Thursday, 20 April 2017
It's always interesting to see new Persephone titles, but I can't see either of these two latest books becoming anybody's favourite. I remembered that I'd bought an old copy of Earth and High Heaven some time ago, stuck it on a pile where it got buried and never got around to reading it - so last week I dug it out. Published in 1944, it was the first Canadian book to reach number one on the NY Times best-seller list.
I got off to a good start but my interest in Erika Drake - daughter of a prosperous, WASP-y Montreal family - and her lover Marc Reiser, a Jewish lawyer, was soon flagging. (Not least because Gwethalyn Graham is so repetitive: if she makes a point once she drums it home again and again and as a reader, I began to feel a bit hectored - bad editing maybe, but it made me lose sympathy with her characters.) Erika and Marc meet at a party at her parents' home where her father cuts Marc dead as soon as he realises that he is Jewish. Trouble is, I couldn't help visualising them as illustrations from an old-fashioned women's magazine serial ... Defiant Love - Trembling Passion (but no sex, please, we're middle-class Canadians!) - the handsome hero who could have stepped out of a Mills&Boon romance and the tearful heroine in evening dress, knocking back martinis. Honestly, you couldn't meet a more irritating pair. Erika, in her late 20s, with a good job on a newspaper, has to meet her lover on street corners because seemingly it would kill her parents if she were to do the obvious thing and leave home ... I mean, this is the 1940s, not the 1840s! She's a drip, he's a prig and it doesn't help the novel that you can't help feeling that - in 20 years time - she's going to be worn out from treading on eggshells around a husband who will be quiveringly on the alert to take offence. (Even Marc's far more likeable brother tells him that he needs 'a swift kick in the pants.')
As for Erika's rather incestuous relationship with her possessive father - who treats her more like a wife - and the way her mother colludes with this ... eeuurggh. There's more going on here than kneejerk anti-Semitism and it's clear that her father is always going to have a problem with any man who lays hands on his daughter - never mind whether he's socially acceptable at the country club.
Oh, dear - poor Erika. Perhaps another dry martini and a 'prescription of stuff' to make her sleep ...
But at least I managed to finish Earth and High Heaven. Effi Briest is already a Penguin classic so I'm not sure I see the point of republishing it as a Persephone; unless perhaps a different translation makes it more readable? I found the Penguin edition in the library, made it to p95 and I doubt that I'll ever care enough to finish it. The introduction compares Effi with Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina ... but I'm afraid if a train came along now, I'd be tempted give this winsome child-bride a good shove.
One of the best tragic novels of the 19th century? Socially-ambitious Effi is married at 16 to a dull Prussian baron - my sympathies are entirely with the baron - and by p95, she's still behaving herself, though there's a caddish major whose intentions are clearly dishonourable. I don't feel there's going to be any surprises if I plod through to the end.