Posts Tagged ‘Ali Smith’

The Member of the Wedding

November 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Who is a cute dish?’

We get the flirtation, but Frankie is puzzled:

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

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

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

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

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

dog balloon

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Ali Smith

November 11, 2015

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

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

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

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

Pure gold, I tell you!

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

Public Library by Ali Smith

Emilybooks of the Year

December 17, 2014

The thing about sleeping in 3-4 hour chunks is that time bends into something altogether new. So when I say it’s been an age since I last posted here, I mean an age in a peculiarly nebulous sense. It has been an amount of time of which I can’t really conceive. Life before Vita – what was that?

I had hoped to be writing here a little more regularly, but little Vita has proved to be rather a lot to take on and doing everything one-handed means it all takes twice as long. We’ve also moved house, and any writing time I’ve managed to carve out has been siphoned into a couple of journalism commissions which sprung up and couldn’t be refused. There’s one for the Spectator, which you can read here. And the other one is still in the pipeline, so watch this space…

But wow it’s Christmas next week, which is thoroughly disorienting. Not only is it the first Christmas after Vita and therefore, as I explained, it has approached in a strange new way, it is also the first time for years that I’ve not been working in the bookshop during what is always a madly busy, derangedly exciting time. So I thought I must stir myself from my semi-comatose state at least enough to be able to write my EmilyBooks of the Year – for that has become a Christmas tradition from which I would hate to part. So I hope you enjoy the round-up below. The links go back to my original reviews of them, in case you’d like a little more info on the various books.

Looking back on what I’ve read this year has proved both enjoyable and revealing. I think everyone ought to do it, as an exercise in self-reflection. If so, I’d love to hear how you get on and any of your picks for books of the year.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns2014 introduced me to rather a large clutch of what I might fondly term ‘EmilyBooks’ – the oft-overlooked but brilliant novels that I adore reading. I picked many of these for the Walking Book Club, so thinking back to them now yields very happy memories of chatting away on Hampstead Heath. The Home-Maker and Fidelity, two Persephone Books, were both extraordinary. Both are set in small-town America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both are about women who step beyond their allotted place – going out to earn the family’s living, or having an affair with a married man. Both books are good on how society struggles to handle these misfits, and how the misfits are strong enough to survive. (Incidentally, we were honoured to have a week of the excellent Persephone Post – the Persephone Books daily blog – inspired in part by Vita!) Other brilliant old novels discovered this year include Angela Carter’s Wise Children, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (but only read it if you are ready for something seriously harrowing), William Trevor’s Love and Summer, Elaine Dundy’s excellent The Dud Avocado (a MUST if you are going to Paris) and – perhaps my two favourites – Meg Wolitzer’s brilliantly funny and very clever The Wife, and Barbara Comyns’ disarmingly simply told and terribly affecting Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. This last will definitely be a future walking book club book – it is tremendous!

The Letter for the KingI was pleased (and not surprised) to see how many of my books of 2014 are published by Pushkin Press. Those of you who’ve not yet discovered this terrific independent publisher, which specialises in bringing the best European fiction to our shores, should do so NOW. Red Love by Maxim Leo is a fascinating family memoir – I’d say it’s up there with The Hare with Amber Eyes for the way he manages to get the bigger picture of history through the filter of his immediate family. It’s all about the GDR and how the author’s two grandfathers – one a Nazi and the other a freedom fighter – could both come to believe so fervently in the new regime. There was also Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, strange and brilliant, and Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, also strange and brilliant. Both have an eerie, dreamlike feel to them, and thinking back on the now it’s this special atmosphere of the books that has really stuck with me, rather than the ins and outs of the plots. A special mention should go to Pushkin’s children’s book The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. I started reading this as soon as I went on maternity leave, thinking that it would be the ideal gripping piece of escapism for my exhausted brain. It was, and I spent a heavenly few days on the sofa with it. In fact I enjoyed it so much that the husband wanted to read it as soon as I had finished. And then I went into labour. And rather a lot of that strange first day of labour, before we could go into hospital, was spent with me rolling around on a big pilates ball while the husband read the book and I kept asking him irritating questions about where he’d got up to, only he wasn’t allowed to be annoyed with me because I was in labour. Ha! Truth be told, I think having such a good distraction for a book was the only thing that kept him sane, so thank you Pushkin!

Where Angels Fear to TreadJourney by Moonlight is just one of several books I read that are set in Italy, as our blissful two month sojourn in Lucca called for a great deal of geographically appropriate literature. Looking back on it now, I still can’t really believe we got away with it – two months of eating ice cream and lazing around, reading, writing, sketching, sleeping … I wonder if Vita, who was wriggling around in utero, might grow to love these books too? Certainly I’m sure she will share her mother’s love of pasta.

Thinking of pasta, there was The Leopard, with its infamous macaroni pie, a wonderful novel, which I loved discussing on a walking book club at the Perch Hill Feast. There was Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence – obviously good, because everything by her is good, but perhaps not quite as good as her others. Christ Stopped at Eboli – a classic piece of anthropological observation, which made Southern Italy in the 1930s seem like another world entirely. There was Portrait of a Lady, which was good but something about James’ coldness, and the nastiness of it all, made it seem rather sour. Best of all the Italy books was the double-Forster hit of A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread – it was such a treat to have an excuse to revisit them.

H is for HawkI loved re-reading various classics this year, as well as the Henry James and the EM Forsters, there was Brideshead Revisited – so much more enjoyable to read for pleasure rather than studying it for A Level – and Jane Eyre, every bit as good as I remembered, and also Pride and Prejudice. This last was wonderful, and the other thing we did when I went into labour was watch the boxset of the BBC adaptation – a great way to pass quite a lot of time!

