Posts Tagged ‘France’

The Last Days of Italy

July 2, 2014

I have at last unglued my bottom from the passenger seat of our trusty car Beryl – so named after Beryl Markham, wonderful author, adventurer and pilot extraordinaire. I know it’s a car not a plane, but needs must. Emilybooks’ Lucca days are now over and London life will ensue once again. Though I can’t feel too glum, as  July is looking rather wonderfully full of walking book club trips – there is the Hampstead Heath meeting this Sunday to discuss Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife; then at Perch Hill Summer Feast (12th-13th July) we’ll be talking about The Leopard, and finally Deer Shed Festival on 25th-27th July brings a welcome revisit to Jane Eyre.

But first a little run down on the last days of Italy…

We set off for Ravenna – which should have been an easy three hours or so, though the husband decided to throw a bit of adventure in the mix by stopping off at an Alvar Aalto church ‘on the way’. Perhaps it would have been more on the way if I weren’t doing the map-reading and the Michelin map was slightly less complicated, but it took us about four hours just to get to the church… It was a great church, however; rather different from all the Renaissance churches we’d spent the last two months gawping over. Instead of their habit of bright white marble outside and cool dark interior, this one was very dark (and I have to say even a little dreary) on the outside, but flooded with light inside.

The bright inside of the Alvar Aalto Church

A Ravenna peacockWe spent the night at a sweet agriturismo outside Ravenna, with delicious food, where peacocks strutted decoratively. On to Ravenna the next morning where we were completely dazzled by all the mosaics, impossibly beautiful, and unexpectedly cheerful. We were to end up in Vicenza that evening, but had a quick stop-off for a gelato (of course) at Ferrara, which really was en route. I longed to see more evidence of Giorgio Bassani, who wrote some wonderful novels set there, including The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, but alas I could discover no museum. Instead we saw a very spiky building – the Palazzo dei Diamante – where I dunked my head under a fountain to save myself from expiring from the heat, while chic Italians looked on with amusement.

Very hot outside the Palazzo dei diamante in Ferrara

Very hot outside the Palazzo dei diamante in Ferrara

And rather cooler after the fountain

And rather cooler after the fountain

Vicenza was a winner, with another architectural theme – masses of stuff by Palladio which was all very impressive, though not quite sufficient for the husband, who drove us off into the hills the following day to see some things by Carlo Scarpa. It was certainly ‘off the track’, and I have to say the Tomba Brion was one of the most beautiful, special places I’ve ever been.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

The husband was in architectural heaven and took a million photos, in raptures over all the detailing, while I sat and read for a while and looked at the enormous fish which poked their heads out from amongst the lilly pads.

Among the lilly pads

We also saw the huge and wonderful Palladian Villa Barbaro, where we had to shuffle around in strange over-sized slippers and there were some very sweet and attentive puppies.

 Puppies at the Villa Barbaro

Then across to Milan, where we met an (architectural) friend for lunch, and wandered through some antique markets by the canals. There I spotted this rather pretty bicycle.

A Milanese bicycle

Then through Mont Blanc (aka the rather cheerier ‘Monte Bianco’) to the Haute Savoie, very close to Geneva. Typically, just as we got off the motorway and my map-reading had to begin in earnest, the most colossal thunderstorm broke, and we were unable to see or hear anything much at all. It was not helped by Google Maps telling us to go up an off-road track. Poor Beryl was rather relieved when we did at last arrive at our destination.

The next day we were to go back to Champagne to the very pretty B&B where we spent the first night of our travels. The husband thought it essential, however, to go ‘via’ Ronchamp – a Le Corbusian masterpiece. It was indeed incredible, and added a mere three hours to our journey.

Ronchamp

We arrived at last and staggered off to Chalons-en-Champagne – the nearest town – to find something for dinner, only to arrive just as France won their World Cup match. The little, not especially charming, town was soon even less so as it became overrun with crazed football fans letting of bangers, kicking beer cans, starting fights, tooting their horns and driving around like maniacs. We tried to enter into the spirit of things but were unfortunately rather too dazed from seeing nothing but motorway for hours. We ate our quite squalid chicken and chips in exhausted silence and swiftly retreated to said B&B.

