The Bell

July 20, 2015

What a lot has happened over the past few weeks!

We all went on holiday to Italy, which ought to have been heavenly – I was envisioning a kind of Enchanted April situation, with the addition of a rather squidgy Vita sitting in the shade making sweet gurgling noises – but alas it was broilingly hot, we had a laughably terrible journey, a scorpion took to sauntering around Vita’s cot, she got horribly, worryingly ill with tonsillitis so none of us slept for days as she cried rather heartbreakingly pathetically all night, and, the last straw, I trod on a wasp.

We came home early, all absolute wrecks, and were put back together again by a combination of mothers, doctors, and antibiotics. Emilybooks has resolved that from 2016, we will adopt a strict policy of staycationing during the summer months.

On the up side, as we came home early, I was around and able to write this big feature about the controversial new Harper Lee book, Go Set a Watchman for the Daily Mail.

From one Murdoch to another …

The Bell by Iris MurdochThe Bell by Iris Murdoch was mostly read while I was covered in Vita-vom, with eyes propped open with matchsticks, yet, still, it was a triumph.

It is a shame that Iris Murdoch has fallen so out of fashion. She tends to be dismissed as someone who created ‘novels of ideas’. Such an idiotic phrase! Aren’t all novels filled with ideas? And, surely, it ought to be a compliment in any case?

Well The Bell is bursting with ideas, and, the conclusion from yesterday’s walking book club is that we could have done with another few hours to discuss them all – so much was there to say.

Dora Greenfield, of whom I am rather fond, is a young Bohemian and errant wife. We meet her as she is returning to her (awful) husband, who is staying and working in the archives of an eccentric lay community set up beside Imber Abbey. Here, a collection of misfits is gathered to try to pursue a spiritual life in a beautiful house adjoining the abbey. They do things like cultivate a market garden, listen to a Bach gramophone recital, and sermonise. There is a lake in the grounds, and vigorous, idealistic young Toby, come to stay at Imber before going up to Oxford, shares Iris Murdoch’s love of swimming. When diving in the lake he discovers a medieval bell, which used to belong to the Abbey. So Dora and Toby hatch a plan to swap the new bell which is due to arrive at the Abbey with the old …

Murdoch gives us a rich assortment of characters in her community. Different chapters are focalised through the viewpoints of Dora, Toby and Michael. Michael is one of the leaders of the community and is struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. There are also several others – including the mysterious Catherine, who is to become a nun; her brother Nick, a depressive drunk who Michael used to teach and with whom he was – perhaps still is – in love; busybody Mrs Mark, naturalist Peter, charismatic James Tayper Pace … and a few more. Very cleverly, Murdoch never gives us the perspective of these characters: they are closed, seen only through the eyes of Dora, Toby or Michael. This means that when dramatic things happen late in the book to Nick and to Catherine (I won’t spoil it for you), they come as a complete shock and cast a new light on what has come before. It is perhaps a warning about the subjectivity of experience. It is certainly a means of showing us how very separate and enclosed are her characters’ different perspectives on the world.

Middlemarch by George EliotIt reminds me of a great bit of Middlemarch – a ‘pregnant fact’ to which Eliot draws our attention:

Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person…

Eliot essentially suggests that each character in a novel is like the ‘little sun’ of a candle flame, making the chaos of scratches appear to align concentrically around it – as events can seem to align around one character; but if seen from another character’s point of view, the events all line up completely differently. The Bell is, to my mind, a novel which shows this phenomenon better than any other – each character has such a particular, different take on events, and Murdoch’s clever way of showing us into the minds of three of them, and not into the minds of the others, allows her to pull it off with great panache.

This idea of lots of little separate worlds all coexisting, as seen in the characters’ viewpoints, can be extended in the novel. There is the closed world of Imber, and within that the world of the Abbey. There is also this rather beautiful description of Toby’s swimming in the lake:

He stood, poised on the brink, looking down. The centre of the lake was glittering, colourlessly brilliant, but along the edge the green banks could be seen reflected and the blue sky, the colours clear yet strangely altered into the colours of a dimmer and more obscure world: the charm of swimming in still waters, that sense of passing through the looking-glass, of disturbing and yet entering that other scene that grows out of the roots of this one. Toby took a step or two and hurled himself in.

Toby seems to keep on hurling himself through barriers into enclosed spaces, other worlds. There is another moment when he climbs over the Abbey wall; there are his forays into the different worlds of homosexuality and heterosexuality, and the latter even takes him into the cavernous bell itself (you have to read the book really for that to make sense).

All these little worlds alongside each other is perhaps why sound plays such a strong part in The Bell. Birdsong, the Bach gramophone recital, singing the madrigals, the dreadful portentous bark of a dog at the end, and the great tolling of the bell – Murdoch conjures Imber as much through its sounds as anything else. Not only does this appeal to our aural sense make Imber all the more vivid, but Murdoch’s use of sound is pertinent because sound is something that can surmount barriers, can cross between the worlds: you can’t see what’s behind a wall, but you can hear what’s behind it. When Dora rings the bell, everyone is summoned, from all their different enclosures, and the following day hundreds of people are there to witness the bell ceremony. Sound is a great unifier in this novel of so many separations.

There is much more, but I think I must leave it there or risk droning on for too long. Suffice to say The Bell is just brilliant. It may feel quite dated, but it also is funny, clever, thoughtful and eccentric. I can see why many people say this is their favourite of Iris Murdoch’s books. Though if I were to be completely honest, love it though I did, my all time favourite has got to be Iris Murdoch’s first novel – also funny, clever, thoughtful and eccentric, but more picaresque and very Londony – Under the Net.

As ever, I’d love to know any of your own Murdochian thoughts in the comments below…

Iris Murdoch photographed by Mark Gerson in 1958 - the year The Bell was published (National Portrait Gallery)

Iris Murdoch photographed by Mark Gerson in 1958 – the year The Bell was published

Little Boy Lost

June 17, 2015

Little Boy Lost by Marganita LaskiLittle Boy Lost by Marganita Laski was the book for discussion on Sunday’s Walking Book Club. It was a drizzly day but actually the weather was to thank for a particularly pretty walk, as we found a sheltered route which took us off to quiet and wild bits of the Heath, as opposed to our usual busy Parliament Hill climb.

Little Boy Lost is published by the wonderful Persephone Books, known for publishing ‘domestic’ fiction, largely about women in the early- to mid-twentieth century. Somewhat unexpectedly then, Little Boy Lost, though written by a woman, is about a man.

Hilary, a poet and intellectual, goes to France after the Second World War to look for his lost son. He has only seen his son once, as a baby. Through various complicated backstory twists, his son, now a child, is somewhere unknown in France. Pierre, the husband of a friend of Hilary’s wife, turns up and explains that it has become his life’s mission to discover the whereabouts of the missing boy. Later, when Pierre thinks he might have found the boy, Hilary is summoned to France to try to identify him.

One of the biggest questions in the book is whether or not the boy is Hilary’s son. Will Hilary recognise a family resemblance or mannerism? Will the boy remember anything about his earlier childhood, or his mother? What counts as conclusive proof? Hilary is adamant that he will only look after the boy if he is his son.

Of course when we meet the boy in the orphanage, a poor little thing in ill-fitting clothes: ‘its sleeves were too short and from them dangled red swollen hands too big for the frail wrists’, he is so pitiable with his poor circumstances and good nature that we long for Hilary to take care of him, regardless of his parentage.

Laski has set up a tricky opposition here: the reader wants Hilary to adopt little Jean, and yet Hilary stubbornly persists in searching for proof that he’s his son. So we don’t particularly like Hilary, for this seemingly selfish behaviour against this child’s innocence, and I know you’re never supposed to say things like you don’t like a character, or found a book difficult for not liking a character, but surely it is vital to empathise with a novel’s main protagonist, and when the main protagonist persists in not doing what you want him to do, this can be problematic.

So, why does Hilary act so selfishly? Why does it matter so much to him that the boy is his? In part, he is scared of reawakening his emotional life. He catches himself daydreaming of a happy scene of reunion with the boy:

It would be wonderful beyond words, he told himself dreamily – and then he realised what he was thinking. It can never be like that, he said, there is nothing left in me to make it possible that it should be like that. The traitor emotions of love and tenderness and pity must stay dead in me. I could not endure them to live and then die again.

After Lisa’s death, he thought:

It would have been better never to have been happy, never to have felt love and tenderness and all those things, than to have known them and then lost them.

Pierre points out, ‘if the boy is found, those things will be found again too.’ Then:

‘I don’t want them,’ Hilary cried harshly. ‘…I couldn’t endure being hurt again; I’d sooner feel nothing.’

So Hilary is afraid of feeling, of opening himself up to being hurt again. If the boy isn’t his son, then he is let off the hook.

Hilary hunts about for other reasons too. There is a terrible moment when he says to Pierre that he is afraid of claiming the wrong boy, in case his actual son would then ‘turn up somewhere quite different’. Pierre assures him this won’t happen:

Not if I can help it, he added to himself. Not through him would Hilary ever know of the boy who mouthed and whimpered in an asylum at Tours, who could well, for dates and blood-tests and all that was known of his history, be Hilary’s son. Nor would he tell him of the little boy who was now the sole consolation of the parents near Lyons whose own two boys had been caught by the Gestapo and tortured before they died…

This glimpse of the stories of these other boys opens out Hilary’s quest to encompass, in a flash, the fate of the many many other children and families whose lives were turned upside down by war. Elizabeth Bowen wrote in her review that this is the story of ‘every lost child of Europe’, and certainly here you suddenly see the awful bigger picture. I found this to be one of the most moving moments of the book, made all the more so by the way it was casually thrown in, almost in parentheses.

Why else does Laski choose to put Hilary in such a predicament about the boy? Early in the novel, Pierre tells Hilary about a conversation he had with his wife in which she argued for the importance of acting as an individual rather than subordinating your morality to a group.

The only good thing we can do, the only goodness we can be sure of, is our own goodness as individuals and the good that we can do individually. As groups we often do evil that good may come and very often the good does not come and all that is left is the evil we have pointlessly done.

Perhaps this – being sure of doing good as an individual – is the underlying philosophical wrestle of the novel. Leaving aside Hilary and his son for a moment, Laski also portrays the complex moral situation of being in France during and immediately after the War. Hilary asks Pierre, ‘Don’t you wonder, with every stranger you meet, what he did under the Occupation?’ Pierre replies:

We each did under the Germans what we were capable of doing; what that was, was settled long before they arrived.

This is a terrible thought: it isn’t war which forces you to act badly, rather the war brings to the fore a predetermined aspect of your character. I couldn’t help but think here of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, in which the protagonist finds himself acting heroically because of the war even though he feels himself not to be a hero:

Now he found himself the leader of a thousand men who were strangely leading him to be all the many things he was not.

It’s the opposite perspective. In The Narrow Road, this realisation happens when the protagonist turns down an offering of steak, in spite of the fact he is starving in a POW camp, and insists on it being shared out. Hilary in Little Boy Lost, by contrast, tucks into Black Market steak at a French hotel, managing to assuage his guilt about the terrible deprivation of the orphanage rather easily.

Little Boy Lost is a novel about how an individual makes choices, how his moral compass swings and wavers during and after the War. We walking book club readers all wanted Hilary to adopt the boy regardless of his parentage, as do many of the respectable characters in the novel, but Laski insists on Hilary choosing for himself, as an individual, rather than giving into pressure from anyone else (the reader, or another character). The decision, when it happens at last, is all the more powerful for being self-determined.

I suppose ‘what you would have done in the War?’ is one of those questions that everyone asks themselves, wondering how we’d behave when challenged to the core by such a dreadful situation. Laski shows us here that it isn’t just wartime that provides a challenge; big difficult decisions persist and we must choose what we – as individuals – feel to be good.

(By the way, here is a piece about collecting rare books which I wrote for the latest issue of The Spectator.)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

May 19, 2015

Sorry (again) for the long gap between posts but rest assured, I’ve not been idle …

The walking book club discussing Ali Smith's How to be Both

The walking book club discussing Ali Smith’s How to be Both in the sunshine

Last week, as well as Sunday’s gloriously sunny walking book club, when we discussed Ali Smith’s staggeringly brilliant How to be Both (which I’ve written about here), aided by a cheering bottle of Bailey’s sent courtesy of the Bailey’s Prize, I took another book club – sitting, not walking – as part of the Asia House Literary Festival.

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthFor this, I picked Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, in part because it’s set in Asia, thereby being appropriate for the festival, but also because it seems to be a book of the moment, having won the Booker Prize, and recently out in paperback. As you might have gathered, I adore Ali Smith’s book, which was on the Booker shortlist, so for this to have trumped that, I was expecting something pretty extraordinary.

And I’m afraid I was disappointed.

But credit where it’s due: the core of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is very good indeed. For those of you who don’t know, it is largely about Australians in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp during the Second World War, building the Burma Railway. There is a great deal about the awful conditions – the rain, the heat, the dysentery, the mud and the lack of food and medical supplies, and the effect of this on the hundreds of men: ‘there were only the sick, the very sick and the dying’. Richard Flanagan’s father was a Japanese POW; in a radio 4 interview, Flanagan said how he talked to his father about the details of his experience rather than anything large, and how in his writing he describes the small-scale because ‘the truths existed in the shit and the mud and the rock and the rain’.

This focus on detail means that the POW camp is brilliantly rendered and terribly oppressive. An especially powerful passage is when Dorrigo Evans – our hero of sorts, a doctor in command of the prisoners – performs an amputation. The equipment was:

Contrived out of bamboo, empty food and kerosene tins, and bric-a-brac stolen from the Japanese – bottles, knives and tubes out of trucks – it was a triumph of magical thinking. There were candles set in reflectors made out of shaped tin cans, a steriliser made out of kerosene tins, a bamboo operating table, surgical instruments made out of honed steel stolen from engines and kept in a suitcase that sat on a table so the rats and mice and whatever else couldn’t crawl over them.

He uses a kitchen meat saw to amputate, and a table spoon to keep the pressure on the wound. A gut twine is employed to do the stitches, ‘improvised out of a pig’s intestine casings’:

These had been cleaned, boiled and pared into threads, then cleaned and boiled again, then boiled a third time before the operation. Compared to surgical ligatures, they were coarse, but they held. But this time he was sewing into nothing, wetness, a blur of tissue and blood.

Each and every thing adapted and used for surgery is described with such a close eye that you can really see it in front of you – the scene comes to life. Perhaps this is particularly apt here as the surgery needs to be so precise, and all these precise details contrast so well with the mess of it, the ‘nothing, wetness, a blur of tissue and blood’.

So that’s the good bit. If only this were the total of the book: a triumph of reconstructing life in a Japanese POW camp.

Alas, there is more … rather a lot more. There is a very hackneyed love story, which doesn’t just have embarrassing sex scenes – ‘bodies beading and bonding in a slither of sweat … her lips were parted just enough for her shallow pants to escape, a short, repetitive cascade of sighs …’ – but is also full of clunky coincidences, e.g. the pretty woman Dorrigo meets in a bookshop turns out to be his uncle’s wife.

I suppose I could forgive it the sloppy love story, but the love story is a symptom of a much larger problem with the book. It is so baggy. Rather than being about the POW camp, realised in such intense detail, Flanagan has extrapolated out from this. We get Dorrigo and his love story, but we also get moments with the other surviving POWs and the Japanese and Korean guards. And there is a seemingly entirely gratuitous bit about Dorrigo rescuing his family from a forest fire. There is just too much; it is trying to be too many things at once.

Even stranger is that after the intense detail of the POW camp, for which huge chunks of the book are given over to capturing the precise horror of it, we then get the rest of a Japanese guard’s life, for instance, in just a few pages. Having looked down the microscope, we are now give a telescope; we’ve been in backwards slo-mo and now we are in fast-forward and it feels highly discombobulating.

