Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Reading group: Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Due to my second stinking cold of the winter, I was absent when this book was discussed by our group, which I was sorry to be, since I very much enjoyed the book - better, it seems, than most others in the group - and the discussion was clearly an interesting one. John has kindly written up the discussion, and I reproduce his report below, and I'll maybe add some comments of my own afterwards.

Perhaps first, though, I should say a bit about the book. Published in 1962, it opens as Berkeley University graduate student Cassandra sets out for home in the foot of the Sierra hills and the wedding of her identical twin, Judith. For Cassandra Judith is her alter ego, and it soon becomes clear that she is struggling psychologically with her sister's imminent marriage. The book is narrated chiefly by Cassandra, but a short yet not inconsequential section is narrated by Judith.


Mark chose this book, and mentioned its solipsism when he put it forward.
Spoilers are required. The title gives the game away a little, it’s no surprise that someone gets married, but if you want to come fresh to this book don’t read this, or the blurb, or the biographical notes on the author.
At the meeting Mark introduced the book almost with an apology. He admitted he had tried to read it some years earlier. He had quite liked it, but had not reached past 20 or 30 pages. His attitude was that the first section of the book seemed very subtle.
However, the author was well known at the time of publication, 1962. And probably most people reading at the time did know a thing or two about the author, and perhaps came to the book with very different expectations than our own. In terms of events, the book was judged by the group in general to be slow moving, and retrospectively, at least in the first half, too subtle. There is a sense, if you don’t recognize the context, and the when and the why of the events, that not much is happening. Later, speaking for myself, I realized how much subtle information was being introduced. It was generally agreed that, in terms of its prose however, the book was an easy read, too easy in that it was a quick read, making it too easy to miss important information, and did not seem deep.
One of blurbs called the book tragicomic. There was agreement that there are some good one-liners, but it certainly isn’t hilarious.
Ann said, bluntly, that she found the book very dated. I suppose I agreed in a sense. It was to me about a strange distant world. There’s a grandmother figure with traditional values, and as someone said, to general agreement, the others are rebelling against her – but it’s a pretty ‘middle-class’ rebellion. The father is retired, an ineffectual intellectual, but who also owns what they call a ranch. If it is a ranch it’s presumably run and managed by someone else – but perhaps they just mean a ranch house. A couple (from over the border) are living in a gatehouse and function as servants. The main family seemed more English than American. The wife is dead, and he seems to be drifting, and likes an occasional drink. None of them relate to the people in their town, and are like English gentry in this way. Doug said he found all the characters very strange. Someone said one of the main characters is ‘nuts’ – but others pointed out that all the other characters know this person is nuts.
Doug said the writing was brilliant, but he didn’t like it. One member of the group didn’t finish it, but said they had wanted to, just didn’t have the time. Everyone agreed that this meant missing the best bit.
The book is in three sections, divided between the voices of identical twins Cassandra and Judith. It was agreed that Judith, who comes in late, has ‘a real voice’, a different more factual voice, and gets on with the story. Whereas Cassandra is self-involved, living in her own head.
There are two outsiders, both doctors, and both, in their own ways, more part of the ‘real world’, the world outside the family.
Significant things happen, but early on I didn’t know they were happening. I don’t know much about weddings. I got it that the bride had a white wedding dress, but (spoiler alert) I didn‘t know that other female guests weren’t supposed to wear white, and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. Another important event seems to be that a glass gets broken – I still don’t know what all that’s about. Perhaps they had a set of two dozen and with one broken they’ll have to throw them all away.
I imagine this book was well known at the time, and it’s useful to know the context. Dorothy Baker was well known, and could be said to be part of the Hollywood elite. She was married to a well-known poet. In 1938 she published Young Man with a Horn (about Bix Beiderbecke, a (real-life) jazz trumpeter, and one of the first famous early white jazz musicians.)  This was made into a film starring Kirk Douglas. In 1942 she published a book Trio, that proved too scandalous for the times, and a play based on it, produced by her and her husband, was quickly shut down because of protests. It is in this light, perhaps, that the subtlety of the present book should be viewed. The author was clearly a modern woman, had lived, and knew about the modern world but wrote the book in the early sixties, before the 60s really got started, and perhaps did not want to (again) create too much of a fuss. She died fairly young in 1968.
There was some agreement that the book was interesting, but not all that enjoyable. I said I thought the women in the group might have got more out of it, understood the mores better, but they didn’t seem to feel strongly about this.
The group in general liked the book in the end. I must admit I read the first half or so with some enjoyment, it did feel modern (considering the author was born in 1907) and interesting, but I started to wonder if anything much was ever going to happen. Plenty does happen; I just wasn’t alert to the clues.
If you’ve read this account I don’t know whether you might, or might not want to read the book. It is about women’s lives. The two women are very different. These women could exist today, though, as someone said, the characters reactions, and their society in general, would have been very different.
One member, Jenny, said she thought it was clear from very early on what was going to happen – quite the opposite of my own reaction. This certainly isn’t a gentle book in the end. When the new husband comes in towards the end there are some very dramatic and peculiar goings on...

EB: I have to say that I do agree with the rest of the group that the book (perhaps, as John says, because of the author's previous troubles) may be too subtle for its own good. I too missed some of the clues early on in the novel as to what was propelling Cassandra, thus missing some of the subtext, so that conversations and events seemed more mundane than I could see in retrospect they were meant to be, and nothing much seemed to be happening. I missed a crucial clue on the second page when Cassandra says that the bridge she can see from her Berkeley window 'took on the appeal of a bright exit sign in an auditorium that is crowded and airless'. Since up to this point she has talked, in a zippy, witty tone, only about leaving early for her sister's wedding, I took this to mean she just wants to get out of Berkeley to the wedding as soon as possible, and even though in the next few lines she says 'my guide assures me I'm not a jumper; it's not my sort of thing', it didn't occur to me that she is suicidal. The realisation only came to me later, and when it did her behaviour seemed much more explicable, and she seemed a more sympathetic character. (I don't think this is plot-spoiling, as I'm sure the author intended us to realise this from the start.) In this context, the deliberate (and dangerous) smashing of the glass by Cassandra that John mentions is understandable, and the fallout of the incident indicative of the push-me-pull-you relationship between the sisters that is at the heart of the book. With reference to this last, I disagree with John that the book is about anything so anodyne as 'women's lives'. As I see it, it is rather about the more unusual symbiotic relationship between a particular pair of biologically identical yet psychologically different twins, and their difficulty in achieving individuation in adult life.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Story in The Lonely Crowd

I mentioned in my post of January 8th that I was about to write a story that, unlike others I've written recently, wouldn't touch on any overt political issues, but would be about the difficulties of communication in personal relationships (and its potentially devastating long-lasting consequences). That story has now been taken by The Lonely Crowd (and only two days after I sent it to the editor, John Lanvin!), a newish literary journal based in Wales that has quickly established a significant presence in British literature, publishing literary heavyweights such as Niall Griffiths and Toby Litt. Needless to say, I'm thrilled to bits to be published in its pages. It's made me ponder the way we sometimes judge our own stories. In fact, after I had finished the story I hesitated to send it somewhere so prestigious, thinking it lightweight in comparison to my recent others. It just goes to show...

Issue 11 of The Lonely Crowd is due out on 25th March. (My story won't appear until Issue 12 later this year.)  You can preorder Issue 11 here.