Book Armor

Thank you for not listening

Three Elizabeth Taylor novels

Dubbed an author of “middlebrow” fiction by critics, I began reading the novels of Elizabeth Taylor after finishing all of Barbara Pym’s work (with whom Taylor is often grouped/compared.) I have read six of her fourteen novels now, and will just rank them and say a little about each one.

1/ Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

This novel makes a good companion piece to Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, and concerns an elderly lady, Mrs Palfrey, and the last years of her life, which are passed in a hotel, the Claremont, in London. There’s a large cast made up of the residents, some of them desperate, most of them quirky, while an unlikely friendship with a young man furnishes the plot with elements of farce, along with moments that are genuinely touching.

2/ A View of the Harbour

This novel charts about a year in the lives of the residents of a fading seaside town. These include an aging artist who produces little art, a widow running an unsuccessful waxworks museum, a publican, two sisters with a disabled, cantankerous mother, a dour librarian, a writer, Beth, her husband, Robert and their two children, and her lifelong friend, Tory, newly divorced, who lives next door. The action centers on an affair that is going on between the doctor and Tory, of which Beth is painfully unaware, while various subplots, mostly centered on loneliness and the search for love, wind their ways to a conclusion, often of an anticlimactic nature.

3/ Sleeping Beauty

Darker than the first two novels, this work centers on an enigmatic young woman who has suffered an accident that has left her facially disfigured. Her mother runs a guest house, and the arrival of a stranger provides the trigger for what follows. It’s difficult to discuss this novel without spoiling it, as it has quite a lot of romantic intrigue. Just as good as Mrs Palfrey and A View of the Harbour, but with less humor on offer.

4/ The Wedding Group

This is a frankly bizarre novel that centers on the family goings-on at a kind of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood experiment in communal living, a religious community overseen by a patriarch who is a noted artist. One of the grandchildren wishes to explore the world outside (that of the 1960s), and she ends up in a relationship with a not-very-nice journalist who has a claustrophobic relationship with his mother. This mother is the central character of the work, with her constant scheming and emotional manipulation of others. There’s no real logic to what happens, and the various subplots progress so little that I can’t recall quite what happened now, just a week after reading it.

5/ A Wreath of Roses

A very poor novel where just about every character philosophizes over their loneliness in the same exact way. Has a plot that centers on a man revealing himself as an impostor/murderer, and this still fails to create any real excitement.

6/ Blaming

A bitter widow begrudgingly helps an American woman who took care of her after the sudden death of her husband (on a cruise.) Actually quite a good read, and there is something sickening about what unfolds, but the central character is unrelentingly horrible.

USG finger-wagging on China/HK

This post went viral on Facebook, so I leave it here as a reminder:

The USG claims universal jurisdiction, the right to prosecute anyone, anywhere in the world, who breaks a US law, whether US citizen or not, even if the activity is not a crime in that particular country, and that host governments should hand over the individuals, even if they are citizens of that country, for extradition and eventual prosecution in US courts.

That same USG is today frantically finger-wagging at China’s plans to hold its own nationals to account for actions, no matter where they occur, that violate Chinese laws. The same USG that kidnapped taxi drivers and hotel receptionists off the streets of the Middle East, tortured them in CIA black sites, and is still holding hundreds of men, decades later, in legal limbo at Gitmo, is today speaking with great moral seriousness, and without trace of irony, of China’s terrible human rights record.

China is pursuing a clear policy of exacting a high price for those of its nationals who, disaffected, look enviously at Alexei Navalny and dream of making bank as a NED/CIA/State Dept agitator for hire. And rightly so, as no nation is obliged to host color revolutionists or let them move freely in and out of the country, stirring up trouble at the behest of a foreign power.

The US culture of disliking traitors is so highly developed that the label is frequently applied, again without irony, to Julian Assange, who is not even a US citizen! That China might possess a similar dislike of traitors and act to curtail their activities constitutes, for the USG, a grave blow against freedom and liberty, but in truth, only to the freedom and liberty of Langley to run its network of Joshua Wongs et al, useful idiots in the developing war that must necessarily mark the passing of the US from global hegemon to a state of economic and financial ruin, its dreams of full spectrum dominance finally crushed.

An aerial view of the grounds and headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, now known as the George Bush Center for Intelligence. (Photo by Greg Mathieson/Mai/Mai/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

On the value of literature

Irritably responded to a graduate student regurgitating the “Reading fiction makes you more empathetic…” justification today.

Me: “Literature is not, like you are saying, good because it is a means to some desirable end, literature is an end in itself. If I were on a desert island or in a prison cell, in the full knowledge of no further human contact, I would still wish to read books. To cultivate myself, not to serve the needs of others. I understand why certain individuals make your argument when they wish to connect with others outside the academy, but I am very disappointed to hear graduate students of literature uncritically presenting this argument to their peers, it’s ultimately a very uninspiring take on what we study and why we study it.”

A classmate from Malaysia was nodding his head, I asked if he was in agreement, he said yes.

Professor nodded and repeated, “Literature is an end in itself.”

Youth

I suppose the most surprising thing about this book is that I imagine myself as being able to equal or surpass it.

A pair of blue eyes

Like a Wilkie Collins novel without a crime would be a suitable description of this novel.

It also bears strong similarities to Born in Exile by George Gissing. But whereas in Hardy there’s excessive authorial musing upon the workings of the heart, recalling Jane Austen, in Gissing there’s excessive musing upon the workings of the mind by the novel’s hero. This heart, in Hardy, is a transcendent element, as he also features the class conflict found in Gissing, and produces a split.

Coronavirus and Thomas Hardy

The coronavirus continues to rage. The wife went out to the temple this morning regardless, after warning me once more to refrain from threatening to kill the neighbors. What prompted my murderous fury on this occasion was the noxious old woman opposite, who recycles, banging with a hammer on a piece of metal at the bottom of a concrete stairwell. It was this sound that awoke me at 7 a.m., prompting me to rise, descend the stairs, cross the street, and issue my threat. “Sorry, sorry,” she replied, hammer still upraised. If it were feasible, I’d buy a howler monkey and wear ear plugs.

Discussion on a Barbara Pym facebook group has led to two recommendations of writers to check out: May Sarton and Sybille Bedford, so I have ordered some of their works. But for now I am still reading Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes and greatly enjoying it. There’s a fair amount of truth in George Gissing being dubbed, “The Hardy of the City,” and this novel bears similarities to his Born in Exile, with its love between the classes, though Gissing makes the barriers so insurmountable that an elopement does not occur, and there is none of the rich psychological insight into the lovers’ struggle in Hardy, who instead supplies an authorial commentary upon his characters’ movements of the heart.

The Spanish test is on Sunday, and I continue to read in translation David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction. The usual prejudices have surfaced, with my finding Jane Austen almost unbearable and Salinger impossible. Why he insists on reaching for the same tired old examples…

Medical history

In Taiwan you are free to view your medical history, and this week I obtained a copy of my own. Besides my being reminded of the bacon sandwich that saw me hospitalized for a week with gallstones, the other item of interest was discovering a chest X-ray revealed part of my left lung has collapsed, a fact that was not passed on to me.

No more

There is to be no more teaching children. I have been, no, I did it, for ten years, and now it is over. Walked slowly through the city yesterday, absorbing this fact with each step.

The Spanish test is this Sunday, at an unreasonable hour. Having tired of reading news from Latin America, I turned to a translation of a book by David Lodge, El Arte de la Ficcion, but not before reading in a Mexican newspaper of a clown shot dead protecting a mother and child.

I continue to read the journals of Stephen Spender at a rate of around 10 pages each day. The entries that provoke most resentment are where he notes he had dinner or spent a weekend with some notables, such as the Woolfs, and then manages to say nothing interesting about what happened, only recording that the wine was bad.

First semester over

That was not so hard.

The only low point was withdrawing from a class on Sophocles because the instructor would return from the break reeking of cigarettes.

The class on Victorian novels had a great instructor. I am just finishing my paper on Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and we also read Frankenstein, Dracula, The Island of Dr Moreau, Flush, and Sirius.

Next semester will be more intense as I take five or six classes and become a full-time student.

NTU Graduate Program

I will shortly begin my graduate studies in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at National Taiwan University.

National Taiwan University

In the first semester I am taking three courses:

  • Research methods
  • Victorian novels and material culture
  • Sophocles’ Antigone

Naturally, I am very excited about studying at Taiwan’s best university. But before the classes begin, I am desperately trying to finish reading the required texts for the Victorian novels course: Our Mutual Friend, Vanity Fair, Middlemarch, Jane Eyre.

While ploughing through these enormous novels, I console myself by imagining constructing a term paper on Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co.

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