Six Degrees from Lincoln in the Bardo to Iris

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins with Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, a book I haven’t read.

Lincoln in the Bardo

It’s about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War. Willie finds himself trapped in a transitional realm – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – and as ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Moving from a fictional and highly original book by the looks of it my chain goes next to a biographical account of Lincoln:

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a biography of Abraham Lincoln and others, by  Doris Kearns Goodwin, a book I bought after watching the film, Lincoln, which is loosely based on this book covering the final four months of Lincoln’s life. Goodwin examines his relationships with three men he selected for his cabinet, all of whom were opponents for the Republican nomination in 1860: William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates.

Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing

Writing biography is the subject of Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing by Hermione Lee, a collection of essays on Shelley,  T S Eliot, J M Coetzee, Jane Austen, Eudora Welty  and Virginia Woolf, to name but a few. Lee explores the relation of biography to fiction and history and of the connection of writers’ lives to their works.

So my next link is a collection of essays by Virginia Woolf –

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, originally published in 1942 by Leonard Woolf. Virginia had been getting together essays, which she proposed to publish in the autumn of 1941, or the spring of 1942. She had left behind her many essays, sketches and short stories, some of which had been previously published in newspapers, which he decided were worth republishing and in this book he also included some of those previously unpublished.

The title essay is a meditation on the nature of life and death seen through the perspective of a moth. It flies by day, fluttering from side to side of a window pane. As the day progresses the moth tires and falls on his back. He struggles vainly to raise himself. Woolf watches, realising that it is useless to try to do anything to help and ponders the power of death over life.

Moths provide the next link  – to a novel, The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams.

Behavior Of Moths

This is the story of two sisters, Ginny and Vivi. Vivi, the younger sister left the family mansion 47 years earlier and returns unexpectedly one weekend. Ginny, a reclusive moth expert has rarely left the house in all that time.  What happens when they meet again is shocking to both of them. It’s a story full of mystery and suspense as it is revealed that the two have very different memories of their childhood and the events of the past. Two events in particular affected their lives. One was when Vivi, aged 8, fell from the bell tower and nearly died. The story alternates between the past and the present as Ginny recalls their lives.

Bell‘ is the next link in my chain – to Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell, a book with an impending sense of evil and menace. It looks at the angst and self-denial of the relationship between religion and sex.

The Bell

A lay community lives next to an enclosed order of nuns, a new bell is being installed and then the old bell, a legendary symbol of religion and magic  is retrieved from the bottom of the lake. The legend of the bell is that it fell into the lake after a 14th century Bishop had cursed the Abbey when a nun was discovered to have a lover and had drowned herself.

And my final link is to a book about the author of The Bell, Iris Murdoch – Iris: A Memoir by John Bayley.

Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch

I first read this in 2003. It’s a very loving and touching account. Iris died in February 1999 after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Bayley explained how he had coped emotionally and practically with the illness that beset the woman he loved and cherished.

Writing this post as disrupted my reading because I got Bayley’s book off the shelves and began reading it again. He writes in such a warm and affectionate way that I’ve decided to read it right away.

For once there is no crime fiction in my chain! It contains books pondering the nature of life and death, beginning with a meditation on the death of Willie Lincoln and ending with a memoir of the life of Iris Murdoch.

Next month (March 3, 2018), the chain begins with a controversial book that Kate reports had everyone talking in the nineties – The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. Everyone that is, apart from me – I don’t know anything (yet) about this book.

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

The idea for March and April in HeavenAli’s Virginia Woolf Read-a-long was to read one or more of: The Voyage Out, Night and Day (Virginia Woolf’s first and second novels) or Between the Acts which was her final novel. This was just the reminder I needed to get The Voyage Out down from my bookshelves where it’s been sitting unread for years.

This post is far too long, but one reason for writing this blog is to record what I think of a book and what I want to remember about it – this post only touches on that even at this length! There is so much more to be said about it.

I’ve not written much about the plot. This is the Synopsis from the back cover of my copy (published by Penguin in 1992):

The Voyage Out opens with a party of English people aboard the Euphrosyne, bound for South America. Among them is Rachel Vinrace, a young girl, innocent and wholly ignorant of the world of politics and society, books, sex, love and marriage. She is a free spirit half-caught, momentarily and passionately, by Terence Hewet, an aspiring writer met in Santa Marina. But their engagement is to end abruptly, and tragically.

Background to the novel:

In 1913 Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) had been suffering ill health for some time – depression,  nervous breakdowns and anorexia – when her half-brother George Duckworth published The Voyage Out in 1915. She had started writing it years earlier and had revised it several times before finalising it in 1912 and 1913.

I don’t like to read the introduction of a book first as often it gives away elements of the plot that I’d rather not know in advance, but I think that this paragraph does help to explain much that I wondered about as I read the book. But if you don’t want to know just skip this next paragraph.

In the introduction to the book, Jane Wheare wrote:

A knowledge of Woolf’s life will certainly deepen our response to all her work. Amongst many other details from the young Virginia Woolf’s experience that appear in fictional form in The Voyage Out one can single out her bouts of mental illness, on which she drew for the description of Rachel’s  fever; the voyage which she made to Spain and Portugal with her brother Adrian in the spring of 1905, her sister Vanessa’s illness and her brother Thoby’s death from typhoid in 1906; and her interest on feminism. (page xiii)

My thoughts:

I finished reading it a short time ago, but have found it difficult to write about it. It is an intriguing book, beginning in a leisurely fashion as Mr and Mrs Ambrose (Rachel’s aunt and uncle) stroll down the Strand to the Embankment on their way to board the ship, Euphrosyne  and yet there is tension in the air and Mrs Ambrose has tears rolling down her face. This tension and sense of underlying trouble and anxiety continues throughout the book.

It begins mid-stream, as it were, with little background at first about the characters or about why the people are on board the Euphrosyne. It is only when the ship arrives at Santa Marina (a fictional place) that Woolf explains why they are going there; and their relationships are slowly revealed through their conversations and actions. The Dalloways make a brief appearance in the book when they spend a short time aboard the ship, leaving before the ship reaches Santa Marina.

I was surprised at just how naive Rachel is for a young woman of 24, even though she had been brought up by her two aunts. Helen Ambrose is shocked, writing about her niece in a letter to a friend, criticising the current methods of education:

This girl, though twenty-four, had never heard that men desired women, and until I explained it did not know how children were born. (page 59)

In some ways this is a coming-of -age novel and Rachel’s actions and reactions are the focus of the book. In it Woolf explores the nature of Rachel’s mind, her obsessions and beliefs and through it her own thoughts about depression, suicide, death and the meaning of life. It’s a huge subject, at times celebrating the wonder and beauty of life and at other times plunging down into the hopelessness and despair that some of the characters experience.

I knew from the book’s description that it ends in tragedy and I wondered as I read what form it would take. But even so, I was taken aback at the desperate sadness of it – it was draining!

Some quotations:

On religion: Mrs Dalloway is talking to Helen Ambrose – “I always think religion’s like collecting beetles,” she said, summing up the discussion as she went up the stairs with Helen. “One person has a passion for black beetles; another hasn’t; it’s no good arguing about it.” (Page 33)

On politics: Mr Dalloway (a politician) talking about a suffragette sitting outside the house (House of Commons): “My good creature, you’re only in the way where you are. You’re hindering me, and you’re doing no good to yourself.” And later in the conversation he says: “Nobody can condemn the utter folly and futility of such behaviour more than I do: and as for the whole agitation, well! may I be in my grave before a woman has a right to vote in England! That’s all I say.” (page 24)

Mr Ambrose replies: “I don’t care a fig one way or t’other. If any creature is so deluded as to think that a vote does him or her any good, let him have it. He’ll soon learn better.”

On women:  St. John Hirst speaking, “Just consider: it’s the beginning of the twentieth century, and until a few years ago no woman had ever come out by herself and said things at all.” …

It’s the man’s view that’s represented, you see. Think of a railway train: fifteen carriages for men who want to smoke. Doesn’t it make your blood boil? If I were a woman I’d blow someone’s brains out. Don’t you laugh at us a great deal? Don’t you think it’s all humbug? (page 139)

There is much more I could quote on women’s suffrage in this book.

On England in June – an example of Woolf’s descriptive writing: The thought of England was delightful, for they would see the old things freshly; it would be England in June, and there would be June nights in the country; and the nightingales singing in the lanes, into which they would steal when the room grew hot; and there would be English meadows gleaming with water and set with stolid cows, and clouds dipping low and trailing across the green hills.

and comparing it with South America:

… “Lord, how good it is to think of lanes, muddy lanes, with brambles and nettle, you know, and real grass fields, and farmyards with pigs and cows, and men walking beside carts with pitchforks – there’s nothing to compare with that here – look at the stony red earth, and the bright blue sea, and the glaring white houses – how tired one gets of it! And the air without a stain or a wrinkle. I’d give anything for a sea mist.” (pages 138-9)

A note about the cover

I think the cover is striking. It’s from a painting by Roger Fry – Roquebrune and Monte Carlo from Palm Beach, in the City of Glasgow Art Gallery.

Roger Eliot Fry (14 December 1866 ‘“ 9 September 1934) was an English painter and critic, and a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Establishing his reputation as a scholar of the Old Masters, he became an advocate of more recent developments in French painting, to which he gave the name Post-Impressionism. He was the first figure to raise public awareness of modern art in Britain, and emphasised the formal properties of paintings over the “associated ideas” conjured in the viewer by their representational content. He was described by the art historian Kenneth Clark as “incomparably the greatest influence on taste since Ruskin … In so far as taste can be changed by one man, it was changed by Roger Fry”.[1] The taste Fry influenced was primarily that of theAnglophone world, and his success lay largely in alerting an educated public to a compelling version of recent artistic developments of the Parisian avant-garde. (from wikipedia)

Fry, who for a while had an affair with Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, was a friend of Virginia’s. She wrote three books subtitled ‘A Biography‘ – her biography of Roger Fry is one of them, first published in 1940.

For more information on Roger Fry see Art UK.

Needless to say – I enjoyed this book and it has encouraged me to read more of Virginia Woolf’s books (I’ve already read Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Flush, all before I began my blog, and Death of a Moth and Other Essays – see also this post.)

Adding to the TBRs

As usual I am behind with writing about the books I’ve read, with four to do. I’m in the middle of writing about The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf, but it is taking me longer than I’d hoped and I haven’t finished my post yet.

So, here’s a post about the four books I’ve added to my TBRs this week:

STSmall

Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘˜real’ and ‘˜virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

I’ve added one paperback and three e-books:

  • The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley. A friend recommended this book to me and I was delighted to see that it is one of the Kindle Daily Deals this morning. It’s steam-punk, a genre completely new to me! It is described as:

Utterly beguiling, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street blends historical events with dazzling flights of fancy to plunge readers into a strange and magical past, where time, destiny, genius ? and a clockwork octopus ? collide.

I hope I’ll like it as much as my friend did!

  • John Le Carré: the Biography by Adam Sisman, because I want to know more about the author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Night Manager and his other espionage books. During the 1950s and the 1960s, he worked for the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service, and began writing novels under a pen name. This is the definitive biography of a major writer, described by Ian McEwan as ‘perhaps the most significant novelist of the second half of the twentieth century in Britain’.
  • Time Heals No Wounds: a Baltic Sea crime novel by Hendrick Falkenberg. This is one of the free books for Amazon Prime members in May. German author Hendrik Falkenberg studied sports management and works in sports broadcasting. The magical allure that the sea holds for him comes alive in his stories, which are set on the north German coast. His first book, Die Zeit heilt keine Wunden (Time Heals No Wounds), was a #1 Kindle bestseller in Germany and has been translated for the first time into English.
  • And lastly, HeavenAli held a draw to give away some of Virginia Woolf’s books and I’m delighted that I won Orlando in the giveaway.

Orlando tells the tale of an extraordinary individual who lives through centuries of English history, first as a man, then as a woman; of his/her encounters with queens, kings, novelists, playwrights, and poets, and of his/her struggle to find fame and immortality not through actions, but through the written word. At its heart are the life and works of Woolf’s friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West, and Knole, the historic home of the Sackvilles. But as well as being a love letter to Vita, Orlando mocks the conventions of biography and history, teases the pretensions of contemporary men of letters, and wryly examines sexual double standards.

I’m looking forward to reading these books in the coming months!

