Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Woolf’

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

Girl with a Pearl Earring

September 9, 2013

Ham and High Literary festivalGreat excitement is brewing chez Emilybooks, for next week I will be interviewing Tracy Chevalier at the Ham and High Literary Festival. I would love to see some friendly unheckling literary faces in the crowd, so do come along if you fancy it. (Might I also suggest a little browse of other festival events, while you’re at it, as there are all sorts of interesting talks, from the likes of Judith Kerr, Maggie O’Farrell, Deborah Moggach, and Dannie Abse.)

Next week, we will be talking about Tracy Chevalier’s brilliant new novel The Last Runaway, which has just come out in paperback, but I couldn’t resist the excuse to read – at long last – Girl with a Pearl Earring as well.

What a wonderful book! I expect most of you know the premise – a fictional rendering of the story behind this beautiful painting by Vermeer:

 Girl with a Pearl Earring

The novel begins with Griet chopping vegetables. We quickly learn that her father was a tiler, but has been blinded in an accident, so the family has fallen into poverty and Griet is sent to be a maid in the house of Vermeer. The artist suspects she will be well-suited to the job of cleaning his studio as she has a sensitivity to colour – shown in the way she lays out slices of vegetables in a colour wheel before putting them into the soup, and also because her father’s blindness has made her good at leaving things where they are meant to be. Ironically, this need for things to be left exactly as they were is one felt just as keenly by a blind man as by a painter, who sees so well.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy ChevalierGriet sets off to this new household, different in so many ways to her own. It is Catholic, wealthy enough to afford maids and meat, and ruled over by two mistresses: Vermeer’s wife Catharina – sour, jealous, endlessly popping out babies – and her mother Maria Thins, who one senses is really in charge, certainly of the house’s finances. There are several children, but most notable is awful Cornelia – malicious, cunning and cruel in the way that only little girls can be.

Griet quickly wins the reader’s respect. Like all the best heroines, she is put in a tough situation but quietly rises to the challenge. We see this straight away when Tanneke, the older maid, shows her the laundry:

She pointed to a great mound of clothes – they had fallen far behind with their washing. I would struggle to catch up.

Rather than despairing at the task ahead, or indeed naively dismissing it, Griet assesses the situation:

Including me there were ten of us now in the house, one a baby who would dirty more clothes than the rest. I would be laundering every day, my hands chapped and cracked from the soap and water, my face red from standing over the steam, my back aching from lifting wet cloth, my arms burned by the iron. But I was new and I was young – it was to be expected I would have the hardest tasks.

Then she quietly gets on with it:

The laundry needed to soak for a day before I could wash it. In the storage room that led down to the cellar I found two pewter waterpots and a copper kettle. I took the pots with me and walked up the long hallway to the front door.

Griet displays the same calm objectivity with the rest of her new life. She notes a problem – a difficult person or task – assesses exactly what the trouble is and then quietly goes about it as best she can. A practical and clear-headed heroine.

The one real boon of Griet’s new life is her contact with art. She is let into Vermeer’s studio to clean – a place where the children, his wife and the other maid are not allowed:

It was an orderly room, empty of the clutter of everyday life. It felt different from the rest of the house, almost as if it were in another house altogether. When the door was closed it would be difficult to hear the shouts of the children, the jangle of Catharina’s keys, the sweeping of our brooms.

This room is a special place, a quiet sanctuary. She savours her time alone cleaning in there, and slowly it becomes hers as much as it is Vermeer’s. It is an interesting take on Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’, for while the studio isn’t Griet’s own space, she asserts her presence and comes to share it with Vermeer.

Vermeer notices her artistic eye and it’s not long before he asks her to assist him, teaching her how to grind the colours and mix the paints, and explains elements of composition and colour to her. He arranges it so that she can sleep in the studio’s attic to give her more time to help him. There is a key moment when she sees what is needed in one of his paintings before he does, and rearranges it for him.

‘I had not thought I would learn something from a maid,’ he said at last.

As a counterbalance to Griet’s settling into her new life, Chevalier lets us watch the threads of her old life slowly unravel. Every Sunday she visits her family, and we see the relationships fracture. Meanwhile, Griet is pursued by the butcher’s son. While our practical heroine can see how he would provide food for her poor family and how kind he is in the way he cares for and helps her, she is repulsed by the blood under his fingernails, and – we can see, before she admits it to herself – he doesn’t equal her enigmatic, and clean-handed, master Vermeer.

While Chevalier builds everything up to a moment of taboo-breaking romance between Griet and her master, she is too intelligent an author to give in to this tension. Instead, a more subtle relationship is formed between them, erotic yet chaste, in which they come together over their work rather than physically. We know that Griet will eventually pose for him, and we sense that this could be her undoing…

While Griet’s position as a maid from a poor family is emphasised throughout the book, so is her agency and her ability to negotiate her own path. Chevalier describes the middle of the Market Square:

There the stones had been laid to form an eight-pointed star set inside a circle. Each point aimed towards a different part of Delft. I thought of it as the very centre of the town, and as the centre of my life.

We are always wondering which way Griet will go. There are new directions offered throughout the book, but there are just as many occasions when a way is closed to her. Not long after she has gone to the Catholic quarter to  Vermeer’s house, she learns that the area where her own family live has been quarantined because of the plague, and so she may not go back. She is allowed into Vermeer’s studio, and yet she is locked in there at night for fear of her stealing the mistress’s jewels. She may help Vermeer, yet we wonder how far along that path she will be allowed to go. When she is posing for Vermeer, his friend warns her to be careful:

Take care to remain yourself … The women in his paintings – he traps them in his world. You can get lost there.

Characters and circumstances conspire to trap Griet, to close off a path and to bully her into submission, either to the lusty advances of a man, or the mean actions of a woman. And yet Griet – our quiet, practical heroine – manages to cool-headedly resist and remain herself, treading her own path, albeit with just enough nearly getting lost to keep you gripped.

Daphne and Tracy Chevalier

And what did Daphne think? Well, poor Daphne is having some trouble with her left eye, and now goes about with it closed, poor thing, giving her a somewhat piratical look. She will be going to the vet to have it flushed out next week, but in the meantime I think her vision of the world is a little wonky and perhaps reading a book that makes such a contrast between a blind man and an artist, with so much thinking about art and composition and colour was rather an insensitive choice. Also, as a strict vegetarian, all the descriptions of the meat at the market were quite upsetting for her. Nevertheless, she agrees that Chevalier has a fine prose style and, as we know, Daphne, like Griet, is not afraid to go exploring, and will always find her way out of a trap!

Incidentally, Vermeer also came up in Proust (see last week’s post). Swann is writing an essay about him, although I very much doubt that Charles Swann would have come up with anything as fun, engaging and gripping a work as Tracy Chevalier.

River writing

June 3, 2013

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

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

Cherry of Zennor

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

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

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

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

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

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

The magical trout

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

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

white trout

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

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

river-spirits … see also mermaids, freshwater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mermaid

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

All Passion Spent

July 3, 2012

I read Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent in a completely heavenly way. I was recovering from a Friday night hangover and the husband had vanished off to lug a load of sandbags around in an architectural manner. I made a pot of coffee, a huge bowl of muesli (my Achilles’ heel, see my last post) dotted with leftover strawberries from the night before, and climbed back into bed where I lay reading All Passion Spent from start to finish, as the sun streamed through the windows and my headache gently evaporated. I can think of no better way of spending a Saturday morning.

I came to All Passion Spent with a feeling of relief, of at last, finally, phew. I have wanted to read something by Vita Sackville-West for such a long time. First at university, when studying Woolf, there she was, endlessly popping up her elegant head and begging for a little more attention than there was time for. Then for my literary hen party (more details here) we had a beautiful afternoon strolling around her home, Sissinghurst. I since learnt that we were taken for a troop of literary lesbians, come to pay our respects to this ultimate literary lesbian. Apparently they get quite a few such groups, and rather fewer hen parties.

The gardens at Sissinghurst are famously beautiful, and they are definitely the most beautiful gardens I’ve seen anywhere in the world. They make the little rusty bathtub with its heroic raspberry bush on my windswept roof terrace look rather miserable, actually, but no matter. To go there is to enter garden heaven. I remember reading about Vita Sackville-West’s gardening in Alexandra Harris’s remarkable book Romantic Moderns:

To plant bulbs in the middle of a war was to assert one’s firm belief in the future. She made a point of planting a slow-growing magnolia in spring 1939, wanting to believe that there would be someone there to see it in a hundred years time.

I think it’s a wonderful – and a very feminine – way of asserting one’s defiance.

So it was with joy that I climbed back into bed with my copy of All Passion Spent and a feast of a breakfast. Every page, sentence and word were a delight to read.

The book opens with the death of Lord Slane, a great statesman, leaving his children, who are mostly in their sixties and perfectly ghastly, deciding what to do with their newly-widowed mother, Lady Slane. They devise a frightful scheme whereby she will be parcelled off between them, paying each of them for her keep for a few months of the year. Lady Slane, ‘the very incarnation of placidity’, quietly defies them and plants a slow-growing magnolia.

Not really. She quietly defies them and says she’s going to move into a little house up in Hampstead. Back then, in 1931, Hampstead was rather less chi-chi and rather more bohemian than it is today, and to these residents of Chelsea’s Elm Park Gardens, it might as well have been Peckham. We get a lovely scene of Lady Slane shuffling off on the underground (she is eighty-eight after all) up to Hampstead, her mind running off along little paths as the stops go by.

Lady Slane saw the house thirty years ago, but by some miracle, it is still there, waiting – as it were – for her to rent it. The eccentric Mr Bucktrout, owner and agent, is happy for her to rent it, so long as he can come round for tea once a week. So Lady Slane settles down up in Hampstead, and the rest of the book is given over to this quiet ending of her days, with the company of Mr Bucktrout, her loyal French maid, a jack-of-all-trades, and Mr Fitz-George – a long-lost acquaintance who first met her when she was the very beautiful Vicereine of India.

You’ve probably gathered that there’s not a tremendous amount of action. Most of the narrative is given over to Lady Slane’s memories, as she sifts through parts of her life, making her peace with it, looking back at who she was and what she’s become. This reflective nature of the prose allows for some interesting meanderings on various ideas. For instance, we get this on happiness:

But what was happiness? Had she been happy? That was a strange, clicking word to have coined – meaning something definite to the whole English-speaking race – a strange clicking word with its short vowel and its spitting double p’s and its pert tip-tilted y at the end, to express in two syllables a whole summary of life. Happy. But one was happy at one moment, unhappy two minutes later, and neither for any good reason; so what did it mean? It meant, if it meant anything at all, that some uneasy desire wanted black to be black, and white, white; it meant that in the jungle of the terrors of life, the tiny creeping creatures sought reassurance in a formula …

That night, I stayed up embarrassingly late leafing through a volume of my (heavenly) collection of Virginia Woolf’s letters, picking out the ones to Vita Sackville-West written at around the time of All Passion Spent. For, as well as being her lover, Woolf was Vita Sackville-West’s publisher; indeed, the Hogarth Press made quite a sum of money from both All Passion Spent and her previous novel The Edwardians, which were both bestsellers. I hoped Virginia Woolf might have written some thoughts on All Passion Spent, or offered some advice, one writer to another. But then I found the following letter to Vita on Friday 25th April 1930, sent from Monk’s House:

“I don’t think I can stand, even the Nicolsons, on happiness for three quarters of an hour” I said at 8.15.

“Well, we can always shut them off” said Leonard. At 9 I leapt to my feet and cried out,

“By God, I call that first rate!” having listened to every word.

This is (for a wonder) literally true. How on earth have you mastered the art of being subtle, profound, humorous, arch, coy, satirical, affectionate, intimate, profane, colloquial, solemn, sensible, poetical and a dear old shaggy sheep dog – on the wireless? We thought it a triumph: Harold’s too.

Evidently, Vita and her husband Harold Nicolson were on the BBC radio discussing happiness. I suspect that some of the ideas they talked about then, might have seeped into her musings on happiness in All Passion Spent. And Woolf’s litany of affectionate praise for Vita Sackville-West’s art on the wireless is, I think, apt for her writing as well.

I could go on about All Passion Spent for yonks – her thoughts on growing old, on being young, on being a woman, on frustrated dreams, on money, on family … but I shall confine myself to one last particularly lovely passage. Do forgive the very long quotation, but as Virginia Woolf said, she is ‘a dear old shaggy sheep dog’ and it is a very very long sentence which needs to be written out in full. I think it one of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read:

She remembered how, crossing the Persian desert with Henry, their cart had been escorted by flocks of butterflies, white and yellow, which danced on either side and overhead and all around them, now flying ahead in a concerted movement, now returning to accompany them, amused as it were to restrain their swift frivolity to a flitting around this lumbering conveyance, but still unable to suit their pace to such sobriety, so, to relieve their impatience, soaring up into the air, or dipping between the very axles, coming out on the other side before the horses had had time to put down another hoof; making, all the while, little smuts of shadow on the sand, like little black anchors dropped, tethering them by invisible cables to earth, but dragged about with the same capricious swiftness, obliged to follow; and she remembered thinking, lulled by the monotonous progression that trailed after the sun from dawn to dusk, like a plough that should pursue the sun in one straight slow furrow round and round the world – she remembered thinking that this was something like her own life, following Henry Holland like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent, irrelevant thoughts, darting and dancing, but altering the pace of the progression not by one tittle; never brushing the carriage with their wings; flickering always, and evading; sometimes rushing on ahead, but returning again to tease and to show off, darting between the axles; having an independent and a lovely life; a flock of ragamuffins skimming above the surface of the desert and around the trundling wagon; but Henry, who was travelling on a tour of investigation, could only say ‘Terrible, the ophthalmia among these people – I must really do something about it,’ and, knowing that he was right and would speak to the missionaries, she had withdrawn her attention from the butterflies and transferred it to her duty, determining that when they reached Yezd or Shiraz, or wherever it might be, she also would take the missionaries’ wives to task about the ophthalmia in the villages and would make arrangements for a further supply of boracic to be sent out from England.

But, perversely, the flittering of the butterflies had always remained more important.

All Passion Spent is in many ways a fictional counterpart to Woolf’s polemic A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf argues, among other things, that a woman cannot write fiction without money and a room of her own. She also writes about how the literary tradition is male rather than female and complains that the very sentence which was used so effectively by men was ‘unsuited for a woman’s use’. She argues that a woman’s experience is different from man’s, that what women want to write is different from what men want to write and so they need to find new tools of expression, ‘knocking that into shape for herself’.

Woolf wrote of the moment as ‘an incessant shower of innumerable atoms’, but I rather prefer Vita Sackville-West’s expression of it as ‘the flittering of the butterflies’, darting beautifully and playfully around the male cart which presses ever directly onwards.

And indeed we find this image of the butterfly moment appearing elsewhere in Vita Sackville-West’s writing. Here it is, in Twelve Days in Persia, which she wrote a couple of years earlier:

It is necessary to write if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clasp the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.

Fine inspiration for any writer.

The House in Paris

June 18, 2012

I’ve just finished my third book by Elizabeth Bowen and really she is a brilliant writer. She’s very good at creating a bewitching, utterly engrossing atmosphere that sucks you in and makes it quite difficult to climb out and get back into the real world. I mentioned (here) that when I read Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, it held me so spellbound as I read it lying in my carriage on the sleeper train up to Inverness, that I didn’t realise we’d arrived and very nearly didn’t get off the train. The stewardess looked bewildered when she opened the carriage door to give it a cursory look and found me lying there in my pyjamas, my head stuck in London in the Blitz. ‘We’ve been here quarter of an hour already,’ she said as though I were raving mad. I suppose, maybe I was a bit.

A similar thing happened with The House in Paris. Last week, I sat down to read it for half an hour one afternoon after lunch, and before I knew it, it was gone five and I’d nearly finished it. My flat had almost disintegrated; its whole quiet world with the hum of the washing machine and occasional ping of my phone completely faded out and I was there stuck in the book, caught up in its deeply mysterious feeling so that time really had disappeared along with everything else.

I began The House in Paris thinking that it would be a little like What Maisie Knew by Henry James, or, indeed the lower-brow Atonement by Ian McEwan. This is because it starts off being told through the eyes of Henrietta, an eleven-year-old girl who is suddenly in the middle of a very adult situation. I love books like this. I even began trying to write one while I was at university – although I didn’t get that far.

Children of that age are still childish, yet they have a loose, overheard grasp on adult issues, enough to ape an adult understanding of things, which makes them seem terribly precocious, when of course they don’t actually understand the darker subtext of a situation. This combination of childish naivete and pretence at being grown-up, when placed in a truly complicated, adult situation of lies and secrets, with adults dashing about trying to make everything seem fine, makes for a fascinating consciousness to use as a filter.

So eleven-year-old Henrietta arrives in Paris, ‘one dark greasy February morning before the shutters were down’. She is collected from the Gare du Nord by a mysterious Miss Fisher who is to look after her for the day before taking her to catch the evening train down to the South of France where she is to stay with her grandmother. She learns in the taxi of another two mysterious characters, who will also be at the house in Paris: Leopold, a little boy who’s come from Italy, but is not Italian, who is there ‘for family reasons; he has someone to meet’ and Miss Fisher’s mother, who is very ill.

Miss Fisher is tense and responds to Henrietta’s questions by telling her far too much. Bowen reflects:

One of her troubles was, quite clearly, being unaccustomed to children. Henrietta had the advantage of her, for, as almost an only child – she had one married sister – she was only too well accustomed to grown-ups.

Henrietta gets to the house and meets Leopold, who is definitely a strange child. We see him first through Henrietta’s eyes:

He wore a bunchy stiff dark blue sailor blouse, blue knickerbockers and rather ugly black socks.

But here’s where it all becomes quite unexpected. For having been in Henrietta’s head for chapter one, chapter two puts us inside Leopold’s:

Henrietta, composedly sitting up on the sofa, pushing the curved comb back, made Leopold think of a little girl he had once seen in a lithograph, bowling a hoop in the park with her hair tied on the top of her head in an old-fashioned way.

It’s surprising, clever, and makes one draw a sharp intake of breath. It thickens things. It makes one wonder, what will happen next.

Well gosh I could go on and on about this book forever, but to spare all of us, I better speed things up a bit. Essentially the first part of the novel is about these two children, in this very adult sinister house in Paris. They, of course, completely disobey the adults, learn far too much, but don’t understand quite everything. An uneasy but very special bond is formed between them.

Then we get to part two, where another strange thing happens in the narrative. Bowen explains why Leopold’s mother, at the last minute, doesn’t come to meet him (for that is the reason for his being in Paris). She says:

Actually, the meeting he had projected could take place only in Heaven – call it Heaven; on the plane of potential not merely likely behaviour. Or call it art, with truth and imagination informing every word. Only there – in heaven or art, in that nowhere, on that plane – could Karen have told Leopold what had really been.

Bowen is saying that the whole premise of the first part couldn’t actually happen. As far as authorial asides go, this is pretty far out. And then it gets stranger yet:

This is, in effect, what she would have had to say.

The rest of the second part, which is around half the book, is the story of Karen, Leopold’s mother, and how Leopold came into the world.

It is a bizarre way of bridging the two stories, it feels perhaps clumsy, too obviously seamed, but somehow it works. And it was Karen’s story with which I sat down on the sofa and got completely wrapped up in for hours.

I think I shouldn’t give anything else away about the plot, but I will just mention one more thing that Bowen does very well: seedy meetings in ghastly restaurants.

One of the most memorable bits in The Heat of the Day is when Harrison makes Stella have dinner with him. He takes her to a fantastically hideous place, down some stairs into:

a bar or grill which had no air of having existed before tonight. She stared first at a row of backviews of eaters perched, packed elbow-to-elbow, along a counter. A zip fastener all the way down one back made one woman seem to have a tin spine. A dye-green lettuce leaf had fallen on to the mottled rubber floor; a man in a pin-stripe suit was enough in profile to show a smudge of face powder on one shoulder … The phenomenon was the lighting, more powerful even than could be accounted for by the bald white globes screwed aching to the low white ceiling – there survived in here not one shadow: every one had been ferreted out and killed.

It sounds just dreadful. A dodgy, horrid, underground place. They go on to have a terrible, tense, fateful confrontation of a conversation. And the setting, with its grimness, lends the whole thing an air of being unnatural, forced, not at all right.

In The House in Paris, there is another illicit meal in a restaurant. This restaurant is French and rather nicer, but there is still something hideously oppressive about it. It is lunchtime and blazing hot sunshine outside, but going in:

was so suddenly dark – and so suddenly chilly, making her cup her bare elbows in her hands … [he] read down his menu Napoleonically, and she looked at her menu blotty with mauve ink … Karen looked at a vase of roses on a middle table, then round the restaurant, with its embossed brown wallpaper, in which they were shut up with what Mme Fisher said.

These meals in these restaurants are acutely uncomfortable to read. The feeling of claustrophobia and oppression is remarkable. There is the clash of an intensely private meeting taking place in the public sphere, the smash of the outside against the inside.

In each situation, it’s the woman who feel this oppression rather than the man, who remains quite comfortable, even ‘Napoleonic’. The woman feels the outside world pressing in on her, strangling her private affair. Perhaps Bowen is iterating a woman’s need for her own private space – somewhere she can exist privately without the press of the outside. Just a few years earlier, Woolf had phrased it so famously as a woman’s need for ‘A Room of One’s Own’.

What Bowen does so well with her writing is create a fictional room of one’s own. Her books are so overpowering in atmosphere that they utterly succeed in taking you out of whatever real space you happen to be in and putting you inside this other space, which exists just for you and the characters of the book. Reading one of her books – even in the seediest of restaurants – one is safely transported to a private imaginary and immersive space. I, rather greedily, long for a whole fictional house made up of Bowen’s intensely atmospheric rooms. I can’t wait to read the next.

The Accidental

May 29, 2012

I like nothing better than a coincidence, especially when one of the coinciding things is in the book I’m reading.

Last week I wrote about a first-class coincidence which ended up in a trip to Venice. It’s hard to top that one. You might find this week’s coincidence a little more humble, although, for me, just as satisfying.

It was Saturday night. That morning, we had accidentally bought an enormous fish. (Long story. Here is probably not the place for it.) Some friends were coming round to eat it with us, but they weren’t here yet. The husband was cooking the big fish. I had been hovering over him saying annoying things like, oh I wouldn’t cut the lemons like that. Maybe you should put some almonds in too. No don’t bother about doing that with the leeks. It wasn’t long before I was told to shut up and banished from the kitchen.

So I concentrated on finishing my book – Ali Smith’s marvellous The Accidental.

I love Ali Smith. This sounds like the sort of fluff that people churn out to go on the back covers of books but I really do find her writing dizzying and exciting. There’s so much energy to it, so much pizzazz. I was struck by how similar The Accidental is to her most recent book There but for the (which I wrote about here). Both books involve a stranger turning up in a very middle-class set-up and acting as a catalyst for some big changes. Both books also feature, among others, the brilliantly imagined voice of a young girl. In The Accidental we have twelve-year-old Astrid Smart, whose geeky delight in things like the way her hand leaves a mark on her face after she’s slept on it, or how her name is only two vowels away from asteroid is completely enchanting.

So I was very happy to get out of the kitchen and return to the dysfunctional world of The Smarts. But just three and a half minutes later:

‘Oh my god!’ I shrieked, jumping up, striding back to the kitchen, where the husband was busy chopping. ‘Oh my god, oh my god, guess what?’

‘What?’ He used the kind of voice that a grown-up might use to a tiresome child.

‘You know I’m reading this book?’

‘Which book is it again?’

‘You know, the Ali Smith book. The Accidental.’

‘Which one’s that again?’

‘Oh never mind. But guess what?’

‘What?’

‘Well they all watch a film. And the film they watch is The Lady Vanishes!’

No reaction.

‘Listen to this:

It said it was filmed in Islington, Astrid said. Did you see? Did you see? It said at the end, when it said The End, that it was filmed here.

By the canal, Michael said. There was a film studio there.

No way, Astrid said.

No, there was, Michael said. Really. They did costume dramas, things like that. That’s definitely where they made that film.

No way, Astrid said again.’

‘Well there you go,’ said the husband.

I realise that at times of excitement I sound quite similar to Astrid, the twelve-year-old girl. Poor husband.

But I’m not just excited about the fact that Hitchcock’s brilliant film The Lady Vanishes was shot at the Gainsborough Studios, the site of which happens to be about a five-minute walk from my flat. I’m excited because right now, that is exactly what I’m writing about in my novel.

Good coincidence!

I’ve already told you about my novel, but in case you’ve forgotten, it is about a derelict house. Two very different young women make friends and then explore this derelict house, which is right next to The Rosemary Branch pub (where one of them works), which happens to be very close to where the Gainsborough Studios used to be. The interesting thing about the book (let’s hope) is that the house then tells stories of who used to live there through various traces, such as the layers of wallpaper, the coal hole, and – as you might remember from a couple of weeks ago – a forgotten piece of a 1930s toy.

I decided on one of these old train set mini advertisements – just the right size to slip between the floorboards and lie forgotten for the best part of a century, waiting to be discovered by someone looking for something else that had rolled off into a corner.

So the boy who used to have this train set – this very elaborate train set, with all these extra bits – who lived in the house in the 1930s … well, funnily enough, he loved trains. And, for those of you who haven’t seen it, The Lady Vanishes is set almost entirely on a train. It was filmed in 1938 in the Gainsborough Studios, round the corner from the house where this boy lived. According to the (real-life) lady who works in the pub (who’s lived round here forever, who I interviewed as another fun bit of research for the book), people who lived round here used to hang around the studios to try and get work as extras.

Now, if you were a ten-year-old boy who was obsessed with trains, who knew that a film all about a train was being made round the corner and that if he were to play truant and skip school for a day, he might be picked to actually be in the film – recorded forever on celluloid, on show to thousands of people in the cinema, him, there, next to a train… well you’d do it, wouldn’t you?

So you can see him in the film. Near the end, Michael Redgrave says to Margaret Lockwood. ‘Well, this is where we say goodbye.’ There he is, under the sign for platform 7, in his shorts and pulled-up socks, looking curiously at the camera and at this pair of famous actors, just before they hop into a cab. That’s him – the boy in my book.

This scenario had been whirling around my brain for the whole week. How feasible was it? What would the inside of the studio have looked like? What were the names of all the bits of equipment they would have used? Was that scene definitely shot in the studios, or could it have been done at the real Victoria Station? How would they choose the extras? Would he have got away with skipping school? Would he have made any friends while he was waiting for them to shoot that scene? Would they have given him something for lunch, while he waited? So many questions, spiralling around as I perused books in the British Library, listened to Margaret Lockwood on an old Desert Island Discs, watched and re-watched The Lady Vanishes … so you can imagine my surprise when in this completely unrelated book there was a mention of the very thing that had been so on my mind. And not just the film itself, but that it was filmed in that studio, in Islington. (Incidentally, should you be able to shed some light on any of these questions, I’d welcome your knowledge with open arms and a big thank you.)

It’s hard to describe the feeling. Shock, surprise, amazement. A sharp intake of breath. A feeling of wonder. Confusion. It really was completely extraordinary. And, of course, I began to doubt the very nature of coincidence; I couldn’t help but wonder whether this wasn’t merely accidental, but something bigger and more profound.

Thinking about it a little more logically and unexcitably, I shouldn’t be surprised at coming across some connection in The Accidental because it is a book rich in references. There’s a long, very funny description of Love Actually, for instance, passing comments on masses of authors – from Roth to Larkin to Austen to Shakespeare, plenty of songs from the seventies, and much much more. Ali Smith characterises the various members of the Smart family in part by giving them their own cultural references, things that they cling on to as their individual ways of understanding the world, their points of identity. Really it would be odd if I hadn’t found something amongst all of them that was occupying some other part of my brain.

As for The Accidental, aside from its accidental chime with my book … I found it a wonderful, inspiring read. Perhaps it’s not for everyone. Some people, inevitably, will find the stream-of-consciousness style of writing irritating. Some will find the scenario of a stranger just inserting herself into a family’s holiday home too unlikely.

But if you can put these quibbles aside, if you can appreciate the experimentalism and see that Ali Smith is thinking about ideas like representation and the importance of the different points of view (I suppose a bit like Hitchcock), then really it is an astonishing feat. I love the way that the same moment is replayed in each of the characters’ minds utterly differently, each obsessing over a different aspect and missing the rest. It shows quite how hideously dysfunctional the family is, how much it is hiding behind convention and appearance. Smith also captures how terrifying teenagerhood and that awkward moment just before teenagerhood can be, and the cruelty of other children. And she shows how much everyone wants to believe in something, how much people want to be rescued, how much people will invest and imagine in a stranger.

Like There but for the, The Accidental reminded me a little of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, in which all the characters have their own voices and revolve around the empty centre of Percival, who never speaks. Here it’s the same set-up but the empty centre – the character whose head we scarcely enter is Amber, or Alhambra. I suppose The Accidental shows just how much we are capable of projecting onto emptiness.

So I really shouldn’t project too much meaning and significance onto this empty accidental coincidence of The Lady Vanishes. And yet, it’s so hard to resist feeling like it’s a sign from the universe that I am on the right track.

Hurrah!

Walking To the River

April 4, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidgespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater

Thanks Olivia for the reminder. Yum.

Dinosaurs at Dungeness

March 27, 2012

My husband and I got out of London and spent the weekend in Dungeness – a coincidence of a lucky break in the bookshop rota and six months of being married was too happy a thing to let pass us by.

It’s a strange place, Dungeness. The man in the hotel described it as ‘Mad Max country’. It certainly feels wild, unkempt, eerily disregarded and forgotten about. Old boats, shipping containers, and rusted winches strew the endless expanse of shingle beach; industrial flotsam left behind by the retreating sea. A nuclear power station gently hums, looming behind two lighthouses, which look almost like fairground rides.

The person most associated with Dungeness is the artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman, who moved there when suffering from AIDS. He eked out a strange garden from the inhospitable shingle, scrubby plants arranged around odd bits of flotsamed rusty metal. His house, Prospect Cottage, still stands, and you can walk right up into the garden, which is overlooked by a John Donne poem mounted on the side of his house. The poem is the beginning and end of ‘The Sun Rising’, setting a peculiarly hopeful scene of daybreak and beginning, given that Jarman’s life was drawing to its close.

But Derek Jarman and John Donne weren’t so much on my mind. Instead, as we wandered across this strange landscape, I kept thinking of Virginia Woolf. This was in part because I am reading Olivia Laing’s wonderful To the River (of which more in a future post), in part because Dungeness is just a short hop along the coast from Woolf’’s East Sussex, and in part thanks to the profusion of lighthouses. This, in spite of the fact that Woolf never, to my knowledge, went to Dungeness. I can’t see any mention of it in her letters or diaries, in any case. I’m not sure she would have liked it much. So bleak and strange the landscape.

But the feeling I got at Dungeness reminded me very much of a preoccupation in her last novel Between the Acts. At university, I always felt this was the novel that I understood the least, the one that I didn’t quite get, in which I couldn’t quite discover the genius that was, doubtless, there. When I’ve read it, read about it, and thought about it since, I’ve admired Woolf’s playfulness with words, the feeling of her listening to language as it is spoken, and her success in capturing that on the page.

But what I was drawn to at university was her preoccupation with prehistory. Time and again in Between the Acts the long-ago past is summoned and strangely conflated into the present day. Perhaps this is clearest near the beginning:

… [she] had spent the hours between three and five thinking of 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.

It took her five seconds in actual time, in mind time ever so much longer, to separate Grace herself, with blue china on a tray, from the leather-covered grunting monster who was about, as the door opened, to demolish a whole tree in the green steaming undergrowth of the primeval forest. Naturally, she jumped, as Grace put the tray down and said: ‘Good morning, Ma’am.’

I hope you don’t mind the long quotation, but it really is so tremendously clever, I couldn’t bring myself to cut it short. I love it when novelists bring dinosaurs into the equation. One of my favourite bits of Dickens is the opening of Bleak House, when ‘it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn-hill’. But back to Woolf. What the hell is she doing with time?!

First of all we are told quite clearly that the real time of the present are the two hours, ‘between three and five’. But she (who is, in fact, Mrs Swithin) uses those two hours to think of a strange prehistoric time, imagining it both in the large scale of continental geography and in the minute realisation of rhododendron forests in Piccadilly. The ‘monsters’ are really quite extraordinarily described – I like the way Woolf picks out their imagined movements: ‘heaving, surging, slowly writhing’, and then there’s the threat of violence, felt so often in Between the Acts, in ‘barking’. But this strange vision of the past is made relevant to the present. Here we are back in the moment, ‘jerking the window open’ and the link is openly stated: ‘we descend’ from the monsters.

On to more odd time stuff: there’s the ‘actual time’ of ‘five seconds’ contrasted with the ‘mind time’ of ‘ever so much longer’ and this time is used to try and separate this strange conflation of worlds: to distinguish Grace, the servant, from the monster of Mrs Swithin’s imaginings. The monster hasn’t been left behind in pre-history, he is still there and – now we get a flash of the future – ‘about, as the door opened, to demolish a whole tree’. This very clever episode is brought to a brilliant, bathetic close: Mrs Swithin jumps at the servant putting down the tray and wishing her good morning. The reality of mundane life is here. It is ‘morning’. The monsters of the past are gone.

But the monsters stay lurking close to the surface throughout Between the Acts. Again and again, we feel that time can conflate, that something that happened so long ago could burst through the surface of the present. Mrs Swithin says, later on, ‘Once there was no sea … no sea at all between us and the continent.’ Later, Giles kicks a stone ‘a flinty yellow stone, a sharp stone, edged as if cut by a savage for an arrow. A Barbaric stone; a pre-historic.’ History and pre-history are there, in the stones, in the landscape, literally, just below the surface.

No there weren’t any dinosaurs at Dungeness. But there was something about the feeling of abandonment there, something about the way the sea drifted ever outwards, exposing more and more shingle, rendering the boats and winches useless, that felt epic, connected to a bigger time scale than we can easily imagine.

Not far from Dungeness, we sought out the ‘Listening Ears’. These things, of which I’d never heard, but which the husband was determined to find, are extraordinary old concrete structures that were built to ‘listen’ to approaching aircraft and act as an early-warning system. They were built around the time of Woolf’s writing, in the twenties and thirties, but were swiftly rendered obsolete by the invention of radar.

You can only see the Listening Ears up close on special tours in the summer, so we climbed to the top of a shingle bank and looked at them in the distance across a vast moat. The husband threatened to swim over there.

The Listening Ears are magnificent and strange. More abandoned things. More relics of a time that’s past. More pieces of obsoletism. Looking at them there, standing huge amidst the scrub and gorse, they seemed impossibly ancient and indestructible. They looked so odd they could almost be Aztec. And I couldn’t help but imagine them in thousands of years’ time, overgrown with jungle – perhaps forests of rhododendron bushes. What would they think, whoever discovered them? Would they think they were methods of worship, of praying to the sky gods, ways to listen for omens in the wind? I felt as though time were conflating before my eyes, that something from the thirties could be from an ancient civilisation, and yet could also date us as an ancient civilisation.

Perhaps I can’t convey the feeling quite as elegantly as Woolf, but it was certainly very strange indeed.

Virginia Woolf

October 3, 2011

‘I don’t know why you bother reading such long books,’ said a customer to her boyfriend, the other day in the bookshop. He was reading the back cover of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, which is, admittedly, rather long. ‘I only read short books,’ she declared to the shop at large.

What a wally, I thought. Surely some of the greatest books are some of the lengthiest? Bleak HouseUlyssesMiddlemarch … and if those seem too snotty, then what about all those thick George Martin books which seem to be the nation’s current obsession?

But now I reflect upon it, perhaps there is something to be said for brevity. Reading a short book is an altogether different experience to reading a long one. A long book is a trusty, constant companion for a few weeks, sometimes even a month. Reading is a gradual, gentle process of absorption. The characters come alive in the margins of the day; they’re there, always, but they’re rarely insistent, they don’t come barging in and demand a whole morning of one’s time.

Reading a short book, on the other hand, can be startlingly intense. I read Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending in three sittings, most of it taking place across one afternoon. It was completely involving, and when I’d finished, I felt almost dazed. A short book can be a sharp, breathless experience.

This weekend, I read another very short, very enjoyable book. You might remember my writing about Alexandra Harris in previous posts, where I’ve discussed her marvellous (long) book Romantic Moderns. So it was with a great deal of anticipation that I greeted her new book Virginia Woolf. Especially as I have such a soft spot for Virginia Woolf, having specialised in her at university.

The Harris/Woolf combo really is a bit of a winner. And it is a combo. For Harris has rather neatly entwined her life of Woolf with Woolf’s writing, and there are a great many quotations. I’m going to choose this one as an example – Woolf’s ‘most important memory’ – as it’s one of my own favourites:

It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here, of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.

I love this piece of writing. I think it is an instance of Woolf at her finest. Really it’s not so intellectually complicated and obtuse as people unfairly make out! I like it for the quiet yet insistent rhythm of the words – the repeated ‘it is’ and ‘one, two’. The build up and repetition of gerunds – lying and hearing, culminating in that repeated feeling. And there is the perfect amount of attention to visual detail. Rather than trying to list absolutely everything, there is just a general scene, with a few tiny bits picked out – the yellow blind and its acorn, the splash of water on the beach. It is a perfect description of a moment, and, as Alexandra Harris points out:

It is one of those hidden revelations that Woolf’s fiction would propose as the structuring principles of our lives.

I love this idea of Woolf’s of ‘moments of being’, and it seems as though Harris has taken this, rather pleasingly, as the principle of her life of Virginia Woolf. For rather than it being an exhaustive (and exhausting) biography, stretching on for hundreds of pages, going into minute detail about each moment of every single day, every passage of each piece of writing, she glides over the surface of Woolf’s life, dipping down for occasional, significant moments of depth.

In her account of Woolf’s childhood, for instance, Harris glances at her relationships with her mother, father and siblings, her education, and summer trips to St Ives all within the space of ten pages. But the overriding event of her childhood – and the one on which Harris concentrates – is the death of her mother. This is the important moment, and this is what will crop up again and again in Woolf’s novels.

More often than not, Harris concentrates on Woolf as she is writing her novels. Here is Woolf having a breakdown, dangerously ill, before The Voyage Out is published … and here she is busy and excited and happy while writing Jacob’s Room. (‘[I] an really very busy, very happy, & only want to say Time, stand still here.’) While this is against a backdrop of friendships, houses, and world events, the foreground focuses on her writing. And, frankly, while Bloomsbury life was undoubtedly bohemian and exciting and interesting in a gossipy sort of a way, how much more fascinating it is to read about a woman in light of her work rather than in light of her friends.

Which is perhaps why what this book makes me want to do more than anything, with all these new pockets of light shed upon moments of Woolf’s writing life … is to reread some Virginia Woolf. Goody!