Friday 30 November 2012

The Garrick Year - Margaret Drabble

I've bought up a few old Margaret Drabble titles over the years, all in slightly trippy old Penguin editions, but I've never actually got around to reading one of them before.  The one I really wanted to read was The Millstone, since I've heard complimentary comparisons to one of my favourite books, The L-Shaped Room, but it was 1964 that needed filling on A Century of Books, so I picked my second choice - The Garrick Year.  Cup-mark and all (not my doing.)

What drew me towards The Garrick Year was its theatrical setting.  As I've mentioned over the years, I am fascinated by the theatre and love reading about it in fact or fiction.  One of my Five From The Archive posts even covered the topic.  So I was keen to see how Emma and her actor husband David would get on when they move to Hereford for the opening of a new theatre.  And then it all went rather wrong.  No, not the plot, but my enjoyment of the novel.  Partly this was because of my reasons for reading it - I love to hear the theatre praised or teased, but treated always with affection, and even a little reverence.  Because that's how I feel about it, I suppose.  Emma, however, just mocks it completely.
For those who have never heard actors discuss their trade, I may say that there is nothing more painfully boring on earth.  I think it is their lack of accuracy, their frightful passion for generality that rob their discussions of interest.  They were talking, this time, about that ancient problem of whether one should, while acting, be more aware of the audience of the person or person with whom one is playing the scene: I must have heard this same argument once a fortnight over the last four years, and never has anyone got a step nearer to any kind of illumination, because instead of talking rationally they just wander round the morasses of their own personalities, producing their own weaknesses for examination as though they were interesting, objective facts about human nature.
I don't think I realised quite how much I do revere the theatre, until I bristled at this sort of blasphemy!  And, oh, what a cow Emma is.  I know some say it shouldn't matter how likeable a character is, but I always maintain (as others have said before me) that it does matter if the author clearly sets up a character to be likeable, and fails.  And, after all, I often like books because they have charming characters, so why shouldn't it work the other way around?

I have to confess, I had a problem with Emma as soon as she admitted preferring London to the countryside.  But things get worse than that.  Emma is one of those miserable people who moans all the time about everything, but does nothing to change her life.  She has no paid employment, and whines about looking after their two children - which would be fair enough, if she didn't have a full-time, live-in nanny.  Quite what she does with her day is unclear, but later she manages to fill the hours by thoughtlessly embarking on an affair with the producer of the theatre.  She appears to have no concern at all for her marriage vows, having declared earlier that the only reason she hadn't committed adultery was that she hadn't had the opportunity.

There isn't much plot or narrative drive in The Garrick Year.  It's mostly Emma's introspective, self-pitying waffle.  Thankfully it's at least well written, which is the only reason I persevered with what is, in fact, a slim novel.  Although Drabble isn't quite as good a writer as I'd expected - I'd argue she's not as good as Lynne Reid Banks - but it isn't clunky or cliche-ridden or anything like that, and she creates the background characters rather well: among them is Sofy, an ambitious young actress whose talents (if any) do not lie in the direction of acting, and I rather enjoyed any moment that Emma and David's young daughter was on the scene - she could be quite funny.  In terms of structure, Drabble went (I am sorry to say) for one of those last-minute-big-events which seem the last ditch effort of a novelist who knows their novel hasn't been very exciting yet - you know the sort?

Perhaps I'll enjoy Drabble more when her topic is different, or her character less selfish and awful. I wondered, while I was reading this, whether it might be her second novel - and, lo and behold, it was.  It has neither the inspiration of a first novel, nor the assured confidence of a later book - so hopefully I just picked up a dud, and there will be plenty more to try later.  I do recognise that she is a good writer, and I'm not giving up on her yet.  Any suggestions?

Thursday 29 November 2012

A Cheerful Readalong

I adore Julia Strachey's novel Cheerful Weather For the Wedding - more here - and I was very excited when I found out that a film was being made.  It was going to cinema, then straight to DVD, now I think it's back on for the cinema.  I was excited, but with some trepidation, as it struck me as the sort of book which might not translate well to screen.  It's so dryly, bitingly funny, and not at all serious.  But I'm impressed with this trailer, and think they might well have caught the tone...

I'll be re-reading it before the film comes out, and wondered if anybody fancied joining me for a bit of a group read in January?  All very informal - just post a review when you want to (in, say, the last week of January) and I'll have a discussion here.  It's very short and very good - although does divide people quite a lot, so should be interesting to discuss.

Let me know if you're interested!  A Persephone edition is available, indeed two Persephone editions are available, as it got the beautiful Persephone Classics reprint treatment.

Fun fun!

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Reading Presently: The Badge

I'm pleased to announce that the winning badge for my Reading Presently project is this lovely one by Agnieszka - isn't it nice?

I've scaled up my project - I'm now going to try to read 50 books, rather than 25, that have been given as gifts.  I'm excited about finding out about all these books which have been hidden on my shelves!  It probably isn't the most reader-friendly project, but I'll keep you posted on how I'm doing - and I intend to do A Century of Books again in 2014.

Do join in, and use the badge, if you'd like to!

Thanks again, Agnieszka - I'll get a bookish prize off to you!

Tuesday 27 November 2012

My day in books - Cornflower strikes again!

I've been meaning to do Cornflower's My Day In Books - fill in the answers with books you've read this year.  It's tricky, and I seem to have moved to the coast, but always fun!  Do have a go yourself, and check out Karen's original post.  (Where I have reviewed the books, they get a link.)

I began the day by A View of the Harbour

before breakfasting on Brighton Rock

and admiring The World I Live In.

On my way to work I saw Art in Nature

and walked by The Sea, The Sea

to avoid The Wrong Place,

but I made sure to stop at The Other Garden.

In the office, my boss said Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,

and sent me to research More Women Than Men.

At lunch with Spinster of this Parish

I noticed Sweet William

in The Corner That Held Them

greatly enjoying Green Thoughts.

Then on the journey home, I contemplated All The Books of My Life

because I have Enthusiasms

and am drawn to The Uncommon Reader*.

Settling down for the evening, Back to Home and Duty,

I studied Elders and Betters

by I. Compton-Burnett

before saying goodnight to One Fine Day.

*This review is from 2007, but I re-read it earlier this year

Monday 26 November 2012

La Grande Thérèse - Hilary Spurling

La Grande Thérèse (1999) was one of those impulse purchases I sometimes make in Oxford's £2 bookshop - the Matisse painting on the cover; the fact that Hilary Spurling wrote it; the subtitle 'The Greatest Swindle of the Century'; its brevity.  I was sold.  And the book was sold.  To me.

La Grande Thérèse tells the true (amazingly!) story of Thérèse Daurignac, born into a fairly poor family, with no rich connections or impressive prospects, but who managed to become Madame Humbert, one of the most successful society women in fin-de-siècle Paris, with all the major players of the day visiting her home and paying her homage.  Three Frence presidents and at least five British prime ministers were amongst her friends.

