“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” (George Burns)

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas! From my twitter feed, I know for some that means being as far away from relatives as possible 😉 If Christmas advertising were to be believed, we should all have families like this:

Whereas in fact the reality may be closer to this:

In which case I would say well done you, because I’m the only person alive who doesn’t like It’s a Wonderful Life *ducks for cover* whereas the Addams Family are awesome.  Whether you spent Christmas with George Bailey or Uncle Fester,  I thought this week might be a good time to look at families that are found in unexpected places.

Firstly, Plainsong by Kent Haruf (1999) which I picked up after loving Our Souls at Night so much and many bloggers recommended I start the Plainsong trilogy. All the things I enjoyed about Our Souls at Night were here: a gentle, unshowy voice, believable idiosyncratic characters, ordinary lives shown to have a delicate beauty.

Set in the fictional prairie community of Holt, Colorado, Plainsong focusses on a pregnant schoolgirl, Victoria Roubideaux, and one of her teachers, Tom Guthrie, who is splitting up with his wife. After Victoria is thrown out by her mother, another teacher, Maggie Jones, suggests to a pair of elderly brothers, Harold and Raymond McPheron, that they take her in.

“ You’re getting goddamn stubborn and hard to live with. That’s all I’ll say. Raymond, you’re my brother. But you’re getting flat unruly and difficult to abide. And I’ll say one thing more.

What?

This ain’t going to be no goddamn Sunday school picnic.

No it ain’t, Raymond said. But I don’t recall you ever attending Sunday school either.”

They offer Victoria a home, and the portrayal of their developing relationship with the young woman is just lovely. The brothers are set in their ways and unused to female company. Victoria is shy and unsure. The tentative gestures they make towards one another pay off and a tender, mutually nurturing affection develops.

“The brothers were watching her closely, a little desperately, sitting at the table, their faces sober and weathered but still kindly, still well meaning, with their smooth white foreheads shining like polished marble under the dining room light. I wouldn’t know, she said. I couldn’t say about that. I don’t know anything about it. Maybe you could explain it to me.

Well sure, Harold said. I reckon we could try.”

Meanwhile, Tom’s sons Ike and Bobby are struggling to come to terms with their mother’s depression and subsequent leave-taking. A similarly unexpected yet gentle cross-generational relationship develops between the boys and elderly, isolated Mrs Stearns who they know from their paper round.

“The timer dinged on the stove. They took the first oatmeal cookies out of the oven and now there was the smell of cinnamon and fresh baking in the dark little room. The boys sat at the table and ate the cookies together with the milk Mrs Stearns had poured out into blue glasses. She stood at the counter watching them  and sipped a cup of hot tea and ate a small piece of cookie, but she wasn’t hungry. After a while she smoked a cigarette and tapped ashes in the sink.

You boys don’t say very much, she said. I wonder what you’re thinking all the time.

About what?

About anything. About the cookies you made.

They’re good, Ike said.”

Plainsong is a gentle tale about all that human beings can give and be to one another, but it is not remotely sentimental or rose-tinted. Haruf shows, he doesn’t tell, with a restraint and subtlety that is easy to underestimate but is absolutely masterful. I find his writing incredibly moving. It’s going to be a real strain on my 2018 book buying ban not to rush out and buy the novels of his I don’t yet own.

 

Secondly, Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa (2013, trans. Alison Watts, 2017). Again, this is a simply told tale of ordinary people, and it is truly heartwarming. The main protagonist is the decidedly unheroic Sentaro. He has a criminal record and is employed by people he owes money to. He sells dorayaki – pancakes filled with the titular paste – with no pride in or commitment to his work. One day Tokue, an elderly lady with distorted hands and a disfigured face arrives in the shop:

“ ‘I had one of your dorayaki the other day. The pancake wasn’t too bad, I thought, but the bean paste, well…’

‘The bean paste?’

‘Yes. I couldn’t tell anything about the feelings of the person who made it.’

‘You couldn’t? That’s strange.’ Sentaro made a face as if to show how regrettable that was, though he knew full well his bean paste could to reveal no such thing.”

Sentaro employs Tokue on the understanding that she will not interact with the customers who he thinks will be put-off by her disability. Tokue’s delicious bean paste brings more customers to the shop and business begins to boom. As Sentaro and Tokue’s relationship develops, he begins to understand that she has survived Hansen’s disease (leprosy) but is still subject to significant stigma around the disease. One of the schoolgirl customers, Wakana, becomes very attached to Tokue, and they visit her at the asylum she continues to live in although the government has passed an act which means those with Hansen’s disease are no longer kept in isolation.

“Nevertheless human lives had been swallowed up by this place and for a hundred years, continually spurned. It felt to Sentaro as if the singular silence rose from the very earth beneath their feet, steeped as it was in sighs and regrets.”

Sweet Bean Paste is about living life to the full even when society is circumscribing it in cruel ways. It is about friendship’s power to heal and to empower. It is also about opening ourselves to experience the world in new and surprising ways, no matter our age. Tokue has an almost mystical relationship with her cooking, which enriches both her and those who consume her food.

“When I make sweet bean paste I observe closely the colour of the adzuki beans faces. I take in their voices. That might mean imagining a rainy day or the beautiful fine weather they have witnessed. I listen to their stories of the winds that blew on their journey to me.”

And so in the end, I think Sweet Bean Paste is about nourishment in all its forms; it is there for the taking if we have the wisdom to see it and the open hearts to embrace it.

To end, never let it be said that I shy away from the obvious:

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“Merry Christmas, I don’t want to fight tonight” (The Ramones)

Happy Christmas everyone! I’ve picked 2 undemanding festive reads this week, as I for one am already finding my brain overtaxed – I blame all the twinkling lights.

 

To start, the irresistably titled Christmas With Dull People by Edwardian satirist Saki (republished this year by Daunt Books). This is a perfect stocking filler: 4 stories amounting to 48 pages, little bite-sized witticisms for when your brain is dribbling out of your ears trying to comprehend the inanities of Christmas telly as your stomach tries to digest a week’s worth of calories in one sitting.

The stories are so short I just want to give you a wee taster of what to expect, I can’t really say more or it will amount to paraphrasing the whole thing. Saki is wonderfully witty and contained but it does make the stories hard to review!

In the first story ‘Reginald’s Christmas Revel’ the titular man is trying to get through Christmas games with his relations.

“On Christmas evening we were supposed to be specially festive in the Old English Fashion. The hall was horribly draughty, but it seemed to be the proper place to revel in, and it was decorated with Japanese fans and Chinese lanterns, which gave it a very Old English effect.”

In the following story ‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’ he treats us to his opinions on the difficulty of festive gift-receiving:

“Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really long enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious.”

We leave Reginald for ‘Bertie’s Christmas Eve’ in which Bertie, who “had in early life adopted the profession of n’er do well” treats his whole family appallingly in a farcical fashion.

Finally in ‘Down Pens’ a couple struggle with the thank you letter writing that inevitably follows the revelries:

 “I’ve come to the end of my capacity for expressing servile amiability. Eleven letters today and nine yesterday, all couched in the same strain of ecstatic thankfulness”

I hope this has given you enough of an idea of Saki’s wit and humour to convince you. A real treat, and calorie-free to boot!

Creepy snowmen break:

Secondly, Arrest the Bishop? By Winifred Peck (1949) which I picked up after reading Ali’s review. This is a lovely golden age mystery set in 1920, at Christmas time, although the festivities are not lingered over.

Dr Broome, the Bishop of Evelake, has various people arriving at his Palace where he lives with his second wife, their staff (minus Moira the housekeeper who is in hospital) and Bobs, his secretary. Joining them are Judith, his flighty, adulterous daughter from his first marriage; Sue, his sensible daughter from his second; Dick,  ex-military police and now a deacon; a Chancellor; a canon; and a group of young clerics. It is snowing heavily as you’d expect in a country house murder mystery, when the despicable Reverend Ulder arrives:

“when he focussed those eyes on you, with the secretive state of all creeping, slimy things and when his too oily manner stiffened into threats… the sensitive shuddered as if turning over a stone which conceals maggots”

This charmer is corrupt in just about every way you can imagine and having added blackmail to his repertoire, there is no shortage of suspects when he is poisoned. Dick helps out Chief Constable Mack with the investigation, but everyone seems so unlikely a murderer:

“Motive and opportunity alike seemed to point skeleton fingers at such preposterous figures – Judith – the Chancellor – Canon Wye – the Bishop himself!”

“Dick…was aware by now that his activities in the war would always seem to outsiders that of a sort of glorified policeman. Nor could he very well explain that til this day he had no experience whatever of suspecting Church dignitaries of murder.”

Mack seems determined to arrest the Bishop, while for Dick, the chief suspect is obsequious butler Soames:

“Had this chap been reading Wodehouse as a guide to butlers? For occasionally he would throw out such Jeeves-like sentiments with oily rectitude, in startling contrast to his usual sulky, aggressive manner.”

Despite their biases and their motley crew of suspects, of course they get there in the end. To be honest, the murderer is completely obvious, but this was part of the fun. I could just watch the investigation play out and enjoy this good-natured golden age mystery as a perfect comfort read for this time of year.

I contributed greatly to our team win at my work’s Christmas quiz this year, due to my specialist subject coming up: questionable late-20th century Christmas tunes. The clincher was knowing that this wasn’t Elvis Presley (trigger warning – creepy puppet):

“Just try new things. Don’t be afraid. Step out of your comfort zones and soar, all right?” (Michelle Obama)

A little while ago I went to see Edward St Aubyn interviewed and he was every bit as witty and compelling as I’d hoped. He mentioned that he finds dialogue the easiest part of writing, and an audience member asked him if he’d consider writing a play. St Aubyn said he didn’t really enjoy theatre (something along the lines of “I always seem to be in the middle of row M”) but that playwriting might be a bit of a holiday from novel writing, which I’m sure must have pissed off any playwrights in the audience sweating blood and ink over their drama.

Also, for any fellow Patrick Melrose series fans, and I know we are a precious bunch who don’t want to see TV mess up such novelistic perfection, he said he’d been on set to see the production that’s being made with Benedict Cumberbatch and he was very happy with it.

So, a long preamble to say that this is why I decided to look at playwrights writing prose this week.

Firstly, Samuel Beckett’s First Love and Other Novellas (1954-73, trans. Samuel Beckett and Richard Seaver) which I would argue aren’t novellas at all, they are all short stories (there are 4 stories in the collection and the 2 longest are only just over 20 pages). Pedantry aside, I would say if you like Beckett’s dramas you’ll like his short stories. It’s all here: existential crisis, bleak absurdism, humour and despair.

In The End, the first-person narrator is down on his luck, clothed in badly fitting clothes that ‘they’ have given him from a dead man, having burnt his (presumably to avoid disease). He eventually finds lodgings, but is turfed out and returns to an itinerant life:

“One day I witnessed a strange scene. Normally I didn’t see a great deal. I didn’t hear a great deal either. I didn’t pay attention. Strictly speaking I wasn’t there. Strictly speaking I believe I’ve never been anywhere. But that day I must have come back.”

Pretty Beckettian, no? I know he’s not for everyone, but what I like about Beckett is that all the absurdism and word-play is not an intellectual exercise only, but is underpinned by a great humanity and acute awareness of suffering which makes his work bleakly beautiful:

“The memory came faint and cold of the story I might have told, a story in the likeness of my life, I mean without the courage to end or the strength to go on.”

The idea of choosing the story we tell is continued in the next two stories, The Expelled where the narrator, having taken us through a day in his life concludes:

“I don’t know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another. Perhaps some other time I’ll be able to tell another. Living souls, you will see how alike they are.”

And also in The Calmative, where the narrator tells himself a story to assuage the fear of death:

“So I’ll tell myself a story. I’ll try and tell myself another story, to try and calm myself, and its there I feel I’ll be old, old, even older than the day I fell, calling for help and it came. Or is it possible that in this story I have come back to life, after my death? No, it’s not like me to come back to life, after my death.”

The final, titular story is needless to say, not a rose-tinted view of innocence and longing.

“I didn’t understand women at that period. I still don’t for that matter. Nor men either. Nor animals either. What I understand best, which is not saying much, are my pains. I think them through daily, it doesn’t take long, thought  moves so fast, but they are not only in my thought, not all.”

So, business as usual for Beckett despite the change in the form from drama 😀 If you’re not sure about Beckett but want to give him a go, you could do worse than start here; you’ll get a good flavour without having to pay extortionate theatre ticket prices only to find yourself stuck in the middle of row M.

Obligatory picture of Beckett’s amazing face:

Samuel_Beckett,_Pic,_1

Secondly, About Love and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov (trans. Rosamund Bartlett, OUP 2004). I’m being a bit cheeky claiming Chekhov primarily as a playwright for the purposes of this blog post, given that the back of my edition of these stories has a quote from Raymond Carver proclaiming Chekhov “the greatest short story writer who has ever lived”.

Anton Chekhov, who took up writing after One Direction split up

Having read this collection, I would say he really is a master. Beautiful writing, not a word out of place (as you’d expect given the famous ‘gun’ instruction regarding not having any superfluous detail) and he is able to take the miniature and make it epic. In The Lady with the Little Dog, Chekhov takes a well-worn story of a bounder seducing an unhappy woman and turns it into a tragedy, without it ever becoming sentimental or overblown.

“She pressed his hand and started walking down the stairs, looking back at him  all the time, and you could see from her eyes that she really was not happy. Gurov stood for a while, listening, and then when everything had gone quiet he looked for his coat-peg and left the theatre.”

It is the story not of a great love affair, but a love that sneaks up on two people who were not looking for it and how it seems to bring nothing but misery, but with an ever-present promise of unrealised happiness.

The stories are ambitious in theme and they are truly profound, but that doesn’t mean they are without humour. Rothschild’s Violin begins:

The town was very small – worse than a village really – and the people who lived in it were mostly old folk who died so rarely it was quite annoying.”

Yakov is the unfortunate coffin maker in this healthy town and he is grumpy and horrible to his wife. When his wife dies, he expresses his unexpected feelings through his violin playing, to great effect:

“Rothschild listened intently, standing to one side, his arms folded on his chest. The frightened, confused expression on his face gradually changed to one of grief and suffering. He rolled his eyes, as if experiencing exquisite pain”

A story about the universality of pain and the expression of feeling beyond words is explored with a lightness of touch that almost borders magic realism. Chekhov writes with such subtlety and never patronises the reader.

It’s really hard to write about Chekhov’s short stories. They are so rich, so full of telling detail and so beautifully evoked that I have not done any justice to them here. I only hope that I’ve convinced you to pick up one of his short story collections and read the treasures for yourself.

To end, following my last post’s comment by Lucy, a festive video of 2 men stepping out of their comfort zones and looking slightly baffled about it all (“I’m David Bowie, I live down the road” 😀 ):

“To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake it is necessary to stand in the cold.” (Aristotle)

Temperatures have dropped in the UK and I’m writing this after coming in from a surprise snow flurry, while Scotland’s had proper snow, so I think now it’s December & officially winter. My choices this week are suitably wintry in theme, but they’re not a big tome to curl up with on a winter’s day. I’m going through a prolonged novella phase at the moment and these are excellent examples of how much can be achieved in a short space.  They’re small, but powerful.

Firstly, A Life’s Music by Andre Makine (2001, trans. Geoffrey Strachan) which comes in at 106 pages. The narrator is stuck in a snowbound railway station awaiting the Moscow train:

“Suddenly everything is illuminated by a truth that has no need of words: this night lost in a void of snow; a good hundred travellers huddled here; each seems as if he were breathing gently upon the fragile spark of his own life; this station with its vanished platforms; and these notes stealing in like moments from an utterly different life.”

The notes come from a piano being played by an elderly gentleman, tears streaming down his face. When they finally board the train, he tells the narrator his story, and why the music makes him cry. It is a tale of war and persecution, and of shifting identities in order to survive:

“As a result of this fear, and the assiduity with which he copied the actions of others during those first few weeks, he did not feel as if he were engaged in combat. And when he was finally able to relax the constantly taut string within him, he found himself in the sin of a veteran soldier”

Makine is interested in human endurance, in cruelty, in love and in moments of transcendence. He is brilliant at using small moments to illuminate big themes.

“To his surprise he felt himself growing increasingly separate from the wind, the earth, the cold, into which he had almost merged. But more surprising still was this simple bliss: the warm line where the woman’s body touched his own at night. Just this line, a gentle, living frontier, more substantial than any other truth in the world.”

A Life’s Music is a haunting tale written by a master. Makine proves that you don’t need to write at length to create something substantial. Stunning.

Secondly, A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli (2012 trans. Sam Taylor 2013) which is only 138 pages long. The premise of A Meal in Winter is incredibly simple, and the themes it explores incredibly complex. Three German soldiers find a Jewish man when they are on patrol in Poland. They do not share a common language with the young man and they take him prisoner with ease . They then retreat to an abandoned cottage to cook their meagre rations on a freezing winter’s day before taking him back to their barracks to be shot.

“everything would be better once it was warmer. Smoking and eating in front of the stove! What could be better? We would smoke while we waited for the bread to thaw and for the cornmeal to cook.”

The focus on essential human need for food, warmth and shelter is a master stroke by Mingarelli. The men are human first, soldiers second. Will they recognise their common humanity with their terrified prisoner and what will it mean if they do?

Mingarelli is excellent at building characters, scenes and atmosphere in a few words, and the desperate situation for all concerned is brilliantly evoked, within a harsh, freezing landscape:

“Sky and earth had blurred into one, and there was no comfort to be found in either. While I packed the snow into our mugs, I wondered again how it was possible that we had once seen so many sunflowers here, and not so long ago either. The landscape had been so full of them, so completely covered, that it seemed their oil must have been flowing like a river somewhere.”

A Meal in Winter is a powerful and moving novella that does not offer simple answers; it has really stayed with me.

To end, I know it’s a  wee bit early for Christmas tunes, but I’ve chosen it because of the excellent snowy outfits. Remember kids: real fur is cruel, and spandex leggings are not suitable winter attire.