From The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir . . .

Every now and again I take down this book and browse through it. I don’t know why I do that because it only makes me cross. As misery loves company I thought I’d share it with you ladies! Fellas are welcome to join in . . .

If widowed, woman was expected to accept at once a new master. In the “chansons de geste” we see Charlemagne marrying in a group, all the widows of his barons killed in Spain; and many epic poems tell of king or baron disposing tyrannically of girls and widows. Wives were beaten, chastised, dragged by the hair. The knight was not interested in women; his horse seemed much more valuable to him. In the “chansons de geste” young women always made the advances, but once they were married, a one-sided fidelity was demanded of them. Girls were brought up rudely, with rough physical exercises and without modesty or much education. When grown up, they hunted wild beasts, made difficult pilgrimages, defended the fief when the master was abroad. Some of these chatelaines were avaricious, perfidious, cruel, tyrannical , like the men; grim tales of their violence have come down to us. But all such were exceptions; ordinarily the chatelaine passed her days in spinning, saying her prayers, waiting on her husband, and dying of boredom.

This was written about the middle ages of course, and so much has changed for women. Recently I watched a thriller about a detective who happened to be a woman. She was taken captive by the villain and tied to a chair, and it occurred to me, as it had done many times before, women are powerless in the presence of aggressive men. They will always be stronger than us, and we will always get pregnant.

I don’t want to be giving out about men; I have lovely men in my life, but facts are facts. Anyone want to discuss this subject, or to disagree with me?

Two things, and an excerpt . . .

First thing: I’m going to be away for a few days – wedding duties! Second thing: I have serious writer’s block – I can’t even manage a line for a haiku. So I’m going to post some pages from “Thelma”, one of the stories in We All Die in the End. Back next week – I hope!

“I wonder if I should wash . . . Thelma, do you think I should have a wash?”

            Thelma dithered beside the bed, moving from one wee foot to the other, waiting to heave Thomas to his feet. The top of his pyjamas hung open and his belly bulged over the bottoms. There was a line of sweat where the bulge began and another across the back of his neck when he bent to look at his feet.

            “Whatever you like, dear. The water’s hot.”

            “Well, I will then. I’ll have a nice wash and you can change the bed. I’m a bit sticky. One of the boys spilled beer . . .   “

            Thomas waved a hand near his pillow and then clutched Thelma’s arm. She braced herself and waited while he moved his heavy legs to the floor.

            “Up we go,” she said. “Upsy daisy.”

            Slowly, Thomas pushed his feet into his summer gutties and hauled himself up along Thelma’s, thin shoulder. She glanced at his jacket hung over the chair, pockets sagging a bit with change, good! Thomas’ hand was tight on her wrist and she fixed her eyes on the plump, pink fingers. She would prick him like a sausage . . . prick, prick, prick, all over, and his pink skin would burst open with wee pops and the yellow fat would ooze out, relieved and grateful.

            “I’ll have a piss first,” Thomas said.

            “Yes, and have a shower,” Thelma said. “You’ll feel the better of it.”

            Thomas nodded and shut the bathroom door. Thelma could hear him coughing, and then he was pissing and spitting and farting and coughing all at once – the whole bloody orchestra, as he said himself. When the toilet flushed she footered about with the socks in his drawer in case he changed his mind and came back but after a minute she heard the shower starting up.

            She shook his jacket and pushed her fingers quickly into the pockets. Heavy change – she left a couple of coins so he wouldn’t miss the jingle. In his trousers two fivers were stuck together. Thelma took one. She slid the money into one of her green boots with the fur and counted with a quick look. Fifty pounds all told – not bad. She ran her fingers and her eyes over it and then she carefully pulled up the zip. Now, she said to herself, Irene can’t say I’m not trying.

            A whole weekend away! Up the coast, that lovely, old hotel, and the lovely, soft, sandy beach, not covered in stones like ours! Oh, it’ll be great, it’ll be magic, magic! She leaned against the chest of drawers with her eyes shut tight and her arms folded, one wee ankle twisted around the other. She’d eat steak and chips and drink Prosecco . . .

            She opened her eyes. The bed! She tore the sheet off and pulled at the duvet cover. Crumbs, beer stains, the pillow-case grey from his head. She ran round and round the bed, smoothing and tugging and then she leapt when Thomas roared from the bathroom:

            “How long am I supposed to wait here?”

            He’d be dripping all over the place! Thelma left the pillow and skipped into the bathroom. Thomas was shivering; he dabbed at himself with a towel.

            “What are you like?” Thelma was gay with the money safe and the holiday in her head.

   “Come here to me and don’t be getting narky.”

            She grabbed the towel and dried him. He lifted his arms and his fat feet and turned when she told him to.

            “Now, don’t you feel better?” she said.

            “Don’t you feel nice and clean?”

            “I do,” he said, wriggling his shoulders, the skin still a bit damp.

            “You’d better get the sambos made. And put the telly on, the boys’ll be here soon.”

*

            “Another twelve? That’s it, Thelma? Fifty altogether? It’s not nearly enough – it doesn’t even approach nearly enough. What have you been doing? It’s the middle of July already. When were you thinking of going? Christmas week? Nobody around, nothing going on, wind and rain and cold? It won’t do, Thelma. There’s others would jump at a weekend in the Glens, plenty of money too, they have, not putting away a few pounds at a time like you.”

            Thelma shook her head, her wispy, silky hair sliding over her wee face.    

            “I’m doing my best. You won’t let me down now, will you?”

            “Ha! Me let you down?”

            Irene opened her notebook and tapped the table with her pen. “That’s a good one. You’ve got a nerve, you have. Fifty pounds you’ve got – do you want to go for one night? One night – take us half a day to get there – “

            “But I can get more, Irene. I will, I will get more – you know I will.”

            She glanced out the window. The boys would arrive soon: plenty of beer – plenty of loose change.

“Well, I don’t know,” Irene said. “You could try harder, I suppose. He doesn’t check every penny you spend, does he? Can’t you cut a few corners? Eat a bit less? Give him more bread and less meat.”

Thelma shook her head.

            “It’s all right for you, Irene. You can do what you like – live on bread and jam if you want, sit in the dark and wear a jumper to keep warm if you like. Thomas likes his meat.”

            “Get a job then. Get yourself up to the supermarket, sit at the till. They pay you to do it. Money, Thelma! Really, you know, you really should come to the classes our Henry’s May and I go to. You’d learn a thing or two! If ever a body needed it . . . “

            Thelma didn’t speak. She stared at the table and shut her ears and squeezed her wee fists on her knee. What would you know, she thought, you with your big hands and your big feet and your hair all screwed up and you don’t have a sausage in the bedroom shouting orders all the live long day. That’s all she ever got – orders.

            “Ah for God’s sake, there’s no talking to you. You know, Thelma, half the time I don’t think you’re serious about this holiday at all. And I bet you haven’t told him yet, have you? You’d better get that over with, quick! Are you afraid of him or what? I’m going to tell you exactly how much you need and then it’s up to you. Get a job or get it out of your man in the bed, whatever, I don’t care, just get it.”

            Thelma nodded, and then there was a knock at the door.

            “Eh – Irene, the boys are here – I’ll have to – “

            “Boys! Boys! For God’s sake, Thelma. Do you hear yourself? They’re men – big lumps of men, expecting you to run around after them, and do you know why they expect you to do that? Because you do it. You do it and you keep doing it and you don’t even realise you’re doing it. I blame your mother, so I do. She sent you away to that school and all you learned was how to do what you’re told!”

            Irene swept the notebook and pen into her handbag.

            “Up and down them stairs,” she said. “Up and down, up and down like a wee skivvy.”

            She lifted her bag with a swing as the men came in, clattering up the stairs. Alistair said hello, the word slipping out from under his thick moustache.

            “Your own brother,” Irene said, looking at Alistair’s legs in the tight, purple tracksuit. He should be looking out for you. You need to get away – you need to relax. You said you wanted to go, so you did. We’ll drink Prosecco you said and eat steak and hire a bicycle maybe and – “

            “I know, I know,” Thelma said. “Of course I want to go. You know I do. I do”

So, what do you think? Did Thelma tell Thomas, and get away to eat steak and drink Prosecco?

Some wonderful prose from The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

I can’t resist sharing my delight in the prose of Tom Wolfe. The description of this party goes on for several pages and is so totally and completely entertaining I can’t put the book down. Oh, the X-rays and the Lemon Tarts! I’d be annoyed on behalf of these women only I’m quite sure it’s all true. I hope you enjoy these few excerpts.

“All the men and women in this hall were arranged in clusters, conversational bouquets, so to speak. There were no solitary figures, no strays . . . There were no men under thirty-five and precious few under forty. The women came in two varieties. First there were women in their late thirties and in their forties and older (women ‘of a certain age’), all of them skin and bones (starved to near perfection). To compensate for the concupiscence missing from their juiceless ribs and atrophied backsides, they turned to the dress designers. This season no puffs, flounces, pleats, ruffles, bibs, bows, battings, scallops, laces, darts, or shirs on the bias were too extreme. They were social X-rays, to use the phrase that had bubbled up into Sherman’s own brain. Second there were the so-called Lemon Tarts. These were women in their twenties or early thirties, mostly blondes (the Lemon in the Tarts), who were the second, third, or fourth wives or live-in girlfriends of men over forty or fifty or sixty (or seventy), the sort of women men refer to, quite without thinking, as girls. This season the Tart was able to flaunt the natural advantages of youth by showing her legs from well above the knee and emphasizing her round bottom (something no X-ray had).”

“A blazing bony little woman popped out from amid all the clusters in the entry gallery and came towards them. She was an X-ray with a teased blond pageboy and many tiny grinning teeth. Her emaciated body was inserted into a black-and-red dress with ferocious puffed shoulders, a very narrow waist, and a long skirt. Her face was wide and round – but without an ounce of flesh on it . . . Her clavicle stuck out so far Sherman had the feeling he could reach out and up the two big bones. He could see lamplight through her ribcage.”

“There she was, standing over near the fireplace, laughing so hard – her new party laugh – laughing so hard her hair was bouncing. She was making a new sound, hock hock hock hock hock hock hock. She was listening to a barrel-chested old man with receding gray hair and no neck. The third member of the bouquet, a woman, elegant, slim, and fortyish, was not nearly so amused. She stood like a marble angel. Sherman made his way through the hive, past the knees of some people sitting down on a huge round Oriental hassock, toward the fireplace. He had to push his way through a flotilla of puffed gowns and boiling faces . . . “

What do you think? Have you read this book? Did you enjoy it?

Scrublands by Chris Hammer | Comments and an excerpt.

Before I begin this post I just want to say that I will be missing off and on between now and September 1st. My daughter is getting married and we’re in the throes of organizing everything. At least the shops are open again so myself and family can look for something gorgeous to wear. It’s all great fun!

Now, Scrublands. This is another one of those very atmospheric books; this time an Australian novel. I haven’t read many book set in Australia so this one appealed to me, maybe because I’m very fond of Australian cinema.

The characters are terrific and so memorable. The dialogue, the prose, the pace and shape of the book – all so good. I seem to be attracted to stories set in very hot places – perhaps because I’m here in Dublin; it’s ten degrees and raining, near the end of May – which is officially Summer!

The book begins explosively with a shooting outside the local church; the shooter is the priest. A year later, a journalist, Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write an article on the anniversary of the tragedy; he interviews several witnesses and hears all kinds of different versions of the story. He decides to solve the mystery for himself.

“Martin Scarsden stops the car on the bridge leading into town, leaving the engine running. It’s a single-lane bridge – no overtaking, no passing – built decades ago, the timber milled from local river red gums. It’s slung across the flood plain, long and rambling, desiccated planks shrunken and rattling, bolts loose, spans bowed. Martin opens the car door and steps into the midday heat, ferocious and furnace-dry. He places both hands on the railing, but such is the heat of the day that even wood is too hot to touch. He lifts them back, bringing flaking white paint with them. He wipes them clean, using the damp towel he has placed around his neck. He looks down to where the river should be and sees instead a mosaic of cracked clay, baked and going to dust. Someone has carted an old fridge out to where the water once ran and left it there, having first painted a sign on its door: FREE BEER – HONOUR SYSTEM.”

“It’s darker and cooler, much quieter, out of the wind. The boy is not here. Instead, up near the front, in the second line of pews, a woman is kneeling, perfectly still, praying. Martin looks around, but he can see no memorial to the shooting inside the church, just as there is none outside. He sits in the back pew, waiting. He recognises the woman’s piety, her supplication, but can’t remember how. How long is it since he felt anything remotely similar, experienced anything approaching grace? Codger thinks there was something holy about the priest, as does Mandy. How could that be, a man who shot things, who killed small animals and murdered his parishioners? How could that be when Martin, who just the day before had saved the life of a teenage boy, feel so much like a husk? He looks at his hands, places the palms together as if to pray, and stares at them. They don’t seem to belong to him, and he does not belong in this place.”

I begrudged time away from reading this book. I hope you find this as engaging as I did.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt – some thoughts . . .

I saw the movie of this book a long time ago, and recently took a notion to read it. Something must have sparked it off, perhaps something I read here on WordPress. If so, thanks to whoever it was. I’m enjoying it so much, and will write a proper review when I’m finished. I should say here, that it’s a non-fiction book about an antiques dealer, but it reads like fiction.

I have never before been so drawn in to the atmosphere of a book. Even when I’m not reading, I feel like I’m in Savannah. Here are a few words:

‘There was ample evidence in the records of the historical society that in Savannah’s palmier days it had been a cosmopolitan city and its citizens an unusually worldly sort. Mayor Richard Arnold, the man who had sweet-talked General Sherman in and out of town during the Civil War, was typical of the breed. He was a physician, a scholar, an epicure, a connoisseur of fine wines, and a gentleman who took his social obligations seriously. He wrote in one letter, “Yesterday, I entertained the Hon. Howell Cobb at a sociable dinner party. We sat down at 3 o’clock and got up at half-past nine.” Mayor Arnold’s six-and-a-half-hour dinner lent weight to what I had been told about Savannah’s fondness for parties, and it put me in mind of the genteel merriment going on nonstop in the town-house down the street from me at 16 East Jones Street.

My casual surveillance of the house paid off one day at noontime. A car drew up to the curb and screeched to a jolting stop. At the wheel was a neatly dressed elderly lady with white hair as neat as pie crust. She had made no attempt to parallel park but had instead pulled into the space front end first as if tethering a horse to a hitching post. She got out and marched to the front door, took a ball-peen hammer out of her purse and methodically smashed all the little panes of glass around the door. Then she put the hammer back in her purse and walked back to her car. The incident didn’t seem to make any difference to the people in the house. The piano went right on playing, and the voices went right on laughing. The panes of glass were replaced, but not until several days later.’

Does that give any idea of the very strong flavour of this book? I seem to be totally subsumed into Savannah!

An Excerpt from DANCER by Colum McCann – a gripping story based on the life of Rudolph Nureyev.

The date I have written in this book is February ’19, and I haven’t read it since. I loved it; the writing was terrific, and flesh was put on a distant star. I picked it up the other day, and I’m ready to re-read.

It was a hot summer in Ufa, the city enveloped in smoke from the factories and ash blown in from the forest fires, off the Belaya river. A thin film of soot lay on the benches in Lenin Park. I was finding it difficult to sit and breathe, so I finally plucked up the courage to spend the last of my money on the extravagance of the cinema.

Having not been there since Anna passed on, I though I might be able to revisit her, twine a lock of her grey hair around my finger.

The Motherland cinema was located down Lenin Street, gone slightly to ruin, the beginnings of cracks in the magnificent facade, posters yellowing in their glass cases. Inside, fans on the ceiling were at full force in the heat. I hobbled in on my cane and, having forgotten my eyeglasses, sat close to the front.

Word had gone around that Rudi was featured in the newsreel and there was a noise in the air, his name being whispered by what were presumably were old classmates, young men and ladies, some old schoolteachers. Yulia had written to say that in Petersburg young women had begun to wait outside the stage door to get a glimpse of him. She mentioned that he was even due to dance for Khrushchev. The thought was chilling and wonderful – the barefoot Ufa boy performing in Moscow. I chuckled, remembering the names Rudi had been called at school: Pigeon, Girlie, Frogface. All of that had been forgotten now that he was a solo Kirov artist – the arrogance that had been taken from the air and put in the victory soup.

After the anthem the newsreel came on. He was featured dancing the Spaniard in Laurencia. The sight of him was an acute but pleasing thorn. His hair was dyed black for the role and his make-up was garish. I found myself holding Anna’s hand and mid-way through she leaned across to me. Rudi was being savage and exotic, she said. He was bringing a flagrant ruthlessness to his idea of dance. She whispered urgently that he was altogether too flamboyant, that his feet weren’t pointed well, his line was slightly wrong, that he needed to cut his hair.

I thought: How wonderful – even as a ghost Anna didn’t hold back.

That wonderful narrative drive that keeps you turning pages; one of life’s best experiences.

Cloister

Some days I wish I’d been a nun

Cloistered, curtained by the hanging

Green of trees, pale apple green, serene cloak.

Measured days and nights,

Paced from hour to praying hour.

No pride no lust no greed no lies,

No loss no gain no pain no strife,

But peace, pale apple green, serene

Soft poultice on the quick of life.

“My Sorrow” from Minus One

So now I know and

Must accept my fate

The sear of ice is

Burning in my breast

I have tried to quench it

With the gasping taste

Of whiskey

With new distractions

I have tried to warm

My blood

Suicide wouldn’t suit me

I fear the gaping hole

Of hell

But ah, to be old and

Mindless

My wretched mouth

All gums and grins

The ice dissolved at last

In drools and dribbles.

LANDSCAPES from Minus One

1.Tied by mortal feet

to an inland place,

I would be one of

Lir’s unhappy swans

blown across the wintry

straits of Moyle

This bland wind has

no taste, no smell.

It sweeps down fiercely

from the hills

and knocks the heads

off blooms already dead.

2. Heedless of the

grey, polluted air

the whins blazed.

I gazed and saw them

shine above the singing

northern sands.

Some bastard

burned them down.

The skinny twigs are twisted

black and crumbling.

Street-locked and bereft

I am left to suffocate.