On Elizabeth von Arnim’s “Elizabeth and her German Garden”

Elizabeth and her German Garden

I thought this would be my first book by Elizabeth von Arnim but I’d totally forgotten the wonderful The Enchanted April, which I’ve read a long time ago and enjoyed a great deal.

Published in 1898, Elizabeth and her German Garden was von Arnim’s first novel and was a huge success when it came out. It’s inspired by her own life and the time she spent in her garden in Nassenheide, Germany.

The book is written in form of a diary.

This is how it begins

May 7th—I love my garden. I am writing in it now in the late afternoon loveliness, much interrupted by the mosquitoes and the temptation to look at all the glories of the new green leaves washed half an hour ago in a cold shower. Two owls are perched near me, and are carrying on a long conversation that I enjoy as much as any warbling of nightingales.

Elizabeth is married to an oldfashioned, stern man, she calls The Man of Wrath. She’s in her early 30s and has given birth to three girls she calls the April, May, and June baby. Unlike most other women of the German high society, Elizabeth hates living in Berlin where she suffocates indoors and has to put up with many obligations. She feels she can only be truly herself in her garden. She’s actually pretty clueless when it comes to gardening but that doesn’t diminish her enjoyment. She loves spending her money on seeds and plants and tries to be outdoors as much as possible. She reads, writes, and eats in her garden. Sometimes, to her annoyance, she has visitors. With the exception of one friend, Irais, she despises all of them.

The book is filled with beautiful, lyrical descriptions of her garden, the nature, and landscape of Pomerania. Elizabeth is an oddity in this society. A woman who prefers solitude and the outdoors.  She wishes, she were freer through, allowed to pick up a spade, do her own digging.

In spite of the many beautiful passages and witty comments on the people around her, I liked this far less than I thought I would. Elizabeth might rebel against her situation and the way women are treated, she’s aware of injustice when she’s its victim, but, unfortunately, when it comes to others she is far more condescending than kind. She hardly ever sympathisez with anyone, not with the workers on her husband’s farms, nor with the gardeners, the visitors, the horses she abuses to travel during icy periods, knowing very well it’s hard on them. Yes, she’s witty but she’s also quite cruel. She questions the treatment of women but isn’t bothered all that much how the workers are treated. She makes fun of them, even goes as far as calling them dumb. Maybe this is due to personal frustrations, still, I found her to be very unkind and, in the end, it tainted my reading experience. I was surprised to discover this side of the book as I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere. I only ever saw it praised for the lovely descriptions and sentiments on solitude and nature. Keen to see whether there were other reviewers feeling similar, I discovered an article in the Financial Times called The hidden dark side of “Elizabeth and her German Garden”. The writer wrote about a BBC radio 4 programme that left out all those negative passages that I mentioned before. He too, was baffled.

I would understand this kind of whitewashing if the passages were minor but they aren’t. The last third, for example, is dedicated to the visit of Elizabeth’s friend Irais and a young English woman called Menora. Menora is enthusiastic and very naïve, which Irais and Elizabeth find hilarious. They constantly make fun of her, make sure, she commits silly errors, let her believe that Elizabeth is German, although she’s English. There’s even some cruelty. All this shows that both Elizabeth and Irais feel superior.

Before ending this post, I d’ like to mention one aspect that I found funny and often touching – the way she wrote about her babies. Those passages showed great love and concern and underlined her fears for the future of the girls, knowing so well, how little freedom women had in this society.

I’m still glad I read this because the beautiful passages on nature are truly remarkable. Who knows, perhaps my memory will do its own whitewashing and I’ll only remember the positive aspects of the novel in a few years. That said, I’ll read more of Elizabeth von Arnim. Maybe I’m not being just and read this too much like an autobiography but it seemed so close to her life.

Lisa Jewell: The Girls in the Garden aka The Girls (2015)

The Girls in the GardenThe Girls Lisa Jewell

It doesn’t happen often that I stay up late because I have to finish a book but in this case it did. I guess that shows how captivated I was by Lisa Jewell’s novel The Girls or The Girls in the Garden (the US title). I came across this book on Danielle’s blog (here is the link) and had to get it right away. I just knew I would love everything about it.

