A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin

This evening I went to Blackwells to hear Claire Tomalin talk about her latest book, and it reminded me that I have yet to write about it. So… well, I suspect you’ve worked the rest out for yourself. Here we are, and here we go.

Since I moved house, I’ve had to start driving to work. Driving for about 40 minutes and walking for half an hour, actually, which has given me an awful lot more time for audiobooks and the like. I already listen to a lot of podcasts, but this has spurred me on to trying audiobooks more actively – starting, because why not, with Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own (2017).

I say ‘why not’ – I can actually give a pretty good reason why. I’d signed up for a trial with audiobooks.com because I wanted to hear The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero. And it turns out that the recording was only available in North America. Doh! (I have subsequently been given and have read the book – watch this space.) So I had a credit to use… and my first thought was: who would I want reading to me in the car? The answer, naturally, was Penelope Wilton. And when A Life of My Own came up in the search results, I remembered that I’d been keen to read it. I might talk more about the crooked path of audiobook selection another day…

I’ve only read two of Tomalin’s many biographies – on Jane Austen and Katherine Mansfield – and, other than knowing about some of her titles (and the fact that she’s gone for enormous, much-biographied names like Hardy and Dickens), didn’t really know anything else about her. Oh, except that she is married to Michael Frayn, and is the grandmother (or, as it turned out, step-grandmother) of twins who used to run a YouTube channel, called Jack and Finn. It was quite fun going into an autobiography ‘blind’, as it were.

The problem with audiobooks, of course, is that I don’t have any quotations to share, and I can’t flick back through to see what I wanted to write about. But I do recall that she starts by talking about her parents – which I almost invariably wish any biographer would skip, since I’m not that interested. With an autobiographer, it is a least coloured with a real human connection – whatever the opposite of ‘dispassionate’ is (because ‘passionate’ doesn’t feel quite right – and it’s with genuine emotion that Tomalin describes her mother’s musical genius, her parents’ hasty courtship, and the bizarre honeymoon she learned about properly from her father’s latterday memoir, during which it became more or less clear that the marriage was a mistake.

Tomalin has a great gift, in this autobiography, for describing people and her relationship with them with complete honesty which is subjective (for how it could not be) yet never feels unfair. She writes about how her father disliked her, and it seems like the scrupulously just conclusions of somebody who was weighed the evidence properly. She has an emotional response to this, but the description is arrived at honestly. The same is seen in her marriage to Nick Tomalin – a man who the reader (or listener) cannot help intensely disliking, given his violence and selfishness, and his many affairs, but Tomalin has no bitterness – she tells us what happened and how it affected her, but clearly still loved him in some way, and excellently portrays the complex emotions and feelings she has towards his memory.

I wanted to read A Life of My Own because I thought it would be fascinating to learn about the craft of writing biographies. My main criticism of the book is what a small part this plays – almost all her books are tidied away discretely and discreetly into a single chapter, and I would have loved to hear more. As some form of compromise offering, there is plenty to fascinate in descriptions of her rise as a literary editor at the New Statesman and the Sunday Times (and the sexism she faced – not least in her supremely unqualified husband having the job before she did).

But Tomalin’s own life is so full and so expertly shown to us that it is certainly an acceptable substitute. As well as describing her upbringing, schooling, and marriage, she writes brilliantly about parenthood – the highs and the very low lows. I don’t know how she managed to write about her daughter’s suicide attempts, which ended with a successful one, but she did so extraordinarily movingly – and writes astonishingly about loving somebody with inescapable depression. Unsurprisingly, this period of Tomalin’s life was not discussed at the event I attended, but it is done with bravery and, yes, honesty in A Life of My Own.

It is such moments that show, I think, Tomalin’s skill as a biographer coming through. She knows that she cannot shirk periods like this if she is to portray her whole life – and something of the biographer’s objectivity weaves its way constantly through the subjectivity. It is deftly handled throughout.

Perhaps almost any life is fascinating, if written about well, and Tomalin’s indisputably is. And to her, I suppose, her success as a biographer is of less interest than her family, so it makes sense that she writes so much better and so much more about that. Go into the book with the right expectations, and I predict you’ll find it brilliant. And if Penelope Wilton is reading it to you, so much the better.

 

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

Jacob's Room is full of booksI was an enormous fan of Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill – a book all about her year of reading only books from her shelves that morphed into a series of short essays about anything and everything to do with reading. It was bookish, opinionated, and (I thought) an inevitable delight to anybody who loved reading. About that I was wrong – it divided people – but I have re-read and re-loved it, and have been waiting eagerly for the sort-of sequel for as long as I’ve known it might be a thing. Jacob’s Room is Full of Books (2017) was never in doubt as one of my Project 24 books.

I’ve been following the development of the book with interest. Ages ago, I saw Virginia Woolf is in the Kitchen listed on Amazon, and asked Susan about it on Twitter – yes, she confirmed, it was sort of a sequel to Howards End is on the Landing, but only about women writers. At one point it became Jacob’s Room is Too Full of Books, with a cover design on Amazon. Who knows when that changed, and when the title was changed, but what we’ve got instead is ‘a year of reading’ – she follows the calendar from January to December, talking about what she’s reading and what she’s thinking about, interspersed with notes on nature and life. The title doesn’t make sense (yes, Jacob’s Room is a novel by Woolf, but where Howards End is on the Landing and, indeed, Virginia Woolf is in the Kitchen can describe the place of books in the house – Jacob’s Room is Full of Books doesn’t mean anything, and will confuse anybody who doesn’t know the Woolf novel) – so, yes, it doesn’t make sense. But I don’t care. I still loved this book and raced through it in a handful of days – even while trying to savour it.

Though the calendar year structures the book, Hill darts all over the place. Sometimes for a moment merely – she throws in the thought ‘does Donald Trump ever read books?’ in a line or two – sometimes at greater length. She talks about the authors she loves, from Dickens to Ford Madox Ford to Ladybird Books. She talks about the literary scene – judging book prizes, getting into hot water in columns. She writes about the writer’s life. She writes quite a lot about things that aren’t connected with books, particularly flora and fauna. It’s wonderfully conversational and far-ranging – not as siloed as Howards End is on the Landing, but equally delightful to dip in and out of. Every page will have something to engage with. I couldn’t help picking it up and indulging when I should have been reading something for book group or the podcast. I loved it.

There are definite flaws. Hill repeats herself – the same points come up almost word-for-word at different times about (say) whether or not you can ‘catch’ a writing style – and there are silly errors (88 Charing Cross Road should have been caught – and somebody at the publishers will feel red-faced about putting an apostrophe in Howard’s [sic!] End is on the Landing on the dustjacket). Some of the paragraphs end in with that sort of trite beat that I find so frustrating in fact or fiction. This kind. To prove an argument. Perhaps.

And, yes, Hill is extremely opinionated – which is anybody’s prerogative, of course, though it is refreshing when she admits that she could be wrong about something. I can be very opinionated about books myself, but the only times it annoyed me a little were when Hill seemed to think her opinions were fact – or when she claimed that ‘nobody’ read such-and-such author. On almost every occasion, I had read that author. And this… well, gosh.

The Olivia Manning trilogies have grown in stature since they were first published – as some books do. They have already stood the test of time and I am sure they will go on doing so, while novels by many of her female contemporaries have all sunk without trace. Ivy Compton-Burnett, anyone? Kay Dick?

What a bizarre thing to say about Ivy Compton-Burnett! Not only is she (to my mind) one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, she is also in print with NYRB Classics. No mean feat, so many decades after she wrote – and hardly sinking without trace.

But this is, really, one of the things I find so beguiling and enjoyable about Jacob’s Room is Full of Books. Hill may be a little more strident than I can bring myself to be, but it’s still wonderful to hear from somebody who cares so passionately about books, who has read avidly for so long, and (incidentally – but truly incidentally) has met so many of the people she’s talking about. Some people complained that Howards End is on the Landing felt name-droppy. It didn’t to me, and this doesn’t, but perhaps others would find it so? Anyway – Hill and I do not share a taste at all, though there are overlaps. We both love Dickens and Woolf, for example. Our experiences with To The Lighthouse are so similar that I wrote ‘yes! yes! yes!’ in the margin. But there are definite divergences. She writes so enticingly about The Masters by C.P. Snow that I almost wanted to go and hunt it out – despite having read it earlier in the year and finding it one of the most boring, pointless books I’ve read in years. She – as mentioned – does not properly appreciate the genius of Ivy Compton-Burnett.

But disagreement makes bookish discussion all the more engaging. Obviously it’s not a duologue – though I suppose I could reply on Twitter or something – but it feels like a deep, thorough natter about books. I could have done with more about reading, more specifics about books, and perhaps a bit less about birds and whatnot (though plenty will welcome those seasonal variations) – but I loved what I got. Susan Hill has a strong personality, or at least a strong persona, and this book couldn’t be written by anybody else – but I hope she writes at least one more in this series. For now, I’m thrilled to be able to put this one next to Howards End is on the Landing on my books-about-books shelf.

 

Insomniac City by Bill Hayes

Insomniac CityProject 24 is going so well, guys. Not just that I am (cough, very broadly speaking, cough) on track – 15 books so far – but that I’m reading most of the books I’m buying. That’s pretty good going, since there are still a fair few that I haven’t read from Project 24 in 2010.

I already have a fair few Oliver Sacks books unread on my shelves, but I couldn’t resist going out and buying Insomniac City (2017) by Bill Hayes – mentioned in a recent Weekend Miscellany here, and which Jenny informed me existed. I even paid full price for a new hardback for myself, which basically never happens cos they cost dollar-dollar. But think of the money I’ve been saving through Project 24! Think of it and, if you see them, mention it to my bank manager.

Bill Hayes was Sacks’ partner in the last years of Sacks’ life, and has written books on various topics including blood, insomnia, and Gray’s Anatomy. So it seems like Sacks and Hayes shared an interest in quirky books about medicine… they also shared a love of New York, though Hayes’ was quite different from Sacks’. While Sacks lived in a curious parallel timezone – never using computers or technology – Hayes embraced the noisy, hectic modern world in all its forms. Even when they had been a couple for many years, they maintained separate lives to an extent – separate apartments, separate forms of engagement with the modern world. But there was nobody closer to give a detailed account of this period of Sacks’ life – as ‘O’ – and it is beautifully poignant, mixing humour and memory (including many of Hayes’ diary entries from the time).

Undated Note – June 2011

The difference between us in two words:

“Me, too,” I say.

“I, too,” O corrects.

Hayes takes us through their meeting, their relationship, and Sacks’ cancer. It is an extraordinary depiction of moments scattered through their experiences together, forming a whole from the glimpses.

If Insomniac City is a love letter to Sacks, and it unquestionably is in many ways, it is also a love letter to New York. That’s the sort of phrase that would normally put me right off a book, but here it works. Perhaps because it is not the sort of love letter that deals in overblown similes and references that exclude the non-traveller; Hayes gives us a collage of photos, diary entries, and reflections about his experiences of the city.

The other day, I was on a local 6 going uptown and seated next to a young woman with a baby in a stroller. At each stop, a man (always a man) would enter the car and end up standing right above us. I had my iPod on and was just watching. Inevitably, each man would make goofy faces and smile at the baby, and the baby would smile and make faces back. At each stop, the standing man would be replaced by a new one, straight out of central casting. First, an older Latin guy. Then he gets off and a young black man appears. Then a white man in a suit. Then a construction worker with a hard hat. Tough guys. New York guys. All devoted to one important task: making a baby smile.

In fact, a collage is a useful way to think about this book. It is a patchwork of thoughts and observations that hold together unexpectedly, even while we are aware of all the bustling life that Hayes doesn’t document. I would rush towards anything connected with Sacks, and this is a wonderful addition to my Sacks shelf – not at all the sort of book he would have written, nor the way he would have written it, but a beautiful complement to the writer and the human that ‘O’ was.

The Runaway by Claire Wong

The RunawayI don’t think I’ve yet got around to mentioning the second book I bought for Project 24 (still only bought 2 books! I’m 2 in hand!) – it’s The Runaway by Claire Wong, which I bought because Claire is a friend of mine from church. I think she’s the first friend I’ve had whose had a novel published – as opposed to friends I’ve made after reading their novels – and it’s super exciting. And, thankfully, it’s also really good!

It does feel weird writing a review of a book by a friend, but I’ll try to pretend I don’t know Claire while I write this… I’m even going to follow my usual reviewing style of using the author’s surname when referring to them. And that will feel so odd. Sorry, Claire – you’re Wong from now on!

The runaway of The Runaway is 17-year-old Rhiannon, who leaves her aunt (and guardian) Diana after the last in a long line of fights. She doesn’t go terribly far – into the thick Dyrys Wood, next to the small Welsh village she grew up in – but it is enough to make her unfindable by the search parties that come looking. She finds a shelter, learns some rudimentary skills, and manages to set up her own solitary life there. Solitary except for a rather fantastic hawk, called Lleu, that is.

It tries to move again, and achieves only a pathetic little shuffle. If its wing is broken, it won’t be able to hunt. It will probably starve. Hawks take care of their young, but that’s as far as the altruism goes.

“No one’s coming to help you,” I say, and the words come out sounding sadder and more sympathetic than I had expected. I find that I don’t like looking at it, so I decide to go and search for those tin cans by the path instead.

Meanwhile, back in the village there are appeals to find her – but life also goes on. The friendships and tensions of village life continue – there is a host of recognisable and well-realised characters, from pent-up Callum to shy Nia to Tom, trying to balance being everybody’s friend while also being the local policeman. My favourite – surely everyone’s favourite? – is Maebh, a sort of surrogate grandmother to the whole village, who retains all the stories that have happened there. She is something of an oracle, and weaves memory and fiction in the tales she tells – using the storytelling form as a way of reminding the village of its past, and trying to set the right path for its future.

I love novels which incorporate storytelling (Angela Young’s Speaking of Love is another great example), and Wong handles it deftly; the atmosphere of fairy tale and parable seeps throughout the whole novel, while also remaining (paradoxically) firmly on solid ground. As with fairy tale, it matters less why Rhiannon has run away, and more about what happens next. And part of what happens next is the arrival of Adam and Grace – whose father was from the village – looking to better understand their past. Needless to say, it ties pertinently in with the current situation.

One of the reasons I really liked The Runaway is because of what it says about small communities. Too often these are treated as places to escape – claustrophobic, nosey, and repressive to creativity. It’s ironic that a novel where somebody literally escapes this community doesn’t suggestion that small-town life is an evil. Nor is it a rose-tinted view either. Instead, Wong shows us that this sort of village can be supportive even while it is constraining – both a blessing and a curse. More to the point, it feels like a real place – with real limitations and real advantages. (Wong also manages to write a 17 year old who isn’t maddeningly annoying and isn’t unrealistically good – very impressive!)

This is a really enjoyable, thoughtful, and touching novel that also has spark and humour – it feels like a modern fairy tale in the best possible way.