Posts Tagged ‘Henry James’

Reading Lolita in Tehran

February 22, 2016

Whats the story morning gloryWhen I was about twelve, I bought (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. I was a massive Oasis fan, and did all those classic pre-teen things like headbanging while jumping on my bed, sticking posters up all over my walls, and writing out lyrics in swirly patterns on pads of paper. As all true fans know, Definitely Maybe was a much better album, but I have a particular memory of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? which is the point of this (otherwise, you might think, rather peculiar) preamble.

I always used to beg to play my music in the car (sorry Mum) and I remember listening to this CD on one particular journey – we were just approaching the Shepherd’s Bush Roundabout – when my brother told me that (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? had sold so many copies that something like one in thirteen people in the UK owned it.

This fact blew my twelve-year-old mind as we drove past the wasteland where Westfield would one day be built. I thought of all the cars I could see, all the cars we’d passed during our journey, and considered the likelihood that the same album was playing in many of them. I thought of all the people in England who’d bought it, and wondered how many were listening to Wonderwall right then at the very same moment as I was. After that conversation, whenever I pressed play to listen to (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, I would imagine other fingers pressing play for the same CD all over the world.

This feeling of being overwhelmed by everyone everywhere doing the same thing as you, which happens to be something that you love, is how I feel now about book clubs. It works on two levels. Firstly, there is the joy of thinking of your own book club, and the various members reading the same book in time for the next meeting. As I read a wonderful sentence, I wonder what another reader will make of it, a reader who is possibly encountering it at the same time. Secondly, and perhaps more profoundly, there is the feeling of people all over the world being part of book clubs: the feeling that while Emily’s Walking Book Club strides across Hampstead Heath, a bunch of people are, say, sitting around a crackling fire in Derbyshire, or at a dinner table in Calgary … or around a coffee table in Tehran.

Reading Lolita in TehranThis is why I picked Reading Lolita in Tehran for the most recent meeting of the walking book club. I was intrigued to read about a book club meeting in very different circumstances.

Azar Nafisi is an Iranian academic, who wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran as a memoir of her time teaching American and English Literature during the Revolution in Iran. It begins by focussing on the ‘book club’ of sorts she set up. Having resigned from the University, Nafisi invited her seven favourite female students to discuss literature every Thursday in her home. We are introduced to her students and the book begins with their discussion about Lolita. As Nafisi guides us through other works of literature – by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen – she steps away from the book club setting, and reflects on her time spent teaching, and reading more generally. An especially dramatic moment is when she puts The Great Gatsby on trial in her university class, and she writes movingly about holding vigil reading Henry James outside her children’s bedroom while bombs from Iraq drop nearby.

It’s an extraordinary period of history and fascinating to read Nafisi’s account of Iran at this time, to discover how exactly it came to be that the women found themselves having to wear headscarves, to read of the terrible ‘morality squads’, as well as details like the homemade vodka in which her husband indulges. Then there is the horror of reading about the suffering endured by many of her students and friends: various combinations of arrest, imprisonment, abuse, torture, rape, and execution.

Woven together with this portrait of Iran, are Nafisi’s readings of the various texts. A theme that runs throughout is the play between reality and fiction – Nafisi’s ‘active withdrawal’ from reality and escape into fiction, and literature’s power to help one cope with difficult circumstances by offering its different worlds.

She emphasises the importance of empathy, how a novel is ‘a sensual experience of another world’, in which you ‘hold your breath with the characters’, and that evil in literature is blindness: ‘the inability to “see” others, hence to empathise with them.’ Nafisi makes the point that:

What is frightening is that this blindness can exist in the best of us (Eliza Bennet) as well as the worst (Humbert).

Elsewhere, she uses Elizabeth Bennet’s blindness to great effect. A student kept on following her to her office and telling her that Jane Austen was anti-Islamic and a colonial writer. Then:

One day, after a really exhausting argument, I told him, Mr. Nahvi, I want to remind you of something: I am not comparing you to Elizabeth Bennet. There is nothing of her in you, to be sure – you are different as man and mouse. But remember how she is obsessed with Darcy, constantly trying to find fault with him, almost cross-examining every new acquaintance to confirm that he is as bad as she thinks? Remember her relations with Wickham? How the basis for her sympathy is not so much her feelings for him as his antipathy for Darcy? Look at how you speak about what you call the West. You can never talk about it without giving it an adjective or an attribute – decadent, vile, corrupt, imperial. Beware of what happened to Elizabeth!

There is an added irony here, because once Reading Lolita in Tehran was published and became such a success, it received some flak for exactly this – focussing so much on Western literature rather than Persian. (You can read more about this in this Slate article here.)

There is a third strand of the book, alongside the readings of literature and portrait of Iran – Nafisi’s own life, and the people in it: her family, friends and students. And I’m afraid I thought (and so did the rest of the walking book club) this was the book’s failing. We all confessed to finding it very hard to differentiate between Nafisi’s students, or indeed to ‘see’ any of the characters in the book. When there is a memorable instance of a student’s response to a novel – like Mr. Nahvi’s above – it is usually a student who is otherwise incidental. (I don’t remember Mr. Nahvi featuring elsewhere.)

The real flaw here lies with Nafisi’s seven students who come to the Thursday literature discussions. We are introduced to them in the opening pages of the book, but they don’t really develop. Various things happen to them: one gets married in Turkey, another has her engagement called off, one has a brother who is horrid to her, another a husband who abuses her, one of them has painted fingernails … but none of us could remember what happened to which woman, or any of their names. Nafisi makes a big point of her girls being able to take off their loose black robes and head scarves when they enter her home to reveal the individuals beneath, in jeans and t-shirts, with their own hair styles and colourful nails. Somehow the book doesn’t quite achieve this derobing, and the women remain swathed in vague blackness.

This is especially problematic as Nafisi makes such a good point about the importance of being an individual:

The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes … My students witnessed it in show trials on television and enacted it every time they went out into the streets dressed as they were told to dress.

She draws a comparison with the scene in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, when Cincinnatus is made to dance with his jailer, and waltzes with him in a circle around a prison guard. This complicity is the ultimate cruelty:

The only way to leave the circle, to stop dancing with the jailer, is to find a way to preserve one’s individuality, that unique quality which evades description but differentiates one human being from the other … There was not much difference between our jailers and Cincinnatus’s executioners. They invaded all private spaces and tried to shape every gesture, to force us to become one of them, and that in itself was another form of execution.

Finding the strength, courage and determination to remain an individual is vital for survival. This is exactly what Nafisi encourages her students to discover in literature: a private world where you can be free to think what you like. Only, Reading Lolita in Tehran is full of Nafisi’s own thoughts on literature, rarely are her students given a voice. And if their thoughts occasionally spill onto the page, then so little else is told about them, that it’s hard to see individual characters emerge from such few words.

Nafisi writes well about the terrifying feeling of ‘irrelevance’ which took hold of her under the new regime. Perhaps this book is too much a statement of her own relevance, rather a record of the voices of the many other women who were forced into silence.

Having said all that, I still think it’s a very thought-provoking and important book. I especially liked Nafisi’s comparison of Pride and Prejudice to an eighteenth-century dance. As ever, I would love to know your thoughts on it. (Or indeed, on a teenage love for Oasis.)

Azar Nafisi

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Emilybooks of the Year

December 17, 2014

The thing about sleeping in 3-4 hour chunks is that time bends into something altogether new. So when I say it’s been an age since I last posted here, I mean an age in a peculiarly nebulous sense. It has been an amount of time of which I can’t really conceive. Life before Vita – what was that?

I had hoped to be writing here a little more regularly, but little Vita has proved to be rather a lot to take on and doing everything one-handed means it all takes twice as long. We’ve also moved house, and any writing time I’ve managed to carve out has been siphoned into a couple of journalism commissions which sprung up and couldn’t be refused. There’s one for the Spectator, which you can read here. And the other one is still in the pipeline, so watch this space…

But wow it’s Christmas next week, which is thoroughly disorienting. Not only is it the first Christmas after Vita and therefore, as I explained, it has approached in a strange new way, it is also the first time for years that I’ve not been working in the bookshop during what is always a madly busy, derangedly exciting time. So I thought I must stir myself from my semi-comatose state at least enough to be able to write my EmilyBooks of the Year – for that has become a Christmas tradition from which I would hate to part. So I hope you enjoy the round-up below. The links go back to my original reviews of them, in case you’d like a little more info on the various books.

Looking back on what I’ve read this year has proved both enjoyable and revealing. I think everyone ought to do it, as an exercise in self-reflection. If so, I’d love to hear how you get on and any of your picks for books of the year.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns2014 introduced me to rather a large clutch of what I might fondly term ‘EmilyBooks’ – the oft-overlooked but brilliant novels that I adore reading. I picked many of these for the Walking Book Club, so thinking back to them now yields very happy memories of chatting away on Hampstead Heath. The Home-Maker and Fidelity, two Persephone Books, were both extraordinary. Both are set in small-town America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both are about women who step beyond their allotted place – going out to earn the family’s living, or having an affair with a married man. Both books are good on how society struggles to handle these misfits, and how the misfits are strong enough to survive. (Incidentally, we were honoured to have a week of the excellent Persephone Post – the Persephone Books daily blog – inspired in part by Vita!) Other brilliant old novels discovered this year include Angela Carter’s Wise Children, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (but only read it if you are ready for something seriously harrowing), William Trevor’s Love and Summer, Elaine Dundy’s excellent The Dud Avocado (a MUST if you are going to Paris) and – perhaps my two favourites – Meg Wolitzer’s brilliantly funny and very clever The Wife, and Barbara Comyns’ disarmingly simply told and terribly affecting Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. This last will definitely be a future walking book club book – it is tremendous!

The Letter for the KingI was pleased (and not surprised) to see how many of my books of 2014 are published by Pushkin Press. Those of you who’ve not yet discovered this terrific independent publisher, which specialises in bringing the best European fiction to our shores, should do so NOW. Red Love by Maxim Leo is a fascinating family memoir – I’d say it’s up there with The Hare with Amber Eyes for the way he manages to get the bigger picture of history through the filter of his immediate family. It’s all about the GDR and how the author’s two grandfathers – one a Nazi and the other a freedom fighter – could both come to believe so fervently in the new regime. There was also Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, strange and brilliant, and Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, also strange and brilliant. Both have an eerie, dreamlike feel to them, and thinking back on the now it’s this special atmosphere of the books that has really stuck with me, rather than the ins and outs of the plots. A special mention should go to Pushkin’s children’s book The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. I started reading this as soon as I went on maternity leave, thinking that it would be the ideal gripping piece of escapism for my exhausted brain. It was, and I spent a heavenly few days on the sofa with it. In fact I enjoyed it so much that the husband wanted to read it as soon as I had finished. And then I went into labour. And rather a lot of that strange first day of labour, before we could go into hospital, was spent with me rolling around on a big pilates ball while the husband read the book and I kept asking him irritating questions about where he’d got up to, only he wasn’t allowed to be annoyed with me because I was in labour. Ha! Truth be told, I think having such a good distraction for a book was the only thing that kept him sane, so thank you Pushkin!

Where Angels Fear to TreadJourney by Moonlight is just one of several books I read that are set in Italy, as our blissful two month sojourn in Lucca called for a great deal of geographically appropriate literature. Looking back on it now, I still can’t really believe we got away with it – two months of eating ice cream and lazing around, reading, writing, sketching, sleeping … I wonder if Vita, who was wriggling around in utero, might grow to love these books too? Certainly I’m sure she will share her mother’s love of pasta.

Thinking of pasta, there was The Leopard, with its infamous macaroni pie, a wonderful novel, which I loved discussing on a walking book club at the Perch Hill Feast. There was Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence – obviously good, because everything by her is good, but perhaps not quite as good as her others. Christ Stopped at Eboli – a classic piece of anthropological observation, which made Southern Italy in the 1930s seem like another world entirely. There was Portrait of a Lady, which was good but something about James’ coldness, and the nastiness of it all, made it seem rather sour. Best of all the Italy books was the double-Forster hit of A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread – it was such a treat to have an excuse to revisit them.

H is for HawkI loved re-reading various classics this year, as well as the Henry James and the EM Forsters, there was Brideshead Revisited – so much more enjoyable to read for pleasure rather than studying it for A Level – and Jane Eyre, every bit as good as I remembered, and also Pride and Prejudice. This last was wonderful, and the other thing we did when I went into labour was watch the boxset of the BBC adaptation – a great way to pass quite a lot of time!

There was a substantial chunk of non-fiction: The Examined Life, which was the perfect January book – ideal for a bit of sober self-examination. How to be a Heroine – a paean to many brilliant novels, written so charmingly that you end up feeling that Samantha Ellis is a bit of a heroine herself. The Rings of Saturn, which was a rare instance of a book being both heavy-going and brilliant – I kept wanting to say thank you Sebald, for stretching my brain in so many of these bizarre directions. And, finally, two wonderful memoirs: The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg – astonishing insight into Germany during the war, written by an English woman who’d married a German – and H is for Hawk, which I adored so much that I nearly called my daughter Mabel in homage to the hawk. I was very happy to see that this won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

How to be Both by Ali SmithI also enjoyed some new novels: the wonderful Chop Chop by Simon Wroe, who I should say is a friend, and I should also say has just been shortlisted for the Costa Prize – hurrah!!! And also Homecoming by Susie Steiner, which I started off thinking would be all about sheep farming, but actually it’s about families and change. And there was, of course, the supreme treat from Ali Smith: How to be Both. How I adored this book. Smith has a way of writing that makes modern fiction seem so exciting and makes me feel lucky to be a reader.

Last but not least, comes a book which is particularly special to me: Park Notes by Sarah Pickstone. Not only is this a beautiful book about women writers finding inspiration in Regent’s Park, but it also features my first ever piece of work to be published in a book!

I hope this little round up might provide some inspiration for Christmas reading, or indeed shopping. Once we get to 2015, Emilybooks will be back for real, and so will the walking book club – our next meeting is on 25th January to discuss Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. Vita’s rather excited about it!

Park notes

The Portrait of a Lady

June 16, 2014

What is it about Italy and its views?

Having first been struck by Forster’s A Room with a View, which seemed to me to be all about the importance of a good view and being able to see clearly – something which Italy can give the English traveller, if he or she is sufficiently open to it – now I’m struck by the same thing in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Only James’s book, written thirty years earlier, has a rather sadder conclusion.

The Portrait of a LadyIsabel Archer is American. Young, intelligent, pretty, she has been taken up by her aunt and brought first to England and then to Italy, though she has so many suitors falling at her feet it is somewhat remarkable that she is able to move anywhere at all. First there is strong, hard Caspar Goodwood – an American heir to a cotton mill; next there is ridiculously English Lord Warburton. There is also the rather wonderful Ralph Touchett – Isabel’s cousin – who knows his is a hopeless case as he is dying of consumption, but contents himself to watch Isabel blaze her path, persuading his father to leave her half of his own fortune in his Will:

‘I shall have the thrill of seeing what a young lady does who won’t marry Lord Warburton.’

He goes on to add:

‘There will be plenty of spectators!’

Indeed, we readers are of course amongst the keen spectators, wondering what it is that Isabel Archer will do with her life, now she has become a woman of independent means.

She tells us, simply:

‘I don’t want to begin life by marrying. There are other things a woman can do.’

When Ralph says, ‘You want to see life – you’ll be hanged if you don’t, as the young men say,’ she counters:

‘I don’t think I want to see it as the young men want to see it. But I do want to look about me … I only want to see for myself.’

James conjures a kind of double vision around Isabel: there are all her ‘spectators’ – those who are watching her – and also what she can ‘see’, her desire to ‘look about me … to see for myself’.

So off she goes to Italy to broaden her horizons. Unluckily for Isabel, the sinister Madame Merle, a friend of her aunt’s, has taken an interest in her – and in her newly acquired money – and introduces her to villainous Gilbert Osmond. Osmond and Madame Merle are thick as thieves, and we soon gather than he will be Isabel’s next suitor. We fear the worst. Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood both turn up again and are turned away. Ralph, who we feel has the best chance of making her, literally, see sense, fails too, and we soon gather that Isabel has accepted Gilbert Osmond.

How can our heroine, seemingly so keen on independence, on seeing the world, be so taken in by Osmond? Perhaps the best light is shed on him by Ralph:

Osmond lived exclusively for the world. Far from being its master as he pretended to be, he was its very humble servant, and the degree of its attention was his only measure of success. He lived with his eye on it from morning till night, and the world was so stupid it never suspected the trick. Everything he did was pose — pose so subtly considered that if one were not on the lookout one mistook it for impulse. Ralph had never met a man who lived so much in the land of consideration. His tastes, his studies, his accomplishments, his collections, were all for a purpose. His life on his hill-top at Florence had been the conscious attitude of years. His solitude, his ennui, his love for his daughter, his good manners, his bad manners, were so many features of a mental image constantly present to him as a model of impertinence and mystification. His ambition was not to please the world, but to please himself by exciting the world’s curiosity and then declining to satisfy it. It had made him feel great, ever, to play the world a trick.

So Osmond is another double vision – one who ‘lived with his eye on’ the world. We know him as a great aesthete, a collector of things which are pleasing to the eye. He looks at works of art, however, only to become a work of art himself.  In contrast to Isabel’s innocent openness to her spectators, Osmond is all ‘pose’. Constantly aware of those who look at him, he poses with sufficient skill to take them in – well, perhaps not such a sharp observer as Ralph, but certainly poor wide-eyed Isabel.

In Claire Messud’s brilliant essay on re-reading The Portrait of a Lady, published in the Guardian, she describes Osmond’s ‘ability to reflect light so that he may appear to shine’. Is it really so surprising that naïve Isabel, who is so keen to see ‘the world’, is taken in by this man of the world, a trickster who has perfected his illusion?

When we rejoin Isabel three years into her marriage, we learn that it is a very unhappy one. Tellingly, they live at the Palazzo Roccanera in Rome, meaning ‘black rock’, and images of darkness persist. Osmond once reflected light, but now he has plunged Isabel into the dark depths of misery.

I shall go no further with the plot, for this is when all the twists and turns and revelations begin, and I hate to be a spoiler. We wonder, along with the other characters who are all keen observers of Isabel’s fate, will she ever be able to see clearly? Will she see through conniving Madame Merle and cruel Gilbert Osmond? Will she see her way through to freedom?

A Room with a ViewLet us jump forward a few decades to EM Forster’s A Room with a View, which I wrote about in more depth here. Like Isabel Archer, Lucy Honeychurch goes to Italy wanting ‘something big’. She wanders through Florence reflecting, ‘The world … is certainly full of beautiful things, if only I could come across them.’ Then she is mesmerized in the Piazza Signoria, as it transforms itself into a true chiaroscuro in ‘the hour of unreality – the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real’. She sees a man killed in a duel and thinks it is her fault for wishing to see something so big:

‘She thought, ‘Oh what have I done?’

Lucy Honeychurch sees Italy and so sees the world, and so – and this is the most important thing – is eventually able to perceive the truth about herself and the other characters who exert influence over her, such as the oddly compelling Charlotte Bartlett. For a while it seems as though she might not succeed, but the comic muse wins out and all ends happily ever after. How tragic, that poor Isabel Archer, whose trajectory appears to be at first along such a similar path, is taken in by a fiendishly well-executed trick and plunged forever into darkness.

Reading through Henry James’s notes and Preface to The Portrait of a Lady, I was struck by how much he employs the language of vision here as well as within the novel proper. It is in his Preface that he so famously wrote about ‘the house of fiction’, which has:

Not one window, but a million – a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its very front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbours are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine … [the windows] are, singly or together, as nothing without the posted presence of the watcher.

He really knows how to string out a sentence! I can just tell that hundreds of pages have been spent arguing about the particular meaning and relevance of this passage, and I can’t hope to begin to do justice to it here. All I will say, however, is that readers and characters have become watchers, each perspective is unique and, vitally, limited – windows are a somewhat treacherous aperture through which we must perceive.

Interesting, then, at the end of A Room with a View, when George and Lucy return to the Pension Bertolini in Florence, George:

strolled to the window, opened it (as the English will), and leant out.

I somehow feel that Henry James didn’t want anyone to open his windows and lean out of them. His spectators are stuck behind the rigid panes of glass – indeed, sometimes even further stuck behind field glasses! Perhaps this is where he achieves such brilliant tension in The Portrait of a Lady. Everybody is able to look, but they are limited in their observations and unable to reach through the glass and do anything. Isabel Archer might have looked out of the window – indeed, in the chilling denouement scene, Henry James pictures her doing exactly this, and she sees the truth ‘as if it had been reflected in a large clear glass’ – but unlike George and Lucy, she could not open the window and see ‘all the view’.

Perhaps she was just thirty years too early.

Incidentally, you might like this piece I wrote for The Junket for some more thoughts about windows, including this beautiful one by Ravilious.

Belle Tout Lighthouse by Ravilious

Pietrasanta and Carrara

June 2, 2014

Emilybooks in-laws have been to stay, and while they were here very little reading ensued, I’m afraid. I have embarked upon re-reading Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, remembering how much I enjoyed it first time round at University and feeling its Florentine setting appropriate to my own Italian adventures, but alas I am not even two hundred pages in, with several more hundred to go… they haven’t even made it to Florence yet! So I’m afraid you must wait until next week for my Jamesian thoughts.

Pietrasanta bookshop treeIn the meantime, I thought you might like to see a picture of this little bookshop in Pietrasanta, a city just over the hill from Lucca. I say hill, I think I might mean mountain. We drove up there one Saturday evening, thinking it would be another sleepy little Tuscan place, complete with picturesque main piazza, beautiful Duomo and campanile, and we found we had accidentally stumbled upon the centre of the Italian contemporary art scene. We both felt decidedly scruffy as we wandered amongst crowds of women in structured, ‘interesting’ designer dresses and men in jackets, jazzy shirts and light cotton scarves,who spilled out from the various art galleries which lined the streets. Over dinner, we got chatting to a friendly man who hailed from London and had settled out her. He was full of all sorts of surprising information. For instance, he told us that the art gallery he looked after – just next door to our restaurant – would stay open till three in the morning throughout the summer! They don’t even bother opening until early evening and all the deals get done once everyone was drunk late in the night. He also told us a little about Forte di Marmi, the grand beach resort down the road. Apparently everyone is seriously snobby about getting the right spot on the beach, and I was particularly intrigued by the sound of a grand old Italian lady he knew, now in her seventies, who every summer still reserved the same sun bed she’s been frequenting since she was a little girl.

Just a little farther along the coast from Forte di Marmi is Carrara, where vast marble quarries are cut into the mountains. It’s the beautiful white marble that one pictures when someone says marble – used by the Romans, e.g. for the Pantheon, and also the Renaissance sculptors, most notably Michelangelo. Wikipedia informs me that it is also the stone used for London’s dear old Marble Arch.

The marble mountainsThe husband, being an architect, is rather more interested in things like quarries than most, so booked us on a tour of Carrara. The four of us piled into a jeep, with our lovely guide Stephanie, and Manuela, our formidable driver, who was also a guide but who spoke no English. I had great fun exercising my minimal Italian with her. We drove up the bendy roads into the mountains, which are, we were informed, all marble, and the quarries are where they literally cut huge chunks out of the mountain side. You can just see the quarry nestled between the peaks here. On the roads, which grew increasingly alarming, we encountered lorries with the most colossal chunks of marble on the back. As we pulled over to let one pass, Manuela casually told me a chunk of that size would weigh around 30 tonnes. Soon we were driving almost vertically up a scrabbly track. At the top, we were told it was where they’d filmed a car chase in Quantum of Solace and that the stunt man had at first been too scared to do it. Manuela then laughed heartily and said she was a real ‘stunt woman’ and we zoomed down towards the quarry, clinging on tight.

Michelangelo's quarry in CarraraWe went to Fantiscritti, the quarry where Michelangelo used to come to choose his pieces of marble. I found it very uncanny to think of him in the same place as us, only so much higher up, as over those hundreds of years so much more marble has been quarried. Each one of those steps is three metres tall (you get a feel for the scale by the tiny stick figure men in the bottom left). It is exactly the opposite to the feeling one has when seeing the Roman sites, which are of course always lower down than the present day and this lent a peculiar feeling of topsy turviness to the whole experience. Incidentally, I suspect that when T.S. Eliot wrote so scathingly of the women who ‘come and go/ talking of Michelangelo’, they would not have been talking about his awe-inspiring quarry.

Apparently marble dust is the new gold dust, being put in pills as a source of calcium for things like osteoporosis. My thoughts immediately turned to Daphne, who of course needs to be given rather a lot of calcium for her shell. I wonder if we could give her a little chunk of marble to peck away at instead of the calcium powder we sprinkle over her food. I wonder if the husband could chisel a little chunk into a Roman column for her, which would be rather a bling addition to her house. Any tortoise experts care to advise?

Little else to report, really, other than that my Italian seems to be developing mostly in the direction of ice cream flavours thanks to our strict upholding of a daily gelato at four o’clock. Nespola was a recent discovery, meaning medlar. Pompelmo rossa – pink grapefruit – is my longstanding favourite. Mandorla – almond – is a good one, as is zenzera – ginger. The husband is obsessed with fior di latte, literally ‘flower of milk’, which seems ironic given his early stumbling to order a coffee with milk, which some of you might remember.

So back to Henry James I go, with a little piece of roadside Carrara as a handy paperweight.

The Portrait of a Lady plus paperweight

The Turn of the Screw

September 30, 2013

After all the excitement of the Ham and High Literary Festival, EmilyBooks was whisked off by a kind and generous friend to Italy, to one of those rare and wonderful places with no internet, and not much of a phone signal either. Hence there was no post last week.

Truth be told, I’ve been rather restless with my reading, flitting between various novels and memoirs, not quite managing to get stuck in. Maybe it’s been a kind of hangover from the sheer wonder of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger. At Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday, I found I was not alone in immediately wanting to re-read it. Many of us felt unwilling to leave it behind, perhaps because its teasing elliptical nature makes you want to go back and look for clues, as with a detective story. I suppose I ought to have just given in and re-read it straight away, rather than suffer this funny couple of weeks of dipping in and dipping out of things.

The Turn of the ScrewThe only thing I did manage to read cover to cover is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. This was no doubt aided by its extreme brevity and gripping ghoulishness. I was also chairing the Southbank Centre’s Book Club about it last week, and turning up not having read it since university would have been cheeky to say the least.

Why has Henry James earned a reputation for being so impossibly difficult to read? I adored The Portrait of a Lady; What Maisie Knew is what first inspired me to try to write myself; I remember The Ambassadors being pretty ace; and The Turn of the Screw is unputdownable!

I expect you know the story. Some friends are gathered around the fire telling ghost stories when one of them boasts of a story that is so horrible that:

It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it … for dreadful – dreadfulness!

This ushers in the main story. A young woman goes to work as a governess for two orphans in a big country house. Before long, she starts to see two ghosts – a man and a woman, who she deduces used to be a valet and her predecessor at the house. She grows convinced that they want to take control of the angelic children, and so does everything she can to stop them. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well.

The knot at the heart of the book is whether or not we believe the governess. She is such a persuasive, powerful narrator that, at first, it is hard to doubt her. You can’t fail to be sucked in, terrified of the ghosts, unnerved that the children seem to be in cahoots with them.

Yet, read it more closely, and you see that Henry James encourages us to question the reliability of her narrative. She is by the lake with Flora, one of the children, when she sees the ghost of the old governess. Flora is apparently ignorant of the ghost, and yet this is how she reports the incident to Mrs Grose, the housekeeper:

‘Two hours ago, in the garden’ – I could scarce articulate – ‘Flora saw!’

Mrs Grose took it as she might have taken a blow in the stomach. ‘She has told you?’ she panted.

‘Not a word – that’s the horror. She kept it to herself! The child of eight, that child!’ Unutterable still for me was the stupefaction of it.

Mrs Grose of course could only gape the wider. ‘Then how do you know?’

‘I was there – I saw with my eyes: saw she was perfectly aware.’

Henry James voices our doubts through Mrs Grose. How exactly does the governess know? How much do we trust what she saw with her eyes? We grow aware of quite how subjective her account is.

The ‘unreliable narrator’ is perhaps the ultimate Jamesian trope and one of those things that make teachers sweat with excitement. Once you start to question the governess, it is easy to jump on that school of thought that sees her as an unreliable narrator – mad, suffering from hysteria or from a displacement of her own anxiety or whatever else might explain these hallucinations or fabrications. Yet James doesn’t let you off so easily. He doesn’t make it irrefutably clear that the governess is making it up; there remains the distinct terrifying possibility that the ghosts are real.

Once you become aware of this knot, you see that every paragraph can be read both ways – as proof of the governess’s unreliability, or of the ghosts’ existence. It lends the book an intense claustrophobia, as its pages begin to close in on you and you feel desperate but unable to escape. I suppose it’s not unlike how the governess must feel – stuck in the house in the middle of nowhere with only ghosts and haunted children for company.

People get wretchedly caught up trying to argue this one way of the other. Truman Capote thought the ghosts were real; Edmund Wilson thought the governess was mad. It’s an argument that could go on forever. Henry James is the master of ambiguity. He teasingly tells us, when the friends are gathered round the fire:

The story won’t tell.

(His italics.) No, indeed it won’t.

In his Preface to the New York Edition of his work, James wrote the following about The Turn of the Screw. It comes at the end of a paragraph about different types of fairy tale:

The charm of all these things for the distracted modern mind is in the clear field of experience, as I call it, over which we are thus led to roam; an annexed but independent world in which nothing is right save as we rightly imagine it.

I love this idea of a fairy tale as ‘an annexed but independent world in which nothing is right save as we rightly imagine it’. This is what makes The Turn of the Screw at once intoxicating and terrifying. The governess imagines the ghosts and so they are ‘right’ and real to her. It is up to us whether we decide to go along with her and imagine the ghosts too, or whether we decide not to. What is right or not depends entirely on our imagination. Not just a fairy tale, but all fiction is a place where imagination roams free, and in The Turn of the Screw we see the horrifying edge to this – we are tantalisingly close to what might happen if we let our imagination roam a little too freely.

Henry James in 1897

Textermination

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

The House in Paris

June 18, 2012

I’ve just finished my third book by Elizabeth Bowen and really she is a brilliant writer. She’s very good at creating a bewitching, utterly engrossing atmosphere that sucks you in and makes it quite difficult to climb out and get back into the real world. I mentioned (here) that when I read Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, it held me so spellbound as I read it lying in my carriage on the sleeper train up to Inverness, that I didn’t realise we’d arrived and very nearly didn’t get off the train. The stewardess looked bewildered when she opened the carriage door to give it a cursory look and found me lying there in my pyjamas, my head stuck in London in the Blitz. ‘We’ve been here quarter of an hour already,’ she said as though I were raving mad. I suppose, maybe I was a bit.

A similar thing happened with The House in Paris. Last week, I sat down to read it for half an hour one afternoon after lunch, and before I knew it, it was gone five and I’d nearly finished it. My flat had almost disintegrated; its whole quiet world with the hum of the washing machine and occasional ping of my phone completely faded out and I was there stuck in the book, caught up in its deeply mysterious feeling so that time really had disappeared along with everything else.

I began The House in Paris thinking that it would be a little like What Maisie Knew by Henry James, or, indeed the lower-brow Atonement by Ian McEwan. This is because it starts off being told through the eyes of Henrietta, an eleven-year-old girl who is suddenly in the middle of a very adult situation. I love books like this. I even began trying to write one while I was at university – although I didn’t get that far.

Children of that age are still childish, yet they have a loose, overheard grasp on adult issues, enough to ape an adult understanding of things, which makes them seem terribly precocious, when of course they don’t actually understand the darker subtext of a situation. This combination of childish naivete and pretence at being grown-up, when placed in a truly complicated, adult situation of lies and secrets, with adults dashing about trying to make everything seem fine, makes for a fascinating consciousness to use as a filter.

So eleven-year-old Henrietta arrives in Paris, ‘one dark greasy February morning before the shutters were down’. She is collected from the Gare du Nord by a mysterious Miss Fisher who is to look after her for the day before taking her to catch the evening train down to the South of France where she is to stay with her grandmother. She learns in the taxi of another two mysterious characters, who will also be at the house in Paris: Leopold, a little boy who’s come from Italy, but is not Italian, who is there ‘for family reasons; he has someone to meet’ and Miss Fisher’s mother, who is very ill.

Miss Fisher is tense and responds to Henrietta’s questions by telling her far too much. Bowen reflects:

One of her troubles was, quite clearly, being unaccustomed to children. Henrietta had the advantage of her, for, as almost an only child – she had one married sister – she was only too well accustomed to grown-ups.

Henrietta gets to the house and meets Leopold, who is definitely a strange child. We see him first through Henrietta’s eyes:

He wore a bunchy stiff dark blue sailor blouse, blue knickerbockers and rather ugly black socks.

But here’s where it all becomes quite unexpected. For having been in Henrietta’s head for chapter one, chapter two puts us inside Leopold’s:

Henrietta, composedly sitting up on the sofa, pushing the curved comb back, made Leopold think of a little girl he had once seen in a lithograph, bowling a hoop in the park with her hair tied on the top of her head in an old-fashioned way.

It’s surprising, clever, and makes one draw a sharp intake of breath. It thickens things. It makes one wonder, what will happen next.

Well gosh I could go on and on about this book forever, but to spare all of us, I better speed things up a bit. Essentially the first part of the novel is about these two children, in this very adult sinister house in Paris. They, of course, completely disobey the adults, learn far too much, but don’t understand quite everything. An uneasy but very special bond is formed between them.

Then we get to part two, where another strange thing happens in the narrative. Bowen explains why Leopold’s mother, at the last minute, doesn’t come to meet him (for that is the reason for his being in Paris). She says:

Actually, the meeting he had projected could take place only in Heaven – call it Heaven; on the plane of potential not merely likely behaviour. Or call it art, with truth and imagination informing every word. Only there – in heaven or art, in that nowhere, on that plane – could Karen have told Leopold what had really been.

Bowen is saying that the whole premise of the first part couldn’t actually happen. As far as authorial asides go, this is pretty far out. And then it gets stranger yet:

This is, in effect, what she would have had to say.

The rest of the second part, which is around half the book, is the story of Karen, Leopold’s mother, and how Leopold came into the world.

It is a bizarre way of bridging the two stories, it feels perhaps clumsy, too obviously seamed, but somehow it works. And it was Karen’s story with which I sat down on the sofa and got completely wrapped up in for hours.

I think I shouldn’t give anything else away about the plot, but I will just mention one more thing that Bowen does very well: seedy meetings in ghastly restaurants.

One of the most memorable bits in The Heat of the Day is when Harrison makes Stella have dinner with him. He takes her to a fantastically hideous place, down some stairs into:

a bar or grill which had no air of having existed before tonight. She stared first at a row of backviews of eaters perched, packed elbow-to-elbow, along a counter. A zip fastener all the way down one back made one woman seem to have a tin spine. A dye-green lettuce leaf had fallen on to the mottled rubber floor; a man in a pin-stripe suit was enough in profile to show a smudge of face powder on one shoulder … The phenomenon was the lighting, more powerful even than could be accounted for by the bald white globes screwed aching to the low white ceiling – there survived in here not one shadow: every one had been ferreted out and killed.

It sounds just dreadful. A dodgy, horrid, underground place. They go on to have a terrible, tense, fateful confrontation of a conversation. And the setting, with its grimness, lends the whole thing an air of being unnatural, forced, not at all right.

In The House in Paris, there is another illicit meal in a restaurant. This restaurant is French and rather nicer, but there is still something hideously oppressive about it. It is lunchtime and blazing hot sunshine outside, but going in:

was so suddenly dark – and so suddenly chilly, making her cup her bare elbows in her hands … [he] read down his menu Napoleonically, and she looked at her menu blotty with mauve ink … Karen looked at a vase of roses on a middle table, then round the restaurant, with its embossed brown wallpaper, in which they were shut up with what Mme Fisher said.

These meals in these restaurants are acutely uncomfortable to read. The feeling of claustrophobia and oppression is remarkable. There is the clash of an intensely private meeting taking place in the public sphere, the smash of the outside against the inside.

In each situation, it’s the woman who feel this oppression rather than the man, who remains quite comfortable, even ‘Napoleonic’. The woman feels the outside world pressing in on her, strangling her private affair. Perhaps Bowen is iterating a woman’s need for her own private space – somewhere she can exist privately without the press of the outside. Just a few years earlier, Woolf had phrased it so famously as a woman’s need for ‘A Room of One’s Own’.

What Bowen does so well with her writing is create a fictional room of one’s own. Her books are so overpowering in atmosphere that they utterly succeed in taking you out of whatever real space you happen to be in and putting you inside this other space, which exists just for you and the characters of the book. Reading one of her books – even in the seediest of restaurants – one is safely transported to a private imaginary and immersive space. I, rather greedily, long for a whole fictional house made up of Bowen’s intensely atmospheric rooms. I can’t wait to read the next.

A Literary A-Z

July 18, 2011

J

 

J surely boils down to a battle of two great Jameses – Henry James and James Joyce. I have soft spots for both.

My tutor at university was a Joyce expert, and I remember the experience of reading Ulysses very clearly indeed. I was sitting on one of my Mum’s quite smart cream sofas, with a cup of tea nearby – perpetually  nervous that I might spill it – holding the thick paperback with both hands, amazed that my tutor understood this incredibly dense book so well that she had actually edited it. I was on that sofa for several hours every day for a week. I couldn’t believe that I was going to have a tutorial with her about it. I was so unnerved at the thought of having to write an essay, which she would then read, or, worse still, that I would read it aloud to her, that in the end I wrote about a character who only appears in about six pages – a man in a macintosh.

One of my favourite lines of all literature is the final line of The Dead, the novella at the close of Dubliners:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Incidentally, I mentioned this in a post about Orhan Pamuk a while ago, only to overhear Andrew O’Hagan tell someone – just the following day – that it was his favourite line. Strange coincidence. He definitely thought I was a bit peculiar when I rushed up to him and told him it was one of mine too, and I’d just written about it on my blog.

As for the other James, Henry, well he has an Oxford-related story too. During my entrance interview, I was asked which writers I liked, whose work I hadn’t studied at school. At the time I was obsessed with Milan Kundera. My future tutor (the Joyce expert) was unimpressed. She said she didn’t want to talk about him and asked me for something else. My brain went spectacularly blank. For a moment it felt as though I’d never read anything at all. At last I remembered something. ‘I liked Atonement by Ian McEwan,’ I ventured.

We discussed Ian McEwan for a while. I said I’d liked the way Atonement was told from a child’s perspective, but yet there seemed to be an adult’s sensibility behind it. The Joyce expert introduced me to the word ‘focalised’. Then the other tutor in the room – who was to become my Middle English tutor – piped up for the first time.

‘But then,’ she said, ‘he just does what Henry James did. Only Henry James did it so much better.’

‘Really?’ I asked, remembering that I’d read Portrait of a Lady and struggling to see the similarity.

‘Of course. It’s just like What Maisie Knew. But James was a real master.’

I left the interview feeling that it had gone quite well. I thought I might try to track down a copy of What Maisie Knew so that when it came to my second interview with them I’d be able to say something about it.

At what seemed like an ungodly hour the following morning, someone knocked on my door. I was informed that I was wanted for an interview at another college, in half an hour.

I felt sick and confused. I hurriedly got dressed and gobbled my emergency Kit Kat Chunky. I was escorted to this other college, which was about five times the size of little Exeter. On the way, while crossing one of the quads of this grand college, the heel of one of my stupid shoes, which I wasn’t used to wearing, got lodged in between two paving stones and I was momentarily stuck in the mud. It was a sign of things to come…

With most of these interviews, you’re given a piece of writing to look at for half an hour beforehand. For this one, I was given a piece of poetry. I began to read it.

‘Oh no, I’m so sorry,’ the lady said. ‘You wrote about poetry in one of your essays. John Donne. There’s no need to test you on that. Here’s some prose instead.’

And she handed me a page of prose. I looked down at the bottom, where it said, ‘taken from What Maisie Knew by Henry James’.

I then suffered the most appalling interview you could imagine. Everything I said was twisted around and thrown back at me. I felt as though we were playing some weird game, in which I had to say why I loved English Literature and then they had to show me that actually I’d just said why I didn’t. It was terrible.

Until it came to the questions about the unseen extract. I talked about it for a while. They didn’t appear to be listening to me. Then, at last, I ventured, ‘It reminds me a bit of Atonement by Ian McEwan.’

They both sat up. ‘Do go on,’ said the one who had been marginally less nasty to me than the other one.

I went on for a little while. I used the word ‘focalised’. It was the only three minutes of the interview that weren’t horrific. And then, I’m not sure how, but I found myself talking about John Fowles and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

At this point the nastier tutor cut in. ‘Given that the course at Oxford is very traditional. Do you not think that your taste in literature is rather too modern?’

Back to the ridiculous game then. I struggled through the rest of the interview, left it in tears, sat on the train back down to London, steely with determination never ever to study under such a horrible man.

In the end, luckily, I was offered a place at Exeter, and only once came across the horrid man in a lecture, out of which I swiftly walked.

Well, I suppose it’s actually not a particularly nice story, that one. But then I did end up reading What Maisie Knew and I thought it was incredibly brilliant. So brilliant that it inspired me to start my own writing. I wrote a few chapters of a book, focalised through a little girl who had quite a peculiar imagination, who was staying in a house with her mother and grandmother, while terrible grown-up things were going on. I didn’t get particularly far with it, but it was a start. And if it weren’t for that, well then I probably wouldn’t still be trying.

I suppose that means Henry James has to win.

K

 

There seem to be several Ks who I like. Kafka, Kapucinski, Kapur, Keats, Kipling, Kunzru, in alphabetical order.

But I’m going – surprisingly decisively – to opt in favour of Keats. There’s a great deal about his poetry that should be praised. Not least, that it’s exceptionally beautiful. But I’ve always felt particularly fond of his poetic use of medical and scientific language:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk

Keats mingles hemlock and opiates with the river Lethe. (The Lethe was one of the rivers of the Underworld; drinking from it led to complete forgetfulness.) Poetry is always full of mythical references like this. They make it seem magical and old and mysterious. But the precision of the medical language, of naming these two substances – hemlock and opiates – that would achieve the same effect as drinking from the river Lethe, creates something unique and quite extraordinary.

During A-Levels, I was the only person in my English class who was also studying Science. And I was the only person in my Chemistry class who was also studying English. The Science block was a seven-minute walk from the main School building, where English – and other Arts – lessons took place, which meant that I was always slightly late for everything. Unfortunately, in English, as everyone knew that it was because I’d come from the Science block, it meant that my being late wasn’t remotely cool or rebellious. It just showed that I was a Science geek. And when I turned up late for Chemistry, having come all the way from English, everyone thought I was a wishy-washy arts student.

It felt as though the combination of English and Science couldn’t possibly be resolved. Until I found Keats. And then I saw that really, if the two very different disciplines could be brought together, they could create something that really transcended either one of them alone.

L

 

D.H. Lawrence, Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, or Emmanuel Litvinoff.

The man who managed to get the C word into literature must be given due credit. And everybody loves The Leopard. Plus those two are double-Ls: Lawrence with Lady C; Lampedusa with The Leopard.

But I’m going to go for the one who’s usually overlooked, Emmanuel Litvinoff.

I discovered Emmanuel Litvinoff thanks to Iain Sinclair in his Hackney book. He was mentioned a few times as a writer of the Jewish East End. But then I could never remember his name when I went into a bookshop. Indeed I’d almost forgotten about him, by the time I started actually working in a bookshop.

And then, a couple of weeks in, as I was shelving some books in the London section, I saw it: Emmanuel Litvinoff Journey Through a Small Planet. The book looked rather smart – a Penguin Modern Classic. The cover shows an eccentric-looking man wearing big specs, light shining full onto his broad forehead, in contrast with the dark stairs on which he’s standing. Intriguing.

I bought it, read it and loved it. Litvinoff’s memoir is about growing up around Brick Lane at the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was filled with Jewish immigrants.

People spoke of Warsaw, Kishinev, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa as if they were neighbouring suburbs

It is rather a subtle portrait of a time and a place – rather than always feeling proud and part of his community, at times he feels ashamed:

The Kosher signs and Yiddish lettering were embarrassing advertisements of alienation

And yet, it was Litvinoff who stood up at the ICA in the 1950s, to recite his poem accusing T.S. Eliot of antisemitism, even though T.S. himself had just joined the audience.

A great man, and his book is a great story. L is undoubtedly for Litvinoff.