The Lost Europeans by Emanuel Litvinoff

Lost-EuropeansJudging by the number of comments, reviews where I get you to click somewhere else aren’t necessarily as popular as reviews here – but THIS one is hopefully different because, guys… THIS IS THE LAST BOOK ON MY 50 BOOKS YOU MUST READ BUT MAY NOT HAVE HEARD ABOUT. (That list is over in the right-hand column, fyi.)

The list has been going since I started the blog in April 2007, although it has slowed over the years as I ran out of the backlog of titles I wanted to add, and worried about the end drawing near.

Do I start another list? Don’t know. But watch this space for a little celebration of 50 Books next week.

ANYWAY The Lost Europeans by Emanuel Litvinoff is the book in question. It was published in 1958 and is about Germany after the war, and what it was like to visit as a Jewish German who was evacuated to England. But what makes it so good is Litvinoff’s extraordinary writing.

It doesn’t hurt that the book is beautifully produced too.

Head over to Shiny New Books to read all my thoughts, but here is the beginning of my review. And look out for 50 Books celebration and PRIZE next week!

Have you ever had the experience of starting a novel and, before you’ve got to the end of the second page, you are so bowled away by the writing that you already know that you’ve found one of the best books you’ll read that year? It happens to me very seldom – Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude did the sane thing – but it certainly happened with Emanuel Litvinoff’s 1958 novel The Lost Europeans, reprinted as part of a beautiful new series by Apollo.

The Lark by E. Nesbit

The Lark
Sherpa posing (/sleeping) next to The Lark.

Well, two days in to 2016 and I’ve finished a novel that I’m pretty sure will be on my Top Books 2016, unless a lot of truly spectacular things come along; it’s already on my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. The Lark (1922) by E. Nesbit is an absolute joy – charming, witty, dry, affectionate, and wry all in one go. May I offer a hearty thanks to Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow who first alerted me (and anybody who reads his excellent blog) to its existence, and a second hearty thanks to whichever person donated it to a charity shop in Yeovil, of all unlikely places. And, while I’m at it, a third hearty thanks to Lily P. Bond, who apparently bought this book at Ilminster Fair in 1925, and a fourth to Edith, who gave it to her mother with love at some unspecified date. (Copies can be found in ebook version for very little money.)

The novel starts off with a trio of children (Jane, Emmeline, and Lucilla) which is one of Nesbit’s few mistakes in this book, I think, because it will either disappoint those who like books about children or deter those who don’t: there is only a scene before they’re adults. The difference between their childlike naivety and their adult independence is, truth be told, only four years – but it might as well be a lifetime, so far as The Lark is concerned. As ‘children’, adventurous Jane decides to cast a spell which will show her the man she will marry (to the consternation of Emmie and Lucy): she wanders off to a wood to do so, and – lo and behold! – who should be passing but John Rochester. She sees him, he slips off, and the story is allowed to rush forwards to present day.

Now, if you’re thinking ‘Jane and Mr Rochester, how subtle, gosh I wonder what will happen to them’ then (a) you’re rushing ahead of yourself, and (b) Nesbit is consistently so knowing and self-knowing as a narrator that one can never get the upper hand. When he turns up again, and is ignored by the adult Jane, Nesbit coyly dismisses him as being ‘definitely out of the picture, which concerns itself only with the desperate efforts of two inexperienced girls to establish, on the spur of the moment, a going concern that shall be at once agreeable and remunerative’. It’s impossible to feel outraged at coincidences or unlikely behaviour if the narrator points them out too.

Jane and Lucie, you see, as destitute because their guardian has made bad investments with their inheritances (they are both orphans). ‘Destitute’ in this case means ownership of a beautiful cottage and £500, which this calculator tells me is the equivalent of over £20,000 today; this sort of destitute makes my full-time employment look rather inadequate. The indomitable pair decide to treat their misfortune (for such we must accept it) as ‘a lark’, and I can’t help agreeing with Scott that this is an excellent excerpt to quote:

“I want to say I think it’s a beastly shame.”

“No, no! “said Jane eagerly. “Don’t start your thinking with that, or you’ll never get anywhere. It isn’t a shame and it isn’t beastly. I’ll tell you what it is, Lucy. And that’s where we must start our thinking from. Everything that’s happening to us—yes, everything—is to be regarded as a lark. See? This is my last word. This. Is. Going. To. Be. A. Lark.”

“Is it?” said Lucilla. “And that’s my last word.”

This sentiment recurs – when one is unhappy, or bad things happen, they force themselves to laugh it off. It’s endearing rather than sickeningly Pollyannaish because they don’t find it easy, and they constantly tease one another about it. Their sarcasm and quips are delightfully witty, even if they retain a slightly cumbersome Edwardian propriety. In this particular instance, they must find a way to generate an income from within the narrow straits of a gentlewoman’s education – and land upon selling flowers. There are enough in their small garden to last them a day, but rather more can be found at an old shut-up house in the neighbourhood.

They manage to charm the old man who owns it to let them sell flowers from the garden room and – would you believe it? – he turns out to be John Rochester’s uncle. But Jane is far from pleased to see him, and insists that they can only be friends. There is much to enjoy about Jane and Lucy setting up a flower shop (including an improbable encounter with their future gardener in Madame Tussaud’s) – I love any story about people setting up a shop, particularly slightly feisty women in the 1920s. As The Lark develops, they will also start taking in paying guests – rather far into the novel, actually; it could have appeared earlier – and find their lives increasingly entangled with Rochester. Other characters I haven’t even had time to mention are the sceptical cook, the flirtatious maid Gladys, and the arrival of Miss Antrobus, who is supposedly Rochester’s intended. And there is a hilarious section involving poor Lucy disguising herself as an invented aunt.

