“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:

Advertisements

“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 🙂