At last I am back with The Persephone Book of Short Stories and back too with my reading-a-story-from-each-end alternately method, the plan being that time will converge in on itself and eventually I will meet myself in the middle. The stories are arranged by date of publication so the time gap has shrunk from the original seventy-seven years when I started to a mere ten years now, 1937-1947, and with ten stories left to read the similarities of subject matter are becoming much more striking given the world events in that period.
I have said before how much I am loving this volume and would like a new one every year (please Persephone) and I am now quite pleased with myself for not gorging on it in two days, because so much thinking and revelation would have been lost. Witness the serendipitous way that reading connects with itself as I picked the book up again only to find that the next story to read (from the front end) happened to be The Exile by Betty Miller (1935). This just as I was reading The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal.
I am new to Betty Miller but on the strength of this one story I will definitely read more. I have
a copy of Farewell Leicester Square, and also the lovely old Virago edition of On
the Side of Angels with that fabulous cover. I did know that Betty Miller was the mother of Jonathan Miller but no more, so as always the Persephone website supplies the details...
'...was born in Ireland to a Lithuanian businessman and a Swedish teacher whose (Polish) family was distantly related to the philosopher Henri Bergson. She went to school in London and did a diploma in journalism at University College before publishing the first of her seven novels. In 1933 she married the psychiatrist Emanuel Miller (1892-1970)..'
It all sounds like ample experience to have grown up in the midst of (much like Resi in The Exiles Return) plenty to offer insights into the life of an exile there, and it was fascinating to read this story alongside Elisabeth de Waal's book to further understand the impact of the exile on those around them. There is much discomfort expressed in The Exiles Return which Betty Miller's story elaborates on with great insight.
Irina, the Russian emigree, works as a maid in 'this semi-suburban, semi-countrified village' but is mysteriously being passed around from one home to the next...
'Irina is not the ordinary type of servant. Mrs Clark told me on the 'phone that she was really a very cultured person.'
'Then why's she doing this sort of work?'
'She's an emigre, dear. The revolution in Russia, you know. Why, in Paris there are grand-duchesses who are waitresses and chambermaids.'
An excellent cook, 'adept and thorough at the housework'. willing and very hard working, there seems no apparent reason why once captured this 'real treasure' should not be kept at all costs.
But no one has bargained for the impact of the emigre psyche on those around them...
'There was in their midst someone to whom life meant really nothing: measuring themselves, their joys, their pleasures, ambitions against that awoke on each of them something curiously restive, something that undermined with alarming ease all their ordinary standard of values.'
The guilt at having so much ...'unthinking fleshly profligacy,' when someone else has lost everything and now has so little...
The seeming 'plenty' and the shallowness of the lives that Irina serves discreetly yet very obviously delineated to the reader...
'...prosperous of paunch beneath his waistcoat,'
'..her perfume tantalised the air...'
And then the willing revelation about her husband's brutal demise rapidly dispelling any aura of mystery surrounding Irina's past and invoking even more discomfort in those around her.
Slowly but surely the unease pervades....
'What sort of life are we living...what meaning, what spiritual value...just suffocating in day-to-day material things...doping ourselves comfortably, pretending we'll never die.'
It is clear that Irina is a painful reminder of so much that most would prefer to leave below the surface, and whilst the exile has developed survival and coping strategies borne out of extreme necessity, it is clear that those she serves can only fall back on the securities of home and castle, the exact same thing the exile has lost.
Written in 1935 how prescient this story and that fragility is, given that we know with hindsight that every man's castle is about be threatened beyond anything he could ever have imagined. But the story still feels of relevance now. Those who have been exiled will understand, those of us who may not have been may well be able indentify with the discomfort as we watch a news bulletin these days.
Ultimately Irina is too much of a painful reminder of how quickly everything can be taken away and the answer to that is ...well, I won't spoil it, but if you read either one of these alone, Elisabeth de Waal's The Exiles Return, or Betty Miller's The Exile, definitely seek out the other.