“It is better to break one’s heart than to do nothing with it.” (Margaret Kennedy)

This is my very, very late contribution to Margaret Kennedy Day, which is hosted by Jane over at Beyond Eden Rock. It took place on 20 June but Jane very kindly said that latecomers were welcome 🙂 Do head over to Jane’s blog to check out the other, more timely, contributions to Margaret Kennedy Day 2017!

Firstly, The Constant Nymph (1924).  This was a bestseller in its day (more than any other novel in the 1920s), adapted for stage and screen but fell into obscurity somewhat until Virago republished it in 1983.  In all honesty, I’m still working out how I feel about it. To me it was an odd novel, well-written and psychologically astute, but a strange, unsettling tale and tonally difficult to place. I do think my struggles with it show its worth though – better to be a challenging novel than one easily dismissed.  (I felt very uncomfortable that a grown man was sexually interested in the fourteen-year old nymph of the title, but Kennedy deals with this carefully so I’ll leave this to one side for the rest of the discussion, along with the anti-Semitic opinions voiced by various characters which were just horrible).

Albert Sanger is an unpleasant, selfish composer living in the Austrian Alps with his “Circus”: his most recent mistress, children by 3 different women, and assorted hangers-on. Amongst the rabble, fourteen-year old Tessa is quiet and steady and knows herself to be different:

“Living in a family of artists she had come to regard this implacable thing which took them as a great misfortune. Oddly enough it had missed her out; alone of the tribe she was safe from it. She did not believe that she would ever be driven to these monstrous creative efforts.”

When Sanger unexpectedly dies, leaving his huge family destitute, the Circus are split up. Tessa’s cousin Florence arrives on a mercy mission to rescue three of her relatives. Unfortunately for Tessa, this brings Florence into the orbit of Lewis, an aforementioned hanger-on, who Kennedy doesn’t even try to make appealing, and with whom Tessa has been in love since she was a child. Florence and Lewis fall in love, although there is a good mix of ambivalence in there too. Having proposed to Florence in a church, Lewis reflects:

“Once outside in the sunlight and traffic he could hardly make out how it had happened. The thing was absurd, unforeseen and unreasonable. But irrevocable now, and, on the whole, very pleasant. He was betrothed. Also he was very thirsty…”

Tessa is inconsolable, and yet the melodrama is tempered with humour and everyday considerations amongst the high-flown feelings:

 “the tears poured down her face…until she conceived the idea of trying to water a primula with them. Immediately the flood was dried, after the manner of tears when a practical use has been found for them.

‘And it would have been interesting,’ said Paulina sorrowfully, ‘to see if it would have made any difference to the primula.’”

The novel follows the love triangle back in England, as Tessa and her siblings try and adjust from their free-living Bohemian lifestyle to the strictures of an English boarding school, and Lewis and Florence’s marriage begins to disintegrate. Even Florence’s father sees how ill-matched they are:

“Lewis was a fool! If he had married little Tessa she would have made a man of him, whereas mated with Florence he was nothing but a calamity.”

The characterisation is excellent: Lewis is a distinctly unheroic, petulant protagonist and completely believable as a musician who struggles against his own shortcomings to realise his talent. Florence is complex; initially sweet-natured and gradually challenging our sympathies as she deals with her jealousy by being vicious to the blameless Tessa. Although Tessa is in many ways an archetypal faithful virgin, Kennedy stops her being emblematic by the gentle humour poked at the earnestness of adolescence.

The novel is also not wholly a romance, but also a consideration of art and how to create it, how to pursue it, the value we attach to it and the various ways in which it is consumed. This is done with a lightness of touch and Kennedy never lets the broader themes get in the way of the plot:

“Music, with all these people, came first; that was why they talked about it as if nobody else had any right to it. Once Florence had liked them all too well; now she understood them better she was frightened of them.”

The Constant Nymph is an intriguing novel, and I suspect one that I won’t entirely work out my feelings for until I re-read it. It’s certainly impressive, and Kennedy’s talent, for me, was never in doubt.

