Nancy Mitford & the commitment to world-building

“World-building” is a term one hears a lot in discussions of scifi writing, but that tends not to come up when speaking about non-genre literature.  Sure, Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County, but I can’t think of many other examples of literary authors who went through the trouble of setting seemingly unrelated novels in a continuous created world.  (Feel free to shout out examples I’m forgetting or don’t know.  I’m sure there are some.)

I have never read a single piece on Nancy Mitford that commented on her commitment to world-building, and yet, it is undoubtedly present in her work.  Three of her novels are narrated by Fanny Wincham — The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, and Don’t Tell Alfred — though each focuses on a different family (the Radletts, the Montdores, and Fanny’s own, respectively).  These novels are frequently referred to as companions or sequels, and as such, it’s unsurprising that they all operate in the same fictional universe.

Though little remarked upon, Mitford’s seemingly unrelated novel, The Blessing, does actually take place in the same world as well.  The hints are so subtle as to be easily missed.  Grace’s French husband, Charles-Edouard, guides her through Père La Chaise pointing out notable graves, including that of the Frenchman with whom Linda Radlett had an affair:

Sauveterre (poor Fabrice, give me one flower for him, how he would have laughed to see me here with wife and child)…

Later in the book, Grace tours Eton with her former fiance, Hughie, who turns out to have attended school with Linda Radlett’s first husband:

… we had an awful time at m’tutor’s from a brute called Kroesig…

These distant acquaintances aren’t the only things Linda and Grace have in common.  They both share a passion for Francis Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Making of a Marchioness.  Linda places it in the Communist bookstore windows, and Grace is absorbed in reading it when she hears that her mother has died.

I haven’t yet read Don’t Tell Alfred, but as I understand it, the novel folds Grace de Valhubert into Fanny’s circle.  Mitford completes the circle, and ties all four novels back to each other gracefully and without fanfare.  Surely this a skill that deserves more attention in discussions of Mitford’s body of work.  Perhaps the attractive matching Vintage reprints of the novels will encourage it.

(And for those keeping score, Mitford’s novels come straight from my to read pile: my mom saw the blog and got them for me as a Christmas present.)

Literary Lady Lights: Edith Wharton

I just wrapped up a paper on food in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and while it may have made my relationship to dinner a little shaky, it only cemented my relationship to Wharton.

It’s my belief that Wharton is just as relevant to us now as she was in the early 20th century, and that we should undertake to rediscover her beyond the pages of endless dissertations.  Her work is perfect for our historical moment; we too are image-obsessed, post-war, nostalgic, and conservative.  We too are navigating the tricky transition between centuries, struggling to integrate new technologies without losing ourselves in the process, and looking to our rich for supreme entertainment and distraction.

The cultural zeitgeist around Wharton is a strange thing.  While she’s well-known, constantly referenced, and still being written about, she is also the type of author that few people these days have actually read.  They’ll nod their heads when one mentions her, but then confess to not remembering a single of her book titles.  And yet, they’re all around us.

Wharton and Gossip Girl

That CW teen drama Gossip Girl is a sophisticated, self-referential version of Wharton’s greatest works just may be the best keep secret on television.  But it’s true, and it has been since the beginning, as this New York piece so lucidly points out:

Von Ziegesar began by modeling Gossip Girl on Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, that earlier tale of a closed New York society. Serena van der Woodsen, a beauty kicked out of boarding school, returns to her old school, only to be dogged by envious rumors of lesbianism and love children. Von Ziegesar’s first draft was horribly high-minded, a fusty Wharton imitation; she quickly trashed it and adopted the brassy tones of Gossip Girl, who ends her dispatches with the teasing sign-off, “You know you love me.”

The tv show has taken this jumping off point and swan-dived out into a delicious world of literary reference.  From the series’ first moments, wherein teenage Serena stands alone in Grand Central Station in an obvious callback to The House of Mirth, to season 2’s “The Age of Dissonance,” about a school play version of The Age of Innocence gone horribly post-modern and oh-so-right, not only is the Wharton stamp is all over the show, but that’s the show’s whole point.  You thought you were watching another rich-kids-behaving-badly soap; it turns out you were getting a first-rate education in the literary canon.

Wharton as YA lit heroine

A new biography posits Wharton as young adult heroine, a girl who flouted convention and the wishes of her mother to chase her dreams.   Katie Roiphe at The New York Times reads it as a wake-up call to the very teens cozying up to Gossip Girl every week, though her cry to “stop i-chatting and posting on people’s walls” is more embarrassing than anything.  Besides, who’s to say those girls aren’t dreaming up their own large scale projects on that new-fangled communication device, the computer?

Still, without having read the biography, I applaud the attempt to make Wharton known as a role model to YA lit audiences.  If it gets girls interested in reading her works, even better.

Ethan Frome meets… well, you know

By now, you’ve probably seen the hilarious video adaptation of Wharton’s short novel Ethan Frome, performed in original period dress and the style of an MTV scripted reality show.  If not, I can’t urge you enough to go watch it.  It’ll change your life.

(All the kids in my Wharton class spent the last week of the semester walking around in a daze, quoting it more to themselves than each other.  “I would effing die for you.  I mean, literally,” became our mantra; it may have looked like mental instability, but I swear it saved us from truly cracking up.)

The short film was created by a group called PERIODS., who number Mr. Spock himself, Zachary Quinto, among their members.  A second season of shorts begins in February, though there’s no word on whether they’ll adapt any more literary classics.

See also:

I found some very detailed posts about Wharton’s estate in the Berkshires, The Mount; Suzanne Vega wrote a lovely song called “Edith Wharton’s Figurines“; Studio 360 recently did a segment on The House of Mirth (in which Jonathan Franzen makes an ass of himself); and no trip to New York is complete without an Edith Wharton walking tour.

The Dregs of New York City: After Claude by Iris Owens

Iris Owens’ 1973 novel After Claude reminds me of another beloved NYRB Classic, Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado.  Harriet, Owens’s damaged but hilarious narrator, is a little like Sally Jay Gorce gone horribly bad.  Too many years abroad, perhaps.  Sally Jay, for all her pithy wit, represents a girl with somewhere yet to go.  She has potential.  Not so Harriet.  Instead of a fresh, ripe avocado, she’s the dead ones littered around that rat Claude’s apartment.

“They are not dead.  Stop saying they’re dead.  Plants are very sensitive to suggestions.” I rushed to a hanging window plant and stroked its brown leaves.  “You’re alive, darling.  Don’t listen to him. He should be as alive as you are.”

Keep telling yourself that, sweetheart.

Harriet careens her way manically through the novel, winning one over to her side even as one is forced to confront the fact that she may just be totally batshit insane.  Despite her announcement in the very first line that she has left Claude, “that French rat,” over half the novel is occupied by Harriet trying very hard not to leave Claude’s apartment, let alone him.  When she does finally go — after barricading herself in with two weeks worth of tuna for lunch — it’s not free will.  They literally put her into a taxi and bundle her off to the Hotel Chelsea, the desolate marble shore on which the debris of 1970s New York society washes up.

All through the room, cracks and burns exposed an underlayer of barren brown that was spreading as though blight had struck the skimpy surfaces.  A yellowish lampshade next to the bed had succumbed to a half century of forty-watt bulbs and displayed its diseased patches of brown.  There was no question in my mind that whatever had afflicted the room was contagious and would get to me next.

Iris Owens was very sorry for being so mean about the Hotel Chelsea.  An acknowledgment in the opening pages thanks the hotel’s management for allowing her to “use and describe the hotel with all the fictional liberties necessary to the characters and action of the book.”  (Let’s be honest, though: she wasn’t too far off.  I stayed at the hotel in 2002, and it still had the same dirty-beach-at-the-end-of-the-world feel.  The man who lived in the room next to ours left his door cracked one day, and the glimpse I got of the inside will never leave me.  In a room as big as a closet, one whole wall was covered with filthy doll heads.  Not kidding.)

Harriet is the best kind of unreliable narrator: one you can see straight through but want to believe anyway.  Her phobias, her endless grasping, her overblown martyr air — in the hands of a less skilled writer, they wouldn’t work such an insane kind of charm.  Luckily, Owens was tremendously skilled.  I’m not making up that Elaine Dundy connection, either.  Dundy’s husband, theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, called the book “barbed, bitchy and hilariously sour.”  I can only hope Dundy read it too, and was pleased to see her certain type of American girl live on in this dark mirror.

In her introduction, Emily Prager notes that Owens once made her living writing pornography for Olympia Press, using the name Harriet Daimler.  It’s a skill that comes in handy here, as the final pages of the book descend from vicious victim ranting into a frightening but erotic demonstration of female pleasure.  Even Harriet’s biting wit is shelved momentarily, transforming that dirty pit of New York degenerates into an Anais Nin-style boudoir of sensuality.

Don’t worry, though, it doesn’t last long.  Harriet emerges, mask back up, to await her fate in a wrecked hotel room.

See also:

A tribute to Owens’s death includes responses to the book upon its original release; Bibliographing writes about the rerelease; the Telegraph details Olympia Press, including a rather racy quote from Harriet Daimler’s work.

Happy birthday, Shirley Jackson

As I climb my way out of the infinite pit that has been finals week, I’m actually starting to be able to read things on the internet again.  Daybook tells me that it’s Shirley Jackson’s birthday today.  Jackson is a perennial Skinny House favorite, despite my not being able to scrape together enough time to read her entire catalog as I’d like.  Maybe this winter break will finally be the time.

I can tell you that Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is a Halloween must-read every year.  But it turns out it wasn’t so popular with the readers of The New Yorker, where it appeared in 1948.  Many angry subscribers wrote in to express their distaste for the tale.  Not to worry, though: the stir it caused basically launched Jackson’s career.  (You can read the story here.)

Jackson may have been disliked by a percentage of the magazine-reading public, but she was highly regarded by literary dreamboat Vladimir Nabokov; in his copy of stories from The New Yorker, he gave “The Lottery” an A.

If you happen to have a subscription, you can read all 12 stories Jackson published in the magazine.

To read pile, Mitfordiana edition

An obvious and huge downside to attending grad school for English (beyond that whole employment thing) is that there’s just not enough time to read the things I’d like to.

If I were drafting my ideal Christmas list, and if I had unlimited reading time, I’d go ahead and ask for all the Nancy Mitford novels that I’ve not yet read.  The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate (and the BBC miniseries version of the two books) have left me desiring much more of her witty voice. Nancy is high on my list of female authors who unfairly (and anachronistically) have been deemed “chick lit” — a list that includes my all-time favorite Elaine Dundy and usual suspect Jane Austen, among others.

I’d also ask for Nancy’s biography of the Madame de Pompadour, the collected letters between all six sisters, and Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels as well.

Zoe Heller recently talked to WNYC about Nancy’s novel, Wigs on the Green, which was just reissued after 35 years of being out of print; WSJ has a nice piece on all the novels.

At the very least, I plan to work on tracking down a copy of Christmas Pudding, which has not yet been reprinted, for my winter holiday reading.

Thanksgiving reads

As much effort as I put into holiday-appropriate reading for Halloween, I somehow always let Thanksgiving pass me by.  Who the hell wants to read about turkeys and the forced appropriation of land anyway?

This year, though, there’s been a lot of attention on Thanksgiving-related reading.  The Smart Set covers Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving.”  Maud Newton points out how Mark Twain spent one Thanksgiving (being a lovable looney, just like any other day); the LOA posts Twain’s short story, “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey”; and the New Yorker shares the menu for one of Twain’s Thanksgiving dinners, which took place at the Park Avenue Hotel.

And then there’s the random assortment I found on that bastion on random knowledge, About.com.  Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Jane Murray’s Thanksgiving”; “Mirages” by Walt Whiman; “The Thanksgiving in Boston Harbor” by the wonderfully named Hezekiah Butterworth; and another Twain entry, the rather politically charged “What I Am Thankful For.”

But what will I really be reading?  The answer is obvious, since I didn’t get nearly enough creepiness in my Halloween reading: Joyce Carol Oates’s “Thanksgiving,” from Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque.  Oh, and this fascinating Thanksgiving Day letter sent from Yokohama, Japan.

Hocus Pocus was really formative for me

Halloween is among my favorite holidays, and not because I love to dress up.  I have a deep and abiding passion for the monstrous, the creepy, and the outright terrifying.  Nothing makes me happier than to spend October curled up with the scariest books and movies I can find.

Previous years’ favorites have included Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” this true life account of a night in a haunted house from Southern Literary Messenger, “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” and “The Wrong Grave” by Kelly Link, John Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, silly/sublime tv show The Vampire Diaries, Neil Gaiman’s “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire” and The Graveyard Book, and Guillermo del Toro’s tremendous film El Espinazo del Diablo, just to choose a few.

It’s been rough trying to squeeze in a month’s worth of horror between classes and work, but I’ve still managed to dip into a few things.  So what am I loving this year?

The Wolfman, which is an enjoyable remake of the 1941 original that deposits all of our contemporary quirks and weirdnesses on the Victorian setting. I liked it primarily because I always like stories in which the supernatural gets all up in your science and rationality and sends it straight to hell.

Edith Wharton’s After Holbein.  Okay, I’m not done reading this yet, but Wharton is big around Skinny House these days, so we’re including it.

The Halloween episode of Community, quite possibly my new favorite episode of the show. Star Trek + zombies = forever win.

(And I will tell you what I did not love: Jennifer’s Body.  I was ready for the feminist horror to film to end all horror films, a complete revolution in the genre, and the positing of ultimate female power, finally, at last.  Instead I got a lurid display of female jealousy and the same old chicks-are-totally-crazy bullshit.  Serious disappointment, to say the least.)

And now that we’ve carved pumpkins and gotten a taste of serious autumn chill, we’re ready for trick-or-treaters and then the rapid descent into winter depression.

But first!  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention All Hallows Read, a new tradition in the making, in which we all give each other spooky books on or around October 31.  I gave my mom The Graveyard Book this year, but as it’s my signed first edition, I’ll be asking for it back.  Still, I think this could be much fun in the years to come.  (Don’t know if you could tell, but I can never get enough of sharing scary books.)

Happy Halloween, y’all!

Traditions we don’t have

Happy Easter Monday. Were my family still in Poland, we’d call it Śmigus-Dyngus, and I might have been woken up this morning by a boy pouring water on me and hitting me on the legs with switches.

In honor of how totally weird that is to think about, here’s a poem for today that is from Poland, and is also about water:

Water
by Wisława Szymborska
(translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh)

A drop of water fell on my hand,
drawn from the Ganges and the Nile,

from hoarfrost ascended to heaven off a seal’s whiskers,
from jugs broken in the cities of Ys and Tyre.

On my index finger
the Caspian Sea isn’t landlocked,

and the Pacific is the Rudawa’s meek tributary,
the same stream that floated in a little cloud over Paris

in the year seven hundred and sixty-four
on the seventh of May at three a.m.

There are not enough mouths to utter
all your fleeting names, O water.

I would have to name you in every tongue,
pronouncing all the vowels at once

while also keeping silent — for the sake of the lake
that still goes unnamed

and doesn’t exist on this earth, just as the star
reflected in it is not in the sky.

Someone was drowning, someone dying was
calling our for you.  Long ago, yesterday.

You have saved houses from fire, you have carried off
houses and trees, forests and towns alike.

You’ve been in christening fonts and courtesan’s baths.
In coffins and kisses.

Gnawing at stone, feeding rainbows.
In the sweat and the dew of pyramids and lilacs.

How light the raindrop’s contents are.
How gently the world touches me.

Whenever wherever whatever has happened
is written on the waters of Babel.

Book recommendation: The Traveling Death and Resurrection Show

The Traveling Death and Resurrection Show by Ariel Gore

The story of a troupe of seven performance artists, narrated by a lapsed Catholic whose “trick” is manifesting stigmata, and what happens to them when they get a little too much media attention.  Gore’s father is an excommunicated Catholic priest, and her bio says she grew up attending his rebel Catholic church in San Francisco.  It shows.  The book is interwoven with irreverent takes on the lives of the saints.  (Representative quote: “Thérèse [of Lisieux], you were little, but bad-ass.  Teach me to be such an awesome failure.”)  The structuring mythologies are equally Catholicism and the punk performance aesthetic: other performers include a bearded woman with the singing voice of an angel and a drag queen who can levitate.  It’s firmly rooted in the multicultural, diverse and kind of hippy-dippy world of the West Coast.

Some books have been on my radar for years, but I don’t get around to reading them until later.  Some books come along at the perfect time in my life.  This book is in both of those categories.  At this literal, exact moment, I needed to remember that Catholicism and the joyous, feminist anarchy of punk aesthetics can mix.  Catholics can have tattoos too!  (So stop looking at me weird during mass.)

Recommended if you like: the imagery of Catholicism, The Hold Steady, old-fashioned revivals meet circus freakshows (minus the conversion or the Othering), punk performance art, diverse casts of characters, hagiography.