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“[J. P.] Morgan must be embarrassed. He was a man who bought shipping lines and railroads as if they were curios and trinkets, but now the most perfect of all his prizes was adrift in the North Atlantic with half of New York aboard. It was as if he had invited friends for cocktails at his magnificent white-marble library and then set the place alight. It was worse than embarrassing. It was bad manners.”—John Steadman, reporter, on the fate of the Titanic.

cover midnight watchI grew up with stories of the Titanic, as did my sisters, and these stories have been part of my family life since the beginning. My mother was born the night the Titanic hit the iceberg – on April 14, 1912 –  a fact imprinted on us from birth.  Shortly after midnight that night, the Titanic sank with a loss of over fifteen hundred passengers. What this novel makes clear is something that is, in many ways, even more dramatic than the sinking of the Titanic itself: The Titanic was not alone at sea as it was sinking. There was another ship not ten miles away – the S.S. Californian – a ship which might have saved hundreds of passengers if it had gone to the rescue. The Californian’s crew saw the distress signals and the changes in the appearance of the Titanic’s on-deck lights, and though they informed the captain of what they saw, he never gave the order to go to the Titanic’s aid and never even came up to the bridge. This recently released “novel,” based on facts, is primarily the story of this ship, the Californian, its captain and crew, and why it never became the savior of some of the fifteen hundred who died.

author david dyer

Author David Dyer, now a literature professor in Sydney, Australia, seems uniquely qualified to deal with many of the maritime and legal issues involved in the aftermath of the Titanic disaster. A graduate of the Australian Maritime College, he worked on merchant ships for years, later moving to London, where he was hired as a lawyer for the company whose parent firm represented the Titanic’s owners in 1912. With access to legal documents and artifacts which have previously had little attention, Dyer, fascinated with the Titanic’s story, could not stop thinking about why the Californian did not respond to distress signals, and his “novel” on this subject will, no doubt, fascinate both historians and readers who want to know more about what the Californian was doing while so many people who might have been saved, perished. Actual transcripts of the testimonies by the Californian’s officers at both a U. S. Senate committee investigation, held immediately after the sinking, and at a British legal inquiry within three weeks after the disaster add realism and insights into the characters and their possible motivations. The author then follows up years later by revisiting some of the key characters and noting what they did and said over the rest of their lives, indicating that the book represents “my best guess as to what actually happened during the Californian’s voyage and afterwards.”

The Titanic sinks, click for animated video.

The Titanic sinks.  Click for animated video in real time.

For two-thirds of the novel, Dyer establishes a pattern in which he alternates the point of view between John Steadman, a reporter and feature writer for the Boston American, with that of the officers and crew on the Californian.  Steadman specializes in stories about the bodies associated with various disasters, creating vivid images which appeal to his audience and allows them to understand the human and emotional issues involved. He has already reported in detail about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of March 25, 1911, in which 146 garment workers perished in a fire on the 8th– 10th floors of a building in Greenwich Village in which the stairwells and doors were locked to prevent people, mostly women in their early twenties, from taking unauthorized breaks.  The Titanic disaster was an even greater abomination, with the lifeboats reserved for first class passengers, even including some men who took the places of women and children from other classes. Steadman even discovers that the U. S. Senate committee’s investigation of this disaster showed that not one person who was traveling third class was interviewed for the inquiry, and it appears that none were available because so few had survived.

The S.S. Californian, built in 1907, the closest ship to the Titanic as it was sinking.

The S.S. Californian, built in 1907, the closest ship to the Titanic as it was sinking.

The point of view of the Californian is represented primarily by Herbert Stone, the second officer, whose job involved the watch from midnight to 4:00 a.m., the time during which the Titanic sank. Cyril Evans, “the Marconi man,” responsible for all the radio telegraphy between the Californian and other ships in the area, including the Titanic, was in direct contact with the Titanic and with the Carpathia.  Arriving two hours after the Titanic had already sunk, the Carpathia eventually rescued over seven hundred people from lifeboats, all people whom the Californian might have rescued much earlier if they had made the effort to go to the site. Though Evans later proves to be someone whose “memories” and point of view are changeable, Stone, who has seen eight distress flares, refuses to be silenced when an inquiry is opened. The captain slept through the emergency and later put pressure on his men to support him, and many of them co-operated.

