Posts Tagged ‘Olivia Laing’

Crudo and The Mars Room

June 29, 2018

Funny how things come all at once or not at all. Things being, for instance, buses, bad news, or – rather more happily – published pieces. I feel this blog has had rather too much bad news on it of late to add yet more, so I won’t go into that.

Here, instead are two reviews of mine published this week: of Rachel Kushner’s important novel about a woman’s prison, The Mars Room, in the FT Weekend’s Life & Arts, and Olivia Laing’s mesmerising, modern very NOW new novel Crudo, in the Spectator. (And tomorrow, look out for my feature in the FT Weekend’s House & Home section, if you get it.) Just click on the pictures below to link through to the reviews.

The mars room

Crudo

At least Vita and Ezra are well, and so are the husband and I – if you can call existing on such a skeleton amount of sleep – still! – ‘well’. A few weeks’ ago, when I was still trying to get Ezra to go back to sleep at 5am, rather than just admit defeat and begin the day, I blearily slipped my jeans on under my nighty, strapped him into the sling and walked up and down the thin bit of park that stretches through the middle of one of our neighbouring streets. (I took note, in Madeline Miller’s excellent and enjoyable new novel Circe, that Circe also has to do this with her son. If even the gods find motherhood tricky, and admit to running out of nappies and the rest of it, then perhaps we humble mortals can take heart.) I walked back and forth for an hour or so, for which Ezra was promisingly quiet, but remained very much awake. Eventually we sat on a bench and gave up and had a welcome picnic of milk and blueberries. I did think, however, that if I didn’t have to spend those early hours of the day entertaining a child (or even two, if Ezra wakes up Vita – and then that really does spell disaster for the day), then it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to be up with the sun (ha and the son). Blackbirds zoomed low along the path, and sparrows perched, pulling worms up from the ground. A trio of squirrels squatted beside one another on the grass, nibbling their breakfast and eyeing me with suspicion. I felt like I was glimpsing a secret London that has long gone by the time we are usually setting off for work.

I hope you enjoy the reviews.

One final request: if you can spare about 30 seconds, please sign this petition which asks for bookshops to be given cultural exemption from business rates – like pubs. Having worked in a bookshop, and spoken to many booksellers, I really feel this would make a huge difference to their future. Usually, these days, it is down to a rent increase that forces a bookshop to close its doors, rather than the dreaded Amazon.

 

 

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River writing

June 3, 2013

To the River by Olivia LaingLast week, I was lucky enough to chair a talk about river writing. The speakers were Olivia Laing, who was talking about her beautiful book To the River (which I wrote about here), and Charles Rangeley-Wilson, who spoke about his fascinating search for a lost river, Silt Road. I really enjoyed listening to them discuss the many parallels in their experiences of these chalk streams – The Ouse and The (High Wycombe) Wye. Both wrote a great deal about fossils, love, death, and also stories.

These folk stories were some of my favourite moments of their books – amidst the lyrical nature writing and illuminating history – and seem to me to be perfect instances of landscape influencing imagination. Olivia told the story of Cherry of Zennor, which she came across in a collection of essays by Edward Thomas, who found it in the mid-nineteenth-century Popular Romances of the West of England. Charles wrote about a magical trout. I shall, briefly, fill you in on these tales:

Cherry of Zennor

Cherry, a sixteen-year-old girl, left her family in Cornwall to go into service. She was sitting on the Downs crying with homesickness, when a gentleman came towards her. He offered her a job working for him and looking after his son.

Cherry didn’t understand everything he said, for he spoke in a flowery way, but she decided to take the job.

They went together down a long sloping lane shaded with trees, so that the sun was barely visible. At length they came to a stream of clear dark water that ran across the road. Cherry didn’t know how she’d ford this brook, but the gentleman slipped an arm about her waist and scooped her up, so she wouldn’t wet her feet.

Every day, Cherry had to take his son to a spring in the garden, wash him, and anoint his eyes with ointment. She was told not to touch her own eyes with the ointment. Then she got on with the rest of the work – milking the cow and weeding the garden. Cherry felt suspicious of this ointment and so:

One morning… taking a crumb of ointment, she put it in her eye. How it burned! She ran to the stream to wash away the smarting and there she saw at the bottom of the water hundreds of little people dancing, and there was her master, as small as the others, dancing with them and kissing the ladies as they passed.

It’s not long before her faery master finds out she’s taken the ointment and sends her packing.

The magical trout

Silt RoadCharles Rangeley-Wilson recounts the story as told by a mysterious old lady to the early nineteenth-century Irish songwriter Samuel Lover. Here it is:

There was once a very long time ago, a beautiful young girl who lived in the castle by the lough. She was betrothed to a king’s son, but the story goes that the prince was murdered and thrown into the lough and that she went out of her mind, the poor, tender-hearted girl, and pined for him until at last, so it was thought, the fairies took her away. But then, this white trout appeared in the stream, though it had never been seen before, and there it has remained for years and years, longer than I can express, and beyond the memory of even the oldest hereabouts, until at last the people came to believe that the white trout was a fairy, and so it was treasured and no harm was ever done to it. None, that is, until a band of wicked soldiers came to these parts and laughed and gibed [at] the people for thinking like this and one of the soldiers said he would catch the trout and eat it for his supper. Well he caught it and took it home and the trout cried out when he pitched it into the frying pan, though it would not cook no matter which way he turned the fish or how hot he made the fire, until in exasperation the soldier lunged at the trout with a fork and there came a murdering screech such as you’ve never heard before and the trout jumped out of the pan and on to the floor and out of the spot where it fell rose up the most beautiful lady you’ve ever seen, all dressed in white with a band of gold in her hair and a stream of blood running down her arm. “Look where you cut me you villain,” said the girl. “Why did you not leave me watching out for my true love? For he is coming for me by the river, and if he comes while I am away and I miss him I’ll hunt you down for evermore, so long as grass grows and water runs.” And no sooner had she spoken than the girl vanished and there on the kitchen floor was the white trout and the soldier picked up the bleeding fish and rushed with it to the river. He ran and ran for fear her lover would come while she was away, and descending into this cavern he threw her back into the river and there she has stayed evermore and to this day the trout is marked with red spots where the fork pierced its side.

white trout

I hadn’t known that fairies and rivers were so closely linked. I love the thought of little fairies dancing and kissing each other in the stream. Perhaps that’s why the water feels so cool and tickly when you paddle in it.

Lore of the LandIntrigued by these stories, I went to my very reliable tome of English folklore, The Lore of the Land, to see if there were more tales about rivers and fairies. Endearingly there is no entry for ‘rivers’ in the index of The Lore of the Land, only:

river-spirits … see also mermaids, freshwater

The stories of river-spirits are sinister. The spirit of the River Dart called out ‘Jan Coo! Jan Coo!’ until Jan ran towards it, his friend powerless to stop him, and then Jan was never seen again. There is Peg Powler of the Tees:

one of the most formidable of the many river-spirits lurking in rivers and streams, waiting their chance to drown women and children.

Just as sad is the story of how the River Severn came to be named. The story is traced to the account given by Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1136) – an old story indeed. An ancient legendery king, Locrine, fell in love with the beautiful Estrildis but was forced by his father to marry Gwendolen. Locrine still loved Estrildis so hid her in an underground chamber where he visited her in secret. This went on for seven years, during which time she bore him a daughter Sabrina. Eventually, Locrine deserted Gwendolen and raised Estrildis to be his queen. Gwendolen, understandably furious, gathered an army in Cornwall and in the ensuing battle Locrine was killed. Gwendolen resumed the throne and ordered that:

Estrildis and Sabrina her daugher be flung into the river that is now called Severn, issuing an edict throughout all Britain that the river should be called by the damsel’s name … whereby it cometh to pass that even to this day the river in the British tongue is called Sabren, which by corruption in other speech is called Severn.

Sad stories of rivers abound. I dutifully looked up freshwater mermaids, but found that they aren’t any more gentle than these river-spirits, and lurk in rivers, pits and pools to lure children beneath to their death.

I’m struck by the darkness felt in these stories, an unnatural sinister edge to the natural beauty of a river. Rivers give life but also bring death. Perhaps only something other-worldy can begin to explain the strange pull of a river, its magnetism that is strong enough to pull you out of this world altogether. Perhaps it was comforting to blame the many drownings on the fairies rather than natural force, or human error. Was Virginia Woolf lured by a mermaid or a river-spirit into the Ouse? I doubt that Leonard would have found comfort in this.

To me, these stories of ill-meaning river-spirits suggest the anarchy of a river, its stubborn wilfulness and refusal to be governed by man. Charles Rangeley-Wilson, whose book hopes for the re-emergence of the River Wye – now buried under a shopping mall – should take courage from these tales.

Midsummer’s Eve is just around the corner – a time when, legend has it, the gap narrows between human and fairy worlds. Beware the river-spirits and freshwater mermaids! It is also the time that Olivia Laing walked along the River Ouse for her book. Did she, like Shakespeare’s Hermia and Cherry of Zennor “see things with parted eye”?  At least she escaped the clutches of the fairies and mermaids and returned to tell her tales. I’d be quite happy for fairies to dance around my paddling feet, although I have to confess, I feel a little wary of getting too close to a river right now, just in case a mermaid were to pull me under. It is, for sure, at least a fine time to read about them.

Mermaid

A Time of Gifts

May 1, 2012

People tend to expect me to have read everything, so it always comes as something of an embarrassment when I have to admit to a glaring gap in my literary landscape, to not having read Middlesex, The Corrections or Proust, for instance. I can see their faces fall and a gleam of suspicion enter their eyes as they wonder if I’m no more than a fraud, someone posturing as an avid reader, for really, how can I pretend to talk about books when I’ve not even read any Faulkner.

In such an instance there is always a shameful impulse to lie. Or, as one inevitably knows something about the book or author in question, it’s easy to employ what my old boss used to term ‘an Oxford answer’ – that is responding to a question by answering a different one. For instance:

‘Have you read much Proust?’

‘You know, I found the Proustian connection in The Hare with Amber Eyes completely fascinating. I loved that chunk on Charles Ephrussi, especially that bit about the asparagus!’

Then it’s easy peasy to divert the course of conversation on to firmer ground and the question of Proust is all but forgotten. Never underestimate the power of a good Oxford answer.

Failing that, there are all those silly books with titles like ‘How to talk about books you haven’t read’ or ‘An idiots guide to the Classics’ which are of tremendous help to a bluffer. But I think such books are a real shame. Surely the whole point of being able to talk about a book is the pleasure one gets from having read it in the first place?

But, in any case, when one does finally get around to reading one of those books that one is supposed to have read, it is deeply satisfying. So I am very pleased to announce that I have at last read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts.

I have a theory that the reason why Patrick Leigh Fermor comes up so often in conversation is because, until he passed away last year, he hung around rather a lot in Gentlemen’s Clubs and at Oxford dinners, so a surprisingly large number of people – usually oldish men – have met him. And everyone loves to indulge in a little name-dropping. ‘Oh you simply must read A Time of Gifts. Such a wonderful book. Oh those descriptions. Marvellous. You know, I met him a couple of times. Terribly nice chap. Fascinating stories.’

I suspect it must be thanks to this that I have been told I must read A Time of Gifts a gazillion times. I even own a rather handsome edition of it, published by the Folio society, that my father gave me a few years ago. (Yes, he met him a couple of times and thought he was fascinating.)

I certainly loved reading such a smart edition. Everyone makes such a fuss about hardbacks being so heavy, but really I am terrifically weak with especially spindly wrists and didn’t find it a problem in the slightest. Although I did feel like I had to be a bit more careful when reading it in the bath, drying my hands a little more assiduously before turning the pages, as it really is too smart to trash and wrinkle. It’s such a lovely book that someone even sparked up a conversation with me in a café, wanting to know where I’d found such a beautiful edition. Alas, as the Folio Society operates by subscription only, for once I couldn’t direct her to my bookshop.

A Time of Gifts is Patrick Leigh Fermor’s record of his journey across Europe in the 1930s. He sets off on a terribly rainy day, when ‘a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly’, to catch a ferry to Holland from where he will walk all the way to ‘Constantinople’, or Istanbul, as we might call it.

Admittedly, it’s a small thing, but therein lay my first disappointment. I was expecting him to reach Constantinople, the destination of which he boasts to anyone he meets en route. I found it increasingly troubling, as the number of remaining pages dwindled and he was still only in Austria, or Czechoslovakia, to imagine how he was going to make it all the way to Istanbul before the end. I wondered if my mental map of Europe was way off, or if he’d cave in and take a train. But no, the book ends when he reaches Hungary. You’ve got to read the next one to get further, and even then you don’t make it to Istanbul. The third and final volume is to be published posthumously, albeit only ‘near-finished’, next year.

His route more-or-less follows the Rhine and then the Danube. It was certainly a fascinating time to tread this ground,  just before so much of it would be destroyed by war. Some of the most interesting bits are Patrick Leigh Fermor’s encounters with Nazism. He meets one young man who has covered his room with Nazi memorabilia, who is quick to admit that a year ago it was all Communist. In Munich, he sees ‘a groaning Brownshirt, propped against the wall on a swastika’d arm … unloosing, in a staunchless gush down the steps, the intake of hours’. So many school history lessons were spent studying Nazi Germany and yet these anecdotes seem to capture something unexpected.

Although the journey was made in the thirties, Patrick Leigh Fermor didn’t come to write the book until forty years later. And while the knowledge of what was to come casts a harrowing light on what he sees, all the time elapsed means that the text has lost rather a lot of immediacy. As I read it, I felt like I was moving from one set piece – one polished dinner party story – to another. For instance, here is a snippet of the very long description of Melk:

Overtures and preludes followed each other as courtyard opened on courtyard. Ascending staircases unfolded as vaingloriously as pavanes. Cloisters developed with the complexity of double, triple and quadruple fugues. The suites of state apartments concatenated with the variety, the mood and the décor of symphonic movements. Among the receding infinity of gold bindings in the library, the polished reflections, the galleries and the terrestrial and celestial globes gleaming in the radiance of their flared embrasures, music, again, seemed to intervene.

I hate this kind of writing. It is so overblown, over-the-top, pompous. And, if he’s going to indulge in this silly over-extended metaphor, then at least accompany it with a straightforward paragraph saying what Melk actually looks like! Perhaps it’s lucky that, unlike most people, I never met Patrick Leigh Fermor. If he’d gone off on one like this over dinner, I might have nodded off into my soup.

So instead of being able to see Melk in my mind’s eye, I’m left with a complicated musical metaphor. Instead of being able to see the landscape, I can only see Brueghel’s The Hunters in the Snow, which he uses as a frequent comparison.

Perhaps I found this particularly troubling having so recently read Olivia Laing’s To the River. Alongside her digressions into literature, myth and history, the descriptions are so real that I could smell the meadowsweet, hear the wood pigeons and feel the biting cold of the river water. I missed all that in A Time of Gifts.

And I missed listening to the walker’s rambling thoughts. We don’t get the wonderings meandering through his head as he wanders along the rivers, instead we are given a list of the works of literature that he recites to himself (sometimes backwards) as he walks. It made me curse my terrible memory and made me think that I’d quite like to reread the Aeneid and that I wished I knew anything like the amount of Latin he did. But mostly it made me think that Patrick Leigh Fermor was a bit of a show off. It certainly doesn’t spark much empathy.

At least I’ve read it now. And next time someone asks me if I’ve read A Time of Gifts, I can forestall their bragging about having met Patrick Leigh Fermor, once or twice, by saying, ‘Yes, I’ve read it and I thought it was a bit of a let-down actually. So many people seem to have met him, and they all say he was such a charismatic, fascinating man, so it was a bit of a shame that he comes across as so arrogant and pompous in the book.’ I can already imagine the horrified reaction. I can certainly see it far more clearly than many of the things written about in A Time of Gifts.

The Wind in the Willows

April 18, 2012

Last week, I reread The Wind in the Willows, a childhood classic brought back to my attention by Olivia Laing’s mentioning it a few times in her beautiful book To the River (which I wrote about here). It is very much a book about life on ‘River Bank’, a happy idyllic life, full of boating expeditions and picnics.

In honour of the book, some friends and I set out at the weekend to walk around Cookham and Maidenhead, along the stretch of the Thames which is said to have inspired The Wind and the Willows. We even brought a picnic including some of Ratty’s favourite things:

coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidges

pottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater

We omitted the coldtongue. And added in cheese. And cake.

The stretch along the Thames was certainly beautiful, even if the river was in its current somewhat depleted state. It was easy to imagine animals larking around here, content in their pretty, secluded spot. We also walked through some beautiful woods, which at this time of year, with the leaves just pushing their way out, felt particularly lovely.

Although these beautiful woods, filled with greenish light and elegant lines of trees, weren’t the inspiration for Grahame’s ‘Wild Wood’. That wood, we passed to our left. It was fenced off, and looked a bit too scary to risk going in. Indeed, in the book, the Wild Wood is terrifying:

He penetrated to where the light was less, and the trees crouched nearer and nearer, and holes made ugly mouths at him on either side. Everything was very still now. The dusk advanced on him steadily, rapidly, gathering in behind and before; and the light seemed to be draining away like flood-water. Then the faces began. It was over his shoulder, and indistinctly, that he first thought he saw a face: a little evil wedge-shaped face, looking out at him from a hole. When he turned and confronted it, the thing has vanished … He passed another hole, and another, and another; and then – yes! – no! – yes! certainly a little narrow face, with hard eyes, had flashed up for an instant from a hole, and was gone … Then suddenly, as if it had been so all the time, every hold, far and near, and there were hundreds of them, seemed to possess its face, coming and going rapidly, all fixing on him glances of malice and hatred: all hard-eyed and evil and sharp.

This is one of the bits that Olivia Laing notices in To the River. She remembers it gave her ‘a creeping sense that the world was not always as pleasant as it seemed’.

The Wild Wood is somewhere one shouldn’t venture, Rat instructs Mole at the beginning, and as for the Wide World, beyond that – that is something never to be referred to again, it ‘doesn’t matter … I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all.’ The idyll of River Bank, with its sunshine and picnics, is dependent on being separate from these dark, unknowable places, protected from the outside world.

Woods are places where strange things happen. Often things that can only happen in the dark. Think of Hansel and Gretel. Shakespeare used the idea in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sending the lovers into the woods, where the magical mishaps can take place. Last night I watched Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, where the nail-biting climax takes place once the train has been decoupled and then sent down a branch line deep into the woods.

Surely the most unnerving thing about the Wild Wood are the little narrow faces with their ‘hard eyes’. Their disembodiment is alien and threatening. Reading this, I was reminded of a deeply unnerving moment in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring. There’s a night walk far out into the woods, and then:

Dolly began to see on each side of her, among the thronging stems of the birch trees, what looked like human hands, moving to touch each other across the whiteness and blackness.

There’s the same horror and strangeness from only being able to see bits of things – hands, or faces, or eyes. It is as though the darkness and the woods have completely undone the wholeness of things, undermined the very foundation of reality.

Woods might be terrifying places, but they are also essential. The River Bank wouldn’t be such a paradise if there were no opposite force casting shade against its sunlight. People need a place for which they must summon every ounce of bravery in order to get through. When Rat goes off to rescue Mole, he:

strapped a belt round his waist, shoved a brace of pistols into it, took up a stout cudgel that stood in a corner of the hall and set off for the Wild Wood at a smart pace … Here and there wicked little faces popped out of holes, but vanished immediately at sight of the valorous animal, his pistols and the great ugly cudgel in his grasp.

Rat is called upon to be ‘valorous’, and Mole, although terrified, in some ways needs to go through the Wild Wood in order to prove himself. Later, when the weasels and stoats of the Wild Wood rise up and take over Toad Hall, the other animals bravely band together to throw them out.

In The Lady Vanishes, the two Englishmen Charters and Caldicott, only emerge from their cricket-obsessed bubble when they are in the woods and forced to confront the world outside. And, in The Beginning of Spring, it is only in the woods, in this strange unnerving scene, that we get an inkling of who the mysterious Lisa Ivanovna might be.

Woods force one to confront one’s fears, and be faced with the truth. No wonder they can engender such an ominous, threatening feeling. But yet, people normally get out the other side, and do so stronger and wiser. For us, happily, we got through the woods, sat on a meadow by the river bank and then feasted on our picnic. Until it began to rain.

Walking To the River

April 4, 2012

One of my most favourite things is going for a walk. I am at my happiest when strolling along – definitely not too fast or strenuously – looking at beautiful scenery, be it on Hampstead Heath, Hampshire, or Hackney Wick.

Aside from the views, one of the things I love most about walking is talking. I wrote about Matthew Hollis’s biography of Edward Thomas here, in which he wrote about Thomas and Frost’s habit of ‘talk-walking’. They’d go off into the fields and walk for hours, talking all the while, usually of poetry and other lofty things.

No doubt my own talk-walks are a little less high-brow than Edward Thomas’s. But I love the way that once one’s limbs are loosened, one’s tongue is loosened too. All sorts of things that one might normally struggle to talk about come bubbling up like water from a spring – and one babbles away quite easily.

Of course, if there’s no one for company on a walk, then babbling away to oneself looks at best eccentric. Virginia Woolf did it, striding through the Sussex countryside, stomping out the plots of novels, talking to herself all the way. I might hum to myself a little, but usually, if alone, the talking goes on in my head, my thoughts chattering away silently to themselves.

When I feel a bit stuck with my writing – when I get a horrid feeling like there’s a blockage in a key synoptic pathway in my brain – a walk usually sorts it out. Although, when I walk, my thoughts refuse to follow a straight trajectory and dart all over the place making nothing at all coherent, just a very satisfying scribble. It’s when I get home afterwards and sit down to write, that I find the scribble’s unlocked the blockage and I’ve leapt ahead. Phew.

I feel sure there must be plenty of women who walk and write. There’s Virginia Woolf for a start, and there’s also Olivia Laing, whose To the River is just out as an attractive paperback. But, with these exceptions, I really can’t think of any other women who write about walking.

It’s so peculiar! If you think of the big names in English nature-writing (aka walk-writing), they’re all men like Edward Thomas, Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin. Travel further afield and there’s Patrick Leigh Fermor, Norman Lewis and Laurie Lee. Where have all the women gone?

Well perhaps they just walked and talked or walked and thought, without writing it down afterwards. Perhaps we women don’t share the stereotypically ‘male’ impulse to spot and catalogue things obsessively, or perhaps we simply don’t have enough confidence in our walks to commit them to paper. Or perhaps I am just yet to find these elusive women walk-writers. I’d be grateful for any pointers, those of you who know something I don’t.

Well, I’m very pleased that Olivia Laing wrote about her walk along the River Ouse. She walks alone, letting her mind meander along all sorts of fascinating watery diversions. Among other things, we get a folklore tale of faeries, a good bit about the Styx, the tragic story behind The Wind in the Willows and there is the frequent tug of Virginia Woolf, who, of course, drowned herself in the Ouse.

I particularly like the way Olivia Laing doesn’t always pretend to be in a bucolic dream in the middle of nowhere. We are jolted back to the twenty-first century by having to cross an A-road, gobbling a curry for supper, or overhearing a filthy conversation in a pub car park. This is definitely the English countryside of today, which makes the moments of wildness all the more special. Our countryside is now cris-crossed by noisy roads, and our rivers, often as not, end in container ports, changed from meandering streams into ‘an industrial river, dark as oil, its surface opaque and unrevealing’.

But the rivers are still there and one can still find beauty in their surroundings, even if that beauty can be jagged and rather unexpected. Laing gives us both ‘the elder foaming with flowers the colour of Jersey cream’ and the sugared fennel seeds in the Indian restaurant, leaving ‘the ghost of aniseed … on the tip of my tongue like a word I knew but could not speak’.

It’s an intensely lyrical book, beautifully written about beautiful places. It’s a book that above all has made me want to put my shoes on and stride out towards a river. And I would never neglect to bring with an enormous and delicious picnic a la Kenneth Grahame’s Ratty:

coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidgespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater

Thanks Olivia for the reminder. Yum.