Posts Tagged ‘George Eliot’

The Bell

July 20, 2015

What a lot has happened over the past few weeks!

We all went on holiday to Italy, which ought to have been heavenly – I was envisioning a kind of Enchanted April situation, with the addition of a rather squidgy Vita sitting in the shade making sweet gurgling noises – but alas it was broilingly hot, we had a laughably terrible journey, a scorpion took to sauntering around Vita’s cot, she got horribly, worryingly ill with tonsillitis so none of us slept for days as she cried rather heartbreakingly pathetically all night, and, the last straw, I trod on a wasp.

We came home early, all absolute wrecks, and were put back together again by a combination of mothers, doctors, and antibiotics. Emilybooks has resolved that from 2016, we will adopt a strict policy of staycationing during the summer months.

On the up side, as we came home early, I was around and able to write this big feature about the controversial new Harper Lee book, Go Set a Watchman for the Daily Mail.

From one Murdoch to another …

The Bell by Iris MurdochThe Bell by Iris Murdoch was mostly read while I was covered in Vita-vom, with eyes propped open with matchsticks, yet, still, it was a triumph.

It is a shame that Iris Murdoch has fallen so out of fashion. She tends to be dismissed as someone who created ‘novels of ideas’. Such an idiotic phrase! Aren’t all novels filled with ideas? And, surely, it ought to be a compliment in any case?

Well The Bell is bursting with ideas, and, the conclusion from yesterday’s walking book club is that we could have done with another few hours to discuss them all – so much was there to say.

Dora Greenfield, of whom I am rather fond, is a young Bohemian and errant wife. We meet her as she is returning to her (awful) husband, who is staying and working in the archives of an eccentric lay community set up beside Imber Abbey. Here, a collection of misfits is gathered to try to pursue a spiritual life in a beautiful house adjoining the abbey. They do things like cultivate a market garden, listen to a Bach gramophone recital, and sermonise. There is a lake in the grounds, and vigorous, idealistic young Toby, come to stay at Imber before going up to Oxford, shares Iris Murdoch’s love of swimming. When diving in the lake he discovers a medieval bell, which used to belong to the Abbey. So Dora and Toby hatch a plan to swap the new bell which is due to arrive at the Abbey with the old …

Murdoch gives us a rich assortment of characters in her community. Different chapters are focalised through the viewpoints of Dora, Toby and Michael. Michael is one of the leaders of the community and is struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. There are also several others – including the mysterious Catherine, who is to become a nun; her brother Nick, a depressive drunk who Michael used to teach and with whom he was – perhaps still is – in love; busybody Mrs Mark, naturalist Peter, charismatic James Tayper Pace … and a few more. Very cleverly, Murdoch never gives us the perspective of these characters: they are closed, seen only through the eyes of Dora, Toby or Michael. This means that when dramatic things happen late in the book to Nick and to Catherine (I won’t spoil it for you), they come as a complete shock and cast a new light on what has come before. It is perhaps a warning about the subjectivity of experience. It is certainly a means of showing us how very separate and enclosed are her characters’ different perspectives on the world.

Middlemarch by George EliotIt reminds me of a great bit of Middlemarch – a ‘pregnant fact’ to which Eliot draws our attention:

Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person…

Eliot essentially suggests that each character in a novel is like the ‘little sun’ of a candle flame, making the chaos of scratches appear to align concentrically around it – as events can seem to align around one character; but if seen from another character’s point of view, the events all line up completely differently. The Bell is, to my mind, a novel which shows this phenomenon better than any other – each character has such a particular, different take on events, and Murdoch’s clever way of showing us into the minds of three of them, and not into the minds of the others, allows her to pull it off with great panache.

This idea of lots of little separate worlds all coexisting, as seen in the characters’ viewpoints, can be extended in the novel. There is the closed world of Imber, and within that the world of the Abbey. There is also this rather beautiful description of Toby’s swimming in the lake:

He stood, poised on the brink, looking down. The centre of the lake was glittering, colourlessly brilliant, but along the edge the green banks could be seen reflected and the blue sky, the colours clear yet strangely altered into the colours of a dimmer and more obscure world: the charm of swimming in still waters, that sense of passing through the looking-glass, of disturbing and yet entering that other scene that grows out of the roots of this one. Toby took a step or two and hurled himself in.

