Friday, June 03, 2011


Books by and for women?

That V.S. Naipaul is a piece of work. I'm sorry, but precisely how bloated must one's ego be, to dismiss Jane Austen, and later his own (female) editor, and, oh yeah, women who write, as beneath him, as so much "feminine tosh"? Oh, I see. That bloated. I have never read any of this nobel laureate's work, myself. I wonder if I would enjoy it if I did. In the spirit of speculation, I'll just say that I never have been one to separate the person from the work he or she creates, and leave it at that.

Literary kerfuffle aside, I spent some time this week reading and thinking about books by women. Books written by women for women. Books brought into print probably because the publishers knew that women buy books, and wanted to provide them (us) with books about other women they could identify with. Books that were brought into print because they were simply and undeniably good. This pleasant reverie was not induced by Naipaul. Rather, by a book I came across in my sorting-out project of a few weeks ago. I rediscovered a book I've been hauling around unread for at least a decade, maybe two. (I found many such books, but this one I finally sat down and read.) It was in a box of books from my mother's house. (I am a book repository of sorts, in my family, as you can imagine.) (Sorry for all these distracting parentheses. Back to the story.) This one is a lovely old hardcover from 1940, still in its jacket. It has my grandmother's name written inside, underlined, in her handwriting. I never met her; she died before I was born. But I have inherited some of her books, in the way of things.

The book is Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther (Harcourt 1940) and is a collection of short fictional pieces that originally appeared as articles in The Times, during the escalation of events leading to World War II. The pieces are written in the voice of, and from the point of view of, a middle-aged upper-middle-class housewife, with three children (the oldest at Eton) and an architect-builder husband, a London flat, a small house in Kent for weekends, household staff, a reluctant social life with various other problematic couples, and an introspective streak a mile wide. She's a noticer, our heroine. She loves and values calm normalcy. The little details that make up daily living are brought to life and turned inside out for their stories and associations, romantic and practical, melancholy and tender. This is a gentle book about not much at all, and at the same time, about everything that really matters.

This is not the only book I received from my grandmother. I also have her copy of M.F.K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf. And several of the Mrs. Appleyard books by Louise Andrews Kent. Which I love. Love love LOVE, I can't say it enough. All these books come from my grandmother's era. All are housewifely with a charming mixture of comfort and sharpness, all tinged by war, all written with an eye toward domestic detail but simultaneously concerned with the great questions of life. So, important to women on all sorts of levels. And important to men too, of course. Feeding, clothing, housing, caring for, and of course perpetuating, the human race, but equally, savoring the details of daily life, both intellectually and literally. When it comes right down to it, these details, moments, choices in how we live day to day, are all we have.

Back to Jan Struther for a moment. From the wikipedia article about her life: at The Times "...Peter Fleming asked her to write a series of columns for the paper, about 'an ordinary sort of woman who leads an ordinary sort of life - rather like yourself.'" Surely this is why her stories resonate so much. A common and terribly broad generalization for you: Good writers put into words what many of us experience, but few of us have the literary ability to express clearly. One example - how many of us watch the fireworks at a holiday celebration, and feel something wordless and inchoate. Well, here is the way Jan Struther has Mrs. Miniver describe her family's handpicked little fireworks display on Guy Fawkes' Day (p.21):

"...fireworks had for her a direct and magical appeal. Their attraction was more complex than that of any other form of art. They had pattern and sequence, colour and sound, brilliance and mobility; they had suspense, surprise, and a faint hint of danger; above all, they had the supreme quality of transience, which puts the keenest edge on beauty and makes it touch some spring in the heart which more enduring excellencies cannot reach."

She watches her children and her husband, and knows that all things are ephemeral. She quotes Thomas Nashe to herself. This is what I want to read more of - books such as this. Books initially by women, for women, but really books for everyone regardless of the gender you happen to be born into this time around. Good books! Written by women and by men! That help us understand our experience as human beings! Why, I wonder yet again, do we need to award prizes and induce competition in fine art and proclaim that one form of art is more or less worthy than another? Why bother classifying beyond simply, This is good, this matters to people.

(Final parenthesis, I promise. I could continue this little rant indefinitely, continuing with books from my mother - her copies of Mary Stewart's romantic suspense novels to start with - and my stepfather's copies of Georgette Heyer's novels - and more recently, anything by Laurie Colwin, who I treasure beyond words - her books are domestic, fraught, and entirely loveable. What about Elizabethe Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love? A great memoir my sister said got some bad reviews because, in her words, "It's all about what matters to women." And I must also mention Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Can Naipaul have read this novel? And then found it not worthy? Or lacking in any way? Truly...??)

Isn't it that what it really matters, in books as well as in life, is always elusive?

Greetings from Greece:

Best selling fiction:
1 9 4 0

1. How Green Was My Valley, Richard Llewellyn
2. Kitty Foyle, Christopher Morley
3. Mrs. Miniver, Jan Struther
4. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
5. The Nazarene, Sholem Asch
6. Stars on the Sea, F. van Wyck Mason
7. Oliver Wiswell, Kenneth Roberts
8. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
9. Night in Bombay, Louis Bromfield
10. The Family, Nina Fedorova

Upon reading your Mrs. Miniver piece, a bell rung:
Was it in Morley's Iron Board?

Then this:
"When you find a woman who enjoy both The New Yorker and John Donne, hang onto her. She will behave in a crisis as you would hope her to behave". CMorley

And this:

Sensitivity spreads so smoothly
(yet the Wiki article, a bit tragic...)
I loved Mrs. Miniver, which I inherited from one of my grandmothers as well. I recently sent my siblings and a cousin each a book from my grandmother. I sent to my cousin a book my aunt had given to my grandmother, so that she could show her children a book given by their grandmother to their great-grandmother.

My wife gave me an assortment of books for my 50th birthday, editions published 0, 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 25, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 75, 80, 90, and 100 years before my birth. One of my favorites is How to Cook a Wolf.
Dear Antony - yes, the elusive is what often gives life its sweetness and its melancholy - a great combination, in my book. Keeps us all seeking, too.

What lovely things Christopher Morley had to say about Mrs. Miniver - I wish my copy had that little BOMC pamphlet! Thanks for the autumn rain blog post link. About the book in question, she says it better than I do. But Morley says it better than both of us put together!

Dan, how are you (besides up to your eyes in books)? I am now over my Naipaul fret and am happily reading "A Joy of Gardening" by Vita Sackville-West. Good to hear from you, as always. And a very happy birthday to you, what a great series of gifts. Obviously your wife is a woman of discrimination and taste, and knows how to plan!
Yes, my wife went all out for my 50th. Only two years to go to my 60th (how did that happen??), so I hope she's planning something similar.

Enjoy the gardening- literary and literal.
Naipaul is such a consummate world-class jerk that I sometimes think he does it as part of some retro-guy author persona his agent concocted for him.

Definitely not worth devoting 400-pages of reading time to it, but Paul Theroux laid it all out in 'Sir Vidia's Shadow' 8 or 10 years ago, then updated the evidence in his essay review of Patrick French's Naipaul biography,
'The World What It Is' in the Sunday (London) Times Book Section for 4/6/08. Theroux's Times review is titled "The True Monster in VS Naipaul"

One of those authors you love to hate, but you're right--definitely not worth fretting or wasting time over.
Yes, I remember that Theroux article and the book that preceded it. When the book came out I thought Theroux wouldn't write something ungenerous unless he really *really* meant it! Or the situation was even worse than he could legally report (which looks to be the case). A few of Theroux's books I dearly love and I do trust him as a writer. Thanks for the comment, Anon.
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