Just a quick post to point you in the direction of my latest blog post for Vulpes Libris: Closely Observed Trains (1965) by Bohumil Hrabal. Go and have a gander here; I’ve ended up reading rather a few Czech writers over the years. And by that I guess I mean three. But, still.
I seem to be in a bit of a reading slump at the moment, actually. Which is a shame, as I have a couple of books to read for the next podcast, and one for book group… well, hopefully blitzing a few episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on Netflix will put my mind back into reading. For now, I’ll just keep singing the excellent spoof Face Your Fears. Check it out.
It’s no secret that I’m a longstanding fan of the Mitfords – or, at least, of reading about them. Debo has an eternal place in my heart, but, even though none of the others quite made it there, I still adored reading the letters betweenall six sisters. The one whom I didn’t much like (besides Unity, obvs, though her regression after shooting herself is fascinating to see in letter-form) was Jessica. I was chastised. I was told I should read her letters and her books, and that thus I would come to like her more. Finally – FINALLY – I have read Hons and Rebels (1960). Do I like her more? Maybe.
I’ll get in there early: if I were writing a scholarly book review, whether or not I like the woman would be completely immaterial. And here, as with a novel, it isn’t the be all and end all. But if it is acceptable to cheer on a biography because you like the writer so much (heart you, Debo), then it’s equally acceptable to do the reverse. On the same page? Fabs.
In actual fact, Jessica (or Decca, as she was known) comes across very sympathetically. Partly this is because of my political leanings, I daresay. I don’t fall as far left as Decca, but I’m pretty much a lefty – and we can all agree to band against the Fascist and Nazi beliefs of Diana and Unity Mitford. There are some pretty extraordinary descriptions of Decca and Unity setting up their shared bedroom into a Fascist and Communist split, with posters advocating their own politics on either side. It would be amusing if Unity’s views were not so extreme.
I was expecting a biography of the eccentric Mitford childhood we (mostly) all know well. The sort of thing we found in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love – with the hons in the cupboard, the father hunting the children, and the various codes. Spoilers: it is not. We do see some of Decca’s childhood – but by the time she was around in the nursery, her older siblings were more or less adults. Just Unity, Debo, and Decca were left around – and it is the three of them who formed various bonds and antipathies.
This section of the book I loved, even without the full line-up of Mitfords. We see, for instance, them being dragged around by the Conservative Party – ‘Our car was decorated with Tory blue ribbons, and if we should pass a car flaunting the red badge of Socialism, we were allowed to lean out of the window and shout at the occupants: “Down with the horrible Counter-Honnish Labour Party!”.’ We get a child’s-eye-view of the various scandals Nancy causes. Mostly, we get a taste of Decca’s thirst for independence, particularly in her longing to go to school and her storing-up of a Running Away Fund.
That fund turns out not to be as whimsical as it sounds. Very young, she rushes off to the Spanish Civil War. For those who think the Mitfords were rich gentry who never stepped down from their thrones to put their money where their mouths were (to mix metaphors) – Hons and Rebels is an education. We are many miles from the Cotswolds as we see the intrepid Decca follow her cousin Esmond Romilly to Spain, facing hardship, opposition, and – yes – romance. It shows the extraordinary person Decca was, for better or worse.
But the Cotswolds get even further around as the book progresses – as Decca moves to America. Here’s an example both of her early sheltered life, and the wit with which she writes. It is often a very amusing book.
My own impressions of Americans had been culled from various sources, ranging from books read in childhood, such as Little Women and What Katy Did, to Hemingway and movies. I knew that they lived on strange and rather unappetizing-sounding foods called squash, grits, hot dogs, and corn pudding. On the other hand, cookies sounded rather delicious. I visualized them as little cakes made in the shape of cooks with sugar-icing aprons and hats. From seeing The Petrified Forest, I gathered that Americans often made love under tables while gangster bullets whizzed through the air.
I’ve given enough plot for this book, so shan’t tell you all that happens in America – but, suffice to say, Esmond and Decca go through some difficult conditions and she writes about them winningly and wittily. A stray and dispassionate footnote on the penultimate page alerts us to why this memoir is particularly moving – but I’ll allow you to find that out for yourself.
So, in brief – it is fascinating, and certainly well told. The only reason I didn’t love Hons and Rebels as much as I could have done is because I was expecting something else – I missed hearing about the rest of the family (who are more or less absent for the second half of the book), and wondered quite what they were thinking about her. The feeling I got from the letters, that she rather abandoned them, is quietly reflected here – not by what she says about them, but by the fact that they are seldom mentioned. And that is a terrible reason to put something in the ‘cons’ column of a book review. But, Mitford-fanatic that I am, I can’t help it, and thought I should warn fellow enthusiasts. But this issue aside (as it should be), Hons and Rebels is an extraordinary book. When I read the sequel (A Fine Old Conflict), I shall better prepare myself for the book Decca wrote, rather than the one I wish she’d written.
A little while ago I got a very nice email from someone called Vicki, saying how much she enjoyed reading Stuck-in-a-Book, and asking if she could send me one of the books she loved as a sort of thank you. Well, I was very touched, and – not one to turn down a book recommendation or, indeed, a book – said yespleasethankyouverymuch. And shortly afterwards Betsy Byars’ The Midnight Fox (1968) arrived.
I hadn’t heard of it, but I think The Midnight Fox is well known in some circles. Yet again, having only read Enid Blyton for years on end means that I don’t know that much about other children’s classics. But now I have read, and very much enjoyed, this sweet and touching tale of a holiday on a farm.
The premise has a surprising number of similarities with Philippa Pearce’s much-loved children’s book Tom’s Midnight Garden, published ten years earlier. In both, a boy named Tom must reluctantly go and stay with his aunt and uncle, and greatly misses a boy called Peter. In both, a certain midnight aberration becomes an obsession, and changes the stay into a much happier event; Peter is written to from a distance, and becomes an accomplice in the discovery. I doubt that Byars plagiarised the book, but the similarities amused me.
The story is simple – Tom is beguiled by the beauty of this unusual fox, who is entirely black. He starts to look out for her, and becomes increasingly keen to observe her playing with her small fox cub; he is almost bewitched by this elegant, elemental life lived near to him – and must find a way to stop his hunting uncle from trapping the fox.
What makes it such a special little book? The style, I think. It’s not told with the gung-ho naivety of some children’s books, but treats Tom’s anxieties and concerns seriously – not least because we read it in the first person. Here is the opening…
Sometimes at night when the rain is beating against the windows of my room, I think about that summer on the farm. It has been five years, but when I close my eyes I am once again by the creek watching the black fox come leaping over the green. green grass. She is as light and free as the wind, exactly as she was the first time I saw her.
Or sometimes it is that last terrible night, and I am standing beneath the oak tree with the rain beating against me. The lightning flashes, the world is turned white for a moment, and I see everything as it was – the broken lock, the empty cage, the small tracks disappearing into the rain. Then it seems to me that I can hear, as plainly as I heard it that August night, above the rain, beyond the years, the high, clear bark of the midnight fox.
Thanks again, Vicki, for sending me this book; it was so generous and kind of you. I really enjoyed reading it – and I especially think this would be good to read aloud to a child, if any parents are on the look-out for something!
Quite a few of us in the blogosphere are fans of J.L. Carr’s 1980 novel A Month in the Country – that gentle tale of a man who goes to help restore a rural mural. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that rhyme.) But I don’t remember seeing reviews of any of his other novels – and had thought he might be rather a one-trick pony.
So, I was glad when my book group opted to read A Day in Summer (1963), Carr’s first novel – and evidence that he was fond of A [Time] in the [Situation] titles early on. But, except for similar titles, these novels have very little in common – except, that is, for quality. Both are very good.
A Day in Summer sounds a very halcyon title, but this is belied by the opening few pages. Peplow is on a train, coming into Great Minden. He has an imaginary conversation with his Manager; one of several in square brackets throughout the novel, from different characters’ perspectives, that give a very open access to their imaginations and projections:
[“I wonder if you’d mind very much if I take Friday off?””I suppose not. Is someone ill? Is it urgent?”No – well, it is and it isn’t. As a matter of fact I have to go off to a place in the country and shoot a man. Yes, that’s right, a man. They call it Great Minden. Perhaps you know it?””Really! Great Minden! I had an aunt living near there. If you wouldn’t consider it an impertinence, may I ask who – whom?””It’s the man who ran down my boy last summer. He’s with a fairground outfit, and on Friday he’ll be at the Fair there I understand. So it would be very convenient.””Naturally! Shall we see you again on Saturday? Monday?””Well, no. I’ve more or less decided it would be better for me to finish myself off too. In comfort, on the way back, all being well. It would by-pass the embarrassing formalities that usually follow. I’m sure you understand.”]
This isn’t precisely the tone that the rest of the novel takes – although it would be rather fascinating to read a whole narrative in this style. He isn’t really flippant about his action, and it is the thread that pulls the novel together, but Peplow isn’t really the leading character of A Day in Summer. And that is because, more than any other novel I can remember, this is an ensemble piece. Once Peplow arrives in Great Minden, the narrative flits from character to character, weaving their stories together so that the baton naturally passes from person to person.
There is a lascivious young schoolteacher who is having an affair with the vicar’s wife; the teacher is rightly terrified of the elderly spinster who runs the school with an iron fist. The vicar is desperate to hold his marriage together, but his wife despises him. There is a poor family with too many children, also with marital troubles; there is a dying man whose young son wonders why his mother left the family years ago. And, taking the cover on my book, is the man in a wheelchair, invalided by war, who happens to have been in action with Peplow.
There are, you see, too many characters to describe all that goes on; the plot is planned perfectly, and yet it feels less like a plot and more like observing villagers living their lives. Their unhappy lives, it should be said; misery is widespread, and marriages seem incapable of being content. Indeed, Peplow’s paternal grief seems perhaps less vivid than the teacher Croser’s sickness of being in a frustrating job, of the vicar’s pain.
Throughout, Carr’s tone is quite darkly witty, and I really loved it. Fans of A Month in the Country may find little to recognise, but this is by no means a weak first effort at novel-writing. Carr has a very impressive confidence even at this early stage, and handles a difficult tone and potentially unwieldy plot extremely well. Although A Month in the Country is a better book to curl up with for comfort, this is a stark, moving, and (yet) very amusing novel that is arguably equally good, in a very different way.
My book group recently read The Soul of Kindness (1964) by Elizabeth Taylor – I have a feeling I recommended it, although can never quite remember – and I don’t think we’ve ever had a more divided discussion. Some thought the whole thing uneventful and boring; some thought it a brilliantly subtle novel about realistic people and the way they interact. Guess which I was?
Well, if you’ve read my previous reviews of Elizabeth Taylor – you can see them all by picking her from that dropdown menu of authors over on the left, should you so wish – you’ll probably have guessed that I was in the latter camp. (As a character thinks: ‘men, she knew, are very interested in detailed descriptions of ordinary things’. Curiously unlike the usual division of men and women in stereotype – the masculine grand epic vs. the feminine domestic hearth.) The Soul of Kindness is an extraordinary novel and, just like her others, almost impossible to write well about.
The first thing I have learned with Elizabeth Taylor is that you can’t read her quickly. Well, you can – but so much is lost. Because not much happens, and it’s easy to skim through the calm conversations and quiet movements, and miss the spectrum of emotion playing under the surface, so cleverly told by Taylor.
The novel opens with a wedding. Flora isn’t paying much attention to her husband; she is feeding doves (note their influence on the beautiful cover to my 1966 Reprint Society copy):
Towards the end of the bridegroom’s speech, the bride turned aside and began to throw crumbs of wedding cake through an opening in the marquee to the doves outside. She did so with gentle absorption, and more doves came down from their wooden house above the stables. Although she had caused a little rustle of amusement among the guests, she did not know it: her husband was embarrassed by her behaviour and thought it early in their married life to be so; but she did not know that either.
That lack of self-awareness and observation is the central thread of the novel. Flora is the ‘soul of kindness’ of the title – as another character says, “To harm anyone is the last thing she’d ever have in mind.” She is a blonde beauty, doted on by her mother, surrounded by people (mother, husband, friend, housekeeper) who never dream of crossing her, and who do not see any darkness in her. For, indeed, there is no darkness in her. I thought the novel might be about a craftily vindictive woman, but Flora is just monumentally naive – with a naivety either born of selfishness, or a selfishness born of naivety. She wants to help people. She is (as Hilary notes in her fab review, linked below) not unlike Austen’s Emma – although Flora is less meddlesome. She just suggests things and engineers things, without seeming to give any great effort, and… mild disaster follows.
A marriage that shouldn’t have happened. A union between two friends that will never happen because the man is gay. The encouragement to a young man that he is a talented actor, when he is hopeless and will only meet failure on that path. Everything Flora does is well-meaning. There is a moment of crisis (I shan’t say what), but… by the end of the novel, most people haven’t changed enormously. Human nature doesn’t follow a brief and convenient narrative structure.
For that is what Taylor observes and depicts so brilliantly: truthful human behaviour. Some people at book group found the characters poorly drawn, and I do agree that we see them chiefly from the outside rather than the inside – but that is an authorial choice and (I think) a good and acceptable one. There are wonderful scenes where she draws up the difference between what people say and what they mean – and what other people think they mean. It is so (that word again) subtle, and done extremely skilfully. Perhaps the best, and certainly the most agonising, where those between Patrick and Frankie – Patrick being in love with the youthful, callous Frankie, and anxious for any possible attention from him, taking what he is thrown so gratefully.
Oh, and Mrs Secretan (Flora’s mother) is the best depiction I have seen of a hypochondriac – usually they are hysterical or selfish, but Taylor’s portrait shows the terror at the heart of the true hypochondriac, particularly the one who dreads the doctor. I speak as one who knows…
I should add that there are moments of lovely humour. I enjoyed this a lot, about Flora (and that naivety):
She sat gazing in front of her. On a table at her side was a piece of knitting which had not grown for days, and the book by Henry Miller Patrick Barlow had lent her, which she was reading with such mild surprise. (‘What does this word mean, Richard? ‘Truly? Well I suppose it had to be called something.’ How had she lived so long without knowing? he wondered.)
All in all, I thought The Soul of Kindness a brilliant example of an exceptional writer. There are, of course, different books for different moods. When I wrote about My Sister Eileen recently, I shouted my love for books that are unashamedly lovely. Well, this is not that. It’s for a different mood. But, in the right mood, you could hardly do better.
Others who got Stuck into this Book:
“What I love about this novel is how subversive it is.” – Hilary, Vulpes Libris
Are you joining in Margaret Kennedy Reading Week? All the info you need is here on Fleur Fisher Reads, and it’s all very exciting. I’d thought I would read Red Sky at Morning, because I started it months ago, but instead I read Kennedy’s final novel – The Forgotten Smile, published in 1961.
It has just been reissued by Vintage Books, along with a whole bunch of other Kennedy titles (some of them POD) and I read it for Shiny New Books – so I’m going to point you over there. (And I actually did finish it this week – on Sunday afternoon.) I’ll just say that she does such interesting things with chronology, and it works – and her characters are brilliantly realised. Read on…
So… are you joining in Margaret Kennedy Reading Week?
Is it a bird? Is it a ‘plane? No, it’s actually a book review on Stuck-in-a-Book! Sorry that it’s been so long since my last one. Especially since I’m going to talk about a book I finished over six weeks ago…
When I went to the Lake District a while ago, I took a range of books – some that benefited from a long, uninterrupted read on a train, and some that would fill gaps between dashing off on multiple buses to get to a wedding, get on a train, etc. And I turned to Mrs Harris MP (1965) by Paul Gallico when I was tired from the long journey and sitting on a bench waiting for a lift (that eventually didn’t come… but that’s another story).
Anybody familiar with Mrs Harris Goes to Paris (also published as Flowers for Mrs Harris) and Mrs Harris Goes to New York will doubtless already know and love the redoubtable Mrs Harris. A London char, she is a wonderful mix of no-nonsense and fairy tale. Her greatest dream, in the first book, was to own a Paris couture dress; in the second she heads off to New York on a quest, and in the third she wishes – as you may have guessed from the title – to become an MP.
The novel opens with Mrs Harris and John Bayswater the chauffeur disagreeing over a political broadcast. She thinks it’s all two-face hogwash, and that she could do better herself… which isn’t long off happening. ‘Live and Let Live’ is her political mantra, and it is tangled up with an argument about giving working people a chance, not being teddy boys, and above all not lying. She makes, still – perhaps more than ever, quite an appealing prospect in the world of politics. She is not interested in spin and self-promotion; she wants to stand for the little people. And Mrs Harris is so full of vim and character that the bland, careful politicians don’t stand a chance.
Except things are a little more complicated than that. In all his novels, to some extent or other, Gallico seems to offer a sting in his fairy tale. Sometimes that sting is extremely dark (as in the very brilliant Love of Seven Dolls), sometimes it’s fey (Jennie), but it’s always there. In Mrs Harris MP it appears in the machinations of her supposed political ally… and appears perhaps more subtly in the after-effects of Mrs. Harris’ political campaign.
Like the other novels in this series, Mrs Harris MP is light and frothy and completely enjoyable. All of which means that it was probably very difficult to write. Mrs Harris is a wonderful creation – and perhaps equally wonderful, in my eyes, is her timid but loving friend Mrs Butterfield. It’s all quite silly, with (in this one perhaps more than the others) a note of the serious – and if you are sick of deceitful or boring politicians, or of a government that sidelines the poor, then this might provide some much-needed respite.
Oh dear, have I really not blogged since last Wednesday? I’m sorry, I’m being very negligent – and I can’t even think of a reason why, as it hasn’t been an especially busy week. Perhaps it’s my general reading slump at the moment – and, if you’ve been around for any of my previous reading slumps, you’ll probably know what my solution has been. Dame Agatha Christie. If you hate spoilers of any variety (and I’ll only talking about the death which happens in the first few pages) then skim read this post…
Yes, that’s right, I’ve ignored the hundreds of unread books in my house – and the few that I’m reading at the moment – and taken myself to Oxford Central Library to borrow some Agathas. Almost all of mine are at home, and the ones I have here don’t fall into blank years in A Century of Books – and, if I’m reading Agatha, I may as well kill two birds with one stone. Still, with the criteria of being (a) not read read, (b) filling blank years, and (c) currently in library stock, I managed to come away with two books – Hallowe’en Party and The Seven Dials Mystery, and whipped through the first in a couple of days.
I’d always steered clear of it, because of my distaste for Hallowe’en, but it’s pretty incidental to the plot. And, as plot is so important in Christie novels, I’m not going to tell you much beyond the initial murder – which is of a young girl at a Hallowe’en party, who is drowned in an apple bobbing bucket. Shortly before this, she has begun to tell people that she once witnessed a murder, only she didn’t realise it was a murder until much later. They won’t listen – but it seems that perhaps someone present has taken her comment seriously… Hercule Poirot, naturally, comes to sort things out, called there by Ariadne Oliver. I have five main things I want to say about this novel:
1.) I love Christie plots about misinterpretation – where a witness sees someone looking shocked that something is there, when in fact they’re shocked that something isn’t there; when a look of horror is about a memory rather than a current event – all those sorts of things, for some reason, are wonderful to me. So I loved that element of Hallowe’en Party.
2.) I’ve never read an Ariadne Oliver novel before, and I love her. And Agatha Christie obviously had a lot of fun creating her (she is a detective novelist, with a Finnish detective hero, and Christie uses her as a bit of a mouthpiece…)
3.) This is Christie’s child-killing novel… it’s interesting for the number of times (and this isn’t a spoiler) she talks about leniency for mentally imbalanced killers or those who’ve been through care, or whatever extenuating circumstances, and how Poirot doesn’t think justice should be considered less important than mercy.
4.) It was published in 1969 – so nearly 50 years after Poirot’s first case and Christie’s first novel. Amazing that she could still be on such good form after all that time.
5.) And it is a very good novel. I found the conclusion a little unsatisfying, mostly because I’d already guessed the solution, or at least most of it, and I much prefer being surprised by the end of a detective novel.
Sorry to disappear suddenly – I went off to Somerset for an Easter weekend (the most dramatic moment: Sherpa getting stuck on the roof; eventually I pulled her through the bathroom window, with Our Vicar on a ladder and Our Vicar’s Wife & Colin holding a tarpaulin like a firefighters’ blanket). Now I’m back in Oxford, and eyeing up the growing pile of books I’ve got waiting to review for you. First up – one of those pesky Penelopes.
I had intended to read Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, as part of my vague project to read more of my unread Persephones, but it clashed with another title on my Century of Books – so instead I picked up The Pumpkin Eater (1962) in this beautiful NYRB Classics edition. But, oh, aren’t they always beautiful?
I thought the image on the front was simply abstract, until I realised that it was a pram full of faces – Downhill in a Pram by Susan Bower, to be precise. And that is apt for the recurring theme of The Pumpkin Eater (and possibly my favourite thing about the book) – the number of children the unnamed narrator has. Cleverly, Mortimer gives us a heroine who has a lot of children – but by never specifying quite how many, we get the impression that they are numbered in their dozens. People are always shocked by how many there are; her various husbands (she’s not short of them, but at least the number is given: four) baulk at them, and only one name is vouchsafed to us: Dinah.
The novel starts with the narrator in a therapy session. These recur throughout the novel, and are very amusing (in a dark way), mostly because of the lack of progress that is made in them. The therapist follows the narrator around in circles, expecting her to feel something about her husbands and children – but she is steadfastly stony-faced.
“And then?” he asked coldly.
“Then? Well, then I married the Major, but since he was going overseas we went back to live with my parents. I had Dinah there. Of course he was dead by then.”
“And did that upset you?”
“Yes. Yes, I suppose it did. Naturally. It must have done.”
He slumped in his chair. He seemed tired out. I said, “Look, need we go on with this? I find it tremendously boring, and it’s not what I’m thinking about at all. I just don’t think about those husbands except…”
“I never think about them.”
She has something of a Barbara Comyns heroine about her – that undaunted matter-of-factness – but Mortimer does reveal some of her emotional fragility as the novel progresses, and Jake the current husband is knocked from whatever pedestal her might have briefly mounted. “One’s past grows to a point where it is longer than one’s future, and then it can become too great a burden,” as she says in the narrative, towards the end.
And then there is the enormous glass tower Jack is building for them in the middle of the countryside. It’s a curious part of the novel, and I don’t know how we are supposed to interpret it – as Freud would? As Ibsen would in The Master Builder? Or is a tower sometimes just a tower?
But, as with many of my favourite novels, the important feature is voice. Mortimer does this brilliantly. We are immersed in the worldview and experience of the unnamed narrator, even without for a moment believing that she could plausibly exist in the way she is presented. Her upsets and anxieties are certainly real, but the character is more than that – the centrepiece of a black comedy with only a toe in reality. And, designed that way, it is a glorious novel.