Margaret Kennedy Reading Week

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?

Mrs Harris MP – Paul Gallico

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, Agatha

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.

So, there you go. Onto The Seven Dials Mystery

The Pumpkin Eater – Penelope Mortimer

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…”

“Except when?”

“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.

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.

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.