The Member of the Wedding

November 18, 2015

I can’t tell you how delighted I was when someone got in touch out of the blue and asked me if I might do a walking book club for her friend’s hen party. Yes, that’s right, a HEN PARTY. An occasion which usually calls for things like shots, novelty straws, strippers, embarrassing games usually to do with sex, and pink garters… yet here was a lady wanting to organise a hen party where everyone would go for a walk and talk about a book. This was evidently my kind of girl. (You can read about my own very literary hen party here.)

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullersOf course I said yes please, and put my mind to choosing a good book. I settled upon The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers – short, wedding-ish, unusual, and absolutely bloody brilliant.

As the day drew near, I began to feel a little apprehensive. What if everyone turned up smashed? What if nobody liked books, or walks, and were all very cross at discovering this wasn’t actually a hilarious cover for a pole-dancing lesson? It was certainly pretty likely that nobody would have read the book. I scribbled down more notes than usual, prepared to summarise some bits, read other bits aloud, and thought of some suitably vague questions in an attempt not to exclude people who hadn’t read it. When I told friends about what the weekend held in store, they merely laughed and advised me to fill my handbag with rudely-shaped sweets, and booze, ‘just in case’.

You can imagine my relief, then, when the gaggle of girls (plus a couple of boys) turned up looking fresh-faced, full of beans, suitably studious, and with some very fetching dog balloons in tow. The bride looked perplexed. Nobody looked drunk. And to my astonishment EVERYBODY had read the book, even the bride – who had somehow been coerced into it without realising why.

So off we set across Hampstead Heath, the rudely-shaped sweets burning a hole in my pocket and now seeming wildly inappropriate. I was relieved that I’d also thought to bring along some less offensively shaped almond biscuits baked by the husband.

The Member of the Wedding took Carson McCullers (a woman – she dropped her first name ‘Lula’ when she was 13) five years to write and was first published in 1946.

Frankie wants to be a ‘member of the wedding’. She sees her brother, who’s just come back from Alaska, with his fiancé and realises:

They are the we of me. Yesterday, and all the twelve years of her life, she had only been Frankie. She was an I person who had to walk around and do things by herself. All other people had a we to claim, all other except her.

Frankie wants to be part of something which, of course, she can’t be. It’s a desire that ripples through the novel. Frankie is left out by the older girls, who ‘said she was too young and mean’ to join the clubhouse where they have parties with boys on Saturday nights, but is also ‘too tall this summer to walk beneath the arbour as she had always done before’ with the other younger children. She is caught between youth and adulthood, not allowed to be a member of either. So McCullers lets her novel take the appealing form of a coming-of-age story.

‘They are the we of me’ is such a haunting phrase. Made up of single syllables, with a simple rhyme, it harnesses both the shining naivete and the fervent belief of childhood. It is painful in its purity. Here McCullers has put simply a feeling from which we all suffer – an acute desire to belong to something to which we feel a kinship. And, of course, the phrase conjures its shadow of impending exclusion.

These twin forces of connexion (McCullers spells it with an x) and exclusion are at play throughout the novel. They are there with Frankie and her brother’s wedding and there in Frankie’s in-between state of not-quite-child-not-quite adulthood.

They are also there when it comes to race. In Ali Smith’s superb introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, she points out that Carson McCullers railed against the racism of the American South even as a child, ‘yelling with rage at the taxi driver who had refused to take her parents’ black cook in his cab.’ Frankie is refreshingly colour-blind, having a close bond with her family’s black cook Berenice, and, when she walks through the town, McCullers writes that ‘she crossed the unseen line’ which divides it into its black and white areas.

Towards the end of the book, there’s a powerful scene when Frankie is sitting around the kitchen table with Berenice and John Henry, her much younger cousin. Frankie has determined to leave home and so:

On this last evening, the last time with the three of them together in the kitchen, she felt there was some final thing she ought to say or do before she went away.

The atmosphere is portentous, as though Frankie is just on the verge of a discovery, is about to say something of weight:

Strange words were flowering in her throat and now was the time for her to name them.

‘This,’ she said. ‘I see a green tree. And to me it is green. And you would call the tree green also. And we would agree on this. But is this colour you see as green the same colour I see as green? Or say we both call a colour black. But how do we know that what you see as black is the same colour I see as black?’

McCullers is canny in her choice of colours: green points to Frankie’s own greenness, her youth and naivete, and black could not be more loaded, especially as this is said to Berenice, the black cook. A little later in their conversation, Berenice says that she is ‘caught worse than you is’:

Because I am black … Because I am coloured. Everybody is caught one way or another. But they done drawn completely extra bounds around all coloured people. They done squeezed us off in one corner by ourself … Sometimes it just about more than we can stand.

So McCullers uses Frankie’s ‘flowering’ of new words and feelings and womanhood as a means of discussing racism. She shows that colour is a deceptive means of bringing people together: ‘we would agree’ on a tree being green, but ‘how do we know that what you see as black is the same colour I see as black?’

This idea of miscommunication and understanding different meanings from the same word appears again when Frankie meets a soldier. He asks her:

‘Who is a cute dish?’

We get the flirtation, but Frankie is puzzled:

There were no dishes on the table and she had the uneasy feeling that he had begun to talk a kind of double-talk.

This ‘double-talk’ gets a whole lot worse later, but I must avoid spoilers.

Really The Member of the Wedding is ‘double-talk’ writ large. It purports to be a simple coming-of-age story about twelve-year-old Frankie, but in fact Carson McCullers addresses racism, death, The Second World War, and, perhaps more profoundly, these universal ideas which are so painful to read about because they are so acutely observed: the fact that we all misunderstand each other, the fact that we all want to belong to things from which we are excluded.

We all had a great deal to say as we strode across the Heath on this literary hen party. The discussion grew especially impassioned as we talked about the violence that punctuates the book … but then, quite suddenly, everyone was laughing. I turned round to see what had happened, surely not everyone found the ‘cute dish’ pun as funny as all that?

A naïve dog had been charmed by a particularly attractive canine balloon. The dog was now sniffing the balloon’s bottom, looking disappointed and more than a little confused. Poor dog, I thought. No doubt, he had seen the doggy balloons and thought, They are the we of me.

dog balloon

Ali Smith

November 11, 2015

Last week, I went to see the magnificent, inspiring, funny, genius writer Ali Smith talk at the Hampstead Arts Festival. Her words are pure gold. I especially loved the way she talked about a book being alive because it is an organic object:

Books are spines and they are skins and they are tree, and when we open them up they are wings.

This poetic image hovered in sharp contrast to her description of the ‘flatness’ of reading on screen. She compared books to animals again later, telling us that an author must respect the life and the wildness of their work, and quoting John Berger:

You cannot look at a wild animal, a wild animal has to look at you.

Pure gold, I tell you!

She also talked persuasively about the perilous state of our libraries – the subject of her new book, a collection of short stories entitled Public Library. I wrote this up for Intelligent Life magazine here: Ali Smith’s Call to Arms

Public Library by Ali Smith

The Secrets of the Wild Wood

October 14, 2015

A man came into the bookshop the other day with a long white beard and extraordinary eyebrows. My jaw dropped and I only just managed to stop myself asking, ‘Are you the Master of the Wild Wood?’

the secrets of the wild wood by tonke dragtYou see I was currently in the middle of Tonke Dragt’s wonderful children’s classic The Secrets of the Wild Wood, written in 1965 and now translated into English for the first time by Pushkin Press. This is the second book – the first was The Letter for the King – and continues the adventures of young knight Tiuri and his sidekick Piak across a magical land, questing and battling for good over evil. Most of the action of this second book takes place in the Wild Wood, where there are mysterious Men in Green and – even more mysterious – Tehalon, the Master of the Wild Wood.

The man in the bookshop was not Tehalon, I soon discovered. I had my doubts when I saw the bottle of vodka in his hemp bag, and these doubts were confirmed when he said, ‘The thing about libraries and bookshops is that they always have such pretty girls working in them.’ Oh dear, I thought, as I handed him his receipt while trying to make my wedding ring as visible as possible. ‘You’re all right,’ he continued, ‘but you should see the girl in my local library, she’s a f**king stunner.


I have to say that this exchange rather unfairly clouded my opinion of Tonke Dragt’s character, but no matter, it remained an incredible book and one I recommend to all readers – both young and old.

As more seasoned readers of Emilybooks might be aware, I adore reading a good children’s book every now and then. Favourite occasions for indulging in children’s literature include Christmas, whenever I’m ill, or when I’m struggling to get engrossed in a more grown-up book. Since having a baby, my mind has been rather more prone to being all over the place than before. Free time is so precious and yet it is hard to enjoy it when one is so exhausted (STILL??!!!) and one’s brain feels quite feeble. This means that a book needs to be really great to keep me gripped, otherwise I don’t have the strength of either will or body to pick it up, keep going and before I know it I’ve stopped reading a book altogether and my only reading matter is a Mumsnet forum about teething.

So I put down the rather dry book that I’d been not reading for the past fortnight and picked up this instead. The Secrets of the Wild Wood is the best part of 500 pages and I read it in under a week. (I’m aware that this doesn’t sound quite so impressive to those of you without babies.) The story is gripping, the scale epic, and Tiuri a hero with nerves, flaws and feelings which make him very easy to relate to. But I suppose the true feat of the book is how Dragt’s world of quests and adventure, knights and mysteries, which is a million miles from my reality, can be so powerfully rendered, so utterly immersive that for that brief moment it felt entirely plausible that a character from her world could step into mine.

I adored both of Tonke Dragt’s books – and so did the husband. I should add that this last one is the only book he has read in months that isn’t a cookbook (an obsession with which I will not meddle as I am getting so many yummy dinners out of it). Now we both feel rather bereft of Tiuri, Piak, Lavinia and co. Oh Pushkin – has Tonke Dragt written anything else that you might translate? Please?

Tonke Dragt

Rubyfruit Jungle

September 21, 2015

Does anyone else think of September as being an enormous Sunday night? There’s that scary back-to-school feeling, and the need for new shoes and perhaps some snazzy new stationery. At least Vita seems incredibly pleased with the addition of a pair of shoes to her wardrobe. She has taken to trying to walk, very excitedly and proudly, hanging on to my hands while practising her peculiarly straight-legged stomp as far as she can (or my back permits) before sitting down and clapping her hands.

Vita is now at nursery two days a week, which is a change. This is so that on Fridays I can be back at work in the bookshop, and on Thursdays I can get some writing done. Last Friday was my first day back and it was wonderful. There were all these things I could do, like read a book, talk to people about books, rearrange books on tables … and I realised how much stronger I’ve got – books, even huge towers of them, are so much lighter and easier to manoeuvre than a wriggling baby desperate to show off her idiosyncratic goosestep!

Who knows how the writing will go, and whether I’ll return to the novel-in-progress, or start afresh, or spend the extra time pursuing journalism. Help, it feels far too scary to think about!, so instead let me point you towards my latest two articles: a piece I wrote for The Guardian about Odd Mondays … and another for The Spectator about the library in The Jungle migrant camp in Calais. I’d love to know what you think of them.

Anyway, all this September chat is to make the point that there are times in one’s life which can feel well maybe not quite like ‘turning points’, as that sounds so naf, but certainly like a change, as though you’re climbing up to the next step, with all its accompanying challenges. And for me, for some reason, this usually happens in September.

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae BrownSo it was very lucky that while Vita was settling in to nursery and I was sent off to sit downstairs or in a nearby café while she got used to it, ready to be summoned if she bawled, when I wasn’t biting my fingernails and suffering a horrid anxious sinking feeling , I read the perfect September book: Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown.

This is a novel with a brilliant, clever, ballsy, brave heroine, who is determined to succeed in spite of terrible circumstances and several knockbacks. And it’s very funny, right from the start:

No one remembers her beginnings. Mothers and aunts tell us about infancy and early childhood, hoping we won’t forget the past when they had total control over our lives and secretly praying that because of it, we’ll include them in our future.

I loved it from the first sentence, the way that ‘no one’ is given the possessive ‘her’ rather than the more common ‘his’ or the fence-sitting plural ‘their’. Obviously this is going to be a feminist book, I thought, and full of insight – although I fear it may be Vita who has total control over my life rather than the other way round – told in a chatty, conspiratorial way that made me instantly warm to Molly Bolt, our heroine. By the end of the first page, we learn that Molly is ‘a bastard’ and see her friend Broccoli’s notably uncircumcised ‘dick’. It sets the tone for the rest of the novel, in which there is a lot of bad language, and a lot of talk about sex, especially lesbian sex – so those of you who blush easily, you have been warned.

Molly Bolt tells her story, beginning in ‘a rural dot’ in Pennsylvania, where she is an illegitimate child, very poor, very bright and a vociferous tomboy. She falls in love with her classmate Leota B, and asks her to marry her. When Leota points out that girls can’t marry each other, Molly responds:

‘Look, if we want to get married, we can get married. It don’t matter what anybody says. Besides Leroy and I are running away to be famous actors. We’ll have lots of money and clothes and we can do what we want. Nobody dares tell you what to do if you’re famous. Now ain’t that a lot better than sitting around here with an apron on?’

From the start, Molly is determined to do what she wants and won’t let anyone get in her way. If what she wants is against the rules, then the rules are stupid and she’ll change them. She is quick to point out the hypocrisy of the adult world. If she and Leota love each other then why shouldn’t they get married? When her family move to Florida, her parents tell her off for using the ‘Colored Only’ toilets. Her father explains that here, ‘down South’, things are different from the North and ‘the whites and the coloreds don’t mix’. Molly says:

‘Daddy, that’s no different than up home in York. They just don’t put “Colored” over the bathroom doors, that’s all.’

Defiantly, she continues:

‘I ain’t staying away from people because they look different.’

Molly’s forever being called a ‘smart-mouth’ and told to shut up, but she refuses. She will speak her mind and certainly this reader is grateful for her persistence.

After High School, which Molly negotiates with aplomb, she gets a full scholarship to the University of Florida in Gainesville, ‘the bedpan of the South’. (She has to go there rather than to the better universities because they don’t offer her such generous scholarships.) Molly’s successful career there falls apart when her lesbian affair with her room mate is discovered, and the committee informs her that her scholarship ‘could not be renewed for “moral reasons” although my academic record was superb.’

It’s a kick in the teeth and Molly does what many of us would do, gets a bus home. Only, when she gets there her mother greets her with:

‘You just turn your ass around and get out … You never obeyed nobody’s rules – mine, the school’s, and now you go defying God’s rules. Go on and get outa here. I don’t want you. Why the hell you even bother to come back here?’

Molly, unfazed, leaves and determines to hitchhike to New York City, in spite of having only $14.61 in the world, reasoning ‘there are so many queers in New York that one more wouldn’t rock the boat’.

Even in New York, Molly won’t stick to the rules. Firstly she refuses to slot into the ‘butch and femme’ scene that dominates the lesbian scene, saying:

‘That’s the craziest, dumbass thing I ever heard tell of. What’s the point of being a lesbian if a woman is going to look and act like an imitation man?’

She refuses to be a wealthy older lesbian’s kept woman even though she is broke, and instead gets a partial scholarship to NYU film school, working nights at ‘The Flick serving ice cream and hamburgers in a bunnyesque costume.’ When she gets fired, she finds another job as a secretary:

I roared into the office in complete female rig – skirt, stockings, slip. I couldn’t cross my legs because some of the more obvious sperm producers would try to look up my leg, couldn’t put my feet on the desk because that wasn’t ladylike, and if I didn’t wear makeup everyone, including the boss, would ask me if I was ‘under the weather’ that day.

I love the thought of ‘roaring into the office’. From now on, I am going to roar everywhere and not worry about permanently looking ‘under the weather’.

Molly graduates from film school, in spite of everything, including the fact that all the equipment gets given to the men, only to find that none of the film companies will give her a job unless it’s as a secretary. It’s another setback, but, she says, ‘what the hell’, it’ll take more than this to stop her:

One way or another I’ll make those movies and I don’t feel like having to fight until I’m fifty. But if it does take that long then watch out world because I’m going to be the hottest fifty-year-old this side of the Mississippi.

Rubyfruit Jungle is a terrific novel about not giving up, and never compromising on what you stand for. It’s hard to succeed, and perhaps it’s harder for Molly than for most, but she keeps fighting. It’s an inspiration and exactly what you need to read in September – I can’t recommend it highly enough if you, like me, are in need of a little pepping up. Now, if I feel a little feeble, I think of roaring around like Molly and I think ‘Watch out world!’

Peking Picnic

September 4, 2015

Today feels like the last day of the summer. Now September is here, shoes and socks are back on feet, cheesy carb cravings return, holidays are over and everyone’s staring down the cold hard barrel of autumn. If you, like me, are in need of a little something to help you cling on to those long hot days with a last burst of escapism, might I suggest the glorious Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge …

Peking Picnic by Ann BridgeI began reading Peking Picnic with an enormous Scotch egg, which was, I reasoned, rather an appropriate accompaniment. After a gruelling few days while Vita had struggled with a nasty virus, I was exhausted. Far too exhausted to cook supper, hence the oversized egg, which I consumed, along with the book and a large glass of whisky, in the bath.

Peking Picnic, written in 1932, is by Ann Bridge, the pen name of Mary Ann Dolling O’Malley, a diplomat’s wife. It is Bridge’s first novel and was an immediate success, winning the sizeable Atlantic Monthly prize. Ann Bridge went on to write several novels, which often featured the same winning combination of troubled upper-class heroine, social satire, and romance, all in a minutely observed exotic environment. As well as these ‘foreign office novels’, she wrote travel books, family memoirs and a series of detective stories. (I wrote about her very charming Illyrian Spring here.)

Back to the bath, where I wanted a Peking panacea for the hell of the last few days. I have rarely been so grateful for fiction being such an effective vehicle to a different life. This thing disguised as a paperback was in fact a pocket-private-jet-time-machine, ready to transport me to a louche world of cocktails and dressing for dinner, spiced with romantic intrigue. Yet the first sentence seemed to be a warning:

To live in two different worlds at the same time is both difficult and disconcerting.

Of course Ann Bridge doesn’t mean my two worlds; she is referring to the ‘inhalfness’ of her heroine Laura Leroy, stuck between the adult world of China, where she is a diplomat’s wife (like her author), and that of her children left behind in Oxfordshire. We first encounter Laura at a party, ‘but she was not really seeing any of it’, instead her gaze rests on a memory of her son playing cricket, sufficiently vivid to include:

the little freckles on the white forehead and the big ones on the bridge of that snub nose.

So at first Laura Leroy seems rather a wistful figure. She has ‘vague fits’ in which her mind drifts and she forgets she is mid-conversation; or else she seeks out solitary spots to sit and daydream about her children (though she is almost always disturbed by men telling her how ‘deliciously cool’ she looks in the heat).

Soon, however, we discover all sorts of unexpected characteristics beneath her willowy exterior. We first glimpse Laura’s ingenuity and efficiency when she consults a ‘profit and loss account book’ in which she keeps track of ‘lunches and dinners given and received’:

They are all written up in that, and when I am giving a party I can turn anyone up and see at once what I owe them, and work them off. I balance it once a quarter or so and start afresh.

I find this to be an inspiration, but Laura’s wide-eyed niece questions the insincerity of her system. Laura matter-of-factly responds, ‘It’s a job.’

Strictly speaking, it is not her job, it’s her husband’s. For an unofficial diplomat, Laura is certainly highly skilled: not only does she have her clever profit and loss entertaining system, but she speaks excellent Chinese, is adept at gleaning political information through the servants, and, as we see at the book’s climax, she remains calm in a crisis and is exceptionally good at thinking on her feet. Looking at it from the perspective of the twenty-first century, it is a travesty that Laura isn’t drawing a salary, that her account book is used only for social engagements, not a wage.

The Peking Picnic of the title is no brief British jaunt into the countryside, with rugs, strawberries and Scotch eggs; it is a three-day expedition, involving donkeys, river-crossings, temple lodgings, and begins amidst rumours of oncoming war. We take in the sights, conjured with Bridge’s painterly eye – things are:

sharply coloured even in the distance under the pouring glittering brilliance of the intense light, detailed beyond European belief in the desiccating clearness of the bone-dry air of Central Asia.

Most members of the picnic party are at varying stages of falling in love with each other, and the expedition is very much an opportunity for musing about the nature of love. When asked if her husband is ‘the great love of your lifetime’, Laura says, somewhat disarmingly, ‘He’s one of the three’. She thinks extra-marital affairs are fine, providing the husband doesn’t suffer the cruelty of knowing about them and so long as she has ‘the intention of permanence’ with each lover rather than being merely ‘promiscuous’. Perhaps Ann Bridge, whose husband was something of a philanderer, wants to make the point that women can stray too, or maybe she wants to show that a marriage can work in spite of taking an unorthodox form.

