Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Woolf’

The London Scene

September 29, 2014

Not long to go before the baby arrives, and while I’ve been making every effort to continue as usual, one thing that has definitely changed is the amount I’m able to read. People used always to ask me when I found time to read so much. Easy, I’d say. There are lunchbreaks, bath times, tube journeys, quiet evenings, the odd snatched hour of a free afternoon …

Alas this has all changed. Lunchbreaks now consist of a gobbled sandwich and a quick chat on the phone to the husband – mostly to reassure him I’ve not gone into labour – and then a nap, propped up on old boxes and bags, in the bookshop’s crowded cupboard of a backroom. Bathtime has shrunk to a quick splash as one’s tolerance for lounging in hot water has diminished exponentially. Tube journeys pass with eyes closed, trying to gain a few moments of extra rest. Quiet evenings? In any spare moment, one feels one ought to be doing yoga, swimming, listening to hypnobirthing recordings or else there is this odd nesty urge to do things like making pies for the freezer or ordering store cupboard essentials from Ocado. I say this knowing that I sound like an extended version of the H is for Hummus spoof parenting book. Until a couple of weeks ago it’d never have occurred to me to use Ocado rather than resorting to a takeaway; now I cannot fathom quite how much pleasure I gain from stocking up the kitchen just by clicking on a few pictures.

So the long and the short of it is that I am struggling to read much at the moment. Finishing How to be Both hasn’t helped matters either, as it’s such a tough act to follow. I have picked up a few novels and put them down a few pages later. For a book to win in this fight against the urge to sleep it has to be very good indeed.

Or very short.

Or both. (Ha!)

The London Scene by Virginia WoolfSo, inspired (still) by the wonderful Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery I have been reacquainting myself with a slim collection of her essays, The London Scene, which Daunt republished rather smartly last year. The essays were first printed in 1931, bizarrely enough in Good Housekeeping magazine. How bleak that a quick visit to their website today yields ‘How to get a body like Helen Mirren’, cheesecake recipes and tried-and-tested irons – a far cry from commissioning a series of essays on London life by one of the great literary minds of the day!

Woolf wrote a series of six essays: The Docks of London, Oxford Street Tide; Great Men’s Houses; Abbeys and Cathedrals; ‘This is the House of Commons’; and Portrait of a Londoner. So we arrive in London at its edge, amongst the many goods that converge here from all over the world, wander through town, and finally end up in the home of a Cockney. It is a journey of increasing penetration, making our way through the layers of the city, snatching glimpses, enjoying vistas, and gaining insights en route.

There are wonderful moments of observation in each essay. For instance, I love her description of the utilitarian nature of the Docks:

Oddities, beauties, rarities may occur, but if so, they are instantly tested for their mercantile value. Laid on the floor among the circles of elephant tusks is a heap of larger and browner tusks than the rest. Brown they well may be, for these are the tusks of mammoths that have lain frozen in Siberian ice for fifty thousand years, but fifty thousand years are suspect in the eyes of the ivory expert. Mammoth ivory tends to warp; you cannot extract billiard balls from mammoths, but only umbrella handles and the backs of the cheaper kind of hand-glass. Thus if you buy an umbrella or a looking-glass not of the finest quality, it is likely that you are buying the tusk of a brute that roamed through Asian forest before England was an island.

!!!

Between the ActsCompare to the cheap umbrellas and mirrors of today – pieces of plastic tack which will scarcely last a month of being bashed about in a handbag! I can’t believe that back then, they had handles of mammoth tusk. Woolf cooly points out the nonsensical logic of the Docks that declares these ancient tusks are of less value than elephant ivory. She has rather a soft spot for prehistoric things. In Between the Acts, she writes about the:

rhododendron forests in Piccadilly; when the entire continent, not then, she understood, divided by a channel, was all one; populated, she understood, by elephant-bodied, seal-necked, heaving, surging, slowly writhing, and, she supposed, barking monsters; the iguanodon, the mammoth, and the mastodon; from whom presumably, she thought, jerking the window open, we descend.

I suppose, having a mammoth tusk at the end of one’s umbrella, might make one feel rather better connected to this ancient time.

Well I doubt I shall find a mammoth tusk umbrella later on today when I head down to John Lewis to buy various baby essentials. The prospect of this outing makes Woolf’s next essay ‘Oxford Street Tide’ rather apt.

These ‘Oxford Street palaces are rather flimsy abodes’ notes Woolf, comparing these modern erections, ‘built to pass’, with historical stately homes, which were ‘built to last’:

Any day of the week one may see Oxford Street vanishing at the tap of a workman’s pick as he stands perilously balanced on a dusty pinnacle knocking down walls and facades as lightly as if they were made of yellow cardboard and sugar icing.

It seems strangely prescient that Woolf saw the impermanence of this shopping stage set, given the many threats of destruction that were to come – first with the bombing of the War, then fifties planning and now with our peculiarly modern threats of out-of-town shopping centres, recessions, rising rents and of course the internet. For sure, Oxford Street isn’t just any old high street, but it is faced with the same threats. And if the high street isn’t quite dead today, it is certainly struggling to survive. Woolf, it seems, never expected it to last.

As a bookseller, perhaps I feel more anxious than most about the fate of the high street. And yet, here is cause to pause and rethink. For Woolf delights in the impermanence of the buildings of Oxford Street, ‘as transitory as our own desires’. Their gaudy, glittering falseness is a strength not a weakness:

We knock down and rebuild as we expect to be knocked down and rebuilt. It is an impulse that makes for creation and fertility. Discovery is stimulated and invention on the alert.

So Woolf binds destruction to creation. These flimsy palaces of Oxford Street embody a startlingly positive view of change.

Perhaps she found something reassuring in the fact that these palaces, unlike their historic counterparts, aren’t meant to be permanent. The thirties was when many of England’s great country houses were destroyed or broken up as their owners were hit by inheritance tax. Just five years later, James Lees-Milne started going around persuading the aristos to give them to the National Trust. And later in the decade, Daphne du Maurier wrote Rebecca – one of the greatest novels to embody the fear of a great house’s destruction.

These Oxford Street palaces, on the other hand, were always intended to be transient. Perhaps we need to worry less about our ailing high-street shops and see their destruction as seeds for the creation of something new. As Woolf says, ‘invention is on the alert.’ Who knows what might spring up in their stead? It seems to be mostly charity shops or Tescos, and yet I shall try to remain positive! In any case, I like the idea of expecting ourselves to be ‘knocked down and rebuilt’, and seeing this as a positive form of reinvention. Next time life delivers one of its knocks, I shall envisage Woolf wandering down Oxford Street and finding creation, fertility, discovery and invention in the wake of any destruction.

Oxford Street still seems to be going strong today, though one thing that has vanished since Woolf’s day – alas – are the tortoises that used to be sold on its pavement:

The slowest and most contemplative of creatures display their mild activities on a foot or two of pavement, jealously guarded from passing feet. One infers that the desire of man for the tortoise, like the desire of the moth for the star, is a constant element in human nature. Nevertheless, to see a woman stop and add a tortoise to her string of parcels is perhaps the rarest sight that human eyes can look upon.

I fear Daphne might find Oxford Street too noisy and distressing to be taken on this afternoon’s excursion, but how strange, curious and oddly delightful to think that her ancestors used to ‘display their mild activities’ there.

Daphne and the London Scene

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Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

September 15, 2014

Virginia Woolf Art, Life and VisionAt last I made it to the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery! How has it taken me such an age? Why is it that although London is filled with fascinating things to see and do, it is so rare that one actually manages to find the time to see and do them?

The exhibition was the perfect end to my Sunday afternoon. First, I ventured to the Ladies’ Pond on the Heath, where it was only just not too cold to be bearable. My wimpishly slow descent down the ladder was forgiven by the more seasoned swimmers once they saw my enormous belly and instead began to inquire as to whether or not the baby enjoys it. Who knows, but I certainly do. Once I was finally paddling away in the freezing pond, there were so many endorphins going off that I felt as high as a kite for a good hour afterwards. Apparently, one’s body is especially good at producing endorphins when pregnant (our hypnobirthing teacher says it’s so that when the big day arrives, all the endorphins come flooding out and act as natural pain relief … ummm, here’s hoping), so add to that swimming, which also stimulates endorphin production, and you can see why it’s all too easy to feel completely out of it. So everything was still spinning somewhat when I arrived at the National Portrait Gallery a little later.

This preamble about swimming is to serve as something of a disclaimer – for a quirk of being pregnant is that emotions certainly run close to the surface, and so the fact that I found the Virginia Woolf exhibition not only very enjoyable, unusual and eye-opening, but also terribly moving, could be put down to this. I wonder, though, whether anyone can read the letters she wrote to her sister Vanessa and her husband Leonard in the days before her suicide without their eyes fogging up with tears. Both are displayed at the close of the exhibition. Here is the one to Leonard, which – by the way – is also included in the beautiful Letters of Note book:

Virginia Woolf suicide note

These letters come at the close of the exhibition, and yet they’re the first thing I mention because it seems impossible to think of Virginia Woolf without thinking of her terrible end. From the age of thirteen, she was afflicted by serious problems with her mental health, and there are references to her breakdowns throughout the exhibition – a dark thread winding throughout her brilliant, glittering life.

But really it is all the space given to Woolf’s glitter, glamour and gossip which struck me as so unexpected and enjoyable about the exhibition. There are photographs of Woolf posing for Vogue (below), and for Man Ray, snapshots of her staying with Lady Ottoline Morrell at Garsington in an outfit by the designer Nicole Groult commissioned for her by Madge Garland, fashion editor of Vogue. I’d never really thought of the glamour of Woolf’s life before. Yes, I’ve heard Woolf’s phrase ‘frock consciousness’ bandied about, but this was the first time I’d been made to pause and think something of it, of how she dressed herself and posed for the public eye.

 Virginia Woolf posing for Maurice Beck and Helen Macgregor at Vogue

Writers, of course, are observers, onlookers, and Woolf perhaps more so than most. You have only to read her ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ essay (which I wrote about a bit here) to see how preoccupied she was with the way authors fail to represent their characters by amassing details about their outward appearance as opposed to attempting to convey their interior life. Woolf was so keen an observer that she didn’t stop at the surface, she insisted on getting inside her characters’ consciousnesses. So it was surprising to see so much evidence of the way Woolf herself was seen, or indeed, how she chose to be seen.

In contrast to these beautiful posed photographs, there’s an intriguing one from 1893, when Woolf was only eleven. It shows her parents Julia and Leslie Stephen reading at Talland House, their Cornwall holiday home.

Julia and Leslie Stephen reading at Talland House in 1893

Her parents are in the foreground, side-by-side on the sofa, both focused on their reading. The background has all the furnishings you might expect – a patterned wallpaper on which hang some pictures, one slightly crooked; a decorative screen; plenty of books on the shelves – and there is also a young Virginia Stephen poking her head out, hands cupped around her chin, watching her parents, thinking.

I loved all the photographs of Woolf’s early life. There’s a wonderful one from 1886 of her playing cricket with her brother Adrian.

Virginia and Adrian Stephen playing cricket in 1886

Virginia is the wicket keeper in an enormous white hat, smock, stockings wrinkling around her ankles and a shoelace carelessly undone. She is leaning forwards, looking at the bowler, who is out of frame, palms open ready to catch, tense with the excitement of the oncoming moment when the ball will be thrown. I knew Woolf was a tomboy as a child, but even so, seeing her looking rather ragged and ramshackle, playing cricket with such glee, was an unexpected delight.

The exhibition is a treasure trove. Photographs abound, as do paintings, a great many letters and first editions. What makes it so special is how intimate many of these feel. There is a note from Leonard and Virginia to Lytton Strachey announcing their engagement just saying ‘Ha! Ha!’ The in-joke is explained: Lytton, who had himself once proposed to Virginia, went on to suggest to Leonard that he marry her instead. There is a gossipy letter from Woolf to Katherine Mansfield, not talking about their work, but instead saying how Rose Macaulay came round the other day and what a very ‘harum-scarum woman’ she is. There is a wonderful letter from Leonard when he was courting Virginia, in which he writes:

If I try to say what I feel, I become stupid & stammering: it’s like a wall of words rising up in front of me & there on the other side you’re sitting so clear & beautiful & your dear face that I’d give everything in the world to see now.

It’s terribly endearing to think of these two literary figures falling in love and Leonard for once struggling with the shortcomings of words, his vision of her making him ‘stupid & stammering’.

We all know that Woolf is one of the greatest novelists of all time, and it is something of a relief that the exhibition doesn’t bother to impress this upon us. Indeed there is very little about her fiction. It is as though we are deemed sensible enough to know we should read her books to see her genius. Here, instead, we see everything else. There are posed photographs, and also snaps of her with her friends, playing cricket, chatting easily. There are her private letters, and a feast of lines which she’s thrown out with casual ease rather than labouring over so meticulously. I loved, for instance, her comment on Garsington, where she frequently stayed with Lady Ottoline Morrell:

Is the sunlight ever normal at Garsington? No I think even the sky is done up in pale yellow silk, and certainly the cabbages are scented.

For all the dark notes that resound throughout Woolf’s life, lacing this exhibition with the shadow of her eventual suicide, there is also a wonderful amount of fun, of fashion, of friends, gossip and a sense of the great joy there is to be found in day-to-day life.

Virginia Woolf in her Nicole Groult dress at Garsington

Here’s Woolf in her Nicole Groult dress, among friends at Garsington.

The Rings of Saturn

May 22, 2014

What a belated blog! I can only apologise and plead a great deal of travelling and sporadic internet access as my excuses.

Olivetti and peoniesLast week Emilybooks and husband spent a wonderful couple of days on a Roman holiday. We stayed in a particularly sweet bed and breakfast, discovered thanks to the clever mapping tool on the Alastair Sawday website. It was one of just three rooms in a little flat, in a lovely old building around a courtyard. Look at our beautiful desk, complete with peonies and an Olivetti typewriter! I longed to use it, but felt almost certain that I’d break it, and my Italian doesn’t quite stretch to the hideous prospect of having to explain my way out of that one.

We arrived and wandered down to the huge and humbling Terme di Caracalla. It was impossible not to feel overexcited as the Coliseum suddenly loomed into view on the way. Caracalla felt rather like we’d gone back to Narnia and discovered the ruins of Cair Paravel. One imagines these baths with the vast roof intact, vast and glorious, where thousands of people gathered every day. Now they’re ruined, empty, and little visited – the sunbaked white floor is undisturbed except for the crunch of an occasional weary tourist’s footsteps, and the sweeping shadows of gulls wheeling overhead.

Park notesThe following day, fortified with a breakfast of nutella cake and strawberries, we saw a million churches housing all sorts of artistic delights. Michelangelo’s Moses, various Caravaggios, rather a fun obelisk with an elephant by Bernini (just outside a church) and his Saint Teresa. This was of especial interest as I’ve contributed to what I hope will be a very intriguing book called Park Notes, about women writers and Regent’s Park, and Saint Theresa is key to my essay about George Eliot. (Just think back to the Prelude of Middlemarch…)

Antiquarian bookshop in RomeOn our wanderings, I was struck by the number of bookshops, such as this beautiful antiquarian one, with its very tempting window display of children’s books. I also spotted a smartly published series of essays, including Virginia Woolf On Cinema. I considered buying it, and then thought it was too ridiculous to struggle through it in Italian. Perhaps an enterprising English language publisher might publish an equivalent series … Please?

Intelligent Italian essaysThere is so much that one could say about Rome, of course, but I’ll confine myself to just two short points. One is that the scale of it is so impressive. While I could just about get used to there being quite so many beautiful churches, I could never quite get my head around the Roman ruins being so much a part of the texture of the cityscape. You come out of a wonderful church, dazed from gazing up at the ceiling, and then, round the corner there stands a trio of columns, so monumental, it is though they are left over from a time when giants roamed the seven hills. The other, more prosaic comment, is that ice cream really is a way of life! Strolling around after dinner on our final evening, we happened upon Fassi’s‘Ice Palace’, which has been going for over 150 years. It was nearly midnight and rammed with people of all ages, all tucking into the most delicious ice cream. Oh if only London had an equivalent, instead of our rancid kebab shops…

From Rome, we went all the way south to Puglia, the very heel of Italy’s boot. There we met Emilybooks’ mum for a few days in a very plush hotel, plus a little exploring to the intriguingly named Monopoli, Ostuni and Cisternino. Most beautiful, I thought, were the many groves of ancient olive trees, and the tiny lizards who darted around by the swimming pool (alas no photo of these special creatures – forgive me). They reminded me a little of Daphne in the way they could remain so still and contemplative, but then they zoomed off in a way that might have given Daphne a heart attack had she chanced to see.

The Rings of SaturnSuch have been the adventures of Emilybooks, and perhaps I better admit I’ve been stalling somewhat, because I have no idea what to say about Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which I’ve read twice over in the past week. It’s an astonishing book. So much so, that I really did finish it, feel unable to start anything new, so went back to the beginning.

The book is essentially an account of Sebald’s wanderings around East Anglia in 1992. Just as his feet wander, so does his narrative, and we find ourselves being taken on numerous informative diversions. For instance, a visit to the faded Somelyton Hall leads us on to a conversation about bombing raids on Germany in the Second World War, and a railway bridge over the river Blyth takes us to the Taiping Rebellion. One gets a good picture of the bewildering, tangential scope of the book from the contents page, which reads like so:

1. In hospital – Obituary – Odyssey of Thomas Browne’s skull – Anatomy lecture – Levitation – Quincunx – Fabled creatures – Urn burial

Reading The Rings of Saturn feels like being granted access to a highly intelligent, deeply knowledgeable, very curious person’s brain. Perhaps a collector’s or curator’s, for the connections are Sebald’s own, and his relish in this subjectivity makes it peculiarly charming – at times even quite funny – rather than intimidatingly po-faced.

Various themes become apparent as the book progresses. Images of burning and destruction proliferate – and a preoccupation with the terrible mass destruction that has been wreaked by human hands. It is written in the shadow of the Holocaust, and this echoes through the many other mass deaths in the book – be that of the Belgian Congo, the Taiping rebellion, Waterloo, or even the Dutch herring industry – in 1770, he says, ‘the number of herring caught annually is estimated to have been sixty billion’:

Given these quantities, the natural historians sought consolation in the idea that humanity was responsible for only a fraction of the endless destruction wrought in the cycle of life, and moreover in the assumption that the peculiar physiology of the fish left them free of the fear and pains that rack the bodies and souls of higher animals in their death throes. But the truth is that we do not know what the herring feels. All we know is that its internal structure is extremely intricate and consists of more than two hundred different bones and cartilages.

Sebald intersperses his narrative with grainy, black-and white photographs. There is one of the herring haul in Lowestoft, showing mountains of dead fish at the feet of the fisherman:

Sebald's herring haul

Just six pages later comes a double-page spread showing piles of dead bodies at Belsen Concentration Camp. The pyramids of the blanketed figures echo the heaps of fish, just as the straight lines of the trees ghost in the figures of the agents of their destruction.

Belsen in The Rings of Saturn

Another preoccupation of the book is silk. We meet silkworms via the Chinese Empress Tz’u-hsi, who was devoted to her silkworms throughout the terrible drought of 1876-9, when, ‘whole provinces gave the impression of expiring under prisons of glass. Between seven and twenty million people – no precise estimates have ever been calculated – are said to have died of starvation and exhaustion…’

When the ill tidings arrived from the south, the Dowager Empress had a daily blood sacrifice offered in her temple to the gods of silk, at the hour when the evening star rose, lest the silkworms want for fresh green leaves. Of all living creatures, these curious insects alone aroused a strong affection in her … when night fell she particularly liked to sit all alone amidst the frames, listening to the low, even, deeply soothing sound of the countless silkworms consuming the new mulberry foliage. These pale, almost transparent creatures, which would presently give their lives for the fine thread they were spinning, she saw as her true loyal followers.

Silk appears time and again – silken ropes for hangings, the purple silk in the urn of Patroclus, and the bamboo cane which was used to smuggle silkworm eggs from China to the Western world. At the close of the book, Sebald delves at length into the fascinating history of sericulture in the West. Here he compares the fate of the silk weavers to writers:

That weavers in particular, together with scholars and writers with whom they had much in common, tended to suffer from melancholy and all the evils associated with it, is understandable given the nature of their work, which forced them to sit bent over, day after day, straining to keep their eye on the complex patterns they created. It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread. On the other hand, when we consider the weavers’ mental illnesses we should also bear in mind that many of the materials produced … were of a truly fabulous variety, and of an iridescent, quite indescribable beauty as if they had been produced by Nature itself, like the plumage of birds.

Perhaps, then, this is a fitting description for The Rings of Saturn – ‘of a truly fabulous variety, and of an iridescent, quite indescribable beauty as if they had been produced by Nature itself, like the plumage of birds’. Threads are woven through in complex patterns; the book is born of ‘Nature itself’ – inspired by his walking through East Anglia; and there is something of a bird’s flight in its darting, diving tangents. Like these beautiful, ‘truly fabulous’ silken materials, The Rings of Saturn has survived its author to provide ‘iridescent, quite indescribable’ inspiration for future readers … it certainly has for this one.

The Hours

March 24, 2014

The Daunt Books Festival is THIS WEEK!

Pages from Daunt Books Festival programme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Junketeering

January 22, 2014

Those of you who might have thought I was slacking off in not providing a post for your delectation on Monday, I hereby prove you wrong! I was merely getting you hungrily excited for THIS:

Six Views from a Window

Click through to read my essay in the brand new issue of the wonderful Junket.

Enjoy! And I’d love to know of your own window-gazing thoughts and experiences.

 

 

How to be a Heroine

January 13, 2014

Long-term followers of EmilyBooks may remember the ‘Next Big Thing’ post, which went up just over a year ago. It’s a slightly daft ‘meme’, but also a sweet idea, in which you are tagged by someone to write a few words about your book, and then you tag someone at the end of it, so in theory the meme lives forever. Dawkins, I’m sure, couldn’t be more thrilled.

How to be a Heroine by Samantha EllisI tagged Samantha Ellis, playwright, journalist … and now author of the newly published How to be a Heroine. No doubt you have seen some of the rave reviews that have filled the papers over the past couple of weeks. What can I say? I had it pegged as the next big thing back in 2012.

Of course I was enchanted by How to be a Heroine when I first heard of Ellis’s idea. Briefly, it is a memoir of reading – a look back over her life through the books she’s read, and, most importantly, her various literary heroines.

It’s a book which speaks to any true book worm, for however many times you’ve been told never to think of characters as free agents but only as the author’s creation, however much lit crit you apply to various novels, transforming scenes and plots into psychoanalytical arguments or autobiographical projections, labelling them post-colonial, post-structuralist, or post-anything else, if you really love reading novels, for every author you love, no doubt there is a character who inspires you.

I love Jane Gardam for Filth, for Betty and of course for little Jessica Vye. I love Vita Sackville-West for Lady Slane. I love Penelope Fitzgerald for Nenna and her daughters Tilda and Martha, and for Selwyn and Lisa. I love Forster for Mrs Moore, I love Woolf for Clarissa Dalloway, I love Penelope Lively for Claudia Hampton, Henry James for Isabel Archer, George Eliot for Dorothea Brooke and Mirah Lapidoth. And there are all my earlier heroes and heroines: Susan Cooper for Will Stanton, Ursula le Guin for Ged aka Sparrowhawk, AA Milne for Piglet, Francis Hodgson Burnett for Mary Lennox, Philip Pullman for Lyra … even Eric Carle for his caterpillar with such a voracious appetite.

Ellis has done the very clever thing of tying her reading life to her real life. She tells us the story of these two lives, showing how she turned from one fictional heroine to another, as she grew up. She learned some vital life-lessons on the way: Anne of Green Gables taught her the power of imagination, Scarlett O’Hara taught her how to flirt, Franny Glass taught her to order whatever she wants in a smart restaurant, and the women from Lace taught her how to have a career.

The Little MermaidNow Ellis re-reads all these books and sees them in a rather different thirty-something-year-old light. This double reading is very effective – firstly we see what drew such loyalty from Ellis at a particular stage of her life, and secondly we are given a more nuanced understanding of these novels and their heroines. With hindsight, Ellis can understand why she loved the Little Mermaid so much when she was little:

It’s because, like me, she’s caught between two worlds.

Ellis grew up in an Iraqi-Jewish community, always being told of the exotic wonders of Baghdad, yet knowing she’d never go to this place her parents called home. This magical Kingdom Under the Sea had been given up in favour of secular London, where the mermaid and Ellis are outsiders. Ellis, a feminist, can also see the problems with the plot of a woman giving up her voice to try to get her prince. Taking heart from the mermaid’s sisters rising up from the sea, she wonders if it could be read:

As a cautionary tale for women saying: Don’t give up your voice! Don’t make sacrifices for unworthy men!

As Ellis re-reads all these novels, many of her childhood heroines fail her more adult criteria. Marjorie Morningstar, who fostered her love of the theatre, is a particular let-down, as is Jo March, and even Flora Poste. (I have to admit to feeling a pang of sympathy for poor dropped Flora, who apparently comes across as rather ‘smug’. Poor Flora, perhaps a little smug, but surely we can forgive her, given her expert cool, calm and collected dealing with her nightmare relatives?)

What becomes clear is that reading is misreading, as English Dons would happily agree. As Ellis puts it:

I’m beginning to think that all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what we need for them at the time.

RebeccaThe novel that has really brought this shift in misreadings home to me is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. When first reading it as a fourteen-year-old, I identified wholly with the young, inexperienced, nervous narrator, out of her depth in this terrifying house, with dreadful Mrs Danvers and the ghostly presence of Rebecca, who seemed completely terrible. She gets everything wrong, being clumsy, dressing badly, failing to manage the staff or make any friends, and yet she perseveres, and just when you think it’s game over, Max de Winter confides in her and while they lose the house, at least they have each other. Read again in my late twenties, it was a completely different book. The young narrator couldn’t have been more irritating, pathetic and useless. I wanted to slap her and tell her to stand up to Mrs Danvers, the old cow, and wear whatever the hell she wants. Rebecca herself is transformed to an enigmatic powerful woman, someone who has managed to pursue her own independence in spite of being married to a belligerent spoilt man.

A few years’ life experience transforms a novel – and, by extension, a heroine – as Ellis finds, again and again. And yet, thankfully How to be a Heroine isn’t really a telling-off sort of a book. While Ellis finds fault with many of her heroines and takes their authors to task for giving them such flaws, she respects the power of her original misreadings and their influence on her life. They may not be the right heroines for now, but they were for then, and so we forgive them as part of life’s steep learning curve. Indeed, a sure sign of forgiveness is that they are all invited to a wonderful party at the end:

The Little Mermaid is in the bath, with her tail still on, singing because she never did give up her soaring voice. Anne Shirley and Jo March are having a furious argument about plot versus character, gesticulating with ink-stained hands. Scarlett is in the living room, her skirts taking up half the space, trying to show Lizzy how to bat her eyelashes. Lizzy is laughing her head off but Scarlett has acquired a sense of humour, and doesn’t mind a bit. Melanie is talking books with Esther Greenwood, who has brought her baby and also the proofs of her first poetry collection. Franny and Zooey have rolled back the rug and are doing a soft shoe shuffle in rhinestone hats. Lucy Honeychurch is hammering out some Beethoven …

She crams them all in to her flat, all of them having a glorious time. It reminds me of my bookshelf parties: all the characters chatting to their neighbours while no-one’s looking. Lady Slane, Eddie Feathers, and Richard from Offshore are best friends by now, and The Go-Between’s little Leo is having great fun running around Brideshead.

How to be a Heroine is a wonderful chance to revisit many favourite novels and say a quick hello to their heroines. It also left me with an exciting reading list on which I hope to meet some new heroines: top of which is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes. Rather brilliantly, Sylvia Townsend Warner told Virginia Woolf that modern witches flew on vacuum cleaners not broomsticks!

This is a celebration of the companionship reading brings, and the comfort and guidance that provides. I was left feeling happily reassured that whatever one goes through in real life, a reader will always have a bank of fictional heroines to whom she can turn.

mrs dallowayAnd believe me, reader, it works. Stuck with a tricky work situation last week, I found myself, without really knowing why, spending a morning re-reading the whole of Mrs Dalloway. When lunch-time came around, in spite of the slight guilt that sprang from admitting that instead of tackling said work problem, I’d buried my nose in a book, I felt ready to take on anything. I’ll buy the flowers myself, the party will be a success, and nothing is more important than the power of empathy, I muttered to myself as I strode out into the world, feeling tremendous. We all need our heroines. The joy of fictional ones is that they will always be at your beck and call.

It seems that Daphne and I share a common heroine of the Very Hungry Caterpillar. I do hope she understands that her own metamorphosis into a butterfly is only metaphorical.

Daphne and the cress

The Luminaries

November 18, 2013

The LuminariesThe Friday before last, I had my thirtieth birthday party; last Friday I finished The Luminaries. I’m not sure which Friday was more triumphant. While the first was a glorious yellow celebration of friendship and happiness and fun, the second saw the end of a colossal book which has taken up a whole month of my reading life.

It was a very enjoyable month. Well, at least the first fortnight was, then, as you might have gathered from my last post, the pleasure was tinged with impatience. And I read quickly – I can’t imagine what it would be like to read The Luminaries at a more sedate pace … just think, you’d still be reading it well into next year!

In case you have been on a different planet (see what I’m doing there, with the astrological pun), The Luminaries is New Zealander Eleanor Catton’s second novel. She is only twenty-eight. It won the Booker Prize. It is over 800 pages. All facts awe-inspiring enough to pique a curious reader’s interest.

The novel opens with two of the oldest clichés: a combination of ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ and ‘A man walks into a bar’. Walter Moody walks into the smoking room of the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, New Zealand, on 27 January, 1866, which happens to be a dark and stormy night. He soon senses that something fishy is going on. It transpires that the twelve men gathered there have come together to discuss the strange happenings of the last fortnight: a recluse has been murdered, a whore has attempted suicide, a young man has gone missing, and a fortune of gold has been found in the murdered man’s house.

It is an exciting beginning, and the pages whizz past as Catton takes us from one protagonist to another, telling us the story from all sides, letting us – alongside Walter Moody – gradually piece together what exactly has happened. At one point, Moody is asked, what it means for him ‘to know something’ and he replies:

I suppose that to know a thing is to see it from all sides.

We do indeed see this story from all sides, and never do we feel that Catton has lost control of the many sides of her narrative. In a way, it is an extension of Virginia Woolf’s seven-sided carnation in The Waves, or Penelope Lively’s disconcertingly wonderful jolts in perspective in Moon Tiger (see this post for more on this). Here the thing is initially twelve-sided, but expands, as more and more characters come into play.

I enjoyed getting to know Hokitika in 1866, at the height of the New Zealand gold rush, of which, until The Luminaries, I’d never heard. Here are men and women on the make, seeking their fortunes, making their futures and, more often than not, running away from their past. These are first class ingredients for a piece of high Victorian drama, and that is what we get, complete with the slightly kitsch chapter-opening epigrams, such as:

In which the merits of asylum are discussed; a family name comes into question; Alistair Lauderback is discomforted; and the shipping agent tells a lie.

Everyone has his secrets and motives, and the web of intrigue is complex and entangling. It reminded me a little of Dickens’ Bleak House.

Except, of course, we’re in the twenty-first century and Catton is too clever to spin us just a shaggy dog story. We know she must have employed that double-cliché beginning as a kind of bluff. There are indeed many moments where our attention is drawn to the many layers of storytelling, such as:

We shall therefore intervene, and render Sook Yongsheng’s story in a way that is accurate to the events he wished to disclose, rather than to the style of his narration.

All the while, the reader is made aware of the astrological patterning, with chapter titles like ‘Venus in Aquarius’, or ‘Mercury Sets’, and charts drawn out at the beginning of each of the novle’s twelve parts. I have to confess that the astrological side of things flew right over my head (appropriately enough), although I did like this moment when Moody first looked at the Southern Hemisphere sky:

The skies were inverted, the patterns unfamiliar, the Pole Star beneath his feet, quite swallowed … He found Orion – upended, his quiver beneath him, his sword hanging upward from his belt; Canis Major – hanging like a dead dog from a butcher’s hook … It was as if the ancient patterns had no meaning here.

The world is upside-down, life here is of a new order. Now we’re further back than the Victorians and are with John Donne and Shakespeare and their ‘brave new world’ and ‘new-foundland’, except that New Zealand is even farther away than America, the old order even more inverted. It is refreshing and fascinating to read about a different frontier people.

So far so good, albeit so long… then, as the weight of the book shifts from the right hand to the left, the narrative takes a different turn. The mysteries are unravelled and understood, and a love story is revealed between a man and a woman (I won’t reveal their identities) who are spiritual twins. It is a strange sort of love story that feels peculiarly unsatisfactory, just as the resolution of the novel’s mysteries don’t leave one particularly fulfilled. The novel becomes increasingly post-modern as the end draws near; the chapter epigrams start to contain more narrative than the rapidly shrinking chapters, which become snippets of conversation, glimpses, moments. They are reminiscent of the cover design – the moon revealing just part of a face as it waxes and wanes, while the whole is hidden by all the white space of the night sky.

The Luminaries begins as tight as a coil, sprung with tension – you could cut the atmosphere in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel with a knife. As the narrative plays out, the coil slackens and everything spaces out. It is entropic. Soon we are left with more gaps than writing.

GravityThis may be a ridiculous comparison, but indulge me please, given the appropriate astrological context. The Luminaries is not dissimilar to George Clooney in Gravity. It begins doing one thing – fixing a space station or solving a mystery – then segues into an almost-but-not-quite love story, and then drifts out, ever outwards, into the vast nothingness of space.

The Luminaries is a genre-defying novel that makes its reader question what a novel is. What do we desire from a novel, and what can we demand from it? What is a mystery all about? What is a love story all about? It’s a shape-shifting book. You think you’re reading one thing and then find you’re reading something else. It happens on the small-scale as you are passed between the different protagonists, getting to know things ‘from all sides’, and then in a brilliant post-modern stroke, Catton makes us question not just the fictional events but the very nature of fiction itself.

Eleanor Catton is very clever to have got us all puzzling over these big questions, while situating her puzzle in such an engrossing world. The Luminaries is a great book that works on many levels, and I can completely see why it won the Booker Prize. But for all the beautiful language and the narrative dexterity and the big post-modern questions, it left me feeling unsatisfied. By the end I no longer cared much about the murder, the gold, the whore or the love story. Perhaps that’s the point, but I found it a somewhat frustrating point to make. And if that is the point, then couldn’t she have made it rather more quickly?

As I said, The Luminaries took up a month of my reading life. I can’t remember when I last spent such a long time reading the same book. I would have read five or six normal-sized novels in that time. You might quip that bringing time into it is pointless but, put it this way, in the time it took me to read and puzzle over The Luminaries, I could have read all of E.M. Forster’s novels, or two-thirds of Penelope Fitzgerald’s. I expect I could have read a third of all Shakespeare’s plays. As was brutally pointed out to me a few months ago – we can only read so many books before we die. Our reading lives are limited more than we might care to think. For a novel to be six times as long as another novel, hence take up six times as much of one’s time, then surely it must be six times as good? While The Luminaries was a thoroughly enjoyable book, clever in so many ways, imaginative, transporting, brilliant yes … I’m afraid I just don’t think it was better than all of Forster’s novels put together.

Perhaps I would feel less vexed about all the time that it demands of its reader if I’d read it on holiday, when one suddenly gets a glut of unexpected reading time. I would heartily recommend it for a flight to New Zealand, for instance. Or, perhaps if I’d had an unlucky patch of reading and had read a few short not-particularly-good novels, then I would have rejoiced at finding such a big brilliant novel that comes pretty close to  fulfilling the reader’s desire of never wanting it to end. I read The Luminaries during my everyday reading life, however, and, although I enjoyed the trip, I slightly wish I could get a fortnight of that time back.

These things pray on one’s mind as one begins a new decade.

Perhaps you have read The Luminaries and think differently of it? I’d love to know your thoughts.

Birthday Books

November 12, 2013

The LuminariesThis is my first post of my third decade… and still I am reading The Luminaries. Will I still be reading it by the time I reach forty, I wonder. It is a good book, but it has made me feel that people who write books that are so unbelievably long are obliged to make them unbelievably good. Indeed The Luminaries should be approximately four times as good as a very good short novel, because it will have demanded that much more of my reading time, and, if I’m brutally honest, while it is undoubtedly enjoyable, I’m not sure The Luminaries is quite good enough to be taking up so many weeks of my life. It’s not quite Proust. I think of all the other books I could have been reading in the meantime and feel a little bit peeved, but there we go, I shall give you a full report, let us hope, next week.

You might remember this time last year I wrote about a very special edition of Bowen’s Court, that my very generous mum bought me from the wondrous Peter Harrington. Well this year, we made a return visit …

Let me say right away that any of you who have not yet been to Peter Harrington should do so immediately. Go into the rather imposing building, look like you know what you’re doing by marching straight up the stairs to the first floor, where you will discover all the twentieth-century literature, a realm presided over by Adam. Talk to Adam. He will give you sweets and make you a cup of tea, while showing you the treasures on the shelves, telling you things about the books and their owners of which you’d never have dreamt.

This year we were in Adam’s realm a little while before him. No doubt he was having lunch, or boiling the kettle or some such. Reluctant to miss a second’s heavenly browsing time, I clambered up a ladder to peruse their collection of EM Forster, where I spotted a small blue hardback – The Writings of EM Forster by Rose Macaulay. I’m ashamed to say I’ve not yet read anything by Macaulay, though I have of course heard of her brilliant opening line to her novel The Towers of Trebizond:

“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.

How I long to read the rest of it! Perhaps it shall feature in Emily’s Walking Book Club in 2014.

Well, oddly enough, Rose Macaulay has been on my mind over the past couple of weeks as she was a great friend of Elizabeth Bowen’s, and I have been doing a spot of thinking and writing about Elizabeth Bowen and her relationship to Regent’s Park, where she lived. I have been imagining her walking through the park with Rose Macaulay by her side, perhaps joking about the camels in London Zoo just round the corner.

Can you imagine my surprise when I opened up this little book, published by The Hogarth Press, to get an idea of what Macaulay might have to say about Forster, when I saw this?!

The Writings of EM Forster by Rose Macaulay

It’s too extraordinary, especially given the uncanny echo with last year’s purchase of Forster’s copy of Bowen’s Court. This time it’s Bowen’s copy of Rose Macaulay’s thoughts on Forster. I am rendered speechless as my imagination whirrs with overexcitement.

(On the subject of intriguing dedications, have you come across Wayne’s blog? Should you love it quite as much as I do, might I suggest buying the book of his blog, just out now?)

The other lovely books on which we alighted in Adam’s treasure trove, is this lovely set of Virginia Woolf’s essays. See how prettily they sit on my shelf, beside her diaries.

The Collected Essays of Virginia Woolf

Funny that I was just thinking about her essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ a couple of weeks ago, which I had to squint through on-screen. Now, I can have it in my hand, and can browse through her other essays – I do really think she is a fantastic essayist – and pick one or two to read in a spare half-hour. Leafing through, I see that she too has written some thoughts on Forster. I love this on the change from Howards End to A Passage to India:

The house is still the house of the British middle classes. But there is a change from Howards End. Hitherto Mr Forster has been apt to pervade his books like a careful hostess who is anxious to introduce, to explain, to warn her guests of a step here, of a draught there. But here, perhaps in some disillusionment both with his guests and with his house, he seems to have relaxed these cares. We are allowed to ramble over this extraordinary continent almost alone.

I love the thought of Forster as an anxious hostess, always at his reader’s elbow to point things out. It’s a very apt description for his earlier novels, and reminds me a little of Hitchcock’s pointing things out in his films, closing a scene by zooming in on something significant. It is a relief to feel Forster relax a little in A Passage to India, and I suppose it does make you feel more at home in his work – an aspiration for any good hostess.

(Some Emilybooks Forster trivia for you – Howards End is a highly important codeword between the husband and me. I hope it need never be used in your presence. Those who can guess when it might be used and what it might signify … answers on a postcard, or in the comments section below please, and, if correct, you might just get a prize.)

What wonderful books to own! If only I could binge on them all now in a gloriously decadent Bloomsburyish day.  I must, however, stick with The Luminaries if there’s any hope of getting it finished by next week.

Three Tales

October 28, 2013

Three Tales by FlaubertHaving been thinking rather a lot last week about the Bennett vs Woolf debate on how to render character in fiction, it was interesting then to happen to pick up Flaubert’s Three Tales, which seems to belong so unapologetically to Bennett’s school of thought. (Incidentally, on Tuesday it was our two year wedding anniversary, and at the lovely grand restaurant where we went for dinner, guess what was on the menu? None other than Omelette Arnold Bennett!)

Flaubert is a great writer of things. My overwhelming feeling on reading Madame Bovary was one of intense claustrophobia. Emma Bovary has so much stuff everywhere and of course it is her love of pretty things that in part causes her downfall, as she gets more and more in debt to the horrid merchant and moneylender Lheureux. The pages of Flaubert’s Three Tales are just as populated with things, and I couldn’t help but think of Woolf’s saying that he was ‘sidling sedately towards’ his characters, rather than letting their voices sing out.

Three Tales is Flaubert’s final completed work and it was written as one entity, rather than being various short stories subsequently collected together. It is a puzzling little book. The first story is ‘A Simple Heart’, which is relatively well-known and very good. It is the story of Félicité, a faithful and naïve maid, who devotes her life to those who are thoroughly undeserving of her saintlike goodness. It is all very sad and pure and worthy (to the point, I’m afraid of almost being a little dull), until good old Félicité develops a completely dotty attachment to a parrot! Talk about a twist in the tale. I adored these pages about her relationship with the parrot, who eventually has his chain removed and is ‘allowed to wander all over the house’:

When he came down the stairs, he would position the curved part of his beak on the step in front of him and then raise first his right foot, followed by his left. Félicité was always worried that these weird acrobatics would make the parrot giddy.

As someone who has become alarmingly obsessed with the ‘weird acrobatics’ of her pet tortoise, I can truly empathise. Then Félicité has a revelation:

When she went to church, she would sit gazing at the picture of the Holy Spirit and it struck her that it looked rather like her parrot.

Religious fervour is given a whole new, rather idiosyncratic, dynamic.

The parrot is a unique addition to the story, giving it a peculiar mixture of humour and pathos. Poor Félicité – so weirdly obsessed with her parrot; Félicité, who has nothing else to live for, no one else to show her any affection … and yet we can’t help but laugh at the eccentricity of it. The parrot must have struck Julian Barnes as the most enjoyable thing in this story too, as he went on to write the Booker-shortlisted Flaubert’s Parrot, which now I feel I must read. It has left me wondering how many parrots squawk through literature’s pages – off the top of my head, I can think of Bombafu, the parrot in Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, who whistles to his own destruction, and of course Long John Silver’s in Treasure Island. Surely there was one in one of the Swallows and Amazons? Any further suggestions curiously received below please!

Enough about parrots… The second story in Three Tales, ‘The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator’, has the feel of religion fused with myth that you find in something like ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. Young Julian develops an inexplicable blood lust and goes out hunting, wreaking absolute carnage. Then a great stag comes up to him and ‘uttered this thrice-repeated warning:’

“Beware! Beware! Beware! A curse lies upon you! One day, O savage heart, you will kill your father and your mother!”

Julian is so upset by this, and by a subsequent near miss when he pierces his mother’s bonnet with his javelin, thinking it was a stork, that he flees home and becomes a great warrior. Only one has a feeling that, like in the Greek tragedies, his fate will have an unexpected means of catching up with him…

The third tale is ‘Herodias’, which is a very Flaubertian reworking of the Biblical tale of Salome and John the Baptist. It is full of incidental detail like the oddly practical final line:

Because the head was very heavy, they took it in turns to carry it.

I was left puzzling over what ties the stories together, other than Flaubert’s minute attention to all the objects. What could simple Félicité and her parrot have in common with warrior Julian and manipulative Herodias?

Perhaps Flaubert is making a point that stories lie dormant in every nook and cranny – in the quiet existence of a maid, in the pages of the Bible and in the ‘stained-glass window in a church near to where I was born’, on which the story of Saint Julian is displayed. Perhaps it is a humanising of religion – Félicité seeing the Holy Spirit in her parrot, just as Flaubert sees the human story behind the panes of glass or that of Saint John the Baptist.

Perhaps Flaubert is filling in all the surface details that literally realises these stories – makes them real rather than mythical. And perhaps we Woolfians should give credit where it’s due. I vaguely knew the story of John the Baptist, but I’d never thought of King Herod looking out on the landscape of Palestine and seeing:

The lingering morning mists parted to reveal the outline of the Dead Sea. The sun rose behind Machaerus, spreading a red glow across the landscape and gradually lighting up the sandy sea shore, the hills and the desert and, away in the distance, the rugged grey contours of the mountains of Judaea. In the middle distance, Engedi appeared as a long black line, while further off was the round dome of Mount Hebron. He could see Eshcol with its pomegranates, Sorek with its vines, Karmel with its fields of sesame and the huge square Tower of Antonia rising above the city of Jerusalem.

Setting the story so precisely in a landscape, just as with ‘Saint Julian’, we learn that each of the castle windowsills had ‘a painted earthenware flowerpot planted with either basil or heliotrope’, makes it easy to visualise, and so brings the story to life. Perhaps Flaubert is sidling sedately up to his characters, and perhaps we don’t quite get a feel for who they are and what they think in the way that we do with Woolf, but we do at least see the world they inhabit in exquisite detail, and there is for sure something to be said for that.

No doubt a greater mind than mine will have picked over these Three Tales and pulled out all sorts of fascinating ideas. Please do enlighten me for I have to say, while they were good, I think Madame Bovary wins hands down. Fitting really, given that Emily’s Walking Book Club this coming Sunday will be discussing Someone at a Distance, which is in part Dorothy Whipple’s 1950s reimagining of Madame Bovary.

Felicite sleeping with parrot by Hockney

Marriage Material

October 21, 2013

Arnold Bennett is one of those authors who has long fallen out of fashion. Up till now, I knew him only for two things.

Mr Bennett and Mrs BrownFirstly, his depiction of character came under attack by Virginia Woolf in her brilliant essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’. She responds to Bennett’s statement that there are no first-rate young novelists – this was 1924 – because none of them can create characters that are real, true and convincing. You can read the whole thing here, but for those of you who lack time or inclination, essentially Woolf takes issue with the way Bennett describes all the things surrounding a character rather than the actual character. She describes a woman – who she calls Mrs Brown – in a railway carriage and suggests how Mr Bennett would ‘sidle sedately towards’ her and give precise information about every little detail pertaining to her and yet somehow utterly miss her. She goes on to dissect, quite viciously, one of his novels and suggests that the character gets lost in all the detailed description of everything else:

we can only hear Mr Bennett’s voice telling us facts about rents and freeholds and copyholds and fines.

She compares his writing to a hostess talking about the weather at a party and then says that his novel-writing ‘tools are the wrong ones for us to use’. She says that writers of today, namely Joyce, Forster and Eliot, have to break with this tradition, and this is why there is all ‘the smashing and the crashing’ in Modern Literature. Joyce, she says, is:

a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows.

She concludes by saying that Bennett is to some extent right in that today’s novelists haven’t been able to capture Mrs Brown, but that they are trying and are, in any case, doing rather better than Bennett.

The other thing I know about Arnold Bennett is that I once had a very delicious ‘omelette Arnold Bennett’ at The Wolseley. (Thanks to one of my tremendously spoiling older brothers.) It is a heavenly creamy smoked haddock eggy concoction. Unbelievably rich and indulgent and you can’t quite believe you are eating it for breakfast. The dish was created for Arnold Bennett at the Savoy – where I expect you can still get it – and he loved it so much that he insisted on eating it everywhere. I do hope this nugget is squeezed into a Downton Abbey plotline. Apparently Virginia Woolf is making a cameo in this series, so getting someone to eat omelette Arnold Bennett would be a wonderfully oblique reference to the literary debate above!

I suppose the two stories cancel each other out – after Virginia Woolf’s laying into Arnold Bennett about Mrs Brown, I don’t much fancy reading his novels, but, then again, someone who could be the inspiration for such a delicious omelette does deserve a certain respect.

Marriage Material by Sathnam SangheraWell now I know a third thing. Bennett wrote a novel called The Old Wives’ Tale, which Sathnam Sanghera has reimagined as his wonderful novel Marriage Material. Reading Marriage Material has been a neat side-stepping of the Arnold Bennett dilemma. I have managed to get – more-or-less – the plot and substance of his novel, but by reading something which I suspect is rather better.

Marriage Material is written in two parallel narratives. The main story follows Arjan Banga, who returns to his family’s Wolverhampton corner shop when his father dies. He leaves behind his metropolitan, Guardian-magaziney London life as a graphic designer with white fiancé and smart flat (which features things like a painted blackboard ‘covered in slightly self-conscious messages’) to go back to Sikh provincialism – a run-down high street and local children ‘running into the shop just to shout “Paki” at my mum before running out again, a depressing urban version of Knock Down Ginger’. What initially seems awful, slowly reveals its allure to Arjan, who is caught between worlds – not quite white, not quite Sikh – and his struggle to tread the tightrope between them makes very good, thought-provoking reading. It’s not so very different from Francesca Segal’s The Innocents – another re-imagining of a classic novel, which explores the benefits and drawbacks of a segregated society. (You can read some more thoughts on Segal’s excellent novel here.)

Interspersed with Arjan’s story is our own discovery of his roots: the story of the previous generation who lived in that corner shop. Two Sikh sisters are growing up during the time of Enoch Powell and protests about Wolverhampton bus employees being allowed to wear turbans. One sister, Kamaljit, learns little English and is happy to leave school to settle down and be a good Sikh wife. In contrast, the other sister Surinder does very well at school, is always reading – be that novels or magazines borrowed from the shop – and wants to become a nurse. Needless to say, the two narratives, very satisfyingly, join up.

What’s so clever about the book is that Sanghera embraces all the clichés only to then explode them. Kamaljit doesn’t just marry any old Sikh but one who is from a lower caste, which is almost as outrageous as if she were to marry a white person. This caste issue comes up again and again – with some alarmingly sinister consequences – as Sanghera points out the racism practised between Sikhs as a counterpart to that of Powell’s of the 1960s and to that apparent in Wolverhampton in 2011. Sexism amongst Sikhs is also examined as another form of discrimination, not so different to racism. Perhaps most surprising is when a Sikh woman defends Enoch Powell:

‘His point that many immigrants didn’t want to integrate? Just take a look around.’

Marriage Material is full of subtle and nuanced arguments about racism and integration. It begs the question, just how possible is it to live happily as a mixed-race couple in 1968, or in 2011?

How would Marriage Material stand up to Woolf’s criticism? I suspect rather better than The Old Wives’ Tale, as I certainly felt I got close to Sanghera’s ‘Mrs Brown’. My only problem with the novel was that I felt Surinder was the its real achievement rather than Arjan, and so it was a little frustrating that she was given the backseat in terms of narrative. Surinder was conjured with such skill that I wanted her to walk to centre stage rather than be relegated to the wings – a great measure of success in creating a real and compelling character. I’m sure that even Virginia Woolf would approve.