More Was Lost by Eleanor Perenyi

More Was LostYou know that I love an NYRB Classic, and lament how often their beautiful editions aren’t available this side of the pond – so it was lovely to get a review copy of More Was Lost by Eleanor Perenyi. It’s a poignant, warm, captivating memoir. But read the introduction last. Promise me you’ll read the introduction later.

Here’s the start of my review; read the rest over at Shiny New Books.

If you’re anything like me, you might be unfamiliar with the political dynamics of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the years leading up to the Second World War. They form the backdrop to this involving and poignant memoir that manages to combine the personal and the global in an extraordinary way: More Was Lost, published in 1946 and now clothed in the loveliness of a NYRB Classics edition.

Alfred and Guinevere by James Schuyler

There is something rather wonderful about choosing and reading a book while knowing very little about it. I knew nothing at all about James Schuyler or his 1958 novel Alfred and Guinevere when I picked it up in Hay on Wye last year – all I knew was that I loved NYRB Classics (and this one, from 2001, shows just how timeless their designs are – looking beautifully fresh 14 years later. Even though I can’t find out what the painting is). Not being a poetry buff, I didn’t realise that that was the arena in which Schuyler made his name – but I do now know that he had a knack with words that was rather extraordinary.

The eponymous Alfred and Guinevere are children who are sent to stay with their grandparents. Most of this slim novel is given in their dialogue, excerpts from Guinevere’s diary, and letters that she writes. The novella probably says their ages, but I must have flown past that section. Guinevere is the elder; Alfred is pretty unschooled in reading and writing.

Undoubtedly the greatest achievement in this novel is Schuyler’s ability to capture the cadences of children’s conversation, particularly the back-and-forth of sibling arguments, which leap from battle to truce to battle, weaving in long-standing disagreements, I-know-something-you-don’t-know novelties, and (most beautifully captured of all) snatches stolen from the conversation of adults around them, and novels the children probably shouldn’t be reading. This is a trick Schuyler uses throughout: they borrow idioms and metaphors that sound extremely out of kilter with their childish bickering, because – of course – that is exactly what children do do. Perhaps particularly those who feel adrift from the adults around them, and uncertain of the events that have occurred (more on that soon). Here’s an example from a letter Betty writes to Guinevere, her erstwhile friend:

Dear Guinevere,Thanks for the note. It is a shame boys make so much trouble and go around tattle-taling and spoiling intimate friendships. Of course your knocking me down like that made a permanent wound in my feelings which is slow to heal but it is not you at bottom I blame it is them. It was not me or Lois who told her mother or my mother what my mother told your mother she said you said. It was Stanley who told his mother and she told the other mothers. So you see how it goes.It is a shame what happens but I guess you have to take it as it comes and not spoil your life with vain regrets.More in sadness than in hate,Elizabeth Carolanne House
And there is this…

“You’re scared to walk across the bridge and look. I can tell you’re scared when you try to look like Mother.””I’ll run away and leave you in the gathering gloom at the mercy of reckless drivers and we’ll see who’s scared.””I’ll throw myself in the gutter and get sick and die, then you’ll be sorry.””No I won’t. I’ll go to your funeral and say, ‘Doesn’t he look sweet in his coffin,’ and cry, then everybody will feel sorry for me and give me things. I’ll wear a black dress with black accessories and a hat with a black veil. Black is very becoming and makes you look older. Then I’ll take your insurance money and go on a trip and meet a dark, interesting stranger.”
Lest you think that this is a cutesy book, I should say that – behind the well-observed dialogue – there is an indistinct darkness. I suppose Guinevere’s macabre callousness might already dismiss ideas of Brady Bunch levels of cuteness, but there is a much darker subtext. The children briefly discuss having found a dead body. At one very poignant moment, Guinevere blurts out “I’m sorry Daddy hit you”, but it is not explored further than that. Schuyler gives just enough shade to make clear that all is not sunny.

But, at the same time, this is a very funny book. It is the sort of humour that stems almost entirely from acute observation – and that, if coupled with a slight (slight) heightened tone, is probably the thing I find most amusing. In only 126 pages, Schuyler combines humour and darkness in a really exceptional way.

Alfred and Guinevere is deceptively quick and simple. But, oh, there is an awful lot going on – not least an authorial restraint and style that I heartily applaud. If I had to pick any other novel that it reminded me of, I would pick another NYRB beauty – Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi.

Have you read this? Do you know anything about James Schuyler? I now want to find out much more!

The Pumpkin Eater – Penelope Mortimer

Sorry to disappear suddenly – I went off to Somerset for an Easter weekend (the most dramatic moment: Sherpa getting stuck on the roof; eventually I pulled her through the bathroom window, with Our Vicar on a ladder and Our Vicar’s Wife & Colin holding a tarpaulin like a firefighters’ blanket).  Now I’m back in Oxford, and eyeing up the growing pile of books I’ve got waiting to review for you.  First up – one of those pesky Penelopes.

I had intended to read Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, as part of my vague project to read more of my unread Persephones, but it clashed with another title on my Century of Books – so instead I picked up The Pumpkin Eater (1962) in this beautiful NYRB Classics edition.  But, oh, aren’t they always beautiful?

I thought the image on the front was simply abstract, until I realised that it was a pram full of faces – Downhill in a Pram by Susan Bower, to be precise.  And that is apt for the recurring theme of The Pumpkin Eater (and possibly my favourite thing about the book) – the number of children the unnamed narrator has.  Cleverly, Mortimer gives us a heroine who has a lot of children – but by never specifying quite how many, we get the impression that they are numbered in their dozens.  People are always shocked by how many there are; her various husbands (she’s not short of them, but at least the number is given: four) baulk at them, and only one name is vouchsafed to us: Dinah.

The novel starts with the narrator in a therapy session.  These recur throughout the novel, and are very amusing (in a dark way), mostly because of the lack of progress that is made in them.  The therapist follows the narrator around in circles, expecting her to feel something about her husbands and children – but she is steadfastly stony-faced.

“And then?” he asked coldly.

“Then?  Well, then I married the Major, but since he was going overseas we went back to live with my parents.  I had Dinah there.  Of course he was dead by then.”

“And did that upset you?”

“Yes.  Yes, I suppose it did.  Naturally.  It must have done.”

He slumped in his chair.  He seemed tired out.  I said, “Look, need we go on with this?  I find it tremendously boring, and it’s not what I’m thinking about at all.  I just don’t think about those husbands except…”

“Except when?”

“I never think about them.”
She has something of a Barbara Comyns heroine about her – that undaunted matter-of-factness – but Mortimer does reveal some of her emotional fragility as the novel progresses, and Jake the current husband is knocked from whatever pedestal her might have briefly mounted.  “One’s past grows to a point where it is longer than one’s future, and then it can become too great a burden,” as she says in the narrative, towards the end.

And then there is the enormous glass tower Jack is building for them in the middle of the countryside.  It’s a curious part of the novel, and I don’t know how we are supposed to interpret it – as Freud would? As Ibsen would in The Master Builder? Or is a tower sometimes just a tower?

But, as with many of my favourite novels, the important feature is voice.  Mortimer does this brilliantly.  We are immersed in the worldview and experience of the unnamed narrator, even without for a moment believing that she could plausibly exist in the way she is presented.  Her upsets and anxieties are certainly real, but the character is more than that – the centrepiece of a black comedy with only a toe in reality.  And, designed that way, it is a glorious novel.

Skylark

43. Skylark – Dezső Kosztolányi

I’ve been reading some pretty brilliant books recently, and not finding time to write about them, so prepare yourselves for some enthusiastic reviews coming up soon.  And let’s start the ball rolling with Skylark (1924) by Hungarian novelist Dezső Kosztolányi, translated into English by Richard Aczel, and a heartfelt köszönöm to him for doing so.  It’s gone on my list of 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.

Skylark came to my attention when Claire/Captive Reader put it in her Top Ten Books of 2011.  I added it to my Amazon wishlist, and waited… it felt, for some reason, like the sort of book which should really come as a gift.  Lucky for me, Our Vicar and Our Vicar’s Wife spotted it there, and it arrived in my Christmas stocking last year.  So, consider this a tick on the list for my Reading Presently project (where I’m intending to read, in 2013, 50 books which were gifts.)

Before I get on to the wonderful writing and moving story in Skylark, I have to talk about the book itself.  If I’m ever asked why I don’t want a Kindle, my one word reply will now be: “Skylark“.  This NYRB edition is quite stunningly beautiful – not just the lovely colours and image on the front, and that turquoise/mint green I love so much on the spine, but the feel, the flip-flop of the pages, the perfect flexibility-to-sturdiness of the cover… the physical book is a work of art here, and I am so pleased that the content matched up.

The novel starts as a not-quite-young-any-more woman called Skylark leaves her provincial town for a week, to stay with relatives.  Actually, it starts while her parents are packing for her departure:

The dining-room sofa was strewn with strands of red, white and green cord, clippings of packing twine, shreds of wrapping paper and the scattered, crumpled pages of the local daily, the same fat letters at the top of each page: Sárszeg Gazette, 1899. 
The stage is set for the importance of the home – and the way that it is subverted and disturbed by Skylark’s departure.

One might expect (I did expect) that a novel which starts with a character getting ready to leave her home will follow that character on her travels.  Particularly so in a novel whose title bears the name of that character.  What Kosztolányi does so cleverly is, instead, focus on the effects of her absence, leaving the reader to bear witness to the unsettled lives of Skylark’s father (Ákos) and mother (known simply as Mother or ‘the woman’ throughout.)

They have a very obviously unhealthy dependency upon their daughter – but, at the same time, long more than anything for her to marry.  A man who has been polite enough to smile at her is built up into a potential – and then a definite – suitor; when he fails to follow up on this non-existent intimation, he becomes a figure for bitter hatred, much to his confusion.  Mother and Father can barely cope with Skylark leaving town for a week, let alone forever, but this is still their aim in life, even while they realise that it is almost impossible.

And why?  Because Skylark is ugly.  Extremely ugly.  Not horrendously disfigured or anything, simply deeply unattractive.  From what we see of her before she leaves, and hear about her, Skylark also seems domestically very capable (if unambitious), unimaginatively kind, practical, and pretty dull.  But her parents, of course, love her dearly.

This narrative is so clever and subtly written.  It is a mixture of quite pathetic inability to manage in their daughter’s absence, with a glimpse of what life would be like without her.  They eat interesting foods at restaurants and talk to their neighbours; Ákos gets drunk at a local club (which resembles the Freemasons in some fashion), and this leads to the most moving, vital, and brilliant scene of the novel – where all the couple’s unspoken fears and thoughts come tumbling out.  Kosztolányi gives the viewpoint of both husband and wife, so we see the scene through two sets of eyes simultaneously.  It is heartbreaking and extraordinary, but it is not the sort of confrontation that ‘changes things forever’.  Things cannot really ever, we sense, be changed.

They had given her that name years ago, Skylark, many, many years ago, when she still sang.  Somehow the name had stuck, and she still wore it like an outgrown childhood dress.
That passage is from early in the novel, and I marked it as being the one which suggested to me that I’d be onto something special.  It was also the first sign of something I thought throughout Skylark, which was that Kosztolányi’s writing reminded me of Katherine Mansfield’s – which is about the highest compliment I can pay to writing.  He has the same delicate touch, and the same way of showing ordinary people stepping outside of their normal routines, even slightly, and finding that everything is changed thereby, however unnoticeable this is to others.  The subtlest shift in the way acts are performed – the way Skylark holds a birdcage; the seasoning Ákos puts on his risotto – are shown by Kosztolányi to hold enormous significance.

Like a short story by Katherine Mansfield, I imagine Skylark would benefit from being read in one sitting.  At 221 pages, it could be done.  I, sadly, seemed to read almost all of it on bus journeys to and from work, and thus the reading experience was too broken up.  I will have to read it again when I have an entire afternoon to spare.

The only part of this edition I didn’t much like was the introduction by Péter Esterházy, since it barely spoke of the novel at all.  Apparently he is one of the most significant contemporary Hungarian writers, but I wish he’d written this introduction more as a fan of Skylark, and less as a fan of his own thoughts.

I’ve been thinking about the style I aim at on Stuck-in-a-Book, and how I want my posts to be a bit amusing – but it’s very hard to be funny when I have nothing but praise for a novel.  So instead, I’ll finish by saying that I went to a 1970s murder mystery party on Saturday (the one I mentioned I was writing), and somebody said that I looked like a fraudulent spiritualist from an Agatha Christie novel – must have been the floral bandana that did it.  With that image in your mind… go and buy a copy of Skylark; make it this beautiful NYRB Classics edition.

The Outward Room – Millen Brand

photo source

A long, long time ago (I can still remember) I was sent Millen Brand’s The Outward Room (1937) to review – in fact, I had asked for it – and it has taken me absurdly long to read it, and a couple months longer to get around to reviewing it.  But it is really very good indeed, and worth the wait.

The reason I asked for this NYRB edition was (apart from the fact that all NYRB editions are beautiful and belong on my bookshelf) that I remembered The Outward Room being mentioned once in a Persephone Quarterly – and it fixed in my mind.

The Outward Room starts with Harriet Demuth’s life in some sort of mental hospital, having suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of a family tragedy.  Estranged from her parents and frustrated by her doctor’s blinkered obsession with Freudian analysis, Harriet’s life has been sucked dry of anything but routine and confusion.  Her ability to articulate her personality and self have been stifled by illness and by the unsympathetic institution which came as a consequence to it.  Brand writes this section very well, but it is necessarily claustrophobic and begins to stifle the reader.

But Harriet escapes.

She makes her way to New York, pawns her brother’s ring, and lives hand-to-mouth for some time.  The Great Depression has given the city a desperate air, and she struggles to find the means of supporting herself – her first ‘job interview’ is for a single day’s work, and consists of standing in a long row with many other women, and not being pointed at.  There are some poignant scenes where Harriet first rents, and then must leave, a tiny apartment.

After about 100 pages, Harriet is sitting in a late-night cafe, unable to afford a cup of coffee, when a stranger approaches and offers to buy her the drink.  John (for this is his name) invites her back to his house for food and shelter and – desperate, and a little naive perhaps – she goes.  At this point I expected awful things to happen to her, or for John’s apparent kindness to (at least) be revealed as covering ulterior motives.  What I wasn’t prepared for was a gentle, gradual, and quite beautiful love story.  Through simple, ordinary scenes of everyday life and undramatic conversations, Harriet and John fall in love and become necessary to one another.  We see some of Harriet at work, and the friend she makes Anna; we see a neighbour or two – but the beauty of The Outward Room is the quiet unfolding of a believable, unassuming relationship.

I don’t normally just give all the plot in a series of paragraphs like that – I usually try to break it up with some of my thoughts about the author’s approach, etc. – but it seemed important to lay out the  structure of The Outward Room and the direction the novel takes before addressing the issue of style.  They are so interrelated.  At the beginning, Brand opts for quite a lot of the disjointed and fragmentary prose that is often used to represent mental disharmony or any kind of mental illness.  Personally, I find it very easy to overuse this style.  Stream of consciousness has of course often been used to portray thoughts, especially of a disturbed mind – but I think it has to be done exceptionally well (we’re talking Woolf-standards well) to work, otherwise it can simply seem sloppy.  These were the sections of The Outward Room which I found least convincing.

However, when Brand didn’t concentrate this effect into single chapters, he used a more successful variant on it – by simply omitting verbs and pronouns.  It’s a bold way to start a paragraph, giving a sense of both immediacy and uncertainty, and it think it works well within a sparser descriptive mode:

Dark, the smell of stairs.  She began to notice the stairs as she had not the day before.  She leaned and looked down the dark stairwell.  These stairs were not solid; their treads sagged, the staircase was pegged to the walls with iron rods at each landing.  The house was old.  She went down and when she came into the light of the lower open house door, she looked around her.  She saw only a bare hallway; on one side was a large metal barrel with a warped cover, on the other a table on which were several letters – evidently this was where mail was left for those in the house.  Except for this, the hall was vacant; scribbled on the plaster were a few names – “DIDOMENICO 2nd” “LICORA” —
Brand moves between this fairly straightforward narrative and a fluid, more consciously beautiful prose.  And that is the result (and the cause) of the relationship between John and Harriet.  Which comes first?  I don’t know – the gentle unfolding of their love is both mirrored and created by the gentle unfolding of touching imagery and emotional explorations.  This paragraph was picked more or less at random, but hopefully it gives you a sense of what I mean:

Breathing the air deeply, she looked down at the courtyard.  Hardly changed, a little dirtier from melted snow, the tinge of winter.  Frost had made new cracks in the cement, in the so-called paving.  Yet the evidences of winter were small only to be seen, like the signs of spring, by the heart that feels small changes.  The room too had its changes from winter, but because of her need of its permanence they too were small, only what had been absolutely necessary.

It is incredibly difficult to write about this sort of novel, because it is of the variety which can only be appreciated once one is reading them.  Perhaps that is true of any book, but it seems especially so of The Outward Room.  And that being said, it is especially impressive that Peter Cameron writes such a good afterword in the NYRB edition.  Good afterwords and introductions are hard to find, aren’t they?  One thing Cameron writes will strike home with many of us:

It’s somewhat frightening to learn that good books – even books heralded in their time – can disappear so quickly and completely.  We like to think that things of enduring quality and worth are separated from the dross and permanently enshrined, but we know that this is not true.  Beautiful things are more likely to disappear than to endure.  The Outward Room is such a beautiful thing.  
None of us are surprised when we find that wonderful, beautiful books have fallen by the wayside – we all know too many examples.  Despite having an initial print run of 140,000 copies (wow!), The Outward Room has fallen victim to this disappearing act – its peculiar qualities are those which can so easily be overlooked.  Thank you NYRB for bringing it back – the novel definitely deserves it, and I hope you give it a chance too.

Summer Will Show – Sylvia Townsend Warner

Yes, the excerpt yesterday was from Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1936 novel Summer Will Show.  STW has had quite a few mentions at Stuck-in-a-Book this year, since I’ve been researching a chapter of my thesis on her novel Lolly Willowes, and I read Summer Will Show for the same reason.  Well, it’s very different.  Warner is renowned, in fact, for the disparity of her topics – which include a missionary on a desert island, a medieval convent, a woman becoming a witch, and, in this instance, the French Revolution.  The only tie between her novels is her striking prose and observational eye.

Our heroine is Sophia Willoughby, who begins Summer Will Show as a rich, aristocratic wife and mother in 1840s Dorset.  Her marriage is not an especially companionable one, but she doesn’t seem particularly upset about it.  Indeed, it seems to be par for the course.  Warner expertly encapsulates the change in temperament between an engaged woman and a married woman of the period:

Sophia might refuse her food, pine, burst into unexpected tears, copy poetry into albums and keep pet doves, while her marriage was being arranged and her trousseau ordered; but once married it was understood that she would put away these extravagancies and settle down into the realities of life once more.
Sophia seems rather unfeeling at the outset – strict, rather than motherly, and without any noticeably emotional attachments.  Warner often summarises people’s essential characters through seemingly incidental – and here is Sophia’s sentence: ‘She disliked sitting down in the middle of a walk, she disliked any kind of dawdling.  A slow and rigid thinker, to sit still and contemplate was an anguish to her.’

She is contented, if anything, when her husband absconds to Paris – but even her delight in the freedom afforded by her unassailable singleness is tainted when she learns about her husband’s Parisian mistress, Minna Lemuel:

For even to Dorset the name of Minna Lemuel had made its way.  Had the husband of Mrs. Willoughby chosen with no other end than to be scandalous, he could not have chosen better.  A byword, half actress, half strumpet; a Jewess; a nonsensical creature bedizened with airs of prophecy, who trailed across Europe with a tag-rag of poets, revolutionaries, musicians and circus-riders snuffing at her heels, like an escaped bitch with a procession of mongrels after her; and ugly; and old; as old as Frederick or older – this was the woman who Frederick had elected to fall in love with, joining in the tag-rag procession, and not even king in that outrageous court, not even able to dismiss the mongrels, and take the creature into keeping.

Ouch.  But doesn’t Warner arrange an image well?

Something tragic happens, which sets Sophia off to find her husband – even with the obstacle of Minna.  She arrives in Paris, and first encounters Minna while the latter is telling a story about her past to an assembled group of eager listeners.  The difficulty about having a great raconteur as a character is that the novelist must be one themselves (it’s one of the things which makes Angela Young’s accounts of storytellers so wonderful in Speaking of Love, incidentally) – Warner is pretty impressive, but her strength lies in unusual metaphors and striking images (which only occasionally go too far and become too self-conscious), rather than compelling anecdotes, per se.  Here’s another of those curious little verbal pictures I love so much:

And with dusters tied on her feet she [Minna] made another glide across the polished floor, moving with the rounded nonchalant swoop of some heavy water bird.  Her sleeves were rolled up, she wore a large check apron, she had all the majestic convincingness of a gifted tragedy actress playing the part of a servant – a part which would flare into splendour in the last act.
Indeed, Minna’s personality is captured most effectively when we are told that ‘she was always pitching herself to an imaginary gallery’.  Her dramatic nature captures Sophia’s interest, and the burning resentment with which she arrives turns into affection, and then devotion…  The excerpt I posted yesterday comes into play here.

I enjoyed the first half of Summer Will Show.  Warner’s prose is certainly dense here, not to be read speedily, but the dignity and spark of Sophia still came through strongly.  Her concerns about reputation in a judgemental aristocratic world were interesting and subtle; her relationship and re-encounter with her husband were vibrant and never slipped into the sort of unrealistic emotionalism seen in a lot of novels from the 1930s.  But… the second half dragged and dragged.

First edition (can be bought here)

Perhaps my main problem was that I’m not especially interested in the French Revolution – and I’m certainly not coming from the impassioned left-wing perspective with which Warner wrote this novel (although she later grew rather less zealous in later life.)  Understandably a lot of the action of revolutionary France takes centre stage later in the novel, and as the narrative wandered a little away from relationships, hurt, and pride – themes Warner explores rather masterfully – I lost interest.  And yet even in the first part of the novel, I admired more than I loved.  It was enjoyable, but I couldn’t respond with the fervour with which I greeted Lolly Willowes.  The writing was so thick, so relentlessly beautiful, even, that I felt exhausted reading it.  That can hardly be labelled a criticism of Warner, but it prevented me loving the novel deeply.

I have heard Summer Will Show praised to the heights, and thus part of me thinks a re-read in a decade or so would be a good idea.  I don’t thrill to the thought.  Harriet Devine has also recently struggled to love this novel, so at least I’m not aloe in my assessment.  For those more interested in historical fiction than I am (and it would hard to be less) maybe you’d get more from this than I did.  For the reader new to Warner, I would certainly suggest Lolly Willowes as the first novel – but I have grown increasingly to think that her greatest triumph is her letters.  I’ve heard people say the same thing of Virginia Woolf, about her letters and diaries, and thought the assessment rather silly – but, for Warner, the chief qualities of her fiction-writing (adeptness at unusual imagery; an eye for original perspectives) appear in her correspondences, without the flaws which creep into her novels.  The Element of Lavishness is still the best thing I’ve read by Warner, and Summer Will Show didn’t come close to challenging the throne.