Frederick the Great – Nancy Mitford

I’ve done it! I’ve done it! My book for 1970 is finished, and with it is finished my Century of Books. I was so fearful that I might stall at 99 on December 31st, so finishing on December 28th was rather a relief. I’ll write more about the project, including the sort of stats and things that interest me, but for today I’ll get on with reviewing the title I chose for 1970 – Frederick the Great by Nancy Mitford.

Vintage Books kindly sent me a couple of Nancy Mitford’s biographies a while ago, and I was in a bit of a quandary about them. Those of you who were reading Stuck-in-a-Book in 2008 may recall my Mitfordmania, which has lessened a little (mostly because I came to the reluctant conclusion that Debo Mitford probably wouldn’t become my best friend) but is certainly not dead. So I was all eagerment to read another book by Nancy Mitford – but my interest in notable figures of French history is so minute as to be negligible. On which side of the balance would Frederick the Great fall down? More Mitford or more History? Frivolous and funny, or scholarly and dry? I thought I had my answer on the first page:

He was the third son of his parents: two little Fredericks had died, one from having a crown forced upon his head at the time of the christening and the other when the guns greeting his birth were fixed too near his cradle; the third Frederick, allergic to neither crowns nor guns, survived, and so, luckily for him, did his elder sister, Wilheimine.
Can this possibly be true? Had two heirs did in such surreal circumstances? I decided not to take recourse to Wikipedia, but just to take Nancy’s word for it. Even if Nancy is honestly reporting events, the tang of Mitford is evident in the bizarre way she phrases them, and the absence of any sort of explanation. I’m sorry for the children and their mother, but I was delighted that Mitford didn’t lose her tone when writing non-fiction.

Indeed, for much of the time it felt novelesque. Mitford uses almost no footnotes and, whilst there is a bibliography at the end, her biography is evidently incredibly subjective. Since she doesn’t reference properly, even when giving excerpts, it is impossible to ascertain where she gets her information – and where she is making stuff up. I doubt she ever invents battles which didn’t happen, or friendships which never existed, but she certainly imposes a great deal that she cannot have known for certain. The first 80 or so pages of Frederick the Great concern his life as a prince, principally (ahaha) his relationship with his father. It was the section of the book I found most interesting, but Mitford blithely imagines Frederick’s thoughts and feelings, giving no evidence for these forays into his consciousness – for, indeed, what evidence could there be?

Frederick William (Frederick the Great’s father) loved hunting and religion (if not noticeably God), and hated intellectuals and the French. Frederick the Great was – from birth, it sometimes seems – the exact opposite. He suggested that hunters were below butchers (because butchers killed out of necessity, and did not enjoy doing it), he enjoyed winding his father up by being blasphemous or heretical, and worshipped the French tongue so greatly that he always signed himself Fédéric, could barely speak German, and prized French culture above any other. At least this is what Nancy Mitford claims – but I began to suspect she might be superimposing her own devotedly Francophile feelings upon this German king, just a little.

It is something of a truism of biography to present the subject as a ‘mass of contradictions’. Certainly, Frederick the Great seems that. Mitford emphasises his love of culture (he was passionately fond of Voltaire, at least until they met; he practiced the flute four times a day) and his progressive nature (legal reforms which saw only a handful of death penalties given a year, in contrast to the rest of Western Europe; decreasing cruelty to civilians during warfare) but alongside this is, of course, his reputation as an invader and ruthless militarist. That reputation was, indeed, all I knew about him before starting this biography. But Mitford is much keener to present him as a human, even lovable, character – anecdotal foibles and all:

The King’s time-table when he was at home did not vary from now on; many people have described it and their accounts tally. He was woken at 4 a.m.; he hated getting up early but forced himself to do it until the day he died. He scolded the servants if they let him go to sleep again, but he was sometimes so pathetic that they could not help it; so he made a rule that, under pain of being put in the army, they must throw a cloth soaked in cold water on his face.
He often comes across as rather a silly, but ultimately adorable, little boy. When it comes to his militaristic tendencies, Mitford is clearly quite bored by them – and, in turn, makes the chapters describing them by far the most boring of the book. It’s true that I would never thrill to the accounts of battles and tactical manoeuvres, but Mitford’s style loses all charm or polish when she comes to write about them. These secluded chapters are written with all the panache of a primary school essay about a child’s holiday activities – “Then he did this, then he did this, then he did this” – and Mitford evidently can’t wait to get onto the next chapter.

Ultimately, it is a very involving character portrait, with so much subjectivity laced silently through it, that Mitford is in every sentence. Since it is non-fiction, people appear and disappear, arrive far too late in the narrative or inconveniently die – Mitford can’t help it, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less confusing for an ignorant reader like me. So, poor historian that I am, I can’t pretend that Frederick the Great will ever rival Nancy Mitford’s novels for my affections, and this wasn’t the all-consuming, utterly-joyous reading experience I’d hoped might round off A Century of Books, but it was definitely interesting to see how Mitford might approach the topic – and, who knows, I might even have learnt a thing or two that I’ll remember.

Two Classic Children’s Books

A Century of Books has led to me reading more children’s books than usual in 2012.  The debate about whether or not adults ought to read YA fiction (a phrase I hate) is probably best left for another day – but I think most of us understand the call towards unashamed classic children’s fiction, which doesn’t have the slightest pretence to being adults’ literature.

First, very speedily, a suggestion Claire mentioned when I was struggling to fill in 1909Ann Veronica went back on the shelf for another day (next to Rebecca West, amusingly enough) and Beatrix Potter came off instead.  Well, actually, since I don’t have a copy of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, I downloaded the free ebook from Project Gutenberg, and read it on my Kindle for PC.  It’s lovely – of course it is.  Peter Rabbit’s sister Flopsy and her wife Benjamin have quite a few children – ‘They had a large family, and they were very improvident and cheerful.’  (Which picture book writer today would use the word ‘improvident’?  Or ‘soporific’?  Love you, Beatrix.)

