Bye bye bookshop

October 13, 2014

You are just like my cat.

Thus spoke a young woman in the bookshop the other day. I had just heaved myself up from putting a book away on the bottom shelf – no mean feat when one is quite so heavily spherical – and she had caught me exhaling perhaps a little too vociferously. I certainly didn’t feel especially feline.

The lady’s cat, it transpired, had just been pregnant. She said that as she herself was only twenty-seven, she’d never given much thought to being pregnant or babies before, but watching her cat get more and more pregnant had made her really think about it all. And, she explained, it was very funny because I looked just like her cat when she’d been about to give birth. She giggled slightly madly, and I could only feel grateful that she didn’t have a pet elephant instead.

It was one of the stranger exchanges to have taken place in the bookshop over the past few weeks. Saturday was my last day: now – with under two weeks till due date – the blissfully wide open space of maternity leave spreads out ahead of me.

A friend dropped into the bookshop on Saturday afternoon, and stayed for a little while, chatting to me in any brief gaps in what turned out to be a particularly busy day. This must be the nicest place to work ever, said my friend, who had been quietly and smilingly observing the various comings and goings over the past half-hour.

I could only agree.

And, though certainly tiring, it has been a particularly special place to work when so obviously pregnant.

The thing is, my enormously protruding bump has turned out to be an amazing signal of common ground, an open invitation for conversation. I imagine it’s not dissimilar to going for a walk with a very sweet pet dog. Everyone wants to come up and say hello, stroke or pat it, ask some questions, and tell you about their own. Of course, in a bookshop, one has conversations with customers all the time. These are, however, always about books, and while I am at my happiest chatting away with people about what they enjoy reading, it transpires that most people are keener to talk about babies.

In the bookshop over the past months, I’ve had at least ten conversations a day about having a baby. They don’t usually begin with someone telling me I’m just like their cat. A more standard opener is: ‘Do you know what you’re having?’ or, ‘Where are you having it?, ‘Is it your first?’, and – especially over the past few days, accompanied by looks of faint alarm – ‘How long have you got left?’

There have been other comments, which are rather funnier: ‘You are getting nice and fat.’ Or from one rather awkward gentleman, ‘I had no idea you were so, so … well …’ Um, pregnant? I eventually had to offer.

These are just opening gambits and before long the customer has launched into smiling reminiscences of their own pregnancy, or offered advice on babies and children. Over the end of the very hot summer I was given a great deal of sympathy while I was so visibly melting. Someone offered to buy me an ice cream and one lady advised me to time it better with the next one – she said that she’d had all her babies in the early spring so she hadn’t needed to turn the heating on all winter. I’ve been given all sorts of advice: from what sort of sling to get, to the pros and cons of routines, and, my favourite: ‘If anyone offers you any help, take it … always take it. If you say no to help with the first one, no one will offer you any help at all when it comes to the second.’

Sometimes there’d be a note of cynicism along the lines of ‘read/sleep/have fun/go to the cinema now while you still can…’ but any vague hints of the horrors to come have always been compensated for by a very tangible excitement and feeling of goodwill. The customers were always smiling as they left, wishing me good luck, all the best, asking to let them know how I get on.

I’m sure that some of them, with whom I’ve built up a bit of a friendship and rapport over the years are genuinely interested in my baby, but for many I think this strange happiness that comes with seeing the bump and talking about babies is more of a reminder of something universal and miraculous.

People have babies all the time. It is, of course, how we all came into the world. There shouldn’t really be anything so special about it … and yet it is – evidently –undeniably, unavoidably exciting and mindblowingly amazing. A whole new person is about to arrive in the world! A whole new life!

For many of these customers, their children are no longer babies. Parents come in and are usually rather fraught, with their scootering sprogs knocking all the books off the shelves, making a racket, demanding the sixty-seventh Beast Quest book. Or their children are teenagers, or going off to university – all so grown up. It must be easy to lose sight of the quiet miracle of the start, when they are so tiny and helpless, all wrinkled and squashed, more like a frog than a human. Perhaps seeing the bump inspires a chance to remember this special time of newness, firsts, and beginnings.

The bump is such an obvious visible cue that it is impossible to ignore it, it is impossible not to think of a baby being just in there, so close to coming into the world. Perhaps seeing me heave my roundness around the bookshop is not so unlike the lady watching her cat fill up with kittens.

To return to this particular exchange … After a long account of the ins and outs of her cat’s birth, the lady said that I so reminded her of her cat that she’d like to give me one of her kittens. Somewhat bewildered, though touched, I politely declined. I explained that I already had a pet tortoise, who might well find it hard to adjust to life with a baby around, and the addition of a kitten as well would be a recipe for disaster. I could just see the kitten playfully pouncing on a terrorised Daphne, whose curious head would never emerge from her shell again. The lady seemed a little disappointed, but I think she understood.

As I left the shop at six o’clock on Saturday, looking especially spherical after having scoffed a great deal of cake – thank you dear bookshop colleague – and bearing flowers, cards, and a stack of books, just in case I find I am able to read while breastfeeding in spite of what the cynics warn, accompanied by the husband carrying a load of boxes for when we eventually manage to move house (let’s hope), I felt excited about this next chapter, and also very aware that I’d just experienced a strangely wonderful few months.

I would never have imagined that having a bump would prompt so many people to be so chatty, friendly and open, so full of stories and advice and excitement. Working in the bookshop has been exhausting, for sure, but as people keep telling me in an attempt to reassure me about the sleepless nights to come: you don’t really mind feeling so tired when something amazing is happening.

So bye bye for now bookshop … see you on the other side.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

October 7, 2014

Yes this post comes a day late. This is because I was so exhausted by last week that I spent the whole of yesterday in bed, mostly asleep.

Sunday’s walking book club was wonderful – a great discussion about The Home-maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, newly and smartly republished by Persephone Books. The Heath was resplendent in the sunshine and there was plenty of cake and much enthusiasm. And yet it had been a long week, and the walk followed by a full and busy day in the bookshop was perhaps a little much for three weeks before due date.

The Walking Book Club discussing The Home-Maker

I realised quite how tired I was when squeezing myself onto a train that evening at London Bridge, heading down for Sunday supper with the in-laws. The train was packed. I pushed my way in and searched for a seat. All those who were seated studiously looked down. I spied an empty place halfway along the carriage and navigated my way along – no mean feat with such a sizeable bump. When I reached said place I saw it was not in fact empty but occupied by the remains of a Burger King. I asked the man sitting next to it if he’d mind moving his rubbish so that I could sit down. He looked back at me and said blankly, it’s not mine.

This is when I knew how tired I was because instead of being able to come up with some brilliant line or shout at him, poisonous being that he was, I had to bite my lip in order to stop myself from bursting into tears. Thanks, I muttered shaking with this peculiarly tearful rage, that’s so kind of you to help a pregnant woman, and I moved it all onto the bag rack above his head, hoping that it might drip grease onto his foul balding head. He watched me struggle to balance my bags, book, specs, and the rubbish, shrugged and said, it’s still not mine. I sat next to him, seething, but luckily managed not to cry until I told the husband about it when I got off that hateful train.

So, you terrible man, I hope you rot in a special hell filled with greasy remains of Burger King which drip on you in a horrid variation of Chinese water torture.

In any case, it was deemed that I must spend the whole of yesterday in bed in order to stop bursting into tears quite so easily (this was actually the fourth time I’d started crying that weekend – other instances being provoked by nothing more than some beautiful music, or a first aid video) and to be able to survive my final week in the bookshop before maternity leave begins.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara ComynsIt was heaven. In the moments when I wasn’t sleeping, I read the whole of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns. It’s a short book and terribly engrossing so really this is not such an achievement, more a recommendation for anyone who finds they have a spare couple of hours on their hands.

I’ve been meaning to pick it up since March, when Maggie O’Farrell talked about it rather brilliantly at the Daunt Books Festival, and I was given another prompt when Alice over at ofBooks, who – similarly inspired – wrote about it very keenly. It almost seemed as though this book might almost have been written especially for me, given that our heroine first lives on Haverstock Hill (where my bookshop is), and then moves around various North London haunts, including St John’s Wood, where I grew up, and – moreover – she is terrifically fond of her pet newt Great Warty, which isn’t such a leap from my own affection for Daphne, my darling pet tortoise.

(Incidentally, I wonder if there might be something in a study of literary newt lovers? There is of course PG Wodehouse’s glorious Gussy Finknottle … can anyone think of any others?)

Sophia – our heroine – may well be a North London eccentric, but she is not just charmingly dotty, she is tough and brilliant and gets through a hellish time.

It is the 1930s and these North London haunts are charmingly Bohemian. I knew I was going to love the book when on page three we get this completely bonkers description of renting a flat on Haverstock Hill. Sophia and her fiancé are sent upstairs to meet the landlady’s sister:

… so we went upstairs and met the sister, who had even more fuzzy hair, but it was fair, and her eyes were round and blue and her face like a melting strawberry ice cream, rather a cheap one, and I expect her body was like that, too, only it was mostly covered in mauve velvet. She spoke to us a little and said we were little love-birds looking for a nest. She made us feel all awful inside. Then she suddenly went into a trance. We thought she was dying, but her sister explained she was a medium and governed by a Chinese spirit called Mr Hi Wu. Then Mr Hi Wu spoke to us in very broken English and told us we were so lucky to be offered such a beautiful flat for only twenty-five shillings a week; it was worth at least thirty-five.

If only such things happened with today’s Belsize Park estate agents.

Sophia marries Charles Fairclough, a young artist, with whom it is hard not to feel thoroughly annoyed. While Sophia works terribly hard to earn money, at a studio and then sitting as a model – even though she has her own aspirations as an artist – Charles makes no effort to support them and devotes himself entirely to his own painting. He does occasionally sell a picture, or does something nice like cook Sophia dinner, but he is a very arrogant, self-centred men. His family are all pretty poisonous too and view him as something of a genius, which doesn’t help.

While Sophia and Charles are terribly poor, this at first is more of a challenge to be creatively overcome, than something too awful. It all changes, however, when Sophia gets pregnant. Charles, on being told the good news, says:

Oh dear, what will the family say? How I dislike the idea of being a Daddy and pushing a pram!

When Sophia starts crying, he reassures her by telling her she might have a miscarriage.

!

She doesn’t.

And it was very interesting to read about Sophia’s experience of pregnancy – and what a terrible struggle it was to have a baby in the days before the NHS if you hadn’t any money. It is ghastly, and only gets worse … but, and here is where Comyns’ genius lies: she tells her story with this special lightness of touch, dotting the awfulness with funny moments.

The novel is written as though Sophia is telling a friend about this tough time of her life eight years later, when she is ‘so happy that when I wake in the morning I can’t believe it’s true’, and Comyns captures that feeling and tone of telling a friend about something that happened a while ago that’s so dreadful, all you can do is laugh about it.

For instance, when Sophia first goes to hospital:

It was very depressing and dreary sitting in that passage. One of the women fainted. I noticed some of them were carrying glasses of what I thought was lemonade, so I asked where I could go to get some, but they all shrieked with laughter at me, so I didn’t dare to speak again.

There’s the mixture of the grimness of the hospital – not just ‘depressing and dreary’ but so oppressive that someone actually faints, followed immediately by this silly and funny mistake of thinking their samples were glasses of lemonade. Somehow Comyns also conveys the feeling of loneliness and not fitting in, the horror of being silenced by other people laughing at you at such a nervewracking time. All of this is written in the same simple, matter-of-fact tone, which completely wrongfoots you. Is it funny? Is it tragic? It is everything at once.

Sophia has her baby. Their poverty becomes acute. And so it continues: Charles becomes worse; poverty becomes worse; there is an affair which goes sour, and another pregnancy … and I’m not going to continue as really you ought to discover the rest yourself when you read it.

It is a grim tale and would be unbearable to read if it were told with po-faced earnestness. As it is, Comyns’ mixture of light and dark act as great foils to each other and it is a strangely unnerving experience to be jostled between finding it terribly sad and terrifically enjoyable. You can’t believe the awfulness of what Sophia endures and then find yourself laughing aloud at some dotty anecdote; or you are busy smiling at the madness of her Bohemian life and then find yourself caught off guard and slack-jawed with horror at something unbelievably grim.

Thank god there is a very happy ending. Admittedly it comes about somewhat improbably, but I forgave it this because I was so relieved and grateful that Sophia ended up happy, having endured such hell. (This isn’t a spoiler as we are told this is the case right at the beginning.)

Even if you have no connection with Haverstock Hill, newts or pregnancy … this is a brilliant book. Charming and yet hard-hitting, and so cleverly and lightly done. What is perhaps most impressive is that it is so easy to read – as I said, I raced through it in a couple of hours, while semi-delirious with sleep. Not only has Comyns achieved so much, but she makes it all seem so effortless. And it is this great simplicity that lets the twin horror and comedy shine through to such great effect.

Two further things to note:

1. When Sophia packs her hospital bag, she is instructed to take ‘some night-dresses and toilet things, and a teapot and bed jacket’. How peculiar to think of bringing your own teapot as top priority! How can this be more essential than, for instance, nappies?!

And 2. Woolworths and spoons barely feature.

The London Scene

September 29, 2014

Not long to go before the baby arrives, and while I’ve been making every effort to continue as usual, one thing that has definitely changed is the amount I’m able to read. People used always to ask me when I found time to read so much. Easy, I’d say. There are lunchbreaks, bath times, tube journeys, quiet evenings, the odd snatched hour of a free afternoon …

Alas this has all changed. Lunchbreaks now consist of a gobbled sandwich and a quick chat on the phone to the husband – mostly to reassure him I’ve not gone into labour – and then a nap, propped up on old boxes and bags, in the bookshop’s crowded cupboard of a backroom. Bathtime has shrunk to a quick splash as one’s tolerance for lounging in hot water has diminished exponentially. Tube journeys pass with eyes closed, trying to gain a few moments of extra rest. Quiet evenings? In any spare moment, one feels one ought to be doing yoga, swimming, listening to hypnobirthing recordings or else there is this odd nesty urge to do things like making pies for the freezer or ordering store cupboard essentials from Ocado. I say this knowing that I sound like an extended version of the H is for Hummus spoof parenting book. Until a couple of weeks ago it’d never have occurred to me to use Ocado rather than resorting to a takeaway; now I cannot fathom quite how much pleasure I gain from stocking up the kitchen just by clicking on a few pictures.

So the long and the short of it is that I am struggling to read much at the moment. Finishing How to be Both hasn’t helped matters either, as it’s such a tough act to follow. I have picked up a few novels and put them down a few pages later. For a book to win in this fight against the urge to sleep it has to be very good indeed.

Or very short.

Or both. (Ha!)

The London Scene by Virginia WoolfSo, inspired (still) by the wonderful Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery I have been reacquainting myself with a slim collection of her essays, The London Scene, which Daunt republished rather smartly last year. The essays were first printed in 1931, bizarrely enough in Good Housekeeping magazine. How bleak that a quick visit to their website today yields ‘How to get a body like Helen Mirren’, cheesecake recipes and tried-and-tested irons – a far cry from commissioning a series of essays on London life by one of the great literary minds of the day!

Woolf wrote a series of six essays: The Docks of London, Oxford Street Tide; Great Men’s Houses; Abbeys and Cathedrals; ‘This is the House of Commons’; and Portrait of a Londoner. So we arrive in London at its edge, amongst the many goods that converge here from all over the world, wander through town, and finally end up in the home of a Cockney. It is a journey of increasing penetration, making our way through the layers of the city, snatching glimpses, enjoying vistas, and gaining insights en route.

There are wonderful moments of observation in each essay. For instance, I love her description of the utilitarian nature of the Docks:

Oddities, beauties, rarities may occur, but if so, they are instantly tested for their mercantile value. Laid on the floor among the circles of elephant tusks is a heap of larger and browner tusks than the rest. Brown they well may be, for these are the tusks of mammoths that have lain frozen in Siberian ice for fifty thousand years, but fifty thousand years are suspect in the eyes of the ivory expert. Mammoth ivory tends to warp; you cannot extract billiard balls from mammoths, but only umbrella handles and the backs of the cheaper kind of hand-glass. Thus if you buy an umbrella or a looking-glass not of the finest quality, it is likely that you are buying the tusk of a brute that roamed through Asian forest before England was an island.

!!!

Between the ActsCompare to the cheap umbrellas and mirrors of today – pieces of plastic tack which will scarcely last a month of being bashed about in a handbag! I can’t believe that back then, they had handles of mammoth tusk. Woolf cooly points out the nonsensical logic of the Docks that declares these ancient tusks are of less value than elephant ivory. She has rather a soft spot for prehistoric things. In Between the Acts, she writes about the:

rhododendron forests in Piccadilly; when the entire continent, not then, she understood, divided by a channel, was all one; populated, she understood, by elephant-bodied, seal-necked, heaving, surging, slowly writhing, and, she supposed, barking monsters; the iguanodon, the mammoth, and the mastodon; from whom presumably, she thought, jerking the window open, we descend.

I suppose, having a mammoth tusk at the end of one’s umbrella, might make one feel rather better connected to this ancient time.

Well I doubt I shall find a mammoth tusk umbrella later on today when I head down to John Lewis to buy various baby essentials. The prospect of this outing makes Woolf’s next essay ‘Oxford Street Tide’ rather apt.

These ‘Oxford Street palaces are rather flimsy abodes’ notes Woolf, comparing these modern erections, ‘built to pass’, with historical stately homes, which were ‘built to last’:

Any day of the week one may see Oxford Street vanishing at the tap of a workman’s pick as he stands perilously balanced on a dusty pinnacle knocking down walls and facades as lightly as if they were made of yellow cardboard and sugar icing.

It seems strangely prescient that Woolf saw the impermanence of this shopping stage set, given the many threats of destruction that were to come – first with the bombing of the War, then fifties planning and now with our peculiarly modern threats of out-of-town shopping centres, recessions, rising rents and of course the internet. For sure, Oxford Street isn’t just any old high street, but it is faced with the same threats. And if the high street isn’t quite dead today, it is certainly struggling to survive. Woolf, it seems, never expected it to last.

As a bookseller, perhaps I feel more anxious than most about the fate of the high street. And yet, here is cause to pause and rethink. For Woolf delights in the impermanence of the buildings of Oxford Street, ‘as transitory as our own desires’. Their gaudy, glittering falseness is a strength not a weakness:

We knock down and rebuild as we expect to be knocked down and rebuilt. It is an impulse that makes for creation and fertility. Discovery is stimulated and invention on the alert.

So Woolf binds destruction to creation. These flimsy palaces of Oxford Street embody a startlingly positive view of change.

Perhaps she found something reassuring in the fact that these palaces, unlike their historic counterparts, aren’t meant to be permanent. The thirties was when many of England’s great country houses were destroyed or broken up as their owners were hit by inheritance tax. Just five years later, James Lees-Milne started going around persuading the aristos to give them to the National Trust. And later in the decade, Daphne du Maurier wrote Rebecca – one of the greatest novels to embody the fear of a great house’s destruction.

These Oxford Street palaces, on the other hand, were always intended to be transient. Perhaps we need to worry less about our ailing high-street shops and see their destruction as seeds for the creation of something new. As Woolf says, ‘invention is on the alert.’ Who knows what might spring up in their stead? It seems to be mostly charity shops or Tescos, and yet I shall try to remain positive! In any case, I like the idea of expecting ourselves to be ‘knocked down and rebuilt’, and seeing this as a positive form of reinvention. Next time life delivers one of its knocks, I shall envisage Woolf wandering down Oxford Street and finding creation, fertility, discovery and invention in the wake of any destruction.

Oxford Street still seems to be going strong today, though one thing that has vanished since Woolf’s day – alas – are the tortoises that used to be sold on its pavement:

The slowest and most contemplative of creatures display their mild activities on a foot or two of pavement, jealously guarded from passing feet. One infers that the desire of man for the tortoise, like the desire of the moth for the star, is a constant element in human nature. Nevertheless, to see a woman stop and add a tortoise to her string of parcels is perhaps the rarest sight that human eyes can look upon.

I fear Daphne might find Oxford Street too noisy and distressing to be taken on this afternoon’s excursion, but how strange, curious and oddly delightful to think that her ancestors used to ‘display their mild activities’ there.

Daphne and the London Scene

How to be Both

September 22, 2014

Outside the Piazza dei Diamante post-fountain dunkSome of you might remember my passing through Ferrara a few months ago, at the end of the Italian adventures of Emilybooks. I say passing through because we literally parked the car (rather too far out of the centre thanks to my misunderstanding of the map’s scale), walked up the main street which stretched on and on and on, reached a castle, turned right, saw the Palazzo dei Diamante (thank you architect husband), dunked my head in a fountain, ate two ice creams, and then returned to the car via a prettier windier route, and drove onwards to Vicenza.

I wish we had stayed a little longer, but we had to get to Vicenza in time to meet our Air BnB host. I was so excruciatingly hot that all I can really remember from our couple of hours in Ferrara was the sudden joy of having my head covered in cold fountain water, vastly overriding any embarrassment caused by the amused looks we got from nearby Italians. I wished we had stayed longer as I love the work of Giorgio Bassani, who wrote some very poignant, very brilliant novels (or perhaps technically novellas) set in Ferrara, including The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, which I’ve written about here and here. And now I wish we had stayed longer because just around the corner from the Palazzo dei Diamante is the Palazzo Schifanoia where I have just learned there are some extraordinary frescos by Francesco del Cossa. Frescos so extraordinary that one of the main characters in Ali Smith’s staggeringly brilliant new novel How to be Both goes all the way to Ferrara with her Mum just to see these paintings, and the other main character is Francesco del Cossa the artist. How could I have missed them?!

How to be Both by Ali SmithAt least I haven’t missed the book. What a book! You must all read it. It must win the Booker. But how on earth to begin to write about it?

Ali Smith does a clever trick with How to be Both. The novel is split into two halves: part one set in the present day about smart, precocious teenager George (short for Georgia) whose mother has died; and part one about the fifteenth-century artist Francesco del Cossa. Half the print run of the novel has the George part one as its first half, and the other half has Francesco del Cossa’s as its first. It is a canny way of dodging Forster’s assertion:

it is never possible for a novelist to deny time inside the fabric of his novel

which Smith rails against in her previous book Artful. Forster points out that prose must be one word after another, but with this trick the words come simultaneously before and after. It just depends on which copy you pick up.

So, let’s pause to reflect for a moment about how clever someone is who can write two halves of a novel, twist them around each other with connections and parallels and then engineer the plot to work both ways you encounter them. Right. And let’s not dismiss it as a gimmick, because really it is a signposting of Smith’s ongoing attempt to push at the very boundaries of what fiction can achieve, how narrative linearity can be bent and played with, made pliant to her demands.

The thing about Ali Smith’s writing is that it’s always very clever, but never at the expense of the work itself. You don’t pick up the book and think Christ what a smart-arse. And, frankly, you might be forgiven for anticipating such a reaction. I mean, what if you just want to read an enjoyable novel but instead find yourself landed with some extraordinarily clever modernist work which grapples with huge questions of form and gender and linearity, striving for a unique and wonderful ‘bothness’ which has never before been achieved. You could be forgiven for feeling somewhat put out by having bitten off more than you’d bargained for.

But Smith’s prose is so alive, vivid, enthusiastic, energetic and engrossing, dancing with possibilities, that within a page or two you forget that you’re reading a great modernist challenge, and are every bit as caught up in the pleasure of the story as you might be in a more straightforward novel. There are moments when the bright ideas leap out at you, but they never pull the fabric of the story too far out of shape.

She has it both ways.

So, back to Forster’s assertion and Smith’s tackling of it. How then can a novelist deny time and its linearity? Aside from publishing two different versions at once.

Memory. In both halves of How to be Both Smith weaves memories through current events so that they occur simultaneously. George, grieving for her mother’s death, is in her bedroom on New Year’s Eve:

She sits down on the floor, leans back against her own bed and eats the toast.

It’s so boring, she says in Italy in the palazzo in the mock-child voice they always use for this game.

Just like that, from one sentence to the next, we are transported back in time to when George and her mother are in Ferrara.

There are photographs – moments captured outside of time. George has stuck photos of her mother above her bed; the photograph on the cover of the book surfaces a few times within it. And, by extension, there are films. George starts obsessively watching a porn film of a drugged girl and an older man. As she explains to her father:

This really happened, George said. To this girl. And anyone can just watch it just, like, happening, any time he or she likes. And it happens for the first time, over and over again, every time someone who hasn’t seen it before clicks on it and watches it. So I want to watch it for a completely different reason. Because my completely different watching of it goes some way to acknowledging all of that to this girl.

And there are works of art, including Francesco del Cossa’s frescos. Surviving through time, beyond death, inspiring people over centuries. And even these paintings have different, troubling, layerings of time. We are with George and her mother in Italy again:

But which came first? her mother says. The chicken or the egg? The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?

The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done first.

But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean that the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?

Again and again, we are asked to question which came first, what keeps coming, looking at the limits of time, and how they might be overcome.

George and her friend have to do a project on empathy for school. They decide to do it about Francesco del Cossa. Trying to imagine what the artist would be like, her friend says:

He’d speak like from another time … He’d say things like ho, or gadzooks, or egad … He’d be like an exchange student, not just from another country but from another time.

Then George:

He’d be all alas I am being made up really badly by a sixteen-year-old girl who knows fuck all about art and nothing at all about me except that I did some paintings and seem to have died of the plague

George thinks:

She thinks how typical it’d be. You’d need your own dead person to come back from the dead. You’d be waiting and waiting for that person to come back. But instead of the person you needed you’d get some dead renaissance painter going on and on about himself and his work and it’d be someone you knew nothing about and that’d be meant to teach you empathy, would it?

It’s exactly the kind of stunt her mother would pull.

For alongside this preoccupation with cheating time and its insistent linearity, comes cheating death – the ending of someone’s time. Perhaps above all How to be Both probes the way that the dead and living exist alongside each other, overcoming their obvious beginnings and endings and times.

In the other part of the novel, Francesco del Cossa comes back from the dead. The artist has a peculiar invisible connection with George, watching over her, involuntarily following her about as though attached by a rope. Looking back at George’s musings above, one wonders, is this indeed the kind of stunt her mother would pull from the dead?

Or perhaps this is George’s empathy project for school writ large. For How to be Both is a startling exercise in empathy – a rendering of this silent strange connection between two people separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles.

Another George – George Eliot – thought that the function of art was empathy:

to amplify experience and extend our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.

Well then, How to be Both is a giddy, dizzying, mesmerising piece of art. Read it and I dare you to disagree.

Francesco del Cossa's fresco

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

September 15, 2014

Virginia Woolf Art, Life and VisionAt last I made it to the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery! How has it taken me such an age? Why is it that although London is filled with fascinating things to see and do, it is so rare that one actually manages to find the time to see and do them?

The exhibition was the perfect end to my Sunday afternoon. First, I ventured to the Ladies’ Pond on the Heath, where it was only just not too cold to be bearable. My wimpishly slow descent down the ladder was forgiven by the more seasoned swimmers once they saw my enormous belly and instead began to inquire as to whether or not the baby enjoys it. Who knows, but I certainly do. Once I was finally paddling away in the freezing pond, there were so many endorphins going off that I felt as high as a kite for a good hour afterwards. Apparently, one’s body is especially good at producing endorphins when pregnant (our hypnobirthing teacher says it’s so that when the big day arrives, all the endorphins come flooding out and act as natural pain relief … ummm, here’s hoping), so add to that swimming, which also stimulates endorphin production, and you can see why it’s all too easy to feel completely out of it. So everything was still spinning somewhat when I arrived at the National Portrait Gallery a little later.

This preamble about swimming is to serve as something of a disclaimer – for a quirk of being pregnant is that emotions certainly run close to the surface, and so the fact that I found the Virginia Woolf exhibition not only very enjoyable, unusual and eye-opening, but also terribly moving, could be put down to this. I wonder, though, whether anyone can read the letters she wrote to her sister Vanessa and her husband Leonard in the days before her suicide without their eyes fogging up with tears. Both are displayed at the close of the exhibition. Here is the one to Leonard, which – by the way – is also included in the beautiful Letters of Note book:

Virginia Woolf suicide note

These letters come at the close of the exhibition, and yet they’re the first thing I mention because it seems impossible to think of Virginia Woolf without thinking of her terrible end. From the age of thirteen, she was afflicted by serious problems with her mental health, and there are references to her breakdowns throughout the exhibition – a dark thread winding throughout her brilliant, glittering life.

But really it is all the space given to Woolf’s glitter, glamour and gossip which struck me as so unexpected and enjoyable about the exhibition. There are photographs of Woolf posing for Vogue (below), and for Man Ray, snapshots of her staying with Lady Ottoline Morrell at Garsington in an outfit by the designer Nicole Groult commissioned for her by Madge Garland, fashion editor of Vogue. I’d never really thought of the glamour of Woolf’s life before. Yes, I’ve heard Woolf’s phrase ‘frock consciousness’ bandied about, but this was the first time I’d been made to pause and think something of it, of how she dressed herself and posed for the public eye.

 Virginia Woolf posing for Maurice Beck and Helen Macgregor at Vogue

Writers, of course, are observers, onlookers, and Woolf perhaps more so than most. You have only to read her ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ essay (which I wrote about a bit here) to see how preoccupied she was with the way authors fail to represent their characters by amassing details about their outward appearance as opposed to attempting to convey their interior life. Woolf was so keen an observer that she didn’t stop at the surface, she insisted on getting inside her characters’ consciousnesses. So it was surprising to see so much evidence of the way Woolf herself was seen, or indeed, how she chose to be seen.

In contrast to these beautiful posed photographs, there’s an intriguing one from 1893, when Woolf was only eleven. It shows her parents Julia and Leslie Stephen reading at Talland House, their Cornwall holiday home.

Julia and Leslie Stephen reading at Talland House in 1893

Her parents are in the foreground, side-by-side on the sofa, both focused on their reading. The background has all the furnishings you might expect – a patterned wallpaper on which hang some pictures, one slightly crooked; a decorative screen; plenty of books on the shelves – and there is also a young Virginia Stephen poking her head out, hands cupped around her chin, watching her parents, thinking.

I loved all the photographs of Woolf’s early life. There’s a wonderful one from 1886 of her playing cricket with her brother Adrian.

Virginia and Adrian Stephen playing cricket in 1886

Virginia is the wicket keeper in an enormous white hat, smock, stockings wrinkling around her ankles and a shoelace carelessly undone. She is leaning forwards, looking at the bowler, who is out of frame, palms open ready to catch, tense with the excitement of the oncoming moment when the ball will be thrown. I knew Woolf was a tomboy as a child, but even so, seeing her looking rather ragged and ramshackle, playing cricket with such glee, was an unexpected delight.

The exhibition is a treasure trove. Photographs abound, as do paintings, a great many letters and first editions. What makes it so special is how intimate many of these feel. There is a note from Leonard and Virginia to Lytton Strachey announcing their engagement just saying ‘Ha! Ha!’ The in-joke is explained: Lytton, who had himself once proposed to Virginia, went on to suggest to Leonard that he marry her instead. There is a gossipy letter from Woolf to Katherine Mansfield, not talking about their work, but instead saying how Rose Macaulay came round the other day and what a very ‘harum-scarum woman’ she is. There is a wonderful letter from Leonard when he was courting Virginia, in which he writes:

If I try to say what I feel, I become stupid & stammering: it’s like a wall of words rising up in front of me & there on the other side you’re sitting so clear & beautiful & your dear face that I’d give everything in the world to see now.

It’s terribly endearing to think of these two literary figures falling in love and Leonard for once struggling with the shortcomings of words, his vision of her making him ‘stupid & stammering’.

We all know that Woolf is one of the greatest novelists of all time, and it is something of a relief that the exhibition doesn’t bother to impress this upon us. Indeed there is very little about her fiction. It is as though we are deemed sensible enough to know we should read her books to see her genius. Here, instead, we see everything else. There are posed photographs, and also snaps of her with her friends, playing cricket, chatting easily. There are her private letters, and a feast of lines which she’s thrown out with casual ease rather than labouring over so meticulously. I loved, for instance, her comment on Garsington, where she frequently stayed with Lady Ottoline Morrell:

Is the sunlight ever normal at Garsington? No I think even the sky is done up in pale yellow silk, and certainly the cabbages are scented.

For all the dark notes that resound throughout Woolf’s life, lacing this exhibition with the shadow of her eventual suicide, there is also a wonderful amount of fun, of fashion, of friends, gossip and a sense of the great joy there is to be found in day-to-day life.

Virginia Woolf in her Nicole Groult dress at Garsington

Here’s Woolf in her Nicole Groult dress, among friends at Garsington.

Love and Summer … and other books of the summer

September 8, 2014

September is here and Emilybooks is back! And the sunshine means that life doesn’t feel too horribly back-to-schooly, though I have only just managed to resist the annual urge to go out and buy a pencil case and other snazzy new stationery.

I hope you had a good book-filled August. Mine was a feast of reading delights, which included:

The Sound and the FuryThe Sound and the Fury by Faulkner. A bookshop colleague’s favourite book, therefore a must-read. I think I was only just up to the challenge, however, for it is a strange narrative and demands a great deal of careful attention and work from the reader … Ultimately it is of course a brilliant, unusual and memorable book – well worth persevering with, but perhaps it wasn’t the right pick for a holiday read.

High Wages by Dorothy Whipple. This was read almost entirely on a train journey from Cornwall to London, while sitting opposite the husband who was ensconced in another excellent Persephone BookThe Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. About half-way through, we discovered some surprisingly yummy cheese on toast was available from the buffet car and so sat there in heaven, noses in beautiful grey covers, scoffing delicious snacks and even more delicious words. Best train journey ever.

The Dud Avocado.inddThe Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy. Another wonderful feel-good book. You cannot fail to warm to the exuberant and charmingly disorganised Sally Jay Gorce, whose voice leaps off the page and races through you like the thousand volts she feels when Larry touches her hand over coffee one morning, when she is, of course, in her evening dress because all her other clothes are still at the laundry. It’s the ultimate girl-about-town novel, set in Paris in the fifties and as I read it, mostly in the bath, with my sizeable bump kicking away, I felt the peculiarly pleasant tug of nostalgia and longing for those wild days of disorganised freedom now well and truly gone.

H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Have you seen all the rave reviews for this? The last time I saw such a fuss about an unusual-sounding hard-to-pin-down non-fiction book was for Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. So of course I had to read it. And it is indeed staggeringly good.

Helen Macdonald is overwhelmed by grief after her father dies and so decides to buy and train a goshawk. Yes, I know, for many of us that’s not the most obvious decision, but Helen has been hooked on hawks from a young age, so to her it makes sense. So Mabel enters the scene, with her feathers:

the colour of sunned newsprint, of tea-stained paper … patterned with a shower of falling raindrops … [and with] a strange grey tint to her that is felt, rather than seen, a kind of silvery light like a rainy sky reflected from the surface of a river.

Helen retreats from other people and becomes almost part-hawk herself as she trains Mabel. It is an astonishing piece of writing about the special intimacy of a relationship with an animal, along the lines of books like Gavin Maxwell’s The Ring of Bright Water. But the book it really draws upon is T.H. White’s The Goshawk, which I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read. Fear not, for Helen tells us the haunting story of T.H. White’s life and his goshawk as we go.

It’s not easy to explain why this book about hawks and death and T.H. White is quite so brilliant, just as it was hard to pinpoint what was so great about a book about a family history and a load of netsuke, but then I rather like that difficulty. For it means that only those with a true sense of curiosity and an urge to take a risk on something unusual will get to read H is for Hawk. And perhaps it’s only them who deserve the fruits of such a wonderful book.

Love and Summer by William TrevorFinally, Emily’s Walking Book Club met yesterday for a meander across Hampstead Heath while discussing William Trevor’s Love and Summer. Though it took me some time to get into the book – I needed a little while to adjust to the slow pace of 1950s rural Irish life and the fragmented style that sees each short chapter concern itself with a different character – once I was in, I loved it. This seemed to be the consensus amongst the walking book clubbers too.

It is a doomed love story. Florian Kilderry cycles into the quiet village of Rathmoye and asks directions from Ellie Dillahan. Ellie was a foundling, brought up in a convent. She went to work as a servant for Dillahan, whose wife and child were killed in an accident on his farm, and then married him. She is ‘content but for her childlessness’, working efficiently on the farm and looking after her husband, until she finds herself haunted by this meeting with a stranger. He invades her thoughts:

Fourteen more eggs had been laid and she collected them in the cracked brown bowl that had become part of her daily existence. Closing the gate again when she left the crab-apple orchard, she slipped the loop of chain over the gatepost. He had a way of hesitating before he spoke, of looking away for a moment and then looking back. He had a way of holding a cigarette. When he’d offered her one he’d tapped one out of the packet for himself and hadn’t lit it. The rest of the time he was with her he’d held it, unlit, between his fingers.

Slowly, both hands clasped round the brown egg-bowl, she returned to the house.

The relationship between Ellie and Florian develops and they take to meeting in the crumbling gate-lodge of a derelict grand old house. But they are not wholly unobserved. Local busybody Miss Connulty sees they are up to no good, and the crazy old wise man Orpen Wells, who lives in a confused timeless world, senses something is up too. Florian’s intentions aren’t particularly honourable, planning on selling up his own decaying house, inherited from his bohemian parents, and leaving for Scandinavia; he is not so much in love with Ellie as enjoying her innocent love for him. We know it can only end badly … and yet, this is what is so clever about the book: although the atmosphere is suffused with the quiet melancholy of sadness and compromise, subtle strains of happiness begin to surface.

Take busybody Miss Connulty, for instance. When she was a young woman, a doomed love affair meant her father took her to have an abortion. Her mother called them both murderers and then spent the rest of her life punishing them. Her mother’s funeral is at the beginning of the novel and so, at last, Miss Connulty is able to come into her own, running the family’s guest house how she’d like, rather than according to her mother’s instructions, and wearing her much-coveted jewellery. When she suspects Ellie and Florian are up to no good, at first she presses her brother to interfere. Her brother reflects, ‘it might be her mother talking, expressions used he hadn’t heard since the time of the trouble’. Miss Connulty is set to continue in the pattern of her mother – fierce disapproval, interference, judging Ellie for her lost innocence … but then she changes. She decides instead to help her:

If there’s a child don’t let anyone take the child away from you. Born as Dillahan’s own since he believed it was, the child would make a family man of him again, and make the farmhouse different. And her own friendship with Ellie Dillahan would not be strained … the friendship would be closer, both of them knowing it could be, neither of them saying what should not be said and never would be.

It is a moment of redemption, of choosing to go against the grain of what is expected of her and in helping another, so helping herself. This refusal to follow the expected path occurs again and again in the book. Trevor sets up an expectation of what his characters will do, and then quietly confounds it. And in all its essential anti-drama, it makes for unsettling, brilliant reading. As I pointed out, in a moment of inspiration during yesterday’s walk: It’s not Downton Abbey. The dramatic plot lines involving drowning or eloping or suicide are all pointed to but not fulfilled. It’s a beautiful, subtle, poignant and minutely observed portrait of lives invented for their essential reality rather than spurious fiction. (Not that I’m not looking forward to the new series of Downton!)

William Trevor walking book club

Jane Eyre and Fidelity

August 4, 2014

Here is a double whammy of sorts – to make up for last week’s absence of a post, and also to round things off for the summer, for Emilybooks will be enjoying a little recess over August, as I hope will you.

Last weekend took us up to Yorkshire for Deer Shed Festival, where I had lots of fun interviewing Susie Steiner about her novel Homecoming, and Samantha Ellis about her biblio-memoir How to be a Heroine. I also very much enjoyed discussing Jane Eyre with a walking book club, as we wandered through pretty, and blissfully shady, woodland.

Jane Eyre walking book club at Deer Shed

Jane Eyre – what a corker! Of course I remember loving it when I read it as a schoolgirl: oh how I wept when Helen Burns died, longed to hear my name carried mystically on the wind, and developed a lasting love of window seats … But I was a little surprised to find it every bit as good, if not better, second-time round. Especially pleasurable was that the husband read it too in order to join us for the walk, and though I had my doubts as to whether he’d get the drama and romance of it, he was instantly hooked, and it became impossible to get him to do much else until he reached the end. Indeed there was one day when he was in a foul, grumpy mood, and I couldn’t work out what was wrong, only to discover that that morning he’d read the bit where Helen Burns died and, he sheepishly admitted, it had left him feeling upset all day. Reader, I have never felt happier to have married him!

Fidelity by Susan GlaspellIt was a nice coincidence that I next picked up Fidelity by Susan Glaspell, a Persephone book that has been sitting on my shelf for a few months, tempting me with its siren call of pleasure lying within its enigmatic plain grey covers.

Fidelity is set in ‘Freeport’, a small town in Iowa at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ruth Holland has caused widespread outrage by running off with Stuart Williams, another woman’s husband. Mostly set just over a decade afterwards, Glaspell shows what happens when Ruth returns to the town to be with her dying father. We see how her actions have affected her family, her friends, Stuart’s wife, and also herself. For it becomes clear that it hasn’t been an easy ride off into the sunset for Ruth, indeed, she has been unable to escape the gossip that follows her to the West, so has struggled to keep servants or make any friends.

It is a difficult stay in Freeport. ‘Society has to protect itself’, and, aside from one or two friends’ loyalty, the town continues to shun her. Then Ruth is approached by Mildred, a girl who is having an affair with a married man, and who sees Ruth as someone who might understand her, offer some advice.

‘It’s love that counts, isn’t it, – Ruth?’ she asked, half humble, half defiant.

Ruth, who has lived her life adhering to this belief, falters at seeing someone on the point of following the same path. Mildred continues:

‘That town isn’t the whole of the world!’ she exclaimed passionately, after speaking of the feeling that was beginning to form there against herself. ‘What do I care?’ she demanded defiantly. ‘It’s not the whole of the world!’

… ‘But that’s just what it is, Mildred,’ she said. ‘The trouble is, it is the whole of the world.’

‘It’s the whole of the social world,’ she answered the look of surprise. ‘It’s just the same everywhere. And it’s astonishing how united the world is. You give it up in one place – you’ve about given it up for every place.’

‘Then the whole social world’s not worth it!’ broke from Mildred. ‘It’s not worth – enough.’

… ‘But what are you going to put in the place of that social world, Mildred?’ she gently asked. ‘There must be something to fill its place. What is that going to be?’

‘Love will fill its place!’ came youth’s proud, sure answer … ‘Can’t it?’

Ruth turned to her a tender compassionate face, too full of feeling, of conflict, to speak. Slowly, as if she could not bear to do it, she shook her head.

Yet, soon after this conversation, Ruth regrets her advice. She realises that ‘she had failed the very thing in Mildred to which she had elected to be faithful in herself’:

There was something in humankind – it was strongest in womankind – made them, no matter how daring for themselves, cautious for others. And perhaps that, all crusted round with things formal and lifeless, was the living thing at the heart of the world’s conservatism.

She telephones Mildred but finds it is too late; ‘Mildred had been “saved”’ and soon settles into the conventional life of the town. So, in this subtle and surprisingly gripping novel in which Glaspell shows such painful empathy with all her characters, we are faced with all the complicated ambiguity of Mildred and Ruth’s differing decisions – Ruth has been faithful to love over society but has suffered for it; Mildred reaps the rewards of having been faithful to society, but has relinquished the power of love and her own strength of character.

Jane EyreAs I was mulling this over, it struck me that Jane Eyre is in many ways about the same thing, though it gives a very different response to the proposal of living as someone’s mistress.

In both Jane Eyre and Fidelity, the marriage is portrayed as false in some way, so it is less binding that it might be otherwise. Rochester was tricked into marrying a madwoman for money, who he keeps locked in the attic. Stuart Williams’s wife hasn’t forgiven him for a short affair he had some years before. ‘Are our whole lives to be spoiled by a mere silly episode?’ he asks, stating that for two years they ‘haven’t been married’, and begging her either to forgive him or to grant him a divorce. She refuses to do either. ‘Haven’t you any humanity … Don’t you ever feel?’ he implores.

When Jane learns of the mad wife in the attic, Rochester appeals to her sympathy:

‘Give one glance to my horrible life when you are gone. All happiness will be torn away with you. What then is left? For a wife I have but the maniac upstairs: as well might you refer me to some corpse in yonder churchyard. What shall I do, Jane? Where turn for a companion, and for some hope?’

No doubt, Stuart Williams feels the same. Rochester then gets to the crux of it:

‘Is it better to drive a fellow-creature to despair than to transgress a mere human law, no man being injured by the breach? – for you have neither relatives nor acquaintances whom you need fear to offend by living with me.’

Jane admits:

This was true: and while he spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitors against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him. They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly. ‘Oh, comply!’ it said. ‘Think of his misery; think of his danger; look at his state when left alone; remember his headlong nature: consider the recklessness following on despair – sooth him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?’

Still indomitable was the reply: ‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man.’

Our heroines take opposite paths. Ruth follows Bronte’s capitalised ‘Feeling’ in her fidelity to love over society; Jane resists and follows the law instead. Ruth has the added complication of the friends and family Jane lacks, and while she goes on to suffer from the effect of their disapproval, she suffers most from the knowledge that she has made their lives difficult by their mere association with her.

And yet these paths, though seeming to go in opposite directions, have many similarities. Jane and Ruth both steal away in the middle of the night to escape to places unknown. Jane then suffers acutely –  sleeping out on the moors, nearly dying from starvation, surviving only thanks to the pity of St John and his sisters, who take her in and then set her up as a schoolmistress – whereas Ruth might at first be happy in  ‘the sweetness of believing herself loving and loved’, but suffers before long, in her awful discovery that ‘the town is the whole world’ and love is not enough to fill that gap. Jane might succeed where Ruth fails in making friends and establishing herself in a new community but both heroines suffer from loneliness – for Ruth it is because she has turned her back on society, for Jane because she has turned her back on love.

When St John asks Jane to marry him so that they might be missionaries in India together, she says:

‘I scorn your idea of love … I scorn the counterfeit sentiment you offer.’

It is after this that she hears Rochester calling her name on the wind, and then:

I broke from St John … It was my time to assume ascendancy. My powers were in play and in force.

She returns to Rochester, discovers his wife has died, which removes the impediment to their union, and so we get the happy ending of, ‘Reader I married him.’

Ruth returns to Stuart after her time in Freeport, and, after a few months, to their great surprise they find that his wife has at last granted him a divorce. So the impediment to their legal union is also removed. Stuart says they must get married. Ruth, however, hesitates, realising that her life and happiness no longer lie with Stuart:

The thing that made me go with you then is the thing that makes me go my way alone now.

 So like Ibsen’s Nora, she goes her own way, reflecting in a burst of positivity:

Love could not fail if it left one richer than it found one. Love had not failed – nothing had failed – and life was wonderful, limitless, a great adventure for which one must have great courage, glad faith. Let come what would come! – she was moving on.

If marriage is what the books are all about, then Jane and Ruth go in opposite directions: one heroine chooses to be alone rather than illicitly with her lover, but then marries him when she can; the other lives as his mistress for years and then leaves him. If, instead, we see the books as being about ‘fidelity’ to oneself, about having the courage to take the harder path as opposed to succumbing to the lure of the easier, then our heroines tread side by side.

When Jane is prevailed upon by Rochester and then by St John, she resists by saying first ‘I care’ and then ‘My powers were in play and in force.’ (Bronte’s italics both times.) When she does marry Rochester, it is she who does the marrying: ‘I married him’ – not he married me. Throughout the novel, Jane has the courage to take her own actions rather than bowing to the will of others. Similarly, Ruth makes her own decisions rather than being swayed by others: first in leaving home to be with Stuart and then, rather than yielding to the pressure of convention in marrying him in spite of knowing they no longer love each other, she has the strength to move on alone.

Two very different outcomes, but really I think the books share the same message of how important it is to have belief in yourself and the courage of your convictions.

I hope this is an inspiring note to leave you with over the summer!

Susan Glaspell in 1913

Homecoming

July 21, 2014

All the heat has meant this week has been one of battling with exhaustion and feeling quite ghastly. Various low points have included sitting in a cold bath while commanding the bemused husband to make me a bucketload of pasta, spending half-an-hour hanging around in the bank just to take advantage of their air-conditioning, and falling asleep in the middle of a conversation. In fact the first time I felt normal all week was yesterday evening when, after managing to get thirteen hours sleep (twelve overnight plus another one in the afternoon!), I went for a swim in the peaceful haven of Hampstead Ladies’ Pond and at last felt reduced to a normal temperature.

Jane EyreLuckily, I have had a feast of good reading to keep me company while sweltering through the sultry weather. Next weekend I am off to Deer Shed Festival, up in the beautiful wilds of Yorkshire, where I will be interviewing Samantha Ellis – author of How to be a Heroine, which I wrote about here; Susie Steiner – author of Homecoming, which I will write about below; and doing a walking book club on Jane Eyre, which I suspect I will write about next week. Three terrific books to read or re-read – really I can’t complain! (A little aside to URGE you to re-read Jane Eyre, or indeed read it for the first time. It is completely brilliant, even better than remembered. And then you could come along to the festival and come on the walk … and then together we can imagine Jane striding away from Thornfield Hall and coming across Mr Rochester on his horse, while trudging through a landscape not so different, although of course ours won’t be treacherously icy. Go on, dig out your old copy, and begin it again, I promise you won’t regret it!)

HomecomingHomecoming is also set in Yorkshire, and while the landscape might be as wild and beautiful as Bronte’s, the concerns are very different. The Hartle family are struggling to make ends meet on their farm. There is a great deal about farming, which for a born-and-bred Londoner like me was surprisingly fascinating. Now I feel I know a little about things like ‘lifting the beet’, ‘lambing’ and the importance of not stacking hay too tightly. Joe loves the farming life:

The ground giving up its treasure to him: it was a beautiful thing. He pictures the soil and the layers – the substrata – brown then red, then glaring orange, reaching down to the earth’s core where it was hot. And him on the surface, gathering its riches up – drilling goodness and filtering it into trucks. This was what a man was meant for.

Ann is more pragmatic, and it is she who has to make the grim trips to the accountant, who tells her money is so tight they will barely make it through to lambing. On the way back, she stops at a petrol station and ‘resists a Ginsters pasty, even though she’s ravenous. Better to save the money and make a sandwich back home.’

The book is structured around the farming year, with a new calendar month for each chapter. It gives a feel of the rhythm of the year, but moreover of its unstoppable movement forwards. It is a tough year for the Hartles: disaster follows disaster (I won’t go into details here for fear of spoilers) and there are many times when you wish a rash act or unfortunate consequence could somehow be undone, but to no avail. While farming is the context for most of these tragedies, really it is as much a novel about the different ways in which people face change, and the playing out of complicated family dynamics. And those are things to which we can all relate!

Joe and Ann have two sons, Max and Bartholomew. Max works the farm with Joe, and Joe would like to pass it on to him, only Max is, quite simply, too useless. Bartholomew has gone down south, where he has set up his own garden centre, though that isn’t without its own share of troubles. Bring the four of them under the same roof for Christmas and you get the hellish mess of resentment, jealousy, grudges, nagging and everything else that almost all families suffer at that time of year.

Then there are all the other characters – the wives and girlfriends, the friends and local busybodies, and the dreadful barmaid from Essex… It is a rich cast, but my personal favourite is the ingeniously dreamed up Primrose, Max’s wife. She is a very peculiar woman, who is terrible at forging emotional connections with people, even her husband. Instead, she spends her free time wiring and taking apart plugs and things, evidently feeling more comfortable with electrical connections than human ones. How I long to ask Susie Steiner where she found the inspiration for her!

Steiner cleverly moves the narrative perspective between her many characters, so you get a nuanced understanding of their varying points of view, the different demons with which they struggle. It is a powerful device for creating empathy, and by the end of the book you feel rather like you’ve been living under the Hartle roof, absorbing their various quirks and idiosyncrasies and feeling very fond of them in spite of their many faults. I suppose much as you might feel after spending some time with your own family.

Luckily, for all the changes that the Hartles face, Homecoming is a pleasingly reassuring novel. And it does this without falling into the trap of being too cosy. The outcomes are not the straightforwardly happy ones which the various characters would have wished for in an ideal world, but if Steiner is a realist, she is still an optimistic realist for the results are largely positive, albeit very different to what they might have hoped for.

I suppose this is the thing about change – and at the moment, I feel like I am faced by CHANGE in capital letters whenever I glance down at my growing bump. It is a terrifying thing in that it is unknowable. Suddenly your course has altered and you’re no longer entirely sure where it is you’re headed. Of course you might not end up exactly where you’d imagined and things might not work out just as you’d hope, but in Homecoming we feel relieved and reassured that they do at least work out somehow. Phew.

Anyway, I am very much looking forward to discussing Homecoming with Susie Steiner at Deer Shed Festival next weekend. Come and say hello if you’re there too!

The Leopard at Perch Hill

July 14, 2014

The weekend was spent in a blur of food and flowers, as Emily’s Walking Book Club went to Perch Hill for its first Summer Feast. We feasted on an Ottolenghi dinner of lamb with pomegranate and tomato salad, delicious beetroot puree and aubergine delights. (We had made bets on the train down as to key Ottolenghi ingredients that would be included and we did very well indeed, as we managed to get: pomegranate molasses, lamb, aubergine, cardamom and za’atar – oh the horror on Yotam’s face when a naive punter asked, what’s za’atar?) Then came Sarah Raven’s breakfast and lunch, with everything picked fresh from the beautiful garden, including extraordinary nasturtiums, making the salad almost too pretty to eat.

And then came Emily’s literary feast – the walking book club discussed The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, paying particular attention to the abundance of food in it.

Perch Hill walking book club 1 - striding over the Sussex hills

It was a beautiful setting and we wandered through woods and over fields looking out at the Sussex countryside and thinking how different it was from the Sicilian landscape described in the book and how lucky we were that our summers were rather milder than those in Sicily, ‘as long and glum as a Russian winter and against which we struggle with less success’.

I wrote about The Leopard a few months ago, so here I thought I’d write more specifically about food in the novel.

We had better begin with the famous macaroni pie:

The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a spice-laden haze, then chicken livers, hard boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken and truffles in masses of piping hot, glistening macaroni, to which the meat juice gave an exquisite hue of suede.

Delicious, and just about enough of a recipe to try to make it at home. In fact my brother recently attempted to concoct it, albeit without the truffles, with great success. It rather puts all our Italian pasta dinners to shame…

More interesting, however, is how Lampedusa describes the reception of the dish:

The beginning of the meal, as happens in the provinces, was quiet. The arch-priest made the sign of the Cross and plunged in head first without a word. The organist absorbed the succulent dish with closed eyes; he was grateful to the Creator that his ability to shoot hare and woodcock could bring him ecstatic pleasures like this, and the thought came to him that he and Teresina could exist for a month on the cost of one of these dishes; Angelica, the lovely Angelica, forgot little Tuscan black-puddings and part of her good manners and devoured her food with the appetite of her seventeen years and the vigour given by grasping her fork half-way up the handle. Tancredi, in an attempt to link gallantry with greed, tried to imagine himself tasting, in the aromatic forkfuls, the kisses of his neighbour Angelica, but he realised at once that the experiment was disgusting and suspended it, with a mental reserve about reviving this fantasy with the pudding; the Prince, although rapt in the contemplation of Angelica sitting opposite him, was the only one at table able to notice that the demi-glace was overfilled, and made a mental note to tell the cook so next day; the others ate without thinking of anything, and without realising that the food seemed so delicious because sensuality was circulating in the house.

Perch Hill walking book club 2 - feeling rather gluttonous with all that pieThis is real eating! I love the way they all give themselves up entirely to the food. There is a remarkable ‘sensuality’ in the way they eat dinner – everyone appreciates its sumptuous goodness, just as they do Angelica’s beauty. A far cry from the stuffy dinners of English country houses at the time…

The rich macaroni pie is a very good example of Sicilian cucina baronale – literally the cooking of the barons – and Lampedusa emphasises this by showing the organist thinking he could exist for a month on the cost of it. He would be used to the contrasting, rustic cucina povera. Indeed, later on in the book, the priest goes home and Lampedusa notes that the simple dinner there ‘was much enjoyed by Father Pirrone, whose palate had not been spoilt by the culinary delicacies of Villa Salina’. The Prince, on the contrary, is so used to the cucina baronale that he, with his refined palate, is the only one to notice the defect in the demi-glace.

Angelica, who turned everyone’s heads as she entered the novel a few pages ago is shown ‘grasping her fork half-way up the handle’, betraying the fact that while she may be beautiful and wealthy, she is certainly no lady. Tancredi is shown to be an infatuated young romantic, imagining tasting her kisses with each bite, but also – and this is key – a pragmatist, for he soon gives it up when he realises it’s ‘disgusting’, thinking he’ll try again with pudding. Of course it is Tancredi who has the famous line ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ He is open to change and compromise, happy to bend his ways with the times in order to come out on top, and his eating of the macaroni pie is no exception.

It is astonishing how many deft, minute character studies Lampedusa crams into this paragraph of macaroni eaters!

A similar sensuality of eating and food appears a little earlier in the book with the ‘foreign peaches’, grafted from German cuttings:

There was not much fruit, a dozen or so, on the two grafted trees, but it was big, velvety, luscious-looking; yellowish with a faint flush of rosy pink on the cheeks, like those of modest little Chinese girls. The Prince felt them with the delicacy for which his fleshy fingers were famous.

Brilliantly, these luscious peaches are next seen as they are borne by Tancredi’s lackey as a present for Angelica. Surely there could be no more fitting gift. You can almost read Tancredi’s mind, as he thinks her kisses would taste more of these peaches than of the macaroni pie.

Perch Hill walking book club 3

We wondered, on the walking book club, if there might be any significance to the fact that they were grafted from German cuttings. There is an earlier description of a rose brought from Paris, ‘degenerated’ thanks to the ‘strong if languid pull of Sicilian earth’ into something ‘obscene and distilling a dense almost indecent scent’, like ‘the thigh of a dancer from the Opera’. Here the message is clear that the Sicilian environment is so intensely sensual that it degenerates the refinements of Paris into something obscene. But what about the German roses, which ‘succeeded perfectly’ though yielded little fruit. Perhaps, suggested one clever lady, this is a reference to the alliance between Germany and Italy during the Second World War. An excellent theory, for the War was very much in Lampedusa’s mind as he wrote The Leopard in the years following. It even makes an appearance when he flashes forwards to the ceiling being destroyed in 1943 by ‘a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn.’ – just as Lampedusa’s own family Palazzo was destroyed during the War.

Indeed, food is often a metaphor for politics in The Leopard. My favourite instance of this is in his description of the rum jelly:

It was rather threatening at first sight, shaped like a tower with bastions and battlements and smooth slippery walls impossible to scale, garrisoned by red and green cherries and pistachio nuts; but into its transparent and quivering flanks a spoon plunged with astounding ease. By the time the amber-coloured fortress reached Francesco Paolo, the sixteen-year-old son who was served last, it consisted only of shattered walls and hunks of wobbly rubble. Exhilarated by the aroma of rum and the delicate flavour of the multi-coloured garrison, the Prince enjoyed watching the rapid demolishing of the fortress beneath the assault of his family’s appetite. One of his glasses was still half-full of Marsala. He raised it, glanced round the family, gazed for a second into Concetta’s blue eyes, then said: “To the health of our Tancredi.” He drained his wine in a single gulp. The initials F.D., which before had stood out clearly on the golden colour of the full glass, were no longer visible.

This is not just an account of a family eating a jelly, but a rather lavish metaphor for Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily as part of the Risorgimento, which is taking place at that very moment.

The Prince has recently bid farewell to Tancredi who has gone off to fight to aid Garibaldi’s landing at Marsala. Lampedusa even manages to slip in the name of this port, as the Prince is drinking a glass of it. The jelly, like Sicily, would seem to be impossible to scale, but is in fact penetrated ‘with astounding ease’. Garibaldi did indeed invade ‘with astounding ease’ (helped by the presence of British ships), and soon Sicily’s resistance was no more than ‘shattered walls and hunks of wobble rubble’. Tellingly the initials F.D., which stand for the last Bourbon King Francis II, become invisible.

Once again, I was reminded of how wonderful a book The Leopard is, and the walking book club concurred. As did this very sweet little sheep that first bleated at us from afar, no doubt keen to join the discussion, and then bounded over to us as we approached. Perhaps he always felt himself to be a misunderstood leopard.

Perch Hill Walking Book Club 4 a literary sheep

The Wife

July 7, 2014

What a week! Having done pretty much nothing for two months other than eat too much ice cream, returning to work – to a job where one must STAND FOR NINE HOURS while being significantly heavier and rather more off-balance than one used to be – was unbelievably exhausting. It was of course a joy to see the regular bookshop customers happily surprised by the now very visible bump, and to talk books with bookshop co-conspirators (one of whom had even baked delicious celebratory banana bread), but by the end of each day I was a goner. Which was unfortunate, because the evenings were of course filled with seeing friends and family, and then there was moving back into our flat …

Well, perhaps you understand why my brain now feels like it’s gone through a tumble dryer and I have been left in a peculiar, semi-catatonic state of vague pain and bewilderment. All I know is that I must locate a sturdy stool for some of next week’s bookshop stint, and that all inessential evening plans must be cancelled. So my apologies if this post is not quite up to form; as soon as it has been written I shall retreat back to bed.

The WifeIt was, however, a great pleasure to be reunited with the Walking Book Club in one of its most populous incarnations yesterday for rather a slow stagger around Hampstead Heath discussing Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife.

The Wife is told from the point of view of Joan, the wife of great Jewish American writer Joe Castleman. It begins when they are on a plane heading for Helsinki, where Joe is to receive a prestigious prize:

The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-five thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquillity. Just like our marriage

Over the course of their Helsinki visit, Joan tells the story of their relationship. It began when she was a college student and he her creative writing professor, married with a new baby. His wife soon discovers the affair and confronts Joan by hurling a walnut at her head. It is a special walnut, a gift from Joe to Joan, on which he has painted ‘To J. In awe. J.’ It is all the more significant as his wife has been given a very similar walnut. Joan and Joe run off to New York together. Though Joan has shown great promise as a writer, whereas the only story of Joe’s that she’s read is terrible, it is his writing career that is pursued, a decision which is reinforced when his first, very autobiographical, novel – The Walnut – is a hit.

The Wife is hard to write about as there is a huge twist right at the end, which affects everything that comes beforehand and it would be terrible for you to discover the twist here. So, in order not to be a spoiler, I will try to continue as though I too don’t know anything about the twist…

The big question that looms through the text is why does Joan let Joe become the writer while she becomes the wife? It is evidently not a question of talent. Joan, after all, is narrating this book in her brilliantly dry, witty voice. Is it Joe’s ‘powers of persuasion’, as her mother says? Or is just a mistake of youth and inexperience?

No doubt it has a great deal to do with Joan’s encounter with Elaine Mozell, a woman novelist who comes to read at Joan’s college. Elaine tells her:

‘Don’t do it … Find some other way. There’s only a handful of women who get anywhere. Short story writers, mostly, as if maybe women are somehow more acceptable in miniature … The men with their big canvases, their big books that try to include everything in them, their big suits, their big voices, are always rewarded more. They’re the important ones. And you want to know why? … Because they say so.’

This extract provoked a great deal of anger at the Walking Book Club. It is still the case, people shouted in outrage. Indeed, the annual Vida Count is ever discouraging. This counts the number of women and men who are published in, or have their books reviewed by, literary magazines. While a few, such as The Paris Review, are getting towards gender equality, the majority, including The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New Yorker are hugely skewed towards men, with respective figures of 574:157; 2156: 795; 555: 253 for the 2013 count. (I actually wrote a review for the TLS recently, so let’s hope that skew is shifting a little.) And just look at the way men’s novels are published compared to women’s! They are almost invariably more expensive, given a hardback edition, and a smarter cover …

On and on the gender debate raged as we swarmed across the Heath: Is women’s writing so different from men’s? Why is women’s writing less valued than men’s? Why is it such a male establishment? Why has so little changed since Joan and Elaine Mozell’s fictional conversation in the 1950s? And so on… until I called a halt to sit down and eat some Panforte brought back from Lucca.

Joan is aware that even in the 1950s, it is not be impossible to be a woman and a writer. Wolitzer gives us a great image of Joan’s box of women writers:

It was as though there were a box I kept under a bed and pulled out only once in a while, and in this box were crammed Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman and Carson McCullers and now Lee the journalist. It I opened the lid, their heads would pop out like jack-in-the-box clowns on springs, mocking me, reminding me that they existed, that women could occasionally become important writers with formidable careers, and that maybe I could have done it if I’d tried. But instead I was standing with the wives, the kerchief-wearers, all of us holding ourselves in a way we’d grown accustomed to, arms folded, purses slung over shoulders, eyes flicking left and right to keep watch over our husbands.

‘Maybe I could have done it if I’d tried.’ This ‘maybe’, the slim possibility of success against the odds, makes it all the tougher. Given that some women manage to do it, the impetus is on the individual woman to try to succeed, and if she doesn’t, it is as much her fault as anyone else’s.

West with the NightThere was a funny moment when someone said, ‘What about West with the Night?’ This wonderful memoir by Beryl Markham tells of her gung ho adventuring life as the first aviatrix in Kenya in the early twentieth century. We discussed it at a Walking Book Club a while ago. What about it? Well that, said the walker, isn’t at all like a woman’s book, it could just as easily have been written by a man.

The odd thing is, West with the Night might indeed have been written by a man. A teeny bit of internet research shows that many people suspect Beryl Markham’s memoir to have been written by her third husband, who was a professional ghost writer. Though for such a suspicion even to exist makes an uncomfortable point about our gendered perceptions of writing.

Perhaps gender is especially on my mind at the moment, as everyone wants to know is the bump going to be a boy or a girl, and many people seem surprised that we have decided not to find out, preferring to have a surprise. People seem puzzled as to how can we possibly not want to know? Well, without wanting to sound too San Francisco about it, the sex is such a small part of the picture. Knowing whether it’s a boy or a girl is pretty irrelevant really. I’d much rather know if he or she will be keen on reading, or climbing trees, or misbehaving, or music, or chatting, or (and this one’s important) sleeping. And I would hate to think it’s a girl and be told that therefore she will love reading and dolls and all things pink and hate climbing trees. It’s rather a relief, in fact, while imagining what this little person will turn out to be like, not to let gender come into it at all.

If only we could be just as open-minded when it comes to books.


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