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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secondly, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. How great is that Caroline Aherne line? She was brilliant.

    Great reviews. I’ve never read Hemingway. Like you, I want to hate him but The Old Man and the Sea sounds so good. I have it on the shelf. Maybe one day…

    I also have several Barbara Taylor novels and haven’t read her either although, in this instance, everything I’ve read about her books suggests I should.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Caroline Aherne really was brilliant. I was trying to think of a less famous line of hers to use, but then I thought, I’ve got to go with the classic 😀

      The Old Man and the Sea was really moving – and short, so a good place to try Hemingway for the first time!

      I’ve got unread Taylor novels on my TBR too – A Game of Hide and Seek and The Sleeping Beauty – they’ve been bumped up the pile since I enjoyed Mrs Palfrey so much. I hope you enjoy her 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That chunky knit on Ernest is glorious.

    I really, really love Elizabeth Taylor. I’m sure her google stats have suffered enormously because of the other Elizabeth. Anyways, her stories are my reading version of comfort food and I pick them up if I’ve found myself in a reading rut or having read a string of bad books.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Old Man and the Sea was my first Hemingway, and I remember thinking how does he do it. So simple, yet so good. Thanks for introducing me to Elizabeth Taylor. She sounds wonderful 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lovely review of Mrs Palfrey, one of my favourite reads in recent years. Those quotes bring it rushing right back to me. I’m so glad you enjoyed it too – beautiful and melancholy is the perfect description for this bittersweet story.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes, it’s been some year so far. I loved Mrs Merton even more than the Royle Family. In fact, I adopted ‘let’s have a heated debate’ as one of my own much-used catchphrases. Sad news.

    The only Hemingway I’ve read is ‘The Sun Also Rises’, which I fully anticipated hating but ended up rather loving. Next up at some point will be ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mrs Merton was brilliant – how she got away with some the questions asked was a miracle!

      For Whom the Bell Tolls will probably be my next Hemingway too, as its on my Le Monde reading challenge list – I’ll look forward to seeing what you make of it!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You’re right about 2016 being the worst year ever. We should hand over the trophy now so nothing else bad has to happen. What a talent Caroline Ahearne was *sigh*

    I’m glad you enjoyed Mrs Palfrey, I have a few more of Taylor’s on my shelves that I’ve saving for a rainy day, and well, it looks like that day has come. I also have some Hemingways, but have never read any – largely because I fear he’ll be unbearable, but if anything’s going to tempt me, that chunky knit will!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, let’s hope 2016 has crammed all the bad stuff into the first part of the year and that the second half will be a vast improvement. Fingers crossed…

      That day has definitely come! I may well dig out the Taylors I’ve got on my TBR for some comfort reading.

      So far I would say Hemingway’s horrible image does not translate to his writing, but I haven’t read all he’s done – I doubt I could stomach the bullfighting stuff 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  7. So sad about Caroline Aherne, this year is really beginning to feel like a surreal split in the space time continuum, and Marty McFly needs to go back to the last election and stop Miliband from eating that bloody bacon sandwich and unveiling that stupid stone thing.

    I loved Mrs Palfrey, it was sad, but at the same time beautiful and funny. And I am also minded of a quote form James Hetfield about Metallica’s precious collaboration with the San Francisco Philharmonic. ‘If you have told me ten years ago I’ve be doing this, I’d have shown you one of my fingers’ which I think shows a nice awareness of one’s ability to evolve and digress 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • The stone thing! who’s brilliant idea was that? What a horrible, horrible mistake. You’re right, we need Marty McFly like never before – this is heavy.

      Its strange but the Metallica/classical collaborations really work – good to know we can always surprise ourselves 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s frightening how many famous people died thus year.
    Like you, I love Hemingway’s writing. And Elizabeth Taylor is a favourite. A Game if Hide and Seek is the one I like best so far. Very closely followed by Mrs. Palfrey.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: “An intellectual carrot! The mind boggles.” (The Thing (From Another World), 1951) | madame bibi lophile recommends

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