Literary Feuds by Anthony Arthur

Literary FeudsI have a guilty love for celebrity gossip that I have had to quash, because it so often comes with paparazzi and invasiveness and all sorts of immoral things like that. So I take my need to find out the squabbles between famous people to those who are either dead or were happy to flaunt it, or both. I’m talking Bette Davis vs Joan Crawford levels. And so I was completely tempted by Literary Feuds: a century of celebrated quarrels – from Mark Twain to Tom Wolfe (2002) when I saw it in Maryland last year. I’ve just written ‘Maryland’ on the inside, so I don’t actually remember where I was, but perhaps Thomas would be able to tell me.

This book is basically a who’s-who of people I’ve never read, I’ll be honest. It’s worth listing them all, in case you can’t make out the words on the book cover. Ready? *clears throat*

Mark Twain vs Bret Harte
Ernest Hemingway vs Gertrude Stein
Sinclair Lewis vs Theodore Dreiser
Edmund Wilson vs Vladimir Nabokov
C.P. Snow vs F.R. Leavis
Lillian Hellman vs Mary McCarthy
Truman Capote vs Gore Vidal
Tom Wolfe vs John Updike

Now, I’d heard of all those people except Bret Harte, and knew at least a tiny bit about all of their lives, but the only two I’ve actually read complete books by are Gertrude Stein (not a success) and F.R. Leavis. I did try to read Lolita once, which was… also not a success. The focus is certainly heavily towards Americans, presumably because this is an American book, rather than because American authors are more predisposed to feuds.

I guess my point is, you don’t need to know and love these authors to find this book interesting. Each chapter looks at the two authors in question, developing how far they’d got in their careers when their paths crossed, and then talks about their initial relationships. What I hadn’t expected, going in, was how many of these pairings started off as friendships – particularly Hemingway and Stein. Literary Feuds ended up being sadder than I’d imagined, as it’s much less fun to read about friendships turned sour than it is to read about catty, knowing enmities.

So, some feuds centre about ambitions – Dreiser and Lewis fell out over which of them won a Nobel Prize, which isn’t a sticking point I’ve ever had in a friendship (though, as a – for the time being, at least – member of the EU, I am a joint recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace, donchaknow). Leavis launched an extraordinary attack on Snow, for the presumption of trying to find some common ground between literary scholars and scientists – and Arthur has fun in this chapter, highlighting what a ridiculous character Leavis ultimately was. The most extraordinary feud, I think, was between Hellman and McCarthy – which centred around a libel charge Hellman initiated after watching a McCarthy TV interview.

But Arthur isn’t a gossip merchant. What makes Literary Feuds such an impressive book is the amount of research Arthur has put in. Each chapter is essentially the work of a biographer; he may not give us every moment of the sparrers’ lives before and after the feud, but what he does say gives the impression that he knows it all. And, what’s more, he throws in something of the literary scholar too – assessing, on occasion, which author has been more deservedly remembered; analysing which are the authors’ greatest successes and biggest failures. As I say, I’m a newbie to most of these authors, so these segments provided useful tips for future reading – particularly in the Lewis/Dreiser chapter.

So, I came to the book shamefacedly looking for gossip. What I found was much more than that – intelligent, empathetic analyses of authors’ lives and works, alongside the storytelling ability to outline the issues each pair encountered in an enjoyable, page-turning way.

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

the-thing-around-your-neckThe nice people of A Great Read got in touch with me a while ago, asking if I’d like a free book in exchange for mentioning their website – which I was more than happy to do, because their website seems great. Basically, it’s an online independent bookseller – and I think many of us are on the hunt for an ethical alternative to Amazon: A Great Read could well be it.

I also liked that they weren’t just after a link – they were keen for me to find a book I wanted to read, and write a review of it; they love books and want to spread that joy. I don’t mind a book myself. And I had my eye on getting another of those beautiful Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reprints, so asked for the short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck, originally published in 2009. Writing about short stories is always difficult, and I seem to have ended up writing an enormous review.

Rachel and I discussed short stories on our ‘Tea or Books?’ podcast recently, and agreed that we wouldn’t naturally race towards them – and only really read them if we were in the right mood. I was intrigued to see how Adichie – whose strength lies, I believe, in her gradual creation of enormous depth to her characters – would handle only being able to have a handful of pages to create each world.

