Posts Tagged ‘Lauren Groff’

‘Matrix’ by Lauren Groff – Marie de France, A Strong Visionary Woman

 

‘Matrix’ by Lauren Groff (2021) – 257 pages

 

And now for something completely different.

Can Lauren Groff make a novel about an abbey of nuns in 12th century England that is moving and interesting to modern readers? Well, she succeeded with this not-so-modern reader.

I suppose ‘Matrix’ could be considered historical fiction, but virtually nothing is known of the life of Marie de France, so those annoying facts do not get in the way of a good story. The 12th century was a time in English history that I was mostly unfamiliar with, so I had the added pleasure of researching this era.

Geoffrey, Duke of Anjou

In ‘Matrix’, Marie de France is a bastardess, the product of a rape by her father Geoffrey who is the Duke of Anjou and also the progenitor of the Plantagenet royal family. Thus she is the half-sister of King Henry II and sister-in-law to his wife Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

After her mother has already died and while Marie is still a teenager she is cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine who considers Marie too big and rough-hewn and coarse for royal life. She is sent to an impoverished abbey to be its prioress.

In the night, a voice whispers that she cannot do this, she is but an uncouth girl belonging nowhere, beloved by no one, merely seventeen, not even seventeen, not even a real nun yet, and her habit is shamefully patched in different-colored wool, and her face holds no beauty, and her arms are merely woman’s arms. How dare she.”

But Marie is a strong thoughtful woman. As at first prioress and then as abbess, Marie must contend with many adversaries to the abbey including nearby wealthy landowners, delinquent renters, gangs of ruffians and even the male Church hierarchy as well as nature itself with storms and droughts. She kicks ass, she’s tough and big and forceful. She assigns each woman in the abbey to a role for which they are suited. Soon the underfed women in the abbey are well-fed and the abbey prospers.

With their heads bent over their books like this, their words palely shining, she understands that the abbey is a beehive, all her good bees working together in humility and devotion. This life is beautiful. This life with her nuns is full of grace. Marie sends a prayer to the Virgin in gratitude.”

Eleanor of Aquitaine

As depicted in ‘Matrix’, the life of Marie de France is heroic, but Marie has someone who is her own hero. Despite having sent her off to be the prioress, her sister-in-law Eleanor of Aquitaine is Marie’s hero. I researched the life of Eleanor, and it is indeed the stuff of legend. Eleanor was the most powerful woman and perhaps the most powerful person in 12th century Europe. She was Queen of France, married to Louis VII, for 15 years from 1137 to 1152. Then she had that marriage annulled due to consanguinity and married Henry II, King of Angevin (large parts of England, France, and Wales). where she was Queen for 35 years from 1154 to 1189. She led armies several times in her life and was one of the leaders of the Second Crusade. She was imprisoned by her husband Henry II for 16 years from 1173 to 1189 for supporting the revolt of her eldest son who later became Richard I (Richard the Lionhearted). While Richard went off to fight in the Third Crusade, Eleanor effectively ruled Angevin.

Meanwhile, back at the abbey, decades go by, and there are new threats to the abbey’s existence. Marie has visions from the Virgin Mary, and she has the nuns build a labyrinth to protect the abbey and then a dam to ensure the abbey has plenty of water for the animals and all. She names one of the old nuns, Swan-neck, to be the mistress of the lepers:

Swan-Neck smiles. Alas, she says, of course she is no saint. Only an old woman with pity in her heart. A rather common form of goodness. Marie tells her gently, so as to take away the sting, that such goodness can seem common only to those who see holiness in places where it is not.”

Here we have an eloquent and persuasive depiction of a successful society composed entirely of women. On one of her trips to London, as she is leaving, Marie reflects “she cannot take this seething city into her anymore, being in the proximity of so many of the far worser sex is filling her with aggression and fret. She thinks she is taking evil into her body with every breath.”

About all we know for sure with the current pandemic is that we are not so far removed from the Middle Ages as we thought we were.

Is God indeed a woman? We should be so lucky.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

 

‘Florida’ by Lauren Groff – If It’s not the Alligators and Snakes, It’s the Suffocating Heat

 

‘Florida’ by Lauren Groff    (2018) – 275 pages

The Florida of this new collection of stories by Lauren Groff is not a very likable place. Groff’s Florida is not the beachfront coastal Florida but the swampy central deep-country Florida of alligators, snakes, and lots of insects. The setting is typical of Gainesville, Florida where Groff currently lives. This is the Florida of makeshift boats in stagnant ponds and “frenzied flora and fauna”. And then there is the oppressive sweltering heat and the quite frequent hurricanes. Even an occasional panther and a lot of bad smells. And the people are nearly as bad as the climate.

Even when the main character somehow escapes Florida to Brazil in ‘Salvador’ and France in ‘Yport’, things don’t get any better in these stories.

In some of the stories the main characters go unnamed. In the story ‘Above and Below’, the main character is referred to always as either ‘she’ or ‘the girl’. In the Guy de Maupassant story ‘Yport’ the main characters are only ever called ‘the mother’ or ‘the older boy’ or ‘the little boy’. This lack of names distanced me from the stories. One of the many problems for me with this collection is its lack of immediacy or charm.

‘Above and Below’ is about a young woman who voluntarily gave up the academic life and descended into the life of the homeless. However it seemed more like she passively sleepwalked into the life of a homeless poor person and it was not a spirited descent. I wearied of this story.

I suspect that Lauren Groff is a writer more suited for the novel rather than the short story. Her stories here are too cluttered and vague for this short form, and we readers lose interest.

In too many of the stories the main character, usually a woman, seems world weary. She is stuck entertaining the kids while any man is off somewhere else. In ‘Yport’ our nameless heroine is in France with her two nameless kids to further study the famous French writer Guy de Maupassant for a potential book about him. She has already discovered that Guy de Maupassant was a total creep, and most of his literary work besides the famous stories is not very good. This could potentially have been a fascinating story about how our literary heroes can turn out to be lousy human beings. Instead the story is mostly about the morose mother listlessly entertaining her children in various French places. Reading about someone who is so dispirited and tired eventually becomes tiresome itself.

I searched the stories in ‘Florida’ in vain for even one spark of the vivacity of Lauren Groff’s ‘Fate and Furies’ which made that novel such a delight. (‘Fates and Furies’ was my favorite fiction read of 2015.)

 

 

Grade : C

‘Fates and Furies’ by Lauren Groff – “A Pathological Truth-Teller”

‘Fates and Furies’ by Lauren Groff    (2015)  –  390 pages

Fates-and-Furies-Cover-Image

Even the title of Lauren Groff’s tremendous new novel, ‘Fates and Furies’, indicates that it is mythic, not realistic.  That’s OK since realism in fiction has pretty much run its course over the last few decades although there is a glut of new realistic novels coming out every month.  We all know that the real is a boring dead end; just watch reality television.

In Greek mythology, both the Fates and the Furies were women.  The Fates are a group of women, usually three, who weave the tapestry which determines the lives of men.  The Furies on the other hand are the infernal goddesses, the angry ones, who punish wrongdoers on Earth as well as the damned in Hell.

The novel ‘Fates and Furies’ is the story of a married couple, Lotto and Mathilde.  The first half of the novel, ‘Fates’, is mainly Lotto’s story.   Mathilde, the love of Lotto’s life, is there more as a helpmate than anything else.  We learn very little about her history in the ‘Fates’ section of the novel.

“Paradox of marriage: You can never know someone entirely; you do know someone entirely.”   

However a woman does also have a history.  The ‘Furies’ section of the novel is mainly Mathilde’s story, and what a story it is.

‘Fates and Furies’ is a performance.  As well as one of the main characters [Lotto] being an actor / playwright, the novel is filled with artifice ranging from the Greek myths and tragedies to Shakespeare.  When today so much of literature is realistic and naturalistic to the point of plainness, Lauren Groff strives for something bigger and brighter, more mythic than that, and succeeds.  Also a manic energy, a liveliness, and an inventiveness infuse her writing.  ‘Fate and Furies’ was a delight for me.

The first name Groff mentions in the acknowledgements to ‘Fates and Furies’ is Anne Carson, a writer I much admire who translated the trilogy of ancient Greek tragedies in the Oresteia by Aeschylus and who often incorporates mythology into her poems and other work.

While I was reading ‘Fates and Furies’ I kept thinking about another author, the great Canadian novelist Robertson Davies whose Deptford Trilogy [‘Fifth Business’, ‘The Manticore’, ‘World of Wonders’] is not to be missed by anyone who appreciates fine literature.  Robertson Davies was another writer who put a lot of Greek myth, Shakespeare, and theatre in his novels.

After completing ‘Fates and Furies’, I decided to google ‘Lauren Groff   Robertson Davies’ to see if there was any connection between the two of them.  I came up with only one connection between the two authors.  In an article in the New Yorker from 2011, Lauren Groff discusses what she was going to read that summer:

“Half of my collection is pretty random, books that I’ve picked up at the local library sale (an extensive collection of Barbara Pym and Robertson Davies, despite the fact I’ve never read a word by either writer.)”    

After noticing the similarities between ‘Fates and Furies’ and Robertson Davies’ fiction, I strongly expect that Groff has read Davies since 2011.

‘Fates and Furies’ is a novel that goes into my “Don’t Miss” category.

 

Grade:    A   

 

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