viernes, 26 de julio de 2013

Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes is a collection of 21 short stories that appeared in The New Yorker from 1939 to 1944, all written (obviously) by Mollie Panter-Downes. And it's my second Persephone book! And again, a book about the Second World War.

As every collection of short stories, reviewing this is difficult. Considering the collection as a whole, it is really really good. The Wartime Stories started out funny and got progressively darker as the war continued. The stories are straightforward and succinct, but they don't leave you with that feeling of missing something. They portray the not-so-nice aspects of the Home Front, contrary to the endurance and happy face that is usual of many WWII stories. I really liked it. Of course, as in every collection, I liked some stories better than others, so I thought about making a diminutive summary of each one with a rating. Here we go:

1. Date with Romance (2.5/5)
War is not as present here as in later stories, but it is what sets in motion the reunion between Helen Ramsay and her old flame Gerald Spalding. Mollie Panter-Downes handles humorously the subject of aging and perception. Not as great as the rest, but the impeccable style that got me hooked on Panter-Downes is present.

2. Meeting at the Pringles' (3/5)
‘But my heart’s right there!’ roared the voices of the potential customers in whose service the ladies were being so busy and happy – happier, as a matter of fact, than they had been for the last twenty-one years.
The tone is neutral, but intention gleams out: the Pringles ladies relish on tragedy, but they had nothing better to do for years. The War is not yet a horror, but the greatest adventure of many a women who joined the voluntary service.

3. Mrs. Ramsay's War (4.5/5)
A woman can't bear the cohabitation with her London evacuees, an ever-present theme in this collection. Full of humor, the reader can't but empathize with Mrs. Ramsay, who has no freedom whatsoever in her own home.

4. In Clover (4.5/5)
Young upper-class Mrs. Fletcher has volunteered part of her house to lodge London evacuees, but she's not really prepared to encounter misery and poverty. Panter-Downes incisively criticizes the British upper-class sense of propriety and adequacy and shows how out of touch with reality they were at the start of the War.
She had smiled as she spoke, the flashing and more than necessarily kind smile that she reserved for the lower orders, who hadn’t, don’t you know, had quite the advantages that we have.
5. It's the Real Thing This Time (4/5)
Retired Major Marriot has been revived because of the War, but his age keeps him from being needed this time. This sentence sums up the story:
...a man who loved women and danger but had somehow ended up with Miss Marriot and a warden’s rattle beneath crossed assegais. The Major looked up for the fallen body of a German soldier like a lover watching for a sign from a stubbornly closed window.
The tone of this story is slightly different from the previous ones. There's a current of dark, British humor running underneath the story, that makes me think Mollie Panter-Downes wasn't exactly pro-War.

6. This Flower, Safety (4/5)
Miss Mildred Ewing and her faithful handmaid Sparks go from place to place in search of safety, but the German persecution never stops. The tone has darkened again, to show that money and possessions don't mean a thing at War, and that they can't buy safety.
‘Then where – where can one count on being safe?’ ‘Nowhere’, he said somberly.
7. As the Fruitful Vine (2.5/5)
A story of antagonistic sisterhood in the middle of the War - a unique subject, by any means. Envies flip sides when unlucky Lucy gets pregnant and her sister Valerie does not. The story shows a dark side of the human nature, but it's somehow lighter in tone than the previous two. It shows an interesting aspect of the Home Front, though - pregnancy during air raids.

8. Lunch with Mr. Biddle (4/5)
Winthrop Biddle is a middle-aged man who fills his days with lunch and dinner parties, juggling them with his duty as an air warden. When one dinner party doesn’t go as smoothly as it should, the air raid alarm is the savior instead of a threat. Again Panter-Downes gives a 180º turn to a well-known aspect of the war – air raids – and makes the readers smile and cringe about it.


9. Battle of the Greeks (4/5)
Another appearance of Mrs. Ramsay. This time she’s in charge of a sewing party, when the quiet and soft-spoken matrons start a fight with tongues sharper than their needles. The subject, whether the UK should have foreign allies, is as English as the tone of the tone of the whole story.

10. Fin de Siècle (5/5)
Don and Ernestine Merrill are a young couple with professions and friends in the field of liberal arts. As they can’t find money through their jobs, Don joins the army, which their whole group of friends once despised and disparaged. But the change is soon patent – Don (what we would deem a hipster by today standards) replaces ironic keenness for military missions with real one and abandons previous tastes. We witness this change through the horrified gaze of Ernestine, who is incapable of understanding what happens to her husband. One of my favorites.

11. Literary Scandal at the Sewing Party (4.5/5)
The protagonist is again Mrs. Ramsay's sewing party. I love that there are some recurring characters.
‘The conversation rarely touched on other topics than the gossip of the little Sussex village, which Mrs. Ramsay had once innocently looked upon as a sleepy hamlet where nothing ever happened. She was now considerably better educated.’
12. Goodbye, My Love (5/5) 
Adrian and Ruth are a young couple. Adrian has been called to be mobilized in four days, and Ruth is trying to adjust to the idea that the farewell might be a permanent one in the worst of cases. With no kids, she strains about what could have been and what is left for her to do.
This story has a decidedly darker tone. There’s no humor to be found and the feelings are contained. This is an inflexion point when compared to the past stories, and the War is now ominous and patent, a reality.
Mollie Panter-Downes masterfully makes the reader feel the passing of time as a tangible thing. It’s dense and oppressive, as I think Ruth might have felt it. Decidedly, my favorite of the bunch.

13. War Among Strangers (5/5)
The title alludes to the kids sent away to distant places to be kept safe. Places where War broke later, like California or Singapore, and weren’t safe anymore. In this side of the planet, British mothers were worrying over her kids, in a war among strangers. In this atmosphere of anxiety, an unexpected camaraderie installs itself between a woman and her maid.

14. Combined Operations (3/5)
Again, the problems of cohabitation of strangers or friends forced by the Blitz. Two young couples, the Parsons and the Butlers, live together in a cottage after the Butlers’ flat was destroyed during the Blitz. The good friends soon start quarrel and despise each other over the pettiest of things.

15. Good Evening, Mrs. Craven (5/5)
A mistress’ lover (Mr. Craven) has to go to Libya and she worries about lack of news as time goes by without a letter. As she says, the War Office doesn’t have a service for informing mistresses. If wife was a hard position during war, Panter-Downes shows how much harder it was to be a lover with no means of knowing anything about the loved one. And of course, the leaves were for the real family. The final breakdown is very telling of the black hole that threatened to swallow the British pride during this long war, and it wasn’t exclusive of mistresses.

16. The Hunger of Miss Burton (4/5)
Spinster and school teacher, Miss Burton is hungry. She dreams and lives for food, and really, the descriptions in this short story made me hungry as well. In reality, her hunger is caused by lack of food as well as lack of love. She only feels satiated when her friend engagement falls through.

17. It's the Reaction (4.5/5)
A woman, living alone in London, is nostalgic about the Blitz because of the friendliness it caused. Her attempts to rekindle a Blitz friendship with a neighbour are hopeless. I guess British character was very good for surviving a war on not much, but it wasn't so well-suited to spontaneity.

18. Cut Down the Trees (4.5/5)
An old lady adjusts to the many changes War brought, but her old handmaid won’t have any of it. Darkly humorous and quite scathing at the same time. Mollie Panter-Downes shows the British upper class is not always to blame for the rigid class system.

19. Year of Decision (3/5)
Mark Goring didn’t picture himself at war going to an office work and coming back home to scour saucepans and clean after his kids. He longed for adventure and danger, and his wife is not too happy about it. Finally, he gets what he wanted, exactly after learning that her friend Travers has died after a parachute fall. Fun and sad, at the same time.

20. The Danger (4/5)
An elderly couple, the Dudleys, have had a hell of a time with their evacuees, the Rudds, for four years. When a perfectly polite young mother and her baby come to ask for lodgings after the Rudds have left, Mrs. Dudley feels her hard-earned peace is threatened and turns her selfishly away. The story certainly makes you feel the pang of guilt with Mrs. Dudley.

21. The Waste of It All (5/5)
Frances and Philip have been married for over three years, but together only a small number of days. After such a long time, Frances has gotten used to living alone and is angry at what she has lost. Her anger is then thrown upon single mother Margaret and her baby, Raymond, and Frances’ pet and cottage chosen by her husband. It’s a wonderful story, and a very bleak one to end the collection.


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