So to the final day of our travels. First we drove up the road to Verzy where we wandered through the forest to see some curious twisted beech trees. Then, instead of stopping for a delicious final lunch, we hastened towards a grimmish ‘zone industrielle’ near St Omer to try and make the half-past three tour of a glass-making factory. We pulled in at three twenty-five, after some map-reading of which I was rather proud, only to be told that in spite of what their website had said, there was no tour until six thirty – too late for us. Stuck for something to do, we found this very strange place nearby called La Coupole – a huge concrete dome half-buried in the cliff, built as a launchpad for Hitler’s V2 rockets. It was impressive and horrible, freezing cold and sinister. It made all those James Bond filmsets look uncannily realistic. We read that the hundreds of Soviet prisoners who had been made to build it had soon after ‘disappeared’. The place was filled with awful stories about life under the Nazi occupation and Hitler’s pursuit of his secret weapons. I couldn’t believe that Wernher von Braun, who was in charge of most the rocket programme, and a member of the SS, was snatched by America after the War, not for trial, but to help develop their rockets for the Space Race. He was made an American citizen and even presented a science show on the Walt Disney channel! Amongst his particular brutalities was his encouragement of the use of slave labour from concentration camps to help build the rockets. Many more people died in building the rockets and their factories than were killed by the finished weapons. Quite how this man – and many members of his team – managed to be so welcomed by America is not clear. Please could somebody write a book about it?

And then to Calais, and then on the train, and then a late-night Lebanese feast on London’s Edgware Road, and then to Emilybooks’ mother’s, where we will be staying until we move back in to our flat at the weekend…

The Inimitable Jeeves read by Martin JarvisBut what about the books, I hear you ask… Well there was little time for reading anything other than maps when in the car for so long, but what made the journey extremely pleasant was listening to PG Wodehouse audio books. I have never fared too well with audiobooks, finding that my mind wanders too much, but Wodehouse, read by the incredibly talented Martin Jarvis, was a triumph! All the way to Italy we chuckled along to Jeeves and Wooster stories about love-lorn Bingo Little, Gussy Finknottle and his newts, the various dreadful aunts, the cooly unflappable Jeeves and lovely Bertie Wooster, who will stop at nothing to get his friends out of a tight spot. I was particularly keen on the stories when everyone thinks Bertie’s a lunatic.

Heavy weather by PG WodehouseOn the way home, we listened to Heavy Weather, a Blandings tale, and were similarly entranced by the brilliantly over-complicated plot about various toffs trying to get hold of Galahad’s juicy memoirs, and Lord Emsworth thinking of nothing but his beloved pig, the Empress of Blandings. We giggled and snorted and exclaimed as the miles of motorway rolled away. Perhaps this unbelievably English story didn’t suit our surroundings particularly well, but it did conjure a feeling of immense fondness towards England – even if our little flat is rather less grand than Blandings Castle, and we have a tortoise not a pig… In any case it was just what was needed to speed us on our return.

Advertisements

Three Tales

October 28, 2013

Three Tales by FlaubertHaving been thinking rather a lot last week about the Bennett vs Woolf debate on how to render character in fiction, it was interesting then to happen to pick up Flaubert’s Three Tales, which seems to belong so unapologetically to Bennett’s school of thought. (Incidentally, on Tuesday it was our two year wedding anniversary, and at the lovely grand restaurant where we went for dinner, guess what was on the menu? None other than Omelette Arnold Bennett!)

Flaubert is a great writer of things. My overwhelming feeling on reading Madame Bovary was one of intense claustrophobia. Emma Bovary has so much stuff everywhere and of course it is her love of pretty things that in part causes her downfall, as she gets more and more in debt to the horrid merchant and moneylender Lheureux. The pages of Flaubert’s Three Tales are just as populated with things, and I couldn’t help but think of Woolf’s saying that he was ‘sidling sedately towards’ his characters, rather than letting their voices sing out.

Three Tales is Flaubert’s final completed work and it was written as one entity, rather than being various short stories subsequently collected together. It is a puzzling little book. The first story is ‘A Simple Heart’, which is relatively well-known and very good. It is the story of Félicité, a faithful and naïve maid, who devotes her life to those who are thoroughly undeserving of her saintlike goodness. It is all very sad and pure and worthy (to the point, I’m afraid of almost being a little dull), until good old Félicité develops a completely dotty attachment to a parrot! Talk about a twist in the tale. I adored these pages about her relationship with the parrot, who eventually has his chain removed and is ‘allowed to wander all over the house’:

When he came down the stairs, he would position the curved part of his beak on the step in front of him and then raise first his right foot, followed by his left. Félicité was always worried that these weird acrobatics would make the parrot giddy.

As someone who has become alarmingly obsessed with the ‘weird acrobatics’ of her pet tortoise, I can truly empathise. Then Félicité has a revelation:

When she went to church, she would sit gazing at the picture of the Holy Spirit and it struck her that it looked rather like her parrot.

Religious fervour is given a whole new, rather idiosyncratic, dynamic.

The parrot is a unique addition to the story, giving it a peculiar mixture of humour and pathos. Poor Félicité – so weirdly obsessed with her parrot; Félicité, who has nothing else to live for, no one else to show her any affection … and yet we can’t help but laugh at the eccentricity of it. The parrot must have struck Julian Barnes as the most enjoyable thing in this story too, as he went on to write the Booker-shortlisted Flaubert’s Parrot, which now I feel I must read. It has left me wondering how many parrots squawk through literature’s pages – off the top of my head, I can think of Bombafu, the parrot in Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, who whistles to his own destruction, and of course Long John Silver’s in Treasure Island. Surely there was one in one of the Swallows and Amazons? Any further suggestions curiously received below please!

Enough about parrots… The second story in Three Tales, ‘The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator’, has the feel of religion fused with myth that you find in something like ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. Young Julian develops an inexplicable blood lust and goes out hunting, wreaking absolute carnage. Then a great stag comes up to him and ‘uttered this thrice-repeated warning:’

“Beware! Beware! Beware! A curse lies upon you! One day, O savage heart, you will kill your father and your mother!”

Julian is so upset by this, and by a subsequent near miss when he pierces his mother’s bonnet with his javelin, thinking it was a stork, that he flees home and becomes a great warrior. Only one has a feeling that, like in the Greek tragedies, his fate will have an unexpected means of catching up with him…

The third tale is ‘Herodias’, which is a very Flaubertian reworking of the Biblical tale of Salome and John the Baptist. It is full of incidental detail like the oddly practical final line:

Because the head was very heavy, they took it in turns to carry it.

I was left puzzling over what ties the stories together, other than Flaubert’s minute attention to all the objects. What could simple Félicité and her parrot have in common with warrior Julian and manipulative Herodias?

Perhaps Flaubert is making a point that stories lie dormant in every nook and cranny – in the quiet existence of a maid, in the pages of the Bible and in the ‘stained-glass window in a church near to where I was born’, on which the story of Saint Julian is displayed. Perhaps it is a humanising of religion – Félicité seeing the Holy Spirit in her parrot, just as Flaubert sees the human story behind the panes of glass or that of Saint John the Baptist.

Perhaps Flaubert is filling in all the surface details that literally realises these stories – makes them real rather than mythical. And perhaps we Woolfians should give credit where it’s due. I vaguely knew the story of John the Baptist, but I’d never thought of King Herod looking out on the landscape of Palestine and seeing:

The lingering morning mists parted to reveal the outline of the Dead Sea. The sun rose behind Machaerus, spreading a red glow across the landscape and gradually lighting up the sandy sea shore, the hills and the desert and, away in the distance, the rugged grey contours of the mountains of Judaea. In the middle distance, Engedi appeared as a long black line, while further off was the round dome of Mount Hebron. He could see Eshcol with its pomegranates, Sorek with its vines, Karmel with its fields of sesame and the huge square Tower of Antonia rising above the city of Jerusalem.

Setting the story so precisely in a landscape, just as with ‘Saint Julian’, we learn that each of the castle windowsills had ‘a painted earthenware flowerpot planted with either basil or heliotrope’, makes it easy to visualise, and so brings the story to life. Perhaps Flaubert is sidling sedately up to his characters, and perhaps we don’t quite get a feel for who they are and what they think in the way that we do with Woolf, but we do at least see the world they inhabit in exquisite detail, and there is for sure something to be said for that.

No doubt a greater mind than mine will have picked over these Three Tales and pulled out all sorts of fascinating ideas. Please do enlighten me for I have to say, while they were good, I think Madame Bovary wins hands down. Fitting really, given that Emily’s Walking Book Club this coming Sunday will be discussing Someone at a Distance, which is in part Dorothy Whipple’s 1950s reimagining of Madame Bovary.

