What the hell had he done, he wondered. He had thrown a drink in a man’s face. An especially terrible guy who should have had a drink thrown in his face a long while ago. It wasn’t as if Harry Reilly were a popularity contest winner or something. If most people told the truth they would agree that Reilly was a terrible person, a climber, a nouveau riche even in Gibbsville where fifty thousand dollars was a sizable fortune. (p.97)
I am only a little more than one third of the way through this novel, but I can’t stop thinking about Julian English throwing his drink into Harry Reilly’s face one evening at the club. He threw it so hard that the ice left black marks on Harry’s face…but also on Julian’s social acceptance.
My mother has said to me that life “spins on a hair”, meaning that the slightest choice, or action, can alter the whole course of one’s existence. It seems that Julian’s life will be inexorably altered with this event which occurred early in the novel.
Was it unplanned? He was thinking about how much he would like to throw his drink at Harry one minute, and we dwell in this fantasy with him until the next thing we know, he has really done it.
Is Julian unwilling to let Harry have attention by telling the stories that he does, pausing in just the right places and looking over his shoulder before hitting the punch line?
Is it that Harry is an Irish Catholic, and Julian harbors a resentment or prejudice against such a heritage? Or, maybe he’s jealous that Harry is the man with money to whom everyone seems to owe a little…
I am curious about all these reasons, not to mention the path of destruction that Julian seems to be taking. He is only thirty, and yet he has a wife. A home. Supportive parents. A business selling Cadillacs. And he has recently opened his wife’s Christmas present to him: a leather pigskin box with his initials stamped on them in gold ink. Not J. E., but J. McH. E. as he likes. Now he has a place to put his studs, and I find myself questioning him, while at the same time longing to experience how people really lived in the late 1930s. John O’Hara has a way of making it seem simple and risqué at the same time.
Tom, of Wuthering Expectations, has been posting about John O’Hara here. When he mentioned Appointment in Samarra, I immediately wanted to read it with him in September. And, as Tom points out, Samarra in September has nice alliteration.
Here is more about the 240 page novel from Penguin:
One of Time’s All-Time 100 Best Novels
The writer whom Fran Lebowitz called “the real F. Scott Fitzgerald” makes his Penguin Classics debut with this beautiful deluxe edition of his best-loved book.
One of the great novels of small-town American life, Appointment in Samarra is John O’Hara’s crowning achievement. In December 1930, just before Christmas, the Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, social circuit is electrified with parties and dances. At the center of the social elite stand Julian and Caroline English. But in one rash moment born inside a highball glass, Julian breaks with polite society and begins a rapid descent toward self-destruction.
Brimming with wealth and privilege, jealousy and infidelity, O’Hara’s iconic first novel is an unflinching look at the dark side of the American dream—and a lasting testament to the keen social intelligence of a major American writer.
Do consider joining us for Samarra in September! I am sure we will read and post throughout the month as we feel led, and even write one or two tweets using #SamarraInSeptember.
I have been living with Martial de Mégremut, on the island his great-uncle required he inhabit, for several days. And, nights. For it is during the night that so much of the action seems to take place. People come and go, quietly, quickly, in the night. They suddenly appear, and suddenly disappear, and Martial often follows them through the brush, or the snow, on a muddy path which is at best obscure.
Your great-uncle Mr. Cornélius, in making you his heir (under certain conditions, moreover, as you will see) has left you but a modest inheritance:
On the mainland, along the river, two hundred fifty acres of barren ground. Nothing grows there except a little grass for the sheep. Of course, you will find a flock of one hundred head. It is not much. But Mr Cornélius eked out a living from them. It is true you will also have the island and the house of La Redousse, unproductive, alas! You will also have Balandran. He tends the sheep. He fishes. He hunts. A singular man, as you will discover. Completely devoted to Mr. Cornélius, down to his marrow; he is thought to have a harsh character.
How could he have lived without Balandran? This quiet, incredibly strong, yet small, man brings Martial his dinner. His breakfast. His coffee. He cleans with great efficiency and prepares the small iron bed with sheets smelling of soap.
I loved the little whitewashed hut in which Martial dwells. It has a bed, a desk, a chair, a fireplace and a storeroom. There are no books, no diversions of any kind other than his contemplative thoughts as he sits before the fire. This is where he must live for three months before the rest of the will’s stipulations are revealed to him.
