Archive for July, 2011

Le Ricordanze / Memories (excerpt)

Le Ricordanze.

Né mi diceva il cor che l’età verde
Sarei dannato a consumare in questo
30Natio borgo selvaggio, intra una gente
Zotica, vil; cui nomi strani, e spesso
Argomento di riso e di trastullo,
Son dottrina e saper; che m’odia e fugge,
Per invidia non già, che non mi tiene
35Maggior di sé, ma perché tale estima
Ch’io mi tenga in cor mio, sebben di fuori
A persona giammai non ne fo segno.
Qui passo gli anni, abbandonato, occulto,
Senz’amor, senza vita; ed aspro a forza
40Tra lo stuol de’ malevoli divengo:
Qui di pietà mi spoglio e di virtudi,
E sprezzator degli uomini mi rendo,
Per la greggia ch’ho appresso: e intanto vola
Il caro tempo giovanil; più caro
45Che la fama e l’allor, più che la pura
Luce del giorno, e lo spirar: ti perdo
Senza un diletto, inutilmente, in questo
Soggiorno disumano, intra gli affanni,
O dell’arida vita unico fiore.


For my heart never told me my green age
Was doomed to waste here, in this barbarous town
Where I was born, with cheap, boorish people,
Who hold in no repute learning or knowledge,
(Often indeed their jest, a thing to laugh at.)
They do not judge me better than themselves  –
But they suppose that in my heart I think so,
Although I never showed it any man.
And so I pass the years,  alone, obscure,
Loveless and lifeless; and I am forced to grow
Bitter myself, with this malignant crowd
And putting off my pity and my manhood
I make myself despise the human race,
Even as this herd has taught me; and meanwhile,
The dear season of youth is passing – dearer
Than laureled fame, as the clear light of day,
Than breath itself – and so it is I lose you,
Having reaped not one delight, and all things wasted,
In this inhuman spot, among afflictions,
O solitary flower of barren life!

Translation John Heath Stubbs

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A Bracelet

A Dream of Francess Speedwell

A Lost Jewell

Bank Account

Dance Of Words

Full Moon

Galatea and Pygmalion

In Her Praise

Love In Barrenness

Never such Love


Whole Love

Pure Death

Return of the Goddess

Sick Love

The Chink

The Dangerous Gift

The Door

The Foreboding

The Metaphor

To Be Called A Bear

To Beguile and Betray

Whole Love

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First published under the title of ‘The Dark Side of Venus’, if you are looking for the kind of salacious lesbian romance that can be lazily read in the course of a single afternoon, you can safely give this one a miss. But even if you could read it quickly you would find that the protagonists in this story are not the kind of substance-less characters upon which we frequently find the overwrought fabric of sexually graphic material conveniently draped.

This book is a totally overlooked treasure – and even when I clearly understand why this is so, I still can’t quite believe it.
The writing is bold and precise while being at the same time personal and evocative. Even the most minor characters, presented in vivid vignettes are as unforgettably drawn as the nurse and the friar in Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
The secondary – and of course the main characters emerge as very real people – with the result that to me they are simultaneously intimate and iconic.

Dialogue, is where one finds many writers falling short, but Verel has perfect pitch in this department. She is deft and clear, and adept, and if readers do not pay close attention to everything that is said by the characters – both reading and ‘ listening’ between the lines, much of the book’s nuance and subtlety will be missed. One has to almost read this book in the way one reads poetry.

The plot, set in London and its suburbs, is fairly simple – girl meets girl – they take a while to delicately acknowledge the force that draws them together, they fall in love and become a couple, difficulties intervene to drive them apart, and when all has been lost and they hang on a single frayed thread, incredibly the prospect of a restored love and its suggested success is recovered.

Those are the bare bones, but the story is so beautifully and unforgettably wrought, that I have re read it innumerable times over a period of more than twenty four years.
Shirley Verel writes about love between women in an indeterminate time between the late ‘fifties’ and the early ‘sixties’.

Judith Allart is divorced from her husband Martin, in large part because of the inescapable – if one is honest – incompatibility which results when a lesbian marries a heterosexual man, even one as civilised as Martin. Despite her honesty, she does not tell him that she is a lesbian until much later, – and to my way of thinking, this, rather than being a deception, is the proof of her very private nature. Judith and Martin are still friends, though Martin continues to cherish the hope of a reconciliation.

Judith is intelligent and aloof – and though we are spared the clumsy and excessive physical descriptions commonly resorted to by writers who want their readers to find their protagonists attractive, one slowly gets the suggested sense that she is also beautiful – tall, slender and fair-haired with a skin that easily takes a tan. She is twenty eight when she meets Diana Quendon the niece of Andrew, one of her wealthy colleagues. Diana, a beautiful dark haired nineteen, has just published a lighthearted book about her life as a schoolgirl in a French convent, and the book is garnering unexpected success and publicity. Andrew throws a party for Diana, and Judith is invited – and the two meet.

Though things seem very hit-or miss at first, the two of them are brought together by a force that somehow impels them towards each other, and through all the course of their getting to know each other, quickly the unstated force of their love begins to emerge and inevitably direct their actions and circumstances.
Judith’s motives are lofty and altruistic – and paradoxical. She knows from her own experience that a lesbian can never make a success of a heterosexual marriage, yet she has convinced herself all the same, that it may be possible, for a young women of lesbian inclination (like Diana) to avoid a full acknowledgment of her true nature, and somehow ‘fit in’ to the less complicated and less potentially tragic arrangement of a heterosexual lifestyle.

Even when it is clear to Judith that Diana is painfully in love with her, she determinedly holds back – not wishing Diana to forgo the chance and ‘privilege’ of a conventional life. This persists even Diana makes it clearly though un-explicitly known to Judith that she feels no passion at all for her beau Gerald Paley,the lively, ‘normal’ and thoroughly heterosexual boyfriend who wants to marry her The tension created by Judith’s agonised resistance which in turn forbids Diana to frankly express her own feelings, creates a tightrope for them both. Eventually, when it can no longer be denied, they tacitly acknowledge the elephant in the room, and go off together to France for a summer vacation.

The women drive through the French countryside and room chastely together in little rented lodgings – because though Judith yearns express her feelings, she resists. She has imposed upon herself a condition of reserve, because of a conviction that she wants Diana to make the first move: Love remains palpable and unspoken, until an accident on the way back to England literally makes further suppression impossible.
Finally there is the much anticipated clarification, and two of them decide to turn back and have the kind of holiday they should have had in the first place.
No sooner it seems ( barely a week or so ) than the lovers and declare themselves, than their secret is exposed to – and later by – Julian, a conservative friend and suitor of Judith’s who arrives to vacation in France..

When Judith and Diana return home after their vacation, they move in together for a brief period of blissful domesticity in Judith’s London flat. However, Julian reveals the truth about them, and this leads inevitably to a wrenching separation.

I don’t want to give away the rest of the story, except to say that there is so much said in here – and not at all heavy – handedly but almost as a suggestion – about the nature of true love: Both lovers are terribly altruistic, and willing to sacrifice themselves and their happiness for the other, and this is what I find most beautiful and at the same time, aggravating about this story. Today we might find it astonishing that false morality and hypocritical and priggish conventions could coerce women in love with each other to forgo their chance at love and happiness, but those were the repressively homophobic mores which prevailed at the time. It is clear that neither Andrew or Julian is capable of experiencing or understanding love – and yet they are only too happy to judge.

I found the separation of Judith and Diana the most wrenchingly painful part of the book to read. Every time I read it I have to clench my teeth to get through it.
Told almost as a story within a story and Indelible and telling are the incidents in Judith’s girlhood and life prior to her meeting with Diana – which led her to an acknowledgment of her lesbian nature . It is difficult for us today to imagine this world of more than fifty years ago – when lesbian love had to be kept a secret from society. It seems unbelievable now that being gay then was so freighted with fear and peril.

