“Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” (Mark Twain)

Being a Brit, I love talking about the weather.  Seriously.  I love the fact that it’s the usual conversation opener for the stranger next to you in the queue (another great British past time). I never tire of it.  There’s always something to say.  At the moment, that thing is: “Will this never end?  I’m melting. I’m honestly melting.  Look, my feet are fusing with the tarmac.  Look.” Yes, we are having a heat wave.  And my usual refrain in hot weather of “At least it’s not as bad as 2006” won’t work, because it is as bad as 2006. It’s too hot.  I live in London.  Over 30C is fine by the coast, but in a city that is ill-equipped to deal with it (there’s not exactly an abundance of air-conditioning; the Tube is like some sort of medieval torture oven masquerading as public transport; the shops are selling out of water, and people are leaving huge chunks of their own scorched skin in their wake) it’s truly revolting.  We had respite of one blissfully grey day and then that blistering ball of fire was back in the sky.  So I’m afraid there was only one choice for a theme for this week’s post, and it has to reflect my current obsession with all things meteorological (I’m checking the BBC weather pages every few hours in the delusional hope the forecast changes to gale-force winds and squally showers.  Not that I know what squally showers are but I’m pretty sure I’d welcome them right now. Although last night there was a thunderstorm & all that’s done is make the humidity worse.) I’ve chosen two novels that use stifling hot weather to further the oppression felt by their protagonists. For those of you suffering a heat wave, I hope it helps in the way CS Lewis identified: “We read to know we are not alone.”  For those of you in colder climes, I hope you feel a reflected warmth from the stories, you lucky, chilly people.

Firstly, A Crime in the Neighbourhood by Suzanne Berne (Penguin,1997).  This was Suzanne Berne’s first book and was pretty well-hyped, winning the Orange Prize and being compared to To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m sure the comparisons were well-intentioned, but who can live up to that?  To Kill a Mockingbird is about as perfect a piece of writing as you’ll come across.  It’s hardly a major criticism if I say this isn’t as good; few books are.  But A Crime in the Neighbourhood is still a well-written, atmospheric and insightful novel with plenty to say.

Set in 1972 with the Watergate scandal playing out in the background, 10-year-old Marsha tells the story of her suburban neighbourhood, where the  body of a 12-year-old boy has been found, raped and strangled.  Marsha has broken her ankle and so is somewhat confined, and her father has left the family for his wife’s sister.  As both her family and the wider community try to deal with the acts of violence that have been perpetrated, Marsha watches and tries to make sense of it all.

“It had been wet in March and early April, then suddenly it got very hot.  In just a few days, our big front yard went from a brown mat to a seething tangle of colour […] Blooming saturated the air, seeping in through open windows and under doors and into the sofa’s upholstery […] A kind of lawlessness infected everything.  Next door, eight-year-old Luann Lauder decorated herself with toothpaste one Sunday morning and ran across the lawn in only her underpants.  Boyd Ellison appeared on the playground one afternoon with a ten-speed bicycle he said was a birthday present but which looked just like our neighbour David Bridgeman’s bicycle, which had recently been stolen.  Blue jays screamed all day long. Even the grass looked unearthly green, as it does right before an electrical storm, when the air starts to hum and your hair stands on end.  And yet our neighbourhood was anything but lawless.”

The atmosphere in the neighbourhood becomes stifling both physically and psychologically.  Berne creates a sense of things quietly building towards a denouement, but not an outcome that can be trusted to bring resolution (we know from the start that the boy’s killer is never found).  When Marsha’s mother says “I sometimes think the suburbs are a distortion.” she picks up on the way human beings can warp what they see when emotions are heightened, and how dangerous this can be when it happens as a group.  Within this atmosphere, Marsha builds her notebook of Evidence:

“Among the details I overheard from my post on the porch, all of which I printed in my notebook with Julie’s Bic pen, are the following: Boyd Ellison was alive and had told the police everything. A man on a motorcycle had attacked him. A man with a beard attacked him. It was a bearded man with a foreign accent, maybe Dutch or Turkish. It was a hippie on drugs. Boyd was in a coma. Boyd had called out his mother’s name. He didn’t know who his parents were.  He was dead. He was alive. He was alive but just barely. He was dead.”

Marsha’s distortions will have a cataclysmic effect when she decides to voice them.  Although taking a single crime in the neighbourhood as its starting point, the novel actually concerns itself with many types of violence human beings can enact on each other, almost with indifference. However, the tone is realistic rather than downbeat, and so the novel is thought-provoking without being depressing.

