Saturday 31 December 2011

Books Read 2011

(an 'x' indicates a re-read - thanks, David, for pointing out that I'd forgotten to mention this!)

1. Howards End - E.M. Forster
2. And Furthermore - Judi Dench and John Miller
3. The English - Jeremy Paxman
4. The Skin Chairs - Barbara Comyns
5. Bonjour Tristesse - Francoise Sagan
6. Personal Pleasures - Rose Macaulay
7. A Kind Man - Susan Hill
8. Gay Life - E.M. Delafield
9. William - E.H. Young
10. Gilead - Marilynne Robinson
11. The Machine Stops/The Celestial Omnibus - E.M. Forster
12. At Large and At Small - Anne Fadiman
13. To Tell My Story - Irene Vanbrugh
14. Saplings - Noel Streatfeild
15. The Gingerbread Woman - Jennifer Johnston
16. A House in the Country - Jocelyn Playfair
17. Echo - Violet Trefusis
18. People on a Bridge - Wislawa Szymborska
19. As We Are Now - May Sarton
20. Love of Seven Dolls - Paul Gallico
21. Not to Disturb - Muriel Spark
22. The Return of the Native - Thomas Hardy
23. The Perfect Pest - Adiran Porter
24. Mr. Chartwell - Rebecca Hunt
25. Countess Under the Stairs - Eva Ibbotson
26. The Caravaners - Elizabeth von Arnim
27. Broderie Anglaise - Violet Trefusis
28. The Thought-Reading Machine - Andre Maurois
29. Freakonomics - Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
30. Going Postal - Terry Pratchett
31. The Unbearable Bassington - Saki
32. Virginia - Jens Christian Grondahl
33. A View From Downshire Hill -Elizabeth Jenkins
34. A Truth Universally Acknowledged - (ed.) Susannah Carson
35. Illyrian Spring - Ann Bridge
36. Jennie - Paul Gallico
x37. Mr. Pim Passes By - A.A. Milne
38. Life Among the Savages - Shirley Jackson
39. How Can You Bear To Be Human? - Nicolas Bentley
40. Fingersmith - Sarah Waters
41. The Slaves of Solitude - Patrick Hamilton
42. The Lady and the Little Fox Fur - Violette Leduc
43. The Lottery and other stories - Shirley Jackson
x44. The Love-Child - Edith Olivier
x45. I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith
x46. Lady Into Fox - David Garnett
x47. The Taming of the Shrew - William Shakespeare
x48. Lolly Willowes - Sylvia Townsend Warner
49. A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
50. The Element of Lavishness - William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner
51. The Triumphant Footman - Edith Olivier
52. The Town in Bloom - Dodie Smith
53. Lipstick - Lady Kitty Vincent
54. Sylvia & David - the letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and David Garnett
55. Gin & Ginger - Lady Kitty Vincent
56. Dearest Jean - Rose Macaulay
57. Hotel du Lac - Anita Brookner
58. A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee - Bea Howe
59. People Who Say Goodbye - P.Y. Betts
60. Shaving Through the Blitz - G.W. Stonier
61. Exercises in Style - Raymond Queneau
62. Memento Mori - Muriel Spark
63. Red Pottage - Mary Cholmondeley
64. Westwood - Stella Gibbons
65. One Day - David Nicholls
66. Live Alone and Like It - Marjorie Hillis
67. Without Knowing Mr. Walkley - Edith Olivier
68. The Tiny Wife - Andrew Kaufman
69. Prison to Praise - Merlin Carothers
70. Safety Pins - Christopher Morley
71. A Baker's Dozen - Llewelyn Powys
72. The Earth Hums in B Flat - Mari Strachan
73. The Misses Mallett - E.H. Young
x74. Still-William - Richmal Crompton
75. Common or Garden Crime - Sheila Pim
76. Christopher and Columbus - Elizabeth von Arnim
77. Our Hearts Were Young and Gay - Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimborough
78. The Love Affairs of a Bibliomania - Eugene Field
79. The Invention of Morel - Adolfo Bioy Casares
x80. William the Good - Richmal Crompton
81. Singled Out - Virginia Nicholson
82. Two Serious Ladies - Jane Bowles
83. Appius and Virginia - G.E. Trevelyan
x84. The Backward Shadow - Lynne Reid Banks
x85. The L-Shaped Room - Lynne Reid Banks
86. Living Alone - Stella Benson
87. Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady - Edith Olivier
88. Here's How - Virginia Graham
x89. The Venetian Glass Nephew - Elinor Wylie
x90. Two Is Lonely - Lynne Reid Banks
91. The Pearl - John Steinbeck
92. The Man Who Was Thursday - G.K. Chesterton
93. So Long, See You Tomorrow - William Maxwell
94. Up At The Villa - W. Somerset Maugham
95. The Double - Fyodor Dostoevsky
96. The Amorous Bicycle - Mary Essex
97. Wasted Womanhood - Charlotte Cowdroy
x98. Miss Hargreaves - Frank Baker
99. The House - Richmal Crompton
100. Let Not The Waves of the Sea - Simon Stephenson
101. A Streetcar Named Desire - Tennesse Williams
102. Nella Last's Peace - Nella Last
103. A Covenant With Death - Stephen Becker
104. Stop What You're Doing and Read This - various
105. Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
106. Eats, Shoots and Leaves - Lynne Truss

Thursday 29 December 2011

"When we lose ourselves in a book..."

I don't think I'm going to do a traditional review of the lovely bookish essay collection Stop What You're Doing And Read This! - I'm just going to continue quoting pieces from it now and then, because there are so many wonderful little snippets from it.  And I'll try to find nice paintings of readers to accompany them (and do my best not just to copy Harriet's!) The first post was here; today's comes from author Nicholas Carr (and the painting is anonymous, unsold at a 2010 auction):

"It is only when we leave behind the incessant busyness of our lives in society that we open ourselves to literature's transformative emotional power.  That doesn't mean that reading is antisocial.  The central subject of literature is society, and when we lose ourselves in a book we often receive an education in the subtleties and vagaries of human relations.  Several studies have shown that reading tends to make us more empathetic, more alert to the inner lives of others.  The reader withdraws in order to connect more deeply."

--Nicholas Carr, 'The Dreams of Readers'
Stop What You're Doing And Read This!

Wednesday 28 December 2011

End of Year Meme

Tonight I shall be doing a little variation the meme I've done for the last few years - which has been developed and expanded by various other bloggers - and getting a bit more specific.  But quite a few of the same questions will reappear...  (In case you missed my Top 15 Books of 2011, click here.) First, here's the books and authors I read this year, in a pretty word cloud:

Number of books read:
Only 106, which is the fewest for quite a few years, and doesn't bode too well for my A Century of Books project... still, it's not a bad number.  (I wonder how many I bought?)

Male/Female authors ratio:
36 by men, 65 by women, and 5 by both male and female authors.

Fiction and non-fiction ratio:
28 non-fiction, 77 fiction, and one volume of poetry which could be either.

Number of re-reads:
13 - including five in a row at the beginning of June - but it was late April before I re-read anything. 

Shortest book title:
Echo by Violet Trefusis

Oldest book read:
A re-read of The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare - but, the Bard aside, it is Mr. Dosteovsky and his 1846 The Double.

Newest book read:
Is, by the miracle of advance review copies, not published til 2012: Stop What You're Doing and Read This.

Books in translation:
Ten - which came under the names of Francoise Sagan, Violet Trefusis (x2), Wislawa Szymborska, Andre Maurois, Jens Christian Grondahl, Violette Leduc, Raymond Queneau, Adolfo Bioy Carlos, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. So, thank you Irene Ash, Sian Miles, Adam Czerniawski, James Whitall, Anne Born, Derek Coltman, Barbara Wright, Ruth L.C. Simms, and Constance Garnett for your translations!

