Posts Tagged ‘Daphne’

The London Scene

September 29, 2014

Not long to go before the baby arrives, and while I’ve been making every effort to continue as usual, one thing that has definitely changed is the amount I’m able to read. People used always to ask me when I found time to read so much. Easy, I’d say. There are lunchbreaks, bath times, tube journeys, quiet evenings, the odd snatched hour of a free afternoon …

Alas this has all changed. Lunchbreaks now consist of a gobbled sandwich and a quick chat on the phone to the husband – mostly to reassure him I’ve not gone into labour – and then a nap, propped up on old boxes and bags, in the bookshop’s crowded cupboard of a backroom. Bathtime has shrunk to a quick splash as one’s tolerance for lounging in hot water has diminished exponentially. Tube journeys pass with eyes closed, trying to gain a few moments of extra rest. Quiet evenings? In any spare moment, one feels one ought to be doing yoga, swimming, listening to hypnobirthing recordings or else there is this odd nesty urge to do things like making pies for the freezer or ordering store cupboard essentials from Ocado. I say this knowing that I sound like an extended version of the H is for Hummus spoof parenting book. Until a couple of weeks ago it’d never have occurred to me to use Ocado rather than resorting to a takeaway; now I cannot fathom quite how much pleasure I gain from stocking up the kitchen just by clicking on a few pictures.

So the long and the short of it is that I am struggling to read much at the moment. Finishing How to be Both hasn’t helped matters either, as it’s such a tough act to follow. I have picked up a few novels and put them down a few pages later. For a book to win in this fight against the urge to sleep it has to be very good indeed.

Or very short.

Or both. (Ha!)

The London Scene by Virginia WoolfSo, inspired (still) by the wonderful Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery I have been reacquainting myself with a slim collection of her essays, The London Scene, which Daunt republished rather smartly last year. The essays were first printed in 1931, bizarrely enough in Good Housekeeping magazine. How bleak that a quick visit to their website today yields ‘How to get a body like Helen Mirren’, cheesecake recipes and tried-and-tested irons – a far cry from commissioning a series of essays on London life by one of the great literary minds of the day!

Woolf wrote a series of six essays: The Docks of London, Oxford Street Tide; Great Men’s Houses; Abbeys and Cathedrals; ‘This is the House of Commons’; and Portrait of a Londoner. So we arrive in London at its edge, amongst the many goods that converge here from all over the world, wander through town, and finally end up in the home of a Cockney. It is a journey of increasing penetration, making our way through the layers of the city, snatching glimpses, enjoying vistas, and gaining insights en route.

There are wonderful moments of observation in each essay. For instance, I love her description of the utilitarian nature of the Docks:

Oddities, beauties, rarities may occur, but if so, they are instantly tested for their mercantile value. Laid on the floor among the circles of elephant tusks is a heap of larger and browner tusks than the rest. Brown they well may be, for these are the tusks of mammoths that have lain frozen in Siberian ice for fifty thousand years, but fifty thousand years are suspect in the eyes of the ivory expert. Mammoth ivory tends to warp; you cannot extract billiard balls from mammoths, but only umbrella handles and the backs of the cheaper kind of hand-glass. Thus if you buy an umbrella or a looking-glass not of the finest quality, it is likely that you are buying the tusk of a brute that roamed through Asian forest before England was an island.

!!!

Between the ActsCompare to the cheap umbrellas and mirrors of today – pieces of plastic tack which will scarcely last a month of being bashed about in a handbag! I can’t believe that back then, they had handles of mammoth tusk. Woolf cooly points out the nonsensical logic of the Docks that declares these ancient tusks are of less value than elephant ivory. She has rather a soft spot for prehistoric things. In Between the Acts, she writes about the:

rhododendron forests in Piccadilly; when the entire continent, not then, she understood, divided by a channel, was all one; populated, she understood, by elephant-bodied, seal-necked, heaving, surging, slowly writhing, and, she supposed, barking monsters; the iguanodon, the mammoth, and the mastodon; from whom presumably, she thought, jerking the window open, we descend.

I suppose, having a mammoth tusk at the end of one’s umbrella, might make one feel rather better connected to this ancient time.

Well I doubt I shall find a mammoth tusk umbrella later on today when I head down to John Lewis to buy various baby essentials. The prospect of this outing makes Woolf’s next essay ‘Oxford Street Tide’ rather apt.

These ‘Oxford Street palaces are rather flimsy abodes’ notes Woolf, comparing these modern erections, ‘built to pass’, with historical stately homes, which were ‘built to last’:

Any day of the week one may see Oxford Street vanishing at the tap of a workman’s pick as he stands perilously balanced on a dusty pinnacle knocking down walls and facades as lightly as if they were made of yellow cardboard and sugar icing.

It seems strangely prescient that Woolf saw the impermanence of this shopping stage set, given the many threats of destruction that were to come – first with the bombing of the War, then fifties planning and now with our peculiarly modern threats of out-of-town shopping centres, recessions, rising rents and of course the internet. For sure, Oxford Street isn’t just any old high street, but it is faced with the same threats. And if the high street isn’t quite dead today, it is certainly struggling to survive. Woolf, it seems, never expected it to last.

As a bookseller, perhaps I feel more anxious than most about the fate of the high street. And yet, here is cause to pause and rethink. For Woolf delights in the impermanence of the buildings of Oxford Street, ‘as transitory as our own desires’. Their gaudy, glittering falseness is a strength not a weakness:

We knock down and rebuild as we expect to be knocked down and rebuilt. It is an impulse that makes for creation and fertility. Discovery is stimulated and invention on the alert.

So Woolf binds destruction to creation. These flimsy palaces of Oxford Street embody a startlingly positive view of change.

Perhaps she found something reassuring in the fact that these palaces, unlike their historic counterparts, aren’t meant to be permanent. The thirties was when many of England’s great country houses were destroyed or broken up as their owners were hit by inheritance tax. Just five years later, James Lees-Milne started going around persuading the aristos to give them to the National Trust. And later in the decade, Daphne du Maurier wrote Rebecca – one of the greatest novels to embody the fear of a great house’s destruction.

These Oxford Street palaces, on the other hand, were always intended to be transient. Perhaps we need to worry less about our ailing high-street shops and see their destruction as seeds for the creation of something new. As Woolf says, ‘invention is on the alert.’ Who knows what might spring up in their stead? It seems to be mostly charity shops or Tescos, and yet I shall try to remain positive! In any case, I like the idea of expecting ourselves to be ‘knocked down and rebuilt’, and seeing this as a positive form of reinvention. Next time life delivers one of its knocks, I shall envisage Woolf wandering down Oxford Street and finding creation, fertility, discovery and invention in the wake of any destruction.

Oxford Street still seems to be going strong today, though one thing that has vanished since Woolf’s day – alas – are the tortoises that used to be sold on its pavement:

The slowest and most contemplative of creatures display their mild activities on a foot or two of pavement, jealously guarded from passing feet. One infers that the desire of man for the tortoise, like the desire of the moth for the star, is a constant element in human nature. Nevertheless, to see a woman stop and add a tortoise to her string of parcels is perhaps the rarest sight that human eyes can look upon.

I fear Daphne might find Oxford Street too noisy and distressing to be taken on this afternoon’s excursion, but how strange, curious and oddly delightful to think that her ancestors used to ‘display their mild activities’ there.

Daphne and the London Scene

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The Leopard

February 10, 2014

The Leopard by Tomasi di LampedusaThis is, put simply, one of the greatest novels of all time.

It’s hard to pin it to a particular century, as it was written in the mid-twentieth, yet takes place primarily in the late-nineteenth, and holds glimpses of both past and future. Perhaps it soars above the boundaries of time; somewhat ironic for a novel which is so preoccupied with time’s passage and the changing order of things.

Famously, Tancredi says:

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. D’you understand?

Do we understand? This novel is a sensuous, skilful unpacking of this paradox which must make any writer at once green with envy and incredibly proud to see words used so powerfully. As David Mitchell puts it in a fervent piece in the Telegraph:

The Leopard is truly exceptional. ‘Give it up, you poor hack,’ the novel advises me. ‘Retrain as a plumber and earn some real money, or you’ll waste your life and still not produce a book a tenth as good as me.’ But the novel can’t help adding, ‘Look at all this beauty, truth and emotion, created from nothing but words. Just words. How can you possibly spend your life not trying to do the same?’

The novel opens in May 1860, just as Garibaldi conquers Sicily as part of the ‘Risogimento’, the unification of Italy. ‘The Leopard’ of the title is Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina – a huge figure, intimidating, a womanizer, and something of an eccentric who applies his mathematical capability to astronomy rather than accounting for his family’s expenditure and debts. He is married with three daughters and two sons, but the novel’s key relationship is avuncular. Don Fabrizio’s nephew is Tancredi Falconieri, an orphan the Prince has taken under his wing. They are both fond of each other – Tancredi affectionately calls him ‘Nuncle’ and teases him that he’s too old to be going to brothels, while Don Fabrizo finds his youthful insolence endearing and admires his political flexibility.

‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ Don Fabrizio sees that Tancredi understands this and so is bound to succeed. Aristocratic but penniless, Tancredi chooses to marry the beautiful, decidedly middle-class but very wealthy Angelica, whose father wears ill-fitting suits and whose mother is completley illiterate. He chooses her over refined, noble Concetta, the Prince’s daughter, seeing that while he cares for her, she hasn’t the upwardly mobile social ambition, nor the money required for a suitable match.

Some of my favourite scenes are of Tancredi and Angelica’s courtship, as they explore the dusty forgotten rooms of Donnafugata, one of the Prince’s palaces. The house throbs with the sensuality of their desire, as they explore the ‘mysterious and intricate labyrinth’ of various apartments which had been uninhabited for many years:

The two lovers embarked for Cythera on a ship made of dark and sunny rooms, of apartments sumptuous or squalid, empty or crammed with remains of heterogeneous furniture … It was not difficult to mislead anyone wanting to follow, this just meant slipping into one of the very long, narrow and tortuous passages, with grilled windows which could not be passed without a sense of anguish, turning through a gallery, up some handy stair, and the two young people were far away, invisible, alone as if on a desert island.

These dreamy passages are a beautiful double metaphor for first love. The winding geography of the palace becomes a voyage to a distant island, a journey of discovery, as well as perfectly reflecting the newly discovered labyrinthine feelings of falling in love.

Lampedusa contrasts this match between aristocratic yet financially poor Tancredi and socially ambitious, wealthy Angelica – indicative of an acceptance that change is necessary to remain in power – with the Prince’s inflexibility. When he is asked to be a Senator of the newly unified Kingdom, a chance to represent Sicily in the country’s political affairs which is a great honour, the Prince declines. He says he supports the new regime but will not ‘participate’. He conjures an image of Sicilians who are old, ‘worn out and exhausted’, looking on the wonders of the modern world as:

A centenarian being dragged in a bath-chair round the Great Exhibition in London, understanding nothing and caring about nothing … thinking of nothing but drowsing off again on beslobbered pillows with a pot under the bed.

He continues:

All Sicilian sensuality is a hankering for oblivion … that is the cause of the well-known time lag of a century in our artistic and intellectual life; novelties attract us only when they are dead.

The Prince is old, and will not participate in change. Twenty years on, we see him sitting not in a bath-chair but in an ‘arm-chair, his long legs wrapped in a blanket’ taken out on to a hotel balcony, as he looks over the Sicilian landscape and feels ‘life flowing from him in great pressing waves with a spiritual roar’. He realises that he is the last true Salina, the last who understands traditions and refuses to bow to the changing times.

Throughout the novel there is the tension of the Prince’s heavy journey towards death – his ‘hankering for oblivion’, unchanging, doomed yet noble – against the nimble, practical, youthful energy of Tancredi, who will make the aristocracy’s traditions pliant in order to remain on top.

Interesting, this comment on ‘the well-known time lag of a century in our artistic and intellectual life’. For The Leopard begins in 1860 and was written nearly a hundred years later. Evidently Lampedusa himself was subject to this time lag, attracted to such ‘novelties’ as the decaying aristocracy only once it was well-and-truly dead.

The Prince feels himself to be a generation caught in-between generations – still alive in spite of his outmoded way of living and unable to adapt in the way that Tancredi can. It strikes me that this feeling of in-betweeness is surely felt by all generations. I know little of Lampedusa’s life, but perhaps he felt oppressed by the change brought by modern warfare – the Allied bomb of 1943 which fell on his Palermo palazzo, which is prophetically glimpsed in the novel:

From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling as inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn., was to prove the contrary in 1943.

Surely every generation suffers this neurosis of being at once ahead and left behind. For instance, my generation is endlessly bemoaning the fact that we are in-between in terms of the internet – too old to have been taught coding, yet not so old that we can get away with our ignorance. There is a feeling that if only we were older it wouldn’t matter if we knew no more than how to add an attachment to an email, but as it is we’re expected to be able to build a website, certainly to know basic html, and the fact that we don’t, whereas those just ten years younger than us have it all as second nature, is terrifying.

Perhaps that is in part why The Leopard is such a timeless novel, capturing the old order on the brink of collapse, while the new rises up – portraying how much is lost as well as gained in this evolution, while maintaining enough optimism not to be overwhelmed by the weight of such nostalgia. In each generation there is another old order giving way to a new, and surely everyone feels themselves caught between the annihilistic ‘hankering for oblivion’ and a naïve hopefulness. We are all faced with the statement: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ It’s less a question of ‘D’you understand?’ than how one chooses to respond.

Oh and there is so much more to discuss. The power of the Sicilian landscape – perhaps this is what Forster so admired about it, as it reminded me of the brilliant end to A Passage to India; Catholicism – no doubt much here about death being ever present a la Brideshead Revisited; and all the food – including that infamous macaroni pie … The Leopard is a magnificent and enduring classic, even better on this rereading than when I first encountered it ten years ago. As ever, I’d love to know what you made of it. Daphne, alas, was rather startled by its leonine character:

Daphne and The Leopard

How to be a Heroine

January 13, 2014

Long-term followers of EmilyBooks may remember the ‘Next Big Thing’ post, which went up just over a year ago. It’s a slightly daft ‘meme’, but also a sweet idea, in which you are tagged by someone to write a few words about your book, and then you tag someone at the end of it, so in theory the meme lives forever. Dawkins, I’m sure, couldn’t be more thrilled.

How to be a Heroine by Samantha EllisI tagged Samantha Ellis, playwright, journalist … and now author of the newly published How to be a Heroine. No doubt you have seen some of the rave reviews that have filled the papers over the past couple of weeks. What can I say? I had it pegged as the next big thing back in 2012.

Of course I was enchanted by How to be a Heroine when I first heard of Ellis’s idea. Briefly, it is a memoir of reading – a look back over her life through the books she’s read, and, most importantly, her various literary heroines.

It’s a book which speaks to any true book worm, for however many times you’ve been told never to think of characters as free agents but only as the author’s creation, however much lit crit you apply to various novels, transforming scenes and plots into psychoanalytical arguments or autobiographical projections, labelling them post-colonial, post-structuralist, or post-anything else, if you really love reading novels, for every author you love, no doubt there is a character who inspires you.

I love Jane Gardam for Filth, for Betty and of course for little Jessica Vye. I love Vita Sackville-West for Lady Slane. I love Penelope Fitzgerald for Nenna and her daughters Tilda and Martha, and for Selwyn and Lisa. I love Forster for Mrs Moore, I love Woolf for Clarissa Dalloway, I love Penelope Lively for Claudia Hampton, Henry James for Isabel Archer, George Eliot for Dorothea Brooke and Mirah Lapidoth. And there are all my earlier heroes and heroines: Susan Cooper for Will Stanton, Ursula le Guin for Ged aka Sparrowhawk, AA Milne for Piglet, Francis Hodgson Burnett for Mary Lennox, Philip Pullman for Lyra … even Eric Carle for his caterpillar with such a voracious appetite.

Ellis has done the very clever thing of tying her reading life to her real life. She tells us the story of these two lives, showing how she turned from one fictional heroine to another, as she grew up. She learned some vital life-lessons on the way: Anne of Green Gables taught her the power of imagination, Scarlett O’Hara taught her how to flirt, Franny Glass taught her to order whatever she wants in a smart restaurant, and the women from Lace taught her how to have a career.

The Little MermaidNow Ellis re-reads all these books and sees them in a rather different thirty-something-year-old light. This double reading is very effective – firstly we see what drew such loyalty from Ellis at a particular stage of her life, and secondly we are given a more nuanced understanding of these novels and their heroines. With hindsight, Ellis can understand why she loved the Little Mermaid so much when she was little:

It’s because, like me, she’s caught between two worlds.

Ellis grew up in an Iraqi-Jewish community, always being told of the exotic wonders of Baghdad, yet knowing she’d never go to this place her parents called home. This magical Kingdom Under the Sea had been given up in favour of secular London, where the mermaid and Ellis are outsiders. Ellis, a feminist, can also see the problems with the plot of a woman giving up her voice to try to get her prince. Taking heart from the mermaid’s sisters rising up from the sea, she wonders if it could be read:

As a cautionary tale for women saying: Don’t give up your voice! Don’t make sacrifices for unworthy men!

As Ellis re-reads all these novels, many of her childhood heroines fail her more adult criteria. Marjorie Morningstar, who fostered her love of the theatre, is a particular let-down, as is Jo March, and even Flora Poste. (I have to admit to feeling a pang of sympathy for poor dropped Flora, who apparently comes across as rather ‘smug’. Poor Flora, perhaps a little smug, but surely we can forgive her, given her expert cool, calm and collected dealing with her nightmare relatives?)

What becomes clear is that reading is misreading, as English Dons would happily agree. As Ellis puts it:

I’m beginning to think that all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what we need for them at the time.

RebeccaThe novel that has really brought this shift in misreadings home to me is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. When first reading it as a fourteen-year-old, I identified wholly with the young, inexperienced, nervous narrator, out of her depth in this terrifying house, with dreadful Mrs Danvers and the ghostly presence of Rebecca, who seemed completely terrible. She gets everything wrong, being clumsy, dressing badly, failing to manage the staff or make any friends, and yet she perseveres, and just when you think it’s game over, Max de Winter confides in her and while they lose the house, at least they have each other. Read again in my late twenties, it was a completely different book. The young narrator couldn’t have been more irritating, pathetic and useless. I wanted to slap her and tell her to stand up to Mrs Danvers, the old cow, and wear whatever the hell she wants. Rebecca herself is transformed to an enigmatic powerful woman, someone who has managed to pursue her own independence in spite of being married to a belligerent spoilt man.

A few years’ life experience transforms a novel – and, by extension, a heroine – as Ellis finds, again and again. And yet, thankfully How to be a Heroine isn’t really a telling-off sort of a book. While Ellis finds fault with many of her heroines and takes their authors to task for giving them such flaws, she respects the power of her original misreadings and their influence on her life. They may not be the right heroines for now, but they were for then, and so we forgive them as part of life’s steep learning curve. Indeed, a sure sign of forgiveness is that they are all invited to a wonderful party at the end:

The Little Mermaid is in the bath, with her tail still on, singing because she never did give up her soaring voice. Anne Shirley and Jo March are having a furious argument about plot versus character, gesticulating with ink-stained hands. Scarlett is in the living room, her skirts taking up half the space, trying to show Lizzy how to bat her eyelashes. Lizzy is laughing her head off but Scarlett has acquired a sense of humour, and doesn’t mind a bit. Melanie is talking books with Esther Greenwood, who has brought her baby and also the proofs of her first poetry collection. Franny and Zooey have rolled back the rug and are doing a soft shoe shuffle in rhinestone hats. Lucy Honeychurch is hammering out some Beethoven …

She crams them all in to her flat, all of them having a glorious time. It reminds me of my bookshelf parties: all the characters chatting to their neighbours while no-one’s looking. Lady Slane, Eddie Feathers, and Richard from Offshore are best friends by now, and The Go-Between’s little Leo is having great fun running around Brideshead.

How to be a Heroine is a wonderful chance to revisit many favourite novels and say a quick hello to their heroines. It also left me with an exciting reading list on which I hope to meet some new heroines: top of which is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes. Rather brilliantly, Sylvia Townsend Warner told Virginia Woolf that modern witches flew on vacuum cleaners not broomsticks!

This is a celebration of the companionship reading brings, and the comfort and guidance that provides. I was left feeling happily reassured that whatever one goes through in real life, a reader will always have a bank of fictional heroines to whom she can turn.

mrs dallowayAnd believe me, reader, it works. Stuck with a tricky work situation last week, I found myself, without really knowing why, spending a morning re-reading the whole of Mrs Dalloway. When lunch-time came around, in spite of the slight guilt that sprang from admitting that instead of tackling said work problem, I’d buried my nose in a book, I felt ready to take on anything. I’ll buy the flowers myself, the party will be a success, and nothing is more important than the power of empathy, I muttered to myself as I strode out into the world, feeling tremendous. We all need our heroines. The joy of fictional ones is that they will always be at your beck and call.

It seems that Daphne and I share a common heroine of the Very Hungry Caterpillar. I do hope she understands that her own metamorphosis into a butterfly is only metaphorical.

Daphne and the cress

Emilybooks of the year

December 16, 2013

It’s that time again, when evenings are filled with too many drinks, days with too many mince pies, and all energy is summoned for the final push before collapsing in the heavenly Christmas holidays.

I wonder if I’m quite ready to reflect upon the reading year that has past, all those pages that have been turned, worlds that have been entered. My mind is awhirr with bookshop thoughts, for now is a wildly busy time for us. I sit here worrying, do we have enough of X in stock? did I remember to order Y her book?, and feel dizzy with the exhaustion of being polite and helpful to hundreds of people stressed out beyond belief with the Sisyphean task of Christmas shopping. My fingers itch to fold wrapping paper into neat corners around a book, and feel peculiar spread to tap across a keyboard. But this is the year’s final Emilybooks post and, every bit as traditional as a Christmas tree, is the round-up of the books I’ve read this year and a reminder of some of 2013’s reading delights. So which are my Emilybooks of the year?

The Living Mountain by Nan ShepherdThe year began on a high with Nan Shepherd’s very special memoir of living in the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain. It’s a book which haunted me all the year, filled with mind-boggling reflections written in the best sort of poetic prose. I am still floored by the thought of the tiny alpine flora there which predates the Ice Age. It was a good year for nature writing, with also Edward Thomas’s The Icknield Way, The Silt Road by Charles Rangeley-Wilson, and Olivia Laing’s enchanting To the River, which I re-read with delight.

There was, in fact, rather a lot of re-reading this year, often thanks to Emily’s Walking Book Club, for which I re-read one of my very favourite London books, Iris Under the NetMurdoch’s Under the Net. Actually, that’s probably one of my favourite books full stop. Other re-reads for the book club, were Beryl Markham’s poetic gung-ho memoir of colonial Kenya, West with the Night, and Laurie Lee’s lyrical As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. I re-read The Turn of the Screw for the Southbank Bookclub, and it was much better and more complex than I remembered, and I re-read Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore – twice! – because it is nigh on a perfect novel: slim, elegant, funny, well-observed, unexpected. All of these books stood up beautifully to a re-read, yielding just as many pleasures as they did first time round. I have renewed my resolution to re-read more, to treat a book with the love and respect accorded to a piece of music, listening to it time and again, rather than considering it finished after a single run-through.

Swann's WayOne book that I read for the first time this year, and which I am sure I will re-read is Swann’s Way. It was admittedly quite a high-risk book to take on holiday. All that languid prose, those serpentine sentences promised luxurious pleasure, but I was more than a little anxious Proust might prove too much for my feeble holiday brain. It was, however, completely heavenly. I particularly loved the way he wrote about the power of the little tune of music, and the clever things he did with his long twisting sentences. As Muriel Spark put it in A Far Cry from Kensington, Proust is ‘about everything in particular’. I am already looking forward to re-reading it. If I had to pick just one, then Swann’s Way must be my book of the year.

I also read Flaubert’s Three Tales, although without quite so much pleasure. I picked it up principally as it’s a very thin book, and I wanted something slight before embarking upon the gargantuan task of The Luminaries. Oh, The Luminaries. It took such a long time to read it and ended in such an unsatisfactorary, post-modern way that I have to remind myself that really, while I was reading it (for A MONTH, twice as long as I gave to Swann’s Way) I did actually really enjoy it.

Where'd you go BernadetteOther good new novels this year were Francesca Segal’s The Innocents and Sathnam Sanghera’s Marriage Material – two engaging ‘outsider fictions’, the one about the Jewish community and the other about the Sikh, and both also re-imaginings of classic novels. There was Idiopathy by Sam Byers, and also The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, both very punchy, written in fizzing electric prose. The Last Runaway, Tracy Chevalier’s novel about a young Quaker woman going to America in the 1850s and getting involved in the Underground Railroad, was an engrossing pleasure. She is very good at giving us quiet but strong heroines, like Griet in Girl with a Pearl Earring, not new, but one I also read this year. Slightly disappointing was Jane Gardam’s Last Friends, only as it wasn’t quite up to the gold standard of Old Filth, yet it was still a pleasure to revisit her winning clutch of characters. My favourite new novel of the year is Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple. I laughed so much in this easy yet ingenious novel, which masquerades as a bit of fluff, but is really a powerfully feminist book, and, although not as beautifully written, it is just as postmodern and intelligent as The Luminaries, and rather a lot shorter.

Moon Tiger by Penelope LivelyIt was a year to discover some wonderful old classics too. The Millstone by Margaret Drabble, The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. These three are some of the best books I’ve ever read, especially Moon Tiger – what a corker!! It managed to be dizzyingly original in its narrative, as well as so affecting that I cried when reading it in my lunchbreak. There were some wonderful treats from Persephone Books – Consequences by EM Delafield, which was brilliant psychologically, and absolutely devastating; The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal (Edmund’s grandmother), which raised all sorts of questions about Vienna in the 1950s; and The Far Cry by Emma Smith, a very unsettling coming-of-age novel about going to India in the 1940s. There were other wonders too. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower – the woman’s a genius; the little-known Brigid Brophy’s picaresque, lesbian coming-of-age The King of a Rainy Country; Rumer Godden’s Breakfast with the Nikolides; Mary McCarthy’s The Group; Nancy Mitford’s silly, funny Christmas Pudding; Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart – currently reading and loving – and, of course, The Bell Jar, up there with Consequences as one of the most distressing novels of all time.

The Pendragon LegendAll these seem rather feminine and rather Anglo-American, I admit. In my defence, I did also read some more “out-there” classics: thanks to Pushkin Press, I discovered Ryu Murakami’s magnificent dystopian Coin Locker Babies and Antal Szerb’s The Pendragon Legend, a kind of much darker Tintin. There was Christine Brooke-Rose’s bizarre and brilliant Textermination, which inspired me to write a short story, and Tove Jansson’s completely delightful The Summer Book. Other classics that are perhaps slightly more ‘male’ than you might expect from Emilybooks are: F Scott Fitzgerald’s messy, brilliant Tender is the Night (so much better than Gatsby) and the flawless-other-than-perhaps-too-neat Remains of the Day by Kashuo Ishiguro.

A brief mention of some short stories: John Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’ was chilling and unnerving. Incidentally, my friend Katie tells me there is a ‘Swimmer’ thing in London named after this short story, where you literally swim from Hampstead Heath to Brockwell. Charlotte Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ was also brilliantly unsettling. I read a few of Edith Pearlman’s in Binocular Vision, and Alice Munro’s in Dear Life – both elderly ladies, both writing staggeringly brilliant short stories, both at last receiving some long-deserved recognition. There is also Ali Smith’s beautifully produced, wonderfully inspiring collection Shire, in which Nan Shepherd pops up, and Deborah Levy’s excellent Black Vodka.

Things I Don't Want to KnowAlso by Deborah Levy is her memoir-essay Things I Don’t Want to Know, which is one of the best things I’ve ever read. Short and smartly produced by Notting Hill Editions, it is a feminine rejoinder to Orwell’s essay ‘Why I Write’, and so much more inspiring. It’s difficult to describe – more engaging than most essays, more political than most memoirs, more powerful, affecting imagery than in most novels. Read it.

I have only discovered over the past couple of years quite how much I love reading memoirs. This year has had some brilliant ones. As well as Deborah Levy’s, Nan Shepherd’s and Beryl Markham’s, all mentioned above, there was Island Summers by Matilde Culme-Seymour, containing so much delicious food-writing that I came out of it both hungrier and heavier. How to be a Heroine, to be published in January, is a very engaging reading-memoir in which Samantha Ellis looks at her reading life and weighs up her various fictional heroines through a tremendous tour of some dearly loved novels. As well as a great chance to revisit some favourites (Anne of Green Gables, Cold Comfort Farm, Jane Eyre and more), it is a tantalising introduction to what I’m sure will be some treats for 2014, such as Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes. There was also Emma Smith’s As Green As Grass – wonderful memories of life around the Second World War by a very spritely ninety-year-old. Penelope Lively’s new Ammonites and Leaping Fish is another hard-to-define book. Part memoir, part reflections on being old, part thoughts on books read, objects collected and part history lesson, it is a box of delights. Perhaps most compelling of all these lives is Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s biography of her grandmother Jan Struther, The Real Mrs Miniver. What a life, and how beautifully written!

The Dark is RisingFitting for this time of year, I loved re-reading Susan Cooper’s series of children’s books ‘The Dark is Rising‘. The Dark is Rising is probably the best of the five, and begins on 20th December, Midwinter’s Eve. Chilling, powerful, exciting imaginative, transporting, how I do love to read a brilliant children’s book!

I can’t end without mentioning the big change chez Emilybooks this year. Daphne! Oh my beloved literary tortoise. Which was her favourite book of the year? She is torn between beautifully slow-paced Proust, and Penelope Lively’s Ammonites and Leaping Fish, which features a tortoise or two.

Finally, thank YOU for giving me so much of your reading time and attention during the year. Perhaps you have an Emilybook of the year? In which case I would love to know it. And may I wish you a very happy, book-filled Christmas and New Year.

Daphnebooks of the year

Christmas Pudding

December 9, 2013

Christmas Pudding by Nancy MitfordWe discussed Christmas Pudding, Nancy Mitford’s wonderfully silly, laugh-out-loud second novel, at Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday.

Hampstead Heath was beautiful, the sun sweeping across it and warming us as we gathered around a bench at the Druid’s circle, scoffing mince pies and fruit loaf, wondering if Mitford would have considered our location to be London or country – a dichotomy she explores in her novel. Yesterday, wandering through such expansive space, while looking out across the crowded city, Hampstead was the best of everything. We did, however, recall Elizabeth von Arnim’s contemporary novel The Enchanted April, and thought that Nancy Mitford might have agreed with Lady Caroline:

Perhaps people who lived in Hampstead might be poor; indeed, must be poor, or why live in Hampstead?

Touché.

Christmas Pudding is the perfect antidote to the stresses of Christmas itself, when overfed families are liable to be at each other’s throats. I read it very quickly and laughed out loud on several occasions. I say, at the first sign of any trouble this Christmas, retreat to a sofa and pick it up and it will considerably brighten your outlook! In any case, it was exactly what I needed after such an upsetting read as The Bell Jar, a very affecting novel, the horror of which has haunted me all the week.

(Yes, the sharp-eyed amongst you will notice that The Golden Notebook – the final, most daunting novel in the Margaret Drabble recommends trilogy – has been put on hold. And, I’m afraid, it continues to be on hold, most likely until the New Year, when I hope I might have a spurt of energy that might inspire tackling such an intellectual, meaty, thick book.)

Christmas Pudding has a terribly silly plot: The improbably named Paul Fotheringay is distressed because his first novel Crazy Capers, which he wrote as a poignant tragedy, has received rave reviews as a hysterically funny farce. His friend, the inimitable ex-courtesan Amabelle Fortescue, advises him to write a serious biography for his next book, and he decides on Victorian poetess Lady Maria Bobbin for his subject. He writes to the present Lady Bobbin asking if he might visit and read her ancestor’s diaries. On receiving his letter:

She read it over twice, found herself unfamiliar with such words as hostelry, redolent and collaboration, and handed it to her secretary, saying, ‘The poor chap’s batty, I suppose?’

Thus rejected, Paul turns to Amabelle again, who devises an ingenious plan. She is friendly with Lady Bobbin’s teenage son Bobby Bobbin, who is at Eton (of course), and is a fun-loving, self-confessed snob. She engineers it so that Paul will go to stay with the Bobbins over the Christmas holidays in the guise of Bobby’s tutor. Amabelle has conveniently rented a nearby cottage, and Paul and Bobby spend all their time supposedly riding and golfing etc, while actually sneaking off there to play bridge. Add to this Paul’s falling in love with Bobby’s bored sister Philadelphia, and a certain Lord Lewes who becomes a rival for her affection, and a host of other minor characters all brilliantly daft, and you get a pudding of delight!

Carry on JeevesIt reminded me very much of PG Wodehouse. I kept expecting to bump into Gussy Finknottle and his newts. Here, the equivalent to Bertie Wooster’s twitty friends, are Squibby Almanack and his friends Biggy and Bunch, who are more passionate about Wagner than debutantes. Missing, however, from Christmas Pudding, so essential to Jeeves & Wooster, is Jeeves! For while Mitford has her posh twits aplenty, she pays no attention to manservants or any staff at all. There is a brief mention of Amabelle’s groom, who exercises the horses to fool Lady Bobbin, while Paul and Bobby play bridge, but that’s pretty much it. One can only conclude that Mitford was interested only in the antics of the upper classes, not the lower. Perhaps she felt capable only of dissecting the problems faced by people of her own class. Perhaps she was simply a snob, but if so, I hope we can forgive her, seeing as she is so good at poking fun at and pointing out the many shortcomings of all her toffs.

Mitford pays a great deal of attention to the question of marriage, which is shown to be more-or-less the only option for upper-class woman. The great question is whether to marry for love or for money. Advice on this tends to be rather unromantic. Amabelle says:

If I had a girl I should say to her, “Marry for love if you can, but it won’t last, but it is a very interesting experience and makes a good beginning in life. Later on, when you marry for money, for heaven’s sake let it be big money. There are no other possible reasons for marrying at all.”

Later on she says:

The older I get the more I think it is fatal to marry for love. The mere fact of being in love with somebody is a very good reason for not marrying them, in my opinion. It brings much more unhappiness than anything else.

While lesser novelists might be tempted to write a run-away love affair, the sort of Sybil and Tom narrative of Downton Abbey, Mitford takes care to stress the sensible unromantic realities beneath all her silly farce.

At Emily’s Walking Book Club, we were all rather enamoured with the winsome character of Amabelle. She has the most autonomy of all the characters and is able to choose her fate as well as manoeuvre the others into helpful positions. I wonder if there is something of Mitford herself in her, with her spirit of fun, and writerly controlling of the plot.

Another point that walkers raised was that while Christmas Pudding should read as a period piece, capturing a 1930s situation that ought to be inconceivable now, in actual fact, little has changed. There remains a feeling of entitlement amongst the upper classes, especially in politics, with the Lords who decide they might take up their seat in the House. Just look at our Etonian cabinet, raged the walkers. I felt rather proud that we’d managed to get so political. Who dares to claim that reading novels is less serious than reading non-fiction?!

So while on first glance Christmas Pudding is the perfect book to raise one’s spirits, providing some light relief to what can be a rather dark time of year, on further scrutiny there is a great deal of serious stuff to discuss. Marriage, politics, class, matriarchy and more. What a clever, skilful novelist Nancy Mitford was!

I set Daphne the acid test of choosing between Christmas Pudding or some rocket leaves:

Christmas Pudding 1

The rocket caught her eye immediately.

Christmas pudding 2

She made a beeline for it.

Christmas pudding 3

And consumed it with relish.

Christmas pudding 4

Then, faced with the prospect of Christmas Pudding, she seemed rather weary.

Christmas pudding 5

I can see that Christmas Pudding is rather too fast-paced for her. Or perhaps she simply finds the snobbery rather tedious. Or perhaps she simply prefers the writing of Mitford’s great friend, Evelyn Waugh.

Ammonites and Leaping Fish

October 14, 2013

I’ve had rather a heavenly couple of weeks in the company of two elegant, elderly women of letters.

I wrote about Emma Smith last week – a glut of reading her brilliant memoirs, followed by a delightful tea in her Putney cottage. Michaelmas daisies bloom in the front garden and, inside, the walls are covered with photographs of loved ones, shelves lined with interesting paperbacks. I drank hot tea, ate orange and almond cake while really feasting on our conversation – Emma Smith has a wonderful ability to turn life into a compelling story.

Ammonites and Leaping FishEmma Smith is ninety, astonishingly. Penelope Lively is eighty – I suppose a spring chicken by comparison. She launched and talked about her new book Ammonites and Leaping Fish last week, which I’ve been reading ever since.

You may have gathered how much I loved Moon Tiger from my post here a few weeks ago… you can perhaps imagine my excitement about meeting its author. She was every bit as inspiring and impressive as I’d hoped; what I wasn’t prepared for was how very funny she was! She regaled us with this episode from her book:

A couple of years ago, Izzy yearned for an old-fashioned manual typewriter: ‘Vintage!’ A Smith Corona was found off eBay, and she rejoiced in it until a new ribbon became necessary, and then no one could work out how to change the ribbon. I was summoned: ‘I can’t believe we’re going to Granny for technical support.’

She delivered this anecdote with perfect comic timing. We were all chortling over ‘Vintage’, and then falling about at the thought of her being the source of technical support. Behind this sharp wit, which glistens throughout the book, lie thoughtful forays into time, memory, life, books, things and more. Penelope Lively found, to her surprise, that although her mind didn’t remember how to change the ribbon, her fingers did. It inspires a reflection on:

procedural memory, that aspect of memory whereby we remember how to do something. How to ride a bicycle is the example frequently cited, but I prefer my typewriter experience…

And then we are off with Nabokov’s thoughts about his wrists containing ‘echoes of the pram-pusher’s knack’, before moving on to ‘semantic memory’. Complex ideas, but explained in a lively (ha ha) and anecdotal manner that makes them engaging, understandable, and of course has you rifling through your own memory for your experiences.

My favourite instance of procedural memory was its utter failure when I was twelve years old. My father and I were staying with some friends of his in America. We were supposed to be going on some kind of bike marathon, which involved wearing a special t-shirt and cycling in the heat all day. As a lazy, sulky and fashion-conscious pre-teenager, I thought it was the worst thing in the world and complained bitterly, but to no avail.  The fateful morning arrived and we gathered in our ghastly t-shirts and prepared to cycle off. My father – who has always said he cycled all round Oxford as an undergrad and religiously uses his (stationary) exercise bike – got on his bike … and went nowhere. He had completely lost the knack of it, and after a good half hour’s perseverance was forced to admit defeat. Of course if he didn’t have to go, there was no way I was going to be made to do it. Procedural memory, or lack thereof, had saved me!

I digress. Ammonites and Leaping Fish is a string of pearls. Every few pages there’s one that strikes you as particularly thought-provoking, just right, gleaming and special, making you want to remember it, jot it down, or fold the page. Here are a few of my favourites:

On the joy of old age:

Spring was never so vibrant; autumn never so richly gold … The small pleasures have bloomed into points of relish in the day – food, opening the newspaper (new minted, just for me), a shower, the comfort of bed. It is almost like some kind of endgame salute to the intensity of childhood experience, when the world was new.

On the randomness of memory:

None of this is sought, hunted down – it just pops up, arbitrary, part of the stockpile. And each memory brings some tangential thought, or at least until that is clipped short by the ongoing morning and its demands. The whole network lurks, all the tirme, waiting for a thread to be picked up, followed, allowed to vibrate. My story; your story.

Except that it is an entirely unsatisfactory story. The novelist in me – the reader, too – wants shape and structure, development, a theme, insights. Instead of which there is this assortment of slides, some of them welcome, others not at all, defying chronology, refusing structure.

On the wonderful commonality of books:

Cultural community is shared reading, the references and images that you and I both know. Books are the mind’s ballast, for so many of us – the cargo that makes us what we are, a freight that is ephemeral and indelible, half-forgotten but leaving an imprint.

I could go on and on. There are such gems, and yet they are wonderfully scattered behind the everyday. Reading it feels rather like a conversation. It’s not off-puttingly difficult or dense, but easy peasy, a breeze to turn the pages, and then you’re caught off guard by the brilliance of a piercing observation.

There are also some very lucid accounts of history. The Suez Crisis is one of those things that’s so often referenced and of which I feel I vaguely know (big argument about controlling the canal in Egypt), but here Lively explains it all so clearly. I have always struggled with reading history. I find it is too often very like reading synopses – all these facts and things happening and crammed together so that the story feels fit to burst. Penelope Lively does it perfectly. The facts are there, but so are the interesting asides, like this:

Eden resigned in January 1957 (though he lived for another twenty years). The truth was that he had been ill throughout the crisis, following a gall-bladder operation some while earlier, and was heavily dependent on medication. It does seem that his condition may have had some effect on his state of mind, and his actions, during the crucial months of 1956. Certainly a number of associates were surprised by his responses, their bewilderment expressed in their language at the time: ‘gone bananas’, ‘bonkers’. His reputation never recovered – a tragedy for a man who had been a politician of integrity and a distinguished Foreign Secretary.

I’d never have known that so much of it boiled down to Eden’s gall bladder! And she tells us this with a novelist’s eye for character – and language. Please Penelope Lively, write us a whole history book!

Best of all – and the reason why Daphne is so fond of this book – is that Penelope Lively evidently loves tortoises. They come up in passing again and again:

When I was nine, I was on a Palestinian hillside, smelling rosemary (and collecting a wild tortoise, but that is another story).

Oh tell us that story, please!

Later:

My mother had not been invited to Government House, and was staying more modestly at the American Colony Hotel, which I remember as having a lovely courtyard with orange trees, resident tortoises and amazing ice cream … The American Colony Hotel is five star now … I can have a standard double room tomorrow night for £175, or – if I want to push out the boat – the Deluxe Pasha King Room for £345. Are there still tortoises, I wonder?

Well there is still a tortoise at EmilyBooks, and Daphne’s library is all the richer for this rather idiosyncratic, intelligent collection of musings.

Ammonites and Leaping Fish ... and tortoises and rosemary

Girl with a Pearl Earring

September 9, 2013

Ham and High Literary festivalGreat excitement is brewing chez Emilybooks, for next week I will be interviewing Tracy Chevalier at the Ham and High Literary Festival. I would love to see some friendly unheckling literary faces in the crowd, so do come along if you fancy it. (Might I also suggest a little browse of other festival events, while you’re at it, as there are all sorts of interesting talks, from the likes of Judith Kerr, Maggie O’Farrell, Deborah Moggach, and Dannie Abse.)

Next week, we will be talking about Tracy Chevalier’s brilliant new novel The Last Runaway, which has just come out in paperback, but I couldn’t resist the excuse to read – at long last – Girl with a Pearl Earring as well.

What a wonderful book! I expect most of you know the premise – a fictional rendering of the story behind this beautiful painting by Vermeer:

 Girl with a Pearl Earring

The novel begins with Griet chopping vegetables. We quickly learn that her father was a tiler, but has been blinded in an accident, so the family has fallen into poverty and Griet is sent to be a maid in the house of Vermeer. The artist suspects she will be well-suited to the job of cleaning his studio as she has a sensitivity to colour – shown in the way she lays out slices of vegetables in a colour wheel before putting them into the soup, and also because her father’s blindness has made her good at leaving things where they are meant to be. Ironically, this need for things to be left exactly as they were is one felt just as keenly by a blind man as by a painter, who sees so well.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy ChevalierGriet sets off to this new household, different in so many ways to her own. It is Catholic, wealthy enough to afford maids and meat, and ruled over by two mistresses: Vermeer’s wife Catharina – sour, jealous, endlessly popping out babies – and her mother Maria Thins, who one senses is really in charge, certainly of the house’s finances. There are several children, but most notable is awful Cornelia – malicious, cunning and cruel in the way that only little girls can be.

Griet quickly wins the reader’s respect. Like all the best heroines, she is put in a tough situation but quietly rises to the challenge. We see this straight away when Tanneke, the older maid, shows her the laundry:

She pointed to a great mound of clothes – they had fallen far behind with their washing. I would struggle to catch up.

Rather than despairing at the task ahead, or indeed naively dismissing it, Griet assesses the situation:

Including me there were ten of us now in the house, one a baby who would dirty more clothes than the rest. I would be laundering every day, my hands chapped and cracked from the soap and water, my face red from standing over the steam, my back aching from lifting wet cloth, my arms burned by the iron. But I was new and I was young – it was to be expected I would have the hardest tasks.

Then she quietly gets on with it:

The laundry needed to soak for a day before I could wash it. In the storage room that led down to the cellar I found two pewter waterpots and a copper kettle. I took the pots with me and walked up the long hallway to the front door.

Griet displays the same calm objectivity with the rest of her new life. She notes a problem – a difficult person or task – assesses exactly what the trouble is and then quietly goes about it as best she can. A practical and clear-headed heroine.

The one real boon of Griet’s new life is her contact with art. She is let into Vermeer’s studio to clean – a place where the children, his wife and the other maid are not allowed:

It was an orderly room, empty of the clutter of everyday life. It felt different from the rest of the house, almost as if it were in another house altogether. When the door was closed it would be difficult to hear the shouts of the children, the jangle of Catharina’s keys, the sweeping of our brooms.

This room is a special place, a quiet sanctuary. She savours her time alone cleaning in there, and slowly it becomes hers as much as it is Vermeer’s. It is an interesting take on Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’, for while the studio isn’t Griet’s own space, she asserts her presence and comes to share it with Vermeer.

Vermeer notices her artistic eye and it’s not long before he asks her to assist him, teaching her how to grind the colours and mix the paints, and explains elements of composition and colour to her. He arranges it so that she can sleep in the studio’s attic to give her more time to help him. There is a key moment when she sees what is needed in one of his paintings before he does, and rearranges it for him.

‘I had not thought I would learn something from a maid,’ he said at last.

As a counterbalance to Griet’s settling into her new life, Chevalier lets us watch the threads of her old life slowly unravel. Every Sunday she visits her family, and we see the relationships fracture. Meanwhile, Griet is pursued by the butcher’s son. While our practical heroine can see how he would provide food for her poor family and how kind he is in the way he cares for and helps her, she is repulsed by the blood under his fingernails, and – we can see, before she admits it to herself – he doesn’t equal her enigmatic, and clean-handed, master Vermeer.

While Chevalier builds everything up to a moment of taboo-breaking romance between Griet and her master, she is too intelligent an author to give in to this tension. Instead, a more subtle relationship is formed between them, erotic yet chaste, in which they come together over their work rather than physically. We know that Griet will eventually pose for him, and we sense that this could be her undoing…

While Griet’s position as a maid from a poor family is emphasised throughout the book, so is her agency and her ability to negotiate her own path. Chevalier describes the middle of the Market Square:

There the stones had been laid to form an eight-pointed star set inside a circle. Each point aimed towards a different part of Delft. I thought of it as the very centre of the town, and as the centre of my life.

We are always wondering which way Griet will go. There are new directions offered throughout the book, but there are just as many occasions when a way is closed to her. Not long after she has gone to the Catholic quarter to  Vermeer’s house, she learns that the area where her own family live has been quarantined because of the plague, and so she may not go back. She is allowed into Vermeer’s studio, and yet she is locked in there at night for fear of her stealing the mistress’s jewels. She may help Vermeer, yet we wonder how far along that path she will be allowed to go. When she is posing for Vermeer, his friend warns her to be careful:

Take care to remain yourself … The women in his paintings – he traps them in his world. You can get lost there.

Characters and circumstances conspire to trap Griet, to close off a path and to bully her into submission, either to the lusty advances of a man, or the mean actions of a woman. And yet Griet – our quiet, practical heroine – manages to cool-headedly resist and remain herself, treading her own path, albeit with just enough nearly getting lost to keep you gripped.

Daphne and Tracy Chevalier

And what did Daphne think? Well, poor Daphne is having some trouble with her left eye, and now goes about with it closed, poor thing, giving her a somewhat piratical look. She will be going to the vet to have it flushed out next week, but in the meantime I think her vision of the world is a little wonky and perhaps reading a book that makes such a contrast between a blind man and an artist, with so much thinking about art and composition and colour was rather an insensitive choice. Also, as a strict vegetarian, all the descriptions of the meat at the market were quite upsetting for her. Nevertheless, she agrees that Chevalier has a fine prose style and, as we know, Daphne, like Griet, is not afraid to go exploring, and will always find her way out of a trap!

Incidentally, Vermeer also came up in Proust (see last week’s post). Swann is writing an essay about him, although I very much doubt that Charles Swann would have come up with anything as fun, engaging and gripping a work as Tracy Chevalier.

Tender is the Night

June 24, 2013

Curious people sometimes ask how I pick the books for my Walking Book Club. (Yes, I tyrannically insist on choosing all of them, which I know speaks of control issues. All I can say is that I’m a youngest child, and the only girl.) Well, I try to pick hidden classics – that is brilliant books which have somewhat dropped off the radar, books which people might otherwise pass over, without knowing that they’re missing out.

Tender is the NightYesterday, as we wandered over Hampstead Heath, we discussed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, which, I hear you protest, is hardly off the radar. My point is that everyone goes on and on about The Great Gatsby while paying relatively little attention to Fitzgerald’s other works.

I greatly prefer Tender to Gatsby, finding it messily meaty, resisting straightforward interpretation, and written in lush, opaque prose. There was also something poignant about discussing the book, so close to where Keats wrote his ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ from which Fitzgerald took his title.

Tender is the Night begins when young Hollywood starlet Rosemary Hoyt meets Dick and Nicole Diver, a golden American couple, while holidaying in the South of France with her mother. Needless to say, she falls for their allure and gets romantically entangled with Dick. But all is not as it seems with the Divers, and, by way of a lengthy but compelling flashback, Fitzgerald reveals the disturbing truth at the foundation of their marriage. Once we are back to the ‘now’ of the book (1925), we follow the Divers around Europe, as their marriage flounders, their charm fades, their friends slip away and Dick turns to drink. It becomes clear that Dick has peaked and, as his name Diver suggests, now he will fall.

One gripe raised on the walking book club was that the plot is unnecessarily complicated. Indeed, perhaps it is a little puzzling that Fitzgerald should initially cast Rosemary as such a key character, but then let her slip out of the story for such a long time, resurfacing eventually but with much less importance. Even a tiny bit of research shows that Fitzgerald laboured over this, his final complete novel, for nine years. While his initial focus was the Rosemary plotline – a young Hollywood star, only originally it was to be a man, and his overpowering mother – it then came to be about his friends Sara and Gerald Murphy, the couple who ‘discovered’ the French Rivera and turned it into a fashionable resort. Then, in 1931 Fitzgerald’s father died and in 1932, his wife Zelda was hospitalised for schizophrenia – elements of autobiography that fed into the novel. Add to this the historical context of the First World War and The Great Crash of 1929 and some psychoanalytical ideas from Freud and Jung, and the result is messy, yes, but rich.

I can’t hope to cover everything here, so I’ll just stick to one aspect which I found particularly striking – women come out of Tender is the Night much better than the men:

Dick drinks and Dives to his downfall; Abe North does the same thing. Dick’s father dies, and so does – in an act of horrific violence – a negro (Fitzgerald’s term) shoeshiner with whom their paths briefly cross in Paris. Of course, there is the shadow of the deaths of the hundreds of thousands of men who fought in the First World War, a point which is reinforced when the Divers and their gang visit the trenches.

Women, on the other hand, come out on top. We meet Rosemary at the very start of her success and she continues to thrive. Her mother has outlived two husbands and lives vicariously, contentedly, through Rosemary. Nicole we see at rock bottom, and watch her progress. Nicole’s sister, who lost her fiancé to the War, may be romantically unhappy but she is financially empowered. Even Mary North outlives her husband and flourishes after his death.

Yet, Tender is the Night doesn’t read like a celebration of women’s newfound, post-war agency. When Dick goes to meet Rosemary’s mother, Fitzgerald muses:

Women are necessarily capable of almost anything in their struggle for survival and can scarcely be convicted of such man-made crimes as “cruelty”.

Fitzgerald is clear that women are better at surviving in this world of the 1920s than men. Yet here he suggests there is something ignoble about their survival, something dishonourable. While it is as though he lets them off the hook – they ‘can scarcely be convicted’ of cruelty – the implication is that women live by a different, lesser, code to men. “Cruelty” is ‘man-made’, not woman-made. Women don’t have the moral compass to recognise their cruel behaviour.

The code that men live by in Tender is the Night is a violent one. Right at the beginning there is a duel, with pistols. Then there is the violent murder of the shoe-shiner. Later, drunk and incensed, Dick punches an Italian policeman, only to be utterly beaten up himself. As I mentioned, this all takes place in the violent shadow of the First World War. Fitzgerald implies a respect for this violence: there is an honour in fighting a duel, although it risks sending a man to his death. So many men go to their death in this book – perhaps Fitzgerald sees some glory as their stars fade and are extinguished. The women, while they might survive the men, do so in a slippery, shameful way that is beyond the label of  “cruelty”. The violence is there for the women – in Nicole’s tortured past and moments of breakdown, in Rosemary’s desire for Dick and cold pursuit of success, and in Baby’s (Nicole’s sister) frigid flinching at physical contact, yet the violence here is controlled, under the surface, hardened into a more sinister drive to survival.

Fitzgerald attempts to cast his women as ‘Daddy’s girl’ – the film which brought Rosemary her first success. They are, supposedly, innocents that need rescuing, just as Dick attempts to play the father figure. Fitzgerald, the author, is the ultimate father figure, controlling and protecting his inventions and so perhaps disapproving of their icy struggle to survive independently, thriving as the men fall. Unlike Fitzgerald, I have to admit to feeling rather satisfied to see these women, albeit cold and in many ways unappealing, prove their own agency and flourish at the expense of all the alcoholic, egotistical men.

Daphne and Fitzgerald

I tried to construct a highly sophisticated ‘Tortometer’, to see whether Daphne – such a discerning tortoise – was inclined to prefer The Great Gatsby or Tender is the Night.

At first, I thought she was going for Tender is the Night, but, in fact, she was just turning around to go back to her little hot house. Fitzgerald, no doubt, would be furious at the slight.

Daphne turns around