Posts Tagged ‘Beryl Markham’

The Wife

July 7, 2014

What a week! Having done pretty much nothing for two months other than eat too much ice cream, returning to work – to a job where one must STAND FOR NINE HOURS while being significantly heavier and rather more off-balance than one used to be – was unbelievably exhausting. It was of course a joy to see the regular bookshop customers happily surprised by the now very visible bump, and to talk books with bookshop co-conspirators (one of whom had even baked delicious celebratory banana bread), but by the end of each day I was a goner. Which was unfortunate, because the evenings were of course filled with seeing friends and family, and then there was moving back into our flat …

Well, perhaps you understand why my brain now feels like it’s gone through a tumble dryer and I have been left in a peculiar, semi-catatonic state of vague pain and bewilderment. All I know is that I must locate a sturdy stool for some of next week’s bookshop stint, and that all inessential evening plans must be cancelled. So my apologies if this post is not quite up to form; as soon as it has been written I shall retreat back to bed.

The WifeIt was, however, a great pleasure to be reunited with the Walking Book Club in one of its most populous incarnations yesterday for rather a slow stagger around Hampstead Heath discussing Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife.

The Wife is told from the point of view of Joan, the wife of great Jewish American writer Joe Castleman. It begins when they are on a plane heading for Helsinki, where Joe is to receive a prestigious prize:

The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-five thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquillity. Just like our marriage

Over the course of their Helsinki visit, Joan tells the story of their relationship. It began when she was a college student and he her creative writing professor, married with a new baby. His wife soon discovers the affair and confronts Joan by hurling a walnut at her head. It is a special walnut, a gift from Joe to Joan, on which he has painted ‘To J. In awe. J.’ It is all the more significant as his wife has been given a very similar walnut. Joan and Joe run off to New York together. Though Joan has shown great promise as a writer, whereas the only story of Joe’s that she’s read is terrible, it is his writing career that is pursued, a decision which is reinforced when his first, very autobiographical, novel – The Walnut – is a hit.

The Wife is hard to write about as there is a huge twist right at the end, which affects everything that comes beforehand and it would be terrible for you to discover the twist here. So, in order not to be a spoiler, I will try to continue as though I too don’t know anything about the twist…

The big question that looms through the text is why does Joan let Joe become the writer while she becomes the wife? It is evidently not a question of talent. Joan, after all, is narrating this book in her brilliantly dry, witty voice. Is it Joe’s ‘powers of persuasion’, as her mother says? Or is just a mistake of youth and inexperience?

No doubt it has a great deal to do with Joan’s encounter with Elaine Mozell, a woman novelist who comes to read at Joan’s college. Elaine tells her:

‘Don’t do it … Find some other way. There’s only a handful of women who get anywhere. Short story writers, mostly, as if maybe women are somehow more acceptable in miniature … The men with their big canvases, their big books that try to include everything in them, their big suits, their big voices, are always rewarded more. They’re the important ones. And you want to know why? … Because they say so.’

This extract provoked a great deal of anger at the Walking Book Club. It is still the case, people shouted in outrage. Indeed, the annual Vida Count is ever discouraging. This counts the number of women and men who are published in, or have their books reviewed by, literary magazines. While a few, such as The Paris Review, are getting towards gender equality, the majority, including The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New Yorker are hugely skewed towards men, with respective figures of 574:157; 2156: 795; 555: 253 for the 2013 count. (I actually wrote a review for the TLS recently, so let’s hope that skew is shifting a little.) And just look at the way men’s novels are published compared to women’s! They are almost invariably more expensive, given a hardback edition, and a smarter cover …

On and on the gender debate raged as we swarmed across the Heath: Is women’s writing so different from men’s? Why is women’s writing less valued than men’s? Why is it such a male establishment? Why has so little changed since Joan and Elaine Mozell’s fictional conversation in the 1950s? And so on… until I called a halt to sit down and eat some Panforte brought back from Lucca.

