Posts Tagged ‘Birthday’

Birthday Books

November 12, 2013

The LuminariesThis is my first post of my third decade… and still I am reading The Luminaries. Will I still be reading it by the time I reach forty, I wonder. It is a good book, but it has made me feel that people who write books that are so unbelievably long are obliged to make them unbelievably good. Indeed The Luminaries should be approximately four times as good as a very good short novel, because it will have demanded that much more of my reading time, and, if I’m brutally honest, while it is undoubtedly enjoyable, I’m not sure The Luminaries is quite good enough to be taking up so many weeks of my life. It’s not quite Proust. I think of all the other books I could have been reading in the meantime and feel a little bit peeved, but there we go, I shall give you a full report, let us hope, next week.

You might remember this time last year I wrote about a very special edition of Bowen’s Court, that my very generous mum bought me from the wondrous Peter Harrington. Well this year, we made a return visit …

Let me say right away that any of you who have not yet been to Peter Harrington should do so immediately. Go into the rather imposing building, look like you know what you’re doing by marching straight up the stairs to the first floor, where you will discover all the twentieth-century literature, a realm presided over by Adam. Talk to Adam. He will give you sweets and make you a cup of tea, while showing you the treasures on the shelves, telling you things about the books and their owners of which you’d never have dreamt.

This year we were in Adam’s realm a little while before him. No doubt he was having lunch, or boiling the kettle or some such. Reluctant to miss a second’s heavenly browsing time, I clambered up a ladder to peruse their collection of EM Forster, where I spotted a small blue hardback – The Writings of EM Forster by Rose Macaulay. I’m ashamed to say I’ve not yet read anything by Macaulay, though I have of course heard of her brilliant opening line to her novel The Towers of Trebizond:

“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.

How I long to read the rest of it! Perhaps it shall feature in Emily’s Walking Book Club in 2014.

Well, oddly enough, Rose Macaulay has been on my mind over the past couple of weeks as she was a great friend of Elizabeth Bowen’s, and I have been doing a spot of thinking and writing about Elizabeth Bowen and her relationship to Regent’s Park, where she lived. I have been imagining her walking through the park with Rose Macaulay by her side, perhaps joking about the camels in London Zoo just round the corner.

Can you imagine my surprise when I opened up this little book, published by The Hogarth Press, to get an idea of what Macaulay might have to say about Forster, when I saw this?!

The Writings of EM Forster by Rose Macaulay

It’s too extraordinary, especially given the uncanny echo with last year’s purchase of Forster’s copy of Bowen’s Court. This time it’s Bowen’s copy of Rose Macaulay’s thoughts on Forster. I am rendered speechless as my imagination whirrs with overexcitement.

(On the subject of intriguing dedications, have you come across Wayne’s blog? Should you love it quite as much as I do, might I suggest buying the book of his blog, just out now?)

The other lovely books on which we alighted in Adam’s treasure trove, is this lovely set of Virginia Woolf’s essays. See how prettily they sit on my shelf, beside her diaries.

The Collected Essays of Virginia Woolf

Funny that I was just thinking about her essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ a couple of weeks ago, which I had to squint through on-screen. Now, I can have it in my hand, and can browse through her other essays – I do really think she is a fantastic essayist – and pick one or two to read in a spare half-hour. Leafing through, I see that she too has written some thoughts on Forster. I love this on the change from Howards End to A Passage to India:

The house is still the house of the British middle classes. But there is a change from Howards End. Hitherto Mr Forster has been apt to pervade his books like a careful hostess who is anxious to introduce, to explain, to warn her guests of a step here, of a draught there. But here, perhaps in some disillusionment both with his guests and with his house, he seems to have relaxed these cares. We are allowed to ramble over this extraordinary continent almost alone.

I love the thought of Forster as an anxious hostess, always at his reader’s elbow to point things out. It’s a very apt description for his earlier novels, and reminds me a little of Hitchcock’s pointing things out in his films, closing a scene by zooming in on something significant. It is a relief to feel Forster relax a little in A Passage to India, and I suppose it does make you feel more at home in his work – an aspiration for any good hostess.

(Some Emilybooks Forster trivia for you – Howards End is a highly important codeword between the husband and me. I hope it need never be used in your presence. Those who can guess when it might be used and what it might signify … answers on a postcard, or in the comments section below please, and, if correct, you might just get a prize.)

What wonderful books to own! If only I could binge on them all now in a gloriously decadent Bloomsburyish day.  I must, however, stick with The Luminaries if there’s any hope of getting it finished by next week.

Three treats

November 4, 2013

The LuminariesI’m afraid I can’t write about a book today. This is for two reasons. Firstly, I’m thoroughly entrenched in The Luminaries. I had thought I might read a thin little book on the side when on the tube etc., but Eleanor Catton’s writing is too engrossing to be left at home, so I’m afraid I’m stuck with it and so stuck for something to say. Secondly, I think I’m on the final push with the novel, and so for now must put every ounce of energy into that.

Fear not, however, for here are three short treats instead.

William Blake on Autumn:

To Autumn

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stainèd
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may’st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.
`The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust’ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather’d clouds strew flowers round her head.

‘The spirits of the air live on the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.’
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat;
Then rose, girded himself, and o’er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.

The first three hundred words of my novel-in-progress:

Let’s begin with what happened to Anna at twenty-past-six on Kingsland Road. That was when she met Roger – she would take to calling him ‘Jolly Roger’, and then, later, ‘Dodgy Roger’ – nodding off at a bus stop.

Anna was in a shuffling, bulging line of people trying to cram themselves, bleep by Oyster-card bleep, on to a busy 149. It wasn’t long before the bus driver shook his head and the doors slid closed, blowing a sigh of frustration through the huddle left behind on the pavement. Anna, not in any particular hurry, slipped out of the scrum and sat down on the hard, thin, red bench in the bus shelter. It was like a giant piece of Lego, she thought, not sure whether to be more impressed that a seat could be designed to be quite so uncomfortable, or that a man had managed to fall asleep on it.

He was asleep, wasn’t he? He wasn’t dead? Anna dismissed this flash of worry when a noise, somewhere between a grunt and a snore, came out of his mouth.

The squashed bloom of a turquoise silk handkerchief protruded from his corduroy jacket pocket and cornflower swirls of a paisley shirt danced brightly beneath, lending him an air of dishevelled splendour, as though he ought to be cushioned by crushed velvet, rather than slumped against the toughened glass of a bus shelter.

‘That wasn’t your bus, was it?’ she asked, instinctively pitying the vulnerability conferred on him by sleep.

Roger didn’t answer. Through the dullness of slumber he was dimly aware of a noise – sharp, new, clear – near his ear, but he hadn’t realised that a young, pretty, slip of a woman had spoken to him.

Encouraging feedback gratefully received.

Last night, I had dinner with the wonderful folk from the fantastic book blog Don’t Read too Fast. They have an inspiring series called ‘Why Read‘, to which I contributed a few months ago:

We use words all the time. More often than not we abuse them, punctuating them with umms and ahhs, likes and sort ofs; sloppily approximating them to our meaning; relying on gestures to get our point across; barely even hearing the sound of them; and rarely giving a thought to their innumerable resonances. We are so terribly careless with our words.

Some might argue that this doesn’t really matter. So long as we are able to communicate, share information and understand each other then words have served their purpose. I might agree, were it not for the astonishing pleasure to be found in words that are used well.

When you read a good book, you find pages and pages of words treated with the utmost respect. Here is language used with consideration, deleted of slurs and ers, where words have been picked, swapped, and replaced again until the perfect one falls into place.

Moreover, these are words which a writer has spent years choosing. Someone has spent a tremendous amount of time finding the right words and arranging them to tell a story in the best possible way he or she can, and you need give only a few hours – at most, perhaps a few days – to a book to read all those carefully-chosen words. After all that work put in by the writer, reading those words is the least you can do.

I wonder how long it took James Joyce to write one of my favourite lines in all literature, which falls at the end of ‘The Dead’ in Dubliners:

‘His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’

How did he come up with the crooning sibilance of ‘soul swooned slowly’; how did he even think to use the word ‘swooned’? How did he discover that inverting ‘falling faintly’ to ‘faintly falling’ would create the perfect echo of snowfall, soft but persistent? So much care, time and genius has been put into making this brilliant sentence, and yet it takes us only a few seconds to read it, a few seconds and then we have it for the rest of our lives.

Once you’ve read something so beautiful, so powerful, it will linger in your mind, minutely affecting every other word you will encounter. Even if you don’t remember the exact quotation, it will stay with you. You might catch an echo of it when you next hear the word ‘swoon’, or perhaps you’ll remember to look it up and read it again next time it snows.

Why read? Read because it’s been written well. Read because we all use words, and if we were all to read more we might use them a little better.

Those who remain curious can find many more reasons to read on their blog, here.

Why all the threes, you may well ask… Suffice to say that on Friday I shall turn the big three oh. Indeed. Oh.

Birthday books

November 12, 2012

As you’ll have seen from last week’s post, Thursday 8th November was my birthday. I suspect that you won’t be surprised to hear that I was given a few books as presents. They are all rather special – and one is little short of a miracle.

First, my friend Sophie – evidently inspired by my endless stories of strange things that happen in the bookshop – bought me this funny little book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. It is packed with all sorts of silly lines:

‘Is this book edible?’

‘Do you have any books in this shade of green, to match the wrapping paper I’ve bought?’

‘Hi, I just wanted to ask: did Anne Frank ever write a sequel?’

This exchange is particularly familiar:

Customer: You don’t have a very good selection of books.

Bookseller: We’ve got over ten thousand books.

Customer: Well, you don’t have the book I’ve written!

I still can’t get over quite how many strange things happen in the bookshop. At least once a week, I have an extraordinary encounter. You might remember the time when we chased the notorious Mr Men thief – an old lady who actually had a real get-away car and driver waiting for her outside. Just last week a strange man came in asking for books about herbs and then told me I had the face of an angel. ‘It’s your Grandfather’s face,’ he said, to which I replied that my Grandfather didn’t look particularly angelic.

It is truly an extraordinarily weird place to work, yielding one bizarre encounter after another. But it’s surprisingly tricky to convey the oddness of it to friends. Those exchanges – so loopy when they happen – lose something in translation, fall a little bit flat, and I’m usually left with a yawning husband trying to change the subject, while I wonder how I can be a writer and such a terrible story-teller. One day, I will sit down and write a book about it, and maybe then, I’ll manage to convey something of its strangeness. For now, at least I can comfort myself with this record of other booksellers’ similarly peculiar encounters – thank-you Sophie!

My aunt-in-law (probably the wrong technical term) gave me a very handsome Everyman edition of Doctor Thorne by Trollope. This was particularly good timing as I have been longing to get stuck into a big thick engrossing novel, rather than all these slim ones to which I seem to have grown addicted. Added to which, a friend just got back from her honeymoon and said that one of the best bits was reading so much Trollope. Praise indeed! I must read some, I thought to myself, as I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read any Trollope at all. No excuses now, I can’t wait to begin.

My mother-in-law gave me a beautiful exhibition catalogue of Sylvia Plath’s drawings. I hadn’t realised that Plath was an artist as well as a poet, and it’s fascinating to look at these intricate, beautiful drawings. There seems to be a honeymoon theme amongst these birthday books, as many of Plath’s drawings date from her honeymoon with Ted Hughes, in Paris and then Spain. They are mostly of things – pots and fruit, stoves, bottles, a few of buildings – roof tops, a ‘colourful’ kiosk, and not many of people.

I remember studying Plath’s poetry when I was at school, I think it must have been for GCSE. Bits of them have stayed resolutely with me, which is surprising as I have a terrible memory for specific quotations and am usually much better at  hanging on to the gist of things, while the actual words are forgotten.

Not so with Plath: I still have ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’, and the ‘bald cry’ of the child, mouth ‘clean as a cat’, ‘vowels rising’ from ‘Morning Song’. I remember ‘the swarmy feeling of African hands’, and the horrid idea of a coffin ‘of a midget, /Or a square baby’ in ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’. Most of all, I remember her poem ‘Mushrooms’ – ‘nudgers and shovers / In spite of ourselves’ – the threatening feeling of which freaked me out so much that I’ve struggled to eat our fungal friends ever since. Now I think of it, I suppose that like her drawings, her poetry is often full of things, rather than people. As Carol Ann Duffy, who has just brought together a selection of Plath’s poetry in another very beautiful book, wrote for the Guardian recently:

A vocational poet like Plath gives life back to us in glittering language – life with great suffering, yes, but also with melons, spinach, figs, children and countryside, moles, bees, snakes, tulips, kitchens and friendships.

Children and friendship are almost lost amongst the melons, spinach, figs, moles, bees and all those other things.

I’ve saved the miracle for last.

My mother very sweetly and thoughtfully told me that she’d like to buy me a special book – a first edition of something I loved – and suggested that it could be repeated every year, so she could help me to build up a library. (You might remember that she gave me this beautiful set of Virginia Woolf letters and diaries for my twenty-first.) So off we trotted to Peter Harrington, a fine antiquarian bookshop in Chelsea.

We went upstairs to the twentieth-century literature section where I let my eyes drift slowly across the very tall bookcases, packed with tantalisingly old and special-looking books. I stopped towards the end of the Bs, when I saw Bowen’s Court by Elizabeth Bowen. I’ve not read many books by Elizabeth Bowen, but those I have, I  adored. (I wrote about Bowen’s Court itself here, The Heat of the Day here, and The House in Paris here.) I asked the bookseller if he had any other books by Elizabeth Bowen, thinking that this might be a chance to get a special edition of one of her books that I had yet to read.

The bookseller leapt off his antique chair and bounded over to the bookcase. ‘That Elizabeth Bowen’s a great book,’ he said.

‘I know,’ I replied, ‘I’ve read it.’ I felt a little smug, for not many people have read Bowen’s Court, an idiosyncratic history of her ancestral home, Anglo-Irish family and Ireland itself, which is now out-of-print.

‘Look.’ He fished it down from the shelf and opened it up.

My eyes nearly dropped out of their sockets. There on the first page was this:

I realised then that when the bookseller had said it was a great book, he wasn’t talking about the writing, but the actual thing itself. This was a great book indeed.

I picked it up and held it, feeling the book weigh heavy in my hands. I told myself that I was holding a book that E.M. Forster had held. This was the actual book that Elizabeth Bowen had given to E.M. Forster. They had both held it, one after the other. I wondered if she had posted it to him, inscribing it, wrapping it up and taking it to he post office to send. Or perhaps she had given it to a mutual friend, who she knew would be seeing him soon. Or perhaps she gave it to him herself, when she went round there for tea one day. ‘Morgan, I do hope you like my new book,’ she might have said, over a slice of cake. There is a whole story here in this book aside from the one written in its pages. This story is nearly invisible, its traces remaining in that pencil inscription and in where it might fall open more easily (pages 62-3, 98-9, 222-223), or where there are liver spots of moisture (page 83), even a corner a little bent (229).

I read Bowen’s Court after I came across it in Alexandra Harris’ wonderful book Romantic Moderns. I thought it would be useful research for my own novel, which is about the stories held in a derelict house, and added it to my list of ‘house books’ – books in which houses have a real presence, along with those like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House and E.M. Forster’s Howards End.

When it came to writing my novel, there were three quotations from all my house reading that I found particularly inspiring and which I decided to use as epigraphs. The first is from Howards End by Forster:

Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly but to an afterlife in the city of ghosts.

The second is from Bowen’s Court:

With the end of each generation, the lives that submerged here were absorbed again. With each death, the air of the place had thickened: it had been added to. The dead do not need to visit Bowen’s Court rooms – as I said, we had no ghosts in that house – because they already permeated them. Their extinct senses were present in lights and forms.

So you see, to have chanced upon Forster’s copy of Bowen’s Court, so soon after finishing the first draft of my novel, felt like a miracle.

I can’t wait to read all these books – to giggle at other booksellers’ weird encounters, to become thoroughly absorbed in a huge dollop of Trollope, to gaze at these drawings of objects that inspired such a poet, and to hold Bowen’s Court in my hands, gently turning the pages while thinking of Forster doing the very same thing in June 1942.


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.