Marginalia Books

3. Woman Author: Rumer Godden’s Battle Villa Fiorita

Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden My first Rumer Godden. A revelation. This book is staggeringly beautiful and true-- in its joy and deep melancholy.

One of  Godden’s great strengths is she doesn’t get in the way of a good story. Whenever I read a book by her I feel thrown into another world from the first page. The Battle of Villa Fiorita was no exception; I was transported to Italy. Finding myself in the middle of high drama was confusing at first. It was difficult to keep track of the characters and what was happening, but by chapter three (or four) I was well acquainted with the characters and a lot of the backstory. The result of this immersion was a fascinating read, a plot that moved forward and an interesting development of characters.

Villa Fiorita is a story about marriage and children, and yet it begins with divorce. Fanny has left her husband and their three children to be with her lover, Rob. The couple have fled to the Villa to begin their new life together. The Novel begins with two of Fanny’s children: Hugh (14) and Caddie (12), describing the Villa Fiorita.  I always find Godden’s portrayal of children to be refreshing and surprising. Godden gives them a certain amount of autonomy without making them simply little adults. Hugh and Caddie have sold their possessions, plotted their escape and  traveled to Italy on their own to fetch their mother. They are waging war against the couple. Later on, Pia, Rob’s daughter from his late wife, joins the battle with a fierce child-like independence.

We keenly feel Hugh’s and Caddie’s intrusion as they observe and are shocked by the intimate details of  their mother’s and her lover’s daily living habits. Godden is able to focus on the small details to show the depth of the problem of infidelity: their mother’s scarf, his driving gloves, his cigarettes by their bedside. Pia (a Catholic) is also appalled by the adult’s behavior. Her arrival ushers in ancient codes and the tension between Protestantism and Catholicism. In the novel children are at once the blessing and the safeguard of marriage.

The story is also a coming of age story for Hugh, Caddie and Pia. They are all faced with a loss of innocence; they must confront their own desires, their own sexuality. Divorce has prematurely thrown them into the adult world.

Godden successfully shows the absurdity of divorce while remaining sympathetic to the entangled characters. Regardless of Fanny’s wishes for remarriage, the marriage bond cannot be broken by mere desires; she knows that she and Rob are play acting.

This is not simply a cautionary tale, it is more a study than a lesson. Much like Henry James’ The Bostionans, Godden’s The Battle of Villa Fiorita is exploring  the most salient and peculiar point in it’s society, in this case – divorce.

Towards the end of the novel we know that her marriage will never be the same, even if reconciliation takes place; so much harm has already been done and it is the children who suffer and who heal. As I read on and the pages diminished I began to think that reaching a satisfying ending would be impossible, but as one review stated so perfectly: “The ending is unimaginable until it arrives, and then appears inevitable. Splendid.”

Another Godden novel to treasure and share.

 

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Book Review: The New House

cooper

I’d been aware of Lettice Cooper’s novel The New House for years before I read it this month. The premise — a whole book about one day, a moving day –is intriguing, if you’re at all interested in houses, minutiae, and time. One thing that tempered my interest in the book was a description I’d read of the author as a Socialist and Freudian. Another thing that kept me from reading it so long was the price. But I found a copy for $1.50 at a barn sale earlier this month. And so I’ve finally read it.

First of all, the socialism. It is there, all right, and we get to watch several of the characters thinking about it. But Lettice Cooper the novelist is ultimately wiser than Lettice Cooper the socialist. And the book is ultimately too philosophical to be a political tract. We see a world in which tradition has been seemingly cut off from the sources of tradition and degraded to mere convention. In such a world, socialism possesses an attraction. One of the characters realizes at one point that socialist ideology gains force as belief in perfect justice in the next life wanes. Throughout the book, the thirst of the characters for the transcendent is palpable. The honesty of inquiry startles.

Second, the book is astonishingly acute as an expose of feminine vices: manipulation, pusillanimity, people-pleasing, imposing one’s own anxieties on others. It looks at the ways that people (“the members of one’s own family and household”) enslave each other and choose slavery for themselves. The concept of liberation is deeply examined. One character goes so far as to identify liberty and equality as opposing ideals.

Third, if you are interested in minutiae (or, for that matter, houses or time) you will find much in these pages to occupy and delight. I smiled inside every time the cats made an appearance because of how sharply they were observed. There are many layers of reality here and they are all unfolded with poignant clarity.

Mrs. Aldertree

The Drama of Decluttering Books

Any book lover will agree, books are hard to part with. We have a certain attachment to unread books, read books, half- read books, beloved books, good books, okay books, books that have that amazing paragraph, chapter, sentence, books that speak to us not so much in perfect prose but in the dovetailed ideas presented within its bindings.

I recently read an insightful article on Kon Marie and The Heartbreaking Difficulty of Getting Rid of Books much of it resonated with me. It delved into the heart of the problem of simplifying a library:

“A book can wait a thousand years unread until the right reader comes along,” said the critic George Steiner, and that’s true. The good ones are incantations, summoning spells. They are a spark, a balm, a letter from home. They contain demons, gods in a box. They are tiny rectangles with the whole universe packed in.

It is so difficult to part with these bound pieces of paper because they are more than just paper, they are microcosms! Each book seems a literary miracle to us. That it should ruminate in the maker’s mind for years, be written down, revised, edited, printed, (if lucky enough) published  and then finally somehow find its way, through who knows how many hands- to us! No wonder decluttering books is a painful process!

But it is necessary. Books maybe be microcosms, incantations, but gathered together they build a whole, a library. Such a living organism needs to be reevaluated from time to time, aired out to avoid stagnation (Otherwise it would be just another hoard and we book lovers selfish dragons.)

As a mother, I assess my children’s library often, is it meeting their needs? Have they outgrown the books? Do we need to replace or repair beloved but tattered titles? Are they being fed quality? Are there gaps in the collection?  (Spiritual reading should not be overlooked, even – especially in a children’s library. I find that this is too often the case.) Children grow quickly! Their minds and needs change, are we keeping up?

I also need to discern my needs and my own library. Am I inspired, comforted, and informed by what’s on my shelf? Or are there dead spaces? books that once spoke to me but I no longer have a need for? Are there books that never spoke to me but I keep out of mere pretense? old textbooks? We will always have our favorites and there is no need to let those go. And it is always nice knowing that there are books on shelf for when the time comes. However, there is nothing like a thoughtful library, curated to truly meet our needs for today. This is what we should ensure.

Much like a garden,  libraries need to be cultivated,  trimmed in some areas so that the whole can flourish. Deadheading is the term gardeners use. The simple technique of pinching off old weathered blooms to make room for new ones. It makes all the difference to a rose bush. It makes all the difference to a library. Yet we will  encounter the same problem as the gardener: should I trim this autumnal bloom? Just past its prime? or leave it for another day? It is still blooming though petals bruised and dogeared. It is up to us to determine when the book should move on. But rest assured, after all the work of sorting and letting go of books, it is exhilarating to find empty shelf space, room, glorious room! For those books that have been calling our name. Who knows? They could be life-changing.

-Mrs. Cooper

 

How To Style Your Bookshelves

 

Step 1. Empty bookshelf.

Step 2. Dust books and shelf.

Step 3. Put books back on shelf.

Step 4. Do you have  lonely, empty space on the shelf?  An easy solution to this problem (it never fails) –  a trip to the bookstore!*

Step 4. Fill in empty slots with new books.*

Step 5.  Let your wolfish eyes select the perfect title from your now stunning bookshelf. Sit back and read.

*one may also buy a cat, which also fills in gaps quite nicely (as pictured above) but most people find more books to be an easier solution.

*or new cat.