Most books read by a single author:
4 by Edith Olivier; 3 by Richmal Crompon; 3 by Lynne Reid Banks.

Best non-blog recommendation:
Rhona, from my online book group, told me about my favourite book of the year, Patrick Hamilton's The Slaves of Solitude.

Best blog recommendation:
Thank you to Rachel for encouraging me to read Gilead, finally.

Most unexpectedly good book:
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, which I thought I'd hate.

Most unexpectedly bad book:
For some reason I was certain I'd love Violette Leduc's The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, based on the title, blurb, etc.  But, sadly... I didn't.   And then there was Hotel du Lac, which has put me off Anita Brookner for life.

Generally vilest book:
Wasted Womanhood by Charlotte Cowdroy.  1930s book about single, childless women. Made me want to go back in time and thwack her around her unkind head with her unkind book. 

On the other hand:
Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis, also from the interwar period and about much the same thing, was a thousand times nicer. 

Best oh-I-didn't-realise-you-wrote-other-good-books moment:
Who knew Stella Gibbons could write something like Westwood?  Very good, not remotely like Cold Comfort Farm.

Worst oh-I-wish-I'd-stopped-with-the-previous-book moment:
I thought I'd cracked Thomas Hardy last year.  And I drudged my way through The Return of the Native. 

The book which looked like it would be brilliant, but ended up having too many twists:
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.  Halfway, I thought it was book of the year.  And then the carpet was pulled from under my feet so often that I must have started on a pile a metre high.

I had no clue what was going on:
I love Muriel Spark, but Not To Disturb was incredibly confusing. 

Favourite character encountered this year:
If we're excluding a re-read of Miss Hargreaves (and we'd better) then it's got to be a late-comer to my 2011 reads: lovely Joe Gargery in Great Expectations.

Title nearest the beginning of the alphabet:
Articles not included, it's the wonderfully-titled The Amorous Bicycle by Mary Essex.

Title nearest the end of the alphabet:
Step forward, Without Knowing Mr. Walkley by Edith Olivier.

Misnomer of the year:
Jocelyn Playfair's A House in the Country does, strictly, include a house in the country, but if you're expecting a gentle tale of a summer garden party, you'll be surprised.  I was very pleasantly surprised.  (Yes, The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan is also possibly a misnomer.)

Title where I learnt a new word:
Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley.  Well, I say 'learnt', but I can't remember what it means.

Books with anthropomorphic animals:
Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt; Lady Into Fox by David Garnett (re-read); Jennie by Paul Gallico.

Other assorted supernatural/fantastic things which happened in novels this year (ask if you want to know the books!):
A man could miraculously heal people; a machine transcribes people's thoughts; a post-office filled with millions of letters is guarded by clay golems; a woman became a witch; a captured fairy helped unite an estranged couple; death started phoning the elderly; a wife kept shrinking; an ape learnt to talk; a man built his nephew from glass; a house tormented its occupents; a clerk encountered his doppelganger.  Oh, and Miss Hargreaves came along, of course.

Monday 26 December 2011

Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

Doctor Who is on downstairs, and since I am both (a) not a fan of Doctor Who, and (b) a coward, I am sitting in my room and writing a blog post about Great Expectations.  There is something of a link, though, since people in Britain will be able to watch an adaptation of Great Expectations on 27th December - I'm looking forward to it, even with Dickens adaptations being, in general, not so great.  What makes Dickens so brilliant, to my mind, is the way he writes the narrative, and the pacing of the dialogue - which is usually lost on television, for some reason.  More on that later...

I actually started Great Expectations over a year ago - I held off reading it too quickly in the final days of December 2010 lest it unsettle my Top Books of 2010... and yet, the year whirled by, and I finished it after having compiled my Top Books of 2011.  It might have been on there.  Now we'll never know...

What can I possibly say about Great Expectations (1861) and Charles Dickens?  I suspect the outline of the plot is known to most of us - Pip looks back on his life, starting with a graveyard encounter with a terrifying convict... Miss Havisham... Estella... Jaggers... and Bob's your uncle.  Because, of course, the plot is too complicated and strange to recount in any detail.  The characters are too many and manifold, some of which (like Miss Havisham) have entered the nation's consciousness - others, equally wonderful, have not.  Pip's sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, who complains at all times of having to 'bring him up by hand', is equally wonderful an invention.  Kind, honest Joe Gargery ("Pip - what larks!"), with his twisting attempts at speech, meaning all sentences seem to start with the word 'which', is about the loveliest character in any novel I've ever read.  Here he is, in conversation with Pip, who has stopped visiting Miss Havisham and is now Joe's apprentice (the typos are his):
"Here am I, getting on in the first year of my time, and since the day of my being bound I have never thanked Miss Havisham, or asked after her, or shown that I remember her."

"That's true, Pip; and unless you was to turn her out a set of shoes all four round - and which I meantersay as even a set of shoes all four round might not act acceptable as a present in a total wacancy of hoofs --"

"I don't mean that sort of remembrance, Joe; I don't mean a present."

But Joe had got the idea of a present in his head and must harp upon it.  "Or even," said he, "if you was helped to knocking her up a new chain for the front door - or say a gross or two of shark-headed screws for general use - or some light fancy article, such as a toasting-fork when she took her muffins - or a gridiron when she took a sprat or such like ---"

"I don't mean any present at all, Joe," I interposed.

"Well," said Joe, still harping on it as though I had particularly pressed it, "if I was yourself, Pip, I wouldn't.  No, I would not.  For what's a door-chain when she's got one always up?  And shark-headers is open to misrepresentations.  And if it was a toasting-fork, you'd go into brass and do yourself no credit.  And the oncommonest workman can't show himself oncommon in a gridiron - for a gridiron is a gridiron," said Joe, steadfastly impressing it upon me, as if he were endeavouring to rouse me from a fixed delusion, "and you may haim at what you like, but a gridiron it will come out, either by your leave or again your leave, and you can't help yourself---"

"My dear Joe," I cried in desperation, taking hold of his coat, "don't go on in this way.  I never thought of making Miss Havisham any present."

"No, Pip," Joe assented, as if he had been contending for that all along, "and what I say to you is, you are right, Pip."
Now, you either do or don't find that incredibly funny.  I do.  I really do.  But what I cannot accept is that it is boring.  How Dickens has got the reputation for being boring, I cannot imagine.  Maybe it's those TV adaptations, after all?  Because I believe that Dickens is, perhaps after P.G. Wodehouse, the best comedic writer that Britain has ever produced.

Whenever humorous writing is discussed, it's a matter of course to point out that humour is impossible to explain, and if you don't find something funny then no amount of argument will change things.  And that's true.  But I think I can pinpoint what it is I love most about Dickens' humour - and it's the verbal tics he gives characters.  I think it's seen better in Our Mutual Friend, but it's present in all the Dickens novels I've read (which amounts only to four, come to think of it.)  Whether it's Jaggers' insistence upon precision or Joe's 'larks' or Wemmick's 'portable property', there is no author, except Patrick Hamilton, who uses repetition so perfectly.  He threads these traits through his novels, always ridiculous but never impossible, and holds together his plots filled by these delightful grotesques.  Grotesque in the sense of odd and exaggerated rather than disgusting.  His characters are not realistic, but, hidden in the surrealism of the stories and their enactors, lie truths and humanity and reality.  Wonderfully sewn up with the absurd.

But Dickens, of course, is not simply a wonderful dance of the ridiculous - the sort which inspires Spark, Comyns, Bowles - but a constant tightrope between the funny and the saccharine.  For while Dickens' reputation for dullness is unwarranted, there is plenty of evidence to support the stereotype of orphans dying, overpowered by the force of their own virtue, Little Nell, etc. etc.  This is the sort of thing which survives most in film and TV adaptations, with inevitable tinkly piano music, and it is an image which does Dickens a disservice.  This strain is mostly kept at bay in Great Expectations, but does escape a bit in the final third.  I tire of it myself, but if that aspect of Dickens' writing were not present, he'd probably be even meaner than Evelyn Waugh.  No sadistic writer ever came up with the ogres and tyrants of Dickens - but because they are not realistic, they are not truly terrifying.  They are menacing only encased in the pantomime and carnival of Dickens' extravagant language.

But it is deservedly Miss Havisham whose light outside Great Expectations has burned brightest.  She is a true original.  Spurned on her wedding day, she lives for years in that moment, in a festering wedding dress.  And she has raised Estella to be cruel and incapable of love, hoping to punish men in revenge for her own broken heart.  Pip is snared.
Then Estella being gone and we two left alone, she turned to me and said in a whisper:

"Is she beautiful, graceful, well-grown?  Do you admire her?"

"Everybody must who sees her, Miss Havisham."

She drew an arm round my neck, and drew my head close down to hers, as she sat in the chair.  "Love her, love her, love her!  How does she use you?"

Before I could answer (if I could have answered so difficult a question at all), she repeated, "Love her, love her, love her!  If she favours you, love her.  If she wounds you, love her.  If she tears your heart to pieces - and as it gets older and stronger, it will tear deeper - love her, love her, love her!"

Never had I seen such passionate eagerness as was joined to her utterance of these words.  I could feel the muscles of the thin arm round my neck, swell with the vehemence that possessed her.

"Hear me, Pip!  I adopted her to be loved.  I bred her and educated her, to be loved.  I developed her into what she is, that she might be loved.  Love her!"

She said the word often enough, and there could be o doubt that she meant to say it; but if the often repeated word had been hate instead of love - despair - revenge - dire death - it could not have sounded from her lips more than a curse.
As I said earlier, too much happens in Great Expectations to attempt a summary or even an introduction to the plot.  What I really wanted to address is, simply, that Dickens is not dull.  If you've got that impression from television or hearsay, please go and pick up Great Expectations or Our Mutual Friend.  I also find Hard Times hilarious, but I recognise that even amongst Dickens-lovers that is rather rare.  I think he is a brilliant comedian, and genuinely unique - although I have mentioned a few other authors in this post by way of comparison, there is really nobody even close to being like him.  You might hate him.  But if you do end up hating Dickens, please hate the real Dickens, and not television's chocolate-box version of him.

Sunday 25 December 2011

Happy Christmas!

Just back from the midnight service, and wishing you all a blessed Christmas, wherever you are in the world.

Also, because why not?, a picture of me at Christmas in 1991.

with love - Simon

Friday 23 December 2011

Top 15 of 2011

I'm going to have a few days' rest from blogging and celebrate Christmas - let's face it, there have been plenty of reviews recently for you to get your teeth into!  But I shan't leave you abandoned, oh no.

I love lists, I really love 'em.   Putting things in order has delighted me ever since Mum used to empty a big tin of buttons on the table for us to sort.  That's why I don't make a top-ten-in-no-order list - I rank my most loved books of 2011 in strict order, even when it is a far from exact science.  It's how much I liked them, how much I admired them, how much I enjoyed reading them (all of which are slightly different) all rolled into one.

Some amazing books have been left out, but it's still a nice mix of male and female authors (7.5 each), various decades, and... well, three non-fiction books in there.  And a lot of funny books too, or at least books with funny elements (numbers 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 6, 5, and 1 would all qualify).  Enough jabbering, over the list - do link to your own list, if you've made one.

A wonderfully surreal, oddly detached, and brilliantly written novel - which I'd recommend to any fans of Muriel Spark or Barbara Comyns.

The best ending I've ever read, and plenty of other good pages before that - an amusing and ultimately heart-breaking view of Edwardian high society.

Further evidence that two lacklustre reads shouldn't put me off trying a third - hilarious, clever, and deservedly a classic.
This wins the year's prize for Book I Thought I'd Hate and Ended Up Loving - Ignatius J. Reilly is utterly obnoxious, but tales of his arrogance and verbose ineptitude made for uproarious reading.

To recycle my line, more Provincial Lady than Headless Lady - and utterly delightful.

The second volume of this extraordinary (and yet somehow ordinary) woman's observant and moving diaries.
The only 2011 book on this list (and one of only three I read this year) this is easily the most moving book I read, but far, far more than a melancholy memoir.

The only novel in translation on the list, this novella is beautiful and a must for any fans of fallible memory narratives.  Better than Atonement.

Such a perceptive, calm take on the infidelity narrative - and one which shows how exceptionally well Young could write about families.

Somehow both cynical and life-affirming - an utterly joyous romp of British-German twins through wartime America.

Comyns never lets me down, and this surreal novel with its utterly matter-of-fact narrator is no exception.  Nobody else could do anything bizarre and brilliant in the same way.

A girl falls in love with the puppets from a puppet theatre?  Sounds enchanting - but Gallico's novella gets pretty dark, and is an ingenious tale which is too fairy-talesque  ever to be too disturbing.

The best novel I've read from the 21st century.  A simple plot of an old minister writing to his young son, Robinson captures a voice in a way which is much more convincing than most autobiographies, let alone novels.  So beautiful, and makes Robinson, from my reading, the greatest prose writer alive.

Only recently reviewed on SiaB, these letters show the best talents of both of these wonderful writers - a collection which I will revisit many times, and the benchmark against which I'll set all future published volumes of letters.

From the first page onwards, Hamilton's writing was so good that it left me actually astonished.  How could an author be this talented?  He is the 1940s missing link between writers as disparate as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.  A shy woman bullied in a boarding house is an unlikely topic for great literature, but this is one of the best novels I've ever read - and Hamilton one of the most exceptional writers.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Safety Pins - Christopher Morley

I seem to write my reviews in protracted parts now - there are the bits I can't help typing out and posting as soon as I read them, and then, rolling along months later, comes the actual review proper.  The snippets are probably more enjoyable to read, and certainly speedier to write, but I'll leave that sort of blogging to people like Claire who does it so beautifully.  Me, I like the sound of my own voice.  So not only did I give you Christopher Morley's delightful, wonderful essay 'On Visiting Bookshops' back in July (go and read it now, if you didn't then) but I'll cover the whole collection it came in: Safety Pins (1925).  (I'm pretty sure these essays are collected elsewhere under another name, or scattered through different collections - grab any book of essays with Morley's name on it!)

Morley was best known to me as the author of Parnassus on Wheels, which I love, and its sequel The Haunted Bookshop, which is a curate's egg.  I love little literary or personal essays, and was delighted to find that he had written some - doubly delighted when I discovered that it included bibliophilia of that order.  The rest of the collection is something of a mixed bag - brilliant at its best, and humdrum at its worst.  Actually, that assessment isn't quite fair: I find him fascinating when our interests overlap, and less so when they don't - only the greatest essayists can make a subject compelling which would otherwise be considered dull.  I don't even remember the topics of those that I skimmed through, so let's move on to those I loved?  And when I love Morley's essays, I really love them.

When he writes about books and writing, I am besotted - 'The Perfect Reader' is sweet and sensible; 'On Unanswering Letters' is farcical and yet oh-so-true (how letters are accidentally left unanswered for so long that it is impossible to do so, and no greeting works); he even admits to 'the temptation to try to see what books other people are reading - this innocent curiosity has led me into many rudenesses, for I am short-sighted and have to stare very close to make out the titles.'  But beware the man who falls asleep while reading in a chair:

And here our poor barren clay plays us false, undermining the intellect with many a trick and wile.  "I will sit down for a season in that comfortable chair," the creature says to himself, "and read this sprightly novel.  That will ease my mind and put me in humour for a continuance of lively thinking."  And the end of that man is a steady nasal buzz from the bottom of the chair where has collapsed, an unsightly object and a disgrace to humanity.
Not even Shakespeare is safe from Morley's attentions - in 'On Making Friends', he gives his own views on those tenets laid down in Hamlet:
Polonius, too, is another ancient supposed to be an authority on friendship.  The Polonius family must have been a thoroughly dreary one to live with; we ave often thought that Ophelia would have gone mad anyway, even if there had been no Hamlet.  Laertes preaches to Ophelia; Polonius preaches to Laertes.  Laertes escaped by going abroad, but the girl had to stay at home.  Hamlet saw that pithy old Polonius was a preposterous and orotund ass.  Polonius's doctrine of friendship - "The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel" - was, we trow, necessary in his case.  It would need a hoop of steel to keep them near such a dismal old sawmonger.
You probably sense Morley's tone - and have a good idea whether you'll love him or loathe him.  Some people do have an odd hatred for insouciant humour.  Morley's essays are like A.A. Milne's or Stephen Leacock's or anybody who deals in slightly over-the-top whimsy - but rooted in a love of ideas and a passion for literature.  Morley becomes earnest, when on the track of his hero R.L. Stevenson, but is equally adept at cod-earnestness - for example, in the title essay, in praise of 'Safety Pins':
The pin has never been done justice in the world of poetry.  As one might say, the pin has no Pindar.  Of course there is the old saw about see a pin and pick it up, all the day you'll have good luck.  This couplet, barbarous as it is in its false rhyme, points (as Mother Goose generally does) to a profound truth.  When you see a pin, you must pick it up.  In other words, it is on the floor, where pins generally are.  Their instinctive affinity for terra firma makes one wonder why they, rather than the apple, did not suggest the law of gravitation to some one long before Newton.
Well, quite.  I keep using the word 'delightful', but it is the perfect word for Safety Pins.  If he is not entirely consistent, at least that is better than being consistently dull.  There is plenty here for the bibliophile, and plenty more for those who like to laugh at the little things in life.  I love it - I think a lot of you will too.

Other things to get Stuck into:

Once a Week by A.A. Milne - every now and then I eulogise about AAM, and hope that one or two of you will try him and love him.  The review I link to is really more about Punch, but hopefully you'll be inspired to try Milne's whimsical, clever essays.

Literary Lapses by Stephen Leacock - the great Canadian humorist deserves a better post than I gave him, but you can at least read one of his pieces there.  His sketches and essays brim over with humour, and he was wonderfully prolific too.

Any other humourous essayists you think I would enjoy?

Wednesday 21 December 2011

The Man Who Was Thursday - G.K. Chesterton

I've nearly come to the end of my pile of must-review-before-the-end-of-2011 books (and I really should have spaced them out a bit, perhaps... oh well, we'll have a bit of a rest after Christmas.  Or an avalanche of my Books of 2011 posts.  We'll see.)

Now, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) is a curious little book, not least because the central importance of it doesn't reveal itself right until the end - at which point the rug is pulled from under your feet, and everything you've read takes on something of a new dimension.  Hmm... I don't think it'll spoil the book if I tell you the revealed theme, but in case you don't want to know I'll hide it in a link.  The Man Who Was Thursday would make an ideal companion read to (spoiler fans click here) this.  Ok, confused?  Good.

The Man Who Was Thursday is subtitled 'A Nightmare', which I wasn't expecting, given that I know Chesterton best as a humorist.  Nor does the subtitle come into play for quite some time.  We start with Gabriel Syme, a member of secret anti-anarchist police, who meets anarchist Lucian Gregory at the party of a poet.  The opening scenes, where these characters debate the structure or chaos of poetry, are as amusing as anything found in this whimsical, witty decade, if a little more philosophical and theoretical than usual.
"The poet delights in disorder only.  If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway."
"So it is," said Mr. Syme.

"Nonsense!" said Gregory, who was very rational when anyone else attempted paradox.
It's all very jolly and garden-party-esque - cucumber sandwiches all round.  Syme and Gregory exchange verbal quips stridently, but without intending any of their barbs to hit home.  Indeed, far from being offended, Syme agrees to go with Gregory to an underground anarchist meeting, so that Gregory can prove what Syme doubts: that he is serious about anarchism.

What follows is a rather lovely piece of satirical reasoning.  Gregory is a serious anarchist - and had previously asked his leader how he could blend into the world, to perpetrate his ideology:
I said to him "What disguise will hide me from the world?  What can I find more respectable than bishops and majors?"  He looked at me with his large but indecipherable face.  "You want a safe disguise, do you?  You want a dress which will guarantee you harmless; a dress in which no one would ever look for a bomb?"  I nodded.  He suddenly lifted his lion's voice.  "Why, then, dress up as an anarchist, you fool!"  he roared so that the room shook.  "Nobody will ever expect you to do anything dangerous then."  And he turned his broad back on me without another word.  I took his advice, and have never regretted it.  I preached blood and murder to these women day and night, and - by God! - they would let me wheel their perambulators.
Clever.  But Syme manages to outwit Gregory, and get himself elected to the central council of anarchists, where each is assigned the name of a day of the week.  Syme, as the novel's title suggests, is Thursday.  Head of them all is the mysterious Sunday.

That's as much as I shall reveal of the plot - it becomes something of a intoxicating mix of spy novel, epigrammatical social novel, and even philosophical/theological.  The subtitle 'nightmare' is odd, but the style certainly has a dreamlike quality - swirling from one event to another, with twists and surprises along the way.  It's a little madcap, but never to the extent that you think Chesterton's been at the opium.

I don't think it's the sort of novel that would be published now - it's too varied and unusual.  Which I think is great, of course, but probably wouldn't satisfy the demands of a marketing department.  Chesterton still remains a bit of a mystery to me, and The Man Who Was Thursday is intriguing and admirable rather than lovable, but I would recommend it to readers who enjoy satire and surprises, washed down with a bon mot or two.

Others who got Stuck into it:

"Weird. Nightmare-ish. Imaginative. Chestertonian." - Sherry, Semicolon

"Despite its philosophizing, its humor makes much of it a very light book, and some of the more "adventurous" scenes would make an awfully good film--there's even a car chase." - Christopher, 50 Books Project

"To say that the novel develops a nightmarish quality is not to say that it’s scary. I think perhaps most nightmares are only scary to the person who dreams them." - Teresa, Shelf Love

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Santas everywhere!

I've been a lucky boy today, since my Persephone Secret Santa arrived to coincide with opening day for the LibraryThing Virago Secret Santa - so I got this little lot of goodies, courtesy of lovely Emma and lovely Rob.  Thanks, guys!

Emma chose Miss Buncle Married and this lovely Christmas tree biscuit (I'm glad I took a photo, since I've eaten most of it now) - Rob surprised me with two authors I've been intending to read this year: G.B. Stern's White Oleander and Margaret Kennedy's Together and Apart.

Have any of you read any of these?

Monday 19 December 2011

Nella Last's Peace

Nella Last's War was my favourite read from 2010, and when I tell you that Nella Last's Peace is more of the same, then that should tell you how impressed I was by it.  (Thank you Profile Books for sending it to me.)  True, I didn't warm to it quite as much, and I'm not sure it's of quite such historical importance, but it is only repetition that will inevitably place this book lower on my reads of 2011 - last year I was expecting mediocrity and was bowled over; this year I expected Nella Last to be as good as she is.

For those who have thus far missed the whole Nella Last phenomenon, she was a 'Housewife, 49' (to quote the television adaptation title) when she signed up to write for the Mass Observation project.  Every Friday Last posted her diaries away, recording the everyday life she observed so shrewdly, and in such plain but crafted language.  Actually, 'crafted' is the wrong word - it seems to have just flown from her pen.  'And what he thought,' as the First Folio editors said of Shakespeare, 'he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.'  Except with Nella Last it was true.

I said at the top that Nella Last's Peace might be less historically significant than Nella Last's War, but I'm already beginning to doubt that statement.  Although the war years were doubtless more momentous, they are also well documented.  The earliest peace years, with its hardships and regrets, has given birth to far fewer records - but Nella Last kept going, indefatigably.

I said once at the WVS [Women's Voluntary Services] Centre, "I feel like a piece of elastic that has been stretched and stretched and now has no more stretch - and cannot spring back."  They laughed, but several said it was a pretty good description of their own post-war feelings and I can tell Arthur has somewhat the same reaction.  More and more do I feel I must take each day as it comes, do the best I can and lay my day aside, taking up the next.  Sometimes I feel so dead tired, like a burnt-out shell, craving only to relax and rest.  Then my mind rises and rebukes my tired body - says, "So much to be done, so little time."  The stars shine brightly tonight.  I love stars.  They make me feel trivial and unimportant - and are so stable.  I don't wonder the old ones thought Heaven was above the bright blue sky.
Without her war work in the canteen, and with different anxieties concerning her boys, Nella mostly turns her attentions to her recalcitrant husband, large circle of neighbours, and everyday life when money is scarce and rationing in full flow.  She grows more impatient with her husband (I start to sympathise with him at times!), and readier to give her friends the rough side of her tongue, but remains practical, thoughtful, and a force of commonsense to be reckoned with.  There are any number of activities and opinions I could quote from her diaries, but I'd be in danger of typing out the whole lot.  Instead I'll quote a trip to the Lake District which shows how gifted a writer Last was - not solely as an observer of people and pastimes, but in a strain which is almost poetic:
My husband had to go to Ulverston and we decided to go on to have a look at frozen Windermere, if the roads were not too bad.  We felt a queer awe at the steel grey sheet that was the friendly rippling lake of summer - it looked austere and remote.  The sun was smiling behind a shoulder of a hill, and its slanting rays seemed to lick out every shorn hillside, every ugly gaping gully where trees had been dragged to the road.  There was not a sound anywhere.  An awful stillness seemed on everything and that queer atavistic desolation gripped me.  I felt I wanted to lift my voice in a wild 'keen', if only to break the silence  We seemed the only living and moving things left on the earth.  I felt thankful to leave the unfamiliar scene.  The hills around were patched rather than crowned with snow.  The fields were white instead of freshly ploughed as they should have been by March, and heaps of dung stood frozen and useless.  I wonder if it will mean a bad crop and harvest, with so late a season.  Heavy sullen clouds rolled in from the sea, looking as if we would have more snow, and we were glad to get home to a fire and our tea, with the table drawn close to it.
One thing I wish I could do is reach across the decades and reassure Nella Last that she is a talented writer - and that her writings would not be forgotten.  Here is a glimmer that she understood this herself - and yet the terrible fact that she did not realise her own worth and the books which would eventually be published!
Such a nice letter from MO [Mass Observation].  Arthur can see a value in my endless scribbles.  He told me long ago they were of more use than 'clever' writings, as they wanted an ordinary woman's viewpoint and routine.  There's so little help I can give now.  It gave me a grand feeling I could help someone.  An idle thought struck me - the weight and volume of over eight years' scribbling must be surprising.  Supposing I'd been clever, there could have been a few books!  Always I longed to write, but there was something missing.  Only in my letter writing and MO have I found fulfilment of my girlhood yearning to write.  Anyway, they might have been good books.  At least my letters have cheered and comforted - the boys always like them.

As she later writes, 'whatever else that one is or has been, there's never been a trace of dullness!'  It is evident to me that the lack of dullness has little to do with events, and everything to do with Last herself.  She is a fine example of making the most of any situation - and an even better example of the powers of keen observation.  To her perceptive eye, nothing could be dull - and we are forever lucky that she kept this diary for so many years.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Cornflower's meme - and a Sunday Song

I do like a meme which plays with book titles, and Karen has started this one - I've also seen it done by Harriet, Claire, and Jane.  A few of these will be appearing in my Top 15 of 2011 (yes, it's gone up to fifteen - there were just too many good books.)  Have a go yourself, if you like...

My Day in Books

I began the day with A View From Downshire Hill

On my way to work I saw The Town in Bloom

and walked by People on a Bridge

to avoid The Perfect Pest

but I made sure to stop at A House in the Country.

In the office, my boss said, "How Can You Bear To Be Human?"

and sent me to research Life Among the Savages.

At lunch with Two Serious Ladies

I noticed The Gingerbread Woman

under The Skin Chairs

then went back to my desk, A Kind Man.

Later, on the journey home, I bought The Amorous Bicycle

because I have To Tell My Story

then settling down for the evening, I picked up Gin and Ginger (The Double)

and studied Exercises in Style

before saying goodnight to People Who say Goodbye.

Enjoy that?  Well, here's a song to finish off, courtesy of Our Vicar:

Saturday 17 December 2011

The Lottery and Other Stories - Shirley Jackson

Back in June, I posted Shirley Jackson's most famous short story 'The Lottery' and promised that, sooner or later, I'd write about her collection The Lottery and Other Stories.  Well, six months later I'm finally going to write a post about it, but I have a feeling that it won't quite qualify as a review.  But I'm not one of those bloggers who gets myself in a tizzy over whether or not to use the word 'review', so shall we move on?

If you haven't read 'The Lottery', I suggest you click on the link above and acquaint yourself.  It won't take long, and it will leave quite an impression.  Enough of an impression that some people (naming no names) have been wary of reading anything more by Jackson.  I, however, love me some Shirley - her gothicy, psychological novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House as well as her Provincial Ladyesque Life Among the Savages.  Where in this broad spectrum, pondered I, would her other short stories fall?

A whole new territory, it turns out.  After 'The Lottery' (you should go and read it before I accidentally give the game away) I expected Jackson's stories all to pivot around shocking twists, with menacing backdrops of small town life.  As it happens, all the other stories collected here are rather different from 'The Lottery'.  Where that story is a masterclass in structure, building in tension until a revelatory climax, Jackson's other stories are much more nebulously structured.  They rarely have an end, and often don't have a beginning - instead they are slices of life, and significant experiences rather than momentous, er, moments.  Going through the other short story writers I've read, in my head, the nearest I can think of are Alice Munro and Kate Chopin - much shorter than Munro's stories, but with that balance of interrogation and eventual mystery.

Jackson's stories, though, still lean towards the familiar themes of claustrophobic. small town life.  A few deal with racism.  In one of the longer stories, 'Flower Garden', a friendship between young mothers unravels owning to differing views about letting their children play with a black boy.  In turn, one of the mothers (a newcomer) is gradually ostracised by the community.
[Mrs. MacLane] stared at the blue bowl, and said slowly, "When I first came, everyone was so nice, and they seemed to like Davey and me and want to help us."

That's wrong, Mrs. Winning was thinking, you mustn't ever talk about whether people like you, that's bad taste.
Jackson often quietly questions the codes which hold together communities, and the hypocrisy within society.  The same theme is visited more subtly in a much shorter story - 'After You, My Dear Alphonse' - which demonstrates how brilliantly Jackson follows that first rule of writing: show, don't tell.  She never has the here's-the-moral-we-learnt moment, but rather shows normal people and lets them reveal their own dark natures.  Dark, but not evil - her characters are always understandable, if not quite sympathetic.

My favourite story here, aside from 'The Lottery', is probably 'The Daemon Lover' - a mysterious, haunting story of a bride wandering door-to-door on her wedding day, trying to find her groom.  It gives one a prolonged shudder, rather than a sudden shock, and the atmosphere laced through it is Jackson at her best.  Flicking through at random, 'The Tooth' is almost hallucinatory; 'Of Course' is witty and wise; 'Charles' is actually an excerpt from Life Among the Savages and has that wry, warm tone; 'Afternoon in Linen' shows a slightly more jarring childhood moment. There are twenty-six stories in The Lottery and other stories and, as often with short story collections, it's difficult to pinpoint a unifying theme.  But I think I may have spotted one... and it's not just the curious repetition of the name 'James Harris' throughout, to which this Wikipedia entry lends a clue.

A lot of perceptive critics have noted the domestic claustrophobia of Jackson's two most famous novels, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House - a Gothic influence that is absent from almost all these stories.  But Jackson has broadened this theme into the more widely felt one of entrapment.  People in these stories are so often trapped - in sad situations, in unwelcoming towns, or in their own unmovable prejudices.  Even within the way the stories are written, denying the characters a big moment of narrative climax, finishing in the middle of ongoing scenarios rather than ending neatly, the characters are trapped in unfinalised tales, unable to escape.  If this is more often sad or staid than scary, then that only emphasises Jackson's impressive sensitivity - and versatility.

Friday 16 December 2011

Persephone Secret Santa

Well, today is the day we are supposed to reveal our Persephone Secret Santa gifts... but... I don't have mine yet.

 Turns out I was going to be given it at the Persephone Books Open House today, but in the end I couldn't go... because I had locked myself out!  I wasn't stuck outside for very long, but I was on quite a tight schedule, and it was long enough to make it impractical to get to London and pack for going home for Christmas (which I'm doing later today.)

However, I did get a card from my Persephone Secret Santa this morning!  In lieu of a book, I'll show off my lovely, intriguing card:

Thanks to Claire and Verity for organising this - I look forward to seeing everyone unveiling their books, and yelping about how exciting it all is.  You'll just have to comment on my card and cartoon (bonus points if you recognised the Persephone logo...), for the time being...

If you got a Persephone Secret Santa, do pop a link to your reveal post in the comments.  I'll show off mine when it arrives!

Thursday 15 December 2011

So Long, See You Tomorrow - William Maxwell

I want to cry a little bit, because I just spent two hours writing a post on So Long, See You Tomorrow, which disappeared when I tried to add a picture.  Sometimes I hate Blogger... Well, I'm going to give it another go, but if my enthusiasm wanes a little, you'll know why...

It has ended up being quite neat, though, that I'm blogging about a novella by William Maxwell - following on from other reviews in this vein this week.  I fell in love with Maxwell when I read They Came Like Swallows (thanks Karen!), bought up a few of his books, read half of The Chateau, and... stopped.  Not sure why.  But Rachel's review of So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980) catapaulted it up my tbr pile, and while I didn't love it quite as much as They Came Like Swallows, it's not far off.

I love books which centralise the memory of long-distant, momentous events - especially if uncertainty, anxiety or guilt bring these recollections to the fore.  That makes me sound a bit sadistic, doesn't it?  But examples like Ian McEwan's Atonement and, even better, Jens Christian Grondahl's Virginia (reviewed here) show how this can create a structure of dual narratives, looking forwards and backwards, memories and regrets influencing the telling of past and present.  Guilt is perhaps the most powerful of emotions, especially when nothing can be done to appease or rectify.

The novella opens with a murder, told in Maxwell's deceptively simple manner:

One winter morning shortly before daybreak, three men loading gravel there heard what sounded like a pistol shot.  Or, they agreed, it could have been a car backfiring.  Within a few seconds it had grown light.  No one came to the pit through the field that lay alongside it, and they didn't see anyone walking on the road.  The sound was not a car backfiring; a tenant farmer named Lloyd Wilson had just been shot and killed, and what they heard was the gun that killed him.
Lloyd Wilson and the murderer, Clarence Smith, had once been best friends.  Living on neighbouring farms, their families had grown alongside each other, and Maxwell builds up this dynamic between neighbours and friends in a believable, simple manner - until circumstances change and the friendship is gradually unwoven, with the tragic results already revealed to the reader at the outset.  The narrator's guilty remembrances stem from failing to support his best friend, Cletus Smith, while his life fell apart.  This guilt colours the narrator's presentation of the past, and is a net from which he has not been able to escape.  The novel moves between past and present, developing each narrative line, and demonstrating the far-flung influence of long ago events - in a way which flows beautifully, never forced, quietly showing Maxwell's novelistic expertise.

The narrator's own life was not easy.  Crippling shy and suffering from the early loss of his mother, the narrator feels that he has disappointed his father, and is out of kilter with the sort of boy he is expected to be.  Maxwell touches gently on the father's grief, in an example of his understated but powerful style:

His sadness was of the kind that is patient and without hope.  He continuted to sleep inthe bed he and my mother had shared, and tried to act in a way she would have wanted him to, and I suspect that as time passed he was less and less sure what that was.
Many lesser novelists would have spent several pages dissecting the narrator's father's emotions, but Maxwell's talent is that he does not need to do so - he encapsulates everything we need to read in two short sentences.  It is this approach which exemplifies Maxwell's brilliance, but also how easily he could be underestimated.

The father does remarry, and the family is moved to a new home.  I love portrayals of houses in literature, and the scenes of their new home being built make for some great sections - the narrator compares the building site to Alberto Giacometti's sculpture 'The Palace at 4am'.  There is no picture of the sculpture in the book, it is only described verbally, but I went and tracked down an image.  In its curious form, seemingly incomplete and distorted, it reflects not only a building site but the structures of memory:

For, despite the murder and the family tensions, the true subject of So Long, See You Tomorrow is memory and the fallibility of memory.  Not so much that facts may be altered, but the distortion of remembered emotions and responses; superimposing later feelings over old ones, and the overlap between past and present:
What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory - meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion - is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.  Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end.  In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.
A murder mystery usually has a fairly straightforward structure - clues must be laid, of course, and herrings must be red, but the masters have laid out the pattern.  By removing the mystery of whodunnit, Maxwell explores the much more human, fascinating dynamics of how circumstances and personalities led to murder - and how the aftermath continues for decades and decades.  To construct a narrative through the abstract themes of grief, regret, love, pain, and guilt, Maxwell sets himself a much more difficult task - and achieves it.  I'm excited eventually to read more of Maxwell, and it was worth having to write this post twice to tell you how good this little book is...

Others who got Stuck into it:

"I don’t think I have come across a finer work of modern fiction." - Rachel, Book Snob

"Maxwell’s prose is sparse and beautiful, very different from McEwan’s florid poetic and sometimes beautiful prose." - Trevor, The Mookse and the Gripes

"This book will bear many readings whilst doubtless yielding new insights each time." - Lynne, dovegreyreader

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Up At The Villa - W. Somerset Maugham

I'm trying to get through all the books I've read and not reviewed in 2011, so there will be a flurry of reviews over the next fortnight.  Prepare yourselves!

A while ago I did one of my novella reading weekends, but I don't think I ever actually told you about it, before or afterwards.  One of the books I read was my first stab at W. Somerset Maugham, only eight or so years since I first bought one of his books.  Which wasn't the one I read.  Up at the Villa (1941) came recommended by Simon Savidge (see links at the bottom) and is only 120pp - plus it has a lovely cover, so why not?

Up at the Villa is rather difficult to classify - in terms of length, it probably counts as a novella, but structurally it seems much more like a short story.  There are all manner of attempts to define the short story, and I find a few quite helpful.  Brander Matthews suggested over a century ago that "a short-story deals with a single character, a single event, a single emotion, or the series of single emotions called forth by a single situation." In 1979 Wendell Harris picked up on the same focal word in his definition: "single memorable curve of action revealing a single memorable personality."  Poe wrote more vaguely, but sensibly, that the short story must have "unity of impression".  All these definitions essentially suggest singularity - no room for interweaving plots, multiple focalisation, etc. etc.  Of course, there are dozens of writers and hundreds of short stories which break these rules, but rather fewer novellas and novels which fit so neatly into the definition.

Up at the Villa doesn't take us far from beautiful young widow Mary Panton's perspective, nor from the events of a single momentous day.  In the wake of her husband's death, Mary is living in a beautiful borrowed villa overlooking Florence.  Her beauty is striking, she is privileged (if not quite opulent) and at the beginning of the novel she even receives a proposal from an older man who is soon to be Governor of Bengal.  Not to mention the rakish attentions of Rowley Flint, who doesn't have marriage on his mind.

So where does this single memorable curve of action take us?  It starts with one act of generosity:
They had dined late and soon after eleven the Princess called for her bill.  When it grew evident that they were about to go, the violinist who had played to them came forward with a plate.  There were a few coins on it from diners at other tables and some small notes.  What they thus received was the band's only remuneration.  Mary opened her bag.

"Don't bother", said Rowley.  "I'll give him a trifle."

He told a ten-lira note out of his pocket and put it on the plate.

"I'd like to give him something too", said Mary.  She laid a hundred-lira note on the others.  The man looked surprised, gave Mary a searching look, bowed slightly and withdrew.

"What on earth did you give him that for?" exclaimed Rowley.  "That's absurd."

"He plays so badly and he looks so wretched."

"But they don't expect anything like that."

"I know.  That's why I gave it.  It'll mean so much to him.  It may make all the difference to his life."
And, one thing leading to another, it does make a difference to a lot of lives.  But I'm not going to reveal any more of the plot...

I do love stories where one seemingly innocent action leads to a huge fallout.  The only one which comes to mind right now is a broken cup in an episode of Flight of the Conchords, which probably isn't a seriously helpful example... but you know what I mean.   I thought Maugham manipulated the situation well, and without contravening the personalities of the characters drawn at the beginning.  Mary is impulsive and romantic and not always able to deal with the outcome of her actions, and this makes for a plot which snowballs out of her control - a touch melodramatically, but still within the realms of feasibility.

My only confusion is why it became a 120 page book.  Most authors would have condensed it into thirty pages, or added more characters, more ideas, more occurrences - and another 120 pages.  It might seem an odd thing to focus on, but Up at the Villa falls between two stools, which is difficult to ignore.  What makes me want to return to Maugham, and try one of his more famous books, is that even with these reservations, I still found Up at the Villa a skillful, interesting read.

Others who got Stuck into it:

"Up at the Villa is a perfect book when you want something slightly familiar and yet something that completely throws you." - Simon, Savidge Reads

"The pacing of the story is excellent, starting off at the slow, languid speed that you might expect from a novel about the English upper classes in Italy and gradually speeding up until it feels almost out of control." - Old English Rose

"It’s a fine and entertaining diversion, and it’s got guns in, and sometimes that’s all we need" - John Self, The Asylum 

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Warner and Maxwell

38. The Element of Lavishness : Sylvia Townsend Warner & William Maxwell

I have had a very good reading year - so many wonderful books which have blown me away. It's going to be tricky, compiling a list of my top ten at the end of the year - indeed, making lists of my all-time favourite books is getting harder than ever - but I'm pretty certain this volume will be featuring on 2011's best reads (coming up soon). And it's nabbing place 38 on the books I think you should read, but might not have heard about. Which means there are only twelve more that I can add - ooo! Thrilling, no?

I still have so many novels and stories by Warner and Maxwell to read - it seems crazy that I've only read two novels by Warner and two-and-a-bit by Maxwell, since I still consider them amongst my favourite writers. But even with these stockpiles still to read, I was delighted to discover that they were correspondents. It seemed too good to be true - that two authors I love should have collaborated on a book in this way, especially since Maxwell lived in the US, and Warner in England, and they met only two or three times.  (Most, perhaps all, of my quotations here are from Warner, but that is because I read the book whilst researching a chapter on Warner - Maxwell is equally wonderful a letter-writer.  Almost.)

The title Element of Lavishness comes from a letter in which Maxwell writes to Warner that:
The personal correspondence of writers feeds on left-over energy.  There is also the element of lavishness, of enjoying the fact that they are throwing away one of their better efforts, for the chances of any given letter's surviving is fifty-fifty, at most.
I love the ethos here: even if they don't know whether or not their letters will be read more than once, fleetingly, it's almost as though they can't help writing to the best of their ability.  Evidently a lot of the Warner/Maxwell correspondence did survive, and it certainly reflects their talents.  While I love them both as novelists, I think The Element of Lavishess is the best thing I have read by either of them.  It's quite possible that this post will descend (ascend?) into a myriad of quotations - so beautiful are the sentences these authors penned so casually.

They wrote between 1938 and Warner's death forty years later, but only really became friends in the early 1950s, where the letters veer from the strictly practical to the lavishness of the title.  The relationship between Warner and Maxwell began professionally - Maxwell edited The New Yorker, to which Warner started contributing stories.  He loved them (I have shelves full of them, unread) and gradually this exchange became a friendship that encompassed not only work and writing but every conceivable facet of their lives.

Warner and Maxwell remained each other's most fervent fans, and happy to express it.  Novels and stories were read and praised, always carefully and thoughtfully; Warner embarked on her successful Kingdoms of Elfin series expressly to please Maxwell - and yet, throughout, Maxwell maintained his role as New Yorker editor.  He praised and praised - but would also, occasionally, turn down submitted stories.  How strong a friendship must be to survive this!  How brave of Maxwell, and how gracious of Warner!  And how beautifully Maxwell himself phrases his response to Warner's appreciation:
You have a way of putting praises that makes it hard for me to walk afterward.  My feet have a tendency not to touch the ground.  Listing a little to the right or the left, I levitate, in danger of cracking with happiness.  When one has been pleased one’s whole life as profoundly as I have been pleased by your work, one does terribly want to do a little pleasing in return, I mean I love you.
Naturally they did not solely get to know one another, but became as intimately involved in each other's families.  Warner's partner Valentine; Maxwell's wife Emmy and his two children.  They often ask after these people, of course - but, more than this, they grew to understand and love these background figures to their correspondence.  I love this quick note of Warner's:
I am thankful that Emmy is back.  In her absence you do not spell as well as at other times.  Does she know that?  It is a delightful tribute, she should wear it in a brooch.
Maxwell helped Warner through Valentine's illness and death, acting as a necessarily far-flung support - and the exchange of touching, thoughtful, perceptive letters became all the more vital. For Warner, in her final years, to all intents and purposes widowed, the correspondence was a weapon against loneliness.  Those little observances and stories she might have told Valentine across breakfast became the anecdotes she wove into her letters.  This was possibly my favourite letter - indeed, I immediately wrote it down and sent it off to my own correspondent, Barbara-from-Ludlow:
All this time I was picking & cursing strawberries.  I had an enormous crop, & my principles are of a niggardly kind that can’t let fool go to waste.  But I got one pure pleasure out of this.  I was picking & cursing and searching who I could give the next lot to when I saw a paddle rise above the garden wall.  And looking down, there were two boys in a canoe.  So without explanation, I commanded them to keep about, & hurried (to Valentine’s workroom) for the shrimping net, and filled it with strawberries and lowered it down to them.  They were silent and acceptant; & it was all very Tennysonian, & I realised that when they are old men they will remember those strawberries.
(This was written in 1972.  Let us assume the boys were twenty years old, at the most - so they are now no more than sixty.  Where are they?  Do they remember?  I believe I, at least, will remember this quirky, moving scene for many eyars.)  

Here, in letters, where Warner is not constrained by the novelistic strictures of plot and character and can instead turn her attention to anything and everything, Warner is at her most perceptive - and at her most deliciously playful.  She never writes a dull letter, and here are just a couple of examples from the notes I made:
Don’t ever think twice about asking me to amplify.   I love amplifying.  If I had lived when people illuminated MSS I should always have been looking for unoccupied capital O’s and filling them up with the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian and a pig-killing.
One of the emotions of old age is amazement that one was alive so long ago.  I suppose that is why so many people write autobiographies.  They are trying to convince themselves that they really were.
They are so lovable, so warm!  I want to quote to you endlessly - I want to tell you how Maxwell has ‘a defective sense of rancour [...] the first thing I know I am beaming at someone I suddenly remember I shouldn’t even be speaking to'; how, when Warner and Valentine had a servant, 'we used to count the hours till her half-days & evenings out when we would rush into the kitchen and read her novels and magazines: [...] such a grateful change from Dostoevsky.'  But I shan't - because I think you should just go and buy it yourself.   If you're even remotely fond of Warner or Maxwell, you'll love this.  Even if you've not read a word by either, or don't even recognise they're name, I would recommend this collection to you - anybody with any interest in friendship, literature, letters, perception... this book will delight.

Perhaps I should end with an excerpt from Warner, one of their early letters, which leaves me wondering quite how she would respond to my adulation:
But no reviewers ever understand one’s books; and if they praise them, they understand them even less.  Praising reviewers are like those shopwomen who thrust a hat on one’s head, a hat that is like the opening of the Judgement scroll in which all one’s sins are briefly and dispassionately entered, and then stand back and say that it is exactly the hat that Modom needs to bring out her face.  I have never yet had a praising review that did not send me slinking and howling under my breath to kneel in some dark corner and pray that the Horn would sound for me and the Worms come for me, that very same night.  The horn doesn’t and the worms don’t, and somehow one recovers one’s natural powers of oblivion, and goes on writing.

Monday 12 December 2011

"Reading is primarily a symptom"

I mentioned Stop What You're Doing and Read This! the other day, and I am still loving it - so much so that I'm not going to confine it to one post.  I love essays about books, mostly because I agree with what they say - even better is when they make me reshift and reconsider my passionate views on reading.  Here's a quotation from Mark Haddon's essay 'The Right Words in the Right Order':

Talking about reading as the cause of anything is to get things back to front.  It exists in the valley of its own making.  It gives us pleasure; and our embarrassment about pleasure, our fear that reading is fundamentally no different from sex or sport, tempts us into claiming that reading improves us.  But pleasure is a very broad church indeed, and we do literature no great service if we try to sell it as a kind of moral calisthenics.

Reading is primarily a symptom.  Of a healthy imagination, of our interest in this and other worlds, of our ability to be still and quiet, of our ability to dream during daylight.  And if we want more people to enjoy better books, whatever that means, we should concentrate on the things that prevent people reading.  Poverty, poor literacy, library closures, feelings of cultural exclusion.  Alleviate any of these problems and reading will blossom.

--Mark Haddon, 'The Right Words in the Right Order'
Stop What You're Doing and Read This!

Sunday 11 December 2011

Song for a Sunday

Time to get festive with Sunday Songs - and the next couple of weeks will be suggestions people have emailed me (feel free to pop a link to your favourite alternative Christmas song in the comments.)  Ruth sent me a link to Christine Guldbrandsen's 'Surfing in the Air':

Hope you enjoyed this take on 'Walking in the Air'!

Saturday 10 December 2011

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

First things first - happy birthday to Our Vicar!

It's definitely getting Christmassy at our house, since the Christmas tree has gone up (sans tinsel) and presents have been wrapped.  I'm heading down to Somerset at the end of next week, where Sherpa will inevitably destroy any decorations which go up - but I could forgive that little sweetheart absolutely anything, of course.

I'm not going to be particularly festive right now, though, as the weekend miscellany is dashing everywhere from the derivation of a popular phrase to the Twilight Zone.  It's an odd one this week... enjoy!

1.)  You know when you start with an honest, sensible Wikipedia search... and then quarter of an hour later you're reading about the chart hits of Destiny's Child or an unsolved murder case from the 1840s?  Yes?  Perhaps you'll sympathise with me: my initial search started with something for my DPhil on fantastic novels where rooms shift shape.  It ended with... an episode of the Twilight Zone called 'Five Characters in Search of an Exit.'  I thought I'd post it here, because (a) it makes for good watching, and (b) since it plays on the title of the Pirandello play Six Characters in Search of an Author, it's literary-by-proxy.  I do enjoy The Twilight Zone because it's surreal and mysterious without being terrifying or gory.  You can read the Wikipedia article here, and watch below (hopefully).

2.)  I spotted this via Kirsty, I think (whose blog Other Stories seems to have disapparated?)  Ever wanted to know where the odd expression 'stealing someone's thunder' comes from?  The Oxford Words blog obliges here.  I absolutely love these quirky little idioms and their history.  Any others to share?

3.) I haven't read nearly enough books published in 2011 to submit my own results, but if you have, pop over to The International Readers Book Awards on the website for my new favourite podcast, The Readers, run by Simon of Savidge Reads and Gav of Gav Reads.

4.)  This weekend's book (I have taken liberties with my normal Weekend Miscellany, but there has to be a book, doesn't there?) came through my letterbox from Vintage Books.  It's called Stop What You're Doing And Read This - what else could I do but obey?  I'm afraid it's not out until 5th January, but I couldn't resist telling you about it in advance - because it's just the sort of book-about-books that I adore.  To quote them, 'this book is a mission statement about the transformative power of reading.'  Well-known authors, publishers and sundry others have written essays about reading and the importance of books - preaching to the converted here, of course, but a topic which always captivates me.  So far I've read Zadie Smith on libraries (wonderfully impassioned), Blake Morrison  (mainly about biographies, and very interesting), Carmen Callil (most fascinatingly for me, the origins of Virago), Tim Parks (the one dud essay so far; trying far too hard), and Mark Haddon (unexpectedly brilliant, actually.)  Other essayists are Jeanette Winterson, Michael Rosen, Dr. Maryanne Wolf, Jane David, and Nicholas Carr.

Of course I'll write more in depth about this later, but I wanted to sound the alarm early.  It'll only be £4.99 when it's published, which I thought pretty reasonable, and it might just join Anne Fadiman, Susan Hill, and Alberto Manguel on my beloved books-about-books shelf.