Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Milne-mania

When it comes to reading, I find that balance is the key. I have to follow Jane Austen with Nick Hornby, and Louisa May Alcott with Roberto Bolano, or my brain will fizzle out or I'll become convinced that the only reality is Netherfield and dances and young men dependent upon rich uncles. Sometimes, though, one can get stuck in a particular vein (eg. anything involving Greeks) and go on forever. Like mid-twentieth century middle-brow English novels. I can't explain it.

As the result of a complete and utter coincidence involving Cold Comfort Farm, I stumbled onto the blog of Simon from Stuck in a Book and have become hopelessly and embarrassingly addicted. It has:

a) confirmed of my deep and abiding love and longing for Oxford
b) allowed me a vicarious window into English life
c) introduced me the Persephone books series, in the same manner as my co-worker Jessica introduced me to the NYRBs.
d) reaffirmed old loves like Dodie Smith
e) contributed new introductions: Ivy Compton-Burnett, Tove Jansson, Stella Gibson, and A.A. Milne.

You may have thought A.A. Milne was strictly an author for children, being best known for his Winnie the Pooh books - a fact which frustrated him and dogged his son Christopher (Robin) Milne. Rather, A.A. Milne was a humorist, an essayist, a writer of plays, novels, short-stories, and of course, the Winnie-the-Pooh books (recently re-discovering by me.)

Milne's semi-autobiographical novel Two People was reprinted by Capuchin Classics and I devoured it. The protagonist, Reginald Wellard, has just - to his surprise - written a novel called Bindweed and - to his greater surprise - it is a smashing success. His beautiful and adoring wife Sylvia does not necessarily respond to this news in the way he would choose. But then again, what does he want her to say? Why does he feel dissatisfied with her fond but silly remarks?

While Reginald is being nervously and hesitantly inducted into London's literary scene, he has become aware of the discrepancies between himself and his young wife. He loves her obsessively, but becomes aware that they do not meet each other intellectually, and is horrified to find himself mentally stimulated by intelligent women. The result is a charming but honest excursion into the ups and downs of the marriage of two pleasant individuals who nonetheless may find themselves disenchanted.

Two People is a funny book - one of my favorite passages had to do with Reginald reading a critic's review of Bindweed:

"The writers did not, as they put it, seem to have heard of Mr. Reginald Wellard before. As it happened, Mr. Reginald Wellard had never heard of them before, so there was nothing in that. They opined that he wrote intelligently, and not without understanding. Mr. Wellard, reading this, opined that they also opined intelligently and not without understanding, so there was still nothing between them. They cordially hoped that Mr. Wellard would go on writing novels...and Mr. Wellard hoped that they would go on writing reviews. Things couldn't have been more friendly."

Lots of Britishisms (Hooray; Darling, I am a perfect beast, etc.), lovely provincial scenery (cats, bees, ducks), and intelligent dialogue. Wellard's doubt and overconfidence, the flux between anxiety and assurance make this ordinary novel truthful and entertaining.

The novel's drawback is that poor Sylvia is only well-regarded for her blushing bride behavior and her beauty. The novel ends with "Stay beautiful, my sweet Sylvia" and the answer: "I'll try my darling. I expect it's what I'm for." Disheartening. Regardless, Two People is a serious novel which does not take itself too seriously.

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