How did she manage this?  By what talent or good fortune?

By lying.

Somehow, simply through deceit, 'her ingenuous air and her adorable lisp', and a ruthless selfishness, Thérèse elevated herself and her family to the highest ranks of society.  Spurling's short book tells the story of her rise - and, in 1902, her catastrophic fall.   She started with small fry - in Toulouse she managed to outwit dressmakers and hairdressers with promises of an inheritance soon to be given her.   This was just small scale for what she would eventually do.  Thérèse married Frédéric Humbert, a shy man with a sharp legal brain, and together the plot continued apace.  Wherever she went, Thérèse spoke of a legacy that would be hers - over the years it escalated, until it was in the millions.  A strongbox, purportedly containing the legal papers of this legacy, was kept in its own locked room, occasionally shown to an important visitor.  Thérèse expertly built up a mystique around her fortune - and on the back of it bought an enormous home on the avenue de la Grande Armée.  She rarely paid for anything at all, and her family (including a rather violent - possibly, Spurling suggests, murderously so - brother) wangled loans of staggering amounts from people up and down the country.  Such were their powers of persuasion.
All her life Thérèse treated money as an illusion: a confidence or conjuring trick that had to be mastered.
Spurling goes through Thérèse's family in a little more depth, exploring the characters of various siblings and children (and especially develops the nature of one relative by marriage, an avant-garde artist called... Henri Matisse!) but the outline is there - and, such is the brevity of La Grande Thérèse, that the outline isn't expanded a huge amount.  It is astonishing that this trickster got so far - but, of course, it couldn't last.  With hundreds of creditors wanting their money, it turned out to be a relatively minor court order (for the address of her mysterious American benefactor) which brought the whole house of cards down.  The family disappeared.  The nation was in outcry.  A lengthy trial eventually... but, no.  Although this is not a novel, I shall not spoil the ending.

The most curious thing about Spurling's book is that such a thing could happen without everybody knowing about to this day.  She discusses, in an epilogue, the various reasons why this scandal has been covered up - 'if the Dreyfus affair had knocked the stuffing out of the right wing and the army, the Humbert affair seemed likely to do the same for the Left and its civil administration' - but   it still seems extraordinary that such a shocking tale could be all but forgotten.  The second most curious thing about Spurling's book is the writing style she adopts.  From beginning to end, it is written almost as though it were a fairy tale.  Here is how it opens:
Thérèse Daurignac was born in 1856 in the far southwest of France in the province of the Languedoc, once celebrated for its troubadours and their romances.  Life for Thérèse in the little village of Aussonne, just outside Toulouse, was anything but romantic.  She was the eldest child in a poor family: a stocky, bright-eyed little girl, not particularly good-looking, with nothing special about her except the power of her imagination.  Thérèse told stories.  In an age without television, in a countryside where most people still could not read, she transformed the narrow, drab, familiar world of the village children into something rich and strange.
Our sympathies even seem to be nudged towards Thérèse and her family, admiring the audacity of her financial conjuring tricks.  In a fairy tale, perhaps she would be a heroine - because consequences in a fairy tale are not really consequences.  Yet her selfish ambition destroyed many, many lives - thousands of people were left ruined; a substantial number killed themselves.  They are not quite forgotten by Spurling, but this extraordinary tale could easily have been given a more tragic structure, rather than the they-do-it-with-mirrors account Spurling prioritises.

There are no footnotes in The Grande Thérèse, or even sourcing - no proper bibliography or indication where Spurling got individual facts and quotations from (although the illustrations are referenced properly.)  As I rather suspected, Spurling wrote The Grande Thérèse as a tangent while researching a book on Matisse, and perhaps she simply wanted a holiday from academic writing.  I was perfectly happy to be swept along by the bizarre facts Spurling presents - perhaps they suit this sort of storytelling, rather than a chunky, footnoted biography - but it does leave me with many unanswered questions, not least about Thérèse's psyche and conscience.  But those are questions for the novelist, not the writer of non-fiction and The Grande Thérèse is far more striking as non-fiction than it could be as fiction.  If you fancy being shocked and surprised, and don't mind being left a touch bewildered, then go and find this extraordinary little book.

Sunday 25 November 2012

Song for a Sunday

Love this song... that is all!  Over to Paolo Nutini and 'Candy'.  Let it wash over you, and forget that it's only one month til Christmas...

Saturday 24 November 2012

He went to the bookshelf and the bookshelf was bare (by the time he had finished buying all the books on it)

Before I take you through the picture below, do please keep answering the Agatha Christie questions from yesterday - I believe in you guys, I think we can get James loads of answers for his thesis!  Spread the word...

I went to London on Thursday, to hear the Persephone lecture and meet up with some online friends (all of which was wonderful) - whilst there, I managed to get a book or two... and I thought you might like to know what has entered my teetering towers of books!  It does include three gift books (my meet-up does a Secret Santa, as well as bringing lots of swaps) so they're on the pile for Reading Presently next year.

Mariana by Monica Dickens
I found two of those fancy Persephone new editions in a secondhand bookshop - so they came home with me!  I do have both in the original editions, but... these are so pretty.

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks
This only came out a few weeks ago, I think - I spotted it in The Times review pages last week, and was thinking about buying a copy, and then I found it in Oxfam.  Win!

The Crafty Art of Playmaking by Alan Ayckbourn
Don't worry, I have no intention of writing a play (except for my contribution to the Chiselborough Christmas Cracker) but my fascination with all things theatre could meet new levels here.

At The Pines by Mollie Panter-Downes
I don't know anything about this, but I wasn't about to leave a Mollie Panter-Downes behind, was I?

Adele and Co. by Dornford Yates
This was my gift in the Secret Santa - I've been meaning to try Dornford Yates for ages, since I know a few fans of his, and now I have the chance in this lovely edition.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey
And another one!  Very excited about the film of this coming out next year - incidentally, check out Lisa's wonderful interview with the scriptwriter.

Money for Nothing by P.G. Wodehouse
In the swap pile at our meet-up - always happy to add more Wodehouse to my shelves, especially when it's a lovely old edition like this.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
More from the swap pile - my book group is reading this next year, so it was great to nab a copy gratis.

Darkness and Day by Ivy Compton-Burnett
Very pleased to pick up a tricky-to-find ICB novel in the lovely Slightly Foxed bookshop.

The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard E. Cytowic
Anne Fadiman says that everyone has a shelf of books which don't quite match the rest of their taste - mine has popular psychology and neurology.  I don't understand everything I'm reading, but I find it fascinating.  As the title suggests, this is about synesthesia.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
More Carter, please - and I love this fun cover.

Right, that's my haul!  Probably bought a few more than I ought to have done, so I think there's going to be a self-imposed ban for the rest of 2012...

Friday 23 November 2012

An Agatha Christie Question

Hope you like the cartoon - I experimented with a strip format!  It's probably a case of click-to-enlarge or you might not be able to read it...

