First and Last by V.L. Whitechurch

Guys, I don’t know if you realise, but I’m hilarious. And that’s why I decided the last book of 2017 and first book of 2018 would be… First and Last (1929) by V.L. Whitechurch. Well, at least I amuse myself.

This is my second novel by Whitechurch – the first was the very amusing Canon in Residence – and I picked it up in a bookshop in Stratford-on-Avon a few years ago, when I was (happily enough) hunting for more books by him. He is one of the few vicar-authors, indeed canon-authors, and the title of his novel is a reference to the Bible: ‘so the last will be first and the first will be last’. Jesus actually says it twice in the Bible and, in scriptural context, I think it’s mostly about how the poor are not excluded from Heaven, and nor are those who find faith late in life.

The novel isn’t really about either of those things.

It is about what happens when somebody from a poor background – young Tom the fisherman – comes into vast fortune, through a combination of luck and ability. He saves a rich man who gets caught in sailing difficulties and, in turn, is offered an education far beyond the means of his family and his class (particularly given that this section is set in 1881). The other character we follow is Alan, the stepson of the vicar, who has to leave the vicarage when his stepfather dies – most of the inheritance goes elsewhere, and his future looks much poorer than he realised.

Such is the set up of the characters and their fates (and an ill-advised dose of dialect from local fisherman alongside). The novel skips forward forty years, where Tom is Sir Thomas, a rich businessman (and war profiteer) whose fortune is partly ill-gotten; Alan is a clergyman with a very small income, widowed and not very happy with his life. Tom has a son; Alan has a daughter. You can probably guess what happens when they re-emerge in each other’s lives… but it all happens charmingly and interestingly. Whitechurch is a great storyteller.

I didn’t mark down any passages to quote, so here’s a bit I’ve picked more or less at random, to give a sense of his prose:

The Reverend Alan Crawford, Vicar of Lingmarsh, was tired – tired in body and in mind. He had been paying a round of parochial visits in his widely scattered country parish, trudging along lanes thick with mud, taking ‘short cuts’ over fields to outlying cottages, all the afternoon.

Altogether he had paid seven calls, and each visit, with, perhaps the exception of one, had added to his sense of weariness – a weariness that had come over him before ever he fared forth on his parochial round.

I really enjoyed reading First and Last, and I think any fan of middlebrow novels from the interwar period will love the characters, pace, and comfort of the novel. What prevents it being a brilliant novel, to my mind, is partly the lack of humour (did I imagine it in Canon in Residence, which I recall being tantamount to farce?) and partly the ways in which the characters lean to stereotype. The good people are a little too good; the wicked a little too wicked. First and Last isn’t at all moralistic (in the negative sense), but it does follow firmly trodden moral paths – and, as a parable is unlikely to show thorough nuance in its participants, so First and Last does paint a little in black and white.

But, given these limitations, I think it’s a delightful and absorbing book – not great literature, but certainly a great read. And a great way to kick off 2018 and A Century of Books.

The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner

The True HeartThis beautiful, beautiful edition of The True Heart (1929) by Sylvia Townsend Warner was given to me as part of a wonderful Secret Santa present from Christina (the secret was eventually revealed!) in a Virago Modern Classics LibraryThing exchange. That was back in 2014, and it recently got to the top of my list by being nominated by Ali when I asked people to tell me what to read from my tbr. Thank you both, because I loved it!

It is slightly shaming that, despite writing about Warner at length in my DPhil thesis, I had only read a few of her novels. Because my thesis was thematic, I concentrated on the novels which fit the criteria (they had to be fantastic, for one thing – if you want to know about fantasy vs fantastic, then that can be another post one day!). That meant that I spent a long time reading the diaries, letters, essays etc of Warner and others, but didn’t look too hard at the novels which came after the ones I was interested in.

I was also rather nervous – because, while I love and adore Lolly Willowes, I liked Mr Fortune’s Maggot rather less, and was bored rigid by Summer Will Show and The Corner That Held Them. That may well be because of my struggles with historical fiction, and I know those novels are well-loved by many. But it meant I was curious how I’d feel about The True Heart.

The novel has two things in its favour: it’s set in the Victorian period, which is apparently within my remit for acceptable historical fiction (and within living memory when Warner wrote it), and it was written in the 1920s. Yes, that is often enough for me to fall in love with a book, but in this case it’s notable because I think Warner was at her best with her first few novels – and this one was her third.

I’ve rambled long enough without actually telling you anything about the plot. Apparently it is a retelling of Eros/Cupid and Psyche, though I had forgotten that when I was reading it (and don’t know the myth, thinking about it, so who knows.) Our heroine is Sukey Bond – a bright and imaginative orphan, who leaves her orphanage to be farmed out to… well, aptly, a farm. She is 16, and the place out in the Essex marshes has been found for her by Mrs Seaborn – a woman whom Sukey admires and idolises beyond all others. In the months that passes, it is a sort of idol of Mrs Seaborn that she keeps in her mind, while she tries to get her head around her new scenario. Here’s a fairly length excerpt, which gives you a hint of Warner’s greatest strength – her style. I love how her writing mixes the pastoral, the emotional, and the wryly amusing.

 

She hoped that Zeph would offer to take her to the sea, for though she knew that she had but to follow the windings of the creek eastward to find her way there by herself, she lacked courage to go alone. Herds of cattle and horses grazed over the marsh; but she did not dread these, for she soon discovered that the worst they did was to follow her, snorting and inquisitive, but not intending her any harm. It was the sea itself that she dreaded. The Bible had taught her that the sea was to be feared. storms arose there, the cruel floods clapped their hands. Perhaps a wave would take hold of her and bear her away, or perhaps she would see a ship wrecked.

She hoped in vain. Zeph had a poor opinion of the sea; he would have thought it no compliment to a respectable young girl to offer her a sight of that inscrutable nuisance. When they set out he turned his face firmly inland, conducting her to inspect Mr Hardwick’s new silo. Sukey gazed with due respect at this rarity. It reminded her of the Tower of Babel, and she thought how dreadful it would be if Zeph suddenly began to speak French.

The family are chiefly of the ‘poor but honest’ variety, though the girlfriend of one of the sons (Prudence) is more of a minx who is determined to subjugate Sukey. She has recently been in Sukey’s maid role, and thinks that the best way to elevate herself to equality with the family is to distance herself from her former life. Sukey continues to be something of a naive innocent.

It is with this frame of mind that she meets Eric. She first mistakes him for the third son of the family, but is quickly disabused on this front. He is, in fact, Mrs Seaborn’s son – a kind, nature-loving young man, usually silent. His first overtures to Sukey are offering to show her where he has found a secret orchard. And, drawn to kindness and gentleness, Sukey falls in love with him. They get engaged, in private, near a church – which Eric thinks they can just climb into to be wed.

It is only later that he has a seizure, and Sukey is told by the malicious Prudence that Eric is considered an ‘idiot’. He is taken away from the farm.

We follow Sukey as she quits her job, leaves her things, and goes to find Eric – hoping to be welcomed by the Mrs Seaborn she has built in her head. That’s not quite how things go. And the rest of the novel sees Sukey try to win the freedom and independence that she and Eric need for their simple, harmless love. Along the way she meets curious characters (including Queen Victoria!) and there are amusing incidents – my favourite being where she offers to be a maid at a house which, the reader quickly realises, offers other services…

This is a beautiful book, unsentimental in every scene, but never cynical or too detached. Rather, it shows the strength of a character and the gentle power of determination. Above all, it shows Warner at her best descriptive power and storytelling ability.

I don’t think it’s up there with Lolly Willowes, which is truly a tour de force, but The True Heart is still a great novel and I’m grateful to Christina and Ali for working together – albeit unknowingly! – to get me to read it.

Others who got Stuck into it:

Heavenali: “The novel is deceptively simple, but it is a glorious non-sentimental celebration of love, and the wonderful capacity of the human heart.”

Rough Draft: “The beautiful and deeply textured descriptions and the odd encounters give the novel a fantastic, dream-like quality.”

The Other One by Colette

The Other OneDark Puss! I did it! I read a novel by Colette! I think I remember you, or someone, suggesting that this wasn’t the best one to start with – but The Other One was the novel on my shelf, so it was the one I read. And, better yet, I liked it!

The Other One had a couple of things stacked against it before I started. Firstly, I haven’t had the best of luck with French literature (this novel was published in 1929 as La Seconde and translated by Elizabeth Tait and Roger Senhouse, at least in my edition; I don’t know enough about translation to know if they are commonly associated with Colette. Confusingly, a previous novel was translated as The Other Woman.)  Secondly, it’s about a love triangle – and I find novels about the agonies of people committing adultery exceptionally tedious.

So, why did this one work for me? (Spoilers ahead.) Perhaps primarily because, for the most part, nobody is suffering any agonies at all. Indeed, I spent much of the novel thinking that this was an amicable arrangement for all parties – and I’m still not sure if that was me being duped by Colette, or missing some signals that Fanny wasn’t aware of her husband’s affair. Because when she does become aware, there are some very poignant, excellently handled scenes. More of that anon.

The novel concerns Farou, a theatre impresario who is of the unattractive the-genius-must-be-tolerated variety. Unattractive to the reader, that is, or at least this reader; women seem unable to resist him. The two women in question are far more appealing, nuanced characters. His wife Fanny is controlled, witty, and covers selfishness with charm. Her confidante and companion is Jane, who is Farou’s secretary and mistress, but who admires Fanny as vehemently as she admires Fanny’s husband.

So, yes, I’m still puzzling over whether or not we’re supposed to think that Fanny knows what’s going on. But there is a stark scene about two thirds of the way through this short novel where Fanny spies the two together in the bathroom, and after that her poise is shattered. All comes out, but it isn’t the flinging-plates-and-screaming of stereotype or soap opera. One of my favourites moment in The Other One came during the scene where Fanny lays her accusation before Jane:

The violent slamming of a door in the flat interrupted her. The pair of them, their hands on their hips, in a pose of acrimonious argument, listened to it.

“It’s not him,” Jane said at last. “If it were he, we’d have heard the outer door first.”

“It makes very little noise since the new draught-excluders were fixed,” were Fanny. “In any case, he never comes in here before dinner.”

This sort of domestic detail, at this crucial moment, was tensely funny – as well as revealing a great deal about the dynamic between these women, even in a situation like this. Colette has really built up complex portraits of these women, and the novel seems much more about their dynamic than it is about Farou (or about his son, who is also in love with Jane, in a subplot that lent a bit of depth but not much else).

Oh, and the writing is pretty lovely throughout. Here was another bit I highlighted (and by ‘highlighted’ I, of course, mean that I made a tiny note in pencil):

There they stayed till lamp-time, shoulder against shoulder, with few words passing, silently pointing to a bat, a star maybe, listening to the faint fresh breeze in the trees, imagining the reddening glow of the sunset they never saw unless they climbed the hill opposite.

I’ve heard from Colette aficionados that The Other One isn’t necessarily the best or most exciting place to start with Colette, but I was long overdue reading a book by her, and this one was on my shelf in Oxford. And if this one isn’t considered particularly special amongst her output, then I’m in for a treat – because I thought it was great! I can only imagine how much I’ll enjoy her writing when she has her sights on a topic that I find more interesting, given how successfully she convinced me with this one.