Toby seems to keep on hurling himself through barriers into enclosed spaces, other worlds. There is another moment when he climbs over the Abbey wall; there are his forays into the different worlds of homosexuality and heterosexuality, and the latter even takes him into the cavernous bell itself (you have to read the book really for that to make sense).

All these little worlds alongside each other is perhaps why sound plays such a strong part in The Bell. Birdsong, the Bach gramophone recital, singing the madrigals, the dreadful portentous bark of a dog at the end, and the great tolling of the bell – Murdoch conjures Imber as much through its sounds as anything else. Not only does this appeal to our aural sense make Imber all the more vivid, but Murdoch’s use of sound is pertinent because sound is something that can surmount barriers, can cross between the worlds: you can’t see what’s behind a wall, but you can hear what’s behind it. When Dora rings the bell, everyone is summoned, from all their different enclosures, and the following day hundreds of people are there to witness the bell ceremony. Sound is a great unifier in this novel of so many separations.

There is much more, but I think I must leave it there or risk droning on for too long. Suffice to say The Bell is just brilliant. It may feel quite dated, but it also is funny, clever, thoughtful and eccentric. I can see why many people say this is their favourite of Iris Murdoch’s books. Though if I were to be completely honest, love it though I did, my all time favourite has got to be Iris Murdoch’s first novel – also funny, clever, thoughtful and eccentric, but more picaresque and very Londony – Under the Net.

As ever, I’d love to know any of your own Murdochian thoughts in the comments below…

Iris Murdoch photographed by Mark Gerson in 1958 - the year The Bell was published (National Portrait Gallery)

Iris Murdoch photographed by Mark Gerson in 1958 – the year The Bell was published


How to be Both

September 22, 2014

Outside the Piazza dei Diamante post-fountain dunkSome of you might remember my passing through Ferrara a few months ago, at the end of the Italian adventures of Emilybooks. I say passing through because we literally parked the car (rather too far out of the centre thanks to my misunderstanding of the map’s scale), walked up the main street which stretched on and on and on, reached a castle, turned right, saw the Palazzo dei Diamante (thank you architect husband), dunked my head in a fountain, ate two ice creams, and then returned to the car via a prettier windier route, and drove onwards to Vicenza.

I wish we had stayed a little longer, but we had to get to Vicenza in time to meet our Air BnB host. I was so excruciatingly hot that all I can really remember from our couple of hours in Ferrara was the sudden joy of having my head covered in cold fountain water, vastly overriding any embarrassment caused by the amused looks we got from nearby Italians. I wished we had stayed longer as I love the work of Giorgio Bassani, who wrote some very poignant, very brilliant novels (or perhaps technically novellas) set in Ferrara, including The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, which I’ve written about here and here. And now I wish we had stayed longer because just around the corner from the Palazzo dei Diamante is the Palazzo Schifanoia where I have just learned there are some extraordinary frescos by Francesco del Cossa. Frescos so extraordinary that one of the main characters in Ali Smith’s staggeringly brilliant new novel How to be Both goes all the way to Ferrara with her Mum just to see these paintings, and the other main character is Francesco del Cossa the artist. How could I have missed them?!

How to be Both by Ali SmithAt least I haven’t missed the book. What a book! You must all read it. It must win the Booker. But how on earth to begin to write about it?

Ali Smith does a clever trick with How to be Both. The novel is split into two halves: part one set in the present day about smart, precocious teenager George (short for Georgia) whose mother has died; and part one about the fifteenth-century artist Francesco del Cossa. Half the print run of the novel has the George part one as its first half, and the other half has Francesco del Cossa’s as its first. It is a canny way of dodging Forster’s assertion:

it is never possible for a novelist to deny time inside the fabric of his novel

which Smith rails against in her previous book Artful. Forster points out that prose must be one word after another, but with this trick the words come simultaneously before and after. It just depends on which copy you pick up.

So, let’s pause to reflect for a moment about how clever someone is who can write two halves of a novel, twist them around each other with connections and parallels and then engineer the plot to work both ways you encounter them. Right. And let’s not dismiss it as a gimmick, because really it is a signposting of Smith’s ongoing attempt to push at the very boundaries of what fiction can achieve, how narrative linearity can be bent and played with, made pliant to her demands.

The thing about Ali Smith’s writing is that it’s always very clever, but never at the expense of the work itself. You don’t pick up the book and think Christ what a smart-arse. And, frankly, you might be forgiven for anticipating such a reaction. I mean, what if you just want to read an enjoyable novel but instead find yourself landed with some extraordinarily clever modernist work which grapples with huge questions of form and gender and linearity, striving for a unique and wonderful ‘bothness’ which has never before been achieved. You could be forgiven for feeling somewhat put out by having bitten off more than you’d bargained for.

But Smith’s prose is so alive, vivid, enthusiastic, energetic and engrossing, dancing with possibilities, that within a page or two you forget that you’re reading a great modernist challenge, and are every bit as caught up in the pleasure of the story as you might be in a more straightforward novel. There are moments when the bright ideas leap out at you, but they never pull the fabric of the story too far out of shape.

She has it both ways.

So, back to Forster’s assertion and Smith’s tackling of it. How then can a novelist deny time and its linearity? Aside from publishing two different versions at once.

Memory. In both halves of How to be Both Smith weaves memories through current events so that they occur simultaneously. George, grieving for her mother’s death, is in her bedroom on New Year’s Eve:

She sits down on the floor, leans back against her own bed and eats the toast.

It’s so boring, she says in Italy in the palazzo in the mock-child voice they always use for this game.

Just like that, from one sentence to the next, we are transported back in time to when George and her mother are in Ferrara.

There are photographs – moments captured outside of time. George has stuck photos of her mother above her bed; the photograph on the cover of the book surfaces a few times within it. And, by extension, there are films. George starts obsessively watching a porn film of a drugged girl and an older man. As she explains to her father:

This really happened, George said. To this girl. And anyone can just watch it just, like, happening, any time he or she likes. And it happens for the first time, over and over again, every time someone who hasn’t seen it before clicks on it and watches it. So I want to watch it for a completely different reason. Because my completely different watching of it goes some way to acknowledging all of that to this girl.

And there are works of art, including Francesco del Cossa’s frescos. Surviving through time, beyond death, inspiring people over centuries. And even these paintings have different, troubling, layerings of time. We are with George and her mother in Italy again:

But which came first? her mother says. The chicken or the egg? The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?

The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done first.

But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean that the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?

Again and again, we are asked to question which came first, what keeps coming, looking at the limits of time, and how they might be overcome.

George and her friend have to do a project on empathy for school. They decide to do it about Francesco del Cossa. Trying to imagine what the artist would be like, her friend says:

He’d speak like from another time … He’d say things like ho, or gadzooks, or egad … He’d be like an exchange student, not just from another country but from another time.

Then George:

He’d be all alas I am being made up really badly by a sixteen-year-old girl who knows fuck all about art and nothing at all about me except that I did some paintings and seem to have died of the plague

George thinks:

She thinks how typical it’d be. You’d need your own dead person to come back from the dead. You’d be waiting and waiting for that person to come back. But instead of the person you needed you’d get some dead renaissance painter going on and on about himself and his work and it’d be someone you knew nothing about and that’d be meant to teach you empathy, would it?

It’s exactly the kind of stunt her mother would pull.

For alongside this preoccupation with cheating time and its insistent linearity, comes cheating death – the ending of someone’s time. Perhaps above all How to be Both probes the way that the dead and living exist alongside each other, overcoming their obvious beginnings and endings and times.

In the other part of the novel, Francesco del Cossa comes back from the dead. The artist has a peculiar invisible connection with George, watching over her, involuntarily following her about as though attached by a rope. Looking back at George’s musings above, one wonders, is this indeed the kind of stunt her mother would pull from the dead?

Or perhaps this is George’s empathy project for school writ large. For How to be Both is a startling exercise in empathy – a rendering of this silent strange connection between two people separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles.

Another George – George Eliot – thought that the function of art was empathy:

to amplify experience and extend our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.

Well then, How to be Both is a giddy, dizzying, mesmerising piece of art. Read it and I dare you to disagree.

Francesco del Cossa's fresco


May 8, 2013

BookshelvesA couple of months ago I wrote a piece for the Spectator Books blog about how one ought – or, indeed, ought not – to arrange one’s bookshelves. I revealed the scintillating news that many of my books are arranged as though they are at a huge literary party: I think of which characters might get on with characters in other books and put them next to each other. So, for instance, Old Filth by Jane Gardam is next to Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald because I think that Eddie Feathers (a.k.a. Filth) would get on well with Richard from Offshore. On Offshore’s other side is Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent – while Lady Slane might not entirely approve of Offshore’s Nenna, I feel sure that she’d sympathise with her, as they both defy their family in choosing where to live, be that in a small house in Hampstead or on a rickety boat on Battersea Reach. Knowing what a bore it can be to get stuck with someone and unable to shake them off for hours at a party, I shuffle the books around now and again. I’m sure that Mrs Dalloway would approve.

TexterminationGiven this somewhat eccentric means of arrangement, which would, no doubt, be the bane of any librarian’s well-ordered system, I was delighted to read Textermination by Christine Brooke-Rose, a novel about just this sort of literary party.

Thousands of characters from literature converge upon the San Francisco Hilton to pray for their continued survival in the minds of readers. Everyone is here – from Odysseus to David Copperfield, Emma Woodhouse to Emma Bovary, Mrs Dalloway to Gibreel Farishta (who causes no end of trouble). How thrilling to see them all meet one another, form friendships and enjoy each other’s company. On a group excursion, for instance, here are some of the encounters that take place:

What a strange country America is, says Becky Sharp to her neighbour Friday, who grins and says island, very big.

Lazarillo, Oliver Twist, Gavroche, Mowgli, Janek Kowalksi and Huck Finn are scrambling up and down the rocks, having hilarious and noisy fun.

Lotte looks as ever for Goethe but finds herself instead with a Dublin Jew called Leopold Bloom, who talks a great deal but of things quite beyond her ken, except when he describes the preparation and eating of fried kidneys. Ugh!

It’s too brilliant!

Many might be put off by the huge knowledge of literature that Brooke-Rose assumes of her reader. I doubt whether even the most erudite of literary professors would recognise absolutely every character mentioned in Textermination. Worry not, for Brooke-Rose gives us a character – Kelly, a helper at the convention – who shares our neurosis:

She barely has time to glance at the cards, and to her horror she doesn’t recognise every name … Who was Charlotte Kestner, for instance, out of Thomas Mann? Who was the handsome young Indian labelled Aziz? Or a splendid Arab king of Granada labelled Aben-Hamet, or even Philip II out of she didn’t see who? Those at least she should have known. She feels ashamed and rattled. Gaps, so many gaps in her reading, she’ll never catch up.

‘So many gaps….’ This worry of never managing to catch up is the reader’s perennial complaint. It is only made worse by the fact that the more you read, the more you discover there is still to read. The huge crowds at this convention at the San Francisco Hilton suggest the impossibility of being able to read everything – it’s too overwhelming, you will never catch up.

Brooke-Rose matches our complaint with the complaint of the characters: we worry about not reading enough, and they angst over not being read enough. We might worry about not being able to remember quite what happens in a book, or which books to give to the charity shop when we run out of space on our shelves, but they worry about how long they’ll manage to stay on those shelves – how long before they get thrown out, or a publisher sentences them to going out-of-print. Now I’ve read Textermination, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get rid of a novel again. (Although I’ve never been particularly good at that.)

It stands to reason that as the characters are all in books and attending a literary convention, they might want to discuss this common ground, not just the ‘preparation and eating of fried kidneys’. We see some of them in a café discussing ‘I-narrators’. Henry James’s Strether accuses the narrator of The Aspern Papers  of being ‘an unmitigated scoundrel’ and then, on being accused of being a third-person narrator, gives a nice one-liner about James Wood’s free indirect speech:

I believe it comes to the same thing you know, says Strether, it is my viewpoint throughout.

At the end of this meeting, rather ominously, ‘Humbert, Humbert, who hasn’t said a word, takes Maisie by the hand.’

As you might suspect, the convention does not run smoothly, and there are various challenges to it which the fictional characters struggle to overcome. One takes the form of an invasion by screen characters, leading to a massive fight between characters from written narrative fiction and those from film and television. Dante’s Virgil tells Jude (the Obscure) and Dorothea that it’s ‘nothing compared to the Inferno’. Still, the convention must resort to tear gas in order to end the commotion. Then they begin to debate. JR from Dallas says:

Serials come off the air and sometimes return. But more often they do not. Dallas, for instance, which ran for two decades or more, has been axed. And then we’re deader in the short public memory than anyone in a book.

It is a comical and dramatic way of staging a good question: which characters are more real – those on television or those in a book? It is just one of many pert questions about literature and the value of it that Brooke-Rose asks, masked in her riotously imaginative set-up. You can perhaps imagine the confusion when film adaptations of characters meet their literary originals.

Textermination reminded me of the reader’s responsibility to read widely and to read well. Brooke-Rose conjures a great deal of pathos for her characters, all neurotically shuffling around the Hilton praying for their survival. Only we – the readers – can grant this to them. We think, therefore they are. ‘So many gaps’, thinks the reader, but this book should encourage us to keep on trying to fill those gaps, to continue to explore all these brilliant books, to not be cowed but inspired by the wealth of literature that lies ahead of us. Textermination serves both as a welcome reminder of some of our favourites and a tantalising introduction to the literary treasures that we’ve yet to read.

In adopting all these characters from other novels, Brooke-Rose deliberately draws attention to herself as a reader as well as a writer. We should be inspired by her example and use our own readerly powers to keep the characters alive. As well as overcoming all the obstacles and challenges which the convention comes up against – from terrorist attack to blazing inferno – the characters have all survived their authors. Sadly, Christine Brooke-Rose passed away last year, making her the second author (at least) that most of these characters have outlived. Perhaps they are kind enough to pass a little of their immortality on to their writers. Certainly the characters in Textermination conjure a woman of brilliant intelligence, with a wonderfully mischievous imagination, who was also a voracious reader. Inspiration for us all.

Christine Brooke-Rose

Holiday reading

June 21, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘But it’s so thick and heavy!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m ever so excited.

A Literary A-Z

May 3, 2011

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Clever lady. And great plots too.

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

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.

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

His manners and appearance did not calculate to please;

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Having people

July 2, 2010

‘He has no people. You can’t trust a person like that,’ says Betty Draper’s father to her husband Don in the hit TV series Mad Men.

And Betty Draper’s father has got a point. Don Draper is the archetypal self-made man. He has come from nothing and shedding his family along the way – he has turned his back on his people. And no you can’t trust him; Don has a series of affairs while telling his wife that he is completely faithful to her, and never mind about his kids.

People without people have usually run away from something, some secret. And, because of this secret, we can’t really trust them.

People trust people who come from ‘normal’, stable families, who live in suburbia, who can come round for dinner parties, who go and stay with their parents over Spring Break. It’s the 1950s suburban American dream.

People who have people deserve trust.

But this is only true for the dominant society. For immigrants, the opposite is the case.

I’m reading the most astonishingly brilliant book at the moment. It really is one of the best books I’ve ever ever read. The Hare with Amber Eyes, by potter Edmund de Waal, tells his family’s story through his inheritance of a set of netsuke – small decorative Japanese objects. (The Guardian gave it a particularly good review which is here, if you’re interested.)

The netsuke first came into de Waal’s family when his ancestor Charles Ephrussi bought them at the end of the nineteenth century. Charles Ephrussi was an extraordinarily wealthy Jew, who lived in Paris. The son of a grain merchant from Odessa, he was an art historian, a great patron of the arts, and a collector. He was friends with Renoir, Manet and Proust to name just a few … There’s a famous story (nicked by Proust) about when Charles gave Manet too much money for a painting of a bunch of asparagus. Manet then sent Charles a painting of a single asparagus stem, with a note to say that one was missing from his bunch.

In this magnificent yet humble book, it is clear that Charles is trying his utmost to integrate himself into Parisian society. He has a salon, attends salons, is friends with all the aristocracy as well as all the artists. All his money is being used to try to fit in. But he is never fully trusted by society – because of his people.

When Ephrussi buys some Moreau, Renoir is disgusted with this ‘Jew Art’. He wrote, of Moreau, ‘It was clever of him to take in the Jews, to have thought of painting with gold colours … Even Ephrussi fell for it’.

De Waal sifts through the anti-Semitic writing of the time, alighting in particular on Drumont, the editor of a daily anti-Semitic newspaper. Drumont argued that Jews, because they were inherently nomadic owed nothing to the State. In de Waal’s paraphrase:

Charles and his brothers, Russian citizens from Odessa and Vienna and God knows where, looked after themselves – whilst leaching the life-blood of France by speculating with real French money … The Ephrussi family certainly thought they belonged in Paris. Drumont certainly thought not.

