31 July 2021

At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies' Pond by Various

 We've reached the midway point of summer but the 12C I woke up this morning belies the season.  It would seem that we've swapped climates with the West Coast of Canada where they are literally on fire.  Here in Ontario the lawns are lush and green with mushrooms springing up everywhere.  As someone who crept out from under the shade umbrella on Day Nine of a trip to Mexico years ago, a cooler summer suits me.  My one request of Mother Nature would be to please allow at least three days in a row without rain.  Friends and neighbours growing zucchini have run out of people willing to take any more off their hands.

As for books, after reading an article in the TLS about E M Delafield and her Provincial Lady series I dug out my copy of the first in that venture.  It's a 1930 edition bought on Charing Cross Road with illustrations not included in the beautiful edition Virago reissued several years ago.  What started as a quick browse ended with the need for a bookmark and several days of squirreling away to read a few more entries.  Has it really been twelve years since I last read this book?!

I returned to Selected Diaries to read Woolf's entries from 1923 to 1931.  Virginia and Leonard have signed a ten year lease on their home in Tavistock Square, and the author has finished Mrs Dalloway.  In an ongoing drama, Nelly has downed her kitchen implements and given notice for the 165th time, and Virginia has piqued my interest in Edith Sitwell.  Diary entries for the first couple of months of each year most certainly reveal a pattern of Seasonal Affective Disorder.  In February (1927) Virginia has her long hair cut short in the style of the day.  Very happy with the result she reports no change in the front but behind I'm like the rump of a partridge.  With menopause on the horizon Virginia goes back and forth about her childfree marriage, in turns happy to enjoy Vanessa's children but envious of Vanessa's state of motherhood.   Virginia's income level soars during these years (the salary almost of a Cabinet Minister) with the ever increasing success of her writing....they have purchased a car and Virginia has learned to drive.  Additions have been added to Monks House in Rodmell and Virginia thrills at watching a ham cook on a new oil stove.

As for At the Pond this is the second enjoyable collection of essays published by Daunt Books I've read this summer.  Fourteen authors share their thoughts and experiences surrounding visits to this traditional pond that proudly admits women only.  The essays are divided by season, chillingly beginning with Winter.  The image of people in early novels breaking ice in a wash basin for a bit of water to splash on their face sends a shudder so I can't begin to fathom jumping into a frigid pond.  Lou Stoppard writes that she is able to mute that feeling of a thousand stabbing pins....it's not something I can ever imagine inflicting upon myself but I do admire those with a passion for it.

Writers contributing to this collection vary from the familiar such as Margaret Drabble and Esther Freud to the majority that I, up until now, knew nothing about.   Nell Frizzell's essay was particularly interesting, she began training to be a lifeguard at the pond when she was eight weeks pregnant and battling morning sickness...

Towards the end of that pregnant summer one of the carp, an older lady we christened Carole, came up to the surface.  She was probably ill, moving towards the end of her life with a flash of fame; literally a moment in the sun.  Swimmers were terrified.  There were screams, cries, yelps for help.  People confused Carole with a snake, a shark, an old car tyre, an abandoned motorbike - even a dead body.  Looking at her bloated, ungainly progress across the Pond, and feeling my own girth spread ever thicker, I felt a certain sympathy.  

I loved Frizzell's writing, and that a group of women would gift a carp with a vintage name and glamorize it further by adding an 'e'.

The uplifting theme of peace while basking in sun and water as a way of combating the relentless pace of London, heartbreak and feelings of loneliness provides a message of hope.  In some of the essays, whole lives are succinctly laid out within a few pages, such as Nina Mingya Powles' story of growing up in Malaysia and her close ties to her grandmother, memories of visiting a beach in New Zealand with her mother, and living in a flat near the pond so close to the rail tracks the room shakes with each passing train.  Powles beautifully conveys how the sensation of being in water unites....

It has no distinction past and present tense, nor between singular and plural; as a result it contains all the places I call home, as well as all my memories and all my names.  I float, I strain, I swim.

And Deborah Maggoch made me laugh out loud when she ponders men and a certain characteristic while at the Mixed Pond....why do men splutter and grunt like walruses when they swim, and splash water everywhere even when they're doing the crawl?  Quite.  As someone with a policy of not getting wet in public I stay away from pools but walked past a community pool for almost two decades on my way to work at a branch library.  You make a very valid point, Deborah!

One essay in particular stood out for descriptions of the pond's history, Dido Elizabeth Belle, Keats, and that Primrose Hill was a flat section of land until excavated to create a plague pit.   After reading a few pages of carefully researched history, a single line merges into a personal anecdote....

I don't swim at the Ladies' Pond  any more because it is too painful to do so.  It's not just the memory of being caught sunbathing topless there by my headmistress (she was unfazed, I was drowning in shame), it's that my body wasn't comfortable with being assigned female then, and it isn't now.

SO Mayer very eloquently reminds us that while celebrating a place that is exclusively for women, it can also loom large as a place of trepidation.

I very much hope Daunt Books continue to publish more of these essay collections; they're excellent!

Image credit here

6 July 2021

Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

Did you know that Nabokov is one of the top three authors whose books are stolen from a bookstore at the Toronto Eaton Centre?  Their online catalogue showed two titles in stock but there was a gap where 'Nabokov' should have been.  When I asked one of the assistants if the books could be somewhere other than in regular fiction, he offered his theory about their missing status.  He added that theft had risen by 20% since the pandemic, and was extremely sympathetic to the hardship of people out of work saying "there is a lot of need, at the moment".   Once that sad reality had been thought about for awhile I realized I never asked the store clerk who the other two authors are who frequently go missing. 

So how did Nabokov cross my path, you might wonder.  Laughter in the Dark was chosen by Jason Watkins to feature on A Good Read which is one of my favourite BBC podcasts and hosted by Harriet Gilbert.  The other guest on the programme was Yasmeen Alibhai-Brown, who thanked Watkins as she had previously sworn off Nabokov down to her distaste for Lolita (she might have used the word 'hate').  After a few minutes of commentary I thought this novel, first published as Kamera Obscura in 1933, would be a good place to start if I wanted to explore the writing of this controversial author.

Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus.  He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.

Albert Albinus is an art critic who has lately been occupied by the notion of turning the art of great masters into moving film clips.  Inheriting a sizeable fortune from his father, Albinus lives in a spacious but reserved flat in Berlin with his wife Elisabeth and their eight year-old daughter Irma.  Elisabeth's brother Paul is a frequent guest but his relationship with Albinus isn't an especially remarkable one.

As a young man, Albinus was happy enough but charisma seemed to elude him.  A deficiency he yearns to overcome despite being successful in every other aspect of his life.  A series of dark thoughts runs through his mind, abhorrently involving the death of his wife while she gave birth to their daughter.  With Elisabeth out of the way, Albinus would be free to pursue a young woman and have his wicked way with her - in the marital home, no less.  I know, I know....why should we care about such a callous man after an admission like that?  But I was compelled to learn more.   

Escaping the rut his life has become, Albinus visits the cinema and sees a beautiful young woman working as an attendant.  Margot Peters is a mere seventeen years-old, but has buckets of street smarts having grown up with a shell-shocked father and an abusive mother.  Her older brother Otto and his leering friends can be added to a list of reasons why Margot endeavors to leave home as soon as possible.  With aspirations of becoming a film star, the teen grabs an opportunity to become a life model as a first step to achieve her goal.  Soon afterwards she meets an elderly woman of goodly proportions with a genteel manner by the name of Frau Levandovsky, who really isn't a nice woman at all....

   'You can't do without a boy friend.' declared that lady complacently as she drank her coffee.  'You are much too lively a lass not to need a companion, and this modest young fellow is looking for a pure soul in this wicked city.'

Fast forward to the magnetic pull Albinus feels when he sees Margot working at the cinema after several return visits.  He suggests they get to know one another but Margot plays coy to build anticipation.  She is frighteningly calculated when it comes to getting what she wants.  As is so often the case, Albinus wants to keep both wife and mistress but Margot will not rest until everything that belongs to Albinus, becomes hers.  At the exact moment of her choosing,  Margot sends a letter to Albinus's flat that leaves no doubt as to the nature of their relationship, knowing that Elisabeth will read it. 

From this point on I couldn't put the book down.  The tone of this aptly named story spirals towards an ever darker place when Margot's former lover joins forces with her; it is now two against one in a dangerous game of winner take all.  The arrival of an acquaintance named Udo, while in the South of France, tip the scales in Albinus's favour when he unwittingly reveals the extent of Margot's deceit.  Nothing could have made me put the book down while reading the last few pages.  Laughter in the Dark has made me wonder why I don't read more noir?  It was fabulous.   

There are early whispers of a new film adaptation starring Anya Taylor-Joy.  Fingers crossed!

Pauline Waiting by Sir Herbert James Gunn