A Week in Reading

It’s been a strange week. One of my colleagues at work was killed in a car crash, leaving the entire fellowship stunned and shocked. Another colleague from the university is up in court on some serious charges and might face prison. I feel as if I have inadvertently wandered into a mini-series where there is an endless trail of Events. Too much plot! I want to protest. Let’s go back to the European art house film I thought I was living in, where I wander about and stare meaningfully into space a lot and very little happens. It’s been a plot-filled week in books, too. The first I read was Fay Weldon’s The Spa Decameron. As the title suggests, it’s a modern-day rewrite of Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which a group of travelers, fleeing the plague in Italy, gather together in the countryside near Florence and pass a fortnight together telling stories. The hundred stories that result are often concerned with love in its many guises and appear allegorical in nature, although Boccaccio was in fact satirizing the ‘teaching tale’. Weldon’s modern day rewrite has a group of women fleeing the Christmas season by spending it together in a luxury spa. Across the course of each day they gather together to tell each other the stories of their lives, almost all of which are fraught with love and violence. Around them the life of the spa begins to deteriorate as the few connections with the outside world break down and the staff leave as it turns out the place is going bankrupt. Only Fay Weldon could get away with the tales the women tell each other, which are lurid in the extreme, yet narrated through her cool, composed voice they invite you into another world at the limit point of emotions and experience. Weldon was best known in the eighties for a strange and yet irresistible combination of the feminist and the fantastic, and I can remember reading novels of hers like Puffball, and The Life and Loves of a She-Devil that were distinctly disturbing and completely compelling. I think she may have passed her peak now, but she is still a better stylist and a more interesting writer than many, and this was a lot of fun to read. Pure entertainment, even if the whole thing wobbles a bit about three-quarters of the way through. Weldon pulls it together for the last couple of stories.

After that I began what may be a lengthy excursion into the world of chick-lit, reading Fiona Neill’s The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy. I don’t know how far across the world these terms have spread, or whether they are simply a UK phenomenon, but here it is impossible to open a Sunday supplement without reading some style piece about the supposed trends in mothering towards either Yummy Mummies (those who manage to look attractive and well-dressed despite having young children) and Slummy Mummies (those who know they ought to be able to look attractive and be organized but cannot conquer the laundry pile despite their best efforts). It’s an interesting tug of war, this, that says far more about women’s fragile self-esteem than it does about how mothers actually behave. The Yummy Mummy was at first held out as a salvationary possibility to all mothers who were threatened with the sense of losing themselves in domestic chores, sleepless nights and the relentless demands of children. The idea was that the right clothes could maintain your self-respect and bolster a vanishing sense of identity. But then quick on the heels of such an injunction came the Slummy Mummy, who recognized that having to be fussed about how you look every day, on top of all those domestic chores that aren’t going to get done by the fairies in the night, was just another form of self-torture on the ladder of achievement for women. But Slummy Mummies run the risk of letting a lack of concern about difficult standards tip over into unfettered chaos. And so the battle goes on, sometimes favouring the harsh inner female critic who wants things to be just so and believes it can be possible with organization, and sometimes embracing the need to let things go, to ease back on the demands, to hope (and it is only ever a hope) that one can still be lovable in tracky bottoms and a ripped t-shirt. I always think it’s an indication of how wonderful and fundamentally good women are, that these kinds of books never take their eye off the basic concern of loving and tending for children. They frequently depict women struggling with terribly low levels of self-esteem but the underlying message is that such concerns are trivial in the extreme when countered with a child’s needs. Of course this is how come many mothers have such low self-esteem in the first place, because they insist on putting everyone else first. But I feel it affirms again how motherhood is a passage through sainthood for the vast majority of women. This book was also surprisingly good. I enjoyed it and when the heroine quotes the child psychologist D. W. Winnicott (who is a favourite of mine) at one point, I thought, good grief, chick-lit has become more sophisticated these days. I’ve got The Rise and Fall of a Yummy Mummy by Polly Williams to read next, so we’ll see how that adds to the picture.

I am currently also reading Nerval’s Aurélia. This is a completely different kind of book, a brief nineteenth-century novella, ostensibly autobiographical in nature, concerning the writer’s experience of extraordinary and exotic dreams whilst in a state of mental turmoil. Gerard de Nerval defined a certain kind of troubled artist who was in and out of mental asylums for most of his brief life (he hung himself eventually). On good days, however, he could be found out and about in Paris walking his pet lobster on a pale blue velvet leash. Ah, those writers knew how to starve in garrets and embrace eccentricity. At the time Nerval was writing, France had been repeatedly torn apart with revolution after revolution, and a segment of the population was appalled and saddened by the impossibility of instigating stable, reliable forms of government. Nerval was one such, and founded the group known as the Parnassians, who used art to hark back to a lost golden age in which gods and goddesses ruled and one could believe in heroes. Nerval was also one of the last writers to truly incorporate Romantic ideals in his poems and novellas, and by now they are sickly, nostalgic things. To be a Romantic is to long to the point of bitterness and melancholia for heights of human achievement and depths of love that are forever out of reach. The Aurélia who motivates this particular novella is a woman Nerval sort of loved but undeniably lost before the narrative ever began, and it is to her ghostly figure in dreams that he turns. In fact Aurélia doesn’t show up much, being little more than an uncertain, brief sighting on occasion. Instead Nerval spends his time detailing the strange towns and cities and civilizations in his dreams and the alien, mystical journeys he undertakes to reach them. As a story, it is confusing and distinctly odd and otherworldly, and yet hypnotic somehow. It is the picture of an artist’s imagination, let off the leash by madness and romantic yearning and quite unlike anything else I have read. If you like the nineteenth century but want to try something quite different, then Nerval’s writings are worth considering. He is best known for his poems Les Chimères, but I wouldn’t advise anyone to start there: they are some of the most difficult poetry I know. Instead, the undergraduate’s favourite, his short story Sylvie is a charming piece of writing over which the shadow of Nerval’s madness gently and exquisitely falls. It’s a thirty-page time capsule from another world.

ps. Apologies to everyone with feed readers for the fact that I keep editing these recent posts. I don’t know what has happened to wordpress since the new dashboard was put in but transferring my posts from word results in the removal of all paragraph breaks. So I have to transfer via the notepad which then removes all italics. Sigh. I will remember this in the end.


26 thoughts on “A Week in Reading

  1. The Spa Decameron looks sort of interesting, I’ll have to pick that one up sometime.
    I try my darndest at being a Yummy Mummy – whether it works or not depends on the day…

  2. You’re right, Litlove. That’s more than enough plot for any week, even if you’re not personally involved (at least, I hope you aren’t)! As for the reading, I had no idea Fay Weldon was lurid and extreme. Her books always appear so demure, the better, I suppose, to enable train-commuters to enjoy them privately. Nerval I know only from Calvino’s Fantastic Tales and, by reputation through his (and the other Bouzingos’) influence on Surrealism. I’ll bet Breton envied Nerval his lobster and probably contemplated taking to the streets with a dozen escargot, or a filet mignon on a leash. So good to see you here again with so much to report!

  3. I am sorry to hear about your colleague. How very distressing and sad.

    You have got me almost ready to re-read the lovely Fay. I over-dosed on her writing in the 90s, but I think I could try The Spa Decameron. You make it sound pretty appealing.

  4. What a marvellously eclectic lot of reading you’re doing. It is already amply apparent what an insightful and broad-ranging study your motherhood book is going to be! It’s been years since I read Fay Weldon, but I’m chuckling at David’s comment above as I can’t say that I ever thought of her as being on speaking terms with demureness. Mind you, the vast distance between Weldon and demureness in my mind may have something to do with the idelible memory of Rosanne Barr in the title role of the film version of “The Life and Loves of a She-Devil.”

  5. I’m sorry about your colleagues. It turns a department inside out when that sort of thing happens and both are incredibly hard to come to terms with. I haven’t read that particular Weldon. I had a sort of falling out with her when I went to hear her take part in a discussion for which people had paid good money and it seemed very apparent that she hadn’t bothered to do any preparation. Why agree to do something if you can’t do it properly. Maybe I should give her a second try.

  6. Mrs. B, I’ll bet you’re a yummy mummy, and absolutely no one can manage it every day. I have it on good authority from these novels! The Weldon was a fun read but with a bit more to it as well. A very good holiday book. David – thankfully no, but I hope you understand why under the circumstances I didn’t feel up to leaving my usual comment on your vsn, wonderful though it was. I’d recommend The Life and Loves of a She-Devil to you, so you can see Weldon at her most demure, but I’m not sure quite how it would come across to a male reader. Better almost to watch the old film (if such a thing were possible) that Kate mentions and which also sticks in my mind. The thought of Breton with his escargot on leads is delightful and I can hear him kicking himself in his grave for not having thought of it. It’s always very good to see you here too, you know. Charlotte – thank you, it is terribly sad (he had three teenage children). I, too, overdosed on Weldon early on, and enjoyed the recent return to her. It’s a most entertaining read and good for when you feel tired but not in the mood to be patronised! Kate – bless you, what a sweetheart you are! My goodness me, I remember that film and indeed parts of it are impossible to erase from my memory. It was that odd Weldon-ish mixture of ludicrous and bone-chilling at the same time. Ann – things are very odd at the moment indeed and will take a while to settle down. I’m so sorry to hear about your experience with Fay Weldon and can quite see how it would put anyone off. I am disappointed myself to hear that about her.

  7. So distressing about your colleagues at work – such crises are very unsettling for everyone. We had a similar spate of those in my office late last year. I was beginning to feel as if we were in the midst of a tv series myself!

    But you’ve certainly done some interesting reading this week. I’m fascintaed with your descriptions of the “yummy v. slummy mummy.” Either we don’t have that particular distinction here or I’m so far removed from the days of mummy-hood that I haven’t heard about it. These books sound delightful, and just the antidote for the “serious” reading you’re also doing.

  8. Let me add my sympathies regarding your colleagues.Isn’t it nice to have books to lose yourself in (even if only for a little while)during the midst of such distressing events? It sounds as if you’ve got quite a lot of good reading done and still ahead of you. By the way, I have moved my blog (formerly PfeifferBooknotes) to Booknotes by Lisa at http://booknotesbylisa.blogspot.com if you want to update your blogroll. I just got everything changed over and have been painting all week, so there aren’t any new posts as of yet. But, I start on my new job tomorrow, and I’ll get back into a routine soon.

  9. Definitely too much plot. So sorry about your colleagues. I hope this week features more meaningful staring into space. As for the reading, I’ve not heard of the yummy / slummy mummy. An interesting dynamic. The Nerval novella sounds wonderfully weird.

  10. The Nerval looks like something I would like to read – I’ll pick it up the next time I swing by the library in town. And I’m interested in Fay Weldon; I’ve never read her so thank you for the introduction!

  11. Would it be terrible to say that I think it might be more entertaining to read Fay Weldon’s retelling of the Decameron rather than the Decameron itself? Well, maybe I’d give the original a try after all (it could be juicier than I think!). I’ve heard the term slummy mummy (from the book), but never yummy mummy! I suppose women/mothers have been ‘labelled’ from the beginning of time–this must be the 21st century version? Even though I am not a mom, I am getting very intrigued by your research and forthcoming book! 🙂 And I have to say that reading your posts always makes me feel better. If you, Litlove, a university professor and published author can actually read chicklit (and enjoy it)alongside a book like Aurélia, I don’t have to feel quite so guilty about some of the books I read!

  12. Ravenous reader – thank you for your kind words – I can see you understand just what it’s like. The yummy mummy/slummy mummy books are quite fascinating me at the moment. But I should also add I have The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood on my list too, as I suspect that book is also surreptitiously about yummies who are slummies underneath it all. I’ll let you know! Lisa – I’m so glad you left a note as I tried to visit you and wondered where you’d gone! And books are my perpetual comfort. Whenever I think of reading I always feel gratitude, just for the respite and the interest it always offers. Stefanie – thank you. I do like to keep my staring into space quota up 🙂 The Nerval is wild – I’ve just finished it and the second part was his detailed account of going mad. Hypnotic stuff! Jacob – I ran right over to imani’s after reading your comment and enjoyed her post very much. You should know I resist all devisive impulses as a matter of principle 😉 Verbivore, you’d enjoy Nerval, I think. And do try Fay Weldon; she is one of a kind and I’d love to know what you think of her. Danielle, I just love your comments. You always put a smile on my face. I’ve possessed a copy of the Decameron since 1988 without reading it, but I’d finished the Weldon within a week of bringing it home… I think you are perfectly right to say that women have always been labelled, and I think we’re a bit fascinated by social stereotypes, like the Bridget Jones’s. Why that should be is the question that’s intriguing me right now. And I am very happy to be able to read chicklit in the name of research – it makes a nice change! I love variety in my reading, and a good book comes in all shades of literariness. Give me a good plot and some turns of phrase that make me laugh and I’m really happy.

  13. I’m sorry about your colleague — what a lot to take in and make sense of. I’ve never heard those terms, yummy or slummy mummy — I would definitely be a slummy mummy if I had children, I’m quite certain of it. I’ve never read Fay Weldon, but I can see that she would be perfect for the right kind of mood!

  14. What a distressing time! I hope you can continue to dive into books for some sanity and salvation. If I were a mummy–a biological impossibility, but never mind that–if I were a mummy, I’d definitely be a slummy one.

  15. Sorry to be late on the scene and for your troubles at the moment. It strikes me that in a patriarchal society one way of asserting authority is to label, divisively, the opposition as it were. I see that both these terms are negative at heart. The yummy lot are acting out a part to pretend they are not slummy and the slummy lot are the true degraded article. Somewhere there is the honey mummy, who is OK, performs perfectly well, isn’t some stereotype, but just her own self, but not useful to the world of the axegrinders. Or do I just dream? What I don’t understand is why women as people, pundits and writers have any truck with all this. If they want to take up positions it should surely be against the whole rag-bag of labels which they are still warped into. But then I’m just a man! A man who sympathises with your other problem with paragraphing, can’t seem to hit the right keys this morning, is really a luddite at heart, but needs technology all the same. A metaphor for life, perhaps?

  16. Dorothy and Hobgoblin – I thought it was so charming that you both thought you would be slummy mummies! There’s harmony for you. And thank you so much for your sympathetic comments. I do appreciate them so much. Bookboxed – I love the idea of the honey mummy and you put your finger on something I couldn’t quite articulate – why on earth do women not only allow these labels but encourage them? Some of the caricatures in the book are very harsh – women are not their own best friends (or indeed very sisterly) on occasions. Thank you for that – it was immensely helpful.

  17. Gosh, sorry to hear about your colleague.

    Is that Slummy Mummy book the one taken from the Saturday Times Magazine? I read it quite often, but never found it particularly funny… perhaps because I am not a Mummy, Slummy or otherwise… and just doesn’t compare with the original Slummy Mummy, EM Delafield’s Provincial Lady!

  18. WordPress is driving me crazy too. They keep taking out the spaces between words.

    I’m sorry about these difficult things with your colleagues; sudden tragic turns are always hard.

    As for the mummies — as my children get older I feel less and less like a mummy of any kind, and more and more like my own self. It probably has to do with getting enough uninterrupted sleep to keep my identity intact.

  19. Ach! You re living in a plot and reading all those plots? As a writer, shouldn’t you be taking notes in court and following that guy to prison? What feeds our writing more: Serendipitous experience or well-written prose? Of course, you could compromise and read those books in court…and in jail.

  20. So sorry about your plotful week. I hope you have some art house film time coming up soon in your life so you can process these events. Please take care of yourself! You know how stress can affect your health. Wow, I just sounded like your mother there, didn’t I?

    I’m actually glad to hear about your wordpress weirdness, because lately, wordpress keeps putting its default theme into my blog. And the default theme is so very ugly. But maybe it’s just a wordpress glitch and they’ll fix both our problems soon.

  21. Simon – thank you, that’s kind. No, I can’t quite see you getting on with the slummy mummy lit! And yes, I do believe the author is a Times journalist. You know great minds think alike – I’d left a comment somewhere this week about EM Delafield being a slummy mummy – I’m so pleased someone else thinks the same thing! Bloglily – I’m glad to know it’s not just me, but taking out the breaks between words? That’s mean. And as ever you hit it exactly on the head when it comes to mummydom. I don’t expect anyone has ever dared undertake a proper survey of sleep deprivation in motherhood as it might actually deter great swathes of the population from having children. With good reason. Gloria – LOL! your comment is most amusing. I plead the arts student’s defence: I like to watch life so long as it doesn’t come too close 🙂 Dew – bless you for looking out for me. I’ve felt much more wobbly this week after all the surprises. It’s undeniable that shock has a bad effect on ME. I promise you I’m taking things very steadily. And I’m sorry to hear about your wordpress troubles – what is going on? Usually wordpress is so very reliable! Let’s hope it all gets sorted out really soon.

  22. I remain a slummy mummy, even though my children are now adults – older than I was when I had them!

    So sorry to hear about all the drama – I hope things calm down for all those concerned so that life can get back to normal.

  23. Wow, I am so sorry to hear about all the drama in your department. I hope things smooth out soon, and I’m terribly sorry about the death of your colleague.

  24. Oh, I’m so sorry for all of the drama. I’m sending positive vibes from Berkeley, CA. (Them’s some of the most POSITIVE VIBES in the world!)

    I like what you wrote about Fay Weldon — I’ve always thought of her as too light. I will keep an eye peeled for the Decameron book, though.

  25. Ex Libris – how nice to see you! And I can assure you from my reading that slummy is the healthy choice. Thank you also for your kind and much appreciated words. Andi – thank you so much, that is very sweet of you. These are the kind of things that are going to rumble around for a while, I expect. But everyone will pull together, I’m sure. LK – thank you so much for those high quality vibes! I feel better for them already (the extra sunshine is lovely). Fay Weldon IS on the light side, but do consider The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, or even her autobiography, Auto da Fay. Both are good.

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