On with the show.  As I mentioned yesterday, I have a question (or three) to ask you about Agatha Christie!  This is only for people who have read some of her books, but I imagine that is most of us.  James Bernthal, who gave the paper on Agatha Christie which spurred me on to revisiting her, had some research questions about readers' experience with her novels - and who better to help him with his thesis, thought I, than my lovely readers?  Feel free to answer in the comments or, if you prefer, email your answers to jcb228[at]  Over to James's questions!

Nearly everyone seems to have a definite opinion on Agatha Christie. As I’m writing my thesis on Christie’s place in popular culture, this fascinates me! If you have the time, and if you have heard of Agatha Christie at all, could you email me a couple of lines, which would inform a thesis chapter, about:

- How you first became aware of Agatha Christie (e.g. a film, heard a reference in a fish shop, attracted by the vibrant cover art)

- Your first impressions of Agatha Christie (e.g. cosy escape, Poirot, boring, ‘oooh, this is a grown-up book with no pictures’)

- What you think of Christie now (e.g. a guilty pleasure, a British institution, a cultural document, the name conjours up images of a moustachioed David Suchet)?

Thursday 22 November 2012

There's Nobody Quite Like Agatha

In 2000, or thereabouts, I read an awful lot of Agatha Christie novels - mostly Miss Marple, because my love of slightly eccentric old women started way back then - but since then, I've only read one or two.  In 2010 I read The Murder at the Vicarage, and thought it might issue in a new dawn of Christie reading.  Well, two years later that dawn has, er, dawned.  After hearing an interesting paper on Agatha Christie covers at a recent conference, I decided that a fun way to fill some gaps in A Century of Books would be to dip into my shelf of Christies, many unread.  Since she wrote one or two a year for most of the 20th century, she is an ideal candidate for this sort of gap-filling.

Before I go onto the two novels I read (pretty briefly), I'll start with what I love about Agatha Christie.  She is considered rather non-literary in some circles (although not quite as often as people often suggest) and it's true that her prose doesn't ripple with poetic imagery - but the same is true of respected writers such as George Orwell and Muriel Spark, who choose a straight-forward seeming prose style, albeit with their own unique quirks.  Leaving aside Christie's prose talents - and they are always better than I expect, and often funnier than I remember - she is most remarkable for her astonishing ability with plot.

For a lot of people, myself included, reading Agatha Christie is our first experience of detective fiction.  She sets the norms, and she sets the bar high.  Only after dipping my toe into books by Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers do I realise quite how vastly superior she is when it comes to plot.  It was once a truism of detective fiction that the author would be unfair, only revealing important clues at the last moment.  "What you didn't know was that the gardener was Lord Alfred's long-lost cousin!"  That sort of thing.  Dame Agatha never does that.  There are almost invariably surprises in the last few pages, but they are the sort of delightful, clever surprises which could have been worked out by the scrupulously careful reader.  Of course, none of us ever do fit all the clues together along the way - it would spoil the novel if we did - but Christie has a genius for leaving no loose ends, and revealing all the clues which have been hidden thus far.  Other detective novelists of the Golden Age still (from my reading) rely upon coincidence, implausibility, and secrets they kept concealed.

Reading a detective novel demands quite a different approach from most other novels.  Everything is pointed towards the structure.  There can be innumerable lovely details along the way, but structure determines every moment - all of it must lead to the denouement, and everything must adhere to that point.  Many of the novels we read (especially for someone like me, fond of modernist refusal of form - witness my recent review of The House in Paris) are deliberately open-ended, and the final paragraphs are structurally scarcely more significant than any arbitrarily chosen lines from anywhere in the novel.  With an Agatha Christie, the end determines my satisfaction. My chief reason for considering a detective novel successful or unsuccessful is whether it coheres when the truth is revealed.  Is the motive plausible?  Does the 'reveal' match the preceding narrative details?  Are there any unanswered questions?  That's a lot of pressure on Agatha Christie, and it is a sign of her extraordinary talent for plot that she not only never disappoints, but she casts all the other detective novelists I've tried into the shade.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)

I'd never read Christie's very first novel, so it was serendipitous that 1920 was one of the few interwar blank spaces on my Century of Books.  I'm going to be very brief about these two novels, because I don't want to give anything away at all (a carefulness not exemplified by the blurbs of these novels, incidentally.)  Suffice to say that there is a murder in a locked bedroom - and a lot of motives among family and friends.
"Like a good detective story myself," remarked Miss Howard.  "Lots of nonsense written, though.  Criminal discovered in last chapter.  Every one dumbfounded.  Real crime - you'd know at once."
"There have been a great number of undiscovered crimes," I argued.
"Don't mean the police, but the people that are right in it.  The family.  You couldn't really hoodwink them.  They'd know."
I love it when Christie gets all meta.  In One, Two, Buckle My Shoe one character accuses another, "You're talking like a thriller by a lady novelist."  Heehee!  But the best strain of meta-ness (ahem) in The Mysterious Affair at Styles is adorable Captain Hastings.  He narrates, and he is not very bright.  He considers himself rather brilliant at detection, and is constantly sharing all manner of clues and suppositions with Poirot, only for Poirot to laugh kindly and disabuse him.  Hastings really is lovely - and doesn't seem to have suffered even a moment's psychological unease at having been invalided away from WW1.  Poirot, of course, is brilliant.  It's all rather Holmes/Watson, but it works.

You've probably read the famous moment where Poirot is first described, but it bears re-reading:
Poirot was an extraordinary-looking little man.  He was hardly more than five feet four inches, but carried himself with great dignity.  His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side.  His moustache was very stiff and military.  The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.  Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police.  As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day.
Isn't that line about the bullet sublime?  (Although, again, demonstrates a remarkable lack of shellshock on Hastings' part.)  What I found ironic about this, the first Poirot novel, is that (with decades of detection ahead of him), Hastings thinks:
The idea crossed my mind, not for the first time, that poor old Poirot was growing old.  Privately I thought it lucky that he had associated with him someone of a more receptive type of mind.
Hastings is wrong, of course, but as a retired man, Poirot must enjoy one of the longest retirements on record.  As for the novel itself - Christie tries to do far too much in it, and the eventual explanation (though ingenious) is very complicated.  Colin tells me that Christie acknowledges the over-complication in her autobiography.  It's not surprising for a first novel, and it does nonetheless involve some rather sophisticated twists and turns.

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940)

Onto another Poirot novel!  For some reason I love the idea of titles being nursery rhymes or quotations, and Christie does this a lot.  And Then There Were None is my favourite of her books (that I have read), and I also think the twist in The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side is brilliant.  I hadn't read this one, and chose it over Sad Cypress for the 1940 selection.  Which turned out not to be very clever, as it is set at a dentist's, where I will probably have to go soon...

The plot of this one isn't amongst Christie's best, and does depend upon one minor implausibility, but it's still head and shoulders over other people's.  I realise I'm giving you nothing to go on, but I don't even want to give the identity of the victim (even though they're killed very early in the novel) because every step should be a surprise.  What I did like a lot about the novel was this moment about Poirot:

She paused, then, her agreeable, husky voice deepening, she said venomously: "I loathe the sight of you - you bloody little bourgeois detective!"
She swept away from him in a whirl of expensive model drapery.
Hercule Poirot remained, his eyes very wide open, his eyebrows raised and his hand thoughtfully caressing his moutaches.
The epithet bourgeois was, he admitted, well applied to him.  His outlook on life was essentially bourgeois, and always had been[.]
Having sat through an absurd talk recently, where the embittered speaker spat out 'bourgeois' about once a minute (and then, after lambasting his own bottom-of-the-pile education, revealed that he'd been to grammar school) this came as a breath of fresh air!  One of my few rules in life is "If someone uses the word 'bourgeois' instead of 'middle-class', they're probably not worth paying attention to, and they certainly won't pay attention to you.'  The other thing I loved was the morality Christie slipped into Poirot's denouement... but to give away more would be telling.

So, as you see, one of the other issues with detective fiction is that it rather defies the normal book review, but I've had fun exploring various questions which arise from reading Agatha Christie - and tomorrow I shall be putting a specific question to you!  But for today, please just comment with whatever you'd like to say about Christie or this post - and particularly which of her novels you think is especially clever in its revelation (giving away absolutely nothing, mind!)

Tuesday 20 November 2012

The House in Paris (in which we learn that Darlene is right, is garlanded with flowers &c. &c.)

A while ago the very lovely (but, it turns out, fiercely competitive) Darlene laid down a challenge.  She would read a book by my beloved Ivy Compton-Burnett, if I would give her beloved Elizabeth Bowen a second chance.  "Game on!" said I, always happy to give respected authors two or three tries - but she comfortably beat me with her fabulous review of Manservant and Maidservant in early September, which you can read here.  I took my time, but I've finally managed to keep up my end of the bargain, and on my trip to the Lake District I managed to finish The House in Paris (1935).

Well, Darlene, you were right.  I didn't enjoy The Last September at all, but The House in Paris is beautiful.  Cancel the book burning, Bowen is back in business.

The novel has a layered narrative.  The first and last quarters (called 'Present') take place in the Parisian house, belonging to Mme. and Miss Fisher, where young Henrietta is spending the day between one chaperone and another.  Coincidentally, Leopold is also there - nervously waiting to meet his biological mother for the first time in his life.  The middle half reverts to 'Past', and concerns Leopold's mother Karen, who knew Miss Fisher (Naomi) when they were ten years younger, and the affair which led to Leonard's conception.

It is the beginning and end of The House in Paris that I loved, and I half wish that Bowen hadn't left the house in Paris at all.  The scenes between Henrietta and Leopold are so perfectly judged that it seems impossible that writing can be so beautiful as well as so plausible - surely Bowen (one thinks) would have to sacrifice one to the other?  But no, every moment described is a new insight into the way children interact, and beautiful because true.  This is the first conversation they have while alone together:
He said: "Miss Fisher says you're here for the day."

"I'm just crossing Paris," Henrietta said with cosmopolitan ease.

"Is that your monkey?"

"Yes.  I've had him ever since I was born."

"Oh," said Leopold, looking at Charles vaguely.

"How old are you?" Henrietta enquired.


"Oh, I'm eleven."

"Miss Fisher's mother is very ill," said Leopold.  He sat down in an armchair with his knees crossed and, bending forward, studied a cut on one knee.  The four velvet armchairs, each pulled out a little way from a corner, faced in on the round table that reflected the window and had in its centre a tufted chenille mat.  He added, wrinkling his forehead: "So Mariette says, at least."

"Who is Mariette?"

"Their maid.  She wanted to help me dress."

"Do you think she is going to die?" said Henrietta.

"I don't expect so.  I shall be out, anyway."

"That would be awful," said Henrietta, shocked.

"I suppose it would.  But I don't know Mme. Fisher."

It is never natural for children to smile at each other: Henrietta and Leopold kept their natural formality.  She said: "You see, I'd been hoping Miss Fisher was going to take me out." 
Leopold, looking about the salon, said: "Yes, this must be a rather funny way to see Paris."  But he spoke with detachment; it did not matter to him.
In the first quarter of the novel, little takes place to propel the plot.  Henrietta meets Mme. Fisher (slowly, wryly, dying in a bedroom upstairs); Leopold snoops through Miss Fisher's letters, and finds letters from his adoptive mother and Henrietta's grandmother, and an empty envelope from his biological mother.  What makes this section so special is the gradual, engaging way Bowen builds up the relationship between the children - character is paramount.  Although they develop a fragile and fleeting friendship, they have the child's selfish indifference to each other's feelings - as Bowen expresses so strikingly:
With no banal reassuring grown-ups present, with grown-up intervention taken away, there is no limit to the terror strange children feel of each other, a terror life obscures but never ceases to justify.  There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone. 
This passage demonstrates one of the qualities of Bowen's writing that I most admired and liked - the way she moves from the specific to the general.  Authors are often told "show, don't tell", and Bowen finds an original way to follow this maxim while subtly evading it.  She never plays too heavy a narrative hand with the characters, letting their actions and words form their personalities, but then she steps back a pace or two, and draws general conclusions about children or lovers or parents or people in general.  She shows with the cast, and tells about the world.

As the first part closes, Leopold learns that: "Your mother is not coming; she cannot come."  Isn't that sentence delightfully Woolfean, with its balance and half-repetition?  No wonder people have often drawn comparison between Bowen and Woolf - including Byatt, in her excellent introduction (which, as always, ought to be read last - and pleasantly blends personal and critical aspects.)

actual houses in Paris wot I saw once
In the central section of the novel, we meet Leopold's mother Karen, and witness her relationship with Naomi's fiancee Max.  Although longer than the other sections put together, 'Past' felt less substantial to me.  It is, essentially, the very gradual and incremental development of the relationship between Karen and Max - from distrust to love, and... onwards.  But here I shall draw a veil over the ensuing plot for, although plot is hardly primary in Bowen, it cannot be called negligible, and I shall not spoil it.

And, finally, back to Henrietta and Leopold, as they make proclamations about their lives, in the midst of situations they cannot understand for more than a moment at a time - and eventually they part.  Without giving away too much, I shall remove one possibility - they do not end up living like brother and sister; they will probably never see each other again.  Their encounter has been fleeting, and wholly at the whim of the various adults (present and absent) whose decisions so heavily influence the children's lives.  As a conceit it is not entirely natural, but we can forgive Bowen that - it structures the narrative perfectly, and gives opportunity for so many other moments where the natural triumphs against the artificiality of fiction: time and again novelistic cliches and truisms have the carpet whipped from under their feet, and the reader thinks "Oh, of course, that is what would happen."