 

A Diet of Dame Agatha

For the sake of updating my Century of Books, and because I have precious little else to update Stuck-in-a-Book with at the moment, here’s a rundown of the Agatha Christies I’ve been reading of late. I imagine there will be another update to come soon, but hopefully I can extend my reading range a bit soon, as I need to read Asleep in the Sun by Adolfo Bioy Casares for book group next week!

It’s difficult to write properly about detective fiction, and it’s even more difficult to write differently about lots of detective fiction, so I’ll just give you a couple of impressions per book.

The Seven Dials Mystery (1929)
Very Wodehousian beginning, and Christie does humour well.  But I never like Agatha as much when she’s doing gangs and spy rings and all that.  (I also wonder how recently she’d read The Man Who Was Thursday.)

Elephants Can Remember (1972)
I was warned off this one after I’d started, but I actually loved large chunks of it – Ariadne Oliver (a detective novelist with a famous Finnish detective) is a wonderful opportunity for Agatha Christie to talk about her own career wittily, and (having met her for my first time in Hallowe’en Party) I loved seeing her again.  But the plot was pretty flimsy.

Curtain (1975)
Poirot’s last case, written some decades earlier, it’s amusingly anachronistic at times, but has a good plot and the ever-wonderful Captain Hastings.

Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952)
More Poirot, more Ariadne Oliver! And a good plot, although perhaps not one of the very best. Or perhaps I’m just saying that because I guessed part of the ending, and I always prefer to be fooled.

Murder in the Mews (1937)
Four novella length stories about Poirot, one of which (the longest) was very good, ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’. The others were fine, but I got the impression that Christie hadn’t considered the ideas good enough for a full-length book.

I have four more Christies out of the library, so I’ll fill you in when I’ve rushed through those… and then hopefully I’ll have broken my Reader’s Block!  Thank goodness there is an author I can turn to during those periods, where it seems inconceivable that anybody could actually finish reading a book (so many WORDS!) as otherwise I’d be going mad.

The Underground River – Edith Olivier

Back when I discovered Edith Olivier’s brilliant novel The Love-Child in a charity shop, I started raving about it to my friends in the dovegreybooks online book email list.  Little did I know that The Love-Child would go on to play an important role in my DPhil thesis, and that I’d present a few papers on it, but I did know that it was a really special book.  And so I very gratefully accepted the kind offer of a lady called Jane to send me a copy of The Underground River (1929) by Olivier.  That was in 2007 – and I finally got around to reading it in spring this year, while doing extra bits and pieces of research for my Olivier chapter.  And here’s a quick little post about it…

It’s a children’s book, about Tony and Dinda who escape from their terrifying great-aunt by going underground and (you guessed it) finding a river.  Many are the adventures they find there… Surprisingly large numbers of people live alongside the river, lit only by candles in the gloom – and some of them are pretty terrifying.  Along the way are men who ask young ladies to dance… who can then never leave them (Dinda manages to avoid this fate).  There are smugglers, kindly magical folk, adventure, peril… it’s the standard fare that I’ve come to expect from a childhood reared on Enid Blyton.  And some self-aware humour at times, maybe?

After a time they felt hungry, but they found it was very difficult to eat their meal in the dark.  They each had a knife and fork, but they had never guessed how hard it would be to cut slices for themselves off a sirloin of beef, with no butler to carve, no carving-knife and fork to carve with, and no light to carve by.
My favourite passage, of course, had to be the following – it’s nice to know that we twins are up there with magical creatures in terms of wonderment.

Tony and Dinda were really delighted.  They had never seen twins before, and they had always longed to know some.  In vain had they begged their mother to give them twin brothers or sisters.  She had always refused, and now here was a family entirely consisting of twins.  It seemed too amusing to be true.
There are nice illustrations by Margaret Forbes throughout, and the edition itself is rather charming – part of ‘The Enchantment Series’, whatever that was, and it is indeed enchanting.

I’ve read quite a few of Olivier’s novels (as always, you can see them all by selecting her from the author drop-down menu in the left-hand column) and none have lived up to the wonder of The Love-Child, but that is hardly surprising.  Whilst Googling The Underground River, though, I stumbled across someone else who has read her obscure books – Scott, of The Furrowed Middlebrow (that link will take you to all his Edith Olivier posts).  There is a coda to this gift-giving; I spotted that The Underground River was one of the few Olivier books Scott hadn’t managed to get hold of, so thought I’d ‘pay it forward’ (if you will) – and now this little book is on its way across the Atlantic…

Remarqueable

Sometimes classic books are a bit of a disappointment, sometimes they’re good but you can’t see why they’re considered better than others, and sometimes they play a real blinder, to use, er, sports terminology.  All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by Erich Maria Remarque (see my hilarious post title pun?) is in the final category.  Of course I had heard of it, but it took Folio sending me a beautiful review copy, and my book group choosing to read it, for me to actually get down to it. And I’m so glad I did.

I suspect it’ll come as a surprise to nobody to learn that the novel is about the life in the trenches during the First World War.  It is written from the German perspective, but (for most of the novel, at any rate) it could be German, English, French, or any of the nations fighting on the front line.  The same fear, bravado, camaraderie, philosophy, violence, and death happened whichever way you look at it, and Remarque beautifully, movingly depicts the everyman soldier experiencing this mad, unbelievable world. (My edition has a translation by Brian Murdoch, which seems excellent to me.)  There is some justifiable resentment about the way the older generation sent his generation (the main character, Paul, is 19) out to face unfathomable horrors, and the rhetoric they used:

While they went on writing and making speeches, we saw field hospitals and men dying: while they preached the service of the state as the greatest thing, we already knew that the fear of death is even greater.  This didn’t make us into rebels or deserters, or turn us into cowards – and they were more than ready to use all of those words – because we loved our country just as much as they did, and so we went bravely into every attack.  But now we were able to distinguish things clearly, all at once our eyes had been opened.  And we saw that there was nothing left of their world.  Suddenly we found ourselves horribly alone – and we had to come to terms with it alone as well.
I’ve read very few war novels – that is, novels involving front line fighting.  I tend to choose novels set back in England during the wars, perhaps because it is possible – with a stretch of the imagination – for me to comprehend what that was like.  But trench warfare is so alien to anything I can imagine experiencing that it is like reading about another planet.

And yet All Quiet on the Western Front is quite matter-of-fact about the day-to-day experiences of the soldiers.  The novel opens with them being given double food portions, and being joyful about it – the reason being that half their comrades have been gunned down.  The comic and the tragic constantly intertwine in the narrative, and that was one of several things that reminded me of the final Blackadder TV series (although, of course, any influence would have been in the other direction).  So, Remarque tells of army jokes, a ridiculous naked trip to some French women happy, ahem, to help the war effort, a fellow soldier who always seems able to procure smart clothes and exotic foods wherever they are…. but, on the flip side, murder and death are never far away.  Remarque’s images are striking and effective:

There in the bed is our pal Kemmerich, who was frying horsemeat with us not long ago, and squatting with us in a shell hole – it’s still him, but it isn’t really him any more; his image has faded, become blurred, like a photographic plate that’s had too many copies made from it.
There is a curious conflict in reading the novel, of sympathy with a hero who does not feel sympathy for the enemy.  Paul is intelligent and kind, and even discusses the futility of war – but Remarque shows the veil of dark violence that is second-nature to him in moments of attack.  And yet, when this attack is at close-quarters, things change.  There is an astonishing scene where Paul kills another man in a hole created by a shell in no-man’s-land.  He stabs the Frenchman, to stop him alerting anybody to his presence – but, as the man slowly dies, Paul is filled with regret – and speaks movingly to the dead body:

“I didn’t mean to kill you, mate.  If you were to jump in here again, I wouldn’t do it, not so long as you were sensible too.  But earlier on you were just an idea to me, a concept in my mind that called up an automatic response – it was that concept that I stabbed.  It is only now that I can see that you are a human being like me.  I just thought about your hand-grenades, your bayonet and your weapons – now I can see your wife, and your face, and what we have in common.  Forgive me, camarade!  We always realise too late.  Why don’t they keep on reminding us that you are all miserable wretches just like us, that your mothers worry themselves just as much as ours and that we’re all just as scared of death and that we die the same way and feel the same pain.”
But minutes later, Paul dismisses these words as being the emotions of the moment, and survival is once more his only consideration.  The battle scenes often felt a bit like boys playing at soldiers – only, of course, it was real lives at stake, and real, horrible deaths.  The introduction in the Folio edition mentions that British reviewers in the 1920s (for it was translated almost immediately, and sold over a million copies in English within a year) complained about the indecency of describing soldiers using the toilet.  But slaughter and depictions of lingering death were acceptable.  Go figure, as our American cousins would say.  (I should add, descriptions of death and pain, though naturally upsetting, are never gratuitous in this novel – leaving them out would be a huge disservice to the soldiers who experienced them.)

Above all, All Quiet on the Western Front is a novel which shows the futility, anguish, and unfairness of war. Although never didactic, it is impossible to read about these experiences (which, I assume, reflect many of Remarque’s own) without loathing war and what it does to the everyman.  Well, I say that.  Ten years later, of course, much of the world was involved in another.

Towards the end of the novel, Paul thinks:

We are soldiers, and only as an afterthought and in a strange and shamefaced way are we still individual human beings.
That may have been true for the brutalities of war and ‘those who died as cattle’, but one of the greatest things about this great novel is the way in which Remarque humanises the soldiers.  Paul is, essentially, every hapless WW1 soldier – German, English, wherever – and All Quiet on the Western Front should, in my opinion, be on every high school history syllabus across Europe.

Bowen Out

Have you ever settled down to a new author, really confident that you’ll enjoy the book in front of you. You’ve heard great things about the author from those whose opinions you respect. You like all the authors to whom this author is compared. It’s the right period, right genre, right topic. And yet… somehow it doesn’t work at all.
That was my experience with Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September.

I’ve read Bowen’s name so often in books about the period, heard it in conversation, always put her down as someone I’ll really enjoy, one day, and then… no. It’s not that I thought the book was *bad* – I could see that the writing was very good – but somehow it was a struggle. Despite being quite a short book, I lost track of who was who (or whom was who, or something) and what was going on. The novel, by the way, is ‘a comedy of manners set in the time of the Irish Troubles.’ It’s set in a big family house, where tennis-parties remain the focus, against the strife and riots. (By the way, the book cover shown isn’t the one I read, but it interested me because it’s the same cover image that Persephone used for their Persephone Classics version of Cheerful Weather For The Wedding by Julia Strachey, blogged about here, not Mariana by Monica Dickens as I wrote before…)

Sometimes I thought I was getting the hang of it. This paragraph is, I think, a great example of Bowen’s writing:

He listened, took off his trench-coat, stepped to the drawing-room door. The five tall windows stood open on rain and the sound of leaves, rain stuttered along the sills, the grey of the mirrors shivered. Polished tables were cold little lakes of light. The smell of sandalwood boxes, a kind of glaze on the air from all the chintzes numbed his earthy vitality, he became all ribs and uniform.

And so it goes on. These moments, I could see that the writing is beautiful… but then I’d get lost and listless again. Perhaps it’s because Bowen’s writing is so often visually descriptive? I can’t ‘see’ things when I read – visual description rarely works for me, unless I concentrate fiercely on it. Hmm.

I was talking to someone at lunch the other day who told me that The Heat of the Day is much better, and that I shouldn’t give up on Elizabeth Bowen yet… can anyone else convince me to persevere? Explain perhaps why I struggled? Or give examples of their own stumbling blocks in books or authors that they fully anticipated loving?