Country Boy – Richard Hillyer

Goodness, it feels an age since I wrote a proper honest-to-goodness book review.  Let’s see if I can still remember how to do it.  Well, what better way back into the hurly-burly of reviewing than with one of Slightly Foxed’s latest Editions?  The review practically writes itself, because it seems impossible that SF will ever put a foot wrong with their endlessly delightful memoir series.  Country Boy (1966) by Richard Hillyer [real name Charles Stanks. You can see why he changed it] is no different.  Review in short: it’s wonderful, and you’ll love it.

photo source

I made the deliberate decision not to look up Hillyer’s post-memoir career, because I thought it would be more interesting to see what I thought about his recollections of childhood and teenagehood without any sense of where his path might go – and I never read introductions until the end, of course.  So I shan’t spoil it for you either, except to say that Hillyer doesn’t get as far as discussing his career, or even his adulthood – instead, the memoir ends as he moves into a different section of his life.  And for some reason I don’t want to spoil that shift either.  At times, the memoir is as tense and exciting as the plottiest novel, and it pays not to know much in advance.

Hillyer was born into a poor farm labouring family in a small village in Buckinghamshire in the first years of the 20th century – in a village Hillyer calls Byfield.  As the grandson of a farm labourer myself, I found it especially interesting to read how my life might have been had I been born a few generations earlier – and the oppressive sense Hillyer reiterates throughout that, though he loves his family and has some friends, ultimately there has never been an escape from Byfield for its non-wealthy inhabitants, and only a windfall or very good luck will enable him to attend grammar school, let alone find a world outside that determined for him by his circumstances.  As a second-generation university attendee, it was more or less assumed from the outset that I would at least have the chance of going to university, but for first-generation university students, I imagine it all felt a bit different (perhaps Our Vicar will comment on this…)  (Of course, with the huge increase in fees in recent years, and thus the clear indication that our government doesn’t value higher education in the same way that it values schools, things have swung back the other way.  But that’s as political as I’m going to get on Stuck-in-a-Book!)

Hillyer writes simply and touchingly about his family, and seems to have had an observant eye for his parents from an early age – as all children do, I suppose, which must be quite disconcerting for the parents at times.

I have no kind of fear or constraint with my father.  Mother is different, you never quite know.  Things went on in Mother’s head that were difficult to guess at.  Father is always easy to understand.  For him life was simple and had no worries.  If he worked, and earned what money he could, Mother would see to the rest.  In a dumb, speechless sort of way he loved and admired her beyond all things, and believed her capable of dealing with any crisis which might arise for any of us.  Beyond that his thoughts did not go.
In any marriage where one partner is idolised and bowed down to by the other, there is the opportunity for the powerful partner to abuse this obeisance, knowingly or unknowingly.  In the case of the Hillyer family, his mother (thankfully) doesn’t.  There is no tyrant – rather each family member plays a role in a fully-functioning machine.  It’s terribly tempting to (mis)quote “poor, but ever so ‘umble” – yet that is precisely what they are.  The stringent hierarchy of class in the village is nothing to celebrate, but the way people behave within it is often moving in their determination just to get on with life, and value the importance of family and friends rather than pipe dreams.

After quite a bit about his parents, I was surprised about how quiet Hillyer was being about his brother John, and thought perhaps they didn’t get on very well.  They were, after all, very different.  But towards the beginning of chapter 10, this beautiful passage appears:

We were brothers, but there was more than brotherhood between us, a special relationship, that was entirely satisfactory to us both.  We were two people, as different as could be in our ways and thoughts, and yet each perfectly accepting the other.  He would listen to my confidences without understanding them or trying to; just taking them as coming from me, and no doubt making sense so far as I was concerned, but outside his sphere.  Not treating them as trivial, because they were not his own; listening to them patiently but making little comment, and taking them just as a part of me.  He was the outlet for all the odd notions that milled about inside me, and all the better outlet because he made no effort at all to influence me.
What nicer testimony to a brother – or, indeed, to a friend – could there be?  Hillyer has such a touching way with words which, even amidst descriptions of the mindlessness of his menial apprentice farm work, or the visit of the lord of the manor, can bring out the most moving and acute sentence.

One of the main differences which set Hillyer apart not only from John but from everyone else in the village was his intellect.  In a section which all of us bibliophiles will love, he describes stumbling across a furniture store which also, somewhat indifferently, sold bundles of books.  The idea of owning a book was new and wonderful to Hillyer – and his earnings were soon redirected to this source of joy and the wider world.

Life at home was drab and colourless, with nothing to light up the dull monotony of the unchanging days.  Here in books was a limitless world that I could have for my own.  It was like coming up from the bottom of the ocean and seeing the universe for the first time.
Anybody interested in rural life in the early 20th century will relish this book, of course, but its appeal goes further than that.  Anybody who believes that a love of literature can be an act of escape will love this book.  Anybody who values the bonds of family, ditto.  And anybody who appreciates simple, evocative, kind writing will want a copy of this memoir too.  Slightly Foxed – you’ve only gone and done it again.

Relatively Speaking

It seems a bit of a habit with me to see plays somewhere towards the end of their run.  I saw the brilliant All My Sons on its final night, and by the time I blogged about Peter and Alice, it was off the stage.  Well, you’ve got until 31 August to see Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking (1965), and I deeply encourage you to do so if you possibly can!

We had a lovely surprise when we arrived (‘we’ is me and Andrea, my frequent theatre-buddy) at Wyndham’s – our balcony seats were upgraded to brilliant circle seats, right in the middle of the row and tickets which would have cost nearly double what we spent.  Sadly that was because of poor ticket sales (which is absurd on a Saturday night in London, but is encouraging for anybody hoping to grab a bargain on any night) – why people weren’t there, I can’t imagine.  It was the best comedy performance I have ever seen on the stage (All My Sons is still the best play I’ve seen, but nobody could call it a comedy.)

It’s difficult to write much about Relatively Speaking without giving away elements of the plot (which I’d accidentally spoilt for myself the day before seeing the play, by starting Ayckbourn’s The Crafty Art of Playmaking) but suffice to that the whole thing is a delightful, perfectly executed example of crossed wires, dramatic irony, and conversations at cross purposes.  The first scene opens in Ginny’s (Eastender’s Kara Tointon) flat with a semi-clad Greg (Max Bennett) wandering around the place.  There are mysterious phone calls and unexplained packages (“It’s a book! From the book people!”) and poor Greg is getting suspicious of Ginny (a pair of slippers under the bed need some explaining) – yet also getting increasingly in love with her.  They exchange wonderfully witty dialogue, affectionate but with a layer of one-upmanship, while she avoids anything definite and he proposes in the most adorably inept and heartfelt manner.  Both characters are a little rough-and-ready, with hearts in the right place, and the audience is certainly drawn into wanting the best for them… but Ginny is off to visit her parents. (Or is she?)

The next scene sees Sheila (Felicity Kendal – YES, FELICITY KENDAL) and her husband Philip (Jonathan Coy) on the patio of the lovely Buckinghamshire house, engaged in a marital dynamic which seems to be of long standing.  Sheila is a slightly downtrodden wife, but one who could never be entirely trodden down, one feels.  Jonathan Coy is given the only unsympathetic character of the foursome, as a slightly self-important, blustering businessman.  He goes off to find a hoe to do some vigorous gardening, and, through the sidegate of the excellent set, Greg arrives… He wants to come and ask Ginny’s dad for her hand in marriage, and has somehow caught the train that Ginny missed.

And this is where the fun starts.  For reasons which might already have become clear, but which I shan’t spoil just in case, nobody is quite on the same page as each other.  Least in the know is poor Sheila, and Felicity Kendal is absolutely perfect at her dialogue – her replies show that she has no clue why she has got embroiled in these conversations, and yet is willing to go along with it all, out of sheer kindness.  Kendal was every bit as wonderful as I’d hoped and expected.

But she had a match!  Max Bennett is sublime as Greg.  I saw him in Luise Miller a while ago, and remember being impressed by him, but he excels at comedy.  Everyone’s comic timing is exceptionally good, with quickfire back-and-forth conversation delivered beautifully, but Bennett manages to make his character entirely lovable.  He is decent and proper, but also quick-witted, witty, and down-to-earth.  It’s rare that a play has a character whom you love and appreciate entirely, but Relatively Speaking manages to have two – which is, indeed, half the cast.  Philip was never intended to be sympathetic, so he’s out, and Kara Tointon – though very good – never seems quite to grasp which direction she wants to take her character in, and she sort of fell between two stools.

But the real star of the piece is Alan Ayckbourn.  His writing is perfect.  It is, of course, a standard of farce and comedy to have characters misunderstanding each other, but Relatively Speaking is crafted so brilliantly, with layer after layer of different crossed wires between different characters,  Even better, the responses characters give are believable, and it is also always credible that other characters wouldn’t realise they were on different pages.  So difficult to engineer, and so slickly done.

If you want to laugh for two flying-at-the-speed-of-light hours, and have the chance to go before the end of August, PLEASE give yourself a treat and see this utterly delightful play.  I quite want to go straight back and watch it again…

The Cynical Wives Brigade (A Woman of My Age – Nina Bawden)

When Karen mentioned that she’d bought some Nina Bawden books, I commented that I had a few on my shelves, but had never got around to reading her – and, hey presto, a joint readalong of A Woman of My Age (1967) was born.  Karen’s already posted her review here, but I have to admit that I have yet to read it – because I wanted to give you my thoughts before I discovered hers.

I didn’t know what to expect from Nina Bawden – I’ve never even read her famous children’s books – so I started the novel with more or less a blank canvas. Elizabeth is the heroine (if the term fits… which it doesn’t, really) and is in Morocco with her husband of eighteen years, Richard.  The heat is stultifying and their companions a trifle wearying – the obese, overly-friendly Mrs Hobbs and her quiet husband, and the unexpected friend from home, Flora. Unexpected to Elizabeth, anyway…

As their journey across the country continues, the web between these characters gets more and more complex, as secrets are revealed and alliances kindled – but the mainstay of the narrative is Elizabeth’s musings on her past life, as her marriage to Richard is slowly documented, and considered in minute detail.  For Elizabeth is nothing if not introspective – she’s even introspective about being introspective, which does lead to one amusing line at least:

She peered appraisingly at herself in the mirror, pulling faces as if she were alone, and I was embarrassed by her candour. (Though I have as much interest in my appearance as most women, I feel it is somehow degrading to admit it.  Before we came away, I bought a special cream supposed to restore elasticity to the skin, but I destroyed the wrapper on the jar and the accompanying, incriminating literature, as furtively as I had, when young, removed the cover of a book on sex.)
Before I go further, I should put forward the weak statement that I quite enjoyed A Woman of My Age, because I’m going to harp on about the things I didn’t much like.  So, while I do that, please bear in mind that Bawden’s writing is always good, her humour (when it comes) is sharp and well-judged, and her characters are generally believable.  There is even some pathos in the account of Elizabeth’s ageing relatives, but I shan’t comment much on that – because they are pretty incidental.

Elizabeth’s age, referred to in the title, is 37.  She has been married for nearly half her life, and is obviously rather dissatisfied.  We know this, because she often tells us.  Sometimes (in this mention of her early married life) it is almost laughably stereotypical:

We were bored with our husbands.  They were sober young men, marking school books, studying, advancing into an adult world of action and responsibility.
This is, I shall admit now, my main problem with the novel – and that which inspired my title to this post.  Elizabeth is a card-carrying, fully-paid-up member of the Cynical Wives Brigade.  You may remember how little I liked Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year – you can read my thoughts here – and a lot of A Woman of My Age is cut from the same cloth. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never been a wife, and because I wasn’t around in the 1960s, but I find this gosh-is-my-privileged-life-wonderful-enough unutterably tedious, not to mention the casual adultery that all these characters indulge in.  Adultery seems, at best, a stimulus for another tedious, introspective conversation or contemplation.  Children, as with Drabble’s novel, are included simply to show the passage of time, and none of the adult characters seem to have any particularly parental instincts.

Was this a 1960s thing?  Well, Lynne Reid Banks’s The L-Shaped Room (1960) is one of my favourite novels, but I can’t deny that it is very introspective – but Jane isn’t a wife, so she manages to escape the Cynical Wives Brigade.  I haven’t read many novels from this decade, but already I get the idea (supported by this novel) that it’s full of this type of navel-gazing, morally-lax types.  For someone born in the 1980s, incidentally, there were a couple of moments which are very of-their-time, and rather shocking to me. (Were these views still acceptable in the 1960s?? Both are from Elizabeth’s point of view, and neither seem ironic.)

As a result, I drank more than was sensible in my condition: like a lot of women, I always felt more unwell during the first three months of pregnancy than afterwards, and alcohol went to my head very quickly.
and

I was surprised at the violence of his remorse – after all, he had only hit me
I suppose I can’t blame Bawden for that, if those were still prevalent opinions and actions in the time.  But what I can blame her for is making an interesting scenario and potentially interesting characters get so dragged down by the dreariness of reading about Elizabeth’s self-pity and moping. To do her justice, another character in the novel does accuse her of exactly these faults. I cheered when I read this:

If they are a sample of your usual conversation I’m not surprised that he doesn’t listen to you.  You’re no more worth listening to than any bored, spoiled young woman, whining because the routine of married life has gone stale on you.  It really is very provoking, to a woman of my generation.  When I was thirty, we didn’t have the vote, we had to fight for a place in the world.  Now you’ve got it, most of you don’t bother to use it.  I daresay it’s dull, being tied to a house and young children, but it was a life you chose, after all, you were so eager to rush into it that you didn’t even take your degree.
I’m always curious when authors incorporate criticisms of their novel or characters into the narrative itself.  Is it a moment of self-awareness, to distance themselves from the voice of the narrator?  Is it the belief that recognising one’s faults is the same as correcting them?  Or is simply a moment of regret, for the direction a novel should have taken?

(I should make clear – a lot of the things Elizabeth complains about are probably genuine issues. But complaining does not a novel make.)

And I haven’t even mentioned the big twist at the end.  I don’t really know what to say about it.

I’m still glad that I read Nina Bawden, and I’ll have a look at the other one’s on my shelves to see if they’re any less frustrating.  Right now I’m off to see what Karen thought… come join me?

How The Heather Looks

This delightful book was part of my Reading Presently project, where I read books I’ve been given as presents, but… nobody knows who gave this to me!  I was sure it was my friend Clare, but she denies all knowledge… I know it was *somebody*, because it appears in my birthday present post here… so, if it was you, let me know!  Because I’ve read it now, and I love it.

The full title, which does the job of summarising the book for me, is How The Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children’s Books (1965) by Joan Bodger.  Even if the book had nothing else going for it, I was sold by the inclusion of ‘joyous’ in a subtitle.  Well done, Joan Bodger, you win my approval – and, when we look at the words surrounding it, thinks just keep improving. The title itself is taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson:

I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet I know how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart was given.
What Bodger (excellent name) means by this is that, although she and her family have not visited the sites of these children’s books, they are already deeply familiar with them through reading and re-reading, and loving, books steeped in the British countryside. And the book documents how they do visit them, coming all the way from America to do so.

How The Heather Looks, really, rests on a false premise: that the settings, houses, and landscapes of children’s books must be based on actual places.  I’m a big advocate of the fiction-is-fiction line of thought, and feel rather disappointed if I find that an author has not been as inventive as I’d hoped – particularly with characters-based-on-people.  I’m much more willing to allow a building or tree copied from life, but I don’t expect it in the way that Bodger and her family do.

Luckily for them, they’re satisfied without conclusive proof – or, indeed, much more than fanciful detail.  A stray cat is, they’re sure, the model for a decades-old children’s book; a certain patch of river cannot be other than Ratty’s favourite place to mess around in boats (there is, actually, a lovely story attached to that expression in How The Heather Looks, which I will leave it for you to discover.)  I suppose, if one has not seen much of the British countryside, then any of it will provide an illuminating backdrop for British rural literature.  And it is almost entirely rural, from Beatrix Potter to C.S. Lewis – via (for Joan Bodger is not averse to the odd nostalgic moment for adult literature) Daphne du Maurier:

Hour after hour we drove through mist or rain under lowering skies.  The children were too tired even for crankiness.  I remember the green hills giving way to great brown sweeps of moor and long stretches of roadside, where we saw almost no evidence of human habitation and only a few sheep, as wild as mountain goats.  Once in a while, when the rain lifted, I would see a high crag or tor in the distance, and sometimes, in the hollows, the gray glint of a tarn.  We were pleased to discover how easily a lifetime of reading ables one to fit the right words to the landscape.  We had climbed to what must have been almost the highest point on the road when I saw an inn, a large, low, rambling building with beetling roof and a board that creaked in the wind.  Glancing back, my heart missed a beat when I read the sign: Jamaica Inn.  The day before we might have stopped, but now we flew past as though a pack of smugglers were at our heels.  At least, I thought, we could not be far from the sea.
Notice how she does not tell you that it’s connected with Daphne du Maurier – she trusts you to know.  That’s a theme of How The Heather Looks, actually; not a lot of background info is explained, because Bodger takes it for granted that we all love and cherish the same books.  This rather threw me in the first chapter, on the unknown-to-me Randolph Caldecott, but after that I think I was fine.  Even her son Ian, 8 years old, seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of British children’s literature, and a photographic memory for it too.

I haven’t mentioned the Bodger family properly, have I?  They’re pretty fab – ‘our family is incapable of passing even a shelf of books without pausing to take a look’.  (My family all enjoy reading, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a whole family of unashamed biblioaddicts!)  There is Ian, who loves soldiers and adventure, and befriends children wherever they go; Lucy, aged 2, who seems (her mother suggests) to believe they have simply hopped into the landscape of one of her stories, and fully expects to meet Mrs. Tiggywinkle – and then there’s husband John, a researcher, who is surprisingly absent from the page.  (This becomes less surprising when you realise that their marriage was ending while Joan Bodger wrote the book; only the tip of the ice-berg for a horrendous period of Bodger’s life, with which I shan’t colour this review.)

For there is nothing tragic about How The Heather Looks.  It truly is joyous.  The Thomas family once had a literary holiday, travelling along the South Coast to see various sites of literary importance (including Jane Austen’s house and the area which inspired Winnie the Pooh) and it was, as I recall, an entirely splendid holiday.  We don’t have the Americans’ scorn of distance, willing to drive from Edinburgh to Cornwall to get a pint of milk, but we managed to cover a fair distance nonetheless – and see some wonderful sites, which stay with me.  I still have the photograph of A.A. Milne’s house on my wall – it was taken illicitly, running down the driveway of a private residence… Not so, the Bodgers.  In (unsurprisingly) my favourite part of the book, they do for tea with Daphne Milne – A.A. Milne’s widow – in his house.  So casually, she throws in that they wrote ahead and got the reply: “I am always happy to meet friends of dear Pooh.”  Can you imagine that happening today?  In the same way, she finds out from affable locals where Arthur Ransome lives, and (although he foreswears interviews) charms him into submission!

How The Heather Looks feels a bit like a glorious dream.  Perhaps that is partly because Joan Bodger is looking with determinedly rose-tinted glasses at a halcyon summer from the vantage of a difficult period, but perhaps it is simply because she is a good writer, and the summer was halcyon.  I could call the book enchanted, I could call it a delight – but I think Joan Bodger picked the best description when she wrote her subtitle.  It really is, above all, joyous.

Now, if only I could remember who gave it to me…

Mrs. Harris Goes to New York – Paul Gallico

(image source)

I’ve finished so few books lately, and have been so dissatisfied with the number of reviews I’ve been able to post, that I have turned to the small pile of books I finished months and months ago, but never quite got around to reviewing.  So I’m looking back over the hazy mists of time, trying to remember not only what I thought about a book, but what on earth happened in it.

Lucky for me, Paul Gallico’s 1960 novel Mrs. Harris Goes to New York has a little synopsis right there in the title.  The sequel to his charming novel Flowers For Mrs. Harris (published in America as Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, and republished together recently by Bloomsbury, with its aspirate in place), Mrs. Harris Goes to New York does, indeed, see Mrs. Harris travel off to see the Empire State.  This time, though, it’s not with a dress in mind, though – she and her friend Violet Butterfield (familiarly Vi) are off to reunite a mistreated adopted boy with his long-lost American father.

In case you haven’t encountered Mrs. Harris before, she is a no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth charlady, who (in the first book) unexpectedly develops an all-abiding passion to own a Christian Dior dress like the one she has seen in the wardrobe of one of the women for whom she works.  Mrs. Harris is a wonderful creation – speaking her mind, with its curious mixture of straight-talking and dewy-eyed romance.  Romance for adventure, that is, not for menfolk – Mr. Harris is good and buried before the series begins. 

I mentioned in the ‘strange things that happened in books I read this year’ section of my review of 2012 that I’d read one book where somebody went door-to-door searching for people called Mr. Black (that was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and one where somebody went door-to-door searching for people called Mr. Brown.  That was Mrs. Harris Goes to New York – since she did not know exactly who might Henry Brown’s father, she needed to go and visit every Mr. Brown in New York…

Few native New Yorkers ever penetrated so deeply into their city as did Mrs. Harris, who ranged from the homes of the wealthy on the broad avenues neighbouring Central Park, where there was light and air and indefinable smell of the rich, to the crooked down-town streets and the slums of the Bowery and Lower East Side.
It’s a fun conceit for a novel – I wonder if Jonathan Saffron Foer was deliberately mimicking it? – and Mrs. Harris is an excellent character to use repeatedly in first-encounters – it shows how Cockney and brazen she can be, as well as the endlessly charming effect she has on everybody she meets.

Paul Gallico’s novels often hover on the edge of fairy-tale.  The first one I read, which remains easily my favourite (and is on my 50 Books list over in the right-hand column) was Love of Seven Dolls, which is very much the darkest of his books that I’ve read – but was still very certainly mixed with fairy-tale.  That was what saved it from being terrifyingly sinister.  The two Mrs. Harris novels I’ve read are much more lighthearted, and Mrs. Harris herself is very much a fairy-tale creation.  She enchants everyone she meets – and I mean that almost literally, in that she seems to be a fairy godmother, changing their lives for the better through Cockney wisdom and irrepressible optimism.  And perhaps a little bit of magic.

There are quite a few other Paul Gallico novels on my shelves, waiting to be read – including the next two in this series, Mrs. Harris, MP and Mrs. Harris Goes To Moscow, which Bloomsbury also publish and kindly sent me.  I’m also excited about reading The Foolish Immortals and The House That Wouldn’t Go Away.  I’ll report back on all of these as and when I manage to read them – but, for now, for when you want to be a little charmed yourself, you could do a heck of a lot worse than spending an hour or two in the delightful company of London’s finest, Mrs. Harris.

Two Entirely Unrelated Reviews

Normally, if I feature two reviews together, there tends to be a reason.  I try to find some links between them, and so forth.  Well, the only reasons that these books are combined is that I’ve finished them, and need to get all my Century of Books reviews out before the end of 2012.  Maybe unexpected connections will arise by the time I’ve finished writing about them?  At the moment the only thing I can think is that I didn’t really think either of them were great.

Sunlight on Cold Water (1969) is the second novel I’ve read by Francoise Sagan, after really liking her most famous novel, Bonjour Tristesse, last year.  That short novel focused on a young girl’s self-discovery, first love, and developing relationship with her stepmother.  It was all very introspective, but that was totally forgivable in the mindset of a teenager.  In Sunlight on Cold Water (title from a poem by Paul Eluard), this introspection is transferred to a middle-aged man…

Gilles Lantier is depressed.  Depression is such a difficult thing to convey, since it involves such listlessness and the deadening of emotions.  I was impressed that Sagan was going to give it a go and, if it didn’t make for very compulsive reading, at least it was sensitive and thought-provoking.  But… then it wasn’t.  He meets a woman.  He starts having an affair with her (she’s married).  He worries about his mistress back in Paris; he worries about being good enough for his new mistress.  And so on, and so on.  This sort of writing filled the book:

“That’s not it at all,” he said, “I’ve left out the main thing.  I haven’t told you the main thing.”The main thing was Nathalie’s warmth, the hollow of her neck when he was falling asleep, her unfailing tenderness, her utter loyalty, the overwhelming confidence he felt in her.  Everything that this semi-whore of a kept woman with her cockneyed perversions couldn’t even begin to understand.  But in that case, what was he doing here?
Lovely, isn’t it?  (Er, no.)  I’m afraid I am not remotely interested in the elaborate musings of a man who may or may not be in love, talking about the sight, sounds, and smells of his various love exploits.  It’s not Fifty Shades graphic or anything like that, but, boy, is it tedious.  This is the only excerpt I jotted down which I thought a bit clever:

“Could you love a man who was so rotten?””You don’t choose the people you love.””For an intellectual, you’re not afraid of platitudes.””I’m only too afraid of them,” she murmured, “they’re nearly always true.”
But, still.  Total dud for me, I’m afraid.  Only about 140 pages long, and dragged for ages.  Perhaps it’s my own lack of tolerance for this sort of novel, but I found it meandering, self-indulgent, whiney, and dull.  If I can find a Francoise Sagan that has nothing to do with introspective love affairs, then I’ll give her another go – because I so admired Bonjour Tristesse.

*  *  *

And onto the other novel.  I’m still not seeing any connections.  It’s The Simmons Paper (1995) by Philipp Blom.  I bought it in a charity shop, because the cover struck me as delightfully eccentric, and the topic appealed.

After his death, Simmons is discovered to have left behind a manuscript detailing his work in compiling the section P in a Definitive Dictionary.  Blom’s conceit is that the manuscript has become a famous, much-discussed piece of work – and this novella is framed as though it were an edition of the essay, footnotes and all.

Simmons is totally besotted with his work.  Most of The Simmons Papers concerns his daily life of researching words, philosophising about the role of dictionaries, and raging against neologisms.  He believes P to be ‘the most human letter in the alphabet’, and manoeuvres through various interesting facets of the letter and its history.  I love anything to do with linguistics, and it’s a rare novel that assumes you know all about Saussure.  I’m also rather drawn to novels where the main character gets obsessive and increasingly unbalanced (c.f. also Wish Her Safe At Home.)  Simmons certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard – quite genuinely obsessed with the letter P (every section opens with a word beginning with P, and Simmons takes to eating mostly peas):

I must confess that in a sense even I am a victim of this daunting work.  Invariably the study of words, their history, meaning and evolution, etymology, connotations and formation, must impress on any mind its seal, especially since some words will resound for a certain person more than others and come to exercise a considerable influence of their own on any mind connected with them.  The long-winded proem which I am now engaging in now seems necessary before I can tell what I hardly dare admit: that I am subject to daydreams, voices and visions.  Words, p-words, emit and emanate images, stories, pictures and fantasies, which ultimately are impossible to keep at bay.
So, The Simmons Paper had all the ingredients of a novel I’d really like – and is packaged in a really attractive edition, incidentally.  So why didn’t it really work for me?  Well, it’s rather too close to what it is pretending to be.  The faux-introduction is amusing, some of the footnotes are really enjoyably silly if you spend a lot of time reading literary criticism – (cue interrupting my sentence for a long example of a footnote)

The pseudonym ‘P’ has been the cause of much controversy.  In the interpretation of Mandelbrodt and his followers, P designates ‘paradigm’, a notion which, in this reading, the text sets out to deconstruct by showing its inherent limitations and contradictions.  ‘The indefensible stronghold of the face of the dying Kronos falters from the owl, its death-ode on the phallus and His contemporaneous demise.  The giant turns back in agony and the very power against himself is the very powerlessness against this power’ (Mandelbrodt, The Question of Femininity, pp.345-6).  According to this reading, the destruction of the paradigm of male hierarchical order is what the text ‘which is by no means fiction, but an emanation of the act of writing in its existential peril itself’ (ibid.) sets out to prove.  While A. Rover takes P as quite simply Simmons’ own initial, Richard Silk suggests that it stands for ‘pater’.  ‘Simmons addressed his father with this name, traditionally used by public boys for “father”, throughout his life until “pater” died in 1946’ (The Dramatic Personae).
– but parody has to go further than imitation.  Examples like the quotation above do seem to work in this way, but, as a whole, the novel didn’t feel all that much like a novel.  It got a love interest towards the end (but not in the traditional sense) – but a lot of it read like critical theory.  And I read plenty of that for my day job!  There wasn’t enough novel in the novel.  I thought The Simmons Paper had real potential to be a little-known much-loved novella for me – have I ever told you about my fascination with dictionaries?  I wrote a thesis on them once – but I found the style a little clogging, and the thread of spoof rather one-note.  Good, but still disappointing.  Yet I will say this for it – it was much better than Sunlight on Cold Water.

A Cab at the Door – V.S. Pritchett

photo source

More Slightly Foxed!  Yay!  Well, this one was actually a little bonus – earlier in the year, when they sent me the fabulous Look Back With Love by Dodie Smith, they inadvertently sent me A Cab at the Door by V.S. Pritchett first.  And then very kindly said I could have both.  Having recently adored Blue Remembered Hills, I realised I couldn’t go long without another fix of Slightly Foxed, and so grabbed A Cab at the Door (1968).

I have to confess, I’ve spent much of my adult life confusing V.S. Pritchett and V.S. Naipaul (he of the I’m-better-than-all-women rant).  As crimes go, it’s not the worst, and I hadn’t actually read anything by either of them – but now I’m sure that Pritchett is going to be my favourite V.S.  Sorry, Italian astronomer V.S. Casulli.  Tough break.

Like all the Slightly Foxed Editions (of which this is no.3), A Cab at the Door is a memoir – stretching further than some, in that it takes us beyond childhood, up until the time Pritchett breaks away from his parents and leaves home for France.  Like most memoirists, Pritchett seems to have been blessed with more amusing, regional relatives than the average person (c’mon, my relatives, be more comical) but although we have entertaining visits to these, the dominant character in this memoir is Pritchett’s father.  And I choose the word dominant deliberately.  Whatever other merits the book has, I think its greatest achievement is a rich and complex portrait of the sort of man who would simply appear as an ogre in fiction.

Father (if his name is mentioned, I have forgotten it – as I invariably forget names) is selfish, arrogant, and angry.  His cruelty is that peculiar brand which stems from monumental self-delusion – he drives his family deeply into debt, but appears to believe it is none of his doing.  He has constant ambition to better himself and his standing in society (and even achieves it to a degree, eventually, becoming a Managing Director) but doesn’t care how his failures along the way ruin and sadden his wife and children.  His wife – a lively and somewhat crude woman – is all but forbidden from entertaining, and is constantly carted from pillar to post, as they move to escape his debts.  The eponymous cab at the door is Pritchett’s familiar childhood sight, waiting to take them to their next home.

But because this is non-fiction, Father is not the caricatured evil man, nor his wife the stereotypical woman whose character is squashed out of her.  Instead, despite his unkindness to his younger son, and his unpredictable behaviour towards Victor himself, there is still love in him.  His wife still has moments of shrieking with laughter; Victor can still bond with his father over literature, occasionally, even if his own early attempts at writing are loudly derided.  And what novelist would have the masterstroke of making Father become a fierce proponent of Christian Science?  It is a truly exceptional portrait of a complicated man – and a portrait which is never finished to the artist’s satisfaction, simply because he could not be comprehended.  Pritchett writes this brilliant paragraph towards the end:

Right up to the day of his death in his eighties, none of us children could settle our view of him.  It was simple to call him the late Victorian dominant male without whose orders no one could think or move.  It was only partly true that he was a romantic procrastinator, egotist and dreamer, for he was a very calculating man.  Sometimes we saw him as the unchanged country boy, given to local shrewdness and gossip.  (He loved the malicious gossip of his church and his trade.)  Sometimes we saw him as a pocket Napoleon, but he never even tried to obtain the wealth or power he often talked about.  His mind was more critical than creative and he was appalled by criticism of himself.  He would go pale, hold up his hand and say, “You must not criticise me.”  He sincerely meant he was beyond criticism and felt in himself a sort of sacredness.
A Cab at the Door doesn’t have the warmth and delight of other Slightly Foxed books – it doesn’t intend to – and so, while Pritchett cannot compete with Dodie Smith and Rosemary Sutcliff for my affections, his task is different and executed incredibly well.

There are, of course, other angles and facets to this memoir, but I thought it worth identifying and discussing the one which set it apart from others that I have read.  Perhaps not one to curl up with in front of the festive log fire (for that, get Look Back With Love or Blue Remembered Hills, I cannot encourage you enough) but certainly an impressive portrait of a frustrating man, exactly the right ratio of objective and personal, an exemplary achievement.

The Joke – Milan Kundera

Last month I (coincidentally) read a spate of successful authors’ first books – Agatha Christie’s, Katherine Mansfield’s, A.A. Milne’s – which is always an interesting exercise, and the fourth ‘first book’ I read was The Joke (1967) by Milan Kundera, given to me by my friend Lucy.  It could have worked for Reading Presently next year, but it also covered a tricky 1960s gap in A Century of Books.  Usually, with translated books, I am keen to mention the translator – but a fascinating Author’s Note at the end of The Joke explains that this fifth translation of the novel (from Czech) is really a combination of translations by David Hamblyn, Oliver Stallybrass, Michael Heim, and Kundera himself.  In case you still think Kundera might be a bit of a slacker, he is also responsible for the cover art.

The Joke is broadly about the way in which someone can (or cannot) be an individual within the Communist regime of 1950s Czechoslovakia, and the impact one decision can make on the rest of a person’s life.  Although possibly not the only ‘joke’ in the novel (the Wikipedia entry manfully identifies three), the pivotal moment of the novel comes early on.  Ludvik is a university professor and member of the Communist party – his somewhat humourless female friend is away on a training course, and they are corresponding…

From the training course (it took place at one of the castles of central Bohemia) she sent me a letter that was pure Marketa: full of earnest enthusiasm for everything around her; she liked everything: the early-morning calisthenics, the talks, the discussions, even the songs they sang; she praised the “healthy atmosphere” that reigned there; and diligently she added a few words to the effect that the revolution in the West would not be long in coming.
 
As far as that goes, I quite agreed with what she said; I too believed in the imminence of a revolution in Western Europe; there was only one thing I could not accept: that she should be so happy when I was missing her so much. So I bought a postcard and (to hurt, shock, and confuse her) wrote: Optimism is the opium of the people!  A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity!  Long live Trotsky!  Ludvik.
It turns out the Communist party don’t appreciate a giggle, and Ludvik is ousted from his job, exiled from the party, and sent off to do two years at a military camp.  Whilst there he meets, and falls in love with, a mysterious woman named Lucie.  At the end of the novel, various different strands (including a few that I haven’t addressed – like Kostka whose Christian faith is taking him away from Communism) coalesce and overlap at an old-fashioned parade, and the multiple viewpoints Kundera has used for different sections all come together and collide, taking short chapters each without indicating whose voice is speaking.

Although Kundera rather overloads The Joke with different perspectives and competing storylines, it is only really Ludvik’s story which stands out; the rest feels like it is stuck on to the sides of his engaging point of view and intriguing experiences.  His reflections upon political doctrine, personal affections, and the curious unpredictability of cause-and-effect are all compelling – let’s face it, any novel which can get me even mildly interested in politics has achieved more than the public press has in the past 27 years.

But, although you can see the seeds of his later experimentalism, The Joke is a much more straightforward novel than the one which made me a fan, Immortality.  That is hardly surprising for a first novel, and this has that curious combination of putting-too-much-in with a lack of novelistic ambition.  If I hadn’t read a couple of his later novels, I wouldn’t have noticed the deficit – this is still a very good novel, and probably more to the taste of a lot of people than his postmodern work – but I have, so I do.  I was intrigued by one or two hints of his future work, including this (from a man trying to spot his disguised son in the parade):

My son.  The person nearest to me.  I stand in front of him, and I don’t even know whether it is he or not.  What, then, do I know if I don’t know even that?  Of what am I sure in this world if I don’t have even that certainty?
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the catalyst for Identity. I think if I’d read The Joke first, I’d have been impressed but probably not actively sought out more Kundera.  As it is, I really appreciated being able to see where he started as a novelist – and how he progressed from there.

Are there any authors whose first novels, read after later ones, have really surprised you?

The Garrick Year – Margaret Drabble

I’ve bought up a few old Margaret Drabble titles over the years, all in slightly trippy old Penguin editions, but I’ve never actually got around to reading one of them before.  The one I really wanted to read was The Millstone, since I’ve heard complimentary comparisons to one of my favourite books, The L-Shaped Room, but it was 1964 that needed filling on A Century of Books, so I picked my second choice – The Garrick Year.  Cup-mark and all (not my doing.)

What drew me towards The Garrick Year was its theatrical setting.  As I’ve mentioned over the years, I am fascinated by the theatre and love reading about it in fact or fiction.  One of my Five From The Archive posts even covered the topic.  So I was keen to see how Emma and her actor husband David would get on when they move to Hereford for the opening of a new theatre.  And then it all went rather wrong.  No, not the plot, but my enjoyment of the novel.  Partly this was because of my reasons for reading it – I love to hear the theatre praised or teased, but treated always with affection, and even a little reverence.  Because that’s how I feel about it, I suppose.  Emma, however, just mocks it completely.

For those who have never heard actors discuss their trade, I may say that there is nothing more painfully boring on earth.  I think it is their lack of accuracy, their frightful passion for generality that rob their discussions of interest.  They were talking, this time, about that ancient problem of whether one should, while acting, be more aware of the audience of the person or person with whom one is playing the scene: I must have heard this same argument once a fortnight over the last four years, and never has anyone got a step nearer to any kind of illumination, because instead of talking rationally they just wander round the morasses of their own personalities, producing their own weaknesses for examination as though they were interesting, objective facts about human nature.
I don’t think I realised quite how much I do revere the theatre, until I bristled at this sort of blasphemy!  And, oh, what a cow Emma is.  I know some say it shouldn’t matter how likeable a character is, but I always maintain (as others have said before me) that it does matter if the author clearly sets up a character to be likeable, and fails.  And, after all, I often like books because they have charming characters, so why shouldn’t it work the other way around?

I have to confess, I had a problem with Emma as soon as she admitted preferring London to the countryside.  But things get worse than that.  Emma is one of those miserable people who moans all the time about everything, but does nothing to change her life.  She has no paid employment, and whines about looking after their two children – which would be fair enough, if she didn’t have a full-time, live-in nanny.  Quite what she does with her day is unclear, but later she manages to fill the hours by thoughtlessly embarking on an affair with the producer of the theatre.  She appears to have no concern at all for her marriage vows, having declared earlier that the only reason she hadn’t committed adultery was that she hadn’t had the opportunity.

There isn’t much plot or narrative drive in The Garrick Year.  It’s mostly Emma’s introspective, self-pitying waffle.  Thankfully it’s at least well written, which is the only reason I persevered with what is, in fact, a slim novel.  Although Drabble isn’t quite as good a writer as I’d expected – I’d argue she’s not as good as Lynne Reid Banks – but it isn’t clunky or cliche-ridden or anything like that, and she creates the background characters rather well: among them is Sofy, an ambitious young actress whose talents (if any) do not lie in the direction of acting, and I rather enjoyed any moment that Emma and David’s young daughter was on the scene – she could be quite funny.  In terms of structure, Drabble went (I am sorry to say) for one of those last-minute-big-events which seem the last ditch effort of a novelist who knows their novel hasn’t been very exciting yet – you know the sort?

Perhaps I’ll enjoy Drabble more when her topic is different, or her character less selfish and awful. I wondered, while I was reading this, whether it might be her second novel – and, lo and behold, it was.  It has neither the inspiration of a first novel, nor the assured confidence of a later book – so hopefully I just picked up a dud, and there will be plenty more to try later.  I do recognise that she is a good writer, and I’m not giving up on her yet.  Any suggestions?

Talking of Grief

I hope I don’t sound odd when I say that I am rather fascinated by the idea of grief.  Not in a sadistic way, of course, but simply because it is a fundamental aspect of human life which I have yet to experience.  Recently I have read two very different non-fiction books on the topic, and it seemed to make sense (briefly) to consider them together – Calvin Trillin’s About Alice (2006) and C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (1961).  Both are by husbands who are coming to terms with the premature loss of their wife to cancer, but from that point, they are incredibly different.

As the title suggests, Trillin’s book is about Alice, his wife.  It is essentially a memoir of their marriage, concentrating on those qualities he most loved in Alice – and how bravely and determinedly she was when she first had cancer, which went into remission, and then returned.  What made About Alice moving to me was, actually, the fact that I didn’t warm to Alice at all.  The characteristics Trillin adored – such as bluntness,  or a willingness to use her beauty to avoid speeding tickets – weren’t ones which I admire, which made Trillin’s portrait all the stronger and affecting.  Reminiscences – in fact or fiction – which detail how uniformly perfect the deceased was, and how terribly they are mourned by everyone, never quite ring true.  We all know that our very favourite people are not everyone’s favourite people, and a personal grief is much more powerful for being personal.

I’m struggling to know what to write about About Alice.  It’s a beautiful portrait of a relationship, as well as a woman.  It is not really a book about grief – that isn’t the sort of book Trillin chose to write.   I found it moving, but as the reflection of a life that has sadly ended, rather than reflections upon Trillin’s own ongoing life.

Lewis’s A Grief Observed is the flip-side of the coin.  There is little about Joy’s character and life, because Lewis’s focus is the process(es) of grief – particularly, grief as a Christian.  A Grief Observed isn’t a work of theology, though, because that would suggest settled conclusions, with arguments and illustrations to support and work towards them.  Lewis writes that sort of book very well (c.f. Mere Christianity), but in A Grief Observed he is openly flailing.  It really is the documentation of an ongoing process.  Lewis hasn’t edited the book to make it feel consistent or conclusive – indeed, he often backtracks or offers alternative interpretations of what he has already written.

I wrote that last night.  It was a yell rather than a thought.  Let me try it over again.
Somehow, Lewis manages to write down the varying states of his mind and spirit without sounding self-absorbed or introspective.  Grief genuinely seems to confound and puzzle him, as he tries to ascertain how he really feels, and how he will manage the future.  Part of this is concerned with his faith, and re-assessing his understanding of God.  In soaps or light fiction, grief would have ended his faith – Lewis’s relationship with God was too strong and real for that, but the pain of losing his wife does make him reconsider God’s character, and how he has previously misunderstood it.  Again, Lewis doesn’t have any predetermined conclusions here, and he doesn’t really come to any by the end of the book, but he is remarkably eloquent about his journey here.  (Sorry, I meant to avoid the word ‘journey’, but… well, it felt like one.)

A Grief Observed is starkly, vividly, astonishingly honest.   It is also eloquent and thoughtful, without losing spontaneity or genuine emotion.  Through the nature of Lewis’s approach, it is of wider applicability that Trillin’s book.  Although nobody else will have the exact experience Lewis did, plenty of people will probably agree with the general points he discovers along the way.

I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow.  Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.  It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop.  There is something new to be chronicled every day.  Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.
I read A Grief Observed with the interest of the outsider, keen to understand a facet of emotion I cannot grasp.  One day, presumably, I will need to turn to it as a fellow-griever.  I found Lewis’s book so powerful and wise even without having experienced grief – and now, thankfully, I will know exactly where to turn when I first experience it.  And I imagine it will feel like a completely different book then.