So here, for the Jews, it isn’t that you can’t trust a person with no people; it is that you can’t trust a person with people. They are loyal to their people rather than to the State.

The dilemma resonates. How would I describe myself, English or Jewish? I’d say Jewish first. And I’m only ‘Jew-ish’ in the Woody Allen sense – I never had a Batmitzvah, I was asked to leave Jewish Sunday school at a very early age (eating bacon-flavoured crisps in Synagogue didn’t go down too well), and I have far more friends who aren’t Jewish than who are. I only go to Synagogue once a year or so, and can only speak about ten words of Hebrew or Yiddish. (And most of them are words like ‘schmuck’ and ‘schlep’ that everyone knows anyway.)

Perhaps I’m more aware of being Jewish than being British, or English, because of the vague anti-Semitism that lurks close to the surface even in London’s multi-cultural world. Certainly, if I’m with foreign people and they say something disparaging about the English, I start getting quite defensively English about it. I suppose if people are going to say nasty things about Jews, it’s going to make me feel quite defensively Jewish.

But where do I stand as a reader?

When I studied English Literature at university, there was something distancing me from a large part of the course. It is a remarkably rich tradition, and a privilege to live in its country, to speak its language, but it was hard to feel excited about Anglo Saxon and Chaucer, and even the Brontes and Austen (you know how I hate Austen), when it felt like a heritage to which I was only really pretending. While all these women were trussed up and prancing around drawing rooms, or taking turns in their grounds, my ancestors were digging up turnips in Lithuania.

And then there is the discomfort of the anti-Semitism which infiltrates a great deal of the canon. Shakespeare is an astonishingly good playwright. Phenomenal. His language still can’t be matched. But what about Shylock? What about the fact that one of his major plays is hideously anti-Semitic?

Yes, it was different then is the old excuse, but still … it hurts to think that all this marvellous English playwright thought of us Jews was that we were determined to get our ‘pound of flesh’.

And then you meet Dickens’ Fagin, called ‘the Jew’ over 250 times in Oliver Twist, who is ‘disgusting’ to look at, a horrid criminal, who brings children into lives of crime in exchange for a roof over their heads. Incidentally, Dickens subsequently made friends with some Jews and proceeded to de-Jew Fagin in later editions of Oliver Twist, and tried to make up for his anti-Semitic stereotyping by placing a few good Jews in Our Mutual Friend. But, frankly, the damage was done. In fact, my cousin wasn’t allowed to be Fagin in his school play because they were nervous of being accused of type-casting.

Well, you can imagine what a special moment it was when I came across Eliot’s Daniel Deronda early on at university. Yes, I’d read Middlemarch – hasn’t everyone? – and yes, I thought it was good – doesn’t everyone? – but I felt that Dorothea Brooke and her life in the Midlands was part of this English tradition to which I felt like a bit of a pretender.

But Daniel Deronda is my perfect book. It is where the English tradition meets the Jews. And, even better, the English are satirised and the Jews come out on top! No Fagins, no Shylocks, but the wise and spiritual Mordecai, Mirah and … well if you read it you’ll find out that someone else pretty central to the book is Jewish too. Of course Daniel Deronda is more drawn towards the mysterious, exotic singer Mirah, than the fickle gentility of Gwendolen Harleth.

Sadly, and perhaps inevitably, Daniel Deronda – Eliot’s last novel – has always met with a mixed critical reception. Everyone prefers Middlemarch. When it was published, there was great consternation at her turning her attention to ‘the Jewish problem’. And perhaps some of the criticism is justified. The Jewish characters aren’t so sharply drawn – they are symbolic, standing for Jewish ideas of inheritance, Zionism and community, rather than existing as strong individual characters.

But for me, this will always be one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It made me see that there was a way of being both English and Jewish, of bringing together the two sides of my life without having to be polarised between them. I could read about Jews without having to read a horrific Holocaust survival memoir or an almost-as-horrific Philip Roth. A phenomenal mistress of the English language managed to write about the Jews, in a positive light, while also writing about contemporary society. It can be done. If only it were done as well, more often.

And if only there weren’t still mistrust of a person who has her own people.