Wednesday, 25 November 2009

A funny thing happened on the way to the book group...

My mother has just told me a funny incident about her book group. For some reason the library facilitator (or whatever she's called) hadn't managed to get enough books for the whole group and instead had 10 copies of Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller and only two of Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene. Because there were more than 10 groups members, last month she gave out both titles. On the day of the discussion, two group members shared a lift to the venue and discussed the 'book' at length on the way. They didn't actually realise they'd been reading completely different books until they got to the village hall.

It reminds me of that scene in The Third Man when Rollo Martins has been invited by a cultural attache to give a talk about his books in Berlin just after the war. Unfortunately Martins is the author of popular westerns with the pen name Buck Dexter (an author in the style of Zane Grey) but the audience of 'his' admirers is under the impression that he's actually Benjamin Dexter the author of highbrow literary fiction, entitled, for example, The Curved Prow. Martins and the readers talk at cross purposes for quite some time.

'Don't you agree, Mr Dexter, that no one, no one has written about feelings so poetically as Virginia Woolf? In prose, I mean.'

Crabbin (the cultural attache) whispered, ' You might say something about the stream of consciousness.'

'Stream of what?'

This incident is quoted in How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard which is very funny in a rather dry, intellectual French way about ... well, just what it says in the title. (And which is also much better than the pale imitation Who's Afraid of Jane Austen or How to Really Talk about Books you haven't read by Henry Hitchings.)

Has anyone had a similar book group mix-up?

In a head-to-head contest of the two book group titles, I think Travels with My Aunt would be my winner. I think I'd give quite a lot not to have to read Notes on a Scandal again. (Like Nick Hornby, I found I the constant wrongfooting about contemporary Britain jarring.)

Monday, 23 November 2009

Hospice Haul

An unexpected visit to the hospice bookshop this weekend and a modest but decent haul to reinforce my green credentials, i.e. recycling old books. I won't say which hospice bookshop as one of the assistants (and no it wasn't a woman) wouldn't stop talking all the time we were there in a very carrying voice about utter trivia, until I was reduced to muttering Oh, do be quiet, under my breath and contemplating ssshhing loudly like an officious librarian. Even The Good Companion, normally the most patient of people, was annoyed by it.
Anyway, back to the books: two poetry books, The Nation's Favourite Poems of Childhood and A Book of Modern Verse (1942) with a lovely butter-yellow cover with a sun(?) motif on it (for a mere 50p), which, among the usual suspects, includes some more unusual poets in it (Rosenberg, Sorley, Monro?), though only two women, Laura Riding and the amazing H.D. Looking at the list of other titles in the series, I realise I may have another and trawling the shelves find The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, though the cover is not as cheery as the Modern Verse one.

And (yet more verse) an old green-and-white Penguin of The Song of Roland (£1) with, oddly, the former owner's name, E Davies, written at the top of the front cover (maybe he/she had had trouble with losing books). I probably won't be rushing to read this any time soon, but it looks so nice and has a copy of a roundel from Chartres cathedral showing Roland blowing the Olifant (?) and trampling 'dismembered Saracens' on the cover. God's hand is sticking down from heaven to accept Roland's 'token'.

Finally, a selection of Kilvert's Diary (£1.50) for which I have Susan Hill's warm recommendation in the celebrated Howard's End is on the Landing to thank. (I also considered an old hardback Enid Blyton, rather tatty and jacketless - one of the more expensive items at an outrageous £5 - presumably because these are now once again Fashionable, but decided against.)

I also borrowed more from my mother's shelves; The Hill of Devi, E.M. Forster's letters home from India (which links in to my reading of Virginia Woolf's diaries who mentions 'Morgan's' trip to/return from India') and to satisfy my diary longings: Nella Last's War diaries (as brought to the TV by Victoria Wood) and her post-war diaries.
And, absolutely finally, as I keep recommending it, I reborrowed The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield to dip into. Having recently been to a similar parents' social evening/PTA recruitment event, I find a chord being struck with this:

I sit with several other mothers and we talk about our boys in tones of disparagement, and about one another's boys with great enthusiasm.
Am asked what I think of Harriet Hume but am unable to say, as I have not read it. Have a depressed feeling that this is going to be another case of Orlando about which was perfectly able to talk most intelligently until I read it, and found myself unfortunately unable to understand any of it.

And so back to Virginia ...

Friday, 20 November 2009

Virginia's diaries

Here's a woman after my own heart:

15th Jan 1915

We are dining early, and going to a Hall - an unheard of dissipation - though there was a time when I went out to operas, evenings, concerts &c, at least three times a week. And I know we shall both feel, when it's over, 'really a good read would have been better.'

I love reading diaries though these are sometimes quite allusive and enigmatic and it would probably help to know more about the various members of The Bloomsbury Group.

It goes without saying that VW can really write like an angel, with clear and beautiful descriptions of complex mixed emotions as well as everyday life and scenery. I'm only halfway through (1924) but am already struck by how extremely busy and hardworking VW and her husband Leonard are: writing novels (of course), journalism, politics, reading and reviewing, printing and binding books for their own Hogarth Press, and, despite the comment above, pursuing a hectic social round of concerts, parties, visits to family and friends as well. And VW is frequently too unwell to get out of bed. Maybe she was just driving herself too hard (though of course she did have servants).

Some critics have interpreted Leonard's possibly overzealous care for his wife's health as a way of controlling her:

I could not stay at 46 Gordon Square (her sister Nessa's home) last night, because L. on the telephone expressed displeasure. Late again. Very foolish. Your heart bad - and so my self reliance being sapped, I had no courage to venture against his will.

Elsewhere, however, she says how much she loves and relies on Leonard. It's tempting to try to read between the lines and second-guess people's motivations, but how can we ever really know another person's life, even by reading their personal diaries? The thoughts and feelings expressed in diaries are inconstant, endlessly changing things, which though written, can never really be nailed down exactly. Then another day comes along, the kaleidoscope is shaken up again, the light falls from a new angle and everything seems different.
Reading a diary is almost like living a second life, sometimes feeling envious and sometimes feeling grateful for not having to live the diarist's.

Any recommendations for other good diaries when I've finished these?

Monday, 16 November 2009

Sun, summer, sex and greengages?!

After learning that Mrs B was planning to read a Rumer Godden title for the Women Unbound reading challenge, we discovered a joint love for The Greengage Summer also by RG. So we are inviting anyone who wants to to join in on a group read (or reread) of the book. Do get in touch if you would like to join in with this; we hope to post about it in January.

Rumer Godden wrote a lot of fiction, for both adults and children, and her own life reads a bit like a novel. She spent most of her childhood and a large part of her adult life in India which gave her an observer's eye for people and incident. As a young woman, she ran a dance school in India, but then had to get married when she found herself pregnant. Her first marriage failed and later she lived in Kashmir where her cook tried to poison her and her daughters by mixing ground glass, opium and marijuana with their food.

Unlike many of Godden's books, The Greengage Summer isn't set in India but in France where a family of children (unencumbered by parents) are spending the holidays in a hotel. They are merely tolerated by the staff and the hotel owner, Mademoiselle Zizi, but are then taken under the wing of Mademoiselle Zizi's charming but enigmatic English lover, Eliot, who makes the 'greengage' summer memorable in more ways than one. Simmering away against the atmospheric background of a French heatwave is the sexual tension between several of the older characters, with the narrator, Cecil (a girl) just beginning to understand about adult emotions and desires, particularly those of her older sister, Joss:

Joss and I had always been the Big Ones, as Willmouse and Vicky were the Littles, with Hester in a no-man's-land between. Joss and Cecil, it had been one word though it had meant I had sometimes to be older than I conveniently could; now I was relegated to no-man's land myself. I could see it was inevitable - thirteen is not child, not woman, not .... declared, I thought, as Joss was now - but it hurt.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The Great Western Beach

I read The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith because it has been heavily promoted and heartily recommended, especially in bookshops in Cornwall which I visit regularly, though, despite its current fame (or notoriety), I've never visited Newquay, the specific area featured in the book. This is the story of a childhood in the 1920s and 30s which though there is plenty of justification for it being a misery-memoir, is resolutely not one.
Emma Smith is a warm, engaging narrator, who brilliantly manages to convey the inner voice of a child and a child's-eye view of the adult world, trying to understand and guess at what is going on around her. Her parents are not happy and, unfortunately, her father comes across as an embittered, self-pitying bully who spouts the prejudiced received ideas about class, race and religion common to his time and who is always ready to mete out violent punishment to his children. Emma Smith traces his behaviour both to disappointment at his failure to be a successful artist and, having been 'reduced' to working as a bank clerk, an unsatisfied sense of entitlement to the life and income of a gentleman.
Against this lurking fear of her father's anger, Elspeth (her real name) relies heavily on the companionship of her elder sister Pam and her nanny/housekeeper Lucy. And as a counterweight to her oppressive home-life, always in the background are the beaches of Cornwall, especially the Great Western Beach, an ever-present playground and source of pleasure. Unlike the Cornwall I know, it hardly ever seems to rain, except, with excellent literary timing, at the end of the book, when the family are preparing to leave the town forever.

Smith has amazing recall and there are many amusing anecdotes recounting both the pleasures and the perplexing events of childhood. An aborted one-off visit by Lawrence of Arabia (an old friend of Elspeth's mother) is described from a filmic distance by a confused Elspeth. Having wandered off to play in the sea, the children watch uncomprehendingly as their father (who had been earnestly hoping to make arrangements to paint Lawrence's portrait and at last make his name as an artist) strides off in a huff from the planned beach picnic, followed shortly afterwards by Lawrence roaring off up the cliff on his motorbike (the selfsame bike on which he later suffered a fatal crash).

This is a very good read, though it could have been cut in a few places as there is a fair bit of repetition, but this can sometimes reinforce the authentic feel of a child telling the story. (Also no proofreader? Or proofreader not paid enough [more likely]? Lots of howlers, e.g. sailing in a 'dingy', learning how to 'crotchet' a woollen hat, and 'Anglesea'!)

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Deaf sentence

I love David Lodge. No, seriously, I think I love him, not just his books. I want to knit him a jumper or make him a desk tidy out of recycled mouse-mats or something. He just writes so clearly and so brilliantly, whether in a novel or in his literary criticism. And he was so blisteringly honest about his own vulnerabilities and professional vanity in The Year of Henry James (when his novel about HJ was beaten to the bookshops by another much praised novel about the famous author) that I nearly wrote him a fan letter to say that his was the better novel, at least as far as I was concerned.

So, anything by DL usually wins with me. I've just finished reading Deaf Sentence, a novel about a retiried linguistics professor, Desmond Bates, struggling with deafness, which reads very much like DL's own diary, as he was also an academic and is now also pretty deaf. It is written mostly in the form of a journal and, as well as lots of amusing incidents which arise because of Desmond's deafness, there is a lot of general musing on the condition of deafness (compared with, for example, blindness), on famous writers, musicians and artists who were deaf, accompanied by plenty of 'deaf/death' puns. Like many people, I'd assumed that once a hearing aid was acquired, a deaf person's problems were over, but I now realise it is much more complicated than that and as a result the limitations of aids are many and various.

DL does not shy away from using the pantomime staple of the deaf character who comically mishears everything or from taking it to hilarious lengths when Desmond attends a noisy reception party:

'The pastime of the dance went to pot,' Sylvia Cooper seemed to say, 'so we spent most of the time in our shit, the cows' in-laws finding they stuttered.'

'What?' I said.

'I said, the last time we went to France it was so hot we spent most of the time in our gite, cowering indoors behind the shutters.'

In the novel, Desmond finds himself becoming entangled with a mysterious female postgraduate writing a PhD on the language of suicide notes and this plot drives the narrative along, with DL's acute observations on ageing, marriage, sex, death (and deafness) always ringing true. His acerbic account of a visit to a thinly-disguised Center Parcs is deadly accurate.

The novel ends on a sober note with a visit during a Polish lecture tour to the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau and then, on Desmond's return to the UK, the final illness and death of his elderly father. At the beginning of the novel, Desmond states that deafness is comic, blindness tragic, but in the end he changes this to 'death is tragic' because it is 'final, inevitable and inscrutable'. He concludes: 'Better to dwell on life and try to value the passing time.'

What else indeed can we do?

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Travels with a Donkey to Longitude

I've just been thinking back to the holidays and some summer reading done in anticipation of a trip to France. We were heading for a gite near the Cevennes, so Brigit said you MUST read Travels with a Donkey by Robert Louis Stevenson, and of course I said 'it's on my TBR list'.

So off the TBR list it had to come, and (to cheapskate reader's satisfaction) I realised that I had two copies, one inherited from the Scottish grandfather-in-law and one bought second-hand (from the excellent Helston Bookworm, I think), both of them with blue covers and gold lettering.

RLS made a walking tour of the Cevennes in the 1870s accompanied by a very reluctant donkey called Modestine to carry his pack and his home-made 'sleeping sack'. His account of trying to get the ambling and recalcitrant Modestine to move at all, let alone at any speed, nor to veer off the path to eat wayside grass and heather are very funny. Pitying locals provide him with various implements to 'encourage' her along, culminating in the most successful, a goad (basically a stick with a pin in the end of it) with which a by now heart-hardened RLS forces Modestine to shift: 'Thenceforward Modestine was my slave,' he finally declares triumphantly.

Stevenson's walk was extremely short compared with modern travel writers' long-haul treks across continents - less than two weeks. But he is a born writer who makes the mountain scenery and the humour of his experiences walking through it zing off the page:

'Why anyone should desire to visit either Luc or Cheylard is more than my much-inventing spirit can suppose. For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints ... To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future?'

Before reading this book, I was completely ignorant of the importance of the Cevennes hills as a refuge for the Protestant minority in eighteenth-century France, and so was surprised at how prominent a role religion plays in Stevenson's account. (His interest in the conflict may even have acted as a motivation for visiting the area in the first place.) RLS imaginatively recounts the persecutions and bloody skirmishes between the Protestant 'Camisards' and the Catholics. Wherever he goes, people ask about his religion and he asks them theirs, and there are frequent heated discussions. Unsurprisingly, when we walked in the Cevennes hills this summer, unaccompanied by either a willing or an unwilling donkey, no one at all asked about our religion. And disappointingly, I didn't see a single donkey, just one roadside sign offering donkey-rides (presumably without the benefit of goads).

As so often happens, reading one book leads me on to another because I come across a reference to my Favouritely Named Character from History, Sir Cloudesley Shovel, who was sent to the Mediterranean to bring aid to the besieged Camisards of the Cevennes. (Anything to spite the dastardly French.) Two years later, Shovel was the admiral whose ship was wrecked on the rocks of the foggy Isles of Scilly when he and his fellow navigators incorrectly calculated their longitude as being west of the Isle d'Ouessant off Brittany. According to Longitude by Dava Sobel, Shovel had discounted the opinion of one of his ordinary crew members who had correctly reckoned the ships' position as being near the Scillies and instead had him hanged for insubordination. Just two men from the four ships that went down survived. Sir Cloudesley himself was washed up alive on a beach but then was murdered for the emerald ring on his finger by a local woman. This famous disaster for the British fleet spurred on attempts to find a way to measure longitude accurately, which leads on to the story of John Harrison told in Longitude. But, typically, I still haven't read the whole book (the rest remains TBR).