Sunday, 31 January 2010

Curiosities of Literature

I love John Sutherland's books about books. He is so knowledgeable, erudite and at the same time, witty and irreverent. My favourites are Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?, Is Heathcliff A Murderer? and Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennett? where he investigates the back stories of literary characters and poses probing questions about how exactly characters manage to carry out certain plot requirements, some of which would frankly be impossible in the 'meat world'. My favourites include his question about A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy: 'What is Elfride's rope made of?' (her underwear, I recall) and Lucy Snowe, Cement Mixer (about Villette).

Curiosities of Literature is more general in scope, but filled with nuggets of fascinating information about writers (their physical ailments, sex lives, typewriters, drug abuse, deaths, etc.), as well as book 'records' and other curiosities. Sutherland is brilliant at ferreting out parallels and links between the unlikeliest books.

My favourite real-life 'villain' from the book is probably Cobweb the cat, who may, or may not, have eaten Thomas Hardy's heart. And how many shots of whisky really killed Dylan Thomas? (Estimates are various and extremely wild, but was there a more mundane, but ultimately more sinister, cause?) Other questions Sutherland deals with are: Why is no one else ever called 'Bronte'? And why was the appallingly bad European summer of 1816 so productive for literature? (On this basis, we should probably expect to see some wonderful novels coming out in a few years' time, especially in the UK.)

Here's a challenge for anyone reading this:

What do the following famous novels have in common?

The Lord of the Flies

The Heart of Darkness

The Naked Lunch

(Answers on a blogcard.)

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Nella Last was an ordinary woman living in the north of England who began to write a diary in 1939 as part of the Mass Observation project. This meant she sent it in every week to be kept with other diaries for posterity. Nella's diaries became particularly famous when Victoria Wood portrayed her in a TV drama, Housewife, 49.

Two volumes have recently been re-published, Nella Last's War and Nella Last's Peace and they deserve to be read and reread, partly because they are an authentic and detailed account of what life (air raids, rationing, fear about sons serving abroad, as well as the more tedious day-to-day stuff) was like during and just after World War II and partly because, as she had dreamt as a child, she became a very good writer.

My balloons (= barrage balloons) swam like silver fish in a blue-grey bowl, and then as the sun sank, they turned to a faint bluish-pink. So odd how one changes ... Always I have loved the moon - tonight I felt a detachment, a sense of menace. No 'peaceful, 'benign', 'serene', 'kindly' moon, as she rose to point the way for devil-bombers, but a sneering, detached Puck who delighted in holding a burglar's lantern.

Nella keeps very busy with a lot of voluntary work, for the WVS, helping run emergency canteens, the hospital committee and organising a Red Cross shop. (After the war, she keenly feels a lack of purpose and a sense of no longer being useful, when these voluntary activities cease.) She is also keen on crafts, making lots of rag-dolls to sell for charity, and is proud of her ability to make varied meals from the meagre food rations of the time. (She lists practically every meal she makes in detail.) Now that her two sons are grown up (either working at a distance or serving in the forces), she sees her main role as the traditional one of a homemaker who looks after after her husband. Unfortunately, she finds this very limiting, and Will, her husband, comes across as rather a reclusive anxious man, who often becomes peevish when Nella wants to go out.

I was surprised at how different Nella appears from Victoria Wood's portrayal in Housewife, 49. More confident and outspoken, at least as she describes herself in the diaries, and certainly better off. The cover of Nella Last's Peace misleadingly shows a street of basic terrace houses, but in fact Nella lived in a large semi and for much of the war and just after it, she and her husband owned a car (very unusual at the time) and made frequent trips to her beloved Lake District (unless petrol rationing made this impossible).

Now that I've finished the diaries I really miss Nella's company and her 'voice' (as so often happens when I read diaries, the diary 'life' seems to run alongside my own). Although the original diaries were written very rapidly in a slightly slapdash stream of consciousness style, Nella has a turn of phrase and narrative voice than really holds the reader's attention. She uses lots of choice words and phrases: 'monkey-shines' for silly, irritating behaviour by others, 'soul-case' meaning 'body', and she often 'gets on her top-note' when arguing with her husband. As in real life, humour, dreary day-to-day routine and tragedy live side-by-side.

Of the two volumes, the war diary has the most impact, simply because of the haunting and inescapable background of war and loss:

The face of a little boy I saw the other day came to me. He is here from Liverpool. He saw his mother and two sisters killed, spent seven nights in a shelter - before and after his home was shattered in Liverpool - and finally was trapped with an elder sister and lay on her dead arm for hours before rescue - and he is seven. His eyes are frenzied and he talks in stutters. If he falls asleep, he wakes in a lather of fright, shaking and screaming. He is lucky - he has come to a kind, understanding aunt - but what of the others? Singing 'Tipperary' in shelters is all right for the BBC but what of all the silent ones?

Thursday, 17 December 1942

I passed the table where Mrs Hockey sits. (Her son was killed in the Middle East in November.) I've thought sometimes, 'Poor darling, how brave she is, she can still smile,' but today I noticed the smile was as forced as that of a painted clown. She caught my overall as I passed, and I bent down while she whispered in a flat tone, 'I got Michael's Christmas card today, Mrs Last'. He said, "Who knows where I'll be at Christmas, Mom",' No tears were in her eyes; the light seems to have faded. I felt pity burn like a flame in me - but I could only hold her hand tightly for a second, and get on with my work.

Monday, 4 January 2010

The Greengage Summer

I only read this by chance because I picked it up second-hand at a church booksale on a birthday visit to The (incomparable and wonderful) Wivenhoe Bookshop. (The church which is almost opposite the bookshop and its booksale were an unexpected bonus.) I had vague memories of seeing the film of this book as a child and remembered little but a faint awareness of dimly understood sexual tension and one character throwing champagne all over someone else. I was hopeful about reading the book but was delighted when I actually did.

In the nineteen fifties, a virtually single mother of five children (husband usually absent in Tibet studying the local botany, though clearly not that absent if he managed to father five kids) decides to take her spoilt brats to see the war graves of the Champagne region of France during the summer holidays so that they can witness what others have sacrificed. However, she ends up in hospital laid low by an infected horse-fly bite and the children are reluctantly allowed to stay at their hotel, Les Oeillets, unsupervised. The eldest girl, Joss, aged sixteen and on the brink of womanhood, is also confined to her room for some time with a stress-related affliction, so the younger ones, including the narrator, thirteen-year-old Cecil, are left to roam freely in the Eden-like orchard and surroundings of the hotel. Mlle Zizi and her hotel manager Madame Corbet are not keen to accept unchaperoned children, but they are persuaded by the enigmatic Eliot, an Englishman, seemingly Mlle Zizi's boyfriend, who takes the children under his wing.

The dull greyness of England, home and school as impoverished dependents of stolid but bossy Uncle William are contrasted with the summer heat of the green-gold orchards and river near Les Oeillets. The unleashed children make friends with the hotel staff, including the roguish, slovenly, exploited Paul, and become aware of new, sophisticated and exciting ways of life.

But this lotos-eating idyll is not all it seems and the charming and cosmopolitan Eliot is alternately warm and friendly to the children, then disconcertingly cold and distant. The first part of the book ranges back and forth in time and retrospective observations by Cecil, Joss and the prosaic but sharp Uncle William signpost a darker underlying truth which eventually has tragic consequences.

Eliot takes on the role of the children's protector 'as camouflage' : 'The children will give me a reason for being here,' he tells Mlle Zizi. And Uncle William (later) questions Eliot's choice of car, a blue and silver Rolls: 'Why choose one that stood out? Unless he wanted to stand out.'

When, after nearly two weeks, Joss eventually emerges from her room like a butterfly from a chrysalis, it becomes clear to everyone, and especially Mlle Zizi and Eliot, that Joss is not one of the children after all but a lovely nubile young woman who makes Mlle Zizi appear ageing and artificial. Eliot's interest in the family now has an added strand which creates a complicated tangle of attraction, jealousy and frustrated desire between the main characters.

Ambiguity pervades the book. Is Eliot good or bad? the children wonder. He's good fun and kind but he uses and manipulates them and Mlle Zizi shamelessly. However, he too is misled into thinking that the children will shield him, forgetting that they are also nosey and sharp-eyed, and in the end they are his undoing.

There is further ambiguity about who is a child and who is a grown-up. Mrs Grey, the children's mother is described as being like a child and she signally fails to fulfil her role as a parent. In her school uniform at the beginning of the novel, Joss appears to be a child, but later, to Mlle Zizi's dismay, she is a self-aware adult, learning to manipulate her new status with devastating consequences. Eliot appears paternal but is not. Both Cecil and Joss are at the in-between stage and they think that as they grow older they will lose their childish faults, such as gluttony for greengages, but they find that yet more failings arrive with adulthood.

The Greengage Summer is a blissful escapist read and although the subplot about Eliot's secret activities is a little bit Enid Blytonish, the child/adult relationships and underlying sexual tensions are brilliantly observed. Cecil is a wonderful narrator, herself growing up during the action of the novel and finding out just how complicated life and grown-ups can be.

I also owe thanks to this book on a practical level because it taught me the French word for greengages (Reine Claudes) and on holiday in France last summer, I found piles of green-gold greengages on sale in markets, often just brought from ordinary people's gardens. I'd always thought greeengages a rather sour green plum, but French greengages are just as Rumer Godden describes them:

'The greengages had a pale-blue bloom, especially in the shade, but in the sun the flesh showed amber through the clear-green skin; if it were cracked the juice was doubly warm and sweet.'

It must be something to do with France ... . See also Mrs B's post about this lovely book at the Literary Stew.