Presumably the multiple perspectives are supposed to foster a sense of empathy with the different characters, showing us that the guards are not pure evil because they also like poetry, and that the POWs are not pure victims they also act nastily when they suspect one amongst them of stealing a duck egg, but I don’t think Flanagan’s quite pulled it off, especially when time is thrown so playfully into the equation too.

It’s not a terrible novel, bits of it are very good, I just wish it could have stuck to those bits rather than stitching on all the baggy rest of it. And quite how it could have won the Booker Prize – especially when up against the genius of Ali Smith – is beyond me. But, no doubt, some of you feel differently, so please argue (or agree!) in the comments below – I’d love to know what you think and why I just didn’t get it.

The Uncommon Reader

April 20, 2015

The thing with babies is that you think you’re just beginning to get it sorted and then something changes. In this instance, Vita got ill. Which meant that she stopped sleeping. Which meant that I stopped sleeping. Which meant that I got ill.

It was horrid, but at least it happened when we were staying with the husband’s grandparents in Jersey, together with the rest of the in-laws, so there were masses of people around to help look after Vita. This meant that I got to spend a whole day in bed, with the sprog being brought in every few hours for a feed. True, I felt ghastly with a high temperature, sicking up my guts and fainting etc., but there was something about having a whole day of lying around not having to do anything other than try to stomach a bit of an oatcake which was undeniably heavenly.

It meant that I could READ!

The Uncommon ReaderOne of the many good things about staying with the husband’s grandparents is that their house is filled with books. Bursting with books. Thousands and thousands of them. Each room is filled with its own literary delights – beautiful collections of poetry in the drawing room, old-fashioned children’s books in the breakfast room, detective stories in one bedroom, novels with an Austen theme in another …

It just so happened that in my room, aka the sick bay, there was a copy of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for years (I even own a copy, languishing on a shelf somewhere) and I’ve often wondered why I’ve never quite got around to reading it; it’s very slim, after all. But I now think The Uncommon Reader and I must have been waiting for this exact time and place.

It was perfect. Better even than paracetamol downed with a can of coke.

It is not a modern take on Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader, it is a clever, funny novella about The Queen (yes that uncommon reader) discovering a love of reading.

It begins when she happens upon a mobile library parked round the back of the palace. She takes out a book of Ivy Compton Burnett, dutifully struggles through it, and returns for a Nancy Mitford. She is soon hooked on books, and begins to resent her usual duties:

She was dreading the two hours the whole thing was due to take, though fortunately they were in the coach, not the open carriage, so she could take along her book. She’d got quite good at reading and waving, the trick being to keep the book below the level of the window and to keep focused on it and not on the crowds.

The Queen wonders why she has become so addicted to reading, what it is about it which she finds so enthralling. She reflects:

Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic … It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who had led a life apart now found that she craved it.

There is something almost revolutionary in this! The Queen likes a republic! But she has struck the nail on the head – this ‘uncommon reader’ rejoices in the commonality of books. The common ground that books provide happens to be my favourite thing about them too. It is such an easy way to strike up a conversation with someone, with anyone. You can be entirely different from someone in terms of age, gender, politics, religion, and everything else, and yet, if you’ve both read the same book, you have something great to discuss.

What follows is an enjoyable, imaginative foray into what the Queen enjoys reading – E.M. Forster, Proust, Anita Brookner, Vikram Seth, Henry James, Alice Munro, the poetry of Larkin and Hardy, and, alas, not Harry Potter (‘one is saving that for a rainy day’), and her various aides’ feeble attempts to keep this dangerous new habit under control.

Moreover, the Queen is moved to jot down a few words of her own: some notes on her reading and on life itself. So, like many keen readers, the Queen feels the pull of writing … and comes to face the conundrum of how she can both reign and write. You had better read the book to find out her solution.

The Uncommon Reader provides a charming, imaginative glimpse into how the Queen might live, somewhat terrorised by her many equerries, and tyrannised by her many tedious appointments. There’s a good digression about the Royal family’s ‘supposedly unguarded moments’, for instance the late Queen Mother muttering ‘I could murder a gin and tonic’. Bennett reveals that these are in truth ‘just as much a performance as the royal family at its most hieratic’:

This show, or sideshow, might be called playing at being normal and is as contrived as the most formal public appearance, even though those who witness or overhear it think that this is the Queen and her family at their most human and natural.

Word gets back to the Queen’s equerries that these seemingly human moments are occurring less often. They are disgruntled but unable to say anything, as they too are in on the pretence of these not being a performance. When one ventures to tell the Queen she was ‘less spontaneous this morning’, she confesses to having ‘almost maternal’ feelings to her subjects. The equerry is embarrassed:

This was a truly human side to the monarch of which he’d never been previously aware and which (unlike its counterfeit versions) he did not altogether welcome. And whereas the Queen herself thought that such feelings probably arose out of her reading books, the young man felt it might be that she was beginning to show her age. Thus it was that the dawn of sensibility was mistaken for the onset of senility.

Alan Bennett is brilliant at showing the ridiculous Catch 22 of the Queen’s situation. She is expected to seem natural, but when she actually is natural, she disappoints. And he writes with such style – Austenish in his balancing of observation, wit and poignancy. That last sentence, for instance, is a winner:

Thus it was that the dawn of sensibility was mistaken for the onset of senility.

The Uncommon Reader is very short, very funny and very clever. It is very British. But really what I loved about it most, was reading about someone discovering a love of reading. There is nothing better than witnessing the dawning of this great joy, and, rather soppily, it made me feel very excited about Vita making the same discovery in years to come.

Finally, a note to say that, wonderfully, you can listen to the talks from the Daunt Books Festival here.

The Daunt Books Festival

March 31, 2015

The good news is that Vita is sleeping much better at night. This means that we had some friends round the other evening and I managed to have a conversation – a real conversation in which I was able to process what my friends had to say and then respond, perhaps not in a particularly nuanced fashion, but it was certainly better than staring mutely as their words drifted past while my head was filled instead with a mixture of Vita’s delightful antics and a neurotic exhausted obsession with the possibility of sleep. This means that in the morning I am able to speak before knocking back a cup of tea. This means I can get to places on time, rather than half an hour late. This means that the unreal static haze that had descended over everything has lifted. This means wonder.

This means, however, that she sleeps less during the day. I had got used to the luxury of her naps (which at their best went on for four whole hours, but even at their worst lasted for a solid hour), but now these have shrunk to half hour glimpses of freedom, in which I just have time to get the boring stuff like laundry done before she reawakens. So my reading has never been so fragmented and scarce. And the writing – pah – the most I can manage is to respond to an email. It seems as though the written word is like the slim wild grasses which cling to acres of dusty sand dunes. A sparse promise of the pastures that await … though I needn’t wait for long as Vita’s grannies are going to start looking after her a little bit every week.

So my apologies for the long absence of a blog post. These will become regular again just as soon as life with Vita settles down a bit.

In the meantime, I thought perhaps you might like an insider’s account of The Daunt Books Festival, which happened on the 19th and 20th March – two very long days in which Vita and her grannies became intimately acquainted …

This is a very long blog post to make up for the surrounding lack thereof. So please feel free to take a break half-way through and consume it in two chunks.

Daunt Festival 2015 pic

I have been working steadily on The Daunt Books Festival since August, with a little gap around Vita’s birth, and then sudden bursts of activity when needs be, such as when writing the programmes (a sign of my not being on the best of forms was that we got the first thousand printed with 2014 on the front instead of 2015) and the flurry of last-minute organisation in the week of the festival itself. Suddenly, after a million emails, it was the night before, and I was in the bookshop, and it felt like being a child on Christmas Eve. We hung up copious amounts of yellow bunting, arranged daffodils and made everything look pretty. Perhaps it was less fun for the men who put out all the very heavy chairs, and I have to say cleaning the loos is never my favourite job, but there was something rather satisfying about the sparkle at the end. I hurried home to a late supper of fish fingers and felt terribly excited.

