The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Comyns’

Dying in a National Park Is Very Unpleasant, and Other News

November 13, 2015 | by

A postcard made between 1930 and 1945.

  • Flogging! Embezzling! The public humiliation of a churchman named John Winterbottom! These and more await you in an unpublished story by Charlotte Brontë, discovered in the “much-treasured” pages of the family copy of Robert Southey’s The Remains of Henry Kirke White. There’s a new poem, too: “The pieces have been dated to 1833, when Charlotte would have been around seventeen … Historian Juliet Barker, author of the biography The Brontës, said that ‘the book alone is a valuable acquisition because of its rare associations with Mrs Brontë ’ … According to the Brontë Society, the Southey title is one of Maria’s ‘rare surviving possessions,’ after a box containing all her property was shipwrecked off the Devon coast shortly before she married Patrick Brontë in 1812. It also features Patrick’s Latin inscription, reading that it was ‘the book of my dearest wife and it was saved from the waves. So then it will always be preserved.’ ”
  • Today in national parks and the macabre: “For years, I’ve been an avid reader of what I call the Death in …  books. It’s not quite an actual series—there are four so far, from three different publishers—but the Death in …  books all do the same thing: They chronicle accidents, murders and mishaps in several of America’s most treasured national parks, giving us Death in Yellowstone, Death in Yosemite, Death in the Grand Canyon, and Death in Big Bend. The Yellowstone, Yo­semi­te and Grand Canyon books purport to chronicle every single death (excluding illness and car accidents) from the mid-nineteenth century onward, sorted into chapters by type: flash floods, bear maulings, murder, falls, poison gas and so on … The Death in ...  books are morbid documents, and their authors’ defensiveness about that only proves the point. But what’s so wrong with being morbid?”
  • “One thinks, usually, of drizzle being the opposite of thick, and of being lazy and gentle rather than sudden and sweeping. Still, an admirable deployment of the gerund.” That’s Christian Lorentzen, dismantling one of seventeen opening lines from new books. (In this case, the line is from Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies: “A thick drizzle from the sky, like a curtain’s sudden sweeping.”) Look away, children.
  • Sixty-five years after its publication, the childbirth scene from Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came from Woolworths still has everyone talking—and it resonates with contemporary literature: “Winding up in a public hospital, Sophia [Spoons’s heroine] is prodded, rebuked, and shamed for her body’s involuntary actions. It’s a setting in which women giving birth are seen either as docilely on track, or deviant … [This] brings to mind Maggie Nelson’s query in … The Argonauts, about the process of childbirth: ‘How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity?’ … Ferrante, for one, has said that her heroines don’t suffer so much as struggle. Comyns enacts the opposite: arguably, her characters suffer. Sophia exits each chapter of her life and enters a new one clearly exhausted, clearly in pain, and yet we don’t see her thrashing much. Her narration is triumphant proof that she has made it through, but the way out is seeded with resignation.”
  • A note to the bagpipers: listen, let’s not beat around the bush. There are times when ordinary, run-of-the-mill bagpiping will suffice, and there are times when life calls for extreme bagpiping. Those are the times I want to hear about. I’m talking about bagpiping on the beaches of Normandy during D-Day. I’m talking about bagpiping in Antarctica with a penguin beside you. I’m talking about bagpiping on the International fucking Space Station.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

October 28, 2015 | by

Barbara Comyns’s daring depiction of childbirth.

Barbara Comyns.

Some books need no introduction because they’re better if you don’t know what to expect, and it occurs to me that Our Spoons Came from Woolworths might be one of those books. Certainly I wasn’t prepared for it the first time I read it, and I don’t think I noticed the first time its tone abruptly shifted from lighthearted and twee to something more like horror. But then it happened again, and I started to pay closer attention. The book revealed itself to be darker and more complex than its premise—young artists secretly marry and begin to feather a bohemian nest in 1930s London, with pet newts and layaway-plan furniture and inexpensive cutlery—seems to promise. A clue to its nature is in a note on the copyright page: “The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.” Read More »

Charmed Objects

August 25, 2014 | by


An example of a Phantom Shelf. Credit: EM Photography

People talk about a “Keeper Shelf” for those books they love more than any others. Those which, I suppose, are worth owning in this time when owning a physical book means something more than it once did. (Or, as much as it once did.) For my money, though, there is no better proof of love for a title than not owning it—that is to say, having given it away. Call it the Phantom Shelf.

When my coffers are in a particularly robust state, I will sometimes indulge in the extravagance of replenishing those favorite books I am most inclined to give away. It is always the same few—titles that I need to share with someone like-minded, right now!—and by the same token, those which I always miss when they are gone. Read More »


What We’re Loving: Carson, Comyns, “Carriers”

June 27, 2014 | by


Detail from an illustration by Ellen Weinstein for the summer issue of Nautilus, a science quarterly.

I don’t care if I never read another charming little book about Marcel Proust—not now that I’ve read Anne Carson’s chapbook The Albertine Workout. In fifty-nine numbered paragraphs (or perhaps, exercises), Carson reviews what little we know about Marcel’s mistress, the most-mentioned and yet most elusive character in Proust’s work. Carson’s findings take us deep into the questions of what love and sex mean to Proust, and in our own lives. As the title implies, you can read The Albertine Workout in one sitting, but you will keep feeling it for days. —Lorin Stein

This week, I discovered the Web site for Nautilus, a science quarterly. I have yet to see the print version, but if it’s anything like the online iteration—elegantly and smartly designed, with illustrations that often have the look of early- to mid-twentieth-century artwork—then it’s worth picking up. The content isn’t what you’d necessary expect from a science magazine (I grew up around hardcore publications like Nature and Science): there’s fiction, photography, and art, in addition to pieces on, say, evolution, lepidoptery, architecture, and ecology. I came to the site looking for Lauren Weinstein’s comic strip “Carriers,” which she posted daily this past week. Weinstein is one of the best cartoonists at work, and this five-part story is proof of that. She and her husband are both carriers for cystic fibrosis, and the comic details her struggle in waiting to find out if her unborn child tests positive for the defect. Weinstein’s characteristic humor keeps pathos at bay, and she reflects entertainingly, by way of her terrific serpentine scroll-downs, on the how and why of genetic mutations such as this one. —Nicole Rudick

What do you think when you hear the name Luis Suárez? If you’ve followed the news this week, the phrases “biting lunatic,” “delinquent toddler,” and the “Hannibal Lecter of soccer” might come to mind; “family guy,” “superhuman,” and Uruguay’s “favorite son” haven’t crossed the minds—or lips—of many sports pundits. If you’re curious about understanding Suárez beyond the memes and gifs, Wright Thompson’s profile from late last month explores the Uruguayan player’s childhood and the mystery surrounding an incident when he head-butted a referee and received a red card in a youth match—which may or may not be true. What really stuck with me after finishing the essay wasn’t the story of the referee or the media scrutiny, but the history of Suárez and his wife, Sofia Balbi. After the pair fell in love at fifteen, Sofia moved to Spain with her family. Suárez, at the time working as a street sweeper, knew that he could never afford a plane ticket on his own. Instead, he dedicated himself to soccer until he became good enough to be picked up by a European team. The thing is, his “completely irrational” plan worked—he played first for Groningen, then moved to Ajax and finally to Liverpool, where he now plays. He married Balbi in 2009, and as Thompson writes, “He loves his family, and soccer gave it to him, and guarantees no Suárez will ever again pick up coins while cleaning the streets.” While this romantic tale doesn’t justify his actions last week, it helps explain the desperation you catch sometimes in his eyes when you watch him play, “someone who fights to win, no matter what … He bites because he is clinging to a new life, terrified of being sucked back into the one he left behind.” —Justin Alvarez

Regular readers of the Daily already know how NicoleSadie, and I feel about the neglected English writer Barbara Comyns. Last week it was my turn to read her gothic novel The Vet’s Daughter. It reminded me powerfully of something Donald Antrim told The Paris Review in issue 203: “In building another world through the fantastic I was making a set of rules that had to be observed, a logic that had to be carried through—that I was in some ways obeying the premise of the very opening line.”  —L.S. Read More »


What We’re Loving: Marionettes, Ducks, and Connell

October 25, 2013 | by


I was about to describe Barbara Comyns’s hyper-vivid little novel Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954) as Ivy Compton-Burnett on acid. Then I googled Comyns. Top result: “Barbara Comyns Is Not Anyone on Acid.” Thank you, Emily Gould. But why do so many readers reach for the same cliché? Who Was Changed is trippy from sentence one: “The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.” The real trippiness of the novel—about an English village struck by a mysterious epidemic—lies not just in its eye-rubbingly bright details, but also in its moral sensibility. Flood, fire, madness descend on Comyns’s characters without any of the usual narratorial handwringing, occasionally accompanied by ducks. Comyns is so matter-of-fact as to be surreal, and irresistible. —Lorin Stein

Until recently, I had never read Evan S. Connell; quite the faux pas when you consider that Mrs. Bridge originated as a short story in the Fall 1955 issue of The Paris Review. In this, his first novel, Connell paints a brilliantly handsome and moving portrait of a woman by the name of India Bridge and her unspectacular Kansas City family. We follow the quotidian concerns of a woman plagued by upper-middle-class luxury, and while her obsession with all things bourgeois lends humor to the novel, Connell refuses to pass any sort of judgment on his protagonist. And yet we feel the muted despair of a family divided by perpetual boredom, isolation, and the complete inability to connect. We ache for a mother’s attempt (and failure) to mother, a wife’s desperation to be loved, a woman’s unending struggle with herself. Connell’s prose is decisively, and artfully, quiet; yet the silence he weaves into the novel’s 117 chapters brims with the same fervor and frustration buried in his characters. —Caitlin Youngquist Read More »


What We’re Loving: Captain Kentucky, John Henry, Plagues

December 7, 2012 | by

I picked up Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead when it was first reissued in 2010 but then had to put it aside. I began it again—and finished it—last week, and I’m so glad I did. The novel, originally published in England in 1954, concerns the Willoweed family and their reactions to an outbreak of madness and suicide in their small village. Its humor is by turns black and light, its characters morbid and delightful. An aberrant pastoral as smart as this one could only come from someone with a biography as nutty and wonderful as Comyns’s. A painter by training—she exhibited with the London Group—Comyns married and had two children. To support them, “she dealt in antiques and vintage cars, renovated apartments, and bred poodles. She later lived in Spain for eighteen years.” —Nicole Rudick

Brain still humming with Elaine Blair’s brilliant essay on David Foster Wallace, I read his own long 1990 review of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, now reprinted in Both Flesh and Not. So much has been written about Infinite Jest, but for me these two essays together do the best job of describing what’s at stake in that novel—morally, philosophically, artistically. Among other things, Wallace reveals his debt to Stanley Cavell (a teacher whose influence he later played down) and his raw-nerved engagement with feminist criticism. At times, too, “The Empty Plenum” reads like a sort of preemptive rebuttal to Jonathan Franzen’s elegy in The New Yorker. Wallace may not have been the sage we wished for, but as Blair writes, he “worked a reverse-Promethean theft, taking our humble spoken idioms and delivering them to the gods.” —Lorin Stein

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