Posts Tagged ‘women’

Sunset Oasis

10 June 2012

Sunset OasisSunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Egyptian police officer Mahmoud Abd El Zahir is sent to administer the restive oasis community of Siwa in the late 1890s. He smells a rat, knowing that his English overlords have been suspicious of his role in a major uprising in 1881-82, led by Colonel Arabi or Urabi Pasha against the English, and the Khedive who had acceded to imperial rule.

That uprising is described later in the novel. A sickening mismatch of military power left the rebels in disarray. The bravest, the most far-seeing and generous-hearted layer of the population were mown down – killed off, or damaged internally, morally mangled afterwards as they betrayed each other to save their own lives, or at least denied all part in the rebellion. On the other hand the servile flourished. The foundations for 20th century Egypt were being laid. Mahmoud is one of those mangled – self-hating, deadened within.

Remarkably, he is married to a spirited Irishwoman, Catherine, who has appalled her peers by her choice of husband. A passionate Irish nationalist, she is also a classical scholar fascinated by the story of Alexander the Great, and the mystery surrounding his sepulchre; she wonders if it might have been moved to Siwa, and itches to inspect local relics. She also nurses her own emotional wounds from a failed former marriage. Relations are complicated further by the arrival of her sister, the saintly, frail beauty Fiona, who had once seemed destined to marry Catherine’s own former partner.

With its Berber population, Siwa regards Egyptian Arabs as colonists, quite apart from the English. Its population have a murderous hatred toward the outsiders who impose such heavy taxes. However, they are themselves bitterly factionalised.

For most of the novel Mahmoud manoeuvres between the different players in Siwa – half-heartedly, so little is he attached to life. Catherine wants to revive him, and their relationship, as well as explore her scholarly interests, her poetic sensitivity to the desert, and friendship with locals; but it is she who jars most heavily with the local culture and its brutal restrictions on women.

The theme of deadness is played out from many angles, and has appeared in the author’s other literary work. Perhaps that is not surprising in someone who lived through decades of Western-financed dictatorship in his homeland.

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The Great Divorce

30 July 2011

The Great Divorce. Valerie Martin. London: Doubleday, 2004. 351pp. 1st published 1994

Humanity is divorced from the animal kingdom, women are divorced from men and from their own inner, animal rage.

The novel swaps between three loosely connected stories of women in New Orleans. Camille is a young employee caring for big cats the city zoo, watching as her favourite beast crashes painfully but repeatedly against her cage. Camille also does some sex work on the side. More or less friendless, she struggles for self-esteem under routine psychological blows from her alcoholic mother and from a string of desensitised males. Her openness, her longing for love and respect, expose her, of course, to many casual whallops from life, and she will surely bring out any rescue impulses in the reader. At the same time Camille has momentary but compulsive fantasies of being a wildcat. Anything could happen.

Her sensitivity is surprising, since almost everyone around her is blunted. Perhaps it’s the result of a childhood spent watching out for the moods of an aggressive parent.

Someone who could potentially help and guide her is the second main character, Ellen, a vet at the zoo, and the mother of a 14 year old girl. But Ellen is sinking into depression as one of her smug husband’s affairs gets serious, and, yes, a divorce looms. The smug husband is an historian researching the sensational murder of a C19th southern German slaveowner, whose throat had been torn open. Convicted for the crime was his young wife, Elisabeth, fresh from the French quarter. Elisabeth is also the novel’s third main protagonist as it slips back now and then to her era. Elisabeth and her slaveowner husband had each entered wedlock expecting to subdue their spouse without undue trouble, but when his brutishness emerges so does the hideous inequality of their social positions – with the realities of slavery vivid in the background. Elisabeth defies him by finding her own inner ferocity and through recourse to Mambo witchery.

I found this an uneven novel. The interesting Camille rescues it to some extent, but Ellen and especially her husband are wooden, stock-in-trade characters of feminist fiction, and the southern history section is also rather just-so. It was disappointing, after the freshness of some of Valerie Martin’s other novels.

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.

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. 

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.