Posts Tagged ‘New York’

The Hours

March 24, 2014

The Daunt Books Festival is THIS WEEK!

Pages from Daunt Books Festival programme

Thursday and Friday will see the bookshop become a place of jolly daffodiled, buntinged yellowness – the perfect setting for nearly thirty of today’s best writers to join us for twelve inspiring events. Needless to say, as the organiser, I am very excited. I am also more than a little nervous, and more than a bit busy with last minute preparations …. not least putting my mind to the logistics for Emily’s Walking Book Club’s brief sojourn in Regent’s Park.

Regent’s Park is no Hampstead Heath. There isn’t the wildness, the mud, the feeling of out-of-city lost-ness, and yet I feel very fond of this park. Growing up in St John’s Wood, I have walked its tarmacked, neat flower-bed-lined paths more than any other park’s. I’ve also contributed an essay about George Eliot and Regent’s Park to a beautiful book called Park Notes, which will be published in May. Eliot was another resident of St John’s Wood, when it was rather more bohemian than it is today.

Last week, it was a refreshing break from tasks such as ordering 500 yellow napkins and arranging collection times of various edible festival treats, to step out of Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street, find the most pleasant route up to the park, and then work out the most picturesque loop manageable in the given time. Alas, we’re too early for the roses, but daffodils were out in their cheerful masses and, as the sun seeped across the lawns and beds, it felt as though the park were stirring itself back to life from its winter slumbers, as, no doubt, are we all.

The Hours by Michael CunninghamI picked Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, as I wanted there to be some link with the location. While The Hours takes place variously in New York, Los Angeles and Richmond (London), it is of course an echoing of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which has some beautiful moments in Regent’s Park. I suppose Mrs Dalloway itself would be the more correct choice, but, while it is one of my very favourite books, I know that Woolf feels like rather hard work for many otherwise keen readers, and I’d hate for Emily’s walking book club to entail tricky homework. Added to which, I always endeavour not to pick the obvious choice, going for the overlooked gems of literature rather than the well-known classics. In any case, I rather hope that some of those who read and enjoy The Hours, might want to read Mrs Dalloway next.

The Hours refracts Mrs Dalloway through three different storylines, each of which – like Woolf’s original – tells of the events of an ordinary day.  First we have ‘Mrs Dalloway’: Clarissa Vaughan, who is given this nickname by Richard, her dear writer friend, who is dying from AIDS. Set in New York City at the end of the twentieth century, Cunningham cleverly echoes the plot of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and if you’ve read this, it’s impossible not to play spot the parallel from the very first line, when we see Clarissa, like her literary antecedent, setting off to buy flowers for her party. Echoes abound, but Cunningham saves it from being purely derivative by rendering his own characters and place so well. It is rather wonderful to see how a favourite novel can be transferred to a new time and place, highlighting how many of Woolf’s preoccupations remain relevant in an entirely new setting.

Next we have ‘Mrs Woolf’ in Richmond in 1923, beginning work on the novel which will become Mrs Dalloway. There is the brilliantly caught power-balance between Woolf and her cook Nellie, her relationship with her sister Vanessa Bell, who comes to tea with her children, and her love for Leonard, who worries about her even more than he does his galley proofs. Finally, there is ‘Mrs Brown’, a newly pregnant wife and mother in 1950s Los Angeles, who take immense pleasure in reading Mrs Dalloway. She feels trapped in her world of baking cakes, cooking suppers, and caring for her son and husband, and longs to escape to read her book. Seeking her ‘Room of One’s Own’, she leaves her son with a neighbour, drives to a hotel where she lies down and reads for two and a half hours, returning in time for supper.

All three storylines are interwoven: we get a chapter of one and then another. Humming through it all is Woolf’s original Mrs Dalloway, as though all these refractions are reverberations of its brilliance. The Hours is the ultimate paean to the power of a good book – a novel which is a life-force for its writer, then comfort and inspiration for future generations of readers. It argues for the continued relevance of an old book, how Woolf’s ‘life, London, this moment of June,’ can be felt just as keenly in Los Angeles in the fifties or New York half a century later.

So what is it about Mrs Dalloway that haunts us still?

Two elements that Cunningham pulls out are death and kisses. Preceding his three narrative strands is a powerful Prologue in which he describes Virginia Woolf drowning herself. Death is present in each of his strands – in Clarissa’s Richard, on the brink of dying; in Woolf helping her niece and nephews to lay a dying bird on a bed of roses; in Laura Brown feeling the tug to end her claustrophobic life. Balanced against so much death are kisses – transfigured into moments of pure life. Each illicit kiss in The Hours gives the protagonist something to live for: ‘that potent satisfaction, that blessedness’, which counters the allure of death.

And there’s more than kisses. For the novel is a great argument for the afterlife. Virginia Woolf is dead, and yet she lives on in her work – her Mrs Dalloway is not confined to London in the 1920s, but thrives in Los Angeles, in New York, decades later. While The Hours is poignant and, as Hermione Lee said, ‘extremely moving’, it is ultimately positive and optimistic, arguing for life’s victory against death.

I can’t wait to discuss it with Friday’s walking book clubbers!


The Bell Jar

December 2, 2013

I have been continuing my mission to read the three books which Margaret Drabble said helped her to live her life, and now I am on to The Bell Jar, the one to which I was secretly looking forward the most.

Everyone knows the sad story of Sylvia Plath. I suspect like most people, I first came across Plath’s writing at school. We studied some of her poems for GCSE, which, I have to say I think is a terrible idea. There we were, a whole bunch of highly-strung, over-emotional fifteen-year-old girls, and we were given a load of depressive poems by a woman who killed herself.

Of course most of us loved Sylvia Plath. I thought she was so inspiring that I briefly considered keeping bees as an alternative to getting married. Her story continued to haunt me as I grew older. For instance, when I moved into a flat with a gas oven, she was all I could think about, and I never really got the hang of using it.

The Bell JarThe Bell Jar is Plath’s only novel. It begins with Esther Greenwood, the narrator, doing a magazine internship one summer in New York. Esther is staying in a women-only hotel, with other girls from the magazine, all ‘bored as hell’. One night, Esther and her friend Doreen ditch one of the magazine parties for a smooth-talking DJ, which works out slightly better for Doreen than for Esther:

My drink was wet and depressing. Each time I took another sip it tasted more and more like dead water … There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room.

Plath gives Esther a flat cynical voice which is dry and funny. There is great line after great line. One of my favourite moments is when Esther tells us about the first time she saw her boyfriend naked:

The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.

(Although, surprisingly, my edition says ‘the only think I could think of’, which I assume is a typo. Quite how a typo can still be in a book 50 years after publication is v puzzling.)

To start with, the way Esther finds everything ‘depressing’ and ‘demoralizing’ and boring comes across as a kind of wry humour, but it takes a bad turn when her month in New York comes to an end. She had hoped to get on to a creative writing course, but hasn’t:

All through June the writing course had stretched before me like a bright, safe bridge over the dull gulf of the summer. Now I saw it totter and dissolve, and a body in a white blouse and green skirt plummet into the gap.

So her breakdown begins in earnest and I struggled to continue, not because it isn’t a brilliant book, beautiful and compelling, but because it is painful to read about someone so miserable, so intent on ending her life. It is horrific to read of the cool calm way in which Esther weighs up her different options for suicide. Then there is a stay in a terrible asylum, where she has electroshock therapy.

Esther’s detatchment can bring a certain black humour, but it also becomes profoundly sad:

 Wherever I sat … I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.

At last, things take a turn for the better when a benevolent stranger pays for Esther to go to a better asylum, where she will be ‘patched, retreaded, and approved for the road’.

So The Bell Jar is about having a nervous breakdown, which is a big enough subject on its own, and yet it is about more than that. It opens, famously, by placing the time as ‘the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs’:

The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick … I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.

The first thing we know about Esther Greenwood is that she feels sick at the idea of being electrocuted, and yet she is also strangely drawn to it. When she has electroshock therapy, you can’t help but link it to the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, only her electric shocks are to generate a rebirth not death.

While the predominant feeling conveyed by the distancing of the bell jar is boredom, there is a violent frustration in that boredom, which is very affective. Why are there no other options, Plath is asking, why does life have to be like this? It is a similar sentiment to that felt in The Group:

I tried to imagine what it would be like if Constantin were my husband.

It would mean getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee and dawdling about in my nightgown and curlers after he’d left for work to wash up the dirty plates and make the bed, and then when he came home after a lively, fascinating day he’d expect a big dinner, and I’d spend the evening washing up even more dirty plates till I fell into bed, utterly exhausted.

This seemed a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s, but I knew that’s what marriage was like, because cook and clean and wash was just what Buddy Willard’s mother did from morning till night, and she was the wife of a university professor, and had been a private school teacher herself.

It is this, the asylum, or death, and the energy with which Esther chooses death goes to show the grimness of the other options.

In this very good article from the 1971 New York Times, Robert Scholes describes The Bell Jar as being written ‘posthumously’, that, is, ‘between suicides’:

She wrote her novel and her ‘Ariel’ poems feverishly, like a person ‘stuck together with glue’ and aware that the glue was melting.

Plath writes with ‘the authority of suicide’, weighting what she has to say with an awful significance. She is a poet. Her sentences are beautiful. And I think that is where the tragedy lies. Plath, like Esther, is a writer who would prefer to create her own fictions rather than being made to live the dreary reality of others. Esther lies in bed reading a story and reflects:

I wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl through a fence, and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fig-tree.

There were no beautiful big green fig-trees in the reality of 1950s America, when intelligent women could only marry and ‘cook and clean and wash’ or be electrocuted like the Rosenbergs. If only Plath’s ‘black lines of print’ were enough for her to crawl in between and retreat inside. Instead she chose the oven. At least she has left us her black lines of print.

Sylvia Plath in 1957

The Group

November 25, 2013
  • The Group by Mary McCarthy
  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing.

When I went to hear Margaret Drabble give a talk a little while ago, she cited these three books, all published in the sixties, which helped her to know how to live her life. She talked about how she trusted the reports of life written in these novels, and how invaluable they’d been.

I’m ashamed to say that while I knew these novels by reputation to be brilliant and important, I’d not read any of them. So I resolved to read them right away, but of course you know what life is like, other books surface and then you decide to read The Luminaries and lo and behold several months have passed and you’re no closer to having read whatever it was you intended.

Hannah Arendt film posterI was given another prompt a few weeks ago when I went to see the completely amazing, thought-provoking, brilliant film Hannah Arendt, which focuses on the German philosopher’s coverage of the Eichmann trial in 1961. When Arendt published her report in the New Yorker, in which she wrote that what was so shocking was that Eichmann was really just another bureaucrat, and the horrific things he’d done showed the very ‘banality of evil’, she came under fierce attack. Throughout the film, she has a close and supportive friendship with a certain American novelist called Mary. Hummm… I wondered, could it be Mary McCarthy? Indeed, I later gathered that they did indeed have a very close friendship and their correspondence, published in the nineties but now out of print (might some clever publisher like to reprint it?), is apparently wonderful.

This film, coupled with the sad news of Doris Lessing’s death, made me feel beyond any shadow of a procrastinating doubt that now is the time to read these three novels, no excuses, and so, as soon as I put down the colossal weight of The Luminaries, I picked up The Group.

The GroupThe Group begins in 1933, when a set of young women, newly graduated from Vassar, gather together for one of their member’s rather unorthodox New York wedding. We follow their different trajectories over the coming years, until the novel comes to a close in the early years of the Second World War. The structure of the novel, with the long time lags between chapters, reminded me a little of One Day. Similarly, I loved watching how this group of friends, who all burst out of college more-or-less on the same footing, drift apart, their lives carrying them in different directions, and then chance to come together again.

Published in 1963, The Group caused a great furore over McCarthy’s frank observations and descriptions of sex, contraception and breastfeeding. There’s a brilliant bit in the second chapter when Dottie loses her virginity:

But the group would never believe, never in a million years, that Dottie Renfrew would come here, to this attic room that smelled of cooking fat, with a man she hardly knew, who made no secret of his intentions, who had been drinking heavily, and who was evidently not in love with her. When she put it that way, crudely, she could scarcely believe it herself, and the side of her that wanted to talk was still hoping, probably, to gain a little time, the way, she had noticed, she always started a discussion of current events with the dentist to keep him from turning on the drill. Dottie’s dimple twinkled. What an odd comparison! If the group could hear that!

So far, so conventional, albeit rather endearing and funny too. But then, just a couple of pages later we get it all in very graphic detail:

Then she felt it the thing she feared … surprisingly warm and smooth, but it hurt terribly, pushing and stabbing.


Then, all of a sudden, she seemed to explode in a series of long, uncontrollable contractions that embarrassed her, like the hiccups, the moment they were over…


The next chapter begins with her lover telling her to:

‘Get yourself a pessary.’

Dottie goes off and gets herself fitted out with some contraception, only to find herself stranded in the park, waiting to meet him:

In the dark, she began quietly to cry and decided to count to a hundred before going. She had reached a hundred for the fifth time when she recognized that it was no use; even if he got her message, he would never come tonight. There seemed to be only one thing left to do. Hoping that she was unobserved, she slipped the contraceptive equipment under the bench she was sitting on and began to walk as swiftly as she could, without attracting attention, to Fifth Avenue.

Poor Dottie!

These two chapters encapsulate exactly what is so brilliant about the novel. Mary McCarthy manages to get inside the heads of each of her characters, telling us what is happening, as focalised through their point of view. So we learn that Dottie is about to go to bed with a man, and that his flat smells of ‘cooking fat’ – what a thing to notice! – and then we are also taken off on her own funny tangent of thought about going to the dentist, and imagining what on earth would the group think. Her orgasm reminds her of having the hiccups! We see the scene as Dottie sees it and swiftly empathise with her, so that when she is left deserted on the bench, it is hard not to share her despondency.

So, firstly, we identify with the characters. Secondly, McCarthy does not shy away from the gory details. Everything is written about with a certain clinical detachment. Here it is sex, then it is getting her diaphragm fitted, later it is the ins and outs of breast-feeding and potty training. If, in the sixties, you were a young woman new to the adult world without a clue what to do and not knowing who to ask, The Group would be a very useful instruction manual. I can see why Margaret Drabble found it so invaluable.

Thirdly, McCarthy makes the – I think – feminist point of how, in spite of the education of these women, their talents, intelligence, money and energy, they are still utterly subject to men. Dottie thinks she knows what she is getting into, having no qualms about losing her virginity to a drunk man who doesn’t love her. She is efficient and organised, going to get herself fitted with contraception so quickly. Then, alas, all this independence crumbles to nothing as she sits on the bench in the park, waiting in vain for her man, and feeling utterly wretched.

It would be too simple to write a novel set in the thirties about a young woman who takes the world by storm.  McCarthy’s point in The Group, emphasised by having so many protagonists, is that in spite of these women having every asset, it is a man’s world and no woman can succeed in it.

Dottie, heartbroken by this rejection, ends up marrying someone else, in spite of knowing that she doesn’t really love him. Marriage is the only thing to which these women can really aspire.

Another protagonist, Polly, has a long affair with a married man. When he eventually leaves her to return to his wife, it coincides with her parents divorcing and her father coming to stay. Her father is financially dependent on her and rather profligate with money. Polly soon gets into debt and worries about how they can stay afloat, casting about for a means of supplementing her pay:

She thought of needlework or of marketing her herbal jellies and pomander balls through the Woman’s Exchange. She and her father could make plum puddings of fruit cakes. But when she figured out one day at lunch the profit on a jar of rosemary jelly that would retail, say, at twenty cents a jar, she saw that with the cost of the jars, the sugar, the labels and the shipping, she would have to make five hundred jars to earn $25, and this on the assumption that the fruit and herbs and cooking gas were free … It would be the same with needlework. For the first time she understood the charms of mass production. Her conclusion was that it was idle to think that a person could make money by using her hands in her spare time: you would have to be an invalid or blind to show a profit.

Her father, a manic-depressive, sees the solution and tells her:

‘I intend to find you a husband. For purely selfish reasons. I need a son-in-law to support me in my old age.’

In spite of all Polly’s lateral thinking, this is, in the end of course what happens.

Marriage is not, however, shown to be a bed of roses.

Kay, whose wedding opens the novel, is soon seen to be in a dreadful plight. She gets a job at Macy’s but her marriage is dreadfully unhappy as her husband is a smug, drunk philanderer, who ends up beating her. Grim already, it takes a very sinister turn towards the end when Kay’s husband has her committed to a mental asylum, and she, faced with the choice of going home with him or staying there, decides to stay.

Another character marries a man who sleeps with their baby’s nurse and then blames the wife for letting it happen. Another marries a pediatrician, and is bullied into letting their baby be little more than a case for his career.

Time and again, these enterprising women come up against an obstacle which highlights their dependence on men and the severe limitations of marriage being the only solution. (There is one other solution which is posited, but I don’t want to give a plot spoiler here as it is revealed right at the end. Let it be said, however, that one character manages to sidestep the marriage problem rather neatly, and even gets the better of Kay’s horrible philandering husband.)

Having said all this, The Group doesn’t read like an angry feminist book. McCarthy makes her point, but does so through a very enjoyable narrative, peppered with humour and wry observations. It is not just the plight of women that is portrayed, but New York in the thirties – its literary scene with book-review editors ‘like kings … holding levees, surrounded by their courtiers, while petitioners waited eagerly in the anteroom and footmen trotted back and forth’, its political idealists, its enthusiasm for psychoanalysis, its children of the Depression, and the worries of the impending war in Europe.

The Group manages to be both enjoyable and political, plot-driven and ideologically persuasive. One wonders how Mary McCarthy achieved such a feat. Moreover, one wonders why its publishers today so diminish it by marketing it as little more than the inspiration for Sex and the City.

Mary McCarthy

Now on to The Bell Jar

Just Kids

October 1, 2012

New York in the seventies must have been an amazing place. Artists, playwrights, poets and rock stars all knocking together, all skint, all committed to creating great work. Among those bright young stars struggling to shine were Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Just Kids is Smith’s poetic, mythic telling of their story.

Wordlessly we absorbed the thoughts of one another and just as dawn broke fell asleep in each other’s arms. When we awoke he greeted me with his crooked smile, and I knew he was my knight.

As if it was the most natural thing in the world we stayed together, not leaving each other’s side save to go to work. Nothing was spoken, it was just mutually understood.

It’s an impossibly romantic account of their first night together – a wordless, spiritual communion, a shining knight in armour, staying awake all night together and then falling asleep in each other’s arms. This spirit of fairy-tale romance pervades the book, which is suffused with a dreamlike atmosphere, as though Smith and Mapplethorpe were living an eerie, blessed existence.

What saves Just Kids from suffocating through schmaltziness is the harsh reality woven through. Before the Chelsea, there is a grim stay at the Hotel Allerton, full of ‘collective misery and lost hopes, forlorn souls who had fouled their lives’, when Robert suffers the pain of gonorrhoea. They both endure acute poverty and illness – Patti resorts to supplementing their lettuce soup and stale doughnuts with stolen steaks from a butcher. She writes of her distress when, having saved the fifty-five cents for her favourite sandwich at a local café, she found it had gone up in price by ten cents so she could no longer afford it. Luckily Allen Ginsberg happened to be there to help her out. He bought her the sandwich and stood her a coffee too. They sat down together and fell into conversation until:

He leaned forward and looked at me intently. “Are you a girl?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Is that a problem?”

He just laughed. “I’m sorry. I took you for a very pretty boy.”

I got the picture immediately.

“Well, does this mean I return the sandwich?”

“No, enjoy it. It was my mistake.”

The pages are rich with priceless exchanges and encounters like this – with Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Salvador Dali (who told her she was like ‘a crow, a gothic crow’) to name just a few. Perhaps it borders on name-dropping tedium, but Smith writes with such sincerity that you can’t help but feel she’s just trying to render an accurate picture of what her life was like and these happen to be the people who populated her cityscape.

The saddest strand that is woven through – Patti’s black ribbon against her white shirt – is death. Smith reflects, when she first enters the coveted back room at Max’s Kansas City and looks around ‘at everyone bathed in the blood light’, that ‘few would survive the cruel plagues of a generation’. Deaths abound, but none is sadder than Robert Mapplethorpe’s, which opens and closes the book. The last pages of the book had me in tears. Towards the end, they meet in LA for Mapplethorpe to take a photograph of Smith, now pregnant by her husband, for the cover of her album. Mapplethorpe is very ill from AIDS but ‘somehow he marshalled his energies and took the picture’:

Within that moment was trust, compassion, and our mutual sense of irony. He was carrying death within him and I was carrying life. We were both aware of that, I know.

It was a simple photograph. My hair is braided like Frida Kahlo’s. The sun is in my eyes. And I am looking at Robert and he is alive.


“We never had any children,” he said ruefully.

“Our work was our children.”

Just Kids is a chronicle not just of an exciting time and place, but of a loving, supportive, creative and utterly unique relationship. Wildly, childishly romantic it may be, but so sincere and beautiful is Smith’s writing that you can’t help but feel she did share a deep wordless bond with Mapplethorpe, that they really were meant to find each other, they were in some way blessed. “Patti, nobody sees as we do,” said Mapplethorpe. It is them versus the world and here is their struggle – poor, ill, failing, yet bound together, happy in each other and ecstatic in each other’s work.

I meant to read Just Kids while I was staying with friends in New York, but ended up not beginning it until I got on the plane to go home. By then it was too late to wander the haunts of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe – the streets and cafes, the bars and of course the Chelsea Hotel – their New York, which is recorded in the book as precisely as Joyce’s Dublin in Ulysses. From what I saw of New York when I was there, however, their city is gone. Theirs was a world preoccupied with talent, art and genius, not the dream of money and designer clothes which seems to preside over the city now.

Finishing it on this rainy Monday morning back in London, crying into my coffee at the heartbreaking ending, I’m left with sad nostalgia for their explosive, vibrant world and all those artists who sacrificed their lives to it. Yet, it has also left me feeling inspired and all the more determined to succeed with my own work. Sure I’m no Patti Smith but, like the younger her, I work in a bookshop, I love anchovy sandwiches and I can certainly empathise with her struggle to write and stay true to her art. I’m sure that most artists, writers or musicians at the dawn of their careers will only take heart from her story, and find in it nourishment to bolster their strength for the tough struggle onwards.

Nostalgia and sadness for what is lost, balanced by inspiration and courage for one’s own life. These are exactly the feelings that should be conjured by a truly remarkable memoir.

The Constant Nymph

September 24, 2012

I’m back from a very fun holiday in New York during which I had planned to read Patti Smith’s quintessentially New York memoir Just Kids.

But for one reason or another I set off having just begun Margaret Kennedy’s 1920s classic The Constant Nymph and so read this rather eccentric, incongruous book while I was away, only beginning Patti Smith’s on the plane home. A rather out-of-sync reading experience, but an enjoyable one nonetheless. There will be more on New York and Patti Smith next week, but for now I shall write about The Constant Nymph.

I better begin by saying that I think it impossible to read a book with such a daft title without expecting it to be quite silly. But the wonderful and surprising thing about this novel is that it is not at all as silly as it sounds. It is also not nearly as girly as it sounds. In fact, the main character is not the nymph of the misleading title but a man – troubled young composer Lewis Dodd.

The Constant Nymph begins as Lewis Dodd arrives at ‘Sanger’s Circus’, a hut in the Austrian Tyrol where Sanger – another composer – goes every summer with his ‘circus’ of musician friends and children begot from several wives. It is a very Bohemian setup, with various skinny young teenagers running around doing things like looking at badger holes and performing operas and not having enough to eat. It is a wild place and a wild way of living, unfettered by social mores, where everyone is doused with creativity and wanders across mountains in the moonlight.

But then – and we know this from the very first line, so this isn’t a spoiler – Sanger dies, and his children are left penniless. English relations are written to in the hope that they might take responsibility for them, and so we meet cousin Florence, nearly twenty-eight, the daughter of a Cambridge don, who determines to go to the Tyrol and sort everything out.

While Florence is the perfect prim, proper, respectable young English lady, Margaret Kennedy has drawn her with sufficient independence of spirit to make her rather a sympathetic character:

Florence, having finished her breakfast, went about her household duties with the methodical but unenthusiastic efficiency of a woman who is too intelligent to neglect such things. Then she put on her hat and went out to practise string quartets with some friends. Unlike the rest of her circle, she had no profession, but she was a busy young creature. Since she left College there had been so many attractive things to do, books, music, exciting vacations abroad, eventful terms full of political meetings and Greek plays, charming friends and, above all, so much to discuss that she scarcely noticed the flight of time. But it had gone on quite long enough. Sometime, quite soon, she meant to put an end to it. She would settle down to some serious work, or, if she could find a man to her taste, she would marry. At present, her most favoured cavaliers were in their sixties, and for a husband she wanted someone younger than that.

Yes she sounds a little silly with her string quartets and Greek plays, but she is also evidently intelligent. Perhaps occupying herself with these ‘attractive things’ is an attempt to put off the constraints of society for as long as she can.

So Florence and an uncle set off to the Tyrol, where their encounter with the wild life of the Sanger children reminds me very much of E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread. Again, two prim English people journey to a foreign place of freedom, where they struggle to impose order on a wildness that they can’t understand. In both novels the men are utterly at sea, whereas the women are seduced by this exotic new way of life:

Florence woke every morning, rapturously, to the tune of cow bells … She was so much aware of the impermanence of her pleasure that she was no sooner awake than a longing would seize her to jump up and run out into the mild warmth of the early sun.

Like Caroline Abbott in Where Angels Fear to Tread, Florence has fallen under the spell of an exotic, un-English life. She also falls for Lewis Dodd. And Lewis Dodd falls for her.

So far so silly, I hear you think. Yes, here is a perfect love story and, indeed, it transpires that Lewis is even from the right class:

“I’d have married him,” she thought, “if his father had been the hangman; but this does make a difference…”

But the Sanger children are dismayed at the news of their engagement and Tessa – one of the children and the nymph of the title – suffers actual physical pain from it. For we know already that Tessa, although only fourteen, is utterly in love with Lewis.

The plot thickens when they go to England. Florence and Lewis are married and Florence sets up a home and determines to make Lewis a success. The Sanger children are sent off to boarding school. But whereas Florence, having found her man, is quite happy to slip back into English life, the others rail against its constraints.  Lewis receives this letter from the Sanger girls:

Dear Lewis,

Will you please come and take us away from here? It is a disgusting school and we have endured it for as long as we are able … We would never have come if we knew what it would be like. We shall kill ourselves if we are not soon taken away; we cannot exist here, it is insufferable. The Girls are hateful, they say we don’t wash and are liars. The governesses are a Queer Lot and not fitted to be teachers, I’m sure. They think of nothing but games …

Silly and childish as the letter it is, the girls are obviously desperately unhappy. And amidst the histrionics, Paulina has pinpointed the problem: they simply ‘cannot exist here’.

Lewis soon comes to realise he can’t exist there either. This wildness cannot be allowed to exist in England. And so the rest of the novel has an alarming, entropic feeling as Florence struggles to keep control while the wildness of ‘Sanger’s circus’ spins more and more recklessly out of it.

It must be because of this feeling of chaos, genius and creativity struggling to break out of the confines of English society that Anita Brookner, in her introduction to this Virago classic, calls Margaret Kennedy ‘not only a romantic but an anarchist’. This spirit of anarchy transforms the novel from a delightful little story into something troubling, disturbing and very powerful, and all the more so for erupting from its disguise of such a silly title.

Florence has got herself into an impossible situation. She has tried to bring genius to English society when neither genius nor society wants to accept each other. Yes, this is a fascinating depiction of the struggle of creative genius, but it is also a vital questioning of the value of society. Lewis, Tessa and the other members of ‘Sanger’s circus’ are wonderful, fun, talented, fascinating characters. What is our society worth if it can’t accommodate them? Why is there no place for genius in England? Why can it only flourish abroad?

I wonder if Margaret Kennedy felt something of this disjuncture within herself. She was creative and yet also took her place in society as the wife of a Q.C., living in Kensington. Perhaps, not unlike Florence, she spent a little while dallying with string quartets and talking about politics and Greek plays before settling down to marry, and perhaps writing was her way of endeavouring to continue with her independence of spirit. Or perhaps she felt rather ambivalent towards her boarding school, where they concentrated so resolutely on hockey, and fantasised about a free-spirited Sanger-like upbringing.

In any case, in The Constant Nymph, Margaret Kennedy certainly highlights the shortfalls and prescriptive narrowness of her society. Ninety years on and things have changed somewhat, but the essential idea of how we confront and deal with difference remains relevant and utterly compelling.

The Oxo Tower – A Peculiarly Placed Product

May 28, 2010

I neglected to mention, in my last blog about the glorious London Overground, that I was on my way to a party at the Oxo Tower.

Soon after we alighted, the fiancé (architect-in-training) said, ‘Of course you do know the story about the Oxo Tower, don’t you?’

I didn’t. In case you don’t either, here it is:

An old power station was bought by the Liebig Extract of Meat Company, who made Oxo beef stock cubes. They got an architect, Albert Moore, to rebuild most of it in the late 1920s and as part of this art-deco refab, they wanted a big tower on the Thames on which they could advertise their Oxo cubes. They were denied permission to advertise and so Albert Moore designed the tower so that ‘OXO’ was built into its structure. They could claim that the windows just happened to be in the shape of a circle, cross and a circle.

What chutzpah! Yes, it was clever of them, but it was also cheeky and dishonest.

And now, of course, it’s known as the Oxo Tower – the building is defined by this piece of advertising. I wanted to ask the waiters if they had to use Oxo cubes in all the food there, but it didn’t seem like the sort of party where that would have gone down terribly well.

So the OXO can no longer be seen as just an advertisement; it’s part of the building. I’m afraid I think there’s something grotesque about advertising in any case, but it’s particularly foul when a product wheedles its way in like that, insinuating itself in such a dishonest way.

It’s like product placement. Who can forget that Britney Spears, in her film Crossroads (yes, I loved it and I won’t deny it), uses Herbal Essences shampoo? (And so did I for the following five years.) Or that in The Faculty Josh Hartnett and all his friends wear Tommy Hilfiger? The products aren’t advertised in an obvious way, they’re woven into the fabric of the film, adopted by the narrative.

This is nothing new or particularly surprising, I hear you say. Nobody likes product placement (do they?). But product placement happens more than we realise; it happens pretty much all the time. In books as well as in films. It’s a question of where you draw the line – what is a product and what isn’t?

For instance, I’ve just read a proof of Paul Auster’s forthcoming novel Sunset Park (due to be published in November). In this book, the film The Best Years of Our Lives is referenced again and again and again. One of the characters is studying it for her dissertation; the main character and his girlfriend watch it at her request; the father of the main character watches it on an aeroplane … you get the picture.

Now clearly Auster wants us to think about his book in relation to The Best Years of Our Lives – why else would he mention it so many times? I hadn’t even heard of the film, but, seeing it mentioned so many times, I assiduously looked it up online. It became clear that it’s firmly in the American canon of World War Two movies. (You can watch a bit on YouTube here.) I so enjoyed the novel, was so intrigued by these references to the film that I think I might go out and buy a copy of The Best Years of Our Lives. In the same way that I went out and bought Herbal Essences and Tommy Hilfiger when I saw Crossroads and The Faculty as a teenager.

Yes, there is a lesson here. I need to become less impressionable. But essentially isn’t Paul Auster placing a product in his book? But he gets off the hook because The Best Years of Our Lives is a film, which can masquerade as a cultural reference, rather than obviously declaring itself as something for sale.

But this film is clearly important to Auster, and to his ideas in the book. Why shouldn’t he reference it if he wants to? I’m now reading Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar and he quotes from T.S. Eliot all the time. Why shouldn’t he? Even if it makes me want to reach for my T.S. Eliot and reread his poems. Or, if I didn’t already own it, go out and buy a copy. Where does one draw the line between a cultural reference and advertising something that can be bought in a shop?

And what about if the book, or film, or television programme, is set in a certain place? The Apprentice, for example, got lots of stick for sending all its contestants out to well-known London establishments. ‘Free advertising,’ grumbled the critics, while the restaurants and bars that were featured kept schtum and quietly patted the wads of cash in their pockets as wannabe city execs turned up in droves. But it would be ridiculous if The Apprentice contestants didn’t do anything in London, as that’s where the programme’s resolutely set.

Everyone’s making a fuss over the new Sex and the City film being set in Abu Dhabi over Manhattan. It’s an NYC programme and yes, perhaps it does seem quite bonkers to move it to the Middle East. We expect to watch lunches and brunches, drinks and dinners in ‘fabulous’ Manhattan eateries, not to mention shopping trips to Jimmy Choo and Prada. Evidently product placement is so central to SATC that, to critical eyes, it falls apart when the New York products are removed. The television series would have been just as rubbish as the new film (apparently) is, if brands weren’t allowed to be mentioned, or if it couldn’t be seen to endorse any actual NY restaurants or bars. It would feel far too fake, not nearly NYC enough. Perhaps it is the products and brands that make Manhattan Manhattan.

But in the same Paul Auster novel, Sunset Park, I glimpsed a solution to the dilemma of how to set a story somewhere specific without endorsing gross consumerism. Auster mentions a certain greasy-spoon diner called Joe Junior’s. It’s an important place in the novel – the setting of a couple of poignant scenes and home to some father and son memories. And the diner is described in detail; we learn that it features ‘a curved Formica counter with chrome trim, eight swivel stools, three tables by the window in front, and four booths along the northern wall’. And Auster locates the diner, very specifically, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Twelfth Street.

Gosh, is this a real place? I wondered. Would hardcore Auster fans make a pilgrimage to Sixth and Twelfth and order Joe Junior’s (apparently) legendary onion rings? I searched online and found that yes, Joe Jr.’s is a real place. Or was a real place. It seems that this little diner on the corner of  Sixth and Twelfth – and the photos make it look exactly as Auster described – closed down on 4th July 2009. By all accounts it was a very sad day for fans of Greenwich Village, when this cherished little independent establishment could no longer meet the rent. There was much speculation about which ghastly chain would open there in its place. (I can’t tell, as Joe Jr.’s still exists on Google Maps.)

So yes, Auster has written about a real place, one that many New Yorkers knew and loved, and one that losers like me can look up and see photos of. (I think the best ones are here.) But no, I can’t go and eat their cheesburgers and onion rings because it’s closed down. Instead I can feel sad that an independent has been forced to close its doors, feel inspired to go and support my own local independent lunchspot – no longer will I buy my sandwiches from Pret! – and I suppose be a slightly better person for it.

The irony about the Oxo Tower is that it’s no longer the home of Oxo cubes. The restaurant is let out to Harvey Nichols. And quite why Harvey Nichols would want to encourage the sale of cubes of beef stock, when in their online ‘foodmarket shop’, Oxo is left out of its list of ‘brands’ and one can only buy things like a ‘fashionista hamper’ and a ‘Dolce Vita Espresso Gift Box’, I can’t quite fathom.