The Lark could really have been about anything; it is Nesbit’s style that carries the day. There are more than hints of it in her children’s novels, but here – the first of her adult novels that I have read – she can give full rein to her dry humour and ability to show light-hearted exchanges between amusing, intelligent characters whom you can’t help loving. The whole thing is an absolute pleasure, and would be perfect between Persephone covers. It’s pretty rare that I’m sad to see a book end, but I will confess to feeling a little distraught that my time spent in Jane and Lucy’s company is over – until I re-read it, of course.

 

So, Cornelia Otis Skinner is the actual best (and a GIVEAWAY, y’all)

In the early days of discovering authors for myself, it seemed like every one I stumbled upon turned into a lifelong favourite. I still have massive devotion to A.A. Milne, E.M. Delafield, Richmal Crompton, Stephen Leacock, The L-Shaped Room (because, let’s be fair, it’s that book; not Lynne Reid Banks in general) etc. There were so few duds. And these sorts of epiphanies come so infrequently now that I’ve started wondering: is it just the glitter of the new? Or even the opportunity to blitz through an author’s work, when there aren’t teetering tbr piles (real and imaginary) of pressing reads?

Well, thank you Cornelia Otis Skinner, for coming along and proving me wrong. Consider me devoted.

Cornelia Otis Skinner Nuts in May

 

I read Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, which she wrote with Emily Kimbrough, after Danielle lent it to me. I absolutely loved it, and kept an eye out for the authors ever since – but they are tough to come across in the UK. I did manage to read Popcorn by Cornelia Otis Skinner, which I wholeheartedly adored – and brought five of her books back with me from the US. That included a duplicate of Nuts in May – which I’m going to write about today, and offer as a giveaway to people in the UK, who will also have a tough job tracking her down. (Btw, in the US, they’re available cheaply online, so… have at!)

Skinner is a humorous essayist who reminded me a lot of Delafield and Diary of a Provincial Lady – which, if you know me well, you’ll realise can hardly be bettered as a compliment. Essentially, her books are masterpieces of self-deprecation. If that’s your cup of tea – and I live for it – you’ll find Nuts in May hilarious. Skinner (or her essay persona, at least) takes us through various aspects of her life, and activities she has attempted, and gives extremely amusing portrayals of how horribly everything goes wrong. Small stakes, of course: the worst that happens (and it repeatedly happens) is embarrassment or awkwardness. Take, for example, this (longish) excerpt from the chapter most redolent of the Provincial Lady, ‘Ordeal for Sons’, wherein Skinner visits her son at boarding school. (Incidentally, subscribers to the New Yorker can apparently read the whole article in its original glory. And I daresay that’s true for other Skinner essays.)

I set forth with my child who, the moment we get to territory totally unfamiliar to me, again disappeared. I wandered on aimlessly, passing stray professors and groups of boys who looked at me as if they wondered if my attendant knew I was loose. Some of the mink-coat mothers also passed and we bestowed on one another that sickly smile which can be taken for recognition or pure imbecility. After a time, my offspring hove in sight armed with skates and a stick and told me to follow him. Hockey was being played on a pond some hundred yards beyond us and the people I had passed were all heading for the barrier, which seemed to be the vantage place for watching the game. Once arrived at the pond, however, my son started leading me off in an oblique direction. When I shyly asked the reason, he said he didn’t want me near the barrier… that I might get in the way, or fall down, or otherwise make myself conspicuous. His method of making me inconspicuous was to station me off on a remote and windy promontory. A strange, solitary figure, silhouetted against the snow, I felt like the picture of Napoleon overlooking Moscow. I could hardly see what was going on, much less make out which of the distant swirling figures was my child, which, perhaps, was just as well as it saved me the anguish of seeing him make a goal on his own side which counted some sort of colossal penalty and made him a pariah for the remainder of the game. On my forthcoming visit I am told the sport will be boat racing and I suppose by way of making me inconspicuous, I shall be placed behind a tree.

Oh, Cornelia. You and me are going to be best buds, I can tell. I mean, sure, I wish you had learnt more about paragraph lengths (this lady loves a long para) but I shan’t fault-find too much, as you’re so darn hilarious.

While her family shows up in quite a few sections (notably when her son believes he has discovered dinosaur bones, and they lug their find to the New York Museum of Natural History), Cornelia Otis Skinner’s name loomed largest as an actress, apparently. It’s a rich vein for anecdotes and amusing stories: she writes wittily about being demanded to appear in unpaid productions, the anguish of opening nights (for one’s friends and family), and the sort of person who comes backstage after a play. More unexpectedly, she writes a section about meeting the Pope. The only section that didn’t win me over was a spoof of John Steinbeck.

I’m at the risk of typing the whole thing out, so I shall just reiterate that she has that rare touch – to make stories entirely about herself and her situation (which is unashamedly middle-class) somehow hilariously identifiable, and light without being disposable. She is frivolous, but great frivolity takes enormous talent.

