The Optimist's Daughter meets The Wings of the Dove, set against the glaring light of the Med, The Bay of Angels made me feel horribly sad. (view spoiler)[One of the main characters spends half the book dying, too young, I might add. (hide spoiler)] This was not the book that I wanted to read about Nice. I wanted a romance and some adventure and a name-dropped cafe or bar I could go to and have a drink at like Zoe Cunningham did in The Bay of Angels, but neither Zoe nor her author were helping me out there. The Wings of the Dove, though also very sad (view spoiler)[One of the main characters spends half the book dying, too young, I might add. (hide spoiler)] and not what I wanted to read right before going to Venice, at the very least gave me Florian's on the Piazza San Marco.
I got to sit at the bar there and have a drink, just like Merton Denshler (and Henry James, and any other male writerly type who passed through Venice in the past 300 years).
This was one of the more expensive 'been there, had a drink like Person X' experiences I've had in my life, but I must recommend it: the waiters are all impeccably dressed and polite, the atmosphere is warm and inviting and cozy, the people watching is top notch, and they have the BEST bar snacks - and you get them all to yourself!
So, The Bay of Angels disappointed in regard to fresh ideas for activities in the South of France, and the only landmark of note is St. Rita's in the Vieux Ville.
A lot of funerals happen there. (It didn't help my mood today when, just after finishing a section of this novel where a funeral is held at St. Rita of Cascia in Nice, Handsome Boyfriend and I drove past the Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia in Philadelphia and a funeral procession was exiting the church. It was a very Stranger than Fiction moment.) Which is all to say, if you are planning a trip to the Riviera and want to read a few good novels set there to gear you up for the trip, maybe leave this one at the bottom of the pile.
However, I can't believe that I've never read Brookner before; the writing here is top notch, not a clink or clank or cliche to be found. She is the real deal and I have every intention of devouring the rest of her oeuvre. (Bay of Angels was her 22nd(!!?!) novel!) Bay of Angels is also a great, albeit small, novel. A young woman, Zoe Cunningham reads fairy tales as a child, and believes in them. She and her mother, who are 'independent' (i.e., don't have to work), live in a modest flat in London until Zoe, seventeen and supplanting The Blue Fairy Book with the Greek Myths of gods intervening in human life, and her mother meet Simon Gould, wealthy widower, who marries Mrs. Cunningham and whisks her off to his home in the South of France, buying Zoe her own flat in London and setting each of them up with a private expense account. Zoe's 'theory' - that fairy tales and/or deus ex machinae will come true as long as you believe - is proven correct. Then everything goes to hell.
In the great literary tradition of the city-as-character, Nice plays the role of fairy godmother or protector goddess in Zoe's fairy-tale gone wrong. It is a moving, multi-layered story about love and fate and family that asks and seeks to answer how much control we have over our lives. The twenty-year-old Zoe reminded me so much of myself at that age, too.
Recommended with caveats. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Handsome Boyfriend and I are planning a two week respite on The Continent in October, moseying from Nice to Venice with stops in between. "Preparing...more Handsome Boyfriend and I are planning a two week respite on The Continent in October, moseying from Nice to Venice with stops in between. "Preparing for the trip' , HB has stocked up on new hiking and backpacking equipment appropriate for autumn weather and I on books set along our route, so as to 'work out the best itinerary.' Wings of the Dove topped all of the lists of books set in Venice, and I'd hoped to read about the scenery and learn of some interesting locales to visit in Venice while I introduced myself to the writing of Henry James. Lesson learned: Henry James is an awful travel guide, unless you plan on spending a lot of time in the drawing room, and Wings of the Dove is only set in Venetian novel if you consider the Thames an extension of the lagoon. The Wings of the Dove was my first foray into Henry James, if you don't count the four pages of Daisy Miller I read one afternoon in college working at the bookshop, or the half-viewing of Jane Campion's Portrait of a Lady that I caught while folding laundry one rainy afternoon at my parents' a few years later. It has taken me this long for one reason only: Anthony Trollope is one of my favorite authors and to my understanding [from a short biography of Trollope in the Penguin Classics edition of [book:The Small House at Allington|144463]], James made quite an early career trashing Trollope’s ‘Six hours in the morning, every morning’ approach to writing while extolling his own fancy high-falutin' ideas about literature as art and not work. [I have irrationally strong feelings about 150 year old literary feuds. Notably, however, James drops both names without malice in WOTD; it appears from his short biography included in my text that sometime around 1880, he started what the anonymous biographer referes to as his 'Balzac' period, a particularly productive stream that produced A Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square, among others, and he seems to have come to terms with fiction as paycheck.] Henry James is certainly different than his predecessors. His prose is manic – distracted even – trying to capture within the confines of a single sentence an idea, its history and its consequences. Randomly: ‘There was a difference in the air – even if none other than the supposedly usual difference in truth between a man and a woman; and it was almost as if this sense provoked her.’ Lovely and interesting (and, I imagine, infinitely parody-able), but after an entire novel of this, I began to feel like I’d just driven at 50 miles an hour down a winding and ungraded dirt road in an old Ford pick-up whose suspension had given out. It can be exhilarating, but you feel a little jarred and discombobulated after. It isn’t just James’ constant stops and starts (and bumps and thumps) and mid-sentence meanderings that leave the reader a little awed but lost and bewildered at the same time; it’s that there’s no scenery on this road trip either. You’re not looking out the windows of your truck through a wood or off the PCH or into the Piazza San Marco even (though one does wish): you’re looking into the psyches and souls of a host of beautiful and distinguished but also deeply insecure and frightened people who are desperately trying to figure out where they stand in the world and how they might improve that standing. Kate Croy and Merton Densher are in love. They want, badly, to be married, but Densher is the type of man who doesn’t have ‘an income’, i.e., he has to work for a living. Kate herself does have an income, but it’s a modest one of two-hundred pounds per annum (about $1000 at the time) and she’s given half to her sister, a harried (and harrying) widow with four children. Kate’s one salvation from employment and ruin is Aunt Maud, who, in the opening scene, Kate is about to ditch – damn the consequences – for her dear old dad, a sniveling deadbeat and likely criminal who is angry that Kate would give half of her income to her sister and not him. Kate wants to leave Maud to marry Densher and live with him in penniless matrimonial bliss and dear old dad tells her to go back to childless Aunt Maud, wait till she kicks the bucket, inherit her fortune, and then come and ask if she might take up rooms with him, and while she’s at it, help him out a bit financially. Until she does that, he won’t receive her. . After that episode, Kate is unwilling to throw over her last remaining family member who cares a wit about what happens to her just to live in penniless matrimonial bliss with Mert, whom Aunt Maud doesn’t approve of on account of his unfortunate state of employment, especially when she thinks there’s a way to Aunt Maud’s millions and marriage to Merton. [Kate, we find, won’t compromise, when waiting will get you what you want, only slower.] The fact that Aunt Maude has another husband in mind for her is no bother. In the midst of her scheming, Merton heads off to the States to write a fashion piece for the periodical that employs him, and meets Milly Theale. If there is one thing you must know about Milly Theale it is this: she is magnificent. We must presume this because one is told so often by the rest of the cast. Either that or ‘magnificent’ does not mean what they think it means. [I am still not sure what they mean. I don’t know that they do. I think they’re all afraid to admit that they don’t know what they mean.] The titular ‘Dove’, Milly is young, orphaned, unmarried, family-less and worth so much money it would be indecent to mention it, except to remind oneself again and again that it would be indecent to mention. When Milly arrives in Europe on doctor’s orders, she and her companion (a college roommate of Aunt Maud) find themselves in London and she and Kate take to each other like bosom buddies, and then Kate finds out what it would be indecent to mention . . . and thinks that maybe she’ll be able to marry Merton sooner than she thought. Something wonderful is that while Kate hatches several terrible schemes and she and Merton and Aunt Maud and even Lord Mark all make awful moral decisions none of them are truly evil people. This is not a social comedy where sin gets its due, WOTD is an investigation of the moral grey area where most of us live our lives: where we find it difficult to distinguish want from need and choices must be made between things evil and things slightly less so. James isn’t interested in the light of the lagoon so much as he is interested in the millions of tiny silent choices that a person must make every day in order to keep living, and this is why, as I said above, he is so different. I know of no writer of James’ era who peers into the soul at this magnification and am hard-pressed to think of one before or after who has. This was not my favorite novel ever and I certainly did not get out of it what I intended, but I did develop an appreciation for Henry James. This will not be the last novel of his that I read. (less)
I am endebted to the editors of World Literature Today for their recent article on the literature of Liguria that led me to this absolute gem.
The Pat...moreI am endebted to the editors of World Literature Today for their recent article on the literature of Liguria that led me to this absolute gem.
The Path to the Nest of Spiders was an exciting find for several reasons: It is completely different from anything Calvino ever wrote after (it was his first novel, written at the age of 23). I love Invisible Cities also; to see how an authors style can change so drastically (and to read him explain why in the masterful preface by Calvino himself) was very fun.
The writing is fresh and aliave and bears a striking (and intentional-see the preface) resemblance to Ernest Hemingway's. Fans of For Whom the Bell Tolls may be pleasantly shocked to find its cousin here.
Most of all: it's star is none other than Pin, possibly the most wonderful feral child a reader could ask for. [See my ode to feral children here.]
The story is a simple one: Pin is an orphan somewhere between the ages of 6 and 10 who lives with his sister, a prostitute. He has noo friends among the children of the village, what for his rude manners and burgeoning criminal habits. The closest things to playmates that he has are the regulars at the local bar. It's Italy (likely San Remo, where Calvino grew up) and it is World War II. Mussolini is dead and the Germans are in town and the men at the bar, usually so genial and friendly with Pin - entreating him to sing dirty songs and laughing at his jokes - are in a meeting with a stranger. The Resistance is in town, also, and they need weapons. Pin is ordered to steal a pistol from the German who is a regular client of Pin's sister. Trouble ensues. Pin is laugh out-loud funny and his and his comrades escapades will leave your nails bitten to the quick from suspense.
The simplicity of the story (and the lack of any explanatory notes) exposed a gaping hole in my education, namely: Italy was allied with Germany during World War II. Mussolini was killed by the Italians. . . and then . . . what happened? My mind draws a blank, and my plans for reading A Game of Thrones some time this year are shot. It's off to educate myself, starting with The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796. I leave for Liguria and environs in five weeks. Better start filling in that hole.
As is the trouble with so many histories of the French Riviera, this one suffers from a lack of things to write about. The author clearly loves Nice,...moreAs is the trouble with so many histories of the French Riviera, this one suffers from a lack of things to write about. The author clearly loves Nice, but his effusion does not make up for the utter sameness of his subject matter overtime.
There are a couple of interesting bits: the quotes from journals of Marie Bashkirtseff introduced me to a diarist I must read more of. There are some interesting quotes from other early visitors to Nice that give a vision of the seaside sanatarium of the early 19th century before the arrival of Les Hivernants.
Also of interest are the descriptions of the experience of American infantrymen during the first and second world wars. While the first world war vets seemed to have been well received - the Nicois called them 'Sammies', after Uncle Sam - the vets of the second world war sent to Nice on leave, with out any oversight from Commanding Officers, who were boarded in Cannes, did not behave themselves.
I think this must be the story of all beautiful places: in the beginning, they are beautiful and untouched, inhabited only by natives, themselves picturesque. Then, they are 'discovered' by outsiders, who marvel at this beauty. It's all downhill from there: the wealthy arrive to build their villas to take in the beautiful scenery and picturesque natives, who go to work for the villa owners. Investors come in and build hotels and resorts so that more tourists can marvel at the scenery, which is constantly being buried under more hotels. The tourists, tired of estoficada or whatever delicious local dishes the natives serve, have to bring in their own restaurants and foods. Then the place gets a reputation for being seedy, and some new gimmick must be dreamed up to keep people coming.
Nice can often, in travel guides and travel writing like High Season/i> and conversations with travelers, come off as the Jersey shore of the Mediterranean (though, admittedly, Avalon doesn't have a Matisse Museum. Or an opera house. Or a Chagall museum. Or roman ruins.) It's true, last fall, when we were walking down the Boulevard Jean Jaures and passed 'McMahon's Pub' and it's neighbor 'Planet Sushi', I got a little sad for the sameness that's been inflicted on us: I could have seen those two shops right next to each other in Center City Philadelphia. But then we turned off into the old city, the Vieux Ville, and got lost on purpose - climbing up and down staircase-streets that weren't more than five feet wide, dividing houses piled one on top of the other, tumbling, almost, to the sea. I didn't find that in Philly. The beach is pure heaven, especially if, like me, you hate being covered in sand, and the water is so salty you bob like a cork and the views from the sea are just the most beautiful.(less)