Letters from Klara by Tove Jansson

Letters From KlaraWhen I saw that Thomas Teal had translated another set of Tove Jansson stories, I knew that the collection would be one of the books I bought for Project 24 – and, while I bought it two months ago, I was waiting to feel exactly in the mood to read it. That’s partly because I have to be in the right mood for any collection of short stories, but also because I’m savouring what little Jansson there is left to translate. I think the only remaining book is a 1984 novel which is Field of Stones in English. Why hasn’t it been translated yet, one wonders?

Letters from Klara was originally published in 1991 and was one of the final books Jansson wrote. I have to be honest from the outset – it’s probably the least good of the books I’ve read by her. I say ‘least good’ rather than ‘worst’, because it is still good – but I’ve come to have such high expectations of her work that it still came as a bit of a disappointment.

She is strongest in the longer stories. ‘The Pictures’ looks at the difficult relationship between a young painter and his father, when the painter leaves home with a scholarship. It has Jansson’s trademark subtlety in showing how two people who care deeply for each other can’t properly communicate; she is wonderful at showing the strain of silence in these relationships, where others might go too far in showing awkwardness. The final words of it show Jansson at her spare best:

The train stopped out on the moor, as inexplicably as before, and stood still for several minutes. It started moving again and Victor saw his father on the platform. They approached one another. Very slowly.

The other story that struck me as truly excellent is also the other long story: the haunting ‘Emmelina’. Emmelina is an old lady’s companion who inherits everything when the old lady dies, and who is one of Jansson’s enigmas. David – through whose eyes we see her, albeit still in the third person – falls in love, but cannot understand her, or where she disappears to. Emmelina has the sharp commonsense of many of Jansson’s characters, but also feels almost spectral. The story has no twists or conclusions, but it simply a wonderful example of how to keep a reader guessing, without quite knowing what the question is.

Elsewhere, some of the stories feel too short, too sparse. Jansson seems to have been experimenting with cutting down her prose further and further. Usually her spareness is a great quality, but in some of these stories we lost too much. An emotional logic was missing; the structure didn’t allow her usual character development. In ‘Party Games’, for instance, a school reunion is supposed to reveal hidden rivalries and resentments, but it doesn’t quite work – and female rivalries is a topic Jansson has addressed with startling insight in other collections, perhaps most notable in ‘The Woman Who Borrowed Memories’.

None of the stories in this collection are bad, but some feel like they just missed the mark – or never quite got going. The title story is a series of letters to different people that develop a character, but don’t cohere into a story. Other stories are good but belong in different collections – ‘Pirate Rum’ feels exactly like a chapter missing from Fair Play, being about two older women on a remote island (and presumably as autobiographical as Fair Play was).

So, I’m still thrilled that this book is available to read, and glad I read it, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as a good place to start. Jansson has done much better. But thank goodness for any of her words finding their way into English – and thank you to Thomas Teal for all he does in translating her.

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Blue FlowerAin’t it just the way, in a week where I’ve proclaimed my scepticism about historical fiction over at Vulpes Libris, that I’ve also written about two historical novels that I’ve really liked? The True Heart fell within my ‘safety zone’ of post-1800, but The Blue Flower (1995) doesn’t – although it is the 1790s, so it’s hardly a million miles away.

I think I have chiefly heard people talk about The Blue Flower in the context of being upset that it didn’t win the Booker – and it’s certainly considered Penelope Fitzgerald’s best novel, as far as I can tell. I’m not sure I’d place it above others that I’ve loved by her (The Bookshop and At Freddie’s are both fantastic), but I did really like it.

The main character was a real person, though not one I’d heard of. He is Friedrich von Hardenberg, famed later under the pseudonym Novalis, and his Wikipedia page tells me that he was ‘a practitioner of German Romanticism’ as well as occupied as ‘prose writer, poet, mystic, philosopher, civil engineer, mineralogist’. Exhausting, no?

