Posts Tagged ‘DIana Athill’

Emilybooks of the Year

December 14, 2017

It has been The Year of Ezra, for me, as his first birthday is this coming Sunday. It is uncanny to think back to this time last year when he was overdue and I was willing the labour to start, with hopes for the full moon, curries, sweeps, walks and the rest of it… Just think that there he was, all curled up and snug inside, and now he is out, roaring his way through the world, climbing on anything, raspberrying at anyone. Here he is, asleep (!), drawn by my mother-in-law, Xanthe Mosley.

Ezra asleep

Or perhaps it would be better to think of it as The Year of Two – of having two little people to care for, not sleep for, and, increasingly, have fun with.

The Sound of MusicI used to look back on a year and see it through a prism of books – various titles that coloured various times, remembering, for instance, the mood of a certain book read on holiday, or being transported by another one lazy afternoon, or gripped by a story into the small hours. Looking back on 2017, I seem to hear the year through film soundtracks, as Spotify has sated Vita’s appetite for, variously, The Jungle Book, The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Annie, and – now we have caved into peer pressure – Frozen and Moana. The other night, trying to soothe Ezra through a new tooth, I wondered why he seemed so completely unimpressed by a sleepy rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, only to realise that he has barely listened to a nursery rhyme, instead the music of his babyhood has been a peculiar mix of Julie Andrews and Disney.

And when I think of books, it is mostly children’s books that spring to mind, as they have been read so often. Funny isn’t it, how children like to read the same thing over and over, whereas once we finish a book, we rarely pick it up again. Many of this year’s special moments have been during ‘quiet time’ with Vita, lying on the sofa with tiny toy teacups of chocolate, a strong coffee, and reading together. Here she is, ‘reading’, sketched by Xanthe a few months’ ago:

Vita quiet time

We have especially enjoyed Mog stories, Alfie stories, various Meg and Mogs, Blue Kangaroos, Beatrix Potter, and – wonderfully – The Greek Myths and now Shakespeare. Usborne shakespeareThank you Usborne for producing these wonderful editions which have allowed me to share these truly great and important stories with Vita. Currently we are very into Hamlet. Sometimes I worry that Ezra is going to suffer from a multiple personality crisis as he is forever being addressed as either: Horatio, Lord Ross, Kurt, Apu or Heihei – depending on what on earth we are ‘playing’.

I have certainly read fewer grown-up books this year than usual, but I am so glad that I have kept up some reviewing work and Emily’s Walking Book Club – two things that have meant I’ve HAD to keep reading, and thinking about books a little bit. So, for a rather abridged Emilybooks of the Year:

Madame Zero 1I still can’t stop thinking about Madame Zero by Sarah Hall. An electric collection of short stories, so alive, so wild, so current, so unexpected. It totally blew me away, and various stories in the collection continue to haunt me – I can’t recommend it highly enough. (Here is my review for Country Life.)

Other really good novels published this year, include:

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (here is my Spectator review) – a masterful portrait of village life disguised as an unresolved crime story. Very clever, very unusual, and it deservedly made it onto a few Prize shortlists this year.

Eureka by Anthony Quinn (here is my Spectator review) – brilliant fun romp of a novel set in 1960s London, which is actually making all sorts of intelligent points about Henry James.

Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (here is my Guardian review) – a fresh talented voice: part coming-of-age in 1960s New York, and part struggling to be a parent in the present day. A very enjoyable, engrossing read.

Black Rock, White CityI also seem to have read quite a few novels in translation, which have been a treat. Particularly good discoveries have been two excellent debut novels that have sprung from the former Yugoslavia: Black Rock White City by A.S. Patric and My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci. (Here is my Spectator review of them both.)

Two older novels, newly translated and published in English, that I loved are A Broken Mirror by Merce Rodoreda, which is a surprising Catalan classic and newly relevant, given recent political events; and The Last Bell by German-Czech writer Johannes Urdizil, brilliant short stories mostly set in Prague. (Here is my review of them both for Country Life.)

Lolly WillowesEmily’s Walking Book Club has been a saviour in what has, at times, been a very challenging year. Just knowing that I will be out on the Heath with a group of friendly readers, talking about a good book in the fresh air, once a month, has been an important thought to grasp in difficult moments.

For this, I have had the great delight of reading Loly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Oh what a wonderful novel – a sort of fictional Room of One’s Own, but it veers off into great wackiness when Loly, a spinster, actually makes a pact with the devil and becomes a witch! It sounds mad, but it is actually highly political and extremely brilliant.

Other great walking book club books this year have included Elizabeth Taylor’s minor masterpiece A View of the Harbour – oh how good she is at observing the small things, and Diana Athill’s memoir Stet – essential reading for anyone who has ever had anything to do with ‘the book world’.

Earth and High Heaven 2

My ultimate book of the year has got to be Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham, newly published by Persephone Books with a Preface by me (which you can read in full here)!! This is such a beautiful, gripping, important and newly relevant book about a love affair between a Jew and a Gentile during the Second World War.

A final word for podcasts, which have lightened the load of so much of motherhood, being there to listen to when hanging up the umpteenth load of laundry, clearing up the insane mess of a baby-led weaning tea; pushing and pushing and pushing the pram while the baby refuses to fall asleep; and during the night feeds too. In Ezra’s first week or two, I listened to various Radio 4 Reith Lectures. Through the fug of wonder at this brand new life, Atul Gawande was in my ear talking about dying, and checklists, and everything felt extremely profound.

I have, unashamedly, mostly stuck to literary podcasts, as a way of trying to cling on to that world, while feeling so immersed in another. The Guardian Books, Spectator Books (especially this one with Claire Tomalin), Vintage Books, and The Book Club Review podcasts have all been a treat, but a special shout out must go to the London Review Bookshop podcast, where you can listen to their exceptional, inspiring talks (like this one with Ali Smith and Olivia Laing), and Backlisted – which is a delight for all literary nerds, and has given me several titles for future walking book club books.

Happy reading, happy listening, and happy Christmas. Looking forward to more reading with you in 2018.

2017-11-05 11.55.50



EmilyBooks of the Year

December 19, 2011

Here, for your delectation, are my favourite books of the year. That is, books that I read over the past year, rather than books that were published over the past year. It must be strange and exhausting to read only the newest of books. I have to admit that I find those ‘books of the year’ lists that one reads in the newspapers at this time of year a bit dull. Lists are only really interesting when one understands the rationale behind the selections. So this is less of a listy-list (listless, ha!) and more of a chatty, discursive one.

Looking back, I suppose this year’s reading has been dominated by old women. This was my year of Jane Gardam – first The Man in the Wooden Hat, then Old Filth, then (again) – to calm pre-wedding jangles – A Long Way from Verona. And to keep Jane Gardam company, there was also Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. All brilliant books. All written with elegance and subtlety and quite brilliant matter-of-fact wit. Some of these had a certain ‘coming-of-age’ element, which I inevitably find irresistible. For that very reason, other books of the year were Monica Dickens’ sublime Mariana and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – both of which can happily be described as ‘hot-water-bottle fiction’, i.e. blissfully comforting and snug. They would probably make it on to my desert island books.

It’s also been a year of reading rather a lot about houses, thanks to the novel I’m writing about a derelict house. Particularly good books, in which houses feature rather prominently, have been (as well as the already mentioned Mariana) Bowen’s Court, Howards End, The Small Hanand Rebecca. Bowen’s Court is written in such a unique voice, and is rather long, and I read it rather concentratedly (often in the bath) that by the end I felt like I’d made a new friend. It helped that Elizabeth Bowen had told me so much about her family and her own personal history during the course of her book. I long to read more by her and often think back to that very great voice booming through my head in the echoey bathroom and wish I could listen to it some more. I suspect I might revisit her in my Christmas reading.

Howards End was every bit as brilliant as I expected it to be. I really do think that Forster is one of the very best writers. Although that’s a terribly unfashionable opinion to hold. And Rebecca. Well I suppose Rebecca, like Mariana, combined a house book with a coming-of-age story. Winning combination as far as I’m concerned. Someone famously said of it that it’s the only book where the murderer gets away with it. That throws a rather alarming light on it.

The other classics that I’ve really adored this year have been Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig and a newly-published collection of Edward Thomas’s poetry. I’d been longing to read Beware of Pity ever since I read and loved Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday a year or so ago. Beware of Pity is intensely psychological, a bit like Crime and Punishment, and is written so breathlessly that there aren’t even any proper chapter-breaks. It really is almost impossible to put down. Oddly enough, I read it soon after reading Crash by J.G. Ballard and tried to draw some comparisons between these two books about crippled people, but ended up just feeling bemused that the books could both revolve around the same thing but be so irreconcilably different. It was a joy to return to Adlestrop with Edward Thomas’s Selected Poems. Nature poet extraordinaire. I should also like to add in here by first encounter with Gavin Maxwell in The Ring of Bright Water, which was the perfect thing to read in the Outer Hebrides – a funny, eccentric book about living with an otter in Scotland. Although the best bit isn’t actually in Scotland, it’s when he’s trying to take his otter home on an aeroplane and the otter causes utter farcical delightful chaos.

But enough of all this old stuff, I have read some new things too. And actually some of them were quite cutting edge and very very good. They made me feel tinglingly excited about writing today. Ali Smith’s There but for the is a delightful riff of a book, jumping from pun to pun to pun, all within bigger meta-puns. It’s very clever but also very enjoyable. A playful love of language radiates from the book, which makes it hard to resist. Landfall by Helen Gordon was very good too, seeming to be quite a normal sort of book and then suddenly swerving into something quite extraordinary.

But – best of all – is A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which I’ve just finished reading. This book has been so ridiculously over-hyped that I almost felt I knew so much about it just from everyone going on and on about it that I couldn’t quite be bothered to read it myself. But oh my god what an absolutely genius, brilliant book. It is written with such verve, so sharp, so funny – yet also quietly sad. It’s a book which screams NEW YORK at you. It is New York. Essentially, Egan looks at a group of characters who work in the music industry. Each chapter takes one of the characters at a certain time (jumping back several decades hopping forward into the future and stopping off at moments in between) and captures various moments in their lives. I loved it and could go on about it for hours, but shall limit myself here to one particular aspect that I found to be fascinating and brilliantly-realised: the future. There are two chapters set in the future. The first one is written in power-point slides, as though, by then, this is how people communicate. Lawns are a dream of the past, as you have to have loads of carbon credits to get them now, and there is a strange alien solar plant which also harvests moonlight. The other chapter sees the very clever invention of ‘pointers’ – toddlers who ‘point’ at what they want on people’s ubiquitous ‘handsets’ and thereby determine powerful trends. So, for instance, several bands have brought out songs to appeal to ‘pointers’, because the children literally ‘point’ at the handset to download it and the sales shoot through the roof. Having endured several nauseating conversations by yummy mummys in the bookshop about how ‘Little Rupert and Milly’ are so intuitive with their iPhones, this felt like an alarmingly plausible vision for the near-future. It is WEIRD how tiny children take to iPhones and iPads so easily and intuitively. How weird to think that this could be such a strong connection that it could essentially make them the ultimate consumer.

I shall end, appropriately, with Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. I expect, as it won the Booker, you’ve probably read lots about it already. It is very clever, very addictive and it’s likely that, as soon as you finish it (which will be soon after you start, as it is slim and so unputdownable), you will want to start again to try and figure it out. The cold, sparse way in which it’s written didn’t bother me as much as it might have done. Perhaps it was because it’s a cold, detached sort of story so that style is perfect. It’s a very good book. And a beautiful object too.

All in all, a brilliant year of reading. I wonder what next year holds in store.

Instead of a Letter

May 23, 2011

My last post was written while recovering from a friend’s hen weekend in Lisbon. That same afternoon, I hurried off to meet a photographer for my own wedding, and the following day I found what might be the most perfect beautiful wonderful wedding dress in the world ever.

There was something about this splurge of wedding-related stuff that pushed what had been a vague, happy excitement into something quite deranged. I found I was unable to concentrate on anything else. I had recurring dreams about walking down the aisle in the dress. I gabbled down the phone to friends about it. I even squealed. I was itching for absolutely anyone to ask me about the wedding. If they didn’t, I’d just drop it, unbearably obviously, into the conversation:

‘So you’ll never guess what…’

‘No, what?’

At this point I have a flicker of understanding that they are expecting me to say, I’m pregnant, or I’m moving to America, or I’m going to run Waterstone’s … Oh well, too late to stop now, ‘I think I’ve found the dress!’

‘What dress?’

‘My wedding dress.’

‘Oh.’ There’s a pause while they get over the anticlimax. Then they realise they’re supposed to feign interest. ‘So what’s it like?’

‘Do you want to see a photo?’

I’m sure you get the picture.

Everyone’s heard stories about ‘bridezillas’. And stories about girls who managed to get their entire wedding sorted in under a week, because they’ve known since they were fifteen exactly what they want, so it’s just a case of booking everything in. I’ve met other brides-to-be who have been utterly shocked at my lack of concern about things like colour schemes and bridesmaid dresses.

I’ve always told myself that I’d never be one of those brides. I’ve tended to feel faintly insulted when people ask about wedding plans. I’m still me, I wanted to shout at them. I still have a life, and interests and am writing a novel and read books and do all sorts of things. There’s much more to life than a silly wedding.

But actually there isn’t once you’ve caught wedding fever. Then there is nothing but overwhelming, almost unbearable excitement. I can’t wait for it to happen. And I still can’t really think about much else.

So last week was rather a peculiar time to be reading Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter. This classic memoir is Athill’s recounting of an idyllic childhood as part of an, albeit impoverished, aristocratic family in a big house in the English countryside. It’s all delightful – horses and hunts and the occasional spot of sailing, until she goes up to Oxford, is engaged to her childhood sweetheart and then is jilted by him in the cruellest possible way. The remainder of the book tells how this loss crippled her – how her ‘soul shrank to the size of a pea’ – and then how, over a period of twenty years, she recovered, largely thanks to her discovery that she could write.

What is so marvellous about Athill’s writing is that her ambition is to ‘get it just as it was’ (her italics not mine). There’s no overblown wailing of emotion, no overindulgent nostalgia, everything is told with a certain coolness, a frankness, a straight-to-the-point-no-messing-aboutness. In this respect she reminds me very much of Jane Gardam. (See this post for more on the delights of J.G.)

Instead of a Letter is choc-full of perfectly nuanced, thoughtfully recounted moments. Each is described ‘just as it was’. There is everything, really, from memories of school – ‘I was not able, and did not see why I should be expected, to go beyond resigned endurance, and enjoy it’ to those of working in publishing – ‘once meetings start being held in lawyers’ offices, you might as well give up’, and from reflections on travelling to her decision to have an abortion. It is all written so calmly, so perfectly, and everything rings so cleanly true, that reading it as a writer is both inspiring and humbling.

The most striking moment of the book – its essence, its crux – is Athill’s renderings of the pain of being jilted by her fiancé:

The times when the pain was nearest to the physical – to that of a finger crushed in a door, or a tooth under a drill – were not those in which I thought, ‘He no longer loves me’ but those in which I thought ‘He will not even write to tell me that he no longer loves me.’


A long, flat unhappiness of that sort drains one, substitutes for blood some thin, acid fluid with a disagreeable smell.

Her pain is so well articulated that it is surely impossible to read these sentences without a physical sensation of empathy, some kind of sharp pain in one’s belly. One can’t merely shed a few tears and enjoy some kind of catharsis from reading about her pain – it is too well-defined, too precise for that. Her scrutiny of pain forces the reader to scrutinise it too, makes one wonder about different types of pain – acute and near-physical versus ‘long, flat unhappiness’, and in this thoughtful probing, the pain becomes all the more excruciatingly real.

This experience of reading is similar to Athill’s description of reading her sister’s diary:

The shrivelling sensation of reading those words is something I still flinch from recalling.

Her sister was recounting an evening with an older, raffish man:

Once, driving her back from some party, he held her hand. When they got home they sat for some minutes in the car and she, dizzy with expectation, thought that he would kiss her. He did not. ‘He told me that he was not going to kiss me although he wanted to. He said that I was going to be a fascinating woman but that I mustn’t begin that sort of thing too soon or it would spoil me. Look at Di, he said, you don’t want to be like her. And of course I don’t.’

This is yet another type of pain – the pain of seeing how undesirable and pathetic you appear to others, and the sad realisation that you care what they think. It is impossible not to empathise with Athill and share her ‘shrivelling sensation’, her ‘flinch’ing away from such a horrid revelation.

So you can imagine that reading these painful descriptions of a woman being jilted by her fiancé makes for an uncanny experience when read in the heat of wedding fever. Whereas before I might have been able to think, I can’t imagine the pain if he were to leave me now, thanks to Diana Athill, now I’m afraid I can imagine it all too well. I shall have to console myself with thoughts of the dress. And perhaps I better get the fiancé to read Instead of a Letter too.


July 27, 2010

There’s nothing more juvenile than having a hero.

At least that’s what I’ve always told myself as consolation for never being able to think of one when reading those silly celebrity questionnaires. ‘Who do you most respect and why?’ ‘If you could have dinner with anyone at all, alive or dead, who would it be?’ ‘Who’s your greatest inspiration?’

My mind has a habit of emptying itself pretty quickly when put on the spot in such a – well, shall we say juvenile? please? – way. Before job interviews I always try to think of an appropriate answer. One that would make me look both supremely knowledgeable yet also humble and somewhat irreverently witty. But I’ve never ever managed to come up with a good one … and that inevitably makes me spiral into paranoid collapse (Oh my god, they’re going to ask me it and I’ll say someone like Virginia Woolf and they’ll think that’s really naf and then they won’t want me. Argh…).

On reading Kelis’s answer to the question: ‘What living person do you most admire and why?’ in the Guardian (here), what little respect I had for her completely vanished. ‘My mom. She has been a fashion designer and run a catering business.’ I mean, come on …

So, now I find myself in something of a quandary. Because now I realise I have a hero. It’s so juvenile. It’s so silly and daft, and it’s so pathetic that I feel the only way to make it at least half-way bearable is to write about it, because that might be a way of making it into something slightly more useful.

I only realised I had a hero, when he walked past me at Port Eliot festival on Saturday afternoon just after he’d given a phenomenal talk. I told him that I thought it was fantastic and he said some suitably humble, charming replies before running off to the bookshop to sign more copies of his book, which was – of course – in high demand. I was standing with my cousin, who hadn’t seen the talk. Who didn’t suspect me at all of my hero-worship.

‘Who’s that?’ she asked. So innocent.

And then I knew that he could only be described in one way. ‘That’s my hero.’

I sighed. She laughed. Then I explained.

So, for those of you who haven’t guessed, he is Edmund de Waal, a potter and the author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, which I’ve banged on about here and here already.

I met him when I was about a third of the way through reading his book. He was giving a talk at the bookshop, and I asked him a few questions before everyone turned up. Why had he written it in the present tense? Had he found it hard to drag himself out of this incredible world of his ancestors? Was it difficult to avoid falling into the nostalgia trap?

He was utterly charming, humble and articulate – both when talking to me and when addressing a crowded room. He seemed nervous about giving a talk, grateful that people liked his book. He said he couldn’t believe its success, and wanted to go around writing ‘thank you’ in everyone’s copy. (He actually wrote it in mine!)

I too was nervous before the talk. Although I wasn’t even half-way through The Hare with Amber Eyes, I knew it was going to be one of the best books I had ever read. And I was going to meet its author. What if he were ghastly? What if he were really stuck-up and seemed like a real plonker? It would be so upsetting. It would detract from this magnificent book, and make me feel like a bit of an idiot for believing in it so strongly.

But he was wonderful. And the rest of the book was all the more wonderful for having met him.

So it was a very happy surprise when, having just arrived at Port Eliot, standing gormlessly near some tipis in a field with my fiancé, I saw Edmund de Waal. I said hello and immediately thought maybe I shouldn’t have. Oh god, I thought, how dreadful, I bet he doesn’t remember me at all. He thinks I’m someone who looks slightly familiar, who might be a friend of a friend of a friend or something. I introduced him to my fiancé, and then, to try and smooth over any awkwardness, reminded him that I’m Emily.

‘I know, I know.’ He said he remembered me from the bookshop. We chatted amiably about Port Eliot, how excited we were about going for a Wild Swim with Kate Rew, how pretty it all looked and how many interesting talks there would be. I asked him if there was a particular talk he was really excited about, and he said Diana Athill.

Anyway, off I trotted, pleased as punch that he – my HERO (although I had not yet reached this epiphany) – knew who I was.

His talk, the following day, was brilliant. In fact it was almost better than the one at the bookshop. Edmund de Waal (I don’t think I can call him just Edmund) had told me, in our little chat outside the tipi, that he was going to be given various objects from the big stately home an hour before the talk, which he would then have to talk about. And he managed it with great aplomb. He talked about books and the touch of different grades of paper, and ceramics, and – of course – netsuke spontaneously and effervescently and the whole room was set alight.

Ah. Well. I have my hero. I shall just have to get over it. I suppose the only consolation is that he has his heroes too. And, indeed, heroines. Like, perhaps, Diana Athill.

He had said how much he was looking forward to Diana Athill’s talk, so you can imagine my glee when I made a discovery that evening … I was chatting to a friend who, by some strange twist of fate, had given Diana Athill a lift down to the festival. En route they were nattering away and Diana Athill had said that she’d just read the most marvellous book – The Hare with the Amber Eyes. Yes, really!

How I longed to bump into Edmund de Waal again and tell him that Diana Athill loved his book, that his heroine thinks of him with just as much respect. But I didn’t have to, because at his talk she was sitting right at the front. How incredible that must have been for him. And how terrifying!

It must be extraordinary when someone who you think of as completely amazing, someone who is balanced on a pedestal way up there, swaps places with you. Just imagine them sitting down at your feet to hear what you have to say. And then imagine what might happen next? I spotted Grayson Perry and Jarvis Cocker hobnobbing over a cone of chips. Perhaps Diana Athill and Edmund de Waal were going to head off for a cuppa. Imagine chatting to your hero so easily on such level, if muddy, ground. Perhaps then they might fall from hero status a little bit and be more of a friend. Or perhaps you would be more of a hero yourself.

Well, perhaps if and when I have a book launch/give erudite yet entertaining talks/am on the radio, he might be there listening. Then I might say to him afterwards, over a whisky, ‘Oh yes, I remember reading your book. It was quite marvellous.’ But I’d say it in rather a nonchalant fashion, not in a juvenile way at all. I certainly wouldn’t let on to anything about heroes. And then, for sure, I’d feel that I’d made it.