The Girls is set in London, during one summer, in a communal garden and the flats and houses surrounding it. It’s told by several different narrators. It begins in the house Claire shares with her two daughters. Claire and her younger daughter Pip have just returned from a party, Claire is drunk and throwing up. Pip is worried and goes to look for her older sister Grace who is still in the garden with a group of kids from the neighbourhood. When Pip finds her, Grace is half-naked and unconscious. From here the story rewinds and starts at the beginning when Claire and her daughters move into one of the houses bordering the huge garden. Claire and her two daughters, twelve-year-old Pip and thirteen year old Grace, have gone through something shocking. The girl’s father burned down their beautiful house during an episode of paranoid schizophrenia. He’s been in a psychiatric hospital since then and Claire has never visited, nor does she want her girls to see him. When they arrive in their new house, they are quickly drawn into the lives of their neighbours. Claire and the girls are invited for dinner and the girls become part of a group of local kids.

Among the neighbours are Adele and Leo and their three homeschooled daughters. Gordon, Leo’s obnoxious father, who stays with them for health reasons. The elderly Rhea, who lives with a giant rabbit and a cat. Cece and her daughter Tyler. And beautiful Dylan with his mother and older brother with special needs.

The garden is a secluded place, secured by gates and only accessible with keys and through the back gardens of the surrounding houses. All the people who have access to the garden see it as a safe haven. A place where nothing can happen. That Grace is found unconscious, bleeding, and half-naked in a place like this is particularly shocking. Not only because nobody would have expected something like this to happen, but also because it’s clear that it must have been someone with access to the garden. Possibly someone who was at the summer night’s party.

Every single one of the men in this book is suspicious. Everybody else seems to hide something or know something they won’t tell. And there was the mysterious death of another girl, many years ago.

Obviously I found this book very suspenseful or I wouldn’t have stayed up late to finish it. But there was more. While the central question is what happened to Grace, the central themes are trust and safety, marriage and family life, growing up and friendships, themes we can all relate to. Plot and subplots, look at these themes from different angles and the result is arresting. I’m also fond of these communal gardens that I only know from the UK. They have something enchanted.

If you’re looking for a page-turner with great characters, a wonderful setting, and relatable themes, you shouldn’t miss this.

I’ve seen that Lisa Jewell has written many books. Has anyone read them? Are they as gripping as this?

All Virago/All August

The Fountain OverflowsElizabeth and her German GardenLand of SpiceEdwardiansSummerhouse TrilogyThe Professor's House

I have many Virago titles on my piles and always meant to do at least a Virago reading week for myself. So, when I discovered  All Virago/All August, hosted by the Librarything Virago Readers Group on Heavenali’s blog, I decided I would join as well.

Half of the fun is making a list. Juliana (the blank garden) mentioned that she’ll read Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel and I decided to join her. So, that title is pretty certain but I have no clue what else I will be reading. Here are some of the titles on my piles.

Angel

Elizabeth Taylor – Angel

Writing stories that are extravagant and fanciful, fifteen-year old Angel retreats to a world of romance, escaping the drabness of provincial life. She knows she is different, that she is destined to become a feted authoress, owner of great riches and of Paradise House . . .

After reading The Lady Irania, publishers Brace and Gilchrist are certain the novel will be a success, in spite of – and perhaps because of – its overblown style. But they are curious as to who could have written such a book: ‘Some old lady, romanticising behind lace-curtains’ . . . ‘Angelica Deverell is too good a name to be true . . . she might be an old man. It would be an amusing variation. You are expecting to meet Mary Anne Evans and in Walks George Eliot twirling his moustache.’ So nothing can prepare them for the pale young woman who sits before them, with not a seed of irony or a grain of humour in her soul.

The Fountain Overflows

Rebecca West – The Fountain Overflows

Rose Aubrey is one of a family of four children. Their father, Piers, is the disgraced son of an Irish landowning family, a violent, noble and quite unscrupulous leader of popular causes. His Scottish wife, Clare, is an artist, a tower of strength, fanatically devoted to a musical future for her daughters.

This is the story of their life in south London, a life threatened by Piers’s streak of tragic folly which keeps them on the verge of financial ruin and social disgrace . . .

Elizabeth and her German Garden

Elizabeth von Arnim – Elizabeth and her German Garden

May 7th — There were days last winter when I danced for sheer joy out in my frost-bound garden in spite of my years and children. But I did it behind a bush, having a due regard for the decencies …’

Elizabeth’s uniquely witty pen records each season in her beloved garden, where she escapes from the stifling routine of indoors: servants, meals, domestic routine, and the presence of her overbearing husband …

Land of Spice

Kate O’Brien – Land of Spices

Mère Marie-Helene once turned her back on life, sealing up her heart in order to devote herself to God. Now the formidable Mother Superior of an Irish convent, she has, for some time, been experiencing grave doubts about her vocation. But when she meets Anna Murphy, the youngest-ever boarder, the little girl’s solemn, poetic nature captivates her and she feels ‘a storm break in her hollow heart’. Between them an unspoken allegiance is formed that will sustain each through the years as the Reverend Mother seeks to combat her growing spiritual aridity and as Anna develops the strength to resist the conventional demands of her background.

Edwardians

Vita Sackville-west – The Edwardians

Sebastian is young, handsome and romantic, the heir to a vast and beautiful English country estate. He is a fixed feature in the eternal round of lavish parties, intrigues and traditions at the cold, decadent heart of Edwardian high society. Everyone knows the role he must play, but Sebastian isn’t sure he wants the part. Position, privilege and wealth are his, if he can resist the lure of a brave new world.

Summerhouse Trilogy

Alice Thomas Ellis – The Summerhouse Trilogy

In “The Summer House” trilogy, three very different women, with three very distinct perspectives, narrate three very witty novels concerning one disastrous wedding in the offing.

“The Clothes in the Wardrobe” Nineteen-year-old Margaret feels more trepidation than joy at the prospect of her marriage to forty-year-old Syl.

“The Skeleton in the Cupboard” Syls’ mother, Mrs. Monro, doesn t know quite what to make of her son s life, but she knows Margaret should not marry him.

“The Fly in the Ointment” And then there s Lili, the free spirit who is determined that the wedding shall not happen, no matter the consequences.

The Professor's House

Willa Cather – The Professor’s House

On the eve of his move to a new, more desirable residence, Professor Godfrey St Peter finds himself in the shabby study of his former home. Surrounded by the comforting, familiar sights of his past, he surveys his life and the people he has loved: his wife Lillian, his daughters and, above all, Tom Outland, his most outstanding student and once, his son-in-law to be. Enigmatic and courageous – and a tragic victim of the Great War – Tom has remained a source of inspiration to the professor. But he has also left behind him a troubling legacy which has brought betrayal and fracture to the women he loves most . . .

Have you read any of these books? Which are the ones you liked the most? And will you join as well?

On Ferdinand von Schirach’s Terror (2015)

Terror

Ferdinand von Schirach’s latest book Terror contains the play Terror and von Schirach’s speech on the occasion of the M100-Sanssouci Media Award for Charlie Hebdo. On the back of the book, von Schirach states that he wrote the play before the attack on Charlie Hebdo and wrote the speech before the attacks in Paris on November 13 2015. I was grateful for this speech because there was a lot of opposition to this and other awards for Charlie Hebdo, which I found shocking. There seem to be people out there, some well-known writers like Teju Cole (and 144 others), who called the paper racist and tried to prevent it from receiving the PEN Freedom of Expression Courage Award last year. Von Schirach illustrates eloquently why this kind of thinking is unacceptable.

With everything that’s been happening in the last weeks and months in France and Germany, a play like Terror becomes even more important. I first learned about this play thanks to theater reviews in German and Swiss newspapers. The play is interesting in so far as it has been written in the form of a trial and the theater audience is the jury who decides at the end, whether the accused is guilty or not guilty. Depending on that decision, the end will be different. In the book, we get to read both versions. According to the newspaper articles, no audience has ever voted “guilty” so far. That’s interesting because, as the play shows, what the accused has done is against the law.

What is Terror about? A passenger plane with 164 people on board was hijacked and about to crash on a stadium, in which 70,000 people were watching a game. The accused, a fighter pilot, decided to shoot the passenger plane down, although he didn’t receive an order. He thought that killing 164 people was the lesser evil. When the reader/spectator first hears this, he’s quickly coming to the conclusion that it is justified, but after the interrogation of the witnesses and experts and the pleas, one is suddenly not so sure that the pilot’s decision was justified.

It’s intriguing to see why the law finds it unacceptable and why, nonetheless, from a purely moral point of view, the audience thinks it’s OK to shoot down a passenger plane. Just to give you one example. The pilot’s defense argues that the shooting down of the plane didn’t matter, as the 164 passengers would have died anyway. The trial reveals that there might have been a possibility that the passengers could have accessed the cockpit and overpowered the terrorist. But, even if this wasn’t the case, it’s still unacceptable form the point of view of the law because you’d actually say, that people whose lives are doomed can be killed. What about someone with terminal cancer? Would it be OK to kill that person knowing he’d die soon anyway? Of course not. Once you ask yourself this kind of question, you see how tricky it is. The number of possible casualties is, according to the law, also not a good reason to determine whether or not, people could be killed in order to save other people as  you can’t quantify life. Where would you draw the line? If killing 164 and saving 70,000 is ok, then what about 100 versus 120?

The play isn’t flawless and, according to the reviews, the performances were wooden because the play is dry. I loved reading it because I found it thought-provoking. It looks at the case from many different angles and made me see some things in a new light. Once I finished reading, I wasn’t as sure as when I started, whether I would have decided the pilot’s not guilty. I guess, in the end, I would have decided in his favour because a verdict of “murder in 164 cases” seemed excessive, given that he saved 70,000 lives.

The book hasn’t been translated yet but I could imagine it will be. It’s made into a film for German TV that will be aired on October 10 2016. The viewers will be able to play jury and give their verdicts via Facebook, phone, and Twitter. I hope I can watch it.

For those of my readers who read German, here’s another take on the book + discussion on Sätze&Schätze

Colm Tóibín: Brooklyn (2009)

Brooklyn

I can’t understand why I haven’t read Colm Tóibín before. He’s outstanding. I admire his writing, his luminous prose. It’s not easy to say why it is so great but it is. His descriptions, the details he chooses, the settings, are so precise and conjure up a whole world.

It’s the 1950s and Ellis Lacey is living in Ireland with her mother and older sister. She wants to be an accountant but is only a shop assistant. Thanks to her sister, she can emigrate to America where she’s hired in a shop, goes to an accounting school and betters herself. Here, she meets a young Italian man and begins a relationship with him. After tragedy strikes, she has to decide whether she will stay in America or go back to Ireland. The novel has four parts. The first is set in Ireland and on the ship crossing over to America, the second and third are set in Brooklyn, the last in Ireland.

Ellis is a passive character but interesting as she’s introspective and a keen observer of what happens around her and inside of herself. I loved reading about the way she processed things that had happened to her during the day. In the beginning this passivity isn’t exactly attractive but it’s not as infuriating as it is in the last part. Ellis never speaks up, never fights for herself and in the end, she pays a high price for this behaviour. One aspect that stood out for me was the way Tóibín wrote about the experience of being an immigrant. I’ve lived abroad a few times, in some cases in places where I knew hardly anyone. Many of the feelings described, brought those experiences back.

Here’s a quote showing Ellis in the shop she’s working in Brooklyn.

The morning was full of frenzy; she did not for one moment have peace to look around her. Everyone’s voice was loud, and there were times when she thought in a flash of an early evening in October walking with her mother down by the prom in Enniscorthy, the Slaney River, glassy and full, and the smell of leaves burning from somewhere close by, and the daylight going slowly and gently. This scene kept coming to her as she filled the bag with notes and coins and women of all types approached her asking where certain items of clothing could be found or if they could return what they had bought in exchange for other merchandise, or simply wishing to purchase what they had in their hands.

Ellis may be the main character but there are numerous other characters, some who only appear briefly. They are all complex and rich in facets. One could also say that the two main settings, the eponymous Brooklyn and Ireland are treated like characters. They are described in detail, juxtaposed, compared, contrasted. Two very distinct worlds come alive between these pages.

I highly recommend Brooklyn. It’s beautiful and I can’t wait to read more of Tóibín. Just be warned – Ellis can, at times, be an infuriating character.

If you’d like to read a more in-depth review here’s Max’s take on the novel.

Georges Simenon: La chambre bleue – The Blue Room (1963)

The Blue RoomLa chambre bleue

While I’ve read some of Simenon’s Maigret novels, I hadn’t read any of his so-called “romans durs” until now.  Many people say they are far better than the Maigret novels and after having read The Blue Room –  La chambre bleue I think I can understand why. I can also see the influence the romans durs must have had on some newer authors like Pascal Garnier. Luckily for me, I liked Simenon’s novel much more than the Garnier novel I’ve read so far. The Blue Room is excellent.

