“Where is Blitzen, baby?” (The Ramones)

Well, it’s been another difficult year for everyone, but I hope that the festive season sees you getting some restorative fun in whatever way you choose. For this Christmas post I’ve chosen two books that aren’t ostensibly about Christmas but which I can still proclaim as such for the purposes of this post 😀

Firstly, Professor Andersen’s Night by Dag Solstad (1996, trans. Agnes Scott Langeland 2011). This novella (154 pages in my edition) is my first encounter with Solstad which is clearly a big omission, as he’s described as ‘Norway’s most distinguished living writer’ on the back cover. While I didn’t love this novella, I did find it a very readable exploration of complex themes and I’d be interested to read more by this author.

It begins with the titular academic enjoying Christmas Eve on his own:

“Professor Andersen felt at peace, tonight. He had this feeling of inner peace which was not of a religious but of a social kind. He liked to indulge these Christmas rituals, which in fact meant nothing to him.”

His tranquillity is disturbed when he witnesses a young woman being strangled in an apartment opposite. In response to this shocking violence, he does precisely nothing:

“He went over to the telephone, but didn’t lift the receiver. ‘What shall I say,’ he thought, ‘that I have seen a murder? Yes, that’s what I have say. And they will laugh at me, and tell me to go and lie down, and to call back when I have sobered up’”

But he doesn’t call back when he’s sobered up either.

”Something had happened, something he had witnessed. He couldn’t warn them about something irreversible.”

Instead he ties himself in existential knots, wondering about his life in middle age and what happened to his generation of self-appointed radicals (a dinner party includes discussion on whether to join the EC or not – plus ça change…) As an Ibsen scholar, he wonders if Ibsen (and by implication, his own work) has any relevance in the twentieth century.

Witnessing the murder seems to fix the professor irreversibly in the position of observer, or throw into sharp relief how this has always been the case. Having done nothing about the crime, his intellectual explorations demonstrate how little he is the protagonist of his own life. He is acted upon by various societal forces (such as the Christmas ritual that is meaningless to him) but enacts very little himself.

So despite starting with a murder, this is not a crime novel. Professor Andersen’s Night is a long dark night of the soul, rather than a whodunnit. How much you enjoy the novella might depend on your attitude to Hamlet. If you find yourself carried along with Hamlet’s crises to a heart-breaking denouement, you’ll probably have sympathy with the Professor. If you find Hamlet torturous rather than tortured, maybe give this a miss…

“Ever since the murderer had entered his life, he had had a tendency to get hung up on impossible abstractions, ones which quite simply made him feel a bit sick.”

Secondly, Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers (2020), another new-to-me author despite her six other novels. I’ve decided to claim this as a Christmas story because a virgin birth is a major plot point 😊

Jean is approaching middle-age and lives with her mother in south-east London. Her mother not an easy character and home can be a bit suffocating. Jean is able to escape to her job as a journalist on the North Kent Echo and takes her chances for reprieve where she finds them:

“Of all the various liberties available, her favourite was to unfasten her girdle and lie at full stretch on the couch with an ashtray on her stomach and smoke two cigarettes back to back. There was no reason why she couldn’t do this in her mother’s presence – lying down in the day might prompt an enquiry about her health, no more- but it wasn’t nearly so enjoyable in company. The summer variant of this practice was to walk barefoot down the garden and smoke her cigarettes lying on the cool grass.”

A woman called Gretchen Tilbury approaches the paper to explain that her ten-year-old daughter is the result of a virgin birth. The men on the team seem somewhat reluctant to investigate further, so the story is assigned to Jean as the only woman. For reasons of her own, Jean approaches the story with an open mind. Gretchen is glamorous, an accomplished seamstress and baker, and seems to Jean to have the perfect life.

“Jean felt the tug of friendship, but it would have to resisted. If it came to delivering unwelcome news in due course then it was essential to maintain a sensible, professional distance.”

It’s no great spoiler to say that Jean doesn’t manage to maintain that distance. She’s feels herself drawn into the lives of Gretchen, her husband Howard, and their daughter Margaret. Gretchen seems to have everything Jean barely admits to herself that she wants, but she senses a sadness in Gretchen that she can’t quite identify.

Jean has kept herself if not exactly happy, then ticking over, with her work and her small pleasures. Gradually her world begins to open up towards something broader.

“She wondered how many years – if ever – it would be before the monster of awakened longing was subdued and she could return to placid acceptance of a limited life.”

What I liked about Small Pleasures is that although there is a mystery and a romance to drive the plot along (although as with so many books, I would have preferred a more ruthless edit) it is fundamentally a story of friendship, of reaching out to people and of letting people in, thereby finding community and solace in unexpected places.

“It violated every code that she had been brought up to live by, but the urge to tell him was unstoppable. Decorum, secrecy, self-control were all blown away by the force of this need to confide.”

This is especially poignant given the 1957 setting, which is beautifully evoked. It’s a time after the war but before the rapid social changes of the 1960s. Things are shifting, but reticence and decorum inhibit authentic behaviour. People are forced to hide important aspects of their lives and experiences, and also hide the pain that these unspoken sacrifices cause.  

“She hated being aligned with the forces of narrow-mindedness and conservatism, even though that was where she felt most at home… As a touchstone, she imagined her mother’s opinion – and rejected it.”

“She would collapse later, she promised herself, between seven and seven-thirty, when she had got home from work and done her chores.”

Small Pleasures doesn’t shy away from pain, but it doesn’t shy away from the joys of life either. It shows that the latter can be fleeting, but finding the small pleasures – and friends – can help us survive.

Looking at Goodreads, it seems lots of people hated the ending of this novel. I didn’t mind it but I did realise what it would be about halfway through (there is some pretty hefty foreshadowing). So I wouldn’t say that Chambers plays unfairly with the reader, but I did want to mention it as many seem quite annoyed!

To end, despite my long-held love of terrible twentieth-century Christmas pop tunes, I’ve only just found out that The Kinks made a Christmas record:

“When you have expectations, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.” (Ryan Reynolds)

I would say my blogging this year has been a continual exercise in humility or humiliation, depending on my mood 😀 Once again, I have failed to realise my own expectations, this time that I would read The River (1946) and Breakfast with the Nikolides (1942) for Brona’s Rumer Godden Reading Week which ends today. I’ve really enjoyed the Rumer Godden novels I’ve read (The Greengage Summer, Black Narcissus, China Court, Kingfishers Catch Fire). Godden is a prolific author and I’ve barely scratched the surface so I was excited to see Brona’s event.

But sadly (predictably) yet again, I’ve ended up posting right up to the wire for a reading event. I’m just back from a weekend away in the New Forest with friends, and while I had a lovely time I got minimal reading done, so I’m not going to manage to squeeze in the second book. I have at least managed The River, which given that it’s only 111 pages cannot be taken as a sign my reading is recovering in any great way. Ah well…

In the preface to my edition, Godden describes how the novel was written following her passing-by her childhood home after many years, and the tone of the novella is elegiac, full of feeling for a time long past. It begins:

“The river was in Bengal, India, but for the purpose of this book, these thoughts, it might as easily have been a river in America, in Europe, in England, France, New Zealand … Its flavour would be different in each […]

That is what makes a family, the flavour, the family flavour, and no one outside the family, however loved and intimate, can share it.”

The family are a middle-class white family, living in India. Although told in third person, the point of view is that of Harriet, on the cusp of adolescence. Her family comprises her pregnant mother, father who runs a jute factory, older sister Bea and younger brother Bogey, toddler Victoria, and Nan.

Harriet is great character: strong-willed, stubborn, imaginative and inquisitive. She writes poems and it’s easy to assume that she is based on Godden. She’s struggling with changes in herself and her family. Bea is that bit older and drawing away from childhood, and therefore her younger siblings. Bogey is interested in local fauna and happy to be left to explore these alone. Harriet is left betwixt and between.

“ ‘You are always trying to stop things happening, Harriet, and you can’t.’

But Harriet still thought, privately, that she could.”

The short novel is full of gorgeous descriptions of India, from the bazaar:

“Harriet and the children knew the bazaar intimately; they knew the kite shop where they bought paper kites and sheets of thin exquisite bright paper; they knew the shops where a curious mixture was sold of Indian cigarettes and betel nut, pan, done up in leaf bundles, and coloured pyjama strings and soda water; they knew the grain shops and the spice shops and the sweet shops with their smell of cooking sugar and ghee, and the bangle shops, and the cloth shop where bolts of cloth showed inviting patterns of feather and scallop prints, and the children’s dresses, pressed flat like paper dresses, hung and swung from the shop fronts.”

To the plants and flowers:

“Soon the bauhinia trees would bud along the road, their flowers white and curved like shells. Now the fields were dry, but each side of the road was water left from the flood that covered the plain in the rains; it showed under the floating patches of water-hyacinth and kingfishers, with a flash of brilliant blue, whirred up and settled on the telegraph wires, showing their russet breasts.”

As a twenty-first century reader, I’m reading at a very different time to when The River was written, and I do approach Godden’s novels set in India with some trepidation. We know that imperialism and colonialism underpin this fictional family’s way of life. While Godden was definitely a product of this herself, I found the descriptions in this novella evocative rather than exoticising. I didn’t get a sense of othering in The River but maybe a more astute reader would. Harriet views India as home although she is aware she doesn’t wholly fit in.

The natural environment and Harriet’s developing identity come together when she has an almost mystical experience by the cork tree in the garden:

“She put her hand on the tree and she thought she was drawn up into its height as if she were soaring out of the earth. Her ears seemed to sing. She had the feeling of soaring, then she came back to stand at the foot of the tree, her hand on the bark, and she began to write a new poem in her head.”

Although Harriet is infatuated with Captain John – a man injured both physically and psychologically by the war – it is her love affair with words that comes through so strongly. It’s a profound portrait of a child who will grow into a writer and how deeply the vocation is felt within her.

I think even if I hadn’t read the preface, the sense of how Godden came to write this is so clear. It is someone trying to evoke a place and life close to their hearts, with an awareness it has gone forever. The River is a quick read, not plot heavy, but a distinctive and memorable portrait of the gains, pains, lessons and losses of growing up.

Jean Renoir adapted The River in 1951 but the trailer seemed to me to be taking a very different tone to the book. I don’t know if this is reflective of the film itself, but it means it’s back to 80s pop videos! Regular readers of my witterings will not be at all surprised at the song choice to finish this post: