Posts Tagged ‘walking book club’

My Grandmothers and I

July 27, 2016

It strikes me as a surprisingly common, though little remarked upon, fact that one’s grandparents form two very different pairs.

I suppose this seems especially pronounced if I think of my daughter Vita’s grandparents – one side Jewish and the other side descended from the Fascist Oswald Mosley. I can see it too with my own grandparents – one grandmother fled Vienna as a child in the 1930s, whereas the other came to London from a family long-established in Plymouth. It seems astonishing that time and again two people can come together from such different backgrounds, thus giving their progeny two very diverse sets of grandparents. A walking book club member informs me this is due to the psychological inevitability of shunning one’s own background and seeking its opposite in one’s partner. I would be intrigued to see if you too, dear reader, have noticed this phenomenon.

My grandmothers and IDiana Holman-Hunt wrote brilliantly about her childhood in which she was parcelled between her grandparents in her very charming memoir My Grandmothers and I, beautifully published as a neat little paperback by Slightly Foxed. There is a stark contrast between life in the Freemans’ well-staffed comfortable country house, and the Bohemian squalor of the Kensington abode of ‘Grand’ – the extremely eccentric widow of the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman-Hunt.

Diana’s life with Grandmother Freeman seems relatively happy, if lonely. For friends, she has to turn to the servants, and ‘Cherub’ – the statue on the fountain – with whom she imagines flying across the gardens. When the servants club together and give her a teddy bear for her birthday, ordered especially from Selfridges, Diana’s affection for it is transformed from sweet to moving when we realise it’s not just because she has no real friends to play with but because her other presents are so inappropriate: her father, who is away in India, sends her a leopard skin, and her grandparents give her a string of pearls, whose beauty and value will turn out to be of help in years’ to come, but are far too sophisticated for a little girl to appreciate.

Life at the Freemans has certain quirky downsides – such as the torturous brace which Diana must wear to improve her posture, and the list of daily tasks which is pinned to her curtain every morning. We are also treated to Diana’s glimpses of the more adult world in which she inhabits – the butler is always drunk after lunch, and one of the maids gets pregnant. There is the added humour of the clash of her childish perspective and our adult understanding, such as when she writes about her uncle’s friends, the ‘jolies laides’ – she discusses them with the servant Fowler, who remarks, you can hardly ‘call her jolly and I doubt if she’s a lady’. The real sadness here, however, lies in Diana’s early understanding of the fact that she will only be appreciated if she is sufficiently entertaining, being urged to ‘utter’ and regale her grandparents with stories, or else be banished from their company.

When she’s sent off to stay with Grand, however, we realise how lucky Diana’s been. Though she immediately flings her terrible brace into the fire, she has entered a world where breakfast is usually a rotten egg, and where she has to sleep curled up on a tiny scratchy sofa – examples of Grand’s despising ‘Brother Ass’, the body, in favour of nourishing the mind.

Grand’s eccentricities are extraordinary. For instance, before bed, the maid lays out a complex trap of trip wires and bells, to catch any thieves after all the great works of art, and, Grand adds, to stop them being murdered in their beds. Terrified, Diana asks, then what?

‘You will spring out of bed and twirl this large wooden rattle, round and round, out of the window, and I will blow several short sharp blasts on that whistle tied to the end of my bed.’

Grand is horribly stingy, and Diana relates the horror of having tea at the Tate:

I always felt embarrassed with Grand asked the waitress for two cups and saucers and a jug of boiling water.

Grand would then produce her own bag of tea leaves and envelope of powdered milk. But her generosity to pavement artists is even more embarrassing:

If she spotted one, she would never pass him by, but would retire discreetly to a doorway, or press against the railings with her back turned to the passers-by. Then, to my confusion, she would lift her skirts to find the chammy-leather pouch of money which she wore concealed, suspended from her waist. Flushed with effort, she would at last approach the artist and hand him a piece of silver, saying ‘If you are ever desperate and need to earn a shilling, you can come and sweep the leaves out of my area and scrub my front door steps. My cook will give you a cup of soup. You need never starve, I am your friend.’

In showing her grandmothers’ many oddnesses, Diana Holman-Hunt is so good at capturing their exact manners and cadences of speech that this memoir of what must have been a very difficult childhood is transformed into a comic masterpiece. Moments of poignancy remain, however, such as when Diana’s train pulls into London and she sees a man standing beside her Grand, waiting to meet her:

‘That must be my Papa!’ I said, jumping up and down.

The train guard dispels her excitement by revealing it is in fact the Station Master.

As the book progresses, and Diana grows up, the balance in tone shifts. The funny, mad and charming portrait – albeit with glimpses of terrible sadness and loneliness – is abandoned as Diana begins to see the growing desperation of her situation. There is a garish flash of an episode where her father visits, rescues her from school and takes her out on the town. She has nothing to wear but her confirmation dress. Next, we see Diana on her return from a year in Germany; her father – seemingly bankrupt – was unable to pay the Baronin with whom she stayed and sent her a note advising her to return to Grand and get a job. Grand, meanwhile, has lost her mind. Diana, ever resourceful, sells her pearls, sleeps on the cold attic floor, and attends secretarial school, with scarcely enough money to eat. As no one has paid for her to be presented and ‘come out’, she is shunned by her other relations, and it becomes clear there is no one who can look after her and she has no means of survival. Salvation comes eventually when Grandfather Freeman writes to tell her she must come and stay with him (Grandmother Freeman has died). When she returns to their Sussex home, Diana gets drunk and falls into bed.

This drunkenness seems to me to be such a sad, bleak ending. It is as though Diana longs to return to the naivete of that childhood world of imagination and innocence, playing with Cherub and the servants, but now – as an adult, with her place in the world shown to be so precarious – the only way she can return to this state of oblivion is getting blind drunk. Not that the ending detracts from the book, rather it saves it from being all charming nostalgia and eccentricity, tempering it with the bitter note of tough adult reality. Those who want to know what happened next might find this obituary in the Independent enlightening (and reassuring).

Emily’s Walking Book Club greatly enjoyed My Grandmothers and I. One walker said they would have loved to listen to it on the radio, read by someone like Maggie Smith, which we all think would be brilliant. So, does anyone know a radio producer who might be intrigued? If so, please please send them a copy.

Diana Holman Hunt

Here she is, looking extremely glam.

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Brodeck’s Report

May 16, 2016

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

walking book club brodeck

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

Brodeck's Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reading Lolita in Tehran

February 22, 2016

Whats the story morning gloryWhen I was about twelve, I bought (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. I was a massive Oasis fan, and did all those classic pre-teen things like headbanging while jumping on my bed, sticking posters up all over my walls, and writing out lyrics in swirly patterns on pads of paper. As all true fans know, Definitely Maybe was a much better album, but I have a particular memory of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? which is the point of this (otherwise, you might think, rather peculiar) preamble.

I always used to beg to play my music in the car (sorry Mum) and I remember listening to this CD on one particular journey – we were just approaching the Shepherd’s Bush Roundabout – when my brother told me that (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? had sold so many copies that something like one in thirteen people in the UK owned it.

This fact blew my twelve-year-old mind as we drove past the wasteland where Westfield would one day be built. I thought of all the cars I could see, all the cars we’d passed during our journey, and considered the likelihood that the same album was playing in many of them. I thought of all the people in England who’d bought it, and wondered how many were listening to Wonderwall right then at the very same moment as I was. After that conversation, whenever I pressed play to listen to (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, I would imagine other fingers pressing play for the same CD all over the world.

This feeling of being overwhelmed by everyone everywhere doing the same thing as you, which happens to be something that you love, is how I feel now about book clubs. It works on two levels. Firstly, there is the joy of thinking of your own book club, and the various members reading the same book in time for the next meeting. As I read a wonderful sentence, I wonder what another reader will make of it, a reader who is possibly encountering it at the same time. Secondly, and perhaps more profoundly, there is the feeling of people all over the world being part of book clubs: the feeling that while Emily’s Walking Book Club strides across Hampstead Heath, a bunch of people are, say, sitting around a crackling fire in Derbyshire, or at a dinner table in Calgary … or around a coffee table in Tehran.

Reading Lolita in TehranThis is why I picked Reading Lolita in Tehran for the most recent meeting of the walking book club. I was intrigued to read about a book club meeting in very different circumstances.

Azar Nafisi is an Iranian academic, who wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran as a memoir of her time teaching American and English Literature during the Revolution in Iran. It begins by focussing on the ‘book club’ of sorts she set up. Having resigned from the University, Nafisi invited her seven favourite female students to discuss literature every Thursday in her home. We are introduced to her students and the book begins with their discussion about Lolita. As Nafisi guides us through other works of literature – by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen – she steps away from the book club setting, and reflects on her time spent teaching, and reading more generally. An especially dramatic moment is when she puts The Great Gatsby on trial in her university class, and she writes movingly about holding vigil reading Henry James outside her children’s bedroom while bombs from Iraq drop nearby.

It’s an extraordinary period of history and fascinating to read Nafisi’s account of Iran at this time, to discover how exactly it came to be that the women found themselves having to wear headscarves, to read of the terrible ‘morality squads’, as well as details like the homemade vodka in which her husband indulges. Then there is the horror of reading about the suffering endured by many of her students and friends: various combinations of arrest, imprisonment, abuse, torture, rape, and execution.

Woven together with this portrait of Iran, are Nafisi’s readings of the various texts. A theme that runs throughout is the play between reality and fiction – Nafisi’s ‘active withdrawal’ from reality and escape into fiction, and literature’s power to help one cope with difficult circumstances by offering its different worlds.

She emphasises the importance of empathy, how a novel is ‘a sensual experience of another world’, in which you ‘hold your breath with the characters’, and that evil in literature is blindness: ‘the inability to “see” others, hence to empathise with them.’ Nafisi makes the point that:

What is frightening is that this blindness can exist in the best of us (Eliza Bennet) as well as the worst (Humbert).

Elsewhere, she uses Elizabeth Bennet’s blindness to great effect. A student kept on following her to her office and telling her that Jane Austen was anti-Islamic and a colonial writer. Then:

One day, after a really exhausting argument, I told him, Mr. Nahvi, I want to remind you of something: I am not comparing you to Elizabeth Bennet. There is nothing of her in you, to be sure – you are different as man and mouse. But remember how she is obsessed with Darcy, constantly trying to find fault with him, almost cross-examining every new acquaintance to confirm that he is as bad as she thinks? Remember her relations with Wickham? How the basis for her sympathy is not so much her feelings for him as his antipathy for Darcy? Look at how you speak about what you call the West. You can never talk about it without giving it an adjective or an attribute – decadent, vile, corrupt, imperial. Beware of what happened to Elizabeth!

There is an added irony here, because once Reading Lolita in Tehran was published and became such a success, it received some flak for exactly this – focussing so much on Western literature rather than Persian. (You can read more about this in this Slate article here.)

There is a third strand of the book, alongside the readings of literature and portrait of Iran – Nafisi’s own life, and the people in it: her family, friends and students. And I’m afraid I thought (and so did the rest of the walking book club) this was the book’s failing. We all confessed to finding it very hard to differentiate between Nafisi’s students, or indeed to ‘see’ any of the characters in the book. When there is a memorable instance of a student’s response to a novel – like Mr. Nahvi’s above – it is usually a student who is otherwise incidental. (I don’t remember Mr. Nahvi featuring elsewhere.)

The real flaw here lies with Nafisi’s seven students who come to the Thursday literature discussions. We are introduced to them in the opening pages of the book, but they don’t really develop. Various things happen to them: one gets married in Turkey, another has her engagement called off, one has a brother who is horrid to her, another a husband who abuses her, one of them has painted fingernails … but none of us could remember what happened to which woman, or any of their names. Nafisi makes a big point of her girls being able to take off their loose black robes and head scarves when they enter her home to reveal the individuals beneath, in jeans and t-shirts, with their own hair styles and colourful nails. Somehow the book doesn’t quite achieve this derobing, and the women remain swathed in vague blackness.

This is especially problematic as Nafisi makes such a good point about the importance of being an individual:

The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes … My students witnessed it in show trials on television and enacted it every time they went out into the streets dressed as they were told to dress.

She draws a comparison with the scene in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, when Cincinnatus is made to dance with his jailer, and waltzes with him in a circle around a prison guard. This complicity is the ultimate cruelty:

The only way to leave the circle, to stop dancing with the jailer, is to find a way to preserve one’s individuality, that unique quality which evades description but differentiates one human being from the other … There was not much difference between our jailers and Cincinnatus’s executioners. They invaded all private spaces and tried to shape every gesture, to force us to become one of them, and that in itself was another form of execution.

Finding the strength, courage and determination to remain an individual is vital for survival. This is exactly what Nafisi encourages her students to discover in literature: a private world where you can be free to think what you like. Only, Reading Lolita in Tehran is full of Nafisi’s own thoughts on literature, rarely are her students given a voice. And if their thoughts occasionally spill onto the page, then so little else is told about them, that it’s hard to see individual characters emerge from such few words.

Nafisi writes well about the terrifying feeling of ‘irrelevance’ which took hold of her under the new regime. Perhaps this book is too much a statement of her own relevance, rather a record of the voices of the many other women who were forced into silence.

Having said all that, I still think it’s a very thought-provoking and important book. I especially liked Nafisi’s comparison of Pride and Prejudice to an eighteenth-century dance. As ever, I would love to know your thoughts on it. (Or indeed, on a teenage love for Oasis.)

Azar Nafisi

The Member of the Wedding

November 18, 2015

I can’t tell you how delighted I was when someone got in touch out of the blue and asked me if I might do a walking book club for her friend’s hen party. Yes, that’s right, a HEN PARTY. An occasion which usually calls for things like shots, novelty straws, strippers, embarrassing games usually to do with sex, and pink garters… yet here was a lady wanting to organise a hen party where everyone would go for a walk and talk about a book. This was evidently my kind of girl. (You can read about my own very literary hen party here.)

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullersOf course I said yes please, and put my mind to choosing a good book. I settled upon The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers – short, wedding-ish, unusual, and absolutely bloody brilliant.

As the day drew near, I began to feel a little apprehensive. What if everyone turned up smashed? What if nobody liked books, or walks, and were all very cross at discovering this wasn’t actually a hilarious cover for a pole-dancing lesson? It was certainly pretty likely that nobody would have read the book. I scribbled down more notes than usual, prepared to summarise some bits, read other bits aloud, and thought of some suitably vague questions in an attempt not to exclude people who hadn’t read it. When I told friends about what the weekend held in store, they merely laughed and advised me to fill my handbag with rudely-shaped sweets, and booze, ‘just in case’.

You can imagine my relief, then, when the gaggle of girls (plus a couple of boys) turned up looking fresh-faced, full of beans, suitably studious, and with some very fetching dog balloons in tow. The bride looked perplexed. Nobody looked drunk. And to my astonishment EVERYBODY had read the book, even the bride – who had somehow been coerced into it without realising why.

So off we set across Hampstead Heath, the rudely-shaped sweets burning a hole in my pocket and now seeming wildly inappropriate. I was relieved that I’d also thought to bring along some less offensively shaped almond biscuits baked by the husband.

The Member of the Wedding took Carson McCullers (a woman – she dropped her first name ‘Lula’ when she was 13) five years to write and was first published in 1946.

Frankie wants to be a ‘member of the wedding’. She sees her brother, who’s just come back from Alaska, with his fiancé and realises:

They are the we of me. Yesterday, and all the twelve years of her life, she had only been Frankie. She was an I person who had to walk around and do things by herself. All other people had a we to claim, all other except her.

Frankie wants to be part of something which, of course, she can’t be. It’s a desire that ripples through the novel. Frankie is left out by the older girls, who ‘said she was too young and mean’ to join the clubhouse where they have parties with boys on Saturday nights, but is also ‘too tall this summer to walk beneath the arbour as she had always done before’ with the other younger children. She is caught between youth and adulthood, not allowed to be a member of either. So McCullers lets her novel take the appealing form of a coming-of-age story.

‘They are the we of me’ is such a haunting phrase. Made up of single syllables, with a simple rhyme, it harnesses both the shining naivete and the fervent belief of childhood. It is painful in its purity. Here McCullers has put simply a feeling from which we all suffer – an acute desire to belong to something to which we feel a kinship. And, of course, the phrase conjures its shadow of impending exclusion.

These twin forces of connexion (McCullers spells it with an x) and exclusion are at play throughout the novel. They are there with Frankie and her brother’s wedding and there in Frankie’s in-between state of not-quite-child-not-quite adulthood.

They are also there when it comes to race. In Ali Smith’s superb introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, she points out that Carson McCullers railed against the racism of the American South even as a child, ‘yelling with rage at the taxi driver who had refused to take her parents’ black cook in his cab.’ Frankie is refreshingly colour-blind, having a close bond with her family’s black cook Berenice, and, when she walks through the town, McCullers writes that ‘she crossed the unseen line’ which divides it into its black and white areas.

Towards the end of the book, there’s a powerful scene when Frankie is sitting around the kitchen table with Berenice and John Henry, her much younger cousin. Frankie has determined to leave home and so:

On this last evening, the last time with the three of them together in the kitchen, she felt there was some final thing she ought to say or do before she went away.

The atmosphere is portentous, as though Frankie is just on the verge of a discovery, is about to say something of weight:

Strange words were flowering in her throat and now was the time for her to name them.

‘This,’ she said. ‘I see a green tree. And to me it is green. And you would call the tree green also. And we would agree on this. But is this colour you see as green the same colour I see as green? Or say we both call a colour black. But how do we know that what you see as black is the same colour I see as black?’

McCullers is canny in her choice of colours: green points to Frankie’s own greenness, her youth and naivete, and black could not be more loaded, especially as this is said to Berenice, the black cook. A little later in their conversation, Berenice says that she is ‘caught worse than you is’:

Because I am black … Because I am coloured. Everybody is caught one way or another. But they done drawn completely extra bounds around all coloured people. They done squeezed us off in one corner by ourself … Sometimes it just about more than we can stand.

So McCullers uses Frankie’s ‘flowering’ of new words and feelings and womanhood as a means of discussing racism. She shows that colour is a deceptive means of bringing people together: ‘we would agree’ on a tree being green, but ‘how do we know that what you see as black is the same colour I see as black?’

This idea of miscommunication and understanding different meanings from the same word appears again when Frankie meets a soldier. He asks her:

‘Who is a cute dish?’

We get the flirtation, but Frankie is puzzled:

There were no dishes on the table and she had the uneasy feeling that he had begun to talk a kind of double-talk.

This ‘double-talk’ gets a whole lot worse later, but I must avoid spoilers.

Really The Member of the Wedding is ‘double-talk’ writ large. It purports to be a simple coming-of-age story about twelve-year-old Frankie, but in fact Carson McCullers addresses racism, death, The Second World War, and, perhaps more profoundly, these universal ideas which are so painful to read about because they are so acutely observed: the fact that we all misunderstand each other, the fact that we all want to belong to things from which we are excluded.

We all had a great deal to say as we strode across the Heath on this literary hen party. The discussion grew especially impassioned as we talked about the violence that punctuates the book … but then, quite suddenly, everyone was laughing. I turned round to see what had happened, surely not everyone found the ‘cute dish’ pun as funny as all that?

A naïve dog had been charmed by a particularly attractive canine balloon. The dog was now sniffing the balloon’s bottom, looking disappointed and more than a little confused. Poor dog, I thought. No doubt, he had seen the doggy balloons and thought, They are the we of me.

dog balloon

The Bell

July 20, 2015

What a lot has happened over the past few weeks!

We all went on holiday to Italy, which ought to have been heavenly – I was envisioning a kind of Enchanted April situation, with the addition of a rather squidgy Vita sitting in the shade making sweet gurgling noises – but alas it was broilingly hot, we had a laughably terrible journey, a scorpion took to sauntering around Vita’s cot, she got horribly, worryingly ill with tonsillitis so none of us slept for days as she cried rather heartbreakingly pathetically all night, and, the last straw, I trod on a wasp.

We came home early, all absolute wrecks, and were put back together again by a combination of mothers, doctors, and antibiotics. Emilybooks has resolved that from 2016, we will adopt a strict policy of staycationing during the summer months.

On the up side, as we came home early, I was around and able to write this big feature about the controversial new Harper Lee book, Go Set a Watchman for the Daily Mail.

From one Murdoch to another …

The Bell by Iris MurdochThe Bell by Iris Murdoch was mostly read while I was covered in Vita-vom, with eyes propped open with matchsticks, yet, still, it was a triumph.

It is a shame that Iris Murdoch has fallen so out of fashion. She tends to be dismissed as someone who created ‘novels of ideas’. Such an idiotic phrase! Aren’t all novels filled with ideas? And, surely, it ought to be a compliment in any case?

Well The Bell is bursting with ideas, and, the conclusion from yesterday’s walking book club is that we could have done with another few hours to discuss them all – so much was there to say.

Dora Greenfield, of whom I am rather fond, is a young Bohemian and errant wife. We meet her as she is returning to her (awful) husband, who is staying and working in the archives of an eccentric lay community set up beside Imber Abbey. Here, a collection of misfits is gathered to try to pursue a spiritual life in a beautiful house adjoining the abbey. They do things like cultivate a market garden, listen to a Bach gramophone recital, and sermonise. There is a lake in the grounds, and vigorous, idealistic young Toby, come to stay at Imber before going up to Oxford, shares Iris Murdoch’s love of swimming. When diving in the lake he discovers a medieval bell, which used to belong to the Abbey. So Dora and Toby hatch a plan to swap the new bell which is due to arrive at the Abbey with the old …

Murdoch gives us a rich assortment of characters in her community. Different chapters are focalised through the viewpoints of Dora, Toby and Michael. Michael is one of the leaders of the community and is struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. There are also several others – including the mysterious Catherine, who is to become a nun; her brother Nick, a depressive drunk who Michael used to teach and with whom he was – perhaps still is – in love; busybody Mrs Mark, naturalist Peter, charismatic James Tayper Pace … and a few more. Very cleverly, Murdoch never gives us the perspective of these characters: they are closed, seen only through the eyes of Dora, Toby or Michael. This means that when dramatic things happen late in the book to Nick and to Catherine (I won’t spoil it for you), they come as a complete shock and cast a new light on what has come before. It is perhaps a warning about the subjectivity of experience. It is certainly a means of showing us how very separate and enclosed are her characters’ different perspectives on the world.

Middlemarch by George EliotIt reminds me of a great bit of Middlemarch – a ‘pregnant fact’ to which Eliot draws our attention:

Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person…

Eliot essentially suggests that each character in a novel is like the ‘little sun’ of a candle flame, making the chaos of scratches appear to align concentrically around it – as events can seem to align around one character; but if seen from another character’s point of view, the events all line up completely differently. The Bell is, to my mind, a novel which shows this phenomenon better than any other – each character has such a particular, different take on events, and Murdoch’s clever way of showing us into the minds of three of them, and not into the minds of the others, allows her to pull it off with great panache.

This idea of lots of little separate worlds all coexisting, as seen in the characters’ viewpoints, can be extended in the novel. There is the closed world of Imber, and within that the world of the Abbey. There is also this rather beautiful description of Toby’s swimming in the lake:

He stood, poised on the brink, looking down. The centre of the lake was glittering, colourlessly brilliant, but along the edge the green banks could be seen reflected and the blue sky, the colours clear yet strangely altered into the colours of a dimmer and more obscure world: the charm of swimming in still waters, that sense of passing through the looking-glass, of disturbing and yet entering that other scene that grows out of the roots of this one. Toby took a step or two and hurled himself in.

Toby seems to keep on hurling himself through barriers into enclosed spaces, other worlds. There is another moment when he climbs over the Abbey wall; there are his forays into the different worlds of homosexuality and heterosexuality, and the latter even takes him into the cavernous bell itself (you have to read the book really for that to make sense).

All these little worlds alongside each other is perhaps why sound plays such a strong part in The Bell. Birdsong, the Bach gramophone recital, singing the madrigals, the dreadful portentous bark of a dog at the end, and the great tolling of the bell – Murdoch conjures Imber as much through its sounds as anything else. Not only does this appeal to our aural sense make Imber all the more vivid, but Murdoch’s use of sound is pertinent because sound is something that can surmount barriers, can cross between the worlds: you can’t see what’s behind a wall, but you can hear what’s behind it. When Dora rings the bell, everyone is summoned, from all their different enclosures, and the following day hundreds of people are there to witness the bell ceremony. Sound is a great unifier in this novel of so many separations.

There is much more, but I think I must leave it there or risk droning on for too long. Suffice to say The Bell is just brilliant. It may feel quite dated, but it also is funny, clever, thoughtful and eccentric. I can see why many people say this is their favourite of Iris Murdoch’s books. Though if I were to be completely honest, love it though I did, my all time favourite has got to be Iris Murdoch’s first novel – also funny, clever, thoughtful and eccentric, but more picaresque and very Londony – Under the Net.

As ever, I’d love to know any of your own Murdochian thoughts in the comments below…

Iris Murdoch photographed by Mark Gerson in 1958 - the year The Bell was published (National Portrait Gallery)

Iris Murdoch photographed by Mark Gerson in 1958 – the year The Bell was published

Little Boy Lost

June 17, 2015

Little Boy Lost by Marganita LaskiLittle Boy Lost by Marganita Laski was the book for discussion on Sunday’s Walking Book Club. It was a drizzly day but actually the weather was to thank for a particularly pretty walk, as we found a sheltered route which took us off to quiet and wild bits of the Heath, as opposed to our usual busy Parliament Hill climb.

Little Boy Lost is published by the wonderful Persephone Books, known for publishing ‘domestic’ fiction, largely about women in the early- to mid-twentieth century. Somewhat unexpectedly then, Little Boy Lost, though written by a woman, is about a man.

Hilary, a poet and intellectual, goes to France after the Second World War to look for his lost son. He has only seen his son once, as a baby. Through various complicated backstory twists, his son, now a child, is somewhere unknown in France. Pierre, the husband of a friend of Hilary’s wife, turns up and explains that it has become his life’s mission to discover the whereabouts of the missing boy. Later, when Pierre thinks he might have found the boy, Hilary is summoned to France to try to identify him.

One of the biggest questions in the book is whether or not the boy is Hilary’s son. Will Hilary recognise a family resemblance or mannerism? Will the boy remember anything about his earlier childhood, or his mother? What counts as conclusive proof? Hilary is adamant that he will only look after the boy if he is his son.

Of course when we meet the boy in the orphanage, a poor little thing in ill-fitting clothes: ‘its sleeves were too short and from them dangled red swollen hands too big for the frail wrists’, he is so pitiable with his poor circumstances and good nature that we long for Hilary to take care of him, regardless of his parentage.

Laski has set up a tricky opposition here: the reader wants Hilary to adopt little Jean, and yet Hilary stubbornly persists in searching for proof that he’s his son. So we don’t particularly like Hilary, for this seemingly selfish behaviour against this child’s innocence, and I know you’re never supposed to say things like you don’t like a character, or found a book difficult for not liking a character, but surely it is vital to empathise with a novel’s main protagonist, and when the main protagonist persists in not doing what you want him to do, this can be problematic.

So, why does Hilary act so selfishly? Why does it matter so much to him that the boy is his? In part, he is scared of reawakening his emotional life. He catches himself daydreaming of a happy scene of reunion with the boy:

It would be wonderful beyond words, he told himself dreamily – and then he realised what he was thinking. It can never be like that, he said, there is nothing left in me to make it possible that it should be like that. The traitor emotions of love and tenderness and pity must stay dead in me. I could not endure them to live and then die again.

After Lisa’s death, he thought:

It would have been better never to have been happy, never to have felt love and tenderness and all those things, than to have known them and then lost them.

Pierre points out, ‘if the boy is found, those things will be found again too.’ Then:

‘I don’t want them,’ Hilary cried harshly. ‘…I couldn’t endure being hurt again; I’d sooner feel nothing.’

So Hilary is afraid of feeling, of opening himself up to being hurt again. If the boy isn’t his son, then he is let off the hook.

Hilary hunts about for other reasons too. There is a terrible moment when he says to Pierre that he is afraid of claiming the wrong boy, in case his actual son would then ‘turn up somewhere quite different’. Pierre assures him this won’t happen:

Not if I can help it, he added to himself. Not through him would Hilary ever know of the boy who mouthed and whimpered in an asylum at Tours, who could well, for dates and blood-tests and all that was known of his history, be Hilary’s son. Nor would he tell him of the little boy who was now the sole consolation of the parents near Lyons whose own two boys had been caught by the Gestapo and tortured before they died…

This glimpse of the stories of these other boys opens out Hilary’s quest to encompass, in a flash, the fate of the many many other children and families whose lives were turned upside down by war. Elizabeth Bowen wrote in her review that this is the story of ‘every lost child of Europe’, and certainly here you suddenly see the awful bigger picture. I found this to be one of the most moving moments of the book, made all the more so by the way it was casually thrown in, almost in parentheses.

Why else does Laski choose to put Hilary in such a predicament about the boy? Early in the novel, Pierre tells Hilary about a conversation he had with his wife in which she argued for the importance of acting as an individual rather than subordinating your morality to a group.

The only good thing we can do, the only goodness we can be sure of, is our own goodness as individuals and the good that we can do individually. As groups we often do evil that good may come and very often the good does not come and all that is left is the evil we have pointlessly done.

Perhaps this – being sure of doing good as an individual – is the underlying philosophical wrestle of the novel. Leaving aside Hilary and his son for a moment, Laski also portrays the complex moral situation of being in France during and immediately after the War. Hilary asks Pierre, ‘Don’t you wonder, with every stranger you meet, what he did under the Occupation?’ Pierre replies:

We each did under the Germans what we were capable of doing; what that was, was settled long before they arrived.

This is a terrible thought: it isn’t war which forces you to act badly, rather the war brings to the fore a predetermined aspect of your character. I couldn’t help but think here of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, in which the protagonist finds himself acting heroically because of the war even though he feels himself not to be a hero:

Now he found himself the leader of a thousand men who were strangely leading him to be all the many things he was not.

It’s the opposite perspective. In The Narrow Road, this realisation happens when the protagonist turns down an offering of steak, in spite of the fact he is starving in a POW camp, and insists on it being shared out. Hilary in Little Boy Lost, by contrast, tucks into Black Market steak at a French hotel, managing to assuage his guilt about the terrible deprivation of the orphanage rather easily.

Little Boy Lost is a novel about how an individual makes choices, how his moral compass swings and wavers during and after the War. We walking book club readers all wanted Hilary to adopt the boy regardless of his parentage, as do many of the respectable characters in the novel, but Laski insists on Hilary choosing for himself, as an individual, rather than giving into pressure from anyone else (the reader, or another character). The decision, when it happens at last, is all the more powerful for being self-determined.

I suppose ‘what you would have done in the War?’ is one of those questions that everyone asks themselves, wondering how we’d behave when challenged to the core by such a dreadful situation. Laski shows us here that it isn’t just wartime that provides a challenge; big difficult decisions persist and we must choose what we – as individuals – feel to be good.

(By the way, here is a piece about collecting rare books which I wrote for the latest issue of The Spectator.)

The Daunt Books Festival

March 31, 2015

The good news is that Vita is sleeping much better at night. This means that we had some friends round the other evening and I managed to have a conversation – a real conversation in which I was able to process what my friends had to say and then respond, perhaps not in a particularly nuanced fashion, but it was certainly better than staring mutely as their words drifted past while my head was filled instead with a mixture of Vita’s delightful antics and a neurotic exhausted obsession with the possibility of sleep. This means that in the morning I am able to speak before knocking back a cup of tea. This means I can get to places on time, rather than half an hour late. This means that the unreal static haze that had descended over everything has lifted. This means wonder.

This means, however, that she sleeps less during the day. I had got used to the luxury of her naps (which at their best went on for four whole hours, but even at their worst lasted for a solid hour), but now these have shrunk to half hour glimpses of freedom, in which I just have time to get the boring stuff like laundry done before she reawakens. So my reading has never been so fragmented and scarce. And the writing – pah – the most I can manage is to respond to an email. It seems as though the written word is like the slim wild grasses which cling to acres of dusty sand dunes. A sparse promise of the pastures that await … though I needn’t wait for long as Vita’s grannies are going to start looking after her a little bit every week.

So my apologies for the long absence of a blog post. These will become regular again just as soon as life with Vita settles down a bit.

In the meantime, I thought perhaps you might like an insider’s account of The Daunt Books Festival, which happened on the 19th and 20th March – two very long days in which Vita and her grannies became intimately acquainted …

This is a very long blog post to make up for the surrounding lack thereof. So please feel free to take a break half-way through and consume it in two chunks.

Daunt Festival 2015 pic

I have been working steadily on The Daunt Books Festival since August, with a little gap around Vita’s birth, and then sudden bursts of activity when needs be, such as when writing the programmes (a sign of my not being on the best of forms was that we got the first thousand printed with 2014 on the front instead of 2015) and the flurry of last-minute organisation in the week of the festival itself. Suddenly, after a million emails, it was the night before, and I was in the bookshop, and it felt like being a child on Christmas Eve. We hung up copious amounts of yellow bunting, arranged daffodils and made everything look pretty. Perhaps it was less fun for the men who put out all the very heavy chairs, and I have to say cleaning the loos is never my favourite job, but there was something rather satisfying about the sparkle at the end. I hurried home to a late supper of fish fingers and felt terribly excited.

Alex Clark, Samantha Ellis and Anne Sebba

Then there was the terrific thrill the next morning as people began to arrive and I had the thought ‘this is happening, this is actually happening’ again and again. We had unbelievably delicious treats from Honey & Co for the first event ‘Choosing your Heroines’ with Samantha Ellis (whose very charming book How to be a Heroine you can read about here) and Anne Sebba – biographer of many real-life heroines, chaired by the awe-inspiringly clever critic Alex Clark. It was a wonderful opener, and I’m honoured to say you can read more about it on the TLS blog here.

Tim Dee and William Fiennes

Afterwards, we had Tim Dee and William Fiennes (with Monocle Café macaroons) talking eloquently about nature and birds, and also very fascinatingly about language. I loved the way they talked about ‘human nature’ in particular. It was especially impressive as William Fiennes had had a baby just two weeks ago! And there he was having a very clever conversation with no trouble at all…

Rachel Cooke and Virginia Nicholson

Next up were Virginia Nicholson and Rachel Cooke discussing women of the fifties with the aid of Ginger Pig sausage rolls. It was completely brilliant and they managed not to be derailed by hecklers – one lady in the audience stood up and rather laid into them for talking about a woman’s life as though it were an interesting specimen of the time rather than a poor soul suffering emotional abuse. It got quite hairy and dissent threatened to spread, but the duo dealt with it admirably and the talk continued, with everyone staying on their toes rather than slumping too far into the comfort of 1950s nostalgia, which was I think for the best.

By this point, I was struggling to sit upright as so much milk had collected into my Vita-less breasts. So I left Brett to commandeer the musical interlude – some talented Royal Academy students performing their own quite amazing interpretation of Alice in Wonderland – while I hid in the basement, apron on, pump out, squeezing the squeaky thing away and filling up a couple of bottles of the good stuff much to the amusement, interest and perhaps faint disgust of my fellow booksellers. Time too to gobble a sandwich and, though I am ashamed to admit my gluttony, another half a sausage roll, before listening to Michael Rosen, translator Anthea Bell and chair Julia Eccleshare discussing Erich Kastner and other German children’s classics.

Then the evening events. First Owen Jones electrified the room with Owen Hatherley. I think everyone was taken aback by how young they both were, and how clever and right on and so very left-wing that some of the audience got rather hot under the collar. Alas I had to miss a chunk of this while I was downstairs pumping again, but the bit I saw had such an atmosphere, you felt almost as though you were on the edge of a revolution. While this crowd then queued up for forty-five minutes for Owen Jones to sign their books and shake their hands, an almost entirely new crowd flooded in for Lady Antonia Fraser talking to Valerie Grove about her childhood. It was a lovely talk, and blimey the tone couldn’t have been more different – it was very funny to listen to her clipped accent discussing her wartime childhood after Owen Jones’ more colloquial polemic about our political future.

We had a bit of a clear up and managed to leave by ten thirty, and I returned home to a night of rather interrupted sleep as Vita seemed hungrier than ever and rather keen to nestle close after our day apart.

**** This might be where you’d like to take a break and return to part two another time. ****

Emily's festival walking book club

The next morning and I was reminded of the horror of commuting via Highbury & Islington during rush hour, and how horrid everyone is on the tube when you aren’t pregnant or carrying a baby. I arrived rather frazzled but was put in a much better mood as the gang assembled for a special Emily’s Walking Book Club around Regent’s Park (thanks to Emma for the lovely photos). I hadn’t realised the solar eclipse was to happen a quarter of an hour before we started but it was so cloudy nothing much happened anyway. It was bitingly cold, but we were sustained by delicious biscuits from La Fromagerie. We discussed Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (more on that here) and it struck me that maybe Comyns’ unique, unnervingly dismissive tone which is so thunderstrikingly powerful is the sad reason that she’s so overlooked. If she had written it more seriously, more chest-puffing-outily, more arrogantly and self-importantly, then perhaps the establishment would sit up and listen rather than brush it to one side. The irony is, of course, that its brilliance lies in its understatement. Not unlike the great Penelope Fitzgerald.

I returned, rather rosy cheeked, to the bookshop where I bumped into a dear friend who’s moved to San Francisco. He said he thought he’d drop in as he was in the area and couldn’t believe that there was my pic in the window saying sold out right next to Michael Palin who was also sold out. I neglected to explain to him that there were rather fewer spaces for the walking book club than for Michael Palin, and for a moment felt very grand indeed.

short stories signing

The two lunchtime talks were ‘In Praise of Short Stories’ (with Rococo hot chocolate) and ‘Russians in Paris’ (with La Fromagerie Bakewell tarts) – both excellent, indeed so good that it made me think next year perhaps we should ditch the 45 minute lunchtime limit and stretch them out as I could have sat there all afternoon listening and felt a bit cross when they had to stop. I adored listening to Tessa Hadley (who, wonderfully, had spent the whole of the previous day at the festival and – great literary trivia here – is Tim Dee’s cousin), the very charming Colin Barrett and talented new writer Julianne Pachico read their work. Their event was chaired by Laura Macaulay, who runs the publishing side of things at Daunt and is a great friend, and was a most excellent chair.

For ‘Russians in Paris’ we had the very bright young translator Bryan Karetnyk and the ebullient Peter Pomerantsev talking to brainbox Nick Lezard about Russian émigré writers of the 1920s who ended up in Paris, specifically Gazdanov (see here) and Teffi. It was a fascinating glimpse of this scene, about which I knew very little. Peter Pomerantsev was very funny, and was very embarrassed when he realised he’d been calling Bryan ‘Boris’ for half of the talk.

Then, what joy, the husband brought in Vita so I could have a little cuddle and – more importantly – be thoroughly drained by her rather than the squeaky, less effective, pump. So I missed most of the musical interlude, which was a wind trio performing some fun pieces starring Daunt’s very own Toby Thatcher. It was both heaven and hell to see Vita, and I felt a little glum as I said goodbye to her again, but was cheered by the sudden influx of children for our Robert Muchamore teen event, and most of all by interviewer Philip Womack’s beautiful dog, who was terribly sweet and behaved beautifully while Philip interviewed him (Muchamore, not the dog, who is a girl anyway) admirably. It was amazing to see all the children on the edge of their seats, so excited to meet this icon, and excitedly donning wristbands and grabbing stickers as he signed their books afterwards.

Spies in Fact and fiction

Then for ‘Spies in Fact and Fiction’ – one of my favourite events – as historian Christopher Andrew and thriller writer Charles Cumming talked to James Naughtie. What an amazing man James Naughtie is. He arrived a little early and sat down rather exhaustedly. It had been a long day he said. Tell me about it, I thought, remembering little Vita flapping her arms and wailing every two hours during the very short night, before he confessed to having been up at three to do the Today programme. He wins. He also managed to get the panel to be terrifically indiscreet and let slip a few secrets … which I oughtn’t repeat here though I was lurking near a journalist from The Times, who assiduously scribbled everything down. Everyone said what a brilliant combination of speakers it was, and told me how clever I’d been to put them together. Not nearly as clever as the chaps on stage, I thought, but nevertheless I felt very pleased that it had worked so well.

Then the finale! Brett (who is the wonderful manager of Daunt’s, and indeed started the bookshop with James Daunt) managed to interview Michael Palin, while dealing with all the sound stuff too. He also made a fuss over me and I got some beautiful roses which made me feel very special indeed. It was a fantastic finale. Brett steered the conversation over very literary ground, so we heard all about Michael Palin’s admiration for Hemingway, what he reads when he travels, and how he goes about capturing places both on paper and on film, rather than his Python years. What came across perhaps above and beyond anything else is that Michael Palin has got to be the nicest man on the planet.

And then, just like that, it was over. I folded up the bunting. The chairs went back to the basement, the tables were repositioned, books laid out, wine glasses collected … and whereas last year at the end I felt terribly sad that it was all over for a whole year, this year, the delight of going home to darling little Vita sweetened the pill.

If you’d like to read still more about the festival, Alice at OfBooks has written about it here, and here it is on Life is a Festival too.

I hope you have a lovely, chocolate-filled and literary Easter, and Emilybooks will be back, less sporadically, soon after.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

February 27, 2015

Talk about best-laid plans … I had Tuesday set aside to write this, with Vita’s granny coming to look after the terrorbot for a few hours to give me a bit of time and space to think about the finer points of Italian fiction, when what happens? The lurgi strikes! And so most of Tuesday was spent asleep and the days since have been semi-asleep and semi-entertaining Vita, who is sleeping rather less than we’d like. Still, it has not been unpleasant – the husband has stepped in and taken her with him on errands (who needs Gymboree when there’s Leylands?), and even when I’ve been feeling grotty, it is terribly sweet listening to her gurgle. She is busy mastering ‘vvvvvvv’ and ‘fffffff’ and ‘boof’ sounds at the moment. If it weren’t for all the raspberries that intersperse said noises, I would have thought she might be composing her first poem.

So I hope you will excuse yet another belated post.

The Garden of the Finzi-ContinisLast Sunday, the walking book club strode across a windy and weather-worsening Hampstead Heath discussing Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

The book is rather more taxing than my usual picks and there were stirrings of dissent as many walkers complained about Bassani’s never-ending, clause-upon-clause-upon-clause sentences, and how hard it had been to ‘get into’ the book. My heart sank somewhat as I listened to the grumbles for I could only agree – whilst re-reading the novel in preparation for the meeting, I’d spent the first fifty pages or so wondering how I’d managed to misremember this plodding dull novel as being poignant and wonderful.

Luckily, everyone agreed that the book gets much better, and by the time the narrator and Micol are playing tennis, they were all thoroughly engrossed. In fact, they were grateful that the book club had provided an incentive to stick with it, thereby discovering a brilliant, very moving novel that would stick with them forever. I am all for giving up on a book if you’re not enjoying it, but perhaps this is a useful reminder of the importance of giving it a good shot – 100 pages is usually a safe bet – before deciding whether or not to put it aside.

Key to the The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is its structure. It begins with a Prologue and ends with an Epilogue; the main chunk is set further back in the past and feels neatly contained within these formal boundaries. In the Prologue, the narrator visits some Etruscan tombs, which prompts him to remember the monumental tomb of the Finzi-Continis:

And my heartstrings tightened as never before at the thought that in that tomb, established, it seemed, to guarantee the perpetual repose of its first occupant – of him, and his descendants – only one, of all the Finzi-Continis I had known and loved, had actually achieved this repose. Only Alberto had been buried there, the oldest, who died in 1942 of a lymphogranuloma, whilst Micol, the daughter, born second, and their father Ermanno, and their mother Signora Olga, and Signora Regina, her ancient paralytic mother, were all deported to Germany in the autumn of 1943, and no one knows whether they have any grave at all.

Well, you can see why there were complaints about the lengthy sentences …

You can also see that in one sense, Bassani tells us the end right at the beginning, and the grim fate of the Finzi-Contini family falls over the whole book. So this makes us suspect, then, that it’s not going to be so much about the terrible things that history has in store for them – unless Bassani means to totally ruin the suspense – but rather what happens first, what can be salvaged from the precious years before their untimely death, the private story that would otherwise be brushed aside by history’s grand sweep.

The narrator takes us back to his youth, and after a while spent on his early encounters with the Finzi-Contini family, we hit the moment when their acquaintanceship turns to profound friendship. (This is when the book starts to pick up.) The Italian Racial Laws of 1938 prevented Jews from doing all sorts of things, and this is felt in Ferrara not least in Jews being forced to stop using the country club. So the (Jewish) Finzi-Continis invite the city’s young Jews to use their own private tennis court. The narrator comes along to play tennis and is soon in love with the daughter Micol. From this, he develops a bond with the whole family, as he uses the father’s library, and talks politics with the brother.

Bassani makes the book two things at once: a story of the tender pain of first love and a harrowing depiction of the situation of Italy’s Jews in the late 1930s. The personal is entwined with the political. This is easier said than done – it is all too easy to write historical novels in which the context weighs down the story so that you feel like you’re drowning in the author’s research notes (c.f. A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book). With Bassani, however, we are encouraged to think more about the joy of being young in the seemingly enchanted garden of the Finzi-Continis than the politics which get the narrator there in the first place. One walker said she’d had to keep turning back to double-check she’d read it correctly, as she’d been so unnerved by the way Bassani so matter-of-factly dropped in devastating instances of Jewish exclusion from society.

We discussed at length the many images of containment and circles that appear in the book. There are the walls of Ferrara, the walls of the garden, and even the ‘circolo’s – literally ‘circles’ but meaning ‘clubs’ from which Jews are being expelled. I stumbled across this very good essay by Adam Kirsch about the novel, in which he pointed to this quotation from Henry James:

Really, universally, relations stop nowhere and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, a circle within which they appear to do so.

It’s a brilliant quote!

Kirsch argues that Bassani’s very self-conscious structuring of the novel with Prologue and Epilogue is his method of drawing this circle, and the reason it is so laboured (e.g. the Epilogue begins: ‘The story of my relationship with Micol Finzi-Contini ends here.’) is because he is drawing the circumference of the novel ‘in defiance’ of the historical circumference, which ends, as we know, with her deportation to Germany and grave-less death. Bassani is drawing a circle around the precious moments of youth and first love, as a means of defying the greater circle of history.

It’s a neat argument. And yet, however well Bassani has written it as a love story, protecting it within so many defensive circles, history is still glimpsed through the chinks in the walls. For instance, when the narrator pauses on his bicycle:

I stopped beneath a tree – one of those old trees, lindens, elms, plane trees, horse chestnuts which, a dozen years later, in the frozen winter of Stalingrad, would be sacrificed for firewood, but which in 1929 still raised their great umbrellas of greenery high above the city’s ramparts.

In something as innocent as a tree, we are given a flash of the horrors that are to come.

Short, unlaboured moments like this litter the text, jolting you out of the oasis of youthful romance, and making the narrator’s loss of innocence all the more poignant for being in the context of the world’s horrific loss of innocence. The mentions of historical context feel artfully oppressive, as though the walls are closing in and the world will soon implode … as indeed it will.

As we walked across the Heath and looked down on London below, I thought that this feeling of the book was similar to the feeling I had when walking through Lucca – the Italian walled city (not unlike Ferrara), where Emilybooks spent a blissful couple of months last year. As you walk through the streets, you can never completely lose yourself in the city as the walls are always there surrounding you. You meander along, wiggling and winding and thinking you’re lost and then all of a sudden there’s the wall. It vanishes only for a moment before reappearing in the distance as you enter a square, or there at the end of an alley. When you’re in the city, you are never free of its walls. So, as we walk through his novel, Bassani never lets us entirely disappear into the love story – like the city walls, history is never out of sight for long.

The next walking book club will be a Daunt Books Festival special – discussing the wonderful Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns as we wander through Regent’s Park. You can book your place (as well as get tickets for all the other talks) here.

Giorgio Bassani

Love and Summer … and other books of the summer

September 8, 2014

September is here and Emilybooks is back! And the sunshine means that life doesn’t feel too horribly back-to-schooly, though I have only just managed to resist the annual urge to go out and buy a pencil case and other snazzy new stationery.

I hope you had a good book-filled August. Mine was a feast of reading delights, which included:

The Sound and the FuryThe Sound and the Fury by Faulkner. A bookshop colleague’s favourite book, therefore a must-read. I think I was only just up to the challenge, however, for it is a strange narrative and demands a great deal of careful attention and work from the reader … Ultimately it is of course a brilliant, unusual and memorable book – well worth persevering with, but perhaps it wasn’t the right pick for a holiday read.

High Wages by Dorothy Whipple. This was read almost entirely on a train journey from Cornwall to London, while sitting opposite the husband who was ensconced in another excellent Persephone BookThe Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. About half-way through, we discovered some surprisingly yummy cheese on toast was available from the buffet car and so sat there in heaven, noses in beautiful grey covers, scoffing delicious snacks and even more delicious words. Best train journey ever.

The Dud Avocado.inddThe Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy. Another wonderful feel-good book. You cannot fail to warm to the exuberant and charmingly disorganised Sally Jay Gorce, whose voice leaps off the page and races through you like the thousand volts she feels when Larry touches her hand over coffee one morning, when she is, of course, in her evening dress because all her other clothes are still at the laundry. It’s the ultimate girl-about-town novel, set in Paris in the fifties and as I read it, mostly in the bath, with my sizeable bump kicking away, I felt the peculiarly pleasant tug of nostalgia and longing for those wild days of disorganised freedom now well and truly gone.

H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Have you seen all the rave reviews for this? The last time I saw such a fuss about an unusual-sounding hard-to-pin-down non-fiction book was for Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. So of course I had to read it. And it is indeed staggeringly good.

Helen Macdonald is overwhelmed by grief after her father dies and so decides to buy and train a goshawk. Yes, I know, for many of us that’s not the most obvious decision, but Helen has been hooked on hawks from a young age, so to her it makes sense. So Mabel enters the scene, with her feathers:

the colour of sunned newsprint, of tea-stained paper … patterned with a shower of falling raindrops … [and with] a strange grey tint to her that is felt, rather than seen, a kind of silvery light like a rainy sky reflected from the surface of a river.

Helen retreats from other people and becomes almost part-hawk herself as she trains Mabel. It is an astonishing piece of writing about the special intimacy of a relationship with an animal, along the lines of books like Gavin Maxwell’s The Ring of Bright Water. But the book it really draws upon is T.H. White’s The Goshawk, which I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read. Fear not, for Helen tells us the haunting story of T.H. White’s life and his goshawk as we go.

It’s not easy to explain why this book about hawks and death and T.H. White is quite so brilliant, just as it was hard to pinpoint what was so great about a book about a family history and a load of netsuke, but then I rather like that difficulty. For it means that only those with a true sense of curiosity and an urge to take a risk on something unusual will get to read H is for Hawk. And perhaps it’s only them who deserve the fruits of such a wonderful book.

Love and Summer by William TrevorFinally, Emily’s Walking Book Club met yesterday for a meander across Hampstead Heath while discussing William Trevor’s Love and Summer. Though it took me some time to get into the book – I needed a little while to adjust to the slow pace of 1950s rural Irish life and the fragmented style that sees each short chapter concern itself with a different character – once I was in, I loved it. This seemed to be the consensus amongst the walking book clubbers too.

It is a doomed love story. Florian Kilderry cycles into the quiet village of Rathmoye and asks directions from Ellie Dillahan. Ellie was a foundling, brought up in a convent. She went to work as a servant for Dillahan, whose wife and child were killed in an accident on his farm, and then married him. She is ‘content but for her childlessness’, working efficiently on the farm and looking after her husband, until she finds herself haunted by this meeting with a stranger. He invades her thoughts:

Fourteen more eggs had been laid and she collected them in the cracked brown bowl that had become part of her daily existence. Closing the gate again when she left the crab-apple orchard, she slipped the loop of chain over the gatepost. He had a way of hesitating before he spoke, of looking away for a moment and then looking back. He had a way of holding a cigarette. When he’d offered her one he’d tapped one out of the packet for himself and hadn’t lit it. The rest of the time he was with her he’d held it, unlit, between his fingers.

Slowly, both hands clasped round the brown egg-bowl, she returned to the house.

The relationship between Ellie and Florian develops and they take to meeting in the crumbling gate-lodge of a derelict grand old house. But they are not wholly unobserved. Local busybody Miss Connulty sees they are up to no good, and the crazy old wise man Orpen Wells, who lives in a confused timeless world, senses something is up too. Florian’s intentions aren’t particularly honourable, planning on selling up his own decaying house, inherited from his bohemian parents, and leaving for Scandinavia; he is not so much in love with Ellie as enjoying her innocent love for him. We know it can only end badly … and yet, this is what is so clever about the book: although the atmosphere is suffused with the quiet melancholy of sadness and compromise, subtle strains of happiness begin to surface.

Take busybody Miss Connulty, for instance. When she was a young woman, a doomed love affair meant her father took her to have an abortion. Her mother called them both murderers and then spent the rest of her life punishing them. Her mother’s funeral is at the beginning of the novel and so, at last, Miss Connulty is able to come into her own, running the family’s guest house how she’d like, rather than according to her mother’s instructions, and wearing her much-coveted jewellery. When she suspects Ellie and Florian are up to no good, at first she presses her brother to interfere. Her brother reflects, ‘it might be her mother talking, expressions used he hadn’t heard since the time of the trouble’. Miss Connulty is set to continue in the pattern of her mother – fierce disapproval, interference, judging Ellie for her lost innocence … but then she changes. She decides instead to help her:

If there’s a child don’t let anyone take the child away from you. Born as Dillahan’s own since he believed it was, the child would make a family man of him again, and make the farmhouse different. And her own friendship with Ellie Dillahan would not be strained … the friendship would be closer, both of them knowing it could be, neither of them saying what should not be said and never would be.

It is a moment of redemption, of choosing to go against the grain of what is expected of her and in helping another, so helping herself. This refusal to follow the expected path occurs again and again in the book. Trevor sets up an expectation of what his characters will do, and then quietly confounds it. And in all its essential anti-drama, it makes for unsettling, brilliant reading. As I pointed out, in a moment of inspiration during yesterday’s walk: It’s not Downton Abbey. The dramatic plot lines involving drowning or eloping or suicide are all pointed to but not fulfilled. It’s a beautiful, subtle, poignant and minutely observed portrait of lives invented for their essential reality rather than spurious fiction. (Not that I’m not looking forward to the new series of Downton!)

William Trevor walking book club

Jane Eyre and Fidelity

August 4, 2014

Here is a double whammy of sorts – to make up for last week’s absence of a post, and also to round things off for the summer, for Emilybooks will be enjoying a little recess over August, as I hope will you.

Last weekend took us up to Yorkshire for Deer Shed Festival, where I had lots of fun interviewing Susie Steiner about her novel Homecoming, and Samantha Ellis about her biblio-memoir How to be a Heroine. I also very much enjoyed discussing Jane Eyre with a walking book club, as we wandered through pretty, and blissfully shady, woodland.

Jane Eyre walking book club at Deer Shed

Jane Eyre – what a corker! Of course I remember loving it when I read it as a schoolgirl: oh how I wept when Helen Burns died, longed to hear my name carried mystically on the wind, and developed a lasting love of window seats … But I was a little surprised to find it every bit as good, if not better, second-time round. Especially pleasurable was that the husband read it too in order to join us for the walk, and though I had my doubts as to whether he’d get the drama and romance of it, he was instantly hooked, and it became impossible to get him to do much else until he reached the end. Indeed there was one day when he was in a foul, grumpy mood, and I couldn’t work out what was wrong, only to discover that that morning he’d read the bit where Helen Burns died and, he sheepishly admitted, it had left him feeling upset all day. Reader, I have never felt happier to have married him!

Fidelity by Susan GlaspellIt was a nice coincidence that I next picked up Fidelity by Susan Glaspell, a Persephone book that has been sitting on my shelf for a few months, tempting me with its siren call of pleasure lying within its enigmatic plain grey covers.

Fidelity is set in ‘Freeport’, a small town in Iowa at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ruth Holland has caused widespread outrage by running off with Stuart Williams, another woman’s husband. Mostly set just over a decade afterwards, Glaspell shows what happens when Ruth returns to the town to be with her dying father. We see how her actions have affected her family, her friends, Stuart’s wife, and also herself. For it becomes clear that it hasn’t been an easy ride off into the sunset for Ruth, indeed, she has been unable to escape the gossip that follows her to the West, so has struggled to keep servants or make any friends.

It is a difficult stay in Freeport. ‘Society has to protect itself’, and, aside from one or two friends’ loyalty, the town continues to shun her. Then Ruth is approached by Mildred, a girl who is having an affair with a married man, and who sees Ruth as someone who might understand her, offer some advice.

‘It’s love that counts, isn’t it, – Ruth?’ she asked, half humble, half defiant.

Ruth, who has lived her life adhering to this belief, falters at seeing someone on the point of following the same path. Mildred continues:

‘That town isn’t the whole of the world!’ she exclaimed passionately, after speaking of the feeling that was beginning to form there against herself. ‘What do I care?’ she demanded defiantly. ‘It’s not the whole of the world!’

… ‘But that’s just what it is, Mildred,’ she said. ‘The trouble is, it is the whole of the world.’

‘It’s the whole of the social world,’ she answered the look of surprise. ‘It’s just the same everywhere. And it’s astonishing how united the world is. You give it up in one place – you’ve about given it up for every place.’

‘Then the whole social world’s not worth it!’ broke from Mildred. ‘It’s not worth – enough.’

… ‘But what are you going to put in the place of that social world, Mildred?’ she gently asked. ‘There must be something to fill its place. What is that going to be?’

‘Love will fill its place!’ came youth’s proud, sure answer … ‘Can’t it?’

Ruth turned to her a tender compassionate face, too full of feeling, of conflict, to speak. Slowly, as if she could not bear to do it, she shook her head.

Yet, soon after this conversation, Ruth regrets her advice. She realises that ‘she had failed the very thing in Mildred to which she had elected to be faithful in herself’:

There was something in humankind – it was strongest in womankind – made them, no matter how daring for themselves, cautious for others. And perhaps that, all crusted round with things formal and lifeless, was the living thing at the heart of the world’s conservatism.

She telephones Mildred but finds it is too late; ‘Mildred had been “saved”’ and soon settles into the conventional life of the town. So, in this subtle and surprisingly gripping novel in which Glaspell shows such painful empathy with all her characters, we are faced with all the complicated ambiguity of Mildred and Ruth’s differing decisions – Ruth has been faithful to love over society but has suffered for it; Mildred reaps the rewards of having been faithful to society, but has relinquished the power of love and her own strength of character.

Jane EyreAs I was mulling this over, it struck me that Jane Eyre is in many ways about the same thing, though it gives a very different response to the proposal of living as someone’s mistress.

In both Jane Eyre and Fidelity, the marriage is portrayed as false in some way, so it is less binding that it might be otherwise. Rochester was tricked into marrying a madwoman for money, who he keeps locked in the attic. Stuart Williams’s wife hasn’t forgiven him for a short affair he had some years before. ‘Are our whole lives to be spoiled by a mere silly episode?’ he asks, stating that for two years they ‘haven’t been married’, and begging her either to forgive him or to grant him a divorce. She refuses to do either. ‘Haven’t you any humanity … Don’t you ever feel?’ he implores.

When Jane learns of the mad wife in the attic, Rochester appeals to her sympathy:

‘Give one glance to my horrible life when you are gone. All happiness will be torn away with you. What then is left? For a wife I have but the maniac upstairs: as well might you refer me to some corpse in yonder churchyard. What shall I do, Jane? Where turn for a companion, and for some hope?’

No doubt, Stuart Williams feels the same. Rochester then gets to the crux of it:

‘Is it better to drive a fellow-creature to despair than to transgress a mere human law, no man being injured by the breach? – for you have neither relatives nor acquaintances whom you need fear to offend by living with me.’

Jane admits:

This was true: and while he spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitors against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him. They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly. ‘Oh, comply!’ it said. ‘Think of his misery; think of his danger; look at his state when left alone; remember his headlong nature: consider the recklessness following on despair – sooth him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?’

Still indomitable was the reply: ‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man.’

Our heroines take opposite paths. Ruth follows Bronte’s capitalised ‘Feeling’ in her fidelity to love over society; Jane resists and follows the law instead. Ruth has the added complication of the friends and family Jane lacks, and while she goes on to suffer from the effect of their disapproval, she suffers most from the knowledge that she has made their lives difficult by their mere association with her.

And yet these paths, though seeming to go in opposite directions, have many similarities. Jane and Ruth both steal away in the middle of the night to escape to places unknown. Jane then suffers acutely –  sleeping out on the moors, nearly dying from starvation, surviving only thanks to the pity of St John and his sisters, who take her in and then set her up as a schoolmistress – whereas Ruth might at first be happy in  ‘the sweetness of believing herself loving and loved’, but suffers before long, in her awful discovery that ‘the town is the whole world’ and love is not enough to fill that gap. Jane might succeed where Ruth fails in making friends and establishing herself in a new community but both heroines suffer from loneliness – for Ruth it is because she has turned her back on society, for Jane because she has turned her back on love.

When St John asks Jane to marry him so that they might be missionaries in India together, she says:

‘I scorn your idea of love … I scorn the counterfeit sentiment you offer.’

It is after this that she hears Rochester calling her name on the wind, and then:

I broke from St John … It was my time to assume ascendancy. My powers were in play and in force.

She returns to Rochester, discovers his wife has died, which removes the impediment to their union, and so we get the happy ending of, ‘Reader I married him.’

Ruth returns to Stuart after her time in Freeport, and, after a few months, to their great surprise they find that his wife has at last granted him a divorce. So the impediment to their legal union is also removed. Stuart says they must get married. Ruth, however, hesitates, realising that her life and happiness no longer lie with Stuart:

The thing that made me go with you then is the thing that makes me go my way alone now.

 So like Ibsen’s Nora, she goes her own way, reflecting in a burst of positivity:

Love could not fail if it left one richer than it found one. Love had not failed – nothing had failed – and life was wonderful, limitless, a great adventure for which one must have great courage, glad faith. Let come what would come! – she was moving on.

If marriage is what the books are all about, then Jane and Ruth go in opposite directions: one heroine chooses to be alone rather than illicitly with her lover, but then marries him when she can; the other lives as his mistress for years and then leaves him. If, instead, we see the books as being about ‘fidelity’ to oneself, about having the courage to take the harder path as opposed to succumbing to the lure of the easier, then our heroines tread side by side.

When Jane is prevailed upon by Rochester and then by St John, she resists by saying first ‘I care’ and then ‘My powers were in play and in force.’ (Bronte’s italics both times.) When she does marry Rochester, it is she who does the marrying: ‘I married him’ – not he married me. Throughout the novel, Jane has the courage to take her own actions rather than bowing to the will of others. Similarly, Ruth makes her own decisions rather than being swayed by others: first in leaving home to be with Stuart and then, rather than yielding to the pressure of convention in marrying him in spite of knowing they no longer love each other, she has the strength to move on alone.

Two very different outcomes, but really I think the books share the same message of how important it is to have belief in yourself and the courage of your convictions.

I hope this is an inspiring note to leave you with over the summer!

Susan Glaspell in 1913