Friday 31 August 2012

Great British Baking!

Some people were there when Dylan first went electric.  Some knew about Harry Potter before he hit the mainstream.  I, dear reader, was with The Great British Bake Off from series one, episode one.

Indeed, the whole first series watched without much comment - I loved it, and even toyed with entering the second series.  But then it suddenly became much better known, attracting higher ratings and being a heated topic of conversation in the Bodleian tea room.  I was even inspired to hold my own cake party.  I'm much enjoying series three (and watched the third episode with Mum this evening, on iPlayer) but the standard and difficulty have far exceeded anything I would be able to manage.  In case you haven't watched it, the combination of Mel and Sue's witty, irreverent-but-kind commentary, Mary Berry's grandmotherly sweetness, Paul Hollywood's gruff criticism, and a dozen nervous, jolly bakers is utterly irresistible.  I don't know if the whole series' episodes are available on iPlayer still, but if you can see the cakes in episode 1, they were amazing.  They had to bake cakes with patterns or pictures on the inside... exceptional.  Are you watching it?

And now for something completely different.  My very dear friend Lorna came to visit earlier in August and (despite she being a recently married uber-professional journalist, and me being... well, old) we made gingerbread and decorated it!  I only have two cutters, so they were gingerbread cats and gingerbread teapots.  And we didn't stint on the squeezy icing...

The cutters are ready!

I'm clearly enjoying myself :)


I couldn't squeeze on 'aged 26'.

I make a Colin cat (it's a Wolverhampton Wanderers shirt...) 

Harry Potter cat!  (Please don't sue.)

Lorna hard at work - such concentration!

Lorna's spread - spot the Parisian teapot, landmarks and all

My finished creations.
Now you see why I didn't enter GBBO...

Thursday 30 August 2012

Am I My Brother's Reader?

I've been very ruthless over the past couple days, and weeded out over 100 books which have gone to Barrington (a local National Trust property with a book barn) or The Honeypot (an even more local secondhand book seller - my Mum in our garage, for the church!)  I haven't been quite as ruthless as Rachel, but I've been stern with myself and certainly managed to make a bit of room... and then immediately filled it with the books I sent home with Mum and Dad when I moved house.  But, whereas I'd usually keep books I've read unless I hated them, now they're out if it's unlikely that I'll want to re-read them for years.

One book which probably won't be finding its way back onto my shelves is The Eye of the World (1990), the first novel in The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, which I finished on the train home.  In early 2010, my brother Colin and I set each other a reading challenge.  Our tastes our not similar at all, as you'll remember from his My Life in Books interview, and I wanted him to sample the wonder of Virginia Woolf.  Since she writes normal, sensible length books - and Robert Jordan first volume OF FOURTEEN comes in at an astonishing 782 pages - Colin had to read Orlando and To The Lighthouse, and would still get off far easier in terms of length.  As it turned out, he struggled with Orlando and called it the worst book he'd ever read.  Read more here (scroll down to August 25th 2010 entry).  I was sad but not surprised, and let him off reading To The Lighthouse.  Virginia Woolf is too brilliant to be everyone's cup of tea, so we'll sweep that under the carpet.

Well, The Eye of the World isn't the worst book I've ever read, but it did take me 2.5 years to read it.  I actually read over 500 pages on a trip to and from Paris in March 2010, because it was the only book I took with me, but I only read in dribs and drabs until, determined that it should feature on A Century of Books, I took it with me on a 3.5 hour train journey, and blitzed the final 200 or so pages.

Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, and Nynaeve live in a jolly place called The Two Rivers, which is attacked by Trollocs (wolf-type creatures), and Rand's father is killed.  I forget quite how this leads to the quest, but it does.... in fact, looking back, I can't really remember ever being told what the quest actually was.  It certainly involved walking a very long way, outwitting Dark Forces, and seeking the elliptical wisdom of an Aes Sedai  - prophetess-type - called Moiraine, who is rather pretty, if memory serves.  They wanted to get to The Eye of the World, but I don't really remember it being mentioned until they actually got there.  Perhaps they're just on the run from the Trollocs and sundry evil things?

And on they go.  And on.  And oooonnnn.

I will mention, before I go on, that The Eye of the World was better than I thought it would be.  At no point was the writing laughably bad, although for the most part it was pretty pedestrian.  It doesn't hurry particularly, and one of the reasons the book is so. very. long. is that Jordan doesn't have any sense of economising.  Here's an excerpt chosen entirely at random, to give you a sense of the pace:
The stone hallway was dim and shadowy, and empty except for Rand.  He could not tell where the light came from, what little there was of it; the grey walls were bare of candles or lamps, nothing at all to account for the faint glow that seemed to just be there.  The air was still and dank, and somewhere in the distance water dripped with a steady, hollow plonk.  Wherever this was, it was not the inn.  Frowning, he rubbed at his forehead.  Inn?  His head hurt, and thoughts were hard to hold on to.  There had been something about... an inn?  It was gone, whatever it was.

He licked his lips and wished he had something to drink.  He was awfully thirsty, dry-as-dust thirsty.  It was the dripping sound that decided him.  With nothing to choose by except his thirst, he started toward that steady plonk - plonk - plonk.
So, as you see, nothing dreadful, nothing in Mary Webb territory.  But since we're comparing Jordan with Woolf (which I can't imagine has ever happened before)... well, you can't imagine anybody reading prose like that simply for the joy of reading beautiful writing, can you?  It's serviceable, though, and unobtrusive, which is no mean feat.  Plenty of novelists would give their left arm for that.

A book's merits can be considered in terms of plot, character, and writing style, broadly speaking.  What The Eye of the World lacks in writing style it almost gains in character.  Although it took me the first hundred pages to disentangle Mat, Rand, and Perrin (and that gap of two years in my reading entangled them all over again) I was impressed by the complex relationships between the central characters - with jealousy, admiration, affection, rivalry, loyalty, and frustration all playing their roles.  It's not always the most subtle character delineation, but it's a good deal more subtle than I was anticipating.  As usual, there are forces that are plain Evil, without redeeming feature or clear motivation, but the Good characters weren't annoyingly bland in their pursuit of all that is pure.  They did all seem as though they were about 15 years old, whereas the cover suggests they're a decade or so older than that...?

So, the plot?  It didn't grip me, to be honest, because it seemed just to be walk, obstacle, overcome obstacle, walk, obstacle, overcome obstacle, repeat as needed.  The heroes are trapped!  Will they die?  Er, no.  The heroes are lost!  Will they find their way?  Er, yes.  The heroes are trapped again!  Will they escape?  Can you guess?  When there are another thousand books in the series, you know that the main characters are going to live for at least another few books.

I love books where not much happens, as you know.  I love To The Lighthouse, for goodness' sake, and bar a death and an argument or two, nothing really happens.  But The Eye of the World is so fixed on its quest plot, and its up-and-down attempts to heighten tension, that when it doesn't grab a reader the foundations of the novel must collapse.  I think I'm just allergic to the artificiality of any quest-plot.  And - not that it's relevant - covers like this.  Why do fantasy books so often have covers like this?  And silly names?  I'm put off when writers make up gibberish languages.  I think writers should be able to be creative within the bounds of the English language (or, y'know, whichever language[s] they speak.)  I don't see how 'Aes Sedai' brings anything that 'prophetess' doesn't, other than making me think (for some reason) of Anais Nin.

And while I'm moaning, goodness me, it's slow.  Colin tells me that it's the most pacey novel in the series - but no novel of 782 pages can claim to be fast-paced.  I think it could all easily be condensed into 300 pages, max.  I suppose part of the appeal to the sort of people who like lengthy fantasy series is that length. Perhaps it makes you feel like you're on the quest too.  (It did make me chuckle that one of the cover quotations was "I read it in three days" - for most books, an indication of compulsive, compelling reading would be "I read it in three hours.")  I was never hugely curious to find out what would happen next, partly because it was almost always glaringly obvious what would happen next and partly because it all happened at a glacial speed.

So, summing up... neither Colin nor I have converted the other to our much-cherished writers, but I fared better with Robert Jordan than he did with Virginia Woolf.  I shan't be reading any other books in The Wheel of Time series, but I liked The Eye of the World more than I thought I would.  I just wish someone had hidden Jordan's pen after 300 pages.

Wednesday 29 August 2012

The Warden - Anthony Trollope

In 2004, when I first joined the online book group which became dovegreybooks, and which I still love, everyone was talking about Anthony Trollope.  Over the course of the year, I managed to acquire all of the Barchester Chronicles & Palliser novels.  Fast forward eight years, and... I finally read something by Trollope!  And it wasn't even one of the actual books I bought in 2004, although it was a duplicate of one of them - Penguin sent me their new edition of The Warden (1855) a few months ago, and I decided that was a good excuse to give Anthony T a go.

Verdict: Success.

Several people have told me over the years to skip over The Warden and start with Barchester Towers, because The Warden was dull or pedestrian.  My friend Will expostulated with some warmth about how much he'd hated it at school - but by then I was already halfway through the novel and LOVING it.

On the face of it, the subject matter isn't of huge excitement and relevance to 2012.  A complicated combination of vague wills and inflation means that clergymen are benefiting from legacies intended for the charitable assistance of later generations.  Mr. Septimus Harding is one such clergyman - the warden of some almshouses, collecting £800 a year, and thus far more than the one shilling and sixpence given daily to the twelve old and infirm men who live there.

Now, I love the Church of England, but even I couldn't call myself gripped by their financial workings 150 years ago.  At least, not in the hands of any other author.  In The Warden, it scarcely matters what the issue is - what matters is the way Trollope uses it.  While some people value Dickens as a social reformer rather than a comic writer (I am the reverse), I find Trollope's touch much more palatable.  If this scenario had appeared in a Dickens novel, the warden would be called Mr. Grabsomecash, a cackling, acquisitive, unholy man.  And that would be fine, because he'd offset it with brilliant dialogue and hilarious grotesques, but it wouldn't have shone any very realistic light upon the issue.  Trollope, ingeniously, combines his evident belief that reform is needed with a character who is the opposite of conniving, money-grabbing, or selfish.  At the start of the novel, after Mr. Harding has been accepting £800 a year for quite a long period, the idea that he is doing the wrong thing 'has never sullied his quiet, or disturbed his conscience.'  Things soon change...

Heading the charge is John Bold, social reformer, who (despite his Dickensian name) is a subtle combination of forthright and bashful.  He isn't directly affected by the almshouse dispute, but is the sort of left-wing gent who views all disputes as his personal business.  He is idealistic, but also (you would have seen this coming, had I mentioned that Mr. Harding has an eligible young daughter, Eleanor) in love.  Which gives excuses for wonderful honourable-young-lady speeches like this:
"Mr. Bold," said she, "you may be sure of one thing; I shall always judge my father to be right, and those who oppose him I shall judge to be wrong.  If those who do not know him oppose him, I shall have charity enough to believe that they are wrong, through error of judgement; but should I see him attacked by those who ought to know him, and to love him, and revere him, of such I shall be constrained to form a different opinion."  And then curtseying low she sailed on, leaving her lover in anything but a happy state of mind.
You can't imagine Kim Kardashian or the cast of The Only Way Is Essex handling the situation in quite the same way, can you?

Septimus Harding has another daughter, Susan, but one not quite so close to his heart - largely because she is married to the ferociously logical and unpleasant archdeacon (she cannot bring herself to call him by any name other than 'archdeacon'.)  There can be no character so frustratingly awful as one who uses 'common-sense' instead of compassion, logic in place of love - and the archdeacon, Dr. Grantly, is one of those.  He is Mr. Bold's equal and opposite, forthright in defending Mr. Harding's right to receive his £800 a year, brooking no compromise on the topic.  When Mr. Harding wishes to find out whether he is morally and legally entitled to the money he receives (which nobody really seems to know) Dr. Grantly blinds him with syllogisms and declares that Mr. Harding will be abandoning the church if he does not continue to accept the money.  Yet even with Dr. Grantly, Trollope is charitable, noting towards the end of The Warden that:
We fear that he is represented in these pages as being worse than he is; but we have had to do with his foibles, and not with his virtues.  We have seen only the weak side of the man, and have lacked the opportunity of bringing him forward on his strong ground.
And he goes on to list his virtues, alongside his vices.  For Trollope is scrupulously fair in The Warden.  Right and wrong are not clearly demarcated, and even the right things are done for wrong reasons, and vice versa.

The Warden is largely the exploration of Mr. Harding's conscience, his craving for privacy, his sense of duty, and his love for Eleanor and the men of the almshouse.  It is all subtle and generous, and in a beautifully lilting prose.  I can see the threads of Jane Austen more clearly than I have in any other Victorian writer; Trollope values the balance and measure of sentences as much as Austen did.  The issue is no longer relevant, and perhaps never was to the majority of the country, but people have not changed.  Anybody familiar with disputes local or national will recognise the various characters here, or at least some of their traits.  At the centre of it is the wonderfully complex figure of Mr. Harding, thrust into a limelight he loathes and forced to defend a position he is beginning to consider indefensible.  If the rest of the Barchester Chronicles just gets better, then I'm excited to read on!

Monday 27 August 2012

A Review Round-up

It's one of those posts where I post teeny tiny reviews of some titles for A Century of Books which (for whatever reason) don't warrant full reviews.  It's really just so I have somewhere to link from the main list, but do jump in with your thoughts nonetheless!

The Westminster Alice (1902) by Saki
It's Lewis Carroll's Alice, but re-imagined with various political figures from the turn of the century!  A fun idea, and some bits I found amusing, but mostly it went right over my head.  I'd heard of most of the people - Chamberlain, Balfour, Cecil etc. - but I don't know the ins and outs of their activities in 1902.  But it was diverting enough, and under 50 pages...

What It Means To Marry (1914) by Margaret Scharlieb
For my next chapter, I'm reading a few different people discoursing on marriage from the 1910s and '20s.  They mostly divide into the 'marriage is holy' and the 'free love ahoy' camps - this one falls in the former, but Scharlieb is always a bit of a doom-monger as well...

The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret Murray
This was a rather credulous account of medieval witchcraft, which I read for my chapter on Lolly Willowes.  It was a speedy read because I skipped all the untranslated Latin and Medieval French...

The Corner That Held Them (1948) by Sylvia Townsend Warner
I love Warner sometimes, but this novel covering decades in the life of a medieval nunnery really, really bored me.  And yet it was her favourite of her books, and I know some people who adore it.  Odd.

Sunday 26 August 2012

Song for a Sunday

Have I ever pointed you in the direction of Lindsey Butler's beautiful take on 'I Don't Want To Talk About It' before?   No?  Well, it's on Soundcloud here (no video available, as far as I'm aware, of the whole song.)

Saturday 25 August 2012

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Happy Weekend!  I'm off home for a week and a bit - next Saturday is a party for Mum and Dad's anniversary, and I thought I'd take the opportunity to enjoy a week at home with Sherpa.  Mum promises me that Sherpa is looking forward to me coming... I'm going to fool myself into believing it.

I'll try to keep posting while I'm at home, but it might be a bit more sporadic.

1.) The blog post - is Alice's lovely post about the prospect of reading Ivy Compton-Burnett - including a quotation from Virginia Woolf on ICB which somehow I had never read before.

2.) The link - I know some people don't have the high tolerance for cute pictures of cats that I have (it's why the internet was invented!) but I doubt even the hardest heart could resist ALL of the 50 cute pictures found here.  My favourite is actually the one above, entirely cat-less.  (You might have to click to enlarge it.)

3.) The book - John Murray/Hodder & Stoughton recently sent me George Bernard Shaw's Love Among the Artists.  You know how I love a reprint series, especially if the reprints in question are slightly unusual choices.  I hadn't heard of this, but I'm definitely keen to read more GBS, particularly one which will cross 1900 of my Century of Books list (although written in 1881).  It's about 'three wayward geniuses', according to the blurb - two pianists and an actress, contrasted with socialites at whom Shaw pokes fun.  Sounds great!  More info on Love Among the Artists here, although I've had a hunt without being able to find the other reprints that they're doing in this series (and have lost the sheet they sent me.)

Thursday 23 August 2012

Happy 30th Anniversary, Our Vicar & Our Vicar's Wife

I've posted this photo before, but I loved it - and it seems appropriate, because today is the 30th anniversary for my Dad and Mum, a.k.a Our Vicar and Our Vicar's Wife.  Join with me in wishing them a hearty congratulations!

(l-r) Colin, Anne, Peter, me (playing outside: Sherpa)

And perhaps we can cheer them on their day by recommending our favourite married couples in fiction?  Mine are either Ian and Felicity from Denis Mackail's Greenery Street or Dahlia and the narrator in A.A. Milne's early sketches, collected in Those Were The Days.

(Incidentally, this is my 1502nd post - I was intending to do a little celebration for my 1500th, but obviously it just passed me by...)

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Five From the Archive (no.7)

I was thinking about doing a FFTA about unmarried women, because I've read a lot of those in the past year or so, and I imagine that one day I will - but I thought it might be more interesting, and more unusual, to select books about pairs of women.  Because there turned out to be a few in my reviews archive.  None of these are about romantic pairings (well... one could be, but it's not overtly) but instead female friendships (and, er, unfriendships.)  It's a surprisingly rich and varied vein of the books I've read - well, five of them at least! - and I'd be interested to hear your suggestions.  As always, the books don't have to be novels - one of mine is not, for starters.  On with the show!

Five... Books About Pairs of Women

1.) Two Serious Ladies (1943) by Jane Bowles

In short: A dry, barbed, wonderfully strange account of Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield, whose eccentric lives only overlap for a few moments.

From my review: "In many ways the novel doesn't follow any progression at all - the ladies merely experience a great deal, whether grasping at it enthusiastically or raising an ambivalent eyebrow at life.  Bowles' astonishing talent is creating a dynamic that, if not unique, is highly unusual - strange, surreal, and yet grounded to the mundane.  Her ear for dialogue is astonishing - dialogue which is almost never realistic, but always striking."

2.) Fair Play (1989) by Tove Jansson

In short: Two artists live on an island together, in this set of calm vignettes.

From my review: "Each chapter has a small incident occur, and Jansson wraps her delicious prose around it. By the end she has provided a beautiful portrait of an unconventional couple, co-dependent and close rather than affectionate."

3.) Keeping Up Appearances (1928) by Rose Macaulay

In short: Half-sisters Daisy (30, shy, secretly a popular novelist under a pseudonym) and Daphne (25, self-assured intellectual) try to mingle in the same social circles, with mixed success.

From my review: "Though Keeping Up Appearances isn't as funny as Crewe Train, nor quite as memorable, it does present a clever idea. Because, dear reader, I haven't told you the central concept which surprises the reader and twists the interpretation completely, which comes about halfway through the novel."

4.) Sex Education (2002) by Janni Visman

In short: Two women grow up together, but their friendship turns to rivalry...

From my review: "It's a presentation of the rivalry between friends, and the damaging effects of jealousy - but a quirkier edge would have catapaulted the novel into a higher league. I've no idea how the quirkiness could have been added - but obviously Visman did, because she delivered it in Yellow."

5.) Joyce & Ginnie: the letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham (1997)

In short: well, it's the letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham!

From my review: "The exchange of letters between the two women spans many, many years, and offers a unique perspective upon the lives of each - life as they wished to convey it to their closest friend. Without the modesty (assumed or otherwise) requisite for autobiography, or the idolatry of biography, reading letters may feel a little like encroaching upon a friendship, but also allows closer and more genuine understanding of the women than available elsewhere."

And.... over to you!

Tuesday 21 August 2012

'A Household Book' - A.A. Milne

As promised yesterday, here is the essay 'A Household Book' from A.A. Milne's Not That It Matters.  It might come with some surprises - unless you happened to read Peter's comments yesterday...

Once on a time I discovered Samuel Butler; not the other two, but the one who wrote The Way of All Flesh, the second-best novel in the English language.  I say the second-best, so that, if you remind me of Tom Jones or The Mayor of Casterbridge or any other that you fancy, I can say that, of course, that one is the best.  Well, I discovered him, just as Voltaire discovered Habakkuk, or your little boy discovered Shakespeare the other day, and I committed my discovery to the world in two glowing articles.  Not unnaturally the world remained unmoved.  It knew all about Samuel Butler.

Last week I discovered a Frenchman, Claude Tillier, who wrote in the early part of last century a book called Mon Oncle Benjamin, which may be freely translated My Uncle Benjamin.  (I read it in the translation.)  Eager as I am to be lyrical about it, I shall refrain.  I think that I am probably safer with Tillier than with Butler, but I dare not risk it.  The thought of your scorn at my previous ignorance of the world-famous Tillier, your amused contempt because I have only just succeeded in borrowing the classic upon which you were brought up, this is too much for me.  Let us say no more about it.  Claude Tillier - who has not heard of Claude Tillier?  Mon Oncle Benjamin - who has not read it, in French or (as I did) in American?  Let us pass on to another book.

For I am going to speak of another discovery; of a book which should be a classic, but is not; of a book of which nobody has heard unless through me.  It was published some twelve years ago, the last-published book of a well-known writer.  When I tell you his name you will say, "Oh yes!  I love his books!" and you will mention So-and-So, and its equally famous sequel Such-and-Such.  But when I ask you if you have read my book, you will profess surprise, and say that you have never heard of it.  "Is it as good as So-and-So and Such-and-Such?" you will ask, hardly believing that this could be possible.  "Much better," I shall reply - and there, if these things were arranged properly, would be another ten per cent. in my pocke.  But believe me, I shall be quite content with your gratitude.

Well, the writer of the book is Kenneth Grahame.  You have hard of him?  Good, I thought so.  The books you have read are The Golden Age and Dream Days.  Am I not right?  Thank you.  But the book you have not read - my book - is The Wind in the Willows.  Am I not right again?  Ah, I was afraid so.

The reason why I knew you had not read it is the reason why I call it "my" book.  For the last ten or twelve years I have been recommending it.  Usually I speak about it at the my first meeting with a stranger.  It is my opening remark, just as yours is something futile about the weather.  If I don't get it in at the beginning, I squeeze it in at the end.  The stranger has got to have it some time.  Should I ever find myself in the dock, and one never knows, my answer to the question whether I had anything to say would be, "Well, my lord, if I might just recommend a book to the jury before leaving."  Mr. Justice Darling would probably pretend that he had read it, but he wouldn't deceive me.

