Archive for the ‘Lucca’ Category

The Last Days of Italy

July 2, 2014

I have at last unglued my bottom from the passenger seat of our trusty car Beryl – so named after Beryl Markham, wonderful author, adventurer and pilot extraordinaire. I know it’s a car not a plane, but needs must. Emilybooks’ Lucca days are now over and London life will ensue once again. Though I can’t feel too glum, as  July is looking rather wonderfully full of walking book club trips – there is the Hampstead Heath meeting this Sunday to discuss Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife; then at Perch Hill Summer Feast (12th-13th July) we’ll be talking about The Leopard, and finally Deer Shed Festival on 25th-27th July brings a welcome revisit to Jane Eyre.

But first a little run down on the last days of Italy…

We set off for Ravenna – which should have been an easy three hours or so, though the husband decided to throw a bit of adventure in the mix by stopping off at an Alvar Aalto church ‘on the way’. Perhaps it would have been more on the way if I weren’t doing the map-reading and the Michelin map was slightly less complicated, but it took us about four hours just to get to the church… It was a great church, however; rather different from all the Renaissance churches we’d spent the last two months gawping over. Instead of their habit of bright white marble outside and cool dark interior, this one was very dark (and I have to say even a little dreary) on the outside, but flooded with light inside.

The bright inside of the Alvar Aalto Church

A Ravenna peacockWe spent the night at a sweet agriturismo outside Ravenna, with delicious food, where peacocks strutted decoratively. On to Ravenna the next morning where we were completely dazzled by all the mosaics, impossibly beautiful, and unexpectedly cheerful. We were to end up in Vicenza that evening, but had a quick stop-off for a gelato (of course) at Ferrara, which really was en route. I longed to see more evidence of Giorgio Bassani, who wrote some wonderful novels set there, including The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, but alas I could discover no museum. Instead we saw a very spiky building – the Palazzo dei Diamante – where I dunked my head under a fountain to save myself from expiring from the heat, while chic Italians looked on with amusement.

Very hot outside the Palazzo dei diamante in Ferrara

Very hot outside the Palazzo dei diamante in Ferrara

And rather cooler after the fountain

And rather cooler after the fountain

Vicenza was a winner, with another architectural theme – masses of stuff by Palladio which was all very impressive, though not quite sufficient for the husband, who drove us off into the hills the following day to see some things by Carlo Scarpa. It was certainly ‘off the track’, and I have to say the Tomba Brion was one of the most beautiful, special places I’ve ever been.


The husband was in architectural heaven and took a million photos, in raptures over all the detailing, while I sat and read for a while and looked at the enormous fish which poked their heads out from amongst the lilly pads.

Among the lilly pads

We also saw the huge and wonderful Palladian Villa Barbaro, where we had to shuffle around in strange over-sized slippers and there were some very sweet and attentive puppies.

 Puppies at the Villa Barbaro

Then across to Milan, where we met an (architectural) friend for lunch, and wandered through some antique markets by the canals. There I spotted this rather pretty bicycle.

A Milanese bicycle

Then through Mont Blanc (aka the rather cheerier ‘Monte Bianco’) to the Haute Savoie, very close to Geneva. Typically, just as we got off the motorway and my map-reading had to begin in earnest, the most colossal thunderstorm broke, and we were unable to see or hear anything much at all. It was not helped by Google Maps telling us to go up an off-road track. Poor Beryl was rather relieved when we did at last arrive at our destination.

The next day we were to go back to Champagne to the very pretty B&B where we spent the first night of our travels. The husband thought it essential, however, to go ‘via’ Ronchamp – a Le Corbusian masterpiece. It was indeed incredible, and added a mere three hours to our journey.


We arrived at last and staggered off to Chalons-en-Champagne – the nearest town – to find something for dinner, only to arrive just as France won their World Cup match. The little, not especially charming, town was soon even less so as it became overrun with crazed football fans letting of bangers, kicking beer cans, starting fights, tooting their horns and driving around like maniacs. We tried to enter into the spirit of things but were unfortunately rather too dazed from seeing nothing but motorway for hours. We ate our quite squalid chicken and chips in exhausted silence and swiftly retreated to said B&B.

So to the final day of our travels. First we drove up the road to Verzy where we wandered through the forest to see some curious twisted beech trees. Then, instead of stopping for a delicious final lunch, we hastened towards a grimmish ‘zone industrielle’ near St Omer to try and make the half-past three tour of a glass-making factory. We pulled in at three twenty-five, after some map-reading of which I was rather proud, only to be told that in spite of what their website had said, there was no tour until six thirty – too late for us. Stuck for something to do, we found this very strange place nearby called La Coupole – a huge concrete dome half-buried in the cliff, built as a launchpad for Hitler’s V2 rockets. It was impressive and horrible, freezing cold and sinister. It made all those James Bond filmsets look uncannily realistic. We read that the hundreds of Soviet prisoners who had been made to build it had soon after ‘disappeared’. The place was filled with awful stories about life under the Nazi occupation and Hitler’s pursuit of his secret weapons. I couldn’t believe that Wernher von Braun, who was in charge of most the rocket programme, and a member of the SS, was snatched by America after the War, not for trial, but to help develop their rockets for the Space Race. He was made an American citizen and even presented a science show on the Walt Disney channel! Amongst his particular brutalities was his encouragement of the use of slave labour from concentration camps to help build the rockets. Many more people died in building the rockets and their factories than were killed by the finished weapons. Quite how this man – and many members of his team – managed to be so welcomed by America is not clear. Please could somebody write a book about it?

And then to Calais, and then on the train, and then a late-night Lebanese feast on London’s Edgware Road, and then to Emilybooks’ mother’s, where we will be staying until we move back in to our flat at the weekend…

The Inimitable Jeeves read by Martin JarvisBut what about the books, I hear you ask… Well there was little time for reading anything other than maps when in the car for so long, but what made the journey extremely pleasant was listening to PG Wodehouse audio books. I have never fared too well with audiobooks, finding that my mind wanders too much, but Wodehouse, read by the incredibly talented Martin Jarvis, was a triumph! All the way to Italy we chuckled along to Jeeves and Wooster stories about love-lorn Bingo Little, Gussy Finknottle and his newts, the various dreadful aunts, the cooly unflappable Jeeves and lovely Bertie Wooster, who will stop at nothing to get his friends out of a tight spot. I was particularly keen on the stories when everyone thinks Bertie’s a lunatic.

Heavy weather by PG WodehouseOn the way home, we listened to Heavy Weather, a Blandings tale, and were similarly entranced by the brilliantly over-complicated plot about various toffs trying to get hold of Galahad’s juicy memoirs, and Lord Emsworth thinking of nothing but his beloved pig, the Empress of Blandings. We giggled and snorted and exclaimed as the miles of motorway rolled away. Perhaps this unbelievably English story didn’t suit our surroundings particularly well, but it did conjure a feeling of immense fondness towards England – even if our little flat is rather less grand than Blandings Castle, and we have a tortoise not a pig… In any case it was just what was needed to speed us on our return.


Where Angels Fear to Tread

June 24, 2014

Emilybooks’ days in Lucca are coming to an end, alas. On Thursday we will depart and head northeast to Ravenna, Vicenza, perhaps Venice, and then retreat rapidly through France, arriving back in London next Tuesday night.

The pain of leaving has been lessened somewhat by having some friends to stay for the past few days, accompanying us on jaunts up into the mountains, and to Viareggio, a rather haunting seaside resort of strange faded glamour. We also made another little excursion, pre-visitors, to Florence, namely to go on a tour of the ‘secret passages’ of the Palazzo Vecchio, as recommended by a friend, but key to the trip was also the desire to revisit a particular gelateria where we discovered the unparalleled joy of peanut ice cream. (It’s on Via Tornabouni, by all the designer shops, should you happen to find yourself there and in need of some refreshment.)

Dante by BotticelliThe Palazzo Vechhio tour was very interesting. We were shown various secret rooms, hidden inside the breadth of the enormous walls, and taken to the space above the ceiling of the hall of five hundred, where we could see all the clever workings of the beams and rafters. But it was most compelling for two reasons. Firstly, the lady began by asking the group if anyone had read the Inferno. I felt a little sheepish, for much as I would like to have read Dante’s Divine Comedy, perhaps even with facing page translation so that I, like Mrs Fisher in The Enchanted April could excuse myself by saying ‘I speak only the Italian of Dante’, that was a book that didn’t make it on to the Emilybooks travelling bookcase. My sheepishness deepened into extreme AppleMarkshame when about half of the tour group nodded and said they had indeed read it. Who were all these scholarly folk, so convincingly disguised in the t-shirts, shorts, functional sandals and backpacks of the quotidian tourist? But then all became clear when the guide elucidated – by Dan Brown, yes, not Dante? It transpired that Mr Brown’s book was all set in the Palazzo Vecchio, hence why they all wanted to see its secret passages.

Cosimo de Medici's tortoiseBut the tour’s MOST compelling discovery was the symbol of Cosimo de Medici, which cropped up in various paintings throughout the richly adorned apartments: a tortoise!!!!!! But not just any tortoise, a tortoise with a sail on its back, signifying, apparently, his belief that when doing anything one must first be slow and thoughtful – like a tortoise – and then go full steam ahead, as it were (or, back then, full sail ahead). I thoroughly approve, and have been considering the logistics of rigging up a little sail on Daphne’s thoughtful shell.

So the books now being read take on the added weight of being THE LAST BOOKS to be read in Lucca. It is almost as hellish as deciding what to have for our last supper here, or which flavour combination in our last gelato. I knew, however, that I had to re-read EM Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread. I last read this (and wrote about it) a few years ago, and knowing it to be slim but potent, and of course set in Italy, I thought it a perfect choice.

It is, however, almost impossible to write about, mostly because it is too slim to be able to tell much of the plot without ruining it. So I shall try to evade any massive spoilers, but do look away now if you really don’t want a whiff of any of it.

Where Angels Fear to TreadEven though this was my second time around, Forster still managed to wrongfoot me. Where Angels Fear to Tread seems, to begin with, to be about Lilia Heriton – a widow, who breaks off the stuffy bonds of provincial life and her snotty in-laws by travelling to Italy (with a companion, of course), and then falling in love. (So far, so similar to A Room with a View.) Her brother-in-law, Philip, is speedily dispatched to rescue her, for she has fallen for an Italian and not even a member of the Italian nobility, but Gino, the handsome son of a provincial dentist. There is a wonderful moment when he is eating spaghetti:

When those delicious slippery worms were flying down his throat his face relaxed and became for a moment unconscious and calm. And Philip had seen that face before in Italy a hundred times – seen it and loved it, for it was not merely beautiful, but had the charm which is the rightful heritage of all who are born on that soil. But he did not want to see it opposite him at dinner. It was not the face of a gentleman.

It’s brilliant! I love this idea of the spaghetti transforming him, that there is something quintessentially Italian about it. Indeed, Forster stresses the link between Gino and the Italian land elsewhere too, using the same adjectives ‘mysterious and terrible’ both for him and for the Tuscan landscape, as seen by the English. Here, Philip can see the charm and beauty of this Italianness, while snobbishly seeing that it is not of a gentleman.

Philip tries to buy him off, but discovers it is too late, for Gino and Lilia are already married. Then:

At no one moment did Lilia realize that her marriage was a failure; yet during the summer and autumn she became as unhappy as it was possible for her nature to be.

Then poor miserable Lilia is killed off, dying in childbirth. This all happens before we even get half-way through the book. So evidently it isn’t going to be another Room with a View – our subject isn’t the English middle-class lady exhilarated by the Italian landscape. It gradually becomes clear that Forster’s subject is Philip. Indeed, in a letter to his friend RC Trevelyan, which is printed in the back of this Penguin edition, he says:

The object of the book is the improvement of Philip, and I did really want the improvement to be a surprise.

Sorry for ruining the surprise, and I shall indeed stop with the plot synopsis now in order to avoid any greater spoilers.

So Where Angels Fear to Tread is about the improvement of Philip, but at the same time, I felt it to be about the futility of that improvement. So long as there are people about like Harriet – Philip’s awful, moral, pious, didactic sister – English snobs who are so convinced of their being right that they will force their view on others, rather than, like Philip, be improved by exposure to a new culture – then the English will only do harm. Any goodness that develops in Philip is rendered useless by Harriet’s actions (don’t press me on the plot details if you don’t want me to give it away!). Essentially, the goodness of a quiet observer is never going to have so much of an effect as the badness of a loud doer.

This is made all the more troubling by the many parallels between Philip and Forster himself. If Forster, in his first complete novel, was already gesturing towards the feebleness of the gentle, male, sexually ambiguous observer – however great his ‘improvement’ as the novel progresses – then it doesn’t show a great vote of confidence in his own role as writer-observer. This male observer figure was to reappear in many of his books, such as Mr Beebe in A Room with A View, and even Fielding in A Passage to India, who fails in his attempt at a friendship with Aziz.

Forster is one of my very favourite writers, so of course I would never dream of calling him a failure, but perhaps he felt this to be the case himself, and was too aware of the limits of his work. He wrote, after all, only six novels, stopping after A Passage to India, even though he lived for nearly another fifty years. It is a great shame, and all the more so for there being this portrait of the powerlessness of an observer even in his very first, and very brilliant, novel.

The Portrait of a Lady

June 16, 2014

What is it about Italy and its views?

Having first been struck by Forster’s A Room with a View, which seemed to me to be all about the importance of a good view and being able to see clearly – something which Italy can give the English traveller, if he or she is sufficiently open to it – now I’m struck by the same thing in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Only James’s book, written thirty years earlier, has a rather sadder conclusion.

The Portrait of a LadyIsabel Archer is American. Young, intelligent, pretty, she has been taken up by her aunt and brought first to England and then to Italy, though she has so many suitors falling at her feet it is somewhat remarkable that she is able to move anywhere at all. First there is strong, hard Caspar Goodwood – an American heir to a cotton mill; next there is ridiculously English Lord Warburton. There is also the rather wonderful Ralph Touchett – Isabel’s cousin – who knows his is a hopeless case as he is dying of consumption, but contents himself to watch Isabel blaze her path, persuading his father to leave her half of his own fortune in his Will:

‘I shall have the thrill of seeing what a young lady does who won’t marry Lord Warburton.’

He goes on to add:

‘There will be plenty of spectators!’

Indeed, we readers are of course amongst the keen spectators, wondering what it is that Isabel Archer will do with her life, now she has become a woman of independent means.

She tells us, simply:

‘I don’t want to begin life by marrying. There are other things a woman can do.’

When Ralph says, ‘You want to see life – you’ll be hanged if you don’t, as the young men say,’ she counters:

‘I don’t think I want to see it as the young men want to see it. But I do want to look about me … I only want to see for myself.’

James conjures a kind of double vision around Isabel: there are all her ‘spectators’ – those who are watching her – and also what she can ‘see’, her desire to ‘look about me … to see for myself’.

So off she goes to Italy to broaden her horizons. Unluckily for Isabel, the sinister Madame Merle, a friend of her aunt’s, has taken an interest in her – and in her newly acquired money – and introduces her to villainous Gilbert Osmond. Osmond and Madame Merle are thick as thieves, and we soon gather than he will be Isabel’s next suitor. We fear the worst. Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood both turn up again and are turned away. Ralph, who we feel has the best chance of making her, literally, see sense, fails too, and we soon gather that Isabel has accepted Gilbert Osmond.

How can our heroine, seemingly so keen on independence, on seeing the world, be so taken in by Osmond? Perhaps the best light is shed on him by Ralph:

Osmond lived exclusively for the world. Far from being its master as he pretended to be, he was its very humble servant, and the degree of its attention was his only measure of success. He lived with his eye on it from morning till night, and the world was so stupid it never suspected the trick. Everything he did was pose — pose so subtly considered that if one were not on the lookout one mistook it for impulse. Ralph had never met a man who lived so much in the land of consideration. His tastes, his studies, his accomplishments, his collections, were all for a purpose. His life on his hill-top at Florence had been the conscious attitude of years. His solitude, his ennui, his love for his daughter, his good manners, his bad manners, were so many features of a mental image constantly present to him as a model of impertinence and mystification. His ambition was not to please the world, but to please himself by exciting the world’s curiosity and then declining to satisfy it. It had made him feel great, ever, to play the world a trick.

So Osmond is another double vision – one who ‘lived with his eye on’ the world. We know him as a great aesthete, a collector of things which are pleasing to the eye. He looks at works of art, however, only to become a work of art himself.  In contrast to Isabel’s innocent openness to her spectators, Osmond is all ‘pose’. Constantly aware of those who look at him, he poses with sufficient skill to take them in – well, perhaps not such a sharp observer as Ralph, but certainly poor wide-eyed Isabel.

In Claire Messud’s brilliant essay on re-reading The Portrait of a Lady, published in the Guardian, she describes Osmond’s ‘ability to reflect light so that he may appear to shine’. Is it really so surprising that naïve Isabel, who is so keen to see ‘the world’, is taken in by this man of the world, a trickster who has perfected his illusion?

When we rejoin Isabel three years into her marriage, we learn that it is a very unhappy one. Tellingly, they live at the Palazzo Roccanera in Rome, meaning ‘black rock’, and images of darkness persist. Osmond once reflected light, but now he has plunged Isabel into the dark depths of misery.

I shall go no further with the plot, for this is when all the twists and turns and revelations begin, and I hate to be a spoiler. We wonder, along with the other characters who are all keen observers of Isabel’s fate, will she ever be able to see clearly? Will she see through conniving Madame Merle and cruel Gilbert Osmond? Will she see her way through to freedom?

A Room with a ViewLet us jump forward a few decades to EM Forster’s A Room with a View, which I wrote about in more depth here. Like Isabel Archer, Lucy Honeychurch goes to Italy wanting ‘something big’. She wanders through Florence reflecting, ‘The world … is certainly full of beautiful things, if only I could come across them.’ Then she is mesmerized in the Piazza Signoria, as it transforms itself into a true chiaroscuro in ‘the hour of unreality – the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real’. She sees a man killed in a duel and thinks it is her fault for wishing to see something so big:

‘She thought, ‘Oh what have I done?’

Lucy Honeychurch sees Italy and so sees the world, and so – and this is the most important thing – is eventually able to perceive the truth about herself and the other characters who exert influence over her, such as the oddly compelling Charlotte Bartlett. For a while it seems as though she might not succeed, but the comic muse wins out and all ends happily ever after. How tragic, that poor Isabel Archer, whose trajectory appears to be at first along such a similar path, is taken in by a fiendishly well-executed trick and plunged forever into darkness.

Reading through Henry James’s notes and Preface to The Portrait of a Lady, I was struck by how much he employs the language of vision here as well as within the novel proper. It is in his Preface that he so famously wrote about ‘the house of fiction’, which has:

Not one window, but a million – a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its very front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbours are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine … [the windows] are, singly or together, as nothing without the posted presence of the watcher.

He really knows how to string out a sentence! I can just tell that hundreds of pages have been spent arguing about the particular meaning and relevance of this passage, and I can’t hope to begin to do justice to it here. All I will say, however, is that readers and characters have become watchers, each perspective is unique and, vitally, limited – windows are a somewhat treacherous aperture through which we must perceive.

Interesting, then, at the end of A Room with a View, when George and Lucy return to the Pension Bertolini in Florence, George:

strolled to the window, opened it (as the English will), and leant out.

I somehow feel that Henry James didn’t want anyone to open his windows and lean out of them. His spectators are stuck behind the rigid panes of glass – indeed, sometimes even further stuck behind field glasses! Perhaps this is where he achieves such brilliant tension in The Portrait of a Lady. Everybody is able to look, but they are limited in their observations and unable to reach through the glass and do anything. Isabel Archer might have looked out of the window – indeed, in the chilling denouement scene, Henry James pictures her doing exactly this, and she sees the truth ‘as if it had been reflected in a large clear glass’ – but unlike George and Lucy, she could not open the window and see ‘all the view’.

Perhaps she was just thirty years too early.

Incidentally, you might like this piece I wrote for The Junket for some more thoughts about windows, including this beautiful one by Ravilious.

Belle Tout Lighthouse by Ravilious

Park Notes

June 13, 2014

Life chez Emilybooks has been terribly busy over the past week, and I’m sorry for the delayed post. Some friends came to stay, prompting a jolly few days of chatting, wandering and lazing, rather than concentrated reading, So I’m afraid thoughts on A Portrait of a Lady won’t appear until Monday.

I thought, however, that I better reveal our secret little hop back over to London. The husband and I spent Tuesday and Wednesday back in the big (VERY BIG after tiny Lucca) smoke, feeling a little like we were skiving school. London was lovely and cool after the heat of Italy, and looked especially beautiful in the sunshine, with everyone out on the pavements and so sunny tempered. I loved having a proper strong cup of tea in a caff, accompanied by toast and Marmite. It was such a joy to be able to chat so easily to the waiter about a mutual love of Marmite and the weather (of course) after so many weeks of suffering the painful embarrassment of being able to say little other than ‘Grazie’ several times.

Park Notes launchThere were a couple of reasons for this little jaunt. Firstly, it was the book launch for Park Notes – a beautiful collection of writings and pictures inspired by Regent’s Park and curated by Sarah Pickstone, whose striking paintings I wrote about here. Very excitingly, the book includes an essay on George Eliot by me!

What makes it particularly thrilling is that I am giddy with admiration for so many of the other contributors. Of course there are all the dead ones – Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield to name a few – but among the living are the formidably intelligent Marina Warner, Olivia Laing – one of the most elegant writers of place, insightful Lara Feigel, brilliant Iain Sinclair and the mighty Ali Smith. And all this interspersed with Sarah Pickstone’s gorgeous work.

I could go on, but feel it’s in rather bad taste to review one’s own work … So I will leave you with one of my favourite quotations from the book, which comes from Ali Smith’s reliably inspiring short story ‘The Definite Article’:

I stepped out of myself and into the park, I stepped off the pavement and into a place where there’s never a conclusion, where regardless of wars, tragedies, losses, finds, the sting of the sweetness of what’s gone in a life, or the preoccupations of any single time, any single being, on it goes, the open-air theatre of flowers, trees, birds, bees, the open vision at the heart of the old city.

Of course there’s nothing I’d love more than to know what you make of the book. You can buy a copy from Daunt’s here, or please do go and support your local independent bookshop.

There was another reason for our brief return… It was time for the twenty-week scan for baby Emilybooks! I know I’ve been rather secretive about it here, but it’s the sort of news that is quite hard to slip into a post about EM Forster.

All was looking very well, and it was wonderful to see the little person wriggling around, even giving us a little wave. Might I also add this to my defence of such excessive ice cream consumption in recent weeks? Calcium, you see, is vital to help build all those little bones.

Ice cream time in Lucca

Henry James is coming on Monday. Have a lovely sunny weekend!

Pietrasanta and Carrara

June 2, 2014

Emilybooks in-laws have been to stay, and while they were here very little reading ensued, I’m afraid. I have embarked upon re-reading Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, remembering how much I enjoyed it first time round at University and feeling its Florentine setting appropriate to my own Italian adventures, but alas I am not even two hundred pages in, with several more hundred to go… they haven’t even made it to Florence yet! So I’m afraid you must wait until next week for my Jamesian thoughts.

Pietrasanta bookshop treeIn the meantime, I thought you might like to see a picture of this little bookshop in Pietrasanta, a city just over the hill from Lucca. I say hill, I think I might mean mountain. We drove up there one Saturday evening, thinking it would be another sleepy little Tuscan place, complete with picturesque main piazza, beautiful Duomo and campanile, and we found we had accidentally stumbled upon the centre of the Italian contemporary art scene. We both felt decidedly scruffy as we wandered amongst crowds of women in structured, ‘interesting’ designer dresses and men in jackets, jazzy shirts and light cotton scarves,who spilled out from the various art galleries which lined the streets. Over dinner, we got chatting to a friendly man who hailed from London and had settled out her. He was full of all sorts of surprising information. For instance, he told us that the art gallery he looked after – just next door to our restaurant – would stay open till three in the morning throughout the summer! They don’t even bother opening until early evening and all the deals get done once everyone was drunk late in the night. He also told us a little about Forte di Marmi, the grand beach resort down the road. Apparently everyone is seriously snobby about getting the right spot on the beach, and I was particularly intrigued by the sound of a grand old Italian lady he knew, now in her seventies, who every summer still reserved the same sun bed she’s been frequenting since she was a little girl.

Just a little farther along the coast from Forte di Marmi is Carrara, where vast marble quarries are cut into the mountains. It’s the beautiful white marble that one pictures when someone says marble – used by the Romans, e.g. for the Pantheon, and also the Renaissance sculptors, most notably Michelangelo. Wikipedia informs me that it is also the stone used for London’s dear old Marble Arch.

The marble mountainsThe husband, being an architect, is rather more interested in things like quarries than most, so booked us on a tour of Carrara. The four of us piled into a jeep, with our lovely guide Stephanie, and Manuela, our formidable driver, who was also a guide but who spoke no English. I had great fun exercising my minimal Italian with her. We drove up the bendy roads into the mountains, which are, we were informed, all marble, and the quarries are where they literally cut huge chunks out of the mountain side. You can just see the quarry nestled between the peaks here. On the roads, which grew increasingly alarming, we encountered lorries with the most colossal chunks of marble on the back. As we pulled over to let one pass, Manuela casually told me a chunk of that size would weigh around 30 tonnes. Soon we were driving almost vertically up a scrabbly track. At the top, we were told it was where they’d filmed a car chase in Quantum of Solace and that the stunt man had at first been too scared to do it. Manuela then laughed heartily and said she was a real ‘stunt woman’ and we zoomed down towards the quarry, clinging on tight.

Michelangelo's quarry in CarraraWe went to Fantiscritti, the quarry where Michelangelo used to come to choose his pieces of marble. I found it very uncanny to think of him in the same place as us, only so much higher up, as over those hundreds of years so much more marble has been quarried. Each one of those steps is three metres tall (you get a feel for the scale by the tiny stick figure men in the bottom left). It is exactly the opposite to the feeling one has when seeing the Roman sites, which are of course always lower down than the present day and this lent a peculiar feeling of topsy turviness to the whole experience. Incidentally, I suspect that when T.S. Eliot wrote so scathingly of the women who ‘come and go/ talking of Michelangelo’, they would not have been talking about his awe-inspiring quarry.

Apparently marble dust is the new gold dust, being put in pills as a source of calcium for things like osteoporosis. My thoughts immediately turned to Daphne, who of course needs to be given rather a lot of calcium for her shell. I wonder if we could give her a little chunk of marble to peck away at instead of the calcium powder we sprinkle over her food. I wonder if the husband could chisel a little chunk into a Roman column for her, which would be rather a bling addition to her house. Any tortoise experts care to advise?

Little else to report, really, other than that my Italian seems to be developing mostly in the direction of ice cream flavours thanks to our strict upholding of a daily gelato at four o’clock. Nespola was a recent discovery, meaning medlar. Pompelmo rossa – pink grapefruit – is my longstanding favourite. Mandorla – almond – is a good one, as is zenzera – ginger. The husband is obsessed with fior di latte, literally ‘flower of milk’, which seems ironic given his early stumbling to order a coffee with milk, which some of you might remember.

So back to Henry James I go, with a little piece of roadside Carrara as a handy paperweight.

The Portrait of a Lady plus paperweight

The Grass is Singing

May 27, 2014

I was on the point of packing Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook for this trip to Italy, in spite of being rather daunted by it. Margaret Drabble, after all, said it was one of three books that helped her to know how to live her life, along with The Bell Jar and The Group, and it seems to be one of those books that people go on and on about, one of those seminal books which one ought just to have read. Doris Lessing is such an embarrassing gap in my reading, which I have been determined to fill for a while, and yet … I don’t really know why, but I’m afraid I just can’t quite face The Golden Notebook.

The Grass is SingingLuckily, a wise bookshop colleague suggested I take The Grass is Singing instead. It wasn’t just that its size was instantly much more appealing, but I was particularly intrigued to read Lessing’s first novel. When one is working on one’s own first novel, it can be very inspiring to read one that has become such a classic. Also, sometimes I wonder if there isn’t a particular drive, energy and rawness to a first novel which can become subdued as the writer’s career progresses. For instance, Under the Net is by far my favourite Iris Murdoch, as it doesn’t feel quite so weighed down with the Iris Murdochyness of her later books.

I read The Grass is Singing over the past couple of days, mostly sitting on the huge walls which surround Lucca, where the grass wasn’t so much singing, but rustling in the breeze.

It is a horrible book, and a brilliant one. The story is devastating, depicting a situation which is thoroughly nasty on various levels, and yet in its horror it is very powerful and compelling. The experience of reading it reminded me a little of reading Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins. There is the same inevitability of the awfulness of what is to ensue, the grimness of having to read it, the futile hoping against hope that the disaster might somehow be averted – in spite of knowing full well that this is impossible – and the gruelling process of having to get through it, not sure that you can bear to read another page of it, while at the same time finding the pages are turning themselves.

The Grass is Singing begins and ends with a murder. It opens with a brief newspaper announcement of a ‘Murder Mystery’: Mary Turner, the wife of farmer Richard Turner was found murdered on her verandah. The mystery isn’t as to who has done the deed, for we are informed that ‘The houseboy … has confessed to the crime.’ The mystery is as to the motive: ‘It is thought he was in search of valuables’, we are told, but on the very next page we learn the Turners are ‘poor whites’, so are unlikely to have any valuables as such.

The first chapter shows the aftermath of the murder: the routine police investigation, and the man recently arrived from England who knows there is more to the situation than the others are making out, but who is hastily ‘shut up’. Then we go back to the beginning and discover for ourselves the disturbing, uncomfortable truth of the matter.

We begin with Mary’s poor childhood with a complaining mother and drunk father. ‘The happiest time of her childhood’ is when her two older siblings died from dysentery, as then there were fewer mouths to feed and her quarrelling parents were briefly united in their grief. She was sent to boarding school, which was a happy escape, and then became a successful girl about town. There she thrived: an adept office-worker, with several friends and ‘innumerable men who “took her out”, treating her like a sister’. She went to the cinema, played hockey and tennis, and generally had a gay old time. Significantly, Mary never grows up, persisting in dressing like a pretty little girl even when she turns thirty. It is as though these years are spent enjoying a delayed happy childhood. She has been so scarred by her parents’ miserable marriage that she is unable to contemplate more adult relationships.

Then, Mary overhears some friends gossiping about her, saying how ridiculous it is that she hasn’t got married. Profoundly wounded out of her naivete, she starts looking for a husband, and soon settles on Dick Turner, a hopeless farmer, incapable of being a success.

When she first arrives at his farm, it seems as though all is not lost:

In the first flush of energy and determination she really enjoyed the life, putting things to rights and making a little go a long way.

She decorates and sews, whitewashes and cooks. As the months pass, however, she soon runs out of tasks and finds herself faced with idleness. This is when the problems really begin. Mary has never had to look after servants before and her cold, uncompromising manner with Samson, Dick’s kind and long-standing houseboy, upsets him. Samson is used to an unspoken agreement whereby he helps himself to a third of Dick’s food. Mary, however, allows him nothing:

This woman never laughed. She put out, carefully, so much meal, and so much sugar; and watched the left-overs from their own food with an extraordinary, humiliating capacity for remembering every cold potato and every piece of bread, asking for them if they were missing.

Things reach a head when Mary is reduced to tears because:

She knew there had been enough raisons put out for the pudding, but when they came to eat it, there were hardly any. And the boy denied stealing them…

Dick’s relaxed attitude – ‘He probably did, but he’s a good old swine on the whole’ – if troubling in its own way, is the antithesis to Mary’s pernickety intolerance, which results in her insisting on deducting the cost from his pay. Samson soon resigns, but Mary’s frustrations and poisonous naggings only increase with the various new houseboys who come and inevitably leave. With nothing else to do, Mary becomes obsessed with bossing them about, inspecting each bit of work they do, complaining over the slightest slip. She forces one of them to scrub the bath for an entire day, sitting at the table and listening to him work:

She remained there for two hours, her head aching, listening with every muscle of her tensed body. She was determined he should not scamp his work.

