Monica Stirling's Sigh for a Strange Land

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Tuesday, 07 July 2009

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Monica Stirling's Sigh for a Strange Land

It smells old, that biting smell a book gets when it has passed the age of decades and approaches the age of centuries. By its copyright, it half a century old. By its circulation card, it has never been checked out. When I checked it out, it was not in the digital system, either. Implying this book has set on the shelf for the better part of half a century, unused. Only moved when room was needed elsewhere.

There is no dust-jacket, no author bio, no synopsis. It is small, that 5x7 or so size. A bit bigger than an index card, bigger than a mass-market paperback by about half-an-inch either way. Blue cover of no particular quality, stitching is cheap, and maybe only a couple of readings more from giving out. Considering the lack of indication that this book was ever read much, this says bad things about the Atlantic Monthly imprint of Little, Brown. Dedication is to Countess Marie Orlov, née Kamichansky. Who she is, I do not know. The name brings, strangely, the sense that this was someone born into leisure, died unto poverty.

It begins with a series of quotes, the best of these early ones is by George Orwell, from his "Hunting for Elephants". To paraphrase, we consider to be human to be a life worth living, but part of us always stands aghast at existence. Perhaps the best quote in the entire book, things that Stirling quotes, I mean, is Simone Weil's quote out of "La Personne et la Sacré" used to open Part III: "At the bottom of the heart of every human being...there is something that goes on indominantly expecting...that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being..." The best quote in the text itself is to "Never...tell a lie, but [do]...not tell everyone the truth." Followed, perhaps by "I shall one day re-enter the strange land of love, where tomorrow is not always a threatening word." And, for it's simplicity, the quote from Der Rosenkavalier as given in Chapter 10: "Leicht muss man sein". Light must we be...

The novel is a short one, 188 pages, and chronicles at its core a few days in the life of Resi, a young girl from a Eastern European country driven from a nameless country into a nameless country. The latter is much like, if not, Italy (some quotes suggest such, though some suggest otherwise) and the former is much like Hungary. The revolt that is the catalyst to the remainder of the novel's action would therefor be the 1956 uprising against the Stalinist regime. Stirling, though, goes through some trouble to not indentify the countries nor the events by name, and some some respect must be given to her wishes. As sudden political refugees, Resi and her aunt, Natasha, as well as a long-time lover of her aunt—Boris—and a classmate—Landislau—come to some town where they are barely wanted and spend their time talking about the history and the past. The personal history and past, mind you, of Natasha and Boris and Resi's parents, not the political history and past that has led to this event.

And here we have the two main contrasts of the novel. The first is the contrast of the personal passion, the desire to do what is right and get caught up in the power of youth; contrasted to the passion of the mob. One group violently overthrows another "for the future" and ceases to be activist and instead becomes monster. Later, the new batch of activisits may oppose their own monsters, and become monsters. Bringing fruition to Nietzsche: "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." The other contrast is that of the "future". Resi rails about the pain caused by those who damn the present to "fight for the future" while struggling with her more immediate questions of what should she do next? Hence the quote above about the "strange land of love".

Stirling is great at digging into her characters enough to spawn quotable bits here or there, but somewhat misses the mark when it comes to bringing the actual events to life. As the rich, British (sort of, actually of mixed heritage) family shows up like Deus ex machina and saves the day and proves that kind spirits exist and love the opera; the question about the futility of holding on to the rich past that Aunt Natasha has lived while one dies in a refugee camp are pushed aside by the notion that maybe rich people are not so evil after-all. It is something of a disengenius ploy, the radical fighting for the peasant becomes a monster while the upper class becomes infused with kindness, but it at least provides enough of a contrast and context as to be thought-provoking. One might better enjoy the novel by separating the class suggetions out and putting it to the side.

The best portions are the first part, the first part of the second part, the chapters about the opera, and the last chapter. The rest are more forgettable, but the short book reads compulsively and a couple of hours later it will be done. It intrigued me, and I must say that enjoyed it, though the light tone it eventually develops, whether or not it maintains I will leave up to further readers, was a surprise and not altogether a welcome one.

I find it interesting to see that Monica Stirling is practically an unknown. She would have been forty at the time this was published (according to the copyright page) and outside of that and a list of other books she had written, the better part of ten, there is very little about her. A search for the novel online brought up some used copies, the fact that only a small number of libraries in the country have a copy, and a short review (which I have excerpted below, along with a couple of others dug up through more academic channels). Searching for books under her name, she seems to have only written a few more after this one, though the last is as late as 1979 (it is sometimes hard to separate reprints from original prints, but it looks as though she has either three or four books post-Sigh).

Will a dust-jacket toting copy have an author-bio? Will an older copy of newspapers carry some information about her? I do not know. Here, however, is an excerpt from Time's March 2, 1959 issue: "Sigh for a Strange Land is an intermittently successful attempt to share imaginatively what its British author...has not suffered—the life of a refugee...Cluttered with romantic folderol, Sigh nonetheless says something about man's inhumanity to man and fleetingly embodies the Simone Weil text it takes for its theme..." and another from the February 26, 1959 issue of the Christian Science Monitor: "The fears mentioned never seem true, and that no sense of the compulsions of suffering, either negative or positive, is evident. Perhaps the simplest critical comment is to say that the means and the end are disparate in this book. This is a pity, for there is much loving-kindness recorded here." Perhaps it is best summed up by January 1, 1959 issue of the Library Journal: "An unexpectedly light and pleasant story on a grim theme... This slight story is most implausibly contrived so that gentleness and youth may dispel the shades of death and politics, but it is ingratiating enough so that the contrivance may be forgiven. Recommended for general purchase."

Si Vales, Valeo


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