There was a substantial chunk of non-fiction: The Examined Life, which was the perfect January book – ideal for a bit of sober self-examination. How to be a Heroine – a paean to many brilliant novels, written so charmingly that you end up feeling that Samantha Ellis is a bit of a heroine herself. The Rings of Saturn, which was a rare instance of a book being both heavy-going and brilliant – I kept wanting to say thank you Sebald, for stretching my brain in so many of these bizarre directions. And, finally, two wonderful memoirs: The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg – astonishing insight into Germany during the war, written by an English woman who’d married a German – and H is for Hawk, which I adored so much that I nearly called my daughter Mabel in homage to the hawk. I was very happy to see that this won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

How to be Both by Ali SmithI also enjoyed some new novels: the wonderful Chop Chop by Simon Wroe, who I should say is a friend, and I should also say has just been shortlisted for the Costa Prize – hurrah!!! And also Homecoming by Susie Steiner, which I started off thinking would be all about sheep farming, but actually it’s about families and change. And there was, of course, the supreme treat from Ali Smith: How to be Both. How I adored this book. Smith has a way of writing that makes modern fiction seem so exciting and makes me feel lucky to be a reader.

Last but not least, comes a book which is particularly special to me: Park Notes by Sarah Pickstone. Not only is this a beautiful book about women writers finding inspiration in Regent’s Park, but it also features my first ever piece of work to be published in a book!

I hope this little round up might provide some inspiration for Christmas reading, or indeed shopping. Once we get to 2015, Emilybooks will be back for real, and so will the walking book club – our next meeting is on 25th January to discuss Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. Vita’s rather excited about it!

Park notes

How to be Both

September 22, 2014

Outside the Piazza dei Diamante post-fountain dunkSome of you might remember my passing through Ferrara a few months ago, at the end of the Italian adventures of Emilybooks. I say passing through because we literally parked the car (rather too far out of the centre thanks to my misunderstanding of the map’s scale), walked up the main street which stretched on and on and on, reached a castle, turned right, saw the Palazzo dei Diamante (thank you architect husband), dunked my head in a fountain, ate two ice creams, and then returned to the car via a prettier windier route, and drove onwards to Vicenza.

I wish we had stayed a little longer, but we had to get to Vicenza in time to meet our Air BnB host. I was so excruciatingly hot that all I can really remember from our couple of hours in Ferrara was the sudden joy of having my head covered in cold fountain water, vastly overriding any embarrassment caused by the amused looks we got from nearby Italians. I wished we had stayed longer as I love the work of Giorgio Bassani, who wrote some very poignant, very brilliant novels (or perhaps technically novellas) set in Ferrara, including The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, which I’ve written about here and here. And now I wish we had stayed longer because just around the corner from the Palazzo dei Diamante is the Palazzo Schifanoia where I have just learned there are some extraordinary frescos by Francesco del Cossa. Frescos so extraordinary that one of the main characters in Ali Smith’s staggeringly brilliant new novel How to be Both goes all the way to Ferrara with her Mum just to see these paintings, and the other main character is Francesco del Cossa the artist. How could I have missed them?!

How to be Both by Ali SmithAt least I haven’t missed the book. What a book! You must all read it. It must win the Booker. But how on earth to begin to write about it?

Ali Smith does a clever trick with How to be Both. The novel is split into two halves: part one set in the present day about smart, precocious teenager George (short for Georgia) whose mother has died; and part one about the fifteenth-century artist Francesco del Cossa. Half the print run of the novel has the George part one as its first half, and the other half has Francesco del Cossa’s as its first. It is a canny way of dodging Forster’s assertion:

it is never possible for a novelist to deny time inside the fabric of his novel

which Smith rails against in her previous book Artful. Forster points out that prose must be one word after another, but with this trick the words come simultaneously before and after. It just depends on which copy you pick up.

So, let’s pause to reflect for a moment about how clever someone is who can write two halves of a novel, twist them around each other with connections and parallels and then engineer the plot to work both ways you encounter them. Right. And let’s not dismiss it as a gimmick, because really it is a signposting of Smith’s ongoing attempt to push at the very boundaries of what fiction can achieve, how narrative linearity can be bent and played with, made pliant to her demands.

The thing about Ali Smith’s writing is that it’s always very clever, but never at the expense of the work itself. You don’t pick up the book and think Christ what a smart-arse. And, frankly, you might be forgiven for anticipating such a reaction. I mean, what if you just want to read an enjoyable novel but instead find yourself landed with some extraordinarily clever modernist work which grapples with huge questions of form and gender and linearity, striving for a unique and wonderful ‘bothness’ which has never before been achieved. You could be forgiven for feeling somewhat put out by having bitten off more than you’d bargained for.

But Smith’s prose is so alive, vivid, enthusiastic, energetic and engrossing, dancing with possibilities, that within a page or two you forget that you’re reading a great modernist challenge, and are every bit as caught up in the pleasure of the story as you might be in a more straightforward novel. There are moments when the bright ideas leap out at you, but they never pull the fabric of the story too far out of shape.

She has it both ways.

So, back to Forster’s assertion and Smith’s tackling of it. How then can a novelist deny time and its linearity? Aside from publishing two different versions at once.

Memory. In both halves of How to be Both Smith weaves memories through current events so that they occur simultaneously. George, grieving for her mother’s death, is in her bedroom on New Year’s Eve:

She sits down on the floor, leans back against her own bed and eats the toast.

It’s so boring, she says in Italy in the palazzo in the mock-child voice they always use for this game.

Just like that, from one sentence to the next, we are transported back in time to when George and her mother are in Ferrara.

There are photographs – moments captured outside of time. George has stuck photos of her mother above her bed; the photograph on the cover of the book surfaces a few times within it. And, by extension, there are films. George starts obsessively watching a porn film of a drugged girl and an older man. As she explains to her father:

This really happened, George said. To this girl. And anyone can just watch it just, like, happening, any time he or she likes. And it happens for the first time, over and over again, every time someone who hasn’t seen it before clicks on it and watches it. So I want to watch it for a completely different reason. Because my completely different watching of it goes some way to acknowledging all of that to this girl.

And there are works of art, including Francesco del Cossa’s frescos. Surviving through time, beyond death, inspiring people over centuries. And even these paintings have different, troubling, layerings of time. We are with George and her mother in Italy again:

But which came first? her mother says. The chicken or the egg? The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?

The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done first.

But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean that the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?

Again and again, we are asked to question which came first, what keeps coming, looking at the limits of time, and how they might be overcome.

George and her friend have to do a project on empathy for school. They decide to do it about Francesco del Cossa. Trying to imagine what the artist would be like, her friend says:

He’d speak like from another time … He’d say things like ho, or gadzooks, or egad … He’d be like an exchange student, not just from another country but from another time.

Then George:

He’d be all alas I am being made up really badly by a sixteen-year-old girl who knows fuck all about art and nothing at all about me except that I did some paintings and seem to have died of the plague

George thinks:

She thinks how typical it’d be. You’d need your own dead person to come back from the dead. You’d be waiting and waiting for that person to come back. But instead of the person you needed you’d get some dead renaissance painter going on and on about himself and his work and it’d be someone you knew nothing about and that’d be meant to teach you empathy, would it?

It’s exactly the kind of stunt her mother would pull.

For alongside this preoccupation with cheating time and its insistent linearity, comes cheating death – the ending of someone’s time. Perhaps above all How to be Both probes the way that the dead and living exist alongside each other, overcoming their obvious beginnings and endings and times.

In the other part of the novel, Francesco del Cossa comes back from the dead. The artist has a peculiar invisible connection with George, watching over her, involuntarily following her about as though attached by a rope. Looking back at George’s musings above, one wonders, is this indeed the kind of stunt her mother would pull from the dead?

Or perhaps this is George’s empathy project for school writ large. For How to be Both is a startling exercise in empathy – a rendering of this silent strange connection between two people separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles.

Another George – George Eliot – thought that the function of art was empathy:

to amplify experience and extend our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.

Well then, How to be Both is a giddy, dizzying, mesmerising piece of art. Read it and I dare you to disagree.

Francesco del Cossa's fresco

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!

Zweig Lovers Night

February 18, 2013

Valentine’s Day is a day that all sensible people dread. Being sensible, you know that it is ridiculous to get het up about whether or not you will receive a card, flowers, or candlelit dinner, and yet it’s almost impossible not to find yourself desperately wanting all of the above and feeling disproportionately let-down when they don’t quite materialise.

Keen to come up with a plan to avoid this perennial disappointment, I hastened to book tickets to Pushkin Press‘s ‘Zweig Lovers Night’ at the Austrian Cultural Centre. Here was a rare opportunity to do something enjoyable, thought-provoking and un-naf on Valentine’s Day. Surely I wouldn’t care about the lack of candlelit dinner or bunch of flowers with a feast of Stefan Zweig on the horizon.

The evening came around. The husband gave me a very thoughtful writerly card and together we hurried into a grand Knightsbridge house, excited to listen to Amanda Hopkinson, Ali Smith and Antony Beevor talk about why they love Stefan Zweig.

It was fascinating to hear a little of these different writers’ personal connections with his writing. Amanda Hopkinson talked about the editions she’d inherited from her mother, who had met the man himself. These very special books were autographed in Zweig’s signature violet ink, but she had been forced to sell them in order to pay the gas bill during a particularly tough time. Ali Smith talked about the magnetism of Zweig’s prose and read a passage from Fantastic Night, brilliantly capturing the rhythm of Anthea Bell’s translation. (Anthea Bell was there too, quietly approving of the proceedings.) Antony Beevor talked about Zweig as a writer of tremendous empathy and – of course – placed his writing in the context of historical events.

These writers were here as readers, and as they read aloud bits of Zweig’s writing, it was easy to remember why the rest of us readers were Zweig lovers too.

When I read Beware of Pity it felt like being put under a spell. The writing is incredibly intense, unbelievably gripping, forcing you to feel the narrator’s every thought. I felt transplanted inside Hofmiller’s head, into a world of elastic time, where a moment can stretch out into an eternity of pain – such as when he asks Edith to dance – or when a whole lifetime can be condensed into what feels like minutes – like when the Doctor tells him Kekesfalva’s story.

In Beware of Pity Zweig tells the story of Hofmiller – a young army officer who is posted to a small town at the beginning of the twentieth century. Soon he is invited to dinner at Kekesfalva Castle, the home of the richest man in the district, where Hofmiller is enchanted by the grandeur:

It does me good to eat at such an elegantly laid table in so bright and sparkling a room, with liveried servants behind me and the finest dishes in front of me … I have never eaten so well, or even dreamt that anyone could eat so well, so lavishly, could taste such delicacies.

After dinner, there is dancing, by which time Hofmiller is utterly intoxicated:

I hardly know what I am doing, I would like to embrace everyone, say something heartfelt, grateful to them all, I feel so light, so elated, so blissfully young. I whirl from partner to partner, I talk and laugh and dance, and never notice the time, carried away by the torrent of my pleasure.

Then he realises ‘to my alarm’ that he has been so caught up in the evening that he has rudely forgotten to ask the host’s daughter to dance. He searches her out and asks her, but:

Something terrible happens next. She had been leaning slightly forward, but now she flinches abruptly back as if avoiding a blow. At the same time the blood rushes into her pale cheeks, the lips that were half open just now are pressed hard together, and only her eyes keep staring at me with an expression of horror such as I have never seen in my life before … Suddenly she bursts into sobs, a wild, elemental sound like a stifled scream.

Hofmiller discovers that she is lame. He meant to be polite, but instead he has insulted and upset her.

This is his first encounter with the Kekesfalvas, but certainly not the last. Hofmiller’s feeling of pity towards the girl and her father embroils him in their lives … The drama plays out and he becomes more and more of a coward until eventually the First World War breaks out, in which he fights with seeming heroism. As Antony Beevor said on the night, it is a tremendous exploration of the gulf between moral cowardice and physical courage.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been completely gripped by Beware of Pity, sucked into Hofmiller’s head and bewitched by Zweig’s spell of a novel. So I was surprised to find this scathing article from an old London Review of Books about Stefan Zweig by Michael Hofman, best known as a translator of Joseph Roth, another celebrated writer of Vienna. Hofman says Zweig is a ‘uniquely dreary and clothy sprog of the electric 1880s’, the ‘Pepsi of Austrian writing’.

I can’t bear reading vitriolic reviews, and find it hard to understand how one writer can find such sadistic pleasure in ripping another to shreds. It would seem, in this plethora of insults, that Hofman finds Zweig to be a name-dropping fake. Admittedly, The World of Yesterday – his memoir about Austria at the beginning of the twentieth century – is full of names, and many of them famous ones. But I don’t see why he shouldn’t mention them if he knew them – isn’t that sort of the point of a memoir? Indeed Nicholas Lezard wrote in the Guardian that:

There are cameo appearances from almost all the major writers of the era (and quite a few musicians too): Gorky, Rilke, Hoffmansthal, Joyce and countless others appear, but, with typical generosity, Zweig prefers to dwell on those whom he fears posterity will overlook.

It is uncanny reading Nicholas Lezard’s review next to Michael Hofman’s – it is as though they are written about completely different books.

Perhaps we can concede that Zweig was a bit of a name-dropper, but Hofman is completely wrong to say that, like Pepsi, he ‘tastes fake’. There is nothing fake about Beware of Pity – it has the drunken reality of a nightmare, reality distorted into something particularly horrific, especially affecting. (Incidentally, Zweig wrote Beware of Pity when he was seeing rather a lot of Freud.) It is hyper-real – every detail has been coloured pixel by pixel.

I came away from Zweig Lover’s Night on Valentine’s Day with a rekindled passion. I’ve spent the days since rereading bits of The World of Yesterday and Beware of Pity and trying to decide which of Zweig’s novellas to read first.

The husband, also a Zweig lover, left the talk feeling hungry. ‘Oh no,’ he said, looking distraught and a bit guilty. ‘Sorry, I should have booked somewhere for dinner.’ The familiar Valentine’s Day disappointment flashed through me as that candlelit dinner once again faded from sight. I managed to shake it off as we walked through an eerie dark Hyde Park and then feasted on Lebanese food on Edgware Road. As we gobbled baba ghanoush, I couldn’t believe that we’d managed to have a fun evening on Valentine’s Day without being at all cheesy.

Just then, the restaurant switched on a spectacular soundtrack of 80s power ballads. It was as though they’d read my thoughts just as easily as Zweig lets us read Hofmiller’s.

Emilybooks of the year

December 19, 2012

Looking back on the year, I see that I’ve developed a strange habit of reading in threes. There have been three Elizabeths, three lives, three children’s books, three of all sorts of things. Strange indeed.

So here are my favourites of the books that I’ve read over the past year, clumped, conveniently, into threes.

The Walking Book Club at Port Eliot

3 Elizabeths

I began the year reading Elizabeth Bowen’s intensely atmospheric wartime novel The Heat of the Day which set me up for a year of Elizabeths. Start as you mean to go on, I suppose. Well I went on to read Bowen’s The House in Paris, an entrancing, bewitching novel, which made a whole afternoon disappear. Best of all, it was a year in which I was given a very special edition of Bowen’s Court – EM Forster’s copy no less.

I loved Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, a novel which every aspiring writer must read not just because it describes so brilliantly different moments of writing – the strange feverish stuffiness of writing non-stop, and the anti-climax of finishing, for instance – but because it will make you laugh hopelessly at yourself, at the sheer vanity of being a writer. We also had a splendid Walking Book Club discussing Taylor’s poignant novel about getting old, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, for which we enjoyed the illustrious company of Clare Balding. You’ll be able to listen to it on Radio 4’s Ramblings in February… watch this space!

The third Elizabeth of the year was Elizabeth Jenkins. The Tortoise and the Hare had me in tears, and Harriet had me in a nightmare. Both are utterly compelling, hellish portrayals of marriage – the first is a heartbreaking portrayal of its death throes, and the second is about a situation so horrific, it’s hard to believe that it was based on a true murder case.

3 houses

My novel, as those of you who read last week’s post will know, is centred on a house and the stories that lie within it. As a result, I have grown quite addicted to books with houses at their centre. I’ve already mentioned Elizabeth Bowen – her Bowen’s Court really is a great portrait of a house.

Rebecca is one of my all time favourite house novels. From that memorable first line, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,’ the house threatens to overwhelm the new Mrs de Winter. The most memorable moments of the novel are firmly rooted in the house – when she comes down the stairs for the ball, looking like the ghost of Rebecca, or when Mrs Danvers nearly makes her throw herself out of Rebecca’s old bedroom window. This was one of the books we discussed when I took the Walking Book Club to the splendid Port Eliot festival, not so far from Menabilly – the inspiration for du Maurier’s Manderley. I’ve read this novel so many times now, and each time find it utterly gripping, thoroughly brilliant. Perhaps I should allow myself one du Maurier a year.

But my house of the year has to go to the ‘convenient little house’ in Hampstead, which is the focus of Vita Sackville West’s All Passion Spent. Lady Slane’s husband, a great statesman, has just died when we meet her. She defies her foul children, who want to parcel her off between them, and retires to a pretty Hampstead house that she last saw thirty years ago. This perfect, slim novel, a fictional counterpart to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, is beautifully written, and I especially enjoyed the way Sackville-West’s love of gardening – as attested to by the magnificent gardens at Sissinghurst – periodically surfaces, when she can’t resist arranging a few flowers here, or a ripened peach there.

3 lives

The best non-fiction I’ve read this year has been about the lives of people. The strongest presence has been the poet, Edward Thomas. I read Matthew Hollis’s biography of him, Now All Roads Lead To France – a fantastic book, which managed to turn his rather quiet life into a series of cliffhangers. There was also Robert Macfarlane’s majestic The Old Ways, in which this literary lover of landscapes wrote about journeying on remarkable old paths, haunted by Edward Thomas who was a great walker as well as a great writer. And there was Nick Dear’s powerful play at the Almeida. My favourite Edward Thomas moment of the year was walking with some friends around (the aptly named) Steep, where Thomas lived, and up Shoulder of Mutton hill. It was very special to feel we were walking in his footsteps. Towards the end, we sprawled across a leafy glade and read out some of his poems, accompanied only by birdsong, the wind in the trees, and our steady chomping of Percy Pigs.

I loved reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters – a wonderful thick collection, which was a steady and inspiring companion for many months. And now I am reading West with the Night by Beryl Markham, who became my new heroine by about page five. She tells of her childhood in what was then British East Africa, a childhood which included such instances as hunting warthogs with local tribesmen and being mauled by a lion. She grew up to breed and train racehorses, and then became a freelance pilot. This is an extraordinary memoir, bristling with the spirit of adventure, full of the romance of a lost way of life, and somehow Markham has combined a great lyricism with edge-of-your-seat thrilling tension.

3 new novels

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home seemed to lodge in me like a shard of glass, painful, unforgettable and darkly beautiful. Susie Boyt’s The Small Hours was a peculiar and powerful novel. It is about a strange, larger-than-life woman who decides to open a nursery school. It soon transpires that her own childhood has been difficult, to say the least. I suppose it’s what you might expect from Freud’s great-granddaughter. Emily Perkins’ The Forrests follows a family over several decades. What really stood out about it was the quality of the writing, richly detailed, making every mundane moment sing like a poem.

3 children’s books

Like everyone else I read The Hunger Games, and I loved it. It was alarmingly addictive – I have friends who began reading it one evening and had to take the next day off work, as they had to stay up all night to finish it. Cynics dismiss it as a horrid teen novel about children killing each other, but I found it thick with ideas – about CCTV, celebrity culture, society and more.

I reread The Wind in the Willows, which was truly joyful, and even inspired a walk along the Thames, for which we strove to bring all the ingredients in Ratty’s notorious picnic:

coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidges

pottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater

And I reread A Wizard of Earthsea, an exciting quest about the battle of good versus evil, and – interestingly – the importance of language.

3 of everything else

There were of course other brilliant Emilybooks of the year, which don’t fit into these clumps of threes so neatly – Dorothy Whipple, Patti Smith, and it was certainly a year of Ali Smith, whose new book Artful – not quite a novel, not quite a collection of essays, is something entirely new and mind-poppingly impressive. It was a year of many great ladies, and, lest I forget, a few great men, (like the aforementioned Edward Thomas, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and L.P. Hartley). It has been a year of feeling terrifically happy that there are so many wonderful books to read.

Thank you for accompanying me through a wonderful year of reading. Now I have only to wish you a happy and book-filled Christmas and New Year. Emilybooks will be back in January.

Artful

November 5, 2012

It’s my birthday on Thursday, which is November 8th, so I sat up a little straighter when I read the same date early on in Ali Smith’s new book Artful – not quite a novel, not quite essays, but something surpassing both.

I am forever trying to remember important things that happen to have happened on my birthday, but I never succeed. Every year, I read through the list of famous people who share my birthday, and the following year I have forgotten all of them and read their names with renewed surprise. The only, quite appalling, explanation that I can suggest for this is that I spend my birthday so resolutely selfishly taken up with myself, that there isn’t room in my head to allow anything in about anyone else.

I hope that if I write down here this particular thing about November 8th from Ali Smith’s Artful then it might stick:

Then at its centre the twentieth century pivots on a vision like this one from Victor Klemperer, the Jewish academic and diarist whose career at the University of Dresden was interrupted in the 1930s by Nazi anti-Semitic laws, who lived out the war years on a knife edge, and who, having survived, just, writes the following in his diary on 8 November 1945, about sitting, not long after the defeat of Hitler’s regime, listening to a talk on the radio (translated here by Martin Chalmers):

Radio Beromünster: Reddar (that’s what the magic word sounded like), the English ray invention, which allowed them to see U-boats and guide air planes by wireless, and give them victory at sea and in the air. Inserted in the talk a piece of a Hitler speech, the very piece I once myself heard standing outside the offices of the Freiheitskampf. And if the war lasts 3 years – we’ll still have our say! – and if it lasts 4 years … and if 5, and if 6 … we will not capitulate! It was his voice! It was his voice, his agitated and inflammatory furious shouting, I clearly recognised it again … And with it applause and Nazi songs. A shatteringly present past … [To think] that this is past, and that its presence can be restored to the present, always and at every moment!

It’s a shocking image, this man who has only just survived Nazism, sitting by his radio when he is jolted by the horribly familiar sound of Hitler’s voice, a voice from the past, a horror dead and buried, brought back to life with more force and presence than a mere ghost. ‘A shatteringly present past’. This is the power of technology – it brings back the past to violently disrupt the present moment.

Time is doing quite peculiar things in this diary entry of Klemperer’s. There is the bringing of the past into the present, yes, but there is also the fact that in the speech – that moment of the past – Hitler is talking about the possible future: ‘if the war lasts 3 years … and if it lasts 4 years … and if 5, and if 6…’ These years of war were yet to come when he made the speech, but had passed by the time Klemperer was listening to the radio. So not only is the past brought into the present, but the future is put into the past. And in that passing, the potential nature of the future – ‘if it lasts’, not ‘when it lasts’ – is changed to certainty.

Finally, it ends with the thought of the future being made up of a series of present moments, all vulnerable to disruption from the past. This particular radio broadcast is just one instance that shows the vulnerability of every moment still to come. Now, almost sixty-seven years (to the day!) after Klemperer wrote this in his diary, we can see that he was right in his chilling prediction – Hitler is still turning up on radio broadcasts, television programmes, in books. That terrible past continues to disrupt the present moment.

This birthday link with Klemperer’s diary entry is pure coincidence. Of course Ali Smith didn’t include this entry because it was my birthday, any more than she wrote about the Gainsborough studios in The Accidental, because she knew that I was busy researching them for my novel (see this post for more about that coincidence). Smith is the supreme writer of coincidence, so much so that it ceases to be surprising when something falls into place when one is reading a book by her.

At the launch for this book, Simon Prosser, Ali Smith’s publisher, said much the same thing. He said he wasn’t the least bit surprised when earlier that very day he’d caught sight of Lord Weidenfeld for the first time. The coincidence here is that Artful was originally four lectures given for the Weidenfeld Visiting Professorship in European Comparative Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford; Lord Weidenfeld is thanked at the beginning. It would be on publication day that the publisher who helped bring the book to life glimpsed someone who helped enable its inception.

I particularly like it when Ali Smith’s coincidences take the form of puns. I was reading the third part of Artful, ‘On edge’, on my way to work on the morning of the launch. I looked up as the tube approached the platform and smiled as I saw the tube was, of course, terminating at ‘Edgware’. It was too perfect.

How does Ali Smith invite all these coincidences into the lives of her readers? She covers so much ground in such a short space, so many books, so many writers that it’s inevitable you have a connection with at least one of them. But moreover it’s how she writes, in such an agile, nimble way, leaping from branch to branch in her ever-expanding forest of ideas. The book is all about making connections between different books, different ideas, utterly different things, and it is done with enthusiasm so infectious, that you can’t help but start to make those connections yourself. And so you notice little things like the joyful link of travelling towards Edgware while reading ‘On Edge’, to which you would otherwise have been blind.

Reading her books, makes me think it must be extraordinary to be Ali Smith, to have her quicksilver mind that leaps and dances between so many things with such ease and flair. Reading must be like weaving a new thread into an already intricately, beautifully patterned carpet; life must be full of nice coincidences and illuminating connections. Well if we can’t be her, we can at least read her, and hope that the tiniest bit of her genius, sprinkled on the pages like gold dust, might just rub off.

Swimming Home

October 30, 2012

I expect that many of you know the happy success story behind Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, but here it is for those who don’t.

Rejected by traditional publishers, on the grounds of it being ‘too literary to prosper in a tough economy’ (as Levy told the LRB), Swimming Home was taken up by And Other Stories, a fantastic new indie publisher which operates on a subscription basis. I have written about them at length for the Spectator here, but essentially, you pay them fifty pounds a year, which they pool together with everyone else’s fifty pounds to produce six brilliant books, which you receive as they’re published, with your name pleasingly printed in the back. (You can also pledge thirty-five pounds for four books, or twenty for two.) I urge you to subscribe!

Rescued from rejection, Swimming Home was longlisted, and then shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Faber helped And Other Stories publish a cheaper, mass-market edition, and so Swimming Home has became the book that everyone is reading and talking about. Even after Hilary Mantel’s historical second win of the Booker, we are still selling more copies of Swimming Home in my bookshop than Bring up the Bodies.

Swimming Home is an exceptional novel. Philip Womack in the Daily Telegraph called it ‘stealthily devastating’, which is spot on. So is Kate Kellaway, who called it in ‘a shining splinter, hard to dislodge’ in the Observer. I thought the atmosphere was similar to that of Michael Haneke’s film Hidden – the surface is smooth and normal, but underneath this veneer of calm lies gasping, destructive violence.

Joe Jacobs is a famous poet, who is on holiday in the South of France. With him is his wife Isobel, a war correspondent who wishes she could unsee all the terrible things she’s seen; his daughter Nina, on the cusp of puberty; and two friends Mitchell and Laura. Enter Kitty Finch, swimming naked in their pool, thin, ragged, beautiful, crazy, a botanist with wild red hair. There is also the elderly neighbour, doctor Madeleine Sheridan; the lazy caretaker Jurgen, infatuated with Kitty Finch; and Claude, ‘with his Mick Jagger looks’, who owns the café.

This set up reminds me of Ali Smith’s The Accidental (see this post about it) – which tells the story of another dysfunctional family on holiday, when their lives are disrupted by an exotic stranger. But whereas Ali Smith keeps the characters’ viewpoints resolutely separate, taking it in turns to move between them, chapter by chapter, Deborah Levy slides between them more fluidly (fitting, given the title), building up a tangled, intricate web of different characters’ thoughts, feelings and impressions.

It is a novel about poets, about poems – one poem in particular, Kitty’s poem, which she asks Joe to read, titled ‘Swimming Home’. Perhaps this sharing of a title is a clue, for the novel itself is not unlike a poem. The language is beautiful, images echo through the pages, and the slim volume is dense, heavy with meaning.

For instance, Kitty is furious that Jurgen has got the pool chemicals wrong and made the water ‘actually CLOUDY’. Madeleine Sheridan, the elderly doctor who prides herself on seeing through things, seeing a situation clearly, in actual fact has ‘cloudy, short-sighted eyes’. And, best of all, when she gives Joe some of her Andalucian almond soup and he finds a clump of her silver hair in it and pushes it away, spilling it all over his suit, she wishes he had said, ‘Your soup was like drinking a cloud.’ Of course the one place where there should be clouds, there aren’t any – in the searing hot blue cloudless sky.

But there is a point behind these neat, clever echoes of clouds. Clouds hide things, we long for them to disappear, and yet when we are exposed to the full heat of the sun (this is the South of France in July, not London in late October), it is too intense, too much, and we long for the cool relief of a cloud. Likewise, with the truth – so often we must resort to cloudy lies.

Levy writes about the necessary cloudiness of language when Joe reads Kitty’s poem:

The poem, ‘Swimming Home’, was mostly made up of etcs; he had counted seven of them in one half of the page alone. What kind of language was this?

My mother says I’m the only jewel in her crown

But I’ve made her tired with all my etc,

So now she walks with sticks

To accept her language was to accept that she held him, her reader, in great esteem. He was being asked to make something of it and what he made of it was that every etc concealed some thing that could not be said.

‘Etc’ is a kind of cloud, a means of concealing something else, ‘some thing that could not be said’.  Using ‘etc’ makes this explicit, jolts us into thinking about what it covers, but really as Iris Murdoch pointed out in Under the Net (see last week’s post), this is not so different from the rest of our language – it is all a cloud, veiling what is unsaid, what can’t be said, the unspeakable truth.

This idea echoes throughout the novel. Joe Jacobs has several different names – Joe, Jozef, JHJ, the English poet, the Jewish poet – the multiplicity of them pointing out how inadequate they all are to truly sum him up. Isabel thinks back to her time at school, where the motto was ‘Let Knowledge Serve the World’:

Now she thought she would change the school motto to something that warned the girls that knowledge would not necessarily serve them, nor would it make them happy. There was a chance it would instead throw light on visions they did not want to see.

Again there is that image of light being unwelcome, the suggestion that clear vision isn’t always good, that hiding behind a cloud can be a blessing.

Swimming Home is a remarkable novel. I raced through most of it in the bath one chilly autumnal morning. But like many slim novels, it begs to be reread, to let your thoughts meander their way around the allusive words and elusive truth again. It clings to you, embeds itself into your thoughts – indeed it is a ‘shining splinter’, one which I’ve found very hard to dislodge from my mind.

Sunset Song

August 13, 2012

There was no post last week because I was up in the wilds of Ardnamurchan, staying somewhere so beautiful and remote that there was no electricity, let alone an internet connection.

I have often mentioned my predilection for reading books that match the setting. This wee trip to Scotland was a welcome opportunity to revisit the pile of Scottish books I bought when we went to Harris last year, and I got too caught up with Gavin Maxwell’s wonderful Ring of Bright Water to read any of the rest of them.This time, I picked Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. And so I embarked upon one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of my life.

Every day, in the late morning – once we’d blearily risen and tidied the mess from the previous night’s drunken antics, which in a caravan swiftly becomes mountainous – I poured a mug of coffee and climbed up on to the rocks where I sat and read, the breeze snatching my hair, alone apart from the occasional gull and eagle. Every very few pages I looked up and saw Arnamurchan lighthouse, marking the most Westerly point on the British mainland, poised over a sandy white beach, on which the boys were usually playing Frisbee or beach golf.

In the other direction, loomed the Lord-of-the-Rings-like islands Eigg, Muck and Rhum, and – if it was really clear – there was a glimpse of the Outer Hebrides too. What a view! (The artfully placed book marks the very spot where I sat.)

 

Admittedly, Sunset Song is set in a different bit of Scotland – in the fictional Kinraddie, just inland from Aberdeen. And when Gibbon writes so lovingly of the land there, he is writing about the hills, not the sea. But still, I felt I was breathing the same fresh Scottish air, experiencing the same feel of the landscape – far more dramatic than anything England’s got to offer.