This friendly, successful, harmless woman has been turned into a monster. In part it is due to having nothing to do other than supervise the servant. She rebuffs the neighbours’ advances at friendship, interpreting their overtures as patronising and full of pity. It is also due to the insufferable heat:

It was so hot! She had never imagined it could be so hot. The sweat poured off her all day; she could feel it running down her ribs and thighs under her dress, as if ants were crawling over her. She used to sit quite, suite still, her eyes closed, and feel the heat beating down from the iron over her head.

And there are of course many other reasons for Mary’s descent into madness, such as their inescapable poverty; the fact that she and her husband don’t understand each other at all; that she takes no interest in the running of the farm; and that all Dick’s business ideas resolutely fail. It is also thanks to her difficult childhood and, in spite of her desires, seeing herself inevitably fall into her mother’s role, and Dick her father’s.

The Grass is Singing is a compelling and disturbing portrait of a woman undergoing a slow, horrific, nervous breakdown. By the end of the book Mary can barely speak, or get dressed. It is not, however, just a novel about a woman who suffers a nervous breakdown; it is about a woman who cannot survive in Southern Rhodesia. It is about the impossibility and injustice of the whole system, of the punishing land itself. (Dick, after all, may be useless and never make any money, but he loves the land and runs his farm responsibly, planting trees and rotating crops, whereas the commercially successful farmers are rewarded for plundering the land, and putting nothing back into it.)

Mary doesn’t just have a nervous breakdown; she is murdered by her black servant. Lessing renders a gripping, menacing portrayal of the relationship between the two of them. Mary’s fear of the black man – as ‘every woman in South Africa is brought up to be’ – is recognised and challenged by Moses, the houseboy, who starts to look after and gently care for her, thereby transgressing the barrier between white and black:

There was now a new relation between them. For she felt helplessly in his power.

His absolute control over her is what is expressed in the final murder, his taking away of her life.

A Passage to IndiaThis radical shift in the power balance is what is so disturbing to the other characters in the novel, and I suspect it is also what caused the book to be rejected by South African publishers. It brings to my mind the resounding final sentence in Forster’s A Passage to India, another book in which the established native-British relationship is challenged:

But the horses didn’t want it – they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, ‘No, not yet,’ and the sky said, ‘No, not there.’

Reading it on the walls of Lucca, as the grass blew in the breeze, I felt only too grateful not to be living in Southern Rhodesia then, when it seems as though you could choose between death, madness or being complicit in a terrible regime. The novel has too epigraphs. Firstly a quotation from ‘The Waste Land’, including the phrase ‘the grass was singing’. Secondly, from an unknown author:

It is by the failures and misfits of a civilization that one can best judge its weaknesses.

The novel is not a critique of Dick and Mary Turner – the ‘failures and misfits’ – but of their ‘civilization’, in which they are unable to survive. Indeed, it is to their credit that they are unable to succeed in this terrible way of life. One feels it would be better to go mad than thrive in such an awful civilization.

A young Doris Lessing

The Rings of Saturn

May 22, 2014

What a belated blog! I can only apologise and plead a great deal of travelling and sporadic internet access as my excuses.

Olivetti and peoniesLast week Emilybooks and husband spent a wonderful couple of days on a Roman holiday. We stayed in a particularly sweet bed and breakfast, discovered thanks to the clever mapping tool on the Alastair Sawday website. It was one of just three rooms in a little flat, in a lovely old building around a courtyard. Look at our beautiful desk, complete with peonies and an Olivetti typewriter! I longed to use it, but felt almost certain that I’d break it, and my Italian doesn’t quite stretch to the hideous prospect of having to explain my way out of that one.

We arrived and wandered down to the huge and humbling Terme di Caracalla. It was impossible not to feel overexcited as the Coliseum suddenly loomed into view on the way. Caracalla felt rather like we’d gone back to Narnia and discovered the ruins of Cair Paravel. One imagines these baths with the vast roof intact, vast and glorious, where thousands of people gathered every day. Now they’re ruined, empty, and little visited – the sunbaked white floor is undisturbed except for the crunch of an occasional weary tourist’s footsteps, and the sweeping shadows of gulls wheeling overhead.

Park notesThe following day, fortified with a breakfast of nutella cake and strawberries, we saw a million churches housing all sorts of artistic delights. Michelangelo’s Moses, various Caravaggios, rather a fun obelisk with an elephant by Bernini (just outside a church) and his Saint Teresa. This was of especial interest as I’ve contributed to what I hope will be a very intriguing book called Park Notes, about women writers and Regent’s Park, and Saint Theresa is key to my essay about George Eliot. (Just think back to the Prelude of Middlemarch…)

Antiquarian bookshop in RomeOn our wanderings, I was struck by the number of bookshops, such as this beautiful antiquarian one, with its very tempting window display of children’s books. I also spotted a smartly published series of essays, including Virginia Woolf On Cinema. I considered buying it, and then thought it was too ridiculous to struggle through it in Italian. Perhaps an enterprising English language publisher might publish an equivalent series … Please?

Intelligent Italian essaysThere is so much that one could say about Rome, of course, but I’ll confine myself to just two short points. One is that the scale of it is so impressive. While I could just about get used to there being quite so many beautiful churches, I could never quite get my head around the Roman ruins being so much a part of the texture of the cityscape. You come out of a wonderful church, dazed from gazing up at the ceiling, and then, round the corner there stands a trio of columns, so monumental, it is though they are left over from a time when giants roamed the seven hills. The other, more prosaic comment, is that ice cream really is a way of life! Strolling around after dinner on our final evening, we happened upon Fassi’s‘Ice Palace’, which has been going for over 150 years. It was nearly midnight and rammed with people of all ages, all tucking into the most delicious ice cream. Oh if only London had an equivalent, instead of our rancid kebab shops…

From Rome, we went all the way south to Puglia, the very heel of Italy’s boot. There we met Emilybooks’ mum for a few days in a very plush hotel, plus a little exploring to the intriguingly named Monopoli, Ostuni and Cisternino. Most beautiful, I thought, were the many groves of ancient olive trees, and the tiny lizards who darted around by the swimming pool (alas no photo of these special creatures – forgive me). They reminded me a little of Daphne in the way they could remain so still and contemplative, but then they zoomed off in a way that might have given Daphne a heart attack had she chanced to see.

The Rings of SaturnSuch have been the adventures of Emilybooks, and perhaps I better admit I’ve been stalling somewhat, because I have no idea what to say about Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which I’ve read twice over in the past week. It’s an astonishing book. So much so, that I really did finish it, feel unable to start anything new, so went back to the beginning.

The book is essentially an account of Sebald’s wanderings around East Anglia in 1992. Just as his feet wander, so does his narrative, and we find ourselves being taken on numerous informative diversions. For instance, a visit to the faded Somelyton Hall leads us on to a conversation about bombing raids on Germany in the Second World War, and a railway bridge over the river Blyth takes us to the Taiping Rebellion. One gets a good picture of the bewildering, tangential scope of the book from the contents page, which reads like so:

1. In hospital – Obituary – Odyssey of Thomas Browne’s skull – Anatomy lecture – Levitation – Quincunx – Fabled creatures – Urn burial

Reading The Rings of Saturn feels like being granted access to a highly intelligent, deeply knowledgeable, very curious person’s brain. Perhaps a collector’s or curator’s, for the connections are Sebald’s own, and his relish in this subjectivity makes it peculiarly charming – at times even quite funny – rather than intimidatingly po-faced.

Various themes become apparent as the book progresses. Images of burning and destruction proliferate – and a preoccupation with the terrible mass destruction that has been wreaked by human hands. It is written in the shadow of the Holocaust, and this echoes through the many other mass deaths in the book – be that of the Belgian Congo, the Taiping rebellion, Waterloo, or even the Dutch herring industry – in 1770, he says, ‘the number of herring caught annually is estimated to have been sixty billion’:

Given these quantities, the natural historians sought consolation in the idea that humanity was responsible for only a fraction of the endless destruction wrought in the cycle of life, and moreover in the assumption that the peculiar physiology of the fish left them free of the fear and pains that rack the bodies and souls of higher animals in their death throes. But the truth is that we do not know what the herring feels. All we know is that its internal structure is extremely intricate and consists of more than two hundred different bones and cartilages.

Sebald intersperses his narrative with grainy, black-and white photographs. There is one of the herring haul in Lowestoft, showing mountains of dead fish at the feet of the fisherman:

Sebald's herring haul

Just six pages later comes a double-page spread showing piles of dead bodies at Belsen Concentration Camp. The pyramids of the blanketed figures echo the heaps of fish, just as the straight lines of the trees ghost in the figures of the agents of their destruction.

Belsen in The Rings of Saturn

Another preoccupation of the book is silk. We meet silkworms via the Chinese Empress Tz’u-hsi, who was devoted to her silkworms throughout the terrible drought of 1876-9, when, ‘whole provinces gave the impression of expiring under prisons of glass. Between seven and twenty million people – no precise estimates have ever been calculated – are said to have died of starvation and exhaustion…’

When the ill tidings arrived from the south, the Dowager Empress had a daily blood sacrifice offered in her temple to the gods of silk, at the hour when the evening star rose, lest the silkworms want for fresh green leaves. Of all living creatures, these curious insects alone aroused a strong affection in her … when night fell she particularly liked to sit all alone amidst the frames, listening to the low, even, deeply soothing sound of the countless silkworms consuming the new mulberry foliage. These pale, almost transparent creatures, which would presently give their lives for the fine thread they were spinning, she saw as her true loyal followers.

Silk appears time and again – silken ropes for hangings, the purple silk in the urn of Patroclus, and the bamboo cane which was used to smuggle silkworm eggs from China to the Western world. At the close of the book, Sebald delves at length into the fascinating history of sericulture in the West. Here he compares the fate of the silk weavers to writers:

That weavers in particular, together with scholars and writers with whom they had much in common, tended to suffer from melancholy and all the evils associated with it, is understandable given the nature of their work, which forced them to sit bent over, day after day, straining to keep their eye on the complex patterns they created. It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread. On the other hand, when we consider the weavers’ mental illnesses we should also bear in mind that many of the materials produced … were of a truly fabulous variety, and of an iridescent, quite indescribable beauty as if they had been produced by Nature itself, like the plumage of birds.

Perhaps, then, this is a fitting description for The Rings of Saturn – ‘of a truly fabulous variety, and of an iridescent, quite indescribable beauty as if they had been produced by Nature itself, like the plumage of birds’. Threads are woven through in complex patterns; the book is born of ‘Nature itself’ – inspired by his walking through East Anglia; and there is something of a bird’s flight in its darting, diving tangents. Like these beautiful, ‘truly fabulous’ silken materials, The Rings of Saturn has survived its author to provide ‘iridescent, quite indescribable’ inspiration for future readers … it certainly has for this one.

Pride and Prejudice

May 12, 2014

Emilybooks’ Italian adventures continue apace. This has been a week of travelling and seeing things, thanks to the husband doing a great deal of driving (we have even purchased him a peaked cap), while I somewhat uselessly map-read and look out for road signs. Driving in Italy is both puzzling and terrifying. There appears to be a completely different attitude to things like roundabouts, sliproads and pedestrian crossings. Indeed crossing the road, at a crossing, is so alarming that I can only manage it by closing my eyes before stepping out into the traffic, which does grind to a halt but with extreme reluctance and only just in time.

The Etruscan tortoiseWe went to Volterra, where we met a dozy hot tortoise in the garden of a charmingly old-fashioned Etruscan museum, filled with urns on which were carved scenes from the Odyssey and the Underworld. Then we hopped on to San Gimignano, where we found a pretty square with herringbone paving remarkably free of the tourist hordes. Another trip took us to Orvieto, where I loved the alabaster windows in the Duomo. There, we went underground to see two of the city’s hundreds of man-made caves. There are paths from each cave up to a house, and the city’s inhabitants still use them as cool places to keep things like food and wine, as has been the case since the Etruscans! We stayed with Emilybooks in-laws not far from Orvieto, and they took us on a breathtaking long hot walk up a mountain, where there were an astonishing number of tiny wild flowers, including beautiful orchids. As we sat and ate sandwiches on a grassy bank, two cows and their calf padded past us rather nervously, their bell ringing with each faltering step, and it seemed serene and quite poetic, before I discovered the ants that were scurrying their way into my pants.

Beautifully displayed classicsOn the way back to Lucca, we stopped at Pienza, a beautiful Renaissance town, with an especially lovely Duomo. There was some absolutely terrifying subsidence, however, and I was almost too scared to stand in the cathedral’s sloping half, as the cracks on the floor and walls were so extreme that you felt that it might slip off the cliff at any given moment. Then on to Sienna, where we sat on the Campo with a slice of pizza and watched Italian schoolboys dressed up in the green, white and red costume of their Goose Contrada as they paraded around with drums, flags and a brass band. We also stumbled upon a sweet little bookshop, where all their classics were displayed as so.

Heart-shaped grassIt has not all been travel, however, and there have been some lovely afternoons picnicking and reading on the walls of Lucca, where I discovered this peculiar, pretty grass with heart-shaped leaves. It seems particularly apt company while reading Pride and Prejudice.

Re-reading Pride and Prejudice is such an enjoyable experience, that I am caught in that push-pull of wanting to consume it very rapidly indeed and feeling the panic of the end getting closer and so only allowing myself a few short chapters per sitting.

Pride and PrejudiceLast year was the 200 year anniversary of its publication and I’d thought it would be the perfect excuse to finally get around to re-reading it. I’d last read it as a cynical, precocious and, no doubt, proud and prejudiced fourteen-year-old, who couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about. I was aware that my silly teenage self was far more likely to be wrong about it than the millions of people who declare it one of the best books ever written. Added to which, Penguin have published this completely beautiful, and gloriously yellow, hardback edition. But the year slipped past without it ever being quite the right time to read it. Perhaps one’s brain has to be in a more languid place to read classics, rather than full of London’s hectic hurrying about.

Pride and Prejudice, read out here during long lazy afternoons and evenings is, of course, wonderful. I am particularly enjoying Austen’s rather personal and eccentric approach to spelling, with her cavalier attitude to rules like i before e except after c, and feeling free to just miss off a letter or two, should she feel like it. While I am usually a stickler for correct spelling, hers is so dotty and unexpected that it makes me sit up and look at each misspelt word afresh. I find myself surprisingly happy that Penguin, for whatever reason – the note on the text doesn’t make it clear – has decided to keep her spelling as is, as so many words that would normally drift past jolt me to attention. I wish I knew more about spelling in the early nineteenth century. Could everyone afford to be quite so lackadaisical with it? Was it a time when any spelling would do so long as the reader understood the meaning rather than everyone getting so het up about it? If someone would care to enlighten me, I’d be fascinated and very grateful.

I am struck by how well Austen moves between the heads of her various characters. I’ve grown so used to the various screen adaptations that I’ve come to think of Pride and Prejudice as entirely Lizzy Bennet’s story: she is our heroine and so everything must be focalised through her. While she is undoubtedly the main character, and the one to whom we – and Austen – pay the most attention, Austen also flits between the minds of her other characters in a manner that seems to me not dissimilar to Virginia Woolf.

Take this, for instance, which comes at the end of volume ii, chapter ix. Elizabeth is staying with her friend Charlotte, who has married Mr Collins, and the two friends are puzzled as to why Mr Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam visit them quite so often:

It was plain to them all that Colonel Fitzwilliam came because he had pleasure in their society; a persuasion which of course recommended him still more; and Elizabeth was reminded by her own satisfaction in being with him, as well as by his evident admiration of her, of her former favourite George Wickham; and though, in comparing them, she saw there was less captivating softness in Colonel Fitzwilliam’s manners, she believed he might have the best informed mind.

But why Mr. Darcy came so often to the Parsonage, it was more difficult to understand. It could not be for society, as he frequently sat there ten minutes together without opening his lips; and when he did speak, it seemed the effect of necessity rather than of choice – a sacrifice to propriety, not a pleasure to himself. He seldom appeared really animated. Mrs. Collins knew not what to make of him. Colonel Fitzwilliam’s occasionally laughing at his stupidity, proved that he was generally different, which her own knowledge of him could not have told her; and as she would have liked to believe this change the effect of love, and the object of that love, her friend Eliza, she sat herself seriously to work to find it out.

Austen nimbly switches from Elizabeth’s opinion of Fitzwilliam and recollection of Wickham to Charlotte’s musings on Darcy. In between the two of them are a few sentences (‘But why Mr. Darcy … He seldom appeared really animated.’) which could belong to either of them, or indeed both. This ambiguity conjures a conversation between the two friends, as though they’ve spent hours puzzling over the mystery together and this is the resulting opinion shared by the pair of them.

Austen’s is a very clever and very satisfying manner of storytelling, which enables the reader to dive into various consciousnesses and come away with nuggets of information of which other characters remain ignorant. The most obvious example is of course Darcy’s attraction towards Elizabeth Bennet, to which we are privy, while she remains ignorant. It has also made me look at the infamous first line in a new light:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

I had always thought this was one of those arch statements after which everyone laughs or tuts knowingly at Austen’s wit and knowledge. But perhaps it isn’t the authorial narrator speaking here. Indeed, it seems more likely that it is actually in Mrs Bennet’s consciousness that we begin the book. She is the first person to speak, just a paragraph later, and as her husband teases her (Austen would have spelled it teazes) into conversation, she soon says that Bingley is:

“A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”

It is such a close echo of the opening line, that it does suggest that the truth universally acknowledged is silly Mrs Bennet’s opinion, rather than Austen’s.

Austen’s moving between her characters’ consciousnesses, thereby revealing aspects of them to the reader, is particularly apt given that Lizzy, our heroine, as Bingley says of her, ‘is a studier of character.’ She is a studier of character who, in spite of assiduous observation, completely miscomprehends both Darcy and Wickham. If only she were to have the benefit of dropping into other characters’ minds enjoyed by us readers. So then, Austen’s storytelling technique encourages us all to become studiers of character. She has certainly given us some wonderful ones with whom we can begin.

By the way, I realise that my photos tend to be of tortoises or books, rather than beautiful cathedrals and piazzas. Sorry. I shall attempt to mend my ways.

A Room with a View

May 6, 2014

A Room with a ViewOne of the greatest reading treats for my Luccan adventure is a selection of Forster’s works, which made their way into the travelling box of books as essential re-reading. I had initially thought I’d begin with Where Angels Fear to Tread – his first novel, but after my mentioning A Room with a View last week met with such a warm response, I found myself itching to read it instead.

And it was bliss. For what could be better than reading of the liberating, exhilarating affect of Italy on stuffy English people while being a stuffy English person being happily liberated by Italy? And oh how I felt thankful to be in Italy with my equivalent to George Emerson, rather than dreadful Miss Bartlett.

Perhaps it’s unfashionable now, but still I really like the way Forster’s novels engage so openly with ideas. A Room with a View is essentially a playing field for England versus Italy: self-consciousness, snobbishness and constraint versus sunshine, passion and instinct. It is also – clue’s in the title – about views. Forster stresses the importance of being able to see clearly, whether that’s Santa Croce, the Sussex Weald, or, more profoundly, being able to perceive the truth within oneself. Most English people, Forster suggests, are so tied up in social conventions, Baedeker guidebooks and worrying about what one is supposed to see, that they cannot see the truth. Italians are the opposite. George Emerson and his father are exceptions to the rule, as they are able to follow their instincts and speak the truth rather than following social convention, so they are looked down on by most of the other characters. The great question for the plot is: can our heroine Lucy Honeychurch also see a true view?

The signs are positive, as the Reverend Beebe observes when Lucy plays the piano, especially Beethoven, with such instinct and passion:

‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting – both for us and for her.’

It all seems to be going rather well, with Lucy fainting into the arms of George Emerson after witnessing a deathly duel in the Piazza Signoria, and then being kissed by him among the violets of Fiesole. But dreadful Miss Bartlett is forever getting in the way and steering her onto a more respectful course of action. We leave Italy behind after this dramatic kiss and return to England several months later where we see Lucy accepting a proposal of marriage from awful Cecil Vyse. Cecil is as English as they come – all pomposity, snotty snobbishness and selfishness. (He won’t even make up a tennis four, which seems to Lucy to be the height of bad manners!) Poor Lucy, we despair for her, for while she seemed to be on the verge of seeing everything, now her vision has clouded over. Luckily the comic muse intervenes and, without wanting to give everything away, we can rest assured that, unusually for Forster, everything works out very pleasingly indeed and Lucy struggles through the darkness and manages to see exactly what it is that she does want.

Another thing I love about Forster is his talent for creating moments when the surface reality of the scene peels away to something quite horrific and profound beneath. In A Passage to India, it happens in the resounding empty ‘ou-boum of the Marabar Caves. In A Room with a View, it is there in the duel in the Piazza Signoria. Lucy, tellingly diagnosed by Mr Beebe as having played ‘too much Beethoven’, decides to go out alone that evening:

Conversation was tedious; she wanted something big…

Forbidden to go on a tram alone, she goes to a shop and buys photographs of various works of art. Now I better quote at length, as it really is such an extraordinary moment that I’d hate to paraphrase:

But though she spent nearly seven lire the gates of liberty seemed still unopened. She was conscious of her discontent; it was new to her to be conscious of it. ‘The world,’ she thought, ‘is certainly full of beautiful things, if only I could come across them.’ It was not surprising that Mrs Honeychurch disapproved of music, declaring that it always left her daughter peevish, unpractical and touchy.

‘Nothing ever happens to me,’ she reflected, as she entered the Piazza Signoria and looked nonchalantly at its marvels, now fairly familiar to her. The great square was in shadow; the sunshine had come too late to strike it. Neptune was already unsubstantial in the twilight, half god, half ghost, and his fountain plashed dreamily to the men and satyrs who idled together on its marge. The Loggia showed as the triple entrance of a cave, wherein dwelt many a deity, shadowy but immortal, looking forth upon the arrivals and departures of mankind. It was the hour of unreality – the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real. An older person at such an hour and in such a place might think that sufficient was happening to him, and rest content. Lucy desired more.

She fixed her eyes wistfully on the tower of the palace, which rose out of the lower darkness like a pillar of roughened gold. It seemed no longer a tower, no longer supported by earth, but some unattainable treasure throbbing in the tranquil sky. Its brightness mesmerized her, still dancing before her eyes when she bent them to the ground and started towards home.

Then something did happen.

Two Italians by the Loggia had been bickering about a debt. ‘Cinque lire,’ they had cried, ‘cinque lire!’ they sparred at each other, and one of them was hit lightly upon the chest. He frowned; he bent towards Lucy with a look of interest, as if he had an important message for her. He opened his lips to deliver it, and a stream of red came out between them and trickled down his unshaven chin.

That was all. A crowd rose out of the dusk. It hid this extraordinary man from her, and bore him away to the fountain. Mr George Emerson happened to be a few paces away, looking at her across the spot where the man had been. How very odd! Across something. Even as she caught sight of him he grew dim; the palace itself grew dim, swayed above her, fell onto her softly, slowly, noiselessly, and sky fell with it.

She thought, ‘Oh what have I done?’

Isn’t it extraordinary!

Here we have a cave, years before Forster wrote about the Marabar caves. Instead of the paintings of which she purchases photographs, the square becomes a true chiaroscuro, all encompassed in shadow and twilight except for the blazing tower of the palace, ‘a pillar of roughened gold … some unattainable treasure throbbing in the tranquil sky’. It is ‘the hour of unreality – the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real’, the hour when wishing something hard enough can prompt it to happen. ‘Oh what have I done?’ thinks Lucy as she faints after witnessing the duel, the man killed in front of her, the blood trickling out of his mouth. It is as uncanny as a dream.

