“Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.” (Colette)

Mallika’s annual Book and Author Anniversaries post alerted me to the fact that today is the 150th anniversary of Colette’s  birthday, and the perfect prompt for me to get two of her books out of the TBR (in Women’s Press editions which pleases me – how I regret clearing out loads of my The Women’s Press books when I was trying to streamline before a move one time. Never get rid of books kids – better to die under a toppling pile than live with regret 😉 )

Firstly, Duo and it’s short sequel Le Toutounier (1934 & 1939; trans. Margaret Crosland 1974). Duo follows the discovery by Michel and immediate aftermath of his wife Alice’s short-lived affair with a colleague. They are on holiday in the south of France, somewhat isolated and under the watchful eye of Michel’s family retainer Maria. The novel is primarily dialogue between the couple as they try and decide what remains for them.

Colette’s love of the natural world is very much in evidence as she captures their holiday home and Alice’s feelings of suffocation:

“On the poplars the golden bronze of the new leaves still wrongfully occupied the place of the green. A crabapple tree, its white petals lined with bright red, had defeated the somewhat sickly Judas tree and the syringas in their attempt to escape the destructive shade of the shiny aucubas, extended their slender branches and their butter white stars through the broad grasping leaves, which were mottled like snakes.”

Her precise descriptions of people and their mannerisms also suit this tale especially well, expertly capturing the tension and careful watchfulness between two people fearful of their disintegrating relationship.

“He caressed her with a few crude words, which she heard with a quiver of her eyelashes, as though he had shaken a bunch of flowers over her. They both accepted these exchanges, which were caused by chance, travel, a sudden change of season.”

Michel and Alice don’t tear each other apart, but at the same time their relationship seems doomed. However, the precision and containment of the story to a few days in a specific place, doesn’t make for a heavy or oppressive read. Colette’s humour is always present, with some surprising phrases:

“Out of modesty the servant placed a saucepan lid over the milk.”

During Duo, we learn something of Alice’s family, her sisters Colombe, Hermine and Bizoute.

“When I think about my family as much as that, it’s because I’m finding Michel terribly boring.”

In Le Toutounier she visits their stuffy, smoke-filled Paris apartment with the titular “huge, indestructible sofa of English origin, battered down like a forest road in the rainy season.”

It’s a short novel (80 pages) and I can see why it was put in the same volume as Duo as I think it is best read following on from its predecessor, forming a portrait of an interlude in Alice’s life.

Bizoute is away from home, leaving Colombe and Hermine together with their complicated love lives. Neither of them are with available men and the situation escalates. But the focus in Le Toutounier is not on relationships between the sexes but rather between the sisters, and what it means for women in a family to be close to one another. As so often, Colette focuses her sensual descriptions on women, showing appreciation but not sentimentality:

“The fine woollen dressing gown with a pattern of embossed stitching fell over her quivering shoulders, and it’s pink glow rose to her cheeks, where the makeup had lost its delicate morning colour beneath successive layers of powder.”

Secondly, Break of Day (1928, trans. Enid McLeod 1949) which nowadays would probably be called autofiction, occupying a place between biography and outright fiction. ‘Colette’ spends the summer in Provence, contemplating her past and wondering about the future. All her preoccupations are here – the natural world, animals:

“After dinner I mustn’t forget to irrigate the little runnels that surround the melons, and to water by hand the balsams, phlox and dahlias, and the young tangerine trees, which haven’t yet got roots long enough to drink unaided in the depths of the earth, or strength to break into leaf without help, under the steady scorching of the heavens. The young tangerine trees, planted … for whom? I don’t know. Perhaps for me. The cats will spring sideways at the months when by ten the air is blue as a morning glory. The pair of Japanese hens, perching drowsily on the arm of a rustic arm chair, will chirp like birds in a nest. The dogs, already far away from this world, will be thinking of the coming dawn, and I shall have the choice of a book, bed, or the coast road”

Men and women:

“My true friends have always given me that supreme proof of devotion, a spontaneous aversion for the man I loved.”

“When a man’s glance is following certain household preparations, especially those for a meal, there is apt to be a look on his face that combines religious attention, boredom and fear.”

Her mother:

“On an autumn morning she was the first and only one to see herself reflected in the first disc of ephemeral ice in the well bucket, before her nail cracked it.”

“She would, alas, have judged us plainly, with that divine cruelty of hers which was innocent of wrath.”

Break of Day is fairly plotless save for a slight drama with two young people, but not quite stream of consciousness either, written in a more structured style. If you enjoy Colette’s writing then this is a little gem, but definitely not one to read when you want to be pulled along by a cracking yarn.

Overall the sense is of Colette (author/character) coming to terms with the last part of her life, with aging and with what remains. It isn’t sad but it has a melancholy quality, although I sensed few regrets and an acceptance of how her life had been lived so far and how it would continue.

“Everything is much as it was in the first years of my life, and little by little I recognised the road back.”

I loved all of these reads. It’s been a while since I picked up Colette and I wondered why I’d left it so long. She’s funny, incisive, precise, sensual, and absolutely in command of her own voice. There’s no-one like her.

To end, a 1970s performance to match my 1970s editions, about the breaking of day:  

“There is no more sagacious animal than the Icelandic horse.” (Jules Verne)

For my second contribution to Annabel’s Nordic FINDS month I’m looking at the second and third instalments in Ragnar Jónasson’s Hidden Iceland series, The Island and The Mist.

I know I enjoyed the first instalment of this series featuring police detective Hulda Hermannsdóttir, The Darkness, but I can’t remember anything about it. Thankfully you don’t need to have read it (or remember it) to enjoy the sequels.

These are quick, straightforward reads. Sometimes I find the phrasing a bit too straightforward with some clichéd phrases – I don’t know if this is Jónasson’s style or a translation decision – but Hulda is an appealing lead and the emphasis is on the mystery not sensationalist gore, which is very welcome. I’m not a big reader of contemporary crime so I don’t want an overly convoluted plot and I want characters that behave like real people in real (admittedly extreme) circumstances, both which The Island and The Mist deliver.

The Island (2016, trans. Victoria Cribb 2019) starts with a brief, highly unnerving prologue in 1988, before taking us back a year to 1987. Benedikt and his unnamed girlfriend are staying at her family’s holiday home:

“He was going to enjoy their stay, this weekend adventure in the middle of nowhere. The sense of isolation was enhanced by the thought that nobody knew they were there; they had a whole valley to themselves. It really was like a dream.”

This being a crime novel, anything idyllic fills the reader with a sense of deep foreboding and sure enough, the girl is found murdered. Hulda is a CID detective, tenacious and thorough, but she’s up against a traditional, sexist system:  

“Her boss, Snorri, was an old school detective, quiet yet firm, with an aversion to modern technology”

He’s kind, but he tells her in no uncertain terms that her colleague Lýdur will be promoted above her, what with him having the obligatory Y chromosome and all. We see Lýdur take some very dubious decisions in his investigation into the girl’s murder.

Fast forward to 1997: Hulda has experienced a horrific family tragedy, and is living alone in a small, expensive flat in Reykjavik. Four friends – Dagur, Alexandra, Klara and (eek!) Benedikt are having a reunion on a remote island:

It was her first visit to the Westman Islands, the little archipelago of some fifteen volcanic islands and innumerable stacks and skerries that jutted dramatically out of the sea off the south coast of Iceland. […] Now, Heimaey was home to a thriving fishing industry but Alexandra could see the volcanic cone, still brown and ominously bare of vegetation, brooding above the white buildings of the town.

