Thursday, 4 February 2010

A Game of Hide and Seek

I promised a Virago Modern Classic, and a Virago Modern Classic I will deliver. I've already read a couple Elizabeth Taylor novels, Angel and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (click on the titles if you fancy reading my thoughts on them, but to summarise - they're very good) and Nicola Beauman's biography of Elizabeth Taylor, but there's plenty of way to go - and when my supervisor told me I should take a look at A Game of Hide and Seek, how could I resist?

The 'game' in question is both literal and metaphorical. The novel opens with Harriet and Vesey (query: is this actually a name?) playing a game of hide-and-seek - and this game follows them throughout the rest of their lives... they chase each other, misunderstanding each other's emotions and failing to say the right thing at the right times, and often saying the wrong thing. Vesey goes to Oxford; Harriet remains behind - and marries somebody else. Later, of course, Vesey reappears - and the same old feelings reappear as well.

I didn't really want to write out the plot of A Game of Hide and Seek because, like so many of the best novels, the plot isn't that important. A thousand novelists have written novels with this plot (for another good one, see EM Delafield's Late and Soon) and explored the emotions that such a recrudescence can have. But few of them will have Elizabeth Taylor's talent.

Confession time: I read the first half of this on the bus to and from London, and wasn't very excited about it. I was tired, I had a headache, I was reading the words but not really getting anything out of it. It was only when I returned, busless, to my reading that I understood what an exceptionally well written novel A Game of Hide and Seek was. Taylor excels at the metaphor which is unusual and yet exactly conveys an image. One of my favourites was this:
Harriet tried to put on a polite and considering look. She loved the music, but could not allow herself to enjoy it among strangers. Sunk too far back in her too large chair, she felt helpless, like a beetle turned on its back; and as if she could never rise again, nor find the right phrases of appreciation.

How many authors would think of that image, of a beetle turned on its back? And yet it works so very well. That is, to my mind, what sets Taylor apart from other authors - and makes it hard to explain exactly why - that she writes the sort of novel that many could write, but concentrates so much on avoiding cliche and finding new life in her characters, that she is on another level. Another example? It's always difficult to 'show' good writing, isn't it? But this is a paragraph I highlighted as being representative - the sort of writing which one has to read slowly, to enjoy it fully.
The fog lay close to the windows. The train seemed to be grovelling its way towards London, but the banks on either side were obscured. Harriet wondered if they were passing open fields or the backs of factories, and she cleaned a space on the window with her glove, but all she could see reflected were her own frightened eyes.
You can just tell that every word is carefully chosen, can't you? This is all sounding a bit earnest, so I'm also going to quote my favourite line from the novel, which is often humorous as well as serious:
"The meat has over-excited them," Harriet thought. She had always heard that it inflamed the baser instincts.
Quite so, Elizabeth, quite so.

I won't go over the top, this isn't the best novel I've ever read - but it is some of the best writing that I've read for a while. If you chose novels for their plot, you might not think too much of A Game of Hide and Seek. If you chose novels for their writing style and characterisation, this may well be something you'll love - and admire. Not often that those two can go hand in hand - but Elizabeth Taylor is the woman for the job.

17 comments:

  1. Stuck in a book - this has really inspired me to read it... I have limited Elizabeth Taylor experience although I have read one novel and the biography by Nicola Beauman. I think now might be the time to start. thank you! Hannah

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  2. Nicola Beauman's biography made me want to read every book Elizabeth Taylor ever wrote. This one called loudest, I am just a few pages in and it is already love.

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  3. I'm definitely intrigued. I've had Elizabeth Taylor recommended to me as an author I would like, but the only book anyone ever seems to recommend is Angel. It's on my TBR list, but I just can't seem to get excited about it. This, however, sounds much more to my liking.

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  4. I just wanted to thank you for your lovely blog. I have been reading it over the last few days, and it actually inspired me to start my own! It's still in its very earliest stages, but I just wanted to say thanks for the inspiration and all the book suggestions that i have now added to my TBR pile.

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  5. Hi Simon, I enjoyed your thougtful review. From the handful of Elizabeth Taylors I've read, I think her writing is really up there with the best and am baffled that she didn't quite make it out of that 'middlebrow' categorisation used in her day... Really I would just as soon enjoy her as Elizabeth Bowen say. Another author who springs to mind as writing with similar skill; ie superb precision, orginality and wit, is Elizabeth Von Arnim...

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  6. I've read a few ETs but not this one, which I will seek out forthwith.
    And yes, Vesey is a real name. I know a Vesey.

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  7. I believe on your last review of an Elizabeth Taylor book I wrote that I really must read something by her but, as yet, she has still to call to me ... (Perhaps, as the other Claire mentions, it's because it is Angel that is on my shelf).

    I do admire that passage of writing; it is well-constructed precision prose at its best.

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  8. I love Elizabeth Taylor and wish I hadn't read my way through her ouevre so quickly. How lovely to be told to read her by your tutor.

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  9. I've only read one of hers, (In a summer season) but loved it and am very keen to read more. This one and Mrs Palfrey ... are on my pile.

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  10. I've read 3 Elizabeth Taylor books and just started the bio. I absolutely LOVE her characterizations. Put me down as one who enjoys thoughtful and believable characterizations even more than a good plot-- and ET really delivers!

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  11. Taylor writes very well, but I didn't much care for Harriet or Vesey. The only character I really liked was Harriet's poor ole husband - she didn't deserve him!!

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  12. This title is languishing on my bookshelf...what I am waiting for I have no idea! Thank you for your review.

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  13. Simon, I'm not turned on by any of the quotations albeit I can admire the writing skill.

    Vesey is a well known surname.

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  14. I agree with you a bit about Elizabeth Taylor: she has her seeming longeurs but if one pays careful attention she always (or almost always) repays that attention with a scrupulous look at the vagaries of the human. She's a bit like a magnificent water-colourist hung adjacent to huge but mediocre oils. Easy to miss out on what's really worth looking at!

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  15. What a wonderful image, that definitely captures her subtlety.

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  16. Hi Simon
    Thank you for this great review - this is one of the ET books I have been eyeing for a while! I started reading ET late last year and have only read 'In a Summer Season' (brilliant ET introduction for me) and 'A View of the Harbour'. Prior to that I watched 'Mrs Palfrey' and I am so impressed with her writing and sharp observations of human behaviour and folly. This is another gem of an author that I have discovered thanks to great book bloggers like yourself.
    Loved that "meat" quote :-)

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  17. Reading the later ET novels first and then, starting back at the beginning, I'm a bit thrown by which ending to expect of A Game of Hide and Seek--her more predictable earlier ones or her more jarrring later ones. I'm womdering if you find the ending consistent with the rest of the novel's take on romance and/vs. marriage.

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