So, that giveaway part. As I say, I’m afraid it’s UK only – because Skinner’s work is tricky to find over here, and I feel like we Brits deserve a chance to get to know her. To be in with a chance of winning, just let me know your favourite American writer in the comment section, and I’ll do the draw on Saturday 6 June. I’m hoping to nab some suggestions along the way.

 

The Shelf by Phyllis Rose

The ShelfWell, it all seemed to go pretty well! Thank you so much for coming over to my new haunt. I will keep the terror at bay by carrying on as if things were normal – which I suppose they pretty much are, all things considered. And I’m going to be writing about another entry in my ongoing list of 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About, which is coming very near its 50th entry (and another will be added quite shortly).

The book (2014’s The Shelf by Phyllis Rose) is one I bought in Washington DC – in the remainder basement of Politics & Prose, no less – which Thomas from Hogglestock coincidentally bought in the same place not long before. We mentioned it briefly in the episode of The Readers that we recorded together, at which point I was in the middle of it and loving it. (As I also mention in that episode, I love buying books on holiday and starting them immediately – offering an opportunity for impetuous reading that I seldom give in to at home.) A day or two later I finished it, and my opinions were confirmed – it’s a real delight of a book that bibliophiles anywhere would love, I feel certain.

In some ways, Rose is like a blogger – in that she’s set herself a book project, and is documenting how she goes about it. Her task: to read everything on a shelf picked at random from the New York Society Library’s stacks. The idea for the experiment stemmed from a thought that many of us will wholeheartedly empathise with:

Believing that literary critics wrongly favor the famous and canonical – that is, writers chosen for us by others – I wanted to sample, more democratically, the actual ground of literature.

And, perhaps equally:

Who were all these scribblers whose work filled the shelves? Did they find their lives as writers rewarding? Who reads their work now? Are we missing out? I wonder if, at some point, all readers have the desire that I had then to consume everything in the library, but it is a desire no sooner formulated than felt to be impossible. One shelf, however, might be read, a part to stand for the whole.

Her opening chapter documents the difficulties she had with the supposed randomness of this exercise. Rose does not want to be left reading thirty books (for that was approximately how many were on each shelf) by the same author. She sets various parameters, but ultimately lands on the shelf LEQ to LES. And these are the authors on that shelf: William Le Queux, Rhoda Lerman, Mikhail Lermontov, Lisa Lerner, Alexander Lernet-Holenia, Etienne Leroux, Gaston Leroux, James LeRossignol, Margaret Leroy, Alain-Rene Le Sage, and John Lescroart.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be left scratching your head and wondering whether you really knew as much about books as you’d thought. The only author I’d heard of was Gaston Leroux, and I couldn’t remember why (and only later recalled that he wrote The Phantom of the Opera). Would I enjoy The Shelf, since it concerned only authors I knew nothing about?

I needn’t have worried.

This book is filled with such riches. Rose’s evaluative responses to the books don’t actually occupy a huge amount of The Shelf, although she is very funny about the books she thinks ridiculous (‘Hands down the worst book on the shelf is Le Queux’s Three Knots, a mystery that reads as if it were written by a eight-year-old on Percocet’) and also (which is far more difficult) winningly enthusiastic about those she loves. But The Shelf uses those books as the bases for talking about books in general; for talking about the process of reading, and how one engages with characters and an author’s intention.

This leads into separate discussions about the role of libraries, translation, the evolution of detective fiction, women writers etc. She brings out thought-provoking points like this, in a section on false categorizing…

There’s a way of suppressing respect for women writers that Joanna Russ didn’t mention, unless I have not understood her categories and this is somehow included. It is pointing to the woman writer and accusing her of privilege. What shall we call this? False populism? It’s bait-and-switch class warfare in which women, who might well be considered a class in themselves, are attacked for belonging to the middle-class – or, heaven save us, the upper class – by male critics who are themselves usually middle-class but speak as though they were working a twelve-hour shift in a steel mill. The woman writer enjoys a privilege that offends them. Her focus on family and relationships seems trivial. Her way of getting at truth seems indirect and banal. Her feel for the specific detail verges on an obsession with brands.

And more witty musings, like the following (which I could hardly not quote, could I?):

How do the British do it? They manage to be so deep and so funny at the same time. It’s as though they’ve all been taught to take the most extreme position possible and assume that that’s the standard, the received wisdom, and then to introduce the true and ordinary as a revelation. They begin with the high-flown what-ought-to-be and puncture that with the deflating edginess of what is.

But I think what I mostly love about The Shelf is Rose’s style and genuine love for literature. Like many of the bloggers I love most, she meanders from topic to topic, one thing reminding her of another, being brazenly honest about the things she loves and loathes in literature and life (if you’ll forgive that much alliteration). It is all so much more compelling than a series of critical reviews would have been; life is there. The more I think about it, the more it feels like the most engaging reflection on a blog project ever.

And what of the books themselves? They are the bulk of The Shelf, even if not in a literary criticism sort of way. and I have neglected to write about them much. Well, that’s because they could have been any selection, really, and The Shelf would be equally fascinating. We discover that Rose loves Rhoda Lerman’s work and hates William Le Queux’s – but it is much more interesting to see her track Lerman down and compare lives, or to wonder at Lerman prizing most the work that Rose considers her failure.

I want to read Baron Bagge and Count Luna by Alexander Lernet-Holenia, after hearing Rose’s response to it, but I was equally fascinated by her unexpected love for Lesage’s 18th-century enormous work Gil Blas, which I haven’t the smallest intention of reading.

Mostly, I was left wanting to read more by Phyllis Rose – which, before the end of my holiday, I had. But more on that another day. For now – bibliophiles, I feel sure you will love The Shelf. Please track down a copy. At the very least, there’s a pile in the basement of Politics & Prose.

 

Charlotte Mew and Her Friends by Penelope Fitzgerald

46. Charlotte Mew and Her Friends by Penelope Fitzgerald

The first of my reviews I’m going to point towards, over at Shiny New Books, was the most unexpected treat. Indeed, it’s going on my 50 Books list – which is coming towards a close now, and that makes me nervous. (What if I read something superlatively brilliant just after putting the 50th book on the list?)

I had thought Penelope Fitzgerald was already represented, as I’ve loved The Bookshop and At Freddie’s – but apparently neither quite made the list. Charlotte Mew and Her Friends is a little more outside the box – being a biography of a turn-of-the-century poet – but has just as wide an appeal, honest. It’s one of the few biographies I’ve read where the subject mattered less than the writer – not ostentatiously in the writing, but in my response to it.

Do head over to my Shiny New Books review for the complete picture…

Patricia Brent, Spinster – Herbert Jenkins

Although I love all the books on my 50 Books You Must Read list, I freely admit that some are better than others, as regards literary merit.  Some are simply on there because they are incredibly fun and a delight to read – and Herbert Jenkins’ 1918 novel Patricia Brent, Spinster is among that number.

One of the things I love most about literary discussion online – be it on blogs or email groups or whatever – is that occasionally an unlikely novel will take centre stage.  As I read in a sage review somewhere (I forget where), somebody in the blogosphere always seems to be discovering Barbara Comyns.  Ditto with Shirley Jackson, and similar unexpected enthusiasms have been launched for books like Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington, Diana Tutton’s Guard Your Daughters, and (of course) Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker. I don’t remember quite where I first heard of Patricia Brent, Spinster, but I do know that last year lots of people in my Yahoo group were reading it, and that Thomas compared it to Miss Hargreaves. So it was one of them.  Right, let’s get onto the book itself, shall we?

Although officially I disapprove of lying, I love it when characters lie in books and TV shows – especially when they do it badly, or it leads to all sorts of unintended consequences.  It’s such a great device, perhaps because, rather than dealing with an enemy or antagonist, the victim has caused their own chaos – and thus must steer things back onto the right path.  It’s the starting point of Miss Hargreaves, and it is the starting point of Patricia Brent, Spinster.

I had assumed that Patricia Brent would be in her dotage – such are the connotations of ‘spinster’ – but in actual fact she is only in her early 20s.  Thus she is rather outraged when she overhears the older residents of her boarding-house talk pityingly about her being 27 and alone.  As Jenkins writes later in the novel:

A book could be written on the boarding-house mind, I think.  It moves in a vicious circle.  If someone would only break out and give the poor dears something to talk about.
Well, this is precisely what Patricia does.  Without giving it much thought, beyond the triumph of the moment, she announces to the assembled ladies and gents that she is off for dinner with her fiancée.  Her plan is simple – she will take a taxi to a fancy restaurant, eat alone, and return having scored a point.  Of course, she couldn’t have predicted that two of the women would find out where she would be eating, and follow her there…

Unable to admit to the lie, Patricia takes a different step – one which severs any attachment the novel might have had to real life – and plonks herself down at the table of a man eating alone, whispering to him to play along.  Rather than look startled or call the manager (as you or I might do), he is game – and they have rather a fun evening.

Peter Bowen is the man in question, an officer and a gentleman (or something like that), and – would you believe it? – he falls in love with her.  The rest of Patricia Brent, Spinster follows her reluctant realisation that she loves him too, and… well, you can probably guess everything that happens.

Not a moment of it is plausible from beginning to end – and, because it is consistently absurd, it is a total delight.  A likely incident would have ruined the whole thing, just as a moment of pathos deflates a farce.  Nobody seems to speak or behave as anybody outside a novel would, but Jenkins has created a masterpiece, in his own way.

You might not expect to love something of this ilk, but I defy you not to be charmed by it.  Along the way we meet Patricia’s aunt, her oft-stated ‘sole surviving relative’, who is every bit as interfering as you’d hope.  Bowen has a kind, wise, witty sister of the sort which cheerfully cluttered up the Edwardian era; Patricia’s political employer (she is a secretary) has a simple-but-honest father.  Nothing here is too original, but all is wonderful – and the writing is just as fun.  This sort of thing:

Mr. Cordal grunted, which may have meant anything, but in all probability meant nothing.
Oh, I loved it.  It’s a breath of fresh air, and as abundantly silly and heart-warming as you could possibly desire.  There are quite a few secondhand copies available (I got mine, with its bizarre dustjacket, for £1 in Felixstowe) but it’s also free on Kindle.  I’m not the first to cry the joys of Patricia et al, but I am among its most vociferous supporters.

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

Guard Your Daughters – Diana Tutton




41. Guard Your Daughters (1953)

What a heavenly book!  What a glorious find!  It has gone into my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.  There was never any question that it wouldn’t.

