Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reading Journal: "Out of Love"

Victoria Clayton, Out of Love. St. Martin's Press 1998. Originally published in Great Britain 1997.

Victoria Clayton published two children's novels in her early twenties (in the late 1960s), returned to Cambridge to earn a degree in English, married, and had two children before she wrote Out of Love, her first novel for adults. The story, about two school friends who are reunited after many years, is essentially a fairy tale. What happens when the handsome falls in love with the fairy godmother instead of the princess? Min is happily married to Robert, the mother of two children, living in a slightly ramshackle manor house in Lancashire. Homemaking is not one of Min's talents: the house is a mess, she's a dismal cook, her children are mildly neglected, her husband is grumpy, and her dog is flatulent from eating leftover cabbage because Min keeps forgetting to buy dog food. Enter Min's school friend Daisy, a beautiful Cambridge academic, who comes for a brief visit and ends up staying for weeks. During her stay at Weston Hall, Daisy puts the house in order, solves various problems in the children's lives, introduces French cuisine, buys dog food—and falls mutually in love with Min's husband, Robert (a classicist).

Like Victoria Clayton, Daisy studied English at university, and the story, which Daisy narrates, is filled with references to English literature—especially George Eliot, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Brontë. The conversations between characters are often rather self-consciously literary. Here Daisy argues that if Jane Eyre had really loved Rochester, she would have sacrificed respectability for him and run away with him despite his mad wife—

"But plenty of lovers did run off with each other despite the social conventions of the times," I persisted. "Think of George Eliot in real life. It was only sever or eight years after the publication of Jane Eyre that she went off with Lewes."

"We must distinguish between the experience of love and the expression of it," said Robert. "When the expression of love is suppressed to save inflicting pain on others, that must be a noble restraint. Most people are much too selfish."
Victoria Clayton resembles the English novelist Elizabeth Taylor in her self-conscious appropriation of the tradition of British women's writing. Like Taylor's A View of the Harbour, Out of Love is a novel about readers and writers attempting to cope with real life. Daisy has mastered the reading list on love, but how will she handle the practicum? Clayton, though she writes well, lacks Taylor's fluid style, and her characters often seem to be holding a seminar rather than having a conversation. The literary references come thick and fast—beginning with a reference to Nancy Mitford on page 3 and ending with a reference to Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis on page 371.

George Eliot is a recurring presence in Out of Love. Daisy gives Min two gifts: a biography of George Eliot and a leather-bound copy of Eliot's novel Felix Holt, The Radical. The Mill on the Floss is also mentioned several times. Eliot was infamous in nineteenth-century England for living with a married man, George Henry Lewes, who was in an open marriage with his wife (who also had children by another man). Out of Love is set in the late 1960s, after the Summer of Love, and flirts with the fantasy of an open marriage involving Min, Daisy and Robert. Clayton explores the attractions and the costs of unfaithfulness, and the ties that bind together friends and husbands and wives.

Out of Love
is an enjoyable summer read for Anglophiles, English majors, and readers looking for a more literate romance novel.

Update. Jim (see comments) wants to know: Did I like this novel? Yes. It had its flaws, but it was entertaining and interesting enough to hold my attention. I seldom review books that I don't like, because I usually don't keep reading them to the end.

Scenes from a 20th Anniversary

From our 20th anniversary trip to Lanesboro, Minnesota, to canoe on the south branch of the Root River and bike on the Root River State Trail. The trip included a night at Anna V's Bed and Breakfast and a delicious anniversary dinner at the Old Village Hall Restaurant. Several garrulous kingfishers accompanied us as we floated down the river, and we also saw some stunning indigo buntings.

On an old railroad bridge over the Root River on the Root River State Trail

On the Root River State Trail
between Lanesboro and Fountain, MN

Drifting slowly down the South Branch of the Root River

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Social Cookbooking

This morning, my Facebook friend Adriana posted this link to a set of recipes from the New York Times.
I shared the link with my Facebook friend Laura, in Pennsylvania, who is faced with an early overabundance of zucchini from her garden. Our mutual Facebook friend Julie, in Oxfordshire, commented, "What a wonderful way to share recipes around the world!" Tonight, Clara made the Provençal Zucchini and Swiss Chard Tart, which was absolutely delicious. From Facebook to taste buds in less than a day.

Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa) in McKnight Prairie

McKnight Prairie is beautiful at this time of year. The predominant colors are yellow and white, with bright orange clusters of butterfly weed and a scattering of purple phlox. The biggest surprise this weekend was the prickly pear cactus with its brilliant yellow flowers in full bloom. The flowers were crawling with pollinating beetles.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Reading Journal: "The Ascent of George Washington"

John Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon. Bloomsbury, 2009. Hardcover. $30. I received and read an ARC from the publisher as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

George Washington looks over my shoulder as I write this. An old schoolhouse reproduction of the famous unfinished Gilbert Stuart "Athenaeum" portrait of Washington hangs on the wall behind me. This is the iconic Washington, the Washington of the dollar bill, the American demigod. This is the Washington of myth, the one who chopped down the cherry tree and could not tell a lie. But in his excellent new book, historian John Ferling reveals a different, less admirable, more human Washington—one who might have chopped down the cherry tree and then found a scapegoat on whom to pin the blame.

"What is most remarkable about Washington's ascent," Ferling writes, "is that he emerged an unsurpassed hero from two wars in which he committed dreadful—even spectacular—blunders and was personally responsible for only marginal successes." As Ferling demonstrates, Washington wasn't a spectacular commander in the field, but he was an able administrator and a skilled politician who knew how to build support for his political agenda while at the same time crafting an image of himself as a disinterested public servant who was entirely above politics. Ferling untangles the man from the myth, but argues that, for the purposes of holding together the fragile United States in its infancy, the myth of Washington was as important as the reality. Washington was a necessary man, whose innate skills were supplemented by careful image making to make him the fixed point around which American Independence coalesced. Even his political critics, like Thomas Jefferson, acknowledged this much.

The George Washington who emerges from Ferling's clear and cogent political biography is often far from admirable. His ascent is littered with the careers of men who crossed him, or who were made to take the fall for his blunders. Washington was a seasoned land speculator, and many of his policies and actions seemed to have been motivated primarily by a desire to protect and promote his investments in western land. In 1781, when the allied French commander Rochambeau recommended surrounding Cornwallis's army at the mouth of the Chesapeake, Washington stubbornly insisted on his long-cherished plan of laying siege to British-occupied New York. It was only through some deft maneuvering by Rochambeau that Washington was coaxed south to Yorktown. But in the successful aftermath, Washington was quick to take all the credit, just as he was quick to disclaim any blame when things went wrong.

Washington is also revealed as a master manipulator, and it's intriguing to watch the political dance engaged in by Washington and Alexander Hamilton, who was even more masterful at pulling political strings. Together, Washington and Hamilton invented the American economy, setting it on a path toward successful market capitalism. At the same time, in classic conservative fashion, their policies advanced the interests of the rich—men like themselves—at the expense of the poor. For example, the burden of the infamous whiskey tax of 1791 fell disproportionately on poor western farmers, and provoked the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. In his retirement from office, Washington set up his own whiskey distillery, knowing that he could exploit a tax loophole that favored eastern distillers.

Although I've read numerous books on the Revolutionary period and the early Republic, Ferling's explanations are among the most lucid I've read. He's an academic historian (a professor emeritus at the University of West Georgia), but he writes in an accessible style that rarely takes anything for granted, while still respecting the intelligence of his readers.

In the end, George Washington seems like an ur-Reagan—a skilled political actor who knew how to make the most of the role in which he was cast, and who became the avatar of a wider and more enduring conservative movement. He's great, in part, because of America's need for someone to embody and personalize its greatness. Ferling's book succeeds in uncovering Washington's often less than admirable motives, while allowing him to retain his stature as the necessary man for his times.

Mistaken Identity

Early last week, a florist called up to inquire about a delivery of flowers paid for on my credit card. I hadn't ordered any flowers—nor had I made any of the payments to Match.com that showed up on my credit card statement. I was the victim of identity theft. It was strange to think that someone was out there using me to get a date. Meanwhile, I occasionally get friend requests on Facebook from complete strangers who are undoubtedly attempting to befriend a different Rob Hardy. Here are some of the people I'm not.

Not me

Robert Hardy (born October 29, 1925, in Cheltenham, England). Best known to my generation as Siegfried in the 1970s television adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small, and to my children's generation as Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter movies, this Robert Hardy is, according to the Internet Movie Database, "one of England's most enduringly successful character actors." According to Wikipedia, his full name is Timothy Sydney Robert Hardy. Click here to see him wooing Judi Dench in an old BBC production of Shakespeare's Henry V.

Not me

Rob Hardy. Young African-American director and cinematographer, and co-founder of Rainforest Films. His films—either as writer, director, or producer—include Trois, The Gospel and Stomp the Yard. He's also directed episodes of ER and Heroes.

Not me

Bob Hardy (born August 16, 1980, in Dewbury, England). The bassist for Franz Ferdinand. Click here for a YouTube video of their song "Ulysses," which happens to be the name of the town where I grew up.

Not me

Rob Hardy. A psychiatrist from Columbus, Mississippi, and a top 50 Amazon.com reviewer.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Oxford Mill

A week ago, I posted a picture of a mystery spot within 15 miles of Northfield and asked, "Where Is This?" The answer: the Little Cannon River on Oxford Mill Road outside of Cannon Falls. Here's another photograph, taken just down the road.

This is the Oxford Mill, built in 1878 to replace an older mill across the road, which was built in 1867. The first Oxford Mill, built by the milling magnates Archibald and Wilcox, turned out a flour that won a gold medal in the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876. In its heyday, the new mill handled 400 bushels of wheat a day and employed 30 to 40 men. It was destroyed by fire in 1905.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Reading Journal: "The Pursuit of Love"

Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love. Originally published in 1945.

"I don't want to be a literary curiosity," says Linda Radlett, the heroine of Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, near the end of the novel. "I should like to have been a living part of a really great generation. I think it's too dismal to have been born in 1911." She says this as bombs are falling on London and the Radlett family crowds into their frigid country home in the Cotswolds, calculating how long they can hold out against a German invasion.

The Radletts are Nancy Mitford's own family in thin disguise, and Linda appears to be a composite of all the Mitford sisters. Nancy wrote to her sister Jessica in April 1945: "I'm writing a book about us when we were little..." That book was The Pursuit of Love, and from reading Jessica Mitford's Hons and Rebels and the letters between the sisters collected in The Mitfords, it's clear how much of the novel is drawn directly from life. The Radletts, like the Mitfords, are insulated from the crumbling world around them by their aristocratic snobbery and eccentricity. The patriarch of the family is Matthew—an irritable, anti-intellectual, xenophobic, fox-hunting titled Archie Bunker. Mitford describes his reaction to his one exposure to Shakespeare, a production of Romeo and Juliet:
He cried copiously, and went into a furious rage because it ended badly. "All the fault of that damned padre," he kept saying on the way home, still wiping his eyes. "That fella, what's 'is name, Romeo, might have known a blasted papist would mess up the whole thing. Silly old fool of a nurse, too, I bet she was an R.C., dismal old bitch."
But Mitford's satire is more affectionate and sympathetic than biting. She's writing about herself, her own family, her own social milieu; she recognizes the snobbery and silliness, and she humorously embraces it.

("I know you hate foreigners specially Americans," Jessica writes to Nancy from America in 1945, hoping in vain for a visit from her older sister.)

Mitford's world is the insouciant aristocratic world of P.G.Wodehouse thrown into the tumbler of history. The novel begins with a comic reference to Matthew's exploits in World War I, and ends in the midst of the Second World War, which brings with it the possibility of real tragedy. But even when she walks onto the stage of history, Linda Radlett—like the Mitford sisters—is still the eccentric peer's daughter from the Cotswolds. While in southern France helping arrange transport for refugees from the Spanish Civil War, she's given the job of assigning ship's cabins to the refugee families:
"Did you work on any special plan when you were arranging the cabins, or how did you do it?"

"Why? Wasn't it all right?"

"Perfect. Everybody had a place, and made for it. But I just wondered what you went by when you allocated the good cabins, that's all."

"Well, I simply," said Linda, "gave the best cabins to the people who had Labrador on their card, because I used to have one when I was little and he was such a terrific...so sweet, you know."

"Ah," said Robert, gravely, "all is now explained. Labrador in Spanish happens to mean labourer. So you see under your scheme (excellent by the way, most democratic) the farm hands all found themselves in luxury while the intellectuals were battened. That'll teach them not to be so clever. You did very well, Linda, we were all most grateful."

"He was such a sweet Labrador," said Linda, dreamily. "I wish you could have seen him. I do miss not having pets."
Reading the letters of the real Mitford sisters, one finds a bizarre juxtaposition of passion for political ideologies and passion for dogs and horses and fashion. It's oddly all of a piece.

In The Pursuit of Love, Linda spends a blissful eleven months in Paris in 1939, where, as War looms, she spends her days nude sunbathing on the roof of her flat. Another detail lifted from the real lives of the Mitford sisters. Here's Unity writing to Jessica in 1937:
I have seen the Führer a lot lately which has been heaven, only now he has gone back to his mountain for a bit.

I do hope you are having lovely weather for your motor tour. We have been having a heat wave here for a week, but today alas it's raining. The other day when it was boiling hot I found a secluded spot in the Englischer Garten where I took off all my clothes & sunbathed, luckily no-one came along. While I was lying in the sun I suddenly wondered whether Muv [Mother] knew I was sun-bathing naked, like when she knew that you were bathing naked, & I laughed till I ached, if anyone had come along they would have thought me mad as well as indecent.
Her hero-worship of Hitler—she sees him as a god-like being—does strike the reader as "mad as well as indecent." Unity delights in being naughty and shocking. As she lies naked in the public park, she imagines that her mother knows. Even naked and alone, she imagines a kind of telepathic audience of family. Is her naughtiness an attempt to compete for attention? It must have been difficult, as one of six beautiful daughters, to be uniquely herself. But sunbathing in the Englischer Garten, Unity was able to laugh—as her sister Nancy did, at herself and at her dear, despised, inescapable background.

Two years later, when England declared war on Germany, Unity would sit in the same park and put a gun to her head in a failed suicide attempt that would leave her brain-damaged.

"It's not a farce this time, it's serious," Nancy writes to Jessica about the book she was working on in 1945.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Temporary Habitat

In the new Jasnoch development along Jefferson Dr. behind Target, bank swallows (Riparia riparia) have established a large and precarious colony in a pile of construction dirt. Click the photograph above for more detail. Each of the little holes in the man-made bank is a swallow's nest. When I stopped to take this picture, dozens of disturbed swallows emerged from their holes and took to the sky.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Where Is This?

This beautiful spot lies somewhere within fifteen miles of Northfield. Can you tell me where it is, and what the significance of it is? Click on the picture to enlarge for detail.

Cemetery Ridge

On July 2, in the heat of the Battle of Gettysburg, Union general Winfield Scott Hancock realized that there was a dangerous weakness near the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. He needed time—five minutes—to shift reinforcements into position to meet the oncoming brigade of 1,600 Alabamans, so he ordered the 262 men of the 1st Minnesota Regiment to charge. The Minnesotans bought Hancock the time he needed, but only 47 men survived the attack. One of the survivors was the six foot five inch officer who led the charge, Col. William Colvill.

William Colvill was born on April 5, 1830, in Forestville, in western New York state, and studied law in the Buffalo law office of Millard Fillmore. In 1854, Colvill moved to Red Wing, in the Minnesota Territory, to practice law and edit the local Democratic paper, the Red Wing Sentinel. Colvill backed Democrat Stephen Douglas for President in 1860, but when President Lincoln called for volunteers in 1861, Colvill was the first volunteer from Goodhue County to sign up. He was elected captain of Company F of the 1st Minnesota Regiment. The 1st Minnesota served in most of the major battles of the war, from First Bull Run to Antietam to Chancellorsville to Gettysburg, where the regiment achieved its lasting fame in the desperate charge down Cemetery Ridge.

After the war, Colvill—who was seriously wounded at Gettysburg—served in the Minnesota legislature, served as state Attorney General (1866-68), and was appointed by President Cleveland to head the land office in Duluth. He died on June 12, 1905 (104 years ago yesterday) and was buried in the Cannon Falls Cemetery.

Col. Colvill's grave stands on a peaceful, oak-shaded ridge in the cemetery, overlooked by a statue of the colonel which is the only state monument to a Civil War veteran in Minnesota. A copy of the statue stands in the rotunda of the state capitol. An original 3" wrought iron ordnance rifle, which may have seen action in the Civil War, stands beside the statue. The statue was dedicated in 1928 at a ceremony attended by President Calvin Coolidge, who gave an address, in which he said:
In all the history of warfare this charge has few, if any, equals and no superiors. It was an exhibition of the most exalted heroism against an apparently insuperable antagonist. By holding the Confederate forces in check until other reserves came up, it probably saved the Union Army from defeat. What that defeat would have meant to the North no one can tell. Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and the whole heart of the North would have been open to invasion, and perhaps the Union cause would have been lost. So far as human judgment can determine, Colonel Colvill and those eight companies of the First Minnesota are entitled to rank as the saviors of their country.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Reading Journal: "Mr. Fortune's Maggot"

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune's Maggot. New York Review Books Classics 2001. Originally published in 1927. $12.95. Also includes the novella The Salutation.

Maggot. 2. A whimsical or perverse fancy; a crotchet.

This is the definition printed at front of Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1927 novel, Mr. Fortune's Maggot. What is Mr. Fortune's "whimsical or perverse fancy," his maggot? Timothy Fortune is a former London bank clerk turned Anglican missionary on the fictional South Sea island of Fanua. He arrives on Fanua with high hopes of converting the islanders to Christianity, but in the end succeeds in attracting only a single convert, a charming and beautiful boy named Lueli. The relationship with Lueli becomes the heart of the novel, as Mr. Fortune becomes increasingly attached to the boy and alienated from his original mission.

Fanua is a kind of edenic alternate reality, simple and bountiful and lush, where Mr. Fortune's theology fails to take root among the profusion of personal gods that the islanders worship. The novel seems, at least at the midpoint, like a fable about loss of faith and the intellectual arrogance of colonialism. But, as the relationship between Mr. Fortune and Lueli develops, it really becomes a meditation on the possibility of unconditional love.

Is it possible to love someone without taking something of himself from him? If God is love, as Christianity tells us, why does theology impose conditions upon God, creating more and more abstract systems of belief that remove us further and further from the simple fact of God's love? The whole missionary project, coming hand in hand with colonialism, is an attempt to take from native peoples what is theirs on the pretext of giving them true religion.

Mr. Fortune's Maggot has been called "a subtle psychological study of repressed homosexual desire in the context of colonialism" [1]. But there can be people in our lives whom we love, to whom we may even feel attracted, but with whom it is impossible for us to have romantic or sexual relationships. Mr. Fortune is a middle-aged man who becomes a friend and mentor to a beautiful and innocent boy. His physical desire for beautiful Lueli is palpable in novel, but he represses that desire into his missionary activities, into his attempts to take possession of Lueli's soul for Christ. As he becomes increasingly conscious of his own motives, Mr. Fortune has to reframe his love for Lueli as unconditional—seeking neither soul nor body; learning to love the uncolonized and unconverted self.

Is unconditional love a "maggot," a whimsical or perverse fancy?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Andante cantabile

Last night, Clara and I drove to St. Paul for the last of our 2008-2009 season subscription concerts of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. The first half of the concert was a wonderful performance—with orchestra, chorus, and actress Maureen Thomas—of Mendelssohn's complete incidental music from A Midsummer Night's Dream. But for me, the highlight of the concert—and one of the highlights of the season—was the performance of Schumann's Piano Quartet in E-flat, op. 47, performed by Jonathan Biss (piano), Ruggero Allifranchini (violin), Maiya Papach (viola), and Ronald Thomas (cello). Here, in a good-quality YouTube version with musicians from Seoul, is the stunning third movement.

Reading in Progress

I've been a slow and distracted reader of late, with several unfinished books piling up on my bedside table. The first of these is Sylvia Townsend Warner's Mr. Fortune's Maggot, originally published in 1927 and reissued by New York Review Books. Townsend Warner is an interesting novelist, a creator of worlds a little askew from the world of everyday reality, often giving her fiction the feel of an allegorical fable. The title character in her wonderful first novel, Lolly Willowes, discovers that she's a witch. In her second novel, Mr. Fortune is a British bank clerk turned missionary on the imaginary South Sea island of Fanua, and his story seems to be a kind of colonial pilgrim's progress toward loss of faith. Although it's beautifully written, I'm finding it less engaging than Lolly Willowes or The Corner That Held Them (1948), set in a richly imagined medieval convent. But Sylvia Townsend Warner is a marvelous, quirky writer whose work is well worth discovering, and I'm looking forward to NYRB's reissue (on June 16) of her novel Summer Will Show.

Unity Mitford with her beloved Führer.

I've also been dipping into the 800+ pages of Charlotte Mosley's collection of letters between the six Mitford sisters. (My review of Jessica Mitford's Hons and Rebels is here.) Most of the letters for the period between 1933 and 1939, which I'm reading now, are between Unity and Diana, the two sisters who became ardent followers and admirers of Adolf Hitler. Unity's letters are an appalling mixture of gushing schoolgirl infatuation with Hitler and sycophantic political naïveté. She spends most of her time haunting Hitler's favorite café in Munich, waiting for her darling Führer to appear. One gets the horrifying impression from her letters of a pampered debutante for whom antisemitism is the latest fashion accessory. Horrifying and oddly fascinating.

It's a relief when sixteen-year old Deborah (now the 89-year old Dowager Duchess of Devonshire) pipes up with a silly letter to Unity that pokes fun at her older sister's earnest and pathetically needy ideological posturing.
I've started a new National Movement & its slogan is FOOD & DIRT. That's what we stand for...

It's called Nourishilism.

It's a very swell movement.

Goodness the weather...
Now I'm regretting that, during one of our two holidays in Derbyshire in 2006-2007, we didn't pay a visit to Chatsworth, the Dowager Duchess's famous stately home. Nourishilism. Where do I sign up?

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .