Posts Tagged ‘Charlotte Bronte’

Emilybooks of the Year

December 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Park notes

Jane Eyre and Fidelity

August 4, 2014

Here is a double whammy of sorts – to make up for last week’s absence of a post, and also to round things off for the summer, for Emilybooks will be enjoying a little recess over August, as I hope will you.

Last weekend took us up to Yorkshire for Deer Shed Festival, where I had lots of fun interviewing Susie Steiner about her novel Homecoming, and Samantha Ellis about her biblio-memoir How to be a Heroine. I also very much enjoyed discussing Jane Eyre with a walking book club, as we wandered through pretty, and blissfully shady, woodland.

Jane Eyre walking book club at Deer Shed

Jane Eyre – what a corker! Of course I remember loving it when I read it as a schoolgirl: oh how I wept when Helen Burns died, longed to hear my name carried mystically on the wind, and developed a lasting love of window seats … But I was a little surprised to find it every bit as good, if not better, second-time round. Especially pleasurable was that the husband read it too in order to join us for the walk, and though I had my doubts as to whether he’d get the drama and romance of it, he was instantly hooked, and it became impossible to get him to do much else until he reached the end. Indeed there was one day when he was in a foul, grumpy mood, and I couldn’t work out what was wrong, only to discover that that morning he’d read the bit where Helen Burns died and, he sheepishly admitted, it had left him feeling upset all day. Reader, I have never felt happier to have married him!

Fidelity by Susan GlaspellIt was a nice coincidence that I next picked up Fidelity by Susan Glaspell, a Persephone book that has been sitting on my shelf for a few months, tempting me with its siren call of pleasure lying within its enigmatic plain grey covers.

Fidelity is set in ‘Freeport’, a small town in Iowa at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ruth Holland has caused widespread outrage by running off with Stuart Williams, another woman’s husband. Mostly set just over a decade afterwards, Glaspell shows what happens when Ruth returns to the town to be with her dying father. We see how her actions have affected her family, her friends, Stuart’s wife, and also herself. For it becomes clear that it hasn’t been an easy ride off into the sunset for Ruth, indeed, she has been unable to escape the gossip that follows her to the West, so has struggled to keep servants or make any friends.

It is a difficult stay in Freeport. ‘Society has to protect itself’, and, aside from one or two friends’ loyalty, the town continues to shun her. Then Ruth is approached by Mildred, a girl who is having an affair with a married man, and who sees Ruth as someone who might understand her, offer some advice.

‘It’s love that counts, isn’t it, – Ruth?’ she asked, half humble, half defiant.

Ruth, who has lived her life adhering to this belief, falters at seeing someone on the point of following the same path. Mildred continues:

‘That town isn’t the whole of the world!’ she exclaimed passionately, after speaking of the feeling that was beginning to form there against herself. ‘What do I care?’ she demanded defiantly. ‘It’s not the whole of the world!’

… ‘But that’s just what it is, Mildred,’ she said. ‘The trouble is, it is the whole of the world.’

‘It’s the whole of the social world,’ she answered the look of surprise. ‘It’s just the same everywhere. And it’s astonishing how united the world is. You give it up in one place – you’ve about given it up for every place.’

‘Then the whole social world’s not worth it!’ broke from Mildred. ‘It’s not worth – enough.’

… ‘But what are you going to put in the place of that social world, Mildred?’ she gently asked. ‘There must be something to fill its place. What is that going to be?’

‘Love will fill its place!’ came youth’s proud, sure answer … ‘Can’t it?’

Ruth turned to her a tender compassionate face, too full of feeling, of conflict, to speak. Slowly, as if she could not bear to do it, she shook her head.

Yet, soon after this conversation, Ruth regrets her advice. She realises that ‘she had failed the very thing in Mildred to which she had elected to be faithful in herself’:

There was something in humankind – it was strongest in womankind – made them, no matter how daring for themselves, cautious for others. And perhaps that, all crusted round with things formal and lifeless, was the living thing at the heart of the world’s conservatism.

She telephones Mildred but finds it is too late; ‘Mildred had been “saved”’ and soon settles into the conventional life of the town. So, in this subtle and surprisingly gripping novel in which Glaspell shows such painful empathy with all her characters, we are faced with all the complicated ambiguity of Mildred and Ruth’s differing decisions – Ruth has been faithful to love over society but has suffered for it; Mildred reaps the rewards of having been faithful to society, but has relinquished the power of love and her own strength of character.

Jane EyreAs I was mulling this over, it struck me that Jane Eyre is in many ways about the same thing, though it gives a very different response to the proposal of living as someone’s mistress.

In both Jane Eyre and Fidelity, the marriage is portrayed as false in some way, so it is less binding that it might be otherwise. Rochester was tricked into marrying a madwoman for money, who he keeps locked in the attic. Stuart Williams’s wife hasn’t forgiven him for a short affair he had some years before. ‘Are our whole lives to be spoiled by a mere silly episode?’ he asks, stating that for two years they ‘haven’t been married’, and begging her either to forgive him or to grant him a divorce. She refuses to do either. ‘Haven’t you any humanity … Don’t you ever feel?’ he implores.

When Jane learns of the mad wife in the attic, Rochester appeals to her sympathy:

‘Give one glance to my horrible life when you are gone. All happiness will be torn away with you. What then is left? For a wife I have but the maniac upstairs: as well might you refer me to some corpse in yonder churchyard. What shall I do, Jane? Where turn for a companion, and for some hope?’

No doubt, Stuart Williams feels the same. Rochester then gets to the crux of it:

‘Is it better to drive a fellow-creature to despair than to transgress a mere human law, no man being injured by the breach? – for you have neither relatives nor acquaintances whom you need fear to offend by living with me.’

Jane admits:

This was true: and while he spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitors against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him. They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly. ‘Oh, comply!’ it said. ‘Think of his misery; think of his danger; look at his state when left alone; remember his headlong nature: consider the recklessness following on despair – sooth him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?’

Still indomitable was the reply: ‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man.’

Our heroines take opposite paths. Ruth follows Bronte’s capitalised ‘Feeling’ in her fidelity to love over society; Jane resists and follows the law instead. Ruth has the added complication of the friends and family Jane lacks, and while she goes on to suffer from the effect of their disapproval, she suffers most from the knowledge that she has made their lives difficult by their mere association with her.

And yet these paths, though seeming to go in opposite directions, have many similarities. Jane and Ruth both steal away in the middle of the night to escape to places unknown. Jane then suffers acutely –  sleeping out on the moors, nearly dying from starvation, surviving only thanks to the pity of St John and his sisters, who take her in and then set her up as a schoolmistress – whereas Ruth might at first be happy in  ‘the sweetness of believing herself loving and loved’, but suffers before long, in her awful discovery that ‘the town is the whole world’ and love is not enough to fill that gap. Jane might succeed where Ruth fails in making friends and establishing herself in a new community but both heroines suffer from loneliness – for Ruth it is because she has turned her back on society, for Jane because she has turned her back on love.

When St John asks Jane to marry him so that they might be missionaries in India together, she says:

‘I scorn your idea of love … I scorn the counterfeit sentiment you offer.’

It is after this that she hears Rochester calling her name on the wind, and then:

I broke from St John … It was my time to assume ascendancy. My powers were in play and in force.

She returns to Rochester, discovers his wife has died, which removes the impediment to their union, and so we get the happy ending of, ‘Reader I married him.’

Ruth returns to Stuart after her time in Freeport, and, after a few months, to their great surprise they find that his wife has at last granted him a divorce. So the impediment to their legal union is also removed. Stuart says they must get married. Ruth, however, hesitates, realising that her life and happiness no longer lie with Stuart:

The thing that made me go with you then is the thing that makes me go my way alone now.

 So like Ibsen’s Nora, she goes her own way, reflecting in a burst of positivity:

Love could not fail if it left one richer than it found one. Love had not failed – nothing had failed – and life was wonderful, limitless, a great adventure for which one must have great courage, glad faith. Let come what would come! – she was moving on.

If marriage is what the books are all about, then Jane and Ruth go in opposite directions: one heroine chooses to be alone rather than illicitly with her lover, but then marries him when she can; the other lives as his mistress for years and then leaves him. If, instead, we see the books as being about ‘fidelity’ to oneself, about having the courage to take the harder path as opposed to succumbing to the lure of the easier, then our heroines tread side by side.

When Jane is prevailed upon by Rochester and then by St John, she resists by saying first ‘I care’ and then ‘My powers were in play and in force.’ (Bronte’s italics both times.) When she does marry Rochester, it is she who does the marrying: ‘I married him’ – not he married me. Throughout the novel, Jane has the courage to take her own actions rather than bowing to the will of others. Similarly, Ruth makes her own decisions rather than being swayed by others: first in leaving home to be with Stuart and then, rather than yielding to the pressure of convention in marrying him in spite of knowing they no longer love each other, she has the strength to move on alone.

Two very different outcomes, but really I think the books share the same message of how important it is to have belief in yourself and the courage of your convictions.

I hope this is an inspiring note to leave you with over the summer!

Susan Glaspell in 1913

Homecoming

July 21, 2014

All the heat has meant this week has been one of battling with exhaustion and feeling quite ghastly. Various low points have included sitting in a cold bath while commanding the bemused husband to make me a bucketload of pasta, spending half-an-hour hanging around in the bank just to take advantage of their air-conditioning, and falling asleep in the middle of a conversation. In fact the first time I felt normal all week was yesterday evening when, after managing to get thirteen hours sleep (twelve overnight plus another one in the afternoon!), I went for a swim in the peaceful haven of Hampstead Ladies’ Pond and at last felt reduced to a normal temperature.

Jane EyreLuckily, I have had a feast of good reading to keep me company while sweltering through the sultry weather. Next weekend I am off to Deer Shed Festival, up in the beautiful wilds of Yorkshire, where I will be interviewing Samantha Ellis – author of How to be a Heroine, which I wrote about here; Susie Steiner – author of Homecoming, which I will write about below; and doing a walking book club on Jane Eyre, which I suspect I will write about next week. Three terrific books to read or re-read – really I can’t complain! (A little aside to URGE you to re-read Jane Eyre, or indeed read it for the first time. It is completely brilliant, even better than remembered. And then you could come along to the festival and come on the walk … and then together we can imagine Jane striding away from Thornfield Hall and coming across Mr Rochester on his horse, while trudging through a landscape not so different, although of course ours won’t be treacherously icy. Go on, dig out your old copy, and begin it again, I promise you won’t regret it!)

HomecomingHomecoming is also set in Yorkshire, and while the landscape might be as wild and beautiful as Bronte’s, the concerns are very different. The Hartle family are struggling to make ends meet on their farm. There is a great deal about farming, which for a born-and-bred Londoner like me was surprisingly fascinating. Now I feel I know a little about things like ‘lifting the beet’, ‘lambing’ and the importance of not stacking hay too tightly. Joe loves the farming life:

The ground giving up its treasure to him: it was a beautiful thing. He pictures the soil and the layers – the substrata – brown then red, then glaring orange, reaching down to the earth’s core where it was hot. And him on the surface, gathering its riches up – drilling goodness and filtering it into trucks. This was what a man was meant for.

Ann is more pragmatic, and it is she who has to make the grim trips to the accountant, who tells her money is so tight they will barely make it through to lambing. On the way back, she stops at a petrol station and ‘resists a Ginsters pasty, even though she’s ravenous. Better to save the money and make a sandwich back home.’

The book is structured around the farming year, with a new calendar month for each chapter. It gives a feel of the rhythm of the year, but moreover of its unstoppable movement forwards. It is a tough year for the Hartles: disaster follows disaster (I won’t go into details here for fear of spoilers) and there are many times when you wish a rash act or unfortunate consequence could somehow be undone, but to no avail. While farming is the context for most of these tragedies, really it is as much a novel about the different ways in which people face change, and the playing out of complicated family dynamics. And those are things to which we can all relate!

Joe and Ann have two sons, Max and Bartholomew. Max works the farm with Joe, and Joe would like to pass it on to him, only Max is, quite simply, too useless. Bartholomew has gone down south, where he has set up his own garden centre, though that isn’t without its own share of troubles. Bring the four of them under the same roof for Christmas and you get the hellish mess of resentment, jealousy, grudges, nagging and everything else that almost all families suffer at that time of year.

Then there are all the other characters – the wives and girlfriends, the friends and local busybodies, and the dreadful barmaid from Essex… It is a rich cast, but my personal favourite is the ingeniously dreamed up Primrose, Max’s wife. She is a very peculiar woman, who is terrible at forging emotional connections with people, even her husband. Instead, she spends her free time wiring and taking apart plugs and things, evidently feeling more comfortable with electrical connections than human ones. How I long to ask Susie Steiner where she found the inspiration for her!

Steiner cleverly moves the narrative perspective between her many characters, so you get a nuanced understanding of their varying points of view, the different demons with which they struggle. It is a powerful device for creating empathy, and by the end of the book you feel rather like you’ve been living under the Hartle roof, absorbing their various quirks and idiosyncrasies and feeling very fond of them in spite of their many faults. I suppose much as you might feel after spending some time with your own family.

Luckily, for all the changes that the Hartles face, Homecoming is a pleasingly reassuring novel. And it does this without falling into the trap of being too cosy. The outcomes are not the straightforwardly happy ones which the various characters would have wished for in an ideal world, but if Steiner is a realist, she is still an optimistic realist for the results are largely positive, albeit very different to what they might have hoped for.

I suppose this is the thing about change – and at the moment, I feel like I am faced by CHANGE in capital letters whenever I glance down at my growing bump. It is a terrifying thing in that it is unknowable. Suddenly your course has altered and you’re no longer entirely sure where it is you’re headed. Of course you might not end up exactly where you’d imagined and things might not work out just as you’d hope, but in Homecoming we feel relieved and reassured that they do at least work out somehow. Phew.

Anyway, I am very much looking forward to discussing Homecoming with Susie Steiner at Deer Shed Festival next weekend. Come and say hello if you’re there too!

Junketeering

January 22, 2014

Those of you who might have thought I was slacking off in not providing a post for your delectation on Monday, I hereby prove you wrong! I was merely getting you hungrily excited for THIS:

Six Views from a Window

Click through to read my essay in the brand new issue of the wonderful Junket.

Enjoy! And I’d love to know of your own window-gazing thoughts and experiences.

 

 

A literary A-Z

March 28, 2011

I am usually very good at sleeping. I can do it pretty much anywhere and for as long as is possible. Even during an unbelievably perilous journey across the Indian Himalayas, crammed into a tiny jeep with nine other people and a driver who stank of booze and drove for 22 hours without taking in anything solid. Head lolling from side to side, I was out for the count, much to the annoyance of the fiancé, who spent the 22 hours clinging on to his seat, eyes wide with terror.

But, the other day, I found myself unable to get off to sleep. For those who suffer from insomnia, it must be an incredibly frustrating, debilitating affliction, but, as it so rarely comes my way, I quite enjoyed the novelty. Rather than fretting about whatever it was that was keeping me awake, I decided to put my mind to better use.

I thought perhaps I’d go through the alphabet for a particular category. Capital cities are a good one, as are rude words (the only way to keep me sane while having a filling at the dentist). But, in the end, I went through the alphabet deciding on my favourite author for each letter.

It was a fascinating exercise. There were some unexpected and very difficult matches, (Virginia Woolf vs Edmund de Waal, for instance) and it also showed up several gaping holes in my reading. It is refreshingly logical, which is something I rarely am about books – it’s easy to gush about favourite books and marvellous authors, but when one has to weigh an author against another one, it becomes a far more measured exercise.

So I thought I’d share the fruits of my insomnia with you, and take you through my literary A-Z, a few letters at a time. I think what I’m doing, in blogging terminology, is introducing a ‘series’. I expect I’ll do it once a month. I hope you like it!

A


For many people A means Jane Austen. So many – usually very clever, well-read – people, such as P.D. James, absolutely adore Jane Austen. But I think she’s the musical equivalent of Mozart. Evidently a genius, but so twee and twiddly that I can’t bear her. I must be a philistine. I hope that, like tomatoes, it’s a taste I’ll grow into.

But just a slipped final letter away from Austen is Paul Auster. The first Auster I read was The New York Trilogy. I’d just decided to apply to read English at Oxford – as opposed to Biology or Psychology, which had been the original plan – and our English teachers had distributed these lists of books that I suppose they considered to be seminal works that we should have read before our interviews. I read several of the books on there with a feeling that they were good but old. Books like Rasselas and Candide and Gulliver’s Travels – all very clever, all very important, but nothing that sets a seventeen-year-old alight. But then there was The New York Trilogy and – apologies for being a bit Billy Eliot here – it was like electricity. I was so astonished to be reading something so modern, so new, so playful, so dark. And, in the words of my seventeen-year-old self, I thought it was quite ‘cool’. It made me feel incredibly excited about the possibilities of literature, as something that could be so experimental, something that was still evolving, something with a future, not just a past.

I went on a bit of an Auster binge after that, and I remember feeling particularly fond of Mr Vertigo, which is about a boy who learns to fly. And Timbuktu, told from the point of view of Mr Bones, a dog. And then I read Invisible a couple of years ago, which was, characteristically, weird but also brilliant. And, most recently, Sunset Park, which was a slightly disappointing 3 out of 5.

Martin and Kingsley Amis deserve a mention, although I hate the one and never got round to reading the other. I better stick with that first, tremendously excited, reading of The New York Trilogy and say that Paul Auster is King of the As.

B


The Bs, for me, boil down to Bronte vs. Bowen.

Having recently finished Bowen’s Court by Elizabeth Bowen (see my last post), I am very much under the Bowen spell. I am longing to read more by her – I’d love to see what her novels are like – and, as I said, her voice is so strong and familiar that I felt like I’d made friends with her. I am even beginning to miss her.

But the Brontes. How can anyone compete? Perhaps it’s because the Brontes are usually part of a schoolgirl’s reading, they seem like a rite of passage. I have felt a particular affinity with Wuthering Heights because when I went to Burma, nearly ten years ago, I met this very kind man called ‘Mr Book’, who ran a bookstall, and looked after my friend and me for a few days. He, funnily enough, loved books, and so he decided to call me ‘Emily Bronte’ or ‘Wuthering Heights’.

It’s hard to decide between Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, but I think I’ve got to come down on the side of the latter. It’s such a wonderful book, and one that bears rereading several times. Charlotte Bronte creates such overwhelming empathy for Jane – a sweet, young girl in a big, strange house – that anyone who doesn’t count this among their Top 20 books can scarcely be human!

I nearly forgot Bassani, who wrote The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. I read this while I was on holiday in Italy last summer (see this post on it). At the time, I enjoyed it but I didn’t think it was utterly spectacular. It was only afterwards, that I found I kept on thinking about it, and began to see that really it was a rather subtle masterpiece – Bassani created a lingering poignancy, which still haunts me today.

But, when all’s said and done, no other B can beat Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte has to be the winner.

C


Now C is an embarrassing letter for me. Not in a Lady Chatterley way, but because it shows up so many gaps in my reading. I know, from various friends and colleagues, that the following C-authors are fantastic: Michael Chabon, Raymond Carver, John le Carre, Wilkie Collins, Albert Camus. I can hardly bring myself to admit this, but I haven’t read any of them. No, not even Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Not even Kavalier and Clay. Not even L’Etranger.

I suppose one very useful aspect of this exercise is in showing up the gaps. I must stop making excuses and just get round to reading some of these books!

So, for C, I’ve hopped over to poetry. To Coleridge and to Chaucer and yet another tricky decision. I’m not sure there’s much that’s better than ‘Kubla Khan’. And there’s the great opium story that goes with it. But Chaucer … he’s up there with Shakespeare, I don’t think it would be right to knock him off the top spot.

We read rather a lot of Chaucer at university. Here and here are earlier posts about the dream poems, and everyone knows about The Canterbury Tales, but it’s Troilus and Criseyde that seals the deal for me. It’s magnificent. And the character Pandarus, Criseyde’s uncle, who persuades Criseyde of Troilus’s virtues, gives us the word ‘pander’.

Yes, C has to be Chaucer.

Any disagreements? Any omissions? Let me know … In the meantime, I’ll start weighing up the Ds, Es and Fs.