“STELLA! STELLA!” (Stanley Kowalski, A Streetcar Named Desire)

I’m not a big follower of book prizes although I like the Bailey’s Prize and usually try & read the Booker winner. However, the annual Stella Prize, which started in 2013 and awards outstanding Australian women’s writing, has lists which always look fascinating and wide-ranging. Currently the 2018 long list has been announced and the shortlist will be revealed on International Women’s Day, 8 March. I hadn’t read any of the winners and obviously this enormous oversight needed correcting. Also, Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest’s wonderful reviews of the last two winners convinced me I needed to rectify this sooner rather than later.

The 2017 winner was The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose. You can read Kate’s review here. It is an extraordinary novel, centred around the real-life event of The Artist is Present by Marina Abramovic, a 2010 performance art installation at MoMA in New York, which you can read about here.

Arky Levin is a film score composer, estranged from his wife and devoted to the city:

“When he moved to New York… and found the stars in their gaping darkness were nowhere to be seen, eclipsed by SoHo apartments and Midtown high-rises, Chinatown neons and flashy Fifth Avenue commercial buildings…he felt he had won. That humanity had won. New York was brighter than the universe bearing down on them. For this alone he had decided that he could live here forever and entirely expected to.”

Arky attends the installation for each of the 75 days it is in situ, and during this time he witnesses the profound effect the installation has on people. Marina sits one side of a table, and the public volunteers sit opposite her one at a time, gazing into her eyes. They can stay for as little or as long as they want, but they must make eye contact.

“Here in New York, where time was everyone’s currency, and to gaze deeply into the face of another was possibly a sign of madness, people were flocking to sit with Marina Abramovic. She wasn’t so much stealing hearts, he thought, as awakening them. The light that came into their eyes. Their intelligence, their sadness, all of it tumbled out as people sat.”

Such a simple but incredibly powerful idea, and the installation was a smash hit. Similarly, Rose uses a simple writing style to explore massive themes: love in many guises, loss, art, the desperate need for meaning in life and how we locate it. Arky learns about other and himself simply by sitting and watching the installation.

“Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart. There will be glorious days. If you want eternity, you must be fearless.”

The Museum of Modern Love, as the title suggests, is a love story, but not in the traditional sense. It is not a romance between two people. Instead it is a love story about people and all they can give to one another, as lovers, friends, relatives, artist and spectator. It is life-affirming without being sentimental. Rose acknowledges there is pain for people, but suggests that we have to get out there anyway, engage in acts of love in a myriad of ways, find connection and transcend.

“She was watching Marina Abramovic in her white dress on this final day of her enduring love. For hadn’t it been that for Abramovic? An act of love that said, This is all I have been, this is what I have become in travelling the places of my soul and my nation, my family and my ancestral blood. This is what I have learned. It is all about connection. If we do it with the merest amount of intention and candour and fearlessness, this is the biggest love we can feel. It’s more than love but we don’t have a bigger word.”

And here she is, on the last day, in the white dress:

In 2016 the winner was The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood. You can read Kate’s review here. I wish I’d read The Museum of Modern Love after this, as it would have been a good aid to recovery. The Natural Way of Things is brutal, shocking, urgent and without doubt one of the most powerful books I’ve read in recent years. It has absolutely stayed with me.

A group of young women are kidnapped and held hostage in a large, bleak piece of land in the outback, surrounded by an electric fence. There is no escape, and gradually they realise no-one is coming for them.

“Nobody knows. They have been here almost a week. Nobody has come, nothing has happened but waiting and labour and dog kennels and DIGNITY & RESPECT and beatings and fear and a piece of concrete guttering, and now perhaps infection is coming too.”

