To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

I read To Bed With Grand Music (1946) by Marghanita Laski for the excellent Undervalued British Women Writers conference I went to a while ago, but it’s been one of those titles I’ve had on my real or imagined tbr pile for a long time. It seems such an unusual novel – and so risky that Laski published it under the pseudonym Sarah Russell.

To BEd With Grand Music

It takes place during the Second World War, and our ‘heroine’ – in a fairly loose sense – is Deborah, whose husband has been called up to fight for King and Country. Before he leaves, he initiates a frank chat about what will happen whilst he’s gone. He can’t, he assures her, be expected to remain celibate. He is sure (he adds) that she will understand. Deborah isn’t happy about it…

But, once alone, she rather quickly falls into her own life of dalliances, kicking off with an American soldier named (of course) Joe. It’s rather more nuanced than that, but the reader can see it coming – she finds her scruples gradually worn down, and after the first, the scruples more or less don’t exist. We are taken on a rather dizzying whirl of the men she has relationships with in London – well, some are rather briefer than relationships – and Laski does a great job of delineating them and demonstrating what their appeal is to Deborah. Sometimes it is power, sometimes money, sometimes charm, sometimes looks. One of them, mais naturallement, is French.

Meanwhile, her son is left in the countryside (with the rather more affectionate and capable housekeeper), and Deborah feels only occasional pangs of guilt.

Deborah understood him. “You’re at least the third person,” she said, ” who has asked me if it mightn’t be better if I went home to my chee-ild. Well, darling, that’s just one of the things I’ve really thought out for myself and I know it’s better to be happy than unhappy, and not only for me but for my baby as well. I like this sort of life, in fact, I love it, and seeing as how I’m hurting no one and doing myself quite a lot of good, I rather think I’ll carry on with it. I’ve come to the confusion that conventional morals were invented by a lot of unattractive bitches to make themselves feel good.”

Laski balances two things well – a real investigation of what might confront a woman in Deborah’s position, and (I think I’m right in saying) some sort of satire. It feels like a parody of the Casanova type – there is a real treadmill of conquests – but the tone remains firmly realistic, never allowing hyperbole to creep in, or any laughter from the author. The mix works well, even if it ends up wrong-footing the reader a bit.

This isn’t as sophisticated as some of Laski’s novels, perhaps chiefly because it’s only really doing one thing. The plot, or even the scenario, is really the point of the novel – an exercise in examining one woman and her choices, rather than a more complex canvas. As such, it works very well at what it is trying to do, and shines a light on a part of the war that most 1940s fiction left in darkness, but it is not her most ambitious novel. But, for the parameters she sets, it is both very good and very intriguing.

 

Others who got Stuck into this Book:

“No matter where you stand on the issue of Deborah’s character, this is an absolutely fascinating, brilliantly written portrayal of a completely different side of wartime life” – Book Snob

“This is a very interesting book to compare to Laski’s other World War II title, Little Boy Lost.” – The Bookbinder’s Daughter

“And so I found another Marghanita Laski book that I could argue with while reading. She is so good at that!” – Fleur in Her World

 

Brensham Village by John Moore

brensham-villageLIFE. It’s so busy right now. And that’s why I don’t seem to be reading or reviewing very much. But I have one more Shiny New Books review to point you towards – and it turned out to be an unexpectedly personal one, since it was about the area in which I grew up (albeit a lot earlier). Read the whole review here; this is the opening to entice you:

Brensham Village, the latest volume from the Slightly Foxed Editions series that I love so dearly, is a sort of sequel to Portrait of Elmbury, also published by Slightly Foxed – indeed, it is apparently the middle of a trilogy. I have yet to readPortrait of Elmbury, so let me put your mind at ease from the outset: this is a straightforward delight that requires no familiarity with the first memoir. First published in 1946, it must have been a wonderful antidote to years of war – and is equally welcome today.

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perenyi

More Was LostYou know that I love an NYRB Classic, and lament how often their beautiful editions aren’t available this side of the pond – so it was lovely to get a review copy of More Was Lost by Eleanor Perenyi. It’s a poignant, warm, captivating memoir. But read the introduction last. Promise me you’ll read the introduction later.

Here’s the start of my review; read the rest over at Shiny New Books.

If you’re anything like me, you might be unfamiliar with the political dynamics of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the years leading up to the Second World War. They form the backdrop to this involving and poignant memoir that manages to combine the personal and the global in an extraordinary way: More Was Lost, published in 1946 and now clothed in the loveliness of a NYRB Classics edition.

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

Moving ToyshopIf you’ve listened to the latest episode of ‘Tea or Books?’ then you’ll have heard that I’ve been reading The Moving Toyshop (1946) by Edmund Crispin. It’s always nice to read something that’s been on my shelves for a while, and the note inside the front tells me that I bought it in Edinburgh on 23 September 2009. Eventually somebody chose it for my book group (I don’t even think it was me) so I finally got around to it.

The Moving Toyshop is, in short, a very good novel and a rather poor murder mystery. And I don’t even think this is my usual comparing-things-to-Agatha foible. But more on that anon… The premise is undeniably fab. Richard Cadogan has wandered to Oxford, and somehow finds himself in a toyshop in the middle of the night on ‘Iffley Road’ (which he has put where Cowley Road is, according to the map in the front – yessir, I have local knowledge, since I live off Iffley Road). In said toyshop there is, it turns out, a murdered woman – but before Cadogan can do much about it, he is knocked on the head and put in a cupboard. (That becomes something of a motif in the novel, incidentally; people are forever being knocked on the head and put in cupboards.) He escapes in the morning, but when he returns later… the toyshop has gone.

It’s a brilliant idea, and it’s something of a pity that the resulting plot doesn’t live up to it. Ultimately (I think) this doesn’t stop The Moving Toyshop being a brilliant book – but it is a pity nonetheless. Cadogan enlists the help of reckless Gervase Fen, a witty Professor of English Language and Literature who jets about in his car, flirting and slighting left, right, and centre, and between them they try to unearth the culprit.

Things quickly become far more complicated, and we get into a quagmire of tracking down various legatees to a will, poetic code names and all, where coincidences abound and solutions are seldom interrogated too closely. The characters even talk about how often coincidences happen in real life, and that we never comment on them there… well, that’s as maybe, but even so I wouldn’t be certain that (when needing to find a woman with a spotty dog) that the first woman with a spotty dog that I saw was definitely the one I needed. And the ultimate solution to the moving toyshop is riddled with improbabilities.

But, as I say, this scarcely matters. What makes this novel such a delight is how funny it is. Neither Cadogan nor Fen are particularly sympathetic characters, but before have a great way with words and aren’t afraid of sarcasm. Their teasing of each other, somewhere between affectionate and barbed, is also echoed by the narrative. Crispin throws in lots of description wonders, such as this:

The ‘Mace and Sceptre’ is a large and quite hideous hotel which stands in the very centre of Oxford and which embodies, without apparent shame, almost every architectural style devised since the times of primitive man.

I’m not sure which actual hotel this was referring to, if any, but I do hope it was The Mitre, where my book group meets. That would be wonderfully appropriate.

I didn’t write down many instances, but this sort of thing recurs throughout the book, making it a patchwork of gleeful sentences that more than excuse the plot. Some of the most fun came when Cadogan was talking about poetry or Fen was talking about academic English. I particularly loved Crispin’s riff on a lecture that Fen gave, and the undergraduates’ longing for opportunities for wild conjecture. Oh, and the policeman who always wants to ask Fen about Measure for Measure! It’s all such fun, particularly for anybody who has studied English literature – though a late speech in the novel is quite moving about the creation of literature, somehow without feeling out of place.

Also, speaking personally, it’s such fun to read a novel about the city where I live. I’ve actually read surprisingly few novels set in Oxford, given how many there are out there, and certainly not many where a knowledge of the layout of streets is useful. Plus it meant we got lines like this:

Oxford is the one place in Europe where a man may do anything, however eccentric, and arouse no interest or emotion at all.

I can’t speak for all of Europe, but this is certainly still true in Oxford. I long ago learned, particularly, that people could wear anything at all on the street – from ball gown to horse costume – without anybody turning a hair. Oxford’s acceptance of eccentricity and general live-and-let-live attitude is one of the reasons I’ve found it impossible to leave yet.

Apparently all of Crispin’s novels were detective novels – though detection is rather a kind word for what Fen does. I would rather he had written a different sort of novel, where he could concentrate on the comedy and forget about plot, but perhaps others of his are more watertight in this respect. Either way, this was a complete delight, and I’m glad it came off my shelf after 5.5 years.

 

Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White

Mistress Masham's ReposeI had dimly heard of Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946) before somebody lent it to me, and I think that must have come through reading about Sylvia Townsend Warner and David Garnett, both of whom were good friends with old T.H. Indeed, he dedicates this novel to Garnett’s daughter Amaryllis, to whom it is supposedly being read. White has been in the news recently, featuring in Helen Macdonald’s extremely successful H is for Hawk (which I have yet to read), but I don’t think many people have been talking about Mistress Masham’s Repose. Like me, you may have assumed it was a historical novel. Turns out, it isn’t – but it is a sequel to Gulliver’s Travels. Intrigued?

I have never read Gulliver’s Travels, to my shame, but I am (of course) aware of the Lilliputian characters – and that is pretty much all you need to be able to enjoy the context to this book. The repose of the title is a small, overgrown island in the middle of a lake in the grounds of Malplaquet, the estate where ten-year-old Maria lives. Though her governess Miss Brown, and the local vicar Mr Hater, torment and defraud her, she has enough freedom to wander around the grounds – which is how she discovers that the descendants of the Lilliputians are still living, and living on her lake, no less.

At first, she treats them as playthings – kidnapping a mother and daughter for her personal toys. White writes quite movingly about the mother/daughter relationship of these tiny people, viewed from the vantage of a not-especially tall child: we get something of her surprise at their humanity. Quickly, she realises she has gone about things the wrong way, replaces the child, and speaks with the schoolteacher of the group – who knows and speaks 18th-century English, having had it passed down through the generations from the Lilliputians who learnt it from Gulliver himself. (Gloriously, later, he speaks with the professor – Maria’s only human ally – in Latin, as being the correct way to address an educated man.)

Maria’s involvement with the Lilliputians sometimes goes well (they love making clothes from her fabric offerings) and sometimes disastrously (as you will find out if you read it) – but things take a turn for the worse when Miss Brown and Mr Hater get wind of the Lilliputians’ existence, and want to exploit them for money. Then the novel turns into a fairly conventional story of good vs evil, as Maria and her small friends try to outwit their rather cartoonishly evil nemeses.

That was a little less interesting for me – though perfectly right and proper for what is (I think?) a children’s book (so uncertain about that now). Luckily, this section also comes with some of the book’s funniest passages. There is light humour throughout, and White has a deft hand with it, but the introduction of the Lord Lieutenant is his comic masterstroke. The Professor goes to him for assistance, and the Lord Lieutenant is the epitome of absent-mindedness and loquacity…

“My dear old boy, look here, be advised by me. You drop the whole thing. You’ve got it muddled up. Perfectly natural, of course; no criticism intended. Anybody could get muddled on a thing like that, I should have done it myself. But when you’ve been a Lord Lieutenant as long as I have, or a Chief Constable, or whatever I am, you’ll know that the first thing a Lord Lieutenant has to get hold of is a motive. Can’t have a crime without you. I assure you, it’s an absolute fact. First thing a criminal must do is get a motive. It’s in a book I read. Printed. Now what motive could Miss What-you-may-call-it possibly have for wanting to handcuff young Thingummy in the what’s-it?”

I suspect I’d have got more from this novel if I’d read Gulliver’s Travels – and I probably should have done, considering my English degree background – but I still heartily enjoyed it. A great deal more than I would have done (I imagine) had it been the historical novel I’d thought it was…

Every Good Deed – Dorothy Whipple

It wasn’t until I listed Every Good Deed among my purchases at the Bookbarn that I realised how scarce it was – as a couple of commenters pointed out.  That made me feel duty-bound to read it asap, despite having only read some of the Persephone Whipples available (Someone at a Distance, They Knew Mr Knight, Greenbanks, High Wages, and The Closed Door – more than I’d thought, now I come to list them).  Well, judging by Persephone’s love for Dorothy Whipple, I predict that Every Good Deed (1946) will one day join that number – but perhaps they needn’t rush.  It was enjoyable and interesting, but it wasn’t Whipple on top form…

They general idea is that a couple of oldish spinster sisters adopt a child from a local sort of orphanage, and all does not go well.  Susan and Emily Topham are shy, caring, worried about what society thinks of them, and above all not ready for a trickster.  Their cook (Cook, if you will) is a little more worldly-wise, but just barely.  Enter Gwen.

She steals, she talks back, she lies, she is (when a little older) no better than she ought to be.  She abuses their care and runs amok – and runs away.  She’s not even an orphan; her wily mother uses the situation to exact cash from the Topham sisters.

There were hundreds of children who, in the same circumstances, would have responded to their care, would have loved them and been grateful; but by mischance they had hit upon Gwen.
That’s Whipple’s slightly half-hearted attempt to make sure we know Every Good Deed isn’t supposed to be a universal cautionary tale.  The classism of the book did make me a little uneasy, and I’m not sure that sentence saved things…

There are a few more ins and outs in the narrative than this, but not many.  Although I enjoyed reading it, and Whipple is an expert at writing a very readable book, it did feel a lot like a short story which had got a bit long.  There is only one arc of the narrative – subplots not welcome – and the moments of crisis feel like the climaxes of a short story, not multifaceted moments in a novella.  Every Good Deed is only just over a hundred pages long, but I reckon it would have made more sense at, say, forty pages, in one of Whipple’s short story collections.  An enjoyable enough read, but if you’re struggling to find a copy anywhere… well, don’t feel too distraught about it.

Consider the Years – Virginia Graham

You’ll see that I’ve tagged this as post as ‘Persephone’, for this Consider the Years (1946) by Virginia Graham is available in a dove grey volume – but my copy is the beautiful one you see below (and the gorgeous bookmark was made by my friend Sherry):

Having read, and loved, Virginia Graham’s hilarious spoof etiquette and ‘how to’ books Say Please and Here’s How (click on those titles to read my reviews – or here for an excerpt from the latter on ‘How to sing’), I thought I’d branch out and read some of her poems.  Consider the Years is a collection of poems which were written between 1938 and 1946 and so, of course, primarily concern the Second World War.

Dear reader, what we have is a case of frustrated expectations.  Having read Graham in fine comic mode, I was hoping that Consider the Years would be a collection of comic verse.  And, goodness knows, many authors have found much to laugh at amidst the horrors of wartime.  Unfair as it is to judge an author by standards which they they didn’t agree to, the only poems I really loved in this collection were those that were funny.  Here, for example, is one called ‘Losing Face’:

This is my doodle-bug face.  Do you like it?
It’s supposed to look dreadfully brave.
Not jolly of course – that would hardly be tactful,
But… well, sort of loving and grave.

You are meant to believe that I simply don’t care
And am filled with a knowledge superal,
Oh, well… about spiritual things, don’t you know,
Such as man being frightfully eternal.

This is my doodle-bug voice.  Can you hear it?
It’s thrillingly vibrant, yet calm.
If we weren’t in the office, which isn’t the place,
I’d read you a suitable psalm.

This is my doodle-bug place.  Can you see me?
It’s really amazingly snug
Lying under the desk with my doodle-bug face
And my doodle-bug voice in the rug.
Would that the whole collection had been along these lines!  And I mean that both in tone and metre.  I know it’s a terribly unscholarly thing to say, but I have to confess a fondness for poems with rhyme and scan.  (This is why I have only studied prose at graduate level, I suspect.)

When Graham wanders into free verse, or to scanning verse that doesn’t rhyme (or, sometimes, rhyming verse that doesn’t scan), I lose interest.  Her poems are never particularly experimental, I should add – her free verse isn’t unduly free – but I, with my reluctance to read poetry, had come hoping for pages of poems like ‘Losing Face’, and Graham does not intend to provide that.

But… it’s is a beautiful little book, isn’t it?

Mr. Allenby Loses The Way – Frank Baker

This is one of those books I probably wouldn’t blog about if it weren’t for A Century of Books.  Under the terms and conditions of this challenge, I promised (er, sort of) to read a book from every year of the 20th century, and post a review of each one.  I didn’t think that would be the tricky part.  The paltry figure I currently have stated as completed is not quite so paltry as it appears, since there are three or four books which I’ve read but have yet to review.

Sorry, side-tracked.  I wouldn’t normally blog about Mr. Allenby Loses the Way by Frank Baker because it is has the two characteristics of many books I read: it’s incredibly difficult to find affordable copies, and it’s not especially good.  If it were scarce but brilliant, I’d be the first to write about it; if it were readily available and mediocre, I’d write that review too.  But since it’s impossible to find (I read it in the Bodleian) and not really worth finding… oh well, rules is rules, and this is my book for 1946.  Plus it’s nice to think that someone will have written about this book on the interwebs, because otherwise a would-be Googler would find nothing.

The name Frank Baker will doubtless ring a bell – it is he who penned one of my all-time faves, Miss Hargreaves, and I keep persevering with his work, in the hope that I find something else as wonderful.  (Miss H, as I blogged recently, even pops up her head in Mr. Allenby Loses The Way.)  But genius seems only to have wandered by once, and the other Baker books I’ve read are rather more pedestrian.  Actually that’s probably not the right term for Mr. Allenby Loses The Way because, in fact, it baffled me utterly in its strangeness.

Sergius Allenby is a diffident newsagent who lives fairly contentedly with his wife and niece.  He’s not unlike Norman, from Miss Hargreaves, in being an unassuming but imaginative man.  The family dynamics aren’t as amusing as the Huntley family’s, but it all seems fairly normal (albeit amidst the air raid sirens and rationings of the time) until a gentlemen turns up wanting to talk to Mr. Allenby.

There was something remarkable about him, thought Sergius, yet he could not easily have described him except to say he was tall, lean-figured, dressed in good but unmemorable dark clothes, with graceful, cat-like movements of the arms.  His dim eyes, blurred by heavy horn spectacles, stared down at his brilliantly polished black shoes as though within those orbs stirred some oracle who guided him.  He was like a shadow, without substance or personality.  When he opened his mouth to speak Sergius expected some extraordinary remark to issue from him.  “There is a basilisk sitting on your right shoulder.”  But he only said, in a persuasive and delicate voice, “You are Mr. Allenby, I believe?”

It turns out that the gentlemen is not, in fact, a gentlemen – but a fairy usurping the body of one.  Sergius is asked whether or not he believes in fairies, and somewhat nervously conceded that he always has done – based on the mysterious and imprecise events surrounding his own birth, abandonment by his mother, and subsequent adoption.  This confession is all that is needed for the fairy-man to grant Sergius five wishes – a transaction done with a businesslike demeanour unbefitting a fairy.

Sergius sat, drumming his fingers on the table-cloth and staring dreamily into space.  The strange referred again to his note-book.  “Hm. Yes,” he murmured, “Sergius Allenby.  To be allowed five wishes with the usual reservations.  Period, one month.  Casual wishes not operative.  No other person to assist.  Allow me to congratulate you, Mr. Allenby.  I might tell you, in confidence, that you are the only person in this area to be granted five wishes.”
“It does seem a lot.” Sergius coughed apologetically.  “It always used to be three in the old tales.”
“Frankly, there’s not much one can do with three; and first wishes are invariably wasted.”

And it is after this that the novel becomes strange.

I imagine quite a lot of you would have stopped listening when I used the word ‘fairy’.  I’ve got to admit, I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect myself.  Even with my love of slightly strange novels, which dabble in the fantastic (like a certain Miss Hargreaves, don’t know if you’ve heard of it) I shudder at the thought of fairies and suchlike appearing in a novel.

Well, you’re in luck.  Turns out he might not be a fairy after all.  Humphrey Nanson occupies the other narrative thread – he is a strange sort of psychologist, who muses a lot on the nature of morality, works in an underground room filled with erotica and children’s books, and seems to be able to possess people.  Told you it became strange.  But he also enjoys toying with other people’s lives, and wielding power over them.

“There is the simple expedient of the telephone directory.  Don’t you
adore the pin of fate?  As for the joke – I would aim merely at the
baffling and bewildering of the chosen victim.  For example, Harold
Finching, warehouse clerk, receives, every Tuesday morning, through the
post, a parcel of boiled cod and bootlaces.  Miss Pennyprim, of Mon
Abri, discovers, every Sunday morning, a pair of bright scarlet bloomers
hanging from her line.  Mr. Allenby, newsagent, is visited by a
business-like fairy and told he may have five wishes.”
Curiouser and curiouser.  Even curiouserer is that Mr. Allenby’s wishes seem to be coming true…

There are some fantastic ideas in this novel.  My favourite conceit within it (which is more or less incidental to the plot) is that of an artist so absorbed in painting the sea scene in front of him that it is not until the picture is completed that he realises he has included a woman drowning herself… as indeed she has.  But good ideas do not a novel make.  Where Miss Hargreaves was insouciant and joyful with an undercurrent of the sinister, Mr. Allenby Loses The Way rather loses the joy.  Instead we have a lot of meanderings about philosophy and morality and psychology which do little other than baffle and skip round in circles.  In the meantime, the plot arcs and interweavings don’t seem to make much sense or maintain much continuity.

Perhaps most importantly, there is no character with the life of Miss Hargreaves.   She is a true one-off, a brilliant invention; I could read her dialogue with delight for months.  There is a vitality in her which spreads through her novel.  Mr. Allenby Loses The Way has no such character; everything is slightly leaden.  The writing is not bad, in and of itself, but neither is it sprightly.  The odd amusing turn of phrase reminds me of Baker at his peak, but only for a moment or two.

After I read Miss Hargreaves I had hoped I had been introduced to a wonderful writer, and could spend many happy years tracking down and loving his novels.  Instead, I am left rather desolate that Miss Hargreaves was the one bright light amidst mediocrity.  But I’ll keep trying his books.  If any of them are half as wonderful as Miss Hargreaves, it’ll have been worth the search.

Have you had that experience with any author – one brilliant book, but only one?  If so, let me know…

Second Book Syndrome


We’ve all heard about the difficulties authors have with their second books – especially if these authors have had phenomenal success with their first books. The press, the pressures, the awaiting backlash…
…but this is not the kind of Second Book Syndrome I’m chatting about today, though it is of a quite similar variety. Rather than the second book written, I’m referring to the second book read. These might well coincide, if you’re buying up the work of a live-and-writing author, but often this won’t be the case.

I should try and be a little clearer. You’ve read one book by an author. You love it. And so you find, and read, another. And this is where Second Book Syndrome hits in…

Regular blog visitors will know that I LOVE Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker. It might even be my favourite novel, but, though I’ve read it three or four times, it wasn’t until last week that I’d read any other of Frank Baker’s novels. I’ve had them on my shelf for a while, but they’ve not got any further than that. And now I’ve read Before I Go Hence. Bam! Second Book Syndrome. I knew that Before I Go Hence wouldn’t live up to Miss Hargreaves, how could it, but…

The novel takes place on two time levels – the Reverend Kenner, his daughter Ellen and mentally deficient son Arthur live in an old house ‘Allways’, undisturbed until the mysterious return of his other, long-absent, son Robert. A few years later newly-weds Maurice and Ruth visit ‘Allways’ with some friends. And Reverend Kenner can see them out the window. This initial time-bending isn’t really followed up upon, not particularly. The two narratives are dealt with in separate chapters, and reflect upon each in quite intriguing ways, but… yes, another diagnosis of Second Book Syndrome. Before I Go Hence is too philosophical, too leaden in comparison to the, frankly incomparable, joie de vivre of Miss Hargreaves. And yet there is little intrinsic to Before I Go Hence which makes me dislike it; had it been by a different author, perhaps I’d appreciate it more, but as it is… Second Book Syndrome.

Anyone else suffered from SBS?