A little later, once recovered, she walks with George back to their hotel and he throws her photographs into the Arno. Understandably, a little ruffled by this, she asks him why, and he tells her they were covered in blood. It’s a potent symbol: these purchased views of works of art – the things one is supposed to see in Italy, written about in guidebooks – stained with the blood of a dead man, the real drama of the uncanny view she has just experienced. The blood makes the photographs seem trivial, staining them with its evidence of life and death. Evidently, art is not life.

Gosh EM Forster is wonderful. A Room with a View risks being dismissed as too ‘nice’, (indeed Forster himself called it his ‘nicest’ novel), little more than a social comedy, some brilliantly observed portraits of silly English characters let loose in Italy. Of course it is all this, and there are many moments when chuckles escape, or when one is so pleasingly carried away by the sunny plot. But Forster was also writing having read Freud, at the time when the Moderns were beginning to push at the limits of narrative. While he would never be as experimental as Joyce or Woolf, or even DH Lawrence, how can we overlook these cave-like moments where we encounter something uncanny, shocking and profound?

Alas, I have been so carried away by Forster that I’ve written little of my off-page adventures … so here is a rather less dramatic, but splendidly bookish view I encountered while wandering around Lucca last week.

Books in Lucca


Chop Chop

April 28, 2014


Emilybooks has arrived in Lucca! Here she will stay for the next two glorious months – reading a great deal, writing – let’s hope – something, gazing at the many beautiful old buildings (while the architect husband sketches and is inspired by their brilliance), eating a colossal amount of pasta, and trying her hardest to speak Italian.

So far the attempts at the latter have met with a mixture of bemused smiles, answers in English, and occasional kind efforts to help. Yesterday morning, we stumbled into a café for a quick coffee before getting the train to Florence. I was busy eyeing up the croissant selection, so it fell to the husband to order his own coffee.

‘Caffe … con … um … what’s milk again Ems?’


‘Caffe con latte … oh yeah, caffe latte.’

The man laughed, concocted a powerful coffee, and then said, as he gave it to him, ‘anche, cappuccino’.

‘Caffe latte,’ the husband repeated, bewildered.

‘Si, anche cappuccino.’

‘He says it’s also called cappuccino,’ I translated.

The husband smiled vaguely, ‘Si, grazie.’

I tried to explain that he was ‘stanco’, tired, and the man looked non-comprehending so I wonder what I actually said. Then I said that my chocolate croissant was ‘delicioso’ and he looked rather fond of us, I thought. He must have realised we were English as he tried to talk to us about the weather, but unfortunately my vocabulary doesn’t stretch far in that direction. If only he’d got me on pizza toppings.

As we hurried to the train station, the husband woefully rubbed his head and said, ‘I’ve got to get some Italian in there.’

‘Well caffe latte is definitely a good start.’

‘That’s French anyway. He said it’s cappuccino.’

So we have a long way to go. I am determined that by the end of our trip, we will go into that same café, and have a lovely, fluent conversation with the kind man which goes beyond different names for a white coffee.

Italy books

We drove here through France, which meant that we could bring rather a lot of stuff. When I say stuff, I mean books. A huge box of them clogged up the boot, promising many happy hours spent with my head between their covers, and, on arriving, you can see I swiftly colonised a bookcase. I thought this the perfect opportunity to re-read some classics; I long to go back to various EM Forsters, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice and The Portrait of a Lady. I’ve also brought a few of those books that I’ve long meant to read and never quite found the time: The Sound and the Fury, The Rings of Saturn, The Grass is Singing (swapped for The Golden Notebook on a dear colleague’s fulsome recommendation), plus of course a couple of Persephone Books and a few other novels that look promising. We also have a great many guidebooks and then there are all the husband’s big architecture books. (When I say ‘we’ drove, I mean the husband did, while I ‘map-read’.)

Really, I suppose my first post should be about something like A Room with a View. I certainly felt a little like I’d stepped out of it, when we went to Florence yesterday to meet a couple of friends who happened to be staying there, at the end of their holiday. We met in Piazza della Signoria, and I had to stop myself from exclaiming, ‘Tut, tut! Miss Lucy! I hope we shall soon emancipate you from Baedeker.’ I suppose the hordes of tourists somewhat lessened the feeling of being quite so grand, but no matter.

Chop Chop

But no, my first post is a week overdue (apologies…) and is in fact about the last book I read in England, over the Easter Weekend, which I spent with friends, including its author. Chop Chop is Simon Wroe’s first novel. He is a former chef – which was an added treat for the weekend – and has written this darkly funny book about what goes on in a Camden gastropub’s kitchen. I think the weekend was a rather unnerving experience for Simon, as Chop Chop seemed to be the only book that people were reading (apart from, coincidentally, A Room with a View, which someone else had brought along); I counted five copies on the go in total… We tried to persuade him to give us a little reading, but to no avail.

So now, as I think back to reading Chop Chop, I leave the domes and towers of Tuscany behind and am transported back to seedy Camden Town. I have to say it does make me feel rather smug to be away from it.

What struck me as most impressive about the book is its energy. It is so punchy, grabbing you by your jacket collar and mouthing off in your face. It’s full of banter, rough jokes, loud voices, noise, heat … Essentially Simon does a stupendously good job of capturing the atmosphere of a busy kitchen in the very texture of his prose.

It is impossible not to be caught up in this hot whirlwind, as we follow the fate of our naïve bookish protagonist, nicknamed ‘Monocle’, as he attempts to survive in the brutal world of the kitchen, replete with vile characters, for whom one ends up feeling a surprising amount of affection.

Beneath all the noise, heat and pressure of the kitchen, are rather more sinister undertones. Gradually we piece together Monocle’s past … We also venture into the seedy underworld of Camden Town, through the unforgettable character of The Fat Man:

The Fat Man eclipsed all else as he ate. And how he could eat! Three or four starters, and every main going. Tremendous amounts were consumed, seemingly without limit or pleasure. Despite his booming bonhomie and the sharp smiles he flashed at Bob or the nervous front-of-house staff, his face bore no trace of joy or appreciation as he ate … Yet every morsel was devoured, every plate wiped clean. He treated food as billionaires treat money, as showgirls treat presents from admirers. An entitlement he claimed even though it disgusted him

There are rumours that The Fat Man controls the Camden underworld. He is a man who commands a certain disgusted respect, a man to whom one cannot say no. He seems peripheral to the plot – just one of many well-drawn Camden characters – until Monocle, finds himself having to sous chef at a special dinner at his residence. The money is good, the task awful, as becomes clear as soon as they ask what they’re cooking:

‘A special something, my boys. A special something.’ He leaned in, eyes wide. ‘Have you ever heard of the ortalan?’

We had not.

‘It’s a tiny, rare songbird,’ The Fat Man explained. ‘You drown them in brandy and roast them in a clay pot. They’re so little you can crunch the bones.’

So the poor chefs must drown twenty songbirds, pluck them, and roast them. They are instructed to bring them to the diners when the bell is rung three times. Then, on carrying the birds into the dining room:

Five figures sat around the table, the head of each one bowed and covered by a sheet of black silk. Their faces were hidden, from God or from us, from both. They neither moved nor spoke. Fun or fulfillment was not their intent. Pleasant company had not brought them here. Theirs was a grimmer ceremony: of blood letting, of sin, of guilt and taking away.

Even in Italy, I am still haunted by this image of silk-draped sin. This is just the beginning of our view into The Fat Man’s sinister world – I will leave it there for fear of spoilers… I still shudder to think of it, this horrific man with so many people in his thrall, guzzling his food ‘as showgirls treat presents from admirers’. It’s almost enough to put me off my huge plates of pasta. (Although Simon, being a very well-informed foodie, has kindly sent me a list of restaurants in and around Lucca which sound so delicious that they are sure to eclipse the ghost of The Fat Man…)

Chop Chop is a terrific book. Its energetic prose pulls you into the fast, tough world of the kitchen, then reveals the dark secrets behind the bravado and banter, what lies beneath all the steam and the smoke. It’s exciting to discover a new voice, especially one so fresh that packs such a punch … I can’t wait to discover what he might write next.