Posts Tagged ‘Gavin Maxwell’

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.

Advertisements

A yellow flag of freedom

July 4, 2011

It was raining on our first morning on the Hebridean island of Harris. On that same morning – and on each of the following – we ate the most enormous cooked breakfast, which meant that, in spite of the weather, we really had to go for a long walk.

So off we set, to a nearby mountain, where we were told there was a pretty walk which went past a broch (an iron-age structure) and which might be slightly sheltered from the rain.

It was definitely not even a tiny bit sheltered from the rain, or the wind, both of which grew stronger as the walk progressed. We’d just passed the broch when the weather became truly determined and began to drench us in strong gusts, which felt like standing too close to a dog vigorously shaking itself dry.

The fiancé decided that rather than turning back at this point – an hour or so into the walk – we should continue and walk around the entire mountain. ‘We’ve just got to get to there,’ he pointed vaguely into the clouded distance, ‘and then we’ll be able to cross over to the other side.’ This was said in a way that implied years of traversing the land.

We were standing ankle-deep in peat bog, climbing a steep slope, with only sheep for company. My toes were being given a cool bath inside my trainers. I had to go along with the fiancé, or risk betraying my feeble city-born roots, which make me severely anxious when climbing up peaty mountains in pouring rain, with clouds descending, and no sign of a path.

We continued in this fashion – him striding ahead, periodically stopping to wait for me, who was, rather pathetically, lagging behind. After another half hour, during which the weather only worsened, the terrain only grew steeper, and the mountain seemed to go on getting wider and wider, so that it seemed we’d never reach a point at which we could cross to the other side, I stamped my foot and insisted that we turn back.

The fiancé, fittingly sheepish, agreed, and back we went. By this point, my toes no longer felt happily bathed, but rather squelchy and wrinkly; my Barbour, I’d discovered, needed re-waxing as it was certainly not waterproof enough for the Scottish rain, and everything in the pockets – tissues, wallets, phones – was soaked through. I was mildly worried about getting an electric shock from my waterlogged Blackberry. I was more worried about the fiancé twisting an ankle and my somehow having to transport him back down the mountain. Knowing that I would definitely not be able to carry him, that no-one would be stupid enough to come on this walk in the rain, which was now torrential, I began to weigh up the likelihood of my being able to catch a sheep and use it as a mule. Unlikely, I’d just decided, when the fiancé said, ‘Ems, look at that!’

And there was an enormous bird of prey soaring through the air. It circled around us and then swooped down, landing on the mountain. It was incredible. We wondered if it were an eagle, but when we later told people the story, we were told that if one is in any doubt as to whether or not it is an eagle, then it almost certainly isn’t. Eagles are so big, you see – wingspans of two metres – that you would definitely know one if you saw one. But when we went on a (sunnier) walk a few days later, with an eagle expert, who pointed out eagles souring high overhead, the pattern of their flight looked so similar to that of the bird we saw in the rain that we began to think that our unusually close sighting really must have been of an eagle.

I think the fiancé was trying to cheer me up, or perhaps he was feeling rather apologetic for his miscalculation of the length of the walk. In any case, he kept on pointing things out. ‘Look at all those yellow flowers,’ he said.

‘Oh wow,’ I said, looking at the swathes of yellow flowers, their petals drooping open and the rain splashing off, while their leaves poked up sharply, almost like swords. ‘They’re yellow flag irises.’

And that moment was almost more special than seeing the eagle.

You see, while in Harris, I was reading Gavin Maxwell’s nature-writing classic Ring of Bright Water, in which he recounts his life in the remote Scottish highlands, looking after pet otters. It is rather an eccentric book and, at times, a very funny one too. But what he really excels at is describing his home, which he calls ‘Camusfeàrna’, the Bay of the Alders. In his preface he says that his invention of a name is ‘from no desire to create mystery’. He explains:

The name is of little consequence, for such bays and houses, empty and long disused, are scattered throughout the wild sea lochs of the Western Highlands and the Hebrides, and in the description of one the reader may perhaps find the likeness of others of which he has himself been fond, for these places are symbols. Symbols, for me and for many, of freedom.

I was of course aware that his poetic rendering of the landscape was akin to what I would see on Harris. Even the cover of the book looks remarkably similar to the breathtaking view from the beach by the hotel. But this flower, this patch of yellow amidst the rain-soaked bog of green grass and purplish heather, was immediately recognisable as something I’d read about the previous evening:

The leaves of the yellow flag iris that margin the burn and the shore form a forest of broad bayonets

These sharp leaves were indeed like ‘broad bayonets’ and the wide yellow petals formed the familiar shape of the purple iris. I found that I knew exactly what this flower was.

Reading Ring of Bright Water while staying in a place so similar to the one described was truly extraordinary. Sadly I didn’t see an otter – certainly not a tame pet one like those that Gavin Maxwell kept – but I did see seals, dolphins, eagles, ravens, gulls and gannets. And I saw the ‘bright water’ of the title – the way the sea gleamed silver even in the rain, due to the almost unearthly whiteish glare of such northern light.

I’m pleased to say that that was the worst of the weather, and future walks weren’t nearly as gruelling. Not even the one for which we walked through two miles of soaking peat bog before climbing up into a strange crater of a mountain. (The fiancé’s idea, once again.) I loved my stay in Harris, and am already longing to return. It was easy to see how Maxwell’s life amongst nature in a similarly isolated spot was in many ways a kind of paradise.

In any case, once I’d identified those yellow flag irises, and realised that, in spite of the horrid rain, we were actually in the magical place described so well in the book I was reading, the rest of the walk didn’t seem bad at all.

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.