It seems that everyone is a little bit in love with Laura Leroy, and who can blame them? The more time I spent with our heroine, the more I fell for her. In particular, I grew to admire her eccentric strain of practicality. One of my favourite examples of this takes place when they arrive at the temple where they are to sleep. Laura ‘set to work with a practised hand to arrange her few effects’:

Taking a couple of nails from her trouser pocket she drove them into the wall with a brickbat picked up in the courtyard, and hung her pocket mirror on one and her towel on the other.

I instantly forgave Laura the vanity of treasuring her pocket mirror for the tomboyish dexterity with which she happens upon a couple of nails in her pocket and hammers them into the wall. Later, when the picnic party gets into a tangle with a group of Chinese soldiers, Laura’s peculiar combination of charm, wisdom and nous makes her a brave and formidable heroine indeed.

On the face of it, a bunch of expat toffs and eccentrics going on an expedition and getting into a fix sounds like a daft storyline, but Bridge creates a substantial shadow to her lighthearted caper by reminding us of the perennially close presence of death. One of her characters grimly remarks:

‘You don’t get ill in Peking – you die; in about forty-eight hours, as a rule.’

At the temple, the picnickers witness a soldier murdering a monk, ‘plunging the bayonet into his body – once, twice, a third time’, until the dead body rolls over ‘with a horrible boneless collapse’.

Equally uncomfortable to read, though unintentionally so, is Bridge’s habit of passing observations, often ventriloquized through Laura, on ‘the Chinese race’. This was written in 1932, we must remember, before the full horror of thinking along such racial lines became unforgettably apparent. If it is an effort to get over the racial stereotyping, it is at least made easier by Bridge’s sympathetic, detailed and nuanced view of the Chinese.

For instance, we are informed that the Chinese use compass points for directions rather than left and right – ‘both a more civilised and a more intellectual way of giving directions than our own’. Laura observes ‘that loveliest of Chinese inventions, the small pipes bound to the pinion feathers of pigeons, so that the birds cannot fly without creating this ethereal music’ and wonders, ‘who would not love and honour a race which could devise a thing like that?’ When an American companion asks Laura if she thinks it strange or shocking that the Chinese use human beings ‘for the work of beasts’, she springs to their defence:

I don’t think hauling a cart or pulling a rickshaw is nearly as unhealthy as being a stoker on a liner, nor as dangerous as coal-mining, and it’s certainly far less demoralising than leaning against a wall all day and drawing the dole.

These moments of acute and surprising observation bring to mind the writing of another diplomat’s wife, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She travelled to Turkey in 1716 and wrote a series of extraordinary letters in which, with great panache, she turned Western prejudiced perceptions of foreign customs on their head. The two of them make me wonder if every diplomat’s wife holds such intelligent and unexpected opinions.

I began Peking Picnic in the bath, and finished it a fortnight later, snatching twenty minutes on a park bench while the baby napped in her pushchair. I’m sure I’m not the first mother to note the difficulties of reading with a baby: not only do you have a new person to nurture, entertain and keep alive, there is so much more to do by way of housekeeping, so much less sleep and, to cap it all, babies love nothing more than pulling off one’s reading specs! When reading time is so precious, choosing the right book is essential. Luckily, Peking Picnic could not have been better, for not only did it transport me so effectively to another – far more glamorous – world, but at the heart of this world is a mother who remains decidedly ambivalent towards it. Our heroine glides through the cocktails, parties, romance and adventure while her ‘spirit’ luxuriates in memories of her children. Yes, I adored escaping the domesticity of new motherhood to adventure in 1930s China, but it was reassuring and pleasantly life-affirming to think that wonderful Laura Leroy would prefer to be at home with her children after all.