Virginia Woolf Read-a-Long

Virginia woolf2Heavenali is holding a Virginia Woolf read-a-long taking place in 2016.

Starting in January 2016 ‘“ the aim is to read 6 books (or indeed more for the real enthusiasts) by or about Virginia Woolf. For each section you simply choose the book or collection that you most want to read.

First and foremost there are no rules ‘“ drop in and out as it suits you ‘“ if you only want to read the first book ‘“ that’s fine. Ali will post six (one every two months) ‘˜how are we doing’/discussion style posts where links to other posts can be shared.

This is not a reading challenge – I’m thinking of it as a project and one with no goal to read a set number of books. I love the fact that there are no rules with Ali’s read-a-long . I’ll read what I can.

January/February ‘“ Getting started with a famous Woolf novel ‘“ To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway

March/April ‘“ beginnings and endings ‘“ The Voyage Out/ Night and Day (Woolf’s first and second novels ‘“ or Between the Acts ‘“ Woolf’s final novel

May/June ‘“ shorter fiction ‘“ any collection of short stories. This list of possibles from Wikipedia:
‘¢ Kew Gardens (1919)
‘¢ Monday or Tuesday (1921)
‘¢ A Haunted House and Other Short Stories (1944)
‘¢ Mrs Dalloway’s Party (1973)
‘¢ The Complete Shorter Fiction (1985)
‘¢ Carlyle’s House and Other Sketches (2003)
Oxford World Classics now produce a collection called The Mark on the Wall and other short Fiction ‘“ though I don’t know which stories it contains.

July/August ‘“ biographies ‘“ either Flush, Orlando or a biography of Virginia Woolf.

September/ October nonfiction ‘“essays or diaries. Any essay collection you fancy ‘“ there are a lot to choose from but you might want to consider: A Room of One’s Own, Three Guineas, The Common Reader or Virginia Woolf’s diaries. There seem to be a couple of diary collections, including Vintage books Selected Diaries and Persephone book’s A Writer’s Diary (edited by Leonard Woolf).

November/December ‘“ another novel ‘“ The Years/ Jacobs Room/ The Waves

So far I think I’ll be reading at least some of her short stories/essays, The Voyage Out and Virginia Woolf: a Writer’s Life by Lyndall Gordon and re-reading Mrs Dalloway, and any other of Woolf’s books that come my way next year.

ABC Wednesday – B is for Robert Browning

I first read some of Robert Browning’s poems in a little book that belonged to my father. It’s a very little book, but it was enough to interest me. Later at school I studied some of his poems and was given The Poems of Robert Browning as a prize:

Browning was born in Camberwell in 1812, the son of a Bank of England clerk. His poems were influenced by Shelley and his first published poem Pauline eventually attracted Wordsworth’s attention. In 1846 he married Elizabeth Barrett and they spent most of their lives together in Italy, until Eabeth’s death in 1861. He died in Venice in 1889 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

I suppose his most famous poem is Home Thoughts from Abroad:

Oh, to be in England
Now that April ‘s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England’”now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops’”at the bent spray’s edge’”
That ‘s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower
‘”Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

But the poem that I first aroused my interest in my father’s little book is Porphyria’s Lover, which begins:

The rain set early in to-night,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listen’d with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneel’d and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soil’d gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And call’d me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me’”she
Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me for ever.

Her lover, however, though happy and proud knowing she loved him, took her hair and wound it round her throat and strangled her. He then sat with her, her head upon his shoulder all night long:

‘And yet God has not said a word.’

This may have been the first dramatic murder scene I read.  This article in Wikipedia analyses the poem.

It contrasts with this poem, which is another favourite of mine, Pippa’s Song (from the poem Pippa Passes: A Drama):

The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in His heaven’”
All’s right with the world!

I haven’t read a biography of Robert Browning, but Margaret Forster has written an excellent one about Elizabeth Barrett Browning which tells of how the two met and eloped and their subsequent lives together. She has also written a novel, Lady’s Maid a fictionalised account of Elizabeth’s maid and her involvement in the couple’s lives. Another novel of interest is Flush, by Virginia Woolf, the story of Elizabeth’s spaniel.

See more B’s at ABC Wednesday.