Only three of them will return.

Hulda, now middle-aged and wondering what her career has left to offer her, is dispatched to investigate. Inevitably she has to dig up what happened ten years previously and whether the motive for the latest murder lies in the past. An additional complication is that Lýdur is now her boss with his own reasons for wanting Hulda to reach conclusions as quickly and thoughtlessly as he does. But Hulda is her own woman and we’re never in any doubt she’ll find her way to the truth.

Although I did guess whodunit, there was an additional twist that took me by surprise and was genuinely a bit shocking.

If I rarely read contemporary crime, I never read contemporary thrillers, but this is what The Mist (2017, trans. Victoria Cribb 2020) turned out to be, and I really enjoyed it. I think it helped that it’s a quick read; I probably couldn’t have sustained a long, tense story. The first two thirds of the novel are the deeply tense unfolding of events, and the last third is Hulda piecing together the crime scene in a fairly straightforward way.

It’s set around the same time as the opening events of The Island – Christmas 1987/February 1988 – and so at first I wondered if the UK publishing of these books was out of order, in the same way as Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series, but looking at publication dates it seems he decided to move back and forth in time with Hulda.

Hulda has hit a dead-end with her investigation of a young woman’s disappearance, and so she is sent to investigate a crime scene in a remote farmhouse in the east of the country. We’re then taken back to two months previously: Erla and Einar live in the farmhouse on land that Einar’s family have farmed for generations. Erla loves her husband but has always missed city life in Reykjavik.

“She was overwhelmed by the familiar feeling of emptiness that assailed her whenever something ran out and she knew she had no chance of replacing it. She was stranded here. To describe the feeling as emptiness didn’t really do it justice; it would be true to say she felt almost like a prisoner up here in the wilderness.

All talk of claustrophobia was forbidden on farm, though; it was a feeling they had to ignore, because otherwise it could so easily have become unbearable.

Suffocating…”

Erla and Einar’s familiar Christmas routine is interrupted by the arrival of a stranger, Leó. How he has reached them and what he is doing stranded in the middle of nowhere during a blizzard at a time when nearly everyone is at home, he can’t really explain. To send him away would be to send him to his death, and so Einar invites him to stay, despite Erla’s deep mistrust of the unknown man.

“It would be a white Christmas, as usual. Stiflingly white. And now this intruder had entered their peaceful home and poisoned the atmosphere. You couldn’t describe it any other way. He’d poisoned it. The wind whined outside – hardly a harbinger of peace on earth and goodwill to all men.”

The strain builds between the three people as they spend the night together in the remote, old-fashioned farmhouse, with electricity and phone lines both down and the snow relentlessly falling. Jónasson expertly maintains the tension, exacerbated by the persistent, inhospitable weather.

“In winter, not a day passed when she didn’t witness something that sent a shiver down her spine. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but the isolation, the silence, the damned darkness, they all combined to amplify every creak of the floorboards and walls, the moaning of the wind, the flicker of light and shadow, to the extent that she sometimes wondered if maybe she should believe in ghosts after all; if maybe that would make life bearable.”

Despite the minor reservations I mentioned earlier I do enjoy Jónasson’s writing. Hulda is believable and although she’s a-detective-with-a-tragic-past-who’s-overinvested-in-their-work she’s not destructive or self-pitying. She’s honest and humane and likable. In The Mist we learn more about what happened to bring her to the circumstances of The Island.

“But then that’s what her job was like at times, a game played out in the grey borderlands between day and night. No victory was ever sweet enough; her work was never really done. She could expect no praise or reward. The riddle had been solved to general indifference.”

But a large part of the appeal for me is that Jónasson is great at evoking the Icelandic landscape. I never feel like the stories could occur anywhere else.

“Ellidaey appeared ahead, looking just like the pictures she’d seen; the single white speck shining amidst the green pasture gradually resolving itself into a house. Behind it the grassy slope reared up like a crest of a wave. As they drew closer, the black cliffs with their splashes of white bird droppings didn’t look as if they offered the visitor anyway up from the sea.”

To end, one of my favourite songs, which conveniently happens to be about mist (and also shares a name with my friend’s childhood hamster) :

“A great doctor must have a huge heart and a distended aorta through which pumps a vast lake of compassion and human kindness.” (Adam Kay)

I really want to increase my blogging in 2023 – as I’m an incredibly strong-willed person who always achieves any goal they set, I have absolutely no doubt I will achieve this aim 😀

Anyway, the wonderful reading events that take place are always an incentive to help me on my way, and in January Annabel runs her enticing Nordic FINDS month.

This meant that I have finally pulled a book from the TBR that has been languishing there for years: The Visit of the Royal Physician by Swedish author Per Olov Enquist (1999 trans. Tiina Nunnally 2001). A historical novel set in the 18th-century Danish courts, it tells the story of King Christian VII’s mental ill health, his marriage to Caroline Mathilde (sister to George III) and her affair with the titular German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee.

TVOTRP is hugely lauded, winning the August prize and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This meant I went in with unfairly high expectations and at first I wasn’t sure this novel was for me. I suppose TVOTRP would be classed as a documentary novel, and initially I found this style distancing. However, by the end I was very much involved in this sad tale of people sacrificed to political power struggles where there is no room for humanity.

Even if the historical events are unfamiliar, the reader knows it will end with the execution of Struensee, as this is where the novel begins. We’re then taken back to his arrival at court, a man of the Enlightenment, viewed with some degree of suspicion by those resistant to change.

King Frederik V dies in his forties, and there is a vivid scene of him on his deathbed with his son, being abusive until the end. Christian is sixteen when he becomes King Christian VII and he is already struggling to comprehend reality.

“Christian explained, in a stubborn attempt to make sense of things, that he understood the court to be a theatre, that he had to learn his lines, and that he would be punished if he didn’t know them by heart.”

But was he one person or two?”

Enquist demonstrates so clearly that it would be some sort miracle if Christian managed to stay well in the environment of the court. He is not only abused by his family but by the courtiers; he is physically and mentally tortured.

Caroline Mathilde is 15 when they marry.

“Afterwards everyone agreed that it was unfortunate that she did indeed have talents. If the proper assessment had been made from the outset, namely that she possessed some talents, then the entire catastrophe might have been averted.

But no one could have predicted this.”

These teenagers are not expected to rule Denmark. They are expected to be figureheads and provide heirs, and not get in the way of the power-hungry politicians that surround them. When Struensee arrives in court, he poses a huge threat despite not appearing to want power at all. Firstly, he genuinely cares about Christian:

“It was understood that something had happened. The German doctor with the blonde hair, the quick but wary smile and the kindly eyes, had become somebody. Since he had no title and could not be placed within a precise hierarchy, this caused uneasiness.

Attempts were made to decipher him. He was not easy to decipher. He was friendly, discreet, and refused to make use of his power, or at least what was considered to be power.

People didn’t understand him.”

Secondly, he is a man of the Enlightenment, deeply threatening to Puritan courtiers like the advisor Guldberg, who is slowly growing his influence. Thirdly, he sleeps with the Queen:

“Christian, Caroline Mathilde, Struensee. Those three.

They seem to be observing each other with curiosity and suspicion. The court observed them too. As they observed the court. Everyone seemed to be waiting.”

The tension builds as the reader knows this situation will absolutely not be tolerated. And it seems such a travesty. The King is happy and cared for; the Queen is happy and fulfilled; the person taking decisions on behalf of the ruler is progressive, liberal, and trying to improve the situation of the masses. Why not let it continue?

Struensee is not naïve and he is filled with a sense of foreboding. Meanwhile, Caroline Mathilde seems to believe they can outwit the malevolent forces that are closing in…

“Her analysis surprised him.

He thought that her extremely lucid, extremely brutal view of the mechanisms of power had been born at the English court. No, she told him, I lived in a cloister. Then where had she learned all this? She was not one of those that Brandt, with some scorn, used to call ‘the female schemers’.

Struensee understood that she saw a different kind of pattern to his.”

The style of TVOTRP is really interesting. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a documentary style, but with an omniscient narrator so there is space given to the feelings and motivations of all the characters. The sentences are generally choppy, but often also poetic. Enquist balances these opposing approaches expertly. I never quite got past that initial distance I felt and so this stopped me absolutely loving the novel, but I did think it was an excellent and compassionate exploration of the pressures of public life and the dangers for those trying to change entrenched power structures.

Although not a depressing novel, it did seem desperately sad, for all concerned.

“The revolution that Struensee initiated was quickly stopped. It took only a few weeks for everything to revert to the way it was before, or to even earlier times. It was as if his 632 decrees, issued during the two years known as the ‘Struensee era’ were paper swallows, some which landed, while others were still hovering low over the surface of the field and hadn’t yet managed to alight on the Danish landscape.”

To end, I saw A Royal Affair (which tells the same story but isn’t an adaptation of this novel) when it came out in 2012. I don’t remember much of it now but I do remember enjoying it and thinking all three leads were excellent. From this trailer I would say Christian is portrayed less sympathetically than Enquist saw him, but it definitely looks worth a re-watch:

“I’ve always been in love with Melbourne.” (Kerry Greenwood)

Well, we’ve reached the end of November and contrary to my plans but entirely in keeping with my expectations, I’ve barely managed to blog at all despite all the wonderful reading events that take place. Still, I’m delighted that I am at least managing to join in with AusReading Month 2022 hosted by Brona at This Reading Life. (Even if it is at the eleventh hour and I’m conveniently ignoring the fact it’s already 1 December in Australia right now – I really must do better.)

I chose two novels out of the humungous VMC pile and they both turned out to be entertaining considerations of the roles of women in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Melbourne.

In reverse chronological order, Painted Clay by Capel Boake (1917). Set in 1913-14, this coming-of-age story follows Helen Somerset as she tries to forge her own way in a society that places considerable strictures on women.

At the start of the novel, lonely and isolated Helen is only a few years older than the century, as she living in a suburb with her distant father:

“Several women had watched carefully and had made sure their curtains had not been down for months. They always took their curtains down, washed them, and put them up again, every four weeks. The end house did not do this. Therefore there must be something very wrong with the occupants of the end house.”

Determined for change, she makes overtures to the young women who live next door, and finds herself invited in. She is shy and awkward, but the family is warm and welcoming.

“She knew that if she were alone she could have carried on the most brilliant conversation with everybody, but now she seemed to have nothing to say.”

Belle is engaged to sleazy Bert, while her sister Irene moons over the picture of a matinee idol. They are full of life and show Helen another way to live. She joins Irene in working in a shop, suffering under the deliberately unpleasant work given to her by the jealous supervisor. We follow Helen from shop to office work, as she learns to wrestle with the bullying of women and the unwanted attentions of men, struggling to work out what she wants when it seems to be so different from other women her age:

“She fled from the thought of sex; it horrified her – but it came back and back. She tried to close her mind against it, but it came insistent and whispering, distorting her view of life full in despair she went to her books again.”

Helen is not a wet blanket though, or a naïve and priggish beauty which can sometimes make heroines of this era hard to warm to. She’s quite determined to live her own life, away from the life paths everyone seems to expect of her.

“Helen had a soft, but unyielding obstinacy against which all argument beat in vain.”

Things begin to change for her when she is taken into a bohemian artistic set. She falls in lust with Alick Russell, and one thing leads predictably to another … what is less predictable is Helen’s reaction to sleeping with a man outside marriage:

“She wondered why she did not grieve over it, why she was not overcome with sorrow and repentance. She puzzled over it with frowning brows, but could reach no satisfactory conclusion.”

[…]

“I can’t see the difference between being married and not. It doesn’t seem to me to matter very much, and yet it does. I wish I were either a very bad woman or a very good one. If I were a bad woman nothing would bother me, and if I were a very good woman I wouldn’t think about it. I would just be married, and that would be the end of it.”

Painted Clay is a carefully non-didactic exploration of women’s roles and choices at this moment in time. Female characters are not judged for choosing unsatisfactory marriages, when the alternative may be worse for them. Older unmarried women are not shown as leading happy lives due to how limited their choices are, yet Helen is consistent in her belief that marriage is not for her.

Although not explicit, female desire is dealt with frankly, as is the fallout from its expression – fallout which lands disproportionately on women rather than men, despite their equal involvement.

What struck me most though, was not the attitude towards female sexuality or marriage, but towards sex work. It is referred to more than once in the novel and Boake is determinedly non-judgemental of those who undertake it. There is this interview Helen undergoes with a recruiting Madam:

“Helen shook her head, ‘No’ she said. ‘I can’t.’ Her tone was final, and the woman recognised it, though she made a last effort to persuade her. ‘Why not?’ she asked.

‘I don’t know why not,’ answered Helen. ‘It’s not my way, that’s all.’”

Then later in the novel she takes a woman from the street for a hot meal:

“Helen looked round with a frown. She found that everyone in the room was staring at them. She looked at them with bitter scorn. She hated them for their smug complacency. She felt neither love, liking, or even pity for the girl she was with, but she preferred her to the smug suburban women with their intolerable air of conscious virtue.”

I expected a much more judgemental attitude for the time, and it was refreshing to have this assumption undermined. (Also on the subject of the streets – the urban setting and changing seasons are wonderfully evoked. Sadly I don’t know Melbourne but I’m sure those who do would find much to enjoy in this evocation of it in the early decades of the last century).

Painted Clay was Capel Boake’s first novel and on the strength of this I would definitely be interested in reading more. It’s not the most sophisticated novel but it’s concise, well-paced and very readable.  Boake died in her 40s having published three novels (one further was published posthumously) and some poetry.

Secondly, The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge (1891) which I was encouraged to take off the shelf by Emma’s escapism list. Although depicting a far more conventional life of middle-class mores and marriage than Painted Clay, The Three Miss Kings still manages to cast an askance, humorous view at late Victorian life.

At the beginning of the novel the titular heroines Elizabeth, Patty and Eleanor – find themselves all alone in the world after their father dies.

“It was a curious position altogether. As far as they knew, they had no relations, and they had never had a friend. Not one of them had left their home for a night since Eleanor was born, and not one invited guest had slept there during the whole of that period. They had never been to school, or had any governess but their mother, or any experience of life and the ways of the world save what they gained in their association with her, and from the books that she and their father selected for them.”

Cambridge is at pains to stress the young women’s refinement and ‘breeding’ to an extremely tedious degree. However, later in the novel she stops banging on about this quite so much, which was certainly a relief, and gets on with telling an oft-told tale in a very readable way (excepting a couple of clunky passages with characters voicing long opinions on topical issues such as the role of the church).

The women travel from their rural home to Melbourne to be shocked and then embraced by city life, under the guiding light of their self-appointed guardian Mrs Duff-Scott:

“The only drawback to her enjoyment in them was the consciousness that, though they were nobody else’s, they were not altogether hers. She would have given half her fortune to be able to buy them, as she would buy three bits of precious crockery, for her absolute possession, body and soul—to dress, to manage, to marry as she liked.”

Three comely young ladies, refined of manner and naïve of just about everything – what will possibly happen? Mrs Duff-Scott has an idea, and lines up potential suitors for all of them with alarming ineptitude. I particularly enjoyed her assessment of Mr Westmoreland:

“He was the richest of them all, and the most stupid, and therefore he seemed to be cut out for Patty, who, being so intellectual and so enterprising, would not only make a good use of his money, but would make the best that was to be made of him.”

Cambridge does undermine some of the conventions she is focussing on, or at least mocks them lightly. For example, how to describe her heroines:

“like a tall lily, I feel I ought (and for a moment was tempted) to add, only that I know no girl ever did look like a lily since the world was made, nor ever will, no matter what the processes of evolution may come to.”

She’s also very pragmatic alongside the romance, such as the consideration of marrying for money:

“If these motives seem poor and inadequate, in comparison with the great motive of all (as no doubt they are), we must remember that they are at the bottom of a considerable proportion of the marriages of real life, and not perhaps the least successful ones. It goes against me to admit so much, but one must take things as one finds them.”

She even allows some feminist commentary regarding commanding male heroes:

“’Who would marry a chicken-hearted milksop if she could get a splendid tyrant like that?’ exclaimed Patty, fervently, for the moment forgetting there were such things as woman’s rights in the world.”

So although a romance in many ways, The Three Miss Kings is not unwaveringly romantic. I’ve never read Ada Cambridge before and I really enjoyed this first encounter. She brought a different voice, humour and interesting characterisation to make a familiar story include some surprises.

The story is firmly rooted in 1880 and in Melbourne, with descriptions of the International Exhibition. Melbourne Cup, public gardens, streets and crowds which were very evocative. If I’ve not said much about the plot it’s because I don’t think it’s really needed – you get the idea!

“I don’t think it is that things are going wrong, dear. It is only that we have to manage them, and to steer our way, and to take care of ourselves, and that is so trying and perplexing.”

To end, forward a century for service as usual with a 1980s pop video, from a Melbourne band:

“The house allows one to dream in peace.” (Gaston Bachelard)

November is full of wonderful reading events and I’ve been through the TBR pulling out possibilities for Novellas in November, German Lit Month, Margaret Atwood Reading Month and AusReading Month. Given my current reading and blogging pace it’s highly unlikely that I’ll manage them all, but I’m starting today with a post for Nonfiction November hosted by Doing Dewey.

In many ways this is the least likely of all the events for me to take part in, as I read practically no nonfiction. However, last year I read the first two in Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ trilogy and absolutely loved them.  The bibliophile’s crack-den that is the charity bookshop across the road from my flat never lets me down, and when saw the third instalment in there recently of course I swooped.

Real Estate (2021) sees Levy still living in the flat she moved to when her marriage ended, but as her children leave for university and beyond, she is trying to work out what makes a home, and whether she wants one.

“I was also searching for a house in which I could live and work and make a world at my own pace, but even in my imagination this home was blurred, undefined, not real, or not realistic, or lacked realism. I yearned for a grand old house (I had now added an oval fireplace to its architecture) and a pomegranate tree in the garden. It had fountains and wells, remarkable circular stairways, mosaic floors, traces of the rituals of all who had left there before me. That is to say the house was lively, it had enjoyed a life. It was a loving house.

[…] The odd thing was that every time I tried to see myself inside this grand old house, I felt sad.”

The themes from The Cost of Living and Things I Don’t Want to Know continue, as Levy considers how to live in a way that supports her work and enables her to authentically create her own space in middle-age, in a society that undervalues ageing and especially ageing women.

In Real Estate Levy is looking at the spaces she creates both internally and externally, and the challenge to have both reflecting and supporting the other.

“An extended family of friends and their children, an expanded family rather than a nuclear family, which in this phase of my life seemed a happier way to live. If I wanted a spare room for every friend, my flat could not support this idea. If I wanted a fireplace in every room, there were no fireplaces in my flat. So what was I going to do with all this wanting?”

She takes a fellowship in Paris for a while, living in an apartment she barely furnishes, knowing it will be transitory and focussing on her work. She visits Berlin and Mumbai and holidays in Greece. The various changes of scene don’t enable Levy to reach any conclusions about where to live, or how to reconcile her desires and needs with the practicalities entailed in bricks and mortar. But that’s not the point of these exploratory, reflective living autobiographies. Perhaps the point is that there is no answer – as we evolve and change, so do our needs, and perhaps so does the best place for us to be.

With this volume as with the previous two, Levy is a witty and challenging writer, so much fun while not shying away from serious issues and a strong feminist sensibility:

“Are women real estate owned by patriarchy?… Who owns the deeds to the land in that transaction?”

I particularly enjoyed this encounter at a literary party which she gatecrashes in London:

“A male writer of some note, but not in my own hierarchy of note, had knocked back a few too many gin cocktails. This liberated his desire to find a female writer in the room to undermine […] The truth was that he viewed every female writer as a sitting tenant on his land.”

Real Estate has been marketed as the final volume of Levy’s living autobiography and I really hope that’s not the case. She’s wonderful company.

To end, my own perennial real estate quandary is: do I leave my little London flat for somewhere cheaper so I can have a garden? I’ve been debating this for years and I will leave in the end, but here’s a warning about the perils of leaving London for a trip to the Home Counties (a bit sweary so do avoid if you’re not keen, but the lyric ‘Could you be my big spoon or are you just a bigot in Wetherspoons?’ meant I really wanted to share 😀 )

“If one cannot command attention by one’s admirable qualities one can at least be a nuisance.” (Margery Allingham)

Although I read a lot of golden age detective fiction as it is my go-to comfort read, I rarely blog on it. I’m making an exception this week though, as The Crime at Black Dudley, the first Albert Campion mystery by Margery Allingham, was published in 1929. This makes it perfect for the 1929 Club, running all week and hosted by Simon and Kaggsy.

In this first outing, Campion is not the primary detective. This role falls instead to George Abbershaw:

“He was a smallish man, chubby and solemn, with a choir-boy expression and a head of ridiculous bright-red curls which gave him a somewhat fantastic appearance.

[…]

His book on pathology, treated with special reference to fatal wounds and the means of ascertaining their probable causes, was a standard work, and in view of his many services to the police in the past his name was well known and his opinion respected at the Yard.

At the moment he was on holiday, and the unusual care which he took over his toilet suggested that he had not come down to Black Dudley solely for the sake of recuperating in the Suffolk air.

Much to his own secret surprise and perplexity, he had fallen in love.

He recognized the symptoms at once and made no attempt at self-deception, but with his usual methodical thoroughness set himself to remove the disturbing emotion by one or other of the only two methods known to mankind – disillusionment or marriage.”

So George heads to a somewhat foreboding enormous country pile, home of Wyatt Petrie, an academic, and his uncle Colonel Coombe (there always seem to be Colonels in GA mysteries don’t there? They seem to have been much more prolific then.) There is to be a party of Bright Young Things descending for the weekend.

An isolated country house, a closed circle of characters not entirely well-known to one another, what could go wrong…? Early on, George is drawn to a wall display:

“Yet it was the actual centre-piece which commanded immediate interest. Mounted on a crimson plaque, at the point where the lance-heads made a narrow circle, was a long, fifteenth-century Italian dagger. The hilt was an exquisite piece of workmanship, beautifully chased and encrusted at the upper end with uncut jewels, but it was not this that first struck the onlooker. The blade of the Black Dudley Dagger was its most remarkable feature. Under a foot long, it was very slender and exquisitely graceful, fashioned from the steel that had in it a curious greenish tinge which lent the whole weapon an unmistakably sinister appearance. It seemed to shine out of the dark background like a living and malignant thing.”

How on earth will the murder take place? What weapon will possibly be used? That’s right, Colonel Coombe is poisoned. Only kidding, of course he’s stabbed with the heavily foreshadowed Black Dudley Dagger.

However, that is not the only dampener on the party. Two men, sinister associates of the deceased, proclaim that no-one is allowed to leave until a missing item is returned to them. They succeed in convincing everyone of their seriousness through direct and effective means. (One of them is German and my heart sank a bit, anticipating caricatured xenophobic villainy, but thankfully although there is some it’s not extensive, and it soon becomes apparent that *small spoiler* he is not the true villain).

What will George do? Can he unmask the murderer? Can he protect his beloved Meggie long enough to propose? Well, among the party is one Albert Campion. George finds him foolish and irritating. Silly George! It’s obvious to the reader that there is More To Albert Than Meets The Eye…

“Everybody looked at Mr Campion. He was leaning up against the balustrade, his fair hair hanging over his eyes, and for the first time it dawned upon Abbershaw that he was fully dressed, and not, as might have been expected, in the dinner-jacket he had worn on the previous evening.

His explanation was characteristic.

‘Most extraordinary,’ he said, in his slightly high-pitched voice. ‘The fellow set on me. Picked me up and started doing exercises with me as if I were a dumb-bell. I thought it was one of you fellows joking at first, but when he began to jump on me it percolated through that I was being massacred. Butchered to make a butler’s beano, in fact.’

He paused and smiled fatuously.”

The main flaw of The Crime at Black Dudley is that mysterious, capable, comic Campion is so clearly the hero that the story feels a bit unbalanced and lacking when he’s not around. He dominates until he suddenly doesn’t – leaving the story before the end. George sees it through for the reader, but it makes for something of an anti-climax.

However, that quibble aside, The Crime at Black Dudley is a very enjoyable golden age mystery. As well as the tropes already mentioned, there are trapdoors, secret passageways and international criminal gangs. It’s a short fun read, and it made me keen to spend more time with perplexing Campion. As the Bright Young Things might say, (but probably never did) even if it’s not entirely the cat’s pyjamas it is still a crashing good lark.

 

From the silly to the serious, and my usual disclaimer that I know Ernest Hemingway was a fairly terrible human. He treated women badly, he loved blood sports which is abhorrent, I have no doubt that had we ever met, Hemingway and I would have viewed each other with mutual contempt. I also know that I just adore his writing, in a way I can’t fully explain. I do like pared-back style, but there’s something indefinable in his writing that I just find so moving. A Farewell to Arms was published in 1929 and it opens:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

If I tell you I was already inexplicably tearful by the time I reached the end of that passage you know you’re not going to get a coherent or balanced review of this book in any way 😀

The novel follows the story of Frederic Henry, an American volunteer paramedic in Italy during the First World War, and his relationship with Catherine Barkley, an English nurse. Initially I found their behaviour rather silly, but then I had to remind myself that they were very young, and living through traumatic circumstances.

“I went out the door and suddenly I felt lonely and empty. I had treated seeing Catherine very lightly, I had gotten somewhat drunk and had nearly forgotten to come but when I could not see her there I was feeling lonely and hollow.”

“‘I’ll say just what you wish and I’ll do what you wish and then you will never want any other girls, will you?’ She looked at me very happily. ‘I’ll do what you want and say what you want and then I’ll be a great success, won’t I?’”

No Catherine, that’s a truly terrible idea. Familiarise yourself with feminist theory and pull yourself together!

I thought Hemingway’s iceberg style of writing, not spelling everything out and trusting the reader to fill in gaps, worked extremely well throughout. Being so matter-of-fact about war, death and injury drove home its seriousness rather than treating it lightly. It meant that nothing was made easier by a more descriptive or metaphorical style.  Here Henry is wounded badly (skip the next quote if you’re at all squeamish!):

“I sat up straight and as I did so something inside my head moved like the weights on a doll’s eyes and it hit me inside behind my eyeballs. My legs felt warm and wet and my shoes were wet and warm inside. I knew that I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there. My hand went in and my knee was down on my shin. I wiped my hand on my shirt and another floating light came very slowly down and I looked at my leg and was very afraid.”

A Farewell to Arms is not relentlessly bleak though. There are touches of humour between Henry and his friends, or in Henry’s observations of his medical care:

“I have noticed that doctors who fail in the practice of medicine have a tendency to seek one another’s company and aid in consultation. A doctor who cannot take out your appendix properly will recommend to you a doctor who will be unable to remove your tonsils with success. These were three such doctors.”

It’s also not bitter. Henry becomes disillusioned with the war but again, the iceberg style works well in presenting the hopelessness and destruction of ideals, without being cynical or maudlin, such as Henry’s conversation with his friend who is a priest:

‘I had hoped for something.’

‘Defeat?’

‘No. Something more.’

‘There isn’t anything more. Except victory. It may be worse.’

‘I hoped for a long time for victory.’

‘Me too.’

‘Now I don’t know.’

‘It has to be one or the other.’

‘I don’t believe in victory anymore.’

‘I don’t. But I don’t believe in defeat. Though it may be better.’

‘What do you believe in?’

‘In sleep,’ I said. He stood up.

It occurred to me towards the end of the novel, when Henry uses a racial slur, that until that point I hadn’t really considered whether I liked any of characters. At that point I reflected that I didn’t much. Catherine is somewhat underwritten, the first-person narrative reflecting Henry’s youthful egotism in love, and Henry himself wasn’t particularly easy to warm to. But actually this was irrelevant. Hemingway wasn’t asking the reader to like or not like his characters. He was presenting them as they were, as flawed humans caught up in violence and destruction, and pointing out utter futility of it all.

“I did not say anything. I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.”

To end, the trailer for the 1932 film adaptation starring Gary Cooper:

“’I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it?’” (Anne of Green Gables, LM Montgomery)

To describe my blogging as patchy would be to suggest a productivity that currently I can only aspire to.  Thankfully Simon and Kaggsy are hosting one of their wonderful club events this week, always irresistible and especially so this time, as 1929 is bang in the middle of the interwar years, my reading sweet spot.

(Great badge 🙂 )

I’m hoping to post twice this week, and I thought I’d start here with two Virago Modern Classics.

I probably wouldn’t have been particularly drawn to The True Heart if it wasn’t written by Sylvia Townsend Warner, author of the wonderful Lolly Willowes. The blurb on the back says:

“This is the love story of Sukey Bond and Eric Seaborn. Sukey is an orphan, in service, the lowest of the low. It is 1873, and in her first position as a servant girl on a farm in the Essex Marshes, she meets Eric – gentle, simple […] The lovers are parted by Eric’s rich mother […] But nothing can deter Sukey. Only Queen Victoria, she feels, can help, so she sets off to see her. Extraordinary things happen on this heroic journey, but Sukey’s simple love and courage carry her to final victory- reunion with her beloved Eric and love triumphant.”

Absolutely nothing in that description appeals to me. Well, maybe the Essex Marshes. And Queen Victoria. But nothing else. However, I was quickly won over by this description on page two of Miss Pocock, the Matron of Sukey’s orphanage on prize-giving day:

“She had been up since 4 A.M. putting finishing touches to the orphans housewifery. Now she wore her new purple bodice and her face of state, where the expression never varied, as if her countenance were cased up in invisible stays.”

Having excelled on the prize day, virtuous Sukey goes to work as a maid on a farm, a position found for her by an orphanage patroness, Mrs Seaborn.

“Sukey was still persuaded that there was something very odd and exceptional about her life, though she, of course, was a very ordinary creature. In truth it was humdrum enough and the cares and pleasures that filled her days were those common to any servant-girl on a small farm. Nor were the other inmates of the farm remarkable in any way that appeared to her.”

There she meets Mrs Seaborn’s son Eric, an outsider like Sukey, living alongside the Norman family who run the farm:

“They spoke of him always as ‘Young Eric,’ and by the insistence upon his youthfulness seemed to disassociate themselves from him. He was like a pet lamb, grown too large for the house but whom the household had forgotten to put out of doors.”

Eric has been dumped at the farm by his mother who is ashamed of his ‘idiocy’ and seizures. The two fall in love, each naïve and inexperienced. Sukey soon believes she is pregnant despite knowing nothing of the facts of life and therefore not realising that there is zero chance she has conceived a child. What stops the story from being overly saccharine is STW’s humour, which is gently witty – entertaining but never slyly undermining her characters.

“A baby may grow up and make any number of people miserable. Besides justification, they also require long clothes and short clothes and little woollen socks – and how is an unmarried baby going to find these?”

As the blurb suggests, Eric’s mother separates them and Sukey begins her epic journey towards reconciliation. The story is a retelling of Cupid and Psyche, and the tale does have a mythic quality as Sukey meets various colourful characters on her journey and through some sort of miracle manages to stay safe.  

The tone of The True Heart is so finely balanced. I think as a twenty-first century reader I was waiting for the knowing irony, the askance aside which never came. It made me question if this is how I’m used to seeing love presented in contemporary stories, which is a pretty bleak thought. Yet STW is not remotely sentimental either. Rather she is clear-sighted and compassionate.

“He was sorry for birds. He loved all helpless things, all wild things, all harmless and thoughtless things, for he himself was wild and harmless, thoughtless and helpless. He was sorry for the bird, he understood its distress. Her distress he could not understand. It passed by him like the wind – violent, alien, incomprehensible. Her anger was aflame that would not take upon him.”

A singular novel, thought-provoking and written with the lightest touch.

By contrast, the female protagonist in The Squire’s Daughter by FM Mayor is somewhat jaded by her worldly experiences even by the age of 21. Ron de Lacey – as the title indicates – is from a privileged background and she uses this privilege to enjoy a frivolous, vacuous London life as a flapper (aka living my dream life 😀 ).

“In Ozzy’s set they were all young; for her sex the most successful age was eighteen; the new Cabaret girl was sixteen, she and Nadine were already rather old. Aunt Laura knew spinsters by the score, they were generally political, and Ron hated politics.”

Ozzy is her brother, somewhat estranged from his family due to his refusal to fight in the War, the conflict casting a long shadow even for a generation who barely remember it.

Ron also returns to the family seat of Carne rarely, and seems indifferent to its pending sale despite the pain it causes her father. The heirs care nothing for the country seat, only the staff seem to share her father and aunt’s understanding of what it once meant:

“Carne was like a college to the old servants, and they were its Fellows.”

“The gardener combined contempt for her with a fond respect for gentry.”

However, it is not because she hugely values her London life that Ron feels alienated from Carne. There is a sense that she is entirely adrift, with no sense of purpose or of self anywhere.

“She had been an ultra-smart young woman, extracting every ounce of success from her seasons, and with Ozzy’s set she could be as vulgar and exaggerated as a chorus girl. In repose, however, her eyes were often unsatisfied, and sometimes sad.”

It is during a visit at Carne that Ron falls somewhat inexplicably in love with the most English-monikered man, Bob Manners. I really enjoyed this conversation between them over dinner, whereby Ron attempts to engage Bob in discussion about a literary great:

“‘Do you like Tchekov?’

‘I don’t know what it is? Is it a drink?’

‘No it’s a Russian, who writes plays.’

[…]

‘I think there’s nobody like Tchekov. I know just where I am with him. He’s like all of us. His people drift about, and want something terribly for five minutes, and then want something else, and all the time they don’t know what they want after all.’

‘I’ve never met any Englishmen like that.’ said he, ‘nor do I want to, nor do I believe they exist.’

‘Yes, but I expect my Englishmen aren’t your Englishmen.’”

They begin a tentative courtship, he unused to romance, she overused to its rituals:

“She was neither shy nor nervous. She could not imagine life without frequently going to tea with men who had fallen, we’re falling, or might fall in love with her.”

The novel follows their relationship and those of her family, alongside the disintegration of Carne. Although the tone is restrained, I found The Squire’s Daughter to be really a very sad novel. It was about the long-term damage of war; the pain of failed communication with those you love; the desperate search for meaning to live your life by, across the generations.

“I suppose one had a surfeit of feeling in the war and used it all up.”

To end, a clip of Greta Garbo still managing to be stunning in the world’s worst fitting dress, in 1929 film Wild Orchids (flogging scene at beginning, skip to 1:00 to avoid):

“Spice a dish with love and it pleases every palate.” (Plautus)

After a month of daily novellas throughout May (many of which were quite heavy in subject if not in actual weight) followed by reading Ulysses for the first time (which was heavy in both senses) I was in need of some light, comic, bookish palate cleansers. Thankfully, an enormous TBR can always provide 🙂

Firstly French Exit by Patrick de Witt (2018), which induced an existential crisis because I thought I read his novel The Sisters Brothers fairly recently, but when I checked it turns out it was nine years ago. Where is my life going??

Anyway, once I stopped panicking about my imminent death, I sat down to this short novel which the cover quotes assured me was funny/comic/Noel Coward-esque etc. And it was, but there was a strong vein of sadness running through it too.

Frances Price lives with her adult son Malcolm in New York, and seems determined to blow her late husband’s ill-gotten gains as rapidly as possible. Eventually it reaches the point where they will be evicted from their townhouse:

“It was grotesque to see a person such as Frances exposed in this way, and Mr Baker was peeved to be a party to it. He told her, ‘I spoke to you about this as a possibility for seven years, and as an eventuality for three. What did you think was going to happen? What was your plan?’

She exhaled. ‘My plan was to die before the money ran out. But I kept and keep not dying, and here I am.’”

So Frances comes up with another plan, to leg it to Paris and live in her friend Joan’s apartment. Malcolm will go with her, because it doesn’t occur to him to do otherwise, despite his girlfriend Susan’s weary protestations:

“Malcolm was unafraid of social discomfort, which is not to say he courted it; but it was common enough that he assumed it requisite, and endured it without grievance.”

The other presence on this international adventure will be their cat, Small Frank, named after Frances’ husband. There’s more to Small Frank than meets the eye, a fact accepted by Frances, Malcolm, and the psychic Madeleine that they meet on the cruise ship:

“Madeleine stood. ‘Sorry.’ Pointing to Small Frank, she asked, ‘Do you not know?’

‘We know.’ said Frances.”

Although seemingly set in contemporary times, French Exit has an atemporal quality. The cruise ship, the lack of mobile phones, use of paper money (admittedly euros not francs) and no reference to the internet mean it could easily be many years earlier.

There’s a cast of eccentric characters both on the ship and in the French capital, but this stayed the right side of idiosyncratic for me, without seeming self-consciously quirky. Frances is wonderfully spiky which stops the story being too saccharine.

As we learn more about her life and Malcolm’s upbringing, there is a lot to consider about the emotional damage people can wreak on each other. However, as Frances and Malcolm adjust to their new surroundings what comes through most strongly is the human need for acceptance and friendship, and all we can give one another if we’re open to it.

The sadness in French Exit stopped me from wholeheartedly viewing this as a comic novel, and so it wasn’t quite what I expected. But this is no bad thing, and I found it a delightful, fully-rounded tale of unique individuals working out how to get by alongside other people, while still setting their own terms.

“The heart takes care of itself. We allow ourselves contentment; our heart brings us ease in its good time.”

French Exit was made into a film in 2021. I’ve not seen it but the dialogue in this trailer is straight out of the book:

Early Morning Riser (2021) by Katherine Heiny is not my usual sort of read at all, but Susan’s review made it sound so enticing that I snapped up a copy when I saw it in the charity shop. I’m glad I did, because it was just what I was looking for at this moment in time: a well-written book about idiosyncratic people, muddling through alongside each other, not sentimental and not bitter either.

The story begins in 2002, with young teacher Jane meeting Boyne City’s local lothario Duncan:

“He was of medium height, medium build, wearing nothing more distinctive than jeans and a denim shirt, yet he seemed to stand out vividly, like the subject of a photo with a blurred background.”

They start dating and there is much humour derived from Duncan’s past with just about every woman in town, and the neighbouring towns too. He’s not manipulative or unpleasant, and he seems pretty honest (unless you’re waiting for him to finish restoring your furniture) – although he probably doesn’t have much choice in a town where everyone knows everyone else’s business.

“It had seemed even before dinner that Mrs Elgin had wanted to say something, and finally she laid down her fork and said to Duncan, ‘I’m sorry but, but how is it possible that you don’t remember having sex with me after a Grateful Dead concert in nineteen ninety-four?’

Doctor Elgin was struggling to open a bottle of prosecco, and at that moment his thumb slipped and the cork popped off with a surprised-sounding ping.

Duncan looked up from his plate. ‘I went to thirteen Grateful Dead concerts in 1994. Can you be more specific?’”

What I thought was clever is that Heiny doesn’t try and convince the reader of Duncan’s charm. Often when there is a love interest, authors try and get the reader onside, and of course, if you’re not as keen on the character as those in the story are, it’s not going to work. Instead, everyone in Early Morning Riser is presented simply as they are, and no-one is expected to be otherwise.

This includes Duncan’s domestic-goddess ex-wife Aggie, her inflexible husband Gary, and warm-hearted Jimmy, Duncan’s apprentice who has an unspecified learning difficulty. Jane also makes a good friend, Freida, who miraculously is among the very few women not to have experienced the sexual delights of Duncan:

“Freida settled herself on the couch next to Jane and took out her mandolin. Part of being friends with Freida meant getting used to her playing the mandolin all the time – softly if people were talking, louder if they weren’t. If the conversation got heated, she would strum faster; if they were all tired, she would play something soothing. It was like having a constant soundtrack to your life, or maybe a mandolin-playing Greek chorus, because sometimes she sang, too – little snatches of lyrics that always seem to fit the occasion.”

Personally that would drive me to absolute distraction, but the people of Boyne City are much nicer than me and don’t seem to mind.

We follow everyone up to 2019; through births, deaths, joys and griefs. It is a novel resolutely about ordinary life and the value of such. People behave well and behave badly. They make wise decisions and poor decisions. They’re kind to each other and not so kind. They’re recognisably human.

“The joy is in the dailiness. The joy is having someone who will stop you from hitting the snooze button on the alarm endlessly. The joy is the smell of someone else’s cooking. The joy is knowing you can call someone and ask him to pick up a gallon of milk on his way over. The joy is having someone to watch Kitchen Nightmares with, because it really is no good when you watch it by yourself. The joy is hoping (however unrealistically) that someone else will unload the dishwasher. The joy is having someone listen to the weird cough your car has developed and reassure you that it doesn’t sound expensive. The joy is saying how much you want a glass of wine and having someone tell you, ‘Go ahead you deserve it!’ (Although it’s possible to achieve the last one with a pet and a little imagination.)”

Although the relationship between Jane and Duncan centres the story, romantic love is not the focus of Early Morning Riser. Rather, it is about family in all its guises: blood relatives, children, parents, lovers, friends, those we choose and those who choose us, those we somehow end up sharing lives with and we’re not quite sure how or why. It’s a warm-hearted read and an absolute joy.

To end, in honour of Freida, a song that goes heavy on the mandolin:

“I finished Ulysses, & think it is a mis-fire. Genius it has I think; but of the inferior water.” (Virginia Woolf) 

Today is Bloomsday, and the centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. I decided this meant I couldn’t put it off any longer and 2022 would be the year I finally cracked the spine on this tome (metaphorically of course – I don’t crack spines, I’m not an animal.)

When I read War and Peace back in 2017, I opted out of a review-type book post, intimidated at the thought of trying to say anything remotely coherent or interesting about such a revered novel. Instead I opted for a reading diary. Now here I am with a similarly revered, equally intimidating cornerstone of literature. There’s no way I can say anything useful about Ulysses, especially in its centenary year with all the celebratory events happening.

And so I present my Ulysses reading diary, neither coherent nor interesting! In fact, to manage any expectation of intellectual engagement with the genius of Joyce in this post, I should confess that the first hurdle I had to overcome in approaching the text was to get the Ulysses 31 theme tune out of my head (it’s probably unnecessary to explain here that I am a child of the 80s…)

Day 1

“Ulysses, Ulysseeeeees, soaring through all the galaxieeeeees….” Pesky earworm.

Normally if I’m told a book is difficult, I arrogantly assume I can do it. But Ulysses is genuinely intimidating. What I need to remind myself is:

  1. I really love James Joyce. Genuinely, Dubliners is one of my favourite-ever books. So I might even enjoy Ulysses.
  2. Other people have done it. I’ve even met some of them. Lovely bloggers left encouraging comments on my previous post where I explained what I planned to do.  It’s definitely do-able.
  3. I am not going in unarmed. I have The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses by Harry Blamires (3rd ed. 1996) at my side. I’m almost certain I read on twitter that this was a good thing, and surely twitter is never wrong??

I’ve read the 80+ page introduction to my edition and now wonder if I should gain degrees in Classical Civilisation/Modernism/European History/Religious Studies before even attempting this novel.

I’ll start tomorrow.

Pages read: None. Pages remaining: 933

Day 2

OK, possibly I overreacted. I think maybe I knew too much in advance. In the end, I was amazed I could make it to the end of a single sentence. But so far Ulysses is beautiful yet also sordid, and very readable. I’m glad I’ve got the reading companion though, as there was complex word play around the word ‘melon’ that I definitely wouldn’t have picked up on my own.

Pages read: 140 Pages remaining: 793

Day 3

For such a learned, intellectual novel, Ulysses also manages to be emotionally affecting. Now I’m just under a quarter of the way through I’m finding Leopold Bloom very moving. There’s something pathetic about him, and isolated and sad, even among the crowds of Dublin.

“I was happier then. Or was that I? Or am I now I? Twentyeight I was. She twentythree. When we left Lombard street west something changed. Could never like it again after Rudy. Can’t bring back time. Like holding water in your hand. Would you go back to then? Just beginning then. Would you? Are you not happy in your home you poor little naughty boy? Wants to sew on buttons for me. I must answer. Write it in the library.

Grafton street gay with housed awnings lured his senses. Muslin prints, silkdames and dowagers, jingle of harnesses, hoofthuds lowringing in the baking causeway. Thick feet that woman has in the white stockings. Hope the rain mucks them up on her.”

Pages read: 218 Pages remaining: 715

Day 4

Fair to say my pace has slackened off today. I woke up with the book on my face, which upon removal revealed two hungry cats giving me the death stare.

Pages read: 250 Pages remaining: 683

Days 5, 6, 7

I’m sure a more attentive reader would get a lot more out of Ulysses, but as an inattentive reader I’m still really enjoying it. I especially like the section which the companion tells me corresponds with The Wandering Rocks in Homer. It’s 19 sections where, by following many characters for a short time, Joyce creates the hustle and bustle of the afternoon of 16 June 1904 in Dublin. He does this as much through the inner lives of his characters and their interactions with one another, as with description. Having said that, here are some descriptions which caught me:

“Two carfuls of tourists passed slowly, their women sitting fore, gripping the handrests. Palefaces. Men’s arms frankly round their stunted forms. They looked from Trinity to the blind columned porch of the bank of Ireland where pigeons roocoocooed.”

“Stephen Dedalus watched through the webbed window the lapidary’s fingers prove a timedulled chain. Dust webbed the window and the showtrays. Dust darkened the toiling fingers with their vulture nails. Dust slept on dull coils of bronze and silver, lozenges of cinnabar, on rubies, leprous and winedark stones.

Born all in the dark wormy earth, cold specks of fire, evil, lights shining in the darkness. Where fallen archangels flung the stars of their brows. Muddy swinesnouts, hands, root and root, gripe and wrest them.”

“Moored under the trees of Charleville Mall Father Conmee saw a turfbarge, a towhorse with pendent head, a bargeman with a hat of dirty straw seated amidships, smoking and staring at a branch of poplar above him. It was idyllic: and Father Conmee reflected on the providence of the Creator who had made turf to be in bogs whence men might dig it out and bring it to town and hamlet to make fires in the houses of poor people.”

I’m very grateful for the companion guide. I’m reading part of Ulysses then the corresponding section in the guide, and this isn’t nearly as tedious as I anticipated. It reassures me that I’m picking up a lot, and it’s highlighting the things I didn’t have hope of recognising.

Among all this learning, my most significant take away is: I’m going to start using the phrase “I beg your parsnips.”

Pages read: 403 Pages remaining: 530

Day 8, 9, 10

More than 100 pages of very unpleasant scenes, filled with boorish, racist, drunk men. An effective contrast to Bloom’s sober gentleness and moderation, (although also some questionable voyeurism from him) but I was very glad to leave it behind.

I wasn’t keen on the following section set out like a play either, and Bloom and Stephen’s hallucinations weren’t the most pleasant reading.

It’s hot, my hayfever is terrible, I’m sleep deprived and grumpy so not the best reader right now. Don’t listen to me.

Pages read: 704 Pages remaining: 229

Days 11, 12

Thank goodness – back on a much more straightforward narrative (or as near to one as you get with Joyce) and I’m enjoying Ulysses again. (I don’t normally mind experimental narratives so I’m blaming my hayfever brain.) Lovely scenes between Bloom and Dedalus.

“Literally astounded at this piece of intelligence Bloom reflected. Though they didn’t see eye to eye in everything a certain analogy there somehow was as if both their minds were travelling, so to speak, in the one train of thought.”

Which is then followed by 50-odd pages of (surprisingly explicit, even by today’s standards) almost punctuation-free stream of consciousness – a brave choice to end and a masterstroke.

“…I dont like books with a Molly in them like that one he brought me about the one from Flanders a whore always shoplifting anything she could cloth and stuff and yards of it O this blanket is too heavy on me thats better I havent even one decent nightdress this thing gets all rolled under me…” 

Pages read: 933 Pages remaining: zero!

So that’s me all done! And one of the Big Scary Tomes ticked off my Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century Reading Challenge. While it doesn’t yet occupy a special place in my heart like Dubliners, I still got so much from Ulysses. It’s such an achievement to be simultaneously so epic and so determinedly everyday. I would definitely read it again, and I’d love to go to the Bloomsday events in Dublin, which I’m sure would mean I’d enjoy a re-read even more.

To end, an opportunity to indulge myself with one of the loves of my life, because here Kate Bush is singing Molly Bloom’s soliloquy:

P.S Virginia Woolf did modify her view of Ulysses at a later date: “very much more impressive than I judged. Still I think there is virtue & some lasting truth in first impressions; so I don’t cancell mine. I must read some of the chapters again. Probably the final beauty of writing is never felt by contemporaries”

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.31

Academy StreetMary Costello (2014) 179 pages

My final novella of Novella a Day in May 2022! Each time I’ve done this project I’ve been uncertain I would finish and this year more than ever looked shaky, as my post-covid brain hasn’t recovered to quite the extent I thought. Still, I’m really glad to have made it and discovered some wonderful novellas along the way. It’s been especially great this year to have Simon at Stuck in a Book doing the project too, and adding many more novellas to my TBR 😊

My final choice is a novella that I remember getting a lot of love in the blogosphere when it was published in 2014. Academy Street by Mary Costello follows Tess Lohan from her childhood in Ireland to adulthood in the US, raising her son on the titular New York street in the 1960s.

Do you know, dear reader, I started writing this post in my usual style but I’ve just deleted it all. I’ve decided instead to pull my favourite passage from Academy Street, and simply say that if you like this, I think you’ll like the novella. The scene is adult Tess, cutting her taciturn father’s hair. He is a grieving man in a great deal of pain over many years, and this has made him distant from his children.

“He turns his head towards her, and she waits to be denounced. He looks at her, baffled, stunned, as if he has suddenly found himself somewhere else. His chin begins to quiver, and he looks down. She is flooded with tender feelings for him. She sees for the first time all he has endured. Holding things together, holding himself together, poised, always, to defend against a new catastrophe. She gets up and lays a towel on his shoulders and begins to cut his hair. Neither of them says a word. She is moved by his silent acquiescence. Gently she takes each strand and cuts, the sound of the scissors in the air between them, the hair falling to the floor. And his sorrow, for all that is lost, lying silent within him.”

I really loved Academy Street. A beautifully observed novella of a quiet, ordinary life and of the distances and touchpoints between people.

So that’s it! Another NADIM come to end. Despite flagging at times I’ve really enjoyed it. And now I plan to go from one extreme to the other. From 31 books under 200 pages, to a single tome of 933 pages. I’m setting myself the goal of getting it read by 16 June. Those of you who recognise the date as Bloomsday will be way ahead of me here. It was published 100 years ago, and so for the centenary I’m finally going in…