Friday, September 25, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: Giovanni’s Room

Giovanni’s Room is the third book that I’ve read for this year’s Back to the Classics Challenge that takes place in Paris. And it is even contemporaneous with The Dud Avocado.  Similar to Sally J. Gorce, the main character, David is also an American in post war 1950s Paris, living off a trust fund while he figures himself out and there is lots of drinking and casual sex.  But that is where the comparisons end. 

One of the things that David is trying to figure out is his sexuality, though he may not always be consciously aware of this as a narrator. His father wants him to return to the States and settle down.  He has proposed to his American girlfriend, Hella, who says she needs time to think. And then when out and about at a gay bar in Paris with a family friend, Jacques, who is homosexual, David meets Giovanni.  

Up to this point, David considers himself to be heterosexual, despite having had a brief homosexual experience as a boy. He has frequented this gay bar many times before with Jacques, but always as a person apart from the rest of the crowd; not “one of them”. In fact, David’s attitude towards the transsexuals or more feminine men that are also at the bar is downright hostile.  He spends a lot of time comparing himself to other men and worried that he doesn’t appear sufficiently masculine.  But despite this, David begins an intense relationship with Giovanni and moves in with him while Hella is out of the country (hence the title of the book).  But when Hella returns, David goes back to her and doesn’t (a) tell Giovanni he is leaving him and (b) doesn’t tell Hella he had an affair with Giovanni. 

Clearly, David has a lot of problems. And his behavior and inability to come to terms with his bisexuality/homosexuality has negative repercussions for everyone in the book.  Needless to write, this is not a happy story. Maybe that’s why I kind of hated it? I feel terrible for not liking such a well-respected classic like this title. But it just left me cold. I could believe David’s self-loathing and indecision but I didn’t feel like Hella or Giovanni’s actions were real. It was too melodramatic for me to swallow.  I think this is a case where if I were to experience it in another format (on the stage or screen) I would love it, but in print, I couldn’t read the passion into it, even though there are some beautifully depicted scenes. 

I read this for the Back to the Classics Category “Classic by a POC Author”. 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: The Dud Avocado


You know, these American girls are just like avocados….” His avocado arrived and he looked at it lovingly. “The Typical American Girl,” he said, addressing it. “A hard center with the tender meat all wrapped up in a shiny casing.” He began eating it. “How I love them,” he murmured greedily. “So green—so eternally green.” He winked at me.

Interestingly enough, three of the books I have read for a Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 have been set in Left Bank Paris.  Moving up a century and half from Trilby, The Dud Avocado takes place in the Latin Quarter in the 1950s. And similar to George du Maurier, Elaine Dundy knew of what she wrote, since like her protagonist, she too moved to Paris after World War II to live off her allowance for as long as she could. I don’t know exactly what the exchange rate was back then, but as I understand it, the dollar was amazingly strong and one could live pretty well in Western Europe on a modest U.S. income. 

This was my second stab at The Dud Avocado, which I’ve owned for probably at least a decade. It was kind of a cover-buy because I really loved the pictured Virago naked hard back and sort of Gollum-like, I felt a need to possess it, regardless of its contents. I am glad I gave it another chance because I really enjoyed this novel about a footloose, slightly zany young American woman named Sally J. Gorse. Also, like Trilby, this book is pretty frank about sexual mores in the mid-20th century, though again, there are still different expectations placed on women compared to men. Possibly because the author is female, she is a little sharper in her condemnation of this gender gap. Fittingly enough, the category I read this for is “Classic By a Woman Author”. 

Judging from the goodreads reviews, this is a bit of a marmite book, where either the reader gets Sally and her brand of humor and adventure, or they don’t. I did find Sally occasionally frustrating but I also I laughed out loud more than once as I read about her days and nights with the pseudo-intellectuals and American ex-pats at the Paris cafes, how she gets an acting job in a local English language production, how she is duped into a vacation in the South of France and ends up as an extra in an international film production, etc. There is a little bit of a plot arc, but really the joy of reading the book is just following Sally and wondering what she is going to do or say next. 

This book gets compared to Breakfast at Tiffany’s a lot, which is interesting because actually both books were published in the same year: 1958. I can see some similarities between Holly Golightly and Sally J. Gorce in their way of living without thinking of consequences …ah youth.  Ultimately, however, they really aren’t very similar and I don’t think they would like each other, were they to meet. Sally is, for all her worldliness, fairly naïve and she lives off of a trust fund. Holly grew up poor and is a call girl (in my opinion – I know others interpret her way of living through rosier glasses) and lives off of tips from her men clients. 