We don’t see any of that in The Blue Flower, though he certainly speaks like a philosopher (he is a kind, thoughtful, and eloquent character). Instead, we see him as a man in his early 20s, a student of history, philosophy, and law at various universities, who has fallen in love with 12-year-old Sophie. Fitzgerald’s strength is that this is no Lolita. There is nothing unpleasant on the page. He does not sexualise her – rather, he idealises her, and is more than happy to wait the four years until she can marry him.

The blue flower of the title comes in a story that Fritz tells Sophie (and others), about a young man who longs to see the blue flower. What does it mean? Fitzgerald isn’t vouchsafing it to us, though we may come up with theories. Karoline Just – a close friend of Fritz’s, clearly in love with him, though Fritz cannot see this – can only rule out options for what the blue flower symbolises.

She said “The young man has to go away from his home to find it. He only wants to see it, he does not want to possess it. It cannot be poetry, he knows what that is already. It can’t be happiness, he wouldn’t need a stranger to tell him what that is, and as far as I can see he is already happy in home.”

It is not the key to the novel’s comprehension or anything like that – but it is representative of the way Fitzgerald frame s a story. We come at it sideways and unexpected angles, hearing mundane conversations that hint towards a whole, waiting for Fritz to confide in his father about the engagement.

What makes Fitzgerald’s novels so great is undoubtedly her style. Whatever she’s writing about, she has a wonderful wryness. I have realised that one of my favourite authorial techniques is that slight detachment – the shared awareness with the reader that the scene shown is, perhaps, slightly absurd. She laughs gently at her creations, while watching them as though from Olympus…

“Sophie, listen to me. I am going to tell you what I felt, when I first saw you standing by the window. When we catch sight of certain human figures and faces… especially certain eyes, expressions, movements – when we hear certain words, when we read certain passages, thoughts take on the meaning of laws… a view of life true to itself, without any self-estrangement. And the self is set free, for the moment, from the constant pressure of change… Do you understand me?”

Sophie nodded. “Yes, I do. I have heard of that before. Some people are born again and again into this world.”

Fritz persevered. “I did not quite mean that. But Schlegel, too, is interested in transmigration. Should you like to be born again?”

Sophie considered a little. “Yes, if I could have fair hair.”

Sophie is an enigma. To others, she is an average 12-year-old. Not particularly interesting or imaginative – even, perhaps, a little stridently silly. To Fritz, she is ‘my philosophy’. And Fitzgerald balances the two brilliantly, so that we never think Fritz an idiot, yet we never think Sophie truly has any hidden depths. Fitzgerald has, I suppose, shown us the subjectivity of love – even in so bizarre and uncomfortable a situation.

My favourite character, incidently, is Sophie’s sister Mandelsloh. She has a delightfully biting wit, and an acerbic awareness of her own shortcomings. Here’s a quick instance of why I like her, in conversation with Fritz (who speaks first):

“Courage is more than endurance, it is the power to create your own life in the face of all that man or God can inflict, so that every day and every night is what you imagine it. Courage makes us dreamers, courage makes us poets.”

“But it would not make Sophgen into a competent house-keeper,” said the Mandelsloh.

It’s an unusual, exciting, glittering novel. It should be disturbing and it isn’t (which creates its own questions); it is Fitzgerald showing what an excellent writer she is. Is it her best novel? Possibly, but I don’t think it much hurts where you start reading her.

Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin

Remembering DennyI love Calvin Trillin’s fiction and his non-fiction, and picked up a couple of his books when I was in America last year (do other people see him on shelves in the UK? I don’t think I do). I wasn’t sure quite when I’d want to read an account of the downfall of a highschool sports star, but something about the unusually specific nature of this biography appealed to me when I picked it up a couple of months ago. That unusual memoir angle seems to be the theme of this week, doesn’t it?

Remembering Denny (1993) is a peculiar choice for Trillin. The book is about Denny Hansen, somebody Trillin knew at Yale, and the account of how he went from being a high school star to taking his own life in his fifties. Despite only knowing him for a short period of that time, and certainly not being a close friend for life, Trillin wanted to document the journey – speaking with various people who knew him at different stages, putting together a composite image of a single Hansen from many seemingly irreconcilable Hansens. (The title of the book seems one that reflects friendship, but to call him Denny in a review would feel patronising, so I shan’t.) And then: could Trillin discover exactly why it was that Hansen killed himself?

Trillin is such a fine, intuitive, and sensitive writer that he can take the ordinary and mundane and somehow turn it into gold – without ever seeming to overwrite or even display a style. It is the writing of a very talented journalist, rather than a novelist (though in his novels, style and timbre come to the fore); we hear about Hansen’s warm smile, his popularity, his promise, and Trillin makes it seem original. Even more impressive, he makes it seem personal even when writing about a Hansen he had not yet met. Of course, at Yale we get a closer view of Hansen – from Trillin’s own eyes. There are more anecdotes – or perhaps, rather, more evidence to back up the summation of traits, since nothing here seems framed in the ‘here’s-a-funny-story-you-should-hear’ that one expects from a biography. Instead, they compose a narrative of a successful, kind, loved, but very pressured man:

As Denny, he seemed to have a limitless future. We emerged from Yale in June of the year that has since been called a high point in American prosperity. With the peace-making general in the White House and the Cold War having settled into what seemed to us to be a more or less permanent struggle between the good guys and the bad guys, there were reasons to see limitless futures for a lot of people. When I talked to Andre Schiffrin after Denny’s death, he said the picture that comes into his mind when he thinks about how Yale undergraduates viewed the future in those days is Stairway to Heaven – moving up through the clouds on a blissful escalator. We had the usual problems of deciding what we wanted to do, of course, but those problems came partly from the assumption that very little was shut off.

Away from Yale, particularly as the decades move on, the portrait becomes less clear. People lost touch with Hansen; those who met him for the first time in these later years gave less detailed pictures, and seemed less close. Hansen’s character becomes more of a mystery to the reader, presumably because it was a mystery to those who had known him. If Trillin wants to join the dots between the high school success and the man who took his life, then he doesn’t quite succeed. The trail runs cold, because the character becomes less vivid.

Hansen is described as depressive, in debilitating back pain (requiring several, ultimately unsuccessful, operations), and struggling with his sexuality. Any or all of these could have contributed to his decision to kill himself, Trillin writes. But for him, it seems almost as though suicide were the inevitable end to the downward trajectory that Hansen’s life had taken. And this is where I take issue with Remembering Denny, for all of its excellent and often very sensitive writing.

My main problem with this book – but it is a problem that came up on almost every page – was that Trillin took it for granted that Hansen was a failure in his career. He was supposed (so goes the high school reputation) to be a part of a government, if not the President himself. He was not these things, but he was a respected professor with many publications to his name, still working and teaching in his field. I cannot emphasise enough (from the perspective of somebody who has done graduate study and has many friends who are or want to be professional academics) that this is a huge success that relatively few aspiring academics achieve. There must, of course, have been factors that led to Hansen’s suicide, and perhaps he viewed his own career as a failure – but there is no reason for Trillin to consider it that. It really wasn’t. The stumbling block seemed very strange, given Trillin’s usual sensitivity and empathy.

But if one can overlook that, Remembering Denny is an interesting and unusual book. Only Trillin could have written it, I think, and – for any faults it has – that is something rather special.

Ethel & Ernest by Raymond Briggs

Ethel & ErnestEthel & Ernest: A True Story (1998) was one of the books I bought in the splendid little bookshop in Ludlow about a month ago, and it felt appropriate to read it over Christmas, given that Briggs is most famous for his festive creation The Snowman. I first heard him talk about it in a documentary that was shown a year or two ago, and determined to keep an eye out for it. For some reason, it seemed like the sort of book that one should discover serendipitously, rather than ordering online, if that makes sense.

It tells, in graphic form (not a graphic novel, of course, but I don’t know if there is a proper compound noun for graphic non-fiction) the whole of his parents’ lives together. They meet (so the pictures allege) when she was a maid waving a duster out of a window, and he a milkman who thought she was waving at him. On such premises are great marriages based. With affection and insight, Briggs charters their life as a young married couple, moving up in the world a bit, having a son – Raymond himself, of course – and coping with war.

As they get older, so does Raymond – and he begins to disappoint them a little, choosing art school over a stable career. Ethel – who has always cared deeply for propriety and improving her station – wants him to cut his hair and behave better. She also ticks off Ernest whenever he says anything she considers indecently amorous – but these qualities are offset by, say, her passionate refusal to send Raymond away as an evacuee, and sacrifice when she sees she must. (I can’t find many examples of the artwork to use, so trust me on that being in there.)

Ethel and Ernest 1

How much Briggs gets right about Ethel and Ernest is up for debate, particularly in relation to their opinion of him. The graphic form allows only snapshots from a long period of time, and no introspection at all, so we can only guess how successful Briggs was in an objective portrait (or even if this was his aim). Doubtless Ethel or Ernest would have created something completely different, yet this is a book which is filled with affection – Briggs has somehow managed to convey how dearly he loved his parents without crafting a graphic hagiography. This love is particularly evident towards the end where, of course, Ethel and Ernest die.

All is tied together with Briggs’ characteristic style as an artist- a mixture of naivety and domesticity that feels mimetic and welcoming, without being cloying. It’s not exactly charming, because it hits too hard, but it is certainly moving: an excellent tribute to two ordinary people who, to Briggs, were inevitably extraordinary.

Better Than Life by Daniel Pennac

Better Than LifeI forgot to mention that I was over at Vulpes Libris recently, writing about Nicola Humble’s wonderful The Feminine Middlebrow Novel (as part of Academic Book Week) – enjoy the slightly bizarre comment section! – but I shan’t overlook my latest post for the foxes. It’s about Better Than Life by Daniel Pennac (published in French in 1992 and translated by David Homel in 1994) and that link will take you there.

I’m a sucker for a book about reading, as you might have guessed by now if you’ve been around here for a while, and this quirky book meanders winningly through inculcating a love of reading as a parent, a teacher, and as a reader. Read all about it; read all about it…

The Year of Reading Proust by Phyllis Rose

Year of Reading ProustI actually read The Year of Reading Proust (1997) by Phyllis Rose round about the time I read her book The Shelf, which I loved so much. Indeed, like The Shelf, I bought and read The Year of Reading Proust while I was in Washington DC in April, reluctant to part company with an author I’d so quickly learned to love.

Fast forward four months, and somehow I still haven’t written about this book. It’s a difficult book to write about. But it is extremely good and enjoyable, so I didn’t want to overlook it altogether.

Perhaps the main difficulty is that the book doesn’t pay much attention to Rose’s project. While The Shelf took the shelf of a library as a starting point for many tangents and explorations, it remained a fixed and vital point for the whole book – Rose kept returning to the books on that shelf, explaining them and framing her discussions through her readings of them. I expected more of the same from The Year of Reading Proust, but Proust makes surprisingly few appearances. Instead, it’s essentially what the subtitle says: ‘a memoir in real time’.

It was while reading the introduction that I cottoned on to what Rose was trying to do. She doesn’t explain her project; she talks about the hamburger she ordered when she heard that JFK had been killed. Now, I haven’t read any of À la recherche du temps perdu (which is where her experiment with Proust begins and ends, perhaps unsurprisingly – you probably weren’t expecting this to focus on his handful of other works). But I do know, of course, about the madeleine that kicks things off at the beginning of the first volume: Rose was doing the same thing with a hamburger.

From here, I learned the key to the whole book. Rose described how Proust’s writing meandered and interwove, taking events separately and creating a pattern from them; using mundane incidents to discover profundities, and taking introspection to a new level. Ambitiously, Rose attempts the same. From dealing with her mother’s serious illness to buying a vase, she documents her life over the course of a year. She discusses her neighbour’s trees more than she does the text she is reading, yet successfully demonstrates how coming to love Proust illuminates her own experiences.

Proust had shown me the underlying laws. Like the Marxist who boasts that if you really understand history you can predict it and sneers at those who, not understanding it, are condemned to repeat it, like the Freudian smug in the face of human aberration because he thinks he can explain what produced it, I felt privileged, exempt, suddenly the master of the life I was observing. I had been given a key, a free subscription to some hitherto locked-out cable channel which in front of my eyes lost its frustrating distortion and transformed itself from blurred, wavy, taffy-pull mystery shapes into a clear and enjoyable picture.

As it’s been quite a while since I read it, I don’t remember many of the details that Rose shares – and I suppose it is a hallmark of the type of book she’s written that I don’t remember them. They aren’t individually significant (to the reader at least). But what I do remember is how much I enjoyed the experience of seeing the year through Rose’s eyes, and the glimpses into what she thought of Proust. Though she doesn’t write about the novel in any great depth, she does convey how much she valued reading him – and how she broke through, after not particularly enjoying the beginning, into near besottedness. The Year of Reading Proust did what nothing else had hitherto done: made me want to try À la recherche du temps perdu at some point.

So, I didn’t love this book as much as I loved The Shelf, but it is an entirely different creature. If not quite the book-about-books that I was hoping for, it was a rather brilliant memoir – and a very ambitious one, in trying to echo what is considered one of the greatest ever literary works. Maybe it would have made more sense under a slightly different title, but I’ll forgive Rose that.

Even though The Year of Reading Proust wasn’t quite a book-about-books, it has helped confirm how dearly I love that category – so any suggestions for those are heartily welcomed…


A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham

A Home at the End of the WorldI read Cunningham’s second novel on the flight to America, having bought it on my previous trip. I loved The Hours and enjoyed Land’s End, and wanted to read more by him. This novel is mostly told from the perspective of two men, Bobby and Jonathan. That is to say, they start as boys. The opening lines, from Bobby’s perspective, are:

Once our father bought a convertible. Don’t ask me. I was five. He bought it and drove it home as casually as he’d bring a gallon of rocky road. Picture our mother’s surprise. She kept rubber band on the doorknobs. She washed old plastic bags and hung them on the line to dry, a string of thrifty tame jellyfish floating in the sun.

A couple of pages later, we shift to Jonathan’s perspective…

We gathered at dusk on the darkening green. I was give. The air smelled of newly cut grass, and the sand traps were luminous. My father carried me on his shoulders. I was both pilot and captive of his enormity. My bare legs thrilled to the sandpaper of his cheeks, and I held on to his ears, great soft shells that buzzed minutely with hair.

So, Bobby is five and Jonathan is five. And, it turns out, A Home at the End of the World was first published on my 5th birthday,  7 November 1990, which is a fun coincidence. But, instead of 1990s Merseyside (where I spent that birthday), these boys are in Ohio in the 1960s.

Had I known the extent to which this novel incorporated the ‘coming-of-age’ genre, I might have fun a mile; it’s not a subset of literature that I often enjoy. In describing this novel, I can’t really deny that it is firmly in that genre. And yet it’s done rather better than I could have hoped for; events and emotions follow on from events and emotions, and Cunningham entirely captivates the reader while they’re relayed. Usually I just roll my eyes or wait for some horizon where they become adults and the prose can start describing a destination rather than a journey. Here, the journey of growing up was made to feel an apt focus.

There are some significant events – including deaths – that affect the lives of both boys. One of the most powerful comes early in the book, when the older brother Bobby idolises dies in a freak accident, running full pelt through glass doors. Their relationship was mostly founded on taking drugs together, so he was hardly a stablising influence on Bobby’s life but Cunningham conveys the closeness of brothers extremely well – and the ways in which Bobby responds to it.

Throughout the novel, he is shown as sensitive, attuned to others, and with a deep-set need to belong. Jonathan, on the other hand, values independence – struggling to accept the overtures of his friendship his mother offers. As Bobby and Jonathan grow older, their close friendship turns into a sexual relationship, albeit one that neither of them want to directly discuss even between themselves. The alternating first person narratives give the reader a chance to see how both characters feel and think about their experiences, while at the same time witnessing their diffidence. Cunningham handles the tension between first-person insight and objective events really beautifully.

Here was another lesson in my continuing education: like other illegal practices, love between boys was best treated as a commonplace. Courtesy demanded that one’s fumbling, awkward performance be no occasion for remark, as if in fact one had acted with the calm expertise of a born criminal.

In a coming-of-age novel, this might be where events would have ended – but, for Cunningham, it is simply the beginning. One chapter of their lives end, and another begins – indeed, takes most of the novel – as Jonathan moves to New York. Bobby remains behind, even moving in with Jonathan’s parents; the men lose touch, until Bobby decides to move to New York too.

Another thing Cunningham portrays brilliantly is the way that friendships peter out. In fiction, once characters bond they often seem ineluctably close forever after. Far more realistic is the awkwardness between Bobby and Jonathan – an affectionate awkwardness, but where all the affection is based on memories. Still, Bobby moves in with Jonathan and his housemate Clare. The three of them form a delicate trio. I shan’t write any more about what happens, but suffice to say that plenty more happens – all of which (as throughout the novel) is played well for plausible emotional impact and character rather than simply the shock of plot.

Easily the greatest achievement here is Cunningham’s writing. I jotted down, in my pencil note at the beginning, that the writing was ‘seductive’ – by which I meant that it seduces the reader into the world of the novel. And that, I think, is by gradually building up composite portraits of its characters (particularly, of course, Jonathan and Bobby) through a sort of restrained intimacy. The first-person narratives feel like they’re telling us everything, but they are not confessional voices: they reveal parts of the people, and keep enough back to reel us in.

Although this novel is not flawless (I think death and dying is used a little too often to maintain its impact, for instance), it’s difficult to fault the creation of character, the exploration of perspective, or the realism of behaviours. He really is an exceptional writer. (And which others do you think I should read?)

Letter From New York – Helene Hanff

Letter from New York

Any of us who love books about books have surely read the lovely 84, Charing Cross Road, a collection of letters between American Helene Hanff and a London bookseller. Her other books aren’t as well-known, but I heartily recommend Q’s Legacy if you’d like to read more about the success of 84CCR – and now I can also recommend Letter From New York (1992). I took it to America to read there, and… read it in Worcestershire instead.

These letters were broadcast monthly on Radio 4 back between 1978-1984 (and nothing shrieks ’80s more than Hanff’s unstinting belief that formalwear necessitates a black velvet pantsuit and white satin blouse). They are, indeed, not letters so much as thoughts, and concern life in New York – but, more precisely, life in Hanff’s apartment block.

It reminded me a little of one of my all-time faves, The L-Shaped Room (if you’ve not read it – go and do so. I’ll wait.) in that I sort of fell in love with a building and its inhabitants. Not as much as I did with The L-Shaped Room (have you read it yet? I mean, you didn’t just glide past my previous parentheses did you? DID YOU?) because that will never happen, but Hanff is great at writing enough about her friends and neighbours to make you feel like you know them well. If she described them completely, she would seem (and make the reader feel) like an observer; by referring to them as though we already know them pretty well, Arlene, Richard, Nina, and the rest became friends. Here’s an excerpt…

Big excitement here a couple of weeks ago because the New York Times ran a story about Arlene, with a photograph of her that also included Richard.

Since you know that Arlene and I are opposites, when I tell you that I detest large cocktail parties and dinner dance,s you won’t be surprised to learnt hat Arlene earns her living organizing large cocktail parties and dinner dances. She runs the parties as fund-raising events for Democratic politicians who need money for their election campaigns. Her most famous fund-raiser was a birthday party for the Mayor of New York aboard the Queen Elizabeth II – ‘the QE Two’ to Arlene [Simon adds: …and to everyone else]. She phoned the office of the ship’s public relations chief, who was ‘at sea’ off the Bermuda coast and talked to her via ship-to-shore phone, and Arlene talked him into letting her use the ship for the Mayor’s birthday party. She hypnotized the chef into creating a replica of New York’s City Hall in margarine and a birthday cake bigger than the undersized Mayor.

As you see, Hanff deals not solely (or even much) with the grand moments in New York life – rather, we get the refreshing minutiae of her own life. That might be her neighbour’s dog being borrowed to perform as a greeter at an apartment party; it might be watching a bee in a roof garden; it might be a ticker-tape parade. All of it flows from Hanff’s pen lazily and contentedly; the tone you may remember from 84, Charing Cross Road, albeit mellowed a bit.

Hanff’s writing has three faults, in my mind. Only one of them really counts as a fault: the other two are that she prefers dogs to cats (there is a lot about dogs in Letter From New York) and that she prefers the city to the countryside. Those factors made it trickier for me to connect with her, but the only real ‘fault’ I noticed was that she has trouble with section endings. Each letter has a pat ending, a quip or neat sentence, that often felt a bit forced, or looped back to something she’d only mentioned for the first time a paragraph or two earlier. It’s a small thing, and it didn’t really affect my reading, but it brought about the only instances of Hanff’s writing feeling unnatural in a book that is largely characterised by being natural.

If you’ve enjoyed 84, Charing Cross Road, then Hanff will feel like a friend whom you should revisit. If you haven’t – good grief, go and get a copy! (And read The L-Shaped Room while you’re at it.)


Old Books, Rare Friends by Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine Stern

You know what it’s like with book reviews on Stuck-in-a-Book – they’re like buses; you wait a month for one, and then three come along at once. (If you’ve ever waited a month for a bus, then – please – just give up and get a taxi.) In the weekend last year where I coincidentally read a bunch of books I bought in America, one of them had the enticing title Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion (1997) by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern. (Who first told me about this? Was it YOU?)

I’m not the sort of man to walk away from a book about loving books, particularly one penned by older women, and so I was excited to read this. But it was quite a while ago, so I’m going to review this one in bullet points… let’s call it an experiment.

Leona and Madeleine take it in turns to narrate chapters, starting with their childhoods (perhaps unsurprisingly) and through the schooling and college education. 

The main point of interest here is that one of them was refused her doctorate, mostly because her supervisor disagreed with her argument. (That is NOT acceptable supervising.)

I could never really tell Leona and Madeleine apart from their writing styles, so their lives intertwined for me.

They set up a rare books business together, buying and selling, and this is where my interest was piqued.

They make catalogues! I could read about the preparation of catalogues forever.

They’re only interested in very old books, so my love of 20th-century literature was never really satisfied. But, oh well.

And they discovered sensation magazine stories that Louisa M. Alcott had written under a pseudonym – which led to a minor sort of literary fame for them.

I really enjoyed it! Reading about the books business, particularly in a time before the internet made book hunting both easier and less filled with surprises is always fun.

Here is my caveat (for which I have slipped out of bullet points). I love reading about readers; about people who hunt for books because they are desperate to read them. Rostenberg and Stern hunt for books for a living, and so (naturally enough) are concerned more with profit than anything else. Still, I couldn’t help weary a little at the number of times they said how much they’d paid for something and how much they’d sold it for – particularly on the occasions when that effectively meant diddling a seller out of money, because the seller had sold a book for less than it was worth. Which made it rather a surprise to come across this paragraph in the epilogue:

We have become keen observers of the generations who have succeeded us. Every age is critical of the next, and we are no exceptions. Although we admire and befriend many young dealers who do not confuse value with price, we deplore the all too popular conception entertained by many dealers that books are to be regarded primarily as investments. Such booksellers go in for dollarship, not scholarship.
I wonder how they think they differ from this? Perhaps as bibliophiles, albeit bibliophiles who get money from their love, rather than simply gratification.

But, this quibble aside, I found it fascinating and fun. It’s not up there with Phantoms on the Bookshelves or Howards End is on the Landing – the works of true booklovers, and lovers of 20th-century fiction into the bargain – and it’s not quite the book that I thought it would be, but Old Books, Rare Friends will still retain its place on my books-about-books bookshelf.