Posts Tagged ‘Monica Dickens’

EmilyBooks of the Year

December 19, 2011

Here, for your delectation, are my favourite books of the year. That is, books that I read over the past year, rather than books that were published over the past year. It must be strange and exhausting to read only the newest of books. I have to admit that I find those ‘books of the year’ lists that one reads in the newspapers at this time of year a bit dull. Lists are only really interesting when one understands the rationale behind the selections. So this is less of a listy-list (listless, ha!) and more of a chatty, discursive one.

Looking back, I suppose this year’s reading has been dominated by old women. This was my year of Jane Gardam – first The Man in the Wooden Hat, then Old Filth, then (again) – to calm pre-wedding jangles – A Long Way from Verona. And to keep Jane Gardam company, there was also Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. All brilliant books. All written with elegance and subtlety and quite brilliant matter-of-fact wit. Some of these had a certain ‘coming-of-age’ element, which I inevitably find irresistible. For that very reason, other books of the year were Monica Dickens’ sublime Mariana and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – both of which can happily be described as ‘hot-water-bottle fiction’, i.e. blissfully comforting and snug. They would probably make it on to my desert island books.

It’s also been a year of reading rather a lot about houses, thanks to the novel I’m writing about a derelict house. Particularly good books, in which houses feature rather prominently, have been (as well as the already mentioned Mariana) Bowen’s Court, Howards End, The Small Hanand Rebecca. Bowen’s Court is written in such a unique voice, and is rather long, and I read it rather concentratedly (often in the bath) that by the end I felt like I’d made a new friend. It helped that Elizabeth Bowen had told me so much about her family and her own personal history during the course of her book. I long to read more by her and often think back to that very great voice booming through my head in the echoey bathroom and wish I could listen to it some more. I suspect I might revisit her in my Christmas reading.

Howards End was every bit as brilliant as I expected it to be. I really do think that Forster is one of the very best writers. Although that’s a terribly unfashionable opinion to hold. And Rebecca. Well I suppose Rebecca, like Mariana, combined a house book with a coming-of-age story. Winning combination as far as I’m concerned. Someone famously said of it that it’s the only book where the murderer gets away with it. That throws a rather alarming light on it.

The other classics that I’ve really adored this year have been Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig and a newly-published collection of Edward Thomas’s poetry. I’d been longing to read Beware of Pity ever since I read and loved Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday a year or so ago. Beware of Pity is intensely psychological, a bit like Crime and Punishment, and is written so breathlessly that there aren’t even any proper chapter-breaks. It really is almost impossible to put down. Oddly enough, I read it soon after reading Crash by J.G. Ballard and tried to draw some comparisons between these two books about crippled people, but ended up just feeling bemused that the books could both revolve around the same thing but be so irreconcilably different. It was a joy to return to Adlestrop with Edward Thomas’s Selected Poems. Nature poet extraordinaire. I should also like to add in here by first encounter with Gavin Maxwell in The Ring of Bright Water, which was the perfect thing to read in the Outer Hebrides – a funny, eccentric book about living with an otter in Scotland. Although the best bit isn’t actually in Scotland, it’s when he’s trying to take his otter home on an aeroplane and the otter causes utter farcical delightful chaos.

But enough of all this old stuff, I have read some new things too. And actually some of them were quite cutting edge and very very good. They made me feel tinglingly excited about writing today. Ali Smith’s There but for the is a delightful riff of a book, jumping from pun to pun to pun, all within bigger meta-puns. It’s very clever but also very enjoyable. A playful love of language radiates from the book, which makes it hard to resist. Landfall by Helen Gordon was very good too, seeming to be quite a normal sort of book and then suddenly swerving into something quite extraordinary.