Above all, Bowen is a wordsmith.  She crafts sentences so perfectly.  They are not of the variety that can be read in a hurry - perhaps that is where I went wrong with The Last September - but, with careful attention and a willingness to dive into the world of words she creates - it is an effort which is very much repaid.  Darlene, thank you for refusing to let me declare Bowen done and dusted - she's now very much back in my good books.  You might have won this competition, but this is a case of everyone's-a-winner, right?

Others who got Stuck into it:

"From the very first page of The House in Paris when Henrietta is collected from the train station by Miss Fisher, both wearing cerise cockades so as to recognize one another, I adored this book.  Elizabeth Bowen's genius as a writer is staggering and to anyone who doesn't agree or simply does not get on with her...I could weep for you." - Darlene, Roses Over A Cottage Door

"The pages were awash with beautiful, sonorous language formed into exquisite sentences that swirled through my thoughts, leaving lingering, evocative images behind." - Rachel, Book Snob [Simon: this review is much better than mine!  Go and check it out if you haven't done already.]

"I wanted to love Elizabeth Bowen; one of my most respected history profs at university cited Bowen as her absolute favourite author and ever since then I've intended to read her. I liked this book, I even found some quotable passages which I delightedly copied out. But somehow it didn't coalesce into a Great Read, at least not for me." - Melwyk, The Indextrious Reader

Monday 19 November 2012

A.A. Milne's first book

I seem to be having a little spate of reading author's first books (look out for Agatha Christie's coming up soon!) and I decided a good way to tackle one of the remaining years of A Century of Books would be a re-read of A.A. Milne's first - Lovers in London (1905).  I wrote a little about it back here, in January 2010, but that was mostly about the topic of print-on-demand books.  Lovers in London is one of the very few POD books I own, and it isn't very attractive - but it's impossible to find a non-POD edition anywhere, mostly because Milne disowned the book and bought back the copyright to prevent anyone reprinting it. 

That will probably make you assume that it is appalling, and it isn't at all.  It might only be for Milne completists, but it is nonetheless interesting to see where and how he started.  As you might expect, it is about young lovers - only at the beginning they haven't met.  Edward (or Teddy) is the narrator in the mould Milne wrote so well at the beginning of his career - the jovial, cricket-loving, occasionally-writing-for-Punch sort of upper-middle-class man; Amelia is his godfather's daughter, travelling to England from her native America.  We're early let into the obvious secret - that by chp.24 (and there are only 125 pages; these are not long chapters) Amelia and Edward will be betrothed.

It's all very cheery and insouciant and very AAM in his sketch-writing days.  If you've had the pleasure and privilege of reading The Day's Play, The Sunny Side, The Holiday Round or things like that (and if you haven't, you should) then you'll recognise the sort of fun they have:
As we went under the bridge to get to the elephant-house Amelia insisted on buying buns for the rhinoceros.
"But they don't eat buns," I objected.
"He will if I offer it to him," said Amelia confidently.
"My dear Amelia," I said, "it is a matter of common knowledge that the rhinoceros, belonging as it does to the odd-toed set of ungulates, has a gnarled skin, thickened so as to form massive plates, which are united by thinner portions forming flexible joints.  Further, the animal in question, though fierce and savage when roused, is a vegetable feeder.  In fact, he may be said to be herbivorous."
"I don't care," said Amelia defiantly; "all animals in the Zoo eat buns."
"I can tell you three that don't."
"I bet a shilling you can't - not straight off."

 I instanced the electric eel, the ceciopian silk moth, and the coconut crab.  So Amelia paid for our teas.  But in the elephant-house the rhinoceros took his bun with verve - not to say aplomb.
The most successful sections are such as these - when Amelia and Teddy wander around and indulge in frivolous conversation.  It's witty - not the structured, repeatable sort of wit we meet in Wilde, but the variety that puts a happy smile on one's face.

Some chapters were less well done, to my mind, and these tended to be where Milne's imagination got the better of him - particularly one where action wandered (in Teddy's mind) to a desert island.  A little too fanciful, and a little too silly.  But for the most part, it is all very entertaining and jolly.  What Teddy writes about himself could equally be said of Milne:
I am a harmless, mild-mannered person.  There is nothing "strong" about my work; nothing that calls for any violent display of emotion on the part of my puppets.  I doubt if there could be an illegitimate canary (even) in my stories...
I can't see quite why Milne took so against Lovers in London.  If it is not up to the standard of his next few books, it isn't so far behind them as to make it embarrassing.  If it were available in bookshops across the land, I wouldn't hesitate in telling you to get a copy to enjoy on a rainy Sunday afternoon - as it is, in pricey POD editions, you'd be much better off hunting for the much cheaper, much more attractive editions of slightly later books by AAM.

Sunday 18 November 2012

Song for a Sunday

A lovely song that I first heard in the wonderful series Gavin and Stacey - 'You and Me' by Lifehouse.  This is another band that I think is quite well known in the US, but not in the UK.


Saturday 17 November 2012

Reading Presently

An update on my reading project for next year - the one where I read 25 (or maybe 50, depending on how it goes) books that I've received as gifts - I was throwing around some names on Twitter and decided upon Reading Presently.

I was wondering if there were any people who enjoyed making badges for projects?  If so, and you fancy making one for me and anyone else who wants to do this, let me know in the comments!  In fact, let's make it a competition!  (If more than one person wants to, that is...)

Comment, and then email me your Reading Presently badge - it just has to feature those words, the rest is up to you - and in a week or two I'll declare a winner - with some sort of bookish prize!  (Clue: it'll probably be a book.)

Thursday 15 November 2012

In a German Pension - Katherine Mansfield

One of the first times that I thought (forgive me) that I might actually have some sort of literary astuteness was in relation to Katherine Mansfield.  Our Vicar's Wife and I were off to a lecture day at Oxford on Modernism - this was two or three years before I started studying university - and I'd been reading a Collected Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield that my friend Barbara had given me.  I'd never heard of Katherine Mansfield before, and I immersed myself in the book.  Most I loved, some I didn't so much, but there was one I definitely liked best - and I read it out loud to Mum as we drove from Worcestershire to Oxford.  It was 'The Garden Party'.  Little did I know that it was her most famous and acclaimed short story; I didn't even know it was the title story for one of her collections.  When I found out, I thought - huh, maybe I can tell when something is good and when it isn't.

Excuse that slightly trumpet-blowing story (it doesn't feel trumpet-blowing, since it's about me-a-decade-ago, a very different person to me-now) because it does have some relevance to my post.  When reading that Collected Short Stories, the stories which didn't particularly grab me were those from In A German Pension (1911) - Mansfield's first book.  A few years ago I bought a beautiful Hesperus edition (tautology, of course - all of their books are beautiful) and I decided that it was about time that I gave In A German Pension another go.  I was actually a little pleased to see that my opinion hasn't really changed.  It doesn't prove that I was right a decade ago, but at least it means I've stayed fairly consistent in my tastes.

In A German Pension is chiefly interesting as a suggestion of what Mansfield would become - the markings of her extraordinary talent are there, but she is not yet a writer confident of her own particular abilities.

The stories were inspired by Mansfield's time spent in Europe, and are mostly from the perspective of a wry English woman, crowded with absurd characters and baffled by their foibles and anxieties.  Foolish people lecture one another, a dressmaker is mistaken for a baroness, young women flirt and retreat.  It all feels very Edwardian.  What strikes oddest is the way in which Mansfield tries to be funny.
At that moment the postman, looking like a German army officer, came in with the mail.  He threw my letters into my milk pudding, and then turned to a waitress and whispered.  She retired hastily.  The manager of the pension came in with a little tray.  A picture postcard was deposited on it, and reverently bowing his head, the manager of the pension carried it to the Baron.

Myself, I felt disappointed that there was not a salute of twenty-five guns.
This is all well and good - but it is not where Mansfield excels.  The dry, sardonic quip, the understatement, is a far cry from the subtle, clever examination of sorrow or guilt or self-awareness that Mansfield paints in delicate shades in her finest work.  Instead there are caricature women criticising one another - the sort of ribaldry and comedy-writ-large which one would expect from Jerome K. Jerome, perhaps:
"Of course it is difficult for you English to understand when you are always exposing your legs on cricket fields, and breeding dogs in your back gardens.  The pity of it!  Youth should be like a wild rose.  For myself I do not understand how your women ever get married at all."
As a brand of humour, it can be very successful - but it feels awkward from a pen that is already learning some sensitivities.  It's certainly not bad at all - it is even good.  It's just the wrong fit for Mansfield.

Only one story of the thirteen approaches her later triumphs, to my mind: 'The Swing of the Pendulum'.  It's about a woman who is about to be thrown out of her flat, since she can't afford the rent.  A young man knocks at the door, looking for someone she's never heard of - he seems to leave but, bored, she hopes he is waiting outside the door - and, a little later, he unsuccessfully tries to rape her.  More dramatic than some of her best stories, which focus on the minutiae of experience, but it does demonstrate the subtlety and perception that would later become the cornerstones of Mansfield's writing.
She heard him walk down the passage and then pause - lighting a cigarette.  Yes - a faint scent of delicious cigarette smoke penetrated her room.  She sniffed at it, smiling again.  Well, that had been a fascinating interlude!  He looked so amazingly happy: his heavy clothes and big buttoned gloves; his beautifully brushed hair... and that smile... 'Jolly' was the word - just a well-fed boy with the world for his playground.  People like that did one good - one felt 'made over' at the sight of them. Sane they were - so sane and solid.  You could depend on them never having one mad impulse from the day they were born until the day they died.  And Life was in league with them - jumped them on her knee - quite rightly, too.  At that moment she noticed Casimir's letter, crumpled up on the floor - the smile faded.  Staring at the letter she began braiding her hair - a dull feeling of rage crept through her - she seemed to be braiding it into her brain, and binding it, tightly, above her head...
Of all the writers taken too early, I think Katherine Mansfield's death at 34 is the most tragic, and the most frustrating.  Her talents were not in decline - indeed, in the two years before she died of tuberculosis she wrote not only her best stories, but the best short stories I have ever read.  Who knows what she could have written had she lived another 30, 40, 50 years?  Still - in those 34 years she achieved quite astonishing brilliance and beauty with her writing.  If In A German Pension isn't quite up to the level of her best work, then at least it serves to show us, a little, how she got there.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Five From the Archive (no.11)

It's been a few weeks since I last did a Five From the Archive, and perhaps My Life in Books has brought a few new readers (hello!), so I'll quickly explain what it is.  Once I'd been blogging for five years, I had a glance back at the hundreds of books I'd written about, and thought that it was a shame that wonderful titles would be lost in the annals of my archive.  So every week now and then, I'll pick a theme and choose five great books from my review archive to fit it - it's fun finding unexpected connections between much-loved books.  An index of all previous Five From the Archive posts can be found here.  This week, inspired by the wonderful school scene in Blue Remembered Hills, I have picked an apposite theme:

Five... Books About School

1.) St. Clare's series (1941-5) by Enid Blyton

In short: I could fill this list with children's school stories, but I'll stick with this series which I loved as a child - mischievous (but, of course, good-hearted) twins Pat and Isabel get up to schoolgirl antics.

From my review: "Blyton appears to have had a pathological hatred of 'tell-tales' (which always seems to me to be invented as an excuse for teachers to ignore the majority of children's squabbles) and a fervour for sport, and Janet (in the 'good egg' category) is so bluntly rude that I wanted to push her down a well - despite all these things, I've been joyously reliving my youth through these books."

2.) More Women Than Men (1933) by Ivy Compton-Burnett

In short: My favourite ICB novel so far, the politics and in-fighting of a girls' school provide a perfect setting for Compton-Burnett's characteristic wit and discord.  There is only one line of dialogue from a pupil...

From my review: "Would people talk like this?  No, definitely not.  Would people act like this?  Probably no.   But would people feel like these characters feel?  Yes - absolutely - and it is Ivy Compton-Burnett's genius that she can interweave the genuine and the bizarre."

3.) Curriculum Vitae (1992) by Muriel Spark

In short: I would pick The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie if I'd ever reviewed it here - so this is the next best thing.  Spark's brilliant autobiography includes wonderful sections on Miss Christina Kay, Spark's teacher and the inspiration for Miss Jean Brodie.

From my review: "There are definitely signs of Spark-the-novelist in the structuring of the autobiography.  Her usual trick of playing around with time makes an appearance, but it's the enticingly disjointed beginning which made me realise Spark-the-autobiographer was no real distance from Spark-the-novelist."

4.) Dusty Answer (1927) by Rosamond Lehmann

In short: We follow only-child Judith Earle through childhood and emotional student days (I'm stretching a point), as she is forever tethered to the family that lived next door.

From my review: "It takes a talented writer to write about childhood without the novel feeling like a children's book, and Lehmann achieves this wonderfully."

5.) The Well-Tempered Clavier (2008) by William Coles

In short: A cross between Othello and Notes on a Scandal, an affair between pupil and piano teacher at Eton becomes a study in jealousy.

From my review: "The Well-Tempered Clavier is a beautiful book, managing to use a simple narrative voice without a consequently bland style - honesty, beauty, and passion pervade the novel, but so do humour, youthfulness and energy."

As always - your suggestions, please!

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Blue Remembered Hills - Rosemary Sutcliff

There must have been a time - a dark, bleak time - before I was introduced to the Slightly Foxed Editions.  I love the Slightly Foxed journal when I get my hands on a copy, but that doesn't compare to the bottomless affection I have for all the memoirs I've read in their Slightly Foxed Editions series.  Which is, I realise, only five or six - I still have a long way to go.  But the one I finished recently is battling it out with Dodie Smith's Look Back With Love not only for my favourite SF, but for my second favourite book read this year (Guard Your Daughters has secured first place.)

I need to start condensing my preambles, don't I?  The book is Blue Remembered Hills (1983) by Rosemary Sutcliff, and it is heartwarmingly wonderful.  The original run of 2000 hardback copies has sold out and, due to its popularity, Slightly Foxed have produced this paperback edition.  Unlike most of the people I've spoken to about this book, I've never read anything by Rosemary Sutcliff.  My allergy to historical fiction has been lifelong, and her Eagle of the Ninth series has never got nearer than the peripheries of my awareness.  That doesn't matter in the slightest, in terms of enjoying this book, believe me.

Born in 1920, Sutcliff was quite isolated in her childhood - she was an only child, and (after suffering Still's Disease when very young) had varying levels of disability, and spent a great deal of time in and out of hospitals and nursing homes.  Yet this couldn't be further from a misery memoir.  Everything is coated with a fascination for life, and a joy for the possibilities of observing and experiencing.

Like Smith's childhood memoir, Sutcliff has great fun describing all her relatives - how blessed these memoirists seem to have been with comic uncles and aunts! - and especially her parents.  Her mother seems to have had undiagnosed bipolar disorder - Sutcliff describes times when her mood would change for days without warning - and this understandably made her unpredictable to live with.  This was coupled with a difficult personality, and Sutcliff (though generous to her) clearly didn't have an entirely easy mother/daughter relationship.  Her father (a sailor) spent long periods away from home - all in all, not a simple childhood for young Rosemary.

But, as I say, she finds the beauty and joy in this all - not by ignoring her difficulties, but by maintaining an optimistic attitude.  Indeed, it wasn't until I sat back and put together the information Sutcliff gives about her parents that I realised the difficulties she faced.  In Blue Remembered Hills this sort of excerpt represents the tone with which Sutcliff recalls them:
He was a lieutenant when he and my mother were married.  The had first met when they were both fourteen, at a mixed hockey match, and he always claimed that the first word he ever heard her say was 'Damn', which I suppose, to judge from her vehemence in protesting that it was the first time she had ever said it, was quite a word in those days.  My father's invariable retort - oh, the lovely ritual changlessness of family hokes and traditions! - was that for a first time, she said it with remarkable fluency.
I think my favourite thing about childhood memoirs is the revelation of family jokes.  It makes the reader feel, at least for a page or two, that they've been inducted into the family.  We all have these, don't we?  And they're usually senseless and silly, and oh so precious!

Among Sutcliff's many memories, the ones which most warmed my heart were about Miss Beck's school.  Education reform has doubtless done much for children's welfare, but as a side-effect it was removed the possibility of anything as joyful as this:
In a small back room with peeling wallpaper, under the eye of a gaunt elderly maid, I was stripped of my coat, leggings and tam-o'-shanter, in company with twelve or fourteen others of my kind.  And with them, all on my own, so grown up, I filed through into the schoolroom, to be receive, as Royalty receives, by Miss Beck herself, who sat, upright as Royalty sits, in a heavily carved Victorian armchair.

My schooldays proper had begun.

Looking back with warm affection at that first school of mine, I can hardly believe that it was real, and not something dreamed up out of the pages of Cranford or Quality Street.  I suppose nowadays it would not be allowed to exist at all.  Miss Amelia Beck had no teaching qualifications whatsoever, save the qualifications of long experience and love.  She was the daughter of a colonel of Marines, in her eighty-sixth year when I became one of her pupils; and for more than sixty years, in her narrow house overlooking the Lines at Chatham, she had taught the children of the dockyard and the barracks.  She accepted only the children of service families.  Oh, the gentle snobbery of a bygone age; bygone even then, and having less to do with class than totem.  It was her frequent boast that she had smacked, in their early days, most of the senior officers of both services.  Both, not all three, for the RAF was too young as yet to count for much in Miss Beck's scheme of things.  But I do not think that it can have been true, unless she had gentled greatly with the passing of her years.  For I never knew her to smack anybody during the year that I sat at her feet.
Isn't that blissful?  There is quite a bit about this school and Miss Beck, who stayed in touch with every pupil she taught (or so Sutcliff claims!) - it is all fairly ordinary, but made extraordinary through Sutcliff's lovely writing and engaging personality.

In fact, it is the ordinariness of Sutcliff's life that makes Blue Remembered Hills so difficult to write about.  It is oddly similar to The Outward Room, reviewed yesterday, in being significant not for its incidents, but for the beautiful way in which they are related.  After relaying the activities, thoughts, people and pets of her childhood, Sutcliff relays her early career as a miniaturist (not, she notes sadly, a form likely to win any major notice in the art world) and her first infatuation.  Those are the two important strands in the second half of the book, I suppose, and it continues up to her first literary commissions.  But the events are so much less vital than the tone.

So, yes, it's another book you have to read to appreciate... but, oh, what a warm, engaging, beautiful book it is.  One of the very few where I cannot bear the lessening pages as I read on - and which I am certain I shall return to time and again.  Slightly Foxed - I don't know how you do it.  You are my new addiction.  Long may you continue to find memoirs as spectacularly lovely as this!

Others who got Stuck into this:

"Perfect. My only complaint is that it is too short." - Leaves and Pages

"The tone of the book is one of gratitude for life’s blessings & joy at the natural world, her friends, her dogs & her love for her parents." - Lyn, I Prefer Reading

Monday 12 November 2012

The Outward Room - Millen Brand

photo source

A long, long time ago (I can still remember) I was sent Millen Brand's The Outward Room (1937) to review - in fact, I had asked for it - and it has taken me absurdly long to read it, and a couple months longer to get around to reviewing it.  But it is really very good indeed, and worth the wait.

The reason I asked for this NYRB edition was (apart from the fact that all NYRB editions are beautiful and belong on my bookshelf) that I remembered The Outward Room being mentioned once in a Persephone Quarterly - and it fixed in my mind.

The Outward Room starts with Harriet Demuth's life in some sort of mental hospital, having suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of a family tragedy.  Estranged from her parents and frustrated by her doctor's blinkered obsession with Freudian analysis, Harriet's life has been sucked dry of anything but routine and confusion.  Her ability to articulate her personality and self have been stifled by illness and by the unsympathetic institution which came as a consequence to it.  Brand writes this section very well, but it is necessarily claustrophobic and begins to stifle the reader.

But Harriet escapes.

She makes her way to New York, pawns her brother's ring, and lives hand-to-mouth for some time.  The Great Depression has given the city a desperate air, and she struggles to find the means of supporting herself - her first 'job interview' is for a single day's work, and consists of standing in a long row with many other women, and not being pointed at.  There are some poignant scenes where Harriet first rents, and then must leave, a tiny apartment.

After about 100 pages, Harriet is sitting in a late-night cafe, unable to afford a cup of coffee, when a stranger approaches and offers to buy her the drink.  John (for this is his name) invites her back to his house for food and shelter and - desperate, and a little naive perhaps - she goes.  At this point I expected awful things to happen to her, or for John's apparent kindness to (at least) be revealed as covering ulterior motives.  What I wasn't prepared for was a gentle, gradual, and quite beautiful love story.  Through simple, ordinary scenes of everyday life and undramatic conversations, Harriet and John fall in love and become necessary to one another.  We see some of Harriet at work, and the friend she makes Anna; we see a neighbour or two - but the beauty of The Outward Room is the quiet unfolding of a believable, unassuming relationship.

I don't normally just give all the plot in a series of paragraphs like that - I usually try to break it up with some of my thoughts about the author's approach, etc. - but it seemed important to lay out the  structure of The Outward Room and the direction the novel takes before addressing the issue of style.  They are so interrelated.  At the beginning, Brand opts for quite a lot of the disjointed and fragmentary prose that is often used to represent mental disharmony or any kind of mental illness.  Personally, I find it very easy to overuse this style.  Stream of consciousness has of course often been used to portray thoughts, especially of a disturbed mind - but I think it has to be done exceptionally well (we're talking Woolf-standards well) to work, otherwise it can simply seem sloppy.  These were the sections of The Outward Room which I found least convincing.

However, when Brand didn't concentrate this effect into single chapters, he used a more successful variant on it - by simply omitting verbs and pronouns.  It's a bold way to start a paragraph, giving a sense of both immediacy and uncertainty, and it think it works well within a sparser descriptive mode:
Dark, the smell of stairs.  She began to notice the stairs as she had not the day before.  She leaned and looked down the dark stairwell.  These stairs were not solid; their treads sagged, the staircase was pegged to the walls with iron rods at each landing.  The house was old.  She went down and when she came into the light of the lower open house door, she looked around her.  She saw only a bare hallway; on one side was a large metal barrel with a warped cover, on the other a table on which were several letters - evidently this was where mail was left for those in the house.  Except for this, the hall was vacant; scribbled on the plaster were a few names - "DIDOMENICO 2nd" "LICORA" --
Brand moves between this fairly straightforward narrative and a fluid, more consciously beautiful prose.  And that is the result (and the cause) of the relationship between John and Harriet.  Which comes first?  I don't know - the gentle unfolding of their love is both mirrored and created by the gentle unfolding of touching imagery and emotional explorations.  This paragraph was picked more or less at random, but hopefully it gives you a sense of what I mean:
Breathing the air deeply, she looked down at the courtyard.  Hardly changed, a little dirtier from melted snow, the tinge of winter.  Frost had made new cracks in the cement, in the so-called paving.  Yet the evidences of winter were small only to be seen, like the signs of spring, by the heart that feels small changes.  The room too had its changes from winter, but because of her need of its permanence they too were small, only what had been absolutely necessary.
It is incredibly difficult to write about this sort of novel, because it is of the variety which can only be appreciated once one is reading them.  Perhaps that is true of any book, but it seems especially so of The Outward Room.  And that being said, it is especially impressive that Peter Cameron writes such a good afterword in the NYRB edition.  Good afterwords and introductions are hard to find, aren't they?  One thing Cameron writes will strike home with many of us:
It's somewhat frightening to learn that good books - even books heralded in their time - can disappear so quickly and completely.  We like to think that things of enduring quality and worth are separated from the dross and permanently enshrined, but we know that this is not true.  Beautiful things are more likely to disappear than to endure.  The Outward Room is such a beautiful thing.  
None of us are surprised when we find that wonderful, beautiful books have fallen by the wayside - we all know too many examples.  Despite having an initial print run of 140,000 copies (wow!), The Outward Room has fallen victim to this disappearing act - its peculiar qualities are those which can so easily be overlooked.  Thank you NYRB for bringing it back - the novel definitely deserves it, and I hope you give it a chance too.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Reading Plans?

Thank you so much for all your lovely birthday wishes!

I'm off to a conference tomorrow - gosh, my third this year! - and will be speaking on David Garnett's Lady Into Fox.  I have barely thought about it, to be honest, which is good as it has meant that I'm not nervous yet.  Whether my paper is up to much is an entirely different matter... but I rather doubt anyone there will have read Lady Into Fox anyway!

So, I'll be back late on Friday night, so I'll leave you with a question.  It's getting to that time of year when people start to mull over next year's book projects.  I've really enjoyed doing A Century of Books this year - it has joined my love of reading to my love of lists - and it's made me vary my reading a lot.  But while I think I'll revisit it one day, I don't want to do the same project two years on the trot.  (And who knows if I'll even finish this one on target!)

Instead, I've picked a project that is shamefully unblogworthy.  A lot of lovely people have given me books over the years, and I am rather awful at getting around to reading them.  Bloggers and other bibliophiles tend to understand - but I still feel a bit guilty, as well as missing out on all the potential gems on my bookshelves.  So, I've decided that in 2013 I'm going to read at least 25 books that other people have given me.  I haven't even checked that I have 25 such books - but I rather expect that it's nearer double that.  Just looking at my shelves in Oxford, not counting review books or books I got for my birthday yesterday... oh, there are 34.  Well, that answers that question!  I think it'll be a nicely varied pile - as well as enabling me finally to thank folk properly for my presents.

Howsabout you?  (If you wavered on A Century of Books this year, I can definitely recommend it as a really fun and fruitful project - which, of course, can be spread over two years or more, if need be.)  Any reading plans, or are you just going to go with the flow?  Or is it still too early to think about it?

See you at the weekend!  Wish me luck with my paper...

Wednesday 7 November 2012

It's My Birthday and I'll Post Photos of the Lake District if I Want To.

Happy Birthday Me!  Today I turn 27 - the age at which Anne Elliot was washed up in Persuasion.  Don't worry, I don't actually have a neurosis about 27 - even though I spend a lot of my time amongst undergraduates, so I feel ancient - but when 30 rolls around, things might feel rather different.  My goal is to have finished accruing degrees by then... (!)

I thought I'd indulge on my birthday by sharing with you photographs from my recent trip to the Lake District.  I've been there many times throughout my life, often with family, and this time I visited my friend Phoebe (who works at Wordsworth's house) and was joined by Colin.  Autumn in the Lake District is pretty stunning, I have to stay.  Well, enough with words - shall we let some pictures do the talking?

This is the view from my friend's house - amazing, no?

Getting ready to go on a ferry... and it's sunny! (but freezing)

The original purpose for visiting for a birthday visit to beautiful Blackwell -
an Arts & Crafts house; one of my favourite places in the world.
Sadly no photos allowed inside, but more on their website.

Not a bad view to have from the house, is it?

And here we are, outside it!

My friend and her boyfriend, on Wansfell.

I've never carved a pumpkin before - so I was pleased by my first effort
(inspired by the peacock frieze at Blackwell)

And we make a delicious cat carrot cake!

I co-ordinate with the autumn, by Lake Windermere

Sepia makes EVERYTHING like classy, doesn't it?

The sun didn't last long - Colin and I take a walk over to Ambleside,
and it was cloudy and rainy - but still beautiful.
I don't think the Lake District could be unbeautiful if it tried.