Latest books as I work through the 2015 Reading Challenge:
Excellent Women, Barbara Pym (1952) and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Edgar Allan Poe (1838)
Perhaps these two books shouldn’t be reviewed in the same post, for they have nothing in common. The first is a comedy of manners, the second a travel-adventure story that quickly moves into, and then never leaves, gruesome horror tale. The first is set in post-WWII London, near but not quite in Belgravia. The second takes place almost completely aboard three 19th century sailing vessels crossing the Atlantic, Indian, and Antarctic Oceans. The first features a mousy spinster, shy and self-deprecating, caught up in small-town (for what is that five square block area near Belgravia if not a small town?) marital rows and church doings. In the second, the eponymous narrator makes a series of near-fatal decisions, bringing doom on all around. I loved the first and had to force myself to finish the second.
I’ve lumped these two books into one review for no reason other than the convenience of two Pyms for the price of one. Make of it what you will.
The excellent women of Pym’s novel are the unmarried volunteers who run the church bazaars and thrift sales, decorate the altar and windows at Whitsuntide and other holidays, and wrestle with heavy tea urns while the men sit around and plan things. Mildred Lathbury is one of these excellent women: in her early 30s, unmarried, orphaned daughter of a clergyman, friends with her vicar and his sister, of sufficient means to not need to work, yet frugal. She may still say her prayers at night, but she isn’t beyond an observation such as “Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.
In almost no time, it seems that Pym will match up Mildred with one of four men: her new, married, downstairs neighbor, Rockingham Napier; his wife’s colleague Everard Bone; the vicar Julian Malory; or Mildred’s old friend William Caldicote. But both Julian and William are friends of such long-standing that Mildred can’t imagine either as possible husband material. Rocky, handsome and charming and generous, seems to appreciate and admire Mildred, but he is, after all, married. Of Bone, Mildred says, “His rather forbidding manner would be useful to him. I realised that one might love him secretly with no hope of encouragement, which can be very enjoyable for the young or inexperienced.”
Barbara Pym has been called a 20th century Jane Austen, and I can see why. Mildred’s astute and funny observations reveal a group of people buzzing around the hive of their church. New neighbors are seen as possible members of the congregation — until they reveal themselves as “Roman Catholics” or non-attendees. Through Mildred, Pym also jabs slyly at masculine and feminine roles in the church community. Crises arise around who takes charge of arranging the flowers donated for the altar, or whether the vicar should chair the bazaar committee.
Poe’s Arthur Pym is nowhere near as fun. I have to admit that a strange confluence of literary alerts made me curious enough to overcome my dislike of the horror genre and give this a try. First, this is one of the books Paul Theroux reads as he travels through South America on The Old Patagonia Express. He thought it a great book. Second, Marilynne Robinson mentions it in a recent New York Review of Books profile of Poe. She thought it the book that made it possible for Poe to create his more famous horror tales.
Shipwreck, mass deaths, murder, cannibalism, sea monsters — Poe holds nothing back in this tale of Arthur Pym’s adventure sailing towards Antarctica. Is this Poe’s attempt to wrestle with the American problem of slavery? Is he taking advantage of readers’ voracious appetite for adventure yarns set at sea? Is he exploring the limits on gothic fiction? Or is there something else going on here? I’m not sure, but I have to admit to hearing an echo of Monty Python in the cannibalism episode. I’m quite certain Poe wasn’t aiming for macabre humor, but he got there just the same.
Mat Johnson’s Pym (2011) recreates Arthur Pym’s adventure in the 21st century, from an African American academic’s perspective*. Evidently there’s more to Poe’s novel than just an attempt to find the southernmost continent. Maureen Corrigan, in her review of Johnson’s book, says that Poe’s story is “haunted by the specter of race.” It takes a sophisticated reader to be able to read around the gore and see the genocidal horror underneath. Like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym requires a strong stomach for the horrors of human cruelty and stupidity.
*I haven’t read Johnson’s novel, but now that I know of it, I soon will.