As you’ll have seen from last week’s post, Thursday 8th November was my birthday. I suspect that you won’t be surprised to hear that I was given a few books as presents. They are all rather special – and one is little short of a miracle.
First, my friend Sophie – evidently inspired by my endless stories of strange things that happen in the bookshop – bought me this funny little book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. It is packed with all sorts of silly lines:
‘Is this book edible?’
‘Do you have any books in this shade of green, to match the wrapping paper I’ve bought?’
‘Hi, I just wanted to ask: did Anne Frank ever write a sequel?’
This exchange is particularly familiar:
Customer: You don’t have a very good selection of books.
Bookseller: We’ve got over ten thousand books.
Customer: Well, you don’t have the book I’ve written!
I still can’t get over quite how many strange things happen in the bookshop. At least once a week, I have an extraordinary encounter. You might remember the time when we chased the notorious Mr Men thief – an old lady who actually had a real get-away car and driver waiting for her outside. Just last week a strange man came in asking for books about herbs and then told me I had the face of an angel. ‘It’s your Grandfather’s face,’ he said, to which I replied that my Grandfather didn’t look particularly angelic.
It is truly an extraordinarily weird place to work, yielding one bizarre encounter after another. But it’s surprisingly tricky to convey the oddness of it to friends. Those exchanges – so loopy when they happen – lose something in translation, fall a little bit flat, and I’m usually left with a yawning husband trying to change the subject, while I wonder how I can be a writer and such a terrible story-teller. One day, I will sit down and write a book about it, and maybe then, I’ll manage to convey something of its strangeness. For now, at least I can comfort myself with this record of other booksellers’ similarly peculiar encounters – thank-you Sophie!
My aunt-in-law (probably the wrong technical term) gave me a very handsome Everyman edition of Doctor Thorne by Trollope. This was particularly good timing as I have been longing to get stuck into a big thick engrossing novel, rather than all these slim ones to which I seem to have grown addicted. Added to which, a friend just got back from her honeymoon and said that one of the best bits was reading so much Trollope. Praise indeed! I must read some, I thought to myself, as I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read any Trollope at all. No excuses now, I can’t wait to begin.
My mother-in-law gave me a beautiful exhibition catalogue of Sylvia Plath’s drawings. I hadn’t realised that Plath was an artist as well as a poet, and it’s fascinating to look at these intricate, beautiful drawings. There seems to be a honeymoon theme amongst these birthday books, as many of Plath’s drawings date from her honeymoon with Ted Hughes, in Paris and then Spain. They are mostly of things – pots and fruit, stoves, bottles, a few of buildings – roof tops, a ‘colourful’ kiosk, and not many of people.
I remember studying Plath’s poetry when I was at school, I think it must have been for GCSE. Bits of them have stayed resolutely with me, which is surprising as I have a terrible memory for specific quotations and am usually much better at hanging on to the gist of things, while the actual words are forgotten.
Not so with Plath: I still have ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’, and the ‘bald cry’ of the child, mouth ‘clean as a cat’, ‘vowels rising’ from ‘Morning Song’. I remember ‘the swarmy feeling of African hands’, and the horrid idea of a coffin ‘of a midget, /Or a square baby’ in ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’. Most of all, I remember her poem ‘Mushrooms’ – ‘nudgers and shovers / In spite of ourselves’ – the threatening feeling of which freaked me out so much that I’ve struggled to eat our fungal friends ever since. Now I think of it, I suppose that like her drawings, her poetry is often full of things, rather than people. As Carol Ann Duffy, who has just brought together a selection of Plath’s poetry in another very beautiful book, wrote for the Guardian recently:
A vocational poet like Plath gives life back to us in glittering language – life with great suffering, yes, but also with melons, spinach, figs, children and countryside, moles, bees, snakes, tulips, kitchens and friendships.
Children and friendship are almost lost amongst the melons, spinach, figs, moles, bees and all those other things.
I’ve saved the miracle for last.
My mother very sweetly and thoughtfully told me that she’d like to buy me a special book – a first edition of something I loved – and suggested that it could be repeated every year, so she could help me to build up a library. (You might remember that she gave me this beautiful set of Virginia Woolf letters and diaries for my twenty-first.) So off we trotted to Peter Harrington, a fine antiquarian bookshop in Chelsea.
We went upstairs to the twentieth-century literature section where I let my eyes drift slowly across the very tall bookcases, packed with tantalisingly old and special-looking books. I stopped towards the end of the Bs, when I saw Bowen’s Court by Elizabeth Bowen. I’ve not read many books by Elizabeth Bowen, but those I have, I adored. (I wrote about Bowen’s Court itself here, The Heat of the Day here, and The House in Paris here.) I asked the bookseller if he had any other books by Elizabeth Bowen, thinking that this might be a chance to get a special edition of one of her books that I had yet to read.
The bookseller leapt off his antique chair and bounded over to the bookcase. ‘That Elizabeth Bowen’s a great book,’ he said.
‘I know,’ I replied, ‘I’ve read it.’ I felt a little smug, for not many people have read Bowen’s Court, an idiosyncratic history of her ancestral home, Anglo-Irish family and Ireland itself, which is now out-of-print.
‘Look.’ He fished it down from the shelf and opened it up.
My eyes nearly dropped out of their sockets. There on the first page was this:
I realised then that when the bookseller had said it was a great book, he wasn’t talking about the writing, but the actual thing itself. This was a great book indeed.
I picked it up and held it, feeling the book weigh heavy in my hands. I told myself that I was holding a book that E.M. Forster had held. This was the actual book that Elizabeth Bowen had given to E.M. Forster. They had both held it, one after the other. I wondered if she had posted it to him, inscribing it, wrapping it up and taking it to he post office to send. Or perhaps she had given it to a mutual friend, who she knew would be seeing him soon. Or perhaps she gave it to him herself, when she went round there for tea one day. ‘Morgan, I do hope you like my new book,’ she might have said, over a slice of cake. There is a whole story here in this book aside from the one written in its pages. This story is nearly invisible, its traces remaining in that pencil inscription and in where it might fall open more easily (pages 62-3, 98-9, 222-223), or where there are liver spots of moisture (page 83), even a corner a little bent (229).
I read Bowen’s Court after I came across it in Alexandra Harris’ wonderful book Romantic Moderns. I thought it would be useful research for my own novel, which is about the stories held in a derelict house, and added it to my list of ‘house books’ – books in which houses have a real presence, along with those like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House and E.M. Forster’s Howards End.
When it came to writing my novel, there were three quotations from all my house reading that I found particularly inspiring and which I decided to use as epigraphs. The first is from Howards End by Forster:
Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly but to an afterlife in the city of ghosts.
The second is from Bowen’s Court:
With the end of each generation, the lives that submerged here were absorbed again. With each death, the air of the place had thickened: it had been added to. The dead do not need to visit Bowen’s Court rooms – as I said, we had no ghosts in that house – because they already permeated them. Their extinct senses were present in lights and forms.
So you see, to have chanced upon Forster’s copy of Bowen’s Court, so soon after finishing the first draft of my novel, felt like a miracle.
I can’t wait to read all these books – to giggle at other booksellers’ weird encounters, to become thoroughly absorbed in a huge dollop of Trollope, to gaze at these drawings of objects that inspired such a poet, and to hold Bowen’s Court in my hands, gently turning the pages while thinking of Forster doing the very same thing in June 1942.