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Letters from ItalyIn 1923, the great Czech writer Karel Čapek published his first travel book: Letters from Italy.  Having greatly enjoyed Letters from England (1924) and being now in the midst of planning my first trip to Italy, this seemed like the perfect time to read about Čapek’s travels there.

Good news about my upcoming trip: there will be fewer fascists (I hope) than Čapek encountered.  Needless to say, they were not the highlight of his trip.  Čapek spent much of his career speaking out against dictatorships and fascism in particular, which does make one wonder why he decided to visit Italy so soon after Mussolini came into power.  On the other hand, it is Italy.  I can understand how its charm would outweigh any feelings of disgust for its vile Prime Minister.

Čapek starts in Venice (as I plan to do – how cunning of him to mirror my own itinerary!).  The famously confusing streets befuddle the traveller almost immediately:

I, who flatter myself that I have the sense of direction, strolled round a circle for two hours yesterday.  I left St. Mark’s Square for the Rialto, a good ten minutes’ walk: after two hours I finally reached St. Mark’s Square.  These Venetian streets decidedly remind me of the East, clearly because I have never been in the East, or of the Middle Ages for perhaps the same reason.

Paragraphs like this are the reason I love Čapek so much.  Unfortunately, there are very few of them in this book.

Čapek moves on to, well, just about everywhere.  For a brief trip, he covers a lot of ground.  He moves comfortably through the country, despite speaking no Italian – perhaps, as he believes, because he speaks no Italian:

Undoubtedly in international hotels you can always make yourself understood in French: but there are places more interesting than all the hotels in the world, and there you have such a cosmopolitan babel that you cannot inquire or make yourself comprehensible or ask anyone for anything; there you rely upon people to provide you with food, drink, and lodgings and take you somewhere – how and where, that is of course in their powers and not yours, but you trust yourself to them as a dumb, helpless creature incapable of choice, self-defence, or insult.  And so they give you food and drink, protection and lodging; you accept everything with a thousand-fold more gratitude than if you ordered it in a lordly, comprehensive way.

On he travels but, to be honest, he moves too quickly to really observe any place very well.  It’s fun to say “oh, that sounds like somewhere worth visiting” but that is not what I look for in this sort of book.  I want to be charmed and entertained and, mostly, I want him to be funny in his criticisms of Italy and the Italians.  He did this brilliantly in Letters from England but obviously had not quite found his style yet with this book.  And what a shame – I’m sure he could have been quite devastatingly clever if he’d let loose (there are flashes of this at times).

The book ends in Bolzano, which Čapek views with relief.  After sunshine and arid hilltowns, palaces and museums, it is unbelievably cheering to come to a familiar landscape of mountains and forests and to see people who, until only a few years before, had been part of the same Empire as he.  Travel is broadening but never more delightful than when you encounter the familiar after weeks of feeling like an alien.

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The Summer of the Great GrandmotherBack in late 2012, Lisa reviewed The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle.  Familiar with L’Engle’s children’s books, I had not known until then she had written any non-fiction, never mind four volumes of very personal “Crosswicks Journals”, focusing on her own life.  I almost immediately read and adored Two-Part Invention, the fourth Crosswicks book, but The Summer of the Great-Grandmother remained on my To-Be-Read list.  Until now.

Published in 1974 (14 years before Two-Part Invention), The Summer of the Great-Grandmother is L’Engle’s record of the last summer of her mother’s life, spent at Crosswicks, L’Engle’s Connecticut home.  L’Engle’s mother is ninety and suffering from dementia.  Though a doctor friend assures L’Engle at the beginning of the summer that her mother is not likely to die soon (not, in the circumstances, a particularly comforting message), she only lasts a few months.  It is a rapid and far from graceful decline but, perhaps thankfully, one that she is not entirely present for.  L’Engle, spending a summer with four generations of family under one roof (not to mention the young friends brought in to help care for her mother), is caught between moments of delight – a family wedding, the joy of having her granddaughters with her for the summer – and the exhausting duty of watching the sharp, engaging mother she knows fade away.

This is not a distressing book.  Not in the way Two-Part Invention was, certainly.  In that book, L’Engle struggles to make sense of her husband’s cancer diagnosis and – within a few months – his death.  But the death of a parent, particularly one in her nineties, is the most natural thing on earth.  That doesn’t make it cheerful, exactly, but L’Engle spends most of the book thinking about her mother’s life and the family members who came before, remembering the stories she was told as a child that her mother, robbed of her memory, can no longer tell.  Memories are important, something that is shown all the more clearly by the loss of them.  This book is L’Engle’s way of ensuring that her mother is not forgotten, even if L’Engle herself should one day start to forget:

How many people have been born, lived rich, loving lives, laughed and wept, been part of creation, and are now forgotten, unremembered by anybody walking the earth today?

And yet it is not a biography – it cannot be.  L’Engle, whose memory of her mother is “the fullest memory of anybody living”, knows that even she only has a partial portrait of the woman who her mother is and was:

I am trying to take a new look at my mother’s life and world, and I find that I can do this only subjectively.  I can look objectively at Mother’s life only during the years before I was born, before my own remembering begins, when I did not know her; and even they my objectivity is slanted by selectivity, my own, hers, and that of friends and relatives who told me stories which for some reason Mother had omitted from her repertoire…

But there attempts at objectivity fall apart, and biology makes me subjective, and this is the other strand of the intertwined helix, my very subjective response to this woman who is, for me, always and irrevocably, first, Mother; and second, her own Madeleine.

How long does family memory last?  For how long will our descendents remember us?  Two generations, certainly.  But three, four?  By the fifth, what will your great-great-great-grandchildren know about you, other than that you must have existed?  Will they even know your name?  They almost certainly won’t know anything of the family you came from, all the family stories you heard growing up, the legend of uncle so-and-so, the scandal of great-aunt whatshername.  That small fraction of their lives that we know will be forgotten, just as the facts of our own lives will be forgotten.  It is natural – our memories are not that long and we, already bent under the weight of expectation loaded on us by living (or still remembered) relatives, certainly don’t need to feel that umpteen generations of ancestors are judging us as well.  But we would not be human if we did not, even while embracing logic, long to be remembered, to leave our lasting mark on the world.

That is what this book is: a record of L’Engle’s mother, a determined effort to ensure her life will be remembered, as well as the lives of her parents and grandparents.  And what lives they were.  Full of breathless brushes with danger, moments of tragedy, and far too many women named Madeleine, L’Engle’s family tree is full of fascinating characters.  In fact, the more distant ancestors – with their encounters with a pirate and a empress , not to mention flights from flaming cities – rather take over the book, edging out L’Engle’s mother much of the time.  And that is a pity because she sounds like a fascinating woman who, particularly in early years of her marriage, lived an excitingly cosmopolitan life.  It was an extraordinarily well-lived life and this book is a beautiful, loving testament to it.

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10927454When Lisa reviewed Live Alone and Like It last week I was stirred to action.  After years of having it on my TBR list, now was finally the right time to read it.  Not so, thought my library.  They have helpfully misplaced their one and only copy so, being an adaptable sort, I modified my ambitions and turned to Marjorie Hillis’ other helpful guide, Bubbly on Your Budget (originally Orchids on Your Budget).

Published in 1937, a year after her successful guidebook for women living on their own, Bubbly on Your Budget is full of advice on how to live nicely on limited means.  The general assumption is that the reader is a working woman, perhaps married, perhaps single, who is keen to live within her means but to still enjoy life’s little comforts – a pleasant home, attractive clothes, an active social life, and, if she is very reckless with her money, perhaps even a husband.  Hillis’s advice is sensible and actionable – both then and now – and, more importantly, she is not afraid of blunt statements.  Since I love bluntness, this book was utterly delightful to me.

Examples of such inspired frankness include Hillis addressing all those women who mope around offices, dreaming of domestic bliss:

There are also the women who go to offices in a martyr-like frame of mind, cherishing the belief that they would be knockouts in the role of devoted wives and loving mothers.  Perhaps they would, and then again, perhaps they wouldn’t.  If you’re martyr-like in one role, you’re pretty apt to be martyr-like in another.

And the consideration of what factors must be considered when a couple is trying to decide if they can afford to get by on just one salary:

Can we, or can we not, afford to marry – on the man’s salary or the man’s plus the woman’s? – This is a subject of chronic debate as violent as the seething over the Supreme Court issue, and half the debaters get the wrong answer.  They do their computing on a purely dollar-and-cent basis and don’t stop to figure out what they want out of marriage anyway and whether it’s all in the budget.  If your picture of being a wife is pretty luxurious, that’s an item you’d better put down right after Rent and Food, and then see whether you can cut down somewhere else.  If the man’s idea of romance is built round a chic figure with glamorous clothes and lily white hands, you’d better be pretty sure that one of you can pay for them.

The hallmark of a good advice book is that it does not date.  While some of the essential wardrobe items Hillis mentions may no longer be necessary (chic hats and decorative carnations sadly having little place in a 21st Century closet), the bulk of her recommendations can be just as easily applied today as eighty years ago.  Hillis is particularly useful when it comes to how to approach marriage on a budget.  Husbands, she warns her readers, cannot be relied upon to produce funds.  In fact, the most charming and delightful men might need to be supported themselves:

It is a regrettable, but undeniable, fact that the most delightful people are seldom big money-makers.  A few may have inherited large incomes, but they generally lose them or spend them.  Getting rich is apt to be a twenty-four –hour-a-day job and not always worth the trouble.  It leaves little time for the arts and graces, without a few of which most people are pretty trying.  This has always been admitted in high-minded moments (like church and first meetings with mothers-in-law).

And will he mind you supporting him or at least working side-by-side?  Not at all (if he is a practical man):

He may be full of chivalrous notions about pouring riches into your lap, during the honeymoon, but he knows too that they are part of a fairy-story out of the past.  Men have always expected women to work for them, and modern ones have next to no trouble in transposing the workroom from home to office.  The trouble comes when you outdo them in success, especially in their own field; but if you’re smart enough for that, you’ll probably know how to meet the problem.

That’s a useful reminder to women from any decade!

Hillis illustrates her points with case studies at the end of each chapter, giving examples of how well Miss or Mrs So-And-So has adapted to a life of thrift (or, in cautionary tales, has not).  These can be fun but they are a bit too neat – you don’t actually believe any of them are real people.  In the body of the text, Hillis is much more aware of the conflicts women feel between what they want, what they can afford, and what they actually end up doing.

All in all, a charming, funny, and deeply sensible book.

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Switzerland for BeginnersIn just over a month, I will be back in Switzerland.  I’m only going to Europe for two weeks this year – fair enough after last year’s month-long vacation – but am spending the bulk of that in Switzerland and, more specifically, in the mountains.

I remember looking for books about Switzerland before I visited for the first time in 2012.  Aside from Heidi and travel guides, pickings were slim.  But I did hear about a book called, perfectly, Switzerland for Beginners by George Mikes.  I wasn’t able to track it down then but, thanks to the wonders of the inter-library loan system, I got my hands on it earlier this year and had fun giggling my way through this all too brief book.

Mikes, Hungarian by birth but English by choice, had a successful career writing humourous guides to various countries, observing the ways of the English, French, Germans, etc for the edification of befuddled outsiders.  An early Bill Bryson, if you will.  His books are much quoted, especially his How to Be an Alien, which seeks to explain the English to foreigners: who hasn’t heard (and laughed at) “Continental people have sex lives; the English have hot water bottles”?  But, until now, I had never read even one of his books.  Switzerland for Beginners was the perfect place to start.

The Swiss are not a race that excite much interest from the rest of the world.  They are not sexy or dangerous, they are not cruel or fascinating.  They are adorably, endearingly boring.  This is perhaps why there are so few books about them.  A few years ago, I read The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner, a chronicle of the author’s travels to the happiest places on earth.  One of the happy places he visited was Switzerland, where the steady predictability of life was at the root of the population’s general happiness: “happiness,” Weiner concluded, “is boring.”  I kept thinking about that as I read this book.  Mikes’ book was published in 1962 and Weiner’s in 2007 but their observations are consistent.

Mikes has fun with his book.  His writings are based on his entirely subjective observations and the real charm of the book comes from how much of his personality is injected into it.  It is very much about how he feels , what he thinks, and how he experiences the country:

Whenever I go to Switzerland in the winter, my chief problem is how to avoid winter sports.  It is not an easy task.  Dangers lurk in every corner.  In November or so, the whole country is transformed into one vast – well, not so terribly vast – ski-run, and few of your kind and hospitable Swiss friends seem able to grasp that your main purpose in life is not to run down a mountain slope at fifty miles an hour as if you were a sixty-horse-power motor-car with faulty breaks.

He does not pretend any scientific approach to his observations.  Instead, he is just a man dropped into a foreign society, observing it with all the attendant prejudices (some put on for comedic effect) of the foreigner.  And one can’t argue with the amusing results:

The Swiss, indeed, are hard-working people and this devotion to work is one of their most repulsive virtues.  Altogether, it is the virtues of the Swiss which I find a bit hard to bear.  Coming from England, I regard work as some sort of nuisance you must pretend to be engaged in between cups of tea.  But the Swiss take work seriously: start early, finish late, and are even proud of it.  They are paid for it handsomely – more handsomely than the English – and their old-fashioned idea is that they ought to play fair.  The employer is not simply the chap you organize strikes against: he must pay, to be sure, and pay a lot, but he must also receive value for his money.  This attitude is, of course, quite outmoded in the second half of the twentieth century.

Oh Switzerland, I miss you.

Oh Switzerland, I miss you.

Mikes speaks fondly of the Swiss: of their deeply ingrained but benignly-expressed regional prejudices, of their devotion to hospitality, of their careful money habits and insistence on quality…in short, of all the wonderfully undramatic things that make the Swiss so endearing.  And, as a bonus, there is a final, perfect essay – one that proved, to the author’s delight, to be controversial for a brief period after its publication – about the too-often neglected principality of Liechtenstein.  The book is all too brief – not even a hundred pages with illustrations included – but there is something to amuse on every one of those pages.  And I certainly feel more prepared for my trip back next month!

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on-the-other-sideToday, continuing our week of World War Two diaries, we come to one of the most exciting and original offerings in the Persephone catalogue: On the Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany, 1940-1946 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg.

Born into a prosperous Hamburg family in 1879, Tilly (as Mathilde was known) had an upbringing suitable for the daughter of a prominent lawyer: she mastered “the gentle arts of music and painting, deportment and elocution, dancing and general social graces.”  She was sent to finishing school and in due time made her debut in Hamburg society as an accomplished and marriageable young lady.  So far, this sounds pretty standard for the daughter of the professional class and in fact identical to the upbringings of my great-grandmother and all my great-great-aunts.  But rather than settle down, Tilly convinced her parents to let her go to Italy to study singing and Italian.  There, she met and fell in love with a Dutch art historian and linguist, whom she married and had six children with (though one died in infancy).  It was an unhappy marriage (he sounds like the least-attractive Dutch person I’ve ever heard of) and the two separated during the First World War.  This history has little bearing on the book itself (aside from explaining the origins of the children to whom Tilly is writing) but I had to share it anyway.  Already her life would have made a good novel and she was just getting started.

By 1940 when these letters begin, Tilly was living in Hamburg with her second (and decidedly more stable) husband, Emil Wolff, a professor of English Language and Literature at Hamburg University.  Of her five children, only one was living in Germany.  Tightened censorship meant that she knew she could not write honestly to her children about her day-to-day life so she began these letters with the hope of sharing the truth with them once the war was over:

My beloved far-away children, everything I was not able to tell you in my letters during the first year of the war; was not allowed to say, because the censor waited only for an incautious word in order to stop a message from getting through to you, all this I will now put down on paper under the title “Letters that never reached them”; so that much later perhaps you will know what really happened, what we really felt like and why I had to reassure you repeatedly that the “organisation” was marvellous, that we were in the best of health and full of confidence. (10 October 1940)

There are hundreds of English diaries and memoirs about life during the war, countless entries and excerpts about normal life being disturbed by the Blitz and inconvenienced by rationing.  But, generally, life went on.  In fact, if you were really self-absorbed, you could pretty much act like there wasn’t even a war on.  When you start reading about life in Germany and its occupied neighbours, things get a lot more bleak.  Germans had been suffering under Hitler since 1933 but now, in addition to the fear and paranoia that had become commonplace for most citizens under the Nazis, there was the added horror of Allied bombings.  As sympathetic as I found Tilly, as much as I enjoyed her personality, it was her descriptions of these bombings and the resulting chaos that made this book so unique and memorable.

There is an excellent afterword by Christopher Beauman than summarizes the ongoing debate about the morality of the devastating Allied bombing strikes on German cities but it is Tilly’s powerful descriptions of living through the bombing raids that made the most impact on me:

I doubt whether there is a single undamaged city in the whole of Germany and most of them are sad ruins.  If one had a bird’s-eye view, one would see nothing but devastation, destroyed railway-lines, fields torn open by craters, burning factories and hordes of fleeing human beings.  A never-ending stream of fugitives is rolling from the east towards Berlin and Hamburg.  When they arrive, after days of toil in open farm carts through ice and snow, babies frozen to death at their mothers’ breasts, more bombs are showered on top of them.  It is unbelievably wretched and frightful.  (4 February 1945)

The July 1943 bombing of Hamburg was one of the largest raids of the entire war.  Over the course of several days, somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people were killed.  (To put that in perspective, about 30,000 Londoners were killed during the Blitz – but those casualties were spread out over the ten months.)  With tens of thousands more injured and buildings and infrastructure destroyed, imagine the chaos of trying to live among that:

For days on end we have had a harmlessly blue and translucent sky above us, bringing out the colour of my gloxinias, red and white, growing in superb stillness on the balcony and hiding the ruins opposite, to the right and to the left.  But in all directions death and destruction are knotted together, ready to explode.  Can anyone fathom this?  I cannot.  There is hardly a town still left intact and yet one becomes indifferent even to these atrocious ravages, which must be beyond your powers of imagination.  For days we have had no water; everything is chipped and broken and frayed; travelling is out of the question; nothing can be bought; one simply vegetates.  Life would have no purpose at all if there weren’t books and human beings one loves, whose fate one worries about day and night. (7 August 1944)

Tilly and her husband were never members of the Nazi party (though Tilly’s ex-husband, the shifty Dutch fellow, was).  Hamburg, for centuries a free city, had a history of free-thinkers and opposition to the Nazi party, something that we’ll return to later this week when I talk about Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past is Myself.  But hating the Nazis, loathing all they stand for and all they do, is a far different thing from hating Germany.  Tilly struggled with the knowledge that the defeat of Hitler would also mean a crushing blow to her homeland:

…however much we strain with every nerve of our beings towards the downfall of our government, we still mourn most deeply the fate of our poor Germany.  It is as if the final bomb hit our very soul, killing the last vestige of joy and, hope.  Our beautiful and proud Germany has been crushed, ground into the earth and smashed into ruins, while millions sacrificed their lives and all our lovely towns and art treasures were destroyed.  And all this because of one man who had a lunatic vision of being “chosen by God”. (1 May 1945)

What was almost harder for Tilly than seeing Germany’s collapse – at least with that there was some hope of a better future – was seeing how completely her Anglophile husband’s affection for the English was erased.  She too cannot hold back her anger at times:

I do understand that W [Wolff, her husband] is deeply depressed, has little hope for his own particular world.  He was so passionately devoted to Great Britain and all it stood for.  Now he is disillusioned by the limitless arrogance and the dishonesty with which they treat us, proclaiming to the whole world that only Germany could have sunk so low in such abysmal cruelty and bestiality, that they themselves are pure and beyond reproach.  And who destroyed our beautiful cities, regardless of human life, of women, children or old people?  Who poured down poisonous phosphorous during the terror raids on unfortunate fugitives, driving them like living torches into the rivers?  Who dive-bombed harmless peasants, women and children, in low-level attacks, and machine-gunned the defenceless population?  Who was it, I ask you?  We are all the same, all equally guilty, and if my entire being was not straining towards a re-union with you, life would be nothing but torture and abhorrence. (17 May 1945)

Other reviewers (like Simon and Jane) have mentioned how this book gave them a new perspective on the war.  I find that intriguing since I certainly remember reading about life in the Reich and German-occupied lands during my school days.  I wonder if this is a cultural difference; it doesn’t seem likely to be a generational one since Simon and I are the same age.  Growing up in Canada, you are just as likely to have had relatives fighting for the Germans as for the Canadians or British.  At university, I used all of my electives (a pathetically small number spread between four years of finance, accounting, and marketing courses) to studying German and history – ideally, when possible, German history.  I started this way because I wanted to understand more what my grandparents’ lives must have been like under German occupation; I continued reading because I was fascinated.  I read dozens of diaries by women like Tilly, women who hated Hitler but loved Germany, who loved the English until they saw their families and cities destroyed by bombs, who, finally, exhaustedly, just dreamed of an end and a chance to start anew.  But so many of those diaries are not in print or translated so to have one like this – written with such poise by such a sympathetic  and articulate woman – so readily available is truly a gift.

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LoveLessonsCan you ever have too many diaries from the Second World War?  I think not and this week I’m out to prove it.  I have four reviews coming up over the next week, all of diaries written by women during WWII.  Two of them chronicle what was going on in England (Love Lessons by Joan Wyndham and These Wonderful Rumours! by May Smith) while the other two look at what was happening in Germany (On the Other Side byMathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg and The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg).  Today I’ll be starting with the weakest of the four: Love Lessons by Joan Wyndham.

Now, the delightful Jenny of Reading the End is the best PR person I think this book has probably had since its original publication in 1985.  I’m certainly not going to be.  She read it back in 2009 and since I started blogging in early 2010 I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen her recommend it to others, including myself.  And, in many ways, I can understand why she loves it: Wyndham’s frank diaries feel very much like those of a normal, self-absorbed sixteen or seventeen year old, obsessed with relationships and sex and not much carrying about the greater implications of the major world events playing out around her.  But the shallowness of Wyndham and her social circle, the artificiality of their lives, the callous way they managed their relationships drove me completely around the bend.

Wyndham was sixteen when the war began, the only daughter of highly dramatic and thankfully divorced parents.  Wyndham lived with her mother – a devout Catholic after her conversion when Joan was small – and her mother’s companion in west London.  One gathers that her father was off being generally useless most of the time.  At sixteen, Wyndham has some vague idea of studying art but mostly she is very busy have passionate crushes on pretty much everyone she comes into contact with.  Fair enough.

Where things took, for me, a calamitous turn was when Wyndham started moving in more artistic circles.  When she begins to study art, her mother sets her up with a small studio of her own.  Wyndham still lives at home, technically (she is only seventeen), but the bulk of her time is spent in her studio, generally surrounded by useless older men who talk about how much they want to seduce her but then do nothing about it, being scared off by her virginity.

My tolerance for artistic circles is low at the best of times but the so-called artists that Wyndham finds herself keeping company with are the absolute worst.  They seem to spend all their time posing as artists rather than producing any art.  For Wyndham certainly, art lessons and her studio are whims her mother is indulging her in.  She notes several times that she is not really an artist and doesn’t take what she is doing seriously.  Neither apparently do her new thirty-something friends.  I suppose if you’re bone lazy it is easier to go around seducing teenagers and mooching all of their paint and food.  I will say that these studio seduction scenes perfectly match the clichéd vision of what bohemian “artists” get up to and there is always some value in remembering that clichés are founded in truth.  Still, it is a world away from the commercially-minded art students and studio days described by E.H. Shepard in Drawn from Life.  But there again you have the difference between people who play at being artists and those who actually work at it.  I suspect Wyndham and her set would have had nothing but contempt for the middle-class Shepard and his work ethic.

Still, shiftlessness and a little immorality among friends can all be excused.  The whole world would be very boring if it were peopled only by monogamous, responsible capitalists (I am picturing a world composed entirely of the Swiss which sounds delightfully efficient, if dull).  What pushed me over the edge was the universally awful natures of the people Wyndham chose to surround herself with.  I can understand why all the unrepentant adulterers and camp homosexuals would have seemed exotic to a girl just out of school but I cannot understand why she willingly put up with their pettiness, their cruelty, and their self-absorption.  Not a single one of them seems to have any real kindness or compassion in them and the worst of the bunch is the man that Wyndham falls in love with and loses (or rather cheerfully unloads) her virginity to: Rupert.  Rupert is vile.  Whenever he appeared and Wyndham went weak kneed, I felt ill.  When Wyndham says:

Rupert and I sat on his roof in the sun.  It was perfect – he was wearing a blue and white striped shirt and sackcloth trousers and playing Spanish music on his guitar, with one bare foot resting on a brick. (Sunday, 3rd August)

All I could think was how little I could possibly have in common with a woman who defines perfection as a man wearing sackcloth trousers and, worse, a blue and white striped shirt.  Still, that is by far the least of Rupert’s sins.  He talks down to Wyndham, continues sleeping with other women while he’s seeing and sleeping with her, is unspeakably awful when one of their friends – and one of Joan’s old admirers – is killed during the war, and hits her.  Wyndham makes very little protest about any of this treatment or, if she does, she doesn’t mean it.  Even after receiving a heavy blow in public, she notes that “the extraordinary thing is, I bore him no malice although I pretended to.”  The “pretending to” might be what pushed me completely over the edge with this book.  So much of Wyndham’s life feels artificial but acting on top of that, pretending at things, just adds a whole new level of good riddance as far as I’m concerned.  I almost wished Joan and her friends were fictional characters, so my hatred of them and desire to see them bombed to smithereens in all their smugness would seem a little less callous.  Eventually, Rupert is called up (yay!) and then Wyndham joins the WAAFs.  I can’t say I wasn’t pleased to see everyone finally usefully employed and forced to confront the real world – and the war, which until then had only been a minor inconvenience, what with the Blitz and all – for once.

The writing throughout is good, though I suspect the diaries were heavily edited/rewritten for publication.  There is too much dialogue to seem natural in a diary format and every so often the older author obviously inserts herself to provide hindsight commentary (such as “this was the night that such-and-such famous event occurred”. Why this wasn’t done in a footnote I have no idea).  Frustratingly, the entries aren’t properly dated – they have the day of the week and the day of the month but generally not the month itself or the year.  This got rather disorienting.  But, as should be obvious by now, my issue really wasn’t with the writing but with the writer.  It is hard to feel fascinated by someone who you think is living a shallow and artificial life, more concerned with appearances and posturing than substance.

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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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