Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 14, 2021

The Thinking Reed, by Rebecca West


This week it’s time for the #1936Club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

1st edition hardback cover

For my contribution, I’ve chosen The Thinking Reed, a novel published in 1936 by Rebecca West (1892-1983).  Like The Return of the Soldier (1918, see my review) The Thinking Reed is listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  It’s cited because it sensitively examines the limitations of the life led by many middle-class women during the 1920s and it highlights the disintegration not only of a class but an entire way of life.  The 1936 first edition was published by Hutchinson & Co (London) and 1001 Books says that it remains an important and thoughtful exploration of relationships, class, and marriage for today’s reader.  

Last year I read West’s A Train of Powder (see my review) which is a collection of essays that includes her famous reportage of the Nuremburg Trials, and perhaps it was the seriousness of those essays that suggested to me at first that The Thinking Reed was just a rather shallow story of a woman with ‘man trouble’.  The novel begins with Isabelle, a wealthy American widow, who has come to France to make a new start, and has found herself trapped in a relationship with a disagreeable man, when she would rather be with someone else.  In the process of getting rid of him, she makes herself disagreeable to the object of her intentions, and in her disappointment, she impulsively marries someone else.  But as the story progresses through the fortunes of Isabelle Torrey and her French husband Marc Sallafranque, West satirises the vacuous emptiness of the lavish 1920s lifestyle.  Which, as the end of the novel signals, was about to collapse because of the looming Depression.

I am pleased to say that my first impressions were wrong.

The title is a quotation from the French mathematician, physicist, inventor, philosopher, writer and Catholic theologian, Blaise Pascal, describing the temperament of man and the nature of his existence:

“Man is but a reed, the feeblest one in nature; but he is a thinking reed.”

The third-person limited narration is from Isabelle’s point-of-view, and she does a great deal of thinking indeed.

Her competent, steely mind never rested. She had not troubled with abstract thoughts since she had left the Sorbonne, but she liked to bring everything that happened to her under the clarifying power of the intellect. For she laboured under a fear that was an obsession. By temperament she was cooler than others; if she had not also been far quicker than others in her reactions, she might have been called lymphatic. But just as it sometimes happens that the most temperate people, who have never acquired the habit of drinking alcohol, or even a taste for it, are tormented by the fear that somehow or other they will one day find themselves drunk, so Isabelle perpetually feared that she might be betrayed into an impulsive act that was destructive to such order as reason had imposed on life. Therefore she was for ever running her faculty of analysis over in her mind with the preposterous zeal of an adolescent running a razor over his beardless chin.  (The Thinking Reed. Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, Location 26).

In fact, by chapter 10 Isabelle chastises herself for thinking too much.  These days we would say she is overthinking things.

Anyway…

For this reason she knows that André de Verviers, is not Mr Right.  Although they enjoyed a splendidly passionate attraction to each other for about a week, he is given to impulse, destruction, unreason, even screaming hysteria and he flies into jealous rages.  Since he is one of those men who can’t imagine the possibility that a woman doesn’t want him, nothing she can say fends him off.  (We’ve all met one of those.  In my experience a well-aimed stiletto heel in the offending shin works wonders).  Isabelle, however, eventually reasons that it is her calm and reasonable behaviour that he is attracted to, and therefore the way to discourage him is to embarrass him by creating a public scene, dumping his flowers in the courtyard of his apartment and screeching at him (even though he isn’t there).

Alas, Lawrence Vernon (the one she wants) witnesses this scene, and is disapproving.  Not because of what she did, or the reasons she did it, but because he is embarrassed by it.

After all, he was not quite what she wanted. He had understood and accepted all she had told him; he knew that she was the same sort of person as himself, that she had fallen into the hands of the enemy and had suffered outrageously and had taken what means she could to free herself. But he was not going to tell her that he loved her and wished to marry her because he belonged to the vast order of human beings who cannot be loyal to their beloved if a stranger jeers. (Loc. 701)

So on the rebound, she marries Marc Sallafranque, a wealthy but not very prepossessing industrialist.  Which turns out to be not the mistake the reader might be expecting. Through the twists and turns of the plot, West shows Isabelle’s attraction to men who share her disgust with the decadent life of the rich.

…what are called nice people aren’t nice at all. They’re very nasty. They’ve got an unfair proportion of the world’s goods, and only a few wipe out that unfairness by what they do with their good luck. The rest of them want more, and they don’t care how they get it. They’ll close their eyes to any vice on the part of anybody who’s rich and who has a comfortable house they can go and stay in, or who can give them tips on the Stock Exchange. They are complete parasites, who can’t earn their keep. (Loc 4813)

West is not afraid to sheet home blame where it lies.  She is not surprised that she has been forgiven her unforgivable behaviour by her friend the Russian émigré Princess Luba, because…

…having been able to forgive God for the miseries He had brought on her through the medium of history, [Luba] could scarcely be hard on her fellow creatures, who had so many more excuses for their misbehaviour. (Loc 3761)

So much of this novel is laugh-out-loud funny. After a crisis which leads to depression, Isabelle goes to a French clinic:

She therefore mentioned her depression to the doctor in charge, a short, sensible-looking man with a beard, in the hope that he might suggest a change in her regime. But he answered her chiefly in abstract nouns, of which she had often noticed there were more in general circulation in France than in any other country, and she saw that she had fallen into the hands of one of those modern doctors who have strayed too far from aperients in the direction of the soul. He gave her no helpful prescription, but spent every day a longer period in her room, using more and more abstract nouns, until his conversation seemed to have broken all links with reality. But she grasped that this was not the case the afternoon he led her to the window and pointed out that, even as in the garden below the delicate blossoms of spring had given place to the roses of summer, so youth and its illusions gave place to maturity and its deeper, richer, and, he could swear, more delicious experiences. His voice throbbed, and she recalled with embarrassment that, whereas in England and America a beard usually means that its owner would rather be considered venerable than virile, on the continent of Europe it often means that its owner makes a special claim to virility. (Loc.3816)

She does no better with a German doctor who enthuses about the medicinal qualities of mountains:

 She found herself quivering with rage. What right had he to feel that he was doing anything that ought to be done, taking notice of anything that ought to be noticed, when he was merely indicating that, in the same world where she and a great many unhappy people found themselves, there was also a mountain? In point of fact, the Hüpfenstrudelalp had probably not looked down on any great amount of human emotion, for the valley beneath, being infertile and poor in timber, had hardly been settled till the English began mountaineering in the middle of the nineteenth century. It had probably been witnessing joy and sorrow for about as long as the local railway station. (Loc.3899)

Isabelle went early to the doctor’s room, to tell him that she was leaving that night, and when he objected, she reminded him that he had promised her that the mountains would give her peace, and firmly assured him that they had. She perceived at once that she had been right in supposing this to be a proposition which he would not find in his heart to dispute, any more than the French doctors had found themselves able to frustrate her intention of returning to a lover; but he was unable to disguise a certain amount of regret that the mountains had acted quite so promptly on one of his wealthiest patients. (Loc 3980)

West’s wit ranges far and wide, unbothered by contemporary reluctance to assign national characteristics:

Marc lit a cigar and began one of those conversations with the wine-waiter which Frenchmen enjoy as Englishmen enjoy talking about cricket. Nothing is learned thereby. Both parties know before they begin that 1914 and 1917 were good for red Bordeaux and nothing remarkable for white, but 1920 was good for both, and that the last time Harrow beat Eton was in 1908. It is a refined and allusive way of satisfying the same need that is met by chewing gum, and it does no harm. (Loc 4297)

Nor does West refrain from droll allusions to sex!

She would not be afraid of those embraces which had so often reminded her, as she lay submerged in their tossing darkness, of the backgrounds of Delacroix’s vaster pictures, of crimson curtains hanging from huge marble pillars whose capitals were lost in rich opacity, of stacked lances and jewelled and hieratic helmets, of immense fruits and iridescent serpents. (Loc 4238)

But she is occasionally romantic too:

“Well,” he said, “I thought we might go down into the town and choose a present for you, just to mark your homecoming. Something from Carrier’s, I thought.”

“Oh, my darling, how lovely!” cried Isabelle. “You know how greedy I am, and it is so pleasant to come back to all those town-things after all that milk and white enamel in the clinics.” She said to herself, “It is not going to be quite so easy to forget, after all.” Then she cried out, alarmed in case she had betrayed her thought, “But why are you looking so miserable, Marc? What has suddenly come into your head?”

“Only that I have done my best, and it is not good enough,” he said.

“What do you mean? It is a charming idea, and I am delighted.”

“No, that is not the point,” he said. “The point is that what I am offering you costs only money, and I have plenty of that. Whatever you choose, I will hardly feel it. I wish I could give you something that meant I must scrape and save and go without sleep to pay for it. That would be a real present. But that’s the one thing I can’t afford to give you.”  (Loc 4064)

Romance between a husband and wife… and the satisfactions of marriage!  The Thinking Reed turned out to be much more than I had thought it would be.
(PS Some readers may remember that Australian polymath and former politician Barry Jones published his autobiography A Thinking Reed some years ago.  Alas, it’s still on the NF-TBR, where it’s been since he autographed it for me at the Woodend Winter Arts Festival in 2006. I’ll get to it one day, though I doubt it will be as wickedly funny as Rebecca West’s.)

Author: Rebecca West
Title: The Thinking Reed
Publisher: Open Road Media, 2010, first published 1936
ASN: B00BBPW8DU
Purchased from Amazon for the Kindle.

Image credits:

1st edition hardback cover: The Thinking Reed by Rebecca – Pseud. Of Cicily Andrews WEST – First Edition – 1936 – from Alphabet Bookshop (ABAC/ILAB (SKU: 8607) (biblio.com)


Responses

  1. I knew I’d read this but I couldn’t remember a thing about it – you’ve brought it back to me Lisa! You’ve reminded me how much I enjoyed it, and like you I wasn’t sure at the outset. Isabelle could easily be so unsympathetic but I found her and Marc’s relationship quite touching in the end.

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  2. Lovely review – this was on my very long shortlist, but didn’t make it! I was not expecting it to be funny – not a word I associate with the other West novels I’ve read – so that has definitely encouraged me to try it.

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    • Quite so. But I found myself laughing out loud!

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  3. Thanks, I didn’t know about this book! Maybe you will discover a 1936 in my post as well: https://wordsandpeace.com/2021/04/06/my-top-6-books-for-the-1936-club/

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL I keep adding to my TBR every time I look at a list like yours:)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have read a few Rebecca West novels, though not this one. It really sounds excellent.

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    • That’s what so brilliant about these clubs: we discover all sorts of treasures lurking in readers’ cupboards…

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  5. Another author I’ve meant to read for ages. Somehow she never rises to the top of the list!

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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    • Alas, we’ve all got authors like that, whose books we mean to read, it’s just that….

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  6. I love the quotes, especially the one about the wine list.

    For me, “reed” is related to Pascal, as the “thinking reed” but also to Lafontaine, the fable Le chêne et le roseau. The more resilient between the oak and the reed isn’t the one you imagine.

    If Isabelle is so against “the decadent life of the rich”, she can join Gordon from Keep the Aspidistra Flying in his fight against the money-god. She’ll soon reconcile herself with the idea of living the decadent life of the rich. :-)

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    • Ha ha, I gather you’re not having any fun with Orwell!

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      • Let’s say that Gordon got on my nerves.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I knew a little about West, from Lodge’s ‘biography’ of HG Wells maybe, but it never occurred to me to read her. Maybe I should make a start.

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    • Oh yes, do, I suggest you start with A Train of Powder because you like works that are written contemporaneously with events.

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  8. […] ANZ Lit Lovers […]

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  9. Oh wonderful review Lisa! I’m so glad this turned out to be better than you expected, particularly as it’s nestling on my shelves with too many unread Wests. Those quotes are great and if the rest of the book lives up to them (humour and all) then it’s going to be a great read. Fab choice for 1936!

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    • I think it’s a wonderful thing to have unread Wests on the shelf. I have just three, and I’m rationing myself so that I don’t ‘use them up’ all at once.
      1936 is such an interesting year: serious thinkers were making sense of the Depression, fascism was on the rise, and the drums of war were beating. And then there was modernism in art, music and literature!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I think I must read this!! And those essays–thank you!

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    • I must say, I read The Return of the Soldier and thought it was wise and profound, but it was the essays that made me realise that West was something really special. To be able to process what was happening in those Nuremburg Trials, when it was all so raw and shocking she could almost smell the genocide in the room—and she was only a young woman—was really quite extraordinary. I can’t think of any journalist today who is her equal in insight.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I love your comment to Karen, just a few lines above, saying that you would love to have more Wests unread on your shelf. Like Karen, I’ve long lamented my collection, which seems to taunt me from the other side of the room. No matter how often I rearrange the VMC shelves, West is always on the outer row (yes, they’re double-stacked, space is at a premium) wagging her finger and saying that I should read her books, even though the only one I’ve actually read is RotS, her first. And this IS the second of hers I’ll have read, encouraged by your reporting of laughing often, even though I had begun late for the event (well, on Monday, but that will turn out to be late).

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    • I hope you don’t mind, then, since humour is so very important to us all right now, that there is, as you will see, a plot point that may bring tears to your eyes.

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      • Thank you for the warning. I should have guessed that she would not shy away from the painful bits. Anyway, the best stories do have something of everything, like life. But, as you say, right now it’s easy to get overwhelmed by darkness, so a heads-up is appreciated.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Hmmm … this looks like one of your posts that I commented on on my device but that didn’t make it through. I have a horrible feeling that happens more than I think. I remember commenting on this because I said that I also have The thinking reed on my TBR! Barry Jones spoke at my son’s graduation, around the time that the book came out. I was inspired but, here I am, well over a decade later, and not having read it.

    Oh, and West’s book sounds like a great choice for the 1936 club!

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    • I took a quick look at my spam folder to see if your comment was there but I couldn’t see anything, but I still suspect that’s the problem.
      By device, do you mean your phone? Your tech guru will know more than me, but if it has a different IP address to whatever you usually use and if you’ve used it to comment a lot on different blogs, Akismet may have identified that IP address as a spammer.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes phone or iPad. I use one or other to check blogs in the morning so I do maybe 20% of my commenting from them. You are probably right about IP addresses but it seems erratic.

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        • It could be worthwhile contacting WP help to see what the problem is…

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          • I’d have to have documented the cases to give them real info. The thing is I don’t know it hasn’t worked until some time later when I go to the blog again, and find it’s not there. The other day it just refused to let me comment on a WP blog I comment on a lot, but this time it told me. I tried from the WP app and then from the browser on my iPad. Same refusal. I then went to my laptop and no problem. I think the issue is so many different platforms, so many different WP configurations etc etc. I just don’t have the energy to remember and document accurately what happened where!

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