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.

The Last Days of Italy

July 2, 2014

I have at last unglued my bottom from the passenger seat of our trusty car Beryl – so named after Beryl Markham, wonderful author, adventurer and pilot extraordinaire. I know it’s a car not a plane, but needs must. Emilybooks’ Lucca days are now over and London life will ensue once again. Though I can’t feel too glum, as  July is looking rather wonderfully full of walking book club trips – there is the Hampstead Heath meeting this Sunday to discuss Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife; then at Perch Hill Summer Feast (12th-13th July) we’ll be talking about The Leopard, and finally Deer Shed Festival on 25th-27th July brings a welcome revisit to Jane Eyre.

But first a little run down on the last days of Italy…

We set off for Ravenna – which should have been an easy three hours or so, though the husband decided to throw a bit of adventure in the mix by stopping off at an Alvar Aalto church ‘on the way’. Perhaps it would have been more on the way if I weren’t doing the map-reading and the Michelin map was slightly less complicated, but it took us about four hours just to get to the church… It was a great church, however; rather different from all the Renaissance churches we’d spent the last two months gawping over. Instead of their habit of bright white marble outside and cool dark interior, this one was very dark (and I have to say even a little dreary) on the outside, but flooded with light inside.

The bright inside of the Alvar Aalto Church

A Ravenna peacockWe spent the night at a sweet agriturismo outside Ravenna, with delicious food, where peacocks strutted decoratively. On to Ravenna the next morning where we were completely dazzled by all the mosaics, impossibly beautiful, and unexpectedly cheerful. We were to end up in Vicenza that evening, but had a quick stop-off for a gelato (of course) at Ferrara, which really was en route. I longed to see more evidence of Giorgio Bassani, who wrote some wonderful novels set there, including The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, but alas I could discover no museum. Instead we saw a very spiky building – the Palazzo dei Diamante – where I dunked my head under a fountain to save myself from expiring from the heat, while chic Italians looked on with amusement.

Very hot outside the Palazzo dei diamante in Ferrara

Very hot outside the Palazzo dei diamante in Ferrara

And rather cooler after the fountain

And rather cooler after the fountain

Vicenza was a winner, with another architectural theme – masses of stuff by Palladio which was all very impressive, though not quite sufficient for the husband, who drove us off into the hills the following day to see some things by Carlo Scarpa. It was certainly ‘off the track’, and I have to say the Tomba Brion was one of the most beautiful, special places I’ve ever been.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

The husband was in architectural heaven and took a million photos, in raptures over all the detailing, while I sat and read for a while and looked at the enormous fish which poked their heads out from amongst the lilly pads.

Among the lilly pads

We also saw the huge and wonderful Palladian Villa Barbaro, where we had to shuffle around in strange over-sized slippers and there were some very sweet and attentive puppies.

 Puppies at the Villa Barbaro

Then across to Milan, where we met an (architectural) friend for lunch, and wandered through some antique markets by the canals. There I spotted this rather pretty bicycle.

A Milanese bicycle

Then through Mont Blanc (aka the rather cheerier ‘Monte Bianco’) to the Haute Savoie, very close to Geneva. Typically, just as we got off the motorway and my map-reading had to begin in earnest, the most colossal thunderstorm broke, and we were unable to see or hear anything much at all. It was not helped by Google Maps telling us to go up an off-road track. Poor Beryl was rather relieved when we did at last arrive at our destination.

The next day we were to go back to Champagne to the very pretty B&B where we spent the first night of our travels. The husband thought it essential, however, to go ‘via’ Ronchamp – a Le Corbusian masterpiece. It was indeed incredible, and added a mere three hours to our journey.

Ronchamp

We arrived at last and staggered off to Chalons-en-Champagne – the nearest town – to find something for dinner, only to arrive just as France won their World Cup match. The little, not especially charming, town was soon even less so as it became overrun with crazed football fans letting of bangers, kicking beer cans, starting fights, tooting their horns and driving around like maniacs. We tried to enter into the spirit of things but were unfortunately rather too dazed from seeing nothing but motorway for hours. We ate our quite squalid chicken and chips in exhausted silence and swiftly retreated to said B&B.

So to the final day of our travels. First we drove up the road to Verzy where we wandered through the forest to see some curious twisted beech trees. Then, instead of stopping for a delicious final lunch, we hastened towards a grimmish ‘zone industrielle’ near St Omer to try and make the half-past three tour of a glass-making factory. We pulled in at three twenty-five, after some map-reading of which I was rather proud, only to be told that in spite of what their website had said, there was no tour until six thirty – too late for us. Stuck for something to do, we found this very strange place nearby called La Coupole – a huge concrete dome half-buried in the cliff, built as a launchpad for Hitler’s V2 rockets. It was impressive and horrible, freezing cold and sinister. It made all those James Bond filmsets look uncannily realistic. We read that the hundreds of Soviet prisoners who had been made to build it had soon after ‘disappeared’. The place was filled with awful stories about life under the Nazi occupation and Hitler’s pursuit of his secret weapons. I couldn’t believe that Wernher von Braun, who was in charge of most the rocket programme, and a member of the SS, was snatched by America after the War, not for trial, but to help develop their rockets for the Space Race. He was made an American citizen and even presented a science show on the Walt Disney channel! Amongst his particular brutalities was his encouragement of the use of slave labour from concentration camps to help build the rockets. Many more people died in building the rockets and their factories than were killed by the finished weapons. Quite how this man – and many members of his team – managed to be so welcomed by America is not clear. Please could somebody write a book about it?

And then to Calais, and then on the train, and then a late-night Lebanese feast on London’s Edgware Road, and then to Emilybooks’ mother’s, where we will be staying until we move back in to our flat at the weekend…

The Inimitable Jeeves read by Martin JarvisBut what about the books, I hear you ask… Well there was little time for reading anything other than maps when in the car for so long, but what made the journey extremely pleasant was listening to PG Wodehouse audio books. I have never fared too well with audiobooks, finding that my mind wanders too much, but Wodehouse, read by the incredibly talented Martin Jarvis, was a triumph! All the way to Italy we chuckled along to Jeeves and Wooster stories about love-lorn Bingo Little, Gussy Finknottle and his newts, the various dreadful aunts, the cooly unflappable Jeeves and lovely Bertie Wooster, who will stop at nothing to get his friends out of a tight spot. I was particularly keen on the stories when everyone thinks Bertie’s a lunatic.

Heavy weather by PG WodehouseOn the way home, we listened to Heavy Weather, a Blandings tale, and were similarly entranced by the brilliantly over-complicated plot about various toffs trying to get hold of Galahad’s juicy memoirs, and Lord Emsworth thinking of nothing but his beloved pig, the Empress of Blandings. We giggled and snorted and exclaimed as the miles of motorway rolled away. Perhaps this unbelievably English story didn’t suit our surroundings particularly well, but it did conjure a feeling of immense fondness towards England – even if our little flat is rather less grand than Blandings Castle, and we have a tortoise not a pig… In any case it was just what was needed to speed us on our return.

Where Angels Fear to Tread

June 24, 2014

Emilybooks’ days in Lucca are coming to an end, alas. On Thursday we will depart and head northeast to Ravenna, Vicenza, perhaps Venice, and then retreat rapidly through France, arriving back in London next Tuesday night.

The pain of leaving has been lessened somewhat by having some friends to stay for the past few days, accompanying us on jaunts up into the mountains, and to Viareggio, a rather haunting seaside resort of strange faded glamour. We also made another little excursion, pre-visitors, to Florence, namely to go on a tour of the ‘secret passages’ of the Palazzo Vecchio, as recommended by a friend, but key to the trip was also the desire to revisit a particular gelateria where we discovered the unparalleled joy of peanut ice cream. (It’s on Via Tornabouni, by all the designer shops, should you happen to find yourself there and in need of some refreshment.)

Dante by BotticelliThe Palazzo Vechhio tour was very interesting. We were shown various secret rooms, hidden inside the breadth of the enormous walls, and taken to the space above the ceiling of the hall of five hundred, where we could see all the clever workings of the beams and rafters. But it was most compelling for two reasons. Firstly, the lady began by asking the group if anyone had read the Inferno. I felt a little sheepish, for much as I would like to have read Dante’s Divine Comedy, perhaps even with facing page translation so that I, like Mrs Fisher in The Enchanted April could excuse myself by saying ‘I speak only the Italian of Dante’, that was a book that didn’t make it on to the Emilybooks travelling bookcase. My sheepishness deepened into extreme AppleMarkshame when about half of the tour group nodded and said they had indeed read it. Who were all these scholarly folk, so convincingly disguised in the t-shirts, shorts, functional sandals and backpacks of the quotidian tourist? But then all became clear when the guide elucidated – by Dan Brown, yes, not Dante? It transpired that Mr Brown’s book was all set in the Palazzo Vecchio, hence why they all wanted to see its secret passages.

Cosimo de Medici's tortoiseBut the tour’s MOST compelling discovery was the symbol of Cosimo de Medici, which cropped up in various paintings throughout the richly adorned apartments: a tortoise!!!!!! But not just any tortoise, a tortoise with a sail on its back, signifying, apparently, his belief that when doing anything one must first be slow and thoughtful – like a tortoise – and then go full steam ahead, as it were (or, back then, full sail ahead). I thoroughly approve, and have been considering the logistics of rigging up a little sail on Daphne’s thoughtful shell.

So the books now being read take on the added weight of being THE LAST BOOKS to be read in Lucca. It is almost as hellish as deciding what to have for our last supper here, or which flavour combination in our last gelato. I knew, however, that I had to re-read EM Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread. I last read this (and wrote about it) a few years ago, and knowing it to be slim but potent, and of course set in Italy, I thought it a perfect choice.

It is, however, almost impossible to write about, mostly because it is too slim to be able to tell much of the plot without ruining it. So I shall try to evade any massive spoilers, but do look away now if you really don’t want a whiff of any of it.

Where Angels Fear to TreadEven though this was my second time around, Forster still managed to wrongfoot me. Where Angels Fear to Tread seems, to begin with, to be about Lilia Heriton – a widow, who breaks off the stuffy bonds of provincial life and her snotty in-laws by travelling to Italy (with a companion, of course), and then falling in love. (So far, so similar to A Room with a View.) Her brother-in-law, Philip, is speedily dispatched to rescue her, for she has fallen for an Italian and not even a member of the Italian nobility, but Gino, the handsome son of a provincial dentist. There is a wonderful moment when he is eating spaghetti:

When those delicious slippery worms were flying down his throat his face relaxed and became for a moment unconscious and calm. And Philip had seen that face before in Italy a hundred times – seen it and loved it, for it was not merely beautiful, but had the charm which is the rightful heritage of all who are born on that soil. But he did not want to see it opposite him at dinner. It was not the face of a gentleman.

It’s brilliant! I love this idea of the spaghetti transforming him, that there is something quintessentially Italian about it. Indeed, Forster stresses the link between Gino and the Italian land elsewhere too, using the same adjectives ‘mysterious and terrible’ both for him and for the Tuscan landscape, as seen by the English. Here, Philip can see the charm and beauty of this Italianness, while snobbishly seeing that it is not of a gentleman.

Philip tries to buy him off, but discovers it is too late, for Gino and Lilia are already married. Then:

At no one moment did Lilia realize that her marriage was a failure; yet during the summer and autumn she became as unhappy as it was possible for her nature to be.

Then poor miserable Lilia is killed off, dying in childbirth. This all happens before we even get half-way through the book. So evidently it isn’t going to be another Room with a View – our subject isn’t the English middle-class lady exhilarated by the Italian landscape. It gradually becomes clear that Forster’s subject is Philip. Indeed, in a letter to his friend RC Trevelyan, which is printed in the back of this Penguin edition, he says:

The object of the book is the improvement of Philip, and I did really want the improvement to be a surprise.

Sorry for ruining the surprise, and I shall indeed stop with the plot synopsis now in order to avoid any greater spoilers.

So Where Angels Fear to Tread is about the improvement of Philip, but at the same time, I felt it to be about the futility of that improvement. So long as there are people about like Harriet – Philip’s awful, moral, pious, didactic sister – English snobs who are so convinced of their being right that they will force their view on others, rather than, like Philip, be improved by exposure to a new culture – then the English will only do harm. Any goodness that develops in Philip is rendered useless by Harriet’s actions (don’t press me on the plot details if you don’t want me to give it away!). Essentially, the goodness of a quiet observer is never going to have so much of an effect as the badness of a loud doer.

This is made all the more troubling by the many parallels between Philip and Forster himself. If Forster, in his first complete novel, was already gesturing towards the feebleness of the gentle, male, sexually ambiguous observer – however great his ‘improvement’ as the novel progresses – then it doesn’t show a great vote of confidence in his own role as writer-observer. This male observer figure was to reappear in many of his books, such as Mr Beebe in A Room with A View, and even Fielding in A Passage to India, who fails in his attempt at a friendship with Aziz.

Forster is one of my very favourite writers, so of course I would never dream of calling him a failure, but perhaps he felt this to be the case himself, and was too aware of the limits of his work. He wrote, after all, only six novels, stopping after A Passage to India, even though he lived for nearly another fifty years. It is a great shame, and all the more so for there being this portrait of the powerlessness of an observer even in his very first, and very brilliant, novel.

The Portrait of a Lady

June 16, 2014

What is it about Italy and its views?

Having first been struck by Forster’s A Room with a View, which seemed to me to be all about the importance of a good view and being able to see clearly – something which Italy can give the English traveller, if he or she is sufficiently open to it – now I’m struck by the same thing in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Only James’s book, written thirty years earlier, has a rather sadder conclusion.

The Portrait of a LadyIsabel Archer is American. Young, intelligent, pretty, she has been taken up by her aunt and brought first to England and then to Italy, though she has so many suitors falling at her feet it is somewhat remarkable that she is able to move anywhere at all. First there is strong, hard Caspar Goodwood – an American heir to a cotton mill; next there is ridiculously English Lord Warburton. There is also the rather wonderful Ralph Touchett – Isabel’s cousin – who knows his is a hopeless case as he is dying of consumption, but contents himself to watch Isabel blaze her path, persuading his father to leave her half of his own fortune in his Will:

‘I shall have the thrill of seeing what a young lady does who won’t marry Lord Warburton.’

He goes on to add:

‘There will be plenty of spectators!’

Indeed, we readers are of course amongst the keen spectators, wondering what it is that Isabel Archer will do with her life, now she has become a woman of independent means.

She tells us, simply:

‘I don’t want to begin life by marrying. There are other things a woman can do.’

When Ralph says, ‘You want to see life – you’ll be hanged if you don’t, as the young men say,’ she counters:

‘I don’t think I want to see it as the young men want to see it. But I do want to look about me … I only want to see for myself.’

James conjures a kind of double vision around Isabel: there are all her ‘spectators’ – those who are watching her – and also what she can ‘see’, her desire to ‘look about me … to see for myself’.

So off she goes to Italy to broaden her horizons. Unluckily for Isabel, the sinister Madame Merle, a friend of her aunt’s, has taken an interest in her – and in her newly acquired money – and introduces her to villainous Gilbert Osmond. Osmond and Madame Merle are thick as thieves, and we soon gather than he will be Isabel’s next suitor. We fear the worst. Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood both turn up again and are turned away. Ralph, who we feel has the best chance of making her, literally, see sense, fails too, and we soon gather that Isabel has accepted Gilbert Osmond.

How can our heroine, seemingly so keen on independence, on seeing the world, be so taken in by Osmond? Perhaps the best light is shed on him by Ralph:

Osmond lived exclusively for the world. Far from being its master as he pretended to be, he was its very humble servant, and the degree of its attention was his only measure of success. He lived with his eye on it from morning till night, and the world was so stupid it never suspected the trick. Everything he did was pose — pose so subtly considered that if one were not on the lookout one mistook it for impulse. Ralph had never met a man who lived so much in the land of consideration. His tastes, his studies, his accomplishments, his collections, were all for a purpose. His life on his hill-top at Florence had been the conscious attitude of years. His solitude, his ennui, his love for his daughter, his good manners, his bad manners, were so many features of a mental image constantly present to him as a model of impertinence and mystification. His ambition was not to please the world, but to please himself by exciting the world’s curiosity and then declining to satisfy it. It had made him feel great, ever, to play the world a trick.

So Osmond is another double vision – one who ‘lived with his eye on’ the world. We know him as a great aesthete, a collector of things which are pleasing to the eye. He looks at works of art, however, only to become a work of art himself.  In contrast to Isabel’s innocent openness to her spectators, Osmond is all ‘pose’. Constantly aware of those who look at him, he poses with sufficient skill to take them in – well, perhaps not such a sharp observer as Ralph, but certainly poor wide-eyed Isabel.

In Claire Messud’s brilliant essay on re-reading The Portrait of a Lady, published in the Guardian, she describes Osmond’s ‘ability to reflect light so that he may appear to shine’. Is it really so surprising that naïve Isabel, who is so keen to see ‘the world’, is taken in by this man of the world, a trickster who has perfected his illusion?

When we rejoin Isabel three years into her marriage, we learn that it is a very unhappy one. Tellingly, they live at the Palazzo Roccanera in Rome, meaning ‘black rock’, and images of darkness persist. Osmond once reflected light, but now he has plunged Isabel into the dark depths of misery.

I shall go no further with the plot, for this is when all the twists and turns and revelations begin, and I hate to be a spoiler. We wonder, along with the other characters who are all keen observers of Isabel’s fate, will she ever be able to see clearly? Will she see through conniving Madame Merle and cruel Gilbert Osmond? Will she see her way through to freedom?

A Room with a ViewLet us jump forward a few decades to EM Forster’s A Room with a View, which I wrote about in more depth here. Like Isabel Archer, Lucy Honeychurch goes to Italy wanting ‘something big’. She wanders through Florence reflecting, ‘The world … is certainly full of beautiful things, if only I could come across them.’ Then she is mesmerized in the Piazza Signoria, as it transforms itself into a true chiaroscuro in ‘the hour of unreality – the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real’. She sees a man killed in a duel and thinks it is her fault for wishing to see something so big:

‘She thought, ‘Oh what have I done?’

Lucy Honeychurch sees Italy and so sees the world, and so – and this is the most important thing – is eventually able to perceive the truth about herself and the other characters who exert influence over her, such as the oddly compelling Charlotte Bartlett. For a while it seems as though she might not succeed, but the comic muse wins out and all ends happily ever after. How tragic, that poor Isabel Archer, whose trajectory appears to be at first along such a similar path, is taken in by a fiendishly well-executed trick and plunged forever into darkness.

Reading through Henry James’s notes and Preface to The Portrait of a Lady, I was struck by how much he employs the language of vision here as well as within the novel proper. It is in his Preface that he so famously wrote about ‘the house of fiction’, which has:

Not one window, but a million – a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its very front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbours are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine … [the windows] are, singly or together, as nothing without the posted presence of the watcher.

He really knows how to string out a sentence! I can just tell that hundreds of pages have been spent arguing about the particular meaning and relevance of this passage, and I can’t hope to begin to do justice to it here. All I will say, however, is that readers and characters have become watchers, each perspective is unique and, vitally, limited – windows are a somewhat treacherous aperture through which we must perceive.

Interesting, then, at the end of A Room with a View, when George and Lucy return to the Pension Bertolini in Florence, George:

strolled to the window, opened it (as the English will), and leant out.

I somehow feel that Henry James didn’t want anyone to open his windows and lean out of them. His spectators are stuck behind the rigid panes of glass – indeed, sometimes even further stuck behind field glasses! Perhaps this is where he achieves such brilliant tension in The Portrait of a Lady. Everybody is able to look, but they are limited in their observations and unable to reach through the glass and do anything. Isabel Archer might have looked out of the window – indeed, in the chilling denouement scene, Henry James pictures her doing exactly this, and she sees the truth ‘as if it had been reflected in a large clear glass’ – but unlike George and Lucy, she could not open the window and see ‘all the view’.

Perhaps she was just thirty years too early.

Incidentally, you might like this piece I wrote for The Junket for some more thoughts about windows, including this beautiful one by Ravilious.

Belle Tout Lighthouse by Ravilious


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