“She tilted her face up and they kissed, a clinging embrace that was more like a farewell than a greeting. To her than instant brought a pang, a dim echo of times past; to him, an apprehension of change, a foreshadowing of loss and grief to come.”

The Constant Nymph was made into a film four times. Here is the trailer for the 1943 version with the lovely Joan Fontaine as Tessa:

Secondly, Together and Apart (1936).

This sat more comfortably with me than The Constant Nymph and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Yet again, Kennedy manages to populate a novel with not very likeable people, but they are so wholly believable that the fascination is in witnessing their interactions and how situations play out.

Betsy has a privileged, comfortable life married to Alec. For reasons which are never entirely clear, she asks him for a divorce. She doesn’t care about his long-running affair, but feels she wants more from life and Alec is in her way:

“Now she was thirty-seven and she had never known real happiness. She had been cheated. Life had left her always hungry, always craving something and unable to put a name to it. She was perpetually craving for something that never happened. She looked forward to events, they happened, they were past and it was if nothing at all had happened.”

From my twenty-first century perspective I would say Betsy needs a job, and something beyond herself to think about…

Alec is, as he admits himself, an incredibly weak person who is steered by others, and so he grants the divorce despite not really wanting it, and promptly begins an affair with the children’s nanny. What follows is a brilliant study of the fallout of this everyday sadness on the couple, their new partners, their children and their friends. It is set in a time when divorce was becoming more common but still unusual, when attitudes were markedly different to today:

“Every petty grievance is raked up, even to little things that must have been forgiven and forgotten years ago. In 1920 he pushed her and she fell downstairs. Good heavens! One push is surely allowed in every marriage. I nearly told her that I once knocked you out with a hot water bottle.”

The children are spoilt, but also suffer, and Kennedy is brilliant at showing how the divorce causes their son Kenneth to unravel:

“He accepted nothing and pitied himself hysterically. He felt a grudge against the world because it had turned out to be a less pleasant place than he supposed.”

While their daughter Eliza grows up too quickly, forced into a domestic role she isn’t quite ready for.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say everything works out in the end. Which is not to say things work out perfectly. Lives are messy and Together and Apart shows how much of that mess is of our own making, but how we are myopic regarding our own situations and so clear-sighted regarding others. Once again, there are piercing, but sympathetic psychological insights:

“His body was always betraying him like this. It would not take fences which his soul so easily could have cleared.”

And some beautifully phrased observations, like young Kenneth and his friend on the beach:

“Even in bathing suits they had certain clerkly traits, a forward hitch of the shoulders as though long scholars gowns should have been streaming behind them in the salt wind.”

Margaret Kennedy is such an astute, funny and profound writer. I’m grateful to Jane for introducing me to her 🙂 And next Margaret Kennedy Day I’ll try and be on time!

To end, continuing the theme from last week of strange 80s spin-off pop groups (The Jam/The Style Council, now The Specials/Fun Boy Three), here is a wonderfully cynical take on marriage set to a tango:

 

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“Green was the silence, wet was the light,/the month of June trembled like a butterfly.” (Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets)

We’re having a mini-heatwave in Britain at the moment. Yes, the annual 3 days of summer have finally arrived, hooray! Compared to Spain which is currently experiencing temperatures in the mid-40s we’re positively Artic, but it still counts. I’m taking the lead from my cats, who wait til I appear in order to throw themselves on the floor like Norma Desmond fainting on a chaise longue, to convey to me that its positively balmy and their water dishes need refilling (they’re immigrant cats from NZ, I think their years with me have turned them into Northern hemisphere wusses). This week I’m looking at novels set in summer, quickly before Autumn starts (ie next week).

This is from The Long Hot Summer so it’s totally relevant and not at all gratuitous *cough*

Firstly, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (2011) set in France in 1994, where Joe, a poet, his wife Isabel, a war correspondent, and their teenage daughter Nina are on holiday with family friends Mitchell and Laura. One day, a naked young woman is floating in their pool.  She is Kitty Finch, and Isabel surprises everyone by asking her to stay.

“The young woman was a window waiting to be climbed through. A window that she guessed was a little broken anyway. She couldn’t be sure of this, but it seemed to her that Joe Jacobs had already wedged his foot into the crack and his wife helped him.”

Deborah Levy has a piercing gaze for middle-class mores and Swimming Home could have been a sharp social satire:

“Couples were always keen to return to the task of trying to destroy their lifelong partners while pretending to have their best interests at heart.”

But with the arrival of fragile, destructive Kitty, the novel shifts into a psychological examination of the family unit and the individuals who comprise it. Kitty’s arrival exposes all the faultlines running through the relationships and Levy explores this in a delicate, subtle way, never resorting to caricature or cliche. Isabel is a successful journalist but an absent mother:

“She had attempted to be someone she didn’t really understand. A powerful but fragile female character. If she knew that to be forceful was not the same as being powerful and to be gentle was not the same as being fragile, she did not know how to use this knowledge in her own life or what it added up to, or even how it made sitting alone at a table laid for two on a Saturday night feel better.”

Joe is vain but has also struggled with depression in the past and seems on the precipice of something overwhelming. Nina is coming to terms with her screwed-up parents “Flawed and hostile but still a family” and her burgeoning sexuality. Mitchell and Laura’s business is flagging and they are financially desperate.

Swimming Home is a short novel (157 pages in my edition) that packs a significant punch. The beauty of Levy’s language sometimes belies its violence:

“She was not a poet. She was a poem. She was about to snap in half.”

It is a novel about the psychological warfare that can take place in the most ordinary of families:

“The truth was her husband had the final word because he wrote words and then he put full stops at the end of them.”

and it is about loss and grief and trying to make sense of ourselves and others, and the desperate need to be loved.

I thought Swimming Home was brilliantly written and acutely observed. Levy’s not a comfortable read but in some ways she is reassuring. Everyone’s messed up, and yet somehow we endure.

“This was not so much an unspoken secret pact between them, more like having a tiny splinter of glass in the sole of her foot, always there, slightly painful, but she could live with it.”

Another non-gratuitous clip from The Long Hot Summer…

Secondly, In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor (1961), another of Taylor’s beautifully observed, funny, sad and wholly original gems. Kate is a middle-aged widow, who much to everyone’s surprise has remarried the feckless, significantly younger Dermot. They live in the commuter belt with the slightly batty, cello-playing aunt Ethel, who writes long letters to her friend Gertrude (they were suffragettes together) and who observes Kate thusly:

“A typically English woman, I should say – young for her age, rather inhibited (heretofore), too satirical, with one half of her mind held back always to observe and pass judgement. This temperate climate has its effect – ripeness comes slowly and all sorts of delicate issues find shelter to grow in and so confuse the picture.”

This ‘ripeness’ is a somewhat surprising theme for a Taylor novel; she doesn’t shy away from the fact that Dermot and Kate have a mutually satisfying sex life and this is probably what keeps them together. For their lives are fully of perfectly ordinary but difficult to manage tensions, which create disharmony in their home.  Kate’s daughter Louisa is in love with the local curate, who is seen as too High Church for the vicinity:

“This derisive atmosphere [Louisa] could not thrive in. The love there was in the house seemed fitful, leaving uneasiness.”

Kate’s son Tom is a local lothario who seems to want to be tamed by the return of childhood friend Araminta*, who is ambivalent about him at best. He is struggling with the expectations that come with going into the family business.

“ ‘This bloody, damned family gathering,’ he thought furiously. ‘The mix-up of the age groups, the cramping fools, the this, the that, the rubbishy tedium of it all, with the bloody everlasting chatter, sitting for hours at the table with pins and needles in my feet, all the sodding knives and forks. Aunt Ethel with her surreptitious pill taking. ‘Have you seen anything of old so-and-so lately?’ ‘No, old son, I can’t off-hand say I bloody well have.’ “

Dermot never earns any money, his mother Edwina is interfering, their cook Mrs Meacock only makes American cuisine and seems set to leave on travels again… and then old family friend Charles (father of Araminta) starts to confuse Kate’s feelings.

In a Summer Season is an absolute treat. In Taylor’s writing no one word is wasted. She observes unblinkingly but compassionately and while she doesn’t shy away from tragedy, her gentle humour brings a fine balance to the story. It’s pretty easy to see how things will play out in In a Summer Season, but this doesn’t matter. The reader is in the hands of a master craftsman and the joy is the journey.

 “She would keep his remark in mind for later and bring it out in the solitude of her bedroom and enjoy it privately, like a biscuit saved from tea.”

To end, Mr Weller in his short-lived Brideshead phase. (This being a book blog, I’m sure some of you will note the video was shot in Cambridge and Brideshead’s set in Oxford, so I’m asking in advance for you to please forgive my lazy shorthand). Because nothing says summer like a man taking a big bite out of a weeping willow:

*This is why children are not in charge of their own names: when I was nine I was adamant I would change my name to Araminta, because I’d just read Moondial. Now I think about it, it’s never too late…

“Mancestre….is the fairest, best buildied, quikkest and most populus Tounne of al Lancastreshire” (John Leland, 1538)

The final part of my cities trilogy of posts sees me in Manchester, a place that has made worldwide news in recent times for the most tragic of reasons. I saw the floral tributes when I was there and it was deeply moving. Manchester is a great city with a rich history & I still think that even though it bucketed with rain the whole time I was there and I spent every moment on a spectrum of sogginess, never entirely dry. If any of you go to this fine place before 28 August I highly recommend Shirley Baker’s photographs at the Manchester Art Gallery; her images of Mancunians in the late 1960s-early 70s are absolutely wonderful.

Image from here

From the TBR mountain I’ve chosen two autobiographies, one from a writer born in Manchester, and one who has now made Manchester their home. Firstly, the classic Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey (1821). De Quincey was born in Manchester to a family of cloth merchants when Manchester was a major industrial centre for the cotton industry.

“On passing through Manchester, I was informed by several cotton manufacturers that their workpeople were rapidly getting into the practice of opium-eating; so much so, that on a Saturday afternoon the counters of druggists were strewed with pills…in preparation for the known demand of the evening. The immediate occasion of this practice was the lowness of wages, which at that time would not allow them to indulge in ale or spirits, and wages rising, it may be thought this practice would cease; but …I do not readily believe that any man having once tasted the divine luxuries of opium will afterwards descend into the gross and mortal enjoyments of alcohol.”

Yes, opium (laudanum) was legal and widely used at this time. DeQuincey suffers with excruciating stomach pains due to childhood poverty and starvation, and a well-meaning friend suggests he try opium to ease his what ails him:

“I took it – and in an hour – oh, heavens! What a revulsion! What an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of inner spirit! What an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished was now a trifle in my eyes: this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me – in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed.” *

The record of positive experiences with opium meant Confessions was controversial on its release. But DeQuicey does not glamourise the drug nor his experience with it. After all, people wouldn’t get addicted to something which made them feel horrible, and DeQuincey is seeking to make people understand. He doesn’t shy away from all the effects of the drug, and his hallucinations under its influence are grim:

“I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.”

Overall, the feeling I was left with from this short biography was one of sadness. DeQuincey is ruled by something far more powerful than he is, and the sense is of a life half-lived, a life DeQuincey wishes had been different. He has a fatal flaw:

“I hanker too much after a state of happiness, both for myself and others; I cannot face misery, whether my own or not, with an eye of sufficient firmness”

And opium convinces him that this state is achievable. In so desperately wanting to believe this lie, DeQuincey is never able to shake free of his addiction. At the beginning of the novel he proclaims:

 “I have at length accomplished what I never yet heard attributed to any other man – have untwisted, almost to its final links, the accursed chain which fettered me.”

But modern readers will know he never did accomplish this, and remained addicted his entire life. Confessions is very readable, much more so than other essays and similar of the period, and remains a thought-provoking insight into the nature of addiction.

Secondly, Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay (2010), a Scottish writer who has settled in Manchester and is the current Scots Makar.  If Confessions left me feeling sad, Red Dust Road left me feeling warmed and moved, although it is not a comfort read. It is the story of Jackie Kay’s search for her birth parents, and like her other writing – poetry, fiction, short stories, children’s books – it is funny and affectionate and real and sad.

“the search is often disappointing because it is a false search. You cannot find yourself in two strangers who happen to share your genes. You are made already although you don’t properly know it, you are made from a mixture of myth and gene, you are part fable, part porridge. Finding a strange, nervous, Mormon mother and finding a crazed, ranting Born-Again father does not explain me. At least I hope not!”

That passage occurs near the start of the book, and so it is not a spoiler.  We know Jackie finds her birth parents. What she does, expertly, is cut back and forth in time to show what has made her what she is. Raised in Glasgow by a white couple, Jackie and her (non-biological) brother are mixed race. Growing up in the 70s and 80s they encounter racism (there is a particularly chilling experience for teenage Jackie at Angel tube station).  They also encounter a wonderful, unconditional love from their parents who are communists with a strong sense of right and wrong and a strong sense of fun. (Seriously, Helen and John Kay sound awesome.) While her brother has no interest in finding his biological parents, Jackie finds that falling pregnant with her own son spurs her on to trace her relatives. She discovers that her father was a Nigerian student who met her mother in Aberdeen when she was a nurse. Along the way, she has to pick apart the fairytales she has told herself about them since childhood, and the reality of who they are:

“they are ghosts one minute haunting the city of stone, and ordinary people the next. It is impossible to sustain them, or maintain them. I take another swig of gin. It is time to let them fend for themselves. It is time to let them go. They need to grow up, those young parents. They need to grow up because they are already old, and so am I.”

Red Dust Road is a hugely engaging memoir, full of warmth for all her family and written with humour without shying away from sadness. Ultimately it is a book about what makes us who we are, and how some of it is easy to pinpoint, some of it impossible to fully fathom. It is also about finding home, and how that can be in several places. Jackie Kay has a strong Scottish identity, lives in Manchester, and then visits Nigeria for the first time:

“The earth is so copper warm and beautiful and the green of the long elephant grasses so lushly green they make me want to weep. I feel such a strong sense of affinity with the colours and the landscape, a strong sense of recognition. There’s a feeling of liberation, and exhilaration, that at last, at last, at last I’m here.”

I highly recommend Red Dust Road. Jackie Kay has brought her poetic sensibility to write a glorious memoir about how ourselves, our families and our homes are always an unpredictable work in progress.

To end, a classic song by a classic Manchester band:

*Just say no, kids

“The Glasgow accent was so strong you could have built a bridge with it and known it would outlast the civilization that spawned it.” (Val McDermid)

Continuing my jaunt around our fair isle, last week I was in Glasgow. If you’ve not been, go immediately. Edinburgh gets all the good reviews as the Athens of the North (& it is a great city – how many high streets can you stand on with a view of a castle and a dormant volcano?) but it does steal Glasgow’s thunder a bit. Glasgow is absolutely gorgeous and contrary to popular myth, the people are really friendly. I had a lovely time, and if Scotland manages to negotiate to stay in the EU I’ve a pretty good idea where I’ll be moving to.

Artist David Shrigley engages with Glasgow’s famous Armadillo building

To summarise in a way that helps no-one: because Edinburgh is Alec Baldwin, everyone thinks Glasgow is Stephen Baldwin, but it’s not, it’s William Baldwin. Glad I’ve been able to clear that up 😉 I’m now on a one-woman mission to persuade everyone of Glasgow’s greatness, starting here by looking at two novels by Glaswegian writers.

Firstly, Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi (1954),  which tells the story of Joe, a young drifter working on the canals near Glasgow, who finds the dead body of a young woman floating in the water.

“She was like some beautiful white water-fungus, a strange shining thing come up from the depths, and her limbs and her flesh had the ripeness and maturity of a large mushroom. But it was the hair more than anything; it stranded away from the head like long grasses. Only it was alive, and because the body was slow, heavy, torpid, it had become a forest of antennae, caressing, feeding on the water, intricately.”

This odd, detached tone gives an excellent introduction to Joe. He is an outsider and views people with no affection. He manipulates to his own ends and does not care who he hurts.

“I derived a powerful sense, a vindication of my own existence. To exercise power without exerting it, to be detached and powerful, to be there, silent and indestructible as gods, that is to be a god and why there are gods.”

What saves Joe from being wholly despicable to me, is that he doesn’t deliberately set out to hurt people. He isn’t vindictive or malicious, he just has a total disregard for other’s feelings. He also has a desire for something more from life, but has no idea what it is, and so there is a desperate quality to him, even as it emerges that he may know more about the dead woman than he’s letting on.

“These men, whoever they were, would sleep with their wives, take their children for a picnic on Sundays […] there was something nightmarish about it- my nightmare, for the machine might include me in its intricate pattern-making at any moment.”

Young Adam has been compared to L’Etranger, and while it is not quite to the heights of Camus’ masterpiece, it has at its centre a man in existential crisis, and a narrative broadened out by philosophical considerations:

“There is no contradiction in things, only in the words we invent to refer to things. It is the word ‘I’ which is arbitrary and contains within it its own inadequacy and its own contradiction.”

Young Adam was made into a film in 2003, with a stunning cast – Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, Peter Mullan and Emily Mortimer:

Secondly The Busconductor Hines by James Kelman (1984), which much to my surprise I found warmly affectionate and a good balance after the bleakness of Young Adam. I’d read & enjoyed the Booker prizewinning How Late It Was, How Late many years ago and for some reason hadn’t picked up Kelman since. The Busconductor Hines was Kelman’s first published novel and features his brilliant ear for Glaswegian dialect and conversational rhythms that he would go on to develop more fully.

Kelman is a controversial figure, because his vision is uncompromising. He is interested in capturing authentic working-class Glaswegian lives (which involves much swearing), and he does not make allowances for the reader: you have to meet him on his own terms.  For me, a born-and-bred Southerner, I find this invigorating rather than alienating. The Busconductor Hines follows the titular character through his daily life, capturing the extraordinary amongst the ordinary.

“He was standing at the sink, whistling quietly, gazing through the slats in the blind; in the backcourt opposite the rear of the tenement building which was not yet demolished, the sky with that reddish glow, light reflecting on the ripples of the enormous puddle that stretched from the middens to the mouth of the back close; a smell of smouldering rubbish from somewhere, but vague.”

Hines is frustrated, always on the verge of being fired. This is very funny, but also enables Kelman to make some pointed comments about the wielding of power and authority. Like Joe in Young Adam Hines wants more, but unlike Joe he recognises his common humanity, even in the frustration of having to deal with the bus travellers of Glasgow.

“Hines can marvel. He can look at faces and not look at faces….They are hypocrites. The men and the women, the children. It is not that he knows this in particular but that everyone knows this and is also known to know it, by everyone else. Such a thing cannot be concealed. …In the windows he could see their reflections, the strange frowns every now and again. That concentration.”

In some ways nothing happens, but everything happens. Hines recognises his life as a “perplexing kettle of coconuts”, ridiculous but real and wholly his. I’ve seen it described as an existential novel and I suppose it is, but it’s so fun, written with such verve and bite, that ultimately it is life-affirming even while pointing out the poverty, injustice and pointlessness that fills a lot of daily life for the characters.

And of course the city itself is the second hero of the story, a constant, pervasive presence:

“Glasgow thoroughfares can be mysteriously still, the slightest breath of wind seeming not to exist. The smell of fresh tobacco on the nostrils first thing is an astonishing item.”

To end, there are a plethora of Glaswegian musicians I could have chosen, but I’ve picked Camera Obscura’s French Navy, because I like the brilliantly twenty-first century love lyric “You with your dietary restrictions/Said you loved me with a lot of conviction…”