Alex Clark, Samantha Ellis and Anne Sebba

Then there was the terrific thrill the next morning as people began to arrive and I had the thought ‘this is happening, this is actually happening’ again and again. We had unbelievably delicious treats from Honey & Co for the first event ‘Choosing your Heroines’ with Samantha Ellis (whose very charming book How to be a Heroine you can read about here) and Anne Sebba – biographer of many real-life heroines, chaired by the awe-inspiringly clever critic Alex Clark. It was a wonderful opener, and I’m honoured to say you can read more about it on the TLS blog here.

Tim Dee and William Fiennes

Afterwards, we had Tim Dee and William Fiennes (with Monocle Café macaroons) talking eloquently about nature and birds, and also very fascinatingly about language. I loved the way they talked about ‘human nature’ in particular. It was especially impressive as William Fiennes had had a baby just two weeks ago! And there he was having a very clever conversation with no trouble at all…

Rachel Cooke and Virginia Nicholson

Next up were Virginia Nicholson and Rachel Cooke discussing women of the fifties with the aid of Ginger Pig sausage rolls. It was completely brilliant and they managed not to be derailed by hecklers – one lady in the audience stood up and rather laid into them for talking about a woman’s life as though it were an interesting specimen of the time rather than a poor soul suffering emotional abuse. It got quite hairy and dissent threatened to spread, but the duo dealt with it admirably and the talk continued, with everyone staying on their toes rather than slumping too far into the comfort of 1950s nostalgia, which was I think for the best.

By this point, I was struggling to sit upright as so much milk had collected into my Vita-less breasts. So I left Brett to commandeer the musical interlude – some talented Royal Academy students performing their own quite amazing interpretation of Alice in Wonderland – while I hid in the basement, apron on, pump out, squeezing the squeaky thing away and filling up a couple of bottles of the good stuff much to the amusement, interest and perhaps faint disgust of my fellow booksellers. Time too to gobble a sandwich and, though I am ashamed to admit my gluttony, another half a sausage roll, before listening to Michael Rosen, translator Anthea Bell and chair Julia Eccleshare discussing Erich Kastner and other German children’s classics.

Then the evening events. First Owen Jones electrified the room with Owen Hatherley. I think everyone was taken aback by how young they both were, and how clever and right on and so very left-wing that some of the audience got rather hot under the collar. Alas I had to miss a chunk of this while I was downstairs pumping again, but the bit I saw had such an atmosphere, you felt almost as though you were on the edge of a revolution. While this crowd then queued up for forty-five minutes for Owen Jones to sign their books and shake their hands, an almost entirely new crowd flooded in for Lady Antonia Fraser talking to Valerie Grove about her childhood. It was a lovely talk, and blimey the tone couldn’t have been more different – it was very funny to listen to her clipped accent discussing her wartime childhood after Owen Jones’ more colloquial polemic about our political future.

We had a bit of a clear up and managed to leave by ten thirty, and I returned home to a night of rather interrupted sleep as Vita seemed hungrier than ever and rather keen to nestle close after our day apart.

**** This might be where you’d like to take a break and return to part two another time. ****

Emily's festival walking book club

The next morning and I was reminded of the horror of commuting via Highbury & Islington during rush hour, and how horrid everyone is on the tube when you aren’t pregnant or carrying a baby. I arrived rather frazzled but was put in a much better mood as the gang assembled for a special Emily’s Walking Book Club around Regent’s Park (thanks to Emma for the lovely photos). I hadn’t realised the solar eclipse was to happen a quarter of an hour before we started but it was so cloudy nothing much happened anyway. It was bitingly cold, but we were sustained by delicious biscuits from La Fromagerie. We discussed Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (more on that here) and it struck me that maybe Comyns’ unique, unnervingly dismissive tone which is so thunderstrikingly powerful is the sad reason that she’s so overlooked. If she had written it more seriously, more chest-puffing-outily, more arrogantly and self-importantly, then perhaps the establishment would sit up and listen rather than brush it to one side. The irony is, of course, that its brilliance lies in its understatement. Not unlike the great Penelope Fitzgerald.

