Posts Tagged ‘Sarah Pickstone’

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

Park Notes

June 13, 2014

Life chez Emilybooks has been terribly busy over the past week, and I’m sorry for the delayed post. Some friends came to stay, prompting a jolly few days of chatting, wandering and lazing, rather than concentrated reading, So I’m afraid thoughts on A Portrait of a Lady won’t appear until Monday.

I thought, however, that I better reveal our secret little hop back over to London. The husband and I spent Tuesday and Wednesday back in the big (VERY BIG after tiny Lucca) smoke, feeling a little like we were skiving school. London was lovely and cool after the heat of Italy, and looked especially beautiful in the sunshine, with everyone out on the pavements and so sunny tempered. I loved having a proper strong cup of tea in a caff, accompanied by toast and Marmite. It was such a joy to be able to chat so easily to the waiter about a mutual love of Marmite and the weather (of course) after so many weeks of suffering the painful embarrassment of being able to say little other than ‘Grazie’ several times.

Park Notes launchThere were a couple of reasons for this little jaunt. Firstly, it was the book launch for Park Notes – a beautiful collection of writings and pictures inspired by Regent’s Park and curated by Sarah Pickstone, whose striking paintings I wrote about here. Very excitingly, the book includes an essay on George Eliot by me!

What makes it particularly thrilling is that I am giddy with admiration for so many of the other contributors. Of course there are all the dead ones – Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield to name a few – but among the living are the formidably intelligent Marina Warner, Olivia Laing – one of the most elegant writers of place, insightful Lara Feigel, brilliant Iain Sinclair and the mighty Ali Smith. And all this interspersed with Sarah Pickstone’s gorgeous work.

I could go on, but feel it’s in rather bad taste to review one’s own work … So I will leave you with one of my favourite quotations from the book, which comes from Ali Smith’s reliably inspiring short story ‘The Definite Article’:

I stepped out of myself and into the park, I stepped off the pavement and into a place where there’s never a conclusion, where regardless of wars, tragedies, losses, finds, the sting of the sweetness of what’s gone in a life, or the preoccupations of any single time, any single being, on it goes, the open-air theatre of flowers, trees, birds, bees, the open vision at the heart of the old city.

Of course there’s nothing I’d love more than to know what you make of the book. You can buy a copy from Daunt’s here, or please do go and support your local independent bookshop.

There was another reason for our brief return… It was time for the twenty-week scan for baby Emilybooks! I know I’ve been rather secretive about it here, but it’s the sort of news that is quite hard to slip into a post about EM Forster.

All was looking very well, and it was wonderful to see the little person wriggling around, even giving us a little wave. Might I also add this to my defence of such excessive ice cream consumption in recent weeks? Calcium, you see, is vital to help build all those little bones.

Ice cream time in Lucca

Henry James is coming on Monday. Have a lovely sunny weekend!

The Writers Series

April 8, 2013

On Saturday, the husband and I went to Roche Court for the opening of an exhibition by Sarah Pickstone.

Once we had at last arrived (Roche Court is wonderfully hidden away), and pulled up on the gravel outside a pretty nineteenth-century house, we were told to slip around a tall hedge to get to the lawn. A feeling of secrets, special private nooks and crannies, things hidden away to be chanced upon or else unwittingly missed pervades the place.

The parkland around the house is dotted with sculptures, which sparkled in the light. Everything was dripping with bright yellow sunshine; it was the first day I’ve felt hot all year.

We all thronged on the lawn, feeling the sun on us and feeling utterly peculiar. It was as though we’d simultaneously jumped back a hundred years to a time when people did hang around on the lawn, talking amiably, drink in hand; and jumped forwards several months to an inconceivable summer where we weren’t all cold all the time.

Attached to the lovely old house is a beautiful modern gallery, in which Sarah Pickstone’s The Writers Series is displayed.

Sylvia by Sarah PickstonePickstone has thought about how Regent’s Park influenced various women writers, and captured that feeling in her paintings of these writers. Amongst those she’s painted are Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sylvia Plath, George Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. What a feast!

I was standing around, dazzled by the sunshine and the ethereal yet striking paintings, in this strange park in the middle of nowhere – seemingly in a different time, a different world altogether to the manic rush of London life, which I’d left just a couple of hours ago – when Marina Warner gave a talk to open the exhibition.

