Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category
In this week’s New Statesman, Melissa Benn returns to consider Lynne Reid Bank’s classic novel, The L Shaped Room, fifty years after it was first published.
Below, a piece I wrote about eighteen months ago, for an ongoing series on normblog and which I never put up on my own site.
So here it is:
It is not always easy to write about a favourite book or even to understand why some works are so much more meaningful to us than others. But with Jennie Gerhardt, Theodore Dreiser’s second and intensely tragic novel, I am acutely aware of how much of the book’s power is, for me, tied to memories of the last days in the life of my mother, Caroline Benn, proud American, socialist, scholar, lover of 19th-century novels and a great admirer of Dreiser.
In the autumn of 2000, when she was dying of cancer, slowly and painfully but with tremendous humour and bravery too, my mother and I talked with the intensity of those who know time is fast running out. It may even have been her who urged me to read Jennie Gerhardt. I had seen her taking notes on the novel, part of her research for her sadly unfinished final project, to write a history of socialists and the socialist movement in America. Jennie Gerhardt is largely set in Ohio, her dearly loved home state to which she returned for a long visit every year.
Analytical to the last, my mother saw Dreiser’s novel largely as a forensic dissection of a particular moment in American capitalism while I admitted to bouts of uncontained weeping at the cruelty of the story’s conclusion, the human tragedy of Jennie herself.
It’s obvious to me now, and as it was to her then, that my profound sadness was intimately connected to her terminal illness and – a slightly different thing, this – our shared knowledge of her imminent death. Dreiser writes powerfully of the simple tragedy of mortality itself – rich or poor, his characters expire acutely aware of their existential isolation – but he also touches directly on the poignant truth that, however vulnerable a mother may be, she is always, if a good mother, in some way more protective of her child than of herself.
In one of the saddest parts of the book Jennie Gerhardt is forced to hide the fact of her illegitimate daughter Vesta’s existence from her rich lover, a decision she comes bitterly to regret and so revoke, only later on to lose Vesta to a childhood illness just at the moment she needs her most. As the mother of two very young girls, facing the impending death of my own mother, this was just all too painful to contemplate, even in fiction.
But sorry, let me do my job, and tell you the story, should you be interested in picking up this book.
Set in Ohio in 1880, Jennie Gerhardt tells the story of a lovely innocent young woman, the eldest daughter of a narrow-minded but proud, disabled and therefore unemployed German immigrant, who is forced to seek work to keep the family in food and warmth.
In the course of the novel she finds love not once, but twice, both times with powerful older men; first, a lonely but tender-hearted Senator, whom she meets when she works as a cleaner in a large hotel, but who dies suddenly leaving Jennie pregnant and a social outlaw.
Later on, she becomes the lover of the impatient but magnetic Lester Kane, scion of a railway-owning family, who sets up house with her, but is eventually forced, through financial and moral pressure, to abandon Jennie and marry a much more suitable and cultured woman, even though he loves Jennie to his dying moments.
The rise and fall of a beautiful but ultimately powerless woman is a common narrative arc in much great American fiction from Henry James’s Daisy Miller to Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Jennie is a personality of rare goodness and innocence, who stoically accepts her unjust fate. She feels no bitterness, even when, by the end, she is abandoned, through death or desertion, by everyone she truly loves.
Dreiser’s genius lies not just in his raw narrative urgency, but in his ability to show how love and money are always entwined, how our fate is determined less by character than by the deepest-rooted structures and often unspoken rules of society.
Jennie may possibly be a little too good to be true but even those characters who are found wanting are so fully drawn, so wonderfully alive, in both good and bad aspects, that we completely understand why they do what they do.
As Dreiser shows us, without irony, rich men have to keep making money to keep being rich; they must surely have suitably charming and attractive wives. And even clever, independently wealthy women, like Letty Pace, the woman Lester Kane eventually marries, have to lure a suitable mate, with all due sympathy, intellect and charm, in order to sustain their worldly position – even if, as in this case, it leads directly to the effective ‘elimination’ of another woman with less social power.
Dreiser, who went from rags to riches himself, not once, but twice in his lifetime, has the rare gift of writing convincingly about both wealth and poverty. He can convey the urgency of the poor man’s search for work, the child scrabbling for coal, a care-worn mother’s helpless anxiety.
But he writes equally evocatively about the exciting sparkle and deep velvety comfort of wealth, its allure and power, and ultimately its emptiness. Jennie’s ambitious elder brother, Bass, longs to move with a smart crowd.
Clothes were the main touchstone. If men wore nice clothes and had rings and pins, whatever they did seemed appropriate. He wanted to be like them and to act like them, and so his experience of the more pointless forms of life rapidly broadened.
Re-reading Jennie Gerhardt this last week, I got as much pleasure from phrases such as these, with their searchlight power to reveal hidden recesses of human motivation – surely one of the great moral pleasures of fiction – as I did from the powerful story line and its tragic ending.
Yes, I was still touched and deeply upset by the fate of this kind, unlucky, always loving and almost unbelievably stoical young woman from Ohio. But this time I found myself doing something else: feverishly marking, on a bus journey or curled up in a chair at two in the morning, particularly prescient observations. ‘Clothes were the main touchstone…’ ‘The more pointless forms of life’. I was saying to myself, constantly: Ah yes! And so in Dreiser’s company I continue to feel just that little bit less alone in the world: one mark of a great writer.
Read Melissa Benn’s latest review, of Laura Bush’s autobiography Spoken from the Heart, published in yesterday’s Guardian Review.