Sunset Song is about Kinraddie and its community. It was written in the 1930s and – aside from a whistle-stop, bonkers, Danny Boyleish historical tour in the Prelude – set in the few years preceding the First World War. These years, although harsh and tough, are portrayed as something of a golden age before war comes and wreaks destruction on the community. The story centres on Chris Guthrie, who we meet when she’s just sixteen, torn between pursuing an intellectual life of studying English books or a more visceral appreciation of the Scottish land:

Oh, Chris, my lass, there are better things than your books or studies or loving or bedding, there’s the countryside your own, you its, in the days when you’re neither bairn nor woman.

That tight inversion ‘your own, you its’ reveals just how close Chris’s connection is with the land, as indeed is everyone’s who works their croft in this community. It reminds me of John Donne’s line in ‘The Good Morrow’, ‘my face in thine eye, thine in mine appears’ and perhaps this mingling of people and land is not unlike that of lovers, without wanting to get too D.H. Lawrence about it.

This division between books and the land is echoed in other divisions portrayed in the book – brain and body, town and country, but most fundamentally, English and Scottish. And this is felt most keenly in the language:

Every damned little narrow-dowped rat that you met put on the English if he thought he’d impress you – as though Scotch wasn’t good enough now, it had words in it that the thin bit scraichs of the English could never come at. And Rob said You can tell me, man, what’s the English for sotter, or greip, or smore, or pleiter, gloaming or glunching or well-kenspeckled? And if you said gloaming was sunset you’d fair be a liar…

I think my favourite of these words has got to be ‘glunching’, which Gibbon thoughtfully translates in the much-needed glossary at the back of the book to mean ‘to mutter half-threateningly, half-fearfully’. I now fully intend to glunch at people.

Perhaps a nation’s roots are felt most keenly through its language. This would explain why we spend so much time tirelessly chatting with Americans to point out the differences between ‘lift’ and ‘elevator’, ‘pavement’ and ‘sidewalk’, ‘petrol’ and ‘gas’. Difference is more identifying than sameness and it is usually with a feeling of pride that people cling to these points of variation, especially if they are the underdog, the smaller, less powerful party. Small wonder then that the Scottish crofters in the book feel so protective over their language. Keep on glunching at those posh English chaps who rule over you and are going to make you fight to your deaths in Belgium, say I! English is seen as a snobby thing, as a way of raising yourself up above the commoners, and, moreover, it is seen as false. For as Chris comes to realise:

The English words so sharp and clean and true – for a while, for a while, till they slid so smooth from your throat you knew they could never say anything that was worth the saying at all.

Of course I disagree. But I expect that if I lived in this marvellous rugged countryside, with a language born to express it, I’d also feel that English words never said much that was worth saying.

Gibbon himself evidently felt this tug in opposing directions, one Scottish, one English. In her introduction, Ali Smith tells how he was born in the Scottish parish of Arbuthnott – on which Kinraddie was based – but then moved in later life to English suburban Welwyn Garden City. For the more Scottish of his books he used the pen name ‘Lewis Grassic Gibbon’, adapted from his maternal grandmother’s name, but his English books were written with his English name James Leslie Mitchell.

As you might have gathered from the various quotations, while Sunset Song is written in English, it is an English fused, idiosyncratically, with bits of Scots. Words like ‘meikle’, ‘bit’ and ‘quean’ (to mean respectively ‘great’, ‘something vaguely derogatory’ and ‘girl’) are used so often that they are part of the rhythm of the language, punctuating it so frequently that you take on the inflections in your head. Thankfully, I refrained from talking like this to my friends, but it was certainly an easy lilt to pick up and one that resounded in my head while I sat there on the rocks looking out at the islands.

Sunset Song revels in this unique synthesis of language. It is English enough for an Englishwoman, like me, to read, yet it is undeniably Scottish. You need the glossary, but you don’t resent looking the words up, and before long you can feel the sense of the words without having to check them every few minutes. The result is a prose that really sings and dances off the page, not unlike the Ceilidh that takes place during one of the happiest moments of the book.

It is a marvellous book – but it is for sure a book, and Gibbon takes care in Sunset Song to associate books with Englishness, as opposed to Scottishness. Is Sunset Song then a claiming of literature for Scottishness, an appropriating of this English medium into something Scottish? It has been heralded as ‘the first really Scottish novel’ and the language certainly makes an English reader think in Scots – albeit a doctored version of it. Or is it a conquering of Scottishness by English, an act of colonisation, of capturing the Scottish land within a book? It is words that describe the landscape and many of them are English ones. Most importantly it is called ‘Sunset Song’, not, as Rob would have it in the quotation above, ‘Gloaming Song’. It is a troubling paradox indeed.

As well as reading, we did a little walking up in Ardnamurchan. We climbed to the top of a nearby mountain, sat there and watched two eagles soar through the valley, while someone in the distance struck up a tune on the bagpipes. It was too perfect for words. Then we clambered down, scrabbling through the gorse and the heather. I am particularly bad at those kind of scrambles and feared that the Scottish land might take revenge on my clumsy English feet (clad in rather smart new walking boots), but somehow I got to the bottom unscathed. Not so our Spanish friend who fell off the side of the rockface and tumbled half-way to the bottom of the mountain, the offending loose piece of rock bouncing alarming after him. By a miracle he survived, but perhaps the Scottish land was indeed protesting. Fine, it said, you English scum can trample the heather, but a Spaniard too? Not likely. If nothing else, it certainly made our Spanish friend start glunching.