Lucy and Todd

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Bitter Bitch – Maria Sveland

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 28, 2012 at 7:43 am

Sara is a 30-year-old journalist who lives in Stockholm with her husband and child. She hates sexism, the nuclear family, breastfeeding and January; likes Nina Simone, Erica Jong and being alone. So she’s on her way to Tenerife for a week on her own, in order to be able to think more clearly about sexism, breastfeeding and Nina Simone. The stage is set for an awakening. But what we get in this “international bestseller” is a climbdown. Sara eats some watermelon, goes to an aerobics class and somehow decides she wants to make her marriage work. Her hubby says she can take a week off every year anyway, so everything’s swell: revitalised, she goes back to Sweden feeling less bitter.

The trouble is, we like her bitter! Her bitterness is the only thing she’s got going for her. Sara’s tantrums make your own obnoxiousness seem manageable. There is some bravery in her misanthropic discussion of marriage, and of various failed attempts to rebel. But the novel suffers from a disastrous lack of nerve, and change of heart. It’s the classic traitorousness of the narcissist who shits in your lap and runs away: a problem shared is a problem transferred.

With the dearth we’ve got in raised consciousnesses these days, there’s a niche for people willing to remind everybody that women are still treated badly in the west and, as far as we know, everywhere else (leave out the damn statistics though). But after thrashing about a little with this, Sara’s off to her aerobics class. It’s not particularly rebellious to imply that package holidays can compensate women for a lifetime’s oppression, and travel makes for dull fiction. Much of Bitter Bitch reads like a magazine article. Nothing is acted out on the page. Sara’s an unreliable narrator, but not in a good way. And she’s always crying; it’s more important to make the reader cry.

You do weep – from frustration – at Sara’s rose-tinted envy of the past. Eulogising Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, which Sara is rereading, Sveland claims “the carefree 1970s” provided the perfect conditions for feminist writing. Jong’s Isadora “preached zipless fucks and drugs; my generation received lectures on Aids and drug abuse . . .” Hey – there were lectures on drugs and diseases in the 70s too. And Isadora never gets a zipless fuck. Instead, she heads out into the hills with an impotent existentialist. It’s one of the biggest plot flops in American fiction.

There’s a lot Sveland could have learnt from Jong, but hasn’t. The whole novel imitates Jong’s, and frequently quotes her, and Sara keeps comparing herself to Isadora. But Jong’s flashbacks are carefully woven in and make some logical sense; Sveland’s seem ramshackle and abrupt. She’s no stylist, and the humour is embryonic. Like the Jane Austen enthusiasts who fail to see the wit in Austen, Sveland has failed to note the satire in Jong.

Jong spells out, to any would-be emulator, the painstaking way in which she herself learned to write: you have to read and write like crazy to be a novelist. Sveland has ignored this advice. She employs Jong as a crutch, on which she limps along. Sveland is a Julie to Jong’s Julia Child: Fear of Flying may not be well formed – boy, can Jong babble! – but at least she can write. Sveland’s a journalist, a TV journalist at that, and the trouble with journalists as novelists is, there’s nothing there: they can type, but they can’t think. As the singing master says in Citizen Kane, “Some people can sing. Some can’t. Impossible. Impossible.”


Guardian, 5 February, 2011

© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto – Maile Chapman

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 28, 2012 at 7:41 am

We’ve jogged up and down Everest, navigated the Arctic, and had a pretty good look at the moon – but women remain uncharted territory. What are they and what do they want? Freud didn’t know; nobody knows. But a few intrepid explorers have ventured forth, studying women by isolating them. While Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s 2004 film Innocence examined the society of little girls in an imaginary boarding school, Maile Chapman’s first novel focuses on more aged and woebegotten gals, the lonely nurses and patients of a sanatorium in Finland, around 1920. In both, the single-sex set-up results in something surprising, and wholly original.

This book should be bottled and sold at the chemist’s, the perfect antidote to austerity and job loss – reading it feels like a rest cure. There is comfort to be found in all this order, hygiene, quiet routine and companionship, the resigned acceptance of the female body, and the constant, watchful presence of attendants who bring food and treat unnameable ailments. The food itself is a little dubious (a plethora of prunes characterises Christmas, while rutabaga is mentioned more than once); the ailments, at least at first, don’t seem severe.

Some of the women are here merely because they hate their husbands, or their husbands hate them. But the novel is elegantly suspended in a torpor of the present moment, not so much in the dramas that preceded it, and we are invited to relax with these women, artificially removed from convention and connection. This safe zone is ruled by the exacting requirements of the hospital, the landscape, the recreational activities of saunas, snowy walks in the woods, reluctant dance lessons after dinner, moisturising, knitting, and in particular the smell of everything. Despite her questionable decision to restrict it mainly to the present tense, Chapman’s writing is beautifully deft, subtle and succinct, displaying an astonishing sureness of touch. This skittish ghost of a bygone world comes fully formed to the page.

How scared we are of illness, Chapman suggests. What a hell of a lot of time we devote to detecting decay, apportioning disgust and trying to avert mortality, always on guard against miasmas of the unhealed, the incontinent, the cankerous. These worries are kept somewhat at bay on the upper floor of the hospital, where the rest-cure patients hang out, but other floors are subject to (male) doctors and their nasty surgical procedures, and here “something might occasionally gather, a stale problem in the air . . . a stink of urine, of sepsis, of semiconscious individuals who haven’t brushed their teeth in days”.

Within the tedium, insomnia and other upsets on the top floor, all the pranks, rivalries and petty complaints, rank emotions brew. One of the doctors wants to banish the menopausal crones luxuriating in their slow recoveries, in favour of the punctual capitalist productivity of a maternity ward. An uncomprehending outsider, his power resides in the male world beyond, theoretically the real world. Only a certain amount of accommodation can be made for him before something snaps.

But the most memorable creation here is Julia, an obstreperous patient who arrives covered in rubies, makeup and furs, under which she has long borne untold horrors of bodily disintegration. With medical help, she rallies to become a mischief-maker who stirs up jealousy by having once made a living teaching the tango. She likes to mock, and tells the other women that sausages are made from sphincters. Once revulsion has gratifyingly spread, Julia gaily claims that she likes eating sphincters.

Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto is a gem; weird, vivid and acrobatic, its intricacies are sophisticated, its stance beguiling and complex. This is a writer of real power and aplomb: “A pig, and particularly a sow, and particularly one watched from behind as it walks, is burlesque in the way of a zaftig and very naked lady, because of the rump, of course, and also because of the way the thighs touch, mincing on hooves that are not unlike small, fancy shoes. There is also, similarly, the striking approximation of a human smile on the face of every pig, even a slaughtered one hung upside down by the hocks: the small eyes close tight in mirth and the mouth hangs open in a pleasant expression made worse by the color of the face, which, in its pallor, approximates the colour of Nordic human flesh.”

What conclusions are drawn about womanhood? In a last, almost melodramatic twist, when Chapman stitches the plot together with rather excessive zeal, there’s a suggestion that revenge may yet be sought for past ills, for bad lovers, male doctors and their miracle cures, male idiocy and male arrogance. Other options exist: female idiocy and arrogance, to be precise – not as authoritarian, maybe, but still brutal.


Guardian, 28 August, 2010

© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

The Pagoda in the Garden – Wendy Lesser

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 26, 2012 at 6:34 pm

THIS book by the editor of The Threepenny Review is like a novel-writing kit: inside are a few rudimentary characters, plot lines in need of development, the choice of three possible eras and three writing styles, bags of banal banter, a small assortment of intellectual interjections and the bare bones of jokes. Not bothering to read the instructions, Wendy Lesser has excitedly dumped all this stuff straight out on to the page. She’ll be painting by numbers next!

The book is divided into three different time periods — roughly 1901, 1956 and 1973. Into them Lesser inserts three intentionally similar heroines, annoying American expats in Cambridge, England, whose Anglophilia leads to a quite unwarranted amount of sightseeing. The number of place names mentioned almost beats Baedeker; we are spared only the Changing of the Guard. The three women all share literary pretensions and come mildly unstuck over social difficulties, the common element being the realization, a dullish one, that people, through the ages, have dissembled about their sexual activities. In Book 1 (1901), Charlotte, a prissy author vaguely in love with a more revered novelist called Roderick, has been invited to stay at his country house near Cambridge. (Coyly, Lesser never admits that these two are based on Edith Wharton and Henry James, but it seems they must be.)

On her arrival, Charlotte is dismayed to find that Roderick’s lover, Antonio, has just dropped in, unexpectedly, from Rome. Also, there are no clean towels. She sets about firing the servants and arguing with Antonio until Queen Victoria saves the day by dying, and everybody gets to go home. Though the plot’s absurd, and the recreation of Victorian speech and manners laborious, this section has some merit as a convoluted meditation on fiction and its relation to real life. The descent in tone between Books 1 and 2 is abrupt — the plop can be heard for miles. All complexity is abandoned in favor of an arid tale of unrequited love in the 1950’s.

Sarah, a recently divorced American living in Cambridge, puzzles over why a good-looking young man she’s only just met doesn’t cheat on his wife with her. Since she’s still bitter over her own ex-husband’s adultery, this home-wrecking urge of Sarah’s seems weird and inexplicable. At any rate, it’s not explained. You feel nothing but bewilderment combined with faint loathing for the woman. Book 3 concerns an American girl who gets involved with a British student at Cambridge in the 1970’s. Not only does he insist they keep their relationship secret, he astounds her by never having read Freud. Lesser is right to point out the English refusal to take on psychoanalysis, though she fails to connect it to their anti-Semitism: Freud might have been their salvation. The affair ends haphazardly. Despite their troubles, there is an emotionlessness about Lesser’s characters — you don’t feel for them much. That’s their business, but where is Lesser in all this? What is authentic? What is genuine? Her obsession with artifice and pastiche makes her various narrators not only unreliable but unreachable. What’s the purpose of the whole exercise? Irritation?

It’s certainly abundant. The historical settings ensure jarring incongruities and false notes, and the predictable array of anachronisms. Nobody in England talked on the phone to friends all morning in the 1950’s — hardly anyone had a phone, and local calls were never cheap. A human being cannot be another person’s ”physical antonym.” Saying ”as it were” does not make you a Victorian. And describing someone as ”well on the way to her third orgasm” is just plain, as it were, icky. Threads of plot are oddly discontinued, the reader’s expectations raised and cruelly dashed. There’s a promising disquisition on menstruation and the travails of managing it in a foreign country (Sarah gets Kotex pads sent to her from America) — a great subject, but it’s never brought up again. Later, roasting a turkey, Sarah has no idea how long it should be in the oven. Her friend doesn’t know either. In the hands of another novelist, several cases of salmonella would ensue. Lesser avoids such unpleasant consequences by forgetting the turkey altogether. So why tell us about it in the first place? We’re all busy people. Lesser also laughs at her own jokes, presenting her charmless heroines as witty and alerting us to any ”levity,” as she stiffly calls it, that may have issued from them.

These ”witticisms” would go wholly unnoticed but for the sound of the author chortling in the wings. Instead, when people say things like, ”Did you know the word shibboleth was itself used as a shibboleth?” and spout opinions on Susan Sontag out of the blue, or explain the connection between a Fuseli painting and Mary Shelley to a stranger in a museum, the novel begins to sound like one of Woody Allen’s more recent offerings. Humor appears only as a ghost.


New York Times, October 9, 2005

Joseph Brodsky

In Stuff We Like on July 26, 2012 at 6:23 pm

‘[Lenin’s] omnipresent images … plagued almost every textbook, every class wall, postage stamps, money, and what not…  There was baby Lenin, looking like a cherub in his blond curls.  Then Lenin in his twenties and thirties, bald and uptight, with that meaningless expression on his face that could be mistaken for anything, preferably a sense of purpose. …  Then there was an oldish Lenin, balder, with his wedge-like beard, in his three-piece dark suit, sometimes smiling, but most often addressing the “masses” from the top of an armored car or from the podium of some party congress, with a hand outstretched in the air.

There were also variants: Lenin in his worker’s cap, with a carnation pinned to his lapel; in a vest, sitting in his study, writing or reading; on a lakeside stump, scribbling his April Theses, or some other nonsense, al fresco.  Ultimately, Lenin in a paramilitary jacket on a garden bench next to Stalin, who was the only one to surpass Lenin in the ubiquitousness of his printed images. …

I think that coming to ignore those pictures was my first lesson in switching off, my first attempt at estrangement.  There were more to follow; in fact, the rest of my life can be viewed as a nonstop avoidance of its most importunate aspects.  I must say, I went quite far in that direction; perhaps too far.  Anything that bore a suggestion of repetitiveness became compromised and subject to removal.  That included phrases, trees, certain types of people, sometimes even physical pain; it affected many of my relationships.  In a way, I am grateful to Lenin.  Whatever there was in plenitude I immediately regarded as some sort of propaganda.’

From Less Than One

Molly Keane

In Stuff We Like on July 26, 2012 at 5:55 pm

‘At the age of eight, through an incorporate resilience, slighted confidence restores itself.  The life of a day is full of chance and sudden changes.  The hours of liberty are long, full of wonder and narrow escapes, precautions, hidden devices and daring.  There was the bull in the river field to be avoided, the idiot boy in the Gate Lodge to tease until his frenzies frightened her and she had to run.

Now there was her bantam hen to visit – that tame favourite who sat on her head when she walked into the drawing room, the admiration of all, whose food she sometimes nibbled at.  Only yesterday Nicandra had found the nine white eggs, distanced from the ordinary into magic by the wild nest her bantam had chosen to build in a broken flowerpot beneath a Ponticum rhododendron, well away from a wire compound, the night-time enclosure of the bantam flock.

Carefully and with love the nest full of eggs and the dozy hen sitting on them had been removed from the wild to a neat little coop in civilization and safety, every convenience for the hatching mother attended to with particular care.

… [The] path…skirted the domed conservatory where flowers were grown for the house: cactus, geraniums, gloxinia, palms, bird of paradise, passion-flower, maidenhair fern, all throve here in damp and forceful luxury. Best of all, her own and the gardener’s favourite, calceolaria, puff-jawed, tiger-striped and spotted, flowered each year more grossly perfect.’

From Loving and Giving