Read Melissa Benn’s latest review: of Piers Paul Read’s The Misogynist in today’s Independent.
This really doesn’t seem an apposite title for a blog post as we head, in a matter of hours, into May 6th and a possible hung parliament or worse, a Tory victory. But it IS the title of my latest published article; for anyone interested in our rich radical past, please read my New Statesman review, published yesterday, of Sheila Rowbotham’s magisterial new study of feminist campaigners, activists, pioneers and dreamers at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
Read Melissa’s latest review, of Maggie Gee’s new memoir My Animal Life in this week’s New Statesman, the review itself rather strangely entitled ‘Greatcoat of Terror.’
Read Melissa Benn’s latest review in the Independent today of two major feminist books; Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls and Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion.
Below, three links to Melissa’s latest journalism:
* Opinion piece in this week’s Public Finance on why neither party can win the class war.
* An in depth interview in The Guardian today with Mary Foley, an extraordinary woman, who has forgiven her daughter’s killer.
* A review in this week’s New Statesman on Kate Figes’s latest book on modern coupledom.
Last night I watched an amazing film, The Edge of Heaven, a Turkish German co-production about six characters in contemporary Europe, several of them first and second generation immigrants, whose lives become entangled and whose fates mirror each other in various clever, poignant ways.
There are some unbearably sad moments: a mother and daughter, both searching for each other, pass on a motorway; one, in a bus, the other in a car ( going in different directions.) We know that the mother is soon to die and that the daughter will never find her………..ever. ( At this point, I started to shout at the TV set like a child at a pantomime: “She’s in the bus, she’s in the car!” etc)
Characters fleetingly pass each other, unaware, unlike the audience, of their relationship: a device so common in so many modern films, such as Babel, and TV productions, that try to depict global connection and chaos simultaneously.
A university professor lectures to a half empty hall while a young woman sleeps, obviously utterly exhausted, right at the back; later in the film, the academic tries to find this same woman. Two of the main characters briefly coincide, at immigration. One is being deported from Turkey, for having accidentally killed his prostitute lover; the other is arriving in Turkey, looking for her lost daughter. Neither knows the other, but we know their relationship to each other.
The Edge of Heaven tackles modern life in a rather beautiful glancing way. There’s no great song or dance about fundamentalist Islam, just a low key but rather terrifying scene in which an ageing prostitute is quietly threatened on the top of a bus by two men who tell her she is betraying the religion of her homeland ( they are all Turks and Muslims, living in Germany.)
The film’s title has multiple meanings, including the constant nearness of death. Its original title in German was Auf der Anderen Seite: On the Other Side. But both new and old title still refer to both mortality and the imminent entry by Turkey to the European Union.
It’s a story of sadness, ageing, loss, love and the constant, frenetic movement of peoples within contemporary Europe. But it’s also about the kindness of strangers in this hostile, fast moving world. A simple gesture – the offer of a meal, a place to stay, a willingness to listen, with genuine interest and humility, to the story of another human being – can be truly transformative. The saving grace of a cruel world.
Over the past forty eight hours, I have watched two glossy, high end Hollywood ‘womens pictures’ : All about Eve, starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, made in 1950; the other a 2008 remake of George Cukor’s classic The Women, starring Hollywood royalty of a certain age, including Annette Bening, Meg Ryan, Debra Messing,Candice Bergen, Jada Pinkett Smith.
Both films are about love, betrayal, womens’ friendship and professional ambition but one is a classic and the other ……..well, it just doesn’t quite work. All about Eve, made in 1950, remains an absorbing, ironic study of the relationship between women of different generations, with Davis playing a possibly exaggerated version of the public’s perception of her: the tough but tender thesp. Anne Baxter is truly chilling as a conniving ingenue who tries to steal everything Davis possesses, from husband to professional reputation, but succeeds in winning fame, but not real love. Baxter’s performance still stands as a seminal portrait of a peculiarly modern form of acceptable evil; the person who will sacrifice all integrity for success, while appearing saccharine sweet on the outside.
In contrast, The Women, a comedy about a group of women discovering a friend’s husband’s infidelity in a ‘powder room’ , while perfectly watchable, has no centre, no real drive. I’m trying to figure out why. Today’s middle aged Hollywood actresses look twenty five from a distance yet oddly rubbery close up, so a lot of screen time is taken up internally managing that double take. The script isn’t that sharp either. Maybe it’s because it has too gloopy an ending: lead character finds professional success, wins back errant husband. Here it lacks the realist edge of All about Eve which makes it perfectly clear: high end professionalism, while utterly worthwhile in itself, carries a high price for women. Then and now.
But I think the problem is something to do with the difference in post war and contemporary emotional tone/registers. Women, including Hollywood women, of a previous age, were much more self contained, a stoicism that, paradoxically, made their sadness and struggles more moving. We associate Meg Ryan, Annette Bening and Bette Midler with many things, but stoicism is not one of them; their high octane zaniness too often hits an off tune note for a re-make of a film about a woman’s strategic management of her husband’s infidelity. We also can’t help but be aware that these are all highly powerful women within the industry; it’s hard to see them as mere wise cracking adjutants to the all powerful man (who never appears, incidentally.)
For these reasons, perhaps, one of the best things in the film, apart from Debra Messing giving birth, is Cloris Leachman (whom I best remember as a heartbreakingly lonely widow in The Last Picture Show) playing a bemused housekeeper of eighty something, who can’t admit she is emotionally involved with her employer. Slowly but surely, Leachman, less culturally visible than Ryan and co, really does emerge from the screen as a three dimensional character, a woman of no worldly power but real depth.