A very different tale takes place within the sultry weather of The Mango Season by Amulya Malladi.  Now, this is a slight departure for me because generally I’ll only write about books I really rate, whereas I think The Mango Season is…OK.  It’s not a terrible book by any stretch, but it’s quite pedestrian in its language and the story is somewhat slight. However, I decided I would write about it as generally “summer reads” are usually something light by definition, nothing too taxing while you’re roasting your body by the pool.  And as a summer read The Mango Season fits the bill fine. Priya is living in the US, engaged to an American.  She returns home to India to meet her family for the first time in seven years, to try and deal with the fact that they want to arrange a marriage for her.  She returns in mango season, the hottest time of year:

“It was overpowering, the smell of mangoes – some fresh, some old, some rotten.  With a large empty coconut straw basket, I followed my mother as she stopped at every stall in the massive mango bazaar.  They had to taste a certain way; they had to be sour and they had to be mangoes that would not turn sweet when ripened. The mangoes that went into making mango pickle were special mangoes. It was important to use your senses to pick the right batch.”

The story plays out as you’d expect – Priya struggles to adjust to being back at home and the differences between America and India, and between her and her family. This is a light book and the dramas play out comfortably, The Mango Season is a comforting read. Malladi writes about India evocatively and with affection:

“Yellow and black auto rickshaws drove noisily on the thin, broken, asphalt road as I walked on the dirty roadside, sidestepping around rotten banana peels and other unidentified trash.  […] I stopped in front of a small paan and bidi shop where they sold soda, cigarettes, bidis, paan, chewing gum and black market porn magazines, the covers of which you could only see through shiny plastic wrappers. They were hidden, but not completely; you could once in a while catch a naked thigh or dark nipple thrusting against the plastic wrap. A man sat in a hole in the wall and looked at me questioningly.

Goli soda hai?” I asked.”

The Mango Season is a pleasant read, and when it’s this hot, that’s enough.

Here are the books basking:

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“If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito.” (Betty Reese)

My mother was telling me this week that she has had a lot of ideas for short stories come to her, and was asking me for collections of short stories to read to update herself with the form.  It was a coincidence as I’d just finished reading Miranda July’s No-one Belongs Here More than You (Canongate, 2007) which is a highly readable collection of odd, unsettling stories that were both challenging and compassionate.  So there’s my first recommendation.  I’ve talked about short story collections in other posts: James Joyce’s Dubliners, Jeremy Dyson’s Never Trust a Rabbit, but I thought I’d write a post specifically around this type of fiction, as according to Truman Capote, the short story is “the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing”. Good luck Maman!

Firstly, Sea Monster Tattoo and Other Stories by Ruth Thomas (1997, Polygon).  This was Ruth Thomas’ debut, and it is a confident and varied collection of stories, some of which are only a few pages.  “In Love” is one such story, an entire love affair described over 2 and half sides.  Thomas is such an accomplished writer than the brevity doesn’t result in a lack of depth.  Rather, she is able to create a sense of things distilled to their essence, but lightly, looking at the meaning of everyday occurrences.  Sometimes her imagery is startling:

“In February her flatmate said, “I can’t stand the strain,” and moved out. Everything had ice on it, even eyelashes.”

This almost seems like a non-sequitur, then the meaning hits you, all the more forcefully for allowing the reader to connect the dots.  Some of the stories read like that as a whole; Thomas takes snapshots of lives and then leaves you to find the meaning in the picture.  The title story tells the tale of a group of girls travelling in southern Europe.  Rather than a time of youthful exuberance, it’s an experience of dreary surroundings and small niggles.  As the narrator feels distanced from her companions, we are brought alongside her thoughts:

“I’m thinking of the last time I was on a ferry, in Scotland.  It was cold then too, at a strange time in the morning; I had got off some coach, woken up from some strange dream, and I think there were also sheep in a lorry.  But I was much younger, travelling with my family.  When we got on board there was a fruit machine and decks of cards sticky with beer.  The crossing took over four hours.  My mother tried to get me to sleep on an orange plastic sofa in the lounge but I just sat and stared out of the window at the sea , which was dark and wide and smooth as chocolate.”

The stories in Sea Monster Tattoo are full of such small observances, both of surroundings and of people.  Through these details, Thomas shows great empathy and understanding, and just how much a short narrative can express.

Secondly, Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry by Elizabeth McCracken (1993, Turtle Bay Books).  Again, this was a writer’s debut, but I confess I read it after I’d read her first novel, The Giant’s House, because I’d loved it so much.  I wasn’t disappointed.  The things I’d loved about the novel: inventiveness, compassion, quirkiness, are all present in McCracken’s short fiction.  In “It’s Bad Luck to Die”, a woman tells of her love for her tattoo artist husband.  She’s six feet tall:

“Years later he told me how he was bowled over by all those square inches of skin, how I was so big and still not fat.  “I fell for you right away,” he said.

