In many a Victorian novel, there’s the classic scene where a dark figure draped in a shawl scurries at night along damp and smelly streets and deposits an infant in a wicker basket on the footsteps on the orphanage. Well, that’s what I did a few weeks ago.
Or nearly so. Without the shawl.
Let me start with the beginning.
I had ordered through Bookmooch a collection of English short stories, lured by the name of Elizabeth Bowen (which I have never tried). Alas, it was actually an annotated edition for French students studying English. On the left page, the text, on the right, vocabulary and grammar notes. I’ve nothing against it, but it was highly distracting. I couldn’t concentrate on the plot, the character and even less on the voice when some teacher kept asking “me” why that sentence on the present tense instead of past. Of course, it’s interesting to consider the stylistic choices of writers, but not at the cost of the story itself. The whole experience was sabotaged.
And you know the worst? Right after each story, little translation exercises inspired by sentences of the story, to keep in mind the grammar points and imitate the style; it just kills the mood.
The collection was promising though, but the general tone rather gloomy, so I picked a few but couldn’t finish the rest:
- “The Searchlight” (Virginia Woolf)
- “Out of the Rose” (William Butler Yeats)
- “Last Day of Spring” (Celia Fremlin)
- “The Evil that Men Do” (Elizabeth Bowen)
- “Things” (D.H. Lawrence)
- “The Sound of the River” (Jean Rhys)
- “Death of an Old Dog” (Antonia Fraser)
- “The Other Side of the Hedge” (E.M. Forster)
- “The Putting Away of Uncle Quaggin” (Nigel Kneale)
The Woolf and the Yeats didn’t work for me at that time, nor did the Bowen, the Forster or the Nigel Kneale… Too bad for Elizabeth Bowen, that will be for another time. “The Last Day of Spring” by Celia Fremlin was exceedingly sad, I nearly dropped the book at the last line. “The sound of the river” was terrifying enough to let me forget about exercises and grammar. “The death of an old dog” was effective as well, but in a cruel and sour kind of way (there’s a lot of suspense in this one, so if you want to know more, I suggest you go and read the story in full).
I liked “Things” by D.H. Lawrence best: a couple of American expats, the Melvilles, delude themselves that they are free spirits. They choose and afford to live far from the US in order to live their passion of arts, painting, Buddhism and Venice. But during the twelve years abroad they actually collect a great amount of exquisite pieces of art, furniture, and when they must return to the US, these material treasures weigh them down. They have to put it in storage. The story is quite ironic, it gently mocks the Melvilles’ idealism and criticism of materialism, while they do cling to all the beautiful things they own. To Mr. Smithereens’ dismay, I’ve never seriously tried D.H. Lawrence, and this story was a great introduction to him.
So what did I do with this little collection? I could see no future for it. So I abandoned it on a dirty metro concourse, with the hope that someone (learning English) would pick it up, just like the proverbial orphan in Victorian novels. I never throw books away in the trash, and I couldn’t bring myself to do this for that one either, but that was the closest option I could think of.