H.G. Wells and His Family by M. M. Meyer

As I’ve probably said before, I love books about authors from a unique perspective. AllHG Wells the famous ones have biographies written about them, of course, and I daresay there are several authoritative and scholarly biographies of H.G. Wells that I could have bought – but I’m rather more intrigued by the personal angle. Show me a book that only one person could have written, and I’ll run towards it. My favourite is probably the book about Ivy Compton-Burnett written by her secretary (Cecily Grieg or Cicely Greig or some variant on that – one day I’ll learn which), but I would also recommend H.G. Wells and His Family (1955) to any Wells enthusiasts.

 

Who was M.M. Meyer? Well, she was the governess to Wells’ children. Her experiences looking after the two boys form the mainstay of this book – even if we first hear of them as ‘Professor G.P. Wells and Mr F.R. Wells’ in her introduction, with a touching pride in their achievements and maturity. As the first paragraph states, though:

Some of the most cherished memories of my long career as a Swiss governess in England take me back to the four and three-quarter years that I spent in the literary household of Mr. and Mrs. H.G. Wells – first t Spade House, Sandgate, then at No. 17 Church Row, Hampstead, and finally at Easton Glebe, near Dunmow, Essex.

As this paragraph might suggest, Meyer isn’t the most sparkling prose stylist in the world. The memoir is quite prosaic in form, relating incidents one after the other, but it is the tone of happy nostalgia – as well as Meyer’s unique placement to observe these moments – that make the book so enjoyable. Whether it’s the family playing a variant of consequences (‘consequences’ is called ‘exquisite corpses’ in American English, I believe? Or was? I read the entirety of Exquisite Corpse by Alfred Chester without knowing that, and it was baffling), or the only time Wells shouted at her, these are stories that nobody else could relate first-hand – and a biographer would flatten, losing the moving enthusiasm that Meyer clearly has about every aspect of the family. She even includes pictures of their consequences and other doodles, having preserved them for years.

What did I know about Wells before I opened up this book? Well, besides a relatively small percentage of his books (sidenote: I bought The Bulpington of Blup by him recently; who knew THAT existed?) and the fact that he was A.A. Milne’s maths teacher, it was mostly his adultery. His serial womanising seems to be the keynote of his personal life in biographers’ eyes. It’s refreshing that Meyer doesn’t mention it – possibly it was not widely known in 1955, but you get the impression that she wouldn’t have talked about it either way. But it does make the reader smile a little guiltily over notes like this, which appears in a section she writes as a diary:

September 27th. Miss Rebecca West arrived to-day. She looks about twenty-two years of age, and is very vivacious. She writes in the Freewoman, and has just reviewed Mr. Wells’s new novel Marriage.

This book is doubtless only a footnote in a literary or biographical analysis of H. G. Wells – but how enjoyable it was. If anybody has any other recommendations for this sort of book – notable authors as known by their friends, employees, or acquaintances – then please do let me know!

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

Seize the DayOne of the books I bought in the US in 2013 (in Alexandria, Virginia to be precise) was Seize the Day by Saul Bellow. I daresay I could have found a copy in England, but it felt right to buy one of the Big American Writers while in the US of A. And eventually I read it, and then there was quite a gap before I got around to writing this…

I went in with some trepidation. There are all sorts of those Big American Writers whom I’ve still not read. Faulkner, Hemingway… well, those are the only two I can think of right now that I’d put in the same intimidating category as Saul Bellow. But now I’m not quite sure why I put him into that category at all – Seize the Day was really good, and not at all off-putting or difficult or testosterone-filled in the way that I imagine those other two are. (Am I wrong about them too?)

Seize the Day (1956), for anybody else in my position of Bellow ignorance, is apparently considered one of the best American novels of the 20th century and was Bellow’s fourth novel. It’s also super short, which is a criterion that meant more to me than those other things – my copy weighs in at only 118 pages.

The hero – though he is far from that – is Wilhelm Adler, a failed actor who is in a mire of frustration. He is estranged from his wife and children and a disappointment to his elderly father – as his father is not reluctant to let him know. Wilhelm has moved into his father’s hotel, and is trying to reconnect with him, though it is not made easy. The focus of Seize the Day is a single, ordinary day: Wilhelm is going to have breakfast and an argument with his father, and is musing on the various failures of his life. We go in and out of his mind, reliving the past, seeing how everything went wrong by increments. Here, for example, is an overview of his dashed hopes of becoming a filmstar, after he was invited to a screen test:

But when Venice saw the results of the screen test he did a quick about-face. In those days Wilhelm had had a speech difficulty. It was not a true stammer, it was a thickness of speech which the sound track exaggerated. The film showed that he had many peculiarities, otherwise unnoticeable. When he shrugged, his hands drew up within his sleeves. The vault of his chest was huge, but he really didn’t look strong under the lights. Though he called himself a hippopotamus, he more nearly resembled a bear. His walk was bearlike, quick and rather soft, toes turned inward, as though his shoes were an impediment. About one thing Venice had been right. Wilhelm was photogenic, and his wavy blond hair (now graying) came out well, but after the test Venice refused to encourage him. He tried to get rid of him. He couldn’t afford to take a chance on him, he had made too many mistakes already and lived in fear of his powerful relatives.

More recently, he has lost much of his savings in an ill-fated financial dalliance with Dr Tamkin, a self-professed psychologist who is really fraudulently preying upon Wilhelm’s weak character. Yet even here, there are shades of grey. We aren’t seeing the conniving nemesis manipulating the vulnerable hero – it is more nuanced than that.

Most nuanced, and the section I most admired, is the conversation between Wilhelm and his father. If Wilhelm embodies the death of a certain sort of American dream more broadly, these exchanges look more closely at the universal desire to make one’s parents proud. Dr Adler is fairly harsh in his refusal to excuse his son, and is clearly disappointed in him, but Bellow manages to make us see that this is one conversation in a long line of similar conversations. Wilhelm is asking for pity where his father can only feel disgust at his self-pity. Each line of dialogue is believable while being a blow to the heart.

It’s hardly revelatory to say that I think Saul Bellow is a very good writer, but I had expected bravado and grandiose writing, rather than the subtlety and even delicacy – yet somehow a forthright delicacy – that he puts on the page. I’m last to the party, but I can certainly see myself returning to Bellow when in that sort of frame of mind.

Next stop, Faulkner?

The Lost Europeans by Emanuel Litvinoff

Lost-EuropeansJudging by the number of comments, reviews where I get you to click somewhere else aren’t necessarily as popular as reviews here – but THIS one is hopefully different because, guys… THIS IS THE LAST BOOK ON MY 50 BOOKS YOU MUST READ BUT MAY NOT HAVE HEARD ABOUT. (That list is over in the right-hand column, fyi.)

The list has been going since I started the blog in April 2007, although it has slowed over the years as I ran out of the backlog of titles I wanted to add, and worried about the end drawing near.

Do I start another list? Don’t know. But watch this space for a little celebration of 50 Books next week.

ANYWAY The Lost Europeans by Emanuel Litvinoff is the book in question. It was published in 1958 and is about Germany after the war, and what it was like to visit as a Jewish German who was evacuated to England. But what makes it so good is Litvinoff’s extraordinary writing.

It doesn’t hurt that the book is beautifully produced too.

Head over to Shiny New Books to read all my thoughts, but here is the beginning of my review. And look out for 50 Books celebration and PRIZE next week!

Have you ever had the experience of starting a novel and, before you’ve got to the end of the second page, you are so bowled away by the writing that you already know that you’ve found one of the best books you’ll read that year? It happens to me very seldom – Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude did the sane thing – but it certainly happened with Emanuel Litvinoff’s 1958 novel The Lost Europeans, reprinted as part of a beautiful new series by Apollo.

Death on the Riviera by John Bude

Death on the RivieraAnother Shiny New Books review – this time of the latest British Library Crime Classic, and my first John Bude (despite having the rest of them on my shelf!), 1952’s Death on the Riviera. He does get wonderful covers, doesn’t he? To be honest, it’s not my favourite of their offerings – Alan Melville still holds that crown – but it’s good fun. Read the whole review, or be enticed by the opening to it…

I’ve got all the John Bude reprints that have appeared in the British Library Crime Classics series, and have given several to other people, but Death on the Riviera (1952) is actually the first of his that I’ve read. Like all the others, he has been given a beautiful cover – but what of the contents? Well, it’s a fun detective novel that won’t stand up to rigorous examination, but is none the less enjoyable for that.

The Eye of Love by Margery Sharp

The Eye of LoveI’m rather astonished that I’m managing to join in with the Margery Sharp celebrations at Beyond Eden Rock (organised by Jane) – chiefly because I only managed to start The Eye of Love (1957) on Saturday, and have had a very busy weekend. Indeed, it’s been a busy old year so far, which is the reason I must give for not having published as many blog posts as I’d intended so far. But the combination of fierce determination and (more importantly) Sharp’s excellent writing have made me finish just in time.

The Eye of Love is the third Sharp novel I’ve read so far, and it’s been on my shelves for many years. The reason I chose this one is because it turns out it’s the only one I have in Oxford (I had intended to go with Britannia Mews) – but it is rather lovely, and (sorry, but the connection is irresistible) sharp.

This is Sharp’s quirky take on a romance novel, her motif being that the ‘eye of love’ sees things that other eyes cannot; basically, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In this case, the beholders are a middle-aged couple, one of whom (born Dorothy Hogg, but choosing instead the name Dolores Diver) fancies herself a Spanish Rose type, comb in hair and shawl around her shoulders, but is known by laughers in the street as Old Madrid. Her inamorata is Mr Gibson, a portly man who has made his money in retail. As the novel opens, they are deciding that they can no longer be a couple. They have been in love, and lovers, for a decade – but both decide, unspoken, that people of their disparate stations do not marry. Instead, Mr Gibson must marry a Miss Joyce, solely for business reasons.

They are both rather distraught, but Sharp’s masterstroke is adding a third element: the young girl Martha. She is Dolores’ niece by marriage, orphaned and living with Dolores, and a more convincingly stolid and dispassionate child never existed in fiction. She is not mean or intentionally rude, she is simply completely uninterested in the emotional lives of the adults around her. Where Dolores hopes she will be a shoulder to cry on, or even some sort of go-between, she naively and honestly makes no indication that she misses him at all. Martha adds wonderful comedy to the novel, and Sharp draws her beautifully. Oh, and she’s also something of an artistic genius, unbeknownst to everyone (including herself).

Martha is not the only element of comedy. The narrative is always undermining the characters’ emotional effusions or deceits. When Miss Joyce accepts Mr Gibson’s proposal, with supposed surprise, Sharp adds:

As she moved impulsively to accept his embrace, she impulsively pressed a bell; the maid who brought in the champagne must have been very handy.

That repeated ‘impulsively’ works wonders. It is a very amusing book, and that – as in Cluny Brown, which I failed to finish in time for Margery Sharp Day 2015 – is due chiefly to this way Sharp has as a narrator. The most ordinary events are lent a spin of dry humour, but, vitally, Sharp remains intensely affectionate about her characters – and so does the reader. That is the keynote of the novel, that has various twists and turns and interlacing events: Dolores and Mr Gibson may appear ridiculous to many, but Sharp ably makes it so that the reader, like the characters, sees them instead through the eye of love.

Incidentally… my copy is The Popular Book Club, eventually a subscription book-of-the-month type club, and my copy still had the original brochure tucked in it (at around p.20, suggesting that they didn’t get very far). It features a little bit about the author…

Margery Sharp brochure

The Outlaws on Parnassus by Margaret Kennedy

I’m in one of those moods where – though there are book group books and Shiny New Books I should be reading – I am impulsively picking up other, non-essential books, and reading them instead. Once I get them in my head, nothing else will quite do. Which is why I’ve recently read The Outlaws on Parnassus (1958) by Margaret Kennedy – which I bought when Jane ran Margaret Kennedy Reading Week.

The Outlaws on Parnassus

It’s non-fiction – more specifically, a look at the art of the novel. In case the opaque title isn’t immediately clear, this is the opening paragraph, which might help:

The status of the novel, as a form of art, has never been clearly determined. No particular Muse was assigned to story-tellers. There are no Chairs of Fiction at our Universities. Criticism has never paid to the novel the degree of attention which it has accorded to other kinds of literature.

So, Kennedy’s title suggests that the novel is something of an outlaw among the other forms of literature, waiting for the gods on Mount Parnassus. While her opening statements are no longer true (there are plenty of Chairs of Fiction) and probably weren’t quite true in 1958, the doesn’t take away from the interesting discussion Kennedy launches into – interesting both on its own merits, and as a snapshot of literary opinion in the mid-century.

The Outlaws on Parnassus starts by looking through a brief history of the novel, dwelling on those names that were only a century or so old in the 1950s. (Indeed, throughout the reference points are intriguing – we expect to find Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf – and do – but how many books about the novel written today would return so often to Joyce Carey?) Kennedy writes some very interesting things about the difference between plot, story, and comment – not all of which I agree with, but it’s interesting nonetheless – and includes some very adroit comparisons of the skeletons of novels, convincingly identifying the same plot structures in Vanity Fair and To The Lighthouse, for instance.

But most of the book, Kennedy looks at different approaches to narrative forms and narrator personae. The latter she divides into autobiographical, author-observer, impersonal narrative, realist, and egocentric. I can’t imagine her categories becoming lasting pillars of literary criticism, but she argues her points well, giving specific examples for each of these styles of a woman entering a room and being found beautiful by those in it.

I’ve read quite a lot about realist fiction in my studies, as you might expect, having written about fantastic literature – and I wish I’d come across this earlier. It pretty much sums up what happened with realist fiction (and the backlash against it) in the early 20th century. I can’t work out if the echoes of Woolf’s ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ are intentional or not, but it plays out less condescendingly that Woolf’s (excellent and witty, but, yes, condescending) essay: (oh, by the way, the hypothetical Flora and her activities form Kennedy’s exemplar throughout the book)

In the early realistic novel Flora’s validity was established by surrounding her with intensely valid detail, of a kind which the reader could readily endorse from his own experience. If she cooked cabbage the house smelt of it. If the weather was warm she sweated. If she went to Penzance she started from Paddington and took a train which could be verified in Bradshaw. If she died she did so of an authentic disease described in clinical detail. Any doctor, reading an account of her symptoms, would agree that she had to die. No author could save her after ‘a coffee grounds vomit’.

This detail need not necessarily be sordid or disgusting; it was a matter of plain accuracy. The whole technique however came to be identified with this unseemly statement, because it was this aspect of it which most struck the average reader. He had never met such things in a novel before; a ‘realistic novel’ not only mentioned a privy but described minutely what went on there. Many realistic novels used such material sparingly, but liberty to employ cloacal, physical, or sexual detail was interpreted, by so many inferior novelists, as licence that the whole nature of the technique came to be misunderstood.

And then there are sections wherein Kennedy looks back at specific moments in critical history, as the novel began to be understood (or misunderstood) by a wider public. She is particularly reproving of those, in the 1930s, who chose to turn their focus away from the qualities of art:

A distinction between art and non-art may be useful, but it is not the most vital distinction to be made. The major service of criticism is to distinguish between bad art and good art, and, above all, to help us to understand why good art is good. It was a great misfortune for the cause of the novel that criticism should have gone off on a witch-hunting excursion, just when novelists had a chance of securing serious attention. They were not the only sufferers. Some attempt was also made, in the 1930s, to screen the poets for suspicious intentions and cynical attitudes, but the poets are better established. Enough sense has been talked about them, in the course of 2,500 years, to enable them to stand up against an occasional bombardment of nonsense. The case of the novelists was not so robust. Their public, long accustomed to think of them with a certain degree of disparagement, would have been reluctant enough, in any case, to changes its ideas. An opportunity was missed of establishing an art, claimed as great, by defining those qualities which make it so. It was neglected in favour of denunciations against naughty boys.

The only curious misstep in The Outlaws on Parnassus, to my mind, is the late chapter where Kennedy writes at length about the plot of The Odyssey without, so far as I can tell, much of a wider point to make. She makes a half-hearted attempt to call it the world’s first novel, but the chapter still feels a bit like she wrote it for something else, and thought she might as well include it to bulk out the number of pages.

But, that aside, it’s a really fun, interesting, and engaging little book. It’s no surprise that it didn’t revolutionise the world of literary theory, but those of us who love novelists like Margaret Kennedy and reading about novels (as well as reading novels themselves), then this is a bit of a find.

They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie

They Came to BaghdadHaving just read Martin Edwards’ very entertaining The Golden Age of Murder (which I’m due to write about over at Vulpes Libris soon), I was in the mood for some Agatha – and decided to grab one which fulfilled one of the criteria on my Book Bingo. One of them is ‘Book set in Asia’, and so I grabbed They Came to Baghdad (1951), which my friend Simon gave me a few years ago.

I feel a bit guilty about it, since I don’t think it’s the most authentic portrayal of Asia imaginable (and I had been planning to read Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco), but at least Christie knew the area fairly well.

They Came to Baghdad has one of Christie’s most likeable heroines, the impetuous, charming, and accident-prone Victoria Jones. She starts the novel by getting fired from her position as a typist (for impersonating the boss’ wife) and wanders, bloody but unbowed, into the streets of London – whereupon she meets a gentleman as impetuous and charming as herself, the handsome Robert. They obviously rather fancy each other, but he is off to Baghdad the next day.

Luckily, Victoria manages to find someone willing to pay her board to Baghdad in exchange for helping her manage the journey, so she can go and surprise Robert. (Remember the impetuous thing?) Only… she doesn’t know his surname, and doesn’t have any money. A delight of a hotel proprietor gives her a room (he is forever offering her beautifully cooked meals, and describing everyone he knows as ‘very nice’) and she decides just to wait it out and see what happens. Only, what happens is that somebody ends up dead in her hotel room…

This isn’t a traditional Agatha Christie whodunnit, though, more’s the pity. The death doesn’t come until almost halfway through the book, for one thing, and long before that there has been much talk of intrigue and codes and meetings of international importance, etc. The novel is really a thriller, rather than a detective novel – and, had I known that, I might not have picked it up.

For much the same reasons I talked about in relation to spy novels recently, I am not enamoured with thrillers. I avoid anything with gore or sadism, which rules out many modern thrillers, but even Christie’s cosy approach to the thriller didn’t, er, thrill me. It is compellingly readable, as everything Christie wrote was, but I can’t bring myself to care about international plots and orchestrated assassinations and the like. I want Christie novels to revolve around anger that somebody knocked over a bird cage (for example) and to take place in a small village or country house.

There’s still a twist or two in the tale (though the main one is so obvious that I can’t really believe it was intended to be a twist), but there’s not really much to satisfy those on the lookout for the sort of clues and denouements that are the fabric of Christie’s archetypal output.

So, did I enjoy reading it? Sure, it was still pretty fun. But it’s probably one of the least enjoyable Agathas that I’ve read so far, and confirms my preference for Marples and Poirots. Speaking of which, I’ve just picked Nemesis off the shelf for my ‘one-word title’ square on Book Bingo…

Duveen by S.N. Behrman

DuveenThis is a mini post, because I don’t think I ever pointed you in the direction of my review of Duveen (1952) by S.N. Behrman, which was actually in Issue 4 of Shiny New Books. But it’s really good and I should have mentioned before. Not the sort of book I’d usually read – the biography of an art dealer who provided for (and, essentially, manipulated) the super-rich – but I rightly trusted Daunt Books to reprint only good things.

I also had the fun experience of thinking it was a novel for the first chapter. It reads quite differently when you realise it’s not!

Well, better late than never. The link above will take you to Issue 4 of Shiny New Books, rather than the latest menus, but it’s also a fun reminder that all the old issues are still there, waiting to be read.

3 little links…

Here are three things I’ve written in other places this week… fill your boots!

1.) I reviewed Aldous Huxley’s The Genius and the Goddess at Vulpes Libris.

2.) 5 things you didn’t know about Mrs Dalloway over at OUP Academic Tumblr (although, spoilers, I think some of you definitely will know these)

3.) My favourite: 12 nouns that are always plural. The most geeky English language thing I’ve ever written AND the most cat-themed thing I’ve ever written. *drops mic*

Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis

Who first told me about Auntie Mame (1955)? A quick search through blog comments suggests that Vicki from Bibliolathas recommended her when I wrote about Abbie by Dane Chandos, but I already owned the book before that, so… who knows? Anyway, many thanks to whoever it was. Some years later, I took it off to America with me, and finished it on the ‘plane on the way back.

Auntie Mame

The narrator, like the author, is called Patrick Dennis – but it’s not entirely clear how autobiographical this novel is (indeed, it is the matter of much debate in the afterword by Matteo Codignola in the Penguin edition I have). It’s not even clear if it’s a novel or a series of short stories (more on that in the afterword too) – but what is clear is that Auntie Mame features the larger-than-life lady in question and her nephew going through various escapades over the course of many years.

We meet Mame when she takes in the young, recently orphaned, Patrick, against the better judgement of the staid Mr Babcock, who looks after Patrick’s finances. She is dressed in Japanese garb (she is always in garb of some variety; later she wishes to be thought Spaniard), hosting a party, and ushers impressionable Patrick into her socialite lifestyle. She is keen to educate him…

“My dear, a rich vocabulary is the true hallmark of every intellectual person. How now” – she burrowed into the mess on her bedside table and brought forth another pad and pencil – “every time I say a word, or you hear a word, that you don’t understand, you write it down and I’ll tell you what it means. Then you memorize it and soon you’ll have a decent vocabulary. Oh, the adventure,” she cried ecstatically, “of moulding a little new life!” She made another sweeping gesture that somehow went wrong because she knocked over the coffee pot and I immediately wrote down six new words which Auntie Mame said to scratch out and forget about.

You get a feel for the sort of thing. Mame is an irrepressible delight, and – as the novel progresses – we see Patrick both fond of and embarrassed by her. She gatecrashes his college ball; she looks after swathes of unpleasant evacuees; she becomes the unlikely nemesis of the horse-riding set. In one memorable episode, she launches into an anti-anti-Semitic tirade (an entirely admirable one – albeit one which changes the tone of the book quite suddenly). Each event is neatly tied up and self-contained, without any characters really changing – except in age and marital situation.

Each chapter also begins with the narrator-Patrick comparing Auntie Mame to the ‘Unforgettable Character’ of some hagoigraphic newspaper article. Every trait exemplified by this worthy woman is mirrored also, it seems, by Auntie Mame – mostly in an exaggerated and individual manner. This device for linking together unrelated stories isn’t, to my mind, entirely successful; although the afterword praises it for surmounting the difficulties of disparate tales, I think it just felt a bit forced and fake. It didn’t stop me enjoying Auntie Mame, but I’ve had enjoyed the book more without this touch.

But I still really liked Auntie Mame. Any novel about an eccentric spinster is likely to get a thumbs up from me. Perhaps she hasn’t joined Abbie and Miss Hargreaves and Patricia Brent (if one can really use the term ‘spinster’ about her) on the top tier, but it was a jolly fun read nonetheless.

Oh, and while I remember – I’ve figured out how to add those ‘like’ buttons to the bottom of posts! Of course, a comment is always best, but I thought it couldn’t hurt.