Saturday, May 14, 2016

Jim Harrison: The Ancient Minstrel

The Ancient Minstrel. Grove Press, 2016.

Jim Harrison died in March of this year at nearly 80 years of age. The Ancient Minstrel was published on March 1, just a few weeks before his death. Jim Harrison's last published work is the first of his more than 20 works of fiction and 18 volumes of poetry. His Wikipedia article says that he has been compared to Faulkner and Hemingway. If this is the case then Ancient Minstrel does not fit the norm. Certainly these two authors did not come to mind as I read the three novellas that make up this collection.

The Ancient Minstrel consists of three novellas, "The Ancient Minstrel," "Eggs," and "The Howling Buddha." In his introduction, Harrison calls them fictionalized memoir. He didn't write straight out memoir because his wife "insisted on being left out," and his two daughters echoed their mother's request. And so we have fictionalized memoir. The first and third novellas feature an aging alcoholic, lecherous man as their central character (two different men), and these two stories book end a very different novella which has a young single woman as its main character.

"The Ancient Minstrel" is the fictionalized memoir. It features an aging writer concerned with drink a flagging libido, and his farm in Montana. He is looking back over his life, which has been made easy by his lucrative film script writing. Despite the slow decay that comes with aging and excessive drinking, the hero enjoys his life on his farm, his friends, and his writing. He and his wife are separated, but see each other regularly and have a tolerant and amiable relationship--an important element in the story. The tension in the novella revolves around the writers purchase of a pregnant sow, his growing relationship with Darling and her litter of piglets and all things pig oriented. Harrison writes of this emotional fixation with colorful and humorous detail.

"Eggs" tells the story of Catherine, a girl who grows up with her brother in a household filled with matrimonial rancor. A family situation which is damaging for both brother and sister. Her brother runs away at an early age and stays away from the family, but Catherine finds relief and a certain amount of peace sitting with the chickens on her paternal grandparents' farm. The farm serves as a retreat for both Catherine and her mother. Her maternal grandparents are in England. Catherine and her mother move there before the second world war breaks out. Eventually Catherine's mother returns to Montana, but Catherine stays with her British grandparents, living through the blitz in all of its horror. Eventually Catherine returns to Montana to live on her grandparents farm, where she raises chickens and lives a carefully constructed, moderate, and intentional life. She becomes intent on having a child, and goes about planning her pregnancy with the same careful thoughtfulness and intention.

Finally, "The Howling Buddha," features Detective Sunderson, a long time Harrison character, whose level of alcoholism and lecherousness make the weakness of the hero of "The Ancient Minstrel" seem mild by comparison. Detective Sunderson likes all women, and, most fatally, he is attracted to underaged girls. While nominally about retrieving the daughter of a friend from a cult, the story is really about Detective Sunderson's last mistake and final act.

Where as the first two novellas have a certain sweetness to them, "The Howling Buddha" is dark and uncompromising in its conclusion.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Stella Gibbons: Pure Juliet

Stella Gibbons. Pure Juliet. Vintage, 2016. Taking my usual look through our Penn Libraries new book shelf, the name Stella Gibbons caught my eye. I associate Stella Gibbons with my childhood viewing of Cold Comfort Farm and the wonderful Alistair Sims. and my later reading of the novel, which I enjoyed even more than the 1971 (original broadcast date according to the Master Piece Theater Archive). Gibbons's Cold Comfort heroine, Flora Poste, is independent, optimistic, and pleasant but never deterred. She does get married in the end, or at least fly off with someone you think she might marry, but still, I think Flora is an early role model for independent women.

You might say there is some cultural hegemony in her approach to the farm residents, a bit too much of an imperialist mind set, or you might think of Flora as representing the still fairly new 20th Century and its slow but inevitable incursion on the remnants of the old century. You can think of none of that and simply enjoy Gibbons' wonderful style and humor. It is a book that sits well in the pantheon of British humorous novels. I'm not an expert, but I think of Wodehouse, and, another childhood favorite (thanks to my mother's love of books and reading), Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. These are all writers that I keep by my bed for late night rereading.

But, I digress! This is about Pure Juliet. As I was saying, the name Stella Gibbon caught my eye.  I picked up the book to investigate, and read that the manuscript "was brought to light by her family in 2014" and the 2016 Vintage edition is its first publication. A new Stella Gibbon novel! Gibbon was a fairly prolific writer, something, I am sad to say, I wasn't aware of until reading the inside cover of this volume. Pure Juliet  would appear as the 17th in a list of Gibbons novels. There is no date given as to when this manuscript was written, and the novel itself does not include references to any dates, but I'm guessing it is set sometime in the 1970s (Gibbon died in 1989). The character Juliet is another independent young women. She is determined and too intent on her single focus to be deterred. But she is very different from Flora Poste. Juliet lives in a world of mathematics and is in pursuit of the essence of coincidence. Today we might say that Juliet has Asperger's Syndrome, but Gibbons portrays her character without any mention of syndromes. She does not fit in and cares little for social niceties or making conversation.

Pure Juliet is a book of coincidences. Juliet happens to meet a rich old woman in the park who offers Juliet a place to stay after she leaves the comprehensive because Juliet's father won't allow her to go to University.  Juliet is intent on following her coincidences, and slips out of the house to go live with the old woman. An only child, Juliet knows enough to make a good case for herself and tells the old woman that she has no father and four siblings. While Juliet is not kind or loving to the old woman, she gives her enough attention to maintain her place. The old woman's nephew happens to be a kind man who takes an interest in Juliet's peculiar nature. Unlike most people he is interested in nurturing her genius and, unlike most people, accepts Juliet's lack of interest in men and romance. When the old woman dies, he makes sure that Juliet has a place to live and work. As the story takes its course, there are a few more coincidences, enough to lead Juliet to winning an important honor from an oil rich, math loving nation with a young open minded ruler. The ruler convinces the scholars at the ancient university to overlook the detail of Juliet's sex and to recognize her great work.

So, I've given a bit too much away, but this book is a pleasure to read. The writing style is understated and engaging. You see the coincidences as an after thought--Gibbons doesn't bludgeon the reader over the head with them. Her portrayal of Juliet is straight forward but tender. Juliet's nature is a gift and a curse. Gibbons' narrative suggests that it might take having what looks like Asperger's Syndrome for a woman to achieve a work of genius. In the world of this novel,  a woman is confronted with pressure to have boyfriends and children, to meet parents' expectations or to take on certain kinds of jobs.  Even in the world outside this novel, women don't tend to marry adoring men who make sure that all of their needs are attended to, but we know plenty of examples of men having just such a partner. Juliet, though, finds a benefactor who makes sure she remembers to eat.

In Pure Juliet, Gibbons also looks at difference. Juliet is an extreme example, but Frank, the rich old woman's nephew, is avidly opposed to unnecessary consumption, maintains a spartanly decorated house, is a dedicated vegetarian, and other than Juliet (and is large family), his interest, fortune  and time go toward promoting edible grasses. There are other quirky characters, characters who are less than satisfied, characters who are set on one thing or another, if not to the level of Juliet's single mindedness. She is the example at the top of graph and the others create the downward slope.

I thoroughly enjoyed this thoughtful and kind book. I am pleased to have the words of Stella Gibbons floating in my head, and to contemplate her nonjudgmental, unlabled look at the peculiarities, but also tendernesses inherent in human nature.

Let us hope her optimism and belief in kindness manifests itself in our 21st century and decade as well. We need a lot of kindness.

Read on.