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.

10 comments:

Veronica Cooke said...

Oh Mary - I had no intentions of reading either of these two books and you have now completely killed them dead! I hope neither of the Persephone founders ever read your review - they'd be mortified!

Mary said...

Oh, dear - well if you weren't planning to read them anyway, no harm done! I love Persephone books, but these two didn't hit the spot. To be fair, the social history behind the Canadian novel is very interesting - it was the romance and the characters that I found tiresome!

Toffeeapple said...

I was reading, today, in the Persephone Biannually that it is deemed to be a 'shocking book' and that the separation of Jews was similar to the way that black people were not allowed to mix with the white people in America. I shall give it a miss, thanks for your thoughts.

Mary said...

It struck me more as a kind of endemic haute-bourgeois snobbery, Toffeeapple; I'm not sure how widespread it would be at other levels of society because the book doesn't go there. They seem to be equally down on French-Canadians and Catholics. I think my real problem with the book was that this couple's rather minor tribulations don't amount to a hill of beans when you think of what is happening at the time to millions of Jews in Europe.

Veronica Cooke said...

Mary,

I came up to London on Saturday to show my cousin, who is visiting from Ireland, the sights. Part of our itinerary included a visit to Persephone Books to spend my birthday book voucher. Would you believe it, we got there at 5.20 pm to find they were closed. We hadn't been keeping an eye on the time...

Mary said...

Oh, what a shame, Veronica - I've been caught out the same way! was it a Persephone voucher? because I have a feeling they don't accept ordinary book tokens.
It's such a pretty shop, isn't it? And I like that whole street very much. I hope you found a winebar/pub instead.

Julia said...

They do sound a bit worthy but I'd like to try the Canadian one at some point as I go to the book club that the preface writer runs.

The Persephone reprint I don't understand is Diary of a Provincial Lady, as it's already available as a Virago, Penguin and others.

Mary said...

The walking book club always sounds fun, Julia - but I'm such a dawdler, I'd never keep up! Maybe I was a bit hard on Earth and HIgh Heaven - as a slice of history, it's interesting but as a novel it's crushed by worthiness. (Bit like The Promise - a rather dire film I saw tonight about Armenian genocide - terribly wooden, but a shocking episode of comparatively recent history about which I'm shamefully ignorant.)

I was puzzled about the Provincial Lady, too ... I suppose a nice grey copy looks attractive, but it's hardly a long-lost title. Rather a shame, because other EM Delafield novels are much harder to get hold of.

Vintage Reading said...

I wish Persephone would reprint The Prov Lady in Russia (I know that's not the correct title) I really want to read it.

Mary said...

I was slightly disappointed with it, Nicola, because I was expecting further adventures of the PL and it's more of a travel essay. But it's online if you want to read it, and quite short; only a magazine article, not long enough to be a Persephone.