But – best of all – is A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which I’ve just finished reading. This book has been so ridiculously over-hyped that I almost felt I knew so much about it just from everyone going on and on about it that I couldn’t quite be bothered to read it myself. But oh my god what an absolutely genius, brilliant book. It is written with such verve, so sharp, so funny – yet also quietly sad. It’s a book which screams NEW YORK at you. It is New York. Essentially, Egan looks at a group of characters who work in the music industry. Each chapter takes one of the characters at a certain time (jumping back several decades hopping forward into the future and stopping off at moments in between) and captures various moments in their lives. I loved it and could go on about it for hours, but shall limit myself here to one particular aspect that I found to be fascinating and brilliantly-realised: the future. There are two chapters set in the future. The first one is written in power-point slides, as though, by then, this is how people communicate. Lawns are a dream of the past, as you have to have loads of carbon credits to get them now, and there is a strange alien solar plant which also harvests moonlight. The other chapter sees the very clever invention of ‘pointers’ – toddlers who ‘point’ at what they want on people’s ubiquitous ‘handsets’ and thereby determine powerful trends. So, for instance, several bands have brought out songs to appeal to ‘pointers’, because the children literally ‘point’ at the handset to download it and the sales shoot through the roof. Having endured several nauseating conversations by yummy mummys in the bookshop about how ‘Little Rupert and Milly’ are so intuitive with their iPhones, this felt like an alarmingly plausible vision for the near-future. It is WEIRD how tiny children take to iPhones and iPads so easily and intuitively. How weird to think that this could be such a strong connection that it could essentially make them the ultimate consumer.

I shall end, appropriately, with Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. I expect, as it won the Booker, you’ve probably read lots about it already. It is very clever, very addictive and it’s likely that, as soon as you finish it (which will be soon after you start, as it is slim and so unputdownable), you will want to start again to try and figure it out. The cold, sparse way in which it’s written didn’t bother me as much as it might have done. Perhaps it was because it’s a cold, detached sort of story so that style is perfect. It’s a very good book. And a beautiful object too.

All in all, a brilliant year of reading. I wonder what next year holds in store.


November 14, 2011

She only said, ‘The day is dreary,

He cometh not,’ she said;

She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,

I would that I were dead!’

Today was particularly dreary. Grey, foggy, bleak, chilly. It was the perfect day, really, to finish reading Mariana – not Tennyson’s poem, but Monica Dickens’ marvellous novel.

Monica Dickens alludes to Tennyson’s poem, not just in the title but also on two specific occasions in the book. Once when the main character, Mary, has to recite it at drama school, and again, towards the end when there’s a terrible storm which finds her stranded in a house in Essex, awaiting some terrible news.

But the pleasing thing about reading Mariana (the book) is that however dreary the day, however aweary one feels, one cannot possibly read it and would that they were dead. It is the most wonderful, wonderful book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Perhaps, though, it particularly appeals to me.

An editor recently told me that she had a guilty love of crime novels. She asked me about my own favourite type of book; if I could read absolutely anything, what would it be?

‘I love coming-of-age novels,’ I replied. ‘Things like I Capture the Castle, and A Long Way from Verona, and The Go-Between. I absolutely adore them. They are just so comforting.’

She raised an eyebrow. ‘I see. That’s psychologically quite interesting.’

I’d never thought about it like that before. Why do I love to revisit this time? The falling in love, the having a heart broken, the discovering something about oneself, the falling in love with someone better. It’s glorious. But perhaps it is psychologically interesting, or, indeed, alarming. Oh well, surely not as alarming as having a secret love of crime novels.

But, in case you too find yourself fond of a coming-of-age novel, of a certain mid-twentieth century language, peppered with words like ‘ravenous’, ‘thrilling’, ‘ghastly’ and ‘rather’, then, well you might adore Mariana too. (Incidentally, Westwood by Stella Gibbons, which I wrote about here, is another good one.)

I love Monica Dickens’s language. She has a wonderful turn of phrase which is at once precise, imaginative and quite funny. She describes the ‘hot, sugary interior’ of an ‘irresistible’ patisserie in Paris: it ‘made you feel like the jam inside a doughnut’. It’s perfect. All the sweetness and deliciousness and warmth being almost oppressive, so that it makes you turn as red and sticky as doughnut jam! Or how about Mary’s French boyfriend’s scary posh mother as:

no more than a cold, unemotional peg on which to hang diamonds; black-haired and bony-nosed, like a raven decked out in its stolen jewels.

Or indeed, on returning to England after her spell in Paris, Mary notices the feeling of the English air:

It was a feeling of damp, fresh security. Everything looked so right and so comfortably unexotic, like a cabbage.

I feel utter delight in reading sentences like this. What a clever lady she was. It turns out that she went to my school – which I despised and left at sixteen, as soon as I was allowed. If only they’d bothered to tell us about her, I might have liked it rather more.

Mariana tells the story of Mary, who, at the start of the novel is enduring a stormy, dreary, miserably night – awaiting the bad news. Dickens then tells us Mary’s story, starting with her childhood and the blissful holidays spent in her grandparents’ country house, running around in shorts and scrappy shirts with her cousins, climbing trees and putting on plays. Mary is in love with Denys, her arrogant, handsome, talented cousin, who is about to go off to Eton. There is a wonderful kiss in an attic. A few years later they go hunting together, having ‘breakfasted hugely off porridge and sausages’. I have to say I’ve always been seriously anti-hunting, but this was such a lovely passage, that I felt quite sad that it had been banned, and bizarrely nostalgic for it. Then there’s a heartbreaking episode at Denys’s university ball. After that there’s a funny bit where Mary tries hopelessly to become an actress. Then Paris. Then … oh, I don’t want to spoil it.

Amidst the all-round radiance of this book, there was one aspect that particularly intrigued me – probably because I’m writing a novel about a derelict house. And that’s Mary’s preoccupation with her grandparents’ house in the country, Charbury.

It is clear that Charbury is the setting for Mary’s happiest childhood memories:

For Mary, everything at Charbury was unquestionably perfect.

School was something to be endured until she was released for holidays there. Even the train journey down is wonderfully exciting, with Mary on tenterhooks for the joy that awaits. When, years later, once Charbury has been sold and her mother tells her how much all the family argued down there and that it could be ‘terrible’, Mary can’t quite believe it.

none of it could spoil the perfect memory that stayed with her through the years, glorified, almost to legend, because it was a time that could never come again.

Big mistake then, years later, to stop off there with her fiancé and ask the gardener if they could look around:

she stared and stared, unable to believe her eyes. ‘But it’s so small,’ she kept saying, ‘it’s so small.’

The gardener, with inadvertent irony, says, ‘It’s like old times. It’s like the old days to see you’. But, of course, that’s just what it isn’t like. Mary goes to embrace him as she would have done in the ‘old times’, but at the last minute he ‘drew back, and lifted his cap, suddenly embarrassed to find her grown-up’. Mary walks around the grounds and sees how everything has changed:

They went down to the Play House, which was locked up and dilapidated; the lily pond was empty of goldfish and had been made formal, with a fountain; the ha-ha wall – how could she have hurt herself jumping from that low height? – had been re-bricked wth glazed grey stones like a public house. ‘Oh darling, I wish we hadn’t come,’ Mary said.

Most hurtful is when she looks for the ‘swing tree’ – ‘one of our favourite places’, and sees no more than a ‘terrible, pathetic stump … flat and clean, like a new tombstone.’

Every house has its memories and its ghosts. And the flipside is that every house exists as a memory and a ghost for the person who used to live in it. How sad to see that time has take its toll. It makes me think of the eerie, deathly Time Passes section ofTo The Lighthouse.

But it’s clever, really, of Monica Dickens to draw our attention to how the house as changed. She certainly didn’t have to for any plot reasons. But it gets a new resonance when remembering Mariana the poem, which begins:

With blackest moss the flower-pots

Were thickly crusted, one and all;

The rusted nails fell from the knots

That held the pear to the gable wall.

The broken sheds look’d sad and strange;

Unlifted was the clinking latch:

Weeded and worn the ancient thatch

Upon the lonely moated grange.

It could nearly be the later version of Charbury, looking so ‘sad and strange’. Mary’s memory of Charbury is resolutely undreary; it is full of vitality, of happiness, of the chaotic energy of childhood. How poignant to see it so transformed.

Mary is a thoroughly undreary girl. So it is fitting, perhaps that, she remembers the poem Mariana, with its dreariness and decay right at the close of the novel, when waiting for the terrible news. It is a reminder of the agony of waiting, and the chilling realisation that as each infinitely slow moment passes, time is taking its dilapidating toll.

Sorry, I don’t want to end on too dreary a note. It really is a blissful book, only making one feel a little teary in the best possible way.