She spoke, as you’d expect, very well. She talked about how Pickstone’s paintings echoed sepals, petals and butterfly wings, delicate and feminine parts of nature. She also talked about the etymological roots of ‘time’ and ‘temple’ being one and the same: tempus. She said that when experiencing brilliant art, it’s akin to being in a temple where time slows down. Here she is in the London Review of Books saying something similar:

The words tempus and temple share the same root; the connection suggests that the function of a sacred space is to make time stop or stretch, or render its passage palpable to the worshipper/visitor. Galleries and museums explicitly recall temples in their architecture, and they can also double as national mausoleums: they function socially in comparable ways (‘temples for atheists’), providing an occasion for assembly, for communal experiences, for finding meanings. Above all, it’s striking how crucial the idea of developing our sensitivity to time has become in contemporary artists’ work. ‘I do not think I am slowing down time,’ Tacita Dean, one of the most delicate time machinists of all, said recently, ‘but I am demanding people’s time. In a busy world, that is a big demand, but one of the many reasons why art matters is its ability to stop the rush.’

Certainly, on Saturday, Sarah Pickstone’s art in the setting of Roche Court stopped the rush.

Woolf by Sarah PickstoneI particularly loved her painting of Virginia Woolf, not least because I’ve read more by Virginia Woolf and thought more about her over the years than any of the other writers depicted. It struck me that this idea of painting slowing down time is the sort of thing Woolf would have said herself. It reminded me of a moment in Between the Acts, Woolf’s last novel, when she writes about two paintings in the dining room of Pointz Hall, either side of a window. One is of a male ancestor; the other is of a lady, bought just because ‘he liked the picture’:

He was a talk producer, that ancestor. But the lady was a picture. In her yellow robe, leaning, with a pillar to support her, a silver arrow in her hand, and a feather in her hair, she led the eye up, down, from the curve to the straight, through glades of greenery and shades of silver, dun and rose into silence. The room was empty.

Empty, empty, empty; silent, silent, silent. The room was a shell, singing of what was before time was.

Through looking at this painting, a true work of art, letting one’s eye go ‘up, down, from the curve to the straight…’ one reaches silence. Woolf wrote an essay on Walter Sickert in which she wrote ‘there is a zone of silence in the middle of every art’. This shape of a silent centre, an empty middle is echoed in her depiction of a moment as:

a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us.

This seems very relevant to Sarah Pickstone’s work, which is at once ‘luminous’ with the bright streaks of colour and ‘semi-transparent’ with so much of the surrounding canvas so pale. Around Woolf’s head is a shape that could almost be an envelope, and her face is unexpectedly blank – emptiness and silence at the heart of this envelope, as opposed to the luminous patterns on her dress.

Between the ActsIn Woolf’s writing about painting, she echoes Marina Warner’s observation about tempus. The painting in Pointz Hall leaves the room ‘singing of what was before time was’. Silence becomes singing, and time is transcended; the experience is strangely time-less, or perhaps prehistoric – an idea which comes up again and again in Between the Acts (more about this in this post about Dungeness). Roche Hall isn’t so far from Stonehenge.

I love this passage about the painting. I thought perhaps I’d better see what Virginia Woolf wrote about Regent’s Park.

The Diary of Virginia Woolf Volume IVShe wrote about Regent’s Park in Mrs Dalloway and also in Flush, but I wondered if she’d written about it less formally anywhere else. I browsed through the index of her diaries and found a few mentions. Regent’s Park seems to be a place where she went to try and walk off her black moods. I was drawn to this unusually joyful entry from 6th June 1935:

There is no doubt that the greatest happiness in the world is walking through Regents Park on a green, but wet – green but red pink & blue evening – the flower beds I mean emerging from the general misty rain – & making up phrases…

How appropriate that her experience of the park is so visual – ‘green but red pink & blue’ – a palate of colours blurred by the rain. It reminds me of her description of the painting in Between the Acts:

glades of greenery and shades of silver, dun and rose into silence.

And it seems perfect for Sarah Pickstone’s painting, with its ‘misty’ background coupled with the pinks, greens, blues, yellows and silvers of the figure. Her painting of Woolf in Regent’s Park is a beautiful rendering of how Woolf experienced both painting and Regent’s Park.

I don’t really know what happened on Saturday. Just a couple of hours outside London and I was in a different world altogether, doused in sunshine, silence, space, and beautiful paintings to reflect upon. It felt very Woolfian, to be flooded with so much colour and light and beauty in such a strange moment that seemed to bend time.

I shall leave you with Pickstone’s painting, Orlando. This hero/heroine of Virginia Woolf was perhaps the greatest time-bender (as well as gender-bender) of them all.

Orlando by Sarah Pickstone

Images © The artist and New Art Centre, Roche Court Sculpture Park