Capt. Stanley Lord, who never gave the order to try to rescue surivors from the Titanic. Photo by Senan Moloney.

Capt. Stanley Lord, who never gave the order to rescue survivors from the Titanic. Photo by Senan Moloney.

Author Dyer presents the highly charged atmosphere and the horrors of the sinking of the Titanic  after it hits the iceberg in realistic detail, then expands the trauma to include the Californian as potential saviors of the ship who failed in their human responsibilities, adding to the power of his narrative. He uses some of the testimony of the U. S. Senate inquiry to illustrate the elitism of some of the Californian’s officers and the willingness of some of them to mock the crew who were left alone on the ship to deal with the trauma of the Titanic as it sank, while the captain chose not to join them on the bridge. Those men, willing to do something but unable because of the limitations of their jobs and their obligations to their superiors, were also among the casualties as the Titanic sank. Some of them lived for dozens of years, consumed by guilt, especially about the toll of the children: As Steadman indicates to the wife of an officer, “There’d been barely a mention of the “children who died…You could read column after column about Mr. Astor or Mr. Guggenheim… but nothing about the children. There were fifty-three of them left behind…but no one seems to care much about them…or even know about them.” This novel reminds the reader of the full toll.

Second officer, Herbert Stone, who saw the distress signals and informed the captain.

Second officer, Herbert Stone, who saw the distress signals and informed the captain.

 Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on https://www.penguin.com.au

The photo of the sinking Titanic is part of an animated video of the disaster which may be found here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/

The model of the Californian is by Shipbucket: http://www.shipbucket.com    Double-click to enlarge.

Captain Stanley Lord always refused responsibility for the Californian’s failure to attend the Titanic and rescue its passengers. Photo by Senan Moloney. https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org

Second officer Herbert Stone saw the Titanic’s distress signals and informed Captain Lord of those and of the changes in the appearance of the Titanic as it sank.   http://www.theaustralian.com.au

THE MIDNIGHT WATCH: The Titanic and the Californian
REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, England, Historical, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: David Dyer
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Date Published: 04/05/2016
ISBN: 978-1250080936
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note: This novel was WINNER of the Georg Buchner Prize, the most prestigious book prize in Germany, in 2004. Author Wilhelm Genazino is also WINNER of the Kleist Prize for German Literature in 2007, and the Kassel Literary Prize for Grotesque Humor in 2013. This novel is his only book translated into English.


“I havcover shoe tester frankfurte this sensation that people like me should be told to either disappear or else get remodeled like the old buildings. This sensation is connected with another feeling I often have, namely that I’m here in this world without any inner authorization. Strictly speaking, I’m still waiting for someone to ask me whether I really want to be here. I imagine how nice it would be if I could grant myself this permission, let’s say this afternoon.” –Unnamed speaker, as he walks around Frankfurt.


The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt by German author Wilhelm Genazino begins as an existential investigation by a self-conscious 46-year-old man into who he is and why he behaves as he does. His hypersensitive observations about the world around him show a man who “hardly thinks at all anymore—I only look round and about.” The unnamed speaker has been working for seven years as a “shoe tester,” a man who walks around Frankfurt testing quality shoes for a manufacturer and then reviewing them. The speaker enjoys this job, as his walking gives him unlimited opportunity to muse about his life, observe people from the past with whom he has had relationships, reminisce about their mutual experiences, and contemplate “the collective peculiarity of all life.

Author Wilhelm Genazino

Author Wilhelm Genazino

While he walks, he thinks about his childhood, his failed relationship with Lisa, with whom he has lived for several years, and his lack of professional motivation, and the reader observes him as he has an afternoon interlude with his hairdresser, begins a new relationship, meets a friend who is a failed photographer, gets a drastic cut in salary, and begins work as a vendor in a flea market. He believes that universities should offer courses in “Comparative Guilt Studies,” and he often makes ponderous statements, noting that “The only truly important people are the ones who have been able to fuse their individual knowledge with their positions in life,” and “People love when they’re no longer running away…”

From the 1930s to the early 1940s, shoe testing was done with this machine, not by people walking around the city.

From the 1930s to the early 1940s, shoe testing was done with this machine, not by people walking around the city.

All this introspection might become tedious were it not for the fact that the author also highlights the ironies and absurdities of the speaker’s life, which build, until, ironically, at a cocktail party, he spontaneously tells someone that he works for the imaginary Institute for Memory Arts and provides “experience sessions” for clients. His life and his mood begin to change, and when he sees a friend in dire circumstances, which might have mirrored his own, he finally begins to believe that “I no longer have the desire to scrutinize myself. I’m no longer waiting for the outside world to finally fit my inner texts! I’ve stopped being the blind passenger of my own life.”  He has reached the end of this phase of his philosophical and psychological journey and has come to new understandings, no longer someone who willfully closes his eyes to the world but one who looks around and begins to recognize his connections with the rest of humanity.

The speaker got a job at the flea market in Frankfurt, one of the best in Europe.

The speaker gets a job at the flea market in Frankfurt, one of the best in Europe.

The author’s dry, tongue-in-cheek humor keeps the novel from imploding under its own weight, while the conclusion offers an upbeat future. Slow to start, the novel evolves into a delightful exploration of one man’s memories and his halting steps toward a new life. The author’s offbeat observations of life, his sense of irony, and his witty appreciation of absurdity evolve in the second half of the book, and these qualities ground the speaker’s new understanding of himself in reality and change the mood from melancholy to peaceful acceptance, if not joy. Published by New Directions, which is noted for its publication of experimental fiction and literature from Europe, the novel was translated by Philip Boehm, who manages to preserve subtleties of the speaker’s thoughts while, at the same time, preserving the weirdness of some of the speaker’s observations without his appearing insane or ridiculous. Short, witty, and with something to say, Genazino’s novel is great fun for a summer day.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.welt.de/

An early shoe tester is found on https://www.exploratorium.edu/

The speaker found a job at the Frankfurt flea market, one of the best in Europe.  http://www.frankfurt-tourismus.de/en/Media/Attraktionen/Shopping/Frankfurt-Flea-Market

REVIEW. Germany, Humor, Satire, Absurdity, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Wilhelm Genazino
Published by: New Directions
ISBN: 978-0811215831
Available in: Paperback

NOTE: The film of this 1974 screenplay was WINNER of the Golden Globe Best Foreign Film Award, 1975; WINNER of the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics Best Film Award, 1975; and WINNER of the British Academy of Film and Television Award for Best Foreign Film, 1975.

“Personally, I don’t give a damn who wins the war, the English or the Germans!…All I know is that I’m wasting my time here….And what about my career?…Do you ever give my career a second’s thought?” — Betty, an actress, in the final days of World War II.

cover lacombe lucienProduced and directed by famed cinematographer Louis Malle and written by Louis Malle and Patrick Modiano, who became the Nobel Prize for Literature winner in 2014, this 1974 film of Lacombe, Lucien broke some unspoken taboos when it was first shown. Only once before had a film raised questions about the masses of French citizens, many of them living in the countryside, who were ignorant or oblivious to the horrors of the Holocaust and the terrible costs to France at the hands of the Nazis in Vichy France. Marcel Ophuls had first produced a documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity, in 1972, nearly thirty years after World War II ended, claiming that the prevailing view of the actions of the French citizenry during the war was naïve. Many citizens had been working farms in rural areas during the war and did not know or care to find out about what was happening on a national level – they had enough to worry about keeping food on the table and their families safe. A surprising number of citizens had collaborated with the Germans, not for political reasons, but because they believed that it was the only way they would be able to survive,  and far fewer had worked with the Resistance to overthrow their German occupiers than was once believed. Ophuls suggested that most citizens just accepted what was happening because they did not believe they had much choice.

Louis Malle, age 42, at the time of the film.

Louis Malle, age 42, at the time of the film.

With Lacombe, Lucien, Malle and Modiano continue this theme, and both had had experiences that made this subject important to them. Malle himself was a teenager during the war, and Modiano, born in 1945, was the son of a Jew who had worked as a collaborator and blackmarketeer bringing supplies directly to the Gestapo, a humiliation which pervades much of Modiano’s writing, even to the present. As he illustrates in several of his own novels, the worst aspect of this betrayal is that his father did this purely for the money, not out of patriotism or necessity. Here Malle and Modiano become partners for the screenplay, with Malle using his background as a director and producer to bring the film into being, and Modiano helping with the dialogue and the action scenes to make them come alive. Modiano, at twenty-nine, had already written three successful novels and was no novice when it came to dialogue.

Patrick Modiano, age 29 at the time of this screenplay, and already the successful author of three novels.

Patrick Modiano, age 29 at the time of this screenplay, and already the successful author of three novels.

The novel opens in 1944, with a boy of seventeen scrubbing the floor of a nursing home, emptying chamber pots, and cleaning rooms. When he sees a robin singing on a branch outside a hospital room, he casually takes out his slingshot and with careful aim, hits the bird, watching impassively as it falls dead to the courtyard below. Then he simply returns to his work, the bird’s death a mere interlude in an otherwise boring day. At week’s end, he takes his bicycle home to the busy farm where his family has always lived in Souleillac, only to find a family of seven eating breakfast there, his mother still in her nightgown inside, and the owner of the farm, who is her lover, still in his shirtsleeves. After threatening the new family with a shotgun, saying that if they do any damage, they’ll have to answer to him, this “tough” teenager learns that that family is living there to help with the farmwork, his father is a prisoner of war, and his brother has just joined the underground.

Lucien leaves the city for home by bicycle on the weekend, riding through farmland, almost uninhabited except by farm animals.

Lucien leaves the city for home by bicycle on the weekend, riding through farmland, almost uninhabited except by farm animals.

Wanting to be part of the action, Lucien decides to join the underground, led by one of his former teachers, Peyssac, but Peyssac tells him he is still too young. Unable to wait, Lucien goes to town, where he is caught spying on a party at a local hotel, one of the participants being Betty, the actress whose quotation begins this review. Invited inside, he cannot help boasting about the Resistance and its members, whom he knows. He wants to be part of a group, and he is so unthinking that it does not matter if it is the Resistance or the Gestapo. After drinking too much, he falls asleep, awakening the next day among a group of German sympathizers and low level soldiers, just as Peyssac is brought into the room, handcuffed. Peyssac’s screams are heard later as he is tortured. Lucien is unmoved.

Lucien with France, his first serious love.

Lucien with France, his first “serious” love.

A very young man who wants to be noticed, with no alliances or intellectual curiosity, Lucien is impressed by power and glory. He loves being able to carry a machine gun, being paid for his information, and the attention he gains as a “tough” Gestapo agent, albeit one who has little understanding of what his actions mean. When he ends up living in a room of a house owned by a wealthy Jewish tailor, he falls in love with the man’s daughter, and she with him. Despite her intelligence, she is apparently attracted by his raw sexual attractiveness and the possibility that he may be able to help her and her family escape from France. When the opportunity arises, Lucien acts, not out of altruistic motives or desire to help the family because they are Jewish but because it helps him get what he wants, a beautiful companion and a family which needs him. The conclusion will surprise no one.

Film poster

Film poster

The screenplay is short, and unlike a book that becomes a film, for which much of the book has to be omitted for lack of time, this filmscript is so short that it is possible to read the entire script in less time than the two hours it takes to see the film. For those who have never read a filmscript, and I am one, I was startled by the amount of imagination it took to figure out what the point was for many of the early scenes; how the reader was supposed to interpret the actions of Lucien, the main character; and why the conclusion was a text overwriting a scene of Lucien and his lady-love, France. Obviously, Malle and Modiano agreed ahead of time on what they wanted in the script and what they would do with it visually. For the reader, however, the filmscript, with its young and naïve main character, for whom one develops no positive feelings at all, is like reading an outline for which the director will later add information during filming. I am now anxious to see the film, which will be a far richer experience than the screenplay.


Photos, in order:  The photo of Louis Malle appears on https://cinemastudies.sas.upenn.edu

The young Patrick Modiano, age twenty-nine and already the successful author of three novels, is found on https://vaguevisages.com/

Lucien rides his bicycle from the city home to the countryside on the weekend and discovers many changes in place:  http://paristexasyeu.blogspot.com/

Lucien and France, in love, enjoy some quiet time in a remote area.  http://www.sunrise54.fr

US film poster for this film:  https://www.movieposter.com/poster/A70-3968/Lacombe_Lucien.html

ARC:  Other Press

LACOMBE, LUCIEN (Screenplay)
REVIEW. Coming-of-age, Film connection, France, Historical, World War II, Play and Film Reviews, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Louis Malle and Patrick Modiano
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 05/31/2016
ISBN: 978-1590517659
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Carlos Rodriguez in Lima, masquerading as “Georgina,” to poet Juan Ramon Jimenez in Spain: “Did you not once mention that you are a painter? Imagine, then, that I am giving you instructions for painting a landscape. This beautiful view from the sky over Lima, always misty, changeable, so nurturing of inventions and fantasies…Suppose, if you wish, that we are painting the canvas together. And that my manner of painting it, of adding colors and textures, also creates a sort of portrait of me.”

cover sky over limaDelightful, playful, clever, and humorous, Spanish author Juan Gomez Barcena’s debut novel is also consummately literary, telling a story on several levels at once but doing so while maintaining the atmosphere of a college prank. Two university students who are also members of the moneyed elite in Lima, Peru, in 1904, are anxious to obtain the newest book of poetry written by Juan Ramon Jimenez, a much-admired twenty-four-year-old writer in Spain who has been publishing lyrical poetry to international acclaim. Though twenty-year-old Carlos Rodriguez and Jose Galvez consider themselves poets, too, they have been writing to no acclaim; few others from their college find their work interesting or original. Poet Jimenez eventually goes on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1956, while no one now remembers the names of Carlos Rodriguez and Jose Galvez, except for their possible creation of a hoax regarding the world-famous poet Jimenez, the hoax described in this book.

Juan Gomez Barcena

Author Juan Gomez Barcena

In 1904, Carlos and Jose, frustrated because they have been unable to find a single copy of Jimenez’s latest collection of poems in any bookstore in Lima, decide to write to their idol in Spain and to ask for a copy of this new book. As they begin to write their letter to Jimenez, they realize that no matter how florid their writing or how impassioned their request for a copy of Jimenez’s book, they will probably fail to achieve their goals, even if they “write the most difficult poem of all, one that has no verses but can touch the heart of a true artist.” Then one of them says, idly, “It would be better if we were a beautiful woman, then Don Juan Ramon would put his entire soul into answering us,” a remark which sets the course of their mischief. Carlos pilfers some scented stationery from a sister’s desk, and he, with his unusually beautiful penmanship, featuring “letters soft and round like a caress,” begins his “poem…one which is poised to do what only the best poetry can: name what has never existed before and bring it to life.” And so, Georgina Hubner is born.

Juan Ramon Jimenez, Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1956

Spanish author Juan Ramon Jimenez, Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1956

Weeks later, after many delays in the transport of their letter from Lima to Spain, Carlos and Jose are rewarded with a copy of the book and a return letter for “Georgina,” an occasion which results in great celebration among their fellow “poets” in Lima – and some controversy. Some say Jose and Carlos must answer the letter; other say not. Some want them to send a photograph of Georgina, others say that great poets do not deserve to be mocked and that Jose and Carlos must confess the truth immediately and put a stop to the joke. Jose, however, proclaims that they will respond, and the next day, armed with more rose-scented paper purchased for the occasion, he and Carlos begin their next letter to Jimenez.

Taken in 1903, this photo shows the busy port of El Callao in Lima, through which all the letters between Georgina and author Jimenez are sent.

Taken in 1903, this photo shows the busy port of El Callao, just west of Lima, through which all the letters between Georgina and author Jimenez are sent.

Within this framework, in which a series of letters develops as the reader would expect, the author keeps the love story fresh and original, despite the deliberate and humorous clichés of the plot. Jose and Carlos, both extremely wealthy, represent different classes, since Jose is of old wealth and aristocracy, and Carlos is nouveau riche, and the two poets think of Georgina differently: For Jose, she is “merely a pretext, a means by which to fill his desk drawer with holy relics from the Maestro.” Carlos, on the other hand, “strives to give Georgina a personality and a biography.” Every afternoon, the poets repair to a dilapidated garret (owned by Carlos’s family), where they are “thrilled by the sensation of poverty, as they roam among the burlap sacks and heaps of dusty junk like the lucky survivors of a shipwreck.” There they work on the next letter and play the “character game,” in which they identify people they know and people they see from their window in terms of literary characters, an activity which causes the novel’s author Gomez Barcena to remark that this is fitting for characters like Jose and Carlos who see literature all around them and for whom everything that happens around them “happens just as they’ve read in books.”

Carlos in his search for love takes elaborate dresses to a brothel and asks his favorite girl to model them. He wants her to look like woman from a painting by Joachim Sorolla.

Carlos, in his search for love, delivers elaborate dresses to a brothel and asks his favorite girl to model them. He wants her to look like an elegant woman from a painting by Joachim Sorolla, shown here.

Their friends, also romantic young poets, encourage them, talking about poetry and their inspiration for the future. Gradually, Jose and Carlos begin to see each other within the traditions of a novel – and ultimately as characters within that novel – and while they realize that they may never produce a perfect poem, they also believe that it may not matter. They may be destined to accomplish something even more important: the creation out of nothing of a great love celebrated by another poet, the life of Georgina as seen by the poet Jimenez. The comedy of Part I moves on to Part II, “A Love Story,” an epistolary novel, as Jose and Carlos meet with a local scrivener who helps them create the kind of characterization for Georgina which will attract Juan Ramon Jimenez through her letters. Soon, they decide to write a book about the poet himself, adding further to the layers of creation and which may become this novel itself.


A brothel painted by Toulouse Lautrec shows a young woman in white, awaiting a customer, perhaps Carlos wanting her to try on some more "ladies'" dresses to model.

A brothel painted by Toulouse- Lautrec shows a young woman in white, awaiting a customer, perhaps Carlos, who dresses his favorite partner as a lady and likes to imagine her as one.   l

As the two poets continue writing, their interests change, with Jose and his friends continuing to produce Georgina’s increasingly erotic letters, while Carlos wants to learn more about real love, a task which takes him to the brothels of Lima and a relationship with a young woman there. The love story of Georgina and Jimenez becomes more complicated, and the levels of fiction and metafiction become more complex as the novel appears to conclude. Part IV, however, picks up the story fifteen years later when Carlos and Jose meet in an epilogue. There the reader discovers that the story of Georgina did not conclude as the two young poets and we, the readers, had assumed. One of the men, unnamed, has recently found a poetry collection by Jimenez, originally published in Spain in 1913 but never publicized because of World War I. That collection contains an astonishing work that one of the men says is “better than they themselves will ever be, that is worth more than their wives and children…more than their pasts and futures.” Suddenly, the former poet – and, ultimately, the reader – come to a new recognition, stunned by the power of narrative and poetry to affect lives on many levels in a novel which started as fun and concludes in serious contemplation about writing and its power.   I was totally taken aback by the conclusion, which adds many other layers to this novel and makes it both fun to read and hard-hitting at the same time.

ARC:  Houghton Miffliin Harcourt

Photos, in order:  The photo of author Juan Gomez Barcena appears in http://specimens-mag.com

Poet Juan Ramon Jimenez, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1956, is age twenty-three in 1904, when two university students from Lima “introduce” him to “Georgina,” who requests a copy of his latest book.  http://peru.com/

The busy port of El Callao in 1903, just west of Lima, is shown on http://www.delcampe.net

Carlos Rodriguez, one of the young poets writing as Georgina, is desperate to learn what love really is, and he has a fetish in which he enjoys seeing a favorite prostitute at the local brothel dress up in a series of elaborate and romantic dresses like the ones worn in paintings by Joachim Sorolla, shown here:  http://wiki.cultured.com/

When Carlos first sees the young prostitute wearing an elaborate dress he has brought her, “she has been transformed into “a figure from a Sorolla painting who has wandered out of her canvas and into a Toulouse-Lautrec brothel…It’s as if he were looking at the static image of a painting.” The brothel painting is found on https://en.wikipedia.org/

REVIEW. Book. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Literary, Peru, Poetry, Spain
Written by: Juan Gomez Barcena
Published by: Hougton Mifflin Harcourt
Date Published: 05/17/2016
ISBN: 978-0544630055
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

“The more knowledge [Marian Evans] gleaned from her studies, the lonelier she felt. There were no other women like her – not even her former teacher, Maria Lewis…who knew the secrets of German verbs and physics and philosophy… and who could understand her love of language. It was as if she had a secret life… belonged to a different species…Most women of her age were married or engaged to be married…[but] she was a stranger among them.”

cover the honeymoonMarian Evans, the author known as George Eliot, is sixty years old as this biographical novel opens in June, 1880, and she is on the train to Venice for her honeymoon with new husband, John Walter Cross, a handsome young forty-year-old. Hiding her face behind a white lace mantilla so that she will not be pestered by fans of her books begging for autographs, she believes that the mantilla, “though not completely hiding her face…distracted from it, from her large nose and broad jaw, and she welcomed this because she believed that she was homely.” She had lived happily with philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes from 1854 until his death in 1878, and though she called herself Mrs. Lewes, they had never married. Lewes, already married, had an “open marriage” in which his wife ultimately had four children by another man, all of whom Lewes supported, and he was legally unable to get a divorce.


Author Dinitia Smith

As the train bearing the newlyweds heads toward Venice and a new life, Evans has reason to be alarmed by her new husband’s behavior – “It was as if he were drifting away from her, going farther and farther into his own world, and she didn’t know why.” He’d been frantically making plans for the wedding and their house in London; he hadn’t been sleeping; and he’d hardly been eating. Though he’d been as attentive to her needs as always, he was now hyperactive, operating at a level of speed and intensity she had never seen before, constantly moving and unable to relax.

Author Marian Evans, who wrote as George Eliot. Photo from 1858, when she was thirty-eight and still unknown as a novelist.

Marian Evans, who wrote as George Eliot. Photo from 1858, when she was thirty-eight and still unknown as a novelist.

Author Dinitia Smith, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and award-winning author of four novels, recreates much of Evans’s life from childhood though her young adulthood and her early experiences with love. She later shows Evans’s total happiness with George Henry Lewes and the avante-garde intellectual milieu in which they and their friends live; her near paralysis from grief after his death; and ultimately her new marriage. Basing the novel on extensive research and the letters Evans herself wrote about her life and writing career, Smith recreates the atmosphere in which Evans is able to become a writer of such formidable intelligence and remarkable insight. Well-schooled, with teachers who cared about her future, Evans initially falls under the influence of strict Baptist preachers, but on her own she discovers a book by Charles Hennell, which suggests that the Bible’s stories, which are inconsistent, are also mythological. Eventually, she comes to believe in Wordsworth’s poetic ideas of Nature as religion, and gradually, under the influence of other writers, philosophers, and educated friends, her ideas become more sophisticated.

George Henry Lewes, with whom Evans lived from

George Henry Lewes, with whom Evans lived from 1854 – 1878.

Part II tells of the first men to whom Evans is attracted, along with her continuing enjoyment of reading philosophy and theology. Ralph Waldo Emerson chats with her at Rosehill, the home of friends, and a cousin of Lord Byron, Edward Noel, is often in attendance there. Charles Hennell himself appears, impressed that Evans is among the few who have actually read and understood his book on religion. Her new friends seem fascinated by her insights, learning, and her willingness to challenge them intellectually on their own turf. Understandably, she wonders, “What did it mean that these men loved to talk to her? Were they drawn to her as a woman? Or was she simply another man to them?” She learns German and Italian and begins to do translations for publisher John Chapman, attending soirees every Friday night, where she socializes with people like philosopher Thomas Carlyle, author Charles Dickens, and exiles Giuseppe Mazzini, who had been campaigning for a unified Italy, and Karl Marx, who has just published the Communist Manifesto in Germany. Evans also meets George Henry Lewes who is impressed by an article she wrote about William R. Greg’s Creed of Christendom, and who goes on to publish it in a “radical weekly” he has cofounded.

John Walter Cross, Evans's husband following the death of Lewes.

John Walter Cross, Evans’s husband following the death of Lewes.

In Part III, Evans, now deeply in love with Lewes, travels with him to Germany where they can live as man and wife without having to deal with legalities and the interference of family. While drifting through Europe, they meet Franz Liszt, along with other musicians and poets, and after eight months, they return to England, where Evans writes and publishes her first story, choosing “George Eliot” as her pen name. Soon after that, she publishes her first novel, Adam Bede, to huge accolades, followed by Mill on the Floss, which earns twice as much in royalties. Silas Marner and Middlemarch continue her success, and as she begins Romola, Evans realizes that she and Lewes are now independently wealthy. At their new house, they are visited by Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ivan Turgenev, and others, and as her novels become increasingly successful, Evans and Lewes find themselves supporting a dozen people who need help.

The house at 4 Cheyne Walk, London, where Evans lived.

The house at 4 Cheyne Walk, London, where Evans lived.

As the background information is unfolding, author Smith maintains suspense by inserting scenes which prolong the incipient crisis of the honeymoon, balancing Evans’s observations about her new husband with her dismay at how differently he is behaving now compared to the past. At age sixty, Evans is no ingénue, and Smith is successful in making the reader feel the reality of Evans’s concern about her husband’s mental health.  Though the first fifty pages feel melodramatic and sentimental (and even a bit trite), the novel moves quickly, in the style of a screenplay.  The later sections in which Evans and Lewes share their intellectual and philosophical lives allow the reader to appreciate the social issues of the period and to feel Evans’s creative passions and achievements.  The conclusion is abrupt – lasting a mere three pages – lacking the resolution that many readers will expect after spending over four hundred pages sharing Evans’s life.  Still, the author’s ability to place Evans in history and make the reader feel the turmoil of her life is significant, and many readers will rejoice in having the chance to get to know Marian Evans – George Eliot – as a woman, not just as a writer.

Photos, in order:  The photo of author Dinitia Smith appears on http://www.cunard.com

The photo of Marian Evans at the age of thirty-eight (1858) is from http://ashetler.soup.io

George Henry Lewes, with whom Evans lived from 1854 until his death in 1878:  http://todayinsci.com

John Walter Cross, who became Evans’s husband in 1880.  https://adairjones.wordpress.com

4 Cheyne Walk, London, the home of Marian Evans:  https://www.pinterest.com

ARC:  Other Press

REVIEW. Biography, Book Club Suggestions, England, Historical, Italy, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Dinitia Smith
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 05/03/2016
ISBN: 978-1590517789
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

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