Tuesday 31 May 2011

A Beautiful Book

I bought this a little while ago, from the small book section of Antiques on High in Oxford, but it is one of the most beautiful little books I own, and I thought I'd share it.

I doubt it would win any awards in fine printing catalogues, but I am very fond of it. The book in question is a 1929 edition of selections from The Female Spectator by Eliza Haywood (usually spelt Haywood, but spelt Heywood in this edition) edited by Mary Priestley. The Female Spectator was the first woman's periodical written by a woman, written between 1744 and 1771 in imitation of Addison and Steele's more famous Spectator. The selections in this book all, apparently, come from a single edition in 1748 - which is as useful as any, as far as a representation goes.

Elizabeth Haywood was incredibly prolific, and taking a gander at her Wikipedia entry I am trying to remember what I read. The City Jilt, I think, and perhaps The Mercenary Lover. I remember her being amusing and a little bit shocking at times. I have done no more than flick through this selection of The Female Spectator (indeed, I shall have to procure a page-cutter before I go much further, as some of it is still in need of cutting) but I can see I shall derive some amusement from sections entitled 'Tennis, a Manly Exercise', or 'Honour of Itself Not to be Relied On', not to mention 'Caterpillars, their Structure very Amazing'. How seriously Haywood is to be taken will doubtless always be slightly unclear.

And I'm not just boasting about a lovely book I had the good fortune to stumble across - it is actually available fairly affordably from Amazon, and would delight any bookshelf. In fact, it's cheaper than an ordinary new hardback - and how much more special!

Monday 30 May 2011

Well, I guess I don't have much choice.

I bought Nicolas Bentley's book How Can You Bear to be Human? for its excellent title, and because I had seen some of his artwork elsewhere, and quite liked it. I've got to say, the title is probably the best thing about this book - but it passed an entertaining hour.

I don't know the provenance of the book, but it must be collected from somewhere. It consists of brief, humorous pieces and cartoons - but often the cartoon doesn't seem to bear any relation to the writing. Which is quite confusing, to say the least.

Bentley's strength is definitely in his drawing, rather than his writing, but that is to be expected. His sketches aren't ornately detailed, but with exaggeration which is not too exaggerated, he manages to convey exactly what he wishes - and is rather more subtle in his artwork than his prose. The prose is rather a mixed bag - it starts well, but the editor (perhaps Bentley himself?) probably decided to put the best things at the beginning.

My favourite piece was 'Strange Interlude', which is Provincial Ladyesque in its dealings with an awkward social occasion, including this exchange between the narrator and an offensive approaching couple:

"Well, my deahr?"

To which, in tones somewhat lower than his, she flashed the riposte: "Well?"

Again silence fell between them and they stood smiling mutely at each other.

"You have tried the punch?" she said at last.

Unable to block my ears in time, I caught his shrill response.

"I have indeed and I pronounce it capital."

He grinned at me shyly with teeth that were rather too far apart. I noticed his hand had been surreptitiously exploring his pocket, and I guessed what for. He lent towards me and said sotto voce, with a look that appealed for my support and failed utterly:

"Do you suppose our hostess would permit a pipe?"

"I don't smoke, so I wouldn't know," I said, lapsing through sheer nerves into the affectation of the conditional. He peered about him with a look of wildly exaggerated consternation and then, in order, I suppose, to keep up the conspiratorial pretence, tiptoed away.

Most of the pieces in How Can You Bear to be Human? are structured as humorous essays, rather than scenes like this - the essays being on topics from Hockey to Ballet to Hats Suitable For Dictators. Quite.

It's all good fun, and the sort of Penguin book you could easily give someone as a present, or keep in the smallest room of the house. I had rather hoped for a flash of genius, which there was not, but it's a nice glance into the humour of the 1950s.

Oh, and I have to finish by sharing this quick excerpt, for my brother (and Wolves fan) Colin:

[...] simple though I may be compared to, say, Professor Bronowski, compared to the man who delights more in Wolverhampton Wanderers than in Wordsworth, I am a creature of infinite complexity.

Sunday 29 May 2011

Song for a Sunday

A while ago I thought to myself, "I bet I would like a singer who would name their album Happenstance." And so I searched to see if any artist had, and came across Rachael Yamagata - my reasoning was not wrong; I did like Rachael. I especially like this song, 'Worn Me Down'. Enjoy your Bank Holiday weekend!

For more Sunday Songs, click here.

Saturday 28 May 2011

Illyrian Spring: prize draw

The winner of my (rather battered) Penguin edition of Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge is...


Congrats, Sherry, I'll get it off to you as soon as I can. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Friday 27 May 2011

Possibly Persephone? (redux)

Coming to you a bit late, my report on the Possibly Persephone? event - and when I say 'report', you will soon see that it descends (or perhaps ascends) into a long list of books.

Claire (Paperback Reader) and I met outside her work at 5.30pm and headed along to the Persephone Books shop on Lamb's Conduit Street. I had wondered quite how we'd fit everyone into a fairly smallish shop - the answer being that we'd simply crowd in and be friendly! Nicola Beauman greeted us at the door, and we set about drinking madeira ("have some madeira, m'dear" was mentioned) which was delicious, and settling down for a fun evening. By the time everyone arrived there were probably about 15 of us, lovely folk one and all, and exactly the sort of bookish people with whom it is a delight to spend an evening.

Nicola kicked off proceedings by telling us briefly how often people recommend books, and how Persephone set about finding, reading, and thinking about these suggestions. She even unveiled a very tantalising folder filled with print outs and letters, containing suggestions - so many authors unknown to me, and so many potential gems.

And then we went round in the circle, giving our suggested titles and defending them. I was madly scribbling down everything I heard, although I can't remember plots etc. for that many of them. You already know about Mr. Pim Passes By - Nicola pointed out that Vintage and Capuchin have both brought out Milne titles recently, which would make AAM difficult to market as one of Persephone's authors, but we will wait and see... After the suggestions was some general chat, with many of us saying novels we love which are out of print, until Nicola must have felt under an avalanche. The first of these below were the suggestions; after Ann Valery's book it's a list of (some of) those which were mentioned at all.

If you want to know more about any of these books, and can't find anything by Googling etc., then I'll do my best to remember something! Or if you know something about them, do yell.

--Miss Penny & Miss Plum - Dorothy Evelyn Smith
--Summer in the Greenhouse - Elizabeth Maver
--The Blue Castle - L.M. Montgomery
--Earth and Water - Sheelagh Kinelli
--The Woman's Book - ed. Philippa Preston
--Memories of a Militant - Annie Kenney
--Peter Abelard - Helen Waddell
--The Wedding - Denis Mackail
--At the Top of the Muletrack - Carola Matthews
--Kirsteen - Margaret Oliphant
--Westwood - Stella Gibbons
--Miss Linsey and Pa - Stella Gibbons
--Baron von Kodak, Shirley Temple, and Me - Ann Valery
--The Wheel Spins - Ethel Lina White
--Diminishing Circles - Barbara Rees
--Harriet Dark: Branwell Brontes lost novel - Barbara Rees
--A Step Out of Time - Betty Askwith
--Guard Your Daughters - Diana Tutton
--Camera! - Joan Morgan
--Faster! Faster! - E.M. Delafield
--Cometh up like a Flower - Rhoda Broughton
--Laughing Mountains - Kay Lynn
--Harriet - Elizabeth Jenkins
--Miss Tiverton Goes Out - A.M. Champneys

Thursday 26 May 2011

Mr. Pim (Passes By)

I have come back from a really wonderfully enjoyable Possibly Persephone? event, which I will write more about soon - hopefully tomorrow. But tonight I shall leave you in no further doubt as to the choice I took along with me - it's Mr. Pim Passes By by A.A. Milne, and I left my copy with lovely Nicola Beauman, so I will wait and see what she thinks. Onto my review...

Every now and then I write about A.A. Milne's works, and mention that he was my first great grown-up-b
ooks love - ironically, given that he is best known as a children's writer. Two People and The Red House Mystery have both recently come back into print, and yet there is a huge amount of AAM's work which is mostly overlooked. Some of his whimsical sketches are currently appearing on Radio 4 - thanks for the heads-up, Barbara! - and you can listen to previous episodes and read more info here.
But today I'm going to write about the most amusing of A.A. Milne's novels, and the first that he wrote - Mr. Pim (1921). It has a slightly confusing publication history. It is an adaptation of his (once) very popular play Mr. Pim Passes By - and in later editions of the novel it reverts to this title. Confusing, no? Incidentally, it is dedicated to Irene Vanbrugh and Dion Boucicault (the picture is them in the play version, nabbed from Wikipedia) - the former's autobiography is one of the more interesting and unusual books I've read this year. I read it in 2002, and recently re-read it - finding it just as much a joy this time around.

Mr. Pim concerns the family living at Marden House. George Marden is a very proper gentleman, with very proper views. His niece and ward Dinah is rather flighty; her very-nearly-fiance Brian is modern and sweet; George's wife Olivia is... well, here description rather falters. Milne's strongest suit is his female characters, and Olivia is perhaps the best role he ever wrote for the stage - and then novel. Olivia, like many of Milne's heroines, though doubtless infuriating should one encounter her in real life, is an absolute delight on the page. She is strong-willed without ever being remotely antagonistic; she is sweet without being saccharine; she can be flippant or passionate with equal conviction, and yet never quite lets her guard down. Being married to George must be rather difficult, yet one feels that Olivia is the only person who could possibly ameliorate him in any way - and it's rather lucky that she happens to love him.

Here's a conversation between Dinah and Brian which rather sets the tone of the family:

Brian, lying back on the sofa, looked at her lazily with half-closed eyes.

"Yes, I know what you want, Dinah."

"What do I want?" said Dinah, coming to him eagerly.

"You want a secret engagement --"

She gave an ecstatic little shudder.

"-- and notes left under doormats --"

"Oh!" she breathed happily.

"-- and meetings by the withered thorn when all the household is asleep. I know you."

"Oh, but it is such fun! I love meeting people by withered thorns."

Her mind hurried on to the first meeting. There was a withered thorn by the pond. Well, it wasn't a thorn exactly, it was an oak, but it certainly had a withered look because the caterpillars had got at it, as at all the other oaks this year, much to George's annoyance, who felt that this was probably the beginning of Socialism.

As the novel opens, Olivia wishes to hang some orange curtains which George considers far too modern for his house. Of such things are narratives spawned - Milne wrote in his autobiography that this idea was the catalyst for the whole story. Elsewhere, Dinah and Brian are almost engaged, and Dinah is trying to find a way to tell her uncle. George himself is busy pontificating: "Tell me what a man has for breakfast, and I will tell you what he is like." George, I'm sure you will.

Milne was keen to point out that Mr. Pim isn't simply the play with 'he said' and 'she said' thrown in, and indeed it is not. The plot is the same, and the characters are the same, but the authorial comment and wry narrative (at which Milne was such an expert) come fully into play. At this juncture, Milne himself breaks off into an amusing account of various breakfasts at Marden House. It's too long to type out, but he does this sort of thing so well.

And we haven't even got to Mr. Pim yet. His passing-by is the spark which sends the whole household into frenzy - and quite inadvertently. Mr. Pim is delightfully absent-minded - he takes absent-mindedness into a whole new category. And, lucky Mardens, Mr. Pim has a note of introduction to George. Here he is on his way, being sent off by mutual friend Brymer:

"You've got the letter for George?" [said Brymer]

Mr. Pim looked vague.

"George Marden. I gave it to you."

"Yes, yes, to be sure. You gave it to me. I remember your giving it to me."

"What's that in your hand?"

Mr Pim looked reproachfully at the letter which he held in his hand, as if it had been trying to escape him. Then he put it close to his eyes.

"George Marden, Esq., Marden House," he read, and looked up at Brymer. "This is the letter," he explained courteously. "I have it in my hand."

"That's right. It's the first gate on the right, about a couple of hundred yards up the hill. He'll put you on to this man, Fanshawe, that you want. His brother Roger used to know him well - the one that died."

"Dear, dear," said Mr. Pim gently, emerging from his own thoughts to the distressing fact that somebody had died.
Mr. Pim ends up coming to Marden House several times that day, for various reasons - George being busy, or realising that he has said the wrong thing. But mostly he doesn't know quite what a stir he creates - for, on one of his little visits, he happens to mention having seen an ex-convict from Australia, named Telworthy. What Mr. Pim doesn't know is that Olivia's first husband, missing presumed dead, was a convict from Australia named Telworthy...

Cue all manner of confusion and upset, panic and madness. Bigamy appears to have arisen at the most proper, law-abiding house in all the county. More importantly, this crisis in George and Olivia's 'marriage' allows Olivia to see exactly how much George esteems reputation, and how much he loves her...

Milne inherits just enough of the wit of the 1890s to let his characters chop endless logic, and has enough of the 1920s to let them do it for a reason. Although all the insouciant characters give off the impression of taking nothing even remotely seriously, in fact there is an overtone where decisions do matter, and changes can happen. It is all incredibly funny, and fairly fanciful - one can only imagine what would have resulted had George Bernard Shaw turned his hand to it - but it is not flimsy.

I'm so pleased that I loved Mr. Pim as much the second time around as the first. I worried that I'd outgrown whimsy, which is a dirty word for some, but I think it would be impossible to outgrow the joy of reading Milne. I encourage you to hunt this one down - it's quite different from Two People, and very different from The Red House Mystery, and different again from Winnie the Pooh - and it is an absolute delight. Go on - let Mr. Pim pop in for a bit. You never know what might happen.

Wednesday 25 May 2011


Yesterday I went to a talk by Marilynne Robinson... I was very star-struck. Or possibly star struck. Or even starstruck. Maybe all of the above. Just being in the same room as her was pretty crazy - this must be how teenage girls feel when they see the cast of Twilight, or how my brother would feel if Wolverhampton Wanderers football team popped around for tea. When Colin phoned me to talk about Wolves (they didn't get relegated, btw - I am only interested because this means he is happy, rather than glum; it will not surprise you to learn that I loathe football) I told him about seeing Marilynne Robinson, and he didn't know who she was. So I suppose it is rather a niche thing, but it still felt bizarre to be in the same room as one of the finest living writers. I even took a poor quality photograph on my mobile 'phone...

Truth be told, I didn't understand a word of her talk. It was called 'Where A
re We? What Are We Doing Here? Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist' and seemed to be a state-of-the-nation talk, with huge doses of philosophy and politics. I know almost nothing about philosophy, and I care almost nothing about politics - so I was lost from the outset. But I was pretty prepared for that. I wish I'd been to hear her last time she was in Oxford, talking about her own writing, but at that point I'd not read anything by her. Even now I've only read Gilead, though Susan in TX and I have a plan to read Home together soon, don't we, Susan?

So, I'd readied myself to zone out when Robinson got onto topics I know zilch about, and instead I spent the hour being a bit overwhelmed by being in the same room as her. For the record, she is funny and personable - especially during the off-script moments - and I'm sure I'd love to hear her speak about writing or reading or Christianity; anything I can get on board with. But that didn't diminish an exacting afternoon for me.

Which leads me to the over-to-you bit - have you heard any authors speak, and which living writers would you love to see? I've seen a few others - all those at the Vintage day this month (Sebastian Faulks, Mark Haddon, Lionel Shriver, Rose Tremain etc.) but the only other notable one I can remember right now is Penelope Lively. And I still haven't read any of her books...

[EDIT: I forget Susan Hill! And doubtless many others. I was very excited to chat with Mary Cadogan once - the biographer of Richmal Crompton. But most fun has been meeting lesser-known, but brilliant and lovely, authors like Angela Young, Jenn Ashworth, Natasha Solomon, Ned Beauman....]

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Illyrian Spring

Early warning - there is a giveaway right at the bottom of this post!
That Rachel (Book Snob) is pretty scary, isn't she? I knew she loved Ann Bridge's Illryian Spring (1935), and so dropped her an email to let her know I'd found my own copy. Minutes later I found myself under house arrest, surrounded by armed policemen and ferocious guard dogs, and the recipient of dozens of death threats - if I didn't immediately drop everything, read Illyrian Spring, and post a positive review of it. Right now I'm in a dungeon, blindfolded, typing away with a gun held against my temple...

Gosh, that took a macabre turn, didn't it? What I MEANT to say was that Rachel thought I should definitely read Illyrian Spring before the end of April - which I duly did, it's just taken me a while to get around to writing about it. In return, I told Rachel she should read the (much shorter) novel The Love Child by Edith Olivier by the end of April. How's that going, Rach, hmm?

But I am only teasing, of course. I am very grateful that Rachel pointed me in the direction of Illyrian Spring (I gave you a copy of The Love Child - just sayin') because it's a beautiful novel.

Grace Kilmichael - known also as Lady K - feels unappreciated by her husband Walter, daughter Linnet and sons Nigel and Teddy. As the novel opens, she has escaped off on the Orient Express - hoping to evade discovery, it is perhaps foolish to choose this mode of transport, 'but Lady Kilmichael was going to Venice, and she lived in a world which knew no other way of getting to Venice than to travel by the Simplon Orient Express.' That sets the scene for Grace - one to whom custom and good fortune are equally good companions. In many novels this would be enough to dismiss her out of hand, but Ann Bridge is no inverted snob (in fact, she is often simply a snob) and Grace is undoubtedly the heroine of the novel from the outset. She is a talented painter whose family treat her paintings as an amusing hobby; she is intelligent, sensitive to others, and bewitched by the beauty of life and adventure. And she's off on an adventure.

I'm not going to pretend to understand the geography of Europe. I hadn't heard of most of the places she went, but I think they're probably mostly Italian. To be honest, I didn't really care. Seeing the sights through Grace's eyes was enough for me - much of the novel simply documents her travels, and reflections upon her life and family. And her affection, maternal friendship with Nicholas (I'll get on to him in a bit).

By rights, I shouldn't have liked Illyrian Spring as much as I did. You know me and descriptions of landscapes - and Bridge's novel is crammed full with descriptions of scenery, buildings, ruins, water, nature, everything. Grace even carries a travel guide around with her - a form of writing to which I am allergic. But how could I not be swept away by this?

But nature in Dalmatia is singularly open-handed, and distributes beauties as well as wonders with lavish impartiality. Within a few hundred paces of the source of Ombla they came on a thing which Grace was to remember all her life, as much for its beauty as its incredibility. The road here swung round to the right, pushed out towards the valley by a spur of the mountainside; some distance above the road the slopes of this spur rose steeply, broken by ledges and shallow gullies, the rocks of the usual tone of silver pear-colour. And all over the ledges of these pearly rocks, as thick as they could stand, grew big pale-blue irises, a foot or more high, sumptuous as those in an English border, their leaves almost as silver as the rocks, their unopened buds standing up like violet spears among the delicate pallor of the fully-opened flowers - Iris pallida dalmatica, familiar to every gardener, growing in unimaginable profusion in its natural habitat. Now to see an English garden-flower smothering a rocky mountain-side is a sufficient wonder, especially if the rocks are of silver-colour and the flowers a silvery-blue; and Nature, feeling that she had done enough, might well be content to leave it at that. But she had a last wonder, a final beauty to add. In the cracks and fissures another flower grew, blue also, spreading out over the steep slabs between the ledges in flat cushions as much as a yard across - a low-growing woody plant, smothered in small close flower-heads of a deep chalky blue, the shade beloved of the painter Nattier. Anything more lovely than these low compact masses of just the same tone of colour, but a deeper shade, flattened on the white rocks as a foil and companion to the flaunting splendour of the irises, cannot be conceived.

There are a few, a very few, authors who manage to write about the visual in ways which focus upon characters' emotions and their responses, even if this isn't stated explicitly, and that works for me. I'm thinking the moment when Jude looks out over Christminster in Jude the Obscure, and more or less every moment of Elizabeth von Arnim's The Enchanted April. Ann Bridge joins that select few, for me. Those of you without my natural-description-qualms will adore this novel all the more.

And I promised you Nicholas, didn't I? A less likely hero you'll be hard-pressed to find. Blustery, fairly rude, a victim to indigestion, self-pleased - and with a very red complexion, to boot - Nicholas meets Grace when she is trying to copy down an intricate engraving for her son. Nicholas doesn't think she's doing it right, and eventually insists upon doing it himself - and he does it very accurately. Somehow this is the beginning of their travels together - and I wouldn't know how to describe their relationship and discussions. I know some people (*cough*, Rachel) love Nicholas, and while I never wholly warmed to him, I did love Grace and Nicholas together. Not romantically, you understand, but as companions who discuss everything under the sun, and appreciate the beauty they discover together. Grace becomes something of a mentor to Nicholas, as he seeks to develop his own artistic talent, and prove to his parents that he can pursue a career as a painter, rather than an architect. Some of the novel's most interesting sections come, though, when Grace begins to tire of Nicholas, but is far too caring and kind to tell him so. That's when Bridge's writing is at its subtlest, and most perceptive - inching through changes in their relationship in a very believable manner. Bridge's style of narrative is the sort which does not lend itself to plot synopses, and is incredibly difficult to do justice - everything and nothing happens. Like many - maybe even all - great novels, the story does not matter so much as the way in which it is told.

At heart, Illyrian Spring could be considered a deeply feminist novel. Grace's emancipation happens so quietly and with so few signs of open rebellion that it would might seem understated - but there is incredible strength in passages like this:
Married women so often become more an institution than a person - to their families a wife or a mother, to other people the wife or the mother of somebody else. Apart from her painting, Grace Kilmichael had been an institution for years. She didn't mind it; she hadn't really noticed it; but when Nicholas Humphries started treating her as a person, being interested in her as herself, 'Lady K.', and not as Nigel's or Teddy's or Linnet's mother, or as the brilliant Sir Walter Kilmichael's nice wife, she did notice it. She found it something quite new and rather delightful. And entirely without conscious intention, without being aware of it, the presentation of herself which she was making up to Nicholas was, in some subtle way, more personal and less 'institutional' than it would have been if she had met him in her London house, as a friend of Linnet's or Nigel's.

Illyrian Spring is not without its faults. There is a persistent intellectual snobbery which has a stranglehold on the novel - people must always have the best, and be the best, and there is apparently no sense in doing things simply for enjoyment. The novel seems to suggest that only those with genius at painting should ever wield a paintbrush. Nicholas himself decides he'll only help people looking for directions because 'these people were intelligent, much more so than most - he might as well go down with them.' This constant thread of snobbery felt a bit like poison dropping steadily upon bowers of beautiful flowers, damaging what the novel could have been. If Bridge could have dialled this down, Illyrian Spring would be as charming as The Enchanted April, and even more substantial.

As it is, even with this fault (which some may not perceive as a fault, maybe) Illyrian Spring is a delicious gem of a novel. Grace Kilmichael and Nicholas are unlikely companions whose companionship would be impossible to doubt - and both are utterly genuine and believable characters, far more complex than I could delineate in this review. I am very indebted to Rachel for the joy of this novel - and if I found it joyful, I am certain that those of you who like their books to be like travel guides will fall so deeply in love with Bridge's novel that you will frame copies of it around the house, and name your first child after it.

So, Rachel, there you go - many thanks. Now, The Love Child...

* * *

I have a spare copy of this to give away - I spotted a nice edition in a bookshop, and swooped upon it, which means I'm now giving away my tatty old Penguin edition. I do warn you, it is very tatty - the cover is taped on, and the spine is so tightly bound that reading the far side of each page requires effort. It's a reading copy only - but Illyrian Spring is difficult to track down, so anybody who can cope with the poor condition and would like to read it, just pop your name in the comments - along with your favourite season, in honour of the novel's title. Mine, suitably enough, is spring.

Monday 23 May 2011

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur

Recently at work my colleague Sarah started telling me about a book she hadn't read, but heard might be interesting. It was about an old spinster who starts to invest her household objects with personalities, and is obsessed with her fox fur... Sarah was still in the middle of her sentence when I ordered a copy of The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc. It ticked lots of boxes for me, and I was quite excited - that very brief synopsis could have been written with me in mind.

Violette Leduc wasn't very well known until she wrote her autobiography La Batarde, at which point she apparently became the darling of French literary culture. I hadn't heard of her, but 1960s France is hardly my area of specialist knowledge. The Lady and the Little Fox Fur (originally La Femme au petit renard) was published in 1965, and became a bestseller. My edition is translated by Derek Coltman, and was published in 1967. It's back in print, still with Peter Owen and Coltman's translation, but the cover was so hideous that I had to get an earlier copy. And accidentally tore the dustjacket when I opened the package.

I'm always a bit cautious about saying characters are unnamed, because I never notice or remember names in novels, but I'm *pretty* certain that the old-ish lady (
'She was handling her sixtieth year as lightly as we touch the lint when dressing a wound') is unnamed. The plot of this novella (104pp) is very simple - this unnamed narrator is living in dire poverty. She subsists on bits of sugar and dry rolls, and scrounges through bins and gutters. What money she has tends to be spent on travelling on the Metro, rather than food - she gains her nourishment from the company of others. She is, I should add, rather unhinged. Everyday events and insignificant acts by others are interpreted as being of great importance. As the novel continues, she gets more and more unbalanced - developing a deep closeness with the inanimate objects in her flat (somehow she scrapes together rent, but fears this may be last month there). Above all, she is besotted with an old fox fur that she once found, thrown out by someone else. Let's have a quick glance at how she treats it:
As each day passed, she kept him more and more closely confined, eventually refusing him even the flattering light of the moon. She would squander a match for him on dark and moonless nights; she would move the flame to and fro along his length, enchanted at burning her fingers for his sake. Then, in the same dark night-time, he would warm up that place behind her ear where we need other people so much. What had to happen happened: he grew more beautiful as he acquired greater value, and he gave her what she asked of him.

I had, in my mind, the sort of novel I was expecting. A bit like Barbara Comyns, perhaps, but a bit madder. Well, it was certainly pretty mad, but sadly it didn't click for me quite in the way that Comyns does. I enjoyed reading The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, and thought there were some brilliant and poignant moments - but Leduc's style rather defeated me. It's not quite stream-of-consciousness, but it veers in that direction - a style that I often love, but has to be done really well to succeed. In Leduc's novel it comes paired with an attempt to portray mental instability through language - which I always find a bit hazardous. I love the idea in theory, but I don't think I've read any novel where it really worked - I'll have to think on that and get back to you; that might deserve a post of its own.

Part of the issue might well be Derek Coltman's translation - or maybe just the fact that it was in translation at all. It's unfair of me to bad-mouth Coltman's work without knowing what the original is like; either Leduc or Coltman is responsible for the stilted feeling I got whilst reading the novella.

Do you ever get the feeling that you should go back and re-read a novel very slowly? I have an inkling that's what I should do to get the most out of The Lady and the Little Fox Fur. Perhaps I'm being critical because I had such high hopes for loving this novella - I don't want you to come away this review thinking it's bad. The idea is lovely and quirky; the unhinged mind of the lady is convincing - to the extent that I didn't always know what was going on! It just wasn't quite the gem I was hoping I'd found. Still, a much more interesting book to read than the latest top ten hardback - I love throwing a quirky little book into my reading now and then - and I think I'll re-read it in ten or twenty years' time, and perhaps come to a different conclusion.

In an awkward fashion, I'm going to peter out with a quotation - the lady is standing outside a cinema. I liked these paragraphs, and it's also fairly representative of the style, and of the woman's character. What's your response to Leduc's writing?
On Wednesdays they always changed the programme, so that on Tuesdays the photographs outside were always neglected, abandoned: she could pretend they were her transfer. A dark-haired man, a blonde woman; a blonde woman, a dark-haired man. The actors' names left her utterly indifferent: their real names for her were the names of the people she saw kissing one another on the streets. Her forefinger followed the broken line of the hair, stopped up the eyesockets, crushed the mouth, or paused if the lovers' mouths were pressed together in a kiss. Prudish and indiscreet, at those moments she would look down with blind eyes at the drawing-pin in one corner of the photograph. She was a sack of stones holding itself up of its own volition, this woman who had never had anything, who had never asked for anything. If the edge of the wind had caressed her neck at that moment, had caressed her neck just below the ear, then her heart would have stopped. She would have given her life and her death for another's breath that close.

Sunday 22 May 2011

Song for a Sunday

Peter/Dark Puss sent me a link to a potential Sunday Song this week, and I really enjoyed it - without further ado, here is Whale Song by Lemolo.

Click here for previous Sunday Songs.

Saturday 21 May 2011

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

It seems an age since I did a Weekend Miscellany, doesn't it? But it's back - and I'll be spending my Saturday in London playing bookish board games with blogging folk! I'm not exactly sure who'll be there, I think it might be a select few of us, but of course I'll report back in due course - and if it's a success, perhaps we'll get some more people involved next time. My gift to you is, instead, a book, a link, and a blog post...

1.) The blog post - over the past three or four weeks I've seen so many blog posts that I wanted to draw your attention to, and vowed that they would be the one I'd choose. I thought I'd dedicate a whole post to saying how wonderful these posts are. And naturally I've forgotten nearly all of them - but I *do* remember one. Over a month ago, Hayley wrote a fab post entitled 'A sweeping family saga set against the background of a dystopian future...' Basically, it's about blurbs and recommendations which put you off books... I adore this sort of discussion; go over and add your own thoughts. I'll kick off: 'It's Ireland in 1880...'

Oh, and I must say thanks to everyone who participated in my One Book, Two Book meme - I loved seeing them pop up everywhere, and got quite peculiarly excited about seeing something I started spread across blogs - as well as fill my head with recommendations.

2.) The link - is to this idea about posting photos of your bookshelves to Flickr, and telling the world a bit about them - as well as gazing at other people's bookshelves, of course. The article emailed to me by my friends Lucy and Debs - thanks guy!

3.) The book - of all the review books which have arrived at my door in the last month, requested or unsolicited, the one I'm most excited about is Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi, which came courtesy of Picador. I loved The Icarus Girl; I was baffled by White is for Witching; I still haven't read The Opposite House. But I think Oyeyemi is a rare talent nonetheless, and now she's turned her attention to a 1938 novelist whose imaginary muse turns up... well, I'm sold. It also reminds me that I have Barbara Comyns' novel, also called Mr. Fox, waiting to be read.

Friday 20 May 2011

Possibly Persephone?

Another quick post, as I seem to be constantly too sleepy to write proper reviews - the little space on the bookshelves above my bed for books waiting to be reviewed is getting pretty chock-a-block.

I'm off to an event at Persephone Books next Wednesday, called Possibly Persephone?, where people can suggest books which they think would be good in the series. I've chosen the book I'm going to recommend, but I'll keep it secret here until after the event. The books which I think would fit most perfectly into Persephone's canon are Helen Thomas' (auto)biographies As It Was and World Without End - it's like they were written to be Persephone Books, but they've already been given the Persephone shake of the head, for whatever reason. So, I'll try my luck with another one! I don't know if any of the previous Possibly Persephone? events have resulted in published titles, but it should be fun nonetheless.

So, of course, I'm turning this over to you - which neglected book do you think would make the next great Persephone title? Thinking caps on...

Thursday 19 May 2011

Reading up my Greens

I was in a bookshop a little while ago (I know - shocker, right?) and came across a bunch of Henry Green novels. I bought an old Penguin edition of Loving a while ago, but, for some reason, it wasn't calling out to me. I love old Penguins sometimes, but they're so plain that if I don't know much about an author beforehand, they probably won't tempt me.

And these were rather pretty editions - lovely American paperbacks, which have a much nicer feel to them than modern British paperbacks. [EDIT: I am selling my country short! John Self points out in the comments that these editions are actually from The Harvill Press in the UK]

I stood in the shop for quite a few minutes, reading and re-reading the blurbs on the back of the five Henry Green novels they had in stock, trying to decide which was the most appealing. I put one after the other back on the shelf; picked them up again; put them back...

Well. As you can see - in the end, I bought the lot. I just couldn't decide. Doting, Back, Party Going, Concluding, and Blindness are now on my bedroom floor, waiting to be added to LibraryThing.

Have you read any of them, and which should be my first Henry Green novel? (Please say one of these five... I don't want to buy any more until I've read at least three of these!) Thoughts?

Tuesday 17 May 2011

The laptop returns, and this is what happens...

I am back in the land of the living! Or back in the land of the blogging. I got rather carried away with it all... if you want to read my thoughts on Reading in Phases, then scroll down past the ramble...

Somehow being without a laptop for any length of time feels more or less the same as being stranded on a desert island. People are always 'stranded' on desert islands, aren't they? I think I'm going to be sequestered on one, if that ever turns out to be my path in life. By the by, I would last something under four hours in any sort of situation which required Great Survival Techniques. Case in point (and a neat circle to this paragraph): the Great Laptop Withdrawal.

My screen broke. Not sure how. I probably stood on it in the night, or something, but I woke up on Thursday morning to find that it was all sulky and broken, so trotted off to a computer fixy man. It's lingo like that which makes their eyes light up, and start suggesting I have the filange looked at. (Give yourself ten points if you recognised the Friends reference). Except, the eyes of the man in the first repair shop would only light up if he were set on fire. He was astonishingly unfriendly. I'm one of those guys who will always choose cheeriness over competence in a customer care situation. Both is nice, but if I have to pick one, I'd definitely come away happier from someone who hadn't a clue what they were doing, but smiled a lot.

So, I went off to another laptop repair place. The man there was much friendlier. Turns out it took longer and cost more than Unfriendly Company would have done, but... this is the price a pay for a smile. To cut a long story short, my laptop is back.Link
And I have managed to get through four computerless days. The main deficencies I noticed were (a) not being able to blog, (b) not being able to finish writing my chapter by my deadline, (c) not being able to check silly little facts which normally I'd just Google, (d) not being able to watch DVDs if other people were using the living room, (e) not being able to watch DVDs whilst I baked, (f) not being able to Skype my friend Lorna in Paris. That's probably about it.

On the plus side - I read more, slept more, procrastinated less, and generally made a better use of my time. I finished Patrick Hamilton's The Slaves of Solitude (might have to delay my review, though, as I have lent it to Harriet), read most of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery and other stories, fell further in love with The Element of Lavishness: the letters of William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner, and left piles of books all over my floor, waiting to be added to LibraryThing.

I'm not sure you required such a thorough update, did you? Clearly being away from blogging has left me a little unhinged. (Incidentally, appropos of nothing, I've always thought it would be fun if a song rhymed 'lachrymose' and 'bellicose'. But I don't think it's worth my while going into the singer-songwriter business just to make this happen.)

Onto the second, more bookish, section of The Blog Post That Will Make You Wish Simon's Laptop Had Never Been Fixed. Especially if it draws confessions out of you that you'd rather keep undrawn. I'm going to give it a little subheading, for those who've scrolled down to find it...

Reading in Phases

I used to be a very obsessive reader. I'm still obsessed with reading, of course, but I used to read everything in one series, or by one author, and fixate on that - until the next one came along. I now read much more widely, which can be quite frustrating sometimes as I might find an author I love (say, William Maxwell) and discover two or three years later that I've still only read one thing by him. I miss the opportunity of bouts of reading one author. Being 'well-rounded' and having 'broad reading interests' sounds good, but I'm pretty certain it has its downsides. Not that I do have especially broad reading interests, since about 85% of the books I read were originally written in English. But you understand my meaning... or you will, when you see how my reading life went until I was about 18.

learning-to-read until could-read-proper-books: Mr. Men
age 5-9: Enid Blyton
age 9: Goosebumps
age 10-11: Point Horror
age 11-12: Sweet Valley High
age 12-14: Agatha Christie
age 15: (meandered a bit)
age 16-17: A.A. Milne & Richmal Crompton

I simplify a bit. But generally those years were focused upon those authors, and it was only when I was 17 or 18 that I really started to read a couple of books by an author here, one by another author there, etc. etc.

But the reason I bring this up is because Verity lent me the new Sweet Valley Confidential: 10 Years On, because I was intrigued to see how it lived it up to my memories, but not quite enough to buy it. And I have been surprised, amused, and delighted by how many other bloggers remember Elizabeth, Jessica et al with affection.

Well... I got to p.40. It was awful. Utter drivel. I suspect I might feel the same if I went back to the original series now, and it just goes to show how tastes change. I'm always a bit surprised by well-read people who like to kick back with Mills & Boon or similar - I'm all for relaxing reading and comfort reading, but I don't find reading bad books relaxing. I just find it annoying. Give me Diary of a Provincial Lady any day - comfort reading that is still brilliantly written. (On the other hand, I love relaxing with bad films - I love good films too, but bad ones are great sometimes.)

Did you read in phases? I suspect every child and teenager goes through that stage, but perhaps it isn't simply a stage - there is something to be said for immersion in a single author or series, and perhaps some of you still do this now? I'm very tempted to set aside a few weeks just to read, say, William Maxwell or Milan Kundera or Muriel Spark or Barbara Trapido or EM Delafield - any of the many authors I've been stockpiling on my shelves. But I probably won't. Book group titles always seem to be obstacles to those sort of spontaneous reading projects.

This post will have to end sooner or later, won't it? And I suspect it should be sooner. Sorry again that it's been a huge messy ramble, and shows all the signs of having missed my daily (more measured) blogging. Promise I'll be more composed and contained tomorrow. In fact, I have a post planned, and it will almost entirely consist of a photograph.

Somehow I'm still typing...

...but I will stop...

ever so...

ever so...


Saturday 14 May 2011

Unplanned absence...

I shan't be blogging for a few days, it looks like - my computer screen broke, and went in to be fixed on Thursday. But now they're saying it could be Wednesday before I get it back...

Doh! Hope they do it soon. You might be forgiving, but my thesis chapter isn't... still, I seem to faff a lot less without my laptop, and get more reading done in bed. Currently loving Shirley Jackson's short stories, fyi.

See you soon...

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Fancy joining in?

It's time for another readalong! I thought I'd give you some advance notice to see if you want to join Lizzy Siddal and me as we read The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton - I spotted that she had recently got it, and I've been meaning to read it for a month or two: it seemed a good idea to read it together. We plan to post our thoughts sometime in the first week of June, or thereabouts - but I am already about a third of the way through it, and it is *brilliant*.

Putting my most persuasive face on, I'll just say that it's a 1940s novel about Miss Roach, bombed out of her London house and forced to live in an unpleasant boarding house in Thames Lockdon. The prose is exquisite, and Hamilton's precision is incredible. Somehow it is both bleak and incredibly funny. Here's an excerpt to draw you in....
As she let herself in by the front door she could in the same way see the Rosamund Tea Rooms - the somewhat narrow, three-storied, red-brick house, wedged in between a half-hearted toy-shop on one side, and an antique-shop on the other. She saw its bow-window on the ground floor, jutting out obtrusively on to the pavement; and above this, beneath the first-floor windows, the oblong black wooden board with faded gilt letters running its length - "The Rosamund Tea Rooms". But now, since the war, it was the Rosamund Tea Rooms no more - merely, if anything, "Mrs. Payne's". Mrs. Payne would have taken the sign down had not the golden letters been far too blistered and faded for anyone in his right mind to imagine that if he entered he would be likely to get tea. All the same, a few stray people in summer, probably driven slightly mad by the heat, did still enter with that idea in mind, and quietly had their error made clear to them.

I love it. I think it was the word 'half-hearted' that made me realise I'd love Hamilton - so few authors would have chosen that word, there, and it conjures up such an image.

Right! If that has spurred you on, grab a copy and get readin' any time between now and June. No strict time span or anything - but I think this could definitely be a gem.


One of the novellas I read during Novella Reading Weekend was Echo (1931) by Violet Trefusis (translated from French by Sian Miles) and I thought it was rather brilliant. If I hadn't read Paul Gallico's exceptionally good Love of Seven Dolls at the same time, I'd probably have dashed off an enthused review of Echo right away. As it is, prepare yourself for some enthusiasm now. (I should add, I've since read Broderie Anglaise - I'll probably write a blog post on it at some point, but I was severely disappointed - it was nowhere near as good as Echo.)

I had a little stack of unread Violet Trefusis novellas (they do all seem to be short - Echo is 109pp.) on my shelf, mostly because I recognised her name from Virginia Woolf's diaries and various Bloomsbury books. I hadn't quite worked out where she fitted into everything (turns out she had a youthful affair with Vita Sackville-West, as you do) but the combined allure of Bloomsbury and brevity was enough for her to find her way to my shelves. And, eventually, to my hands - I'm very glad she did, because Echo is very funny, as well as well written and occasionally quite moving. Oh, and it has twins in it. That's what sealed the deal.

As people seem to in novels of the period, the central characters live in a Scottish castle. To give you an image of its state, this describes the bedrooms: 'They were all equally high-ceilinged, equally pale, equally damp, and entirely devoid of comfort or charm.' The castle houses Lady Balquidder and her twin niece and nephew, Jean and Malcolm - Lady Balquidder is proper and restrained, always behaving exactly as polite society expects of her, and receiving her due from society in return. Here she is:
Her plump hands were covered with freckles which matched the colour of her hair, still auburn, despite her sixty-five years. From time to time, the ale-coloured eyes, beneath their reddened lids, darted a glance at the door. Her whole person flickered like a small but constant flame.

Jean and Malcolm are not built in the same mould as their aunt. They are hardy, rough, and unmannered youths - in their early 20s - whose behaviour is closer to savages than to Lady B's. That is to say, they greatly prefer nature to the confines of rooms ('each of the twins had a passionate love of their wild homeland and were constantly entranced by its beauty'), and possess no frailties nor qualms which generally afflict those of their supposed class. Jean, especially, is proud of not being unduly feminine - and is devoted to her twin brother.

Into the mix of this maelstrom comes another of Lady Balquidder's nieces, the twins' cousin, Sauge, from Paris.
"Yes," agreed Jean, "I can't wait to see her teetering about the moors in Louis Quinze heels. She'll want to have snails every mealtime - when she's not eating frogs, that is. She'll have a little corncrakey voice, and she'll keep saying 'Ah mon Dieu!' all the time. And, of course, she'll be fat and dumpy, like her mother; you know, there's a photo of her on Aunt Agnes' desk."

"Well we can certainly make her life a misery," proclaimed Malcolm with relish.

Needless to say, Sauge is not in the least like this. Trefusis dashes us away from Scotland to Paris, and we get to glimpse Sauge first-hand:
Her searching curiosity was by now proverbial and she was strong and capable enough to act as a prop to someone who really interested her, as a trellis to the young tendrils of a plant slow to develop.

But whenever the eternally grateful 'subject' showed signs of wanting to stabilize a relationship regarded always by Sauge as temporary, she would quietly slip away, fearful lest a human heart bring her down from the Olympian heights of her disinterestedness.

The arrival of Sauge triggers off all manner of change at the castle, of course. Initially the twins treat her with the rudeness they intend - but Sauge's unusual, beguiling nature begins to work its effect over the family. This is no Cinderella tale, or even a novel with the enchantment of The Enchanted April - Sauge brings tragedy alongside comedy; and I should reiterate, Echo remains very amusing throughout - Trefusis' turn of phrase is a delight. But it is not unmitigated...

Through no fault of her own, Sauge is the catalyst for a change in Jean and Malcolm's interaction with one another, as both become, in their clumsy ways, besotted with their cousin. Behind Jean's refusal to be thought feminine lies a painful naivety; behind Malcolm's bravado lies inexperience and immaturity. Running beneath the amusing encounter of the civilised and uncivilised is a much more dramatic, tautly told narrative of a crisis point in a relationship - albeit one between siblings. The early 20s can be an incredibly difficult time to be a twin, and Trefusis paints so perfectly the unspoken struggle that must take place when one is ready to loosen the close bond before the other. Trefusis moves from comic to farce to moving with brio - and all in just over a hundred pages.

Echo starts like a Saki short story, all dark mischief and childish menace, but develops and maintains the fablesque tragedy of the Brothers Grimm, alongside flashes of the vibrant, vulnerable 1920s heroine. It's a heady, brilliant mixture - and, of course, a further addition to the pantheon of twin-lit.

Books to get Stuck into:

The Juniper Tree - Barbara Comyns: the same weaving of fable and pathos appears in this lesser-read Comyns novel

'The End of the Party'
- Graham Greene: I haven't written about this twin-based short story, but it is a perfect little accompanient, and can be read online if you click the link.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Monday 9 May 2011

Vintage Classics Day

Do keep popping back and checking out the comments on my One Book, Two Book post, since loads of lovely people have been joining in and popping links in there. Thanks everyone! Not too late to do your own, of course.

On Saturday I was in London for Vintage Classics Day, helping celebrate 21 years of the publisher Vintage. Check out this webpage for a clever mosaic, where you can click on the composite books. They very kindly gave me a complementary ticket to attend a day of talks and things - and it was lovely to see Claire, Sakura, Kim, Jackie, and Lynne who were also attending (Jackie's link will take you to a great write-up of the day.)

There were a number of sessions of the great and the good discussing classic fiction. The first was about favourite villains, but I think that's a discussion I'm going to put on hold for another blog post, as I have Strident Views About It.

Up next was a conversation with Rose Tremain. Shamefully I have read zilch by her, but she seemed an interesting and friendly woman - I especially liked what she said about the value of siblings (the inspiration for her latest novel, Trespass) as amongst the few people who have known you all your life. I'm only 25 and, outside my family, I only have one good friend whom I've known for more than a decade (Hi Sarah!) so I definitely appreciate Tremain bringing this up. Any suggestions for Tremain novels I should read?

Another talk was inspired by the 'Orange Inheritance' thingummy - previous winners of the prize chose books they'd pass on to future generations. I'm a bit disappointed by the selection, which only has one book that I hadn't heard of (I want them to unearth gems, please, not give us another edition of Thomas Hardy!) But it did lead to a particularly interesting discussion, with Mark Haddon cheering on Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse and Lionel Shriver championing Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. It's always lovely to hear about books that I've read and loved, as usually I haven't read the books being discussed.

My favourite section was celebrityless - a behind-the-scenes chat with Jean, the librarian of Random House's archive library (I found the new job I want, then, although it did amuse me that they qualify anything worth over £100 as 'valuable'. In the Bodleian it would have to be worth at least fifty times that.)

And finally Sebastian Faulks spoke about his recent TV series Faulks on Fiction. He says he's yet to find anyone who saw all four episodes - I confess I only saw the first, but would be interested in watching the rest or reading his book. He was warm and funny, and really seemed to enjoy the session. Like Tremain, he's an author I've never read - except for his witty collection of pastiches, called Pistache.

All in all, it was a really fun day - thanks for inviting me, Vintage! My favourite moment might have been Rose Tremain gossiping a little about A.S. Byatt, or Lionel Shriver telling an audience member (who said she was disappointed by the ending to that Kevin book) that she was enraged. It's a good job I didn't mention that I thought Kevin was written appallingly - how odd that someone who appreciates William Maxwell's expertly subtle writing can overwrite so much! But mostly it was a joy, as it is always a joy, to be in a room filled with people who love books as passionately as I do.

PLUS, this was my first trip to Foyle's. I didn't buy anything, because I prefer secondhand books to new ones (bought eight secondhand books on Charing Cross Road...) but I must say it is an impressive selection and a lovely place to hang out. I'll be back...

Sunday 8 May 2011

Song for a Sunday

I've been really enjoying your One Book, Two Book... posts - do let me know if you've done one, they're such fun to read!

Following in the steps of last week, I thought I'd post a couple of songs from an artist you think you know... but might not. Alanis Morissette is generally known as an angry, strident singer - but my favourite tracks of hers are very quite different from that. Here they are: 'That I Would Be Good' and 'That Particular Time' Obviously I like songs which begin with the word 'That'...

Listen to previous Sunday Songs here.

Friday 6 May 2011

One Book, Two Book, Three Book, Four... and Five...

I'm quite tired after coordinating cooking for an Alpha course my church is running, and all sorts of other busy activities over the past week, so shall sideline worthier posts and instead do a little this-book-that-book-this-book-that-book sort of post that I hope you'll copy on your own blogs. A quick bit of fun...

1.) The book I'm currently reading:

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters - and it is absolutely, stunningly brilliant. I just hope it doesn't let me down at the end, as The Little Stranger did. So far (about halfway) I am blown away by how clever it is.

2.) The last book I finished:

How Can You Bear to be Human? by Nicolas Bentley - as you might have guessed, I bought this because of the title. Amusing glances at how people behave, with witty (and occasionally relevant) sketches.

3.) The next book I want to read:

Wise Children by Angela Carter - in an email discussion with Claire (aka Paperback Reader) today, I realised how much I want to read this, and how shameful it is that I've not read anything by Carter yet.

4.) The last book I bought:

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson - I've wanted to read this for a while, but finding Jenny's review from last November pushed me over the edge, and I paid a nastily high amount to get this shipped across the Atlantic.

5.) The last book I was given:

The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield - lovely Thomas (My Porch) knows I collect different editions of this wonderful book, and so very kindly gave me this beautiful edition - which makes it my sixth!

Let me know if you decide to post your five! Hope you do...