Posts Tagged ‘Penelope Fitzgerald’

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

Innocence

March 3, 2014

How I love Penelope Fitzgerald!

I have Hermione Lee’s – apparently glorious – biography of her sitting here, which I look forward to undertaking, though I have to admit to being a little daunted by its immense size. Rather uselessly, whenever I reach for it, I find myself picking up one of her slim, genius novels instead. I have re-read Offshore several times now, and am forever going back to the perfect opening to The Blue Flower and the beautiful ending of The Beginning of Spring.

Innocence by Penelope FitzgeraldLast week, I picked up Innocence. The more astute readers among you might have noticed something of an Italian theme in my reading of recent weeks. Innocence, which takes place in and around Florence, comes after The Leopard and Journey by Moonlight. It hasn’t so much been an intention, as an inescapable tug, for at the end of April, Emilybooks plus husband will be moving to Lucca for two months! So how can I resist these literary inklings of what is to come? I even made the husband watch the very old film of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s The Enchanted April – one of my favourite novels. (You see, I pointed out emphatically as the credits rolled, we will be having our very own enchanted April! This is what you’ve been making everyone read? he asked. Everyone must think you’re mad.)

Well, I’m certainly not as mad as the wittily named ‘Aunt Mad’ in Penelope Fitzgerald’s Italian novel Innocence. Her eccentricities extend to setting up the ‘Refuge for the Unwanted’ – a place where lonely old women look after homeless infants. Sweet idea, but in reality it’s a run-down hovel, where the old women have sold the brass taps to buy presents for the babies, many of whom they’ve hidden away to try to avoid handing them back to the authorities.

One of the great pleasures of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels are the wealth of endearing, eccentric characters, such as Maurice in Offshore, or Selwyn in The Beginning of Spring. Innocence offers especially rich pickings. As well as Aunt Mad, there is reclusive cousin Cesare who manages the family vineyard, brilliantly forthright British boarding-school friend Barney, nobly impoverished Count Giancarlo Ridolfi, and die-hard old Communist Sannazzaro – ‘thought to have only one idea in his head, not just one idea at a time, but the same idea for many years’, and many more. At the heart of the novel are Chiara Ridolfi, an Italian aristocrat who has just left her convent school in England, and Dr Salvatore Rossi, an older neurologist from the South, son of a Gramsci-worshipping communist. They meet at a concert and fall violently in love with each other, but being rather hopeless in effectively acting on their feelings, there follows something of a rocky, if short, road to their marriage.

With this ‘marriage plot’, Fitzgerald weaves many stories which show failed love affairs. Chiara’s father, the Count, married an American heiress, who disappeared back to America, leaving him with Chiara. Aunt Mad married an Englishman, who returned to England. Barney’s English romantic ‘He’ becomes her ‘Disaster’, whom she resorts to stabbing in the leg with her fork at dinner. Then she declares her love to silent Cesare but to no avail. Even the seemingly happy marriage of Gentilini – Salvatore Rossi’s great friend – is shown to be far from perfect when his wife faints at Chiara’s wedding, revealing herself to be so ‘downtrodden’ (in Barney’s words) that she is never allowed out and so is overwhelmed by the social exertion.

Most affecting, and most subtly written, is Cesare’s unspoken love for Chiara. It brings a painful angle to his enduring silence. Our real clue to this love is when he buys four sheets of paper and an envelope from a tobacconist. Fitzgerald tells us all the things he doesn’t write, but, teasingly, not what he does. Then:

However, he went on writing with increasing speed and concentration, until all the paper was used up … When he had finished he read the letter through. Then he took the four sheets of paper, tore them into a number of pieces, and threw them away.

‘At least that’s something I haven’t done,’ he said aloud. It was irritating, though, to be left with the unused envelope.

Nothing is spelled out; we are asked to read between the lines. It would be easy to miss this torn-up love letter, and to think of Cesare as no more than a strange silent recluse, rather than a heartbroken proud man. It makes the moment at Chiara’s wedding, when Aunt Mad asks him to say a few words about the groom, almost unbearable:

‘But I don’t speak,’ said Cesare. ‘You know that, aunt.’

‘You could say something pleasant about Salvatore, a kind of introduction.’

‘I don’t know anything about him,’ said Cesare mildly.

‘I certainly don’t want to be described,’ said Salvatore. ‘That’s one thing I hope to be spared, to know exactly what kind of a man I am.’

‘Well, I should be glad to know what kind of man you are,’ said Aunt Mad.

‘The kind that loves your niece Chiara, and would give his life for her.’

In the atmosphere of wine and winter sunshine, it sounded not at all absurd, in fact it was not absurd and no-one thought it was. Aunt Mad seemed moved, others sitting nearby also seemed moved and began to clap their hands in frank admiration. Mad looked up again at Cesare, who said calmly, ‘You see how much better he speaks than I do.’

It’s only unbearable if you’ve twigged that Cesare is love with Chiara, otherwise he just seems obtuse. With this knowledge, those adverbs – ‘mildly’, ‘calmly’ – become weighted with heartbreaking, painful restraint.

In asking us to read between the lines like this, rather than laying it on thick, Fitzgerald fosters a spirit of empathy in her readers. She warns us off quickly dismissing people, asking instead for our sympathy, for our understanding that there are reasons for people’s seemingly odd behaviour that deserve respect.

Innocence begins with a disturbing story about the Ridolfi family in the sixteenth century, when they were a family of midgets. They went to great pains to ensure that their midget daughter thought she was normal-sized, so the garden steps were miniature, the statues too, and they only employed midgets and dwarfs. Catastrophe strikes when Gemma, the daughter’s midget companion, has a growth spurt. The daughter ‘was not in the least concerned about herself, only about her friend’, thinking she’ll be treated as a monster in the outside world, where she thinks everyone is midget-sized. She thoughtfully ‘took to walking a few steps ahead of Gemma, so that their shadows would be seen to be the same length’.  She prays to be shown a solution for her friend’s plight, reflects that ‘it was worth suffering to a certain extent if it led to something more appropriate or more beautiful’, and then:

Since Gemma must never know the increasing difference between herself and the rest of the world, she would be better off if she was blind – happier, that is, if her eyes were put out. And since there seemed no other way to stop her going up and down the wrong staircases, it would be better for her, surely, in the long run, if her legs were cut off at the knee.

So we see the terrible violence that can spring from innocence.

This story, almost a parable really, echoes through the rest of the narrative; we keep an eye out for examples of pain unwittingly caused. I’m not sure if it isn’t a bit too obvious for so subtle and understated an author. Could we not have seen all the unknowing violence wreaked by innocent Chiara without such an obvious pointer? Could the pointer at least have been worked into the main body of the text, rather than standing out so sharply at the beginning? As it is, this opening, powerful though it may be, somewhat undermines the deft brilliance of the rest of the novel.

This is but a quibble. Innocence is a wonderful novel, revealing much about naivete and love, and about Italy, and the English in Italy. I loved its cast of dotty characters, all rendered so perfectly that they have stepped off the page and into my life. When we go to Tuscany, I shall keep my eyes peeled for them all, and try not to be too like good old blustering Barney, or, for that matter, Aunt Mad.

Penelope Fitzgerald with her reassuringly messy bookshelves

And you – are you a Penelope Fitzgerald fan? Of course I would love to know your thoughts on any of her wonderful novels, or indeed of the biography.

The Examined Life

January 6, 2014

Happy New Year!

I hope you had a restorative break and are ready to throw yourselves into 2014 with gusto. I would love to know your New Year’s resolutions, especially if they are reading-based. Stuck for inspiration? Then here are some suggestions that I wrote for The Spectator a while ago.

This year, my rather unliterary resolution is to be able to do a press up. Yes, just one single press up. I know it seems unbelievable that anyone could be quite so feeble not to manage even one, but I have pathetically weak arms – probably thanks to a childhood spent reading rather than playing lacrosse – so I have at last resolved to take action to be strong. (No doubt, key to developing my upper-body strength is to read more heavy books and never to own such a spindly-arm-encouraging gadget as a Kindle.)

New Year can be a difficult time. Christmas is over and real life returns, only now we’re broke, fat and cripplingly used to lie-ins. As my bookselling friend and colleague said to me, when we were trying to pin down what exactly was so grim about January, ‘There’s something about it being a new year and yet nothing’s new.’

This is of course why many of us are so keen to try to change, to introduce something new to our lives. I am always thrilled by how many people turn to books for this element of newness, which makes for a curiously uplifting time in the bookshop. I had always anticipated January to be deathly and depressingly quiet after the frantic present-buying busyness of Christmas, especially given that we don’t have a sale. And yet the bookshop is thoughtfully, browsingly busy at the moment, as though people have decided that one way to make 2014 a good year is to begin it by reading some good books. A wise resolution indeed.

The Examined Life by Stephen GroszI dipped into The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz over Christmas, savouring a chapter here and there between rounds of charades or mince pies, but have really read it in earnest over the past few days. I would go so far as to say this is a life-changing book and I urge you to read it now, for when better to read such a thing? Added to which, it has just come out in paperback, although I put up with 2013’s hardback, prematurely wrinkled from when the husband dropped it in the bath.

Stephen Grosz is a psychoanalyst, and The Examined Life is a collection of his case studies. Many of the chapters began life as his column in the Financial Times, which gives them a winning incisive brevity. All names have been changed, all jargon eradicated, and the book reads more like a collection of short stories than a textbook. It is a clutch of diamonds – beautiful, elemental, gleaming with multi-faceted light, and sharp as hell.

Psychological issues tend to feel like overwhelming, ongoing problems, things that threaten to affect someone for their entire life. Grosz, however, distils a patient’s course of analysis, which often goes on for over a year, into just a few pages.

He describes the manifestation of the issue, delves in to discover its root, draws an illuminating parallel or two, and then, in his explanation of a patient’s behaviour, so comes the resolution. Unwieldy psychological problems are given beginnings, middles and ends – a narrative structure which makes for satisfying, illuminating reading.

There are many brilliant examples to choose from, but here’s one that I found particularly intriguing:

Amanda P., a twenty-eight-year-old single woman, returns home to London after a work trip to America. She has been in New York for ten days. She lives alone. She sets her briefcase down on her doorstep, and, as she turns her key in the lock, an idea takes hold. ‘I had this fantasy – I saw it like a film: turning the key triggers some sort of detonator and the whole flat blows up, the door exploding off its hinges towards me, killing me instantly. I was imagining that terrorists had been in my flat and had carefully primed a bomb to kill me. Why would I have such a crazy fantasy?’

Why indeed?! Having outlined the issue – a ‘crazy fantasy’ of paranoia – Grosz gives a few other examples and tells us that:

Most, if not all, of us have had irrational fantasies at one time or another … and yet we rarely acknowledge them … we find them difficult, even impossible to talk about.

What is at the root of our paranoia? First, key to his explanation is the fact that:

We are more likely to become paranoid if we are insecure, disconnected, alone.

Grosz explains:

Paranoid fantasies are disturbing, but they are a defence. They protect us from a more disastrous emotional state – namely, the feeling that no one is concerned about us, that no one cares.

Then follows a fascinating digression about soldiers suffering from paranoia during the First World War. Apparently British soldiers in the trenches were convinced that French and Belgian farmers were signalling to the German artillery. They saw codes in the way they ploughed the fields, or hung up their washing. Unsurprisingly, paranoia is also rife amongst the elderly:

All too frequently – like the soldiers in the trenches – the elderly face death feeling forgotten … Paranoid fantasies are often a response to the world’s disregard. The paranoid knows that someone is thinking about him.

And so, of course it makes perfect sense that when Amanda P. returned home to an empty flat, she had a paranoid fantasy:

The fantasy frightened her, but ultimately this fear saved her from feeling alone.

The case of Amanda P. is a satisfying thing to read. A curious incident, to which we can relate, followed by some interesting digressions, penetrating insight and then tidy resolution. A beginning situation, then middle development, and end resolution.

This near-short-story form points to something more profound than just a satisfying frame for reading. Grosz is emphasising the narrative similarities between real life and storytelling. At the beginning of the book, he quotes Karen Blixen:

All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.

This rings true to any reader or writer. For surely one of the main reasons why novels are so wonderful to read is because this creative sharing of a sorrow creates empathy which connects a reader both to the writer and to other readers.

Throughout The Examined Life, Grosz calls on stories from literature to illustrate his point. A Christmas Carol is used particularly well to show how a glimpse of your future self can haunt you enough to inspire change. What I loved most about Grosz’s case studies is that they are written not just by a psychoanalyst, but by a reader of fiction. So many adults – especially men – tell me that they have stopped reading fiction because there is so much interesting and important non-fiction to read instead. But what can be more vital than the emotional truths at the heart of a novel? I was struck by Julian Barnes’ brilliant conclusion to his article on the late great Penelope Fitzgerald in this weekend’s Guardian Review:

Writers, over the long run, are judged by the truths they detect about the human condition, and the artistry with which they represent those truths.

I couldn’t agree more. And I suspect Stephen Grosz feels the same. (Indeed I happen to know that Grosz is a fan of Penelope Fitzgerald, as he was in the bookshop when I was setting out to discuss The Blue Flower for Emily’s Walking Book Club, and said it was a great book, although alas he and his beautiful enormous dog didn’t join us.)

I would add to Julian Barnes’s insightful comment, that readers as well as writers are judged by the truths they detect about the human condition in the books they read. If someone has given up on reading fiction, then it suggests to me that he hasn’t read it well. He has paid it too little attention, or lacked the perspicacity to engage with what the writer is saying through the story.

Grosz is a very astute reader. Indeed he is so astute that he can find the truths about the human condition at the heart of a story, even when the writer struggles to tell it. Grosz responds to Blixen with the questions:

But what if a person can’t tell a story about his sorrows? What if his story tells him?

Psychoanalysis is a means of helping people to tell their stories. By enabling someone to put his sorrow into words, the patient can understand the truth about his particular human condition. Moreover, the patient can shape the narrative of his life, rather than be shaped by the sorrow from which he suffers. These case studies read like short stories because they are short stories – creative understandings of the human condition.

Read it. Read it now!

My Top Five Literary Springs

April 22, 2013

On Saturday, when the hour of my precious lunchbreak struck, I sprang out of the bookshop and into the sunshine, hurried to Hampstead Heath and lay in the grass, grinning as blotchy patterns flashed on the lids of my closed eyes.

Spring is here.

What better way to celebrate these first moments of sunshine, these first breaths of balmy, flower-scented air than with five favourite springtime books? (Click on the various links if you’d like to read longer posts about them.)

1. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

The Enchanted April pbkI wrote about this last week, so here all I shall do is reiterate that it is a heavenly book. The plot is a bit daft, yes, but in a charming way. You read it and feel as though you are on holiday, that you are with those dotty ladies in San Salvatore, basking in the beautiful Italian spring. Let us briefly share Lotty Wilkins’s joy as she opens the shutters on her first morning:

All the radiance in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.

2. The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Beginning of Spring

It is 1913 and spring comes to Moscow, stirring revolutionaries into action and an English family into crisis. Penelope Fitzgerald is my favourite writer, as many of you know. This is a particularly good book, with her characteristically astute observations of a different place and time, laced with gentle humour, realised in beautiful prose. Towards the end, the children of the family go away with the mysterious new servant Lisa Ivanovna to their dacha in the woods, which is infused with the scent of the ‘potent leaf-sap of the birch trees’:

They had March fever. They were going out of the still sealed-up, glassed up house into the fresh, watery, early spring.

The house is ‘still sealed-up, glassed up’ against the fierce Russian winter, which is just coming to an end. The book closes with the definitive change of season and a wonderful passage describing the unsealing of the windows. Then:

Throughout the winter the house had been deaf, turned inwards, able to listen only to itself. Now the sounds of Moscow broke in, the bells and voices, the cabs and taxis which had gone by all winter unheard like ghosts of themselves, and with the noise came the spring wind, fresher than it felt in the street, blowing in uninterrupted from the northern regions where the frost still lay.

This weekend, we Londoners were not so different from that Moscow house. We’ve spent the winter ‘turned inwards’ – cold, muffled, shrouded in darkness – but now we are out in the bright streets, in the parks, listening to the noise of the city and feeling the fresh spring wind.

3. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge

Illyrian SpringLady Kilmichael is fed up with her philandering husband and difficult daughter and so decides to travel first to Venice and then on to the Dalmatian Coast, painting as she goes. Her path crosses with that of Nicholas, a young man determined to be a artist, in spite of his parents’ disapproval. They travel and paint together, until things become a little complicated…

This delightful novel has a similar feel to The Enchanted April, in that as you read it, you are transported to the warmer climes of the Mediterranean and the drowsy wellness that comes with a holiday. It also shines with descriptive travel writing. Ann Bridge was the wife of a diplomat and so was a seasoned traveller. This is one of my favourite views:

All over the ledges of these pearly rocks, as thick as they could stand, grew big pale-blue irises, a foot or more high, sumptuous as those in an English border, their leaves almost as silver as the rocks, their unopened buds standing up like violet spears among the delicate pallor of the fully opened flowers – Iris pallida dalmatica, familiar to every gardener, growing in unimaginable profusion in its native habitat. Now to see an English garden flower smothering a rocky mountainside is a sufficient wonder, especially if the rocks are of silver colour and the flowers a silvery blue; and Nature, feeling that she had done enough, might well have been content to leave it at that. But she had a last wonder, a final beauty to add. In the cracks and fissures another flower grew, blue also, spreading out over the steep slabs between the ledges in flat cushions as much as a yard across – a low-growing woody plant, smothered in small close flower-heads of a deep chalky blue, the shade beloved of the painter Nattier. Anything more lovely than these low compact masses of just the same tone of colour, but a deeper shade, flattened on the white rocks as a foil and companion to the flaunting splendour of the irises, cannot be conceived.

The description, with its precise renderings of different shades of colour, seems apt given that it’s seen through the eyes of an artist. I hadn’t realised that irises were native to Croatia. They are one of my very favourite flowers – especially the yellow variety which we saw in profusion in Scotland – and now, whenever I see them in a garden, I think of this vision of a mountainside covered in a silvery-blue sea of them.

4. The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

The Constant NymphThis strange and powerful novel, written by someone who Anita Brookner termed ‘not only a romantic but an anarchist’, begins with a wonderful depiction of the ‘Sanger circus’ holidaying in the Austrian Alps. They are not an actual circus, but a family of wild, musical children, headed by their father Sanger, a great musician, and added to by various other musicians, most notably young handsome Lewis Dodd. They spend their days cavorting around the mountainside and singing. When Sanger dies (we discover this at the beginning), cousin Florence, a sensible, cultured young English woman, comes out to the Tyrol in her ‘neat grey travelling hat and veil’ to take this troop of cousins in hand:

The children could not believe that they were really related to such a marvellous creature. They stared expansively.

Florence blossoms in the Alpine spring, charming the children and Lewis Dodd too. Yet when she takes them back to England, sending them to various boarding schools, and trying to settle down to married life with Lewis, she slips back into her English habits, but Sanger’s circus refuses to be tamed. As her imposed order begins to unravel, the lost carefree days of the Austrian spring seem more and more enchanted.

5. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the CastleOne of my very favourite, most comforting books, I Capture the Castle begins in spring, when the young American heirs to the estate first visit the dilapidated castle where the Mortmains, in all their bohemian squalor, roost. It is a novel packed with funny and delightful scenes, such as Cassandra’s interrupted bath-time; the brilliant episode when Rose, in her newly-inherited furs, is mistaken for a bear; and a magical night-swim in the moat. I suppose this makes it sound a little like a fairytale, but it’s too comical for that. Here is a bit from the moat swim. Cassandra has nobly taken one of the heirs swimming in order to let her sister Rose have a romantic tête-à-tête with the other heir:

We were in full moonlight. Neil had patches of brilliant green duckweed on his head and one shoulder; he looked wonderful.

I felt that what with the moonlight, the music, the scent of the stocks and having swum round a six-hundred-year-old moat, romance was getting a really splendid leg-up and it seemed an awful waste that we weren’t in love with each other – I wondered if I ought to have got Rose and Simon to swim the moat instead of us. But I finally decided that cold water is definitely anti-affection, because when Neil did eventually put his arm around me it wasn’t half so exciting as when he held my hand under the warm car-rug after the picnic.

The spring of I Capture the Castle is the perfect setting for our heroine, the narrator Cassandra. She is in the spring of her life, just beginning to blossom.

These are five wonderful books, and this is a particularly good time to read them, with the feel of the sun on your skin and the breeze in your hair. And, when the weather inevitably breaks, let’s hope we can find comfort in the spring delights held within their pages.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts on these books, or any other suggestions for good spring reads.

The Blue Flower

February 25, 2013

Penelope Fitzgerald is one of my very favourite writers.

I love the modesty of her genius – the way she manages to condense a vast amount of research into a few perfectly placed sentences, or captures a character in a single revealing moment. There is no boasting or showing off. Her slender, potent novels are about as far away as you could imagine from all those braggy, baggy monsters which claim to be ‘the Great American novel’, or ‘the voice of our generation’, or something else ridiculously self-aggrandising. Fitzgerald gives us perfect little stories, then – suddenly – you realise they are the product of an absolutely extraordinary mind. Her unassuming genius catches you by surprise.

The Blue Flower – Penelope Fitzgerald’s last novel and considered by many to be her masterpiece – is about the early life of the German Romantic poet Novalis. (I’m going to be honest and admit straight away that I’d never heard of him, but I suspect that reflects my ignorance rather than his lack of fame.) Fitzgerald gives us Novalis when he is still ‘Fritz von Hardenberg’, the eldest son of a big shambolic noble family which has lost all its wealth. Twenty-two-year-old Fritz falls in love with twelve-year-old Sophie von Kuhn.

How can anyone fall in love with a twelve-year-old girl? It’s an especially impossible question post-Jimmy Savile, of course. To make it even harder, Fitzgerald stresses the fact that Sophie is not an old twelve-year-old, in the way that Shakespeare’s Juliet seems more adult than her not-yet-fourteen years; Sophie is unmistakably a child. The first time Fritz sees her she is described as ‘a very young dark-haired girl’ – ‘very young’. She laughs childishly all the time. She is simple, unintelligent – a striking and funny contrast to intellectual Fritz:

‘But Schlegel, too, is interested in transmigration. Should you like to be born again?’

Sophie considered a little. ‘Yes, if I could have fair hair.’

Fitzgerald gives us an extract from Sophie’s diary:

January 8

Today once again we were alone and nothing much happened.

January 9

Today we were again alone and nothing much happened.

What on earth does Fritz see in her? The reader is not alone in being puzzled by Fritz’s love for Sophie – none of the other characters can fathom it. Fritz’s brother Erasmus says:

‘She won’t do at all, my Fritz. She is good-natured, yes, but she is not your intellectual equal. Great Fritz, you are a philosopher, you are a poet … Fritz, Sophie is stupid!’

To which Fritz replies:

‘You mean well, Junge, I am sure you do. Your feelings are those of a brother. You think I have been taken in by a beautiful face.’

‘No, I don’t,’ Erasmus protested. ‘You are taken in, yes, but not by a beautiful face. Fritz, she is not beautiful, she is not even pretty. I say again this Sophie is empty-headed, moreover at twelve years old she has a double chin -’

But then, quite remarkably, Erasmus too falls under her spell, just as intensely as Fritz. Even their father falls for Sophie eventually.

What is it about young Sophie von Kuhn? Is it that she is an empty vessel into which they can pour all their desires, a blank canvas to be projected upon? Is it her happy innocence and joyful naivety which touches them in some way?

Or perhaps this is an extreme example to illustrate the inexplicable nature of love. No one truly understands why people fall in love, so why should everyone falling in love with this simple girl be any stranger than everyone falling in love with anyone else?

Perhaps this love is linked to the blue flower of the title. The blue flower appears in the story that Fritz reads aloud to different people at various stages of the novel:

The young man lay restlessly on his bed and remembered the stranger and his stories. ‘It was not the thought of the treasure which stirred up such unspeakable longings in me,’ he said to himself. ‘I have no craving to be rich, but I long to see the blue flower. It lies incessantly at my heart, and I can imagine and think about nothing else. Never did I feel like this before. It is as if until now I had been dreaming, or as if sleep had carried me into another world …’

This is the opening of the novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen that Novalis actually wrote. The language surrounding the blue flower is not so different to that surrounding Sophie – Fritz’s ‘heart’s heart’.

‘What is the meaning of the blue flower?’ asks Fritz again and again. The meaning of the blue flower is hard to pinpoint, which is, ironically, the whole point. The blue flower is symbolic of a vague inexpressible yearning for the infinite, a Romantic emblem of love and striving.

This sounds pretty heavy, but perhaps Penelope Fitzgerald has wrong-footed us again. In an interview she said:

Before I ever knew Novalis’ story, I was interested in the blue poppy. I wanted to trace its history, and I saw one up in Cumbria. It’s extremely difficult to grow, you know; and even then, after about the third year, it goes to pieces—it changes colour.

She sends us away from eighteenth-century Germany to twentieth-century Cumbria; away from the Romantic imagination to a gardener’s challenge. In a letter to the literary critic Frank Kermode, she sends us off to a Yorkshire novella:

I started from D.H. Lawrence’s ‘fatal flower of happiness’ at the end of The Fox, having always wondered how DHL knew it was blue …

Is this novel, which purports to be about the philosophy behind German Romanticism, actually just about a blue flower? Or is the blue flower symbolic of far more than even the German Romantics thought?

Penelope Fitzgerald has such a lightness of touch, such subtle genius that she is bloody hard to write about! ‘How does she do it?’ asks A.S. Byatt, and many other critics, in helpless wonder. I think Julian Barnes has written about her better than most (certainly better than me) in the Guardian here. But I will leave you with Fitzgerald’s own beautiful words from the opening scene of The Blue Flower. This passage illustrates her skill for condensing extensive research into a piece of poetry, and for transporting the reader, perfectly seamlessly, to a completely different but utterly relatable-to world:

Jacob Dietmahler was not such a fool that he could not see that they had arrived at his friend’s home on the washday. They should not have arrived anywhere, certainly not at this great house, the largest but two in Weissenfels, at such a time. Dietmahler’s own mother supervised the washing three times a year, therefore the household had linen and white underwear for four months only. He himself possessed eighty-nine shirts, no more. But here, at the Hardenberg house in Kloster Gasse, he could tell from the great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillow-cases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows into the courtyard, where grave-looking servants, both men and women, were receiving them into giant baskets, that they washed only once a year.

Emilybooks of the year

December 19, 2012

Looking back on the year, I see that I’ve developed a strange habit of reading in threes. There have been three Elizabeths, three lives, three children’s books, three of all sorts of things. Strange indeed.

So here are my favourites of the books that I’ve read over the past year, clumped, conveniently, into threes.

The Walking Book Club at Port Eliot

3 Elizabeths

I began the year reading Elizabeth Bowen’s intensely atmospheric wartime novel The Heat of the Day which set me up for a year of Elizabeths. Start as you mean to go on, I suppose. Well I went on to read Bowen’s The House in Paris, an entrancing, bewitching novel, which made a whole afternoon disappear. Best of all, it was a year in which I was given a very special edition of Bowen’s Court – EM Forster’s copy no less.

I loved Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, a novel which every aspiring writer must read not just because it describes so brilliantly different moments of writing – the strange feverish stuffiness of writing non-stop, and the anti-climax of finishing, for instance – but because it will make you laugh hopelessly at yourself, at the sheer vanity of being a writer. We also had a splendid Walking Book Club discussing Taylor’s poignant novel about getting old, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, for which we enjoyed the illustrious company of Clare Balding. You’ll be able to listen to it on Radio 4’s Ramblings in February… watch this space!

The third Elizabeth of the year was Elizabeth Jenkins. The Tortoise and the Hare had me in tears, and Harriet had me in a nightmare. Both are utterly compelling, hellish portrayals of marriage – the first is a heartbreaking portrayal of its death throes, and the second is about a situation so horrific, it’s hard to believe that it was based on a true murder case.

3 houses

My novel, as those of you who read last week’s post will know, is centred on a house and the stories that lie within it. As a result, I have grown quite addicted to books with houses at their centre. I’ve already mentioned Elizabeth Bowen – her Bowen’s Court really is a great portrait of a house.

Rebecca is one of my all time favourite house novels. From that memorable first line, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,’ the house threatens to overwhelm the new Mrs de Winter. The most memorable moments of the novel are firmly rooted in the house – when she comes down the stairs for the ball, looking like the ghost of Rebecca, or when Mrs Danvers nearly makes her throw herself out of Rebecca’s old bedroom window. This was one of the books we discussed when I took the Walking Book Club to the splendid Port Eliot festival, not so far from Menabilly – the inspiration for du Maurier’s Manderley. I’ve read this novel so many times now, and each time find it utterly gripping, thoroughly brilliant. Perhaps I should allow myself one du Maurier a year.

But my house of the year has to go to the ‘convenient little house’ in Hampstead, which is the focus of Vita Sackville West’s All Passion Spent. Lady Slane’s husband, a great statesman, has just died when we meet her. She defies her foul children, who want to parcel her off between them, and retires to a pretty Hampstead house that she last saw thirty years ago. This perfect, slim novel, a fictional counterpart to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, is beautifully written, and I especially enjoyed the way Sackville-West’s love of gardening – as attested to by the magnificent gardens at Sissinghurst – periodically surfaces, when she can’t resist arranging a few flowers here, or a ripened peach there.

3 lives

The best non-fiction I’ve read this year has been about the lives of people. The strongest presence has been the poet, Edward Thomas. I read Matthew Hollis’s biography of him, Now All Roads Lead To France – a fantastic book, which managed to turn his rather quiet life into a series of cliffhangers. There was also Robert Macfarlane’s majestic The Old Ways, in which this literary lover of landscapes wrote about journeying on remarkable old paths, haunted by Edward Thomas who was a great walker as well as a great writer. And there was Nick Dear’s powerful play at the Almeida. My favourite Edward Thomas moment of the year was walking with some friends around (the aptly named) Steep, where Thomas lived, and up Shoulder of Mutton hill. It was very special to feel we were walking in his footsteps. Towards the end, we sprawled across a leafy glade and read out some of his poems, accompanied only by birdsong, the wind in the trees, and our steady chomping of Percy Pigs.

I loved reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters – a wonderful thick collection, which was a steady and inspiring companion for many months. And now I am reading West with the Night by Beryl Markham, who became my new heroine by about page five. She tells of her childhood in what was then British East Africa, a childhood which included such instances as hunting warthogs with local tribesmen and being mauled by a lion. She grew up to breed and train racehorses, and then became a freelance pilot. This is an extraordinary memoir, bristling with the spirit of adventure, full of the romance of a lost way of life, and somehow Markham has combined a great lyricism with edge-of-your-seat thrilling tension.

3 new novels

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home seemed to lodge in me like a shard of glass, painful, unforgettable and darkly beautiful. Susie Boyt’s The Small Hours was a peculiar and powerful novel. It is about a strange, larger-than-life woman who decides to open a nursery school. It soon transpires that her own childhood has been difficult, to say the least. I suppose it’s what you might expect from Freud’s great-granddaughter. Emily Perkins’ The Forrests follows a family over several decades. What really stood out about it was the quality of the writing, richly detailed, making every mundane moment sing like a poem.

3 children’s books

Like everyone else I read The Hunger Games, and I loved it. It was alarmingly addictive – I have friends who began reading it one evening and had to take the next day off work, as they had to stay up all night to finish it. Cynics dismiss it as a horrid teen novel about children killing each other, but I found it thick with ideas – about CCTV, celebrity culture, society and more.

I reread The Wind in the Willows, which was truly joyful, and even inspired a walk along the Thames, for which we strove to bring all the ingredients in Ratty’s notorious picnic:

coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidges

pottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater

And I reread A Wizard of Earthsea, an exciting quest about the battle of good versus evil, and – interestingly – the importance of language.

3 of everything else

There were of course other brilliant Emilybooks of the year, which don’t fit into these clumps of threes so neatly – Dorothy Whipple, Patti Smith, and it was certainly a year of Ali Smith, whose new book Artful – not quite a novel, not quite a collection of essays, is something entirely new and mind-poppingly impressive. It was a year of many great ladies, and, lest I forget, a few great men, (like the aforementioned Edward Thomas, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and L.P. Hartley). It has been a year of feeling terrifically happy that there are so many wonderful books to read.

Thank you for accompanying me through a wonderful year of reading. Now I have only to wish you a happy and book-filled Christmas and New Year. Emilybooks will be back in January.

The Next Big Thing Meme

December 12, 2012

The splendid novelist Anna Stothard has tagged me in ‘the Next Big Thing meme’, which means this week you get a bonus blog post from me. It’s a chance to tell you a little bit about my novel, which, let’s hope, will be the Next Big Thing.

What is the title of your next book?

A London House … I think.

What genre does your book fall under?

Fiction. Most of it is set in the present day, but there are also some historical chapters.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I’m afraid I just don’t know for most of my characters, but I would love Bill Nighy to play Roger, an eccentric old man who lives on a houseboat. Anna, the main character, is trickier. Perhaps Romola Garai, who seems to have a habit of playing the main part in film adaptations of many of my favourite books.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

One night, two girls break into a derelict house, where the air is thick with stories of the people who have lived there in the past.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Perhaps it’s morbid, but I absolutely love buildings in various states of decay. I love to imagine them in their former glory, and wonder who might once have looked out of the broken windows, or trod on the rotting floorboards.

A couple of years ago, bulldozers were hard at work on a big school near where I live. There was a stage in its demolition when the whole back wall of the building had been taken off, so that you could see into each of the different classrooms and each one was painted a different colour. It was like looking into a box of paints, an image which really tugged at me. I began to imagine pulling off the walls of other houses, looking into all their rooms, painted and wallpapered in different colours and designs. It made me think about the marks and impressions people make on their houses by living in them, and how many stories lie hidden there in the smallest things.

Several books have helped to inspire me with my one – here are a few of them:

Inspiring books

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My agent is Andrew Kidd at Aitken Alexander.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Just over a year and a half.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Hitchcock and Picasso both have cameo roles.

Now it’s my turn to tag – too thrilling! Wayne Gooderham – journalist, blogger, collector of second-hand books and curator of an exhibition of book dedications now on at Foyles, and Samantha Ellis – playwright, blogger and writer of a fascinating-sounding book about literary heroines, consider yourself the next bearers of the meme.

And So I Have Thought of You – The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald

November 26, 2012

I have been reading these letters for many months, a few at a time, at odd in-between moments – in the bath, waiting for the kettle to boil, or for the toast to be done. Penelope Fitzgerald is one of my literary heroines, and this chunky collection of letters has been a trusty companion, a reliable source for a quick fix of inspiration, a smile, and a sigh of relief that such a good writer existed.

I love the precision of Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing and often, when I’ve been angsting over how to begin an article or how to write something clearly, I’ve read one of her letters for inspiration, sitting down and trying to write the piece straight away afterwards, in the vain hope that some of her style might have seeped into my own. I could never hope to be half as good a writer, but certainly reading a letter has never failed to help.

The feeling I get when reading other people’s letters is the glee of an eavesdropper. All these nuggets of gossip and in-jokes and reassurances and wonderings and news. It is such an astonishing privilege to have this window into a personal, off-the-record side of a great writer. Even though it’s perfectly legitimate to read these published letters, it is hard not to feel those butterflies of naughtiness, of seeing something you oughtn’t, the exquisite fear of being caught.

There is so much in these letters, so many stories – some just hinted at, others sketched out, and others which develop over several years. Each holds its own distinct pleasure.

The hints are often gossip about other writers. There’s this to one of her editors, Stuart Profitt:

I realise now that you can’t get hold of Malcolm Bradbury, he seems to be made of some plastic or semi-fluid substance which gives way or changes in your hands.

Or this postscript to Stuart Profitt’s predecessor, Richard Ollard:

Poor S. Rushdie, or rich S. Rushdie, whichever you like, that was a publicity campaign that went dreadfully wrong. I don’t think he ought to go into hiding, though. My local Patel grocery on the corner tells me that it is not a dignified act.

She’s so clever in her insults! While I love these flashes of brilliant wit, they leave me longing to find out more about what she thinks on the subjects.

Then there are her sketches. Here is one of Fitzgerald’s finest, which appears in a letter to her daughter Maria, and could easily be lifted straight out of one of her novels. She describes a ‘surrealist tea-party’ in Rye, where the guests were:

a trendy cleric, his dull wife, a long-skirted daughter, going up to read English at Hertford, who evidently hadn’t wanted to come, and Henry James’s manservant (still living in Rye, but with a deaf-aid which had to be plugged into the skirting) who couldn’t really bear to sit down and have tea, but kept springing up and trying to wait on people, with the result that he tripped over the cable – and contributing in a loud, shrill voice remarks like ‘Mr Henry was a heavy man – nearly 16 stone – it was a job for him to push his bicycle uphill’ – in the middle of all the other conversation which he couldn’t hear.

It’s too perfect and had me in stitches over my burning toast!

Then there are the longer stories. The attempt to write L.P. Hartley’s biography, which in the end defeated her; the dire financial straits of her early married life, manifest in instances like being unable to afford to buy towels from John Lewis; her endless attempts to persuade her editor of the worthiness of a book she longed to write about the Poetry Bookshop; the struggle to be recognised as a writer. With respect to this latter strand, her correspondence with her editors at Duckworth, where she began her writing career, is eye-opening. She wrote this to Richard Garnett there:

It worried me terribly when you told me I was only an amateur writer and I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before you lose amateur status?

It’s too appalling to think of her editor calling her an amateur writer! Later she writes to Colin Haycraft, also at Duckworth, about her decision to move to a different publisher:

You did tell me, you know, that if I went on writing novels you didn’t want it blamed on you and that Anna thought I should do detective stories and also, by the way, that you had too many short novels with sad ending on your hands, and I thought, well, he’s getting rid of me, but in a very nice way. I don’t at all expect you to remember everything you say to 32 authors, but the trouble is we take all these remarks seriously and ourselves too seriously as well, I expect.

Luckily she moved to Harper Collins, where she found a much better editor in Richard Ollard and his successor Stuart Profitt. Reading their letters are a delight, as their warm literary friendship is conjured on the page:

Just to thank you for taking me to the party, I should never have had the resolution to go otherwise and indeed I noticed many people, obviously female novelists, standing about looking at a loss, and I was grateful not to have to do this.

Or here:

Meanwhile I feel that if Angela has gone and mice have got into the air-conditioning the Harper Collins palace must be almost untenable. But I’m so glad that Stuart’s Big Book after many worries is proving such an enormous success – what energy he’s got! If he gets this place in Herefordshire I suppose he will have to arrive up at week-ends and put together the roof and chimneys and then walk miles over Hay Bluff &c for exercise, but I expect that will be as nothing to him.

Her letters to Chris Carduff, her American editor, are also a treat. I especially love the fact that he calls his cat Charlotte Mew, after the poet associated with the Poetry Bookshop. It is to him that she drops this perfect line:

on the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken.

