Posts Tagged ‘Ann Bridge’

Emilybooks of the year

December 23, 2015

As 2015 comes to a close, it’s time to look back at the books I’ve read over the year. And, of course, as I look back over the books, so I remember the circumstances in which they were read: grabbing half an hour on a park bench while Vita snoozed in her pushchair, snatching a few pages in the bath before falling asleep from exhaustion, sitting in a cafe round the corner from the nursery trying to distract myself from thinking about her ‘settling in’ a.k.a. screaming her head off. I suppose these are all rather fraught circumstances for reading, and so it’s to be expected that I’ve read and posted far less than I would have liked. But when I think that the lack of books has been due to an abundance of Vita, I don’t feel quite so sorry about it as I might do otherwise. Besides, at least I’ve got to read such delights as Peepo, The Tiger who Came to Tea, Meg and Mog and Lost and Found again, and again, and again.

The Fishermen by ObiomaWhile I may not have written about books on Emilybooks quite so much, I have at least been writing about them elsewhere. I adored Melissa Harrison’s nature-novel At Hawthorn Time, which I reviewed for The Times Literary Supplement, and I also enjoyed Lucy Beresford’s compelling novel about India, Invisible Threads, which I wrote about for The Spectator. I also read two books by Thomas Harding – Hanns and Rudolf, which I wrote about here, and his recent history of a house outside Berlin, The House by the Lake which I reviewed in the Christmas edition of The TLS here. (Quite a big piece!) I hope to have a review of Helen Simpson’s beautifully observed, funny and life-affirming new collection of short stories, Cockfosters, in The TLS early next year too. The best newly published book I read of the year was Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen – an extraordinary debut novel, with such a powerful mythic voice. I wrote about it when it first came out, and then was pleased as punch when it went on to be first longlisted and then shortlisted for The Booker Prize, hurrah!

The Good DoctorEmily’s Walking Book Club has become something of a reading lifeline to me. Knowing that I will read one good book a month and then talk about it with such clever, kind and interesting people while stomping across Hampstead Heath – while all thoughts of nappies and bottles etc. are blown away for an hour or so – has been invaluable. Particular highlights have been Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski – a beautiful Persephone Book about a father searching for his missing son after the Second World War in France; Iris Murdoch’s The Bell about a load of endearing oddballs living beside an Abbey; The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – about life in a defunct hospital in the wilds of South Africa, and optimism versus cynicism, lies, race and gosh SO MUCH; and All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld –  a horrible book about a very damaged young woman and what she’s running away from, which is also horribly good.

A Christmas Party by Georgette HeyerFor our last walking book club of the year, we discussed Georgette Heyer’s A Christmas Party (originally published with the title Envious Casca), and it seemed at first to split people into two camps – those who loved it for all its silliness, and those who found it too silly to love. Within about ten minutes, we were comparing it to Downton Abbey, but our discussion then moved on to encompass Shakespeare, acting, family and much more and by the end of the walk we had all grown rather fond of the book and its cast of eccentric characters. It’s a vintage Christmas murder mystery, one of many which have been republished this year – I wrote about this publishing phenomenon and what it tells us about our reading habits (and ourselves!) for Intelligent Life here.

There have been other excellent older books that I discovered this year. Fred Uhlman’s Reunion – which takes about five minutes to read, only that five minutes will be one of the most intense five minutes of your life; Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years – sheer bliss for when you need something a little indulgent; Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown – ballsy and loud and inspiring; and The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, which was funny and brilliant and clever and actually made me hold my breath for an entire page and a The Uncommon Readerhalf. I also jumped on the Elena Ferrante bandwagon – is there actually anyone who reads, who hasn’t read her? – and read the first book in the Neapolitan quartet, My Brilliant Friend. It was brilliant, of course it was. I can’t quite place why though – Was it that the town was so well described, and the characters so recognisable? Was it that we all relate to the pain and the joy of that kind of intense unequal female friendship? I don’t know, I hope to read the rest of them in 2016, then think hard and then write about them altogether, but in the meantime the LRB bookshop has a podcast of a ‘Ferrante fever’ event which looks potentially illuminating – you can download it here. Also, I must urge everyone to read The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett over Christmas – it is a true delight, short, funny, life-affirming: all about The Queen discovering a love for reading. It will make you chortle while you sit there on the sofa groaning after too many mince pies, and apparently laughing is basically the same as exercise, so there you go, it’s a certain win.

the secrets of the wild wood by tonke dragtI shall skip through the two real disappointments of the year. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt – the first and worst book of the year, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North which won the Booker Prize in 2014, which certainly wasn’t terrible, but it just wasn’t as good as all that, certainly not as good as Ali Smith’s How to be Both which was on the shortlist, and I suppose maybe I feel childishly cross about that. (Incidentally, Ali Smith has a fantastic new collection of short stories out this year too – Public Library.) Anyway, plenty of people disagree about both of these, so no doubt they are good books, just not good Emilybooks. Should you get stuck on a similar big long boring book, and find your reading slowing down as you begin to dread picking it up – JUST GIVE IT UP! Life’s too short. There are so many other better books you could be reading, rather than essentially not reading. To get back on track, I would suggest picking up a very addictive and exciting children’s book, such as one by Tonke Dragt: Pushkin published The Secrets of the Wild Wood this year and it is terrific – the husband adored it too.

Peking Picnic by Ann BridgeSo, fanfare please, what is my Emilybook of the Year, if I had to pick just one? A difficult choice, but I think I would have to opt for Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge, recently republished by Daunt Books. It is wonderful escapism, but has bite too – a dark edge that stops it being too airy and daft. Set in 1930s Peking, our heroine, the marvellous Laura Leroy suffers from acute ‘inhalfness’ – torn between the glamour of her life in China as a diplomat’s wife, while thinking about her children growing up without her in England. Though she seems wistful at first, she is in fact a dab hand at using a brick as a hammer, surprisingly realistic about love, and expert a cool head in a crisis, even a life-threatening one. Top heroine; top book!

 I wish you all a very happy Christmas and New Year. I’d love to know your thoughts on any of these books, or indeed your own books of 2015, if you feel like commenting below. So, what will I be reading over Christmas? Alas I won’t be curling up by the fire with a Christmas murder mystery (though to be fair, I have just read half a dozen of them for the Intelligent Life article) … but I will be seeking help in civilising the ahem ‘spirited’ little one from Pamela Druckerman’s life-changing (let’s hope) parenting book French Children Don’t Throw Food. Wish me luck!

French Children Don't Throw Food

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Peking Picnic

September 4, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ann Bridge

My Top Five Literary Springs

April 22, 2013

On Saturday, when the hour of my precious lunchbreak struck, I sprang out of the bookshop and into the sunshine, hurried to Hampstead Heath and lay in the grass, grinning as blotchy patterns flashed on the lids of my closed eyes.

Spring is here.

What better way to celebrate these first moments of sunshine, these first breaths of balmy, flower-scented air than with five favourite springtime books? (Click on the various links if you’d like to read longer posts about them.)

1. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

The Enchanted April pbkI wrote about this last week, so here all I shall do is reiterate that it is a heavenly book. The plot is a bit daft, yes, but in a charming way. You read it and feel as though you are on holiday, that you are with those dotty ladies in San Salvatore, basking in the beautiful Italian spring. Let us briefly share Lotty Wilkins’s joy as she opens the shutters on her first morning:

All the radiance in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.

2. The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Beginning of Spring

It is 1913 and spring comes to Moscow, stirring revolutionaries into action and an English family into crisis. Penelope Fitzgerald is my favourite writer, as many of you know. This is a particularly good book, with her characteristically astute observations of a different place and time, laced with gentle humour, realised in beautiful prose. Towards the end, the children of the family go away with the mysterious new servant Lisa Ivanovna to their dacha in the woods, which is infused with the scent of the ‘potent leaf-sap of the birch trees’:

They had March fever. They were going out of the still sealed-up, glassed up house into the fresh, watery, early spring.

The house is ‘still sealed-up, glassed up’ against the fierce Russian winter, which is just coming to an end. The book closes with the definitive change of season and a wonderful passage describing the unsealing of the windows. Then:

Throughout the winter the house had been deaf, turned inwards, able to listen only to itself. Now the sounds of Moscow broke in, the bells and voices, the cabs and taxis which had gone by all winter unheard like ghosts of themselves, and with the noise came the spring wind, fresher than it felt in the street, blowing in uninterrupted from the northern regions where the frost still lay.

This weekend, we Londoners were not so different from that Moscow house. We’ve spent the winter ‘turned inwards’ – cold, muffled, shrouded in darkness – but now we are out in the bright streets, in the parks, listening to the noise of the city and feeling the fresh spring wind.

3. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge

Illyrian SpringLady Kilmichael is fed up with her philandering husband and difficult daughter and so decides to travel first to Venice and then on to the Dalmatian Coast, painting as she goes. Her path crosses with that of Nicholas, a young man determined to be a artist, in spite of his parents’ disapproval. They travel and paint together, until things become a little complicated…

This delightful novel has a similar feel to The Enchanted April, in that as you read it, you are transported to the warmer climes of the Mediterranean and the drowsy wellness that comes with a holiday. It also shines with descriptive travel writing. Ann Bridge was the wife of a diplomat and so was a seasoned traveller. This is one of my favourite views:

All over the ledges of these pearly rocks, as thick as they could stand, grew big pale-blue irises, a foot or more high, sumptuous as those in an English border, their leaves almost as silver as the rocks, their unopened buds standing up like violet spears among the delicate pallor of the fully opened flowers – Iris pallida dalmatica, familiar to every gardener, growing in unimaginable profusion in its native habitat. Now to see an English garden flower smothering a rocky mountainside is a sufficient wonder, especially if the rocks are of silver colour and the flowers a silvery blue; and Nature, feeling that she had done enough, might well have been content to leave it at that. But she had a last wonder, a final beauty to add. In the cracks and fissures another flower grew, blue also, spreading out over the steep slabs between the ledges in flat cushions as much as a yard across – a low-growing woody plant, smothered in small close flower-heads of a deep chalky blue, the shade beloved of the painter Nattier. Anything more lovely than these low compact masses of just the same tone of colour, but a deeper shade, flattened on the white rocks as a foil and companion to the flaunting splendour of the irises, cannot be conceived.

The description, with its precise renderings of different shades of colour, seems apt given that it’s seen through the eyes of an artist. I hadn’t realised that irises were native to Croatia. They are one of my very favourite flowers – especially the yellow variety which we saw in profusion in Scotland – and now, whenever I see them in a garden, I think of this vision of a mountainside covered in a silvery-blue sea of them.

4. The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

The Constant NymphThis strange and powerful novel, written by someone who Anita Brookner termed ‘not only a romantic but an anarchist’, begins with a wonderful depiction of the ‘Sanger circus’ holidaying in the Austrian Alps. They are not an actual circus, but a family of wild, musical children, headed by their father Sanger, a great musician, and added to by various other musicians, most notably young handsome Lewis Dodd. They spend their days cavorting around the mountainside and singing. When Sanger dies (we discover this at the beginning), cousin Florence, a sensible, cultured young English woman, comes out to the Tyrol in her ‘neat grey travelling hat and veil’ to take this troop of cousins in hand:

The children could not believe that they were really related to such a marvellous creature. They stared expansively.

Florence blossoms in the Alpine spring, charming the children and Lewis Dodd too. Yet when she takes them back to England, sending them to various boarding schools, and trying to settle down to married life with Lewis, she slips back into her English habits, but Sanger’s circus refuses to be tamed. As her imposed order begins to unravel, the lost carefree days of the Austrian spring seem more and more enchanted.

5. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the CastleOne of my very favourite, most comforting books, I Capture the Castle begins in spring, when the young American heirs to the estate first visit the dilapidated castle where the Mortmains, in all their bohemian squalor, roost. It is a novel packed with funny and delightful scenes, such as Cassandra’s interrupted bath-time; the brilliant episode when Rose, in her newly-inherited furs, is mistaken for a bear; and a magical night-swim in the moat. I suppose this makes it sound a little like a fairytale, but it’s too comical for that. Here is a bit from the moat swim. Cassandra has nobly taken one of the heirs swimming in order to let her sister Rose have a romantic tête-à-tête with the other heir:

We were in full moonlight. Neil had patches of brilliant green duckweed on his head and one shoulder; he looked wonderful.

I felt that what with the moonlight, the music, the scent of the stocks and having swum round a six-hundred-year-old moat, romance was getting a really splendid leg-up and it seemed an awful waste that we weren’t in love with each other – I wondered if I ought to have got Rose and Simon to swim the moat instead of us. But I finally decided that cold water is definitely anti-affection, because when Neil did eventually put his arm around me it wasn’t half so exciting as when he held my hand under the warm car-rug after the picnic.

The spring of I Capture the Castle is the perfect setting for our heroine, the narrator Cassandra. She is in the spring of her life, just beginning to blossom.

These are five wonderful books, and this is a particularly good time to read them, with the feel of the sun on your skin and the breeze in your hair. And, when the weather inevitably breaks, let’s hope we can find comfort in the spring delights held within their pages.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts on these books, or any other suggestions for good spring reads.

The Enchanted April

April 15, 2013

The Enchanted April pbkIt would seem that English women in the 1930s were all in desperate need of a holiday. As Mrs Wilkins explains to Mrs Arbuthnot in The Enchanted April:

Why, it would really be being unselfish to go away and be happy for a little, because we could come back so much nicer.

Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot are miserable middle-class Hampstead wives, stuck in loveless marriages. Going into town to buy fish for their husbands’ dinners is more-or-less the highlight of their days.

We could add to Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot, E.M. Forster’s earlier middle-class women Lilia Heriton and Caroline Abbott from Where Angels Fear to Tread, and Margaret Kennedy’s Florence Creighton from The Constant Nymph. This dire need of a holiday was not, however, just a middle-class thing; it was also felt by wealthier ladies. In The Enchanted April there is young, beautiful Lady Caroline Dester, worn out from too many parties. Or in Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge there is Lady Grace Kilmichael, who is fed up with her husband and children and wants to travel around the Mediterranean and paint.

Nearly a century later, not much has changed. We all could do with a nice long holiday. If I were to happen along the following advertisement, as Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot do at the beginning of The Enchanted April, I too would long to go:

To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

For our 1930s fictional counterparts, this advertisement proves to be a rare catalyst for independent action. They quietly defy their husbands, recruit two more women to their cause (the aforementioned Lady Caroline Dester, and formidable elderly dowager Mrs Fisher, who doesn’t stop banging on about her friendships with all the great, dead Victorian intellectuals), and rent this castle, San Salvatore, for April. As the name ‘San Salvatore’ might suggest, this holiday will indeed be their ‘saviour’, their salvation, from the dreariness of London life.

The Enchanted April hbkThe Enchanted April could easily be a delightful, soppy story about women going on holiday and being transformed by joy. Mrs Wilkins, on her first morning in San Salvatore looks out of the window and feels utterly overcome with emotion:

Happy? Poor ordinary everyday word. But what could one say, how could one describe it? It was as though she could hardly stay inside herself, it was as though she were too small to hold so much of joy, it was as though she were washed through with light.

I have a weakness for this kind of sentimental gush, but for those of you who are a little tougher, fear not, for The Enchanted April is brilliantly balanced by Elizabeth Von Arnim’s wonderful sense of humour. She is forever poking fun at her characters, wryly observing their habits, putting them in awkward situations and watching them stew. Take this, for instance, perhaps my new favourite literary food quotation:

Mrs. Fisher had never cared for maccaroni [sic], especially not this long, worm-shaped variety. She found it difficult to eat, – slippery, wriggling off her fork, making her look, she felt, undignified when, having got it as she supposed into her mouth, ends of it yet hung out. Always too, when she ate it she was reminded of Mr. Fisher. He had during their married life behaved very much like maccaroni. He had slipped, he had wriggled, he had made her feel undignified, and when at last she had got him safe, as she thought, there had invariably been little bits of him that still, as it were, hung out.

Perhaps you need to have more of an idea of pompous old Mrs Fisher before really getting the hilarity of it. Think Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey, all dressed up in lace, sitting down to lunch, bang on time, by herself, in a gorgeous yet shambolic Italian castle, and being confronted with a rebellious plate of pasta.

Needless to say, when I told the husband that he might be compared rather unfavourably to macaroni, he was a little troubled.

There are other very funny moments too. Mr Wilkins (summoned to San Salvatore by his wife) can’t handle the Italian plumbing. On arrival, the first thing he tries to do – in true English fashion – is have a bath. But he manages to blows up the stove. Then:

Mr Wilkins leapt out of the bath and rushed to the door, and only the instinct born of years of training made him snatch up a towel as he rushed.

He manages to run straight into Lady Caroline, a.ka. ‘Scrap’, who he is keen to impress because she is so posh. Indeed he has spent hours on the train carefully choosing his words of greeting, and yet here he cries out, ‘That damned bath!’:

No, it was too terrible, what could be more terrible? Only a towel on, water running off his legs, and that exclamation … Rarely did Mr. Wilkins use that word, and never, never in the presence of a lady or a client. While as for the towel – why had he come? Why had he not stayed in Hampstead? It would be impossible to live this down.

But Mr. Wilkins was reckoning without Scrap. She, indeed, screwed up her face at the first flash of him on her astonished sight in an enormous effort not to laugh, and having choked the laughter down and got her face serious again, she said as composedly as if he had all his clothes on, ‘How do you do.’

Some might dismiss this as no more than farce, but surely Von Arnim uses this comic instance to capture the essence of her characters. Here is Mr Wilkins, whose deepest instinct is for modesty and decorum, so of course he is excruciated by his improper behaviour to a Lady. Scrap manages to fall back on her impeccable manners. Mr Wilkins, amazed at her magnanimity, reflects ‘blue blood, of course.’ It is a perfect distillation of two different English classes.

These English women who go on holiday – usually to Italy – seem to flourish in their new setting. They are exhilarated and liberated by it and so are able to act independently, free from the restrictions they felt in England.

Von Arnim’s descriptions of Italy centre on the garden at San Salvatore, in a way that reminds me a little of how Vita Sackville-West wrote about the house in All Passion Spent, with its heavenly peach tree ripening in the sunlit garden. Von Arnim suggests that her female characters are not so different from flowers – one of them is even called ‘Rose’ – but most unexpected is the transformation of old Mrs Fisher, with her:

curious sensation, which worried her, of rising sap … a ridiculous feeling as if she were presently going to burgeon.

The plant metaphor is extended: ‘she might crop out all green … come out all over buds.’ Mrs Fisher, like the other three women, blossoms in the Italian Spring. They are able to be at their most natural and beautiful. All the lovely descriptions about the flowers blooming in the gardens come to be a reflection of the blossoming women who happily laze around in them. I’ve not read Elizabeth Von Arnim’s other famous book, Elizabeth and her German Garden, but I imagine something similar happens there.

The novel ends with a gorgeous description of the flowering acacias. And then:

When, on the first of May, everybody went away, even after they had got to the bottom of the hill and passed through the iron gates out into the village they still could smell the acacias.

The implication is that, having blossomed abroad, these women can return to real life still touched by the holiday. That scent of the acacias will stay with them, as will the transformative power of the Italian Spring. Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot have been reunited with their husbands and will go back to London feeling rather a lot happier. It’s not so dissimilar to the end of Illyrian Spring.

These are happy endings, but suggest that holidays are somewhat flimsy. Yes, of course everyone feels better after a nice long rest, but nothing major really changes. After all, the characters return to their old lives. For how long will they be able to smell the acacias?

Where Angels Fear to TreadWhat about fictional portrayals of holidays which have a more profound effect on women? In E.M. Forster’s  Where Angels Fear to Tread, Lilia Herriton remains in Italy, which has tragic consequences. Her companion, Caroline Abbott, eventually returns to England but her heart is left behind in Italy, and one feels she probably won’t end up living happily ever after. Or, take Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph: Sensible, likeable Florence goes off to The Tyrol where she lands a musician husband and tries to tame several wild children. She brings them all back to England, but rather than slipping happily into her old English life she struggles with these wild appendages and, ultimately, fails.

The Constant NymphA holiday can do us a world of good, yes, but sometimes the disjuncture between how one can be on holiday and how one can be at home persists afterwards. What if you can’t translate this new-found blossoming into your old life? What if a whiff of freedom only serves to poison your constrained future? Tricky questions which Forster and Kennedy were brave enough to ask.

Perhaps Von Arnim, who wrote The Enchanted April after the break-up of her second marriage, was relying on the fact that at least in fiction she could conjure a blissfully happy ending. Perhaps it’s best that we aren’t left thinking too hard about what might happen next, once Mrs Wilkins is back in Hampstead and has nothing to do other than buy fish for her husband’s dinner. Instead we are encouraged to believe in the magic of San Salvatore, trusting that the scent of the acacias won’t fade.

It was certainly a novel that I relished for its enchantment. Reading it last week, as London’s Spring at last began to stir, I felt like I was on holiday just by reading the book. I hope that the revitalising effects will last. For now, at least, the husband might be getting macaroni, not fish, for dinner.

Elizabeth Von Arnim

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.

A Venetian Spring

May 23, 2012

A rather wonderful coincidence happened last week.

First I had better set the scene. I was in London, in my flat. It was raining. It had not stopped raining for months. In an attempt to look on the bright side I had written a blog for the Spectator about what happens when it rains in novels (here) … but I was nevertheless feeling glum. In part to cheer myself up, I began to read Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge, the sort of charming, witty, graceful 1930s novel for which I have a particular weakness. Daunt Books has just republished it rather prettily. It begins with a very good line:

Lady Kilmichael took her seat in the boat train at Victoria hurriedly, opened The Times, and hid behind it.

Oh how I longed to hide behind a paper on a boat train to Venice! Lady K, as we will come to know her, sojourns at Venice before going on to Croatia. Venice is where she meets young Nicholas, who she will befriend and help to become a painter.

My thoughts right then were: 1. I bet an Illyrian spring is better than a London one, especially as I still need my winter coat outside and 2. wouldn’t it be heaven to be in Venice!

That’s when the husband said, Ems, do you think we could go to Venice on Saturday?

Now, much as I would love to be the sort of person who might just happen to pop over to Venice – or, come to think of it, Florence, Rome, Naples or anywhere else hot and foreign, preferably Italian – just for the day, I should admit that we were actually already going to Italy for a friend’s wedding. The wedding was on Friday, by Lake Garda, so going over to Venice on Saturday suddenly seemed surprisingly feasible.

It transpired that the husband had architectural reasons to be in Venice. The fact that they just so happened to coincide with my own reading was fortuitous to say the least. And so on Saturday, not unlike Lady K, I found myself on a train bound for Venice. Although I wasn’t hiding behind a newspaper. By then I wasn’t even hiding behind Illyrian Spring, having polished it off on the way to the airport; I was hiding behind Giorgio Bassani’s The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles.

I first came across Giorgio Bassani a couple of years ago, when I was last in Italy and read The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. (Here is my post about it.) I very much enjoyed it, with its coming-of-age story set on a tennis court amongst the Jews of Ferrara. Set in the 1930s, you know it’s only going to end badly for them – and you’re told that right at the start – but it’s beautifully written and terribly poignant.

Well evidently I wasn’t the only one to appreciate Bassani’s work, as Penguin seems to be on a drive to publish new translations of the rest of his ‘Ferrara Cycle’. First out is The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles. Perhaps it’s the first as it’s so short – really more a novella than a novel – but perfect for a quick Italian mini-break (and lighter than a Kindle!).

I’ve a feeling I’m going to enjoy the Ferrara Cycle, as it seems as though Bassani does that clever and deeply satisfying thing of sharing characters between books – a character who gets the limelight in one book plays a cameo in another. (This tends to happen in the best sort of short story collections, which I wrote about here.) So in The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, originally published four years before The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, we get a mention of the F-Cs while the narrator’s non-Jewish friend is talking about the ominous Racial Laws:

That kind of policy could ‘operate’ only if there were more cases like that of the Finzi-Contini family, with their most atypical impulse to segregate themselves and live in a grand, aristocratic house. (Although he himself knew Alberto Finzi-Contini very well, he had never succeeded in getting himself invited to play tennis at their house, on their magnificent private court!)

It certainly whets the appetite for a glimpse of their ‘magnificent private court’, on which so many games of tennis will be played in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

As well as characters, the two books share many of the same preoccupations: a coming-of-age moment, Jews, bicycles, tennis and local dialects. The latter is particularly interesting for a foreigner travelling around Italy and naively imagining that everyone there speaks the same language, Italian. Not so. Bassani’s characters often have recourse to a word or expression in their native local dialect to express something more deeply felt. For instance, at one poignant moment, the narrator’s father says of Fagati – the wearer of those spectacles – ‘Puvràz’, meaning ‘Poor thing’ in the Ferrara dialect. It feels like a more heartfelt, more genuine expression than if he’d used the standard Italian term.

It’s interesting that Bassani has called his book The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, whereas of course it’s not about those actual specs, it’s about the wearer of them – Fadigati. The title suggests that those spectacles are – sorry to use a silly word – a synecdoche of Fadigati, i.e. they represent him. Indeed, a glint of the gold rims in the darkened cinema is all that’s needed to betray his presence. And, if Bassani’s saying that these specs represent Fadigati, he’s also inviting us to take it along a step and wonder who Fadigati represents.

Fadigati is rich, cultured and gay. Let me remind you that this is 1930s provincial Italy, a time and a place where being outwardly gay was socially unacceptable. Fadigati does fine while his sexuality is under wraps, but as soon as it’s out in the open he is cast out from society. Then it’s a pretty rapid downward spiral. You better read it to find out how it ends.

Given the background to the novella is the introduction of the Racial Laws, which essentially legislated to cast Jews out from society, I don’t think it’s a leap to take Fadigati as representative of the Jews. So in writing about this outsider, Bassani is obliquely writing about these other outsiders. As in the Finzi-Continis, one worries that it can’t end well.

Inevitably Illyrian Spring was a much happier book than The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles. While there is a journey of realisation in both of them, things wind up rather better for Lady K than they do for Fadigati or for the narrator of the latter.

A feeling of optimism pervades the first, whereas the second is laced with doom. The self-discovery of Illyrian Spring is joyful, self-affirming, full of excitement at the future (albeit tinged with a pang of lost love), but that of The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is the realisation of forever being an outsider:

The sense of solitude that during the last two months had never left me, at that very moment became, if that were possible, even more acute: absolute and definitive. From my exile, I would never return. Never.

Of course this is the opposite of Lady K, who returns from her exile into the loving arms of her husband and fond embrace of her daughter. Her exile is self-imposed, not demanded by society.

The timing of the two books is uncanny – Illyrian Spring was first published in 1935 and, although The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles wasn’t published until 1958, it is set in 1937-8, just two years later. Two novels that meander by the Adriatic in the mid-1930s could not have more different narratives. Reading them one after the other, I couldn’t help but think just how much one’s fate was determined by class and by ethnicity. Thank god that these days there’s more of a level playing field.