Thursday, 31 May 2012

Hearing Marilynne Robinson

I mentioned on Twitter a while ago that I'd attended a talk by Marilynne Robinson at Blackwell's (in Oxford) and promised to write about it.  And now, finally, I am!  I've waited for too long to write this, so I'm having to rely on my dodgy memory...

Last year I did hear Marilynne Robinson give a lecture, and wrote about how star-struck I was then (and you also told me all the exciting authors you'd met).  Back then she spoke about philosophy and politics, and I didn't understand the title of the lecture let alone anything that followed.  So it was lovely to hear her give readings from her latest collection of essays, When I Was A Child I Read Books, as well as my beloved Gilead, and then answer questions from the floor.

Oh, but it was wonderful!

She reads undramatically - calmly, sensibly, perhaps.  If I call hers a flat voice, then please don't read that as a criticism - somehow it works, and there is a slight rise and fall at the end of each sentence, which prevents it from becoming monotonous.  It is exactly right for the unsensational, intelligent prose which Marilynne Robinson writes, and Gilead would have been ruined in an overly-expressive reading.

Afterwards there were questions.  When she is talking spontaneously, rather than from a prepared lecture (a different category, of course, from a reading), she is warm and witty and so very interesting.  There were a few questions at the previous talk, and I remember wishing that she'd done more of that - so the event last week was perfect for me.  Even though Robinson was still talking about theology and philosophy, alongside her own experience as a novelist, I found it easier to understand.  I didn't make notes, but I'll try to remember some of it... She spoke eloquently and passionately about the false divide set up between science and religion, and the very reductive models of both which are used in media debates: she is almost as passionate about the wonderful discoveries of science as she is about theology.  And in philosophical discussions, she said something I thought very wise, in response to a question about sorrow.  (I was a bit confused for a moment, misremembering that a baby in Gilead had been called Sorrow, pace Tess of the D'Ubervilles.)  Robinson inveighed against the misdiagnosis and over-diagnosis by doctors, arguing that sorrow is a valid part of human, and just not medical, experience.  (Sorrow, of course, is far from being the same thing as depression.)

But this is a book blog, and I shouldn't be getting too out of my depth.  Hearing Robinson speak about writing Gilead was overwhelmingly wonderful - although she spoke about Home and Housekeeping too, it was Gilead which got by far the most attention (thankfully for me, since it is still the only one I've read.)

What most interested me was the development of the character John Ames - or, rather, the lack of development.  Robinson said that one day his voice simply came into her head, more or less fully-formed.  Her comment was that, though she wasn't surprised that the character was a Christian in Iowa, it was rather more surprising that he was a man who loved baseball...

Incidentally, I know nothing about American geography, nor the stereotypes of these regions.  I didn't know where Iowa was (indeed, the only state I know the location of is New Jersey, and that's only because a friend at school almost moved there.)  In her reading from When I Was A Child I Read Books, Robinson said ‘I find that the hardest work is to convince the world – in fact it may be impossible – is to persuade Easterners that growing up in the West is not intellectually crippling.’  A student newspaper (linked below) mentioned that 'turning the "middle West" into great literature may seem like an impossible task', which strikes me as strange.  I can't imagine any location in Britain being considered ill-fitting for great literature - surely the location a book is set has absolutely nothing to do with its literary merit?  I'd love to hear what Americans think of this debate...

My memory is terrible.  I don't seem able to recall anything else she said about Gilead, even though I know it was substantial.  Apparently Semi-Fictional was also there, so you can read her report, or you can read what the Cherwell student newspaper had to say.  (I was once a section editor on the rival student newspaper, OxStu, but they don't seem to have written about it.)

I'll finish with one of the funniest moments of what was often a funny evening:
"This girl is wondering why I haven't published any poetry.  That's because she hasn't read my poetry!  I would if I could."

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Five From The Archive (no.1)

Whilst I was away from blogging, I came up with a fun idea (which you're welcome to borrow, if you like it)...  One of the anomalies I've noticed about blogging is that we all put a lot of time and effort into reviews - creating really great, extensive resources about incredible books - and yet these reviews are only likely to be read for a week or so, and then disappear into the hazy mists of the blog archive.  I thought it would be fun, and maybe useful, to highlight and group past books.

Since I've now celebrated my fifth blogging anniversary, I'm going to start an ongoing series Five From The Archive, where I post excerpts and links to five reviews from my past five years, grouped in some way.  That might be something obvious -  like 'books in translation' - or something a bit wackier.  And then I'll ask you to contribute your own suggestions.  I'm even hoping to post a (new) relevant sketch with each one - but you know how slack I get at that - kicking off with one of me and Colin.

They'll be appearing on Wednesdays, but probably not every week.

I'll start with a very Stuck-in-a-Book topic...  

Five Books Featuring Twins or Doubles

1.) Christopher and Columbus (1919) by Elizabeth von Arnim

In short: Half-German/half-American twins are exiled to America during the war.  They meet a friendly young American man on the boat, and the three embark on rather mad travels.  Somehow both wickedly cynical and totally heart-warming.

From the review: "The most delicious thing about this novel (and it is a very delicious novel) is undoubtedly the twins' dialogue.  It's such a delight to read.  [...] They both have such a captivatingly unusual outlook on life.  Their logic swirls in circles which dizzy the listener; their conversations would feel at home at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party - and yet they are lovely, kind, fundamentally good people - and without being remotely irritating."

2.) The Icarus Girl (2005) by Helen Oyeyemi

In short: Introverted eight-year-old Jessamy meets TillyTilly, seemingly her double, whilst in her mother's native Nigeria.  Their friendship grows gradually more unsettling...

From the review: "What starts as a novel about loneliness and isolation becomes infused with issues of obsession, possession, power and, most sophisticatedly, doubleness."

3.) Alva & Irva (2003) by Edward Carey

In short: One twin helps battle the other's agoraphobia, even as their bond is challenged, by building a scale replica of their town through plasticine - and it's all presented as a travel guide.  Surreally brilliant, and surprisingly moving.

From the review: "It is a novel filled with grotesque characters (in the sense of exaggerated and strange) - the father who is obsessed with stamps, for example. The novel is actually, in many ways, about obsession - whether with objects or people or tasks."

4.) A Lifetime Burning (2006) by Linda Gillard

In short: A compelling, involving novel about the dramas and conflicts within a tempestuous family - including twins whose relationship is far from normal.  Sadly my review was far too brief - I must re-read!

From the review: "Though the novel jumps all over the place, I never found it confusing - rather a path towards illumination and comprehension of the characters, understanding (rather than sanctioning) the way they act. Linda Gillard writes with lyrical intensity."

5.) Identical Strangers (2007) by Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein

In short: An autobiographical account of twin sisters only meeting at age 35 - and how they cope with this shift in their lives, and their different needs and responses.

From the review: "We follow Paula and Elyse through a couple of years - the joy, the excitement, the bickering, the discovering of their extraordinary relationship. [...] A fascinating topic, well told by engaging, honest people experiencing a rollercoaster of events."

Over to you!

Which title (or titles) would you add for this category?  Let me know!

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Spinster of this Parish - W.B. Maxwell

I'm back!  Did you miss me?  I suspect a lot of people barely noticed, since I wasn't away for all that long - but I usually try to post at least five times a week, so it felt like a lengthy holiday for me.  Sometimes a break is needed to keep blogging fresh for me - and my week-and-a-bit was enough to get me raring for more.  Let's kick things off with a review to fill the 1922 slot on A Century of Books, eh?

It was in this article by Sarah Waters (an introduction to Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes) that I first heard about Spinster of this Parish by W.B. Maxwell.  (A William, it turns out, but not that William Maxwell.)  It was only mentioned in passing, alongside F.M. Mayor's The Rector's Daughter (which sadly underwhelmed me) but it was enough to pique my interest.  Luckily Oxford library has a copy in its store, and eventually I got around to reading it.  It's rather extraordinary.

The action kicks off in 1920, with Mildred Parker (age 25) visiting 'old maid' Miss Emmeline Verinder (age 50) in the hopes of receiving some advice.  Mildred is 'that mixture of shrewdness and innocence which makes the typical modern girl seem at once so shallow and so baffling.'  She has fallen in love with a man of whom her parents do not approve - and is bewailing this state to Miss Verinder when she stops suddenly, and suggests that Mildred might not be able to help her, as she has never experienced 'the passions'...

Rewind to 1895, and Emmeline's youth.  We're still in the third person, so it's not entirely Emmeline Verinder's perspective, but she is certainly taking centre stage.  She is engaging in the late-Victorian social whirl, when she happens to meet celebrated explorer Anthony Dyke... and yes, dear reader, Emmeline is smitten.
How had he captivated her?  She did not know.  Was it only because he was the incarnate antithesis of Kensington; because he was individual, unlike the things on either side of him, not arranged on any pattern, not dull, monotonous, or flat; a thing alive in a place where all else was sleeping or dead?  Neither then nor at any future time did she attempt mentally to differentiate between the impression he had made upon her as himself all complete, with the dark hair, the penetrating but impenetrable eyes, the record, the fame, and the impression she might have received if any of these attributes had been taken away from him.  Say, if he had been an unknown Mr. Tomkins instead of a known Mr. Dyke.  Absurd.  The man and the name were one. [...] He was Anthony Dyke.  He was her lord, her prince, her lover.
In other words, he is about equal measures Tarzan and Mr. Rochester.  Indeed, he borrows more than a penetrating stare from the world's most beloved bigamist - for Dyke [er, SPOILERS!], like Rochester, has a madwoman in the attic.  Like poor Rochester (for we can't our brooding heroes being too cruel, can we?) Dyke was tricked into marrying a madwoman (variety of mental illness not mentioned) who is now not, actually, in an attic but in an asylum.

This is where things start to get a bit daring.  Dyke is rather more honest than Rochester, and tells Emmeline about his wife.  She, in turn, decides that their love is more important than society's morals and her parents' approval - and becomes, as it were, his mistress.  This was pretty daring for the time, wasn't it?  Shunned by her parents (although, to do Maxwell justice, Mr. Verinder 'was not in any respects the conventional old-fashioned father that lingered in the comic literature of the period') Emmeline takes her maid Louisa and lives elsewhere.

Being an explorer, Dyke must explore - and he's high-tailing it off to South America.  They have rather a rushed emotional goodbye and he sets sail... only... wait... Emmeline has sneakily crept onboard!

This, blog-readers, is where everything goes mad.

The next section of the novel takes place in South America - and I highly doubt that Maxwell had ever gone nearer to it than Land's End.  They go emerald-hunting, get lost in caves, involved in duels... it's insane, and entirely different from the novel I was expecting.  Had I seen the cover (below) then I might have been better prepared for the excesses of Spinster of this Parish, which were in no way betrayed by the novel's title.

The Sheik by Ethel M. Hull was published in 1919, and was wildly popular into the 1920s - although Spinster of this Parish involves none of the disturbing rape fantasies of The Sheik, it's clear that Maxwell (and many others) were influenced by the popularity for exoticism.  I, however, found this section rather tedious, and flicked through it...

Finally we are back in English society - Emmeline grows gradually less shunned, and Dyke's adventures continue abroad without her.  He is determined to succeed in his quest to get to the South Pole... will he survive or not?  Maxwell has rather calmed down by now, and Dyke's activities take place off stage, thankfully - instead, we see the changing views of upper-class society, and Emmeline's unwavering loyalty to her absent lover.

Picture source
Ah, yes, their love.  I got a bit tired of that.  He is physically perfect and unimaginably manly; she is womanfully patient and devotedly passionate.  Hmm.  Not the most original of pairings.  A lot made sense to me when I found out that W.B. Maxwell is the son of none other than Mary Elizabeth Braddon - of Lady Audley's Secret fame.  He certainly inherited her love of sensation romance literature (did I mention the blackmail plot that's thrown in?)

And yet - I enjoyed an awful lot of it.  Maxwell's writing is, if not exceptional, consistently good.  He is quite witty throughout, and certainly writes better than most of the authors who would warrant a similar dustjacket image.  When we were in England, looking at the workings of society, it was very much my cup of tea - even if the characters were a little too good to be true.  At one point I even thought of suggesting it to Persephone Books.  But... I couldn't get past the insane section in the middle.  The bizarre trip through South America, duels-n-all, is what will make Spinster of this Parish so memorable - but also that which lets down the overall writing, and makes it feel rather silly.

So, a strange book with which to make me blog return!  If nothing else, it has taught be that one must not only forswear to judge a book by its cover - similar caution must be taken as regards a book's title.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Back next week...

Sorry to be absent for a while - since I signed off my last post with a cold, you might think that I'm suffering in some Swiss sanatorium (a la Katherine Mansfield) but... no, I just went away from blogging for a couple of days, and then decided that it would be nice to have a few more too.  So, I'll be back next week - hope you're all having lovely weeks!

Monday, 21 May 2012

A Trip to See Vanessa and Virginia

They weren't in, though.

My friends Shauna and Lauren (who were on the master's course I did 2008/9) and I have been intending to take a trip to Sussex for about three years, and on Saturday we finally organised ourselves and did it.  Our itinerary?  Monk's House and Charleston - being the homes of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and Vanessa Bell et al respectively.  When I say 'et al' that includes luminaries as various as David Garnett, Duncan Grant, and John Maynard Keynes.

We took the train to Lewes (which is lovely and where, ahem, I bought a couple of books - Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton and Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor) and then had a beautiful walk along the river to Monk's House.  It really couldn't have been a better day for it - we kept stopping and marvelling at how beautiful it was.  Normally I do this sort of gasping next to my brother Colin, who doesn't care at all about views ("They're just things from further away") so it was a refreshing change to have people agree with my effusiveness.

Such a lovely walk to take!  Also oddly deserted.

Lauren and I get a bit too excited about it all...

After a picnic and some debate over the map (and me falling into a very deep rabbit hole for a moment - sadly no Alice-esque adventures) we arrived at Monk's House, and I used my National Trust membership for probably the last time.  And we were allowed to take photos!  Here follows lots of photos...

Table painted by Vanessa Bell!

Shakespeare volumes bound & labelled by VW

VW's writing shed

 It was so special.  I love Virginia Woolf, as you probably know, and I can't believe it's taken me so many years to visit Monk's House.  To be in the same rooms in which she lived, seeing her furniture and wandering around her garden, was a really wonderful, quite moving, experience.

But we didn't just go to one Bloomsbury Group home, oh no!  Next stop was Charleston, a few miles away.  We weren't allowed to take photographs inside, so here is just the outside.  If it was a beautiful home outside (and it was) than the inside was utterly breathtaking.  Every wall and item of furniture was decorated by Vanessa Bell or Duncan Grant - abstract patterns creating a sponged-on 'wallpaper', a rooster painted above the window to 'wake up' the occupant in the morning, etc.  Despite being a rented house...!  And paintings hung everywhere, too.  All so stunning, and all the more special because they had been done by one of the residents or their friends.  They included a portrait of Virginia Woolf by her sister, Vanessa Bell, which I hadn't seen before, and which I prefer to the famous portraits Bell did of Woolf.  I can only find a small part of it online (see right).

Our guide, called Angie, was exceptionally good.  She barely drew breath in the hour we had for the tour.  It would have been nice to have time to ask questions, perhaps, but I suppose then we'd have lost out on some of the prepared tour.  It catered to people who knew nothing at all about the occupants and their friends, whereas I think all seven of us on the tour already knew quite a bit, but it was still great to hear it from an enthusiastic expert.  I'm definitely intending to go back - and if you go on a Sunday, then you can roam freely.

Oh, and there was a man about my age in the gift shop who had a 1920s chair at home, and they were buying reproduction Vanessa Bell fabric (at £55 a metre!) to re-cover it.  I don't know whose life gave me greater life-envy - the Bloomsbury Group and their idyllic house, or the man who would have that beautiful chair...

If you get the chance to go to either of these wonderful properties, do take it.  I can also definitely recommend the walk from Lewes to Monk's House, which is exceptionally beautiful on a sunny day.  It was the most delightful day out imaginable, and I was rather worried that my impending cold would ruin it for me.  Luckily I managed to stave it off for a day - and it has come back now with a vengeance.  So it might be a day or too before you hear from me again, whilst I feel sorry for myself...

Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Times piece (photographed)

I wrote yesterday's very quick post on my phone at Charleston, of all places, without actually having a copy of The Times myself at that point.  More on Monk's House and Charleston soon - but today I thought I'd pop up photos of my quotation in The Times for those of you who don't get copies.  I was so excited to be asked to contribute!

This is what was printed (I'd like to point out that, when I wrote it, it didn't end on a preposition!):

Simon Thomas, a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford and author of the Stuck-in-a-Book blog at, says: “For the unrepentant bibliophile, being in a charity shop is like being a kid in a sweetshop — except you don’t have to get a parent’s permission to buy far more than is good for you.
“I am always willing to brave mountains of Danielle Steels and Dan Browns, not to mention entirely arbitrary shelving systems, in the hopes of finding something special. It was in a charity shop shelved entirely by colour that I found an amusing 1950 novel by Mary Essex, Tea Is So Intoxicating. It cost me 10p, but the cheapest I have ever seen it online is £70.
“It is not only stumbling across scarce books that has been rewarding. I daresay there are plenty of copies out there of The Love-Child by Edith Olivier [a 1927 novel, reprinted in the 1980s by Virago], but I probably wouldn’t have read it if I hadn’t found it by chance in the basement of a dingy charity shop. That serendipitous purchase ended up helping to determine the topic of the doctorate I am currently studying for.”

Saturday, 19 May 2012

The Times, p.60...

...has me quoted on it today, talking about charity bookshops! Check it out...

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

By the time you read this, I'll either be in London or Sussex - a couple of my friends and I are off to Charleston and Monk's House (the homes of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf respectively) for a literary jaunt.  At least that's the plan - right now I feel deathly with one of my oh-so-common colds.  But I am determined to enjoy myself!  I am equally determined to tell you about a book, a link, and a blog post... so make yourself comfortable, and enjoy.

1.) The book -  I can't remember how I found this title, but it's been waiting in a draft post for many months: David Batterham's Among Booksellers.  Read all about it here, but essentially it's the letters of a bookseller travelling Europe, meeting the eccentric booksellers of the world on his way.  It sounds great fun.

2.) The link - apparently the French isn't very good in this clip (I watched it silently with the subtitles, and also wouldn't notice poor French anyway) but cat-lovers will find this amusing, I think...

3.) The blog post - is a little silly, and not entirely for the faint-hearted.  You've probably heard of Fifty Shades of Gray/Grey and have probably the same level of desire to read it as I have (i.e. none whatsoever) - well, Book Riot have read it so that you don't have to!  Their review is very funny...

4.) P.S. - if you're in the UK, make sure you're watching the documentaries Chatsworth on BBC and 56 Up on ITV - both are brilliant so far.  And, guess what?  They're on at the same time.  Of course.  9pm on Mondays - started last week, and have a couple more episodes to come.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Moominpappa at Sea - Tove Jansson

You probably know that I love and adore Tove Jansson.  She is, indeed, one of my all-time favourite writers, and the only author whose books I eagerly await.  (Yes, she's dead, but they're being steadily translated - a newly translated collection of short stories coming soon from Sort Of Books!)  Until now, though, I hadn't read any of the Moomin books for which she is best known.  Aware of this, Margaret Szedenits very kindly gave me a copy of Moominpappa at Sea (1965) which is actually the final book to feature the Moomin family, except some picture books.

Only the beginning of Moominpappa at Sea takes place in Moominvalley, and only the Moomin family appear.  Apparently there are lots of other characters, but I got to know thoughtful, adventurous Moominpappa, wise, diligent Moominmamma, anxious, imaginative Moomintroll, and fearless, feisty Little My.  They have a map on their wall, a dot on which marks an island (or perhaps, Little My suggests, some fly-dirt) with a lighthouse - Moominpappa decides that the family will move there.
"Of course we run the risk of it being calm tonight," said Moominpappa.  "We could have left immediately after lunch.  But on an occasion like this we must wait for sunset.  Setting out in the right way is just as important as the opening lines in a book: they determine everything."
After a wet and windy journey across the sea, they arrive on the island - deserted, except for a taciturn fisherman - and head towards the lighthouse.  Everything is not quite as they hoped.  The beam of the lighthouse doesn't work, there is no soil for Moominmamma's garden, and worst of all - the lighthouse is locked and they can't find the key.  Without being too much like an educational TV programme, Tove Jansson incorporates many different responses to change - whether it intimidates, infuriates, or energises people.  Moominmamma is definitely the family member who most wishes they had never left.
In front of them lay age-old rocks with steep and sharp sides and they stumbled past precipice after precipice, grey and full of crevices and fissures.

"Everything's much too big here," thought Moominmamma.  "Or perhaps I'm too small."

Only the path was as small and insecure as she was.
And then it all gets a bit surreal.  Not only is are they followed by the Groke - a curious creature which fills them with fear and turns the ground to ice - the island itself seems to be alive.  The trees move, the sea itself has a definite, often petulant, character.  The Moomins take this in their stride - they almost seem to expect it.
Moominpappa leaned forward and stared sternly at the fuming sea.  "There's something you don't seem to understand," he said.  "It's your job to look after this island.  You should protect and comfort it instead of behaving as you do.  Do your understand?

Moominpappa listened, but the sea made no answer.
So, what did I make of it all?  I definitely enjoyed it, and I especially liked Tove Jansson's deceptively simple illustrations throughout - they enhanced the story, and also softened its edges, as it were.  The emotions and actions of the Moomins are often quite human, and the illustrations remind us that we are in a different world - they give the prose a warm haze.

And yet I never felt I quite knew what Jansson was doing.  I was expecting that it might all be a sort of allegory, in a way, for how humans respond to change.  But the Moomins aren't simply there to represent types of response - they form a family unit as valid as those in any novel, even if there isn't quite the same depth of development in these relationships (in this book, at least.)  The characters certainly often speak wisely, or demonstrate their feelings through actions (as Moominmamma does with her painting), but I couldn't ever forget that this was a children's book - and that, in this case, the children's book really did feel like a watered-down version of the adults' novels.

I wasn't sure how Tove Jansson's books for children would relate to the wonderful novels and stories I've already read.  It seemed to me, after reading Moominpappa at Sea, that it was like the skeletal equivalent of something like Fair Play.  Janssons' great talent is her deeply perceptive descriptions of everyday interactions between people - incredibly nuanced and yet subtle.  She only gives the bare bones of this in Moominpappa at Sea.  Well, more than the bare bones - more, I daresay, than a lot of adult novelists - but not with the finesse of which I know her capable.  I still loved reading it, and I'm very grateful to Margaret for giving me the book and the opportunity, but I now feel comfortable that I have not been thus far missing Jansson's greatest work.  She may be best known for the Moomin books but, based on what I have read of her oeuvre so far, she saved her finest writing for elsewhere.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

National Flash Fiction Day

As the clock has just ticked past midnight, I'm afraid you've just missed National Flash Fiction Day...

If case you don't know, flash fiction is, essentially, very short fiction.  There's no accepted definition or stated length, but usually it's fewer than 1000 words.  And it's something the internet gets on board with!

My friend and housemate Mel co-runs a British flash fiction site called The Pygmy Giant, and they've had a competition in honour of the day, inviting flash fiction with the theme 'flash' - and today announced a very worthy winner.  See it here.

I went for the less competitive The Write-In, where every contribution was published.  They had set aside 11am-3pm for people to write flash fiction, inspired by one of the 200 words and phrases which they'd created as prompts.  More info about that here.

The two I chose (and clicking on the prompt takes you to my piece of flash fiction) were 'The Sun Is Not Our Friend' and, for a bit of light relief, 'The Smell of Warm Bread'.  It was fun - and, of course, quick!

Do you read any flash fiction?  By virtue of reading my blog post, I'm going to assume that you're (a) interested in fiction, and (b) not averse to reading things online - but I don't see flash fiction mentioned much in the literary blogosphere.  I hardly ever read it myself - perhaps because I steer fairly clear of modern fiction altogether, but maybe there are other reasons too.  Over to you - do you write it or read it?  What is your opinion of it all?  Or had you simply never heard of it before?

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Outsider - Albert Camus

Somehow, through some sort of mental osmosis, I find that most avid readers know the broad outline of classics long before they've read them.  I certainly found this with Rebecca, To Kill A Mockingbird, Jane Eyre etc.  The simple explanation, of course, is that conversations, articles, blog posts and films have, over the years, given us this foreknowledge.  So it is something of a rare joy to read a classic without any prior understanding of the contents.  That was the experience I had with Albert Camus's The Outsider (1942), translated by Joseph Laredo.  (Laredo, apparently, opted to translate L'Etranger as The Outsider rather than The Stranger, under which title the first English translation appeared.)  My striking copy was kindly given to me by the Folio Society.

My experience with French literature - always in translation - has been mixed.  I have found some of it rather too philosophical for my liking, and there is always the spectre of ghastly French theorists I have tried, and failed, to understand.  The title didn't encourage me - I thought it might be very existentialist or, worse, in the whiney and disaffected Holden Caulfield school of writing.  It was thus rather a delight to find The Outsider more in the mould of the detached, straightforward English novelists I love - Spark, Comyns - but perhaps most of all like my beloved Scandinavian writer Tove Jansson.  A lot of that style is due to the protagonist - Meursault - and the first-person presentation of his life.  Meursault sees the world through a haze of emotionless indifference.  He is not cruel or unkind, he is simply emotionless.  Actually, that's not quite true.  He feels things to a moderate amount - the novel opens with his mother's death, and the most he can muster up is that  he would rather it hadn't happened.  His honesty is unintentionally brutal...
That evening, Marie came round for me and asked me if I wanted to marry her.  I said I didn't mind and we could do it if she wanted to.  She then wanted to know if I loved her.  I replied as I had done once already, that it didn't mean anything but that I probably didn't.  "Why marry me then?" she said.  I explained to her that it really didn't matter and that if she wanted to, we could get married.  Anyway, she was the one who was asking me and I was simply saying yes.  She then remarked that marriage was a serious matter.  I said, "No."  She didn't say anything for a moment and looked at me in silence.  Then she spoke.  She just wanted to know if I'd have accepted the same proposal if it had come from another woman, with whom I had a similar friendship.  I said, "Naturally."
When I thought that The Outsider would be simply a very well-written character portrait - an unusual and unsettling pair of eyes through which to view the world - things become more complicated.  In case others of you have the same lack of foreknowledge I had, I won't give away the details - but the second half of the novel (novella? It's only 100pp.) concerns a court case...

Albert Camus writes in his Afterword that the defining characteristic of Meursault (which is obvious early in the story) is that 'he refuses to lie.  Lying is not only saying what isn't true.  It is also, in fact especially, saying more than is true and, in the case of the human heart, saying more than one feels.'  Meursault cannot lie; he cannot exaggerate the emotions he feels - and he feels them to a lesser degree than most.  The fallout from this honesty is slightly surreal, but at the same time entirely possible within the narrative.  It's a brilliant piece of writing, and a brilliant outworking of an idea.  So, perhaps, like many of the French novels I couldn't quite enjoy, Camus's is concerned with ideas and philosophies - but he prioritises the execution of a believable, complex, and consistent character, and that is the triumph of this exceptional book.

Monday, 14 May 2012

At Mrs. Lippincote's - Elizabeth Taylor

I intended to read At Mrs. Lippincote's (1945) back in January, in its rightful place for Elizabeth Taylor Centenary year, but somehow it didn't happen... and then I went to a wonderful Celebration of Elizabeth Taylor in Reading, and one of the book groups was discussing this title.  I would have written about the day in Reading properly (where I got to meet lots of lovely ladies from the LibraryThing Virago group) but it happened just before Muriel Spark Reading Week, so I had other things to take blog prominence!

Well, better late than never - I'll give you my thoughts on At Mrs. Lippincote's.  The short review is that this is my favourite, of the five or six Elizabeth Taylor novels I've read.  My usual confusion over characters didn't occur, and I didn't even have that tiny this-feels-like-homework response I sometimes get with Taylor.  Instead, I just enjoyed her beautiful writing and intriguing characters, and only had one misgiving - which I'll come to later.

The Mrs. Lippincote of the title has gone to a residency not unlike Mrs. Palfrey's at the Claremont, and has let her house to Roddy Davenant (an RAF airman) and his wife Julia, for the duration of the war.  The idea of living in somebody else's house is a very rich vein for a novelist, and it is mined (can one mine a vein?) beautifully by Taylor.  Mrs. Lippincote is very present through her absence, and the constant possibility of her visitation and judgement.  All her possessions are still in the house, and Julia makes her home amongst them, treading the line between running her family's home and living in a stranger's house.  She looks at an old photo of Mrs. Lippincote's family at an elaborate wedding:
"And now it's all finished," Julia thought.  "They had that lovely day and the soup tureen and meat dishes, servants with frills and streamers, children.  They set out that day as if they were laying the foundations of something.  But it was only something which perished very quickly, the children scattered, the tureen draped with cobwebs, and now the widow, the bride, perhaps at this moment unfolding her napkin alone at a table in a small private hotel down the road."
While Taylor is great at delving into characters and relationships over the course of a novel, she is also fantastic at painting complete portraits with a few imaginative details.  A bit like synedochal snapshots of people's lives.

Roddy's cousin Eleanor is also living with them, and anybody who has read Rebecca West's excellent novella The Return of the Soldier will be familiar with the dynamic of the wife/husband/husband's cousin.  (It is a cousin in The Return of the Soldier too, isn't it?)  Eleanor, indeed, does think that she would make a better wife for Roddy - and she is probably right.  Roddy and Eleanor aren't on the same wavelength - neither are the 'bad guy', but our sympathies are definitely with Julia, who is a wonderful character.

I would be confident that you'd all love Julia, or at least empathise with her, but I've just reminded myself of Claire's review: 'Julia is an odd character and certainly not a very likeable one."  Re-reading her post, I'm starting to change my mind a bit... but I'll stick to my guns and explain why I did love Julia.  She is intelligent and artistic, coping with the dissatisfactions of her life with stoicism and wit.  She hasn't been handed the home or husband that she would ideally choose, but makes the best of the situation she is in - as well as being sensitive and thoughtful about the wider conditions of the country.  When talking to the Wing Commander (Roddy's boss), she argues the point for education for his daughter Felicity:
"They will try to stuff her head with Virgil and Pliny and Greek Irregular Verbs."

"All Greek verbs are irregular," Julia murmured.

"I think it nonsense.  What use will it be to her when she leaves school?  Will it cook her husband's dinner?"

"No, it won't do that, but it will help her to endure doing it, perhaps.  If she is to cook while she is at school, then there will be that thing less for her to learn when she's grown-up: but, if she isn't to learn Greek at school, then she will never learn it afterwards.  And learning Greek at school is like storing honey against the winter."

"But what use is it?" he persisted.

"Men can be educated; women must be trained," she said sorrowfully.
A little heavy-handed perhaps, but a point worth making - and, incidentally, a battle subsequently won (although neither girls nor boys are likely to study Greek irregular verbs now... at least not at the sort of school I attended.)  The Wing Commander is another really intriguing character.  He has all the firmness and professionalism you'd expect of a Wing Commander, but also a literary side which baffles Roddy.  He's a bit awkward with children, but manages to engage Oliver Davenant in a discussion about the Brontes - a theme which runs throughout the novel, potential mad-woman-in-the-attic and everything.  Oh, I've not mentioned Oliver before, have I?  He is Julia's ten year old son, and which of us could fail to greet a fellow bibliophile?
Oliver Davenant did not merely read books.  He snuffed them up, took breaths of them into his lungs, filled his eyes with the sight of the print and his head with the sound of words.  Some emanation from the book itself poured into his bones, as if he were absorbing steady sunshine.  The pages had personality.  He was of the kind who cannot have a horrifying book in the room at night.  He would, in fine weather, lay it upon an outside sill and close the window.  Often Julia would see a book lying on his doormat.
He is incredibly sensitive and fairly weak, in a determined-invalid sort of way, but his friendship with Felicity is more or less the only straightforward one in the novel.  Which brings me onto my sticking point with At Mrs. Lippincote's - the ending, which I shan't spoil, is a crisis between two characters which comes rather out of the blue, and doesn't feel very consistent with the rest of the narrative.  At Mrs. Lippincote's, like all the Taylor novels I've read, is more concerned with characters than plot - nothing hugely unbalancing occurs, and the focus is upon the way people live together and communicate.  Until the end, which feels a bit as though Taylor wasn't sure how to conclude a novel, and decided, unfortunately, to end with a bang.

I shall take a leaf out of her book (not literally, that would be vandalism) and end in a manner which I usually do not - with a quotation.  At Mrs. Lippincote's is thoughtful, clever, and perceptive, but it's also often very witty - and I'll finish with a quotation which amused me.
Eleanor, whom he [Oliver] did not really like, set sums for him every morning and corrected them when she came home for tea.  Occasionally, he had a right answer, in much the same manner as when one backs horses a great deal, now and the one of them comes in for a place.
(See all the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Celebration reviews for this title here.)

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Song for a Sunday

I re-watched the film Nine a couple of days ago.  It got middling-to-poor reviews, and it's true that the storytelling isn't great, but the cast certainly is.  Unbelievably, in a film starring two of my favourites - Dame Judi Dench (showing how great she looks with a flapper bob) and Nicole Kidman - it was Marion Cotillard who stole the show.  That woman is simply brilliant.  And she sings what is easily my favourite song from the film: My Husband Makes Movies.  I love it so much that I can cope with the word 'movie' for once.  Here she is:

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Two competitions...

I've turned over the Weekend Miscellany to competitions - one of which could win you all sorts of bookish goodies from Glasses Direct, and the other of which could see you choosing Hesperus Press's next reprint.  On with the show...

I'm copying and pasting the Glasses Direct competition:

1.) To celebrate Glasses Direct's new blog, the online prescription glasses retailer has launched the GD Book Worm Club, an online competition that encourages book readers, whether avid or occasional, to post their reviews so that others can read up on their recommendations on a plethora of reads. Whether it be a good old paperback, a Kindle or Kobo, Glasses Direct want glasses wearers to join the GD Book Worm Club.
Each month, GD Book Worms can submit their reviews on a book they've read, which will then be posted onto the Glasses Direct blog. Whichever review gets the most happy comments wins that months star review.

Each monthly winner will receive a star prize, as well as a pair of glasses. For April, the winner will receive a Kindle Touch, a pair of Element or London Retro frames with their prescription and one of the Spring Summer 2012 goody bags* from the glasses e-tailer's press event, held at The Soho Hotel this April.
Email your entries to: gdwin(at)glassesdirect(dot)com
And don’t forget to include a picture of yourself with the book! (If you’re camera shy, just the book will do but we’d rather see your lovely faces)

*Goody Bag Contents:
1 pair of designer sunglasses (Chloe, Serengeti, Marc Jacobs, Armani etc)
Handmade speccy cookie from Love Birds
A gift voucher for a pair of Element or London Retro specs.
Spectacle necklace
Retro sweets (no reason, but who doesn’t love sweets?)
Eco-concious cotton lunch bag
London Retro/Element USB stick.

2.) I spotted a great post on Lyn's blog, giving the opportunity for readers to choose the next Hesperus Press classic title.  I hadn't seen or heard anything from Hesperus for years, and was rather worried that they'd disappeared, but I'm delighted that that isn't the case.  Before themed blog weeks really existed, I ran an I Love Hesperus week - gosh, years and years ago - what fun it was!

To celebrate their 10th anniversary, they're looking for 500 word submissions suggesting out of print classics (usually pretty short - 100-200 pages) that they could reprint, and why.  The deadline is 1st June, and the book would come out in September - more info here.  The 500 words will form the introduction for the winning book.

Their books are always so beautifully produced, as well as having great contents.  You can read all my Hesperus reviews here, and start wracking your brains!

Friday, 11 May 2012

Books I Borrowed...

There are a few books I've borrowed from friends and libraries which have now been returned, and so I'm going to give each one a paragraph or two, instead of a proper review.  Partly so I can include them on my Century of Books list, but partly because it's fun to do things differently sometimes.  Of course, it's entirely possible that I'll get carried away, and write far too much... well, here are the four books, in date order.  Apologies for the accidental misquotation in the sketch today... I only noticed afterwards!

Canon in Residence - V.L. Whitechurch (1904)
This was surprisingly brilliant. Rev. John Smith on a continental holiday encounters a stranger who tells him that he'd see more of human life if he adopted layman's clothes.  Smith thinks the advice somewhat silly, but has no choice - as, during the night, the stranger swaps their outfits.  Smith goes through the rest of his holiday in somewhat garish clothing, meeting one of those ebullient, witty girls with which Edwardian novels abound.  A letter arrives telling him that he has been made canon of a cathedral town - where this girl also lives (of course!)  He makes good his escape, and hopes she won't recognise him...

Once in his position as canon, Smith's new outlook on life leads to a somewhat socialist theology - improving housing for the poor, and other similar principles which are definitely Biblical, but not approved of by the gossiping, snobbish inhabitants of the Cathedral Close.  As a Christian and the son of a vicar, I found this novel fascinating (you can tell that Whitechurch was himself a vicar) but I don't think one would need to have faith to love this.  It's very funny as well as sensitive and thoughtful; John Smith is a very endearing hero.  It all felt very relevant for 2012.  And there's even a bit of a criminal court case towards the end.

Three Marriages - E.M. Delafield (1939)
Delafield collects together three novellas, each telling the tale of a courtship and marriage, showing how things change across years: they are set in 1857, 1897, and 1937.  Each deals with people who fall in love too late, once they (or their loved one) has already got married to somebody else.  The surrounding issues are all pertinent to their respective periods.  In 1897, and 'Girl-of-the-Period', Violet Cumberledge believes herself to be a New Woman who is entirely above anything so sentimental as emotional attachments - and, of course, realises too late that she is wrnog.  In 1937 ('We Meant To Be Happy') Cathleen Christmas marries the first man who asks, because she fears becoming one of so many 'surplus women' - only later she falls in love with the doctor.  But the most interesting story is the first - 'The Marriage of Rose Barlow'.  It's rather brilliant, and completely unexpected from the pen of Delafield.  Rose Barlow is very young when she is betrothed to her much older cousin - the opening line of the novel is, to paraphrase without a copy to hand, 'The night before her wedding, Rose Barlow put her dolls to bed as she always had done.'  Once married, they go off to India together.   If you know a lot more about the history of India than I do, then the date 1857 might have alerted you to the main event of the novella - the Sepoy Rebellion.  A fairly calm tale of unequal marriage becomes a very dramatic, even gory, narrative about trying to escape a massacre.  A million miles from what I'd expect from Delafield - but incredibly well written and compelling.

Miss Plum and Miss Penny - Dorothy Evelyn Smith (1959)
Miss Penny, a genteel spinster living with her cook/companion Ada, encounters Miss Plum in the act of (supposedly) attempting suicide in a duckpond.  Miss Penny 'rescues' Miss Plum and invites her into her home. (Pronouns are tricky; I assume you can work out what I mean.)  It looks rather as though Miss Plum might have her own devious motives for these actions... but I found the characters very inconsistent, and the plot rather scattergun.  There are three men circling these women, whose intentions and affections vary a fair bit; there are some terribly cringe-worthy, unrealistic scenes of a vicar trying to get closer to his teenage son. It was a fun read, and not badly written, but Dorothy Evelyn Smith doesn't seem to have put much effort into organising narrative arcs or creating any sort of continuity.  But diverting enough, and certainly worth an uncritical read.

The Shooting Party - Isabel Colegate (1980)
Oh dear.  Like a lot of people, I suspect, I rushed out to borrow a copy of The Shooting Party after reading Rachel's incredibly enthusiastic review.  Go and check it out for details of the premise and plot.  I shall just say that, sadly, I found it rather ho-hum... perhaps even a little boring.  The characters all seemed too similar to me, and I didn't much care what happened.  Even though it's a short novel, it dragged for me, and the climax was, erm, anti-climactic.  Perhaps my expectations were too high, or perhaps my tolerance for historical novels (albeit looking back only sixty or seventy years) is too low.  Sorry, Rachel!

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Somerset: The Books

Whilst down here in Somerset, I have been mostly adoring the cat, but also jaunting off to various places - including, yesterday, sunny Lyme Regis...

...and whilst out and about I have, of course, been buying some books.  Being the gent that I am, I thought I'd share my spoils with you - asking the usual questions: have you read them, and what do you think?

Letters - Sylvia Townsend Warner
I had a copy out of the library, but I was pleased to find one myself, for the chapter of my thesis I'm currently writing.

Look Back With Gratitude - Dodie Smith
You might remember that I loved Dodie Smith's first volume of autobiography, so I was excited to see another volume - and risked life and limb to rescue it from a teetering pile on top of a bookcase.

The White/Garnett Letters - David Garnett and T.H. White
And this will be useful for my final chapter, which includes sections on David Garnett's Lady into Fox!  Our Vicar was pleased that some of my purchases could be considered work-related.

Love in the Sun - Leo Walmsley
Ever since Jane/Fleur Fisher raved about this, I've been hoping to stumble across a copy.  Thanks, Lyme Regis!

Journey to Paradise - Dorothy Richardson
I'm rather too scared to try Richardon's endless Pilgrimage series, but I thought this collection of short stories and autobiographical pieces might be a good way in.

Gone To Earth - Mary Webb
I read somewhere that this helped inspire Lady into Fox, and have been hoping to find a copy.  This trip has unearthed (ahem) a lot of titles I've had on my mental wishlist!

Injury Time - Beryl Bainbridge
An Awfully Big Adventure - Beryl Bainbridge
I'm all ready for Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week, now!  Are you?

The Hand of Mary Constable  - Paul Gallico
This looks like Gallico in surreal/psychological mode, which is how I like him...

Somewhere Towards The End - Diana Athill
This brings my Athill autobiographical volumes to three, without having read any of them... but this is the one which appeals most.

Woman in a Lampshade - Elizabeth Jolley
Short stories by another author I'm stockpiling without yet reading!

Non-Combatants and Others -Rose Macaulay
Love me some Dame Rose, and didn't have this title yet.

To Margaret, From Pat
This is something a bit different - probably valueless, but once I'd seen it, I couldn't leave it behind.  It's a handwritten collection of excerpts and poems, clearly given as a romantic gift from Pat to Margaret.  It's not dated, but based on the poems included, it's post-1940; based on the handwriting, I don't think it's much after.  How lovely!

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

More Women Than Men - Ivy Compton-Burnett

When I wrote about Pamela Hansford Johnson's pamphlet on Ivy Compton-Burnett, I mentioned that it had made me keen to read more of my beloved Dame Ivy's work soon.  It didn't take me long - at Easter I delved through my collection of Ivy Compton-Burnett novels to find one to fill a gap in A Century of Books, and opted (because I love its dryly prosaic title) for More Women Than Men (1933).

If I dared, I would try an Ivy Compton-Burnett Reading Week, but I don't think it work - partly because people often seem intimidated by her, but also because it's no secret that Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels are all similar in tone and title.  It's difficult to differentiate Mother and Son from Daughters and Sons; Parents and Children from Elders and BettersA Family and a Fortune from A Father and his Fate, etc. etc.  The previous owner of my copy of More Women Than Men obviously had the same issues, for she has noted down a little list on the first page:

Girls' school
Mrs Napier
Felix Bacon.

Well, anonymous (and probably deceased) owner of my book, you have organised my thoughts for me.  More Women Than Men does, indeed, take place in a girls' school - which is unusual for Ivy Compton-Burnett, who usually sets her novels in sprawling families with nine or so children.  I initially thought that she would just transfer this dynamic to the hierarchies and alliances of pupils and teachers, but in actual fact none of the girls say anything at all in the novel.  Rather, we watch the headmistress, Josephine Napier, rule over family and staff with a firmness which doesn't repress the verbal dalliances of those around her, but which does render them powerless in the face of her unflappable logic.  People love to chop logic in Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels - and I love reading them do it.  Truisms are interrogated; the polite shorthand tricks of conversation are exposed as evasions, and analysed to death.  None of it is very natural, it is definitely stylised - but deliciously so.
"I feel a little conscious of my appearance," said Felix, coming up to the group.  "Perhaps it is being one of the few people who can wear formal clothes."

His speech was met by incredulous mirth, his hearers keeping their eyes on his face, in case of further entertainment.

"Well, I hope that no one will be conscious of mine," said Josephine.  "It is not my habit to be aware of it; but when I am oblivious, it may be hitting other people in the eye.  I got into the garment in time, but I admit it does not add to the occasion."

"People always seem to think admission alter things," said Helen, "when it really rather helps to establish them."
I'm running ahead of myself, as usual, since I haven't explained who these people are.  Apologies if the following run-through is confusing - there are always a lot of characters in Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels, often with complex interrelations.  More Women Than Men starts with Josephine greeting her all-female staff back after the school holidays.  Helen is a new staff member, and the others are returning - none of these are pivotal to the plot, for the majority of the novel, but each is rather wonderful to read about.  Miss Munday is large, vapid, and doleful; Miss Luke is grateful and ignored; Mrs. Chattaway is one of the few who has been married (now widowed):
Mrs. Chattaway seldom referred to her wedded life, and her companions, in spite of their sincere deprecation of the married state, assigned her reticence to her sense of loss; whereas the truth was, as they might consistently have guessed, that the memory was uncongenial.
Josephine herself is married to Simon, who fades into the background - not so much browbeaten as so wholly in her shadow as to be rendered free of personality.  They have an adopted son, Gabriel, who is in fact Josephine's nephew - he is in his early twenties, but still living at home, rather uselessly.  Josephine's brother Jonathan (Gabriel's father) taught pupils independently, until the last one stayed with him for 22 years.  This last one is Felix Bacon, who (joining together disparate groups) becomes the drawing master at Josephine's school.  There are plenty of amusing conversations where Felix defends the idea of a man teaching girls to pupils' fathers who think the job beneath him.  (I should add that More Women Than Men, like maybe of Dame Ivy's novels, is set in a vaguely Edwardian period.)  And then there is the change of dynamic when a man is introduced to the all-female staff...
"You will find that not much gossip is done here," said Josephine, smiling as if in spite of herself.

"I suppose it hardly could be in a common room."

"Either there or elsewhere."

"And in a community of women!  I am glad I am seeing life for myself, as all the theories about it are untrue.  Now I see that you are dismissing me with a look.  Of course you are one of those people whose glance is obeyed."
Josephine initially appears to be the paragon of diligence and kindness - a rather dominant and detached paragon, one whose glance is indeed obeyed, but a paragon nonetheless.  It becomes apparent, however, that she is ruthlessly manipulative - and yet she is far more complex than those words suggest.  Her love for husband and adopted son is deeply genuine, but it is coupled with her immovable sense of justice, and the love she demands in return.  She puts up a great deal of resistance when Gabriel becomes engaged to Ruth, the daughter of Elizabeth, an old acquaintance of Josephine and Simon Napier whose reappearance causes quite a stir earlier in the novel.
"In that case you will be grateful to Ruth, Josephine," said Gabriel, coming nearer with a stumble, to avoid lifting his head.  "She is giving me a happiness greater than I had conceived."

"Then it must be on a generous scale indeed, indulged boy," said Josephine, her tone out of accordance with the change in her eyes.  "Let us hear about it before I resume my labours.  Come to the point, and enunciate some demand of youth."

"It is the demand that I was bound to make one day.  It is naturally often a demand of youth.  This breaking up of our life seemed to the best time to make it.  The lesser change must count less at the time of the greater.  I make the demand with confidence, having been taught, as you will say, to make demands.  I have said enough for you to understand me?"

"No," said Josephine, in a quiet, conversational tone; "I don't think so.  You have not said anything definite, have you?"
There are almost never histrionics in an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel.  Whatever their emotions may be, characters are far more likely to react by calmly picking apart their antagonist's sentence than hysterically screaming in their face.  These verbal gymnastics are not true to life, but they raise tension far more effectively (and originally) than a few outbursts could achieve.

did you really think that Sherpa wouldn't find her way into this post?

The interconnections, misalliances, grievances, dependencies and loyalties between characters in More Women Than Men would be impossible to explain in a mere blog post.  Although the dialogue is undeniably stylised, there are complex and believable relationships throughout the novel - an aspect of Ivy Compton-Burnett's writing which is seldom applauded.  A discussion of whether or not her novels are realistic would be fascinating - because 'realistic' has so many facets and definitions.  Would people talk like this?  No, definitely not.  Would people act like this?  Probably no.   But would people feel like these characters feel?  Yes - absolutely - and it is Ivy Compton-Burnett's genius that she can interweave the genuine and the bizarre.

It is not true, either, that nothing happens in Ivy Compton-Burnett novels.  In fact, More Women Than Men contains one of the most ingenious murders ever - done by exposing a ill person to a draught.  A spoiler, yes, but the reason that Compton-Burnett's novels have the reputation of nothing happening is that the plot, as such, doesn't really matter.  It's the way things happen, and the way she writes.  Oh! the way she writes!  I adore it.  Settling down to her aphorisms and linguistic somersaults is a joy - because they are not simply clever, but hilarious.

Of the six Ivy Compton-Burnett novels I've now read, this is perhaps my favourite.  Others have had sections where they dragged, but this one never did.  It's not the easiest of her novels to find, but definitely worth hunting down - I'm hoping that my enthusiasm will lead to one or two Ivy Compton-Burnett converts, or at least encourage some more readers to give her a go.  You'll love or loathe - and, if you love, you'll never look back.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Happy Birthday Sherpa!

Continuing a theme of my time at home, somewhat, you can wish Sherpa a very Happy 2nd Birthday!  She's marginally less silly than when she as a little kitten, and falls off things less, but it would still be a stretch to call her intelligent.  She is, however, very active - being athletic and stupid, she doesn't fit in particularly with the family Thomas... but we love her to bits.  I can't find her at the mo (she loves hiding) so here's an old picture.

To drag this back to books, here's a little game.  Can you subtly alter (with puns, please) book titles to make them feline friendly?  I'm thinking A Tail of Two Kitties, but wittier...  The best one gets Sherpa's purr of approval.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Song for a Sunday

This week's Sunday Song is 'Rewind' by Diane Birch - a lovely, bluesy sort of song.  I love her voice, but haven't got anything else by her... must investigate more.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Happy weekend, one and all.  I'm enjoying being down in Somerset, with beautiful Sherpa (oh, and Mum and Dad, of course) - and sometimes the internet stretches its reach as far as my bedroom.  Fingers crossed that I can get through writing this post without it crashing.

1.) The book - doesn't appear to be out yet (although they're saying early May on the website): it's a reprint of Richmal Crompton's wonderful novel Matty and the Dearingroydes, being brought out by Greyladies Books (who reprinted Leadon Hill a while ago.)  No cover image yet, but this is a wonderful novel with one of those eccentric, joyful, outgoing heroines whom I cherish.  I wrote a review of it in 2010, which you can read here - I'm glad there will soon be copies available easily!

2.) The blog - is a new one, called A Musical Feast.  Samantha emailed me and mentioned that she'd started up a blog, and I'm always delighted to see new faces in the blogosphere.  Go along and say hello!  Yes, the blog title sounds musical, and that is one of Samantha's interests - but the literary side is there, in the pun on Hemingway's A Moveable Feast.  Incidentally, Chris told me I must read Hemingway's novel a while ago.  I hadn't even heard of it, although I knew the quotation from the Book of Common Prayer.  I digress...

3.) The link - isn't remotely highbrow, but it'll give you a laugh, especially if you like puns... and American celebrities... but mostly puns.  Enjoy.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Searching for Sylvia

It's a bit of Sylvia Townsend Warner themed week this week (I'll save writing about her diary for another day, I think) because today I drove off to Dorchester, to look at the Sylvia Townsend Warner archives.  I'd emailed the woman in charge beforehand, and she had warned me that there wouldn't be a huge amount for my area of interest - being Lolly Willowes.  Annoyingly for me, Warner only started her diary a year or two after Lolly Willowes was published, and there's not much in the letters either - but they did manage to provide some interesting items and I spent a happy 2.5 hours poring over various clippings, letters, and notes.  I haven't done a lot of archival work, because there isn't a lot out there for my authors, but it is easily the most absorbing part of my DPhil.

Anyway - as I was bidding farewell to the two women who'd shown me the materials, one mentioned that Chaldon Herring wasn't too far away, and that Sylvia Townsend Warner and her partner Valentine Ackland were buried there.  Their cottage had been bombed during the war, but at least I could still see the memorial.

Well, it turned out not to be quite as close as I'd hoped - especially given the lengthy single-lane tracks that sat-nav decided to take me down.  (That was rather a feature of the day, actually - I don't know the area to the south-east of our village at all well, and sat-nav took me on a lot of tiny roads, coming back.  Not fun.)  However, having been through several other Chaldons, all of which seemed to amount to a farmhouse each, I came upon the relative metropolis of Chaldon Herring.  There must have been at least ten houses... Actually, looking at the village website, there are apparently 170 people, and there seems to be rather a lot going on - including cream teas and a writers' walk, 'learn about Chaldon's extraordinary literary past', later this week.  I assume that would be about Sylvia Townsend Warner and David Garnett (who named his novel The Sailor's Return after the village's pub), and T.F. Powys, who lived there - and it sounds as though I should have waited a few days to go!  

My solitary, uninformed search was aided by a plan of graveyards in the church, and I managed to locate the place where Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland were buried.  Warner was herself rather anti-Christian, in quite a viciously closed-minded way which sadly colours a lot of her writing for me, but she would no doubt be delighted to have these views from her resting place (apologies for the poor weather - these must be stunning when it's sunny.)

It seems appropriate for an author who wrote so engagingly about nature, but without the townsman's fey illusions about the countryside.  Warner knew what village life was like - rarely pure and never simple, as my Mum says - but spent most of her life in rural areas, avoiding literary London.

Although the journey there was a little nerve-wracking, I'm delighted that Chaldon Herring was mentioned to me, and valued my little pilgrimage.

And, just because I'm at home, here's a new picture of gorgeous Sherpa... she's still tiny!

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Summer Will Show - Sylvia Townsend Warner

Yes, the excerpt yesterday was from Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1936 novel Summer Will Show.  STW has had quite a few mentions at Stuck-in-a-Book this year, since I've been researching a chapter of my thesis on her novel Lolly Willowes, and I read Summer Will Show for the same reason.  Well, it's very different.  Warner is renowned, in fact, for the disparity of her topics - which include a missionary on a desert island, a medieval convent, a woman becoming a witch, and, in this instance, the French Revolution.  The only tie between her novels is her striking prose and observational eye.

Our heroine is Sophia Willoughby, who begins Summer Will Show as a rich, aristocratic wife and mother in 1840s Dorset.  Her marriage is not an especially companionable one, but she doesn't seem particularly upset about it.  Indeed, it seems to be par for the course.  Warner expertly encapsulates the change in temperament between an engaged woman and a married woman of the period:
Sophia might refuse her food, pine, burst into unexpected tears, copy poetry into albums and keep pet doves, while her marriage was being arranged and her trousseau ordered; but once married it was understood that she would put away these extravagancies and settle down into the realities of life once more.
Sophia seems rather unfeeling at the outset - strict, rather than motherly, and without any noticeably emotional attachments.  Warner often summarises people's essential characters through seemingly incidental - and here is Sophia's sentence: 'She disliked sitting down in the middle of a walk, she disliked any kind of dawdling.  A slow and rigid thinker, to sit still and contemplate was an anguish to her.'

She is contented, if anything, when her husband absconds to Paris - but even her delight in the freedom afforded by her unassailable singleness is tainted when she learns about her husband's Parisian mistress, Minna Lemuel:
For even to Dorset the name of Minna Lemuel had made its way.  Had the husband of Mrs. Willoughby chosen with no other end than to be scandalous, he could not have chosen better.  A byword, half actress, half strumpet; a Jewess; a nonsensical creature bedizened with airs of prophecy, who trailed across Europe with a tag-rag of poets, revolutionaries, musicians and circus-riders snuffing at her heels, like an escaped bitch with a procession of mongrels after her; and ugly; and old; as old as Frederick or older - this was the woman who Frederick had elected to fall in love with, joining in the tag-rag procession, and not even king in that outrageous court, not even able to dismiss the mongrels, and take the creature into keeping.
Ouch.  But doesn't Warner arrange an image well?

Something tragic happens, which sets Sophia off to find her husband - even with the obstacle of Minna.  She arrives in Paris, and first encounters Minna while the latter is telling a story about her past to an assembled group of eager listeners.  The difficulty about having a great raconteur as a character is that the novelist must be one themselves (it's one of the things which makes Angela Young's accounts of storytellers so wonderful in Speaking of Love, incidentally) - Warner is pretty impressive, but her strength lies in unusual metaphors and striking images (which only occasionally go too far and become too self-conscious), rather than compelling anecdotes, per se.  Here's another of those curious little verbal pictures I love so much:
And with dusters tied on her feet she [Minna] made another glide across the polished floor, moving with the rounded nonchalant swoop of some heavy water bird.  Her sleeves were rolled up, she wore a large check apron, she had all the majestic convincingness of a gifted tragedy actress playing the part of a servant - a part which would flare into splendour in the last act.
Indeed, Minna's personality is captured most effectively when we are told that 'she was always pitching herself to an imaginary gallery'.  Her dramatic nature captures Sophia's interest, and the burning resentment with which she arrives turns into affection, and then devotion...  The excerpt I posted yesterday comes into play here.

I enjoyed the first half of Summer Will Show.  Warner's prose is certainly dense here, not to be read speedily, but the dignity and spark of Sophia still came through strongly.  Her concerns about reputation in a judgemental aristocratic world were interesting and subtle; her relationship and re-encounter with her husband were vibrant and never slipped into the sort of unrealistic emotionalism seen in a lot of novels from the 1930s.  But... the second half dragged and dragged.

First edition (can be bought here)
Perhaps my main problem was that I'm not especially interested in the French Revolution - and I'm certainly not coming from the impassioned left-wing perspective with which Warner wrote this novel (although she later grew rather less zealous in later life.)  Understandably a lot of the action of revolutionary France takes centre stage later in the novel, and as the narrative wandered a little away from relationships, hurt, and pride - themes Warner explores rather masterfully - I lost interest.  And yet even in the first part of the novel, I admired more than I loved.  It was enjoyable, but I couldn't respond with the fervour with which I greeted Lolly Willowes.  The writing was so thick, so relentlessly beautiful, even, that I felt exhausted reading it.  That can hardly be labelled a criticism of Warner, but it prevented me loving the novel deeply.

I have heard Summer Will Show praised to the heights, and thus part of me thinks a re-read in a decade or so would be a good idea.  I don't thrill to the thought.  Harriet Devine has also recently struggled to love this novel, so at least I'm not aloe in my assessment.  For those more interested in historical fiction than I am (and it would hard to be less) maybe you'd get more from this than I did.  For the reader new to Warner, I would certainly suggest Lolly Willowes as the first novel - but I have grown increasingly to think that her greatest triumph is her letters.  I've heard people say the same thing of Virginia Woolf, about her letters and diaries, and thought the assessment rather silly - but, for Warner, the chief qualities of her fiction-writing (adeptness at unusual imagery; an eye for original perspectives) appear in her correspondences, without the flaws which creep into her novels.  The Element of Lavishness is still the best thing I've read by Warner, and Summer Will Show didn't come close to challenging the throne.