Friday, July 31, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge: Trilby

For Back to the Classics 2020 category "Classic with a name in the title", I read Trilby by George du Maurier. This would have also worked for Paris in July, had I participated...though I actually read this back in April. Reading Trilby was intriguing to me before I even read the first paragraph because:

1. It was written by Daphne du Maurier’s grandfather,
2. It is the origin of the term “Svengali”.

I doubt many people know what “Svengali” means now or use it casually, but it was once as common as the term “Romeo” or “Scrooge” - one of those words where you know what it means but you don’t necessarily link the origin of it with a book. I wonder someday if that will happen with, say “Indiana Jones” or “Scooby-Doo”? A Svengali is someone who manipulates another (usually an older man and a younger woman), often using his hypnotic powers, for a sinister or selfish purpose.

So what is the book about you ask? Shut up already about word origins! It is a nostalgic look at la vie Bohème in 1850s Paris which du Maurier experienced firsthand in his youth. I have not doubt that the book’s popularity, when it was published in 1894, must have been in part due to its scandalous depiction of bohemian life with its more casual mores about sex and nudity compared to that of Victorian England. 

In it, three young men, Laird (who is Scottish), Taffy and Little Billee (who are English) share a Left Bank studio in Paris where they meet Trilby, the beautiful, jejune orphan whose alcoholic parents, an Irish gentleman down on his luck and a Scottish barmaid, more or less left her to grow up on her own on the streets of Paris. Now, she models (in the all together, naturally) for painters and sculptors to support herself and her younger brother. All three of the men, who hope to become artists themselves, are in love with Trilby. And Trilby is a lovely character, generous and uncomplicated, she has a real zest for life. Especially enamored is sensitive soul, Little Billee, whose love she returns. Unfortunately, she has also caught the eye of the manipulative musician Svengali. Alas, Trilby knows she can never be Billee’s wife, even if she goes straight and stops modeling, since he is British middle class and she is little more than a street waif. This may be bohemian Paris, but the rules are still different for men and women. Are you smelling the melodrama here? Because it is cooking! The plot goes cuckoo when Billee returns to England a broken man and he runs into Trilby again. But I don't want to spoil it...

I am glad to have read it, I hope someday it will serve me well in a pub quiz or a round of Trivial Pursuit. But it was a bit meandering - there was lots of description that slowed me down (George re-living his salad days, no doubt). Not to mention the untranslated French, also not to mention the untranslated French written phonetically in a German accent. Sacré bleu! I usually dislike it when authors write in dialect. 

Also, it is very anti-Semitic. Svengali, like Fagin in Oliver Twist is not a bad and a Jew. He is bad because he is a Jew. This isn't uncommon to encounter in older books but still, it is discomforting to read. So be forewarned. However, if it sounds interesting to you, it is free for download from Project Gutenburg. 😃

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: The Winds of Heaven

Weirdly, working from home not been conducive to my on-line life. I apologize that I haven’t been reading and commenting on my friends' posts in the last couple months. Moving forward, I will be better and get back to the swing of things because I do miss it!

I have been reading, however, and for the Back to the Classics category “A classic with nature in the title”, I read The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens in my lovely Persephone edition, pictured. The disinterested storytelling style of The Winds of Heaven reminded me a tad of Dorothy Whipple, another Persephone author, but I think I’ve enjoyed the Whipple novels I’ve read so far more.  I found the quiet interludes compared to the melodramatic moments a little too uneven for my tastes. Despite this quibble, I really did like the novel and will read more from Dickens in future.

First published in 1955, the story is about Louise, who is widowed at 50 something. Louise’s husband bullied her and left her with only debts upon his death. Since she cannot afford to support herself, she is shunted between the homes of her self-centered grown daughters in the spring, summer and fall while spending the winters in Portsmouth on the charity of a school friend who runs a hotel. Louise’s only occasional solace is her awkward granddaughter Ellen, her son-in-law Frank and her newfound friend, Mr. Disher.

Her eldest daughter, Miriam, lives in upper middle-class comfort in a London suburb with the aforementioned Ellen and two younger grandchildren, who are clearly more favored by their parents.  Louise’s youngest daughter, Eva, is an aspiring actress who lives in a London flat and her middle child Anne, lives with her farmer-husband in the country.  All three daughters see their mother as a burden, even though all three have space enough to allow her to live with them permanently. Louise longs to live independently, but that would require her taking a job, which is an anathema to her daughters. They don’t want her around, but they also don’t want the shame of their mother having to work for a living. 

It’s all very bleak with a few moments of brightness for Louise. Louise’ interactions with Ellen are touching, particularly since it is clear that Ellen sympathizes with her Grandmother because she too is unwanted. And Louise’s relationship with Mr. Disher is delightful, from the moment then meet by chance in a tea shop and she learns he is a salesman by day but in his spare time a writer of lurid, pulp fiction paperbacks. I think that Dickens excelled in her characterization here, which is why it was sometimes so sad to read, because the reader really feels for the characters when they suffer. But I will say, without spoiling things, that the book was satisfactorily resolved for me.