Gradually it emerges that all the women have a sex scandal in their past. These are never fully explained but enough information is given for the reader to realise that in each case, the power lay with the men involved, and in each case, the women are the vilified parties. Possibly they have been taken by a moral fanatic, who we never see. Their heads are shaved, their clothes taken and replaced with basic garments, including Handmaid’s Tale style bonnets, which come to represent both a coping mechanism and gradual institutionalisation for some of the captives:

“they depend on them for the snug containment of their heads, covering their ears, the obscured vision. Verla can understand it, though only from a distance. She used to hold them in contempt for keeping the bonnets; not anymore. But still, for her herself, that limp, stinking thing felt more like a prison than this whole place.”

As food supplies dwindle and illness threatens, the women fight for survival in their various ways. Their jailers are pathetic and inept, but also men and they hold the power.

“He frowns down and Verla knows he is thinking ugh at the two filthy girls, that he is freshly fearful of the lice eggs in their matted hair, of Verla stretched white with illness, of Yolanda and her rusted weaponry. He fears their thin feral bodies, their animal disease and power.”

The Natural Way of Things is about how society figures men and women, where power lies, how that is wielded and how predator and prey lies barely concealed in human relationships. It is beautifully written, perfectly paced, and absolutely terrifying.

To end, what else?

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“Nature is commonplace. Imitation is more interesting.” (Gertrude Stein)

Last month Kaggsy wrote about enjoying Pistache by Sebastian Faulks. It sounded good fun, do head over to her Bookish Ramblings & read Kaggsy’s excellent review. In this year of my book buying ban (still in effect & being adhered to, much to my utter amazement) I’ve put my name on the waiting list for Pistache at the library, and managed to hunt down two pastiche novels in my TBR mountain.

When I was doing my English degree, there was much talk of post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-lots of things I didn’t really grasp (which I would mention in essays hoping my tutors didn’t question me too closely on them – a flawed strategy as it turned out). How I wish I had read Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy then, because he takes notions of post-whatever, such as the instability of meaning, the non-specificity of language, the fragmented self, and uses them to weave a fascinating pastiche of the hard-boiled detective novel. I realise I’m not doing him any favours in this summary but trust me, it does work.  It’s done in a humorous way, and there’s enough of a narrative to pull you along, although at times my brain hurt trying to think through all that Auster was discussing.

In the first story, City of Glass, Auster begins by questioning his role as author:

“ ‘Is this Paul Auster?’ asked the voice. ‘I would like to speak to Mr Paul Auster.’

‘There’s no-one here by that name.’

‘Paul Auster. Of the Auster detective agency.’

… ‘There’s nothing I can do for you,’ said Quinn. ‘There’s no Paul Auster here.’”

There is of course a ‘Paul Auster here’ – his name is on the cover – but exactly where is a matter of debate. Quinn, the writer in City of Glass, is mistaken for Paul Auster and finds himself impersonating a private eye:

“Private eye. The term held a triple meaning for Quinn. Not only was it the letter ‘i’, standing for investigator, it was ‘I’ in the upper case, the tiny life-bud buried in the body of the breathing self. At the same time, it was the physical eye of the writer, the eye of the man who looks out from himself into the world and demands that the world reveal itself to him. For five years now, Quinn had been living in the grip of this pun.”

So, multiple identities, multiple meanings, utter confusion. Quinn locates the man he has been asked to find, someone who spends his days wandering the streets, picking up junk and re-naming things:

“I have come to New York because it is the most forlorn of places, the most abject. The brokenness is everywhere, the disarray is universal. You only have to open your eyes to see it. The broken people, the broken things, the broken thoughts….I find the streets an endless source of material, an inexhaustible storehouse of shattered things”

Throughout this and the two stories that follow, Ghosts and The Locked Room, Auster explores how people are ‘shattered things’, how easily identity and the language used to construct it fall apart. For him, unsurprisingly, this is all bound up in the storyteller’s art:

“We all want to be told stories, and we listen to them in the same way we did when we were young. We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person inside the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. This is a deception. We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another – for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself.”

The trilogy was originally released separately but I think it works best read together. The stories interweave and reflect each other, and so build on the sense of a ‘fractured whole’ being reflected in the structure of the book we hold in our hands. It may be that “these three stories are finally the same story”, but they are different enough to enrich each other and at no time did I feel my attention wavering. It’s a great achievement: stories that deconstruct the very thing they are made out of – language – and yet still hold together.

“Each sentence erased the sentence before it, each paragraph made the next paragraph impossible. It is odd then, that the feeling that survives from this notebook is one of great lucidity.”

Secondly, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon (2007), an alternative history detective novel. Chabon takes the idea that a settlement for Jewish refugees is provided in Alaska during the Second World War (an idea was proposed but rejected in 1940) and this has developed into the metropolis of Sitka. Policing this city is Meyer Landsman:

“According to doctors, therapists, and his ex-wife, Landsman drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with a crude hammer of hundred-proof plum brandy. But the truth is that Landsman has only two moods: working and dead.”

The first of those two moods is under threat: Sitka is going to become part of the USA again and no-one is sure what will happen when it does but they’re fairly sure it won’t be good (reading this in post-Brexit Britain, it took on a whole new resonance):

“On the first of January, sovereignty over the whole Federal District of Sitka, a crooked parenthesis of rocky shoreline running along the western edges of Baranof and Chichagof islands, with revert to Alaska. The District Police, to which Landsman has devoted his hide, head, and soul for twenty years, will be dissolved. It is far from clear that Landsman or Berko Shemets or anybody else will be keeping his job. Nothing is clear about the upcoming Reversion and that is why these are strange times to be a Jew.”

“Strange times to be a Jew” is a recurring refrain throughout the novel. Landsman lives in a seedy hotel and is investigating the murder of fellow resident Mendel Shpilman. Spilman was a drug addict and also the son of the most powerful organised crime boss and local rebbe, from whom he was estranged. As he undertakes the investigation Landsman manages to annoy absolutely everyone, from the powerful crimelords to his ex-wife and boss, Bina. Chabon has fun with the form, but doesn’t go overboard on the pastiche of hardboiled crime. He employs colourful turns of phrase:

“The space recently occupied by his mind hisses like the fog in his ears, hums like a bank of fluorescent tubes. He feels he suffers from tinnitus of the soul.”

But The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is always its own story and not a gimmick-laden creative writing exercise. Chabon is exploring ideas of identity, home, belonging and justice alongside an appreciation for Raymond Chandler.

“For the first time the traditional complaint, tantamount to a creed or philosophy, of the Sitka Jew – Nobody gives a damn about us, stuck up here between Hoonah and Hotzeplotz – strikes Landsman as having been a blessing these past sixty years, and not the affliction they had all, in their backwater of geography and history, supposed.”

I don’t rate this quite as highly as other novels by Chabon that I’ve read – it was a bit overlong and I think it could have been 100 pages lighter, but still an ambitious and interesting work and I’m glad to have novelists like Chabon are around, attempting to do something different.

To end, trying to come up with a pastiche song that’s bearable was a tough call. In the end I chose The Divine Comedy, who offer pastiche of several things all at once. I opted for Something for the Weekend as I think it references Cold Comfort Farm with the repeated reference to ‘something in the woodshed’ and so is the obvious choice for a book blog:

“Live fully, live passionately, live disastrously. Let’s live, you and I, as none have ever lived before.” (Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, 1918)

Happy Valentine’s Day! And for those who are single (such as myself), console yourself that we don’t have to go to an overpriced, overcrowded restaurant to have our meal interrupted by tired-looking pushers of sad hothouse roses in buckets whilst couples around us try and hide their mutual disdain for one another as their relationships teeter on the brink of collapse under the pressure of meeting the impossible standards of commercially appropriated romantic love 😉

As I said, Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

*fans self*

For Valentine’s Day I thought I’d look at two novels concerned with romantic love. A brief foray through my TBR and I struggled to find anything that showed it in a positive light, which says much about my reading tastes. I quickly abandoned that idea and instead I’ve picked 2 novels written by a famous couple, Violet Trefusis and Vita Sackville-West. They met when Violet was ten and Vita was twelve; four years later Violet confessed her love, but life events separated them. They both went on to marry men but continued their relationship, although they did eventually split up. They stayed in touch and remained warm towards each other. Violet is ‘Sasha’ in Orlando, Woolf’s love letter to Vita.

 

Firstly, Hunt the Slipper by Violet Trefusis (1937).

Nigel lives with his sensible horticulturist sister Molly in their lovely home in Bath. He likes the finer things in life and prides himself on his good taste. Trying to get out of a visit to meet Caroline, the new wife of a neighbour, he gives Molly the following reason regarding Caroline’s family:

“You can’t imagine what they’ve done to their Elizabethan home. I once lunched there years ago; it looked as if Christabel Pankhurst and d’Annunzio had set up house together. Tea-cups and tracts battled for supremacy with peacocks feathers and leopard skins. It was so alarming that I fled.”

However, he goes, and the meeting is not a success. Caroline is miserable in her marriage to Anthony, a man who:

“never tired of dressing her up in the family jewels, of draping her in old-fashioned stuffs. She was his favourite recreation, his most valued asset. He did not particularly care about women, except as part of a decorative scheme.”

She is offhand to Nigel, who is used to women falling for his middle-aged charms, and he is distinctly unimpressed.  However, when they meet in Paris, Caroline has changed. She is in love with someone nearer her own age, Melo. Her taste in men is pretty questionable:

“Melo was a martyr to snobbishness, as a nursemaid is martyr to corns. Apart from physical attraction, Caroline led to the Royal Enclosure, stalking in Scotland, Noel Coward first-nights. In short, to the negligently luxurious life of the British aristocracy.”

Needless to say, this cad breaks her heart, and she turns to Nigel for solace. At this point he falls in love with her, but Caroline remains indifferent.

“He did not suspect that by one of Love’s infallible ricochets she was behaving to him as Melo had behaved to her. Her cruelty was Melo’s legacy, her indifference to him was out of revenge for Melo’s indifference to her. Love passed from one to the other, furtive, unseizable, like the slipper in ‘Hunt the Slipper.’”

There follows a period whereby they both travel, narrowly missing each other in various European destinations, Nigel writing effusive, desperate letters and Caroline sending intermittent, controlled replies. However, slowly, Caroline’s feeling change.

“You’re a terrible hoarder, aren’t you? Is possessiveness quite the same thing as jealousy, I wonder? Funny I should have fallen prey to two ‘collectors’. A[nthony] respects his possessions, whereas you love and tyrannize yours.”

Hunt the Slipper is a slim novel (180 pages) and the short length works well – Caroline and Nigel are both quite selfish. I didn’t wholly dislike them, but nor did I have a great deal of sympathy for them beyond that of realising we’re all flawed human beings and we all need love. Also the hunting of the slipper – love being always just out of reach – could have got tedious but as it is the plotting remains tight. Hunt the Slipper is a witty, sparky novel which gently mocks British insularity, snobbery in all forms, and self-delusion. Trefusis doesn’t judge her characters harshly and so neither do we. She dramatizes in the most ordinary way the conflicts of a cosy routine life against one of passion and unpredictability and doesn’t offer any trite answers as to which will bring most happiness.

Secondly, Family History by Vita Sackville-West (1932).

Beautiful widow Evelyn Jarrold lives an undemanding life, financially well-off with her own flat in London and her son heir to her late husband’s industrial family fortune.

“Evelyn Jarrold was not a woman who questioned the established order of the civilised world. She was not stupid, but, in such matters, simply acquiescent.”

However, she meets Miles Vane-Merrick – also rich, part of the landowning classes, but (shock!) left-leaning – and he turns everything upside down.

“The total absence of ideas amongst the younger Jarrolds, their perpetual heavy banter which passed for wit, the limitations of their interests, their intolerance, their narrow-mindedness, all appeared insufferable to her now in contrast with Miles’ alertness and gaiety.”

He is fifteen years younger than she, and Sackville-West uses their passionate affair to highlight the enormous changes happening in interwar Britain. Evelyn is only 39 but compared to 25 year old Miles she is from a different era. Her friends dress for dinner, the women don’t work, the men snooze through Lords debates before supporting the Tories. Miles and his friends are concerned with new world order, welfare of workers, the women earn money and they talk late into the night.

“Would she ever turn round on the whole of her acquaintance, and in a moment of harshness send them all packing? She knew that the necessary harshness lurked somewhere within her; in fact, she was rather frightened of it.”

The difficulty is, then what would she do? Evelyn is jealous and possessive, but this may not just be temperament, it may be because she has little else to occupy her mind. Miles carries on at his work (politics, running his estate, writing his book) and loves her around this. She does nothing but wait for him to find time for her.

“Love and the woman were insufficient for an active mind, Love and the man, however, were all-too-sufficient for a starved heart and unoccupied mind, Miles learnt it, to his cost; Evelyn never learnt it, to hers.”

Sackville-West does not shy away from the weakness in her characters. Evelyn can be controlling, vain, and overly concerned regarding middle-class mores. While Miles may protest “Instinct makes me reactionary, reason makes me progressive.”, the fact that he’s also given to statements such as “I like women to be idle and decorative.” means he’s not that progressive. He’s self-centred and doesn’t ever seem to take an action that doesn’t suit him entirely. Despite the fact that people constantly refer to him as brilliant and the great hope for the country, I found him weak. One of Evelyn’s relatives is pithily described by Sackville-West thus:

 “She had not preserved her virginity for forty-five years without revealing the fact in every phrase and gesture. A practising Christian, she was packed with a virtuous complaisance and not one ounce of charity.”

However, by the time Miles announces that the best thing that could happen to this woman was for her to be raped, he’d lost me entirely.  Misogynistic pig.

So it says something for Sackville-West’s writing that the fact that I really couldn’t stand one of the characters did not put me off the novel at all. Family History is an intriguing way to explore and make personal the upheavals of the first part of the twentieth-century in Britain. Apparently it didn’t do well on release and was considered one of her lesser works, but I found it thought-provoking and entertaining. The ending genuinely moved me. But most of all, Sackville-West’s wit is an absolute delight. For this reason, I’ll finish with a few choice bon mots:

[On the British upper classes] “The standard of looks was amazing; they had the distinction and beauty of thoroughbred animals. The young men were as elegant as greyhounds, the young women coloured as a herbaceous border. What did it matter […]that those sleek heads contained no more brains than a greyhound’s?”

“Who ever went to Eton to be educated?”

“The icy wind, whipping, biting, brought a certain exhilaration. Discomforts that one need not necessarily endure, always do induce a certain exhilaration. Hence the perennial charm of picnics.”

To end, just to prove I’m not really an embittered cynic, here’s a sweet duet between a pioneering new wave icon and a banjo-playing frog:

“Courage calls to courage everywhere, and its voice cannot be denied.” (Millicent Fawcett)

Today is the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act in Britain receiving Royal Assent, which enabled all men and some women over the age of 30 to vote for the first time (it would be another 10 years before women got equal voting rights). There are lots of events going on this year to commemorate the centenary, but it’s also worth noting that the suffragettes argued for equal pay for equal work, and yet 100 years later (last week) Carrie Gracie has been giving evidence to MPs over pay discrimination at the BBC. This is just one example. The fight for equal rights worldwide is ongoing.

Suffragettes,_England,_1908

For this post I’ve picked one novel written by a suffragette and a short story from the twentieth-first century portraying suffragettes.

Firstly, No Surrender by Constance Maud (1911), who was a member of the Women Writers Suffrage League. I read a crusty copy from the library which had that pleasing old book smell, but Persephone have published it as one of their beautiful editions too, and if you’re on a book-buying ban like me, they also offer it as a free e-book.

Maud looks at suffrage primarily through the story of young cotton mill worker Jenny Clegg. Jenny Clegg’s father has all the power in their home while her mother does all the work:

“Her voice took on its usual apologetic tone with her lord and master. For Mrs Clegg was imbued with a spirit of such humility that she apologised not only for rising early and late taking rest, while fulfilling her manifold obligations towards her mate, such as bearing and raising his ten children, cooking, washing, mending, cleaning for the family, but even for her very existence up to the age of fifty-five in this strenuous service without pay.”

Mr Clegg squanders the money earned by the women in his family such as Jenny. He is selfish but supported by law and society in his behaviour:

“Mr Clegg regarded his daughter sternly, but without wrath. He answered her in measured tones, strong in his sense of his impregnable position, backed as he felt himself to be, not only by the law of the land, the tradition of generations, his own physical force and intrinsic superiority of sex, but by the innermost conviction and consent of all right-thinking womankind.”

Jenny’s political awareness is given direction when she encounters Mary O’Neil, a moneyed society girl who rebels against her class’ expectations of her and supports the suffragettes. There is humour in her mother’s friend Lady Walker’s attitudes towards her own gender:

“ ‘Can you suppose for one moment that a man like Horace Boulder, or even Penhaven, would have been attracted, had Helen or Cicely shown a tendency to independent interests and original thought?’ “

There were plenty of women against the suffragettes, and Lady Walker’s dismissal of them as “ ‘hysterical, unsexed creatures, with a mania against men.’” was not unusual. The character provides some much needed levity, but is never presented as ridiculous, as this internalised misogyny had a major impact on the lives of women at the time, helping maintain the limitations of their rights and freedoms.

Maud covers the main events of the movement up until that time, and uses various scenarios to get across the arguments of women’s suffrage: speeches from carriages, dinner party conversations, arguments between lovers. This is both the strength and weakness of the novel. No Surrender is an issue-lead novel, despite Maud placing a romance between Jenny and Joe Hopton, Labour party candidate, as the driving plot. As such, it sometimes falters under the weight of its intentions. Much as I dislike Dickens, he is an absolute master at dramatising his social commentary. Maud is not so gifted and sometimes No Surrender is overly didactic, with poorly realised characters and a sentimental tone. But I must stress that this is not all it is. It is also able to dramatise how:

“Courage, self-abnegation, forethought, invention, and a keen sense of humour marked the tactics of the militant movement.”

bringing a unique, personal perspective to balance the reportage (and lack thereof) regarding the movement. While at times I found the characterisation of the working classes a bit ‘gor blimey guv’nor’ (or perhaps I should say ‘ee by gum’ as its northern stereotypes) it’s still commendable that Maud roots the story in the working classes, and shifts the focus from the middle class suffragettes.

 “’there’s a good many ladies who’d be doin’ far more good in the world if they thought more about their womanhood and less about their ladyhood’”

So all in all, a flawed novel but a fascinating one, written contemporaneous to the movement by someone who was directly involved.

 

Secondly, A Mighty Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing, the final and longest story in the short story collection The Apple by Michel Faber (2006), in which he revisits the characters and setting of his hugely successful novel The Crimson Petal and the White. I’m going to ignore the links to TCPATW to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t read it (it’s great – you should definitely read it!)

The story is narrated by an elderly man in a nursing home in the 1990s, recalling his life when he was very young, with his artist father, bohemian mother, and Aunt Primrose (who dresses in men’s clothes and shares a bed with his mother, but the menage a tois arrangement is never explicitly stated).

“You know, because I was a child in what’s now called the Edwardian era, and because I was born the day Queen Victoria died, I always think of the Edwardians as children. Children who lost their mother, but were too young to realise she was gone, and therefore played on as before, only gradually noticing, out of the corners of their eyes, the flickering shadows outside their sunny nursery. Shadows of commotion, of unrest. Sounds of argument, of protest, of Mother’s things being tossed into boxes, of fixtures being forcibly unscrewed, of the whole house being dismantled.”

Amongst this change, there is a conflict between old and new which is obvious to the small child on a daily basis:

“Bureaucrats, tradesmen, doctors, postmen, parsons, waiters, porters, the whole pack of them; they ignored my mother and Aunt Primrose, and directed their remarks to my father.”

But he is a preoccupied artist and it is the women who drive the lives of the household, with energy, fun, and strong political convictions:

“She an Aunt Primrose worked as a kind of music hall duo, Mama getting by on charm and disarming honesty, while Aunt Primrose supplied the sardonic touch. My father was – if you’ll excuse what’s definitely not meant as a pun – the straight man.”

The story culminates on Women’s Sunday, the Hyde Park rally of 21 June 1908 which was the first major meeting organised by the WSPU. A Mighty Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing covers a great many themes in its 60-plus pages: being part of stories we can’t fully comprehend, the flawed nature of memory, how history is made, the need to attach a narrative to our lives looking back. Faber is a brilliant storyteller, able to cover all this within a driving plot, authentic voice and lightness of touch. He’s said he won’t write any more since publishing Undying in 2016 following the death of his wife, and I sincerely hope he changes his mind. All the stories in The Apple were highly readable, they worked individually, as a whole, and as a sort-of sequel to TCPATW. He’s a great writer.

To end, a silly portrait of a suffragette but not one I can dismiss because it was probably the first time I learnt what a suffragette was:

 

“The true novelist is one who understands the work as a continuous poem, is a myth-maker, and the wonder of the art resides in the endless different ways of telling a story.” (Muriel Spark)

Today would have been Muriel Spark’s 100th birthday, and there are celebrations and events taking place throughout the year, which you can read about here. Ali over at Heavenali is also doing a year long reading event #ReadingMuriel2018 so do join in exploring this wonderful novelist.

Image from here

2017 was the year of the novella for me. I don’t know why, but I repeatedly found myself drawn to short, tightly written, impactful stories. So it was inevitable that 2017 also became a year when I read Muriel Spark. She is absolutely masterful at the short novel. Her writing is sharp and concise, which suits her wit, but you never come away feeling short-changed; they are absolutely complete in themselves.  Here are 3 quick(ish) reviews of some Spark novellas that I read last year.

The Driver’s Seat (1970) 103 pages

This is a deeply unsettling tale, which leaves the reader with as many questions as answers by the end of it. It tells the story of the last few days of Lise’s life; this isn’t a spoiler as we know early on she will be found tied up and stabbed. Foreshadowing occurs throughout:

“She is neither good-looking nor bad-looking. Her nose is short and wider than it will look in the likeness constructed partly by the method of identikit, partly by actual photography, soon to be published in the newspapers of four languages.”

Spark does not ask that we feel sorry for Lise. The present tense and the characterisation are deliberately distancing. Lise is unlikeable – spiky and rude. She is also behaving somewhat eccentrically, dressing in vivid clashing colours  (“a lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned in bright V’s of orange, mauve and blue… a summer coat with narrow stripes, red and white, with a white collar”) which she then screams justification for at a shop assistant:

“ ‘These colours go together perfectly. People here in the North are ignorant of colours. Conservative; old-fashioned. If only you knew! These colours are a natural blend for me. Absolutely natural.’ She does not wait for a reply”

We follow Lise as she catches a flight to an unnamed holiday destination, and goes in search of a man who represents “my type” although she does not specify exactly what this is, and we know it is not sexual. It gradually emerges that Lise has motivations that are not articulated, and yet they drive her on relentlessly:

 “ ‘It’s getting late,’ says Lise. Her lips are slightly parted and her nostrils and eyes, too, are a fragment more open than usual; she is a stag scenting the breeze, moving step by step…she seems at the same time to search for a certain air-current, a glimpse and an intimation.”

