The Bird of Night by Susan Hill

My theme of paperbacks-I-took-to-Edinburgh continues; on the way back, I read most of The Bird of Night (1972) by Susan Hill, and then finished it later that weekend.

The Bird of Night

I’ve read quite a few of Hill’s novellas over the years, though mostly the ones that have come out more recently – so it was interesting to see how she was writing 40+ years earlier in her career. There is even a very young, quite morose, picture of her on the back of my 1976 Penguin paperback, when Hill was presumably around my age. Unlike me, though, Hill had already published six novels by the time The Bird of Night hit the shelves.

The opening sets the tone of the novel:

Once, during the summer we spent at Kerneham, Francis locked himself in the church for a whole night. I found him there, at five o’clock the next morning, huddled up beneath the pulpit. It was cold. He could not feel safe anywhere else, he said, and then he began to weep, as so often happened, and shouted at me through his weeping, to understand the truth, that he deserved to be locked up, why would I not admit that and see to it, why had I driven him to do it for himself?

That is what I remembered this morning but I do not know why one bubble should break upon the surface rather than another. I should be content that I remember.

Francis is Francis Croft, a renowned and garlanded poet (though Hill wisely gives us, as far as I can recall, no lines of his poetry – his greatness is not tested on the page); the narrator is Harvey Lawson. He is describing their relationship from the distance of years – where he is the protector of Croft’s reputation. Or, rather, he keeps mostly schtum about Croft and insists that there are no papers to share (though there are). And his reflections take him back to their shared history: they meet incidentally, and develop an intense and restless friendship. It is intense chiefly because of Croft’s mental illness and descents into madness.

And this is the trajectory the novel follows. Somehow it is hard to describe the plot; it is more a portrait of a friendship (or more? It is never clear). But the faint structure matters little, and that is because of the strength of Hill’s writing here. I always think she’s at her best when she is looking in detail at the minutaie of relationships between individuals, or characters’ introspections and self-analysis (and how rare is that? Usually that’s where authors fall down). Here is Harvey describing looking after Francis during his most troubled times:

But the cycle of Francis’s madness was never a regular or predictable one. I had prepared myself for days, perhaps weeks, spent closeted in that dismal flat by candlelight, having to comfort and support him through his deepest apathy and depression. Certainly, for the next two days he stayed in bed or sat slouched in a chair looking as though he were half drugged, his eyes blank and all his attention turned inward upon himself. He hardly spoke to me and when he did answer a persistent question, it was with a monosyllable. He would not shave or eat or read, but only sat up once in a while and muttered to his own hands. “It’s all wrong, I tell you, it’s all wrong.” Once I caught him staring at himself in a mirror, his face very close to the glass. He looked puzzled. “I’m afraid we have not been introduced,” he said to his reflection. “I do not know your face. Should I know your face? Is this a good party?”

Much of the novella follows this pattern – a detailed, nuanced, and interesting depiction of mental health and a troubled friendship.

Of the many ways in which Hill writes fiction, I think this might be my favourite – something like an extended character study. I have read somewhere that Hill doesn’t rate this amongst her best novels, but I would put it up with In the Springtime of the Year as containing the best of her writing that I’ve read.

A Diet of Dame Agatha

For the sake of updating my Century of Books, and because I have precious little else to update Stuck-in-a-Book with at the moment, here’s a rundown of the Agatha Christies I’ve been reading of late. I imagine there will be another update to come soon, but hopefully I can extend my reading range a bit soon, as I need to read Asleep in the Sun by Adolfo Bioy Casares for book group next week!

It’s difficult to write properly about detective fiction, and it’s even more difficult to write differently about lots of detective fiction, so I’ll just give you a couple of impressions per book.

The Seven Dials Mystery (1929)
Very Wodehousian beginning, and Christie does humour well.  But I never like Agatha as much when she’s doing gangs and spy rings and all that.  (I also wonder how recently she’d read The Man Who Was Thursday.)

Elephants Can Remember (1972)
I was warned off this one after I’d started, but I actually loved large chunks of it – Ariadne Oliver (a detective novelist with a famous Finnish detective) is a wonderful opportunity for Agatha Christie to talk about her own career wittily, and (having met her for my first time in Hallowe’en Party) I loved seeing her again.  But the plot was pretty flimsy.

Curtain (1975)
Poirot’s last case, written some decades earlier, it’s amusingly anachronistic at times, but has a good plot and the ever-wonderful Captain Hastings.

Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952)
More Poirot, more Ariadne Oliver! And a good plot, although perhaps not one of the very best. Or perhaps I’m just saying that because I guessed part of the ending, and I always prefer to be fooled.

Murder in the Mews (1937)
Four novella length stories about Poirot, one of which (the longest) was very good, ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’. The others were fine, but I got the impression that Christie hadn’t considered the ideas good enough for a full-length book.

I have four more Christies out of the library, so I’ll fill you in when I’ve rushed through those… and then hopefully I’ll have broken my Reader’s Block!  Thank goodness there is an author I can turn to during those periods, where it seems inconceivable that anybody could actually finish reading a book (so many WORDS!) as otherwise I’d be going mad.

London War Notes – Mollie Panter-Downes

I’ve already teased you with one excerpt from Mollie Panter-Downes’ London War Notes 1939-1945 (collected together in 1972) and now I’m going to do a terrible thing.  I’m going to tell you how wonderful this book is.  I’m going to throw around the word ‘essential’.  And… it’s pretty much impossible to buy, unless you have a fair bit of money to spend.  I don’t even have a copy myself, mine’s from the library in Oxford.  But someone (are you listening?) needs to reprint this.  It’s the most useful book about the war that I’ve ever read.

There are plenty of books about World War Two.  There are even plenty of diaries, and some – like Nella Last’s or Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg’s – are exceptionally good.  But these sorts of diaries are, inevitably, extremely personal.  There is plenty of detail about the war, but primarily they record one person’s response to the war – and any private emotions they are experiencing, relating to their marriage, children, or any other aspect of their lives.  Mollie Panter-Downes’ objective is different – she is documenting the war experience for all of London.  (It is emphatically just London; she often refers to ‘the British’, but the rest of the country can more or less go hang, as far as she is concerned.)

Panter-Downes wrote these ‘notes’ for the New Yorker, but it is impressively difficult to tell this from the columns.  Even at the stages of the war where America was umming and aahing about fighting, she observes British feelings on the topic (essentially: “yes please, and get on with it”) as though relating them to her next-door neighbour, rather than the country in question.  And, of course, Americans and Britons are two nations divided by a single language, as George Bernard Shaw (neither American nor British) once said.  This gives Mollie Panter-Downes the perfect ‘voice’ for a book which has stood the test of time.  Her audience will be aware of major events in the war, but the minutiae of everyday life – and London’s response to the incremental developments of war – are related with the anthropologist’s detail, to a sympathetic but alien readership.

And nobody could have judged the balance of these columns better than Panter-Downes.  The extraordinary writing she demonstrates in her fiction (her perfect novel One Fine Day, for instance) is equally on show here.  She offers facts and relates the comments of others, but she also calmly speaks of heroism and bravado, looks at humour and flippancy with an amused eye, and can be brought to moving heights of admiration.  The column she writes in response to D Day is astonishing, and it would do it an injustice to break it up at all – so I shall post the whole entry tomorrow.  This, to give you a taste, is how she describes the fall of France – or, rather, the reaction to this tragic news, in Britain:

June 22nd 1940: On Monday, June 17th – the tragic day on which Britain lost the ally with whom she had expected to fight to the bitter ed – London was as quiet as a village.  You could ave heard a pin drop in the curious, watchful hush.  A places where normally there is a noisy bustle of comings and goings, such as the big railway stations, there was the same extraordinary, preoccupied silence.  People stood about reading the papers; when a man finished one, he would hand it over to anybody who hadn’t been lucky enough to get a copy, and walk soberly away. 

For once the cheerful cockney comeback of the average Londoner simply wasn’t there.  The boy who sold you the fateful paper did it in silence; the bus conductor punched your ticket in silence.  The public seemed to react to the staggering news like people in a dream, who go through the most fantastic actions without a sound.  There was little discussion of events, because they were too bad for that.  With the house next door well ablaze and the flames coming closer, it was no time to discuss who or what was the cause and whether more valuables couldn’t have been saved from the conflagration.
I’ve read quite a lot of books from the war, both fact and fiction, and have studied the period quite a bit, but there were still plenty of things I didn’t know.  I hadn’t realised, for instance, that boys were conscripted into mines at random, or that German planes dropped lots of bits of silvery paper (which children then collected) to disrupt radar equipment, or that in 1940 all foreigners in Britain – including the recently-invaded French – were banned from having cars, bicycles, or cameras.  More significantly, I had never got my head around the order in which things happened during the war.  I mean, I knew vaguely when various invasions happened, when America entered the war, when D-Day took place – but London War Notes offers a fortnight-by-fortnight outlook on the war.  We can see just which rations were in place, which fears were uppermost, and how public opinion shifted – particularly the public opinion concerning Winston Churchill.  Films made retrospectively tend to show him as much-adored war hero throughout, but London War Notes demonstrates how changeable people were regarding him and his policies – although there was a lot more approval for various politicians than is imaginable in Britain today, where they are all largely regarded as more or less scoundrels.  (Can you think of a politician with a very good general public approval? I can’t.)  This is why I think the book is essential for anyone writing about life in England (or perhaps just London) during the war – Panter-Downes gives such an insight into the changing lives and conditions.  It also made me think about things from a perspective I hadn’t previously.  I’d never really appreciated how devastating tiredness could be to a nation.

Sept. 29th 1940: Adjusting daily life to the disruption of nightly raids is naturally what Londoners are thinking and talking most about. For people with jobs to hold down, loss of sleep continues to be as menacing as bombs.  Those with enough money get away to the country on weekends and treat themselves to the luxury of a couple of nine-hour stretches. (“Fancy,” said one of these weekenders dreamily, “going upstairs to bed instead of down.”)  It is for the alleviation of the distress of the millions who can’t afford to do anything but stay patiently put that the government has announced the distribution of free rubber earplugs to deaden the really appalling racket of the barrages.
One of the keynotes of London War Notes is Panter-Downes’ admiration for the resilience and good-humour of the British people during war.  I’d always assumed this was something of a war film propaganda myth, but since Panter-Downes is more than happy to note when people grumble and complain, then I believe the more frequent reports of cheeriness and determination.  And, lest you think London War Notes is unremittingly bleak or wearyingly emotional, I should emphasise that Panter-Downes is often very amusing and wry.  An example, you ask?  Why, certainly:

Jan. 31st 1942: The Food Ministry has been flooded with letters, including one supposedly from a kitten, who plaintively announced that he caught mice for the government and hoped Lord Woolton would see his way clear to allowing him his little saucerful.  In the country, the milk shortage has brought about a boom in goats, which appeal to people who haven’t got the space or the nerve necessary to tackle a cow but who trustingly imagine that a goat is a handy sort of animal which keeps the lawn neat and practically milks itself.
London War Notes isn’t a book to speed-read, but to luxuriate in, and pace out.  Tricky, when it is borrowed from the library – which I’m afraid you’ll probably have to do, unless someone decides to republish it.  I can’t imagine a more useful, entertaining, moving, and thorough guide to the war, beautifully finding a middle path between objectivity and subjectivity.  One day I will own my own copy.  For now, I’m grateful to Oxford libraries for keeping something like this in their store.

And come back tomorrow for that whole entry about D-Day.  Bring tissues.

Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir – Cicely Greig

My favourite thing in the blogosphere in 2012 has been Claire discovering, and loving, A.A. Milne.  Every time one of her AAM reviews come out, I more or less burst with glee that somebody else has found out how funny and delightful his many and various books are.  Most of my AAM reading happened before I started blogging (I’ve read about 25 books by him) so you haven’t witnessed my love of his books as much as you would have done had you engaged me in conversation in 2002, but – it is there!

So, that’s one favourite author off the list.  Back when I started blogging in 2007, it seemed that nobody much liked Virginia Woolf either – but plenty of people have come to the blogosphere since who share my love of Ginny.  And there’s never been any shortage of those who’ll wax literary over E.M. Delafield, Barbara Comyns, and Persephone & Virago etc.

But… but… as of yet, I haven’t found a blogger who loves Ivy Compton-Burnett as I do (although I think Geranium Cat is more in favour than not?).  There is no-one who gets as excited as I do about her novels; most people, indeed, have either never read her, or run screaming from the thought of having to read her again.

Picture source

Which is why it is so wonderful to find books which match my enthusiasm for Dame Ivy.  Earlier in the year, I read Pamela Hansford-Johnson’s enthusiastic pamphlet on Ivy Compton-Burnett – and now I’ve read something I loved even more.  In fact, it’s in my top two or three books of the year so far.  AND it’s available from 1p on Amazon.  It’s Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir (1972) by her typist and friend, Cicely Greig.

Had I know that Greig was Ivy Compton-Burnett’s typist, I probably would have read this book much sooner (according to the date I scribbled inside, I’ve had it for nearly three years.)  It’s such an interesting perspective on this fascinating author.  Gradually they became friends as well, but the Victorian/Edwardianism of Ivy’s novels extended to her understanding of social mores, and it took quite a long time for her to unbend enough to treat Greig as a friend.  As Greig writes, Ivy Compton-Burnett just couldn’t quite understand her position – as a woman who had to earn her living, but wasn’t a servant.  The mechanics and background detail of writing fascinate me, and Greig is uniquely able to provide firsthand experience of certain aspects of Ivy’s writing process – as the first person to be given the novels in longhand:

I had not yet opened her parcel with the manuscript of her novel.  We
said goodbye to each other at the front door, and I flew back to the
sitting-room.  When I opened the parcel I found fourteen school exercise
books of the cheaper kind, blue paper covers and multiplication tables
on the back cover.  I remember thinking this last detail quite a fitting
logic for a book of Ivy’s.  Her books so often have a sort of
inexorable logic about them, like twice one is two.

For Greig was not solely a typist, but also an ardent fan.  This was how she got the job: she wrote to Ivy Compton-Burnett (and, incidentally, Rose Macaulay) expressing her admiration and asking that they consider her for future typing.  Macaulay didn’t take her up on it, but months later Ivy Compton-Burnett did.  As an admirer of Dame Ivy’s work, Greig combined professionalism with the sort of mad joy that any of us would feel at this privileged position with an author we loved.  Greig echoes Pamela Hansford-Johnson when writing about her love of Ivy:

Why did I like her books so much?  I have been asked that question many times, sometimes with a note of incredulous exasperation.  With Ivy one is either an addict or an abstainer.  I became an addict from the first chapter of A House and Its Head.  Most of my friends, unfortunately, are abstainers.  Suggest her, and if they have ever tried to read one of her books their reply can be an indignant refusal.

She really is love or hate.  Greig goes on to explain her own love of Ivy Compton-Burnett, not quite as astutely as Pamela Hansford-Johnson does, but still in a fascinating manner.  But it was her firsthand interaction with Dame Ivy which makes this book so thrillingly interesting to me.  Greig has no illusions about Ivy Compton-Burnett’s fairly terrifying character, but she also recognised the fondness behind it.

Her fierceness, when it showed itself, and when I provoked it, was always short-lived.  Any breach of normal decorum, and her standard was perhaps exceptionally high, was annoying to her, and she never failed to let this be seen.  But having let it be seen, the matter was over.

Ivy Compton-Burnett was always keen for Greig to visit, and expressed an interest in her life which was far from perfunctory.  They could not meet as equals, nor did they even use each other’s first names for many years, but there was a genuine affection and (more characteristically) curiosity from Ivy.  One gets the sense that Greig’s other friendships were more free and easy, but that perhaps this was one of the most valued – and while Ivy Compton-Burnett wanted to meet Greig’s friends, Greig felt she could only bring people who also admired Ivy’s writing; few and far between.  So, although Greig also grew to know Ivy’s dear friend Margaret Jourdain, theirs was mostly an exclusive friendship, in a vacuum, as it were.  Ivy’s life, aging, and death are shown sensitively, from the angle of a friend who saw her all too rarely, and Greig balances Ivy’s life and work excellently, being herself fascinated by, and involved with, both.

I would have been scared rigid of Dame Ivy, I’m sure.  Obviously manners maketh man, but decorum and etiquette often baffle me – and Ivy Compton-Burnett’s standards were positively Victorian, as though she were part of the world she so often depicted through fiction.  Ivy Compton-Burnett is one of those authors (like Virginia Woolf, like Muriel Spark) whose writing and personality I adore, but with whom I cannot imagine being friendly or even at ease.  And yet I lap up their comments and views of the world, whether or not I agree – and Greig’s perspective offers greater potential for these.  A brief observation Ivy Compton-Burnett made to Greig is one with which I do very much agree, for her time but more especially for ours:

“Yes, that’s the worst of writers today,” Ivy said.  “They will write about something.  Instead of just writing about people, about their characters.”

That’s probably one of the wisest things I’ve ever read about writing, and if more writers today considered it then we wouldn’t have the deluge of issue-driven books, which doubtless market well but prove rather uninspiring, to me, at least.

When people ask me where they should start with Ivy Compton-Burnett, I usually recommend either Pastors and Masters (as it is an early work; a sort of Ivy-lite) or simply say that they’re all more or less the same, so it doesn’t much matter.  I’d now be inclined to suggest they start, in fact, with this book.  Jumping straight into Ivy Compton-Burnett can be an intimidating prospect; I think becoming acquainted with her through Cecily Greig’s eyes is a great halfway house, and one which (through Greig’s infectious enthusiasm and personal insight) might well pique a reader’s interest, and make Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels feel not only accessible but an absolute must.  These sorts of books are rather hit or miss, but Cecily Greig’s is one of favourite reads this year.  Hurrah!