Posts Tagged ‘W.G. Sebald’

Emilybooks of the Year

December 17, 2014

The thing about sleeping in 3-4 hour chunks is that time bends into something altogether new. So when I say it’s been an age since I last posted here, I mean an age in a peculiarly nebulous sense. It has been an amount of time of which I can’t really conceive. Life before Vita – what was that?

I had hoped to be writing here a little more regularly, but little Vita has proved to be rather a lot to take on and doing everything one-handed means it all takes twice as long. We’ve also moved house, and any writing time I’ve managed to carve out has been siphoned into a couple of journalism commissions which sprung up and couldn’t be refused. There’s one for the Spectator, which you can read here. And the other one is still in the pipeline, so watch this space…

But wow it’s Christmas next week, which is thoroughly disorienting. Not only is it the first Christmas after Vita and therefore, as I explained, it has approached in a strange new way, it is also the first time for years that I’ve not been working in the bookshop during what is always a madly busy, derangedly exciting time. So I thought I must stir myself from my semi-comatose state at least enough to be able to write my EmilyBooks of the Year – for that has become a Christmas tradition from which I would hate to part. So I hope you enjoy the round-up below. The links go back to my original reviews of them, in case you’d like a little more info on the various books.

Looking back on what I’ve read this year has proved both enjoyable and revealing. I think everyone ought to do it, as an exercise in self-reflection. If so, I’d love to hear how you get on and any of your picks for books of the year.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns2014 introduced me to rather a large clutch of what I might fondly term ‘EmilyBooks’ – the oft-overlooked but brilliant novels that I adore reading. I picked many of these for the Walking Book Club, so thinking back to them now yields very happy memories of chatting away on Hampstead Heath. The Home-Maker and Fidelity, two Persephone Books, were both extraordinary. Both are set in small-town America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both are about women who step beyond their allotted place – going out to earn the family’s living, or having an affair with a married man. Both books are good on how society struggles to handle these misfits, and how the misfits are strong enough to survive. (Incidentally, we were honoured to have a week of the excellent Persephone Post – the Persephone Books daily blog – inspired in part by Vita!) Other brilliant old novels discovered this year include Angela Carter’s Wise Children, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (but only read it if you are ready for something seriously harrowing), William Trevor’s Love and Summer, Elaine Dundy’s excellent The Dud Avocado (a MUST if you are going to Paris) and – perhaps my two favourites – Meg Wolitzer’s brilliantly funny and very clever The Wife, and Barbara Comyns’ disarmingly simply told and terribly affecting Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. This last will definitely be a future walking book club book – it is tremendous!

The Letter for the KingI was pleased (and not surprised) to see how many of my books of 2014 are published by Pushkin Press. Those of you who’ve not yet discovered this terrific independent publisher, which specialises in bringing the best European fiction to our shores, should do so NOW. Red Love by Maxim Leo is a fascinating family memoir – I’d say it’s up there with The Hare with Amber Eyes for the way he manages to get the bigger picture of history through the filter of his immediate family. It’s all about the GDR and how the author’s two grandfathers – one a Nazi and the other a freedom fighter – could both come to believe so fervently in the new regime. There was also Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, strange and brilliant, and Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, also strange and brilliant. Both have an eerie, dreamlike feel to them, and thinking back on the now it’s this special atmosphere of the books that has really stuck with me, rather than the ins and outs of the plots. A special mention should go to Pushkin’s children’s book The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. I started reading this as soon as I went on maternity leave, thinking that it would be the ideal gripping piece of escapism for my exhausted brain. It was, and I spent a heavenly few days on the sofa with it. In fact I enjoyed it so much that the husband wanted to read it as soon as I had finished. And then I went into labour. And rather a lot of that strange first day of labour, before we could go into hospital, was spent with me rolling around on a big pilates ball while the husband read the book and I kept asking him irritating questions about where he’d got up to, only he wasn’t allowed to be annoyed with me because I was in labour. Ha! Truth be told, I think having such a good distraction for a book was the only thing that kept him sane, so thank you Pushkin!

Where Angels Fear to TreadJourney by Moonlight is just one of several books I read that are set in Italy, as our blissful two month sojourn in Lucca called for a great deal of geographically appropriate literature. Looking back on it now, I still can’t really believe we got away with it – two months of eating ice cream and lazing around, reading, writing, sketching, sleeping … I wonder if Vita, who was wriggling around in utero, might grow to love these books too? Certainly I’m sure she will share her mother’s love of pasta.

Thinking of pasta, there was The Leopard, with its infamous macaroni pie, a wonderful novel, which I loved discussing on a walking book club at the Perch Hill Feast. There was Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence – obviously good, because everything by her is good, but perhaps not quite as good as her others. Christ Stopped at Eboli – a classic piece of anthropological observation, which made Southern Italy in the 1930s seem like another world entirely. There was Portrait of a Lady, which was good but something about James’ coldness, and the nastiness of it all, made it seem rather sour. Best of all the Italy books was the double-Forster hit of A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread – it was such a treat to have an excuse to revisit them.

H is for HawkI loved re-reading various classics this year, as well as the Henry James and the EM Forsters, there was Brideshead Revisited – so much more enjoyable to read for pleasure rather than studying it for A Level – and Jane Eyre, every bit as good as I remembered, and also Pride and Prejudice. This last was wonderful, and the other thing we did when I went into labour was watch the boxset of the BBC adaptation – a great way to pass quite a lot of time!

There was a substantial chunk of non-fiction: The Examined Life, which was the perfect January book – ideal for a bit of sober self-examination. How to be a Heroine – a paean to many brilliant novels, written so charmingly that you end up feeling that Samantha Ellis is a bit of a heroine herself. The Rings of Saturn, which was a rare instance of a book being both heavy-going and brilliant – I kept wanting to say thank you Sebald, for stretching my brain in so many of these bizarre directions. And, finally, two wonderful memoirs: The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg – astonishing insight into Germany during the war, written by an English woman who’d married a German – and H is for Hawk, which I adored so much that I nearly called my daughter Mabel in homage to the hawk. I was very happy to see that this won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

How to be Both by Ali SmithI also enjoyed some new novels: the wonderful Chop Chop by Simon Wroe, who I should say is a friend, and I should also say has just been shortlisted for the Costa Prize – hurrah!!! And also Homecoming by Susie Steiner, which I started off thinking would be all about sheep farming, but actually it’s about families and change. And there was, of course, the supreme treat from Ali Smith: How to be Both. How I adored this book. Smith has a way of writing that makes modern fiction seem so exciting and makes me feel lucky to be a reader.

Last but not least, comes a book which is particularly special to me: Park Notes by Sarah Pickstone. Not only is this a beautiful book about women writers finding inspiration in Regent’s Park, but it also features my first ever piece of work to be published in a book!

I hope this little round up might provide some inspiration for Christmas reading, or indeed shopping. Once we get to 2015, Emilybooks will be back for real, and so will the walking book club – our next meeting is on 25th January to discuss Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. Vita’s rather excited about it!

Park notes

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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.