The Truth About ‘Pygmalion’ by Richard Huggett

The Truth About PygmalionI love books about books, books about reading, books about authors, and all the sorts of books that are coming to your mind by those descriptions. Find me a book about books about books please, world. And, alongside that, I love the sort of niche books-about-authors that you can never quite believe anybody thought profitable to publish – whether that be memoirs by authors’ friends, personal essays about reading reflections, or books like Richard Huggett’s 1969 work The Truth About ‘Pygmalion’, which apparently I picked up in London a couple of years ago.

The Pygmalion in question, it probably won’t surprise you to learn, is George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play, rather than the myth after which the play is named. (I think it’s fair to say that the play has outstripped the myth, in terms of popularity?) The title makes it sound like there might be a scandal at the heart of this book, but there is no enormous truth to uncover – rather, it is web of behind the scenes relationships, rivalries, and friendships that Huggett unveils. For Pygmalion brought together three of the biggest names of Edwardian theatre: George Bernard Shaw, Mrs Patrick Campbell, and Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

I’m not sure how well known this trio are now, so forgive me if I explain what is already widely understood. I’m going to take Shaw’s continuing popularity as read, but the other two were amongst the foremost actors of their generation – neither of them in the first flush of youth at the time of Pygmalion. Indeed, Mrs Patrick Campbell was several decades too old to play a flower girl but this, Huggett tells us, didn’t much matter to the theatre-going public of 1913. She had her adoring fans, and had first come to fame twenty or so years earlier – everything I knew about her related to her famous and mildly scandalous role in The Second Mrs Tanqueray by Arthur Wing Pinero (a role she would continue to revive for much of the rest of her life). Herbert Beerbohm Tree was a much-loved actor-manager, used to directing his own plays as well as producing, starring, and pretty much everything else. As Huggett demonstrates in this enormously entertaining book, Pygmalion was a meeting of three titanic egos.

Shaw bluntly refused to entrust his brainchild to the splendid but capricious talents of the great actor-manager, let alone those of his leading lady. He insisted on directing Pygmalion himself. The seeds of discontent were thus planted, preparing the way for a really magnificently explosive situation. The duet of personalities was now a trio, and the music which thundered and screamed round the Dome of the famous theatre was as dramatic and as colourful as the play which inspired it.

It’s hard to categorise The Truth About ‘Pygmalion’. Is it fact or fiction? It certainly can’t be considered absolute fact, for Huggett continually dramatises conversations that nobody could possibly have recorded (and which Huggett makes no claims to have witnessed). Certainly real letters between Shaw and Mrs Pat are used, and used to excellent effect, but we are asked to continue our credulity to detailed, witty, often affectionate antagonism at every rehearsal.

The account is fairly simple, really. After some angst about whether or not she should star in a play about a Cockney flower girl, and even more angst about which man should play opposite her, the rest follows the storms and tempests as they try to rehearse and produce the play. Shaw insists on keeping his version; Mrs Pat and Tree have their iron-cast, often selfish, visions of how the play should be performed.

The main scandal of the time, which is hardly scandalous to us now, was the use of the word bloody. As Shaw pointed out, it appears in Macbeth – but hearing it on the modern stage was apparently a whole different matter. Though it actually passed the censor without any issues, it was the talk of the press – would she say the word (they could not bring themselves to print what it was – except, Huggett mentions delightedly, the Church Times)? And, when she did, was this the sort of filth that the public should be exposed to? It’s a fascinating sidenote to a cultural landmark.

What makes this book more than an intriguing curio – and that would be quite enough for me – is Huggett’s style. His structure is a bit odd, opening with a portrayal of destitute Mrs Pat in her old age that never feels quite justified or relevant to the rest, but after this he is a wonder. The writing is infected by the rhetoric of the period of which he is writing; it feels bombastic, slightly wild. And it works perfectly. The gossip column has solidified into fine writing without sacrificing the intrigue and slight exhilaration that make this sort of thing so exciting to read. It isn’t remotely academic – not a reference or footnote in sight – but it does illuminate many fascinating details concerning an enormously famous play; at the same time, it brings three titans of the theatre completely to life. And I can’t resist ending this review by saying that Huggett, as with the myth of Pygmalion, has created personalities that, though real, could never have been quite as heightened as he forms them – and, yes, along the way both he and we fall in love with them all, monstrous though they can be.

 

Birds, Beasts, and Relatives by Gerald Durrell

BBROne of my favourite reads from a couple of years ago was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals (1956). It was so funny and delightful that I was cross with myself for having missed out on its joys for so long. And so I was thrilled to discover, after finishing, that there were two sequels – which nobody seems much to talk about? Or perhaps I’ve missed it? I made it my mission to find them in the wild, rather than the ease of getting from the internet, and thus it was that Birds, Beasts, and Relatives (1969) ended up in my hands at the Bookbarn last year.

Basically, if you liked My Family and Other Animals – this is more of the wonderful same.

You’ll notice from those dates that there was quite a gap between the two books being published – 13 years – and it was another nine years before the third in the trilogy made its way to print, by which point the halcyon pre-war days spent in Corfu must have seemed a far-off memory. Looking back from 2017, it seems an almost impossible dream – but a lot of that is connected with the way in which Durrell crafts a dreamlike world of nature, humour, and the eccentric foibles of his brothers, sister, and (to a lesser extent) mother.

The book kicks off with a preamble that I can only assume is fake – in which his family (in the 1960s) look back at the horrors that ensued when the previous book was published: ‘The bank writing to ask you if you will kindly remove your overdraft, the tradesmen looking at you askance, anonymous parcels of straight-jackets [sic] being left on the door step, being cut dead by all the relatives’. Unmoved, Gerald decides to write the sequel…

I haven’t been watching the TV series about this trilogy, mostly because I want to make sure that I finish reading it before I start watching it – so the stories may be familiar to those who are watching. There are plenty of set pieces – one of my favourites comes near the beginning, where they go back to London to seek weight-loss solutions for Margo (who was suffering from a glandular condition). Not only does this introduce us to Prue and Aunt Fan – the latter a deaf and kind lady who carries on her own conversations, entirely unrelated to everybody else’s, while being quietened by her daughter – but it also shows us Margo’s attempt at spiritualism. It is all hilarious, and some of Durrell’s best comic writing comes in this section. Never has the word ‘faintly’ had such amusing impact (now there’s something to entice you).

As with the previous volume, I was more interested in the family than the animals; though there were some very interesting moments concerning a camouflaging crab, I don’t think Durrell can expect everybody to share his fascination with dung beetles. Predictably, my interest hit its peak when the animal chat met etymology. Etymology over entomology, say I. (Excuse me while I retire on the back of this glorious moment.) Gerry is talking to Theodore, a man who shares his naturalist preoccupations, about the collared dove…

“In Greek,” Theodore said, munching his sandwich methodically, “the name for collared dove is dekaoctura, eighteener, you know. The story goes that when Christ was… um… carrying the cross to Calvary, a Roman soldier seeing that He was exhausted, took pity on Him. By the side of the road there was an old woman selling… um… you know… milk and so the Roman soldier went to her and asked her how much a cupful would cost. She replied that it would cost eighteen coins. But the soldier only had seventeen. He… er… you know… pleaded with the woman to let him have a cupful of milk for Christ for seventeen coins, but the woman avariciously stuck out for eighteen. So, when Christ was crucified the old woman was turned into a collared dove and condemned to go about the rest of her days repeating dekaocto, dekaocto, eighteen, eighteen.”

I don’t know if this the commonly-accepted etymology, but I want it to be so much that I refuse to look it up.

What else? There are some wonderful moments with Roger the dog, there is a wedding and a birth, there is an ill-fated sea quest or two. Basically, it’s full of the same sort of anecdotes that made My Family and Other Animals such a joy. And, while I fully empathise with the longsuffering family who don’t want (say) a turtle dissected on their patio, I still continued to enjoy the optimistic and spirited Gerry as our narrator.

If I didn’t love the sequel quite as much as the original, I think that might be the effect of novelty rather than anything else. This was returning to old friends, and it certainly didn’t feel like a second-rate set of stories. I think I might need to race on to the third in the trilogy which, as luck would have it, I have waiting for me…

 

 

 

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

The House on the StrandIt’s Historical Fiction week over at Vulpes Libris, and I’m throwing some fat on the fire with a post about why I don’t like historical fiction… and (because I MULTI-TASK, y’all) it’s also a review of The House on the Strand (1969) by Daphne du Maurier.

Which sounds like I hated the novel – whereas in fact I had quite a confusing relationship with it, given that half of it is in present day (yay!) and half in the 14th century (boo!). Read all about it over at Vulpes Libris

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

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.