terça-feira, 22 de abril de 2014
Love, Nina, by Nina Stibbe
Literary Lives Laid Bare by the Nanny
I do judge books by their covers, sometimes, and the one on “Love, Nina” made me place it in the “probably not” pile. Its bright watercolor artwork (kids, bicycle, vaguely European street scene) suggests a book that’s trying too hard, in the Peter Mayle vein, to be adorable. The subtitle, “A Nanny Writes Home,” doesn’t dispel this impression.
Here, you think, is a book that wants to throttle you with its charm, as if intended to appeal to the owners of bookstores that mostly stock potpourri, clip-on reading lamps and complicated bookmarks.
Mea maxima culpa. It turns out that “Love, Nina” is indeed charming, but only in the best ways. It’s observant, funny, terse, at times a bit rude. It affords a glimpse into a rarefied London social and literary milieu. It’s an “Upstairs, Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey” of sorts, set not in a manor house but in the genteel bohemian home of Mary-Kay Wilmers, the longtime editor of The London Review of Books.
Nina Stibbe was 20 in 1982, when she was hired by Ms. Wilmers to be the nanny to her young sons, Will and Sam. Ms. Wilmers was a single mother; her sons were the product of her marriage to the film director Stephen Frears, which had ended in divorce.
Ms. Stibbe moved to London from Leicestershire to take the position. She missed her sister, Victoria, who worked in a nursing home. So the two began exchanging letters. The author’s side of this correspondence, written from 1982 to 1987, makes up the entirety of “Love, Nina.”
These letters are winning from the start. Ms. Stibbe describes being a nanny as “not like a job really, just like living in someone else’s life.” She quickly realizes that she’s come to live with one of those families whose daily life has a bit of unfussy magic in it.
The Wilmers house is art-filled. Everyone is amusing and curses a lot. Evenings are spent flipping through dictionaries and arguing about, for example, whether “brim” is a better word than “flank” and “how to offend — in German and English.” This is the kind of book in which a pair of cheap curtains are likely to be described as “very ‘Mike Leigh.’ ”
Neighbors and friends are constantly dropping by, notably Alan Bennett, the playwright and London Review diarist, who seems to arrive every other night for dinner, and Claire Tomalin, the biographer and journalist.
Ms. Stibbe was not much of a cook when she arrived in London. Many of the best bits in her letters detail her running battles with Mr. Bennett, “A B” in this volume, over how best to prepare a variety of dishes. The author often gives us verbatim dialogue, such as:
A B: Very nice, but you don’t really want tinned tomatoes in a beef stew.
ME: It’s a Hunter’s Stew.
A B: You don’t want tinned tomatoes in it, whoever’s it is.
Ms. Wilmers, “M K” here, seems like a somewhat warmer version of Miranda Priestly, the imperious magazine editor in “The Devil Wears Prada.” She’s skinny; she smokes; she brings her floppy-haired boyfriends around; she stares at the ceiling when she wants to let you know you’re being an idiot.
She loathes platitudes. Ms. Stibbe says, “I remember once, in 1982, asking M K if she’d had a nice weekend and I could see it didn’t go down well so never asked again.” When a friend presents Ms. Wilmers with wind chimes said to ward off bad spirits, she doesn’t want them, Ms. Stibbe says, because “(a) she doesn’t like tinkling noises and (b) she’s not 100 percent anti bad spirits.”
Some of the better moments in this epistolary memoir involve discussions of sex, most of which are more or less unprintable here. When Ms. Stibbe catches Will and Sam watching a bit of porn on video, even its title is oddly winsome: “Best Bit of Crumpet Out of Denmark.”
Mostly, though, we simply like being in Ms. Stibbe’s company. She comes to realize why so many mothers are “cold and annoyed” — it’s from walking around in supermarkets. She won’t do yoga because “I might not do so well as a relaxed person.”
There’s an element of Shaw’s “Pygmalion” in the way she is slowly indoctrinated into the family’s upper-middle-class mores. When she arrives, she has never heard the word syllabus. Soon she is studying for her college entrance exams.
At the library, she gets a “recording of a bloke reading Chaucer in the Old English.” This is so hard on her ears that she writes, “Nearly wet myself listening.” She declares, “M K says the secret is to get it (Chaucer) — you don’t have to like it.”
I enjoyed her take on fiction over here in the States: “When you read American fiction you get to accept all sorts of names that were unthinkable before. Dick, Frank, Milo, Chuck, Micky, Dick, Biff, Willie, Gullie, Happy, Augie, Fritz, Artie, Woody, Rocky, Bill.” (This bit is linked to her observation that most men’s names sound like penises or toilets or worse.)
We like Ms. Stibbe more for not being Mary Poppins. She dents Ms. Wilmers’s car and neglects to tell her about it. She dodges fares on the tube. She pushes Sam in the pool when he won’t go in. Ms. Wilmers constantly says things to her like, “How can we ever believe a word you say?”
The pleasures in “Love, Nina” are modest but very real. It’s a book that may put readers in mind of Helene Hanff’s “84, Charing Cross Road” (1970), that volume of discursive correspondence between a book lover in New York and the staff of an antiquarian bookshop in London.
It’s a book that makes you wish Ms. Wilmers would write a proper memoir, one that might detail the many things not mentioned here: her upbringing in a cosmopolitan, itinerant Jewish family; her time at Oxford along with Mr. Bennett; her young adulthood in London in the Swinging 1960s and ’70s; the way she has reportedly pumped millions of dollars from her family trust into keeping The London Review afloat.
It seems appropriate to end a review of this brisk book with a few of Ms. Wilmers’s words. When an acquaintance — here called Brainbox — drops by the house unexpectedly, the moment is captured this way:
Brainbox: Hello, Mary-Kay!
M K: Oh, right.
BB: Can’t stay long.
M K: Good.
A Nanny Writes Home
By Nina Stibbe
320 pages. Little, Brown and Company. $25.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 17:33