So little time – so the saying goes, unless you gain time by flying a lot and spending happy hours holding the sleeping Sweet Baby! After Book III of Knausgaard I texted Mrs. Hughes and asked for a quick recommendation – she suggested “Euphoria” by Lily King.
Reading Knausgaard is a little like enduring some physical ordeal. To turn from Scandinavian cold and gloom to King’s novel transports by Dickinson’s frigate to lands away – a good story replete with rituals, mysteries, and passion in a setting full of tropical heat.
In the novel King imagines the life of the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead during a time in the 1930s when she did field work with her first husband, and met the man who became her second. King says she “borrowed from the lives and experience of three people [Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson] but told a different story.”
I have only the barest knowledge of Margaret Mead, so could enjoy the protagonist Nell as her own person without wondering if the depiction of her and the others held true. I thoroughly enjoyed “Euphoria” – the intellectual and romantic heart at the center of it, the characters, the cultural investigation, the excitement of collaboration, and the pain of competition among peers.
Priya Parmar’s “Vanessa and Her Sister” is another book bringing real people to fictional life. It’s an amazing book about the much more familiar (to me) lives of Vanessa Bell and her sister, Virginia Woolf. Vanessa is the center of this book, though through imagined postcards, letters, diaries, and narrative, we hear the voices of other Bloomsbury characters – and much about a young Virginia.
Vanessa was the older sister in the Stephens family of four children – the one who stepped up when first their mother died, then their father, then their brother Thoby. The one who would be painter to Virginia’s writer.
In my years of unabashed Bloomsbury reading I could never read enough about Vanessa – she kept no diary, but she wrote letters (often taken up with running a house and caring for a family, and always expressing longing to be in her studio). Vanessa seemed such a whole and admirable person to me – serious about her work as a painter, competent, reserved, beautiful, an unquestioningly loving and devoted mother, and sufferer of a tragedy and a long and unrequited love.
I began Parmar’s book with trepidation, not sure I wanted someone telling me what Vanessa thought. But Parmar has executed this imaginative leap with such excellence.
I’m grateful for these books – and for time!