Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden

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British writer Margaret Rumer Godden (1907 – 1998) 

This is a story of drugs, prostitution, murder, and nuns.

Of all the writers of the 20th Century the British writer Rumer Godden (1907 – 1998) best known for her 1939 novel Black Narcissus filmed in 1947 by Michael Powell and starring Deborah Kerr wrote the most searchingly and movingly about women’s servitude to the Catholic Church.

Although born in England she spent most of her life in India, growing up in Narayanganj, colonial India (now in Bangladesh), later in Calcutta where she founded and ran a dance school for children for over 20 years and where her writing began, but then in Kashmir in India’s north west. She returned to England in 1945 to concentrate on her writing. She did not convert to Catholicism until 1968 but was always interested in the mystical and emotional balance between the Catholic Church and the practical world of secular existence. She lived, from 1968 to 1973, with her second husband, in Lamb House, Rye: also inhabited at various times by writers Henry James (Portrait of a Lady, The Turn of the Screw) and E. F. Benson (Mapp and Lucia).

She wrote 27 novels, 11 works of non-fiction, 4 volumes of poetry, and 28 books for children. She was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1993 and her last novel, Cromartie vs. the God Shiva (1997), was published the year before she died.

Five for Sorrow Ten for Joy (1979) her 20th novel, and set in France, tells the story of Lise (just one of her names), a notorious ‘madam’ with a facial wound and known to the press as La Balafrée (The Scarface), and Patrice, her lover, her jailer, her protector, her pimp. But it begins with her journey, after her release from prison, to a nunnery: a place she can’t wait to get to. Along the way Godden weaves narratives in various tenses and voices to colour Lise’s story and her past; how a painter might use colours to give depth to a picture. But what she doesn’t disclose is why she was in prison in the first place. She saves that for later.

It’s easy to call her work melodramatic, which is probably why 9 of her works have been filmed, but her writing skills belie the degrading element of that classification.

What obviously fascinated Godden was how belief, not necessarily the subject of that belief, can completely take over a person and compel her to sacrifice herself to a god and even live a life outside of how that same god commanded them to live (“Be fruitful and multiply”, Genesis 1: 28). Lise’s obedience is not to her god but to her order, which protects her from the world, but also, and more importantly, from men. A man ruined her life so she seeks the protection of women, which, ironically, is in the service of a paternalistic church.

Parallel to Lise’s story is that of Vivi and Lucette. The former, a 14 year old whore eager to get away from the arms of the nuns and into the arms of handsome Luigi; but once that happens and she has a babe forced into her own arms she rebels and hates Luigi, his family, and his child: she denies all wifely and motherly instincts prescribed to women but which are also the instincts that are shunned by nuns; one woman is damned, others are exulted.

Lucette is a lost child who is released from prison on the same day as Lise but who sees Lise’s desire to run into the care of the nunnery as nothing but out of the frying pan and into the fire.

“They tell me that often the worst criminals make the best nuns.”

Spiritual and mystical beliefs by women to a masculine god tussle with what other women think being a woman is all about. This is what makes Godden’s work so interesting.

You can find a full list of authors and titles, including 13 by Rumer Godden – and not all about nuns – at www.openroadmedia.com or follow @OpenRoadMedia on facebook or twitter.

Fun with Paul & Jane: The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Paul (born 1910) and Jane (born 1917) Bowles led an eventful life including creativity in music and writing, the theatre (he as a composer, she as a playwright) literary frustration, depression, same-sex affairs, travel – Europe, Ceylon, and North Africa, drugs, and famous friends which included Jean Cocteau, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas, Jean Rhys, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood – who would give Paul’s surname to his famous character, Sally, in Goodbye to Berlin, Aaron Copland – who gave Paul music composition lessons, Max Ernst, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Alan Ginsberg, and Peggy Guggenheim and they shared a house for a time in Brooklyn with W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Virgil Thomson, and Gypsy Rose Lee. I would’ve loved to be at that breakfast table!

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Although Paul wrote crime stories and painted in his youth he received his initial fame as a Broadway composer for, mainly, the works of Tennessee Williams: The Glass Menagerie, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, and Summer and Smoke. He also wrote incidental music for his wife’s play In the Summer House for its Washington season before a short stint on Broadway in 1954.

Jane with her Morrocan partner, Cherifa
Jane with her Moroccan partner, Cherifa

Jane’s only novel Two Serious Ladies was published in 1943 to mediocre reviews although Tennessee Williams loved it and called Jane “the most important writer of prose fiction in modern American letters.” When I read that line in his memoir I was shocked that I had never heard of her. I soon remedied that and have been collecting her work ever since; that isn’t difficult, her output is small.

Two Serious Ladies began as Three Serious Ladies, she dropped one of them but from her early drafts featuring the third lady Paul edited various short pieces and submitted them whenever an editor or publisher wanted something from Jane.  She was completely indifferent to it all: she considered herself a failure as a writer.

Paul turned to serious writing and his first, and most famous novel, The Sheltering Sky came out in 1948 and by 1950 was in the New York Times best-seller list. There is a taste here of a potential Joe Orton/Kenneth Halliwell literary rivalry but there were no murderous consequences. Jane was more interested in her female lovers and pre-occupied with her declining health. The Bowles’ latter years were spent in North Africa.

Jane died, after several strokes and breakdowns in 1973; Paul died from a heart attack in 1999.

The Sheltering Sky.

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Port and Kit are a married American couple, financially independent, and crave to visit the centre of the Sahara Desert. What they really mean is to go as far as they can as long as the degree of ‘desert-ness’ increases. The moment the desert-ness begins to weaken they turn back. They want to be lost. They encouraged another American, Tunner, to be their traveling companion, although by the opening of the story they want to be rid of him; and finally succeed. They also meet the mother and son team Mrs Lyle and her lay-about off-spring, Eric. The mother has got to be one of the more odious characters in 20th century literature and together with Eric, and Tunner, who has his heart set on seducing Kit, form a trio embodying everything the couple hate in the civilized world; giving them the reason they need for running away.

Getting lost in the desert is akin to going to bed, and waiting in an airport for a flight to begin: they abrogate life’s responsibilities especially if you believe those responsibilities are crushing you or causing you grief. At an airport life stops until you get where you’re supposed to be; going to bed forces everything to leave you alone so you can sleep; and getting lost in a desert leaves your life on hold while you find your way back to it.

Kit Moresby is obviously modeled on Jane. “Ambivalence was her natural element: a decision filled her with anguish. The possibilities for an ‘about face’ had to be kept open” writes Paul Bowles in a biographical piece for the collection of Jane’s work, Everything is Nice published by Sort Of Books in 2012. Kit’s psychological problem relates to her obsession with omens and the ever-possibility of doom: all decisions about unfolding days depend on events that may or may not happen. For Kit

“… the feel of doom was so strong that it became a hostile consciousness just behind or beside her, foreseeing her attempts to avoid flying in the face of the evil omens, and thus all too able to set traps her her.”

Doom does catch up with her and when it does Kit is almost relieved that she was right and takes to her appalling circumstances with an energy and satisfaction at not having to be Kit Moresby any more. The more abhorrent her circumstances the more she gives in to them. Her plight includes, thirst, near starvation, kidnapping, daily rape, imprisonment dressed as a boy, and a beating by three angry wives; but what terrifies her more is what she will have to do and say when she is rescued by the civilisation she is running away from.

Being born out of the mid 20th century’s romance with expressionism it’s not surprising that there are adsurdist and Kafkaeque elements in the writing. The pleasure is not just the exotic locations but also the waiting for what torment will fall on her next but Kit’s acceptence of all that keeps you applauding her resilience while at the same time wondering where will it all end. It is Bowles’ plotting skills, only seemingly haphazard, that keep the revelation of the point of it all to the very last paragraph.

Bernardo Bertolucci filmed it in 1990 with John Malkovitch, Debra Winger, and Campbell Scott. That I’ve got to see. The excellent short stories of both Paul and Jane are readily available. Give them a go first.