Posts Tagged ‘reading’

Brodeck’s Report

May 16, 2016

Spring must be here, because when we were on the Heath yesterday my yellow wellies were wonderfully redundant. In spite of the recent rain, the Heath was dry, the grass long, the air heavy with pollen, and the sunshine bright, and I rather wished I’d flung off my boots and run around barefoot.

walking book club brodeck

Emily’s Walking Book Club was discussing Brodeck’s Report by Philippe Claudel. This novel came out in 2007 – not so long ago – and yet already it has all but disappeared from our cultural radar. Nobody in the book club had even heard of it, but, pleasingly, everyone was very glad to discover it. This is exactly what I want to do with the book club, and with this blog: bring people’s attention to really good books, which, for whatever reason, have been somewhat forgotten. Often these books are quite old, but Brodeck’s Report shows that even a decade can bring relative obscurity.

Brodeck's Report

The novel is set in a village somewhere around the Franco-German border, at a time which is hard to pin down: the blurb says ‘post-war’, and it certainly could be read as taking place after the Second World War, but Claudel is deliberately vague about this, and – as the book club noted – the only technology in the book is a typewriter, people travel on foot or by horse and cart, so it certainly has the feel of an older, somewhat mythical world. The book begins with our narrator, Brodeck, being tasked to write a report. His job is writing reports about the wildlife surrounding the village, collecting data on things like flowers and foxes. Only this particular report is on the murder of the Anderer, ‘the other’. This mysterious, flamboyant stranger recently arrived in the village: he was a man of few words but who talked to his animals, he wore strange clothes, carried old books, was always making notes and sketches of village life … and the people of the village have just killed him. In his account of the murder, Brodeck reveals a great deal more: both about his own life – including his survival of a concentration camp, which he calls the kazerskwir, or ‘crater’, and also how the village has struggled to survive enemy occupation.

It is easy to read Brodeck’s Report as a novel about the Holocaust. Brodeck’s Jewishness is alluded to, although most of the time he, and the other people who were taken to the camps, are referred to as Fremdër – which Claudel explains means ‘foreigner’, but:

… is ambiguous, as it can also mean “traitor”, or more colloquially, “gangrene”, or “filth”.

Claudel has chosen, however, not to make his story specifically about the Holocaust. His vagueness about time and place gives the story something of the feeling of a myth, fairy tale, or parable. When we were discussing it, many members of the book club referred to Rwanda, the current migration crisis, and also the book’s religious connotations. ‘Is the Anderer,’ someone put forward, ‘a Christ-like figure, who has to die to absolve the village for its sins?’

The point is that making the book only about the Holocaust and post-war France would be letting the rest of the world off the hook. Claudel’s novel examines what happens to humanity when it is pushed to the edge – and while the Holocaust is a powerful instance of this, it is not the only one.

Claudel also resists making the characters entirely good or bad. Brodeck’s first sentence tries to absolve him of any responsibility for the murder of the Anderer:

My name is Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it.

But we discover it’s not quite so straightforward as that. Even a man as good as Brodeck has done things of which he is ashamed. There is a terrible moment when he was crammed into the wagon being taken to the concentration camp and he drinks a flask of water belonging to a sleeping young woman with a baby, thereby saving himself and causing their deaths. He still feels terrible guilt for this act:

…this perpetual feeling of inhabiting a body I stole long ago thanks to a few drops of water.

Just as no one is wholly good, no one is wholly bad: the innkeeper who is complicit in the murder of the Anderer tells Brodeck of his haunting grief over the death of his own infant son. One of the most sinister figures in the book is the commandant’s wife at the concentration camp, or: ‘Die Zeilenesseniss “the woman who eats souls”’, who is ‘inhumanly beautiful’. Every day one of the prisoners was chosen to be hanged. The woman never missed a hanging, and she always came with her baby in her arms:

The baby was always peaceful. He never cried. If he was asleep, she would awaken him with small, patient, infinitely gentle gestures, and only when he opened his eyes at last, waved his little arms, wiggled his little thighs and yawned at the sky would she signal to the guards, with a simple movement of her chin, that the ceremony could begin. One of them would give the stepladder a mighty kick and the body of the “Du” would drop, his fall abruptly cut short by the rope. Die Zeilenesseniss would watch him for a few minutes, and as she did so a smile would appear on her lips. She missed nothing and observed everything: the jumps and jolts, the throaty noises, the outthrust, kicking feet vainly reaching for the ground, the explosive sound of the bowels emptying themselves, and the final immobility, the great silence. At this point the child would sometimes cry a little, I dare say not so much from fright as from hunger and the desire to be suckled, but in any case his mother would plant a long kiss on his forehead and calmly leave the scene.

It is such a disturbing image, this beautiful mother and child – clean, peaceful, calm, happy – watching this terrible ritual death. Claudel juxtaposes birth and death elsewhere in the novel too, with Poupchette, the joyful child of Emilia, Brodeck’s wife, born of a terrible act which has all but killed Emilia.

In Brodeck’s Report, we get everything: birth and death, good and evil, the very edges of humanity and all that comes in between. It was a very difficult (if also rewarding) book to discuss because there is so much in it, and all the ideas and issues are so big and bound together: guilt, responsibility, survival – huge questions of morality. But I think what makes the book so brilliant is that while it asks difficult questions, and scrutinises our behaviour so cleverly, it is not all bad and all bleak: Claudel shows us that however much evil there is in us, there is also – always – some good, some love, and some hope.

In other news, I hope you might like this piece I wrote for the Guardian about a very inspiring book club in a prison. And there was also this piece for The Spectator about why books are dangerous, and mustn’t be underestimated: I suppose they’re two articles looking at the power of books from opposite ends of the scale.

 

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The Uncommon Reader

April 20, 2015

The thing with babies is that you think you’re just beginning to get it sorted and then something changes. In this instance, Vita got ill. Which meant that she stopped sleeping. Which meant that I stopped sleeping. Which meant that I got ill.

It was horrid, but at least it happened when we were staying with the husband’s grandparents in Jersey, together with the rest of the in-laws, so there were masses of people around to help look after Vita. This meant that I got to spend a whole day in bed, with the sprog being brought in every few hours for a feed. True, I felt ghastly with a high temperature, sicking up my guts and fainting etc., but there was something about having a whole day of lying around not having to do anything other than try to stomach a bit of an oatcake which was undeniably heavenly.

It meant that I could READ!

The Uncommon ReaderOne of the many good things about staying with the husband’s grandparents is that their house is filled with books. Bursting with books. Thousands and thousands of them. Each room is filled with its own literary delights – beautiful collections of poetry in the drawing room, old-fashioned children’s books in the breakfast room, detective stories in one bedroom, novels with an Austen theme in another …

It just so happened that in my room, aka the sick bay, there was a copy of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for years (I even own a copy, languishing on a shelf somewhere) and I’ve often wondered why I’ve never quite got around to reading it; it’s very slim, after all. But I now think The Uncommon Reader and I must have been waiting for this exact time and place.

It was perfect. Better even than paracetamol downed with a can of coke.

It is not a modern take on Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader, it is a clever, funny novella about The Queen (yes that uncommon reader) discovering a love of reading.

It begins when she happens upon a mobile library parked round the back of the palace. She takes out a book of Ivy Compton Burnett, dutifully struggles through it, and returns for a Nancy Mitford. She is soon hooked on books, and begins to resent her usual duties:

She was dreading the two hours the whole thing was due to take, though fortunately they were in the coach, not the open carriage, so she could take along her book. She’d got quite good at reading and waving, the trick being to keep the book below the level of the window and to keep focused on it and not on the crowds.

The Queen wonders why she has become so addicted to reading, what it is about it which she finds so enthralling. She reflects:

Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic … It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who had led a life apart now found that she craved it.

There is something almost revolutionary in this! The Queen likes a republic! But she has struck the nail on the head – this ‘uncommon reader’ rejoices in the commonality of books. The common ground that books provide happens to be my favourite thing about them too. It is such an easy way to strike up a conversation with someone, with anyone. You can be entirely different from someone in terms of age, gender, politics, religion, and everything else, and yet, if you’ve both read the same book, you have something great to discuss.

What follows is an enjoyable, imaginative foray into what the Queen enjoys reading – E.M. Forster, Proust, Anita Brookner, Vikram Seth, Henry James, Alice Munro, the poetry of Larkin and Hardy, and, alas, not Harry Potter (‘one is saving that for a rainy day’), and her various aides’ feeble attempts to keep this dangerous new habit under control.

Moreover, the Queen is moved to jot down a few words of her own: some notes on her reading and on life itself. So, like many keen readers, the Queen feels the pull of writing … and comes to face the conundrum of how she can both reign and write. You had better read the book to find out her solution.

The Uncommon Reader provides a charming, imaginative glimpse into how the Queen might live, somewhat terrorised by her many equerries, and tyrannised by her many tedious appointments. There’s a good digression about the Royal family’s ‘supposedly unguarded moments’, for instance the late Queen Mother muttering ‘I could murder a gin and tonic’. Bennett reveals that these are in truth ‘just as much a performance as the royal family at its most hieratic’:

This show, or sideshow, might be called playing at being normal and is as contrived as the most formal public appearance, even though those who witness or overhear it think that this is the Queen and her family at their most human and natural.

Word gets back to the Queen’s equerries that these seemingly human moments are occurring less often. They are disgruntled but unable to say anything, as they too are in on the pretence of these not being a performance. When one ventures to tell the Queen she was ‘less spontaneous this morning’, she confesses to having ‘almost maternal’ feelings to her subjects. The equerry is embarrassed:

This was a truly human side to the monarch of which he’d never been previously aware and which (unlike its counterfeit versions) he did not altogether welcome. And whereas the Queen herself thought that such feelings probably arose out of her reading books, the young man felt it might be that she was beginning to show her age. Thus it was that the dawn of sensibility was mistaken for the onset of senility.

Alan Bennett is brilliant at showing the ridiculous Catch 22 of the Queen’s situation. She is expected to seem natural, but when she actually is natural, she disappoints. And he writes with such style – Austenish in his balancing of observation, wit and poignancy. That last sentence, for instance, is a winner:

Thus it was that the dawn of sensibility was mistaken for the onset of senility.

The Uncommon Reader is very short, very funny and very clever. It is very British. But really what I loved about it most, was reading about someone discovering a love of reading. There is nothing better than witnessing the dawning of this great joy, and, rather soppily, it made me feel very excited about Vita making the same discovery in years to come.

Finally, a note to say that, wonderfully, you can listen to the talks from the Daunt Books Festival here.

Emilybooks of the year

December 16, 2013

It’s that time again, when evenings are filled with too many drinks, days with too many mince pies, and all energy is summoned for the final push before collapsing in the heavenly Christmas holidays.

I wonder if I’m quite ready to reflect upon the reading year that has past, all those pages that have been turned, worlds that have been entered. My mind is awhirr with bookshop thoughts, for now is a wildly busy time for us. I sit here worrying, do we have enough of X in stock? did I remember to order Y her book?, and feel dizzy with the exhaustion of being polite and helpful to hundreds of people stressed out beyond belief with the Sisyphean task of Christmas shopping. My fingers itch to fold wrapping paper into neat corners around a book, and feel peculiar spread to tap across a keyboard. But this is the year’s final Emilybooks post and, every bit as traditional as a Christmas tree, is the round-up of the books I’ve read this year and a reminder of some of 2013’s reading delights. So which are my Emilybooks of the year?

The Living Mountain by Nan ShepherdThe year began on a high with Nan Shepherd’s very special memoir of living in the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain. It’s a book which haunted me all the year, filled with mind-boggling reflections written in the best sort of poetic prose. I am still floored by the thought of the tiny alpine flora there which predates the Ice Age. It was a good year for nature writing, with also Edward Thomas’s The Icknield Way, The Silt Road by Charles Rangeley-Wilson, and Olivia Laing’s enchanting To the River, which I re-read with delight.

There was, in fact, rather a lot of re-reading this year, often thanks to Emily’s Walking Book Club, for which I re-read one of my very favourite London books, Iris Under the NetMurdoch’s Under the Net. Actually, that’s probably one of my favourite books full stop. Other re-reads for the book club, were Beryl Markham’s poetic gung-ho memoir of colonial Kenya, West with the Night, and Laurie Lee’s lyrical As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. I re-read The Turn of the Screw for the Southbank Bookclub, and it was much better and more complex than I remembered, and I re-read Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore – twice! – because it is nigh on a perfect novel: slim, elegant, funny, well-observed, unexpected. All of these books stood up beautifully to a re-read, yielding just as many pleasures as they did first time round. I have renewed my resolution to re-read more, to treat a book with the love and respect accorded to a piece of music, listening to it time and again, rather than considering it finished after a single run-through.

Swann's WayOne book that I read for the first time this year, and which I am sure I will re-read is Swann’s Way. It was admittedly quite a high-risk book to take on holiday. All that languid prose, those serpentine sentences promised luxurious pleasure, but I was more than a little anxious Proust might prove too much for my feeble holiday brain. It was, however, completely heavenly. I particularly loved the way he wrote about the power of the little tune of music, and the clever things he did with his long twisting sentences. As Muriel Spark put it in A Far Cry from Kensington, Proust is ‘about everything in particular’. I am already looking forward to re-reading it. If I had to pick just one, then Swann’s Way must be my book of the year.

I also read Flaubert’s Three Tales, although without quite so much pleasure. I picked it up principally as it’s a very thin book, and I wanted something slight before embarking upon the gargantuan task of The Luminaries. Oh, The Luminaries. It took such a long time to read it and ended in such an unsatisfactorary, post-modern way that I have to remind myself that really, while I was reading it (for A MONTH, twice as long as I gave to Swann’s Way) I did actually really enjoy it.

Where'd you go BernadetteOther good new novels this year were Francesca Segal’s The Innocents and Sathnam Sanghera’s Marriage Material – two engaging ‘outsider fictions’, the one about the Jewish community and the other about the Sikh, and both also re-imaginings of classic novels. There was Idiopathy by Sam Byers, and also The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, both very punchy, written in fizzing electric prose. The Last Runaway, Tracy Chevalier’s novel about a young Quaker woman going to America in the 1850s and getting involved in the Underground Railroad, was an engrossing pleasure. She is very good at giving us quiet but strong heroines, like Griet in Girl with a Pearl Earring, not new, but one I also read this year. Slightly disappointing was Jane Gardam’s Last Friends, only as it wasn’t quite up to the gold standard of Old Filth, yet it was still a pleasure to revisit her winning clutch of characters. My favourite new novel of the year is Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple. I laughed so much in this easy yet ingenious novel, which masquerades as a bit of fluff, but is really a powerfully feminist book, and, although not as beautifully written, it is just as postmodern and intelligent as The Luminaries, and rather a lot shorter.

Moon Tiger by Penelope LivelyIt was a year to discover some wonderful old classics too. The Millstone by Margaret Drabble, The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. These three are some of the best books I’ve ever read, especially Moon Tiger – what a corker!! It managed to be dizzyingly original in its narrative, as well as so affecting that I cried when reading it in my lunchbreak. There were some wonderful treats from Persephone Books – Consequences by EM Delafield, which was brilliant psychologically, and absolutely devastating; The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal (Edmund’s grandmother), which raised all sorts of questions about Vienna in the 1950s; and The Far Cry by Emma Smith, a very unsettling coming-of-age novel about going to India in the 1940s. There were other wonders too. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower – the woman’s a genius; the little-known Brigid Brophy’s picaresque, lesbian coming-of-age The King of a Rainy Country; Rumer Godden’s Breakfast with the Nikolides; Mary McCarthy’s The Group; Nancy Mitford’s silly, funny Christmas Pudding; Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart – currently reading and loving – and, of course, The Bell Jar, up there with Consequences as one of the most distressing novels of all time.

The Pendragon LegendAll these seem rather feminine and rather Anglo-American, I admit. In my defence, I did also read some more “out-there” classics: thanks to Pushkin Press, I discovered Ryu Murakami’s magnificent dystopian Coin Locker Babies and Antal Szerb’s The Pendragon Legend, a kind of much darker Tintin. There was Christine Brooke-Rose’s bizarre and brilliant Textermination, which inspired me to write a short story, and Tove Jansson’s completely delightful The Summer Book. Other classics that are perhaps slightly more ‘male’ than you might expect from Emilybooks are: F Scott Fitzgerald’s messy, brilliant Tender is the Night (so much better than Gatsby) and the flawless-other-than-perhaps-too-neat Remains of the Day by Kashuo Ishiguro.

A brief mention of some short stories: John Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’ was chilling and unnerving. Incidentally, my friend Katie tells me there is a ‘Swimmer’ thing in London named after this short story, where you literally swim from Hampstead Heath to Brockwell. Charlotte Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ was also brilliantly unsettling. I read a few of Edith Pearlman’s in Binocular Vision, and Alice Munro’s in Dear Life – both elderly ladies, both writing staggeringly brilliant short stories, both at last receiving some long-deserved recognition. There is also Ali Smith’s beautifully produced, wonderfully inspiring collection Shire, in which Nan Shepherd pops up, and Deborah Levy’s excellent Black Vodka.

Things I Don't Want to KnowAlso by Deborah Levy is her memoir-essay Things I Don’t Want to Know, which is one of the best things I’ve ever read. Short and smartly produced by Notting Hill Editions, it is a feminine rejoinder to Orwell’s essay ‘Why I Write’, and so much more inspiring. It’s difficult to describe – more engaging than most essays, more political than most memoirs, more powerful, affecting imagery than in most novels. Read it.

I have only discovered over the past couple of years quite how much I love reading memoirs. This year has had some brilliant ones. As well as Deborah Levy’s, Nan Shepherd’s and Beryl Markham’s, all mentioned above, there was Island Summers by Matilde Culme-Seymour, containing so much delicious food-writing that I came out of it both hungrier and heavier. How to be a Heroine, to be published in January, is a very engaging reading-memoir in which Samantha Ellis looks at her reading life and weighs up her various fictional heroines through a tremendous tour of some dearly loved novels. As well as a great chance to revisit some favourites (Anne of Green Gables, Cold Comfort Farm, Jane Eyre and more), it is a tantalising introduction to what I’m sure will be some treats for 2014, such as Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes. There was also Emma Smith’s As Green As Grass – wonderful memories of life around the Second World War by a very spritely ninety-year-old. Penelope Lively’s new Ammonites and Leaping Fish is another hard-to-define book. Part memoir, part reflections on being old, part thoughts on books read, objects collected and part history lesson, it is a box of delights. Perhaps most compelling of all these lives is Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s biography of her grandmother Jan Struther, The Real Mrs Miniver. What a life, and how beautifully written!

The Dark is RisingFitting for this time of year, I loved re-reading Susan Cooper’s series of children’s books ‘The Dark is Rising‘. The Dark is Rising is probably the best of the five, and begins on 20th December, Midwinter’s Eve. Chilling, powerful, exciting imaginative, transporting, how I do love to read a brilliant children’s book!

I can’t end without mentioning the big change chez Emilybooks this year. Daphne! Oh my beloved literary tortoise. Which was her favourite book of the year? She is torn between beautifully slow-paced Proust, and Penelope Lively’s Ammonites and Leaping Fish, which features a tortoise or two.

Finally, thank YOU for giving me so much of your reading time and attention during the year. Perhaps you have an Emilybook of the year? In which case I would love to know it. And may I wish you a very happy, book-filled Christmas and New Year.

Daphnebooks of the year

Moon Tiger

September 18, 2013

Why is it that so many novels about falling in love have a whiff of silliness about them? They tend to have a swirly script on the cover, as well as something pink and possibly sparkly too. You describe a book as ‘a love story’ and everyone will instantly think it’s chick lit. I doubt it would occur to anyone that you might be talking about a great classic like Anna Karenina.

Moon Tiger by Penelope LivelyMoon Tiger is a love story, of sorts. Claudia Hampton is lying in a hospital bed, old and dying, and decides she will write ‘a history of the world … and in the process, my own’. Through a series of flashbacks we learn about her life and her loves. What is instantly clear is that there is nothing pink and sparkly about Claudia – she is so intelligent and beautiful that most people find her quite terrifying. Her history of the world is about her life, and it is as much about her loves. As for the word love, she reflects:

That word is overstretched; it cannot be made to do service for so many different things – love of children, love of friends, love of God, carnal love and cupidity and saintliness.

We learn not only of Claudia’s love for Tom Southern, a solider in Egypt during the Second World War, but also of her other loves. There is her love for her brother, Gordon, with whom she has such a profound closeness that his wife finds it unnerving; her love for her conventional, insipid daughter Lisa; for Jasper, her dashing, successful lover, and Laszlo, a stray Hungarian who she takes in.

Moreover – unexpectedly, brilliantly and quite addictively – Penelope Lively shows us not only how Claudia feels towards these characters, but also how they respond to Claudia. Claudia’s reflections are peppered with breaks in the narrative, after which time is rewound a few moments, and then the same episode is briefly retold from a different character’s perspective.

It is hard to explain this remarkably original style of writing, so I hope you’ll forgive my quoting at length. The following takes place in a bar in 1946. Claudia has introduced Jasper to her brother Gordon and his girlfriend Sylvia and she recalls the conversation:

‘You always did have dubious taste in men,’ Gordon continues.

‘Really?’ says Claudia. ‘Now that’s an interesting remark.’

They stare at one another.

‘Oh, stop it, you two,’ says Sylvia. ‘This is supposed to be a celebration.’

‘So it is,’ says Gordon. ‘So it is. Come on, Claudia, celebrate.’ He upends the bottle into her glass.

‘It really is terrific, ‘says Sylvia. ‘An Oxford fellowship! I still can’t quite believe it.’ Her eyes never leave Gordon, who does not look at her. She twitches a thread from the sleeve of his jacket, touches his hand, gets out a packet of cigarettes, drops them, retrieves them from the floor.

Claudia continues to observe Gordon. Out of the corner of an eye, from time to time, she takes stock of Jasper. Others also note Jasper; he is a person people see. She raises her glass: ‘Congrats! Again. Remind me to come and dine at your High Table.’

‘You can’t,’ says Gordon. ‘No ladies.’

‘Oh, what a shame,’ says Claudia.

‘Where did you find him?’

‘Find who?’

‘You know damn well who I mean.’

‘Oh – Jasper. Um, now … where was it? I went to interview him for a book.’

‘Ah,’ says Sylvia brightly. ‘How’s the book going?’

They ignore her. And Jasper returns to the table. He sits down, puts his hand on Claudia’s. ‘I’ve told them to bring a bottle of champers. So drink up.’

Immediately after this, we get the following:

Sylvia tries to get out a cigarette, drops the packet, grovels for it on the floor and feels her expensive hairdo falling to pieces. And the dress is not a success, too pink and pretty and girlish. Claudia is in black, very low-cut, with a turquoise belt.

‘How is the book going?’ she asks. And Claudia does not answer, so Sylvia must fill the gap lighting her cigarette, puffing, looking round the room as though she hadn’t expected a reply anyway…

Each time Lively uses this remarkable technique, you get a feeling for how personal memory is, how each event has as many reflections as there are observers.

