Wednesday 25 November 2009


I'm off to Switzerland for the weekend with my housemates - all very exciting - so unless I'm very organised tomorrow, there won't be anything popping up chez Stuck-in-a-Book for a few days.

I don't know anything about Swiss literature. Either in Swiss or out of it - since I don't speak any languages but English, I'd have to rely on translations, but even then my mind draws a blank - any suggestions?

At the moment, just to keep you updated on my reading habits, I'm reading Civilization by Clive Bell (for university work) and Mrs. Tim of the Regiment by DE Stevenson, which I seem to have been reading for months - it's absolutely fantastic, I just haven't had opportunity to finish it. Also on the go is Try Anything Twice by Jan Struther (of Mrs. Miniver fame), a collection of articles and essays which is very amusing. Ruth (of Crafty People) gave it to me a couple of years ago. Thanks Ruth, these things work their way to the top of the tbr pile eventually!

Since I'll be out of the country for a few days, it would be lovely to have a list of suggestions to which to return - so I'd love to hear about anything Swiss (except the Family Robinson) and, failing that, any European novel you think I should read, so long as there's a translation. Scandinavian is my preference...

Monday 23 November 2009

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekday Miscellany

Yes, the Weekend Miscellany has been visiting a Great-Aunt for the past few weeks, and obviously it is now not the weekend - nor, in fact, is today's post going to take the usual form of a book, a blog post, and a link. And that's because I've read so many brilliant blog posts over the past week or so, that I just wanted to share them with you. Some you'll probably have already seen, but some might be new - and there's just too much wonderful stuff on the blogosphere for me to ignore it for a moment longer. Without further ado...

1.) Throughout January and February, Claire from Kiss A Cloud, and some of her friends, will be leading a Woolf in Winter readathon. This is for everyone, but primarily those who have been intimidated by old Virginia in the past, and need a helping hand to get started. Full details are here, but I'll just mention that the books in question are Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, Orlando, and The Waves. The Big Four, and the right order to read them in. I still have soft spots for Jacob's Room and Between the Acts, in fact Jacob's Room might be my favourite Woolf novel (it is today, at any rate) but you'll be set in good stead if you read those four.

2.) Lovely Elaine at Random Jottings has been a Richmal Crompton fan for nearly as long as I have - I found Persephone through Richmal Crompton, and Elaine and I have shared our RC collections with each other over the years. We both champion her whenever we can ( I wrote about her back here) and Elaine the other day wrote another post in praise of this neglected author. Here it is. Her work is sometimes a bit variable, but there are many gems amongst her wide output. I'm currently reading The Innermost Room, and plan to re-read Matty and the Dearingroydes soon.

Harriet Devine has an ongoing series on her blog, paintings of women reading. The other day she posted my favourite in the series so far, by a painter I didn't know - Tavik Frantisek Simon. (Great surname!) I hope she doesn't mind me reproducing it here... but do go and have a scout through her blog for previous paintings. This one reminds me of the Vanessa Bell painting on the Virago Modern Classics edition of Rebecca West's Harriet Hume. I can only find tiny pictures of it, and can't remember the title, but you can see it at Verity's Virago Venture.

4.) I love a bit of book serendipity, don't you? Simon Savidge picked up Lady Into Fox by David Garnett because the cover and title intrigued him - he read it, loved it, and then found out that it was in my 50 Books You Must Read! His review is so much better (and longer) than the one I wrote, and his beautiful Hesperus edition is a little bit nicer than my old one, found in a secondhand bookshop. The lady who told me about it was the same lady who introduced me to Miss Hargreaves - I have much for which to be grateful.

5.) And finally... Litlove at Tales From The Reading Room has compiled a list Reasons For Buying Books, which I happen to find rather convincing...

That's a small selection of my favourite recent blog reading - always such a lot to delight in around the blogs, and perhaps you'll be inspired to link to your five favourite recent blog posts... let me know if you do.

Saturday 21 November 2009

An Evening With Susan Hill

On Friday Becca (whom you will know as Oxford Reader) and I took a trip to Abingdon, to hear Susan Hill talk about Howards End is on the Landing. Anybody who has even glanced at book blogs over the past month or so will have heard about this non-fiction book, where Susan Hill goes through her bookshelves and reacquaints herself with books long-loved, never read, forgotten, or which have mysteriously appeared from nowhere. Reviews have been at both ends of the spectrum, and most places in between, but I'm a firm enthusiast - it's still prime candidate for my favourite book of 2009, and I waved my pom-poms for it here.

Susan Hill started off by, as she recognised, preaching to the converted - as regards the book industry. HEiotL makes it clear that Hill has no personal desire for an eReader or similar - and while she doesn't mind other people having them, she (like all of us) is horrified at the suggestion that books will consequently become obsolete. I'm certain that this won't happen, the Death of the Book has been predicted more or less since the book was invented, but I do worry that bookshops will have to close, and all transactions will have to take place online. Most of Susan Hill's audience were not, shall we say, in the first half of their lives - so the responsibility lies with the younger generation! What a great way to persuade myself that I need to buy more books.

At each of the different events where Suan Hill has spoken, she's apparently chosen different bits to read from Howards End is on the Landing. At our event, she read two extracts which demonstrate the book's scope in tone - one about Roald Dahl, one about Iris Murdoch. That she
has known both these people (and shared a doorstep with TS Eliot) is quite something in itself - and she has turned both acquaintances into very different chapters. Her tales of working with Roald Dahl on judging panels were hilarious; her memories of meeting Iris Murdoch before and during her dementia brought a tear to my eye.

Susan Hill - both in this book and on her blog - isn't shy of an opinion, like any good Yorkshirewoman. What I'd forgotten, when I went to see her talk, was that this would come with a Yorkshirewoman's warmth and wit. It was a lovely evening, enhanced by seeing Annabel (aka Gaskella) again, and a completely unexpected bumping-into Margaret (aka Books Please). If you click on those links, it'll take you to their blog posts about the evening, as they've been quicker off the mark than me...

Thursday 19 November 2009

Making the Cat Laugh

Oh dear... I was promising for so long to write about that book, the single woman in the 1990s, and I still haven't. And now it's too late for me to remember what I liked about it, but anyway, here it is...

This post has no pretensions to being a proper book review, because it could only fail, given my poor memory and the eclectic. After my not-particularly-favourable experience reading Diane Harpwood's Tea & Tranquillisers, you'll be relieved to hear that I had a much better time with Lynne Truss' Making The Cat Laugh: One Women's Journal of Single Life on the Margins. My Aunt Jacq gave it to me a couple of years ago, perhaps because of the cat theme, perhaps because she sensed it would be up my street. And this, ladies and gentleman, *is* the sort of book EM Delafield would be writing, were she a single woman living in a city in the 1990s, rather than a married woman in a village in the 1930s.

Here's a confession - despite being a grammar pedant of the first water, I haven't read Lynne Truss' bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves. I don't even own it - I know, you'd have thought that at least a dozen people would have bought it for me over the years, but no. I have, however, read Talk To The Hand by Truss, which my friend Holly gave to me for a birthday present a few years ago, since it was an expression we cordially shared with one another. It's a look at the rudeness in everyday society - quite diverting, but made me realise how terrifying it would be to be a shop assistant for Truss, since she seems to thrive upon confrontation, and I run from it as much as is humanly possible.

Anyway. Back to the book in question - Making the Cat Laugh was first published in 1995, and consists of columns which had appeared in The Listener, The Times, and Woman's Journal. That might make them sound a bit scattergun, but since they're all essentially about Lynne Truss' life, they all meld pretty well. And her life, throughout, is defined by two things: being single, and having cats. I'm reminded of a line from The Simpsons, when Lisa goes into investigative journalism: "Can a woman with this many cats really be mad?" But Truss is playing up to this image - oh, how she plays up to it. But I suspect there is a kernel of truth in her one-sided conversations with feline housemates, organising her life and living arrangements around them and their peculiarities. As the book continues, it becomes less about her single life and more about her views on life, the universe, and everything middle-class, domestic, and slightly bizarre in it. Supermarkets, paint names, Little Women, using friends in newspaper columns without their permission... they all get the treatment. And many more - and it's very funny. Nary a whiney note, not a glimpse of a sulk - just good old British self-deprecation and mild indignation.

As an example of her cat-obsessed life, this is the beginning of the final column in the book:

When night falls and she doesn't come in for her tea, I usually start to worry. So I go outside and call for her (the old story), and then feel helpless when she still doesn't come. I tell myself that probably she is "eating out tonight" - because I know how easily she insinuates herself into other houses, and then cadges a meal by acting weak and pathetic. At the end of such an evening, she will come home to me in a telltale over-excited state, not really interested in food.

Still, I will say this for her: she always makes sure I'm all right. Out comes the tin-opener, and there's half a tin of Felix, a handful of Kitty Crunch for my little jaws to work on, even a tub of Sheba if she's been drinking. But it's not the food I am worried about. It's just that I am only properly happy when I know she is safe indoors, curled up asleep on that warm hairy rug of hers, her ears flicking contentedly as she dreams of Jeff Bridges.

She was thirty-one when I got her. Mangy and with a bit of a whiff, but also affectionate. She took time to settle down, and it was clear she had been badly treated in the past, because her mood swings were abrupt and inscrutable - one minute running about like a maniac, the next flaked out in weird angular poses in random places on the carpet. But gradually I earned her trust (and she learnt some basic grooming), and now she has this peculiar habit of rubbing her face against my leg, which is quite pleasant actually, though a bit of a nuisance when you are trying to walk downstairs.

To friends who haven't got one, I always say, 'Get one.' I mean it, no hesitation. Yes, they are selfish. Yes, they moult. Yes, they yowl a bit in the night-time and they make it difficult for you to go on holiday. But they make it up to you in so many ways. For one thing, they can sometimes be persuaded to pose with ribbons around their necks. And for another, they are absolutely fascinating to watch. For example, mind spends hour after hour just staring at a big box in the corner of the living-room, not moving an inch, but silently grinding her teeth and tensing her muscles as if to pounce. I have said it before and I'll say it again: I am convinced they can see things we can't see.

Wednesday 18 November 2009


Did anybody see the programme Enid this week, a biopic of Enid Blyton starring Helena Bonham Carter? It was on BBC4, and is still available as 'watch again' for UK residents. Apparently it got the third highest ever audience for BBC4. I've watched the first half, and it's rather good (though I've already spotted a mistake - the Famous Five are mentioned in 1939, when in fact she didn't start writing the series until 1942). The programme is on quite similar lines to the excellent 1992 biopic with Maureen Lipman, which (whisper it) is available on YouTube. Both, I think, are heavily influenced by Barbara Stoney's 1974 book Enid Blyton: The Biography, which I read years ago, and by which I was impressed.

None of these paint Enid as saintly, by any means - I think the fairy-like goodness of her author-persona means biographers (whether in book or on screen) relish the points of departure, but even so, Blyton seems to have been a far from ideal wife and mother. Not to be read/watched by those who want to keep an untarnished vision of the author, but fascinating if you can cope with it.

Whatever her character, I will cherish her as the author who introduced me to a love of reading. I know there have been bans over the years, but they are ridiculous - as book banning almost always is. Her output is extraordinary - 753 titles, according to Wikipedia, which have sold over 600 million copies altogether. And in fact, the Famous Five books continue to sell a million copies a year - the numbers are frankly astonishing. And yet, why are there no films? As far as I can tell, well-loved series like The Secret Seven, St. Clare's, Malory Towers, and The Naughtiest Girl in the School haven't even been adapted for television. Is there something in them that makes them addictive reading, but wouldn't work on screen? Surely not - I loved the Famous Five series on television... well, I'd be intrigued to find out why. But in the absence of these, at least we can watch works about Enid Blyton's life - perhaps while that takes the spotlight, the BBC and others are reluctant to show the happier side of her life. But I, for one, would love to watch both.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

A Kind of Intimacy

I've spent a long weekend at home in Somerset with the rest of my family, doing restful things and enjoying the countryside (though the train journey home was a nightmare - took eight hours from door to door, and is two and half hours in a car...) When I'm on trains, I try to catch up with some of my non-university reading, especially things I've promised that I'll read for months and months...

But A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth isn't a review
book (plenty of those waiting, looking at me impatiently) but one my housemate Mel lent me a while ago. (She first heard about Jenn when Jenn submitted work to Mel's flash fiction website, The Pygmy Giant. Go have an explore.) Oh, and it came second in the Guardian's 'Not The Booker' prize. A Kind of Intimacy is a novel from earlier this year, about Annie - 'morbidly obese, lonely, and hopeful', says the blurb, though I should add that the blurb gives away most of the plot and should be ignored before reading. Annie moves to a new neighbourhood, with just Mr. Tibs the cat for company. As she's bringing the boxes in, she meets her next door neighbour Neil, who initially mistakes her for the removal man. She recognises him, but can't place where they'd previously met.

Annie senses a closeness between herself and Neil, not hindered by his partner Lucy, who is everything Annie is not: very young, thin, beautiful. But Annie realises that she has to keep an eye on Lucy, if she is going to rescue Neil from his current life, and set one up with him. These attempts are increasingly bizarre, but all very just in Annie's mind. She overhears Lucy insulting her - so she pushes handfuls of garbage through her letterbox. She digs up Lucy's primroses; she even takes washing from Lucy's washing line.

The novel is from Annie's first-person perspective, and so Ashworth deftly gives us a viewpoint of somebody who is unbalanced, but is unaware of it - the narrative manages to tread the line between internal logic (all Annie's actions make sense to her) and insanity (the reader slowly realises how unhinged Annie is.) But unhinged isn't perhaps the right word - because we also see, in flashbacks, what events have led to Annie's current state - her relationship with her parents, for example, and her first boyfriend. There is the ongoing questions as to whether or not she has a husband and child - she tells some people that she does, and some that she doesn't.

It is no easy task, showing us Annie's perspective, while still allowing the reader to understand how limited and delusional that perspective can be. She notices everything - 'Neil shuffled, took his hands out of his pockets, and sat down next to me on the couch. Our knees pointed at each other, which I knew from my reading about non-verbal communication was a good sign.' - but not the motives behind the actions. She interprets Neil's glances with Lucy as trying to let her down gently; her neighbour laughing at her as anxious concern. The reader is able to see the truth through the mist of Annie's misconceptions - though there is still often a haze, as Annie's most bizarre actions are only mentioned in passing, by others. A Kind of Intimacy has a lot in common with Lisa Glass's excellent (though very disturbing) book Prince Rupert's Teardrop, which I reviewed here - Ashworth's novel is perhaps not quite so clever as Glass's, nor so unsettling, but that doesn't stop it being pretty clever and unsettling anyway.

As a character study, and as an experiment in how narrative can be used to reveal and conceal, A Kind of Intimacy is a triumph - that the novel is also fast-paced, compelling, and of escalating intensity makes it exceptional. Perhaps not my normal fare, and not gentle or relaxing, but it's always good to jolt myself with this sort of novel - I recommend you give it a go yourself.

Friday 13 November 2009

New Arrivals

I promised to tell you the books which arrived over the past fortnight or so... and so I will! It's quite a big pile, and that has something to do with a rather incredible bookshop I've mentioned before. It's the Book & Comic Exchange in Notting Hill Gate, and has three huge basement rooms filled with books for 50p each. The books upstairs are mostly a pound or two as well. If you head there now, Londoners, there's a Virago copy of The Tortoise and the Hare in the small Virago section in the basement... Not all of these are from there, but the total (except one pricier gift to myself) was about £20.

From the bottom up:

Dear Fatty - Dawn French
DF's autobiography, looks like it could be fun.

Granite and Rainbow - Mitchell Leaska

A mammoth biography of Virginia Woolf, and for only 50p!

A Long Long Way - Sebastian Barry

Thinking ahead, because it's a book group choice for next year

The Ante-Room - Kate O'Brien

I've eyed this up a few times, but it's just made the grade at 50p

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths - Barbara Comyns

Yes, I already have this (Colin, hush) but not in this nice Virago edition.

Unexplained Laughter - Alice Thomas Ellis
The Birds of the Air - Alice Thomas Ellis
My friend Barbara-from-Ludlow suggested a trilogy of her books, and I couldn't remember the titles of them... so took a guess and bought these ones... they turned out to be the wrong ones, but should be fun nonetheless.

Iris - John Bayley

I love the film, but have somehow never read the book.

The Adventures of Sally - PG Wodehouse
Can never have enough!

Celia - EH Young

Looking forward to reading EH Young - I have three or four, but somehow haven't opened them yet.

The Winslow Boy - Terence Rattigan

Read this in Spring, but didn't have my own copy.

Singled Out - Virginia Nicholson

Yes, I already have this too... but it was only 50p...

Stevenson Under the Palm Trees - Alberto Manguel

Looks interesting, and is in a beautiful edition.

The Crowded Street - Winifred Holtby

A nice Virago edition to complement my Persephone edition.

Fine Feathers and Other Stories - EF Benson

Love Mapp & Lucia, amassing others to read...

Jane Austen: A Family Record - Austen-Leigh & Deirdre le Faye

Thank you Epsie for my birthday present!

Pink Sugar - O. Douglas

And a birthday present from Clare, published by Greyladies

Time Will Darken It - William Maxwell
Barbara-from-Ludlow heard about my recent Maxwell interest... when I happened to mention it to her! Wasn't fishing, promise, but it's a lovely gift.

The Innermost Room - Richmal Crompton
My birthday present to myself...

The Unbearable Bassington - Saki
More Saki needs to be in my diet!

That was fun - let's see how many I've read by this time next year...

Thursday 12 November 2009


Another quick post, as I'm away from the homestead - I thought I'd draw your attention to an article I've been reading called 'Brute-Cult'. Well, it's quite long, but I'm just going to reproduce bits of it...

‘I am, I suppose, the average Anglo-Saxon male. I mention [this] because I wish to show where I stand before I proceed to denounce what seems to me the new cult in ultra-highbrow literary circles. (If it isn’t actually a cult now, it’s on the edge of being one.) This is the cult of brutality in fiction.[…] It seems to me a bad sign when cultivated people begin to praise fiction that reads like a police court black list. I am not, you must understand, referring now to the popular sensational or crime novels. I am referring to much more ambitious works of fiction, whose authors are rapidly acquiring big reputations among the ultra-ultras. […] We are suffering just now from a “face-the-unpleasant-facts” snobbery in the criticism of fiction. A novel with a rape in it is like life, we are told; whereas a novel with an ordinary love story in it is simply a shirking of the issue.’

It all seems rather pertinent to me, in the storm of issue-led books which abound today. But… this article, by J.B. Priestley, was written in The Book Society News in 1931. Hmm. Does that make us both right, or both wrong?

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Ivy Reviews

Just a quick post to point you in the direction of various reviews of Manservant and Maidservant. Only a few of us read it, but there's still a nice variety of opinions already - everything from a new convert to someone who'll never read a word of Ivy Compton-Burnett again. Anyway, here you are - go and have a look-see...

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Birthday Fun

Thanks everyone for your birthday wishes, and sorry I've been AWOL for a while - book thoughts will return soon, but tonight instead I'll take you through our birthday celebrations (the 'our' here being me and my housemate Mel, whose birthday is this week, and who had a joint 50th with me).

In the morning we went on a road trip to a place with a funny name. In the past this has taken us to Kingston Bagpuize, Thrupp, Shipton-under-Wychwood, Horton-cum-Studley, Marsh Gibbon, and Hinton St. George, amongst others. On Saturday we went to a little village in Oxfordshire called....

What's the weirdest place name you've visited?

It was frankly false advertising. The road went right through it. Highlights included some rather lovely houses, though. And a jam stall - but they included such delights as 'Plum, Coconut, and Cardamom'. We didn't buy any, but it wasn't the end of the world... ba-dum-crash.

On the following day we went off to the donkey sanctuary. If it weren't for my borderline-insane love of cats, I'd have to put these as my favourite animal. Here's a little video.... (Video! I know! How clever is THAT?)

Aren't they beautiful?

And in the evening, we had a party here, enjoying the lovely cake Our Vicar's Wife sent via a friend. Count the candles - there are twenty-four of 'em.

I'll be back with books soon, promise - maybe a list of the ones which have found their way to my house over the past week or so. And that happy single woman book I said I'd talk about... now I'm all old and responsible, I'll keep my promises. Promise.

Friday 6 November 2009


I promised you that second book review, and it didn't happen, sorry... I've been away in London, and won't be posting over the weekend because... it's my birthday tomorrow! On Sunday my housemate Mel and I will be having a joint birthday celebration (hers being on the 13th) - going off to a donkey sanctuary, and having cake and festivities here in the evening. Busy busy, fun fun - see you on Monday!

Wednesday 4 November 2009

One Valium or Two?

Now, I am neither a housewife in the 1980s nor a single woman in the 1990s, but I have recently been discovering what these predicaments are like - through fiction-based-on-fact and fact-based-on-fiction, respectively. Today I'll talk about the housewife in the 1980s...

I picked up Diane Harpwood's Tea & Tranquillisers: The Diary of a Happy Housewife (1981) in a charity shop for a pound. I was enticed by the cover, and the fact that it was published by Virago, into thinking that it might be a 1980s version of EM Delafield's superlatively wonderful Diary of a Provincial Lady. In some ways it fits... Jane Bennett has been married for ten years, has two children, and is a housewife always watching the pennies. Where Delafield's experience as a housewife was in this house in Devon...

...Diane Harpwood and her heroine are based in a small, rather depressing neighbourhood. Jane constantly fights with her husband David, despite also being rather smitten by him. She admires her friend Cathy for doing a correspondence course to get some A Levels (or perhaps O Levels, I forget) but is herself stuck in domestic drudgery. Here's an illustrative excerpt:
Saturday 28th: I left home tonight, flew the nest, scarpered. I'd had E-nough, and enough they say is as good as a feast, or in my case a glut. So the atmosphere in the old homestead has been a trifle chilled tonight.

I've been on my feet since half-past six this morning and my bum has scarcely come into contact with a chair all day. I've been making beds, tidying up, changing sh*tty nappies, tidying up, washing sh*tty nappies, tidying up, preparing, cooking and clearing up after breakfast, lunch and tea, washing the kitchen floor which is permanently filthy with bits of petrifying food and assorted muck carried in on everyone's shoes, except for today, when it was clean for a while.
By now you'll be getting the gist. Perhaps you're nodding your head in thoughtful sympathy. Or perhaps, like me, you're wishing she'd drowned herself in the sink at breakfast. The blurb describes Tea & Tranquillisers as 'hilarious and heartbreaking' and... well, it's not. There were moments of pathos in amongst the whinging, but for the most part this book was utterly humourless. Just page after page of complaining about her lot. If you want a book about being a poor housewife (though a bit earlier) look at Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns. For an updated look at provincial motherhood, you can do no better than Provincial Daughter, by EM Delafield's own daughter, RM Dashwood. But not this book... oh, that EM Delafield could have written it! Yes, her life was probably rather easier, at least on the manual labour front - but she turned a wry, self-deprecating eye upon her life and her dilemmas. There is a world between self-deprecating and self-pity.

And, lest you think I'm being all chauvinistic, this is not a feminist book by any stretch of the imagination. There are all sorts of household jobs and decisions that she can only envisage a man doing, and quite often you want to shake her and say "a woman is quite capable of a bit of DIY, you don't have to wait for your husband to do it while you make the dinner!"

As you can see, I was quite frustrated by Tea & Tranquillisers... it wasn't all bad, there were some quite touching moments, but on the whole I thought it was an ill-conceived, humourless whine. If you've read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts...

Tomorrow I'll be writing about that single woman in the 1990s... and, just to give you a sneak preview, the book in question meets with rather more favour! Oh, and it's not Bridget Jones' Diary...

Tuesday 3 November 2009


I've never read a pastiche of Ivy Compton-Burnett, and I would like to, but I have a feeling that she might be one of those authors who'd defy spoofing. Her characters are so intentionally stylised and unnaturalistic, that a parody might appear only imitation. But the same cannot be said for those targeted in Sebastian Faulks' witty collection Pistache [sic, if I may] which my lovely friend Lorna gave me for Christmas 2006. It's been a while since I read it, but I do remember enjoying curling up with it on Boxing Day. Each pastiche is about a page and half long, and most began life on Radio Four's The Write Stuff, though they have been edited and polished, apparently.

This is the perfect book for anybody who's ever wondered what The Waste Land would look like as a limerick, how Emma would fare on an 18-30 party, or how AA Milne could be altered for this grittier age:
Hush, hush, whisper who dare,
Christopher Robin has gone into care.
As always, with this sort of thing, it only works when you're familiar with the author being pastiched. Sections on Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, Raymond Chandler etc. left me cold, because I've read nothing by them - but, for the most part, they're authors you're likely to know. Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens, Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, Agatha Christie, Geoffrey Chaucer, PG Wodehouse... all the old staples, really. My two favourites were Dan Brown at a cash-point and Virginia Woolf at a hen-party. The mind boggles, doesn't it? But I shall give you a taste, and type out the Dan Brown section (which is longer than most, actually). This is for everyone, like me, who wasted hours of their life reading The Da Vinci Code...

The world-renowned author stabbed his dagger-like debit card into the slot. 'Welcome to NatWest,' barked the blushing grey light of the screen to the forty-two-year-old man. He had only two thoughts.

NatWest is a perfect heptogram.

Scratching his aquiline head, frantically trying to remember a number, the sun came up at last and rained its orange beams on Dan Brown. 'What do you want to do?' asserted the blinking screen. His options were stark for Brown, more than ever now. 'Get Mini Statement'. 'Withdraw Cash'. 'Change PIN.' For what seemed an eternity, trying to remember his PIN, the screen mocked the famous writer.

Someone somewhere knows my four-figure PIN.

Whatever my PIN was once is still my PIN and in some remote safe someone somewhere still knows it

In Paddington Station, an iconic railway terminal with a glass roof like the bastard offspring of a greenhouse and a railway station, a line of fellow travellers was waiting on Brown. Brown frowned down at his brown shoes and for the hundredth time that morning wondered what destiny may have in store for the Exeter, New Hampshire graduate.

The sandy-haired former plagiarism defendant felt his receding temples pounding in his guts. Four figures. Four figures, you halfwit, he almost found himself murmuring in Brown's ear, close at hand.

Tentatively his fingers pounded their remorseless melody upon the NatWest keyboard, numerically. He watched his fingers work with sallow eyes.

He type in anything, literally anything, desperately. He didn't know what affect it may have.

The headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland resides in a hydraulically sealed ninety-eight-storey building guarded by hair-trigger sensitive nuclear firedogs at 4918, 275th Street in Manhattan, America, whose security protocol is known to only six elves whose tongues have been cut out for security by the Cyrenian Knights of Albania, the capital of Greece.

In an instant, the famous writer remembered their bleeding skin from barbed wire.

Of course. They must pass on the secret PIN. An unbroken chain whose links are not forged (not in that sense).

9 . . . 8 . . . 7 . . .6. His fingers pronounced the Sigma number. The Sigma number was almost impossible to fake, whereby the Liberace Sequence was quite easy to forge for prominent author Dan Brown.

The cash machine cleared its throat and breathed in with a rasping exhalation that seemed to shake its very belly. Then finally it expectorated wheezily up twenty-eight million dollars into the fingers pregnant with expectation of the forty-two-year-old man.

'Take you cash now please,' pleaded the mocking screen, no longer mocking.

It's like giving candy to a baby, it occurred to the universe-celebrated prose stylist.

It's like shelling eggs.

Sunday 1 November 2009

Sprawling Ivy

I don't know how many people managed to join in a group read of Manservant and Maidservant, what with the appalling scarcity of copies, and the fact that (in my case, at least) good intentions rarely make the tbr pile any shorter - but it's November now, and so I'm going to begin talking about the novel. If you have managed to read it, and post about it, please let me know, and I'll include links in this post - and shout about them in later posts too. Or, indeed, if you had a go and hated it, didn't get beyond page 2, I want to hear from you too! And if you've been reading and don't have a blog, or don't fancy posting it on your blog for whatever reason, I'd be more than happy to put your thoughts up on Stuck-in-a-Book.

Right! Let's get started. Manservant and Maidservant was published in 1947, bang in the middle of Dame Ivy's writing career, which spanned from Pastors and Masters (1925) to her death in 1969. She did write a novel in 1911, Dolores, but later disowned it - and all of her other nineteen novels are, I believe, more or less the same. (Having said that, whenever she was asked which were her favourites of her own novels, she'd mention A House and its Head and Manservant and Maidservant.) The plots may differ slightly, but the scenarios don't seem to, nor does her distinctive approach to writing. In Manservant and Maidservant, like so many of her books, there is an enormous family living in an old house, squabbling and calmly interrogating one another. In fact, what I wrote in my review of Parents and Children still stands:
Life-changing events are encompassed by lengthy, facetious discussions - gently vicious and cruelly precise, always picking up on the things said by others. Calmness permeates even the most emotional responses, and ICB's writing is always astonishing in its use of dialogue. More or less all of it is dialogue, and though often sophistry, it is somehow also accurate about family dynamics.
Gosh, quoting myself, isn't that self-indulgent? But it's true - blink-and-you'll-miss-it events of enormity will be mentioned in amongst pages of discussing the lighting of a fire, or whether or not the children are entitled to Christmas stockings. Centre of the family is Horace, father and employer - his wife is mysteriously absent from proceedings, though his cousin and aunt are present. He is strict, decisive, given to posing rhetorical questions - and as the novel develops, hints are given of a cruel nature which has only recently subsided. His relationship with his children is uneasy, and you get the sense that they are unsure of his character, and what he will do next. He, of course, does not see things in the same manner:
"This room is never damp. It could not be in its situation," said Horace, who saw in his family house the perfection he had not found in his family.
As the title suggests, the world below stairs is as important as that above. Bullivant, the butler, sees both worlds - Mrs. Selden the Cook, George and Miriam slightly further down the hierarchy. I loved the scenes in the servants' quarters - the dynamics of those thrown together into a strange home/non-home. I especially liked Cook, unnervingly eloquent (how many servants would say
"That was quite a superfluous injunction" ?) and with a firm sense of keeping people in their place.
"I could feel to you as to a mother, Mrs. Selden," said George, on an impulse.
"Then behave to me as a son and hand me those forks," said Cook, regarding this as the right way to meet excess of feeling.
In fact, keeping people in their place, within a strict hierarchy, is of far greater significance below stairs than above - though it is not ignored there, and in vain does Horace try and teach his children the pitfalls of 'fairness'. But the manservant and maidservant, et al, provided most of my favourite quotations. For example:
"Do you take your tea strong or the reverse, Miss Buchanan?"

"Neither one nor the other," said the guest, using her rather loud voice for the first time.

"That is my own preference," said Bullivant.

"My bias is also towards the mean," said Cook, with her eyes on the teapot. "I am not in favour of excess in any direction."

"How do the young people like it?" said Miss Buchanan, both her utterance and its nature coming as a surprise.

"I am conversant with their preferences," said Cook, with nothing in her tone to indicate that she would be influenced by these.
"It was a bad hour for George, when he told the truth about himself," said Mortimer. "It was sad to see him thinking that honesty was the best policy."
This is fairly indicative of Ivy Compton-Burnett's style - warped epigrams; small authorial comment casting a cynical eye upon convoluted conversations. I don't think anybody could call her dialogue naturalistic, but it does put across people's characters surprisingly well. And there is such a sense of claustrophobia - people always watching, listening, correcting and analysing.

It's impossible to skim-read Manservant and Maidservant, or even, I found, to read it quickly. Though not a long book, it took me a long time to read it - the prose is so rich, so ponderous and dense, that I'm forced t
o settle back and let the characters talk at their own pace. And, once I do that, I love it. I love the long discussions which spiral round and don't seem to achieve anything, because they are so well crafted - each sentence carefully honed, each inflection deliberate. I love the involved ways in which people rebuke each other or put them down. I couldn't read two Compton-Burnett novels next to each other, perhaps, but I do need to know that some are waiting on the shelf.

But, of course, the point of a group read is to find out what you all thought... and I can't wait.
Let me know! And, if you haven't managed to join in this time, perhaps this post will have inspired you to consider ICB next time you spot her in a secondhand bookshop. Or, indeed, in Hesperus' new reprint of Pastors and Masters. For my money, she is one of the twentieth-century's greatest and most important writers - but let's see what everyone else says...