“There is nothing so intractable as a calendar.” (Margery Sharp)

I thought the title quote rather apt, as I’m late to Margery Sharp Day this year, but I couldn’t let it pass after falling for the author since reading two of her novels for Margery Sharp day 2017. She’s so witty, she writes with such brio, and also with such humanity and warmth that I’m a confirmed fan.

And yet, when reading The Faithful Servants (1975), these wonders of Sharp’s writing were not quite so evident. Jane from Beyond Eden Rock, who organises Margery Sharp Day and is a great champion of her writing, had said that her later novels were not quite as good, and how right she was. The Faithful Servants is absolutely still worth reading, but Sharp’s penultimate novel is not as sparkling as her earlier work.

It’s a great idea: a trust is established at the end of the nineteenth century by dissolute Jacob Arbuthnot for aged servants down on their luck. In portraying the requests to the trust, Sharp is able to track the huge societal changes that took place between the start of the trust and well into the twentieth century, by which time the welfare state has been established and the servant class almost entirely disappeared. The various visitors to the trust’s offices are colourful and the staff only slightly less so. But…. it doesn’t quite work. The characters are all well-observed as I would expect from Sharp, and there are are some lovely touches, such as the relationship established between two beneficiaries, Miss Xavier and Miss Quartermaine, of whom “neither had the least idea that they were Lesbians.”  Sharp’s wit is also in evidence:

“ ‘Lady P. simply meant that the children should drop whatever they were doing to make up the rosettes for a Tory party candidate, or sew bean bags for a Tory fete. As you know by now dear, I’ve always been a convinced Liberal; but I can assure you I didn’t object from party politics. What I objected to was the assumption that absolutely any activity took precedence over Moliere.’ ”

But it just doesn’t have the verve of her other novels. It reads more like a series of sketches, which in a sense is exactly what it is. Of course, this is a series of sketches by Margery Sharp, and so they are entertaining, sly and funny, with strong women in evidence:

“Mr Blackburn thought of her as a field flower plucked from its native heath; Mr McIntyre, as some shy little creature of the woods. Of course neither mentioned the fancy.

Then in 1874 she was arrested on a charge of murder, To be explicit, of having introduced arsenic into her employer’s night cap of tea.”

The Faithful Servants did not diminish my love for this author, but if Margery Sharp is new to you, this would not be the best place to start. A clever idea, not entirely fulfilled, but with moments of witty brilliance which act as a reminder that Sharp off her game is still better than many at their peak.

Secondly, back to 1965 and The Sun in Scorpio, which sees Sharp very much on form. The Pennon family live on a small outpost of the fading British empire, “The Next-Door Island” to Malta.

“They weren’t Army, and they weren’t Navy, they were irretrievably civilian; it was a measure of Mrs Pennon’s social insecurity that she always felt nervous before giving a dinner-party in case no-one came. At least they weren’t Trade however, and she always made a point of explaining her husband’s chest was weak.”

Sharp writes about the warm climate wonderfully and casts a similarly acute eye towards the familial relationships. The children Muriel, Cathy and Alan don’t particularly get on, and neither do their parents. Cathy especially loves the island and its warmth, and she has a formative moment with the governor, a bachelor the ex-pat ladies flutter around. However, the start of the Second World War sees Cathy wrenched away as the Pennons return to England, where their shortcomings are made even more apparent.

“Indeed, their new, heavier clothing swamped them all, diminishing individuality, and as it were underlining the fact that whereas on the Island (among some few hundred of the Ruling Race), they’d been at least petty someones, at Home (amongst some fifty millions) they were nobodies.”

Cathy in particular struggles under the grey skies of Britain. Muriel thrives as a hockey-playing school leader and Alan finds girls to fall in love with, but Cathy doesn’t excel at anything.

“In general they were a sulky lot, and Cathy was amongst the sulkiest. It was very hard on Mrs Pennon, but she had developed such a technique of losing herself in a novel, a daughter’s obvious misery disturbed her no more than a husband’s equally obvious lack of any will to live.”

Sharp follows them through the years, and while Alan is able to move away for work and Muriel turns into a unbearably smug married suburban mother, Cathy remains somewhat adrift. Once her parents are dead, she is financially bereft and has to live with Muriel. This situation depresses all involved, and when the opportunity arrives for Cathy to become a nanny to the daughter of landed gentry she gratefully escapes to Devon.

The mother of her charge is very beautiful, and very much younger than her husband.

“ ‘Alas!’ sighed Lady Jean (probably the only woman of her generation who could sigh alas and get away with it.)”

She is also manipulative and unfaithful, and her charm in referring to Cathy as her “attendant sprite” is not entirely successful. Cathy has no great affection for her small charge, but she also has no real choices in life. Sharp’s depiction of Cathy’s domestic situation is highly entertaining as she is wholly unsuited to being a nanny and has little in common with the media and image-obsessed small girl she is nannying:

“ ‘Poor gwandpa!’ lisped Elspet – out of flannel and into frills again. ‘Mummy says he’s tewwibly pwessed for money.’

‘Nonsense, he must be worth a million,’ said Cathy bracingly.

‘But all in land,’ pointed out Elspet. (It occurred to Cathy to wonder whether besides reading Vogue and Tatler her charge ever dipped into the Financial Times…..)

‘You don’t own entailed land, it owns you,’ explained Elspet. ‘Poor grandpa! I can’t go to sleep for worrying about him. You must read to me out of Peter Pan.’ “

The years pass and we see what happens to Muriel and Alan, and also Jacko, an islander who was friends with Cathy and taught her poker, who similarly finds himself in London. The main focus remains mainly on Cathy however, and Sharp doesn’t trouble to make her likable. Cathy has nothing particularly to recommend her and she isn’t very nice, but she is also unhappy, and as a woman in the early part of the twentieth-century she doesn’t have enough control over her life to try and remedy the situation.  It doesn’t matter one bit that Cathy is so unlike a heroine though. It’s actually refreshing, and realistic, and told with Sharp’s wit, economy, and verve it’s a hugely enjoyable journey towards a perfectly realised ending. The Sun in Scorpio is an absolute joy.

To end, the beautiful Harry Belafonte singing a song Cathy would appreciate:

Advertisements

“I think Isambard Kingdom Brunel would be a good chap to have supper with. Anyone who builds a railway and then builds a steamship when he gets to Bristol and can’t go any further must be a good chap.” (Fergus Henderson)

This week I’ll be briefly visiting the beautiful city of Bristol for work, so in preparation I’ve read 2 books by EH Young, who fictionalised Bristol as Radstowe throughout her novels.

EH Young’s world is one of genteel middle-class, and at first I wasn’t sure The Misses Mallett (1922) was for me. The descriptions of the beauty of Radstowe were somewhat overblown, and I wondered if it was going to be clumsy Austen-lite. I’m pleased to say I was completely wrong. The Misses Mallet is acutely observed and Young’s characterisation is excellent. Those who people her world are complex, not always likable but always so believable.

Caroline and Sophia are elderly unmarried Mallet sisters who spend their days reliving past glories, which may not be exactly as Caroline remembers:

“ ‘And men like what they fear,’ Caroline added.

‘Yes dear,’ Sophia said, A natural flush appeared round the delicate dabs of rouge. She hoped she might be forgiven for her tender deceits. Those young men in white waistcoats had often laughed at Caroline rather than her wit; she was, as Sophia had shrinkingly divined, as often as not their butt, and dear Caroline had never known it; she must never know it, never know it.”

The elderly Miss Malletts are comically but fondly drawn, with their frills and lace, their make-up which doesn’t hide their age, Caroline’s mistaken belief that she is wordly, and their constant self-mythologising. Rose, their younger step-sister, is different:

“restraint and a love of danger lived together in her nature and these two qualities were fed by the position in which she found herself, nor would she have had the position changed. It supplied her with the emotion she had wanted. She had the privilege of feeling deeply and dangerously yet of preserving her pride.”

She is in love with Francis Sales, but realised it too late and he married another. As Young details above, this arrested love affair quite suits her. Sales’ wife is housebound in constant pain since a fall from a horse that she believes Rose engineered. They are locked in a co-dependent, vindictive relationship bound up in what has not been said, in blame and in guilt.

Yet overall the lives of the Misses Malletts are calm and routine.

“the Mallets did not criticise their actions or analyse their minds”

This all changes with the arrival of Henrietta, their young orphaned niece.

“the Mallets don’t marry, Henrietta. Look at us, as happy as the day is long, with all the fun and none of the trouble. We’re terrible flirts, Sophia and I. Rose is different, but at least she isn’t married. The three Miss Malletts of Nelson Lodge! Now there are four of us, and you must keep up our reputation.”

But Henrietta may not be quite so ready to adopt the Miss Mallett way of life. She also falls for Francis Sales, whilst being courted by the socially awkward Charles Batty:

“He was plain; he was getting bald; his trousers bagged; his socks wrinkled like concertinas; his comparative self-assurance was quite unjustified.”

What follows is a novel written with great lightness of touch, but it is the excellent characterisation that stops it being cosy or sentimental. It is a world that has passed, but it is a world that is fully realised and Young shows that it, and the people in it, can still be recognised and understood. The Misses Mallett, and those who surround them, will stay with me a long time.

Secondly, William which came 3 years after The Misses Mallett. I found the descriptive writing in this a lot more restrained and so I wonder if either 3 years saw the maturing of EH Young’s writing style, or if she was actually having a sly dig at purple prose romances in The Misses Mallett and I missed the pastiche. Either way, William is brilliantly written and was her most successful novel. It is primarily a character study of the titular man, a self-made shipping magnate.

“William Nesbitt had no yearnings for the sea: he had had enough of it in his youth, but the thought of it was always with him and would have been with him even if his business had not compelled him to constant communication with it; and the fact that it lay down there beyond the river and out of sight, was like the presence of a woman, still beautiful, whom he loved no longer with desire, but with knowledge, understanding and satisfaction.”

William is someone who life has treated well, and he has an affection for it:

“Life was interesting, a great adventure, enlivened by countless minor episodes. It was difficult to believe anybody could find it dull. Every personality was more or less of an excitement to him – Kate, Janet, Lydia, the captains of his ships, the clerks in his office, the ships themselves, the very gulls swooping for garbage in the river, cutting the air with wings like swords.”

However, although he has worked hard and continues to do so, he has never really been tested. This is about to change. One of his five children, his daughter Lydia, leaves her husband to live with her lover. The post-war times are a-changing, and William finds himself in opposition to his wife as they cope with the fallout. William finds he is able to love his children unconditionally. His affection for life is undiminished and expanded.

“ ‘I’ve told you Kate, we can’t have them as we want them. We’re lucky to have them as they are.’”

His wife on the other hand, is outraged at Lydia’s unconventional choice and becomes embittered as she realises she holds absolutely no power to change the situation.

“He had lived with her for nearly forty years, not deceiving himself into the belief of perfect union, but in accord, with humour, with much happiness, and now, in the face of first trouble, he had lost touch with her, as though his consort were only for smooth waters.”

William is a rich novel despite not being overly long (a good thing to my way of thinking). Once again, EH Young displays excellent characterisation and psychological insight, not only towards her main protagonist but also the characters of his wife and their children. There is sadness in the novel, with Kate’s moral rigidity causing her deep pain and William’s realisation that although his marriage is basically happy “He had missed ecstasy”. However, it is not a sad novel. Rather it captures the human impact of societal change and it does so without preaching, showing how both human beings and love endure. EH Young challenges the institution of marriage (she lived in a ménage a trois for many years) whilst also showing its advantages:

“‘There’s a great deal of humbug about marriage… and a forced loyalty is the devil. And if Oliver couldn’t hold Lydia by love, why should he hold her by law?’”

It is a testament to EH Young’s writing that while society has moved on to an extent that the central dilemma no longer exists, William remains a deeply moving and compelling novel.

These were my first two novels by EH Young and I’m already a huge fan. In this year of my book buying ban, I’m pleased to find I have 4 more of her novels in the TBR mountain (it’s this kind of excess which has led to the aforementioned ban); I’ll definitely be reading them soon.

To end, a band that named themselves after their home town near Bristol:

“Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” (R. D. Laing)

Some friends of mine recently got married in a beautiful venue, which used to be a mental health hospital. A lovely time was had by all. People were struck at how nice it was, and it got me wondering: why? Were they expecting the institution to be grim in itself, or was it the thought that somehow all that pain remains and would be felt? It seemed to be a bit of both. Clearly the idea of a place where mental health is treated is a powerful one. It’s no surprise then, that it’s proved a tempting choice for writers, so it’s led me to this week’s theme of novels set in mental health units. Rest assured Reader: although powerful, neither of my choices are depressing. At this time of year it can feel like everyone’s mental health is under siege and we just don’t need it. In fact, here’s a little pick-me-up for us all:

On with books! Firstly, All Dogs Are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leao (2008, trans.Zoe Perry and Stefan Tobler 2013). This novella is only 107 pages long but it is one of the most affecting and powerful pieces I have ever read. Rodrigo de Souza Leao died in a psychiatric clinic in Rio de Janeiro in 2009, shortly after this was published. All Dogs Are Blue takes the reader into life inside such an institution, and does so with an unblinking gaze, humour, warmth and blistering truth.

The narrator is 36-year-old overweight man who has swallowed ‘a chip’ which alters his behaviour. This has led to his incarceration. There isn’t a plot, it wouldn’t make sense if there was. Instead, the narrator takes us through his daily experiences and reminiscences about his past.

“The Christian says hallelujah. She takes my hand. I take out my dick and can’t play snooker. I go back to my nine-by-twelve cubicle, where they put me to smile bayoneting my veins. Grab the flesh, stretch the flesh, shove another injection in.”

The narrator never tries to convince us of his sanity. Rather, we are given his world view, one which is sometimes shocking in its clarity amongst flights from reality:

“If it could bark and eat, what would a blue dog eat? Blue food? And if it got ill. Would it take blue medicine? A lot of medicines are blue, including Haldol. I take Haldol to be under no illusions that I’ll die mad one day, somewhere dirty, without any food.”

Despite detailing an individual in dire circumstances, All Dogs Are Blue is not a depressing book. This is because the narrator is resilient and self-aware, even as he experiences psychotic delusions. There is humour found in his hallucinatory companions, nineteenth century French writers:

“Rimbaud wasn’t used to modern stuff, He was a guy from another time. He had to learn everything. He’d never written another poem. But he was a good companion for wasting away the hours and for poker.”

Whereas Baudelaire can be a bit more moody.

De Souza Leao also writes with great beauty and poetry:

“Everything went green like the colour of my brother Bruno’s eyes and the colour of the sea. Rimbaud was happy and decided not to kill himself.

Everything went Van Gogh. The light of things changed.”

But the humour and the poetry do not detract from the pain. Rather, they capture it in the most effective way to draw you in to begin to understand an extreme experience that thankfully, most of us will not endure.

“I break everything because I’m made of shards and when the shards invite me to, I wreak havoc.”

Through an individual experience, the wider issue of how we treat the mentally ill is addressed. De Souza Leao doesn’t offer answers but he poses uncomfortable questions about institutionalised mental healthcare:

“Mostly, they only wanted you to keep your mouth shut all the time, like no-one deserved to hear you say anything noble or important.”

All Dogs Are Blue is a stunning, heartbreaking novella. It is also yet another example of the brilliant work being done by not-for-profit publishers And Other Stories bringing translated fiction to a wider audience.

Secondly, a novel which examines the impact on family when a member has enduring mental ill health, The Gravity of Love by Sara Stridsberg (2014, trans. Deborah Bragan-Turner 2016). I was inspired to pick this up after reading Kate’s wonderful review. It’s also another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Narrated by Jackie, it tells of her relationship with her alcoholic father Jim, who is an inpatient at Beckomberga Hospital in Stockholm. This was one of the largest mental health hospitals in Europe, but was closed in 1995 as the focus on care shifted to the community.

Image from here

Jackie finds herself drawn to her father and to the hospital, visiting repeatedly throughout her young life, despite the pain it causes.

“The light that has always been in his eyes is there no longer. The beautiful, terrifying desolate light that spilled over, illuminating the night around him and betraying a special kind of intensity and recklessness, something unstoppable, a raging fire, the sheerest drop.”

Stridsberg is excellent at capturing the complexities of loving someone who is hell-bent on self-destruction; the contradictory state whereby the person and what they seem to promise constantly shifts and hope of a better future never quite dies.

“All at once he sounds like the Jim I find so hard to remember, the way he was before the alcohol, before the devastation; if there really is such a thing as before.”

Jim is treated with compassion but the selfishness of his behaviour is not shied away from. He is the alcoholic but the disease that affects far more than just him:

“Every morning, a great despondency in his chest that stretches out like a wasteland. A blazing sun within him, his blood screaming for the warmed brandy running through his veins.”

Jackie makes highly questionable decisions herself and while this is clearly due to Jim’s impact on her life, Stridsberg is wise enough to present these decisions as they stand and not pull them apart in trite pseudo-psychological interpretations. We never entirely understand what draws Jackie relentlessly back to Beckomberga, because she doesn’t entirely understand it herself.

“Each time I walk through the hospital gates the rest of the world slides away, like the tide that recedes to lay bare another shoreline”

The Gravity of Love is about families, about how they make us who we are and how we make us who we are. Stridsberg explores a variety of familial relationships with great subtlety, but it is also a story of individuals’ relationships with institutions. Jackie’s relationship with Beckomberga is complex, and similarly, the inpatients’ relationship with the hospital is shown to be ambivalent, both supportive and restrictive:

“People say that former patients keep returning to Clock-House Park at Beckomberga, that they stand under the trees with their hands pressed on the sun-bleached walls, as if the institution’s heart were still beating within – a weak human pulse against my hand when I touch the faint blood-red colour of the façade.”

The fate of the last patient of the hospital, Olaf, is a sad one and this description of his experience just absolutely floored me:

 “He has always walked alone with the stamp of illness imprinted under his skin, visible to all apart from himself. Whenever he has approached a girl she has shied away. Every time he has offered his hand to someone it has been construed as hostile and he has been banished back to the hospital.”

Although very different from All Dogs Are Blue, Stridsberg is similarly challenging in her questions around how we treat mental illness: institutionally, societally, politically and individually. A beautifully written, poetic novel that never lets the style detract from the substance.

To end, I promised a return to 80s pop videos this week, and so I thought I’d pick an artist who has been very open about his struggles with bipolar disorder. The fact that I’ve been in love with him for 37 years is purely coincidental 😉

“Adventure is just bad planning.” (Roald Amundsen, leader of the first expedition to reach the South Pole)

Happy New Year! My 2018 is rubbish so far but I’m hopeful of improvement – I’ve caught the horrible virus everyone is down with at the moment. According to fellow sufferer Rev. Richard Coles on twitter, it’s God’s way of telling you to watch a boxset.  My virus-addled brain can’t focus on the plot of a single episode of something at the moment, never mind a whole boxset (so this post may be even less coherent than usual). I’m fed up and bored and so I thought I’d look at people pushing themselves to physical extremes when I can’t even get off my sofa at the moment without a 5-point plan.  It will also be another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Off to Antarctica!

Firstly, The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge (1991) which tells the story of Scott’s disastrous attempt to reach the South Pole. Five sections are narrated by different members of the party with Scott in the middle. It’s an effective approach, building a picture of the different personalities involved and the disintegration of their hopes.

Petty Officer Evans begins the tale, full of military loyalty to their leader.

“Being down a crevasse together is no excuse for stepping out of line. All I know is I’d die with the man, and for him, God help me, if the necessity arose.”

However, through Dr Wilson, Bainbridge articulates the changes taking place in society at the time of the expedition, just into the second decade of the twentieth century.

“All the things we were taught to believe in, love of country, of Empire, of devotion to duty, are being held up to ridicule. The validity of the class system, the motives of respectable, educated men are now as much under scrutiny of the magnifying glass as the parasites feeding off the Scottish grouse.”

The men are clinging onto ideas in the face of unstoppable forces, both societally at home, and environmentally in the Antarctic. They are doomed to failure.

Scott takes up the middle portion of the book and Bainbridge brilliantly captures all his contradictions. He is arrogant yet doubtful, single-minded yet insightful.

“justifying my actions would have been simply no good for morale. Like it or not, and God knows, half the time I don’t, someone has to take the decisions – along with the consequences.”

His motivations are mixed. He claims it as a scientific expedition for Empire, yet is furious when he is beaten to the Pole.

“I came to sanity under Bill’s tuition. He wisely said I must continue as if nothing happened, as if Amundsen didn’t exist. It was unthinkable that our scientific projects should be sacrificed in a vulgar scramble to reach the Pole.”

Yet Bainbridge never allows us to despise his hubris. To do so would mean we lose our empathy with the men who he led to their deaths, and the novel would lose its enormous emotional power. As Lieutenant Bowers observes:

“I think I know what ails the Owner. He’s absolutely sound as regards what’s right, but he lacks conviction. He simply isn’t stupid enough to be convinced his is the only way. In the circumstances, it’s a dangerous trait.”

That’s not say that by the time we get to sceptical, reticent Oates, I wasn’t pleased to hear someone expressing their anger and frustration at their leader.

“I’ve never known such a man for making mistakes and shifting the blame onto others.”

However, as the nearness of death, their body parts rotting, the tedium of days desperately clinging to life in an inhospitable landscape starts to send them all insane with desperation, even Oates admits:

“Truth to tell, I think he was the only one among us capable of making any decisions.”

Bainbridge is a wonderful writer and even though we know what happened, she still manages to create tension and drama from the men’s horrific situation. She is also able to capture the landscape as beautifully and evocatively as she does the men’s psychology.

“Those who envisage this place as nothing more than a godforsaken plateau of ice and snow are mistaken. For one there are outcrops of jet-black rock about which the wind blows so fiercely the snow can never settle; and for another, the ice, being subject to reflections of sun and sea, is never purely white but tinged with rose and cobalt-blue and every shade of violet, the whole set against skies, days or night, that run through all the colours of the spectrum.”

The Birthday Boys is a short novel (181 pages) but none the less for it. It is Bainbridge at the height of her powers and as such, it is immense.

Secondly, a quick foray into Antarctica by Claire Keegan (1999) because I’ve got quite carried away with Beryl. This is Keegan’s first collection of short stories and it’s remarkably assured with a strong narrative voice. I actually found the titular story the weakest, but I suspect maybe it’s dated a wee bit. My favourite stories in the collection were those set in rural Ireland. The Ginger Rogers Sermon was devastating. The narrator is a young girl on the cusp of adulthood, living on her parents farm in a place where there’s not much to do.

Don’t ask me why we called him Slapper Jim. My mother stamped his image in my head, and I was at an age when pictures of a man precede the man himself. The posters verify: Thin Lizzie with a V of chest exposed, Pat Spillane’s legs racing across my bedroom wall…I was the girl with the sweet tooth and a taste for men.”

The taste for men is problematic when you have feelings and knowledge, but not a great deal of understanding. Adulthood is approaching rapidly but childhood also lingers:

“Now that I am thirteen I am sectioned off from men. It happens in school too, in gym class. I play basketball and jump over hurdles and come back all red-faced and sweaty and talk non-stop in class. Nobody sits beside me because I smell like an afterbirth. I wear the pads and Lily of the Valley and go dancing down the pub. Slapper Jim is always there with the bantam. I waltz around in the cigarette smoke with old men my father knows.”

This is the tone of The Ginger Rogers Sermon exactly: matter-of-fact, unsentimental, funny and sad. A tragedy occurs, arising from disturbing circumstances, yet the ending contains some hope. As in many of Keegan’s stories, things are unresolved and the story is stronger for it.

Keegan has spent time in the States and some of her stories are set there. The final one, Passport Soup, is one of these, a sad tale of the parents of a missing child. Keegan is brilliant at capturing deep feeling without melodrama, in beautiful but sparse prose:

“Frank Corso has lost his appetite. He pushes his plate aside and gets up and puts the milk carton with his daughter’s photograph back in the refrigerator and goes to bed. The sheets are cold. He hears a wedge of snow fall from the eaves of the roof onto the drift beneath the window. Snow falling, compounding cold. Daylight bleaches the walls before he finally sleeps.”

This is a powerful collection of stories, and if you’re not keen on short stories but want to give them a go, it’s a good place to start. Keegan absolutely understands the form, she doesn’t waste a word. Unfortunately, she seems to publish rarely: her second collection came 8 years later, followed after another 3 years by a stand-alone ‘long short story’. That’s not a criticism though – quality like this is worth waiting for.

To end, a tasteful video for once (clearly I really am ill), narrated by the insurpassable Sir David & full of arresting images (normal cheesy service will resume next week):