The WavesIt reminds me of The Waves by Virginia Woolf, which is also told from multiple perspectives, but in a more pronouncedly Modern way. This passage from the heart of The Waves, when all seven characters are meeting in a restaurant strikes me as an apt description of Moon Tiger’s sentiment:

We have come together … to make one thing, not enduring – for what endures? – but seen by many eyes simultaneously. There is a red carnation in that vase. A single flower as we sat here waiting, but now a seven-sided flower, many-petalled, red, puce, purple-shaded, stiff with silver-tinted leaves – a whole flower to which every eye brings its own contribution.

A single red carnation becomes a multicoloured many-petalled thing, transformed by so many perspectives, made ‘whole’ only when ‘every eye brings its own contribution’. Woolf, like Lively, points to the variety and incompleteness of individual viewpoint, demonstrating how each fleeting moment is created by every eye that sees it.

Claudia is a historian and the book is, as she says at the beginning, ‘a history of the world’. Throughout the novel, we get reflections on history, on the contrast between history as it is lived and as it is written about:

History is disorder, I wanted to scream at them – death and muddle and waste. And here you sit cashing in on it and making patterns in the sand.

Any story has to make some kind of ‘pattern in the sand’, but Lively manages to trace a pattern while pointing out its inherent subjectivity, gesturing all the time towards the many other narratives that exist simultaneously, and at their collective mess.

But here I am, 1000 words in, and I’ve barely mentioned the heartbreaking heart of the novel – Claudia’s beautiful, painfully brief love affair in Egypt during the Second World War. These pages are completely entrancing, in part for the way in which Cairo is captured on the page so well you can practically smell the eucalyptus and have to stop yourself from brushing sand off the pages, and in part for the way that Lively captures so perfectly the intensity of sudden, piercing, all-encompassing love.

Brilliantly, this love story isn’t fully uncovered until the novel is well underway, so we know by then that Claudia is a formidable, intelligent woman. Unlike her ‘frothy … silk-clad scented’ Cairo flatmate – ‘having the time of her life, doing a bit of typing in the mornings for someone Daddy was a school with and taking her pick of the officers of the 9th Hussars in the evening’ – Claudia is in Egypt as an ambitious war reporter. It is far more affecting to see someone so self-sufficient fall in love:

An hour ago he kneeled above her. And, misinterpreting what he must have seen as panic in her eyes, said ‘You’re not … Claudia, I’m not the first?’ She could not speak – only hold out her arms. She could not say: ‘It’s not you I’m afraid of, it’s how I feel.’

We have just seen Claudia travel through a sandstorm in the desert, the only woman to have wangled her way close to the front; Claudia, who has just seen a man dying, with a red hole in his thigh ‘into which you could put your fist. From it there crawls a line of ants.’ And yet, brave Claudia is afraid of this overwhelming feeling. How powerful to see someone so capable made so vulnerable by love.

Woolf asks in The Waves, ‘What endures?’ Lively’s answer in Moon Tiger is memories, impressions, words – with all the awareness that these are one-sided, fallible, incomplete renderings of the past. Claudia reflects:

I shall survive – appallingly misrepresented – in Lisa’s head and in Sylvia’s and in Jasper’s and in the heads of my grandsons (if there is room alongside football players and pop stars) and the heads of mine enemies. As a historian, I know only too well that there is nothing I can do about the depth and extent of the misrepresentation, so I don’t care. Perhaps, for those who do, who struggle against it, this is the secular form of hell – to be preserved in forms that we do not like in the recollection of others.

Lively highlights the ‘appallingly misrepresented’ nature of memory with the narrative structure of her book, and yet she also shows the positive side to this. She shows how piercingly affective a memory can be, and how its very subjectivity is what gives it power. She states, ‘inside the head, everything happens at once’. These memories are indeed misrepresentations, but they are more powerful than time – able to transport you back over many years in an instant.

This idea of the power of misrepresentation, made me think of the various ways that people read a book – everyone taking away something different, each person finding something in it that speaks to him alone, each creating her own misrepresentation of the author’s original work. You have just read some of my own misrepresentation of Moon Tiger. All that I would add is that it really is SUCH an extraordinary and affecting novel that now all I want to do is sit down and read it again, and try to make everyone I know read it too. Do read it, and then you could come along to Emily’s Walking Book Club on Sunday 29th September when we can discuss its brilliance at length.

Walking book club 10

Birthday books

November 12, 2012

As you’ll have seen from last week’s post, Thursday 8th November was my birthday. I suspect that you won’t be surprised to hear that I was given a few books as presents. They are all rather special – and one is little short of a miracle.

First, my friend Sophie – evidently inspired by my endless stories of strange things that happen in the bookshop – bought me this funny little book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. It is packed with all sorts of silly lines:

‘Is this book edible?’

‘Do you have any books in this shade of green, to match the wrapping paper I’ve bought?’

‘Hi, I just wanted to ask: did Anne Frank ever write a sequel?’

This exchange is particularly familiar:

Customer: You don’t have a very good selection of books.

Bookseller: We’ve got over ten thousand books.

Customer: Well, you don’t have the book I’ve written!

I still can’t get over quite how many strange things happen in the bookshop. At least once a week, I have an extraordinary encounter. You might remember the time when we chased the notorious Mr Men thief – an old lady who actually had a real get-away car and driver waiting for her outside. Just last week a strange man came in asking for books about herbs and then told me I had the face of an angel. ‘It’s your Grandfather’s face,’ he said, to which I replied that my Grandfather didn’t look particularly angelic.

It is truly an extraordinarily weird place to work, yielding one bizarre encounter after another. But it’s surprisingly tricky to convey the oddness of it to friends. Those exchanges – so loopy when they happen – lose something in translation, fall a little bit flat, and I’m usually left with a yawning husband trying to change the subject, while I wonder how I can be a writer and such a terrible story-teller. One day, I will sit down and write a book about it, and maybe then, I’ll manage to convey something of its strangeness. For now, at least I can comfort myself with this record of other booksellers’ similarly peculiar encounters – thank-you Sophie!

My aunt-in-law (probably the wrong technical term) gave me a very handsome Everyman edition of Doctor Thorne by Trollope. This was particularly good timing as I have been longing to get stuck into a big thick engrossing novel, rather than all these slim ones to which I seem to have grown addicted. Added to which, a friend just got back from her honeymoon and said that one of the best bits was reading so much Trollope. Praise indeed! I must read some, I thought to myself, as I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read any Trollope at all. No excuses now, I can’t wait to begin.

My mother-in-law gave me a beautiful exhibition catalogue of Sylvia Plath’s drawings. I hadn’t realised that Plath was an artist as well as a poet, and it’s fascinating to look at these intricate, beautiful drawings. There seems to be a honeymoon theme amongst these birthday books, as many of Plath’s drawings date from her honeymoon with Ted Hughes, in Paris and then Spain. They are mostly of things – pots and fruit, stoves, bottles, a few of buildings – roof tops, a ‘colourful’ kiosk, and not many of people.

I remember studying Plath’s poetry when I was at school, I think it must have been for GCSE. Bits of them have stayed resolutely with me, which is surprising as I have a terrible memory for specific quotations and am usually much better at  hanging on to the gist of things, while the actual words are forgotten.

Not so with Plath: I still have ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’, and the ‘bald cry’ of the child, mouth ‘clean as a cat’, ‘vowels rising’ from ‘Morning Song’. I remember ‘the swarmy feeling of African hands’, and the horrid idea of a coffin ‘of a midget, /Or a square baby’ in ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’. Most of all, I remember her poem ‘Mushrooms’ – ‘nudgers and shovers / In spite of ourselves’ – the threatening feeling of which freaked me out so much that I’ve struggled to eat our fungal friends ever since. Now I think of it, I suppose that like her drawings, her poetry is often full of things, rather than people. As Carol Ann Duffy, who has just brought together a selection of Plath’s poetry in another very beautiful book, wrote for the Guardian recently:

A vocational poet like Plath gives life back to us in glittering language – life with great suffering, yes, but also with melons, spinach, figs, children and countryside, moles, bees, snakes, tulips, kitchens and friendships.

Children and friendship are almost lost amongst the melons, spinach, figs, moles, bees and all those other things.

I’ve saved the miracle for last.

My mother very sweetly and thoughtfully told me that she’d like to buy me a special book – a first edition of something I loved – and suggested that it could be repeated every year, so she could help me to build up a library. (You might remember that she gave me this beautiful set of Virginia Woolf letters and diaries for my twenty-first.) So off we trotted to Peter Harrington, a fine antiquarian bookshop in Chelsea.

We went upstairs to the twentieth-century literature section where I let my eyes drift slowly across the very tall bookcases, packed with tantalisingly old and special-looking books. I stopped towards the end of the Bs, when I saw Bowen’s Court by Elizabeth Bowen. I’ve not read many books by Elizabeth Bowen, but those I have, I  adored. (I wrote about Bowen’s Court itself here, The Heat of the Day here, and The House in Paris here.) I asked the bookseller if he had any other books by Elizabeth Bowen, thinking that this might be a chance to get a special edition of one of her books that I had yet to read.

The bookseller leapt off his antique chair and bounded over to the bookcase. ‘That Elizabeth Bowen’s a great book,’ he said.

‘I know,’ I replied, ‘I’ve read it.’ I felt a little smug, for not many people have read Bowen’s Court, an idiosyncratic history of her ancestral home, Anglo-Irish family and Ireland itself, which is now out-of-print.

‘Look.’ He fished it down from the shelf and opened it up.

My eyes nearly dropped out of their sockets. There on the first page was this:

I realised then that when the bookseller had said it was a great book, he wasn’t talking about the writing, but the actual thing itself. This was a great book indeed.

I picked it up and held it, feeling the book weigh heavy in my hands. I told myself that I was holding a book that E.M. Forster had held. This was the actual book that Elizabeth Bowen had given to E.M. Forster. They had both held it, one after the other. I wondered if she had posted it to him, inscribing it, wrapping it up and taking it to he post office to send. Or perhaps she had given it to a mutual friend, who she knew would be seeing him soon. Or perhaps she gave it to him herself, when she went round there for tea one day. ‘Morgan, I do hope you like my new book,’ she might have said, over a slice of cake. There is a whole story here in this book aside from the one written in its pages. This story is nearly invisible, its traces remaining in that pencil inscription and in where it might fall open more easily (pages 62-3, 98-9, 222-223), or where there are liver spots of moisture (page 83), even a corner a little bent (229).

I read Bowen’s Court after I came across it in Alexandra Harris’ wonderful book Romantic Moderns. I thought it would be useful research for my own novel, which is about the stories held in a derelict house, and added it to my list of ‘house books’ – books in which houses have a real presence, along with those like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House and E.M. Forster’s Howards End.

When it came to writing my novel, there were three quotations from all my house reading that I found particularly inspiring and which I decided to use as epigraphs. The first is from Howards End by Forster:

Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly but to an afterlife in the city of ghosts.

The second is from Bowen’s Court:

With the end of each generation, the lives that submerged here were absorbed again. With each death, the air of the place had thickened: it had been added to. The dead do not need to visit Bowen’s Court rooms – as I said, we had no ghosts in that house – because they already permeated them. Their extinct senses were present in lights and forms.

So you see, to have chanced upon Forster’s copy of Bowen’s Court, so soon after finishing the first draft of my novel, felt like a miracle.

I can’t wait to read all these books – to giggle at other booksellers’ weird encounters, to become thoroughly absorbed in a huge dollop of Trollope, to gaze at these drawings of objects that inspired such a poet, and to hold Bowen’s Court in my hands, gently turning the pages while thinking of Forster doing the very same thing in June 1942.

Walking and Talking at Port Eliot

July 23, 2012

I have just returned from a glorious few days at Port Eliot festival in Cornwall. What a fun time we had! Beautiful landscape, inspiring talks, dancing-a-plenty – made all the better by being, for the most part, blessed with sunshine.

I was at Port Eliot to do my walking book club – which involves going for a walk and talking about a book.

In this instance, I did one walk for The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley and another for Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, both books that fitted in nicely with Port Eliot’s big house and beautiful grounds. Quite thrillingly Radio 4 were interested in the idea and broadcast a report on it on The World Tonight. Here it is – the piece about the walking book club is 37 minutes in.

It was probably because I was there to walk, but I found that walking greatly influenced my experience of the festival. As well as gleaning walkerish thoughts from Robert Macfarlane (barefoot on red sandstone is a winner) and Juliet Nicolson (her grandfather Harold Nicolson went on a rather more highbrow walking book club in France), I went on a literary walk with Duncan Minshull, who has edited a treasure trove of a book about walking. A group of us walked down a pretty path to a field golden with wheat, stopping every now and then for Duncan to read us a thought on walking from someone literary.

My favourite was a letter from Soren Kirkegaard to his sister-in-law:

Do not on any account cease to take pleasure in walking: I walk every day to preserve my well-being and walk away from every sickness; I have walked my best thoughts into existence, and I know of no thought so heavy that one cannot walk away from it.

Apparently she was something of a couch potato and he was trying to coax her into taking a little more exercise.

Duncan also pointed out how walks are often written into literature, as a writerly device. Think Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, for instance. Of course my mind was abuzz with thoughts about The Go-Between and Rebecca and yet, somewhat idiotically, I hadn’t yet stopped to think about how much walking goes on in them. Of course Leo is a prince of walkers, traipsing less and less merrily between Brandham Hall and Ted Burgess’ farm, carrying messages between Marian and Ted. There is also rather a good walk from the Hall to the Church. Leo trots alongside Marian, when he sees Trimingham approaching:

I felt compelled to say: “Triminham’s coming after us,” as if he were a disease, or a misfortune, or the police.

“Oh is he?” she said, and turned her head, but she didn’t call to him, or make a sign, and his pace slackened off, and when he did come abreast of us he passed us, to my great relief, with a smile, and joined the people who were walking in front.

Could Marian be any more tepid in her feelings towards Trimingham? Especially when compared to the passionate ‘Darling, darling, darling’ written to lowly farmer Ted. Trimingham comes across as every bit the noble gentleman, his pride may be wounded and yet he masks it with a smile. The marriage planned between Marian and Trimingham – her money for his title – is certainly one of convenience, not motivated by love or affection. All this conveyed in a walk.

Of course in Rebecca it is while walking with Maxim in the grounds of Manderley that the new Mrs de Winter first comes across Rebecca’s fateful boathouse. Maxim is furious with her for following the dog over there, and strides crossly up the hill, back to the house for tea, revealing that the boathouse is every bit as sinister as she fears.

Rather luckily there is a boathouse at Port Eliot, so for the Walking Book Club we wandered down there, paused in our discussion and regrouped. I thought it a good spot to read out Daphne du Maurier’s description of Rebecca’s boathouse, when the new Mrs de Winter first sees it on her walk.

We all collectively shivered in spite of the warm sunshine at the description of the ‘damp and chill’, ‘dark and oppressive’ boathouse, with its rat-nibbled sofas, cobwebs and ‘queer musty smell’.

We moved on, wandering along the estuary, wondering aloud whether or not Rebecca really is the villain that Maxim de Winter says she is.

Many of us found a new respect for Rebecca. Plenty of us found ourselves irritated beyond belief with the new Mrs de Winter. Someone said she was desperate to shake some sense into her. Maxim de Winter was accused of being vile and dreadful, although not without his attractions.

But my greatest surprise was hearing someone say that she quite liked Mrs Danvers. Oh, Mrs Danvers, ghoul of my nightmares! Feeling that I needed du Maurier’s own words to back up my case, I waited until we were gathered by the house before reading out a scene thick with horror, to my mind one of the most ghastly scenes in all of literature.

The ball is about to begin, and the new Mrs de Winter has overcome her habitual, irritating shyness to get dressed up, rather excitedly, after one of the family portraits … thanks to Mrs Danvers’ suggestion. Standing in the shadow of the house, it was easy to look up to the upper windows, and imagine the young new Mrs de Winter up there, giggling with her maid as she got dressed. Then she walked along the corridor and told the drummer to announce her. And then:

I came forward to the head of the stairs and stood there, smiling, my hat in my hand, like the girl in the picture. I waited for the clapping and laughter that would follow as I walked slowly down the stairs. Nobody clapped, nobody moved.

They all stared at me like dumb things. Beatrice uttered a little cry and put her hand to her mouth. I went on smiling, I put one hand on the banister.

“How do you do, Mr de Winter,” I said.

Maxim had not moved. He stared up at me, his glass in his hand. There was no colour in his face. It was ashen white. I saw Frank go to him as though he would speak, but Maxim shook him off. I hesitated, one foot already on the stairs. Something was wrong, they had not understood. Why was Maxim looking like that? Why did they all stand like dummies, like people in a trance?

It continues along these lines until …

Then I saw that the door leading to the west wing was open wide, and that someone was standing there.

It was Mrs Danvers. I shall never forget the expression on her face, loathsome, triumphant. The face of an exulting devil. She stood there smiling at me.

And then I ran from her, down the long narrow passage to my own room, tripping, stumbling over the flounces of my dress.

What a haunting piece of writing, and how wonderful to be haunted by it standing there, by the wall of a house that might as well have been Manderley itself.

Some literary mistakes

October 11, 2010

Last week, I wrote a piece for the Spectator’s Arts Blog about the mess-up surrounding publication of Jonathan Franzen’s latest book Freedom. A week after its much-hyped, viciously embargoed, British release, it was revealed that the publishers had accidently printed an earlier draft of the novel, not the final version. Apparently typos and grammatical mistakes peppered the text, in addition to some ‘small but significant’ changes to characterisation.

Now, after a great deal of fuss, and a great deal of pulping, the copies of Freedom in the shops are free from error. And I am left with no further comment other than that I pity the journalist or PHD student who has been instructed to compare and contrast the two different versions.

In my article (which you can read here), I suggested that typos aren’t the end of the world. Don’t they reveal the human fallibility of the author? Isn’t that somewhat reassuring? And isn’t that particularly apt for a novel about human fallibilty?

Most readers disagreed and I was left with a couple of comments insisting on the ghastly interference of typos.

But the Franzen debacle led me to wonder about other literary mistakes … here are a couple that sprang to mind.

One case is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (which I actually happened to mention in the article because of the repeated typo of ‘Rusdie’ in the author biography in my old paperback). There are some more notorious mistakes in Midnight’s Children. To mention a few:

The characters Picture Singh and Saleem go on a train from Delhi to Bombay which is said to pass through Kurla; land is reclaimed in Bombay using concrete tetrapods; and the singer Lata Mangeshkar is on the radio in 1946.

These are all errata, factual impossibilities: Kurla is on a different railway line; the tetrapods in Bombay have only ever been used to protect the sea wall against coastal erosion – not for land reclamation; and Lata Mangeshkar didn’t enjoy any real success until the 1950s.

But for those who aren’t particularly well-versed in Indian railways, Mumbai’s coastal protection policies, or Bollywood singers, they could easily slip through the net – why would one suspect these things to be false? A more serious error is getting the date of Gandhi’s assassination wrong, which is highlighted in the text when the narrator, Saleem, says:

Rereading my work, I have discovered an error in chronology. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi occurs, in these pages in a wrong date.

Why the mistakes? Why all these factual errors? How is one to trust Rushdie or his copyeditor ever again?

In an essay written in 1983 Rushdie defends these mistakes, claiming that they are intentional, deliberate errors. They interrupt the narrative and force the reader to question the narrator, Saleem (the reader isn’t supposed to question the actual author, Rushdie). With all these mistakes, Saleem is portrayed as full of human fallibility and unreliability. Saleem is, after all, remembering his story and Rushdie emphasises the distorting process of memory:

One of the simplest truths about any set of memories is that many of them will be false … as I wrote the novel, and whenever a conflict arose between literal and remembered truth, I would favour the remembered version.

He highlights the notion of ‘memory’s truth’, to which he gives more importance than actual historical accuracy.

All rather shakey, unreliable ground.

The other literary mistake that springs to mind might be rather less intentional. It arises in a fantastic book – Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih.

The narrator, Meheimed, returns to his native Sudan after spending seven months in England. Salih makes it clear that Meheimed wants to return to his village in Sudan and see it unchanged, as though he never left. But this desired vision of continuity is repeatedly disrupted, most emphatically through the character Mustafa Sa’eed, a newcomer to the village. As the novel progresses, it transpires that this character has also spent time abroad, in Cairo and in England, and Meheimed begins to piece together Mustafa Sa’eed’s story.

The ‘mistake’ occurs when, one evening, Mustafa Sa’eed recites in English, ‘in a clear voice and with an impeccable accent’ a poem, which the narrator says he later found in an anthology of First World War poetry. Here is the extract that appears in the book:

Those women of Flanders

Await the lost,

Await the lost who never will leave the harbour

They await the lost whom the train never will bring.

To the embrace of those women with dead faces,

They await the lost, who lie dead in the trenches,

the barricade and the mud.

In the darkness of night,

This is Charing Cross Station, the hour’s past one,

There was a faint light,

There was a great pain.

There’s no point in googling this, or leafing through anthologies searching for the first line ‘Those women of Flanders’. This poem would never be found in a First World War poetry anthology. What would be found in its place is Ford Madox Ford’s ‘In October 1914 (Antwerp)’. Here is the corresponding extract:

These are the women of Flanders.

They await the lost.

They await the lost that shall never leave the dock;

They await the lost that shall never again come by the train

To the embraces of all these women with dead faces:

They await the lost who lie dead in trench and barrier and foss,

In the dark of the night.

This is Charing Cross; it is past one of the clock;

There is very little light.

 

There is so much pain.

Mustafa Sa’eed is reciting a bastardised version of Ford Madox Ford’s poem. How on earth has this happened?

Season of Migration to the North was originally written in Arabic and so the poem, in the original text, must have appeared in Arabic as well. When Denys Johnson-Davies translated the novel into English in 1969, he translated the poem into English. Perhaps he didn’t recognise the poem’s provenance and so didn’t find the original for quotation. It seems a bit mean for Tayeb Salih not to have let him know!

What we have now in Season of Migration to the North is an English translation of an Arabic translation of English. It shows what a complicated and distorting process translation can be – how impossible it is to neatly reverse, instead bringing one further and further away from the original.

It is a bit like the distorting process of memory, pointed out by Salman Rushdie. When remembering something, one can’t just reverse time and go straight back to the unchanged moment. In the process of going back things change, details slip, factual impossibilities occur.

And if one takes translation on a bigger scale – the literal ‘bearing across’ not just of language but of a person – a similar distortion occurs. Season of Migration to the North is about the translation of the narrator and Mustafa Sa’eed from Sudan to England and then back to Sudan. And, as I mentioned, Tayeb Salih is keen to emphasise the changes in Sudan when each character returns:

We pass by a red brick building on the Nile bank, half finished…I tell him that when I was here only seven months ago they hadn’t even started building it.

If change happens in physical translation, then surely in this tiny microcosm of Ford Madox Ford’s poem, then change must happen too. It can’t move seamlessly from English to Arabic and then back to English – change and disruption must leave their mark. Perhaps Denys Johnson-Davies deliberately continued the process of translation rather than finding the original poem.

Or else there’s rather a glaring mistake. Lucky for the publisher that Tayeb Salih isn’t still around to make such a Franzenesque fuss about it.

Would you like a T-shirt, poster, toy, mug or malaria pill with that?

June 4, 2010

I was talking to someone the other day who used to work at a very large, very beautiful, very well-respected independent bookshop, which was taken over in the not-so-distant-past by a rather well-known chain. He quit a couple of weeks ago.

‘Why did you leave?’ I asked, risking a question that I always hate being asked about my old job in publishing.

He explained that when the chain took over it became increasingly hard for their shop to have any say about which books were ordered in. And when one can’t get a book that one wants to sell into the shop then one begins to feel somewhat worthless as a bookseller.

‘Fine,’ I said. ‘But that all happened a couple of years ago. What finally made you crack? What was the last straw?’

His voice dropped to somewhere just above a whisper. ‘Merchandising. They wanted to sell book-related products, not just books.’

Every other bookseller who I’ve mentioned this too has had exactly the same reaction as me.

<Gasp> ‘No. Merchandising? For books?’ <Gasp, again> ‘No. That’s just not right.’

Why do we all feel so strongly about it? What’s wrong with merchandising?

I actually feel rather positive about film merchandising. I used to decorate my bedroom walls with film posters. It was the perfect teenage way to convey to parents that, ‘It’s not fair and you don’t understand me and I like watching films in French not the middle-class rubbish on the telly that you watch.’

But books … it just feels wrong. They seem too old-fashioned to be commercially exploited like that.

I think good book merchandising works precisely because it chimes with that old-fashioned, rather insular image that goes with books. Who can possibly not feel fond of the Penguin Classics mugs? Perfect for making a cup of tea … to enjoy whilst reading one’s book. And the other items that come trussed up in Penguin Classic livery are just as appropriate: tea towels, deckchairs, pencils, bookbags, espresso cups.

With the exception of the espresso cups (and I bet those haven’t been as successful as the others), these are all perfect classic English accessories. ‘I shall just set a deckchair out on the lawn to read on, with a splendid cup of tea.’ I’m sure that Wodehouse has written something similar. Note that they do pencils, not biros; bookbags, not ipod/ebook covers; tea towels not dishwasher tablets. It’s all very quaint, very old-fashioned. It hardly feels as vulgar as merchandising.

I suppose the most obvious place for book merchandising is in the children’s section. The child likes the Gruffalo, so why not get him the soft toy? Because soft toys are invariably not as beautiful, subtle, lifelike as the character on the page. Compare the two:

Or what about Beatrix Potter?

Frankly if I had a child, I’d rather it just read the books. Books are beautiful objects. They’re not just vehicles for information, packaging for stories. Children’s books in particular are a pleasure to look at, to pick out the details, to note the expressions of a favourite character. A talented illustrator should not be equated with a gauche grinning thing sowed together in a sweatshop in China.

And then there are the more grown-up books. I suppose a poster of a beautiful old iconic book cover wouldn’t be such a bad thing. This one of Mrs Dalloway, for instance, is quite smart.

Merchandising for commercial fiction is just about conceivable, although rather vile. Perhaps they could sell Carrie necklaces or clutch bags alongside The Carrie Diaries – the new book from Candace Bushnell, who invented Sex and the City. I’m sure that a table of chocolate treats next to a table of chick lit – perhaps the wrappers could mimic the book covers – would do well. But really, it’s a bookshop, not a newsagent. And when one can buy books in places like Tesco’s and HMV, surely it’s doubly important to have places that resist this supermarketing homogenisation, shops that are just for books.

And then merchandising swiftly reaches the realm of the ridiculous. Imagine trying to do it for travel books. Would you sell malaria pills and mosquito nets? Torches and penknifes? What about passport covers and moneybelts?

For history books, you could have fake swords, paste jewellery, tins of spam … for gardening, trowels and pots and bags of seeds … photography, well why not sell cameras?

Soon a once-glorious bookshop would be reduced to some kind of kooky department store. It would be hard to find the books amongst all the other paraphernalia.

So perhaps that’s the fear. Books cover such an incredibly wide range of subjects that if you were to open the Pandora’s merchandising box, a swarm of monsters much larger, uglier and more various than you could possibly have imagined would jump out. So please, let’s stick to books in bookshops. And perhaps the occasional bookish mug.

Well Mabey I won’t go to the party

May 31, 2010

‘So doesn’t working in a bookshop all day mean that the last thing you want to do in your free time is read?’

The question was posed to me by a stockbroker at a rather smart drinks party where I was one of about three people there who weren’t bankers or lawyers. This question came after the stockbroker had already said how boring it must be to work in a bookshop and that he only read five or six books a year – all of them thrillers (‘like John Grisham’) and ‘only when I’m on holiday on a beach somewhere’.

So, given that it was more than clear that the last thing he wanted to do in his free time was read a proper book, even though his job wasn’t anything like working in a bookshop (although ‘it’s really interesting, it means I get to meet all these really important people and grill them about their companies’), I’m not really sure from whence his logic sprang.

He used the comparison of working in a biscuit shop, and no longer wanting to eat biscuits. I pointed out that if one worked somewhere like Harrod’s Food Hall, one would still want to eat lots of delicious food. And how could he imply that all books were as similar to each other as biscuits? (Although, to be fair, if he is used to only reading thrillers for two weeks a year, that might explain it.)

Last night was a peculiarly apt time for him to ask me that question. I shall try to explain why working in a bookshop makes me want to read more than anything else.

In yesterday’s lunchbreak, I finished reading the Review section, left over from Saturday’s Guardian. I’m sure I’ve already mentioned that this is my favourite bit of newspaper in the world ever. As I was coming to the end, I stumbled upon a phenomenal review by Ian Sinclair of Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside, reissued for the first time since the early 1970s. It’s a fascinating article; you can read it here.

This book is an investigation into the wildness of London – marginal sites of dereliction where nature can once again take hold. And not always so marginal – Sinclair quotes Mabey, ‘The first summer after the blitz there were rosebays flowering on over three-quarters of the bombed sites in London, defiant sparks of life amongst the desolation.’ He describes The Unofficial Countryside as a ‘pivot’ between nature writing and psychogeography. A combination of walking and writing, exploring and documenting.

I jumped up after lunch incredibly excited. I had glanced the book in the shop and couldn’t wait to get back and have a closer look. A mere two minutes after reading the review, I held the book in my hands. It’s smooth cover was decorated with a pleasingly grimy picture of an electricity pylon surrounded by grey-green land. I flicked through – thick paper, several hand-drawn illustrations. I skimmed a few paragraphs of the prologue – Mabey’s account of the book’s origination, on finding un unexpected scattering of countryside by a canal in London’s suburbia, after ‘what they call a normal working day. Bitching at the office, brooding over lunch.’ He drew comfort from ‘a brilliant spike of purple loosestrife’, and the incongruously peaceful atmosphere that made it feel natural to exchange greetings with a bicycling worker, ‘as if we had been in a country lane’.

My excitement soared. Gosh what a beautiful object I held in my hands. How perfectly written. How hopeful. ‘The trees can live next to the cranes’, he writes. This is probably going to be one of the best books I will ever read. I rushed straight up to the till and bought it, with my generous staff discount.

I didn’t even go and stash the book away in my bag downstairs, but kept it out, next to the till, reminding me of what was waiting for me as soon as I finished work.

But, of course, I couldn’t hurry straight back home and read my new book. I had to go to this drinks party, on the other side of London. Can I really be bothered? I asked myself. Do I really need to go? I’m sure I’ll see everyone soon in any case. And wouldn’t it be just heaven to go home and read this book? Wouldn’t I learn more from reading it? Wouldn’t I enjoy it more than making small talk for a couple of hours?

No no no … I was firm with myself. It is ridiculous to not show up at a party at the last minute, with only the excuse of needing to read a book. I’d be giving up an evening of seeing my friends, of chatting to them, catching up, discussing ideas, gaining my own experiences rather than living vicariously through someone else’s.

And so I went to the party. And I got chatting to this stockbroker. And he really thought that being surrounded by books all day was boring. That talking about books all day was nothing much. And that spending so much time breathing in the books meant that I’d be desperate to escape them. If only he knew that I’d much rather have been reading the book I’d just bought. And that I was able to own this book – this magnificent, life-enriching object – so soon after discovering its existence, entirely thanks to working next to it all day long. I can only hope that he feels the same about buying and selling equity.

Derek Walcott’s enigmatic arrival

May 21, 2010

Something excruciatingly embarrassing happened the other day in the bookshop.

It was well into the evening and the shop was almost empty when an old man shuffled his way in, announcing his arrival by means of a loud hacking cough. The cough was so bad that I was nervous of catching TB if I got too close. I tried to appear willing to help (albeit from a distance) but the old man completely ignored me and began to paw pondersously at some books, evidently happy to be left alone to browse. And cough.

Eventually he staggered his way further into the shop and at that moment another customer appeared, asking for some help. Ten minutes or so later, I looked around and saw that the old man was sitting down on a chair, not reading, just staring into space.

Oh no, I thought, it’s half an hour before we close and a tramp has taken up residence. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind tramps at all. I think the only reason we’re not really supposed to have tramps in the shop is because other customers have been known to complain. But, as I mentioned, the shop was almost empty, so he wasn’t disturbing anyone else. I was just nervous that he might refuse to leave when it was time to lock up.

I decided not to worry about it, and that I’d ask my colleague what to do when she reappeared – she’d been off helping a customer downstairs for quite some time.

At that moment, my colleague skipped up to me, out-of-breath, in a flap, rather stressed out. ‘Oh my god, Derek Walcott’s here and I can’t find any of his poetry.’

‘Derek Walcott? Wow, I love Derek Walcott. How amazing! Where is he? Have you been helping him downstairs?’

‘No, he’s just over there, sitting down. These two women who are friends of his have been asking me to find his books.’

Yes, you have deduced correctly. I thought the Nobel-Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott was a tramp.

In my defence, I’d like to point out that I never recognise anyone famous. The other day someone had to tell me I’d just been serving Orlando Bloom. (I’d assumed he was just a rather cocky, handsome chap, who had more money than sense, grabbing twenty expensive hardbacks off the shelf in about five minutes flat.) And, I suppose, writers are particularly hard to recognise because often one knows their work better than their face. Still, I remain suitably humiliated and embarrassed by the mistake.

Perhaps it was an attempt to make amends, more likely just curiosity, but I did some hunting around the internet to find out a bit more about Derek Walcott, who, other than seeming like a tuberculosised tramp, really didn’t come across as particularly charming. For instance, when I told him we’d sold so many copies of his new collection White Egrets that we’d completely run out, he just grunted at me. Yes, grunted.

I discovered there is a rather ungentlemanly snipey rivalry between Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul. This erupted particularly viciously when Walcott recited a poem called ‘The Mongoose’ a couple of years ago. The poem begins, ‘I have been bitten, I must avoid infection/Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction’ and continues in this vein.

The poem is, journalists concluded, Walcott’s revenge for a rather backhanded article that Naipaul wrote about him in the Guardian, in which Naipaul praised his very early work, implying that his later work wasn’t really up to much.

I also read another poem from Walcott’s collection White Egrets, published on the Guardian website (so I don’t feel quite as nervous about copyright infringement by reprinting it here):

Untitled

This page is a cloud between whose fraying edges

a headland with mountains appears brokenly

then is hidden again until what emerges

from the now cloudless blue is the grooved sea

and the whole self-naming island, its ochre verges,

its shadow-plunged valleys and a coiled road

threading the fishing villages, the white, silent surges

of combers along the coast, where a line of gulls has arrowed

into the widening harbour of a town with no noise,

its streets growing closer like a print you can now read,

two cruise ships, schooners, a tug, ancestral canoes,

as a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes

white again and the book comes to a close.

Perhaps it was because Naipaul was in my mind after learning about the Mongoose debacle, but the poem immediately brought to mind a moment from his book The Enigma of Arrival. I’m sure neither Walcott nor Naipaul would be thrilled about the connection.

About a third of the way through Naipaul’s book, the narrator – a writer from Trinidad, who’s moved to Wiltshire – remembers when he first left the Caribbean several years ago. He describes the view from the aeroplane window and notices the transformation from what is seen from the ground:

At ground level so poor to me, so messy, so full of huts and gutters and bare front yards and straggly hibiscus hedges and shabby back yards: views from the roadside. From the air, though, a landscape of logic and larger pattern: the straight lines and regularity and woven, carpet-like texture of sugar-cane fields, so extensive from up there, leaving so little room for people, except at the very edges; the large unknown area of swampland, curiously still, the clumps of mangrove and brilliant-green swamp trees casting black shadows on the milky-green water; the forested peaks and dips and valleys of the mountain range; a landscape of clear pattern and contours, absorbing all the roadside messiness …

Surely the effect is similar to Walcott’s ‘headland with mountains … ochre verges … shadow-plunged valleys and a coiled road’?

Of course a vital difference is that Naipaul’s narrator sees the island at his moment of departure, of taking off, of leaving a landscape of childhood behind. Walcott’s is an image of arrival, of landing, of the ‘streets growing closer’ rather than further away.

But Naipaul also describes an arrival in the Caribbean. This is right at the end of the book, when the narrator returns to Trinidad and describes the changes wrought on the landscape:

Where there had been swamp at the foot of the Northern Range, with mud huts with earthen walls that showed the damp half-way up, there was now a landscape of Holland: acres upon acres of vegetable plots, the ridges and furrows and irrigation canals straight … No narrow roads; no dark, overhanging trees; no huts; no earth yards with hibiscus hedges … But highways and clover-shaped exits and direction boards: a wooded land laid bare, its secrets opened up.

The romantic, nostalgic ‘roadside messiness’ of his childhood Trinidad has been erased; ‘hibiscus hedges’ and ‘shabby back yards’ have been replaced with clean ‘straight’ irrigation canals and highways. The narrator has seen Trinidad as ‘a landscape of clear patterns and contours’ before, when he first left the island, when looking down from the aeroplane. But when he arrives, the change in perspective is brought about by time rather than point of view. And what makes the arrival so tragic, so hopelessly nostalgic, is that it should be a return, a going back to the initial point of view of roadside shabbiness. The narrator has landed in Trinidad, but he can’t regain that initial perspective of his childhood. As he says: ‘we couldn’t go back. There was no ship of antique shape now to take us back.’

So there is nothing really particularly enigmatic about the arrival back in the Caribbean in Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. The Caribbean landscape has been transformed irrevocably into something new – into ‘a landscape of Holland’ – and all that is left of the messy romance of the old is nostalgia.

Ironically, it is Walcott’s image of arrival that is more mysterious. He links old and new together. The road in his poem isn’t a brutal ‘highway’ with ‘clover-shaped exits and direction boards’, it is ‘a coiled road/threading the fishing villages’, seemingly organic, vital, part of the island’s indigenous way of life. The island is ‘self-naming’, retaining its own identity and its ‘shadow-plunged valleys’, rather than being like ‘Holland’ and ‘laid bare’, like Naipaul’s island.

And whereas Naipaul states, ‘There was no ship of antique shape now to take us back’, Walcott describes boats from all eras: there are ‘ancestral canoes’ sitting alongside modern ‘cruise ships’, seventeenth-century ‘schooners’ and ‘a tug’.

Walcott’s poem transcends time, binding old and new together in a beautiful image of hopeful synthesis – even if it’s only a momentary glimpse, in between the clouds. But for Naipaul, the present has erased the past, and, sadly, I can’t see Walcott lending him one of his ‘ancestral canoes’.