Posts Tagged ‘Dodie Smith’

My Top Five Literary Springs

April 22, 2013

On Saturday, when the hour of my precious lunchbreak struck, I sprang out of the bookshop and into the sunshine, hurried to Hampstead Heath and lay in the grass, grinning as blotchy patterns flashed on the lids of my closed eyes.

Spring is here.

What better way to celebrate these first moments of sunshine, these first breaths of balmy, flower-scented air than with five favourite springtime books? (Click on the various links if you’d like to read longer posts about them.)

1. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

The Enchanted April pbkI wrote about this last week, so here all I shall do is reiterate that it is a heavenly book. The plot is a bit daft, yes, but in a charming way. You read it and feel as though you are on holiday, that you are with those dotty ladies in San Salvatore, basking in the beautiful Italian spring. Let us briefly share Lotty Wilkins’s joy as she opens the shutters on her first morning:

All the radiance in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.

2. The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Beginning of Spring

It is 1913 and spring comes to Moscow, stirring revolutionaries into action and an English family into crisis. Penelope Fitzgerald is my favourite writer, as many of you know. This is a particularly good book, with her characteristically astute observations of a different place and time, laced with gentle humour, realised in beautiful prose. Towards the end, the children of the family go away with the mysterious new servant Lisa Ivanovna to their dacha in the woods, which is infused with the scent of the ‘potent leaf-sap of the birch trees’:

They had March fever. They were going out of the still sealed-up, glassed up house into the fresh, watery, early spring.

The house is ‘still sealed-up, glassed up’ against the fierce Russian winter, which is just coming to an end. The book closes with the definitive change of season and a wonderful passage describing the unsealing of the windows. Then:

Throughout the winter the house had been deaf, turned inwards, able to listen only to itself. Now the sounds of Moscow broke in, the bells and voices, the cabs and taxis which had gone by all winter unheard like ghosts of themselves, and with the noise came the spring wind, fresher than it felt in the street, blowing in uninterrupted from the northern regions where the frost still lay.

This weekend, we Londoners were not so different from that Moscow house. We’ve spent the winter ‘turned inwards’ – cold, muffled, shrouded in darkness – but now we are out in the bright streets, in the parks, listening to the noise of the city and feeling the fresh spring wind.

3. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge

Illyrian SpringLady Kilmichael is fed up with her philandering husband and difficult daughter and so decides to travel first to Venice and then on to the Dalmatian Coast, painting as she goes. Her path crosses with that of Nicholas, a young man determined to be a artist, in spite of his parents’ disapproval. They travel and paint together, until things become a little complicated…

This delightful novel has a similar feel to The Enchanted April, in that as you read it, you are transported to the warmer climes of the Mediterranean and the drowsy wellness that comes with a holiday. It also shines with descriptive travel writing. Ann Bridge was the wife of a diplomat and so was a seasoned traveller. This is one of my favourite views:

All over the ledges of these pearly rocks, as thick as they could stand, grew big pale-blue irises, a foot or more high, sumptuous as those in an English border, their leaves almost as silver as the rocks, their unopened buds standing up like violet spears among the delicate pallor of the fully opened flowers – Iris pallida dalmatica, familiar to every gardener, growing in unimaginable profusion in its native habitat. Now to see an English garden flower smothering a rocky mountainside is a sufficient wonder, especially if the rocks are of silver colour and the flowers a silvery blue; and Nature, feeling that she had done enough, might well have been content to leave it at that. But she had a last wonder, a final beauty to add. In the cracks and fissures another flower grew, blue also, spreading out over the steep slabs between the ledges in flat cushions as much as a yard across – a low-growing woody plant, smothered in small close flower-heads of a deep chalky blue, the shade beloved of the painter Nattier. Anything more lovely than these low compact masses of just the same tone of colour, but a deeper shade, flattened on the white rocks as a foil and companion to the flaunting splendour of the irises, cannot be conceived.

The description, with its precise renderings of different shades of colour, seems apt given that it’s seen through the eyes of an artist. I hadn’t realised that irises were native to Croatia. They are one of my very favourite flowers – especially the yellow variety which we saw in profusion in Scotland – and now, whenever I see them in a garden, I think of this vision of a mountainside covered in a silvery-blue sea of them.

4. The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

The Constant NymphThis strange and powerful novel, written by someone who Anita Brookner termed ‘not only a romantic but an anarchist’, begins with a wonderful depiction of the ‘Sanger circus’ holidaying in the Austrian Alps. They are not an actual circus, but a family of wild, musical children, headed by their father Sanger, a great musician, and added to by various other musicians, most notably young handsome Lewis Dodd. They spend their days cavorting around the mountainside and singing. When Sanger dies (we discover this at the beginning), cousin Florence, a sensible, cultured young English woman, comes out to the Tyrol in her ‘neat grey travelling hat and veil’ to take this troop of cousins in hand:

The children could not believe that they were really related to such a marvellous creature. They stared expansively.

Florence blossoms in the Alpine spring, charming the children and Lewis Dodd too. Yet when she takes them back to England, sending them to various boarding schools, and trying to settle down to married life with Lewis, she slips back into her English habits, but Sanger’s circus refuses to be tamed. As her imposed order begins to unravel, the lost carefree days of the Austrian spring seem more and more enchanted.

5. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the CastleOne of my very favourite, most comforting books, I Capture the Castle begins in spring, when the young American heirs to the estate first visit the dilapidated castle where the Mortmains, in all their bohemian squalor, roost. It is a novel packed with funny and delightful scenes, such as Cassandra’s interrupted bath-time; the brilliant episode when Rose, in her newly-inherited furs, is mistaken for a bear; and a magical night-swim in the moat. I suppose this makes it sound a little like a fairytale, but it’s too comical for that. Here is a bit from the moat swim. Cassandra has nobly taken one of the heirs swimming in order to let her sister Rose have a romantic tête-à-tête with the other heir:

We were in full moonlight. Neil had patches of brilliant green duckweed on his head and one shoulder; he looked wonderful.

I felt that what with the moonlight, the music, the scent of the stocks and having swum round a six-hundred-year-old moat, romance was getting a really splendid leg-up and it seemed an awful waste that we weren’t in love with each other – I wondered if I ought to have got Rose and Simon to swim the moat instead of us. But I finally decided that cold water is definitely anti-affection, because when Neil did eventually put his arm around me it wasn’t half so exciting as when he held my hand under the warm car-rug after the picnic.

The spring of I Capture the Castle is the perfect setting for our heroine, the narrator Cassandra. She is in the spring of her life, just beginning to blossom.

These are five wonderful books, and this is a particularly good time to read them, with the feel of the sun on your skin and the breeze in your hair. And, when the weather inevitably breaks, let’s hope we can find comfort in the spring delights held within their pages.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts on these books, or any other suggestions for good spring reads.

A Literary A-Z

February 20, 2012

I can’t believe it’s been such a long time since the most recent instalment of my Literary A-Z. For those of you who’ve been waiting with baited breath since the battle of Rushdie vs Richardson, I can only apologise.

S

Kicking off with S seems a little unfair because S has to be Shakespeare. No room for manoeuvre there. If I had to pick my favourite Shakespeare, I’d choose King Lear. (I wrote about the Domar’s recent production here.)

But, for the sake of making it slightly more interesting, some other S authors that I’ve loved are Ali Smith, J.D. Salinger and – of course – Dodie Smith. My old boss used to publish Salinger’s books and told me that he was very tricky with his covers, never letting a picture on the front, insisting that the design be purely typographical. At school I thought Salinger’s collection of short stories, For Esme with Love and Squalor, was the best book ever. I read it obsessively, many times over. It was a love made defiant when told by my English teacher that it wasn’t substantial enough to be the subject of an essay. Pah, I thought, you just don’t understand. It was all deeply teenagerish and a little silly.

Speaking of silly teenagers, last night I happened to watch the DVD of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, which many of you know is one of my all-time-favourite books. It was a rare instance of being almost enjoyable on film as on the page, thanks mostly to Romola Garai and Bill Nighy. The funny thing was that the film looked oddly like a Brora photoshoot, which, given they’re supposed to be an impoverished family and Brora cardigans cost upwards of £200 a pop, does seem peculiar. Particularly fun bits were the scenes shot in the RIBA building, which was dressed up as a thirties department store. Does anyone else love playing the London place-spotting game when watching anything on screen? Annoyingly the husband tends to get it about five seconds before me each time!

A brilliant S-link is that not far into the film of I Capture the Castle, everyone’s trying to get the Americans’ car out of the mud when James Mortmain (aka Bill Nighy) curses the storm’s ‘cataracts and hurricanoes’. Looking back through the book I can’t find these exact words; instead, Dodie Smith just writes that ‘he was freely damning the weather’. Well Bill Nighy evidently freely damned the weather in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear. One great S is brought into another great S. Splendid!

T

T is a little more tricky. Edward Thomas? Colm Toibin? Elizabeth Taylor? I’m going to confess that I’ve never got on particularly well with Tolstoy. I’ve begun Anna Karenina several times, and never got much past the ice skating episode. Perhaps I was just too young. (But I worry that I’ll never love the Russians because I always get so muddled with all the long names!) Some Tolstoy that I did enjoy was The Kreutzer Sonata, which Penguin published as a pretty little Great Loves edition.

I think I must go for Edward Thomas. However much I loved The Blackwater Lightship and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, ‘Adlestrop’ wins hands down every time. Even if he was quite horrid to his wife.

U

An impossible letter because I haven’t read anything by John Updike, who seems to be more-or-less the only fiction writer beginning with U.

Then again, I haven’t read any non-fiction by Jenny Uglow, but I suspect I’d enjoy her much more than Updike. I feel particularly fond of Jenny Uglow, in spite of the fact that I’ve not yet read any of her well-acclaimed biographies, or her book about English gardens. This is because as well as being such a successful writer, she is also a very well-respected editor. Editorial Director at Chatto & Windus no less.

When I was shuffling around at the bottom of the publishing food chain, trying to write a novel in the mornings before arriving at the sterile office, the thought that there were very successful publishers who also managed also to have writing careers was tremendously inspiring. It made me think that I might not have to choose between writing books and making them, that I could somehow do both. How I longed to bump into her, strike up a conversation and be given a cup of tea and taken under her wing! Needless to say I never had the courage even to say hello, and, when it became clear that one must be far more senior and important than me to go part-time in publishing and that I couldn’t go on forever doing all my writing very early in the morning and then being brain-dead all afternoon, I took a different path from Uglow and side-stepped out of publishing. But well done her, as there must have been a time when she stuck to her guns and said, no I’m not leaving, I’m going to make this work and do two things very well indeed. U goes to Jenny Uglow.

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.

I Capture the Castle

October 26, 2011

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

When I read this last week – under a blanket on our sofa, just after the British Gas man had left us with a new boiler and no thermostat, so that our flat swiftly got blissfully hot – I felt ever so snug and reassured. It has got to be one of the most comforting first lines of all literature ever.

I first read I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith when I was ten or eleven years old. I remember very clearly sitting on a bench in the playground of my primary school and telling a teacher that I was reading it. I had hoped she’d be impressed, as it was quite a grown up book, and I thought I was rather precocious to be reading it so young. But she just smiled and said, ‘Oh yes, by the lady who wrote 101 Dalmatians, how sweet.’

I was rather put out. For I Capture the Castle is nothing like 101 Dalmatians. Not that the latter isn’t a great story, but it is something a of a babyish one. This one is a quite different kettle of fish.

I’m not sure if my anxiety levels in the run up to my wedding quite came across in my last post. I was more than a little bit nervous. And stressed. And I found myself unable to concentrate on anything unweddingy. It occurred to me that it was not unlike an illness … which was when I had a Eureka moment.

Whenever I’m poorly – I mean really poorly with a temperature, rather than just a bit snuffly and sorry for myself (which happens at least every fortnight during the winter) – I find there’s nothing better than reading children’s books. When my tonsils were removed last year, I whizzed through loads of exciting books by Philip Reeve, The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness and – thank you Julia for the best recommendation of all time – A Long Way from Verona, my first Jane Gardam. If I retreat back to my mother’s for extra-special TLC, I tend to read through several of my old favourites. The Narnia books, Swallows and Amazons, even Tintin if I’m feeling really peculiar.

I realised that the only thing I could possibly even hope to read in the few days before I got married, was a children’s book.

So I swiftly reread A Long Way From Verona, which I somehow got through in a single blissful night (perhaps as I’ve read it so many times already) and already felt much more human. The following day I popped along to the bookshop, where everyone was surprised to see me and thought I must be terribly excited. I said that actually I felt rather queasy and nervous, but that seemed to get dismissed as nonsense. Anyway, after much browsing of the children’s shelves and finding that nothing that I hadn’t already read looked quite right, I alighted on I Capture the Castle and realised it was perfect.

And I started to read it that very afternoon, in our warm flat, which felt even warmer after reading all the descriptions of the bitterly cold castle where Cassandra lives in very romantic poverty with her beautiful sister Rose, reclusive writer-with-writer’s-block father, and artistic stepmother Topaz. Incidentally, I soon realised – with a peculiar feeling of a penny dropping – that this is the book in which I originally came across the delightfully silly phrase ‘communing with nature’ (which Topaz does all the time).

But the next couple of days passed in such a whirlwind of activity that I was only on around page fifty by the time we went on our honeymoon! But this turned out to be rather fortuitous.

For the HUSBAND (no longer fiancé!), had caught a nasty vomiting bug, we were both absolutely zonked out and happened to be staying in the swankiest loveliest hotel in the world – in a suite that was larger than our flat!! – thanks to my brother’s very generous wedding present. So although we were to spend a great deal of time wandering around Paris feeling like it was terribly romantic and weren’t we happy and in love, we also spent rather a lot of time cocooned in our enormous suite in a comatose state eating chocolate. All of which was rather conducive to reading a gorgeous novel about a girl cocooned in a castle, wanting to be a writer and falling in love for the first time.

I’m sure I’ve said it before, but I shall say it again. I adore coming-of-age novels. And I personally find they are particularly good when the main character wants to be a writer. Yessssss, I hiss to myself in my head, I can relate to this …

Of course, our honeymoon was interesting enough for me not to read the entire thing! But yesterday evening, on the Eurostar back to London, while the husband was sleeping, I read so much of it, in such an intense sitting, that when I got home and saw there wasn’t much more to go, I felt I absolutely HAD to finish it before I could get on with real life again. I felt that I was so firmly ensconced in Cassandra’s world, that I couldn’t possibly get back into my own world until I’d left hers behind.

So I did my favourite trick of staying up very late wrapped up in blankets on the sofa, reading until there were only around twenty pages left. Then I went to sleep and woke up half an hour earlier than I would have done, so I had time to finish it off first thing.

Finishing a book has got to be the best possible way of starting a day. The thing is, normally when one finishes something, it is late and there is a sense of everything ending. Coming out of the cinema in the dark, turning off a DVD or closing a book and looking at the clock to see that it’s well past one’s bedtime, is a bit miserable. To sleep, perchance to dream … I don’t know, I think there’s something a bit depressing about it, especially if one’s very tired.

But finishing something in the morning. Now that is exciting. Then one can breathe deeply, indulge in a moment of reflection, and then look out of the window at a beautiful ice blue sky, spring out of bed for some toast and feel like it is the beginning of something, as well as the end.

And I suppose that today really is the day that I begin something very new indeed. Real life as a married woman begins now. Goodbye to a comforting blissful childhood read of falling in love and yearning and wistfulness, and hello to the very exciting new world!!