“Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.” (Nawal El Saadawi)

August is Women in Translation month, hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. Do head over to her blog to read more about WITMonth and join in!

This week I’m looking at two authors who are titans of literature: Marguerite Yourcenar and the one-woman powerhouse that is Nawal El Saadawi.

Firstly, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951, trans. Grace Frick 1954). Yourcenar worked on this novel on and off for over 20 years and spent around 3 years writing it as her main focus. It is a letter from the Emperor Hadrian to his successor Marcus Aurelius when he knows time is limited. It is not a dry recounting of Yourcenar’s extensive research though, or a cringe-making attempt to dramatise historical events: “so I said to the Roman Senate, as we sat in the Roman Forum: I’m going to build a wall to keep out those pesky Scots who refuse to be subdued under the yoke of Roman Imperialism. And Scotland’s going to pay for it.”

Instead, Yourcenar uses historical events as a frame for an extended consideration of life and death. Hadrian is about as likable as the leader of a huge oppressive military force can be; he is focussed on peace wherever possible, and interested in the arts and philosophy. At the same time, he is politically astute:

“A prince lacks the latitude afforded to the philosopher in this respect: he cannot allow himself to be different on too many points at a time; and the gods know that my points of difference were already too numerous, though I flattered myself that many were invisible.”

His humility is believable, and I think Yourcenar’s master stroke is having Hadrian know he is facing an imminent death. Staring into the void, even a Roman emperor is bound to question what impact he has had, and whether he was a force for good. Reflecting on his role as leader of imperialist suppression is a bleak business:

“It mattered little to me that the accord obtained was external, imposed from without and perhaps temporary; I knew that good like bad becomes routine, that the temporary tends to endure, that what is external permeates to the inside, and that the mask, given time, comes to be the face itself. Since hatred, stupidity, and delirium have lasting effects, I saw no reason why good will, clarity of mind and just practice would not have their effects too.”

But Hadrian-the-man comes across just as clearly as Hadrian-the-politician. His grief at the death of his young lover Antinous is never maudlin or indulgent, yet the overwhelming grief that Hadrian clearly felt (he established a cult in Antinous’ name) is very moving.

“This simple man possesses a virtue which I had thought little about up to this time, even when I happened to practice it, namely, kindness.”

Memoirs of Hadrian is only 247 pages in my edition but it took me much longer to read than a novel of that length normally would. This is not because the prose didn’t flow: Hadrian’s voice is crystal-clear and the narrative is easy to follow, being mainly chronological with some deviations. It is however, a densely written book with so much to consider. Hadrian doesn’t waste a word: he’s a dying man, and an erudite, philosophical one. He’s got a lot to say and I had to think hard about most of it.

“Death can become an object of blind ardour, of a hunger like that of love”

[…]

“the time of impatience has passed; at the point where I now am, despair would be in as bad taste as hope itself. I have ceased to hurry my death.”

Secondly, the short story collection She Has No Place in Paradise by Nawal El Saadawi (1987, trans. Shirley Eber 1987) Set in Egypt, it is another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

If you ever want absolute confirmation that you are an under-achiever who is wasting their life, go and check out Nawal El Saadawi’s wiki entry. The first paragraph alone is enough to inspire deep feelings utter inadequacy 😀

I always find it hard to write about collections of short stories, but I thought She Has No place in Paradise worked well. El Saadawi has an excellent understanding of the form and each story felt complete in itself, yet still contributed to the collection overall painting a picture of late twentieth-century Egyptian society.

Some of the stories captured the determinedly everyday. In Thirst, a young servant girl running errands lusts after a cool drink from a kiosk:

“The tarmac of the street beneath her feet had softened from the intensity of the sun’s heat. It burned her like a piece of molten iron and made her hop here and there, bumping and colliding, unconsciously, like a small moth against the sides of a burning lamp. She could have made for the shade at the side of the street and sat for a time on the damp earth, but her shopping basket hung on her arm and her right hand clutched at a tattered fifty piastre note.”

It’s a simple tale conveying just a few moments in time, but El Saadawi is able to address big issues: the position of women, the class system, economics, how and where freedom of choice is exercised, how we weigh up choices when we have very little to lose. None of this is heavily executed; El Saadawi trusts the reader to draw wider conclusions than just the immediate situation.

“She had a salty taste in her mouth, as bitter as aloes, acrid and burning. She searched for some saliva with which to wet her salty lips, but the tip of her tongue burned without finding a drop. And Hamida stood in front of her, her lips surrounding the ice-cold bottle, each cell of her body absorbing the drink.”

Other stories are more ostensibly political, like the man being tortured to reveal the location of a printing press in But He Was No Mule.

“The press turns in your head, the lead letters chatter together like teeth and the word is born. It is only a word nothing but a word, yet the point at which all things begin, the point at which his life began and stretched throughout the years until this moment which he was now living. A long thread beginning at a point and stretching up to that gelatinous minute point around which his self was wrapped, enclosed and protected like a foetus in its mother’s womb.”

By having the victim in a state of near-delirium El Saadawi avoids having to present gory, gratuitous violence, but still manages to convey the brutality of the situation and the oppression taking place.

El Saadawi manages to maintain a light touch in addressing huge themes throughout the tales. The titular story treats the position of women in society and how religion is used as a means of control with a degree of humour, but it is humour with bite: a devout woman realises that her devotion to entering paradise is to enter somewhere which does not benefit her.

She Has No Place in Paradise is a masterclass in making the personal political and in doing so simply, without being didactic or losing sight of the story. Hugely impressive, much like Nawal El Saadawi herself.

To end, I was tempted to finish with Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall in honour of Hadrian, but frankly the video creeps me out. So here’s something much more pleasant: Donia Massoud, born in Alexandria, spent three years travelling all around Egypt collecting folk songs. She then toured with her band playing traditional instruments. Here she is performing in Spain:

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“Images are a way of writing. When you have the talent to be able to write and to draw, it seems a shame to choose one.” (Marjane Satrapi)

August is Women in Translation month, hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. Do head over to her blog to read more about WITMonth and join in!

Throughout August I’m hoping to post entirely about women in translation, and this week I’m looking at two women who are famous animators as part of their writing.

Firstly, Tove Jansson, who was the creator of the Moomins.

Jansson also wrote novels for adults and Sort Of Books have done a great job making English translations available. The True Deceiver (1982, trans. Thomas Teal 2009) is a simple, unsettling tale set over a winter in a snowbound hamlet in Finland.

Katri Kling is a young woman in her 20s who lives with her brother Mats and her nameless Alsatian dog, keeping herself to herself.

“Every night I hear the snow against the window, the soft whisper of the snow blown in form the sea, and it’s good, I wish the whole village could be covered and erased and finally be clean…Nothing can be as peaceful and endless as a long winter darkness, going on and on, like living in a tunnel where the dark sometimes deepens into night and sometimes eases to twilight, you’re screened from everything, protected, even more alone than usual.”

Meanwhile, Anna Aemelin is an animator who lives on the outskirts of the village. If Katrin seems old beyond her years, Anna has stayed somewhat infantalised despite now being quite old. She eats soft food out of tins, has a cleaner to take care of the huge house she’s lived in her whole life, and has no idea how to manage her money.

“Perhaps the reason people called Anna Aemelin nice was because nothing had ever forced her to exhibit malice, and because she had an uncommon ability to forget unpleasant things. She just shook them off and continued on her own vague but stubborn way. In fact, her spoiled benevolence was frightening, but no-one ever had time to notice.”

Katrin sets her sights on Anna’s house, and so the two women collide:

“That’s where she lives. Mats and I will live there too. But I have to wait. I need to think carefully before I give this Anna Aemelin an important place in my life.”

What follows is a study of the tense, odd relationship that these two women build together. They are both quite damaged in different ways, and they are both loners. Mats has an unspecified learning difficulty and so he operates outside of this dynamic; it is very much about the two women. Mats is Katrin’s motivation though, and they are close without communicating much to one another:

“They owned a silence together that was peaceful and straightforward.”

This is not a story for those who like dramatic events and everything explained. What Jansson does expertly is portray these two women and the development of their relationship. She is entirely unsentimental – neither woman is particularly likeable – but the quiet, suffocating way she builds the story is compulsive.

“Anna walked faster, looking only down at the road. Several neighbours passed by, but she didn’t notice their greetings, just wanted to get home, home to the dreadful Katri, to her own altered world which had grown severe but where nothing was wicked and concealed.”

I really adore Jansson’s writing. It is beautiful but not overdone; pared down to its essence, she takes an incisive look at human relationships and never wastes a word. The True Deceiver is compelling and totally believable.

Secondly, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2003, trans. Anjali Singh 2004). This is a graphic novel so please bear with me as I hardly ever read graphic novels and I’ve no idea how to write about it. Set in Iran, this is one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Persepolis was made into a film in 2007 and uses the animation from the novel (it was co-written and co-directed by the author), so this trailer gives a good idea of the artwork:

Satrapi’s drawings are stark and simple in black and white and without excessive detail. As a result her images are incredibly strong and impactful, with nothing to distract from the central message each picture conveys.

The story is a powerful one. Marjane, born in 1970, grows up in tumultuous times in Iran. Her parents are liberal Marxists who allow their daughter a great deal of freedom, but after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 she has to wear a veil and be careful how she behaves in public. Young Marjane is religious and converses with God, but her favourite book is Dialectic Materialism where Marx and Descartes debate the meaning of the material world. “It was funny to see how much Marx and God looked liked each other. Though Marx’ hair was a bit curlier.”

