The Fishermen

March 9, 2015

I adored the David Attenborough Africa series. There was the ferocious giraffe neck fight, the heartbreaking bit with the mummy and baby elephant (I shed a tear just writing that), and this inspiring moment of baby turtles scrambling down the beach to reach the sea:

This story of the turtles – so many of them hatching in such hostile conditions and only a very few of them, with a near-impossible amount of determination and luck, reaching the sea – strikes me as being remarkably similar to the fate of debut novels. Think of the miracle of a story hatching in someone’s mind. Think of all the thousands of ideas that hatch, and how few manage to make it into print without being picked off by the many hazards faced by aspiring writers. Once the debut novels have made it into the water, so to speak, they ought to be applauded, they at least ought to be read.

The Fishermen by ObiomaThe Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma is one such baby turtle that reached the sea in rather beautiful nick. The bright jacket caught my eye and my interest was piqued when I saw it’s published by Pushkin Press’s ‘One’ Imprint, which produces just one book a year. When a publisher is that selective, you feel the book must be good.

The Fishermen is narrated by nine-year-old Ben, who tells us about his life with his brothers:

My brothers and I became fishermen in January of 1996 after our father moved out of Akure, a town in the west of Nigeria, where we had lived together all our lives.

With their father away, the boys go fishing together in a dangerous, forbidden stretch of river. I settled in to what I thought might be a kind of Nigerian Stand by Me, half-wondering when they would see their first dead body or get covered in leeches.

The oldest brother, Ikenna, soon starts to be tricky and rebellious, perhaps testing his freedom now the father is gone. Yet it soon transpires that Ikenna’s difficult behaviour is not part of the usual trials of adolescence, but goes back to one day at the river, when he was cursed by Abulu the madman. Abulu prophesies that he will ‘die by the hands of a fisherman’. The brothers have called themselves fishermen, so Ikenna is convinced that Boja, the nearest to him in age, will murder him. As the poison sets to work in his mind, Ikenna suffers more and more, driving a wedge between him and his family so that you fear the prophecy, unthinkable as it is at the beginning, might just come true. I shall leave the plot here for risk of spoilers.

Obioma writes beautifully, with an imaginative eye for metaphor that makes the book feel mythical, as though the story is bigger than what it purports to be. So it isn’t just a story about a particular family, it is a powerful novel about ‘family’. When the mother is upset at Ikenna’s behaviour, we get:

It seemed a part of her body, which she had got accustomed to touching, had suddenly sprouted thorns and every effort made to touch that part merely resulted in bleeding.

It’s a brilliant rendering of that close bind between mother and child – after all that child was indeed once a part of her body – and the pain that is felt when the child turns away. It is every bit as affective as Lear’s ‘sharper than a serpent’s tooth’.

I thought of Shakespeare again as Ikenna is increasingly derailed by Abulu’s prophecy. These words destroy him, just as Othello is destroyed by Iago’s plot ‘to ‘abuse Othello’s ear’ with words. Words drive Ikenna and his brothers to terrible actions they would never otherwise so much as consider; words have a terrible agency.

When the brothers first encounter Abulu the madman, Ben says, ‘He is like a lion’:

‘You compare everything to animals, Ben,’ Ikenna said, shaking his head as if the comparison had annoyed him. ‘He is not like anything, you hear? He is just a madman – a madman.’

Alongside their evil power, words are shown here to be a tool for making sense of things. Ben tries to understand what the madman is by comparing him to a lion, renaming him as something with which he is more familiar. Indeed each chapter begins with comparing a character to something, usually an animal:

Father was an eagle … Obembe was a searchdog … Ikenna was a python

When trying to understand the behaviour of his family, Ben uses this metaphorical power of words. In renaming his characters, he exercises the power of the storyteller. So Ikenna’s behaviour is less painful if it is rendered as the behaviour of a python; Abulu is not a terrifying madman if he is in fact a lion. It makes me think of Ursula le Guin’s haunting children’s novel The Wizard of Earthsea, in which she writes of the power of knowing something’s true name. Her young wizard Sparrowhawk must learn the true names of things in order to have power over them. So Ben, in The Fishermen, renames the characters in an attempt to exert power over them.

We see, however, that unlike Ben, Ikenna resists the power of these renamings. He says in response to Ben’s calling Abulua a lion:

He is not like anything, you hear? He is just a madman…

Interesting this ‘you hear?’ inserted in there. In part it is a colloquialism – ‘you hear me?’ – but if it is read more literally as a verb it makes Ben a hearer, someone who receives information, rather than a speaker, who gives information. Ikenna hears the madman, and it is this hearing which undoes him. Luckily Ben doesn’t just hear, he tells: he turns the madman into a lion, his father into an eagle, Ikenna into a python.

A debut novel is a baby turtle. I’m delighted that this baby turtle has made it into the sea.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

February 27, 2015

Talk about best-laid plans … I had Tuesday set aside to write this, with Vita’s granny coming to look after the terrorbot for a few hours to give me a bit of time and space to think about the finer points of Italian fiction, when what happens? The lurgi strikes! And so most of Tuesday was spent asleep and the days since have been semi-asleep and semi-entertaining Vita, who is sleeping rather less than we’d like. Still, it has not been unpleasant – the husband has stepped in and taken her with him on errands (who needs Gymboree when there’s Leylands?), and even when I’ve been feeling grotty, it is terribly sweet listening to her gurgle. She is busy mastering ‘vvvvvvv’ and ‘fffffff’ and ‘boof’ sounds at the moment. If it weren’t for all the raspberries that intersperse said noises, I would have thought she might be composing her first poem.

So I hope you will excuse yet another belated post.

The Garden of the Finzi-ContinisLast Sunday, the walking book club strode across a windy and weather-worsening Hampstead Heath discussing Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

The book is rather more taxing than my usual picks and there were stirrings of dissent as many walkers complained about Bassani’s never-ending, clause-upon-clause-upon-clause sentences, and how hard it had been to ‘get into’ the book. My heart sank somewhat as I listened to the grumbles for I could only agree – whilst re-reading the novel in preparation for the meeting, I’d spent the first fifty pages or so wondering how I’d managed to misremember this plodding dull novel as being poignant and wonderful.

Luckily, everyone agreed that the book gets much better, and by the time the narrator and Micol are playing tennis, they were all thoroughly engrossed. In fact, they were grateful that the book club had provided an incentive to stick with it, thereby discovering a brilliant, very moving novel that would stick with them forever. I am all for giving up on a book if you’re not enjoying it, but perhaps this is a useful reminder of the importance of giving it a good shot – 100 pages is usually a safe bet – before deciding whether or not to put it aside.

Key to the The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is its structure. It begins with a Prologue and ends with an Epilogue; the main chunk is set further back in the past and feels neatly contained within these formal boundaries. In the Prologue, the narrator visits some Etruscan tombs, which prompts him to remember the monumental tomb of the Finzi-Continis:

And my heartstrings tightened as never before at the thought that in that tomb, established, it seemed, to guarantee the perpetual repose of its first occupant – of him, and his descendants – only one, of all the Finzi-Continis I had known and loved, had actually achieved this repose. Only Alberto had been buried there, the oldest, who died in 1942 of a lymphogranuloma, whilst Micol, the daughter, born second, and their father Ermanno, and their mother Signora Olga, and Signora Regina, her ancient paralytic mother, were all deported to Germany in the autumn of 1943, and no one knows whether they have any grave at all.

Well, you can see why there were complaints about the lengthy sentences …

You can also see that in one sense, Bassani tells us the end right at the beginning, and the grim fate of the Finzi-Contini family falls over the whole book. So this makes us suspect, then, that it’s not going to be so much about the terrible things that history has in store for them – unless Bassani means to totally ruin the suspense – but rather what happens first, what can be salvaged from the precious years before their untimely death, the private story that would otherwise be brushed aside by history’s grand sweep.

The narrator takes us back to his youth, and after a while spent on his early encounters with the Finzi-Contini family, we hit the moment when their acquaintanceship turns to profound friendship. (This is when the book starts to pick up.) The Italian Racial Laws of 1938 prevented Jews from doing all sorts of things, and this is felt in Ferrara not least in Jews being forced to stop using the country club. So the (Jewish) Finzi-Continis invite the city’s young Jews to use their own private tennis court. The narrator comes along to play tennis and is soon in love with the daughter Micol. From this, he develops a bond with the whole family, as he uses the father’s library, and talks politics with the brother.

Bassani makes the book two things at once: a story of the tender pain of first love and a harrowing depiction of the situation of Italy’s Jews in the late 1930s. The personal is entwined with the political. This is easier said than done – it is all too easy to write historical novels in which the context weighs down the story so that you feel like you’re drowning in the author’s research notes (c.f. A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book). With Bassani, however, we are encouraged to think more about the joy of being young in the seemingly enchanted garden of the Finzi-Continis than the politics which get the narrator there in the first place. One walker said she’d had to keep turning back to double-check she’d read it correctly, as she’d been so unnerved by the way Bassani so matter-of-factly dropped in devastating instances of Jewish exclusion from society.

We discussed at length the many images of containment and circles that appear in the book. There are the walls of Ferrara, the walls of the garden, and even the ‘circolo’s – literally ‘circles’ but meaning ‘clubs’ from which Jews are being expelled. I stumbled across this very good essay by Adam Kirsch about the novel, in which he pointed to this quotation from Henry James:

Really, universally, relations stop nowhere and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, a circle within which they appear to do so.

It’s a brilliant quote!

Kirsch argues that Bassani’s very self-conscious structuring of the novel with Prologue and Epilogue is his method of drawing this circle, and the reason it is so laboured (e.g. the Epilogue begins: ‘The story of my relationship with Micol Finzi-Contini ends here.’) is because he is drawing the circumference of the novel ‘in defiance’ of the historical circumference, which ends, as we know, with her deportation to Germany and grave-less death. Bassani is drawing a circle around the precious moments of youth and first love, as a means of defying the greater circle of history.

It’s a neat argument. And yet, however well Bassani has written it as a love story, protecting it within so many defensive circles, history is still glimpsed through the chinks in the walls. For instance, when the narrator pauses on his bicycle:

I stopped beneath a tree – one of those old trees, lindens, elms, plane trees, horse chestnuts which, a dozen years later, in the frozen winter of Stalingrad, would be sacrificed for firewood, but which in 1929 still raised their great umbrellas of greenery high above the city’s ramparts.

In something as innocent as a tree, we are given a flash of the horrors that are to come.

Short, unlaboured moments like this litter the text, jolting you out of the oasis of youthful romance, and making the narrator’s loss of innocence all the more poignant for being in the context of the world’s horrific loss of innocence. The mentions of historical context feel artfully oppressive, as though the walls are closing in and the world will soon implode … as indeed it will.

As we walked across the Heath and looked down on London below, I thought that this feeling of the book was similar to the feeling I had when walking through Lucca – the Italian walled city (not unlike Ferrara), where Emilybooks spent a blissful couple of months last year. As you walk through the streets, you can never completely lose yourself in the city as the walls are always there surrounding you. You meander along, wiggling and winding and thinking you’re lost and then all of a sudden there’s the wall. It vanishes only for a moment before reappearing in the distance as you enter a square, or there at the end of an alley. When you’re in the city, you are never free of its walls. So, as we walk through his novel, Bassani never lets us entirely disappear into the love story – like the city walls, history is never out of sight for long.

The next walking book club will be a Daunt Books Festival special – discussing the wonderful Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns as we wander through Regent’s Park. You can book your place (as well as get tickets for all the other talks) here.

Giorgio Bassani

The Light Years

February 9, 2015

I have become quite fervent in my pursuit of the ‘feed-read’; now I will not give in to Vita’s wails or body-twisting hints until I have my book, specs and a glass of water at the ready, and my telephone with its distracting flash of emails is well out-of-reach. As so much of my time is spent feeding, I decided that I might as well enjoy it, and while of course there are some feeds that must be discounted as too impractical for reading, eg. in the pitch black small hours, or on the bus, I can get nearly an hour of feed-read time a day, which is not bad at all.

So why so slow on the blog? Well, I have been busy organising this year’s Daunt Books Festival. There’s been a bit of a push in recent weeks to get the programmes out and line-up announced, but ta da here it is!

Daunt Festival 2015 pic

It goes without saying that I would adore to see you at the festival. Talks include such treats as Choosing Your Heroines with Samantha Ellis, Anne Sebba and Alex Clark; and Spies in Fact and Fiction with Charles Cumming, Christopher Andrew and James Naughtie; with speakers including Michael Palin, Antonia Fraser and Owen Jones; plus some jolly children’s talks, music recitals, and a special walking book club around Regent’s Park discussing Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. So come along, and come and say hello if you do!

The other reason for the delay is that it takes so much longer (well, twice as long) to type things one-handed. And, these days, everything is done one-handed.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane HowardSo I am sorry to have delayed telling you all about the blissfully enjoyable book in which I’ve been ensconced: The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Those of you of my age and older may well remember when the ‘Cazalet Chronicles’ were first published in the 1990s. I distinctly remember being on holiday in Devon in the late-nineties with my cousins. All the grown-ups were talking about how wonderful these books were, so I decided I would read them too. I was only about fourteen, so felt terribly precocious. And I was relieved to find that I too loved them. I remember particularly loving the way the children are so well imagined. Polly, Clary and Louise are all at that difficult age of eleven to fourteen and they all felt like different aspects of myself. These girls are given so much space in the book that I almost didn’t believe it was a book for adults.

It’s a series that has stuck with me, and when Elizabeth Jane Howard published a fifth volume towards the end of 2013, sadly not long before she died, I thought it might be the perfect excuse to revisit the originals. They are such thick chunky books though that it felt like too much of a treat. It would have been too much like only eating ice cream and meringues for a whole month. So I watched enviously as people, clearly addicted, came into the bookshop and bought up the various volumes over successive days.

Needless to say, when buying books to take on maternity leave, this was top of the list. At last, the perfect time to read it had come. Some other excellent times to read this rather indulgent series, or at least the first novel in the series, include: on holiday, on a very long journey, when feeling broke – you won’t want to go out if the alternative is reading this in the bath, and when waiting for the new series of Downton Abbey… For although in various interviews Elizabeth Jane Howard said her Cazalet characters are middle- not upper-class, they are a middle-class of the late thirties, which is rather different to that of today. They have staff; they have a family business which earns them plenty of money even though all they have to do is go out for lunch; the men belong to clubs; the boys all go to boarding school and the girls are educated at home; they say things like ‘gracious’ and ‘blast’ and everyone calls everyone else ‘darling’.

Briefly, this is a great family saga which follows the Cazalet family with all its domestic dramas during the Second World War. The Light Years is set during the summer holidays of 1937 and 1938, which are spent down at Home Place – the family pad in Sussex. The Brig and The Duchy rule the roost (though they are not paid that much authorial attention) then come their four children: the sons Hugh, Edward and Rupert – all of whom have married and have children of their own, and Rachel, the unmarried daughter who is in love with a woman.

I suppose reading it now – as opposed to when I was fourteen – I ought to be more fascinated by Howard’s portrayal of the various marriages. Philandering Edward and Villy, who gave up her career as a ballet dancer; Hugh and Sybil, who have a baby in the opening chunk of the book; and failing artist Rupert and Zoe – gosh Zoe, what a character! She has been bred solely for her beauty, is jealous of Rupert’s relationship with his children from his first marriage, and dreads having a baby:

Even if she didn’t die, her figure would be ruined: she would have flabby breasts with the nipples too large, like Villy and Sybil whom she had seen in their bathing suits, her waist would be thick and she would have those fearful stripes on her stomach and thighs – Sybil again; Villy seemed to have escaped that – and varicose veins – Villy, but not Sybil – and, of course, Rupert would no longer love her. He’d pretend to for a bit, she supposed, but she would know. Because the one thing she knew for certain was that her appearance was what people were interested in or cared about: she hadn’t anything else, really, to attract or keep anyone with.

See how clever and nuanced Howard is in her depiction of her characters! Zoe’s is a revealingly shallow and childish view of having a baby – we are encouraged to think how silly and pathetic she is, but Howard doesn’t let us get away with this. Instead, she sets up this interpretation only to undermine it by then encouraging our empathy. Poor Zoe, she reveals, cares so much about her appearance because she is aware that this is all she has. ‘The one thing she knew for certain was that her appearance was what people were interested in or cared about’. How terribly sad this is. How awful to have reached the age of twenty-two and feel that your appearance is the only thing you have, the only reason people like you. Zoe is an unsympathetic character, and yet Howard allows us to sympathise. It’s quite a feat, and one she pulls off with all of them.

So yes, the marriages are interesting, but for me – still – the real joy of this novel is in Howard’s conjuring of the children. It is unusual for children to be so well portrayed in adult novels – Penelope Fitzgerald does it brilliantly as does Ali Smith, but I can’t think of many authors who succeed. Howard delights in her children. We have Louise, Polly and Clary approaching adolescence, arguing fervently about books, wondering about what they want to be when they grow up, grumbling about parents, and indulging in the petty meannesses of ganging up and leaving each other out. And there is Simon, who is just surviving boarding school, and Teddy who dreads having to go; sensitive Christopher whose father is so horrid to him that he wants to run away; Angela who is becoming a young woman and has an all-encompassing crush on oblivious Rupert and silly but kind little Lydia and Neville.

Howard writes about each of them with the respect and understanding of their worries which adults so rarely give children. She captures perfectly the jumble of things, the lack of proportion in a child’s topsy turvy world. Polly, for instance, is shown to adore her cat, spends all her pocket money on bric-a-brac ‘for my house when I’m grown-up’, makes pots of ‘wonder cream’ out of egg white to sell to the unsuspecting servants, but has a real fear of the terribly adult prospect of war.

I loved every minute of reading The Light Years, but I think I’ll hold off the other Cazalet chronicles for now. It seems silly not just to give in to the heaven of all of them at once, but I feel the need to exercise some restraint. As I said, it would be like only eating ice cream and meringues for a month. The characters are well drawn, the world is perfectly created, it is, as the great Penelope Fitzgerald said, ‘a dazzling historical reconstruction’, but it is all SO delicious that I feel it can’t be good for me. Like ice cream and meringues. Heaven every now and then, but it is important to eat some vegetables too.

Reunion

January 19, 2015

reunionThe slight disaster of The Children’s Book left me wanting to read something entirely opposite. I happened across Reunion by Fred Uhlman when doing some Christmas shopping in Persephone Books. It was on their table of books they wish they’d published – always a terrific selection – and caught my eye.

So when I found myself home alone one evening – well I say ‘alone’, but I was of course with little Vita, who was being unusually peaceful and falling asleep on me – I decided to pick it up. In stark contrast to The Children’s Book, Reunion is wonderfully slim at barely 80 pages of large type. Scarcely an hour had passed before I’d finished it. And it was completely brilliant. It was just what I needed as a corrective to the long drawn out anti-climax of AS Byatt.

The genius of Reunion is that it poses as rather an obvious and tragic book, about a Jewish boy in 1930s Germany … but actually it’s about the much more universal theme of friendship. It just so happens that this friendship takes place in Nazi Germany. Unlike The Children’s Book, here history is in the background with the lives and emotions of the characters at the fore; here the tragedy is not the Holocaust, but the severing of a bond between two adolescents.

Hans is enamoured with aristocratic Konradin Graf von Hohenfels from the moment he sees him:

I can remember the day and the hour when I first set eyes on this boy who was to be the source of my greatest happiness and of my greatest despair.

He has a schoolboy crush, with its all-encompassing power. He suffers the agony of feeling inadequate and unnoticeable against this handsome, grand young man:

What could I, son of a Jewish doctor, grandson and great-grandson of a Rabbi, and of a line of small merchants and cattle dealers, offer this golden-haired boy whose very name filled me with such awe?

Hans is determined to befriend him, and shows off one gym lesson, succeeding in attracting his attention. Next he courts his curiosity:

A few days later, I came to school with a few Greek coins – I had been collecting coins since I was twelve. I brought a Corinthian silver drachma, an owl of Pallas Athene, a head of Alexander the Great, and as soon as he approached his place, I pretended to be studying them through a magnifying glass.

Gosh it’s so painful to read! How well Uhlman captures that awkward teenage time when you’re trying so hard to impress someone while pretending to be casual and uninterested. Then, three days later, when going home from school:

I saw Hohenfels in front of me and he seemed to hesitate and to be waiting for somebody. I slowed down – I was afraid of overtaking him – but I had to go on, for it would have looked ridiculous not to and he might have misunderstood my hesitation. When I had almost reached him he turned and smiled at me. Then, with a strangely gauche and still hesitant movement, he shook my trembling hand. ‘Hello, Hans,’ he said, and suddenly I realised to my joy and relief and amazement that he was as shy and as much in need of a friend as I.

I can’t remember much of what Konradin said to me that day or what I said to him. All I know is that we walked up and down for an hour, like two young lovers, still nervous, still afraid of each other; but somehow I knew that this was only a beginning and that from now on my life would no longer be empty and dull but full of hope and richness for us both.

It is so brilliantly rendered! That feeling of astonished relief when you realise that your idol is actually not so different from yourself, that they even seem to want to befriend you. Then that curiously blissful, exciting awkwardness of getting to know each other, the tentative first steps towards closeness.

The two boys strike up an intense, naïve friendship, where they are ‘inseparable’ and passionately debate matters like the existence of God, Post-Impressionist art and the theatre. They survive being horribly embarrassed by their parents … and then perhaps I shouldn’t say what happens next as this is where the plot thickens and twists and turns and it gets very good and moving indeed.

It’s an unexpected book. I opened it thinking I’d get one thing and found quite another. And even the brilliantly understated context, which could all be so obvious, was unexpected. For instance, it would have been easy to pile on the clichés and make Hans’ family extremely Jewish, but instead they are entirely assimilated, every bit as German as they are Jewish. His father is proud of his uniform from the First World War. His mother:

used to give money to the Jews for the assistance of Jewish children in Poland, and to the Christians for the conversion of Jews to Christianity.

Reunion reminded me how something so slim can be so powerful. That hour’s reading made a far greater impression on me than the previous two months’ slog. I felt that Uhlman could easily have written much much more, filled pages with moments of their friendship, details of their home life and school days, but he chose to be concise. He says just enough for the reader to glimpse the most important elements of a scene and thereby get it, rather than filling in every last distracting detail. I suppose he’s not unlike the great Penelope Fitzgerald in this respect. So I shall be concise too and just say, next time you find yourself with an hour to spare, you should pick it up.

The Children’s Book

January 12, 2015

The Children's BookThere are many reasons why it took me such an age to finish A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book. The baby, the house move, the bits of work I’ve got on the go (incidentally here is the other piece of journalism I mentioned) … and one must take into account the book’s considerable size of over 600 pages.

But, truth be told, I’m afraid that it took so long because I didn’t especially enjoy it.

Usually I am all for giving up on a book that I’m not enjoying. Life’s too short and there are too many books to squander my precious reading hours on something for which, for whatever reason, I’m not in the mood. It’s not that I won’t ever get around to reading the book in question, more that the current moment might not be the right time to have a go. Perhaps this is never more important to remember than when weighing up a thick book. Chances are, one’s reading time is pretty fragmented – the odd snatch here and there to and from work, or an occasional treat for the bath. If it’s a thick book that isn’t grabbing you, then it’s going to not grab you for weeks, possibly months, and you might find you stop reading altogether.

I say all this, and yet I stuck with The Children’s Book. I wanted a long, immersive novel to get my teeth into, a richly imagined world which I could inhabit during the many ‘feed-reads’ which pepper my day, baby in one hand, book in the other. I wanted a world which my sleep-deprived brain might find sufficiently real to let me step into whenever I opened the cover, an exciting destination where I looked forward to arriving during these days where time has gone all wonky, a place I could tell Vita all about when I chat to her and she gurgles back. I wanted a good big book, and instead I got an average one. For the thing that was so annoying about The Children’s Book is that it wasn’t quite bad enough to put down.

It begins promisingly enough – two boys, Tom and Julian, discover a third, Philip Warren, hiding in the basement of the South Kensington museum (which is now the V&A). Philip turns out to be a talented artist and is taken off by Tom’s bohemian mother Olive and adopted into their lives. It could be the beginning of an adventure story in which we follow Philip or Tom or indeed Olive and see what happens next … but alas it’s not. We follow all of them and many many more. Byatt has a huge cast of characters – most with slightly daft names like Prosper, Griselda, Pomona, Geraint – and we leap around between them, spending just enough time with each to awaken our interest, but not enough to empathise fully.

Perhaps a large book demands a large cast of characters, but with all the great big books I’ve read, there’s been one character who has dominated, to whom we are encouraged to relate. Middlemarch has Dorothea, for instance, Bleak House has Esther, and Jane Eyre of course has Jane Eyre. With The Children’s Book Byatt flits from one to the other so that just when you’re beginning to get engrossed in, say, Philip’s storyline you have to leave him in favour of someone else. It’s a real tease! I kept on going because I quite wanted to know what happened to some of them, but it was so fragmented that I never derived much satisfaction in the finding out.

As if the abundance of characters isn’t enough, there’s also a huge wealth of historical detail. It feels as though Byatt has taken pains to let every single fragment of research get its place and wants us to take note of the months she must have spent in the archives. Each scene is so painstakingly described, especially if it contains a work of art or five, that you can’t see the wood for the trees. My little nephew who is only eleven said to me the other day that he didn’t like it when writers describe things too much because then you can’t see it as clearly in your own imagination. I fear AS Byatt will not be the writer for him.

Gosh this is turning into one hell of a grumble. I could also whine about all the historical great people like Oscar Wilde, JM Barrie and HG Wells who pop up as gratuitous cameos, but I shall stop myself, because I hate grumbling too much about a book. I must remember that I stuck with The Children’s Book to the bitter end and there were moments that were good. For instance, when Herbert Methley (another writer) visits Olive and sees she is writing he says:

‘Do not let me disturb you, dear Mrs Wellwood. No one knows better than myself the horror – the vein-freezing unpleasantness – of having the flow of writing disrupted.’

It’s true, there’s nothing worse, and ‘vein-freezing’ is the perfect description when the flow of words feel like one’s actual life-blood. (Strange, though, that this should come in a book where, as I have grumbled, the flow of writing is endlessly disrupted.) There are extracts from Olive’s stories for her children – chilling and gripping fairy tales of a boy in search of his shadow, or a boy who joins the fairies, or a girl who peoples her dolls house with real little folk only to suffer the same fate herself at the hands of a giant. These stories were the best bits for me – I only wish there were more of them.

There is a good moment about the power of knowing one’s been lied to and a striking bit about a character who was so damaged from analysis that he now tries only to look at the surfaces of things:

‘I know I must live by staying on the surface. Like those flies that walk on water. Like a painted flower on a plate.’

Perhaps then, this is the ultimate book of surfaces. Its pages are littered with things and dates and facts and names. We look at the surfaces of all Byatt’s characters and see a pleasingly complicated pattern in the way they intermingle with each other and the greater picture of Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. It’s all very clever and neat in spite of the messiness of so many plot lines, but I never quite managed to dive beneath.

Apologies for the miserable post … on to something better!

AS Byatt

Emilybooks of the Year

December 17, 2014

The thing about sleeping in 3-4 hour chunks is that time bends into something altogether new. So when I say it’s been an age since I last posted here, I mean an age in a peculiarly nebulous sense. It has been an amount of time of which I can’t really conceive. Life before Vita – what was that?

I had hoped to be writing here a little more regularly, but little Vita has proved to be rather a lot to take on and doing everything one-handed means it all takes twice as long. We’ve also moved house, and any writing time I’ve managed to carve out has been siphoned into a couple of journalism commissions which sprung up and couldn’t be refused. There’s one for the Spectator, which you can read here. And the other one is still in the pipeline, so watch this space…

But wow it’s Christmas next week, which is thoroughly disorienting. Not only is it the first Christmas after Vita and therefore, as I explained, it has approached in a strange new way, it is also the first time for years that I’ve not been working in the bookshop during what is always a madly busy, derangedly exciting time. So I thought I must stir myself from my semi-comatose state at least enough to be able to write my EmilyBooks of the Year – for that has become a Christmas tradition from which I would hate to part. So I hope you enjoy the round-up below. The links go back to my original reviews of them, in case you’d like a little more info on the various books.

Looking back on what I’ve read this year has proved both enjoyable and revealing. I think everyone ought to do it, as an exercise in self-reflection. If so, I’d love to hear how you get on and any of your picks for books of the year.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns2014 introduced me to rather a large clutch of what I might fondly term ‘EmilyBooks’ – the oft-overlooked but brilliant novels that I adore reading. I picked many of these for the Walking Book Club, so thinking back to them now yields very happy memories of chatting away on Hampstead Heath. The Home-Maker and Fidelity, two Persephone Books, were both extraordinary. Both are set in small-town America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both are about women who step beyond their allotted place – going out to earn the family’s living, or having an affair with a married man. Both books are good on how society struggles to handle these misfits, and how the misfits are strong enough to survive. (Incidentally, we were honoured to have a week of the excellent Persephone Post – the Persephone Books daily blog – inspired in part by Vita!) Other brilliant old novels discovered this year include Angela Carter’s Wise Children, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (but only read it if you are ready for something seriously harrowing), William Trevor’s Love and Summer, Elaine Dundy’s excellent The Dud Avocado (a MUST if you are going to Paris) and – perhaps my two favourites – Meg Wolitzer’s brilliantly funny and very clever The Wife, and Barbara Comyns’ disarmingly simply told and terribly affecting Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. This last will definitely be a future walking book club book – it is tremendous!

The Letter for the KingI was pleased (and not surprised) to see how many of my books of 2014 are published by Pushkin Press. Those of you who’ve not yet discovered this terrific independent publisher, which specialises in bringing the best European fiction to our shores, should do so NOW. Red Love by Maxim Leo is a fascinating family memoir – I’d say it’s up there with The Hare with Amber Eyes for the way he manages to get the bigger picture of history through the filter of his immediate family. It’s all about the GDR and how the author’s two grandfathers – one a Nazi and the other a freedom fighter – could both come to believe so fervently in the new regime. There was also Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, strange and brilliant, and Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, also strange and brilliant. Both have an eerie, dreamlike feel to them, and thinking back on the now it’s this special atmosphere of the books that has really stuck with me, rather than the ins and outs of the plots. A special mention should go to Pushkin’s children’s book The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. I started reading this as soon as I went on maternity leave, thinking that it would be the ideal gripping piece of escapism for my exhausted brain. It was, and I spent a heavenly few days on the sofa with it. In fact I enjoyed it so much that the husband wanted to read it as soon as I had finished. And then I went into labour. And rather a lot of that strange first day of labour, before we could go into hospital, was spent with me rolling around on a big pilates ball while the husband read the book and I kept asking him irritating questions about where he’d got up to, only he wasn’t allowed to be annoyed with me because I was in labour. Ha! Truth be told, I think having such a good distraction for a book was the only thing that kept him sane, so thank you Pushkin!

Where Angels Fear to TreadJourney by Moonlight is just one of several books I read that are set in Italy, as our blissful two month sojourn in Lucca called for a great deal of geographically appropriate literature. Looking back on it now, I still can’t really believe we got away with it – two months of eating ice cream and lazing around, reading, writing, sketching, sleeping … I wonder if Vita, who was wriggling around in utero, might grow to love these books too? Certainly I’m sure she will share her mother’s love of pasta.

Thinking of pasta, there was The Leopard, with its infamous macaroni pie, a wonderful novel, which I loved discussing on a walking book club at the Perch Hill Feast. There was Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence – obviously good, because everything by her is good, but perhaps not quite as good as her others. Christ Stopped at Eboli – a classic piece of anthropological observation, which made Southern Italy in the 1930s seem like another world entirely. There was Portrait of a Lady, which was good but something about James’ coldness, and the nastiness of it all, made it seem rather sour. Best of all the Italy books was the double-Forster hit of A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread – it was such a treat to have an excuse to revisit them.

H is for HawkI loved re-reading various classics this year, as well as the Henry James and the EM Forsters, there was Brideshead Revisited – so much more enjoyable to read for pleasure rather than studying it for A Level – and Jane Eyre, every bit as good as I remembered, and also Pride and Prejudice. This last was wonderful, and the other thing we did when I went into labour was watch the boxset of the BBC adaptation – a great way to pass quite a lot of time!

There was a substantial chunk of non-fiction: The Examined Life, which was the perfect January book – ideal for a bit of sober self-examination. How to be a Heroine – a paean to many brilliant novels, written so charmingly that you end up feeling that Samantha Ellis is a bit of a heroine herself. The Rings of Saturn, which was a rare instance of a book being both heavy-going and brilliant – I kept wanting to say thank you Sebald, for stretching my brain in so many of these bizarre directions. And, finally, two wonderful memoirs: The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg – astonishing insight into Germany during the war, written by an English woman who’d married a German – and H is for Hawk, which I adored so much that I nearly called my daughter Mabel in homage to the hawk. I was very happy to see that this won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

How to be Both by Ali SmithI also enjoyed some new novels: the wonderful Chop Chop by Simon Wroe, who I should say is a friend, and I should also say has just been shortlisted for the Costa Prize – hurrah!!! And also Homecoming by Susie Steiner, which I started off thinking would be all about sheep farming, but actually it’s about families and change. And there was, of course, the supreme treat from Ali Smith: How to be Both. How I adored this book. Smith has a way of writing that makes modern fiction seem so exciting and makes me feel lucky to be a reader.

Last but not least, comes a book which is particularly special to me: Park Notes by Sarah Pickstone. Not only is this a beautiful book about women writers finding inspiration in Regent’s Park, but it also features my first ever piece of work to be published in a book!

I hope this little round up might provide some inspiration for Christmas reading, or indeed shopping. Once we get to 2015, Emilybooks will be back for real, and so will the walking book club – our next meeting is on 25th January to discuss Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. Vita’s rather excited about it!

Park notes

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


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