Ann Bridge

Hanns and Rudolf

August 12, 2015

You’ll be pleased to hear that life at Emilybooks has improved since the last post-disastrous-holiday post. Much time has been spent making the most of Britain’s lovely sights and cooler climes. While the husband was away at a stag weekend, Vita and I summoned a few pals for a trip to Eastbourne for fish and chips on the beach and a squizz at the Towner Gallery, where there’s an excellent William Gear exhibition – you can read Rachel Cooke’s intriguing review of it in the Observer here. (We were all ready to fight any menacing seagulls who so much looked at Vita.) Another weekend, Vita resided with her doting grandparents while the husband and I disappeared off to a wedding in Scotland, and nearly reeled ourselves sick (at least I think it was the reeling, I suppose it could have been the whisky), and then, last week, another doting grandparent took us all off to a sunny spot in Gloucestershire, where we had a glorious time, not least when we attempted to inspire Vita to live up to her name by looking around the beautiful gardens at Highgrove. I had to restrain her from tugging the heads off the flowers, which I take to be a sign of great promise.

Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas HardingIt was on the train up to Scotland, luxuriating in the heaven of not having to entertain a baby for the four and a half hour journey, that I read most of Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding. This book did terribly well when it was published a couple of years ago and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, in part because he has a new book coming out this autumn.

Thomas Harding traces the stories of his great-uncle Hanns Alexander, a German Jew who fled Berlin for London in the 1930s, and Rudolf Höss, who became the Kommandant of Auschwitz. Harding explains why he was so drawn to the story:

In my comfortable north London upbringing, Jews – and I am one – were cast as the victims of the Holocaust, not its avengers. I had never really questioned that stereotype until I fell into this story. Or, to be more accurate, it fell to me. This is a Jew-fighting-back story

Although a great deal of the book is taken up with a trajectory with which we are familiar – Aryan German from humble beginnings flourishes under the Nazi regime and acquires a great deal of wealth as he persecutes the Jews versus rich Jew managing to escape to London just in time even though this means losing most of his money and having to start again – Harding continues the story and shows what happens when the tables turn. Hanns Alexander joins the British Army and then works for the War Crimes Investigation Team; Rudolf Höss flees Auschwitz, separates from his family and goes into hiding while his family suffers acute poverty. Before long, Hanns is tasked with finding Rudolf, so we see the hunter become the hunted and vice versa. As Harding says, we see the Jew fighting back … and winning.

Hanns and Rudolf is exciting. Harding tells his story using alternate chapters – one focussing on Hanns, the next on Rudolf – and it is fascinating, sickening and gripping in equal measure to watch their lives spin out in such different directions while being pulled along by the knowledge that they will come together at the climax. It is, as it says in the puffs on the cover, ‘a thriller’.

Except, of course, it isn’t. It’s a true story; the true story of a terrible episode in our history. Hanns and Rudolf is not a novel based on, or inspired by, real events, it is the raw truth itself. Throughout his book, Harding reminds us of his tale’s truth – the prose is thick with facts, heavily illustrated with photographs, and there are many notes detailing his research at the back – but he tells it with a keen eye for the tale itself. He presents the facts in thriller form, and thereby renders history as story.

This certainly makes Hanns and Rudolf a good read. The problem is I think that, morally, this story ought to be a terrible read: a grim heavy book that makes you feel the full horror of the six million Jewish lives lost during the Holocaust. Perhaps Harding has hit on something when he talks about how rare it is to find a ‘Jew-fighting-back’ story rather than a Jew as victim story, and no doubt it is this which lends the narrative this element of a thriller, earning cover puffs from John le Carré and Frederick Forsyth. Also quoted on the cover is Max Hastings in The Sunday Times, saying the book ‘deserves a wide readership even among those who think they are bored with the Holocaust’. I think it is not OK to give being ‘bored with the Holocaust’ as an option, but perhaps there is something in this … If people really are bored with the Holocaust as presented in appropriately grim heavy books, then maybe this is why this book – a thriller – did so well. It is a very troubling idea to get one’s head around.

Even more troubling is the extent to which Harding’s storytelling prowess makes the reader empathise with one of his main characters. Rudolf.

Take this, for instance. Rudolf has just met Himmler, who’s told him it is time to implement ‘the Final Solution of the Jewish question’ at Auschwitz and that millions of people will be sent there to be killed:

Rudolf returned to Upper Silesia with mission in hand, but no clear idea how to achieve its objective. He knew he would not be able to kill enough prisoners using Phenol injections, and shooting them would not work either. Not only were bullets expensive but, from his time overseeing the executions in Sachsenhausen, Rudolf learned that executions have an emotional impact on firing squads – resulting in excessive drinking and increased suicide rates – and therefore could not be scaled up to any large degree.

Part of the solution was found two months later when Rudolf’s thirty-nine-year-old deputy, Karl Fritzsch, told him about an experiment which he had recently completed. Fritzsch had thrown some Zyklon B granules – used at the time to exterminate the camp’s vermin – into a small cell in Block II holding a group of Russian prisoners. After waiting only a few minutes, he had observed that all the prisoners had died. There were two problems, he said. First, only a few prisoners could be killed at a time; and second, they had to carry the bodies out by wheelbarrow, which caused shock and anxiety among the other prisoners. Rudolf suggested that if they used the old crematorium on the other side of the block buildings, and adjacent to the villa where he lived, they would be able to kill more prisoners. There would also be an on-site solution to the problem of disposing of the bodies.

Reading this as I type it makes me feel sick. Here is Rudolf coldly discussing the most efficient means of implementing systematic mass murder. It is hard to admit to this, but when I read this terrible passage in the course of reading the book, part of me felt: how is Rudolf going to find a solution to this problem that Himmler’s set him? And, therefore, part of me felt: clever Rudolf for working it out. This is a terrible thing to say; I hasten to add that it is all the more terrible for me to say as a Jew, whose great-grandfather was killed in the camps. But such is the power of Harding’s storytelling, that in following Rudolf’s story, I couldn’t help but see his perspective, and feel partly on his side in spite of myself. I was similarly conflicted when Hanns got closer and closer to finding Rudolf in hiding: part of me instinctively sympathised with the underdog and wanted Rudolf to find a means of escape.

I never thought I would find myself seeing the world through a Nazi’s eyes, certainly not the Kommandant of Auschwitz, and yet I did. As Harding detailed the atrocities Rudolf committed, presenting them in the way that Rudolf would have seen them, it was a real effort to force myself out of Rudolf’s head.

Perhaps this is testament to the power of the book and of Harding’s writing, but I hate to think of other people reading the book and feeling a similar empathy towards Rudolf.

In his author’s note, Harding says:

By calling Hanns and Rudolf by their first names I do not mean to equate them. Indeed, it is important to me that there be no moral equivalence. Yet both of these men were, self-evidently, human beings, and as such, if I am to tell their tales, I should begin with their first names. If this offends, and I understand why it might, I ask for your forgiveness.

Here is the real knot of the book: Rudolf is a human being, and Harding enables us to see this. And this is what is so deeply uncomfortable about the book – in encouraging us to see things from Rudolf’s perspective, you can glimpse how the atrocities happened, how it isn’t completely inconceivable for a human to oversee the genocide of his fellow humans.

There is much more to say about Hanns and Rudolf, but I shall restrict myself to just a couple more points.

Firstly, it was fascinating the way that Harding showed the significance of Rudolf’s capture and testimony. During the Nuremberg Trials, many of the Nazis were on the brink of being found not guilty because in spite of the evidence of the genocide taking place, the men denied their knowledge of it. Soon after Rudolf was arrested, he was called as a witness and confessed that at Auschwitz:

At least two and half million victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half-million succumbed to starvation and disease making a total dead of about three million.

He admitted that he ‘personally supervised executions’ and gave further details of the deaths. The following day, Hans Frank, head of the government in occupied Poland, took the stand and for the first time confessed to his role in the atrocities. When asked, ‘Did you ever participate in the destruction of the Jews?’, he replied:

I say Yes. And the reason I say yes is because I have been burdened by guilt for the five months of this trial, and particularly burdened by the statement made by Rudolf Höss.

Rudolf’s testimony was key to getting the other Nazi war criminals to admit to their guilt – in capturing him, Hanns captured many others too.

And the final point to note is that Harding informs us that when so many Nazi war criminals were held in Nuremberg for the trials, ‘the Americans had instructed a panel of psychologists to conduct extensive interviews and tests with the defendants.’ Harding tells us who interviewed Rudolf: Gustave Gilbert ‘a New Yorker born to Jewish-Austrian immigrants’, and Major Leon Goldensohn, ‘a Jew who had been born and raised in New York’.

It makes me wonder, who were the other American psychologists, and what proportion of them were Jewish? Isn’t it extraordinary – and quite ironic – to think of a bunch of Jewish New Yorker shrinks interviewing this haul of Nazi war criminals? Please could someone write a book about this!

Hanns and Rudolf

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.


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