And these worlds are mostly in Nigeria or America. Adichie looks at people at different stages of life – from long-distance marriages (where the wife knows the man is having an affair), to the dark cruelties of Nigerian prison, to a writing camp where a white Englishman dictates to various African writers what is and is not considered an accurate depiction of the African experience. The last of these, ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’, is probably Adichie’s least subtle, in terms of message, but also the one which leaves the reader questioning how autobiographical it might be.

Political issues abound – either openly and vividly (bonding between two very different women who have taken shelter in a shop during a murderous riot; a woman queues for an American visa after her child has been killed and her journalist husband exiled) or more indirectly (an arranged marriage in America is laced with disappointment; two Nigerians who meet at university have very different experiences of home and of America). Many stories look at the differences between Africa and America – for instance, in ‘On Monday of Last Week’:

She had come to understand that American parenting was a juggling of anxieties, and that it came with having too much food: a sated belly gave Americans time to worry that their child might have a rare disease that they had just read about, made them think they had the right to protect their child from disappointment and want and failure. A sated belly gave Americans the luxury of praising themselves for being good parents, as if caring for one’s child were the exception rather than the rule.

Perhaps only one story (‘Tomorrow is Too Far’) has little to say about race or politics – it is a strong and surprising story of memory and guilt – and only one story, the last in the collection, struck me as rather weak. Adichie’s writing is usually assured and precise, and her structuring so even and perfect that you don’t even notice that each story has a framework. They don’t feel too ornamentally exact in their arc of action, but nor do they feel scattergun. The exception is this final story, ‘The Headstrong Historian’, which tries to cover too much ground, and does so slightly clumsily in its jumps forward in time.

The title of the book is also the title of a story, and it is probably the collection’s most innovative in style – in that it is entirely in the second person. Throughout the story, there is an iterated image of the ‘thing’ of the title – though Adichie never elaborates what exactly it represents.

At night, something would wrap itself around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you fell asleep.

In this case ‘you’ are a Nigerian student at an American university and ‘you’ start dating a man who is fiercely un-racist, rich, and perhaps a little too protective. He (does he have a name? I don’t think so) is a superbly complex character, and this is a nuanced relationship. Rather less nuanced (but, in this instance, very effective) are the broad brushstrokes in which the rest of America are painted:

You knew by people’s reactions that you two were abnormal – the way the nasty ones were too nasty and the nice ones too nice. The old white men and women who muttered and glared at him, the black men who shook their heads at you, the black women whose pitying eyes bemoaned your lack of self-esteem, your self-loathing. Or the black women who smiled swift solidarity smiles; the black men who tried too hard to forgive you, saying a too-obvious hi to him; the white men and women who said ‘What a good-looking pair’ too brightly, too loudly, as though to prove their own open-mindedness to themselves.


The protagonists in Adichie’s stories are not necessarily all that similar. Yes, they are almost all black women from Nigeria, but that obviously no more binds them together than Katherine Mansfield’s (later) short stories mostly being about white women in England, for example. What does feel repetitive, though, is how they are almost all – all? – women to whom things happen. They are noble, passive people, victims to the prejudices and misunderstandings of others. They experience disillusionment and disappointment, except in those instances where they don’t have any illusions in the first place.

On one level, sure, this makes sense – black women face a great deal of sexism and racism in America, and the experience of those who’ve emigrated from Nigeria doubtless encompasses those lives that Adichie portrays. I don’t take any issue with her depiction of the way these characters are treated – but why are they all so good? They have so few flaws. They all seem to be the voice of reason in the face of prejudice; moral compasses surrounded by those going to the bad. The stories would have been even more interesting if she had allowed them to have more imperfections; if they had always represented the Right Opinion. As a social writer pointing out the wrongs of the 21st century, this failing doesn’t matter; as a short story writer demonstrating her craft, it does. The latter is, yes, rather less important – but since they aren’t mutually exclusive, I’d love to see both in her next collection.

Still, this drawback doesn’t prevent The Thing Around Your Neck from being a fantastic collection, elegantly written and beautifully engaging. And, in these lovely covers, it’s even more desirable for the shelves.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

purple-hibiscusI’m still playing catch-up with Shiny New Books reviews – and so onto my review of Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Definitely my most coveted books of 2016 are these reprints. And the book was excellent too, of course! The full review is here, and below is the opening of it…

It might seem strange to include a novel in the reprints section that is only 13 years old – but Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has recently had all of her books to date reprinted by 4th Estate with beautiful African prints for the covers, and it seemed like an excellent opportunity to acquaint myself with her first novel: Purple Hibiscus.

Everybody else got on the Adichie train years ago, but I only encountered her earlier in 2016 while reading Americanah. While her most recent novel is more ambitious and broader in scope than Purple Hibiscus, there are many of the same hallmarks in her debut – perhaps primarily the confident, sensitive storytelling.

3 books about reading

I am so proud of everybody for the response to my most recent post. You’ve really shown the positives that can come of people coming together on the Internet. It brings a tear to the eye! I’m excited about my Furrowed Middlebrow books arriving, and will certainly report back on what I think of the books.

But for today – let’s look at some books about reading. This has certainly my go-to comfort-genre of choice over the past year or so. I picked up quite a few in my trips to America, and I am endlessly entertained, informed, and charmed by them – thankfully there are plenty more to read on my shelves. As I often turn to them when I want episodic distraction, I don’t always get around to making proper reviews of them – so I’ve grouped three together for mini-reviews. Sound ok?

Why I Read (2014) by Wendy Lesser

why-i-readThe subtitle to this one is ‘the serious pleasure of books’, and Lesser is certainly not taking the role of the average reader. She wears her education heavily (if that is the opposite of ‘lightly’ in this instance), and it becomes rather farcical how often she mentions Henry James, BUT it’s still an enjoyable and extremely thought-provoking look at the different elements of reading. She divides her chapters in ‘Character and Plot’, ‘The Space Between’, ‘Novelty’, ‘Authority’, ‘Grandeur and Intimacy’, and ‘Elsewhere’ – make of those what you will – and her thoughts and arguments cover great swathes of territory and many writers and nationalities.

I would certainly need to re-read to familiarise myself afresh with her lines of argument, and this is closer to a scholarly book than most of the books-about-reading I enjoy, but is still certainly accessible to the non-scholar. Indeed, it would be infuriating in a scholarly context, because there are no footnotes or referencing

Why does she read? The whole book is, of course, building that answer – but I also liked (if did not agree with) the summing-up of sots of ‘I read […] for meaning, for sound, for voice – but also for something I might call attentiveness to reality, or respect for the world outside oneself’. I’d certainly recommend Why I Read – and it is also beautifully designed and printed – but somebody should have a word in her ear about how often one can get away with throwing in Henry James. I shall always wryly smile in recollection of ‘Very little in the world can compare with the experience of reading, or even rereading, The Golden Bowl, but we cannot always be reading The Golden Bowl‘. Well quite.

The Art of the Novel (2015) edited by Nicholas Royle

art-of-the-novelI asked for this collection of essays for my birthday last year – thanks Rhiannon! – because my friend (can I say that on the strength of meeting once?) Jenn Ashworth has an essay in it. You may recall I raved about Fell earlier in the year; in this collection she writes on ‘Life Writing / Writing Life’. Everybody in the collection discusses different angles on how to write, from genre (Leone Ross on magical realism; Livi Michael on historical fiction) to broader concerns like place, details, plot twists, etc. Besides Ashworth, I’d only heard of a handful of the authors (Alison Moore, Stella Duffy, and – believe it or not – two Nicholas Royles, whom I’d got confused on a previous occasion) but I am hardly the benchmark for knowing about modern literature. Only one contributor, one of the Nicholas Royles in fact, takes a weird tangent – into the concept of the death of the author – which has little to do with practical advice.

This was one of the books I read in Edinburgh, and it was entertaining – I was reading it more out of interest than seeking advice – but I did particularly like how each essayist ended their section with a list of books they admired or recommended. It was interesting how often Muriel Spark’s excellent book The Driver’s Seat came up.

The Whole Five Feet (2009) by Christopher R. Beha

the-whole-five-feetThe most personal of the three books featured today, and the most unusual in concept (is there a word for ‘gimmicky’ that isn’t negative?) – and by far the longest subtitle. *Clears throat* ‘What the great books taught me about life, death, and pretty much everything else’.

The great plants in question are the Harvard Classics – Beha decides that he will try to read all of the Harvard Classics in a year. They supposedly take up five feet on a shelf, hence the title. For those not au fait with the series (as I was not), it was created in 1909 to be the best literature, fiction and non-fiction, made available to the everyman, in 51 chunky volumes. It is quite an unusual collection of works; the blurb describes it as ‘from Plato to Dante, Shakespeare to Thoreau’, but it also includes some more idiosyncratic choices – like Two Years Before the Mast, an account of sailing by Richard Henry Dana, Jnr.

What makes this book so engrossing is how well Beha combines the reading experience with personal accounts of his own life – losses and illness chiefly – that accompany the year, writing with a empathetic dexterity that makes the reader warm to him and care deeply. The actual responses to the books become less important as The Whole Five Feet continues, and it ultimately seems more of an endurance test than an engagement with literature. In some ways, this is more memoir than a book-about-reading, but it is none the worse for that.

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!

Nabokov’s Butterfly by Rick Gekoski

Nabokov's ButterflyDid I write, when I bought Nabokov’s Butterfly (2004) in the US, that it was called Tolkien’s Gown in the UK? It was one of those facts that I kept telling people when I was jet-lagged. Sorry to all those people.

Anyway, it was one of the books I bought from the books-about-books shelves in the US, and I believe Gekoski is American. So it felt a little less exotic than expected when I opened it to find Iffley Road, Oxford mentioned early on – since I live off it. He also mentions Cowley Road bookshop, which no longer exists, perhaps unsurprisingly.

This book has quite a lot in common with Old Books, Rare Friends by Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine Stern, in that Gekoski is a rare books dealer. Indeed, the Radio 4 series from which this book derives was called Rare Books, Rare People. Unlike those ladies, though, his main interest is the 20th century, rather than incunabula and the like. And it will come as no surprise that that was rather more up my street. This collection looks at 20 different famous works of the modern period, from The Picture of Dorian Gray (sneaking into the ‘long’ 20th century bracket) to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – discussing the genesis of each book, and also any notable copies that had ever passed through Gekoski’s hands.

I loved so much about it, even if a lot was already familiar. Those of us who love 20th-century literature – and particularly those of us who have studied it – will probably already know how Ulysses came about, or the events that surrounded The Satanic Verses. But, then again, I knew little about the background to Lord of the Flies or the little-known Graham Greene work After Two Years. And I am always willing to read somebody enthusing about A Confederacy of Dunces.

The potted histories of these works (and Lolita, Bridehead RevisitedAnimal FarmOn the RoadThe Tale of Peter Rabbit, etc. etc.; there is a lovely variety) is done extremely well. Nothing would astound a fan of each individual work, but having details together, concisely and well-managed, is a treat. And then we get to hear how Gekoski spent time with Graham Greene, was indirectly mentioned in the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, ordered a limit edition of a book and bought all of them, and so on. There is a personal angle that is unique to Gekoski’s perspective.

And that perspective is certainly unusual. I bemoaned, in Old Friends, Rare Books, that they prized books for their monetary value over the content; it didn’t sit well with a bibliophile like myself who cares little for condition or edition. And Gekoski is fighting this in himself, in seems. Early on, he says almost exactly that:

I knew very little about first editions at the time, and if you had told me I would spend a good part of my adult life dealing with them, I would have been astonished and horrified. Who cared about what edition you read? It was content that mattered.

And, later, when discussing why books must be pristine to be worth a lot of money, he writes:

All I ask, in the gleaming light of such perfection, is: why? With antique furniture we value the effects of time on the surface of an object, and call it patina; with paintings, we howl when inept restorers reproduce the way an oil painting would have looked on the day it was painted. The criterion that an object be in perfect, original condition is usually reserved for the collecting of piffling doo-dahs – of stamps, teddy bears, or dinky toys. But books? Books?

How did this happen? And for what reason? What, as an analyst might inquire, is the pathology behind it? because this ludicrous insistence on perfect condition strikes one more as a symptom than a rational goal.

He doesn’t have any answers. He is not a renegade in the book industry – at least not in this way. The nearest he gets in these laments, and pointing out that children’s literature that does well in the rare books world now must never have been appreciated properly by its intended audience.

So, yes, I didn’t much care when he listed how much various books had sold for at different points in his career – not least because (a) it’s at least ten years ago, and will all have changed, and (b) each time the amount was given in dollars in brackets, which got tedious. (Somehow the editors were able to do those exchanges, but didn’t bother removing various references to Tolkien’s Gown in the introduction.) (Did I mention it had a different title?) (Yes, of course I did.)

Basically, it would be difficult to find a book about books that I didn’t like a lot. Throw in humour and a focus on the 20th century, and I’m sold. It was also a perfect book to read on the aeroplane, because I could read it in bursts of concentration between bad films (Horrible Bosses 2 is fabs, guys) and being given endless tiny cups of water.

This review ended weirdly. Sure, ok. YAY BOOKS!

Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff

Swimming in a Sea of DeathA while ago I pulled a pile of novellas and other short books off my shelves, intending to do an intensive reading weekend. As it turned out, for reasons I forget, I only finished one book – and that book was David Rieff’s Swimming in a Sea of Death: a Son’s Memoir (2008). I’d bought it on a whim in Oxford’s £2 bookshop (now under the similar, but crucially different, name of £3 bookshop), with the assumption that I’d probably never actually get around to reading it. Yes, I should question my purchasing decision. But, in this case, I was wrong – and it was on my shelves for just under two years before making the cut.

Oh, and there is a quotation from Oliver Sacks on the front. I think I’d forgotten that, but it must have made me more likely to buy it in the first place; nobody writes about difficult subjects more sensitively than Sacks.

In case (like me) you didn’t know, David Rieff is Susan Sontag’s son. And I’m going to assume you know who Susan Sontag is, but, if you don’t, her Wikipedia page will fill you in. And it’s best to know about her beforehand, because we learn surprisingly little about Sontag from Rieff’s memoir. Because it isn’t really a memoir of her life. I’ve read a couple of books about grief – C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed and Calvin Trillin’s About Alice, which I wrote about together – both of which were as much about life (and/or theology) as they were about death. Rieff’s book really is swimming in a sea of death – the gruelling and cruel process of Sontag dying from leukemia, and his own anger, helplessness, and frustration. Which made it both a difficult book to read, and a very focused one.

Rieff’s anger is not just at the cruelties of fate but at the insensitivity of certain doctors and unhelpfulness of the information provided. His narrative moves between documenting the failing health of his mother, the ineptitude of certain parts of the medical system, and a broader philosophy of dying. Or perhaps not a philosophy of dying so much as an attempt to make an abstract sense of what was happening. Not a conclusive sense, understandably, but a way of formulating his thoughts and response.

How to reconcile the reality of human mortality with the reigning assumption in the rich world that every disease must have a cure, if not now then sometime in the future? The logic of the former is the acceptance of death. But the logic of the latter is that death is somehow a mistake, and that someday that mistake will be rectified.


How, above all if you struggled to find the right doctors, and braved the most gruesome treatments, can you really say to yourself that none of this really had much to do with why you were still walking on the earth rather than dissolving under it? It is hard enough for any cancer patient to really resist the idea that some failure on his or her own part brought the illness on. After all, Reichian explanations of psychological repression causing cancer have in our time tended to give way to explanation based on one’s having eaten the wrong foods, the basis of such self-blame, and the assumption that the cancer patient is in a deep sense the author of his or her own disease is still very much in the air.

You can understand why I feel ill-equipped to write very much about this book – both because I have experienced nothing similar myself, and because – well – how can one write about it? (Yet somehow I managed with Simon Stephenson’s excellent Let Not The Waves of the Sea.)

What do we learn about Sontag? There was this tantalising tid-bit that I wish had been developed further…

She told me more than once that she believed that hope and will had been all she had to see herself through her alienated childhood, get herself out of the Southwest and on to the University of Chicago, where, at seventeen, she agreed to marry my father after knowing him for a little more than a week. Seven years later, that same sense of being able to remake her life no matter the obstacles – and not just remake it but also to make version two, or three, or four better than their predecessors – had given her the strength to extricate herself from the marriage.

Rieff iterates the description that she is ‘someone who loved reason (and, more crucially, loathed appeals to the subjective)’ – or words to that effect – throughout. I find people who loathe the subjective completely inexplicable – life is subjective! – and no characteristic ignores me more than those who use ‘logic’ as a cover for not considering emotion. All of which meant that I had the interesting experience of reading about the terrible circumstances surrounding a woman whose outlook on life was poles apart from mine; I couldn’t rely on natural empathy, which made the book all the more fascinating and moving to read, somehow. (Incidentally, Rieff mentions towards the end ‘I have preferred to write as little as possible of my relations with my mother in the last decade of her life, but suffice it to say that they were often strained and at times very difficult.‘)

So I didn’t come away from Swimming in a Sea of Death feeling the way I did to C.S. Lewis’s wife, Simon Stephenson’s brother, or Calvin Trillin’s wife; it’s not that sort of book. Rather, it shows precisely how witnessing dying and death are transformative experiences for a relative even when there isn’t a great relationship, and (obviously to a lesser degree) for an observing reader, even when the reader does not instinctively warm to the person in question.

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?