Marjane learns about the history of her country and her family, having descended from Iran’s last emperor. Western culture appeals, while at the same time she knows that Britain conspired with the CIA in 1953 to depose Mossadeq after he nationalised the oil industry, to return the Shah to power (side note: when our previous Prime Minister Tony Blair was busy starting illegal wars in the Middle East, he had to be told who Mossadeq was, because he couldn’t understand Iranian hostility to Britain. I don’t even know where to begin with that.)

Her beloved uncle Anoosh is arrested and asks to Marjane for a final visit before he is executed. The scene where he holds her and calls her “Star of my Life” I found so moving. You can view it on Pintrest here (it’s really hard to write about a graphic novel without images! But I’m worried about copyright infringement ☹)

Persepolis follows Marjane as she leaves Iran for Austria, and her return four years later. We see her growing up, meeting boys, trying drugs, going to parties. She struggles to accept herself, feeling too Persian in Europe and too European in Iran. At times she loses her way, but always returns to her grandmother’s advice:

“There is nothing worse than bitterness and vengeance…always keep your dignity and be true to yourself.”

Persepolis covers absolutely massive themes and is a remarkable achievement. International politics, religion, feminism, identity, social responsibility, extremism, idealism, familial love, are all here. The fact that it’s in graphic novel form mean that it never feels a heavy read and yet Persepolis doesn’t pull its punches or aim to make difficult truths easy for the reader. I’ve not remotely done it justice here.

To end, Marjane loves her hard-won Kim Wilde tape. Here’s the lovely lady herself aged 20, making her TOTP debut:

Contempt – Alberto Moravia (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #48)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  The posts have been a bit too occasional, the challenge is taking me forever! I’m hoping this post will see me starting to build momentum again. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books.

Contempt (Il disprezzo) by Alberto Moravia (1954 trans. Angus Davidson 1999) is a novel with a title that instructs the reader regarding the attitude to take to the narrator: Molteni is truly contemptible.

He is married to the gorgeous Emilia and at first they are very happy together, despite their poverty, as Molteni tries to make a living as a writer and earn enough to keep them in their modest home.

“Thus I never had so much to complain of as I did during the time when in truth – as I later came to realise – I was completely and profoundly happy.”

Gradually however, things start to unravel. They meet Battista, a crass, vulgar film producer. A seemingly innocuous event occurs but from this time Emilia starts to treat Molteni coolly. And so over the course of this short novel we see the disintegration of the marriage, the causes of which are entirely apparent to the reader but remain elusive to Molteni as he is so utterly self-absorbed.

He’s a terrible snob: he looks down on his wife for being less educated than him and has dreams of being a great writer. He feels his scriptwriting is beneath him yet he doesn’t really excel at that either, trying to write a film version of The Odyssey for co-producers with very different ideas. He’s so busy being intellectual that life is passing him by and he has no idea how incredibly stupid he is.

He has a degree of insight into abstract concepts, such as his decision to become a Communist, but is unable to translate it into meaningful action:

“Usually, in simpler, less cultivated people, this process occurs without their knowing it, in the dark depths of consciousness where, by a kind of mysterious alchemy, egoism is transmuted into altruism, hatred into love, fear into courage, but to me, accustomed as I was to observing and studying myself, the whole thing was clear and visible…yet I was aware the whole time I was being swayed by material, subjective factors, that I was transforming purely personal motives into universal reasons.”

The irony when he claims “I would never have become a Communist if I had not bought the lease of that over-expensive flat” completely passes him by.

And of course, he is completely blinded to the person he shares his life with. Emilia become progressively unhappier throughout the novel, which Molteni barely acknowledges, being so wrapped up in himself:

“Her beauty had about it a look of subjection, of reluctance, the cause of which I was at a loss to identify.”

It’s a short novel so I can’t say too much about plot, except things come to a head when the couple holiday with Battista in Capri, changing their lives irrevocably. Contempt shows how intellectualism and artistry carry a danger of relentless self-focus; coupled with Molteni’s material concerns, he loses all sight of people and human feelings, only realising where true meaning lies when it is too late.

I couldn’t have spent too much longer with Molteni but as a short, sharp novel, Contempt works well and has plenty of food for thought.

To end, the trailer for Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (1963), which was inspired by Contempt:

“I am my own muse, the subject I know best.” (Frida Kahlo)

Last week I wrote about Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s love letter to Vita Sackville-West. Although she was Virginia’s muse, Vita was not a voiceless entity to be moulded by the artist, but an accomplished author in her own right. This week, I thought I’d look at the work of some famous muses: Vita, and also Zelda Fitzgerald.

Vita Sackville-West

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (1931) begins with the death of Henry, Lord Slane, former Prime Minister and Viceroy to India. Deborah, Lady Slane, who has been married for 70 years since the age of 17, seems to be bearing up remarkably well.

“Mother was a changeling, they had often said politely, in the bitter-sweet accents reserved for a family joke; but now in this emergency they found a new phrase: Mother is wonderful. It was the thing they were expected to say, so they said it, several times over, like a refrain coming periodically into their conversation and sweeping it upwards on to a higher level. Then it dropped again; became practical. Mother was wonderful, but what was to be done with Mother? Evidently she could not go on being wonderful for the rest of her life.”

Although she loved her husband, Lady Slane is released by his death. She did not want to be a political wife or a society hostess, or any of the other roles she had to adopt to support her husband. She had wanted to be a painter, but instead followed the Victorian ideal and got married. Her husband was happy for her to paint watercolours as a becoming hobby, but the idea of a professional artist wife was ridiculous:

“He was not to blame. He had only taken for granted the things he was entitled to take for granted, thereby ranging himself with the women and entering into the general conspiracy to defraud her of her chosen life.”

Aged 88, Lady Slane decides that the time has come to go her own way at last:

“I have considered the eyes of the world for so long that I think it is time I had a little holiday from them. If one is not to please oneself in old age, when is one to please oneself? There is so little time left!”

This means she will not live alternately with each of her offspring who are all fairly dreadful in their own way. Instead she will move to a small house in Hampstead with her French maid who has been with her for the whole of her marriage, and they will live quite simply. (Much to my relief, having read the horrors of the moving-between-adult-children option brilliantly portrayed in Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven)

She ends up creating a little enclave of elderly men around her. Mr Bucktrout is her eccentric, paternalistic landlord; Mr Gosheron her decorator; and Mr FitzGeorge a man who has loved her from afar for years. They are all rather strange individuals, and all in sympathy with one another.

“But at Hampstead, thanks to Mr Bucktrout and Mr Gosheron, the proper atmosphere had been at last achieved. It was modest; there were no aides-de-camp, no princes, but though modest it was warm, and affectionate, and respectful, and vigilant, and just as it should be.”

Sackville-West has plenty to say in this novel, most obviously about the limited choices available to women, especially in regard to their professional lives:

“She supposed she that was not in love with Henry, but, even if she had been in love with him, she could see therein no reason for foregoing the whole of her own separate existence. Henry was in love with her but no-one proposed he should forego his.”

In this way, it has been seen as a fictional companion to A Room of One’s Own. However, it is also an appeal for allowing for different kinds of life and for respecting inner life as much as outward achievement. Lady Slane is ostensibly doing nothing, and wonders if the contemplative life is in fact running away from things. She decides it isn’t:

“for in contemplation (and also in pursuit of the one chosen avocation which she had to renounce) she could pierce to a happier life more truly than her children who reckoned things by their results and activities”

All Passion Spent is a wonderful novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s beautifully written and has something to say, but it is never didactic. It is warm, witty, has fully-realised idiosyncratic characters and of course, Sackville-West’s sharp wit. A great read.

“For the first time in her life – no, for the first time since her marriage – she had nothing else to do. She could lie back against death and examine life. Meanwhile, the air was full of the sound of bees.”

Secondly, Zelda Fitzgerald’s only novel, Save Me the Waltz, written in a clinic in 6 weeks following a breakdown. It’s practically impossible to read this without thinking of Zelda’s life. She and her husband F Scott Fitzgerald were seen as emblematic of generation perdu and her husband labelled her ‘the First American Flapper’. Save Me the Waltz is barely disguised autobiography as Alabama Begg marries an artist, David Knight, and the celebrated couple move around Europe after the First World War. Sound at all familiar?

The novel was dismissed by critics on its release but has been reclaimed by some scholars in recent years who argue the novel is well-written and Zelda has been overshadowed by the acclaim granted her husband. I think I fall somewhere between these two camps. I thought Save Me the Waltz was desperately overwritten:

“the swing creaks of Austin’s porch, a luminous beetle swings ferociously over the clematis, insects swarm to the golden holocaust of all hall light. Shadows brush the Southern night like heavy, impregnated mops soaking its oblivion back into the black heat whence it evolved. Melancholic moon-vines trail dark, absorbent pads over the string trellises.”

There are loads of passages like this. Fitzgerald loves a simile and she layers image upon image without them really adding anything to one another. A few pages on is this:

“The lids of her mother’s blue eyes rose in weary circumflex as her sweet hands moved in charity through the necessities of her circumstance.”

At this point I was at page 29 and wondering if I should give up. As I say, it’s difficult to read this separate from Zelda’s legend but I’m pretty sure that even if I didn’t know about her, this writing would still strike me as coming from someone with something to prove, desperate to be a Good Writer.

But I’m glad I persevered. Fitzgerald seemed to get into her stride later into the novel; similes became more coherent, the use of Big Clever Words lessened and she got on with the story and some interesting observations:

“Alabama and David were proud of themselves and the baby, consciously affecting a vague bouffant casualness about the fifty thousand dollars they spent on two years’ worth of polish for life’s baroque façade. In reality, there is no materialist like the artist, asking back from life the double and the wastage and the cost on what he puts out in emotional usury.”

Alabama decides to train as a dancer as the Knight’s marriage starts to disintegrate. It’s hard not to read it as Zelda’s take on her relationship with Scott and it’s sad:

“They had thought they were perfect and opened their hearts to inflation but not to alteration.”

Of course the main interest in reading Save Me the Waltz is that it was written by Zelda Fitzgerald, and that  it is her life with Scott thinly-disguised. Yet I think it shows unfulfilled promise. It’s not a great novel but it has excellent moments. I felt if she had only had an editor take an artistic, nuturing interest in her, someone who would advise, guide and mentor, Zelda Fitzgerald could have become the accomplished writer she so clearly wanted to be.

“Alabama swung off in imitation of some walk she had once admired. ‘But I warn you’ she said, ‘I am only really myself when I’m somebody else whom I have endowed with these wonderful qualities from my imagination.”

To end, I recently saw a repeat of a documentary where Marianne Faithfull described becoming Mick Jagger’s muse as “not a high self-esteem choice”. She survived, she’s laughing and she’s still working, even if her voice these days is a bit of an acquired taste. Take it away Marianne:

“Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands?” (Ernest Gaines)

Although June was Pride month, in London it culminated with a Pride parade during the sunny weekend just gone, so this week’s post is two novels involving LGBT+ themes.

The first thing that struck me on picking up Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928) is that Penguin Classics have managed to disprove what I had previously taken to be an absolute truth: that film tie-in covers are always repulsive. Apparently not when Tilda Swinton is involved (credit also to Billy Zane’s arms):

Orlando is a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, and the novel is full of references to her: her family, history, homes, lovers. As Orlando, Woolf makes Vita someone who is not bound by the laws of time, or by gender. At the start of the novel, Orlando is a young man living in Elizabethan England. I took Shakespearean Studies for my MA and I enjoyed Woolf poking fun at the nobleman poets of the time:

“He was describing, as all young poets are forever describing, nature…Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural apathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces. The shade of green Orlando now saw spoilt his rhyme and metre…one drops the pen, takes one’s cloak, strides out of the room, and catches one’s foot on a painted chest as one does so. For Orlando was a trifle clumsy.”

The oak tree on Orlando’s estate is a recurring motif, as Orlando writes throughout their life the epic poem The Oak Tree:

“To the oak tree he tied [his heart] and as he lay there, gradually the flutter in and about him stilled itself; the little leaves hung, the deer stopped; the pale summer clouds stayed; his limbs grew heavy on the ground; and he lay so still that by degrees the deer stepped nearer and the rooks wheeled round him and the swallows dipped and circled and the dragonflies shot past, as if all the fertility and amorous activity of a summer’s evening were woven web-like around his body.”

He is popular in the Elizabethan court and romances a Russian princess named Sasha (based on Vita’s lover for many years, Violet Trefusis). Sasha ultimately breaks his heart and Orlando retreats from court, but is later and ambassador to Turkey for Charles II. While in Constantinople he falls asleep for several days and wakes quite altered:

“Orlando had become a woman – there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatsoever to alter their identity.”

This change enables Woolf to make several pointed comments about gender roles:

“For women are not (judging by my own short experiences of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline.”

Ultimately though, Woolf is not interested in preaching. Orlando is an enjoyable romp through the centuries with plenty of sly digs at writers of the past and satirising of British society through the ages. It’s also about the difficulty of writing, both biography (Woolf-as-biographer addresses the reader directly to highlight these difficulties) and fiction as Orlando struggles with The Oak Tree and takes centuries to finish it (I enjoy Sackville-West’s writing but apparently Woolf didn’t rate it much).

For me, Orlando isn’t Woolf at her best, but I don’t think it was intended to be; she referred to it as ‘a writer’s holiday’. However, like all her writing, it is multi-layered and lends itself to re-reading. For all its complexities it’s a surprisingly easy read and can be whizzed through if you’re not stopping to read footnotes to catch all the allusions 🙂

Secondly, The Spell by Alan Hollinghurst (1998). This was a lesson to me to keep an open mind. If I didn’t rate Hollinghurst as a writer I would never have picked up this novel from the description on the back, taken from The Times review: “Alex drops a tab of ecstasy, provided by young Danny, and embarks on a bewildering voyage of self-discovery in a drug-fuelled London club scene”. To me, that sounds like an incredibly tedious premise for a novel. Thankfully, it seems The Times book reviewers were as inept then as they are now* and this is not what the novel’s about. What The Spell is about is dealing with the pain of heartbreak, and the awkward negotiations of intimacies when you’re male and British and don’t say what you feel.

Alex is nursing a broken heart when his ex-partner Justin invites him to spend the weekend with him and his new partner, Robin. Robin’s son Danny is there and Alex and Danny start a relationship. Alex is conservative; he works for the government and lives a quiet life. Danny is several years younger and completely different:

“He took in the jumble on the mantlepiece, but didn’t study the the curling snapshots too closely for fear of cutting himself on the grins and glints of Danny’s world. He had an impression of life as a party, as a parade of flash-lit hugs and kisses, in a magic zone where everyone was young and found to be beautiful.”

Robin is also negotiating his relationship with Danny and Hollinghurst captures the pain and guilt of the divorced parent:

“Even though the marriage had broken up eighteen years ago, Danny’s visits still left Robin with an aftertaste of disappointment, of adulterated sweetness; sometimes they had been anxious charades of the life they might have led together, but played out with an eye on the clock and a mawkishness which shifted from one to the other.”

Over the period of their relationship, as The Times review mentioned, Danny introduces Alex to London nightlife:

“He could easily argue the feeling away as the elation of drink and dancing and the company of a thousand half-naked men. Though the men were beautiful, it was true, in the cascades and strafings of coloured light.”

The Spell isn’t Hollinghurst’s most sophisticated novel but it’s simplicity makes it touching. It’s a look at a period of time in four ordinary, connected lives, written before he went onto the broader scope of The Line of Beauty and The Stranger’s Child. It’s about how we deal with pain, both big (bereavement, heartbreak) and small (the tiny hurts we cause one another each day). The final image is one of friendship, and as this endures, one of hope.

To end, the theme of this year’s London Pride was #PrideMatters. It’s about the importance of Pride as people who are LGBT+ still face discrimination and abuse. A pretty depressing state of affairs in 2018. And I am struck yet again at how audacious Jimmy Somerville was in making this video 34 years ago:

*Not that I read the Murdoch rag but instead base my opinions on the much more reliable source of Twitter. I saw Matt Haig’s tweet about their review of his latest book which showed all the nuanced understanding of mental health that you’d expect 😦

“It is not possible to have perfection in life but it is possible to have perfection in a novel.” (Elizabeth Taylor)

Today is Elizabeth Taylor Day in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, which gave me a chance to read the last two novels I had of hers remaining in the TBR (thankfully I’ve not yet read all her work – roll on the end of the book-buying ban…).

Firstly, The Sleeping Beauty (1953), which tells the story of Vinny, a man who is a reliable shoulder to cry on for all his female friends.

“It was his business to be loved – a mission created afresh with everyone he met – and he was always conscious of another’s coldness.”

When Isabella’s husband dies, he is down to visit her at her coastal home like a shot.

“ ‘You are welcome to follow me to the ends of the earth’ Vinny seemed to be assuring people when he was introduced.”

Vinny should be seen as a model of compassion, but instead Taylor’s sharp eye shows him as vain and very much driven by his own needs. Isabella’s son Laurence, courting a young nursemaid staying at a local B&B, doesn’t take to him as he thinks he has plans to marry Isabella. The thought crosses Isabella’s mind too, and she finds comfort in planning how she will turn him down. What neither of them know is that firstly, Vinny is already married (though separated) from his wife Rita “[who] had, in fact, a great distaste for the truth and was forever tidying it up or turning her back on it.” and secondly, that Vinny has fallen in love at first sight with Emily, who he saw on the beach.

“When they had gone from view, he turned back to the room, and found it dark now, and very small.”

Emily is a blank canvas in many ways, perfect for Vinny’s romantic sensibility.

 “Nearing fifty, Vinny felt more than ever the sweet disappointments only a romantic knows….the imperfectly remembered and the half-anticipated. Past and future to him were the realities; the present dull, meaningless.”

Emily has been in a car accident and her heart was broken when her lover subsequently dumped her, unable to cope with her changed appearance. She is still beautiful, but in a strange way, as Vinny’s mother observes:

“anything passive she abhorred, and Emily’s dead-white skin, her lack of expression, about which Vinny had found no words to forewarn her, no heart to explain or discuss, annoyed and repelled her. She could sense Emily’s life drifting by in an incurious desuetude.”

The Sleeping Beauty has a determinedly unromantic male lead, and a beauty whose awakening is for his benefit not hers. Taylor shows how we attempt to construct our lives around our desires and how that can cause pain rather than delight for ourselves and those we love. She is very funny (such as Isabella and her friend Evalie being avid racing gamblers, hiding this from her son, who is also betting and hiding it from his mother) but overall the tale is unsettling. If the romance will result in happily-ever-after for any of those concerned is left for the reader to decide.

“ ‘Oh, I am nothing without you,’ she said. ‘I should not know what to be. I feel as if you had invented me. I watch you inventing me, week after week.’”

Secondly, Angel (1957) a hilarious portrait of a writer supposedly based on the romantic novelist Marie Corelli. Angelica Deverell decides before she’s even left school that she’s going to be a romantic novelist. This is despite not liking love, or novels:

“Until now she had thought of love with bleak distaste. She wanted to dominate the world, not one person.”

“She had never cared much for books, because they did not seem to be about her”

Angel is one of the most rampant egotists ever committed to paper. She is a terrible writer without life experience, knowledge or taste to draw on, and yet she is hugely popular – her readers don’t care about her error-ridden purple prose. Her fame insulates her from the world and so she is able to continue her entirely ego-driven existence, never bothering to look beyond herself for anything. She is physically astigmatic but psychologically myopic to the point of blindness.

Maybe I’m lacking compassion but I didn’t find Angel remotely sympathetic. She is appalling. The pathos comes through her mother: baffled by her daughter, and yanked from her home by Angel’s material wealth. I found this passage heart-rending:

“At a time of her life when she needed the security of familiar things, these were put beyond her reach. It seemed to her she had wasted her years acquiring a skill which in the end was to be of no use to her: her weather-eye for a good drying day; her careful ear for judging the gentle singing sound of meat roasting in the oven; her touch for the freshness of bacon; and how, by smelling a cake, she could tell if it were baked: arts, which had taken so long to perfect, now fell into disuse. She would never again, she grieved, gather up a great fragrant line of washing in her arms to carry indoors.”

Amazingly, Angel does have people who care about her, repugnant as she is. Theo, her publisher, takes a paternalistic attitude and worries she will never get what she wants:

“Love, which calls for compliance, resilience, lavishness, would be a shock to her spirit, and upset to the rhythm of her days. She would never achieve it, he was sure. For all the love in her books, it would be beyond her in life.”

Nora is a devoted friend and lives with Angel for the majority of their lives, even during Angel’s marriage to Nora’s feckless brother Esme:

“ ‘I read one of your books.’ he said, sounding as if it were rather a surprising thing to do.

She blinked, jolted by what he had said. She always supposed that everyone had read all of her books and had them nearly by heart, that they thought about them endlessly and waited impatiently for the next one to appear.”

Her marriage is held together through Esme’s lies and Angel’s unrelenting capacity for self-delusion, despite the fact she doesn’t enjoy the honeymoon:

“Greece was especially disappointing. It was nothing like her novels.”

 Angel is an astonishing character study and the story of one writer’s life. What is most astounding is that the grotesque Angel is apparently not too far from real life; apart from the fact that she was probably gay and more interested in the esoteric, Marie Corelli seems to have been very much like Angel. Certainly like Corelli, Angel refuses to acknowledge her waning star following the First World War when people don’t want overwritten romances anymore.

Angel never has an epiphany, she remains resolutely vain, deluded and solipsistic until the end. The novel is a comi-tragedy, carefully balancing absurd excess with sharp-eyed psychological insight.

“She went to the Royal Garden Party in violet satin and ostrich feathers with purple-dyed chinchilla on her shoulders; amethysts encrusted her corsage and mauve orchids were sewn all over her skirt where they quickly wilted. Glances of astonishment she interpreted as admiration.”

 “Arrogant and absurd she had been and remained; she had warded off friendship and stayed lonely and made such fortifications within her own mind that truth could not pierce it”

Ultimately, Taylor treats Angel kindly:

“I am frightened, she suddenly thought. But there was nothing to be frightened of; not even poverty now. I have come such a long way, she told herself, and done all that I wanted and there is nothing to fear.”

In life and in fiction, I like people who walk to the beat of their own drum. Angel certainly does this. I think the reason I couldn’t stand her is because she is so utterly self-focussed. She has zero interest in other people or in the world. Taylor is such a skilled writer that her horrible main character does not detract from the joy of this novel. The comedy is gentle; although we laugh at Angel it is in disbelief rather than cruelty. There is also enough reality and pathos through the characters that surround her to ground the novel away from Angel’s delusions.

Elizabeth Taylor is such a wonderful writer. Any novel of hers is an absolute masterclass in astute, humane, witty style. The fact that she is an Underappreciated Lady Author is an absolute travesty.

To end, I saw a documentary recently about female singers and Annie Lennox was part of it, looking bloomin’ amazing in every shot. Here she is singing about an angel:

“The problem with current [marriage] vows is their optimism, which should be radically tempered, so as to avoid rage and resentment.” (Alain de Botton)

Last week I got an invite to a friend’s wedding. I know you won’t judge me, my bookish friends, when I say that I was pleased to get the invite and looking forward to it, but only became truly excited when I saw it was taking place in the birthplace of a favourite poet – roll on October!

Anyway….. me being a selfish friend aside, this prompted me to think that June is traditionally a month for weddings and so a suitable theme for this week.

Firstly, The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (1946), which tells the story of twelve-year old Frankie over a few sultry days in late August, around the wedding of her older brother:

“She knew that her only brother, Jarvis, was to be married. He had become engaged to a girl in Winter Hill just before he went to Alaska. Frankie had not seen her brother for a long, long time and his face had become masked and changing, like a face seen underwater. But Alaska! Frankie had dreamed of it constantly.”