For one cannot recommend a book to all the hundreds of people whom one has met in ten years without discovering whether it is well known or not.  It is the amazing truth that none of those hundreds had heard of The Wind in the Willows until I told them about it.  Some of them had never of Kenneth Grahame; well, one did not have to meet them again, and it takes all sorts to make a world.  But most of them were in your position - great admirers of the author and his two earlier famous books, but ignorant thereafter.  I had their promise before they left me, and waited confidently for their gratitude.  No doubt they also spread the good news in their turn, and it is just possible that it reached you in this way, but it was to me, none the less, that your thanks were due.  For instance, you may have noticed a couple of casual references to it, as if it were a classic known to all, in a famous novel published last year.  It was I who introduced that novelist to it six months before.  Indeed, I feel sometimes that it was I who wrote The Wind in the Willows, and recommended it to Kenneth Grahame... but perhaps I am wrong here, for I have not the pleasure of his acquaintance.  Nor, as I have already lamented, am I financially interested in its sale, an explanation which suspicious strangers require from me sometimes.

I shall not describe the book, for no description would help it.  But I shall just say this; that it is what I call a Household Book.  By a Household Book I mean a book which everybody in the household loves and quotes continually ever afterwards; a book which is read aloud to every new guest, and is regarded as the touchstone of his worth.  But it is a book which makes you feel that, though everybody in the house loves it, it is only you who really appreciate it as its true value, and that the others are scarcely worthy of it.  It is obvious, you persuade yourself, that the author was thinking of you when he wrote it.  "I hope this will please Jones," were his final words, as he laid down his pen.

Well, of course, you will order the book at once.  But I must give you one word of warning.  When you sit down to it, don't be so ridiculous as to suppose that you are sitting in judgment on my taste, still less on the genius of Kenneth Grahame.  You are merely sitting in judgment on yourself... You may be worthy; I do not know.  But it is you who are on trial.

Monday 20 August 2012

Not That It Matters - A.A. Milne

It's been about a decade since I blitzed most of A.A. Milne's very many books, and now I'm enjoying revisiting them.  I thought a trip down Milne Memory Lane would be a handy way to cross off 1919 on A Century of Books, so I picked up his collection of humorous essays from that year, Not That It Matters.

The first piece (although they are not in chronological order) starts 'Sometimes when the printer is waiting for an article which really should have been sent to him the day before, I sit at my desk and wonder if there is any possible subject in the whole world upon which I can possibly find anything to say.'  (The final line in the book, incidentally, is 'And Isaiah, we may be sure, did not carry a notebook.'  Which gives you some sense of the wide variety Milne covers in this collection.)

Some of the essays are very indicative of their time - from 1910 to 1919, as the essays appeared during that period in The Sphere, The Outlook, and The Star.  I'm not sure 'Smoking as a Fine Art' would appear anywhere today, except as a consciously controversial piece, nor could any 21st century essayist take for granted that his reader went for frequent country houseparties, attended Lords, and had strong memories of the First World War.  On the other hand, many of the topics Milne covers would be equally fit for a columnist today, if we still had the type who were allowed to meander through arbitrary topics, without the need to make a rapier political point or a satirical topical comment.  Milne writes on goldfish, daffodils, writing personal diaries, the charm of lunch, intellectual snobbery, and even what property programme presenters would now call 'kerb appeal' - but which was simply 'looking at the outside of a house' in Milne's day.

I love Milne's early work, because it is so joyful and youthful.  In the sketches and short pieces published in The Day's PlayThe Holiday Round and others, 'The Rabbits' often re-appear - these are happy, silly 20-somethings called things like Dahlia and (if me) addressed by their surnames.  They play cricket (badly), golf (badly), and indoor party games (badly) on endless and sunny country holidays.  It's all deliciously insouciant and, if not quite like A.A. Milne (or anybody) really was, great fun to read.  When Milne turns to essays, he can't include this cast, of course.  And he was in his late thirties when Not That It Matters was published - still young, perhaps, but hardly youthful.  He was a married man, though not a father quite yet, and his tone had changed slightly - from the exuberance which characterised his earliest books, to the calmly witty and jovial tone which was to see out the rest of his career.  Here's an example, more or less at random, of the style which makes me always so happy to return to Milne:
"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," said Keats, not actually picking out celery in so many words, but plainly including it in the general blessings of the autumn.
My main qualm with these essays is that they do often end in rather a forced manner.  He'll put in a reference that drags everything back to the opening line, or finishes off pat in a slightly different direction.  It doesn't feel especially natural, and is perhaps indicative of the looming deadlines Milne mentions in the first essay...

As the title suggests, nothing of life-changing importance is addressed in Not That It Matters.  He does not adopt a serious voice at any point - indeed, I cannot think of a time in any of his books where he becomes entirely serious, not even in Peace With Honour, a non-fiction (and excellent) book wherein he put forth his pacifist views.  Even at these moments his weightiest points are served with a waggle of the eyebrows and an amusing image.  That's how he made his impact.

I do prefer the whimsy of his fictional sketches to the panache of his essays, but it is still a delight and a joy to have Not That It Matters and its ilk waiting on my shelf.  It definitely bears re-reading, and I'll be going on a cycle through Milne's many and various books for the rest of life, I imagine.

Tomorrow I'll type out a whole of one of his essays, 'A Household Book', because I think it'll surprise quite a few people.  And will show to my brother that I was RIGHT about something I've been saying to him for a decade.  Ahem.  The essay is in praise of a then-underappreciated book by a famous author... and ends with this paragraph (come back tomorrow to see what it was!):
Well, of course, you will order the book at once.  But I must give you one word of warning.  When you sit down to it, don't be so ridiculous as to suppose that you are sitting in judgment on my taste, still less on the genius of ******* *******.  You are merely sitting in judgment on yourself... You may be worthy; I do not know.  But it is you who are on trial.

Sunday 19 August 2012

Song for a Sunday

Jewel is pretty well known in the US, I think - indeed, her first (and, to my mind, worst) album is one of the biggest sellers ever there - but she's not made much of a splash in the UK.  I first heard her song 'Hands' in 2004, when my friend Hannah played it to me, and have loved it ever since.  Enjoy!

Friday 17 August 2012

Very definitely Gone to Earth

From the 1950 film (photo source)
I don't give up on books very often, although I do it more now than I would have done before I started blogging.  I still feel a bit ungrateful towards the author, who has put months or years into writing a book, if I can't be bothered to spend a week on it - but I'm coming round to the too-many-books-too-little-time argument.  (Giving up is distinct from putting it to one side and forgetting about it - it has to be a decisive action.)

When I do give up, it's usually because I think the writing is too bad, or (occasionally) too confusing.  It's rarely related to subject matter or character - although if I started a gory crime novel, I'm sure I'd stop reading that pretty smartish.

But I've never given up on a novel quite so quickly as I did on Tuesday morning.  Because I now have a 40 minute walk into work, I tend to read a book whilst I'm walking.  (Yes, I'm that guy.  Surprised?)   And I was a page and half - yes, 1.5pp. - into Mary Webb's Gone To Earth before I concluded that I could not read any further.

I've read and re-read, and loved and re-loved, Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm, but I've not read any of the authors she was parodying.  Well, I've read some Lawrence and Hardy, and they're on the peripheries of her satire, but I've steered clear of that peculiar vogue for rural novels which seized British literature in the early years of the 20th century.  Here is the opening of Gone To Earth, with my thoughts interpolated:

Small, feckless [oh, wasn't that one of the cows in Cold Comfort Farm?] clouds were hurried across the vast untroubled sky [always cross out the adjectives first when editing, love] - shepherdless, futile, imponderable [oh... never mind.] - and were torn to fragments on the fangs of the mountains, so ending their ephemeral adventures with nothing of their fugitive existence left but a few tears. [oh sweet mercy.]

[So, what have we established?  It was a cloudy day.  Right-o.]

It was cold in the Callow [oh, sorry, we're not done with the weather - as you were] - a spinney of silver birches and larches that topped a round hill.  A purple mist hinted of buds in the tree-tops, and a fainter purple haunted the vistas between the silver and brown boles. [Of course it did.  Purple is a very haunting, hinting colour.  Now, for the love of all that is pure, can we move on?]

Only the crudeness of youth was here as yet, and not its triumph [anyone else feel we're wandering into heavy-handed metaphor territory?] - only the sharp calyx-point, the pricking tip of the bud, like spears, and not the paten of the leaf, the chalice of the flower.

[Is there an editor in the world who wouldn't have rejected this novel by now?]

For as yet spring had no flight, no song, but went like a half-fledged bird, hopping tentatively through the undergrowth. [To summarise: it's early March.] The bright springing mercury that carpeted the open spaces had only just hung out its pale flowers, and honeysuckle leaves were still tongues of fire.  [I think you've made your point, Mary.] Between the larch boles [oh good, more boles] and under the thickets of honeysuckle and blackberry came a tawny silent form, wearing with the calm dignity of woodland creatures a beauty of eye and limb [can one wear a beautiful eye?], a brilliance of tint, that few women could have worn without self-consciousness.  Clear-eyed, lithe, it stood for a moment in the full sunlight - a year-old fox, round-headed and velvet-footed.  Then it slid into the shadows.  [A sentence without adjectives or adverbs!  Mary, my dear, are you feeling quite yourself?] A shrill whistle came from the interior of the wood, and the fox bounded towards it.

"Where you bin? [oh, Heaven preserve us.]  You'm stray and lose yourself, certain sure!" ["certain sure?"  REALLY?] said a girl's voice [or, indeed, 'said a girl'], chidingly motherly.  "And if you'm alost [oh no...], I'm alost; so come you whome. [no, 'whome' isn't a typo.  In case you were wondering.  I wish it were.]  The sun's undering [I wonder if Mary Webb had ever spoken to someone from the countryside?], and there's bones for supper!" [YUM.]

[I finished off the dialogue spoken by the girl's voice, but - truth be told - it was at that 'You'm' that I made my decision not to read on.  Isn't this simply everything appalling you ever thought the rural novel might be?  Perhaps it gets better, perhaps I am doing Ms. Webb an injustice.  I, for one, certainly shan't be finding out.]

Thursday 16 August 2012

With The Hunted - Sylvia Townsend Warner

Do you ever wish a book had been published a bit earlier?  I imagine a few people lamented that the first dictionary was issued just weeks after they'd struggled with spelling 'sincerely' at the end of a letter, or mourned that British Birds and How To Spot Them came out mere days after that flock of yellow-crested (or was it crested-yellow?) hornspippets descended.

Well, I'm feeling that way about With The Hunted - the selected non-fiction writings of Sylvia Townsend Warner, recently published by Black Dog Books (their website here.)  If it had come out earlier, it would have saved me a LOT of time scrabbling through enormous, dusty old journals, hunting out articles by Warner, photocopying interviews from books, etc. etc.... But, truth be told, I had great fun doing that.  And now it is available for everyone to read!  Thank you Black Dog Books for sending me a review copy.

With The Hunted really is a goldmine.  I haven't read it all yet, but I've read enough to know that it is an astonishingly varied and fascinating companion to Warner's novels - indeed, I have something of a chequered relationship with Warner's novels, and might find the writings selected here more consistent.

It includes so much!  Remember how much I enjoyed her pamphlet on Jane Austen?  It's in With The Hunted!  I greatly enjoyed an interview from Louise Morgan's 1931 volume Writers at Work, which enchantingly begins '"I wish," said Sylvia Townsend Warner, "that I could tell you I wrote standing on one leg.  Then you'd have something really entertaining and original to say about me!"'  It's included!  Her speech on 'Women as Writers' which re-popularised Woolf's A Room of One's Own - it's there!  Everything from an essay on her grandmother's experience of the countryside ('iniquities she had thought of as rare vestigial occurrences in crime-sheets persisted and were taken as a matter of course among these cottage homes of England') to her views on Daniel Defoe ('there are some books, as there are some personalities, which one can open anywhere and be sure of an interest.  This, I knew, was one of them') is here in this exceptionally wide-ranging volume.  418 pages never contained such infinite variety.

And then there are all the beguiling essays and reviews that I have yet to read!  The titles leap out to me.  I want to read 'Are Parents Really Necessary?' immediately; I cannot imagine what could lie behind 'Not To Be Done in May.'  And then there are pieces on Saki, Katherine Mansfield, Dickens, Edward Lear, Beatrix Potter - what riches!

Peter Tolhurst - the editor of With The Hunted - cannot be thanked enough.  Not only will this book prove invaluable to future scholars of Sylvia Townsend Warner, who will not have the paper trail I had whilst writing my thesis chapter on Warner, but it is for anybody who has any interest in Warner's novels, or indeed in early twentieth-century literature.  In this extensive collection we see Sylvia Townsend Warner as literati and as countrywoman, casting her eye over her contemporaries and Victorian literary greats, yet also the minutiae of everyday life and everyday concerns, with the same perception and humour.

Whether you love Warner or have never read her before, I think this is a wonderful resource to keep on the shelf, dip into, dip into, dip into - and marvel at.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Five From the Archive (no.6)

This week I wanted my Five From The Archive (where I revisit old reviews from my blog - it's been a while, so some of you might not know about it!) to be novels about families.  Obviously that encompasses many, many novels - so I decided to be a little more specific, and insist that they have a relative of some sort in the title.  Makes it more fun to pick them!  Here are my five - as always, let me know which you'd suggest...

Five... Books about Family

1.) Sisters By A River (1947) by Barbara Comyns

In short: The surreal account of Barbara Comyns' childhood by the Avon in Warwickshire, paving the way for her later, equally surreal, novels.

From the review: "Tales of ugly dresses and bad haircuts are told in the same captivating, undemonstrative style as those of Grannie dying and Father throwing a beehive over Mother. If this motley assortment of remembrances were made-up... well, I don't think they could have been. Such a bizarre childhood, so of its time, and yet utterly fascinating."

2.) Travels With My Aunt (1969) by Graham Greene

In short: Meeting his Aunt Augusta at his mother's funeral, Henry is caught up in her bizarre (and often illegal) cavorting around the globe.

From the review: "But the characters have the same indomitable spirit, eccentric manner, and amusingly unpredictable speech. The success of Greene's novel, for me, is through character - through Augusta and Henry's conversations, where two wholly different characters meet and travel together."

3.) Parents and Children (1941) by Ivy Compton-Burnett

In short: A typically Ivy Compton-Burnett novel - sprawling family, endless brilliant dialogue, and occasional doses of rather surprising action.

From the review: "Life-changing events are encompassed by lengthy, facetious discussions - gently vicious and cruelly precise, always picking up on the things said by others. Calmness permeates even the most emotional responses, and ICB's writing is always astonishing in its use of dialogue."

4.) My Cousin Rachel (1951) by Daphne du Maurier

In short: Philip's cousin Ambrose goes to Italy, marries Rachel, and (er, spoiler) dies - leaving Philip, and the reader, in doubt regarding Rachel's culpability or innocence...

From the review: "The novel has a lot in common with Rebecca - and not just the setting. The same intrigue, power, and issues about what is left unspoken in relationships. [...] My Cousin Rachel is brilliantly successful in the sense that I have never left a novel so uncertain as to a character's guilt or lack of it - and either interpretation seems quite valid."

5.) Brother of the More Famous Jack (1982) by Barbara Trapido

In short: Katherine is an ingenuous 18 year old when she meets the Goldman family, but living alongside this enchanting (but bewildering) assortment of people - most of whose names begin with J - helps propel her into adulthood.

From the review: "Katherine herself it is difficult not to like, if only for this: 'I reverted, as I do in moments of crisis, to rereading Emma, with cotton wool in my ears.'"

Over to you!

Tuesday 14 August 2012

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

I think I might have been the last person to watch The Lizzie Bennet Diaries - I was certainly the last person in my nuclear family to do so - but perhaps some of you are new to electricity, and I was second last.  Penultimate, if you will.  And so I'll tell you about it.

I imagine a good 95% of people who stumble across my blog will have read Pride and Prejudice (got my eye on you, Simon S.), and a fairly high percentage will also have seen an adaptation of some variety.  By my count, I've seen two films, one TV series, one Bollywood adaptation, and one play - and that's only the tip of the iceberg for what's out there.  But The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is one of the most innovative 'takes' on Pride and Prejudice yet - it's done as a series of vlogs.  (For those not in the know, 'vlog' is 'video blog', which - in turn - is 'video web log'.  Phew.)

In videos that last about five minutes, 'Lizzie Bennet' (a graduate student) recounts her life to camera, mostly being annoyed by her overbearing mother, ambushed by her OTT sister Lydia, and agonising over the love life of her sister Jane.   It's not just Lizzie - Jane and Lydia appear sometimes, alongside Charlotte Lu (her Asian-American best friend), Caroline Lee and (ahem) Bing Lee.  No sign of William Darcy yet...

It's done rather brilliantly, and certainly all we Thomases are fans.  It follows the novel pretty precisely, albeit with a modern spin on things.  The arrival of the militia morphs into some visiting swimming teams; the entailment of the house becomes threats about having to sell the house because of the financial crisis; Mr. Collins is a businessman, and Catherine de Burgh is his financial backer...  And the characters translate perfectly, especially Lydia.  What else would she be but a self-indulgent popular cheerleader-type, enthusiastically high-fiving people all over the place?

My favourite moment so far?  That Kitty is, in fact, a cat - and, as Lydia says, "Kitty follows me about everywhere."

Here's the first episode (if it embeds properly).  If you want to watch more, click here.  37 instalments in, most of the novel is still ahead of us - long may it continue!

Monday 13 August 2012

A Bristolian Weekend

I've just come back from a lovely weekend with my brother - and, very to my surprise, and the surprise of everyone who heard me moaning for the past seven years, I actually got a little into the Olympics, and was genuinely chuffed when Mo won the running thingummy.  Who'd have thought?  It'll fade, no doubt.

More importantly, I also bought some books in Bristol... and here they are, taken (rather obviously) on my bed, I'm afraid:

(Clockwise, starting top left)

Two Worlds and Their Ways - Ivy Compton-Burnett
I do already have this; I bought it to offer as a giveaway when I read it.  So, watch out for that!

No.3 - Lady Kitty Vincent
I was rather surprised to find this, since I thought nobody else read Lady Kitty Vincent.  I rather enjoyed her books last year, and have kept an eye out ever since, but this one doesn't seem to be available at all on Amazon or Abebooks.  Worth £2.49 of my money!

The Bottle Factory Outing - Beryl Bainbridge
Spurred on by Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week!

A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
I laughed my way through this brilliant tour de force, but didn't have my own copy - and it's definitely one I'll re-read.

The West Pier - Patrick Hamilton
I've still only read one Hamilton novel, but it was one of the best novels I've ever read, so I'm happy to add to the Hamiltons on my shelf.  I don't think I'd even heard of this one.

Herland - Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I've been meaning to read this Amazonian utopia (dystopia?) for years, and was glad to stumble across a copy.  And I had a nice chat with the bookshop owner (who, on a previous visit, had told me that he loved Persephone Books) - he, entertainingly, told me that he'd once painted his bedroom yellow after reading The Yellow Wallpaper.  A brilliant novella, yes, but not one which would lead me to re-decorate in yellow...

Brighton Rock - Graham Greene
My book group is doing this next month...

The Persimmon Tree and other stories - Marjorie Barnard
I don't know anything at all about this, but the blurb sounded intriguing.  And I'm not a person who leaves VMCs untroubled on a bookshelf...

So, there we go!  It's always great to spend time with my brother, and even better when he traipses after me around bookshops.  He even bought three books himself.  Perhaps he'll let you know what they were in the comments...

As always - thoughts?  Have you read any, etc. etc.?  I'd love to know.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Song for a Sunday

When you see this, I'll be in Bristol with Colin - he might be talking to me, or he might be watching the Olympics - I hope you're all having lovely weekends too!

Goldfrapp are (I think) best known for up-tempo, disco-type songs (are they?) but this track, A&E, is wonderfully calming and very appropriate for a Sunday Song.  Enjoy!

Friday 10 August 2012

Art in Nature - Tove Jansson

I’ve probably mentioned before my envy of those readers who can eagerly await the latest novels from their favourite writers, doubtless following them on Twitter and keeping an eye out for their appearances on late-night BBC programmes, etc. etc.  Well, I don’t have any of that.  All the authors I love are dead.  But one thing I do look forward to with joy is Sort Of Books commissioning more translations of Tove Jansson’s books, mostly under the excellent translating skills of one Thomas Teal.  These are slowly and steadily emerging, so that I can track their arrival with the same keenness which others (I presume) await tid-bits from @margaretatwood.

The latest-translated Tove Jansson book was published in 1978 as Dockskåpet which, I have no reason to doubt, is rendered into English as Art in Nature.  It is a collection of short stories, with ‘Art in Nature’ as the first.  Usually I have to be in the right mood to tackle a volume of short stories, but there are two short story writers – Jansson and Katherine Mansfield – whom I found so good that I will love them whenever I pick them up, whatever mood I am in.

As usual, Jansson rather defies any attempt to spot a unifying theme.  The blurb has opted for ‘witty, often disquieting’ in which Jansson ‘reveals the fault-lines in our relationship with art, both as artists and viewers.’  It is true that there are a number of artistic people who crop up in these stories – from a cartoonist to an actress, from the painter of trains to the constructor of miniature furniture – but Jansson’s gaze is, as usual, turned upon the wider canvas of humanity itself.  It always feels a little pretentious to say that Jansson’s topic is human behaviour, because isn’t that what all writers and artists use as their topic? – but someone Jansson seems more perceptive and more precise in her examination, so that the matters of plot and setting fall away beside the details of human life she unveils.

But that is too vague for a review.  It’s how I always feel about Jansson’s writing, but it doesn’t really help you know how this collection differs from any of her others, does it?  Well, Art in Nature contains two of my favourite Jansson stories yet.  One is ‘A Sense of Time’ which is about a boy and his grandmother – the grandmother has lost her sense of time; she will wake him up at 4am to give him his morning coffee, or insist that he goes to sleep in the middle of the afternoon.  It’s a rather clever little story, more reliant on beginning-middle-end than Jansson usually is.  It also includes a little sentence which helps illustrate what I like about Jansson’s subtlety:
Grandmother let her thoughts move on to John, wondering in what way he’d grown old.
I loved that she didn’t write ‘whether or not he’d grown old’, or even ‘how old he’d grown’, but ‘in what way he’d grown old’.  It immediately makes me think of all the possible ways of growing old; how Grandmother has identified different manifestations of age in her different friends; her experience of aging.  Lovely.  My other favourite story was ‘The Doll’s House’, where Alexander begins to build a model house, gradually excluding his partner Erik.  It’s all very gentle and slow and observant.  It feels appropriate that Katherine Mansfield should have written a story with the same name, albeit a very different story.  Here’s another instance of a small matter of phrasing revealing Jansson’s cleverness (I’m assuming the Swedish does the same):
The house rose higher and higher.  It had reached the attic, now, and had grown more and more fantastic.  Alexander was in love, almost obsessed, with the thing he was trying to create.  When he woke up in the morning, his first thought was The House, and he was instantly occupied with the solution to some problem of framing or a difficult staircase or the spire on a tower.
The word ‘almost’!  It turns the story on its side, a little.  I had prepared myself, by then, for a tale of obsession – for the reductio ad absurdum narrative of a man whose life is taken over.  And indeed that quality is there, in the background, but that ‘almost’ shows how measured Jansson always is.  These are still recognisable people; their actions and reactions are unlikely to be extraordinary or irrational.

Here’s another excerpt, from the story ‘White Lady’, about three women going for drinks together and reminiscing:
Regina said, “Green, white, red, yellow!  Whatever you’d like.”  She laughed and threw herself back in her chair.
“Regina, you’re drunk,” Ellinor said. 
Regina answered slowly.  “I hadn’t expected that.  I really hadn’t expected that from you.  You’re usually much more subtle.” 
“Girls, girls,” May burst out.  “Don’t fight.  Is anyone coming to the ladies with me?” 
“Oh, the ladies’ room, the eternal ladies’ room,” said Ellinor.  “What do you do there all the time?  The whole scene was like something from an early talkie, with too much gesturing.  It wasn’t a very good film; the direction was definitely second-rate.  “Just go,” she said.  I want to look at the fog on the ceiling.”
Jansson excels at depicting awkwardness, disappointment – particularly the disappointment between expectation and actuality.  Which is ideal for creative subjects, of course, as well as the tensions between friends and relatives.  Whenever Jansson writes about illustrators (as she does at length in The True Deceiver, for example) it is tempting – if reductive – to read her own experience with the Moomins into them.  In ‘The Cartoonist’, the popular cartoonist of weekly comic strip Blubby absconds:
“It was their eyes,” said Allington without turning around.  “Their cartoon eyes.  The same stupid round eyes all the time.  Amazement, terror, delight, and so on – all you have to do is move the pupil and an eyebrow here and there and people think you’re brilliant.  Just imagine achieving so much with so little.  And in fact, they always look exactly the same.  But they have to do new things all the time.  All the time.  You know that.  You’ve learned that, right?”  His voice was quiet, but it sounded as if he were speaking through clenched teeth.  He went on without waiting for a reply.  “Novelty!  Always something new.  You start searching for ideas.  Among the people you know, among your friends.  Your own head is a blank, so you start using everything they’ve got, squeezing it dry, and no matter what people tell you, all you can think is, Can I use it?”
How much did Jansson recycle from her own life?  How much did she feel her own ability to depict amazement, terror, delight, and so on – whether with pen or paintbrush – was redundant?  Possibly not at all; possibly Allington is just a character in a story.  I don’t know.  But she certainly had no need to feel inadequate – in fact, considering how many of these stories are about creativity, I suspect she did recognise the value of the creative arts, and she is one of my favourite practitioners of them.

There were two or three stories in Art in Nature which didn’t work for me – one about a monkey, a couple longer ones towards the end which seemed to meander a bit – but I have enough experience with Jansson to suppose that I’d probably enjoy them more another time, or under different reading conditions.  For the most part, this collection is yet another arrow in a quiver of exceptionally good books.  Do go and pick this up, or any of her previous books (although people tend like Fair Play least) if you have yet to try this wonderful writer.  And thank you, Thomas Teal and Sort Of Books for continuing to make her novels and short stories available to an English-speaking audience.  Long may you keep doing so!  As Ali Smith says, on the back over, ‘That there can still be as-yet untranslated fiction by Jansson is simultaneously an aberration and a delight, like finding buried treasure.’

Thursday 9 August 2012

Here's an odd question...

How do you all fancy being my Research Assistants for the afternoon?!

For my next chapter, I need to quote a 1920s middlebrow novel or two where a character talks about sex, and says 'We're all just animals, really', or anything like that.  The sort of sentence I've read dozens of times in novels of the period, but now can't remember any at all.

If you can think of one off the top of your head, that would be amazing - otherwise perhaps you could keep your eyes open, and let me know??  Anything published around the 1920s (shortly before or after is fine) which isn't high modernist - oh, and is British - would be absolutely wonderful.

Thanks, folks!

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris - Paul Gallico

The Bloomsbury Group set of reprints remains, I believe, the best selection of reprints out there.  It doesn't have the range of Penguin or OUP Classics; it doesn't have quite the unifying ethos of Persephone or Virago, but there simply are no duds in their number.  Miss Hargreaves is obviously their finest publication, in my eyes, but as I work my way through the few I haven't read, I continue to marvel at the treats they've brought back to a new audience.

For some reason, Mrs. Harris has been sitting on my shelf for two years without me getting around to reading her.  I even had a copy of Flowers For Mrs. Harris (the original UK title of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris [1958]) before the Bloomsbury Group existed, but hadn't read that either.  How could I have waited for so long?  Mrs. Harris is a joy, and her little novel is bliss.

Mrs. Harris is a London char, whose job is to clean other people's houses.  She takes a deep pride in her work, is very good at it, and can pick and choose her clients.  She, and her good friend Vi, are much in demand, and when she decides that she has had enough of a client, she simply drops her key through their letterbox, and moves on.  Mrs. Harris is the dictionary definition of indomitable.  Nothing phases her, and she is an eternal optimist.  She also speaks somewhat like Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins, par example:

"Ow Lor'."  The exclamation was torn from Mrs. Harris as she was suddenly riven by a new thought.  "Ow Lor'," she repeated, "if I'm to 'ave me photograph tyken, I'll 'ave to 'ave a new 'at."
Now, although she is a wonderful character, it would be a lie to say that she has many layers of complexity and an inner introspection dying to emerge.  Gallico's novel is simple and sweet, and he doesn't overburden himself with psychological strife etc.  There is one central motivation of the novel, and that is Mrs. Harris's desire for a Christian Dior dress...
It had all begun that day several years back when during the course of her duties at Lady Dant's house, Mrs. Harris had opened a wardrobe to tidy it and had come upon the two dresses hanging there.  One was a bit of heaven in cream, ivory, lace, and chiffon, the other an explosion in crimson satin and taffeta, adorned with great red bows and a huge red flower.  She stood there as though struck dumb, for never in all her life had she seen anything quite as thrilling and beautiful.

Drab and colourless as her existence would seem to have been, Mrs. Harris had always felt a craving for beauty and colour which up to this moment had manifested itself in a love for flowers.
Yet now, flowers have been replaced by this longing for a dress that costs £450 - and in 1958, of course, that was an astronomical sum.  Coincidence, luck, and much determination (for Mrs. Harris is pretty much built out of determination) and three years later she is on her way to Paris...

It's such a fun story.  Scarcely a jot of it is realistic - Mrs. Harris's good humour and spirited nature act much in the manner of fairy dust, transforming all those she meets - but the novel is so enjoyable and light-hearted (albeit with occasional kicks) that the reader allows him/herself to be whisked along for the ride.  The contrast between shabby London char and elegant Parisian fashionista is, naturally, wonderful - and Gallico makes full use of the potential comedy in the situation.

Oh, it's lovely!  It certainly isn't very deep, even with an attempt for A Moral at the end, in the way that American sitcoms like to conclude events - but writing something sprightly and enjoyable is probably rather more difficult than writing something introspective and traumatic, and is certainly rarer.  Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is great fun, very short, and is a perfect way to spend a summer afternoon.

Monday 6 August 2012

Mrs. Harris - the winners!

Thanks so much for all your entries to the Paul Gallico giveaway - what a wonderful mix of destinations we want to visit between us!  Sorry not to hear the ideas of non-UK readers - perhaps one day I'll ask the question again, without a giveaway, so we can hear from everyone.

I've done the draw now, and the eight sets of Mrs. Harris MP and Mrs. Harris Goes To Moscow will be going to... (drumroll, if you please):

Estelle / A Bookish Space
Margaret /  Books Please
Sakura / Chasing Bawa
Ann P
David H / Follow the Thread
Daphne (who entered by email)

Congratulations, one and all!  If your name is there, please email me at simondavidthomas[at] with your address, and the subject line Mrs. Harris Giveaway.  Once I've got all the addresses, I'll forward them on to lovely Bloomsbury, and they'll send out your books.  What fun!

And this is a Mrs. Harris themed week, as my post on Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris will be appearing at some point... when I next have internet access!

Saturday 4 August 2012

Jane Marcus on the non-canonical

I don't currently have the internet at home, so I'm popping up scheduled posts when I can - so this is something to ponder on over the weekend.  The painting is Woman Reading in an Interior (1915) by Vaclav Vytlacil, which isn't remotely related to the quotation I wanted to post (except that both intrigue me.)  It's a potentially controversial, but interesting, excerpt I read by Jane Marcus (feminist theorist)...

I would caution against fundamentalist feminists’ over-literal reading of texts without the radical unsettling processes which contemporary theory has provided to keep us honest intellectually.  I am nervous about producing a generation of students who have never been to the library, who practice refined techniques on a body of texts already chosen by their professors – not the canon, but the highly-privileged “non-canonical.”  I do not want to read another paper on “The Yellow Wallpaper” or The Awakening. […] Since aesthetic value is not at issue here, other sets of lost texts might enliven our debates and bring about a dialogue which is not about mastery or decoding of texts but about reading and writing together.
Thoughts?  I think it lends support to feminist reprinting by Virago and Persephone, and also cautions against non-canonical texts becoming canonical by virtue of their accepted 'outsider'-ness...

Friday 3 August 2012

Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir - Cicely Greig

My favourite thing in the blogosphere in 2012 has been Claire discovering, and loving, A.A. Milne.  Every time one of her AAM reviews come out, I more or less burst with glee that somebody else has found out how funny and delightful his many and various books are.  Most of my AAM reading happened before I started blogging (I've read about 25 books by him) so you haven't witnessed my love of his books as much as you would have done had you engaged me in conversation in 2002, but - it is there!

So, that's one favourite author off the list.  Back when I started blogging in 2007, it seemed that nobody much liked Virginia Woolf either - but plenty of people have come to the blogosphere since who share my love of Ginny.  And there's never been any shortage of those who'll wax literary over E.M. Delafield, Barbara Comyns, and Persephone & Virago etc.

But... but... as of yet, I haven't found a blogger who loves Ivy Compton-Burnett as I do (although I think Geranium Cat is more in favour than not?).  There is no-one who gets as excited as I do about her novels; most people, indeed, have either never read her, or run screaming from the thought of having to read her again.

Picture source
Which is why it is so wonderful to find books which match my enthusiasm for Dame Ivy.  Earlier in the year, I read Pamela Hansford-Johnson's enthusiastic pamphlet on Ivy Compton-Burnett - and now I've read something I loved even more.  In fact, it's in my top two or three books of the year so far.  AND it's available from 1p on Amazon.  It's Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir (1972) by her typist and friend, Cicely Greig.

Had I know that Greig was Ivy Compton-Burnett's typist, I probably would have read this book much sooner (according to the date I scribbled inside, I've had it for nearly three years.)  It's such an interesting perspective on this fascinating author.  Gradually they became friends as well, but the Victorian/Edwardianism of Ivy's novels extended to her understanding of social mores, and it took quite a long time for her to unbend enough to treat Greig as a friend.  As Greig writes, Ivy Compton-Burnett just couldn't quite understand her position - as a woman who had to earn her living, but wasn't a servant.  The mechanics and background detail of writing fascinate me, and Greig is uniquely able to provide firsthand experience of certain aspects of Ivy's writing process - as the first person to be given the novels in longhand:
I had not yet opened her parcel with the manuscript of her novel.  We said goodbye to each other at the front door, and I flew back to the sitting-room.  When I opened the parcel I found fourteen school exercise books of the cheaper kind, blue paper covers and multiplication tables on the back cover.  I remember thinking this last detail quite a fitting logic for a book of Ivy's.  Her books so often have a sort of inexorable logic about them, like twice one is two.
For Greig was not solely a typist, but also an ardent fan.  This was how she got the job: she wrote to Ivy Compton-Burnett (and, incidentally, Rose Macaulay) expressing her admiration and asking that they consider her for future typing.  Macaulay didn't take her up on it, but months later Ivy Compton-Burnett did.  As an admirer of Dame Ivy's work, Greig combined professionalism with the sort of mad joy that any of us would feel at this privileged position with an author we loved.  Greig echoes Pamela Hansford-Johnson when writing about her love of Ivy:
Why did I like her books so much?  I have been asked that question many times, sometimes with a note of incredulous exasperation.  With Ivy one is either an addict or an abstainer.  I became an addict from the first chapter of A House and Its Head.  Most of my friends, unfortunately, are abstainers.  Suggest her, and if they have ever tried to read one of her books their reply can be an indignant refusal.
She really is love or hate.  Greig goes on to explain her own love of Ivy Compton-Burnett, not quite as astutely as Pamela Hansford-Johnson does, but still in a fascinating manner.  But it was her firsthand interaction with Dame Ivy which makes this book so thrillingly interesting to me.  Greig has no illusions about Ivy Compton-Burnett's fairly terrifying character, but she also recognised the fondness behind it.
Her fierceness, when it showed itself, and when I provoked it, was always short-lived.  Any breach of normal decorum, and her standard was perhaps exceptionally high, was annoying to her, and she never failed to let this be seen.  But having let it be seen, the matter was over.
Ivy Compton-Burnett was always keen for Greig to visit, and expressed an interest in her life which was far from perfunctory.  They could not meet as equals, nor did they even use each other's first names for many years, but there was a genuine affection and (more characteristically) curiosity from Ivy.  One gets the sense that Greig's other friendships were more free and easy, but that perhaps this was one of the most valued - and while Ivy Compton-Burnett wanted to meet Greig's friends, Greig felt she could only bring people who also admired Ivy's writing; few and far between.  So, although Greig also grew to know Ivy's dear friend Margaret Jourdain, theirs was mostly an exclusive friendship, in a vacuum, as it were.  Ivy's life, aging, and death are shown sensitively, from the angle of a friend who saw her all too rarely, and Greig balances Ivy's life and work excellently, being herself fascinated by, and involved with, both.

I would have been scared rigid of Dame Ivy, I'm sure.  Obviously manners maketh man, but decorum and etiquette often baffle me - and Ivy Compton-Burnett's standards were positively Victorian, as though she were part of the world she so often depicted through fiction.  Ivy Compton-Burnett is one of those authors (like Virginia Woolf, like Muriel Spark) whose writing and personality I adore, but with whom I cannot imagine being friendly or even at ease.  And yet I lap up their comments and views of the world, whether or not I agree - and Greig's perspective offers greater potential for these.  A brief observation Ivy Compton-Burnett made to Greig is one with which I do very much agree, for her time but more especially for ours:
"Yes, that's the worst of writers today," Ivy said.  "They will write about something.  Instead of just writing about people, about their characters."
That's probably one of the wisest things I've ever read about writing, and if more writers today considered it then we wouldn't have the deluge of issue-driven books, which doubtless market well but prove rather uninspiring, to me, at least.

When people ask me where they should start with Ivy Compton-Burnett, I usually recommend either Pastors and Masters (as it is an early work; a sort of Ivy-lite) or simply say that they're all more or less the same, so it doesn't much matter.  I'd now be inclined to suggest they start, in fact, with this book.  Jumping straight into Ivy Compton-Burnett can be an intimidating prospect; I think becoming acquainted with her through Cecily Greig's eyes is a great halfway house, and one which (through Greig's infectious enthusiasm and personal insight) might well pique a reader's interest, and make Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels feel not only accessible but an absolute must.  These sorts of books are rather hit or miss, but Cecily Greig's is one of favourite reads this year.  Hurrah!