6

‘The Shutter of Snow’ by Emily Holmes Coleman *****

I have wanted to read Emily Holmes Coleman’s The Shutter of Snow for years, but had never got around to doing so, as copies proved difficult to find, and rather expensive. Only the selection of the novel for my online book club pushed me to source a (thankfully free) copy from OpenLibrary, and I began it way ahead of time. 4616545

This novella, the only work published by American author Emily Holmes Coleman, is semi-autobiographical.  It focuses on a period of her life in which she was institutionalised due to contracting puerperal fever following the birth of her son in 1924, and suffering a nervous breakdown as a result.  Our protagonist, Marthe Gail, has postpartum psychosis, and is forced to spend her time away from her baby son in a mental hospital in New York.  Here, she tries, with varying levels of success, to persuade others that she is well.

Marthe’s condition, and its manifestation, is startling.  She believes herself to be a sort of amalgamation of God and Jesus Christ.  From the outset, The Shutter of Snow is unsettling, and quickly establishes a sense of the place in which Marthe is trapped: ‘The voice on the other side of her wall was shouting for someone.  It never stopped all night.  It became entangled in the blankets and whistled the ice prongs on the wind.  The rest of the voices were not so distinct.  It was very still out in the hall when the voices stopped.’ There is a sense, for Marthe, of being completely alone and adrift, whilst also being surrounded by many other people.

The imagery which Holmes Coleman creates often has a shock value to it: ‘She had been a foetus and had knitted herself together in the bed’, and ‘Clean cheeks and a little river in her teeth.  Pine needles dripping in the Caucasus’, stood out particularly to me.  I also found the following nightmarish scene incredibly chilling: ‘How could they expect her to sleep when she was going through all of it?  They didnt [sic] know.  She had swung about the room from the ceiling and it was a swinging from the cross.  There had been the burial.  She was lying quietly in the bed and being covered over her face.  She was carried quietly out and put in the casket.  Down, down she went in the rectangle that had been made for her.  Down and the dirt fell in above.  Down and the worms began to tremble in and out.  Always she had kept telling of it, not one word of it must be forgotten.  It must all be recorded in sound and after that she could sleep.’

As well as the horror which permeates it, there are moments of strange beauty in Holmes Coleman’s descriptions; for example, when she writes: ‘The only thing to do is to put hammers in the porridge and when there are enough hammers we shall break down the windows and all of us shall dance in the snow.’  The use of recurring motifs within the novella was highly effective – for instance, Marthe’s dancing, and the unusual imagery of orange peel in the snow.

The Shutter of Snow presents a striking character study of a woman in the depths of mania.  Holmes Coleman’s prose is effective; she uses a stream-of-consciousness-esque style, with the subconscious and unconscious embedded within its omniscient perspective.  I’m not sure that I would categorise this as a stream-of-consciousness work, per se, but it certainly can be recognised as a Modernist work.  There is a real urgency to her writing.  I can see why her style, with its omission of speech marks and no clear delineation between what is real and imagined, might be off-putting to many readers, but as a huge fan of Modernist writing, I found it immediately immersive.  The mixture of reality and psychiatric episodes are chilling, and blend into one another seamlessly.

Given that The Shutter of Snow was published in 1930, it feels startlingly modern.  I agree entirely with the two reviews I read prior to beginning the novella.  Fay Weldon remarked that is an ‘extraordinary and visionary book, written out of those edges where madness and poetry meet’, and The Nation commented that ‘The Shutter of Snow is a profoundly moving book, supplying as it does a glimpse of what a temporary derangement and its consequences mean to the sufferer.’  I found the entirety of this book to be poignant and affecting, and it has become a firm favourite of mine.  I expected that it might be difficult to read, and whilst there are some shocking incidents at work in the novella, the constantly shifting prose works perfectly to demonstrate the fog in Marthe’s brain.

There are relatively few novellas that say so much as Holmes Coleman does so fluidly and fluently in The Shutter of Snow.  She speaks volumes about the human condition, and the frailty and fragility which go hand in hand with it.  The Shutter of Snow is a literary whirlwind, a completely absorbing and often quite frightening story.  An obvious comparison to give is its similarities to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, which deals with similar themes in that the narrator is forced to undertake a rest cure following childbirth.  There are flashes here of a similar beguiling style as Djuna Barnes’, and some of Virginia Woolf’s more complicated scenes – in Orlando, for example.  In some ways, however, The Shutter of Snow is quite unlike anything which I have ever read, and it is all the stronger for this unusual quality.  There is so much within it which is all its own, and it is a real shame that Holmes Coleman never again put her pen to paper following the publication of this staggeringly powerful and phenomenal novella.

4

The Book Trail: From Rosamond Lehmann to F. Tennyson Jesse

This particular edition of The Book Trail begins with a wonderful sequel by Rosamond Lehmann, printed by Virago Modern Classics.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to put this list together.

 

1. The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann 1768393
‘Taking up where Invitation to the Waltz left off, The Weather in the Streets shows us Olivia Curtis ten years older, a failed marriage behind her, thinner, sadder, and apprently not much wiser. A chance encounter on a train with a man who enchanted her as a teenager leads to a forbidden love affair and a new world of secret meetings, brief phone calls, and snatched liaisons in anonymous hotel rooms. Years ahead of its time when first published, this subtle and powerful novel shocked even the most stalwart Lehmann fans with its searing honesty and passionate portrayal of clandestine love.’

 

5481462. Love for Lydia by H.E. Bates
Love for Lydia was the first novel with an English setting that H.E. Bates wrote after the second world war, and it was his own favourite among his Northamptonshire novels. The Northants setting becomes the background both ugly and beautiful for the story of a young girl, the daughter of a decaying aristocratic household, and her lovers, of which the most important is the narrator himself.  Published in 1952, it is essentially an autobiographical novel, and, though much of his fiction reflects his own life and background, this probably contains more than in any other piece of fiction – That may explain why it is such a satisfying book. Bates spent a brief time as a reporter on the Northamptonshire Chronicle, and there are other echoes of the author’s personal experiences here in the character of the narrator, Richardson. Lydia, it seems, is based on, or was inspired by, a young lady he once glimpsed on Rushden railway station – “a tallish, dark, proud, aloof young girl in a black cloak lined with scarlet”. Lydia in the story is the sheltered and selfish Aspen daughter, and the novel chronicles her affairs with Richardson and two of the other young men. It has been described as a novel of “a young man’s struggle to understand and resolve himself to a formidable world of change and uncertainty”, and the novel ends in his committing himself to Lydia in a much more mature and lasting way than he could have done at the beginning of the story.’

 

3. The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen 195987
‘In The Heat of the Day, Elizabeth Bowen brilliantly recreates the tense and dangerous atmosphere of London during the bombing raids of World War II.  Many people have fled the city, and those who stayed behind find themselves thrown together in an odd intimacy born of crisis. Stella Rodney is one of those who chose to stay. But for her, the sense of impending catastrophe becomes acutely personal when she discovers that her lover, Robert, is suspected of selling secrets to the enemy, and that the man who is following him wants Stella herself as the price of his silence. Caught between these two men, not sure whom to believe, Stella finds her world crumbling as she learns how little we can truly know of those around us.’

 

17769934. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
‘It’s a summer’s day in 1946. The English village of Wealding is no longer troubled by distant sirens, yet the rustling coils of barbed wire are a reminder that something, some quality of life, has evaporated. Together again after years of separation, Laura and Stephen Marshall and their daughter Victoria are forced to manage without “those anonymous caps and aprons who lived out of sight and pulled the strings.” Their rambling garden refuses to be tamed, the house seems perceptibly to crumble. But alone on a hillside, as evening falls, Laura comes to see what it would have meant if the war had been lost, and looks to the future with a new hope and optimism. First published in 1947, this subtle, finely wrought novel presents a memorable portrait of the aftermath of war, its effect upon a marriage, and the gradual but significant change in the nature of English middle-class life.’

 

5. The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor 1707951
‘”Here I am!” Flora called to Richard as she went downstairs. For a second, Meg felt disloyalty. It occurred to her of a sudden that Flora was always saying that, and that it was in the tone of one giving a lovely present. She was bestowing herself.’ The soul of kindness is what Flora believes herself to be. Tall, blonde and beautiful, she appears to have everything under control — her home, her baby, her husband Richard, her friend Meg, Kit, Meg’s brother, who has always adored Flora, and Patrick the novelist and domestic pet. Only the bohemian painter Liz refuses to become a worshipper at the shrine. Flora entrances them all, dangling visions of happiness and success before their spellbound eyes. All are bewitched by this golden tyrant, all conspire to protect her from what she really is. All, that is, except the clear-eyed Liz: it is left to her to show them that Flora’s kindness is the sweetest poison of them all.’

 

3971136. A Compass Error by Sybille Bedford
‘In this sequel to The Favourite of the Gods, seventeen-year-old Flavia, on her own in the south of France in the late 1930s, lives with the confidence and ardor of youth. She knows her destiny-it lies at Oxford, where she will begin a great career of public service. But this view of herself is at odds with reality; it springs from ideas she has of her idolized English father and of her blessed Italian mother, Constanza. Only when she is caught up in an intrigue that is to determine the fate of those she most loves does she begins to discover her own true nature-even as she loses the bearings of her moral compass.’

 

7. The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman 1393098
‘In a prose form as startling as its content, “The Shutter of Snow” portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world that is both sad and terrifying, echoing the worlds of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Snake Pit.”  Based upon the author’s own experience after the birth of her son in 1924, “The Shutter of Snow” retains all the energy it had when first published in 1930.’

 

1396478. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
‘A Pin to See the Peepshow is a fictionalized account of the life of Edith Thompson, one of the three main players in the “Ilford murder” case of 1922.’

 

Which of these books have you read?  Do any pique your interest?

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1

The Book Trail: From Penelope Lively to Elie Wiesel

I am beginning this Book Trail post with a memoir which I read as part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, and which I very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

1. Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived by Penelope Lively 9780141188324
This autobiography is about growing up in Egypt. It is also an investigation into childhood perception in which the author uses herself and her memories as an insight into how children see and know. It is a look at Eygpt up to, and including, World War II from a small girl’s point of view, which is also, ultimately, a moving and rather sad picture of an isolated and lonely little girl.

 

2. The Italics are Mine by Nina Berberova
This is the autobiography of Nina Berberova, who was born in St Petersburg in 1901, the only child of an Armenian father and a North Russian mother. After the Revolution, and the persecution of intellectuals which followed, she was forced to flee to Paris, where she was to remain for 25 years. There she formed part of a group of literary Russian emigres that included Gorky, Bunin, Svetaeva, Nabokov and Akhmatova, and earned a precarious living as a journalist, barely surviving the hardship and poverty of exile. In 1950 she left France for the United States to begin a new life with no money and no knowledge of English. She is now a retired Professor of Russian Literature at Princeton, and has belatedly been acclaimed for the short novels she wrote in the 1930s and ’40s.

 

251472953. Zoo or Letters Not About Love by Victor Shklovsky
While living in exile in Berlin, the formidable literary critic Viktor Shklovsky fell in love with Elsa Triolet. He fell into the habit of sending Elsa several letters a day, a situation she accepted under one condition: he was forbidden to write about love. Zoo, or Letters Not about Love is an epistolary novel born of this constraint, and although the brilliant and playful letters contained here cover everything from observations about contemporary German and Russian life to theories of art and literature, nonetheless every one of them is indirectly dedicated to the one topic they are all required to avoid: their author’s own unrequited love.

 

4. The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman
In a prose form as startling as its content, “The Shutter of Snow” portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world that is both sad and terrifying, echoing the worlds of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Snake Pit.”  Based upon the author’s own experience after the birth of her son in 1924, “The Shutter of Snow” retains all the energy it had when first published in 1930.

 

5. Vain Art of the Fugue by Dumitru Tepeneag 759968
Clutching a bouquet of flowers, hurrying to catch his bus, and arguing with the driver once he’s on, a man rushes to a train station platform to meet a woman. This sequence of events occurs and recurs in remarkably different variations in Vain Art of the Fugue.  In one version, the bus driver ignores the traffic signals and is killed in the ensuing crash. In another, the protagonist is thrown off the bus, and as he chases after it, a crowd of strangers joins him in the pursuit.  As the book unfolds, the protagonist, his lovers, and the people he meets become increasingly vivid and complex figures in the crowded Bucharest cityscape. Themes, conflicts, and characters interweave and overlap, creating a book that is at once chaotic and perfectly composed.

 

6. Blindsight by Maurice Gee
Alice Ferry lives in Wellington, and keeps an eye on her brother, though he doesn’t know it. Alice as narrator begins telling us the story from their childhood, but there are things she’s hiding.  When a young man shows up on her doorstep, claiming to be her brother Gordon’s grandson, things get complicated.

 

48109717. Little Fingers by Filip Florian
In a little town in Romania, a mass grave is discovered near the excavations of a Roman fort. Are the dead the victims of a medieval plague or, perhaps, of a Communist firing squad? And why are finger bones disappearing from the pit each night? Petrus, a young archaeologist, decides to do some investigating of his own.   Meanwhile, an Orthodox monk in the surrounding mountains stumbles into history when he becomes the father confessor of a partisan bent on bringing down the government, one handmade grenade and one derailed train at a time. Not to mention a team of Argentinean forensic anthropologists who arrive in town in a cloud of rock music, shredded jeans, and tequila.   Florian has packed real history, a religious pilgrimage, a criminal investigation, a recipe for roast pigeon, and a love story into two hundred truly remarkable pages.

 

8. The Time of the Uprooted by Elie Wiesel
Gamaliel Friedman is only a child when his family flees Czechoslovakia in 1939 for the relative safety of Hungary. For him, it will be the beginning of a life of rootlessness, disguise, and longing. Five years later, in desperation, Gamaliel’s parents entrust him to a young Christian cabaret singer named Ilonka. With his Jewish identity hidden, he survives the war, but in 1956, to escape the stranglehold of communism, he leaves Budapest after painfully parting with Ilonka.  He settles in Vienna, then Paris, and finally, after a failed marriage, in New York, where he works as a ghostwriter, living through the lives of others. Eventually, he falls in with a group of exiles: a Spanish Civil War veteran, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, a victim of Stalinism, a former Israeli intelligence agent, and a rabbi—a mystic whose belief in the potential for grace in everyday life powerfully counters Gamaliel’s feelings of loss and dispossession. When Gamaliel is asked to help draw out an elderly, disfigured Hungarian woman who is barely able to communicate but who may be his beloved Ilonka, he begins to understand that a real life in the present is possible only if he will reconcile with his past.

 

Which of these books have you read?  Have any been added to your list?

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0

Really Underrated Books (Part Two)

Part two of this week’s Really Underrated Books showcase brings to light some fascinating looking tomes.

1. Going West by Maurice Gee 866199
For all the promise of his name, Jack Skeat cannot be a poet. His friend Rex Petley – eel-catcher, girl-chaser, motorbike rider – takes that prize. Is he also a murderer? And why, forty years later, does he drown out on the Gulf? Jack has to find out, and is drawn to examine their lives. Going West has long been regarded as one of the most autobiographical of Maurice Gee’s novels.

 

2. Roger Fry: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf’s only true biography, written to commemorate a devoted friend and one of the most renowned art critics of this century, who helped to bring the Postimpressionist movement from France to England and America.

 

16198633. I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister, 1791-1840, edited by Helena Whitbread
Upon publication, the first volume of Anne Lister’s diaries, “I Know My Own Heart,” met with celebration, delight, and some skepticism. How could an upper class Englishwoman, in the first half of the nineteenth century, fulfill her emotional and sexual needs when her sexual orientation was toward other women? How did an aristocratic lesbian manage to balance sexual fulfillment with social acceptability?  Helena Whitbread, the editor of these diaries, here allows us an inside look at the long-running love affair between Anne Lister and Marianna Lawton, an affair complicated by Anne’s infatuation with Maria Barlow. Anne travels to Paris where she discovers a new love interest that conflicts with her developing social aspirations. For the first time, she begins to question the nature of her identity and the various roles female lovers may play in the life of a gentrywoman. Though unequipped with a lesbian vocabulary with which to describe her erotic life, her emotional conflicts are contemporary enough to speak to us all.  This book will satisfy the curiosity of the many who became acquainted with Lister through I Know My Own Heart and are eager to learn more about her revealing life and what it suggests about the history of sexuality.

 

4. Victorine by Maude Hutchins
Victorine is thirteen, and she can’t get the unwanted surprise of her newly sexual body, in all its polymorphous and perverse insistence, out of her mind: it is a trap lying in wait for her at every turn (and nowhere, for some reason, more than in church). Meanwhile, Victorine’s older brother Costello is struggling to hold his own against the overbearing, mean-spirited, utterly ghastly Hector L’Hommedieu, a paterfamilias who collects and discards mistresses with scheming abandon even as Allison, his wife, drifts through life in a narcotic daze.   And Maude Hutchins’s Victorine? It’s a sly, shocking, one-of-a-kind novel that explores sex and society with wayward and unabashedly weird inspiration, a drive-by snapshot of the great abject American family in its suburban haunts by a literary maverick whose work looks forward to—and sometimes outstrips—David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and the contemporary paintings of Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin.

 

5. The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, edited by Barbara Korte 3212619.jpg
This new collection of short stories about World War I features works by such famous British authors as Joseph Conrad, W. Somerset Maugham, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Rudyard Kipling, D. H. Lawrence, John Galsworthy, Radclyffe Hall, Katherine Mansfield, Robert Graves, Muriel Spark, and Julian Barnes. Written during the war and after, these stories illustrate the impact of the Great War on British society and culture, as well as the many ways in which short fiction contributed to the literature of that time period.

 

6. Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard
Born in 1918 into a working-class Edinburgh family, Muriel Spark ended her life as the epitome of literary chic, one of the great writers of the 20th century. This book tells her story.

 

208197177. The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha
Set in Cairo between 1997 and 2011, The Crocodiles is narrated in numbered, prose poem-like paragraphs, set against the backdrop of a burning Tahrir Square, by a man looking back on the magical and explosive period of his life when he and two friends started a secret poetry club amid a time of drugs, messy love affairs, violent sex, clumsy but determined intellectual bravado, and retranslations of the Beat poets. Youssef Rakha’s provocative, brutally intelligent novel of growth and change begins with a suicide and ends with a doomed revolution, forcefully capturing thirty years in the life of a living, breathing, daring, burning, and culturally incestuous Cairo.

 

8. The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman
In a prose form as startling as its content, “The Shutter of Snow” portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world that is both sad and terrifying, echoing the worlds of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Snake Pit.”  Based upon the author’s own experience after the birth of her son in 1924, “The Shutter of Snow” retains all the energy it had when first published in 1930.

 

9. Orpheus: The Song of Life by Ann Wroe 16088815
A powerful and poetic work of history on the figure of Orpheus: his life and myth, and his representation and imagining from the sixth century BC to the present day.  For at least two and a half millennia, the figure of Orpheus has haunted humanity. Half-man, half-god, musician, magician, theologian, poet and lover, his story never leaves us. He may be myth, but his lyre still sounds, entrancing everything that hears it: animals, trees, water, stones, and men.  In this extraordinary work Ann Wroe goes in search of Orpheus, from the forests where he walked and the mountains where he worshipped to the artefacts, texts and philosophies built up round him. She traces the man, and the power he represents, through the myriad versions of a fantastical life: his birth in Thrace, his studies in Egypt, his voyage with the Argonauts to fetch the Golden Fleece, his love for Eurydice and journey to Hades, and his terrible death. We see him tantalising Cicero and Plato, and breathing new music into Gluck and Monteverdi; occupying the mind of Jung and the surreal dreams of Cocteau; scandalising the Fathers of the early Church, and filling Rilke with poems like a whirlwind. He emerges as not simply another mythical figure but the force of creation itself, singing the song of light out of darkness and life out of death.

 

10. The Giants by Jean Marie G. Le Clezio
Upon an immense stretch of flat ground at the mouth of a river bathed in sunlight rises Hyperpolis. It stands there, surrounded by its four asphalt car-parks, to condemn us – a huge enveloping supermarket. Each of us will see ourselves reflected in the characters who move mindlessly about Hyperpolis, but The Giants is a call to rebellion. This bold and inventive novel is the work of a tremendously talented writer and both an intoxicating and exhilarating read.

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