“He that loves reading has everything within his reach.” (William Godwin)

Let’s ignore the sexism of the title quote and focus on the sentiment (especially as Godwin was married to Mary Wollstonecraft who I like to think told him off for any gender assumptions):-)  I was prompted to think along these lines a few weeks ago when I watched the moving and joyous BBC4 documentary B is for Book.

I don’t generally write about children’s or YA fiction, but I felt quite inspired by the documentary showing the jubilant discovery and magic of the written word.  My Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century Reading Challenge has some kids books on it, so this week I’m channelling my inner child (not that difficult, tbh)

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Firstly, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943), ranked number 4 on Le Monde’s list; it is the most translated French book and the fourth most translated book worldwide. And how is this for a CV: Wiki describes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry  as “writer, poet, aristocrat, journalist, and pioneering aviator”. I feel so inadequate.

The Little Prince is narrated by an aviator who crashes in the desert, where he meets a visiting alien prince. The prince is from a planet where he lives alone, and which is so small that the sun is always setting:

“For as everyone knows, when it is noon in the United States the sun is setting over France. If you could get to France in a twinkling, you could watch the sunset right now. Unfortunately France is rather too far away. But on your tiny planet, little prince, you only had to move your chair a few steps. You could watch night fall whenever you liked.

‘One day,’ you said, ‘I watched the sunset forty-three times!’

And a little later you added:

‘You know, when one is that sad, one can get to love the sunset.’

‘Were you that sad, then, on the day of forty-three sunsets?’

But the prince made no answer.”

This melancholy tinge continues throughout the tale. The prince is a sad character and remains mysterious to the aviator.  It is a children’s book though, and has some lovely touches to stir the imagination:

“On the morning of his departure he set his planet in good order. He carefully swept out his active volcanoes. He had two active volcanoes – which were very useful for heating up breakfast in the morning.”

The prince describes his travels, in which he has met six adults, also living alone on isolated tiny planets: a king (who rules over no-one), a vain man, an alcoholic, a businessman (who wants to own the stars), a lamplighter (who constantly lights a lamp for no purpose) and a cartographer (who has never been anywhere). Thus the story is a critique of adults placing meaning in acquisition and status rather than in emotional connection and adventure. The aviator is an adult himself but does not hold adults in high regard:

“Grownups love figures. When you describe a new friend to them, they never ask about important things. They never say: ‘What’s his voice like? What are his favourite games? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead they demand ‘How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much does his father earn?’ Only then do they feel he know him.”

The Little Prince is a sweet, sad tale, one which will appeal to children for the  adventure and imaginative leaps, but also has a great deal to offer adults, as a fable regarding a search for meaning in the world.

“You can only see things clearly with your heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

It is also illustrated with gorgeous watercolours by the author (yet another string to his bow):

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Secondly, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf (1906–1907), number 68 on Le Monde’s list. This classic of Swedish literature has been immortalised on stamps, on currency, and Lagerlöf won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Nils is a self-centred, lazy, cruel ungrateful boy. Bunking off church to stay at home, he gets on the wrong side of an elf. Everyone knows you don’t mess with elves, Nils.  Of course the elf wreaks his revenge:

“For in the glass he saw plainly a little, little creature who was dressed in a hood and leather breeches.

“Why, that one is dressed exactly like me!” said the boy, clasping his hands in astonishment. And then he saw that the thing in the mirror did the same thing. Thereupon he began to pull his hair and pinch his arms and swing round; and instantly he did the same thing after him; he, who was seen in the mirror.

The boy ran around the glass several times, to see if there wasn’t a little man hidden behind it, but he found no one there, and then he began to shake with terror. For now he understood that the elf had bewitched him, and that the creature whose image he saw in the glass was – himself.”

Nils’ family goose, who has the excellent appellation of Morten Goosey-Gander, decides to follow a flock of wild geese on their migration to Lapland and Nils tags along, riding on Goosey-Gander’s back. As an elf, Nils finds he can understand animals’ speech, and learns to be kind rather than torture them.

“The wild geese challenged the white goosey-gander to take part in all kinds of sports. They had swimming races, running races, and flying races with him. The big tame one did his level best to hold his own, but the clever wild geese beat him every time. All the while, the boy sat on the goosey-gander’s back and encouraged him, and he had as much fun as the rest.”

Lagerlöf was commissioned to write this by the National Teachers Association, so in the course of reading about Nils’ journey, you learn about wildlife and Swedish geography: win/win.

“Just as the first spring showers pattered against the ground, there arose such shouts of joy from all the small birds in groves and pastures that the whole air rang with them, and the boy leaped high where he sat. ‘Now we’ll have rain. Rain gives us spring; spring gives us flowers and green leaves; green leaves and flowers give us worms and insects; worms and insects give us food; and plentiful, and good food is the best thing there is,’ sang the birds.”

He didn’t know exactly where on earth he was: if he was in Skåne, in Småland, or in Blekinge. But just before reaching the swamp, he had glimpsed a large village, and thither he directed his steps. Nor was it long before he discovered a road. Soon he was in the village street, which was long, and had trees on both sides, and was bordered with garden after garden. The boy had come to one of the big cathedral towns, which are so common on the uplands, but can hardly be seen at all down in the plain.”

Nils’ wonderful adventures also include seeing off his arch-nemesis Smirre Fox and learning to think of others rather than being such a deeply unpleasant person.  For a book with such a didactic purpose, it really doesn’t read as instructive and moralistic. The Wonderful Adventures of Nils is written with a real lightness of touch and is great fun.

To end, a taster of my favourite book from when I was a child:

“One fine day.” (Carole King)

Last week I mentioned that 2016 has been a terrible year so far. I don’t follow sport in any shape or form, but even I know Andy Murray has done his best to cheer up a post-Brexit UK by winning the men’s singles final at Wimbledon. Congratulations to all the winners!

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Obviously these wins are the result of years of dedicated training, but we all experience things that culminate in one day now and again. So to celebrate I’ve picked two novels that deal with the events of one day.

Firstly, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey (1932), who was one of the Bloomsbury group; this novel was originally published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, she was a niece of Lytton Strachey and was painted by Dora Carrington:

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This novella details the morning of a wedding: the preparations, the arrival of guests, the bustling of servants. The bride doesn’t make an entrance for a while, instead we are treated to her mother, Mrs Thatcham, giving contradictory instructions to all and not seeing that this why things are not organised as she expects:

“with a look of sharp anxiety on her face as usual – as though she had inadvertently swallowed a packet of live bumble-bees and was now beginning to feel them stirring about inside her. She stopped and looked at the clock.

‘I simply fail to understand it!’ burst from her lips.

She trotted briskly out of the drawing-room in the direction of the kitchen.”

Apparently this woman, who veers between being frustratingly tedious and a downright bully, was based on Strachey’s mother-in-law…

Meanwhile, the guests start to arrive. There are some lovely character sketches of family members and assorted hangers-on, told with gentle – in the main – humour.

“a tall, grey-haired man, in black clerical clothes, with a gaunt white face reminiscent of a Pre-Raphaelite painting of Dante. It was Canon Dakin, or Cousin Bob of Hadley Hill as the family called him.”

There is a hilarious description of a lampshade wedding gift and Aunt Katie’s verdurous wedding hat. My favourite little scene was between deluded Aunt Bella, who is busy boring her nephew Lob with tales of how her servants “simply cherish me”, and is met with the following non-sequitur:

“‘My dear lady,’ replied the cheerful Lob, speaking unexpectedly loudly, and holding his glass of wine up to the light for a moment, “I don’t care two pins about all that! No! The question, as I see it, is quite a different one. The whole thing is simply this: Is it possible to be a Reckless Libertine without spending a great deal of money?’”

When we finally meet the bride, Dolly, it is clear all is not well. For starters, she has put away most of a bottle of rum to enable her to stagger down the aisle:

“At this moment Dolly was trailing slowly down the back staircase (which was nearer to her part of the house than the main one), her lace train wound round and round her arm. From out of the voluminous folds of this there peeped a cork and the top of the neck of the bottle. In her other hand was her large bunch of carnations and lillies.” 

As Dolly is unsure of what she is doing and why, simultaneously there is an admirer of hers, Joseph, who may at any minute stop the wedding, though he is not sure of his motivations for doing so. Apparently Strachey was a fan of Chekov, and Cheerful Weather for the Wedding shows this influence in domestic subject matter and conflicted characters unable to take action. The humour is bittersweet: while the preparations and family members are portrayed with a light irreverence, the drunk bride and her inert friend? lover? – we are never told – bring a genuine sadness to proceedings. I couldn’t help feeling they were both on the brink of disaster.

“Dolly knew, as she looked around at the long wedding-veil stretching away forever, and at the women too, so busy all around her, that something remarkable and upsetting in her life was going steadily forward.”

Virginia Woolf’s opinion of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding was high: ‘I think it astonishingly good – complete and sharp and individual.’ Strachey doesn’t explain everything and leaves many questions in the reader’s mind as to what is going unsaid and undone on this nuptial morning (looking at the trailer for the 2012 film it looks as if everything is spelled out, so I will not be watching the film version – why? WHY??)  While it is short, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is not slight – witty, sardonic, sad and wise – it is a fully realised portrait of everyday tragedy.

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Image from here

Secondly, A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964) tells a day in the life of George Falconer, an ex-pat English professor living alone in California just after the Cuban missile crisis, and grieving the loss of his partner Jim, killed suddenly in road traffic collision.

“And it is here, nearly every morning, that George, having reached the bottom of the stairs, has this sensation of suddenly finding himself on an abrupt, brutally broken off, jagged edge – as though the track had disappeared down a landslide. It is here that he stops short and knows, with a sick newness, almost as though it were for the first time: Jim is dead. Is dead.”

In the midst of this enormous pain, George carries on with his life: teaching a class, shopping, going to the gym, getting drunk with a friend.

“In ten minutes, George will have to be George; the George they have named and will recognise. So now he consciously applies himself to thinking their thoughts, getting into their mood. With the skill of a veteran, he rapidly puts on the psychological makeup for this role he must play.”

A Single Man is perfectly paced, capturing George’s numb putting-on-foot-in-front-of-the-other coping without losing narrative drive. The tone is gentle, treating George kindly, but without sentimentality – he is not always kind himself, and his views on those he encounters are unblinking. However, as we spend the day with George, we start to get glimmers of his desire to keep living, a sense that he will find meaning in carrying on. But then his grief completely side-swipes him:

“He pictures the evening he might have spent, snugly at home…only after a few instants does George notice the omission which makes it meaningless. What is left out of the picture is Jim, lying opposite him at the other end of the couch, also reading; the two of them absorbed in their books yet so completely aware of the other’s presence.”

There is sadness in A Single Man but it is not depressing. Rather it shows how life goes on in all its messy imperfection, and that can be OK, even when you are feeling far from fine.

 A Single Man was made into a film in 2009, the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford. It certainly looked amazing and had some wonderful performances by Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, but the screenplay made some significant changes and unsurprisingly, I prefer the book for its subtlety and nuance. Kudos to Ford though, for filming a book that takes place almost entirely within one man’s head.

I hope you all have a great day ahead:-)

“But what first, Debbie, attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” (Mrs Merton/Caroline Aherne)

Caroline Aherne, actor and writer, creator of the comedic brilliance that was The Royle Family, died on Saturday.  And so 2016 continues as forerunner for the most rubbish year in recent memory. If the political situation and the death of a yet another great person this year is getting you down, I would prescribe YouTubing  Caroline’s career for some solace.

If you enjoy someone’s work, there is a consolation that they leave this behind when they are no longer around, so I thought I would look at two novelists last works which were published in their lifetimes.

Firstly, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952), fulfilling the sea-based tale requirement of the Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge hosted by Hard Book Habit. And so my inexplicable love affair with Hemingway continues. I’ve written before about how much I want to dislike Hemingway, but I just adore his writing. Like all great love affairs, we are wholly incompatible, and yet I find myself drawn back time and time again, whilst knowing I cannot change him. The Old Man and the Sea did not succeed in breaking the spell.

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Hemingway, rocking a chunky knit to give his best salty old sea dog impression

The titular old man is Santiago, a Cuban fisherman who sails in the Gulf Stream and has gone 84 days without catching a fish.

“Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same colour as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.”

Manolin, a young boy, has known the fisherman his whole life and loves him, and it is through his eyes that we first see Santiago:

“His shirt had been patched so many times that it was like the sail and the patches were faded to many different shades by the sun. The old man’s head was very old though and with his eyes closed there was no life in his face. The newspaper lay across his knees and the weight of his arm held it there in the evening breeze. He was barefooted.

The boy left him there and when he came back the old man was still asleep.

“Wake up old man,” the boy said and put his hand on one of the old man’s knees.

The old man opened his eyes and for a moment he was coming back from a long way away. Then he smiled.”

They head out to fish separately – Manolin is banned from accompanying Santiago due to his salao bad luck – and what follows is the story of Santiago’s lone sea journey. The descriptions have Hemingway’s trademark pinpoint accuracy but this exists alongside metaphorical beauty, which absolutely captures the water and the isolation of the sailor.

“The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean. He saw the phosphorescence of the Gulf weed in the water as he rowed over the part of the ocean that the fishermen called the great well because there was a sudden deep of seven hundred fathoms where all sorts of fish congregated because of the swirl the current made against the steep walls of the floor of the ocean.”

“The sea was very dark and the light made prisms in the water. The myriad flecks of the plankton were annulled now by the high sun and it was only the great deep prisms in the blue water that the old man saw now with his lines going straight down into the water that was a mile deep.”

The fisherman succeeds in hooking a “great fish” but is unable to bring it aboard, and so is towed by the marlin farther and farther out to sea, as he waits for the fish to die. I can’t say much more as it is only novella length (you can read the full text here) so I’ll just say that The Old Man and the Sea is extraordinary: fable, allegory, elegy, a meditative page-turner which I found truly moving.

“He looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now. But he could see the prisms in the deep dark water and the line stretching ahead and the strange undulation of the calm. The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.”

Secondly, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor.

Following the death of her beloved husband, Mrs Palfrey moves to the Claremont Hotel on the Cromwell Road “The porch pillars had been recently painted; there were spotted laurels in the window boxes; clean curtains – a front of emphatic respectability.” to see out her days.

“She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man and, sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.”

Mrs Palfrey and her fellow permanent residents at the hotel are desperately trying to avoid a nursing home and rub along together in a mix of boredom, gossip and barely suppressed disdain. Although Taylor is interested in aging and how to find meaning in a world that considers you finished, this isn’t a depressing novel , but rather a gentle comedy with a melancholic tinge.

“Soon, there was a soft, slapping sound as Mr Osmond shuffled a pack of cards for a game of patience: against this, the knitting sounds, and sighs, and stomach gurglings (quickly coughed over).

‘Well, another Sunday nearly gone,’ Mrs Post said quickly, to cover a little fart. She had presence of mind.”

Mrs Palfrey is a resolute soul, who refuses to feel sorry for herself. Part of the generation who lived through both World Wars, she gets on with things.

 “She felt a determination about the lilac trees. They were to be a part of her rules, her code of behaviour. Be independent; never give way to melancholy; never touch capital. And she had abided by the rules.”

On a walk around London, she has a fall and is rescued by a young man, Ludo. He is shaggy-haired, scruffily dressed, good-looking and a wannabe writer. They end up forming an unlikely friendship and the nuances, contradictions, tensions and tenderness between the two are beautifully observed. Taylor is a wonderful writer: sharp, observant, funny and real. She put me in mind of Barbara Pym, and the blurb on the back of my copy of this novel compares her to Jane Austen.  Certainly if you like those, you’ll find a lot to love here.

 “She could glimpse bed-sitting rooms – like Ludo’s some of them – where once cooks had attended ranges, rattling dampers, hooking off hot-plates, skimming stock pots, while listening to housemaids’ gossip bought from above stairs. Mrs Palfrey went slowly by, imagining those days, which were almost clearer to her than this present structure of honeycomb housing and the isolation of each cell, because they were the days that belonged to her being young, and so were the clearest of all to her.”

To end, if you think Ernest Hemingway and Elizabeth Taylor are an unlikely pairing…

“If you were gay, I’d shout hooray” (Avenue Q)

London Pride, the LGBT+ festival which runs for 3 weeks in June, culminated with a parade this weekend. The Orlando shootings had already given this year’s festival an added poignancy, and after the week we’ve had in Britain, a joyful parade celebrating diversity warmed my battered heart. My favourite thing at this year’s festival is undoubtedly this – we should keep it all year round.

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Image from here

In this post I’m going to look at two classic novels which explore an experience of being gay at the start of the twentieth century. They are both set in Britain, where at the time being a gay man was illegal (repealed in 1967). Lesbians weren’t acknowledged in law, but being gay of gender was broadly speaking, socially taboo.

Firstly, Maurice by EM Forster, which was written in 1914 but not published until after Forster’s death in 1970. Maurice grows up in an England where sex education involves conversations like this:

“To love a noble woman, to protect and serve her – this, he told the little boy, was the crown of life. ‘You can’t understand now, you will some day, and when you do understand it, remember the poor old pedagogue who put you on the track. It all hang together – all – and God’s in his heaven, All’s right with the world. Male and female! Ah wonderful!”

Good grief. Maurice blindly follows the path laid out for him: prep school, public school, Cambridge. Forster is rather scathing towards his protagonist, emphasising his lack of intellect and inability to question his life in any way. Events force him out of this spiritual somnambulism when his best friend makes a confession:

“Durham could not wait. People were all around them, but with eyes that had gone intensely blue, he whispered ‘I love you.’

Maurice was scandalized, horrified. He was shocked to the bottom of his suburban soul, and exclaimed, ‘Oh, rot!’”

Gradually however, Maurice realises what the reader already knows, that he is sexually attracted to men and loves his friend. This is the start of him living consciously and becoming generally more pleasant:

“After this crisis, Maurice became a man. Hitherto – if human beings can be estimated – he had not been worth anyone’s affection, but conventional, petty, treacherous to others, because to himself. Now he had the highest gift to offer.”

Maurice isn’t totally redeemed: he can still be selfish and a terrible snob. This is one of the novel’s strengths – he isn’t idealised, he isn’t better or worse than most people, he is just an ordinary person with the need to love and be loved, but because “England will always be disinclined to accept human nature” Maurice suffers greatly, because he is forced to try and supress such basic human needs.

“He lived on, miserable and misunderstood, as before, and increasingly lonely. One cannot write these words too often: Maurice’s loneliness: it increased.”

Meanwhile, heterosexual couples are welcomed and celebrated, able to live openly.

“They loved each other tenderly. Beautiful conventions received them – while beyond the barrier Maurice wandered, the wrong words on his lips and the wrong desires in his heart, and his arms full of air.”

However, this isn’t a sad novel – apparently Forster was determined it would not be so as he didn’t want a gay protagonist to appear to be punished. It is about how accepting who we are enables us to live better lives not only for ourselves but for those around us, and it is about the damage that can be done when society attempts to force a predetermined conventional ‘norm’ upon people. Maurice is also beautifully written and highly readable; never preachy and emotionally affecting.

There was a Merchant Ivory adaptation of Maurice in 1987, which I’ve never seen, but looks like a faithful adaptation, starring many of the Merchant Ivory regulars:

Secondly, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928). Unlike Forster, she published at the time, but given the novel was subject to an indecency trial, it seems Forster judged correctly that Maurice would cause outrage. The Well of Loneliness tells the story of Stephen Gordon, a daughter to landed gentry who were so convinced she’d be a boy that they give her a masculine name. As Stephen grows up, she struggles against the gender expectations placed on her.

“And Stephen must slink upstairs thoroughly deflated, strangely unhappy and exceedingly humble, and must tear off the clothes she so clearly loved donning, to replace them with the garments she hated. How she hated soft dresses and sashes, and ribbons, and small coral beads, and openwork stockings! Her legs felt so free and comfortable in breeches; she adored pockets, too, and these were forbidden”

The novel follows Stephen through her young life, isolated from her peers, distanced from her mother who is revolted by a difference in her daughter she cannot name. Stephen’s solace is her kind father and her horses. She gradually realises that she is attracted to women, and that this is unacceptable to the society in which she lives.

“What remained? Loneliness, or worse still, far worse because it so deeply degraded the spirit, a life of perpetual subterfuge, of guarded opinions and guarded actions, of lies of omission if not of speech, of becoming an accomplice in the world’s injustice by maintaining at all times a judicious silence”

The wiki page about this novel tells me it’s been criticised by people who see the difficulties experienced by Stephen as encouraging shame, but I think this is a bit unfair. Written in 1928, I suspect living in a society where you had to hide a fundamental part of who you are, where “Love is only permissible to those who are cut in every respect to life’s pattern” could be a bit bloody at times. Stephen is never portrayed as needing to be anything other than she is: the fault is society’s not hers, and she remains defiant to the end.

“She must show that being the thing she was, she could climb to success over all opposition, could climb to success in spite of a world that was trying its best to get her under…Yes, it was trying to get her under, this world with its smug rules of conduct, all made to be broken by those who strutted and preened themselves on being what they considered normal.”

The Well of Loneliness could do with being about 100 pages shorter (Sarah Waters judges The Unlit Lamp as a much stronger novel) but I still found it very readable and whizzed through it. It’s somewhat depressing stance may mean it’s controversial amongst critics, but love it or hate it, it remains a highly significant novel of the time.

To end, a chance to indulge my slightly baffling but most enduring Danny Dyer obsession. Often cast as the stereotypical uber-straight macho man, here he is getting an opportunity to perform gender in a much broader way:

“It’s the final countdown.” (Europe (the band))

This isn’t a political blog, but it is one where I try and relate books to what’s going on in my life/the wider world, and this is the week when Britain votes on whether to stay in or leave the EU. So in this post I’m looking at two books by European writers, and in order to maintain the blog’s thin veneer of impartiality, I’ve picked one by a writer from a country inside the EU, and one from outside.  Between them they are two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge hosted by Hard Book Habit– with none of the attendant worries of which passport queue to join, should major changes ensue…

Firstly, The Blue Fox by Icelandic by poet/novelist/songwriter for Bjork/all round Renaissance man Sjon (trans.Victoria Cribb).  This short novel (112 pages in my edition) is stunning: lyrical, sparse and truly magical. I can’t remember whose blog first introduced me to this, so if it was you please leave a comment:-)

The story begins in 1883, with the priest Baldur Skuggason hunting a rare blue vixen:

“Snow covered the land up to the roots of the glacier, not a bare patch of earth to be seen; the vixen would write the tale of her travels on the blank sheet as soon as she embarked on them.

Grasping the weapon in both hands, he set off.”

Not a word is wasted, as Sjon creates characters and atmosphere with the minimum needed. This style is highly effective as it evokes the quiet focus of the hunt and the frozen expanse of the winter landscape.

“The sun warms the man’s white body, and the snow, melting with a diffident creaking, passes for birdsong.”

The second part of the novel goes back 16 years to explore the relationship between naturalist Fridrik B Fridriksson and his ward Abba, who has Down’s Syndrome. This section is more densely written but still beautifully constrained.

“Ghost-sun is a name given by poets to their friend the moon, and it is fitting tonight when its ashen light bathes the grove of trees that stand in the dip above the farmhouse at Brekka. This little copse was the loving creation of Abba and Fridrik, and few things made them more of a laughing stock in the Dale than its cultivation, though most of their endevours met with ridicule.”

Back in 1883, the stories intertwine and move towards an eerie, unsettling conclusion. The Blue Fox occupies a space between poetry, prose, myth, mystery and fable. Highly recommended.

Secondly, Berlin Stories by Robert Walser (tr. Susan Bernofsky), which also occupies a space between genres, this time autobiography and fiction. Walser moved to Berlin in 1905 as a young man, and Berlin Stories collects together his impressions of the city, the people he meets, the experiences he has.

I had no idea what to expect, not having read any Walser before. Picture the scene, reader: It is early morning. You hate your job. You are on a crowded platform waiting for a delayed train. You are surrounded by other commuters, who by their disregard for even the most basic social niceties are telling you that they too hate their job, and they hate you only marginally less.  Then you read this:

“Onward, onward.  That blue-eyed marvel, the early morning, has no time to waste on drunkards. It has a thousand shimmering threads with which it draws you on; it pushes you from behind and smiles coaxingly from the front. You glance up to where a whitish, veiled sky is letting a few scraps of blue peek out; behind you, to gaze after a person who interests you; beside you, at an opulent portal behind which a regal palace morosely, elegantly towers up. Statues beckon you from gardens and parks; still you keep on walking, giving everything a passing glance: things in motion and things fixed in place”

Needless to say, by page 4 of Berlin Stories, where that passage appears, I knew I was in for a beautiful journey around Berlin in Walser’s company. His style is brilliantly evocative of a city: short sketches of whatever interests him creates a series of impressions of Berlin, rather than a fixed, focused depiction. He is funny and sad, he has an eye for the minutiae and the broader picture. It is a love letter to the city, and you are left in no doubt as to why Berlin has such a culturally rich history.

“Berlin by comparison – how splendid! A city like Berlin is an ill-mannered, impertinent, intelligent scoundrel, constantly affirming the things that suit him and tossing aside everything he tires of. Here in the big city you can definitely feel the waves of intellect washing over the life of Berlin society like a sort of bath. An artist here has no choice but to pay attention.”

Like The Blue Fox, this is a short volume (139 pages) and therein lies its power. Walser creates concise, delicate yet richly vivid portraits of Berlin. Just gorgeous.

To end, I want a badge. A badge to commend my enormous self-restraint in not going on a 1980s cheese-fest (which is something I rarely restrain from) by capturing either the titular song or the band Berlin in embedded video form. Instead I’m going for a guaranteed earworm clip from a musical inspired by the Berlin stories of another writer, Christopher Isherwood.  Take it away, Liza:

“I’m the greatest thing that ever lived! I’m the king of the world! I’m a bad man. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.” (Muhammad Ali)

As usual, I’m a bit behind the times: here is my post to commemorate the death of Olympian/activist/philanthropist/iconic legend Muhammad Ali on 3 June, whose memorial was last Friday.

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Image from here

I thought I would therefore theme this post around ‘greatest’.  Just over a week ago Lisa McInerney won this year’s Bailey’s Prize for her debut novel The Glorious Heresies, so I’ve decided to look at Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which won the Baileys (then the Orange) in 1997 and was chosen as the prize’s Best of the Best in 2015. I’ve paired it with Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie which won the 1981 Booker, and then in 1993 (25 years of the Booker) and 2008 (40 years of the Booker),  it won the Best of the Bookers (the latter by public vote). They are also two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit– away we go!

Half of a Yellow Sun is set in Nigeria during the civil war of the 1960s, when there was an attempt to establish Biafra as an independent nation. Focusing on two sisters, Olanna and Kainene, their partners Odenigbo and Richard, and Olanna and Odenigbo’s houseboy Ugwu, the war is explored through its varied but monumental impact on all their lives.

Before the war, Olanna and Odenigbo live a privileged middle class life in the university town of Nsukka, entertaining in the evenings with friends who debate issues of post-colonial identity:

“‘I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different from as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.’”

Ugwu joins them and is mesmerised by their sophistication, and the worlds they open for him through the books they provide. However, Adichie shows that the legacy of colonialism is deep-rooted:

“Master’s English was music, but what Ugwu was hearing now, from this woman, was magic. Hers was a superior language, a luminous language, the kind her heard on Master’s radio, rolling out with clipped precision. It reminded him of slicing a yam with a newly sharpened knife, the easy perfection in every slice.”

As the Igbo people try to establish Biafra and civil war escalates, Olanna, Odenigbo and Ugwu’s lives are ripped apart and Adichie does not pull her punches. There is forced conscription, rape as a weapon, starvation and mutilation. However, there is also reconciliation between the estranged sisters, and Adichie’s focus is not on horrors but on how the human spirit survives against overwhelming odds:

“The war would continue without them. Olanna exhaled, filled with frothy rage. It was the very sense of being inconsequential that pushed her from extreme fear to extreme fury. She had to matter. She would no longer exist limply, waiting to die.”

Adichie is a hugely popular and successful author, and I feel the hype is fully deserved: she’s a brilliant writer. I whizzed through this book – she manages to write a compelling, political, angry, compassionate and highly moving page-turner. What a feat.

Half of a Yellow Sun was adapted into a film in 2013, apparently not that successfully despite a seemingly perfect cast including smoking hot eye candy hugely talented actor Chiwetel Ejiofor:

On to Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981) which like Half of a Yellow Sun was the author’s second novel: so much for the ‘difficult second novel’ theory. It’s taken me about twenty years to read Midnight’s Children, which works out as 6% of a page per day. It’s been quite a ride.

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I jest of course, but it did take me 3 goes spread over 20 years to get into this novel.  Normally I would have resigned it to the DNF pile (which is tiny, my TBR aspires to be that size one day – never going to happen) but I kept persevering because people who loved it really loved it and it always cropped up on various book lists (including Le Monde’s , which forms one of my reading challenges).

Now that I’ve read it, I can’t say I loved it – something about Rushdie’s style meant this was always a tough read for me – but I did find it impressive. Midnight’s Children is hugely ambitious, tackling themes around nation-making, history writing, colonialism and culture. Seemingly impossible within one novel, but Rushdie and his massive brain are clearly equal to the task. The story is narrated by Saleem Sinai who is born on the stroke of midnight on 15 August 1947, the exact moment that India gained independence from Britain.

“Thanks to the occult tyrannies if those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country. For the next three decades, there was to be no escape.”

Saleem’s story, and that of his family, becomes the story of the nation of India. The novel makes heavy use of magical realism, and I think this is Rushdie’s masterstroke. It would be impossible to explore such enormous themes and multiple events if the novel were entirely grounded in a recognisable reality. By allowing for magic realism, Rushdie can take the story in any direction he needs to.

Saleem discovers that all the children born into India between midnight and 1am on the day of Independence have special powers – his own being telepathy, powered by his enormous nose and blocked sinuses (told you there was magic realism).

“the children of midnight were also the children of the time: fathered, you understand, by history. It can happen. Especially in a country which is itself a sort of dream.”

“Midnight has many children; the offspring of Independence were not all human, Violence, corruption, poverty, generals, chaos, greed and pepperpots…I had to go into exile to learn that the children of midnight were more varied than I – even I – had dreamed.”

Saleem is a self-acknowledged unreliable narrator. His memory fails him at times, regarding both events in his own life and those in the wider political history of India. What Rushdie is questioning is the narratives we are all within – family, nation, history, culture – and how there is no one reality for any of us.

“Family history, of course, has its proper dietary laws. One is supposed to swallow and digest only the permitted parts of it, the halal portions of the past, drained of their redness, their blood. Unfortunately this makes the story less juicy, so I am about to become the first and only member of my family to flout the laws of halal. Letting no blood escape from the body of the tale, I arrive at the unspeakable part; and, undaunted, press on.”

I realise I may have made Midnight’s Children sound like a heavy read, and in some ways it is, but it also has a gentle humour running through it to lighten the tone.  I’ve certainly never read anything else like it.

“One day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, their smell is overpowering, tears may rise to eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth”

To end, I can’t help wishing the dress code for book award ceremonies was monochrome cat suits and that winners collected their awards by emerging from a fog of dry ice:

“Honeymoon, keep a-shining in June” (By the Light of the Silvery Moon)

As a companion piece to my last post about marriage, I thought I would look this week at portrayals of honeymoons. Originally I planned to include On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan but I ran out of time & wanted to re-read it in order to do it justice, as I remember it being very moving. So please don’t let my inadequacy prevent you from checking it out if you haven’t read it😉 Onwards to honeymoon stories I’ve read more recently!

All the 'honeymoon' pictures I googled made me want to vomit, so here's a Weimaraner puppy instead

All the ‘honeymoon’ pictures I googled made me want to vomit, so here’s a Weimaraner puppy instead

Firstly, Orkney by Amy Sackville (2013), which is an eerie, claustrophobic tale of a honeymoon taken on a remote Scottish island. Richard is a professor of English literature who is entranced by literary sirens and by his silver-haired wife, forty years younger than he, strange and unknowable:

“She is a tiny, perfect, whittled trinket found bedded in the sand, carved patiently, for comfort; she is a spined and spiky urchin with an inside smooth as polished stone, as marble; she is frond of pallid wrack, a coral swaying in the current, anchored to the sea-bed; she is an oyster, choking on grit, clutching her pearl to her.”

The unnamed wife is obsessed with the sea, taking long, lone walks by day and having water-filled nightmares by night:

And as she dreams her submarine dreams I lie beside her, a whale’s carcass, a wrecked ship, a vast ribcage in the dark blue deep; and she is a tiny luminescent silver fish, picking me clean, in and out of all that’s left of me, bare bones long since freed of flesh and rigging.”

Each chapter covers a day of their honeymoon, told from Richard’s perspective. This is not a plot-driven story as very little happens, in some ways it is quite a slight tale, but I found Sackville’s beautiful writing made it compelling and carried me along. The atmosphere gradually becomes more uncanny, with a sense that is not just Richard’s wife who is unknown, but that there are no certainties at all:

“An overcast, lowering sky this morning; the clouds have clotted through the night. Something gathering, brooding, out on the sea. A darkness spreading. The edges of my wife blur against the sky.”

Orkney is short novel about the stories we tell ourselves and each other, how we understand the world, and how what is real and unreal is not always clearly delineated:

“He tells her tales of the finfolk and selkies. Nothing can replace those first tales, which have coloured the cast of her thought, which have filled her nights with the sea, which are at least as real to her as anything she’s learned of the world since.”

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Secondly, the short story Here We Are by Dorothy Parker (1931). A young couple are on a train, having been married “exactly two hours and twenty-six minutes”.  Most of the story is dialogue, and they come across as so terribly young and naïve.

“He sat down, leaning back against the bristled green plush, in the seat opposite the girl in beige. She looked as new as a peeled egg. Her hat, her fur, her frock, her gloves were glossy and stiff with novelty.”

They sit and talk about the day, the wedding, those they know, and bicker about silly things: hats, mainly.

“‘Hell, honey lamb, this is our honeymoon. What’s the matter?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘We used to squabble a lot when we were going out together and then engaged and everything, but I thought everything would be so different as soon as you were married. And now I feel sort of strange and everything. I feel so sort of alone.’”

Of course, what they are not saying is that the train is speeding them towards a hotel room, and they are terrified about what is going to happen once they are alone together.  The story is a masterclass in ‘show, don’t tell’ writing. Parker’s trademark acerbic wit is not to the fore – the story is gently funny, and I felt sorry for this unknowing couple marrying in such a different age, and desperately hoped it would work out for them.

Speaking of virgins: