Posts Tagged ‘E.M. Forster’

Emilybooks of the Year

December 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Park notes


How to be Both

September 22, 2014

Outside the Piazza dei Diamante post-fountain dunkSome of you might remember my passing through Ferrara a few months ago, at the end of the Italian adventures of Emilybooks. I say passing through because we literally parked the car (rather too far out of the centre thanks to my misunderstanding of the map’s scale), walked up the main street which stretched on and on and on, reached a castle, turned right, saw the Palazzo dei Diamante (thank you architect husband), dunked my head in a fountain, ate two ice creams, and then returned to the car via a prettier windier route, and drove onwards to Vicenza.

I wish we had stayed a little longer, but we had to get to Vicenza in time to meet our Air BnB host. I was so excruciatingly hot that all I can really remember from our couple of hours in Ferrara was the sudden joy of having my head covered in cold fountain water, vastly overriding any embarrassment caused by the amused looks we got from nearby Italians. I wished we had stayed longer as I love the work of Giorgio Bassani, who wrote some very poignant, very brilliant novels (or perhaps technically novellas) set in Ferrara, including The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, which I’ve written about here and here. And now I wish we had stayed longer because just around the corner from the Palazzo dei Diamante is the Palazzo Schifanoia where I have just learned there are some extraordinary frescos by Francesco del Cossa. Frescos so extraordinary that one of the main characters in Ali Smith’s staggeringly brilliant new novel How to be Both goes all the way to Ferrara with her Mum just to see these paintings, and the other main character is Francesco del Cossa the artist. How could I have missed them?!

How to be Both by Ali SmithAt least I haven’t missed the book. What a book! You must all read it. It must win the Booker. But how on earth to begin to write about it?

Ali Smith does a clever trick with How to be Both. The novel is split into two halves: part one set in the present day about smart, precocious teenager George (short for Georgia) whose mother has died; and part one about the fifteenth-century artist Francesco del Cossa. Half the print run of the novel has the George part one as its first half, and the other half has Francesco del Cossa’s as its first. It is a canny way of dodging Forster’s assertion:

it is never possible for a novelist to deny time inside the fabric of his novel

which Smith rails against in her previous book Artful. Forster points out that prose must be one word after another, but with this trick the words come simultaneously before and after. It just depends on which copy you pick up.

So, let’s pause to reflect for a moment about how clever someone is who can write two halves of a novel, twist them around each other with connections and parallels and then engineer the plot to work both ways you encounter them. Right. And let’s not dismiss it as a gimmick, because really it is a signposting of Smith’s ongoing attempt to push at the very boundaries of what fiction can achieve, how narrative linearity can be bent and played with, made pliant to her demands.

The thing about Ali Smith’s writing is that it’s always very clever, but never at the expense of the work itself. You don’t pick up the book and think Christ what a smart-arse. And, frankly, you might be forgiven for anticipating such a reaction. I mean, what if you just want to read an enjoyable novel but instead find yourself landed with some extraordinarily clever modernist work which grapples with huge questions of form and gender and linearity, striving for a unique and wonderful ‘bothness’ which has never before been achieved. You could be forgiven for feeling somewhat put out by having bitten off more than you’d bargained for.

But Smith’s prose is so alive, vivid, enthusiastic, energetic and engrossing, dancing with possibilities, that within a page or two you forget that you’re reading a great modernist challenge, and are every bit as caught up in the pleasure of the story as you might be in a more straightforward novel. There are moments when the bright ideas leap out at you, but they never pull the fabric of the story too far out of shape.

She has it both ways.

So, back to Forster’s assertion and Smith’s tackling of it. How then can a novelist deny time and its linearity? Aside from publishing two different versions at once.

Memory. In both halves of How to be Both Smith weaves memories through current events so that they occur simultaneously. George, grieving for her mother’s death, is in her bedroom on New Year’s Eve:

She sits down on the floor, leans back against her own bed and eats the toast.

It’s so boring, she says in Italy in the palazzo in the mock-child voice they always use for this game.

Just like that, from one sentence to the next, we are transported back in time to when George and her mother are in Ferrara.

There are photographs – moments captured outside of time. George has stuck photos of her mother above her bed; the photograph on the cover of the book surfaces a few times within it. And, by extension, there are films. George starts obsessively watching a porn film of a drugged girl and an older man. As she explains to her father:

This really happened, George said. To this girl. And anyone can just watch it just, like, happening, any time he or she likes. And it happens for the first time, over and over again, every time someone who hasn’t seen it before clicks on it and watches it. So I want to watch it for a completely different reason. Because my completely different watching of it goes some way to acknowledging all of that to this girl.

And there are works of art, including Francesco del Cossa’s frescos. Surviving through time, beyond death, inspiring people over centuries. And even these paintings have different, troubling, layerings of time. We are with George and her mother in Italy again:

But which came first? her mother says. The chicken or the egg? The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?

The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done first.

But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean that the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?

Again and again, we are asked to question which came first, what keeps coming, looking at the limits of time, and how they might be overcome.

George and her friend have to do a project on empathy for school. They decide to do it about Francesco del Cossa. Trying to imagine what the artist would be like, her friend says:

He’d speak like from another time … He’d say things like ho, or gadzooks, or egad … He’d be like an exchange student, not just from another country but from another time.

Then George:

He’d be all alas I am being made up really badly by a sixteen-year-old girl who knows fuck all about art and nothing at all about me except that I did some paintings and seem to have died of the plague

George thinks:

She thinks how typical it’d be. You’d need your own dead person to come back from the dead. You’d be waiting and waiting for that person to come back. But instead of the person you needed you’d get some dead renaissance painter going on and on about himself and his work and it’d be someone you knew nothing about and that’d be meant to teach you empathy, would it?

It’s exactly the kind of stunt her mother would pull.

For alongside this preoccupation with cheating time and its insistent linearity, comes cheating death – the ending of someone’s time. Perhaps above all How to be Both probes the way that the dead and living exist alongside each other, overcoming their obvious beginnings and endings and times.

In the other part of the novel, Francesco del Cossa comes back from the dead. The artist has a peculiar invisible connection with George, watching over her, involuntarily following her about as though attached by a rope. Looking back at George’s musings above, one wonders, is this indeed the kind of stunt her mother would pull from the dead?

Or perhaps this is George’s empathy project for school writ large. For How to be Both is a startling exercise in empathy – a rendering of this silent strange connection between two people separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles.

Another George – George Eliot – thought that the function of art was empathy:

to amplify experience and extend our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.

Well then, How to be Both is a giddy, dizzying, mesmerising piece of art. Read it and I dare you to disagree.

Francesco del Cossa's fresco

Where Angels Fear to Tread

June 24, 2014

Emilybooks’ days in Lucca are coming to an end, alas. On Thursday we will depart and head northeast to Ravenna, Vicenza, perhaps Venice, and then retreat rapidly through France, arriving back in London next Tuesday night.

The pain of leaving has been lessened somewhat by having some friends to stay for the past few days, accompanying us on jaunts up into the mountains, and to Viareggio, a rather haunting seaside resort of strange faded glamour. We also made another little excursion, pre-visitors, to Florence, namely to go on a tour of the ‘secret passages’ of the Palazzo Vecchio, as recommended by a friend, but key to the trip was also the desire to revisit a particular gelateria where we discovered the unparalleled joy of peanut ice cream. (It’s on Via Tornabouni, by all the designer shops, should you happen to find yourself there and in need of some refreshment.)

Dante by BotticelliThe Palazzo Vechhio tour was very interesting. We were shown various secret rooms, hidden inside the breadth of the enormous walls, and taken to the space above the ceiling of the hall of five hundred, where we could see all the clever workings of the beams and rafters. But it was most compelling for two reasons. Firstly, the lady began by asking the group if anyone had read the Inferno. I felt a little sheepish, for much as I would like to have read Dante’s Divine Comedy, perhaps even with facing page translation so that I, like Mrs Fisher in The Enchanted April could excuse myself by saying ‘I speak only the Italian of Dante’, that was a book that didn’t make it on to the Emilybooks travelling bookcase. My sheepishness deepened into extreme AppleMarkshame when about half of the tour group nodded and said they had indeed read it. Who were all these scholarly folk, so convincingly disguised in the t-shirts, shorts, functional sandals and backpacks of the quotidian tourist? But then all became clear when the guide elucidated – by Dan Brown, yes, not Dante? It transpired that Mr Brown’s book was all set in the Palazzo Vecchio, hence why they all wanted to see its secret passages.

Cosimo de Medici's tortoiseBut the tour’s MOST compelling discovery was the symbol of Cosimo de Medici, which cropped up in various paintings throughout the richly adorned apartments: a tortoise!!!!!! But not just any tortoise, a tortoise with a sail on its back, signifying, apparently, his belief that when doing anything one must first be slow and thoughtful – like a tortoise – and then go full steam ahead, as it were (or, back then, full sail ahead). I thoroughly approve, and have been considering the logistics of rigging up a little sail on Daphne’s thoughtful shell.

So the books now being read take on the added weight of being THE LAST BOOKS to be read in Lucca. It is almost as hellish as deciding what to have for our last supper here, or which flavour combination in our last gelato. I knew, however, that I had to re-read EM Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread. I last read this (and wrote about it) a few years ago, and knowing it to be slim but potent, and of course set in Italy, I thought it a perfect choice.

It is, however, almost impossible to write about, mostly because it is too slim to be able to tell much of the plot without ruining it. So I shall try to evade any massive spoilers, but do look away now if you really don’t want a whiff of any of it.

Where Angels Fear to TreadEven though this was my second time around, Forster still managed to wrongfoot me. Where Angels Fear to Tread seems, to begin with, to be about Lilia Heriton – a widow, who breaks off the stuffy bonds of provincial life and her snotty in-laws by travelling to Italy (with a companion, of course), and then falling in love. (So far, so similar to A Room with a View.) Her brother-in-law, Philip, is speedily dispatched to rescue her, for she has fallen for an Italian and not even a member of the Italian nobility, but Gino, the handsome son of a provincial dentist. There is a wonderful moment when he is eating spaghetti:

When those delicious slippery worms were flying down his throat his face relaxed and became for a moment unconscious and calm. And Philip had seen that face before in Italy a hundred times – seen it and loved it, for it was not merely beautiful, but had the charm which is the rightful heritage of all who are born on that soil. But he did not want to see it opposite him at dinner. It was not the face of a gentleman.

It’s brilliant! I love this idea of the spaghetti transforming him, that there is something quintessentially Italian about it. Indeed, Forster stresses the link between Gino and the Italian land elsewhere too, using the same adjectives ‘mysterious and terrible’ both for him and for the Tuscan landscape, as seen by the English. Here, Philip can see the charm and beauty of this Italianness, while snobbishly seeing that it is not of a gentleman.

Philip tries to buy him off, but discovers it is too late, for Gino and Lilia are already married. Then:

At no one moment did Lilia realize that her marriage was a failure; yet during the summer and autumn she became as unhappy as it was possible for her nature to be.

Then poor miserable Lilia is killed off, dying in childbirth. This all happens before we even get half-way through the book. So evidently it isn’t going to be another Room with a View – our subject isn’t the English middle-class lady exhilarated by the Italian landscape. It gradually becomes clear that Forster’s subject is Philip. Indeed, in a letter to his friend RC Trevelyan, which is printed in the back of this Penguin edition, he says:

The object of the book is the improvement of Philip, and I did really want the improvement to be a surprise.

Sorry for ruining the surprise, and I shall indeed stop with the plot synopsis now in order to avoid any greater spoilers.

So Where Angels Fear to Tread is about the improvement of Philip, but at the same time, I felt it to be about the futility of that improvement. So long as there are people about like Harriet – Philip’s awful, moral, pious, didactic sister – English snobs who are so convinced of their being right that they will force their view on others, rather than, like Philip, be improved by exposure to a new culture – then the English will only do harm. Any goodness that develops in Philip is rendered useless by Harriet’s actions (don’t press me on the plot details if you don’t want me to give it away!). Essentially, the goodness of a quiet observer is never going to have so much of an effect as the badness of a loud doer.

This is made all the more troubling by the many parallels between Philip and Forster himself. If Forster, in his first complete novel, was already gesturing towards the feebleness of the gentle, male, sexually ambiguous observer – however great his ‘improvement’ as the novel progresses – then it doesn’t show a great vote of confidence in his own role as writer-observer. This male observer figure was to reappear in many of his books, such as Mr Beebe in A Room with A View, and even Fielding in A Passage to India, who fails in his attempt at a friendship with Aziz.

Forster is one of my very favourite writers, so of course I would never dream of calling him a failure, but perhaps he felt this to be the case himself, and was too aware of the limits of his work. He wrote, after all, only six novels, stopping after A Passage to India, even though he lived for nearly another fifty years. It is a great shame, and all the more so for there being this portrait of the powerlessness of an observer even in his very first, and very brilliant, novel.

The Portrait of a Lady

June 16, 2014

What is it about Italy and its views?

Having first been struck by Forster’s A Room with a View, which seemed to me to be all about the importance of a good view and being able to see clearly – something which Italy can give the English traveller, if he or she is sufficiently open to it – now I’m struck by the same thing in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Only James’s book, written thirty years earlier, has a rather sadder conclusion.

The Portrait of a LadyIsabel Archer is American. Young, intelligent, pretty, she has been taken up by her aunt and brought first to England and then to Italy, though she has so many suitors falling at her feet it is somewhat remarkable that she is able to move anywhere at all. First there is strong, hard Caspar Goodwood – an American heir to a cotton mill; next there is ridiculously English Lord Warburton. There is also the rather wonderful Ralph Touchett – Isabel’s cousin – who knows his is a hopeless case as he is dying of consumption, but contents himself to watch Isabel blaze her path, persuading his father to leave her half of his own fortune in his Will:

‘I shall have the thrill of seeing what a young lady does who won’t marry Lord Warburton.’

He goes on to add:

‘There will be plenty of spectators!’

Indeed, we readers are of course amongst the keen spectators, wondering what it is that Isabel Archer will do with her life, now she has become a woman of independent means.

She tells us, simply:

‘I don’t want to begin life by marrying. There are other things a woman can do.’

When Ralph says, ‘You want to see life – you’ll be hanged if you don’t, as the young men say,’ she counters:

‘I don’t think I want to see it as the young men want to see it. But I do want to look about me … I only want to see for myself.’

James conjures a kind of double vision around Isabel: there are all her ‘spectators’ – those who are watching her – and also what she can ‘see’, her desire to ‘look about me … to see for myself’.

So off she goes to Italy to broaden her horizons. Unluckily for Isabel, the sinister Madame Merle, a friend of her aunt’s, has taken an interest in her – and in her newly acquired money – and introduces her to villainous Gilbert Osmond. Osmond and Madame Merle are thick as thieves, and we soon gather than he will be Isabel’s next suitor. We fear the worst. Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood both turn up again and are turned away. Ralph, who we feel has the best chance of making her, literally, see sense, fails too, and we soon gather that Isabel has accepted Gilbert Osmond.

How can our heroine, seemingly so keen on independence, on seeing the world, be so taken in by Osmond? Perhaps the best light is shed on him by Ralph:

Osmond lived exclusively for the world. Far from being its master as he pretended to be, he was its very humble servant, and the degree of its attention was his only measure of success. He lived with his eye on it from morning till night, and the world was so stupid it never suspected the trick. Everything he did was pose — pose so subtly considered that if one were not on the lookout one mistook it for impulse. Ralph had never met a man who lived so much in the land of consideration. His tastes, his studies, his accomplishments, his collections, were all for a purpose. His life on his hill-top at Florence had been the conscious attitude of years. His solitude, his ennui, his love for his daughter, his good manners, his bad manners, were so many features of a mental image constantly present to him as a model of impertinence and mystification. His ambition was not to please the world, but to please himself by exciting the world’s curiosity and then declining to satisfy it. It had made him feel great, ever, to play the world a trick.

So Osmond is another double vision – one who ‘lived with his eye on’ the world. We know him as a great aesthete, a collector of things which are pleasing to the eye. He looks at works of art, however, only to become a work of art himself.  In contrast to Isabel’s innocent openness to her spectators, Osmond is all ‘pose’. Constantly aware of those who look at him, he poses with sufficient skill to take them in – well, perhaps not such a sharp observer as Ralph, but certainly poor wide-eyed Isabel.

In Claire Messud’s brilliant essay on re-reading The Portrait of a Lady, published in the Guardian, she describes Osmond’s ‘ability to reflect light so that he may appear to shine’. Is it really so surprising that naïve Isabel, who is so keen to see ‘the world’, is taken in by this man of the world, a trickster who has perfected his illusion?

When we rejoin Isabel three years into her marriage, we learn that it is a very unhappy one. Tellingly, they live at the Palazzo Roccanera in Rome, meaning ‘black rock’, and images of darkness persist. Osmond once reflected light, but now he has plunged Isabel into the dark depths of misery.

I shall go no further with the plot, for this is when all the twists and turns and revelations begin, and I hate to be a spoiler. We wonder, along with the other characters who are all keen observers of Isabel’s fate, will she ever be able to see clearly? Will she see through conniving Madame Merle and cruel Gilbert Osmond? Will she see her way through to freedom?

A Room with a ViewLet us jump forward a few decades to EM Forster’s A Room with a View, which I wrote about in more depth here. Like Isabel Archer, Lucy Honeychurch goes to Italy wanting ‘something big’. She wanders through Florence reflecting, ‘The world … is certainly full of beautiful things, if only I could come across them.’ Then she is mesmerized in the Piazza Signoria, as it transforms itself into a true chiaroscuro in ‘the hour of unreality – the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real’. She sees a man killed in a duel and thinks it is her fault for wishing to see something so big:

‘She thought, ‘Oh what have I done?’

Lucy Honeychurch sees Italy and so sees the world, and so – and this is the most important thing – is eventually able to perceive the truth about herself and the other characters who exert influence over her, such as the oddly compelling Charlotte Bartlett. For a while it seems as though she might not succeed, but the comic muse wins out and all ends happily ever after. How tragic, that poor Isabel Archer, whose trajectory appears to be at first along such a similar path, is taken in by a fiendishly well-executed trick and plunged forever into darkness.

Reading through Henry James’s notes and Preface to The Portrait of a Lady, I was struck by how much he employs the language of vision here as well as within the novel proper. It is in his Preface that he so famously wrote about ‘the house of fiction’, which has:

Not one window, but a million – a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its very front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbours are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine … [the windows] are, singly or together, as nothing without the posted presence of the watcher.

He really knows how to string out a sentence! I can just tell that hundreds of pages have been spent arguing about the particular meaning and relevance of this passage, and I can’t hope to begin to do justice to it here. All I will say, however, is that readers and characters have become watchers, each perspective is unique and, vitally, limited – windows are a somewhat treacherous aperture through which we must perceive.

Interesting, then, at the end of A Room with a View, when George and Lucy return to the Pension Bertolini in Florence, George:

strolled to the window, opened it (as the English will), and leant out.

I somehow feel that Henry James didn’t want anyone to open his windows and lean out of them. His spectators are stuck behind the rigid panes of glass – indeed, sometimes even further stuck behind field glasses! Perhaps this is where he achieves such brilliant tension in The Portrait of a Lady. Everybody is able to look, but they are limited in their observations and unable to reach through the glass and do anything. Isabel Archer might have looked out of the window – indeed, in the chilling denouement scene, Henry James pictures her doing exactly this, and she sees the truth ‘as if it had been reflected in a large clear glass’ – but unlike George and Lucy, she could not open the window and see ‘all the view’.

Perhaps she was just thirty years too early.

Incidentally, you might like this piece I wrote for The Junket for some more thoughts about windows, including this beautiful one by Ravilious.

Belle Tout Lighthouse by Ravilious

The Grass is Singing

May 27, 2014

I was on the point of packing Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook for this trip to Italy, in spite of being rather daunted by it. Margaret Drabble, after all, said it was one of three books that helped her to know how to live her life, along with The Bell Jar and The Group, and it seems to be one of those books that people go on and on about, one of those seminal books which one ought just to have read. Doris Lessing is such an embarrassing gap in my reading, which I have been determined to fill for a while, and yet … I don’t really know why, but I’m afraid I just can’t quite face The Golden Notebook.

The Grass is SingingLuckily, a wise bookshop colleague suggested I take The Grass is Singing instead. It wasn’t just that its size was instantly much more appealing, but I was particularly intrigued to read Lessing’s first novel. When one is working on one’s own first novel, it can be very inspiring to read one that has become such a classic. Also, sometimes I wonder if there isn’t a particular drive, energy and rawness to a first novel which can become subdued as the writer’s career progresses. For instance, Under the Net is by far my favourite Iris Murdoch, as it doesn’t feel quite so weighed down with the Iris Murdochyness of her later books.

I read The Grass is Singing over the past couple of days, mostly sitting on the huge walls which surround Lucca, where the grass wasn’t so much singing, but rustling in the breeze.

It is a horrible book, and a brilliant one. The story is devastating, depicting a situation which is thoroughly nasty on various levels, and yet in its horror it is very powerful and compelling. The experience of reading it reminded me a little of reading Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins. There is the same inevitability of the awfulness of what is to ensue, the grimness of having to read it, the futile hoping against hope that the disaster might somehow be averted – in spite of knowing full well that this is impossible – and the gruelling process of having to get through it, not sure that you can bear to read another page of it, while at the same time finding the pages are turning themselves.

The Grass is Singing begins and ends with a murder. It opens with a brief newspaper announcement of a ‘Murder Mystery’: Mary Turner, the wife of farmer Richard Turner was found murdered on her verandah. The mystery isn’t as to who has done the deed, for we are informed that ‘The houseboy … has confessed to the crime.’ The mystery is as to the motive: ‘It is thought he was in search of valuables’, we are told, but on the very next page we learn the Turners are ‘poor whites’, so are unlikely to have any valuables as such.

The first chapter shows the aftermath of the murder: the routine police investigation, and the man recently arrived from England who knows there is more to the situation than the others are making out, but who is hastily ‘shut up’. Then we go back to the beginning and discover for ourselves the disturbing, uncomfortable truth of the matter.

We begin with Mary’s poor childhood with a complaining mother and drunk father. ‘The happiest time of her childhood’ is when her two older siblings died from dysentery, as then there were fewer mouths to feed and her quarrelling parents were briefly united in their grief. She was sent to boarding school, which was a happy escape, and then became a successful girl about town. There she thrived: an adept office-worker, with several friends and ‘innumerable men who “took her out”, treating her like a sister’. She went to the cinema, played hockey and tennis, and generally had a gay old time. Significantly, Mary never grows up, persisting in dressing like a pretty little girl even when she turns thirty. It is as though these years are spent enjoying a delayed happy childhood. She has been so scarred by her parents’ miserable marriage that she is unable to contemplate more adult relationships.

Then, Mary overhears some friends gossiping about her, saying how ridiculous it is that she hasn’t got married. Profoundly wounded out of her naivete, she starts looking for a husband, and soon settles on Dick Turner, a hopeless farmer, incapable of being a success.

When she first arrives at his farm, it seems as though all is not lost:

In the first flush of energy and determination she really enjoyed the life, putting things to rights and making a little go a long way.

She decorates and sews, whitewashes and cooks. As the months pass, however, she soon runs out of tasks and finds herself faced with idleness. This is when the problems really begin. Mary has never had to look after servants before and her cold, uncompromising manner with Samson, Dick’s kind and long-standing houseboy, upsets him. Samson is used to an unspoken agreement whereby he helps himself to a third of Dick’s food. Mary, however, allows him nothing:

This woman never laughed. She put out, carefully, so much meal, and so much sugar; and watched the left-overs from their own food with an extraordinary, humiliating capacity for remembering every cold potato and every piece of bread, asking for them if they were missing.

Things reach a head when Mary is reduced to tears because:

She knew there had been enough raisons put out for the pudding, but when they came to eat it, there were hardly any. And the boy denied stealing them…

Dick’s relaxed attitude – ‘He probably did, but he’s a good old swine on the whole’ – if troubling in its own way, is the antithesis to Mary’s pernickety intolerance, which results in her insisting on deducting the cost from his pay. Samson soon resigns, but Mary’s frustrations and poisonous naggings only increase with the various new houseboys who come and inevitably leave. With nothing else to do, Mary becomes obsessed with bossing them about, inspecting each bit of work they do, complaining over the slightest slip. She forces one of them to scrub the bath for an entire day, sitting at the table and listening to him work:

She remained there for two hours, her head aching, listening with every muscle of her tensed body. She was determined he should not scamp his work.

This friendly, successful, harmless woman has been turned into a monster. In part it is due to having nothing to do other than supervise the servant. She rebuffs the neighbours’ advances at friendship, interpreting their overtures as patronising and full of pity. It is also due to the insufferable heat:

It was so hot! She had never imagined it could be so hot. The sweat poured off her all day; she could feel it running down her ribs and thighs under her dress, as if ants were crawling over her. She used to sit quite, suite still, her eyes closed, and feel the heat beating down from the iron over her head.

And there are of course many other reasons for Mary’s descent into madness, such as their inescapable poverty; the fact that she and her husband don’t understand each other at all; that she takes no interest in the running of the farm; and that all Dick’s business ideas resolutely fail. It is also thanks to her difficult childhood and, in spite of her desires, seeing herself inevitably fall into her mother’s role, and Dick her father’s.

The Grass is Singing is a compelling and disturbing portrait of a woman undergoing a slow, horrific, nervous breakdown. By the end of the book Mary can barely speak, or get dressed. It is not, however, just a novel about a woman who suffers a nervous breakdown; it is about a woman who cannot survive in Southern Rhodesia. It is about the impossibility and injustice of the whole system, of the punishing land itself. (Dick, after all, may be useless and never make any money, but he loves the land and runs his farm responsibly, planting trees and rotating crops, whereas the commercially successful farmers are rewarded for plundering the land, and putting nothing back into it.)

Mary doesn’t just have a nervous breakdown; she is murdered by her black servant. Lessing renders a gripping, menacing portrayal of the relationship between the two of them. Mary’s fear of the black man – as ‘every woman in South Africa is brought up to be’ – is recognised and challenged by Moses, the houseboy, who starts to look after and gently care for her, thereby transgressing the barrier between white and black:

There was now a new relation between them. For she felt helplessly in his power.

His absolute control over her is what is expressed in the final murder, his taking away of her life.

A Passage to IndiaThis radical shift in the power balance is what is so disturbing to the other characters in the novel, and I suspect it is also what caused the book to be rejected by South African publishers. It brings to my mind the resounding final sentence in Forster’s A Passage to India, another book in which the established native-British relationship is challenged:

But the horses didn’t want it – they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, ‘No, not yet,’ and the sky said, ‘No, not there.’

Reading it on the walls of Lucca, as the grass blew in the breeze, I felt only too grateful not to be living in Southern Rhodesia then, when it seems as though you could choose between death, madness or being complicit in a terrible regime. The novel has too epigraphs. Firstly a quotation from ‘The Waste Land’, including the phrase ‘the grass was singing’. Secondly, from an unknown author:

It is by the failures and misfits of a civilization that one can best judge its weaknesses.

The novel is not a critique of Dick and Mary Turner – the ‘failures and misfits’ – but of their ‘civilization’, in which they are unable to survive. Indeed, it is to their credit that they are unable to succeed in this terrible way of life. One feels it would be better to go mad than thrive in such an awful civilization.

A young Doris Lessing

A Room with a View

May 6, 2014

A Room with a ViewOne of the greatest reading treats for my Luccan adventure is a selection of Forster’s works, which made their way into the travelling box of books as essential re-reading. I had initially thought I’d begin with Where Angels Fear to Tread – his first novel, but after my mentioning A Room with a View last week met with such a warm response, I found myself itching to read it instead.

And it was bliss. For what could be better than reading of the liberating, exhilarating affect of Italy on stuffy English people while being a stuffy English person being happily liberated by Italy? And oh how I felt thankful to be in Italy with my equivalent to George Emerson, rather than dreadful Miss Bartlett.

Perhaps it’s unfashionable now, but still I really like the way Forster’s novels engage so openly with ideas. A Room with a View is essentially a playing field for England versus Italy: self-consciousness, snobbishness and constraint versus sunshine, passion and instinct. It is also – clue’s in the title – about views. Forster stresses the importance of being able to see clearly, whether that’s Santa Croce, the Sussex Weald, or, more profoundly, being able to perceive the truth within oneself. Most English people, Forster suggests, are so tied up in social conventions, Baedeker guidebooks and worrying about what one is supposed to see, that they cannot see the truth. Italians are the opposite. George Emerson and his father are exceptions to the rule, as they are able to follow their instincts and speak the truth rather than following social convention, so they are looked down on by most of the other characters. The great question for the plot is: can our heroine Lucy Honeychurch also see a true view?

The signs are positive, as the Reverend Beebe observes when Lucy plays the piano, especially Beethoven, with such instinct and passion:

‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting – both for us and for her.’

It all seems to be going rather well, with Lucy fainting into the arms of George Emerson after witnessing a deathly duel in the Piazza Signoria, and then being kissed by him among the violets of Fiesole. But dreadful Miss Bartlett is forever getting in the way and steering her onto a more respectful course of action. We leave Italy behind after this dramatic kiss and return to England several months later where we see Lucy accepting a proposal of marriage from awful Cecil Vyse. Cecil is as English as they come – all pomposity, snotty snobbishness and selfishness. (He won’t even make up a tennis four, which seems to Lucy to be the height of bad manners!) Poor Lucy, we despair for her, for while she seemed to be on the verge of seeing everything, now her vision has clouded over. Luckily the comic muse intervenes and, without wanting to give everything away, we can rest assured that, unusually for Forster, everything works out very pleasingly indeed and Lucy struggles through the darkness and manages to see exactly what it is that she does want.

Another thing I love about Forster is his talent for creating moments when the surface reality of the scene peels away to something quite horrific and profound beneath. In A Passage to India, it happens in the resounding empty ‘ou-boum of the Marabar Caves. In A Room with a View, it is there in the duel in the Piazza Signoria. Lucy, tellingly diagnosed by Mr Beebe as having played ‘too much Beethoven’, decides to go out alone that evening:

Conversation was tedious; she wanted something big…

Forbidden to go on a tram alone, she goes to a shop and buys photographs of various works of art. Now I better quote at length, as it really is such an extraordinary moment that I’d hate to paraphrase:

But though she spent nearly seven lire the gates of liberty seemed still unopened. She was conscious of her discontent; it was new to her to be conscious of it. ‘The world,’ she thought, ‘is certainly full of beautiful things, if only I could come across them.’ It was not surprising that Mrs Honeychurch disapproved of music, declaring that it always left her daughter peevish, unpractical and touchy.

‘Nothing ever happens to me,’ she reflected, as she entered the Piazza Signoria and looked nonchalantly at its marvels, now fairly familiar to her. The great square was in shadow; the sunshine had come too late to strike it. Neptune was already unsubstantial in the twilight, half god, half ghost, and his fountain plashed dreamily to the men and satyrs who idled together on its marge. The Loggia showed as the triple entrance of a cave, wherein dwelt many a deity, shadowy but immortal, looking forth upon the arrivals and departures of mankind. It was the hour of unreality – the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real. An older person at such an hour and in such a place might think that sufficient was happening to him, and rest content. Lucy desired more.

She fixed her eyes wistfully on the tower of the palace, which rose out of the lower darkness like a pillar of roughened gold. It seemed no longer a tower, no longer supported by earth, but some unattainable treasure throbbing in the tranquil sky. Its brightness mesmerized her, still dancing before her eyes when she bent them to the ground and started towards home.

Then something did happen.

Two Italians by the Loggia had been bickering about a debt. ‘Cinque lire,’ they had cried, ‘cinque lire!’ they sparred at each other, and one of them was hit lightly upon the chest. He frowned; he bent towards Lucy with a look of interest, as if he had an important message for her. He opened his lips to deliver it, and a stream of red came out between them and trickled down his unshaven chin.

That was all. A crowd rose out of the dusk. It hid this extraordinary man from her, and bore him away to the fountain. Mr George Emerson happened to be a few paces away, looking at her across the spot where the man had been. How very odd! Across something. Even as she caught sight of him he grew dim; the palace itself grew dim, swayed above her, fell onto her softly, slowly, noiselessly, and sky fell with it.

She thought, ‘Oh what have I done?’

Isn’t it extraordinary!

Here we have a cave, years before Forster wrote about the Marabar caves. Instead of the paintings of which she purchases photographs, the square becomes a true chiaroscuro, all encompassed in shadow and twilight except for the blazing tower of the palace, ‘a pillar of roughened gold … some unattainable treasure throbbing in the tranquil sky’. It is ‘the hour of unreality – the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real’, the hour when wishing something hard enough can prompt it to happen. ‘Oh what have I done?’ thinks Lucy as she faints after witnessing the duel, the man killed in front of her, the blood trickling out of his mouth. It is as uncanny as a dream.

A little later, once recovered, she walks with George back to their hotel and he throws her photographs into the Arno. Understandably, a little ruffled by this, she asks him why, and he tells her they were covered in blood. It’s a potent symbol: these purchased views of works of art – the things one is supposed to see in Italy, written about in guidebooks – stained with the blood of a dead man, the real drama of the uncanny view she has just experienced. The blood makes the photographs seem trivial, staining them with its evidence of life and death. Evidently, art is not life.

Gosh EM Forster is wonderful. A Room with a View risks being dismissed as too ‘nice’, (indeed Forster himself called it his ‘nicest’ novel), little more than a social comedy, some brilliantly observed portraits of silly English characters let loose in Italy. Of course it is all this, and there are many moments when chuckles escape, or when one is so pleasingly carried away by the sunny plot. But Forster was also writing having read Freud, at the time when the Moderns were beginning to push at the limits of narrative. While he would never be as experimental as Joyce or Woolf, or even DH Lawrence, how can we overlook these cave-like moments where we encounter something uncanny, shocking and profound?

Alas, I have been so carried away by Forster that I’ve written little of my off-page adventures … so here is a rather less dramatic, but splendidly bookish view I encountered while wandering around Lucca last week.

Books in Lucca


Chop Chop

April 28, 2014


Emilybooks has arrived in Lucca! Here she will stay for the next two glorious months – reading a great deal, writing – let’s hope – something, gazing at the many beautiful old buildings (while the architect husband sketches and is inspired by their brilliance), eating a colossal amount of pasta, and trying her hardest to speak Italian.

So far the attempts at the latter have met with a mixture of bemused smiles, answers in English, and occasional kind efforts to help. Yesterday morning, we stumbled into a café for a quick coffee before getting the train to Florence. I was busy eyeing up the croissant selection, so it fell to the husband to order his own coffee.

‘Caffe … con … um … what’s milk again Ems?’


‘Caffe con latte … oh yeah, caffe latte.’

The man laughed, concocted a powerful coffee, and then said, as he gave it to him, ‘anche, cappuccino’.

‘Caffe latte,’ the husband repeated, bewildered.

‘Si, anche cappuccino.’

‘He says it’s also called cappuccino,’ I translated.

The husband smiled vaguely, ‘Si, grazie.’

I tried to explain that he was ‘stanco’, tired, and the man looked non-comprehending so I wonder what I actually said. Then I said that my chocolate croissant was ‘delicioso’ and he looked rather fond of us, I thought. He must have realised we were English as he tried to talk to us about the weather, but unfortunately my vocabulary doesn’t stretch far in that direction. If only he’d got me on pizza toppings.

As we hurried to the train station, the husband woefully rubbed his head and said, ‘I’ve got to get some Italian in there.’

‘Well caffe latte is definitely a good start.’

‘That’s French anyway. He said it’s cappuccino.’

So we have a long way to go. I am determined that by the end of our trip, we will go into that same café, and have a lovely, fluent conversation with the kind man which goes beyond different names for a white coffee.

Italy books

We drove here through France, which meant that we could bring rather a lot of stuff. When I say stuff, I mean books. A huge box of them clogged up the boot, promising many happy hours spent with my head between their covers, and, on arriving, you can see I swiftly colonised a bookcase. I thought this the perfect opportunity to re-read some classics; I long to go back to various EM Forsters, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice and The Portrait of a Lady. I’ve also brought a few of those books that I’ve long meant to read and never quite found the time: The Sound and the Fury, The Rings of Saturn, The Grass is Singing (swapped for The Golden Notebook on a dear colleague’s fulsome recommendation), plus of course a couple of Persephone Books and a few other novels that look promising. We also have a great many guidebooks and then there are all the husband’s big architecture books. (When I say ‘we’ drove, I mean the husband did, while I ‘map-read’.)

Really, I suppose my first post should be about something like A Room with a View. I certainly felt a little like I’d stepped out of it, when we went to Florence yesterday to meet a couple of friends who happened to be staying there, at the end of their holiday. We met in Piazza della Signoria, and I had to stop myself from exclaiming, ‘Tut, tut! Miss Lucy! I hope we shall soon emancipate you from Baedeker.’ I suppose the hordes of tourists somewhat lessened the feeling of being quite so grand, but no matter.

Chop Chop

But no, my first post is a week overdue (apologies…) and is in fact about the last book I read in England, over the Easter Weekend, which I spent with friends, including its author. Chop Chop is Simon Wroe’s first novel. He is a former chef – which was an added treat for the weekend – and has written this darkly funny book about what goes on in a Camden gastropub’s kitchen. I think the weekend was a rather unnerving experience for Simon, as Chop Chop seemed to be the only book that people were reading (apart from, coincidentally, A Room with a View, which someone else had brought along); I counted five copies on the go in total… We tried to persuade him to give us a little reading, but to no avail.

So now, as I think back to reading Chop Chop, I leave the domes and towers of Tuscany behind and am transported back to seedy Camden Town. I have to say it does make me feel rather smug to be away from it.

What struck me as most impressive about the book is its energy. It is so punchy, grabbing you by your jacket collar and mouthing off in your face. It’s full of banter, rough jokes, loud voices, noise, heat … Essentially Simon does a stupendously good job of capturing the atmosphere of a busy kitchen in the very texture of his prose.

It is impossible not to be caught up in this hot whirlwind, as we follow the fate of our naïve bookish protagonist, nicknamed ‘Monocle’, as he attempts to survive in the brutal world of the kitchen, replete with vile characters, for whom one ends up feeling a surprising amount of affection.

Beneath all the noise, heat and pressure of the kitchen, are rather more sinister undertones. Gradually we piece together Monocle’s past … We also venture into the seedy underworld of Camden Town, through the unforgettable character of The Fat Man:

The Fat Man eclipsed all else as he ate. And how he could eat! Three or four starters, and every main going. Tremendous amounts were consumed, seemingly without limit or pleasure. Despite his booming bonhomie and the sharp smiles he flashed at Bob or the nervous front-of-house staff, his face bore no trace of joy or appreciation as he ate … Yet every morsel was devoured, every plate wiped clean. He treated food as billionaires treat money, as showgirls treat presents from admirers. An entitlement he claimed even though it disgusted him

There are rumours that The Fat Man controls the Camden underworld. He is a man who commands a certain disgusted respect, a man to whom one cannot say no. He seems peripheral to the plot – just one of many well-drawn Camden characters – until Monocle, finds himself having to sous chef at a special dinner at his residence. The money is good, the task awful, as becomes clear as soon as they ask what they’re cooking:

‘A special something, my boys. A special something.’ He leaned in, eyes wide. ‘Have you ever heard of the ortalan?’

We had not.

‘It’s a tiny, rare songbird,’ The Fat Man explained. ‘You drown them in brandy and roast them in a clay pot. They’re so little you can crunch the bones.’

So the poor chefs must drown twenty songbirds, pluck them, and roast them. They are instructed to bring them to the diners when the bell is rung three times. Then, on carrying the birds into the dining room:

Five figures sat around the table, the head of each one bowed and covered by a sheet of black silk. Their faces were hidden, from God or from us, from both. They neither moved nor spoke. Fun or fulfillment was not their intent. Pleasant company had not brought them here. Theirs was a grimmer ceremony: of blood letting, of sin, of guilt and taking away.

Even in Italy, I am still haunted by this image of silk-draped sin. This is just the beginning of our view into The Fat Man’s sinister world – I will leave it there for fear of spoilers… I still shudder to think of it, this horrific man with so many people in his thrall, guzzling his food ‘as showgirls treat presents from admirers’. It’s almost enough to put me off my huge plates of pasta. (Although Simon, being a very well-informed foodie, has kindly sent me a list of restaurants in and around Lucca which sound so delicious that they are sure to eclipse the ghost of The Fat Man…)

Chop Chop is a terrific book. Its energetic prose pulls you into the fast, tough world of the kitchen, then reveals the dark secrets behind the bravado and banter, what lies beneath all the steam and the smoke. It’s exciting to discover a new voice, especially one so fresh that packs such a punch … I can’t wait to discover what he might write next.

The Luminaries

November 18, 2013

The LuminariesThe Friday before last, I had my thirtieth birthday party; last Friday I finished The Luminaries. I’m not sure which Friday was more triumphant. While the first was a glorious yellow celebration of friendship and happiness and fun, the second saw the end of a colossal book which has taken up a whole month of my reading life.

It was a very enjoyable month. Well, at least the first fortnight was, then, as you might have gathered from my last post, the pleasure was tinged with impatience. And I read quickly – I can’t imagine what it would be like to read The Luminaries at a more sedate pace … just think, you’d still be reading it well into next year!

In case you have been on a different planet (see what I’m doing there, with the astrological pun), The Luminaries is New Zealander Eleanor Catton’s second novel. She is only twenty-eight. It won the Booker Prize. It is over 800 pages. All facts awe-inspiring enough to pique a curious reader’s interest.

The novel opens with two of the oldest clichés: a combination of ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ and ‘A man walks into a bar’. Walter Moody walks into the smoking room of the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, New Zealand, on 27 January, 1866, which happens to be a dark and stormy night. He soon senses that something fishy is going on. It transpires that the twelve men gathered there have come together to discuss the strange happenings of the last fortnight: a recluse has been murdered, a whore has attempted suicide, a young man has gone missing, and a fortune of gold has been found in the murdered man’s house.

It is an exciting beginning, and the pages whizz past as Catton takes us from one protagonist to another, telling us the story from all sides, letting us – alongside Walter Moody – gradually piece together what exactly has happened. At one point, Moody is asked, what it means for him ‘to know something’ and he replies:

I suppose that to know a thing is to see it from all sides.

We do indeed see this story from all sides, and never do we feel that Catton has lost control of the many sides of her narrative. In a way, it is an extension of Virginia Woolf’s seven-sided carnation in The Waves, or Penelope Lively’s disconcertingly wonderful jolts in perspective in Moon Tiger (see this post for more on this). Here the thing is initially twelve-sided, but expands, as more and more characters come into play.

I enjoyed getting to know Hokitika in 1866, at the height of the New Zealand gold rush, of which, until The Luminaries, I’d never heard. Here are men and women on the make, seeking their fortunes, making their futures and, more often than not, running away from their past. These are first class ingredients for a piece of high Victorian drama, and that is what we get, complete with the slightly kitsch chapter-opening epigrams, such as:

In which the merits of asylum are discussed; a family name comes into question; Alistair Lauderback is discomforted; and the shipping agent tells a lie.

Everyone has his secrets and motives, and the web of intrigue is complex and entangling. It reminded me a little of Dickens’ Bleak House.

Except, of course, we’re in the twenty-first century and Catton is too clever to spin us just a shaggy dog story. We know she must have employed that double-cliché beginning as a kind of bluff. There are indeed many moments where our attention is drawn to the many layers of storytelling, such as:

We shall therefore intervene, and render Sook Yongsheng’s story in a way that is accurate to the events he wished to disclose, rather than to the style of his narration.

All the while, the reader is made aware of the astrological patterning, with chapter titles like ‘Venus in Aquarius’, or ‘Mercury Sets’, and charts drawn out at the beginning of each of the novle’s twelve parts. I have to confess that the astrological side of things flew right over my head (appropriately enough), although I did like this moment when Moody first looked at the Southern Hemisphere sky:

The skies were inverted, the patterns unfamiliar, the Pole Star beneath his feet, quite swallowed … He found Orion – upended, his quiver beneath him, his sword hanging upward from his belt; Canis Major – hanging like a dead dog from a butcher’s hook … It was as if the ancient patterns had no meaning here.

The world is upside-down, life here is of a new order. Now we’re further back than the Victorians and are with John Donne and Shakespeare and their ‘brave new world’ and ‘new-foundland’, except that New Zealand is even farther away than America, the old order even more inverted. It is refreshing and fascinating to read about a different frontier people.

So far so good, albeit so long… then, as the weight of the book shifts from the right hand to the left, the narrative takes a different turn. The mysteries are unravelled and understood, and a love story is revealed between a man and a woman (I won’t reveal their identities) who are spiritual twins. It is a strange sort of love story that feels peculiarly unsatisfactory, just as the resolution of the novel’s mysteries don’t leave one particularly fulfilled. The novel becomes increasingly post-modern as the end draws near; the chapter epigrams start to contain more narrative than the rapidly shrinking chapters, which become snippets of conversation, glimpses, moments. They are reminiscent of the cover design – the moon revealing just part of a face as it waxes and wanes, while the whole is hidden by all the white space of the night sky.

The Luminaries begins as tight as a coil, sprung with tension – you could cut the atmosphere in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel with a knife. As the narrative plays out, the coil slackens and everything spaces out. It is entropic. Soon we are left with more gaps than writing.

GravityThis may be a ridiculous comparison, but indulge me please, given the appropriate astrological context. The Luminaries is not dissimilar to George Clooney in Gravity. It begins doing one thing – fixing a space station or solving a mystery – then segues into an almost-but-not-quite love story, and then drifts out, ever outwards, into the vast nothingness of space.

The Luminaries is a genre-defying novel that makes its reader question what a novel is. What do we desire from a novel, and what can we demand from it? What is a mystery all about? What is a love story all about? It’s a shape-shifting book. You think you’re reading one thing and then find you’re reading something else. It happens on the small-scale as you are passed between the different protagonists, getting to know things ‘from all sides’, and then in a brilliant post-modern stroke, Catton makes us question not just the fictional events but the very nature of fiction itself.

Eleanor Catton is very clever to have got us all puzzling over these big questions, while situating her puzzle in such an engrossing world. The Luminaries is a great book that works on many levels, and I can completely see why it won the Booker Prize. But for all the beautiful language and the narrative dexterity and the big post-modern questions, it left me feeling unsatisfied. By the end I no longer cared much about the murder, the gold, the whore or the love story. Perhaps that’s the point, but I found it a somewhat frustrating point to make. And if that is the point, then couldn’t she have made it rather more quickly?

As I said, The Luminaries took up a month of my reading life. I can’t remember when I last spent such a long time reading the same book. I would have read five or six normal-sized novels in that time. You might quip that bringing time into it is pointless but, put it this way, in the time it took me to read and puzzle over The Luminaries, I could have read all of E.M. Forster’s novels, or two-thirds of Penelope Fitzgerald’s. I expect I could have read a third of all Shakespeare’s plays. As was brutally pointed out to me a few months ago – we can only read so many books before we die. Our reading lives are limited more than we might care to think. For a novel to be six times as long as another novel, hence take up six times as much of one’s time, then surely it must be six times as good? While The Luminaries was a thoroughly enjoyable book, clever in so many ways, imaginative, transporting, brilliant yes … I’m afraid I just don’t think it was better than all of Forster’s novels put together.

Perhaps I would feel less vexed about all the time that it demands of its reader if I’d read it on holiday, when one suddenly gets a glut of unexpected reading time. I would heartily recommend it for a flight to New Zealand, for instance. Or, perhaps if I’d had an unlucky patch of reading and had read a few short not-particularly-good novels, then I would have rejoiced at finding such a big brilliant novel that comes pretty close to  fulfilling the reader’s desire of never wanting it to end. I read The Luminaries during my everyday reading life, however, and, although I enjoyed the trip, I slightly wish I could get a fortnight of that time back.

These things pray on one’s mind as one begins a new decade.

Perhaps you have read The Luminaries and think differently of it? I’d love to know your thoughts.

Birthday Books

November 12, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writings of EM Forster by Rose Macaulay

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

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

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

The Collected Essays of Virginia Woolf

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

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

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

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

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

The Enchanted April

April 15, 2013

The Enchanted April pbkIt would seem that English women in the 1930s were all in desperate need of a holiday. As Mrs Wilkins explains to Mrs Arbuthnot in The Enchanted April:

Why, it would really be being unselfish to go away and be happy for a little, because we could come back so much nicer.

Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot are miserable middle-class Hampstead wives, stuck in loveless marriages. Going into town to buy fish for their husbands’ dinners is more-or-less the highlight of their days.

We could add to Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot, E.M. Forster’s earlier middle-class women Lilia Heriton and Caroline Abbott from Where Angels Fear to Tread, and Margaret Kennedy’s Florence Creighton from The Constant Nymph. This dire need of a holiday was not, however, just a middle-class thing; it was also felt by wealthier ladies. In The Enchanted April there is young, beautiful Lady Caroline Dester, worn out from too many parties. Or in Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge there is Lady Grace Kilmichael, who is fed up with her husband and children and wants to travel around the Mediterranean and paint.

Nearly a century later, not much has changed. We all could do with a nice long holiday. If I were to happen along the following advertisement, as Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot do at the beginning of The Enchanted April, I too would long to go:

To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

For our 1930s fictional counterparts, this advertisement proves to be a rare catalyst for independent action. They quietly defy their husbands, recruit two more women to their cause (the aforementioned Lady Caroline Dester, and formidable elderly dowager Mrs Fisher, who doesn’t stop banging on about her friendships with all the great, dead Victorian intellectuals), and rent this castle, San Salvatore, for April. As the name ‘San Salvatore’ might suggest, this holiday will indeed be their ‘saviour’, their salvation, from the dreariness of London life.

The Enchanted April hbkThe Enchanted April could easily be a delightful, soppy story about women going on holiday and being transformed by joy. Mrs Wilkins, on her first morning in San Salvatore looks out of the window and feels utterly overcome with emotion:

Happy? Poor ordinary everyday word. But what could one say, how could one describe it? It was as though she could hardly stay inside herself, it was as though she were too small to hold so much of joy, it was as though she were washed through with light.

I have a weakness for this kind of sentimental gush, but for those of you who are a little tougher, fear not, for The Enchanted April is brilliantly balanced by Elizabeth Von Arnim’s wonderful sense of humour. She is forever poking fun at her characters, wryly observing their habits, putting them in awkward situations and watching them stew. Take this, for instance, perhaps my new favourite literary food quotation:

Mrs. Fisher had never cared for maccaroni [sic], especially not this long, worm-shaped variety. She found it difficult to eat, – slippery, wriggling off her fork, making her look, she felt, undignified when, having got it as she supposed into her mouth, ends of it yet hung out. Always too, when she ate it she was reminded of Mr. Fisher. He had during their married life behaved very much like maccaroni. He had slipped, he had wriggled, he had made her feel undignified, and when at last she had got him safe, as she thought, there had invariably been little bits of him that still, as it were, hung out.

Perhaps you need to have more of an idea of pompous old Mrs Fisher before really getting the hilarity of it. Think Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey, all dressed up in lace, sitting down to lunch, bang on time, by herself, in a gorgeous yet shambolic Italian castle, and being confronted with a rebellious plate of pasta.

Needless to say, when I told the husband that he might be compared rather unfavourably to macaroni, he was a little troubled.

There are other very funny moments too. Mr Wilkins (summoned to San Salvatore by his wife) can’t handle the Italian plumbing. On arrival, the first thing he tries to do – in true English fashion – is have a bath. But he manages to blows up the stove. Then:

Mr Wilkins leapt out of the bath and rushed to the door, and only the instinct born of years of training made him snatch up a towel as he rushed.

He manages to run straight into Lady Caroline, a.ka. ‘Scrap’, who he is keen to impress because she is so posh. Indeed he has spent hours on the train carefully choosing his words of greeting, and yet here he cries out, ‘That damned bath!’:

No, it was too terrible, what could be more terrible? Only a towel on, water running off his legs, and that exclamation … Rarely did Mr. Wilkins use that word, and never, never in the presence of a lady or a client. While as for the towel – why had he come? Why had he not stayed in Hampstead? It would be impossible to live this down.

But Mr. Wilkins was reckoning without Scrap. She, indeed, screwed up her face at the first flash of him on her astonished sight in an enormous effort not to laugh, and having choked the laughter down and got her face serious again, she said as composedly as if he had all his clothes on, ‘How do you do.’

Some might dismiss this as no more than farce, but surely Von Arnim uses this comic instance to capture the essence of her characters. Here is Mr Wilkins, whose deepest instinct is for modesty and decorum, so of course he is excruciated by his improper behaviour to a Lady. Scrap manages to fall back on her impeccable manners. Mr Wilkins, amazed at her magnanimity, reflects ‘blue blood, of course.’ It is a perfect distillation of two different English classes.

These English women who go on holiday – usually to Italy – seem to flourish in their new setting. They are exhilarated and liberated by it and so are able to act independently, free from the restrictions they felt in England.

Von Arnim’s descriptions of Italy centre on the garden at San Salvatore, in a way that reminds me a little of how Vita Sackville-West wrote about the house in All Passion Spent, with its heavenly peach tree ripening in the sunlit garden. Von Arnim suggests that her female characters are not so different from flowers – one of them is even called ‘Rose’ – but most unexpected is the transformation of old Mrs Fisher, with her:

curious sensation, which worried her, of rising sap … a ridiculous feeling as if she were presently going to burgeon.

The plant metaphor is extended: ‘she might crop out all green … come out all over buds.’ Mrs Fisher, like the other three women, blossoms in the Italian Spring. They are able to be at their most natural and beautiful. All the lovely descriptions about the flowers blooming in the gardens come to be a reflection of the blossoming women who happily laze around in them. I’ve not read Elizabeth Von Arnim’s other famous book, Elizabeth and her German Garden, but I imagine something similar happens there.

The novel ends with a gorgeous description of the flowering acacias. And then:

When, on the first of May, everybody went away, even after they had got to the bottom of the hill and passed through the iron gates out into the village they still could smell the acacias.

The implication is that, having blossomed abroad, these women can return to real life still touched by the holiday. That scent of the acacias will stay with them, as will the transformative power of the Italian Spring. Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot have been reunited with their husbands and will go back to London feeling rather a lot happier. It’s not so dissimilar to the end of Illyrian Spring.

These are happy endings, but suggest that holidays are somewhat flimsy. Yes, of course everyone feels better after a nice long rest, but nothing major really changes. After all, the characters return to their old lives. For how long will they be able to smell the acacias?

Where Angels Fear to TreadWhat about fictional portrayals of holidays which have a more profound effect on women? In E.M. Forster’s  Where Angels Fear to Tread, Lilia Herriton remains in Italy, which has tragic consequences. Her companion, Caroline Abbott, eventually returns to England but her heart is left behind in Italy, and one feels she probably won’t end up living happily ever after. Or, take Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph: Sensible, likeable Florence goes off to The Tyrol where she lands a musician husband and tries to tame several wild children. She brings them all back to England, but rather than slipping happily into her old English life she struggles with these wild appendages and, ultimately, fails.

The Constant NymphA holiday can do us a world of good, yes, but sometimes the disjuncture between how one can be on holiday and how one can be at home persists afterwards. What if you can’t translate this new-found blossoming into your old life? What if a whiff of freedom only serves to poison your constrained future? Tricky questions which Forster and Kennedy were brave enough to ask.

Perhaps Von Arnim, who wrote The Enchanted April after the break-up of her second marriage, was relying on the fact that at least in fiction she could conjure a blissfully happy ending. Perhaps it’s best that we aren’t left thinking too hard about what might happen next, once Mrs Wilkins is back in Hampstead and has nothing to do other than buy fish for her husband’s dinner. Instead we are encouraged to believe in the magic of San Salvatore, trusting that the scent of the acacias won’t fade.

It was certainly a novel that I relished for its enchantment. Reading it last week, as London’s Spring at last began to stir, I felt like I was on holiday just by reading the book. I hope that the revitalising effects will last. For now, at least, the husband might be getting macaroni, not fish, for dinner.

Elizabeth Von Arnim