During his stay he befriends Bréquillet, Balandran’s dog:
I returned to the fire.While I had been looking the other way, Bréquillet had slipped onto the hearthstone. He was resting there, his muzzle on his two black paws, relaxed but alert…Bréquillet sighed with well-being. Long tremors ran along his spine as he closed his eyes to savor the pleasures of a warm hearth and the closeness of man, creator of fire, friend of dogs.
During his stay, he learns of the ram, Sacristan:
A great ram, a male leader a sire. I had never before seen one so tall or so strong. His loins were huge, thick; his chest deep. Tawny wool rolled in thick curls from his rump to his warm, vibrant neck. Around his pointy ears, his horns spiraled three times, vigorously crowning his thick, woolly temples. His wide, hairy brow was boldly thrust forward, ready for combat; his eyes sparkled.
“This is Sacristan,” Balandran said solemnly, “our master ram.”
I was overcome with emotion. “Yes, I said to Balandran. “I remember. After the rain, we were supposed to go to the land, to see him.”
The rain. It rains constantly on the island:
An almost unearthly light radiated from the whitewashed ceilings and walls. Meanwhile, it was raining outside. Under the wind’s thrusts, the rain had begun again, and I heard showers lashing the roof. For the window, I could see the clayey soil of the clearing, where drops of water splattered. Nearby, elms, enormous birches, and giant willows rose. Their trucks held up a vast tangle of leafless limbs whose tips touched the storm. They tossed despairingly against the gray sky, heralding winter.
Can you not sense the mood? The almost gothic quality of the island, its inhabitants, and even the weather? Henri Bosco has done a masterful job of creating a sense of place, which for me, was even more significant than the trial of enduring on an island, virtually alone, while waiting to find out what else needs to be done to gain an inheritance. (It was a grave deed that Martial must accomplish, one so subtly described it was almost easy for me to miss.)
I loved this book, for the beautiful writing (and translation!) allowing me to contemplate the slow pace that we ourselves are now living during the self isolation of the CoronaVirus pandemic. It is a time of seclusion that proves Martial’s worth, as he must overcome severe adversity and his fears. It is a time that tests our own strength as well, in which perhaps we, too, would be well-served to sit quietly by the fire, calmly reviewing our lives.
Malicroixwas published on April 7, 2020. It was my great pleasure to read it with Dorian (@ds228), Frances (@nonsuchbook), Grant (@GrantRintoul), Nat (@Gnatleech) and Kim (@joiedevivre9). Thank you, nyrb for the copy to read, and Joyce Zonana (@JoyceZonana) for an exquisitely wrought translation.
I have long been wanting to read Moby Dick, and Brona’s plan seems just about perfect: three to four chapters a week beginning August 1, which is Herman Melville’s 200th birthday. The reading could be followed up with a listening to the chapters on audio at Moby Dick Big Read.
Here is a screenshot of the site, as the name almost sounds…ridiculous:
So, it’s a plan. I have time to finish Lucky Per which was to be May’s read-along, and locate my leather bound, gilt-edged edition of Moby Dick. Perhaps you will join us as well.
It seemed to me precisely like a scene from those tales where the storyteller gives her imagination free reign and describes it all in the most extravagant terms. (p. 170)
The Pillow Book is a book after my own heart, although it was written centuries before I was born. It’s a book where things such as calligraphy are important, as well as the sleeves of a gown and how they hang; it describes a world where the proper response to a message can bring awe or laughter depending on what is required.
I wish that I had read some of Sei Shōnagon’s headings while I still taught in the elementary classroom. For that matter, I savor them as possible journal entries of my own, for while my answers may differ, the subjects require great thought. Consider these examples (some my favorite responses of hers are in the parentheses):
Dispiriting things – (“An ox keeper whose ox has died.”)
Infuriating things – (“A very ordinary person, who beams inanely as she prattles on and on.” Or, “Some newcomer steps in and starts interfering and lecturing the old hands as if she knows it all.”)
Things that make you feel nostalgic – (“Things children use on doll play.” Or, “Last year’s summer fan.”)
Things that cannot be compared – (“The man you love and the same man once you’ve lost all feeling for him seem like two completely different people.”)
Things that look enjoyable – (“The conductor of the sacred kagura music.”)
Splendid things – (“Chinese brocade. Ornamental swords. Long, richly colored clusters of wisteria blossom hanging from a pine tree.”)
Things it’s frustrating and embarrassing to witness – (“Someone starts talking about another person, unaware that he’s sitting within earshot.”)
Startling and disconcerting things – (“The way you feel when an ornamental comb that you’re in the process of polishing happens to bump against something and suddenly snaps.”)
Things that are hard to say – (“The reply to a rather overawing person who’s sent you a gift.”)
Interspersed with these “list” kinds of entries are those describing the arrival of a famous person, or a place of scenery, or an object in nature.
She has a careful eye, this writer, under which very little passes unnoticed. The cumulative effect not only records the daily life of an era long past, but encourages me to take notice of ours as well.
How much goes unnoticed, let alone undocumented, as we bury ourselves in our phones, noses toward interactions that involve essentially no one else at all? Instead, I want to relish the sound of imagined koto music while thinking of the world that Sei Shōnagon has recreated for us in her book, popping up from time to time to take notice of my own.
(And you? Have you had a chance to join us in this read-along for February? If so, please leave me a thought or two of how The Pillow Book struck you.)
I am finding this book utterly charming in its slow and quiet simplicity. The author was a gentlewoman in the court of Empress Teishi, in what is now Kyoto, Japan. She writes of daily life within the Imperial Palace, describing in great detail the clothing, the visitors, and the little games that are played with one another.
I have just finished a portion where a tremendous amount of snow has fallen which is formed into a snow mountain, and then guesses are made as to when it will melt. Sei feels deeply about her guess which at first seemed too far into the future, so much so that she asks the gardener to keep children from playing on the mountain to keep it preserved as long as possible. Much to her dismay, when she is ready to send a small jar of the remaining snow to Her Majesty, accompanied by a little poem, it is gone. But, it did not melt as Sei supposed; instead, Her Majesty had it removed in order to disprove Sei’s guess. This is the kind of delightful thing that once could have inhabited our daily lives; perhaps in the lives of us as children, when a mound of snow seemed so important, or perhaps in the lives we lived before technology consumed us.
It is wonderful to read poems that are written in response to requests, poems written as letters. The beauty of a piece of white paper is exquisite, even if it only encloses a piece of seaweed sent in response to a note.
The seaweed’s meaning, not understood by the man to whom she sent it, was revealed in a poem she later wrote on the edge of a piece of paper:
“The silent seaweed
said that you must never tell
the secret dwelling place
of the diving fisher girl
concealed in these hidden depths.”
As a journal keeper myself, I find no detail in Sei’s writing too small. I am immersed in Sei’s world, in her thoughts, in the simple life she lives within the gardens and walls of the palace in which she works. She is content, and her contentment brings me much the same feeling.
Having finished the read-along for Middlemarch in May, I am now embarking on the read-along for Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain sponsored by Jillian of In Her Books. (Click on the link to find her invitation.)
Here is a brief description of this novel:
In 1914 Vera Brittain was eighteen and, as war was declared, she was preparing to study at Oxford. Four years later her life – and the life of her whole generation – had changed in a way that was unimaginable in the tranquil pre-war era. TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, one of the most famous autobiographies of the First World War, is Brittain’s account of how she survived the period; how she lost the man she loved; how she nursed the wounded and how she emerged into an altered world. A passionate record of a lost generation, it made Vera Brittain one of the best-loved writers of her time.
You can buy it with free shipping from Bookwitty here.
Please feel free to join this endeavor, on Twitter as #cctestament.
Earlier this year I read of a marriage hastily, and later regretfully, made. It was between Isabel Archer and Mr. Osmond in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. Now, George Eliot gives me Dorothea Brooke and Mr. Casaubon in her novel, Middlemarch. Both marriages seem doomed from the moment we learn they are to take place.
I asked my friend Gretchen why Dorothea married Mr. Casaubon when I first began this novel. Why would a beautiful and charming young woman become entranced by a man with eyes in deep-sockets who resembled a portrait of Locke? Itseems she thought he possessed a deep mind, containing profound thoughts, and she believed she could assist him as he laboriously studied and wrote his papers.
But, Mr. Casaubon does not seem as willing to give his heart away as much as he wants his life well served. Here is a typical kind of sentiment Eliot attributes to him throughout the novel so far, about one third of the way through:
Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy…When Dorothea accepted him with effusion, that was only natural; and Mr. Casaubon believed that his happiness was going to begin. (p.333)
He never seems to take into account Dorothea’s happiness, or her heart, and I continue reading this novel with dread for her future.
(Please feel free read along with us, as we continue Arti‘s plan for #MiddlemarchInMay.)
Beginning May 1, and taking our time, her plan is to (tentatively) end in June. Vivek, my new friend from the Man Booker International Prize 2018 shadow jury is joining us. Won’t you join in as well? All are welcome.
…she (Isabel’s aunt) is horrified at my contenting myself with a person who has none of Lord Warburton’s great advantages – no property, no title, no honours, no houses, nor lands, nor position, nor reputation, nor brilliant belongings of any sort. It is the total absense of all these things that pleases me. Mr. Osmond is simply a man – he is not a proprietor!”
I have finally finished The Portrait of A Lady, and I have two questions: why did Isabel Archer marry Gilbert Osmond? And, why did she plan to return to him on the very last page? I am all the more eager to discuss this with you, and to continue with John Banville’s interpretation of Isabel’s story in Mrs. Osmond, as Henry James leaves us with Isabel’s life quite unresolved.
In the very briefest of summaries, Isabel Archer has been brought from her home in America to England by her aunt. She immediately forms strong attachments to her cousin, Ralph, and her uncle. She is also courted by Lord Warburton, a wealthy man who has been smitten by Isabel’s charms. Back home she has left Caspar Goodwood, another suitor who lives in New England. There is no shortage of people who admire Isabel. In fact, her cousin is so taken by her that he begs his father to leave her an enormous part of the family fortune upon his death. When Madame Merle, a friend of Isabel’s aunt, learns of Isabel’s inherited fortune, she leads her into a marriage with Gilbert Osmond, an odious man with a most lovely daughter who seems in such stark contrast to her wretched father. When Ralph lies dying of consumption, Isabel tells her husband she must go to his bedside, and she is firmly forbidden to do so. Yet in a brave act of independence, she leaves Rome for Gardencourt, in England, and learns that it has been Ralph who bestowed his fortune upon her, not his father as Isabel thought. The Portrait of A Lady ends with Isabel returning to Rome, to her dreaded life with an appalling man.
So, why did she marry Gilbert Osmond in the first place? Because she was young and naive? Because she was led to it by the manipulations of an older woman with dark intent? Isabel would not listen to those around her whom she loved and trusted, such as her cousin Ralph. Instead she listened to Serena Merle, who manipulated Isabel into this marriage for her own purposes. Henry James never once says that Isabel loved Osmond, and what I come away with is that she felt coerced into this marriage by those whom she trusted, but scarcely knew.
Gilbert Osmond was the one who caught her, put her in a cage so to speak, as her cousin Ralph feared he would. Osmand had a contempt for everyone but a very few, and “for everything in the world but half a dozen ideas of his own.” It would be a wretched prison to find oneself in, married to a man with such superior views in direct contrast with one’s own. Poor Isabel, her imagination, her vivacity, is squelched under our very eyes. It is as if Osmand is trying to put her to death.
I admire her greatly for going to her cousin’s bedside despite her husband forbidding her to do so. It was something she needed to do as a decent human being, something she needed to do for herself and her beloved cousin as he lay dying. But, to turn the final page and discover that she is on her way back to Rome, back to Osmond, is quite alarming. Does she feel she has no other choice? Is she imprisoned not only by her husband, but by the social mores of her time? If there was any help to be had by being independently wealthy, now would be the time to claim those favors. For inheriting a fortune has been of no help whatsoever to her life thus far.
Tell us what you think, JoAnn, Audrey, Helen and Jillian. Arti has put up a wonderful post on Ripple Effects, and Lisbeth has put up a lovely post on The Content Reader. I would love to continue a discussion with any thoughts I may have missed.