Monday, 18 March 2013

The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden

The first thing I had to do was to research exactly what a greengage is.  And when I found this recipe for greengage chutney and I wished very much they were something I could get my hands on!

The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden is a gem of a book.  I only knew of her from reading her childrens' book The Story of Holly and Ivy to the girls when they were little, but was introduced to her many novels at Leaves and Pages where you will find numerous reviews of her books. (Thank you, Barb!)

Initially, I was reminded very much of Edith Nesbit's The Railway Children.  Perhaps it was the circumstances of the absent father (this one in Tibet on a botanical expedition) and the mother and her children walking from the train station in the dark with their baggage in a cart that did it, but that resemblance soon faded, and The Greengage Summer took me to a very different time and place altogether.

Fed up with their behaviour at home, the mother has decided to take her five children to France for an exploration of sites of wartime self-sacrifice, and the martyrdom of Joan of Arc.  They barely arrive in the country when Mother becomes very seriously ill and is taken to a nearby hospital.  The children are forced upon the begrudging matron of the pension who only allows them to stay without adult accompaniment at the insistence of an Englishman also at the pension who agrees to act as their guardian.

Narrated in the first person by the second eldest of the five children, Cecil (who must surely be a boy... but no!) records their adventures in this village in France. Written in a self-conscious storytelling manner, Cecil begins with a summary of the whole summer, written from a point in time in the future.  Conversations interject the text as the characters at the time of writing discuss the details, and Uncle William, who wasn't there at all, makes comments on the events, almost as though he is reading the book along with us.  To start, it is all a jumble of past, present, and future overlapping and doubling back on itself.  The familiar tone and use of nicknames and shorthand for events makes you feel that you've just walked into the middle of a family story... which we have.  Joss (the eldest, and surely a boy... but no!) decided that it must be Cecil who tells the story, but it is a shared story really, parallel coming-of-age narratives for both girls.  Even with all this layering of time and space, Rumer Godden so cleverly crafts the story that there is never any confusion about when and where everything occurs.  Soon the chronology smooths and we are given the whole story in the order in which it happened.

Favourite aspects of The Greengage Summer were in the cast of well-rounded characters, the vivid evocation of time and place, the slow and steady building of suspense. Rumer Godden's ability to combine Cecil's more mature perspective - the point in time when she records the story - with her innocent child-like awareness of the events as they occurred without sounding an artificial or false note is striking.

A working knowledge of French would be very helpful when reading this novel, as there is frequent untranslated dialogue by the French characters, and without an understanding of what they are saying I'm sure there would be a great possibility of confusion.  This is my one and only caveat.  Otherwise, I whole-heartedly recommend The Greengage Summer.

Rumer Godden
 author image from here

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Thirty Acres by Ringuet

Published in 1940, and translated from the French by Felix and Dorothea Walter, Thirty Acres by Ringuet is a classic of French-Canadian literature.

We are first introduced to the Laurentian farm setting through Mr. Branchaud and Euchariste Moisan as they sit smoking their pipes on the Branchaud's porch. These two French-Canadian farmers talk about ploughing and the weather and the challenges of farming stony soil ("the unfeeling and imperious land was the lordly suzerain* whose serfs they were..."), but there is an undercurrent of words left unspoken. The conversation circuitously makes its way to Alphonsine, the daughter of Mr. Branchaud whom Euchariste has been courting. Euchariste Moisan and Mr. Branchaud agree on an engagement with no more emotion than if a transaction over a piece of farm equipment, or livestock were changing hands... which, in a way it is.

Euchariste is a practical man out of necessity, and his choice of a wife is entirely pragmatic. The idea of love does not enter the picture when he acknowledges to himself that Alphonsine would make a suitable wife for him, as a farmer, and would "breed him healthy sons." He wants her more than he cares for her, and his description of her as "firm, full-breasted, with a rather heavy mouth, wide hips swaying with a motion like the rocking of a cradle..." tells us all we need to know about his values, his desires, and his vision for the future.  Alphonsine Branchaud is a commodity, an economic necessity, and her value is based on her production of both children and meals.  Every mention of Alphonsine links her to a monetary transaction.  Even her sexual purity is seen in these terms: "she was a farmer's daughter and knew that no one will buy something later on if they've had it for nothing the first time."

Euchariste's main interest in Alphonsine is as the means of producing sons who will work on the farm.  He imagines a brood of children; he will allow one to be trained for the priesthood, and he foresees this raising his status in the community, but his sons will work the land just as he works the land. The link between marriage and fertility is implicit, and strangely foreign in our culture in which marriage equates more directly with love.  But this marriage is not an emotional event; it is following the laws of nature.

Branchaud seemed to be gazing at the earth, all decked out in gold and purple for its own wedding in the spring, when the sun would fertilize it once again, after it had waited patiently all through the long winter under a white bridal veil of snow.
Neither is the fertility that follows the marriage a reason for emotion:

He accepted these births without enthusiasm, but also without regret.  The farm could support as many Moisans as were likely to arrive.  If there were to be ten of them, well, there'd be ten; if fifteen, then fifteen.  Just like everybody else.  What would be must be.  Alphonsine would have to bear her appointed number.

Poor Alphonsine!

Marriage between people is seen as merely replicating what is happening in the natural world.  We see this comparison made often in the novel.  The French-Canadian farmers are living in harmony with their surroundings.  When Euchariste's Uncle Ephrem sways to and fro in his rocking chair he is keeping time with the clock which mechanically "cut up the hours into minutes" and the autumn rain which taps "undecipherable messages on the panes."  These are people who live to the beat of Nature and their environment.

When Uncle Ephrem hears Euchariste's plan to marry Alphonsine, he tells Euchariste that he will retire to the village, leaving his thirty-acre farm to his nephew as an early inheritance. But Uncle Ephrem is not one to retire from the farm - he "died pressed close to this farm of his that could not consent to a divorce." But his uncle is barely cold when Euchariste has emotionally moved on:

His thoughts turned back to living things and were borne down the wind towards the waiting animals and towards the patient earth, that was indifferent to the death of the man it nourished and who was now to unite with it.

We haven't gotten inside the head of the character yet, so who knows... is he just shy? or is he another Caleb Gare in the making?

I have a soft spot for the use of figurative language, and Ringuet delivers in spades!  Here is an example - a random paragraph from the end of the fourth chapter:

The sun sank low on the horizon, hesitated there for a few days, and then began to climb back towards the zenith.  February heaped the snow still higher on the roads.  The farm-buildings wrapped themselves in snow-flakes, like a sick man in a woollen blanket, while day and night the breath of the house issued white from the chimney.  Sometimes the whole country-side was seized in the grip of a snow-storm, driven by a fierce wind rushing down from the north; eddies of fine snow swirled about like smoke, sealing the doors and windows and shaking the black skeletons of the trees until they creaked.

Similes, metaphors, personification, prosopopeia... it's all there in one paragraph! 

Thirty Acres offers a view into the life of Euchariste Moisan, a farmer in the Laurentian region of Quebec.  A simple man, bonded to the land, we follow him from young adulthood to old age, but we must infer his motivations and his personality from his behaviour.  Ringuet allows this reticent character slowly unfurl over the years as he builds his farm, and family, and interacts with his neighbours and family.  Ringuet does not tell us how to respond to Euchariste, but allows us to see the very human man with strengths and foibles who is at least in part a symbol of parochial rural Quebec society.  Euchariste is just one link in a long chain of generations who have worked the land, who, when young, push for progress and when old scorn the calls for progress from the youth.  This is a story of the cyclical nature of families, of the history of the province, of the place of Quebec in Canada and the world.  So many themes are explored.  This is an important book.

I enjoyed reading this Thirty Acres for its glimpse into a time and place not so far removed, yet a world away from my own life.  However, I was horrified by the reality of life for Alphonsine.  Not only is she treated like livestock, but, *she's treated like livestock.*  This book makes me even more thankful for the women's movement (and birth control).

I was often reminded whilst reading of my Great Uncle Jack, now 84, who, last summer took us to the old family homestead in the Ottawa Valley (not so far from Quebec) where he and my grandmother had lived when they were children.  He showed us a stand of trees and told us that he had ploughed that with a hand-plough when he was a lad; he showed us the plot of land where my grandmother had tended the potato plants, also now a small forest.  I returned to these thoughts about my Great Grandparents working their plot of land in the Ottawa Valley frequently when reading Thirty Acres, and perhaps it gave me a sympathy for the characters I would not otherwise have felt.

Philippe Panneton (pseudonym Ringuet)
From the McClelland website:

Ringuet, the pseudonym of Philippe Panneton, was born in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, in 1895. Educated at Laval University and later at the University of Montreal, he graduated from the latter's medical school in 1920. After three years of postgraduate study in Paris, he returned to Montreal, where he set up his medical practice and later rejoined the medical faculty of the University of Montreal.

Ringuet’s distinguished career in medicine complemented his deep commitment to literature. His first book, Writing…in the Style of…, was a series of literary parodies of famous writers. His first novel, Thirty Acres, a panoramic portrait of Quebec’s traditional agrarian society in the process of change, won immediate critical acclaim and was translated into Dutch, English, German, and Spanish.

Ringuet’s later fiction often explores the discontent that confronts his character in their urban settings.

In 1944 Ringuet was a founding member of L’Académie canadienne-française and served as its president from 1947 until 1953. He was appointed Canadian ambassador to Portugal in 1956.

Ringuet died in Lisbon in 1960.

  • Trente arpents / Thirty Acres (1938)
  • Un Monde était leur empire / Their Empire Was a World (1943)
  • L'Héritage et autres contes / The Legacy and Other Stories (1946)
  • Fausse Monnaie / Counterfeit (1947)
  • Le Poids du Jour / The Burden of the Day (1949)

* I had to look up the word suzerain, a word used more than once in Thirty Acres, and in the process discovered that there is a board game of the same name!

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Pauline's Passion and Punishment by Louisa May Alcott

Pauline's Passion and Punishment

When Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper offered a one hundred dollar prize for a story, Louisa May Alcott anonymously submitted, and won the contest with her story Pauline's Passion and Punishment.  Originally published one hundred and fifty years ago, in January 1863, this was the first of Louisa May Alcott's "blood-and-thunder" tales to be printed. 

Pauline Valary is a scorned woman who has just received a rejection letter from her lover, Gilbert Redmond.  Securing the assistance of Manuel, a young man devoted to her, she vows to take her revenge on Gilbert, and privately plots a path to his destruction.  She shares her plans with Manuel: 
If you think that this loss has broken my heart, undeceive yourself, for such as I live years in an hour and show no sign.  I have shed no tears, uttered no cry, asked no comfort; yet, since I read that letter, I have suffered more than many suffer in a lifetime.  I am not one to lament long over any hopeless sorrow.  A single paroxysm, sharp and short, and it is over.  Contempt has killed my love, I have buried it, and no power can make it live again, except as a pale ghost that will not rest till Gilbert shall pass through an hour as bitter as the last.
And when Manuel suggests that he should seek out and kill her false lover, she responds:
Why should you?  Such revenge is brief and paltry, fit only for mock tragedies or poor souls who have neither the will to devise nor the will to execute a better.  There are fates more terrible than death; weapons more keen than poniards, more noiseless than pistols.  Women use such, and work out a subtler vengeance than men can conceive.  Leave Gilbert to remorse - and me.
A character-driven story, this is a psychological thriller, although the plot becomes more central as the story develops. Pauline has an understanding of human nature and uses it to her advantage.  She dons a mask behind which she can conceal her true motives and feelings, revealing only what she wants other to see.  To Manuel, she admits: "I see a future full of interest, a stage whereon I could play a stirring part.  I long for it intensely..." and like so many of Louisa May Alcott's protagonists, she plays her part well.  The ambiguity in the title is reflected in the story's message - is the punishment of the title what Pauline exacts, or is it what she brings on to herself?  But Louisa May Alcott leaves us to form our own conclusions.

Free download of Pauline's Passion and Punishment from Gutenberg.

I found this story in my copy of Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (Madeleine Stern, ed.)

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

Already well established as a poet by 1969 having won the Governor General's Award for The Circle Game and published several other poetry collections, Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman was her first published novel. I first read it in the last years of secondary school - I was perhaps 18 at the time, and as one might expect, a great deal of it went flying straight over my head. Hopefully, my experiences in the intervening years have helped in my appreciation and understanding.

An office worker newly graduated from university, Marian McAlpin, the protagonist, works for Seymour Surveys, assessing the appeal of various consumer products on the public. She shares living quarters with her friend Ainsley, a free-spirited girl, and is engaged to Peter, a lawyer. Marian, although an intelligent and likeable person, is put upon by everyone in her life; her boyfriend takes advantage of her emotionally, her roommate takes advantage financially, her employer takes advantage of her by forcing her to work during her off-hours, and her married friend Clara just takes her for granted. Marian is drifting through her life without clearly delineated desires or goals and so is easily manipulated and imposed upon by those around her.

It is such a shock to encounter some of the thinking that went on without question before the arrival of Second Wave Feminism. There are little hints that this was a different world from today; a world in which it is just assumed a woman will relinquish her employment when she got married, or in which higher education for woman was still treated with suspicion. The infantilising nature of the treatment of women in the novel (especially by Marian's landlady and boyfriend) was striking, and (fortunately!) dated. Reading The Edible Woman felt less like a treatise on the state of women's issues, and more a reminder of how much the position of women in (Canadian) society has changed in forty years.

Marian is something of an Alice in Wonderland character. Just as Alice falls down the rabbit hole into a topsy-turvy world where nothing makes any sense, Marian is a sane woman living in an upside down world where an educated, intelligent woman must find her place in a society that is incapable of seeing women like Marian as individuals. Marian must forge a path for herself through the maze of confusing messages and examples before her.

One of my very favourite sections of the novel is the Mad Hatter's Tea Party-like episode in which Marian eats dinner at her friend Duncan's house. He and his roommates are graduate students in English Literature, and the way they look at the world made me laugh with remembrance about my own university years. Trevor says [sorry, it's a long quote, but so central to the core message of the book, I think]:
Of course everyone knows Alice is a sexual-identity-crisis book, that’s old stuff, it's been around for a long time, I'd like to go into it a little deeper though. What we have here, if you only look at it closely, this is the little girl descending into the very suggestive rabbit-barrow, becoming as it were prenatal, trying to find her role, [...] her role as a Woman. Yes, well that's clear enough. These patterns emerge.[...] One sexual role after another is presented to her but she seems unable to accept any of them, I mean she’s really blocked. She rejects Maternity when the baby she’s been nursing turns into a pig, nor does she respond positively to the dominating-female role of the Queen and her castration cries of ‘Off with his head!’ And when the Duchess makes a cleverly concealed lesbian pass at her, sometimes you wonder how conscious old Lewis was, anyway she's neither aware nor interested; and right after you’ll recall she goes to talk with the Mock-Turtle, enclosed in his shell and his self-pity, a definitely pre-adolescent character; then there are those most suggestive scenes, most suggestive, the one where her neck becomes elongated and she is accused of being a serpent, hostile to eggs, you'll remember, a rather destructively-phallic identity she indignantly rejects; and her negative reaction to the dictatorial Caterpillar, just six inches high, importantly perched on the all-too-female mushroom which is perfectly round but which has the power to make you either smaller or larger than normal, I find that particularly interesting. And of course there's the obsession with time, clearly a cyclical rather than a linear obsession. So anyway she makes a lot of attempts but she refuses to commit herself, you can’t say that by the end of the book she has reached anything that can be definitely called maturity.
Trevor's interpretation of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland gives us a hint about how to interpret Marian's adventures in her own story which is The Edible Woman.  Clever, non?  Marian even states, in a very Alice-like manner, '"So I'm finally going mad," she thought, "like everybody else. What a nuisance. Though I suppose it will be a change."'

There is all of Margaret Atwood's distinct cleverness and wordplay in abundance here, and although there is evidence that this is an early work compared to her more mature novels, this is a masterful creation.  Her ability to interweave so many threads to deftly produce the final product always leaves me marvelling at her skill.  I highly recommend The Edible Woman

Margaret Atwood
author image from here

Friday, 1 March 2013