Crazy Pavements by Beverley Nichols

My friends Kirsty and Paul bought me a pile of books for my birthday which were PERFECTLY chosen, which says what good friends they are (and how loudly I talk about the things I like) – one of which was Beverley Nichols’ novel Crazy Pavements (1927). This has undoubtedly been the Year of Beverley for me, but I had yet to read any of his novels – indeed, I don’t think I own any, though I did almost accidentally spend about £60 on one earlier in the year, under the impression that it was £2.

This was Nichols’ fourth novel, written before any of the gardening books, and it is quintessentially 1920s in many ways. Brian – an unusual name for a hero, but we’ll let it slide – is a handsome young gossip columnist, writing anonymously about the day-to-day doings of the rich and famous, but living in not-so-well-to-do situations himself. How does he know so much about the habits and sins of the titled people of London? The long and short of it: he makes it up.

This section of the novel was Nichols at his most irrepressible; his most effervescent. I loved it, and laughed a lot. It’s everything I want from the slightly (but only slightly) cynical voyeur of the Bright Young Things. Or at least the titled classes, for it is the sort of gossip column more interested in Lord and Lady Such-and-Such than in film stars. And his editor is a glorious creation: she is constantly trying to misinterpret his innocent words (or, indeed, innocent silences) as the most outrageous innuendos, so that she can look shocked and chew her pen and say ‘oh, you are wicked‘, to his horror and embarrassment.

I enjoyed the whole novel, but it was certainly the first few chapters that I truly loved. But such things cannot be stretched to 80,000 words – I do beg your pardon, Michael Arlen – and so we must move to the next scene. Most people do not question Brian’s fabrications, either because they are on long sea voyages (he notes these, as being the best subjects to choose) or because the lies are more flattering than the truth. But Julia is different. She demands a retraction and an apology.

When an awkward Brian turns up at her house, he – would you believe it – falls instantly in love with Julia. In turn, she is surprised that he is so handsome and gauche. The former attracts; the latter is an amusing challenge. She thrusts him into her echelons of 1920s chatter and glamour.

He was already beginning to understand the technique of these people’s conversation. The chief knack seemed to be in a stupendous exaggeration of everyday statements. If, for instance, the waiter forgot to give one a wooden ‘spinner’, with which to take the fizz out of one’s champagne, the right phrase was, ‘this is more than I can bear’, or ‘this is agony‘. ‘Divine’, ‘amazing’, ‘shattering’, ‘monstrous’, were all employed for the most ordinary feelings and facts. He found himself wondering what language they would have to speak if anything really awful did happen. They would either have to relapse into Russian, or else express themselves in dumb-show.

Nichols keeps his wit about him, if you’ll pardon the pun, but the mantle of a Serious Novel About Love gets a bit in the way at times. The story takes us on a fish-out-of-water journey, in which Julia and Brian learn that their different backgrounds are more of an impediment than they realised – as is Julia’s insouciant refusal to commit to a single person. As usual, the romantic elements of the plot didn’t hugely interest me, and I got the feeling that they didn’t enormously interest Nichols either (he seems much more authentic when describing the fall out between Brian and his kind housemate Walter) – but there is enough of humour to more than make up for it.

As a grand love story against the odds, this is a bit novel-by-rote. But as a comic novel showcasing Nichols’ witty and very 1920s view of the world, it’s a total delight. The Year of Beverley closes out successfully.


Are They The Same at Home? by Beverley Nichols

Are They The Same At Home

The Year of Beverley continues! I actually read Are They The Same at Home? (1927) steadily over a few months, dipping in and out of it, and finished it during my hinterland in the internetless years. (It felt like years; it was not.) I bought it back in 2010, and it’s a collection of his encounters with… well, with more or less everyone you can imagine from the cultural world of the 1920s.

Indeed, this isn’t going to be a review so much as a list – at least at the bottom – because I think this could be a wonderful little resource for fans of any of these people, and you probably wouldn’t stumble across it by accident. Each chapter describes his interview or friendship – and I say ‘describes’ because almost none of these are set out like discussions; instead, he gives his impressions, he darts around the topic or the room or the theatre, he throws in a few choice words from the subject – and the matter is closed. It is fanciful, fey, and entirely Nichols. It tells us very little in hard fact, and everything in impression. I came away knowing not what these people were like, but what Nichols thought of them.

Each essay is like an impressionist painting, giving us the outline and the character, if not the exact portrait. When he writes about Rose Macaulay, for instance, he spends half the time talking about whether or not people need to wipe their glasses when they cry – Macaulay says no; American friends of his say yes. No biography of Macaulay would use this as a keynote, but he is able to extrapolate much about her lack of romantic imagination – linking in, neatly, her most recent (and, of hers, my favourite) novel Crewe Train. Only Nichols could put together feats like this with such bravado and such delightful inconsequence. They are nothings, but delightful, almost accidentally insightful, nothings. Any lover of the 1920s world should have this on their shelves.

And who were they? Well, they came mostly from the arts, but with some sportspeople and politicians thrown in. While I knew who all the authors were, and have read most of them, there were plenty of names from other spheres which meant nothing to me. An impressive variety. And here they are, all 61 of them. In alphabetical order, as in the book, with one out of order at the end. Why? Who knows.

Senorita de Alvarez
Michael Arlen
Lilian Baylis
Thomas Beecham
Hilaire Belloc
Arnold Bennett
E.F. Benson
Lord Berners
Edna Best
John Bland-Sutton
Andre Charlot
Alan Cobham
C.B. Cochran
Duff Cooper
Noel Coward
Arthur Conan Doyle
Alice Delysia
Sergei Diaghileff
Gerald du Maurier
Jacob Epstein
George Gershwin
Eugene Goossens
Philip Guedalla
Sacha Guitry
Seymour Hicks
Anthony Hope
Aldous Huxley
Margaret Kennedy
Theodore Komisarjevsky
Ronald Knox
Philip de Laszlo
John Lavery
Suzanne Lenglen
David Lloyd George
W.J. Locke
Frederick Lonsdale
Edwin Lutyens
Rose Macaulay
John McCormack
Eddie Marsh
Cyril Maude
W. Somerset Maugham
Nellie Melba
Florence Mills
George Moore
Beverley Nichols
Cyril Norwood
Sean O’Casey
William Orpen
Arthur Pinero
Landon Ronald
Osbert Sitwell
Marie Tempest
Edgar Wallace
Hugh Walpole
H.G. Wells
Rebecca West
Jimmie White
Ellen Wilkinson
P.G. Wodehouse
Georges Carpentier



Confusion by Stefan Zweig

ConfusionDo you ever go to a bookshop and love the displays and feel of it so much that you want to buy something almost as a souvenir? I don’t often buy new books, but a morning browsing in the London Review of Books bookshop last September (when I had a lovely time with Rachel, incidentally) was so fun that I wanted to pick something to take home with me. And I couldn’t resist the beauty of Pushkin Press editions, and an author I’d been meaning to try for ages. Step forward Confusion (1927) by Stefan Zweig, translated from the German by Anthea Bell. I think the cover art was created by Petra Borner, as she gets a note on the jacket (“Her roots are prominent in her work, which often merges natural and magical elements, with bold lines and colours.”) It is definitely lovely.

Confusion is a novella, and I don’t think it’s particularly at the forefront of the Zweig’s literary reputation – but I thought it told a very interesting tale. It is from the perspective of a revered and ageing Languages and Literature Professor, Roland, who has (as his brief introduction explains) recently been given a Festschrift dedicated to him by his department; ‘nothing short of a complete biographical record’. It is this gift that makes him feel an oversight:

The carefully compiled index comprises two hundred names – and the only one missing is the name of the man from whom all my creativity derived, who determined the course my life would take, and now calls me back to my youth with redoubled force. The book covers everything else, but not the man who gave me the gift of language and with whose tongue I speak: and suddenly I feel to blame for this craven silence.

And that takes us to the rest of the book. One of my pet literary peeves is a book which starts with the present day and then leaps back to the past, to wind back to the present – but in Confusion the present day is really only a vantage for stepping back – and that backward glance only encompasses a short period of time. A period that was extremely influential in Roland’s life.

The story is simple, really. After a brief stint as a rather riotous student at one university, more interested in finding willing local girls to share his bed than fine minds to share his study, Roland is asked to leave. A little reluctantly, he enrols in another university – and eventually goes along to a lecture, not expecting very much.

He is immediately beguiled. The lecturer – I want to say that we never learn his name, but it’s equally possible that I just don’t remember it – weaves a tale around literature that captivates Roland. The way he delivers the talk transfixes Roland, introducing him to theories and perspectives and attitudes that leave him excited and desperate for more. (Sidenote: this is the sort of teaching experience one sees occasionally in fiction; I never had it – but I am certainly grateful to Mrs Walker, Miss Little, and Mr Brooks – the teachers who most excited me in my subject throughout high school. Thanks y’all, even though you’ll never see this. I’m not sure I ever had quite that touch-paper moment at university, but that’s perhaps because I didn’t need it; I was already in love with literature. And that, perhaps, dates back to Miss McGovern in Year One.)

But the relationship does not stay purely academic. Roland and the teacher become friends, and he is welcomed into their domestic life – meeting the teacher’s wife too. She is young, dignified, kind, and unhappy. Roland cannot help getting involved in their lives.

From then on I became attentive in a new way; hitherto, my boyish veneration of the teacher whom I idolized had seen him so much as a genius from another world that I had entirely omitted to think of his private, down-to-earth life. With the exaggeration inherent in any true enthusiasm, I had imagined his existence as remote from all the daily concerns of our methodically ordered world. And just as, for instance, a man in love for the first time dares not undress the girl he adores in his thoughts, dares not think of her a natural being like the thousands of others who wear skirts, I was disinclined to venture on any prying into his private life: I knew him only in sublimated form, remote from all that is subjective and ordinary. I saw him as the bearer of the word, and the embodiment of the creative spirit. Now that my tragicomic adventure had suddenly brought his wife across my path, I could not help observing his domestic and family life more closely; indeed, although against my will, a restless, spying curiosity was aroused within me.

Confusion is so brief that I don’t want to spoil the denouement, though it is a natural conclusion to what has gone before and certainly isn’t played for shock. But the way it is told is what is important – and Zweig’s writing (in the hands of Anthea Bell) is beautiful, rhythmic, and with the natural balance and sensitivity of the born storyteller.

So, Confusion probably isn’t regarded amongst Zweig’s foremost fictions – or, who knows, for all I know it is – but I certainly loved reading it. And now I need to resist the urge to buy all of his books in Pushkin editions and no other.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (#Woolfalong)

Thank goodness it’s a leap year, as this helpful 29 February means I’ve just snuck into the January/February bracket for posting my first contribution to Ali’s Woolfalong – more on that here. Basically, in these first two months, the aim was to read (or reread) either Mrs Dalloway or To The Lighthouse – the two most famous Woolf novels. Being a massive Woolf fan, I was delighted with the opportunity to reread.

To The Lighthouse

This is, I think, the fourth time I’ve read To The Lighthouse (1927), but the first time I’ve done so since about 2009. Would I still love it as much? Short answer: yes. Slightly longer answer: I seem to need more of a focused opportunity to read Woolf than I used to. Perhaps my brain has become more scrambled, but I found I needed a bit more concentration than usual to properly appreciate her prose – but it more than pays off.

It is often said that Woolf novels have little plot. Certainly, despite multiple reads, I couldn’t remember a great deal about what happened in To The Lighthouse. (And yet, in a moment I won’t spoil in this review, it is the only novel at which I have ever gasped aloud in shock at something that happens, and the ingenious way that it is told.) Essentially, the Ramsay family and some hangers-on are staying by the coast, waiting to see whether or not they can travel to the lighthouse the next day – and that is the starting point for conversations, musings, changes, hatreds, heartaches, observations. And what a starting point:

“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.

To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night’s darkness and a day’s sail, within touch. Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss.

I only meant to quote up to ‘…within touch’, but I couldn’t stop. It’s such beautiful, such rich writing. Woolf uses words and sentences with an extraordinary sense of their patterns and waves, forming sentences that flow in and out – darting here and there; observing and reflecting – until the simplest moments become daring composite images of the person concerned. The worst writers are those that imitate Woolf and get it wrong; the best writer of the 20th century (to my mind) is Woolf. Her strength is seeing past the surface of a simple word or action, and delving into every nuance.

This is also why readers will tend to love or loathe Woolf. If you read for plot, there is little for you. If you like prose always to be sparse and effective (a style I also love), then Woolf will probably rankle. If you like to read quickly, then you’ll have to learn to slow yourself down to appreciate Woolf – I certainly had to this time around (perhaps I read faster than I used to?) – but I was encouraged by this passage about reading towards the end of To The Lighthouse:

But he was absorbed in it, so that when he looked up, as he did now for an instant, it was not to see anything; it was to pin down some thought more exactly. That done, his mind flew back again and he plunged into his reading. He read, she thought, as if he were guiding something, or wheedling a large flock of sheep, or pushing his way up and up a single narrow path; and sometimes he went fast and straight, and broke his way through the bramble, and sometimes it seemed a branch struck at him, a bramble blinded him, but he was not going to let himself be beaten by that; on he went, tossing over page after page.

Isn’t that glorious? Time and again, for almost any experience she documents, Woolf is able to explore and unravel more than the moment suggests. Her descriptions aren’t always intuitive, but they reveal more than any other author I’ve read; there is infinite richness here.

Of particular note are the ways Woolf documents the evolving relationships between Mr Ramsay and his son James, the latter of whom harbours passionate but silent hatred. (‘Hating his father, James brushed away the tickling spray with which in a manner peculiar to him, compound of severity and humour, he teased his youngest son’s bare leg.’) Equally wonderful are the scenes of Lily the artist, looking at her canvas and battling against feelings of failure and creative obstacles.

The edition I read was the Oxford World’s Classics pictured above, which is lovely to look at and to read, but David Bradshaw’s notes are eccentric to say the least. I can write now (since my DPhil is over) that he took my first year viva, and was so aggressive and discouraging – not to mention unscholarly, in a rude criticism based on his confusing of two different books – that I almost quit my research afterwards. I  was not predisposed to enjoy his editing, therefore, but I hope this isn’t colouring my view of his footnotes, which feel rather phoned in and are often facile (who needs to know, for instance, Bradshaw’s hypothetical musings on why the rent is to low?), though there are some useful points among them. But there are so many editions of To The Lighthouse out there that you can more or less have your choice of them.

The important thing is, I think, that you try her. Try her fiction, and try her non-fiction (which we’ll get to later in the Woolfalong). Perhaps you’ll love her, perhaps you’ll hate her, but if you’re in the former camp, it will change your reading life forever and add a depth and dimension to your experience of fiction that no other author I’ve read has been able to match.