Posts Tagged ‘E.M. Forster’

Someone at a Distance

October 15, 2012

‘Only connect’ said E.M. Forster, famously and quite magnificently, in Howards End. ‘If only we didn’t all connect’ seems to be the sentiment of Dorothy Whipple’s rather less famous Someone at a Distance.

In Howards End various characters recognise a common bond with others outside their immediate social circle. There is Helen Schlegel and Leonard Bast, for instance, and Margaret Schlegel and Ruth Wilcox, whose bond is symbolised in their mutual appreciation of the house of the title, Howards End.

Someone at a Distance is also about how we are all connected, how our actions radiate out and touch others, strangers, with their effect. Towards the end of the novel, Whipple writes the following:

He had never heard of the Norths, far away in England. He would have been amazed at the suggestion that he, at such a distance, could have had anything to do with the breaking-up of that family. He had no idea that it was, in great measure, because of him that the man he had seen on the pavement in front of the Hotel de l’Ecu that afternoon had lost everything he cared about.

Whereas Forster encourages connection, causing his readers to frown upon Henry Wilcox for refusing to help Leonard Bast, for Whipple this connection is full of menace.

Someone at a Distance focuses on the North family, who live a life of post-war domestic bliss. Avery commutes from their village to his London office at a small publishing house, while Ellen devotes every moment of her life to making a happy home, rushing around cooking, gardening, filling hot water bottles. They have two children – Hugh, who is in the army, and Anne who is at boarding school and loves her horse to pieces. Nearby, lives Avery’s mother, cantankerous ‘old Mrs North’.

At first, I wondered if this would be a kind of Mariana novel – about an improbably rosy domestic life, where everyone larks around laughing in the sunshine, calling each other ‘darling’. We are treated to rather a lot of scenes like this:

Anne North had spent the first day of the summer holidays lying blissfully in the garden under the cherry tree because it had been too hot to do anything else. But after supper it was cool enough to do as she always did on her first day at home, which was to go out on Roma, the mare, with her father wobbling along on the old bicycle, never used for any other purpose, beside her.

But it’s not long before a stranger disrupts the happy scene. Louise Lanier, a dangerous and determined young lady from a small town in France, moves in to be old Mrs North’s companion. Recovering from heartbreak, she is bored of her provincial life in France and can’t bring herself to accept her fate to marry the local chemist. She has come to England to put this off for a little while, and, one suspects, to wreak havoc.

Louise is a 1950s Emma Bovary, a comparison which Whipple makes explicit:

The only character in literature for whom she felt profound sympathy, with whom she felt affinity even, was Emma Bovary. No one, she often said to herself, understands better than I do why she did as she did. It was the excruciating boredom of provincial life.

The scene is set for Louise to make a play for Avery. But Whipple is a fine mistress of suspense. She draws it out, sending Louise back to France for a while, letting us breathe a sigh of relief, before making her return, while we gnaw our nails in dread. A strange, unnerving few months unfold where Louise doesn’t quite destroy the domestic bliss of the Norths, but rattles it, like a child testing a toy’s sturdiness before hurling it to the ground. How much will it take, how much can it stand, Whipple seems to be asking, how long before Avery will fall?

The moment when Ellen and Anne discover Avery and Louise’s affair is one of the most heart-stopping moments in literature. I read it holding my breath, so painful is it, so shocking, so perfectly does Whipple capture the horror. Anne and Ellen are walking down to buy sweets from the village shop, when Ellen remembers she has left letters for the post behind. They go back to get them.

They arrived together at the open french windows of the sitting-room.

On the sofa was Avery with Louise.

As Ellen and Anne stood staring at them, their smiles died slowly, so that all the blood had drained away from their faces while they were still almost smiling.

The embrace endured. It should have had no witness.

Suddenly aware, Avery looked up. No one moved. The little clock ticked. A petal fell from a rose in a vase. Her head hanging back, her mouth open, Louise opened her eyes.

What should last only a moment stretches on for an eternity. There is time for their smiles to die ‘slowly’, for the embrace to ‘endure’. Time beats on, ‘the little clock ticked’, and yet ‘no one moved’, they are motionless victims of this slow agonising death, until, in a hideous pose of ecstasy, Louise opens her eyes.

What has Ellen done to deserve this? Why has Louise decided to ruin the lives of the North family? ‘Only connect’ is the answer. Ellen suffers thanks to Louise’s heartbreak at the hands of a young Frenchman, who Ellen has never met. What a terrifying, alarming consequence of this connection. ‘Someone at a distance’ – a very great distance – can profoundly change your life, and not for the better.

Having this idea of a complex, far-reaching web of connection at the heart of the novel gives meaning to its rather rambling structure. I wondered for a while why Whipple chose to leap from an English village to a French one, from one big house to another, from Anne’s school to Avery’s office and from Louise’s parents’ kitchen to her ex-lover’s salon. Why is it there is such an enormous cast of characters, who are all made so lifelike? This web, these connections and their consequences make it all make sense. Whipple needs all these characters, all these places, to point out that they are all connected, everything links together, everyone is at risk from the rippling actions of another.

I decided to read Someone at a Distance having heard Nicola Beauman, of Persephone Books give a very inspiring talk. I came away with a list of authors I felt I absolutely had to read and top of that list was Dorothy Whipple. (Poor lady having such an extraordinary name, forcing the inescapable recollection of delicious Walnut Whip chocolates.)

The only thing I’d heard of Dorothy Whipple, before this talk, was that Virago – notoriously – refused to republish her. As Carmen Callil explained to the Guardian, a few years ago:

We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink. Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us. A considerable body of women novelists, who wrote like the very devil, bit the Virago dust when Alexandra, Lynn and I exchanged books and reports, on which I would scrawl a brief rejection: “Below the Whipple line.”

I have to say that Virago, on this rare occasion, were wrong. Whipple is a tremendous storyteller. Not only does she achieve the feat of keeping you utterly gripped by something so quiet and interior, but she uses language so skilfully. One of her tricks of which I grew particularly fond was her habit of using metaphors perfectly suited to each character. For instance, Ellen loves gardening, so she gets the following:

There was something fruitful about this scheme, thought Ellen later. It kept budding and branching all the time.

Whereas, for the two gossiping cleaning ladies:

They wrung every drop of interest out of the topic, as if it had been one of the floor-cloths they also shared at Netherfold. They wrung it out and left it. Later they would pick it up again, soak it in their mutual interest and pass it from one to the other as before.

It’s a clever touch.

Someone at a Distance is a brilliant novel. I wonder if Forster ever read it. I think he would have welcomed this rejoinder to his ‘only connect’, which shows its horribly dark and threatening flipside. He would certainly have appreciated Whipple’s rendering of the vulnerability of English domesticity. Really it a gem of a novel – thank you Persephone Books for rescuing it from obscurity.

The Constant Nymph

September 24, 2012

I’m back from a very fun holiday in New York during which I had planned to read Patti Smith’s quintessentially New York memoir Just Kids.

But for one reason or another I set off having just begun Margaret Kennedy’s 1920s classic The Constant Nymph and so read this rather eccentric, incongruous book while I was away, only beginning Patti Smith’s on the plane home. A rather out-of-sync reading experience, but an enjoyable one nonetheless. There will be more on New York and Patti Smith next week, but for now I shall write about The Constant Nymph.

I better begin by saying that I think it impossible to read a book with such a daft title without expecting it to be quite silly. But the wonderful and surprising thing about this novel is that it is not at all as silly as it sounds. It is also not nearly as girly as it sounds. In fact, the main character is not the nymph of the misleading title but a man – troubled young composer Lewis Dodd.

The Constant Nymph begins as Lewis Dodd arrives at ‘Sanger’s Circus’, a hut in the Austrian Tyrol where Sanger – another composer – goes every summer with his ‘circus’ of musician friends and children begot from several wives. It is a very Bohemian setup, with various skinny young teenagers running around doing things like looking at badger holes and performing operas and not having enough to eat. It is a wild place and a wild way of living, unfettered by social mores, where everyone is doused with creativity and wanders across mountains in the moonlight.

But then – and we know this from the very first line, so this isn’t a spoiler – Sanger dies, and his children are left penniless. English relations are written to in the hope that they might take responsibility for them, and so we meet cousin Florence, nearly twenty-eight, the daughter of a Cambridge don, who determines to go to the Tyrol and sort everything out.

While Florence is the perfect prim, proper, respectable young English lady, Margaret Kennedy has drawn her with sufficient independence of spirit to make her rather a sympathetic character:

Florence, having finished her breakfast, went about her household duties with the methodical but unenthusiastic efficiency of a woman who is too intelligent to neglect such things. Then she put on her hat and went out to practise string quartets with some friends. Unlike the rest of her circle, she had no profession, but she was a busy young creature. Since she left College there had been so many attractive things to do, books, music, exciting vacations abroad, eventful terms full of political meetings and Greek plays, charming friends and, above all, so much to discuss that she scarcely noticed the flight of time. But it had gone on quite long enough. Sometime, quite soon, she meant to put an end to it. She would settle down to some serious work, or, if she could find a man to her taste, she would marry. At present, her most favoured cavaliers were in their sixties, and for a husband she wanted someone younger than that.

Yes she sounds a little silly with her string quartets and Greek plays, but she is also evidently intelligent. Perhaps occupying herself with these ‘attractive things’ is an attempt to put off the constraints of society for as long as she can.

So Florence and an uncle set off to the Tyrol, where their encounter with the wild life of the Sanger children reminds me very much of E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread. Again, two prim English people journey to a foreign place of freedom, where they struggle to impose order on a wildness that they can’t understand. In both novels the men are utterly at sea, whereas the women are seduced by this exotic new way of life:

Florence woke every morning, rapturously, to the tune of cow bells … She was so much aware of the impermanence of her pleasure that she was no sooner awake than a longing would seize her to jump up and run out into the mild warmth of the early sun.

Like Caroline Abbott in Where Angels Fear to Tread, Florence has fallen under the spell of an exotic, un-English life. She also falls for Lewis Dodd. And Lewis Dodd falls for her.

So far so silly, I hear you think. Yes, here is a perfect love story and, indeed, it transpires that Lewis is even from the right class:

“I’d have married him,” she thought, “if his father had been the hangman; but this does make a difference…”

But the Sanger children are dismayed at the news of their engagement and Tessa – one of the children and the nymph of the title – suffers actual physical pain from it. For we know already that Tessa, although only fourteen, is utterly in love with Lewis.

The plot thickens when they go to England. Florence and Lewis are married and Florence sets up a home and determines to make Lewis a success. The Sanger children are sent off to boarding school. But whereas Florence, having found her man, is quite happy to slip back into English life, the others rail against its constraints.  Lewis receives this letter from the Sanger girls:

Dear Lewis,

Will you please come and take us away from here? It is a disgusting school and we have endured it for as long as we are able … We would never have come if we knew what it would be like. We shall kill ourselves if we are not soon taken away; we cannot exist here, it is insufferable. The Girls are hateful, they say we don’t wash and are liars. The governesses are a Queer Lot and not fitted to be teachers, I’m sure. They think of nothing but games …

Silly and childish as the letter it is, the girls are obviously desperately unhappy. And amidst the histrionics, Paulina has pinpointed the problem: they simply ‘cannot exist here’.

Lewis soon comes to realise he can’t exist there either. This wildness cannot be allowed to exist in England. And so the rest of the novel has an alarming, entropic feeling as Florence struggles to keep control while the wildness of ‘Sanger’s circus’ spins more and more recklessly out of it.

It must be because of this feeling of chaos, genius and creativity struggling to break out of the confines of English society that Anita Brookner, in her introduction to this Virago classic, calls Margaret Kennedy ‘not only a romantic but an anarchist’. This spirit of anarchy transforms the novel from a delightful little story into something troubling, disturbing and very powerful, and all the more so for erupting from its disguise of such a silly title.

Florence has got herself into an impossible situation. She has tried to bring genius to English society when neither genius nor society wants to accept each other. Yes, this is a fascinating depiction of the struggle of creative genius, but it is also a vital questioning of the value of society. Lewis, Tessa and the other members of ‘Sanger’s circus’ are wonderful, fun, talented, fascinating characters. What is our society worth if it can’t accommodate them? Why is there no place for genius in England? Why can it only flourish abroad?

I wonder if Margaret Kennedy felt something of this disjuncture within herself. She was creative and yet also took her place in society as the wife of a Q.C., living in Kensington. Perhaps, not unlike Florence, she spent a little while dallying with string quartets and talking about politics and Greek plays before settling down to marry, and perhaps writing was her way of endeavouring to continue with her independence of spirit. Or perhaps she felt rather ambivalent towards her boarding school, where they concentrated so resolutely on hockey, and fantasised about a free-spirited Sanger-like upbringing.

In any case, in The Constant Nymph, Margaret Kennedy certainly highlights the shortfalls and prescriptive narrowness of her society. Ninety years on and things have changed somewhat, but the essential idea of how we confront and deal with difference remains relevant and utterly compelling.

Toys

May 14, 2012

This week was a very exciting one – my first ‘By the Book’ column was in the Spectator. Those of you who have been reading EmilyBooks for a little while might have seen some of my pieces for the Spectator’s Book blog, but this was the first time I was in the actual mag, in the physical printed thing. For the inaugural ‘By the Book’, I thought that David Cameron and George Osborne – who were accused of being too posh to know the price of a pint of milk – should take a leaf out of Brideshead Revisited and be a little more like Sebastian Flyte. You can read it here. The best bit is my little bookish picture!

Amidst the tremendous excitement of seeing my name in print – repeatedly showing smiling friends, proud family members and even bewildered newsagents my column – this week I have been rather preoccupied with toys. In my column I wondered what David Cameron and George Osborne would call their teddy bears, if they were to follow the example of Sebastian, with his dearly-loved Aloysius. (Perhaps Ted Heath?) The thought crossed my mind again when wandering through the magical Pollock’s Toy Museum this weekend and seeing such lovely creatures as this:

According to his label, he has a military bearing and a squeaker in his body. There was even a little teddy bears’ picnic assembled in another cabinet. (I suspect that David Cameron’s bear wouldn’t be allowed any milk with his tea.) But my trip to Pollock’s Toy Museum wasn’t just to hunt out possible parliamentary teddies, it was to seek inspiration for my novel.

Some of you might remember that I’m writing a novel about a derelict house. Yes, I’m still writing it. But it is going well – I’m edging towards 60,000 words of the first draft, which means I’m substantially nearer the end than the beginning. The novel is about a young woman called Anna, who moves into a canal boat with a strange older man called Roger (first Jolly Roger, then Dodgy Roger), makes friends with a barmaid called Eliza and then the two girls explore a nearby derelict house. So far so Swallows and Amazons I hear you think… but here’s the twist. We learn about who’s lived in the house over the past hundred and fifty years, through remaining traces such as layers of wallpaper, the coal hole, a mysterious piece of wood with Hebrew writing on it, even the very bricks in the walls. And all these historical chapters are based on fact.

Which means that sometimes I have to do rather a lot of research, and some other times I get to go on jaunts to rather idiosyncratic museums. Anna and Eliza are going to find a little broken bit of a boy’s toy from the 1930s. Luckily Pollock’s Toy Museum had several contenders. I thought perhaps a wheel from this rather smart car:

Or else there were masses of train sets to choose from. I suppose they could find a train wheel, but I am particularly fond of these little mini advertisements, which were used to decorate train sets:

And I loved this destination board too:

Tough choice. Perhaps the train paraphernalia is a little more original, but then it would be so easy for a wheel to come off a car, and spin off into the corner, where it could lie covered in dust for a very long time indeed. Although, I suppose those little advertisements or place names are very slim pieces of tin. Slim enough to slip between the cracks in the floorboards, for instance. Hummm… I shall have to get my imagination whirring into action.

Pollock’s Toy Museum is utterly enchanting. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Every inch is packed with so many things. The Victorian science experiments sets were far more exciting than the ones we get today – they included little jars of mercury and the like. There are early building blocks from brands like Meccano, old Penny Dreadfuls, beautiful dolls houses filled with mini-everything, and – best of all – E.M. Forster’s toy soldiers, donated to the museum by King’s College Cambridge. Quite why Forster had his childhood toys with him up at Cambridge is psychologically intriguing to say the least.

My very favourite toys, when I was little, were my cuddly animals. I had a selection, ranging from Charlie the caterpillar (who had different coloured socks on each foot), to Jeremy Fisher and, most favourite, were Chip and Dale the chipmunks, with their respective black and red noses.

When I was about five years old, I had a rather traumatic revelation about my cuddly toys. We went on a holiday to Disneyworld, where my parents bought me an Eeyore soft toy. I really loved that Eeyore. I was going through an acute Winnie the Pooh phase, and felt particularly affectionate towards the poor melancholy donkey. He was instantly drafted into the upper echelons of my soft toy society, and Chip and Dale were made to move up to make room for him at bedtime. So far so good. Until we left Disneyworld and went on to some other bit of Florida. Once we got to the new hotel, we made a terrible discovery. Eeyore had been forgotten. I’d like to say that I handled it with sophisticated and mature aplomb, but, of course, I was a nightmare. The previous hotel was telephoned. Had housekeeping found it in the room? Could they perhaps find out and then post it to us? But all this to no avail. Eeyore had completely disappeared.

I think perhaps I might have got over this loss. I did, after all, still have Chip and Dale, who were very trusty companions. And perhaps, I reasoned, Eeyore had just wandered off to find another home. Perhaps he didn’t like all the company – he definitely keeps himself to himself in the books. But then the thunderbolt came:

‘Oh well, we’ll just buy another one,’ said Mum.

I didn’t understand. There wasn’t another one. Eeyore had gone away. That was Eeyore, there couldn’t possibly be another Eeyore.

‘Don’t be daft,’ I was told. ‘There are plenty more Eeyores. We’ll just go to a shop and buy another one. It will be exactly the same.’

It was a horrid moment. Because if there were millions of Eeyores, all exactly the same, then there were also millions of Chips, Dales and Charlies too. These were my friends – and suddenly they were made to seem just mass-produced things, not real at all.

Looking back on it now, it reminds me of Margery Williams’ classic children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit, which is about a boy’s toy rabbit who is desperate to become real. It’s a very sweet story, and there is a very sad bit in it too. There’s also that famous quotation, often pulled out for weddings and the like, about becoming real. I won’t quote too much here as it’s too naf, but the gist is, you become real when you’re really loved. It can hurt, and it takes a long time:

That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept … Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand… once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.

Bit schmaltzy, but I think it can just about be forgiven in a children’s book.

The point is that toys are only toys to adults – to children, more often than not, they’re real. And wandering round Pollock’s Toy Museum, bearing this in mind, is completely astonishing. It is filled with all these things that so many children have loved so much. One can peer around inside other people’s imaginations, glimpsing all those funny scenarios and whole worlds that have sprung up around these little props.

I suppose really that’s what writing the novel is all about – recreating some of these lost worlds from a few little clues. At least for one of these 1930s toys, one little lost world might be resuscitated.

 

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.

Holiday reading

June 21, 2011

The weekend’s Guardian review featured an illuminating article on various author’s favourite holiday reads. I was struck by how few of these memorable experiences offered any relationship between book and place. Yes, Jonathan Raban relished reading Death in Venice several times over when in Venice and John Banville loved reading The Portrait of a Lady in Florence (even though the coincidence of the book’s setting and his holiday location was purely accidental), but they are pretty much the only ones of the bunch.

Andrew Motion, who read The Odyssey on Ithaca, describes how pleasing a book-place connection can be:

Whenever I looked up from the page, I saw the ruins of Odysseus’s palace (so called), the beach where he eventually made landfall, the empty cave where his cult once thrived, the bare rocky hills described in the poem – and also saw myth and reality tumbling through one another.

Reading a book in its natural setting can be a truly magical experience.

I first came upon this realisation by going about it the wrong way round. In my GAP year, I spent a few months in Nepal, nominally teaching in a village primary school, but, as the school kept declaring impromptu holidays and the working day in any case was over by 5ish, when I returned to my room in a Nepali family home, I had rather a lot of time on my hands.

Luckily I’d had the foresight to ask for the Oxford English reading list before heading off, so the long evenings were easily filled by working my way through the Victorian canon. There were a few weeks of Eliot – Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda; then of Dickens – Bleak House, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers; the Brontes were over in a flash, but Vanity Fair took a little while. All this was punctuated by the odd bit of Browning and Tennyson. I remember feeling absurdly reckless when I put down the Victorians for a week to read Satre on a friend’s recommendation.

Reading all these English classics so relentlessly in a dim, grubby room in Nepal, enclosed in a sleeping bag and having to swap book-holding hands periodically due to the cold biting at my fingers, was deeply strange. There I was, supposedly finding myself, somewhere unlike anywhere I’d ever been before, and I was accompanied by the faintly nauseating voice of Bleak House’s Esther or earnest Jane Eyre – the latter, comfortingly familiar from when I’d read it a few years previously. I spent the weekends wandering around breathtaking stupas and temples, like Boudhanath and Swayambhunath (Kathmandu’s ‘Monkey Temple’), yet my reading material was based in nineteenth-century London or the English countryside. I remember being on a bus heading down to Pokhara for a trek to Annapurna base camp, trying to concentrate on Bleak House in spite of the bumpy roads, when an American lady asked me why on earth I was reading it.

‘Oh I know it looks off-putting,’ I said, ‘but actually it’s pretty good.’

‘I know it’s good. It happens to be one of my favourite novels,’ she said, ‘but why are you taking it with you on a trek?’

‘Got to get through my university reading list,’ I explained, a bit puzzled as to why she found it so odd.

‘But it’s so thick and heavy!’

‘Well I need something to keep me going for a couple of weeks.’

‘And it’s so English. Don’t you think you should be reading something about Nepal instead?’

Until that point, it really hadn’t occurred to me that it made sense to read a book – other than the omnipresent, omniscient Lonely Planet – about Nepal. Luckily it wasn’t long before I spent a couple of weeks in a Buddhist monastery, from which I emerged wanting only to read books written by the Dalai Lama and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Oh, and (shamefully) The Alchemist came a few week’s later. I don’t mean Ben Johnson’s.

There was undoubtedly something truly special about the way in which those Victorian classics transported me back to England, about how they absorbed my imagination so fully that I really could have been reading them anywhere – that I was in a smelly sleeping bag in a Nepali village couldn’t have mattered less. But I can’t help but feel that reading some books from the subcontinent would have been even more special.

Ironically, when I finally went up to Oxford, a few months later, struck low by a bug in third week and panicking at all the reading still to do, I decided to read Kipling, thinking that The Just So Stories might be comforting for the sickbed. I zipped through them and The Jungle Books, and was on to Kim by the second day. There I was, lying in my duveted single bed in one of the most English places in England, eating toast and drinking tea, reading all about a young boy scampering through Lahore. Although I’ve never been to Pakistan (although back then, of course, it was India), it took me straight back to my time in Nepal. There followed my best essay of the term.

A couple of years later I returned, not to Nepal this time, but to India. As soon as I landed in Delhi, I bought a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, much to the Indian bookseller’s delight. Ok, I wasn’t in Bombay, but I was at least in India, and this was the perfect chutnied, chaotic, polyphonic accompaniment.

Since then, I’ve tried to match, more-or-less, book to place. Last year’s holiday to Italy, for instance, was perfectly matched with Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Forster’s Where Angel’s Fear to Tread. I’ve written elsewhere about Forster’s powerful use of landscape and setting, and it was remarkable to be reading about Gino’s sultry and indolent loggia and then to look up and see one.

The previous year’s trip around Japan was accompanied by Mishima, Soseki, Kawabata and, of course, Murukami. How incredible to be in Kyoto while reading The Temple of the Golden Pavilion! How glorious to be in Tokyo and to read Kokoro, set in the same city, a hundred years ago!

Perhaps it’s for the same reason that, when I’m not on holiday, but getting on with life in London, I particularly enjoy books in which London has a strong presence – from Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine, which I polished off in about three days straight last week, to Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington, and from Iain Sinclair’s Hackney to Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside.

Reading these books when in the right place, makes me feel even more there, even more part of London, or Tokyo or Tuscany. It acts as another layer of absorption – not only is everything one actually sees belonging to that place, but everything one sees in one’s mind eye belongs there too.

Next week, when I’ll be on holiday in the Outer Hebrides – so you might have to wait a couple of weeks for the next post, I’m afraid – I’ll take Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, which takes place on the remote West Coast of Scotland and is heralded as one of the greatest pieces of nature writing of all time. I might also take some Robert Burns, possibly a copy of Macbeth, perhaps something by Sir Walter Scott. And I shall definitely take the rather majestic Lore of Scotland, a comprehensive guide to Scottish myths and legends, which pinpoints each one to a place. I will keep an eye out for selkies. I suspect they might be easier to spot after a few whiskies.

I’m ever so excited.

A Literary A-Z

May 3, 2011

Time for episode two in the series – D,E, and F.

D


‘Dahl for D’, someone commented on the first installation of this literary A-Z. But what about Dickens, eh? Or Dalrymple? Or Dostoevsky? Or, for that matter, Donne? D seems to have particularly rich pickings.

Dahl is indeed a strong contender – for his adult short stories, fantastically weird and chilling, as well as his better-known children’s work. But, one doesn’t have to look hard to discover that he was not a very nice man. As Kathryn Hughes in the Guardian put it:

No matter how you spin it … Roald Dahl was an absolute sod. Crashing through life like a big, bad child he managed to alienate pretty much everyone he ever met with his grandiosity, dishonesty and spite.

In light of the stiff competition, perhaps this nastiness is reason enough to put Dahl to one side.

William Dalrymple is in the shortlist because his book From the Holy Mountain was the first piece of travel writing I read. A friend at school gave me a copy and I was absolutely blown away by it. It also meant that I spent most of my GAP year writing a journal in a rather overblown literary style. I think that luckily it’s now got lost somewhere.

Dostoevsky, yes he’s good, but, personally, I never get on as well with the Russians as I’d like. The writers that is, not the people. Some of my best friends are Russian.

So D, when scrutinised a little more rigorously, comes down to Dickens versus Donne. It’s a strange clash – the master of the neverending sentence versus the master of concise imagery.

Dickens is undoubtedly one of the great British novelists. His sentences may be long, but you want to get to the end of them because of his brilliant plots. Bleak House, I remember a friend telling me, five minutes before one of our first year exams at Oxford, was the first ever detective story. His stories endure, now adapted for television, film, stage, musical …

But, Donne. Well, ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’ was Johnson’s famous critique of his metaphysical images. And it is by pulling out the gaps between different ideas, ‘yoking’ them so violently together that he achieves such surprising, unique, concise, and effective images. The lovers are ‘stiff twin compasses’, so that when one ‘far doth roam’ the other ‘leans, and hearkens after it,/And grows erect, as that comes home.’ (I can still remember sniggering about this at school.)

And if I’m honest, and I’m a bit ashamed of this soppiness, I’ve got to choose Donne, because, to my mind, he writes about love better than anyone else. ‘My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,’ from ‘The Good Morrow’ is beautiful and perfect. It can’t be beaten.

 E


I’ll cut to the chase here. Eliot versus Eliot. Another case of novelist versus poet. George versus T.S.

George Eliot is magnificent. Middlemarch is widely accepted as one of the greatest novels of all time. Virginia Woolf said it was ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’. I have always preferred Daniel Deronda, for reasons which I go into in this earlier post. Her novels are full of terribly astute observations, such as this one from Middlemarch:

Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot?

Clever lady. And great plots too.

T.S. Eliot. Well he’s also clever. At times, admittedly, he’s more than a little obtuse. I remember spending hours puzzling over his Four Quartets at university. I decided that to try to get to the bottom of it, I’d draw pictures of what I thought he was saying. I ended up drawing endless circles, and decided that that was the whole point. It didn’t go down particularly well in my tutorial. There are some marvellous images in his poems, some, which Johnson might have thought were also yoked by violence together. But I feel particularly fond of T.S. for his playful children’s poems. Whenever I get in a muddle about something like:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.

Then I console myself with something from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, be it Macavity, Mr Mistoffelees, or even Growltiger:

His manners and appearance did not calculate to please;

His coat was torn and seedy, he was baggy at the knees;

One ear was somewhat missing, no need to tell you why,

And he scowled upon a hostile world from one forbidding eye.

But enough deliberating … I’m going for George Eliot. Just because I think it would be wrong not to.

F

F is obviously Forster. But I shall swiftly mention some other excellent Fs too: Fitzgerald, Flaubert, Fanon, Faulkner. Now back to Forster.

Forster is possibly my favourite writer. Full stop. I think he is a genius. His novels are a perfect mixture of neat, satisfying plot and meaty ideas. He is very good at writing about the English. Especially the English abroad. How do the English respond to a different country, to a different landscape? (I wrote about his use of landscape here.) And how do English good intentions make everyone else suffer?

I suggested to someone in the bookshop that he might enjoy Forster, to which he replied that he thought Forster was something one read only at school. It’s a terrible shame that Forster’s work has accrued the dust and must of a classics, the forbidding black jackets, the scary expectation of something impossibly high-brow. Really his novels aren’t difficult at all. And to prove my point, I shall end this post with is ingeniously mock-casual opening to Howards End, which I defy anyone to find intimidating:

One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.

If you haven’t read any Forster, well one may as well begin with Howards End.

The perils of sending a message

March 14, 2011

We live in an age in which everyone is sending messages to everyone else all the time. Telephone calls and text messages; Facebook and Twitter; emails and instant messages … there have never been so many different ways to communicate.

Before all this technology, the only alternative to saying something face-to-face was to write a letter. Penn a note, seal it up and then dispatch it with a messenger … maybe it only sounds really fun because it’s so old-fashioned. But, whethere it’s fun or not, it has definitely served as an excellent literary device.

Letters can hold absolutely vital information so, in novels, a great deal rests on keeping them out of the wrong hands and delivering them safely. Letter-related plots tend to go along the lines of: X writes a terribly important letter to Y, but Y doesn’t get it in time. Or Z sees Y reading it and that ruins everything. Or Z reads it instead of Y …

‘One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.’

It’s such a marvellous opening to Howards End. And there are several letters in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge – the one which reveals to Henchard the secret of Elizabeth-Jane’s birth, and the incriminating stash of love letters between him and Lucetta. Of course, Bleak House sees Dickens using a stash of love letters too. Even Ian McEwan uses a, now infamous, letter at the start of Atonement.

Too many novels make use of letters for me to list them all here. But let’s not forget plays and, let’s certainly not forget Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet must make the most tragic use of this plot device. When Friar Laurence tells Juliet of his plan, for her to take a ‘distilling liquor’ that will make her assume a ‘borrowed likeness of shrunk death’, vital to its success is that ‘Shall Romeo by my letters know our drift’.

And Romeo expects these letters, asking his man Balthasar, ‘Hast thou no letters to me from the friar?’ But the messenger fails to deliver the letter to Romeo and Friar Lawrence laments:

‘The letter was not nice, but full of charge,

Of dear import, and the neglecting it

May do much danger.’

And we all know how it ends up. All because the message didn’t get to Romeo.

Nowadays, there are still plenty of opportunities for a message intended for someone to be read by someone else. How many of us have accidentally sent a text about someone to that person instead of to the friend to whom they meant to send it?!

But at least messages don’t go astray as they used. There’s no messenger running around delivering very important sealed letters and so there’s no opportunity for the messenger to get waylaid. Instead, someone makes a phonecall, or sends an email, or a text message. The message is instantly delivered. Yes, ok, there’s a very slim chance that the message might get lost somehow. The email could go into the Junk Mail folder, or the phone number’s wrong. But I don’t think it would really be believed in a novel.

But now we have so many different ways of communicating with each other, how do we pick which one to use? Why a facebook message rather than an email? Why a text message over an instant message?

If, for instance, you’ve had dinner at a friend’s house, how do you thank them the next day? Does a text message seem a bit flippant? Is a postcard a bit OTT? A phonecall would definitely be weird. Would an email be too formal? And, of course, what seems like the right choice for you, might well not seem right to them.

And, now we’re so used to instantaneous communication, when should the thank you be sent? A text the next morning? What if you forget until teatime? And if you send a postcard, that means there’s going to be a whole day’s wait – will the host spend that day thinking that you’re rude? Once, on the way home from a dinner, the host sent me a thank you text. Had I already left it too long?

Dating brings a whole new dimension to this quandary. In Jane Austen novels, Mr Darcy (or the equivalent) always turns up at the young lady’s house. Or he might send a letter confessing his love. When I was younger, if a boy liked you, he’d get your number and then phone you up to ask you out. This was pre-mobile phones, so the chances were, he’d speak to one of your parents, or big brothers, first. It must have been terrifying. Now, it comes down to no more than a text message. ‘Do U Want2C a film on Fri night? x’ (Although I think anyone who asked me out in text-speak got an automatic rejection.)

It seems that the age of the phone call has been superseded by the age of the text message and email. It’s odd, really, that we’ve moved away from this form of spoken communication back to written.

I wonder why we prefer expressing ourselves in writing. As anyone who’s ever sent a text message to someone they fancy knows, a hell of a lot of time can go into its composition … and into analysing any message from a potential date. Should I write ‘Hi’ or ‘Hey’ or ‘Hello’, or none of them? Should I ask a question so they have to reply? What does he mean by two kisses at the end?

I’m slightly ashamed to admit to having spent an entire evening helping a friend compose a text message, only to then spend the whole following day waiting with her for a response.

And that’s another thing key to written communication instead of spoken. One has to wait for a response. The ‘conversation’ can be drawn out over a whole week. Especially when one takes into account the rules of playing hard to get, not replying within a day, teasing everything out in a noncommittal way. It would be so much easier to phone someone up and get it all sorted out then in a five minute call. So much easier, but so much less ambiguous … and so much less fun too.

Unless, that is, the feeling isn’t mutual. How long can one wait for a response to a text message or an email before accepting the rejection? Most of us tend to invent excuses rather than take it as a no. I don’t think it sent properly. I think he said he was on holiday this week. Maybe his phone got stolen. It must have gone into his junk mail.

Perhaps it is our literary heritage of written communication that comes into play here. We are very used to reading novels and plays about letters going astray, messages being intercepted, something preventing the sound completion of an act of communication. Rather than accepting the fact that we’ve been ignored or rejected, it’s much kinder to pretend that our message has gone astray. Even if the chances of that actually happening – when it’s a text message rather than a letter – are slim to none.

But, because we now send each other messages all the time, via so many different media, we are all much worse at responding to them. If someone gets one message a day, chances are, they’ll reply. If they get a hundred, chances are, they won’t. Yes your message was delivered, yes it was probably read, and yes it was ignored, or overlooked, because it wasn’t quite important enough.

Of course, if this is in the context of dating, then forget it – they’re not interested. But perhaps we need to be a bit more lenient to friends, colleagues and others who don’t reply when they ought. I’m sure we’re guilty of the same thing ourselves.

Or, failing that, maybe the answer is to go back to writing letters. At least for the important things in life. That way, if one doesn’t get a response, one can tell oneself that it really could have got lost in the post.

Howards End and Harry Potter

February 7, 2011

I’ve just finished Howards End. What a stonkingly good novel! Reading it, reminded me quite why I love reading classics so much. They’re terribly good. Much of the chaff has been weeded out over the years, so that what remains, pleasingly coated in a Penguin black jacket, is pure gold.

But a strange little gold bell was ringing in my head the whole time I was reading Howards End. Something was not quite right. Something was uncannily familiar and it was only once I’d finished it, yesterday afternoon, that I realised what it was. The name Wilcox bears an uncanny resemblance to Horcrux. As in Harry Potter. Horcruxes and versus Hallows is the theme of the final Harry Potter book.

For those who have somehow managed to avoid the Harry Potter phenomenon, here is a brief gloss for this wizardspeak. A Horcrux is a means of trapping a piece of one’s soul in an object. First you need to murder someone (by means of the Avada Kedavra killing curse) – because this supreme act of evil splits the murderer’s soul. Then a bit of the soul can be fixed into an object – living or inanimate – which becomes a Horcrux. This means that if the baddie is in turn murdered, the bit of him that’s trapped inside the Horcrux will still survive. So he won’t really be dead. He’ll be immortal. This, funnily enough, counts as part of the Dark Arts and it’s Voldemort who makes use of it.

But Harry, rather painfully slowly, discovers that there is another means to immortality. The Hallows, which are three sacred objects: the Resurrection Stone, a stone which has the power to summon the dead to the living world; the Elder Wand, a wand which can’t be beaten; and an Invisibility Cloak. The bearer of all three of these Hallows is fabled to be the Master of Death, immortal.

Hallows and Horcruxes, Horcruxes and Hallows. Schlegels and Wilcoxes, Wilcoxes and Schlegels. There’s more to it than an odd, rather poetic shared rhythm and assonance.

Towards the end of Howards End, Margaret Schlegel thinks about immortality in relation to herself and Henry Wilcox:

Margaret believed in immortality for herself. An eternal future had always seemed natural to her. And Henry believed in it for himself. Yet would they meet again?

Forster ventures two types of immortality here – that of the Schlegels and that of the Wilcoxes.

Throughout Howards End, the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes are contrasted with each other. The Schlegels are originally from Germany and are endlessly discussing philosophy, poetry and music, hosting luncheon parties over which ‘Thought and Art’ are passionately discussed. In sharp contrast, the Wilcoxes are English and practical, believing that:

Equality was nonsense, Votes for Women nonsense, Socialism nonsense, Art and literature, except when conducive to strengthening the character, nonsense.

All the ‘Schlegel fetishes’ are held by the Wilcoxes in utter disdain.

The Schlegels are aware of this difference, indeed Margaret Schlegel says to Helen, near the very beginning of the book:

‘The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched – a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There love means marriage settlements; death, death duties. So far I’m clear. But here’s my difficulty. This outer life, though obviously horrid, often seems the real one – there’s grit in it. It does breed character. Do personal relations lead to sloppiness in the end?’

So the Schlegels versus the Wilcoxes is an opposition that stands for the inner life versus the outer, the passion versus the practical. While the immortality envisaged by a Schelegel would be spiritual – a nebulous memory or feeling, a sense of someone’s continued life after death; that envisaged by a Wilcox would be practical – inheritance, money, ‘death duties’.

What Margaret Schlegel yearns to do is to connect the inner life with the outer. Forster’s very famous, oft-quoted and very brilliant line, comes into play here:

Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest.

And so, much of the book is given over to Margaret’s struggle to truly connect the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes.

Now to return to Harry Potter. Voldemort tries to connect the Hallows and Horcruxes in that, alongside his Horcruxes, he obsessively seeks the Elder Wand. (Albeit he isn’t aware of its significance as a Hallow.) And Harry slowly grows aware that destroying all the Horcruxes won’t be enough. To defeat Voldemort, he must destroy the Horcruxes and unite the Hallows. The Battle of Hogwarts is rather a climactic connection of Hallows and Horcruxes as Harry faces Voldemort in a final showdown.

Forster manages to resolve the Schlegel/Wilcox opposition in Howards End, the titular house, itself. For what could be a more practical attitude to death than Henry Wilcox’s summoning his children and wife into the room to tell them, quite formally, that Howards’ End is to be left to Margaret after his death. He is dealing with inheritance, practical issues.

But Howards End has something of the ‘inner life’ in it. There is a spirit to the place to do with ancestors and local folklore – the wych elm in which pigs teeth are stuck, so that the bark is said to cure toothache. All the Schlegels’ furniture and carpets fit uncannily well. As Margaret says, ‘There are moments when I feel Howards End peculiarly our own.’ The Schlegels have a strange affinity with this place of the Wilcoxes.

So Howards End as a piece of inheritance, of immortality, is at once supremely practical and spiritual. The outer life and the inner. The prose and the passion. Wilcoxes and Schlegels. Horcruxes and Hallows.

Some literary umbrellas

January 31, 2011

‘Awwwww…. Mum….. one’s got stuck under the sofa,’ said my adorable nephew at the weekend, after a round of pelting me with foam balls, issued from some kind of plastic AK47.

Sure enough, one of the yellow foam missiles had rolled off me and under the sofa, where it remained obstinately out of a seven-year-old’s reach. Indeed it was out of a twenty-seven-year-old’s reach too.

As the seven-year-old’s patience was stretched to breaking point, the urge to unleash another volley of foam balls from the plastic gun growing unbearably strong, the mother and I knew we had about thirty seconds to retrieve the missing ball.

‘Now what can we use?’ the Mother wondered, eyes casting around the room.

I saw a tall black umbrella leaning in the hall. Luckily, it proved to be the perfect instrument for retrieving the ball.

‘I’m reading Howard’s End,’ I remarked, thoughtfully, returning the umbrella to its place in the hall.

I returned to the sofa, where amidst a shower of foam balls, my niece climbed up next to me to show me her collection of Narnia books. She informed me that she was reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. She had, apparently, just met Mr Tumnus.

Another character with an umbrella, I thought.

It is peculiar, really, how this ribbed, dome-like accessory has proved so vital in works of literature. (See John Mullan’s Top 10 literary brolleys for the Guardian.)

An umbrella is an instrument of shelter – of umbrage. It stems from the Latin ‘umbella’, meaning ‘sunshade, parasol’ and also the diminutive of ‘umbra’, meaning ‘shade, shadow’. A literary word indeed, it first appeared in English in one of Donne’s letters of 1609:

We have an earthly cave, our bodies, to go into by consideration, and cool our selves: and … we have within us a torch, a soul, lighter and warmer then any without: we are therefore our own umbrella’s and our own suns.

Typical. He could never settle for a humdrum comment about the weather, when there are metaphysical comparisons to be made.

In Howard’s End, it is Leonard Bast’s umbrella that leads to his fateful involvement with the Schlegels. His retrieval of his umbrella from the Schlegels is, to my mind, one of the most brilliant scenes in literature. Helen Schlegel is blustering around the hall, ‘ramshackly … all her hair flying’:

‘I do nothing but steal umbrellas. I am so very sorry! Do come in and choose one. Is yours a hooky or a nobbly? Mine’s a nobbly – at least I think it is.’

They search the hall, while Helen continues to chatter.

 

‘What about this umbrella?’ She opened it. ‘No, it’s all gone along the seams. It’s an appalling umbrella. It must be mine.’

But it was not.

He took it from her, murmured a few words of thanks, and then fled, with the lilting step of the clerk.

Helen’s chatter is non-stop. Forster uses it to portray her as confident, childish and careless and it is perfectly contrasted with Leonard’s reticence. He doesn’t get a single word of direct speech here; instead Forster reports Leonard’s ‘murmured’, ‘few’, words of thanks.

If words (or lack of) weren’t enough, Forster uses actions to betray Leonard’s humble background – ‘the lilting step of the clerk’ – just as Helen, who ‘flung herself into the big dining-room chair’, is cushioned by her wealth.

The two ends of the middle-classes couldn’t be more sharply contrasted.

Mr Tumnus’s umbrella was part of C.S. Lewis’s inspiration for all the Narnia books:

At first they were not a story, just pictures. They all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: ‘Let’s try to make a story about it.’

True to English form, both Mr Tumnus’s umbrella and Leonard Bast’s are tied to invitations to tea. Mr Tumnus asks Lucy to his for tea, sheltering her from the snow en route with his umbrella. And Margaret Schlegel has decided that once Leonard has got his umbrella she will ask him to stay to tea. But, of course, he runs off, embarrassed and insulted by the gulf between himself and the Schlegels, before she has a chance to proffer the invitation.

What with Mr Tumnus then drugging Lucy, planning to give her over to the White Witch, and Leonard’s subsequent undoing due to the Schlegel’s interference, the umbrella as a symbol of shelter seems like rather a treacherous one.

Paradoxically, it is only when the umbrella is turned on its head that it truly offers shelter.

In the charming and genuinely touching Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers, a young boy finds a penguin at his door. He deduces that the penguin must be lost, and, one thing leading to another, rows the penguin, who carries an umbrella, all the way to the South Pole.

The boy said goodbye and floated away. But as he looked back the penguin looked sadder than ever.

The penguin, ingeniously, turns his umbrella upside-down and uses it as a boat, paddling after the boy. When they find each other, after a hug, the umbrella is the perfect mode of transport, protecting them from the sea, as they go back home together.

Perhaps there is a moral here. Even if you can’t always trust an umbrella, you can always trust a penguin.

Lyra, I’d like to introduce you to Harry Potter, a wizard …

June 28, 2010

The thing that was so particularly exciting about our engagement party on Saturday, was all our friends being in one place at the same time. We’re going to get married – our lives are coming together – and part of that is our friends coming together too.

The bar was a blizzard of loved ones’ faces, from all different parts of our lives. It was such fun to introduce best friends from primary school to the fiancé’s friends from university, bringing people together who would otherwise probably never meet each other, but I felt sure would get on. It was like picking out different flavoured Jelly Beans and choosing which ones to eat at the same time – which combinations would taste good, even if the results might be somewhat unexpected.

I wonder what would happen if it could be done with books as well? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take the different characters and introduce them to each other?

What would Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (always the first character to pop into my head), make of Forster’s Mrs Moore (in A Passage to India). I feel they’d get on. Although Mrs Moore would probably be slightly patronising about Mrs Dalloway’s obsession with her cocktail party.

And what if Pullman’s Lyra could meet Dickens’ Pip? I bet she’d make him get over Estella and go on some more adventures. If only they could meet soon after he steals the food for the convict, and Lyra could keep leading him down that route of mischief and fun and helping people in need, preventing him from being a society bore desperate to impress a spoilt little brat. Or Pip might fall in love with Lyra instead of Estella. They’d be a much better match.

And Lyra would also be a good influence on Harry Potter. She’d tell him to stop being such a self-absorbed angsty teenager and get on with saving the world. I’m sure Hermione would be quite protective about Lyra entering their group – she wouldn’t like another intelligent girl being around one little bit. But perhaps the competition would force her to make a play for Ron earlier on and we’d be spared several hundred pages of build up. And how would Mildred Hubble get on with them all?

Moving away from children (although I do think that this lot would be much more fun at a party than grown-ups), what if Strickland from Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence met Roark from Rand’s The Fountainhead? A determined young man who leaves his wife, children and whole life to try to become an artist, even though nobody likes his paintings, and another determined young man whose belief in his own modernist form of architecture is unshakeable – even when the tide of opinion is strongly against him. Would they give each other encouragement and strength?

Sadly I think they’re both too caught up in themselves to really care what some stranger at a party might say. Roark might be cross that someone else was trying to be a tortured impoverished artistic soul – and being one in Paris definitely beats being one in New York. But you never know, they might share a whisky and feel some kind of solidarity.

But I’m sure Ayn Rand would be seething! She’d see Strickland as a communist good-for-nothing and wouldn’t want Roark coming anywhere near such a boho.

But then Ayn Rand would have nothing to do with it. I suppose having a party and introducing all these different characters to each other would be the ultimate act to prove the power of the reader over the author. And, because everything would be fiction, absolutely anything at all could happen …