Frankie is a misfit – very tall for a girl (I thought she sounded entirely normal but then I was 5’10” by age 14), with hair she’s just shorn into a crew cut, kept company by her housekeeper Berenice and her cousin John Henry, who is half her age.  Her mother died in childbirth and her father is a distant presence. She is deeply unhappy and pins all her hopes on her brother and his new wife taking her with them when they leave.

McCullers creates the stultifying atmosphere perfectly:

“The clock ticked very slowly on the shelf above the stove, and it was only quarter to six. The glare outside was still hard and yellow and bright. In the backyard the shade beneath the arbor was black and solid. Nothing moved. From somewhere far away came the sound of whistling, and it was grieving an August song that did not end. The minutes were very long.”

I don’t think it’s putting too much of a modern interpretation on the novel to say a dominant theme is about gender and identity. Frankie has a gender-neutral name and does not conform to a feminine ideal. John Henry wears a dress. Markers of identity shift: Berenice is African-American but has one blue eye, she knows a dark-skinned woman who has vitiligo, and she tells of a man who became a woman. Frankie’s name changes to F Jasmine in the second part of the novel. Both children feel their ideal world would not contain gender binaries:

“She planned it so that people could instantly change back and forth from boys to girls, whichever way they felt like and wanted. But Berenice would argue with her about this, insisting the law of human sex was exactly right as it was and could in no way be improved. And then John Henry West would very likely add his two cents’ worth about this time, and think that people ought to be half boy and half girl”

At core though, it is a tale of a sad, lonely, misunderstood child who desperately wants to be seen and heard, and believes the wedding day will give her this chance:

“And since it was the day when past and future mingled, F Jasmine did not wonder that it was strange and long. So these were the main reasons why F Jasmine felt, in an unworded way, that this was a morning different from all mornings she had ever known. And of all these facts and feelings the strongest of all was the need to be known for her true self and recognised.”

What Frankie needs to recognise is what she already has: a deep intimacy with Berenice and John Henry who both love her.

“The three of them sat silent, close together and they could feel and hear each other’s breaths.”

The Member of the Wedding is an atmospheric, touching story that has many layers to it. It’s a tightly contained novel (188 pages in my edition) which still manages a remarkable richness of characterisation and setting.

The Member of the Wedding was a Broadway production and then a film with the same actors in 1952. I’ve not seen it but I believe it was acclaimed, although the claustrophobic quality probably worked better on stage:

Secondly, Cassandra at the Wedding, by Dorothy Baker (1962). Like The Member of the Wedding, the story centres not on the couple but on someone with a strong emotional investment in the proceedings. Cassandra is writing her PhD at Berkley and has to return home because her twin sister Judith is marrying a doctor she met in New York. The sisters are exceptionally, unhealthily close and Judith’s move to New York had sent Cassandra into a tailspin. At the start of the novel she is considering the Golden Gate bridge in term of a suicide vehicle:

“I think I knew all the time I was sizing up the bridge that the strong possibility was I’d go home, attend my sister’s wedding as invited, help hook-and-zip her into whatever she wore, take over the bouquet while she received the ring, through the nose or on the finger, wherever she chose to receive it, and hold my peace.”

Their mother is dead and their father is an alcoholic. It becomes apparent that the twins’ claustrophobic relationship was an extension of the elitist, exclusive culture their parents encouraged. But Judith has realised that this was not a helpful way to live:

“as a family we’d always been something of a closed corporation…we had our own pinnacle to look down from. But when we went away to college we couldn’t quite keep it the way it was on the ranch.”

Judith has dared to want the ordinary: to be out in the world, to get married and to set up a home. The few days when they are both back at home will bring the twins’ differing needs into direct conflict.

“[I] stood up and looked down at Cass and knew I loved her, but that it was not the same thing as being married and feeling married, and that now it never could or would be. I felt very solemn about it, and solemn words came into my mind. ‘Whom God hath split asunder, let nothing join them together. Ever.’ “

Cassandra is an intriguing character: bright, funny, acerbic, incredibly vulnerable (she’s anorexic since Judith moved east) and monumentally selfish and self-centred. Her obsession with Judith is in many ways an extension of self-obsession:

 “To be like us isn’t easy, it requires constant attention to detail. I’ve thought it out; we’ve thought it out together. I’ve tried to explain to my doctor that it’s a question of working ceaselessly at being as different as possible because there must be a gap before it can be bridged. And the bridge is the real project.”

All the same I was rooting for Cassandra – not to get what she wanted, because that was a continuation of the destructively claustrophobic relationship with her sister – but to find a way through, for all involved.

Cassandra at the Wedding is a psychologically astute, funny and sad novel. Dorothy Baker balances the differing tones expertly; I’d definitely be interested to read more by her.

To end, The Dixie Cups in remarkable 1980s dresses (were wired hems a thing?), and looking like they’ve not bothered aging since their 60s heyday: