Tipping the Velvet

By Sarah Waters

I was very fond of Fingersmith, so I eagerly snapped up Tipping the Velvet when I had to go on a long train journey to Brussels. Well, when I say eagerly, I must admit that I spent some time looking for a copy with a different cover. While I rather like the way the right-hand girl looks at the
left-hand girl (Nancy at Kitty, not vice versa), there is a certain je-ne-sais-quoi that makes this copy a little less suitable for public perusal. I blame the television, and their idea of Victorian undies, myself.

  • Author: Sarah Waters
  • Title: Tipping the Velvet
  • Pages: 472
  • Published: 2003 (1998)
  • ISBN: 1-8440-8011-0

Just like Fingersmith, her third novel, Tipping the Velvet, her first, is a semi-historical novel about girls falling in love with each other. Fingersmith is clearly more restrained: only two girls, and only one graphic sex scene. Tipping the Velvet is a typical debut novel in that it goes wildly over the top and includes everything the author wanted to put on paper.

That said, from beginning to end, it is a carefully constructed book, maybe with a few rough edges, but not objectionably so. The ending is maybe one of those edges. It resembles nothing so much as a Chinese Yuan play where near the end everyone assembles and justice is dealt out. The prudish and secretive Kitty loses Nancy for good because she doesn’t dare to be an open lesbian; the nasty, horrible Diana gets stuck with a ice-cream spilling tomboy who plays an even younger child than Nancy did for her (Reggie reminded me of the horrible boys that Wodehouse saddled Bertie with now and then), the nice, gentle and understanding Ralph gets the exactly right woman, and Kitty and Florence (who doesn’t mind living openly with a woman) discover that they really, truly love each other for each other and in each other, and not as a second-class substitute for their first loves. And the emperor^WSarah shakes her sleeves and pronounces the end.

Not that I dislike endings of this kind; on the contrary. But the
ending isn’t as balanced as the rest of the book, which is very wel
constructed. Every part, every chapter fits nicely together.

The great thing about Tipping the Velvet, isn’t the construction, of course, and it isn’t the hot steamy lesbian sex, either, even though that’s nice to have, but the way Waters presents us the falling in love of Nancy with Kitty, and later with Florence. (The in-betweener with Diana is very sordid, and there isn’t much love about there.)

A well-written book about an interesting person, even a nice
person, that ends well with the right people living happily ever
after. A book as good as they come.

 

Culinaire Tierelantijnen

By J.W.F. Werumeus Buning

Is this really the first time in a year that I read something by Werumeus Buning? Probably not, it’s more likely that I just assumed I’d already written a notice on what I read, because I read and re-read Werumeus Buning a lot.

  • Author: J.W.F. Werumeus Buning
  • Title: Culinaire Tierelantijnen
  • Pages: 117
  • Published: MDCCCCXXXIIII
  • Publisher: Joh. Enschedé en zonen

Werumeus Buning is both an author of prose and a poet. He has written travelogues, articles and stories about food and wine, recipies, lots of excellent (and less excellent, too) poetry and general ‘pieces’ on this or that subject.

Because he allowed some of his work to be reprinted during the war and therefore had to become a member of the Kulturkammer, he was branded a quisling after the war. In his disstertation Hijmans refutes those allegations, and a fact was that quite soon after the war, Werumeus Buning was publishing again.

Anyway, this pre-war volume is one of my particular treasures. Printed by the same printer who prints the Dutch banknotes, it is a beautiful book, with gorgeous letterpress on thick, textured paper. The contents are up to the presention, being a light-hearted romp through the history of food in as much as it bears on the development of civisation. Werumeus Buning had a facility with the Dutch language few authors after him have equalled.

Sixty Poems

By Rudyard Kipling

The 1907 Nobel Prize laureate Rudyard Kipling is one of the lions of the English literary history. His work, particularly his poetry, has inspired countless authors, most of whom seem to end up writing mil-sf for Baen.

  • Author: Rudyard Kipling
  • Title: Sixty Poems
  • Pages: 179
  • Published: 1945 (1939)
  • Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

I’m afraid I don’t like his work much. His novels, in as far as I’ve tried to read them, like The Light that Failed failed to do anything for me; and his poetry, as entombed in this particular little volume seemes to me rather boring. Staid even.

I don’t deny Kipling is possessed of an easy facility with language, and perhaps even with a wit that you might like if you don’t prefer reading something that springs forth from a less jaundiced mouth.

And I dislike the abuse of dialect spellings, as in M’Andrews Hymn (1893) very much. So, no more Kipling for me — leaves me time to explore other, possibly inferior, authors that nevertheless suit me better.

De Psalmen

By Lloyd Haft

Poetry is notoriously difficult to write about — perhaps the only form of literature that is more difficult to write about than to write. Even more difficult is to write about this book, De Psalmen, which is the collection of Lloyd Haft’s reworkings of, well, the Psalms.

  • Author: Lloyd Haft
  • Title: De Psalmen
  • Pages: 174
  • Published: 2003
  • Publisher: Querido
  • ISBN: 90-213-6701-1

These reworkings are emphatically not translations. Lloyd Haft has taken all necessary freedom to take that out of every psalm which touched him or persuaded him to take as the kernel of his reworking. This has resulted in a collection of poems that can be read by themselves, but which becomes richer when read together with the source text.

It is difficult, of course, to decide which source text to take. I have taken Father Adrian’s translation published by the Convent of Saint John the Baptist as my primary source for comparison, since that is the translation I use in my own prayers and which is used in our own church. This
translation is based on the Septuaginta (the old Alexandrinian Greek translation of the Torah). Lloyd Haft has used other Dutch and English translations: the Dutch Statenvertaling, the NBG and Canisius and the King James and several others.

Neither of us is really conversant with the Septuaginta Greek, the Hebrew original or the Vulgate Latin translation. But then, there won’t be many who are. A parallel text English, Latin and Hebrew is given at: the Unbound Bible or Sacred Texts.

The very personal choice of which elements of a psalm are the ones to be included in a collection of personal poetry like this rather excludes issues of fidelity to a hypothetical original text. There are psalms that some theologians consider too rude, too primitive, to
violent to be presentable. As Lloyd Haft quotes the Dutch theologians Miskotte and Schulte Nordholt:

‘When minister Miskotte once protested that ‘one couldn’t let present-day Christians sing these texts of a Sunday morning’, Schulte Nordholt is said to have replied that as far as he was concerned, other days were out of the question, too.

As far as I’m concerned — I’m living in an entirely different tradition, a tradition that never throws something away because the times have changed. I’m fine with these psalms (58, 137 in the Dutch counting; not all collections psalms are numbered equally). Even these texts are part of my tradition, and I can value them.

Lloyd Haft is a poet whose work clearly bears the influence of the Chinese poetry he has studied for so long. In other collections this influence is even more clear than in this one, naturally, because of the source, but even here, the particular emphasis on the personal is strongly reminiscent of the personal in some modern Chinese poetry, as is the form — to me, at least.

As a possible example, and one of the psalms I found most strikingly reworked, I’d like to quote Psalm 10, where Lloyd Haft has made an interesting re-interpretation of the original text, moving the action to the ‘I’, and away from God. The first few lines:

Heb ik u verwijderd?
Gingen mijn gedachten u te ver?
Werd mijn hart u te warm
waar het brandde, woedde,
altijd u wilde?

This particular bit is counted as the second part of Psalm 9 in the translation I mostly use:

Heer, waarom houdt Gij U op een afstand,
en verzuimt Gij het ogenblik dat wij in nood zijn?

In the Greek and Latin, too, it is God who keeps himself distant, absent. In De Psalmen, it is the ‘I’ who wonders whether he has removed God from his presence. When I read this version, I felt, perhaps, enlightened — it’s difficult to find the right words. Illuminated, perhaps. Reading Lloyd Haft’s version of the Psalms is in the end illuminating ones relation with God; and perhaps even deepening it into a more personal relationship.

I prefer reading parallel with other version; others may prefer reading the poems on its own. Both are equally valid, only I prefer to surround myself with a stack of books.

Dr. Joliffe’s Boys

By Lewis Hough

Athelstane E-Texts, which is apparently Nicholas Hodson, is an excellent institution dedicated to the making available of C19 texts. They will also produce e-texts of paper texts you have for a modest sum. However, that’s not the reason I mention them here. That’s because they have made available the text of Hough’s ‘Dr. Joliffe’s Boys’ — a, to stay in the jargon, ripping example of the early English boys’ school book.

  • Author: Lewis Hough
  • Title: Dr. Joliffe’s Boys
  • Published: 1883

Naturally, with the popularity of Harry Potter, interest in the whole genre of boarding school books has been rekindled. And in which era would we find the best examples of that art? In that era when the boarding school truly flourished. Wodehouse has tried his hand at this game early in his career — and I like his work a lot, but so did many others.

Hough appears to have produced an interesting set of books, including a treatise on monetary economy. However, that’s not the book under scrutiny.

Dr. Joliffe’s boys is a surprisingly fresh read, even today, although I should note that I am perhaps a bit more used to the vagaries of pre-WWII English than most native speakers. Indeed, I fancy I should have few problems fitting right in in present-day India, notoriously the last stronghold of the Metropolitan vernacular of the twenties.

Interesting in this book is not only its engaging writing style, but also its applicability to myself. One schoolboy, the estimable Tom Buller, has just one talent: he never gives up. He knows he’s no genius, but he equally knows that hard work can make up for the lack of innate talent. And that pulls him through the difficulties the author heaps upon him. He not only makes it into the First Eleven, but even becomes an officer in the British Army.

Another highlight is — and I’m not interested in the villainous Saurin (interesting sound coincidence. It is not at all unlikely that Tolkien had read this book, too — and is this the origin of Sauron’s name? Probably not. Folk etymology! But folk etymology is always fun.) — another highlight is the visit of golden wonderboy Crawley to the really rich family of one of his chums. Here, he fails completely, which no doubt is Character Building. But the character building is spoiled a little when retribution hits his chum and his pater loses all his money.

As I said, Athelstane has made this text available, so go and get it for yourself! There’s plenty of cricket to enjoy — even for people like me who don’t understand anything about it.

“Well cut, Saurin, well cut! Run it out! Four!” The ball was delivered again to the bowler, who meditated a shooter, but being a little tired, failed in his amiable intention, and gave the chance of a half-volley, which the batsman timed accurately, and caught on the right inch of the bat, with the whole swing of his arms and body thrown into the drive, so that the ball went clean into the scorer’s tent, as if desirous of marking the runs for itself.

Trappistenleven

By Godfried Bomans

In the seventies, Elsevier embarked upon the publication of series of books that would represent the complete works of the Dutch author Godfried Bomans, who had just died in 1971. I am fairly sure that they never reached their goal of completeness. Elsevier had a reputation for starting things, and never completing them. Nowadays, Elsevier doesn’t publish any literature anymore, just incredibly expensive scientific journals and scientific databanks. Their task has been picked up a few years ago, and there now exists the Complete Works of Godfried Bomans in five impressive volumes. Too expensive for me, I’m afraid, and I haven’t seen them in second-hand bookshops yet.

  • Author: Godfried Bomans
  • Title: Trappistenleven
  • Pages: 176
  • Published: 1975 (1950)
  • Publisher: Elsevier
  • ISBN: 90-10-01364-2

Godfried Bomans is probably for ‘Erik, of het Klein Insectenboek’, which has also been translated into English. He also created fair renditions of fairly tales and a large body of gently humorous work, like Bill Clifford a hilarious send-up of Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond.

This book, by contrast, is a completely serious chronicle of the history of the Abbey of Maria Toevlucht. This Cistercian or Trappist abbey was founded in 1900 in Zundert, in Dutch Brabant. The typically Bomans way of putting things — as distinctive in Dutch as Wodehouse is in English — appears only in a few places. Mostly, we get a respectful and loving account of the life and times of the abbey and the monks living there.

Some people might not be much interested in this, except perhaps in as far as it documents a time that appears to have gone. However, much of the pioneering in this book is very recognizable to me. It is in a measure similar to what my own church has experienced.

Besides, I like reading about pious people. It helps me grow in my own belief.

One last word about the preface by Kees Fens. Kees Fens was an erudite, self-taught professor in Dutch literature at the university of Nijmegen. Very learned, but a man of little understanding. He never re-read books himself: and promptly declared everyone who did to be childish. Kees Fens tries very hard to see this book as it should be seen — but never seems to quite succeed in his attempt. He keeps seeing not the greatness, but the quaintness.

This edition lacks most of the pictures that the original edition sported (which was published as a souvenir for the monks and their family and for the benefactors of the abbey). Kees Fens doesn’t understand why that is such a pity.

In the end it doesn’t matter. This book has found a place on our shelves, not with Bomans’ other works, in the Dutch literature section, but in the theology section.

Wat doe je? O, niks

By Harriët Freezer

Harriët Freezer is best known as the woman who translated Roald
Dahl’s books into Dutch. An impressive achievement! She was also a
well-known feminist, and worked for the Dutch feminish montly ‘Opzij’
until her death.

  • Author: Harriët Freezer
  • Title: Wat doe je? O, niks.
  • Pages: 88
  • Published: 1969 (1965)
  • Publisher: Uitgeverij de Arbeiderspers

Wat doe je? O, niks is a series of short reminiscences about Harriët’s mother, a strong and cheerful woman who had the task of bringing up her children in poverty. Her husband, an intellectual from The Hague, apparently had gotten the idea that it would be a good idea to follow Ukridge (in Love among the chickens, not yet reviewed) — and started a poultry farm.

The mortgage on the farm pressed heavily on the family, and the father appears to have been an engaging, well-read man who knew how to make thinking people out of his children. But the farm didn’t pan out, as poultry farms seldom do, and money was always as tight as a pair of stretch pants, only not so elastic.

But the mother, except for the short period when she was influenced by a sour woman friend, was always playful. The children might have had only one nighty, ragged enough that getting tangled in the holes was a serious problem, and the only way of getting something decent to eat was for father to invite a guest and have his wife dip in the mortgage kitty, there are is no sign of these people being unhappy with their lot.

One anecdote struck me especially. Being poor, and thus not having many recurring expenses except for the mortgage, it sometimes happened that there was a little money, a guilder or so, left at the end of the month. This was then immediately invested in some cakes of the most enticing kind: the iced ones with a little silver bullet on top. (My aunt (grandmother’s sister) used to buy those, too, from Schep in the Middenweg in Amsterdam.) The tendency of poor people to forego saving, and instead spend all they have when they have something is very recognizable. Having been quite impecunious for a long time, I still have the urge to go out and buy something good to drink, a few books and a piece of decent cheese, whenever I discover that I have some money left. I should save to have the house painted…

Fingersmith

By Sarah Waters

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is a very well-written, very well-constructed pastiche of a Victorian novel. The plot is partly based in Collins’ Woman in White, partly on Dickens’ Oliver Twist — make of that what you want! An it’s also more or less a lesbian bodice-ripper, if I understand that term correctly.

  • Author: Sarah Waters
  • Title: Fingersmith
  • Pages: 632
  • Published: 202
  • Publisher: Virago Fiction
  • ISBN: 1573229725

Divided in three parts, the book shows what happens first from the point of view of Susan Trinder, then the same situations from the point of view of Maud Lilly, and ends with an equally long part that gives the ending, from the point of view of Susan Trinder again.

The execution of this complex construction is flawless. The language is equally flawless, except for the frequent use of the word ‘fuck’ as a swear-word, which I don’t believe to be authentic for the period. It gives a very modern feel to some sentences. The Mary Gentle touch, as it were.

On the other hand, it might well be authentic enough, since it is quite clear that the author has done a lot of research. Indeed, sometimes she’s maybe a little too glad to show all her her homework to us. And sometimes, particularly near the end, where Maud justifies what she is doing to Susan, I got the feeling that this was where Sarah Watters justifies herself to her own girlfriend.

Horrible things happen, sometimes too horrible to contemplate for long; but in the end Susan and Maud, whose falling in love with each other is described in a completely believable way, get each other very satisfactorily.

The plot is convoluted, but slowly uncovered to the reader in a completely lucid way. I was completely convinced by the way the author portrays the gullibility of both girls, who have both been raised to be what the book terms ‘pigeons’, but in a completely different way. There’s just one point where I thought that Maud, as portrayed, would never believe what she’s told — and she does believe it. Oh, well — I just read on.

And then I read the book a second time, straight through.

Still, there were a few things that made me pause. Now both lovers are women, the book feels original, fresh — intriguing. But the same story, told with the same words, about a man and a woman would perhaps be thought sentimental, and the protagonists (depending upon whether Maud or Susan would be turned into a man) could be considered regular pigs, not good enough for the other. I mean, I don’t suppose the author thinks the protagonists are excused because they’re women in love with each other?

g

Dorothy Sayers, Child and Woman of her Time

By Dorothy L. Sayers

The final installment of the four volume series of The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers is a relatively slim, but very attractive book. It contains both My Edwardian Childhood and Cat O’Mary. The first was an abortive attempt at memoirs; the second an abortive attempt at a ‘straight’ literary novel. This book contains a very worthwile preface by Christopher Dean, the Chairman of the Dorothy L. Sayers Society, and an insightful introduction by Barbara Reynolds, who has worked with DLS on the translation of Dante and who has edited the other volumes of letters.

  • Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Title: Dorothy L. Sayers, Child and Woman of Her Time. Volume Five. A supplement to The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers.
  • Pages: 163
  • Published: 2002
  • Publisher: Dorothy L. Sayers Society
  • ISBN: 0-9518000-7-8

As the introduction by Barbara Reynolds puts it: Dorothy L. Sayers put everything she learned from writing Cat O’Mary in Gaudy Night, where the theme of intellectual honesty has a much better fit. It is not reasonable, however, to treat Cat O’Mary as a finished work. It falls apart in three sections. The first is a detailed reworking of My Edwardian Childhood.

My Edwardian Childhood is just a concise autobiography. Far too short, but a nice meandering read.

Cat O’Mary is a novelisation of DLS own life, up to a point. The first, longest part, deals with the same period as My Edwardian Childhood plus DLS days at her public school. The text always grips but never gets exciting or action-packed or anything. It’s just enormously well written.

It is entirely unfair to criticize an unfinished work. But still, if I have to do so, I’d say that the portrayal of Geoffrey, Katherine’s husband in the second part of Cat O’Mary, is unfair. I don’t doubt that DLS has been enjoying herself, possible even getting something off her chest, therapeutically speaking. But she lays Geoffrey’s blinkered idiocy on with a trowel. No man can be so stupid that he confesses adultery, discusses a divorce and then says “You trot up to bed — I’ll be up in ten minutes.” Er. Upon consideration, it might just be possible. Still, I think she was already working towards a silly comedy of manners for the stage here.

Barbara Reynolds mentions the difference in tone between the memoirs and the novel, and I think she’s right. In the first part, the author gets gradually more and more negative about Katherine, to a point where reading becomes acutely painful. But there might be more to it. In the memoirs, DLS was simply enjoying herself, reminiscing. In Cat O’Mary she was working towards a goal, a theme — and she would not have felt obliged to keep to the historic truth. That is to say, where Cat O’Mary and her letters are at variance, I’d sooner trust the letters for biographical veracity. The later parts are much lighter in tone.

This brings me to an important point. In the previous four volumes of this series, and enormous number of letters have been published. But not all. And as is shown here, not even all the really important ones. A central issue in Cat O’Mary is the confirmation ceremony. In her discussions, Barbara Reynolds quotes from a letter DLS wrote home about her confirmation; but that letter is not in Vol. I of the letters, and the treatment in Cat O’Mary shows that that was a serious omission.

As with the other volumes, the footnotes by Barbara Reynolds vary between the very useful and the inane. As an example of the inane, there’s a footnote at page 9, saying ‘It is touching to find that Mrs. Sayers, like so many mothers, moved her sick child into her own bed.’ For starters, that bromide doesn’t deserve a footnote. To continue, it’s not just mothers who do that. I put Naomi in my bed when she’s ill without any qualms. In any case, many of the other footnotes are more useful. And the two texts are equally as useful in giving a fascinating image of DLS’ time.

Oh, and reading Cat O’Mary, I was immediately remembered of a childhood crush of mine. In the sixth form of my primary school, there was a girl who was much admired for both her looks and her brains. All the discerning boys were secretly in love with her, but she had a very sharp wit, and we, being pubescent boys, didn’t dare to say anything. This girl had a very similar set to her eyes as DLS has in this portrait:

 

It might be hard to acquire this book. It is published by Carole Green Publishing, 2-4 Station Road, Swavesey, Cambridge CB4 5QJ, UK. You might be able to find it in the best bookshops in the United Kingdom, but Amazon does not list it. You might consider sending email to Carole Green: cag.publishing@virgin.net. It is well worth the effort.


Brieven uit Egypte

By Nahed Selim

A novel in letters — written, not by the protagonist, but by her family, friends and her readers. And a book with an all too familiar, but none the less true, message. Perhaps it would have been better to write this book in Arabic, to make it possible for it to reach its audience.

  • Author: Nahed Selim
  • Title: Brieven uit Egypte
  • Pages: 142
  • Published: 2000
  • Publisher: Van Gennep
  • ISBN: 90-5515-260-9

Nahed Selim’s Brieven uit Egypte (Letters from Egypt) is a novel — at least, that is how it is presented. The backstory is that a young female journalist, Basna, is sent to that center of the Western World, Amsterdam. She is supposed to write ‘Letters from Amsterdam’ for a small Egyptian magazine. The book consist of letters that her family and readers have sent the journalist.

The wide gamut of reactions to these letters from Amsterdam show in a brillian way the complexity of the Egyptian society. The form is very satisfying: because we only read the letters Basma receives, never the letters she writes, neither the published ones, nor her correspondence with her familiy, we are free to conjecture their contents.

I needed the conceit of assuming that these letters were all translated from Arabic, because the style is a bit uniform. You cannot open a page and guess with certainty who has written the letter on grounds of style. The contents make that very clear, naturally. There are exceptions: Nabiel is very cute, and recognizable.

Of course, by its very nature, it is a very political book. And I am afraid that the book’s blurb already makes clear where the author stands, and what she thinks of the issues she is writing about. Quite often Egypt’s problems are discussed in letters when there’s almost no reason for them to be — for instance when Nabiel suddenly sprouts an interest in statistics.

Fortunately, that is set off by the engaging backstory of Basma’s family, and how the cope with her, her growing notoriety, and how their lifes change accordingly.

On a side-note: what is made very clear is how suffocating the millennia of history Egypt carries. I, living in Europe, in the Netherlands, am concious of the two thousand years since the birth of Christ, of the thousand years since history in the Netherlands started for real. But the Egyptians in this book feel the traditions of the Pharaos, the Byzantines, the Arabs, and feel they cannot free themselves from it.

Near the end, the book reaches out to the lofty spheres inhabited by Multatuli, by allowing the author to directly interfere in the book. Multatuli took up the pen, and wrote his famous accusation, and ended his book. If you haven’t read the Max Havelaar yet, do so. Since you’re reading this review, you can read English. An English translation is available from Penguin Classics. Buy it, and read. But to return to Brieven uit Egypte: the last letter but one is signed N.S.. It is a manifest, equally impassioned as Multatuli’s, about Islam, or rather, about Naheed Selim’s opinion of the current state of Islam.

It is well written, and impassioned, as I said, but not as well written as the Multatuli section of the Max Havelaar. However, where the Multatuli section of the Max Havelaar is necessary in the structure of the book, the N.S. letter seems to be more an attempt to make clear what the rest of the book has made admirably clear by itself. I cannot really disagree with the contents (except that I think she gives Islam too much credit for intellectual achievement), but I didn’t need it either.

However, in a subtle move, it’s the last-but-one letter. The last letter, from Aziez, Rashida, Basma and Saï is about a dream. Free from all tradition, loving his wife and his children, Aziez entreats his sister to never lose her dreams. That is a hopeful note, and one on which I want to end.

A rather less positive review, by Coen Peppelenbos, in Dutch has appeared in the Leeuwarder Courant. I think he’s a silly, sour bugger.


Currently reading: Multatuli, Max Havelaar, John M. Ford, The Dragon Waiting, P.G. Wodehouse, Young Man in Spats, Dimitri Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth, John Dickson Carr, The Emperor’s Snuff Box, E.R. Eddison, A Fish Dinner in Memison, Freeman Wills Crofts, Golden Ashes,
P.C Hooft, Warenar, Geoffrey Bibby, Looking for Dilmun, John Hargrave, At Suvla Bay

Just discarded: Ann Granger Asking for Trouble