Celia’s Secret: an investigation by Michael Frayn and David Burke

Celia's SecretI seem to be rather a fan of niche non-fiction. One of my favourites is the biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett written by her secretary, but I love the idea of books looking at one aspect of a career or a very particular angle on a person. This being the case, I couldn’t resist picking up Celia’s Secret (2000) by Michael Frayn and David Burke last year on Charing Cross Road. And that’s despite its frankly horrendous title, sounding like the worst sort of romance novel.

I’ve only read one novel by Frayn (Spies) and have seen none of his plays; I certainly know nothing the play Copenhagen, around which this book centres. It doesn’t really matter, though I’m sure fans of Copenhagen will enjoy this even more; Frayn quickly glosses it as characters ‘discovering quantum mechanics and developing nuclear fission, then exploring some of the philosophical darknesses of the human mind’. And then he less quickly glosses (in the introduction)…

The subject of Copenhagen, I should explain, is itself a mystery – the strange visit that the German physicist Werner Hesienberg paid to Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941. They were old friends and colleagues, but Denmark was now under German occupation, and Hesienberg had become an enemy. Though he couldn’t say it openly to Bohr, he had also become the head of the Nazi Government’s nuclear programme. The two men had a private conversation which ended abruptly and angrily, and their great friendship along with it; but no one has ever been able to reconstruct what they said to each other, or to agree on what Heisenberg’s intentions were in making his unwelcome but evidently pressing visit.

To be honest, the play sounds pretty boring – but the aftermath of it is very interesting. The director of the play received a letter from a Celia Rhys-Evans, the current resident of the house where the physicists were interned in England. Celia had discovered notes in German, hidden under the floorboards, and thought the director of the play might be interested in them. The director spoke no German, so he passed them onto Frayn.

From here, Frayn begins a correspondence with Celia. She is an odd character, only giving one sheet of paper at a time, filling her letters with eccentricities and even suggesting that Frayn start paying her for the letters. He deals with these eccentricities because he is so intrigued by the documents he is being sent. And those documents are bizarre. The first seems to be instructions for assembling a table tennis table, but with curious lists and amendments that indicate a code…

The book is divided between Frayn and David Burke, one of the actors in Copenhagen, with whom Frayn discusses the issue. I shan’t spoil what happens in the book, but Celia’s reasons for sending the papers are not all they seem. There are winding paths here, and more surprises and character development than many novels. Indeed, it could easily have been the plot of a novel.

I imagine this was a bit of a gamble for the publisher, as the natural audience for Celia’s Secret might be quite select – but I am evidence that one doesn’t need to have any prior familiarity with Copenhagen to enjoy it.

The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery

The GourmetThis is one of those rare, rare occasions where I’ve actually joined in with a reading week/month etc. at the right time, and with the book I intended to read! I’m sneaking into the end of August to celebrate Women in Translation Month, hosted by Meytal/Biblibio.

One of my favourite writers is a woman in translation (in translation when I read her, at least): Tove Jansson. I could have re-read one of hers, or explored the Moomins more, but I decided to kill two birds with one stone and read a book with food as a theme – which is on my Book Bingo scorecard. And, embarrassingly, I’ve had The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery on my shelf since 2010, when I was given it as a review copy by Gallic Books. It was originally published in French in 2000, and translated by Alison Anderson for this 2009 edition.

Perhaps one of the reasons it had stayed on mount tbr for so long was that I hadn’t been entirely enamoured by the Barbery that everyone has read: The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I thought it was rather overwritten (either by author or translator, or both) and couldn’t quite see why it was so praised. I was rather snarky about it. So, how would I fare with this one?

First things first: the concept. It’s an intriguing idea. A celebrated food critic is dying, and longs to capture a taste from his past. It was the most delicious food he’d ever eaten, but – since it came before the days of his knowledge and fame – he can’t remember what it was. Around him, his adoring but poorly-treated wife, his rightfully resentful children, and his fantastic cat, wait for the end to come…

Pierre Arthens is a monstrous character. Monstrously selfish, monstrously uncaring (he doesn’t feel any guilt at not loving his children), and monstrously single-minded in pursuit of food. All this makes him a fascinating character, and easily the most interesting one in the book. Barbery made the decision to give alternate chapters from his point of view, while the other alternate chapters come from a wide variety of characters, most of whom only get heard from once. That was rather a flaw, I thought; it’s just not interesting to hear the in-depth thoughts of a person whose not been heard of before or since. I ended up skimming the non-Pierre chapters, and waiting to hear more about his culinary (and other) experiences throughout his life. It’s mostly musings, rather than plot, but it works well from his self-obsessed persona.

And the writing? I still found it a little overwritten at times. Again, I don’t know whether it’s Barbery or Anderson (I assume Anderson conveyed the sort of writing Barbery chose), but there’s no excuse for sections like this:

The cave of treasures: this was it, the perfect rhythm, the shimmering harmony between portions, each one exquisite unto itself, but verging on the sublime by virtue of strict, ritual succession. The meatballs, grilled with the utmost respect for their firmness, had lost none of their succulence during their passage through fire, and filled  my professionally carnivorous mouth with a thick, warm, spicy, juicy wave of masticatory pleasure.

Shudder. But, for the most part, I could cope with the overblown rhetoric – it worked for the character. In fact, if I hadn’t read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I might not have noticed it as much.

I don’t think I embraced all aspects of Arthens’ culinary memories as much as I have done, but that’s because most of the luscious descriptions are about meat and fish, which don’t appeal to this vegetarian. The odd moments when, say, asparagus took his fancy, I could enjoy it rather more.

So, has this Woman in Translation become a firm favourite? No, but I enjoyed reading the book, and certainly like Muriel Barbery more now than I did before.

Have you joined in Woman in Translation month? If not… it’s not too late!

Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers

I’m afraid (to give you advance warning) this is going to be one of those reviews about a book that I finished ages ago. So, apologies if I get a bit vague. It’s also a review about a novel that I’d been intending to read for about a decade: Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers. Back when I joined dovegreybooks in 2004, it was the novel that everyone was talking about. Dutifully, over the following ten years, I bought five novels by Vickers – but had never read any of them until somebody chose Miss Garnet’s Angel for my book group. So, was it worth the wait?

Well, I remain conflicted. I didn’t love it as much as I thought it would, but that is largely because it wasn’t quite what I expected. I thought it might be a charming tale of a spinster wandering around Venice, heartwarming and witty in turn, and perhaps not without a healthy dose of the fey and whimsical (which I am sometimes – nay, often – in the mood for). Well, that’s not quite what it was.

It does start off in a similar vein (as you may well know). Julia Garnet’s closest friend dies and, lonely and unattached, she decides to go to Venice for six months. Before long she has managed to become entangled with a handsome art dealer named Carlos, a young boy who runs errands for her and whom she unsuccessful tries to teach English, and a young man and woman engaged in restoring a church or something. Incapable of making friends in England, she seems beset with them here.

So far, so charming. But did I mention that Miss Garnet’s Angel mirrors the Apocryphal account of Titus? And that that story is also retold in sections between chapters (that, I have to confess, I started skipping)? This is a technique with some literary precedence – Stella Benson did it in the 1930s with Tobit Transplanted, which I’ve yet to read – but I don’t know the original story well enough to notice how close the influence was.

So, why was I not entirely sold? Well, I guess I found the writing and plotting just a bit blah. Here’s an excerpt I noted, though I forget why…

The notion which had come to Julia Garnet, as she lay looking at her fingers twisting the fringe of the pearl-white coverlet (which, she had learned, during the course of the Signora Mignelli’s care of her, was a survivor of the Signora’s once extensive dowry), was that there existed in life two kinds of people: those who tangled with their fate, who took issue with what life brought them, who made, in short, waves, and those who bore heir circumstances, taking life’s meaning from what came to them, rather than what they wrested from it.

It seemed to her, lying watching the bars of the sun cross the white walls and making them jump from side to side as she tried the child’s experiment of winking alternate eyes, that from her limited knowledge St George, Florence Nightingale and Old Tobit fell into the first class, while Socrates, Jane Austen and Tobias fell into the second. Jesus of Nazareth, she decided after further contemplation, belonged to both categories – and so possibly did Karl Marx.
And I suppose there’s no reason why Vickers should have created a sweet character in Miss Garnet; I have myself to blame for my expectations. I’d have loved either a sweet character or an amusingly cantankerous one. What we actually got was rather an unpleasant woman, I thought. She thinks, of a friend who visits, ‘There were horrible depths of meanness in her character – no wonder she found herself on her own now.’ Well, Julia G, you’re also on your own now. And how come you absolutely loathe your closest friend, who has made the effort to visit you?

These things I could perhaps have forgiven, but the tone of the novel takes a serious knock on a couple of occasions, where Vickers launches into sexual controversy (including paedophilia) for no obvious reason – and certainly no sense of consistency in the novel.

I’m aware that these may not be popular opinions, particularly given the praise I’ve heard lavished on Vickers over the years. I didn’t hate the novel by any means (if I had, I’d probably have reviewed it far more quickly! I love writing those reviews, when of sacred cows), but I did feel rather disappointed. It simply didn’t do very much for me, and left me a tiny bit underwhelmed. It was fine. Which does not a compelling review make, does it?

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Back in the days when I’d only dimly heard of David Sedaris, the book I had heard of was Me Talk Pretty One Day. Based on the title alone, I was under the assumption that it was a novel about a girl with mental development problems. It was perhaps that which led to me getting an embarrassingly long way into Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim before realising that it was not a novel about a young girl. But now, on my third Sedaris book, I’m in the swing of things – he writes humorous essays about his own life.  But you probably know that already.

This collection is (I believe) his bestselling title, and it is extremely funny. The focus is not so much on his family as it was in the other two books I read, although the first few stories do take place among those many brothers and sisters. They’re anecdotes, really, more than stories – about how David’s father forced them all to play instruments, with the misguided idea that they would become almost instantly proficient; about his overly-invested speech therapist; about tanning competitions on the beach. His eye for an anecdote is perfect. Sedaris is endlessly dry, self-deprecating, and able to find the humour in any experience – often through the throwing in of a bizarrely specific detail or unlikely piece of dialogue. Are all his reminiscences accurate? One assumes not. They are exaggerated at the very least. But that doesn’t matter a jot.

The two main sections of Me Talk Pretty One Day deal with Sedaris’ student years and his experiences trying to learn French. I’m always amazed at how many things Sedaris has crammed in his life, and one of those is a period during which he thought he’d try his hand at performance art. It is all extremely amusing (as that topic is more or less set up to be), even given my discomfort at reading about drug-taking. What makes it so brilliant is the dry, eye-rolling narrative that subtly looks back on disaffected, youthful David from the vantage of disaffected, middle-aged David. And when it comes served with sentences like the following, what more could you want? He is the master of putting together a sentence that neatly wraps up the ridiculous without making a song and dance about it:

I enrolled as an art major at a college known mainly for its animal-husbandry programme.
But the most sustained theme I’ve seen in the three books I’ve read so far is, as mentioned, his attempts to learn French and live in France (thanks to the French-dwelling of his partner Hugh). It is these experiences that give the collection its title – with a sort of oh-I-see sense that eluded me with Dress Your Family in Corduory and Denim and Let’s Discuss Diabetes With Owls. From his first venture to France, knowing only the French for bottleneck, to his intense lessons with an aggressive teacher, to living fairly confidently off phrases cribbed from medical audiobooks… His lessons sounded brutal, but also led to some amusing moments (of course), and this one gives a good example to Sedaris’ style for those who haven’t read him:

“And what does one do on the fourteenth of July? Does one celebrate Bastille Day?”

It was my second month of French class, and the teacher was leading us in an exercise designed to promote the use of one, our latest personal pronoun.

“Might one sing on Bastille Day?” she asked. “Might one dance in the streets? Somebody give me an answer.”

Printed in our textbooks was a list of major holidays accompanied by a scattered arrangement of photograph depicting French people in the act of celebration. The object of the lesson was to match the holiday with the corresponding picture. It was simple enough but seemed an exercise better suited to the use of the pronoun they. I didn’t know about the rest of the class, but when Bastille Day rolled around, I planned to stay home and clean my oven.
I love that sort of pay-off at the end of that; the detail that is curiously specific and off-kilter, but carefully within the world that Sedaris has created. This world isn’t the real world, and isn’t a fictional universe, but it’s a beautiful, bizarre, grumpy, and very amusing realm that Sedaris has both created and made his own.

Oh, and I forgot to say – Liz very kindly gave me this copy; thanks so much, Liz!

Stet – Diana Athill (and a giveaway)

42. Stet – Diana Athill

I’ve been savouring the all-too-few pages of Stet (2000) by Diana Athill, and now it’s going into my 50 Books You Must Read – and it was so good that I had to go and buy another copy to offer as a giveaway (to anywhere in the world.) Just pop your name in the comments, along with the author you most wish you’d been able to edit. (You can interpret that in a positive way – how wonderful to get to see their drafts! – or a negative way – my GOODNESS they needed editing!)  I’ll do the draw next weekend on 20th April.

Right, now I’ll write my review and tell you why I think you should enter to win! I bought Stet a year ago, adding it to my little pile of unread Diana Athill memoirs, knowing that at some point I would read it and love it.  What’s not to like about a memoir by one of the most famous editors in the world?  I was saving it as a treat, when I saw that various bloggers were posting reviews, since the Slaves of Golconda were reading it (there’s a sampling of those reviews at the end of mine.)  What better excuse to dig out my copy, and indulge?

Although Diana Athill now seems famously chiefly for being old (she is 95), she is also recognised as one of the country’s best editors, having worked as one for five decades under the auspices of André Deutsch.  Her reason for writing Stet also explains it’s title, so I’ll hand over to Athill to explain:

Why am I going to write it?  Not because I want to provide a history of British publishing in the second half of the twentieth century, but because I shall not be alive for much longer, and when I am gone all the experiences stored in my head will be gone too – they will be deleted with one swipe of the great eraser, and something in my squeaks “Oh no – let at least some of it be rescued!!”.  It seems to be an instinctive twitch rather than a rational intention, but no less compelling for that.  By a long-established printer’s convention, a copy-editor wanting to rescue a deletion puts a row of dots under it and writes ‘Stet’ (let it stand) in the margin.  This book is an attempt to ‘Stet’ some part of my experience in its original form.
This explanation, though both moving and understandable, is also an example of the extraordinary modesty which Athill demonstrates.  Not a false modesty, or even a polite modesty, but a genuine refusal to believe how brilliant she is.  She occasionally quotes people’s praise of her – which is not (in this instance) the action of the immodest, but the grateful incredulity of the humble.

Stet is divided into two sections.  The second, which I will come onto, looks in detail at her relationships with various authors whom she edited.  The first deals with her career in publishing in a fairly fast-paced manner (she covers 50 years in 128 pages – that’s a few months per page, folks) and has a great deal of common sense to say about the practice of editing, as well as lovely gossip about what a controlling – though somehow lovable – monster André Deutsch was, and various illuminating revelations about how scattergun their policy for accepting submissions was in the early days.  Basically, everything they liked was accepted – from cookbooks to travel books to experimental short stories to children’s books.  Quite how they described their list, I can’t imagine.

Anybody interested in the process of how a book goes (or went) from a manuscript clutched in an author’s hand to a copy on Foyles’ shelves will inevitably find Stet interesting, but what carries it from being an interesting discussion of ‘an editor’s life’ (the subtitle) is Athill’s wisdom, warmth, and wit.  As an example of the latter, here’s her brief account of working with an author on a book about Tahiti which was interesting but appallingly written:

I doubt if there was a sentence – certainly there was not a paragraph – that I did not alter and often have to retype, sending it chapter by chapter to the author for his approval which – although he was naturally grouchy – he always gave.  I enjoyed the work.  It was like removing layers of crumpled brown paper from an awkwardly shaped parcel, and revealing the attractive present which it contained (a good deal more satisfying than the minor tinkering involved when editing a competent writer).  Soon after the book’s publication it was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement: an excellent book, said the reviewer, scholarly and full of fascinating detail, and beautifully written into the bargain.  The author promptly sent me a clipping of this review, pinned to a short note.  “How nice of him,” I thought, “he’s going to say thank you!”  What he said in fact was: “You will observe the comment about the writing which confirms what i have thought all along, that none of that fuss about it was necessary.”  When I had stopped laughing I accepted the message: an editor must never expect thanks (sometimes they come, but they must always be seen as a bonus).  We must always remember that we are only midwives – if we want praise for progeny we must give birth to our own.
(Which, of course, is what Athill has done.)  Although Athill admits that editing the competent writer is a less interesting activity, what I admire about her editorial eye is the willingness, often expressed in Stet, to do minimal work.  It takes a humble and wise editor to resist using her own taste as a benchmark, and looking, instead, for ways in which the author can express theirs.

The first half of Stet is filled with lively and observant accounts of her colleagues and friends, and is certainly very far from dry – but the second half is more overtly about the characters she met.  I shan’t go into depth about this section; I’ll just let you know the people to whom chapters are devoted: Jean Rhys, Brian Moore, Mordecai Richler, V.S. Naipaul, Molly Keane, Alfred Chester.  I’ve only read two books by all these authors combined, but I still found her portraits touching, intelligent, and (above all) observant.  The length of these sections, and the accounts she gives of these authors’ personal and professional lives, are perfectly judged.

Hopefully that is enough to tempt you to read Stet.  I’ve barely covered the second half of it, but that means there is even more to discover for yourself!  So… if you have been tempted, pop your name in the comments, and that author whom you wish you’d edited. Stat!

Others who got Stuck in this Book:

“Athill is that very rare thing, a shrewdly selfish spectator. She’s quite unlike anyone I’ve met before, either in person or on the page.” – Alex in Leeds

“I have this feeling that if you are lucky enough to be seated next to Athill at a dinner party, it would be an evening filled with sparkling conversation.  Reading Stet is (almost) the next best thing.” – Danielle, A Work in Progress

“Athill has the gift of cutting through the complicated tangle to the simple heart of the issues that publishers face.” – Victoria, Tales From The Reading Room