You probably know the story.  Wicked Mr. Macgregor is back, and does his best to kidnap the Flopsy Bunnies… will he manage it?  Can you guess?  (By the way, this cartoon is an amusing counterpart to Beatrix Potter’s bunny stories.)  It feels a bit like I’m cheating with 1909 – but I suppose Potter is more influential than most of the other authors featured in A Century of Books.  And it was delightful!

*  *  *

A whistle sounds, a flag is waved.  The train pulls itself together, strains, jerks, and starts.”I don’t understand,” says Gerald, alone in his third-class carriage, “how railway trains and magic can go on at the same time.”And yet they do.
This seems like a very apt quotation from E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle (1907), because she is best known (at least in our household) as the author of The Railway Children.  Her own writing, then, successfully combined the possible – if unlikely – story of children living near a railway, and this novel where all manner of extraordinary things happen.  But it is, perhaps, the possible events threaded through the novel which made it most effective, in my eyes.

Everything starts off believably.  Siblings Jerry, Jimmy, and Kathleen are bored during their summer holidays, spent with one of those eternal Mademoiselles of children’s fiction from this period.  Only this one is not cantankerous or hysterical, and is quite happy to let them go off to explore.  On their exploits, they discover (as one does) a beautiful castle, with grounds replete with marble statues, etc.  And – look! – a sleeping princess!  She awakes, after Jimmy (somewhat reluctantly) kisses her – and she takes them through to see her jewels.  One of these is a magic ring, she confides, which can make the wearer invisible.  Only they have to close their eyes for a bit whilst it works.  And, yes, it works!

But the princess is rather surprised.  It turns out she is, in fact, Mabel – the housekeeper’s niece – and wasn’t expecting the ring actually to turn her invisible.  And thus their adventures begin…

There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs for ever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real.  And when once people have found one of the little weak spots in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets, and the like, anything may happen.
And anything does happen.  Invisibility, expanding, swimming statues, ghosts…  I prefer my novels’ fantastic elements to be rather more restrained, with parameters neatly set.  This all felt a bit scattergun, but I suppose Five Children and It is similar and that doesn’t bother me, but that’s probably because I grew up reading Five Children and It, and this is my first reading of The Enchanted Castle.  I have a feeling that this would feel a much more coherent book for those who loved it as a child.  As for me, sometimes it seemed like dear E. Nesbit was making it up as she went along.

What saved it completely, though, was her delightful tone.  I wrote, in my post on The Railway Children, that I’d no idea E. Nesbit was so witty – and that continues here.  There are plenty of asides and sly nudges to the reader – a wit that was probably put in for the parent, but could well be appreciated by the child too.  Alongside the amusing style, my favourite aspect were the non-fantastic relationships – between siblings, between the children and Mademoiselle, between Eliza the maid and her young man, and between… no, the last two I shall leave you to find out for yourself.

It was all good fun.  And yet I’m going to throw my copy away.  Because it looks like this now…

Ooops!  TV tie-in paperbacks from the 1970s weren’t built to last, were they?

Two lovely children’s books to round off 2012.  Just one book left for A Century of Books… a biography for 1970.  Any guesses?

Reality and Dreams – Muriel Spark

I’m away with my family for a few days, out of range of internet – the vicar escaping, post-Christmas Day!  I’ve scheduled some posts to appear, but I shan’t be able to reply for a bit – and hopefully I’ll be back with internet in time to write a post about the only one of my Century of Books that I’ve not yet finished!

If you were thinking that I’d had enough of Muriel Spark during Muriel Spark Reading Week, then think again!  One of the final books I’ve read in 2012 is her last of the 20th century, and third last overall – Reality and Dreams (1996).

Tom Richards – presumably a deliberately bland name – is a famous film director.  The first line of the novel, and thus the line which kicks off our impression of him, is archetypical Spark: ‘He often wondered if we were all characters in one of God’s dreams.’  And, with Spark’s panache for combining surreality with restraint, she goes no further with that paragraph.  It hangs, so strangely, and we are shepherded straight to the second paragraph – where we learn that Tom Richards is recovering in hospital, having fallen out of a crane whilst directing a scene.  He broke nearly all his bones, but is lucky to be alive.

For the first few pages, reality and dreams swirl, as Tom fades in and out of lucidity.  I often have problems with the ways in which authors try to convey any mental distortion – whether disorientation or illness – as it usually seems clumsy and heavy-handed, or simply unreadable.  Spark, reliably, does it brilliantly.  Even something as simple as this conveys the disjointedness of time:

She poured out some milky tea.  He opened his eyes.  The tray had disappeared.
And then the complicated family arrive.  His wife Claire is patient and unshockable – and has affairs as often as he does, quite casually.  There is his angelically beautiful, but unvivid, daughter from his first marriage (Cora), and stolid, moaning, unattractive daughter from his current marriage (Marigold).  And there is the squabbling, self-absorbed cast of his film, originally called The Hamburger Girl – inspired by a brief sighting of a young woman at a campsite, who captivated Tom.

The various marriages in the family (some disintegrating), the cancelled and re-commissioned film production, the disappearance of one of his daughters and ensuing police search – all come together and interweave, creating a curiously mixed structure.  I think one of the most distinctive qualities in Muriel Spark’s writing is that everything is always on the same level.  She refuses to get overly-dramatic about anything – possible kidnap and murder is treated in the same matter-of-fact way as Tom’s physiotherapy, or the workings of the film shoot.  For it is, of course, the sphere of cinema which influences Spark’s title:

that world of dreams and reality which he was at home in, the world of filming scenes, casting people in parts, piecing together types and shadows, facts and illusions
Apart from the mental disorientation at the beginning of the novel, there is never any wider suggestion that reality and dream might have been exchanged – but there is the possibility that fictitious events are starting, in a distorted way, to become true.  It’s never overdone, but is a clever thread through a clever novel.  It’s all quintessential Spark, and a perfect reminder of why she’s one of my favourite authors.

Two Entirely Unrelated Reviews

Normally, if I feature two reviews together, there tends to be a reason.  I try to find some links between them, and so forth.  Well, the only reasons that these books are combined is that I’ve finished them, and need to get all my Century of Books reviews out before the end of 2012.  Maybe unexpected connections will arise by the time I’ve finished writing about them?  At the moment the only thing I can think is that I didn’t really think either of them were great.

Sunlight on Cold Water (1969) is the second novel I’ve read by Francoise Sagan, after really liking her most famous novel, Bonjour Tristesse, last year.  That short novel focused on a young girl’s self-discovery, first love, and developing relationship with her stepmother.  It was all very introspective, but that was totally forgivable in the mindset of a teenager.  In Sunlight on Cold Water (title from a poem by Paul Eluard), this introspection is transferred to a middle-aged man…

Gilles Lantier is depressed.  Depression is such a difficult thing to convey, since it involves such listlessness and the deadening of emotions.  I was impressed that Sagan was going to give it a go and, if it didn’t make for very compulsive reading, at least it was sensitive and thought-provoking.  But… then it wasn’t.  He meets a woman.  He starts having an affair with her (she’s married).  He worries about his mistress back in Paris; he worries about being good enough for his new mistress.  And so on, and so on.  This sort of writing filled the book:

“That’s not it at all,” he said, “I’ve left out the main thing.  I haven’t told you the main thing.”The main thing was Nathalie’s warmth, the hollow of her neck when he was falling asleep, her unfailing tenderness, her utter loyalty, the overwhelming confidence he felt in her.  Everything that this semi-whore of a kept woman with her cockneyed perversions couldn’t even begin to understand.  But in that case, what was he doing here?
Lovely, isn’t it?  (Er, no.)  I’m afraid I am not remotely interested in the elaborate musings of a man who may or may not be in love, talking about the sight, sounds, and smells of his various love exploits.  It’s not Fifty Shades graphic or anything like that, but, boy, is it tedious.  This is the only excerpt I jotted down which I thought a bit clever:

“Could you love a man who was so rotten?””You don’t choose the people you love.””For an intellectual, you’re not afraid of platitudes.””I’m only too afraid of them,” she murmured, “they’re nearly always true.”
But, still.  Total dud for me, I’m afraid.  Only about 140 pages long, and dragged for ages.  Perhaps it’s my own lack of tolerance for this sort of novel, but I found it meandering, self-indulgent, whiney, and dull.  If I can find a Francoise Sagan that has nothing to do with introspective love affairs, then I’ll give her another go – because I so admired Bonjour Tristesse.

*  *  *

And onto the other novel.  I’m still not seeing any connections.  It’s The Simmons Paper (1995) by Philipp Blom.  I bought it in a charity shop, because the cover struck me as delightfully eccentric, and the topic appealed.

After his death, Simmons is discovered to have left behind a manuscript detailing his work in compiling the section P in a Definitive Dictionary.  Blom’s conceit is that the manuscript has become a famous, much-discussed piece of work – and this novella is framed as though it were an edition of the essay, footnotes and all.

Simmons is totally besotted with his work.  Most of The Simmons Papers concerns his daily life of researching words, philosophising about the role of dictionaries, and raging against neologisms.  He believes P to be ‘the most human letter in the alphabet’, and manoeuvres through various interesting facets of the letter and its history.  I love anything to do with linguistics, and it’s a rare novel that assumes you know all about Saussure.  I’m also rather drawn to novels where the main character gets obsessive and increasingly unbalanced (c.f. also Wish Her Safe At Home.)  Simmons certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard – quite genuinely obsessed with the letter P (every section opens with a word beginning with P, and Simmons takes to eating mostly peas):

I must confess that in a sense even I am a victim of this daunting work.  Invariably the study of words, their history, meaning and evolution, etymology, connotations and formation, must impress on any mind its seal, especially since some words will resound for a certain person more than others and come to exercise a considerable influence of their own on any mind connected with them.  The long-winded proem which I am now engaging in now seems necessary before I can tell what I hardly dare admit: that I am subject to daydreams, voices and visions.  Words, p-words, emit and emanate images, stories, pictures and fantasies, which ultimately are impossible to keep at bay.
So, The Simmons Paper had all the ingredients of a novel I’d really like – and is packaged in a really attractive edition, incidentally.  So why didn’t it really work for me?  Well, it’s rather too close to what it is pretending to be.  The faux-introduction is amusing, some of the footnotes are really enjoyably silly if you spend a lot of time reading literary criticism – (cue interrupting my sentence for a long example of a footnote)

The pseudonym ‘P’ has been the cause of much controversy.  In the interpretation of Mandelbrodt and his followers, P designates ‘paradigm’, a notion which, in this reading, the text sets out to deconstruct by showing its inherent limitations and contradictions.  ‘The indefensible stronghold of the face of the dying Kronos falters from the owl, its death-ode on the phallus and His contemporaneous demise.  The giant turns back in agony and the very power against himself is the very powerlessness against this power’ (Mandelbrodt, The Question of Femininity, pp.345-6).  According to this reading, the destruction of the paradigm of male hierarchical order is what the text ‘which is by no means fiction, but an emanation of the act of writing in its existential peril itself’ (ibid.) sets out to prove.  While A. Rover takes P as quite simply Simmons’ own initial, Richard Silk suggests that it stands for ‘pater’.  ‘Simmons addressed his father with this name, traditionally used by public boys for “father”, throughout his life until “pater” died in 1946’ (The Dramatic Personae).
– but parody has to go further than imitation.  Examples like the quotation above do seem to work in this way, but, as a whole, the novel didn’t feel all that much like a novel.  It got a love interest towards the end (but not in the traditional sense) – but a lot of it read like critical theory.  And I read plenty of that for my day job!  There wasn’t enough novel in the novel.  I thought The Simmons Paper had real potential to be a little-known much-loved novella for me – have I ever told you about my fascination with dictionaries?  I wrote a thesis on them once – but I found the style a little clogging, and the thread of spoof rather one-note.  Good, but still disappointing.  Yet I will say this for it – it was much better than Sunlight on Cold Water.

On The Other Side by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg

Yesterday I wrote about Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven, and told you that it was towards the fluffier end of the Persephone Books canon – and promised to take you to the other side of their spectrum today.  Well, here it is – one of Persephone’s non-fiction titles, On The Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany 1940-1946 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg, translated by her daughter Ruth Evans, and first published in 1979. 

On The Other Side is effectively Mathilde’s diary, framed through letters to her children in Britain (although she never sent them), and documents what life was like in Germany during the Second World War.  Despite having read a lot about the British Home Front, the German equivalent is a perspective I have never read firsthand.  It helps that Mathilde is a delightful person, easy to empathise with – what other response would we have to someone who would say this?

Life would have no purpose at all if there weren’t books and human beings on loves, whose fate one worries about day and night.
This is going to be one of those ‘reviews’ which are, in fact, mostly quotations from the book – because the excerpts I’ve selected give such a comprehensive overview of the diary that it would be a waste of time for me to try and paraphrase them. 

Rather naively, I hadn’t really realised that people like Mathilde existed in wartime Germany.  I thought the German public would have been divided into those who supported Nazism, those who were apathetic, and those who lied to so much by Nazi propaganda that, though not sympathetic to those views, had no way of knowing what was going on.  But Mathilde shows that there were many exceptions:

Practically everyone knows that all that bluff and rubbish printed in
the newspapers and blazoned out on the wireless is hollow nonsense, and
when big speeches are made nobody listens any more.
Indeed, the account she gives of the appalling public life of Jewish Germans could scarcely be bettered by a textbook in its fullness, nor its empathy

Perhaps you cannot imagine what life is like for Jews.  Their ration cards are printed on the outside with a large red J, so that everybody knows at one that they are non-Aryan.  All women have to add the name Sarah to their first names, the men Israel.  They never get special rations, such as coffee, tea or chocolate, nor do they received clothing coupons.  After 7.30 at night they are not allowed out into the street; their radios and telephones have been removed.  Practically every shop and restaurant has a notice saying ‘Jews are not wanted here.’  It is so vile and mean that I can only blush with embarrassment while I write this.  But you and your children must know of this, that things like this are possible in Germany under our present regime.  You will hardly credit all this, or the fact that we others have stood by and said nothing.  And there are much, much worse things.  Many people have committed suicide because they could not bear this indignity.  Then, like vultures and hyenas, they [the Nazis] rush in and grab the belongings of the dead; honest names are smeared with filth, and decent Germans have been driven to emigrate by the thousand.
When reading about the war from the perspective of a British person (or, I daresay, the French, Belgian etc. – I haven’t read their accounts) there is much pain and anguish, but little internal conflict.  Love of country and hatred of the enemy can be expressed in a single breath, without contradiction.  While individuals may question the point of war as a concept, or the political manoeuvres of those in power, this couldn’t compare to the conflict Mathilde experienced with love of country and hatred of Hitler.

But however much we strain with every nerve of our beings towards the downfall of our government, we still mourn most deeply the fate of our poor Germany.  It is as if the final bomb hit our very soul, killing the last vestige of joy and, hope.  Our beautiful and proud Germany has been crushed, ground into the earth and smashed into ruins, while millions sacrificed their lives and all our lovely towns and art treasures were destroyed.  And all this because of one man who had a lunatic vision of being ‘chosen by God’.  May he and his followers be caught in just retribution.
However engaging and thought-provoking On The Other Side was for Mathilde’s accounts of the war, the actual events were very similar to those in Britain – shortages, bombings, fear for loved ones.  It is certainly all moving, but it has become familiar ground in fiction and non-fiction.  The part I found most fascinating concerned Mathilde’s experiences after the war was over; it was, again, something I had never read about from a German’s perspective.

6 May 1945: It is Sunday and I almost hesitate to put pen to paper.  Too much has happened in the few days since last I wrote.  The whole world has changed and part of the crushing nightmare that oppressed us for so long has been lifted during these five days.  I have listened quite openly to an American and to a British radio station, no longer threatened with the death sentence for this.  I can go along the road and proclaim loudly, “Adolf Hitler, the most evil criminal in the world,” and nobody will tell me to shut up.  Can you imagine that?  And can you picture our Andreasstrasse full of English trucks and private cars; on the pavements and in the front gardens a milling crowd of English soldiers – and it is a Welsh regiment, Ruth dear.  They serenely patrol the district: one is sitting in the middle of the road playing with a dog, another one is playing a recorder on a balcony; a couple tumble in and out of the house, for downstairs a captain has moved into the bottom flat.  What a lot of coming and going!
Although Mathilde and her husband welcomed the end of the war, and were very grateful for being in the British-controlled part of Germany (apparently other areas, particularly that under the rule of Russia, suffered greatly), the British army were, probably understandably, reluctant at first to sympathise with the German public. This was perhaps the most moving passage in the book:

He [her husband] was so passionately devoted to Great Britain and all it stood for.  Now he is disillusioned by the limitless arrogance and the dishonesty with which they treat us, proclaiming to the whole world that only Germany could have sunk so low in such abysmal cruelty and bestiality, that they themselves are pure and beyond reproach.  And who destroyed our beautiful cities, regardless of human life, of women, children or old people?  Who poured down poisonous phosphorous during the terror raids on unfortunate fugitives, driving them like living torches into the rivers?  Who dive-bombed harmless peasants, women and children, in low-level attacks, and machine-gunned the defenceless population?  Who was it, I ask you?  We are all the same, all equally guilty, and if my entire being was not straining towards a re-union with you, life would be nothing but torture and abhorrence.
As I promised at the start, I have mostly quoted from the book, rather than giving my own views.  It’s one of those books which I believe is too important to have me weigh in on it.  I couldn’t say that I loved Mathilde’s voice as much as I love Nella Last’s, but they are books which ought to be read alongside each other.  On The Other Side couldn’t be much further from The Winds of Heaven, but both exemplify what makes Persephone Books wonderful – books which enrich the reading life, whether through delightful fiction or thought-provoking non-fiction.

The Winds of Heaven – Monica Dickens

Firstly, just thought I’d let you know that I’m back in the blogosphere (after two or three days of not reading much) and have replied to all recent comments, including all the wonderful and interesting comments on the On Commenting post.

Having recently got all excited about Persephone publishing their 100th title, I decided to check my unread Persephones against my A Century of Books list, and see how many blank spaces could be filled.  I have loved doing A Century of Books, but there’s no denying that some of those blank spaces are frustratingly elusive.  However, this cross-referencing did fill up two gaps – which happened to cover the whole cross-section of Persephone’s ethos.  Today’s book is at the light, frothy end of the scale – the book I’ll review tomorrow is serious and important.  I’m very glad to have read both.

My parents gave me The Winds of Heaven (1955) for my birthday a year or two ago, and it’s been on my large pile of books I’m looking forward to reading – especially since I am already a huge fan of Monica Dickens’ semi-autobiographical, very hilarious One Pair of Hands and One Pair of Feet.  But haven’t yet, somehow, read Mariana.  Anyway, The Winds of Heaven is very different from those – gone is the humour, gone is the absurdity, and present instead is one widower’s lonely, awkward life, bustled from pillar to post (those pillars and posts being represented by three rather selfish daughters.)

Lest we be in any doubt that those heavenly winds of the title be metaphorical, the opening paragraph is this:

When the winds of Heaven blow, men are inclined to throw back their heads like horses, and stride ruggedly into the gusts, pretending to be much healthier than they really are; but women tend to creep about, shrunk into their clothes, and clutching miserably at their hats and hair.
Louise Bickford is certainly of the creep-about variety.  She is recently a widow, left with enormous debts by an unscrupulous and selfish husband, and must spend her days living with one or other of her three daughters, on rotation.  In this novel, Monica Dickens draws her characters with broad strokes.  Having recently read V.S. Pritchett’s complex and brilliant delineation of his father, it was even clearer that Louise’s husband Dudley is essentially a cartoon villain.  Louise is downtrodden by him, and throughout the novel he looms in her memories like a bogeyman, apparently unkind and cruel from their honeymoon onwards.  Indeed, nobody would read The Winds of Heaven for its range of subtle character portraits – every marriage in the novel has at least one ‘bad’un’, and sometimes two.  On the flipside, some characters are just hopelessly nice.  Here are the various daughters and families:

1.) Miriam – sharp, pre-occupied, but not cruel.  Husband Arthur – cross, irascibile.  Daughter Ellen – sensitive, withdrawn, kind.  Other children Simon and Judy – young, excitable.

2.) Eva – bohemian.  Lover David – unreliable.

3.) Anne – lazy.  Husband Frank – adorable.

I’m being a little unkind to Monica Dickens, and I should point out that none of this prevented me enjoying The Winds of Heaven to the utmost.  It just isn’t a finely-drawn, perceptive novel – it’s light and broad and completely, wonderfully entertaining.  It reminded me a great deal of Richmal Crompton’s novels, which I love but which (I now recognise) are far from great art.  Indeed, the relative staying with various families is a plot Crompton uses more than once, and to great effect in Matty and the Dearingroydes.

Having called this novel entertaining, I should add that its themes are often sombre.  Chief amongst these is Louise’s situation – being loved but unwanted by her family, an awkward imposition wherever she goes.  In the hands of Elizabeth Taylor this would be a subtly crafted, very moving story – in the hands of Monica Dickens, it is moving but never heartbreaking.  Serious themes do not a serious novel make.  Indeed, the novel is still more entertaining than it is cautioning or saddening.  In fact, I’m trying to work out why it was so fun to read, when there is almost no comedy in it, and the events are all rather melancholy – from miserable affairs to accidents with farm machinery.  I think it’s the same experience one has when watching a soap opera – the events are so over the top, and the characters embodying individual traits (Anne might as well just be a sign saying Selfish and Lazy) rather than complex personalities, that it’s impossible to feel distraught for them, and instead you can settle down to guiltless enjoyment of the spectacle.

All of which sounds like I’m damning Monica Dickens with faint praise – but I have admiration for authors who can create an action-packed, page-turning novel, with underlying seriousness, and still produce a credible narrative.  Dickens’ writing is never poor, and Louise herself is rather a well-drawn character – just one surrounded by characters who aren’t particularly.  And which of us lives on Elizabeth Taylor alone?  It is no mean feat to produce a loveable, engaging novel.  It’s the light end of the Persephone scale, but it’s perfect for a winter evening when you want something relaxing and enjoyable, with just the right amount of thought-provoking paragraphs laced into the mix.  Thinking about it, The Winds of Heaven is the literary equivalent of The Archers… and that, my parents would assure me, can be no bad thing.

A Cab at the Door – V.S. Pritchett

photo source

More Slightly Foxed!  Yay!  Well, this one was actually a little bonus – earlier in the year, when they sent me the fabulous Look Back With Love by Dodie Smith, they inadvertently sent me A Cab at the Door by V.S. Pritchett first.  And then very kindly said I could have both.  Having recently adored Blue Remembered Hills, I realised I couldn’t go long without another fix of Slightly Foxed, and so grabbed A Cab at the Door (1968).

I have to confess, I’ve spent much of my adult life confusing V.S. Pritchett and V.S. Naipaul (he of the I’m-better-than-all-women rant).  As crimes go, it’s not the worst, and I hadn’t actually read anything by either of them – but now I’m sure that Pritchett is going to be my favourite V.S.  Sorry, Italian astronomer V.S. Casulli.  Tough break.

Like all the Slightly Foxed Editions (of which this is no.3), A Cab at the Door is a memoir – stretching further than some, in that it takes us beyond childhood, up until the time Pritchett breaks away from his parents and leaves home for France.  Like most memoirists, Pritchett seems to have been blessed with more amusing, regional relatives than the average person (c’mon, my relatives, be more comical) but although we have entertaining visits to these, the dominant character in this memoir is Pritchett’s father.  And I choose the word dominant deliberately.  Whatever other merits the book has, I think its greatest achievement is a rich and complex portrait of the sort of man who would simply appear as an ogre in fiction.

Father (if his name is mentioned, I have forgotten it – as I invariably forget names) is selfish, arrogant, and angry.  His cruelty is that peculiar brand which stems from monumental self-delusion – he drives his family deeply into debt, but appears to believe it is none of his doing.  He has constant ambition to better himself and his standing in society (and even achieves it to a degree, eventually, becoming a Managing Director) but doesn’t care how his failures along the way ruin and sadden his wife and children.  His wife – a lively and somewhat crude woman – is all but forbidden from entertaining, and is constantly carted from pillar to post, as they move to escape his debts.  The eponymous cab at the door is Pritchett’s familiar childhood sight, waiting to take them to their next home.

But because this is non-fiction, Father is not the caricatured evil man, nor his wife the stereotypical woman whose character is squashed out of her.  Instead, despite his unkindness to his younger son, and his unpredictable behaviour towards Victor himself, there is still love in him.  His wife still has moments of shrieking with laughter; Victor can still bond with his father over literature, occasionally, even if his own early attempts at writing are loudly derided.  And what novelist would have the masterstroke of making Father become a fierce proponent of Christian Science?  It is a truly exceptional portrait of a complicated man – and a portrait which is never finished to the artist’s satisfaction, simply because he could not be comprehended.  Pritchett writes this brilliant paragraph towards the end:

Right up to the day of his death in his eighties, none of us children could settle our view of him.  It was simple to call him the late Victorian dominant male without whose orders no one could think or move.  It was only partly true that he was a romantic procrastinator, egotist and dreamer, for he was a very calculating man.  Sometimes we saw him as the unchanged country boy, given to local shrewdness and gossip.  (He loved the malicious gossip of his church and his trade.)  Sometimes we saw him as a pocket Napoleon, but he never even tried to obtain the wealth or power he often talked about.  His mind was more critical than creative and he was appalled by criticism of himself.  He would go pale, hold up his hand and say, “You must not criticise me.”  He sincerely meant he was beyond criticism and felt in himself a sort of sacredness.
A Cab at the Door doesn’t have the warmth and delight of other Slightly Foxed books – it doesn’t intend to – and so, while Pritchett cannot compete with Dodie Smith and Rosemary Sutcliff for my affections, his task is different and executed incredibly well.

There are, of course, other angles and facets to this memoir, but I thought it worth identifying and discussing the one which set it apart from others that I have read.  Perhaps not one to curl up with in front of the festive log fire (for that, get Look Back With Love or Blue Remembered Hills, I cannot encourage you enough) but certainly an impressive portrait of a frustrating man, exactly the right ratio of objective and personal, an exemplary achievement.

The Joke – Milan Kundera

Last month I (coincidentally) read a spate of successful authors’ first books – Agatha Christie’s, Katherine Mansfield’s, A.A. Milne’s – which is always an interesting exercise, and the fourth ‘first book’ I read was The Joke (1967) by Milan Kundera, given to me by my friend Lucy.  It could have worked for Reading Presently next year, but it also covered a tricky 1960s gap in A Century of Books.  Usually, with translated books, I am keen to mention the translator – but a fascinating Author’s Note at the end of The Joke explains that this fifth translation of the novel (from Czech) is really a combination of translations by David Hamblyn, Oliver Stallybrass, Michael Heim, and Kundera himself.  In case you still think Kundera might be a bit of a slacker, he is also responsible for the cover art.

The Joke is broadly about the way in which someone can (or cannot) be an individual within the Communist regime of 1950s Czechoslovakia, and the impact one decision can make on the rest of a person’s life.  Although possibly not the only ‘joke’ in the novel (the Wikipedia entry manfully identifies three), the pivotal moment of the novel comes early on.  Ludvik is a university professor and member of the Communist party – his somewhat humourless female friend is away on a training course, and they are corresponding…

From the training course (it took place at one of the castles of central Bohemia) she sent me a letter that was pure Marketa: full of earnest enthusiasm for everything around her; she liked everything: the early-morning calisthenics, the talks, the discussions, even the songs they sang; she praised the “healthy atmosphere” that reigned there; and diligently she added a few words to the effect that the revolution in the West would not be long in coming.
As far as that goes, I quite agreed with what she said; I too believed in the imminence of a revolution in Western Europe; there was only one thing I could not accept: that she should be so happy when I was missing her so much. So I bought a postcard and (to hurt, shock, and confuse her) wrote: Optimism is the opium of the people!  A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity!  Long live Trotsky!  Ludvik.
It turns out the Communist party don’t appreciate a giggle, and Ludvik is ousted from his job, exiled from the party, and sent off to do two years at a military camp.  Whilst there he meets, and falls in love with, a mysterious woman named Lucie.  At the end of the novel, various different strands (including a few that I haven’t addressed – like Kostka whose Christian faith is taking him away from Communism) coalesce and overlap at an old-fashioned parade, and the multiple viewpoints Kundera has used for different sections all come together and collide, taking short chapters each without indicating whose voice is speaking.

Although Kundera rather overloads The Joke with different perspectives and competing storylines, it is only really Ludvik’s story which stands out; the rest feels like it is stuck on to the sides of his engaging point of view and intriguing experiences.  His reflections upon political doctrine, personal affections, and the curious unpredictability of cause-and-effect are all compelling – let’s face it, any novel which can get me even mildly interested in politics has achieved more than the public press has in the past 27 years.

But, although you can see the seeds of his later experimentalism, The Joke is a much more straightforward novel than the one which made me a fan, Immortality.  That is hardly surprising for a first novel, and this has that curious combination of putting-too-much-in with a lack of novelistic ambition.  If I hadn’t read a couple of his later novels, I wouldn’t have noticed the deficit – this is still a very good novel, and probably more to the taste of a lot of people than his postmodern work – but I have, so I do.  I was intrigued by one or two hints of his future work, including this (from a man trying to spot his disguised son in the parade):

My son.  The person nearest to me.  I stand in front of him, and I don’t even know whether it is he or not.  What, then, do I know if I don’t know even that?  Of what am I sure in this world if I don’t have even that certainty?
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the catalyst for Identity. I think if I’d read The Joke first, I’d have been impressed but probably not actively sought out more Kundera.  As it is, I really appreciated being able to see where he started as a novelist – and how he progressed from there.

Are there any authors whose first novels, read after later ones, have really surprised you?

A few little reviews…

It has come to my notice that it is December, and there are only 27 days left this year.  I have almost 20 reviews to write for A Century of Books… oops, didn’t work this out very well, did I?  (Well, I still have 10 books to read – but I have 4 of them on the go already.)  So I’m going to rush through five of them today – books that, for one reason or another, I didn’t want to write whole posts about.  But do still free to comment on them!

Daddy Long-Legs (1912) by Jean Webster
An orphaned girl is given a scholarship by a mysterious, anonymous man – she has only seen his back – and one of the conditions is that she must write updates to him, without getting any replies.  She nicknames him Daddy Long-Legs.  Can you guess what happens?  Well, I shan’t give away the ending.  I was mostly surprised at how modern this children’s book felt, despite being a hundred years old – a lot of it would have been at home in a Jacqueline Wilson story.  I enjoyed it, but did find it a little creepy, and rather repetitive, but these are probably signs of not having read it when I was the target age.

Metamorphosis (1915) by Franz Kafka
Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to discover that he is an enormous bug.  Which is going to make his job as a salesman somewhat difficult.  The reason I’m not giving this novella/short story its own review is that I don’t feel I have anything new to say about it.  Kafka is famed for his matter-of-fact approach to the surreality in this story, and rightly so.  What surprised me here was how middlebrow it all felt.  It is definitely comparable to David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox – which actually seems to have greater pretensions to literariness.

Married Love (1918) by Marie Stopes
Another one which surprised me – I’d always heard that Marie Stopes started a sexual revolution in the UK, offering knowledge about sex to the everywoman for the first time.  Turns out she is much more conservative, and less revelatory, than a lot of the other guides written around the same time, and earlier.  I read these guides for my current DPhil chapter, by the way – my favourite so far being the person who argued that sexual intercourse and reproduction were acceptable as separate impulses, because protozoa separated them.  Sure, why not?  (I wonder if I’ve just made all sorts of inappropriate search terms for this blog now…)

Miss Hargreaves: the play (1952) by Frank Hargreaves
This is something of a cheat, since it was never published – but it was performed, with Margaret Rutherford in the lead role.  Tanya tipped me off that copies of all performed plays were in the Lord Chamberlain’s archives in the British Library – so I had the great privilege and pleasure of reading the play, with Baker’s own penned changes.  It’s pretty similar to the novel, only with the action restricted to a few settings.  Such fun!

V. Sackville West (1973) by Michael Stevens
I’m a sucker for a short biography, and I hadn’t read one of VSW before, so I gave this one a whirl.  It’s a critical biography, so Stevens discusses and analyses the work while giving an outline of VSW’s life.  About halfway through I thought, “this feels way too much like a doctoral dissertation.”  Turns out it was a doctoral dissertation.  I think I’ll be turning to a more charismatic writer for my next biography of Vita, as this one was rather prosaic and charmless, although very thoroughly researched.

Right, well that’s five down!  How are the other Century of Bookers getting on?

Elders and Betters – Ivy Compton-Burnett

“Dear, dear, what clever talk it all is!”
“It sounds so,” said Jenney, on a puzzled note.  “And yet it is all about nothing, isn’t it?”
It’s canny of Ivy Compton-Burnett to incorporate into Elders and Betters (1944) the main criticism aimed at her novels – it shows a self-awareness, but somehow also deflates the common argument (from those who have read her unadmiringly) that her work is all surface and no depth.  I’m going to do my best to defend her, but… I do have to concede that a lot of what I love about Ivy Compton-Burnett’s exceptional writing is the surface wit.  A lot, but not all.  

Elders and Betters starts off on moving day for the Donne family.  Anna has chosen a house for them, and the various members of the family are moving in, in dribs and drabs.  Since we started off with only three, I thought that Ivy Compton-Burnett had been uncharacteristically frugal with her cast – but more and more arrived, and then we were introduced to a second family.  I’ll save you some time, and rattle through them.  Skip the next paragraph if you want to – it’s deathly dull, but needs must.  Here goes.

Father: Benjamin, children: Bernard, Esmond, Anna, Reuben (ages about 30 to 13, in that order). Benjamin’s cousin Clara Bell ‘known as Claribel to the family, and to as many people outside it as she could contrive’; housekeeper Maria Jennings (Jenney to all), Cook (nobody seems to know her name) and Ethel, the maid.  Benjamin’s sister Jessica lives nearby, along with her husband Thomas, adult children Terence and Tullia, and young children Dora and Julius. Benjamin’s other sister, Sukey, also lives there – and is dying of a vague heart condition, without any apparent time-limit on its fatal nature.  Finishing things off are Miss Lacy (the young children’s teacher) and her niece Florence.

Phew!  At one point I did sketch out a family tree, but they actually all have quite distinct personalities and affinities, and it wasn’t too tricky to keep them all sorted in my mind.  Back to the plot.  As I say, we start with visiting a new house – the sort of scene I always warm too, especially when one character is trying to convince others that it’s a great choice, and they remain firmly unconvinced.

“The drawing-room and dining-room are what we should expect,” said Anna, throwing open the doors.  “The kitchens are below them.  The staircase leads to those above.”

“A natural use for a staircase,” murmured Claribel to Jenney, as she set foot upon it.  “I am glad we are to be allowed to put it to its purpose.”
Oh, how I adore the witty pedantry which informs so much of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s writing.  And the backtracks and change of tempo brought about by her authorial asides.  How can you not adore a writer who constructs so perfect a sentence as this? :

Ethel tried not to smile and entirely succeeded.
Round and round the conversations go, seemingly to lead nowhere, but actually forming brilliant portraits of family dynamics, and exposing the barbs and bitternesses behind people’s facades – as well their occasional generosity or kindness.  For her characters so rarely have facades – they say what they think, or (more often) contradict what others think.  There is one utterly wonderful scene where nothing more complex happens than someone notices there are thirteen sitting down to dinner – and they deliberate who shall sit down first (or last; they cannot recall the superstition correctly.)  It is a scene which should be anthologised time and again.

But Elders and Betters is not a novel where nothing happens.  Ivy Compton-Burnett was always keen to stress that novels must have plots, and hated those which seemed not to.  In Elders and Betters, the pivotal point could be borrowed from any detective novelist, even if the treatment could not.  Aunt Sukey has written two wills – one inheriting her sister Jessica, one her niece Anna. She asks Anna to destroy the will which would benefit her; Anna destroys the other.  Sukey, of course, dies shortly afterwards of her heart condition.  And this propels the happenings, and (more importantly) the conversations, for the rest of the novel.

Recently, on my very positive review of Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris, Rachel commented “I’m sure you’ll entice some more people to read Bowen – she’s streets ahead of ICB!!!”  Those exclamation marks show me that she was teasing, but I do have to say – I still think Ivy Compton-Burnett is a better and more important writer than Elizabeth Bowen.  These author-vs.-author battles are probably rather silly, and will end up going in circles, but the reason I think ICB is more important is that Elizabeth Bowen does, very well, what a lot of other authors try to do; Ivy Compton-Burnett does brilliantly what nobody has really tried to imitate.

“It is a modest but pleasant house,” said Reuben’s voice, “and a home is where a family is gathered together.”

“That is what makes family problems,” said Bernard.

“We have none of those,” said Benjamin, in a tone that defied contradiction.

“None,” muttered Esmond. “Problems imply a solution.”

“Jenney is proud of me for being able to talk like other people, though I cannot walk like them,” said Reuben, rightly interpreting the expression on Jenney’s face.
It is not true that Ivy Compton-Burnett’s narrative voice is absent – although her novels are mostly dialogue, she very often gives speech this sting in the tail, offering a flash of insight into a character’s mind, and darting away again just as quickly.  Hopefully I have given some examples of what makes her so special, so different, so important a novelist.

But, while musing about Ivy Compton-Burnett on the bus (for such is my glamorous life), I wondered why I believed her to be such a significant author, considering she seemed to inspire no one and take inspiration from no one.  There appears to be no distinct literary tradition that she adapted or futhered, besides the vague quantities of the domestic novel.  And then it struck me, the author she most reminded me of – which is, curiously perhaps, Shakespeare.

Characters who speak as no person would ever speak (for who ever spoke in blank verse?) but who perfectly represent how people feel and think.  Characters engaged in large-scale comedy and tragedy, but bound by the familial ties, and rarely missing the opportunity to philosophise in the midst of anguish or (more rarely) joy.  And of course, with all that dialogue, Ivy Compton-Burnett’s books are as much plays as they are novels.  The deal was sealed when, in the final act (if you will) a flurry of unexpected engagements occurred.  Perhaps with these criteria I could compare Ivy Compton-Burnett to any playwright in a Shakespearean tradition, but it seemed to me that it was William S’s particular mantle that Dame Ivy was seeking to inherit.  This only struck me towards the end – with my next venture in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels, I shall keep it in mind from the outset, and see what it brings out of the text and reading experience.  Elders and Betters, to conclude, is not my favourite of the Ivy Compton-Burnett novels I’ve read (More Women Than Men retains that crown), nor is it in the top half, but she seems incapable of writing a novel that I will not thrive upon and relish – Elders and Betters is no exception.