Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Howards End is on the Landing

This latest book by Susan Hill is provoking a lot of comment in the reading blogosphere. The gorgeousness of the cover certainly presses all the book addict's buttons, conjuring up images of cosy fireside reading immersed in long Victorian novels bound in gold-tooled leather. (Just one question though, who is BRRON on the back cover? Byron's long-lost Welsh love-child?)

I love books about books. I have shelves of them - well I would have a shelf of them if I had the space to devote one shelf to one category of books, instead of narrow gaps on top of books in already crammed bookcases. I won't go into my property-envy regarding rambling farmhouses with Agas and views and nooks and crannies (suffice to say SH owns FOUR complete sets of Dickens' novels).

I found much to enjoy here and SH goes into lots of bibliophile topics: titles, bindings, typefaces, whether to write in books (pro), organising/ categorising books (anti), real books v. electronic readers, etc. as well as discussing her own favourite authors and books. The thorny topic of book-lending is not mentioned, interestingly, and as SH says she never writes her name in her books and scorns bookplates, does that mean she never lends any either?

There are many reminiscences about authors (and others such as Benjamin Britten) she has met or corresponded with over the years, so, as she admits, a fair amount of name-dropping crops up. I appreciated in particular her memories of Charles Causley, a poet I admire and one who has never had a very high profile. She also stands up for Enid Blyton whose books I too loved as a child and whose influence on me did not mean I grew up to be an undiscerning reader (IMHO). She is also very honest about books she hasn't read - The Great Gatsby and The Portrait of a Lady among others, which is always encouraging to the rest of us.

Tastes and opinions on books are inevitably individual and sometimes idiosyncratic and SH is no exception, though some of her pronouncements are a bit baffling. At one point she says 'With (Alice) Munro, the problem is Canada. I have a problem with Canadian as I do with Australian writers.' Exactly what this problem is is not explained or expanded upon. And I am pained by her description of the Lord Peter Wimsey-Harriet Vane love story as embarrassing. Unrealistic, maybe, but embarrassing?

A book like this is most successful when it strikes a chord with a reader and sends them off to seek out/reread books the author recommends. And after HEIOTL, I am actively looking out for Kilvert's diary and longing to reread The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald and The Rector's Daughter by F.M.Mayor. To my amazement, I searched the 'inherited' shelves of my Walter Scott-loving grandfather-in-law and found Sir Walter Scott's Journal - one of SH's strongest recommendations. (The full set of novels are in a box under a bed somewhere waiting for Doomsday, I think, as a Scott-loving reader may take longer to find.) 'Never mind the novels,' says SH, 'read the man himself, who speaks plainly yet whose powers of description are mighty, whose great spirit, courage, uprightness, generosity and warm humour leap out of these pages.' Eagerly I set to and start reading and certainly find humour and generosity in Scott's descriptions of the cheerfulness and hospitality of the Irish. But, faced with a national financial crisis that autumn (plus ca change!), he is not so kindly when discussing other races: 'It is hard that vagabond stock-jobbing Jews should, for their own purposes, make such a shake of credit as now exists in London and menace the credit of men trading on sure funds such as H and R.' (November 1825)

Hmmm ... perhaps SH's version of the Journal has had slurs such as this edited out of it.

HEIOTL is not going to displace Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris or Alberto Manguel's A Reading Diary, my own favourite books about books and reading. While I enjoyed parts of it, some of the chapters seem a little dashed off and makeweight and I'd have preferred more about the books themselves and less about unremarkable past encounters with writers (or umming and ahing about which would make the final top forty/thirty-nine. (A contents page and an index wouldn't have gone amiss either.) In brief, this book occasionally lives up to its sumptuous cover, but only occasionally.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Etruscan Places

A long bus ride to the hospital for a blood test this morning. Fifteen or so despondent-looking people ahead of me in the deli-counter-tickets queue, so I spend twenty minutes browsing the charity second-hand bookshelves (I do already have something else to read with me - of course). The shelves appear much sparser than earlier years - is everyone selling their old books for quick cash on e-Bay in these straitened times? Lots of Edna O'Briens for some reason, but several of the more enticing titles do not pass my 'unacceptable brown stains' test and, at 50p per paperback I want something moderately decent for my money. (The school Christmas bazaar only charges 20p for paperbacks after all.) Mills & Boon romances are apparently allowed to go for just 20p each but this bargain price must have started a rush and now there are no Mills & Boons to be had. Displaying my 'Discriminating Reader Who Does Not Live in a Rambling Farmhouse Lined With Bookshelves' persona (for a change), I settle on one very slim (less than 1 cm thick) volume: a 1950 Penguin copy of Etruscan Places by D.H. Lawrence. It bears the beautiful dark red colouring of the Travel and Adventure Penguin strand - strikingly unusual after the more familiar dark green and cream (or is it discoloured white?) and orange and cream of other old Penguins. All I know about the Etruscans is that they were obsessed with death and no one knows exactly what they thought about it because their language remains undeciphered. As a result, probably not much in the way of Adventure in this volume.)

I leaf through the book and on page 29 read about B (B?) who expresses surprise at seeing the phallic stones by the doors of many tombs. 'Why, it's like the Shiva lingam at Benares!' he/she declares.

DHL notes, 'One can live one's life, and read all the books about India or Etruria, and never read a single word about the thing that impresses one in the very first five minutes, in Benares or in an Etruscan necropolis: that is, the phallic symbol. Here it is, in stone, unmistakable, and everywhere, around these tombs. Here it is, big and little, standing by the doors, or inserted, quite small, into the rock: the phallic stone!'

It's good to see Lawrence clearly resisting the self-censoring tendencies of other writers of his time in his travel writing as well as his novels, but the book opening naturally at this particular page is disconcertingly apt. Is some ghostly DHL turning the pages for me?

Lawrence goes on to say that the phallic stones look as though they are part of the rock:
'But no, B. lifts one out. It is cut, and is fitted into a socket, previously cemented in. B puts the phallic stone back into its socket, where it was placed, probably five or six hundred years before Christ was born.'
I wonder if the cement was originally used to foil phallus-stone-collecting souvenir hunters (probably a largish group).

I queue up to pay for Etruscan Places at the WRVS stall where it stands out like an unsore thumb among the coffee-drinking outpatients. On the way home, a fallen leaf on the path exactly matches the autumnal red of the cover and I pick it up and bring it home as a beautiful but rather impractical bookmark.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Abandoning Austerlitz

I have just had to abandon Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald two thirds of the way through. I feel rather pained about this, as it undermines my self-image as a serious reader of literary fiction (especially when I read the list of worthy reviewers who have rated it so highly). But I was so bored, not only was I skimming it, I was falling asleep over it (even more quickly than I already fall asleep while reading in bed anyway). I could cope with the lack of paragraphs and the stream of consciousness style, but the constant description, like an endless loop from a beautiful but uneventful film, combined with the relative lack of strong characters failed to grab me. The flattish prose (which may have lost something in the translation) did not wake me out of my torpor either and its dream-like qualities just ended with me actually dreaming.

I did get more out of Rings of Saturn, if that redeems me in any way. Part travelogue, part reminiscence, part biography/history, this book defies neat categorisation but was fascinating. It is based round a walking tour of East Anglia and includes descriptions of several places I know well combined with riveting stories of people and buildings. Austerlitz too is filled with plenty of important and sombre details about the deportation of the Jews and the Nazi concentration camps but these facts seemed undermined by the vague and dreamy narration of the shadowy not-quite-real Austerlitz himself.

(Anyway, at least Rings of Saturn's spine shows that I read it to the very end, unlike the tell-tale spine of Austerlitz.)

PS Thanks to Susan for recommending Rings of Saturn.