Book Review: LOLLY WILLOWES by Sylvia Townsend Warner

lolly-willowes-warner-nyrb-editionWarner’s prose sparkles and snaps like a gin and tonic in an elegant cut glass tumbler, her humor the slice of lime contributing the essential dash of sharp acidity. Warner proves to be a most devious hostess, however: seemingly invited to a pleasantly amusing afternoon garden party, it’s only as the sun begins to set that it suddenly begins to dawn—this is actually a Witch’s Sabbath! What a marvelously devious sleight of hand.

And perhaps more than ever 2017 is the time for stories about waking up from the drowsiness of lives cocooned by social expectations and respectability politics and be pointed toward modes of being that are idiosyncratically imagined and intentionally pursued. Part 1 is all charming, “quintessentially” English eccentricities—a broad assortment of kooky extended family members, whimsical family heirlooms hoarded in drawing rooms, teatime and other daily rituals, and the like; this is the life of one Laura Willowes, quietly sloughed into a life of genteel spinsterhood, and cloistered in the tiny spare room in a brother’s family home in London. She slowly transforms into docile “Aunt Lolly” after being christened as such by a baby niece—her identity is so nondescript that even she doesn’t quite register her very name is no longer her own.

NPG P183; Sylvia Townsend Warner by Cecil Beaton

Sylvia Townsend Warner by Cecil Beaton, 1930 (via National Portrait Gallery)

This all changes when an otherwise inauspicious guide book makes its way into Laura’s possession. Suddenly Part 2 sets off in an unforeseen direction as Laura announces she will be moving to the isolated rural village that is the subject of her book. Her family attempts all means at their disposal—including emotional blackmail and financial threats—to undermine her resolve; Laura nevertheless persists and promptly lets a room of her own, ready to begin a new life distinctly, if somewhat tentatively, her own.

If this was the story of Lolly Willowes, it would still be of note as a showcase for Warner’s remarkable facility with language and sinuous approach to syntax; it’s additionally exceptional as an early feminist fable making a persuasive and poignant case for female agency (Warner’s novel predates Woolf’s landmark A Room of One’s Own by several years). But the author envisions much, much more for her text and hurtles headlong into the utterly startling Part 3. While I suspect most readers will know, as I did, the general trajectory of the narrative, I think the less known the better so will leave it at that. What a lovely defense of demanding and then enacting a life lived fully and deliciously and—take the term in whatever sense you prefer—queerly too.

“Laura had brought her sensitive conscience into the country with her, just as she had brought her umbrella, though so far she had not remembered to use either.”

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Book Review: TWO SERIOUS LADIES by Jane Bowles

two serious ladies cover jane bowlesBy the time I felt like I was finally getting a handle on this bitter, black-hearted little novel, it was all over. As I quickly discovered, to make the acquaintance of these titular two ladies is to be initiated into a state of perpetual disorientation; I was not, I’ll frankly admit, adequately prepared, even if Bowles’s novel frequently brought to mind the work of her contemporaries Djuna Barnes and Flannery O’Connor, two favorites of mine.

All three authors have an uncanny ability to distill unsettling visions of the world into terrifying portraits of individuals who, by simply defying the “natural” order of things, unleash an aura of chaos and existential anarchy around everything they do. Yet turmoil is often the source of humor, and I’d say the work of all three is funny—albeit in bleak, dark ways. But where Barnes and O’Connor employ violence (both emotional and physical) and grotesquerie to elicit the kind of laugh that transforms into a horrified gasp before it manages to escape the throat, Bowles’s approach is more akin to screwball comedy, a comedy of manners where the main players have decided to redefine what “manners” entail, upending the world around them (ie “until recently [Miss Goering] had never followed too dangerously far in action any course which she had decided upon as being the morally correct one”). That said, these forms of comedies depend on a sense of order and decorum reestablishing itself by the resolution, typically with a romantic pairing reinstating the “unruly” female safely back into the social order. Not so with Two Serious Ladies: it’s instead a whirligig of despair whose last words offer no sense of solace. Instead it feels like a temporary stopgap in an inevitably continuing story destined for misery and destruction.

janes bowles by carl van vechten

Bowles portrait by Carl Van Vechten, 1951

But also, in the meantime, a sense of escape, even freedom. Perhaps?

Aware of the general outline of Bowles’s biography (sadly, an infamously tragic one), one of the things I was curious was if she would be working in the grand queer tradition of taking up a certain term to signify covert lifestyles and behaviors, and there does seem to be some evidence to support such a reading. In the novel’s first few pages Miss Gamelon inexplicably moves in with Miss Goering—indeed, I assumed these would be the two “serious” ladies—and immediately entwine themselves into an incredibly intense codependent relationship; Mrs. Copperfield has a similar impulse toward Pacifica, noting that the Panamanian prostitute “takes everyone quite seriously” as she takes “Pacifica’s hand in her own.” I’ll be paying closer attention to this on inevitable (at some point) repeat readings, but whatever inflection one wants to read into them, it is undeniable that there are not only more than just two serious ladies populating Bowles’s novel, and, furthermore, all take their relationships with other ladies very, very seriously.

Jane Bowles, Truman Capote by Cecil Beaton, Marruecos, 1949

Jane Bowles & Truman Capote (Marruecos, 1949) by Cecil Beaton

Barnes’s rueful observation the she was “the most famous unknown in the world” also resonates with Bowles’s own legacy, having long been regarded as one of the great, undersung prose stylists of the twentieth century, inspiring an almost cult-like veneration from writers who achieved a much larger degree of fame than she ever managed to (Tennessee Williams’s proclamation that Two Serious Ladies is “his favorite book” and that he “can’t think of a modern novel that seems more likely to become a classic” continues to adorn current reprints of the novel; Truman Capote, John Ashbery, and Bowles’s own husband Paul were vocal supporters). Millicent Dillon has more recently described how “one soon begins to know the sound of a Jane Bowles sentence, its odd jumps, the way in which it continuously confounds expectations, the way in which secrets are withheld and as suddenly revealed.”

Perhaps Bowles does reveal some secrets throughout the tangled trajectories of the two serious ladies of Two Serious Ladies, but it seems more defined by its resolution to always remain something of an enigma, restless and on edge. And while I can’t say I actually much enjoyed the process of reading this novel, I nonetheless sense that it’s going to join the small cadre of texts I find myself returning to on occasion, almost inexplicably, trying to scratch some kind of deep itch it has created. To try and discover answers to some of the unnerving existential questions it poses—even if I never really expect to ever actually find them.

Works Cited

Bowles, Jane. Two Serious Ladies. 1943. New York City: Ecco, 2014.

Dillon, Millicent. “Jane Bowles: Experiment as Character.” Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction. Ed. Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989.

Further Reading

 

Book Review: WOMAN OF THE WOLF AND OTHER STORIES by Renée Vivien

renee vivien woman of the wolf coverDuring that great burst of feminist scholarship in the 1960’s and 70’s that set out to reevaluate the traditional literary canon there was a concerted effort to translate the work of obscure turn of the century author/poet Renée Vivien into English. And I’m glad they did. For if Vivien is remembered today, it is less for anything she wrote than for her lifestyle and the legends that sprung up around it: her turbulent affair with Natalie Clifford Barney, the flamboyantly androgynous dress immortalized in now-iconic photographs of the couple, as well as her death at the age of 32 that still remains somewhat of a mystery (though whatever the actual cause it was undeniably exacerbated by alcoholism and anorexia). Sadly, focusing solely on her admittedly fascinating life does a great disservice to legitimate literary accomplishment. 

Renée Vivien and Natalie Barney, c. 1900

Renée Vivien and Natalie Barney, c. 1900

And yet, despite the effort of several prominent scholars and the general interest in that time period and cultural milieu, Vivien has tended to remain a footnote of the period. A major footnote, but a footnote nonetheless. And frankly, it’s not hard to see why. Which is not a knock on Vivien or her writing in the least—I immensely enjoyed the various stories collected in this slim volume. But only several stories in it was obvious to me that Vivien is an author who resolutely resists canonization; despite Karla Jay’s resolute attempt in the introduction in spinning these as proto-feminist tales, even she must ultimately concede that “if judged from a contemporary lesbian/feminist perspective, some of Vivien’s work might appear embarrassing” for the reader in search of strong politically and socially progressive sentiments. Instead, these stories take their cues from the Decadent Movement, much more along the lines of Oscar Wilde’s hermetic Salomé (my review here) than The Yellow Wallpaper. Of her immediate peers, Djuna Barnes might be said to be exploring similar terrain—indeed, I was often reminded of Barnes’s own short story collection Spillway and Other Stories—but resolutely resisting literary modernism to an extent that exceeds even the ever-iconoclastic (and similarly underread) Barnes comes at a steep price: these are stories that refuse to slide neatly onto university syllabi. 

The vignettes that comprise Vivien’s various stories—most which strive for a mythic quality, often reworking actual Biblical and/or classical sources—are feverish, hallucinogenic, and, quite often, downright bizarre. The actions of her characters rarely act and react according to any obvious logic, and her setting are a surreal mishmash of Victorian cultural and imperial imagery and stereotypes (one story, for example, is supposedly set in the American wilderness, but revolves around a wild tiger). 

The unabashed irreality of these stories, however, are also their finest quality. They remind me of exotic tropical flowers that can only be cultivated in a hothouse—valued not for their longevity but for the spectacular effect of their short-lived blossoming.

Work Cited:

Vivien, Renée. The Woman of the Wolf, and Other Stories. Trans. Karla Jay and Yvonne M. Klein. New York: Gay Presses of New York, 1983. 

Book Review: LADIES ALMANACK by Djuna Barnes

[To continue celebrating Djuna Barnes this week and because I was thinking about it in light of a film adaptation currently in the works, I’ve decided to revisit and expand this review which was originally posted on Goodreads.]

“‘The Night-Life of Love,’ said Saint Musset, ‘burns I think me in the slightly muted Crevices of all Women who have been a little sprung with continual playing of the Spring Song, though I may be mistaken, for be it known, I have not yet made certain on this point.'”

Ladies Almanack cover Djuna Barnes illustration

Even after more than eight decades critics and scholars still squabble over what exactly Djuna Barnes was trying to accomplish with her Ladies Almanack. Is it an affectionate satire? An exuberant celebration? A sly denunciation? A parodic exercise in self-loathing?

Of course, this is Djuna Barnes we are talking about, so it’s probably all of these things, though perhaps “none of the above” gets even a bit closer to the heart of the matter. But these tensions touch upon exactly the thing that most compels me most about Barnes’s text—it somehow can manage to encompass nearly all interpretations one could possible pose, but stakes itself definitively to none of them. Which makes it a superlative example of one of my academic interests: the conveyance of queer content through “queered” form.

Djuna Barnes Natalie Barney

Photograph of Djuna Barnes and Natalie Clifford Barney, c. 1930.

The Almanack is deliberately constructed to work simultaneously on two different levels, with different sets of meaning available to different communities of readers. For the uninitiated the text can come off as a rather bewildering–perhaps even incomprehensible–take on medieval hagiography, with its mock-reverent depiction of Dame Evangeline Musset and her seemingly limitless benevolence toward young women in need.

Some readers, however, might also pick up that Dame Musset’s munificence is not purely altruistic in nature, but extends to a more sensual dimension that involves the women’s “Hinder Parts, and their Fore Parts, and in whatsoever Parts did suffer them most” (Barnes 6). But Barnes herself readily admitted that her Almanack was more than anything intended for “the private domaine” [sic], to be “distributed to a very special audience” (cited Lanser 164); that “special audience” was first and foremost Natalie Clifford Barney, as well as the many members of the lesbian-centric coterie that assembled around her in Paris. And not only was Barney & co. the audience that would be able to understand the layers of meaning shrouded within the narrative, they comprised of the subject matter themselves, as the text’s expansive cast of characters all had real-life counterparts that were being wittily caricatured (see below).

djuna barnes ladies almanack key

Key to the characters of Ladies Almanack I once made for a seminar presentation.

Privately printed and distributed, it’s interesting to consider how the Ladies Almanack was part of a spontaneous(?) flowering of literature published in 1928 that prominently featured same-sex desire–and sometimes dared even more–between women, including Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women, The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen, and, perhaps most importantly in a purely historical sense, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (for a good consideration of the importance of the year 1928 to feminist and/or lesbian texts I highly recommend Bonnie Kime Scott’s important 1995 study Refiguring Modernism, Volume I: The Women of 1928).

djuna barnes ladies almanack illustration

Original illustration by Djuna Barnes for Ladies Almanack

It is particularly enlightening to contrast Ladies Almanack to the latter of these novels, for not only does Hall, along with her longtime partner Una, Lady Troubridge, make appearances within Barnes’s text, but it throws into sharp relief Barnes’s own aim and approach in regards to both content and aesthetics. On the most obvious level, Barnes’s obscure, archaic utilization of language and form in the Almanack is a far cry from Hall’s unambiguously presented apologia-cum-petition. But unlike the wealthy Hall who could use her artistocratic lineage and social privilege to withstand public backlash, Susan Snaider Lanser writes that for Barnes, penniless and an American expatriate, it was “better to shroud [the overtly lesbian content] in obscurity, generating a prose whose meanings dissolve beneath a torrent of difficult words and sentences” (166).

As such, Ladies Almanack can’t just be considered an example of willful high modernist obfuscation; at the same time, its stylistic choices can’t just be solely marked up as a method for eluding censorship either. Rather, it’s something between, I’d argue, an alchemical concoction that attempts to avoid simply shoehorning queer–and intensely personal and private–topics and desires into traditional novelistic forms (The Well of Loneliness again, which can make for a rough reading experience today in its relentless proselytizing), with the purpose of beginning to articulate a new means of expression altogether. Barnes accomplishes this by queerly cherry-picking elements from a variety of sources both historical and modernist, which makes it a kind of anomaly, much like her much more well-known Nightwood, within high modernist literature, of which she was one of the most prominent (if perpetually undervalued) figures.

All these factors–and many others I’m necessarily sidestepping at present–lead to a text that is at once both outdated and undateable, and as playfully and deliberately enigmatic today as it must have been in 1928.

And hell, it’s just an awful lot of fun.

djuna barnes ladies almanack illustration 2

Djuna Barnes’s original illustration of Dame Musset’s funeral. Let’s just say it’s this is not the bleak scene you might assume it is…

WORKS CITED

Barnes, Djuna. Ladies Almanack. (1928). Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1992. Print.

Lanser, Susan Sniader. “Speaking in Tongues: Ladies Almanack and the Discourse of Desire.” Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes. Ed. Mary Lynn Broe. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1991. 156-68. Print.