The other slight and perhaps incongruous note to me was that both Judith and Diana seemed to possess the kind of poise and innate dignity that one expects to find in much more mature people – but then again – this could be because they are meant by Verel to be presented to us as remarkable…

The book suffers slightly from careless editing – I found one small gap – nothing I could not extrapolate – and a dropped word. Though it is impossible to blame Virago press their oversights: If not for them, this little gem would be completely unknown.

Verel steadfastly avoids the trite certainties that accompany most love-stories, and her prose is both pared down and vivid. It felt to me like a perfume which though fresh and clean and strong is full of intense complexity.
Her other lesbian love story ‘The Bee’s Kiss’ set in England of the ‘fifties, is also about the love affair between and ‘older’ ( in her twenties ) and ‘younger’ ( in her teens) woman. It is no less wonderfully written.

I found one other lesbian short story by Verel, ‘Going With the Weather’ in an anthology of mostly terrible lesbian short stories, and one other book ‘ ‘Room for Trouble’. The fourth book ‘Goodnight my Vow is difficult, though not impossible to find, and I have found only one mention of the fifth, – ‘Little Girl Left’.

I tried very hard and very unsuccessfully to find out more about this wonderful but elusive writer who is not well known, and certainly not celebrated here in the U.S. Perhaps it is because she is so serious and un-sensational, and has to be read with attention, If not read carefully the finesse of her subtle touch will go unnoticed.

Regrettably this is a detriment in an age of careless readers, so I think this book will never get the attention and appreciation it so richly deserves.
I think this story would also make an excellent movie – and I wish someone would.

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This is a fabulous book full of sharp observations, mordant wit, and a crisp, almost epigrammatic style of writing. Terry Castle is a Virgil in the shadowy  underworld of the ‘now you see her now you don’t ‘ lesbian who flits like a revenant in and out of the realm of art and fiction. Castle is a respected academic and a serious scholar of the hidden, disguised and all too often obfuscated presence of the lesbian in literature, as is amply attested in her monumental grand opus Lesbianism in Literature, a book with the rare quality of being just as difficult to pick up as to put down.

Not only can Castle startle and amaze, she can  also make her reader’s squirm with vicarious embarrassment and awkwardness. Elsewhere (The Professor and Other Stories and Boss Ladies Watch Out) we are familiar with her total lack of sentimentality, and take-no-prisoners honesty  in exposing her zany and sometimes bizarre gaffes, which frequently conjure an Egon Schiele image out of something that might otherwise have seemed to be as bland as an Andy Warhol.  So we find here, the evocative and almost dreamy reminiscence of ‘First Ed’, the account of Castle’s almost amphibious and yet tensely formative entry into the realm of her lesbian awareness.  I loved it for its brilliant balancing act of self-revelation which was both touching and edgy. I could almost see the action unfolding and almost feel the echo of the world she lightly but strongly evoked, of the atmosphere of California in the ‘sixties….

The torchy tribute to Brigitte Fassbaender was brilliant, and sent me directly  to Youtube for a glimpse of the fascinating ‘Prince’ Orlofsky’ in a ‘trouser role; which displayed to the finest advantage Fassbender’s gloriously dykely beauty.  I then immediately resorted to Amazon for Fassbaender’s CD Winterreiser and her DVD Hansel and Gretel – with Fassbaender again delivering the dyke hiding in plain sight as the most charmingly boyish Hansel one could ever imagine.   Fassbaender was only the first of the many remarkable women  selected by Castle as her literary subjects. Maureen Duffy was another one, but for me the gem of gems was Sylvia Townsend Warner. Warner’s lush lesbian poetry to her lanky 6′ gloomy, catholic and  dipsomaniacal muse are sensuous, immediate, and painfully touching. Her fiction – the two works featured  here by Castle are Summer Will Show and Lolly Willows are quite unlike each other in both form and content, but are clearly feminist in their sympathies in revealing the utter internal strangeness of women and the thoughts, feelings, impulses and aspirations for freedom  which compel them to shatter the external roles which have rooted them in stultifying convention.

I can’t adequately express the sense of mental stimulation and sheer joy afforded by this book. I felt as if I was being shown a previously dusty old world in a new and brilliant light – with the benefit of an insider’s information to point out the significant details that are often missed by an unfocused awareness. I am sure I am not the only one who feels a deep disquiet and unease when encountering some of Henry James’ female characters, but now that I  recognise them as ‘apparitional lesbians’, I can see that that unease I had felt was something I had been channeling directly from James himself.

One often feels the lesbian presence in a book or movie in the way one sees a moving shadow out of the corner of an eye, but other than Ms Castle, I have never before watched with fascination as the shadowy ectoplasm of a fictional lesbian came out so to speak, and stood framed in the light. Though these are not mentioned in the book, I am thinking now of Marian Halcomb in Wilkie Collin’s Woman in White and the clear ventriloquistic lesbian sensitivity evinced by Phillip in Daphne du Maurier’s  My Cousin Rachel.

Then we have Castle’s wonderful take on Ann Lister a Lesbian Yorkshire-woman of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, now famously seen the 2010 B.B.C production The Secret Diaries of Miss Ann Lister. Lister a ‘gold bond lesbian’ cohabited with her partner, traveled widely, and before she died prematurely at the age of fifty of what might have been typhoid, managed to write  4,000,000 words worth of encrypted diary entries.

I would compare my experience of reading this book to hearing music at a great distance and suddenly recognizing the song being sung.
When I got to the end of Apparitional Lesbians  I found I couldn’t put it down. I felt the huge empty echo of emptiness when one comes to end of something one had hoped would be endless,  I didn’t want the delightfully polemical essays to stop. Thank goodness for Youtube, which made it possible to hold the thread and continue the journey in a different place.

I read two books by Maureen Duffy, one of the writers mentioned by Castle: The Microcosm and Alchemy. I also began a fruitful search for Janet Flanner’s articles in The New-Yorker, and Darlinghissima, the compilation of Flanner’s letters to her partner.

Of the many excellent things that are to be said about this book, the most worthy, in my opinion, is that it makes one want to avidly continue the exploration into the almost inexhaustible subject of lesbians hidden in the shadows of art and literature.

There are very few writers, (though Camille Paglia as a fellow polemicist springs immediately to mind), who can write as well as Castle. She is brilliant,literate,scholarly, original, and as a lesbian she is writing about her own world: What more could one want! – And it follows that the opportunity of reading her work is not to be missed. If you want to read more of her writing and literary criticism, you can find it in her several contributions to The London Review of Books,  – and if you want to see her painting and  graphic art, you also can visit her blog, her web site, etc.




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The beginning of this book was more than promising: the account of a butch lesbian’s evolution from the embryonic sense of difference of a born sexual dissident to the archetypal stone butch, Frankie Hucklenbroich’s autobiographical opus ‘A Crystal Diary’ seemed to be a novel about the long and dangerous journey from an early childhood immersed up to the eyeballs in the fierce heterosexism of a blue collar world that was a mid western city in the ‘forties, into -the euphoria of self-discovery, and an increasingly confident claiming of self identity.

The beginning was sweet. I was drawn into the story of tall slender Jo Koerner, the author’s young across the street neighbour, who returns home after her demobilisation from WWII as one of those fascinating, exotic, mythical creatures – a full fledged dyke. I was hooked by the tense suspense of Jo’s stubborn refusal to relinquish her identity: As in defiance of convention she drives her car, wears pants, crops her hair (there is a dramatic telling of this particular incident), and gets a job in a nearby factory. Hucklenbroich made me cringe to read about the narrow-minded neighbours of Jo’s world, who trapped in their own bitter lives don’t know what to make of her, and how the vicious gossip and prejudice leads inevitably to bullying social rejection.
Of course this made me root for Jo, to succeed – to create a happy life for herself. The anecdote about Joe Koerner is the story I wished this could have been: That story would have I think been infinitely more engaging – and rewarding than ‘A Crystal Diary’.

Nonetheless, we readers were wrenched from this promising beginning, and compelled to take an abrupt change of direction as the story bumped along. Each new chapter seemed full of jolting herky-jerky turns in the road. The narrative seemed not so much elliptical ripped through with huge gaps, so much as to make the segments seem like non sequiturs.
But perhaps we should be grateful for those gaps – and for the unpleasantness we might probably have been spared.

What we may have hoped to see from this bit of time travel beginning in the ‘forties is perhaps a fond and nostalgic look at our hidden lesbian history and our antecedents while safely situated in our relatively safe and un-repressed present. I was rather expecting a look from the through the wrong end of the telescope into the past to the bad old days of bar raids and paddy wagons and corrupt police bullies, and there was some of that, but this was not intended to be a comfortable read.

Instead we are made to follow Hucklenbroich’s veritable ‘rake’s progress’ from a not very innocent child to feral juvenile living on the margins of society: From hawker of magazines to liar cheat and thief, vagabond, mugger, crook,depraved exploiter and abuser of women, methamphetamine addict, pimp, business owner, proprietor of a whorehouse and finally writer.

In the historical dramas set in the Roman Empire, we see the robed patricians resplendent in their spotless snow-white togas. That’s the way we like to imagine ancient Roman aristocrats. But I can’t help wondering if those togas reeked, since the historical truth is that the raw material for the Roman laundromat was found in the city’s public urinals.
In Hucklenbroich’s telling of our lesbian past, I felt as if my nose was being buried in one of those togas.

I came to this book by a circuitous route – first as an excerpt in Joan Nestle’s anthology ‘The Persistent Desire’, and then Lillian Faderman’s ‘Naked In The Promised Land’. In Faderman’s book she writes of her crossing of paths with Hucklenbroich, and their tragi-comic affair. In ‘A Crystal Diary’ the favour is returned, and Lillian is ‘Jill’. Faderman and Hucklenbroich tell each other’s stories. To hear Faderman tell it, ‘Nicky’ was a likable kid, who fell passionately in love with her – but it was a passion she was unable to return. In Faderman’s book Nicky is sketched sympathetically as a lovable outcast, equal parts rube and dork, but with a talent for writing.

I knew this was not going to come close to the gold standard of butch memoirs – Leslie Fienman’s achingly written ‘Stone Butch Blues’ . I expected ‘A Crystal Diary’ to be gritty: Hucklenbroich’s excerpt from ‘A Crystal Diary’ in Joan Nestle’s anthology ‘The Persistent Desire: a butch femme reader’ prepared me for a gritty read. But I wasn’t prepared for this novel’s sheer sordidness and squalor – the sleaze, the repugnance of it.

The character who emerges from this tale is an amoral opportunistic monster: A mugger and a thief, meth-addict, parasite, pimp and a sociopath – a predator and a sadist. In the course of reading ‘A Crystal Diary’ I forgot the the slightly silly picture of the young butch with the elevated eyebrows, delicately bulging hip and breasts hidden by a bent arm, and came to imagine instead a swaggering female thug, an image which was not dispelled by the ‘wine turned to vinegar’ photograph of the bloated old personage on the back cover.

I was reminded of the shocking and repulsive scene in an old movie – James Cagney with his mean little too-closely-set together-eyes snarling at his long-suffering wife and reaching across the breakfast table to gob smack her… but Cagney has nothing on the remorseless, parasitical, unapologetic exploitation of women cold-bloodedly recounted in ‘A Crystal Diary’. I am referring to the unforgettable stomach-turning incident where Nicky, after first publicly humiliating her, throws the woman she is prostituting out into a rain drenched street with the injunction that she not come home until after she had earned over a hundred dollars: This of course is after she had ground out a lighted cigarette on the woman’s shoulder. This is woman on woman predation at its most callous. If that was not sufficiently appalling, Hucklenbroich gloats that the woman returned like a whipped cur to hand over her earnings.

I will not deny that ‘A Crystal Diary’ both powerfully and compellingly written – So one star for that, and another for it’s sheen of honesty, which exerted on me the kind of hypnotic revolted fascination that one feels when catching a glimpse of unspeakable aberrations, madness, roadkill, or exhumed bodies.
But this writer makes of us her readers the voyeurs of her sadistic and sociopathic compulsions. We eat the meal that is set before us, but the aftertaste is putrid. The monumental self-absorption of this crook – this pimp – is not redeemed by the brutal honesty of her writing style. Here style and content are incommensurate. The ugliness in this litany of one distasteful incident after another seeps indelibly into our consciousness like a nightmare that won’t go away. I would rather have read a novel about cannibalism or vampirism than this heartless tribute to a life of dissolution.

Faderman uses words like ‘poignant’ and phrases like ‘lesbian strength’ and ‘noble courage’ to describe ‘ A Crystal Diary’, but in my view ‘despicable and ‘contemptible’ would have served us better. Faderman blames the publishers of this book for not doing a better job of promoting it, and for not including what must have been the flattering blurb she was asked to write, and wrote. However I can see the dilemma faced by the publishers had they tried to aggressively pitch this book to p.c lesbians. It would have been like trying to sell rotten meat to devout vegetarians.

I am not an uncritical respector of p.c. ( p.c lesbians would blench to read this book ), and I have no difficulties with squeamish themes. Much maligned Humbert Humbert, the professorial pedophile in Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ is in my estimation quite a sympathetic character: But Humbert is a paragon of propriety and sexual epicureanism compared to this vulgar bit of autobiographical depravity, which also contains some disgusting graphic sex – sex minus humanity. I found particularly galling the glib and callous (no doubt meant to be humourous and satirical) pseudo-commandments of the butch’s code.

We cheer when the ruthless seducer Don Giovanni in Mozart’s opera gets his final comeuppance. The audience feels a certain satisfaction when the earth splits open, and the Don is helplessly dragged into the fiery inferno of hell. This is not vindictiveness, but the wish for a moral symmetry. We feel a little uneasy when evil deeds go punished, or the murderer gets away with his crime. Such things are not to be passed over with a wink and a nod. But the Don ( who never tortured and prostituted the women he seduced) is a choirboy in comparison to this monster. Even other well-known sexual miscreants like Cassanova and the picaresque Encolpius of the ‘Satyricon’ appear in comparison to be likable philanderers and harmless rogues whose seductions are decidedly non toxic.

So in my view it would have taken an act of retribution – a punitive fiat, or at the very least an expression of remorse for this story to have been redeemed. Suddenly I find in myself feeling a new and unexpected empathy for Dante (I have read him in the original Italian and still think he is overrated) whose over-the-top delight in and unsparing descriptions of a thousand hellish scenes, was little more than a crude revenge fantasy finished off with a careful sugar coating of literary virtuosity.

But there is no sugar to be found here.

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Now and then one comes across a character in a book who is hauntingly unforgettable. Kath, the central character here is someone such. The regret that comes with the contemplation of lost lives, and loss in general, is not easily cast aside.

It takes great skill and an inward looking perspective for a writer to construct a novel around a character who is already dead when the story begins. What follows must needs be a meditation in negative space on the subject of the human condition in general, and more specifically the degree to which we human being are aware or unaware of each other’s ‘human condition’, even when we are spouses, relatives and close associates of each other.

Kath’s husband Glyn discovers a photograph of her buried in his papers. The irony cannot be missed. Kath begins to come alive to him when he discovers her likeness hidden among his forgotten papers months after she is already dead and buried.

Kath had committed suicide for reasons that are unclear to almost everyone in her life, and to none more so than Glyn, since he had never troubled to grasp who and what she really was when she was alive. We as readers come along for the ride in his search to discover who and what she was, and to unravel the mystery of her life and death. in the mean time of course we discover things about the other characters in the story, mainly Kath’s sister Elaine, her husband Nick, but others as well.

The writer, Penelope Lively, casts an unflinching eye on the several relationships in this novel. She deftly strips them of their conventional veneers to reveal what lies beneath. No one is spared. The question which is asked and explored, but not fully answered, – because perhaps it does not lend itself to an answer, is, ‘what is it that keeps us alive and living’ : What keeps us going, and how can we manage to go on if we cannot find it ourselves, and there is no one to give us what we need in order to stay connected to life.

Lively makes us see how spouses and children ( Elaine, Nick and Peggy their daughter) must come to terms with huge rifts and tears in parental and spousal relationships if they are not to do without relationships entirely.