Occasionally I started a book and, after a page or two, know that I will hate it *cough* Mary Webb *cough – less frequently, it takes only the first page to tell me that a book is astonishingly brilliant (step forward Patrick Hamilton.)  Rarest of all is the book where, before the end of the second page, I know I will read and re-read it for many years to come.  We all recognise the difference between a book we admire and a book we love.  Often these overlap, but there are very few novels which feel like loved ones, so deeply are we attached to them.  Guard Your Daughters is on that list for me, now.

First off, I have to acknowledge how similar it is to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.  I mentioned that the other day, but I don’t think I can really write a review without acknowledging it again.  Guard Your Daughters was published five years after I Capture the Castle, and I think Tutton must have been influenced by it – or perhaps there was something in the zeitgeist?  (Disclaimer: I’m going to make two big assumptions – that you’ve read I Capture the Castle, and that you love it.  I won’t give away any significant spoilers, but my references to Dodie Smith’s novel might not make complete sense if you’ve not read it…. ok, disclaimer over!)

Here are some of the similarities: The narrator is a young girl (Morgan Harvey is 19, to Cassandra’s 17) who lives with her eccentric family in the middle of rural nowhere.  Her father is a writer (although Morgan’s father is a successful and prolific detective novelist, not an avant-garde sufferer from writer’s block) and there are posher folk living nearby.  Tutton even seems to make reference to Rose’s disastrous attempts to dress up for her neighbours, when Morgan and her sisters are preparing to visit theirs:

Luckily, if you bother to read a few illustrated papers you can always find out what to wear when, so that we didn’t make any crashing faux pas, such as wearing long dresses or flowers in our hair.

The most significant similarity is the feel of the novel.  Just as I Capture the Castle has a warm, nostalgic feel to it (don’t ask me how), so Guard Your Daughters feels like a novel one read repeatedly throughout childhood, even though I hadn’t read a word of it before this week.  Without being like those mawkish Edwardian children’s books where everyone Learns A Lesson, Tutton has created a wonderful family of people who love one another and, somehow, make the reader feel included.  ‘About fifty years out of date’, as one sister cheerfully confesses, and ‘living in a completely unreal world’ as another admits, but this isn’t a realist novel.  This is a novel which glories in its own delightful eccentricity – but not without serious undercurrents.

Right, the family.  While Cassandra was blessed only with one sister and one brother, Morgan has four sisters.  Dreamy, shy Teresa is the youngest (at 15) – she warmed my heart by her forthright hatred of sports.  Next is Cressida, the only one of the unmarried sisters who craves a normal family environment – she rather blended into the background, but that turns out to be important.  Morgan is the middle sister.  One year older than her, Thisbe is dry, sardonic and loves to make visitors feel awkward – the only thing she takes seriously is her poetry.  Oldest is Pandora, recently married and thus absent from the home.  When she visits, her perspective on life has changed…

“The thing is–” said Pandora.

“What?”

“I realise now – I never did before –” She hunted for words and I turned and stared at her.

“What are you trying to say?”

“I realise now that we’re an odd sort of family.”

“Well of course we are.”

“But I mean – Oh, Morgan, I do want you all to get married too!”

“Five of us?  I doubt if even Mrs. Bennet managed as well as that, unless she fell back on a few parsons to help out.  However, dearest, we’ll do our best.”

It is obvious that life cannot be normal for these five – but Guard Your Daughters isn’t self-consciously wacky or absurd.  The events are entirely plausible – there are very amusing scenes where Morgan and Teresa try to run a Sunday School lesson, or Morgan and Thisbe attempt to negotiate a cocktail party, or the girls try to put together a meal for a visiting young man while subsisting on rations (and finer things illegally given by a nearby farmer.)  The various relationships between sisters aren’t unlikely either – except perhaps the standard of their conversation and wit.  What makes the Harvey family eccentric is their detachment from the outside world, and their complete absorption in the feelings and doings of the family unit, to the exclusion of almost everybody else.  (The family unit is completed, incidentally, by their father and mother.  No Mortmain-esque step-parents in sight.  The father is only mildly absent-minded, and the mother… well, she has sensitive nerves… it’s not all easy-going in this household or this novel.)

But, despite Pandora’s fears, they do manage to meet a couple of young men.  Gregory’s car fortuitously breaks down outside their gate (remind you of any novel?) and, later, Patrick offers Morgan and Teresa a lift in his car while they’re on their way to a nunnery to learn French… Aside from owning cars, these young man share bewilderment at the Harvey family, and both become objects of desire for one sister or another.  Unlike I Capture the Castle, the romance plot never becomes of overriding importance.  Far more important is the family, their love and rivalry, and definitely their comedy.  There are many very amusing scenes, and a few quite moving and difficult ones, but the main wonder of the novel is the family, and Morgan’s voice.  She is not so self-conscious as Cassandra, but has an inviting, charming, slightly wry outlook on her sisters – coloured, of course, by her love for them.  I have no idea how Tutton has created such a lovable character – if I knew, I’d bottle it.

These aren’t the sisters in the book, of course… but they could be.
(picture source)

It’s so difficult to write about a book when I have simply loved it.  I want to shelve any critical apparatus (not that I usually drag it out on my blog) and substitute rows of exclamation marks and smiley faces.  Guard Your Daughters is so warm, so funny, so lively and delightful.  It’s a warm blanket of a novel, but never cloying or sentimental.  Basically, if you have any affection for I Capture the Castle, you’ll feel the same about Guard Your Daughters.  I’m going to go one step further.  I think it’s better than I Capture the Castle.  There.  Said it.

Bizarrely, unbelievably, criminally, it is out of print.  But I’ve seen the edition I have (the Reprint Society, 1954) in lots and lots of bookshops – I think they may have overestimated the demand!  I would love people to read it, so I’ll probably buy up copies when I see them, and force them on friends and family… if it’s languishing on your shelves, then go and grab it asap.  I’m so grateful to my friend Curzon for initially recommending it to me, and later Nicola Humble (author of the absolutely essential The Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920 to 1950s) for reminding me about it at a conference earlier this year.  It’s probably my book of 2012 so far, and if you manage to get a copy, please come and let me know what you thought.

Oh, what a heavenly book!

Warner and Maxwell

38. The Element of Lavishness : Sylvia Townsend Warner & William Maxwell

I have had a very good reading year – so many wonderful books which have blown me away. It’s going to be tricky, compiling a list of my top ten at the end of the year – indeed, making lists of my all-time favourite books is getting harder than ever – but I’m pretty certain this volume will be featuring on 2011’s best reads (coming up soon). And it’s nabbing place 38 on the books I think you should read, but might not have heard about. Which means there are only twelve more that I can add – ooo! Thrilling, no?

I still have so many novels and stories by Warner and Maxwell to read – it seems crazy that I’ve only read two novels by Warner and two-and-a-bit by Maxwell, since I still consider them amongst my favourite writers. But even with these stockpiles still to read, I was delighted to discover that they were correspondents. It seemed too good to be true – that two authors I love should have collaborated on a book in this way, especially since Maxwell lived in the US, and Warner in England, and they met only two or three times.  (Most, perhaps all, of my quotations here are from Warner, but that is because I read the book whilst researching a chapter on Warner – Maxwell is equally wonderful a letter-writer.  Almost.)

The title Element of Lavishness comes from a letter in which Maxwell writes to Warner that:

The personal correspondence of writers feeds on left-over energy.  There is also the element of lavishness, of enjoying the fact that they are throwing away one of their better efforts, for the chances of any given letter’s surviving is fifty-fifty, at most.
I love the ethos here: even if they don’t know whether or not their letters will be read more than once, fleetingly, it’s almost as though they can’t help writing to the best of their ability.  Evidently a lot of the Warner/Maxwell correspondence did survive, and it certainly reflects their talents.  While I love them both as novelists, I think The Element of Lavishess is the best thing I have read by either of them.  It’s quite possible that this post will descend (ascend?) into a myriad of quotations – so beautiful are the sentences these authors penned so casually.

They wrote between 1938 and Warner’s death forty years later, but only really became friends in the early 1950s, where the letters veer from the strictly practical to the lavishness of the title.  The relationship between Warner and Maxwell began professionally – Maxwell edited The New Yorker, to which Warner started contributing stories.  He loved them (I have shelves full of them, unread) and gradually this exchange became a friendship that encompassed not only work and writing but every conceivable facet of their lives.

Warner and Maxwell remained each other’s most fervent fans, and happy to express it.  Novels and stories were read and praised, always carefully and thoughtfully; Warner embarked on her successful Kingdoms of Elfin series expressly to please Maxwell – and yet, throughout, Maxwell maintained his role as New Yorker editor.  He praised and praised – but would also, occasionally, turn down submitted stories.  How strong a friendship must be to survive this!  How brave of Maxwell, and how gracious of Warner!  And how beautifully Maxwell himself phrases his response to Warner’s appreciation:

You have a way of putting praises that makes it hard for me to walk afterward.  My feet have a tendency not to touch the ground.  Listing a little to the right or the left, I levitate, in danger of cracking with happiness.  When one has been pleased one’s whole life as profoundly as I have been pleased by your work, one does terribly want to do a little pleasing in return, I mean I love you.

Naturally they did not solely get to know one another, but became as intimately involved in each other’s families.  Warner’s partner Valentine; Maxwell’s wife Emmy and his two children.  They often ask after these people, of course – but, more than this, they grew to understand and love these background figures to their correspondence.  I love this quick note of Warner’s:

I am thankful that Emmy is back.  In her absence you do not spell as well as at other times.  Does she know that?  It is a delightful tribute, she should wear it in a brooch.
Maxwell helped Warner through Valentine’s illness and death, acting as a necessarily far-flung support – and the exchange of touching, thoughtful, perceptive letters became all the more vital. For Warner, in her final years, to all intents and purposes widowed, the correspondence was a weapon against loneliness.  Those little observances and stories she might have told Valentine across breakfast became the anecdotes she wove into her letters.  This was possibly my favourite letter – indeed, I immediately wrote it down and sent it off to my own correspondent, Barbara-from-Ludlow:

All this time I was picking & cursing strawberries.  I had an enormous crop, & my principles are of a niggardly kind that can’t let fool go to waste.  But I got one pure pleasure out of this.  I was picking & cursing and searching who I could give the next lot to when I saw a paddle rise above the garden wall.  And looking down, there were two boys in a canoe.  So without explanation, I commanded them to keep about, & hurried (to Valentine’s workroom) for the shrimping net, and filled it with strawberries and lowered it down to them.  They were silent and acceptant; & it was all very Tennysonian, & I realised that when they are old men they will remember those strawberries.
(This was written in 1972.  Let us assume the boys were twenty years old, at the most – so they are now no more than sixty.  Where are they?  Do they remember?  I believe I, at least, will remember this quirky, moving scene for many eyars.)  

Here, in letters, where Warner is not constrained by the novelistic strictures of plot and character and can instead turn her attention to anything and everything, Warner is at her most perceptive – and at her most deliciously playful.  She never writes a dull letter, and here are just a couple of examples from the notes I made:

Don’t ever think twice about asking me to amplify.   I love amplifying.  If I had lived when people illuminated MSS I should always have been looking for unoccupied capital O’s and filling them up with the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian and a pig-killing.

and

One of the emotions of old age is amazement that one was alive so long ago.  I suppose that is why so many people write autobiographies.  They are trying to convince themselves that they really were.
They are so lovable, so warm!  I want to quote to you endlessly – I want to tell you how Maxwell has ‘a defective sense of rancour […] the first thing I know I am beaming at someone I suddenly remember I shouldn’t even be speaking to’; how, when Warner and Valentine had a servant, ‘we used to count the hours till her half-days & evenings out when we would rush into the kitchen and read her novels and magazines: […] such a grateful change from Dostoevsky.’  But I shan’t – because I think you should just go and buy it yourself.   If you’re even remotely fond of Warner or Maxwell, you’ll love this.  Even if you’ve not read a word by either, or don’t even recognise they’re name, I would recommend this collection to you – anybody with any interest in friendship, literature, letters, perception… this book will delight.

Perhaps I should end with an excerpt from Warner, one of their early letters, which leaves me wondering quite how she would respond to my adulation:

But no reviewers ever understand one’s books; and if they praise them, they understand them even less.  Praising reviewers are like those shopwomen who thrust a hat on one’s head, a hat that is like the opening of the Judgement scroll in which all one’s sins are briefly and dispassionately entered, and then stand back and say that it is exactly the hat that Modom needs to bring out her face.  I have never yet had a praising review that did not send me slinking and howling under my breath to kneel in some dark corner and pray that the Horn would sound for me and the Worms come for me, that very same night.  The horn doesn’t and the worms don’t, and somehow one recovers one’s natural powers of oblivion, and goes on writing.

Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim

37. Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim

I am very grateful to Erica Brown for giving a paper on Elizabeth von Arnim’s excellent novel Christopher and Columbus (1919) at the conference I attended recently, as it was the incentive I needed to read it.  Not that I needed a lot of incentive – I loved both The Enchanted April and The Caravaners, as clicking on those titles will attest.  The former was very sweet, almost sentimental, in its depiction of the changing powers of a beautiful place; the latter was a bitingly ironic first-person account of an unpleasant, war-mongering German on a caravanning trip in England.  It would be difficult to think of two more different novels coming from the same author, and I wondered where my third von Arnim experience could possibly take me.  As it turned out, right in between the two – Christopher and Columbus is often very cynical, in an incredibly funny way, and yet also very endearing.  And it has twins in it.  So obviously it goes straight onto my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.  (We’re getting quite close to the end now, aren’t we?)  Prepare yourself for a fairly long review, since I got carried away… 

Christopher and Columbus are, in fact, nineteen year-old twins Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas von Twinkler.  I’ll have to forgive their mother for giving her twins essentially the same name, because she is dead – as the novel begins, these half-German, half-English girls are living with their abhorrant Uncle Arthur and long-suffering Aunt Alice, and war breaks out.  Uncle Arthur can’t stand opening his house up to enemy aliens (even if they are his wife’s relations) and so packs them off on a boat to America, neutral in 1916 when this is set.  They don’t really see themselves as German, as they explain to Mr. Twist, an adorable young man they meet on the boat – and the rich inventor of Twist’s Non-Trickling Teapot.

Anna-Rose watched his face. “It [our surname] isn’t only Twinkler,” she said, speaking very distinctly.  “It’s von Twinkler.”

That’s German,” said Mr. Twist; but his face remained serene.

“Yes. And so are we. That is, we would be if it didn’t happen that we weren’t.”

“I don’t think I quite follow,” said Mr. Twist.

“It is very difficult,” agreed Anna-Rose. “You see, we used to have a German father.”

“But only because our mother married him,” explained Anna-Felicitas. “Else we wouldn’t have.”

“And though she only did it once,” said Anna-Rose, “ages ago, it has dogged our footsteps ever since.”

The most delicious thing about this novel (and it is a very delicious novel) is undoubtedly the twins’ dialogue.  It’s such a delight to read.  I don’t quite know how to describe it – maybe as though it had been translated into German and back again?  But not just that, they both have such a captivatingly unusual outlook on life.  Their logic swirls in circles which dizzy the listener; their conversations would feel at home at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – and yet they are lovely, kind, fundamentally good people – and without being remotely irritating.

Those of you who’ve been reading Stuck-in-a-Book for a while will know I like twin novels – but I also like to judge ’em.  The cardinal sins of putting twins in a book are (a) making them exactly like each other, (b) making them exact opposites of each other, and (c) having them ever be surprised at the fact that they are twins.  You’d be surprised yourself at how often the third of these happens – as though being a twin weren’t something completely ingrained in the characters, and they happened to forget that they looked like their sibling etc.  Personally, I find the idea of not being a twin incredibly weird.  Your sibling doesn’t share your birthday?  Didn’t start school when you did, or have the same bedtime and pocket money?  Very strange. (!)

Sorry, sidetracked.  As I was saying, Elizabeth von Arnim was being put the test – and passed with flying colours.  Well, nearly.  I got irritated by them dressing the same as each other at the age of nineteen (THIS WOULD NOT HAPPEN), but we’ll let that slide.  They are very believable as twins – wrapped up in each other’s worlds, but with their own personalities.  While Mr. Twist may think of them ‘as one person called, generally, Twinklers’, this is not how they see themselves.  Anna-Rose is a little more sensible and also more sensitive; Anna-Felicitas is dreamy and other-worldly and yet often the most tenacious when it comes to arguing a point.  They make such a wonderful duo, and carry the heart of Christopher and Columbus – even if the rest of the novel had been drab and dull (which it is not) they alone would make it a worthwhile vibrant read.

For the majority of the novel they are being hurried from pillar to post.  The ocean voyage takes up a lot of the narrative, as they meet their fellow-passengers pleasant and unpleasant, and most significantly Mr. Twist, who (by the end of the journey) considers them akin to sisters.  Whether or not the good people of 1916 America will share this outlook is more open to debate – he has a particularly tricky time in Clark, at the home of his self-delusional, tyrannical mother and put-upon sister.  Elizabeth von Arnim’s portrait of small-town life hasn’t dated much in a hundred years (although I still love small towns and villages):

It was the habit of Clark to believe the worst.  Clark was very small, and therefore also very virtuous.  Each inhabitant was the careful guardian of his neighbour’s conduct.  Nobody there ever did anything that was wrong; there wasn’t a chance.  But as Nature insists on a balance, the minds of Clark dwelt curiously on evil.  They were minds active in suspicion.  They leapt with an instantaneous agility at the worst conclusions.  Nothing was ever said in Clark, but everything was thought.

But before they arrive in Clark they travel all over America, bad luck meeting them at every turn.  While von Arnim relies heavily on coincidence for the events of this section of the novel (including a very amusing section where a taxi-driver thinks the Annas are dressed for a funeral, when they have no knowledge that their host is dead) it’s all done so endearingly that it doesn’t matter.

Part of the amusement comes from the girls’ unfamiliarity with the brave new not-really-so-neutral world they have entered.  They are not accustomed to the American practice of tipping, nor the absence of afternoon tea, as is evinced after they have been instructed in the art of the former by an insolent hotel employee:

“He might have said thank you,” she said indignantly to Anna-Felicitas, giving a final desperate brushing to the sulphur.

“I expect he’ll come to a bad end,” said Anna-Felicitas soothingly.

They had tea in the restaurant and were the only people doing such a thing, a solitary cluster in a wilderness of empty tables laid for dinner. It wasn’t the custom much in America, explained Mr. Twist, to have tea, and no preparations were made for it in hotels of that sort. The very waiters, feeling it was a meal to be discouraged, were showing their detachment from it by sitting in a corner oof the room playing dominoes.

It is, in fact, the lack of afternoon tea which spurs them on to their next project.  And, frankly, I can think of no better reason for doing anything.  They decide to set up a tea room called The Open Arms, specialising in expensive afternoon teas.  I shan’t tell you any more of the plot, because there is plenty in the 500 pages to discover for yourself (including an ending which I felt did let down the tone a little), but I did want to mention The Open Arms as a means of introducing you to Mrs. Bilton.  She is the cook hired, ostensibly to cook, but mostly to lend an air of respectability to the endeavour.  Mrs. Bilton is a hilarious creation.  She does nothing but talk.  No interruptions – save screaming in her face – have the least effect on her.  Mrs. Bilton is every talkative older lady you have ever known, multiplied by a thousand.  Mostly she talks about herself, her thoughts, and the varying state of her psyche.

The twins were profoundly bored by her psyche, chiefly because they didn’t know what part of her it was, and it was no use asking for she didn’t answer; but they listened with real interest to her concrete experiences, and especially to the experiences connected with Mr. Bilton.  They particularly wished to ask questions about Mr. Bilton, and find out what he had thought of things.  Mrs. Bilton was lavish in her details of what she had thought herself, but Mr. Bilton’s thoughts remained impenetrable.  It seemed to the twins that he must have thought a lot, and have come to the conclusion that there was much to be said for death.

Oh, how I love E von A’s turn of phrase, which slips so quickly from the merely ironic to the ever so slightly biting.  It is this stream of cynicism which prevents the general ebullience of the twins from ever becoming wearing, and which makes the novel so wonderful.  She really is a brilliant writer, and has been underappreciated – she seems to be remembered (if she as remembered at all) chiefly as a whimsical, fey writer.  But like Austen, her tongue can be as sharp as it is charming.

I’m taking a bit of a risk, putting Christopher and Columbus on my 50 Books list when there are so many other E von A titles I’ve yet to encounter.  Perhaps I will end up preferring one of her others, but I will still believe that this particular novel has been unjustly neglected and want to do my best to create fanfare for it.  I promise you’ll be enchanted by Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas, and probably repeat fragments of their dialogue aloud to anyone who will listen.

And now I turn over to you – which E von A ought I to read next?

Things to get Stuck into:

Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough (1942) – I haven’t blogged about this, because I borrowed it and had to return it, but it’s absolutely wonderful as an accompaniment – serendipitously, I read it immediately after the E von A novel.  It’s non-fiction, about a 1920s trip around Europe by two excited, somewhat green American girls.  The transcontinental trip is thus the other way round, but their experiences are equally amusing and eye-opening.  This book is an absolute scream, and would also be loved by fans of the Provincial Lady.