Posts Tagged ‘walking book club’

The Leopard at Perch Hill

July 14, 2014

The weekend was spent in a blur of food and flowers, as Emily’s Walking Book Club went to Perch Hill for its first Summer Feast. We feasted on an Ottolenghi dinner of lamb with pomegranate and tomato salad, delicious beetroot puree and aubergine delights. (We had made bets on the train down as to key Ottolenghi ingredients that would be included and we did very well indeed, as we managed to get: pomegranate molasses, lamb, aubergine, cardamom and za’atar – oh the horror on Yotam’s face when a naive punter asked, what’s za’atar?) Then came Sarah Raven’s breakfast and lunch, with everything picked fresh from the beautiful garden, including extraordinary nasturtiums, making the salad almost too pretty to eat.

And then came Emily’s literary feast – the walking book club discussed The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, paying particular attention to the abundance of food in it.

Perch Hill walking book club 1 - striding over the Sussex hills

It was a beautiful setting and we wandered through woods and over fields looking out at the Sussex countryside and thinking how different it was from the Sicilian landscape described in the book and how lucky we were that our summers were rather milder than those in Sicily, ‘as long and glum as a Russian winter and against which we struggle with less success’.

I wrote about The Leopard a few months ago, so here I thought I’d write more specifically about food in the novel.

We had better begin with the famous macaroni pie:

The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a spice-laden haze, then chicken livers, hard boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken and truffles in masses of piping hot, glistening macaroni, to which the meat juice gave an exquisite hue of suede.

Delicious, and just about enough of a recipe to try to make it at home. In fact my brother recently attempted to concoct it, albeit without the truffles, with great success. It rather puts all our Italian pasta dinners to shame…

More interesting, however, is how Lampedusa describes the reception of the dish:

The beginning of the meal, as happens in the provinces, was quiet. The arch-priest made the sign of the Cross and plunged in head first without a word. The organist absorbed the succulent dish with closed eyes; he was grateful to the Creator that his ability to shoot hare and woodcock could bring him ecstatic pleasures like this, and the thought came to him that he and Teresina could exist for a month on the cost of one of these dishes; Angelica, the lovely Angelica, forgot little Tuscan black-puddings and part of her good manners and devoured her food with the appetite of her seventeen years and the vigour given by grasping her fork half-way up the handle. Tancredi, in an attempt to link gallantry with greed, tried to imagine himself tasting, in the aromatic forkfuls, the kisses of his neighbour Angelica, but he realised at once that the experiment was disgusting and suspended it, with a mental reserve about reviving this fantasy with the pudding; the Prince, although rapt in the contemplation of Angelica sitting opposite him, was the only one at table able to notice that the demi-glace was overfilled, and made a mental note to tell the cook so next day; the others ate without thinking of anything, and without realising that the food seemed so delicious because sensuality was circulating in the house.

Perch Hill walking book club 2 - feeling rather gluttonous with all that pieThis is real eating! I love the way they all give themselves up entirely to the food. There is a remarkable ‘sensuality’ in the way they eat dinner – everyone appreciates its sumptuous goodness, just as they do Angelica’s beauty. A far cry from the stuffy dinners of English country houses at the time…

The rich macaroni pie is a very good example of Sicilian cucina baronale – literally the cooking of the barons – and Lampedusa emphasises this by showing the organist thinking he could exist for a month on the cost of it. He would be used to the contrasting, rustic cucina povera. Indeed, later on in the book, the priest goes home and Lampedusa notes that the simple dinner there ‘was much enjoyed by Father Pirrone, whose palate had not been spoilt by the culinary delicacies of Villa Salina’. The Prince, on the contrary, is so used to the cucina baronale that he, with his refined palate, is the only one to notice the defect in the demi-glace.

Angelica, who turned everyone’s heads as she entered the novel a few pages ago is shown ‘grasping her fork half-way up the handle’, betraying the fact that while she may be beautiful and wealthy, she is certainly no lady. Tancredi is shown to be an infatuated young romantic, imagining tasting her kisses with each bite, but also – and this is key – a pragmatist, for he soon gives it up when he realises it’s ‘disgusting’, thinking he’ll try again with pudding. Of course it is Tancredi who has the famous line ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ He is open to change and compromise, happy to bend his ways with the times in order to come out on top, and his eating of the macaroni pie is no exception.

It is astonishing how many deft, minute character studies Lampedusa crams into this paragraph of macaroni eaters!

A similar sensuality of eating and food appears a little earlier in the book with the ‘foreign peaches’, grafted from German cuttings:

There was not much fruit, a dozen or so, on the two grafted trees, but it was big, velvety, luscious-looking; yellowish with a faint flush of rosy pink on the cheeks, like those of modest little Chinese girls. The Prince felt them with the delicacy for which his fleshy fingers were famous.

Brilliantly, these luscious peaches are next seen as they are borne by Tancredi’s lackey as a present for Angelica. Surely there could be no more fitting gift. You can almost read Tancredi’s mind, as he thinks her kisses would taste more of these peaches than of the macaroni pie.

Perch Hill walking book club 3

We wondered, on the walking book club, if there might be any significance to the fact that they were grafted from German cuttings. There is an earlier description of a rose brought from Paris, ‘degenerated’ thanks to the ‘strong if languid pull of Sicilian earth’ into something ‘obscene and distilling a dense almost indecent scent’, like ‘the thigh of a dancer from the Opera’. Here the message is clear that the Sicilian environment is so intensely sensual that it degenerates the refinements of Paris into something obscene. But what about the German roses, which ‘succeeded perfectly’ though yielded little fruit. Perhaps, suggested one clever lady, this is a reference to the alliance between Germany and Italy during the Second World War. An excellent theory, for the War was very much in Lampedusa’s mind as he wrote The Leopard in the years following. It even makes an appearance when he flashes forwards to the ceiling being destroyed in 1943 by ‘a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn.’ – just as Lampedusa’s own family Palazzo was destroyed during the War.

Indeed, food is often a metaphor for politics in The Leopard. My favourite instance of this is in his description of the rum jelly:

It was rather threatening at first sight, shaped like a tower with bastions and battlements and smooth slippery walls impossible to scale, garrisoned by red and green cherries and pistachio nuts; but into its transparent and quivering flanks a spoon plunged with astounding ease. By the time the amber-coloured fortress reached Francesco Paolo, the sixteen-year-old son who was served last, it consisted only of shattered walls and hunks of wobbly rubble. Exhilarated by the aroma of rum and the delicate flavour of the multi-coloured garrison, the Prince enjoyed watching the rapid demolishing of the fortress beneath the assault of his family’s appetite. One of his glasses was still half-full of Marsala. He raised it, glanced round the family, gazed for a second into Concetta’s blue eyes, then said: “To the health of our Tancredi.” He drained his wine in a single gulp. The initials F.D., which before had stood out clearly on the golden colour of the full glass, were no longer visible.

This is not just an account of a family eating a jelly, but a rather lavish metaphor for Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily as part of the Risorgimento, which is taking place at that very moment.

The Prince has recently bid farewell to Tancredi who has gone off to fight to aid Garibaldi’s landing at Marsala. Lampedusa even manages to slip in the name of this port, as the Prince is drinking a glass of it. The jelly, like Sicily, would seem to be impossible to scale, but is in fact penetrated ‘with astounding ease’. Garibaldi did indeed invade ‘with astounding ease’ (helped by the presence of British ships), and soon Sicily’s resistance was no more than ‘shattered walls and hunks of wobble rubble’. Tellingly the initials F.D., which stand for the last Bourbon King Francis II, become invisible.

Once again, I was reminded of how wonderful a book The Leopard is, and the walking book club concurred. As did this very sweet little sheep that first bleated at us from afar, no doubt keen to join the discussion, and then bounded over to us as we approached. Perhaps he always felt himself to be a misunderstood leopard.

Perch Hill Walking Book Club 4 a literary sheep

The Wife

July 7, 2014

What a week! Having done pretty much nothing for two months other than eat too much ice cream, returning to work – to a job where one must STAND FOR NINE HOURS while being significantly heavier and rather more off-balance than one used to be – was unbelievably exhausting. It was of course a joy to see the regular bookshop customers happily surprised by the now very visible bump, and to talk books with bookshop co-conspirators (one of whom had even baked delicious celebratory banana bread), but by the end of each day I was a goner. Which was unfortunate, because the evenings were of course filled with seeing friends and family, and then there was moving back into our flat …

Well, perhaps you understand why my brain now feels like it’s gone through a tumble dryer and I have been left in a peculiar, semi-catatonic state of vague pain and bewilderment. All I know is that I must locate a sturdy stool for some of next week’s bookshop stint, and that all inessential evening plans must be cancelled. So my apologies if this post is not quite up to form; as soon as it has been written I shall retreat back to bed.

The WifeIt was, however, a great pleasure to be reunited with the Walking Book Club in one of its most populous incarnations yesterday for rather a slow stagger around Hampstead Heath discussing Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife.

The Wife is told from the point of view of Joan, the wife of great Jewish American writer Joe Castleman. It begins when they are on a plane heading for Helsinki, where Joe is to receive a prestigious prize:

The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-five thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquillity. Just like our marriage

Over the course of their Helsinki visit, Joan tells the story of their relationship. It began when she was a college student and he her creative writing professor, married with a new baby. His wife soon discovers the affair and confronts Joan by hurling a walnut at her head. It is a special walnut, a gift from Joe to Joan, on which he has painted ‘To J. In awe. J.’ It is all the more significant as his wife has been given a very similar walnut. Joan and Joe run off to New York together. Though Joan has shown great promise as a writer, whereas the only story of Joe’s that she’s read is terrible, it is his writing career that is pursued, a decision which is reinforced when his first, very autobiographical, novel – The Walnut – is a hit.

The Wife is hard to write about as there is a huge twist right at the end, which affects everything that comes beforehand and it would be terrible for you to discover the twist here. So, in order not to be a spoiler, I will try to continue as though I too don’t know anything about the twist…

The big question that looms through the text is why does Joan let Joe become the writer while she becomes the wife? It is evidently not a question of talent. Joan, after all, is narrating this book in her brilliantly dry, witty voice. Is it Joe’s ‘powers of persuasion’, as her mother says? Or is just a mistake of youth and inexperience?

No doubt it has a great deal to do with Joan’s encounter with Elaine Mozell, a woman novelist who comes to read at Joan’s college. Elaine tells her:

‘Don’t do it … Find some other way. There’s only a handful of women who get anywhere. Short story writers, mostly, as if maybe women are somehow more acceptable in miniature … The men with their big canvases, their big books that try to include everything in them, their big suits, their big voices, are always rewarded more. They’re the important ones. And you want to know why? … Because they say so.’

This extract provoked a great deal of anger at the Walking Book Club. It is still the case, people shouted in outrage. Indeed, the annual Vida Count is ever discouraging. This counts the number of women and men who are published in, or have their books reviewed by, literary magazines. While a few, such as The Paris Review, are getting towards gender equality, the majority, including The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New Yorker are hugely skewed towards men, with respective figures of 574:157; 2156: 795; 555: 253 for the 2013 count. (I actually wrote a review for the TLS recently, so let’s hope that skew is shifting a little.) And just look at the way men’s novels are published compared to women’s! They are almost invariably more expensive, given a hardback edition, and a smarter cover …

On and on the gender debate raged as we swarmed across the Heath: Is women’s writing so different from men’s? Why is women’s writing less valued than men’s? Why is it such a male establishment? Why has so little changed since Joan and Elaine Mozell’s fictional conversation in the 1950s? And so on… until I called a halt to sit down and eat some Panforte brought back from Lucca.

Joan is aware that even in the 1950s, it is not be impossible to be a woman and a writer. Wolitzer gives us a great image of Joan’s box of women writers:

It was as though there were a box I kept under a bed and pulled out only once in a while, and in this box were crammed Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman and Carson McCullers and now Lee the journalist. It I opened the lid, their heads would pop out like jack-in-the-box clowns on springs, mocking me, reminding me that they existed, that women could occasionally become important writers with formidable careers, and that maybe I could have done it if I’d tried. But instead I was standing with the wives, the kerchief-wearers, all of us holding ourselves in a way we’d grown accustomed to, arms folded, purses slung over shoulders, eyes flicking left and right to keep watch over our husbands.

‘Maybe I could have done it if I’d tried.’ This ‘maybe’, the slim possibility of success against the odds, makes it all the tougher. Given that some women manage to do it, the impetus is on the individual woman to try to succeed, and if she doesn’t, it is as much her fault as anyone else’s.

West with the NightThere was a funny moment when someone said, ‘What about West with the Night?’ This wonderful memoir by Beryl Markham tells of her gung ho adventuring life as the first aviatrix in Kenya in the early twentieth century. We discussed it at a Walking Book Club a while ago. What about it? Well that, said the walker, isn’t at all like a woman’s book, it could just as easily have been written by a man.

The odd thing is, West with the Night might indeed have been written by a man. A teeny bit of internet research shows that many people suspect Beryl Markham’s memoir to have been written by her third husband, who was a professional ghost writer. Though for such a suspicion even to exist makes an uncomfortable point about our gendered perceptions of writing.

Perhaps gender is especially on my mind at the moment, as everyone wants to know is the bump going to be a boy or a girl, and many people seem surprised that we have decided not to find out, preferring to have a surprise. People seem puzzled as to how can we possibly not want to know? Well, without wanting to sound too San Francisco about it, the sex is such a small part of the picture. Knowing whether it’s a boy or a girl is pretty irrelevant really. I’d much rather know if he or she will be keen on reading, or climbing trees, or misbehaving, or music, or chatting, or (and this one’s important) sleeping. And I would hate to think it’s a girl and be told that therefore she will love reading and dolls and all things pink and hate climbing trees. It’s rather a relief, in fact, while imagining what this little person will turn out to be like, not to let gender come into it at all.

If only we could be just as open-minded when it comes to books.

Brideshead Revisited

April 7, 2014

Just after a full-on week of the Daunt Books Festival, came another full-on week of preparing to lecture at my old Oxford college about building communities around books, followed by a special Emily’s Walking Book Club discussing Brideshead Revisited in Christ Church Meadow. It turned out to be a fun, if exhausting day, and above all it provided an excuse to re-read Brideshead, which was much better than I remembered.

Brideshead RevisitedI first read Brideshead Revisited at school. We did it as AS Level coursework and I suspect studying a book for a whole term is almost enough to ruin it for anyone. Especially if your English teacher insists it’s all about Catholicism, and you’re a seventeen-year-old with no interest in religion at all.

It is terribly embarrassing re-reading a book from school, with so many bits underlined and one’s adolescent scrawl in the margins. On almost every page were penned dreadful words like ‘desensitised’, ‘ironic’, ‘self-loathing’, and, tellingly often, ‘relig.’ and ‘Cath.’. I cringed as I turned the pages, hoping that no-one was peering over my shoulder on the tube.

As well as being about Catholicism, Brideshead is very much about nostalgia, and re-reading it for this Oxford walk was a strange exercise in triple-nostalgia: its echo of my own halcyon Oxford days; the painful memories of reading it in our sixth-form English lessons, air stiff with newly awakened sexual tension; and, of course, all the nostalgia in the book itself.

Charles Ryder, our narrator who find himself stationed at Brideshead when he’s in the army during the Second World War, tells us ‘I had been there before; I knew all about it.’ So the rest of the novel unfolds as Charles tells of his time spent at Brideshead and with the Marchmains, its family. The first section of the novel is probably the one everyone – myself included – recalls when they think about Brideshead. Charles is new up at Oxford, where he meets eccentric, charming Sebastian Flyte, one of the Marchmains. Sebastian vomits in Charles’s rooms, then apologises by filling them with flowers the next day and inviting Charles to lunch. Charles tells us:

I went there uncertainly, for it was foreign ground and there was a tiny, priggish, warning voice in my ear which in the tones of Collins told me it was seemly to hold back. But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.

It’s a wonderful passage, positively aching with nostalgia. That youthful curiosity, ‘in search of love’, and the inkling that grey old Oxford, up till then reasonably unexciting, had its secrets, would offer so much if only you could discover the low door to its enchanted garden … It captures so perfectly that feeling of excited anticipation, of knowing you’re on the verge of something wonderful, and venturing forth, curious, yet also somewhat timid.

Interesting that Waugh uses this metaphor of doors, wall and gardens. Interesting too that the novel is named after a great house, rather than being given one of his more abstract titles, like A Handful of Dust, or Vile Bodies. Evidently, Brideshead Revisited is a novel in which the presence of architecture is strongly felt. Charles even goes on to become an architectural painter, succeeding largely thanks to the aristos’ declining fortunes:

The financial slump of the period, which left many painters without employment, served to enhance my success, which was, indeed, itself a symptom of the decline. When the water-holes were dry people sought to drink at the mirage. After my first exhibition I was called to all parts of the country to make portraits of houses that were soon to be deserted or debased; indeed, my arrival seemed often to be only a few paces ahead of the auctioneer’s, a presage of doom.

Not unlike Charles’s paintings, Brideshead Revisited captures a great country seat just as it was on the verge of decline. A great many pages are spent describing its rooms and décor, ‘the high and insolent dome … coffered ceilings … arches and broken pediments’ and the fountain, where the young Charles discovered his own artistic sensibility, as he sat:

hour by hour … probing its shadows, tracing its lingering echoes, rejoicing in all its clustered feats of daring and invention, I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubble among its stones was indeed a life-giving spring.

The fountain later becomes a scene of love between Charles and Julia:

There Julia sat, in a tight little gold tunic and a white gown, one hand in the water idly turning an emerald ring to catch the fire of the sunset; the carved animals mounted over her dark head in a cumulus of green moss and glowing stone and dense shadow, and the waters round them flashed and bubbled and broke into scattered flames.

When Charles returns with the army, however, an officer shows him around and stops at the fountain, now turned off and squalid, to say:

Looks a bit untidy now; all the drivers throw their cigarette-ends and the remains of the sandwiches there…

Here is a once-mighty house now ‘debased’; its beauty not appreciated by its new inhabitants. Yet Waugh has succeeded, as Charles does in his paintings, in preserving the house in all its glory. When we think of Brideshead Revisited, we scarcely remember the army prologue and epilogue; we don’t see the fountain dry, filled with cigarette ends and sandwich crusts, but we think of the house in all its splendour of before, when it was the scene of so much love.

So Brideshead Revisited is in part about the death of the great country house, and an attempt to preserve its life. It is about nostalgia for a lost youth, for opening that low door in the wall and discovering the enchanted garden within. Just as it succeeds in revisiting it, resurrecting it, letting us re-live those Arcadian days of strawberries and teddy bears and love, so it also points to all the youth that cannot be preserved.

The many lost youths of the soldiers of the First World War haunt the novel. References to the War, and to the lives lost, pepper the text. This time round, it struck me that Waugh gives us examples in which these lost lives are attempted to be preserved in literature: Lady Marchmain commissions the dreaded Samgrass to write a biography of her three brothers all killed in the War, and there is also the moment when Anthony Blanche recites ‘The Waste Land’ through a megaphone. In including these, Waugh invites comparison, holding up Brideshead Revisted as another testament to lost youth. Certainly Christopher Hitchens thought it was ‘all on account of the war’, in his brilliant essay on Brideshead Revisited in the Guardian. Hitchens was of course a renowned atheist, and I can’t help but feel that if he loved the novel even half so much as his article suggests, then it really must be about more than Catholicism.

So rats to you annoying English teacher who nearly ruined this beautiful novel for me … I’m so pleased to have re-read it, and I can only encourage others to do so too. I am also rather tempted to track down the BBC boxset for some rather indulgent viewing when in Italy.

The Daunt Books Festival

March 31, 2014

… has been and gone!

AL Kennedy, Helen Simpson, David Constantine and KJ Orr 'In Praise of Short Stories'

AL Kennedy, Helen Simpson, David Constantine and KJ Orr ‘In Praise of Short Stories’

The two days passed in a whirl of people and books and words. Somehow I’d arrive first thing, start moving books around, cleaning loos, topping up glasses of daffodils and other such essential jobs, then people would start arriving, and then before I’d had time to draw breath, it was three o’clock and time to grab a sandwich and attempt a powernap before embarking on the late afternoon and evening sessions, which would pass in a blur, spurting me out at ten o’clock at night, or indeed nearly midnight once we’d put the shop back to normal at the very end. I could do little other than squeal smilingly at the thrill of it, and rush around trying to keep pace with the non-stop festival escalator. It is only now, after a weekend of solid sleeping that I can begin to look back on it.

Jack gets mobbed as The Blue Kangaroo ... with the wonderful Emma Chichester Clark and Plum.

A definite highlight – Jack gets mobbed as The Blue Kangaroo … with the wonderful Emma Chichester Clark and Plum.

 

Of course the whole thing was terribly exciting. It was also deeply uncanny to see it actually happen – this thing which had only ever been a dream, existing with woolly outlines in my imagination (and panic-stricken nightmares), or rather more smartly delineated in the festival programmes, was suddenly the here and now. Here were all these writers whose work I love, with whom I’d been in contact, whose photos were printed on the programmes along with a blurb about the talk, suddenly here they were standing in front of me in the flesh! It felt magical – as though they’d stepped off the page and into reality. Here, right now, just for a moment, were all these ideas being debated, these talks actually taking place.

Barbara Taylor and Adam Philips discuss Madness in our Times

Barbara Taylor and Adam Philips discuss Madness in our Times

Susie Boyt, Maggie O'Farrell and Deborah Levy celebrate Virago Modern Classics with Lennie Goodings

Susie Boyt, Maggie O’Farrell and Deborah Levy celebrate Virago Modern Classics with Lennie Goodings

Everything I’d imagined was suddenly there for everyone to see. Perhaps it’s not dissimilar to how an author feels walking on to the film set of their book. Only this was so ephemeral. There was something especially magical about feeling that it would only be real for the two days – a portal into an amazing other world like in Tom’s Midnight Garden or The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. It felt like I’d stepped through the back of the wardrobe and into Narnia, but into my Narnia – much more yellow and without the White Witch. Yes it was the same old beautiful bookshop, but transformed with bunting and daffodils, and filled with people chatting away to each other about the talks, so obviously happy and inspired and together, rather than a mass of quiet, solitary browsers.

The talks themselves were magnificent. Each one was completely different from the last, so just as I’d decided that particular one must be the best, the next one was spectacular in a completely different way making it impossible to pick favourites.

Mahesh Rao, Colin Thubron and Tracy Chevalier talk to the wonderful Barnaby Rogerson about 'capturing a sense of place' - a terrific closing event

Mahesh Rao, Colin Thubron and Tracy Chevalier talk to the wonderful Barnaby Rogerson about ‘capturing a sense of place’ – a terrific closing event

So much was said, so many ideas debated. It’s far too much to digest here, especially while my head is still aspin, so instead I thought I’d show you a few pictures and let you conjure your own Daunt Books Festival with the aid of your imagination.

Emily's Walking Book Club - ready to set off to discuss The Hours

Emily’s Walking Book Club – ready to set off to discuss The Hours

And here we are in Regent's Park, scoffing delicious biscuits from La Fromagerie

And here we are in Regent’s Park, scoffing delicious biscuits from La Fromagerie

Now I must sit tight and look forward to the next one.

The Hours

March 24, 2014

The Daunt Books Festival is THIS WEEK!

Pages from Daunt Books Festival programme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wise Children

February 24, 2014

wise children‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.’

Indeed! Angela Carter’s invocation of Jane Austen at the start of chapter four couldn’t be more appropriate; Wise Children is a wonderful, ebullient, rich, bawdy, optimistic carnival of a novel.

So we all thought at Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday. (All, except for one lady who thought it ‘too clever by half’.) We longed to go round chez Chance for a gin and a natter with winning narrator Dora toot sweet! Indeed, we felt a touch guilty for walk-talking the novel in North London, not far from Melchior Hazard’s swish Primrose Hill residence, rather than on ‘the bastard side of Old Father Thames’.

There was something about yesterday’s walk which was particularly wonderful. Perhaps it was because, in an attempt to avoid muddy patches and wind-exposed hill-tops, I led us on an unusually long loop. Perhaps it was thanks to the enormous tree that had blown dramatically across the path, which felt symbolic, in a Carteresque way, of an uprooted family tree. Or perhaps it was simply because Wise Children is an especially good book and we felt so exceptionally fond of Dora that it was almost as though she (and Nora, of course) were high-kicking alongside us on the Heath.

Dora Chance is the forceful narrator of the novel. We meet her on her seventy-fifth birthday, which is also the birthday of her twin sister Nora, the hundredth birthday of their father (though they are illegitimate and unacknowledged) – grand thesp Melchior Hazard, and it is Shakespeare’s birthday too. The novel takes place over the course of one day, from breakfast that morning to wandering home from Melchior’s centenary party that night, with Dora’s final exclamation:

What a joy it is to dance and sing!

In a feat of storytelling, Carter manages to contain over a century’s history of dancing and singing in this single day. We begin with Dora’s paternal grandmother Estella, born in 1870, a child actor on the provincial circuits, who came to London to be a Cordelia who married her Lear – Ranulph Hazard. They went to America, then all over the Empire: acting in Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, America again – with everything from an ice-cream sundae to a township named after them in their wake.

Then we come to their (possibly illegitimate) offspring, twins Peregrine and Melchior Hazard. Melchior wound up in a Brixton boarding house, where, so Dora likes to think, her mother, who ‘emptied the slops, filled the washstand jugs, raked out the grates, built up the fires…’ and was only ‘a slip of a thing but she was bold as brass’, locked his door behind her and:

“Now I’ve got you where I want you!” she said. What else could a gentleman do but succumb?

And so Dora and Nora Chance were conceived.

One of the things I love most in Wise Children, is how time and again Carter rejects the role of wispy delicate woman, overpowered and badly treated by man. Their servant girl mother wasn’t raped by tough young Melchior, but took advantage of him! (I feel Rachel Cooke in her excellent column in yesterday’s Observer would approve.)

Elsewhere Carter rewrites the role of Ophelia. Beautiful young Tiffany – strewn with flowers, driven mad with grief at being impregnated and then  seriously, serially cheated on by her awful boyfriend Tristram (Melchior’s son) – is thought to have drowned herself in the Thames. So far, so Ophelia … but no, at the end of the novel she reappears, ‘as fresh as paint … sound in mind and body almost to a fault … our heart’s delight.’ Tristram begs her forgiveness, to which she replies, bluntly, “Fat chance,”:

“Pull yourself together and be a man, or try to,” said Tiffany sharply. “You’ve not got what it takes to be a father. There’s more to fathering than fucking you know.”

Then she strides off. Brilliant!

Grandma Chance is the owner of the boarding house and she brings up Nora and Dora, as their mother died in childbirth and Melchior disowned them. Rather being raised in a stifling patriarchy, they grow up in a carnivalesque family, surrounded by singing and dancing from the moment they’re born, in a house where people are either naked, in a nighty, or dressed up as pirates, and stray souls are made very welcome. Again, rather than suffering at the hands of the badly behaving man, the women flourish.

Dora and Nora have dancing lessons and soon become high-kicking chorus girls, a career that eventually takes them to Hollywood, where they are Peaseblossom and Mustardseed in Melchior’s doomed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The descriptions of the Hollywood set of the Wood near Athens are spellbinding:

Daisies big as your head and white as spooks, foxgloves as tall as the tower of Pisa that chimed like bells if shook. Gnarled, fissured tree-trunks; sprays of enormous leaves – oak, ash, thorn, like parasols, or glider planes, or awnings … And rolling around at random underfoot, or stuck on buds, or hanging in mid-air as if they’d just rolled off a wild rose or out of a cowslip, imitation dewdrops, that is big faux pearls, suspended on threads.

Everything has been scaled up so that the actors look the size of fairies on screen. It is extremely surreal in reality in order to look real on screen. And yet, what on earth is reality in this context? It is The Dream, after all, and made in Hollywood, the ‘major public dreaming facility in the whole world’. It is a dreamlike landscape, for this dream of a dream, and like dreams, it is uncanny, beautiful and disturbing at the same time. Then, in a genius stroke of irony, it proves to be all too real, when Nora trips up and spikes her bottom on a giant conker and the wound goes septic.

The film flops; Shakespeare’s and Melchior’s Dream doesn’t work in Hollywood. Neither does the intriguing, sad character of Gorgeous George. He is first seen doing a bawdy show on Brighton Pier with great success. Next, he is imported to Hollywood to be Bottom in The Dream, where he fails rather unspectacularly. Finally, he is in the gutter outside Melchior’s hundredth birthday party, ‘some old cove in rags, begging’.

Gorgeous George is not just any old character. As Carter tells us:

For George was not a comic at all but an enormous statement … Displayed across his torso there was … a complete map of the entire world.

When they see him in Brighton, he strips almost naked (the vital bits are covered by a ‘gee-string of very respectable dimensions … made out of the Union Jack’) and sings God Save the King and Rule Britannia. ‘Most of his global tattoo was filled in a brilliant pink’ – the colour of Empire. So George’s downward spiral is that of Great Britain: it once ruled the world, lost to America, and now is reduced to begging.

Gorgeous George’s tragic trajectory mirrors that of the Hazards – from the paternal grandmother who acts in all corners of the Empire, through Shakespearean success Melchior, to his son Tristram who presents a third-rate television game show. It echoes the fate of the music halls and chorus lines.

‘Lo how the mighty are fallen,’ thinks Dora when she sees George in the gutter. Much has fallen, much dwindles, and yet, don’t forget, ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.’ Carter tells us throughout that there is no place for tragedy in this book.

The British Empire has crumbled, but if it is represented by Gorgeous George – at his best a stripper-comedian – was it really so wonderful? Who cares about him, when we have Dora and Nora, who remain ‘The Lucky Chances’, happy, joyful, making-the-best of things, singing and dancing to the very last line.

It is a profoundly optimistic novel, made all the more so by these lines of downfall that run through it. Wise Children encourages you to laugh and make merry, not cry when disaster inevitably strikes. Fate deals a cruel hand, the trick is not to take it lying down. (Or, at least lie down and enjoy it!) Perhaps it sounds rather naf and daft when put like this, rather than guised in Carter’s rich, raucous prose. No doubt it’s best to read it for yourself. Do – and I’d love to know what you make of it.

PS. For those of you who want to venture beyond EmilyBooks, here is a humblingly brilliant article on Wise Children by Kate Webb, here are my latest crop of reviews for The Spectator, and here‘s a little something I wrote on the Daunt Books Festival for The Bookseller.

Angela Carter

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf

January 27, 2014

It was foul weather for Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday, so I was amazed by how many people turned up, hooded, wellied and umbrellaed, keen to get out on the Heath in spite of the sheeting rain.

Alas our garrulous charge into the greenery soon dwindled to a conversation-struggling limp as no one could hear anything beneath their hoods, and were concentrating too much on missing the puddles to be able to talk about the book. Feeling rather feeble, we retreated to a nearby café, shedding our waterproofs and apologetically disturbing its quiet newspaper-reading clientele, as, revived with hot drinks, all thirty of us launched into an impassioned discussion of Gaito Gazdanov’s brilliant The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. As you know, this whole sitting down thing is anathema to the walking book club, so I managed to move a few people around every now and then to mix things up, and darted about between the groups, reading passages aloud and steering conversation as though we were on foot. While we were thwarted of the bracing air and soaring views of London, everyone still claimed to have enjoyed their morning, and many remained chatting bookishly in the café after I returned to work in the bookshop.

The Spectre of Alexander WolfWhat a great novel! And what a strange one. It hooks you from the start, with a terrific first sentence:

Of all my memories, of all my life’s innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed.

Critics have compared Gazdanov to Proust, I suppose because of the way a powerful memory can propel so much of the narrative, but this is murder he’s remembering, not a visit from enigmatic Charles Swann at idyllic Combray. And while Proust’s narrative is luxurious and sensuous, there is a febrile urgency to the dreamlike feeling of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. It is more a telling of an unshakeable nightmare than a madeleine-induced reverie.

Back to the murder. We are told that the narrator was fighting in the Russian Civil War when his horse was shot and he ‘went tumbling down with her’, although was unharmed. Coming towards him was ‘a rider astride a great white horse’:

I saw the rider let go of the reins and shoulder his rifle, which, until that point he had been carrying atilt. It was then that I fired. He jerked up in his saddle, slumped down and fell slowly to the ground.

The narrator looks into the dying eyes of the fallen man, when he hears hooves in the distance, and so rides off on the white horse and escapes. In Paris, many years later, the narrator is astonished to read a short story telling of exactly this episode but from the murdered man’s point of view. Of course he is determined to meet the writer – Alexander Wolf – and the book follows him on his quest to meet him.

Or does it?

For this is a strange shape-shifting book. It begins as a mystery, then becomes a picaresque evocation of life in Paris between the wars, pausing for a detailed account of a boxing match, before transforming into an intense love story, and right at the end there’s an unexpected turn into gangster noir. All this action is interspersed with thought-provoking philosophical discussions and digressions.

These plural forms of the novel make me think of when the narrator receives a phonecall from his lover:

Hearing those first sounds of her voice, distorted as usual by the telephone, I immediately forgot everything I’d only just been thinking about; it was so total and instantaneous as though the thoughts had never even existed.

The twists and turns of the narrative can feel similarly startling. There you are on the path of this mysterious Alexander Wolf and the next thing you know you’re at a boxing match, and it is as though the earlier episodes ‘had never even existed’.

Except of course you don’t completely forget about what’s gone before. The book, in fact, makes a case for the inescapable uncanny interconnections between everything and everyone – however disparate they might seem. Throughout the novel, Gazdanov repeats the phrase:

The chain of events in each human life is miraculous.

Just one action – the bullet from the narrator’s revolver – has brought together a whole world of consequences:

Who could have known that the bullet’s spinning, instantaneous flight actually contained that town on the Dnieper, Marina’s inexpressible charm, her bracelets, her singing, her betrayal, her disappearance, Voznesensky’s life, the ship’s hold Constantinople, London, Paris, the book I’ll Come Tomorrow and the epigraph about the corpse with the arrow in its temple?

And there is even more contained in that bullet, yet to be revealed. I don’t want to give away the twist at the end, but it rests upon the flight of another bullet. Perhaps the chain of events set in motion by the first bullet can only be halted by that of a second.

As might be expected from a book which encompasses so many genres, capturing many scenarios and ideas in its sweep, there is a great deal to think about. Just as compelling as life’s ‘miraculous’ chain of events – the spinning bullet which draws everything into its centrifugal force – is the idea that one man’s life can be inextricably bound to another’s. The kill or be killed situation at the start, which the narrator and Alexander Wolf both managed to survive and so cheat death, binds them together. As one walker said, ‘It’s like Harry Potter and Voldemort!’ Indeed it is! Quite why all the critics seem so bent on picking up echoes of Proust rather than J.K. Rowling is beyond me.

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf is one of those books that will continue to haunt me, just like the narrator is haunted by the spectre himself. It left me – and other walkers too – wanting to re-read it straight away, to try to make more sense of the strange connections and diversions which Gazdanov, thankfully, doesn’t over-explain.

And just who is Gaito Gazdanov? He fought in the White Army and then was exiled in Paris from 1920, where he became a taxi-driver by night and writer by day. Praise be to Pushkin Press for publishing his work in English. They’re bringing out another of his books in late August – I can’t wait.

Gaito Gazdanov

Christmas Pudding

December 9, 2013

Christmas Pudding by Nancy MitfordWe discussed Christmas Pudding, Nancy Mitford’s wonderfully silly, laugh-out-loud second novel, at Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday.

Hampstead Heath was beautiful, the sun sweeping across it and warming us as we gathered around a bench at the Druid’s circle, scoffing mince pies and fruit loaf, wondering if Mitford would have considered our location to be London or country – a dichotomy she explores in her novel. Yesterday, wandering through such expansive space, while looking out across the crowded city, Hampstead was the best of everything. We did, however, recall Elizabeth von Arnim’s contemporary novel The Enchanted April, and thought that Nancy Mitford might have agreed with Lady Caroline:

Perhaps people who lived in Hampstead might be poor; indeed, must be poor, or why live in Hampstead?

Touché.

Christmas Pudding is the perfect antidote to the stresses of Christmas itself, when overfed families are liable to be at each other’s throats. I read it very quickly and laughed out loud on several occasions. I say, at the first sign of any trouble this Christmas, retreat to a sofa and pick it up and it will considerably brighten your outlook! In any case, it was exactly what I needed after such an upsetting read as The Bell Jar, a very affecting novel, the horror of which has haunted me all the week.

(Yes, the sharp-eyed amongst you will notice that The Golden Notebook – the final, most daunting novel in the Margaret Drabble recommends trilogy – has been put on hold. And, I’m afraid, it continues to be on hold, most likely until the New Year, when I hope I might have a spurt of energy that might inspire tackling such an intellectual, meaty, thick book.)

Christmas Pudding has a terribly silly plot: The improbably named Paul Fotheringay is distressed because his first novel Crazy Capers, which he wrote as a poignant tragedy, has received rave reviews as a hysterically funny farce. His friend, the inimitable ex-courtesan Amabelle Fortescue, advises him to write a serious biography for his next book, and he decides on Victorian poetess Lady Maria Bobbin for his subject. He writes to the present Lady Bobbin asking if he might visit and read her ancestor’s diaries. On receiving his letter:

She read it over twice, found herself unfamiliar with such words as hostelry, redolent and collaboration, and handed it to her secretary, saying, ‘The poor chap’s batty, I suppose?’

Thus rejected, Paul turns to Amabelle again, who devises an ingenious plan. She is friendly with Lady Bobbin’s teenage son Bobby Bobbin, who is at Eton (of course), and is a fun-loving, self-confessed snob. She engineers it so that Paul will go to stay with the Bobbins over the Christmas holidays in the guise of Bobby’s tutor. Amabelle has conveniently rented a nearby cottage, and Paul and Bobby spend all their time supposedly riding and golfing etc, while actually sneaking off there to play bridge. Add to this Paul’s falling in love with Bobby’s bored sister Philadelphia, and a certain Lord Lewes who becomes a rival for her affection, and a host of other minor characters all brilliantly daft, and you get a pudding of delight!

Carry on JeevesIt reminded me very much of PG Wodehouse. I kept expecting to bump into Gussy Finknottle and his newts. Here, the equivalent to Bertie Wooster’s twitty friends, are Squibby Almanack and his friends Biggy and Bunch, who are more passionate about Wagner than debutantes. Missing, however, from Christmas Pudding, so essential to Jeeves & Wooster, is Jeeves! For while Mitford has her posh twits aplenty, she pays no attention to manservants or any staff at all. There is a brief mention of Amabelle’s groom, who exercises the horses to fool Lady Bobbin, while Paul and Bobby play bridge, but that’s pretty much it. One can only conclude that Mitford was interested only in the antics of the upper classes, not the lower. Perhaps she felt capable only of dissecting the problems faced by people of her own class. Perhaps she was simply a snob, but if so, I hope we can forgive her, seeing as she is so good at poking fun at and pointing out the many shortcomings of all her toffs.

Mitford pays a great deal of attention to the question of marriage, which is shown to be more-or-less the only option for upper-class woman. The great question is whether to marry for love or for money. Advice on this tends to be rather unromantic. Amabelle says:

If I had a girl I should say to her, “Marry for love if you can, but it won’t last, but it is a very interesting experience and makes a good beginning in life. Later on, when you marry for money, for heaven’s sake let it be big money. There are no other possible reasons for marrying at all.”

Later on she says:

The older I get the more I think it is fatal to marry for love. The mere fact of being in love with somebody is a very good reason for not marrying them, in my opinion. It brings much more unhappiness than anything else.

While lesser novelists might be tempted to write a run-away love affair, the sort of Sybil and Tom narrative of Downton Abbey, Mitford takes care to stress the sensible unromantic realities beneath all her silly farce.

At Emily’s Walking Book Club, we were all rather enamoured with the winsome character of Amabelle. She has the most autonomy of all the characters and is able to choose her fate as well as manoeuvre the others into helpful positions. I wonder if there is something of Mitford herself in her, with her spirit of fun, and writerly controlling of the plot.

Another point that walkers raised was that while Christmas Pudding should read as a period piece, capturing a 1930s situation that ought to be inconceivable now, in actual fact, little has changed. There remains a feeling of entitlement amongst the upper classes, especially in politics, with the Lords who decide they might take up their seat in the House. Just look at our Etonian cabinet, raged the walkers. I felt rather proud that we’d managed to get so political. Who dares to claim that reading novels is less serious than reading non-fiction?!

So while on first glance Christmas Pudding is the perfect book to raise one’s spirits, providing some light relief to what can be a rather dark time of year, on further scrutiny there is a great deal of serious stuff to discuss. Marriage, politics, class, matriarchy and more. What a clever, skilful novelist Nancy Mitford was!

I set Daphne the acid test of choosing between Christmas Pudding or some rocket leaves:

Christmas Pudding 1

The rocket caught her eye immediately.

Christmas pudding 2

She made a beeline for it.

Christmas pudding 3

And consumed it with relish.

Christmas pudding 4

Then, faced with the prospect of Christmas Pudding, she seemed rather weary.

Christmas pudding 5

I can see that Christmas Pudding is rather too fast-paced for her. Or perhaps she simply finds the snobbery rather tedious. Or perhaps she simply prefers the writing of Mitford’s great friend, Evelyn Waugh.

The Turn of the Screw

September 30, 2013

After all the excitement of the Ham and High Literary Festival, EmilyBooks was whisked off by a kind and generous friend to Italy, to one of those rare and wonderful places with no internet, and not much of a phone signal either. Hence there was no post last week.

Truth be told, I’ve been rather restless with my reading, flitting between various novels and memoirs, not quite managing to get stuck in. Maybe it’s been a kind of hangover from the sheer wonder of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger. At Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday, I found I was not alone in immediately wanting to re-read it. Many of us felt unwilling to leave it behind, perhaps because its teasing elliptical nature makes you want to go back and look for clues, as with a detective story. I suppose I ought to have just given in and re-read it straight away, rather than suffer this funny couple of weeks of dipping in and dipping out of things.

The Turn of the ScrewThe only thing I did manage to read cover to cover is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. This was no doubt aided by its extreme brevity and gripping ghoulishness. I was also chairing the Southbank Centre’s Book Club about it last week, and turning up not having read it since university would have been cheeky to say the least.

Why has Henry James earned a reputation for being so impossibly difficult to read? I adored The Portrait of a Lady; What Maisie Knew is what first inspired me to try to write myself; I remember The Ambassadors being pretty ace; and The Turn of the Screw is unputdownable!

I expect you know the story. Some friends are gathered around the fire telling ghost stories when one of them boasts of a story that is so horrible that:

It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it … for dreadful – dreadfulness!

This ushers in the main story. A young woman goes to work as a governess for two orphans in a big country house. Before long, she starts to see two ghosts – a man and a woman, who she deduces used to be a valet and her predecessor at the house. She grows convinced that they want to take control of the angelic children, and so does everything she can to stop them. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well.

The knot at the heart of the book is whether or not we believe the governess. She is such a persuasive, powerful narrator that, at first, it is hard to doubt her. You can’t fail to be sucked in, terrified of the ghosts, unnerved that the children seem to be in cahoots with them.

Yet, read it more closely, and you see that Henry James encourages us to question the reliability of her narrative. She is by the lake with Flora, one of the children, when she sees the ghost of the old governess. Flora is apparently ignorant of the ghost, and yet this is how she reports the incident to Mrs Grose, the housekeeper:

‘Two hours ago, in the garden’ – I could scarce articulate – ‘Flora saw!’

Mrs Grose took it as she might have taken a blow in the stomach. ‘She has told you?’ she panted.

‘Not a word – that’s the horror. She kept it to herself! The child of eight, that child!’ Unutterable still for me was the stupefaction of it.

Mrs Grose of course could only gape the wider. ‘Then how do you know?’

‘I was there – I saw with my eyes: saw she was perfectly aware.’

Henry James voices our doubts through Mrs Grose. How exactly does the governess know? How much do we trust what she saw with her eyes? We grow aware of quite how subjective her account is.

The ‘unreliable narrator’ is perhaps the ultimate Jamesian trope and one of those things that make teachers sweat with excitement. Once you start to question the governess, it is easy to jump on that school of thought that sees her as an unreliable narrator – mad, suffering from hysteria or from a displacement of her own anxiety or whatever else might explain these hallucinations or fabrications. Yet James doesn’t let you off so easily. He doesn’t make it irrefutably clear that the governess is making it up; there remains the distinct terrifying possibility that the ghosts are real.

Once you become aware of this knot, you see that every paragraph can be read both ways – as proof of the governess’s unreliability, or of the ghosts’ existence. It lends the book an intense claustrophobia, as its pages begin to close in on you and you feel desperate but unable to escape. I suppose it’s not unlike how the governess must feel – stuck in the house in the middle of nowhere with only ghosts and haunted children for company.

People get wretchedly caught up trying to argue this one way of the other. Truman Capote thought the ghosts were real; Edmund Wilson thought the governess was mad. It’s an argument that could go on forever. Henry James is the master of ambiguity. He teasingly tells us, when the friends are gathered round the fire:

The story won’t tell.

(His italics.) No, indeed it won’t.

In his Preface to the New York Edition of his work, James wrote the following about The Turn of the Screw. It comes at the end of a paragraph about different types of fairy tale:

The charm of all these things for the distracted modern mind is in the clear field of experience, as I call it, over which we are thus led to roam; an annexed but independent world in which nothing is right save as we rightly imagine it.

I love this idea of a fairy tale as ‘an annexed but independent world in which nothing is right save as we rightly imagine it’. This is what makes The Turn of the Screw at once intoxicating and terrifying. The governess imagines the ghosts and so they are ‘right’ and real to her. It is up to us whether we decide to go along with her and imagine the ghosts too, or whether we decide not to. What is right or not depends entirely on our imagination. Not just a fairy tale, but all fiction is a place where imagination roams free, and in The Turn of the Screw we see the horrifying edge to this – we are tantalisingly close to what might happen if we let our imagination roam a little too freely.

Henry James in 1897

Moon Tiger

September 18, 2013

Why is it that so many novels about falling in love have a whiff of silliness about them? They tend to have a swirly script on the cover, as well as something pink and possibly sparkly too. You describe a book as ‘a love story’ and everyone will instantly think it’s chick lit. I doubt it would occur to anyone that you might be talking about a great classic like Anna Karenina.

Moon Tiger by Penelope LivelyMoon Tiger is a love story, of sorts. Claudia Hampton is lying in a hospital bed, old and dying, and decides she will write ‘a history of the world … and in the process, my own’. Through a series of flashbacks we learn about her life and her loves. What is instantly clear is that there is nothing pink and sparkly about Claudia – she is so intelligent and beautiful that most people find her quite terrifying. Her history of the world is about her life, and it is as much about her loves. As for the word love, she reflects:

That word is overstretched; it cannot be made to do service for so many different things – love of children, love of friends, love of God, carnal love and cupidity and saintliness.

We learn not only of Claudia’s love for Tom Southern, a solider in Egypt during the Second World War, but also of her other loves. There is her love for her brother, Gordon, with whom she has such a profound closeness that his wife finds it unnerving; her love for her conventional, insipid daughter Lisa; for Jasper, her dashing, successful lover, and Laszlo, a stray Hungarian who she takes in.

Moreover – unexpectedly, brilliantly and quite addictively – Penelope Lively shows us not only how Claudia feels towards these characters, but also how they respond to Claudia. Claudia’s reflections are peppered with breaks in the narrative, after which time is rewound a few moments, and then the same episode is briefly retold from a different character’s perspective.

It is hard to explain this remarkably original style of writing, so I hope you’ll forgive my quoting at length. The following takes place in a bar in 1946. Claudia has introduced Jasper to her brother Gordon and his girlfriend Sylvia and she recalls the conversation:

‘You always did have dubious taste in men,’ Gordon continues.

‘Really?’ says Claudia. ‘Now that’s an interesting remark.’

They stare at one another.

‘Oh, stop it, you two,’ says Sylvia. ‘This is supposed to be a celebration.’

‘So it is,’ says Gordon. ‘So it is. Come on, Claudia, celebrate.’ He upends the bottle into her glass.

‘It really is terrific, ‘says Sylvia. ‘An Oxford fellowship! I still can’t quite believe it.’ Her eyes never leave Gordon, who does not look at her. She twitches a thread from the sleeve of his jacket, touches his hand, gets out a packet of cigarettes, drops them, retrieves them from the floor.

Claudia continues to observe Gordon. Out of the corner of an eye, from time to time, she takes stock of Jasper. Others also note Jasper; he is a person people see. She raises her glass: ‘Congrats! Again. Remind me to come and dine at your High Table.’

‘You can’t,’ says Gordon. ‘No ladies.’

‘Oh, what a shame,’ says Claudia.

‘Where did you find him?’

‘Find who?’

‘You know damn well who I mean.’

‘Oh – Jasper. Um, now … where was it? I went to interview him for a book.’

‘Ah,’ says Sylvia brightly. ‘How’s the book going?’

They ignore her. And Jasper returns to the table. He sits down, puts his hand on Claudia’s. ‘I’ve told them to bring a bottle of champers. So drink up.’

Immediately after this, we get the following:

Sylvia tries to get out a cigarette, drops the packet, grovels for it on the floor and feels her expensive hairdo falling to pieces. And the dress is not a success, too pink and pretty and girlish. Claudia is in black, very low-cut, with a turquoise belt.

‘How is the book going?’ she asks. And Claudia does not answer, so Sylvia must fill the gap lighting her cigarette, puffing, looking round the room as though she hadn’t expected a reply anyway…

Each time Lively uses this remarkable technique, you get a feeling for how personal memory is, how each event has as many reflections as there are observers.

The WavesIt reminds me of The Waves by Virginia Woolf, which is also told from multiple perspectives, but in a more pronouncedly Modern way. This passage from the heart of The Waves, when all seven characters are meeting in a restaurant strikes me as an apt description of Moon Tiger’s sentiment:

We have come together … to make one thing, not enduring – for what endures? – but seen by many eyes simultaneously. There is a red carnation in that vase. A single flower as we sat here waiting, but now a seven-sided flower, many-petalled, red, puce, purple-shaded, stiff with silver-tinted leaves – a whole flower to which every eye brings its own contribution.

A single red carnation becomes a multicoloured many-petalled thing, transformed by so many perspectives, made ‘whole’ only when ‘every eye brings its own contribution’. Woolf, like Lively, points to the variety and incompleteness of individual viewpoint, demonstrating how each fleeting moment is created by every eye that sees it.

Claudia is a historian and the book is, as she says at the beginning, ‘a history of the world’. Throughout the novel, we get reflections on history, on the contrast between history as it is lived and as it is written about:

History is disorder, I wanted to scream at them – death and muddle and waste. And here you sit cashing in on it and making patterns in the sand.

Any story has to make some kind of ‘pattern in the sand’, but Lively manages to trace a pattern while pointing out its inherent subjectivity, gesturing all the time towards the many other narratives that exist simultaneously, and at their collective mess.

But here I am, 1000 words in, and I’ve barely mentioned the heartbreaking heart of the novel – Claudia’s beautiful, painfully brief love affair in Egypt during the Second World War. These pages are completely entrancing, in part for the way in which Cairo is captured on the page so well you can practically smell the eucalyptus and have to stop yourself from brushing sand off the pages, and in part for the way that Lively captures so perfectly the intensity of sudden, piercing, all-encompassing love.

Brilliantly, this love story isn’t fully uncovered until the novel is well underway, so we know by then that Claudia is a formidable, intelligent woman. Unlike her ‘frothy … silk-clad scented’ Cairo flatmate – ‘having the time of her life, doing a bit of typing in the mornings for someone Daddy was a school with and taking her pick of the officers of the 9th Hussars in the evening’ – Claudia is in Egypt as an ambitious war reporter. It is far more affecting to see someone so self-sufficient fall in love:

An hour ago he kneeled above her. And, misinterpreting what he must have seen as panic in her eyes, said ‘You’re not … Claudia, I’m not the first?’ She could not speak – only hold out her arms. She could not say: ‘It’s not you I’m afraid of, it’s how I feel.’

We have just seen Claudia travel through a sandstorm in the desert, the only woman to have wangled her way close to the front; Claudia, who has just seen a man dying, with a red hole in his thigh ‘into which you could put your fist. From it there crawls a line of ants.’ And yet, brave Claudia is afraid of this overwhelming feeling. How powerful to see someone so capable made so vulnerable by love.

Woolf asks in The Waves, ‘What endures?’ Lively’s answer in Moon Tiger is memories, impressions, words – with all the awareness that these are one-sided, fallible, incomplete renderings of the past. Claudia reflects:

I shall survive – appallingly misrepresented – in Lisa’s head and in Sylvia’s and in Jasper’s and in the heads of my grandsons (if there is room alongside football players and pop stars) and the heads of mine enemies. As a historian, I know only too well that there is nothing I can do about the depth and extent of the misrepresentation, so I don’t care. Perhaps, for those who do, who struggle against it, this is the secular form of hell – to be preserved in forms that we do not like in the recollection of others.

Lively highlights the ‘appallingly misrepresented’ nature of memory with the narrative structure of her book, and yet she also shows the positive side to this. She shows how piercingly affective a memory can be, and how its very subjectivity is what gives it power. She states, ‘inside the head, everything happens at once’. These memories are indeed misrepresentations, but they are more powerful than time – able to transport you back over many years in an instant.

This idea of the power of misrepresentation, made me think of the various ways that people read a book – everyone taking away something different, each person finding something in it that speaks to him alone, each creating her own misrepresentation of the author’s original work. You have just read some of my own misrepresentation of Moon Tiger. All that I would add is that it really is SUCH an extraordinary and affecting novel that now all I want to do is sit down and read it again, and try to make everyone I know read it too. Do read it, and then you could come along to Emily’s Walking Book Club on Sunday 29th September when we can discuss its brilliance at length.

Walking book club 10