My project to read books I already own, starting with A authors and ending in a year with Z, is going well so far. There was Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, and Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra At the Wedding.
Instead of moving right away to C, I chose another A to complete in January, one of the oldest of the volumes in my collection (alas not a completist one) of Virago Modern Classics, The Orchid House by Phyllis Shand Allfrey (1953).
Set on the Caribbean island of Dominica in the 1920s-30s, it’s the story of a white colonial family fallen into decadence, told, mostly, from the point of view of their black servant Lally, a loyal, devoted retainer of the kind who from today’s perspective, comes across as a bit sickening, a bit incredible. The story centers on the family’s three daughters, and the choices they make as young adults, inevitably leaving the island and then just as inevitably, returning.
The decadence is best represented by the men of the story, who, unlike Lally and the three daughters she worships, Stella, Joan and Nathalie, are not characters so much as symptoms. The father, traumatized by his WWI experience, is a drug-addicted recluse; Andrew, the cousin whom each girl grew up loving and wanting, has succumbed to TB and a the shadow-life of living in sin with a woman of color (who is also, of course, a cousin–as in a story of the American south, the island is populated by offspring, both white and black, of certain white men whose ancestors were the original colonizers.
The whole thing has a powerful aroma of nostalgia, as the characters struggle between the old natural beauty of the island, which is woven into the very fiber of their privilege, and the outcomes of each daughter’s rushing out to meet modernity and the larger world, and wanting to bring something of that back to the old home place, to try to cure it, or use it as an escape. Lally’s expectations for the return of these little girls she nursed and brought up are immense; she knows them but in many ways she doesn’t understand their adult selves, and her hopes for what they’ll do are lit with a romantic glow that the sisters themselves can no longer really obtain.
As if to show that the past can’t be recaptured, the girls’ returns to Dominica are staggered; first comes Stella, the eldest, with her little son; she’s made a foolish marriage and is now fleeing a hardscrabble New England farm life with a man she doesn’t really know. When Joan arrives, Stella leaves, and Lally turns her hopes to her, even as she dreads seeing her involve herself in local politics, agitating for the impoverished black islanders and bringing on the ire of the church and the white establishment. Nathalie, the youngest, a rich widow who seems to live for partying and every frivolity — but without whose financial support the family home would collapse entirely — it’s she who can summon the realism, and the resources, to force activity out her family’s indolence.
Shand Allfrey is telling a version of her own life story — she, like Jean Rhys, whom she knew slightly, grew up on Domenica; unlike Rhys she never really left it. (Rhys was supposed to write a forward to the reissue of the book in 1979, but died before she could do so Like the middle daughter in her story, Joan, Shand Allfrey married in England, involved herself in left-wing politics, and ultimately returned to live in Dominica and work there for social reform. This delightful book was her only novel.
The B in the title to this post is represented by Grand Hotel, by Vicki Baum, a reissue of the 1929 German novel by NYRB. I’ve never seen the famous movie version, so am coming at it fresh, and not very far in; will write about it in a future post.
On audio, I just finished Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine and have moved on to The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, which is adding context to the audio of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From a Dead House, which I’ve also got going, as part of my ongoing All Things Russian reading project. This one goes into great detail about the Decembrists, bringing me a vague sense of what that was to a much sharper understanding of who these early Russian political rebels were and what their punishment and the afterlife of their cause entailed. The book also explains how Siberia came to be a scene of penal banishment in the first place, another of those things you think you know about until you realize you really don’t. The one drawback to listening to these books as opposed to reading them, is that the names just go by me in a whoosh, whereas on the page I’d sound them out and remember them better.
TCM showed the 1958 movie version of The Brothers Karamazov the other evening, which turned out to be a more credible adaptation than I thought when I sat down
to watch it; a lot left out, of course, but what was there really kept my eye and interest, and the whole thing looked right — the cast, costumes, sets, etc. Though I had to laugh at William Shatner as Alyosha, the youngest brother who wants to go into a monastery. (He was sure pretty, though.)