[…] but he didn’t give me my first tattoo till a year later, the day after we were married: a little butterfly pooled in the small of my back.  Five years later, he began referring to it as his “early work,” even though he’d been tattooing for twenty-five years before he met me.  That didn’’t rankle me as much as you might think – I liked being his early body of work, work-in-progress, future.  That little butterfly sat by itself for a while, but in five years time Tiny flooded it with other designs: carnations, an apple, a bomber plane, his initials.”

The tattoos are a living part of her, she almost expects to prick herself on a rose etched on her body.  In the course of 22 pages McCracken portrays this couple and their method of communication that no-one around them understands with such delicate sensitivity that I was really moved by the story; I found the final line brought tears to my eyes. Proof that in the right writer’s hands, you don’t need a whole novel.

In the title story, McCracken’s offbeat humour is at the fore, with a tale of Aunt Helen Beck, who claims to be peoples’ aunt even though they don’t know her, and in this way travels around the country taking advantage of their hospitality. She is a forceful presence:

They went around back and walked into a bright kitchen, full of the sorts of long skinny plants Aunt Helen Beck had always distrusted: they looked like they wanted to ruffle your hair or sample your cooking.  The boy followed them into the house…

“So,” she said. “what’s your name?”

“Mercury,” he said.

“I beg your pardon?”

Ford shrugged. “His mother likes planets.”

“I like vegetables,” said Aunt Helen Beck, “but I wouldn’t name my child Rutabaga.”

Aunt Helen Beck isn’t quite as morally upright and conservative as she likes to convey, and she and Mercury bond in what is a truly touching, unlikely friendship. I think this is McCracken’s great strength: her characters are always unusual but not self-consciously quirky, and her writing reminds us of all the ways human beings can reach out to each other across seeming differences.

Both these collections contain lots of little gems, great stories by accomplished writers with distinctive voices.

Here are the books with a pea, and any princess who’s had a sleepless night can attest to how powerful this small thing can be:

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“L’anglais n’est que du français mal prononcé”/“English is little more than badly pronounced French” (D’Artagnan in Vingt ans après / Twenty Years After – Alexandre Dumas)

Sunday was Bastille Day (La Fête Nationale /Le Quatorze Juillet in France) and so in honour of my friends across La Manche I thought this week I would look at two novels by French writers.  Unfortunately, being a typical Brit, I’m useless at other languages – even one with a 60% overlap with English – and so je regrette, I will be discussing the novels in their English translations. Both are novels, classics of French literature, and both concern adolescents, but other than that they are very different. J’espère que vous apprécierez!

Firstly Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier (1913, my copy Penguin 1987).  Alain-Fournier was the pen name of Henri Alban who died in 1914, fighting in World War I.  He was only 27 when he wrote Le Grand Meaulnes, and I think this is a case where it’s very hard not to read the novel biographically with regard to the author’s own life story.  Le Grand Meaulnes has an elegiac quality, a mourning for a lost France, a golden time which has passed.  It is a story of young adulthood and sexual awakening being told by a narrator looking back on events, and as such it has a nostalgic, idealised tone.  Knowing the author died so quickly after writing it adds to this atmosphere of loss.

The novel is narrated by fifteen year old Francois, who attends the school where his parents are teachers.  He is lonely, and when seventeen year old Augustin Meaulnes arrives at the school, Francois finds a hero (hence le grand…).  Not long after his arrival, Meaulnes finds fireworks left over from Le Quatorze Juillet celebrations (apt for this post):

“He was showing me the two fuses with paper wicks which the flames had bitten into, seared, and then abandoned.  He stuck the nave of the wheels into the gravel, produced a box of matches – this to my astonishment for we were not allowed matches – and stooping carefully held a flame to the wicks.  Then, taking my hand, he pulled me quickly back.

Coming out of doors with Madame Meaulnes…my mother saw to great bouquets of red and white stars soar up from the ground with a hiss.  And for the space of a second she could see me standing in a magical glow, holding the tall newcomer by the hand, and not flinching…

Once again, she had nothing to say.

And that evening a silent companion sat eating at the family table, his head bent over his plate, paying no heed to three pairs of eyes that saw nothing but him.”

A little while after this, Meaulnes disappears for three days.  He returns without explanation, wearing the waistcoat of a Marquis.  Eventually he tells Francois what happened in those missing days, and the adventure is somewhere between reality and a dream.  He lost his way on a journey to the village, and ends up in the grounds of a large estate.  The house has the feeling of being abandoned, and he discovers a box of old clothes, rich costumes, which he dresses in.  He follows a “young dandy”, also dressed in clothes of a bygone era, into the “farm, chateau, abbey, whatever it might be” and finds himself in the middle of a fete where everyone is dressed oddly, feasting and dancing.   In the garden, he sees a young woman, and follows her onto a boat:

“And now on shore, everything fell into place as in a dream.  While children ran about shouting and laughing, and their elders broke up into groups and moved away through the woods, Meaulnes kept to the path where the girl was walking only a few steps ahead. He came up with her before he had given himself time to reflect and said simply:

“You are beautiful.””

And so le grand Meaulnes becomes the romantic hero, as he returns to school and he and Francois attempt to find the chateau, and the young woman, Yvonne, again.  As Meaulnes searches for her in Paris, Francois discovers where the chateau is. Meaulnes and Yvonne are reunited and marry, but not before Meaulnes has had a crisis over the fact that things can never be as they once were:

“Once she laid a hand on his arm gently, in a gesture of trust and helplessness.  Why was le grand Meaulnes at that moment like a stranger, like a man who has failed to find what he sought and for whom nothing else held any interest?  Three years before such a gesture would have overjoyed him to the point of terror, perhaps even madness.  Why then this present emptiness, this aloofness, this inability to be happy?”

And therein lies the rub of this novel – le grand Meaulnes can behave like a bit of an idiot.  He is the eternal romantic, but life cannot be all romance.  As he tries to live out his fantasies, he actually behaves quite badly toward the women in his life.  The women in this novel are not fully drawn, they exist as vessels for le grand Meaulnes’ romanticism, and as such this novel can be a frustrating experience for 21st century readers. But as a portrayal of the time when childhood has been left behind but adulthood is still to be realised, and of a time when a person has an all-consuming romantic sensibility before it becomes tempered by experience, Le Grand Meaulnes is brilliantly evocative.

Secondly, and with a protagonist very different to Meaulnes, Zazie in the Metro/Zazie dans le Metro by Raymond Queneau (1959, my copy Penguin, 2000). Zazie lives in the country, but when her mother wants to have a few days alone with her lover, Zazie arrives in Paris to spend time with her uncle Gabriel, a female impersonator.  Zazie is excited to ride the Metro, but there is a strike on. Undeterred, she explores Paris and has adventures.  And that’s about it, really.  But despite an outwardly simple plot, Zazie is a hugely enjoyable and compelling read.  Zazie is worldly wise and foul-mouthed, and has a great time rocketing around Paris on her own.  Here she is chatting to a police constable about her missing uncle:

“He added with a nostalgic air:

“Words don’t have the same meaning as they did.”

And he sighed as he looked at the extremity of his beetle-crushers.

“None of this gives me back my unkoo,” said Zazie.  “they’ll start saying I got a phobia again and it won’t be true.”

“Don’t worry my child,” said the widow.  “I shall be there to bear witness to your good will and to your innocence.”

“When people are really innocent, that is,” said the constable, “they don’t need anybody.”

“The bastard,” said Zazie, “I can see him coming a mile off. They’re all the same.”

“You know them well as that, then, my poor child?”

“Don’t talk to me about ‘em, my poor lady,” replies Zazie, simpering. “Just fancy, my mamma, she split open my papa’s skull with a chopper. So after that, cops, talk about getting to know them, my dear.”

“Well I never,” said the constable.

“Cops though, they’re just nothing,” said Zazie. “But judges. Well now, that lot…”

“All swine,” said the constable impartially.

“Anyhow, the cops and the judges too,” said Zazie, “I fooled ‘em.  Like that (gesture).””

This scene shows a lot about Zazie: the heroine is no idealised infant, but a manipulative, savvy, funny, independent being who seeks to please no-one.  The novel has a lot of dialogue and as such a lot of slang, like unkoo, or the opening word “Howcanaystinksotho” (how can they stink so?) which according to Wikipedia, in the French original was “Doukipudonktan”  to represent “D’où qu’ils puent donc tant” (“Why do they stink so much?”).  This gives the novel a unique voice and a real feel of stepping into a pre-teenager’s world (although we’re never told exactly how old Zazie is).  It almost reads like a script, particularly when it uses devices like “(gesture)”, and in fact it was made into a film by Louis Malle just a year after publication. But there are times when Queneau takes on a stronger authorial role, and the voice has a light comic tone that is wholly in keeping with his heroine’s dialogue:

“Perceiving her uncle a prey to the victualing mob, she bawled out: Come on, unkoo! And grabbing hold of a carafe full of water, threw it at random into the fray.  So strong is the martial spirit among the daughters of France.  Following this example, the widow Mouaque disseminated ashtrays all around her. So powerful is the spirit of imitation which can cause even the least gifted to act. Then was heard a considerable fracas: Gabriel had just collapsed into the crockery, carrying with him into the debris seven waiters who were completely out of control, five customers who had been taking part and one epileptic.

