Three true stories

‘Why are you directing us around the IKEA car park?’ the husband asked on that day when it was suddenly snowing, just after Christmas.

We were on our way home from Norfolk, where we had spent a few days with my in-laws in a trio of rented cottages strung out in a row on the Broads. The drive up had been at night, the children fast asleep in the back, while the husband and I had a picnic and an actual conversation, alive with the excitement of a night drive away from the busy end of the working year.

FitzcarraldoThe drive down began at 9 a.m., ejected from the cottages to make way for the cleaners readying it for the next round of guests; it took four and half hours rather than the two it took to get up. As we sat in standstill traffic amidst the falling snow, while the children were unimpressed by the beauty of the newly whitened fields and were, instead, vociferously cross and hungry, I suggested we stop for an early lunch at the pretty market town of Saffron Walden, a mere 2.5 miles away. Only Google Maps went on to inform me that it would take 57 minutes to drive there. We were unable to leap off the motorway and forge across the fields, but instead would have to go halfway down the motorway to then turn around and head back north. I thought for a moment of the film Fitzcarraldo, when they carry the massive boat across the hill. Then I proceeded to dripfeed breadsticks to everyone in the car, while engaging Vita in an exhausting mash up game of The Lion King/Rome and Juliet, where I had to ‘be’, variously, Timon (the meercat), Mufasa, Tybalt and Juliet. The husband claimed to be too busy driving to be able to take part. This game was reaching its zenith, an hour later, as we entered London’s outskirts.

‘It says to get off here,’ I told the husband, who was consuming rather more than his allotted share of breadsticks.

‘You’re not being Juliet!’ from Vita in the back.

‘Sorry. I meant, we must turn off here to reach the Capulet’s house for the big party.’

‘Here?’

‘Yes. Then left, and left again.’

‘But where’s the Capulet’s party?’

‘And round the roundabout. Third exit. Here.’

‘Romeo wants to be at the party. Then we can dance together Juliet! Will there be sausages?’

‘Why are you directing us around the IKEA car park?’

The problem with being so into words is that it has left me rather deficient spatially. So I am quite rubbish at driving and even worse at map reading. Now I resort to just repeating to the husband whatever the phone tells me, although it can still be tricky, at times, to get left and right the right way round. I have no idea why we were going around the IKEA car park, but luckily, the phone eventually got us out of there, and we were back on our way to the Capulet’s party.

At the moment, life with Vita is bursting with fiction. We are forever inhabiting warped adaptations of stories and films, roles being dealt out, lines performed, and ending usually in some kind of chase, dance, duel or being put to bed. So, unusually for me – a fiction nut, I ended 2017 reading books looking for a world more real than my own.

No Place to Lay One's HeadFirst of all, I read No Place to Lay One’s Head by Francoise Frenkel. (This was to review it for The Spectator – I will post the link here when it’s published.) Frenkel was a Polish Jew, whose love of French literature led her to open Berlin’s first French bookshop in 1921. Life in 1930s Germany became increasingly difficult, and she eventually fled to Paris in August 1939 – just in the nick of. Frenkel describes the trials of a life in hiding, physical and also emotional: How hard not to have word of one’s family, not to know who to trust or whether you will ever be free, and not to lose the will to keep on going. Frenkel did eventually reach Switzerland, where she wrote this memoir in 1943-44, and I think the book owes much of its power to the events described being so recent. I’ve written about it at length in the Spectator review, but, briefly, what I found so intriguing about this book was Frenkel’s attempt to understand the people of France, a country she so obviously loved. She writes of the many who helped shelter her and those who bravely resisted the German Occupation, but also of the police who hunted down defenceless human beings ‘with a peculiar and savage bitterness resembling joy’, and the many individuals who inhabited a darkish grey area – sheltering her but demanding extortionate rent, or suddenly threatening to turn her in unless she paid a vast sum. Of course it makes you wonder how you would act in the situation. For once, I feel that being Jewish almost lets me off the hook: I would be the one asking for shelter rather than having to balance the complicated equation of self-interest versus such high-risk help.

The Reading CureCloser to home, and every bit as brave, is Laura Freeman’s forthcoming memoir The Reading Cure. It’s coming out at the end of February, but Laura kindly sent me a proof, which kept me company over Christmas. (I should mention here that Laura and I are friends, ever since she commissioned me to write an article about my beloved tortoise (RIP).) I hope you have already read some of Laura’s wonderful writing in places like The Spectator and The Times – her journalism features beady-eyed observations, a razor sharp brain, precision of language and a dry sense of humour, that lets her wear her learning lightly.

And then comes this book, which she was so shy about, refusing to tell me anything about it until the deal was signed. And now I can see why. Laura writes bravely, honestly, inspiringly and very movingly about her long long struggle with anorexia, and how books got her through it. At the beginning, she writes that this is not about the ‘anguish’ of anorexia, but ‘about the pouring in of sunlight after more than a decade of darkness and hunger’. But, for all the happy occasions of drinking real milk, inspired by Tess of the D’Urbervilles, or enjoying the homely comfort of a tin of sardines, thanks to Mole and Ratty, a sadness endures. Still, she can’t bring herself to eat chocolate. Still, the battle with that part of her brain which at its worst has brought her to the point of being too weak to be able to walk around the garden, continues. It is only ever in remission, never entirely cured.

I read this book at the end of what has been in some ways a very hard year for me. Post-natal depression is tough, however much counselling and support one has from professionals and friends. It is always helpful to read of someone else’s battles with the voices in their head, and reassuring to know that other people also live with black clouds threatening to break overhead. Laura agrees:

When I came to read Virginia Woolf, it marked the difference between feeling a coward and failure because I let myself be bullied by these voices, and drawing strength from knowing that others have had their demons, their galloping horses, their aches low down in the back of the head. Better to write about these things, then say: it is not a life sentence. It will not always be like this.

Important words to remember.

CharlotteFinally, I had another Holocaust book to review, this time for the Guardian (again, watch this space). Charlotte by David Foenkinos is an unusual, intense and unbelievably brilliant novel inspired by the life of German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon. Tragically, this story doesn’t end like Frenkel’s in an escape to Switzerland, but in being gassed in Auschwitz, while pregnant. She did at least manage to leave behind her an extraordinary work: Theatre? A Song-play, a lightly fictionalised family memoir told via hundreds of paintings, drawings, texts and musical annotations, made during the two years she spent in hiding in the South of France. She entrusted it to her doctor with the words: ‘it is my whole life’. Charlotte has been a smash hit in its native France, and deserves to be one here too – it has the same feel as The Hare with Amber Eyes, and certainly left me itching to buy several copies to give to friends.

So three mighty, hardcore books in a row! I think I would have picked up some PG Wodehouse or something similarly daft to begin this year, if it weren’t for a proof of Zadie Smith’s new collection of essays sitting there waiting for its review to be written…

Do you have any reading ambitions or resolutions for 2018? Mine is to harness the combined power of childcare and coffee to read more, write more, and to trust more in the power of good words, well used. Even if that means we reach the Capulets’ party via the IKEA car park.

One last thing to say: Belsize Library have very kindly asked me to give a talk about building communities around books. If you happen to be free and in North London at 7.30pm on Thursday 18th January, please please come along and say hello. Here is the poster they’ve made:

Emily Rhodes Belsize Library 2

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7 Responses to “Three true stories”

  1. Rachel Bateman Says:

    Thank you for this lovely post. 2017 was a difficult year for me too and I’ve found great comfort and strength in books – a ‘doorstep’ from Dorothy Whipple and ‘Howards End’ to close the year. Here’s to lots more reading in 2018.

  2. BookerTalk Says:

    I had to laugh at your convoluted trip home even though it probably wasnt much fun for your husband driving in snow….. Those are three rather challenging books – but all sound well worth reading

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thank you! I think one must laugh at these moments… They are challenging but brilliant books, all 3, definitely worth reading when feeling up to it.

  3. Jenny Says:

    Hi Emily Thank you so much for your blog, I absolutely love it! Thanks to you I have just read Charlotte, what a book, I feel like I too want to give it to everyone. Keep writing and recommending!
    Jenny

    • emilybooks Says:

      Oh Jenny thank you – I’m so glad you loved Charlotte as much as I did. And thank you for your message – it has just been rather a hellish couple of hours of both children crying, and writing going extremely badly, so encouragement sorely needed.

      • Jenny Says:

        Ooh sorry to hear that Emily! Sending lots of encouragement over the airwaves. Quite how you pack everything in your life I don’t know, makes me feel very lazy! Jenny

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