It’s almost impossible to say anymore without spoilers. There are some funny moments in this dark tale, a particular conversation filled with non-sequiturs made me laugh. But overall the feeling created is one of deep unease. It has been described as a ‘metaphysical shocker’, and is definitely not one for readers who like clear answers and loose ends all neatly tied up.

Image from here

The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) 143 pages

When I was reading this, one of my colleagues, who is a big Muriel Spark fan, described her as ‘a scamp’. This is a perfect description of the authorial tone in this funny, odd novella.

It opens with Humphrey Place declining to marry Dixie at the altar, and the blame for such behaviour being laid by onlookers at the door of Dougal Douglas, who is no longer around. We then head back in time to see Dougal’s arrival in Peckham and the havoc he wreaks before his departure.

Dougal acquires a position at the firm of Meadows, Meade and Grindley:

“Dougal turned sideways in his chair and gazed out of the window at the bridge; he was now a man of vision with a deformed shoulder. ‘The world of industry,’ said Dougal, ‘throbs with human life. It will be my job to take the pulse of the people and plumb the Industrial depths of Peckham.’”

Instead of doing anything near what he has been employed to do, he skives off work, gets another job at a rival firm under the name Douglas Dougal, for which he also does no work, and sets about unsettling the lives of everyone with whom he comes into contact. There is a weird, almost surreal tone to events and we are never told why Dougal is there or what his motivations are for anything.

“Mr Weedin laid his head in his hands and burst into tears.

Dougal said, ‘You’re a sick man, Mr Weedin. I can’t abide sickness. It’s my fatal flaw. But I’ve brought a comb with me. Would you like me to comb your hair?’

‘You’re unnatural,’ said Mr Weedin.

‘All human beings who breathe are a bit unnatural,’ Dougal said. ‘If you try to be too natural, see where it gets you.’”

Sharp was Catholic, and so it’s tempting to read this as an allegory. Dougal does have lumps on his head which he claims are where the horns were removed. I’m not sure we’re meant to read him as a devil, though he is devilishly beguiling. The Ballad of Peckham Rye is a quick, wonderful read, showing how easily the most ordinary of lives and events therein can tip into the extraordinary, and how little we know anyone, least of all ourselves.

Image from here

The Public Image (1968) 125 pages

The Public Image is a wonderfully pithy satire on fame, celebrity and how women are forced into certain roles. Annabel Christopher is an English actress living in Rome with her husband Frederick and baby Carl. Frederick despises his wife, she is partly aware and partly indifferent to this.

“Her husband, when she was in his company with his men friends…tolerantly and quite affectionately insinuated the fact of her stupidity, and she accepted this without resentment for as long as did not convey to her any sense of contempt. The fact that she was earning more and more money than her husband seemed to her at that time a simple proof that he did not want to work.”

While Frederick is weak and thwarted by his wife’s success, Annabel is superficial and self-obsessed, intent on cultivating her images as the “English Lady-Tiger” with her adoring Italian public. Frederick takes a drastic revenge on Annabel to try and destroy her public image, and thereby destroy her.

“She was as unaware of his secret life as she was of her own, for hers was not articulate. She probably never formed a sentence in her mind that she would hesitate to reveal to open air.”

However, while Annabel is vacuous, she is also sharp as a pin, with an astute understanding of how to cultivate and maintain her public relations. Everyone has underestimated her, and her campaign to maintain her public power will reveal a side to her previously unimagined.

It’s astonishing how little this novel has aged. In this era of dead-eyed celebrities maintaining an iron-grip on their image through incessant selfies on their Instagram accounts, Annabel looks positively self-effacing. Spark’s satire sparkles and illuminates the ugly side of glamour with incisive wit.

I’m yet to read any Spark where she seems off her tremendous game. Thankfully in this year of not buying books I still have The Mandelbaum Gate in the TBR, so I’ll definitely be reading that before her centenary is out.

Retro pop video to end as usual, but I do apologise, I couldn’t resist….