I returned, rather rosy cheeked, to the bookshop where I bumped into a dear friend who’s moved to San Francisco. He said he thought he’d drop in as he was in the area and couldn’t believe that there was my pic in the window saying sold out right next to Michael Palin who was also sold out. I neglected to explain to him that there were rather fewer spaces for the walking book club than for Michael Palin, and for a moment felt very grand indeed.

short stories signing

The two lunchtime talks were ‘In Praise of Short Stories’ (with Rococo hot chocolate) and ‘Russians in Paris’ (with La Fromagerie Bakewell tarts) – both excellent, indeed so good that it made me think next year perhaps we should ditch the 45 minute lunchtime limit and stretch them out as I could have sat there all afternoon listening and felt a bit cross when they had to stop. I adored listening to Tessa Hadley (who, wonderfully, had spent the whole of the previous day at the festival and – great literary trivia here – is Tim Dee’s cousin), the very charming Colin Barrett and talented new writer Julianne Pachico read their work. Their event was chaired by Laura Macaulay, who runs the publishing side of things at Daunt and is a great friend, and was a most excellent chair.

For ‘Russians in Paris’ we had the very bright young translator Bryan Karetnyk and the ebullient Peter Pomerantsev talking to brainbox Nick Lezard about Russian émigré writers of the 1920s who ended up in Paris, specifically Gazdanov (see here) and Teffi. It was a fascinating glimpse of this scene, about which I knew very little. Peter Pomerantsev was very funny, and was very embarrassed when he realised he’d been calling Bryan ‘Boris’ for half of the talk.

Then, what joy, the husband brought in Vita so I could have a little cuddle and – more importantly – be thoroughly drained by her rather than the squeaky, less effective, pump. So I missed most of the musical interlude, which was a wind trio performing some fun pieces starring Daunt’s very own Toby Thatcher. It was both heaven and hell to see Vita, and I felt a little glum as I said goodbye to her again, but was cheered by the sudden influx of children for our Robert Muchamore teen event, and most of all by interviewer Philip Womack’s beautiful dog, who was terribly sweet and behaved beautifully while Philip interviewed him (Muchamore, not the dog, who is a girl anyway) admirably. It was amazing to see all the children on the edge of their seats, so excited to meet this icon, and excitedly donning wristbands and grabbing stickers as he signed their books afterwards.

Spies in Fact and fiction

Then for ‘Spies in Fact and Fiction’ – one of my favourite events – as historian Christopher Andrew and thriller writer Charles Cumming talked to James Naughtie. What an amazing man James Naughtie is. He arrived a little early and sat down rather exhaustedly. It had been a long day he said. Tell me about it, I thought, remembering little Vita flapping her arms and wailing every two hours during the very short night, before he confessed to having been up at three to do the Today programme. He wins. He also managed to get the panel to be terrifically indiscreet and let slip a few secrets … which I oughtn’t repeat here though I was lurking near a journalist from The Times, who assiduously scribbled everything down. Everyone said what a brilliant combination of speakers it was, and told me how clever I’d been to put them together. Not nearly as clever as the chaps on stage, I thought, but nevertheless I felt very pleased that it had worked so well.

Then the finale! Brett (who is the wonderful manager of Daunt’s, and indeed started the bookshop with James Daunt) managed to interview Michael Palin, while dealing with all the sound stuff too. He also made a fuss over me and I got some beautiful roses which made me feel very special indeed. It was a fantastic finale. Brett steered the conversation over very literary ground, so we heard all about Michael Palin’s admiration for Hemingway, what he reads when he travels, and how he goes about capturing places both on paper and on film, rather than his Python years. What came across perhaps above and beyond anything else is that Michael Palin has got to be the nicest man on the planet.

And then, just like that, it was over. I folded up the bunting. The chairs went back to the basement, the tables were repositioned, books laid out, wine glasses collected … and whereas last year at the end I felt terribly sad that it was all over for a whole year, this year, the delight of going home to darling little Vita sweetened the pill.

If you’d like to read still more about the festival, Alice at OfBooks has written about it here, and here it is on Life is a Festival too.

I hope you have a lovely, chocolate-filled and literary Easter, and Emilybooks will be back, less sporadically, soon after.

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


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,829 other followers