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Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

Hangsaman by Shirley JacksonHangsaman by Shirley Jackson
Published by Penguin Classics on 1951
Genres: Classics - by women, Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 240
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads

Seventeen-year-old Natalie Waite longs to escape home for college. Her father is a domineering and egotistical writer who keeps a tight rein on Natalie and her long-suffering mother. When Natalie finally does get away, however, college life doesn’t bring the happiness she expected. Little by little, Natalie is no longer certain of anything—even where reality ends and her dark imaginings begin. Chilling and suspenseful, Hangsaman is loosely based on the real-life disappearance of a Bennington College sophomore in 1946.

Hangsaman was Jackson’s second novel, after The Road through the Wall, which was published in 1948. Published in 1951, Hangsaman is nominally a bildungsroman about a college freshman named Natalie Waite who attends a Bennington College-like institution. She is the daughter of a second-rate writer and a mother who is a rather desperate housewife. Broken into basically three sections, the novel begins with Natalie at home, on the cusp of going away to college. The second part deals with her first weeks at school, and her fragility and difficulty adjusting to the changes. The third part is a frankly strange look at Natalie’s devolution into what appears to be mental illness. The ending is cryptic and unresolved.

There are several important women in this book. The male characters are largely superfluous to the story – being entirely self-absorbed and interacting with the women primarily as extensions of themselves, Eves to their Adams, created from their ribs, without independent significance. Natalie herself, as a college student, is in a state of limbo, as a young woman who has left the shelter of her father’s home but hasn’t yet transitioned to the shelter of a husband. She is very much in a waiting period – hence, probably, the last name that she was given. Her role in the community and in the larger world is unclear to the reader, and it is unclear to Natalie.

Her interactions with her father show disturbing and inappropriate amounts of enmeshment and a cavalier attitude towards Natalie’s autonomy. Confronted with her unhappiness, her father responds:

There is no doubt but what the class of girls you have as friends is not a representative one, but my plans for you never did include a broad education; an extremely narrow one, rather—one half, from the college, in people and surroundings; the other half, from me, in information. My ambitions for you are slowly being realized, and, even though you are unhappy, console yourself with the thought that it was part of my plan for you to be unhappy for a while.

Natalie’s relationship with her mother is even more tenuous and fraught than her relationship with her father. The first section focuses extensively on a party which her mother is hostessing, which her father has arranged, and there is a long discussion between Natalie and her mother in which her mother explains to her all of her father’s faults, and warns her against marriage. The party itself is excruciating and bizarre, with Natalie interacting with the guests and simultaneously carrying on a mental conversation with a detective who has, in her imagination, accused her of murder. And then there is the sexual assault, alluded to but unexplained, which occurs when one of the guests takes her into the woods behind her home and does something which is never described, nor really referenced again, but which hangs like a pall over the rest of the book.

Both of her parents only see her in relation to themselves, and not as an independent entity.

“It seemed that perhaps her father was trying to cure his failures in Natalie, and her mother was perhaps trying to avoid, through Natalie, doing over again those things she now believed to have been mistaken.”

In addition, Natalie’s fellow students, mostly women, largely dislike her as they jockey for social position, and at least one of her peers is involved in a sordid affair with a professor who is already married to an emotionally fragile ex-student who has grasped the brass ring (marriage, to a handsome intellectual, like Natalie’s mother. Or Shirley Jackson herself) and yet found her prize hollow, retreating into an alcoholic haze to cope. The other young women are superficial, dismissive, and occasionally even mean, but they are brashly capable of navigating a world that is causing Natalie to fall apart completely. Jackson was writing this book in 1951, while her husband was a teacher at Bennington College in Vermont, and as such she would have been intimately familiar with young women in Natalie’s position. There are references, some off-handed, some less so, about conflict between young women living in dormitories, about affairs, sometimes with professors, and suicides, and pregnancies and abortions. As the novel progresses, Natalie’s very grasp on reality seems to splinter, until, after her trip home for Thanksgiving, she is on a bus back to college , and

She wanted to sing and did so, soundlessly, her mouth against the fogged window of the bus, thinking as she sang, And when I first saw Natalie Waite, the most incredible personality of our time, the unbelievably talented, vivid, almost girlish creature—when I first saw her, she was sitting in a bus, exactly as I or you might be, and for a minute I noticed nothing of her richness . . . and then she turned and smiled at me. Now, knowing her for what she is, the most vividly talented actress (murderess? courtesan? dancer?) of our time or perhaps any time, I can see more clearly the enchanting contradictions within her—her humor, her vicious flashing temper, so easily aroused and so quickly controlled by her iron will; her world-weary cynicism (she has, after all, suffered more than perhaps any other from the stings and arrows of outrageous fortune), her magnificent mind, so full of information, of deep pockets never explored wherein lie glowing thoughts like jewels never seen . . .

The narration changes, briefly from third person to first person. Even now, looking back, I don’t know what any of this means – who is the narrator of this passage? Is he – she – real? Natalie’s imagination, again? When Natalie returns to campus, the tension ratchets up, and the book becomes almost a thriller, with midnight wanderings and a terrifying plunging through the dark Vermont woods.

Jackson was adept at plumbing the psyches of disturbed, repressed young women – Merricat, from We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Eleanor from The Haunting of Hill House, and Natalie. This is an unsettling book, with its look backwards at the cost that society imposed on young women who didn’t fit into the roles that society prepared for them. Not a ghost story, not a murder mystery, Hangsaman is something more abstract but in some ways even more terrifying – a narration of the mental disintegration of a sensitive young woman in a society that neither makes an effort to understand her, nor cares little for her psychological well-being.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence by Edith WhartonThe Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
on 1920
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 305
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads

Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton’s masterful portrait of desire and betrayal during the sumptuous Golden Age of Old New York, a time when society people “dreaded scandal more than disease.”

This is Newland Archer’s world as he prepares to marry the beautiful but conventional May Welland. But when the mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York after a disastrous marriage, Archer falls deeply in love with her. Torn between duty and passion, Archer struggles to make a decision that will either courageously define his life—or mercilessly destroy it.

The Age of Innocence is the third book in Wharton’s loosely-linked cycle focused on upper class New York of the 1870’s (the other two books are The House of Mirth, published in 1905, and The Custom of the Country, published in 1913). She’s writing from a distance, looking backward between 30 and 50 years, but this is an era and subject that is deeply familiar to her by dint of her birth. Wharton herself was fairly unconventional – unhappily married to a man who was seriously mentally ill, she commenced an affair with a newspaperman and divorced her husband.

The Age of Innocence, unlike the other two books, is narrated by a male character, Newland Archer, who provides a bridge between the older, conventional attitudes and newer, more liberated attitudes, and is, to some degree, crushed by convention. He lives on the cusp of change, but chooses to follow the strictures of society. He is conflicted about what he really wants from his life.

On the one hand, when speaking of his future wife, he says:

He did not in the least wish the future Mrs. Newland Archer to be a simpleton. He meant her (thanks to his enlightening companionship) to develop a social tact and readiness of wit enabling her to hold her own with the most popular married women of the “younger set,” in which it was the recognised custom to attract masculine homage while playfully discouraging it. If he had probed to the bottom of his vanity (as he sometimes nearly did) he would have found there the wish that his wife should be as worldly-wise and as eager to please as the married lady whose charms had held his fancy through two mildly agitated years; without, of course, any hint of the frailty which had so nearly marred that unhappy being’s life, and had disarranged his own plans for a whole winter.

He chooses May Welland to be his wife, an athletic, beautiful and extremely proper young girl who is totally conventional. He announces this choice with desperately unfortunate timing on the very evening that he will meet May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, who, as it turns out, represents the consuming passion of his life. There are many moments during the book that are turning points, where he could choose passion, but, instead, he follows duty and societal expectation.

There is something both noble and sad about Newland Archer. He was an anachronism, even in Wharton’s time – the honorable man who would sacrifice passion for domesticity. As the book continues, the shackles around Archer tighten by his own choice. At any moment, he could throw caution to the wind, leave May, leave New York, and follow his heart. But he never does, and I end up thinking more of him for the sacrifice, not less.

He could not deplore (as Thackeray’s heroes so often exasperated him by doing) that he had not a blank page to offer his bride in exchange for the unblemished one she was to give to him. He could not get away from the fact that if he had been brought up as she had they would have been no more fit to find their way about than the Babes in the Wood; nor could he, for all his anxious cogitations, see any honest reason (any, that is, unconnected with his own momentary pleasure, and the passion of masculine vanity) why his bride should not have been allowed the same freedom of experience as himself.

Archer acknowledges that May has been raised to be just that which she has become – a “blank page.” She has been raised to go, innocent, from father’s home to husband’s home. The entire society is in a conspiracy to ensure that ladies like May never have to confront the difficulties of life. How terribly suffocating and infantilizing that must have been. But, in spite of that, she knows, of course, that her husband is passionately in love with someone else. And it isn’t just sexual passion, it is also intellectual passion. With Ellen, he has found his soulmate and his intellectual equal, someone who would challenge him. May was not capable of engaging him.

Archer had reverted to all his old inherited ideas about marriage. It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free; and he had long since discovered that May’s only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of her wifely adoration.

In the end, what does Archer gain? Well, his children of course, who love him quite dearly. And May, who, limited as she was, sacrificed as well.

He had been what was called a faithful husband; and when May had suddenly died — carried off by the infectious pneumonia through which she had nursed their youngest child — he had honestly mourned her. Their long years together had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty: lapsing from that, it became a mere battle of ugly appetites. Looking about him, he honoured his own past, and mourned for it. After all, there was good in the old ways.

By the end of the book, Archer’s world has changed inalterably. His son is marrying the daughter of Julius Beaufort, a young woman who resembles Ellen Olenska in many ways – sparkling, vibrant, unconventional – with the approval of society. Archer knows that it has changed too late for him – he is the old guard, his children are the new. They will get their chances. He sacrificed his for duty.

Wharton knows how to end her books with a knife twist to the gut, and we get one here, too. Archer doesn’t hold out for happiness at the end. He lived the life he chose, and he will honor that choice, painful, limiting, sometimes sad and always dutiful, even to the end.

He sat for a long time on the bench in the thickening dusk, his eyes never turning from the balcony. At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters. At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.

That hurts.

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country by Edith WhartonThe Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
Published by Penguin Classics on 1913
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 370
Source: Purchased: print book
Goodreads

Considered by many to be her masterpiece, Edith Wharton's second full-length work is a scathing yet personal examination of the exploits and follies of the modern upper class. As she unfolds the story of Undine Spragg, from New York to Europe, Wharton affords us a detailed glimpse of what might be called the interior décor of this America and its nouveau riche fringes. Through a heroine who is as vain, spoiled, and selfish as she is irresistibly fascinating, and through a most intricate and satisfying plot that follows Undine's marriages and affairs, she conveys a vision of social behavior that is both supremely informed and supremely disenchanted. - Anita Brookner

This book is the second in Wharton’s cycle of books focusing on women and marriage in gilded age New York. The first, House of Mirth, was published in 1905. House of Mirth was her first full-length novel. The Custom of the Country was the second of the three, published in 1913. The Age of Innocence completes the cycle, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1920. Each of them explore female autonomy and marriage in the late nineteenth century, focusing primarily on upper-class New York society and the extensive rules and limitations of that society.

The anti-heroine of The Custom of the Country is Undine Spragg, a midwestern girl with seething ambitions who has dragged her newly rich family to New York. Born in the fictional Apex City, Undine has an outsized sense of importance coupled with absolutely no principles whatsoever. She is, and remains, total tabula rasa through the entire book, an empty vessel to be filled with whatever social niceties are required to fit into the group to which she aspires. She cares for essentially no one and provides no value at all save her extraordinary youthful beauty. Sirenlike, she convinces four different men: her father, Abner Spragg, her New York husband, Ralph Marvell, her French husband, Raymond de Chelles, and, coming full circle, her Apex City husband Elmer Moffatt that she is precisely who they want her – and believe her – to be.

In mythology, Undine is an elemental water spirit, a nereide, a nymph, who is born without a human soul and must marry a human male in order to achieve immortality. This is a fine analogy to Undine Spragg, a woman who is so utterly self-centered that she is incapable of even the barest human feeling for another person. Like a nymph, she is physically gorgeous, eternally youthful, lithe, slender and innocent of appearance. She has the ability to be completely artificial and yet appear utterly without artifice. The men whom she marries believe her to be exactly who she appears to be, until much too late.

Edith Wharton is frequently unkind to her female characters. Undine is different. She is never really forced to pay the price for her decisions, but, in part, I think that this is because she is incapable of feeling like she did anything wrong. She is a human wrecking ball, a vampire squid wrapped around the face of those who love her, sucking them dry and discarding the empty husk that she leaves behind.

In many ways, she reminds me of some of the other great anti-heroines in literature: Emma Bovary, Scarlett O’Hara, Daisy Buchanan, Becky Sharp. And there is nothing like reading about an anti-heroine and realizing that many of the qualities that make her an anti-heroine are the same qualities that might make a man a hero. Or, at a minimum, successful. Undine, as a woman, has no ability to make her own money or be independent, and she lacks any sort of a control or restraint to prevent her from behaving really, really badly. She is pure consumption, unbridled by convention, with no ability other than manipulation to achieve her aims.

She makes her parents miserable, with her constant social climbing and relentless demands. Near the beginning of the book, she has target-locked on a specific social class exemplified by old New York families, and demands that, in order to insinuate herself into that class, her father purchase her an opera box, so she can see and be seen the class with which she wants to associate herself. When her father demurs, because of the cost, but suggests he might be able to afford a seat, she responds:

“I’d a good deal rather have a box for the season,” she rejoined, and he saw the opening he had given her.

She had two ways of getting things out of him against his principles; the tender wheedling way, and the harsh-lipped and cold — and he did not know which he dreaded most. As a child they had admired her assertiveness, had made Apex ring with their boasts of it; but it had long since cowed Mrs. Spragg, and it was beginning to frighten her husband.

Every decision she makes turns out, in her mind, to be the wrong one because she is simply incapable of contentment. There is a great, grasping need at the bottom of her that can never be filled. She marries into New York society, and that turns to ashes because, as it turns out, old families don’t necessarily possess the kind of material resources that she needs in order to be amused. And because she is Undine Spragg, beautiful and demanding, she never, not even for one minute, feels that she should have to make the best of any situation. Rather, the situation must make the best of her, or she is out. When husband number one conveniently kicks off, opening the way for her to remarry a Catholic French Count as a widow, not as a divorcee, she is briefly contented with the great chateau and the title.

In some ways, she’s met her match in Raymond de Chelles. She tries to manipulate him, and he merely ignores her. When she throws a tantrum over their reduced circumstances, and attempts to guilt him into selling some of his heirloom tapestries in order to keep her in her accustomed splendor, he responds:

“Ah, that’s your answer — that’s all you feel when you lay hands on things that are sacred to us!” He stopped a moment, and then let his voice break out with the volume she had felt it to be gathering. “And you’re all alike,” he exclaimed, “every one of you. You come among us from a country we don’t know, and can’t imagine, a country you care for so little that before you’ve been a day in ours you’ve forgotten the very house you were born in — if it wasn’t torn down before you knew it! You come among us speaking our language and not knowing what we mean; wanting the things we want, and not knowing why we want them; aping our weaknesses, exaggerating our follies, ignoring or ridiculing all we care about — you come from hotels as big as towns, and from towns as flimsy as paper, where the streets haven’t had time to be named, and the buildings are demolished before they are dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of what we have — and we’re fools enough to imagine that because you copy our ways and pick up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honourable for us.”

After this, she finally, ultimately, frees herself from him and marries her equal, Elmer Moffat, a man who is just as newly rich, just as crass, just as brash as Undine herself. With unlimited resources and a husband who will make no demands upon her, she believes that she has finally achieved that which she is due.

But even at the end of the book, I’m left with a strong belief that this one will not stick. That the black widow spider that is Undine Spragg de Chelles Moffat will not be content for long. The book ends:

But under all that dazzle a tiny black cloud remained. She had learned that there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor influence nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an Ambassador’s wife; and as she advanced to welcome her first guest she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.

Honestly, is there anyone, finishing this book, who doesn’t think that somewhere there is a president who doesn’t have a prayer in hell of standing in her way when she decides to marry the ambassador to France? Because seriously, Undine Spragg could reduce Donald Trump to a pile of quivering ectoplasm in thirty seconds flat.

Edith Wharton is, as always, brilliant. But, unlike so many of her other books, this book is a hard diamond of a thing. I cannot sympathize with Undine Spragg, because there is no humanity in her at all. She is the ultimate expression of the Randian ideal: pure selfishness, gorgeous and demanding, standing with hand outstretched, wearing a beautiful dress.

Penguin Classics A to Z: The Ambassadors

Penguin Classics A to Z: The AmbassadorsThe Ambassadors by Henry James
Published by Penguin Classics on 1903
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 544
Goodreads

"I've come, you know, to make you break with everything, neither more nor less, and take you straight home'

Concerned that her son Chad may have become involved with a woman of dubious reputation, the formidable Mrs Newsome sends her 'ambassador' Strether from Massachusetts to Paris to extricate him. Strether's mission, however, is gradually undermined as he falls under the spell of the city and finds Chad refined rather than corrupted by its influence and that of his charming companion, Madame de Vionnet. As the summer wears on, Mrs Newsome concludes that she must send another envoy to confront the errant Chad--and a Strether whose view of the world has changed profoundly. One of the greatest of James's late works, The Ambassadors is a subtle and witty exploration of different American responses to a European environment.

Part of a series of new Penguin Classics editions of Henry James's works, this edition contains a chronology, further reading, glossary, notes and an introduction by Adrian Poole discussing The Ambassadors in the context of James's other works on Americans in Europe in Europe, and the novel's portrayal of Paris.

I collect Penguin Classics, black spine edition. They are readily accessible, and I really love the way that they look on my shelf (someday I will post a pic!). There are, believe it or not, more than 1300 titles in the series, spanning centuries and continents.

So, I have a small, but growing, collection of their titles. In an effort to start reading my own library, I’ve decided to do my own version of the A to Z challenge, using the first letter of the first *real* word of the title (i.e., not A, An or The) to pick my books. Of those, X & Z are going to problems – I’ve decided in advance to accept a book that contains those two letters in any part of the title or author name (which opens up Zola, for “Z”).

In any event, I will now get to the point. My first book was The Ambassadors by Henry James.

I am not particularly a fan of Henry James, although I’ve read very few of his books. I recall reading, and rather enjoying, The Portrait of a Lady. I think I’ve possibly read The Bostonians. To me, his work is reserved to the point of impenetrability, and nearly completely emotionless.

Which is exactly how I felt about The Ambassadors. No one ever really does anything – the writing is bloodlessly beautiful, and unaffecting. There were moments, for me, where it felt like the characters might consider doing something (anything!), and then they never did.

Henry James makes me feel like I am missing the point. It’s not unenjoyable. I may read more, just to see if a deeper understanding of his writing helps me to get him. But, generally, I much prefer his contemporary Edith Wharton. Anything but bloodless, reading Wharton is, to me, like opening a vein.

Reading Political Satire Aloud to a Teen: George Orwell’s Animal Farm

Reading Political Satire Aloud to a Teen: George Orwell’s Animal FarmAnimal Farm by George Orwell
on 1945
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 152
Source: Borrowed: print book
Goodreads
five-stars

Tired of their servitude to man, a group of farm animals revolt and establish their own society, only to be betrayed into worse servitude by their leaders, the pigs, whose slogan becomes: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." This 1945 satire addresses the socialist/ communist philosophy of Stalin in the Soviet Union.

Guitar Hero, my 14 year old son, is not an abstract thinker. In the first place, he is 14, and a boy. As well, he was diagnosed with autism when he was 3, which manifests itself in several ways, one of which is that he doesn’t really do well with abstraction.

So, when he was assigned Animal Farm as part of his social studies unit on the Russian/Chinese revolutions, it made sense that we would read and discuss it together. This turned out to be an awesome way to gain a deeper understanding of Orwell’s classic satire-masquerading-as-a-fable-about-anthropormorphisized-animals. For both of us.

Because even though my son doesn’t really do abstraction, he had several flashes of insight in this book that were amazing to observe. And the opportunity to talk through things like abuse of power, and corruption, and hypocrisy, and propaganda with him was a lot of fun for both of us (more for me, though, probably. Lol).

This is the part where I point out that Orwell was really brilliant in his ability to reduce totalitarianism to a few pen strokes, a pig in a dress, poor Boxer the draft horse who gave his soul, and ultimately his life, to an ideal that was never going to be anything other than corrupted, and some ever changing rules about equality and animalism.

I wondered if he would get that breathtaking moment, at the end, when the “commandments” have been reduced to simply one:

All Animals Are Equal.
Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others

And he did. He totally, totally did. Which was amazing.

five-stars

We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley JacksonWe Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Published by Penguin Classics on 1962
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 146
Source: Purchased: print book
Goodreads

Visitors call seldom at Blackwood House. Taking tea at the scene of a multiple poisoning, with a suspected murderess as one's host, is a perilous business. For a start, the talk tends to turn to arsenic. "It happened in this very room, and we still have our dinner in here every night," explains Uncle Julian, continually rehearsing the details of the fatal family meal. "My sister made these this morning," says Merricat, politely proffering a plate of rum cakes, fresh from the poisoner's kitchen. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson's 1962 novel, is full of a macabre and sinister humor, and Merricat herself, its amiable narrator, is one of the great unhinged heroines of literature. "What place would be better for us than this?" she asks, of the neat, secluded realm she shares with her uncle and with her beloved older sister, Constance. "Who wants us, outside? The world is full of terrible people." Merricat has developed an idiosyncratic system of rules and protective magic, burying talismanic objects beneath the family estate, nailing them to trees, ritually revisiting them. She has made "a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us" against the distrust and hostility of neighboring villagers.

Or so she believes. But at last the magic fails. A stranger arrives -- cousin Charles, with his eye on the Blackwood fortune. He disturbs the sisters' careful habits, installing himself at the head of the family table, unearthing Merricat's treasures, talking privately to Constance about "normal lives" and "boy friends." Unable to drive him away by either polite or occult means, Merricat adopts more desperate methods. The result is crisis and tragedy, the revelation of a terrible secret, the convergence of the villagers upon the house, and a spectacular unleashing of collective spite.

The sisters are propelled further into seclusion and solipsism, abandoning "time and the orderly pattern of our old days" in favor of an ever-narrowing circuit of ritual and shadow. They have themselves become talismans, to be alternately demonized and propitiated, darkly, with gifts. Jackson's novel emerges less as a study in eccentricity and more -- like some of her other fictions -- as a powerful critique of the anxious, ruthless processes involved in the maintenance of normality itself. "Poor strangers," says Merricat contentedly at last, studying trespassers from the darkness behind the barricaded Blackwood windows. "They have so much to be afraid of."

A slender book, only 148 pages long, that packs an outsized punch. Prior to reading it, I’d heard a lot about it, as well as a lot about Shirley Jackson, who is best known for her short story that launched a thousand anthologies: The Lottery. I vaguely remember reading The Lottery in high school, and finding it more than a little disturbing.

And it is my general sense that “more than a little disturbing” pretty much describes Shirley Jackson to a T.

In any event, I participate in a blog event every year called R.I.P. (Readers Imbibing Peril) that is hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. It is a lot of fun, and is an opportunity to read books that are on the chiller/thriller/horror end of the spectrum. This was one of my R.I.P. reads for 2013.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a brief tale of two sisters: Merrikat and Constance, who live in their family home after someone has murdered every other member of the family (with the exception of their crazy uncle) using poisoned sugar six years earlier. Merrikat is 18, although she perpetually seems to be about 12, and Constance is her older sister, who was acquitted of the murders. The unsolved mass homicide hangs like a pall over the house, and over the village in which Merrikat and Constance live.

It is a fast read, a page turner, propelling me forward with a sense of vague unease and discomfort. I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a little psychological horror. It is a remarkable book.

As an aside, I read The Haunting of Hill House earlier this year (well after reading this one – this review was long-delayed on my blog) and I actually prefer this one. Take that for what you will!

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley JacksonThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Published by Penguin Classics on 1959
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 182
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads

First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a "haunting"; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

“What else could you call Hill House?” Luke demanded. “Well—disturbed, perhaps. Leprous. Sick. Any of the popular euphemisms for insanity; a deranged house is a pretty conceit.

Shirley Jackson wrote and published The Haunting of Hill House in 1959. A classic ghost story, it owes a debt to the Victorian antiquarian ghost stories of writers like M.R. James, but approaches the genre from a totally different style. Rather than indulging in flowery, gothic, Victorian prose, Jackson is a stripped-down writer of great emotional engagement. The spareness of her prose is what gives her work its authority and power.

The book has a very limited cast, and is written on a small scale. There are the four primary characters – Professor Montague, Luke, Theodora and Eleanor. Eleanor develops as the primary narrator, and the primary focus of Hill House itself. A young woman with a history of psychic sensitivity, she is an unreliable narrator, and there are questions that are never resolved. She arrived first at Hill House – was the haunting a projection of her psychic sensitivity? Why was she the primary focus of Hill House? Was there a single ghost, or multiple spirits, or is it the house itself that is a malevolent presence seeking companionship?

In addition to this primary quartet, there are two characters who are the “help,” who come and go from Hill House without interference, and, late in the book, the Professor’s oddly cheerful wife shows up with a side kick. It is her plan to gently guide – or possibly to force – the spirits to pass from earthly discontent into heavenly peacefulness. Mrs. Montague is an archetypal character, the managing female who interferes with the work to be done by the men. This is the point at which the book, and the house, seem to take a turn into even deeper darkness, as though a battle for the soul of Hill House has commenced, and Eleanor’s narration slips further and further into confusion.

One overriding theme of Hill House is that of movement toward an unknown destination. She uses the word “journey” over and over again, in discussing Eleanor’s trip toward Hill House, early in the book, and then between the four characters once they have arrived. At the beginning all is hopeful, optimistic, Eleanor drives her car toward Hill House with a sense of the possible.

“Just this once,” the mother said. She put down the glass of milk and touched the little girl gently on the hand. “Eat your ice cream,” she said.

When they left, the little girl waved good-by to Eleanor, and Eleanor waved back, sitting in joyful loneliness to finish her coffee while the gay stream tumbled along below her. I have not very much farther to go, Eleanor thought; I am more than halfway there. Journey’s end, she thought, and far back in her mind, sparkling like the little stream, a tag end of a tune danced through her head, bringing distantly a word or so;

“In delay there lies no plenty,” she thought, “in delay there lies no plenty.” She nearly stopped forever just outside Ashton, because she came to a tiny cottage buried in a garden. I could live there all alone, she thought, slowing the car to look down the winding garden path to the small blue front door with, perfectly, a white cat on the step. No one would ever find me there, either, behind all those roses, and just to make sure I would plant oleanders by the road. I will light a fire in the cool evenings and toast apples at my own hearth. I will raise white cats and sew white curtains for the windows and sometimes come out of my door to go to the store to buy cinnamon and tea and thread. People will come to me to have their fortunes told, and I will brew love potions for sad maidens; I will have a robin. . . . But the cottage was far behind, and it was time to look for her new road, so carefully charted by Dr. Montague.”

Jackson repeatedly uses the phrase “journeys end in lovers meeting,” fourteen times by count of my kindle. The phrase comes from Twelfth Night, Act II, a song sung by Feste, a jester:

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear! Your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.
What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter.
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty.
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

The first time the phrase is used is by Eleanor, in reference to her arrival at Hill House:

“It was an act of moral strength to lift her foot and set it on the bottom step, and she thought that her deep unwillingness to touch Hill House for the first time came directly from the vivid feeling that it was waiting for her, evil, but patient. Journeys end in lovers meeting, she thought, remembering her song at last, and laughed, standing on the steps of Hill House, journeys end in lovers meeting, and she put her feet down firmly and went up to the veranda and the door. Hill House came around her in a rush; she was enshadowed, and the sound of her feet on the wood of the veranda was an outrage in the utter silence, as though it had been a very long time since feet stamped across the boards of Hill House.”

The other characters use it as well, repeatedly, to describe the gathering at Hill House. It is used by Theodora, in potentially jealous reference to Eleanor’s relationship to Luke, it is used by Eleanor in reference to her own ambiguously sexual/romantic relationship with Theodora, and it is used, generally, in reference to the ending of Eleanor’s journey at Hill House.

Hill House, itself, looms over the book, a dark presence, pregnant with dread and malevolence. Jackson’s ability to describe the oddities of the house – the doors that won’t stay open, the angles that aren’t quite right, the rooms that don’t fit together in a way that is quite consistent with architecture and physics, is remarkable. Hill House takes on a character of its own, and overwhelms the characters themselves. In a battle of wills, Hill House wins.

“Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes letting its guests get away.”

This is a perfect book for October, when the sun turns on its journey away from us, and brings with it darkness. Suspenseful without being gory, never devolving into melodrama, it is a near perfect example of the haunted house novel. If you can only choose one Jackson novel to read, I would slightly more highly recommend the other well-known book by her – We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But why would a reader limit him or herself to only one? Read them both – always in autumn.

“Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald.Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
on 1934
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 315
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
two-half-stars

The French Rivera in the 1920s is 'discovered' by Dick and Nicole Diver, who turn it into the playground of the rich and glamorous. Among their cycle is Rosemary Hoyt, the beautiful starlet, who falls in love with Dick and is enraptured by Nicole, unaware of the corruption and dark secrets that haunt their marriage. When Dick becomes entangled with Rosemary, he fractures the delicate structure of his relationship with Nicole, and the lustre of their life together begins to tarnish. Tender is the Night is an exquisite novel that reflects not only Fitzgerald's own personal tragedy, but also the shattered idealism of the society in which he lived.

Tender is the Night was published January through April, 1934. As an exercise in understanding, I am going to list a few things that were happening in 1933 through 1935 in the United States (per wikipedia):

The U.S. was in the midst of a deep depression. 25% of the workforce was unemployed. FDR implemented the first New Deal beginning with his inauguration in March, 1933.

Bonnie and Clyde began the rampage that would ultimately end their lives by murdering two young highway patrolmen. They were shot dead on May 23, 1934, after their behavior transfixed the nation for two years.

The Dust Bowl began on November 11, 1933, in South Dakota. In May, 1934, a two day dust storm removed massive amounts of Great Plains topsoil in one of the worst such storms of the Dust Bowl. The dust clouds blew all the way to Chicago, where they deposited 12 million pounds of dust.

This is what it looked like in America:

Dust-storm-Texas-1935

This is what he was writing about,

the murphys

in his epically self-indulgent book about rich, pretty people with rich, pretty people problems, like what to do when you drink too much booze, have sex with beautiful actresses half your age, and generally behave like a hollowed out husk of a human being.

Is it any wonder that it flopped?

In the final analysis, sure, it had redeeming literary value. But the characters were soulless and charmless (as Fitzgerald’s characters often are) and the world that they lived in was shallow and superficial. It left me utterly empty. Sort of like Dick and Nicole Diver.

two-half-stars

Doctor Zhivago (Book 2) by Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago (Book 2) by Boris PasternakDoctor Zhivago (Book 2) by Boris Pasternak
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Source: Purchased: ebook

It has taken a few weeks to come back to finish the Doctor Zhivago discussion. I’d like to begin this post with a quote from the beginning of Book 2:

The train that had brought the Zhivago family to this place still stood on the back tracks of the station, screened by other trains, but there was a feeling that the connection with Moscow, which had stretched over the whole journey, had broken, had ended that morning.

So, we’ve left Moscow and travelled across Russia with the Zhivago family to begin again. Having read this book immediately prior to beginning my Great War read, I am struck by the narrow focus of Doctor Zhivago. It plays out across this grand stage of the Russian revolution, but at its heart, it is the story of one insignificant man. There is scarcely a mention of Lenin in the entire book. The great figures and battles of the revolution are absent – they are engaged in their great acts somewhere else, in the heart of Russia. This is a story of a revolution, and of a war, but it is the story of the minute impact of the war on one man. The reader is completely unaware that World War I is happening elsewhere on the great stage of history during this story. This makes the story feel almost claustrophobic, like we are Zhivago, living with bits and snatches of information but very little real understanding of what is going on out there. How is the war progressing? Who is winning? Who is losing? When will it end?

This is a really unique perspective, and one that I found thought-provoking. In wartime, communications aren’t always reliable, and the people in the middle of war often aren’t able to access legitimate, accurate information about what is actually going on – but this is difficult to convey in fiction. Doctor Zhivago effectively immersed me in the Russian revolution because it wasn’t written with a hindsight is 20/20 approach. Zhivago is conscripted into service (abducted, really) and spends month without a clue about his family, about how the war is going, about what has happened to Lara.

And I want to talk about Lara. The relationship between Yuri and Lara was problematic for me, and not just because they were both married. I am not a fan of cheaters, even if they are involved in an star-crossed, epic love story. It undermines their moral authority.

But I also struggled with Pasternak’s treatment of Lara, and the way that she was constantly tossed from male character to male character as though she was some sort of a toy that the manliest Russian man got to take home. I hated Komarovsky (and we’re supposed to hate him. He’s a rapist, notwithstanding his claim that he isn’t). Pasha was weak and pathetic until he turned into a monster because his wife made him feel inadequate. And Yuri chose a wife and chose a family and benefited from those choices, and it was really pretty crappy of him to abandon Tonya and his son because hot sex with the Russian earth mother.

Not to absolve Lara. She was allegedly friends with Tonya. I feel like the “romance” cheapened both of the characters. It’s self-indulgent to absolve oneself of the burden of infidelity by claiming that you have an all-consuming, irresistible passion for someone other than your spouse. Even in wartime. And Lara could have been a fantastic character – a bright and ambitious woman who pulled herself out of the most pernicious servitude by sheer force of will, she went to school, became first a teacher and then a nurse. That’s some pretty amazing stuff, but it gets lost in the narrative of Lara is so hot and sexy and men fall all over themselves to possess her.

One of the things that I unequivocally loved about the book, though, was Pasternak’s language. He is a poet, and some of the passages are achingly beautiful. A few examples:

Big stars like blue mica lamps hang in the forest among the branches. The whole sky is strewn with little stars like a summer meadow with chamomile.

Winter had long since come. It was freezing cold. Torn-up sounds and forms appeared with no evident connection from the frosty mist, stood, moved, vanished. Not the sun we are accustomed to on earth, but the crimson ball of some other substitute sun hung in the forest. From it, strainedly and slowly, as in a dream or a fairy tale, rays of amber yellow light, thick as honey, spread and on their way congealed in the air and froze to the trees.

The ashen softness of the expanses quickly sank into the lilac twilight, which was turning more and more purple. Their gray mist merged with the fine, lacy handwriting of the birches along the road, tenderly traced against the pale pink of the sky, suddenly grown shallow.

Ultimately, I enjoyed a lot of things about this book. It was frequently a tough read, though, and I feel that I would have enjoyed it more, and understood it better, if I had had more context for the Russian revolution while I was reading it. It is not an easy read, but is worth the trouble.

One of Ours by Willa Cather (The Nebraska sections)

One of Ours by Willa Cather (The Nebraska sections)One of Ours (the Nebraska section) by Willa Cather
on 1923
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 371
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads

Willa Cather's 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative of the making of a young American soldier

Claude Wheeler, the sensitive, aspiring protagonist of this beautifully modulated novel, resembles the youngest son of a peculiarly American fairy tale. His fortune is ready-made for him, but he refuses to settle for it. Alienated from his crass father and pious mother, all but rejected by a wife who reserves her ardor for missionary work, and dissatisfied with farming, Claude is an idealist without an ideal to cling to. It is only when his country enters the First World War that Claude finds what he has been searching for all his life.

In One of Ours Willa Cather explores the destiny of a grandchild of the pioneers, a young Nebraskan whose yearnings impel him toward a frontier bloodier and more distant than the one that vanished before his birth. In doing so, she creates a canny and extraordinarily vital portrait of an American psyche at once skeptical and romantic, restless and heroic.

I love Willa Cather – I was born in Nebraska, and her books really resonate with me.

I don’t think that One of Ours will end up a Cather favorite, but I am really enjoying it. I’ve read a fair amount of reviews that say that the section set in Nebraska that describes the experience of an American farmer viewing the war from a distance is the best part of the book, and so far, I would certainly agree that it is outstanding. She describes the early 20th century farm experience masterfully, and, as reader, I really admired the way that she brought the news of the war into the story as something that emotionally impacted the characters without affecting them in any substantive way.

Claude Wheeler, the main character, is based on her cousin, G.P. Cather, who died in 1918 in Cantigny France. This is a 1916 photograph of a group of young Nebraskan men who fought. Cather is the young man behind the sign that says 1916.

nebraska 1916

One afternoon in the first week of September Mrs. Wheeler was in the kitchen making cucumber pickles, when she heard Claude’s car coming back from Frankfort. In a moment he entered, letting the screen door slam behind him, and threw a bundle of mail on the table. “What do you, think, Mother? The French have moved the seat of government to Bordeaux!

I really love the juxtaposition here of Mrs. Wheeler making cucumber pickles with the news about the war. It is so remote, and homely, and illustrates how life goes on, even in wartime, in the places that are distant from the war. All during WWI, women must have made pickles, which seems sort of crazy from where I sit, looking backwards, like the entire world should have stopped for that four years, and just watched, holding their breath, what was happening in France and the other war fronts.

Claude joins the military in order to escape from Nebraska, and from a terribly failed marriage. He is a young man who spends most of the beginning sections of the book in the midst of a great existential crisis. He doesn’t fit in with the people around him. He has doubts about Christianity, he is an intellectual who doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to participate in intellectual life or debate. Briefly, while he is in college in Lincoln, he begins to blossom into someone with greater self-confidence and becomes more comfortable with who he is and the doubts that he has.

Now he dismissed all Christian theology as something too full of evasions and sophistries to be reasoned about. The men who made it, he felt sure, were like the men who taught it. The noblest could be damned, according to their theory, while almost any mean-spirited parasite could be saved by faith.

Perhaps I identified with this aspect of Claude’s personality because THIS is the very struggle that I experience when I think about Christianity.

Returning home to the farm, Claude falls in love with Enid, a childhood friend and girl from a neighboring farm, and persuades her to marry him although she is deeply religious and wants to go to China as a missionary. In another time, Enid probably would not have married. In this time, she appears to have married him not because she loves him and wants to build a life with him but because he is her mission – she is to bring him back to God. It’s the worst sort of self-abnegation on her part because she is going to fail, and they are both going to be miserable.

In the depths of this lassitude the thought of Enid would start up like a sweet, burning pain, and he would drift out into the darkness upon sensations he could neither prevent nor control. So long as he could plough, pitch hay, or break his back in the wheatfield, he had been master; but now he was overtaken by himself. Enid was meant for him and she had come for him; he would never let her go. She should never know how much he longed for her. She would be slow to feel even a little of what he was feeling; he knew that. It would take a long while. But he would be infinitely patient, infinitely tender of her. It should be he who suffered, not she. Even in his dreams he never wakened her, but loved her while she was still and unconscious like a statue. He would shed love upon her until she warmed and changed without knowing why.

This section is beautiful and heart-breaking because we know that Claude is going to be disappointed, and that Enid isn’t going to be much of a participant in the marriage. Even her father knows that this decision is going to be bad, that the marriage will be a failure. “What he wanted to do was to hold up life as he had found it, like a picture, to his young friend; to warn him, without explanation, against certain heart-breaking disappointments. It could not be done, he saw. The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young.”

Cather is at her best when she is writing about her characters, picking out tiny moments and events and thoughts and using the most emphermeal minutia to illuminate them, bathe them in light, as an artist adds light to a painting to highlight something she wants the viewer to see, to notice. Cather is respectful of her characters, even when they are foolish or self-centered or misguided.

When Claude joins the military, Cather writes:

He believed that he was going abroad with an expeditionary force that would make war without rage, with uncompromising generosity and chivalry.

According to wikipedia, Cather learned of G.P.’s death reading a newspaper in a hair salon. She said this about it:

From that on, he was in my mind. The too-personal-ness, the embarrassment of kinship, was gone. But he was in my mind so much that I couldn’t get through him to other things … some of me was buried with him in France, and some of him was left alive in me.

I haven’t gotten to the sections about WWI – those are coming, and it feels a bit like impending doom.

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