She (Lively) has also some light to shed on our probable fate if, as in Glyn’s case, the enormity of the lesson being delivered by life is such that we simply lack the ability to take it in.

Kath has the feverish beauty and fragility of the woman pursued by demons and doomed to kill herself. In some way she reminds us of real life women like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath as well as fictitious characters such as Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, and makes us ponder about the mysteries of their deaths as well.

Looking at her through the eyes of the people who knew her, we are compelled to try and sort out the artifacts large and small, hidden and revealed, of Kath’s existential dilemma. The spokes of the story only began to draw together for me with the presence of Mary Packard, the stable hub in the centre of all the revolving characters.

While this novel unfolds as a reflection of the aftermath of an ‘inexplicable’ death,  it is also a serious investigation int0 the kind of re-examination of purpose and priority which then devolve on  the living, It is also a highly symmetrical study of human relationships; specifically couple relationships, and even further than that, of as many different types of couple relationships as could have been effectively got into a novel. The couples made  still more sense to me when I classified them as  the dyads in the ‘cross multiplication’ of fractions. For example, Nick/Kath fun-loving,enthusiastic, imaginative, negligently left by their  respective spouses to shift as well as they could, and Elaine/Glyn, who with their highly successful careers and monumental self-absorption tended to ignore or treat as trivial their rather more skittish spouses. it was not surprising that Kath and Nick paired off – drawn i think by the many things they had in common both as individuals and lacked in common as spouses.
Then of course there were the ‘types’ of marriages – Oliver, the not quite marriage – Polly – the marriage to be, Margot and Glyn – the ‘never was going to be’ marriage, Kath and Glyn – the totally lost marriage, Elaine and Nick – the lost and possibly found marriage and of course the ‘should have been because they totally would have deserved each other marriage, Elaine and Glyn. each individual seemed to have chosen a spouse who possessed the traits they most coveted. that this strategy is bound to fail seems to be one of the points Lively is making. I think Kath succumbed to despair when she ‘struck out’ in her attempt to find fulfillment first with Glyn,  then with Nick, and  finally with her wish to have a child.

The irony of course is that eventually none of these things could have saved her or made her happy. What makes Kath central to me was that she alone looked unflinchingly into the abyss of dissatisfaction and disappointment that life so frequently turns out to be.

Lively’s ‘immortal  hand and eye’ have neatly formed ‘these fearful symmetries’ and relational acrostics for our edification and benefit, but miraculously she has accomplished this feat with a total absence of preachments, and without for an instant losing sight of the delicacy and fragility of our humanity.

If there was an elephant in the ‘room’ of this novel, it was Love: but Lively is much too astute to tell us so. Instead she shows us in relentless detail, the huge empty landscapes our lives become in its absence.

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March Hastings was the pen name of Sally Singer – who also wrote under the name of Laura Duchamp. I came upon the cover of Hasting’s book ‘Three Women’ featured on the cover of a book about book covers – Jaye Zimet’s study of the cover art of lesbian pulps entitled ‘Strange Sisters: the art of lesbian pulp fiction’.

Hasting’s style is confident, and her pace does not flag. For the usual hurriedly written books of that genre, her plot is surprisingly layered. The designation of ‘overwrought’ so dismissively applied to the prose of lesbian pulp fiction is in some cases – and in this particular instance, blatantly undeserved and unjust. Ann Bannon of Beebo Brinker fame, a cynosure of lesbian pulps, after all, possessed a Phd in linguistics! Nor does Hastings disappoint.

During the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, so-called lesbian ‘pulps’ were the the ‘plat du jour’, catering to the pressing hunger of lesbians for visibility. It was a hunger so urgent that it could be met even under the cover of blatant animadversion.

Anna Foss Wilson

I have to admit that what compelled me to get this book was its cover, and specifically the face on that cover: Coincidentally (?!) its amazing resemblance to Anna Foss Wilson, who played Beebo in the theatre production of Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker.

This was a face which perfectly captured the secret dream of love between women in the ‘fifties: The ravishing curve of sweeping lashes, the lowered gaze of concealed passion, the inwardly turned expression of banked intensity, which were then the apt symbols of lesbian love. Ann Bannon refers to these affairs as ‘a flaming romances’ – and ‘Three Women’ is nothing if not a work of un-aplogetic female for female passion.

Even so, I had to overcome a reflexive reluctance to trudge once more along the cheerless and dispirited path of lesbian fiction of that

Anna Foss Wilson

era, with its themes of happiness blighted, hopes dashed, women expelled from the warm arms of other women into the starkness of the hetero wilderness and condemned/compelled to join the plodding ranks of stepford-wifedom which was the treasured ideal of the ‘fifties.

But this book has what Carlos Castaneda refers to as
‘ A path with a heart’, and thereby delightfully exceeded all my expectations.

Here’s the synopsis. Protagonist Paula is a lovely young girl from a blue-collar background, living with her parents and teen-aged brother in a cold water flat, which is in fact a tenement . Paula is beautiful and a budding artist. Her father, to whom the family is devoted, is terminally ill as a result of a lifetime of drinking. Her resigned and long- suffering mother is worn out by a life of hardship and penury. Paula’s younger brother Mike is a bit of a jerk, but in a way that sixty years ago passed for standard male behaviour.

Phil, Paula’s handsome upper-class boyfriend and soon to be fiancè with whom she is ‘in love’, is a thoroughly upstanding guy. Phil is Paula’s ticket out of this dreary life.

Phil has ambitions of owning his own business, a paint store, but he lacks the capital for this venture. He takes Paula along for the ride when he goes to visit his spinster aunt Bernadette, in the hope of tapping her for the down payment.

The reasoning behind Phil’s Freudian slip is that he hopes Paula’s presence might tip the scales in his favour.

Paula is expecting to meet a wizened old biddy, but what she finds (though she still doesn’t quite get it ), is what we instantly recognise as a fabulously ravishing dyke, elegantly dressed in the high ‘fifties dyke couture of white silk shirt and charcoal grey slacks. Byrne, as she likes to be called, is compellingly beautiful. She exudes that species of magnetically irresistible charm lesbians (and perhaps some straight men) dream of encountering. Byrne is aptly named for her smouldering beauty.

Needless to say Paula is irredeemably smitten: Though she surrenders to Phil in a misstep of displaced passion, things are obviously not right. For her Byrne is a ‘coup de foudre’. Byrne’s upscale flat also features the portrait of a naked woman. Byrne, we find out, is a gifted painter.

Somehow for Paula, the mix is both heady and incendiary. She is instantly captivated and drawn like a moth to the flame of Byrne’s presence, even to the point of (very innocently ) stalking her. Paula’s seemingly hitherto unexamined heterosexuality is demolished in a passionate conflagration ,

Paula pursues Byrne, and Byrne yields to Paula’s persistent importunities, as a consequence of which the two fall in love, They begin an affair with all the expected charm of a same- sex May / September romance and many accompanying flying sparks. Paula studies painting under Byrne’s artistic tutelage. She seems even to play a naive Galatea to Byrne’s indulgent but understated Pygmalion.

But alas the path of true love never did run smooth did it? Paula’s discovery that Byrne’s past still haunts her makes her jealous and insecure.

In order to reassure Paula, Byrne recounts to her (in what is a chilling cautionary tale), the blossoming of Byrne’s first love with Greta. It is a story which ends tragically, due to the homo-sadistic interference of Greta’s mother, an interference which Byrne’s psyche manages to survive, but Greta’s does not.

By the time we come across Greta she is deranged. She is a grotesque, shattered, occasionally violent ruin, whose life is sustained by Byrne’s pity – and guilt. Byrne suffers Greta’s unpredictable and sometimes frightening intrusions with kindness and forbearance. Byrne is determined to spare Paula the terrible fate which overtook her and Greta.

Here I digress a little in order to interject a personal observation or two, but only because I am convinced of their contextual relevence: Besides, such a richly textured plot as this, makes one’s hermeneutical impulses impossible to resist!

I readily admit, I shrank from reading part three of this book, anticipating the dreaded ectoplasm of vicarious repression that would ooze out of the pages and engulf me in the feeling of hopelessness and loss of lesbian love gone wrong, replete with the heaviness of other-imposed shame and guilt.

I didn’t want to subject myself to feeling the sense of paranoia of the ‘gay’ ‘fifties, when simply a whiff of one’s homosexuality could lead to the kind of discovery culminating in social decapitation. Being gay was after all, in those inquisitorial times, a pathology, for which one could be quite legally lobotomized.

Lobotomy was then considered a cure for otherwise incurable homosexuality, and concomitantly, the ‘schizophrenia’ of the double life of homosexuals.

The sinister Dr Walter Freeman ( the wizard of the ‘ice pick’ lobotomy) said of his ‘patients’ ” They cannot dream” – and this must have been an additional inducement – if such a thing was at all required, to those who reveled in the sight of sexual heretics being sacrificed on the pyre of heterosexist dogma.

I knew I couldn’t’ stomach the story of another such lesbian disaster.

But somehow I made myself go on reading, and as I did, I couldn’t escape the feeling about Greta that I was gazing at a palimpsest. I had the feeling that something beneath the surface was seeping through, that was sensed but not quite seen.

Then it came to me, that sure enough, this was an intertextual reprise of Charlotte Brontë’s classic, ‘Jane Eyre’!

The figure of Greta is surely something out of a gothic novel: A travesty in the real sense – of something wrongly clothed.

The echo I had heard inside my head was the sound of footsteps: Those Mr Rochester’s insane wife Bertha escaping her warder and running around the manor at night. Bertha, who would in a fit of jealousy and rage destroy Jane’s symbol of love, her wedding veil, just as Greta destroyed a treasured painting of Byrne’s.

But will the parallel continue? Will Greta, like Bertha, nearly destroy her former lover just as the lover was about to begin a new life with a much younger woman?
Do we as readers hear the literary equivalent of the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth? Could this be the dreaded past making it’s unwelcome intrusion into the present solely in order to confound one when one is on the verge of attaining a dearly longed for and long deferred happiness?

Old lost loves, now turned grotesque and sinister, but also tragic, can serve as warnings to us of the terrible wreckage love can leave behind. In this case, the wreck is the damage wrought to the psyches of sexual dissidents (lesbians like Greta and Byrne) by the sadistic and punitive eruptions they unwittingly unleash in people like Greta’s mother. Could the same fate overtake Byrne and Paula?

I held my breath waiting for the wolf-note of cynicism to interject itself into the narrative as so disappointingly and repeatedly happens in the lesbian novels of the pre- Stonewall lesbian dark ages, including Ann Bannon’s. I gritted my teeth for the compulsory commissurotomy that comes at the end of the lesbian relationship, when love is kicked aside and ground into the dirt. Would Hastings/Singer also step on that particular mine?

Will Paula’s and Byrne’s touching adoration of each other remain alive?
Will Byrne show herself to be as ethical and constant as she as well bred?
Will Paula remain starry-eyed? or will the homophobia of their word defeat them?
Will Byrne do better by Greta than Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester does by poor lost Bertha his insane wife? Or will she disappoint us after all?
Will love conquer all – or will it fight hard only to be defeated in the end?

This book is remarkable for its purity and sensitivity. It never succumbs to debauchery or cheapness, and its little clichés are endearing and forgivable.
Though ‘Three Women’ is a hi fidelity reverberation of the ‘fifties, will this particular song stay fresh, or strike a sour note?
Will the denouement break our hearts – or merely disappoint?

Read this book and find out!

When Hastings published ‘Three Women’ in 1950, ‘Nevertheless’ by The Mills Brothers, was number 17 on the top 40.

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In lieu of an image of Ann Wadsworth, this painting by Edward Hopper: Cape Cod Morning


















It is impossible to over-praise this gem of a first novel by Ann Wadsworth, and I profoundly lament the fact that in the nine years since its publication there has been no second.

One can always tell when a writer has fallen in love with her character because such characters become Muse-like objects of passion. Mercedes Medina (with whom we are never permitted to presume on first name familiarity) is a softly glowing pearl in the hands of this self-assured and brilliant writer, in command of such an elegant unencumbered style. Wadsworth’s book invites us to ask and answer questions about the nature and durability of different kinds of love: the intense loves of first awakenings, the un-recognised loves that prefigure them, the stable sustaining everyday loves which often have the propensity to stifle and make stagnant, and perhaps another kind of love – the love we sometimes choose in later life, which is not based on urgent need.

I can’t explain exactly why, but at times I felt that Wadsworth was channeling Virginia Woolf, and evoking Mrs. Dalloway. I felt that both characters shared the sense of weighted reticence that stood as an obstruction between themselves and their lives. Mrs. Medina cannot be blamed for being in no hurry to reveal herself to us, because all her life she has kept herself in the dark as well. The title of this book is clever – light returns as a reflection – and that is what this book truly is.

Mrs. Medina has been married for twenty five years to her eighty-five year old husband Patrick, an acclaimed cellist, whose health is in swift decline. She is approaching her sixtieth year, when she impulsively enters a flower shop and meets the young woman who works there. This meeting, and the scent of a gardenia, which is a potent olfactory jolt to the reclamation of a suppressed romantic memory, come together at this overdue climacteric of her life.

Mrs. Medina soon finds herself helplessly impelled by the insistent and irresistible clamour of a lifetime of repressed inclinations to seek a connection with Lennie, a woman in her thirties, who is the florist’s helper. At their first meeting Lennie is wearing the same muted colours (grey and white) worn by a woman Mrs. Medina first saw on her honeymoon, when they both took the same elevator. The woman, who wore a grey suit and white blouse, sparked in Mrs. Medina the first inchoate, brutally suppressed and repressed longings that resurfaced with Lennie.

Here is an amusing intertextual coincidence: In Patricia Highsmith’s book The Price of Salt, (written under the pseudonym Claire Morgan and said the first lesbian love story to have a happy ending)  Therese, a young sales clerk at Woolworth’s, sees Carol, a beautiful sophisticated older woman, come in to make a purchase. This proves to be a coupe de foudre for Therese, who goes on to have a relationship with Carol. The incident was of course directly lifted from Highsmith’s own life, and soon after the brush with the real-life ‘Carol’ character, Kathleen Senn, Highsmith went home and fell violently ill with the chicken pox. Mrs. Medina too, after her first encounter with Lennie, comes down with a bad sore throat and accompanying cold.

I could push the coincidence to observe that ‘Claire Morgan’ could be translated as ‘clear morning’ or ‘clear tomorrow’ – so both novels appear to share the same suggestion of light returning…

But coming back to Mrs. Medina: Her meeting with Lennie precipitates a love affair that in real life would be quite improbable, but this romance, in the case of Mrs. Medina, seems almost foreordained.

Mrs. Medina is the May in the May/December marriage to her valetudinarian husband Patrick, but with Lennie she is if not quite December, then at least November. But, this November, far from being grey and dreary, is beautiful, cultured and cool as early morning rain in April. She teaches Italian literature at the University. However, she finds no satisfaction there, in casting before her swinish little pupils the anguished pearls of Elio Vittorini (a Sicilian writer whose book she is translating) and Italo Calvino. We may reasonably conclude that Vittorini’s post-war, anti-fascist writing has a strong resonance for Mrs. Medina, because, we suspect, herein resounds an echo of her long standing marriage to Patrick, who relentlessly exercises his own slightly whacky kind of fascism over her.

Mrs. Medina at first hesitantly, and then defiantly (if one could be so brash as to ascribe such a vehement quality as defiance to her) surrenders to her compulsion to love. There follows a very touching (though finally robust) account of her sexual and emotional awakening. Mrs. Medina’s stars must have been in a very propitious alignment, because she could not have wished for a more perfect lover than Lennie, who is undeterred by either Mrs. Medina’s age or her inexperience.

But things go wrong. Exeunt Lennie, and Patrick (the latter rather more permanently than the former) and in the middle of her life Mrs. Medina loses her way and begins her descent into hell. This is I think the most powerful and intense part of the book. Wadsworth spares us nothing in her brilliant exploration of the torment and anguish of lost love, when everything that has any meaning for one disappears. Like Dante’s Virgil, she guides us through the infernal pathways of Mrs. Medina’s grieving mind and delivers her into what we hope will be the light.

Of course the process is not that fast, and some relief is to be had when Mrs. Medina’s friend and colleague Tina arranges for her to have a Caribbean getaway. Blue ocean, languid tropical surroundings and warm friends help Mrs. Medina gently face her existential dilemma, and we begin to catch a glimpse of possible salvation.

I was fascinated by the slow accretion Wadsworth makes of Mrs. Medina’s traits and characteristics, which gradually place her before us as a completely convincing woman. When she falls in love, she begins to take determined steps away from her effete and inert role of wife, into the initiative required of her as a lover. She gradually loses her incorporeality and gains in substance as she bends the light so that we watch her unfolding, and revealing the artifacts hidden behind in her past. I think there may be a significant connection I am missing here that has to do with the flowers – maybe a tip of the hat to Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and maybe something secret about the flowers themselves  – Lisianthus, Gardenia etc…


I felt I was being transported into something resembling an altered state by the intense interiority of Mrs. Medina’s ‘voice’: a voice which soundlessly implanted itself in me. I was completely captured and swept into her world by Wadsworth’s preternaturally precise observations of place and time that made the ordinary minutiæ of Mrs. Medina’s life loom like the monuments to memory that little things sometimes become. I am referring now to the woman in the grey suit. Wadsworth introduced that scene like a gentle touch, when it was in fact for Mrs. Medina a high velocity hollow point projectile  which had an entry but not an exit wound.

I like to think of Mrs. Medina as a vindicating reprise of Mrs. Dalloway. Mrs. Dalloway never managed to remove her mask – perhaps she didn’t know she was wearing one, but though Mrs. Medina sowed the wind, she somehow managed to hang on to the whirlwind. Behind her reserve, her diffidence and her timidity, she hid an implacable impulse towards emotional and erotic fulfillment.

If there was a discordant note in this novel, it was somehow the character of Patrick, whose unfortunate episodes of childish petulance, together with his obduracy and zaniness, were never deplored and shown in what I thought should have been an honest light. His outbursts were I think, too charitably responded to, and somehow even made to seem oracular. I thought the extreme solidity of the love between Mrs. Medina and Patrick was implausible, in light of the fact that he acted as if she was a meal he was fully justified in devouring because it was his last supper. And now, as I seemed to have succumbed to indulging my criticality, I might mention that I also found Wadsworth’s mannerism of always referring to Mrs. Medina as ‘Mrs. Medina’ (though I did see the reason for it) a little wearying.

I think Wadsworth contrived Patrick’s relentless red-blooded self-assertion and his sheer exuberance as a foil to Mrs. Medina’s somewhat anemic paleness of character and her hidden sense of self, and his flourishing exit from mortal life was meant to contrast with Mrs. Medina’s diffident (though tenacious) entry into her lesbian existence. Another symmetry of course was the reversal in her affair with Lennie of the age difference in her marriage with Patrick.
In many ways I thought Lennie was more appealing than Mrs. Medina. Lennie lacked the insulation of affluence and untroubled conventional life Mrs. Medina took for granted. Her willingness to adapt to a much older (albeit elegant) woman’s awkward and inexpert amatory choreography with infinite patience and finesse, was I thought quite exemplary. I cared about Mrs. Medina’s happiness, but I think I cared cared as much, if not more, for Lennie’s.

Based on my limited experience, I felt a certain empathy with Wadsworth because of her obvious love and intimate knowledge of Italy, and her respect for Italian literary worthies such as Elio Vittorini, Italo Calvino and Natalia Ginsberg, whom (as if she expects us to already know them) she refers to only by their last names. Last summer I translated one of Ginsberg’s short stories myself, and experienced first hand the despair and delight of trying to transform the Italian voice to English.

The sheer beauty of Wadsworth’s spare and elegant placement of words, and their telling impact, is striking and awe inspiring. I find that to read such good writing is inevitably to crave more. This book is a deeply honest and illumined exploration of many interwoven themes – love, loss, mortality, the encroachments of age, and the journey of awakening to one’s own authentic nature. It is a firm reminder that at some point in our lives, if we are lucky, love will compel us to face the difficult challenge of finding, confronting and embracing our own true selves. This was an uplifting and substantially satisfying read, and I await a second novel with eager expectation.

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Han Suyin/ Elizabeth Comber/ Roselle Elizabeth Kuanghu Chow: September 12 1917



















I can’t quite recall how and where I first saw this title mentioned, except that it was in the rather solemnly pompous pronouncement of some self-appointed male arbiter of tasteful writing, who commended ‘Winter Love’ for “its delicate and sensitive treatment of a difficult subject”, by which of course he meant he was praising  it for being the kind of novel which, despite its lesbian subject, ended ‘circumspectly’, and thus did not transgress the decent and proper constraints of heterosexual values and good taste.

At any rate, by a lucky chance, I became aware of this particularly well-written and semi- autobiographical lesbian novel I had not even heard of before.

This tautly written novel is set in the bleak sulphurous greyness of WWII England and its dangerous uncertainties, where two young women, Mara and Red, meet in medical school. The writer, Elizabeth Comber, who wrote under the nom de plume/guerre of Han Suyin, was the daughter of a Belgian mother and a Chinese father. She unceremoniously plunges us, her readers, into the miasmic atmosphere of dreariness and near-Dickensian shabbiness of the world which was Britain during WWII; a microcosm of which is the squalid boarding house in which Red lives.

Red’s grubbiness is in contrast to elegant and perfumed Mara, whose prosperous businessman husband can afford a warm and comfortable flat with hot running water. Red, an orphan, doggedly fends for herself, and her barely suppressed anger is a prickly foil to Mara’s tender nature.

Red has had previous relationships with women, (Mara has not) but she is resistant to looking at either her experiences or herself in the context of what those relationships  signify. She cannot grasp the truth about herself, and is therefore unable either to see or accept herself in a way that would allow her to be happy and self-affirming. She is pursued by the ghosts of her previous involvements, and when the inevitable happens and Mara and Red fall in love with each other, Red is unable to to keep the taint of her past from infecting her present.

Mara secretly rents a flat where they can be together when Mara’s husband Karl is away on business. Mara, though married to a man, has a clear sense of her own unfolding, and of who and what she is. She is determined to find a way to live an authentic life with Red. She is open and willing to love, and to be affectionate, and to express the sexual feelings which are the natural accompaniment to romantic love. She is beautifully lucid and open to the flowering of her emotions and feelings, and to where they are leading her to her self-identification as a lesbian. In sharp contrast, Red is angry and overcome with jealousy that Mara for the present has to maintain the illusion of a marriage ( albeit completely hollow and loveless ) with her husband Karl. Red expresses her anger and insecurity and jealousy by lashing out at Mara and subjecting her to emotional cruelty. Her sexual feelings are twisted and confused.

Mara’s love is unaffected by Red’s venom and her unkindness. She refuses to allow herself to be drawn into the distortions that Red’s tormented and tormenting behaviour create for the two of them. Mara possesses a sanity and generosity that Red, who is parsimonious and bitter, completely lacks.

When the two of them leave together for a holiday in rural Wales, (which turns out to be quite dreadful and dogged with mishaps), more evidence is offered of the tragi-comedic absurdity of human relationships, and the frailty of human nature, and in particular the oafishness of men.

We as readers know, as Red does not, that against such odds, in order for her relationship with Mara to survive in such an inhospitable climate, Red would have to be tenacious and determined. She simply doesn’t know that if she were to have a chance of being happy, would have to keep old wounds from festering, and allow herself to be healed in the love lavished on her by Mara. If love were to endure, it would have to be rooted in the soul at a depth beyond the reach of frost, and not in the shallow rocky hard-scrabble of Red’s self-disowning heart.

Winter Love, published in 1952, is a pre-figuring or Sarah Waters ‘The Night Watch’. Both are stories set in WWII England of damaged people and their failed and failing relationships. Both stories begin backwards in the present and move into the past. They both ask and answer the question of how the characters came to end up as they did. They both examine the disastrous consequences of blighted love, and the ways in which it destroys the human heart and human potential.

The narrative of ‘Winter Love’ begins many years after Red’s and Mara’s love affair has ended. Now Red is a middle-aged woman. Both women have made their choices, and Red knows that hers has not been the right one. The story is related in her voice, with the dry touch of retrospective bitterness that a certain degree of self-loathing makes inevitable, and yet it is also a cri du coeur of longing and regret.

The knowledge that unfulfilled love has resulted in an incomplete self has come too late to Red, and the chance of salvation has been lost with the irreclaimable past. In a futile protest Red cries out her belated recrimination at Mara for not having fought her rejection – But Mara and her past have been left behind in that long-ago Winter in which contentment may have been found if only Red had paid the the price of honesty and courage, and so it happened that the kingdom was lost for a nail. Despite her name, (which means ‘bitter’ in Hebrew,) it is not Mara who is bitter, because she had the courage to take her personal version of Pascal’s wager, and so she hazarded the self she knew would be lost anyway, if she like Red had decided to repudiate her true self in return for the dubious inducements of a hollow social institution and to societal imperatives of compulsory heterosexuality. Interestingly Han Suyin herself had four failed heterosexual marriages: the first to a Chinese man, the second to an Australian, third to  an Englishmen, and the fourth to an Indian.

There is an incident when Red leaves town to spend Christmas in the country with the spinster aunt who took her in after the deaths (at different times) of her parents. Mara, in what to Red is an act of huge extravagance, calls her long distance. In the course of their strained inane un-private conversation, interrupted every three minutes by the operator who asks Mara if she wants to pay for the next three minutes. Mara tries to ‘break through’ by asking Red if she likes Blake and tigers, obviously referring to William Blake’s metaphysical poem “Tyger Tyger”. The profound significance of the insight she is trying to communicate is obvious. Blake’s Tyger is a marvel of creation, and a powerful, beautiful creature, though set apart from the lambs. But Red is only uncomprehending and irritated. All she can hear Mara asking is a pointless and stupid question about tigers. If only she had sought some clarification.

This incident more than anything else illustrates for me the tense impasse between the two women, which is caused by Red’s inability to see beyond the imperfect, and Mara’s inspired grasp of the imperative, the conditional and the future.

A case could be made that this novel is about the perversity of human nature and the futility of love. All the marriages in it are ghastly, and all the relationships repellent. Red’s past and present offer her ample evidence that ordinary people fail each other in horrible ways due to lack of honesty and decency and kindness. It is clear to us as readers that in this respect, Mara’s unfailing decency shows her as far from being an ordinary person. Yet Red ignores it all. She is grubby and literal, and lamentably, she completely misses all the magic. I wonder if Han Suyin had her regrets as well.

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Patricia Highsmith (January 19th 1921 – February 4th 1995)





































A sexual ‘deviant’ snatches a motherless teenager away from her normal life, and together they set off for a car ride across the country. This is the context of their (in those times) transgressive sexual adventure. There is a sinister man in surreptitious and tenacious pursuit of them, and his intentions are inimical to their happiness.

Perhaps this sounds familiar. It is clear that when he wrote ‘Lolita’,(published in 1955), Vladimir Nabokov purloined a sly fistful of leaves out of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel ‘The Price of Salt’ published under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan.

Though Highsmith’s terse style is antithetical to Nabokov’s lushly intoxicating prose and convoluted machinations of plot, her second novel, (the first being ‘Strangers on a Train’) is no less iconic for being the first piece of published lesbian fiction to have a happy ending.

The Price of Salt

The winter of ’48 found twenty seven year old Patricia Highsmith working in the toy department of Bloomingdales, when a beautiful woman dressed in a mink coat came in to buy a doll for her daughter. The cooly aristocratic woman was Kathleen Wiggins Senn. Highsmith was instantly stricken, and managed to memorise Mrs Senn’s name and address and send her a card. Senn never responded, and by the time ‘The Price of Salt’ was published in 1952, she had committed suicide. The two never met.

Highsmith, almost swooning from the brush with her potent Muse, and infected with the germs of both an incipient novel as well as an eruptive disease, rushed home, and in a state of physical as well as emotional fever (she was coming down with chicken pox) wrote the entire outline of her feverish fantasy of wish-fulfillment ‘The Price of Salt’. This kind of unsettling slipping away of the mind that leaves one looking foolish in the eyes of the enchanter when one would least wish it, often turns the lock of the secret door from which myths and inspirations emerge.

In Highsmith’s novel Therese Belivet is a nineteen year old sales clerk in the toy department of Frankenbergs, when Carol Aird comes in to buy a doll for her daughter. Therese sends Mrs Aird a card, and Mrs Aird responds by suggesting that they meet. The degree and intensity of Therese’s estrangement from her boyfriend Richard runs parallel to the emergence of her developing affair with Carol. That the affair is excruciatingly slow to take shape, should not surprise us, coming from a writer who found engrossing the copulation of snails.

Carol is in the process of divorcing her husband Harge, and enmeshed in a custody battle for her young daughter Rindy, when Therese and Carol impulsively decide to leave together and drive across the country in Carol’s car. In the midst of their travels they become aware that they are being tailed by a detective (hired by Harge) The detective has bugged their motel rooms with what Highsmith refers to as ‘a dictaphone’, and of course the evidence he has collected is harmful and incriminating. Incriminating too is a letter addressed to Carol Therese had placed in a book of poetry she was reading at Carol’s house and inadvertently left behind.

The chastity of the relationship remains unchallenged until Carol and Therese are halfway through their travels, in Waterloo Iowa, but even after the abrupt interjection of sex, (implausible because until it happens there is no hint of it) the passion in this affair seems chilly, and fraught with the undercurrent of an ever present sense of incipient rejection. Carol acts superior to Therese, patronising her and alluding to her love as an ephemeral artifact of her youth and immaturity, and something which she will outgrow with age. Therese in turn exasperates Carol by frequently ignoring Carol’s questions, and communications between them are weighted with an underlying tension. Carol calls Therese insensitive – but is she really? or is this some of Highsmith’s almost autistic tin ear for sentiment which makes of this book that strange concoction – lovers who truthfully requite each others love, but express it with a marked insufficiency of warmth.

Patricia Highsmith aged twenty-one.

Curiously, this love has none of the unguarded openness which frequently emerges in the liquid depths of ‘falling in love’: There is no evidence of the repairing of damage and healing of wounds that accompanies mutual love. If there was tenderness here, I missed it, and both the falling in love, as well as the sex that finally accompanies it are fiats with no preamble. Sex between the two though intense and erotically charged, and described in almost hallucinatory terms, has no hint of yearning, and none of the ‘reluctance to let go’ which is love’s aftermath. Like the women themselves, it is abrupt both in beginning and end.

The reason for this otherwise inexplicable coldness could be a fascinating dynamic: Therese, the victim of an absent and rejecting mother, has fallen in love with another ‘absent mother’.
But Carol loves her daughter Rindy.
So, inevitably,in order for this love affair to be viable for Therese, Rindy, the legitimate occupant of the nest must be expelled, or else Therese would be in danger of becoming a mere step-child in this oedipal contest.

There is often a real risk of chronic insecurity and uncertainty when one’s new lover already has a child. Only someone who has had good and adequate mothering, which Therese did not get, could survive playing second fiddle in the affections of a lover. The almost palpable disconnect in the affair is Therese’s anxiety over being loved less than Rindy, and Carol’s conflicting feelings about the likelihood of having to forfeit her child if she is to keep her young lover.
One wonders if the possible coincidence of Carol’s child’s name ‘Rindy’ resembling ‘rind’: Not ‘fruit of the womb’, but something to be peeled and rejected, is not altogether far-fetched…

The Price of Salt

Highsmith partially conceals the chemistry that holds these two women in their unlikely relationship, but she permits unexpected flashes of it. There is a moment during one of Therese’s visits to Carol’s spacious impersonal house, when Carol imperiously commands Therese to get into bed (by herself) and Therese’s emotional response is to completely submit herself to Carol’s will. In what might otherwise be a moment when it would be most natural to think of love, Therese thinks of being killed, and is willing so to be.
Later, there is another ambiguously violent scene in a motel shower a flashing moment of arm twisting and head pulling and the danger of a foot slipping ( whose?). There is an unavoidable suggestion that the core of this connection maybe tacitly understood by both Carol and Therese to be sado-masochistic.

One would not call Highsmith’s writing beautiful – in fact it is fair to describe it as dense and plodding, but if god can be said to be found in the details Highsmith’s writing is godly. One gets siphoned into the seething sea beneath the impermeable layer of crushingly detailed ordinariness. The ordinary is just a blanket beneath which all the suppressed impulses and compulsions of an awakening sexual identity are ceaselessly roiled. The outer reality of heterosexual assumption with its banal certainties is completely unremarkable, mundane and quotidian, and completely at odds with the inner world now being discovered – an unfamiliar world that as yet lacks reference points or guideposts. This still unknown inner world can only be sensed and felt – it is a terra incognita – hidden beneath a sea of liquid emotion. It is a world to which Therese longs to surrender, even as she wishes to surrender to Carol the very self that she is so newly discovering, along with her body and her will. Therese’s inner life is fraught with disquieting needs – but just as it is wrong for Carol to trivialise and dismiss Therese’s devotion as a phase she will outgrow, it would be wrong of us to forget that this is the real deal – it is love at first sight….

Kathleen Wiggins Senn

Even though Highsmith does not do dialogue – (it is unlikely as the improbable ‘green’ sapphire on Carol’s finger) and advances her plot in relatively sparse prose, there is a paradoxical pleasure to be found in the emotional dryness which somehow awakens the senses and the imagination to that mythical time between the ’40’s and ’50’s when despite the rough winds shaking them , the darling buds of authentic lesbian experience began to emerge in the writing of lesbians themselves. We now know, as our lesbian forebears perhaps did not, that women with whom other women love are not women who just happen to be women, and that women fall in love with women because it is a matter of their sexual orientation. The fact that the prelude to unexpected lesbian love is often unexamined heterosexuality does not change this fact.

No doubt Highsmith was familiar with this process, since during the late ’40’s she had been seeing a Freudian therapist in an unsuccessful attempt to alter her sexual orientation in order to marry her fiance at the time Marc Brandel. In fact, she had taken the job at Bloomindales in order to pay for the therapy! Prior to sorting through the fog of sexual confusion both Therese and Highsmith leave a trail of rubble of their male beaux, but once their inclinations become clear to themselves, neither one casts a backward glance.

For Therese, the predicament of not knowing what she really is only step by step slowly not so much discovering but stumbling over what she is not. Something of the cheerless seediness of Therese’s room and the echoing emptiness of Carol’s sprawling house seem to say the same thing. There is a strange disjointedness in the both womens’ psyches: One feels a horror at the uncomforting bleakness evoked in Therese’s propensity for opening windows and letting in the cold. The warm shelter of rooms is a confinement to be relinquished in order to experience the world: surely there is a significance to that, and in her anguished over-reaction to Richard’s severing the string of a kite in flight, regardless of who we think is being separated from whom – or what.

Virginia Kent Catherwood

Despite the crushing weight of Highsmith’s propensity to deluge us with detail, Therese’s experiences all seems to originate too much ‘in the head’ and not enough in the heart or body. There is no earthiness to these women: They drink a considerable amount of alcohol, but they do not eat – and if they eat, even if they are hungry, it is without relish. They don’t toss and turn in their sleep – sleep brings only a silent oblivion. They are aversive to food, and nourishment. At her home, and because she finds it disquieting to leave it outside, Carol asks Therese to help her bring in the garden furniture for the winter, even though Harge says it is not necessary to do so. This may be Highsmith’s way of suggesting that even as she acted the part of the ‘Bitch Goddess’ there still was in Carol a susceptibility to loneliness: A nerve to touch.

And yet, a subtle ingredient missing in this novel is an awareness of pathos. Even the most terse of Greeks possessed it, but Therese does not. Even when, she unflinching describes the heart-breaking plight of pathetic Mrs Robichek, she seems to sense it without being able to feel. But this sense of pathos is an indispensable dimension in true art. Out of the corner of her unblinking eye Highsmith catches and passes on to us glimpses of the post-war transition, and its pervasive seediness. She shows us a country full of those left behind who still seem to be stuck in the depression. Unforgettable are the worn out shoes of Mrs Cooper the older woman who ran the boarding house in Sioux Falls in which Therese stayed while Carol returned home to deal with her divorce and child custody dilemma. These scenes are are piercingly touching, and more than just a symbolic, but it is clear that Therese can observe these things without feeling any echo of empathy within herself.

Highsmith in her thirties.

The Russian writer and dramatist Chekhov observed that when there is a gun on the wall in the first act, it is bound to go off before the last – but what are we to make of it that Her lonely fellow sales clerk the lonely and ageing Mrs Robichek is trotted out and then left to flutter like a frayed flag in the wind? Perhaps this accounts for why other characters in the novel, like Abby, seem as if their separate parts were blowing away because the glue holding them together had dried up. Perhaps there is an unbearable irony here, That Therese, rejected by her own mother and forever lacking the tender nurturance of maternal love, would seek as her lover Carol, also a mother, but one who though she wavered, in the end would have to choose to sacrifice not just Therese, but her own happiness as a lesbian as well in order to have even a small part in her child’s life. Therese was cast aside by her mother. Therese may find that she chose as her lover a woman who might cast her lover aside in favour of her child…. Therese could be a two time loser.

The Price of Salt

It has been claimed that the preeminent function of love is to heal, but not before it inflicts a wound or two, and exacts its rightful price. While she is effectively abandoned by Carol in Sioux Falls South Dakota, far away from even the threadbare comfort of her rented room, Therese has an existential moment when she sees in the antique portrait of a lady, familiar to her from her childhood in an orphanage hanging in the public library a simulacrum of Carol. She perceives the Carol of his dual portrait as an archetype of betrayal and promptly has an intense attack of panic. Carol has written her a rambling letter to say that she is not contesting Harge’s claim for Rindy’s custody, and agreed to his terms in exchange for the hope of an occasional visit from Rindy. Harge’s terms are that Carol must stop seeing Therese, and in fact, cease being a lesbian.

After absorbing both the blow to her heart caused by Carol’s repudiation, as well as its disorienting effects Therese now decides to take control of her life. She abruptly gains a perspective of herself, and takes a temporary job in order to experience again the kind of life she intends to leave behind. She then secures a real job as a set designer in New York. She undergoes a dramatic transformation from passive girl to self-asserting adult, and returns to New York. She agrees to Carol’s request to see and speak with her. One senses again the glitter of fever which attended their first meeting. When they meet, Carol makes some important disclosures.

Sophisticated in her black dress Therese attends a theatre reception. When their mutual gaydar goes off, Therese recognises and is recognised as a lesbian by the leading actress of the play for which she is soon to be the set designer. The actress invites her for a private party with others whom she suggests are kindred spirits. Therese now knows that there is a personal as well as a professional world in which she can assert her independence and assume her established place among professionals like herself.

Here follows the denouement….

There is of course a biblical element to this novel, in which Highsmith (who was a regular reader of the bible) preaches a covert sermon, albeit with no trace of sermonising .
‘The price of salt’ is a biblical reference: Matthew 5 : 13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden underfoot of men”.
Also Luke 14:34 and 35 “Salt is good: But if salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned? It is neither fit for the land, not yet for the dunghill, but men cast it out “.

Highsmith is claiming some pretty high moral ground here But she is doing it in a very subtle way and perhaps not expecting most of her readers to catch it. A lesbian’s attachment to women and her identity are inextricably entwined. Take the lesbian out of such a woman and you have only ” Salt without its Savour”.

What manner of woman would choose to “Be cast out by men” and “Trodden underfoot”?

Because that is ‘The Price of Salt’.

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