The book starts with a scene in a hotel room – the blue room. Two people, Tony and Andrée, have just made love and he’s standing in front of a mirror, wiping away blood from his lips. The book starts in medias res, with a conversation. Andrée, who is watching Tony from the bed, is asking him, if she’s hurt him. Apparently she bit his lip. From the way she asks, we can deduce that it wasn’t as accidental as he believes. No, she probably bit him, so his wife will ask questions. What Andrée doesn’t know is that she’s not Tony’s first affair and that his wife is likely to ignore this one just like she ignored the others. Andrée then asks Tony whether he loves her and would love to spend his life with her. Tony’s not very attentive and says yes. A fatal error as the reader will find out very quickly. At the end of the scene in the hotel room, the book seamlessly switches to the examining magistrate’s chambers, where Tony is trying to defend himself in front of a psychiatrist and his lawyer.

The scene in the hotel room is a pivotal moment. From there the book moves backwards and forwards in time, unfolding Tony and Andrée’s whole story, from when they met as kids, to when they became lovers. It also switches from scenes set in the past to scenes in the present in which Tony, who has been arrested, tells his side of the story. The way Simenon has interwoven those narrative strands is pretty amazing. Nowadays, we’d have the different strands either separated by breaks between paragraphs, or chapters. Not so here, which makes it much more fluid, much more like watching a film.

Simenon’s style is hard to describe. It’s unadorned but so precise. Everything he chooses in his descriptions works masterfully. It’s like we’re looking at his characters through a microscope. The tiniest ugly little detail is laid bare.

While I don’t think his books are about suspense, it was suspenseful nonetheless because for a long time we have no clue why Tony got arrested. Nothing in the pivotal scene let’s us suspect that.

The Blue Room is a cruel, bleak analysis of a love affair that goes terribly wrong, written in evocative and pared-down prose. A great little book.

If you’d like to read a more eloquent review of the novel, here’s John Banville’s review of the Blue Room. He goes as far as comparing Simenon to Kafka.

The Blue Room has been made into a movie. I hope I can watch it soon.

 

 

This book was on the 20 under 200 list I did last summer. I must admit, I’ve been slacking. I’ve only read five or six from that list.

Lucie Whitehouse: Keep You Close (2016)

Keep You Close

This is just a quick review of Lucie Whitehouse’s latest novel Keep You Close. It’s short because it’s more easily spoilt than other crime novels. It has a couple of really surprising twists and it would be sad to give them away.

The famous, rich young painter Marianne Glass is found dead in her garden. The police say that it was an accident. Her former best friend Rowan Winter doesn’t believe this. Marianne suffered from crippling vertigo and would never have gone this close to edge of the roof.

When Rowan hears of her former best friend’s death, she travels to Oxford and the home of the Glass family. Marianne’s house is a place where she once used to be a constant visitor. Rowan, who lost her mother as a young girl and whose father never had time for her, found a second family in her friend’s family. Coming back after all these years is intense, to say the least. Although the circumstances are dire, the Glass family, or what is left of them, are happy to see Rowan again and even ask her to house-sit for them. Rowan however has a hidden agenda. She’s the only one who cannot belive that Marianne’s death was an accident. Could it have been a suicide? She doesn’t think so, she thinks that something far more sinister has happened and wants to investigate Marianne’s death.

Early on we find out that Rowan and Marianne hadn’t been in contact for ten years because of something that happened back then. This was right about the same time Marianne’s father died in a car crash. The official version was that they had a falling out because Rowan intruded too much and didn’t let Marianne grieve. But the reader questions soon whether Rowan isn’t hiding something.

A lot of things are mysterious. Someone seems to watch the house at night. Someone else or maybe the same person tries to break in. A lot of people seem to gain, one way or the other, through Marianne’s death. Some even attack Rowan, saying that she’s profiting as well, since she was able to renew her friendship with the Glass’s and begins a relationship with Marianne’s brother.

Keep You Close is an entertaining book but not entirely convincing. I didn’t mind the slow pace as much as the implausibility of some of the twists. One was really surprising and well done, the others were over the top. All in all, it’s not a bad book, but not as good as some of her older novels. This is her fourth and I’ve read three of them so far. I liked both The House at Midnight and Before We Met better than this. If you’ve never read anything by Lucie Whitehouse, I’d suggest to start with one of her earlier novels. I read The House at Midnight before blogging, so you won’t find a review, but here’s my review of Before We Met.