February 2013

February Reading Concluded —
with Annabel Lyon’s The Sweet Girl

While I was doing research for a recent novel, I was surprised to learn how many archaeologists began their careers in some artistic speciality.
This came back to me as I read Annabel Lyon’s The Sweet Girl. Particularly a conversation I’d had with an archaeologist whose early work was to measure and record shards of ancient pottery, and then – from just a few recovered fragments – make drawings of what that artefact would have been like, when it was whole. There was such an enlivening tension she said, between the long hours of measuring and recording of tiny fragments, and the “magic of reconstruction”.

Of the life of Aristotle’s daughter Pythias, history has left us only one fragment – a mention in her father’s will, about the man she is to marry.
From that one small shard – and long hours of “measuring and recording” (or in this case researching daily life in ancient Greece) — Annabel Lyon has reconstructed the world of Pythias in a way that does indeed feel like magic. The “sweet girl” springs to life, complex, feisty, intelligent, bound by the traditions of her time yet searching to find her own path, a young woman at once modern and eternal.
Lyon’s technique in this fits the subject perfectly. She gives us short vivid scenes filled with fascinating detail – life in the home, on the street, in the market, in temples, in brothels, in the agrarian countryside – scenes interspersed with pauses and silences that are as enigmatic and thought-provoking as the dark matter used as infill between fragments of reconstructed Grecian vessels: while the scenes themselves are strikingly reminiscent of frieze scenes in just such ancient pottery. We follow avidly trying to imagine where these will lead, what the completed “shape” will be when all comes together.
Myth and the supernatural run through, and the influence of the gods – particularly Dionysus, the “god of possession,” – and we are dazzled sometimes, sometimes thrown into uncertainty, until we realize that Pythias is caught up in the same tug-of-war that has so powerfully and inexplicably pulled us all, through all our human centuries, between the bombastic inner force that dares the mind to let itself go, and the urgings of clarity, harmony, restraint — forces which modern psychologists deal with no better than did ancient priests and shamans.

It is heart-stopping to walk with the “sweet girl” as, after her father’s death, she navigates from one perilous involvement to the next. Yet surely, as heir to her father’s teachings, she will have a better chance than most to tip the balance toward the side of order and reason?
Then quietly (it may be insignificant of course) a last fragment is added.
The magic of reconstruction indeed. Did we get that right?
Did we really see the shape of things to come?
The genius of The Sweet Girl is how it resonates, long after the book is closed, with images like those in dreams – quivering, powerful, if only half open to interpretation. A sweet read indeed, studded with nuggets of what it is to be a “girl” in almost any human age – a condition always open to more questions than answers.

February, earlier…

Continuing my resolve to make a note of every book I read during 2013, month by month – and to comment on as many as possible — here then, is a brief note on Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, which I finished just yesterday – a novel unsettling, thought-provoking, puzzling, unforgettable, maddening in many ways….
Yes all of the above. Inevitably. Surely.
For what a challenge Kingsolver has set herself, in weaving the apocalyptic with the particular and the mundane, in this tale of a “miracle” settled on the lives a hard-scrabble faming family in the Appalachian hills of Tennessee, a miracle caused by global warming
I say “tale” because the novel does start off with a tale-like feel, as a woman with “flame-coloured hair” marches uphill to meet her demise, determined to throw her “good life” away in an assignation with a lover – spurred on by a reckless dread that is “one part rapture”.
What happens at the top of that hill changes everything. And as I think back on the novel as a whole, the most pressing image I have is of standing, myself, at the top of that hill, with the novel’s vivid parts scattered below me in the valley floor, like puzzle pieces.
I see Dellarobia Turnbow (she of the flame-coloured hair) navigating the daily life that in her smitten state she’s trying to resume when she goes back down; sometimes I admire her, and sometimes I understand her need for change, and sometimes I just want to say Hey lady get a grip! I see her not-smart big sweet husband who never lives up to her needs; I see her in-laws who have always “bossed her”, and how she looks down on them for their similar non-smartness, yet the hard-bitten mother-in-law is both a savvy sheep-farmer and a woman full of country wisdom; I see Dellarobia’s constantly-texting girlfriend, who takes Dellarobia on a trip to a used-item warehouse that goes on for blocks and seems to last for hours, and I remember the shame I felt for skipping to the end of that section, wondering Why did you bring me here…? Because this episode, and another to a Walmart before Christmas, seem to add so little to the story except a kind of bubble-plastic texture. Yet despite that, the larger issue at stake (what will flow from the arrival of a “lake of fire” atop this mountain: the sight that may have turned Dellarobia’s life around) lure me on….
And I’m left to wonder: have these wearying side-trips in fact been cleverly to the point? To give us the relentless texture of the mundane, in a poverty-stricken part of the U.S.A. where no one has the luxury of being able to contemplate the end of the known world in an actual, rather than a biblical way?

For yes, as I look down, I also see the very fate of the earth laid out, pieces pulsing with stark realities that we would all love to skip over, or look away from: the very ones that Dellarobia, with courage and efficiency, does come to be involved with, bringing us a detailed (and monstrously saddening) understanding of the effect of climate on the natural world.
And this of course is what it’s really all about. This is why Flight Behavior is a novel we all must read.
Ultimately I’ve come away suspecting that Kingsolver has been brilliant in leading us on, through the mundane and often heart-rending conundrums of a group of flawed and memorable people, to a larger vista which — with a whump! — comes together at the end in an unforgettable way.

February 15


IF ONLY THE EMPRESS, after heaping you with jewels, furs, porcelain, a diamond-framed portrait of herself – after building you a palace for your personal entertainment and naming you Adjutant General (new Official Favorite), Colonel of the Preobrazhensky Guards, member of the Privy Council, Governor of the territory of New Russia, and, ultimately, Prince of the Holy Roman Empire — ah, but if only she would actually be there for you emotionally in a way that made you feel secure. It could be so simple. If she seriously wished to prove her love, wouldn’t she grant you “supreme power in an unrestricted sphere…?”

OR, IF ONLY THE MOUNTAIN CLIMBER (one of the last great heroic adventurers of the twentieth Century he has been called) if only he had sacrificed his ambition to be first up Everest, given up that final attempt! Why couldn’t he have stayed home with you and the children, safe and sound…?

I love you so much. If only you were different!
Is that the true aching cry of love, down the ages?

FEBRUARY (to this point) has taken me on two astounding reading adventures:
Tanis Rideout’s novel, Above All Things,
Robert K. Massie’s biography, Catherine The Great.
And while the question I’ve just posed is far from the only one raised, it presents a lingering conundrum as I digest the riches of the rest.
There is so much to say about both of these works – chiefly, perhaps, that for me they perform the prime magic of transporting the reader into another realm altogether.

Never has the reality of an attempt on Everest felt so real to me. Even Imax didn’t do it. Even Into Thin Air.
Oh yes, in my own life I’ve been cold, hungry, exhausted – once I walked two miles in the dark across frozen fields of knee-high snow, at a temperature of 20 below (wearing a light jacket, pleated skirt, nylons) when the car stalled in a drift as our family party came home on New Years Eve. But I was a teenager then. When it was over it seemed an adventure. Even — though I suspect he didn’t think so — the fact that my uncle froze his ears.
But now, thanks to Tanis Rideout, I have huddled in a wind-whipped tent at Camp Six on the night before the Final Push — not a compact impermeable Mountain Equipment Co-Op tent, but exhausted loose-strung canvas – with the cold slipping in under clothing, into my “veins, muscles, bones,” my frost-bitten feet and fingers like stumps of wood as I hold my leather boots over a single-flame burner, the frozen leather immovable. My partner in this mad final business eats some frozen meat lozenges, I eat the last square of chocolate, our hands shaking. When I open the tent flap to bring in the oxygen canisters I trip over the little cooker, knocking it out into the icy snow, sending it skittering down down down and out of sight.
No matter. The sun will be coming up soon. Though we’ve had no sleep, shortly we will be on our way. And I believe – I really believe, even though I know the outcome of this story, even though the bones of it have been resurrected over and over and over again for almost a century – I really believe that this time the ending may be different, so adroitly has Rideout sewed me into George Mallory’s skin….
Meanwhile – and I have to say, reluctantly — that other me, The Reader, is pulled back into the second thread of this narrative: a single day in the life of Mallory’s wife as she waits for news of him. A narrative of sadness and neurosis and anger and guilt which, for me, holds pooled shades of a painting by Bloomsbury’s Roger Fry — just as the day itself unfolds with echoes of Mrs. Dalloway.
I say “reluctantly” because I found Ruth Mallory annoying. This touches, I suspect, on the strong sense I have that if you fall in love with a mountain climber you’ve got to expect him, or her, to go off and climb mountains: the alternative is for that person to turn into something else which, ten-to-one, will be tantamount to a different sort of death: just as, if you fall in love with an Empress (or a Captain of Industry, or for that matter a Writer, whose inner life is so often elsewhere) the consequences of insisting on a love that diminishes the loved-one’s essential spirit will be, ultimately, dire.
Rideout’s brilliance is that she pulls this second thread taut, and it works. She presents an (understandably) anxious but flawed, whiny, skittery, polar opposite to the mountain-climbing “hero”, in a way that adds deep resonance to the story. This is a real woman wandering rather ineptly through one more day along the trough of an oncoming tragedy. And for that matter, Mallory comes off as equally (if differently) flawed and not particularly likeable – another reminder gleaned: the qualities it takes to get anyone to the top of any personal peak are unlikely to be truly “heroic” when looked at closely.

So, back to Catherine The Great (who, herself, never wanted to be labeled “The Great”, preferring just “Catherine II”).
Portrait of a Woman, the book is sub-titled. And an intimate portrait it is. Yet much more.
“Panoply” is the word that keeps coming to me, defined by my dictionary as a splendid display. And as Massie unfolds the story of a fourteen-year-old German girl from a minor aristocratic family, who – through grit, determination, courage, charm and wisdom – became Empress of all the Russias, we are indeed swept up in a splendid display: one that weaves the personal into the vast tapestry not just of Russia, but the whole of Europe in an age that ran from the start of the “Enlightenment” through to the end of the French Revolution. Central to all of this of course, is that complex woman who sought fairness, and insisted on “gaiety,” yet never slackened the reins of power. And such a vivid picture we do come away with — of Catherine, and those who surrounded her (counting among them a sequence of fourteen lovers) including, given the evidence of her correspondence, the great love of her life, Grigory Potemkin — who may also have been her husband — and who certainly did more than any other to secure her domain.
Yet after the first few years, she was unable to live with him: because though he became the most powerful man in the empire, he wanted more than even the most generous sovereign could allow herself to give.

I should add that my enjoyment of Massie’s biography was both heightened and nuanced by an earlier reading of Eva Stachniak’s brilliant novel, The Winter Palace, (told from the point of view of a spy in the Imperial Court). A companion novel is forthcoming, this time told from Catherine’s own point of view. It’s hard to wait.