“We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.” (Robert Wilensky)

Gong Hei Fat Choi! Happy New Year of the Fire Monkey! To celebrate the start of the Lunar New Year I thought I would look at writers from cultures that celebrate this event: a Hong-Kong born writer’s Philippines-set novel, and a Japanese writer, as the interwebs tell me Japan celebrates both the Gregorian and Lunar new years.  These will also be two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Fire Monkey - this is going to be your year, my simian friend

Fire Monkey – this is going to be your year, my simian friend

Image from here

Firstly, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard by Timothy Mo (1995). I picked this up because it was enthusiastically recommended  in a lecture I attended on post-colonial literature. Brownout is set primarily in the Philippines, in the fictional city of Gobernador de Leon, where Victoria Init, admirer of Imelda Marcos, strives to extend her congressman husband’s power.

“Rubbish carts too dilapidated to carry the neat and frugal household wastes of Osaka had come from Japan; schoolbuses no longer fit to carry Korean children from Seoul; traffic lights , too laconic to blink longer at the soldierly traffic in Wellington would glare defeasance implacably red-eyed at the escaped lunatics behind the steering wheels of the Gobernador de Leon jeepneys. Traffic was absurdly heavy…you would stay in the same place a maximum of five minute before creeping on again…So what if it was only inches? Advance was cumulative; the achievement slow but palpable. In short, at the end of it you had made progress. Progress was Victoria Init’s idol. She would sacrifice everything and everyone at the feet of that stern shibboleth”

The second part of the novel deals with a conference of academics coming to the city, through which Mo is able to extend the portrait of corruption flourishing in the face of lazy indifference and self-interest far beyond the politicking Inits and a toothless journalist named Boyet. The visiting intellectuals have no understanding, wrapped up as they are in their own tiny worlds. Some are overtly derogatory to other cultures, others restraining themselves to sweeping racism:

“Filipinos don’t actually have a colonial chip on their shoulder…The ordinary pinoy likes America and Americans, in fact there’s nothing he’d like better than to be one. And as for the language of the oppressor issue, Holy Moses, they grow up speaking English. It’s as natural to them as…”

I think it speaks volumes that the sentence is unfinished by the speaker. As a satire Brownout doesn’t entirely work – there’s not really a character to care about, to anchor the narrative to or throw the corrupt into sharp relief.  It’s a novel filled with characters, a broad portrait that for me could have done with being a little deeper.  However, Mo is a highly skilled writer and, as my lecturer suggested, Brownout is certainly interesting from a post-colonial point of view. It didn’t wholly capture me but I enjoyed it enough that it makes it onto this blog, where I only write about books I recommend.

Ph_regions_and_provinces

Image from here

Secondly, The Diving Pool by prolific Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa (trans. Stephen Snyder), a collection of three stories written in a beautiful, spare style. In the deeply unsettling titular story a young girl falls in love with her foster brother:

“Sometimes I wish I could describe how wonderful I feel in those few seconds from time he spreads his arms above his head, as if trying to grab hold of something, to the instant he vanishes into the water. But I never can find the right words. Perhaps it’s because he’s falling through time, to a place where words can never reach.”

The narrator lives with a large extended family where she is the only biological child.

“I can never hear the words ‘family’ and ‘home’ without feeling that they sound strange, never simply hear them and let them go. When I stop to examine them, though, the words seem hollow, seem to rattle at my feet like empty cans.”

It’s quite a feat that for a precise, beautifully eloquent writer such as Ogawa, she makes what is left unsaid and unacknowledged the dominant theme of the collection. The girl in The Diving Pool carries out horrible acts of cruelty without really knowing why; in Pregnancy Diary, a young woman is mesmerised and yet alienated by her sister’s pregnancy:

“I wonder how she broke the news to her husband. I don’t really know what they talk about when I’m not around. In fact, I don’t really understand couples at all. They seem like some sort inexplicable gaseous body to me – a shapeless, colourless, unintelligible thing trapped in a laboratory beaker.”

Again, the narrator does not behave well, indeed, behaves in a shocking way, with quiet malice. The inarticulate nature of the narrators makes their behaviour all the more unsettling, as it is presented through simple statements of fact, unadorned and unjustified.

In the final story, Dormitory, a young woman returns to the dorm building she stayed in as a student:

“I would hear it for the briefest moment whenever my thoughts returned to the dormitory. The world in my head would become white, like a wide, snow-covered plain, and from somewhere high up in the sky, the faint vibration began…I never knew how to describe it. Still, from time to time I attempted analogies: the icy murmur of a fountain in winter when a coin sinks to the bottom; the quaking of the fluid in the inner ear as you get off a merry-go-round; the sound of night passing through the palm of your hand still gripping the phone after your lover hangs up…”

Ogawa is a stunning writer, and in this final story, rather than a psychologically disturbed protagonist, she unsettles the reader by leading them down a well-worn narrative route, before abruptly destabilising it with a surreal and astonishing final image. Highly recommended.

“The weather is like the government, always in the wrong.” (Jerome K. Jerome)

What, in the name of Tomasz Schafernaker, is going on with the weather? (For those of you in countries where this legend doesn’t broadcast, he became my favourite –and I didn’t even know I needed one – when he ended a forecast with: “So, in summary…” then blew a raspberry and gave the thumbs-down. Succinct and accurate, Tomasz.)

Interview__Tomasz_Schafernaker

Here in the UK we’ve had a weirdly mild winter, with the exception of 3 days this week which were the seasonal norm, and now we’re back to disconcertingly warm.  Meanwhile the east coast of the US has had the worst snow storm in 100 years. This has now passed and apparently skies have brightened, but please stay safe if you are there, reader. To give myself the sense of winter which is lacking here, I thought I would look at 2 snowbound novels. Inevitably, these will not be set in Britain, and so they also represent two more stops on the Around the World in 80 books reading challenge – hoorah! Coincidentally, they are also both collected short stories which do form a sort of narrative, so don’t be put off, short-story-phobes.

_65866840_rogerbruce

Image from here

Firstly, A Winter Book by Tove Jansson, who I’ve written about before, a Finnish writer who wrote in Swedish, best known for the Moomins but a wonderful writer for adults too.  If you’re a fan of Jansson and have read her semi-autobiographical The Sculptor’s Daughter, then you might find this repetitive as the vast number of stories are taken from there. However, if you want to dip a toe into Jansson to see how you get on with her, this is as good a place to start as any.

Much is written from a child’s perspective and Jansson’s independent, stubborn and wonderfully inventive nature shines through. In the story Snow (I’m being resolutely obvious in my choices) she finds herself snowbound with her mother in an unfamiliar house.

“But I said nothing because I didn’t like this strange house. I stood in the window and watched snow falling, and it was all wrong. It wasn’t the same as in town. There it blows black and white over the roof or falls gently as if from heaven, and forms beautiful arches over the sitting-room window. The landscape looked dangerous too. It was bare and open and swallowed up the snow, and the trees stood in black rows that ended in nothing. At the edge of the world there was a narrow fringe of forest. Everything was wrong.”

Jansson’s world is small, yet enormous.  Much is set on her beloved island of Klovharu, and in Snow this is narrowed down to a single house, yet with her child’s imagination, it becomes a fairytale, in the Grimm sense, with a feeling of unreality and menace.

“Next morning the daylight was green, underwater lighting throughout the room. Mummy was asleep. I got up and opened the door and saw that the lamps were on in all the rooms although it was morning and the green light came through the snow which covered the windows all the way up. Now it had happened. The house was single enormous snowdrift, and the surface of the ground was somewhere high up above the roof.”

Jansson’s style is simple and pared back, which I think makes it all the more wonderful. It captures a child’s voice without artifice and is dramatic in its directness.

There is a similar sense of surreal wonder in The Iceberg, a delightful story where the young girl spots an iceberg floating nearby with a grotto hollowed out of it:

“My hands and my tummy began to feel icy-cold and I sat up. The grotto was the same size as me, but I didn’t dare to jump. And if one doesn’t dare to do something immediately, then one never does it.

I switched on the torch and threw it into the grotto. It fell on its side and lit up the whole grotto, making it just as beautiful as I had imagined it would be. …it was so unbearably beautiful that I had to get away from the whole thing as quickly as possible, send it away, do something! So I sat down firmly and placed both feet on the iceberg and pushed it as hard as I could It didn’t move.

‘Go away!’ I shouted. ‘Clear off!’”

This magical, humorous tale is pure Jansson: a truly memorable delight.

Secondly, A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov, a collection of his stories about being a newly-qualified doctor in an isolated practice, serving poverty-stricken rural Russian workers.

“The nearest street lamps are thirty-two miles away in the district town. Life there is sweet: it has a cinema, shops. While the snow is whirling and howling out here in the open country, there on the screen no doubt, the cane-brake is bending to the breeze and palm trees sway as a tropical island comes into view….”

He is the only doctor in the practice and finds himself woefully underprepared, his distinction in exams teaching him nothing about how to do his job.

“I tried to talk evenly and gravely, and to repress impulsive movements as far as possible, to walk and not run as twenty-four-year-olds do who have just left university. Looking back, I now realise that the attempt did not come off at all…I had been shown round the hospital and was left in no doubt whatever that it was generously equipped. With equal certainty I was forced to admit (inwardly of course) that I had no idea what many of these shiny, unsullied instruments were for.”

Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe in the 2012 TV adaptation

Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe in the 2012 TV adaptation

Living in fear of a patient presenting with a strangulated hernia, Bulgakov somehow manages to muddle through, and actually seems to make a fairly decent doctor despite his own fear and misgivings: “I thought to myself: ‘What am I doing? I shall only kill the child.’ But I said: ‘Come on, come on – you’ve got to agree! You must! Look, her nails are already turning blue.”

Bulgakov’s writing throughout these stories might surprise fans of his surrealist masterpiece The Master and Margarita, as it is a determinedly realistic and linear narrative. However, it is bleak, funny, highly readable, and there are a few hints of what was to come once Bulgkov gave up his medical practice and turned all his attention to writing…

“Outside was a sight I had never seen before. There was no sky and no earth – only twisting, swirling whiteness, sideways and aslant, up and down, as though the devil had gone mad with a packet of tooth powder.”

To end, unapologetically cute footage of Japanese snow monkeys warming up in hot springs:

“I don’t know where I’m going from here but I promise it won’t be boring.” (David Bowie)

David Bowie died on 11 January (and then Alan Rickman 3 days later – 2016 is rubbish so far).  Although I have never been personally moved by a celebrity death, shocking and sad as they are, on Monday I found myself weeping in the middle of King’s Road (lesson: don’t look at the BBC News app in public).  In common with his worldwide legions of fans, Bowie had a special place in my heart and it’s a horrible shock that our hero has gone.

Consoling myself through the internet, I discovered he had listed his 100 Must Read books, so I thought I would look at two in this post. Sarah over at Hard Book Habit also wrote about this list, do pop over and read her lovely post. One of my choices is also my first stop on Hard Book Habit’s Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, which you can read all about here.

Firstly, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961), probably her most famous novel.  Miss Brodie is a romantic teacher in a conservative girl’s school in Edinburgh in the 1930s. Eschewing the curriculum, she educates her girls in the ways of art, love… and fascism. Boasting “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” Miss Brodie has a group of girls who form the ‘Brodie set’, and the novel, slipping back and forth in time, is told mainly from their points of view, despite a third person narrator.

“Miss Brodie had already selected her favourites, or rather those whom she could trust; or rather those whose parents she could trust not to lodge complaints about the more advanced and seditious aspects of her educational policy.”

Miss Brodie repeatedly insists that she is in her prime; she is silly and vain, and the school are out to get her. But Spark does not judge her harshly, suggesting she is just in the wrong place at the wrong time:

 “It is not to be supposed that Miss Brodie was unique at this point of her prime…there were legions of her kind during the nineteen-thirties, women from the age of thirty and upward, who crowded their war-bereaved spinsterhood with voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic practices in art or social welfare, education or religion.”

We learn quite early on that she is betrayed, and that it one of her set who betray her, forcing her into early retirement.  Miss Brodie is a complex character: charismatic; aspirational for herself and others; entirely inappropriate towards her pupils and with truly hideous politics.  She is an independent spirit who vastly underestimates her own vulnerability.

“It was then that Miss Brodie looked beautiful and fragile, just as dark heavy Edinburgh itself could suddenly be changed into a floating city when the light was a special pearly white and fell upon one of the gracefully fashioned streets. In the same way Miss Brodie’s masterful features became clear and sweet to Sandy when viewed in the curious light of the woman’s folly”

Dame Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie in the 1969 film

Dame Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie in the 1969 film

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short novel – 128 pages in my edition – which shows just how much a brilliant writer can say in a short space. Spark has created one of the legendary characters of modern fiction who truly stays with you: like her or loathe her, its almost impossible not to be drawn in, becoming one of the ‘Brodie set’.

Secondly, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, set during the nineteenth century Risorgimento, whereby the different states of the Italian peninsula unified into a single state. Telling the story of the aristocratic Sicilian Salina family, particularly Fabrizio, the Prince, the novel has an elegiac quality as it documents the decline of the family and change of a way of life.

“Between the pride and intellectuality of his mother and the sensuality and irresponsibility of his father, poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jove-like frown, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move toward saving it.”

The Prince is surrounded by people, between political responsibilities and social engagements, yet he is an isolated figure, partly due to his “contempt for all his own relatives and friends, all of whom seemed to him mere driftwood in the languid meandering stream of Sicilian pragmatism”.

But the Prince cannot resist the forces of all that surrounds him, and while the military action of the Risorgimento takes place only by report, he and his family are dragged towards modernisation, such as having his aristocratic gene pool diluted by the daughter of a clerical man who:

 “moved through the forest of life with the confidence of an elephant which advances in a straight line, rooting up trees and trampling down lairs , without even noticing scratches of thorns and moans from the crushed”

The domestic is resolutely tied with the political and historical, even during the intimacy of seduction:

“he felt as if by those kisses he were taking possession of Sicily once more, of the lovely faithless land which now, after a vain revolt, had surrendered to him again, as always to his family, its carnal delights and golden crops.”

Sicily_Map

Yet while the people are tied to the land and its history, a recurring theme is of human insignificance, of the transitory nature of humans and their constructs, of all around us falling away. This isn’t depressing, and indeed there is a subtle humour in The Leopard, but it is sad and there is a sense of existential crisis. This wider theme is distilled into the Prince’s relationship with his beloved stars:

“As always, seeing them revived him; they were distant, they were omnipotent and at the same time they were docile to his calculations; just the contrary to humans, always so near, so weak and yet so quarellsome”

The Leopard is a short novel but it took me a while to read it as it so densely written, not a word is wasted. Lampedusa’s use of imagery is strikingly beautiful and he is not afraid to tackle huge ideas.

“the real problem is how to go on living this life of the spirit in its most sublimated moments, those moments that are most like death”

To end, a memory from last summer.  I accompanied my friend’s children – aged 4 and 7 – to an open-air showing of Labyrinth.  There are contradictory reports about Bowie’s feelings towards this film, but for me it has a special place in my heart because it was the point at which, aged nine, I first fell in love with him.

Prior to the showing, there were many jokes about indoctrination and my brainwashing of children, but on arrival I found my flash cards on The Life and Times of David Bowie were not needed.  There were a number of avid Labyrinth-watchers dressed up in oversized mullet wigs and inappropriately large codpieces, a la Jareth the Goblin King.  The kids squealed with delight and ran around to greet them all, crying “David Bowie! David Bowie!” When my friend’s son arrived back where we were sitting, he flopped down, breathless with joy, and simply said “David Bowie.”

“I know just how you feel.” I told him.

 

“Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.” (Mark Twain)

Happy 2016! How are your New Year’s resolutions going? I excelled myself this time around, by abandoning mine before I’d even begun.  My internal monologue went thusly:

“I’m going to not buy any more books until I’ve read all those I already own.

… except playtexts (they’re so small they barely count).

…and Persephones.

…and green Viragos.

…and anything else that I really, really want.”

*Sigh* Useless. Even Paul Newman has lost all faith in me.

GIF-give-up-look-down-Paul-Newman-resigned-sad-GIF

OK, so that was just an excuse to put a picture of Paul Newman in the post and if we’ve learnt one thing, it’s that I am incapable of exercising any sort of self-control, especially regarding books and gifs, and cheese, and single malts, and watching inane  detective shows, and…..

So if you are a fellow willpower-free zone, I have an answer for you. Surround yourself with people who are worse than you in some way, and you’ll realise you’re not so bad after all. Now is not the time for aspirations, it is a time for resignation and another fistful of chocolates :-)  This week I thought I’d look at anti-heroes, and two characters who will make you feel like the most virtuous person alive.

Firstly, Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955).

Matt Damon as Tom Ripley in the 1999 film

Matt Damon as Tom Ripley in the 1999 film

 Tom Ripley is approached by the father of an acquaintance in a bar, who has mistaken him for a decent human being:

“Judging [Tom] from that night, Charley could have told Mr Greenleaf that he was intelligent, level-headed, scrupulously honest, and very willing to do a favour. It was a slight error.”

An understatement to say the least. Tom agrees to go to Europe to try and persuade the prodigal son, Dickie Greenleaf, to return home and join the family business, not for any altruistic reason but because he’s worried a petty scam he’s been running is catching up with him. Dickie is a golden boy, rich, idle and good-looking :

“Tom could not help feeling that Richard was not very intelligent, or else he loved to be photographed and he thought he looked best with his mouth spread from ear to ear, which was not very intelligent of him, either.”

Tom becomes obsessed with Dickie, wanting to be all that he is and have all he has:

“Possessions reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence. It was as simple as that. And wasn’t that worth something? He existed.”

Tom’s slippery notion of himself, identity and existence is the driving force of the novel as he dissolves the boundaries between him and Dickie, eventually *SPOILER* killing him and stealing his identity.  The remainder of the novel sees him dodging authorities and Dickie’s friends, spinning lies and manipulating everyone in his path: “He was himself and yet not himself. He felt blameless and free, despite the fact that he consciously controlled every move he made.”

Tom is a sociopath of course, and the real strength of the novel lies in the study of his character rather than the thriller elements, well done as they are.  It is Tom’s character that spawned four sequels and really gets under your skin; as a reader I felt drawn in by him, creating a weird ambivalence through empathy and disgust.  Tom is a powerful but sad character – he knows something is missing in him, something that makes him entirely alone:

“It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them and the worst was that there would always be the illusion, for a time, that he did know them, that he and they were in complete harmony and were alike.”

The Anthony Minghella film adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley is widely known, but I also recommend a French adaptation from 1960, Plein Soleil starring an unnervingly beautiful Alain Delon as Ripley:

Secondly, Joe Lampton in Room at the Top by John Braine (1957).

Laurence Harvey as Joe Lampton in the 1959 film

Laurence Harvey as Joe Lampton in the 1959 film

I expected this story of social climbing to have dated but surprisingly, it wasn’t so. The references to northern mill towns being a hive of industry is sadly past and the rigid social classes, worry over a relationship’s ten year age gap and Joe’s lover’s concern that she is ancient at the ripe old age of 34, seem less relevant. However, as a portrayal of greed for material acquisition and the mistaking of such as being a purposeful life, Room at the Top is as incisive as ever.

Joe leaves the poverty of his home town of Dufton to move to the more prosperous Warley:

“I was going to the Top, into a world that even from my first glimpses filled me with excitement: big houses with drives and orchards and manicured hedges, a prepatory school to which the boys would soon return from adventures in Brittany and Brazil and India or at the very least an old castle in Cornwall, expensive cars – Bentleys, Lagondas, Daimlers, Jaguars –parked everywhere as a kind of ostentatious litter as if the district had dropped them at random as evidences of its wealth”

Joe rooms at the top of one of the large houses, takes a job at the local town hall, but has ambitions far beyond his current circumstances:

“I saw myself, compared with him, as the Town Hall Clerk, the subordinate pen-pusher…I wanted an Aston-Martin, I wanted a three-guinea linen shirt, I wanted a girl with a Riviera suntan – these were my rights, I felt, a signed and sealed legacy.”

Joe joins the local am-dram society and is drawn to young, rich Susan: “I’ll marry her if I have to put her in the family way to do it. I’ll make her daddy give me a damned good job. I’ll never count pennies again.” Thus begins a double life, one where he is with Susan, determinedly climbing the slippery pole, “I was manoeuvring for position all the time, noting the effect of each word; and it seemed to devalue everything I said” and one where he is with Alice, his older lover, able to be authentically himself.

Joe is an intriguing character, utterly reprehensible in his machinations but painfully self-aware and never self-justifying: he wants what he wants and he sets out to get it. There is no sense that he is any better or any worse than those who surround him, and so Room at the Top, while an intimate portrait of one man, is also a damning portrait of post-war society.  I didn’t wholly dislike Joe, but  Braine doesn’t shy away from the emotional fall-out of using people in this way and we are not expected to excuse Joe’s behaviour.

 “I felt choked with my own selfishness as nasty as catarrh; there was nothing in my heart to match the lovely sweep of the moor and the sense of infinite space behind it and a million extra stars above.”

Joe’s punishment is a terrible one: he gets everything he wants.

Room at the Top was a huge success and quickly adapted into a similarly successful film with Simone Signoret winning an Oscar for her portrayal of Alice:

So take it from me, Tom Ripley and Joe Lampton: even if you’ve failed in all your New Year resolutions, you’re doing OK :-)

“He lives in a house, a very big house in the country.” (Blur)

In the words of Sir Noddy of Holder, “It’s ChristmAAAAAAAs!”

animated-merry-christmas-image-0259

If you are already baulking at the thought of spending several days trapped together with your dearest loved ones, a selection tin of chocolates and a turkey that never seems to end despite the fact that everyone somnambulates around with its half-masticated flesh hanging from their mouths for at least twenty hours in every day, then take heart. Being trapped together in country houses has provided some wonderful material for Christmas reads, and escaping into one will prevent you killing off your relatives (which I wouldn’t recommend anyway, because you are, in crime-story parlance, part of a closed circle of suspects and you’ll definitely get found out).

879f714cdc4289b3ecf538122e743869

(Image from here)

Firstly, The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay (1936), a novel from the golden age of detective fiction which has been re-published by the British Library Crime Classics series.  The Melbury family, despite their inherent distaste for one another, spend Christmas together at Flaxmere, the country seat of Sir Osmond Melbury. Sir Osmond is deeply unlikeable, a controlling patriarch who manipulates his family through threats of disinheritance. His daughter Jennifer attempts a certain degree of rebellion:

“She developed some sort of life of her own by working in the Women’s Institutes, but these activities were hampered by Sir Osmond, who disapproved of what he considered the Bolshevist tendencies of the movement.”

Of course, it’s no surprise to the reader that it is Sir Osmond who meets a sticky end, shot in the head by someone clearly undertaking a Yuletide charitable act for the benefit of his family. Suspicion falls on the guest dressed in the Santa costume (definitely not the actual Santa, kids, don’t worry)who discovered the body. Colonel Halstock, Chief Constable of Haulmshire and friend of the family, is brought into investigate.  The realisation that in fact there were two people wandering around in Santa outfits is brought to the Colonel’s attention:

“there was a tap at the door and in walked Miss Portisham and George’s son, Kit. The child strutted in, very pleased with himself, and yet a little nervous. I couldn’t think for a moment what made him look so absurd. Of course, it was the eyebrows!  He had tufts of bushy white hair stuck onto his brows, rather crookedly, one of them taking a satirical tilt towards his temple.”

This being a golden age novel there are false wills, documents half-burnt and discovered in fireplaces, faithful old retainers speaking in regional accents, and a thwarted young couple. The Christmas setting is perfect for a country house murder:

 “they must be having a pretty awful time, I realized, especially as they were, most of them, not given to intellectual occupations. They were forbidden to leave the house, except to walk up and down the drive within sight. They could find nothing to do except sit about and suspect one another.”

So there you are, if you find yourself sitting around on Christmas Day gazing at your loved ones and suspecting them of murder, it’s probably best to distract yourself with an intellectual pursuit or a long walk. Besides, I guarantee they almost definitely didn’t kill anyone.

 

Secondly, Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford (1932, the lovely edition above is by Capuchin Classics, 2012), in which no murders take place despite a family being holed-up together in a country house for the season.

“’Oh what heavenly fun it will be!’ and Bobby vaulted over some fairly low railings and back, casting off for a moment his mask of elderly roué and slipping on that of a tiny-child-at-its-first-pantomime, another role greatly favoured by this unnatural boy.”

This being Mitford, the family and assorted hangers-on have names like Bobby Bobbin, Lord Leamington Spa, and my favourite, Squibby Almanack.  Christmas Pudding is just such a joy – a silly, farcical, witty, clever, well-observed joy. There’s a plot of sorts: pretentious author Paul Fotheringay wangles his way into Compton Bobbin – “one of those houses which abound in every district of rural England, and whose chief characteristic is that they cannot but give rise, on first sight, to a feeling of depression in any sensitive observer” – under false pretences of being a tutor to the mercurial Bobby, and finds himself vying with Lord Lewes for the romantic attentions of Philadelphia Bobbin. But really, who cares? The fun of this novel isn’t in what happens, it’s in Mitford’s sharp observations “a woman had either a good reputation or an international reputation” and ridiculous characters interacting with one another.

“Bobby was now seldom to be seen; he spent most of his time giggling in corners with Miss Heloise Potts, a pretty black-eyed little creature of seventeen who substituted parrot-like shrieks and screams of laughter for the more usual amenities of conversation”

“’Squibby dear,’ said the duchess, waving an empty glass at Bobby as she spoke, ‘just tell me something. Have you seen Rosemary and Laetitia latishly? Are they alright, the sweet poppets?’”

I can’t help thinking it’s a shame that Lady Bobbin never met Lord Melbury, as she also tends to blame the Bolsheviks for anything she doesn’t like (in this instance foot-and-mouth disease which prevents her hunting). But if you think these references mean Mitford’s work is politically dated, let me give you this little nugget:

“He was evidently a man of almost brutish stupidity, and Paul, who had hardly ever met any Conservative Members of Parliament before, was astounded to think that such a person could be tolerated for a moment at the seat of government.”

Ahem.

I highly recommend this, in fact I’m almost tempted to say the thing that should never be said about humourous novels, but its Christmas and I’m drunk feeling festive so I’m going to say it anyway: if you like Wodehouse, I think you’ll like this :-)

If this has whetted your appetite for golden age country house mysteries, the BBC is screening an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic And Then There Were None (which is admittedly an island house rather than a rural one) on Boxing Day:

Season’s Greetings to you all!

“I want my limits to be drawn by my own sensibilities, not by my melanin count” (Zadie Smith)

This post is my second contribution to #DiverseDecember, which was brought about due to there being no books by BAME authors on the World Book Night list. Please head over to Naomi’s blog for an excellent, thorough discussion about this.

This week I thought I’d look at a classic novel by a Black American writer and a highly acclaimed first novel by a Malaysian writer now living in Britain, linked by portrayals of marriage. Sadly neither feature an Impressive Clergyman:

Firstly, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937), a much loved classic – my copy comes complete with effusive cover quotes from Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Oprah Winfrey. I recommend this Virago edition: it has an interesting introduction by Zadie Smith, from which I took the title quote for this post, and an afterword by Sherley Anne Williams.

Beautiful Janie lives with her grandmother in the early part of the twentieth century:

“You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways. You in particular. Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfil my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do. Dat’s one of de hold-backs of slavery. But nothin’ can’t stop you from wishin’. You can’t beat nobody down so low till you can rob ‘em of they will.”

When Janie is caught kissing a local bad boy, her grandmother arranges a marriage with a much older man who has land. It is an empty, lonely relationship and Janie runs off with her second husband, Jody. He is glamorous and exciting, but wants a trophy wife and is given to violence towards her:

“Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see where it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over.”

This is really what TEWWG is about: a woman’s search for self-fulfilment. Although the narrative drive comes from her three marriages, Janie is searching for a situation that will allow her to express who she is. She finds it with her third husband, Tea Cake:

“He drifted off into sleep and Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place.”

Janie is a compelling character, a spirited woman who strives for her voice to be heard and respected at a time when being a black woman meant there were few opportunities available. Hurston is undoubtedly a politically engaged writer, and her style is direct but not didactic. Rather, she has an unflinching gaze and a dry humour:

“Mrs Turner, like all other believers, had built an altar to the unobtainable – Caucasian characteristics for all….Behind her crude words was a belief that somehow she and others through worship could attain her paradise – a heaven of straight-haired, thin-lipped, high-nose boned white seraphs.”

Zora Neale Hurston, Class of 1928, Chicago, Ill., November 9, 1934

Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God is sad and hopeful; it is wise and affecting.

“Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”

Secondly, The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw (2005), which was longlisted for the Man Booker, the Guardian First Book Prize and the Impac, winning the Whitbread First Novel award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It tells the story of the marriage of Snow to Johnny, a merchant/mechanic/mercenary, during the Second World War.

The tale begins with their son Jasper, attending his father’s funeral.  Jasper’s feelings towards his father are complex to say the least:

“As we drove away I knew that I had been mistaken. That tender moment had been a mere aberration; it changed nothing. My father was born with an illness, something that had eaten to the core of him; it had infected him forever, erasing all that was good inside him.”

Snow’s diary from the early days of her marriage to Johnny makes up the second part of the novel and gives a different picture of Johnny as a quiet, conflicted man, perpetually displaced from his surroundings “I saw Johnny gathering himself to reply. He had an expression I had come to recognise, his broad face set in nearly cross-eyed determination.” Jasper sees his father as a thug, and while Snow doesn’t necessarily understand Johnny any better, she complicates the portrait drawn by her son.

Johnny and Snow honeymoon with an enigmatic Japanese professor for whom Snow feels a deep attraction; a displaced Englishman, Peter Wormwood; and the misnamed Honey, a mine-owner. This part of the novel sees relationships shift and change, reflected within an unpredictable tropical climate, during a strange suspension of reality prior to the Japanese invasion of Malaya:

“They ran through the towns and villages, barely pausing to plant flags of the Rising Sun before moving on. The red dust kicked up by the soldiers’ boots hung in the air, turning it crimson before settling on the leaves of the trees; all along the roads the trees turned red, and in some parts of the valley it was said that the streams ran deep scarlet.”

The third and final part of novel is narrated by an elderly Peter, looking back on that time while planning the new garden for the care home he lives in. As the answers to mysteries within the story emerge, we are left with contradictory accounts and loose ends. It is not so much unreliable narration, as a demonstration of how we are all unreliable narrators; we all have our own truth.

The personal story is bound up in issues of imperialism and displacement, expressed in Peter’s determination that his garden will be resolutely English, despite being planted in Malaysia:

“Not just lily-of –the valley, but ox-eye daisy, foxglove, cranesbill, snake’s head fritillary: I will plant them all in this hot earth… no longer will I have to wait for summer to enjoy its scent, for here it is summer all year long”

Tash Aw, who grows Malaysian plants in his London garden

Tash Aw, who grows Malaysian plants in his London garden

The overall impression I have on finishing The Harmony Silk Factory  is  captured by a comment the professor makes to Snow:

“Life is a palimpsest.”

Layers upon layers, each leaving their trace on people, places and memories. The Harmony Silk Factory manages the impressive feat of demonstrating how people remain unknown, stories unfinished, and yet still providing a satisfying resolution in itself.

Unfortunately I can’t think of a satisfying resolution to this post, so when in doubt, end on a song. Take it away, Freda:

 

“Yeah, I love being famous. It’s almost like being white, y’know?” (Chris Rock)

This post is part of #DiverseDecember, which was brought about due to there being no books by BAME authors on the World Book Night list. Please head over to Naomi’s blog for an excellent, thorough discussion about this.

I thought I would start by looking at BAME writing that has emerged from that bastion of white, male middle-class privilege: just about everything the theatre. Firstly, Chewing Gum Dreams by Michaela Coel. This one-woman play (performed by the writer) was a huge success, winning awards and transferring from the fringe to the National.

Tracey Gordon, schoolgirl, tells us about her friends, family, and where she lives in Hackney, East London. She’s a bully and a victim of bullying, she’s sweet and vindictive, she’s loyal and she’s betrayed by people. She’s young and she’s trying to understand everything that’s happening to her:

“Candice Ellis is the buffest girl I’ve ever seen in the whole’a Hackney and also my best friend, from primary school – so the love is strong. She’s mixed race with perfect curly ringlets and light brown eyes. Her hair is PERFECT. She should be on an advert. She said she puts some Garner Fructis shit in it every morning, I tried, it didn’t work for me. And it smells like Kiwi; my hair smells like beef soup.”

Tracey gets a boyfriend, someone far removed from the casual sexual assaults she has experienced with other men:

“He’s a writer, he writes books, he wanted me to read some but – . He’s got really big ambitions, wants to go to Uni and that, he says there’s cracks in the floor ‘n I should aim higher before I find myself stuck in dem.

Cracks in the floor.

I tell him those cracks were made for me, they were made for my mum, and her mum and relaxin’ into them is what we do best. I ain’t smart enough to be someone I’m just smart enough to know I’m no-one. I’ve got nothing, so I can’t get nothing. I don’t even think I want anything apart from what, new trainers and longer hair.”

Of course Tracey wants more but as she says, she’s not sure what it is.  Chewing Gum Dreams captures a lot in a short space, about expectations and limitations, those we place on ourselves and those society places on us according to race, social class, gender…serious issues but also delivered with a good deal of humour and lightness of touch which makes it all the more devastating:

“ ‘Erm…No matter what happens, everything’s gonna be alright, yeah?’

She don’t believe me either. She gimme a face full of ashes and questions.”

Secondly, Elmina’s Kitchen by Kwame Kwei-Armah, also set in Hackney, and which also played at the National to great acclaim.

Deli is trying to run a West Indian restaurant in Hackney’s ‘murder mile’ while avoiding the crime that surrounds him:

Deli. You can’t run a business on lies.

Digger. You think a Indian man would do that? That’s why the black man will always be down, He don’t know how to analyse his environment.

Deli’s son Ashley idolises Digger, a man with a gun and an income of uncertain provenance:

Digger. And you wanna be a bad man? Go back to school, youth, and learn. You can’t just walk into dis bad man t’ing, you gotta learn the whole science of it. You step into that arena and you better be able to dance wid death til it mek you dizzy. You need to have thought about, have played wid and have learnt all of the possible terrible and torturous ways that death could arrive. And then ask yourself are you ready to do that and more to someone that you know. Have you done that, youth?

Kwei-Armah does a great job in showing the pressures that surround a group of men (and one woman) trying to make their way in the world. The restaurant is a microcosm, demonstrating how self-respect becomes bound up in wider issues of societal identity. Not all of us will worry about paying protection money to the Yardies, but the struggle to find a life that nourishes rather than degrades is a broad one.

“Deli. You know what I read in one of those ‘white’ books the other day? The true sign of intelligence is how man deals with the problems of his environment….(Shouts) …I don’t want to live like this Ashley, it ain’t fun….

Ashley. Get offfffff, you’re hurting me….

Deli. (from the heart)…. I’m trying, I’m trying to change shit around here, but you ain’t on line, bra! Where you are trying to head, it’s a dead ting, a dark place, it don’t go nowhere.”

Elmina’s Kitchen is a modern day tragedy, powerfully affecting, questioning and angry.

If you’d like to see Elmina’s Kitchen performed by the original cast, some kind person has uploaded the TV production onto YouTube so do take a look.

hackney-map

(Image from here)