Rising to their feet with simultaneous impulse, Zazie and the widow Mouaque approached the human magma which was struggling in the sawdust and crockery.  A few judiciously applied blows with a syphon eliminated from the competition several persons endowed with fragile skulls.  Thanks to which Gabriel was able to pick himself up…”

Zazie isn’t necessarily likeable, she’s a self-serving brat, but I love her.  I urge you to spend three days with Zazie as she gets to know the great city of Paris and some of its more idiosyncratic inhabitants.

Here are the books with one of France’s greatest products, fromage bleu.  Ah, Roquefort, je t’aime, je t’aime beaucoup….

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“The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes.” (Benjamin Disraeli)

This week I’ve been thinking about what goes on behind the scenes of things.  There’s been the Edward Snowden/Stephen Lawrence bugging stories running on in the press, and on a much lighter note I’ve been watching Scandal (about a political fixer), which has replaced a certain epic fantasy drama as my conflicted- inner-monologue programme of choice. My conflicted-inner-monologue goes thusly: “Why am I watching this?  Its fluffy drivel…I’m not watching this…I have to wait how long for the next episode?” ad infinitum until the end of the series, followed by googling to see what happens in the next series & how long I’ll have to wait before its screened.  Anyway, my psychological torments aside, I’ve branched out a bit this week by making a diary one of the choices, rather than sticking purely to fiction.  Jeanette Winterson once said: “There’s no such thing as autobiography, there’s only art and lies” so I think a diary fits into this category and isn’t so out of place in a blog about fiction. Both the diary and the novel are told from the point of view of someone in the background of another’s fame, bound up in their domestic life and the intimacy that necessarily entails; behind the scenes of their public life.

Firstly, sister of William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth’s The Grasmere Journal (my copy Oxford World’s Classics, 2002).  William and Dorothy were separated as children but once reunited as adults they lived together in the Lake District, even after his marriage, until her death.  They were incredibly close (weirdly close, rumours of incest continue to this day) and she is thought to have been his muse.  Coleridge and De Quincey both rated her writing and her intellect.  Certainly Dorothy had a big influence on her brother’s writing; she was his scribe, as Wordsworth became ill in the through the physical act of writing, so it’s not too much of a stretch to assert that if it wasn’t for her we probably wouldn’t have Worsdworth’s poems, either in terms of their inspiration or the words on the page. The diary details the minutiae of their life together, but she writes very little about what she feels, only what she sees.  While at times this can make the writing a bit limited, at other times her powerful observations are beautiful, as this famous passage from “Thursday 15th April 1802” shows:

“When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the water-side. We fancied that the sea had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more; and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and above them; some rested their heads upon these stones, as on a pillow, for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot, and a few stragglers higher up; but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity, unity, and life of that one busy highway.”

Guess which monumentally famous poem that inspired?  Yup, if it wasn’t for Dorothy, Wordsworth would never have “wandered lonely as a cloud”. Some of you may think that’s no bad thing, and I have to confess I would be amongst you – I am really not one for the Romantic poets at all.  But even if you don’t like the poetry, Dorothy’s diary is still worth a look as firstly, it’s not Romantic poetry so it’s very different, and secondly, she’s a brilliant nature writer.  She has great feeling for the Lake District, and if you’ve ever been there you’ll find yourself transported back through her writing.  Here she is writing not about the Lakes, but on a rare trip away (to Calais, to see Wordsworth’s French mistress and his daughter), gazing back towards England:

“We had delightful walks after the heat of the day was passed away – seeing far off in the west the coast of England like a cloud crested with Dover castle, which was but like the summit of the cloud – the evening star and the glory of the sky. The reflections in the water were more beautiful than the sky itself, purple waves brighter than precious stones, for ever melting away upon the sands. The fort, a wooden building, at the entrance of the harbour at Calais, when the evening twilight was coming on, and we could not see anything of the building but its shape, which was far more distinct than in perfect daylight, seemed to be reared upon pillars of ebony, between which pillars the sea was seen in the most beautiful colours that can be conceived. Nothing in romance was ever half so beautiful.”

Finally, she’s worth reading for the small domestic scenes that remind us all that even great poets have to eat.  “I went and sate with W & walked backwards and forwards in the Orchard till dinner time – he read me his poem.  I broiled beefsteaks.”  I love that – the orchard, the declaiming of poetry, all very idyllic and impressive, followed by the mundane detail of what happened next.  Poetry, then beefsteaks.  It’s not just Wordsworth we see in this light.  On “Monday Morning 1 September 1800” Dorothy documents “I broiled Coleridge a mutton chop which he ate in bed.” Another time she has letters from the great poet and mutton chop consumer: “very melancholy letters, he had been very ill in his bowels”.  (I’m not a doctor but I’d suggest being a massive opium addict is not the best for one’s melancholia or one’s bowels).   There’s plenty to Dorothy’s short journals, and while the feeling of getting behind the scenes of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s poetry is enticing, her writing stands on its own as an intriguing observation of the natural world and early nineteenth century domestic life. 

Before I discuss the second book here’s a picture of the Lake District (or at least one lake in the district) to keep you going.  This is a long post, I’m sorry…

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Secondly, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of his Friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan (Faber & Faber, 2010).  Yes, it’s a well-known and much debated story told from the point of view of a dog.  If that sounds like a premise that would make you want to poke your own eyes out, stay with me.  It’s not a novel I would have read either, except it’s by Andrew O’Hagan, who is a terrific writer, and who dealt with the dark side of fame and its repercussions on the famous so brilliantly in his 2003 novel Personality. If you thought the dog thing sounded like quite a fun and original way of telling the story, well, you were right, and I shouldn’t be so jaded and blinkered. Maf (there’s no way I’m writing that title out in full again)tells the story of Marilyn’s last few years through the eyes of her Bichon Maltese dog, Mafia Honey, given to her by Frank Sinatra.  Except it sort of doesn’t.  Marilyn was placed under intense scrutiny and yet still remained an enigma, and Maf doesn’t seek to change this.  By the end of the novel she is still a mystery, O’Hagan doesn’t have a “Marilyn theory” to put forward.  Instead, through Maf, we take a look at Hollywood, and to wider extent the USA, on the brink of change, as the Golden Age of the 1950s fades and the momentum for immense change in the 1960s builds.

“There was a neon halo over Times Square.  The puddles were lighted pink and the bulbs made a cartoon beauty of Midtown, pulling shadows and poor men out of the alleys…bright commerce took advantage of the dark, the changes in colour feeling like events…in the middle of all those twinkles, you might wonder if people even had a chance of spending their lives wisely.”

It’s a comedy in the main though, and there’s plenty of whimsy which plays with the unusual point of view but never overdoes it:

“We usually hate cats, not for the typical reasons, but because they show an exclusive preference for poetry over prose.  No cat ever spoke for long in the warmth of good prose.  A dog’s biggest talent, though, is for absorbing everything of interest – we absorb the best of what is known to our owners and we retain the thoughts of those we meet.”

This psychic device means Maf is able to speak with knowledge on a wide range topics, particularly philosophy.  Apparently most dogs are socialists, and Maf particularly loves Trotsky.  This I felt was the weakness of the novel; Maf is an engaging and unique voice, but a little pompous.  Generally this doesn’t stop him from being likeable, but at times I felt the philosophising and intellectual name-dropping could have done with a more heavy-handed edit.  Still, the descriptions of Marilyn are sympathetic and delicate:

“She found it hard. Many of the old bids for independence had fallen short.  She was tired.  When she hugged me, her comforter, her guardian, I felt a weight of disappointment about her, as if the stands she had taken in life, and in love, had only revealed her personal shortcomings and the impossibility of respect.”

While Marilyn struggles, Maf is her constant companion and goes everywhere wither, meaning we learn about Sinatra’s temper tantrums, JFK’s shoes, George Cukor’s interior design…  When he accompanies her to Lee Strasberg’s famous actor’s studio to learn about method acting, Maf takes on board all the techniques:

“I reached inwards. All the way in.  I recalled some humiliation I once suffered at the hands of Evelyn Waugh and a croquet ball.  I must have been the merest puppy and was pootling on the lawn […] Evelyn was making a point, a facetious point, naturally, about the ugliness of George Eliot, and when I tried to correct him along Latin principles he knocked a croquet ball across the lawn at vicious speed and it struck me in the centre of my infant forehead…I used it to deepen my performance on the table at the back of Jack’s Bar.”

The great Strasberg takes notice and asks someone to fetch the dog some water.  A method acting dog – brilliant.  Along the way there are other light comic touches – rats with Brooklyn accents, an Old English Sheepdog who speaks like Boris Johnson (only more coherent), the fact that Lady from Lady and the Tramp is the dog of his dreams, and he congratulates himself on seeing beyond her typecasting as the love interest: “If only she had met me things would be different.” Over the years many people seem to have felt that way about tragic Marilyn, but she wasn’t saved, and the book isn’t so funny as to downplay this part of the story.  Marilyn comes across as vulnerable and damaged, and her little dog, like so many others around her, can only watch her self-destruct.  Maf is an original take on a behind the scenes story, one that respectfully leaves the same questions unanswered as to why Marilyn’s life ended the way it did.

Originally I planned to write “the scenes” on a piece of paper and photograph the books behind it (fnar fnar) but I decided against this marvellous visual pun and instead opted to photograph them with a picture of the peerless Sir Humphrey Appleby (Sir Nigel Hawthorne) from Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister, master manipulator of behind the scenes political power wielding: 

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“I’m definitely the best king in England at the moment.” (Charles II)

The theme for this week’s post came upon me quite suddenly this week, and turned out, most unpredictably, to be the English Civil War.  Firstly, a friend told me this was her new obsession, so we discussed books that she was reading.  Then on Friday night Ben Wheatley’s latest film,  A Field in England, premiered simultaneously in cinemas, on TV and on DVD, and so in watching it I ensured the latter half of my week was one concerned with seventeenth century politics. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s a hallucinatory, yet somehow simultaneously earthy, tale of deserters during the English Civil War.  It’s original and disturbing, yet also funny, with comedy stalwarts such as Reece Shearsmith and Julian Barratt amongst the cast, the latter of whom gets to deliver one of the best lines of the film: “your privy parts are doomed, homunculus!” The black and white cinematography by Laurie Rose is stunning, all combining to make a truly memorable film.

But back to books.  I’ve chosen two texts (one’s a play) that reflect my ambivalence towards this time in history.  On the one hand, I’m a republican (small “r”, and nothing against our current Royal Family, it’s the institution I object to, not the people) but on the other hand, Cromwell is difficult to side with and I love Charles II.  Known as the Merry Monarch, his court was criticised for its excesses of all kinds, but I think it always sounds like quite a fun place to be (which undoubtedly says more about my lax morals than my politics).  He re-opened the theatres (that’s enough for me), allowed women on the stage for the first time, commissioned Christopher Wren to build some of our most beautiful buildings, and supported the war veterans. He also remembered his favourite mistress on his deathbed (“let not poor Nelly starve”) when he could have easily disregarded her, and endorsed religious tolerance.   Sometimes portrayed as dim, I think he was actually quite witty.  When John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester wrote “We have a pretty witty king,/And whose word no man relies on,/He never said a foolish thing,/And never did a wise one” Charles II apparently responded: “that’s true, for my words are my own, but my actions are those of my ministers”. Far from perfect, I’d still pick him over the Puritan any day.  So to reflect this I’ve chosen a novel that is set during the Civil War, and a play that was written during the reign of Charles II and concerns a libertine follower of the King. All together now: “Oliver’s army’s here to staaaay, Oliver’s army’s on its waaaay…”

Firstly, As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann (2001, Flamingo).  This was McCann’s first novel and is written with great confidence, particularly as the narrator and protagonist, Jacob Cullen, is despicable.  But McCann’s writing so vividly evokes the era and the characters that you keep reading, despite being embroiled with a character you cannot sympathise with.  Jacob is a servant in a Royalist household.  The novel opens with a pond being dragged for a body, and the man who Jacob has murdered being pulled from the weeds.  He flees the estate with his new bride and brother, but his violent nature rises to the fore and he attacks his wife, raping her.  He then runs to join Cromwell’s army, where he meets Christopher Ferris, the love of his life:

“”Leave him, Ferris.”

“We cannot leave him like this.” Warm fingers wiped my mouth and chin.  I looked up to see a young man gazing perplexed into the distance, his profile lean and pensive, but full-lipped and long-nosed.  He knelt at my side as if watching for someone, his hand still absently stroking my lips so I breathed its scent of sweat and gunmetal.

I coughed against his palm, and he turned on me a pair of eyes as grey as my own. Pale hair hung thick on his collar; I saw he had shaved some days before. As I met his eyes they darkened, the pupils opening out like drops of black ink fallen into the grey, then he looked away, and his fingers slid from my face.

“Let me drink,” I creaked out.”

Jacob becomes obsessed by his idealistic lover, and follows him as he leaves the army for London, and then to a Diggers commune. Throughout the novel Jacob never becomes likeable, but if you can cope with that, then I really do recommend this book, as it is perfectly paced, visceral and evocative:

“Men were screaming, “For God and Parliament!” I saw the first of ours run up the breach and fling himself on the defenders.  There were flashes, followed by the sound of musket fire, and screams. I struggled to run with my weapon upright and not fall over it. At the front I could see a great mass of men packed and heaving together. A little further forward and we were pressing into the breach, those inside jabbing at us with bills.  Slashing back, I laid a face open. Muskets fired on us from the upper storeys, hand grenades rained down and I saw a man shot to bits in front of me…”

If all that sounds a bit heavy and grim, then may I recommend a Restoration comedy by way of light relief?  The Rover by Aphra Behn (1677) was a hugely popular play in its time, and the protagonist, Willmore, thought to be modelled on either Charles II or John Wilmot.  Aphra Behn was the first woman to make a living as a professional writer, which prompted Virginia Woolf to proclaim “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”  She’s certainly an interesting woman, who worked as a Royalist spy, but when Charles II refused to pay her expenses (told you he wasn’t perfect) she earned her living through her pen.  The Rover follows a group of Cavaliers who arrive in Naples for carnival, and their romantic embroilments.  There is disguise, women avoiding nunneries, mistaken identities, beautiful courtesans, trapdoors, robberies, cross-dressing… its hugely entertaining and witty.  When Willmore first meets his love interest Hellena, she is disguised as a gypsy (obviously):

Hellena. Sister, there’s your Englishman, and with him a handsom proper Fellow—I’ll to him, and instead of telling him his Fortune, try my own.

Wilmore. Gipsies, on my Life—Sure these will prattle if a Man cross their Hands.[Goes to Hellena] —Dear pretty (and I hope) young Devil, will you tell an amorous Stranger what Luck he’s like to have?

Hell. Have a care how you venture with me, Sir, lest I pick your Pocket, which will more vex your English Humour, than an Italian Fortune will please you.

Will. How the Devil cam’st thou to know my Country and Humour?

Hell. The first I guess by a certain forward Impudence, which does not displease me at this time; and the Loss of your Money will vex you, because I hope you have but very little to lose.

Will. Egad Child, thou’rt i’th’ right; it is so little, I dare not offer it thee for a Kindness—But cannot you divine what other things of more value I have about me, that I would more willingly part with?

Hell. Indeed no, that’s the Business of a Witch, and I am but a Gipsy yet—Yet, without looking in your Hand, I have a parlous Guess, ’tis some foolish Heart you mean, an inconstant English Heart, as little worth stealing as your Purse.

Will. Nay, then thou dost deal with the Devil, that’s certain—Thou hast guess’d as right as if thou hadst been one of that Number it has languisht for—I find you’ll be better acquainted with it; nor can you take it in a better time, for I am come from Sea, Child; and Venus not being propitious to me in her own Element, I have a world of Love in store—Wou’d you would be good-natur’d, and take some on’t off my Hands.

Hell. Why—I could be inclin’d that way—but for a foolish Vow I am going to make—to die a Maid.

Will. Then thou art damn’d without Redemption; and as I am a good Christian, I ought in charity to divert so wicked a design—therefore prithee, dear Creature, let me know quickly when and where I shall begin to set a helping hand to so good a Work.

Hell. If you should prevail with my tender Heart (as I begin to fear you will, for you have horrible loving Eyes) there will be difficulty in’t that you’ll hardly undergo for my sake.

Will. Faith, Child, I have been bred in Dangers, and wear a Sword that has been employ’d in a worse Cause, than for a handsom kind Woman—Name the Danger—let it be any thing but a long Siege, and I’ll undertake it.

Hell. Can you storm?

Will. Oh, most furiously.

Hell. What think you of a Nunnery-wall? for he that wins me, must gain that first.

Will. A Nun! Oh how I love thee for’t! there’s no Sinner like a young Saint—

As the scene above shows, sex is very much at the forefront and the libertinism makes the play saucy but not crude. The play has been noted for its threats of violence and rape against women, but I think the fact that Hellena is as witty a match for Willmore, and (slight SPOILER) that he gives up his roving ways for marriage at the end of play (well, it is a comedy) means that power lies with the women as far as possible in the misogynistic cavalier society, and this means the play can still be enjoyed today. If the excerpt above made you roll your eyes at the sight of seventeenth century language, I’d still recommend you see it performed.  It’s fast-paced, fun, verbally witty, physically ridiculous, dramatic comedy at its very best.

Here are the books with some oranges, in honour of Nell Gwyn, mistress of Charles II, theatre actress and orange seller:

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