Gosh these letters were such a pleasure to read! The only sad thing about them is the gaps – the missing years and people, thanks to faulty archiving or tragic incidents like the sinking of her houseboat. I see that Hermione Lee is writing a biography of Penelope Fitzgerald; she’s written a little about it here for the Guardian. I am literally on the edge of my seat with excitement for it – I’m sure that Hermione Lee will succeed in filling in some of these gaps, fleshing out those things that are only hinted at in these letters, shaping everything into a powerful narrative. Until then, I will happily read and reread her novels, and perhaps I might just start again on these witty, wry, wonderful letters.

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.

The Beginning of Spring

March 13, 2012

The other day I got chatting to a young lady who used to work as a journalist for a national newspaper. She revealed that online journalism is full of tricks, such as trying to get the words ‘google’, ‘sex’ and ‘tits’ into each story, which apparently makes the article easier to find with a search engine. She also said that they were told not to write anything too long, encouraged to use bullet points and the more pictures the better.

I came away feeling that EmilyBooks is doomed to failure. I don’t think that I’ve ever used ‘google’, ‘sex’ or ‘tits’ in any of my posts. Until now that is. But, in my defence, people looking for any of those three things are unlikely to find what they’re looking for here. Perhaps I’m just writing the wrong kind of blog. Perhaps this should be a blog about googling for sex and tits.

Leaving aside the issue of the three magic words, I’m sure I don’t use enough bullet points or pictures, or write short enough articles. (I mean I’ve not yet said anything really, and I’m already 200 words in.)

Help!

After a couple of days fretting about this, I have resolved not to worry. But I am going to try to use more pictures. I suspect these will mostly be taken (badly) with my mobile phone, whose camera I have only used once before when excitedly taking a photo of the new Routemaster.

Ta da!

Do feel free to tell me if you think these new pictures add anything to EmilyBooks or if I should ignore all this rubbish and go back to my happy luddite ways.

Back to books anyway. I recently wrote a piece for the Spectator about books in spring. It was a bit of an eccentric piece, essentially written to point out that there are three very good books with the word ‘hare’ in the title, which is too brilliantly Marchlike to miss. Well I finished the article having decided to read something spring-y. Which is how I ended up with Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring.

What a wonderful book! I really do think the lady is a genius. I read Offshore a couple of years ago and have been longing to read something else by her ever since. What she does with great dexterity in both books is create a slightly odd situation, peopled with terribly eccentric but completely believable characters. Each book trundles along slightly quirkily until shortly before the end when something REALLY weird happens.

The Beginning of Spring is set in Moscow in 1913. I enviously noted how well Fitzgerald has done her research, dropping in casual references to things like samovar sizes or routes taken by taxi sledges. It’s not brazenly in-your-face like historical research can be (such as in Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White), rather it is quietly assured, the odd detail filled in perfectly, while the rest is left sketchy enough for the reader’s imagination to have some freedom.

I say that I noted it enviously because I’m currently writing a chapter in my own novel about Picasso, Braque and Kahnweiler in Paris in 1908 and it’s horribly difficult to get right. A couple of months ago I knew very little about Picasso or Braque, had never even heard of Kahnweiler, and didn’t know much about Paris or 1908 either. I’ve been spending many an hour in the British Library trying to learn useful things. The problem is it’s a chicken and egg situation. You need to know something in order to start writing, but as soon as you start writing you realise you don’t know the right thing and so have to go back and research something else. The image that most comes to mind is that of shambling through a three-legged race, the writing and research leaning on each other and helping each other along, but not at all smoothly, often, in fact, tripping each other up.

So well done Penelope. You have succeeded perfectly where many lesser beings fail.

One historical and geographical detail that I particularly loved is the opening of the windows. All through the winter, the windows in Moscow were sealed closed and opening them signifies the beginning of spring:

All morning the yardman had been removing the putty from the inner glass, piece by piece, flake by flake. Blashl [the dog], frantic at his long disappearance, howled at intervals, but the yardman worked slowly. When all the putty was off, without a scratch from the chisel, he called, lord of the moment, for the scrapings to be brushed away. The space between the outer and inner windows was black with dead flies. They, too, must be removed, and the sills washed down with soft soap. Then with a shout from the triumphant shoecleaning boy at the top of the house to Ben, still in the hall, the outer windows, some terribly stuck, were shaken and rattled till they opened wide. Throughout the winter the house had been deaf, turned inwards, able to listen only to itself. Now the sounds of Moscow broke in, the bells and voices, the cabs and taxis which had gone by all winter unheard like ghosts of themselves, and with the noise came the spring wind, fresher than it felt in the street, blowing in uninterrupted from the northern regions where the frost still lay.

Have I just been with an architect for too long, or is this really fascinating? As far as I can understand from this (it’s no point googling ‘opening windows Moscow’ as you just get things about computer programs or articles with obvious metaphorical titles (by the way, do you see what trick I did there??!!)), in Moscow, an extra layer of glass was put in each window for the winter months, which was properly sealed with putty to make very effective double glazing. But see how Fitgerald describes it so minutely, with such thought going into how one would open a window after months of it being sealed. It is a painstaking process. Someone else is called to brush away the scrapings. Dead flies have got in there. The outer windows have become stiff and stuck. And then, finally, she gives us the beautiful climax of the sounds of Moscow blown in on the fresh spring wind. She’s a genius.

I wish we had the same window-opening ritual today in London. How amazing to have been sealed up and cocooned all winter, and then, quite suddenly, to feel connected to the outside. (Incidentally, this all fits in rather nicely with what I was saying about windows in my last post about Ravilious.)

But we have other signs of spring. Like this beautiful tree covered in blossom, which I saw in Hyde Park this weekend!

The funny thing is, when I saw it, I instantly thought of the cover of The Beginning of Spring, with its snow-covered trees. Snow and blossom can give such similar impressions, it is as though the tree shakes off the snow and instantly replaces it with the blossom. Either way, it is covered in white and looks incredibly pretty. Be it in Moscow or in London, I do love the beginning of spring.