Posts Tagged ‘Evelyn Waugh’

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


Brideshead Revisited

April 7, 2014

Just after a full-on week of the Daunt Books Festival, came another full-on week of preparing to lecture at my old Oxford college about building communities around books, followed by a special Emily’s Walking Book Club discussing Brideshead Revisited in Christ Church Meadow. It turned out to be a fun, if exhausting day, and above all it provided an excuse to re-read Brideshead, which was much better than I remembered.

Brideshead RevisitedI first read Brideshead Revisited at school. We did it as AS Level coursework and I suspect studying a book for a whole term is almost enough to ruin it for anyone. Especially if your English teacher insists it’s all about Catholicism, and you’re a seventeen-year-old with no interest in religion at all.

It is terribly embarrassing re-reading a book from school, with so many bits underlined and one’s adolescent scrawl in the margins. On almost every page were penned dreadful words like ‘desensitised’, ‘ironic’, ‘self-loathing’, and, tellingly often, ‘relig.’ and ‘Cath.’. I cringed as I turned the pages, hoping that no-one was peering over my shoulder on the tube.

As well as being about Catholicism, Brideshead is very much about nostalgia, and re-reading it for this Oxford walk was a strange exercise in triple-nostalgia: its echo of my own halcyon Oxford days; the painful memories of reading it in our sixth-form English lessons, air stiff with newly awakened sexual tension; and, of course, all the nostalgia in the book itself.

Charles Ryder, our narrator who find himself stationed at Brideshead when he’s in the army during the Second World War, tells us ‘I had been there before; I knew all about it.’ So the rest of the novel unfolds as Charles tells of his time spent at Brideshead and with the Marchmains, its family. The first section of the novel is probably the one everyone – myself included – recalls when they think about Brideshead. Charles is new up at Oxford, where he meets eccentric, charming Sebastian Flyte, one of the Marchmains. Sebastian vomits in Charles’s rooms, then apologises by filling them with flowers the next day and inviting Charles to lunch. Charles tells us:

I went there uncertainly, for it was foreign ground and there was a tiny, priggish, warning voice in my ear which in the tones of Collins told me it was seemly to hold back. But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.

It’s a wonderful passage, positively aching with nostalgia. That youthful curiosity, ‘in search of love’, and the inkling that grey old Oxford, up till then reasonably unexciting, had its secrets, would offer so much if only you could discover the low door to its enchanted garden … It captures so perfectly that feeling of excited anticipation, of knowing you’re on the verge of something wonderful, and venturing forth, curious, yet also somewhat timid.

Interesting that Waugh uses this metaphor of doors, wall and gardens. Interesting too that the novel is named after a great house, rather than being given one of his more abstract titles, like A Handful of Dust, or Vile Bodies. Evidently, Brideshead Revisited is a novel in which the presence of architecture is strongly felt. Charles even goes on to become an architectural painter, succeeding largely thanks to the aristos’ declining fortunes:

The financial slump of the period, which left many painters without employment, served to enhance my success, which was, indeed, itself a symptom of the decline. When the water-holes were dry people sought to drink at the mirage. After my first exhibition I was called to all parts of the country to make portraits of houses that were soon to be deserted or debased; indeed, my arrival seemed often to be only a few paces ahead of the auctioneer’s, a presage of doom.

Not unlike Charles’s paintings, Brideshead Revisited captures a great country seat just as it was on the verge of decline. A great many pages are spent describing its rooms and décor, ‘the high and insolent dome … coffered ceilings … arches and broken pediments’ and the fountain, where the young Charles discovered his own artistic sensibility, as he sat:

hour by hour … probing its shadows, tracing its lingering echoes, rejoicing in all its clustered feats of daring and invention, I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubble among its stones was indeed a life-giving spring.

The fountain later becomes a scene of love between Charles and Julia:

There Julia sat, in a tight little gold tunic and a white gown, one hand in the water idly turning an emerald ring to catch the fire of the sunset; the carved animals mounted over her dark head in a cumulus of green moss and glowing stone and dense shadow, and the waters round them flashed and bubbled and broke into scattered flames.

When Charles returns with the army, however, an officer shows him around and stops at the fountain, now turned off and squalid, to say:

Looks a bit untidy now; all the drivers throw their cigarette-ends and the remains of the sandwiches there…

Here is a once-mighty house now ‘debased’; its beauty not appreciated by its new inhabitants. Yet Waugh has succeeded, as Charles does in his paintings, in preserving the house in all its glory. When we think of Brideshead Revisited, we scarcely remember the army prologue and epilogue; we don’t see the fountain dry, filled with cigarette ends and sandwich crusts, but we think of the house in all its splendour of before, when it was the scene of so much love.

So Brideshead Revisited is in part about the death of the great country house, and an attempt to preserve its life. It is about nostalgia for a lost youth, for opening that low door in the wall and discovering the enchanted garden within. Just as it succeeds in revisiting it, resurrecting it, letting us re-live those Arcadian days of strawberries and teddy bears and love, so it also points to all the youth that cannot be preserved.

The many lost youths of the soldiers of the First World War haunt the novel. References to the War, and to the lives lost, pepper the text. This time round, it struck me that Waugh gives us examples in which these lost lives are attempted to be preserved in literature: Lady Marchmain commissions the dreaded Samgrass to write a biography of her three brothers all killed in the War, and there is also the moment when Anthony Blanche recites ‘The Waste Land’ through a megaphone. In including these, Waugh invites comparison, holding up Brideshead Revisted as another testament to lost youth. Certainly Christopher Hitchens thought it was ‘all on account of the war’, in his brilliant essay on Brideshead Revisited in the Guardian. Hitchens was of course a renowned atheist, and I can’t help but feel that if he loved the novel even half so much as his article suggests, then it really must be about more than Catholicism.

So rats to you annoying English teacher who nearly ruined this beautiful novel for me … I’m so pleased to have re-read it, and I can only encourage others to do so too. I am also rather tempted to track down the BBC boxset for some rather indulgent viewing when in Italy.

Top Five Literary Tortoises

May 20, 2013

Big news this week in the world of Emilybooks.


Meet Daphne!

This beloved belated birthday present from the husband joined us on Saturday morning, when we went and bought her from a very friendly pet shop in Essex. You’ll be pleased to hear that she is settling in well – enjoying bathing in the warm rays of her special heat lamp before pootling off to explore our flat.

Daphne on the rug

It is very peculiar trying to get on with my work while Daphne is here, scrabbling around. It is lovely to have a bit of company, a wise reptilian companion. I feel sure that we are already establishing a rapport – funny things like we both yawned at the same time this morning. And she wouldn’t touch her breakfast until I started munching my bowl of cereal. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this.

As I am so tortoise-brained this morning, and to welcome this marvellous little creature into the world of EmilyBooks, here are my Top Five literary tortoises.

Esio Trot

Esio TrotAlfie from Esio Trot must come first.

This is a delightful tortoise love story, written by Roald Dahl, and illustrated by Quentin Blake. Shy Mr Hoppy pines for Mrs Silver, who lives in the flat below. They strike up a friendship over her tortoise Alfie, who she worries won’t grow. Mr Hoppy comes up with a very clever plan. He writes down the following words on a piece of paper:









He tells Mrs Silver to whisper this spell to her tortoise three times a day and, he assures her, Alfie will get bigger. They are of course normal words written backwards!

Mr Hoppy bulk buys tortoises in all different sizes and when Mrs Silver is out, reaches down to her balcony and swaps Alfie for a very slightly bigger tortoise. And so on… Mrs Silver is at first thrilled that Alfie seems to be getting bigger, but of course women have a habit of changing their minds and are never happy with something for long…

Having bonded over Alfie, Mr Hoppy plucks up the courage to ask Mrs Silver to marry him and everyone – including the original Alfie – lives happily ever after. Who knew tortoises could be such a fruitful conversation opener?!

Esio Trot

The Tortoise and the Hare

Yes, there is Aesop’s fable, which we all know so well, with its moral that slow and steady wins the race. I have to say, little Daphne is surprisingly speedy. Look at her go!

Daphne and duct tape

The Tortoise and The HareI am thinking, however, of the novel by Elizabeth Jenkins, which I wrote about at length here. This wonderful, too-often overlooked novel from the 1950s is another tortoise love story, although rather more complicated, adult and with only a metaphorical tortoise.

Lovely, gentle self-effacing Imogen is married to brute of a bullying barrister husband Evelyn. Their neighbour – stout, brash Blanche Silcox – makes a play for Evelyn … which of these utterly contrasting women will win?

What is so clever about Jenkins’s book is that as you read it, you’re forever questioning who is the tortoise and who the hare. I suppose it depends a little on where you think the finish line is. Is Evelyn really the prize, or is it independence and freedom from such a brutish man?

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead RevisitedThe poor tortoise in Brideshead Revisited has been horribly abused. Julia come into the drawing room telling Lady Marchmain to look at the Christmas present that Rex has given her:

It was a small tortoise with Julia’s initials set in diamonds in the living shell, and this slightly obscene object, now slipping impotently on the polished boards, now striding across the card-table, now lumbering over a rub, now withdrawn at a touch, now stretching its neck and swaying its withered, antediluvian head, became a memorable part of the evening, one of those needle-hooks of experience which catch the attention when larger matters are at stake.

Just a few pages later, the poor tortoise, jewels and all, is said to have buried itself. We learn this soon after Charles Ryder leaves Brideshead, telling himself he shall never go back, and that:

I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.

A diamond-encrusted tortoise would get you far indeed into the nether world. Not as far, however, as Catholicism, as Waugh is keen to point out.

Brideshead tortoise


momoThere is a wonderful tortoise called Cassiopeia in Momo by Michael Ende. I read this book when I was about ten and for years felt terrified of the sinister Men in Grey, who:

had an uncanny knack of making themselves so inconspicuous that you either overlooked them or forgot ever seeing them… Since nobody noticed them, nobody stopped to wonder where they had come from, or indeed, were still coming from, for their numbers continue to grow with every passing day.

I used to associate them with men in suits. Perhaps that’s the point. It is a wonderfully anti-establishment children’s book.

Momo is a little orphan girl, with a knack for listening to people. When the Men in Grey turn up, they persuade everyone that they have to ‘save time’, which results in them stopping doing everything fun and always being in a rush. It’s an awful trick, of course. Everyone becomes miserable thanks to their time-saving, but the Men in Grey need everyone else’s time to survive, smoking their sinister cigars of hour lilies. Yes, it is a surreal book.

Momo fights against the grey men with the aid of Professor Hora and his tortoise, Cassiopeia, who can see half an hour into the future and – better yet – can communicate, helping Momo by making words appear on her shell.

 Michael Ende with tortoise

Apparently Michael Ende had a soft spot for tortoises. I don’t blame him!

Baby tortoise

Tortoises by DH LawrenceI shall end with D.H. Lawrence’s beautiful poem about a baby tortoise:

You know what it is to be born alone,

Baby tortoise!

The first day to heave your feet little by little from the shell,

Not yet awake,

And remain lapsed on earth,

Not quite alive.

A tiny, fragile, half-animate bean.

To open your tiny beak-mouth, that looks as if it would never open

Like some iron door;

To lift the upper hawk-beak from the lower base

And reach your skinny neck

And take your first bite at some dim bit of herbage,

Alone, small insect,

Tiny bright-eye,

Slow one.

To take your first solitary bite

And move on your slow, solitary hunt.

Your bright, dark little eye,

Your eye of a dark disturbed night,

Under its slow lid, tiny baby tortoise,

So indomitable.

No one ever heard you complain.

You draw your head forward, slowly, from your little wimple

And set forward, slow-dragging, on your four-pinned toes,

Rowing slowly forward.

Wither away, small bird?

Rather like a baby working its limbs,

Except that you make slow, ageless progress

And a baby makes none.

The touch of sun excites you,

And the long ages, and the lingering chill

Make you pause to yawn,

Opening your impervious mouth,

Suddenly beak-shaped, and very wide, like some suddenly gaping pincers;

Soft red tongue, and hard thin gums,

Then close the wedge of your little mountain front,

Your face, baby tortoise.

Do you wonder at the world, as slowly you turn your head in its wimple

And look with laconic, black eyes?

Or is sleep coming over you again,

The non-life?

You are so hard to wake.

Are you able to wonder?

Or is it just your indomitable will and pride of the first life

Looking round

And slowly pitching itself against the inertia

Which had seemed invincible?

The vast inanimate,

And the fine brilliance of your so tiny eye,


Nay, tiny shell-bird.

What a huge vast inanimate it is, that you must row against,

What an incalculable inertia.


Little Ulysses, fore-runner,

No bigger than my thumb-nail,

Buon viaggio.

All animate creation on your shoulder,

Set forth, little Titan, under your battle-shield.

The ponderous, preponderate,

Inanimate universe;

And you are slowly moving, pioneer, you alone.

How vivid your travelling seems now, in the troubled sunshine,

Stoic, Ulyssean atom;

Suddenly hasty, reckless, on high toes.

Voiceless little bird,

Resting your head half out of your wimple

In the slow dignity of your eternal pause.

Alone, with no sense of being alone,

And hence six times more solitary;

Fulfilled of the slow passion of pitching through immemorial ages

Your little round house in the midst of chaos.

Over the garden earth,

Small bird,

Over the edge of all things.


With your tail tucked a little on one side

Like a gentleman in a long-skirted coat.

All life carried on your shoulder,

Invincible fore-runner.

Isn’t it brilliant?!

Let us hope that little Daphne will inspire me to similar great heights of tortoise literature.

Daphne coming out

And yes, that book on to which she is climbing is none other than The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins.