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Fast-Talking Dames
Maria DiBattista
Yale University Press
365 pp.


Maria DiBattista's Fast-Talking Dames has a fascinating thesis: "when film found its human voice," she writes, "it simultaneously gave to the American woman, as performer and heroine, a chance to speak her mind, to have a real, not just a presumptive, say in her own destiny." Given where women stand in contemporary Hollywood films, DiBattista seems almost to be writing about a never-to-be-found Shangri-La. But think of that all-too-brief period between the silent film era (when, in Norma Desmond's famous declaration in Sunset Boulevard, actresses didn't need dialogue because they had faces) and the rise of the beautiful but baffled blond bombshell of the 1950s (instantiated most perfectly, of course, by Marilyn Monroe).

From the Thirties and into the Forties, the cinema's fast-talking dames, as DiBattista pointedly calls them, ruled Hollywood comedies. Consider a handful of the actresses whose performances DiBattista examines: Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck and the celestial Katharine Hepburn. In DiBattista's reckoning, their fearless self-reliance made them instances of "an icon of American individualism, bold and imaginative in her pursuit of happiness." And their language--coy, knowing and, perhaps most importantly, fast (a mark of modernism's streamlined speed)--singled them out more than any other quality as a cinematic high point in women's independence.

It's a bold, grand notion, and DiBattista, who is a professor of English at Princeton University, documents it impressively with a witty, fast style that puts a nice, highly readable spin on the standard dense, academic voice. To her credit, DiBattista doesn't see literary criticism as political warfare by another name, and in place of feminist ideologies, she offers good, traditional close readings that enrich our appreciation of the films themselves (which should surely be the aim of criticism, after all). The fact that she manages to say quite a bit about gender relations portrayed in the early talkies and, by comparison, in the contemporary cinema is grimly ironic, I suppose. (If only more academics appreciated this: the same point can be made better--and more persuasively--through strong analysis than through doctrinal speechmaking.)

Some of DiBattista's most fascinating work here ties her fast-talking dames to a broader historical context, in which American speech came into its own as the voice of modernism, at least partly at the hands of New York wags who moved to Hollywood. "By bringing their irreverent and exuberantly vernacular style to the movies, they championed the national claim of the American language as the standard-bearer of a cocksure, exultant modernity." (Ah, but then the genie--dyed blonde and stumbling cutely over her one-syllable words--had to be stuffed back into the bottle again...)

My only gripe with this superb, insightful book is this: DiBattista stretches her definitions a bit too thin by including Greta Garbo among the grand dames of the fast-talking Golden Age. By DiBattista's own reckoning, Garbo never showed the speed or agility demonstrated to such perfection by the text's other actresses (beside Catherine Hepburn's performance in Bringing Up Baby, she moves with glacial slowness). DiBattista's a superb close reader, and the Garbo material is interesting in itself, but it seems off-point, I think, and the book is certainly strong enough without it.

--Charlie Onion

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Henry Green
Dalkey Archive Press
214 pp.


It's an unqualified shame that Henry Green's novels aren't more widely read today, but I suppose it's not surprising. Even at the height of his writing career (Green died in 1974), he preferred to remain an obscure figure who quietly held down a job as an engineer and managing director at his family's Birmingham engineering firm. In fact, Green's real name was Henry Vincent Yorke; he chose 'Green' for his writing name because it was satisfyingly bland (his first choice had been 'Browne'). The fact that he didn't write for the last twenty years of his life didn't help his backlist sales, either. (Alcoholism was at least partly to blame for his literary silence--as well as his losing his job with the family firm. He was forced out after his 'water' glass in a conference meeting was discovered to contain straight gin.)

In all, Green published ten books, and rather remarkably, all but two of them are currently in print--including (as of this year) his first novel, Blindness, which originally appeared in 1926, when Green was still an undergraduate at Oxford. (He was all of twenty-one.) Dalkey Archive, which has already republished three other Green titles, has done yeoman's work getting Blindness out in a handsome paperback edition.

Philosophically and aesthetically, Blindness is wonderfully of its period. John Haye, the novel's teenaged protagonist, wears outlandish coats and bizarre hats and uses "a cigarette-holder about eight inches long." As we quickly discover in the opening pages (which are presented as his journal), he is unathletic, florid in his gestures and headstrong in his opinions. "I wish the world was not so ugly and unhappy," he writes.


And there is so much cynicism. And why does Science label and ticket everything so that the world is like a shop, with their price on all the articles? There are still a few auction rooms where people bid for what they think most worth while, but they are getting fewer and fewer. And people love money so, and I shall too I expect when I have got out of what the elders tell me is youthful introspection. But why shouldn't one go through something which is so alive and beautiful as that? But they only say, smiling, "Yes; I went through all that once; you will soon get over that." I shall fight for money and ruin others. Down with Science. Romanticism, all spiritual greatness is going. Soon music will be composed by scientific formulae; painting has been in France, and look how photography has put art back! Oh, for a Carlyle now! Some prophet one would follow.


The novel trips along like this nicely (if pointedly verbosely) for thirty pages, and then Green slyly lets a huge piece of information arrive in a tiny letter from one of Haye's school mates: while Haye was riding the train home from school, a boy threw a stone at his train car and shattered the window beside which he sat. The glass shards from the explosion destroyed Haye's vision and now, suddenly, the enthusiastic aesthete finds himself cut off from the lit world from which he drew his inspiration. Even worse, his stepmother is, perhaps not wrongly, worried about his future in the stuffy, unforgiving society to which she's accustomed. In passages that draw on stream-of-consciousness and lush lyricism, Green shows us these two rival concerns--the stepmother plotting Haye's social resurgence and Haye's equally fervent searching for a new sort of life-sustaining impressionism--and the effect is often breathtaking in its intensity.

Blindness is certainly a young man's work, full of youthful, intellectually fervent intensity and clearly written before Green hit his trademark cynical stride (to say nothing of his penchant for using gerunds for his titles--Doting, Concluding, Surviving, etc.). But it's a compelling, intelligent, often beautifully written work whose lyrical impressionism is stunningly accomplished. (Imagine even a handful of such accomplished first novels appearing each year...)

This past Spring, Random House published Jeremy Treglown's Romancing: The Life and Work of Henry Green, and in his superb biography of Terry Southern (A Grand Guy), Lee Hill did strong work demonstrating Green's influence on Southern's own writing. (Click here to read WAG's review of A Grand Guy.) Could we, just possibly, be on the verge of a Green resurgence?

--Doug Childers

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Getting a Life
Helen Simpson
Alfred A. Knopf
196 pp.


Getting a Life, Helen Simpson's third short story collection, offers familiar material for readers who have followed her career since her first collection, Four Bare Legs in a Bed, won the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1990. Women (most of them older, this time out) find themselves suffering limitations brought on by the very things they so fervently sought out in their naïve youth. Family and work, work and family: no matter how you juggle them, they simply don't allow you room for much of anything that you might be tempted to call happiness, and at times, one's very identity seems at stake. As a thirty-seven-year-old mother of three tells her husband in "Hurrah for the Hols,"


"At the moment I feel sub. Sub something."

"Suburban?" suggested Max.

"Subordinate?" said Dorrie. "No."

"Submerged, then. How about submerged?"

"That's nearer. Still not quite...I know! Subdued. Though submerged is growing on me. Submerged is accurate too. That time at Marks, all my twenties, half my thirties, it's like a dream. I've almost forgotten what it used to be like."

And she tried to explain to Max her feeling about this encroaching blandness, adaptability, passivity, the need for one of them at least to embrace these qualities, even if this made them shudder, if the family was going to work.

"We all have to knuckle down," he said. "Sooner or later."

"It just seems, some of us more than others."

"If we want to join in at all," opined Max. "Life. It's called growing up."

"It doesn't feel like growing up," she muttered from her side of the fence. Rather it felt like being freeze-dried and vacuum-packed. Knuckled down was putting it mildly.


Aristotle's notion that we become what we do--that character is derived from habit--is never far from the surface in the nine stories included in Getting a Life. During a married couple's Client Entertainment outing in "Opera," the female protagonist watches a bickering couple and says to herself, "We'll be like them in five years' time...if we carry on like this; it's what you do every day that changes you." Fate--family, middle age, the world of getting and spending--drags one willy-nilly on, it seems, and who, precisely, you are before it's over is not as stable or heroically unchanging as one might expect.

Guilty resentments about the burdens family life can bring can't be readily shared with others, of course, and Simpson has an unsparing, brilliant knack for suspending her characters between the painful truths they secretly know and the inane, fulfilled happiness they're forced to feign for outsiders' benefit. Parenting, after all, is an officially sanctioned, unmixed blessing, and to say otherwise--to complain in the least--is to speak sacrilege. "Look at her nails," one mother says to another in the title story. "You can always tell. Painted nails mean a rubbish mother."

And here, I think, is what makes Simpson's characters feel so incredibly real: like a lot of her readers, her characters lead a sort of double life, with their spoken language hedging the really important issues and their unspoken thoughts hitting home relentlessly, most often (as in the brilliantly done "Café Society") against themselves and the world they have constructed out of those youthful, naïve dreams.

After reading Getting a Life, one is tempted to rise up with a cry of Mothers of the world, unite! But so complete and frankly dire is Simpson's assessment of the dilemma that I'm not quite sure what you could unite for, precisely. One might commiserate, but how could one affect change? A single character (a young woman in the brilliant "Burns and Bankers") seems to offer a solution when she stands up at a whiskey-driven meeting of bankers in honor of Robert Burns and delivers the following speech:


Women want love and they want work, just the same as men...And they want children to be seen as a fact of life, not as a personal weakness. So if you love your women, all you men out there, take your share of what's called women's work so that us women can take some of the bread-winning burden off your shoulders. Get a life. Outside the office. It'll be better for your health. Better for your love life. And, if you're interested, since Burns mentions it, better for your immortal soul. Aux armes, citoyens! In the name of the love you claim to feel for us lassies.


"She left the dais," Simpson tells us, "to ragged applause and uncertain wolf whistles. She did not smile or look back."

It may be painful to see secret dilemmas exposed so thoroughly--and to see possible solutions rejected so unthinkingly--but I don't think I've ever seen it done so accurately. Or captivatingly.

--Daphne Frostchild

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Wanderlust: A History of Walking
Rebecca Solnit
Penguin Books
336 pp.


What does it mean to walk? Babies' first halting steps are eagerly awaited, recorded in photographs and videos and triumphant calls to grandparents. In nothing is the pure pleasure of movement so apparent as in the meanderings and dashing-abouts of very young children, but almost as soon as we begin to walk, we are exhorted by parents to stop, to slow down, to come along now, and then by schoolteachers to sit down, and warned of the dangers of strangers and traffic and the laws against trespass, and slowly we are instructed in the rules and the realities that circumscribe our stepping out into the world.

Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust is a ramble through the history of walking, from its still-debated origins in the first proto-human hominids ("walking upright is considered to be the Rubicon the evolving species crossed to become hominid," Solnit writes) to its endangered status in the modern, Western, automobile-dominated world of sidewalk-less suburbs, where the freedom to move has been transformed into the disciplined "workout" on that electric-powered road to nowhere, the treadmill.

I first approached Solnit's book much the way I take a walk--start at the beginning and proceed to the end--and I'm afraid my attention soon wandered, as it is wont to do. The next time I picked up Wanderlust, I set off instead to explore, to make forays into this and that chapter as they interested me, and soon I was engrossed. In the best tradition of the essayist, Solnit takes something we hardly think about, this most ordinary and fundamental of human behaviors, and demonstrates how vast and complicated its history truly is. From the countryside rambles of Jane Austen's characters, to the mass protests of Prague's Velvet Revolution, to the solemn processions of the mothers of the "disappeared" in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, to the festive abandon of Halloween in the streets of San Francisco's Castro district, Solnit explores the many meanings of putting one foot in front of the other to move through space.

Solnit's book moves at a measured pace, dense with the sorts of details that give rise to pondering and rumination, for which activity, Solnit points out, a walk is ideal.


[T]hinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It's best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.... It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.


Solnit's own walks are the framework against which she examines the various--and still unsettled--theories of why we began walking, and traces the evolution of the idea of walking for pleasure. Most fascinatingly, however, Solnit demonstrates convincingly the degree to which walking is a political act. Those for whom walking is a choice, rather than a necessity--who can freely choose where and when to walk--are the powerful and the free. She writes, for example, of the ways in which women's walking--and therefore women's freedom--has been controlled throughout recorded human history. Everyone knows, of course, what a "streetwalker" is, and Solnit describes how simply being in a certain street at a certain hour has often been enough to get a woman arrested on suspicion of prostitution. Any woman in the U.S. today lives with an automatic, visceral awareness that walking alone is a risky pleasure. Even though far more women are raped or murdered at the hands of someone they know than by the stranger lurking in the bushes, we grow up believing we are safe only when locked inside. Similarly, curfews and laws against trespassing, vagrancy, loitering or public gatherings are used worldwide to prohibit whole groups--the young, the poor, the disenfranchised--from occupying public space.

If I have a complaint with Solnit's book, it is with the decision to run a series of walking-related quotes in a single line along the bottom of the book's pages. Most of the quotes run across several pages, which means that to read them while reading the book itself, one must constantly turn back and forth, shifting between narrative and quotes. I found it distracting, so I skipped the quotes, which seemed a shame, if only because someone--Solnit, I presume--had worked hard to gather all of them together here. But this is a quibble with a design flaw, and by the time I arrived at the sublime couple of pages about the 1976 Cadillac painted with the stations of the cross in the town of Chimayó in New Mexico, I had succumbed entirely to the pleasures of this ramble with Rebecca Solnit.

--Caroline Kettlewell

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