their encounter; she simply moved on to set other hearts afire.

Catherine is an artist. She captured DV’s longing and hurt in a quick, mocking sketch. What she really wants is a man to support her painting, and a shop to sell it in. She tells Lucy she has never loved, and generally seems to personify the cold side of art. But while Catherine justifies all in the name of her creative work, she ultimately appears mediocre and petulant to Lucy.

Exposure to Catherine’s charm turns Lucy toward self-reflection. Lucy does not have hardened views on sexual politics that one would expect from a modern-day woman in the publishing industry. Modest, competent, genuine, she is without cunning, brilliance or glamour, and discovers she has no sense of herself as an object of desire. Like DV she is a sucker for charisma. So she is a sucker for the gentlemanly and handsome Massimo, who nurses her through a fever. He is elegant and solicitous, yet ultimately after money and position, all his beauty exterior, like Catherine’s; her love was another fever – a fall into hell, into love, into disorientation.

In contrast to Massimo is Antonio, the unspunky aristocrat who turns out to be sensitive and considerate.

Art stirs longing, but also pain. DV’s ghost labours endlessly at his writing desk. Antonio longed to paint but found it beyond him, though he never lost his reverence for fine works.

Ghosts play their role as symbols of human passions, or events that are stalled, unresolved. The ghost that lures DV to his death was a man killed by a jealous brother. DV as a ghost calls for Lucy to give him some human recognition of his suffering, and when she does, he is at last freed from torment.

In keeping with his artlessness, DV’s fall into hell took the form of a stumble into a cracked septic tank. Only in his suffering does he attain dignity.

DV and Lucy ‘had both fallen in love with beauty, and beauty had briefly toyed with them. But beauty was invioliable, like great art; it both excited and resisted the passion for possession’.

Understanding Women’s Magazines

22 May 2011

Anna Gough-Yates, Understanding Women’s Magazines: Publishing, Markets and Readerships, London and New York: Routledge 2003. 190 pp.

The author explains the rise of the ‘glossies’, the magazines for young professional women that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Cosmopolitan, Cleo and Marie Claire.

This slim book (190 pages) stands out for the breadth and depth of its content, and the freshness of its approach. I think it has useful things to say about the magazine industry, women’s place in society, and how culture and economic life interact and shape each other.

The author reviews the existing, mainly feminist literature on women’s magazines – influenced, in successive phases, by left-liberals, Althusserians, Gramscians and postmodernists – and notes that research in this field is weighted heavily toward textual analysis related to female magazine readers. Then she strikes out in an almost unexplored direction. Through a close scrutiny of the trade press covering Britain’s magazine she examines how the commercial players themselves understood and debated shifts in the industry. Their discussions are interpreted against the backdrop of the changes to economic life, culture and business management in Britain and the Western world.

She argues that the first half of the Twentieth Century was dominated by ‘Fordist’ production, in which profit was sought via economies of scale and via mass standardised production, but by the 1960s it was giving way to niche marketing and profit-making through close links to the customer’s desires.

The turn to niche markets swept aside crude demographic categorisation of consumers, towards attention to their motivations, and eventually, their lifestyle. Young professional women became targeted as a market segment with high levels of disposable income.

Once market research turned the corner into lifestyle research it became hugely important. From focus groups and other techniques a picture emerged of women as increasingly aware of and tolerantly cynical towards advertising techniques. Women also showed a desire for art, glamour and aesthetic pleasure in advertisements, feeding a trend toward high production values.

The author also paints a broader cultural and political backdrop, including the rise of a narcissistic, style-conscious and hedonistic consumerism amongst professional layers and the middle class. Within the workplace, meanwhile, changes in technology, industrial relations and the political climate combined to focus attention on the worker as an individual. Not only is their skill set a selling point in the labour market, but their personal ‘identity’ can become aligned with the company in a way that helps the business connect with customers – thus young women employed by magazines could be encouraged to take their corporate loyalty home to view themselves and their female flatmates as a means to ‘keep close’ to their target buyer and her fluid, volatile mindset.

Above all, the editor of the woman’s magazine become the crucial mediator between customer, advertiser and publisher: she traded off her ability to sense the mood of her customer. In this way the editor also mediated between the economy and culture. Even small shifts in young women’s mind-set could translate into staggering rises or falls in magazine sales. Cultural savvy had an immediate cash value.

The tradition from the mindset of mass production to customer focus was anything but smooth. Stiff traditions, misconceptions, and prejudices sailed on until they smashed into commercial imperatives. British market researchers were initially reluctant to turn from demographic statistics to lifestyle clustering ‘and what they saw as its lack of specificity and “unscientific” stress on subjectivity’; the manufacturers and their advertising agencies only grudgingly abandoned the notion of the housewife in her headscarf. Understanding the rise young professional woman, emerging into adulthood after the rise of feminism, also had to make its way through the ‘testosterone-charged’ atmosphere of the advertising agencies.

Coolly avoiding judgement throughout, the book goes beyond both narrowly commercial agendas and also the ideologies entrenched in academia, to delve beneath the surface of society and dig up real knowledge.

Colour and b+w illustrations present key magazine covers.

An addendum to the book notes the rise of celebrity culture.

The author’s argument was updated in ‘What do women want? Women, Social Change and the UK Magazine Market’, Information, Society and Justice Vol. 1 No 1, December 2007, pp 17-32.

Review of The Australian Book of Atheism

22 May 2011

My review of the Australian Book of Atheism: ‘Fundamentally, it’s all the Devil’s Fault’, The Australian Rationalist 87, Summer 2011 pp 48-50.