Friday, May 11, 2018

Elizabeth Von Arnim

I stumbled across ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’ while reading about one of those year-end weekend newspaper wraps where people talk about what notable or recommendation-worthy books they read in 2017. I had noted down the name in one of my many to-read lists. I eventually found the book at the library, in what they call ‘the Stack’. The Stack is where they keep those old or limited-edition books. This beautiful book was a 1915 reprint. So, over a century old! Bound, like a little notebook.

Intrigued and hooked, I read more about the author after finishing Elizabeth and her German Garden. As I was reading about her, and around her, I came across an interesting trivia that Katherine Mansfield is her cousin. (More on Katherine Mansfield later). Small world. And Von Arnim was born in Sydney; Kirribilli to be precise. So, there is the nexus element.

The book is a diary. An interesting one. It talks about her effort to make herself home in Germany. About her struggle with her garden and her gardeners, and her love of reading and writing along with her norm of being a sort of outsider, although a countess, in a foreign culture. And above all, her thoughts, her views of the world.

I wanted more. I found her books on Project Gutenberg. And then I had a new favourite open page on my phone. I read Solitary Summer which is in a way sequel to Elizabeth and her German Garden. I loved both of them. There are passages which I have clipped and saved. There is an articulation of feelings that I can completely nod and agree with. And feeling that nobody could have perhaps expressed better.

And then I read the next book, The Benefactress. Where the first two were inspired directly from her life, this one was fiction. The book tested my patience. Still, I wanted to read to the end because (a) It was an easy quick flip. And (b) I was hoping that it will redeem itself as it moves forward. I was genuinely surprised to think that people can have such saintly, unbounded generosity as shown by the heroine, accompanied with extreme naïveté. However, in the book, I did like the author’s meditation on what makes people happy, and lets them stay happy. It echoes with my own thoughts around human flexibility. I agree and believe that human beings get used to comforts and discomforts pretty quickly and re-adjust their norm, and what they define as happiness. It is during the bit when things are being adjusted where most of the emotional upheaval lies, or where lie the peaks of happiness or unhappiness, after which they lose the newness and become part of the for-granted. [1] [2]

After The Benefactress, I tried to read one of her later books, Vera. Like The Benefactress, I didn’t enjoy this one as well. But it was interesting to see where Daphne du Maurier draws her inspiration for Rebecca. It has been years since I read Rebecca, but it was an unforgettable sort of book. Where Vera revolves more around the couple, Rebecca was more about the new Mrs de Winter and the old one. Vera had a sarcastic, satirist comic element. Dark humour. A brat-boy-man who controls everything (a different shade of Huntingdon from the Tenant of Wildfell Hall: more about it later). One recoils at the dependence of women on men. You feel like wanting to reach through the boundaries of time, space and fiction to shake the person out of her misery, and to make them see for what things are.

And that is where I stopped reading Von Arnim. Delightful diaries. Loved her reflections and thoughts in her fiction books as well (though not the fiction per se). I would recommend the diaries to anyone who loves that sort of writing.


[1] A tangential thought:  Can we hence say that our quest should be to maintain the intense colors of new happiness and to not let them dim to the for-granted palette of beige and brown? Else, to match our previous levels of happiness, we'll always need something bigger, better, more colorful or new. Given the human capacities, perhaps we can say that to continue to derive high level of happiness from things that supposedly makes one happy, to preserve the intense personal happiness, you need to relive or invoke the initial encounter, the very first feelings of joy – to bring in the delight of the newly privileged, of the child. Being grateful definitely helps and should be a good starting point. As for the discomforting, and the not-so-happy things, may be, one needs to do nothing. Perhaps, just give ourselves some time. And the new realities will gradually become the new normal. There seems to be enormous flexibility and capacity in human beings to get used to just about anything. Perhaps that is what makes life bearable for many.

One of myriad ways of interpreting reality.

On a similar note, somewhere, in a poem (For E.R., translated) Joseph Brodsky notes,

“The future has arrived and it is not

[2] I was discussing this view ([1] above) with K. And he has a different view of things. He believes more in the stoical way of looking at things - to let emotions pass through you, wash over you completely, and to not resist them or push them, but let them take their course. That things shouldn't make you too happy or too sad. He is a believer in equanimity. About looking at the happy as well as unhappy stuff in life with a detached, a bit removed point. Somewhat like the poem If (Rudyard Kipling). 

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;"

A worthy aspiration to live like that. 

Not so simple, is it? - This trying to interpret life and happiness.

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