Posts Tagged ‘Emma Smith’

Ammonites and Leaping Fish

October 14, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the joy of old age:

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

On the randomness of memory:

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

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

On the wonderful commonality of books:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh tell us that story, please!

Later:

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

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

Ammonites and Leaping Fish ... and tortoises and rosemary

As Green as Grass

October 7, 2013

As Green As GrassI’ve been on something of an Emma Smith binge this week, in part because tomorrow I am going to meet her for tea. Tea with Emma Smith! It is too thrilling! I wonder, will there be ‘strawberry jam sandwiches and sultana scones’, as she wrote in her first volume of memoir, The Great Western Beach, or are these only for beach picnics?

I wrote here about Emma Smith’s superb novel The Far Cry – long-lost, then wonderfully recovered thanks to Susan Hill and Persephone Books. I hadn’t realised that Bloomsbury were just about to publish her second volume of memoir, As Green As Grass. What perfect timing. Having recently emerged from the colourful world of 1940s India captured within Persephone’s signature grey covers, I could swiftly immerse myself in more of Smith’s lush prose, but this time of the England of her youth – as she puts it, ‘before, during and after the Second World War’.

The Far CryIt is a real delight to read about the life of an author you greatly admire. The Far Cry is beautifully written, and offers one of the most startling and distressing characters in literature, but it is also about an intriguing subject – life on an Indian tea plantation in the 1940s. In her Preface to the novel, Smith writes tantalisingly about the basis for the novel – her trip to India after the Second World War, to make a documentary about the tea plantations. Who was with her on the trip? None other than Laurie Lee!

So I began As Green as Grass feeling rather impatient to get to the India bit. I wanted to read about her glamorous life with Laurie Lee in literary London, and then her escapades in India. But I soon became so engrossed in the memoir, that I’d as good as forgotten about the Indian antics that were to come.

The book is divided up into three sections – Before, During and After, all in relation to the Second World War. Before is growing up in Devon, with a father suffering from the legacy of the First World War. He is unable to reconcile his days as a war hero with his job as a humble bank clerk and is prone to violent eruptions of anger, which eventually get him sectioned. Her mother explains:

Poor Daddy is ill, she says to us children, but with care and the right sort of nursing he will soon get better. She doesn’t ever use the word which looms inside my own head so menacingly: mad!

It is so exactly what it’s like to be a child suddenly caught up in something adult. The grown-ups tell you soothing half-truths, when in your head you can’t escape the menacing melodramatic reality – words which you’ve only ever overheard or read, but now they apply to your family. I remember feeling exactly the same when various scary adult things happened when I was growing up – there was such menace in words like ‘divorce’ and ‘rehab’ when applied to your own family, and yet those words were so rarely said directly to you. You’d overhear them and vaguely know of them, and of course those words would be all you could think about, while the adults were busy coddling the truth in the softness of words like ‘gone away’ and ‘ill’.

The years during the War are particularly poignant. Smith describes going out for lunch with her sister Pam and a young fighter-pilot:

As soon as we’ve met and greeted each other, Ricky holds out Pam’s left hand in order to show me the ring on her engagement finger.

‘Goodness gracious,’ I say, amazed and delighted, ‘ – you’re engaged, you and Pam! You’re going to be – are you? – actually going to be married?’

‘We sure are,’ says Ricky, smiling broadly. ‘Isn’t that right, Pam?’

I’ve met Ricky before. He’s a fighter pilot on the same station as Pam’s young and handsome: a dear. How romantic!

But when I glance up and see the expression on my sister’s face, I’m startled. It’s the fond amused look of an adult indulging the passing whim of a small boy; as though, I think, the pearl-and-sapphire ring, and what it signifies – marriage – is merely part of a game she’s playing to please this nice young man.

Later, we learn:

Ricky, the Canadian boy I met in London, was one of those fighter-pilots who flew off and didn’t come back. I remember him showing me, proudly, the ring he had put on my sister’s engagement finger, and I remember being startled by the glimpse I caught of her unguarded expression: she knew!

Somehow the knowing – the complete destruction of any innocence, hope or optimism in favour of this necessary cynicism – is almost more terrible than the death.

There is tremendous energy in Emma Smith’s prose, you feel as though she is taking great pleasure in looking back at her youth and telling us all about it. It is written in the present tense, so you are right there, bang in the middle of things. We whizz through the pages and the years skip by, taking us to a smart typing school, then to the ‘innumerable flimsy huts that have sprung up, like a toy town’ in the grounds of Blenheim Palace to house the War Office, to gruelling cold work on wartime canals, to Bohemian Chelsea, to India, to France…

I was struck, of course, by the many differences between now and then – a time when women make friends with each other by leaving calling cards and Rupert Brooke is a heartthrob – but these differences never obstruct the great empathy Smith inspires. Beneath these surface differences, there is much that has stayed exactly the same. Her fizzing prose tells of problems and experiences that we all face – falling in love, having one’s heart broken, struggling to find what to do with one’s life, falling ill, feeling appallingly stupid for making mistakes in a new job, running out of money, and – particularly inspiring for me – having the courage, persistence and determination to keep on writing.

I can’t wait for tea!

 Emma Smith

The Far Cry

August 5, 2013

The past couple of weeks have been an Indian summer for me, reading first The Far Cry by Emma Smith and then Rummer Godden’s Breakfast with the Nikolides, which we discussed in Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday. They are both wonderful novels written in the 1940s about a girl going to India. Each one captures something of India’s strange push-pull – the allure of the exotic matched by a shrinking from the unknown. Each one shies away from being an unthinkingly romantic Raj novel to reveal the horror that lies beneath the veneer, the cracks that riddle the surface.

Breakfast with the NikolidesI feel somewhat talked out about Breakfast with the Nikolides, after yesterday’s illuminating walk-talk across the Heath, but, briefly, I think this novel particularly fine because it masquerades as a slender coming-of-age story, and yet touches on many deeply uncomfortable ideas, such as domestic abuse, a mother not liking her child, as well as the acute political unease of British India just before Independence. It is deceptively simple, and acutely affecting. Thank you Virago for republishing so many of Rumer Godden’s novels earlier this year, this one has whet my appetite!

The Far CryIn her Preface to The Far Cry, Emma Smith relates the inspiration for her novel. In 1946, aged twenty-three, she went to India as dogsbody to a documentary film group – whose scriptwriter, incidentally, was Laurie Lee (see here) – to make educational films about tea in Assam. She stepped off the gangplank at Bombay and ‘India burst upon me with the force of an explosion’ and, from then on:

Each moment was vibrant with the thrill of a discovery that had to be recorded, and because such youthful impressions have no store of similar memories to refer to or compare them with, they can be as vivid as the rising of the sun at the dawn of a cloudless newly-created summer’s day, glittering, unique … I scribbled, scribbled accordingly.

Luckily for us, this scribbled diary became the basis for this brilliant novel, which was first published in 1949 and was an The Far Cry endpaperinstant hit. Luckily for us, again, Persephone Books rescued it from the oblivion into which it had unjustly sunk by republishing it in 2002, with especially pretty endpaper.

Teresa is an awkward young teenager, living with her stern Aunt May when her father, the rather pathetic Randall Digby, who thinks his estranged wife is coming to England to reclaim Teresa, decides to cart her off to India and out of her reach. He decides they will stay with Ruth, his elder daughter from his ‘first brief and nearly happy marriage’, who has married a tea-planter.

It is immediately clear that Teresa and her father haven’t spent much time together and indeed barely know each other. While this leaves the plot ripe for sentiment and a nauseating burgeoning father-daughter relationship, Smith avoids this and sets them, quite brilliantly, against each other. Mr Digby despises Teresa’s gawkiness and tiresomeness, the way that when he takes her to London she is always:

pinching her fingers in taxi doors, losing her ticket, dropping her gloves, being, last and most terrible mortification, sick in a restaurant.

Teresa, rather than quailing under his harsh disapproval, despises the ridiculous fuss her father makes over all the preparations. Then:

Teresa, who had watched defeat and then recovery first line and then illuminate his face, observed the breach in his armour: he was old, and therefore weak. And she was young, with her strength growing. Age shook him as fiercely as he had yesterday shaken her in the street. Thoughtfully she ate her breakfast. That she had seen his weakness and was bound to take advantage of it was a tragedy, and a tragedy that the only alternative to his conquering her seemed to be for her to conquer him.

Having realised her advantage, Teresa thrives with her newfound independence and the boat becomes an adventure:

She was a traveller… and her father, in consequence, seemed to her redundant.

Their relationship soon dwindles to an occasional game of cards. It is indeed a ‘tragedy’ – a perfectly observed minor tragedy, which is transformed by Smith’s light touch into something almost as funny as it is sad.

Teresa’s story is engaging, and I enjoyed following her on the boat across to India, especially the quiet friendship she strikes up with the spinster Miss Spooner, who has the quiet wisdom and self-assurance of E.M. Forster’s Mrs Moore. The novel becomes something extraordinary, however, when Teresa and Mr Digby arrive, at last, at Ruth’s bungalow.

Ruth is one of the most chilling, distressing, affecting characters I have ever come across. Smith introduces her right at the start of the book as the endpoint of the journey, and yet we don’t meet her until we’re more than halfway through the novel. Even then, Smith cleverly teases us with another delay, and it is Ruth’s husband Edwin who meets the train, explaining that:

“I’m afraid Ruth’s away. She’s staying with some friends of ours on a neighbouring Garden … But I’m driving over tomorrow to fetch her back, so you’ll see her then.”

We suspect that there might be trouble in paradise. Smith affects a clever and pronounced change in the narrative when she introduces Ruth. Suddenly we see things from her perspective:

It seemed impossible, right up to the last minute, that they should have come … The worst had happened: there they were, faces turned expectantly towards her.

Then:

“Father!” she said aloud in her pleased and pleasant voice…

So we know instantly that Ruth is not what she seems. She can feel that her father’s arrival is ‘the worst’ that could happen and yet she can greet him in a ‘pleased and pleasant voice’. All we knew about Ruth until this point is that she is beautiful. She may be indeed beautiful on the exterior, but inside she is something altogether different. A little later, she reflects:

Relations, she realised, were as easy to deceive as anyone else: they came no nearer, they saw no deeper.

One wonders what is she hiding, why must everyone be deceived, what is underneath? And we learn:

Long ago, at an age when most little girls are more concerned about the appearance of their favourite dolls than their own, Ruth had discovered her beauty and marvelled at it. There and then she had decided on the sort of character that would display this beauty best, and not only did she choose her part but she devoted herself to it through all the stages of her growing up. Every person she came across unwittingly strengthened the lie: “Ruth never loses her temper” – and she was at pains never to lose her temper …

Ruth has spent her entire life fabricating a personality to match her appearance, a fascinating and unusual example of the dangers of beauty and vanity. It is so powerful that the book could almost be called ‘Beware of Beauty’! As Smith explains:

There is a difference, and a profound one, between trying to be good because goodness is a virtue, and trying to be good so that people may think you good. Ruth revolved in a world of mirrors…

Ruth is so caught up in maintaining her perfect reflection, that inside she withers and suffers. Achieving the perfect surface means she has lost her interior, her lack of sincerity, and she realises, when marrying Edwin, that she is ‘a fraud’. She longs to confess to him that she’s not like this, that she doesn’t know what she’s like:

‘I’ve forgotten. But not like this – this is pretence. Help me.’

But she doesn’t. Instead, this pretence ruins her and seeps out and infects her marriage. When ‘the far cry’ of the title eventually comes, it is Ruth’s cry of despair, overwhelmed by the impossibility of her life:

There is no solution, her mind cried out within her. It is useless to flee. Where can we fly? We are victims of our own absolute weakness.

This cry must go down among the great feminine cries of literature – next to Wanda’s in A Far Cry from Kensington (see here) and Rosamund’s in The Millstone (see here). (Further suggestions are welcome!)

Really this is an astonishing book. Smith has an uncanny way of penetrating to the heart of each of her characters, with all their myriad differences. One feels one absolutely understands Teresa, Mr Digby, Ruth and Edwin, as well as the minor characters. The only one who remains a mystery is quiet, enigmatic Miss Spooner. Like Forster’s Mrs Moore, she’s the one that slips through your fingers, somehow refusing to be contained by her particular fiction, leaving you wondering about her and longing for more.

Emma Smith in 1949

Daphne also enjoyed The Far Cry. (And you can read five important life lessons from Daphne here.)

Daphne and The Far Cry