Women in Black and The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John

Given that St John is one of those Australians who leave and declines ever to come back, I was in an uneasy state whilst reading Women in Black. Is the satire affectionate or spiteful? One might assume the latter. And yet, thinking enough of it to try another, The Essence of the Thing set in the London in which she spent most of her adulthood, it is evident that she does have the necessary sympathy for her subjects to keep the reader onside.

Women in Black was her first novel and it was promising; promising enough to expect more of later work. The Essence of the Thing is generally considered her best – shortlisted for the Booker evidently is a legacy a book keeps for ever.

I thought it was a terrific brief observation on the little that most people manage to make from life. All the happy people were dull, but so is the protagonist and her partner. Not surprisingly, unhappiness makes their stock rise in the interest dept just a little, but the author doesn’t overdo it. There are no Heathcliffs and Catherines here.  As one review on GR put it:

It’s not a great story, it doesn’t have great characters, you won’t be swept up in the emotions of the read, but you’d struggle to find a more familiar retelling of a falling out, a telling closer to your own story. GR 

I don’t really understand how one could read it and not be moved.

Reading hint: don’t be put off by people comparing it with Austen, it’s nothing like it.

These two books show a writer who does her own thing and I’m looking forward to reading the rest. I don’t understand why my GR friends, even the Australian ones, have apparently not given St John a whirl. Women in Black is quite a nice portrayal of how Australia was, and just for that is worth picking up.

Peter Pan’s First XI by Kevin Tefler

I’m not sure who this book is for. Little of it will keep the cricket buffs happy. It doesn’t, in my opinion, give enough insights into JM Barrie to warrant a substantial book. I guess it gives a snapshot view of an upper English class whiling away their lives – wasting them perhaps? It’s a little picture of the silliness of that particular class at a particular time.

In other words, I like the idea of the book more than its execution, which I don’t think is the fault of the author, there simply isn’t enough there to hold one’s attention for the required period.

Chabon and Mistry short stories

A paired look at Rohinton Mistry Tales from Firozsha Baag and Michael Chabon Werewolves in Their Youth.

I chanced upon these back to back, both short story collections, both by writers in their working youth – Mistry’s first book and an early one for Chabon. Both as much as anything nostalgic, bittersweet recollections of childhood, the middle class childhoods of their own existences.

Chabon: laugh out loud funny – you know…so that it gets almost irritating for those who are suffering through your pleasure. They start sounding snarky when they say they must read it too. The guy’s brilliant, this collection is splendid.

Mistry: the blurb says ‘extremely funny’. But the only good thing about the shit of his world – and I mean that literally, the shit on the street, the upstairs lavatory that leaks onto your head as you sit on the toilet, the filth, the water supply turned off at 6am because the city is without again, the monsoonal water running down the inside of your house – the good thing about it is that this is all happening to middle class educated people, the same ones who, had they lived in Chabon’s childhood, would have been clean and without want. This life he writes of is the relatively privileged existence one can have in India, that’s what I mean by ‘good’. I mean, there is a worse life. I couldn’t imagine anything less hilarious. I could not imagine anything, if it comes to that, less ‘compassionate’ – another promise of the blurb. I don’t know that Mistry is ever the victim of that sentiment, but certainly not in this book. He is without mercy, I would say, as he describes the degraded condition of the middle-class, to be juxtaposed against those that bitterly resent them for being – if not ‘haves’, then not as ‘have not’ as they are – those below these middle-classes, treated by these middle-classes as scum, servants to be abused from morning to night, day after year after decade. He is without mercy in his examination of himself, too, in the last story very nicely describing his safe-in-Canada life as he writes about the life he once had. ‘Joyful’ – another word from the blurb.

Mistry’s great skill is at depicting the India he has evidently decided is his mission in life to put down on paper. Probably even if he had the ability to write as Chabon does, it would be entirely inappropriate for the subject matter. Chabon, on the other hand, is not only a master story teller, but he is also a wonderful technician. It is perfectly clear that Chabon is a man who loves words, he loves the smallest units of writing, he loves the next largest, he loves what he does. Mistry works hard. Chabon works bloody hard but we don’t know that he does.

In the end, I can’t imagine Mistry ever breaking out of what he does, living in Canada with a toilet that works, whilst writing somewhat guiltily about the life he so wisely left behind to that end. Chabon, on the other hand, has no fetters. He does what he wants, not what he has to. He can do anything – and, to be fair, he does.

The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leïla Marouane

Complete coincidence saw me reading this directly after Old Masters. There are odd points of comparison. Firstly, they are both related by others. ‘Reger told me…’ and, in this one, ‘It came over me all of a sudden, he said.’ So, in both we are aware of an interpretation going on, a reporting of the story even though ‘he said’ immediately becomes ‘I’.

Secondly, both main characters are deeply unhappy and find the world an entirely unsatisfactory place. But whereas Reger is a completely detestable odious old crank, Mohamed is wonderful, the reader is in his corner. Reger has no particular cause for unhappiness, it is like he seeks it out by turning the world into a place at which to rage. Mohamed is an Algerian Muslim in Paris – or rather in a Muslim slum outside Paris. He is trapped there with an overbearing mother who is the type to control those around her by pointing out interminably what she has done for them, the sacrifices made.

Not for the first time I acknowledge how lucky I am that my parents never once in their hard-working, sacrificing-for-their-children lives, made us beholden to them. It must be awful to live in cultures where those sacrifices are investments, made now to get something back later; weights placed upon children to prevent them from being free.

So there Mohamed is, living with one of those women who make powerlessness a strength with which they hold their children vice-like. Mohamed wants to escape. He wants to escape his mother, the slum, the expectations, Islam, the lot. He has a well-paid job, he can afford to move into Paris proper. All he has to do is trade in his cultural background for a new look, a new name, a bit of skin-whitening, a little hair-straightening. He wants to be a new person, a banker still by day, but by night a writer, a cosmopolitan type, a wooer of women. He wants to get laid. More than anything in the world he wants to lose his virginity.

This could just be trite and silly, but it isn’t for one moment that. It is funny and sad and excruciatingly embarrassing. Leïla Marouane is on my to-read more list. Highly recommended.

The Desert Island aka Shackleton’s Antarctic Collection.

I doubt there could be a more real life example of the ‘What would you take to a desert island?’ than Shackleton’s trip to the Antarctic. There is an exhibition of the photographs of that trip on at the RGS in London at the moment. One of the photos shows a wall of books, his floating library. The RGS has been able to digitally enhance it, so that we now know exactly what Shackleton took on this unhappy expedition.


Can you judge a book by its cover? The fact is that one often can. And taking that notion a little further, surely we can judge a man by the covers of his books. That’s something, with the advent of electronic book reading, that we will never be able to do again. It is so easy and cheap to download that one can never make assumptions about the relationship of the book to the machine owner. Here, however, of course we are entitled to draw conclusions. The man bothered to take the books to Antarctica. The books mean something.

I’ve arranged the list in order into:

  • literature
  • linguistic and general reference
  • exploration

Between the general reference section and the exploration books I’ve squeezed in two non-fiction books, one by the socialist JB Askew and one by Alfred Dreyfuss.

As for literature, it is interesting to note that it is relatively light on our notion of classics. Most of them are the best sellers or maybe, to convert to our idiom, the Goodreads trending books of his time. There are quite a few murder mysteries or similar.

I’m guessing that those reading this have never heard of:

Gertrude Atherton
Amelie Rives
Montague Glass
Ian Hey
AEW Mason
David Bone
Herbert Flowerdew
John Joy Bell
Louis Tracy
William J Locke
Rex Beach
Robert Hugh Benson
H De Vere Stacpoole

Yet Atherton was compared with Wharton, Rives was the EL James of her day, and William J Locke made the best selling US novels list in five different years. His stories were made into films 24 times, including Ladies in Lavender starring Dench and Maggie Smith in 2004 and four of his books made Broadway as plays. In fact, although not one of my 500+ goodreads friends has reviewed any of these authors, Locke is still well read and loved, judging by the reviews. I confess I did not know his name.

Potash and Perlmutter, the comic rag trade merchants of Monatague Glass, were all the rage amongst New York Jews. Stacpoole is the author of The Blue Lagoon of the film fame (some would say infamy) and Flowerdew used his novels to proselytise on the rights of women:

The Woman’s View: A Novel About Marriage (1903) is a marriage problem tale with a complicated plot drawing attention to the inaccuracy with which the marriage laws relate to how people, especially women, feel about marriage. Valerie marries a fortune-hunter, and discovers he had a wife who was alive when they were married but is now dead. Philip, who has always loved her, tells her she is free, but she still feels married, and remarries her husband. He beats her and her baby dies as a result, so Philip rescues her. The husband sues for divorce on grounds of adultery, and so she is once more free, though she has not committed adultery. She marries Philip to save his political career, but refuses to sleep with him, as she still has a husband alive. Her cousin, who is in love with Philip, tells her she must: Valerie then responds by telling him to get an annulment and going back to her husband. As in Retaliation, Flowerdew sacrifices plausibility for the sake of his thesis. Flowerdew published an article, ‘A Substitute for the Marriage Laws’ in the Westminster Review (September 1899). Oxford Index



Amelie Rives, whose steamy best-seller The Quick and the Dead?  earned her a vigorous campaign of hate mail. And there I was thinking hate mail was just a function of the ease of modern technology. 

Personally, I find it fascinating to read up on authors who were successful in their day but subsequently forgotten. I have included links to the biographies of the lesser known authors, leaving it to you to take your exploration from there. Be brave. Be inquisitive. Shackleton would be proud of you.

Books on Shackleton’s bookshelf:


The Macbeth Murder Mystery by James Thurber

The Macbeth Murder Mystery is just the funniest thing ever written. Read on.

“It was a stupid mistake to make,” said the American woman I had met at my hotel in the English lake country, “but it was on the counter with the other Penguin books–the little sixpenny ones, you know, with the paper covers–and I supposed of course it was a detective story. All the others were detective stories. I’d read all the others, so I bought this one without really looking at it carefully. You can imagine how mad I was when I found it was Shakespeare.”

I murmured something sympathetically.

“I don’t see why the Penguin-books people had to get out Shakespeare plays in the same size and everything as the detective stories,” went on my companion.

“I think they have different-colored jackets,” I said.

“Well, I didn’t notice that,” she said. “Anyway, I got real comfy in bed that night and all ready to read a good mystery story and here I had ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’–a book for high-school students.

Like ‘Ivanhoe,’ ” “Or ‘Lorna Doone,’ ” I said.

“Exactly,” said the American lady. “And I was just crazy for a good Agatha Christie, or something. Hercule Poirot is my favorite detective.”

“Is he the rabbity one?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” said my crime-fiction expert. “He’s the Belgian one. You’re thinking of Mr.. Pinkerton, the one that helps Inspector Bull. He’s good, too.”

Over her second cup of tea my companion began to tell the plot of a detective story that had fooled her completely–it seems it was the old family doctor all the time. But I cut in on her.

“Tell me,” I said. “Did you read ‘Macbeth’?”

“I had to read it, she said. “There wasn’t a scrap of anything else to read in the whole room.”

“Did you like it?” I asked.

“No, I did not,” she said, decisively. “In the first place, I don’t think for a moment that Macbeth did it.”

I looked at her blankly. “Did what?” I asked.

“I don’t think for a moment that he killed the King,” she said. “I don’t think the Macbeth woman was mixed up in it, either. You suspect them the most, of course, but those are the ones that are never guilty–or shouldn’t be, anyway.”

“I’m ‘afraid,” I began, “that I–”

“But don’t you see?” said the American lady. “It would spoil everything if you could figure out right away who did it. Shakespeare was too smart for that. I’ve read that people never have figured out ‘Hamlet,’ so it isn’t likely Shakespeare would have made ‘Macbeth’ as simple as it seems.”

I thought this over while I filled my pipe. “Who do you suspect?” I asked, suddenly. “Macduff,” she said, promptly.

“Good God!” I whispered, softly.

“Oh Macduff did it, all right,” said the murder specialist. “Hercule Poirot would have got him easily.”

“How did you figure it out?” I demanded.

“Well,” she said, “I didn’t right away. At first I suspected Banquo. And then, of course, he was the second person killed. That was good right in there, that part. The person you suspect of the first murder should always be the second victim.”

“Is that so?” I murmured.

“Oh, yes,” said my informant. “They have to keep surprising you. Well, after the second murder I didn’t know who the killer was for a while.”

“How about Malcolm and Donalbain, the King’s sons?” I asked. “As I remember it, they fled right after the first murder. That looks suspicious.”

“Too suspicious,” said the American lady. “Much too suspicious. When they flee, they’re never guilty. You can count on that.”

“I believe,” I said, “I’ll have a brandy,” and I summoned the waiter. My companion leaned toward me, her eyes bright, her teacup quivering.

“Do you know who discovered Duncan’s body?” she demanded.

I said I was sorry, but I had forgotten.

“Macduff discovers it,” she said, slipping into the historical present. “Then he comes running downstairs and shouts, ‘Confusion has broke open the Lord’s anointed temple’ and ‘Sacrilegious murder has made his masterpiece’ and on and on like that.” The good lady tapped me on the knee. “All that stuff was rehearsed,” she said. “You wouldn’t say a lot of stuff like that, offhand, would you–if you had found a body?” She fixed me with a glittering eye.

“I–” I began.

“You’re right!” she said. “You wouldn’t! Unless you had practiced it in advance. ‘My God, there’s a body in here!’ is what an innocent man would say.” She sat back with a confident glare.

I thought for a while. “But what do you make of the Third Murderer?” I asked. “You know, the Third Murderer has puzzled ‘Macbeth’ scholars for three hundred years.”

“That’s because they never thought of Macduff,” said the American lady. “It was Macduff, I’m certain. You couldn’t have one of the victims murdered by two ordinary thugs-the murderer always has to be somebody important.”

“But what about the banquet scene?” I asked, after a moment. “How do you account for Macbeth’s guilty actions there, when Banquo’s ghost came in and sat in his chair?”

The lady leaned forward and tapped me on the knee again. “There wasn’t any ghost,” she said. “A big, strong man like that doesn’t go around seeing ghosts — especially in a brightly lighted banquet hall with dozens of people around. Macbeth was shielding somebody!”

“Who was he shielding?” I asked.

“Mrs. Macbeth, of course,” she said. “He thought she did it and he was going to take the rap himself. The husband always does that when the wife is suspected.”

“But what,” I demanded, “about the sleepwalking scene, then?”

“The same thing, only the other way around,” said my companion. “That time she was shielding him. She wasn’t asleep at all. Do you remember where it says, ‘Enter Lady Macbeth with a taper’?

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, people who walk in their sleep never carry lights!” said my fellow-traveler. “They have a second sight. Did you ever hear of a sleepwalker carrying a light?”

“No,” I said, “I never did.”

“Well, then, she wasn’t asleep. She was acting guilty to shield Macbeth.”

“I think,” I said, “I’ll have another brandy,” and I called the waiter. When he brought it, I drank it rapidly and rose to go. “I believe,” I said, “that you have got hold of something. Would you lend me that ‘Macbeth’? I’d like to look it over tonight. I don’t feel, somehow, as if I’d ever really read it.”

“I’ll get it for you,” she said. “But you’ll find that I am right.”

I read the play over carefully that night, and the next morning, after breakfast, I sought out the American woman. She was on the putting green, and I came up behind her silently and took her arm. She gave an exclamation.

“Could I see you alone?” I asked, in a low voice.

She nodded cautiously and followed me to a secluded spot. “You’ve found out something?” she breathed.

“I’ve found out,” I said, triumphantly, “the name of the murderer!”

“You mean it wasn’t Macduff?” she said.

“Macduff is as innocent of those murders,” I said, “as Macbeth and the Macbeth woman.” I opened the copy of the play, which I had with me, and turned to Act II, Scene 2. Here,” I said, “you will see where Lady Macbeth says, ‘I laid their daggers ready. He could not miss ’em. Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done it.’ Do you see?”

“No,” said the American woman, bluntly, “I don’t.”

“But it’s simple!” I exclaimed. “I wonder I didn’t see it years ago. The reason Duncan resembled Lady Macbeth’s father as he slept is that it actually ‘was her father!”

“Good God!” breathed my companion, softly.

“Lady Macbeth’s father killed the King,” I said, “and, hearing someone coming, thrust the body under the bed and crawled into the bed himself.”

“But,” said the lady, “you can’t have a murderer who only appears in the story once. You can’t have that.”

“I know that,” I said, and I turned to Act II, Scene 4. “It says here, ‘Enter Ross with an old Man.’ Now, that old man is never identified and it is my contention he was old Mr. Macbeth, whose ambition it was to make his daughter Queen. There you have your motive.”

“But even then,” cried the American lady, “he’s still a minor character!”

“Not,” I said, gleefully, “when you realize that he was also one of the weird Sisters in disguise!”

“You mean one of the three witches?”

“Precisely,” I said. “Listen to this speech of the old man’s. ‘On Tuesday last, a falcon towering in her pride of place, was by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’d.’ Who does that sound like?”

“It sounds like the way the three witches talk,” said my companion, reluctantly.

“Precisely!” I said again.

“Well,” said the American woman, “maybe you’re right, but-”

“I’m sure I am,” I said. “And do you know what I’m going to do now?”

“No,” she said. “What?”

“Buy a copy of ‘Hamlet,'” I said, “and solve that!”

My companion’s eye brightened. “Then,” she said, “you don’t think Hamlet did it?”

“I am,” I said, “absolutely positive he didn’t.”

“But who,” she demanded, “do you suspect?”

I looked at her cryptically. “Everybody,” I said, and disappeared into a small grove of trees as silently as I had come.

Karlsson on the Roof by Astrid Lindgren

In 1942, Crockett Johnson created the cartoon Barnaby, in which we see Mr O’Malley through the eyes of a boy who wishes for a fairy Godmother, but instead is presented with a short, fat, flying, conceited and not altogether competent fairy Godfather.


The cartoon was a big hit within the Left intelligentia in the US. Dorothy Parker adored it, Duke Ellington was chuffed to be part of one of the strips. He even wrote a letter to the editor of PM to say so. The Roosevelts were avid followers. It was syndicated – not a big syndication by US standards, but nonetheless to newspapers which had a combined readership of 5.5M or so. It was a cartoon strip for adults that kids read. Johnson was a cartoonist’s cartoonist, original – perhaps radical – in his technical vision of the strip and highly influential on those who came after him in the US.


The influence of this cartoon was, however, by no means limited to that country. When the editor of The Daily Mail in the UK saw it, he wanted one like it. This led to the creation of Flook, an indispensable part of the cartoon scene in the UK for over forty years. However much Flook may have been inspired by Mr O’Malley, however, and despite its subversive role as a cartoon for adults read by children, Flook is different enough in looks and character that one needs to have the inspiration pointed out.

Barnaby 3

Not so in the case of Karlsson. Here Astrid Lindgren has taken the figure of Mr O’Malley in a way that one could say is nothing short of brazen. It has prompted me to write to an expert on Johnson, curious to know what he had to say about Lindgren’s take, a word I use advisedly. Mr O’Malley even has the stock phrases that are so important to the nature of Karlsson. Different ones, of course – Cushlamochree – an exclamation of surprise meaning ‘pulse of my heart’.

Barnaby 2

Same physical qualities, though they fly by different methods, and same character. That is not to say, however, there is no difference in output. Barnaby is an intellectual cartoon with a sophisticated take on the politics of the period, (which is not to say that it was always political). Perhaps that is why Barnaby has been the influential publication whilst Karlsson has been the popular one. Lindgren has taken the intellectual content out of Barnaby and created something that is straightforwardly for children.

Barnaby 1

There has been speculation in our household recently as to why Karlsson doesn’t have the popularity in Anglo-Saxon countries that he has in the Scandinavian-Germanic-Russian areas. My reaction to Karlsson when I read one of the books in English recently is to find him quite repugnant and yet Mr O’Malley is not. I do wonder if this has something to do with cultural differences as to what Anglo-Saxons will find amusing compared with Scandinavians (etc), as well as to the appeal of intellectual content.

Chuck Rothman comments on his blog that

To Barnaby Mr. O’Malley is a wonder, but the reader noticed quite soon that he hilariously overstates his talents, usually creating more problems than he solves in the rare cases when his magic actually works. O’Malley is a charming braggart and blowhard, who’s all too willing to help Barnaby out — to disastrous results — when he isn’t spending his days at the Elves, Leprechauns, Gnomes & Little Men’s Chowder and Marching Society.

Like Karlsson, Barnaby went through all sorts of attempted permutations, but unlike Karlsson, Barnaby’s failed. They included a musical/play and a couple of proposed TV series. The 1959 TV pilot included Ronald Reagan, a very young Ron Howard as Barnaby and the great Mel Blanc as the voice of the Leprechaun. Bert Lahr played Mr O’Malley. Despite the pilot being a bit of a hit, the show itself was never made.

The fact is that Barnaby was for a small, discriminating audience.

In October, Henry Holt published Johnson’s Barnaby. It sold its first printing of 10,000 copies in its first week, and would sell 40,000 before the end of the year. The reviews were ecstatic. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet William Rose Benèt called Barnaby “a classic of humor” and declared Mr. O’Malley “a character to live with the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, Ferdinand, and all great creatures of fantasy.” Ruth McKenney, whose My Sister Eileen had become an Oscar-nominated film earlier that year, delighted in “that evil intentioned, vain, pompous, wonderful little man with the wings.” As she put it, “I suppose Mr. O’Malley has fewer morals than any other character in literature which is, of course, what makes him so fascinating.” Dorothy Parker began her “Mash Note to Crockett Johnson” by confessing that she could not write a review because, despite her efforts, “it never comes out a book review. It is always a valentine for Mr. Johnson.” Lauding the book as “the best American creative writing of this year” and O’Malley as “the most brilliantly conceived character in many a year,” novelist and Book-of-the-Month Club publicity director Edwin Seaver nominated Barnaby for a Pulitzer.

I found Karlsson on the Roof an enjoyable way to pass an hour as an adult and have no idea of how I would have found it as a child. Perhaps hilarious, I really can’t say. But I am very happy that through Karlsson that I have discovered Mr O’Malley and its author, Crockett Johnson, about whom I will write more in another post.

For more on the Barnaby Astrid Lindgren connection go to Astrid Lindgren had a role model in the US.

Oh. And there is a talking dog in Barnaby. Cushlamochree!

It is slightly interesting to speculate on the future of Karlsson. Unfortunately he is a politically incorrect character in an age of extreme political correctness. Back in the Cold War days it is possible that it was hard for Karlsson to break into the US (and perhaps other English-speaking countries) because he was so big in the USSR. Right now, however, Karlsson is at threat from both countries for oddly similar reasons, subverting the status quo. The Russians have him on a black list due to the notion that the cartoon is anti-family. In the US he is raising objections for reasons as obscure as the possible impact upon baby-sitter child relations, but I guess too for the obvious one that children aren’t allowed to have weird adult friends. I read somewhere recently that the latest editions of Karlsson have him as a young adult rather than a mature one. This is really too bad.