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Posts Tagged ‘LGBT’

Juana Inés de la cruz (12 November 1651 – 17 April 1695)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soneto 164

En que satisface un recelo con la retórica del llanto.

 

Esta tarde, mi bien, cuando te hablaba,
como en tu rostro y tus acciones vía
que con palabras no te persuadía,
que el corazón me vieses deseaba;

 

 

y Amor, que mis intentos ayudaba,
venció lo que imposible parecía:
pues entre el llanto, que el dolor vertía,
el corazón deshecho destilaba.

 

 

 

Baste ya de rigores, mi bien, baste:
no te atormenten más celos tiranos,
ni el vil recelo tu inquietud contraste

 

 

 

con sombras necias, con indicios vanos,
pues ya en líquido humor viste y tocaste
mi corazón deshecho entre tus manos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sonnet 164

In which she allays mistrust with the rhetoric of tears.

 

This evening, my love, as I with you I was speaking,
When on your face, your feelings I observed,
And when my words I saw could not persuade you
To see whereof it was my heart desired,

 

 

Love came to my aid, to help me with my cause
And win what seemed to be beyond achieving.
Then between the ache and flooding tears
Was the essence of my dismantled heart distilled.

 

 

 

Enough my love, be done with harshness: Cease!
Neither let tyranny and jealousy torment you
Nor let vile suspicions your concern obstruct

 

 

With foolish shadows tinged with vanities,
When now in liquid form you see and touch
My heart unmade, undone, within your hands.

 

 

Translation Dia Tsung.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is late afternoon or evening somewhere in the Colonial Mexico of over three centuries ago. Dusk has not yet fallen, and two young women are locked together in the grip of shared emotion. Tears are shed, words, exchanged, and a lovers’ quarrel or lovers’ misunderstanding is being intently addressed. One of the women  is a noble of the viceregal court, in fact she is  married to no less a personage than the viceroy of Mexico himself. The other is a nun and a poet.

Perhaps the evening light pouring through the window finds them ensconced in a quiet room, the nun’s private quarters, a large room filled with hundreds books and several scientific instruments, or perhaps they are in a secluded spot in the palace grounds or a convent garden. They are alone in each others’ company.

The nun is speaking urgently and sincerely, trying to persuade and convince the lady that she has no need to feel tormented. In fact, it is the nun who has the most cause to be jealous and suspicious, because it is the lady who has other calls on her affections. But since it is the nun who happens to be the gallant in this pairing, it is she who must minister to the other’s need.

It may appear to an onlooker – if indeed there was one to watch the scene form behind a tree or a curtain (as we the readers do now) – that the scene is simply of one woman pleading with another to not be upset. But what we are really seeing is a highly skilled emotional operation – that of open-heart surgery.

The chest is cut open, and delved into. It must be so, because all the symptoms of lovesickness so dictate. Acute longing, ardent emotions, jealousy, insecurity, anxiety, tears and pent-up emotion have brought about a crisis. It is a tender but dangerous moment, and must be handled with the greatest care. The cause of all the trouble, jealousy,  mistrust, disquiet and suspicion, must be found, and lovingly addressed.

Everyone longs for this –  to not have to speak or explain, but to have one’s expressions, one’s feelings, perfectly intuited, one’s mind read, one’s heart seen into and touched, the vulnerary applied, the wound soothed and dressed and set well on its way to healing. Does the lover exist who who does not fervently long for this –  For her lover to see what is worrying and disturbing her and to tenderly  and gently administer the remedy?

And all this must be accomplished before the lady will consent to wipe away the tears of the nun, for the tears are a required propitiation, the price that must be paid. The nun’s tears are the proof of her devotion and of her surrender.

Therefore she must be assiduous. She must enter and delve into the lady’s heart, leaving nothing undone to appease it and heal it, to reassure and restore calm. She must not  seem detached, but be fully engaged in every instant. Her skill as a lover and a psychologist must exceed even her skill as a poet. All, and not just some, of the ingredients of healing an emotional wound must present, a wonderfully deft treatment and a profound understanding of female psychology must be brought to bear if the destructive event is to be made to pass peacefully. Complete healing is required, and not mere amelioration.

As we watch, we see that such is her perfection of insight and comprehension she that she is able to formulate and express the other’s feelings, to speak for her. She knows the torment of jealousy is corrosive, and with her unwonted skill she must catch it at its inception and lead the way from confusion to comprehension, and from the heavy sense of unknowing within the clouds of feeling into a peaceful clarity, yet remain within the ambiance of the cloud. She must understand the nature of limmerance (a ‘psychosis’ of sorts, related to falling in love, of limited duration and a word which will not be invented for several centuries), and reason must be so sweetened as to please, and  to not be rejected.

The nun seems to have succeeded in assuring the doubter of her love and of her constancy. It was as if Thomas did not even have to lift a finger to have his doubts and  suspicions allayed, but that Christ had himself tenderly taken the hand of the doubter and placed it on the wound. The one with a greater wound heals the one with the lesser.  Surely the lady, though married, possessed a vastly more ample freedom than the cloistered nun, and far less cause for jealousy. Nevertheless, she is the one who now receives the other’s care and comfort.

This is a profound feat of healing, requiring a perfect touch, almost an excess of skill, like a surgeon, a doctor, diagnosing, opening up the body, removing the obstruction, applying the remedy, closing the wound, and then caring for the post-operative trauma of the patient.

Nor, I surmise, was the lady disappointed. Her emotions were read and  sedulously interpreted. She was reassured and comforted. The storm  has spent itself into a gentle rain. The last line with its erotic tinge suggests that thirst has been quenched and all is refreshed with he tears which have been shed onto her palms. It is as if  though at first, in the kind of at-sea-ness of love, she has been safely guided to the shore.

This is one of  Juana Inés’s best-known poems, I wonder if it is it a scene from the past she recalls, or is it more immediate? An old memory? Did she present the lady with this sonnet the following day, or did she dispatch a servant of the convent  to carry it to the viceregal court, accompanied perhaps with a box of the best convent confections?  Or did she write it years later, when the lady had long since left for Spain, and when the news of her death reached Juana Inés in Mexico?

The poet is a secret jeweller and goldsmith, who is well able to recognise a gem, to hold it until the right moment, which may come years later, and cut and polish it and persuade it to reveal its inherent brilliance and glory in a setting of her apt devising. It demands seemingly mutually exclusive skills, those of complete immersion and complete objectiveness.  But if not objective but still in love, at what pains was she to achieve the distance to create this accurate account and set it in a sonnet from like a gem in an elegant ring?

Perhaps it is the inspiration of the personal transcending Muse who is able to transmute the variegated mass of personal feeling into the clear colour of  flawless poetry.

“Love came to my aid,” writes Juana Inés, but what was ‘Love’, if not her own intuition, and her own virtuosity in matters of love?

 

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María Elena Walsh (1 February 1930 – 10 January 2011)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

El 45

Te acordás hermana qué tiempos aquellos,
la vida nos daba la misma lección.
En la primavera del 45
tenias quince años lo mismo que yo.

Te acordás hermana de aquellos cadetes,
del primer bolero y el té en El Galeon
cuando los domingos la lluvia traía
la voz de Bing Crosby y un verso de amor.

Te acordás de la Plaza de Mayo
cuando «el que te dije» salía al balcón.
Tanto cambió todo que el sol de la infancia
de golpe y porrazo se nos alunó.

 

 

Te acordás hermana qué tiempos de seca
cuando un pobre peso daba un estirón
y al pagarnos toda una edad de rabonas  
valia más vida que un millón de hoy.

Te acordás hermana que desde muy lejos
un olor a espanto nos enloqueció:
era de Hiroshima donde tantas chicas
tenían quince años como vos y yo.

Te acordás que más tarde la vida
vino en tacos altos y nos separó.
Ya no compartimos el mismo tranvía,
sólo nos reúne la buena de Dios.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Nineteen Forty-five

Do you remember, Dear, those far-off days,      
When we learned life’s lessons the same way ?
It was during the spring of nineteen forty-five
When you were just fifteen, and so was I.

Do you remember, Dear, the cadets?
The first bolero? And our tea at ‘El Galeon’?
Sunday when the rain contrived to bring us
The voice of Bing Crosby and a verse of love.

Do you remember the day at Plaza de Mayo
When “The one I told you of” came to the balcony?
So much was changed of our sunny childhood,
And suddenly it was graduation day.

Do you remember those hard-up times,                 
When one little peso could be stretched,
And pay us for an age of playing hooky?
Life then was worth more than a million todays.

Do you remember, Dear, from far away,
That distant scent that made us mad with fear?
Hiroshima was a place where many girls
Were fifteen years-old like you and me.

Do you remember how later on in life,
High heels came along to separate you and me?
Now we no longer take the same tram together –
Now life brings us both together only haphazardly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barco quieto

No te vayas, te lo pido,                                     
de esta casa nuestra donde hemos vivido.
Qué nostalgia te puedes llevar
si de la ventana no vemos el mar.
Y afuera llora la ciudad
tanta soledad.

Todo cansa, todo pasa,
y uno se arrepiente de estar en su casa,
y de pronto se asoma a un rincón
a mirar con lástima su corazón.
Y afuera llora la ciudad
tanta soledad.

No te vayas,
quédate.
que ya estamos de vuelta de todo
y esta casa es nuestro modo
de ser.

Tantas charlas, tanta vida,                      
tanto anochecer con olor a comida
son una eternidad familiar
que en un solo día no puede cambiar.
Y afuera llora la ciudad
tanta soledad.

Estos muros, estas puertas,
no son de mentiras, son el alma nuestra,
barco quieto, morada interior
que viviendo hicimos, igual que el amor.
Y afuera llora la ciudad
tanta soledad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quiet Boat

Don’t go away, don’t leave, I beg of you,                           
from this our home, where we have lived.
What nostalgia you can bring about,
If from the window
We don’t look out at the sea –
And outside the city cries
So desolately.

Everything tires, everything passes,
So that one feels a pang to be at home,
And suddenly turns away to face a corner,
To gaze with pity at one’s heart,
And outside the city cries
So desolately.

 

 
So many talks, so much of life…                                       
There were so many evenings, with the scent of food,
For a familiar eternity…
That can’t be changed in a single day –
And outside the city cries
So desolately.

These very walls, these very doors,
They do not lie, they are our souls,
A silent boat, an inner abode,
Where we have lived, as love has lived –
And outside the city cries
So desolately.

Translation Dia Tsung.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

María Elena Walsh was a Argentinian writer, who was known and loved for her books, poetry, drama and music.

These songs reveal her singing at its best, her  warm, mellow, expressive voice, revealing the depth of intensity and emotion of her lyrics. She was one of those rarities, someone who writes her own lyrics, composes her own music, and performs it as it was intended.

She was a very popular writer of children’s literature, but under the playful lyrics of her songs, ran a subversive message discernible to adults, which was critical and disparaging of the military dictatorship and excess of the government of Juan Perón.

Walsh was of mixed British, Irish and Spanish descent, and spent part of her life in  Paris, Spain, England and the U.S.
During her self-imposed exile in the ’50s, she and her girlfriend  at the time Leda Valladares made their living singing in clubs in Paris.

She returned to Argentina after the revolution which ousted Perón, and continued singing, composing, writing and performing. She  also made a film called “Let’s Play in the World” in partnership with Maria Herminia Avellaneda.

María Elena Walsh won many honors from her country for her art, and was loved and appreciated for being a voice that never fell silent as long as one was needed to speak out on behalf of her fellow-citizens. Argentinians  recognised and understood her message, even when it came to them under cover of ‘nonsense’ rhymes and children’s songs.

The last 31 years of her life were spent with her partner, photographer Sara Facio.  Walsh died of bone-cancer in January of 2011.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mar%C3%ADa_Elena_Walsh

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In lieu of a picture of D. van der Wert, this image of a young Burgher circa 1944.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I remember pushing my head and upper body as far out of the train window as I could. My grandfather would tell me to not look in the direction of the engine. If you looked that way, sooner or later a rock-hard piece of coal dust would come to lodge itself in the softness of your eye. I didn’t pull my head back even when we reached a tunnel with its scary jagged sides mere feet away from the window, and the hot coal-scented gloom would enter my nose, and my eyes, no matter how wide I opened them could take in nothing but the black velvet darkness.  When the inevitable cinder found its random lodgement, my grandfather would remove it by pushing my lower lid under the upper one, and allowing my lashes to remove the grit.

My grandfather brought along sandwiches wrapped in newspaper. Because we always took the early train he made them early in the morning, before the sun came up, as soon as the bread man made his delivery.  From my couch next to the dining room I could hear my grandfather’s  wooden slippers as he made his way up and down the stairs into the kitchen, to bring up the beef curry left over from the last night’s dinner. Thick red spicy sauce clung to the bits of beef and stuck to the butter between the slices of bread with their curved black crusts. I remember the scent rising out of the grease dotted newspaper, and the fragrance of those sandwiches.

This grandfather, who had been an engineer of the Ceylon Government Railway, spent many years driving this very train, an old steam engine called ‘The High-Country Princess.’ He knew all the stations by heart, and the places where the train narrowly skirted a deep precipice. He would point out all the important landmarks to me: Places remembered for being the lookout posts for robbers and bandits and partisans who tried desperately and by ambush to forestall the British conquest of the Kandyan Kingdom, the last to fall, (in 1815) by rolling rocks down the steep hillsides.  These places had Sinhalese names which meant ‘Getting out Swords’ and ‘North-forest-hill,’ the hide-out where Saradiel, the Robin Hood of Ceylon, had his cave. There was Bible Rock, Sensation Rock, Lion’s Mouth, Dawson’s Tower, and the many others I can still vividly remember. We would drink the sweet milky tea, brought around by a waiter in the heavy restaurant cups stamped with a crest and letters of the Ceylon Government Railway, and eat fried snacks from the vendors who hawked them at the train stations. I could forget for a little while that I was going back to boarding school, for another agonizing three months of wrenching loneliness and sadness, far away from anyone I loved or who loved me, not that there were too many of those.

But now my school days were over. My widowed grandmother from the other side of the family, whom I called Nanna, lived in Colombo, and now I was living with her. Nanna’s house was at the end of a lane full of deep ruts, which would get deeper and more treacherous with each monsoon season. I had been staying here since I finished school. Nanna was very respectable, and proud of her cabinet of wine glasses and knick-knacks and fading studio photographs of long-dead, formally-dressed family members. Everything  in the old house was neat and tidy, and nothing gathered dust as it did in my grandfather’s  Kandy home, where no book was ever thrown out, and snake-skins and antlers hung on the walls together with old photographs of hunting dogs and prints like ‘The Gleaners,’ and one in particular, which caused me great anguish called ‘The Last of the Garrison.’ This was an engraving of an old hound lying dead over the threshold of a shelled-out doorway, with a broken musket by his head.

But it wasn’t too bad here. There were diversions –  a piano in the living room which had only a couple of dumb notes – and a young girl who lived in the neighbouring  house around the back of ours, who filled the late afternoons with the wild romantic  music of her piano. During the worst heat which came just before the evening, I would sit on the steps of the algae-covered servants’ bathroom behind the garage and listen to her playing, and my mind would float as far away as the desperate notes could take me.

Nanna’s youngest son, my uncle Walter kept birds in a huge cage on the verandah. They were finches that chirped and fluttered all day, and built their nests in little boxes near the top of the cage, and cleaned their beaks on cuttlefish bones. Still unmarried in his forties, he stayed in the front room, the only one with a sink. My grandmother had the next room, which she shared with me. The two rooms next to them were occupied with boarders: a young married couple who couldn’t yet afford their own home, and a medical student who had the last room next to the bathroom and lavatory. It was clear to me that the boarders all had futures. I did not.

My stomach was still jumpy from this morning. I felt sick and lightheaded and my mouth remained stubbornly dry.  I couldn’t quite believe that I had actually pulled off this stunt. Despite the weeks of planning, when it actually came to doing it, things took on their own momentum.  It was fairly easy to stick to my decision in the dark early morning, as I felt around for the heavy drawer pull of the bottom shelf of Nanna’s old almirah. Neatly folded in the drawer and smelling of mothballs, I knew I would find the two starched and ironed suits of clothes she had kept there for the last twenty years since Grandpapa’s death. I knew I would find a pale blue long sleeved shirt, only a little frayed at the collar, placed on top of a pair of khaki shorts and a cotton vest with short sleeves, and a pair of white cotton socks. There was also a second set of clothes  –  a white shirt and a pair of eggshell coloured cotton longs – and a matching cotton coat with a white handkerchief folded in the pocket. On the top of coat was a blue and brown striped tie and an old  ‘Peacock’ brand cigarette box that contained the yellowing removable celluloid trouser studs that went with both pairs of trousers.

I took the studs and put the box back. Everything smelled coldly of camphor and old tobacco, because together with the clothes, and my grandfathers brush and comb and a tassel from his coffin, my grandmother had stored Grandpapa’s pipe.  I hesitated before coming to a decision: Even though everyone in my family including my aunt Lennie, my father’s older sister, had the same height and build right down to the skinny legs and flat backsides. I didn’t want to chance it with the longs, in case they weren’t exactly the right length.  I knew the shorts would do fine. Even if they didn’t exactly fit, it wouldn’t matter. There was no required length of planters’ shorts. They could be anywhere from an inch to three inches above the knee: But I took both shirts and the vest.

The morning was cold, and grew colder as I bathed in the servants’ bathroom around the back of the house shivering as I poured the buckets of  night-cooled water over my head as quietly as I could.  It had begun to drizzle. Using my grandmother’s sewing scissors and the small piece of mirror used by the cook for shaving, I began with little snips to transform my head of wet hair.  I carefully felt around my head, and trimmed up the back by feel. Then I did the front and sides, stopping every few minutes to wipe the raindrops off the glass. I tried to leave a hint of sideburns in the front.  The face that looked back at me from the dark surface was uncertain. It would do.  When I shut the tall iron gate behind me the garden was still and quiet. My footsteps made no sound in the damp sand, and the birds on the veranda were still asleep, with the canvas cover drawn down over the front of their cage. I wished I still had my old sweater.  Only one house on the lane had a lighted window; the rest were dark, and opaque, their occupants still asleep. Soon I was standing at the bus-stop in the quiet street.  The drizzle had made the blue shirt a little crumpled and spotted with rain drops, but the clothes seemed to belong to me, and I thought I seemed quite presentable.  The bus ride to Fort cost ten cents.

Taking care to avoid the puddles and to keep my shoes unspotted, I walked the short distance to the train station, which was crowded. The sun was coming up.  When I gave the man in the ticket booth my money he barely looked up at me.  “Where to Sir”?  –  “One third class to Kandy”. People milled around the station even though the Kandy train would not arrive for some time yet. They walked around with their dripping umbrellas, or sat on the benches or on their suitcases if they had them.  Conversations in three languages swirled around in the watery air and settled like a foggy covering around my ears. I counted out my loose change and bought three ‘Three Roses’ brand unfiltered cigarettes, a couple of toffees and a box of ‘Elephant Brand’ matches from a vendor.   I would rather have that than a snack, and it was wonderful to smoke in the open. When the train pulled in, I grabbed a door handle of the first third class compartments to pass me, and ran along while holding on to it, and jumped in.  A man jumped in close beside me, brushing my shoulder as we entered the compartment, and we each claimed a window seat diagonally across from each other.

So this was it. This was the something I had told myself I had to do, suddenly the cord that had wound itself around my chest and stomach during the last few days seemed to loosen, and I began to hear myself breathing.  More people entered the compartment, a man with a little girl in a red dress and a pink ribbon in her braid sat next to me, and a genteel old burgher couple in front of me. Unusually, the compartment did not fill up. On the other side of the aisle sat a Sinhalese gentleman with a tortoise shell comb in his hair, and from the snatches of conversation I overheard I guessed he was traveling with his son and daughter-in-law. Across from them and next to the young man who jumped into the train with me, sat an elderly Sinhalese lady dignified in her white sari, and a silver clasp pinning it to her blouse where it covered her shoulder. There were no standing passengers, and  even a couple of empty seats. The whistle blew, the green flag waved and the train pulled out and soon the moist, morning, smoke-mixed air began to rush past the open window.

She got in at Maradana, which was the next station.  The train now stopped for nearly fifteen minutes was filling up, but the seat across from mine still had only two occupants: The very proper old burgher gentleman reading his damp copy of ‘The Daily News,’ and his white-haired, comfortable-looking wife who smelled faintly of 4711 and smiled as she crocheted blue glass beads onto the lace border of a small white doily. We all looked up when she stepped into the compartment. The old man sized up the situation: A young burgher girl traveling alone: He folded his newspaper and moved away from his  window seat and took the aisle seat next to his wife. “You can sit here, I don’t like the wind.”  He said.  She thanked him and  took the seat directly in front of me. I smoked my second cigarette right down to where it burned my fingers, and threw the butt out of the window.  The whistle blew, the guard waved his green flag, and again the train slowly pulled out of the platform with many metallic groans and shrieks. I looked at the scraps of refuse and paper swirling away from the tracks and fervently hoped that I could leave my dismal prospects to fade away with them into the distance separating me from Colombo.

We were stopped for a long time at Ragama. The small girl sitting next to me was singing a little ditty that echoed the sound of train:“ For the up-country princess, pairs and pairs of silk umbrellas….”  She smiled shyly  at me when I looked at her, so I reached into my pocket and gave her the toffees. I wished I had brought a book. The old lady smiled when she caught me looking at her. Leaning across the space between us, and cupping her hand next to her cheek in order to be heard above the rattle of the engine, began to speak to me.

“Where are you going?”

“To Kandy.”

“Do you live there? What is your name?”

“I’m from Colombo, but I am going to visit my aunt in “Katukelle.” My hands turned clammy: I hadn’t yet thought of a name.

“Where in Colombo do you live?”

“In Dehiwela – before the bridge – 47th Lane.”

“Son, I didn’t catch your name.”

“Daniel Greve,” I said – using my grandfather’s first name.

“Oh – I knew some Greves – Sam,”  she said, tapping the old man’s arm, “Don’t you remember the Greves?  Before he died so suddenly I think old Mr. Greve used to work for an insurance  office in Fort –”

Not waiting for an answer she turned to me again:

“My daughter went to school with their daughter Lenore Greves – at  Methodist College.”

“That is my Aunt Lennie.”

“Greve worked at The Great Eastern Life Insurance office” the old gentleman said, but his wife did not appear to hear him.

“Oh how nice! She was such a nice girl!”  Now her face was beaming.

“That’s whom I am going to see.”

“When you see her tell her that Connie Martyns sent her regards.  My daughter’s name was Francine, but now her surname is Vantwest.”

“Tell her go come and visit Sam and me, we live on the main road next to the Girls’ High School. Its the house with the Kohomba tree in front – you can’t miss it.”

“All right Aunty, I will do that.”

I was anxious to end the conversation. I had not counted on conversation, and could hear my voice becoming suspiciously

Planters.

uneven under the tension. Turning my body away from the old lady and towards the old man who was now nodding drowsily as his head bobbed to the rhythm of the train, I asked to borrow the newspaper. Before I raised it to hide behind and gratefully shield my stinging ears, I saw his pale hands come to rest in his lap against the soft cotton fabric of his loose trousers.

The train got stuck on the track for an hour and a half a little before we reached Polgahawela. Several of the passengers, the ones who were probably close to their final destinations, got off the train.  When the Sinhalese gentleman rose to his feet his son handed him a rolled up umbrella to use as a cane, and the daughter-in-law followed them carrying a suitcase.  They exited through the door on my side of the compartment, which I held open for them. The young man helped his father and then his wife with the big step down onto the rough stones beside the track, and when soon thereafter the man sitting next to me climbed down the steps, I handed the little girl down to him. All five began to walk towards the station, perhaps to catch a goods train later on in the day or maybe to take a bus. They all had a purpose, or so it seemed to me.  The train continued, and as it   pulled into Labugolla station, the old Sinhalese lady carefully prepared a small chew of betel and placed it in her mouth. She rearranged the newspaper-wrapped packages in her straw bag and walked across to the door. Softly she said,  “May you attain merit Sir” when I handed her bag to her on the platform.

We were now in the mountains, and the locomotive was straining to climb the steep gradient of the tracks. Mrs. Martyns set her crocheting aside and unwrapped a newspaper package and produced sandwiches. As I handed back “The Daily News” to Mr. Martyns’s I felt the  smooth papery touch of his hand. He took the paper and began to read the last page.

“Old Henry Toussaint has died,” He said to his wife as she handed him a sandwich. She handed me one as well, and I took it gratefully. I hadn’t expected to be hungry.  “Thank you, Aunty, Corned beef  – how nice!”

She demurred at the same offer. “Eat a little bit child, we won’t always get this kind of food now that the war is over.”

The old man was holding his sandwich in one hand still looking at the last page of the newspaper.  He cleared his throat slowly.

“Do you remember Henry? He used to work in the mercantile building with Fred.”

“Of course I remember Henry.”  She nodded her head and raised her eyebrows while brushing the crumbs from her dress.

“He used to visit our house in Kolpetty and bring us guavas from his garden. I can’t believe he is dead.  How did he die? How old was he?”

“Probably old age.  It says here he went in his sleep. Eighty-three I think.”

“Can’t be that old!”

“Yes. That old. Now we are all old. That was before the first war, when you knew him.”

“What was his wife’s name?  Do you remember?”

Thoughtfully he raised his eyes to the soot-stained roof of the carriage. His shirt collar slid down his skinny neck, and he lifted a blue-veined hand to slowly stroke his chin.

“Eunice Decker I think. Her people came from Matale.”

Mrs. Martyns picked up her doily. “We must send a telegram when we reach home.”

But Mr. Martyns was looking out the window and appeared not to hear her. The train lurched to a start, and we were off again.The conversation kept winding around, easy but persistent. I should have known something like this would happen. All the vines and tendrils of the burger community were intricately intertwined.  If you ran into a fellow burgher, the chances were that he or she would keep asking questions, like a person anxious to solve a puzzle, until the thread was caught which connected  you to someone already known. She was looking out the window at the mountains beyond the border of green along side the tracks. Her face was relaxed and  she seemed to be lost in thought. Her slightly waving brown hair was parted on the left and held firmly in a clip, away from her forehead.

I continued to watch her secretly in the dull yellow flickering light that bathed the compartment. Then we entered the Mirigama tunnel, one of the nine or ten pitch black holes  basted through the rock along our 79 mile route.  When a piece of grit flew into her eye she took out a white handkerchief and carefully used a corner of it to clean it. She dabbed the tears running down her cheeks and looked down at her lap as if she was carefully inspecting the yellow and pink rose print with green sprigs of her dress. Either that or she was carefully looking past them to my feet, which stuck out on the floor between us. I had shined my pair of brown shoes to a high lustre, but the loose cotton socks had sagged shamefully around my ankles. I was suddenly glad for the soft but visible covering of hair on my shins and calves.  I wished I had had a clean white handkerchief.

At Rambukkana we were delayed for another half hour while a second engine was added to the train for the big climb we would have to make into the mountains. Soon we were stalwartly taking the treacherous the curves, but I could hear the engines pushing and straining, and remnants of the large gusts of grey smoke they exhaled overwhelmed the white steam and came streaming past my window.  I wondered, what if there was a rock-fall and what if the train derailed on one of the passes – but I told myself that wasn’t likely, and it was only just another appearance of all my other fears in a new disguise.

When we reached Kadugannawa the Martyns got up to leave. I pulled out one suitcase from under my seat, and reached over her to take the other down from the luggage rack. For a moment my arm was stretched over her, and it seemed as if she gave a quick upward glance, but I couldn’t tell. When I looked at my elbow I could see the sooty double tracks smeared from the window.  Maybe that’s what she was looking at.   I stepped onto the platform with the old couple to say goodbye. Mrs. Martyns was holding Mr. Martyns’ arm.  A porter had already grabbed their bags and was racing ahead towards the other end of the platform. With his free hand the old man reached up and stroked my head.

“You are a good boy,” He said.

“Don’t forget to tell your aunty about me, ” She said.

Burgher siblings

I felt lost when I climbed back into the train. The sound of the train may as well have been a silence for the sense of emptiness that followed me. I felt the worlds within worlds within worlds, and  each of those worlds was changing faster than the other, and I was in the midst of them all. I couldn’t bear to look in front of me at the two vacant spaces: such slow going. The newspaper was gone. I had nothing.  My neck was aching with nowhere to look except outside the window. In the opposite corner the young man smoked his cigarette with fierce dedication, inhaling and re-inhaling each thick plume of blue smoke which rushed out from his mouth.  I wondered where he was going and when he would get off the train. I felt the silence surge and pulse over the monotony of the train.

“I went to Methodist too.” She was talking to me.

“Really?”

“Yes. Those old people were really nice. I think the old lady was a Miss Pietersz. I’m related to the Pieterszs on my mother’s side.” She moved her hand away from the window-sill and moved the hair away from her cheek. She had large hands.

“Then you must be from Kandy.”

“Not really. My dad’s family was originally from Peradeniya, and he used to teach Chemistry at the university, but we moved to Maradana  after my mother died. Our family home is in Peradeniya, so we moved back there last year, but before that I went to school in Colombo.”

She smoothed her skirt, which was not in any way crumpled, over her knees.  While she was speaking I managed a couple of times to look directly at her face. Her expression was serious but friendly. Then she was smiling slightly, and I could see that her teeth were white and even, except for one on the right side, which slightly overlapped the tooth beside it.  That was probably when I began to think she was really beautiful.

I couldn’t help wondering about her  – her life, her father, her dead mother,  her home. I tried to make a quick calculus of which and what threads could possibly connect the Greve’s to the Pietersz’s, and from thence to her. Inside my head I could see the names and the tangle of lines connecting them, but the lines and letters kept getting separated and reconnected in ways that made my thoughts stutter and my mouth turn dry again.

Why was it this way? Why couldn’t I ever find a single way in which to think my way clearly into a moment or two of happiness.  It was cruel that I couldn’t. Irresoluteness was thoroughly dissolved into my bloodstream, already thinned by the blood that had come down to me through generations of clerks and civil servants.  Of course that had skipped a generation, but it must have resurfaced in me.  I was no Daniel. Life with all its possibilities and impossibilities frightened and dismayed me. The girl frightened me as only something filled with careless and unconscious beauty could. I looked at her grey eyes and her smooth skin and I knew now that she would change my life. The waiter with his tray of rattling teacups was making his careful way between the compartments.  I wished I could have bought her a cup of tea.

Back at the house on 47th lane they would have afternoon tea without me.  I wondered if my Nanna would worry a little as she filled the cups on the table in the back verandah, opening the meat safe with one of the keys on her key chain to get the can of condensed milk.  The chickens in the back yard would be clucking and gathering below the window ledge, waiting for their own tea-time snack of the handfuls of paddy my grandmother kept in an old pillow case and would throw to them out the window.  She may or may not have discovered that my suitcase was missing, together with a few of my clothes and the few sad things she had saved to remember Grandpapa’s life, a life so uneventful, until that morning in May, when dressed and ready to go to work, he suddenly dropped dead of what my grandmother referred to as “a burst blood vessel.” That was a story she repeated from time to time, about her dear good husband, but I had also heard her allude, though never directly, to the black moods that would overtake him, when he would refuse to eat, or go to the office, or talk to anyone for days on end.

I hadn’t taken any money from my Nanna’s clay till which stood on the bureau in her bedroom. I did take out two Rupees from my own smaller till, being careful to leave enough coins so that my withdrawal would not be noticed or discovered.  I didn’t own anything of value,  but last week I had sold some of my clothes including the old blue sweater I had outgrown for to the bottle-man for seven rupees.  Though we were not poor by the standards of the time, and very respectable, cash money was scarce.  As old as I was, Nanna would only give me a Rupee on special days like birthdays, Easter and Christmas, but uncle Walter would give me two Rupees from the envelope of crisp new bank notes he kept for just such occasions.  When I looked up from my welter of thoughts the waiter had long since passed us and was moving down the aisle of the train and out of sight.

“What are you going to do in Kandy?” She was straightening the pleats in her skirt. What was the use of speaking? But I made myself answer.

“I’m going to see if I can get a job.”

“What kind of job?” She was frowning now, and interested. I heard my voice answering.

“I don’t know – I could get a job in the an office – or the Kutcherry maybe. I matriculated with high marks, and I know some short-hand and typing, and my uncle is a clerk in an accounting office.”  Hearing the words spill out I almost believed it could happen.

“That is nice, but I was thinking you looked like you could be a planter.”

“A planter! That would be a story of rags to riches!”

“Yes it could!” She was laughing a little and wiping off a few drops of rain that blew onto her face.

“Look at you in your planter’s shorts! You almost look the part, and you could even be handsome, except that your socks look funny  bunched up like that around your ankles, and your hair is terrible!”

I found myself laughing with her. I wanted to please her, to confide in her, to reveal my thoughts to her. I told her that if I could  really have had my wish I would have liked to work on the trains. There had been Greves’s in the railway off and on as far back as 1845 when John Ryland Greves was a goods clerk with the Kandy railway.

The faint sun was dying away.  She stood up to stretch and the smoker across the way turned around to look. I did too. She was tall – maybe as tall as I was – That surprised me, and again I could feel a wave of something I could not easily recognise coming over me. It made me want to see into her life. Even though she hadn’t said very much about herself, I could see this girl belonged in her life. I wanted to hold on to that feeling of knowing, so I couldn’t and wouldn’t ask her any questions.  I didn’t need to talk much because I didn’t know what to say anyway. I didn’t want her to ask me too many questions. At the same time I was aware of the way in which she was affecting me. I felt myself giving in to the sort of heavy feeling that comes before a fever, when you don’t want to hold your head up  and you don’t want anything except to be quiet and still and safe.
“Why don’t you come and see us?”

I wondered if  I could really have been hearing this.

“Who? Where? At your house?”

“Yes. My dad and me.  You can easily take the train and we can meet you at the station and drive you back to our home.”

“Your dad has a car?”  So they must be rich.

“Yes – an old Morris Minor – and it runs most of the time.”

“I don’t know – I will have to ask my aunty.”

It was out before I could stop it. It felt like someone else was speaking for me.

“Really? Even on the weekend? How old are you?”

“Eighteen.”

But it was getting late, and the train would soon reach Peradeniya station: Then Kandy. As I watched the darkening world flying past my window, I knew it was flying past me too.  I was thinking now that this was the kind of escape that has no escape. I wished with all my heart that I was someone else: Someone who really had a chance at life: Someone who belonged somewhere safe and secure, or at least someone who had a home, or parents – or even a small job.  A line from an old play drifted into my mind. “I am a tainted wether of the flock,” And the thought that six thousand ducats was a king’s ransom.

“I know about you.”

She was looking away from me now and at the man across from us who had lit another cigarette. He seemed to sense her attention and looked up at her, and she nodded briefly to acknowledge him. I had looked at her during this exchange when she suddenly turned and caught my eye. I fought to not look away. She held steady.

“I know your secret.”

She was biting her lip. Her eyes were deep: Sweet and deep as the sky in which I thought the stars must love to lose themselves. I felt my stomach lurch and my hands begin to turn clammy.  Then  the nervous laughter almost spilled out, at the irony of who had come to judge. But I said nothing.

“Tell me really, what are you going to do in Kandy”?

Against the cool upright of my seat I could feel the dampness on the back of my shirt spreading.

“I really don’t know.”

She nudged my foot with her shoe.

“What are you going to say to your aunt? What do you think she is going to say?”

I thought of Lennie and the serious way in which she said funny things and the funny way she had for saying cutting things, and I felt a little unsure. I knew for certain she would take me in: She had to love me, and we even looked alike, but there was so much that could happen that I didn’t know and couldn’t guess. What I did know was that I just couldn’t go on living as I had been.  It was better to die. I was like a candle in my chemistry class, about to go out because it had burned up all the oxygen in the jar. I thought Lennie would know – might understand –  that about me.

“She might scold me for leaving Colombo.”

There was almost the hint of a catch in her voice.

“Please come and visit me in Peradeniya.”

I noticed the “please.” It leapt out into the air between us together with the ‘us’ that was now a ‘me.’

“I don’t know.”

“Then I’ll come and see you.”

“No. You can’t.”

“Yes I can, and if you don’t come to see me that’s what I’ll do.  Listen to me. I have an idea. My Dad’s brother, Uncle Peter, is a planter. He works at an estate called Bellwood in Newralia.”

She pronounced it in the burgher way.

“And I remember now that quite recently he wrote to my dad and said he was looking for a creeper.”

What was she saying? Was she really saying this?

“Even though it wont pay much you will learn a lot, and you wont need a lot of money anyway, and he wont make you ask permission for everything you do.”

“But they will all find out!”

“Yes, in the end they might: But we could keep it a secret long enough.”

“Long enough? Long enough for what?”

Silence stepped in to make a brief appearance, then the sounds of the train surged back and caught us.

“For us – to get engaged – or something.”

I looked up expecting to see some hint that she was teasing. But she wasn’t. She was serious, and her gaze was fixed on my face.

“I can think up a story. I don’t know what the details will be, but if I have a little time I  know could make it all fit.”

“They will know you are lying with any kind of story you could think up.”

“You don’t know me. I have read a lot of books and heard a lot of stories, and all I’ll have to do is chang a few details.”

“What about my family?”

“Who and who is in your family?”

“Just my Nanna and my Aunt Lennie – Uncle Eddie – Uncle Walter.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

After all, I didn’t really have a father.

“Alright! That makes it really easy!  We’ll say that your father was a planter and that you were adopted and brought up by your mother’s family. That will make it hard for them to ask too many questions. They will assume that you are not legitimate and that will make them feel too ashamed to ask any questions.”

“Are you crazy? People always ask questions! They ask a lot of questions! – and they don’t stop asking until they have dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’.”

“Don’t be a coward. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

“What about – ”

But she cut me off.

“You’ll have to leave all the details to me. Just let me take care of everything. When I was in school I was very good at writing stories, and I always made them have happy endings.”

“All stories can’t have happy endings.”

“Yes they can. All of them.  I detest stories with sad endings. Especially now.”

“Why are you doing this!”

Even I could hear the worry in my voice.

“I don’t know. Maybe its because I like you. Maybe its because I don’t really want to go to university or be a Montesorri teacher or a stenographer,  or worse marry someone and have a lot of children – and there aren’t many other things besides that I could do.”

I shook my head and clasped my clammy hands.

“It will never work.”

This seemed to make her angry. Her face reddened slightly.

“Stop jiggling your leg. And stop acting like a child. You started this! You should have thought of that before you started.”

She saw my frightened look.

“Listen to me. We could pretend that you are like my cousin John.”

I looked at my feet.

“Look at me! His mum, my aunty Amy and my dad were on a ship, on their way to a holiday in England when she met this fellow on board. That’s how she had John. When he was born she kept him, and even gave him the fellow’s last name. My dad probably felt guilty, so he helped her with everything. He sent John to Trinity College, and found him a job even though he didn’t bother to matriculate.”

“Where is your cousin now?”

“He is on an estate in Uva. He is also a planter.  He has a wife and two kids and a car and my aunt lives with them, and she and John’s wife get along and no one ever says anything about his past.  See? A happy ending.”

A whole shimmering world built itself before my eyes, of hand cut-lawns and rose gardens and hydrangea borders: Of mango and mulberry trees and long driveways and cypress hedges: A house with polished red floors and echoing rooms and pictures on the wall and old photographs of dead ancestors.  There would be a teak-wood dining table and food served by men in starched white coats and polished brass buttons:  A bathroom with an enamel tub and a hot water geyser and of course a bedroom with a sofa and an armchair and a side table with a reading lamp: And of course a bed. That was unavoidable. I had never slept next to anyone before in my whole life. I wondered what that would that be like.

She was repeating herself.

“Don’t worry, I can make everything work out.”

She seemed impossibly strong: So much stronger than I felt I could ever be. I thought of my bed in Colombo, across the room from Nanna. I couldn’t  even have my own room because she kept boarders: and here was this girl, deciding her own fate – choosing this thing and pushing the other aside – and in spite of myself I felt a tremor of some feeling that was a mixture of horror and joy.  She said it again.

“Don’t worry, I can make it all work out.”

And I could think of nothing else to do with my life than put it in her hands. Only yesterday the truth of that life seemed unbearable – and now I was going to exchange it for a web of lies in which I was caught like a helpless fly. But never before in the world had there been such an intoxicated fly. To do something with my hands which were about to start shaking, I took out the box of matches from my pocket and began to rattle it.

“Look here,  pull yourself together and listen to me. I’ll tell my dad that I met someone who can creep for Uncle Peter: We can even say you will work for free. Since you know short hand and typing you could even work in the factory office and help him with the clerking. That would really be good.” She spoke faster.

“I know Uncle Peter has an old clerk called Mr. de Jong who wants to retire. He has a son in Australia who has been asking him to leave his job – leave Ceylon – This could really work! I could come and join you!  – And then – ”

She paused for a moment.

“Are you a Methodist?”

“Yes. Why?”

But she didn’t answer.  She seemed to drift away and I could see she was  absorbed in thinking. “That’s good.”

What on earth did it matter whether or not I was a Methodist? What did it matter whether the world saw me as I was or wasn’t? I was invisible. No one had seen me before this. She was the only one who had ever seen me. Here I sat in a dead man’s thin blue cotton shirt and old khaki shorts, buckles pulled tight as far as they would go at the waist, with only a few coins and not even a hanky in my pocket, and she was seeing me and my present, past and future in a way I could never have dreamed possible. Sometimes when I looked at old people I imagined I could see around the corner into the past when they were young. I liked doing that, but I had never met anyone who could grasp and unravel the whole thread of life wrapped around a single moment.

The air outside the window had turned chilly and again the rain had begun to fall. The trees looked wet and glistening in the thick, heavy light. All along the way there had been little cadjan-thatched huts with bunches of plantains hanging from the rafters and men and women sitting beside baskets of fruits and betel leaves and piles of new clay pots. I had watched them with envy, even envying the occupants of the little graves with their cement headstones, that came into view from time to time.

I thought  of how in less than an hour I might be sitting down for dinner at Lennie’s table, with the antique Dutch oil lamp shedding its light on the dishes and glasses. I could see the scarred bread-board with its companion the bone handled knife which she kept by her side, cutting off a couple of slices at a time as they were needed. We would have bread every night I knew. No rice for dinner that was Lennie’s way of keeping up the old burgher ways.  Then I saw myself sitting with her at the table. I felt like a fly that had flown into a fly-paper, unable to move without tearing myself apart. All the bits and pieces of my past had suddenly become disconnected. The years in boarding school, a father who only left the asylum for a few weeks at a time and then during the term rather than the holidays, my resourceful Nanna making do by taking in boarders and supplying lunches to office workers, mending my socks with the old silver thimble with the holes in it on her finger, and telling me how it had belonged to her favourite aunt, who sewed dolls dresses in the latest Victorian fashions. I saw myself watching her unpick the tacking thread from a hem to save and use again, I saw myself as a child, with my Kandy grandfather who bought me marbles, and thread and  tissue paper for kites, and how happiness seemed to appear and disappear and be replaced by pain and emptiness. Now that past would have to be left behind, together with all the scenes that passed by my train window today. How simple and yet how strange life was turning out to be – frightening and mysterious and full of promises I didn’t know could ever be fulfilled.

The train was pulling in to Peradeniya station. She reached out suddenly and grabbed my hand, shaking it hard with both hers,  sending  a hot jolt of electricity through us both, making us prickle with the sparks. She leaned forward and I could feel the pulse in my neck begin to throb.

“Remember everything I said!”

“Alright. Yes: I will.”

Neither one of us had a pencil or paper, so she told me her address.

“Write to me first and ask about my uncle Peter. Then I’ll arrange things and write back.”

The tension and the excitement inside me rose to such a pitch, I felt everything around me begin to melt and disappear. I could see something reflected in her face and in her eyes, which were glittering brightly in the uneven light of the compartment.  The pattern of what life had meant to me shifted and changed like the sudden click of a kaleidoscope.

“Yes,” I said:  “Yes.”

I got her suitcase down from the luggage rack and stepped down to the platform with it.  A porter came running and grabbed it. She turned away.  I got back into the train and stood leaning out of the middle window. I saw a tall older man in a white cotton suit and brown hat come walking towards her. She almost ran towards him. They kissed and embraced each other. She turned around and waved, and I watched her thin straight form move away until it got swallowed up in the crowd. The guard blew his whistle and waved his flag. The train began slowly to grind its tired way away from the station platform.

I sat down, suddenly feeling weak. My legs were shaking and my eyes turned hot and filled with tears.  I took out the last crumpled cigarette from my shirt pocket and began to smoke. I began to compose a letter to her in my head, and it was then I realized that I didn’t know her name. A sense of horror came over me and deepened until I felt myself engulfed in it.  I thought, this must be what it feels like to die.  I could recall every detail of her face, every expression, every mannerism, every inflection of her voice.

But the address had flown out of my mind like a bird leaving its cage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Burghers are the mixed descendants of Dutch, French and  to a lesser degree, British colonial settlers in Ceylon. They  were

A Planter with his family and staff.

an anglicised culture, speaking English as their first language, and were largely employed in the public sector, but also the schools, and the banks, etc.  It would not be an over-statement to say they ran the country, until Ceylon gained its independence from the British in 1948.

The  subsequent rise of nationalistic sentiments and the shift from English to Sinhalese as the lingua franca sealed the fate of the Burghers, and their displacement  and removal as a stable part of Ceylonese society. The displacement, which in fact was an eviction, began to pick up speed in the early ‘fifties, when most of the Burghers began to leave to country and move to other parts of the British commonwealth, chiefly to Australia and Canada.

Tea was brought to Ceylon by the British, in the mid 19th Century as a source of revenue,  and a complex sub- culture grew up around the business. Planters were a sub-set of a certain social class originally

Job offer made to an 18 year old in response to an application.

consisting mostly of Englishmen and Burghers. Their positions allowed considerable autonomy over the running of very large tea and rubber plantations, and over the labour force (Imported from South India) used to pluck the tea leaves – a highly labour-intensive process.

Most Planters lived in large bungalows built in the style of country houses, and were served by sizable staffs of servants. Most parent companies would provide their British Planters an all-expenses-paid trip to England every ten years, and in time this privilege was extended to the Ceylonese as well.

This story is set at the beginning of  the time of social upheaval and unraveling for the Burghers. About forty years or so ago,  the government began the processes which ended in its seizing ownership of  the tea  and rubber estates, and a way of life came to an end, but by that time the Burgher diaspora had been well underway for decades.

A ‘creeper’ is an apprentice Planter.

The picture at the top of the post, shown in lieu of the writer, is that of a girl. She was my Aunt Mone’s school-friend.

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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.

http://english.stanford.edu/bio.php?name_id=36

http://www.stanford.edu/~castle/cgi-bin/wordpress/

http://terry-castle-blog.blogspot.com/

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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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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…

Lisianthus

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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