Joan is aware that even in the 1950s, it is not be impossible to be a woman and a writer. Wolitzer gives us a great image of Joan’s box of women writers:

It was as though there were a box I kept under a bed and pulled out only once in a while, and in this box were crammed Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman and Carson McCullers and now Lee the journalist. It I opened the lid, their heads would pop out like jack-in-the-box clowns on springs, mocking me, reminding me that they existed, that women could occasionally become important writers with formidable careers, and that maybe I could have done it if I’d tried. But instead I was standing with the wives, the kerchief-wearers, all of us holding ourselves in a way we’d grown accustomed to, arms folded, purses slung over shoulders, eyes flicking left and right to keep watch over our husbands.

‘Maybe I could have done it if I’d tried.’ This ‘maybe’, the slim possibility of success against the odds, makes it all the tougher. Given that some women manage to do it, the impetus is on the individual woman to try to succeed, and if she doesn’t, it is as much her fault as anyone else’s.

West with the NightThere was a funny moment when someone said, ‘What about West with the Night?’ This wonderful memoir by Beryl Markham tells of her gung ho adventuring life as the first aviatrix in Kenya in the early twentieth century. We discussed it at a Walking Book Club a while ago. What about it? Well that, said the walker, isn’t at all like a woman’s book, it could just as easily have been written by a man.

The odd thing is, West with the Night might indeed have been written by a man. A teeny bit of internet research shows that many people suspect Beryl Markham’s memoir to have been written by her third husband, who was a professional ghost writer. Though for such a suspicion even to exist makes an uncomfortable point about our gendered perceptions of writing.

Perhaps gender is especially on my mind at the moment, as everyone wants to know is the bump going to be a boy or a girl, and many people seem surprised that we have decided not to find out, preferring to have a surprise. People seem puzzled as to how can we possibly not want to know? Well, without wanting to sound too San Francisco about it, the sex is such a small part of the picture. Knowing whether it’s a boy or a girl is pretty irrelevant really. I’d much rather know if he or she will be keen on reading, or climbing trees, or misbehaving, or music, or chatting, or (and this one’s important) sleeping. And I would hate to think it’s a girl and be told that therefore she will love reading and dolls and all things pink and hate climbing trees. It’s rather a relief, in fact, while imagining what this little person will turn out to be like, not to let gender come into it at all.

If only we could be just as open-minded when it comes to books.

Advertisements

West with the Night

March 18, 2013

Apologies for not writing a post last week – I was away on hols, in beautiful Cordoba, finding it hilarious that the husband and I were getting a little sunburnt while all the Spanish were shivering in their winter coats. We live in the wrong country, I tell you. This post is about a book set somewhere even hotter, and I hope it will chase away the last of the winter blues.

Beryl Markham’s extraordinary memoir West with the Night is a peculiarly feminine tale of African adventure and derring-do. Here are many escapades of breath-holding, fist-clenching excitement, but written about in thoughtful, lyrical prose. It’s an unusual combination, and a brilliant one.

Beryl Markham grew up in Kenya – although back then it was British East Africa – at the beginning of the twentieth century. She describes her wild childhood, hunting with a local tribe and getting mauled by a lion, then her adolescence when she helped her father train racehorses. This idyll is shattered by the First World War, and then by a drought which brings financial ruin to her father. He summons Beryl, aged seventeen, and tells her he is going to Peru. He asks her if she’d like to come with him or stay behind in Africa. Bold and courageous, Beryl decides to stay in Africa, reluctant to sever the connection she feels with the land. She rides north on her horse Pegasus to start training racehorses on her own:

I had two saddlebags, and Pegasus. The saddlebags held the pony’s rug, his brush, a blacksmith’s knife, six pounds of crushed oats and a thermometer as a precaution against Horse Sickness. For me the bags held pajamas, slacks, a shirt, toothbrush, and comb. I never owned less, nor can I be sure that I ever needed more.

Evidently, she is not your average seventeen-year-old girl.

After a successful spell training racehorses, Beryl changes tack and becomes a pilot, carrying mail, passengers, and then scouting for elephant. Later she flies to England, and then, from England, she makes the first solo East-West Atlantic flight.

I suppose it is an exciting life by any standards, and yet I was surprised by how entranced I was by it. I know and care nothing for horses or horseracing, but the chapter about a horse race had me edge-of-my-seat mesmerised. I don’t care much for aeroplanes, finding them at best noisy machines that make me feel nauseous, and at worst unnatural aberrations which are likely to send me to an untimely death. But in Markham’s prose, they are transformed into beautiful, incredible machines that conquer the vast land of Africa:

We swung over the hills and over the town and back again, and I saw how a man can be master of a craft, and how a craft can be master of an element. I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all my other life, to grains in a cup. I learned to watch, to put my trust in other hands than mine. And I learned to wander. I learned what every dreaming child needs to know – that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it.

Flying an aeroplane becomes a means of empowerment and a metaphor for life. I might never fly a plane, but I will happily take that inspiring knowledge that you can always get above or beyond the horizon.

There is something emblematic in Beryl’s graduation from horse to aeroplane, from living thing to machine. It is echoed in the moment when Arab Ruta – her childhood friend who follows her into adulthood as her loyal servant – gives her a clock as a goodbye present when she departs for England:

What a sad substitute, that hysterical jingle, for the soft and soothing voice that used to say, just after dawn, ‘Your tea, Memsahib?’ or long before, ‘Lakwani, it is time to hunt!’

It is also echoed in the way the Murani tribesmen are made to replace their spears with guns to fight in the First World War. A spear to a Murani, is not just a spear, but:

as much a part of himself as the sinews of his body … he will always hold it while there is strength in his arms and no cloud of age before his eyes. It is the emblem of his bloody and his breeding, and possessing it, he is suddenly a man.

When a Murani is killed in the war, this spear – almost part of his body – had been swapped for a gun, and ‘some said [his death] was because he had forsaken his spear.’

West with the Night is in many ways a chronicle of progress – from horse to plane, servant to alarm clock, spear to gun. What makes it such an intriguing book is that the nostalgia inherent in a memoir is coupled with excitement for the new. The looking back over a past life is met with Beryl’s looking forward to the next adventure. Her sadness at leaving Africa – ‘seeing it again could not be living it again… while you remember that unforgettable valley, the valley no longer remembers you’ – is swiftly replaced with eager anticipation of flying to America. It stops it from being a schmaltzy paean to a lost time, and instead makes it a beautiful record of a thrilling surge of life.

I loved every page of West with the Night and I was delighted that absolutely everyone at yesterday’s meeting of The Walking Book Club loved it too. But what none of us could quite believe was how selective Beryl had been in her self-portrait.

I was captivated by her life of adventure, filled with admiration at how she held her own as a woman in such a masculine world – but then, having reached the end and done a little digging around, I discovered the other side of her life. Beryl had three husbands and yet she mentions none of them in West with the Night. She had countless affairs, and while some of her lovers feature in the book, none of them is written about romantically. She also had a mother, brother and son – all of whom are absent from the book. Why did she leave all these major characters out of her life story?

It’s a puzzle, for sure. Perhaps she wanted to write about Africa, about her relationship with the land, rather than with these people. Perhaps, she didn’t want to undermine her rare position as a woman allowed into British East Africa’s macho male society by writing about such typically feminine concerns as love affairs, husbands and children. Whatever her reasons, I suppose being selective is the privilege of the memoirist. It just did feel like a little bit of a betrayal to have spent so many pages beside Beryl, learning about so much of her life, to discover that so much has been edited out.

There is a biography of Beryl Markham, Straight on Till Morning by Mary Lovell which looks good. Perhaps I need to read that to fill in the gaps a little more satisfactorily. Until then, I’ll leave you with a quotation from one of Hemingway’s letters:

Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West With The Night? … She has written so well, and marvellously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.

Apparently Hemingway made a pass at Beryl and she rejected him – hence, perhaps, why he thinks of her as ‘a high-grade bitch’ – but he still gives her writing his seal of approval. Indeed, when a Californian stumbled upon this mention of Beryl Markham in the 1980s, it inspired him to get West with the Night republished, leading to its popular rediscovery, forty years after its initial publication. I have to admit that I’ve never particularly got on with Hemingway’s writing – such short sentences, so much machismo, so utterly dissimilar from Markham’s prose! But I take my proverbial hat off to him for lauding her in this letter. Were it not for Hemingway, this inspiring, beautiful and thoroughly enjoyable book might never have come to light.

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.