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Archive for the ‘Gwethalyn Graham’ Category

Back in 2011, I read Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham and absolutely adored it.  In fact, I loved it so much that it made my Best Books of 2011 list.  And the first thing I thought when reading it was how perfect a choice it would be for Persephone Books.

Well, turns out they thought the same way.  Six years later, I am delighted to say that Persphone has just reissued the book and it is now readily available for all to enjoy!  Happy reading!

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swisssonataI had been looking forward to reading Swiss Sonata by Gwethalyn Graham ever since reading Earth and High Heaven, Graham’s extraordinary 1944 novel about love and anti-Semitism in wartime Montreal.  Published in 1938, when Graham was just 25 years old, Swiss Sonata won Graham her first Governor General’s Award – the second came only a few years later for Earth and High Heaven.  Now, I can completely understand why they awarded it to her for Earth and High Heaven – it is wonderful and richly deserves to be back in print and widely read – but I have no idea what they were thinking in giving it to her in 1938 for Swiss Sonata.

The setting, at least, is good: a finishing school on the Swiss Riviera, nestled in the hills above Lausanne.  The school is full of young women from around the world, ranging in age from their mid-teens to early twenties.  The school’s intent is to foster a League-of-Nations-esque environment, to produce insightful young women fluent in multiple languages and armed with a cosmopolitan worldview.  Or, at least that is what the current headmistress, Amélie Tourain, believes the school’s purpose should be.  The parents of her pupils might think differently:

The existing Swiss schools were in a curious position since, so far as the parents of their pupils were concerned, their chief function was to provide instruction in French and winter sports; the international idea was purely incidental.  Yet, she supposed, they must have some vague idea of giving their children a chance to see through the eyes of other countries, or they would send them elsewhere.  If you have a “my country right or wrong” point of view, surely you don’t send your children to a school where they will be forced to speak French, share rooms with a Norwegian or a Pole, and eat their meals with Armenians, Hungarians, Greeks, Danes, Germans?

The story is set in January 1935, when the kind of pluralism and tolerance Mlle Tourain believes in are more important than ever – and more elusive than ever.  Tensions between the students at the small school are high as Europe waits to hear the results of the plebiscite in the Saar.  Hitler’s homogenized dream Reich is the exact opposite of what the school aspires to be, which unsurprisingly leads to conflict among the German students – between those who admire him and those who are already experiencing the brute force of his totalitarian regime.  Elsewhere, money is being stolen by an unknown thief, a teacher is determined to catch out the school’s most seemingly perfect pupil, and a girl lies wasting away in her room.  What a mess.

The story is messy and unengaging and the characters poorly drawn.  When Graham chooses a single focus, she is interesting and articulate.  Sadly, most of the novel is spent bouncing between characters, trying to address all of their concerns.  This leaves us with a shallow understanding of both the issues at play and the women who work at or attend the school.  Some of these women are sketched semi-successfully – one student, an American millionaireness named Theodora Cohen is loud and brash and fun enough to offer relief from the unrelenting stodginess of everyone else – but Graham fails with almost everyone else, spectacularly in the case of Vicky Morrison.  Vicky is a mysterious and almost universally admired student from Toronto.  The students adore her, she is best buddies with some of the teachers, and she is probably one of the most poorly written characters I’ve come across in a long time.

What does go some way to redeeming this book and the discussions of serious matters that the students get into; specifically, of racism and feminism.  These discussions don’t necessarily contribute to the structure or the flow of the story but in and of themselves they are interesting.

“I wonder why it is that women are not supposed to be capable of friendship and loyalty to such an extent as men?  They’re always pictured like Kipling’s cat, walking alone, when it comes right down to it, and when they change their environment…I mean after they get married, or fall in love with an unusual man or something, then their friendships alter.”

“Shakespeare knew better,” said Vicky.

“I know, but he lived four hundred years ago and since then people have forgotten.  I guess it’s because no one ever takes the trouble to find out about us.  It’s so much easier to talk about men as people, and women as women…lumping us altogether, and referring to the female sex as though it were an enigmatic and too, too baffling object.  We’re supposed to be all alike underneath…men aren’t, they’re permitted individuality, when we’re not.  We differ in degree, but not in kind, apparently.

I’m glad I finally read this but I would not recommend it to others.  In its themes, it is recognizably related to Earth and High Heaven but certainly not in its below-average execution.

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Oh, the excruciating pain of making this list!  I am very pleased with the end result but how cruel to have spent the last few days playing off my favourite books against one another to get down to the ten you see here (and ten it must be for when I attempted to make a list of fifteen things got wildly out of hand).  What I did realise quickly was what an excellent reading year I’ve had, full of wonderful, memorable books.  May 2012 bring more of the same!

10. The Unlikely Disciple (2009) – Kevin Roose
The best books are the ones that get you so excited that you cannot stop talking about them, so that soon all your friends and family know exactly what you’re reading.  That is what happened while I was reading The Unlikely Disciple.  Roose, then an undergraduate at Brown, went ‘undercover’ for a semester at an evangelical Christian university.  His insightful, respectful, and very detailed chronicle of his time there left me highly entertained and incredibly engaged, pondering some of the issues he touched on (the influence of religious groups in politics, evangelical Christianity’s attitudes towards women, and journalistic ethics, to name a few) for weeks after I had finished reading.

9. Skylark (1924) – Dezső Kosztolányi
Set in 1899 in a small town in Austria-Hungary, this is the story of Skylark’s mother and father and the joyous week they spend enjoying themselves while their spinster daughter is away visiting family.  Mother and Father’s excitement at their outings to the restaurant and the theatre (and, in Father’s case, a meeting of the local drinking club) is humourously and heartwarmingly told but it is the return of the pathetic, pitiable Skylark (and Father’s outburst in anticipation of her return) that truly makes this a brilliant novel.  A wonderful and sympathetic view of the burden faced by parents with beloved but unmarriageable daughters. 

8. An Appetite for Life (1977) – Charles Ritchie
Ritchie, though he was a prominent diplomat, is now best remembered for his skill as a diarist and rightly so.  This, the earliest published volume of his diaries, covers the years 1924-1927, as Ritchie was finishing off his studies in Halifax and then experiencing the delightful distractions on offer at Oxford during his first year there.  Ritchie is marvellously candid and his daily ponderings – here, unsurprisingly given his youth, focused on women, sex, and school – manage to be both amusing and touching.

7. Christopher and Columbus (1919) – Elizabeth von Arnim
I took the longest time to decide which von Arnim novel was going to make the list but this beat out The Pastor’s Wife by the sheer force of its charm.  A light, fanciful escape from reality, Christopher and Columbus tells the story of two orphaned teenage German-English twins and their exploits once shipped off to neutral America by their uncle during WWI.  While sailing, Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas befriend the delightful, doting Mr Twist, an American millionaire who made his fortune by designing a no-drip tea pot.  The adventures of this trio make for enchanting reading, with von Arnim’s witty narrator saving it from descending into anything too saccharine.

6. Earth and High Heaven (1944) – Gwethalyn Graham
Without question, this was the biggest reading surprise of the year.  My first reaction upon finishing was that it was the most Persephone-like non-Persephone book I’ve ever read.  Set in Montreal in 1942, the novel revolves around the challenges faced by Erica Drake, an editor at a newspaper, and Marc Reiser, a lawyer, when they meet and fall in love.  Anti-Semitism and family relationships are at the heart of this novel but it is also full of comments on the war, whether it be French-speaking Canada’s reluctance to be involved or the deadening effect of the destruction of the London Blitz, experienced first-hand by Erica’s sister.  It is an absolutely amazing novel that deserves a much wider audience.

5. Hostages to Fortune (1933) – Elizabeth Cambridge
My love for this quiet novel has come on slowly.  I enjoyed it when I read it, yes, but with each passing month I find myself loving it more.  I remain particularly impressed with Cambridge’s portrait of Catherine and William’s marriage and how it evolves, through separation during the war, the arrivals of babies, and the numbingly chaotic years spent scrambling to raise ( and afford to raise) their three children.

4. The American Senator (1877) – Anthony Trollope
My first encounter with Trollope was an unqualified success.  Since then, I’ve read The Warden and Barchester Towers and enjoyed both but neither came close to equaling my delight with The American Senator.  Was it Mr Elias Gotobed’s comically offensive but generally true statements that charmed me so?  The love story of the gentle, deserving Mary Masters?  Or was it the magnificent anti-heroine, Arabella Trefoil, whose single-minded pursuit of a husband  is awesome to behold?  The combination of these stories makes for an eventful, always fascinating, deeply satisfying novel that quite rightly convinced me that Trollope was an author after my own heart.

3. Wives and Daughters (1866) – Elizabeth Gaskell
I feel a bit of a cheat to place a reread so high on my list but…This book is absolutely perfect and fully earned its spot.  I don’t think I will ever tire of Molly Gibson, Cynthia Kirkpatrick, Squire Hamley or, that most magnificent creation, Mrs. Hyacinth Kirkpatrick Gibson.

2. Howards End is on the Landing (2009) – Susan Hill
In any other year, this book would have probably garnered top spot.  Hill’s memoir of a lifetime spent in the company of books and other authors delighted me from the first page to the last.  Everything about this book was perfect for me.  There was enough of the familiar in Hill’s reading to comfort me (because one of the delights of reading about books is coming across opinions on books you know well) and enough of the new to excite me and make me eager to track down those unknown titles.  Even before I had finished reading my library edition, I rushed out to buy a copy of my very own.

1. Summer Half (1937) – Angela Thirkell
Anyone who has been following my blog this year could have probably predicted that Thirkell would take the top spot.  Since my first encounter with Thirkell last January, I have fallen completely in love with her Barsetshire novels and, of the twelve I’ve now read, I think Summer Half is the most perfectly formed.  It centers on the masters and students of Southbridge School and their interactions with some of the local families.  As with all good Thirkell novels, romance is in the air and the narrator’s sharp wit is there to comment on both the comically disastrous pairings and the ideal but bumbled ones.  Most importantly, Summer Half introduces my favourite Thirkell character, the astounding Lydia Keith.  Of all the books I read this year, not only is this the one that I am most eager to return to, it is the one I most wish I owned countless copies of so I could pass it on to everyone I meet.

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As much as I love discovering forgotten and neglected books, sometimes the fact that they are so very obscure when there is no earthly reason they should be makes me incredibly frustrated.  Such is the case with Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham.  Published in 1944, the book not only won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (Graham’s second – and she was only 31) but it was also the first Canadian novel to reach number one on the New York Times bestseller list.  And yet I had never heard of it or Graham before this June, when I stumbled across it while making up my booklist for the Canadian Book Challenge V, and I’m willing to guess that most of you hadn’t either.

Taking place in Montreal over the summer of 1942, Earth and High Heaven details the relationship of Erica Drake, a twenty-eight year old editor of the newspaper’s women’s section, and Marc Reiser, a thirty-three year old lawyer.  Meeting at a party at the Drake’s house, there is immediate interest on both sides but Erica is from an established Anglo family while Marc is Jewish, distinctions which certainly mattered in 1940s Montreal.  The novel is the story of how their relationship progresses in the face of their families’ objections and their own prejudices.

Erica’s family immediately discourages her interest in Marc, even before the two make contact again after their first meeting (admittedly, this takes them a while as both are very conscious of the issues confronting them).  The Drakes’ protests, while not the violent or hate-filled rants polluting Germany at the time, are of a more common, insidious form of racism, the kind found among those who consider themselves tolerant, well-educated and liberal.  There is a concern about the lack of shared culture and beliefs, of different values and aims, and the knowledge that, if married, the pair would not fit easily into either of the social spheres from which they came:

‘I don’t want my daughter to go through life neither flesh, fowl, nor good red herring, living in a kind of no man’s land where half the people you know ill never accept him, and half the people he knows will never accept you.  I don’t want a son-in-law who’ll be an embarrassment to our friends, a son-in-law who can’t be put up at my club and who can’t go with us to places where we’ve gone all our lives.  I don’t want a son-in-law whom I’ll have to apologize for, and explain, and have to hear insulted indirectly unless I can remember to warn people off first.’

The Grants’ arguments have nothing to do with Marc himself – they refuse to meet him – but with the exile he represents for Erica, the stigma that an alliance with him would attach to her.  Marriage, both sets of parents say, is difficult enough without bringing in these kinds of stresses, stresses which Erica and Marc can do nothing to alleviate.  As Mr Reiser tells Marc,

‘You think you could compromise and somehow you’d manage, but sooner or later you’d find out that you can go just so far and no farther.  You’d get sick of compromising, and so would she, and some day you’d wake up and realise that it wasn’t a question of compromising on little things any more, but of compromising yourself.  And you couldn’t do it, neither of you could do it.  Nobody can do it.’

Erica’s own racism colours her views, even after she has fallen in love with Marc.  To her, Marc is simply Marc.  He is an entirely unique and fascinating person who happens to be Jewish.  But she still seems to think of him as the exception.  Her racism is unconscious, which she realises when listening to Marc describing his brother David and finds herself waiting to hear some sort of defining Jewish characteristic in his description, surprised by her surprise that David sounds just like any Gentile:

Evidentially it was not going to be anything like as easy as she had thought; you could not rid yourself of layer upon layer of prejudice and preconceived ideas all in one moment and by one overwhelming effort of will.  During the past three weeks she had become conscious of her own reactions, but that was as far as she had got.  The reactions themselves remained to be dealt with.

She had counted too much on the fact that her prejudices were relatively mild and her preconceived ideas largely unstated…

Erica is a much more forceful presence in the novel than Marc.  Marc is rather resigned, beaten down by the world and himself.  And yet he is still interesting and quietly competent and forceful, despite this rather melancholy description of him:

There was a lurking bewilderment in his eyes, as though, in spite of all his common sense and most of his experience of living, he still expected things to turn out better than they usually did.

Above all, when that smile went out like a light, his appalling vulnerability became evident, and you began to realise how much strain and effort had gone into the negative and fundamentally uncreative task of sheer resistance – resistance against the general conspiracy among the great majority of people he met to drive him back into himself, to dam up so many of his natural outlets, to tell him what he was and finally, to force him to abide by the definition.

I found Erica incredibly sympathetic and appealing.  At twenty-eight, she has a successful career and is generally respected and admired.  But she has no particular interest in working, despite having a talent for it, only having started at the newspaper after her fiancé died when she was twenty-one.  What she wants most is a family of her own, though her life seems to have been remarkably romance free prior to the arrival of Marc.  But most importantly, she has an incredibly close bond with her father, Charles.  They are confidents and best friends, as well as father and daughter.  She brings out the best in him and, we see as the novel progresses, the worst.  The violence of Charles’ reaction to Marc has more to do with his terror of losing the person he loves most than with any deeply held anti-Semitic beliefs.  The fight scenes between him and Erica are harshly realistic and almost unspeakably cruel – no holds are barred and they each know just where to strike to make it hurt the most. 

Graham’s dialogue among Erica’s coworkers was equally well-written, though significantly lighter and quite humourous, reading like something straight out of a screwball comedy.  These moments of levity blended well with the otherwise serious tone of the book, since even in the office serious topics are never far off, with the war never far from peoples’ minds.  It is always fascinating to read books written and published during the war that deal with issues related to it and Graham touches on almost anything you can think of.  Anti-Semitism, clearly, is the main issue discussed, with Marc’s insistence that racism in North American has gotten significantly worse over the past decade, that even as people were ignoring Hitler’s militaristic aims they were listening and sympathizing with his racial slurs.  But there is also much said about French-Canadians and their attitudes towards the war and in Miriam, Erica’s younger, divorced sister just arrived in Montreal after years in London, we see the effect of witnessing the war up close and the way the first-hand knowledge of death has made her pursue physical passion at the expense of emotional love and intimacy. 

The entire time I was reading this, I kept thinking how Persephone-like it felt in tone, quality and themes.  And, really, could there be higher praise than that?

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