Felicite sleeping with parrot by Hockney

Proust gave me the flu

September 2, 2013

A few weeks ago, I found myself going to a wedding in Brittany, which was a delight in part for the chance to spend rather a lot of time on a train. Trains are probably my third favourite place to read (after in the bath and in bed), as they offer such long stretches of book time, punctuated with lovely views out of the window. They are also free from the many problems that plague other modes of transport, such as feeling sick, overcoming irrational fears of death, or having to mapread.

Swann's WayI decided this would be the perfect opportunity to at last get around to reading some Proust. Swann’s Way – the first volume of In Search of Lost Time – has been sitting on my shelf for years now, tempting me with the treats that so many say lie inside, yet also keeping me at arm’s length, knowing that this isn’t a book to be attempt when jammed on the tube, or when otherwise distracted with London life. To be honest, I felt more than a little daunted by it. It’s massive. It’s seminal. It’s one of those books you’re forever being told you’re not old enough to read, and wouldn’t it be awful to read it too early and so not enjoy one of the great works!

It took me a little while to settle in to Swann’s Way. As I sat on the Eurostar, I kept peeking over the husband’s shoulder at the glossy magazine he was reading and wondering if I was a glutton for punishment. Why Proust, when I could just read the Proust Questionnaire at the end of Vanity Fair?

I felt impossibly self-conscious with my Proust. I could barely get through a sentence without thinking about everyone else who’d read that sentence. I kept wondering what Virginia Woolf would have made of it, or E.M. Forster, or even Jane Gardam. I am reading Proust, I kept telling myself. This is the real deal. If I am anything like Alain de Botton, it will change my life.

So it was a shaky start. I think it always takes a little while to settle in to the classics, to adjust to their slower pace, their long serpentine sentences. But by the time I got off the train at Paris, I was hooked.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to be sitting on a TGV the next morning, reading about Combray while looking out at exactly that landscape! It is such a sensuous book, I could almost smell the ‘bitter-sweet scent of almonds emanating from the hawthorn-blossom’ and the myriad other scents that perfume the pages as I looked at their real-life counterparts flashing past the window.

What struck me above all is how clever Proust is with his long winding sentences. They twist and turn, wrongfooting you with every comma, until you come to the end and it all falls perfectly into place. Here is one of my favourites, from ‘Swann in Love’, the second part of the book, which explores Swann’s love affair with Odette:

He would go and join her, and when he opened the door, on Odette’s rosy face, as soon as she caught sight of Swann, would appear – changing the curve of her lips, the look in her eyes, the moulding of her cheeks – an all-absorbing smile.

When I first read this I was jolted after ‘face’, feeling there must be some mistake, you don’t open a door on someone’s face. I began again and realised what he does with that comma after ‘door’ is allow a sudden shift in agency from the action of Swann opening the door to Odette’s change in expression as she catches sight of Swann. Then there is another shift as the description of Odette’s smile – ‘changing the curve of her lips…’ is relayed as witnessed by Swann. It is though this smile is as intensely felt by each of them – Odette as she moves and Swann as he observes it. How perfectly intimate for two lovers to share such a flirtatious sentence. How impossibly clever of Proust to convey an emotion even in his syntax.

A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel SparkSo many of Proust’s sentences are every bit as good as this one. It is such luxurious prose, so rich. As it happened, when I got back to London after the wedding, still in the middle of Swann’s Way, I quickly re-read Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington for this Spectator article. I alighted upon a wonderful anecdotal description of Proust, from Spark’s Mrs Hawkins:

It’s about everything in particular.

She’s exactly right. Proust pays particular, minute attention to every little detail, resulting in these wonderful long sentences that perfectly capture each tiny gradation of everything.

Everyone goes on about the famous madeleine moment as being the epitome of wonderful writing about memory. (By the way, two things you might not know about that moment: 1. It’s dipped in lime-blossom tea; 2. It’s 50 pages in, not right at the beginning.) For sure it is good, but I thought just as good was the way Proust writes about music. This is also from ‘Swann in Love’:

The year before, at an evening party, he had heard a piece of music played on the piano and violin. At first he had appreciated only the material quality of the sounds which those instruments secreted. . . . But then at a certain moment, without being able to distinguish any clear outline, or to give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly enraptured, he had tried to grasp the phrase or harmony—he did not know which—that had just been played and that had opened and expanded his soul, as the fragrance of certain roses, wafted upon the moist air of evening, has the power of dilating one’s nostrils. . . . This time he had distinguished quite clearly a phrase which emerged for a few moments above the waves of sound. It had at once suggested to him a world of inexpressible delights, of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed, into which he felt that nothing else could initiate him, and he had been filled with love for it, as with a new and strange desire.

What a long quotation – and this is just picking out key bits from two whole pages – but I hope that from here you can see how well he writes about that inexpressible, tantalising power of music. He captures, perfectly, the way a certain exquisite phrase can get under your skin and lift you out of yourself, and how hard it is to pin it down, or conjure the same feeling in any other way. (Incidentally, for more on the actual phrase of music that inspired Proust, see this intriguing blog.)

Who am I to write about Proust? All I can say is that I loved it more than I’d anticipated and would thoroughly recommend it for a holiday or a long train journey. I finished it when I went to Andalucia last week for some villa relaxation with friends – many of whom were reading Laurie Lee, to my intense delight! I lay by the swimming pool in the hot Spanish sun and was utterly absorbed in Proust’s luxurious, endless sentences.

It was only once I’d finished Swann’s Way that I was struck with flu. Literally, no sooner had I put it down than my throat started to ache. The last few days of the holiday were Proustless and snot-filled, and my husky snottiness continues now I am back in London.

I worry that the only cure is to read more Proust. While Swann’s Way was heavenly, I fear that the remaining six volumes might have to wait until I spend rather a lot more time in France than a weekend’s train journey. Until then, I shall stick to hot lemon and honey, into which I might just dip a madeleine.

Daphne and Proust

Proust is, of course, Daphne’s cup of tea. She particularly loves the slow pace and long sentences.

A tiny holiday post

July 31, 2013

EmilyBooks is in France for a few days, hence the lack of a post on Monday.

Yet I thought I’d interrupt the silence to show you the lovely little library that sits by the path here, down to the river.

A little French library

Isn’t it heavenly?

A little French library 2

Could you imagine if we Anglais adorned our paths with a bench with a view and a selection of books to peruse? Fine literary inspiration indeed…

And look what was waiting for me further down the path:

A bicycle with flowers

Books, flowers and bicycles – three of my favourite things.

Emilybooks will be back as usual on Monday.

Tender is the Night

June 24, 2013

Curious people sometimes ask how I pick the books for my Walking Book Club. (Yes, I tyrannically insist on choosing all of them, which I know speaks of control issues. All I can say is that I’m a youngest child, and the only girl.) Well, I try to pick hidden classics – that is brilliant books which have somewhat dropped off the radar, books which people might otherwise pass over, without knowing that they’re missing out.

Tender is the NightYesterday, as we wandered over Hampstead Heath, we discussed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, which, I hear you protest, is hardly off the radar. My point is that everyone goes on and on about The Great Gatsby while paying relatively little attention to Fitzgerald’s other works.

I greatly prefer Tender to Gatsby, finding it messily meaty, resisting straightforward interpretation, and written in lush, opaque prose. There was also something poignant about discussing the book, so close to where Keats wrote his ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ from which Fitzgerald took his title.

Tender is the Night begins when young Hollywood starlet Rosemary Hoyt meets Dick and Nicole Diver, a golden American couple, while holidaying in the South of France with her mother. Needless to say, she falls for their allure and gets romantically entangled with Dick. But all is not as it seems with the Divers, and, by way of a lengthy but compelling flashback, Fitzgerald reveals the disturbing truth at the foundation of their marriage. Once we are back to the ‘now’ of the book (1925), we follow the Divers around Europe, as their marriage flounders, their charm fades, their friends slip away and Dick turns to drink. It becomes clear that Dick has peaked and, as his name Diver suggests, now he will fall.

One gripe raised on the walking book club was that the plot is unnecessarily complicated. Indeed, perhaps it is a little puzzling that Fitzgerald should initially cast Rosemary as such a key character, but then let her slip out of the story for such a long time, resurfacing eventually but with much less importance. Even a tiny bit of research shows that Fitzgerald laboured over this, his final complete novel, for nine years. While his initial focus was the Rosemary plotline – a young Hollywood star, only originally it was to be a man, and his overpowering mother – it then came to be about his friends Sara and Gerald Murphy, the couple who ‘discovered’ the French Rivera and turned it into a fashionable resort. Then, in 1931 Fitzgerald’s father died and in 1932, his wife Zelda was hospitalised for schizophrenia – elements of autobiography that fed into the novel. Add to this the historical context of the First World War and The Great Crash of 1929 and some psychoanalytical ideas from Freud and Jung, and the result is messy, yes, but rich.

I can’t hope to cover everything here, so I’ll just stick to one aspect which I found particularly striking – women come out of Tender is the Night much better than the men:

Dick drinks and Dives to his downfall; Abe North does the same thing. Dick’s father dies, and so does – in an act of horrific violence – a negro (Fitzgerald’s term) shoeshiner with whom their paths briefly cross in Paris. Of course, there is the shadow of the deaths of the hundreds of thousands of men who fought in the First World War, a point which is reinforced when the Divers and their gang visit the trenches.

Women, on the other hand, come out on top. We meet Rosemary at the very start of her success and she continues to thrive. Her mother has outlived two husbands and lives vicariously, contentedly, through Rosemary. Nicole we see at rock bottom, and watch her progress. Nicole’s sister, who lost her fiancé to the War, may be romantically unhappy but she is financially empowered. Even Mary North outlives her husband and flourishes after his death.

Yet, Tender is the Night doesn’t read like a celebration of women’s newfound, post-war agency. When Dick goes to meet Rosemary’s mother, Fitzgerald muses:

Women are necessarily capable of almost anything in their struggle for survival and can scarcely be convicted of such man-made crimes as “cruelty”.

Fitzgerald is clear that women are better at surviving in this world of the 1920s than men. Yet here he suggests there is something ignoble about their survival, something dishonourable. While it is as though he lets them off the hook – they ‘can scarcely be convicted’ of cruelty – the implication is that women live by a different, lesser, code to men. “Cruelty” is ‘man-made’, not woman-made. Women don’t have the moral compass to recognise their cruel behaviour.

The code that men live by in Tender is the Night is a violent one. Right at the beginning there is a duel, with pistols. Then there is the violent murder of the shoe-shiner. Later, drunk and incensed, Dick punches an Italian policeman, only to be utterly beaten up himself. As I mentioned, this all takes place in the violent shadow of the First World War. Fitzgerald implies a respect for this violence: there is an honour in fighting a duel, although it risks sending a man to his death. So many men go to their death in this book – perhaps Fitzgerald sees some glory as their stars fade and are extinguished. The women, while they might survive the men, do so in a slippery, shameful way that is beyond the label of  “cruelty”. The violence is there for the women – in Nicole’s tortured past and moments of breakdown, in Rosemary’s desire for Dick and cold pursuit of success, and in Baby’s (Nicole’s sister) frigid flinching at physical contact, yet the violence here is controlled, under the surface, hardened into a more sinister drive to survival.

Fitzgerald attempts to cast his women as ‘Daddy’s girl’ – the film which brought Rosemary her first success. They are, supposedly, innocents that need rescuing, just as Dick attempts to play the father figure. Fitzgerald, the author, is the ultimate father figure, controlling and protecting his inventions and so perhaps disapproving of their icy struggle to survive independently, thriving as the men fall. Unlike Fitzgerald, I have to admit to feeling rather satisfied to see these women, albeit cold and in many ways unappealing, prove their own agency and flourish at the expense of all the alcoholic, egotistical men.

Daphne and Fitzgerald

I tried to construct a highly sophisticated ‘Tortometer’, to see whether Daphne – such a discerning tortoise – was inclined to prefer The Great Gatsby or Tender is the Night.

At first, I thought she was going for Tender is the Night, but, in fact, she was just turning around to go back to her little hot house. Fitzgerald, no doubt, would be furious at the slight.

Daphne turns around

Swimming Home

October 30, 2012

I expect that many of you know the happy success story behind Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, but here it is for those who don’t.

Rejected by traditional publishers, on the grounds of it being ‘too literary to prosper in a tough economy’ (as Levy told the LRB), Swimming Home was taken up by And Other Stories, a fantastic new indie publisher which operates on a subscription basis. I have written about them at length for the Spectator here, but essentially, you pay them fifty pounds a year, which they pool together with everyone else’s fifty pounds to produce six brilliant books, which you receive as they’re published, with your name pleasingly printed in the back. (You can also pledge thirty-five pounds for four books, or twenty for two.) I urge you to subscribe!

Rescued from rejection, Swimming Home was longlisted, and then shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Faber helped And Other Stories publish a cheaper, mass-market edition, and so Swimming Home has became the book that everyone is reading and talking about. Even after Hilary Mantel’s historical second win of the Booker, we are still selling more copies of Swimming Home in my bookshop than Bring up the Bodies.

Swimming Home is an exceptional novel. Philip Womack in the Daily Telegraph called it ‘stealthily devastating’, which is spot on. So is Kate Kellaway, who called it in ‘a shining splinter, hard to dislodge’ in the Observer. I thought the atmosphere was similar to that of Michael Haneke’s film Hidden – the surface is smooth and normal, but underneath this veneer of calm lies gasping, destructive violence.

Joe Jacobs is a famous poet, who is on holiday in the South of France. With him is his wife Isobel, a war correspondent who wishes she could unsee all the terrible things she’s seen; his daughter Nina, on the cusp of puberty; and two friends Mitchell and Laura. Enter Kitty Finch, swimming naked in their pool, thin, ragged, beautiful, crazy, a botanist with wild red hair. There is also the elderly neighbour, doctor Madeleine Sheridan; the lazy caretaker Jurgen, infatuated with Kitty Finch; and Claude, ‘with his Mick Jagger looks’, who owns the café.

This set up reminds me of Ali Smith’s The Accidental (see this post about it) – which tells the story of another dysfunctional family on holiday, when their lives are disrupted by an exotic stranger. But whereas Ali Smith keeps the characters’ viewpoints resolutely separate, taking it in turns to move between them, chapter by chapter, Deborah Levy slides between them more fluidly (fitting, given the title), building up a tangled, intricate web of different characters’ thoughts, feelings and impressions.

It is a novel about poets, about poems – one poem in particular, Kitty’s poem, which she asks Joe to read, titled ‘Swimming Home’. Perhaps this sharing of a title is a clue, for the novel itself is not unlike a poem. The language is beautiful, images echo through the pages, and the slim volume is dense, heavy with meaning.

For instance, Kitty is furious that Jurgen has got the pool chemicals wrong and made the water ‘actually CLOUDY’. Madeleine Sheridan, the elderly doctor who prides herself on seeing through things, seeing a situation clearly, in actual fact has ‘cloudy, short-sighted eyes’. And, best of all, when she gives Joe some of her Andalucian almond soup and he finds a clump of her silver hair in it and pushes it away, spilling it all over his suit, she wishes he had said, ‘Your soup was like drinking a cloud.’ Of course the one place where there should be clouds, there aren’t any – in the searing hot blue cloudless sky.

But there is a point behind these neat, clever echoes of clouds. Clouds hide things, we long for them to disappear, and yet when we are exposed to the full heat of the sun (this is the South of France in July, not London in late October), it is too intense, too much, and we long for the cool relief of a cloud. Likewise, with the truth – so often we must resort to cloudy lies.

Levy writes about the necessary cloudiness of language when Joe reads Kitty’s poem:

The poem, ‘Swimming Home’, was mostly made up of etcs; he had counted seven of them in one half of the page alone. What kind of language was this?

My mother says I’m the only jewel in her crown

But I’ve made her tired with all my etc,

So now she walks with sticks

To accept her language was to accept that she held him, her reader, in great esteem. He was being asked to make something of it and what he made of it was that every etc concealed some thing that could not be said.

‘Etc’ is a kind of cloud, a means of concealing something else, ‘some thing that could not be said’.  Using ‘etc’ makes this explicit, jolts us into thinking about what it covers, but really as Iris Murdoch pointed out in Under the Net (see last week’s post), this is not so different from the rest of our language – it is all a cloud, veiling what is unsaid, what can’t be said, the unspeakable truth.

This idea echoes throughout the novel. Joe Jacobs has several different names – Joe, Jozef, JHJ, the English poet, the Jewish poet – the multiplicity of them pointing out how inadequate they all are to truly sum him up. Isabel thinks back to her time at school, where the motto was ‘Let Knowledge Serve the World’:

Now she thought she would change the school motto to something that warned the girls that knowledge would not necessarily serve them, nor would it make them happy. There was a chance it would instead throw light on visions they did not want to see.

Again there is that image of light being unwelcome, the suggestion that clear vision isn’t always good, that hiding behind a cloud can be a blessing.

Swimming Home is a remarkable novel. I raced through most of it in the bath one chilly autumnal morning. But like many slim novels, it begs to be reread, to let your thoughts meander their way around the allusive words and elusive truth again. It clings to you, embeds itself into your thoughts – indeed it is a ‘shining splinter’, one which I’ve found very hard to dislodge from my mind.